Refresh & Restore Bible Study — May 11, 2023

I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses— though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. 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. 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.[1]

2 Corinthians 12:1-10

Refresh & Restore Bible Study — May 18, 2023: When the Loving Kindness of God Our Savior Appears Refresh & Restore | A Podcast

This is the May 18, 2023 episode of the Refresh & Restore Bible Study, provided by You can find the written version of this, along with Scripture references and footnotes, at:
  1. Refresh & Restore Bible Study — May 18, 2023: When the Loving Kindness of God Our Savior Appears
  2. Refresh & Restore Bible Study — May 11, 2023: Sufficient Grace
  3. Refresh & Restore — December 29, 2022 (Behold the King)
  4. Advent 2022 — The Story of Christmas
  5. Advent 2022 — December 24 (Christmas Eve Reading for Our Kiddos)

Greetings Sojourners!

It has been quite a while since I have been able to write (for pleasure instead of school), and I am ecstatic!

For those of you who have been keeping up with my grad school journey, it is finally at an end! I passed my oral exams last Friday and graduate tomorrow. I have learned a lot and been stretched in ways I did not expect, but by God’s sufficient grace, Candice’s perseverance, my kiddos patience, and prayers of my family, friends, and fellow Sojourners, I can now breathe and begin applying all that I have learned. And I cannot express how thankful I am that the application of it kicks our Refresh & Restore Bible studies off once more!

Another reason I am ecstatic is that I am getting to revisit this particular devotion. When I began 2023, I intended to hit at least forty devotions – ambitious considering how much of the year would be teaching school and going to school. Needless to say, I did not hit that mark. Far short, actually. This is the second devotion of 2023.

The first draft of this was unfinished, and I had no idea. In January 2023, my world was full of anxiety. I had allowed work and life to weigh on me heavily. More than a decade of the roller coaster of anxiety and depression, along with highly stressful jobs/careers had taken its toll. I tried my best to hide it (even though I have learned the hard way that such things are as damaging as they are foolish), but my health had begun to be affected by it worse than ever. Daily panic attacks and anxiety had invited painful inflammation in all my joints. I honestly did not know how I would keep it all going. My family – home family and church family – were my only solace.

And amid all that, I wrote the January 11 version of this devotion. Looking at it now, I am thankful that I did. The hope that I knew I had in Christ Jesus alone was there. The sufficient grace that He was continually pouring into my life was there, and I knew it. I just did not realize how much farther I had to go in this leg of my journey, and, thankfully, today I can edit it from the vantage point of God having carried me through that season of difficulty.

A Thorn in the Flesh (vv. 1-7)

The content of verses 1-7 are widely debated, and I do not intend to wade into that debate today. When it comes to Bible interpretation, I tend to take the Alistair Begg approach: in Scripture, the main things are the plain things. Chas Rowland puts it a little clearer: in Scripture, the important things are clear, and the clear things are important. There are parts of this passage that are clear and parts that are purposefully left unclear.

When I say purposefully left unclear, I mean that the Holy Spirit obviously did not decide to give us the specific details regarding the content of the “visions and revelations of the Lord” (v. 1), what it means to be “caught up to the third heaven” (v. 2 – and which Paul himself did not know whether it was “in the body or out of the body”), what it means to be “caught up into paradise” (v. 3 – which Paul states only “God knows”). If I were to give my best and most theologically sound interpretation of these things, it would be two-fold: 1) I don’t know, and 2) it cannot be (fully) known because the Bible clearly does not provide the information, we need to know these things.

It is okay to say “I don’t know” when it comes to Bible interpretation. That does not mean we do not need to study or that we should not dig into God’s Word to search for answers. Those are good and valuable things – things that we should be doing and doing regularly. But it is important to be honest about what we do not know or understand in the Bible, especially if the alternative is to teach or proclaim things that may be untrue or dangerously heretical. All too often pastors and church folks will fill in what they perceive as gaps and try to make clear what the Bible does not. At best, this practice might lead people to check the Bible to see whether what is taught is true or accurate, but unfortunately, people are all too willing to take people’s opinions, views, and best-guesses at what unclear passages are talking as gospel truth at the expense of the actual truth of the gospel.

