Paul's thorn in the flesh

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I. Introduction (Read Text)

A. What is the mark of true spirituality?

1. Power, control? Calm self-confidence, inner strength?

2. Perpetual peace, constant happiness?

3. Light-in-the-eye, a life so exemplary that others want "what you've got"?

B. The mark: Weakness, a sense of inadequacy! In a word - humility!

1. Paul's description of his ministry to the Corinthians: "I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling." (1 Cor. 2:3)

2. Paul's ministry was patterned after Christ. It took on a cruciform shape.

C. Critics of true Christianity have always sought to replace true spirituality with some form of triumphalism -- emphasizing power, victory, prosperity, self-confidence!

II. The Necessity of Boasting (1a)

A. Reluctant But Necessary

B. The Attack of the False Apostles. They criticized Paul's…

1. Appearance and speech (10:10; 11:6)

2. Exploits and accomplishments--his power (11:17ff.)

3. Lack of ecstatic visions (12:1)

C. Paul's Defense

1. Speech (11:6)

2. Exploits & Power (11:23-33)

3. Visions (12:1-5)

III. Vision of Paradise (1b-6)

IV.The Thorn: God's Gift of Suffering (7)

A. Definition: Greek - "skolops"

1. A 'stake' pegging him to the ground; A 'splinter' which constantly irritated

2. H. Minn comments that it conveys 'the notion of something sharp and painful which sticks deeply in the flesh and in the will of God defies extraction. The effect of its presence was to cripple Paul's enjoyment of life, and to frustrate his full efficiency by draining his energies.'

B. Numerous explanations

1. Earliest reference in Tertullian--earache or headache

2. Persecution, Sensual temptation

3. Nerve disorder, Speech defect, Epilepsy, Chronic eye infection (Gal. 4:13-15)

4. Recurrent Malaria (one ancient described the headaches caused by Malta fever as "like a red-hot bar thrust through the forehead.")

C. What can we know for certain about the thorn?

1. It was an experience from which he prayed to be delivered: "I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me" (8)

2. It was satanic. It was "the messenger of Satan to buffet me"

3. It was given by God: "there was given to me a thorn in the flesh"

4. It was not something sinful: "I am well content with…"

5. It was something visible and probably physical and obvious: "in the flesh" (cf. Gal. 4:14)

6. It was a chronic ailment: "I prayed three times that it might depart"

7. It caused some kind of weakness

8. It was purposeful. It was given "lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations."

D. What was the Thorn?

1. Most likely a painful and chronic physical ailment

a) Harassed, annoyed, irritated him--constantly digging at him like a thorn embedded in the flesh that he could not remove

b) As far as he was concerned, it hindered the effectiveness of his ministry

2. Regardless, it is good that the exact nature of the thorn is ambiguous

a) Like many of the Psalms, we are able to incorporate our experience into Paul's--we can identify our thorn with his

b) "The very anonymity of this particular affliction has been… productive of far wider blessing… than it would have been the case had it been possible to identify… the specific nature of the disability." (Hughes)

V. Paul's Plea (8)

A. Paul besought the Lord three times

B. Application: God's will can be utterly overwhelming!

1. Paul has to fight his way to contentment. It is not easy or instinctive.

2. No greater example than the Lord in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:33; Matt. 26:39; Heb. 5:7)

VI. God's Answer (9)

A. In a word: No!

1. God always hears the prayers of His elect and he always answers, but the answer is not always the one we desire. God's "No" is motivated by his love & wisdom just as much as His "Yes." His "No" may have nothing to do with our lack of faith

2. Thankfully, this is not the end of God's response. Along with God's "no" comes the revelation of a better way! If God denies our request, it is because he has a greater purpose in mind.

B. My grace is sufficient for you

C. For power is perfected in weakness

1. Power of Christ revealed through human weakness

a) God: " You think you won't be able to work for me if I don't take this away, but I know your work for me will be ended if I do take it away."

(1) If suffering persists we must conclude: We are more useful to God with suffering rather than without it

(2) "What [God] did do was to assure Paul that no hindrance would be suffered in his ministry as a result of [the thorn]; on the contrary, he would be all the more effective. Others would become Christians, not because they saw Paul as some impressive, dynamic, supernatural hero, but because the grace of God could be seen at work in him, despite his natural weakness." (Clements)

(3) Even Christ was "made perfect through suffering" (Heb. 2:10)

b) "Grace is apprehended only in the awareness of our weakness. This is not, we emphasize, merely a warm 'devotional thought'. It is at the very heart of the gospel and the argument of this letter." (Paul Barnett)

c) “We like to talk about ‘having the faith to be healed,’ but what about having the faith to be sick?” (Mason, 97)

2. Result: "the power of Christ dwelling in Paul"

D. Note: All the principles, formulas, how-to's, techniques in the world could not remove the thorn!

1. Absolutely no human remedy

a) No counseling, no doctor, not even God!

b) Not great faith, prayer from the Elders

c) In this present life we suffer from disorders which are not always removed--ill health, mental illness, disease. Some things neither medication nor intercession can remove

2. We must move beyond simple formulas, techniques, how-to's, principles

a) We want control, not weakness; simple steps, not mystery and paradox

b) We are uncomfortable with weakness

3. No set of formulas, principles, how-to's, or techniques that will guarantee protection from suffering and weakness.

a) "No matter how hard we pray or how deep our faith, we continue to be subject to troubles." (Rice, H. Reformed Spirituality, 178)

b) Indeed, God may be the very one who gives you the weakness and it is impossible to thwart His purposes!

