I cannot read Luke’s account, or Paul’s, of his being lowered down the wall of Damascus without smiling to myself. Years ago, I attended a seminary alumni luncheon for graduating students being formally inducted into the alumni association. One of the professors, who has since died, gave the message based on this incident in our text of Paul being let out of a window, then lowered in a basket suspended with a rope. The speaker used a spiritualized interpretation of the text rather than a literal exegesis. As I recall, his message went something like this:
The window speaks to us of our outlook on the world. How we need to see the world as lost and dying. The basket is our support system, that which keeps us safe and which protects us from the dangers of this life. The rope … Oh, how we need men and women to ‘hold the rope,’ to stand behind us, supporting us financially and in prayer. …
In terms of the ideas taught, the message was not all that bad. But truthfully, it was not all that good either. When the speaker finished, it was the senior class president’s turn to speak. He was an exceptional fellow, who was confined to a wheel chair. He was very bright, and when he spoke, he picked up on the “window,” “rope,” and “basket” theme by saying something like:
Boy, does it feel good to have made it all the way through seminary successfully, and now to have graduated. Sometimes I really needed that ‘window’ to see a little light at the end of the tunnel. Frankly, I was ‘at the end of my rope,’ and I felt like ‘a basket case.’
Perhaps you can understand that I will never forget the “window,” the “rope,” and the “basket.” In fact, Paul could not forget these either. In our passage, the Apostle Paul gives us the “bottom line” of both his First and Second Corinthian epistles. Paul does not mention this incident in passing, but to make a very important point. Giving careful attention to the apostle to see what he makes of the “window,” the “rope,” and the “basket” will also help us see the bigger point Paul makes, with which he concludes the major argument of his Corinthian correspondence.
30 If I have to boast, I will boast of what pertains to my weakness. 31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, He who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. 32 In Damascus the ethnarch under Aretas the king was guarding the city of the Damascenes in order to seize me, 33 and I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and so escaped his hands.
Verse 30 introduces the dominant theme running through our passage. Paul begins this passage with the words, “If I have to boast, I will boast of what pertains to my weakness.” And in verse 10 of chapter 12 Paul writes, “Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” This is not to say that Paul is finished with this theme of “weakness,” for it will come up again in chapter 13 as Paul concludes this epistle.
Before Paul gives his first illustration of “boasting in weakness,” he puts himself under oath. Donald A. Carson explains the significance of this oath in these words:
The proper function of oaths is not to erect special situations in which truth-telling is important, by contrast with other situations in which truth-telling does not matter; rather, they function to enhance the credibility of the speaker before skeptical hearers. Paul’s credibility has been questioned; he takes this oath, appealing to God’s omniscience, to ensure the Corinthians will hear him out and be more inclined to believe him (for other Pauline oaths cf. 2 Cor 1:18; 11:10-11; Rom 9:1; Gal 1:20; 1 Tim 2:7).74
I am not so sure how the ordinary person might respond to such an oath as Paul has given, but I do believe an oath did have special significance to a Jew. We should remember that the opposition Paul unveils in chapter 11 is clearly Jewish (see 11:22). You may recall Matthew’s account of our Lord’s trial before the Jewish Sanhedrin:
59 Now the chief priests and the whole Council kept trying to obtain false testimony against Jesus, in order that they might put Him to death; 60 and they did not find any, even though many false witnesses came forward. But later on two came forward, 61 and said, “This man stated, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to rebuild it in three days.’” 62 And the high priest stood up and said to Him, “Do You make no answer? What is it that these men are testifying against You?” 63 But Jesus kept silent. And the high priest said to Him, “I adjure You by the living God, that You tell us whether You are the Christ, the Son of God.” 64 Jesus said to him, “You have said it yourself; nevertheless I tell you, hereafter you shall see THE SON OF MAN SITTING AT THE RIGHT HAND OF POWER, and COMING ON THE CLOUDS OF HEAVEN.” 65 Then the high priest tore his robes, saying, “He has blasphemed! What further need do we have of witnesses? Behold, you have now heard the blasphemy; 66 what do you think?” They answered and said, “He is deserving of death!” (Matthew 26:59-66).
When the high priest says, “I adjure You by the living God, that You tell us …,” he is putting Jesus under oath. In so doing, he believed that Jesus could not refuse to answer, and that He could speak nothing but the truth. An oath meant something to a devout Jew. And this is why Paul employs an oath in verse 31 of 2 Corinthians 11. As I understand it, Paul’s oath applies not only to what he is saying about his escape from Damascus in the final verses of chapter 11, but in what he will say about his heavenly vision at the outset of chapter 12.
