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When We Are Weak, We Can Be Strong

Bible Paradoxes  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  47:19
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2 Corinthians 12:7–10 ESV
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.
Someone has defined a secret as something you repeat to one person at a time.
That definition may apply to some people but not to the apostle Paul.
He kept a secret hidden in his heart for fourteen years (2 Cor. 12:1–4), and the only reason he finally shared it was to defend his ministry.
2 Corinthians 12:1–4 ESV
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. 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.
He was being attacked by troublemakers in the church at Corinth,
people who questioned his apostolic authority.
Paul had gone to heaven and come back and had never told anybody about it!
To keep Paul from getting proud of these remarkable experiences, the Lord gave him “a thorn in the flesh.”
Nobody knows what this thorn was—and it’s futile to speculate.
The important thing is to know how God dealt with Paul because this is the way He might want to deal with us.
4 Sermon Objectives
Unexpected Problems
Unanswered Prayers
Unlimited Power
Unbelievable Pleasure

Unexpected Problems (2 Cor. 12:7)

2 Corinthians 12:7 ESV
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.
A friend who had ministered in China told me about a Chinese Christian who was made an elder in one of the churches. When the pastor was in town, this elder was a great help; but when the pastor would go on evangelistic trips, the elder’s personality would change radically, and he would create serious problems in the church. When the pastor returned, the elder returned to normal. The man finally confessed the sin that was wrecking his life and his church—pride. “When I was ordained,” the elder said, “Satan whispered in my ear, ‘Now you are somebody important,’ and I believed him. Pride got hold of me and I stopped being a minister and became a menace.” God delivered the man and he set about repairing the damage he had done.
At his conversion, Paul had seen Jesus in glory and heard Him speak (Acts 9:1–9), and Paul’s visit to heaven was an even more extraordinary experience.
Like any believer, he could have become proud, but the Lord prevented him from boasting.
There are times when the Lord must chasten us because of past sin (Heb. 12:3–11), but there are also times when God disciplines us to prevent future sin.
I have wondered at times why God permitted certain painful events to occur in my life, but I will understand it fully when I get to heaven.
Paul knew why God gave him his thorn in the flesh:
“lest I should be exalted above measure” (2 Cor. 12:7).
Note that Paul repeats the statement. He got the message!
After a certain amount of success in life, it’s very easy for us to become proud and confident of our own abilities.
King Uzziah of Judah was greatly helped by the Lord and “his fame spread far and wide.… But when he was strong his heart was lifted up, to his destruction” (2 Chron. 26:15–16).
“Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18).
God still had work for Paul to do, so He sent a thorn to humble him, and it worked!
Strength that knows itself to be strength becomes weakness, but weakness that knows itself to be weakness becomes strength.
A similar experience almost kept young Joseph from enjoying God’s best in his life.
He was a godly young man, intelligent and in touch with the Lord; but he did not know how to handle the truths God was sharing with him (Gen. 37; 39).
He was in danger of getting proud.
The Lord sent Joseph to Egypt as a slave and there he was very successful, but then the Lord put him into prison to suffer and be equipped to serve as the second ruler in the land.
“Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up” (James 4:10).
James 4:10 ESV
Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
If we accept the unexpected difficulties of life that God sends us, we will go from weakness to strength and glorify His name; but if we depend on our own wisdom and abilities and want our own way, we will only grow weaker.
Strength that knows it is strength will become weakness, but weakness that knows it is weakness will become strength if we wholly trust the Lord.
When Paul first went to minister in Corinth, he was overwhelmed with weakness and fear and trembling.
His preaching was not like the oratory of the popular pagan teachers in Corinth, but simple and compassionate.
He did not want the people to be impressed with him but with Jesus and trust in Him (see 1 Cor. 2:1–5).
He told the believers to follow Christ and imitate Him.
Paul was not a celebrity; he was a servant of Jesus Christ.
Our heavenly Father knows how to balance our lives so that success will not exalt us or pain and failure defeat us.
Jesus was “crucified in weakness, yet He lives by the power of God” (2 Cor. 13:4).
We can glory in the cross because Jesus turned its seeming weakness and defeat into power and victory (1 Cor. 1:18–2:8; Col. 2:15; Gal. 6:14).
Colossians 2:15 ESV
He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.
Galatians 6:14 ESV
But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.
A man of many trials and infirmities, Paul identified with Christ’s suffering and it released power into his life.
We cannot explain it but we can experience it.
Paul knew he had not yet attained perfection in the Christian life so he kept pressing on (Phil. 3:12).
Philippians 3:12 ESV
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.
Whenever I get the foolish idea that I have arrived, my Father reminds me that I still have a long way to go.
And His reminders are difficult to ignore! (My computer often humbles me.)
When I admit my feebleness, then God manifests His strength.
We never know when unexpected pains and problems will appear on the scene or what blessings the Father has in store for us.
We walk by faith, not by sight, and we can be sure the Father will not abandon us.
1. Weakness that knows itself to be weakness becomes strength
2. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you

