2 Corinthians 11:30-12:10
What is the significance of visions, revelations, and rapture into heaven (12:1-4)?
What lesson is being taught by a "thorn in the flesh" (12:7-10)?
The good news of the gospel is that those who find themselves weak but boast in God can expect the same message from Christ that Paul received: "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (12:9a).
1. Exceptional Jars of Clay encounter the Spirit of God.
In the past
There is no doubt, of course that Paul had profound visionary experiences. This should not be denied in played down.
Paul never derived his authority or the content of his message from such supernatural experiences. This confronts our need to consider private, immediate experience of more value than God’s objective self-revelation in time and space. As important as such experiences were for Paul personally, his private visions never became the subject of his teaching, nor are they held up as a model for others. In this sense, Paul was no mystic!
He kept these visions to himself, at best viewing them as confirmatory but not determinative of his public ministry. It was not Paul’s private, visionary experiences that established his authority. Rather, the "Lord’s commendation" (10:18) is seen in Paul’s public call, his suffering in public, his public work of the Spirit among his churches, and his public performance of the signs and wonders, which the Corinthians could see and hear (12:6).
Like his experience of speaking in tongues (1 Cor. 14:18-19), such visionary experiences occupied a private place in his ministry. Paul does not boast in his private experiences but in the Christ who died for his sins and sustains him in the midst of his suffering.
Christianity affirms that "a real event in time and space … is the unique final revelation, for time and for eternity, and for the whole world”.
Of course people have vivid visions from God and this have a profound impact on them. Those who experience such things usually keep them to themselves. Indeed, this passage challenges our current tendency to create Christian celebrities based on their "spiritual experiences” and "power" and to mimic their mysticism.
a. Vision based spiritual development runs the risk of the law of diminishing returns.
That is to say, the maturing of a Christian will be consistently impaired if devotion to Jesus Christ is determined by fresh experiences of spiritual ecstasy.
Why is this? Because ones sensation of being overpowered by God will need to steadily intensify. The ordinary will give way to the unusual. The unusual will surrender to the extreme. The extreme will topple to the ridiculous. Often, the inevitable consequence is spiritual emptiness.
”The seeker for experience goes back through the ritual again and again, but begins to discover something- ecstatic experience, like drug-addition, requires larger and larger doses to satisfy…. Eventually when there is a crisis. Will he will sit on the back seats and be a spectator, "fake it," or go on in the hope that everything will eventually be as it was. The most tragic decision is to quit and in the quitting abandon all things spiritual as fraudulent. The spectators are frustrated, the fakers suffer guilt, the hoping are pitiable and the quitters are a tragedy.”
b, Vision based spiritual experiences risk becoming self-centred rather than Christ-centred.
The role of the Holy Spirit is to glorify the all-sufficiency of the grace of Christ in the midst of the very adversity and suffering, weakness and persecution that would seem to call it into question.
2. Exceptional Jars of Clay who don’t break under pressure
a. Weaknesses cannot be escaped simply by thinking differently.
What is needed is not more willpower, but the power of God’s grace. When confronted with his thorn in the flesh, Paul does not try to think positively – he prays. His contentment does not come from a renewed ability to exercise his will but from receiving God’s grace. He is not seeking a higher virtue of contentment but a supernatural act of deliverance.
Indeed, when confronted with his suffering, Paul can complain to God and call out for help, while the power of positive thinking cannot ‘"
Paul’s threefold prayer for deliverance is an expression of his godliness – for the Stoic it would be a failure of nerve and willpower.
The answer to Paul’s prayer is in God himself, while the answer for the power of positive thinking is in the Self.
The power of positive thinking says, "I am stronger than fate",- Paul says, "God’s power is stronger than the circumstances he himself has orchestrated."
The Stoic’s goal is sell mastery, and this is what makes him content in the midst of his circumstances.
Paul’s goal is the glory of God, and this is what causes him to rejoice in the midst of his suffering (12:10).
b. Weakness can be prayer against!
