The Thorn That Blesses
2 Corinthians 12:1-21
Key Verse 12:9
‘“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.’
When we look at what many like to boast about today, or what many like to exalt in their life, it’s usually not in weaknesses. It’s not the unpleasant trials of life. It’s not in illness. It’s not people losing their jobs. It’s not in tough relationships. We like to exalt in our abilities, successes and achievements. But weaknesses don’t usually make the list. A watered down and false view of Christianity, is one in which Christians lose their weaknesses and hardships. That’s the view that seems to be sold to the multitudes as an attractive way to build larger numbers. It’s so appealing because let’s face it, who doesn’t want a life free from hardships? It’s no secret that even we feel this way from time to time. We seem to think that blessedness is when life is good and prosperous and successful. When encountering a tough circumstance, we quickly try to run away from it or quickly try to rid ourselves from it. But God’s message to Paul in this passage, is to endure. Endure hardship so that the power of God may rest on him. And one of the things we are in need of today more than ever, is the power of God. We need that much more than the alleviation of unfortunate circumstances. Look around you. Sin is everywhere. Souls are trapped and bound in it. The world is in sin, Christians struggle with sin. And what’s going to set them free is not deliverance from tough circumstances. But only the power and love of our merciful Lord and Savior. And both are in this passage.
Let’s read verses 1-4. What do you think of that? Let’s just look at what Paul’s saying. He’s basically saying that he regularly has visions and revelations from the Lord. We know this. We just went through the book of Acts, and we can attest that what Paul is saying isn’t false. But in explaining this Paul decides to bring out of his pocket book of visions, the one vision that would probably trump everyone else’s. I say everyone else’s, because many in these days received visions and revelations. It’s no secret that it was a lot more common then than now. But even in a time of many visions, it was extremely rare to have this kind of vision. Though the Bible is full of visions and revelations, few are like this. But even in boasting about it, it is done in the humblest fashion one can boast. In verses 2 & 3, Paul says that he was in heaven. How it happened, or why it happened, he says only God knows! But what Paul knew was that he went to paradise. Who but a few can say that! It was so beautiful and sacred that he can’t even mention what he heard and what he saw. That attitude might be a bit contrary to the many books out there today where people describe their dream-visions in the hopes of having been to heaven. People seem to boast of these visions when they publish them. On the other hand, Paul’s attitude towards it again was humble. He really didn’t even want to mention this. But we’ll describe shortly why he was driven to this point.
Let’s read verses 5-7. Paul, for the first time in all his letters, is forced into talking about his amazing heavenly experience. Under no common circumstances would he ever mention something so personal of himself. An spiritual experience like this is usually very personal! Imagine what it is that forced him to mention his experience to these people. He already went on boasting about his suffering in the last chapter. A man of God like Paul isn’t expected to do something like that either. But he has a good reason; He uses these boasts to bring them back to their senses! In his first letter you might recalling him telling them: “Bad company corrupts good character, come back to your senses as you ought.” (1 Corinthians 15:33) They’ve must have been a rowdy bunch. Hard to please. Easily persuaded and manipulated. So much so that in this letter, Paul is forced to go as far as even boasting if only to help them. But, what’s the point that he wants to bring across here? The reason he’s telling him this is to help them see what the life of a real Apostle of Christ is really like— versus the life of some of those “false apostles” who were cutting Paul down and trying to corrupt the gospel way of life he had instructed the Corinthians to live by. Paul’s motive in boasting of his visions is to show that he’s had glorious visions more than anyone else can boast. But that with these visions also comes responsibility! The responsibility to live as a servant of God devoted to the true gospel and to the gospel way of life. Paul boasts about his visions. But he also admits that in order to keep him from becoming conceited, God gave him some humbleness training. “Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.”
Who would have ever thought that Paul would be in danger of becoming conceited? We would have probably never have suspected if he had not told us himself. Isaiah the prophet didn’t seem to have been in danger of becoming conceited when he went to heaven and met the Lord, for he said: “Woe to me! … I am ruined! … I am a man of unclean lips … my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” Perhaps even the other apostles like John who saw and wrote the whole book of Revelation, may not have been in danger of becoming conceited because of the glorious heavenly experience. But it appears that Paul was tempted to! From what he said earlier in his letter, we know how much he suffered. Yet even in the face of the immense sufferings in his life, it wasn’t enough to keep him humble. All the suffering in his life couldn’t keep him humble considering how amazingly glorious his personal heavenly experience with the third heaven must have been. It must have been so great! And in times like this really we can get a glimpse of the corruptness of the flesh, and the vigilance needed to guard ourselves against it. Even Paul needed a thorn to keep him guarded against conceit and help him remain humble and grounded in the grace in the Lord.
