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Strength in Weakness

Date: Feb. 21, 2021

Author: Michael Mark

2 Corinthians 11:16-12:10

Key Verse: 2 Corinthians 12:9

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.

We all love stories of people growing from weakness to strength – people who started from humble beginnings to becoming the greatest of all time, or a titan of an industry.  It’s interesting to hear stories about how Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team, to becoming the greatest basketball player of all time.  Or how Bill Gates dropped out of college, failed in a business startup, but then went on to start the biggest software company in the world.  We love the stories of strength from weakness, but what about this concept of strength IN weakness?  As the saying goes, nobody is perfect, and even the strongest among us have weaknesses.  Even Superman has his kryptonite.  But to have strength IN weakness is possible, it is a power beyond us, a power, you can say, is god-like, and it is real.  It actually is a power not of this world, it is a strength that we can receive, and we will learn from today’s passage what kind of power this is.

As we are nearing the end of our study of 2 Corinthians, Paul now turns to address the false teachers that might have incited the rebellion against him.  He literally calls them “super-apostles,” mocking them for their claims of being sent by either Jesus Christ or the Twelve Apostles.  They had put themselves on a level with Paul and the Twelve, making themselves equal with them, and possibly higher, so Paul nicknamed them the “super apostles.”  They made some grand claims about themselves, and were successful in leading some of the church astray.  They were full of pride and boasting, and they spoke well and forcefully.  As we learned, they discredited Paul by saying though his letters are weighty, he was quite unimpressive in person.  Paul then, had to react.  Since the church would not listen to the humble pleadings and exhortations of their own founder, he played the same game as the “super-apostles” did, something he disliked and refrained from doing before, and that was the game of boasting.  Paul said, “Two can play at this game. (this is my opinion)”  Paul, who appeared outwardly weak, would uncover the actual weakness of his enemies by exposing the foolishness of their worldly boasting, supported by his boasting of his weakness, in order to reveal the real power behind his strength, that is, the strength that can be found in weakness.

So first, let’s look at the boasting of the world.  Look at v.16, “I repeat: Let no one take me for a fool.  But if you do, then tolerate me just as you would a fool, so that I may do a little boasting.”  He’s speaking to the Corinthian church.  They gave their time and attention to these “super-apostle” fools, so he asks of them, “then hear me out too, just as you listened to them.”  He calls this type of boasting a self-confident boasting, a boasting in the way of the world (v.17, 18).  This is the way the world boasts – it is all about self-confidence, and pride.  The subreddit WallStreetBets is kind of a caricature of this.  One of their favorite slogans is “YOLO” – “You only live once,” to describe a very risky all in type of stock trading.  The infamous “Wolf of Wall Street,” was full of charisma and charm, and swindled $110 million dollars from stock buyers through fraudulent schemes.  In a different industry, the former CEO of a blood testing company was able to raise over $700 million, convincingly overpromising on a more efficient blood test, and now faces trial for fraud and cover up.  The company has since been liquidated.

He calls this type of boasting foolishness.  In Ch. 10, he calls the type of boasting where a group of people commend only themselves as “not wise.”  As Dan spoke about 2 weeks ago, Paul tells us it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends (2 Cor 10:18).  There are often painful consequences when we boast about ourselves – when we lift ourselves up above one another.  We see in v.20 that the Corinthians were enslaved, exploited, and slapped in the face by these false teachers.  When I was a young man early in my career, I thought I was the stuff.  I thought I was the best in my work training class, but now looking back, I was at best 3rd out of 6.  But because of my pride, it caused some tension between me and one of the best trainees, and it also caused a lot of trouble between me and some of my other superiors.  I remember an email they sent me, saying they had high expectations of me, but I disappointed them.  I remember journaling that day how angry I was to get that email, but now that I look back, I see how foolish I had been to lift myself up like that.  These type of people, when they get their way, can lead astray those who follow them.

