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Espoused To Christ
2 Corinthians 11:1-15
Would to God ye could bear with me a little in my folly: and indeed bear with me. For I am jealous over you with godly jealousy: for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtlety, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. For if he that cometh preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached, or if ye receive another spirit, which ye have not received, or another gospel, which ye have not accepted, ye might well bear with him. For I suppose I was not a whit behind the very chiefest apostles. But though I be rude in speech, yet not in knowledge; but we have been thoroughly made manifest among you in all things. Have I committed an offence in abasing myself that ye might be exalted, because I have preached to you the gospel of God freely? I robbed other churches, taking wages of them, to do you service. And when I was present with you, and wanted, I was chargeable to no man: for that which was lacking to me the brethren which came from Macedonia supplied: and in all things I have kept myself from being burdensome unto you, and so will I keep myself. As the truth of Christ is in me, no man shall stop me of this boasting in the regions of Achaia. Wherefore? because I love you not? God knoweth. But what I do, that I will do, that I may cut off occasion from them which desire occasion; that wherein they glory, they may be found even as we. For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works. (vv. 1-15)
There is nothing to stir the heart to worship like contemplation of the Word of God. Satan has done his best to rob us of this treasure, but we can thank God that it has been preserved to us all down through the ages. God’s Word is like Himself, it is perfect. We read, “The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times” (Psalms 12:6).
Now the special verses I want to reread are 2-3: “I am jealous over you with godly jealousy: for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtlety, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.”
We have often heard the saying, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” and we need to remember that in these days, when there are so many different forces seeking to destroy our liberty here in America, when Communism is proposing license instead of liberty, and when others would propose a kind of a dictatorship instead of liberty, we ought to be very grateful to God for the privileges we have enjoyed, and as a people we should be watchful and careful lest our liberties be fritted away. But it is just as true that eternal vigilance is the price we must pay for maintaining the truth of God. There are many evil forces at work seeking to turn the Christian away from the revelation that God has given in His Word. We need not be surprised at this, for it has always been so. Just as soon as God began to work in any dispensation, Satan, the adversary, attempted to discredit the truth divinely revealed. In the former dispensation the conflict was between the revelation given through prophets and priests at Sinai and through God’s servants throughout the centuries on the one hand, and idolatry of all kinds on the other. All through the Christian dispensation the conflict has been between a pure, clear, gospel testimony and the different substitutes that the adversary of our souls has presented to men, to turn them away from the simplicity that is in Christ. The apostle Paul had to meet this. We have already seen in these Corinthian letters how his steps were dogged by those who sought to turn his converts away from the message that he brought to them of salvation by grace alone, to something that would obscure the preciousness of that grace. Now in this chapter Paul is obliged to stoop to something that is very distasteful to him, because of the false accusations which were being made to destroy the confidence of the saints in their teacher, in order that they might refuse the teaching. If the Devil cannot induce people immediately to give up some line of truth, then he will attack those whom God has sent forth to defend that truth. He tried to make Paul’s converts lose confidence in their teacher, in his spirituality, in his understanding of the truth, in order to discredit his ministry. These men who wickedly opposed Paul’s work ridiculed him and made the most unkind remarks, even in regard to his personal appearance and ability. They charged that he was not fit to be a leader of God’s people, that he was not an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ because he was not one of the original twelve, that he had not received his commission from Christ because it did not come through the twelve. They put him down as a freelance. They would have the people believe he was actuated by selfish motives, that he was endeavoring to make a gain of those to whom he ministered. He indignantly refuted such charges. He disliked doing this; he did not enjoy having to defend himself. The man of God would be content to simply go on preaching the Word of God and never mention himself, but here it became necessary. The Corinthians were losing confidence in their teacher, and if they lost confidence in him, they would lose confidence also in that glorious message which he had been appointed to carry through the world. He speaks of his defense as foolishness. He would rather speak of Christ. The reason he gives is, “I am jealous [for] you with godly jealousy.” There is a jealousy that is condemnable, the jealousy that one teacher might have of another. Servants of Christ become jealous of each other, and those who help in the Lord’s work become jealous of each other, and Sunday school teachers become jealous of each other. All such jealousy is opposed to the Holy Spirit of God. But there is a jealousy that is pure, that is clean, that is right, and it is the kind of jealousy that God Himself cherishes. He says, “I the LORD thy God am a jealous God.” What does He mean? What does Paul mean? He means that he cannot bear to see his brethren turn from God to false gods because he knows that it is to their eternal ruin if they do. His jealousy is not because of self-love, but because of his love for them. What would you think of a husband who says of his wife, “I have absolutely no jealousy when she is petted by another man?” There is a jealousy, you see, that is right, and a true, upright husband wants his wife to be faithful to him, as he feels himself responsible to be true and faithful to her. And so our God desires to see His people true to Him and walking apart from the fellowship of the world. “The friendship of the world is enmity with God.”
