Paul is speaking here in 2 Corinthians 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. 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.
Paul says here that he knows a man who had been caught up into heaven, someone who had a front-row seat to a vision of heaven or maybe even heaven itself. Whether the vision came down to him or he actually was translated into heaven isn’t clear, but the guy that Paul knew was himself. God worked with Paul through visions. Do you remember the day He went from Saul to Paul, the day he was converted, the day he went from living for himself to living for Jesus, he had a vision of the glorified Christ (Acts 9:3)? He also was given a vision of a guy named Ananias who was going to come to minister to him (Acts 9:12). He received another vision when God called him to preach to the Gentiles (Acts 22:17). What a special relationship God had with Paul. He chose to give him the ability to see things he could never see on his own.
There were other visions. There were visions from God to guide him and encourage him. It was by a vision that he received a call to go to Macedonia (Acts 16:9). When things got tough for Paul in the city of Corinth, God encouraged Paul by yet another vision (Acts 18:9-10). When Paul was arrested in Jerusalem, Paul was once again encouraged through a vision from God (Acts 23:11). There was a time that an angel appeared to him in the midst of a storm and assured him that he and the people with him would be saved (Acts 27:23).
And if all of that wasn’t enough, God would give spiritual revelations of Divine truth to Paul (Eph 3:1-6). He understood a lot about the mysteries of God. That is pretty awesome to be given the inside scoop on spiritual matters. And to be given the opportunity to catch a glimpse of Heaven? There aren’t words in any language to express how incredible that would have been! During this vision of Heaven, verse 4 says Paul heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell. Paul had major spiritual secrets!
No, these weren’t isolated incidents—these special visions and revelations. They were pretty routine for Paul. It could be very easy for Paul to brag about all the ways God had given him special information or insight. He could easily have gotten puffed up and walked around saying, “I’ve got a secret!” His ego could have become so inflated from being selected by God for all of the special missions he was on and the way God gave him these awesome revelations that his life could become all about him, where he had been, what he had been shown and what he knew.
Paul knew why he had to put up with a thorn in the flesh. He understood that God was at work in his life. He said, “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.”
He knew that whatever God had allowed or even directed to take place that caused him some kind of pain or limitation was sent to him to keep him from becoming conceited. He knew he had to continue to depend on God not only for special information and encouragement, but for strength to get up and go and do what God was asking. In other words, to ensure Paul’s humility and success, God allowed him to deal with some difficulty.
We don’t know what it was. We don’t know if it was bursitis, plantar fasciitis, arthritis, phlebitis, colitis, diverticulitis, pancreatitis, or some other kind of physical ailment. We just know that God knew Paul well enough to know that if there wasn’t a reason to remember who was in charge or if there wasn’t a motivation to stay close to God or if there was a temptation to be self-promoting or to try to steal any glory that belonged to God, it needed to be nipped in the bud. And the way to do that was to keep Paul humble and fully relying on God through a physical challenge.
You may be thinking, “Well, that doesn’t sound very nice of God,” but you don’t know Paul like God knew Paul. You don’t know where Paul had always found his identity and his worth. You don’t know how much Paul’s reputation meant to him before he became a Christ-follower. You don’t know how much he thought of himself and his accomplishments in the religious world. You don’t know how tempted he would have been to promote himself rather than Christ if he wasn’t reminded that but for Christ, he would be nothing. Evidently Paul had been conceited before and God gave him what he needed to keep him from becoming conceited again.
It is quite possible that all of the visions and revelations and the experience Paul had been given to see into heaven could have ruined his ministry in earth. How many people do you know that seemingly have wonderful things happen to them, but instead of making their lives wonderful, they wind up ruining their lives in some way? God wasn’t taking any chance, so to speak. So, because God had a plan to use Paul that couldn’t be executed if Paul became proud, God allowed Paul to be humbled by some hardship. Not to belabor this point, but Paul wasn’t given the thorn in the flesh because he had done something wrong, he was given the thorn in the flesh to keep him from sinning. Paul wasn’t bitter when he wrote these words for us to benefit from. He knew he was blessed by God to put him in a situation that would keep him from going astray. Listen, God knows what we need in order to stay on the right path, so what God was doing to/for Paul was a blessing and not some form of punishment. And because Paul walked closely with Jesus, he could see it and receive that way!