While, thankfully, no one took my side, some Corinthians took the side of the “super apostles” – so Paul, in order to rescue his flock, dared to boast the same way they did.  He did this because he wanted to cut the ground from under the false teachers who wanted to be considered equal with the apostles (v.11:12).  He wanted to expose their deceit, and show them to be the false teachers that they were.  But boasting in this way was so unpleasant to Paul.  Look at v.21b-23a “Whatever anyone else dares to boast about – I am speaking as a fool – I also dare to boast about.  Are they Hebrews?  So am I.  Are they Israelites?  So am I.  Are they Abraham’s descendants?  So am I.  Are they servants of Christ (I am out of my mind to talk like this).”  We will pause here.  Look at Paul’s interjections:  “I am speaking as a fool; I am out of my mind.”  You can see the conflict he has when he boasts, but he must do it.  The super apostles used their heredity to try to lord it over the Gentiles – saying they were pure bred children of Abraham, of Israel, Hebrew of Hebrews.  So Paul says – so what – so am I.  At least on this basis, they are equal.

Now Paul does them one better – and challenges them on this point in v.23: “Are they servants of Christ?”  So they were Jews.  Wonderful.  Now they claim to be servants of Christ.  What could they show for it?  Perhaps they said “I was taught by Peter himself.”  Or “I was circumcised on the eighth day, I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”  “I have memorized all 5 books of the Pentateuch, and earned the highest marks on my law exams.”  But Paul knows they are missing something.  Paul knows he has something which they don’t, which proves his authenticity as a servant of Christ.  “Are they servants of Christ?” Paul says, “I am out of my mind to talk like this: I am more.”  It is here, Paul takes a departure from the kind of boasting of the world, and begins a different kind of boasting: a boasting of his weaknesses.

Look at the type of boasts he makes from v.23-27.  We could double the length of this message just going through them all in detail, but let me just list them out here.  He worked much harder than them – and how does this show?  He was in prison, he was flogged, beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, marooned, in danger from rivers, bandits, even fellow Jews, and Gentiles, in the city, country and at sea, and from false believers.  He has experienced hunger, thirst, cold and nakedness. What is this a list of?  It is a list of his afflictions, and his sufferings for the sake of Christ.  Now, he doesn’t go looking for all this trouble, but it comes as he is determined to preach the gospel to every creature.  As he says in Gal 6:17, “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.”  Through even the most difficult times, he was faithful as a servant of Christ.  The false super apostles had no such marks.  In fact, to avoid persecution, they taught that the Gentiles needed to circumcise themselves.

Notice also – what did Paul not mention in the list above, as credentials for his service to Christ?  Paul did not talk about his visions, he did not talk about his ability to speak in tongues, he did not talk about the miracles he did or of his exemplary scholarship in Jewish law.  Paul did all these things, but he left out those things that could cause him to lift himself up.  He did not boast in those things that could easily be a temptation to pride.  He instead boasted about those things that showed his helplessness and afflictions for righteousness.

One more evidence of his heart for the church is his deep love and concern for the church.  Look at v.28-29, “Besides everything else, I face the daily pressure of my concern for all the churches.  Who is weak, and I do not feel weak?  Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?”  The super apostles had no such empathy.  They only cared that the church obeyed their directions and paid them tax.  When some were weak, they abused them more.  But Paul, when he hears of someone weak, he feels weak.  Earlier in this letter, in Ch. 2:4, he pours out his heart, that he had great distress, anguish of heart, and tears for them to show them the depth of love he has for them.

Paul continues his boast of weakness, look at v.30, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.”  See how he starts, “If I must boast.”  He is reluctant to boast; so too, we should not always want to boast, but if we must, let it be things that show our weakness.  Let it be things that don’t tempt us to pride, but be those things that praise God, as Paul does in v.31, “The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, knows that I am not lying.”  God, not us, is to be praised, and that forever.  Always, constantly.  Jer 9:23-24 says, “This is what the Lord says: ‘Let not the wise boast of their wisdom or the strong boast of their strength or the rich boast of their riches, but let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,’ declares the Lord.”   Let us boast that we have the understanding to know the Lord, who is kind, just and righteous.  In these he delights.

Paul does one final boast of his weakness, but here reveals the source of strength in weakness.  Look at v.12:1-2, “I must go on boasting.  Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord.  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.”  This is actually the boast to end all boasts.  You see Paul’s hesitation to do this (nothing to be gained), but he needs to discredit the super apostles.  He speaks in the third person – he doesn’t say “I”, but “a man in Christ,” which shows how he wanted to distance himself, as much as he could, from this boast.  But clearly, the specifics and the details tell us this is him. 

