“Strength in Weakness”
2 Corinthians 12:1-10
July 13, 2003
Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
v.1 Remember, Paul’s “boasting” is a ploy, a means to expose the false apostles who were troubling the church in Corinth. He “boasts” to expose their boasting for the proud, self-assertion that it was and for the anti-Christian spirit that animated them. Theirs was a confidence in themselves not in Christ. He has listed his sufferings, the sacrifices he has made for the gospel’s sake in the previous chapter. Now he goes on to his extraordinary privileges.
v.2 Paul is, of course, speaking of himself, as v. 7 indicates. Paul speaks in the third person perhaps to remind his readers that he really is uncomfortable talking about himself in this way. 14 years before would have put it not long after his conversion.
The “third heaven” is another name for what he calls “Paradise” in v. 4. It is the typical nomenclature of the time for what we call “heaven.” Think of the first heaven as the sky and clouds; the second as outer space, the region of the stars; and the third as the invisible, spiritual heaven where Christ is.
v.4 That revelation, in other words, was for the apostle’s sake. He needed to be strengthened by this remarkable vision in order to be able to endure the hardships that his calling would require, hardships, Calvin says, sufficient “to break a thousand hearts.” No doubt what he saw, when he was given the supreme privilege of glancing into heaven, influenced his whole ministry, contributed to his indefatigable labors and zeal and the confidence with which he proclaimed the good news of salvation in Christ.
v.5 Whatever grandiose claims the false apostles may have made, Paul’s experiences indicate the special authority and calling that he has from God. But, even such great experiences are not the true measure of an apostle, but rather his grasp of the gospel and his trust in the Lord.
v.7 As you may know, there has been no end of suggestions as to what Paul’s thorn was. Most have thought it some physical problem or defect or disability, an illness such as malaria or epilepsy that continued to recur and trouble him, or, perhaps, failing eyesight that would also account for his reference to the large letters he wrote when he signed his own greeting (Gal. 6:11) or the fact that Paul says that the Galatians loved him so much they would have plucked out their eyes and given them to him (4:15). Others have suggested that it was a form of moral temptation that proved very vexing for Paul. There is no way to know for sure and it is better that we don’t, for then we can all more easily make our own application of Paul’s remark to our own case.
Paul calls his thorn a messenger from Satan, though it is clear as he proceeds that this is an affliction that God has appointed for him for holy reasons. As Luther put it, “Even the Devil is God’s devil.” It may be the Devil and, on the Devil’s part, it may be animated by hatred, but God is in ultimate control and he is after something holy and good in Paul, something that requires this thorn in the flesh.
v.8 The three times perhaps corresponded to three particularly severe bouts with this thorn in the flesh, whatever it was.
Paul was a great man, one of the greatest that ever lived. And his gifts and talents were correspondingly great. He was a man of towering intellect. Before he became a Christian that intellect had already secured for him an eminent place in the Judaism of his day. He was a natural leader. Men followed him because of his commanding presence and the force of his personality. He became a Christian in the most stunning way imaginable, by a personal encounter with the risen Christ. So remarkable was Paul’s conversion, his becoming a Christian, so radical was the revolution in his life – the one-time persecutor of the church becoming its most effective champion – that the account of Paul’s coming to faith in Christ is given four times in the New Testament. More verses are devoted to narrating the conversion of the Apostle Paul than are devoted to narrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ. What is more, after becoming a Christian, he was granted astonishing powers – to heal the sick, to speak other languages – and, above all of that, he was given what may have not been given, ever, to any other human being, including all the other apostles. He was given, in whatever way – he himself hardly knew – to look for a short while into heaven itself. The things he saw there were so ineffable, so breathtaking, that he was forbidden to speak of them to others. They were the things that God has, by and large, required all his people to wait to see. But Paul was allowed to see them in advance. Others were given to see angels, even the glory of God, but this was something else.
All of this was simply too much for a mere man to bear. Human beings are all, already, by nature and by upbringing, so vainglorious, so proud, so enamored of themselves, that to have such formidable honors laid upon him would have been a temptation certain to destroy the Apostle Paul and his usefulness as an apostle of Jesus Christ. A man taken up with his own greatness, his own powers and privileges, cannot be a man who will himself be taken up with the grace of God and live in utter amazement that Christ should have given himself for such a one as he. A man who knows himself to be great will never persuade others of the greatness of Jesus Christ. A man who seems to have no needs can never speak persuasively to others about how only Christ can meet our great and terrible needs.