It is most interesting to compare Paul’s version of the events which occurred at Damascus with the account given to us by Luke in the Book of Acts:
19 Now for several days he was with the disciples who were at Damascus, 20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” 21 And all those hearing him continued to be amazed, and were saying, “Is this not he who in Jerusalem destroyed those who called on this name, and who had come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?” 22 But Saul kept increasing in strength and confounding the Jews who lived at Damascus by proving that this Jesus is the Christ. 23 And when many days had elapsed, the Jews plotted together to do away with him, 24 but their plot became known to Saul. And they were also watching the gates day and night so that they might put him to death; 25 but his disciples took him by night, and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a large basket (Acts 9:19b-25).
Luke makes no mention of the ethnarch, or of Aretas, the king who places him in authority over Damascus. An interesting footnote on this point is made by D. A. Carson.75 Obviously God wants us to remember this event in the light of both accounts, and not just the one.
First, let us approach these differences with the assurance that both accounts are accurate and true, and that no irreconcilable differences exist. The problem for us is that there are details not included in either account which would help us understand the event more clearly. Neither Paul nor Luke wanted us to know everything there is to know about this incident. Each has a particular point to make, and each includes those elements of the story which contribute to that point.
Luke’s emphasis is upon the Jewish opposition to Paul’s preaching that Jesus was indeed the promised “Christ” of the Old Testament. Paul speaks of this incident as an example of his weakness, so that he may be able to boast in something which is personally shameful to him but glorifying to Christ. It is one thing for Paul to have distressed his fellow-Jews. He was once one of them, their hero, hunting down “Christians” as criminals, and then putting them in prison or worse. Now Paul has become one of “them,” as the story of his “escape” from Damascus illustrates. Paul does not focus on his Jewish opponents in Damascus, but rather on his civil and political adversaries who have declared him to be a criminal, and who sees to arrest him. Paul is being hunted down as a criminal, just as he has hunted down other Christians as criminals. This “shame” is now his grounds for boasting, thanks to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Paul, the great apostle, has to sneak out of town as a wanted man and be lowered down the wall in what some believe to be a fish basket:76
The toast of high rabbinic circles, this educated and sincere Pharisee, this man who had access to the highest officials in Jerusalem, slunk out of Damascus like a criminal, lowered like a catch of dead fish in a basket whose smelly cargo he had displaced.77
Paul’s mentioning of being lowered down the Damascus wall may have a special meaning to those who lived in antiquity:
He will boast, if he must, of his weaknesses. But if it is realised that everyone in antiquity would have known that the finest military award for valour was the corona muralis, for the man who was first up the wall in the face of the enemy, Paul’s point is devastatingly plain: he was first down.78
So why the “boasting” over this incident? I think it is for several reasons. First, it sounds a good deal like the way the Jews and Gentiles joined together to do away with Jesus. At face value, it is no honor to be branded a wanted man and have to sneak out of town, but when one’s rejection is “like” that of our Lord’s, then it is an honor:
12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; 13 but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing; so that also at the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exultation. 14 If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you (1 Peter 4:12-14).
Second, while Paul is branded a criminal and has to flee for his life in a most humiliating way, some in Damascus were saved as a result of hearing Paul preach Christ. In his account, Luke mentions those who were “his disciples” (Acts 9:25), indicating they were the fruit of his ministry. Third, this is Paul’s first public ministry after his conversion, and it is a prototype of Paul’s ministry from that time on. The response to Paul’s early preaching in Damascus is an evidence of how things are going to be throughout his ministry. The reason for this response to his preaching is given by Paul himself in 1 Corinthians:
20 Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. 22 For indeed Jews ask for signs, and Greeks search for wisdom; 23 but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. … 30 But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, 31 that, just as it is written, “LET HIM WHO BOASTS, BOAST IN THE LORD” (1 Corinthians 1:20-25, 30-31).
What made Paul such a hero to his fellow-Jews that he could have been awarded a “key to the city” on his entrance into Damascus as the old Saul? And what now turned this hero into a villain, an enemy not only of the Jews, but also of the government and even the king? It is not just that he has been saved, though this is the great turning point in Paul’s life. It is that Paul began preaching Jesus as the Christ rather than blaspheming against Him. Paul’s “weakness” and “foolishness” is the “weakness” and “foolishness” of the gospel by which he was saved and which he now proclaims openly. Paul can rightly “boast” in his “weakness,” because his “weakness” is the gospel of Jesus Christ, the “power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:25).
The “window,” the “rope,” and the “basket” are all reminders to Paul of the life to which he has been called, as pointed out by Ananias at the time of his conversion (Acts 9:15-16), and then dramatically illustrated in Damascus when he first began to preach Jesus as the promised Messiah. These symbols of humiliation and weakness are reminders of our weakness and foolishness as we preach the gospel to lost souls, and they are also reminders that those who are gloriously and powerfully saved by such preaching are saved by the power of God, to His glory. We boast in our weakness because it is this very weakness that God chooses to use in saving lost sinners.
