2 Corinthians 12: The Crown of Thorns
Paul reveals something which happened to him 14 years before when he was caught up into heaven. What is amazing, is Paul had never told anyone about this. Today we have books written and movies made about people who supposedly died and went to heaven and returned. Paul had not spoken of this for fourteen years.
Now Paul describes this occurrence and speaks of himself in the third person, which rabbis often did. He says he went up to the third heaven, which he calls paradise. We know when Jesus ascended we are told he passed through the heavens. The first heaven is the canopy, the atmosphere we live in where the sun shines and storms occur, but all the conditions we require for life are provided. The second heaven is beyond this atmosphere into what we call outer space, where the stars and planets exist. Man has explored a part of this and even walked on the moon. This second heaven is so vast, we do not know where it ends or if it ends, but beyond this is the third heaven, paradise. Here God lives and Jesus in a resurrected body is seated above all authority , power and dominion, and every title that can be given , not only in this present age, but also in the one to come.
Paul was caught up to there and heard inexpressible things that man is not permitted to tell. Then something unexpected happens: Paul was given a thorn in his flesh to keep him from becoming conceited, prideful because of the surpassing revelations he had seen and heard. The thorn in the flesh was given Paul, an affliction which caused him to suffer. Paul says this thorn, this affliction was given to him by Satan to torment him, buffet him. Thorns speak of pain.
One of the great mysteries of all times is evil and why God allowed it to come. God allowed evil to enter the world as a result of sin. Having made man in His own image, man had the freedom to choose, to decide. God told Cain when Cain was upset and angry because his offering was not accepted that sin was crouching at his door. Cain had to master sin or sin would master him, God told him.
The combination here is baffling: paradise and pain; suffering and glory. But they belong together and God’s story from the beginning has plainly told us this truth and shown it repeatedly in the stories of mankind. We even read about this in 2 Corinthians 8, where Paul talks about the grace God had given the church in Macedonia. Paul then describes the work of God’s grace in that church: “ Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.” Did you get that? Their overflowing joy came out of the most severe trial. Their rich generosity came out of their extreme poverty.
The secret of knowing God’s complete sufficiency and extreme grace is in coming to the end of self. Once we reach the point we will stop seeking sympathy for our difficult situation or ill treatment, because we will recognize these things as necessary conditions for blessings.
How do you respond to the storms, the sickness, and the “thorns” in your life? Do you get bitter and blame God? Do you endure it in your own strength, until you are completely drained? Do you grow angry with God when He does not heal you from your sickness? Paul is allowed to go up to heaven, either in his body or in a vision, he was not sure. But it was the most amazing experience he had ever had. What great heights he was lifted to- the things he heard and saw. And then back to earth he was given an affliction, a thorn. Paul pleaded with the Lord three times, he begged him to remove this painful affliction from his life.
I think of Jacob whose life had never been the same after his sons returned home with his bloodied robe of many colors to report Joseph and been attacked and killed by a wild animal. We know they concocted this story while selling their 17 year old brother into slavery. Jacob was never the same after that day. He had lost his Rachel, the love of his life. His sons for the most part were a disappointment to him. Then comes a severe famine which sends his sons to Egypt to find grain or face starvation. We know the story of how their brother Joseph, is unrecognized by them. He accuses them of being spies and hides their money back in their sacks of grain. Joseph keeps Simeon captive until they return with their youngest brother, Benjamin. When told of all this, Jacob proclaims with great sadness and grief: “ Everything is against me!” We know how the story ends. And Joseph and this story gives us great insight into how God uses evil and controls evil. Joseph said, “ But as for you, you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is to this day, to save many people alive.” (Genesis 50) Interesting observation, when Jacob thought everything was against him was actually when God was doing everything for him. If God is for us, who or what can be against us?
The story of Job allows us to see in to the third heaven how God controls evil and uses it for his glory. We realize Job was never given an explanation for why this happened. But we are not to live by explanations but by God’s promises. Paul writes in Romans 8: 28: “ And we know that all things works together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” Sometimes we cannot see or understand how some of these painful things can benefit us. In fact, Paul pleaded three times for this thorn to be removed.
2 Corinthians 12: 9a is the turning point: “ But then He( Lord Jesus) said unto me…” Do you know what the Lord Jesus has said unto you? Do you know what He has promised you? I believe this insight Paul is about to receive was a turning point in his ministry. Paul could then with confidence write from a prison in chains, “ Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ.” ( Phil. 1)
God uses pressure to generate spiritual power, the same way a turbine uses the friction of the gears to generated electricity. Wheels within wheels working to create power. Opposite forces also keep us in balance, just like opposing forces keep our earth in orbit. God uses adversity to strengthen, purify and grow our faith.
Paul wanted the thorn, the affliction removed. The use of the word ‘pleaded’ tells us Paul was imploring, urging, and even begging for relief. It is encouraging to me to know Paul wanted the affliction removed, and even greater encouragement is my High Priest, the Lord Jesus who can empathize with our situations for He, too pleaded in the garden three times with His Father for the cup could be taken from Him. Could they find another way to accomplish His will? Could they find an alternative method, a substitute. So I can ask for the problem to be removed, the pain to go away, to be healed from the sickness. But in the end I must want God’s will , not mine. God is not going to remove Paul’s thorn, He is instead going to use it to transform Paul until Paul sees the thorn as a gift from God. It was not meant for evil, but for good, for the saving of many lives.
THE END OF SELF.
