I want you to open your Bible to 2 Corinthians chapter 12, and I want to read a passage to you that is going to be the focus of our discussion together. Second Corinthians chapter 12 and verses 7 through 10.
We begin in verse 7 as the apostle Paul writes, “And 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 buffet me – to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I entreated the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He has said to me” – on each of those three occasions, by the way – “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore, I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Now, if ever there was a passage in direct opposition to the prosperity message, that’s it. There is nothing here about success and wealth, and comfort and ease, and having it your way, and seeing the fulfillment of all your dreams and desires and longings. This is about suffering. And suffering is the path to spiritual victory.
I want you to focus on the very familiar statement in verse 9, and that’s where we’re going to begin. “My grace is sufficient for you. My grace is enough. My grace is all you need no matter how difficult the issue you face.” We’re very familiar with the concept of grace – very, very familiar. We talk about it; we sing about it; we use it repeatedly in our prayers and in our Christian conversation, and we even go to a church named Grace Community Church. This is perhaps the most used theological term in the New Testament. It is a magnificent word that appears 155 times, as a matter of fact, in the New Testament, this Greek term “grace.” The word is charis. It means, basically, a generous benefit given, a favor bestowed. And in the sense of the New Testament and New Testament theology, it is a generous benefit given, a favor bestowed to someone who could never earn it. This defines our relationship to God. We are awakened from our spiritual sleep and our spiritual death by a work of God that could only be called a work of grace – undeserved favor.
We are redeemed, regenerated, adopted, justified, converted, born again – pick whatever term you want in the panoply of terms related to salvation, and you will always be able to attach by grace because we have no merit by which to earn any of God’s favors given to us in our salvation. We are even sanctified by grace because we are now no more able to earn our way to spiritual maturity than we were to earn our way to salvation. That, too, is a work of grace. And our glorification in the future is a work of grace so that throughout all of eternity, the great wonder of all wonders is that we will be in heaven where God will pour out the fullness of His grace upon us forever, and ever, and ever, and ever, and we will never get over the fact that all of this is by grace. It is favor; it is benefit; it is blessing unearned and undeserved.
Now, the New Testament talks about this. As I said, you have the word 155 times, and it tells us so much about grace. We are familiar with it in a general sense. Let me help you to get a little more specifically familiar with it as we look at this passage.
It needs to be said, as we contemplate the big picture of God’s grace, that God does not skimp on His grace. In fact, we are reminded, in Ephesians chapter 2, that God blesses us according to the surpassing riches of His grace. God’s grace, you might say, is super abundant. Every benefit that we experience spiritually is by grace.
One of the most wonderful statements made about our Lord was that inspired word from John, in John 1:14, who said of Jesus Christ, “He was full of grace.” The wondrous fact of His being full of grace was followed in John’s gospel by an even more thrilling reality, “For of His fullness have all we received, and grace upon grace.” It is basic to say that God is a God of grace, that God is gracious, that Christ is gracious. Being full of grace and bestowing that fullness on us, grace upon grace or grace after grace after grace after grace. As long as we live – and it will be forever – as long as we live in the realm of grace and salvation, we will accumulate grace upon grace upon grace upon grace forever.
Luke said, about the early Christians, that they were experiencing abundant grace, Acts 4:33. Paul informs us, in Romans 5:2, that we all stand in grace. We live in the environment of grace; it’s the atmosphere that we breathe spiritually. And in Romans 5:17 he adds that God bestows upon us, as we stand in the realm of grace, an abundance of grace. No matter what you might think of that grace, no matter how great you think it is, no matter how grand you think it is, no matter how lavish you think it is, no matter how super abundant you think it is, James adds, “He gives a greater grace.” It is greater than you think; it is greater than you can comprehend.
