Gordon E. Johnson

DEVOTIONALS from Second Corinthians


Paul's Epistle Comes Full Circle – God's Grace is Sufficient

2 Corinthians 12:1-10 (NKJV)

Gordon E. Johnson
Rio Grande Bible Institute


Paul has confronted his adversaries in Corinth They have been actively undermining his message and apostolic authority. They have brought false accusations against him but, as much as he does not want to boast of his authority in Christ, the very existence of the Corinthian church is at stake. But he wages the real battle from his standing in the victorious Christ. The ultimate victory was won at the Cross. What remains is to stand in that victory strengthened by the Spirit.

He made that clear from the very beginning: "for though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare as not carnal, but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and everything that that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ"

(2 Corinthians 10: 3-5). He appeals to his own converts, affirming his genuine love of them as a suitor he has presented them as a virgin to Christ (2 Corinthians 11:1).

He rebuffed his enemies' argument that his not taking from them for his ministry among them rendered him specious and false. On the contrary, he would not allow anyone to question his transparent motives of service. Mercenary he was not but rather a servant of the Lord (vv.10-12). 

The judaizers are "false apostles, deceitful workers transforming themselves into apostles of Christ. And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light" (vv.13.14). Paul now begins to compare himself with them; he does it very reluctantly. He enumerates some 30 comparisons of suffering and dangers in ministry (vv.22-27). At every turn they are inferior. Paul's calling speaks of a genuine heart of humble service. His boasting, as much as he resists doing it, leads him to one further comparison.

Paul's Indirect Introduction to Heavenly Revelations   2 Corinthians 12: 1-6

Paul moves on to another realm of "boasting": "I will come to visions and revelations" (v.1). In effect he says, I have no other option as distasteful as it is. I have found that my very weakness was the golden opportunity to reflect the sufficiency of grace and the power of a risen Christ.

As a true apostle of the risen Christ, God granted him bona fide visions.  It is as if Paul is speaking of another man, yet in his repeating twice in almost the identical words, it is patently evident that he refers to himself. "I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago--whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows--such a one was caught up to the third heaven" ( v. 2). He identifies the time fourteen years ago. That would place him as a teacher in the church in Antioch or on his first missionary journey (Acts 13: 1-6).

There is the mention of an apparent second revelation. Because Paul is so noncommittal as to time and place, it is purposeless to pursue those details. The real importance lies in another direction. He does say of both occasions: "How he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter" (v.4). What follows is truly what is most striking: "Of such a one I will boast; yet of myself I will not boast, except in my infirmities" (v.5).  In these verses Paul alternates between a certain man and himself revealing his true identity but revealing more of his profound humility and abasement in spite of his receiving such unheard of revelations.

Paul's Unique Grasp of the Most Sublime Truths in Deep Humility

No doubt Paul, as an apostle "as one born out of due time," had revelations of truth that have come down to us in Scripture as the property of Christ's church. He met Christ on the road to Damascus; he spoke of the transformation of the body when Christ returns. He unveiled the deepest truths of the Cross: justification, sanctification grounded in Christ's incarnation, death, burial, ascension, resurrection and his second return. Those revealed truths are his legacy to the Body of Christ.

What Paul relates here in some ambivalent terms is the highest honor that could be given by God to anyone to be party to "visions and revelations" that were truly authentic and indisputable. Yet they will remain forever undisclosed to us. They were sacred to Paul and a risen Christ.

Under human conditions anyone so honored could be carried away with his special privilege. He would be virtually venerated as a saint of the highest order. Natural reasoning would be: such a person must have in some sense merited the highest honor. But that is the worldling's reasoning. Paul had a grasp on what no one else had, for he now purposefully declines to take any credit at all.  This must the deepest work of the Cross, the acme of self abasement. It can never be a human trait.


His disclaimer is most sincere. He turns away from any thought of pride, something so totally foreign to the flesh. "Of such a one I will boast; yet of myself I will not boast, except in my infirmities. For though I might desire to boast, I will not be a fool; for I will speak the truth. But I forbear, lest anyone should think of me above what he sees me to be or hears from me"

(vv. 5, 6).

Paul had earlier met the false prophets on their terms by "boasting," purposefully playing the fool; he made it clear he was not speaking in God's stead. Now he reverses course and has made one of the most profound statements of humility found in all of Scripture.  The truth gains strength because it comes within the context of being favored beyond all human flesh in being "raptured up" into the third heaven or into Paradise itself. He will base his testimony of who he is only on what others see and hear him to be, not in his privileges but his infirmities still so present with him.

Does it not remind us of the incarnation of Christ? "For He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground. He has no form or comeliness; and when we see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him. He is despised and rejected of men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him" (Isaiah 53: 2, 3). "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich" (2 Corinthians 8:9).  Paul reveals his pedigree of heaven, but not without great cost to his self life which he is about to unfold.

