CHRIST IN US 2 Corinthians 12–13“He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you. For to be sure, He was crucified in weakness, yet He lives in God’s power. Likewise, we are weak in Him, yet by God’s power we will live with Him to serve you” (2 Cor. 13:3–4).Christ in us remains the source of our strength.
Paul’s chronic illness exhibited Christ’s power at work through weakness (12:1–10). Paul’s “defense” had been motivated by a desire to help the Corinthians understand and repent (vv. 11–21). Christ will surely discipline those who do not test themselves (13:1–10). Paul closed abruptly, with very brief greetings (vv. 11–14).
Understanding the Text
“Visions and revelations” 2 Cor. 12:1–6. Anyone other than Paul would have quickly broadcast reports of the stunning vision of paradise he alluded to here. Paul, however, preferred to highlight his weaknesses. Why? In part perhaps because the revelation Paul mentioned may have been personal: an encouragement from God strengthening Paul for the hardships ahead. But Paul had another reason. He knew that no one’s faith can rest on secondhand experiences. The conversion and growth of the Corinthians must be a response to the Word Paul had been called to teach, not to Paul’s report of a personal supernatural experience. Paul wanted the Corinthians to base their belief on what Paul said (his teaching of truth) and did (his modeling of truth). In this way the Corinthians’ faith would be rooted in their own experience of God, not Paul’s. You and I can testify to what God is doing in our lives, and so bless others. But no one can have our experience “secondhand.” At best such testimonies encourage others to step out in personal response to God’s Word, and experience Him for themselves. “There was given me a thorn in my flesh” 2 Cor. 12:7–10. Scholars still debate the nature of Paul’s “thorn in the flesh.” Most often mentioned is a disfiguring eye disease that made it difficult for Paul to read and write (cf. Gal. 6:11). All we really know is that it troubled Paul greatly. So greatly that he prayed futilely for its removal and that he finally came to appreciate his thorn as a weakness through which Christ’s power might be more clearly displayed (see DEVOTIONAL). The lesson Paul learned can encourage us all. That sense of weakness we feel need not keep us from ministering confidently. In fact, it is a source of confidence. The more clearly I realize that God’s power is best expressed in weak human beings, the more freedom I will have to serve. And the more Christ will use me. “I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses” 2 Cor. 12:9. In a significant little book on ministry (When the Vision Has Vanished), Bob Girard reviews the weaknesses that Paul mentioned in 2 Corinthians 11–12. He notes that Paul admits: he was not a skillful speaker (11:6) he was seen as a “weak” leader (11:21) he had a prison record (11:23) he was wracked by internal conflict (11:28–29) his prayers had gone unanswered (12:8–9) he had been insulted (12:10) he had been in distress (12:10) he had experienced persecution (12:10) he had been afraid of disappointments (12:20) he had been afraid of rejection (12:20) he had been afraid of facing difficult situations (12:20) he had feared public humiliation (12:21) he had feared he would break down and cry publicly (12:21) he had been afraid people would not listen, but keep on being rebellious (12:21). Yet all these things which might make us stamp “failure” on Paul’s forehead were actually turned by God into strengths. Paul faced his weaknesses, accepted them, and in complete confidence that God would work through a weak—and thus humble—man, set out to serve with all his might. When we catalog Paul’s successes, the churches he planted, the letters he wrote, the clarification he brought to the nature of Christian faith, we might well stand amazed. All this done by an admittedly weak man? Yes. Because in his weakness this man trusted himself completely to Jesus, so that Christ’s power might rest on him. What an exciting prospect for you and me. Let’s not conceal our weaknesses, or deny them. Let’s learn to use them, to turn our hearts to Christ that we might know His power. “The things that mark an apostle” 2 Cor. 12:11–18. The Corinthians were unwilling to take weakness as a mark of apostleship. Or even Paul’s failure to demand money! So Paul reminded them that God “persistently” performed miracles among them while he was there. Paul became a bit sarcastic now. What a crafty fellow! He tricked them into following him by not demanding money! And the only explanation he had was love! How strange that some Christians are totally loyal to those who exploit them for money. More than one minister has said, and truthfully, “My people want me to drive a Mercedes. They expect me to have a half-million dollar home.” And more than one congregation has been contemptuous of those who serve them out of love. The things you and I see as marks of apostleship are often the measure, not of the man we evaluate, but of our own spiritual maturity and insight. “Everything we do . . . is for your strengthening” 2 Cor. 12:19–21. When I first read 2 Corinthians, I was embarrassed for Paul. I misunderstood what he was doing in sharing so openly. Only later did I understand how a careful study