Professional football players are the best at it, I think. Picture the chest thumping after a quarterback sack, or the trash talking after a safety intercepts a pass right in front of the league’s top receiver, or the end zone dance of a running back after a touchdown. Can you see Seattle Seahawks’ cornerback, Richard Sherman, screaming into the microphone right after the Seahawks Super Bowl victory in 2014, “I am the best in the game.” That’s a sanitized version of what Sherman said in his boastful rant. Many professional football players are professional boasters.
But they aren’t alone in athletics, nor are athletes the only ones to boast of their success—some symphony conductors take an unusually showy bow, some business leaders write self-congratulatory memoirs, the occasional politician does a little chest thumping while declaring “Mission Accomplished.” Children learn this behavior quickly, as evidenced by my grandson strutting down the court recently after hitting a fantastic layup in a fourth grade basketball game. We are a society of boasters, even in the church, where we are bit more subtle and sanctified about it.
The false apostles in the church at Corinth weren’t a bit subtle or sanctified about their boasting, and that’s why Paul goes against his better judgment in our text and engages in a bit of boasting himself. “I must go on boasting. Although there was nothing to be gained by it….” Actually there was much to be gained by it; the stakes were very high. These false apostles, whom Paul sarcastically calls “super-apostles” in 12:11, had attacked Paul viciously. That had thrown Paul’s version of the Gospel into question and that in turn had severely shaken the Corinthian church. So Paul has been on a bit of a rant for a couple of chapters now, defending his ministry by boasting about himself to counter the way the super apostles boasted about themselves.
Paul’s boasting had been of a different sort, however. Rather than boasting of his accomplishments, Paul has just pointed to his sufferings in 11:16-33—not how well he had done as a missionary and church planter, but how much he had suffered in his Christ-given ministry. “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” (11:30) He would really like to be done with boasting after that outburst; he feels like a fool, sinking to the level of the super apostles (12:11). But for the sake of the church and the Gospel, he will take it a step further in our text for today. I’m glad he did, because in these words he gives us some of the New Testament’s most delectable tidbits for hungry preachers.
“I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord.” Apparently, Paul’s attackers had bragged about their supernatural experiences as proof of their status as real apostles, so Paul joins them, but with a very different tone. Indeed, he even refuses to directly name himself as the recipient of these visions and revelations, though it is patently obvious that he is talking about himself. (Verse 7 proves that; it was because of the surpassingly great revelations given to him that he was given a thorn in the flesh to keep him from becoming conceited.) “I know a man in Christ,” he says twice, who was “caught up to the third heaven or paradise.” Of course, there has been huge controversy over what Paul meant by “third heaven” and whether “paradise” is something other than the third heaven. Some think Paul is alluding here to the seven levels of heaven in late Judaism, and he might be. But others think he is simply referring to the dwelling of God, above outer space (the second heaven) and the earth’s stratosphere (the first heaven). Given the Hebraic parallelism between verses 2 and 3, it seems obvious to me that “paradise” is simply another name for the third heaven.
Whatever the case may be, Paul is clear that 14 years ago he was raptured (the Greek is harpagenta, the same word as I Thess. 4:17, the famous rapture passage) into the presence of God. Paul doesn’t know exactly what happened; whether it was “in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows.” And he doesn’t know how describe it; indeed, he was expressly forbidden to talk about it. So for 14 years he hasn’t talked about it, contrary to his foes who were always blabbing about their visions and revelations.
Paul believed that the experience he reveals here was not meant for public consumption; it was meant for his private edification. That is an important corrective for today’s tell-all church culture. People are not going to be won for Christ by tales of near death or after death experiences; they are won to Christ by the preaching of the Gospel. That’s why God gave Paul this experience. He was about to launch out into the world on his three/four missionary journeys. God knew what suffering lay ahead of Paul; indeed, just after Paul’s conversion, Jesus had told Paul how he would suffer “for my name.” (Acts 9:16) So, to prepare Paul for the suffering, God gave him an experience of heaven that would encourage him in even the most hellish moments. This vision was for the sake of the Gospel, not for the sake of Paul’s reputation.
But just because the Gospel was being threatened, Paul defends himself with this single reference to his own visions and revelation. Again, he doesn’t want any credit or glory, so he says, somewhat coyly, “I will boast about a man like that, but I would not boast about myself, except about my weakness.” Then he gets a bit more forthcoming, when he says, “Even if I should choose to boast, I will not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth.” This really happened to me, but I’m not going to say so directly, because I don’t want anyone to “think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say.” That’s a note Paul often sounds in his letters. Look at my life and listen to my words, my example of ministry and morals. That’s the proof that I’m the genuine article. But for this brief moment, I’ll drop my humble habits and let you know that when it comes to visions and revelations from the Lord, these super apostles have nothing on me.
