Then I am Strong (II Corinthians 12:1-10)
Topic: II Corinthians Passage: 2 Corinthians 12:1–12:10
Then I am Strong
II Corinthians 12:1-10
(One Truth: Walk in Truth)
August 14th, 2016
I. Needy is Not a Put Down
We come this morning as needy people, don't we? We need God. We need to hear from God. Last week, God spoke to us through His word about the reality of our neediness. You see, when we listen to Him, we realize we are so much needier than we would want to admit.
But in contrast to our world's thinking, and to our impulses, being needy is not a put down. No, remember our premise from last week:
God's word teaches us that being needy is not a disgrace, but a reality to be embraced.
As we talked about last time, sin does not make us needy. We are inherently needy, since we are creatures, who are finite, who are made in the image of God. We were made to need God, at all times, in every way. Be we could and should ask, “What part does sin play?” Well, sin is a distortion of the truth about our neediness. It distorts the truth in two key ways: it 1) redefines our needs and 2) makes our neediness surmountable.
So last time, we left off with what I believe was God's challenge to every single one of us: am I willing to confess, “I am needy”? Now, as I mentioned last time, courage and comfort help us get to that confession. What do I mean? I mean the courage to admit we are desperately needy is directly tied to the comforting truth that God can and will meet our needs.
This morning, we are going to dig down deeper into this idea that God will meet our needs. And He will meet our needs in such a way, that we will not only confess, “I am needy”, but we will actually delight in our neediness. Is that even possible? Turn with me to II Corinthians 12, and we'll find out.
II. The Passage: “My Grace is Sufficient ” (12:1-10)
This morning, we will look together at verses 1-10 of chapter 12. Now before we jump into this section, we need to know something about the context. As we drop into verse 1 we are actually dropping into the middle of an argument that Paul began in the previous chapter. And that argument is tied to one of the key reasons Paul wrote II Corinthians.
False teachers had come to Corinth and were still influencing at least a portion of the church. At the beginning of chapter 11, Paul sarcastically describes these teachers as “super apostles” (11:5), and warns that they have brought a “different Jesus”, a “different Spirit”, and a “different gospel”. (11:4). Paul makes the truth abundantly clear in 11:13...For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.
Now, in light of these opponents and their methods and their influence, in chapter 11, Paul adopts a new strategy in his argument. This is how he describes his tactic. Look at 11:16-18...
I repeat, let no one think me foolish. But even if you do, accept me as a fool, so that I too may
boast a little.  What I am saying with this boastful confidence, I say not as the Lord would but as a fool.  Since many boast according to the flesh, I too will boast.
It's clear to us from those verses that Paul's opponents came to Corinth boasting of their reputation and their resumes. And because this impressed the Corinthians, in contrast, Paul began to look like a complete loser. Chapter 10, verse 10 actually preserves how some criticized Paul: For they say, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account.”
Paul did not come to Corinth boasting. Boasting about his reputation and resume was not in Paul's playbook. But as we saw in 11:18, we see what looks like Paul doing a '180'. He tells the Corinthians he IS going to play the fool and do a little boasting himself. Why he chooses this tactic is not clear at first. But that's exactly where we pick up in chapter 12.
1. Who Wouldn't Boast? (12:1-4)
So in 11:22-29 he has already boasted about things like his ethnic lineage and his service to Jesus and all the churches. This is why he says in 12:1 (look at it with me)...
I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord.  I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows.  And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.
Okay. Stop there. Just so there's no confusion, the rest of this passage confirms the fact that Paul is talking about himself here. He's the man who fourteen years prior was taken up into what he clarifies is “the third heaven”. The first heaven is where the birds and clouds are. The second heaven is where the sun, moon, and stars are. But the “third heaven”, that's where God is; where God's throne is. That's “heaven heaven”.
And Paul can't be sure whether it was just a vision or if his body was actually, somehow, transported into the spiritual realm. What he is sure about is the fact he was in the “paradise” of the presence of God...and that he heard things, amazing things, holy things, that (v. 4) “cannot be told, which man may not utter”.