Some might balk at my saying that there are things in Scripture that cannot be fully known, but we are limited to what God has given us in His Word – and rightly so! The Bible contains everything that can be known about God. There are commentaries galore, but they are written by men. Peter’s second letter deals with this subject at length in the section of 2 Peter that leads to his teaching on how dangerous false teachers are. Look at this passage from 2 Peter 1:19-21 which talks about the importance of the special revelation[2] of God found in His Word versus the direction men (or women) may take it:

And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

Peter is talking about the illuminating value of God’s revelation through Scripture. Man’s interpretation can be helpful, but it is the Word that is a lamp for our feet and light to guide our path (Psalm 119:105)!

So, here is what is plain and clear in verses 1-7 and therefore main and important.

  • Paul was given visions of “surpassing greatness” (v. 7). Based on the context (“third heaven” and “paradise)”, he was given some sort of glimpses into heaven.
  • These visions were so great that Paul wished to boast about them, and it took great pains to keep him from boasting. Paul had written earlier to the church at Corinth about the dangers of such boasting, explaining that is why God chooses “what is low and despised in the world…so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:28-29) and reminding them – and apparently himself – of the Lord’s words in Jeremiah 9:23-24: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth.”
  • Paul was given “a thorn in the flesh” to “keep [him] from becoming conceited”. There are three main categories that interpretations of this “thorn” fall into: “(1) spiritual or psychological anxiety (such as anguish over Israel’s stubborn unbelief); (2) opposition to his ministry or message; and (3) a recurring and tormenting physical malady”.[3] Scholars and theologians find reasons in the text for all three. I have speculations but find no value in sharing those with you here. What is clear is that God allowed this “messenger of Satan to harass” Paul just as He allowed similarly with Job – just for different reasons. It is the same God who decided not to give us more information in this section of Scripture. I trust Him and His wisdom.

If you are uncomfortable with not knowing more about this, let me give you a little guidance on how to proceed. First, I would tell you to dig into the biblical cross-references (those little letters that point you to other places in the Bible that talk about similar things/topics that connect you to Bible verses – almost like little biblical footnotes). Limit yourself in your searching to what can be known in the Bible. Second, be careful about letting your favorite Bible guy or gal tell you fully what the Bible limits. Our Father knows best, and if He has not fully revealed something, be wary of a “preacher” who touts full revelation. That means what has been revealed to him (or her) did not come from the Bible. I am scared of those people. I would rather be a Bible-guy, satisfied with what is in it, than a popular preacher spreading my own words. Furthermore, if God had waited nearly 2,000 years for your favorite preacher to shed light on His Word or even needed them to make clear what His Word could not, that God would neither be loving nor sovereign.[4] Who loves you more: the God of the Bible who revealed Himself through His Word, or someone who claims to have more or better knowledge than what the Bible offers?

The good news, especially for us in this Bible study is that what comes after verses 1-7 is clear and plain and, therefore, important and main!

Sufficient Grace (vv. 8-10)

Whatever the “thorn in the flesh” was, it was so bad that Paul says that he “pleaded with the Lord” about it three times that it would “leave” him (v. 8). The word translated “plead” means to “call for or upon someone as for aid, to invoke God, to beseech, entreat”[5]. Paul was literally begging God to make this “thorn”, this “messenger of Satan” that was harassing him to go away – because God was the only one who could make it go away! Apparently, Jesus’ answer was different than the one Paul was looking for: no.

I know something of struggling and begging God to take the struggle away. I also know a little bit about the answer being no. Thankfully, Paul’s “no” carried with it an explanation. Paul’s “no” got a verbal answer from Jesus (notice the red letters). Rather than taking away this thorn (which again was allowed by God) Jesus – the King of kings and Lord of lords – told him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Rather than immediate – or eventual since we do not know if this thorn was ever removed – relief, Jesus told Paul that He would supply the strength to endure the thorn, that sufficient grace would be provided in his moments of need.

This may not seem like good news since we live in an era where immediate gratification or immediate relief are what many people are seeking, but this really is good news. You need to understand that I am not saying this out of some sense of religious obligation. When I cry out for God to rescue me from a struggle that has plagued and harassed me, I want immediate deliverance, too! I begged Him for relief daily for most of the last year and earnestly hoped my “thorn” would leave me right then and there. But it didn’t. It didn’t immediately go away, and it will likely be back. Paul’s “thorn” would not go away, but neither would Jesus! Jesus – Emmanuel (“God with us”) – met Paul’s weakness and provided sufficient – enough to overcome and get through – grace and strength to carry him! Jesus meets me in my struggle and stays with me and will meet you, too. He provides the same sufficient grace for you and me today.

