Bible Answer

Was Paul speaking about himself in 2 Corinthians 12?

Was Paul speaking in third person (about himself) in 2 Corinthians 12:2-4?

Paul spoke in the third person in 1Corinthians 12 to make a point to his readers about the dangers of pride. As an apostle, Paul was uniquely equipped by the Lord, and yet Paul did not allow his privileges in ministry to go to his head. So he wished to use himself as a model for the prideful Corinthians without succumbing to pride in the process of his "boasting." In short, Paul didn't want to become proud of his humility.

The Corinthians were celebrating those who boasted about themselves and their personal power. For example, Paul says in the prior chapter:

2Cor. 11:19 For you, being so wise, tolerate the foolish gladly.
2Cor. 11:20 For you tolerate it if anyone enslaves you, anyone devours you, anyone takes advantage of you, anyone exalts himself, anyone hits you in the face.

Perversely, the more boastful and abusive a person was, the more the Corinthians respected them. Consequently, Paul being a humble and unassuming man was diminished in their sight, which led the Corinthians to give less credence to Paul’s teaching despite being an apostle without equal in the church. This was a dangerous situation for the church since the Corinthians were giving attention to false teachers in place of Paul’s sound teaching. As Paul says:

2Cor. 11:21 To my shame I must say that we have been weak by comparison. But in whatever respect anyone else is bold — I speak in foolishness — I am just as bold myself. 

Paul says his was (seen as) weak by comparison by the church in Corinth, so Paul decides to engage in this boasting competition though he knows it is a foolish thing to compete for the respect of carnal men in this way. Paul is taking a risk in lowering himself to their level so he can gain their attention and respect for better teaching, not because he wished to exalt himself. 

To walk this tightrope between demonstrating humility before the Lord and boasting before the Corinthians, Paul speaks in the third person while describing his qualifications. This technique works to distance Paul somewhat from his accomplishments. 

Notice how he begins his “boasting” competition by acknowledging the silliness of the whole affair:

2Cor. 11:22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. 
2Cor. 11:23 Are they servants of Christ? — I speak as if insane — I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. 

Paul stops in the middle of listing his credentials to remark that this speech was so uncharacteristic for him, and therefore he wondered aloud if he was insane to be engaging in it. Paul was sincerely bothered by his need to engage in self-promotion since all boasting is sin, yet he does so under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit out of necessity to gain the church’s respect for the word of God.

Paul's so-called boasting reaches its climax in chapter 12, when Paul reveals how he came to know so much about God’s will for His church. Paul reveals he was granted a unique and unprecedented audience in heaven (though he isn’t sure exactly how he experienced it) where he was taught the depths of theology he later revealed in his New Testament letters. Paul cites this experience as the chief argument for his superiority as a messenger of God, which he introduces with this statement:

2Cor. 12:1 Boasting is necessary, though it is not profitable; but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. 

Once again, Paul says this exercise in boasting is distasteful and not profitable as an example. Nevertheless, he presses forward to demonstrate why his teaching is superior to all others in the church. Paul announces he go on to share that he received "visions and revelations" from the Lord. 

This statement is our first contextual clue in the letter to know that what follows is, in fact, a story about Paul and not someone else even though Paul wrote in the third person. Paul writes the account in the third person to minimize the degree of his personal boasting, much in the same way we might refer to ourselves in the third person to avoid embarrassment over some situation (i.e., “I have a “friend" who needs help…”).

Later in chapter 12, Paul confirms that his third-person account was speaking of himself when he adds:

2Cor. 12:5 On behalf of such a man I will boast; but on my own behalf I will not boast, except in regard to my weaknesses. 
2Cor. 12:6 For if I do wish to boast I will not be foolish, for I will be speaking the truth; but I refrain from this, so that no one will credit me with more than he sees in me or hears from me. 
2Cor. 12:7 Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me — to keep me from exalting myself! 
2Cor. 12:8 Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. 
2Cor. 12:9 And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 

Notice Paul says he boasts “on behalf of such a man” but he won’t boast on his behalf. He’s explaining why he’s speaking in the third person about himself. He says the only thing he will say about himself (in the first person) is that he has weaknesses. This was a sincere reflection of Paul’s humility. Paul was so embarrassed by his self-promotion that he softened the impact by writing in a third-person voice. 

Finally, in v.7 Paul says that the Lord granted Paul an infirmity to counteract Paul's pride precisely because of the great revelations Paul received in Heaven. The same man who received the revelations is the one who received the “thorn.” Since Paul received the thorn, we know that Paul is also the one who received the visions and revelations mentioned earlier in the chapter. The “great revelations” Paul described were those just mentioned in the third person

Since Paul received the great revelations in the throne room of God, he was given a trial to counteract his pride. We don’t know what specific trial Paul received, but it was enough to keep his pride in check. So the way Paul introduced and concluded his third-person account tells us conclusively he was speaking of himself.