What’s so bad about conceit? What’s so terrible about it that the Lord had to prescribe this sort of reminder to keep his heart from it? It must be so appalling, that if it came between harboring conceit, or having Satan’s messenger torment you, the Lord in his love would rather give us over to the latter. Pride of heart— or self-importance— or self-righteousness in any form— or “thinking more highly of yourself that you ought”, are so dangerous to the work of God and for that person. It’s one of the fastest ways one can set themselves up for spiritual disaster. 1st, Conceit destroys someone’s walk with God. When think that we don’t need God’s hand on our life as much as we did before, we stop praying, we stop reading his word, we stop living in and practicing the grace of repentance. And eventually we start thinking that the flesh isn’t all that bad and begin to depend on it more and more. And when it comes to our relationship with others, we stop thinking of ourselves as fellow forgiven sinners and even as others’ servants as the Lord would have us do. We no longer seek to do the seemingly lowly things that the work of God needs. We no longer pursue the flock of God he entrusts to our care. Things like giving to God’s work and offering for the maintenance and building of the church community begin to take a low priority. What was first priority soon goes to things like entertainment and leisure! Until there’s eventually no room in your life anymore for God and his work. Conceit is catastrophic! So much so that our Heavenly Father, in his great love would rather let Satan’s messenger torment us than watch us slowly perish in our own pride and arrogant conceit!
Now we don’t know what the thorn the Lord gave Paul was, but the context of the passage shows us that the thorn was in every way a source of weakness for him. Specifically, it was a weakness in his flesh. It could be some physical ailment. It could have been a continual harassment from an enemy. Whatever it was, it was agonizing. In this chapter, it seemed that Paul went from heavenly ecstasy to unbearable torment. And the latter was so miserable that Paul begged God on many occasions to take it away. However, both Paul’s prayer as well as God’s answer play a big role in this passage.
Let’s read verses 8-10. In Paul’s prayer he asks for deliverance and for comfort. But God says “no.” God doesn’t alleviate Paul’s suffering! Instead of answering the prayer in the way that Paul wanted, God gives him something better. What’s that? He says, “My grace is sufficient for you. For my power is made perfect in weakness.” Now that gives him incentive, purpose and meaning to the misery he’s experiencing. And that’s what he’s boasting in. He says, “Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses.” This is something to be glad about. That’s what the apostle James also talks about when he says: “Consider it pure joy whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” (James 1:2-3) Other than a reason to rejoice, Paul’s weaknesses and trials are the key to unlocking God’s power is his life. It’s when he’s insulted that God’s power rests on him and God’s power is manifest in and through him. It’s when he’s been shipwrecked. It’s when the being hunted down by the Jews. It’s when he’s sick. It’s when he goes around in sackcloth and ashes, fasting in repentance. It’s when these things happen to him that the power of God rests on him. It’s when he’s weak, then he’s strong. Look at our own weaknesses. As much as Paul found a glorious reason for his own weaknesses, so can we! What’s the purpose in our own? What’s the purpose in your difficulty to hold a job or find a better one? What’s the purpose in you having strife with your manager at work? What’s the purpose of you having avoidable drama in your family? What’s the point if you not being able to hold a friend? I’ve heard one person say, “Why does everything seem to go wrong in my life!?” Well we know that the enemy might have his own reasons, he wants to destroy you. But God’s purpose and plan, is not to allow Satan to destroy you. And His purpose isn’t to delight in your pain or suffering either. He suffers and mourns with us through them. His ultimate purpose is to manifest his glorious power! His purpose is for His saving and sanctifying work in our lives. And when God’s work is accomplished in us, that’s when God is glorified.
So, What’s the deepest need we all have in our weakness? Is it a quick fix? Leave it, drop it and run away from it? No! But it’s to have a well-grounded confidence that the Creator of the heavens and earth has a great purpose in it! It’s to build his power into us for the purpose of manifesting his own glory.
