Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh

This morning, we’re going to bring our study of 2 Corinthians to a close.  As we’ve gone through this letter, we’ve seen that there are basically four reasons why Paul wrote this letter.  First of all, he wanted to explain to the Corinthians why he didn’t visit them like he said he would.  Second, he wrote to encourage them to forgive a sinning brother who had now repented and was to be admitted back into the fellowship.

            Thirdly, Paul wrote to enlist their financial support to help out the church in Jerusalem which was suffering because of a famine. He wanted the Corinthians to have their gift ready when he swung through on his way to Judea.  And then finally, Paul wrote this letter to reaffirm his authority as an apostle.

            As we’ve seen throughout this letter, there was a group of Christians — a small group but a significant group – that caused a stir in the Corinthian church, accusing Paul of not being a true apostle, accusing him of having bad motives, accusing him of trying to take advantage of them.  And these troublemakers told the Corinthians that their credentials were much better than Paul’s credentials. 

            So, Paul spends most of chapter 11 defending himself.  He says basically, “If you want to have a competition to compare credentials, I’m up for it.  Let’s do this.”

            In verse 21, “But whatever they dare to boast about — I’m talking like a fool again — I dare to boast about it, too.  Are they Hebrews? So am I.  Are they Israelites?  So am I.  Are they descendants of Abraham?  So am I . Are they servants of Christ?  I know I sound like a madman, but I have served him far more!  I have worked harder, been put in prison more often, been whipped times without number, and faced death again and again.  Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes.  Three times I was beaten with rods.  Once I was stoned.  Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea.  I have traveled on many long journeys. I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles.  I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the seas.  And I have faced danger from men who claim to be believers but are not.  I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food.  I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm.” (2 Corinthians 11:21-27, NLT)

            And I can just picture Paul saying, “Okay, that’s what I’ve got.  What have you got?”  But right after that, Paul says, “If I must boast, I would rather boast about the things that show how weak I am.” (2 Corinthians 11:30, NLT).  Which leads us into chapter 12.

            Paul is going to reveal a secret in this chapter that he had apparently kept for 14 years. Nobody knew about this, or at least he didn’t write about this until now.  Paul had an incredible experience where he was caught up into heaven, and he’s going to tell us about that.

            Back in 1969, there were two men who had another incredible experience.  Most of you were not even born yet, but in July of 1969, two astronauts landed on the moon, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

            Their spacecraft was called the Eagle. It landed on a part of the moon known as the Sea of Tranquility.  And the whole country was glued to their TV set watching this scene unfold.  It was so exciting, the first humans on the moon.  And as the spacecraft was landing, the first words we heard broadcast from the moon was the statement, “The Eagle has landed.”

            Then, Neil Armstrong climbed down the ladder and actually walked on the moon.  And that famous quote that most everybody has heard by now, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”  Can you imagine the experience of being the first human being to set foot on the moon?

            But what a lot of people don’t know is that when he came back, when Neil Armstrong returned back to Earth, a short while later, he had an emotional breakdown.  Because after you’ve walked on the moon, where do you go from there?  When you’ve experienced something that magnificent, everything else down here pales in comparison.  The bills still come.  The taxes are still due.  Your wife still argues with you.  She says, “Who do you think you are?”  He says, “I walked on the moon.”  She says, “So, now, walk into the garage and clean it out.”

            So, after having such a grand experience on the moon, Neil Armstrong found life back here again, very difficult.  And he had an emotional breakdown.  Now the apostle Paul can top Neil Armstrong.  He was caught up into heaven itself.  But, when he got back, Paul didn’t have an emotional breakdown.  Rather, he was motivated based on what he heard and what he saw to continue to preach and to live for the glory of God.

            But that happened 14 years earlier, it was a secret that Paul kept for 14 years.  And now, he pulls it out and he uses that as part of his defense.  Once again, these Christians causing problems in Corinth, we don’t know much about them.  But they claimed to have these letters of recommendation from other places which they offered up as their credentials.  And they kept asking, “Where’s Paul’s credentials?”