Peter chimes in, not wanting to be left out, and in 1 Peter 4:10 he says, “We have all received” - what he calls – “the manifold” – or multifaceted or multicolored – “grace of God.” It is lavish; it is rich; it is unending. And God’s supply is undiminished, and He gives it to us in such a way as to be defined by grace upon grace upon grace upon grace, manifold and multifaceted. God is not stingy when he gives out His grace; He is lavish. He delights to give us abundant grace; it brings Him joy; it brings Him satisfaction, and it brings Him honor and worship and praise from those who are the recipients of that grace.
And when you think about the grace of God, typically you probably think about the grace of God related to salvation. But that’s a very limited view. In 2 Corinthians chapter 9 and verse 8, this is what Paul writes, “And God is able to make all grace abound to you” - all grace, meaning stretching across all categories. It’s not just saving grace. Of course it all fits into the realm of saving grace, but it can be more narrowly defined. God is able to make all grace abound to you. Again, the language is always extravagant when it comes to grace – “so that always you will have all sufficiency in all things; in fact, you will have an abundance for every good deed.” This pulls all the superlatives together. God gives all grace. God makes all grace abound so that you always have all sufficiency for all things and an abundance for all good deeds. This is lavish grace. This is profuse grace.
We are given grace to repent; we’re given grace to believe, grace to be saved. We are given grace to understand the Word of God. We’re given grace to wisely apply the Word of God. We’re given grace to overcome sin. We’re given grace to defeat temptation. We’re given grace to endure suffering, disappointment, pain. We’re given grace to obey the Lord. We’re given grace to serve Him. We’re given grace to use our spiritual gifts which are gifts of grace. This Paul calls, in 2 Corinthians 9:14, “the surpassing grace of God” that operates in you.” What an amazing gift God has given us in this grace. And it is always grace, which means it is not the result of our own efforts and earning.
Job was correct when he said, “Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward.” Life is trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble. You need grace. Even as a believer you need grace for every issue in life.
Paul said, in 2 Corinthians 3:5, “Our sufficiency is from God.” That’s true. God is the only sufficient source of power that can come to our aid in every single situation we will ever face in life, and He does that by dispensing grace. We all know that life is filled with trouble, life is filled with disaster. And if we’re not in the disaster, we’re on the edge of it.
Life is filled with strong temptation. Life is filled with attractions to sinful things. Life is filled with struggles to cope with the disappointments and the pain and the suffering that comes into all of our experience. Life is filled with all of these things, including our efforts at evangelism, our efforts at Christian ministry that are often met with resistance and lack of understanding, lack of interest. We live in a fallen, decadent, corrupt world, and we live in fallen, decadent, corrupt flesh. So, we face incessant trouble even in endeavoring to serve the Lord. We need grace for everything. The question is, is such grace available? Is there a source of sufficient grace to help us in every situation?
You know, there are some benefits to being old; there really are. One of the benefits to being old is you’ve been around long enough to see the right things die. And one of the things that I have been so pleased to see disappear is the encroachment on the church from the realm of human psychology.
It wasn’t too many years ago when the church was being consistently told and was buying into the lie that if you really wanted to solve your problems, you needed the help of psychology and psychiatry. This was – this was a massive invasion into the life of the church. I’ve lived long enough to see it fade away. It was a dry well; it was bankrupt; it was unnecessary. It is fast proving to be so not only inside the church, but even outside the church. It’s not necessary to use human ingenuity, human methodology and human technique to change God’s people. God does that by means of His Spirit and grace. And you can’t change the people who aren’t God’s people, because psychology can’t do a heart transplant in the spiritual realm.
But for many years, the church bought into the lie that the problems of Christians are beyond the realm of the spiritual and call for psychological techniques that have been developed for decades. Thankfully, that all has gone away, tucked its tail, and stolen off into the night.