1 Boasting is necessary, though it is not profitable; but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a man was caught up to the third heaven. 3 And I know how such a man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows—4 was caught up into Paradise, and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak. 5 On behalf of such a man will I boast; but on my own behalf I will not boast, except in regard to my weaknesses. 6 For if I do wish to boast I shall not be foolish, for I shall be speaking the truth; but I refrain from this, so that no one may credit me with more than he sees in me or hears from me.
Before we actually begin to consider Paul’s amazing words in this text, let us remind ourselves of several important facts. First, we should remember that Paul is accused of being unspiritual.
2 I ask that when I am present I may not be bold with the confidence with which I propose to be courageous against some, who regard us as if we walked according to the flesh (2 Corinthians 10:2).
Second, those who accuse Paul of being unspiritual are those who think themselves to be spiritual (see 1 Corinthians 4:6-10; 5:2; 8:1; 12:20-25; 14:37-38). One of the proofs of super-spirituality, claimed by false prophets and apostles, is that of having received visions and revelations:
18 Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind (Colossians 2:18; see also Jeremiah 23:32; Lamentations 2:14; Ezekiel 13:9, 16, 23; 22:28; Zechariah 10:2).
The way the Corinthians drove Paul to this particular topic for boasting is best explained by supposing that the false apostles not only claimed superiority in such things as rhetoric, eloquence, ability to command fees, leadership, and knowledge of the truth, they also claimed spiritual superiority. In support of their claims they could recount a continuing array of visions and revelations they were receiving. A confident ‘The Lord told me this morning …’ may not only enhance one’s reputation as a man or woman of God, but may prove wonderfully coercive. Few will stop to ask in what way the Lord said this or that (By an audible voice? By quiet, personal conviction? By tongues?), or point out that the authority status of such revelations in the New Testament is less than is commonly believed. Fewer still will pause to remember that not every supernatural power is divine. Certainly the triumphalists won’t raise questions of this sort; their first reaction will be that such questions quench the Spirit. And so the claims of spiritual prowess are paraded out, and personal authority grows with the ‘sharing’ of each vision.79
Third, Paul does have a number of visions and revelations from God during his life, but in the New Testament he is not the one who usually speaks of them. Most of Paul’s visions that we know about are recorded by Luke in the Book of Acts (see Acts 9:12; 16:9-10; 18:9-10; 22:17-21; 23:11; 27:23-24). Paul speaks of his vision of the resurrected Christ because it plays a vital part in his conversion experience and because it also qualifies him as an apostle (see Acts 1:22; 1 Corinthians 9:1). He is not inclined to speak of the details of his other visions.
With these more general observations in mind, let us move on to observations which arise from Paul’s account of his glorious vision in our text.
(1) Paul speaks of a vision he personally experienced. In verse 6, Paul says that his boasting with regard to this vision is in truth. In verse 7, Paul indicates that his “thorn in the flesh” is a result of his vision, so that he will not exalt himself. Paul speaks of his own glorious experience.
(2) Paul describes his experience in the third person (“a man”), rather than in the first person (“I”), as we would expect. Carson explains Paul’s description in this way:
The answer can only be that he is so embarrassed to have to boast at all that the closest approximation he can manage to the conduct he finds so despicable is to write of himself in the third person. And even so, he writes not of a great apostle but of a man in Christ, so that when his readers discover a few verses later that Paul is really talking about himself, they will not place him in a super-Christian class, a cut above the common herd.80
(3) Paul speaks briefly of his vision. Many books are written by those who claim to have an experience similar to that of the apostle Paul. Paul uses but a handful of sentences to describe his vision in the most abridged fashion possible.
(4) Paul speaks vaguely of his vision. In many ways, Paul’s description raises more questions than answers. At the beginning, we are not even sure Paul is talking about himself. This becomes clear a few verses later. We do not know what the occasion or setting is for Paul’s vision.81 Paul twice says that he does not know whether this experience happened in the body or out of the body. He tells us that what he heard (and, it would seem, what he saw as well) is inexpressible. I take it that he is not permitted to tell all, and that even if permitted, he would not have the words to do so since he entered into another dimension. Nothing on earth could be used to accurately compare with the things of Paradise.
(5) Paul speaks reluctantly of this glorious vision. It takes Paul fourteen years to even tell of this incident in his life, glorious as it is. People who claim such visions today cannot wait to get their accounts in print. Paul is finally forced to boast fourteen years after the event, and the context makes it clear that he does not really enjoy telling this story even now. And when Paul does boast, it is not in the vision which he sees, but in the weakness which accompanies it.
(6) Paul speaks of this one glorious vision as but an example of a number of visions he received. We see that Paul had a number of visions recorded in the Book of Acts, but I take it there were even more. In verse 1 of chapter 12, Paul says that he will “go on to visions and revelations of the Lord.” In verse 7, Paul once again speaks of “revelations,” using the plural rather than the singular. This vision to which he refers may be the greatest, but it is the greatest of several (or more) visions and revelations.
