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Author:Rev. George van Popta
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Congregation:Jubilee Canadian Reformed Church
 Ottawa, Ontario
Preached At:Ancaster Canadian Reformed Church
 Ancaster, Ontario
Title:Thorns in the flesh
Text:2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Reading: 2 Cor 11:30-12:11

Text: 2 Cor 12:7-10

Singing: Ps. 134; Ps. 135:10; Ps. 56:3,4; Ps. 142:1,4,5; Ps. 73:7,8
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. George van Popta, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ:

Have you ever had a splinter stuck in your hand or in a finger that was very difficult to pull out? Or have you ever jabbed your finger on a thorn-say on a rose bush or a weed in your garden? That is painful, isn't it?

Or have you ever had that miserable side ache-that pain right about here in your side from running a long distance? Not too pleasant, is it?

If you have a splinter or a thorn stuck in your hand, then you cannot use that hand as you would like to. It restricts you, and it is all you can think of. Or if you have a side ache, then you've got to stop running. You cannot run any farther. These things bother you. And they place restrictions on you-what you can and cannot do.

And so it is in our lives. In our earthly existence, we are bothered by thorns, by splinters, by aching pains. There are things in our lives with which we must contend which place restrictions on us. It might be something physical. It might be something psychological. In this imperfect life, we are bothered by certain things, certain problems that make us feel inadequate. We want to be able to do 'this' or 'that', but we cannot, because of 'this' physical or 'that' psychological thorn in our lives.

We shouldn't think that we are bothered by these specific problems because of bad luck. Also this is part of the plan of God for our lives-individually and collectively. God allows such things, which might well be very unpleasant, to enter our lives to keep us humble and dependent upon Him and His all-sufficient grace.

We can see this also with the apostle Paul. Paul had a thorn in his flesh. God let this thorn torment him to keep him humble and to keep him depending upon one thing: the all-sufficient grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.

I proclaim to you the Word of God under this theme:


1. Paul's request to have the thorn removed; 2. The Lord's response to Paul's request; 3. Paul's acceptance of the Lord's response.

1. Paul asked the Lord to take away the thorn in his flesh.

Let me sketch in the background.

The church at Corinth was a product of the missionary activities of the apostle Paul. He had planted the church there. However, after he had left, other teachers had arisen in the church who had stirred up trouble. They talked Paul down. They made the people question the apostolic authority of the Paul. They ridiculed him. From 10:10 we learn that these false teachers said that while Paul dared to talk big through the mail, in person he was not all that impressive. These false teachers compared themselves to Paul and tried to convince the members of the church that they were better-smarter, more faithful-you name it, they had Paul beat hands down. Sarcastically, Paul called them "super-apostles."

But then, Paul needed to defend his apostolic authority. For the sake of Christ. Because, really, it was Christ being challenged. He is upset that he needs to do it. But he must. He must boast about his service to the Lord Jesus Christ, about his qualifications as an apostle. He hates doing it. He even calls himself a fool for doing so. But, as he said, the members of the church at Corinth forced him to do so. He had no choice. He needed to prove that he was a true apostle coming with the true gospel of Jesus Christ and that the "super-apostles" were, in fact, false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ (as he said in 11:13) who came with another gospel which was no gospel.

He was everything that the "super-apostles" were, and more. They were Hebrews, Israelites, and children of Abraham; so was Paul. He had endured much more for the sake of Christ than they had. Then he gives that impressive list of suffering in 11:24 ff. Five times he'd been lashed with the 40 lashes less one. Three times, beaten with rods. Once he was stoned. Three times shipwrecked. Hungry, cold, in constant danger. Paul wore these as badges. He was allowed to share in the suffering of Christ.

And to top it all off, he could lay claim to something to which these "super-apostles" could not. 14 years before he wrote this, he had been caught up to third heaven. He wasn't sure whether it had been a visionary experience or whether his body too had been raptured to third heaven. But he knew that God had allowed him to hear amazing things.

By "third heaven" he meant the same thing as Paradise. First heaven is simply the sky above us-the sky where the clouds are and where the birds fly. Second heaven is what we call "space"-where the stars and the planets are. Third heaven is the dwelling place of God which is beyond second heaven.

Paul had a revelation of this. He heard things impossible to tell. They cannot be put into words. Neither was he allowed to utter the things he heard.

That's impressive. What a privilege to receive a revelation, a vision of the very dwelling place of God. Paul had been allowed to see Paradise-to see the place which God inhabits and that place to which all the dead saints of God are gathered up. The "super-apostles" couldn't lay claim to anything like this. Try beat that.

But then Paul gets to his real point. He finally arrives at the point to which he was driving. If there is anyone who has reason to boast, it is him. Compared to Paul, the "super-apostles" have not got much to speak about.

But, said Paul, he would not boast about this. The super-apostles had forced him to tell the Corinthians about it so that he could convince them of his apostolic authority. But he wasn't going to brag about this. Instead, he would boast of his weakness.

For Christ had taught him not to boast about the revelations and visions he had seen and heard. Rather, he taught him to boast in his weakness. He taught him this by letting Satan plunge a thorn into his life.

