September 11, 2016
Pastor Joe Wittwer
Summer Bible Series
2 Corinthians 12
Introduction and offering:
We are winding down our Summer Bible Series. We’ve been working our way through the New Testament book of 2 Corinthians, one chapter per week, and we’re down to the last two chapters. Today, we’re going to read chapter 12, which includes one of the most fascinating episodes in the New Testament. Next week, we’ll wrap up with chapter 13.
Let me explain the context. The apostle Paul started the Corinthian church on one of his missionary journeys; he stayed in Corinth for 18 months before moving on to plant churches in other cities. During a much shorter and painful second visit, Paul was confronted by someone who opposed him. After Paul left, that opposition grew with the arrival of some traveling preachers who disparaged Paul, claiming he wasn’t a real apostle. Paul wrote this letter before his third visit to defend himself and to set the record straight.
We saw last week in chapter 11 that his opponents were bragging about their qualifications and dismissing his. Paul believed that one shouldn’t brag, unless it was bragging about God, but he felt compelled to answer their charges, and give his credentials. So he reluctantly “boasts”—he lists his credentials. In chapter 12, he wraps up the boasting he started in chapter 11, and then finishes his overall defense. You’ll see that we’re going to focus on two things: the paradox and the parent.
- The paradox: When I am weak, then I am strong. 1-10
Paul continues boasting in his credentials, by moving on to visions and revelations and relating a fascinating experience.
2 Corinthians 12
1 I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. 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. 3 And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows—4 was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. 5 I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. 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, 7 or because of these surpassingly great revelations.
Evidently Paul’s opponents were bragging about their spiritual experiences and we know the Corinthians were impressed by these. So he reluctantly tells of his own remarkable experience. Out of modesty or perhaps a sense of mystery, he tells the story in the third person, but it’s clear he’s talking about himself. Fourteen years before—when Paul was alone in the Syrian desert shortly after becoming a Christian—he was caught up into the third heaven or paradise.
What is the third heaven? The Jews and other ancient people thought of the heavens in three parts: the first heaven was the atmosphere around the earth, the air we breathe; the second heaven was the sky (or heavens) beyond our atmosphere; the third heaven was the dwelling place of God. Paul also called it “paradise” (v. 4). The Greeks borrowed this word from the Persians. It originally meant a walled garden. When the Persian king wanted to confer an honor on someone, he made him “a companion of the garden” an d he was invited to walk with the king in the royal gardens as a friend. So paradise or the third heaven was the dwelling place of God. Jesus told the repentant thief on the cross, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”
Paul is claiming that he was snatched up into the very presence of God. Twice he says that he doesn’t know if he was in the body or out of it—only God knows. But he “heard (and we presume saw) inexpressible things that no one is permitted to tell.” This is a remarkable experience that Paul kept to himself—this is the only place he ever mentions it, and then only reluctantly. If this happened to someone today, they’d be writing a book, turning it into a movie, appearing on Oprah, and doing a nationwide speaking tour! But Paul kept it to himself and reveals it here only because he feels he is forced to. Why didn’t Paul milk this experience? Why not tell everyone?
Paul pointed people to Jesus, not himself. He wanted people to be impressed with Jesus, not himself. He knew the gospel was about Jesus, not himself. It’s all about Jesus!
2 Corinthians 4:5 For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.
Paul always wanted to brag about what Jesus had done for us, not what he had done or experienced. The Big Story is all about Jesus; my story is one small part of His Big Story. When I talk about myself too much, I’ve lost the story line!
ILL: It’s like the beaver told the rabbit as they stared up at the immense wall of Hoover Dam, “No, I didn’t actually build it myself. But it was based on an idea of mine.”
Paul wanted to brag about Jesus, not himself.
Of course, the great danger of these remarkable experiences is that they could make you proud.
ILL: Life Center celebrated Easter at the Spokane Arena for a number of years. The first year, in 1996, it had been open just a few months, and we were one of, if not the first free open-to-anyone event. It was a big deal and all the local TV stations were there and featured the story on their evening news. And the next morning, Monday, April 8, the banner headline on the front page of the paper read:
5,200 Attend Easter Services At Arena
Cool. We were front page news!
On Tuesday morning, our receptionist buzzed me in my office. “You have a phone call from Foursquare headquarters (our denomination).” I thought, “They’ve heard about our Easter service clear down in LA and the president is calling to congratulate us!”
I picked up the phone, “Hi this is Joe.”