(7) Paul’s glorious experience is not about what he saw in Paradise, but about what he heard in Paradise that he cannot repeat. In light of what we see throughout Paul’s two epistles to the Corinthians, this is significant. The Corinthian “intruders” seem to constantly criticize Paul’s speech, as being decidedly inferior to their own (see 1 Corinthians 1:17; 2 Corinthians 3:12; 10:1, 10; 11:6). It seems from 1 Corinthians 12-14 that some of these “intruders” speak in tongues. I can hear them boasting about their “heavenly language.” Paul certainly tops them here. He says that what he heard in heaven was so incredible it is inexpressible (2 Corinthians 12:4). They boast in the heavenly language they speak, while Paul speaks of heavenly language too wonderful to repeat. This may have left his opponents momentarily speechless.
(8) As described in the Book of Acts, Paul had this glorious experience before his public ministry began. Paul has this experience during a seemingly insignificant period of his life, so far as his renown and reputation. He is a nobody when he has this experience. His spiritual experience is not directly related to his status or significance as an apostle.
(9) Paul is very concerned that others not judge his spirituality and standing before God on the basis of his glorious experience in receiving this vision. Here is another example of how different Paul and his fellow-apostles are from the false apostles—the intruders, as D. A. Carson likes to call them. They cannot wait to make their public proclamations of glorious spiritual experiences. Paul can hardly be forced to speak or write about them. Why? Why does Paul not wish to tell the Corinthians about his wonderful vision? I think the reasons are clear and simple. First and foremost, telling of his experience would draw attention to himself, rather than to Christ. Paul preaches Christ crucified. He refuses to change his message or his methods so that the messenger becomes more prominent than the message, and especially the Messiah. Second, telling of his experience is impossible, since the words (and the visible images he saw) are inexpressible. Third, telling of his experience detracts attention from the gospel. Paul is concerned that people hear the gospel and be saved, not that they hear his experience and try to replicate it. Fourth, making much of his experience emphasizes the sensational aspects of the Christian experience, rather than the normal Christian life. It might lead some to conclude that spirituality and significance are linked to such spectacular experiences, when the more accurate test is suffering unjustly for the sake of the gospel, and our Lord, of whom the gospel speaks. The Corinthians are already caught up with the sensational and disinterested in the painful aspects of the Christian life. Triumphalism is all about the sensational, and maturity is all about steadfast perseverance in the midst of adversity and suffering, and stability in the face of false teaching (see Ephesians 4:10-16). Fifth, Paul’s experiences are personal and impossible to verify or test. Visions cannot be verified; only the teaching or message they are said to convey can be tested by Scripture.
… Paul is genuinely concerned lest others think too highly of him. This might simply reflect a brutal honesty: he knows his own heart well enough to realize that, apart from grace, it is capable of the most appalling abominations in God’s eyes (cf. Rom 3:10-20). But in fact it is more: it is the typical attitude displayed by this apostle, who is always concerned to insist that people should focus on the gospel and on the Savior, not the messenger. He will be a more effective witness to the message of Christ crucified if he draws little attention to himself and to his grace-empowered victories, being all the while unafraid to endure suffering, privation, and disgrace.82
(10) I believe we can safely conclude that Paul’s spiritual experience is not so much for the benefit of others, but for Paul’s personal benefit. It is not for public consumption. When Paul feels forced to tell of it, he refuses to give the kinds of details which would enhance his own standing and status in the eyes of others. Put differently, Paul does not consider his personal experience to be edifying for the church. Would that we had this same discernment. If we look at the bookshelves in Christian bookstores, a very significant percentage of the new books being written are those which describe someone’s spiritual experience. I am not suggesting all such accounts are wrong. I am suggesting that if Paul is reluctant to publicly disclose his glorious vision, we should be a little slower to tell others of our (glorious) experiences, especially in a way that suggests others may imitate or reproduce them.
(11) Finally, Paul links this sublime event of his glorious vision with the humiliating experience of his “thorn in the flesh.” This we shall see in the next verses.
7 And because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me—to keep me from exalting myself! 8 Concerning this I entreated the Lord three times that it might depart from me. 9 And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.
(1) Paul’s thorn in the flesh is a direct result of his numerous glorious revelations (plural, see vs. 1). It is apparent from Paul’s words in chapter 12, verse 1 (“visions and revelations”) and in verse 7 (“revelations”), that he can “boast” about more than this one vision to which he refers in verses 2-4. This is but the tip of the iceberg. Other visions and revelations are described in Acts, but even these do not seem to be all of the visions and revelations Paul received. Do some Corinthians boast in their speaking in tongues? Paul can say that he speaks in tongues more than any of them, in fact, more than all of them (1 Corinthians 14:18). Do some Corinthians boast in the visions they claim to have had (see Colossians 2:18)? Paul seems to tell us here that he has more than any of his opponents.
