1 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. 2 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. 3 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— 4 and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. 5 On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses— 6 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. 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.2 Corinthians 12:1-10
This week’s devotion is for me. I have been looking at this passage for a couple of weeks now and am so thankful that it exists! I need this.
But it is for you, too! We all need to be reminded of Jesus’ words here.
And there’s even better news: I aim to be brief in this week’s Bible study! The spring semester of school is well underway, and my classes at William Carey are back in full swing. So, I have several irons in the fire at the moment. This is important, though – too important to go unsaid, too necessary for me to say.
I hope it helps you as much as it has me.
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 unclear.
When I say purposefully 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.
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 it is not okay to dig into God’s Word to search for answers. Those are good and valuable things. But it is important to be able to be honest about what we do not know or understand, especially if the alternative is to teach or proclaim things that may be untrue or dangerously heretical.
Some might balk at my saying that it 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 at length in a section that immediately precedes a section on how dangerous false teachers are. Look at this passage from 2 Peter talking about the importance of the revelation 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.2 Peter 1:19-21
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 or clear in verses 1-7 and therefore main or 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 and that 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”. 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 similar 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). Limit yourself 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.
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”. 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 a different one than 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) was: “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 is what many people are seeking, but it is truly good news. I am not saying this out of some sense of religious hocus pocus. 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 earlier today and earnestly hoped that the malady would leave me right then and there. But it didn’t. It didn’t immediately go away, and it will be back. Paul’s “thorn” would not go away, but neither would Jesus! Jesus – Emmanuel (“God with us”) – would meet Paul’s weakness and provide sufficient – enough to overcome and get through – grace and strength to carry Paul through! Jesus meets me in my struggle and stays with me. He provides the same sufficient grace for you and me today.
Paul pleaded and begged and received more than a response from Jesus; he 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 in the midst of 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). I, like Paul, find Jesus.
The good thing for us is that we do not have to wait for a word from the Lord to intervene. The words – those red letters – in today’s passage are spoken to us as well. We don’t have to wait for God to speak because He has spoken!
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 there was something better than even the best visions. Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi came at the end of his life, shortly before his death (by martyrdom). 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 the church at Philippi 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 now and counted by him as “rubbish” (Philippians 3:8). For context, the word translated “rubbish” was the word used to describe “refuse of grain, chaff, or of a table, of slaughtered animals, of dung, and figuratively of the filth of the mind”.
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. Heaven without Jesus is nothing. A Jesus-less heaven is worthless – as the kids say, “straight trash”. Does that seem odd to you? If it does, you are boasting in 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 to help Paul boast only in Christ. What did not seem like a blessing – and definitely would not have been had it not been for Christ – was a blessing because of the grace given to Paul to withstand. The question for us, and honestly the question I have to ask myself often, is whether or not I can be satisfied with the grace and presence of Christ in the face of continued difficulty.
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!
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. They are questions that I struggle with as I plead for relief. But God is big enough and strong enough for our questions. His loving-kindness can withstand and carry us through our doubts. His mercies and sufficient grace are enough to get us through whatever thorns tear at us.
I pray that I can boast like Paul did at the end of today’s passage that he was able to be “content” – to “be well–pleased” – in “weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities” because when he was weak, he was strong because of Jesus’ sufficient grace. I am not there yet, but there is sufficient grace to get me there eventually. That’s good news! And I needed to hear it today. I hope it helps you as well.