Summary of the Text
This chapter of Paul’s Corinthian correspondence is rich indeed, revealing so much about Paul and his relationship to the Corinthian church, a church which he himself founded. But the importance of the gospel is the paramount theme that underwrites this entire chapter. At the top of his arguments was his highly credentialed apostleship that was reaffirmed and established by the overwhelming revelation he had received fourteen years before—it was fixed on his spiritual calendar! And he could talk about the event but not the “inexpressible things, things no one is permitted to tell” (v. 4).
The things were “inexpressible” either because the human mind cannot comprehend them, or human language cannot express them, or, most likely both. The mystery of this vision drew Paul into a fellowship with God that was all-consuming, and affirmed his apostolic authority which no one could question. But to keep that man’s feet on the ground, the Lord counterbalanced his “third heaven” experience (probably mere hyperbole, “the highest of heavenly things,”) with a “thorn in the flesh” (v. 7).
The outcome of his thrice-concerted prayers for its removal was the promise of the Lord’s all-sufficient grace, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (v. 9). This is another angle on the Incarnation, that God took upon himself our humanity and lived among us, was tempted as we are, yet without sin, and that he stooped down to identify with us and raise us up to heavenly things. Paul draws this out in Philippians 2:
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross! (Phil. 2:7-8)
God’s condescension in Jesus Christ was not at all an aberration of his true nature but a revelation of his true nature. God was at home among us. In Christ he came to his own world that he himself had made, “He came to his own” (John 1:11). Christ was at home in his world, but the world was not at home with him, “but his own received him not.” That is the goal of the gospel, to make us “at home” with God. Christ himself said that he went away to prepare a home where both he and we could be together (John 14).
As the adage goes, “Home is not the place but the people.” As a personal testimony, my wife and I have traveled a lot, mostly in connection with my academic responsibilities and pursuits, and my darling wife has always made sure that she made every place a home for us.
- there is a “vision glorious” that most of us have only caught the faintest glimpse of
- there are troubles, temptations, challenges, some of which may or may not deserve Paul’s label of “thorn in the flesh,” but which the Lord is nevertheless concerned about and for which he gives us grace to endure and manage them
- as servants of Christ, we should give attention to our dependence or interdependence upon the people of God, making sure we put the welfare of the gospel of Christ first
- personal and theological conflicts will arise in the experience of all of us, and we must be sure that we sort out our self-interests from the interests of the gospel; they are intertwined but uniquely distinct.
C. Hassell Bullock is the Franklin S. Dyrness Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Wheaton College (IL) where he taught for 36 years. He is a graduate of Samford University (Birmingham, AL), Columbia Theological Seminary (Decatur, GA), and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Instiutute of Religion (Cincinnati, O).
Among his published works are An Introduction to
the OT Poetic Books (Moody), Encountering the Book of Psalms, and a two-volume commentary on the Psalms, Psalms 1-72, and Psalms 73-150 (Baker Academic).
In addition to forty years of teaching in the college classroom, he has served Presbyterian congregations as pastor in Alabama and Illinois. He is married to his college sweetheart, Rhonda, and they have a son and a daughter and five grandchildren.
Nothing makes one so dizzy as human reasoning, which sees everything from an earthly point of view, and does not allow illumination from above. Earthly reasoning is covered with mud. Therefore, we have need of streams from above, so that, when the mud has fallen away, whatever part of the reason is pure may be carried on high and may be thoroughly imbued with the lessons taught there. This takes place when we manifest both a well-disposed soul and an upright life.
John Chrysostom, Homily 24 (John 2:23-3:4)
Thomas Aquinas’ Last Words Written
Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Paul said he was caught up to paradise and he heard “inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell” (2 Cor 12:4). There is a knowledge of the heavenly that is so amazing and astounding that we human beings, if we personally are permitted to know it—few are—cannot share it with others, perhaps because our human minds cannot comprehend it, or our human language cannot express it, or most likely, both.
Thomas Aquinas, that great 13th-century theologian, had not yet finished his famous and voluminous theology, Summa Theologica, when he had an ecstatic vision during mass on Dec. 6, 1273, and he never wrote another word of his theology. He told his colleague: “I can do no more. Such secrets have been revealed to me that all I have written now appears to be of little value.” He died three months later. We can’t see, we can’t hear, our minds can’t fully comprehend what God has prepared for those who love him (1 Cor 2:9).
 “Thomas Aquinas,” Catholic Encyclopedia, online.
Additional Sermon Resources
Call to Worship
As we call ourselves to worship, let us remember that our God is an awesome God, who in Jesus Christ has lived in our flesh, faced our temptations, gone to cross for, and lives today in heaven. In this time of worship let us praise our God, pray for one another, and renew our faith in Christ who is with us. Let us worship God.
Prayer of Confession
Lord and God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we have only begun to comprehend the wonder of the Incarnation, that you in Christ would become one of us, that you in Christ would live among us and be tempted like we are, that you in Christ would go to the cross for us, and that you in Christ would rise to new life in the conquest of death and the victory of a new life. Forgive us because we have only begun to understand this mystery. Launch us anew upon the way that will lead us to a deeper understanding of this truth, and that will make us lovers of God and lovers of neighbor in dimensions of grace that we have not even imagined. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon
The grace of Christ is never deserved but always intentional. Receive this grace, intended for you and me—it has our names on it–this all-sufficient grace that turns our weakness, which has our names on it too, into God’s power, that made us in his image and remakes us into the image of Christ.
Go in the peace of Christ that is beyond our understanding, and plant this peace by word and deed in this world of turmoil and uncertainty, depending on that all-sufficient grace. Amen.