of 2 Corinthians is not only a course in Christian leadership, but a guidebook for congregations. If the Corinthians would only understand the implications of Paul’s sharing in this deeply personal book, their view of ministering and ministry would be transformed. Then they would respond, not to the exploitative “super-apostle,” but to the “weak” Paul. And following him rather than other divisive leaders would bring an end to the “quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder” that marked the church. Have you learned the lessons Paul was so eager to teach? Does your church understand? Look around. The existence in any church of these sins of Corinth suggests that leaders and people alike have missed Paul’s point. “He is not weak in dealing with you” 2 Cor. 13:1–10. Paul now warned the Corinthians. If they did not respond, he would use the authority he had been given by God to discipline them. The issue of authority has troubled the church in every age. Too often authority has meant power, and power the ability to punish. Thus some leaders have assumed a worldly kind of authority, and ruled over God’s people. Paul rejected worldly authority in all its forms. Yet he warned the Corinthians of the danger of resisting the authority he had received from Christ. What is this authority Paul had, and how was it exercised? Paul said simply “He [Christ] is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you” (v. 3). Paul’s authority was from Christ, and rested entirely on Christ’s work among His people. He, Paul, didn’t have to do anything to discipline the Corinthians. Jesus, living in His church, “is powerful among you.” When Suzie began living with a married man, we elders went to see her. We encouraged her to see that what she was doing was sin, and to break off the relationship. When she refused, we followed the biblical pattern for discipline laid down by Paul in 1 Corinthians. But we also rebuked Suzie. God does not permit His own to ruin their lives by habitually practicing sin. Exercising our authority, we sternly warned her. What were we elders going to do? Put her in jail? Fine her? Burn down her house? Of course not. We had no worldly power. But we knew that Christ lives, and is powerful in His church. Our warning simply meant that unless she repented and turned back to the Lord, Christ Himself would act. And He did. True spiritual leadership relies on God for spiritual results. And relies on Him to exercise authority over the church which is Christ’s body. “Aim for perfection” 2 Cor. 13:11–14. It’s not enough to be an “average church.” It’s not enough to wait patiently for Jesus to return. God calls us all to aim for perfection: to work toward the goal of fulfilling Christ’s purpose in our individual and corporate lives. For this we too must hear Paul’s appeal to the Corinthians, to be of one mind, and to live with one another in peace.
Unexpected Gifts(2 Cor. 12:1–10)
“Why has this happened to me?” She was a young woman, with two children. An aerobics instructor, and a teacher. She’d hurt her back, and been told an operation would solve the problem. But something terrible went wrong. Nerves were cut, and suddenly she found herself able to walk only with the aid of a walker and, most awful of all, without bowel or bladder control. Some Christians give peculiar answers to the question of “why?” “You didn’t have enough faith,” some will say. And they are likely to add, “Claim the promises of God and even now He’ll heal you.” Another person will say, “You sinned in going to a doctor. You should have relied on God only.” I suppose that Paul offered the strangest answer of all. It’s found in verse 7. “Your back injury and the operation were a gift from God.” That’s what pops out if you look at this verse in the Greek. Edothe moi skolops te sarki, it says. “THERE WAS GIVEN ME a thorn in the flesh.” And that word “was given” is a word used to denote special favors given by the Lord to His saints (cf. Gal. 3:21; Eph. 3:8; 1 Tim. 4:14). God gave Paul a terrifying weakness, a chronic illness, and though Paul prayed desperately for relief, God caused Paul to live with it the rest of his life. As a gift. You and I do others no favor when we tell them that God guarantees His children health and wealth in this life. That simply is not true. We do them no favor when we tell them if they only have enough faith, they’ll be healed. That’s not true either. Paul prayed with total confidence, only to learn that the answer was no. He learned in time that the weakness which devastated him was truly a gift from God. A gift that enabled him to experience God’s grace, presence, and power, in ways he would never have experienced them otherwise. Perhaps this is what we need to tell others, or remind ourselves of, when tragedy strikes and disaster comes. God gives His own strange gifts. But gifts they are. As we seek His strength, we’ll discover a depth to our relationship with the Lord that we would otherwise never have known. And a strength that makes weakness a triumph and a joy.
God’s best gifts are often wrapped in tragedy and suffering.
“I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, then all the world would be wise. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness and the willingness to remain vulnerable.”—Anne Morrow Lindbergh