Click here for a list of all our sermon series. 查阅我们所有的讲道系列

Power in Weakness

Sermon passage: (2 Corinthians 12:1-13) Spoken on: November 22, 2010
More sermons from this speaker 更多该讲员的讲道: Pastor Wilson Tan
For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: 2 Corinthians

Tags: 2 Corinthians, 哥林多后书

Listen to sermon recording with the play button or download with the download link. 您可点播或下载讲道录音。
About Pastor Wilson Tan: Pastor Tan served as a youth executive at the Presbyterian Synod, and as a pastor in Jubilee Church. He continues to serve in church as a cell leader in zone ministry.

Sermon on 2 Corinthians 12:1-13

• Self-praise is undesirable, but let those who boast, boast in the Lord (2 Cor. 10:17)
• Please put up with my little foolishness, my little boasting, for there is a need for me to boast (2 Cor. 11)
• If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness (2 Cor. 11:30)
• I must go on boasting, for God’s power is made perfect in my weakness (2 Cor. 12:1, 9)
1. The Fool’s Speech: Paul’s Boast in His Weakness (12:1-6)
2. Power in Weakness (12:7-10)
3. Paul, a necessary fool for you (the Corinthian Church)! (12:11-13)

For the past few weeks, we have been looking at various aspects of Paul’s understanding of boasting, as found in 2 Cor. 10-12. Allow me to recap. Beginning in ch. 10, we learn that “self-praise is undesirable, but let those who boast, boast in the Lord (2 Cor. 10:17).” Following that in ch. 11, Paul pleads with the church in Corinth, “Please put up with my little foolishness, my little boasting, for there is a need for me to boast (2 Cor. 11).” In 2 Cor. 11:30, Paul says “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” Today, we look at ch. 12, vv. 1-13. Its key message can be summarized as found in v. 1 and 9, “I must go on boasting, for God’s power is made perfect in my weakness (2 Cor. 12:1, 9).”

1. The Fool’s Speech: Paul’s Boast in His Weakness (12:1-6)
In the Greek translation, 2 Cor. 12:1 begins with an exact phrase as found in 2 Cor. 11:30, “if it is necessary for me to boast, I must go on boasting”. This parallel is not obvious in our modern English translations as most would obscure conditional phrase “if it necessary to boast” in these two verses. It was necessary for Paul to boast even though he knows that self-boasting is undesirable. But his boast in never in himself, but in what the Lord has done through him. Boasting is not the issue, but the object of one’s boast.

Like many Old Testament prophets, Paul regularly experiences visions and revelations. These visions and revelations refer to Paul’s spiritual encounter with God. When it comes to boasting in the Lord, Paul could speak endlessly about his spiritual experiences, but he does not. In fact, this is the only reference to a “vision” or “visions” within all of Paul’s writings.

It is not Paul’s intention to boast about his esteemed status as someone whom God reveals his visions to. That would again only be boasting in oneself. Paul is boasting about how these visions have led him to experience God’s power in his weakness. These visions have been his constant encouragement and guidance in his tormented life. He goes on to share about these spiritual encounters, but in an unconventional way.

The man whom Paul knew fourteen years ago is none other than himself. Paul referred to himself as a third person, the man. This is to differentiate himself from the philosophers of his days, who would usually boast in the first person’s narrative. This again shows his hesitancy to boast. He is saying, “Let these experiences speak for themselves, regardless of who the man is”. The man is not the key. It is about how God reveals his power in this man. The key is in God. Throughout his testimony, Paul makes no mention of who this man is. Again and again, Paul humbles himself in the presence of God’s mighty power.

Fourteen years is about a decade after Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. Paul tells us that fourteen years ago, the man was caught up to the third heaven. Following that we are told that the same man was caught up in paradise. What do they mean? The “third heaven” and “paradise” refer to the same thing, which is “the heavenly realm” or “God’s dwelling place”. Just like how the Chinese believes that Hell has 18 levels, the Jews view the heavenly realm consist of various numbers of levels. The third heaven refers to the highest spiritual realm, where one encounters the very presence of God. So, fourteen years ago, Paul had a real spiritual encounter: a physical rapture to heaven. He was brought up into heaven and encountered God. Yet, he did not mention about this until now. Isn’t it surprising? You would have thought that an experience like that would be newsworthy. Imagine the person sitting next to you now, telling you that he had just gone to heaven and back. Ok, for some of you, it might be to hell and back. 

