2 Corinthians 12:1-10 “I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know – God knows. And I know that this man – whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows – was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no-one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say. To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 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. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Once again I am going to boast to you. Nothing and nobody is going to stop me, though I’m aware that I am not talking as the Lord would talk. Many, these days, are bragging and so I am going to join them. You seem to put up with those fools very well, and you can easily put up with a little boasting from me. Now I am going to boast about the visions and revelations which I’ve had.” In such a way Paul is counteracting the influence of the super-apostles. They knew that to win followers to their cause they had to undermine the authority of Paul, teach their own particular doctrines and tell others of the wonderful experiences they had had. So Paul surpasses them at their own game while showing the folly of boasting.
1. PAUL WAS CAUGHT UP TO THE THIRD HEAVEN.
Paul selects one experience he could never forget. Of course, he had many to choose from. The most important was the revelation of Jesus Christ he received on the Damascus Road. Saul of Tarsus had seen the glorified and ascended Lord. He had spoken with him, and been commissioned by him. He could say, “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” (1 Cor. 9:1). None of the super-apostles could claim that, but Paul doesn’t make any reference to that experience. Some years later he saw a vision of a European, a man from Macedonia calling him to come over and help them. That was on the eve of the great missionary venture of the church into Greece with the gospel. But again Paul makes no mention of that here. Then as he began the mission into Corinth and saw the vastness of the city, its confidence without the living God, and how few Christians there were Paul was naturally fearful. It was then that he had a vision of the Lord speaking to him: “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:9&10). So he remained in Corinth for a year and a half, teaching the word of God, laying the foundation for its great church. But, once again, it is not that experience which he reveals to the congregation in the passage before us.
The experience to which Paul makes reference is an unusual choice, and how he describes it is even more unusual. In the text there is no trace of psychological manipulation. His tone of voice does not change. There is no soft intimate drawing near to the souls of these people – “come close and listen while I tell you this…” Paul’s visit to paradise is not described in seductive hushed tones at all. Paul seems to go out of his way to distance himself from what is for him sinful and unnatural boasting. Notice, for example, how he grammatically shifts persons. Rather than speaking in the first person, he writes, “I know a man” (v.2). Paul uses the anonymous third person – “a man” – “Let me tell you about a man I know well,” and quite adroitly he removes his own person from what, for truth’s sake, he is forced to relate. He stands off, and he regards himself from the outside. Remember who this is! Paul was the recipient of divine revelation which, when he passed it on, actually bound the consciences of all Christians to receive it as coming to them from the living God. Paul can write such words as these, “If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of him. Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother” (2 Thess. 3:14). But here in our text the man Paul seeks to detach himself by this figure of speech from this inspired apostle.
Such reticence about spiritual experiences is characteristic of all the men God has greatly used. Their fellowship with God is so constant, rich and varied that they barely make reference to their experiences. They are part of their walk with God. It is the word they bring which they want men to consider, and their own experiences can become a fearful distraction. We are not very interesting people in ourselves. Only Jesus Christ is of any enduring interest to the world. But once Charles Grandison Finney had told the world about his own experience of God it became incumbent upon every ‘revivalist’ to do the same. The people want it so; they have itching ears, and are prepared even to invent experiences for their heroes. Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones was one such victim. An Australian named Dr Robert Banks was telling people that Dr Lloyd-Jones “had spoken in tongues, though he would never admit it in public”. A man called John Knight of Connels Point, Sydney, wrote to him asking whether this was true, and the 71 year-old Doctor replied, “I am very happy to answer your question; and it is simply this, that I have never spoken in Tongues either in private or in public. It may be that I have met Dr Robert Banks but I cannot recall him” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones: “Letters 1919-1981,” Banner of Truth, 1994, p.205).
Christians are cool about talking of their own periods of summer warmth and winter chills. They know their own hearts too well, and their ability to exaggerate and deceive. They dare not trust their sweetest frames. I believe that there is no spiritual experience to which a Christian can be a stranger. He may lie on the floor in the depth of despair and curse the day on which he uttered his first cry, wishing he had been stillborn. A Christian may fall as low as that. A Christian may also scale mountain tops. He can be filled with joy unspeakable and full of glory. An apostle was caught up to the third heaven. The Bible contains the visions of Ezekiel and John, and it also contains the despair of Job and the penitence of King David. The Christian life is an experiential life or it is nothing.