            Earlier in this letter, you may recall that Paul said, “I don’t need any letters to serve as my credentials.  You Christians in Corinth, you are my letter.  Your life is evidence of the kind of preacher I am.”  But now, here in chapter 12, Paul says, “This boasting will do no good, but I must go on.  I will reluctantly tell about visions and revelations from the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 12:1, NLT)

            Over his years as a Christian, Paul had many visions of Christ.  The first was on the road to Damascus where the Lord appeared to him and said, “Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me?”  And that changed his life.

            Later, in Acts 16, Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia saying come over to Macedonia and help us.  Then, in Acts 18, while Paul was being persecuted in Corinth, he had a vision one night where the Lord said to him, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent.” (Acts 18:9). 

            In Acts 23, the Lord stood by Paul and said, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.” (Acts 23:11).  And then, in Acts 27, on his way to Rome, his ship was about to be destroyed in a storm, but an angel of the Lord appeared to Paul in a vision and said, “You’re going to testify before Caesar. You’re going to preach the gospel to Caesar himself. You’re not going to die on this trip.” 

            So, Paul had had quite a few visions and revelations over the years.  But there was one in particular that made a big impression on him.

            In verse 2, he says, “I was caught up to the third heaven fourteen years ago. Whether I was in my body or out of my body, I don’t know — only God knows.  Yes, only God knows whether I was in my body or outside my body. But I do know that I was caught up to paradise.” (2 Corinthians 12:2-4, NLT).

            Most translations have Paul speaking in the 3rd person – “I knew a man who went to paradise” – but it’s clear as he goes on that Paul was talking about himself. 

            It’s interesting to me that approximately 14 years before this letter was written, Paul was on his first missionary journey.  On that journey, Paul preached in Lystra where he was stoned.  The Jews dragged him out of the city, threw rocks at him, and left him thinking he was dead.  And then all the disciples gathered around his body probably praying for him, when Paul got up and went back into town.

            I wonder if it’s possible that that’s when Paul had this vision.  Paul said, “I don’t know whether I was in my body, or out of my body.  I don’t know whether I was alive or dead, I can’t be sure, but this much I know.  I was caught up into the third heaven.”

            Let me explain what the third heaven is.  The first heaven is the atmosphere above us.  It’s where the clouds are and the birds fly.  That’s heaven number one.   Heaven number two is the celestial heaven, outer space.  The sun, the moon, and the stars are all arrayed in the second heaven.

            The third heaven is where God is.  Now, if you get in an airplane, you can go to the first heaven.  And if you get into a rocket ship, you can go to the second heaven.  But you can’t make it to the third heaven unless God takes you there.

            Years ago, there was a Russian cosmonaut who traveled into space, and when he got back, Kruschev said in a speech, “Why are you clinging to God? Here Gagarin flew into space and didn’t see God.”  Well, of course he didn’t.  He didn’t go far enough.  He only went into heaven number one and heaven number two. You can’t get to heaven number three unless God brings you there.

            So, Paul says, “Only God knows whether I was in my body or outside my body. But I do know that I was caught up to paradise and heard things so astounding that they cannot be expressed in words, things no human is allowed to tell.  That experience is worth boasting about, but I’m not going to do it.” (2 Corinthians 12:3-5, NLT)

            You have to wonder why Paul kept silent about this for 14 years.  Most people, if they had a vision of heaven, they wouldn’t hold on to it for 14 years. They wouldn’t hold on to it for 14 hours.  In fact, they would probably call a publisher and get a book deal and make a movie about it and get the rights to it.  But not Paul.

            If Paul had not written 2 Corinthians and needed to prove his apostleship to those who called it into question, we never would have known.  Paul, you’re saying that you saw heaven.  You got a vision of heaven?  Tell us more about it.  And all Paul can say is, I’ve seen and heard “things so astounding that they cannot be expressed in words.”  Even if he had tried, I don’t think Paul could have told us.

            Think about it.  How would you explain to a blind person what a beautiful sunset looks like?  If you’ve ever been to the West Coast or Key West and watched the sun sink down in the horizon, how would you explain what you’re seeing to a blind person?  “Oh, the sunset was such a beautiful shade of orange and red.”  And he goes, “What’s orange?  What’s red?”  How could you explain it to someone who doesn’t have the ability to understand it or appreciate it?  It defies description.  And that’s the situation Paul was in.  “It was so amazing I can’t even describe it.”