Paul says to these Corinthians, “I am jealous over you.” He did not want to see them drifting away, turning aside, following things that could not profit, and he did not want them to lose the preciousness of their first love. He wished to see them ever true to Christ. His was a godly jealousy, a jealousy like the jealousy of God. “For I have espoused you to one husband.” They were, as an assembly of God, like an engaged maiden. They had been espoused to one husband, even Christ. The marriage supper and the Lamb were yonder in the glory and they were waiting for His return. Christ is the espoused husband of the church. He died for us, and we belong to Him, and our hearts must be true to Him. Paul did not want to see them become errant and unfaithful. He wished to be able to say at the judgment seat of Christ, “Blessed Master, here are those whom I won for Thee, and their hearts have been true to Thee, and now they are here to be eternally united with Thee in the glory.” He was afraid that this might not be. There were agencies at work seeking to hinder this. So he says, “I am afraid lest by any means Satan should beguile you through subtlety.” That is how the Devil works. Satan never says, “Good morning, I am the Devil! I want to mislead you, I want to seduce you, I want to turn your heart away from God, I want to ruin you for time and eternity.” No, he comes with the fairest pretences and promises, and he endeavors to turn the heart away from Christ by deception. He deceived Eve. He has been deceiving mankind all down through the centuries. “I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtlety, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.” Do you know this? God’s truth is always manifested right on the very surface of His Word. Wherever people have to enter into a long course of argument in order to support a system which they are trying to foist on the saints, it is not the truth of God. Anything not characterized by a holy simplicity is not God’s testimony. And so, young saint, test every teaching by searching the Word, and if you do not find it plainly revealed in the Book, reject all unscriptural reasoning, no matter how learned may be the man who does the reasoning.
And Paul says to these Corinthians, “If these men really came to bring you something better, you might well listen to them.” They came to drag them down to a lower level, to turn their hearts away from Christ and to offer them a substitute, not one which was greater or better or more satisfactory than Christ, but a legal system which could only occupy them with self and fancied human merit. “For if he that cometh preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached, or if ye receive another spirit, which ye have not received, or another gospel which ye have not accepted, ye might well bear with him.” If one came to you and said, “I have found one better than Christ, better than Jesus,” well, if he really has, you might well bear with him. But you will never find anyone better than Jesus. Jesus is God’s last word to sinners and His last word to saints. I picked up a theological book the other day in which the writer said, “The time has come when we need a new investigation of the problem of Jesus Christ.” Why, my dear friends, Christ is not a problem! Jesus Christ is the solution of every problem; He is the One who makes everything plain and everything clear; the One “in [whom] dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.” Paul says, if one substitutes anything for Christ, turn a deaf ear to him. He says, if you receive another spirit, which you have not received, if anyone can tell you of any spirit greater, mightier or higher than the Holy Spirit of God, who dwells in every believer, then you might well go after him. But you will never find another, for the Holy Spirit is God Himself as truly as the Father is God, and the Son is God. Many spirits are abroad in the world who seek to impose upon men, but the Spirit of God, who dwells in the believer, is the Spirit who delights to glorify the Lord Jesus.
Then he adds, “If one come with any other gospel than that which you have received, you might bear with him.” But there is only one gospel. That gospel takes on different phases at different times. It is called “the gospel of the kingdom” when the emphasis is put upon the kingly authority of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is called “the gospel of the grace of God” when the emphasis is put upon the sinner’s salvation. It is called “the glorious gospel of God,” or “the gospel of the glory of God,” when the emphasis is put upon the place that the Savior now occupies. When it is called “the everlasting gospel” we think of that message that tells us there is One, and One only, through whom sinners can be reconciled to God, and that is the Lord Jesus. Writing to the Galatians, the apostle says, “Though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.” For there is no other gospel of God than the gospel of His Son, telling sinful men of the way whereby they may be justified before His face.
If, then, men have nothing else to bring, why should they want to destroy the confidence of the people in God’s truth? This was a stern message which Paul did not like to deliver, but he had to explain things because of the misapprehensions and the unkind and untruthful insinuations that his enemies were instilling into the hearts and minds of his converts. “I suppose I was not a whit behind the very chiefest apostles.” He is not speaking of natural ability. What he means is this: When it comes to service, I suppose that I was not a whit behind any of them. God had put His seal upon his ministry. He had led thousands to the Savior’s feet, and yet they said he was not an apostle because he did not know Christ when He was here on earth. Paul received his apostleship directly from heaven. It was the risen Christ who appeared to him, “delivering him from the people and the Gentiles” unto whom he was sent. That was Paul’s ordination to the apostleship. These Corinthians were God’s seal upon his work.
