Cornerstone EPC Sunday morning
Franklin, NC 28734 September 18, 2022
“When I Am Weak…”
2 Corinthians 12:1-10
Many years ago I had a parishioner, a man, who had a teen-aged son. He often told me that his son believed himself to be ten feet tall and bulletproof. I must have thought similarly of myself during my teen years, and I know many other men who thought of themselves similarly in their teens. After all, we had the dangerous combination of remarkable physical powers and not much experience—and we believed ourselves indestructible for a season.
However, most of us aged and matured, and we realized in time that, whether male or female, we are not indestructible. We grow weary from exertion, we become broken from injury and sickness, we grow discouraged because of difficulties in life, and we grow timid and overly cautious from prior pains. This is nothing new to our time.
Today we meet a man we know well, the Apostle Paul, who, fairly late in his earthly pilgrimage (his mid-50s), wrote, by the Holy Spirit’s leading, a letter to his problem church—Corinth. We know this letter as 2 Corinthians. In this letter, Paul confesses, more than once, his weakness. Yet He tells us what he learned—and the lesson will bless our souls. Let us hear God’s Word read and proclaimed once again in this place—and may He fix our attention upon it.
(HERE READ THE TEXT)
Within the final four chapters of 2 Corinthians, Paul, led by the Spirit, defends his ministry as an apostle (10:1-12:10). He defends himself before the Corinthian church against being mild in person but bold in correspondence (10:1-18) and against false apostles—the so-called super-apostles (11:1-16). Then Paul defends himself by alluding to his uncommonly high degree of suffering (11:16-33), and then he alludes to his singular visions and revelations in defense of his apostolic (12:1-10). Then Paul concludes his letter by expressing his concern for Corinth amid various final exhortations (12:11-13:14). Within the portion about visions and revelations from the Lord, our text occurs—but, first, let’s learn a bit more about Paul’s visions and his reflections concerning them.
Paul knew a man—himself—caught up to the third heaven. This is a strange way to refers to where he went. Commentators note that Paul intends to convey that he went to a realm above, or beyond, both where birds fly (first heaven) and the starry host shines (second heaven).1 He went there fourteen years before penning these words to the Corinthian Christian households (i. e., ca. A. D. 43). Paul knows not whether he went there bodily or not, but he knows that he was caught up to Paradise.
Paradise is Heaven.2 Paradise is that place where the penitent thief on his cross dwells with Jesus, according to Jesus’ promise (Luke 23:43). At least one commentator argues for Paradise being a special or innermost part of Heaven.3 While in Paradise, Paul heard things which cannot be told, for maybe our language has not the ability to convey them. Paul heard things as well which may not be uttered, for perhaps Paul received not permission to relate what he heard. This supernatural experience, adduced by Paul in support of his apostolic ministry, forms the immediate context for our text today—to which we now turn in detail.
Paul, after these things, received a thorn in the flesh. The Lord tells us through Paul’s own pen and experience that this thorn came to him to keep him from conceit due to the revelations’ surpassing greatness. We know explicitly that this is a thorn in the flesh (or, idiomatically, trouble, Greek skolops te sarki [skoloy th sarki]), but we don’t know the precise form of fleshly trouble Paul endures. Many, I suppose most, commentators deems this to be a physical malady, such as the eye trouble Paul endured at Galatia (Galatians 4:14-15). Perhaps it could be something listed in verse ten that produced bodily ills in him. Yet, after all, we do not know exactly what troubled Paul.
We know, however, that whatever it was troubled Paul no little bit. Three times he seeks relief from the Lord, and, apparently, got no relief, if he even received an answer. At Paul’s third appeal about this, the Lord speaks to him, saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.” Note that the Lord removes not the thorn. We think removal of thorns, ordinarily, the best of all outcomes. Yet the Lord knows better, and he leaves the thorn for Paul to endure.
Yet God sanctifies the thorn to Paul’s use: namely, that due to the thorn, the power of Christ may take up residence upon him. Hence, Paul rests himself content (even is pleased with, Greek eudokeo [eudokew]), for Christ’s sake, in weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. None of these things is welcome to most of us at any time, but I have the impression that Paul would accept all five, each in robust measure, at once. He, as he tells the Philippians years later, has learned a secret—and the Lord has him put us in the know. Here is the takeaway for that day, and for our day: “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
No right-thinking man wants to be called weak. I suspect this is true for many a lady as well. Yet there are times, as noted at the outset, when we are weak. Let us not despair, and let us not slink into self-pity when weakness come. Rather, then, and precisely then, let us rejoice. Let us rejoice that the power of our three-in-one God is made perfect in our weakness. We, then, may be content—yea, we may delight, through the Spirit, for Christ’s sake—in weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. Therefore, in every circumstance, but especially when weakened, let us say, with the Lord through Paul, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
1 Commentators affirming this include Matthew Henry, Commentary (1708-14. Reprint, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991), and Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, Commentary Practical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (1871. Reprint, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1961)—known colloquially as Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown, or JFB, or J., F., & B.
2 See the entry on the Greek word paradeisos (paradeisoV) found in Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida, eds., Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1989).
3 This is the view of Johann Albrecht Bengel (1687-1752), a Lutheran pietist theologian, noted in JFB, 1253.