(2) Paul’s thorn in the flesh is a substantial infirmity, which may not only have affected his body but also his spirit. Paul tells us that his affliction is a “thorn in the flesh,” which seems to indicate that it is a physical or bodily infirmity. Paul’s words here imply that it is hardly a mere irritation, but a nagging, persistent, painful problem which can never quite be put out of mind. It may be a malady which affects his appearance (some maladies are not pretty), perhaps causing embarrassment. It must also affect his spirit. Afflictions of the body also impact one’s attitude and outlook.
(3) Paul’s thorn in the flesh is never specifically identified. Paul is reluctant to go into detail about his glorious experiences, such as his heavenly vision briefly mentioned in verses 2-4. Paul is just as reluctant to give us great detail concerning his afflictions. He has spoken of them generally before in various categories. But when it comes to his “thorn in the flesh,” Paul never bothers to indicate exactly what it is. In this sense, Paul is unlike many Christians who wish to give us all the gory details concerning their physical infirmities. We may do this “so that others may pray more intelligently,” but Paul does not do it. Perhaps Paul’s way is better.
(4) Paul’s thorn in the flesh has a satanic source. Paul tells us that his “thorn in the flesh,” in effect, is Satan’s messenger or angel. Satan is the greatest of all hypocrites. On the one hand, Satan seeks to entice men to indulge their fleshly lusts. On the other, Satan eagerly takes advantage of every opportunity he is given to destroy our fleshly bodies (see Job 2:1-10; 1 Corinthians 5:5; 1 Timothy 1:20). Satan has a hand in Paul’s “thorn in the flesh,” and Paul knows it.
(5) Paul’s thorn in the flesh is divinely ordained and purposed. As we can see from Job 2:1-10, Satan cannot afflict men without God’s permission. While Satan is the immediate cause of Paul’s affliction, ultimately, God is in control, using not only this affliction but Satan himself to bring glory to Himself and to bring about what is good for the Apostle Paul. Some think God is able to use only good people—the ones who trust in Him, who pray, and who obey His Word—to accomplish His plans and purposes. God is sovereign; He is in total and complete control of every part of His creation. He is in control of Satan and his activities. Satan can only act within the limits God sets on him. God uses not only good men and women, but evil people and evil acts as well to accomplish His glory and man’s good (see Genesis 50:20).
(6) Paul does not desire his thorn in the flesh and fervently prays for God to remove it. Paul is no masochist who enjoys suffering for suffering’s sake. As our Lord did not delight in the prospect of His agonizing death on the cross of Calvary, and asked that “this cup” be removed from Him (Matthew 26:36-46), so Paul does not delight in his thorn in the flesh and asks that it be removed.
(7) God does not remove Paul’s thorn in the flesh in spite of Paul’s prayers to the contrary. In spite of Paul’s spirituality, in spite of Paul’s fervent petitions that his “thorn” be removed, God does not remove it. This is not because Paul lacks faith, or because of sin in his life, but because God has a higher purpose for Paul and a better solution for his thorn in the flesh.
(8) Paul’s thorn in the flesh is given by God to prevent him from becoming puffed up with pride, based upon the spiritual privileges he has been granted. Here is an amazing thing, which we should consciously note and accept: Paul is susceptible to spiritual pride. Paul recognizes that God has given him his thorn in the flesh to prevent him from becoming spiritually proud. As I read the text, if Paul had not been given this “thorn,” he would have become proud. This is the very reason it could not be taken away. This “thorn,” though painful, is better than the pride it prevents. Paul’s thorn is humbling to him, and this is precisely what Paul needs, lest he become puffed up with pride over his glorious visions.
(9) Rather than remove his thorn in the flesh, God gives Paul sufficient grace to sustain him in the midst of his affliction. The same God who gave Paul this affliction gave Paul the grace to endure it victoriously. If this was good enough for Paul, why is it not good enough for us today? Why do some saints insist upon God taking away their trials, rather than petitioning God for the grace needed to endure them? God’s revelation to Paul is, “My grace is sufficient for you” (verse 9a). That is, for Paul, a clear answer to his prayers that God remove his thorn. As far as the removing of his affliction, it is a “No,” but for meeting his need in the midst of his affliction, it is a “Yes!”
(10) Paul’s thorn in the flesh is actually the occasion for God’s power to be demonstrated. Paul’s thorn in the flesh is much more than a problem which needs fixing, if not by removal, then by the addition of grace. Paul’s affliction is not only a preventative (of spiritual pride on Paul’s part); it is a prerequisite for even greater things. Paul’s thorn in the flesh is an evidence of Paul’s weakness, and this “weakness” becomes the basis for God’s manifestation of power through Paul’s weakness. This takes us back to a very foundational principle Paul set down in his first chapter of 1 Corinthians:
26 For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; 27 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, 28 and the base things of the world and the despised, God has chosen, the things that are not, that He might nullify the things that are, 29 that no man should boast before God. 30 But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, 31 that, just as it is written, “LET HIM WHO BOASTS, BOAST IN THE LORD” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31).
