As part of an apologetic for his own apostleship, Paul describes some of the incredible ways God had communicated with and used him, and he emphasizes that he would boast in his weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9) rather than in his own strength or greatness. In this way, Paul affirms his apostleship but expresses that it is not for his own sake that he magnifies his ministry. Rather, he boasts in the strength of God.
After describing some of the many remarkable events in his ministry (2 Corinthians 11:1–29), Paul notes that he will boast in what pertains to his weakness (2 Corinthians 11:30). His humility is not a false humility, as he could have had much to boast about. He considers some of his “visions and revelations of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 12:1), noting that boasting is necessary but not profitable. As he is seeking to defend his apostleship from those who would question his authenticity, Paul recognizes he needs to mention these things. At the same time, he is not doing so in order to glorify himself. He recognizes the necessity of recounting these things, while emphasizing that he boasts in his weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9), not in his strength.
Paul recounts in the third person how “a man” (2 Corinthians 12:2) was caught up into the third heaven, into paradise (2 Corinthians 12:2, 4), and heard inexpressible things. Such a man could boast, as the experiences were certainly boast-worthy (2 Corinthians 12:5). Despite the incredible experience Paul had, he explains that he wants people to take his ministry at face value; he doesn’t want to have to defend it by citing his experiences (2 Corinthians 12:6). Nonetheless, because he had been given great revelations—experiences that might cause one to boast—he was given a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, “to keep me from exalting myself” (2 Corinthians 12:7, NASB). While Paul offers no specifics about this thorn, he adds that the severity was so great that he pleaded with God to remove it (2 Corinthians 12:8). God replied, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9, NASB). Because God’s power was demonstrated through Paul’s weakness, Paul is glad to boast of his weakness to show the power of Christ dwelling in him (2 Corinthians 12:9). He can be content, recognizing that “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). Paul’s strength is found not in himself but in God, who shows Himself to be strong even in the midst of human weakness.
Paul understands the principle that our strength is not in ourselves but in Christ. When we are weak, we are strong because of Him who works in us. Paul had to defend his apostleship, but he didn’t want to spotlight his own strength in doing so. Rather, he put the focus on the greatness of God. If people focused on Paul’s greatness, then Paul’s entire ministry would be misdirected. He was an apostle—a “sent one”—to testify of Jesus Christ. Like John the Baptist once said, “He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30). Paul was following a similar strategy in recognizing the glory of God as the focus.
Paul provides an excellent example to follow in demonstrating that, like Paul, we can boast in our weakness. When we appear strong, people focus on our strength, but when we are weak, God’s strength is evident. Paul boasts in his weakness, and we can boast in ours because, in our limitations, God is seen to be limitless.