Pilgrim, Was it Worth the Trouble? – Part 5

By: Dr. Michael Easley; ©2005
How and why should we boast as Christians? Dr. Easley teaches us from the example of Paul.

Pilgrim, Was it Worth the Trouble? – Part 5

This message was recorded at the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove in Asheville, North Carolina. Through the ministry of The Cove we’re training people in God’s Word to win others to Christ. It’s our goal to develop Christians who experience God through knowing Him better, knowing His Word, building godly relationships and helping others know Him. We trust that this message will strengthen your walk with God and help you experience Him right where you are.

Dr. Michael Easley: It’s been a delight to be with you. It’s been an honor and a privilege. It’s always humbling to come to The Cove and I thank you for being here and for your time. And it’s always bittersweet on the last day because you start to get in the mode, we’ve got to go home, and then you look outside and go, oh, I don’t want to go home. I just want to stay here in the mountains for a while. Ralph T. Matson in his book called Visions of Grandeur observed, “If we add up all the grand moments of our lives most of us would end up with a very small pile of memories, but they are indeed golden. In contrast, a similar collection of all our mundane tasks yields a ponderous heap. It’s clear that the bulk of our life’s efforts are consumed by routine tasks and ordinary occasions.”
As we look back there’s a few sterling things that pop out. But when they do they’re wonderful, they’re manifold. The word “manifold” in Greek it’s multi-faceted. I used to have a piece of crystal that a friend gave me when they came back from Europe. It was a little paperweight and I don’t know how many facets, but perfectly clear; see right through it. And when the light hit it the prismatic effect was just extraordinary. And I would sit there when I was in my office, supposed to be studying the Bible, just looking at it. And just the manifold wisdom of God, sterling moments.
But then there’s just the routines and the mundane things. We can stroll down nostalgic streets. We can build three booths. It’s fun. It’s important. It’s good to remember God’s goodness in our lives. But as I age I want a few more sterling moments. I want to know that my life counts and has some meaning somewhere beyond the mundane and the routine.
Take your Bible and turn to 2 Corinthians 11, another passage that has perplexed, confused, bothered me and convicted me and maybe it will you as well today as we finish this sweet time together. Second Corinthians 11, let me read verses 30-33 to get us started. “If I have to boast, I will boast of what pertains to my weakness. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus, who is blessed forever, knows that I’m not lying. In Damascus the ethnarch under Aretas the king was guarding the city of Damascenes in order to seize me, and I was let down in a basket through a window in a wall, and so escaped their hands.”
I mentioned yesterday the book of 2 Corinthians is a corrective letter, as is the first one, of all the things this broad milieu, this mixing pot of all sorts of sexual immorality, polytheism, multi-idolatrous culture of the Corinthian believers and this second of three letters, more than likely, he is defending his apostleship. He’s been accused by people of being a false apostle. He’s been challenged by the Corinthian believers, is he really legitimate? And if we were to back up and look at the storyline he is defending his apostleship.
You know enough about the story of Paul. There were three criteria for an apostle. He had be chosen by Christ, to be with Christ and perform the works of Christ. Chosen by Christ, be with Christ, and do the works of Christ. The criteria of the seeing the resurrection is sometimes added. With Christ, do the works of Christ, chosen by Christ and the resurrection. If we add the fourth one we have a problem with Paul, sort of. He’s chosen by Christ, but not the way the others were. He’s not with Christ the way the others were, but he is. He performs the works of Christ, and he saw the resurrected Christ in a vision or maybe some post-resurrection appearance. It’s not impossible. So he’s always on the defense of explaining it, because the other apostles were picked very differently. Now, of course, we have Matthias and how the lot fell in, after Judas has fallen as a son of perdition and he’s replaced by the apostles.
But Paul becomes the least of the apostles. And Peter, of course, spends time with him, helping him and training him, a long block of time. He’s a rabbinic scholar. He’s a Hebrew of Hebrews. He knows more probably than several of the other apostles put together. But his conversion is more dramatic because he’s persecuting and killing Christians and now he’s promoting the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Well, he’s going to boast in his weaknesses in these verses. Let’s take a look at them. Again, the bare context, false apostles challenging his credentials and who is he. So he’s going to defend his apostleship. In chapter 11, just a little bit before let me scan through these verses and let’s just be reminded of the unimaginable struggles that our hero has gone through. Look at the way he, and this is where the sarcasm is dripping off the page, verse 21: “To my shame I must say,” this is chapter 11, “to my shame I must say that we have been weak by comparison.” In other words, they boasted about their strength, their accomplishments, their prowess. We’re just a bunch of weaklings.
“But in whatever respect everyone else is bold—I speak in foolishness—I’m just as bold myself. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ?—I speak as if insane—I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches. Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern?”
And then our text, “If I have to boast, I’ll boast about my weakness.” What’s he doing here? He’s, in his wonderfully sarcastic way, showing them, you guys are clueless of what it means to be an apostle of Jesus Christ. Let me brag about what I have been through, beaten, shipwrecked, danger.” Those aren’t the things you brag about. You brag about your credentials, your pedigree, where you went to school, your apostolic training, the things you’ve accomplished. And all he has done is given us a litany of the trouble he’s seen. So it goes back again to Acts 9:15 where Ananias is the one who’s going to pick him out. And Jesus says through Ananias the prophet, “I will show him how much he will suffer for My namesake.”
We get a picture of our hero Paul sometimes and we’ve an odd idea of what his life was like. You ever wonder why Paul spent so much time in prison? This is one of those questions, it’s so obvious we miss it. Why did God put him in prison? So he’d write; because he’s going, going, going, going. He’s taking these incredible ships; if you’ve been to that area and gone on the Aegean Sea it’s like a 50/50 opportunity you’ll be as sick as you’ve ever been in your life on the Aegean. It’s a horrible tour. That’s why so many people don’t like to do it. They like the land part, but to go on the Aegean and out to Malta and where Paul’s journeys take him, even the crews get sick. The Aegean Sea can be so rough. And that’s why he wintered at Malta. They knew in the first century you don’t go on those waters this time of year. You stay on a nice island in a nice warm place with food.
