2Co 12:7 And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. 2Co 12:8 For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. 2Co 12:9 And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 2Co 12:10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.
The Lord told Paul from the very beginning that he would suffer for His sake. In fact, in Act 9:15 the Lord said of Paul, “for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel: Act 9:16 For I will shew him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake.” And here in 2 Cor. 12, we understand the reason why. Paul was chosen to suffer so he’d be an example to us of the sufficiency of His grace through all the difficult times of our lives.
This is a great distinction from what was taught before him during the Lord’s earthly ministry who would say things like, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened…” (Matthew 7:7-8).
If you think all the NT is written to us, then you have to wonder about this contradiction. Is the Lord somehow wishy-washy when it comes to answering prayers? Is He going to give you everything you ask or is everything no because of the sufficiency of His grace?
The fact is that both verses are true. What the Lord said during His earthly ministry was meant for the twelve disciples in view of their Kingdom here on Earth just as it was prophesied. When the new covenant is established with Israel at the Lord’s Second Coming, they will all be perfectly righteous in their glorified bodies. God will write His laws onto their hearts, and they will obey Him perfectly (Jer. 31:31-34). Only after the Lord’s Second Coming, only after the new covenant with Israel has been established, and only after He has written His law in their inward parts, when He literally establishes His kingdom here on Earth, then anything His disciples asked in prayer in His kingdom, they will receive, because those prayers will be in perfect alignment with the will of God the Father, which is precisely why the Lord said, “And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.”
But when Paul came on the scene, everything changed. Paul writes in Eph 3:1: “For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles, If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward: How that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery…” The Lord Jesus Christ had a mystery, a secret, and He revealed this new secret message about this new “dispensation of the grace of God” to this new Apostle Paul, who reveals in his letters to us a whole new victory program by God’s grace through Christ’s all-sufficient work on the cross for both Jew and Gentile alike. So we have to rightly divide the word of truth and recognize what is spoken to us and what isn’t, the distinction between prophecy and mystery, kingdom and grace, Israel and the church. While everything is written for us, not everything is written to, and we have to recognize that Paul is our apostle for today.
We often make the big picture point here that God does not show His love to us through our circumstances. He showed His love to us through the sacrifice of His Son and all His many spiritual blessings with which He showered us after we got saved.
Why should God, for example, punish us for “secret sins” when He’s already punished His Son on the cross for all the sins of all mankind for all time? All sins, every last one of them, past-present-future, have all been covered by the blood of Christ, and Paul tells us in Col. 2:13 that He’s forgiven you all trespasses.
Instead of changing your circumstances, God changed you. Instead of choosing to manifest His power externally in our circumstances, He’s chosen to manifest His life and His power internally inside us, strengthening us with all might by His Spirit in the inner man (Eph. 3:16), helping us to be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might (Eph. 6:10), doing all things through Christ who continually strengthens us (Phil. 4:13) while also being “strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness” (Col. 1:11). He has empowered us through the riches of His grace to endure all long-suffering with joy with His power working in us, so that through any suffering, we may glorify God for all that He is, for all that He’s done for us, and for all the empowerment we have been given by His grace.
Let’s Get into the Weeds – Messenger of Satan
What exactly is going on here in 1 Cor. 12? He says in vs. 7, “And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.” God allowed him to suffer so that, first of all, he wouldn’t get a big head because he’s getting all these revelations from God and also so that we wouldn’t think more highly of him than we ought to think. God allowed Paul to suffer with this “thorn in the flesh,” an expression only used here and no where else, although common in classical Greek literature. This is a term that denotes an affliction of some kind. Something that causes acute pain or shame.
Now I know some would attribute this affliction as being some kind of physical infirmity, like the issue he had with his eyes. What gives me pause about that theory is what Paul says next. He said the cause was this “messenger of Satan to buffet me”. The Greek word for “messenger” is angelos, literally an angel, which means “messenger.” So Paul is literally talking about an angel of Satan, a demon, who is doing what? He’s buffeting him.
What does it mean to buffet? Webster’s 1828 defines buffet as “A blow with the fist; a box on the ear or face; a slap. To strike with the hand or fist; to box; to beat.” I can see the logic in the thinking that this may be a physical issue, in the sense that maybe as the Lord allowed Satan to inflict bodily harm to Job, God also allowed this demon to inflict bodily harm to Paul, which is why he had that issue with his eye.
Personally, I suspect that what we’re seeing here is a demon or a demon-possessed person, who is verbally and/or physically assaulting Paul relentlessly.
So Paul pleaded with the Lord in his prayers to remove this affliction that was driving him crazy, which is a totally natural reaction from anyone. Paul begged in prayer three times for the Lord to fix this problem and get rid of this thorn in the flesh.
Paul writes, “And he said unto me” – the Lord spoke to Him. He heard the Lord’s voice from Heaven. This is what we lovingly like to call an “Apostolic Exception.” The Lord did something with Paul He isn’t going to do with the rest of us because Paul was an apostle.
But this moment is for our learning, as application for all of us. This is why we would say that you also have to rightly divide Paul’s letters to a small degree because there are “Apostolic Exceptions” like this one.
