At times some might begin to think that the apostles and prophets we read about in God’s word lived lives that were free from the cares and worries that we have to go through, that in some way God protected them. Yet when we read the pages of scripture we discover that they were people just like us, and dealt with pain and sorrow, discouragement and despair just as we have to do.
Paul details some of what it seems that he went through as he wrote a ‘boast’ to the Christians in Corinth.
“It is necessary to go on boasting. Though it is not profitable, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago (whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows) was caught up to the third heaven. And I know that this man (whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows) was caught up into paradise and heard things too sacred to be put into words, things that a person is not permitted to speak.” (2 Corinthians 12:1-4 NET)
Although a difficult section at first reading, most scholars agree that Paul is actually talking about himself as he relates this incident due to the reference to the “thorn in the flesh” he was given (v. 7). If we approach the text with this in mind, it would appear that he is relating something that happened to him 14 years earlier.
Naturally, we would like to know the circumstances surrounding his being caught up into “the third heaven”. Some have suggested that it was when he was stoned in Lystra, but due to the precise dating of this being “fourteen years ago” from when he was writing, the dates do not line up.
The dating of this would seem to be somewhere between the time he returned to Tarsus and when he and Barnabas left on their first preaching trip. Some have suggested that it coincided with the Holy Spirit setting them apart while they were worshipping and fasting with the other prophets and teachers at Antioch. Although appealing, this still can’t be advocated with certainty.
More important is that it happened and whatever Paul saw he was not allowed to talk about it. But to keep him from becoming too arrogant, God gave him a thorn in the flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7).
Much has been written about what this “thorn in the flesh” might be – but, again, we don’t have sufficient information to speculate about it. That it is called a “thorn in the flesh” would indicate that it was either something painful, as a thorn would be, or something that caused him discomfort, as a splinter might. It caused Paul so much trouble that three times he asked the Lord to take it away – but he didn’t.
That might be surprising to us. Why wouldn’t God remove something that bothered this great proclaimer of the Messiah? The simple answer is what Paul was told: “My grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:8). In other words, physical weakness doesn’t affect us spiritually. He needed to focus on Jesus, proclaiming him, and encouraging Christians.
Often we struggle to understand why God doesn’t remove a disease or an obstacle from our life or from someone else’s life. Sometimes people question whether God is really there. Yet the answer given to Paul should be good enough for us, too: “My grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
God wants us to serve him no matter what our circumstances. Even when we are ‘weak’ the power of Jesus can be seen in us.
Let us be like Paul and be able to say when we are facing struggles:
“Therefore I am content with weaknesses, with insults, with troubles, with persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
Readings for next week: 2 Corinthians 11-13; Galatians 1-2