“Though I be rude in speech, yet not in knowledge.” He frankly admits that he has not the gift of eloquence. But no one could declare the truth more plainly than he. “Though I be rude in speech, yet not in knowledge; but we have been thoroughly made manifest among you in all things.” They knew what his life was like when he lived among them. There was one thing concerning which they found fault with him. He would not take any money from them! That is the last thing anyone would find fault with in a minister in these days! But they said that showed he could not be a real apostle. He had labored in Corinth for a year-and-a-half and he would not let them contribute anything for his support. His enemies said that if he had known that he was a real apostle he would have allowed them to support him, but he did not dare, because he was not sure of his ground. He had to explain. “Have I committed an offence in abasing myself that ye might be exalted, because I have preached to you the gospel…freely?” He had entered a city which was one of the most voluptuous on the face of the earth. He said, “I will not be dependent on this people for anything.” He went there to preach the gospel, and even after they professed to be the Lord’s he would not let them support him. He must make them feel that everything they received from him was God’s free gift, so that there would not be any idea in their hearts that he was looking for personal gain. How did he live? Well, he says, “I robbed other churches, taking wages of them, to do you service.” In other churches they put their contributions together and sent the money down to Corinth and helped to support him, so that he might carry on his evangelistic work without asking anything, lest they should misunderstand his motives. “When I was present with you, and wanted, I was chargeable to no man: for that which was lacking to me the brethren which came from Macedonia supplied: and in all things I have kept myself from being burdensome unto you, and so will I keep myself.” He made tents to support himself, and when that money was not enough, then the Lord sent it in from brethren from Macedonia, and thus in one way or another he was enabled to be independent of that critical, faultfinding group in Corinth, who might misunderstand his motives if he received their money. It is hard to please some people; you cannot do it. If you talk loudly they do not like it, and if you talk softly they cannot hear. If you preach the gospel, that is too simple, and if you teach the Word it is too deep! And so Paul could not satisfy these people, but he sought to clear himself at any rate of the charge of selfishness in his testimony.
“As the truth of Christ is in me, no man shall stop me of this boasting in the regions of Achaia.” He did not always live like this, but there were special reasons why he should do it in Achaia. Why did he do it? Because he did not love them? God knows. I remember some years ago I was out in Oregon, and there was a sterling old Hollander and his fine family of ten sons and one daughter, who attended nearly all the meetings; and this dear man did not have any assurance of salvation. He was doing his very best to please God. He was trying to keep the law, and he was hoping to get the testimony in some way of his election and know he was saved. I tried to open up the truth of salvation by grace for all who believe. The old man would listen, but he thought it was too easy. I was invited to his home for dinner, and afterward we sat down over an open Bible, and I tried to show him that he could be saved in a moment by simply trusting in the Lord Jesus, but he was so occupied with hyper-Calvinism that he could not see the simple truth and rest in Christ his Savior. After four hours I was leaving, and just as I was turning away the dear old man-with his long beard he looked like Paul Krueger-reached in his pocket and offered me a gift of five dollars. I said, “Tell me, are you giving that out of love for Christ, or are you giving it to try to help buy your salvation?” He looked at me a moment or two and he said, “I don’t love Christ, I wish I did.” I said, “Keep your five dollars. I appreciate your kindness in offering it, but I do not want you to get the idea that there is anything meritorious about giving money to a servant of Christ.” They told me afterward that he went to his room and cried like a child. Two years later I came back, and I shall never forget the night he came up to me and said, “I love the Lord Jesus; I have trusted Him as my Savior; I know I am His. Will you take the five dollars now?” I took it and was glad to try to use it for the Lord Jesus Christ.
That was Paul’s idea. The Corinthians had the wrong attitude about money. Paul did not want their money for himself. “But what I do, that I will do, that I may cut off occasion from them which desire occasion; that wherein they glory, they may be found even as we. For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ.” I gather from this that these false teachers were quite eager for financial gain. Paul took the opposite attitude. Then again, these false teachers spoke well, they seemed in most things to be very much like real servants of Christ. How do you detect them? By the message they bring. If they do not preach the truth of God they are not Christ’s apostles. But they seem to be nice men; they speak so graciously and eloquently; they are personally so attractive. The apostle says, “No marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light.” He does not come to men in the crude way we usually see him pictured, with horns and a tail and hoofs. Why, such a Devil would not lead anyone astray! But a Devil who comes as an angel of light, with kindly, soft, tender words and dulcet tones-that is the kind of Devil that deceives people.
And so Paul says, if “Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light…it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works.” Did you notice that expression, “his ministers?” Does Satan have ministers? Does the Devil have ministers? Yes, that is what Paul says. A man may be cultured and refined and ordained to the ministerial office and profess to teach the Word of God, but all the time he may be Satan’s appointee. How can we tell Satan’s ministers from Christ’s ministers? In one simple way, Paul says. There need be no difficulty about it. If they are Satan’s they may talk a great deal about human righteousness, but one thing they do not talk about. Satan’s ministers have nothing to say about the atoning blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. Christ’s ministers are like the bride in the Song of Solomon. The bridegroom says to her, “Thy lips are like a thread of scarlet.” The true servant of Christ has lips that speak of the blood of Jesus. He points sinners to that atoning blood through which alone guilty men may be saved. No matter how much one may insist on righteousness, personal, civic, or national, if he fails to present to men salvation through the precious, cleansing blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, he is one of Satan’s ministers. For God has no other message for lost men than that which is linked with the work of Calvary’s cross.
