Sermon on 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, A, February 7/9/10, 2019, St. John’s, Juneau/Horicon; February 14/17, 2019, St. Stephen’s, Beaver Dam
- The Discovery Channel, A & E, and National Geographic all produced TV series called Mysteries of the Bible. Usually the topics were things like “The Dead Sea Scrolls,” “The Ark of the Covenant,” “Israel in the Wilderness,” all topics connected to places or objects. They never covered one of the greatest mysteries of the Bible: St. Paul’s thorn in the flesh. There were no places to go and no artifacts to dig up. Paul just mentions it out of the blue, but he never tells us what it is. He does tell us its purpose and the result of it being in his life.
- He says “To keep me from becoming arrogant [or conceited] due to the extraordinary nature of these revelations, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me, so that I would not become arrogant.” That’s very mysterious, isn’t it? Let’s start with the purpose. Twice he says, “To keep me from becoming arrogant.” Whenever a person has some great privilege, some great gifts or abilities, there is often a great temptation to pride. And Paul did indeed have some great privileges, gifts and abilities. He says “extraordinary revelations.” Paul wrote most of what we call the New Testament—and we remember that he wrote by inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Right before this section, Paul writes about being carried up to the third heaven (2 Corinthians 12:2). He talks about it like it was someone else, but we’re pretty sure it was Paul himself. That is what he means by “extraordinary revelations.” God revealed a lot to Paul. The depths of Christian teaching, supreme comfort and guidance, and a vision of heaven. Wouldn’t it be tempting for him to think, “God revealed all these things to me—I must be pretty special!” Especially when we think of the problems he dealt with in congregations and opposition from the outside, it would have been very easy for him to think—“These people who resist me and what I’m teaching are stupid and awful. Look at what I know! Look at what God showed me!” Paul didn’t have that arrogant attitude because God gave him something to balance it out. “I was given a thorn in my flesh.”
- Now what was it? Scholars have guessed. Some have thought it was Paul’s conscience, still bothering him after all those years with memories of his early life as a persecutor of Christians. Because he calls it “a messenger of Satan,” some have thought it was a temptation that kept coming back again and again. Romans 7 might be describing an experience like that, where Paul says “The good things I want to do, I don’t do. The bad things I don’t want to do I keep doing.” Other scholars think it must have been some physical problem because he calls it a thorn in his Maybe he was hit in the eye and partially blinded when people were stoning him. At the end of Galatians (6:11) he writes, “See what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand.” Paul never tells us what it was—and I think he doesn’t tell us for the reason he’s writing about. If he told us, it would be tempting for him to think and say, “Look at all the woes and hardships I have to put up with! Poor me!” That’s arrogance and pride, too. He doesn’t tell us. He just tells us the purpose. “To keep me from becoming arrogant” (EHV). “To keep me from becoming conceited” (NIV 2011). This is Paul making an application of another familiar passage: “All things work together for good to those who love God” (Romans 8:28). Even the bad things have to serve God’s good purpose.
- Another mystery is that he calls this “thorn in the flesh” a “messenger of Satan to torment me.” That reminds us of the book of Job. You might remember that at the beginning of the book, the devil comes before God and says, “I bet that Job loves you only because you bless him. If you would stop or withhold blessings, Job would hate you.” And God said, “You can test him, but you can’t harm him.” Job suffered many losses, property, wealth, family. When Job passed those tests, the devil came with another wager, and God permitted illness. But Job didn’t curse God. Instead Job was strengthened in faith and confessed, “I know that my Redeemer lives!” (Job 19:25). Because God’s purpose and will are supreme, even the devil has to serve God’s greater purpose. When the devil tempts and by faith we overcome—that’s to God’s glory. Paul had his “thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment him,” and Paul learned humility and gained balance in his life and attitude—and it all fulfilled God’s greater purpose for Paul, it still serves as an example for Paul’s readers, including us, and is to God’s glory.
- Paul’s first response was much like our response to hardships. “Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that he would take it away from me.” That reminds me of the last petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Deliver us from evil.” Our first thought is that we want God to take the hardship, ailment or trouble away. Sometimes he does just that. Sometimes he gives some relief from the hardship. You get sick, and then God provides medicine. Sometimes it seems that God provides no relief at all—but he is “delivering us from evil” in a different way. He is teaching us something, or training us in faith so the hardship moves us to pray, to trust, or to look for him. He uses the hardship to teach us a lesson about our own weaknesses and our need for his strength. That’s never fun. It’s often needed. And God gave Paul one more “revelation.” “He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, because my power is made perfect in weakness.” Let’s get expository with that. “My grace.” God’s undeserved love, the love that loves in spite of what we’ve done—especially his love that is ours because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That is “sufficient” for us. It’s enough. It meets every need because God’s grace has changed our status from sinners to saints. It tells us that we are “heirs having the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3). No matter what happens, this is who we are, what we’ve been given, and what we have coming. And then God says, “My power is made perfect in weakness.” “Perfect” can have the sense of something being complete. “My power reaches its goal in weakness.” “My power completely overcomes your weakness.” The old Sunday School hymn says “We are weak but he is strong.” I remember a movie—I think it was a Karate Kid movie—in which the teacher asked the student to fill a glass with water. “It’s already full—I can’t fill it” the student said. And the teacher replied, “And that’s why I can’t teach you anything—because you are already full of so many other ideas.” God shows us our weakness and our emptiness so that he can fill us.
- Paul then speaks in a way that is completely foreign to us and to our culture. “I will be glad to boast all the more in my weaknesses… I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties, for the sake of Christ.” Boasting in weaknesses—that’s as if he’s saying, “See how weak I am! See how stupid I am! See how needy I am! See how much help I need!” And… “See how God does his work in my life despite all that weakness, how he does his work through me with his power, and not mine.”
- Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” remains a mystery. God’s purpose in it does not. And perhaps there’s a lesson for us in this, too. For us it may seem to be the opposite. We know what our “thorns in the flesh” are,” but we don’t know the exact purpose. Why? Why did I suffer this loss? Why did I get this disease? Why was this good opportunity lost? Why must I live with such a burden? You may never know the purpose, but you know God has a purpose. And leading us to trust that God knows what he is doing—that is always God’s goal for us. “My grace is sufficient for you, because my power is made perfect in weakness.” Strangely, with hardships, troubles, temptations and ailments, God does draw us closer to himself. He teaches us about our weaknesses—human weakness—so that he can then show us our need, and then fill it by his power. So, Paul teaches us to “delight in weakness, in insults, in hardships…” because God is still in control even when we are not. God has a solution even when it looks like there is none. He leads us to turn to him—when we know that there is no one and nothing else that can help.
2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (EHV)
7 Therefore,[a] to keep me from becoming arrogant due to the extraordinary nature of these revelations, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me, so that I would not become arrogant. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that he would take it away from me. 9 And he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, because my power is made perfect[b] in weakness.” Therefore I will be glad to boast all the more in my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may shelter me.
10 That is why I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties, for the sake of Christ. For whenever I am weak, then am I strong.
2 Corinthians 12:7 Some witnesses to the text omit Therefore.
2 Corinthians 12:9 Or reaches its goal