Let’s read verses 11-13. Paul was driven to talk about himself in a manner that is uncharacteristic of a man of God, especially an apostle of his magnitude. But as we said earlier, it was all done in order to show the Corinthian Christians the difference between what a “true-apostle” is versus what a “false apostle” is, or what he calls them “super-apostles”. He calls them “super-apostles” especially because of how they characterized themselves, their work and ministry. Apparently, as compared with the weak and stammering Paul, these apostles were the eloquent and improved— super-enhanced-apostles in every way! But this is what made Paul different and a true apostle. While Paul boasted about spiritual things, as well as sufferings, he never boasted of his flesh. Verse 11 ends with the phrase, “…I am nothing” which says everything about him. Paul always referred to himself like this. Whether it was, “I am nothing, or I don’t deserve to be an apostle, or I am the chief of sinners!” Paul never brought glory to himself or the accomplishments of his own flesh. And the only reason he reminds them of his suffering, and the signs, wonders, and miracles that authenticated his office before them, was so as to be reunited to them in the proper manner. He’s reminding them of these things as to say let’s not go through this again. I’ve already proved to you who I am. But the others who discredited Paul’s ministry, and persuaded many at Corinth to do the same really had no spiritual credentials nor spiritual content at all. They were full of the flesh and no spirit at all. They were loud in the mouth, but when it comes to the real work of an apostle, such as suffering for the flock of God, or walking in the footsteps of the Lord Jesus, they were empty!
How then was it that some were so drawn to these super apostles? In verse 13, Paul says one of those ways was that he chose to not be a burden to them. He’s singling himself out. Saying, they were a burden, but I wasn’t. If you look at his tone in verse 13 it’s a bit sarcastic. He’s being slightly humorous here to show them the obviousness of this truth. How were these “super-apostles” a burden to the Corinth church?
Let’s read verses 14-18. The Corinthian church was one of the wealthier churches compared to the others. While others were giving out of the little they had to support the work of God, the Corinthians weren’t known necessarily for their generosity. But their wealth seemed to go elsewhere. These “Super-Apostles” of whom they received were a burden to them asking for support. These people are like ornaments. They’re just big talkers. Big show offs. But no content to their life. They dress well, and talk well, they know a lot. Like many of the Pharisees. And they exploited them for their possessions and whatever else they could get. When Paul and Titus would visit, they may have not had the same appearance, but they made up their minds not to take a thing from them but instead to give. They were even willing to spend all they have for them as parents would on their children. The others who exploited them weren’t the type to spend much on them. The others never spent time or resources, nor did they help them develop in their walk with God. They didn’t leave them with any real spiritual sustenance. Romans 16:18 states that “Such people are not serving the Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery, they deceive the minds of naïve people.” Many today exploit the church in similar ways preying on gullible minds. With their philosophies, high minded speeches, and their wealthy appearances, even intelligent Christians can easily be deceived by such people. Why? Because the sinful mind of flesh is drawn to greed and to pride and such things that appeal to the flesh. John Piper once told his church, “Watch out for smooth talkers who pastor large churches like his own, write many books as he does, lead wide ministries, and do not manifestly prize above their earthly good the whole counsel of God.” These Corinthians had no idea that they were being duped!
In verses 14-19 Paul reminds us of what being a shepherd is really about. He says, that what I want is not your possessions but you! Paul shows himself to be a father in his love for the church. They were all he cared about. In his eyes they were not inferior to him, but worthy of all he had to give and offer. When I think of what Paul would spend on them for his visit, I’m reminded of the visits that many of us had made to other ministries. Many have visited others with gifts and have not asked for anything. They go teaching the bible daily and serving and come back with a joy that brightens up the congregation. They’re serving and being a blessing. When Msn Moses and Msn Chris would visit, they would use much of their precious time on preparing and delivering wonderful heart moving messages when they could have been doing other things. Msn Iris I remember would serve on the music team coming to our practices and taking fishing trips to Triton. When some have gone to Seattle, they go in the same spirit. What a wonderful heart this is to have. It’s refreshing. And it rekindles those around encouraging to have the same attitude.
Look at verses 20-21. Just in case they’ve forgotten, Paul reminds the church of the seriousness of sin, and of his role as a apostle of Christ who must always be ready to address the issue of sin so that the church may be cleansed of it through repentance. Paul loved this church the way Christ loved him. The Corinthians need to protect themselves and seek genuinely the love of God and sufficiency of Christ’s grace. We are to boast in nothing accept in the Lord and his grace. May God bless us to have the right understanding of suffering so that his power can rest on us, and to have the generous heart of a true shepherd.