Friday, August 15, 2008
2 Corinthians 12 Discovering What Real Christianity Is All About
Paul has recounted how his commitment to Christ has led him into some terrible situations.
These situations were life threatening. Some of the situations were glorious. 2 Corinthians 12:1-8
All of these situations testified to the reality of his relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. They signified Paul as a true apostle, when compared to some who claimed to be apostles when they came to the church at Corinth.
These false apostles at Corinth were making out that Paul was something nothing, someone to be passed over. But Paul could not allow that to happen, not because Paul was proud or vain, but because Paul recognised that the preservation of the gospel in that place depended upon these Corinthians appreciating his apostleship, and ignoring the competing claims of those in Corinth who wished to be thought of as apostles. It was important, because it was about the gospel!
It was important, because, the Corinthians needed to be committed to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul continues to show that the only thing he can ever boast of is that he knows the Lord Jesus Christ.
Sometimes it takes sufferings to make us realise what is really important. And Paul had discovered for himself what was really important. And he shares that with us now.
“Therefore, so that I would not exalt myself, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to torment me so I would not exalt myself. 8 Concerning this, I pleaded with the Lord three times to take it away from me. 9 But He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Therefore, I will most gladly boast all the more about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may reside in me. 10 So because of Christ, I am pleased in weaknesses, in insults, in catastrophes, in persecutions, and in pressures. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Suffering can affect us all in many ways.
In 1990 Ted Turner, founding genius of Cable News Network, star of the TV show, connoisseur of Miss Universe contests, and once husband of Jane Fonda received the Humanist of the Year award. In his acceptance speech, in Orlando, Florida, he shared a moving story about a sister who became critically ill when he was just a child. He said he had been raised in a God-fearing family and when she became ill he prayed desperately that the Lord would heal her. But instead she got progressively worse and died.
Turner then told the audience, “From then on I knew, even as a kid, there was no God up there. What kind of a loving God would have allowed my sister to suffer and die?” He then said the rest of his life he depended on himself only, “Not on an unfeeling phantom-being that did not exist.”
A quotation from Reader’s Digest captured my attention recently. It said, “The believer in God must explain one thing, the existence of suffering; the nonbeliever, however, must explain the existence of everything else” (The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism; Simon & Schuster; Dennis Pranger and Joseph Telushkin). It may seem easier to explain the existence of everything else than it is to explain the existence of suffering. Things like these happen all the time — tragic things, things hard to understand, things hard to explain; things that are hard on faith. And when they do some people lay the blame for all that happens at the feet of God and become bitter and cynical toward him.
Arthur John Gossip once said, “Some people, when belief comes hard, fling away from the Christian faith altogether. But, in heaven’s name,” he asked, speaking himself from the depth of personal tragedy at the death of his wife, whilst he was away as a chaplain in the first World War. “fling away for what?”
Life is a mystery. Much of what happens in life is beyond us. We do not understand why some people have cancer; why some people are involved in tragic accidents; why some people suffer premature heart attacks; why some people live in constant pain while others live relatively trouble-free lives. And even if it was explained to us we probably wouldn’t be satisfied with it. The only sensible stance for us, therefore, is one of faith and trust in God. It is to take the posture of humility.
We find ourselves, in the face of the mystery of suffering and death — the hard questions of life — in the same position of the first disciples of Jesus. Jesus had given some hard sayings and many of his fair-weather followers turned and walked with him no more. He then turned to his disciples and asked, “Will you also go away?” Then Peter answered, “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). When confronted with the mysteries of life, we must either swim with Jesus or sink in despair.
We need the faith of Job who said from the depths of sorrow, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him” (Job 13:15). Job had already lost everything but his life. Now he said if he lost even that he’d keep trusting God. Perhaps the greatest expression of undaunted faith ever penned came from the prophet Habakkuk. He lived in times that were hard on faith. He saw the righteous suffering and the wicked prospering and he asked God why he allowed these things to happen and how long before he would rectify them. With that, Habakkuk realized that though he did not understand the ways of God and did not agree with the timing of God, still he could not doubt the wisdom of God or the love of God or the reliability of God. That’s when he wrote this great affirmation of faith: “Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labor of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength, and he will make my feet like hinds’ feet, and he will make me to walk upon mine high places” Habakkuk was saying if everything he had trusted in and relied on failed, if everything that gave stability to his life crumbled, still he’d trust the Lord.
