Last week we took a slight detour from following the context of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians to take a brief look at what the Bible says about heaven. God had given Paul the unique privilege of seeing heaven so I wanted to take the opportunity to answer a few questions that I had been asked recently about heaven. But let’s get back on track now and consider why Paul believed it was necessary to tell about this unusual blessing from God. Turn in your Bibles to 2 Cor.12:1-10
1 It is doubtless not profitable for me to boast. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord:
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.
3 And I know such a man–whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows–
4 how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.
5 Of such a one I will boast; yet of myself I will not boast, except in my infirmities.
6 For though I might desire to boast, I will not be a fool; for I will speak the truth. But I refrain, lest anyone should think of me above what he sees me to be or hears from me.
7 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.
8 Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me.
9 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.
10 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.
Remember Paul is writing this letter because Corinth had been invaded by false teachers who had evidently wowed many of the Corinthians with their credentials, their eloquence and their abilities. They had swayed many to believe they were legitimate spokesmen for God and had ridiculed Paul, saying things like, “his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.” (10:10) So out his grave concern for these believers Paul seeks to undo some of the damage done by these deceivers, hoping to convince them that he is the one who had been sent by God to preach the true gospel and establish the church of Jesus Christ. To do that, Paul matched his credentials and experiences with theirs in chapter 11, reluctantly boasting but instead of telling them all the great things he had done, he tells them about all the hardships he had experienced for Christ’s sake and for the church’s sake. He didn’t relish the idea of speaking of himself the way he did… in fact he referred to it as “foolishness” but he had to expose the deceivers for what they really were and convince them of his integrity and sincerity.
So now in chapter 12 Paul pulls out all the stops… because now he is going to share something he had never spoken of before. He began by telling them that he had the special privilege of being caught up to heaven… an experience that was far beyond anything the false teachers could boast about. But he does so to lay the groundwork for what God was doing in his life in order that he might minister for Christ more effectively.
We’ve already made some observations last week in the first few verses but let me quickly review again to help us see Paul’s demeanor in having to share this experience.
1. Paul had the special privilege of being caught up to heaven (vs.1-6)
The first thing you notice is that
A. He was reluctant to boast about it because it was not profitable (vs.1)
It wasn’t profitable to talk about it for three reasons:
1) Because it could make him prideful… I mean, after all, no one else had such an exciting experience of seeing heaven (unless of course they died but none of them were coming back). But for fourteen years he kept this experience to himself. Paul had six visions recorded by Luke in the book of Acts but Paul apparently didn’t share them except for his conversion experience.
2) Because it was evidently meant for him. Paul was all about doing whatever he could to build others up so if he thought it was meant to encourage them and strengthen their faith he would have definitely told them. Instead he knew that it was the Word of God that would profit them… not his personal spiritual experiences.
3) If he had shared these kinds of experiences on a regular basis, it might well have made others envious of Paul. We’ve got some preachers today giving classes on how to speak in tongues or how to be “slain in the spirit” and people are lining up for them because they want the experience too.
Paul didn’t like to boast because it wasn’t profitable.
B. He begins to tell it in the third person (vs.2a)
Notice also he starts off in the third person. He would rather that they all thought it happened to somebody else. He didn’t want to exploit the privilege to his own advantage like so many would do and have done today.
C. He wasn’t sure exactly how it happened (vs.2b,3)
It’s interesting to me that he couldn’t even explain exactly how it happened… whether he went in his own body or it was an out of body experience. All he knows for sure is that he was was “caught up to the third heaven”, the invisible realm where God lives.
D. He said that he heard something but was forbidden to repeat it (vs.4)
And fourthly he doesn’t even describe what he saw but what he heard… but all he says about it is that he is forbidden to repeat it. Then last of all
E. He wanted to be judged by his service, not by his visions (vs.5,6)
Here is another reason why it wouldn’t have been profitable because there are some who, if they knew that Paul had seen such wonderful things they would have given him instant celebrity status thinking he was actually better than everyone else. Even though he was a privileged apostle Paul also knew the potential wickedness of his humanity and wanted no one to get the idea that he was above anyone else. Paul didn’t want to be put on a pedestal, getting all the glory that he knew only God deserved. That’s why his boasting was foolish and the only boasting that isn’t foolish is that which gives God all the credit.
So now we come to verse 7 where Paul wants to tell them how God was working in his life.
1. Paul had the special problem of being given a thorn in the flesh (vs.7-10)
It was an awesome transcendental experience… the likes of which no one else could boast. The only one that could even compare was John’s book called, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ.” But Paul is saying, “This vision I’ve had of paradise is only the introduction for what I really want to say.”
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.
Now he makes it obvious that he was talking about himself. He was the man caught up to heaven and had experienced an abundance of revelations. They were the kinds of things that could easily cause a man to succumb to pride. So to keep that from happening he says that God gave him a constant reminder of his own inadequacy… a thorn in the flesh… something very painful that would make him more effective in his service to Christ. D.A. Carson writes,
This second phase of Paul’s spectacular revelatory experience not only says exactly what the apostle wants to say, but makes it impossible to believe that Paul is actually surreptitiously building his own reputation; for he of all people understands best that in the Christian way great grace and great privilege often go hand in hand with great suffering.
