II Corinthians 11:21–12:10. Paul’s Weaknesses.
Key Notes: A catalog of near-death experiences. Of human weakness. Paul's beatific vision. Our defects as assets.
Paul was commissioned by God at Damascus as “a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel, for I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name”(Acts. 9:15). He could not have known what that meant. Now at the end of II Corinthians he can tell us what it has meant so far. We will discover that only a very small part of that suffering was for Paul’s own good. The message is in the form of a diatribe to which he is driven by the fickle Corinthians.
11:21–22 Paul has repeatedly asked whether he needed to commend himself to the Corinthians (1:14; 3:1–3; 5:12; 10:12; 12:11). The reason for this is that there were false teachers who claimed that they worked on the same terms --and were just as good-- as Paul. (11:12). In response to such a request for a resume, some contemporary preachers would likely list the number of converts committed, the sick healed, books written and numbers in the TV audience. Paul does not display his accomplishments. He displays his suffering and weakness.
However, from researches of the NT record, we know that he visited about 25 cities. He traveled some 6400 miles over 20 years on foot or by sea. His associates number more than 120. He published 13 letters, writing to seven churches. His great theological contribution is clarifying the doctrine of justification by faith. He is undoubtedly the greatest Christian who ever lived.
But first he compares himself with the false teachers.
*Are they Hebrews? He is too. In Phil. 3:5 his answer goes even further: ” …circumcised on the eighth day, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews, as to the Law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the Church, as to righteousness under the Law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.”
*Are they Israelites? He is too. To them was given the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the Law, the worship and the promises. (Rom.9:3). He has access to all of that.
*Are they children of Abraham? “Abraham was represented as sitting at the gate of Gehenna, to deliver any Israelite who otherwise might have been consigned to its terrors. “ Paul knows that it was only the merits of Christ that guarantee redemption.
(For other merits of Abraham, see The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. .A. Edersheim; Longmans, Green and Co. London,‘96. Vol.1, p. 272)
11:24–33 He has gone through much greater labors, more imprisonments, repeated beatings, often near death.
Then he lists the times he was near death. They number at least twelve—and more were to come. We are only up to the time of Acts’ at this point.
*5 times he received the 39 lashings in the synagogue. The Law forbade more than 40 lest the brother be degraded (Deut.25:3). The lash was made of three leather strips about 3 inches wide. Thirteen stripes were laid on the chest and 26 on the back, with the leader of the synagogue striking with one hand as hard as he could. Some were crippled and some died under this severe beating. He survived it five times.
*3 times he was beaten with rods by the Romans. It was illegal to beat a Roman citizen (Acts 16:39) without a trial but mobs overcame the officials.
*Once he was stoned—and left for dead. Acts 14:19
*3 times he survived shipwrecked. One ship-wreck is described in detail. Acts 27:12–44.
*24 hours he was adrift in the sea, clinging to wreckage.
He was amazingly tough. There were many other stresses and threats to his life: crossing rivers, encountering bandits, threats from Gentiles and Jews, dangers of city, wilderness and sea, betrayal by false believers. There were also the hardships of work, lack of sleep, hunger and thirst, cold and exposure. The daily anxiety for all the churches is well-shown in these two letters to the Corinthians. No doubt they caused him more grief than the other churches.
One especially embarrassing episode was escape from Damascus, when he was let out of a window and down the wall in a basket. He never forgot it.
But now we can see that Paul is also like a bishop or a missionary executive, with responsibility not only for his own evangelistic work, but for care and maintenance of many churches. This involves personal visits, letters, and follow-up by his associates. When the churches are weak, he feels weak. When anyone falls (“scandalized”), he burns (“pyroumai”) with grief and indignation.
Mission directors today also need our understanding and our prayers. They have huge responsibilities, constantly dealing with very difficult situations. Missionaries are prickly and independent. The nationals are on edge and often expect hand-outs. The host governments are often hostile. Illness and depression is common and resources are limited. The constant pressure of paganism is spiritually debilitating. Relatives and supporters are far away.
12:1–10 The last on his list of weaknesses is paradoxical, because it comes after an awesome vision. In Jewish tradition there were four rabbis who had a vision of Paradise. One rabbi died; one went insane; one became a heretic and only one (Aqiba) survived unscathed. Paul was not unscathed. He was given a painful ailment.
He describes an out-of-body experience, caught up into the 3rd, probably the highest, Heaven. It was not what he saw, but what he heard, that was unspeakable, sublime beyond description. He gives us no details. The point is that God restrained the ecstasy and elation of this experience by a “thorn in the flesh.” There has been much speculation about what the thorn was.We should not guess, although many others have.
Incidentally, there is very little in Scripture about heaven. Hell gets more space. God does not give us much that we would love to know. What will our bodies look like? Will we recognize our relatives? Will our animal friends be there? What will we do? [Eternity is a long time.] Will there be a test, a judgment? Will we have music and singing? Can we talk with Moses and Paul? May we talk with the Holy Spirit, with Jesus and the Father? What will our living space look like? (I Cor.2:9)
Back to Paul’s thorn. He asked three times that it be removed. The answer was" No".The Lord told him that His grace was enough for Paul, and His strength was made perfect in weakness. So Paul concludes by boasting in his weakness so that the power of Christ might rest upon him.
Teaching on human weakness is hard to find. We concentrate on strength, courage, sound mind, and power in prayer. Many sources (anthologies of C.S. Lewis, John Stott and Oswald Sanders), do not mention weakness or strength. Five of six commentaries mention it only in passing.
Paul’s teaching on weakness
1. Weakness is built into God’s plan. He chose to make us this way.
“…God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise,
God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong,
God chose what is low and despised in the world,
even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are,
so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus,
whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness
and sanctification and redemption; therefore, as it is written,
‘Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.’“ (ICor.1:27–32)
2. The human body is weak.
“It (the body) is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.” (ICor.15:43)
3. Christ was weak. He went from full deity to humble human, died, but was resurrected in power.
“He is crucified in weakness but lives by the power of God.” (IICor.13:4)
4. Christ’s power is great in human beings.
“He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful in you. “ (IICor.13:3)
5. Paul was outwardly weak in dealing with the Corinthians.
“I was with in you in weakness, and in much fear and trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” (ICor.2:3)
6. The strength of the Corinthians was worldly. I Cor.4:10
7. The treasure in vessels of clay is our visual image of paradoxical weakness and power.
"For it is the God who said 'Let light shine out of darkness', Who has shined in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. We have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.” (IICor.4:6–7).
We have this power in earthen vessels….Marble or onyx is a beautiful soft mineral, translucent but weak and easily broken. With care it can be carved into vessels thin enough that light will shine through. The variegated colors in the stone, its cracks and holes, actually enhance its beauty. When light shines through it, the dull stone comes alive, attractive, commanding attention. May the light of Christ shine out of our frail beings--insconsistencies, cracks, holes--and attract others to Him.
PS. Paul’s visions. There are eight recorded.
His conversion. Acts 9:3
Warning to escape Jerusalem. Acts 22:18
Forbidden to speak in Asia. Acts 16:6
The Macedonian Call. Acts 16:9
Encouragement at Corinth. Acts‘:9
Ordered to speak in Rome. Acts 23:11
Comfort in the storm at sea. Acts 27:2
The vision of Paradise. IICor.12