Paul’s Sufferings For Christ
2 Corinthians 11:16-33
I say again, Let no man think me a fool; if otherwise, yet as a fool receive me, that I may boast myself a little. That which I speak, I speak it not after the Lord, but as it were foolishly, in this confidence of boasting. Seeing that many glory after the flesh, I will glory also. For ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise. For ye suffer, if a man bring you into bondage, if a man devour you, if a man take of you, if a man exalt himself, if a man smite you on the face. I speak as concerning reproach, as though we had been weak. Howbeit whereinsoever any is bold, (I speak foolishly,) I am bold also. Are they Hebrews? so am I. Are they Israelites? so am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? so am I. Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? who is offended, and I burn not? If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is blessed for evermore, knoweth that I lie not. In Damascus the governor under Aretas the king kept the city of the Damascenes with a garrison, desirous to apprehend me: and through a window in a basket was I let down by the wall, and escaped his hands. (vv. 16-33)
I confess to you that when I read words like these, I cannot get away from the thought that in all the nearly fifty years that I have known Christ as my Savior, and during almost all that time I have been trying to preach His Word, I have just been playing at Christianity. When I think what this dear servant of God of the first century went through for Christ, motivated by a consuming love for the Savior, I feel that I have a great deal to learn of what it means to be a true minister of the Lord Jesus.
We have already noticed in the study of this letter that there were those who were very jealous of the ministry of the apostle Paul. They would have crowded him out of the various churches had it been possible, they even ignored him in order to prejudice those who had gladly received him as the servant of the Lord. On some occasions, while not exactly stooping to evil-speaking, they had endeavored to insinuate that he had no true ground for counting himself an apostle of Jesus Christ, that after all he was merely an ecclesiastical freelance and that his words should not be accepted, as those of the original twelve apostles, as really inspired of God. It was because of all this, because his own converts were being distressed and upset by such things, that he found it necessary to direct attention to the marks of his apostleship. He seeks to show that God Himself has put His stamp on his ministry by permitting him to suffer for Christ’s sake.
Notice first his boasting. He says in verses 16-21: “Let no man think me a fool.” That is, there were those who would imply that he was simply imagining that he had had a divine commission, that he was just a simpleton and did not know the difference between an idle dream and a heavenly vision, between the direct call of God and the moving of his own human spirit. “Let no man think me a fool”-I am not as simple as that; and yet he is saying, “If you do, well, then receive me on that ground, and give me a chance to indulge in a little bit of foolishness in talking about myself.” He was altogether at home when speaking of Christ, but when he had to speak of himself, it was most distasteful, and he considered it as mere foolishness. Yet it seemed necessary, in order to clear up this particular difficulty. “That which I speak, I speak it not after the Lord” (he was not speaking as though by direct command of God but foolishly, as it were,) “in this confidence of boasting.” Others had come to these Corinthians who boasted of their lineage and of their graces and abilities and gifts, and Paul says, “Since you like to hear that kind of thing, I will give you a little of it.” “Ye suffer fools gladly.” In other words, the man who spends time talking about himself is a fool; you have had some of that, and you seemed to enjoy it, and so I am going to give you a little more of it. “Seeing ye yourselves are wise.” That was a bit of irony. You Corinthians are so remarkably wise that you can let some of the rest of us indulge ourselves. “For ye suffer, if a man bring you into bondage, if a man devour you, if a man take of you, if a man exalt himself, if a man smite you on the face.” Paul says, if you can stand that, you can stand it if I tell you a little of my personal experiences and of the Lord’s dealings with me.
“I speak as concerning reproach, as though we had been weak. Howbeit whereinsoever any is bold, (I speak foolishly,) I am bold also.” There were those who had a great deal to say about their credentials. He too had something to say along that line, and so he went on to tell them something about his lineage. Those who came troubling them were as a rule Jews who had made a profession of Christianity, but had never broken with the old system and come out into the full place of the new covenant. They boasted of the fact that they were real Hebrews of Abraham’s seed, and Paul asks what have they to boast of over himself? “Are they Hebrews? so am I…Are they the seed of Abraham? so am I.” I wonder whether this message is going into the homes of any Jewish families. I am quoting the words of an eminent Hebrew Christian of nineteen hundred years ago, one of the most highly educated rabbis of his day, a man brought up at the feet of the Rabbi Gamaliel, noted for his sanity and sound orthodoxy. This man, Paul, once called Saul of Tarsus, was of all the Jews of his day the man who had the most bitter hatred against Christianity; but something happened to him that made him the outstanding apostle of the new doctrine of the grace of God, and he is telling us something here of what he endured for the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ. Sometimes people say that certain persons change their religion for temporal benefit. It was not a question of changing religion for Paul, but of getting to know the living Christ. And it was not for temporal benefit, for had he remained as he was he would have lived and died as one of the most honored Hebrews of his time. He knew when he confessed Christ Jesus as his Savior that he would be put out of the synagogue, that his own friends would disown him, look upon him as though dead, and yet he decided to endure it all for Christ’s sake. He says, “What things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ” (Philippians 3:7). This man was genuine. Something had taken place in his inner life that made him step right out from Judaism and commit himself to the Lord Jesus Christ as his Savior.
“Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more.” Do others boast that they are ministers of Christ? I too am a minister of Christ, and my ministry has been a wider one than theirs. He is not saying, “I am a greater minister, a greater teacher, a greater preacher.” What he is saying is this, “I have laboured more abundantly [than all the rest of them].” He had gone from city to city, from country to country, and from continent to continent, giving the glad, glorious message of the grace of God. None of them had excelled him in this or had come near him in time spent and places visited and multitudes preached to. Then he tells how he has suffered for his ministry: “In stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft.” When you turn to the book of Acts you read once of his being beaten with stripes, but he says, “In stripes above measure.” Just once you read of his being in prison, but he says, “In prisons more frequent.” We do not get the entire record in Acts. “In deaths oft.” He passed through experiences again and again that were harder to bear than dying for Christ would have been.
Then notice the pathos of this, “Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one.” That was the discipline of the Jewish synagogue. He could have been free of that. When they summoned him for trial on these five occasions, it was by the elders of the synagogue who charged him with teaching things contrary to the law of Moses, and they condemned him to be beaten with forty stripes save one. That was the Jewish way of disciplining those who were adjudged guilty of violation of the law. They were afraid that they might exceed the legal requirements, for God had said that they were not to be unmerciful, and so they gave thirteen stripes on one side, thirteen on the other, and thirteen down the middle of the back. That was the way they beat one who had broken the law of Moses. If Paul had said, “You have no authority over me; I am a Christian, and you cannot judge me and pronounce sentence upon me; I will appeal to Rome,” he could have been free from all this. He did this when Caesar’s own officers would have violated the law, but when his own brethren, the Jews, pronounced judgment against him, he bowed his head and took it because of his love for them.
He said, “I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews” (1 Corinthians 9:20). If you want to see how much Paul loved the Jews, you can do so there as you see him tied to that post, with his back bare. Notice his quivering flesh as the thongs come down upon him. And he could have been delivered from it all if he had simply said, “I am no longer a Jew; I am a Christian.” But although he was a Christian he could not forget that by birth he was a Jew, and he loved his people. We hear him say on another occasion, “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved” (Romans 10:1). And so he even bore the synagogue’s discipline in order that he might not be alienated from the people he loved and served and suffered for, “that they might be saved.”
Then he goes on to tell of what he endured from the Gentiles. “Thrice was I beaten with rods.” That was the Roman punishment. “Once was I stoned”; that was at Lystra. “Thrice I suffered shipwreck.” You read of his being shipwrecked once in the book of Acts, but there were two more such experiences. “A night and a day I have been in the deep.” I suppose the vessel had gone to pieces, and he was floating about clinging to a spar. No one was near, but he was looking to God, and in some way deliverance came. All these things failed to quench that burning ardor that sent him through the world for a generation proclaiming salvation through the Lord Jesus Christ.
Then there were other perils that he suffered. They were eightfold as given in verse 26. “In perils of robbers,” that was a very real peril in those days when robbers beset every mountain path, and Paul traveled from city to city mostly on foot. “In perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen.” The Jews hated him, and the Gentile world failed to appreciate the fact that he was God’s ambassador to them. “In perils in the city,” among the cultured and refined as well as among the uncouth and the ignorant. “In perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren.” This last is perhaps the saddest of all. Those professing the name of Christ and yet untrue to him, those taking the ground of being servants of God and yet showing themselves false brethren, who would have destroyed his good name if they could.
And then he continues, “In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fasting often, in cold and nakedness.” Whatever have you and I known of suffering anywhere near like this? We have sung sometimes, but I wonder whether we really mean it:
Jesus, I my cross have taken,
All to leave and follow Thee;
Naked, poor, despised, forsaken,
Thou, from hence, my all shall be;
Perish ev’ry fond ambition,
All I’ve sought, and hoped, and known;
Yet how rich is my condition,
God and heav’n are still my own.
Do we really mean it when we sing such a song as this? Are we prepared thus to suffer and endure for Christ’s sake? This is first-century Christianity, this is what it cost to be true to God in those early days, and yet how faithful God’s servants were that we might have this wondrous heritage of the truth today.
