Giving Sufficient Grace

August 27

Lesson 13

Devotional Reading:
James 4:1–10

Background Scripture:
2 Corinthians 12:1–10

Printed Text:
2 Corinthians 12:1–10

Lesson Aims

After participating in this lesson, each student will be able to:

1. Summarize how Paul’s vision relates to his “thorn.”

2. Contrast the world’s view of power through strength with Paul’s view of power through weakness.

3. Commit to God’s grace one area of weakness in his or her life, seeking his power to overcome that weakness.

How to Say It

Corinth. KOR-inth.

Corinthians. Ko-RIN-thee-unz.

Damascus. Duh-MASS-kus.

Ephesus. EF-uh-sus.

Galatia. Guh-LAY-shuh.

Galatians. Guh-LAY-shunz.

Moses. MO-zes or MO-zez.

Niebuhr. NEE-burr.

Philippians. Fih-LIP-ee-unz.

Daily Bible Readings

Monday, Aug. 21—Grace Abounds All the More (Romans 5:12–21)

Tuesday, Aug. 22—Grace for the Humble (James 4:1–10)

Wednesday, Aug. 23—
The God of Grace Will Restore (1 Peter 5:5–10)

Thursday, Aug. 24—Paul Receives God’s Grace (1 Corinthians 15:3–10)

Friday, Aug. 25—Paul Experiences Many Difficulties (2 Corinthians 11:23–29)

Saturday, Aug. 26—Paul’s Deep Spiritual Experience (2 Corinthians 12:1–6)

Sunday, Aug. 27—God’s Grace Is Sufficient (2 Corinthians 12:7–13)

Key Verse

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 about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

2 Corinthians 12:9

Why Teach This Lesson?

“He is my thorn in the flesh.” A discouraged person might use such a statement to refer to a frustrating coworker, spouse, or child. The text for today’s lesson is the source of the expression, “thorn in the flesh.” But Paul did not intend it in the way that it is commonly used now. For Paul, the “thorn in the flesh” was a physical infirmity that limited his personal ability to do ministry.

This lesson, drawn from 2 Corinthians 12, still speaks loudly today. How can we meet the expectations of ministry when we are physically or emotionally limited? Shouldn’t the burden of ministering fall on the shoulders of the strong ones in our church, like the preacher and his staff?

Paul answers this with one of the great paradoxes of the Christian faith: we are strongest when we are weak. The victories of the Christian life are not won by our strength but by the power of our God. Learning and applying this lesson will help us understand how God works through us, even in the infirmities of illness or age.

Introduction

A. Answering the Burning Bush

Moses and Paul both had remarkable calls to ministry. Paul saw the risen Christ in a flash of light on the road to Damascus; Moses heard the voice of God from a burning bush in the desert. Paul responded to God’s calling immediately by setting out to preach the gospel. His Christian life was beset with hardships and persecution from the beginning (see Acts 9:17–26).

Moses, however, responded in a very different way. When God told Moses that he would use him to deliver the Jews from Egypt, Moses balked. He first pointed out that he was a nobody; why should people listen to him? He then demanded some sort of evidence that God had really spoken to him. God replied by empowering him with the ability to do several attesting miracles. Moses then declined the invitation on the basis of his lack of skill in public speaking. He even asked God whether the Jews would know which “god” he was talking about! (See Exodus 3:1–4:17.)

Moses, in other words, resisted God’s call by pointing out all of the personal weaknesses that would make it impossible for him to complete the task. Paul, by contrast, refused this path. He too labored under serious personal shortcomings, including the painful “thorn in the flesh” discussed in our passage for today. Yet he was determined to fulfill his calling (as Moses eventually was as well). Paul was confident that God would provide the tools he needed to finish the job.

B. Lesson Background

Paul wrote 2 Corinthians in a.d. 57 at the conclusion of a very tense period between himself and that church. In the letter of 1 Corinthians, Paul had rebuked them sharply for sectarian divisions and a number of serious spiritual and moral failures. But that letter, even though supported by a visit from Timothy, was not as effective as Paul had hoped.

Paul, therefore, left Ephesus to make an emergency visit to Corinth, one characterized by confrontation. The trip was successful, but while there Paul apparently was slandered by some of his enemies. These accusations must have continued after he left (see 2 Corinthians 1:23–2:1; 3:1; 10:1–11:33).

All this placed Paul in a difficult situation. Obviously, he needed to defend his credibility by responding to these attacks. Yet at the same time, he did not want to fall into arrogant boasting about his accomplishments or enter the trap of comparing résumés. He avoided these problems by emphasizing his weaknesses as proof that God was working through him in a unique and powerful way.