He said in v. 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.

Likely Paul was given this thorn shortly after he had received the revelation of third heaven. The Lord knew that Paul would have a tendency towards conceit because of the visions he'd seen, and so the Lord put the brakes on him by allowing Satan to torment him with a thorn.

God allowed this. In both the OT and the NT Satan has no power other than that allowed him by God. And God makes even Satan's evil designs serve his (God's) good purpose.

Just like God, in his wisdom and providence, in his sovereignty, had allowed Satan to harass Job, so now God permitted Satan to harass Paul. As we confess in BC 13 (The Providence of God): We know that God holds in check the devil and all our enemies so that they cannot hurt us without His permission and will. God permitted Satan to afflict Paul.

What was the thorn? We don't know. Many suggestions have been made. For 1500 years now, Bible scholars have been suggesting one thing or another. Some have said that it was epilepsy, or malaria, or bouts of depression, or remorse over how he had treated Christians before his conversion. Others have speculated that it was migraine headaches, or leprosy, or a speech impediment. Dozens of suggestions have been made as to what Paul's thorn was, but there no certainty. We simply cannot know for sure what it was. There is some evidence from other letters that Paul had trouble with his vision. But, again, we don't know what it was.

What we do know is that it was something severe. The Greek word translated as "thorn" in the English Bible originally meant "stake"-a stake upon which criminals were executed. It was very cruel and painful. Whatever Paul's thorn was, it was awful.

As a messenger of Satan, it tormented him. "Torment" gives the idea of punching in the head, of cuffing about, of boxing in the ears. The same word was used to describe how the Lord Jesus was abused by the soldiers and priests. They cuffed him and punched him.

In the same way, this messenger of Satan cuffed Paul about. It did so constantly. It gave him no rest. Whether it was something physical, or psychological, mental or spiritual, it bothered him deeply. So deeply, that three times he stopped everything and besought the Lord that it should leave him. He prayed earnestly for the Lord to take it away. Three times he struggled with the Lord in prayer asking for relief. The thorn was hampering him. It was keeping him from working at his full potential. "I could do so much more for you, Lord! I could be a much more effective minister if you were to take it away. Please, please remove it from my life."

In this way he cried to the glorified Christ three times ... just like the humiliated Christ cried to his Father three times. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed three times, "If possible, Father, let this cup pass from me." It looked like Satan was going to win the battle. The Lord Jesus was suffering so severely he could hardly take it anymore. It seemed that Satan was going to win in delivering a final and crushing blow.

In the same way, it seemed that Satan was going to succeed in destroying Paul and his work by the thorn he had thrust into his flesh. And so Paul prayed for relief.

We can imagine how sympathetically the Lord Jesus listened to the apostle Paul as he cried to him about his thorn. As Heb. 5:17 says, Jesus himself, in the days of his flesh, offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death. The Lord knew what it was like to be cuffed about by Satan. He knew what Paul was going through.

And he knows what you are going through. Perhaps you have a thorn in the flesh, something that torments you. I said earlier that we don't know what Paul's thorn was. And I'm thankful about that. Imagine if we knew that his problem was, say, malaria. Then only those people who have that particular thorn-who have malaria-could identify with what Paul said here and be comforted by the message of this part of Scripture. But since we do not know what his thorn was, since it remains undefined, we can all identify with what the apostle says. And we can all be greatly comforted.

For who of us is not afflicted in this life, this vale of tears? Maybe it's a psychological or mental problem. Maybe you are easily depressed. You feel a bout of depression (or anxiety) coming on, and it seems like you are about to choke. Maybe there is an empty feeling, because of the death of a loved one-an empty feeling that just won't go way. Or perhaps it's a physical problem-a sickness, or a disease. Or injury from a bad accident. Or loneliness (you have not been given a life's partner), or childlessness.

You have prayed about this thorn in your life. "Take it away, Lord; please, please, take it away." But it just stays there. It doesn't go away.

Is the Lord Jesus not listening sympathetically to your prayers? Oh yes, he has promised to listen sympathetically. He is a sympathetic high priest who knows what it is like to suffer. Is he not answering your prayer? Oh yes, he is answering it. There is no such thing as an unanswered prayer for those who pray in faith. But at times he answers our prayers in an other way than we would like and expect. The Lord always gives us what we need, not always what we desire.

In the case of Paul, the Lord answered his prayer. The answer was, "No. No, Paul, I am not going to remove the thorn. I am going to let you keep it. I am going to allow it to continue tormenting you. Because it is good for you. It is what you need."

2. The Lord's response to Paul's request was, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." This is what Paul needed to learn. He needed to learn that if he had the grace of Christ, then he didn't need anything else. Paul wanted to be a strong, self-sufficient person. But then the danger would be there that he would quit relying on his Lord and rely upon himself.

And that danger is there for us too. That we rely upon ourselves. We want to be self-sufficient. By nature, we are conceited. We are very impressed with ourselves. And then God allows certain things to enter and, sometimes, to remain in our lives to make us humble and to make us depend upon the all-sufficient grace of Christ. The undeserved favour of God. The favour, the mercy, the love which God showers upon those who deserve his wrath and condemnation.

