Heritage Message May 2010
II Corinthians 12:1-10
Donald Kraybill has written a book called “The Upside Down Kingdom.” It examines the values which the world lives by and points out that the values which followers of God live by are often the very opposite. The Kingdom of God has values that are unexpected in normal society.
For example, it is often the expectation of this world that the more you have, the better you are. In the kingdom of Jesus, however, we find that God expects that His followers will be generous and share freely. Therefore we would find that in the kingdom the more you share the better you are.
The value of the world often is, as the proverb says, “eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.” In the kingdom of God, however, we are invited to shift our thinking to realize that the best is yet to come and we should live knowing that we are storing up treasure in heaven.
Even as Christians who have had our values turned upside down, we don’t always get it. Kraybill’s appeal is for Christ followers to understand and live by the values of the kingdom rather than the values of this world. As people who live in this world and who are often attracted to the values of this world and who naturally understand the values of this world, it is an important appeal for us to live in the upside down kingdom.
II Corinthians 12:1-10 contains a value that even as Christians we find hard to accept. Read text.
Paul begins by saying in verse 1, “I must go on boasting.” Why does he feel it necessary to boast? It seems that he was in a conflict with some false teachers who had come to Corinth. It appears that these false teachers had some rather interesting ideas about what demonstrated real spirituality. They believed that if a person had visions and revelations from God or prophecies, they were truly spiritual people.
Paul says, “I must go on boasting” in order to let these false teachers know that if those are the categories on which we are to judge spirituality, he was certainly capable. He had an experience 14 years ago in which he was caught up to the third heaven. While experiencing this revelation, he heard things which he was not permitted to repeat on earth. What a special experience! What a blessing to be able to have such an experience of revelation from God and intimacy with God.
This was by no means the only such experiences with God which Paul had had. His salvation was an experience of a unique revelation from God in which Jesus Himself spoke audibly to Paul. It was such a powerful spiritual experience, that his whole life turned around because of it. He had experienced a vision in which a man of Macedonia had invited him to come to spread the gospel there. After a few days of experiencing closed doors to the gospel, this clear revelation from God must have been encouraging. But it also gave him a strong and confident motivation to proceed with gospel proclamation. Later in life when he was on his way to Jerusalem, prophets gave him specific words about what his future would be. So Paul was certainly one who could boast about the special relationship he had with God as demonstrated by the revelations God had given him.
But as we read this section, we see that Paul does not really want to boast about these things. In the first few verses, he speaks in the third person and mentions “a man in Christ who was caught up to the third heaven.” In verse 7, we realize that he has been speaking about himself and saying that he is not overly impressed with the revelations he has received. He has accepted them as a gift from God. He has rejoiced in these experiences. But he does not put them on a pedestal. He knows the danger of this kind of thinking. He knows that dwelling on such amazing experiences with God could become the basis on which you would think of yourself as better than others. He doesn’t want to be put on that kind of a pedestal, as he says in verse 6, “But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say.”
Paul could boast about impressive spiritual experiences, but did that make him a better, more spiritual person than others? Did that prove that he was somehow closer to God than the average disciple?
This kind of thinking is not that far from our minds. We also make judgments and evaluations about people who are especially spiritual. We are also impressed with people who can demonstrate that they have had special revelations from God. If we hear someone say, “God made it clear to me” we often respond in one of two ways. We may doubt that God has spoken to them, or we may be impressed and wonder what they have done to make them so spiritual as to receive such revelations.
But we also have other categories by which we judge that a person is more spiritual than someone else. If a person is particularly generous, we may consider them more spiritual. If a person is particularly obedient we are impressed by their faithfulness. If a person is willing to make great sacrifices we have the same thoughts. For example, when we read about the early missionaries of our era who sacrificed home, land and family in order to bring the gospel to a remote region of the world, we often consider them to be in a different category of Christian. There are the ordinary Christians and then there are the super-spiritual Christians.
None of these things are bad. We are called to generosity, to obedience, to sacrifice, but does this make us especially spiritual? Is this what we should be impressed about? Is there not a danger with this kind of thinking which could lead a person to boast?
In the rest of II Corinthians 12:7-10, we encounter upside down thinking on this issue.
On the one hand, Paul had experienced some amazing revelations from God. On the other, God permitted him to experience a “thorn in the flesh.” There have been many suggestions about what that thorn in the flesh may have been. Some suggest it was an eye problem because in Galatians Paul writes with his own hand in “large letters.” Some suggest it was the constant problem he had with his fellow Jews. Others have suggested other physical ailments such as epilepsy or a speech impediment. Still others suggest that he experienced some sort of moral temptations. The truth is, we don’t know because there is not enough in the text to tell us.
