Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 7, 2024

2 Corinthians 12:2-10 Commentary

Given the choice between “power” [dynamis]* (9) and “weakness” [astheneia], people naturally choose power. It’s a tendency that’s not easy for even Christians to shake. In fact, I wonder if some of Christ’s Body’s deepest divisions aren’t at least partly rooted in the members of that Body’s desire to cling to the power we have.

In this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson the apostles offer a formula that reflects God’s desires rather than our own. While God’s dearly beloved people naturally choose power for ourselves, God chooses to work through our weakness. While we naturally do everything we can to increase our power, God uses our weakness to advance God’s good plans and purposes.

Paul uses some form of the Greek root asthenes four times in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s nine verses. It’s variously translated not just as weakness, but also as illness, sickness and infirmity. In one instance The Message paraphrases it as “limitations.” So most translations see what Paul calls his “weakness” as primarily physical or perhaps even emotional.

However, the biblical scholar David Fredrickson suggests a slightly different interpretation of the Greek asthenes. He notes that the Greek root sthen suggests a holding together. In that understanding, to be strong is to be able to hold things together when everything seems to be falling apart. Astheneia, by contrast, means falling apart or coming undone.

2 Corinthians 12’s context helps explain why the apostle addresses some of its topics. In chapter 11 Paul defends himself against what some call “false apostles.” The biblical scholar Lois Malcolm  notes they were “preying on and taking advantage of” Corinth’s Christians, “putting on airs around them, shaming them and perhaps even abusing them physically.”

Elements of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s response to that abuse is, admittedly, deeply mysterious. Paul, for example, refers to a man [anthropon] “who was caught up [harpagenta] to the third heaven [tritou ouranou]” (2). The mystery only deepens when we realize that “the man” to whom the apostle refers here is almost certainly himself.

Preachers need to let the Spirit guide us as we choose how much to explore what Paul refers to here. It may be enough, however, to simply suggest that verse 3 and 4 suggest that fourteen years earlier God somehow raised the apostle into God’s presence.

After all, in verse 4 Paul himself says that “in paradise [paradeison]” he heard “inexpressible [arreta] things [rhemata]” that he “is not permitted [ouk exon] to tell.” Preachers may be wise not to try to tell more about what the apostle experienced than the apostle does.

While Paul is more willing to talk about is his “boasting,” he refuses to brag about his spiritual high that was his being lifted to the third heaven. While some of God’s adopted children might boast about such an ecstatic experience, the apostle insists he will not boast about it.

He’s determined to draw no attention to his extraordinary experiences or himself. The only thing about himself to which Paul wishes to draw attention is his weakness [astheneiais] (4). He does this, he writes in verse 6, “so that no one will think more [logisetai hyper] of me than is warranted by what I do or say.”

“To keep me from being conceited [hyperairomai] because of these exceedingly great revelations [hyperbole ton apokalypseon],” the apostle continues in verse 7, “there was given me a thorn in my flesh [skolops te sarki], a messenger [angelos] of Satan, to torment [kolaphize] me.”

Much scholarly debate revolves around the nature of that “thorn.” Preachers will again need to listen for the Spirit’s promptings to know how extensively to explore the various interpretations. But we remain determined to focus on that on which Paul focuses: God’s determination to use the apostle’s weakness to advance God’s glory and God’s people’s wellness.

“Three times,” Paul reports in verse 8, he “pleaded [parakalesa] with the Lord to take it away [aposte] from” him. He, in other words, repeatedly begged God to pluck his thorn from his flesh. In that the apostle shares some of Jesus’ friends’ most desperate pleas for God to take away that which makes us miserable.

Paul doesn’t record God’s answer to those pleas. But he implies that God has repeatedly said “No” to his repeated prayers for relief from his misery. Paul begged God to remove his thorn three times.  “But God …” he continues in verse 9. Sometimes such “however’s” are obvious acts of God’s grace. For example, in response to human sinfulness and misery, God responds with lovingkindness and tenderness. Jesus Christ is perhaps the greatest “but God” of all. We sinned … but God graciously sent God’s Son to rescue us.

In Paul’s case, the “But God …” is equally gracious, but more disappointing. According to verse 9, God answered Paul’s plea to remove his thorn not by excising that thorn. Instead, God answered the apostle’s pleas by saying, “My grace [charis] is sufficient [Arkei] for you, for my power [dynamis] is make perfect [teleitai] in weakness [astheneia].”