“Pastor Joe, this is Foursquare Insurance. I’m calling because you are late with your car insurance premium.” Pop! Phhhhht!
The funny part was, I didn’t even have car insurance with Foursquare—they accidentally called the wrong church! I felt like God said, “Getting a big head? Let me help with that!”
Cool experiences can make you proud, and Paul addresses that next.
Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 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 about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 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.
To keep Paul from getting conceited, God didn’t arrange a call from Foursquare insurance; Paul was given “a thorn in the flesh.” What was the thorn in the flesh? Paul didn’t think it was important to say, so we’re left to guess. The two best answers are:
- It could have been troublesome people: persecutors and opponents. What do we call someone who gives us trouble? A pain in the neck. Or the other extremity. It was the same in ancient times. Moses told the Israelites:
Numbers 33:55 But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will give you trouble in the land where you will live.
Paul’s thorn in the side could have been someone or a group of someones who consistently made trouble for him.
- It could have been a physical ailment; a “stake (or thorn) in the flesh” was a common figure of speech for excruciating physical pain. Paul could have suffered from an eye problem, migraine headaches, or recurring malarial fever.
Whatever it was, Paul did what most of us do when faced with trouble. He prayed, “Take it away!” Three times he asks God to take it away. And the Lord answered his prayer, but not as he expected. Rather than taking it away, God answered,
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
My grace is sufficient for you. God promised to give Paul the grace, the power and strength to handle it. Sometimes God takes away our thorns; but often He gives us the grace and strength to carry on in our trouble.
What trouble have you been asking God to take away? Maybe He will. Or maybe He will give you the grace to grow through it. Maybe His power will be made perfect in your weakness.
ILL: A man found a cocoon of the emperor moth and took it home to watch it emerge. One day a small opening appeared, and for several hours the moth struggled but couldn’t seem to force its body past a certain point. Deciding something was wrong, the man took scissors and snipped the remaining bit of cocoon. The moth emerged easily, its body large and swollen, the wings small and shriveled. The man expected that in a few hours the wings would spread out in their natural beauty, but they did not. Instead of developing into a creature free to fly, the moth spent its life dragging around a swollen body and shriveled wings. It turns out that the constricting cocoon and the struggle necessary to pass through the tiny opening are God’s way of forcing fluid from the body into the wings. The man’s apparent act of mercy was the moth’s death sentence. Sometimes the struggle is just what we need. God is preparing us to fly!
Maybe when you pray, “Take it away,” you are unwittingly like the man snipping the cocoon. God wants you to fly, and we grow stronger through trouble and suffering.
Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 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.
Here is paradox: when I am weak, then I am strong. Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity. My weakness is God’s opportunity to show His strength. So I can be delighted when I am weak because it’s God’s opportunity to be strong in me and for me.
What is your thorn? What are you asking God to take away? What if you changed your tune and thanked him for that, and asked Him to give you His grace and strength?
That’s the paradox; here’s the parent.
- The parent: I will gladly expend everything for my children. 11-21
In the rest of this chapter, Paul wraps up his defense and summarizes his arguments. I’ll quickly cover the main ideas, but want to land on Paul the parent who spends and expends everything for his spiritual children.
11 I have made a fool of myself, but you drove me to it. I ought to have been commended by you, for I am not in the least inferior to the “super-apostles,” even though I am nothing. 12 I persevered in demonstrating among you the marks of a true apostle, including signs, wonders and miracles. 13 How were you inferior to the other churches, except that I was never a burden to you? Forgive me this wrong!
Paul apologizes again for boasting, “but you drove me to it,” he says. He shouldn’t have to commend himself to the Corinthians; they should be commending him. He insists again that he is not inferior to these self-proclaimed “super-apostles”, and that he had demonstrated the marks of a true apostle, including signs, wonders and miracles. The only thing he hadn’t done was charge them! He refused to accept support from them—support that he had a right to—because he didn’t want to be a burden to them. His opponents had used this against him, saying that a true apostle would have accepted support and Paul didn’t because he knew his message and ministry were not worth anything.
14 Now I am ready to visit you for the third time, and I will not be a burden to you, because what I want is not your possessions but you. After all, children should not have to save up for their parents, but parents for their children. 15 So I will very gladly spend for you everything I have and expend myself as well. If I love you more, will you love me less? 16 Be that as it may, I have not been a burden to you. Yet, crafty fellow that I am, I caught you by trickery! 17 Did I exploit you through any of the men I sent to you? 18 I urged Titus to go to you and I sent our brother with him. Titus did not exploit you, did he? Did we not walk in the same footsteps by the same Spirit?