Corrie Ten Boom said, “The older I get the less I question and the more I trust.”
Charles Haddon Spurgeon expressed the kind of undaunted faith we need when he said:
God is too kind to be cruel; God is too wise to make a mistake;
When we cannot trace the hand of God, we must trust the heart of God.
• We need A faith that trusts the ways of God.
So, Paul writes, “lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me” (2 Cor. 12:7)
This thorn in the flesh, we are not told what it was.
It may have been a person who persecuted Paul mercilessly::
Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat, was executed by the Nazis for helping to save hundreds of Jews during World War II. In a very moving scene, a young Jewish boy is talking with an aged rabbi. The boy had long since given up belief in God. He said to the rabbi, “Rabbi, you know how the German soldiers drown our people in the Danube River. You saw how they shot our children in the back. I don’t see how you can believe in God.” The old rabbi responded, “I don’t see how you can believe in man.”
It may have been an illness. A thorn in his flesh! It may have been that Paul’s eyesight had been damaged by possibly Malaria or some other disease during his Missionary travels.
We are not told what it was, and so we can know that whatever the circumstances, whatever ails you, you can find the same solution that the Apostle Paul found.
We need A faith that trusts the ways of God. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is. 55:8-9).
When God wants to drill a man And thrill a man, And skill a man,
When God wants to mold a man To play the noblest part;
When he yearns with all his heart, To create so great and bold a man,
That all the world shall be amazed, Watch his methods, watch his ways!
How he ruthlessly perfects, Whom he royally elects!
How he hammers him and hurts him, And with mighty blows converts him
Into trial shapes of clay which Only God understands;
While his tortured heart is crying And he lifts beseeching hands!
How he bends but never breaks, When his good he undertakes;
How he uses whom he chooses, And with every purpose fuses him;
By every act induces him To try his splendor out —
God knows what he’s about!
Charles de Gaulle put it well when he said, “The man of character finds a special attractiveness
in difficulty since it is only by coming to grips with adversity that he can realize his potentialities.”
of Satan to buffet me” (2 Cor. 12:7).
We do not know what Paul’s affliction was. The word “thorn” suggests it was intensely painful. The phrase “in the flesh” locates it. It was a physical affliction. The word buffet means to punch, to jab, to hit. It was the word that is used to describe what the soldiers did to Jesus during his trial. In the same way
that the soldiers beat Jesus down, so Paul says he had an intensely painful physical affliction that kept him beaten down.
Three times in prayer he asked God to remove his affliction. Three times he pounded on the gates of heaven. The answer came back, “No! It is for your good.” God answered Paul by saying that his grace would enable him to live with his infirmity. Paul concluded that the problem was being used to make him
aware of his total dependence upon God. It was in his weakness that God’s strength was being revealed. Paul’s response was, “I am most happy, then, to be proud of my weakness in order to feel the protection of Christ’s power over me. I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and difficulties for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Paul accepted his weakness as God’s opportunity to make himself known. He now sees that the hard and continued discipline of pain and ill health was God’s way of saving him from pride that is fatal to usefulness.
Paul saw in all this a divine purpose has been worked out through the physical ailment he has to suffer. It has kept him from pride and arrogance, which he might have felt as a result of his special vision. He saw this as God’s way of saving him from pride that is fatal in the Christian’s spirit and usefulness.
The same can be true of us. Trouble should never get a Christian lower than his knees. Ethel Barrymore said, “When life knocks you to your knees, and it will, why, get up! If it knocks you to your knees again, as it will, well, isn’t that the best position from which to pray?”
The best posture for a Christian is always knees down and chin up. And when we pray, in faith, James
says, the Lord never becomes impatient with our asking. He responds by giving us wisdom and strength.
No one ever sought the father and found he was not there,
And no burden is too heavy to be lightened by a prayer,
No problem is too intricate and no sorrow that we face,
Is too deep and devastating to be softened by his grace,
No trials and tribulations are beyond what we can bear,
If we share them with our father as we talk to him in prayer.
