Ready When Sickness Comes to Stay

| 2 Corinthians 4:16-18; 12:7-10

The Point:  God’s grace is sufficient – even in times of sickness.

Do not Lose Heart:  2 Corinthians 4:16-18.

[16]  So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. [17]  For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, [18]  as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.  [ESV]

[16-18]  “Paul begins a series of contrasts between the present affliction and the eternal glory that follows: outer self / inner self [16]; wasting away / being renewed [16]; light / beyond all comparison [17]; momentary / eternal [17]; affliction / glory [17]; seen / unseen [18]. The outer self is the whole person as seen by others from without and the inner self is one’s unseen personally, visible only to God and (in part) to oneself. Paul’s mortal existence is constantly wasting away and rushing headlong toward death. Paul’s inner existence is always being renewed and proceeding toward ever increasing glory [3:18; 4:11]. He is not opposing body and soul, but the inner human being from the outer human being, existence determined by worldly circumstances and possibilities from existence determined by the power of the One who raised Christ from the dead. The outer person is what belongs to this world that is temporary and crumbling and what those who only evaluate things from a fleshly perspective can see. By contrast, the inner person belongs to what has ultimate significance and is being transformed and prepared for resurrection life through God’s matchless power. Some Corinthians were judging Paul only from outward appearances and from a wrongheaded view about how God works in this world and what God has in store for those who faithfully serve. Paul will confess in 5:16 that he too once judged Christ from the same outward, worldly criteria and, as a result, entirely misjudged Him. Only after his conversion could he see beyond the damning judgment of the law, that everyone hanged on a tree is accursed of God [Deut. 21:22-23; Gal. 3:13], and recognize that the crucified Jesus was the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me [Gal. 2:20]. He now no longer looks at persons from this superficial, worldly perspective; and the Corinthians should not either – particularly God’s apostles, who pattern their lives after the sacrificial suffering and death of Christ. The Corinthians need to understand that the Christian’s inner life is constantly being transformed into glory even as its earthly embodiment decays and dies. The present tense, being renewed, points to a continuing process [see Col. 3:10]. The phrase day by day suggests that it is not progressively accomplished but is repeated all over again each day. Paul has said that this renewal comes through continual fellowship with the risen Christ and the power of the Spirit so that the believer is being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another [3:18]. As his outward life conforms ever more closely to the crucified Christ, his inward life conforms ever more closely to the glorified Christ. Most cannot see this transformation because they only look at the outer surface of humans. From this vantage point, it looks like Paul is falling apart instead of being gloriously renewed. In verse 17 Paul characterizes the present, which is marked by tribulation, as brief in duration and trifling in comparison to what God has in store for believers. He uses the same terms to describe this glory (beyond all comparison) that he used to describe his sufferings in Asia when he says that he was utterly burdened beyond our strength [1:8]. The Greek term means “beyond all measure” or “to be weighted down.” He now evaluates that affliction and all his afflictions differently. The incredible, eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison outweighs any earthly afflictions and makes them look like a tiny storm in a teacup. Since the persecution affects only the outer nature that is wasting away, it is destined to pass and to be replaced by something far more glorious. Paul regards his suffering in this way because of his faith and hope in God who will deliver him. In verse 18 Paul draws a conclusion from the previous verses. He focuses his attention on what is really real and ultimately significant (see Phil. 3:14). Spiritual transformation cannot be documented in a laboratory with empirical experiments any more than the truth of the resurrection can be proven scientifically. To believe that God raised Christ from the dead after such a shameful death requires extraordinary faith. To believe that God will do the same for Christ’s followers who are conformed to Christ’s death requires just as much faith, since all the outward evidence suggests otherwise. Paul’s supreme confidence in God’s promise and God’s power rips away the veil of suffering and tears that otherwise would blind him to the glorious heavenly existence that comes after death (see Phil. 3:19). The contrast between the seen and unseen, the temporary and the eternal, is carried over to 5:1 where what is visible and temporary is the earthly tent-house; what is not seen and is eternal is the heavenly building from God.”  [Garland, pp. 238-244].