But there was another thing that weighed upon him, and only one having the oversight in the church of God could know the meaning of this: “Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches.” Paul carried the people of God upon his heart. He could not go into a place and labor for a while and then be through with them. They were still on his heart, and if they got into trouble, into difficulty, into dissension, it burdened him, and he took it to God and wrote letters to them and tried to help and bless. And now he says, “Who is weak, and I am not weak? who is offended, and I burn not?” That is, if someone who should know better stumbles one of the weakest, it fills me with indignation. So truly was he a father in Christ to the people of God. And he adds, “If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities.” If I must boast, I will not boast in what I have done or what I am, but “I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities.” Just a poor, weak, earthen vessel, and yet God has taken him up and used him to give the message of His glory to a needy world. He could boast in this, that in spite of all his weakness God had seen fit to speak in and through him.
His conclusion is very striking. You might have expected him to tell of some very remarkable experience he had had, in which God showed that, after all, it was His delight to put honor on the man who had stooped so low for the sake of Jesus, but he tells of something that most of us would have left out. “The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is blessed for evermore, knoweth that I lie not. In Damascus the governor under Aretas the king kept the city of the Damascenes with a garrison, desirous to apprehend me: and through a window in a basket was I let down by the wall, and escaped his hands.” What a picture! And then think of the dignity of some of us. Just imagine him curled up in a basket and dropped over a wall! That is the last view we have of Paul in this chapter. Someone passing might have looked up and said, “Well, dear me, is that the Rev. Dr. Paul?” No, it is Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, who counted all things but loss for that excellent name, and is ready to be put to shame, is ready to suffer, is ready to endure, in order that Christ may be manifested in him whether by life or by death.
May God teach us who love the same Savior to emulate this His servant in devotedness to Christ, in glorying in infirmities. Surely our Savior deserves our best and most devoted service.
Alas, and did my Saviour bleed?
And did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?
Paul’s Thorn In The Flesh
2 Corinthians 12:1-10
It is not expedient for me doubtless to glory. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord. I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven. And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) how that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. Of such an one will I glory: yet of myself I will not glory, but in mine infirmities. For though I would desire to glory, I shall not be a fool; for I will say the truth: but now I forbear, lest any man should think of me above that which he seeth me to be, or that he heareth of me. 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. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. 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. 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. (vv. 1-10)
We have been occupied with some of the experiences that the apostle Paul went through as he suffered for Christ’s sake. You remember we are told, “All that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (2 Timothy 3:12). So, if we are not suffering persecution for the name of Christ, the inference is that we are not living godly. We may be behaving ourselves decently, we may be living respectably, but God does not have the supreme place in our lives if we do not know something of persecution on the part of a world that hates God and that nailed His own blessed Son to the bitter cross.
Paul had identified himself with that cross from the moment of his conversion. He said, “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world” (Galatians 6:14). Naturally, the world hated the man that spurned it. Walk with the world and the world loves its own. Jesus said, “The world cannot hate you; but me it hateth, because I testify of it, that the works thereof are evil” (John 7:7). And so the apostle lived and toiled and suffered for an entire generation for the name’s sake of the Lord Jesus Christ. But it was not all suffering. There were times of ecstatic joy, there were moments of wonderful blessing and spiritual refreshment. Did others boast of religious experiences? Well, Paul says, if it is the fashion to boast, I suppose I can boast too. I do not want to boast of myself, but I can tell you, if you want to know, something of the great privileges that at times have come to me.
“It is not expedient for me doubtless to glory. I will come to visions and revelations [or manifestations] of the Lord. I knew a man in Christ.” He is referring, of course, to himself, but what a wonderful thing to be able to speak as “a man in Christ.” Do you know “a man in Christ,” in that sense? You remember on one occasion, writing to the Romans, the apostle speaks of some of his own kinsmen, and uses that expression, “Who also were in Christ before me.” You see, people are not in Christ by natural birth. You are not in Christ because your father was in Christ before you were born. You are not in Christ because you have had a praying mother. You yourself have to be born of God. Unless regenerated you are not in Christ up to this present moment. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh” (John 3:6). It may be very attractive flesh, it may be very agreeable flesh, it may even be religious flesh, but it is flesh still. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” It is the man who is born of the Spirit who is in Christ, and so Paul says, I have told you something of the hardships I have endured for Jesus’ sake, now I want to tell you something of a great experience that came to me once as a man in Christ.
