In this section of 2 Corinthians 12 Paul confesses his “weakness,” some physical condition, it seems (“thorn in the flesh” (12.7), presuming ‘flesh’ here has its literal meaning) that apparently is causing some in the Corinthian context to question his qualifications as an apostle. He shares the word he had received from Jesus Christ in response to his prayer that this “weakness” be removed: “my grace is sufficient for you, for the power reaches perfection in weakness” (12:9). Paul considers this a final, helpful answer because he continues, “so then I will most gladly boast in these weaknesses of mine, hina episkēnōsēi ep’ eme hē dunamis tou Xristou (‘so that Christ’s power may rest on me’ (NIV)).”
In the hina clause several exegetical issues arise that make its interpretation a challenge. These include:
a. the meaning of hina — result or purpose, and the relationship of this clause to the preceding main clause;
b. the nature of the power that is the subject of the verb;
c. the meaning of the main verb dunatain this clause.
The hina conjunction expresses some correlation between boasting, weakness, and power. If it is a correlation of result, then Paul seems to say that “as a consequence of his boasting, he is able to experience Christ’s power” (M.E. Thrall, 2 Corinthians 8-13, 826). How then does such boasting result in this power coming on him? According to 12.9 the experience of power has preceded his boasting, so how can his boasting result in such an experience? If it expresses purpose, then the idea would be that he boasts in order that he may experience Christ’s power. However, this again reverses the stated relationship between weakness and power which he says enables this boasting. Thrall (827) proposes that the sense is “I will boast of the weaknesses whose consequence is to allow the power of Christ to rest upon me.” So weaknesses become the occasion for Christ to demonstrate his power and this then enables his boasting in the power of Christ which has become evident in his weakness. In other words the primary correlation exists between ‘weakness’ and ‘power’ and as Christ’s power emerges through his weakness, this results in his boasting. This sense seems to coincide with earlier teaching such as in 2 Corinthians 4.7ff.
Secondly, the content of the hina is logically and/or chronologically subsequent to the action of the main clause. This means that some aspect of the activity in the main clause should precede the consequence or purpose expressed in the hina clause. Given this syntactical reality, it seems that boasting per se is not what is in focus when it comes to the hina clause. Rather the weakness results in the experience of Christ’s power, which in turn generates the cause of boasting. This seems to be the logic expressed in verse 10.
This leads us to the third question. Why does Paul use the verb episkēnoō to describe the manner in which this “Christ power” comes to perfection in weakness and so becomes an opportunity for boasting? This compound verb (from skēnoō, “live, settle, take up residence”(BDAG, 929) occurs rarely in Greek literature prior to or contemporaneous with 2 Corinthians. skēnoō + epi + the accusative case would mean “take up residence with or in the same place” (BDAG, 363 1.c.β). So the simple form of the verb occurs in Revelation 7.15 where the angel tells John about those clothed in white with whom “the one who sits on the throne has taken up residence” (skēnōsei ep’ autous). This expression is very close to what Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 12.9 episkēnōsēi ep’ eme, but in which uses the cognate compound verb. Why not use the simple form of the verb?
Polybius (3-2 century BCE) used this verb (Historiae 4.18.8 and 4.72.1 ἐπισκηνώσαντες ἐπὶ τὰς οἰκίας) to describe soldiers who “take up residence in some dwellings.” In both contexts Polybius describes soldiers who have conquered a city, plundered it and then taken up residence in some of the houses, thereby taking possession of the city and assuming its defense. The verb does not occur in the Septuagint, Philo or Josephus. Given the scarcity of references for this verb, it is hard to assess the lexical register of this term. The two contexts in Polybius suggest it may have military overtones. But is there any evidence in 2 Corinthians that such connotations are in Paul’s mind when he employs this term?
Some scholars see more of a connection with the compound kataskēnoō which in the Greek Old Testament sometimes describes the descent of God’s glory. This verb often renders the Hebrew verb shkn, “to dwell” which is cognate with the noun mshkn, tent, often associated with the tabernacle. They think Paul may be comparing the descent of God’s glory on the tent of meeting (Exodus 40:35-40), but neither kataskēnoō nor episkēnoō occur in the Greek Exodus translation of that passage. Rather the Greek translator uses the verb episkiazō, “to overshadow.” So as Thrall (828) notes, this is quite speculative (but compare Luke 1:35 in which we read that “the power of the Most High will overshadow (episkiazō) you” in the words of Gabriel to Mary). Of course, it is important to note that Paul seems to refer to Exodus 34 in 2 Corinthians 3:7-18, but the motif Paul interacts with is the glory of God reflected in Moses’ face, not the glory of God taking up residence in the tent of meeting.
We do note that in 2 Corinthians Paul from time to time does use military and political imagery to describe his relationship to God in Christ (2:14), his representation of Christ in this world (5:20), and the comparison of his spiritual battle with military battle (10:3-6). In this last context (10:4) he notes that his spiritual weapons are “powerful (dunata) with reference to God.” This term dunata occurs also in 12:10 and 13:9 (see 13:3), with reference to Paul’s personal weakness. Also Paul claims that just as Christ died in weakness but lives by the power of God, so too Paul “though weak in him, yet by God’s power we still live with him in our dealing with you” (13:4). Finally, we note the metaphor employed in 4:7 which contrasts the human context of Christians (jars of clay) with the “all surpassing power” that is from God and not from us.
These references indicate that in 2 Corinthians Paul argues that because he is now allied with Christ and a new creation (5:17), despite all of the weakness of his human condition and the opposition he faces, nonetheless God’s power has invaded his life and taken up quarters. So in the midst of his weakness, he can still claim to act for God and have faith that God’s power will enable him to represent God well. Whether in using this verb episkēnoō + epi + accusative Paul has a military action in mind (occupying quarters plundered from the enemy and becoming responsible for defending this habitation, i.e., God has occupied his life which he has reclaimed from Satan), cannot be demonstrated with certainty, but it is possible. What is clear is that Paul considers Christ’s power to be present and evident in his life, with the consequence that God’s mission is advancing. In this remarkable correlation between his weakness and God’s demonstrated power, he will boast.