Paul pleaded and begged for relief received the presence of Jesus and the full strength of God Himself to overcome the struggle! I hate my struggles. I hate being weak. More often than not, I find myself feeling hopeless when the struggles linger and return. But I am so thankful that despite the struggle, I find the presence of God. I find His strength. I find grace sufficient to do more than survive but to live and thrive in Christ. I find new mercies (Lamentations 3:22-23). Like Paul, I find Jesus, time and again.

The good thing for us is that we do not have to wait for an audible word from the Lord to intervene in our times of despair. The words from our passage today – those red letters –are spoken to us as well. We don’t have to wait for God to speak because He has spoken![6]

Paul just thought that the visions he had were of surpassing greatness, but through the sufficient and continual grace of Jesus he grew to understand that the presence of Jesus was better than the loftiest visions. At the end of Paul’s life, shortly before his death (by martyrdom), he wrote to the church at Philippi. He did not talk to them of a thorn or visions. He spoke to them of the “surpassing worth of knowing Christ [his] Lord” (Philippians 3:7). He explained to them and to us that everything he had previously boasted in – his Hebrew heritage, his Pharisaical pedigree, his exorbitant education, and even his most-valued visions – was equivalent to and counted by him as “rubbish” (Philippians 3:8) – literally “refuse…of dung, and figuratively of the filth of the mind”.[7]

I want you to think about what these visions likely showed Paul and what this statement means. Paul’s vision was one of heaven – of paradise! But it paled in comparison to the “surpassing worth” of Jesus! Heaven, without Jesus, (pardon the crass language here) is crap. Read that again. A Jesus-less heaven is worthless – as the kids today say, “straight trash”. Does that seem odd to you? If it does, you are boasting about the wrong things!

Paul was at risk of boasting in the wrong things in our passage today, but by the grace of God, he received a “thorn”. The Lord allowed something bad to bring about the grace that helped Paul boast only in Christ. What did not seem like a blessing – and would not have been had it not been for Christ – blessed Paul because of the grace it gave him. The question for us, and honestly the question I must ask myself often, is whether or not I can be satisfied with the grace and presence of Christ in the face of continued difficulty.

Wrapping Up

I am thankful that Jesus is better than my struggles. His power is enough to withstand. His Spirit never leaves me nor forsakes me. And, just as He promised, He is with me always, “even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). But I need constant reminding.

If I am not careful, I can be so boastful. God’s power becomes eclipsed in my mind by my pride. His grace gets masked by my desire to be my own man and get through in my own steam. Thankfully, I have the Word of God and passages like ours today to remind me of the gift of God’s sufficient grace!

In fact, when I wrote the first draft of this devotion, I was boasting relief when the thorn was just digging into me the deepest. But I couldn’t even record the podcast for it because I was in tears every time I started. During the months since, I have been brought low, depressed, and more anxious than I have ever been in my life. I have desired to quit just about everything in my life. But God’s grace has been, is, and always will be sufficient. So, now being on this side of that rough patch leaves me boasting only about Him – I can surely testify that the strength provided and victory were His because all I had in me was quit.

What about you?

Are you satisfied with the idea of heaven apart from Jesus? Would you rather have a mansion and immediate release from your earthly troubles rather than be in the presence of God and experience His sufficient grace? These are difficult questions, but they are necessary ones. God is big enough and strong enough for our questions. His loving-kindness can withstand and carry us through our darkest days and nights. His mercies and sufficient grace are enough to get us through whatever thorns tear at us. That’s good news! And I needed to hear it today – as much or more than when I first studied it four months ago. I hope it helps you as well.

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Co 12:1–10.

[2] General revelation “about God’s existence, character, and moral law is given to all people; it is seen through nature, God’s historical works, and an inner sense that God has placed in everyone” and “called ‘general revelation’ because it is given to all people in general”. Special revelation is “God’s revelation to specific people”. “The Bible is special revelation and so are the direct messages from God to the prophets and others as recorded in the Bible’s historical stories.” (Wayne A. Grudem, Christian Beliefs: Twenty Basics Every Christian Should Know, ed. Elliot Grudem (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 18)

[3] Douglas J. Moo, “The Letters and Revelation,” in NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), 2096.

[4] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 2004), 68.

[5] Spiros Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2000).

[6] Wayne A. Grudem, Christian Beliefs: Twenty Basics Every Christian Should Know, ed. Elliot Grudem (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 19.

[7] Zodhiates

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