God's Grace is Sufficient For You
2 Corinthians 12:1–10 – 2 Corinthians: A Testimony to Suffering in the Power of God
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost – September 1, 2019 (am)
I’d like to begin by thanking Daryle for setting us up so well with the end of last week’s message. Daryle’s concluding questions from last week continue to be the driving questions in our text this week.
1. How do you evaluate effective gospel ministry and therefore effective gospel ministers?
2. How effectively do you embody a willingness to suffer in your calling as a minister of the gospel?
And it is helpful to review his conclusion from last week as well: “We need to recognize that as we grow in our understanding of God and His ways, we’re continually going to be needing to recalibrate the standard by which we evaluate weakness and strength.”
So let’s keep these at the forefront of our minds as we engage our text this morning
To these questions I’d like to add two of my own to get us thinking in the right direction
1. Are you able to say in the ups and downs of your life – that God’s grace is sufficient for you? OR Better yet . . . would those who know you be able to say God’s grace is sufficient for you?
2. If so, what would they point to in your life to back up their statement? Which of your life experiences would they point to in order to prove it?
Context of our Passage
Before we look at our passage specifically, let’s consider it in its context. Paul is continuing to respond to the accusations being made against him by a group Paul has deemed the “super-apostles” (12:11). They’ve called into question his ministry claiming to be better apostles than he is and for proof they have done two things. They’ve criticized Paul’s weaknesses and they’ve boasted in the strength of their own credentials.
We can see the particular weaknesses this group found in Paul by looking at Paul’s quotations of their accusations against him. First we see in 2 Corinthians 10:1, “I who am humble when face to face with you, but bold toward you when I am away. Then just a few verses later we see in 2 Corinthians 10:10, “For they say, ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account.’” And finally in 2 Corinthians 11:6 Paul says, “Even if I am unskilled in speaking, I am not so in knowledge.”
So the particular weaknesses the Super Apostles found in Paul begin with his appearance. Apparently they found Paul’s appearance physically unimpressive. They combined this with critique of his speaking ability, calling it “of no account” and “not in keeping with the boldness of his letters.” The combination of these two critiques amount to calling him a coward – he speaks strong words from far away, but is weak in their presence.
Paul’s response to them in 2 Corinthians 11:22-23 shows us what they boasted in to exalt their own strength: “Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one.” So it seems that they take pride in their Jewish heritage and claim to be servants of Christ. Their strengths, what makes them super apostles, in part is their ethnic and religious pedigree.
The sad reality, to which Paul is now responding, is that these accusations and boasting have swayed the hearts of some in the Corinthian church towards these super apostles, and their gospel and away from Paul, and his gospel. The effect is that Paul feels forced to respond to what this group is saying, though he admits that to do so requires him to venture into the realm of utter foolishness. But he does so out of his love for the Corinthian church that they might see him as a true apostle, and be won back to Christ.
Our passage this morning continues his response to this scenario. Paul addresses one last boast the super-apostles were guilty of making to validate their ministry and then he communicates what is the true mark of a gospel minister. Let’s turn now to our passage which we’ll discuss in three points which you can find in your bulletin
1. Insufficient Proof of True Gospel Ministers
Just like they boasted in being Hebrews, Israelites, offspring of Abraham, and servants of Christ – it appears by Paul’s response here in chapter 12 that the Super Apostles also boasted in their personal visions and revelations of Christ. As Paul did in ch. 11, he meets them in their claim to be true apostles according to their visions, by sharing a vision of his own, not because he delights in trumping their religious experience with his own, but because he’s been forced into it by the Corinthians church. But he does so with such an awareness of the foolishness that exists in the comparison of divinely given visions that he won’t even speak of himself in the first person. Instead, he speaks of himself in the third person, keeping his own experience at arm’s length
And here is what he tells us: He had a revelation of the Lord, Jesus Christ, fourteen years ago. This means his vision was towards the beginning of his ministry and as such, is a previously unrecorded experience – this is the first time he’s spoken of it. In his vision, he was caught up into the Third heaven, into paradise. According to Jewish cosmology, this was the highest heaven in a three tiered of understanding of the heavens where the realm of birds was the first, the realm of the sun, moon, and stars is the second, and the realm of God is the third. And he heard things there that cannot be told, which man may not utter. And that’s all we get – because what he heard, he can’t share
In summary, Paul’s response to the Super Apostles visions is this: A guy I know once had a vision of heaven too, and he heard some stuff but he can’t tell you what he heard. Now I don’t know about you – but if I were trying to choose which church I was going to go to based on the heavenly revelations of the pastors, I’m probably not going to end up at Paul’s church. And that is exactly the conclusion Paul is getting at. Sure he could have spiced up his story quite a bit. He could drop the whole “there’s a man I know” bit and just say “I.” He could start by saying “Oh yeah, you’ve had some visions, well I’ve been to heaven.” He could lose the part about “whether in body or out of body, I don’t know, God knows” and he could throw in a few of the things he heard while in heaven
If he were to spice up his account in any of these ways, he wouldn’t be a fool on the basis of being a liar, because as v. 6 says, he would be telling the truth, which may be a subtle hint that the visions of the Super Apostles were sharing weren’t even true. But he doesn’t, instead he says, “I refrain from it.” And here is why “so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me” (12:6b).