What is interesting is that Paul identifies this thorn in the flesh as a “messenger of Satan” but still sees that God has permitted it. It suggests to us that the source of all evil is Satan, but that God nevertheless sometimes permits these things to happen. In the Expositors Bible Commentary the writer comments that “behind any and every machination of Satan, Paul could discern the overarching providence of a God who perpetually created good out of evil.”
This thorn in the flesh was difficult for Paul and so he prayed about it, as we have been taught to do. In fact, he prayed three times, but God did not remove it. Instead, Paul finally learned about a principle of the kingdom that is upside down thinking. As he listened to God he learned that God could work in him and through him in spite of and perhaps even because of his weaknesses.
As he became aware of this, Paul came to the place where he was more content with the sufferings he experienced than with the surpassingly great revelations he had experienced. This is upside down thinking. It is not natural to think that experiencing suffering is better than experiencing glory, yet that is what Paul says.
Notice that in verse 5 and 9 he says that rather than boasting in the revelations he had received, he would prefer to boast in his weaknesses. Notice that he says in verse 10, “I delight in” and then lists a whole bunch of difficulties. There must be a reason why anyone would delight in suffering and difficulties. Paul explains very clearly what that reason is.
First of all, he learned that suffering humbles us. Paul says in verse 7 that this happened to him “To keep me from becoming conceited…” If we think that we are something special because of the revelations we have received or the obedience we offer God or the discipline to have devotions or the sacrifices we have made for Him, suffering reminds us that whatever we are or have become is because of what God has done in us. If we become proud because of our faithfulness or the blessings we have received, the focus moves from God to us. When we suffer, the focus moves away from us because we realize that we are nothing without God.
A second reason why Paul prefers to boast in his weaknesses is because he has come to understand that in suffering we discover that God’s grace is sufficient for us. All we really need to survive is the grace that God offers. That grace is a great thing, for it is by grace that we have come to God in the first place. When we are humbled and realize that we are nothing without God, we are restored to the position of recognizing that we stand by grace alone. Jesus lived by that hope. In the most extreme need after 40 days of fasting in the wilderness, we would have thought that the most important thing needed at that moment was bread. But when Satan tempted him with bread, Jesus was able to understand that He lived not by bread alone, but by the grace of God in every situation.
When we come to the end of ourselves, we must turn to God. It is at that point that the power of God becomes active and operates. When we can continue on in the most difficult of circumstances, it clearly is not because of our strength, power or ability. It is clearly because God is in it. Thus in weakness, the glory for whatever we may accomplish goes to God, because our weakness would not give us the ability to do anything. God has done it and in that way His power is made perfect in our weakness.
So Paul rejoices, because He is willing to experience all of this for Christ’s sake. The focus of his life changes from self to Christ. As long as everything is going well and we have all we need and we can accomplish all we want by our own power, our motives become mixed and we may be doing things as much for ourselves as for God. When we stand in the depth of human need and in our utter weakness, then our focus changes and we do things totally for God.
And so Paul comes to the conclusion that “when I am weak, then I am strong.” This is where upside down thinking lives. In the world, we think: the country with the most weapons is strongest; the hockey team with the most talented team will win; the person with the best marks will get the best job. It actually works like that in the world. But God’s kingdom is not like that. In God’s kingdom, the strongest is the one who is weak because the strongest is the one who is most dependent on God. The only way that we seem to come to that place is through the humiliation of suffering.
We know that this is how the kingdom of God works because it is the way in which Jesus won. Jesus did not win by bringing 10,000 angels to take Him off the cross. He won by weakness, by laying down His life. That same kind of thinking pertains in the rest of the kingdom. It was not just a one-time event which restored the normal human way of thinking. As Paul’s experience demonstrated, it is the way of the kingdom.
Did Paul like the thorn in the flesh? No! Did he seek hardship? No! Would he have loved to have the thorn removed? Certainly! But he also valued what he learned from weakness.
In verse 10, Paul writes a catalogue of difficulties. He speaks of weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and difficulties. Nothing is left out. That is why we know that what Paul was writing here, was not only about his experience, but also instruction and encouragement for us.
What are you experiencing that is difficult? How are you experiencing God’s strength in the midst of that? The path is clear and it is the path of the kingdom. The way to walk on that path is through faith and dependence on God so that God’s power can be demonstrated and God’s name glorified. I pray that we may all learn to recognize the power of God which is present in weakness.