• We Need A faith that trusts the love of God.
“Therefore, so that I would not exalt myself, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to torment me so I would not exalt myself.
William Cowper wrote about both the mystery of God’s ways and the grace of God in his poem, The Mysterious Way. He wrote: God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea And rides upon the storm.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.
When trouble comes we sometimes wonder, “How can God love me and allow this to happen?” when the fact is, it is because he loves us that he allows it to happen.
Hebrews 12 contains a rendering of Proverbs 3:11- 12, which reads: “My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him: for whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth”.
So, far from being a denial of God’s love, chastisement is an affirmation of his love. If God did not care about us, he would let us go. But because he loves us and feels responsible for us, he will not let us go on without correction.
Hebrews 12:9 “Furthermore, we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live?”
An old Quaker farmer once made a weathervane with the words, “God is love,” carved on it and placed it on top of his barn. And whenever the wind blew the weathervane turned with it. One day one of the elders of his church saw the weathervane and said to him, “Friend, I don’t like that. God’s love is not variable. God’s love doesn’t change with the wind.” The old farmer replied, “Friend, you have misunderstood its meaning. The point is, regardless of which direction the wind blows, God still loves me.”
Paul (Rom. 8:35-39 )declares this truth when he asks, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” Then he lists everything that might conceivably do that. He says, “I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus the Lord”
These things may separate us from health and wealth, from family and friends, from comfort and ease, but they will never separate us from the love of God. So we can know beyond any doubt that whatever happens to us, God still loves us. And, in our hour of deepest suffering and agony, when we think God does not care about us, he may be expressing his love for us in the deepest and most personal way. It may be an effort on his part to get our attention and turn us back to himself
Hebrews 12:11 “No chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless, afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby.”
Soviet novelist Alexandr Solzhenitsyn was placed in prison in Siberia for his dissident writings. After 10 years in prison he wrote, “Bless you, prison, bless you for having been my life.” Then he added, “It was there, lying on that rotten prison straw, that for the first time I understood that the purpose of life is not prosperity as we have been made to believe, but the maturing of the human soul.”
•We Need A faith that trusts the grace of God.
The truth is, life is a mystery. Much that happens is beyond us. We do not understand and we cannot explain why things happen as they do. But though we may not have answers, we do have the answer. The answer is the Lord himself.
So Habakkuk says, “I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength, and he will make my feet like hind’s feet, and will make me to walk upon mine high places.”
When David Livingstone returned to his native Scotland after 16 years as a missionary in Africa, his body was emaciated by the ravages of some 27 fevers that had coursed through his body during the years of his service. His left arm hung uselessly at his side, the result of being mangled by a lion. Speaking to the students of Glasgow University, he said,
“Shall I tell you what sustained me during the hardships and loneliness of my exile? It was Christ’s promise, ‘Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end.’” Then he said, “This is the word of a gentleman of the most strict and sacred honor, so there’s an end of it.”
Robert Hamilton wrote: I walked a mile with Pleasure, she chattered all the way,
I was none the wiser for what she had to say. I walked a mile with Sorrow, ne’er a word said she.
But, oh, the things I learned from her when Sorrow walked with me.
Terry Waite, a longtime hostage in Lebanon, wrote of his experience: “I have been determined in captivity, and still am determined, to convert this experience into something that will be useful and good for other people. I think that’s the way to approach suffering. It seems to me that Christianity doesn’t, in any way, lessen suffering. What it does is enable you to take it, to face it, to work through it, and eventually to convert it” (Terry Waite, quoted in Church Times, December 27, 1991).
He giveth more grace as our burdens grow greater, He sendeth more strength as our labors increase;
To added afflictions He addeth His mercy, To multiplied trials he multiplies peace.
When we have exhausted our store of endurance, When our strength has failed ere the day is half done,
When we reach the end of our hoarded resources Our Father’s full giving is only begun.
His love has no limits, His grace has no measure, His power no boundary known unto men;
For out of His infinite riches in Jesus He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again.