I. Vision of Glory (2 Corinthians 12:1-4)

A. Undesired Talking Point (v. 1)

1. I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord.

Paul begins by stressing that he wishes he didn’t have to say any of what he is about to say. Back in 2 Corinthians 10:12–18; 11:5, 6, Paul was clear that he didn’t want to rehearse his credentials, yet he felt compelled to do so in view of his enemies’ slander.

What Do You Think?

Paul hesitated to resort to boasting. What makes boasting so potentially destructive, both in Paul’s day and now? Under what circumstances, if any, could boasting be appropriate today?

Paul especially feared that the accusations of enemies would lead the Corinthians to doubt the validity of the gospel that he had preached to them (11:4). As such, he determined to boast only about his own weaknesses and thereby emphasize the power of God working through his ministry (11:30).

B. Unexpected Event (vv. 2-4)

2. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows.

The man in consideration here is clearly Paul himself. If Paul writes 2 Corinthians in a.d. 57, then fourteen years ago would date the experience in question to around a.d. 43. This is near the time of the brief visit to Jerusalem mentioned at Acts 11:27–30; 12:25. It is possible that Paul is referring to a vision that occurred in conjunction with his special commission to preach in Acts 13:1–3.

The biblical Hebrew word for heaven actually is plural: heavens (compare Genesis 2:1, 4). In some schools of thought in ancient Judaism, there are seven heavens that make up a complicated scheme. Paul here alludes to a much more basic line of thinking: the first heaven is the sky (where the birds fly), the second heaven is the universe (home to sun, moon, and stars), and the third heaven is the realm where God dwells.

The latter is what we call Heaven today. Paul, then, actually was caught up directly into God’s own presence on one particular occasion. What an experience!

3. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows—

Paul’s uncertainty about the body emphasizes the spiritual nature of the event. We may conjecture that this event involved a suspension of consciousness. Is it possible for someone to enter God’s presence while still in the flesh (Exodus 33:20)? Paul does not know, and it makes no difference to his point.

4.… was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.

Paradise, the “third heaven” of verse 2, is the place of God’s dwelling (compare Luke 23:43; Revelation 2:7). Paul, in whatever form, had been in God’s presence. But he cannot talk about what he heard and saw there for two reasons. In the first place no person is permitted to reveal these things. That probably means that the vision was for Paul and Paul alone. This fact emphasizes the unique nature of Paul’s ministry.

In the second place human language cannot express what Paul witnessed—there are no words to describe it. God’s glory far exceeds what the human mind can comprehend or what the human tongue can report.

Paul’s Vision, Our Vision

Said Alice to the Cheshire Cat, “Would you tell me please, which way I ought to go from here?”

Said the Cat, “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”

“I don’t much care where … ” said Alice.

“Then,” said the Cat, “it doesn’t much matter which way you go” (Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass).

This humorous little exchange from the realm of “Wonderland” displays the essential nature of having a vision for the future. It also brings to light a certain confusion regarding how we use the word vision today versus how Paul used that concept in 2 Corinthians.

Paul’s vision was miraculous in nature. A modern understanding of vision, however, is more along the lines of “a clear mental image of a preferable future.… It is based on an accurate understanding of God, yourself, and your circumstances” (George Barna, The Power of Vision: How You Can Capture and Apply God’s Vision for Your Ministry). We should not expect that God will repeat Paul’s vision in the lives of Christians today. Even so, every follower of Jesus must have a vision for a preferable future, as controlled by the Word of God.

Paul’s vision of the risen Christ on the Damascus Road and subsequent visions of God’s will shaped not only his destiny but also the destiny of the church. May God grant us the courage to embrace God’s vision for our own lives as it is drawn from his Word daily.

T. B.

II. Glory of Weakness (2 Corinthians 12:5-10)

A. God’s Deeds (vv. 5, 6)

5. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses.

Paul now shifts gears to discuss a particularly difficult problem that hinders his ministry. This statement is intentionally ironic, because Paul himself is the very person he has been talking about.

Paul’s point is to say that any boasting that he may do will be about things that God has done for him and through him, not about things that he himself has accomplished by personal ability. Specifically, he would defend himself by reminding his detractors that God had given him a vision of Heaven, but he would also remind them that he received this vision as a gracious gift from God. It was not as payment for work Paul had done. If Paul were to speak about things he has accomplished on his own, the discussion would be much less useful.

6. Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say.

In point of fact, Paul had built an impressive set of credentials by this time in his “career,” as both a Jewish and a Christian leader (see 2 Corinthians 11:21b–28). Should it come down to a bragging session, he will not be ashamed (compare 2 Corinthians 10:8; 11:16).

Paul further discusses his credentials in Philippians 3:4b–7, especially those that would impress Jewish Christians. “If anyone thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.” But all these things must be counted as a loss when compared with the glories of knowing and serving Christ. As such, Paul will not be a fool, rambling on and on about his own accomplishments. Instead, he will stress the things that God has accomplished through him.

What Do You Think?

When something significant happens in your life, spiritual or otherwise, what steps do you take to avoid becoming conceited or prideful? What are some thorns that God may give us (or allow us to have) to forestall pride?

B. Paul’s Thorn (vv. 7-9a)

7. To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.

The flow of this passage suggests that verse 7 is somehow related to the experience described in verses 1–4. Paul’s unique vision certainly could make anyone feel special. But his joy was marred by the fact that it was followed by a thorn in the flesh. The position of the verb given implies that it was God who gave Paul both the miraculous vision and the painful consequence. The purpose of the thorn, Paul says, is to keep him humble. Thus he will not feel undue pride about the special work God has in store for him.

The specific identity of Paul’s thorn has long been a subject of speculation. The term thorn and the references to the torment that it brings suggest that Paul is referring to a chronic physical ailment. Because this vision of Christ, and presumably the thorn also, came to Paul just before the first missionary journey to Galatia, many scholars have sought the key to this puzzle in Galatians 4:13–15. Paul there mentions a serious illness that befell him at that time, one that possibly affected his eyes in some way.

What Do You Think?

How can we avoid the temptation of drawing false conclusions about God, self, or life when we have to deal continually with a difficult “thorn in the flesh”?

Whether this or some other problem, the thorn threatened Paul’s ministry. Although it came from God, he refers to it as a messenger of Satan because from a human perspective it hindered his ability to proclaim the gospel. Yet God knows how to turn such things for the good, as the next verses show. (An alternative view is that Satan initiated the thorn, but the thorn is given by God in the sense that God allowed it, as in Job’s case of torment.)

8. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.

This verse reveals that it took Paul a while to appreciate God’s purposes in the thorn. At first, he viewed it only as a burden. On several occasions Paul asked God to relieve him of it. Doubtless Paul prayed about the issue often, but he recalls at least three occasions in particular when he pleaded with God about this troubling issue. Perhaps he accompanied his pleading with fasting.

What Do You Think?

Some might say that Paul was self-centered by praying for an easier life, thus showing a lack of faith. Why and under what circumstances is it OK for us to pray for ourselves?

[Note: James 4:3 should be part of your answer.]

Paul’s example highlights the fact that it’s right to ask God for help with our problems. It is acceptable to ask him for help more than once when we don’t receive a clear answer. We remember that Jesus prayed the same prayer several times in the garden (Matthew 26:36–44).

9. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

It is unclear whether God said this to Paul after each of his three periods of supplication or only sometime after the third. It is also unclear whether God revealed this insight in yet another vision of some sort or whether Paul gradually came to this conclusion through God’s continued rejections of his request.

Either way, the point is clear: no matter how often or how urgently we ask, God reserves the right to say no. But he does not say no simply because he wants us to suffer and worry. Our weaknesses serve God’s purpose, even if that purpose is only that we should remain humble and dependent on him.

This perspective gives Paul the strength to bear his burden without becoming discouraged and to continue to serve despite its limitations. Perfect can be understood as “complete.” This highlights the contrast between God’s power and our weakness: where our strength is lacking, Christ still empowers us to serve.

Strength in Weakness

The life of Joni Eareckson changed forever on July 30, 1967. She was a young girl full of promise and hope for the future. While on a family outing, she dived into the waters of Chesapeake Bay and struck an object hidden just below the surface. She became paralyzed from the neck down.

She had planned to be an artist. She had planned to have a family. She had planned to live a normal life. But all those dreams and plans seemingly ended in the lonely confines of a wheelchair. And yet Joni is one of the most celebrated Christian speakers and writers of our day.

In her autobiography Joni writes of the power of the Lord Jesus Christ to make any life wonderful and exciting. “Jesus is alive and his power is available to you. He proves himself daily in my life, and what more couldn’t he do in your life!” (Joni, Zondervan).

