His Grace Is Sufficient

On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses— 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. 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. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 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. – 2 Corinthians 12:5-10 ESV

When we speak of sanctification, we typically frame the discussion in terms of spiritual growth or maturity. We tend to use terminology that conveys the idea of progress or of an incremental increase in our spirituality from one degree to another. We talk of becoming more like Christ, of increasing in our faith, or of growing in godliness. And there is ample biblical evidence to support this kind of language.

But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. – 2 Peter 3:18 ESV

For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. – 2 Peter 1:5-8 ESV

Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation – 1 Peter 2:2 ESV

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ. – Ephesians 4:15 ESV

The concept of spiritual growth is indeed biblical, but we tend to read these verses with a modern mindset that has been heavily influenced by the American work ethic. What do I mean by that? It’s really quite simple. We read the Bible through the lens of our pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps view of achievement and success. We even throw in biblical-sounding phrases like, “God helps those who help themselves.” This well-worn bromide has become sacred truth in the eyes of many, even though it has no precedence in Scripture. In fact, it is diametrically opposed to the whole concept of grace as found in God’s Word.

But, as western Christians, we have been raised on a steady diet of self-help books that promote autonomy and encourage self-actualization. We are the do-it-yourself generation with an Internet full of how-to videos on virtually any topic just a mouse-click away. With a few helpful tips, we can rebuild an engine or relaunch our careers. We can learn to brew our own beer or open up our own winery. With a little self-effort we can improve our quality of life, increase our income stream, enlarge our network of friends, and even take our spiritual life to a whole new level.

But is that what Paul has in mind in 2 Corinthians 12? I don’t think so. In fact, Paul’s emphasis seems to be on weakness, not strength. His focus is on inadequacy and need, not self-sufficiency and individual sovereignty. Paul was not encouraging the Corinthian believers to help themselves, but to acknowledge their need for God’s grace in their lives. And he used himself as an example.

Paul refers to a man he knew who, fourteen years earlier, had received a vision from God. This man had been allowed to enter into the “third heaven,” a reference to God’s dwelling place.  As a result of this divine vision, this man “heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (2 Corinthians 12:4 ESV). Like the apostle John in the book of Revelation, this individual was given a one-of-a-kind experience that was difficult to put into words. He saw things no other man had ever seen before. And Paul took it upon himself to brag on this man’s behalf. This hadn’t been your average, run-of-the-mill encounter with God. It had been totally supernatural and an undeserved act of God’s grace.

And it becomes clear from the context that this “man” was actually Paul himself. He was speaking in the third-person in order to relate a past event that had experienced, but he didn’t want it to come across as boasting. His intent was not to make himself look better in the eyes of others, but to emphasize the grace of God. The vision had been God’s doing. Paul wasn’t even sure how it happened. He couldn’t tell you whether he was physically transported to heaven or if it had all been some kind of dream. But Paul refers to  “the surpassing greatness of the revelations” and his fear of the experience producing in him a level of conceit or pride. So, he says that “a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited” (2 Corinthians 12:7 ESV).

Paul had a mountain-top experience with God, but that was followed by some kind of pride-popping, humility producing “gift” from God to keep his head out of the clouds and concept out of his heart. We aren’t given the nature of this “thorn” but we know that Paul prayed for its removal, not once, but three separate times. And each time Paul prayed, the answer was, “No.” God wanted to keep Paul from focusing his attention on the wrong thing. His heavenly vision, as great as it was, was not be mistaken as a sign of his own godliness. His God-ordained glimpse into glory was not to be understood as God somehow glorifying Paul.

In response to Paul’s request for the thorn removal, God simply said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV). The solution to Paul’s problem was not another vision of heaven or a divine thorn-extraction procedure. No, all Paul needed was grace. The grace of God was fully sufficient. It was grace that had transported an undeserving man into God’s presence. And it was grace that would transform an undeserving man into Christ’s likeness. And that is the bottom line of this passage. Paul’s vision of heavenly glory was not the real miracle. It was God’s power made available to Paul in all his earthly inadequacy. Look closely at what Paul says:

“Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. – 2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV

Paul could have bragged about going to heaven. But he knew the real miracle was that heaven had come to him, in the form of the power of Christ. His weakness had not been a barrier. It had actually been the required condition for the saving power of God to show up. For Paul, weakness was a badge of honor, not a sign of unworthiness. He didn’t view weakness as a deficit to be filled through self-effort and hard work. No, it was a non-debatable reality of who he was, apart from Christ. Which is what leads him to say, “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” (2 Corinthians 12:10 ESV).

Had Paul lived in the 21st-Century, he might have been tempted to seek the latest self-help advice and do-it-yourself tips for improved spiritual strength conditioning. He might have found himself listening to the endless stream of well-meaning voices telling him how to overcome his weakness and embrace his inner warrior. But I doubt it.

Paul was quite at peace with his deficiences because he knew the real source of his strength. He would not allow heavenly visions or pain-producing thorns in the side determine his identity. His weakness was not a sign of unrighteousness or evidence that he was growth-deficient in his spirituality. It was an opportunity to refocus his faith on the grace of God and to reestablish his hope on the power of Christ.

Think about your own life. If you’re like me, you tend to long for those rare moments when heavenly visions give you a glimpse of God’s glory. But they are few and far between. And you also long for God to remove the thorns that bring you pain and leave you feeling weak and ineffective in your spiritual walk.

Paul’s vision of heaven didn’t make him any more spiritual. And the presence of pain and suffering didn’t make him any less spiritual. Escaping earth for heaven is not the point. Avoiding weakness through self-effort is not the goal. It is a realization that heaven came to a fallen earth in the form of the Son of God, and He made divine power available to sin-weakened men and women who recognize that God’s grace is sufficient.

I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. – Philippians 4:11-13 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

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Trust God

12 Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand
    and marked off the heavens with a span,
enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure
    and weighed the mountains in scales
    and the hills in a balance?
13 Who has measured the Spirit of the Lord,
    or what man shows him his counsel?
14 Whom did he consult,
    and who made him understand?
Who taught him the path of justice,
    and taught him knowledge,
    and showed him the way of understanding?
15 Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket,
    and are accounted as the dust on the scales;
    behold, he takes up the coastlands like fine dust.
16 Lebanon would not suffice for fuel,
    nor are its beasts enough for a burnt offering.
17 All the nations are as nothing before him,
    they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.

18 To whom then will you liken God,
    or what likeness compare with him?
19 An idol! A craftsman casts it,
    and a goldsmith overlays it with gold
    and casts for it silver chains.
20 He who is too impoverished for an offering
    chooses wood that will not rot;
he seeks out a skillful craftsman
    to set up an idol that will not move.

21 Do you not know? Do you not hear?
    Has it not been told you from the beginning?
    Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
22 It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
    and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
    and spreads them like a tent to dwell in;
23 who brings princes to nothing,
    and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness.

