An Open Secret
2 Corinthians 12:1-10
Read 12:1. Paul finds himself in the unenviable position of having to boast in order to protect the Corinthians from false apostles. They were boasting about their "superior" credentials, so Paul is forced to boast about his own credentials. He does this by first matching their boasts--and then exposing what they boast about as inconsequential by contrasting it to something that requires real spiritual integrity.
In 11:22-33, he first matches their boast about Jewish lineage (11:22), and then exposes them by boasting about the sufferings he voluntarily endured as a Christian worker (11:23-33).
In 12:1-10, he continues this pattern. This passage provides us with one of our most intimate glimpses into Paul, and we learn one of the open secrets of his spiritual effectiveness.
THE VISION: read vs 2-6. The false apostles were evidently boasting about visions, evidently citing this as a basis of their authority. Reluctantly, Paul shares a remarkable experience God granted him some 14 years earlier. (Though he speaks about it in the third person in vs 2-4, he tells us in vs 7 that it is him.) Since 2 Corinthians was written around the mid-50's AD, this evidently occurred in the early 40's AD, while Paul was in Syria and Cilicia.
Rather than Jesus coming to where he was (he had this as well--see Acts 9:3-9; 18:9,10; 22:18,21; 23:11), he was transported (either in or outside of his body) into the very presence of God ("Paradise" and "third heaven" are both Jewish idioms for God's presence).
What he saw there explains how he could talk about the next life with such conviction (read Rom. 8:18; 2 Cor. 5:8). He heard words that were inexpressible (went beyond his cognitive and verbal abilities to communicate--like one-year olds stammering), and which were impermissible to speak even if he could have communicated them (because they were for him alone).
How different Paul is from others in the way he responded to this vision! This is the only time we hear about it in his letters, it is clear that he hadn't shared this with the Corinthians before, he shared it only because he was in this situation (vs 1)--and even then with great reserve (third person). Even though he shared this to match the false apostles' boasting, he hurries on to focus on something much more spiritually significant that God gave him after this vision . . .
THE THORN: read vs 7. What was Paul's "thorn in the flesh?" We do not know exactly what it was, but we can say certain things about it.
The language he uses strongly implies it was a painful and chronic physical ailment. "Flesh" is used here almost certainly to refer to his physical body. "Thorn" (skolops) is not some little blackberry pricker--it is like the stakes on thorn trees that SHRIKE'S impale small birds on. (Think of a WORM writhing on a large NAIL.) The fact that Paul prayed three times for release from it implies it was chronic.
Perhaps Paul had ophthalmia--a chronic eye infection (read Gal. 4:13-15). Perhaps he had malaria--one ancient described the headaches caused by Malta fever as "like a red-hot bar thrust through the forehead."
Whatever it was, it originated from Satan, who wanted to "violently beat" (kolaphizo) Paul down with it. (Kolaphizo is used in Matt. 26:67 to describe the Roman guards beating Jesus.) As with Job, he sought to destroy Paul's faith in God's goodness and power.
PAUL'S REQUEST: read vs 8. Three different times, Paul asked God to deliver him from this ailment. Why?
First, Paul was not a masochist--he wanted God to take the pain away. Second, as a traveling church-planter, he needed his health to travel and work effectively. Third, he had certainly seen God's power to heal (cf. 2 Cor. 12:12; Acts 19:11,12).
GOD'S ANSWER: But, just as God did not answer Jesus' three-time request to avert the cross, God did not grant his request for healing. Instead, he gave Paul an explanation of why he didn't. Read vs 9a. Maybe God spoke this directly to him--or maybe Paul drew this conclusion from Old Testament scriptures (see below).
"You think this malady will make you impotent for me, but I know it will enable me to entrust you with even more of my power."
(From vs 7): "You think your work for me will be ended if I don't take this away, by I know your work for me will be ended if I do take it away."
PAUL'S RESPONSE: Read vs 9b, 10. Paul accepted this explanation for his "thorn," and then broadened it out to encompass all of the adversities he suffered as a servant of Christ. His "weaknesses" became the great, open secret of his spiritual power--and therefore his greatest boast.
It wasn't the vision that accounted for Paul's spiritual greatness and fruitfulness. It was understanding and accepting this explanation of and provision for suffering that changed his life and accounted for his greatness. All of his LETTERS were written after this event. Most of his MISSION WORK was accomplished after this event. Most everything that we profit from by Paul today came after he learned this lesson.
There are obviously some lessons here for us as well . . .
The Lessons For Us
By examining this passage and other related biblical passages, we can draw certain conclusions about our own sufferings . . .