The fact that Paul has been quiet for fourteen years about his rapture into heaven shows that he considered these private experiences unimportant for his ministry. In the almost two years he has been spending with the Corinthians, he apparently never mentioned it. This is quite different from how we so often hear of modern prophets’ many visions and revelations. It is common today to hear about someone having a word from God for you. Or, someone is sharing a specific vision about you or your church, etc. I have been told of some interesting visions about Singapore or Jubilee Church and also about me. I am not denying their veracity, but I am merely pointing out the differences between how Paul is hesitant to share about his spiritual experiences and how modern Christians take every opportunity to share their visions and revelations with everyone else.

Paul is unclear how this experience took place – that is, whether he was actually physically transported there “in the body” or went there in a vision “out of the body”. But he is very sure that it took place. Only God knows. Paul is pretty happy to accept certain mystery in life. We may not know every single detail of how God works. But we can still trust in Him and the experiences which he puts us through. These experiences are real, even though one may not explain it clearly. Paul plays down the role of the man in this spiritual encounter. In both instants, Paul describes the man as being caught up to the third heaven and paradise, in a passive manner. He was caught up [by God], passively experiencing these events.

Again in v. 4, we see that the man heard things which cannot be told, things which cannot be utter. God forbade Paul from sharing these inexpressible things because Paul’s apostolic authority does not rest on these mystical religious experiences. This is again different from authority established by so-called modern “messiahs”. We hear horror stories about cult leaders who demand obedience from their followers because they claim that God has given him authority over them. They determine who their followers can marry and sometimes they force their followers to act against their free will in providing sexual favors and submit to physical and verbal abuse. “You do as I tell you, because God told me to!” Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely [1] (Lord John Acton, 1887). I learned of this quote in my first lesson in Political Science at NUS.

2. Power in Weakness (12:7-10)
Power is an interesting concept. It is good when you are in power, but bad when you are suppressed by those who possess it. It is a double-edged sword. Christians see power differently from how the world sees it. For us, as seen here in v. 9, “[God’s] power is made perfect in weakness”. This is the key verse in this section. But how exactly does one’s weakness when used by God is perfected by his power?

Firstly, let’s try to understand what this weakness is? What is Paul’s thorn in his flesh? What is his weakness? It is believed that his “thorn” and his “weakness” refer to some personal sickness. Paul was afflicted with this personal sickness since fourteen years ago. It is not your usual cough and cold, but something which has tormented him in his flesh and spirit. He believes that this thorn is sent by Satan (as messenger) but given by God, to prevent him from being conceited. In another words, Paul sees his sickness as God’s way to keep him from boasting in his own strength. It is to keep his self-pride in place. It is not without cause or reason that he suffers. He suffers out of necessity.[2]

Three times Paul pleaded for this thorn to be removed, but Christ said that his grace is sufficient for him. Even though this thorn was given to him by God, God does not leave Paul in the lurch. Christ gives him the strength to overcome it, and grace to live through it. The thorn is there to remind Paul that He needs God constantly. After pleading three times, Paul accepts this thorn in his flesh and no longer prays for God to remove it. For the rest of his life, Paul lived with his thorn in his flesh every day.

As Christians, we need to balance between faith and God’s sovereignty. Very often, when we pray, we fall into a trap, believing that our prayers would move the hand of God. We fail to recognize that God has already moved his hand before we even move our mouth to pray. God is constantly at work in shaping the world even though we do not see it so obviously. I am disturbed when I hear Christians accusing Christians of not praying enough when someone they have been praying for healing, passes away instead. It is not our prayer that heals, but it is God who heals. It is God who decides when our time is up.

There are times when God chooses not to remove our thorns, like in the life of Paul. There are many others with similar stories[3] . And I am sure many of us here have our fair share of pains and suffering. We pray for God to heal us, but it seems as if God is not listening to us. Either that or that we are not praying hard enough. Consider another alternative today. Maybe this thorn in your flesh is to remind you to depend on God for strength each day? Maybe this thorn in your flesh is to teach you to live by God’s grace daily? Remember Jesus’ words to Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness (v. 9).” Paul’s suffering can never outstrip God’s supply of grace.