The beauty and comfort of this message is not shrunk by some of its more mysterious elements. Among its mysteries is the identity of the grace God has given the apostle. While God graces God’s adopted children with salvation, that doesn’t seem to be the kind of grace to which God primarily refers in verse 9.

The grace Paul receives from God in the face of his thorn almost certainly contains an element of provision for the apostle’s needs. God is almost certainly reminding him that God has given him everything he needs to continue to minister. That provision likely includes the gift of the apostle’s ability to cope with his thorn. Paul may be saying little more than this: God’s gracious provision is “sufficient” for him to carry on with proclaiming the gospel of God’s grace.

It’s also hard to know how exactly Christians’ weakness completes or makes perfect God’s power. God, after all, doesn’t need any help being all-powerful. However, perhaps the apostle means that while God’s power is perfect and complete, it’s more visible when it graciously works through human weakness to accomplish God’s sovereign purposes. God’s power at work through human weakness makes it clear to people that it’s God, not people who deserve the credit.

“That,” Paul concludes this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson by writing in verse 10, “is why, for Christ’s sake [hyper Christou], I delight [eudoko] in weaknesses [astheneiais], in insults [hybresin], in hardships [anankais], in persecutions [diogmois], in difficulties [stenochoriais].” It’s a counter-cultural claim. Paul insists that he, in The Message’s paraphrase, “takes limitations in stride, and with good cheer.”

Yet Paul isn’t some kind of sadomasochist who delights in suffering for suffering’s sake. He, instead, takes pleasure in his misery because God’s power is made visible in and through it. The apostle can, what’s more, also take them as they come because, as he writes, “When I am weak [astheno], I am strong [dynatos]” (10).

Here’s another combination of strength and weakness (cf. v.9). But this time Paul doesn’t combine God’s strength and the apostle’s weakness. This time the apostle makes the extraordinary claim that when he is weak, he is actually strong. This may seem to make little sense. But perhaps the apostle simply means that when he’s weak, he’s actually strong because God is working so mightily and graciously in and through him.

*I have here and elsewhere added in brackets the Greek words for the English words the NIV translation uses.


In a 2016 presentation, a group of researchers ( suggested that by as early as 2050 no one under 80 will experience the “thorn in the flesh” that is cancer. The researchers from University College London (UCL) and King’s College London said they have the science to back it up.

In 2016 death rates from cancer were down a third from 1996 and are expected to continue to drop. However, according to a report released from the University City London School of Pharmacy, these numbers will nearly disappear for those under 80 in a few decades, thanks to increasingly effective prevention techniques.

Report co-author Dr. David Taylor said healthy habits such as quitting smoking and taking daily aspirin are helping to wipe out cancer, and called 2050 a “plausible guesstimate” of a time when cancer will only affect those over 80. “If we put all these things together … these killers of children and working-age adults can be overcome,” Taylor told The Times in the UK.

Dr. Jack Cuzick, director of the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine at Queen Mary University in London seemed to agree that advanced preventive measures would seriously change the scope of cancer in Great Britain. “Taking aspirin daily looks to be the most important single thing we can do to reduce cancer after stopping smoking and reducing obesity, and will probably be much easier to implement,” he told The Times. “What makes this a special point in history is that cancers are in the process of becoming either preventable or effectively curable.” Aspirin, while good at keeping cancer at bay, has been tied to increased chances of stomach bleeding. Cuzick says individuals should therefore consult their physician before taking the drug on a daily basis.

Although cancer is becoming far less deadly, a day when nearly no one dies from cancer is not yet here. Cancer prevention can only go so far, and a recent study has suggested that as many as 65 percent of cancer cases come from random genetic mutation that cannot be foreseen or stopped.

“When someone gets cancer, immediately people want to know why,” said oncologist Dr. Bert Vogelstein of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, who conducted the study, published in the journal Science, with Johns Hopkins biomathematician Cristian Tomasetti. Medical Daily reported, “They like to believe there’s a reason. And the real reason in many cases is not because you didn’t behave well or were exposed to some bad environmental influence. It’s just because that person was unlucky. It’s losing the lottery.” While many dispute the exact figures of this number, the truth remains that some people get cancer not influenced by lifestyle or genetics.


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