The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
July 8, 2018
2 Corinthians 12:7-10
Find Strength in Weakness!
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. (NIV1984)
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
“If only….” I cannot even begin to tell you how often those two little words go through my little mind. “If only I had been a little more patient or if only I had been a little more persistent perhaps we would see this person in church a little more often.” “If only I had been a little more understanding or if only I possessed a little more understanding perhaps the visitor who said they were ‘church shopping’ would have come back another Sunday.” “If only I had a little more time or if only I had a little more money perhaps I could get more done and help more people.”
“If only….” Do you ever have those two little words go through your mind? I’m going to guess that you do. If that is true, if you are personally familiar with the words “If only…” then you won’t have any trouble understanding our sermon text for today. At one time in his life the apostle Paul was at a point where he went to the Lord in prayer and said, “Lord, if only….” Today we have the opportunity to not only look at why Paul turned to the Lord and prayed, “If only…” but we also have the opportunity to see how the Lord answered Paul’s prayer.
Our theme for today focuses our attention on a truth we all need to remember: Find Strength in Weakness!
The apostle Paul is widely considered to be the greatest missionary that the Christian church has ever— and perhaps will ever— see. That, however, does not mean that Paul’s ministry always went smoothly. That does not mean that Paul was both admired and appreciated everywhere he went. In 2 Corinthians chapters ten and eleven we are told that there were individuals who considered themselves to be “better” apostles than the apostle Paul. They considered themselves to be more “impressive” than Paul. (See 2 Corinthians 10:10) They considered themselves to be better speakers than Paul. (See 2 Corinthians 11:6) They considered themselves to be smarter than Paul. And therefore— in their own estimation— they thought that they should be admired and appreciated more than Paul. In reality, however, these men were false apostles. They were false apostles who were leading God’s people away from Christ so that they might have followers of their own. They were false apostles who were taking the focus off of the cross and so that they could shine the spotlight on themselves. In 2 Corinthians 11:13 Paul refers to these false apostles as “deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ.”
Because these false apostles were creating so much trouble in the church and because these false apostles were disrespecting both the reputation and the ministry of the apostle Paul, the Holy Spirit led Paul to defend both his reputation and his apostolic ministry. When you have a chance, scan through 2 Corinthians 11:21-12:6. Not only did Paul endure extraordinary hardships as he faithfully proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ (he was flogged, he was thrown into prison, he was beaten with rods, he was shipwrecked), but Paul had also been granted extraordinary blessings by Jesus Christ his Lord! Paul brings out that he had been given visions and revelation. One time he was “caught up to paradise” where he heard “inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell” (2 Corinthians 12:4).
It is in this context, my friends, that Paul says in the opening verse of our text, “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.” Opinions vary widely as to what Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” may have been. Most commentators lean toward some painful physical condition such as severe headaches, epilepsy, eye problems or malaria. Some people think Paul may be referring to the false apostles who were causing him so much trouble and so much pain in his ministry. Whatever this “thorn in the flesh” may have been it is clear that Paul eventually came to understand why he had been given this “thorn in the flesh.” He states that purpose in the words, “To keep me from becoming conceited…there was given me a thorn in my flesh.”
Because of all the wonderful spiritual gifts Paul had been granted, because of the “surpassingly great revelations” that Paul had received, and because even the apostle Paul still had to deal with his own egotistical sinful nature, it would have been relatively easy for Paul to think rather highly of himself. It would have been relative easy for Paul to say, “Look at what I have done! Look at all the congregations that I have started! Look at all the people that I brought into the church!” Therefore, God gave Paul this “thorn in the flesh” to both keep Paul humble as well as to keep Paul focused. (Pointing to the cross)
Is it really any different for us today, my friends? To this very day it is relatively easy for most pastors to look at their congregation and be tempted to think, “Look at what I have done since I have been here! New people have come into the church. We’re meeting our budget. The debt has been paid off. Generally speaking, things are going pretty well with me as pastor.” To this very day it is relatively easy for you, God’s people, to look at your congregation and be tempted to say, “Look at what we have done! We are the ones who paid off that debt. We are the ones who are paying the bills. We are the ones who are maintaining this church.” To this very day it is relatively easy for all of us to look at some portion of our life and be tempted to say with a certain amount of sinful pride, “Look at what I have accomplished.” Because we all have that old egotistical sinful nature lurking inside of us we should not be surprised if the good Lord sends us our own personalized “thorn in the flesh.” Whether it is illness or injury, heartaches or headaches, difficulties or disappointments there are times when like Paul we need the Lord to teach us to be humble and to teach us to stay focused. (Pointing to the cross)
That brings us to what I consider to be the key verses of our text, verses 8 & 9. Paul writes, “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.’” “If only….” There was obviously a time in his life when Paul was convinced that if only the Lord would take this “thorn in the flesh” away then Paul could accomplish even more for the church, then Paul could do even more for the Lord. Three times Paul “pleaded,” he “begged,” he “urged” the Lord to take this “thorn in the flesh” away! What was the Lord’s answer? God said, “No.”