And this guy is such a goer and a doer, God is like, I guess I’m going to have to slow him down and throw him in prison and put some chains on him so he can write. No newspapers, no TV’s, no DVD’s, no cable in the prison cell, maybe an oil lamp or two. Bring my books, Timothy. Send my coat, I’m freezing to death in this dungeon. And he writes the so-called prison epistles.
Verses 30-33 gives this litany, these indelible memories for him, of things he suffered. And in rich sarcasm he’s boasting in weakness. Now, this is so upsetting to the Christian mindset. In the church world we have this little axiom, our identity’s tied up in three things, ABC’s of church ministry when you’re a pastor, attendance, building and cash. How many people you got in your church? Some of you have asked me that. And then, of course, if you’re with pastors at a luncheon it’s, how big is your building? How many does your auditorium seat? And then it’s, what’s your budget? How much cash you got? ABC.
Now at a level ABC is an important measure of a church. If a church is not growing at some level numerically, if a church is not building, and not always structurally, but if you’re not building lives and building disciples and building and reaching and maybe building missions and planting churches, if you aren’t growing financially and you’re losing income there’s a problem. I mean, just from a human business, conducting the stewardship of God’s church well, but that’s not how pastors talk about it. Musicians, if your CD sales are down mostly on I-Tunes, you have a small business, it’s who’s your competitor? We’re always doing this.
Paul says, “I’m going to boast. Let me tell you all the places and churches I’ve planted. Let me tell you what Timothy and Mark John, Mark and Barnabas and I did. Let me tell you how we cast out demons in Ephesus. Let me tell you,…” No! “Let me tell you how many times I was beaten, flogged, left to die, shipwrecked, snake-bitten.” You see what he’s doing? It’s very unnatural the way he’s backing into this argument. Paul is boasting like Christ, a man of sorrows and suffering, Isaiah 53:3. And I think he’s likening his suffering to that of his Savior.
After all the threatening experience,…s and it would be comical to put ourselves in the first century, late in the first century and to see the receivers of the Corinthian church reading this in homes, and some of those false apostles that said things about Paul, scratching their heads and going, “Which one guy could have survived anyone of these things?” And it seems evident to me at least that God’s hand was on the guy or he’d have died at least 15 times just in the list we read.
Remember when they’re fleeing for their lives and in the boat, and they’ve got the prisoners on the boat and the captain on the boat, the guard, and they jettison the cargo? They’re taking soundings, which is they have a rope with knots on it and they’re dragging it along to see how shallow the water is and they’re going to run the ship into a reef and try and swim to shore. And I love the phrase, Luke says, they threw the ships tackle overboard with their own hands. It’s a great picture. It’s like we’re so desperate we’re not even going to try and control the ship anymore. Get rid of the ropes and the pulleys and the tackle that controls the sails. We are that desperate. They’ve lost the cargo, now it’s just a matter of are we going to live? And they go on for days and Paul says “Take something to eat. The Lord’s told me we’re going to live.” And everyone was accounted for. How many shipwreck stories didn’t end so well? Any one of these would have taken out the average apostle. This is his hindsight humiliation.
Well, let’s look at what he boasts in in chapter 12, the first six verses. He boasts in his weakness, and he boasts in God’s grace. “Boasting is necessary, though it is not profitable; but I will go on to visions and revelation of the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a man was caught up in the third heaven. And I know how such a man—whether in the body of apart from the body I do not know, God knows,” back to the ellipses, I know such a man, “was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak. On behalf of such a man I will boast; but on my own behalf I will not boast, except in regard to my weaknesses. For if I do wish to boast I will not be foolish, for I will be speaking the truth; but I refrain from this, so that no one will credit me with more than he sees in me or hears from me.”
Paul transitions to a different comparison now. He’s moved from his weakness and the humiliation of being let down a wall in a basket for fear of his life and now he’s going to boast in this transition. First he says it’s necessary, verse 1, but not always profitable. But let me tell you about visions and revelations. Now, this would be a huge trick. You’re reading along all the things bad and all of a sudden, well, I guess I’m going to boast and boast about visions and these incredible experiences that I’ve had, revelations. What? You’ve seen things and God has talked to you? That’s where he’s going to boast. But the way he boasts about what he’s seen and how God has talked to him is very different. This is not the kind of credential you carry around. “I’ve had X number of revelations and X number of visions. Let’s compare notes.” In fact, it’s very interesting what Paul does and doesn’t say about these visions.
Now, first of all, all of this has in context chapter 10, verse 8, one we’ll have to look at, is the building up of the church. All that he’s talking about is God has used him to build the church particularly in Corinth and the surrounding Gentile areas. That’s where his bragging comes from. What distinguishes the apostle was the authentic marks in this case, including his suffering. He’d been chosen by Christ. He’d been with Christ. He’d worked the works of Christ and perhaps he witnessed and saw the resurrected Christ. Three or four of those markers were what were required to be an apostle. So he’s always limping along trying to demonstrate and defend his apostleship compared to the others. When Paul talks about visions and revelations he corresponds it to weakness and humility. And it’s back to the parallels I’ve tried to show you. The visions are back to his weaknesses. His revelations are received with humility. The visions he saw are compared to his weaknesses and the revelations are parallel to his humility.
Visions are the word optasia. We gloss it into English, optics. So his visions are things he has seen. Of course we have Acts 26:19 where he talks about the Damascus road experience. And you remember later on when he’s telling Agrippa, “O, King Agrippa, I did not prove myself disobedient to the vision.” He’s got papers in hand to arrest Christians who are against Judaism and he’s struck blind on the road to Damascus and hears the words, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?”
