Sexagesima Sunday February 27, 2000
2 Corinthians 12:1-10
It is doubtless not profitable for me to boast. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord: I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago; whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows; such a one was caught up to the third heaven. And I know such a man; whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows; how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. Of such a one I will boast; yet of myself I will not boast, except in my infirmities. For though I might desire to boast, I will not be a fool; for I will speak the truth. ut I refrain, lest anyone should think of me above what he sees me to be or hears from me. And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
In the name of the Savior, Christ Jesus, whose apparent weakness on the cross has become our greatest power over sin, death, and hell, dear Christian friends, dear fellow redeemed.
In more than one place where I’ve lived, I’ve noticed a prominent trait among the people. It’s the trait of self-reliance, the tendency to be independent “do-it-yourselfers.” In my opinion self-reliance is a noble quality. Self-reliant people are dependable and productive—a real asset to our culture. But I have to warn you. Self-reliance is not going to work with matters of the soul and a person’s relationship with God. The Lord doesn’t want your faith or your hope of heaven to ever depend on you. He wants it to depend on Him.
This reality of our spiritual life puts you and me at a very important crossroads. God wants us to be the opposite of self-reliant, like beggars looking for a hand-out. God wants us to be continually aware of our own weakness and rely on Him to be filled with His gifts. God wants us to be humble receivers, who do nothing at all to help themselves in things spiritual.
Are you with me so far? I know that part of us is not. Part of us wants to say, “Now hold on. We’re supposed to be beggars and do-nothings.” That’s your human nature talking. Our human nature doesn’t want to give up self-reliance, not even to God. Human nature wants to be a “do-it-yourselfer, earning the way into heaven step by step. So there’s a conflict within, a battle between your faith, which is glad to depend on God, and your flesh, which wants to be self-righteous.
The apostle Paul had this battle too. But he knew that God would make the right side win. The Lord put the apostle through his paces, and the end result was a man who suffered a great deal of trouble, and yet performed a great deal of work, while giving the credit back to God. We can learn much from this man, because his struggles are not uncommon to the Christian. We especially learn this truth:
I find the apostle’s attitude quite astounding. Listen to the last part especially: “Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” So the man is comfortable in his sense of weakness. He’s happy to discuss and glad to experience his conflict and difficulty. On the one hand it sounds very noble. On the other hand it sounds a bit unrealistic. Sure it happened to Paul and a few others in the Bible. But could this ever be the attitude of modern-day Christians like us? Yes, it can, if we learn what Paul learned. Once you recognize your own weakness, then you’re ready for God to step in and be your Rock, your Security, your Everything. It always begins with humility. In weakness we learn to be humble.
Let me briefly review the background of ch. 12. Paul was far away when he learned that certain men, familiar to the Corinthian church, were criticizing his reputation as an apostle. Paul was compelled to defend himself. To make the Corinthians sure that he was sent by God, that he truly was an apostle of Christ, he describes a rare experience in his life. He’s the only one on the face of the earth who could say this: God allowed him to see what heaven is like. You can tell in v. 2: “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a one was caught up to the third heaven.”
Though he wasn’t sure how it happened, Paul was given a temporary visit into Paradise. The sights that he saw and the sounds that he heard were indescribable, leading him to say “It is not lawful for a man to utter.” God took him up and gave him an eye-witness view of life in heaven. It wasn’t a frivolous thing. This vision served a purpose. God had called the apostle to many years of difficult, strenuous work. Preaching the Gospel in the face of poverty, danger, and hostility would not be easy. Paul’s flesh would tempt him to give up. So the Lord spurred him on with this vision. Paul understood the great and glorious prize that was waiting for him, once the work was finished.
Unfortunately, the vision of heaven had a down-side. Paul’s flesh would tempt him to fill up with pride. After all, he had seen what no mortal on earth had ever seen. So the Lord took steps to keep this pride in check. Paul says, “Lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure.” Paul was given a “thorn in the flesh.” We’re not told exactly what it was—something physical perhaps, a medical problem. Suffice it to say that Paul suffered continually from this thorn. It made him feel weak. It made him realize his helplessness. It served God’s purpose; it taught the man to be humble.
