In good times and bad we can know that God is with us, willing to use us, and faithful to help us through whatever we face because of His amazing grace.
In our text we find Paul sharing the highs and lows of his ministry. As he describes his experiences we should remember that they are descriptive and not prescriptive. They are not experiences that we should try to emulate or recreate, but rather principles by which we should learn to operate.
Paul has been under fire from his detractors in Corinth. At the close of Second Corinthians he is laying out proofs for his authority in ministry. Due to nothing more than God’s gracious call on his life, he has been privileged to hear “inexpressible words” and to see an “abundance of revelations” of “Paradise” (vv. 2-7a).
Paul makes it clear that it would never be “profitable” for him to boast in himself (v. 1). If God gives us high and holy moments where we experience a touch of the supernatural, we are never to think that gives us something to brag about. Paul says, “For though I might desire to boast, I will not be a fool” (v. 6).
While there is no profit in boasting in self, there can be great power boasting in the Savior. If God has revealed Himself to you there no is need to deny the reality. Just don’t think He did it because of some innate goodness in yourself (cf. 1 Cor. 1:26-31). Paul says, “Of such a one I will boast” (v. 5), meaning that he would share what happened to him with humility.
If you have truly experienced the life changing power of God you have a testimony that needs to be shared! But boast in Jesus and the fact that He has called and is using you in spite of your weaknesses. Never elevate your experience over the authority of Scripture!
Unlike many of the fraudulent modern heaven tourists who claim to have been to heaven and had visions of God, Paul never made any attempt to give sensational details. In fact, other than this one case, he never mentioned it. If someone really went to heaven like Paul, what they would see and hear would not be explainable in human terms. What God wants us to know of heaven He has revealed in His Word.
In Paul’s case, the Lord made certain that he would not be tempted to boast of his vision of heaven by giving him a “thorn in the flesh.” Sometimes we struggle to understand why we face troubles. In fact, it can seem at times that they are on every hand and around every corner.
Paul says the trial came his way, “lest [he] should be exalted above measure” (v. 7). He readily admits the trouble was “a messenger from Satan.” The trial was demonic in nature. Most of the commentaries consider Paul’s thorn in the flesh to have been some physical disorder. But the rendering of the Greek text and the context of the letter would lead us to take the trial as the attack of the deceivers who had created a rebellion against Paul in the church there at Corinth.
Paul had enumerated many of the physical sufferings he had endured for the sake of the gospel (11:22-27). But his chief burden was the unceasing daily “deep concern for all the churches” (11:28). The phrase “deep concern” means anxious care. Paul was right to have such anxiety over the churches because of the grave danger of their falling prey to false teachings. Added to this was the fact that there were those in the church who were literally raising up an attack against Paul and true doctrine.
Consider also that Paul has had much to say about spiritual warfare and false prophets in these closing chapters of the letter (10:3-6; 11:5-15). His burden, his “torment,” was a demonic attack which God had allowed. Remember that God often uses demons as His unwilling servants to accomplish righteous purposes (cf. Num. 22:2-24:25; 1 Kings 22:19-23; Luke 22:31-32).
When we face emotionally stressful times it drives us to plead with God for relief. And it keeps us humble and fully dependent on the Lord. You cannot battle demons in the energy of the flesh (Eph. 6:10-18). Paul pleaded but God allowed the “thorn” to remain.
Through it all Paul relied on the promise of God’s grace to sustain him. The Lord said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness” (12:9). Because of this Paul was most glad to “boast in [his] infirmities, that the power of Christ [might] rest upon [him].”
With faith like Paul’s we too can learn to take pleasure in our trials, knowing that they are for Christ’s sake and that His grace is truly enough.
Two of the questions that always come from a pastor search committee are, “What are your weaknesses? What are your strengths?”
I always knew what they were getting at, yet I was uncomfortable answering. I did not want to admit deficiencies but I instinctively knew that there were areas of pastoral ministry at which I did not excel. I would rather others say where they saw my strengths. I usually mumbled my way through the questions until one day, studying this passage, God showed me the correct answer.
If the question came to me now I would say, “My weaknesses are everything and my strengths are none, for when I am weak then I am strong.” I know it won’t be the answer desired, but it will keep me focused on the one thing essential to living the Christian life and doing Christian ministry – His sufficient grace!
Questions for Group Discussion:
- When you have experienced a spiritual highpoint in your life, how have you managed to keep a proper perspective and not fall prey to pride?
- Does the fact that something supposedly supernatural happened necessarily mean it is of God? Why is it dangerous to put our experiences over Scripture?
- How would you deal with a “thorn in a flesh,” particularly if that thorn was another person or group of people?
- If God’s grace is truly sufficient then why are so many professing believers experiencing such high levels of stress and anxiety? How would you advise them on the basis of Paul’s testimony in the text?
 See John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 2 Corinthians (Chicago: Moody Press, 2003), 400-401.