24 Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
    scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows on them, and they wither,
    and the tempest carries them off like stubble.

25 To whom then will you compare me,
    that I should be like him? says the Holy One.
26 Lift up your eyes on high and see:
    who created these?
He who brings out their host by number,
    calling them all by name;
by the greatness of his might
    and because he is strong in power,
    not one is missing.

27 Why do you say, O Jacob,
    and speak, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord,
    and my right is disregarded by my God”?
28 Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
    the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
    his understanding is unsearchable.
29 He gives power to the faint,
    and to him who has no might he increases strength.
30 Even youths shall faint and be weary,
    and young men shall fall exhausted;
31 but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
    they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
    they shall walk and not faint. – Isaiah 40:12-31 ESV

This chapter opened with the words, “Comfort, comfort my people.” And the next ten verses revealed the form that comfort would take. God was going to intervene on behalf of Judah. Isaiah was given a vision of a future day in which the Lord God will appear in glory and might.

Yes, the Sovereign Lord is coming in power.
    He will rule with a powerful arm.
    See, he brings his reward with him as he comes. – Isaiah 40:10 NLT

God will one day come as Shepherd of Israel, carrying his lambs in His arms and “holding them close to his heart” (Isaiah 40:11 NLT). But how can the people of Judah know for certain that all of this will take place? What assurance do they have that this future revelation of God’s glory and deliverance will happen? Isaiah has already provided an answer to these questions. It is because “the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Isaiah 40:5 ESV). He is trustworthy and true, and His word is as immutable as His holy character.

But God knows that the people of Judah have their doubts. They are still obsessed with God’s declaration that the city of Jerusalem is going to fall to the Babylonians. So, any news of God’s future redemption sounds a bit hollow and too good to be true. The immediate prospect of defeat carries far more weight with them than any promise of future restoration. So, God addresses their apprehension with a series of 13 questions. And these queries from God are meant to reveal His greatness and the everlasting nature of His nature. God is eternal. He stands outside of space and time. Which is why He speaks of future events as if they have already happened. He is without equal and beyond comparison, and Isaiah stresses His incomparability with three rhetorical questions:

Who else has held the oceans in his hand?

Who has measured off the heavens with his fingers?

Who else knows the weight of the earth or has weighed the mountains and hills on a scale?  

The answer to all three questions is the same: No one. There is no one else like God. He doesn’t need advice or instruction. He doesn’t require anyone else to tell Him what is right or wrong. Compared with God, the “the nations of the world are but a drop in the bucket” (Isaiah 40:15 NLT). Like dust on a scale, they are infinitesimal and inconsequential. Their weight or glory doesn’t even register. In contrast, God’s glory is so great and His power, so beyond comparison, “He picks up the whole earth as though it were a grain of sand” (Isaiah 40:15 NLT). To put it bluntly, “The nations of the world are worth nothing to him. In his eyes, they count for less than nothing—mere emptiness and froth” (Isaiah 40:17 NLT).

This series of questions is reminiscent of an exchange that took place between God Almighty and His servant Job. After having lost virtually everything near and dear to him, including his children, his wealth and his health, Job was confused by the dire nature of his circumstances. He questioned the nature of his suffering and defended his own righteousness before God. In a sense, he expressed his doubts concerning God’s justice. And God responded with a series of questions for Job that contrasted His own character with that of Job’s. For two chapters, God bombards Job with a series of questions designed to juxtapose God’s glorious deity with Job’s humanity.

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
    Tell me, if you know so much. – Job 38:4 NLT

“Do you know where the gates of death are located?
    Have you seen the gates of utter gloom?
Do you realize the extent of the earth?
    Tell me about it if you know!” – Job 38:17-18 NLT

“Can you shout to the clouds
    and make it rain?
Can you make lightning appear
    and cause it to strike as you direct? – Job 38:34-35 NLT

And two chapters later, God wraps up his inquisition of Job with the stinging words:

“Do you still want to argue with the Almighty?
    You are God’s critic, but do you have the answers?” – Job 40:2 NLT

This was all about a mere man questioning the integrity of the God of the universe. Job may not have liked his circumstances, but that gave him no right to doubt the goodness or greatness of God. Which is what led God to ask:

“Will you discredit my justice
    and condemn me just to prove you are right?
Are you as strong as God?
    Can you thunder with a voice like his? – Job 40:8-9 NLT

There is no situation that provides justification for man’s questioning of God’s integrity. Our first reaction, when faced with difficult circumstances, is to measure God’s character by human standards. We tend to analyze His actions by using our own flawed sense of right and wrong. But Isaiah asks, “To whom can you compare God? What image can you find to resemble him?” (Isaiah 40:18 NLT). God is not a man so He cannot be judged like one. And He is not a false god, made by human hands. He is uncreated. He has no maker. And He owes no one an answer or explanation for His actions.

So, God repeats Isaiah’s previous question:

“To whom will you compare me?
    Who is my equal?” asks the Holy One. – Isaiah 40:25 NLT 

And the answer remains: No one.

Yet, God knows that His people still have their doubts about Him. So, He confronts them with the real issue behind their refusal to believe His word.

“O Jacob, how can you say the Lord does not see your troubles?
    O Israel, how can you say God ignores your rights? – Isaiah 40:27 NLT

There were convinced that God was blind to their current circumstances. Not only that, they were questioning God’s integrity by accusing Him of ignoring their rights. In essence, they were labeling God as unjust and unrighteous. They were measuring God by their circumstances, rather than viewing their circumstances through the lens of God’s character. So, Isaiah gave them a much-needed reminder of how just and righteous, good and gracious God is.

He gives power to the weak
    and strength to the powerless.
Even youths will become weak and tired,
    and young men will fall in exhaustion. – Isaiah 40:29-30 NLT

Notice the circumstances in which God reveals His power and strength. It is in the midst of our weakness and powerlessness. It is when we are tired and exhausted that God tends to show up in all His glory. God told the apostle Paul, “My power works best in weakness” and Paul responded by saying, “So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10 NLT).

How could Paul take pleasure in weakness? It was because he trusted God. He knew from experience that God tended to show up when things were looking down. God’s power was best manifested when Paul’s weakness was on full display. Which is why Isaiah reminded the people of Judah:

But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength.
    They will soar high on wings like eagles.
They will run and not grow weary.
    They will walk and not faint. – Isaiah 40:31 NLT

Trust is the greatest antidote to trials. Relying on the incomparable, unquenchable power of God when our strength is gone is the key to surviving and thriving in this world. But we must trust what He has said. We must not question His word or doubt His integrity.

God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it? – Numbers 23:19 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)
Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

A Grave Discussion.

