3rd May

Week Commencing Sunday 3rd May 2020

Dear Friends,

Today’s devotional materials focus on the theme of faith under trial, when all is dark and we are called to put our trust in God. To still serve Him and be faithful to His ways, though we have no outward encouragement to do so. To that end we will look at a well-known passage from 2 Corinthians 12: 1-10 where Paul refers to his ‘thorn in the flesh.’ Some think this was malarial fever.

 

Hymn.

1 Fight the good fight with all thy might.
Christ is thy strength and Christ thy right.
Lay hold on life, and it shall be 
thy joy and crown eternally.

2 Run the straight race through God's good grace;
lift up thine eyes, and seek Christ's face.
Life with its way before us lies;
Christ is the path, and Christ the prize.

 

3 Cast care aside; lean on thy guide.
God's boundless mercy will provide.
Trust, and thy trusting soul shall prove
Christ is its life, and Christ its love.

4 Faint not nor fear: God's arms are near.
God changeth not, and thou art dear.
Only believe, and thou shalt see
that Christ is all in all to thee

 

‘Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you’ 1 Pet.4:12,13

Prayer

Help us Lord to rely on you. To trust in your sovereign power and might. You are our refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble.

We recognise our weakness. We cannot be saved through our own efforts or good works. We do not find life in pleasures alone. And because of our sin we would face your righteous judgment. We see our sins in those arrayed against you at the cross. The cowardly injustice of Pilate, the self- righteousness envy of the religious leaders, the fickleness and insulting behaviour of the crowd, the ruthless pragmatism of the soldiers, the desertion of all your disciples including Judas who betrayed you. But you are our refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble! You bore all our sins on yourself. You took the punishment we deserve on that cross. So we are freely forgiven. Your sacrifice is sufficient for us. The Father receives us now and one day into heaven. All because ‘you died for me’. Such grace.

We recognise we also face troubles in this life. As Christians we experience the storms of life as all people do. But ‘though the earth should shake, though the mountains fall into the sea, though the waters surge and foam, though the mountains shake’ you are our refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble.

We recognise that our Christian service for you is redundant unless you are our strength. We can do nothing without you. We soon fall back into selfishness, looking for our own comfort. Be our refuge and strength. Rekindle our passion for you and your kingdom. Keep us mindful this life is passing away. So may our lives here be pleasing to you.  Amen.

Reading. 2 Corinthians 12:1-10

Sermon:

‘The Glory and the Cost’

2 Corinthians 12:1-10 describes something of Paul’s inner motivation as he carried out his ministry. He certainly experienced many wonderful blessings as an Apostle, including heavenly visions. However, Paul also met with much heartache in the form of betrayal, opposition, violence, rejection and probable physical disability and sickness. What kept him going when things were tough? What Paul describes here explains how he could persevere and endure, and accounts for the grace of God so powerfully evident in his ministry even with what he calls his ‘thorn in the flesh.’

So let’s begin with ‘the glory’ Paul experienced and describes in these first 5 verses:

The Glory (verses 1-5)

God honoured Paul by giving him a number of visions during his ministry. And here in verses 1-5 of 2 Corinthians 12, Paul writes of visions/ glory he experienced on this particular occasion.

Here Paul seems to have had the experience of being caught up into heaven. Paul refers to the third heaven, (verse 2). This third heaven is equated with ‘paradise’ in verse 4. The word ‘Paradise comes from a Persian word which means a ‘walled garden’. When a Persian King wished to confer a very special honour on someone especially dear to him, he made him a ‘companion of the garden’ and gave him the right to walk in the royal gardens with him in close companionship. In this experience, as never before and never again, Paul had been the companion of God.

It is a staggering honour that Paul was allowed to see into heaven before death, since Paul would live for many years after this.

What Paul saw was so wonderful that he cannot describe it in words. Heaven will be the full realisation of all that is worth having, the final reality of all that we desired to have the most on earth. We might be tempted to say, ‘have I got to leave earth and give up these things; home, family; those relationships of love. The beautiful scenery where I live or I have seen on holiday- the flowers, the clouds, the mountains, the sea. Have I got to leave all this? C. S. Lewis points out that when we get to heaven we will then understand that the only reason we loved these things on earth was because they were just little reflections of what is in the glory world!

Paul is not allowed to say too much about what he saw, perhaps because we are not ready for such knowledge. While the Lord wants us to continually remember heaven is our destination in Christ, it’s not so much that we are meant to speculate what it will be like as a place. Rather we are to be mindful of our final destination in order that our lives are lived correctly here in the light of eternity. So in Philippians we are reminded we must ‘run the straight race’ here because we want the Lord to say to us ‘well done good and faithful servant’ when we arrive in heaven.

Paul mentions these revelations here because he was warning the believers about false super apostles. He wanted God to receive all the glory and he certainly didn’t want anyone to give him that glory.