Unanswered Prayers (2 Cor. 12:8)

2 Corinthians 12:8 ESV
Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.
It must have disturbed Paul when the Lord did not answer his prayers, because Paul was a man of faith who knew how to pray in God’s will (Rom. 8:26–28).
Romans 8:26–28 ESV
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
When the Lord instructed Ananias to go to Paul and baptize him and restore his sight, He added, “for behold, he is praying” (Acts 9:11).
Acts 9:11 ESV
And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying,
Prior to that time, Paul had been preying upon God’s people, but now he was praying to the Lord and waiting for further orders.
Paul began his Christian life in prayer and to the very end it continued in prayer.
Like Jesus in Gethsemane, Paul prayed three times that his cup of suffering might be taken from him, and like Jesus (Mark 14:35–41), he accepted God’s will.
In his excellent commentary on 1 John, Robert Law writes,
“The purpose of prayer is not to get man’s will done in heaven but to get God’s will done on earth.”
While on their pilgrimage to the Promised Land, the nation of Israel begged the Lord to give them meat to eat.
“He gave them their request, but sent leanness into their soul” (Ps. 106:15; Num. 11).
In other words, the people got their answer but they lost the blessing.
God did not answer Paul’s request and remove the thorn, but He did meet Paul’s needs and give him the blessing that would enable him to continue his ministry.
Paul was a man of prayer who encouraged others to pray, and he was not ashamed to ask his Christian friends to pray for him (Rom. 15:30–32; 2 Cor. 1:8–11; Eph. 6:19–20; Phil. 1:19; 1 Thess. 5:25; 2 Thess. 3:1–2).
I have often meditated on Paul’s prayers found in his epistles, and this has strengthened my own prayer life.
Paul prayed without ceasing (Rom. 1:9; 1 Thess. 1:3; 2:13; 5:17; 2 Tim. 1:3), and it made no difference where he was—in a private home (Acts 9:11), in the temple (Acts 22:17), with local church leaders (Acts 13:1–3; 20:36–38; 21:5), in prison (Acts 16:25), or aboard a ship in a storm (Acts 27:35).
Perhaps he patterned his prayer life after David and Daniel, who also prayed in a special way three times a day (Ps. 55:17; Dan. 6:10).
It was perfectly natural for Paul to ask God to remove the thorn.
When we face problems or feel pain, it’s normal to seek God’s help, for the Lord commands us to cast all our cares upon Him (1 Peter 5:7).
But it is also a good thing to come to the place where we are grateful for unanswered prayer.
For example, Moses forfeited entering the Promised Land because he had disobeyed the Lord (Num. 20:1–13).
He prayed several times for the Lord to change His mind, but God refused.
But centuries later the Lord gave Moses an even better blessing when He permitted him and Elijah to have glorious fellowship with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt. 17:1–13).
That was a postponed blessing worth waiting for!
Unanswered prayer might mean that we have hidden sins in our lives that need to be confessed and forsaken (Ps. 66:18), or that we are not praying in the will of God.
Psalm 66:18 ESV
If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.
“Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us.
And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him” (1 John 5:14–15).
James 4:15 instructs us to pray, “If the Lord wills …” We discover the will of God as we wait before Him, worship Him, search the Scriptures, and tell Him we are willing to do His will (John 7:17).
James 4:15 ESV
Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”
I am not smart enough to tell my Father what He should do and when He should do it, but I think I am smart enough to submit to Him and say, “Your will be done” (see Luke 22:42).
3. Romans 8:26 says, Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness...
4. If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.

