Text: 2 Corinthians 12
Paul is speaking of himself in the third person…and he is giving his personal testimony of the time when he was caught up into the third heaven. He says it happened 14 years ago and as you count back and study the Book of Acts, it is probable that this took place on his first missionary journey and perhaps when he was stoned at Lystra and left for dead…maybe that’s when the Lord caught him up into the third heaven and gave him a glimpse of that…we don’t know that for certain.
But, in these opening verses we need to understand why Paul is including this. The first few verses, Paul is speaking about of his own personal experience of God catching him up and showing him a vision of what it meant to be in heaven with the Lord.
A third heaven and a thorn in the same chapter. My, how real that is to the Christian experience. Do we ever get to the place we think that heavenly experiences exempt us from all difficulties. It is true in the life of many of you here this morning that in the very same chapter of your life you have experienced a high spiritual exaltation and a low Satanic depression.
Did you know that heavenly experiences are dangerous? And those that are blessed of God and those among whom and in whose midst God moves, that there comes to those kinds of people a very special kind of danger. You’ll notice in verse 7 Paul mentions twice this statement, “unless I should be exalted above measure, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh”…lest I should be exalted above measure…” Paul was frustrated like some of you have been at the turn of events…In one minute he’s caught into Paradise. Not a living soul has ever made that trip and come back except Jesus Christ. Paul said “I saw things…well, it’s not lawful for me to write about them…I saw things that you wouldn’t believe if I told you…I was caught up into Paradise…I don’t know if I was in the body or in the spirit…it doesn’t make any difference…I was there! And I saw the glories of that place and God gave me an abundance of revelations. But, he said, “after that a very frustrating thing happened to me…suddenly I was thrown into the valley of depression…I was thrown into the depths of despair…and I prayed three times for God to deliver me from this and He never did it.”
I think that’s a startling and frustrating response to a man’s prayer. I know that there are many of you here this morning who can identify with the Apostle Paul. You’ve been a little frustrated at some of the things that have happened to you because in one minute God has so marvelously blessed you and one minute God has lifted you up almost to the third heaven…you’ve made it to the second…and if you stood on your tiptoes you could almost have seen over to the third heaven….you never dreamed life could be so filled with joy…you never dreamed there could be so much ecstasy in just living everyday life…God has lifted you up to heavenly places and you’ve walked in that realm of glory and you’ve been praising the Lord and rejoicing…your heart just as light as air and all of a sudden, you fall flat on your face. Mountains of obstacles stand in your way. Depression comes upon you. Difficulty comes…sickness settles upon you. Infirmities, distresses, persecutions, and you can’t figure out what in the world’s going on. What’s happened? And you pray, “Lord, remove this thing…what’s going on? Lord, remove this thing..” And yet, God doesn’t answer in the way you want Him to answer.
You see, it’s not inconsistent as far as God is concerned for you to be lifted up to the third heaven one moment and to have a thorn a “messenger of Satan” in the next moment. And really the greatest revelation that Paul ever had in his life was not the revelation that he received when he was caught up to the third heaven…it was the revelation he received when he had the thorn in his flesh.
And I want you to know this morning the greatest revelation from God you will ever receive and the most profitable revelation you will ever receive from God will not be one that you would receive by being caught up into Paradise today and having your eyes exposed to all the glories of that place, but the most profitable and the greatest revelation you will ever receive is the revelation you can receive this morning from understanding the ministry of the thorns. Why in the world does God do it like.
As I was studying this passage I began to remember other incidents in the Bible and I found that this is God’s method of working. If you’ll go back and trace the great prophets and great heroes of the Old Testament and even in the New Testament, you’ll find the same thing is true. Even Jesus, after His baptism when the heavens opened and the Spirit of God descended upon Him as a dove, and the voice from heaven cried out, “This is My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased”…immediately after that, Jesus was plunged into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil…to fast and to pray for 40 days.
After Moses’ greatest spiritual experience came his most severe times of testing. It was after Elijah conquered the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel and witnesses the fire of God falling that we find him whimpering under a juniper tree, praying that he would die.
So, I want you to know this morning if some of you have come from mountaintop experiences into the valleys of depression…I want you to know you’re in good company. Don’t be surprised, and ask, “Well, why does God do it this way? Why after God gave Paul that marvelous vision and that abundant revelation did He allow Satan to buffet him with a thorn in the flesh.”
