2 Cor 11:19-12:9
The risen Lord had confronted Saul on the road to Damascus as he was journeying there to persecute the Christians. Blinded, for three days and nights he did not eat or drink. And then the Lord said to the disciple Ananias, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.”
This was probably not the assignment Ananias wanted to receive. He answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.”
However, the Lord replied, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
The reader of Acts soon discovers that the Lord was not kidding. After Paul begins preaching in Damacus there is plot against his life, and he must escape the city by being lowered in a basket through an opening in the city wall. In city after city he faces persecution from the Jews and must move on to the next city to proclaim the Gospel. At Lystra he was stoned to the point that people thought he was dead. At Phlippi he was beaten with rods and thrown in jail. In Jerusalem there was a plot against his life and he was imprisoned by the Romans for two and half years. On the trip to Rome his ship sank after a terrible storm.
Yet as we listen to our text this morning, we quickly realize that Acts provides just a glimpse of the ways that Paul suffered for the name of Jesus. The Book of Acts is not exhaustive – it does not tell us about everything that Paul did and experienced. In our text this morning, Paul gives a much more complete run down of the suffering he experienced for the sake of the Gospel. He does it in order to respond to the challenge of false teachers who had come to Corinth. Yet even as he provides his credentials as an apostle, he undercuts himself by saying that because of Christ, he will only boast of his weaknesses.
In this section of Second Corinthians Paul is responding to false teachers who had come to Corinth. Paul is deeply concerned. Earlier in chapter eleven he writes, “But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough.”
Paul leaves no doubt what he thinks about these false teachers. He says, “For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.”
These opponents of Paul obviously presented themselves has being impressive servants of Christ, because Paul mockingly calls them “the super apostles.” He wrote, “Indeed, I consider that I am not in the least inferior to these super-apostles. Even if I am unskilled in speaking, I am not so in knowledge; indeed, in every way we have made this plain to you in all things.”
The Greco-Roman world placed tremendous emphasis on rhetoric – on the specific ways and patterns in which you developed arguments, and then ornamented them with figures of speech. The entire education system focused on developing these skills. And in this area, Paul was not very strong. It simply had not been an emphasis during his education in Judaism. To be sure his speaking and writing was theologically profound. But it wasn’t presented in a way that was going to impress Greco-Roman hearers.
Paul granted this. But when it came to “super-apostles’” claims about being superior servants of Christ – this he could not let stand. However, the refutation of this claim placed Paul in an ironic position, since it meant boasting about what he had done. Though in this instance it was necessary to do so, Paul knew it was foolish. He says just before our text, “I repeat, let no one think me foolish. But even if you do, accept me as a fool, so that I too may boast a little. What I am saying with this boastful confidence, I say not with the Lord's authority but as a fool. Since many boast according to the flesh, I too will boast.”
In our text Paul says, “Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one--I am talking like a madman--with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death.” Paul goes on to list the many hardships he has experienced. Yet at the end of chapter eleven the apostle introduces what he really thinks about all of this, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.”
This statement prepares us for what Paul then says in chapter twelve, the text about Paul’s famous “thorn in the flesh.” Paul goes on to talk about visions and revelations of the Lord. He relates that he was caught up into paradise, and heard things that cannot be told. This tops anything his “super-apostle” opponents can claim.
But then Paul says, “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
There has been all kinds of speculation about what this “thorn in the flesh” was. There is some evidence to suggest it was some kind of eye problem, but we really don’t know for sure. What is far more important is the spiritual role for which God used it. Paul said it was used by God to keep him from becoming conceited.
None of us wants the difficulties and hardships that we encounter in life. And of course, we think of them as being bad things – things that hamper and hinder us from that best life that we should be enjoying. But because of the old Adam in us – the continuing presence of sin – that is not how God views them. Instead he allows them because we need them. In God’s loving care they serve a purpose that is spiritually beneficial for us. They crucify the old Adam in us. They reveal that we are not in charge. They force us to turn to God and sharpen our spiritual focus on him.
Paul describes how three times he asked the Lord to remove this problem. Yet the Lord’s answer to him was, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” The Lord told Paul that his power reaches its goal – that it is present in the way God intends – in weakness.
And therefore Paul goes on to say at the end of our text, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
We gain some insight into what Paul means from what he said earlier in chapter four when the he was talking about his apostleship. There he said, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.”
What is the power that is perfected in our weakness? What is the power that enables Paul to say that “when I am weak, then I am strong”? It is the life of the risen Lord Jesus. Jesus Christ gave himself into the death of the cross. He gave himself up to weakness, suffering and death. He did it to give us forgiveness and a holy standing before God. And then on the third day God raised Jesus from the dead. He defeated death and began the life that can never die – a life that he has already given to us by faith and which he will give to us bodily when he raises us up on the Last Day.
Jesus has given us this life through the work of his Spirit. We received it in Holy Baptism. We continue to receive it through all of the Means of Grace. Because we know Jesus the risen and exalted Lord, we have the certainty of God’s love and care. Through the work of the Spirit – the One present in us now who will raise our bodies on the Last Day just as he did for Jesus on Easter – we have the power that enables us to be strong in the ways that really matter when we are weak.
The more we rely on the power of Jesus’ life, the better off we are – even if this means the presence of weakness in our own life. As the Lord said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Weakness and hardships are not the absence of God’s love.
Because we are baptized we know that instead they are God at work as he guides, and even forces us, to rely on him. They are God at work for our good because they move us to rely on the one power that leads to resurrection and eternal life with God. They cause us to focus in faith and rely on the life of the crucified and risen Lord Jesus. For in his unending life we have the power that enables us to live as God’s children in this pilgrimage that leads to the Last Day.