To insure that Paul “didn’t get too conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given to me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.” Interpreters and preachers have gone wild with that nugget of autobiography. What was Paul’s “thorn in my flesh.” There are two great camps of interpretation, the larger of which takes “flesh” to mean physical body, the smaller of which takes it to mean “sinful nature.” The former think Paul is talking about a physical ailment like epilepsy, nearsightedness, depression, a hunch back (up to a dozen different diagnoses). The latter think Paul is referring to either human or demonic opponents who afflicted him spiritually by attacking his ministry. Though I had never thought of the second reading of flesh, it makes sense given the context here in II Corinthians.
Whatever the case, Paul is the poster boy for the suffering of those whom God uses in spectacular ways. Whether mega-church preacher or Christian teacher in a public school or businessman who uses his influence to help inner city kids or mom who blesses her children by being a refuge and a strength, every Christian whom God uses will get beat up. The word “torment” is the Greek kolaphidzo, to beat with fists to the point of humiliation, as the Roman guards did to Jesus before his crucifixion.
It happens to everyone whom God uses. Satan will come after them. Maybe we don’t like to think in those “spiritual warfare” terms; it seems too supernaturalistic. But Job and Jesus show us that it happens. God allows it to happen. And that is a great mystery, and a greater misery. With Jesus we cry out, “My God, my God, why…?” People like Job’s friends think that such suffering must be related to something the sufferer did wrong. But God and Jesus tell us that such suffering is about something else entirely. It’s about redemption—no, not that such suffering gains our redemption, but that suffering enables to discover the heights and depths of our redemption. Redemption will not only get us to the heights of “the third heaven,” but will also empower us even in the depths of suffering.
Suffering humbles us, throws us upon the mercy of God, makes us pray fervently, and teaches us that, finally, the grace of God is sufficient. These are lessons we don’t want to learn. Indeed, we do everything we can to avoid suffering. But there are times when God allows Satan to visit us with a thorn in the flesh precisely so that we will discover the all-sufficiency of God’s grace in Christ. How many times have I found myself with Paul (and Jesus) begging God to “remove this cup from me,” to “take it away from me,” to change the situation because it is killing me or someone I love. But God has something better in mind.
I wish that I always had Paul’s perspective. I’m glad he recorded this experience for me and all my suffering brothers and sisters. The very voice of Jesus breaks into my pitiful begging with a magnificent word of grace. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” As long as we are self-sufficient, the power of God will not shine through us. Folks will hear us preach, watch us lead, enjoy our pastoring, admire our character, and praise us. It will all be about us, as it was with the “super apostles.” It’s only when we are weak that God’s power will be displayed in us. We won’t have to seek to be weak. We just need to be open to the grace of God when we are weak. Rather than feverishly trying to pull out the thorn or frantically banging on the door to the throne room, Paul shows us that the path to peace and to powerful ministry lies in accepting the sufficiency of grace.
I’m not yet where Paul landed. “Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weakness, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” Paul uses a lovely image there; the word “rest” is episkenose, which has the word “tent” at its core. The power of Christ will pitch its tent on me. That’s reminiscent of the Word becoming flesh and “tabernacling” among us (John 1:14). As we journey through the wilderness that is filled with suffering, the power of Jesus will be like a tent over us. No, it won’t shelter us from the storm. But it will empower us to do ministry through the storms, if we embrace our weakness.
Paul puts it stronger than that. He wants to talk about boasting one more time; then he never mentions it again in this letter to the Corinthians. “I will boast… about my weakness,” contrary to the superheroes, who boast about their strengths. “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weakness, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Paul isn’t being morbidly ascetic here. He is being entirely realistic about the Christian life. If we truly follow Christ, we will be attacked. What matters is how we deal with the attacks. If we turn to God in prayer, accept the all-sufficient grace of God whatever form it takes, and maintain a Christ-like attitude toward our suffering, then our weakness will be used by God in stronger ways than we can imagine.
This text is so rich that I can think of four very different sermons based on it: a sermon on boasting directed at children and young people; a sermon on supernatural experiences directed at the super-spiritual saints in our churches; a sermon on thorns directed at those who suffer terribly; and a sermon on the sufficiency of grace for those who find that ministering in Jesus name is almost unbearably difficult.
Don’t preach on thorns and all sufficient grace too lightly. As I worked my way through Paul’s powerful testimony, I remembered the unspeakable suffering of a loved one who had shingles for 9 weeks. The pain drove her wild with agony, and the prospect of having that excruciating pain for the rest of her life moved her to utter despair. The message of all sufficient grace sounded hollow in the midst of such suffering. And I thought of a friend whose wife and daughter where in a terrible car crash that left both of them brain damaged in ways that will affect the rest of their lives. How can grace be sufficient for them? The only way to preach such grace and not infuriate sufferers is to focus on the suffering of God Incarnate, a suffering so horrible that he begged three times to have it removed.
As I meditated on Paul’s sober experience with “unanswered” prayer, I saw a smiling TV evangelist promising his congregation that if they would name and claim the promises of God, they would get a life filled with health and wealth. People love him because of how upbeat his messages are. Paul offers a very different kind of hope in our text for today. Which message is the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 5, 2015
2 Corinthians 12:2-10 Commentary