Summary: We learn the secret of Paul the Apostle - that though he saw things no other man has ever seen, the most important secret of all is letting us fall by the wayside and let God live through us.
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Finding Strength Through Weakness
Pastor Tom Fuller
This is one of the most unusual sections in all of Scripture. Jesus talked more about hell than heaven, and other than John’s Revelation, we know very little about it. But we do know someone other than the Lord Himself who’s been there – Paul. There must be plenty of things about this man that we won’t know until we get to meet him, but here he reveals an incredible experience – why its important as he battles with the false teachers, and how it teaches us that we can find true strength only when we become weak.
1 I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know-God knows. 3 And I know that this man-whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows- 4 was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell. 5 I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. 6 Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say.
Paul is talking about himself here. So why does he talk about this vision in the third person? Probably because he is trying to distance himself from boasting about a revelation from God – a very personal thing.
It’s all part of the defense against the men who had come into Corinth who used supposed revelations they had had as a reason they had authority. Paul is clear that he thinks boasting about visions is foolish – so he talks about his vision in the third person, as if he were observing it, rather than a part of it.
It happened 14 years before the writing of this letter. Scholars don’t think this vision is recorded anywhere else, and it clearly wasn’t the vision he had on the road to Damascus because Paul says he was “in Christ,” or already a Christian. But the timing would have been close to the beginning of his ministry, perhaps as a way for the Lord to encourage Paul in all the things he would have to suffer.
He says he was caught up to the “third heaven.” The Old and New Testaments refer to three different “heavens.” There is the sky, then the universe around us, then the dwelling place of God. Psalm 68 refers to it as the “heaven of heavens.”
Paul in verse 2 says he doesn’t know if he was in or out of his body at the time. But look at verse 4 – “He heard inexpressible things.” Wow. Most of the time you’d think you’d want to share the vision – but the point of it wasn’t to share what Paul saw, but the fact that God did this – something between God and Paul.
Paul could boast about it, because it really happened – probably in contrast to the “revelations” his opponents came up with – but Paul’s point is that “I could tell you all about it, but that’s not me – and that’s not the person the Lord has brought to you.” Instead Paul goes back to something he’s repeated several times in this book – that he will instead boast about his weaknesses – and, it seems, the Lord also wanted to comfort Paul without giving him a big head.
7 To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 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 about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
This is probably one of the most wonderful sections of this entire book – maybe the entire New Testament.
In verses 7 through 10 we see:
• The work of God through the believer
• The need for humbleness
• The work of the devil trying to frustrate, weaken, and accuse