If anyone had a right to brag about his spiritual résumé, it was the Apostle Paul. Beginning with his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus, he had seen and done amazing things in service to Jesus. He experienced one such vision (v.2) fourteen years before the writing of this letter (Note: many scholars believe that the “man in Christ” Paul was talking about was himself, and that his self-reference was made in the third person to emphasize his humility; I concur, as verse 7 seems to support this view). In this special vision of the “third heaven” the Lord transported Paul beyond earth’s atmosphere, beyond planetary space to His home in heaven! Paul saw and heard things there that cannot be described in human terms.
Special experiences like that could make a man prideful. Paul could have lived with his head in the clouds, but something kept his feet on the ground: his pride was held in check by his suffering.
The nature of Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” has been debated for centuries. It is often assumed that it was a physical ailment like an eye condition, epilepsy, arthritis, kidney stones, or even migraines — but Paul used the word “flesh” in his writings to refer to sinful humanity more than for the physical body (Romans 13:14 for example), so we don’t have to understand the “thorn” as a physical problem. My personal opinion is that this “messenger from Satan” was a demonically-empowered person who tormented Paul, most likely one of the “false apostles” he mentioned in the previous chapter (see 11:13-15). Whatever (or whoever) this thorn was, it was effective in focusing Paul on his need for God’s grace and strength rather than on his own abilities and experiences. He had learned to be content with anything that made him rely on Jesus (v.8-10).
Do you have a “thorn”? Is there any hurtful thing, any aggravation God has allowed into your life that forces you to lean on Him and to trust His grace? Anything that highlights your weakness “so that the power of Christ may rest upon” you (v.9)? Have you learned the secret of contentment and finding God’s strength in your weakness? Could it be that you have mistaken that blessing for a curse? I often do, and I am trying to learn this lesson. I think I have learned this much so far: the longer I walk with Jesus the more disgusted I am with my pride, and the more aware I am of my need for His strength.
The remainder of this chapter is a testimony of Paul’s pastoral love and concern for his brothers and sisters in Corinth. He was committed to their welfare, their discipleship, and their holiness — so much so that he was willing to serve them at his own expense (v.14-15), to be misunderstood (v.16-19), and to endure the awkwardness of confronting their sins (v.20-21). May we all have that kind of commitment to Christ and His people.