The focus of this message isn’t on what Paul had to suffer or what God did to him, so I don’t want y’all sitting out there analyzing your current hardship and assuming God is trying to keep you humble. That may or may not be the case, but that isn’t the purpose of this message. The point I am trying to lift up is the fact that God said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you.” I want you to hear God speaking that same sentence to you, in your situation this morning. God’s grace is sufficient for you. There is a power you can experience, there is a blessing you can receive, there is something supernatural to encounter if you will walk closely with Jesus.
Notice something here. Paul cried out to the Lord three times, asking for the thorn to be removed. God denied the request. It’s tough when the answer is “No.” Here is point one for today:
1. God isn’t obligated to do everything we ask, every time we ask, but He is committed to doing what is best for us every time we have a need.
I thought the reference to praying three times was interesting because in Mark’s Gospel in the 14th chapter we read that Jesus also prayed three times, asking God to take the cup of the crucifixion, to take his suffering away. God didn’t grant Jesus’ request either, so Paul was in good company. The next time you get discouraged because your prayer isn’t answered the way you have requested, remember that Jesus’ wasn’t either.
Luke’s account of the same story tells us that during Jesus’ prayer time in the Garden, right before His arrest, an angel appeared from heaven and strengthened Jesus. To endure the cross, to endure the humiliation and the beatings, Jesus needed strength.
2. Listen, you might not get what you want from God, but if you are submitted to Him, you will always get what you need. Jesus received the same answer Paul did. He received the supernatural comfort and power of God to enable him to carry out God’s will. Jesus received the sufficient grace of God that was so deep, so enabling, so complete that it carried Him all of the way to the cross.
Paul said that the thorn in the flesh was sent by a messenger of Satan and was intended to torment him. That word “torment” which might be the word “buffet” in your translation, means “to beat, to strike with the fist.” The tense of that verb indicates that the pain was constant or recurring. This was an ongoing, every day battle that Paul faced. There was some kind of training or blessing that was good for Paul. Somehow, it benefitted Paul to be in a daily battle.
Every day, Satan was sending Paul a message. Every day was a reminder that he lived in a physical body, in a physical world. But there was more than one message being sent and received every day in Paul’s life. Satan was texting Paul every day, snapping Paul every day, but God was also speaking in the pain. And God’s message trumped Satan’s message. Satan’s message reminded Paul he was there to hurt him. God’s message reminded Paul that God was sufficient, no matter the suffering, and that His power would rest on Paul to enable him to deal with and overcome anything, even if it was an every day occurrence.
Forget for a second that Paul was enduring a hardship that God had actually sent his way. Just think about the fact that life happens to all of us. The heartaches and trials of life send us a message, don’t they? What are some of the messages life brings?
You are stuck. You can never get out of this hole you are in.
Ever dealt with the defeat contained in that punch?
You are doomed to be just like your addicted parent.
Do you ever feel crushed by the messages that try to label and limit you?
You are never going to get better. You will always live with sickness and pain.
Is every day drudgery for you?
You will never be successful.
Anyone heard that message day after day?
You will always be lonely. You will always be afraid. You will always deal with _______.
The messages Satan whispers are meant to torment us, BUT God, BUT God, He speaks those words that renew our spirits, that cause us to hope, that point us in an upward direction, that take us from the earthly trials to spiritual triumph for His grace is sufficient no matter what. There is power to receive when we are at our weakest. That is the message of God. That is the message of His grace this morning.
3. Grace means that God is always available and that God is always enough!
His grace is sufficient. There is never a shortage of grace to get you through. His grace is sufficient to enable you to serve God.
2 Corinthians 3:4-6 (NIV) 4 Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God.
5 Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. 6 He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant–not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
His grace is sufficient for your financial needs:
2 Corinthians 9:6-8 (NIV) 6 Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. 7 Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.
As you give of your resources, God infuses a blessing of His grace into your life and you will have what you need.