And so God, who knows the heart, who knew his servant through and through, gave him a thorn in the flesh, whatever that thorn was. And it was severe enough, painful enough, embarrassing enough, debilitating enough, at least in the eyes of the unspiritual, to cancel out all of Paul’s powers and all his honors and all his privileges. Whether they said that Paul was a nearly blind seer, or an ailing healer, or a weak and tottering wielder of divine power, they joked that here was a healer who couldn’t heal himself, a visionary with bad eyes. Why should anyone believe him and his claims about God’s power? That is how far down Paul was taken down by this thorn in the flesh. And he felt it. He felt the pain of it and the disgrace of it keenly enough to cry out to God, to pray in bitter anguish, for relief and deliverance. Paul was still a man and he thought sometimes that he literally couldn’t bear this thorn in the flesh any longer. And it was out of that agony, that humiliation, that utter weakness, that he prayed as he did.
Charles Spurgeon was a man like Paul in many ways. He was a man of extraordinary gifts. As a boy preacher of twenty years of age, with no formal training, he was already holding huge congregations spellbound with his sermons. During his long ministry in Victorian England he became, far and away, the most famous preacher in the world, one of the most famous persons in the world of his day. In a day long before web sites and e-mail, his printed sermons were mailed by the thousands upon thousands all over the world every week. His congregation was the largest in England. He was a national figure, a celebrity – not like celebrities today, who are famous merely for being famous – but a celebrity on account of his genius and influence. But Spurgeon was like Paul in another way: he too had his thorns in the flesh.
One of them was gout, a very painful disease marked by swelling and inflammation around the joints. There was no real cure for gout in the 19th century. It had been fatal for his grandfather and was a life-long affliction for him. And, during one particularly bad episode, Spurgeon tells us that he prayed in very much the same way Paul must have prayed about his thorn in the flesh.
“When, some months ago, I was racked with pain to an extreme degree, so that I could no longer bear it without crying out, I asked all to go from the room, and leave me alone; and then I had nothing I could say to God but this, ‘Thou art my Father, and I am Thy child; and Thou, as a Father, art tender and full of mercy. I could not bear to see my child suffer as Thou makest me suffer; and if I saw him tormented as I am now, I would do what I could to help him and put my arms under him to sustain him. Wilt Thou hide They face from me, my Father? Wilt Thou still lay on me Thy heavy hand, and not give me a smile from Thy countenance?’ I talked to the Lord as Luther would have done, and pleaded His Fatherhood in real earnest. ‘Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him.’ If he be a Father, let Him show Himself a Father – so I pleaded…” [Autobiography, ii, 197]
The Lord drew near to help him wonderfully on that occasion, to strengthen him and to deliver him, but the regular recurrence of gout was a difficult fact of Spurgeon’s life until it contributed to his death in 1892. The Lord never took that thorn away from Spurgeon, but, like Paul, he made his divine strength sufficient for him and in his weakness Spurgeon found God’s strength, and through his gout-afflicted life accomplished more than any other hundred men for the kingdom of God, and all because he, great man that he was, lived trusting the Lord.
Many of you know precisely what Paul meant by what he said about his thorn in the flesh and the weakness it imparted to his life. Never mind the commentators and all their speculations about Paul’s thorn in the flesh. Think instead about your own. What is it that so tortures you and burdens you and embarrasses you and weakens you until your life is almost unbearable to you? What is it that undermines your sense of success and of joy? What is it in your life that makes you cry out to the Lord in prayer that is as searching and heartfelt and honest and desperate as Paul’s prayer when he cried out to God for relief from his thorn in the flesh?
It isn’t malaria for you, or failing eyesight, or epilepsy. It may be some physical impairment, some other sickness, but it may be your marriage or your child, it may be some defect in you that has curtailed your opportunities in life. It may be some temptation that you cannot seem to handle or get the better of, try as you might, and pray as you might.
We know what Paul’s thorn was for. And we know what our thorns – all the things that make us and show us utterly weak in some way – we know what our thorns are for. They are to turn us away from ourselves that we may look to and trust in Christ. Our thorns take us to the end of ourselves, make us realize that we cannot save ourselves or help ourselves, not in the ways that matter most. We need the Lord, we need his strength, his power, his grace and help. And so we look to him when otherwise we would not.