Do you know the DISC? The D is the dominant lead: charge, you know, get out of my way, get the job done. Who cares about feelings? Feelings are for wimps. Let’s go, results, driver. That’s a high D, domineering image.
I is influential. I is Peter, having nothing to say, he said something. Peter always had something to say. I’s are people who talk incessantly. I’s are influential. I’s are charismatic. I’s, people like.
C is the compliant Luke. “It seems to me a good thing, Theophilus, to comprise an account of everything that Jesus has ever done, ever thought, ever went, wherever”; I mean, all the detail. Who wrote more of the New Testament than anybody? Not Paul. Luke, Acts and Luke comprise more of the New Testament than all of Paul’s letters. Luke has more unique language than all the New Testament. He was a doctor by training. He’s a brilliant man. He includes things that none of the other gospels include. He’s a high detail guy. They make great CPA’s and engineers and accountants and people and surgeons. C’s are good in that.
S is the loyalist. Abraham, a friend of God. They’re loyal to the rest. They always believe. They always hope. They hate conflict.
Alright, the DISC. Paul’s a D. He’s “get it done.” John Mark, got no use for the guy. He and Barnabas have a big fight. You start getting a picture of the personality. He’s a high D, high charging guy, and God is going to make him suffer to turn down the noise of his natural personality and bent and to use him.
Revelations is the word apokalupsis. We bring it into English, apocalyptic. So he’s seen visions. And how do you get a high D’s attention? You knock him in the head with a 2X4 and you make him blind. And three days he sits there. That’s the way you get a high D’s attention. You knock them. You punch them. And you put them in prison once in a while to remind them they’re not in charge. That’s how He dealt with Paul. So he sees these optasia, optics. He sees these “apocalyptical,” we might say apocalyptic visions and revelations.
Then Paul speaks about his credentials indirectly. “I know a man in Christ,” and the emphasis is in Christ. Look at your Bible. “I know a man,” verse 2 “in Christ” whether in the body. He doesn’t talk about himself. I know a guy. I know a guy who knows a guy. But the emphasis is I know someone in Christ who had an experience. It’s not about his worth. He’s inherently unworthy. He speaks many times about being the least of the apostles. The conflicted man of Romans 7 who, the wretched man that I am, who will save me? He’s got a good bead on his depravity.
Verse 2 tells us it was 14 years earlier. If we do conservative math this is 42-44 A.D. He’s an old man when he’s writing this. He’s a young man when this vision, when this the particular revelation, occurred to him. He says he was caught up. If you are a person who believes in the rapture, it is the same word used in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 we’ll be caught up with the saints. We use the English word “rapture,” not found in the Bible, but this is where we get the word from; the caught up is the word and he says that he was caught up in the NASB, verse 2, to the third heaven, same word. Heaven here is paradeisos. English, what do you think? Paradise.
Same exact word as used in Luke 23:43. What do you think’s happening? Two thieves, one on the right, one on the left. “If You’re the Son of man get Yourself and us off of here.” “Leave Him alone, He’s done nothing on His part. We deserve what we are getting. Remember me when You come into Your heaven.” Jesus says to him, “Today you’ll be with Me in Paradeisos.”
Like I’ve often shared that with people from a Catholic background who are not sure what they yet believe. The cross and the crucifix is the perfect illustration of all humanity. One says if You’re God, do this in my life. And if You’re God, You wouldn’t have war. And if You’re God, You’d be fair. And if You’re God, children wouldn’t die and be in the sex trafficking trade. And if You’re God, and if You’re God and if You’re God. The other one says, “Be merciful to me.” Pretty good illustration. And to one He says, “Today you’ll be in Paradise.”
By the way, what did that thief do afterward? Make restitution? Live a good life? Go and sin no more? He dies. And if there was ever an argument for the eternal security of the believer trusting in Christ and Christ alone, having your sins be forgiven, it’s that guy. “Today, you’ll be with Me in Paradise.” Whatever he did was sufficient to get him into the kingdom of God.
Well, if you followed it when I read it there’s no less than seven times we have the word “know” in verses 2 and 3. Some of your Bibles might render it a little differently. “I know a man,” verse 2. Verse 2: “I don’t know,” continuing, “I do not know,” “God knows.” Verse 3: “I know.” Verse 3: “I do not know.” Verse 3, “God knows.” What’s he doing here? He’s taking the emphasis off his intellect, his perceptions, his sensibilities, whether he knows a thing or not. But he had these visions and these revelations and he’s telling them I don’t understand them all. I don’t know, but God knows.
And the way his life has changed so dramatically through these visions and revelations he knows and comprehends something. Or to say it another way, it’s impossible to comprehend how these happened, whether he was in the body or not in the body, and he is willing to admit that. He does not know. He doesn’t know if he lost his physical and spacial abilities, if he was somewhere else, if he was transported. He just said I’m caught up into this third heaven.
Why’s he saying this? I think he’s saying it for multiple reasons. But the point is, what he’s going to tell us is, he heard something, and what he heard he can’t tell you. And this is where it becomes fascinating to me. He heard inexpressible words. Now these words can be translated in our English Bible two ways. They can be translated “inexpressible,” meaning I can’t articulate what they were; or the sense of the grammar is he’s forbidden to talk about them. Both are viable renderings from the Greek New Testament. And some of your English Bibles lead or interpret to that end. The New International Version goes one way; the NASB goes a little differently. I like the way the NASB lands because it’s more he’s forbidden to speak.
