October 5, 2011

Thursday after the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity


Morning - Ps. 81, 1 Kings 2:1-12, 2 Cor. 12:1-13
Evening - Ps.80, Mt.8:14-27

2 Corinthians 12:1-13

In the early days of the Church God continued to reveal Himself through visions, dreams, and miracles. False apostles focused on these things, turned them into emotional/psychological experiences, and made them the heart of being a Christian. They encouraged people to work themselves into a high emotional state using stirring music, often repeating the same words many times, to lead them into a semi-hypnotic state. During and after experiencing this euphoric condition the endorphins flowed freely, and the false apostles and their followers thought they were experiencing the work of the Holy Spirit.

Real visions and experiences were very rare in the early Church, even among the Apostles. John records one in the book of Revelation and Acts records three for Peter, excluding two times he witnessed people speaking in tongues but did not himself participate. Even Paul, who wrote much of the New Testament, records relatively few such experiences, and never suggests they are a normal part of the Christian life or to be sought by Christians. His words, "caught up" (2 Cor. 12:4) show that he did not seek such experiences; rather, he was caught up in them by God when he was not expecting them.

The false apostles pointed to the excitement they brought to the church, and the experiences people had as the result of their "ministry." This, they said, was proof that the Spirit of God was working through them, not through poor Paul who neither had these experiences nor enabled the Church to have them. Paul responds to this in today's reading.

He tells the Corinthians about an experience he had fourteen years earlier. He speaks of himself in the third person as "a man in Christ..., caught up to the third heaven, into paradise..., and heard unspeakable words... not lawful for a man to utter." Due to the timing of this event, many believe Paul writes here about his experience in the Temple recorded in Acts 22:17-21. Whether Paul refers to that experience or another, we always see that his experiences were not sought or worked up by himself, and that they always gave Paul specific direction for the work he was called to do. They were never experiences for the sake of experiences. This proves the experiences of the false apostles are not from God.

Paul describes his experience in intentionally vague terms. He does not know if he saw these things by literally being transported into Heaven or not. He only knows that he was allowed to see paradise, and that it was so wonderful he could not describe it even if he were allowed to (12:2-4).

But it is not in such experiences that Paul glories. He glories in his weaknesses (12:5) so that no one will think he is more than what he is (12:6). In other words, Paul does not want to call attention to himself, or even to the unusual experience he had, for that might make people seek him or the experience instead of Christ. Furthermore, though he, as an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, through whom the Word of God came to the Gentiles as from the prophets of ancient Israel, had this experience, he was given a thorn in the flesh to keep him humble (12:7).

Much discussion has been devoted to this thorn in the flesh. Was it a physical illness? Was it a spiritual weakness? Was it the persecutions of the unbelievers and false apostles? When you get to Heaven, you can ask him. For now let us simply know what the Bible tells us, that in the weakness of that thorn, God's perfect strength was revealed. Paul thought the thorn would work against his ability to be effective in the work of the Gospel. To Paul, it seemed to be something that would cause people to reject his message. Yet God used Paul mightily because of his weakness. Thus, the thorn, which made effective preaching and evangelism seem impossible, was the very thing God used to make Paul's work effective. The false apostles seemed to have everything, and the people thronged after them. But those who followed Paul heard the true Gospel. It was they who believed unto salvation.

Therefore, Paul took pleasure in his infirmities and reproaches (12:10). It is very likely that the things mentioned in verse 10 are all part of Paul's "thorn in the flesh." But when Paul is weak, then Christ is strong in him. His grace is sufficient (12:9). His grace is sufficient to make the Gospel appeal to His people. His grace is sufficient to make Paul an effective ambassador for Christ. His grace is sufficient to build His Church and edify His people. His grace is sufficient to enable Paul to persevere in his work until God calls him Home. Paul, like all ministers, is insufficient in himself. No matter how knowledgeable, no matter how gifted he may be in public speaking, no matter how attractive he may be, or how magnetic his personality, he is insufficient and these traits may actually be hindrances rather than helps. Only the grace of God is sufficient for these things, and His grace makes our weaknesses strengths.

These words may well be heeded by those in small but faithful congregations and denominations today. The experience based churches always draw the crowds and get the money. Those who meet in rented buildings and homes and public halls may think they are disadvantaged by these weaknesses. But it may be that true Christian faith flourishes in such conditions far more than it does in the mega churches and cathedrals. It may be that the things we consider thorns are the very things God uses to exalt Himself in us. Thus Paul says to the Corinthians that without the false apostles and their appealing doctrines and ecstatic experiences, they were not inferior to any other church. They had it all because they had Christ. Paul's one regret about his ministry among them is that he did not allow them to share the expenses of preaching the Gospel in Corinth (12:13).