For this reason, Paul says in v. 10, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Such is the irony of grace. It comes in the form of a thorn in one’s flesh. Paul finds his comfort in knowing that his thorn will not be too much for him to bear. Paul is contented. He is at peace with this constant struggle. This is when God is able to transform our weakness into strength. God may not remove our thorn, but gives us the strength to turn it around for good.

I am tempted at times to call our God, the ironical God. We worship a God of love and at the same time, a God of wrath. God is both a God of mercy and grace and also a God of judgment. We sometimes find contrasting pictures of God in the Bible. Instead of saying it is confusing, consider it enlightening. It changes our understanding of who God is. It is not that God is confused. God is bigger than what we think He is. It is time for us to change our perception of God and how He works. The lion and the lamb. The Servant-King. Jesus Christ who is fully human and fully divine. These seemingly contrasting imageries are the cornerstone of dialectical theology. “For when I am weak, then I am strong” Such a statement would make no sense to a non-Christian. But for Paul, it makes perfect sense. God’s power is perfected in human weakness.

3. Paul, a necessary fool for you (the Corinthian Church)! (12:11-13)
It should be clear by now, that Paul identifies himself as the necessary fool. Just as the thorn in his flesh was necessary, his foolishness was also necessary. Paul declares loudly in v. 11, to paraphrase, “You made me a fool for you!” Remember that his foolishness was in boasting, more specifically, boasting in the Lord, and boasting in his weakness. This was done so that the Corinthian church would see God’s power manifest in their lives. Paul was their apostle, and the Corinthian Christians were his “letters of recommendations” (c.f 3:5; 5:12; 7:12; 10:7, 14; also 1 Cor. 9:2).

Why was it necessary for Paul to be made a fool for the Corinthian Church? This is because certain factions of Christians then wanted an apostle whom they can be proud of. Paul was too weak for them. They wanted super-apostles. These so-called super apostles performed many wonderful signs and miracles. They are not false apostles, but may be the original 11 apostles in Jerusalem. Paul did not wish for the Christians to chase after these super-apostles. They would have missed the whole point of it all. They chase after these miracles and these super-apostles and have forgotten about the One who appointed these super-apostles in the first place. Signs and wonders must lead us to God. Signs and wonders are not gods in themselves. Neither are the super-apostles. Neither is Paul. This is why Paul says, “I am nothing (v. 11).”

In v. 12, it says, “The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works (v. 12).” The super-apostles were known for miraculous signs; Paul has his fair share of spiritual experiences. He is not inferior to them. After all being raptured into heaven is quite extraordinary. But yet, Paul does not boast in these experiences. He chose to boast in his weakness instead. What an irony! Only in our weakness will God’s power be manifested. When the strong shows its strength, it only brings glory to itself. But when the weak overcomes the strong, we begin to ask, how it is possible? There must be a higher being which has given the weak this super-power. For us Christians, we believe that this higher being is God.

As we end today’s sermon, I would like us to reflect on just one thing. Think about our pains and suffering, our struggles and hardship in life. Have we experience God’s power perfected in our human weakness? Have we ever tried to boast in our weakness, not to glorify it, but to allow others to see how God continues to work in us, not despite our weakness, but through it? As Singaporeans, we are fond of complaining about our life, the downs more than ups. Let us learn to see our downs as part of God’s plan to use us and to strengthen us. I like a prayer which my mother-in-law always remind us of: “Don’t make us too rich that we may forget you, and not too poor that we may leave you.” Allow me to paraphrase for our sermon today: “Do not make us too strong that we do not need you, and not too weak that we despise you.” There is a purpose in our suffering. Sometimes, we may not be sure what this purpose is. But be encouraged by Paul’s life story, as ironical as it may be. I hope it is not confusing, but simply amazing. Our God is an awesome God!

May God’s power continue to transform and perfect us in our human weakness.

Let us pray.

[1] This arose as a quotation by John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, first Baron Acton (1834–1902). The historian and moralist, who was otherwise known simply as Lord Acton, expressed this opinion in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887:
"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."
[2] John Calvin had also the same understanding to suffering. John Calvin believes that the pain and suffering in this world is to remind us that our life on journey is temporal. According to the Reformer, tribulations have been sent by God to remind us to despise the world so that we aspire to the future life. Our present life is perishable. Our old body will be destroyed, but our new and resurrected body will be eternal.
[3] Do read about the life of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, whose power in ministry was embedded in a life of emotional and physical suffering.