Thorns are something we all think we have. We all have things in our life that we wish we didn’t have… but let’s examine what Paul is saying here to learn where they come from, what they might be and if they are necessary. First notice
A. The source of the thorn
a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan
1) It came directly from Satan
He calls it “a messenger of Satan” sent to buffet Paul. The word “buffet” literally means “to beat or strike with the fist”. The tense of the verb indicates that this pain was either constant or recurring. You can just imagine that Satan jumped at the opportunity to try to hurt Paul because he was being used so powerfully by God to spread the Gospel… and obviously his ultimate intent was to destroy Paul. But God wouldn’t let that happen… because the truth is that God allowed Satan to afflict Paul with this thorn. So while it came directly from Satan,
2) It came indirectly from God
The phrase, “was given to me” is passive and could be rendered “was given to me by God.” We have to remember that God often uses the devil to accomplish his purposes. Job is a perfect example. And remember Jesus told Peter,
“Simon, Simon! Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren.” .” (Luke 22:31,32)
Although Satan and God work for different outcomes, they can both desire the same event to occur while hoping to accomplish different results. Satan wanted to see Jesus crucified, as did God the Father (Isa. 53:10; Acts 2:23; 4:27-28), but for a different reason. The same is true in the case of Job. What Satan had hoped would destroy Job (or at least provoke him to blasphemy), God used to strengthen him.
So let’s consider what this thorn might have been.
B. The nature of the thorn
1) It was unidentified
There’s nothing here to tell us Paul’s thorn in the flesh was and it has been the subject of a great deal of speculation. All kinds of things like poor eyesight, epilepsy, a speech impediment or malaria. One author suggests it was demons that actually possessed the false teachers that led believers astray and caused such pain and heartache for Paul. But the truth is we don’t know what it was.
But Kent Hughes makes a good point when he writes,
The speculations run wild. And if you’ve suffered from maladies such as earaches, headaches, malaria, hysteria, hypochondria, gallstones, gout, rheumatism, sciatica, gastritis, leprosy, deafness, dental disease, or neurasthenia, a thorn seems an apt metaphor. Whatever the reality, the fact was that Paul’s thorn was debilitating and, likely, humiliating. Actually, the thorn’s anonymity was proven a good thing, because it allows a broad application to the afflictions that God ordains for His children
In other words, God may have left its identity unknown to us because we can fill in the blank with our own thorns
Joe Stowell wrote, “A thorn in the flesh is any affliction in our lives that, if we aren’t careful, can defeat us with a good dose of self-pity and embitter us toward God. But the important thing to know about our thorns is that Satan desires to use them to defeat us, while God is determined to use them for our good and His glory.”
2) It was tormenting
It was extremely painful and maybe humiliating as Hughes suggests. It may even have been one of the things the false teachers used against him to try to convince others that God wasn’t blessing him but afflicting him. They could have done like many of the health and wealth preachers do, saying that his thorn was God’s judgment for sin or evidence of weak faith.
The word translated “thorn” is found only here in the NT. In classical Greek it was used with reference to a pointed stake on which the head of an enemy was impaled after decapitation. Whatever it was it must have been an excruciating condition, because the man who willingly endured the sufferings and anguish and deprivations listed in 2 Cor. 11 would not petition the Lord so strenuously for the removal of some minor irritation that could be easily endured.
3) It was permanent
Three times he asked God to remove it and God said, “No.” So God apparently intended for Paul to live with this thorn because
4) It was met with sufficient grace
“My grace is sufficient for you…” God didn’t take it away but it did make it possible for Paul to endure. Let’s look at the purposes of this thorn now because we find that in the things we may experience… in the thorns we may have… God wants us to learn the very same things Paul learned through the grace He provides.
C. The purpose of the thorn
1) To keep Paul humble
Paul admitted that because of the abundance of revelations he was privileged to receive, this thorn was something that kept him from getting too proud… it kept him down to earth, so to speak. Satan could have capitalized on such a high privilege which is a tactic he often succeeds in with men. It was his downfall and he would have loved to stir up Paul’s human vanity.
God’s loves humility. He commands us to “humble ourselves” but if we won’t, he very possibly will allow something in our life to humble us. God hates pride and He wants to eliminate it His people and it seems a strange irony that God would use Satan to accomplish it but it serves as a powerful testimony as to just how much He hates pride. God uses the most prideful being in all of His creation to make men humble seems to me to be something of a thorn in Satan’s side.
Secondly, this thorn was used
2) To weaken Paul so that he doesn’t become self sufficient
This was such a painful affliction that Paul called on the Lord three times for it to be taken away. With a “No” answer Paul could either be angry and bitter about it or he could come to God for grace… for comfort… for peace… for joy… for power. Weakness can keep us into real and help us realize that we’re not as much in control as we like to think we are.