When the Lord responded to Paul, did He say He would intervene? No or no? Did He say, “Whatever you ask you’ll receive, if you have faith”? No or no? Did He say that if Paul prays with two or more believers, then he’ll receive whatever he asks? No or no? Did He say that if Paul starts a prayer chain He might intervene? No or no?
The Lord told Paul that His grace is sufficient. His grace would carry him through all his trials. His grace would empower him. His grace would be the means by which Paul could endure all long-suffering with joy, and His grace would enable Paul to serve Christ with power.
The point here is that His intervention is internal not external. While we want the Lord to fix all our problems, the Lord wants to show us the sufficiency of His grace and the magnificence of His power working in our souls so that we may say as Paul said, “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”
His Grace is Sufficient
I have a question. How would you define “My grace”? What does He mean by that exactly?
Some of them would say that grace is just God’s general attitude of benevolence toward you or that this is the promise of some future grace of Christ, that this is some kind of miraculous grace that will be divinely imparted to you when you go through hard times. That makes ZERO sense! God wasn’t talking to Paul about some future grace He’s going to give him. He was talking about the grace He already gave him! And by extension this means that this principle applies to us! We’re to learn just as Paul learned that His grace is sufficient for our sufferings right here, right now.
I would suggest that when the Lord says, “My grace,” He’s talking about the entire package of grace. He’s talking about what He accomplished for you at Calvary. He’s talking about what His Father made you in Him – dead, buried, and risen with Christ, the old you crucified with Christ, literally freed from the bondage of sin, utterly transformed into new creatures, living His resurrection life, complete in Him, blessed with all spiritual blessings, etc., which is what my book is all about and our podcast.
Plus, I think He’s talking about His life working through you and living out of you while you go through hard times. So the Lord is talking about the entire realm of His grace in which we live, everything He accomplished for us at Calvary, everything we are in Christ, all His power working in us and through us as we suffer, and the power of hope of a glory to come.
The entire package of grace, the entire realm of His grace wherein we stand as the elect of God, holy and beloved, that entire realm of His grace is sufficient for us to carry us through all the hard times in our lives. The Lord isn’t saying no to Paul because He doesn’t care or doesn’t support Him. He’s showing Paul how He supports all of us during hard times by the sufficiency of His grace. The Father had already planned to help you through all of these hard times by how He spiritually created you in His Son before He ever physically created the world.
We grace believers never lose anything by suffering and enduring afflictions, but we gain the experience of relying on the empowerment of His grace to carry us through all the hard times. Rather than remove the problem, God has empowered us to give His Son the glory through hard times because of what He accomplished in us through the cross.
The Lord said, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” His grace is sufficient. His grace: everything He accomplished for us at Calvary, everything His Father made us in Christ, every aspect of His life living out of us has made us sufficient to endure hard times, and the power of hope.
What does he mean by “sufficient?” Webster says that sufficient is to be equipped to the very end. You possess all of the adequate provisions necessary for that need. We are equipped. We are His workmanship, made perfect and complete, able to rejoice and give glory to Him even through the worst, most difficult times of our lives.
Of course, one can’t help but think of 2Co 9:8 And God is able to make all grace abound toward you; that ye, always having all sufficiency in all things, may abound to every good work. When Paul says, God is able to make all grace abound toward you, what does he mean? Hasn’t God already given us all the grace He’s going to give us this side of glory? Yes, He has. But His grace can abound more and more inside of you only as much as you allow His grace to influence your heart and mind such that His grace fills you full, which makes you able to endure all suffering. If you study His Word, He will make His grace abound toward you, because you have gained that knowledge of all the things the Spirit has freely given us.
And all that grace that’s been showered upon you by the Father becomes your strength and your sufficiency, which enables you to not just endure hard time but to also rejoice in them!
As Fred often says, His grace is a complete victory program. Just as His grace reigns over the world, so too, His grace reigns inside us, which allows us to exhibit His grace in our walks, and we are to be strong in that grace. We are to maintain the vivacity of His grace operating in our hearts. We are to keep that inspiring, transforming, attribute of God alive in us all our days on this Earth. We allow His grace to motivate everything we do, ensuring that His grace lives out in us, and we are strong only as much as we allow the power of His grace to work in us.
Paul told Timothy to be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. This is about His blessings of grace influencing our hearts and directing our steps, which makes His grace our strength. This is about a faithful service to God by allowing ourselves to be influenced to the full by all the grace that is in Christ. The more we study, the more the word of God is brought home to our hearts and our minds, received in faith by the teaching and power of the Holy Spirit, and the more we increase in the knowledge of His will, the more the Spirit strengthens our inner man, and the more the grace of God transforms our hearts, which directs our thinking and our walks, especially during hard times.
When you consider what God has made us in Christ, that we are all dead, buried, and resurrected with Christ, transformed into new creatures with His newness of life in us, why wouldn’t God emphasize in Paul’s letters the empowerment we have by His grace?
Paul said that we always have all sufficiency in all things. God always causes us to triumph in Christ (2 Cor. 2:14). We are always confident (2 Cor. 5:6). We always have all sufficiency in all things because God is able to make all grace abound toward us (2 Cor. 9:8). We are always given peace by all means from the Lord of peace (2 Thess. 3:16). We are always unashamed of the gospel, always bold (Phil. 1:20).