Some may argue that had it not been for the debilitating accident, Joni Eareckson Tada would never have become such an international influence for the cause of Christ. Only the Lord knows if this is so. One thing is for certain: Joni allowed the Lord to work through her weaknesses to display his strength and power.

God is able to work though our weaknesses and trials today. He only asks that we approach each hardship with the eyes of faith. That means trusting that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

T. B.

C. God’s Strength (vv. 9b, 10)

9. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

We normally try to hide our shortcomings from other people. Sometimes we try to hide them from ourselves and from God as well. Paul, however, had said earlier that he would boast about his weaknesses (2 Corinthians 11:30). So now he does just that. He can do this because he is confident that God will make up for what he lacks.

When God calls us to a specific task, he does so with full awareness of our inabilities and limitations. In fact he may call us because of those very limitations. That way it will be clear to everyone that his power is at work when we succeed, not just our own natural ability.

Paul learned to accept his thorn because he realized that ultimately it could not stop him from accomplishing God’s mission. In fact the thorn became the primary evidence of God’s power at work in him, because his success makes it clear that he must be empowered by God’s support. Paul’s thorn, even though it remains painful and embarrassing, reminds him that God provides the strength.

10. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

No one likes to be persecuted or insulted, of course. No one likes to feel inadequate to the task at hand. But Paul delights in these things for Christ’s sake. That phrase must mean that Paul is willing to suffer, if need be, in order to fulfill God’s commission for his life. Paul’s Christian life is characterized by hardship (2 Corinthians 11:23–28). It will eventually end with his execution in Rome (2 Timothy 4:6).

What Do You Think?

What do you do to remain strong when you feel weak? How do you use Philippians 4:11 in this regard?

Yet the attacks of his enemies do not stop him because, ironically, he becomes stronger and stronger the more harm they inflict. This is not in the sense that “whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” Rather, it is in the sense that God provides him with more and more power the weaker and less capable he feels.

Conclusion

A. Our Limitations

We can easily become discouraged in the face of our limitations. So often we feel that we could be much happier and much more effective if God only would resolve certain persistent problems for us.

These thorns can threaten our faith if we allow them to raise questions of God’s care for us. At the same time, however, the fact that we are able to keep pressing forward despite these obstacles reveals God’s power and sufficient grace working through our inadequacies. Viewed from this angle, we can embrace hardship with the confidence that everything that happens to us can serve a long-term benefit within God’s larger plan for our lives. This is part of what it means to live by faith, not by sight.

Visual for Lesson 13.



2 Cor 12:10 Use this visual to introduce the question above.

B. Our Serenity

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) penned what has become one of the most famous prayers of all time: “God, give us the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish one from the other.”

This simple request is powerful for its combination of faith and resolve. Many difficulties in life are within our power to overcome, and in such cases, we ask God for the courage to fight the battle. He is the one who is able to strengthen us! But we must also realize that some obstacles may never be taken out of our way in this life. Some weaknesses may plague us until we are at home with the Lord.

Things that hinder our bodies must not, however, hinder our faith. We do not abandon God over these struggles. Rather, we ask him to give us calm in the midst of the storm. The challenge is in the last line of the prayer: learning to know when to fight and when to let go. It is not surprising that the Prayer of Serenity has been adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and other recovery groups.

Some problems that we face disappear almost before we really have time to worry about them; others last long enough to distract us; some become ongoing struggles that threaten our peace of mind and our faith. Paul underwent many temporary trials, and our passage today reveals that he also labored under the pain of a persistent thorn in the flesh. He makes no bones about the fact that God refused to lift this burden and never planned to do so. Remarkably, that fact did not cripple Paul’s progress. It did not stop him from fulfilling his calling. The thorn ultimately made him stronger by forcing him to rely upon God’s power.

Sometimes we need to ask God for relief from problems. Sometimes we need to ask God repeatedly for relief from problems. Sometimes we need his strength to overcome obstacles. Sometimes we need his peace to live with those obstacles. In all circumstances we need the wisdom and faith to trust in his grace. That grace truly is sufficient for us.

Thought to Remember

Allow God’s grace to shine through your weakness.

Prayer

Father, many times we feel weak and inadequate, and we don’t understand the problems in our lives. But we know that you understand our problems. You know us better than we know ourselves.

We ask for the faith to trust you no matter what happens. Help us find the strength that only you can provide so that we can always do what you have called us to do. In Jesus’ name, amen.

 

 

    Underwood, J., Nickelson, R. L., & Underwood, J. 2005. New International Version Standard Lesson Commentary : 2005-2006 . Standard Publishing: Cincinnati