Here’s the reason He did it…God did it to keep Paul useable. God did it to keep Paul useable. God does it in your life to keep you useable. I said a moment ago…Heavenly experiences are dangerous. You know why? Because they have a tendency to make us spiritually proud and presumptious. Paul recognized he was in danger of becoming spiritually proud and presumptious because he said twice in that seventh verse, “Lest I should be exalted above measure…lest I should be puffed up and think that God had favored me above me other people…Now, I had it made and I could just coast the rest of my life on this marvelous experience. Because, you see, there is nothing that will so soon disqualify you for God using you and glorifying Himself than your spiritual pride and presumption.
God can only glorify Himself through us and God can only use us when we’re kept in the position of humility and abasement and weakness.
Now, I want us to do four things as we look at this passage of Scripture this morning…
Let’s establish this priniciple…
1) Verse 9: “And He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient
for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’”
(My strength is brought to completion in your weakness.
God says, “Paul, the reason I’m doing this…” and He says to you this morning, “Christian, the reason I allow these difficult things to come into your life is because your weakness is the stage on which I display My power and My strength.” You see, the condition for God displaying His power in our lives is not OUR strength and OUR ability…it is our WEAKNESS and our INABILITY.
Let’s read in 1 Corinthians 1:
“For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many
wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble;
but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame
the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to
shame the things which are strong and the base things of the
world and the despised, God has chosen, the things which are
not, that He might nullify the things that are, that no flesh
should boast before God.”
Notice three times in these verses…God has deliberately chosen the foolish things of this world to shame the wise and God has deliberately chosen the weak to shame the things which are strong, and God has deliberately chosen the base things of the world to nullify the things that are…that no flesh should boast before God…glory in His presence.
Three times Paul says that God doesn’t simply use what He can…God isn’t simply getting along the best way He can with what He can get…God has deliberately passed by the great, the noble, the strong, the wise…God has deliberately chosen the foolish, and the weak, and the base things of the world…Friend, God doesn’t use you in spite of your weakness, He uses you because of your weakness.
You say, “Well, I have so much ability.” Well, God can use that if you’ll give it up like Paul did in Phil. 3…”But what things were gain to me I counted as garbage.” I have a little pet peeve. The pet peeve is to hear somebody talk to a lost man like this, “Oh, you have so much ability, there is so much you could do for the Lord…if you’d just give your heart to Jesus there is just so much you could do for God.” That is the world’s greatest mistake. We talk about some Christians who are carnal and living lives of defeat and we say, “Oh, if they’d just get right with the Lord…what they couldn’t do for the Lord!” Listen, God deliberately chooses the things that are base and weak. God does not use you in spite of your weakness. I wish we could understand this. We think that God is just getting along the best way He can and God just has to make do with what He has.
Listen, Paul says that God deliberately chooses these things so that He can be glorified and exalted and the only way God can use you is when He can be glorified in you. God is not going to use this church if He cannot be glorified in the using of it. The only way God will be glorified in the using of our lives and our bodies is if we recognize our utter weakness and inability. So, God is constantly reminding us that we’re just dust and He lets these thorns in the flesh come to us to remind us that we are weak…to show us our weakness and inability.
You remember over in 2 Chronicles 26, King Uzziah was a man God had greatly blessed (Remember we’re establishing the principle that God’s strength is made perfect when we’re weak)…
“And in Jerusalem he made engines of war invented by skillful
men to be on the towers and on the corners, for the purpose of
shooting arrows and great stones. Hen his fame spread afar,
for he was marvelously helped until he was strong.”
Now, there is a modern success story…King Uzziah has gained power and he’s gained prosperity and he says, “Here’s what we’re going to do…when we have to fight battles now, we’ve got it made. I’ve had skillful men to invent engines and we’re going to set these on the towers and my name is spreading abroad all over the land…I’m becoming famous…”
“…he was marvelously helped until he was strong…”
King Uzziah was marvelously helped by God…how long?…as long as he was weak, but when he became strong there was no more help…
“But when he became strong, his heart was so proud (lifted
up) that he acted corruptly…”
Listen, you know what happens in the lives of a great many Christians who enter into the spiritual life and God begins to bless…your heart is lifted up to your own destruction and the principle by which God operates in our lives is to remind us that we’re dust and He’s constantly weakening us and drawing out of us our OWN strength so that He can be glorified in our lives.
When D. L. Moody first went to Britain years ago, one of the British reporters went to interview and watch D. L. Moody as he preached and conducted his services, because he was trying to find out the secret of this man’s success. Here’s what he wrote…
“Mr. Moody uses bad English, has a high pitched voice,
speaks with a nasal tone, is overweight and generally rough.
I can see nothing in Mr. Moody to account for the success
of his work.”
And when Moody read that, he said, “That’s the secret! There is no way to explain this work except for the power of God!”
