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Intro: The ongoing theme of our sermon series this year is entitled, Standing on the Promises”. We have spent some time looking intently at the some of the many powerful promises contained in the Bible. Today we will consider the words of 2 Corinthians 12:9 – And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” These words of this simple promise were spoken to an apostle, and provide one of the most profound responses to the suffering Christian found in all of the scriptures. But consider first the circumstance.
I. An Apologia for an Apostle: For an apostle, credibility was everything. In today’s courtroom, those who oppose a witnesses’ testimony attempt to discredit the witness, and thus destroy the strength of what he has to say. Some of those who opposed the apostle Paul were at Corinth. He had come under a personal attack from some. There were those who looked at Paul’s struggles and afflictions and viewed these as testimony against his apostleship. If he is God’s messenger, then why does God allow him to suffer so much? He appears weak, not strong.
A. 2 Cor. 12 can be best understood as an apologia of his apostleship. An apologia is a defense of one’s actions. Unlike anapology, it does not require the speaker to express remorse for wrongdoing. Paul defends himself. Yet Paul’s primary purpose in these words is not to simply defend himself, but rather the truth that he had preached.
1. Read 2 Cor. 12:1-10
2. Paul speaks the familiar words, “there was given to me a thorn in the flesh”. Most of what has been written about these passages focuses on the identity of this thorn. C. S. Lewis once said that “one cannot easily join at 11:00 a conversation that began at 8:00.”We have to look at the original circumstances in which these statements are set.
3. Paul was afraid that the church there might be deceived (as Satan deceived Eve – 11:3, and that false apostles would turn the church away from the truth that Paul had delivered.
4. Therefore Paul proclaimed that he was not behind even the most prominent apostles (11:5, 12:11) Those who rejected Paul’s credibility and undermined his influence were the enemies of God and messengers of Satan.
5. It is in this defense that Paul mentions his thorn. Whatever this thorn was it was an argument for Paul’s apostleship and a paradigm for Christian suffering.
II. Boasting in Weaknesses: “It is doubtless not profitable for me to boast.” (12:1) But how could Paul defend his apostleship without appearing be boastful and arrogant?
A. Ken Chumbley breaks Paul’s defense of his apostleship in chapter 11 into 4 parts:
1. Pedigree (vs. 11:22) – He was a Hebrew, and of the seed of Abraham.
2. Persecution (vs. 23-25) – As a servant he had suffered persecution more than others
3. Perils (26-27) – In preaching the gospel, Paul had found himself in constant danger, and God delivered him from it all.
4. Pressure (28-33)–Paul exhibited true concern for the churches. He burned in indignation when he saw Christians stumble in weakness.
5. Though from the human standpoint these would seem to disprove his apostleship, Paul uses a great paradox to make his point – 11: 30–If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.
B. We are going to talk about the Christian experience of weakness. There are three questions to answer in the time we have:
1. What are the weaknesses that Paul has in mind?
2. What is the source of such weaknesses? Do they come from Satan or from God? Or both?
3. What is the purpose of such weaknesses? Is there a goal or an aim for why the weaknesses come? The answers to these questions are answered in the text, and they also provide an important insight into the meaning of God’s promise to the apostle.
C. But we notice in chapter 12, before Paul speaks about his thorn and the lesson he learned through it, he tells us of another experience. This experience is not a weak one! (12:3)
1. 14 years earlier, Paul had been a stranger in paradise. God had allowed him to see things others had not. To avoid the spirit of boastfulness, Paul speaks about himself in the third person, (saying he will not boast about himself in this circumstance, v. 5)
2. In these verses Paul affirms 3 things:
a. That he was conveyed into paradise.
b. That the exact means of his conveyance was unknown to him.
c. He could not disclose what he had seen.
3. It is commonly thought that this experience took place near the start of his preaching tours, to strengthen him for what was ahead. This was a great privilege granted to Paul. Barclay, in his etymology of the word “paradise” mentions the Persian word which meant “walled garden”. “When a Persian king wished to confer a very special honor on someone who was specially dear to him he made him a companion of the garden, and gave him the right to walk in the royal gardens with him in close and intimate companionship”.
4. Just like the nature of his thorn, The exact nature of Paul’s experience must remain a mystery to us in this life. What he saw he says was unspeakable (inexpressible). This means either that Paul was not able to describe it, or that he was no allowed. The latter seems best to fit the context. In vs. 6 – He says he refrained, “lest anyone should think of me above what he sees me to be or hears from me.”
5. The greatness of this revelation posed a threat to the church at Corinth – they had already been guilty of honoring men instead of Christ. It also posed a personal threat to Paul. Vs. 7 –“Lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of revelations there was given to me a thorn in the flesh.”
III. What are the weaknesses that Paul experienced, in which he would boast? In vs. 9 he quotes the Lord as saying, “My power is made perfect in weakness”. And then says, “I will all the more gladly boast in my weaknesses”. And then again in verse 10 says, “For the sake of Christ, then, I delight with weaknesses”?
A. Four Words: The best way to answer is to look at the other four words in verse 10. What he summarizes as weaknesses in verse 9 he spells out in verse 10.
1. Insults (hubris) injury, reproach—when people make fun of, or say things to insult your faith or lifestyle.
2. Hardships— (anagke – an-ang-kay’) distress, must needs, – circumstances forced upon you, reversals of fortune against your will. Not having enough to get by. Hard times.
3. Persecutions— (diogmos – dee-ogue-mos’); persecution; wounds or abuses or painful circumstances or acts of prejudice or exploitation from people because of your Christian faith or your Christian moral commitments. Bad things people do to you because you believe in Jesus.