Now this story is more than a curious incident of Bible history. It’s an example for us, a picture of what can happen to modern-day believers. We too, as Christians, must battle with pride. In fact, the battle can become complicated. Not only do we feel proud about certain accomplishments and talents. We could succumb to pride about the spiritual side of our life. We could become proud about our faith, our church attendance, our work in the church, our reputation as moral people.
If that is the case, we have to realize that spiritual pride is entirely misplaced. If we feel proud as Christians, let’s remember that God gave us our faith. If we’re proud of what we do as believers, let’s remember that God led us to pursue the right course of action. How can we take credit for something that He did either in us or through us? How can we pat ourselves on the back, when in fact we should congratulate and thank Him for His accomplishment, His grace, and His gifts?
Pride can be so dangerous to the soul. We’re tempted to think that going to church, giving our money to God, belonging to the right church—these are things we do to make sure that we’re saved. Don’t get me wrong. You need to come to church. It’s important that you do the Lord’s will. But let’s remember why. We come to church to receive what God gives: salvation through His Word. When you enter this building, you need to keep the pride outside. Enter with humility, with the heart of a beggar seeking a hand-out, not the heart of a do-it-yourselfer.
It’s a hard habit to learn. We’re not born with humility. So God takes action to teach us the life-long lesson, often times using the school of hard knocks. He lets you experience a difficult problem, a crisis, an illness, the loss of a loved one. The examples vary person to person. But the purpose remains the same. You’re confronted with your weakness. You experience something that makes you helpless, a problem that you cannot fix or take away. In each case God is looking for a certain reaction. He wants you to come running for help, like your children do at home, so dependent on you the parent. God wants you to be the same way toward Him. He wants you to live by the motto, “Lord, I can’t but You can.”
So this relationship with God is very one-sided. He does the work, and we get the benefits. Especially when it comes our biggest trouble, our greatest weakness, our #1 problem. You and I are sinful people. It’s a problem we cannot solve or take away. Once you realize the helplessness of that situation, then you’re ready for Christ. He’s the greatest example of this theme, this truth of our text. He takes your sin away. He gives you a clean record with God. Because of our weakness, He is our Strength. So the lesson in humility also becomes a lesson in trust. In weakness we depend on God, not on ourselves.
Let’s go back to the apostle Paul and his “thorn in the flesh.” Look at the good effect: his problem moved him to pray. “Concerning this thing,” he said, “I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me.” God answered the prayer, not by taking the problem away, but with a promise. “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” God promised to carry him through the court trials, the persecutions, the beatings, any other illnesses he might contract, as well as the pain he suffered from his thorn in the flesh.
Try to picture in your mind the troubling scenarios of Paul. Paul the prisoner, chained to a stone wall, his freedom taken away. Paul the shipwrecked passenger, floating on the surface of the ocean, no food or fresh water available. Paul the wounded victim, bruises on his body from the stones, lacerations on his back from the whip. In every single instance he clung to the promise God made. In every single case God kept His word. Paul beat every form of adversity that came against him. Not by his own power, mind you, but entirely with the power and strength that God gave. That’s why he could say, “I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
That statement still impresses me. Paul could be such a happy camper in the midst of all that trouble. I hope you realize the secret of his calm and peaceful attitude. He knew where his strength was. It’s the same place where your strength is. Remember? Because of our weakness, God is our Strength.
Chances are, when troubles strikes, God is trying to activate or rejuvenate your prayer response. When things are going well, we forget; we stop talking to our Lord. Then you get sick or injured, which gets you to realize how helpless you are. That in turn leads you to pray. You do what Paul did. You ask God to heal. You ask God to provide, because you’re in a situation where you stop relying on yourself and you start depending on Him.
Now I want to express a word of caution. God may answer your prayer exactly the way you requested. Maybe He comes to the rescue with healing, relief, a solution to your problem. Then again, He may choose to treat your case like He did with Paul. The answer could be no. Let’s brace ourselves for that possibility. From God’s point of view, you may need that thorn in your life. You may need it as a lesson in humility and a lesson in trust.
If that is the case, please don’t feel deprived. You have the same promise that He gave to Paul. God’s grace is there for you, and that grace will supply whatever you need to get through the hard times. Like the prophet Isaiah said: “Fear not, for I am with you; Be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, Yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.” May that grace, that promise, that power of God be your one true Strength in every time of weakness and every type of need. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the King James Version.