“I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago.” That is very interesting. This man had had a remarkable experience, and as far as we can learn he had kept it a secret between himself and God for over fourteen years. This is very unlike us. I have an idea, knowing myself as well as I do, that if I had been in the third heaven yesterday, I should be telling you about it this morning. I would forget everything else and tell you what a wonderful time I had in the third heaven, and then if you believed me, you would look at me and say, “What a saint he must be that God should want his company in the third heaven!” and I would be getting glory to myself through telling about this. That is probably the reason Paul kept it a secret; he did not want people to think of him. He did not mind telling of the hard things; he did not mind speaking of the time when he was ignominiously let down over a wall in a basket. That was something that people would sneer at, laugh at, but such a wonderful experience as being caught up into the third heaven he could keep to himself until the proper time. But if others are boasting of experiences, he will tell them of his own. I do not know what attention you may have given to the chronology in connection with the apostle Paul’s life. A little over fourteen years before he wrote this second letter to the Corinthians he was laboring in Galatia. He visited the cities of Iconium, Derbe, and Lystra, and the people were so carried away by him that at one time they wanted to worship him as a god, but later persecution broke out, and they turned on him and actually sought to stone him to death. In fact, the moment came when his crushed and bruised body fell in the highway, and as far as anybody could see he was dead, and they dragged him out of the city and threw that body to one side as a bit of worthless refuse. That was apparently the end of the apostle Paul so far as his ministry was concerned. But after his persecutors had gone back into the city, a little group of heartbroken disciples gathered about that body, and one can imagine how desolate they felt. Their father in Christ, the one who had led them to know Christ, who had cared for them in the things of God, lay before them evidently dead, and they were about to make arrangements for a decent burial, when suddenly Paul rose up and gladdened their hearts by what must have seemed like a veritable resurrection. He was ready to go back to the business of preaching the gospel.
What happened to him at that time when his body lay there in a coma? I like to think that it was then he had the experience he refers to here. “I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago.” That was just about the time they tried to stone him to death, and God at that time may have said, “Paul, I am going to give you a little vacation; I am going to take you up to let you see the land to which you are going. Come up with Me, Paul,” and he found himself, he says, “caught up into the third heaven,” and he tells us he was so enraptured by the glories that he witnessed that he was not conscious whether or not he was in the body. Observe, it is possible to be thoroughly conscious, and yet be out of the body. The body is not the real man. I am not the house in which I live. I live in this house, but someday I am going to put off this my tabernacle; I am going to move out unless it should please God that I live in the flesh until Jesus returns again. But if death takes me, the real man leaves the body. The body dies, but the believer is “absent from the body, present with the Lord.” Paul had no consciousness of having a body, or on the other hand, he did not miss his body. “Whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth.” That always helps me when I think of my loved ones gone over to the other side. They have left this scene of trial and toil and care, and have gone home to be forever with the Lord, but they are just as real, and just as truly intelligent beings out of the body and with Christ, as they were when they were down here in the body. In Ephesians 3:15 Paul speaks of “the whole family in heaven and earth.” Paul was not a materialist, he was not a “soul-sleeper,” for if he had been, he would have said, “The whole family in the grave and on earth,” but he did not recognize any of the family as lying in the grave, it was just their bodies that were there, but the members of the family are in heaven and on earth.
Millions have reached that blissful shore,
Their trials and their labor o’er,
And yet there is room for millions more,
Are you on the way? Have you trusted that blessed Savior? These all died in faith, they are at home with Christ which is far better. Do you know Christ? You have often said that you hoped when life was over that you would find a place in heaven. Are you quite sure you would be comfortable there? Are you quite sure you would be happy in heaven? I know people who cannot enjoy an hour at a prayer meeting who imagine they would enjoy eternity in heaven. If you have not a new nature, a life that is hid with Christ in God, so that you can enjoy Him now and delight in fellowship with His people, how do you expect to enjoy God and fellowship with the saints in heaven? I am afraid that if some of you were suddenly caught up into heaven without any inward change, you would hardly be there before you would be seeking to get out of that holy place because you have not a nature that is in touch with heaven. You do not appreciate the things of heaven now; how could you expect to enjoy them if you went there as you are? “Ye must be born again” (John 3:7), Jesus said. Paul was born again, he had a new life, and when he found himself in heaven he was at home there. If you were suddenly to be called away from the body, would you be going home?
A dear fellow was dying. He had been brought up in a Christian home, but he had spurned the grace of God, and someone was trying to comfort him, and leaning over him, said, “It won’t be long now, and after all, death is only going home.”
He looked up startled and said, “Going home! What do you mean? This is the only home I have ever known. Death for me will be going away from home, and going I do not know where.”
What would it mean to you? Can you sing:
My heavenly home is bright and fair,
No pain nor death shall enter there;
Its glittering light the sun outshines,
Those heavenly mansions shall be mine.
I am going Home to die no more.
Or would death for you mean going away from home? Is this world your home, and would you be going away into the darkness and distance? Byron says, and Byron was not a Christian, “There are wanderers over the sea of eternity whose bark glides on and on and anchored ne’er shall be.” Oh, can you say:
By faith in a glorified Christ on the throne,
I give up the joys of this world to its own;
As a stranger and pilgrim I plainly declare,
“My home is up yonder.” But will you be there?
Home, Home, sweet, sweet Home,
There’s no friend like Jesus,
There’s no place like Home.