Now, if you or I were to have that stunning experience, what would be one of the first things we would do? Yep. We would start telling people all about it. Then we would blog about it. Then it would go viral. Then the reporters would come. Then the book deal & the movie deal. Can't you see it now, “To the Third Heaven and Back: A True Story”!
The point is this: what Paul describes here is one of the most boast-worthy, boast-able experiences any human being could have. Who wouldn't boast about something like this, especially in terms of a spiritual resume; spiritual credentials?
2. Paul Wouldn't Boast (12:5, 6)
Well the answer to that question is Paul. Paul wouldn't boast. Look at what he goes on to say in verses 5 and 6:
On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses— though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me.
Paul is willing, for the sake of argument, for the sake of the Corinthians, he is willing to boast as a fool about these kinds of things. But as he says in verse 5, he is not willing to boast on his own behalf. But in verse 6 he tells us more about his strategy. Even if he, as himself, were to boast about such things, he would be speaking the truth. Even if he were to boast about such things, he would not be a fool, in the sense of not being delusional, not being a madman.
You see, Paul chose to argue this way in order to show the Corinthians that the issue was not that he didn't have boast-worthy or boast-able things on his spiritual resume. He had tons of them. Amazing things. Instead, the reality was that he CHOSE not to boast in those things. And in verse 6, he gives us the reason for his restraint: I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me.
Paul's everyday life was his resume. His words, his attitude, his choices, his priorities, how he loved people, what he taught, these were the only things Paul leaned on terms of presenting himself to other people. Yes, at times, he would talk about his past or his spiritual own experiences or ministry successes, but only if it served God's purposes to do so. But he was not going to “boast” in those things.
3. Paul Shouldn't Boast (12:7-9a)
And if we continue forward into verses 7-9, we find that God was also at work to help Paul avoid that very thing, to walk that very path. Look with me at verse 7...
So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.  But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
So here's the clearest confirmation that Paul was talking about himself in verses 1-4. It was precisely because he had witnessed (v. 7) “the surpassing greatness of the revelations”, the same ones he described at the beginning of the chapter, because of this experience, God allowed (v. 7) “a messenger of Satan to harass” Paul.
Now clearly, there are two things about this passage that, right away, are very disturbing. First of all, God appears to be okay with Paul suffering at the hands of demonic forces. Second, as we see in verse 8, even when Paul pleads three times for God to take it away, God will not. So how do we make sense of this? Well the answer is right there in the text. And just so we wouldn't miss the answer, Paul repeats himself. The beginning of verse 7, “to keep me from becoming conceited”; the end of verse 7, “to keep me from becoming conceited”.
Notice I didn't say that when Paul pleaded with God, God would not help him. That wouldn't be true. God was helping Paul. No, God was not going to take the pain away. But in allowing Paul to be afflicted in this way, God was using what was probably physical suffering to protect Paul from another kind of suffering: suffering under the cruel mastery of pride.
You see, if we take our cues from the book of Job in the OT, I think it's reasonable to say that God permitted some demonic agent to inflict Paul “in the flesh”, that is, through some kind of painful or debilitating physical condition. Now when the forces of evil are permitted to act, they have an agenda of deception and destruction. They believe they are getting their way and winning the day.
But God is so good and so wise and so powerful, that He can and does use human evil and demonic evil to bring about His redemptive purpose. To use Joseph's words from Genesis 50:20, “what they mean for evil, God means for good”. The forces of evil were always looking to destroy Paul. They attacked him quite a bit, in many ways. How amazing is it that God could and did use their wicked intentions for our eternal good.
But look again at verse 9. This is where we run smack dab into our theme of neediness. Did you notice the word “sufficient” in verse 9? But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you... And what does sufficient mean? “Being as much as is needed.” What was God teaching Paul through this “thorn”? The greatest of all lessons: that God's grace, his favor, his kindness is all we truly need. God is all we need. Isn't that the very truth that sins distorts?
And the idea of power we find in the next phrase, for my power is made perfect in weakness, that ideas leads us right into the last one and a half verses of our passage.