And we come back to the great reality of 2 Corinthians 3:5, “Our sufficiency for everything is from God.” Everything comes to us from God; everything comes to us by grace. That’s why, whenever you go to God to pray, you’re going to what the Bible calls, in the book of Hebrews, “the throne of grace.” You can’t ever go to God and say, “I’m going through a problem. Give me – God, give me deliverance because I’ve earned it. I’m ill; I’m struggling; I have a disease. God, take it away because I deserve to have it taken away.” “Lord, look; bless my ministry; may it have a great impact; may I be highly honored and revered by all who hear me because I deserve it.” That’s just absolutely bizarre.
When you come to ask the Lord for anything, you come always to a throne of grace, where God pours out benefits and blessings on people who don’t deserve them. But is, nonetheless, a place of power.
Now, with that in mind, let’s go back to the text. And I want to help you to understand what’s in this text, and there is a lot here. A lot. This is, I think, one of the most potent texts in the whole New Testament. This entire section, from chapter 10 to chapter 13 in this epistle, may be the most emotionally charged section in all the writings of the great apostle Paul. It is powerful stuff. It is penetrating. It is personal. It is filled with passion.
It is heart-wrenching because in 2 Corinthians, chapters 10 to 13, he lays his heart open – wide open. He is in the middle of being assaulted and attacked in the very domain where he had sacrificially given his life and preached the gospel. His integrity has been called into question by his enemies. His loyalty has been attacked. His ability to lead has been demeaned. His decisions have been questioned. He has been accused of having a secret life of shame, of lying about his apostolic credentials, of lying and falsifying the record of his ministry. His love is doubted and even denied. He is being reinvented in some kind of revisionist history being conducted in Corinth by false teachers so that he is emerging as an antihero, a bad guy, a hypocrite, a deceiver. This on top of all the other things that he suffered.
Go back to chapter 11 and let’s get a running start on this text. He says, in verse 23, “Are they servants of Christ?” – talking about his accusers who claim to be the true profits of God and are accusing him of being a false prophet/false apostle – “Are they servants of Christ? – I speak as if insane” – I’m making this concession for the sake of argument; let’s compare credentials. “Are they apostles of Christ? I – are they servants of Christ, slaves of Christ? I more so” – and here’s my proof – “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 spent in the deep.
“I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, robbers, countrymen, Gentiles, in the city, in the wilderness, on the sea, and 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.
“And apart” – or beyond and above – “more painful than all of that, that’s external, is the internal pain, the daily pressure upon me of concern for all the churches. Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern?” He knows the terrible, terrible heart-wrenching experience of his people in whom he has made such a great investment, falling into weakness and sin.
So, he has the external suffering all through his life. He has the internal suffering of people that he’s invested in defecting and sowing up sinful. He knew about suffering. He knew about shipwrecks; floggings, beatings with rods; narrow escapes for his life; terrors of all kind; pain in stocks, in prison; filthy, stinking jails with foul food; torture – all of it. And he knew what agonies were basically a part of being connected to people. It was intrinsic in your life, if you invested it in people, that they would disappoint you, reject you, fail, wound you, betray you, misunderstand you, and even turn on you – all of which the Corinthians had done.
Now, I think this takes us to the deepest point of pain in Paul’s life. And it really comes out in this whole letter. He even says, in chapter 7, that he was depressed. He had reached a point of personal depression. So depressed was he, he says in chapter 2 that when a door was opened to preach the gospel in Troas, he had no heart for it and no interest in it, even though the Lord had opened the door, because he was just too brokenhearted. People had finally broken him; he was crushed. He was crushed.
You can take a lot of shipwrecks. You can take a lot of beatings. You can take a lot of scourging. You can take a lot of danger. The severest pain comes from what people do to you, and especially the people in whom you’ve made the greatest investment of your life. The deepest pain, the greatest trouble in human experience, apart from your own personal sin and personal guilt is the pain that is inflicted on you by other people.