God purposes to bring glory to Himself, which He does through using those things which are “weak” and “foolish” in the eyes of the world. This way when God does something truly great through “weak” and “foolish” instruments, it is clear that God, not men, receives the praise and the glory. Paul’s thorn in the flesh makes him weak, and thus qualifies him to be an instrument of God’s power. His weakness does not prevent him from ministering for God; rather, it qualifies him to minister for God, in His power. This is so because “His83 power is perfected in weakness” (verse 9).
(11) Paul’s thorn in the flesh becomes the basis for Paul’s boasting. Now, Paul sees his “thorn in the flesh” in an entirely different light. At first, his “thorn” is a problem, which he prays that God will remove. Now, it is not just a preventative action but a gracious provision, opening the door for God’s added grace and power to be demonstrated through Paul’s life. Now Paul ceases to petition God to remove this thorn and praises God for giving it to him.
(12) Paul’s thorn in the flesh becomes the basis for Paul’s rejoicing, enjoying, and boasting in all of his afflictions which make him weak, thus occasioning God’s grace and power. Paul now sees the principle behind his problem. He understands that God’s grace is showered upon us, and His power is demonstrated through us when we are weak. It is not just this one, unnamed thorn in the flesh which makes Paul “weak”; it is every affliction and adversity in his life. Thus, Paul sees that every affliction, every adversity, is the occasion for a manifestation of God’s grace and power in and through us. Because of this, Paul now rejoices in every one of his weaknesses. The various categories of weakness which Paul summarizes in verse 10 are virtually the same as those he spells out more fully in 2 Corinthians 11:23-29. Every affliction, every difficulty, is an occasion for God’s grace and power in our lives. Every weakness we experience for the sake of Christ is the occasion for God’s strength to be seen in us. Far from begrudging these things, Paul now boasts in them.
I believe Donald A. Carson is precisely on target when he identifies the principle Corinthian problem as “triumphalism.” Triumphalism is that frame of mind which seeks to twist the gospel into the promise of heaven on earth. It seeks to rid the Christian life of suffering, trials, and groaning, when our Lord and His apostles taught that following Christ means taking up our cross to follow Him:
24 Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24).
21 And after they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, 22 strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:21-22).
3 And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; 4 and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; 5 and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us (Romans 5:3-5).
18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. 23 And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. 24 For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one also hope for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it (Romans 8:18-25).
12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; 13 but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing; so that also at the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exultation. 14 If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you (1 Peter 4:12-14).
The triumphalists are not unlike those Jews of Jesus’ day who would not hear of a “king” who would endure the suffering of a cross:
39 And those passing by were hurling abuse at Him, wagging their heads, 40 and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save Yourself! If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” … 42 “He saved others; He cannot save Himself. He is the King of Israel; let Him now come down from the cross, and we shall believe in Him” (Matthew 27:39-40, 42).
The triumphalists do not want to hear of suffering and shame, borne for the sake of Christ and His gospel. They want to hear of health, wealth, and the good life. To do so, they must minimize the cross of Christ, and this Paul will not do. Paul’s words in our text are a devastating blow to triumphalism in several areas. Allow me to mention a few with some applications for each.
The triumphalists are those who claim immediate and complete victory over Satan. Peter tells us that “they do not tremble when they revile angelic majesties” (2 Peter 2:10, see also verse 11). Those who are most daring in their taking on of Satan are not even true believers, it would seem (see Acts 19:13-17). I hear some preachers mock Satan, speaking of him as though he has no power at all. I hear a great deal of “spiritual warfare” talk, in which Satan is rebuked, bound, hedged about, and so on, but when I look at Paul, I see a very different response. Paul takes on Satan reluctantly, as we see in the exorcism of the fortune-teller in Philippi (Acts 16:16-18). Triumphalists take Satan on quickly and easily. They seem to seek “prayer cover” by obtaining the support of fellow-saints. It is as though they feel they must gain enough warriors to convince God to join with them in the battle against the evil one.
If some look at spiritual warfare as a great cosmic struggle with the outcome yet to be known, Paul sees it in a very different light. He views Satan as a defeated foe, ultimately, but a powerful enemy in this present age. Satan’s final doom is sealed, having been accomplished on the cross of Calvary, but he is presently seeking to oppose the people and the purposes of God. What he does not seem to know (and Paul does) is that God is actually using Satan and his opposition to the saints to further His purposes. God is not battling it out with Satan to see who will win; God has won the battle. Satan cannot touch one of God’s children without His permission, as we see in the second chapter of Job. When Satan does afflict one of the saints, it is always by divine permission, and in order to fulfill a divine purpose. Satan, the prince of pride, is used of God to produce humility in Paul. Without knowing it, Satan weakens Paul only that God might manifest His power through him. God uses Satan’s opposition, his deceit, his attacks on the flesh, to bring about His divine purposes.