Unlimited Power (2 Cor. 12:9)

2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV
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.
The Lord did not remove Paul’s thorn in the flesh, but He did give him the grace he needed to turn the burden into a blessing.
By His grace, the Lord transformed weakness into strength.
This does not mean that Paul was now able to endure the pain but that he was able to enlist the pain and make it work for him and not against him.
“My grace is sufficient for you,” the Lord told Paul, “for My strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).
The word “grace” is used sixteen times in 2 Corinthians. Someone has made an acronym out of the word GRACE:
God’s
Resources
Available to
Christians
Everywhere
God’s grace is God’s love in action, meeting every need and using every circumstance to edify us and to glorify Jesus.
The Lord does not measure our inability but He tests our availability so He can give us His divine ability.
“Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ” (2 Cor. 2:14).
In 2 Corinthians 2, the words “sufficient” and “sufficiency” are important.
After describing the so-called Roman triumph parade (vv. 12–16), Paul asks the question, “And who is sufficient for these things?”
Who is sufficient to share in Christ’s glorious victory?
Who is sufficient to stand between life and death as we share the gospel with the lost?
Paul answers the question in 2 Corinthians 3:5:
“Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God, who also made us sufficient and ministers of the new covenant.”
Christ’s victory guarantees our sufficiency, if we trust Him and seek only to glorify Him.
Christ is sufficient for all our spiritual needs (2 Cor. 3:5–6).
2 Corinthians 3:5–6 ESV
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.
According to 2 Corinthians 9:8, Christ is also sufficient for all our material needs.
2 Corinthians 9:8 ESV
And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.
“And God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, have an abundance for every good work.”
Paul was taking up a “love offering” for the suffering Jewish believers in the Holy Land, and he was encouraging the Corinthian believers to fulfill their promises and make their contribution.
The money we give to the Lord to minister to the needs of believers and to evangelize unbelievers is an investment in eternal blessing.
(I will go into greater detail in the following chapter.)
During our years of ministry, my wife and I have seen the Lord multiply gifts in wonderful ways and meet our needs as well as the needs of those whom we help to support.
Besides the spiritual and the material, there is a third area of sufficiency—the physical.
As we have learned from 2 Corinthians 12, Paul had a physical problem that was painful, and in spite of Paul’s fervent prayers, it was permanent.
We would know nothing about this matter had Paul not written about it to the saints in Corinth.
But the God who met the spiritual and financial needs also met Paul’s physical needs!
“My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).
Our care of the physical body is as much a spiritual discipline as using our time wisely and spending our money wisely.
The Christian’s body is not only God’s temple (1 Cor. 6:19–20)
1 Corinthians 6:19–20 ESV
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
but also God’s tool for accomplishing His work on earth (Rom. 6:13; 12:1–2).
Romans 6:13 ESV
Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.
Romans 12:1–2 ESV
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
The proper use of food, exercise, rest, and hygiene is as much a spiritual discipline as our use of time, money, and ministry opportunities. As we get older, we must learn to adjust our schedules, activities, and diets so that we conserve our strength and make good use of our opportunities.
God’s weakness is stronger than our strength (1 Cor. 1:25), and if we trust His grace, He will see us through. “And of His fullness we have all received, and grace for grace” (John 1:16).
As you read your Bible, you meet men and women who did extraordinary things for the Lord because they had no confidence in the flesh (Phil. 3:3) or in other people (Ps. 118:8).
Philippians 3:3 ESV
For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh—
Psalm 118:8 ESV
It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man.
They depended only on the grace of God and He turned their weakness into strength (Heb. 11:34).
Hebrews 11:34 ESV
quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.
“Some trust in chariots, and some in horses, but we will remember the name of the LORD our God” (Ps. 20:7).
When God calls and commands us, He always graciously provides all that we need so we can obey and serve Him.
Paul boasted about his weakness because it glorified the Lord who turned that weakness into power (2 Cor. 12:9).
When we are willing to be nothing in ourselves and let God get the glory, He is willing to meet every need, solve every problem, and defeat every enemy—in His own way and His own time.
There are two words in the Greek language for the word “another.” One means “another of the same kind” (allos), and the second means “another of a different kind” (heteros).
When Jesus spoke to His disciples about “another Helper” (John 14:15–18), the word in the Greek text is allos, “another of the same kind.”
He was saying that the Holy Spirit is a Helper to us today just as Jesus was to His disciples!
The same Holy Spirit who taught and empowered Peter and the other disciples is available to minister to us today, if we will permit Him.
For us to disobey the Spirit and do things our own way is to grieve Him and lose the guidance and power we so desperately need.
But I must add this: we also need the Spirit to help us sit still and wait.
“But those who wait on the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (Isa. 40:31).
“In quietness and confidence shall be your strength” (Isa. 30:15).
In many churches, instead of quietness and confidence, we have noise and nervousness, and the Lord is not glorified.
I have known believers who wearied themselves by running from conference to conference and meeting to meeting without taking time to rest and meditate, as Jesus commanded His disciples (Mark 6:31).
Mark 6:31 ESV
And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.
Unlimited power is available to us as we wait on the Lord and trust Him, for His grace is always sufficient and efficient.
As we wait before the Lord, He is at work on our behalf because all things are working together for our good and His glory.
5. The Bible says… My grace is sufficient for you
6. Psalm 118:8 It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man.