VII.Paul's Conclusion (10)

A. Change of attitude: I am well content with the thorn and with all that promotes weakness!

1. Paul no longer protests against the thorn. He glories in it

2. Paul accepted the thorn and broadened the principle to encompass all of the adversities he suffered as a servant of Christ

a) "Paul now sees the principle behind his problem. He understands that God’s grace is showered upon us, and His power is demonstrated through us when we are weak. It is not just this one, unnamed thorn in the flesh which makes Paul “weak”; it is every affliction and adversity in his life. Thus, Paul sees that every affliction, every adversity, is the occasion for a manifestation of God’s grace and power in and through us. Because of this, Paul now rejoices in every one of his weaknesses… Every affliction, every difficulty, is an occasion for God’s grace and power in our lives." (Robert L. Deffinbaugh)

b) His "weaknesses" became the great, open secret of his spiritual power--and therefore his greatest boast.

3. It wasn't the ecstatic vision that accounted for Paul's spiritual greatness and fruitfulness. It was his acceptance of strength through weakness that accounted for his greatness! [If up to us, we would reverse this!]

B. The principle: When I am weak, then I am strong. Understand the text best by turning it on its head: "When I am strong, then I am weak."

VIII. Significance

A. Learn and live the paradoxes of Christian life

1. There is a mystery to sanctification -- involves paradox

2. Cross of Christ is the supreme example of "power-in-weakness"

a) We see death that brings life

b) We see glory in the midst of suffering

c) We see triumph through weakness

B. Understand what God is doing with us: Making us weak!

1. God is making us weak

a) "Making us weak, isn't it? And what makes us feel weak? Well, it is being under attack, feeling inadequate to handle the pressures and the problems that we have. So if you feel that way it is not only the devil who makes you feel that way, it is God too. God makes us feel this to keep us from that which could render us useless in the work of spreading his Kingdom." (Ray Stedman, Ecstasy and the Agony Sermon)

b) "When is the devil being beaten? Well, not when we feel great and confident, when it looks like wonderful things are happening, when the ministry is going well. (And I speak to all of us, because we are all in the ministry. We all have an area of responsibility given to us by God.) No. The devil is being defeated when we are feeling attacked and under the gun, when we feel weak and helpless and do not know what to do, when we are not sure how to respond, when in our perplexities and sense of weakness we come before the Lord and plead with him for strength to go on one more day, and for grace to help us stand." (Ray Stedman, Ecstasy and the Agony Sermon)

c) What is your thorn in the flesh? "It may well be that the one thing you have most wanted to be rid of, God wants you to have. It may be that the thing you think has kept you from a ministry is the key to your ministry." (Robert L. Deffinbaugh)

2. Our idea of Contagious Christianity must be rethought!

a) The idea that people will see how we've got it together and will want what we've got!

b) If your Christianity is the self-help make-you-happy variety, maybe some pagans will want it

c) But if it is true Christianity not triumphalism--centers on weakness rather than strength--no one in their right mind will want it apart from the grace of God!

(1) “The very fact that faith looks to a power beyond itself means that it is continually subject to loss of control. So if you’re looking to get control of all your problems, forget Christianity. If you’re looking for success, happiness, or freedom from pain, forget Christ. The way of Christ is the cross, and the cross spells weakness, poverty, failure, death.” (Mason, Gospel According to Job, 418)

(2) “Take away material prosperity; take away emotional highs; take away miracles and healing; take away fellowship with other believers; take away church; take away all opportunity for service; take away assurance of salvation; take away the peace and joy of the Holy Spirit... Yes! Take it all, all, far, far away. And what is left? Tragically, for many believers there would be nothing left. For does our faith really go that deep? Or do we, in the final analysis, have a cross-less Christianity? Unless the simple gospel has center-place in our faith, it has no place at all. Unless the cross is everything, it is nothing.” (Mason, Gospel According to Job, 210)

d) Mark of Christ is humility and weakness

(1) This is how He lived and conquered. This is why He is exalted (Phil. 2)

(2) Best picture of Christian is not soldier conquering but child (baby) resting (Psalm 131)

C. God gives suffering for our good

1. God allowed the suffering for a greater good

2. The answer to your prayers may be more troubles, not less

a) He asked for strength, and God gave him difficulties to make him strong.

He asked for wisdom, and God gave him problems to learn to solve.

He asked for prosperity, and God gave him brain and brawn to work.

He asked for courage, and God gave him dangers to overcome.

He asked for love, and God gave him troubled people to help.

He asked for favors, and God gave him opportunities.

He received nothing he wanted; he received everything he needed.

His prayer is answered. (Packer, J.I. Humanism, 224) b)

"We ask for strength that we might achieve; we are made weak that we might obey.

We ask for health that we may do greater things; He has given us infirmity that we might do better things.

We ask for riches that we might be happy. He has given poverty that we might be wise.

We ask for power that we may receive the praises of men; We are given weakness that we might feel the need of God." (Andy Neckar)

Other Articles on the Thorn:

Boasting in Our Weakness

The Ecstasy and the Agony

The Thorn in the Flesh

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