Now let’s talk a little bit about language and usage because I don’t want to leave you doubting your Bible. The way we determine meaning is by context, not by definition. In other words, if I were to say to you, the peanut is in the trunk. What are my possibilities for trunk? Elephant, car, luggage, tree, a trunk of a body. Okay, if I say the zookeeper is trying to get the peanut out of the trunk. Maybe I’ve narrowed the field a bit, but it could still be all of the above, right. It could be a zookeeper trying to get the peanut out of his trunk or out of a trunk of tree or out of a trunk a piece of luggage. If I said the zookeeper was having a hard time keeping Ellie still to get the peanut out of her trunk. Now you know what I mean. So usage is how we determine meaning, not just what the definition of a word.
Look it up in a dictionary, you have five dictionary words. You have five different definitions. You look up this phrase it could mean one of two things: Something that cannot be expressed because we don’t articulate it; or it could mean you’re forbidden to express it. Obviously you can see where different theologies would lead you in here.
But where I tie it together is he hears inexpressible words, not noise. There was some content to it. And then he says he is forbidden to share them, and that’s a real mindbender. And everyone wants to know what in the world did God show and tell Paul in those visions? I’d like to know. Well, I can tell you want it is. I know exactly what it is. It’s only for Paul. And either way you take it the outcome is the same. I believe God told Paul something about Himself and it was too personal for him to share. And God said, “I’m going to tell you something, but you can’t tell anybody.” And he obeyed.
Maybe it colored in the momentary light afflictions that produced the eternal weight of glory. Maybe these were the things that underpinned him when he was suffering in torment and languishing and people had left him and he was alone and he was cold and in prison and he has this malady we’ll see in a minute. Maybe it was that which pinned him up.
Verse 5: “On behalf of such a man I will boast; but on my own behalf I will not boast, except in regard to my weaknesses.” There’s our word again, asthenes, astheneia. You have aortic astheneia; I have weaknesses in my spine. “For if I wish to boast I will not be foolish, I will be speaking the truth; but I will refrain from this, so that no one will credit me with more than he sees in me or hears from me.” I love Paul acknowledging the honor of the office of the apostle, but at the same time his inedible humility to say I’m really nothing. I’m nothing. I’m going to boast in my weaknesses.
What mattered to Paul was speaking the truth, not a personality cult. What mattered to Paul was, was he being faithful to the gospel Jesus had given him, not accolades in what other people thought about him? What was important to Paul was, was he true to the Word of God and to his apostolic commission, not the polls of the Corinthian pews? He did not care what people thought of him. And frankly, he’s a pretty brash guy. He’s more concerned about am I being a faithful apostle of what God sent me to do through the gospel?
Verse 7: “Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself!” Let me note right now as we’re reading it, two times you have the phrase verbatim, word for word, “to keep me from exalting myself.” Verse 8: “Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that [purpose clause, “so that, I’m going to boast about my weaknesses so that] the power of Christ may dwell in me.” If you’re a grammarian person you use proper grammar. “So that” most of the time in Paul’s writings it’s called a subjunctive clause, in order that. So it’s an explanation. It’s a reason. It’s exegetical. It’s explaining what’s about to come. “Therefore” is a similar term. Every time you read “so that” in Paul’s writing there’s an intentionality to what he’s saying.
Let’s look at it again. “Most gladly therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses.” Why? “So that,” here’s the purpose, “so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with my weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Alright, let’s take it apart. This is, lastly, finding contentment, and this is my thesis of the whole week, the whole four messages: Was it worth the trouble? Paul has recounted his trials and he’s boasting in his weaknesses, not in his successes. In verse 7 we get a glimpse into what we cannot see, which is very, well, you can’t say “very ironic”. It is ironic. It’s like you don’t modify unique. You don’t say it’s very unique. Unique means one of a kind. You don’t say it’s very one of a kind. It’s either one of a kind or it isn’t one of a kind. And the same is true here. Finding contentment; boasting not in his successes, not at all. How many churches did he and Timothy plant? Innumerable churches.
If you look at those maps in the back of your Bible that you probably never look at with Paul’s first, second, and third missionary journeys, the guy went around the world. If you go to Israel with me we’ll be on a tour bus, the longest we’ll be on a bus will be a couple of hours. Mark Twain, on horse and on camel spent three months doing the whole country. He was done. It takes months to do what Paul did on his missionary journeys. Just the sea voyages alone can take three and four months to get to a destination. To get to Rome is a half a year proposition. To get to Spain is a half a year proposition.
We complain going through TSA. We complain when we’re bumped an hour on a flight. Or my word, the flight’s canceled and we have to come back tomorrow; I mean, the world has stopped! You might not leave dock for three weeks in this world. And then you’ll be on the boat sick half the time, and there’s no stewardess or flight attendant to make you feel better. We get a glimpse into what we cannot see. “Because of the greatness of the surpassing,” there’s our word again. Huperbole, hyper, hyperbole. The greatness, “the surpassing greatness” or hyperbole “of the revelations.” Because of the extraordinary things Paul was privileged to see ties us clear back to verse 1, “Boasting is necessary, it’s not profitable, but if I boast I’ll boast into visions and the revelations, I know a man in Christ.” It’s not about him.
Let’s talk about the thorn. The thorn will never be identified or explained, but we do know we could learn a lot from the thorn. Many explanations and commentators and scholars for hundreds of years, epilepsy, some sort of vision problem, some believe he had headaches. Malaria would have been a good explanation. Some think he was leper in his elder years. Some think he had a speech impediment. It’s just all guesswork. We don’t know. We have a couple of clues about the eyes. Where you see with what large letters I’m writing you. Well, that was probably a man since he wrote the letter and he’s changed. That’s my take and so he’s got chains on and he’s writing. He’s older.
