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.
2 Corinthians 12:5-6
I have met people who spend their lives worried about what people will think of them. I have also met others who impose their personality on the people they meet sometimes without noticing they are doing it.
So too aware and too unaware.
Paul’s worry (if we can call it that) was that people would think too highly of him and put him on a pedestal. He knew that it would be all too easy to gain a following built to him, a following who were in awe of the gift, the ministry, the miracles etc. People are drawn to power and influence. Building a reputation on the basis of charisma or personality takes little effort and can be quite magnetic.
When Paul spoke of his transportation to the third heaven he spoke somewhat cautiously. He placed his story in the third person, choosing to speak of “a man in Christ” (vs 2). It was “this man” who was caught up into paradise (vs 3). Again, in vs 5 he continues in the third person a bit longer, declaring that “on behalf of this man I will boast.”
However, Paul does want to appeal to the church in Corinth so if he will not use his personality or experiences then what reasons do they have to embrace him as an apostle?
So, let’s firstly add a bit of context here. These two verses are not a “fill in” between Paul’s transportation to the third heaven (vs 1-4) and his “thorn in the flesh” (vs 7-10), but rather they show us the true heart and character of the apostle in the context of both supernatural experiences and trials. So, to make sense of his thorn in the flesh and in order to provide a context in which its purpose might be understood, he’s forced to describe his most remarkable supernatural experience.
But as far as Paul is concerned an experience such as he received he believed had no bearing on the qualifications or fitness of a person for apostolic ministry.
The reason Paul refrains from telling them (and us) of further visions and revelations isn’t because they didn’t exist or because they were uncommon in his life, but because they do not provide the evidence or the authenticity of his calling to be an apostle. He is determined to rely only on the evidence that the Corinthians could plainly see and hear (vs 6).
If you are still wondering whether or not the “man in Christ” is really Paul, then verse 6 clears the issue up forever. Here he says it in no uncertain terms. Paraphrasing, if I wanted to boast about it I could. I saw and heard them, I don’t want to draw any attention to such revelations, but they really did happen, they are true.
I find it really helpful and interesting that for Paul the only boasting that counts is weakness and he is happy to do that (vs 5). He preferred that the Corinthians get their opinion of him based on conduct and character, not charisma. It is the ‘weakness’ of humility, suffering, trials and service for the corporate good as well as how he handles those weaknesses that Paul says forms the proper credentials of ministry and the true sign of apostleship.
Paul refuses to build his reputation on his supernatural experiences and personality. No matter how grand or how spectacular the experience Paul tells us here it cannot and must not displace or replace character and conduct, they are the true indicators of a follower of Christ and leadership.
I am sorry but I may be overstepping the mark here, but I believe there is much to learn in the simplicity of this for the church today. There still is a tendency to exalt gifting over character and it messes up churches.
Gifting can be so attractive, character so boring. Far too often we turn a blind eye to the spiritual immaturity of a particular individual because of the extraordinary power so evident in his or her ministry. Doctrinal errors and even moral failure can be conveniently dismissed or even completely ignored because of what appears to be a highly anointed gifting. (No, I don’t understand why you can can get gifting and fruit and awful morals running simultaneously either!)
I was in a leaders meeting just today when we were discussing this very issue. Where a prominent church leader who had an impressive church, spoke at conferences, was an author of books was also committing adultery. We are still attracted to the personality leader. We preach our morals from the pulpit and do not apply the same standards to ourselves. Why oh why is the the spiritual super star, the highly gifted platform personality, given so much freedom, power and money? We should never have untouchable areas in our lives, whoever we are.
Paul helps us and defines leadership for us. He could have so easily gained so much from his tales of third heaven and become elevated in the eyes of the church in Corinth but he did not, he declines. “I refrain from it,” he writes in vs 6 so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me.”
What can we learn from him? Firstly, whatever people may think of us and whatever authority we may gain as a result, let it be on the grounds of what they “see” us do and “hear” us say. Let it be on the basis of verifiable conduct and established character. Look at my life, how I am living with my thorn in my flesh, my weaknesses, let that be the grounds of the judgement for ministry.
Secondly is the remarkable fact that Paul was genuinely concerned that others did not think too highly of him! (vs 6). Stunning, as most of us want people to think a little better of us than we should.
What made Paul so different? What made him so content? I believe the difference was Christ. The centrality of Christ. The beauty of Christ. The sufficiency of Christ. For Paul, it was the keen awareness that there is no greater joy than knowing Christ, not even the “joy” that comes from seeing one’s name in lights or being on prominent platforms or gathering thousands of adoring fans to hear you speak (yes I mean fans). Paul was content with any and every situation (Philippians 4:11-13). It was enough for him that, when people looked and listened, they thought well of Jesus. It was enough for him that Christ was exalted and he slipped unnoticed into the background.