God’s Grace is Sufficient:  2 Corinthians 12:7-10.

[7]  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. [8]  Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. [9]  But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. [10]  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.  [ESV]

“Paul introduces the thorn in the flesh as stemming from the surpassing greatness of the revelations. He could be referring to the quantity of the revelations and implying that he has received many others besides this one fourteen-year-old revelation. It is more likely, however, that he refers to the quality of the revelations. Over elation from the incredible experience of being allowed entry into paradise could easily lead to an over inflation of one’s ego so that one feels superior to others less blessed by heavenly visions. To prevent such spiritual pride from welling up in Paul, he was given a thorn in the flesh. Note the emphasis Paul places on becoming conceited by mentioning it twice in this verse. The passive voice (was given) implies that God gave the thorn in the flesh to Paul. Paul’s thorn was an effective cure for any mistaken euphoria that visions might evoke. God wanted Paul to remain humble and fully aware of his own weakness. The thorn punctured any pride that might surge within him because of his grand entry into heaven, and the result was that he dealt with others with the meekness and gentleness of Christ [10:1] rather than with the arrogant puffery of Satan. The exact nature of this thorn in the flesh has prompted much speculation. Paul does not go into any detail in describing it because the Corinthians apparently were well familiar with what he meant. The word translated thorn occurs only here in the New Testament. It refers to something pointed such as a stake for impaling, a medical instrument, or a thorn. The metaphor carries the notion of something sharp and painful which sticks deeply in the flesh and in the will of God defies extracting. But in the end we must accept the fact that we will never know for certain what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was. We can only be certain that initially it caused him considerable annoyance. What is important to Paul is the theological word-to-the-wise that his stake in the flesh provided him. It was a constant reminder of God’s grace and God’s power working through him. The verb harass implies humiliating violence – being slapped around; and the present tense suggests that it was persistent – something that happens over and over again. What is sent to torment Paul is transformed by God into a means of proclaiming Christ’s power and grace. This surprising twist reflects the paradoxical way God defeats Satan. God permits Satan to strike the apostle, but God turns the stricken Paul into an even greater instrument of His power. A proud, arrogant Paul would have only hindered the gospel’s advance. A humiliated, frail Paul has accelerated the gospel’s progress so that the fragrance of knowing God spreads everywhere [2:14]. Paul’s initial prayer entreating the Lord to remove the thorn indicates that he did not initially appreciate the significance of this affliction nor was it something easily borne. Few are able to value the onset of anything unpleasant or difficult, and they usually grasp its value only in retrospect. Paul may have thought at first that this thorn would stymie the effectiveness of his ministry, so he desperately wanted it removed. The three times may signify “earnest and repeated prayer,” time and time again. Times come in our lives when we must learn to accept what is inescapable and then listen for what God is saying to us through it. We might find that we are mistaken about what we think is best for us and for God’s work. The answer Paul received to his prayer was, My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Paul does not give us the details about how he received this answer from the Lord. Did it come in another vision? He said to me is in the perfect tense, which means that the answer he received still stands. Paul learns that the thorn will not hamper his calling. He can make do with the grace he has already received, and the power of Christ will become more visible as it works through his weakness. We learn from the message given to Paul that God’s grace is not just the unmerited favor that saves us but a force that also sustains us throughout our lives. The modifier my in my power is important. Paul is not speaking about power in general, but the power of Christ revealed in the crucifixion and resurrection. Paul has testified to this power in 1:8-10. In Asia he was utterly, unbearably crushed but he was rescued by God’s power which raises the dead. The cracked clay vessel, buffeted and battered, is held together by the extraordinary power of God [4:7]. When this earthly tent is destroyed, Paul exudes confidence that the power of God will raise him up and give him a house, not made with hands, eternal in the heavens [5:1]. The miracle is that this same divine power that accomplishes all that God wills dwells