Strength Made Perfect
The Lord told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for thee (the entire package of grace has equipped you to the end and then what does He say?): for my strength is made perfect in weakness.”
What is His strength here? How would you define His strength within the framework of all the sufficiency we have in His grace?
Notice the two times the Lord says “My.” He talks about “My grace.” And “my strength.” The two are intimately tied together. You cannot have one without the other.
His strength is found in His grace and His grace becomes our strength.
I know that sounds good. A few people might even “amen” to that, but that is a statement you really have to meditate upon in order to plumb the depths of those spiritual truths.
His strength is found in His grace and His grace becomes our strength.
How does that work exactly? As one of our members, Brad Kline, would say, what does that look like?
Before you can define His strength, I think you have to thoroughly understand His grace. His grace lays the foundation for the strength that we have, which goes back to the entire package of grace. This is the power of hope. This is everything He accomplished for us at Calvary. This is everything His Father made us in Christ. This is every aspect of His life living out through us which made us perfect vessels for His strength, especially in our weakness. We were made perfect to thrive in His strength when we are weak.
The foundation to having His strength is reckoning as true what God accomplished for us, in us, and through us. So His strength can be found in us acknowledging all the spiritual blessings we’ve been given because of His grace.
For example. I can’t help but think of Eph 3:7 Whereof I was made a minister, according to the gift of the grace of God given unto me by the effectual working of his power. At the heart of this verse is Paul reckoning as true what God accomplished for him, in him, and through him. Paul was not made a minister because he was special. How was he made a minister? By receiving the gift of the grace of God. And how was that gift given to him? “By the effectual working of his power.” He was made into what he was through the power of God when he received His gift of grace. The gift of grace empowered Paul to fulfill his role to be a minister. The empowerment he received by His grace was how he was made to be what he was, how he was able to teach and preach the sound doctrines of grace, and also how he would have the sufficiency to endure all longsuffering with joyfulness.
God didn’t give Paul special abilities to minister. God made Paul able to become a minister simply because he received the same gift of grace we’ve all received, the gift of grace that transformed him into a new creature, as it transforms all of us, and we are all transformed by the effectual working of his power.
The way that the gift of grace transformed Paul by the effectual working of his power, is the same way we are all transformed by His gift of grace. The gift wasn’t some divinely ordained ability to be a good minister. This gift was the empowering of God by His grace to fulfill that role as a spiritual leader because of what God made him in Christ by His power. The foundation for Paul to know how he was made a minister was to reckon what God made him in Christ, what He did for him, in him, and through him. What’s the result? God always gets the glory.
Thus, it’s within that framework of that whole package of grace (everything He accomplished for us at Calvary, everything His Father made us in Christ, every aspect of His life living out through us, and the power of hope) in all of that God made us perfect vessels for His strength especially in our weakness.
How do we access His strength within the framework of all His grace? I’m reminded of that prayer in Col. 1.
Col 1:9 For this cause we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to desire that ye might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; Col 1:10 That ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God; Col 1:11 Strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness;
Notice here how Paul twice says “that”, which breaks the prayer up into two parts. He punctuates two sections to his prayer by using the word “that.”
He writes in his first point punctuated by the word “that” in verse 9 “that ye might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding” That’s the first point he makes here.
Then in vs. 10, we have the second section of his prayer punctuated by the word “that” which is followed by a long list. He says, “That ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God; Strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness…”
Notice in this list that these are all qualities he hopes they might attain. He says, That ye might walk worthy, that ye might be fruitful, that ye might be strengthened with all might, according to His glorious power. These are not qualities they already have. These are qualities Paul hopes they might attain. So how do you attain all those qualities?
Notice there’s a cause and effect between those two “that’s.” You attain all those qualities under the second “that” by doing what Paul said after the first “that”. We can attain all those qualities IF we endeavor to be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding. How do you do that? You study His Word, right? How do you become strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power? You study His Word so you can be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding.
This reminds me of the prayer request in Eph 3:16 That he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man. How are we strengthened with might by His Spirit in the inner man? Through His Word. 1 Thess. 2:13 tells us, “For this cause also thank we God without ceasing, because, when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe.”
When we take in His Word, the Holy Spirit energizes that Word inside of us, makes His Word effectual, powerful in us – renewing our minds, energizing our hearts, and we become strengthened with might by His Spirit in the inner man.
Paul said in 1 Cor. 2:12, “Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God…” Why? So “that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God.” The instrumentality that God the Holy Spirit uses to give us strength and empowerment is His Word, and His Word reveals not only the means of salvation by His grace but also all the spiritual blessings He’s freely given to us, all the grace that has abounded toward us, which empowers us, so we know that we have all sufficiency in all things, and we know we’re able to serve Him with power. To study His Word is to reckon the strength He has already given us because of what God has made us in Christ, and God wants us to know through His Word who we are in Christ, because He empowers us when we gain that spiritual knowledge.
In other words, we’re strengthened by gaining the knowledge of how God has already empowered us by what He has made us in His Son.