We can't deny that there is suffering and tragedy in the world, suffering that is so often incomprehensible to us. We can look on a global scale, and see children being slaughtered for no good reason--or any reason at all. 2 Corinthians 12, the apostle Paul writes about a particular form of suffering that he was forced to endure constantly--he refers to that mysterious, elusive "thorn of the flesh," or the "thorn in his side." What was he referring to, exactly? There's plenty of speculation in the academic world and in the church about just what exactly this "thorn in the flesh" was--there always has been, and there probably always will be. Many commonly say that it was some sort of recurring physical pain, something that restricted Paul's ministry, something that seriously affected his ability to get around. Other have said that the "thorn" was Paul's opposition, those who sought to shut him up or take his life because of his message of salvation through Christ. Some have guessed that the "thorn in the flesh" was some terrible habit or temptation that Paul simply couldn't shake. Others have come up with various theories: Some say Paul may have been epileptic, one writer asserted that Paul must have had recurring malarial fever, and on and on.
this assault by the false teachers on the Corinthian church which resulted in their betrayal of Paul is here described as a "thorn in the flesh." He further describes it as a messenger of Satan. The messenger is the word angelos in the Greek, it means angel, and an angel from Satan is a demon and so he's telling us here that this terrible, terrible betrayal by the Corinthians, this defection from the true gospel and the truth that he had taught them, this was all being orchestrated by a demon. Demon-inspired false teachers had come into that church and perpetrated this terrible, terrible mutiny. And the effect of it was to buffet me, he said, and that's the word torment. Paul was personally tormented by the problems in the Corinthian church. Because he loved God so much he didn't want to see God dishonored, because he loved the gospel so much he didn't want to see it misunderstood, because he loved the church so much he didn't want to see it torn up and divided, because he loved those people so much he didn't want to see them fall victim to lying false teachers.
But what we DO know is this: The thorn in the flesh was RECURRING, not a one-timer but a CONTINUAL problem for Paul; and furthermore, it was BAD, BAD, NOTHING BUT BAD. NOWHERE, EVER does Paul suggest in any way that there was anything good about his "thorn" in the flesh. Nowhere does he suggest that his problem was anything but a pure abhorration, something absolutely bad in every possible way.
" Does Jesus care when my heart is pained, Too deeply for mirth or song
As the burdens press and the cares distress And the way grows weary and long.
Oh, yes He cares, I know He cares, His heart is touched with my grief,
When the day are weary and the long nights dreary I know my Saviour cares."
He asked for strength that he might achieve, He was made weak that he might obey.
He asked for health that he might do great things; He was given infirmity that he might do better things.
He asked for riches that he might be happy; He was given poverty that he might be wise.
He asked for power that he might have the praise of men; He was given weakness that he might feel the power of God.
He asked for all things that he might enjoy life; He was given life that he might enjoy all things.
He received nothing that he asked, all that he hoped for: His prayer was answered
" Accept it. From Thy hand, dear Lord I take This hurting thing, and bear it for Thy sake.
Not bear it only, but in Thy dear name, Thy strength, Thy power, to love it Lord, I claim:
To love it till from struggles, toil and tears, The likeness of Thy life in me appears.
Accept it. From Thy hand this thing I take, Lord, make it glorious for Thine own name's sake."
There burns a fire with sacred heat, white hot with holy flame,
And all who dare pass through its blaze will not emerge the same,
Some as bronze, some as silver, some as gold, then with great skill,
All are hammered by their suffering on the anvil of his will.
I’m learning now to trust his touch, to crave the fires embrace,
For though my past with sin is etched, his mercies did embrace,
Each time his purging cleanses deeper, I’m not sure that I’ll survive
Yet the strength in growing weaker, keeps my hungry soul alive.
The refiners’ fire has now become my soul’s desire,
Purged and cleansed and purified that the Lord be glorified,
He is consuming my soul, refining me, making me whole,
No matter what I lose, I chose the refiners fire.
William Penn, the great Quaker writer and thinker, put it like this: No pain, no palm: No thorns, no throne; No gall, no glory; No cross, no crown.
Sometimes we come to life's crossroads And we view what we think is the end.
But God has a much wider vision And He knows that it's only a bend-
The road will go on and get smoother And after we've stopped for a rest,
The path that lies hidden beyond us Is often the path that is best.
So rest and relax and grow stronger, Let go and let God share your load
And have faith in a brighter tomorrow. You've just come to a bend in the road.