Christ had called Paul in his grace. Paul had deserved the opposite. He had been a terrible, blood-thirsty persecutor of Jesus Christ and his church. But Christ, in his grace, had called Paul out of that to him. Christ had saved him out of grace. It was grace which had called Paul to be a Christian as well as an apostle, a preacher of the gospel. Paul had to learn to depend upon that grace.

We too need to learn to depend only and completely on that grace. It is the grace of the Lord, his undeserved favour, which has called us to be children of God. It is grace which has pulled us out of the cesspool of sin and misery. We are what we are by the grace of God, and nothing else. Let us depend upon that grace. Let each of us say, "Your grace, O Lord, is sufficient for me." Without the grace of God we have nothing. With the grace of God we have everything.

And if God, in his wisdom and in his providence, allows something unpleasant, something hard, into your life (and who of us does not have a hard thing in his/her life), then that is not because God is not able to remove that thorn. Neither is it because God does not care about you. It is to push you back time and again to the grace of Christ. It is to make you depend only upon the Lord Jesus Christ. So you won't run the danger of becoming conceited and of thinking that you don't need God.

And, as the Lord Jesus Christ also said to Paul, the power of Christ is made perfect in weakness. "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."

When the Lord Jesus was struggling and suffering in the garden of Gethsemane, then he appeared to be very weak. And when he died on the cross, then God seemed to be so weak, that the battle had been lost-that Satan had won. Satan appeared to have come out the victor.

But appearances often deceive. In Gethsemane the Lord Jesus was the epitome of human weakness and frailty. And when he died on the cross of Golgotha, then he died because his frail, human nature could no longer stand the abuse of Satan's messengers nor the heavy weight of the wrath of God. But through all of that weakness, the power of God came shining through.

Through the blood, the sweat and the tears of our Lord Jesus, the power of God shone forth in all of its glory, in all of its lustre and majesty. For it was through the horrible suffering of Jesus Christ, through the horror inflicted upon him by Satan's messengers, that Satan was beat, whipped, bound and thrown into the pit. What appeared to be the ultimate conquest of Satan turned out to be the triumph of God's power.

And that same power shone through the weakness of Paul. Paul appeared to be weak. The thorn tormented him. It made him humble. It kept him down. It seemed to weaken him. But, in fact, it made him strong. For the power of Christ is made perfect in weakness. It was when Paul was weak that the power of Christ could go to work. When Paul was weak, then Christ could use him in a very powerful way to spread the gospel, to proclaim the good news to Jew and Gentile. Then the super-apostles could not hold a candle to this mighty apostle of Christ.

The thorns with which we must contend seem to make us weak. That is what we tend to think. But they don't. For it is when we are weak, when we are humble, that the power of Christ comes to maturity in us. Then his power reaches its goal. When we empty ourselves of all conceit, of all notions of self-sufficiency, then the dynamic power of Christ will fill our lives and control our lives. Then the all-sufficient grace of Christ will rule our lives.

Let us take these words of Jesus Christ on our lips. Let us confess that the grace of Christ is sufficient for us. Let us believe that the power of Christ is made perfect in weakness.

3. Paul accepted this answer of the Lord. He would boast all the more gladly about his weaknesses, so that Christ's power would rest on him. For the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ he would delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when he was weak, then he was strong strong.

Let the "super-apostles" boast about their strengths! Paul would boast about his weaknesses. For he had come to realize that when he was weak and humble, then the power of Christ rested upon him. Then the power of Christ dwelt in him. Earlier, in ch. 4, Paul had said that we have a treasure-the grace and power of Christ-in earthen vessels. We are nothing but weak, clay pots. Fragile. Breakable. But we have something wonderful, something powerful and majestic in us. We have the treasure of Jesus Christ in us.

When we are weak, then we are strong. When we realize how weak we are, then we realize how powerful Christ is. When we learn that we are weak in ourselves, then the strength of Christ fills us to completion. When we become valleys of humility, then we become mountains of strength-filled with the Lord's strength.

And then we gladly bear the thorns in our lives. It doesn't mean that it will always be easy to bear the thorns. There might be times when they will still bring us to tears-when they will make us break out in sweat. But they will also make us go back to the Lord Jesus Christ time after time. We will look to Him and to His grace. We will pray to him for his strength to make up for our weaknesses. And we will look forward to that future day when Christ will make all things new and when he will cast all messengers of Satan into hell forever.

Will we, then, be content with weakness and hardship? Will we be content with what God allows to enter our lives? Not be upset or angry? Rather, realize that whatever God allows to enter our lives, even a messenger of Satan, is for our good? That God is in control? Will we confess that God will avert all evil or turn it to our profit? Know, beloved, that nothing can nor ever will separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

In humility, confess your weakness. Depend upon Christ and his all-sufficient grace. Then you will be strong. AMEN.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. George van Popta, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
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(c) Copyright 2003, Rev. George van Popta

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