NOTES II Corinthians
12:7-10 (click here for
Following his discussion of his rapture into heaven where he was personally taught by the Lord Jesus and where he heard things he was not permitted to tell, Paul then explains that following this experience, he received a "thorn" in his flesh to prevent him from becoming conceited. The Bible nowhere explains what this severe affliction was, but we know Paul understood it to be "a messenger of Satan" sent to torment him. Scripture gives several exam ples of Satan,, subject to God's sovereignty, nevertheless being divinely allowed to test or tempt God's people. In spite of his arrogance and relentless attempts to dethrone Jesus and to keep humanity from trusting Him, Satan still is subject to His sovereign rule. Even his tormenting of believers cannot happen unless God permits it. When one of God's people needs special discipline, sometimes God gives Satan access to that person as a means to help him or her to surrender to God and to trust him. Sometimes, even, one believer's testing may not even be exclusively for his sor her own growth but may be facilitating the growth of others who are in his sphere of influence.
The Bible contains many examples of God's people suffering or experiencing testing directly caused by Satan or his fallen angels. The oldest such story provides the foundation for understanding the concept of God's sovereignty presiding over both believers and over Satan's influence on them. Job 1:9-12 and 2:3-7 tell the story of Satan's appearing at a council in heaven and challenging God about Job who, Satan accused, was faithul because he was blessed. God gave Satan permission to destroy everything Job had-including his seven children-and ultimately to break his health, but Job still clung to his faith in God. Job's friends did not understand and accused him of harboring sin which deserved this intense punishment. His wife told him to curse God. Yet Job held onto what he personally knew of God and refused to curse Him or to claim responsibility for his suffering. Although God did heal Job and restored his wealth, even giving him seven more children, he never knew why he suffered as he did. He never knew that Satan personally attacked him in an attempt to tempt him into losing faith. Job held onto his faith in God in spite of his inexplicable suffering, and by faith he was healed and vindicated even though he never understood what was happening in the spiritual realm.
Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil following his baptism, just as God led Israel into the desert to test and humble them and to know what was in their hearts. (Deuteronomy 8:1-5) God specifically arranged for Satan to directly test Jesus after 40 days of fasting. (see Matthew 4:1-10) Jesus' successful defeat of Satan's temptations identified him as the true Israelite, the Man from God who alone could successfully endure a desert experience and still maintain faith and loyalty to God when faced with a direct attack from Satan. Jesus defeated Satan in a face-to-face attack. Anything less than a satanic assault would have left questions about Jesus' divinty and power. God arranged for Jesus to endure this intense temptation, and His successful defeat of Satan established Him as the Man God had promised. Only the Messiah could have resisted Satan after wandering, exhausted, hungry, and thirsty, for 40 days in the wildernesss. By accomplishing this desert testing, Jesus established himself as the true Israelite who redeemed Israel's 40 years of desert wandering and promised redemption to God's people.
Paul also refers to Satan being involved in the discipline of God's people. In 1 Corinthians 5:4-5 he wrote about an unrepentant brother who persisted in sin. He instructed the church that when they were gathered in the name of the Lord and with His power, they were to hand this man over to Satan so his "sinful nature will be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord." In other words, they were to put this man out of the protection of church fellowship and allow him to be assaulted in the world as a means of bringing him to his senses, much like the prodigal son, so he would return to the Lord. The goal was not destruction; it was restoration.
The fellowship of the church is a place of spiritual protection (but not immunity) from evil. The discipline Paul recommended would put this unrepentant man outside that protection where he would be vulnerable to the direct attacks of Satan. In his sovereignty, God uses even Satan as a medium to help accomplish His will. Although he is rebellious, Satan cannot usurp God's authority in the universe, not even His authority over Satan himself.
Similarly, Paul addressed the fact that some have "shipwrecked their faith" by not "holding on to faith and a good conscience." He names two men, Hymenaeus and Alexander, who had been thus shipwrecked and whom Paul had "handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme." (1 Timothy 1:18-20) They had been put out of the protection of the church into the world where Satan had access to them. They were allowed to suffer Satan's attacks as a means of driving them to awareness and repentance.
In 2 Corinthians 2:10-11 Paul also talks about Satan's access to believers if their hearts are unrepentant toward each other. He admonishes the Corinthians to forgive those who have done wrong but are repentant. The context of this verse suggests he is addressing corporate forgiveness of someone who had been disciplined for persistent sin. If the person repents, Paul is saying, the church must forgive and restore him so "that Satan might not outwit us." Rigid, legalistic unforgiveness can create an environment in which Satan's influence of punitive judgment destroys the body of Christ and makes it a spiritually unsafe environment.