Paul does not glorify suffering as the necessary condition for spirituality, though all people will suffer to varying degrees. Instead, he recognises its presence as a platform for the revelation of God’s grace. This is why he and we can pray for its removal. This is also why Paul’s point in 12:10 is that whenever he is weak, then he is strong. The experience of Christ’s power is not a reward or payment for suffering, nor can we seek suffering in order to experience his grace. By boasting in hardships and persecutions, Paul is not laying the foundation for a theology of martyrdom as the goal of spirituality – he is boasting in Christ’s sufficiency for every situation.
For this reason, the sufferings Paul lists here are all passive. He does not seek to suffer. His point is not that the weaker he is, the stronger he is, which would wrongly lead to seeking suffering for the sake of deeper spirituality.
c. Weakness is part of the fabric of life
Suffering is part of the God-ordained fabric of living in a fallen world.
The life of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, whose power in the ministry was embedded in a life of emotional and physical suffering, is a profound example that Christ’s power is perfected in the weakness of his servants.
Spurgeon suffered recurring bouts of depression throughout his adult life. Because of his own popularity and the unpopular stands he took against the theological liberalism of his day, Spurgeon also had to endure constant ridicule from others, including other pastors.
Added to this was his need to provide relentless care for his wife, who was an invalid for most of their marriage. As if this were not enough, Spurgeon spent a third of his last twenty-seven years of ministry out of the pulpit because of his own physical illness. There was hardly a weakness, insult, hardship, or difficulty that Spurgeon did not know personally.
Instruments shall be used, but their intrinsic weakness shall be clearly manifested,- there shall be no division of the glory, no diminishing of the honour due the Great Worker. The man shall be emptied of self, and then filled with the Holy Ghost
; My witness is, that those who are honoured of their Lord in public, have usually to endure a secret chastening, or to carry a peculiar cross, lest by any means they exalt themselves, and fall into the snare of the devil…. Such humbling but salutary messages our depressions whisper in our ears,- they tell us in a manner not to be mistaken that we are but men, frail, feeble, apt to faint.
Thomas a Kempis (1379/80-1471):
It is good that we sometimes have griefs and adversities, for they drive a man to behold himself and to see that he is here but as in exile, and to learn thereby that he ought not put his trust in any worldly thing. … Therefore, a man ought to establish himself so fully in God that, whatever adversity befall him, he will not need to seek any outward comfort.
d. Weakness leads to real experience of God’s strength
Suffering strips away second-rate sources of happiness, even divinely granted spiritual experiences and revelations, driving us to depend on God alone to satisfy the deepest longings of our heart. For this reason, Paul’s example reminds us that our public ministry, pulpit presence, programmes, and personal lives should all communicate our utter dependence on and satisfaction in God, rather than calling attention to our own strength, experiences, and, if we are in the ministry, "professionalism."
Three rules for understanding Scripture: praying, meditating and suffering trials. The "trials," he said, are supremely valuable: they "teach you not only to know and understand but also to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, how comforting God’s word is: it is wisdom supreme."
Therefore the devil himself becomes the unwitting teacher of God’s word: "the devil will afflict you [and] will make a real doctor of you, and will teach you by his temptations to seek and to love God’s Word. For I myself … owe my enemies many thanks for so beating, pressing, and frightening me through the devil’s raging that they have turned me into a fairly good theologian, driving me to a goal I should never have reached."
From 1660 to 1672, John Bunyan was in the Bedford jail. He could have been released if he had agreed not to preach. He did not know which was worse—the pain of the conditions or the torment of freely choosing it, in view of what it cost his wife and four children. His daughter, Mary, was blind. She was 10 when he was put in jail in 1660.
‘The parting with my Wife and poor children hath often been to me in this place as the pulling of the Flesh from my bones … not only because I am somewhat too fond of these great Mercies, but also because I … often brought to my mind the many hardships, miseries and wants that my poor Family was like to meet with should I be taken from them, especially my poor blind child, who lay nearer my heart than all I had besides,- Oh the thoughts of the hardship I thought my Blind one might go under, would break my heart to pieces."
But this broken Bunyan was seeing treasures in the Word of God because of this suffering that he would probably not have seen any other way. He was discovering the meaning of Psalm 119:71, "It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes. Never had in all my life so great an inlet into the Word of God as now [in prison]. The Scriptures that I saw nothing in before, made in this place to shine upon me. Jesus Christ also was never more real and apparent than now. Here I have seen him and felt him indeed.