The triumphalists look down upon Paul for not rebuking Satan and for not delivering himself from his physical affliction. Paul does not seek to take on Satan to be delivered from his “thorn in the flesh,” but he does petition God to remove it. And when God’s answer (“No.”) is made known to Paul, he joyfully accepts his satanic affliction as a gracious gift from God. Triumphalists want quick and easy victories over Satan. Paul accepts his satanic attack as having been given to him from God. Triumphalists only see Satan as standing against God. Paul sees God standing behind Satan, using his rebellion and opposition to bring about His plans and purposes.
Triumphalism wants nothing to do with suffering and adversity. The triumphalists believe that Christ’s work on the cross of Calvary assures us of deliverance from such things, if we but have the faith to believe it. No wonder the triumphalists of Corinth are proud and puffed up. They seem to be prospering, popular, and effective. Conversely, Paul is looked upon with considerable disfavor by a number of people. Paul’s body is afflicted with his “thorn in the flesh.” His life is a litany of difficulties and suffering. His ministry is under fire, and his apostleship questioned. A triumphalist can hardly be comfortable with a man like Paul around. Paul’s suffering, and his teaching about suffering, is in direct opposition to the teaching and lifestyle of the triumphalists.
For the triumphalist, suffering is a flashing warning light, a sign that something is wrong. Job’s friends (as seen in the Old Testament Book of Job) are triumphalists at heart, and they conclude from Job’s afflictions that he must have done something terribly wrong, because they know God always blesses the faithful. Paul told us earlier that his suffering is voluntarily self-imposed. It is something Paul could have avoided, but did not, for the sake of the gospel. Now Paul tells us that even though his suffering has a satanic origin, it has been given to him by God for the purpose of humbling him and keeping him from becoming spiritually proud. Beyond this, Paul informs us that suffering is a God-given weakness, which becomes the occasion for God’s power and grace to be demonstrated in our lives. Suffering then is not a curse, but a blessing, if it is suffering for the sake of Christ.
This insight from Paul’s pen is monumental. It answers some crucial questions raised by suffering. Asaph, the author of Psalm 73, believes that “God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart” (Psalm 73:1). Consequently, he is perplexed that the wicked are prospering more than the righteous (73:2-14). How can God “bless” the wicked, while allowing the righteous to suffer? The answer is simple: It is in our adversity, in our affliction, that our weakness is apparent, and our need for grace is most obvious. God’s grace not only sustains us in our suffering, it draws us much nearer to God. We not only enter into a deeper level of intimacy with God in our suffering, we also are assured of entering eternally into God’s presence when we die:
23 Nevertheless I am continually with Thee; Thou hast taken hold of my right hand. 24 With Thy counsel Thou wilt guide me, And afterward receive me to glory. 25 Whom have I in heaven but Thee? And besides Thee, I desire nothing on earth. 26 My flesh and my heart may fail, But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. 27 For, behold, those who are far from Thee will perish; Thou hast destroyed all those who are unfaithful to Thee. 28 But as for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, That I may tell of all Thy works (Psalm 73:23-28).
On various occasions, I have been asked why God sometimes does not bless His people for their righteousness, as He promised. There are a number of answers to this question, but I would like to focus on the answer Paul gives in our text. If God were to bless us in accordance with our works, the blessings would not be that great. God would be dealing with us on the principle of works. But when we are weak and needy, then God deals with us on the basis of grace. Grace deals bountifully, in accordance with God’s generosity, rather than in accordance with our merit. Grace also deals sovereignly, independently. Consequently, God bestows His grace on us in His time, and not necessarily in accordance with our preferences or desires. This is why so many of the Old Testament psalms cry out to God, asking Him how long it will be before He deals bountifully and graciously with His people (see Psalm 4:2; 6:3; 13:2; 35:17; 74:9-10; 79:5; 80:4; 89:46; 90:13; 94:3).
Triumphalists want God’s blessings now, based upon their merits and strengths. True apostles, and true servants of Christ, are willing to suffer now for the sake of Christ and wait for God to deal with them graciously in their time of need, in their weakness. The self-righteous hate grace, because it is a form of charity, something which does not flatter the one who is blessed.84 Grace gives the one blessed no grounds for boasting, other than in Christ, the Source of all blessings.
Triumphalists are fascinated and fixated on power. They are bent upon representing themselves as powerful, or upon following those whom they believe to be powerful. They are repulsed by any sign of human weakness. The recent book, Power Religion, focuses entirely on exposing the error of this kind of thinking, and yet we see it everywhere we turn in evangelical circles (not to mention the rest). Unbelievers and believers alike are drawn to performances of power, whether it be world-class athletes or some other manifestation of human power. Christian motivational speakers speak and write extensively about the power within us, which can be tapped by positive thinking or some other methodology. The message of human potential is all about us. I do not doubt that there is a measure of truth and perhaps some good that such talk does, but I also have no doubt that Paul denies the concept entirely when it comes to God’s grace and power working in our lives. God does not manifest His power through the humanly strong, but through the weak. It is in weakness that God’s power is perfected. Let us never forget it.
