One evening, while sitting with some friends and students, Martin Luther recalled the following account: “On Good Friday last, I being in my chamber in fervent prayer, contemplating with myself, how Christ my Savior on the cross suffered and died for our sins, there suddenly appeared upon the wall a bright vision of our Savior Christ, with the five wounds, steadfastly looking upon me, as if it had been Christ Himself corporally. At first sight, I thought it some celestial revelation, but I reflected that it must needs be an illusion and juggling of the Devil, for Christ appeared to us in his Word, and in a meaner and more humble form; therefore, I spake to the vision thus: Avoid thee, confounded devil. I know no other Christ than he who was crucified and who in His Word is pictured and presented to me. Whereupon the image vanished, clearly showing of whom it came.”
I am always impressed with Luther’s account here. I do not believe I would have handled the situation in the same way. Knowing my love for attention, I would have taken everything this apparition gave me and gone out boasting to everyone else about what I had seen. This spiritual experience would have been cause for me to preach about, well, my own personal spiritual experience. It would give me both a sense of superiority to others while my boasting of it would cause others to want what I have. They would want to know my secret. How did I get to see this vision? Can I teach them the same spiritual technique? And, knowing my vanity, I would be happy to oblige.
Luther, however, recognized the danger such a vision presented. As incredible as it was, boasting of such things would take the attention off Jesus and where He is promised to be (present in the Word and Sacraments) and put it on the “Jesus” of Luther’s experience. That is, it would take the attention off of Christ and put it on Luther. Thus, the reformer recognized that both the preaching and pursuit of such an experience are not from our Lord.
This is precisely what Saint Paul is dealing with in our reading from 2 Corinthians 12:1-10. Influential teachers had arisen in the Corinthian context who boasted of great spiritual experiences. False teachers (Paul mockingly calls them “super-apostles”) had infiltrated the Corinthian church, undermining the ministry of Paul, and boasting of their own spiritual-help programs (11:5). They were apparently effective in their evil efforts. As Paul says, “But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (11:3). These super-apostles came in, boasting of hyper-spiritual, ecstatic experiences, the promised secret and powerful access to God. Such divine access would grant power, success, and glorious superiority to those who had not bought into the program.
This sort of thinking creeps into our own context all the time. Think of Eckhart Tolle and Oprah Winfrey and anything else Barnes & Noble sells in the spirituality section. Years ago, Christians were deceived by a similar way of thinking with books like “The Prayer of Jabez” which turned an obscure Old Testament prayer into a program for spiritual control over one’s destiny. In all such instances, a spiritual power is being offered apart from the preaching of Jesus Christ and Him crucified in Word and Sacrament. It is a promise of Jesus apart from His Word. And, Paul says, it is a satanic deception (11:3).
In all such instances, a spiritual power is being offered apart from the preaching of Jesus Christ and Him crucified in Word and Sacrament. It is a promise of Jesus apart from His Word.
Finally, this brings us to our text for this week. In 2 Corinthians 12:1-10, Paul addresses the idea promoted by the super-apostles which stated Paul was not nearly as spiritual as he claimed because he did not have the same hyper-spiritual experiences as these false teachers. While they boast of their glory and power, Paul will boast of his weakness and suffering.
In verses 1-6, Paul recounts that he, in fact, does have cause to boast before the Corinthians in a manner that would put the spirituality of these heretics to shame. He himself had been taken up into the third heaven in some sort of supernatural experience. Whether he was in or out of his body, he could not say. All he knows is he was caught up in paradise and saw things which could not be uttered. To maintain his humility here, Paul presents his experience in the third person. Further, he speaks of it as something that happened to him. It was neither something he conjured up nor a technique he honed so he could sell it on Amazon for $12.99. He will not boast of this, though he could.
Instead, in verses 7-10, Paul will focus in on a thorn God has placed in his flesh. The preacher would do well not to dwell on the nature of the thorn as Paul spends no time delving into the nature of his suffering. Speculations as to the nature of this “messenger of Satan” will only distract the hearer from Paul’s main argument: God’s grace is made perfect in weakness, not in our glorious experiences. Paul focuses our attention on the prayer he prays for relief and God’s gracious, “No.” Paul’s ministry, unlike the super-apostles, is cruciform in nature. Like his Lord, he bore a cross which God used to conform Paul to the image of Christ and to teach Paul that, “My grace is sufficient for you.” So, if you want boasting, Paul says, I will boast in this, that God has seen fit to call me to suffer for the name of Christ, to be weak and foolish in the eyes of the world, “...so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (12:9; also see Acts 9:16).
In preaching this text, the preacher might consider using what David Schmitt calls the Comparison/Contrast sermon structure (for a treasury of sermon structure options, check out Dr. Schmitt’s work here). The false teachers were contrasting their glory-grabbing spiritual techniques with Paul’s weakness and suffering. But Paul demonstrates how, in contrast to these false teachers, he finds sufficiency in the baptismal promise, “My grace is sufficient for you.” The preacher could demonstrate the sufficiency of Christ’s grace given in Word and Sacrament by comparing and contrasting what they give with a world that is always trying to offer glory and power and, frankly, God apart from His Word. Thinking back to Luther’s experience, the world offers a spiritual experience which promises to take our focus off of Christ crucified. God will use the thorns and Satanic agents, as opposed to spiritual exercise programs, to fix our eyes on Christ, not to move past Him.
Paul demonstrates how, in contrast to these false teachers, he finds sufficiency in the baptismal promise, “My grace is sufficient for you.”
Christ in the Text
Paul would have us focus on the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Suffering, far from indicating we are without the Spirit of God, is an indicator that God is, in fact, at work on us to strengthen our faith. Paul is being taught to rely on Christ in the midst of his suffering. A life of ecstatic spiritual experience or secret access to the heavenlies will not conform one to the image of Christ. After all, our God is known best in suffering. We find Him, not in the third heaven, but in a cold, filthy manger, surrounded by unbelievers and violent enemies, and thirsty and bloody, dying on a cross. The God whose power is made perfect in our weakness is the God who, in weakness, saved you from sin, death, and the Devil. To be sure, He is risen from the tomb where His corpse was laid, but such a resurrection comes only through the cross.
So it is, for the one who is baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The resurrection and glory will come, Heaven will descend to Earth, but only after we have suffered here in weakness where Christ’s grace is sufficient for us.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach 2 Corinthians 12:1-10.
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. John Nordling of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through 2 Corinthians 12:1-10.