I can go further and say that dreams can make a vivid impression on some Christians. It is surely wrong to signally dismiss out-of-body-experiences. There is a very common one described by people recovering from a major operation in a hospital, and seeing themselves lying in bed and then they seem to leave their bodies and come to a golden staircase and a glorious figure at the top greeting them. Such experiences are not uncommon. What is mischievous is a false interpretation given to these visions. We Christians say to people who tell us that they have gone through out-of-body-experiences, “That was the Lord Jesus saying to you, ‘Come unto me, and I will give you rest.’ You must trust in him and turn from your sin. You must find out about him in the Bible. This is another chance the Lord has given to you to bow before the Saviour and follow him.” But very often they do not interpret the experience in that way at all. They take it to mean they have nothing to fear in death, that some vague divine being they don’t know is always going to be there to welcome them however they live, and whoever they believe in. Then such out-of-body-experiences become satanic. I would also say that a glimpse of heaven’s welcome from a saint’s death bed is not unusual, but neither is it indispensable (cp. Simon Kistemaker, II Corinthians, Baker, 1997, pp.410 & 411).
It is obvious that the Corinthian super-apostles had made much of their out-of-body-experiences. They knew all about them. They were confident men. How different is Paul who purposely confesses his ignorance: “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know – God knows. And I know that this man – whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows – was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell” (vv.2-4). And that is it – the full extent of Paul’s spiritual experience. He goes no further. He tells us more of what he does not know than what he knows. If his opponents claim an out-of-body-experience then Paul leaves that question to God. What his opponents lavishly detailed, and how they felt, and the transformation it achieved is all ignored by Paul. There is scarcely an adjective in his description, and no traceable emotion. Not one thing that he saw is described to us. He heard things, but he tells us that he is not permitted to tell us about them. These few words are all he shares with the curious and miracle-hungry Corinthians (cp. Frederick D. Bruner’s “A Theology of the Holy Spirit”, Eerdmans, 1970, p.312).
What a strange vision it is, of which Paul tells us so little. He gives us no details of what he felt or thought. What a rebuke to those men who would split the Corinthian church by cultivating an appetite for marvellous spiritual experiences by relating last night’s revelation at the drop of a hat. The apostle goes back fourteen years when he was founding churches in Syria. It was a period of Paul’s life concerning which the New Testament is silent – the time between his leaving Tarsus and his arrival at Antioch. During those silent years Paul tells us that he was given this experience of “a man in Christ” and whether it was in or out of the body he doesn’t know. Perhaps only his spirit was taken there, or temporarily there might have been a bodily assumption to heaven. “I don’t know,” he says. This apostle was no ordinary every day visionary. Paul boasts of deflated experiences, imprisonments, beatings, anxieties, and embarrassments. “I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses” (v.5), he says.
Paul tells them about that ancient experience and refuses to boast about it for this reason: “so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say” (v.6). In other words Paul plays down an emphasis on past experiences because he wants people to judge him by what they hear when he stands in the pulpit and preaches to them. We come to church and we bring a great deal of baggage with us of our past association with and memories of the preacher in the pulpit. We know him and we are listening to him through all of those memories, and because of such things his message may itself be blunted. We are over-familiar with him, and so we are dulled in hearing his words. Sometimes I wish I could wipe clean the memories of everyone in the congregation and that they could hear the sermon alone as through the voice of complete stranger, and all they had with which to make any judgement was the Word. Paul is saying, “Don’t judge anyone by their claims to past experiences of God. Yesterday’s experience is a day late for today. Do evaluate the man and the message which you are hearing right now.”
