2 Cor 11:19-12:9
There is no NFL quarterback of any era who would want to get into a competition with Tom Brady when it comes to comparing accomplishments. Brady is widely recognized as the “GOAT” – the acronym for “greatest of all time.” And while “greatest” is an adjective that is thrown around in sports so easily today in a world that has no sense of history – in Brady’s case there is no doubt about it.
Tom Brady holds almost every major quarterback record such as passing yards, completions, touchdown passes, and games started. He is the NFL leader in career quarterback regular season wins, quarterback playoff wins, and Super Bowl MVP awards. Brady holds the amazing record for winning seven Super Bowls, and playing in ten of them.
Like Tom Brady, no one should have wanted to get into a competition with St. Paul when it came to comparing oneself with his work and suffering for the sake of Jesus Christ. And yet, people showed up in Corinth who boasted about their work for Christ and invited just such a comparison.
We learn that men had arrived at Corinth bearing letters of recommendation. They claimed to be authoritative and important teachers. In fact, Paul mocks them as the “super-apostles.” However, there was no doubt in Paul’s mind about what these teachers really were. He wrote at the beginning of chapter eleven: “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.”
These men proclaimed false teaching, and while they might appear to be pious, Paul was very direct in his evaluation of them when he said: “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.”
The Greco-Roman world’s education system was based on teaching rhetoric – the accepted rules for constructing and delivering speeches. Paul granted that this was not his strength. His education has been in the Jewish setting that focused on Scripture and its interpretation. But while the apostle did not have the rhetorical skills that the world prized so highly, what he did have was authoritative knowledge from God. And so just before our text he writes: “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.”
Paul makes it clear in our text that he was not one to boast. This was not the way of Christ. However, because of what the false teachers were saying, the apostle saw that he had needed to shut down their argument. He says in the verses 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.”
Paul says in our text, that when it comes to Jewish pedigree that he can match up with anyone. Then he adds, “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.” This kind of boasting is not what Paul wants to do. But has been left no choice, and so in our text he provides an incredible list of the hardships he endured as a faithful apostle of Jesus Christ: again and again he has risked his life and suffered in order to proclaim the Gospel.
In the midst of the list about beatings, shipwrecks, and danger, Paul introduces a theme with which he will culminate our text. He says, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” As we will see, Paul says that instead he will boast of weaknesses, because to boast of these is to point to the presence of the power of Christ in his life.
In the second half of our text, Paul goes on to talk about visions and revelations of the Lord. He focuses on one experience in particular that had happened fourteen years ago in which he had been caught up into paradise – what he describes as the “third heaven” – where he had he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.
Then the apostle reveals, “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.” We do not know what this “thorn in the flesh was.” There has been much speculation, but there is no way of knowing.
What is clear is that this was a great hardship and burden for Paul. The apostle says that “Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.” But the Lord’s answer was not to take it away. Instead he told Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” And then Paul returns to the thought we heard earlier as he says: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” And he goes on to add in the verse just after our text: “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.”
Paul says that he will boast in his weakness. However, we don’t like to experience weakness. We don’t want to experience weaknesses, insults, hardships, and calamities, and we certainly find it difficult to be content in the midst of them.
Why can the apostle Paul speak this way? He can because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Earlier in this letter the apostle writes, “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” Paul says that one died for all, therefore all have died. By this death God has reconciled us to himself, because through the death of Jesus God has judged our sin. The apostle adds, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Christ died to remove the sin that cut us off from God. Because of Christ, we have been reconciled to God. Yet Christ’s saving work – his work freeing us from sin – could not stop in death. As we just heard, Paul says that for our sake Christ died and was raised.
When the Spirit of God raised Jesus from the dead God demonstrated that he had been at work in the midst of weakness. He had been at work in the midst of the suffering, shame, and humiliation of the cross. And now the resurrection life of Jesus is at work in us through the Spirit. Paul says in this letter, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
As those who have received the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit in baptism, this living power is at work in us. It is God’s power – the power of the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead. It is Christ the risen Lord sustaining us through his Spirit. In the midst of our weakness, it is the life of Christ given to us by the Spirit that manifests itself.
Paul expressed this very strongly earlier in this letter when we spoke about his ministry and of those with him like Timothy as he wrote: “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.”
Paul wanted to be freed of the thorn in the flesh. Of course he did! No one chooses suffering and difficulties. But the Lord’s answer to him was, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” In our weakness we find that we must to rely on God, and so God’s power reaches it consummation and goal. God’s power is the power of the resurrection of Jesus. It the life that has begun in Christ and now is shared with us by the Spirit. It is the life that will find its final outcome when Jesus raises our bodies from the dead on the Last Day, and transforms them to be like him.
Just after our text Paul adds: “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.” In our weakness we trust in the strength of God revealed in Jesus Christ’s resurrection.
The apostle said something very similar to the Philippians when he wrote, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” This is followed by the famous verse in Philippians 4:13 which is often translated as, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” This very smooth translation gives the false impression that the apostle is saying God’s strengthening power enables us to do anything. Instead, a more accurate translation is, “I have strength with respect to all things in the One who strengthens me.” The “all things” are the plenty and hunger, abundance and need that Paul has just mentioned. The apostle says that through God who strengthens him, he has the ability to live with all the things that occur in life.
The Lord told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul’s conclusion drawn from this is, “Therefore 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.”
The apostle’s inspired words teach us that Jesus Christ the risen Lord is the source of power and strength for our lives. The One who became sin for us to reconcile us to God died on the cross. But on the third day, God raised him from the dead by the work of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit – the Spirit of Christ – is the resurrection power at work in us. In the midst of weaknesses, hardships, and challenges we find that we do not have the strength to cope. Instead, like Paul, we rely and trust on the power of God – the power of Christ – present in our life through the Spirit.
If we are to live in this way, then we must focus our lives on those ways – those means – by which the Spirit of Christ comes to us. We must make God’s Word a center piece of our life. We need to be reading Scripture during the week, for the Spirit who inspired those words uses them as the means by which he gives us the strength that can only find in Christ. We need to be dwelling in faith on our baptism as we think about the promises God has attached to water and the Word. And of course, we need to be coming to the Divine Service to receive the word of absolution; to hear God’s Word proclaimed to us; and especially, to receive the true body and blood of Jesus Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar which is food for the new man.
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” The weakness of our life is where we find God at work to give us power and strength. We know this is true because God has given us forgiveness in the death of Jesus Christ. We know this is true because God raised Jesus from the dead, and the Spirit who did that is now at work in you the baptized child of God. The resurrection life of Jesus is at work in you now to give you power and strength in the midst of weakness. And our Lord will destroy all of your weakness when he raises you up on the Last Day.