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Bible evangewomanblogspotcomThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

2 Corinthians 12:1, 11-13

Paul’s Visions and His Thorn

12 I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord.

Concern for the Corinthian Church

11 I have been a fool! You forced me to it, for I ought to have been commended by you. For I was not at all inferior to these super-apostles, even though I am nothing. 12 The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works. 13 For in what were you less favored than the rest of the churches, except that I myself did not burden you? Forgive me this wrong!

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Last week’s post discussed Paul’s preference for boasting of his weakness in order to demonstrate that God was working through him to preach the Good News; Paul gave a concrete example of persecution in Damascus.

From 2 Corinthians 10 to 2 Corinthians 13, Paul defends himself against the vile accusations, of which there were many, that the false teachers in that church were making against him.

He begins in this chapter by saying that he will go on boasting, though it serves little purpose, this time about the visions and revelations of the Lord (verse 1).

John MacArthur explains that Paul says they are unhelpful to the Corinthians because they could lead to self-aggrandising and because they cannot be verified. What Paul wants his converts to do is to focus on the Word of God (emphases mine below):

He just hates to do this, “Boasting is necessary” – he says again – “I have to do this, though it’s not helpful; it’s not helpful, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord.”

Now, let me stop you right there; let me tell you something. Paul said, “I’ve had visions, and I’ve had revelations, and I know these false apostles haven’t. But you know something, folks? I’m only talking about these things because you’ve made it necessary for me to do this, but it’s not helpful.”

Boy, I’ll tell you, somebody ought to get a grip on that verse. “Visions and revelations of the Lord, which really happened to me, are not helpful for me to talk about.” That’s what that “not profitable” means. “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God” – 2 Timothy 3:16 – “and is profitable.”

“But talking about visions and revelations is not profitable. It’s not profitable to me to talk about them. I have had them. It is not profitable for me to talk about them because they tend to build my pride. They become temptations to pride.” It’s not profitable for me to talk about them to you, because they can’t help you, because they were personal visions and revelations given to me. They can’t help the Church either.

That’s why, when Paul left Ephesus in Acts 20, he commended them not to visions and revelations, but to the word of his grace which is able to build you up. Right? This is what builds you up.

He says, “Look, you have forced me to talk about visions and revelations. It is not helpful. It is not helpful.” In fact, the word means useless. “It is useless.” It’s useless. Why? It just messes with my pride. It was personal for me; it was personal for me; it has no bearing on you. It was personal for me; it has no bearing on you. What has a bearing on you is the Word of God.

Paul then describes ‘a man in Christ’ who sees the ‘third heaven’, i.e. paradise. That man was Paul himself.

Matthew Henry’s commentary tells us this about the third heaven:

It was certainly a very extraordinary honour done him: in some sense he was caught up into the third heaven, the heaven of the blessed, above the aërial heaven, in which the fowls fly, above the starry heaven, which is adorned with those glorious orbs: it was into the third heaven, where God most eminently manifests his glory. We are not capable of knowing all, nor is it fit we should know very much, of the particulars of that glorious place and state; it is our duty and interest to give diligence to make sure to ourselves a mansion there; and, if that be cleared up to us, then we should long to be removed thither, to abide there for ever. This third heaven is called paradise (2 Corinthians 12:4; 2 Corinthians 12:4), in allusion to the earthly paradise out of which Adam was driven for his transgression; it is called the paradise of God (Revelation 2:7), signifying to us that by Christ we are restored to all the joys and honours we lost by sin, yea, to much better.

These verses are in the Lectionary. As such, they will not be discussed in detail in this post, however, note that Paul humbly speaks of himself in the third person. After this revelation, Satan then torments Paul, whether physically or spiritually with ‘a thorn’. Our Lord responds by saying that His grace is sufficient, His power made perfect in Paul’s weakness:

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses— though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations,[a] a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

MacArthur says that Paul never spoke or wrote of this experience until now, having been compelled to do so:

Such extrabiblical experience is not helpful to him or anybody else at this point. At the time it happened, God meant it for him. It’s unnecessary to supplement the teaching of the Word. By the way, the only revelation we need, in addition to Scripture, is the revelation of Jesus Christ at His second coming. That’s the only revelation we need.