in a frail, persecuted, and abased apostle. The verb made perfect means “brought to completion” or “is made fully present.” The present tense indicates that it is not yet a finished product but that it is still in process of being made perfect. This answer from the Lord helps Paul to regard the thorn no longer as the vexing mischief of Satan; instead, he recognizes that through it the grace of God operates more effectively. The thorn makes him acutely aware of his own inadequacies and prevents him from thinking that he is equal to the task alone. It prevents a bloated ego from crowding out the power of God in his life. Paul now reveals why he is so willing to boast in his weakness rather than to pray for its removal. His weakness becomes the vehicle by which God’s grace and Christ’s power is most fully manifested to himself and to others. What makes Paul seem so weak to some paradoxically allows the power of Christ to work through him all the more. The thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan, broadcasts his weakness both to himself and to others; but it does not mean that he is under Satan’s dominion and not a true apostle. On the contrary, it makes the power of Christ working in him more transparent. The verb rest recalls the Old Testament imagery of God dwelling with the people [Num. 35:34]. Christ’s powerful presence has made Paul, fragile vessel of clay that he is, His home. Again Paul would emphasize to the Corinthians that it is his weakness, not his enchanting heavenly visions, that allows the power of Christ to be perfected and to be revealed more clearly to others. Paul’s weakness plus Christ’s power equals perfect power. He does not glory in his weakness or incapacity as such, except that it makes clear that the extraordinary power displayed in him, in spite of the absence of any apparent glory and success according to the world’s standards, does not come from him but from God. If Paul boasted in his own strength, thinking that by himself he was equal to any task or any calamity, he would then cancel out the power of God in his life. He is therefore most powerful when he is least reliant on his own resources. Illusions of our own strength cause us to overlook divine power and results in our rebelliousness against God. For this reason God brings low the proud who lift themselves up and believe their own hype that they are special in and of themselves. God requires total, unconditional surrender of our pride. When we accept our own weakness, we then also learn that we must totally rely upon God. This is why the thorn was not some temporary lesson that God would allow quickly to pass. The principle that the power of God rests on the humble can be found throughout the Old Testament. The divine answer Paul received to his entreaty means that he now gladly boasts in his weaknesses because they show both God’s grace and power most clearly. Fascination with visions and heavenly journeys are unimportant: it is how God works through his human weakness that is more significant and confirms his legitimacy as an apostle. Paul’s whole apostolic ministry may be summed up in weakness. It does not denote God’s disfavor, but quite the reverse. Paul scores his point with a memorable aphorism, when I am weak, then I am strong, which is the key for interpreting all that he says in this section. The point is the same as in 4:7. The power working in Paul is most clearly seen as coming from God when he appears to be weak. I am content means that he accepts the way Christ’s power works in his life through his weaknesses. That does not mean that he does not groan under the load of suffering [5:2,4] and long for the mortal to be swallowed up by life [5:4]. But he knows that his suffering follows the precedent of Christ’s suffering. It was something that God enables him to endure, not escape. What he endures, he endures for the sake of Christ, and the paradox of the power of God hidden in his apparent weakness parallels Christ’s weakness and power demonstrated in the crucifixion. The false apostles keep the Corinthians from seeing how Christ’s power is at work in him and lead them away from the cross of Christ. Paul’s goal is not simply to defend himself, but to help them see things correctly through the proper spiritual lens.”  [Garland, pp. 518-527].   

Questions for Discussion:

1.         List the series of contrasts Paul gives us in 4:16-18. What is Paul’s main point in these contrasts? Pray that God will continually enable you to focus your attention on the eternal and not the worldly.

2.         Why did God give Paul a thorn in the flesh? What did Paul learn from God not removing the thorn? Why is pride or being conceited such a hindrance to Christian service? Pray that God will protect you from pride and give you contentment with your weaknesses. Meditate on the significance of Paul’s statement: when I am weak, then I am strong.

References:

The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul Barnett, Eerdmans.

2 Corinthians, David Garland, NAC, Broadman.

II Corinthians, Simon Kistemaker, Baker.