Join us as we study through 2 Corinthians verse by verse. Our discussion questions, teaching points, and applications can help you or your small group get the most out of this book as you grow in understanding and obedience.

2 Corinthians 12:1-10 Inductive Bible Study Guide With Questions – Paul’s Vision and Thorn In the Flesh

Outline:

I. Paul’s vision (1-6)
II. The thorn in Paul’s flesh (7-10)

I. Paul’s vision (1-6)

Discussion Questions

  • Why “must” Paul go on boasting?
  • Who is the “man in Christ” mentioned in verse 2?
  • Is it Paul? Why or why not?
  • Why does he talk about himself in the third person here?
  • Why did Paul share this experience with the Corinthians (and notably not to any of the other churches)?
  • What is the “third heaven?”
  • Why does Paul not share the details of what he heard and saw there?
  • Why might God have given Paul this experience?
  • How should we respond to claims of visions or heavenly out-of-body experiences today?
  • Why did Paul choose not share the contents of his vision (6)?

Cross-References

Joel 2:28 – And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.

Amos 3:7 – For the Lord God does nothing without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets.

Jeremiah 23:16 – Thus says the Lord of hosts: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord.

1 John 4:1 – Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.

Galatians 1:8 – But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!

Teaching Points

1. I must go on boasting – Paul did not enjoy boasting. He did not want to boast, knowing that in most cases it is folly and prideful. But he did not want to lose influence to the false apostles swaying the Corinthian church with their grandiose stories. To avoid losing the battle with these false teachers, he took the gloves off and went all the way in defending his credibility.

2. I know a man in Christ – Based on the context, this “man” is clearly Paul. In these chapters, Paul has been repeatedly persuading the Corinthians about his credentials. In order to restore their confidence in him, Paul has been “boasting” of his apostolic accomplishments. Telling the Corinthians about another person who had a vision would do nothing to boost his credibility. If Paul was saying, “hey guys, I know someone who had a vision so you should respect me as an apostle,” that would serve to make him look less authoritative, not more.

This “man” clearly is himself. The experience is his own. He refers to himself in the third person to try to maintain some modicum of humility even in the midst of his “boasting.” Reinforcing the fact that he was referring to himself, in verse 7 Paul says that the thorn in flesh was sent to “me” because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations. The thorn in the flesh came to the one who experienced this vision, Paul.

3. Fourteen years ago – Some scholars have attempted to make some correlation about the timing of this vision with certain events in Acts. This is very difficult to do because Acts does not mention this event. It could have taken place while Paul was in solitude or on retreat or even one night while he was asleep. We do not know.

4. Caught up to the third heaven –

The word for caught up is the same one used in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 – After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.

The word used is “arpazw,” which means to “catch” or “pluck” or “pull by force.” It is not something a person can initiate. Rather it is God’s choice and something He takes action to do.

There is a simple lesson here in that God is sovereign over any possible visions and revelations. They are not something which a believer needs to seek out. Believers should not pursue such out-of-body experiences. If God sees fit to give a vision, then He has the power to do so. He would do so according to His own will and timing.

The first heaven is the sky (earth’s atmosphere). The second heaven is space and the celestial bodies there. The third heaven refers to the abode of God. Paul calls it “paradise” in verse three.

In Paul’s vision, he was caught up to heaven. Paul is not the only Bible character to have this experience. Ezekiel, Daniel, and John all had similar experiences.

5. Whether in the body or out of the body I do not know – From this statement we can see that the vision felt very real. It wasn’t akin to a dream. Nobody wakes up from a dream and believes that they may have physically actually been in the event in the dream.

It felt real. It was real to the extent that Paul thought he may have physically been caught up to heaven temporarily (which happened to both Enoch and Elijah).

Application: The vision Paul had was something other than a typical dream. We should not confuse normal physiological dreams with messages from God. If a person wakes up questioning whether his dream was from God it likely wasn’t. God makes it clear when He is communicating with His people. What would be the point of communicating in a way that is not clear and brings about more confusion?

6. He heard things which cannot be told that man may not utter – Other prophets also witnessed revelations that they were not allowed to share.

Daniel 12:4 – But you, Daniel, shut up the words and seal the book, until the time of the end. Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall increase.”

God’s revelation is progressive. There are certain things He doesn’t reveal to the world at large until the due time. But God sometimes gives prophets a “sneak peak” at heaven, or His plans. He may do this in order to encourage and strengthen them personally for the ministry that He sets before them.

In the past chapter, we saw the immense amount of suffering and persecution that Paul faced for the gospel. He was called to suffer perhaps more than other servant of Jesus who ever lived. Perhaps God gave him a special vision to personally encourage him to persevere to the end and fight the good fight. Certainly seeing God on His throne in heaven and in some way witnessing God’s power, plan, and ultimate victory would have served to embolden Paul.