Ever come to the end of self- the end of trying to do something which you cannot in your own strength do? We sing , “ I surrender all- all to Jesus , I surrender.” Surrender means you give up completely. Surrender is more than commitment, commitment is often a function of self will .
I fought a battle with alcohol for 14 years. Completely defeated and no longer deceived that I could quit drinking I decided to end my life rather than go on living that way. On September 16, 1977 I straddled the rail of a balcony on the 10th floor fully intending to end my life. I had come to an end which the enemy who had deceived wanted me to come to. Death is the wages of sin and separation from life. I pushed back from that rail and fell on my knees and ask the Lord Jesus to save me. I was an alcoholic and ironically, the AMA has recognized alcoholism as a disease. To which I would add , as is all sin, a disease. It is the disease of mankind. It ends in death. On that day, almost 40 years ago, I came to end of self. And looking back the end of self was the beginning of a new life. For Jacob it appeared everything was against him, and it all added up to the cumulative effect, that nothing good could come out of this. He was completely broken. I was broken that September morning in 1977. Brokenness is God’s requirement for maximum usefulness.
To admit one is powerless opens the door for an amazing truth Paul is about to have revealed to him. Jesse Ventura, former Navy seal, former professional wrestler and former governor of Minnesota was once asked in an interview what was his view of Christianity. To which he replied, “ Christianity is a crutch for the weak.” He did not realize how close he was to the secret we are about to learn about weakness.
The Lord’s answer to Paul is the answer to us in our time of despair in troubling circumstances. For as surely as the Lord said unto Paul, He is saying unto you in even your darkest hours. He has promised you and me, He would never place more on us than we can bear, but will make a way to stand up so we can bear it.
Here is what the Lord is saying to you: “ My grace is sufficient for you.” This is the amazing grace we sing about. This is God’s provision for us. It is always sufficient and it is manifold.
His grace is sufficient for your ministry. Paul writes, “ He ( the Lord) has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant.” 2 Cor. 3
His grace is sufficient to meet our material needs. “ And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things, at all times, having all you need, you will abound in every good work.” 2 Cor. 9
If His grace is sufficient to save us, surely His grace is sufficient to keep us and strengthen us in our times of need.
His grace is a strengthening grace: “ When I am weak, I am strong.” ( 2 Cor 9)
So the Lord’s first answer to us when we seek the removal of a problem, a thorn in our flesh, He tells us His grace is sufficient. And one of the reasons for the thorn is to make us realize our limits. To understand in the spiritual realm, spiritual power comes from Jesus and it comes when we realize we are powerless.
The second part of the Lord’s answer to Paul, which is also our answer to life’s thorns is equally important: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
I can see the expression of joy on Paul’s face as the deeper insight comes to him. The thorn is a gift. Accepting the thorn in your life as a gift, allows God to accomplish the purpose. Paul accepts the gift and realizes, “ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weakness, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why for Christ’s sake, I delight in weakness, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, I am strong. “
On September 16th, 1977, as I have often said, I went down on my knees a sot, I rose up a saint. A new creature. I was led to call AA that morning and attend my first AA meeting in the basement of a church in Nashville. It was only minutes away from my hotel. When I arrived, I heard them read the 12 steps of AA.
The first three steps were all I heard for they spoke so loudly to my situation, I knew I was where I was supposed to be. Here are the first three steps:
- We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and our lives had become unmanageable.
- Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
This is what had just occurred in my life. I had begun the journey of sanctification. It is a journey all believers are on. I refer to myself as do others who have been afflicted with the thorn of alcoholism, as a “ recovering alcoholic.” The fact is what I really am is what all believers are- “ recovering sinners”. The only way we recover is to realize we are powerless over sin and self. And come to believe a Power greater than ourselves can deliver us and restore us.
Now there are 12 steps in the AA program of recovery. I begin to work on the subsequent steps. But looking back in rearview mirror of time, I can see how it works. It is an ongoing daily process. This is why we were encouraged to take it one day at a time. But let me share the last two steps of this ongoing process.
Step 11: Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry it out.
Step 12: Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
Is this not what we are supposed to be doing? Of course it is. The Lord has equipped each of us with spiritual gifts to enable us to perform the work He has ordained we walk in.
- The spiritual is more important to a dedicated believer than the physical.
- God knows how to balance the burdens with the blessings.
- Not all sickness is from sin but for God’s purpose.
- Something worse than sickness is sin, and the worst sin is pride.
- Physical afflictions, life’s thorns, need not be a barrier to effective Christian service, but a gift to enable us to depend completely on the Lord for His Strength.
- We can always find rest in the Lord. Come unto me all you who are weary and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.
Remember, the Lord knows what it is to despair. He knows what it is to not have to deal with the thorns. But it was thorns which trapped the ram which God provided for Abraham in place of Isaac for a sacrifice. And it was my Lord Jesus who wore a crown of thorns on Calvary that day He took my place. Even though He despised the shame, he endured it for the joy set before Him. The joy of becoming the author and finisher of my faith. Amen!!
“ The city was Jerusalem, the time was long ago. The people called him Jesus, the crime was the love he showed. And I’m the one to blame. I caused all the pain. He gave Himself the day He wore my crown. He could have called His Holy Father and said take me away. He could have said I’m not guilty and I’m not going to stay. I’m not going to pay. But he walked right through the gate and then up on the hill. And as HE fell beneath the weight, He cried, Father not my will! And I’m the one to blame. I caused all the pain. He gave Himself for me, the day He wore my crown.” My crown of thorns.