We will enter his inner sanctum and understand the very essence of this epistle. It began with a "sentence of death" in himself so that he would not trust in himself but in God who raises the dead (2 Corinthians 1: 9, 10).  There must be a death before the greatest virtue of spirituality can appear - humility. If pride was the first sin of Lucifer, humility is the first virtue to emerge in our brokenness at the Cross.

Paul's Deepest Death in the Face of God's Thorn in the Flesh   2 Corinthians 12:7-8


Paul will now trace the deepest dealings of God in his heart and ministry. The Epistle of  2 Corinthians stands out above all other Pauline epistles as to his personal reflections and God's deepest dealings with his servant. Other epistles may deal with doctrine, rebuke the sins and instruct the church and give advice future pastors and leaders. But Paul paints a portrait of the heavenly surgeon who will excise his pride, the most subtle form of self.

Far from glorying in his revelations and visions, Paul had grasped the counterbalance that God gave him to deepen his walk of faith. "And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of revelations, a thorn – splinter - in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan, to buffet - beat- me, lest I be exalted above measure" (v.7). Once again the words and conjecture by the curious have been wasted to try to discern what was the thorn, what or who was the "messenger of Satan." Paul and God just do not reveal that reality hidden in God's inscrutable grace.

Before examining this key verse that goes to the very heart of God's purposes, it is wise to note the repetition of the words "above measure" at the beginning of the verse and at the end of the verse. Too often humility is seen to be never a mention of one's self, the gifts and the accomplishments of God's grace in lives. It is not a sin to say "I" but so much depends on the depth of commitment to that "ego." Humility is wrongly seen as an abasement that grovels in silence.  The Greek culture, in fact, viewed humility as a character defect of weakness, the absence of personal respect.

Paul has a proper sense of balance in Christian virtues: "For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly that he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith" (Romans 12.:3).

Humility, by God's standards, is a deep recognition of the grace of God and his accomplishments in the life of his own, whether academic, ministerial or personal.  Humility is the motivation that recognizes what God's grace alone through faith can do and has done for his glory.

Paul refers to himself in the true balance of humility and gratitude to God in the chapter that reveals the order of Christ's post resurrection appearances. "Then last of all He was seen by me also as by one born out of due time. For I am one of the least of the apostles who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me" (1 Corinthians 15: 8-10). There is no question of his humility and his gratitude.

Paul's Request Granted on God's Terms of Grace Sufficient   2 Corinthians 12: 8-9

In the blessed dialogue and probably later a soliloquy, Paul very openly reveals his desire and maybe even his insistence that the trial or suffering be removed, whatever it might have been. He besought him three times. The request was made, not out of disobedience or of rebellion, but simply the human weight of the condition was too great for  him to bear at that moment. 

God is more than willing to hear the plea of his child in the midst of suffering, who simply cannot understand nor foresee God's ultimate purpose. The parent may overlook the childish complaints, knowing the child lacks the reality of life. God does not reprove or chastise his child for such human ignorance.  But he does respond in a way to accomplish his deeper purposes. To remove the trial would forestall his own purposes of love. So he offers his grace as the faith walk continues.

A Remarkable Illustration of the Value of Suffering or Death to Self and Life in Christ

I remember on several occasions my mentor, Dr. F. J. Huegel, the dean missionaries to Mexico   (1920-1970) recounting a crisis in his own life. He and his family had rather recently arrived in Mexico. His young daughter fell sick; urgent and fervent prayer was made for her recovery. Federico Huegel gave himself to earnest prayer and firmly believed that the "prayer of faith" would raise her up. To his dismay and shock, she died under what was then most suspicious circumstances, never fully verified. But the open hatred of the populace to the evangelical was  very real. That heightened his pain. She seemed to die in vain - such a weight to grieving parents.

Dr. Huegel went into a deep depression. It did not seem that God had kept his word.  But later there fell into his hands the English "Overcomer," the magazine of Mrs. Jesse Penn-Lewis, whose Message of the Cross broke through his fears and torment. He emerged from that experience with a new grasp and a new message that transformed his life and ministry.

In God's sovereign purpose he was to impact thousands through his book, Bone of His Bone. The experience was his "thorn in the flesh." That book impacted my family and me in my adolescence. Later his message was to impact the trajectory of the Rio Grande Bible Institute

 (1957-1968). His travels though out Latin America left an indelible imprint and at his request I became his "Timothy" to carry the torch of the Message of the Cross.

Yours in the Message of the Cross,
Gordon E. Johnson
Rio Grande Bible Institute
Edinburg, TX 78539