And nonetheless, for the sake of his argument here, this is what he says, “I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord.” Now, all visions that he actually had would include a revelation, but not all revelations would be in the form of a vision. So, he had visions and revelations. And I don’t want to go through all of them, but you can read Acts 9; Acts 13, 16, 18, 20, 22, 23, 27, and it refers to visions and revelations. And he had numerous ones

But he says, “Let me give you the – let me give you the supreme of all the visions. And he had seen the Lord on the Damascus Road, and he had seen the Lord come to him when he was in jail. And some incredible things, when he was in Jerusalem – and some incredible things were going to happen to that man – visions and revelations.

But here’s the one he chooses, verse 2. By the way, he received his gospel by revelation, not in a vision form, but by revelation. So, God had directly spoken to him. God had given him visions and given him direct revelations. But he says, in verse 2, “Let me pick the best one. I know a man” – and there again is his humility. Most people would say, “I went to heaven, folks. I went to heaven.” He speaks in the third person, though. He says, “I know a man in Christ” – that’s a Christian who is in Christ – “I know a Christian who fourteen years ago” – what? Do you want to know something? He’s just breaking 14 years of silence. Since he went to heaven, he had never mentioned it for 14 years. It’s not helpful. It’s useless. What good is it for me to say to you, “I went to heaven?” That doesn’t help me; that just feeds my pride. That doesn’t help you; it just makes you feel like you got left out. Well, it doesn’t help anybody.

Paul says that the Corinthians have forced him to become a fool by revealing this episode, adding that they should have been defending him to the false teachers; he refers to them sarcastically as ‘super-apostles’ when they are nothing of the sort, and says he is ‘nothing’ (verse 11).

Paul means that he lacks their verve and panache which have seduced the Corinthians. Yet, Paul was the true Apostle who planted their church and instilled pure teaching among them.

MacArthur analyses this verse as follows:

This whole idea of having to defend himself is a kind of folly to him. Only fools brag. Bragging is characteristic of fools. And he’s been forced to have to speak about his superiority, and he really doesn’t like it. He would rather speak about his failures and his weaknesses and his suffering and all of that; he’s comfortable doing that. He’s comfortable talking about himself as a nothing and a nobody and a cracked pot, an earthen vessel, nothing more than that. He is a former blasphemer, a persecutor and injurious, a killer of Christians. He is a chief of sinners, and he’s content to talk about that, because then he can put the power of God on display. But he really does not like to talk about his superiority as an apostle.

And so, there’s a kind of foolishness in having to do it, but he’s been forced to it. Verse 11, “I have become foolish; you yourselves compelled me.” In chapter 11, verse 1, verse 16, verse 17, verse 21; chapter 12, verse 6 – and here again, for about the fifth or sixth time, he – it’s the sixth time, I guess – he says, “It’s foolish to do this, but you have forced me to do it. I really don’t have a choice; for the sake of preserving the gospel and the truth, and honoring Christ, and keeping you away from destructive error, you have forced me into this. You’ve compelled me to do it.”

The seriousness of what was at stake is indicated in chapter 11, verse 3, “I am afraid lest, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds should be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ” – I’m afraid Satan’s going to deceive you like he did Eve and lead you away from Christ into error, and that is what is at stake, and that is why, of necessity, I’ve had to do this foolish boasting.

And then he indicts them a little, in the middle of the verse, “I should” – “Actually” – he says – “in truth I should have been commended by you” – you ought to be the one rising to my defense. It didn’t happen.

Paul reminds the Corinthians that he is the true Apostle, the one who performed signs, wonders and mighty works with utmost patience (verse 12).

He mentions these because they witnessed them. More importantly, they showed the power of God at work through Paul, the self-described ‘nobody’.

MacArthur tells us why we should ignore evangelists who claim to be doing the same things today. It is not possible:

Now we’re talking about what was visible, what was repeatable, what did occur and was very clearly the power of God at work. They saw miracles. They saw things that caused them to be astonished and were signs pointing to Paul as a true apostle. Now, this is a very important verse. There are people going all across the country, all across the world, claiming to do signs, wonders, and miracles, are there not? They’ve been around for years and years. They set up tents in cities, and they do their basic gimmick there. They have churches; they get today – the big tent today is television. They set up their programs on television; they fill statements, bring in cameras, and ply their craft and their art there. They claim to be the workers of signs and wonders and miracles. This is everywhere today. And this is confusing to many people, not only Christian people but non-Christian people are equally confused by it. And while it may draw huge crowds because it plays on people’s desperation, and it plays on doubt, looking for proof, and it plays on people’s fascination with the supernatural and with the miraculous, and the excitement, and all that’s there, and the emotional highs.