If you want to know how hard it is for us to turn to Christ, really to turn to him, for the forgiveness of our sins, for the holiness of our lives, for everything that is right, true, happy, and fruitful in a Christian’s life, just stop and consider how sharp are the thorns in our flesh. Just think of what God must do to us and what he must lay upon us and what pain he must cause us so that we do not live our lives in this world trusting ourselves instead of him. We will, we will trust ourselves, we will worship ourselves, we will serve ourselves, unless and only unless it is made perfectly obvious to us, unless it is proved to us beyond the shadow of a doubt, that we are broken reeds and if we lean on ourselves we are bound to fall and to cut ourselves in the process.
Clarence Macartney, the famous minister years ago of the First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh recalls calling once in the home of one of the members of his congregation. At the end of the visit, he said, as ministers are wont to say, “Shall we have prayer together?” With a startled look on her face, the woman answered, “Do you think I need it?”
Do you think I need it? That said in a tone of bewilderment or, perhaps, of slight offense, is where everyone is when left to himself, where everyone’s nature pride and self-love will take him or her. Do you think I need it? Do you think I need something that I can get only in prayer to God? Do you think I need God in that way?
Do you think that I need to have my sins forgiven? Most people don’t think so. You never hear about the forgiveness of sins on television; you never hear it sung about on the radio. The Bible says that the most important fact about you, a fact so important it throws all other facts into the shade, is that you are a sinner standing before a holy God and that if your sins are not forgiven by God, you must pay for them, and that is a terrible thing to have to do. But look around you in the world. How many people do you see who seem worried about the forgiveness of their sins. Jesus Christ came into the world, the angel said to Joseph, to save his people from their sins, but most people don’t seem to care. They are not worried about their sins and don’t seem at all concerned to be sure that they are forgiven.
Do you think I need it? Do you think that I need to walk with God while I live in this world? Do you think that I should live in a manner that is pleasing to him? Do you think I need that? Look around you once again. It doesn’t appear that very many people are concerned about that. Anywhere you look you can find a movie about people falling in love – people want to fall in love – but when did you last see a movie about a person so concerned about walking with God that he moved heaven and earth until he was sure that he was walking with God and had the blessing of God in his life, that he was living with and for Jesus Christ who loved him and gave himself for him?
Do you think I need true humility? Do you think I need to be disabused of myself and of loving myself and trusting myself and living my life as if I were the only one that really mattered:
I lived for myself, I thought for myself,
For myself, and none beside –
Just as if Jesus had never lived,
As if he had never died.
Very few people think they need humility like that. Very few people seem to be searching for it as for buried treasure, even though God has said,
“I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is
contrite and lowly in spirit…” [Isa. 57:15]
You don’t find many in our culture saying publicly, “Who cares about fame or fortune, power or pleasure, I need to be right with God and for that I need humility and I am finding that humility is a far harder thing to obtain than money or celebrity or power.” That humility lies at the bottom of all true and lasting human happiness, but the radio isn’t playing songs about it and the movies are not telling stories about it.
If you are not a Christian this morning, or not a serious, devout, committed Christian, a person for whom faith in Jesus Christ is the dominant principle of your life, if you are, perhaps, a Christian in name only – you must be the judge of what you are until Christ, with his perfect knowledge tells you and everyone what you are – I say, if you are not a Christian this morning, hear me. Listen to what I say.
Real Christians will tell you that there is nothing that they struggle at all their lives so much as simply to believe, really to believe, and then to live in the active conviction of their beliefs. The problem, of course, is that we cannot see God, we cannot see the judgment day, we cannot see hell and heaven, we cannot see Jesus Christ present in the world by the Holy Spirit, we cannot see the forgiveness of our sins. We can see, touch, taste, hear, smell power and pleasure; we can see people succeeding at this or that, hear them speak persuasively about this or that, experience this pleasure or that, but we cannot so see, hear, or touch God. And so we struggle to pray. It is always easier to do than to pray. We can see the doing, but we cannot see God when we pray to him. We can see ourselves and what we do, but we cannot see God and what he does.