Paul tells them that he is coming for a third visit and still doesn’t want to be a financial burden to them. He sees himself as their spiritual father and says that it is the responsibility of parents to provide for their children, not vice versa. By the way, he is thinking of young children; in 1 Timothy 5 he makes it clear that adult children should be prepared to provide and care for their aging parents. He is ready to spend everything for them; all he asks is their love in return.
Evidently some of Paul’s opponents were accusing him of using the offering for the poor in Jerusalem as a cover, a sneaky way to raise money for himself. Paul rejects that with sarcasm and insists that neither he nor Titus, his representative, would exploit them like that. He finishes:
19 Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves to you? We have been speaking in the sight of God as those in Christ; and everything we do, dear friends, is for your strengthening. 20 For I am afraid that when I come I may not find you as I want you to be, and you may not find me as you want me to be. I fear that there may be discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder. 21 I am afraid that when I come again my God will humble me before you, and I will be grieved over many who have sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual sin and debauchery in which they have indulged.
This is a little heads up for his visit—kind of like a parent saying, “When I come home, your room better be cleaned up and your bed made!” Paul is saying, “When I come, I don’t want to find a mess! I don’t want to be grieved by your sin, so get ready—I’m coming to visit.”
I want to finish by going back to verses 14-15.
14 Now I am ready to visit you for the third time, and I will not be a burden to you, because what I want is not your possessions but you. After all, children should not have to save up for their parents, but parents for their children. 15 So I will very gladly spend for you everything I have and expend myself as well.
Paul says, “I don’t want your money, I don’t want your possessions; I want you.” That’s Paul’s heart and that’s God’s heart. God wants you! Turn to your neighbor and tell them, “God wants you.” I often say, “Jesus doesn’t want much; He wants everything.” He wants you—all of you, all your love. And the good news is that you only keep what you give away. Jesus said, “If you keep your life you lose it; if you give your life away for me you find it.” Missionary Jim Eliot famously said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” You can’t keep your life—try and you’ll lose it. But in giving your life away, you’ll find it.
Paul understood this, which is why he said, “Children should not have to save up for their parents, but parents for the children.” He is explaining why he wasn’t asking support from them, and he uses an example we all understand. Parents spend for their kids—and spend and spend and spend. A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report pegged the cost of having a baby– and raising that child to adulthood – at $245,340 in 2014. A quarter of a million dollars! And we had five of them! Honey, we could have been rich!
Paul, like a good parent, wrote to his spiritual children in Corinth, “I will very gladly spend for you everything I have and expend myself as well.” Spend and expend: the Greek words are dapanaou and ekdapanaou. The first means to spend, the second means to spend everything. Spend and expend. This is what we parents do, right? We spend everything—not just our money, but we expend our love, our time, our energy, our lives for our children.
Question: How many of you finally realized as adults how much your parents expended themselves for you?
ILL: I was born with pyloric stenosis, a blockage of the opening from the stomach to the small intestine. Food would pile up in my stomach until the gag reflex kicked in and I threw it all up. It’s called projectile vomiting and my mom said I could lie in my crib and hit the ceiling. I’ve always been gifted! I was born over 8 pounds, but at six weeks weighed only 5 pounds when they did the surgery that saved my life. My parents were poor, and it took years to pay off that debt. That was only the beginning of a lifetime of spending and expending themselves for me.
This is what parents do: we spend and expend ourselves for our children.
This is why we spend so much on Life Center Kids—our outstanding children’s ministry. It’s what we’re supposed to do. We spend scads of money and time and energy to help our kids find and follow Jesus, and to assist you, their parents, in their spiritual development. Today, your kids are having a blast at LC Kids. When you pick them up, be sure to thank the adults who are expending their time for them. And if you want to help, we’re always looking for volunteers who understand the value and importance of investing in our children. It’s a great way to spend and expend yourself for children.
Paul applies this idea to the adults in the Corinthian church too. “I will spend everything and expend my life for you.” Paul gave his life away for these people. We are following Jesus who gave His life away for us, and calls us to give our lives away for others. Give your life away! You only keep what you give away. Spend and expend yourself for your kids. And spend and expend yourselves for others—give your life away this week by loving your neighbor, listening to that lonely person, sharing what you have with those in need. There are a thousand ways to be generous with your life. Give your life away and you’ll find it!