4. Difficulties (calamities) (stenochoria – sten-okh-o-ree’-ah); literally narrowness of room, i.e. (figuratively) calamity or anguish. The idea is one of pressure or crushing or being weighed down; circumstances that tend to overcome you with stress and tension. (such as caring about others as Paul did)
B. Not Sin or Imperfect Behaviors. We can see from these terms that Paul is not talking about sinful behavior. We might call lust a weakness, but this is not the subject under discussion. God’s power is not made perfect in sinful bad choices. Paul is not boasting in his moral weaknesses. (I am just a sinner, that’s who I am”). These weaknesses might be avoided if we took another road, and acted differently; acted strong in the eyes of the world.
1. These weaknesses are the result of our commitment to live as Jesus lived. Jesus tells us not to return evil for evil (Matthew 5:38–42). Paul described this weak lifestyle of the apostles in 1 Cor 4:9-14 – For I think that God has displayed us, the apostles, last, as men condemned to death; for we have been made a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men. 10 We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are distinguished, but we are dishonored! 11 To the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and we are poorly clothed, and beaten, and homeless. 12 And we labor, working with our own hands. Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; 13 being defamed, we entreat. We have been made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things until now.
2. These weaknesses in which we can boast are not sins, but experiences and situations and circumstances and wounds that are hard to bear, and that we can’t remove either because they are beyond our control or because love dictates that we not return evil for evil.
IV. Where Do They Come From? – What is the source of such weaknesses? Do they come from Satan or from God? Or both?
A. Paul’s thorn in the flesh (even though we do not know what it was) helps us here. In fact, there is a good argument made that Paul’s thorn was a compilation of all of Paul’s “weaknesses” or troubles mentioned earlier. If so then what he says about the thorn applies to all of the weaknesses.
1. Thorn (skolops) means Large stake, also translated as “cross”. Vincent argues against the translation of thorn and in favor of stake, an instrument for impaling. It was used to describe the intensity of his sufferings (not just pricked, but impaled). There is both an indictment& an implication in Paul’s thorn:
a. Paul indicts Satan as the source of his suffering. The stake was his messenger given to harass Paul. Satan is permitted to afflict the children of God. God was not to be blamed.
b. The implication, though, was that looming over the devil’s work was the chastening hand of God. Paul tells us that his thorn was given to him in conjunction with his amazing revelations of God’s glory in paradise. These visions could have made Paul conclude that he was above ordinary hardships or troubles. So God gave him weakness. The fact that Paul prayed to God to remove the thorn implies that God was the giver of it. He was certainly able to take it away. Just like it was with Job—God permits Satan to afflict his righteous servant, and turns the affliction for his good purposes. Which leads us to our last question about weaknesses:
V. What is the Purpose of the Weaknesses? – Why insults, hardships, persecutions, calamities, troubles? – Why can’t I find a job? Why am I trapped in this awful marriage? Why does my dad have cancer? Why can’t I have children? Why do I have no friends? Why is nothing working in my life?
A. Satan’s purpose is to buffet me (12:7) He wants to harass me so as to make me throw in the towel. His aim is destruction and death and misery. He wants me to suffer.
B. God’s purpose is to humble me. Paul states that the thorn was given “lest I should be exalted above measure” (2 Cor 12:7). It was to humble him. God wanted to save Paul from a self-righteous attitude, which would have caused him to lose his salvation. C.S. Lewis wrote, “God whispers to us in pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains”. So even though God did not desire Paul’s suffering, he did not remove the thorn because God’s power to save Paul from his own pride was made perfect in this weakness.
C. God’s Purpose to Glorify Jesus. Finally, God’s purpose in our weaknesses is to glorify the grace and power of his Son. This is the main point of verses 9–10. Jesus says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul was satisfied with God’s answer because he realized that the power of Christ could rest upon him. Jesus’ power would not be seen by God getting rid of the weakness, but rather by giving Paul the “grace” (favor) to endure it, and even rejoice in it.
1. It is important for us to let God be God in consideration of the weaknesses we bear. If He decides to allow the weakness to remain in order to display His power then He knows best how to glorify His Son. We need to trust him. Hebrews 11 speaks of those people of faith:
a. By faith some escaped the edge of the sword (v. 34) and by faith some were killed by the sword
b. By faith some stopped the mouths of lions, and by faith others were sawn asunder.
c. By faith some were mighty in war, and by faith others suffered chains and imprisonment.
VI. “My grace is sufficient for you.”James Hastings on 2 Cor. 12:9 in the Great Texts of the Bible, points out that there are two ways to lighten a burden. You can diminish the actual weight, or you can strengthen the one who bears it. Gods has overwhelmingly preferred the latter. God does not spare us from things, but, through grace, He makes us conquerors. (Rom. 8:37). Paul’s strength was God’s rival, but his weakness was God’s servant. This fact was the heart of God’s promise. The grace of God was sufficient for Paul because God could, and did, expose His power through Paul’s weaknesses.
A. The answer completely satisfied Paul: (vs. 10) 2 reasons why:
1. He knew that God’s spiritual mercy was sufficient for every physical weakness. He could distinguish between the permanent and the perishable. There is nothing that we have here that can’t be taken away by storm, disease, decay or death. The only indestructible things are laid up in heaven.
2. He knew that these weaknesses did not prevent the “power of Christ from resting upon him.”
a. Rest = tabernacle or pitch a tent over. He was not tormented because he was the worst of all men, but because he was the best (like Job).His suffering gave evidence of the highest favor – like the vision before. It was through the trials and the subsequent protection that Paul could know of the power of God in his life.
Conclusion: We need to recognize the nature of the cross God calls us to bear. It is not simply to be understood in a noble or heroic sense. The cross of Jesus’ day represented humiliation and hurt. But God used that hurt to exhibit His greatest power. It was a thorn, a weakness, which showed the sufficiency of God’s grace for all men. Will you become a part of that weakness?