Strength through weakness
We thought in the last couple of chapters about Paul as an ‘authorised person’ or apostle and how false apostles had taken a prominent position in Corinth. These imposters were undermining Paul’s apostolic authority and placing the church in danger. This theme continues in the final chapters of the letter and along the way we see how Paul’s striving with these awkward people was not for his benefit but was aimed at restoration and strengthening.
1. Thorns, visions and strength through weakness
In chapter 11 we have a long list of Paul’s achievements. In a sort of ironic way he lists all of the trials – (mostly involving physical hardship) he has had to endure as a true apostle – it is through these difficulties that he can ‘boast’.
Now in chapter 12, Paul boasts of something altogether different. Fourteen years prior to the time of writing, Paul had a remarkable spiritual experience. He couldn’t say for sure whether he had been in his body or out of his body at the time, but somehow he was caught up to the ‘third heaven’. What exactly is the third heaven? Paul defines it in verse 4 as ‘paradise’. It is none other than the dwelling place of God. Whilst in that place Paul heard ‘inexpressible things’ and things that ‘no one is permitted to tell’. Why the mystery, why can’t he say what he heard – wouldn’t that be worth hearing!!
When stars collapse the matter in them becomes concentrated in a density that is hard for us to comprehend: tiny amounts of the collapsed star weigh many tons. Such immense density is associated with intense gravitational pull – this pull in turn collapses the star even more, to the point where the pull of gravity becomes so strong that even light cannot escape the pull. At this point the collapsed star becomes a ‘black hole’. Nothing can escape the pull of the black hole, scientists have described the edge of the black hole an ‘event horizon’ beyond that horizon nothing can be known, because no light can escape the extraordinary pull of gravity. It seems that there is an event horizon associated with paradise – nothing can escape to give us information about what happens there. Paul had been there and back but was limited by the event horizon of paradise. I suspect that this is all in God’s goodness as we would find it hard beyond measure to cope with such knowledge. But Paul had been to that very place and had returned to tell (or to be precise not to tell) the tale. If the Corinthians were looking for a ‘super apostle’ they need look no further – who could beat a trip to paradise and back! Paul was the real deal and the sooner the Corinthians accepted that the better for all concerned. They needed to see through the false apostles pronto too.
God has put an embargo on information about paradise for our own good. But Paul had been there and the problem was that the experience was going to be difficult for him to cope with. It seems that pride was the issue. Somehow Paul was so assured by this experience that he could easily have become conceited and smug about his privileged position. To keep him on an even keel, God allowed Paul to have what is described as a ‘thorn in his flesh’. Paul describes this as a ‘messenger from Satan to buffet me’. We can only guess as to what this actually was, but it was clearly unpleasant and troubling to Paul. He specifically asked for it to be removed not once but three times. Each time God refused.
Much of the theme in 2 Corinthians is about difficulty and the sojourn of the church though the ages. We are not immune to these difficulties – in fact we ought to expect difficulty. The picture is similar to the Israelites as they wandered the desert for 40 years. The question is, were they alone during that time of striving and difficulty? Absolutely not! Are we alone as we go though trials – a hundred times no!
In the midst of this dreadful testing, Paul received these words along with God’s refusal to grant relief: ‘My grace is sufficient for you. For my power is made perfect in weakness’. That’s quite profound! God gives us just enough to get through – his grace is sufficient. Not more than we need, but enough. When you are going through testing and plead with God for relief, remember that his grace is enough to get you through. Maybe the testing is brief and not severe – you have enough to get through, or perhaps the testing seems to take you beyond what any human being could cope with - God will provide enough for you to get through, of this we can be sure. What a comfort this is.
God’s power is made perfect in weakness: as we comprehend our weakness and accept that we cannot get through difficulty in our own strength we create the perfect conditions for God’s power to operate. In contrast, if we have a self sufficient and self-confident attitude we will not provide the correct conditions for God’s power to work. It seems that if we are going thorough difficulty (as we all surely will at some stage and to some degree) we can know God’s strengthening power by accepting that we are weak. As Paul puts it ‘when I am weak, then I am strong’!
No doubt with these verses in mind, Annie Johnson Flint, orphaned at 6 years old and suffering from severe rheumatoid arthritis penned these rather wonderful words:
When we have exhausted
our store of endurance,
When our strength has failed
ere the day is half done,
When we reach the end
of our hoarded resources
Our Father’s full giving
is only begun.
His love has no limit,
His grace has no measure,
His power no boundary
known unto men;
For out of His infinite
riches in Jesus
He giveth, and giveth,
and giveth again.
2. A parent’s love
Paul was coming to visit, again. It was to be his third visit and one can feel his pain as he contemplates the coming confrontation. It appears that as the Corinthians had accepted the false apostles, they had rejected the genuine apostle. Paul had shown beyond doubt that he had the attributes of a real apostle which included signs, wonders and miracles. These are foundational gifts that authenticated Paul’s authority and message: and yet, these awkward Corinthians were unconvinced. We are not faced in our day such a choice between false and true apostles, but we are faced with a related question of authority. Do we accept the authority of the bible or do we allow ourselves to be taken in with the wisdom of the age? We may become so engaged with TV, internet, magazines and newspapers that we slowly become poisoned by this world’s thinking or we may place hold theologians and creeds in higher regard than the bible. Either way we will lose sense of spiritual direction in much the same way as the Corinthians.
