What do Wayne Gretzky and Jackie Gleason have in common? They were both known as “the Great One.” Admittedly, both men exuded talent. Yet, were they really “great?” Some may want to debate the point. While not hockey players or comedians, the self-proclaimed spiritual leaders which arose in Corinth after Paul claimed to be great. They thought themselves extraordinarily gifted, exceptionally empowered, and extremely accomplished. In contrast, Paul told the Corinthian church that God did all that He did in saving us so that no person could boast (1 Corinthians 1:29). Still, Paul’s completers continued to boast about themselves.
So, in 2 Corinthians 11 and 12, Paul countered their exaggerated claims by boasting himself. Then again, the Apostle Paul boasts in a different way. Paul did not exult in his gifts, calling, and accomplishments. Instead, he bragged about his trials, sufferings, and weaknesses. He prefaced his self-praise saying again and again how foolish he was in boasting altogether. For example, he wrote: “Are they ministers of Christ?—I speak as a fool—I am more: in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often” (2 Corinthians 11:23).
Following his impressive catalogue of sufferings for the Lord in chapter 11, the Apostle speaks to the matter of visions and revelations from the Lord. Paul had a vision that put all of the other “self-professed” apostles’ visions to shame. He was carried into heaven itself. “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a one was caught up to the third heaven. And I know such a man—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. 5Of such a one I will boast; yet of myself I will not boast, except in my infirmities” 2 Corinthians 12:2–5.
To help his readers understand that this is actually an event that took place in time, Paul dated the vision. At the same time, Paul down played his experience by turning to the third person to tell it. We can almost hear Paul’s detractors, “I knew that Paul would come up with something like this. He had a vision but he can’t talk about it. Some vision. If he can’t talk about it how do we know it even happened?”
To these folks Paul gave an answer. I cannot talk about my vision because God won’t let me (verse 4). I also will not take credit for this vision because I do not want you to think better of me than you ought to think. His third evidence of the vision is the thorn that God gave him to keep him humble.
“And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:7–10).
The presence of the thorn must have been evident and the purpose of the trouble was now clear. God helped Paul by hurting him. That sentence sounds very strange and yet it is true. Paul insists that he received his thorn in the flesh from God through Satan to keep him from getting too self-important. Sometimes God will hurt each of us who are His children in order to help us. Very often today we overlook that truth. We insist in the face of God that we have the right to be happy, healthy, and self-fulfilled. These thoughts would be foreign to Paul. He understood that before God he had no rights.
The second truth about this thorn is that both God and Satan were involved in giving it to Paul. Many folks spend their lives dividing between what God has done and what Satan is doing. All good things come from God, the evil from Satan. While the Bible says unequivocally that all good comes from God (James 1:17), God is involved in some of the bad things that come into our lives. Remember Job? He did not know of the conversations between God and Satan. He just endured the troubles. We know from the text, the only time that Satan could harm Job, his goods, his health, or his family was when God allowed it. God gives and can take away. But he never does anything unless it accomplishes His divine purpose in each of our lives. Romans 8:28 is always at work in our lives.
Many speculate about what this thorn might be. I particularly am sympathetic to those who believe it was some eye problem. I’d like to think my eye troubles make me a kin to the great Apostle Paul. Whatever it was, it was very difficult to cope with, and it came upon Paul after his vision so it was not something congenital.
As was his habit, Paul prayed earnestly that God would remove this thorn. God would not do that. In place of removing the thorn God gave Paul a promise. “And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’” I wonder how often we read right through this or quote the catchy phrase never recognizing the treasure trove of truth that is in this verse.
What does it mean that God’s grace is sufficient for Paul? God’s grace is sufficient for each of us. Grace is unearned favor. We recognize if we have trusted the Lord Jesus Christ to save us that God’s grace is sufficient for our eternal salvation. We quote boldly, “For by grace are we saved by faith, it is the gift of God not of works lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). But do we really understand it? Paul says that this grace given to us because of God’s great love took each of us from our helpless condition and made us alive together with the Lord Jesus and seated us together with Him in heavenly places. This grace is sufficient for our eternal deliverance.
Yet, do we understand that grace does not end in our salvation from sin? Grace is supposed to change the way we live. Remember these verses? “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works” (Titus 2:11–14). Clearly, grace is to be part of our daily existence and service to Christ. We learn from grace, draw upon grace, think, act and do by God’s grace. It is sufficient to get us through life in this present world and to make us look for the one to come.
Paul learned from the Lord that God’s grace was also sufficient to cope with his thorn in the flesh. He recognized God’s provision in his day to day existence. He learned also to draw strength from the living God in the middle of his weakness.
“My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” God gave unearned favor to Paul by perfecting his strength in weakness. Robertson says this construction is linear in nature. God’s enabling increases as Paul’s strength decreases. God consistently and constantly supplied Paul’s need. Remember Uzziah? Uzziah’s name meant “Yahweh is my strength.” Everything went very well as long as Uzziah remembered the truth in his name. He remembered that he was not strong in himself, but God made him strong. One day he forgot. “So [Uzziah’s] fame spread far and wide, for he was marvelously helped untill he became strong. But when he was strong his heart was lifted up, to his destruction, for he transgressed against the Lord his God by entering the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense” (2 Chronicles 26:15–16). Uzziah learned the hard way that God’s strength is not perfected in our strength, but in our weakness.
This is the truth Paul teaches us in Philippians 4:12-13. “I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Paul is careful never to assume that he is the source of his ability to live for Christ. He says in every situation he has learned how to accept God’s bountiful provision and not think it has come to him because of his strength or abilities. He also has learned to accept just enough from God and not grumble about his lack. He has learned without Christ he can do nothing. Through Christ, he can do anything.
So, what about each of us? Have we learned this valuable lesson? This is not a secret. God and the Apostle Paul has taught these lessons openly for each of us to learn. Why do we not learn them? Why do we not have God’s enabling every moment of our existence? Perhaps it is simply because we do not want to admit that we are not strong. We must ask God for grace and trust Him to supply what we need to get through every day, every hour, every moment of our lives. May God help us to learn as Paul did how we can do all things through the Lord Jesus Christ who enables and strengthens us.