1 Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain, in the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look through the windows are dimmed, and the doors on the street are shut—when the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low— they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails, because man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets— before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity. Ecclesiastes 12:1-8 ESV

Solomon ended chapter 11 with an appeal to young people:

Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. – Ecclesiastes 11:9 ESV

And he begins chapter 12 in a similar fashion, addressing the same group of individuals: The young. And it would appear that, because of Solomon’s advanced age, he views everyone as younger than he is. But he warns them, “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth” (Ecclesiastes 12:1 ESV). It is as if he wants them to recognize that spiritual wisdom and a God-focused perspective are not attributes that simply come with age. In other words, don’t make the mistake that old age will bring with it a new excitement about and interest in the things of God. That kind of focus begins when you’re young. That’s exactly why Paul told his young protegé Timothy, “Don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young. Be an example to all believers in what you say, in the way you live, in your love, your faith, and your purity” (1 Timothy 4:12 NLT). He gave similar advice to Titus, telling him, “…encourage the young men to live wisely. And you yourself must be an example to them by doing good works of every kind. Let everything you do reflect the integrity and seriousness of your teaching” (Titus 2:6-7 NLT).

So, in a similar way, Solomon shared his words of wisdom with the young, encouraging them to make the most of their youth because, like everything else in the world, this season of life would come and go. And Solomon uses some very poetic words to describe the not-so-subtle signs of aging. As an old man himself, he describes that phase of his life as “evil days” that have little to no pleasure associated with them. For Solomon, old aged was marked by increasing physical weakness due to the diminishing capacity of the human body as it slowly decays. He describes a scenario in which “the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain” (Ecclesiastes 12:2 ESV). His words portray life as seen through the eyes of someone who suffers from the effects of cataracts and failing vision. The sun, moon and stars appear darker than they really are. The contrasts and clarity of normal vision are replaced with the flat grayness of a cloudy day.

Solomon writes from the perspective of someone who knows what he is talking about. He describes what it is like when “the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent” (Ecclesiastes 12:3 NLT). The “keepers” are a reference to his legs, the means by which his body stands erect and makes it way in the world. As old age creeps in, the legs tremble, making mobility an issue. And when the legs shake, the whole body follows suit. The “strong men” are his shoulders, bent over and devoid of the youthful strength and vigor they once held. We see these images lived out right in front of our eyes on a daily basis as we watch the elderly among us shuffling their way along, bent over and shakily attempting to manage life in their diminished capacity. 

And for someone who put a high priority on fine food, good wine and a lifestyle built around culinary delights, the next description most likely left Solomon more than a bit frustrated. He states that “the grinders cease because they are few” (Ecclesiastes 12:3 ESV). An obvious reference to his own teeth, which had begun to fall out, leaving him with just a handful left in his mouth, making some foods off limits and his diet more than a bit bland and unappealing. Notice what Solomon is doing here. He is describing the loss of those things that were necessary for him to enjoy all the things around which he had built his life. He’s already mentioned the eyes, but he adds, “those who look through the windows are dimmed” (Ecclesiastes 12:3 ESV). The eyes become glazed over, incapable of seeing the beauty of all the things with which he has surrounded himself. He can no longer see and enjoy the beauty of the palace he built. He can’t take in the natural beauty of the gardens he designed and planted. Even the 700 wives and 300 concubines he had chosen because of their physical beauty were indistinguishable from one another.

“The doors on the street are shut” seems to be a reference to his loss of hearing. He could no longer hear what was going on outside his own room. Life was taking place all around him, but he couldn’t hear it or enjoy it. Even “the sound of the grinding is low” (Ecclesiastes 12:4 ESV). In other words, you can’t even hear yourself chew your own food. How frustrating to a man who was used to hearing fine music echoing through the halls of his palace. And the real irony is that this same person, unable to sleep, finds himself waking up with the birds singing outside his window, but him being unable to hear them. The “daughters of song” is a reference to musical notes, no longer audible or distinguishable to the one whose hearing has faded with old age. The beauty available in this life becomes increasingly off-limits and unattainable to the elderly. It is inevitable and unavoidable.

On top of that, the aging process comes with increased fears of all kinds. The fear of falling. Fear of harm. Fear of being alone. And fear of death. Along with all the physical changes Solomon has already described comes the reality that the hair on his head had grown both thin and grey, like the white blossoms of an almond tree. And to make matters worse, there were days when Solomon felt like he was dragging himself along like a dying grasshopper on its last legs.

The next comparison Solomon uses is incredibly insightful and probably represents one of the most dreaded aspects of old age for him. In the original Hebrew, he refers to ‘abiyownah, which is a word for the Capparis spinosa fruit which was eaten as an aphrodisiac in the ancient Near East. Solomon is bemoaning the fact that the aging process had robbed him of all sexual desire. And for a man used to availing himself of the hundreds of wives and concubines in his harem, this loss had to have hit him hard. There is little doubt that Solomon tried any and all of the known cure-alls available in his day. He was known for experimentation and innovation, so it is likely that he would have checked out every available aphrodisiac and sexual enhancement drug on the market, all in a vain attempt to prolong this aspect of his life.

Notice that Solomon’s focus in all of this is death and the grave, not eternal life. Dying is a slow, inexorable process that ultimately and inevitably results in death, with man “going to his eternal home” (Ecclesiastes 12:5 ESV). The literal translation is “house of his eternity.” This is an idiom for the grave, not heaven. It was also a Hebrew euphemism for a burial ground or cemetery. Solomon has his dim eyes set on the grave because he has no idea what happens next. It was all a mystery to him. In verse six, he uses a series of visual illustrations to help convey the abrupt end of life. He refers to the silver cord that is snapped, the golden bowl this is suddenly broken, the pitcher that ends up shattered at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern. All of these images conjure up the sudden cessation of life. It just stops. And like a snapped cord, a broken bowl, a shattered pitcher and a broken wheel, death is an irreconcilable condition.

And Solomon soberly summarizes his view, stating, “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7 ESV). The body returns to the earth, where it will decay and turn to dust. The soul returns to God. But notice that Solomon doesn’t state this last fact as if it is good news. There is a finality to his words and a sense of loss. Because for Solomon, the body was the means by which he had enjoyed what life had to offer. With the body gone, he had no way of knowing what would be left for the soul to experience in the afterlife. Which is why he sums up this section the same way he has throughout the rest of his book. “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 12:8 ESV). So, what Solomon could assess, from his vantage point as an old man, was that young people should enjoy life while they had it. But they should also recognize that it is God who has given them life and the capacity to enjoy all that it has to offer. The sad reality, for Solomon, was that life passed so quickly. It was as if he was looking back, wondering where all the time had gone. He could remember being young. He could recall the pleasures he had enjoyed. But he was also well aware of all the moments he had missed. He had been so busy building, buying, accumulating, experimenting, working, learning, and trying to discover the meaning and purpose behind life, that he had failed to truly enjoy the life given to him by God. And now, his life was about to end. You can sense the regret in his words. You can feel the remorse in his self-revealing description of old age. He would have done things differently. He would have approached life more gratefully and taken his walk with God more seriously. We have a lot to learn from the wisdom of Solomon.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The God of David.