So, many years earlier Paul had been caught up to the third heaven. One presumes that the first heaven is the atmosphere where the birds of the heavens fly. The second heaven is where the hosts of heaven are to be found, the sun, moon, stars, comets and meteors. The third heaven is where God is. It is also referred to as ‘paradise’ because that is what Paul calls it at the beginning of verse 4. Paul went there temporarily. He offered no resistance. He was caught up. In the Old Testament two men were translated bodily to heaven, Enoch (Genesis 5:24), and Elijah (2 Kings 2:9-12). They went there permanently. In the New Testament three people die and temporarily their spirits are in paradise until the Lord Jesus raises them again from the dead by reuniting their spirits with their bodies. Paul cannot tell whether this visit to Paradise was in or out of the body. He might have gone there in the body, he affirms. The body is not evil. The body of Christ ascended to heaven, and “perhaps it was in the body I was taken there, like Enoch” says Paul. He does not know.
Neither can Paul share with us the things he heard there. As an experience it was useless in authenticating his ministry. Firstly he says that things there were inexpressible, too sacred to comprehend and assimilate. Secondly, he tells us that he wasn’t given permission to repeat them to anyone. Just like Isaiah (8:16), and Daniel (12:4), and John on Patmos (Rev. 14:3) some things these men knew they were forbidden to share with anyone (but those prophets had not been taken up to heaven). Paul had been, but what he heard was private and incommunicable. He had never written of it in the past fourteen years and he would never write of it again. It was the foolishness of the Corinthians that had forced him to make a reference to it.
Why doesn’t Paul make more of his experience? Because Paul knows that bare experience is no mark of saving faith, any more than bare orthodoxy or bare morality. The Pharisees were morally as straight as the barrel of a gun, but they were just as empty of saving grace. Concerning orthodoxy, the devils themselves believe in God. Milton describes them as gathered in the dismal canyons of hell discussing the divine determinism, and I suppose they are doing it absolutely accurately, but their orthodoxy by itself cannot save them. We all pay lip service to that, that Mr Morality and Mr Orthodoxy cannot be anyone’s saviour. So too Mr Experience cannot save a man. Some seed of the word falls into shallow ground, and there is growth, but it soon dies. In other words the Lord tells us that there are people who initially rejoice when they hear the gospel – that is their experience – but trials and tribulations soon come and their profession dies. It was temporary faith. Paul has already told these Corinthians, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” (I Cor. 13:1). The Lord Jesus speaks of the many who in the day of judgment will say to him, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles” (Matt. 7:22). The Lord Jesus will not deny what they said. They did those things, but they were not loved by Christ and were banished from his presence. Why boast in those things which alone are no evidence of saving faith?
An experience has validity for that person alone who has it. A Muslim may tell us of the joy he has known from falling in love with Mohammed. That religious experience is only valid for him, not for me. George Harrison might have told us how Lord Krishna had become his ‘sweet lord’ but that experience was only valid for him. You notice how Paul refers to his experience, but then he puts it on another level by saying this, “Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth” (v.6). There is a place of paradise where the Lord Jesus Christ alone reigns, and that is true. But our own conviction of that is based on many more facts than the claims of Paul to have been there. It is based on all the prophecies of the Old Testament, the birth, life, teaching, death and resurrection of the Lord Christ. It is based on the narrative of the Acts and the letters of the apostle Paul. It is founded on a tangible, examinable record of a living person. He said, “In my Father’s house are many mansions …I go to prepare a place for you.. I will take you to myself.” and it is the truth! Look at the New Testament. We urge you! Read through a gospel, and ask God to help you come to an unbiased and true assessment of the Lord.