The fact is, God gives each person what they need to accomplish the mission he sets before them. Moses felt inadequate and God sent him Aaron. Elijah was afraid for his life and God sent an angel to bring him nourishment.

1 Kings 19:4-6 – But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” And he lay down and slept under a broom tree. And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.” And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank.

We don’t know what Paul witnessed in his revelation, but we know that God allowed him to see those things for a reason. At the same time, they were not for general consumption.

Paul faithfully obeys the restriction on sharing what he witnessed. Many would have sought to share the contents of the vision in order to exalt themselves, but Paul did not.

7. Verses 5-6 – Paul could have boasted about the contents of the vision. He chose not to. He didn’t seek to draw attention to this because it was unhealthy. Far more important was his everyday ministry to the church which they witnessed.

This is the only place in all of his epistles he mentions this vision. If Paul sought to exalt himself in front of the churches, he would have been sharing this all over the place. But he only mentions it one time, and even then he doesn’t give the details. That fact should allay any concerns that Paul sought to boast and exalt himself.

As we have already seen in this book, all of Paul’s “boasting” was for the sake of establishing his credibility with the Corinthians so that they would believe his message.

8. How should we respond to claims of visions today? – Many today claim to have revelations like Paul mentions here. Some write books about their out-of-body experiences in heaven.

In general, we should treat such claims with healthy skepticism. This is because we are commanded in 1 John 4:1 to “test the spirits.”

1 John 4:1 – Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.

In Bible times (before it was completed), God often communicated with His people through dreams and visions. And in the end times, He promises to do so again (Joel 2:28).

Hebrews 1:1-2 – Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.

God chooses to communicate in different times and in different ways. This verse does not preclude any possibility of God communicating in a dream or vision. Rather it shows that the normal or common mode of communication varies.

There are many reliable reports, especially stemming from predominantly Muslim countries, of supernatural dreams and visions which are bringing people to Christ.

However, we should not blindly accept any account because to do so will assuredly bring in false teaching or false claims (along with real ones) from people who have selfish and ulterior motives.

So here are some tests which the discerning believer will hold such claims to:

  • Does it agree with God’s word (Acts 17:11)?
  • Is it a different gospel (Galatians 1:8)?
  • Is the person credible? Paul was credible. We believe his account because he is an inspired apostle.
  • Has this person made other statements, prophecies, or claims which have been disproven? (Numbers 23:19)
  • Is God receiving the glory or man? (Isaiah 42:8) If a person profits handsomely from book deals or speaking engagements related to their claims, it does not necessarily disprove it. But it does warrant considering if there may be an ulterior motive besides God’s glory.
  • Is there any practical benefit to engage in the story/claim? Many grandiose stories of visions sound exciting, but do they actually contribute to believers living holy lives and seeking after God? There is a reason God has not revealed many secrets about heaven to us in His word. That is because we don’t need to know them now. Neither do they help us serve Him better here in this world.

Application: Be discerning. Test the spirits. Do not blindly accept every claim of visions and special revelations. Instead compare them with God’s Word.

II. The thorn in Paul’s flesh (7-10)

Discussion Questions

  • How might Paul have responded in the flesh to these amazing revelations?
  • Was Satan responsible for this or God?
  • What might this “thorn” have been?
  • What was Satan’s motivation for sending it?
  • What was God’s motivation for allowing it?
  • What lesson can we learn from this about how God views pride?
  • Why then might God allow obstacles or difficulties in our own lives?
  • Can you share an example of a time when God used a difficult situation to humble you?
  • How did Paul respond to this thorn?
  • How did God answer Paul’s prayer?
  • What do we learn from this about prayer?
  • Can you share an example of a time when God’s grace was sufficient for you?
  • Explain this phrase, “my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Cross-References

Job 1:6,12 – Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.

Proverbs 11:12 – When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom.

Hebrews 4:16 – Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

John 1:16 – And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

Romans 8:26 – Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.

Teaching Points

1. To keep me from being conceited – Most people never dream of having a vision like Paul had! It would be natural for Paul to become puffed up and exult in his “special” status. God did not give him these experiences in order to boost his ego. So in combination with this experience, God allowed Paul to be humbled by a thorn in the flesh.

James 4:6 – But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

God is not a fan of proud people. This account shows us clearly just how much He detests pride. The Lord allowed his chosen emissary to the Gentiles to experience this thorn to keep him humble. From this we can learn that God may orchestrate the circumstances of our life in such a way as to keep us humble. That is important for us to keep in mind when we face setbacks, opposition, and trials.

Reflect: Share a situation in your life that God has used to keep you humble.

2. God’s motivation vs. Satan’s motivation – Paul says that a thorn was given him in the flesh. Was it given to him by God or by Satan?

We can answer that God allowed Satan to do this to accomplish a greater purpose in Paul’s life.

In the book of Job, Satan comes before God and wants to tempt Job. God allows this. Satan’s goal was to cause Job to curse God and prove that people always follow God for selfish reasons. God had a different motivation. In His sovereign will, He allowed this test both to build Job’s faith, but also to show everyone the power of true faith in God and a real relationship with Him. This relationship could hold firm even in the worst of trials.