Read the biography of Jonathan Edwards, maybe the greatest mind in the history of America. Pastoring 20 years in Northampton after 20 years of the most erudite, profound, God-honoring preaching, his congregation voted him out as pastor. They voted him out; they turned on him. Why? Because he insisted that before you take the Lord’s Table, you should have made a public confession of faith in Christ. Not exactly a fringe doctrine. After 20 years of the great awakening, greatest revival in American history, 20 years of profound preaching, they turned on him. They not only threw him out of the church, they did everything they could to destroy his reputation so that no other church would take him. And he wound up, for a brief time, ministering with 15 Indians, way beneath his capability. And he ministered to them faithfully and humbly.
Finally, the College of New Jersey called, tried to pull him out of the pit that he was in and invited him to come and be the president. The College of New Jersey eventually became Princeton University. He denied them his presence, at first, saying that it was too great a task for one such as him. Eventually, he agreed to go, went, was there a brief time and died.
And you ask, “How can people do that to Jonathan Edwards?”
Hey, I remember many year ago – and I’m nobody – walking into my office up there one day - and I had a staff of five men that I had invested my life in – and I walked in and said, “I want to tell you how much I love you and how grateful I am that you minister alongside of me,” to which one of them said, “If you think we’re your friends, you got another thing coming,” and the mutiny was on. And they had a plan to remove me from this church. By the grace of God, that never came to fruition. It shocked me; it jolted me. I couldn’t comprehend how it could happen.
I went one time to preach at the Moody Bible Institute – Founder’s Week. It seats 4,000, and it’s always full, and it’s a great opportunity to preach there. And as I was coming up to the Moody Church – and it was dark, at night – it’s always in the winter, and it’s cold and dark – and I was brought in from a car – by a car from down at the Holiday Inn where I was staying. And came up to the front, got out with a borrowed overcoat, and made my way toward the great Moody Church for this great event.
And a man handed me a piece of paper. And he was handing paper – there were people all around, passing out these sheets of paper to everyone who came in, about 4,000 plus people. When I got into the light, I looked at it, and it basically – the title of it was “The Heresies of John MacArthur.” And it was single spaced, because I have a lot of heresies. Single spaced on both sides. And, of course, by the time I got in there, everyone was reading all my heresies. It made for a very volatile and interesting evening.
I went on to preach the Word of God without commenting on it, only later to find out that this was all printed up and distributed by a man, a father, of a young man to whom I had given a scholarship to The Master’s College.
You scratch your head and you say, “So, that’s the gratitude you get?”
Look, you learn not to expect too much, and then you’re not really too disappointed in life. It’s not easy. Look at the apostle Paul, who stands head and shoulders far above us, and ask how a congregation of people could be brought to faith in Jesus Christ, taught, instructed, nurtured by this man, and then turn on him. But they did. There’s no external punishment; there’s no persecution that is as painful as rejection, false accusation, misrepresentation, betrayal by the people who are the ones in whom you’ve invested the most. It’s a Judas kind of thing – isn’t it? – betrayed by your own friends. The wounding of our souls by other people exceeds the wounding of our bodies.
And so, we come to Paul, in chapter 12, at the deepest point, I think, of his trouble. This is the worst time for him. He is feeling the greatest attack, the most violent assault, the deepest pain of his ministry. He’s suffering through rejection by the Corinthian church. He is unloved by many in that church. He is unappreciated. He is not trusted. His ministry is maligned. His affection is unrequited. His integrity is questioned, his fruitfulness denied; his honesty is regaled, his sacrificial service rejected, his credentials scoffed at, and his authority disregarded. And all of this was being led by some false teachers who had come into the Corinthian church and done everything they could to destroy people’s confidence in him.
They said things about him. “He’s unimpressive. His speech is contemptible.” And they said, “He is below the acceptable level of those who speak publicly.” They mocked him, this dear sacrificial, humble, selfless apostle, who had already been battered and beaten physically and emotionally as well and given almost two years of his life to this church. And this is the gratitude that he gets?
And when you pour your life into people, and when you make this level of investment in people’s lives, and they turn on you – when you’ve been unselfish, when you’ve been sacrificial, and you get hatred in return and betrayal in return, it is a kind of pain for which there is little balm in this life. The wounds are too deep. No stocks that he was ever in were this painful. That’s how we find him when we come to this text. And he’s dealing with this issue.
