A Key to Spiritual Greatness
2 Corinthians 12:1-10
Remember that this is possibly the most personally revealing of all of Paul's letters. It opens a window into Paul's inner life, where we learn some of the keys to his spiritual greatness. The passage we will study this morning is one of those windows.
Review SETTING. Paul has been forced into doing something that he finds both unprofitable and personally distasteful--boasting. This is because the false apostles have boasted about their credentials and implied that because Paul couldn't match them, he was unworthy of their respect. So Paul reluctantly matches them in their boasts--and then exposes them by boasting of something they would never boast of.
For example, in 11:22, they boasted of their Jewish ethnicity--and Paul matched them. But beginning in 11:23, Paul exposes their claim to be servants of Christ by recounting the sufferings he has voluntarily endured in Christ's service (11:23-29).
We see the same pattern in chapter 12, in which Paul reveals one of the keys to his spiritual greatness...
Read 12:1. Evidently, the false apostles were boasting about visions and revelations they claimed to have received--and citing them as proof of their spiritual authenticity.
So Paul reluctantly responds to their boasts by recounting an amazing experience--read 12:2-4. Although Paul speaks in the third person here (for reasons we will learn shortly), the following text (12:7) makes it clear he is talking about himself. It happened about 40 AD, during a period of Paul's Christian life about which we know very little.
Unlike visions and revelations, in which God appears to the recipient, Paul was transported into the very presence of God ("third heaven" and "Paradise" are synonyms)--like a preview of the Rapture. This experience was so overwhelming to his senses that he doesn't know whether it was bodily or not.
Paul received a personal message from God that was both inexpressible because it outran the limitations of human language, and impermissible to speak because it was for him alone.
So Paul is saying, "If they're going to make visions the proof of spiritual authenticity, I can blow their doors off!" So this was why Paul was spiritually great, right? Wrong! In fact, Paul believed there was no correlation at all between receiving visions and spiritual greatness. This is clear for two reasons.
First of all, he is very reluctant to recount this experience with others. 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--and even then with great reserve (third person). Paul was always open about how to become spiritually great.
Secondly, Paul goes on to tell us how to discern spiritual authenticity (read 12:5,6). "Yes, I had this vision--but it doesn't prove anything about my spiritual authenticity. What matters is not a vision that people can't see, but the content of my teaching that people can hear and the character of my life that people can see."
There is a lesson for us here. It's easy for us to believe that if only we could have a dramatic spiritual experience (VISION; HEAVENLY VOICE; OUT-OF-BODY ENCOUNTER; TONGUES), this would catapult us into spiritual greatness. That's why we are fascinated by Christians who talk/boast about their dramatic experiences. That's why we are tempted to listen to people who tell us that we should have such experiences and that they'll show us how get one.
We should listen to Paul instead. He says that God sometimes grants such experiences for his own good reasons. If he grants you one, be encouraged by it. But never make it the proof of spirituality for you or anyone else. And if he doesn't grant you one, don't be discouraged because you can be spiritually great without ever receiving one.
Having reluctantly beaten the false apostles at their own boast, Paul now goes on to boast about something neither they nor most of us would ever want, but which he regards as a real key to his spiritual greatness. He begins by telling us about something that followed his vision (read 12:7). After his vision came his "thorn."
What an amazing verse! Let's look at it very carefully, asking two questions.
What was Paul's "thorn in the flesh?" Whatever it was, it was extremely painful (skolops: not blackberry pricker, but spike/stake). Most think it was a recurrent physical sickness because it was in his "flesh" (e.g., malaria; eye-infection). Calvin thought it was agonizing spiritual attacks. Luther thought it was vicious human persecution. In truth, we don't know--and maybe Paul was purposefully ambiguous so that we could identify with him more easily (PHYSICAL AILMENT; ROMANTIC LONELINESS; RELATIONAL/FAMILY PAIN; SPIRITUAL ATTACK; PERIODS OF DEPRESSION; SHATTERED DREAM, etc.).
Why was it given? Did you notice that Paul gives two answers to this question?
On the one hand, this "thorn" originated from Satan and it was given to "buffet" (koliphizo: violently beat, as in Matt.26:67) him--to destroy his faith and drive him to despair (as he hoped to do with Job).