His grace is sufficient! You CAN do and get through all things because Christ will give you strength. Philippians 4:13
Jesus said to Paul, “My power is made perfect through your weakness.” Our weaknesses and hardships are our opportunity to experience the supernatural power of God. What the world sees as a weakness, God says is the opportunity to experience strength!
4. In the Christian life, we get many of our blessings through transformation, not substitution. When Paul prayed three times for the removal of his pain, he was asking God for a substitution: “Give me health instead of sickness, deliverance instead of pain and weakness.” Sometimes God does meet the need by substitution; but other times He meets the need by transformation. He does not always remove the affliction, but He gives us His grace so that the affliction works for us and not against us.
Paul was better off with the thorn than he would have been without it. That’s why God allowed it. The thorn was for his good. The thorn was for God’s glory—to protect God’s glory from being diverted to Paul. The thorn was a gift from God so that Paul could experience the grace of God. We may be tempted in those tough moments to say, “Keep your gift, God. Take it back.” But we have to trust that God knows what He is doing and that it is for our good and His glory.
Here is what I think this passage helps us see:
5. We cannot accept the gift of God’s grace when we refuse to see trouble as a tool in the hand of God.
Paul said, “to keep me from being conceited, God allowed this to happen.” There was a great purpose for what he was dealing with.
And notice, it was as Paul prayed and took his trouble to the Lord (3 times) that he was able to hear the message of grace speak louder than the message of torment.
6. Do you know that when you go to the Lord in prayer, the Bible says you are “Approaching the Throne of Grace?” Hebrews 4:16
This is how God infuses grace into our lives, through prayer. We are good at talking about our problems, but we need to become experts at talking to God about our problems because that is when He delivers supernatural strength to us.
We want details, don’t we? We want to know why we have to put up with what we are dealing with, and we want to know how long it will last. God isn’t required to explain Himself to us.
7. As we walk by faith, we need to remember that we don’t live on explanations, but we live on the promises of God, and He says His grace will be sufficient. Look at your neighbor and say, “You’re going to make it.”
Notice something about Paul’s situation. God’s grace didn’t just help him limp along. God’s grace didn’t just help him grin and bear it. No! God’s grace gave him incredible strength, victory and favor. Doors opened. Miracles were performed-all because God’s grace was sustaining Paul and enabling him to live above his circumstances. God’s grace isn’t given just so that we can endure, but so that we can rise above everything Satan and this life are throwing at us.
Notice what Paul said in II Corinthians 12:9: Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. (Everybody say, “Rest.”) That word, translated as “rest” means “to spread a tent over.” Listen, when the grace of God is active in your life for one reason, God’s power will rest on you and no matter what else comes your way, you are covered because grace is already operational in your life.
Another by-product of the grace of God that infuses the power of God in your life, it gives you a reason to brag about God. Paul wasn’t mentally unstable when he said this gave him an opportunity to brag on Christ. He was thrilled that God was at work in his life in a supernatural way. Because Paul stayed focused on the spiritual aspect of his trial, it became an opportunity for the glory of God to be revealed.
There was something that would have been far worse than the thorn in the flesh and that would have been the stronghold of pride that would have led Paul to sin. Jesus spared him from going down that road. Often we think what we are going through is the worst thing that could happen, but this passage teaches us that something worse than physical suffering could have been at work in Paul’s life; he could have had to deal with the suffering that comes from the suffocating stronghold of sin in a person’s life.
- Grace isn’t something God does for you. It is something God does in you. You have to give God room to work in your heart, your mind, your situation.
God’s work in us starts with salvation. We can’t expect to have the power of God at work in us if we first haven’t received Him into our hearts and lives through faith in His finished work on the cross. The Bible says in Ephesians 2:8-9 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God– 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.
Grace is the starting block for us as Christians, and it is God’s grace that sustains us all along the way. We shouldn’t expect God to do anything for us if we haven’t given Him permission to work in us. The empowering work of grace is an inside job.
Have you surrendered your life to Christ? Have you responded to the invitation to allow God’s grace to transform you? Are you cooperating with the message of grace you receive when you look to God in prayer so that God has the room to work as He sees fit in your life? Have you experienced the kind of grace Paul did, the sufficient grace of God that is more than enough?