As we approach this text – and here’s what I want you to see: how Paul dealt with the deepest pain of his own ministry, the deepest trouble of his life, because how he did it is how we can do it as well.
I don’t know where your pain is coming from, but we all have those physical things that come upon us, but I am sure the deepest, most wrenching pain in your life comes in relationships. It comes because people disappoint you, people turn on you, people reject you, people don’t return your love, people misrepresent you, lie about you, gossip about you, give false reports about you, turn on you. That’s where Paul was.
How are we to approach the deepest pain of life, the pain inflicted upon us by people, especially those we care about? I’m going to give you some lessons you can learn from Paul. Lesson number one, God uses suffering, at its deepest level, to humble His children. He uses suffering, at its deepest level, to humble His children.
Verse 7, “And 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 buffet me – to keep me from exalting myself!” Twice he says it. God’s purpose in this is to humble me. He had surpassing revelations.
What does this mean? Is he talking about the revelation of the gospel that was given to him, after his conversion, of which he speaks in Galatians chapter 1? Is that what he’s talking about? No. Certainly he did receive the revelation of the gospel given to him by God directly, not through any other teacher, after his conversion. He spent 14 years in Nabataean Arabia, having that revelation refined and confirmed to him. Then he came forth, exposed himself to the apostles and went on to preach to the Gentiles. We remember reading that.
He also had 13 revelations that make up the 13 epistles of the New Testament that he wrote, but it is not those of which he speaks. These are surpassingly great revelations. These are revelations that are unique and uncommon and absolutely extraordinary. And in fact, the apostle Paul had personal appearances of Jesus Christ in his life on four occasions. Wow. Plus one trip to heaven.
Go back to verse 1 of chapter 12, “Boasting is necessary, though it is not profitable.” He says, “I hate being put in this position. You are forcing me to defend myself by your attacks. You are forcing me to defend my credentials by your assaults.” The false teachers were forcing Paul to defend himself. He had to defend himself, not for his own sake, but he had to defend himself as the true apostle of Christ, the true representative of the Word of God, because if the people turned from him to the false prophets, they would be turning from the truth to lies. And so, for their sake, he defends himself, though he hates to do it. He says, “But let me go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a man” – and he’s referring to himself – “in Christ who fourteen years ago” – and we don’t have any indication, in the book of Acts, as to what this occasion was; all we know is what he says here. We don’t know when it happened, but it was 14 years before this. “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago – whether in the body I don’t know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows – such a man was caught up to the third heaven.” Wow.
There were four personal appearances to him, in his life, by Jesus Christ. The first one on the road to Damascus. There were three after that. One of them, in particular, happened in Corinth when he went there originally to preach the gospel. It’s recorded in the eighteenth chapter of Acts, verses 9 and 10. Another one of them happened when he was in prison. He says, “I actually was caught up to the third heaven.” That’s the heaven where God lives. The first heaven is the heaven of the air we breathe. The second is the stellar heaven, in a simple sense, and the third heaven is the domain of God where God lives. “I was caught up to the third heaven. And I know how such a man- whether in the body or apart from the body” – for the second time he says it – “I don’t know” – I can’t define it; don’t ask me the details; I don’t know whether it was physical or spiritual. I don’t know that. “I know I was caught up into Paradise, and I heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak.”
“Don’t ask me what I heard because I couldn’t understand it, and it’s not for human proclamation. I went to heaven; that’s all I know. This is not repeatable; this is not verifiable; this is not defensible; so, it’s really not helpful for me to talk about it; I’ll just leave it at that. Suffice it to say, if you’re wondering whether I have a special relationship to God or not, I’m just going to tell you I’ve been to the third heaven.”
Wow. That could give you some leverage, couldn’t it? Whoo. You’re in a committee meeting with Timothy and Titus, and Timothy says, “I’ve got a great idea for an evangelistic strategy.”