The question remains, how could Paul have such a great experience and still stay humble? Well, it’s because of the second experience that God brought to his life, and here we can speak of

The Cost (verses 6-10)

Paul experiences glory but this is followed by cost: ‘To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassing revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me’ (7)

What was this thorn in the flesh? The word ‘skolops’ can mean thorn but it is more likely to mean ‘stake’. A severe pain or ‘torment’ of some kind. Calvin thought this was spiritual temptation- for Paul to doubt or give up being an Apostle. Luther thought it referred to the opposition and persecution Paul faced. Others have thought it might refer to loneliness. Still others think it referred to a pain in his eyes. Paul said of the Galations that they would have plucked out their eyes and given them to him (Gal.4:15). Another theory is that Paul suffered from recurrent attacks of malarial fever, found in the eastern Mediterranean countries. People who have suffered from this say the headaches are like ‘a red hot bar thrust through the forehead’, another speaks of ‘the grinding, boring pain in one temple, like the dentist’s drill.’ That sounds like a thorn/stake in the flesh! However, the text does not say specifically, and perhaps this is deliberate because Paul wants his readers to retain the principle he expounds and apply it to whatever their ‘thorn in the flesh’ circumstance might be.

Paul says he was given this thorn in the flesh to keep him from becoming conceited because of the glory he had seen (7). He thinks that he would have fallen into pride and this would have damaged him and his ministry. He knew what he had been as Saul, so proud of his religious credentials; even a judge and scourge of Christians. So Paul accepted that God had sent this difficulty to keep him humble.

Interestingly Paul refers to the thorn as ‘a messenger of Satan’ (7). It is a paradox- and an evidence of the sovereignty of God- that God used Satan, the proudest of all beings, to help keep Paul humble. God permitted the devil to afflict Paul, just as he permitted him to afflict Job in the Old Testament (Job. 1 &2). God is not the author of evil, but He can rework its influence to bring great good. Think of the evil arrayed against Christ at Calvary- but it was God’s will to permit it in order to bring our salvation. The Apostle Peter said ‘This man (Jesus) was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge and you, with the help of wicked men put him to death (Acts 2:23). God is sovereign. He even overrules the devil’s malice for good.

We read in verse 8 that Paul prayed 3 times for the thorn’s removal, but the Lord’s answer was that he would not and that Paul would be given strength to bear it. Then we come to these famous words that are a key I believe to understanding the quality of Paul’s ministry in general, as well proving to be a great source of enabling to Christians throughout the Ages.

Paul writes: ‘But he (that is the Lord) said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.

And this is what we see in Paul’s life time and time again. On the one hand severe circumstances militating against him, painful inner battles and conflicts, we could say they were all ‘thorns in the flesh’ that the Lord never took away until he died, but surrendered to the Lord’s use, Paul learnt that Christ’s power and light come shining out of him and through his ministry:

So we see the sufficiency of God’s grace for Paul’s physical weariness. It made him able to go on. John Wesley preached 42,000 sermons. He averaged 4,500 miles a year. He rode sixty to seventy miles a day and preached three sermons a day on average. When he was 83, he wrote in his diary: ‘I am a wonder to myself. I am never tired, either with preaching, writing, or travelling.’ That was the work of God’s all sufficient grace.

God’s grace was sufficient for Paul’s physical pain- most likely the thorn Paul is referring to. Once a man went to visit a girl who was in bed dying of an incurable and most painful disease. He took with him a little book to try and help encourage her. A book that was bright and cheerful and positive. ‘Thank you very much’ she said, ‘but I know this book’. ‘Have you read it already?’ asked her visitor. The girl answered: ‘I wrote it.’ That’s God’s all sufficient grace at work.

God’s grace was all sufficient for the opposition that Paul faced. All his life, Paul had people gunning for him, hating him- especially those of his own people who resented the fact that he had converted from Judaism to Christianity. They would track him down and try to stir up influential people against him. Further there were false apostles sprouting up in the churches he had formed undermining him, to the believers- and all this while he was serving long stretches in prison, and for what crimes was he in prison?- preaching the Gospel! Paul was up against it all his life, but all his life he never gave in. He could say at the end ‘I have fought the fight… there is now laid up for me a crown’ No amount of opposition could break Paul or make him turn back. That was again God’s all sufficient grace.

God’s grace made Paul able to face slander. In 2 Corinthians Paul defends himself and his ministry against the attacks of super apostles (2 Cor. 11:5) - those who wanted people to follow them. These people boasted of themselves, the numbers of people they could attract, their popularity and success, the oratory in their speaking and human wisdom they had borrowed from Greek culture. They enjoyed comfortable lives fleecing the believers. These had rejected Paul’s apostolic office and teaching. Paul describes how the super apostles were just looking on the surface of things and how in our passage and the passage before it, the super apostles were not boasting in the right things. Rather they should boast of Christ, and of God’s grace through the cross and His power being made perfect in weakness. This is why Paul puts it this way in our passage ‘I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me’.

‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ So strongly was this principle formed in Paul, that he came to view this thorn and indeed all the ‘weaknesses’ he faced as gifts from God, he goes as far as to say they were his delight (verse 10), not because Paul preferred pain to health- but rather he saw that once accepted under God’s hand- these trials became the means of Christ’ power rested on him (verse 9). Indeed, when Paul accepted these trials it was as if God's power and grace were let loose not only in him, but in those he was seeking to reach with the Gospel or in the building up of new believers:

It’s this way of seeing that has helped my wife and I come to terms with some ‘thorns in the flesh’ that have come our way over the years. One such thorn is autism.

One of our sons Michael is now twenty seven years old. Although he is physically normal, he has the mental age of a three year old. This is because he is severely autistic, and has always been so. He wasn’t toilet trained until he was ten years old. We have three other children, and their bedrooms had to be locked otherwise Michael would go in and interfere with their belongings. He has very few words and usually can only repeat what is said to him. When he was nineteen years old Michael went into full time residential care. He lives locally. It’s painful for us to see how autism continues to limit him. He’s taken to not wearing clothes if he can possibly help it, and he will spend hours in the bath! You can’t reason with Michael. You have to lay down boundaries as best you can.

Now we do not think of Michael as a ‘thorn in the flesh’. We see autism as that thorn. Autism was not part of God’s ‘very good’ creation in the beginning. It, along with sickness and certain viruses becoming pathogenic (like coronavirus), came in as a result of the Fall described in Genesis. (Please see ‘God and Viruses’ from update March 29th 2020).

But Michael even with his autism, is a gift of God to us. And as Liz and I have come to accept ‘the thorn’ that Michael is not restored in this life and submit to that hard providence as in some way being in God’s love. This allows God’s grace to work more deeply in our lives. To enrich us and to benefit others. So despite his autism Michael has always received good care, and is happy in himself and within his world. Our other children have become more mature and thoughtful through having to learn to live with Michael. Our marriage is stronger as we have gone to God for strength in our weakness. Our pastoral ministry deepened now we can empathise with those in similar positions. In addition we have assured hope through the resurrection of Christ, for one day we will see Michael fully restored to be the man he was always meant to be- in heaven.

‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Is the Lord encouraging you through these words? What is your thorn in the flesh? :

Is it chronic Illness? Coronavirus? A handicap or disability? Or you are caring for someone in these circumstances?

Loneliness? Unhappy employment? An enemy? Unhappy living conditions? An unhappy marriage? Some personality problem? A money matter? And you’ve prayed, repeatedly that the Lord take it away. And nothing has changed. I have to tell you that is God’s answer to your prayer, at least for the time being. But though that is not what you wanted, if you surrender it to Him, His power will work through you, God will redeem that circumstance, He will do something beautiful through your suffering, and glory will follow.

Practically when it comes to our own thorns in the flesh, the challenge is do we focus on the unjust, suffering aspects and so be tormented, which is what the devil wants us to do, or do we see the wider sovereignty of God and by the Holy Spirit help see the greater glory that will be brought about if we accept and surrender that thorn to Him.

Conclusion

The glory and the cost. We would all like to have the glory without the cost, and there are forms of spirituality- even claiming to be Christian- that attempt to offer you that. Christianity without the cross. It is the ‘super apostle’ mentality, not authentic biblical Christianity and it has no power to change lives. On the other hand there is the defeatist mentality- the cross without the empty tomb of the resurrected Christ. Which is also in error. God’s will is that we hold the glory and the cost together.

Paul deliberately reverses the order of what we might expect. He places the glory -the resurrection life, before the cost; that is before the cross. He does it in 2 Cor.5 and here in 2 Cor.12. He does the same in Phil. 3:10: ‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings…’ The ‘power of the resurrection’ again coming before ‘sharing in his sufferings’. It is those people who have already been resurrected spiritually with the Lord Jesus to whom God says, ‘I’m going to ask you to trust me, love me and submit to me even though it hurts/ though it costs you, so my power can truly rest on you and I can use you to advance my kingdom.’ In this way we see the pattern develop from one of glory to cost to glory again.

Glory followed by cost, followed by glory. One day you and I will see our Father face to face, and we will say to Him; ‘Thank you Heavenly Father for not answering the prayer when I was literally crying out for a painful situation to be taken away. You loved me and trusted me, and somehow with your grace I made it. Your strength was made perfect in my weakness. If you’d done it the way I wanted you to in accordance with my feelings back then, there wouldn’t have been this glory, these other people wouldn’t have been touched.’ And then we will worship the Lord Jesus together for all He has brought about for us and all he has accomplished through us- for we will see that all we suffered, surrendered to Him, was used for the greater glory of God, and He -such is His grace- has lifted up the likes of us to share in that heavenly glory. Praise God!