            So, Paul doesn’t tell us what he saw.  He just says, “That experience is worth boasting about, but I’m not going to do it. I will boast only about my weaknesses.  If I wanted to boast, I would be no fool in doing so, because I would be telling the truth. But I won’t do it, because I don’t want anyone to give me credit beyond what they can see in my life or hear in my message, even though I have received such wonderful revelations from God. 

            “So to keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud.” (2 Corinthians 12:4-7, NLT) 

            Paul was given a thorn in his flesh.  We need to understand that God knows how to perfectly balance blessings and suffering in our lives. Now I know that all of us just want the blessings. We don’t want any of the suffering.

            But God wants us to grow in our faith and to mature. So, he knows the perfect combination of blessing and suffering.  Over his lifetime, Paul received many blessings — revelations, visions, supernatural power, but he also received much suffering.  

            But notice how he words it here.  “To keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me.”  It was a messenger from Satan that gave him this thorn in the flesh, but God allowed it to happen.  And I know that because Paul says in the next verse, Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away.”   So, Paul had two different agents at work in his life — Satan and God.

            Satan had a goal, a plan, and a motivation, but God also had a goal, a plan, and a motivation. The goal, plan and motivation of Satan was very different from the goal, plan, and motivation of God.   And it’s very important for us to understand this.  Satan’s goal was to destroy Paul’s faith. God’s goal was to strengthen Paul’s faith.  One of them wanted to destroy Paul, the other wanted to build him up. 

            And again, God knows how to perfectly balance the blessings we receive and the suffering we go through.  Someone may say, “But this came from the devil.”  So what?   Do you not think that God is sovereign enough to be in control and to allow what is best in your life?  So, don’t flip out just because the devil is attacking you.  We’re all getting attacked by the enemy.  So, we need to learn not only how to fight the devil, but to figure out why God is allowing this in order to develop our faith.

            RememberRomans 8:28?  We know that God causes all things to work together for good.  And that’s what God does – he uses all things, even messengers from Satan.  Because God knows that even the right combination of harmful elements, if they are combined correctly, can be of great benefit to us.  

            Let me give you an example.  Sodium is a poison.  Chlorine is a poison.  But if they are mixed in just the right amount, you get sodium chloride, or table salt, and that’s a good thing that brings out the flavor in our food.  God knows how to bring out the flavor in your life by combining both blessings and suffering.

            So, Paul had something that he was suffering, something he called a thorn in his flesh.  What exactly was this thorn?  Some people think it was some sort of a physical ailment, maybe a problem with his eyes, or malaria, or migraines, or epilepsy.  Others think that his thorn in the flesh was the people that persecuted him.  One Scottish commentator says he believes Paul’s thorn in the flesh was his wife.  I’m guessing maybe that commentator was having some marital problems at home when he wrote that.

            The bottom line is, we don’t know, and I actually think that’s a good thing. Because if it was malaria, we might say, “Well, I don’t have malaria, so I can’t really relate this principle to my life.” Or if it was epilepsy, we might say, “I don’t have epilepsy. I can’t really apply this to my life.”  The fact that it’s ambiguous means that we can all apply it to whatever our thorn in our flesh may be, whatever trial or tribulation that we may be suffering.  So, I’m glad that we don’t know exactly what it was.

            Paul says in verse 8, “Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away.”  Which is what wetypically do, isn’t it?  Whenever we have a thorn, whenever we have an affliction, an ailment, a trial, our thinking is, “I’ve to get rid of this thorn in the flesh.  It’s causes me pain, it’s making me uncomfortable, it’s making life hard, so that thorn in the flesh has to go.  I’m going to pray for God to get rid of it.”  And that’s what we do.  It’s what Paul did.  Paul said, “I prayed three times that God would take it away.”

            We seem to have this thinking that I could serve the Lord better if certain things were changed in my life.  If only I didn’t have to deal with that annoying person at work, if only my husband wasn’t so selfish, if only my wife was more godly, if only this disease wasn’t a part of my life, then I could serve the Lord so much better.  But that’s not how God thinks.

            Because whenever you have that trial, that tribulation, that disease, or whatever it might be, it causes you to lean more on the Lord.  Why would God want to remove something that causes you to cry out to God and trust God so much?  If he gets rid of it, then what happens the next time I have a problem?  I’ll just pray it away and move on.  So, sometimes God doesn’t remove it. He didn’t with Paul.  He said, “Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away.” 

