The Power of Christ in Human Weakness

The Power of Christ in Human Weakness

Sermon delivered at Western Classis, March 2016

 7 And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.  8 For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.  9 And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.

(2 Corinthians 12:7–10, KJV)

 

Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of living in this fallen world, is the reality of human weakness and human frailty.  Apart from our sin, nothing makes us feel more exposed and more ashamed than the reality of our weakness—whether it be mental weakness, emotional weakness, or physical weakness.  Weakness seems to tell us that we have failed, that we don’t measure up, and even that we might be cursed.  And of course, in the context of ministry (and service in the Church), these often appear on a podium for all to see.  And worst of all, they tend to be unchanging.  Isn’t it true that those areas of your life that are weak tend to be systemic?  They tend to be chronic in nature.  They are not one time issues that you simply get over.  So they often leave us questioning: “What is the purpose of my weaknesses, and most importantly, how can I live with them and bear with them (or even overcome them)?”

Well the Apostle Paul answers these basic questions here in 2 Corinthians 12 through the example of his life.  And he does so with the basic idea that our weaknesses are given to us by Christ, for our good, therefore we can (and must) bear them in faith.  In other words, our weaknesses are to be dealt with in the exact same way as our sin; by looking outside of ourselves to the all-sufficient grace of our Savior (as Paul recounts in verse 9).  And so as we examine this text, we are going to do so by looking at why Christ gives us weaknesses. First, we will examine how they are given to humble our pride (which we find in verses 7 and 8). Second, we will examine how they are given to magnify His power (as Paul goes on to teach in verses 9 and 10).  As we will see, then, both of these truths require us to bear our weaknesses in faith.

 

How our weaknesses are given to humble our pride (verses 7-8)

So first, let’s examine the relationship of weaknesses to pride. Verse 7 reads,

And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.”

Paul here describes this weakness of his as a thorn in the flesh, as a messenger of Satan.  What’s this mean?  There have basically been three different understandings in Church history as to the identity of this thorn or messenger.  Some understand this to be a reference to mere physical ailments.  There are those who speculate that Paul may have been partially blind, or may even have had epilepsy, and they point to various passages in the book of Acts as evidence for this.  So, if true, those would have rightly been considered weaknesses in his flesh.  However, others (such as Calvin and Luther) understand this to be a reference to his spiritual ailments; in other words, his besetting temptations and discouragements in the Christian walk.  This certainly fits with Paul’s use of language.  Paul usually speaks of the flesh as a reference to our sinful nature. Likewise, our sinful nature is what is subject to the temptations of Satan and his angels.  So supposedly his spiritual or moral weakness is what is in view here.  That’s the second interpretation.  Others understand this to be a reference to the persistent opposition that he faced in his ministry, which discouraged him and therefore functioned as a constant “thorn in his flesh.”  Think about how often Paul was overrun by those who opposed him so that he could not complete his work in a given town.  This exposed his weakness and frailty as a human being.  In fact, he mentions just that in verse 10, as he refers to reproaches, persecutions, and distress from those who oppose him.  This is also very similar to what God said to the Israelites back in Numbers 23:55.  He warned them: “But if ye will not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you; then it shall come to pass, that those which ye let remain of them shall be pricks in your eyes, and thorns in your sides, and shall vex you in the land wherein ye dwell.”  Even in the Old Testament, spiritual opposition was referred to as a thorn in the side.  This is the most likely interpretation of what Paul was referring to.

However, the reason that Paul speaks in the form of a metaphor, and doesn’t just come out and say what it was, is so that we might apply what he says here to all manner of weaknesses (see how he lists them in verse 10).  The “thorn in the flesh” can come to us in the form of physical ailments (as they did, for example, in the book of Job), it can come in the form of temptations and discouragements, and it can also come in the form of opposition and abuse.  All of these things tend to get in the way of how we would like to function and live comfortably as Christians and as servants of God.  And so they beg the question, “Why are they there, and why do we have them?”  Well, Paul answers that twice in verse 7.

And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.”

With Paul, the temptation would have been to become exalted in his ministry.  As we observe in the context, Paul here has been defending his ministry against the charge of the so-called “super-Apostles,” (the false Apostles that he mentions throughout the book).  He lists off his many qualifications, from his faithfulness to the Gospel to the suffering that he’s endured for the Gospel’s sake.  No sooner does he mention all of those qualifications than he also mentions that, just like anyone else, he would have been prone to pride because of them.  It would have been very easy for Paul to think of himself as the source of truth, or as the cornerstone of the Church, because of all that God did through him.  Yet there is only one source of truth and one cornerstone of the Church.  So God graciously gave him difficulties to humble him and keep that in view.  We even see him acknowledge this fact when he says, “a thorn in the flesh was given to me.”  He confesses that his trials and weaknesses were not simply accidental.  They didn’t just happen.  They were given to him.  And he recognizes that they were given to him for his good that he might not fall under the influence of pride, which he associates in 1 Timothy 3 with the condemnation of the devil.  This was the purpose of this “messenger of Satan,” this “thorn in the flesh;” to overcome him, and any trust he may have had in himself, that he might not be overcome by pride.