Parents go through many agonies with their children! We want so much to see them do well, but things don’t always work out as we would wish. One of the saddest things a parent has to cope with is rejection from a child. Paul knew that agony! He said to the Corinthians, ‘I will very gladly spend for you everything I have and expend myself as well.’ Paul had gone out of his way not to have to ask the Corinthians for a penny, but rather than thanking him they had criticised him! - What was wrong with these people!
All that Paul wanted to do was to strengthen them. He said ‘everything we do, dear friends, is for your strengthening’. That’s just the sort of thing a parent would say – his motivation was out of love for his children.
What was wrong? Paul lists some of the problems he fears he may encounter on this planned visit: discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder. We each have a sinful nature within us – we were born this way, it’s the product of Adam’s sin. We have a conscience that moderates this nature and that keeps these things at bay – incidentally it seems that the conscience can be cultured and developed or neglected with predictable results. But the sinful nature is always there. When we become believers we have a new nature planted within us, the old sinful nature and the new nature are at war! It’s trench warfare, neither side will budge. As believers we have the Holy Spirit within us to provide power to live according to the new nature. The fact that Paul was fearful of finding these unpleasant products of the sinful nature amongst the Corinthians tells us of the underlying problem at Corinth. There was a failure to engage the new nature with the result that the old nature was winning the trench warfare.
Just like the Corinthians, we as believers have the same forces at work within us. We have a choice. It seems that in God’s dealing with us, there is always a moral choice to be made – this is the recurring theme in the personalities we encounter in the Bible. We can live our lives in a way that fosters the activities of the old nature – neglecting to meet with fellow believers, neglecting the bible, neglecting prayer and developing a love for the things of this world: these things encourage the old nature and before long the ugly effects will become evident. In contrast if we order our lives according to the Holy Spirit we will produce the fruits of the Spirit. We are rather good at pretending to live according to the Spirit but living according to the old nature – we hide the reality beneath a cloak of self righteousness! Paul says in Galatians 5: ‘live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature’. That’s good advice! No doubt Paul wanted to see this amongst the Corinthian believers, but his expectations were low. In spite of this there is always a route back to God – Paul hoped for repentance but feared this would be lacking.
3. Time to act
Paul says that ‘every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses’. Paul had visited Corinth twice already and had found them wanting, now he is about to visit for a third time, surely by now things would have changed? If on a third visit the deficiencies were still present, this would be final confirmation – the third witness to failure. Paul wanted to find the Corinthians fully restored as believers, but he worried that he would not. It was time for change.
There is a temptation to think that we can live sinful lives and God will let us get away with it, he’s a soft touch. Paul was keen for the Corinthians to understand that any appearances of weakness were just that: appearances. There was a steely apostolic power to be conjured with. He says ‘we are weak in him, yet by God’s power we live with him in our dealing with you’. He seems to be saying, don’t think that you can continue to live in willful sin without significant consequences. There is no soft touch option!
So what were the Corinthians to do? They were to take a long hard look at themselves to see if they were in the faith. What could this mean? Was Paul suggesting that they were not believers at all? There was not much doubt that they were genuine believers – Christ Jesus was in them. But it is entirely possible for Christian people to live the most sinful lives! Our faith does not rest on what we do, but what God has done for us – but this is not a licence to sin - far from it. Paul asked the Corinthians to look at themselves, to examine themselves to see if their lives matched their faith.
We have a mirror in our hall and certain members of the family check out their appearance before they leave the house – this is a good thing I suppose, one would not want to present oneself to the world with soup stains around one’s mouth or whatever! So it is with our Christian faith, it’s a good thing to do some self examination. Do we have such a ‘faith-mirror’ that could help us? Indeed we do! James says in his book that a man who listens to God’s word is like a man who looks in the mirror and immediately forgets what he sees. In contrast the man who looks intently into God’s word and acts on what he sees will do the right thing. (see James 1: 23-24). How long is it since you looked intently into God’s word, remembering and acting on what you see? Let’s examine ourselves in the mirror of the bible and act on what we see.
Paul’s reason for asking for this self-examination was for constructive purposes. Paul was an ‘authorised person’ and that authority was largely given to build not to tear down.
The epistle ends with a final word to rejoice! There were many reasons for concern in Corinth, many reasons for change, but overall there were reasons to rejoice! Why?, because the God of love and peace is (and will be) with us. This is greatly encouraging. What sort of God do we worship? A God characterised by grace, love and fellowship! Even in the midst of a situation of utter failure, the Corinthians were invited to engage with a God who is full of grace, love and fellowship – we may do so too, irrespective of what has gone before. May indeed the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all.