Ultimately, every Christ-follower is in opposition to Satan and his evil minions. Our battle is not with other humans even if they're not born again. Paul tells us to put on our spiritual armor as protection in our struggle which "is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." (Ephesians 6:12) Jesus prayed that the Father would not take us out of the world but that He would protect us in the world. Although he is already defeated, Satan is still at large. We are Satan's direct enemies because the Spirit of the risen Christ is in us. We can expect Satanic attacks againsts the ministry God gives us and against us personally when we are doing His will. We are to protect ourselves by staying in relationship with Jesus, and we can know that Satan is subject to God's sovereignty. God can use him in as an agent of discipline or destruction, but Satan cannot attack unless God gives him permission.
The Father Disciplines and Tests His Children
God takes personal responsibility for us when we become his children. He assumes authority over our spiritual growth and over our work for him. Part of his work in our lives is the allowance of testing and the administration of discipline. In the case of Job mentioned above, God authorized his testing. While Satan initiated the attack on Job's motives and character, it was God who declared that Satan could destroy all Job had and take his health. God was sovereign; he permitted Satan to attack only to the point God established as the limit, but God did authorize the testing. The case of Job is an example of God working in a person's life to explain a universal principle to the universe. Job never understood why his misfortune occurred. He only knew he would refuse to curse God even when God's face seemed to be turned from him. Sometime we, as Christ-followers, endure suffering and trials that never make sense to us. In the eternal picture, however, the things we experience may actually be for the training and discipline of others as well. Without the story of Job, we would not understand the providential sovereignty behind our trials. We would not know that our faith makes a statement not only to our brothers and sisters but also to the evil powers in the universe.
God also authorizes discipline in our lives to stimulate our spiritual growth. "Blessed is the man you discipline, O Lord," David wrote. (Psalm 94:12) Again in Psalm 118:18 he writes that God has chastened him severly but has not given him over to death. In 1 Corinthians 11:28-32 Paul makes the interesting comment that we Christ-followers are "judged by the Lord". In fact, he says that when we're judged by the Lord, we're being disciplined so we won't "be condemned with the world." The author of Hebrews also states that God disciplines us because we are his sons. The purpose of our discipline is so that we will share in his holiness and so we will reap a "harvest of righteousness and peace". (Hebrews 12:7-10) Our response to discipline from God is to submit to it and allow it to train us.
The trials we endure are inevitable. As Christ-followers we can expect to take the arrows for Jesus, because we bring his literal presence to the world by means of His Spirit in us. When we suffer for the sake of Christ, we are sharing His sufferings. We are to remember that we're blessed when we're insulted, "for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on [us]". (1 Peter 4:12-19) These same trials are also the means of our increasing trust and surrender to Jesus.
In addition to trials which we suffer directly for the sake of Christ, we may also experience trials which seem random and destructive. These, too, we must understand to be God's discipline of us. Our response to such suffering should be submission to Jesus' will, humbly asking him to teach us, to redeem the suffering, and to teach us what he wants us to surrender to him. It is always appropriate to ask for God's healing and intervention, but if he says "No," as he did to Paul, we must be willing to allow Jesus to be in the place of our suffering and to be our strength and reward.
We know, however, that Satan is already a defeated foe. Even though he still wields power and influence, he is subject to the authority of Jesus. (Colossians 2:10) He will not have the last word, and he cannot have any power that God does not allow him to to take. His end is already known. On the occasion of humanity's first sin, God told the serpent that the Eve's offspring would crush his head while the serpent would only bruise His heal. (Genesis 3:15) In Romans 16:20 Paul assures his readers that "the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet." Not only will Jesus crush Satan the serpent's head, he will crush him under the feet of Christ-followers. In other words, God will vindicate all those who have followed Jesus and have honored Him even in the face of assaults and temptations from Satan. The last book of the Bible is evenn more specifric about Satan's end. He will be thrown into the lake of burning sulfer and tormented day and night forever and ever. (Revelation 20:10)
Although we suffer and endure discipline, God will mature and protect us through these things. Ultimately our future is completely secure. We will not have to deal with Satan after time ends!
Power Perfected in Weakness
Three times Paul pleaded with the Lord to take the thorn in his flesh from him. But God would not remove it. "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness," the Lord told Paul. (v. 9)
His pleading with God is reminiscent of Jesus' suffering in Gethsemane. Three times Jesus prayed, begging God to take the cup of suffering from him if it was His will. God did not release Jesus from his ordeal, but he did send an angel from heaven to strengthen him in his suffering. (Matthew 26:39-44, Luke 22:43)
Instead of release from his "thorn", Paul was promised grace at the very point of his weakness. "Grace" is undeserved blessing or favor. The grace of God functions in our lives in different ways. The first, most basic experience of grace we receive is our justification before God through Christ's death and resurrection. (Romans 3:23-24) In fact, whenever a person discovers that the law of God condemns him to death for his sin, grace increases. Grace "will reign through righteousness" to bring us eternal life through Jesus. (Romans5:20-21) In other words, because of Jesus' righteousness, grace, not sin, will define our lives, and will have eternal life because He covers us with his righteousenss. Ephesians 2:8 says we are saved by grace which is completely a gift of God. This salvation has nothing to do with our own works; it is entirely a gift from God. (Romans 11:5-6)
Further, because of Jesus' grace, sin will no longer be our master. The curse of the law has been broken because of Jesus, and as Christ-followers we live under his grace instead of under the law. (Romans 6:14) In Titus 2:11-14 Paul emphasizes this point further. The grace of God "has appeared to all men," he says, and it bring salvation and teaches us to say "No" to ungodliness and worldly passions and to live self-controlled, godly, upright lives. From the fullness of His grace, John says in John 1:16, we have all received one blessing after another.
