26 March • Fifth Sunday in Lent
2 Corinthians 11:16—12:10
16. 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. 17 What I am saying with this boastful confidence, I say not as the Lord would but as a fool. 18 Since many boast according to the flesh, I too will boast. 19 For you gladly bear with fools, being wise yourselves! 20 For you bear it if someone makes slaves of you, or devours you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or strikes you in the face. 21 To my shame, I must say, we were too weak for that!
But whatever anyone else dares to boast of—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast of that. 22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I. 23 Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. 24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?
30. If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. 31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, he who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. 32 At Damascus, the governor under King Aretas was guarding the city of Damascus in order to seize me, 33 but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall and escaped his hands.
12:1 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. 2 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. 3 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— 4 and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. 5 On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses— 6 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. 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. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave 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 of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 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.
In the life of a Christian believer, one experience will invariably come as a “required experience” for all believers. This is the experience of God's grace at a time of our utter weakness and brokenness, we discover the reality of God's grace and strength. Such an experience is actually an extension of our conversion encounter with the Lord. At conversion, we tell God we cannot save ourselves; only He can save us. God's grace that rescued us from the penalty of sin must continue to sustain us throughout our walk with Him.
In this regard, Paul boasts of his weakness. Unlike those whom he calls "super-apostles" (see 2 Cor 11:5; 12:11), he will not boast about his achievements and successes, but about his weakness. When we talk about our successes and accomplishments, we draw attention to ourselves. When we talk about our weakness and struggles, we draw attention to God and His accomplishment.
Paul goes on to talk about “the thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7). We are not sure what the thorn is. It has been interpreted as a chronic physical illness, or weakness towards a particular temptation, or the relentless opposition of the fellow-Jews (see Num 33:55). Whatever it is, we can understand the "thorn” as anything that drives us to a point of despair in ourselves.
Paul asks three times for the thorn to be removed, but each time God's answer is, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." (2 Cor 12:9). God's grace is available and sufficient, but we discover it only when we come to the end of ourselves. When our weakness is complete, God's strength is also made complete in us.
We cry, “I can't! I just can't!" The Lord's answer to such a cry of desperation is, "Yes, you can't, but I can." Someone has said, "A true saint never says he can't because it never occurs to him that he can."
Such is the paradox of the cross. Jesus hangs from the cross in utter helplessness. He dies that He may live. He is defeated that He may become victorious, He becomes weak that He may become strong. Such is also the paradox of the Christian life.
For the Christian, despair is not the end. It is only the beginning. It is the end of self, and the beginning of God. “For when I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Cor 12:10). The end is only the beginning.
Lord Jesus, Your grace is indeed sufficient in every situation, Your strength is perfect in my weakness, so let me boast of my weakness that all glory may go to You. Amen.
Have you had this “required experience” so far? If yes, reflect on lessons learnt. If no, memorise the words of Jesus and Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 to be ready for it.
Rev Dr David W F Wong
Bible-Presbyterian Church in Singapore