And Titus says, “Hey, I got a great idea for an evangelistic strategy, too.”
And Paul says, “I don’t think either of those will work; here is what I feel we need to do.”
And Timothy and Titus say, “Hey, we think you’re wrong.”
To which Paul replies, “Really? Either of you been to heaven?” It’s a lot of leverage – a lot of leverage. You could even become so proud that that would become your trademark. You would bill yourself as the man who’s been to heaven and back. Oh how many false testimonies to that effect have paraded themselves through the charismatic movement; people who have been to heaven and back, been to hell and back - none of which, of course is true. This is.
And when you have had the revelation that he had, the revelation of the gospel after his conversion, the revelation of the epistles that the Lord was in the process of giving him in the New Testament - more importantly, the four personal appearances of Jesus, who came to you individually, not that you were in a room when He showed up, but it was only you and Him – and then you had your own private trip to heaven, that could make you proud. Could it not? “For this reason,” he says, “to keep me from exalting myself” – God wants His servants humble. Humble. Humility is the number one Christian virtue. It’s so hard to achieve.
I remember a young seminary student said to me one time, “Dr. MacArthur, how did you finally overcome pride?”
“Oh,” I said, “that happened years ago. I haven’t worried about that for a long, long time.” That’s a naive question, isn’t it? How do I – I have to deal with pride, just like you, every day. Paul can’t even imagine what a temptation to his flesh - all these revelations, personal appearances of Jesus, a trip to heaven. Humility is what God seeks.
So, let’s go back to the text. “Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me” – now stop right there for a moment. The object here is the thorn in the flesh. The verb is there was given. The subject is implied, and the subject is God. There was given me by God – because only God is concerned about my humility. Satan would like me to be – what? – proud. And the prouder the better. What defines Satan himself is pride, is that not true? Was not he lifted up as the anointed cherub? And did not he say, “I will, I will, I will, I will, I will” – five times as the Old Testament prophet said? And it was his self-will and pride that got him thrown out of heaven.
“There was given me” – by God – “a gift,” if you will, “to humble me.” By the way, it was a gift unsolicited. Paul didn’t ask for it, and when it came, he didn’t want it. In fact, he wanted to get rid of it. It is a gift that Satan wouldn’t want him to have since it produced humility not pride. What was this that God gave him? Look at it. “There was given me a thorn in the flesh” – and when you read the word “thorn,” I know exactly what you think of: a rosebush. Right? That’s exactly what you think of, this little, tiny needle that sticks you in the finger when you’re trying to cut the roses for the dining room table. That’s not the idea. The Greek word here for thorn is “stake.” Stake – a shaft of wood, sharpened at one end, to be used in battle to impale someone. A sharpened, wooden shaft to impale someone. This is not a minor little, “Oops, look what happened to me.” This is a stake to be driven someone.
“There was given a stake for the flesh.” For the flesh, to control the fleshly tendency to be proud, to control the fleshly tendency to boast. The Lord is going to humble him by driving a stake right through his otherwise proud flesh. What is the stake? What is this thorn? He tells you what it is: a messenger of Satan. That’s not a further adjectival description. That’s the substantive statement. What is the thorn in the flesh? That’s the metaphor, that’s the symbol; the reality is a messenger of Satan. It’s simple to understand this. What is a messenger of Satan? The word messenger is angelos – angel. Angel always means a person, either a human or an angel. It can be a human messenger; it can be an angel if it’s intended in the context.
So, the Lord gave Paul, to drive a stake through his otherwise proud flesh, a satanic angel. What’s another name for a satanic angel? Demon.
You say, “Wait a minute. Are you telling me Paul was demon possessed?”
Not hardly. No.
“Well, what in the world is he saying here?”