On the other hand, this thorn was "given" (permitted) to Paul by God for a very different reason--to keep him from exalting himself. As Luther said, "Even the devil is God's devil." God is so wise and powerful that he can work through even Satan's attacks to accomplish his purposes. He did this preeminently through Jesus' execution, he did it in Peter's denial (Lk.22:31,32), and he did it in Paul's thorn. God knew that Paul's sinful nature would twist his vision into a reason for spiritual pride that would corrupt Paul's heart and destroy his spiritual usefulness. God knew that only something very painful would keep Paul weak and humble and safe from spiritual pride. And so God worked through the very "thorn" Satan sent to destroy Paul in order to preserve Paul.
I am so glad this passage is in the Bible! I can relate to Paul's tendency toward self-exaltation. I identify with Watchman Nee's version of the Triumphal Entry. (When the donkey saw the crowds laying down palm branches and singing praises, he thought, "It's about time they recognized how great I am!") God has given me certain gifts, including the gift of teaching his Word. I would be a liar if I told you I have never used this gift to extract praise from others, view myself as superior to others, etc.--in short, to exalt myself. And I believe God has permitted satanic sufferings designed to destroy me (in various times and in various ways) to protect me from corrupting my soul and tarnishing his reputation. In fact, I am in one of those times right now--and though I sometimes complain bitterly, it is good for me.
Do you have a category for this in your spiritual life? Is it conceivable to you that there are things more terrible than "thorns in the flesh?" That prideful self-exaltation can corrupt your soul and send you to hell (because you never come to Christ) or destroy your witness for Christ (because you don't walk with him)? That the blessing of God is therefore not always in the form of enjoyable experiences and circumstances, but sometimes in the form of agonizing "thorns?"
"But how do I know that this 'thorn' isn't something wants God wants to deliver me from immediately?" Paul gives us his answer to this question (read 12:8). Paul was no masochist; he asked God three times to take it away (just like Jesus did at Gethsemane). And we should feel the freedom to do the same thing! God can do this, and sometimes he does as soon as we ask. He delivered Daniel from the lion's dean, he delivered Peter and Paul from prison, he delivered many people from sickness, and he has delivered me a "thorn" or two. And he may deliver you if you ask him to.
Frankly, I don't think this is the problem for most of us. I think most of us are already pretty good at asking God to deliver us from "thorns." In fact, as I listen to the prayers of most Christians, this is about all they pray about! Our problem is that we stop listening when God says "No"...
When God says "No"
Look carefully at 12:9a (read). When God refuses to deliver you from a "thorn," his "No" is motivated every bit as much by his love and wisdom as is his "Yes." When God says "No," he will offer you a blessing that is even better than deliverance.
He can give you sufficient grace to bear your "thorn" victoriously. His Spirit can work through this tribulation to cultivate perseverance, proven character, and hope (Rom.5:3-5). It is one thing to be delivered from a "thorn"--but continue in fear that another "thorn" may strike at any time to destroy your faith and ruin your life. It is another thing to have that fear gradually replaced by the confidence that God will empower you to handle and profit from whatever life throws at you.
He can perfect his power through your weakness. God can work through your "thorn" to convince you of your weakness and deepen your dependence on him, so his power will work through in increasing measure to impact others for Christ.
All of Paul's powerful LETTERS were written after this event. Most of his fruitful MISSION WORK was accomplished after this event. Most everything that we profit from by Paul today came after this event.
Do you want these blessings--or do you just want deliverance from your "thorn?" Growing victory over adverse circumstances and growing power in ministry comes to those who embrace their weakness through God's unremoved "thorns," not to those who demand deliverance.
This was the key to Paul's spiritual greatness--not his vision, not even his "thorn." It was his response to his "thorn"--his willingness to trust God's loving wisdom and embrace what God wanted to give him through all "thorns" (read 12:9b,10). He applied this lesson to every suffering in his life from then on. He learned to boast and "take pleasure" in every weakness God allowed into his life--as the avenues to greater experience of God's power.
It can be your secret, too. Are you still trying to twist God's arm into delivering you, or are you thanking him for this blessing and asking him for sustaining grace and perfected power? Ten years from now, some of you will be well on your way down this path--living above your circumstances and powerfully impacted others for Christ. Some of you will be stuck--no further along than you are now, or gone--back in the world. And one of the main reasons for why you will be at such different places will be whether or not you have learned this lesson!
Let's listen to Charley Snow's powerful story on this (VIDEO).
GOSPEL: Are you one of the people Charley described--someone whose self-sufficiency has been broken by a tragedy or failure? Would you like to experience a life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ, like Charley has? All you need to do is admit your weakness to him and ask him to come into your life...