Well, if real Christians, devout and committed Christians, tell you as they will that their great struggle in life is to trust the Lord and not themselves, to live by faith and not by sight, how utterly unlikely is it that an unbeliever, a non-Christian will ever turn to God and begin to live by faith in him. It will not happen unless that unbeliever is brought to the end of himself also. There must be storms in the hearts of men and women if ever they will come to Christ for safety and refuge. That is the power of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ. “What?” you say, “Can God make me become a Christian?” Oh, yes; he can. The creator of heaven and earth can do whatever he wills. The gospel, the good news of salvation in Christ, does not ask for your consent, but it gets it. It does not come cap in hand to you, but it makes you willing. It knocks the unbelief right out of your heart. You may say, “I don’t want to be saved! I don’t want to be a Christian.” But he makes you turn right around – by the things that he makes happen in your life, by the pressures he places upon your soul, he makes you turn right around and you find yourself crying out to him, “Lord, save me, or I am lost!”
Or, if you are an unbeliever this morning – you are not convinced that Jesus Christ is God, the only savior of sinners; you are not persuaded that Christianity is true – you may well wonder why Christians are such ordinary people, with so many typical problems. If they know God, as they claim, if they have the Spirit of God with them and in them as they claim, if they have become the children of God as they claim, why do they not stand out more than they do. Why are they not obviously and always the most successful people around, the most happy, the most impervious to life’s problems?
Well, that is just what the false teachers in Corinth were asking about Paul. If he is so great, how come he has this terrible problem, how come everybody can see that he is afflicted and troubled by something that he cannot seem to do anything about? And Paul gives us the reason. The most important thing in all the world – the most important thing for a Christian and the most important thing for a non-Christian – is to be persuaded that you have great needs that only God can meet and that what really matters only he can give you. And, given our sinful, selfish, proud and vainglorious nature, no one will ever believe that, no one will ever become convinced of that, and no one will ever remain convinced of that apart from the trials of life that over and over again force us to turn to God because we have nowhere else to turn.
That is a large part of the reason why there is so much woe in this world. It is desperately important that we learn to trust him and not ourselves. You can make some success of your life trusting yourself. You can accumulate some measure of success and reward without any serious reckoning with God. But all that you gather, all that you enjoy that way, will pass away and then you will be left standing before God still in your sins and with nothing to show for your life. Then it will be too late. All those years, all the troubles and sorrows notwithstanding, God was shouting at you through a megaphone and you kept your hands over your ears refusing to hear.
Not Paul. He knew what John Newton, the author of the hymn Amazing Grace would later learn:
“We are never more safe, never have more reason to expect
the Lord’s help, than when we are most sensible that we can
do nothing without him.” [Letters, pb ed., 178]
There is no getting round the pain of the thorn. Paul knew what thorns were for, he had preached many times before this that “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” But he cried out to God over and again that he would deliver his servant from this agony, whatever it was. And God said, even to his great Apostle, even to this man who knew the good news about Jesus Christ front and back, who had seen the Lord Christ himself with his own eyes, who had so faithfully served the Lord through years of gospel preaching and missionary travel, had suffered in every kind of way on behalf of the gospel – even to this man, God said, “No; you must not have what you are asking for. I cannot give it to you. It would not be safe. You would not remain the man you are for long if I took this terrible burden from you. You would, in ways you can now scarce imagine, you would become a worldly man, a faithless man, a man like those men in Corinth so much in love with themselves and not at all in love with me.”
And, no doubt the Lord is saying the same thing to every Christian in this room. When you read about Paul’s thorn in the flesh you immediately think about your own; about that thing or those few things in your life that make you pray so desperately, and turn to God with such a sense of need. In that moment, in that turning, you are most perfectly a Christian and you are never so safe, so surely in possession of the grace of God.
It took Christ the terrible suffering of his life and of his cruel death to deliver us from our sins. It takes a great deal of suffering in this world to deliver us from ourselves and from the love of ourselves and from confidence in ourselves. And that is why there is so much suffering in this world. For the really important thing about this world, the only absolutely important thing about this world, is that it is followed by the next world. And only those who trust in God, who rely on Jesus Christ and make it the business of their lives to do so, can be sure that it will be joy and happiness and satisfaction and fulfillment to the nth degree, for them to be in the next world.
There is nothing wrong in being like Paul in wanting to be delivered from the pain and sorrow and difficulty of our lives, so long as we are clear, very clear as to why that cannot be – at least to some significant degree that cannot be, for, of course, there are many joys in the Christian life as well; a Christian life with thorns beats any unbelieving life you can find – so long as we are very clear why we must have thorns.
Glory to Thee for strength withheld,
For want and weakness known,
For fear that drives me to Thyself
For what is most my own.