Christ gave His Apostles — Paul included — the power to heal and to work miracles to the glory of God.

MacArthur explains the marks of a true Apostle:

How do you – how do you identify an apostle? Well, an apostle had to have seen the risen Christ. Is that not true? Acts chapter 1 makes it very clear that someone who’s going to be chosen to fill the position of Judas, who of course was a suicide – had committed suicide after his terrible betrayal of Christ, somebody was going to be permitted to take his place in the Twelve, and it turned out to be Matthiashad to have been an eyewitness of the resurrection, had to have been an eyewitness of the resurrection, had to have had a direct call from the Lord Jesus Christ, be appointed by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, which was done by a miraculous, superintending of the casting of lots by which Matthias was selected by the Lord Himself. The apostle Paul saw the Lord on the Damascus Road and several other times and was personally called out of darkness into light and called to be an apostle by Christ Himself.

So, we could say one of the signs of an apostle was that he had seen the risen Christ and been directly and personally called by Christ to this office. There are a number of other remarkable characteristics and elements of apostleship. The apostles were also marked out – they had the benchmark of a plenary knowledgeplenary means a comprehensive or whole knowledge – complete knowledge – they had a plenary knowledge of the gospel derived by direct revelation from Jesus Christ.

The 12 apostles didn’t read the gospel from anybody that had written it down. They got it directly from Jesus Christ. He explained to them why He came. He explained to them that He had to die. He explained to them that He would rise again. He explained to the that He would go to heaven. He explained to them that He would return and establish His kingdom on the earth. Jesus explained it all to them with His own lips during His time on earth, including His post-resurrection 40 days, when He filled in all the remaining teaching about the kingdom.

And so it was with the apostle Paul, that he tells the Galatians He received His gospel from no man, but from the Lord Jesus directly. Remember after his conversion he was taken out in the desert? And he was given the message of Jesus Christ and the clarity of the gospel directly in a three-year period at that time from the Lord. It was characteristic of an apostle to have had a plenary, complete knowledge of the gospel derived by immediate revelation from Jesus Christ. And that was true of the apostle Paul.

It was also characteristic of apostles that they were inspired to write down revelation. They were inspired by God to write down revelation. And that inspiration was the Holy Spirit rendering that apostle infallible in the communication of that revelation.

When John wrote his Gospel, and when he wrote his epistles, and when he wrote Revelation, he wrote it infallibly. When Peter wrote his epistles, he wrote them infallibly. And even the associates of the apostles – like Mark, who wrote the Gospel of Mark – wrote it infallibly. When Matthew wrote Matthew, it was infallible. When Luke, the associate of Paul, wrote his Gospel, it was infallibly superintended. So, the writers were either apostles or those very intimately linked to the apostles, and they were superintended by God as to infallibility when they received this revelation.

It is also true that there were external protections placed upon the life of the apostle during ministry. And Paul certainly could give testimony to that as the Lord protected him and looked over him and delivered him from many, many things that could have taken his life.

Another sign of an apostle was utter and absolute fidelity to the truth of God and conformity to the authenticated standard of truth. The “apostles’ doctrine” would be the term used in the book of Acts for it. The apostles were true to that doctrine delivered to them.

Another mark of an apostle benchmark authenticating insignia of an apostle was success in preaching the gospel. They were empowered to successfully preach the gospel. So, we could say that when you look at the life of Paul, you would see all of that: someone who had seen the risen Christ; someone who had been directly called into this apostleship by Christ; one who had directly received his revelation of the knowledge of the gospel from Jesus Himself; one who had been protected to become supernaturally infallible, as it were, when he was the instrument of writing Scripture; one who had been protected from death and delivered from all kinds of difficulty in the ongoing care of his ministry; one who was faithful to the truth as it was laid down, the standard of faith through the apostles; and one who was successful in his preaching ministry; and certainly, in Paul’s case, to the founding of many, many churches. That’s the big picture.