In all too many churches and Christian circles, prayer is viewed as the way we manipulate God. All we need do is to have someone agree with us in prayer, or have enough people praying with us, or have enough faith as we pray, and God will do whatever we want. It is almost as though prayer gives us some kind of power over God. I believe Paul views prayer in a very different way. Paul prays to the Lord that his “thorn in the flesh” might be removed. He does not demand that Satan be bound or that the devil depart from him. He pleads with the Lord to remove the “thorn in the flesh” which He (God) has given to him. And when that petition is denied, Paul accepts God’s answer: His grace is indeed sufficient, and His power will be perfected in Paul’s weakness. Prayer is not the proof of Paul’s spiritual strength, but the evidence of his awareness of his great weakness. I think this is why so many of us pray so little today. Why pray when you have no need to do so? Why seek God’s strength when you feel strong in and of yourself? Prayer is an outward measure of our own sense of self-sufficiency, apart from God’s grace and power.
I wonder if God hasn’t given every Christian some kind of “thorn in the flesh.” I have known a number of well-to-do Christians, and I have observed that many of them have physical or other infirmities which money cannot cure. I have seen a number of Christians who appear to have it made, to have life easy. But as I have gotten to know them better, I find that they have problems in their life, in their family, in their business, in their community, from which they cannot find deliverance. It may well be that the one thing you have most wanted to be rid of, God wants you to have. It may be that the thing you think has kept you from a ministry is the key to your ministry. And so, as I close this message, I urge you to consider what your “thorn in the flesh” might be, and then ask God to use it in your life to manifest His grace and power, to His glory and for your good.
God always works in ways that humble men and exalt Himself. God is not in the business of glorifying men, but in bringing glory to Himself as He works through those who are weak and foolish. If we would be in harmony with God and His way of working on this earth, then we must acknowledge our weakness, our ignorance, our foolishness, and cling to Him for power, wisdom, and grace.
1 Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, 2 shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; 3 nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. 4 And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. 5 You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders; and all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for GOD IS OPPOSED TO THE PROUD, BUT GIVES GRACE TO THE HUMBLE. 6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, 7 casting all your anxiety upon Him, because He cares for you. 8 Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. 9 But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world. 10 And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you. 11 To Him be dominion forever and ever. Amen (1 Peter 5:1-11; see also James 4:1-10).
It occurred to me after I finished this message that what Paul teaches us on an individual level is also true on a corporate level. There is the perception, I fear, that bigger, faster-growing, or more financially prospering churches are able to do more than smaller, struggling churches. “It takes money to minister,” we are told. I do not think there is anything intrinsically wrong with bigger churches. Bigness is not wrong, nor is smallness right. But “bigness” does not automatically mean that a particular church can do, or is doing, more for God than other churches. The “power church” mentality is sometimes closely linked with the “mega-church” mentality. If it is through weakness that God’s power is perfected in the lives of individuals, why is it not also through corporate weakness that God’s power is perfected in the churches? It seems to me that this is precisely what we see in the New Testament. The churches which supposed themselves to be strong were not “setting the world on fire” for Christ. And those churches which were hanging on by the skin of their teeth were instructed to “strengthen what remained” (see Revelation 3:1-6). It is not through the triumph of the church that God’s power will be manifested, but through the weakness and dependency of the church that God’s power and grace will be demonstrated.
76 I am not sure the evidence is compelling here. It may simply be a large basket. The term Paul uses is found only in our text, and the term Luke uses is found in Matthew 15:37; 16:10; Mark 8:8, 20; Acts 9:25. In each of the four instances in the Gospels, the “basket” is that one used to gather up the fragments from the feeding of the 4,000.
81 I have always supposed that Paul’s “near death” or “after death” experience happened when he was stoned and left for dead in Lystra (see Acts 14:19), but there is no compelling reason to reach this conclusion. Indeed, if this event happened 14 years before, it would have been before he had commenced his public ministry, before he had taken his first missionary journey. Carson writes: “Whether we reckon up the ‘fourteen years’ inclusively or not, this puts the visionary experience into the silent decade of Paul’s ministry, roughly A.D. 35-45, years about which we know almost nothing save that he spent them in Syria and Cilicia (Gal 1:21). Doubtless Paul was already discharging the responsibilities the Lord laid on him at his conversion …” D. A. Carson, pp. 136-137.
83 If you notice the marginal note in the NASB, some manuscripts add the word “My,” making very clear that which should be clear anyway, and that is that God’s grace is given to us as His power when we are weak.
84 I have taught on this matter elsewhere, particularly in the series on the Book of Jonah. Jonah was, I believe, a typical self-righteous Israelite, who not only hated Gentiles, but he hated God’s grace, supposing that God was actually obligated to bless the Israelites because of their merit or superiority to the Gentiles.