God's grace is an inexplicable and powerful force. It grants us righteousness that is not our own, gives us eternal life when we do not deserve it, and changes us into godly people. When God told Paul that he would not remove the thorn in his flesh but would, instead give him his grace, he was giving Paul something that would transcend his suffering. He was giving Paul the ability keep his trust in Jesus alive, and he was also granting Paul His own divine power to honor God and to minister in ways he would not be able to if he were not continually enduring affliction. One of the paradoxes of God's grace is that it is most powerful in our lives when we are the most weak and dependent. When we are helpless and hurting, unable to navigate successfully through the troubles of our lives, that is the time we experience the miraculous power of God's grace. The place of our deepest heart wounds is the place where we discover the healing and peace of Jesus' grace.
Delighting in Weakness
Paul continues by saying he delights in weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and difficulties. To a "natural man", such statements sound masochistic. From the persepctive of a Christ-follower, however, they have a completely different meaning from "enjoying trouble". Jesus said we would be blessed when we suffer these things for his sake, because our reward in heaven would be great. (Matthew 5:11-12) Paul tells the Corinthians that as God's servant, he commends himself to them in his suffering and hardships. What he endures, he endures for their spiritual benefit. ( 2 Corinthians 6:4) He is preaching the gospel and caring for them, and the attacks he receives are because he is being true to Jesus. He is upsetting the status quo, and his evangelism is making people angry. He told the Thessalonians that he boasted about their perseverance and faith under pressure and trials. The fact that they were suffering for the gospel, he told them, is the indication that they would be "counted worthy of the kingdom". Furthermore, he reassured them, God is just and will pay back trouble to those who caused them trouble and will give relief to the troubled ones. (1 Thessalonians 1: 4-10)
When we are involved in doing the work God appoints to us, he supplies the power and strength we need for the job. Even though we may be weak, God's power will keep us in Him so we can serve. (2 Corinthians 13:4) If we are called to speak, our ability or preparedness are not an issue. God will make our speech a demonstration of His power. (2 Corinthians 2:3) We can pray that God will strengthen us with power from His Spirit in our inner beings. (Ephesians 3:16-19) We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. (Philippians 4:13) God will strengthen us with "power through his glorious might" as we bear fruit and grow in the knowledge of God. (Colossians 1:10-12) We can thank God that he considers us faithful, appoints us to his service, and gives us strength. (1 Timothy 1:12)
God's plans for us include not only service for him but the strength to carry out his work. They include discipline for our growth and also taking arrows for Christ. Further, they are marked by his divine strength in our lives at the very points of our greatest weaknesses. Best of all, God's plans for us include growing intimacy with him and a glorious future with him in eternity.
God allows suffering and trials to come into your life so you will learn to trust him increasingly. Whatever the persistent, recurrent struggles are in your life, God wants you to let Him be sovereign over them. Instead of focussing on managing or eliminating problems that seem beyond your control, Jesus wants you to rest in Him. Ask Him to come into the place in your life where you suffer, whether your suffering is physical, emotional, or psychological, or whether it is time demands and responsibilites that are overwhelming. Ask him to help your heart to rest and to help you accept God's oversight of your concern. Ask him to give you the Spirit's wisdom so you can approach your problems with the mind of Christ. And ask God to make your heart contented so you can accept your limitations and powerlessness. Ask God to give you his power and strength and to glorify himself in your circumstances.
God is asking you to acknowledge that even your personal strengths are worth nothing eternally without the empowering of His Spirit. Your natural giftedness does not qualify you to do the work of God.
On the other hand, your weaknesses do not disqualify you to do God's work. God assigns his spiritual gifts to his people according to his sovereign will, and he also prepares their work for them in advance. What God wants to accomplish through you, he will empower you to do. He will strengthen you beyond your natural strength when necessary; he will multiply your time in ways you cannot explain. He will give you peace in your heart that transcends the chaos around you.
Further, God will protect you from evil. Even when Satan has been given divine permission to attempt to derail you, God himself holds you in his hand and will protect you from the evil one.
God is asking for your trust. He is asking for you to trust him to accomplish his work and his will in your life. He is asking you to trust him even when it seems there is no hope. At those moments of deepest agony, God's strength transforms reality.
Praise God for choosing us before the creation of the world. Praise Jesus for being the Lamb slain from eternity to restore us to the Father. Praise the Holy Spirit for making of us what we could never be on our own.
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for revealing himself to and through
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