What is Paul doing here? Paul is taking on and tearing down the notion that someone’s heavenly visions and revelations validate their status as true gospel minister, as a pastor worth listening to, and following. Even though he’s had visions and revelations of his own, he shares them in a completely unimpressive way, lest he become like these Super Apostles – boasting in his credentials as a minister of the gospel. Then with a play on words, he says, I refrain from boasting in my vision lest anyone think “more of” me than he sees in me or hears from me. The word translated “more” is the same word translated as “super” in the term “Super Apostles.” So Paul is saying, I don’t want to share about my private mystical experiences of Christ lest people think me more “super” than I really am! The only basis Paul would have people judge his apostleship on, is in what they see in him and hear from him.
This example is a gift to the church, and it is not just humility on Paul’s part, it is ordained by God, let me explain. When Paul says – he heard things that cannot be told – the idea is not that Paul couldn’t put the things he heard while in heaven into words, like they were too amazing to recount. The idea is that he has been forbidden from telling what he heard by God, because God would not have Paul validate his ministry through his God given private revelations of Christ. This vision served a different purpose. I believe it was a gift from God to Paul. Perhaps it was to strengthen Paul for the suffering he would experience as an apostle. Perhaps it was to bolster his faith in the realities that lay beyond what he could see. But whatever purpose it served, it served it for Paul and Paul alone. It was not to be used to leverage Paul’s authority over the church and it certainly wasn’t to be a source of pride for Paul as he compared himself to other ministers. No matter how amazing it was, it was entirely insufficient as proof of his genuineness as an apostleship of Jesus Christ. And here’s why, anyone can have (or say that they have had) a vision of God’s throne room. Who is to debate it with them? They were the only ones there. So that can’t be the basis for someone’s leadership in the church.
This is a gift for the church, but one that history has proven has not been followed. How many movements, cults, or other religions are based on the revelations and visions claimed to have been had by the leader alone. How many people, well meaning but immature Christ followers, have been led astray because they’ve been impressed by the spiritual experiences claimed by their leaders? Let’s heed Paul’s words here, I would save you the heart ache of being taken in by false teachers, so if they are prone to speaking often of their own personal spiritual experiences – beware of them
So how would Paul have us determine who is a genuine minister of the gospel, who is a pastor worth listening to and following, if not those who boast in their spiritual revelations? In 12:6 Paul says to evaluate them not on what they tell you about themselves, but by what you see in them and hear from them. What should you see and hear? Let’s move on to the next point.
2. The Defining Mark of True Gospel Ministers
Now I don’t want to give you the wrong impression from the title of this point. It is not as if Paul moves from not boasting in revelation, to boasting in something else. Paul isn’t saying, my revelations don’t prove me to be a true apostle, but here is what does, at least not in so many words. What Paul does, is he points to his weakness, and to a word he received from the Lord in the midst of his weakness, and while at no point does he say – here is what makes me a true gospel minister! – we can’t miss the fact that he is demonstrating it, he is embodying it, he’s being a minister of the gospel before the eyes and the ears of the Corinthian church . . . if only they will see it and hear it.
Let’s read once again what he says: Beginning in v. 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. 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.” 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.”