Paul went home for a while. He tells us in the next verse, “I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) how that he was caught up into paradise.” That word is found three times in the New Testament, and is not a Greek word although written in Greek letters. Paradise is a Persian word, and means “a royal garden.” It was the name of the garden of the King where every lovely fruit and flower could be found, and it helps me to understand what it is like up yonder. I am glad God has given us flowers. I am glad He has given us fruit. He could have given us shade without fruit, but “He giveth us richly all things to enjoy,” and I try never to partake of the fruit of His bounty or to gaze upon the flowers of His love without being reminded of Paradise. It is intended to give us a little idea of what it is like up yonder. When we talk about the believer not loving the world, we do not mean that he should not be interested in this creation. He should love the things that God his Father has made.
Heaven above is softer blue,
Earth beneath is sweeter green,
Something lives in every hue
Christless eyes have never seen.
Birds with sweeter songs o’erflow,
Flowers with newer beauty shine,
Since I know as now I know,
I am His and He is mine.
And heaven is a place of wondrous beauty.
Paul found himself in a royal garden, and says he heard “unspeakable words.” That really means words that could not possibly be declared, words that no human tongue could make plain, the song of the redeemed, the praises of the saints, the joy of the angels. Now he says, “Of such an one will I glory,” of this man in Christ he will glory, but not of himself as a poor lost sinner. “Of myself I will not glory, but in mine infirmities.” But why? He says, “I will tell you how I got them; my infirmities were a love gift from my Father.” I once heard of a man who was very wealthy and lived in a lovely and magnificent manor house. He had grown up away from God, and then was struck with that dread malady, paralysis, and for many years he had to be wheeled about in a chair, and as a result of that affliction, unable to get out and enjoy the things of the world, his heart turned to the things of God and he found Christ. They used to wheel him down to the gathering of the saints, and trying to half raise himself in that chair he would praise God and say, “O God, I praise Thee for my dear paralysis.” He knew that if God had not permitted that infirmity to come upon him, he might have lived and died in independence of God.
And then Paul says, “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.” You see, there is no danger to any one in the third heaven, but the danger comes if you have been in the third heaven and return to earth. Think of walking up and down the street saying to yourself: “I am the only man in this city who has ever been in the third heaven and come back again.” Paul had been there and when he returned God said, “I must not let My servant be spoiled by this experience,” and so gave him, we are told, a thorn in the flesh, but He gave it through the Devil. Do you know that Satan cannot do one thing against the child of God until the Lord gives him permission? That is the lesson of the book of Job. “Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10). Job took everything from God, and so Paul says that this was given to him lest he be exalted above measure. “For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.” What was the thorn in the flesh? I cannot tell you because I do not know. Paul has not told us, and there is no use in our guessing about it; but I know it was in the flesh and therefore a physical infirmity. It was a weakness of some kind that pained and hurt just as though one were driving a thorn into the body, it may have been something that affected his public utterances, something humiliating, and he went to the Lord and prayed in agony of soul three times, “O Lord, deliver me from this thing.” The Lord finally said, “No, Paul, I am not going to deliver you from it, but I am going to do better than that; I am going to give you grace to bear it.” Oh, those unanswered prayers of our lives, how they bewilder some of us! Think of the many unanswered prayers recorded in the Bible.
Abraham prayed, “O God, that Ishmael may live before thee.” Now Abraham meant, “Let him be the inheritor of the promises.” But God said, “No, in Isaac shall thy seed be called.” How thankful Abraham is today that his prayer was not answered. Moses prayed, “O God, let me go into the land,” and God said, “Do not talk to Me about that any more; you cannot go in,” and today as Moses stands yonder in the glory how glad he is that God had His way. David prayed for the child of Bathsheba, “Heal the child, and let him live.” But God said, “No, I won’t heal him; I am going to take him home,” and David bowed his head at last and said, “He cannot come back to me, but I will go to him,” and David’s heart was drawn toward heaven in a way it would never have been otherwise, and how thankful he is today that God did not answer his prayer. Elijah went out into the wilderness when an angry woman frightened him. The man who could stand before King Ahab ran away to the juniper tree when Jezebel was after him, and he flung himself down before God and said, “I am no better than my fathers.” Did you think you were, Elijah? He found out that he was not, and then he said, “Let me die.” How thankful he is today that God did not answer that prayer. Elijah is the only man between the flood and the cross of Christ who never died at all. He went to heaven without dying. And Paul prayed, “Remove the thorn from my flesh,” and the Lord said, “I won’t remove it, but I will give you grace to bear it.”
Have you a thorn, some great trial, some infirmity, some distress, something that is just burdening your heart and it seems as though you will break under it? You have prayed and prayed, “O Lord, deliver me from this.” It may not be the will of God to deliver you, but He says, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” When Paul heard that, he said, “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” The weaker I am the better opportunity Christ has to manifest Himself in me.
And then in the concluding verse of this section he says, “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.” May God give each one of us to take that place of subjection to the will of God where we can glory in infirmities.
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Ironside, H. A. "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 11". Ironside's Notes on Selected Books. https://studylight.org/
the Fourth Week after Epiphany