2. PAUL WAS GIVEN A THORN IN THE FLESH.
“To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me” (v.7). This visit to the third heaven was no commonplace Christian experience even for the apostle. It was a surpassingly great revelation. It took his breath away. After fourteen years it was as vivid as if it had taken place this morning. But its glory became the danger for Paul, that he might become so conceited because of all he had heard. So within a short time of the event he tells us, “there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me” (v.7). Paul must not become puffed up over his wonderful elevation, and Christians too must not think more highly of him because he went to the third heaven and returned (v.6). So God gave Paul a thorn in the flesh. The principle is this: privilege may lead to pride. As a result, God may render one weak in some other respect to keep one’s head from swelling. Satan was the instrument that God used to bring about the affliction to Paul’s body. That cannot happen without extraordinary divine permission. The promise is clear: “the one who was born of God keeps him [the Christian] safe, and the evil one cannot harm him” (I Jn. 5:18). That is the norm. Jesus Christ has complete power over the forces of darkness. Satan has no power over the Lord, and so no authority over those who are the Lord’s. We are not to think when we get persistent or prolonged or life-threatening illnesses that this must be from the devil. God is in control keeping us and ours. However, in this particular instance Satan was allowed to touch Paul’s body. There is another case of this in the book of Job. Both are exceptional, because the situations that brought on the afflictions were also out of the norm. But the principle always remains, that built into every privilege is the possibility of conceit. What are the lessons to be learned from this incident?
i] The thorn in the flesh was some kind of painful and humiliating irritant.
Lots of suggestions have been made concerning its nature. There are three categories into which they have been placed: (a) some form of spiritual attack like the ragings of some sin that easily besets us, such as lust, or self-pity, or greed, or the torments of temptation: or (b) some physical or mental weakness – eye trouble is commonly referred to because of the reference in Galatians 4:15 – fever, or a psychiatric illness: or (c) persecution by the various opponents within or outside of the church. Of course there is not sufficient data given us to be certain what the thorn in the flesh was for Paul. From a practical point of view, Paul himself makes the best identification in verse 10, “in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.” These are the forms which the thorn in the flesh commonly assumes.
ii] It may be very difficult for the Christian to accept pain and humiliation.
How did Paul react to this thorn in the flesh? Did he cry, “Praise the Lord!” or “Hallelujah anyway!” or invite around his friends and turn the thorn into a celebration? Not at all. It was far too threatening to his spiritual life and sense of usefulness. What was Paul’s response? “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me” (v.8). Here is a Christian who believed in the sovereignty of God. He believed that of God, and through God, and to God are all things. He believed that all things work together for good to them that love God and are the called according to his purpose. Paul was learning in whatsoever state he was found to be content. So why didn’t he say, “Thank you Lord, for this thorn in my flesh?” Rather, his instinctive reaction was to long for its removal and to have three periods of intercession in which he spread this matter out before God. He explained to God the pain, its intensity and the crippling effects on his life. He told God how much more useful he could be to the kingdom of God if the thorn were removed. It made no sense to him to have this thorn. So he pleaded with God to remove it. When the heavens were silent he turned to God again and marshalled all his arguments with even more fervency and cried to the Lord to extract this thorn from his life. But there was still no answer from the throne, and so again Paul addressed God with much holy intercession: “Lord please…please remove this impediment.”
Had Paul become a so-called ‘carnal Christian’ to react like this? Not at all. How much needless pain is caused by the teaching that part of saintliness is passively accepting mental and physical pain without fear or reluctance on the grounds that it is the Lord’s will. You hear people say, “Once you know something is God’s will it’s easy.” Would that it were so! Calvary was not easy for the Lord Jesus, and the thorn in the flesh was not easy for the apostle. Think of David and Bathsheba’s sick child, and how David cried to God that that baby should live. Who is going to tell any parent in such circumstances that his faith should have been stronger in simply surrendering the child to God in death? Think of the Lord Jesus in the garden, and his father gives him a cup of suffering to drink. He doesn’t swig it down with a swagger. He looks into that cup and sees all the suffering and pain which it contained. The anathema was there, the desertion of the Father was there, damnation was there all in the cup, and he throws himself to the ground, and he asks God if it were possible for him to have another cup. He doesn’t take it in his stride on his way to Golgotha. He wants to know whether any other way were possible?
To be submissive is essential. The Lord Jesus was aware that the Father’s answer could be that no other cup was available, but he adds, “Nevertheless not my will but thine be done.” Submission came through bowing in the presence of God. Paul attained contentment only through prayer and struggle. We have natural sensitivities that cause us to shrink from humiliation and pain. God did not ask Paul to feel that everything was for the best, but he did ask Paul to believe it.
iii] Sometimes our duty is to cease praying for the removal of particular suffering.