Now, some of you have been praying, “Lord, use me.” Alright, the first thing God has to do if He’s going to use you is to weaken you and to abase you and to humble you.
Now, that’s the principle…let’s examine the process:
How does God do this? Paul says “lest I should be exalted above measure, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh…” This is the process. God says, “I can only use you, I can only be glorified in your life when you’re weak. Now, here’s how I’m going to make you weak.” “There was given to me a thorn in the flesh.” That word “thorn” means a “wooden stake” that impales someone to a cross or to a tree. The verb form of that word means to crucify. And here’s the picture that Paul is painting…he says, “there was given to me a stake that nailed me to the wall and nailed me to the floor…” Now that’s about as helpless as you can get.
Paul says, “I besought the Lord three times to remove it.” Now, if anybody has their prayers answered, it ought to be the Apostle Paul. Man, I’d like to have him praying for me. Well, I want you to know this is a startling response…God didn’t remove that thorn in the flesh. Paul prayed three times…I bet that’s the first he ever had to pray three times for anything in his life, and he was frustrated just like some of you have been.
Some of you have said, “Oh Lord, I could serve you better if you’d change circumstances…Lord, if you would put me in a different position. If you would give me a different situation…What is the “thorn in the flesh” for you this morning? You know, I think it’s significant that Paul does not identify his “thorn in the flesh.” Some people say we know that Paul was married because he said he had a thorn in the flesh. Well, that’s just speculation. Paul doesn’t identify the thorn in the flesh. Why? Because what it was is not important. It may have been some physical disease or infirmity…it could have been anything. We know that it wasn’t spiritual or moral defeat because God would have removed that. But it was something that Paul looked upon as a handicap. He was given a thorn in the flesh…a physical handicap or obstacle. And Paul said, “Lord, I could serve you so much better if you’d just remove this and change this…” Is that the way you pray?
Women pray, “Lord, I could just serve you so much better if you’d just change my husband.” Men pray, “Lord, I could just serve you so much better if you’d just change my wife, or move me to another position or to another town, or if you’d just give me this or give me that, or just change this circumstance in my life…then, I could just serve you!!”
Is that the way you’ve been praying? I want you to just notice something. Here is Paul’s great revelation. He says, “There was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan, to buffet me.”
Well, you mean to tell me that a thing can be of the devil and of God at the same time? That’s right!! It was a messenger of Satan and yet a gift of grace at the same time!! I think that’s good. You know, God uses the devil. That must frustrate him something awful. The devil comes along and he says, “You know, I’ve got something that’s just going to wipe you out! You’ve been causing me no little trouble…” (You know, Paul was known in hell…those people over in Acts who tried to cast out the demons…the demons said, “Jesus, I know…and Paul, I know…but who are you?) Well, Paul was famous in hell…he was a constant thorn in the devil’s flesh and so, Satan said, “Paul, I’m just going to wipe you out…I’m going to destroy your effectiveness…I’m going to destroy your ministry…you just had this tremendous spiritual and you think you’re on top of it all…I’m going to show you what I can do.”
And Satan inflicted him with a thorn in the flesh. And God says, “Thank you, Satan…just what I wanted you to do…you played right into My hands…because I know Paul real well and Paul was beginning to get a little bit ‘holier than thou’ attitude. He was beginning to coast just a little bit. He was beginning to get lifted up just a little bit through all of these great experiences that he’s had and I want to thank you for playing right into my hands.”
Listen, if God couldn’t use the devil, He’d kill him. The only reason God allows the devil to do what he does is because God is using him.
Now, listen, what’s your thorn in the flesh this morning?
Is there some difficulty…not talking now about moral or spiritual difficulty. Those things always removes. It may be physical illness. It may be a job situation that you wish could be changed. It may be a thousand things…it’s your thorn in the flesh.
God allows Satan to buffet you. Why? So He can keep you useable.
Alright, let’s move on…
Let’s explore now the possibilities of this principle…
The principle is: God’s power is made perfect when I am weak.
The process is: God makes me weak by giving me thorns in the flesh…difficulties.
Now, the possibilities of this:
Verse 9: “Most gladly will I glory in my infirmities in order that the
power of Christ may rest upon me.”
There are two glorious possibilities once you realize the principle by which God words. First of all is:
I can have victory in the midst of my difficulties.
Paul says “Most gladly will I glory…” That word, “glory”, means to give a “shout of triumph.” Sometimes people want to know if shouting in church is Scriptural. It is…the word “glory” means to shout. Paul says, “I will give a shout of victory in my distresses.” Why? Because it changed his viewpoint of distresses. The revelation of God changed the way he looked at things that came into his life.