Then David slept with his fathers and was buried in the city of David. And the time that David reigned over Israel was forty years. He reigned seven years in Hebron and thirty-three years in Jerusalem. So Solomon sat on the throne of David his father, and his kingdom was firmly established. – 1 Kings 2:10-12 ESV

And David died. His long, circuitous life came to an end. The book of 1 Chronicles adds the detail: “Then he died at a good age, full of days, riches, and honor” (1 Chronicles 29:28 ESV). David had been king for 40 years and had experienced all the ups and downs that come with life. He had enjoyed his fare share of great victories, but had also known what it was like to suffer defeat. He had enjoyed the accolades of the people and then stood by and watched as they turned their backs on him. He had been blessed by some and cursed by others. He had lauded as a great king and accused of being a usurper to the throne. David had been a man of great faith, but he had also shown signs of doubt and displayed a tendency to take matters into his own hands. He could be decisive and, at the same time, doubtful. At times, he was impulsive and driven by his desires. At other times, he was unwilling to act until he had heard from God. David was a man of God and a murderer, a man of great faith and an adulterer. He loved God, but he also had an inordinate love for women, marrying far too many of them and disobeying God in the process. David had a heart that beat fast for God, but that, at the same time, struggled with ungodly desires. In other words, David was human. He was just a man.

Too often, we deify someone like David. We turn him into a saint and place him on a pedestal, treating him as an icon rather than seeing him as a living illustration of what it means to walk with God. David was not perfect. He is not presented to us in Scripture as a super-saint or intended to be some kind of unapproachable model of holiness. In the life of David, as portrayed in the pages of the Scriptures, we are given a vivid glimpse into all his faults, failures, weaknesses, and sins. Nothing is held back. We are not given a neatly sanitized version of his life, an autobiographical treatment complete with all the less-than-flattering parts removed. No, we are treated to a warts-and-all, no-holds-barred chronicle of his life. The good, the bad and the ugly. Most of us would be mortified if we knew that our entire life’s story was going to be put in a book for all to read, for generations to come. All our dirty little secrets would be put in print and outlive us for thousands of years. But that’s exactly what happened to David.

David was not an icon of virtue. He was not a perfectly pious saint. He was a man, chosen by God, and commanded to serve as the shepherd of God over the people of God. This was not a position for which David aspired. He had not asked to be chosen. He had been content shepherding his father’s sheep. But one day he was protecting his sheep from predators, and the next he was standing face-to-face with a Philistine giant. David’s life was one of extremes. He would go from the peace of the pasture to the political intrigue of the palace. He would become a warrior of great renown. But he would also become a fugitive with a bounty on his head. David would know what it means to succeed and fail, to experience the heady thrill of glory and the heart-breaking darkness of defeat and disappointment. He would know the pleasure of life in the palace and the uncomfortable reality of life in a cave.

The real hero in the story of the life of David is not David, it’s God. He is the one who chose David. He is the one who stood beside David, through all the ups and downs of his life. God is the one who lovingly disciplined David and graciously equipped and empowered David for each and every victory he enjoyed. God remained faithful to David throughout his life. God never abandoned David or turned His back on him. Yes, there were moments when it appeared as if God had walked out on David, but He was there. God was watching over him, protecting him, teaching him, molding and making him into the kind of man he was meant to be. David, like all men, had rough edges that needed to be smoothed out. He had sinful dispositions that needed to be exposed and eliminated. And David recognized that God was intimately involved in his life, lovingly disciplining him in order that he might be the kind of man God had called him to be. That is why he could write the words:

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life. – Psalm 139:23-24 NLT

David loved God and trusted Him to do what was right and just. He didn’t always obey God. He didn’t always rely on God. But when all was said and done, David always came back to God help, hope, strength, and direction. He knew his life was nothing without God. He knew his future was directly tied to the power and promises of God. His life would end, but the covenant God had made with him would last long after he was gone.

David was a man of faith. He trusted God. In fact, his name in mentioned in Hebrews chapter 11, the Great Hall of Faith, where the names of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Old Testament are given as examples of unwavering faith in the promises of God.

How much more do I need to say? It would take too long to recount the stories of the faith of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and all the prophets. By faith these people overthrew kingdoms, ruled with justice, and received what God had promised them. They shut the mouths of lions, quenched the flames of fire, and escaped death by the edge of the sword. Their weakness was turned to strength. They became strong in battle and put whole armies to flight. – Hebrews 11:32-34 NLT

Like Abraham, David believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness. He trusted in the promises of God. He knew that God was going to preserve his kingdom and place a descendant on his throne, ensuring that his kingdom would have no end. Like all the other Old Testament saints, David would die long before he saw this promise fulfilled in its entirety. But thousands of years later, God would send His Son, Jesus, born as the son of Mary and as a descendant of David. He would be the legitimate and legal heir to the throne of David. Yet, Jesus would die a criminal’s death on the cross. He would be buried in a borrowed tomb. But He would be raised back to life and return to His rightful place at His Father’s side. And one day, He will return. And when He does, He will return as the conquering King and the rightful heir to the throne of David. He will rule from Jerusalem over His people, Israel, and all the nations of the earth will bow before Him as the King of kings and Lord of lords.

Then I looked again, and I heard the voices of thousands and millions of angels around the throne and of the living beings and the elders. And they sang in a mighty chorus:

“Worthy is the Lamb who was slaughtered—
    to receive power and riches
and wisdom and strength
    and honor and glory and blessing.”

And then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea. They sang:

“Blessing and honor and glory and power
    belong to the one sitting on the throne
    and to the Lamb forever and ever.”

And the four living beings said, “Amen!” And the twenty-four elders fell down and worshiped the Lamb. – Revelation 5:11-14 NLT

The story of David is the story of God. He is the faithful, covenant-keeping God who chooses to use men like David to accomplish His will and bring about His divine plan for humanity. God doesn’t need us, but He graciously uses us. Yet, we need Him. We must trust and rely upon Him, knowing that He will do what He has promised and complete what He has started. Our lives may end, but His work will not. We are temporary, but He is not. And our future is in His hands.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

How Things Turn Out When God Gets Left Out.

Now Barzillai the Gileadite had come down from Rogelim, and he went on with the king to the Jordan, to escort him over the Jordan. Barzillai was a very aged man, eighty years old. He had provided the king with food while he stayed at Mahanaim, for he was a very wealthy man. And the king said to Barzillai, “Come over with me, and I will provide for you with me in Jerusalem.” But Barzillai said to the king, “How many years have I still to live, that I should go up with the king to Jerusalem? I am this day eighty years old. Can I discern what is pleasant and what is not? Can your servant taste what he eats or what he drinks? Can I still listen to the voice of singing men and singing women? Why then should your servant be an added burden to my lord the king? Your servant will go a little way over the Jordan with the king. Why should the king repay me with such a reward? Please let your servant return, that I may die in my own city near the grave of my father and my mother. But here is your servant Chimham. Let him go over with my lord the king, and do for him whatever seems good to you.” And the king answered, “Chimham shall go over with me, and I will do for him whatever seems good to you, and all that you desire of me I will do for you.” Then all the people went over the Jordan, and the king went over. And the king kissed Barzillai and blessed him, and he returned to his own home. The king went on to Gilgal, and Chimham went on with him. All the people of Judah, and also half the people of Israel, brought the king on his way.