A few interpretive questions arise from this passage. First, what is this thorn? The short answer is, we don’t know. It seems most likely to me to have been a physical weakness, perhaps a disability of some sort but at the end of the day, Paul doesn’t tell us what it is, and it is to our advantage to not know for it allows us to see that God’s Word in this passage isn’t limited in its application to a certain weakness. It allows us to apply God’s Word of encouragement to our weaknesses as well.
What does Paul tell us about this thorn? First, he tells us it’s origin – it is a messenger of Satan come with the purpose of harassing Paul but ultimately it is allowed by God. God allows it for the purpose of keeping Paul humble – keeping him from becoming like the Super Apostles and boasting in himself, in particular, to keep him from boasting in the revelation he just finished describing.
Second, Paul tells us he didn’t immediately receive it as a being from God or a tool of God’s purposes. Rather he prayed three times to have it removed. This shows us that while Paul had a category for understanding suffering as part of God’s good plans, he also had a category for suffering being outside God’s good plans, and part of living in a fallen world with a spiritual enemy. Thus he asks God to take it away.
Third, Paul tells us that having prayed three times, and having received this Word from God – “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” – he humbly accepts it is as being from God. And then he goes on to boast in it, and in all his weaknesses, because, according to this Word he’s received, God’s doing something great through them. He’s using them as the means by which Paul will experience Christ’s gracious power in His life.
All of this comes at the conclusion of Paul’s argument defending his ministry against the accusations of the Super Apostles. So what is it in this story of Paul’s thorn in the flesh that indicates Paul is a true minister of the gospel? As I said before, it isn’t found in his direct words, rather it is found in what we see in his words, in his example. So we must ask, what has Paul just done here by ending his defense with this story of his thorn in the flesh?
First, he has refusal to boast in himself. It is completely contrary to the life of an apostle to be self-exalting. In 2 Corinthians 10:17-18 Paul said, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends.” So it is Paul’s humility that proves he is a true apostle
Second, in Paul’s humble defense of himself – he points the Corinthians not to himself, but to God. If you were on Paul’s advisory board, you might say, “Paul, if there ever was a time to speak defend yourself and list your qualifications for ministry it is now.” The future of the Corinthian church could depend upon it! Yet rather than talking about himself, he says, I am weak – and God has made me weak – but here is what I know, God’s power is made perfect in my weakness.
Third, in pointing them to God and not even once of his own credentials, Paul may very well be sacrificing his own ministry in Corinth out of a desire to keep their relationships with God at the forefront of their minds. Such self sacrificial love smells a whole lot like Christ. This giving of himself, and refusal to fight back, for the sake of the church mirror’s Jesus’ actions in the garden of Gethsemane before he went to the cross and when we see Paul’s reference to praying three times before giving into God’s will, just as Jesus prayed in Gethesmane for the cup of suffering to be removed from him, we can’t help but wonder if Paul had this in mind as he lived out Christ’s example before the Corinthian church.
If the Corinthian church were perceptive, what they see, and hear from Paul’s example is the gospel. Thus the defining mark of the gospel minister is that he embodies the gospel message of self sacrificial love for his flock. So in summary, Paul refuses to commend himself, but tells a story of his own weakness, and God’s strength, in order to point them back to God – and in so doing displays the mark of a true gospel minister.
Before moving on I want us to remember again 2 Corinthians 10:18 where Paul said, “. . . it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends.” Is there a divine commendation of Paul’s ministry here to go alongside Paul’s self-sacrificial love for the Corinthians? Yes, there is the thorn in the flesh, Paul’s God given weakness. This thorn serves as proof of the heavenly visions Paul has received an is thus commends Paul on the basis of his revelations, even if he can’t share them. But it does more than that, it brings Paul into a long line of weak heroes through whom God has brought about his kingdom, for this is how our God has worked throughout history.
He chose Israel as his own nation though they were not strong and mighty like the nations around them. He populated this nation through the weakness of Abraham and Sarah’s old age, giving them a son long after the child bearing years were over. He chose the weaker younger brother Jacob over the strong hunter Esau to be the forefather of this people. He worked through Joseph, a Jew sold into slavery in Egypt, to save the nation of Israel from famine and drought. He worked through a fearful and bumbling Moses to deliver Israel from Egypt. He elected Jesse’s scrawniest son David to be the greatest King apart from Christ in all of Israel’s history. He chose Jeremiah, though he was but a youth, to be the spokesman for his Word to his people. And, ultimately, He brought salvation to all humanity by taking on the weakness of human flesh and then dying on a cross. So God regularly advances his kingdom through the unexpected, through the least impressive, and through the weak. And God’s commendation of Paul in the service of his kingdom, is to make him weak, placing him firmly in the long line of those through whom God’s power has been displayed through their weakness.