But what Paul really wants us to focus on is narrowing that down. Back to verse 12, “The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with all perseverance. I went – I persevered in all of my ministry, but particularly by signs and wonders and miracles” – what he really wants you to look at is the signs and wonders and powers, the word being dunamis again – “as credentials.” He’s referring specifically to the supernatural deeds done through him. How could they question this? Because he says, “They were performed” – in verse 12 – “among you. You were there; you saw them.”

Now, what was this miracle power that the apostles had? Well, all you have to do is go back to chapter 10 of Matthew, and it tells you right there. When Jesus called the apostles, the Twelve, and then later Paul, He gave them authority over unclean spirits to cast them out. He gave them miracle powers, supernatural power over Satan’s kingdom of demons. And they could cast demons out. They had power over the kingdom of darkness. Secondly, to heal every kind of disease and every kind of sickness. Bottom line, healing power with no limitations. None. They could heal every kind of disease and every kind of sickness. And their healing was always the same: immediate, complete, instantaneous healing. So, they had power over the kingdom of darkness, and they could cast demons out. They could cast them out of anybody. In fact, ever demon casting that occurred in the New Testament record of the gospels by the apostles, demons were cast out of non-believers. Non-believers. There wasn’t some Christian formula going on or some Christian exorcism. They were just commanded to come out of unbelievers because the apostles had power over demons. And, of course, they had power over sickness as well.

Now, the apostle Paul also had this same power, and he demonstrated it in Corinth. If you go back to Acts 18, where it tells about the founding of the Corinthian church, none of the miracles are recorded there. It doesn’t tell us about any of the miracles because the main emphasis, of course, of the text was to discuss the founding of the church and the preaching of the truth, to which the miracles pointed, but the miracles are not discussed there.

Paul, still rankling at the fact that the Corinthians were not defending his reputation, asks how they were less favoured than the other congregations he had put together except that he did not demand any money off them; he sarcastically asks them to forgive him that wrong (verse 13).

The false teachers criticised Paul for not asking for money, something they were doing.

One would think that the Corinthians would have been only too happy not to have been asked for money. Personally, I would have been delighted. That would have signified that Paul was the real deal, teaching, preaching and healing because he loved the Lord so much that he wanted people to come to faith at no obligation.

MacArthur says:

In other words, he says, “Look, you saw the miracles, the signs, the wonders, the mighty miracles that were done there. So how is it that you can buy into the lie that you had an inferior ministry from a sub-apostle? You weren’t cheated. All the churches that Paul founded were founded with God’s truth and God’s power.”

Then he turns the corner. He says, “The only thing that you didn’t get was a bill,” – verse 13 – “except that I myself didn’t become a burden to you. I just didn’t charge you; that’s the only thing you didn’t get. You got all the power; you got the signs, the wonders, the miracles; you got the truth. I came and I preached the true gospel to you. The only thing you didn’t get was a bill.” Paul had determined from the start not to burden the Corinthians with paying his support and the support of those who traveled with him.

Perhaps it was a poor church to start with. Perhaps he wanted – and I think this is more primary – he wanted to avoid the stigma that was attached to false teachers who were all in it for the money, and got as much money out of everybody as they could. And Paul knew he could be easily lumped with all the rest of the false teachers if he operated the way they operated. And even though he, according to 1 Corinthians 9:13 to 15, had told the Corinthians in his first letter that he had a right to be supported if he preached the gospel, and that every soldier fights because he’s paid, and every farmer expects to take in the crop, and so should every preacher expect support – he made that clear – even though he had a right to that, he had disdained that right, because he didn’t want to make the gospel chargeable, he did not want to be subject to any unjust criticism, and he didn’t want to get lumped in with the false teachers.

I hope that John MacArthur’s signs of a true Apostle make it clear that, despite what televangelists and even seminary professors say, there is no miraculous healing going on today.

It is probably a good idea not to frequent the average Christian bookshop for that very reason. It is likely to have a number of best-sellers about miraculous healing and reasons why it should continue. Stay away from these snake-oil salesmen. Focus on the Bible instead.

In the next instalment, Paul discusses his plan to return to Corinth.

Next time — 2 Corinthians 12:14-18

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