As Augustine said when commenting on this verse, “On the words of the Apostle, the poison of pride, cannot be cured except by poison.”  This was true in the life of Paul.  Notice that he never says he was actually ever given over to pride; but that in retrospect, he recognized that his weaknesses were given to keep him from being like these false Apostles.  The very thing that seemed to be a curse on his ministry in comparison to them, was actually the greatest blessing; in order to keep him low, and the glory of God high.

And the same goes with us.  One of the purposes of our weaknesses and our trials, is to remind us that we are simply creatures.  If pride says, “I will ascend to the heights of heaven, I will be like the most High God,” our weaknesses yank us right back down to earth and remind us of our place.  Just as we are placing our trust in our own abilities and experiences, the difficulties of life (whether it be in the form of sickness, depression, or opposition) are meant to force us on our knees that we might keep our trust in God.  You see, weakness and difficulty is ultimately for our good since it uproots the very foundation of our sin (our pride).  Our weaknesses are given to humble our pride, so therefore we learn to bear them with patience.

We observe that with the example of Paul here.  He interprets his situation through the lens of faith.  As he describes it in verse 8, he bore it with patience and prayer.  He writes, “For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.”

Now, the word “besought,” there, might come across to some as a bit old-fashioned in our current use of English.  But what the word means in Greek, is “to ask earnestly” or “to plead.”  Whatever the nature of this “thorn in the flesh” was, Paul clearly found it to be intense and disturbing.  It wasn’t pleasant. He wanted it gone.  It is a perfectly natural and fitting response to suffering to want it to end.  Yet notice that his response wasn’t to lash out or to complain.  That is what we so often do in our pride and entitlement.  Rather, Paul brought it straight to God.  His suffering drives him to God. This is exactly what the “thorn in the flesh” was meant to do.  Paul says he asked the Lord three times to take it away.  He didn’t just ask and then turn away when he didn’t get immediate results.  He continued to ask and continued to rely upon God.  This shows us great perseverance and patience on Paul’s part, and prayer was the focal point of that.  Prayer functioned as the hinge upon which his potential pride was converted into patience and humility.  His trials were the force that turned the hinge, and shut the door on his pride, by forcing him into prayer.  It’s not hard to see how this works in us as God’s people.  Pride demands to be in control.  Our weaknesses prove that we are not in control.  Therefore, we pray to the One Who is in control, resulting in patience and peace.  That is the evidence that we have let go of control and have thus let go of our pride.  This is the fruit of weaknesses in our life, when we bear them in faith.  As Paul writes in Romans 5:3, “And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience.”  As we have seen, we get to patience through prayer.  This is why when we face weaknesses and difficulties we must train ourselves to respond first by clasping our hands together in prayer.  For if we respond in any other way, we are missing the point.  Prayer is how we find refuge in the One that our trial has actually been about all along.  Now let’s look at God’s answer to Paul’s prayer, in verse 9.

And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.

How our weaknesses are given to magnify His power (verses 9-10)

My second main point is that our weaknesses are given to magnify the power of Christ. Therefore we are to embrace Him in confidence.  That much can be discerned from the very text here in verse 9.  How then is Christ’s strength magnified in human weakness?  Well, just consider who Christ is and what He came to do.  He is the Lamb, slain from before the foundation of the world!  Those are images and words that emphasize weakness; a lamb is a vulnerable and weak creature that needs to be guided and protected. Likewise, someone who has been slain is someone who has been overpowered and overcome.  Through His humiliation, Christ partook in human weakness and was subjected to the curse, temptation, and death.  And this wasn’t just to render satisfaction for our sins, but so that he could also sympathize with us in our weakness, as Hebrews 4:15 says.  In fact, Hebrews 2:10 says, “For it became him, for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings.”

You see, Christ was made perfect through his suffering and humiliation, and then he was raised above it.  When He was raised from death, to be given all glory, power, and strength.  The very Captain of our salvation exhibits in Himself God’s power in human weakness.  Therefore, He is the champion of all those who labor under the curse and long for release.  The mere fact of who Christ is, and what He has done, ought to encourage all those who believe in Him and yet face suffering and human frailty (which includes all of us in one way or another).  In Christ, suffering and weakness is not the end of the story.