Once there were two sisters in our church and one of the sisters had cancer and our initial cry to God was for her healing, but as the months went by the disease got a hold of her and spread. We still continued to pray for her but in those last weeks the healthy sister acknowledged that she and her husband were no longer praying for her healing, but for such matters as her sister’s peace, deliverance from extreme pain, that the comforts of the promises of God’s word would be hers, that her hope in heaven might become exceedingly strong, and that the nursing staff attending her would deal honourably and kindly with her. Some praying for healing is a protest against our mortality, against the appointment God has made with every one of us to die.
Paul prayed earnestly and on three definite occasions that the pain would end. He prayed to a tender and compassionate Lord who was touched with the feeling of Paul’s infirmities Nevertheless, Paul’s request was not granted. The answer he was given was that Christ’s grace was sufficient for him. In other words, the Lord made it clear to him that far from entertaining any hope that he would emerge well and healthy from this particular difficulty Paul had to accept that he would have to make adjustments to his lifestyle from now on as the thorn would be a permanent factor in his existence. So Paul continued to pray about the thorn in the flesh, but no longer that it might be removed. He stopped praying, “O Lord heal me!” That silence was not the silence of unbelief. Of course Paul believed God could take out the thorn in a moment, but Paul was persuaded that that was not God’s will. So now he prayed that he could achieve all God wanted him to do for the kingdom in the years of service that lay ahead. You ask me when you should cease praying for healing or deliverance? All I can say to that is that you have the same heavenly Father as any of his children. We are told that the Spirit himself makes intercession for us with groanings that cannot be uttered. So the drift of our praying is led by God as we increasingly know and obey the God of the Bible.
iv] There is always a reason for the presence of suffering in our lives.
You are not to think, let alone say, “Well, I go to one of those Calvinistic churches, and I have just to submit and obey this sovereign God.” It is not like that at all. The distribution of pain does not come from mere sovereignty. It is never whimsical, nor capricious, nor arbitrary. The Lord is not at all like the mythical heathen gods of Mount Olympus who decide to throw a few hand-grenades of suffering into a family. “The Lord does not afflict willingly” (Lam. 3:33). He is not like a suicide bomber who capriciously chooses a bus, or a pizza shop, and knowing no-one there pulls a string and kills and maims many people out of sheer hatred for their race. Our human fathers were not perfect. Sometimes their discipline was over the top. They corrected us “as they thought best” (Hebs. 12:10). But in God there is comprehensive knowledge and measureless love. Nothing slips through without the Lord knowing. Peter writes to people going through the mill and he says to them, “now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials” (I Pet. 1:6). The suffering has had to take place. It was absolutely necessary. Our providence is always intelligent and purposive.
On that Puritan home in Chester, in one of the main streets, a great statement is printed in large letters: “God’s Providence is My Inheritance.” All I get each day is God’s providence. He has made me his son and a joint heir with Christ. The inheritance he leaves his children in this world is his providence, and in the world to come his perfection. I am an eternal beneficiary of the Lord of providence.
“Deep in unfathomable mines of never failing skill
He treasures up his bright designs and works his sovereign will.
Blind unbelief is sure to err and scan his work in vain.
God is his own interpreter and he will make it plain.” (William Cowper)
But something more than that general principle was made clear to Paul. He came to understand that there was a particular purpose for the thorn stuck deep into the flesh. Paul was in danger of spiritual pride, of glorying in his abilities, in his knowledge, in his experiences, in his privileges and outstanding success. The thorn was a humiliating disability acting as a counterpoise to enforce the great truth that a Christian can only survive and achieve anything for God by a sense of his natural helplessness. We have to go in our weakness to God and cry, “Make me strong.” We have to go in our emptiness to God and ask, “Fill me Lord.” Paul could only sow and water. That was the limit of his ability. God alone could give the increase. Salvation is of the Lord. So into one ear a devilish message was occasionally whispered, “You’re a wonderful man. Look at all you’ve achieved for God.” Then in the other ear there was another insistent voice whispering, “What a vain sinner you are Paul. What feverish imaginations and vast omissions are yours.”