The explanation of this, the one that makes sense in the context is pretty simple. False teachers had invaded the Corinthian church; they were a huge part of his life. Only in Ephesus had he spent more time than he spent in Corinth. It is to the Corinthians that he writes these two long letters because they occupy so much of his mind and heart. And there are two other letters, one before 1 Corinthians and one between 1 and 2 Corinthians that he also wrote and refers to that are not in the Scripture. Four letters nearly two years, massive occupation of his mind and his heart.
It is into that church that he loved and in which he invested so much of his soul that false teachers have come and false teachers are always led by demons because they always advocate, 1 Timothy 4, doctrines of demons. They are the hypocritical liars who spout demon doctrine. I think what Paul is talking about here is the demonic leadership of the Corinthian false preachers.
Go back to chapter 11 for a moment. In verse 13, he identifies them. He says, “They are false apostles. They are deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore, it’s not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end shall be according to their deeds.”
False teachers always represent Satan. They are disguised as angels of light. They are, however, motivated by, driven by Satan and demons. The ring leaders of the Corinthian conspiracy against the apostle Paul, the attempt to undermine the church and undermine the gospel in that needy city was being led by a demon. But the work of the demon in the Corinthian church was killing Paul’s pride.
Now, if you’re a minister of a church, and a pastor of a church, and you’ve made this great investment, you want to be able to say, “Look, I gave my life. I gave the two – almost two years there.”
All the thought since then; all the prayer; all of the anxiety; the letters, the correspondence, the agony in waiting when I send Titus with a letter, waiting for him to come back and give me a report; all of the experiences that were tied up with that Corinthian group from the time first ever he went there and preached the gospel – all of that was important to Paul because he didn’t want to labor in vain.
In fact, he expresses this fear in this very letter. At the end of chapter 12, verse 20, he says, “I’m afraid that perhaps when I come I may find you to be not what I wish.” How sad. “And you’ll find me not to be what you wish either. I’m afraid I’m going to come and find strife, and jealousy, and angry tempers, and disputes, and slanders, and gossip, and arrogance, and disturbances.” That’s heartbreaking to one who’s invested so much.
Verse 21, “I’m afraid that when I come again my God may humiliate me before you, and that I may mourn over many of those who have sinned in the past and not repented of the impurity and immorality and sensuality which they’ve practiced.” Wow. You’re really cutting into his heart. He’s afraid that he’s going to come back and find sins of disunity, and find sins of impurity.
In fact, it was such a deep-seated fear that he didn’t even want to go there. He says in chapter 2, “I’m afraid to come; I don’t know if I can take the sorrow.” If you’ve poured your whole life into people, you don’t want to look back and say it was all for naught, it was all for nothing, it was all in vain. And to have these demonized false teachers come in and wreak havoc in your church drives a stake through your otherwise proud flesh. It’s a humbling thing. It’s a humbling thing. It’s a humbling thing.
But do you know what? Think of it; the Lord is so concerned that His servants be humble that if need be, He will turn a demon loose in their church. Wow. That’s what makes chasing demons so foolish. People do that today. They tell Satan to leave their church. Really? How do you know God didn’t send him? Furthermore, what makes you think you can tell him what to do and he’ll do it?
“Do you mean to tell me that the humbling of a servant of God like Paul is so important to God that he would allow demonized false teachers to disrupt, for a period of time, the ministry of that church for no other reason than to humble that man?”
The answer to the question is Paul was not finished serving the Lord. There was much work that needed to be done, and it needed to be done by a man who was humble – who was humble. And God always gives grace to the humble.
“So, there was given me, by God, a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me.” That’s a strange English word, isn’t it? The same as buffet – big difference. How did they ever put those together unless you overdo the buffet and become buffeted by it, I suppose. But buffet is an interesting word. I don’t know what that word conjures to you. Just the idea of buff sounds kind of soft, doesn’t it? Like puff. And it would better - if it was – instead of using buffet – buffet me – it might be lashed me, or shattered me, or devastated me.