Paul was caught up into the third heaven.  Possibly, this is just heaven.  The first heaven is the sky, the second heaven is space, and the third is the dwelling of the Lord himself.  Paul couldn’t tell whether he was in a trance, or taken up there physically like Elijah, but he was there, and he heard inexpressible things he was not permitted to speak of.  He was so tight-lipped about this that he kept it a secret for 14 years, and even now, only reluctantly giving us a glimpse.  Why might he not be permitted to speak of it?  Perhaps they are things too holy and wonderful for us to know or understand.  Perhaps it was to prevent Paul from becoming to proud, which we will talk about soon.  Perhaps it was primarily for the benefit of Paul, so that he could be patient in all his suffering.  If the apostle Paul was not permitted to speak of the things he saw in heaven, this tells us we should be suspicious about those heavenly tourism books that have come out in the past few years, each with conflicting stories, and one of which has been proven false.

But why does Paul bring this up?  It may be because the super apostles spoke of their own visions and revelations, but Paul was literally there with God.  If the super apostles were lying, which they most likely were, this should quiet them. Paul speaks as an eyewitness, and who knows if they thought Paul really knew, which he did.  But Paul does not bring this up to lift himself up over others.  Sure, he did this to cut the ground from under the super apostles.  But Paul brings this up to show his weakness.  Look at v.7, “or because of these surpassingly great revelations.  Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.”  These revelations he said, were surpassingly great.  Oh man, if you only saw heaven.  But he knew his heart.  He knew his weakness.  Rather, God knew his weakness.  His weakness was pride, and conceit.  Paul was prone to pride.  Remember the intense zeal he had persecuting the church before his conversion.  He was bloodthirsty to kill Christians, and thought he was serving God. 

There are many conjectures as to what this thorn was.  Some commentators say it was a physical ailment, like blindness, or fevers, or epilepsy.  Some say it was these super apostles, who were demon possessed and tormented Paul by tearing his church apart.  We do not know, but this is God’s wisdom, so that we won’t be able to identify any specific affliction as God’s discipline, but it is possible, God may afflict us with anything to keep us humble.  Look at v.8, “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.”  This thorn was so grievous, so distressing to Paul that he pleaded with Lord, not just once, but multiple times to take it away.  This does show us that it is not wrong to pray for relief from suffering, even if it comes from God’s hand.  Many commentators noted a parallel between this prayer, and Jesus’ earnest prayer at Gethsemane.  We are always encouraged to pray and petition in every situation.

Even with this great vision, Paul was reduced to weakness.  He was humbled by the constant thorn, and begged to have it removed.  But in this we find the secret to having strength in weakness.  Look at v.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.”  That is it.  This is the secret to strength in weakness: it is the grace of Christ.  This is the source of strength for all those who are weak; even for the strongest among people, who are still weak.  This is the source of strength that is not from this world, but from heaven, from God – it is the grace of Jesus Christ.

What is the grace of Christ?  Grace is such wonderful word.  It means kindness, and favor.  The grace of Christ is his kindness and favor towards you.  Can you think of a time when your mom or dad, aunt, uncle, grandma or grandpa showed favor to you when you were a kid?  They gave you gifts, took you out, let you come over and play.  This is grace; to have the unmerited love and favor of God disposed toward you.  That is why it is sufficient.  As Paul said in Rom 8:31 “If God is for us, who can be against us?”  You have divine power helping you.  And how do we know that God truly loves us?  How do we know that God works for the good of those who love him?  Because in His grace, Jesus gave his life for you on the cross.  This is ultimate grace – grace of all graces, that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, gave his life for you.  What more can you ask for?

Sometimes when we think of grace, at least I once did, I think of these invisible gifts that get dropped down from heaven into your heart.  Gifts of peace, of wisdom, of strength, of comfort, of love.  But the grace of Christ is more than that.  The grace of Christ is a power, a force that works in you.  See again v.9, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  My grace … my power.  It is made perfect in weakness; that means, the goal, the purpose of that power is fulfilled in weakness.  We see this perfectly illustrated in the cross.  Jesus was made weak, crucified, and died on that old rugged cross.  But in his death he defeated the power of death, and rose again to life.  When we have the attitude to Christ, when we humble ourselves, repent, submit, trust and obey God, his power will always be at work in us, transforming us into the vibrant life of Christ.  So Paul could say in the end, “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.  For when I am weak, I am strong.”

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