Now, listen. I want you to remember this…If there is a thorn in your flesh, if there is situation that seems to be unbearable, if there is a circumstance in your life that presents difficulty and distress and you pray and God won’t remove that…then the next thing you’re to do is to praise Him for it, because God is going to use that to glorify Himself in your life.
Now, the first thing Paul prayed (I think he did right)…He prayed. He wanted it to be removed, but after it was not removed, he realized then through the revelation of God that God is saying, “I want this to stay here because this is a ‘minister’ that I have given to you. I’m going to use this.” Now, you need to change your viewpoint of difficulties and distresses and obstacles in your Christian life. If God will not remove them, then you know that God is using them for His glory.
Now, I repeat…we’re not talking about spiritual and moral failure. You can never use sin as an excuse this way. It’s things that are not morally and spiritually wrong. But you begin to praise God for them…and when a Christian realizes the principle by which God operates in his life, he can look upon any distress and any persecution, any difficulty, any tragedy, and say, “I will give a shout of victory in this, because I know God is using this, and He wants to use it if I’ll allow Him to glorify Himself in my life.”
The second great possibility is:
Not only victory over distresses and difficulties, but the power of Christ is made available to us.
He says, “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities
that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”
That word “rest” means “a tent spread over us”. It’s the only time it’s found in the New Testament. Paul says, “The power of Christ is like a tent spread over me and I live under the shelter of the power of Christ. And every day of my life, and every moment of my life I am sheltered by the power of Christ and the power of the risen Lord abides on me and is made available to me.”
But, I want you to notice the power of Christ dwells on him and abides on him only when he glories in his distresses. Did you notice that? It’s a chain reaction there. Some of you say, “Well, now Preacher, I’ve had difficulties, I’ve had distresses, I’ve had infirmities, but I haven’t seen the power of Christ in my life…I haven’t witnessed the power of Jesus glorifying in my life…” No, because you’ve not gloried in those infirmities…you’ve complained and griped and grown bitter. You know what will turn the trick? When you get Paul’s viewpoint, the heavenly viewpoint and you agree with God and you say, “God, I know that you’ve sent this now as Your gift of grace and I praise You for it and I glory in it, because I know it means You’re working in my life.”
Now, the last thing…Let’s enter into the provision.
What is that provision. Paul says, “Lord, take this thorn from my flesh.” God gave him a better answer. God said, “I’m not going to take the thorn from your flesh…I’m going to give you something better….My grace is sufficient for thee…My grace is sufficient for thee.”
The provision! He doesn’t say, “My grace will be sufficient.” He doesn’t say, “My grace can be sufficient.” He says, “My grace is sufficient, right now, present tense…My grace is sufficient.” I think that has to be the world’s greatest understatement. “MY GRACE IS SUFFICIENT FOR THEE,”
He could have said a lot of things. “My grace just completely overwhelms every problem.” No, He says, “My grace is sufficient for thee.”
You heard the story of the man who purchased a Rolls Royce. It’s the policy of the Rolls Royce corporation not to publish the amount of horse power of their engines. And this man paid all that money for the Rolls Royce and he felt like he had a right to know how many horsepower he had under that hood. Well, he kept asking them, and they kept sending him back letters “it is our policy not to disclose the amount of horsepower that we put in our engines.”
The man just got so angry about it and he kept on and kept on… he went to the head office and sent telegrams, he demanded to know and the people said, “We’ve just to give this fellow some kind of answer. He’s never going to let us alone.” So, the next time he wrote, demanding how much horsepower was in his Rolls Royce, he got back a telegram with one word on it: “ADEQUATE”
That’s what God says…Paul says, “Lord, You just don’t know the problems I’m going through. Lord, look at my situation. Lord look at this difficulty…Look at this infirmity…Lord, do something!” God says, “My grace is adequate…My grace is sufficient for thee.”
So Paul says, “Thank You, Lord…I know it is..I’ll take it by faith. Praise the Lord for difficulties. Praise the Lord for infirmities. Praise the Lord for thorns from the devil. His grace is sufficient for me.”
And, it’s sufficient for you, no matter what the situation is. That’s how God’s been working in your life.
This past week…these past months…this past year, some of you have been perplexed about the turn of events in your life. You’ve given Jesus everything you know to give Him. You’ve totally, without reservation, yielded it all to Him and not been able to understand it. Lest you be lifted up above measure, there was given to you a thorn the flesh, so you might walk, not in the power of your own strength or experiences, but knowing that His grace is sufficient for you.
© Ron Dunn, LifeStyle Ministries, 2005
Paul’s Visit to Heaven