Unbelievable Pleasure (2 Cor. 12:10)

2 Corinthians 12:10 ESV
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.
How can people take pleasure in pain? Do they suffer from some kind of mental or emotional affliction?
Paul was certainly not unbalanced, nor does he want us to be unbalanced.
We must pay close attention to the context.
Paul could rejoice in his sufferings because they were for the sake of Jesus, his Savior and Lord.
Any suffering we bear for Him is nothing compared to all that He has suffered for us.
Paul was not concerned about what the people thought but what Jesus thought.
This was “the fellowship of His sufferings” (Phil. 3:10).
Philippians 3:10 ESV
that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,
A mother is in pain when she is delivering a child, but the joy of having the child transforms pain into pleasure (see John 16:2–22).
Whatever suffering we experience for the sake of Jesus not only should give us joy today but will give us future glory when we see our Lord.
“Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy” (1 Peter 4:12–13).
Suffering and glory go together in the life of the dedicated Christian, and as the song tells us, “It will be worth it all when we see Jesus.”
But something else is involved: when we suffer for the sake of Jesus, it makes us more like Jesus! Paul assures us that “tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope.
Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom. 5:3–5).
Romans 5:3–5 ESV
Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
Suffering works for us and not against us because the power of Christ rests upon us (2 Cor. 12:9).
What a paradox!
Our physical pain can produce spiritual maturity, and our weakness can produce strength!
During our years of itinerant ministry, my wife and I have met some marvelous Christians in many parts of the world, and they have ministered richly to us.
We were surprised to discover how many of them carried painful burdens and disappointments, but the triumph of their faith gave them joy and power in ministry.
We have also met hidden heroes of faith in the churches we have served.
Consider how Paul dealt with this thorn in the flesh and let’s follow his example:
• He looked upon his thorn in the flesh as a gift from God.
• He listened for God’s message about the thorn.
• He accepted God’s will concerning the purpose of the thorn.
• He depended on God’s grace in handling the thorn.
• He experienced from the thorn strength out of weakness and joy out of pain.
More than anything else, Paul wanted the power of Christ to rest upon him (2 Cor. 12:9).
The word translated “rest upon” is related to the word “tent,” and it pictures God’s overshadowing “glory cloud”
as in the Jewish tabernacle and on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt. 17:5).
Matthew 17:5 ESV
He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
The angel Gabriel used this image when speaking to Mary:
“the power of the highest will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35).
Her body would be the tabernacle for the miraculous conception of the Son of God.
The believer’s body is the temple of God (1 Cor. 6:19–20), and as we yield to Him, He uses us and glorifies His name.
1 Corinthians 6:19–20 ESV
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
His cloud of glory hovers over us, guides and protects us, and we have nothing to fear.
Personal afflictions need not be a barrier to Christian service.
If we are established in God’s grace (Heb. 13:9) and have regular access to His throne of grace (Heb. 4:14–16), then we may serve the Lord as He directs us.
Hebrews 13:9 ESV
Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited those devoted to them.
Hebrews 4:14–16 ESV
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Phillips Brooks said it best:
“Do not pray for easy lives.
Pray to be better men and women.
Do not ask for tasks equal to your powers.
Ask for powers equal to your tasks.”
7. The Bible teaches… that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death
8. The word translated “rest upon” is related to the word “tent,” and it pictures God’s overshadowing “glory cloud
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