Fourteen years earlier God mapped out what Paul was to do. He was to write thirteen or fourteen letters which were to become the foundation of the church for the next two thousand years. To be the instrument of the Holy Spirit he needed to become more godlike, and pride is the sin of Lucifer that caused God’s judgment to fall upon the angels that sinned. So God’s prescription to prevent that was a thorn and the messenger who was permitted to insert it was Satan. I can remember writing to a true friend of mine and mentioning something I had done. Andrew wrote back to me with difficulty and said that there was some pride or boasting in that letter. He said how difficult he found it listening to a man whom he judged to be proud. It is true. It spoils a sermon for all of us if self comes through. Can you see then how careful Paul has to be in defending himself against the accusations of the super-apostles? If Paul boasts, then his letters are mere interesting historical documents, but if his pride in kept in check, and the earthen vessel becomes a fit container for the Holy Spirit, then blessing and truth can come to one congregation in Wales 2000 years later, and millions more like it until the end of the world.
v] There is always a connection between suffering and sin.
The immediate concern of suffering is with remaining sin. It might draws our attention to a particular sin. It might asks us, “How are things with that sin that easily besets you? Are you gaining any victory over it?” There may be a particular phase you are going through, with more temptation to self-sufficiency, to become less dependent on the fellowship of the church, and on the ministry of the word. Then the Lord allows a demonic messenger armed with a thorn into your life, and immediately your attention is drawn to this growing sinful attitude. It deters you from letting that sin go any further, and it succeeds in bringing you back. So when we suffer we ask ourselves whether God is saying anything in particular to us. Are there any warnings here against any sins?
Does that mean that the man who suffers most must be the man who sins most? Of course not. That is manifestly false. Jesus of Nazareth suffered most and he sinned least! While it is the ungodly who enjoy great health – who sin the most! “This is what the wicked are like – always carefree, they increase in wealth” (Ps. 73:12). But the godly sigh, “All day long I have been plagued; I have been punished every morning” (Ps. 73:14). So how can we work out what is God’s purpose for us in our pain? I think the answer lies in the fact that we all have to grow in the same grace, but that we all possess different gifts.
We all have to grow in such graces as humility and patience and forgiveness, but we may be neglecting those virtues, and so God sends some teachers into our lives – one may be a very sensitive and hypercritical boss (your thorn in the flesh) – and we have to learn patience from this divinely sent teacher. God’s teacher may be a difficult teenage daughter and we have to learn forgiveness and self-control in dealing with her. We may have some other form of physical pain such as migraine headaches and through these we learn long-suffering. We have been neglecting such graces and the Lord teaches them to us through pain. So all his children are given thorns in the flesh to help their growth in Christlikeness.
We also have to grow in the stewardship of our very different talents. For example, we may be neglecting our service of the church. We have pre-eminent gifts, but the congregation is not profiting from them. We are proud, or lazy, or critical. We are not stirring up those gifts of ours, and so God subjects us to a regimen of suffering because our usefulness is to be much greater. That is what happened to Luther and to Calvin, to Whitefield and to Spurgeon, to Brainerd and to M’Cheyne. All of them suffered much. They were greatly used men who brought multitudes into the kingdom. They were in the most perilous positions on the Christian front. So God took special pains over them. Those of us who have led humdrum and easygoing lives have not been greatly used by the Lord.
It is a very searching question that faces all of who are ministers. Why no thorn in the flesh? Why has providence been so gentle with you? Why has Satan dealt with you less aggressively? Why is the world so tolerant with you? Is it because you have been withdrawn from the front line of Christian usefulness? Have you failed an earlier test? Are you being denied the privilege of contending with the horsemen because we have been found unfaithful in contending with the footmen? Are you being spared the horrors of the swelling of Jordan because of your failure in the land of peace? God has not given you a thorn in the flesh because he does not have fourteen years of work mapped out for you to do. He does not have fourteen months. Can that be the case? Let us examine ourselves if God is laying us on one side.
vi] Christ’s grace is always sufficient for the sufferer.
