Strength in Weakness: Serving with a Thorn
2 Corinthians 12:1-10
I. Boast in the gospel, not in experiences; 12:1-6.
1 I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know-- God knows. 3 And I know that this man-- whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows-- 4 was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell. 5 I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. 6 Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say.
Having “boasted” about his own visions and revelations, Paul concludes that this is as close as he will get to declaring his spiritual pedigree, since there is nothing to be gained by such self-promotion based on private experiences. If Paul is to boast about himself, he will do so only concerning his weaknesses. He refuses to boast in them because they are useless when it comes to edifying others or establishing his apostolic authority.
Paul restrains himself from such boasting so that no one will brag about him beyond what can be evaluated objectively. What the Corinthians can see and boast about is Paul's weakness on their behalf, through which they received the Spirit. What they can hear and boast in is his proclamation of the gospel.
Paul’s gospel does not come from his experience in heaven. It comes from the history of redemption recorded in the Scriptures, from early Christian tradition concerning the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and from his own encounter with Jesus.
II. Serving in weakness; 12:7-10.
7 To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from 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 about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
The strength of Paul's visions remains "weak" when it comes to revealing God, while Paul's weakness becomes the place of God's power. Paul knew that to boast in his visions, as his opponents were doing, would lead to exalting himself in a way that would cut out the very heart of the gospel.
The exact nature of this "thorn" or satanic messenger has been a matter of much debate. Paul's silence concerning the nature of his "thorn" is intentional. He is not interested in the medical diagnosis of his weakness but in its theological origin (sent by Satan but given by God), in its cause (Paul's great revelations), and in its purpose (to afflict Paul to keep him from becoming conceited).
At first, Paul reacted to his “thorn in the flesh" as would be expected from one who knew of God's sovereignty over evil and of God's love for His children: He prayed that the Lord would remove the "thorn."
Instead of removing the thorn, Christ declared that His own grace would be sufficient for Paul during his suffering, for his weakness would provide the platform for perfecting the Lord's power. Paul's sufferings can never outstrip God's supply of grace. For this reason, he will "all the more gladly" boast in his weaknesses instead of his revelations, in order that the power of Christ may dwell on him.
When confronted with his thorn in the flesh, Paul does not try to think positively; he prays. The answer to Paul’s prayer is in God himself, while the answer for the power of positive thinking is in the Self. The power of positive thinking says, “I am stronger than fate”; Paul says, “God’s power is stronger than the circumstances He himself has orchestrated.”
By boasting in hardships and persecutions, Paul is not laying the foundation for a theology of martyrdom; he is boasting in Christ’s sufficiency for every situation. Our excuses for not serving are our potential strengths for service.
Paul does not seek to suffer. His point is not that the weaker he is, the stronger he is, which would wrongly lead to seeking suffering for the sake of a supposedly deeper spirituality. Rather, Paul’s point is that Christ’s power is present in his suffering, whenever and wherever and however such suffering should, in God’s providence, come his way.