But the word actually, in the Greek, means torment – torment. In a very physical way, the word is used in Matthew 26:67. It’s used in Mark 14:65 of the soldiers beating Christ in the face with their fists. “This thing that’s going on in my beloved church in Corinth is crushing me; it’s driving a stake through my otherwise proud flesh. It’s like taking blows in my face.” Paul uses the same word, 1 Corinthians 4:11, to speak of being physically abused. There’s a stake being driven through his otherwise proud flesh. It’s as if God has allowed the enemy to smash him in the face.
And by the way, the word, in its root, is derived from a Greek term meaning knuckles, the hardest part of the hand that can deliver the most devastating blow. Why? Why does God allow this? “To keep me from exalting myself.” It has a humbling purpose. And, beloved, I need to tell you this because this is what Paul is saying. That’s the first place you always go when you come into the midst of a trial. Trials have many, many purposes. Many.
Before you think about running to fix it, before you blame God for letting things deteriorate to this level, understand this: that if you want to share His holiness, you must share His suffering; that the path to spiritual maturity is the path to humility, and the way to humility is paved by suffering. Sure, trials have all kinds of purposes: they test our strength; they wean us from worldly things; they enliven our internal hope of heaven; they reveal what we really love; they teach us to value the good times; they enable us to help others who suffer; they produce endurance. But mainly, trials humble us. They humble us. And God wants His people humble, to the degree that God would even allow Satan to torment His children if it assisted in their humiliation.
It’s Peter – we’re going to get to that in Luke 22 – Jesus says to Peter, “Satan desires to have you that he might sift you like wheat.”
If I was Peter, I would have said, “Well, you told him no, right?”
And the Lord says, “No, I told him yes, because when you’re converted, you’re going to be a different man.”
The Lord let Satan go after Job. The Lord let Satan go after Peter, and the Lord let a messenger of Satan go after Paul, in the end, to humble that man to make him even more useful.
You know, when we get into trouble, the first thing we want to do is get out as fast as possible. You want to run to somebody to fix it. Run to the pastor, get some quick counsel. You know, run to the bookstore, get a book on how do I get out of this. Right? Right? How to solve all my problems, how to eliminate trouble from my life. Turn on one of those TV prosperity preachers and start thinking good thoughts, and maybe you can create a good world in your imagination.
Instead of doing that, bless God for what humbles you. Bless God for what humbles you and know that he gives grace to the humble. Well, that’s one point. There are many more for next time.
Lord, what a wonderful evening we have shared tonight, singing simple songs of praise and thanks and hearing again testimonies of Your power, fellowshipping, giving. And again, the Word being open to us produces such blessing. Whatever it takes Lord, to humble us, do it. Whatever it takes to humble me, do it. Whatever suffering is necessary, bring it on. Whatever disappointment is necessary, let it happen in order that sufficient grace may be displayed and power perfected in weakness. We embrace the suffering; we embrace the humbling, just as Paul did.
We know that our good is Your goal. And part of getting us to that place where we honor You living righteously is pouring us through the crucible of suffering, that we not be crushed and broken and disappointed at the most intimate level. We’ve all been wounded by the ones we love the most. We’ve all been hurt deeply by the ones in whom we have invested the most affection, and the most concern, and the most effort.
And we would see it as a bad thing, and yet we now have a different view. Even the worst imaginable thing, demons as it were, running loose, trying to undo our efforts, could be from You as You humble us for greater usefulness. Satan is Your Devil; he’s Your Satan. He only does what You let him do. No demon can step one step out of the realm of sovereign will. They can only do what You let them do. And even the demons serve Your purposes sometimes for the humbling of Your people.
We have been singularly blessed here in this church. We have had, as it were, in some sense, many revelations. Exposed to so much truth, so much blessing, we could easily be proud; we need to be humbled. Humble us all, whatever it takes, that we might be more useful to You, that we might be delivered from the disabling power of pride. And we’ll thank You in the Savior’s name, who humbled Himself. And we want to follow His example, amen.
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