Was God being mean to Paul? Was the Lord unsympathetic to the situation that Paul was in? Of course not! The Lord was teaching the apostle Paul where to find strength in weakness! Look at what God said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you.” Instead of relying on himself— his own gifts, his own talents, his own abilities— the Lord wanted Paul to rely upon God’s grace! Whatever Paul needed to carry out his work— God’s grace would supply it. Whatever Paul needed to endure the hardships that he faced— God’s grace would supply it. Whatever Paul needed to get through whatever situation he found himself in— God’s grace would supply it. “My grace is sufficient for you,” says the Lord! What gloriously wonderful words! But there is more!
The Lord goes on to say to Paul, “…for my power is made perfect in weakness.” If you have your own personal study Bible I encourage you to take a pen and in the margin next to 2 Corinthians 12:9 write John 19:30. Then in 2 Corinthians 12:9 underline the words “made perfect.” The Greek verb that is translated here in our text as “made perfect” is the same Greek verb that Jesus used in John 19:30 when He said from the cross, “It is finished,”— or as many of you have learned that can be translated, “I have reached my goal.” If you truly want to see the depth of the power of the Lord our God you need to look at what appeared to be the ultimate act of weakness— the crucifixion of Jesus the Christ! In that moment of humiliation and “defeat” God’s power achieved its ultimate “goal”— the salvation of your soul!
The paradox between God’s power and your weakness is continually played out in your daily lives. As long as you think that you have some power of your own, as long as you think that you can handle the various situations you encounter in your life “all by yourself”— you will have little to no use for the power of the Lord your God. It is only when you and I are brought to the realization of how weak we actually are, it is only when you and I are led to see how helpless we are to handle the situations we face in life, it is only then that the power of the Lord our God is “made perfect” in us. It is only then that the power of the Lord our God “reaches its goal” in our heart and in our life.
As many of you already know this is not always an “easy” lesson to learn. As many of you already know this is certainly not a “fun” lesson to learn. But just as it was an important lesson for Paul to learn so also it is an important lesson for us to learn. We often suffer on our journey through this life. We are often overwhelmed by events which are completely beyond our control. Satan pounces on these situations as opportunities to try and get us to: a) doubt God’s love for us; or, b) question God’s power to carry us through these difficult times. That’s why it is so important for us to be focused on the cross! When we stop to remember that God’s love for us is so vast that He was willing to suffer and die to pay for our sins, when we stop to remember that through what appeared to be the ultimate act of weakness God’s power achieved its ultimate goal— the salvation of our souls— then, my friends, then we will know deep down in our hearts the joy and the confidence that the Lord taught to the apostle Paul when He said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Find strength in weakness, my friends. When the good Lord allows things to happen in your life that are just too much for you to handle remember that He does this not to teach you what you can and cannot handle on your own, but rather He does this to teach you that no matter what it is— He can handle it. When the good Lord allows things to happen in your life that threaten to overwhelm you, remember that He does this not to teach you how easily you are overwhelmed, but rather He does this to teach you that there is nothing that overwhelms Him.
“If only….” Whether it is you or whether it is me there will undoubtedly be times when those two little words still find their way into our hearts and into our prayers. My prayer then this morning is that the good Lord will help all of us to learn the lesson that the apostle Paul learned so very well— the lesson that teaches us to humbly stay focused on the cross so that we will always have the ultimate source of strength even in our deepest moments of weakness. Or as Paul says in our text, “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.”
To God be the glory!