I can remember, back when I was a sales manager, we would make a positive example out of all of those who struggled with their job but then later figured it out and rose to the top of the sales ranker.  It was to make them a champion, or an encouragement for all those who struggled likewise.  Their failure doesn’t have to be the end of the story.  You would find that those who struggled and actually cared about their job, would then embrace these “champions” and seek them out for advice and for encouragement.  It often worked!  In a similar way, Christ, our sympathetic High Priest, is to be embraced by those who are overcome by their weakness, guilt, and sin.  We can do that in a much truer sense with Christ, because He has first embraced us with His gracious and powerful Spirit.  We are united to Him by his Spirit!  Look at His promise given at the beginning of verse 9. “And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee.”

Now when Christ promises Paul His grace, this is a reference to the power of the Holy Spirit, the same power that he mentions at the end of verse 9.  The Lord reminds Paul that the same power which had originally embraced him; which had regenerated him, and converted him, and sanctified him, was still right there with him in his weaknesses.  It was sufficient for him.

Jesus reinforced this fact by reminding Paul that it’s His grace and His Spirit.  He says “My grace, is sufficient for thee.”  The same Holy Spirit who dwells within Christ and was properly His Spirit, also dwelled within Paul.  Therefore the same power that sustained Christ through his weakness and suffering, and which finally raised Him from the dead, was also dwelling within Paul.  Christ had already embraced Paul in the most intimate way possible.

As Question 76 of our catechism says, in Christ “we live and are governed by one Spirit, as members of the same body are governed by one soul.”   The power of the same Spirit, who strengthened Christ, also strengthens us. This is why His power is said to be perfect, or fulfilled.  Just as a computer is perfect for computing, just as an automobile is perfect for driving; so Christ’s Spirit is perfect for strengthening our weak human nature and seeing us through to completion. It is what His power is meant to do.  This is what the Holy Spirit did for Jesus while completing His saving work, and so the Holy Spirit is also sufficient for us in all our weaknesses.

This means that when we are feeling weak and insufficient we are actually right where we are supposed to be.  This is the perfect situation for Christ to magnify His power.  For “God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.” (1 Corinthians 1:27).  Our weaknesses are given us to magnify the power of Christ (our crucified and risen Messiah).  Therefore, we must embrace Him with all confidence in our weaknesses.  That’s precisely what Paul does when he hears this.  He grabs hold of this truth and embraces Christ (by faith).  At the end of the verse, he says, “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

We see Paul owns this truth and appropriates it for himself.  Likewise, at the end of verse 10, he repeats the promise in his own words, and claims it as his own; “for when I am weak, then I am strong.”  Paul embraces Christ by embracing His promise.  This is the essence of the Christian life.  As Charles Hodge comments on this verse:  “Christianity is not merely the religion which Christ taught; but it is, subjectively considered, the religion of which Christ is the source and the object.”

Paul was encouraged to embrace Christ all the more in his weakness.  This gave him confidence that Christ’s resurrection power was at work in him.  We see the effects of that in verses 9 and 10.  He says he will “most gladly boast” in his infirmities, and that he even found pleasure in them.  This isn’t because he found enjoyment in the infirmities themselves, but because he knew that a greater acquaintance with Christ’s grace and power were occasioned through them.  He says he did so “for Christ’s sake”, that “the power of Christ might rest upon me.”  The very thing that humbled him also exalted Christ, and so he would much rather boast in them, rather than in himself.

For all those who are in Christ, we can (and must!) embrace our weaknesses.  I’m not referring to those things about us that can change and that we should change, but those providential difficulties that God has laid upon us.  We need to do so, not only because they have the effect of humbling us (as we saw previously), but more importantly because they cause us to be intimately acquainted with the Grace of God and give us a greater appreciation of it.  The Gospel assures us, and the person and work of Christ make it clear, that God is at work in broken vessels, such as you and me.  His power is actually made known to this world through such brokenness and weakness.  Think of the work of 12 disciples.  They were relatively insignificant, mostly illiterate, and greatly rejected men.  Or think about men like David Livingstone, who only had one convert, and yet he is known as Africa’s greatest missionary because of what was begun through him.    God’s grace is made perfect in human weakness, and it is sufficient for us.  It is all we need.  By grabbing hold of the crucified and risen Christ, we can boast and take pleasure in our weaknesses and difficulties, knowing that they are the resting place of His power.

 

Mr. Colin Samul, Licentiate

Anderson, CA

Box.    Our weaknesses are to be dealt with in the exact same way as our sin; by looking outside of ourselves to the all-sufficient grace of our Savior

Box.  If pride says, “I will ascend to the heights of heaven, I will be like the most High God,” our weaknesses yank us right back down to earth and remind us of our place.

Box.  Insert Photo “8, Samul” at some point in the article.

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