You know, I used to believe that God would not allow more in our lives than we can bear but now I believe He does… He will allow whatever it may take because he wants to break our stubborn wills and put an end to our self-sufficiency. God wants us to realize that we are completely in His hands and the sooner we learn how impotent our own self-sufficiency is, how completely inadequate we are to do anything to please God… the sooner we can realize why Paul boasted in his weakness.
A third reason Paul’s thorn is
3) To teach Paul that God’s grace is sufficient to enable him to endure it
As Paul realized how weak he actually was he learned that God was faithful to meet every thorn… every heartache… every concern… every emotional conflict… every task with sufficient grace. God was never short on grace. This grace that comes from God is the supply of whatever we need to remain faithful to God.
Sometimes we go through things that make us feel like giving up. Sometimes we feel like we can’t go anymore… like we can’t do anymore… like we can stand anymore. And if we give up then we haven’t relied upon God’s grace.
Do you need patience? God’s grace provides it.
Do you need peace? God’s grace provides it.
Do you need courage? God’s grace provides it.
Do you need comfort? God’s grace provides it.
Do you need joy? God’s grace provides it.
Last week I told you about my friend Yoli who went to be with the Lord after a seven year battle with cancer. Yesterday Susan and I went to her memorial service where we heard testimonies of how God sustained both Paul and Yoli through one of the most difficult times they ever had to face. Sure they were exhausted from the battle but Yoli’s testimony was a powerful testimony of God’s grace. Sure Paul is grieving but he is thankful for the 29 years of marriage that God gave them. And through the whole experience their primary concern was that God be glorified and others be drawn to Christ… only the all-sufficient grace of God could bear them up and lastly, what was seen in Paul and Yoli was seen in the apostle Paul.
4) To show God’s power through Paul’s weakness
My strength is made perfect in weakness.
What a statement that is! Paul learned that the great value of human weakness is to provide a showcase for divine strength. Paul’s joy was not in the pain itself but in his realization of the complete adequacy of God’s grace in Christ to meet his every need and to transform his weakness into an opportunity for the glory of Christ to be displayed.
The suffering that humbles us… the suffering that compels us to depend on God in prayer… the suffering that makes us cry out for a grace to endure becomes the very source of God’s power in our lives. Listen to this… it is when the Christian realizes that his human ability to deal with his difficulty is totally inadequate… it is when the believer is weak, without resources, destitute and left totally to trust in God’s grace to sustain him that he becomes a channel through which God’s power can flow.
The story is told of a little boy who was spending his Saturday morning playing in his sandbox. He had with him his box of cars and trucks, his plastic pail, and a shiny, red plastic shovel.
In the process of creating roads and tunnels in the soft sand, he discovered a large rock in the middle of the sandbox. The little boy dug around the rock, managing to dislodge it from the dirt. With quite a bit of struggle, he pushed and nudged the rock across the sandbox by using his feet. He was very small and the rock was very large. When the boy got the rock to the edge of the sandbox, however, he found that he couldn’t roll it up and over the little wall.
Determined, the little boy shoved, pushed, and pried, but every time he thought he had made some progress, the rock tipped over and fell back into the sandbox. The little boy grunted, struggled, pushed, shoved—but his only reward was to have the rock roll back, smashing his chubby fingers. Finally he burst into tears of frustration.
All this time the boy’s father had been watching from the living room window as the drama unfolded. At the moment the tears fell, a large shadow fell across the boy and the sandbox. It was the boy’s father. Gently but firmly he said, “Son, why didn’t you use all the strength that you had available?”
Defeated, the boy sobbed back, “But I did, Daddy, I did! I used all the strength that I had!”
“No, son,” corrected the father kindly. “You didn’t use all the strength you had. You didn’t ask me.”
And with that the father reached down, picked up the rock, and removed it from the sandbox.
Isn’t that how we so often do? We struggle… we strain… we exhaust ourselves from relying on our own strength until finally we give it up. Sometimes we quit altogether, completely defeated, thinking God has abandoned us… and we never learn that we have an omnipotent God that longs to show His strength through our weakness. But in our own futile way of thinking we’re ashamed to admit how weak and helpless we really are.
Got any thorns in your life that are making you weary and weak? It’s OK to ask God to take them away… but if He doesn’t then would you be willing to embrace the thorn as a gift through which you can discover the sufficiency of God’s grace to perfect or complete His power in your life.
That’s why Paul said he would rather boast in his weakness… whether it is “in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when he is weak, then he is strong.”
Praise God for the Satan’s thorns… because it will always be met with the all-sufficient grace of God when we’re ready to boast in our weakness.
I remember reading this some time ago in Tin Hansel’s book, When I Relax I Feel Guilty
I asked God for strength that I might achieve,
I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked God for health that I might do greater things,
I was given infirmity that I might do better things.
I asked God for riches that I might be happy,
I was given poverty that I might be wise.
I asked God for power that I might have the praise of men,
I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things that I might enjoy life,
I was given life that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing I asked for
But everything I hoped for…
Almost despite myself my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am among all men most richly blessed.