I love 80 year old handwriting. My favorite handwriting was when Cindy’s dad and my dad, they’re both dead, but when they were writing in their 80’s; I just love that 80 year old. It’s just something about when you hit 80 your handwriting just looks 80. And you know what I mean. And it’s wonderful. It’s just, it’s precision, yet it’s got that kind of 80 year old thing to it. My mother who’s 83 still writes like, you know, the penmanship 101 in fourth grade. She has the most beautiful penmanship on the planet, but men have this thing when they get old and they’re writing. My dad, you never could read it anyway, it was so terrible. And he said, “Sloppy handwriting is a sign of intelligence.” Show me one doctor’s prescription you can read, point proved. Paul’s handwriting was large. We don’t know what it was.
What do we know about it? This is sort of creepy. It was a painful irritation from which he found no relief. And it is a messenger of Satan, aggelos satanas, in the Greek, aggelos, angel, one who’s sent from satanas, Satan. Now, if nothing else has blown your categories, this one should. The thorn in Paul’s flesh is sent from Satan. Now where do you go in your grip of theology to understand this? Job. “Have you considered My servant Job?” I should do Job sometime here. That’d be a great book to study together. “Where have you come from?” “Roaming around and walking on the earth.” What’s Satan telling God? This is my domain, baby. I’m roaming around. He can only do what borders God gives him. “I’m on my earth.”
“Have you considered My servant Job?” “Does Job fear God for nothing?” What was he saying? You take care of Job. You bless his socks off. You don’t let me touch him. Nothing bad befalls him. He’s never had a hailstorm or an earthquake or a famine or an illness taking out his family or been ill himself or had, you know, had a troubled marriage. All this will come. Don’t you just love Job’s wife? Curse God and die. I bet she was a joyful person to be around. “Sorry comforters are you all,” he tells his friends. When you are ill or in pain or hurt or emotionally discouraged or you have been damaged, or an injustice has come into your soul and your life and your friends tire of you, don’t be cynical or sarcastic, but remember Job’s words, “Sorry comforters are you all.”
And that leads me to the cross. Very few people in a life in a human experience can enter into your pain, the level with which you live. And if you’re married to a person who struggles, it’s hard to enter into it. It’s hard for Cindy to enter into it. I know it breaks her heart. I know she’d take it for me. When she hears me groaning she says, “I wish I could take it for you once in a while, just take it for the day.” And I go, “Frankly, I’d rather keep it myself,” because I’m a lousy caregiver. And I’m one of those weird people that when I’m sick and in pain just leave me alone. Check on me once in a while. Make sure I’m breathing, leave me alone. If I need something I’ll figure it out. I just really don’t like people waiting on me, never have. We’re all different.
Paul says the thorn was from Satan. Now look at this. Why is it given to him? We already read it two times. “To keep me from exalting myself.” God sent Paul a messenger, an aggelos satanas, from Satan so that he will not exalt himself. Wait a minute. They’re all bragging about their apostleship, their accomplishments, these false teachers the Corinthians are beginning to believe. Well, Paul may be wrong after all, who is this Paul? He’s not very impressive. He doesn’t speak very well. He’s not what he looks like on paper. The guy’s in prison for goodness sake! He’s got some malady. And he says, God, I’m going to boast about something. God gave me a thorn sent from Satan so that I wouldn’t exalt myself.
I mean, this is like turning those people’s brains inside out. What kind of bravado false teacher will stand up in front of people and say I have a messenger from Satan that keeps me from talking about myself? No false teacher would say that. It’s a brilliant argument that the Holy Spirit has given Paul, literally, experientially and theologically so he can teach people what it means. Twice. Exalting myself is self-importance, it is arrogance and it’s measuring ourselves better than others. It’s one-upmanship. And it’s fully reasonable that Paul could say, “Let me tell you what Timothy and I have done. Let me tell you what Titus has done. Let me tell you what happened in Philemon. Let’s go back and let me tell you what happened in Ephesus when we were there and how we turned over the entire idolatry industry with one miracle. Let me tell you about these churches that have, we have planted that are blowing up houses and causing riots in the streets because the gospel is taking over.” Again, Howard Hendricks used to always say, “Wherever Paul went either a revival or a riot broke out.” He said, “When I go places they serve tea.”
In Galatians 4:14, “and that which was a trial to you in my bodily condition you did not despise or loathe but you received me as an angel of God,” aggelos, same word, Galatians 4:14, “that which was a trial to you, Galatian believer, in my bodily condition.” We don’t know what it was. “You didn’t despise me or loathe me because of it, but you received me as an angel of God,” as Jesus Christ Himself. “Where then is this sense of blessing you had? For I bear you witness that, if possible, you would have plucked out your eyes and given them to me.” And that’s where people think he was blind or had a malady or malaria. We might say cataracts today. Who knows? But they saw him and they so loved him, he brought the gospel of freedom, for it was for freedom that Christ set you free. You loved me so much. You accepted me like God’s own Son Jesus. You’d have given me your eyes. So that’s why I think it’s an eye condition. It doesn’t matter. What I’m trying to point is you received me as an angel of Jesus and God sent an angel of Satan to keep me from exalting myself.
Christ answered his prayer in verse 9: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” I’ve studied this verse for a year now. I have studied this passage, and in 2010 these verses, verses 7-10, became my prayer for the year to try to understand what in the world is Paul saying and how do I apply this to my life? What kind of answer is this? “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.”
Now Paul learned a thing that most of us don’t learn. And I cannot say that I have learned what Paul has learned. I think I know what he means, but I don’t know that I have learned it. He is saying Christ’s power is best displayed on the palette of human suffering. Christ’s power is best displayed on a palette, like a paint palette, of human suffering. And I don’t like that answer. Christ’s power is best displayed on the palette of human suffering and weakness. And here’s the reason: so man receives no praise, so man receives no praise.