Then all the men of Israel came to the king and said to the king, “Why have our brothers the men of Judah stolen you away and brought the king and his household over the Jordan, and all David’s men with him?” All the men of Judah answered the men of Israel, “Because the king is our close relative. Why then are you angry over this matter? Have we eaten at all at the king’s expense? Or has he given us any gift?” And the men of Israel answered the men of Judah, “We have ten shares in the king, and in David also we have more than you. Why then did you despise us? Were we not the first to speak of bringing back our king?” But the words of the men of Judah were fiercer than the words of the men of Israel. – 2 Samuel 19:31-43 ESV

These closing verses of chapter 19 set up was is going to happen next. As David attempted to reestablish his claim to the throne of Israel, he was faced with the task of rewarding those who had stood by his side during Absalom’s short-lived coup, but also of winning back the allegiance of those who had sided with Absalom in his rebellion. There were some, like Barzillai, who had aided David in his escape from Jerusalem. This wealthy octogenarian, had provided food for David and his followers while they were in Mahanaim. Barzillai was from Gilead, a region east of the Jordan River that was divided between the tribes of Gad and Manasseh. We are not told which tribe Barzillai belonged to, but only that he had proved to be an ally to David during those difficult days after the loss of his throne. David’s desire to reward him was gratefully rejected by Barzillai because of his advanced age. Rather than accept David’s gracious offer to return to Jerusalem and live out his days in David’s palace, he preferred to return home and die in his own land. But he offered Chimham, most likely his son, to stand as his proxy. Chimham would return to Jerusalem with David and receive the benefit of the king’s gratitude. 

But there was a storm brewing. David’s return to the throne was not going to be easy. And simply handing out rewards to those who had stood by his side was not going to make the transfer of power any easier. If you recall, one of the first things David did when he received his abrupt wake-up call from Joab and stopped his excessive mourning over Absalom, was to call for the tribe of Judah to come to his aid. He sent a message to the leaders of Judah.

“Why are you the last ones to welcome back the king into his palace? For I have heard that all Israel is ready. You are my relatives, my own tribe, my own flesh and blood! So why are you the last ones to welcome back the king?” – 2 Samuel 19:11-12 NLT

This wasn’t exactly the case. David was a bit optimistic in his assessment of the situation, because the text actually paints a slightly different picture.

Meanwhile, the Israelites who had supported Absalom fled to their homes. And throughout all the tribes of Israel there was much discussion and argument going on. The people were saying, “The king rescued us from our enemies and saved us from the Philistines, but Absalom chased him out of the country. Now Absalom, whom we anointed to rule over us, is dead. Why not ask David to come back and be our king again?” – 2 Samuel 19:9-10 NLT

Not everybody was lining up to welcome David home. The Israelites, representing ten of the other tribes besides Judah and the Benjaminites, were divided in their thoughts regarding David. Many were scared that David would seek retribution against them for siding with Absalom. Others argued that David had been successful against the enemies of Israel, but had fled at the sight of Absalom. The only real vote of confidence in David was that, since Absalom was dead, he was the most obvious choice as a replacement. And yet, David was under the somewhat deluded impression that all of Israel was ready to welcome him back and so he used this thought to goad the tribe of Judah into action. But in doing this, David actually made his problem worse.

We’re told that, “All the troops of Judah and half the troops of Israel escorted the king on his way” (2 Samuel 19:40 NLT). Not everyone was on board with David’s return. Many were in hiding, fearing what David was going to do when he returned to power. And the leaders of the ten tribes expressed to David their concern over what they saw was a case of cronyism. 

But all the men of Israel complained to the king, “The men of Judah stole the king and didn’t give us the honor of helping take you, your household, and all your men across the Jordan.” – 2 Samuel 19:41 NLT

It was important to these men that they have the favor of the king, because they were the ones who had sided against him. So when they saw the men of Judah, David’s own tribe, getting the honor of escorting him across the Jordan, they became jealous and fearful. They knew their actions against David were going to make it difficult to win back his favor, and they were concerned that David’s close ties to his own tribe were going to make reconciliation that much more difficult. So an argument broke out. It is important to remember that these people had just fought a major battle against one another in which 20,000 men had died. There were still emotional and physical wounds to be healed. The civil war that had just taken place, while short-lived, had left deep-seated animosities between the tribes. Every step David took, both literally and figuratively, was going to be hyper-analyzed. His leadership skills were going to be tested like never before. His ability to navigate the stormy and dangerous waters of reunification was going to require a wisdom greater than he possessed. If David ever needed God, it was now. But there is a marked absence of any reference to God in any of this narrative. In so many other times during David’s life, we saw him seeking God. He would turn to God for counsel and refrain from making any decisions until he had heard from God. But here, in the heat of the moment, David seems to be acting out of impulse. Perhaps he was in a hurry to put this nasty episode behind him and get things back to normal. But it appears that every decision he made blew up in his face. He was learning the difficult lessons that come with leadership. Simply wearing the crown did not make him a king. Getting his kingdom back wasn’t going to win his people back. Handing out rewards was not going to heal the wounds that plagued his nation. David needed the wisdom of God. Without His help, David was like any other man, susceptible to outside influences, filled with inner conflicts, motivated by fear and self–preservation, capable of anger, and always subject to sin.

Far too often, we read the stories of the life of David and attempt to make him into an icon of virtue, a model for spirituality and godly leadership. But David was a man. Yes, he was a man after God’s own heart, but that does not mean he always did was God would have him do. The real lessons to be learned from the life of David have to do with the faithfulness of God, not the righteousness of David. His life is a stark reminder of just how much each of us needs God. He was God’s anointed king. He had been hand-picked by God for his role. But without constant reliance upon God, David was an accident waiting to happen. Apart from God, his life tended to end up a train wreck with bodies strewn across the landscape. The good news of the gospel is not just that we have been chosen by God to receive His mercy and grace as made available through His Son’s death on the cross. It is that we have access to His wisdom and power every day of our lives. We have forgiveness for the sins we will inevitably commit. We have His unfailing love even when we fail to love Him consistently or completely. David wasn’t a perfect king, but he was God’s king. And his life provides us with a powerful reminder that our best days will be those in which we recognize our weakness and our need for God’s power. Trying to be king without God would never work out well for David. Trying to be a Christian without God will never turn out well for us either. It is not the title that sets us apart. It is our relationship with and dependence upon God.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

A Profound Paradox.