Now I’d like to give a few words of application on the subject of evaluating the genuineness of gospel ministers, as this is the main role of this passage in this section of Paul’s letter.
First, a word to the gospel ministers, or potential gospel ministers in the room. If you’re like me, one of the most challenging, even gut wrenching, topics to discuss is an evaluation of your own ministry. To call into question the effectiveness of your life’s work. To have your weaknesses exposed and effectiveness questioned, as Paul did by these opponents in Corinth, not to mention his beloved flock who were being persuaded by his opponents against him. But I wouldn’t want to miss this opportunity to put Paul’s example before us this morning, even if it only applies to a few in the room. Brothers, how do we respond when our weaknesses are exposed? How do we respond when we are compared to those with gifts more impressive than our own? What do we say to ourselves when our own thoughts condemn us as being unfit for the work God has called us to? Where do we go when we encounter critique, whether warranted or not? The temptation is to take a posture of self defense, isn’t it? To point at all the things that make us fit for the office, that show we measure up against those we’re being compared to. Let us stay far from this dangerous path Brothers, look at this example from Paul and humbly follow him as he follows Christ. Let us take our weaknesses when they are highlighted and say, “Lord, it is to your glory that you might work through someone even with weaknesses like mine.” One last question for gospel ministers, “Who do you point your people to when they do criticize you?” Let’s humbly point them to God, and encourage them to ask God to show his power, even through you and your weaknesses
Now a word to the rest of the congregation on the subject of evaluating your gospel ministers. How do you respond to your pastor’s weaknesses? Do you recognize the purpose that God given weakness plays in the ministry of your pastor? Do you allow God to speak to you through your pastor’s weaknesses? Or are you so fixated on them week in and week out, that you miss the grace and power that is being expressed through them? To you I would say: Your pastor is not unaware of his weaknesses, at least not all of them, and he is trusting in this passage to be true. He is trusting that God’s power is going to be seen, even from his mouth, even through his weaknesses. Are you?
3. Grace That is Sufficient For You (Yes You)
The word that Paul receives in verse 9 is more than just an encouragement for pastors. It is more than a truth to be applied when evaluating a minister of the gospel. It isn’t just true for Paul – it is the truth Paul is highlighting for the Corinthians church – and it is true for each and every one of you today. So let’s end this morning by getting this truth into our heads and into our hearts that we might be able to share in Paul’s gladness and contentment in the midst of own weakness.
The situation and scenario to which this passage applies is in human weakness that is permitted by a sovereign God for a great purpose. So to apply this text we must begin by acknowledging our own weaknesses. What is yours? What is it that afflicts you? What hardships, calamities, persecutions, insults, or weaknesses has God allowed to torment you in your life? It is here that we must apply God’s Word this morning.
And here is the first word to be applied: “My Grace is sufficient for you.” Let’s break this down. “Grace” – undeserved blessing, merciful kindness. “My Grace” – Merciful kindness flowing from Jesus himself. Where do we Jesus’ grace described? In 2 Corinthians 8:9, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” The grace of Jesus is the grace that flows from Jesus’ incarnation, where he gave up the riches of heaven to take on the poverty of human form. The grace of Jesus is the grace of the cross, where he gave up the riches of human acceptance, and political power, and an earthly reign for the poverty of being rejected, and falsely condemned, and crucified. This grace is sufficient for you. It’s enough. In your weaknesses, it’s all you need. You don’t need a vision or a revelation to keep you going. You don’t even need to have your weakness removed. All you need is the grace that flows from a God who would become man and give himself in your place, paying your debt, that you might be saved. The grace that flows from that singular act is sufficient for whatever this world or Satan may throw at you.
And here’s why: “for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Jesus Christ’s grace is inseparable from his power. “To be shown grace is to be given power.” Grace is more than a warm blanket to comfort us in our weakness – it’s fuel for our souls to power us through them. And when we turn to God for grace to be strengthened in our weakness – it is God who gets the glory.