The whole section is about boasting. And you’re not supposed to boast in yourself. And if you’re not going to boast in yourself, what’s the best way to keep you from boasting in yourself? I’m going to give you a thorn that’s going to drive you insane and it’s going to be from Satan. If that weren’t enough, it’s from Satan so you won’t exalt yourself, Paul. Because the bravado of Paul the apostle—lead, follow or get out of the way—tossed John Mark to the side. Get in there, pulling people’s hair, fighting, going back to Jerusalem Council, ready to fight those guys. “You’re bringing Gentiles into the kingdom of God! You’ve got to make them Jews first.”
They called Barnabas and Paul up by the hair on the back of their neck, the Jerusalem Council. This is the first conflict. It’s the first council, by the way. That’s why the churches have church councils. Acts 15, let’s go to the council. And the apostles meet with Paul and Barnabas and everybody’s outside waiting for white smoke. No. What’s going to happen when they come out? And James and the other apostles decide, well, you know, it’s okay, what’s happening is good, but it’s probably good that they don’t eat meat offered to idols and you’ve got the same for immorality and fornication. And, don’t you know, it’s a very interesting passage because Paul and Barnabas are doing what Jesus said to do in Acts 1:8. But Jerusalem the mother church doesn’t quite know what to do with it because they’re Gentiles and they have lots of wives and they eat pigs and things sacrificed to idols and they use blood in their recipes. It blows the Jews category.
I have a friend back in Dallas who had a very orthodox Jewish friend. And she said she would literally become nauseated if she went into a home or a restaurant where milk and meat were in the same proximity. The way she was raised, if you’ve not been to Israel, they have two separate of everything. Dishes for the days of dairy and dishes for the days of meat and you never co-mingle them. Everything’s done in twos. And if you’re a homemaker and you’re a good Jew you have two sets of everything. You have the dishes for the meats and the dishes for the dairies. They’re washed and kept separately and they have a two handled pitcher when you go into the restrooms and the washrooms and the homes because you don’t want to co-mix your hands and so you use this pitcher to wash this and this pitcher to wash this one and then you touch them together. It breaks down, but that’s how they do it. That’s where they parse the laws too far.
Well, we must move on. Why? Because he’s going to learn sufficiency of God’s grace in the midst of his weakness so that God alone can be praised. The question for you here is: are you content in your current circumstance if God never did one more thing for you? Would you be content with the grace you have? I don’t like the question. But I’ve got to face it just like you do.
Verse 10: “Therefore,” Paul’s contentment, “I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, and persecutions, and difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong. Therefore I am well content.” Contentment in the New Testament is a fun study. I would encourage you to do it. If you do not own, you should have at least three books besides your Bible. You should have a really good dictionary; you should have an exhaustive concordance that is the same translation. So if you use King James you get a Strong’s. If you use the New American Standard you get a New American Standard Bible Exhaustive Commentary. NIV, NIV Exhaustive, not commentary, concordance. And a concordance has every time a word occurs in the Bible. And you can go find out there’s three different words for contentment in our English language. So we have to find out which ones Paul is using. So you need a good Bible, a really good dictionary, a concordance, and then you need a commentary, a general kind of commentary to help you along. And then you build those as you study different books of the Bible.
I like the two set Bible Knowledge Commentary, two little volumes, pretty reliable. Jamieson Fausset Brown is a great big fat one you can get. It’s one of the whole Bible. But you need at least those three tools, and this is how you start figuring out some of these puzzles. And if you just studied the word “contentment” for a week it would change your perspective on life.
The word he uses here has to do with a willingness and a readiness to do something. Another word he uses means enough. “I’ve learned to be content in every situation whether in wealth or in poverty.” That word there means enough. I’ve learned to say enough. Most of you in this room are to the age when you said enough a long time ago with your cars, your houses, your stuff, your acquisitions, your accumulations. You got to a point where you said enough. And this is the problem in the 20’s and 30’s and 40’s that they haven’t gotten there yet, bigger, better, newer, more. Some of your kids have nicer homes than you ever had. Some of your grandkids have nicer homes than you ever had. We’ve drank the American Kool-Aid, and that’s why we’s in the mess we’s in.
Contentment is saying enough, enough. I’ve got enough. And then the way it’s used here is I’m well pleased and delighted in having enough. Therefore I am content; I’ve got enough. I’m well pleased with it, in my wealth, in riches, and home and IRA’s and 403’s and 401’s and my retirement? No, in weakness. Weakness here refers literally to illnesses or disease most of the time. We could gloss it down to say a lamentation, but I really believe the way Paul uses it with his condition he’s described he’s talking about an illness or a disease. And the word “weakness” is the word astheneia again where we, the medical language pulls it in, we’ve talked about.
Insults, King James has reproaches and this is the word someone asked yesterday, this is the word “hubris” again. It’s when someone elevates arrogance and pride and they insult you. That’s the hubris. And hubris can damage. “You stupid idiot!” We had a friend who was an NFL player. He went to the Super Bowl. They won. His father’s nickname for him when he was a kid was “Stup,” short for stupid. Hey Stup, hey Stup, hey Stup. They win the Super Bowl, he calls his father. “Dad, did you see the game?” His dad says, “Why did you miss that tackle on third and ten at the bottom of the third quarter?” They won the Super Bowl for crying out loud.
You ever see the Jimmy Piersall story with Carl Malden, Anthony Perkins, was that the guy that called them all, old 50’s; based on a true story. He couldn’t please his father, never was good enough. Wins the World Series, not good enough. Hits a homerun with two on base, three runs. Wasn’t good enough for his old man. Guy literally, in human history, went to a mental institution over it. Insults, they hurt. They deeply scar.