            Verse 9 is the key. “Each time he said, ‘My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.’”  I don’t think that was the answer Paul was looking for. I think Paul was hoping God would say, “Yes, Paul, I will deliver you from this thorn.  And of course, I’m removing it. Right away.”  That’s the answer Paul expected.  Because he prayed once, prayed again, prayed again, and the only answer he got was basically “no”.

            And then Paul said, “So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me.” I’m glad to boast about my weakness?  That’s not what we usually do.

            When you’re writing a resume, going in for an interview or even just meeting someone for the first time, you’re more likely to emphasize your strengths over your weaknesses. Right? You wouldn’t go into a job interview and say, “I think I would be good at this job because I procrastinate things all the time and I’m never on time.” No, we go into interviews confidently and tell those people meeting us for the first time all the positive things about us. It is counterintuitive to talk about our weaknesses. In fact, we usually try to hide them.

            But if weaknesses are so bad, then why does Paul say that we should boast about them?  Paul says, it’s so that the power of Christ can work through us.  The more we are aware of our weaknesses, the more we’re forced to lean on God for his strength, and that allows God’s power to work in our lives. 

            “That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10)

            Let me give you an example.  Suppose you have a 6-year-old son, and he has a heavy box that he wants to move into his bedroom.  He tries and tries to lift it, but he just doesn’t have the strength.  You ask him if he would like your help, and he says, “No, I can do it myself.”  But after 10 minutes, he gives up and he says, “Can you help me?”  And you lift the box and carry it to his bedroom.

            That’s the way that I think most of us relate to God.  We think, “I’m strong enough to do it myself.”  But it’s only when we’re burdened so much that we finally say, “I can’t do it myself.  I need God’s help.”  And that allows God to step in and help us.  If we didn’t have any weaknesses, we would never feel the need to turn to God.  So, Paul says, “I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me.”

            When we are weak, insulted, going through hardships, being persecuted or dealing with difficulties, it’s an opportunity for God to give us strength.  While it might seem frustrating or terrible at the moment, we need to trust God to show up and strengthen us.  And the strength that God provides is much greater than any strength that we could muster on our own.  So, we shouldn’t try to hide or avoid our weaknesses, but rather, embrace them, allowing God to strengthen you in ways you could never have imagined.

            At Christmas, our kids usually got two types of gifts. One type were the things they wanted. Another type were the things they needed. Sometimes, they got a doll, a bicycle, or something that they wanted.  But every Christmas, they also got gloves, t-shirts, underwear, socks.

            They weren’t particularly thrilled to open up those gifts. “Oh boy, a pair of socks!”  But they needed them. And so, Paul says, this thorn in my flesh, I didn’t want it, but I realize that I needed it.  And so, I’m going taking pleasure in these things because I realize that behind it is a good God who knows how to make the right balance.  He knows what I need.  His goal is to help me to grow and mature as a Christian.   

            So, “That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10)

            I need these things so that I will depend on God.  If God didn’t allow us to experience these failures, sufferings, and difficulties, we would never rely on God.  We would continue to think how great we are and how much we’re in control over our lives. It is in our weakness and frailty that we surrender our will to God.

            The only way I have made it through the trials and pains in my life has been by the power of God. I did not have the power to make it through and did not think I would make it through. But God gave me strength at the right time. He sent me people to come to my aid and help me at the right time. Therefore, I will be content, delight, and take pleasure in my weaknesses and sufferings because I know that God is at work in me so that his power is on display, not mine.

            The lesson to be learned from Paul is that focusing all of our efforts on removing our difficulties is not the goal.  Rather, we need to look at our trials and do exactly what James told us to do.

            “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2–4).

            Whatever your “thorn in the flesh” may be, may it lead you to lean on the Lord for strength, because God’s grace is all you need, and it will allow the power of Christ to work through you.

            Life may be hard for you right now.  Do you have a thorn in the flesh?  Awesome.  Learn to appreciate it. Boast in it.  Glory in it.  So that the power of Christ can rest upon you.  And if it is driving you closer to God, then thank him for it.


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