This can be illustrated by an experience I recently had. This summer we found ourselves driving to Florida because that’s what you do when a generous relative says they will pay for the beach house if you will just make it down there. Usually our road trips have been quite noisy with the sounds of the kids TV shows and movies blaring throughout the van speakers. This year though, we discovered our five sets of blue tooth headphones that had come with our van when we bought it. So the night before our trip, I was in the back of the van testing them out. Can you believe it, they worked! And the best part, is that the kids could be tuned into their show in the back and we could even listen to something different in the front! And sometimes, we just enjoyed some silence.
A byproduct of this discover, is that I became much more aware of the sounds of the road around me. One sound that continually strikes excitement in me is the sound of a car engine roaring up behind us. I get excited to see what kind of car is making it and just how fast they’re actually going. Sometimes it would be a piece of solid American muscle, other times it was a European speedster, but occasionally, I’d hear the scream of an engine behind me only to be surprised by a totally unimpressive car blowing by me. Now I don’t want to say what kind of cars, because these are the cars that many of you are driving.
Now, while my knowledge of what makes cars fast is limited in experience, I do have some movies I’ve seen to fall back on. And what I’ve learned from these movies is that certain types of fuel can cause unimpressive cars to have impressive power. Now here’s the point. When that happens, what gets the praise, the four cylinder family sedan, or the fuel that is flowing through it’s engine? All praise goes to the fuel, not the car.
In the same way – all praise and glory goes to God when we go to him in our weakness and allow His grace to fuel us through them. When this happens, God’s power is put on display, His kingdom is advanced, and we are living within the purpose for which we were created – to bring Him glory.
There is one closing question I’d like to address as I imagine it may be swirling in some of your minds. If God gets glory through my weaknesses and afflictions, is it wrong for me to ask God to heal me of those things that pain me? My short answer is no. We live in a fallen world and God gets great glory when he shows his power over Satan and the world by healing us of those things that afflict us. So by all means – follow Paul’s example and pray for deliverance. But, if in prayer you come to the same conclusion as Paul, that this affliction is heaven sent, do not be discouraged. For there is also great glory (possibly greater glory) to be given to God when, rather than healing his children, and removing their source of weakness, he allows it to remain, so that they might come to him over and over and over in their weakness and so that he might meet them in their weakness with sustaining strength, over and over and over again.
For those of you who suffer regularly, or who watch loved ones suffer regularly, that may be very hard to hear. So a final word to you. You might ask, “Why? How could God allow that? Why would God allow such torment? Why would he allow a weakness that ultimately never ends until death?” To the one this describes here is where I would point you.
First, I’d point you to Psalm 63:3 which says, “Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.” Our affliction ought to drive us to Christ to receive his strength. To experience Jesus’ strengthening in our weakness is to experience the steadfast love of God. And, if this Psalm is true, an experience of the steadfast love of God is better than life itself. So for those who go to Christ and experience his steadfast love by being miraculously healed - they have a limited, albeit amazing, experience of that love. But those whose afflictions require them to go to Christ to be strengthened but who feel weak again the next day, or the next hour, or the next minute – and have to return to Christ again and again – they have a far greater experience of his love – and even if their weakness is so constant that it ruins their life and results in their own death – it does not mean we must question God’s purposes for them – for God’s steadfast love is better than life.
Second, I’d encourage you to know that your experience of God’s grace in your weakness is not just for you. Second Corinthians 1:3-4 says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” Your weakness, and the comfort you receive in your weakness, isn’t just for you. It’s for your husband or your wife. It’s for your watching children. It’s for your brothers and sisters in Christ and your neighbors and coworkers. It is an opportunity to show a lost and dying world that our God is the God of all comfort, who meets us in our affliction, to comfort us, so that we might share that comfort with them. So be glad, and take heart, and fight to find contentment in your suffering. You are part of God’s big plan to bring about his kingdom, and display his power, through the weakness of his servants, just as he did through his own weakness on the cross.
And never forget, His grace is sufficient for you, yes even you, for his power is made perfect in weakness.
Barnett, Paul. The Second Epistle to the Corinthians (NICNT). Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1997.
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