And here’s where it gets interesting. Persecution; persecution is the same exact word used in Acts 8:1. Listen, “Paul was in hearty agreement with putting Stephen to death. And on that day a great persecution arose.” That’s the same word. Paul says, “In my weakness with insults and distress and persecutions,” the very thing he was doing to the first century church he is now experiencing. And he says I’m going brag and boast in my weaknesses and all the bad things that have happened to me. “On that very day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem and they were,” I told you the other day, “scattered.” What’s the word? Diaspora. It means to sow seed. What was the persecution from the human world, was the scattering of the churches seed from God’s world. “We’ve got to get them out of Jerusalem.” And Paul is the one. Think of the irony of it. Here’s the guy persecuting the church and he’s out there scattering the seed doing what the church wouldn’t do and now he’s persecuted for doing it. I will show him how much he will suffer for My namesake. And Paul lives long enough to get it.
Lastly, distresses, and this is my personal word. This is the word we get stenosis from. The word in Greek is stenochoria. And it’s the stenosis in the back of my neck, that’s a narrowing in distress where in the neck. Have you ever seen the movie “Brother Where Art Thou?” Everett, we’re in a tight spot. We’re in a tight spot. You know they’ve got cops on both sides. We’re in a tight spot, boys. That’s what stenosis means. We’re in a tight spot. And that goes back, I think, to lowering him out in a basket between two walls. The humiliation. He didn’t come out with an entourage, people snapping. There’s no paparazzi, no police escorts, no big guys with suits watching every move you make. He’s let down in a basket lest he mobbed and murdered. Why? For Christ’s sake.
Verse 10. “For Christ’s sake.” “Therefore I am well content. I will willingly accept this. It is enough with my weaknesses and with insults and distresses and persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake.” That’s the operation. If I’m doing this just because of, you know. Let’s say it this way: if you’re suffering because of self-inflicted stupidity, I’m sorry. If you’re suffering because you’re doing what God wants you to do, you’re blessed.
Did I tell you the story about Tony Wheeler? I have this déjà vu sometimes. You ever do that when you’re singing a concert, Jeremy? Do you think, did I just sing that? I just had one of these. They’re scary. Stop me if I’ve told this story. I worked with a guy in a Ford shop. He was a mechanic. And he brought a holster to work and he was working. A holster is like a baseball glove, I guess, and he’s working the holster with oil and rubbing it and, you know, putting on, and “What you got there, Tony?” “Oh, I got me a pistol.” “Oh.” Well, weeks go by. Whenever Tony’s got a break he’s working on his holster with oil and rubbing it like he rolls it up puts it in the rag.
One day Tony didn’t come to work. Two days he didn’t come to work. I was a mechanic in a Ford shop and I was planning to go to Seminary, I was in college. I thought I’ve got to find out where Tony is. I called his wife. He’s in the hospital. What? He’s alright. He’s in the hospital. What hospital? There’s only two in Nacogdoches, so I found out which one and went to it. Tony’s in the hospital. His leg’s up in a cast from his hip down to his ankle at a right angle and it’s up with the bar and the chain and the little traction thing. And he’s laying there watching TV. “Tony, what happened?” “I shot myself.” “What?” He said, “Yeah, I was out back and I was quick drawing out back, and didn’t quite get it out and put it right through my leg. It’s a clean wound, but you know I’ve got to wear this thing for six weeks.” From then on the mechanics at the shop called him “Quick Draw.” And he’d look at you and he’d go, “Be careful, I’ve shot people for less.”
Self-inflicted stupidity. It’s one thing when you suffer for that. It’s another when you suffer for Christ’s sake. They’re very different. And I’ve got to tell you, I don’t think I suffer for Jesus’ sake. I really don’t. I’m not out around Muslims in the mission field in Nigeria all the time with my life being threatened. I have been there, but I don’t live there. I don’t live in areas where I’m persecuted for my faith in China, where if I say the name Jesus and teach out of a Bible I could spend 40 years in prison. We are so insulated from what’s going on. I just think my sufferings are due to the sin and fallen nature of humanity and the world.
I’m not looking for any attaboys from you. Don’t hear me say that. I’m just asking the question. Is your suffering or mine for Christ’s sake? Maybe, maybe. I’ll let Him be the juror and the judge on that one.
This is my favorite movie of all time, which will explain a lot of my illnesses when you see the movie. It’s Jeremiah Johnson. My wife hates it intensely. Every time I watch it she goes “Ohh!” and leaves the room. I could watch this movie once a week. Stanley Pollock and Robert Redford produced the film and it’s a story, a true story in part, of Jeremiah Johnson who was the first “mountain man.” He was known as Jeremiah-liver-eatin’ Johnson, because when he killed an animal the first thing he ate was the liver because he believed that’s where all the nutrition and the strength of the animal came for him to consume.
He left and became a mountain man, both legend and what we know of him and a little bit of true history about him, to escape the troubles of the world. And if you saw the entire movie, Jeremiah Johnson portrayed by Redford, when he arrives in Alaska, he’s got a uniform with yellow stripes on his pants, and that’s all you know about him. And they sing a little song about no one knew where he’d come from. But he wanted to go in the mountains to leave his troubles behind. And he was betting on forgetting all the troubles left behind. Go trap, go live off the land.
He makes a mess of it the first few months he’s out there, and stumbles across a guy named (Will Geer in real life) Bear Claw Griz Lap is his name, Bear Claw Griz Lap, because he hunted griz and he wore a bear claw around his neck. And he was a fearsome hunter. And he was an older mountain man who took Jeremiah under his wing. And the way Stanley Pollack does the movie it’s so wonderful. He mentors Jeremiah and they play this music like Jeremy playing a guitar, very simply soundtrack and they’re out in the wilderness and he’s pointing in the wind and he’s explaining things and he’s pointing up. And you don’t know what they’re talking about, but you have all these wonderful epic vista scenes of Will Geer with Jeremiah Johnson teaching him things, teaching him things, teaching him things.