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. 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—and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses— 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. 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. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 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. 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. – 2 Corinthians 12:2-10 ESV

In verse one, Paul confesses, “I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord.” He is letting his readers know that he is about to provide some more proofs to validate his apostleship and to set him apart from the false apostles who are dogging his ministry. His reference to visions and revelations provide a hint that what he is about to divulge is well beyond the normal arguments for his apostleship. This is going to involve the supernatural and direct communication from God. Visions are typically visible manifestations of God’s power. They are seen. The Greek word Paul uses is optasia and it means, “a sight, a vision, an appearance presented to one whether asleep or awake”(“G3701 – optasia – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible. Web. 20 Oct, 2016. https://www.blueletterbible.org).

Revelations would seem to indicate verbal communication from God. The Greek word is apokalypsis and it means, “a disclosure of truth, instruction; oncerning things before unknown” (“G602 – apokalypsis – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible. Web. 20 Oct, 2016. https://www.blueletterbible.org). Paul is going to share a personal experience that included a vision and word from God. He refers to to himself in the third person, simply because he is trying to diminish the aura of bragging that comes from sharing such a story. He says, “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven” (2 Corinthians 12:2a ESV). It is clear that Paul is referring to himself, because later on he says, “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations…” (2 Corinthians 12:7 ESV). This is a personal experience that Paul had and one he shared reluctantly and somewhat obscurely. He does not provide a lot of detail and refuses to share exactly what he saw or heard. But fourteen years earlier, Paul had been given a vision by God and was somehow transported into the “third heaven.” In the ancient mindset, there were three heavens. There was the sky or the visible atmosphere, and then there was the heavens containing the sun, moon, stars and planets. The third heaven or paradise was a reference to the dwelling place of God.

Paul recalls being somehow transported into heaven. He could not tell if it had all been a dream or whether he had actually gone there in his physical body. While there, “he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (2 Corinthians 12:7 ESV). Paul does not spend any time describing the sights or sounds of heaven. He provides us with no insights into what it might have looked like. Not only that, he gives us no clue as to what it is that he heard. He only describes it as unrepeatable. This obviously one-of-a-kind, supernatural event clearly set Paul apart. Who else could claim to have been transported to heaven and given a glimpse of the sights and sounds associated with that remarkable place? But while blown away by the experience, Paul refused to boast about it. He would not allow himself to turn his divinely ordained experience into an opportunity to make himself a celebrity. He would boast about “this man,” but when it came to himself, he would rather boast about his weaknesses. He explains, “I don’t want anyone to give me credit beyond what they can see in my life or hear in my message” (2 Corinthians 12:6 NLT). Paul wanted his life and message to be his calling cards, not his supernatural vision.

It is interesting to note that earlier Paul had referred to the time in his life when he had been saved from arrest by being lowered in a basket from window. He boasted of this as something that revealed his weakness. He had been forced to suffer the humiliation of being crammed in a basket and lowered out a window. For a guy of Paul’s temperament, this would have been a blow to the ego. But now he talks about having been raised by God to the very heights of heaven. This may have been what Paul meant when he wrote, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:12 ESV).

An experience like Paul had could have easily gone to his head. He could have seen himself as somehow more anointed and blessed by God. After all, who else could claim to have gotten an all-expenses-paid trip to paradise? But God wasn’t going to let Paul get the big head. In fact, Paul says, “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” (2 Corinthians 12:7 ESV). Paul does not say what this “thorn” was. The Greek word Paul uses is skolops and it actually refers to a sharp pointed stake. It was far more than just a “splinter” or an inconvenient annoyance. It was potentially debilitating and described by Paul as “a messenger of Satan to harass me.” Was it a physical disability or a spiritual weakness? Paul doesn’t say. Because Paul mentions conceit, it may have been a proclivity toward pride and arrogance. The constant harassment Paul faced from his always-present adversaries would have easily driven Paul to boast of his superior calling and intellectual prowess. Paul was an educated man who had risen high in the ranks of the Pharisees. He was an Old Testament scholar. It would have been easy for Paul to develop a haughty spirit and arrogant attitude toward those who questioned his ministry. But God lovingly kept him humble. On three different occasions, Paul pleaded with God to remove this “stake” from his life. And each time God refused. But He reminded Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9a ESV). God’s grace was greater than Paul’s problem. His strength was far superior to Paul’s weakness in the flesh. And more than 14 years later, Paul was able to say, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9b ESV). It was an awareness of his weakness that made Paul appreciative of God’s gracious love and power. Anything he accomplished in his life that was worthwhile or worthy of praise was attributable to God, not himself.

Paul would gladly suffer the humiliating of being lowered down the wall in a basket. He would willingly go through the pain of another stoning or the indignity of arrest and imprisonment – for the sake of Christ. Because he had learned the invaluable life lesson of “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10 ESV).

 

 

 

Willfully Weak.

Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, he who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. At Damascus, the governor under King Aretas was guarding the city of Damascus in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall and escaped his hands. 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 Corinthians 11:29-12:1 ESV

Paul has just finished saying, “there is the daily pressure on me of my anxious concern for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28b ESV). He felt a strong sense of responsibility for all those in whose salvation he had played a part. He saw himself as their spiritual father and held a special place in his heart for them. He went out of his way to relate to them and to share in their lives. In his first letter, he described his attitude toward ministry:

When I am with the Gentiles who do not follow the Jewish law, I too live apart from that law so I can bring them to Christ. But I do not ignore the law of God; I obey the law of Christ. When I am with those who are weak, I share their weakness, for I want to bring the weak to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some. I do everything to spread the Good News and share in its blessings. – 1 Corinthians 9:21-23 NLT

He echoes that same sentiment in the verses above. “Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?” Paul had a deep desire to meet people where they were and to minister to them empathetically and compassionately. He wasn’t some academically-minded, theologically-focused professor who loved to dump information, but had no idea how to relate. Paul was incredibly intelligent, but also remarkably relational. He loved people. And he loved to come alongside them in their weakness and help them grow.

A lot of pastors and teachers have a hard time relating to people. They are afraid to open up and expose their own failures and weaknesses. They feel the need to present themselves as somehow more together and on top of their spiritual game. They seem to fear that if they let people know their struggles, they will lose their respect and admiration. But Paul was willing to brag about his weaknesses. He was an open book. His life was a powerful testimony to God’s power made visible through man’s weakness. Which is what will lead him to write, “I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me” (2 Corinthians 12:9 NLT).

While his adversaries, the false apostles, are busy bragging about their qualifications and attempting to set themselves up as somehow superior to Paul, he quietly and confidently gives another example of his “weakness.” One time, while Paul was ministering in Damascus, the governor had the city surrounded in an attempt to seize him. In order to save himself, Paul had to escape by being lowered in a basket outside the city walls. This event took place just days after Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. Once he had regained his sight, it hadn’t taken him long to get to work fulfilling the commission given to him by Christ.  Luke records:

For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.

