Paul's humiliation, 12:7-10
This passage in 2 Corinthians is part of the section which runs from 10:1 to 12:18, a passage in which Paul defends his apostolic authority. In 12:1-6, he speaks of his vision of the "third heaven", of "paradise", and in v7-10 he explains how God has given him a "thorn in the flesh" to keep him from being conceited.
v7. To give balance to his vision of paradise, Paul was inflicted with "a stake for the flesh". This "splinter", this "sharpened wooden shaft", this "thorn" in the flesh, humiliated him. Given passages like Galatians 1:8, 4:13f, 1 Thessalonians 2:18, the "thorn was possibly a physical illness, something that may well have repelled people. Paul calls his thorn a "messenger (angel) of Satan". That is, he sees it as demonic in origin, not something sent by God. Although Satan does his thing, God is still in control and uses this evil for ultimate good, Heb.12:10.
v8-9a. Paul tells us that three times he asked that the "thorn" be taken away from him. This implies that on three occasions he was overwhelmed by the problem. In v9a he tells us that his infliction, Satan's messenger, was transformed into a triumph of grace, a vindication of the Lord's gracious power. Paul tells us that "He (Jesus) said", that is, the words were a revelation from the Lord to Paul. The revelation was a very powerful one indeed. Jesus reminds Paul that his gift of eternal sovereign grace transcends adversity. The operation of God's powerful grace is most clearly seen when viewed from human inadequacy, particularly when that inadequacy seemingly undermines gospel ministry. As far as Paul is concerned, his inadequacy verifies the authenticity of his apostleship.
v9b. Paul now makes a simple point: the above being the case, he welcomes inadequacy, trouble, etc. for it is in weakness that Christ's power is most readily evident. So as far as Paul is concerned, it's bring on the weakness. Like the shechinah glory radiating forth from the midst of the temple, God's sovereign grace is most evident in the life of his people when they are inadequate, rather than strong. In weakness the indwelling Spirit is operative, and this because we are bound to rely on him more than we would in good times. For this reason, Paul can "boast all the more gladly" about his weakness.
v10. Because the sovereign grace of God, operative in us, is made complete in weakness, Paul is therefore well pleased with weakness. This is no self indulgence in suffering for merit's sake; it is no revelling in persecution to gain status in the sight of God. Paul is simply aware that Christ's grace is more evident in times of trouble. As Chrysostom put it, "How great is the advantage of affliction, for now..... we have filled the church with countless evils, but when we are persecuted we are more sober minded and more earnest and more ready for church attendance and for hearing." There is strength in weakness, for when we are weak, then are we more aware of God's all-powerful grace.
Thorns and thistles|
Church fellowships throughout the world seem powerless in the face of the secular city. We have little to give, and the little we do give seems so compromised, spoilt and of no effect. In the face of our weakness, the Lord reminds us that "when we are weak, then we are strong." When we are beaten low, it is then we can recognize and apply God's sovereign grace. Weakness, failure, trouble, doubt, fear....., all the things that seem to confine our individual Christian lives and the life of our Christian community, is the stuff that lays bare the operation of God's sovereign grace. The assault of circumstance will never frustrate the dawning of the kingdom of God. The greater the weakness, the greater the trouble, the more evident is Christ's saving power. The Evil One rants and rages and does his worst, and yet within this strife there operates the mighty kindness of our God. His grace is sufficient for us for his power is fulfilled in weakness.
The institutional church throughout the Western world is, in numerical terms, facing decline. We fear the very survival of our church. This fear has prompted the wholesale adoption of Church Growth methodology. Denominational traditions, worship style, are all being thrown away to somehow make our church services more "accessible" to outsiders. It's all about keeping the numbers up. Interestingly, while one denomination casts off a particular tradition, another picks it up, as if tradition somehow equates with attendance numbers. We are driven by marketing strategies, niching, and ever-changing secular marketing philosophies, but to what end?
Numbers must never concern us. If we are weak, small and insignificant, or seemingly heading in that direction, we really don't need to be ashamed or afraid. We should boast of our weakness, for when we are weak, then we are strong. In fact, the more we look like failures in worldly terms, the greater opportunity there is for us to be successful in spiritual terms. When everything is going well for us, we tend to rest on our own strength. When things are down, we tend to rest on the Lord. As we rest on Jesus, as we trust him, it is then we find ourselves in the center of his will.
Our approach then should be to do the best we can within the circumstances we face. As for our weaknesses, troubles, difficulties and hardships; delight in them, for when we are weak then we are strong.
1. What is Paul's "thorn in the flesh"?
2. How legitimate was Paul's request that the thorn be taken from him?
3. What truth was revealed to Paul?
4. How is it that God's grace is perfected in our lives during times of difficulty?
5. Why should we rejoice in weakness?
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