God does not cause most of our sufferings.
Here, as elsewhere, Paul is careful to distinguish between God sovereignly permitting suffering from God actually originating and sending suffering. The God of the Bible is not up there throwing lightening bolts at us, trying to mess up our lives, etc. He is a God of love who wants us to know him and who wants to restore us rather than destroy us.
Most of our sufferings are the consequences of wrong human choices (EXPLAIN PRIMARY & SECONDARY CONSEQUENCES) >> EXAMPLES: SICKNESS & DEATH; DISASTERS; PSYCHOLOGICAL & RELATIONAL PROBLEMS; DISAPPOINTMENTS (MARRIAGE; CHILDREN; CAREER); DIFFICULTIES (WORK; FINANCIALLY), etc.
Those who follow Christ experience additional sufferings caused by Satan. Paul says he was the author of his "thorn" (vs 7 >> SOME SICKNESSES), and implies that he is behind the other sufferings he experiences in Christ's service (vs 10 >> REJECTION & PERSECUTION; MINISTRY-RELATED DIFFICULTIES).
This is probably why the "thorn" is not specifically identified--so we can get maximum application from it.
We should draw near to God when we suffer.
Like Jesus and Paul, we should freely express our thoughts and feelings to God. Failure to do this may reveal unbelief in God's love and compassion.
Like Jesus and Paul, we should also feel the freedom to ask him to deliver us from our sufferings. Failure to ask this may reveal unbelief in his power.
Sometimes God does deliver us in ways that display his greatness to us and others . . . but often he does not . . .
If God denies our request, it is because he has a greater purpose in mind.
God's "No" is motivated by his love and wisdom just as much as is his "Yes." His "No" may have nothing to do with our lack of faith (POSITIVE CONFESSIONALISM), but because he knows better than we do what will glorify him and be best for us (PARENTS WITH THEIR KIDS).
Believe it or not, God says there are some things more important than delivering us from immediate suffering.
GOSPEL: He wants you to receive Christ! He is willing to permit some present pain in your life to get your attention so you don't spend the rest of this life and the next alienated from him. LEWIS: "Pain is God's megaphone to rouse a deaf world." If God is calling to you today through your suffering and this teaching, respond by asking Christ to forgive you and come into your life!! You will never regret that decision, or the suffering that led you to it.
To protect us from self-exaltation (vs 7). We are so fallen, we have can turn even God's gracious blessings into a basis for pride. Paul's vision was clearly something granted to him by God's grace--it had nothing to do with his worthiness. Yet God foresaw that Paul would use it to puff himself up, so he allowed this "thorn" to keep him humble.
Spiritual pride is a real threat to those who are serving Christ. If your sin-nature cannot lead you into overt sin, it will try to lead you into pride about your spirituality! When we give way to this, Jesus is disgraced (TELEVANGELISTS >> this could have been Paul).
To protect us from self-sufficiency (vs 9). We are so fallen, we can turn God's gracious blessings into an excuse to forget him. This is what God warned Israel of in Deut. 8:2-14 and Hos. 13:5,6 (read). This is what happened to the church at Laodecia (Rev. 3:15-19). And this is what can happen to us. Have you ever prayed, "God, do whatever it takes to keep me from growing spiritually fat and forgetting you?" Do you realize that his answer may well involve permitting some painful suffering to keep you awake and dependent?
God promises sustaining grace if we respond properly. "Sustaining grace" means God's enabling to live above our difficult circumstances with his peace and hope and joy. It also refers to God empowering us to be a more effective witness for Christ (PAUL'S MINISTRY & LETTERS).
God is willing and able to grant these to all of us, no matter how difficult our sufferings are. But they come to us automatically--which explains why some in terrible circumstances have it while others in lesser sufferings lack it. God grants it as we respond properly. Paul calls his proper response "boasting" and "being well-content" with his sufferings. It involves:
Thanking God for this situation as the best for your growth and his glory--even before you know how this is so. Read 1 Thess. 5:18. Until we have chosen this attitude, we have not responded properly. This means that you will often have to rebuke the infantile attitude that compares yourself to others and goes on strike if God doesn't answer your demands. This is a direct accusation against him (that he is unloving, unwise, impotent) that is exactly what Satan wants. Do you really think God will give into such tantrums and bullying??
Actively and creatively looking for ways to serve God in the midst of suffering. Until we have chosen this action, we have not responded properly. This means that you will often have to rebuke fatalistic resignation ("I give up . . . I have no choice . . . whatever . . . ") that is really only a passive-aggressive form of throwing a tantrum. Do you really think God is pleased with this attitude?