When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him, but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket. – Acts 9:19-25 ESV

In other words, it didn’t take long for Paul to discover that his commission to take the gospel to the Gentiles was going to be difficult and dangerous. He was a driven individual with tremendous giftings and capabilities, but he would quickly learn that his natural attributes were no match for the spiritual warfare he would face as a spokesman for God. He was going to need spiritual power to fight what was a purely spiritual battle. It seems that in Damascus, not only the governor was out to get him, but the Jews as well. He found himself in deep trouble and had to resort to a clandestine escape via a basket. But he lived to share the gospel again.

Paul was just a man. But he was a man who had been saved by Christ and given a job to do. He was flawed and had a sin nature just like everyone else. He struggled with indwelling sin and his fleshly desires. And yet, it was in his weakness that he found the strength of God to do what he had been called to do. His ministry was solely the work of God. He had to rely on God’s provision just to meet his daily needs. He had to trust in God’s power to protect him from enemies of all kinds. He had to rely on the peace of God to fill him and calm his fears and doubts. He had to constantly depend on the indwelling presence of God’s Spirit to motivate him and minister to him. For Paul, weakness was not something for which he felt ashamed. He wore his weakness light a badge of honor. The more weak he felt, the reliant he became on the power of God. His weakness was not a detriment to God’s work. It was an essential prerequisite to being used by God at all. As Paul had told the Corinthians in his first letter, God has a habit of using the weak and seemingly worthless to accomplish His will in the world.

God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God. – 1 Corinthians 1:27-29 NLT

Unimpressive, Yet Unashamed.

Look at what is before your eyes. If anyone is confident that he is Christ’s, let him remind himself that just as he is Christ’s, so also are we. For even if I boast a little too much of our authority, which the Lord gave for building you up and not for destroying you, I will not be ashamed. I do not want to appear to be frightening you with my letters. For they say, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account.” Let such a person understand that what we say by letter when absent, we do when present. Not that we dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who are commending themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding. – 2 Corinthians 10:7-12 ESV

Paul had his critics. They seemed to dog his steps and show up wherever he went. And Corinth was no exception. For whatever reason, Paul was always having to defend his apostleship. It seems that his critics used that particular topic as one of their favorites in their attempt to discredit Paul. And Paul was fully aware that his apostleship and commissioning by the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus, was far from conventional. He was not one of the original disciples. Unlike John, James, Peter and the others, he had not been hand-picked and called by Jesus. He had not spent three years serving as a disciple to the Messiah. He had not been present on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples. Paul realized that his calling had been radically different, but it was also no less real. He had seen the resurrected Lord. He had clearly received his call to be “a chosen instrument … to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15b ESV).

But while his apostleship and the authority that accompanied it was the primary point of objection for his critics, Paul also faced attack on a variety of other, more superficial levels. In the verses above, we see them accusing Paul of weakness. Essentially, they say that Paul hides behind his pen, writing scathing, authoritative letters full of demands and commands. But in person, he proves to be a disappointment – physically weak and verbally challenged. In other words, Paul was a less-than-dynamic physical force. His oratory skills were far from impressive. And the interesting thing is, that Paul fully disclosed the truth behind all of that. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul admitted, “When I first came to you, dear brothers and sisters, I didn’t use lofty words and impressive wisdom to tell you God’s secret plan” (1 Corinthians 2:1 ESV). He went on to explain, “I came to you in weakness—timid and trembling. And my message and my preaching were very plain. Rather than using clever and persuasive speeches, I relied only on the power of the Holy Spirit. I did this so you would trust not in human wisdom but in the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:3-5 ESV). Paul would go on to confess, “I am the least of all the apostles. In fact, I’m not even worthy to be called an apostle after the way I persecuted God’s church” (1 Corinthians 15:9 NLT). Paul referred to himself as “the least of all the saints” (Ephesians 3:8) and the worst of all sinners (1 Timothy 1:16).

So Paul would have heartily agreed with his critics’ assessment of his weakness. In fact, just a few chapters later in this same letter, Paul will eagerly and proudly exclaim, “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10 ESV). Weakness was not a negative to Paul. He saw it as a positive, because it forced him to rely on the power of God. But his weakness did not negate his authority. He refused to allow his critics to undermine his authority simply because they were unimpressed with his presence. He was a representative of God, a Christ-ordained spokesman with a commission to build up the body of Christ.

As is almost always the case in a dispute regarding authority, there was someone in Corinth who was also claiming to be speaking for Christ. That is what led Paul to say, “If anyone is confident that he is Christ’s, let him remind himself that just as he is Christ’s, so also are we” (2 Corinthians 10:7 ESV). This individual was the one who was painting Paul as a weakling. His bold, in-your-face letters were a cover-up for his far-from-impressive presence. The reason Paul spent so much time away, this individual suggested, was because Paul knew his letters were more effective than his physical presence. But Paul responds, “Let such a person understand that what we say by letter when absent, we do when present” (2 Corinthians 10:11 ESV).

Paul was not going to get into a war of words or a defense of his ministry based on outward appearances or physical attributes. In fact, he told the Corinthians, “Oh, don’t worry; we wouldn’t dare say that we are as wonderful as these other men who tell you how important they are! But they are only comparing themselves with each other, using themselves as the standard of measurement. How ignorant!” (2 Corinthians 10:12 NLT). For Paul, the message was all that really mattered. He saw himself as nothing more than an unworthy vessel through which God poured out the blessing of the gospel upon those who were undeserving and in need of His mercy. Paul has already told the Corinthians:

For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. – 2 Corinthians 4:5-7 ESV

Jars of clay. Vessels of stone. Cheap household pottery. It wasn’t the receptacle that was to impress, but the contents contained within it. Paul never intended to overwhelm people with his power, presence, or eloquence. His simply wanted to be faithful to his calling and allow the power of God to flow through him.

For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. – 1 Corinthians 2:2-5 ESV

God’s Glory In Clay Jars.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. – 2 Corinthians 4:7-12 ESV

Paul was not afraid to admit that he was human. He was far from perfect. In fact, later on in this same letter, he will write, “I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10 NLT). But this did not mean that Paul saw himself as flawed or somehow faulty when it came to his ministry for Christ. This was an important distinction that Paul felt compelled to make, because the value and integrity of his ministry was constantly under attack.
Paul is out to defend his ministry, not himself. As far as he was concerned, this was not about him. It was about the glory of God as revealed in the face of Christ and made accessible by the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God. He was simply a conduit through whom God communicated His message of reconciliation to the lost. He claims, “we don’t go around preaching about ourselves. We preach that Jesus Christ is Lord, and we ourselves are your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5 NLT). Just like the rest of the believers in Corinth, Paul’s life had been transformed by the gospel.

So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image. – 2 Corinthians 3:18 NLT

And ever since his conversion experience, he had seen it as his Christ-commissioned responsibility to take that same gospel message to the ends of the earth. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6 ESV). 