One of my favorite ones where they do have dialogue is they’re in the winter and it’s snow everywhere and he goes, “Dig a hole, pilgrim.” And they dig a big hole, and they’ve got a fire going. And they’re going to put the coals down there on the ground and then you put some dirt on the top of the coals and you put your blankets on there and it’ll keep you warm all night. And about in the middle of the night it’s cold and Will Geer is sleeping and Jeremiah’s going, and he jumps up and he’s on fire and smoke’s coming out of the thing and Will Geer looks over at him and goes, “You didn’t put enough dirt down. Saw it right away.” Goes right back to sleep. He’s a great mentor, great mentor.
They part company. Jeremiah goes on. Jeremiah gets in trouble with the Crow and this also is fairly, from what we know, historically it is true. He had trouble with the Crow Indian. And they sent one Crow after another to try to kill him. He became a legend. Some people thought he would never be killed because he killed so many Crow to save his own skin. And this is the very end of the film and fiction. But Bear Claw, as he meets up with Jeremiah at the end of the story, there’s so much in that clip that speaks to me. Was it worth the trouble? Huh? What trouble? Perspective. Age. Still looking for the approval of the mentor, the wisdom. You’ve done well, pilgrim, to keep so much hair when some many’s after it. Stays cold. What month is it? He’s lost. He’s at a place he doesn’t know where he is. Down dark side of the story obviously.
Let me give you some lessons to think about your pilgrimage. Number one: Paul speaks little, vaguely and reluctantly about his visions. Paul speaks little, vaguely and reluctantly about his visions. You would think if he had a near-death experience he’d tell all the details about it. He just says I know a man, I know a man, I know a man. I don’t know if he was alive, awake, asleep. I don’t know, but God knows. He saw things and heard things and I can’t even talk about them. You think he’d write a book about it and say near the light, embracing the vision. That’s what braggarts do. There are things that God does in your life, some of which you need and must share, some of which you keep to yourself. It was for Paul’s benefit, not to be generalized. And the things you’ve been through in your journey that are for your benefit, for you and your wife, if you’re still married, you’re still alive, both living, both staying married, for you alone maybe.
Two: thorn. The thorn is in direct relationship to the glory of the revelation he experienced. The thorn is in direct relationship to the glory of the revelation he experienced. It’s never identified. Its purpose was not to be diagnosed, but understood that it was Satanic. So, I don’t want to say my sinus conditions are a thorn. I don’t even want to say my back is my thorn. Although I may get there one day. Be careful when you describe such things. But it’s in direct relationship so that he doesn’t what? Exalt himself. And I don’t think of myself as a proud and arrogant person, which probably means I’m proud and arrogant. It’s allowed by God. Paul doesn’t want it. Rather he asks God to remove it. God doesn’t diagnose it or explain to him other than it’s so he doesn’t exalt himself. And God says, “My grace is sufficient for you to endure it.”
And that’s why I asked you earlier if He never did one more thing for you, could you live on the grace you now have? I don’t think He’s that kind of God. Mind you, I don’t think He’s that kind of God. But that’s what Satan asked God, does Job serve God for nothing? If He never did a thing for you would you still serve Him and love Him? Would His grace that saved you and grace that brought you thus far be sufficient for you for the rest of your journey? And somehow in all of this it is the way God’s power is demonstrated in your life and mine when we are able, unlike the rest of the world, to walk with multiple sclerosis, to walk with chronic degenerative disc disease, to walk with cancer, to walk with burying a spouse, to walk with burying a child, to walk with losing a business, to walk with being sued and losing everything you’ve owned, to walk losing whatever it is of value and importance that God has taken from you. This is big deep stuff, guys. This isn’t for the faint of heart. And where it gets interesting is, it becomes Paul’s badge of rejoicing. I will boast in my weakness because when I’m weak He’s strong.
Third: American Christianity, our goal is to remove, relieve, end guilt, suffering, pain and groaning. I’ve got news for you, American theology is bad theology. It must be biblical theology, not American theology. We have been brought up in a culture and a system that’s fine and wonderful and blessed experiment, but it is not a Christianity on earth. This is not Christianity incarnate on earth in a government called America. We are corrupt and selfish and sinful just like every other culture and government on the planet. Well, maybe we’re a little better in some respects. We’re still on a freight train going to hell.
Four: give Satan less credit and less attention. Paul doesn’t rebuke Satan. He doesn’t cast Satan out. He doesn’t argue with Satan. He says “three times I entreated to the Lord. The Lord said My grace is sufficient for you.” And God sent a messenger to torment him “that I might not be exalted.” Give Satan less credit and less attention. And give God more. Give Him more credit to that you’re able to wake up. Give Him more credit to be able to press on when your kids are breaking your heart. Give Him more credit you’re able to press on that you lost your husband, your wife. Give Him more credit that you’re able to fight through your cancer. Give Him more credit that you’re able to smile at the future when it’s uncertain. He does not tell us to go fight Satan. Even Michael, the archangel, the greatest of all angels second to Lucifer, was unwilling to pronounce a railing judgment. These are like, if you saw Transformers, this is Megatron, you know; I mean, these are the two big angels and one’s on God’s side and Michael didn’t even do it. He said it’s not my place. That’s God the Father’s place to deal with you Satan. Give him less attention and less credit and more to Jesus.
Five: pray for healing. That’s fine. I encourage you to do that. But be careful we’re not trying to manipulate God or position our relationship to Him based on how we pray. If You heal me then I will,…. Pray, ask Him to do things, but He may not do them. And can you live with that answer? Paul doesn’t bind Satan. Paul doesn’t rebuke Satan. Paul prays for God to remove the thorn and God tells him, “My power is perfected in your weakness.” Get over it.
Sixth and last: our struggle here cannot compare with what we have to gain. Our pride, our ego, our overinflated attitude, our money, our success, our career, our children, our grandchildren, our home, our freedom to come and go as we please, all are wonderful important things. They do not compare with what we have to gain, with what we have to gain.


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