In a similar way here, Satan desires to hinder Paul’s ministry. He wants to discourage him, torment him, slow him down, perhaps even get him to curse God. On the other hand, God allows Satan to inflict Paul with this thorn. His motivation is clearly spelled out here. God wanted Paul to remain humble in the wake of the surpassing revelations he witnessed.

3. The thorn in the flesh – Everyone asks the question, “what is the thorn in the flesh?” The passage does not give us the exact answer. But it does say this thorn is “a messenger of Satan.”

The word for “messenger” here is “angelos” in Greek. That is a word that generally means “angel.” Thus it appears that Satan sent a demon (fallen angel) to afflict Paul. This should come as no surprise. Paul spearheaded the the worldwide church planting and disciple making effort. It is no wonder that Satan wanted to oppose this so assigned a personal demon to “harass” Paul.

The “thorn in the flesh” seems to be spiritual warfare, a demon assigned by Satan to harass Paul.

What form might this harassment take? We can assume that if the demon was good at his job it would be every type of harassment possible. That could include stirring up opposition to Paul among the Jews and the Gentile leaders, and even in the church (as Paul faced at the church in Corinth). Some have speculated that the thorn was ill health or poor sight. From the Book of Job we see that Satan was given power to afflict Job’s health. So this may have also been included in the demon’s harassment.

In the end, we do not know for sure what exact form this took. But we do know that God was sovereign in this and worked even the harm intended by Satan for good (Romans 8:28). We also know that Satan is under the hand of God and he and his demons can do nothing against God’s saints that God does not specifically allow.

Application: This passage should encourage us. Even when we face difficulties and trials, or even spiritual attacks, we can be sure that God has a divine purpose in allowing it. God will not allow one hair of our heads to be harmed apart from His purpose. So we should be confident to stand up to any spiritual attack knowing that God is with us and will use even opposition for building us and His kingdom.

4. Three times I pleaded that it should leave me – Paul repeatedly petitioned the Lord to remove this “thorn.” For his part, Paul followed the principle of the “persistent widow.” However, God did not give him the answer he was hoping for.

Application: Prayer does not always result in a “yes.” We should have faith in our heavenly Father to do what is best for us, even if it is not what we are asking for.

5. My grace is sufficient for you – Here is an amazing promise. God’s grace was sufficient. Note that God did not take away the affliction. He did not deliver Paul out of it right away. But He promised to give Paul the grace he needed to get through it and continue serving Christ to the glory of God.

We can also take this as a promise from God to us as well. Though He may not remove any thorns we face, He continuously provides the grace we need to go through it in victory. His grace is sufficient. It is not a pool which we can drink dry. Rather it is a continuous state of provision.

6. My power is made perfect in weakness – The Lord purposely chooses the weak to be His ambassadors. In 2 Corinthians 4:7 God’s workers are called “jars of clay.” His servants are like clay, frail and easy to break, weak. But they hold the treasure of the gospel.

The very weakness of God’s servants highlights his own power.

When the disciples were preaching the gospel with boldness, the religious leaders were amazed because they were uneducated. Then they realized that they had been with Jesus. (Acts 4:13) Because they were uneducated and “weak,” God’s power through them was highlighted. So He received the glory due Him.

Colossians 1:29 – For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.

Believers are still called to toil. But we do so with His strength, not our own.

One example of a believer with weaknesses who has used these to the glory of God is Joni Eareckson. When she was 18 years old she dove into Chesapeake Bay. Misjudging the depth of the water, she became paralyzed from the neck down. She became angry and depressed. Eventually she was able to turn this disaster into an opportunity for testimony. Now she gives God glory in this situation. She has written more than 40 books and has inspired many who are disabled to put their confidence in the Lord. Her life story as a quadriplegic follower of Christ has touched far more people with the gospel than would have happened otherwise. God’s power was manifest in her weakness.

7. I am content with weaknesses, insults… – Paul accepted all of the disasters within and without he faced. He was content with all these things because they brought attention to God’s power. His own human weakness in the eyes of the world emphasized the power of God in His life. It was this power that changed lives, not himself (Romans 1:16).

Reflect: What affliction do you face which you can turn into a testimony for God? God’s grace is magnified when we serve Him even in the midst of debilitating afflictions. Rather than growing bitter when experience such “thorns,” let us instead learn to depend on God. Perhaps such an affliction is an opportunity to witness for Him or share a testimony with others.

2 Corinthians 12:11-21

We want to help you study the Bible, obey the Bible, and teach the Bible to others. We have therefore created a library of almost one thousand (and growing) inductive Bible studies, which are available for free. This takes a lot of time and hard work.

Help us continue to create Bible study resources by supporting Study and Obey for as little as $1.

Support

Sharing is caring!