The amazing thing to Paul was that God had chosen to place His glory in a “clay jar” like himself. He viewed himself as common and unimpressive, as without value and unworthy of being a receptacle for the very Spirit of God. He humbly admits, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7 ESV). God had chosen to place His glory into less-than-perfect vessels. And not only that, Paul saw himself as sharing in the very sufferings of Christ as he bore the light of God’s message of redemption to the world. Just as Jesus suffered and died in order to make possible the redemption of mankind, so Paul and his fellow apostles were suffering for the sake of the gospel. “Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies” (2 Corinthians 4:10 NLT).

Paul explains to the Corinthians, “We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9 NLT). In spite of all the problems, persecutions, rejections and roadblocks they faced in their daily ministries, the apostles supernaturally sustained by God. He protected and provided for them. This does not mean they were somehow immune to trouble. Paul knew what it was like to go hungry and do without the essentials of life. In fact, he wrote the believers in Philippi, thanking them for their willingness to help him, but confessing, “Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:11-13 NLT). Paul knew what it was like to experience all kinds of deprivations and indignities for the sake of the gospel. On one occasion, he had even been stoned and left for dead (Acts 14:19-20). And yet, God had sustained and revived Him. Just days later, Paul and Barnabas would continue their missionary journey, sharing the gospel and encouraging believers. “They encouraged them to continue in the faith, reminding them that we must suffer many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22 NLT).

Paul knew what it was like to suffer. He was familiar with pain and persecution. But he had a unique attitude toward his life and ministry.

Yes, we live under constant danger of death because we serve Jesus, so that the life of Jesus will be evident in our dying bodies. So we live in the face of death, but this has resulted in eternal life for you. – 2 Corinthians 4:11-12 NLT

Paul would later write to his young mentor, Timothy, “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:6-8 ESV). He would write to the believers in Philippi, “Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all” (Philippians 2:17 ESV).

Paul was not perfect, but he was perfectly content in knowing that he was being used by God. He was a clay jar containing the glory of God and carrying the life-transforming message of the gospel to the ends of the earth. Paul had no problem admitting his own weaknesses. He even referred to himself as the chief of all sinners. But it was this indisputable realization that made his ministry all that more amazing. It led him to say, “This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves” (2 Corinthians 4:7 NLT). The thousands of changed lives Paul had left in his ministry wake were not the result of his powers of persuasion or oratory skills, but because of the glory of God that had taken up residence within him in the form of the Holy Spirit. That is why Paul could be content with sufferings of all kinds in his ministry for Christ. It is why he could boldly claim, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13 ESV).

 

Confident Conduits of God’s Grace.

Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. – 2 Corinthians 3:1-6 ESV

Paul ended the last chapter with the words, “You see, we are not like the many hucksters who preach for personal profit. We preach the word of God with sincerity and with Christ’s authority, knowing that God is watching us” (2 Corinthians 2:17 NLT). He can’t help but feel a bit frustrated at having to defend himself and his ministry yet again. In his first letter to the Corinthians, he found himself having to deal with those who were questioning his authority and his apostleship. But as far as he was concerned, it was only God to whom he had to answer. “As for me, it matters very little how I might be evaluated by you or by any human authority. I don’t even trust my own judgment on this point. My conscience is clear, but that doesn’t prove I’m right. It is the Lord himself who will examine me and decide” (1 Corinthians 4:3-4 NLT). 

Much of what Paul writes in this letter is not new news to the Corinthians. He had said it all before, in writing and in person. He wants them to know that he is not attempting to prove himself to them again. As far as he is concerned, he does not need a letter of recommendation, either from himself or anyone else. If they wanted proof of the effectiveness of his ministry, all they had to do was look at their own lives.

The only letter of recommendation we need is you yourselves. Your lives are a letter written in our hearts; everyone can read it and recognize our good work among you. Clearly, you are a letter from Christ showing the result of our ministry among you.– 2 Corinthians 3:2-3a NLT

Paul’s ministry had been fruitful. It had produced results. Lives had been changed. And there should have been no reason for him to defend himself. The believers in Corinth were his letter of recommendation “written not with pen and ink, but with the Spirit of the living God. It is carved not on tablets of stone, but on human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:3b NLT). There was no greater proof of the validity of Paul’s apostolic ministry than the transformed lives of those who made up the church in Corinth. The amazing thing about what had happened in Corinth was not that Paul had arrived in town and was able to wow the people there with his oratory skills. He didn’t blow them away with his eloquence and powers of persuasion. In fact, just the opposite was the case.

When I first came to you, dear brothers and sisters, I didn’t use lofty words and impressive wisdom to tell you God’s secret plan. For I decided that while I was with you I would forget everything except Jesus Christ, the one who was crucified. I came to you in weakness—timid and trembling. And my message and my preaching were very plain. Rather than using clever and persuasive speeches, I relied only on the power of the Holy Spirit. I did this so you would trust not in human wisdom but in the power of God. – 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 NLT

The establishment of the church in Corinth had been the work of the Holy Spirit, not Paul. He had simply been a conduit through which the Spirit had worked. He had been an instrument in the hands of God. Paul could look at the changed lives of the people in Corinth and know with confidence that his work had been effective. And he also knew that it had not been because of his own skills or abilities. “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant” (2 Corinthians 3:5-6a ESV). Any success Paul had enjoyed was the result of God’s power, not his own. “We are confident of all this because of our great trust in God through Christ” (2 Corinthians 3:4 NLT).

It is important to note that Paul, while viewing himself as a servant of God, did not really believe that he was working on behalf of God as much as he was being used by God. He truly believed that God was working through him, not that he was working for God. Sometimes we can easily begin to think that we are doing God a favor by serving Him. We can believe that we are doing all the work and He is sitting back eagerly watching and waiting to see what it is we accomplish. But Paul knew that, without God’s power, all his efforts would have been in vain. God is not dependent upon us. It is the other way around. It was Paul who proudly proclaimed, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13 ESV). It was God who said to Paul, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9 NLT).

It is the Spirit who gives life, Paul asserts. It is God who makes possible the salvation of men. We have a role to play, but we must never forget that our role is as servants of God. We are tools in His hands, empowered by His Spirit and obligated to do His will His way. Paul will emphasize his understanding of his God-given role later on in this same letter.

And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” –2 Corinthians 5:18-20 NLT

We are conduits of God’s grace. We are PVC pipes carrying the live-giving message of the good news to those who are spiritually thirsty and starving. And we can be confident that God can and will use us as we make ourselves available to Him. Our weakness does not disqualify us, it makes us perfect candidates for God’s service.

God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God. – 1 Corinthians 1:27-29 NLT

So, “If you want to boast, boast only about the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:31 NLT). He can and does use you. Your value to Him begins with your recognition of your absolute dependence upon Him. Your greatest use to Him starts with your understanding that you are useless without Him. When we understand that God is power behind our effectiveness, we can become confident conduits of His grace.