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (v.9). It is Christ’s own grace is it not? The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ! The Lord Jesus himself said these words to Paul and to each one of us. He is talking about his own dynamic grace. There is nothing sentimental or static about it. It is not a mere bland attitude. It is not the niceness of Jesus. Grace is dynamic. Grace is defined in verse nine as Christ’s power – “my grace … my power.” The power of the one who multiplied the loaves and fishes, who spoke and the dead were raised and the winds and waves obeyed. This grace of Jesus Christ is focused on this little Christian girl with all her needs to serve her Saviour through a long life, and go home to be with him. That same grace is operating in this pastor in his Soho ministry, keeping and empowering him. Grace is Christ’s omnipotent love working to save and sanctify his people.
Through the sufficiency of this grace we shall be able to bear any privation, endure any hostility, resist any temptation to retaliate, turn the other cheek, be delivered from self-pity, serve God wholeheartedly in weakness, keep going when no one, not even your own wife or husband, understands. This grace means that whatever the church asks you to do you can do it. You can be more than conqueror through his great grace. It will more than compensate for the thorn in the flesh. By having to depend on divine strength day by day you will accomplish much more than you ever could by your vaunted talents. That thorn in the flesh has thankfully blown to pieces your illusion of personal competence. The graveyard is full of competent men. What are the conditions of being a channel of Christ’s grace to people? Acknowledged weakness and felt need.
vii] The Christian learns to glory in the thorn in his flesh.
It is not enough to gain in some understanding why we’ve been given a thorn in the flesh, and be reconciled to it, and learn from it. More than that is required. We must delight in it: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake. I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (vv. 9&10). What an achievement to understand the mind that gave the thorn! What a greater achievement to apply the lessons it teaches to our lives stirring up our graces and purifying and strengthening our gifts! But to kiss the hand that inserted the thorn in the flesh, to bless God for his wisdom and take pleasure in such weaknesses – what heroic godliness! That is the New Testament standard: “we glory in tribulations” (Rom.5:3); “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you…Rejoice and be glad” (Matt. 5:11&12).
“What have I got to rejoice over?” you ask. Much every way. The thorn has underlined your physical frailty, reminded you that you are not immune from the consequences of sin, taught you anew that there is more to life than physical health and strength, encouraged you to look to him for help in coping with the pressures and pains of living in a fallen world, developed a quality of having been tested, deepened your character, taught you to be more sensitive and sympathetic to the needs of others. To have gained all that! Blessed thorn in the flesh! Above all, God has used the thorn to divert your attention from the present to the future and from the brevity of time to the vastness of eternity. Blessed thorn to have taught me that! The thorn preaches to us that evil is real, life is brief and fragile, and that death is certain. Even more loudly it tells us to prepare for a final day of reckoning when “each of us will give an account of himself to God” (Romans 14:12) who will “judge the world with justice” (Acts 17:31). O blessed thorn!
So rejoice while you suffer! Boast on account of your pains! Take delight in your weaknesses! This is not finding pleasure in some unseemly torments. There is the great Teacher at work who is meek and lowly of heart who has said to you, “Learn from me.” You have come to know that disciplinary affliction gives the grace of God plenty of scope to transform us into the great end of our very existence, to be like the Son of God. We grasp the thorn in the flesh. This is an occasion for greater usefulness. Imagine a Christian going through life and being barren and fruitless! A life wasted. But imagine going through life being barren and fruitless and never knowing it! It must not be. It cannot be. It will not be. Grace prescribes the thorn, and we are persuaded of our helplessness, and a dependence upon Christ’s precious grace is renewed within us, and the barrenness ends. “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weakness, so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (v.9).
Listen to Samuel Rutherford: “O what I owe to the file, to the hammer, to the furnace of my Lord Jesus.” Who knows the truth of grace without a thorn? When Christ blesses the thorn which he has given our lips will tell forth his love and wisdom. The greatest temptation in the world is to live without a thorn, but faith is the better, and joy is deeper when a believer will embrace it from his loving Lord. Grace withers without a thorn, and though the devil himself is the gleeful assassin, it will be seen one day as some glorious blessing that he has brought. Up your heart. Shout for joy. Your King is coming soon to fetch you to your Father’s house!
10th March 2002 GEOFF THOMAS