4. Paul Will Boast (12:9b, 10)
Look with me at all of verses 9 and 10. Paul writes...
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  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.
So when we read about the vision Paul had, we thought, “Who wouldn't boast?”. But then we went on to read that, in fact, Paul wouldn't boast. And Paul's conviction not to boast is confirmed by God's hard but loving lesson that Paul shouldn't boast. But ironically, here at the end of this passage, we discover that Paul will boast. But he will not boast in what the Corinthians and the world would consider boast-worthy. Paul (v. 9) will boast all the more gladly of [his] weaknesses.
In light of what we've been talking about, I think we could express it in this way: Paul was not only willing, but pleased, he was glad to boast of his neediness. But why?
Because only in embracing his emptiness could he be filled with the power of Christ. Did you see that in verse 9? Those who are full of their spiritual credentials and ministry successes and impressive skills are full of themselves, not the power of Christ. That's precisely why Paul would not boast. He expressed this so beautifully and famously in chapter 4. He wrote...
But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that [or so that] the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. (II Corinthians 4:7-10)
III. Boasting in Weakness, Blessed with Strength
Are you content with being a clay pot? Paul was. Why? Clay pots are not impressive. Because, not in spite of, but because he was plain and frail and common, the power of God, the power of Christ could fill Paul and be seen for what it was. And the same is true for us.
Did you notice the phrase Paul repeats in this passage. It's in verses 5 and 9: On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses (12:5)...Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (12:9)
And Paul actually first made this statement at the end of chapter 11, where he clarifies a bit what he has in mind: If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. (11:30) Here's a question I've been asking myself for several days: “What does it look like for me personally to boast in my weaknesses?” Have you ever asked that question? You should. If you are a follower of Jesus, you NEED to ask that question.
If ordinary, everyday, typical boasting is talking about those things that seem impressive so others we'll see us as impressive, then what does it mean to boast in my weaknesses? It must mean talking about those things that seem unimpressive so others will see God as impressive as He works through us.
But for Paul, this was about more than what he said. Remember the end of verse 6: so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. This is about more than what we say. This is about how we see ourselves. This is about what you put first in your heart in terms of your identity. Instead of asking, “What is impressive or attractive about me?”, God wants us to ask, “How might God be seen as impressive and attractive as his strength shines through my weakness?”
And look again at what Paul wrote in verse 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. Why would Paul be content with such hard things? Because God uses them to show us our neediness.
And when my sheer, unabashed, raw neediness is apparent to me and apparent to others, guess what happens? The undeniable and incomparable sufficiency of the grace of God in my life reveals itself as power and strength, to the glory of God.
Did you hear that? When you are going through tough, tough times, when you are spent, when you are stumbling, when your tank is empty, when you are at your wit's end, when you are brought a place in which your weakness, your neediness is to obvious, then...the undeniable and incomparable sufficiency of the grace of God in my life reveals itself as power and strength, to the glory of God.
The tough times and difficult seasons that we try to avoid are precisely the blank canvas God wants to use to reveal that His grace is enough. It is enough. Do you believe that? Paul said the same thing to the Philippian church:
Not that I am speaking of being in need [material need], for I have learned [through God's hard but loving lessons] in whatever situation I am to be content.  I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Phil. 4:11-13)
Remember what we said at the outset, God will meet our needs, and He will meet our needs in such a way, that we will not only confess, “I am needy”, but we will actually delight in our neediness.
Why did Paul gladly boast of his weakness? Why did he delight in his neediness? Because when (v.9) the power of Christ rests upon you, your needs will be met. You don't have to be afraid. It is not questionable or iffy. God's strength is enough. More than enough. And it is true strength, unlike the things, the qualities, the virtue, the tax brackets, the positions and roles, the qualities and traits that the world deems strong.
Can you confess, “I am needy.” I hope you can. But can you also confess, “I am needy, and that is a good thing, because only then will I know the strength of God, and others through me.” Let's ask God to help us make that confession, from the heart.