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2 Corinthians 12:1-10
It is not expedient for me doubtless to glory.
On Paul being caught up to the third heaven
In the words of the apostle, in his Epistle to the Colossians, I call upon you, “If ye be risen with Christ, seek those things that are above, where Christ sitteth at the right hand of God.” “Set your affections on things above, and not on things on the earth.” Yes, to such an exercise of the affections we have constant need to exhort one another. Perhaps we know too little of the glorious things above in order to love them heartily. First, let us consider the event itself; secondly, what the apostle saw in heaven.
1. Who is the man that speaks to us in our text? The more remarkable the things are which any one relates, the more important it is to know who our informant is, whether he deserves credit. Now, you are aware that the speaker on this occasion is no fanciful enthusiast, no mere sentimentalist. He is a man who in numerous passages of his Epistles zealously opposed religious delusions and a false spirituality, and strove to fix both himself and the Church on the written, firm, prophetic Word, and not on feelings, visions, and ecstasies. Indeed, we may say of him that a calm reflective understanding predominated in him more than in any other of the apostles. He was also a man of learning. It cannot be imagined for one moment that vainglory and self-exaltation prompted him to give the narrative contained in our text. Oh! in what a light do we, imperfect Christians, appear when placed by the side of this great apostle! We who are used to experience only some slight measure of answer to prayer and of spiritual elevation. Only think! for fourteen years he kept this matter to himself! How does this impress on it the stamp of truth! Let us now consider the statements of the apostle. He begins with saying, “It is not expedient for me, doubtless, to glory.” Do not imagine (he means to say) that I wish to utter this for my own glory. “I knew a man in Christ,” he goes on to say. Paul speaks of himself as of a third person. In looking back on a period of life long since passed, a person feels as if he was contemplating another and not himself. At such a distance a person judges of himself with more freedom, impartiality, and truth. Paul calls himself “a man in Christ.” He enjoyed the great privilege to lose sight of his own personality, and only to view himself in the attire of his Surety. He had a special reason for calling himself on this occasion “a man in Christ.” He wishes in doing so to meet the question how it came to pass that he was so highly honoured; it was because he was a man in Christ that before him the gates of paradise must fly open. He says, “I was caught up”; according to the word used in the original, I was forcibly carried away. He was caught up from the earth. But whither? To some blessed star, from whence, as Moses viewed the promised land, so he might view the land of glory glimmering in the distance? Oh no, his flight went further. He was in the very heart of this land. How often in the dark seasons of his life had he looked with sighs to this distant region! How often had he thought that he would willingly resign everything on earth that only a fleeting glance might be allowed him through the impenetrable veil which covers that land of immortal beauty! There he stood. The tumult of the world was hushed around him. Oh what a life in those serene fields of light and love! In those palmy groves of everlasting peace what forms, what visions, what tones of praise!
2. Was Paul then literally in heaven? Is there, in fact, a world of blessedness behind the clouds? Truly I think that Paul was not the first to inform us of that. He says, “He was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.” And his meaning appears to be simply this: what he had heard and seen during this visit to the other world was of such a peculiar kind that it was absolutely impossible to express it in human language. Oh yes, the apostle might have been cordially willing to have painted before our eyes an image of that blessed world, but whence could he take the colours for the painting? Would he have taken something from the light of the sun, from the blooming meadows of our earthly spring, from the groves and solemn stillness of our summer mornings? Alas! he would only have dipped his pencil in poor dull shades. All this the apostle felt, and he preferred being silent. He might have been willing to describe to us how the saints appeared. Oh, gladly would he have told us in what glory his Lord and Saviour there appeared to him. But what could he say? But there is still another circumstance which perhaps gives us a greater idea of the glory of what Paul heard and felt in the third heaven than even his silence--I mean the ardent longing of the apostle to return again to the blessedness that he had once enjoyed. But his wishes could not be taken into consideration. He was obliged to return to this dark earth and to the toilsome path of his apostleship. But after his return his renunciation of the world and its lusts was rendered complete. His conversation is henceforth in heaven. Paul knew that he could return to the blessedness he had beheld by no other path than death. Well, be it so, no hour was more longed for by him than that. What the apostle saw on this occasion we certainly cannot see in the same way, but we may still behold it in the mirror of an unimpeachable testimony. (F. W. Krummacher.)
I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord.--
How did St. Paul come to speak of himself under the personality of another?
1. Natural diffidence. For the more refined a man is the more he will avoid direct mention of himself. All along he has been forced to speak of self. Fact after fact was wrung out.
2. St. Paul speaks of a divided experience of two selves: one Paul in the third heaven, enjoying the beatific vision; another on earth, buffeted by Satan. The former he chose rather to regard as the Paul that was to be. He dwelt on the latter as the actual Paul, lest he should mistake himself in the midst of the heavenly revelations. Such a double nature is in us all. In all there is an Adam and a Christ--an ideal and a real. Witness the strange discrepancy often between the writings of the poet or the sermons of the preacher and their actual lives. And yet in this there is no necessary hypocrisy, for the one represents the man’s aspiration, the other his attainment. But the apostle felt that it was dangerous to be satisfied with mere aspirations and fine sayings, and therefore he chose to take the lowest--the actual self--treating the highest as, for the time, another man (verse 5). Were the caterpillar to feel within himself the wings that are to be, and be haunted with instinctive forebodings of the time when he shall hover about flowers and meadows, yet the wisdom of that caterpillar would be to remember his present business on the leaf, lest, losing himself in dreams, he should never become a winged insect at all.
I. The time when this vision took place. The date is vague--“about fourteen years ago.” Some have identified it with that recorded (Acts 9:1-43) at his conversion. But--
1. The words in that transaction were not “unlawful to utter.” They are three times recorded.
2. There was no doubt as to St. Paul’s own locality in that vision. So far from being exalted, he was stricken to the ground.
3. The vision was of an humbling character: “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?”
II. Paul had known many such visions (verse 7).
1. This marks out the man. Indeed, to comprehend the visions we must comprehend the man. For God does not reveal His mysteries to men of selfish or hard or phlegmatic temperaments, but to those of spiritual sensitiveness. There are physically certain sensitivenesses to sound and colour that qualify men to become gifted musicians and painters--so spiritually there are certain susceptibilities, and on these God bestows strange gifts, sights, and feelings not to be uttered in human language. The Jewish temperament--its fervour, moral sense, veneration, indomitable will, adapted it to be the organ of revelation.
2. Now all this was, in its fulness, in St. Paul. A heart, a brain, and a soul of fire; all his life a suppressed volcano; his acts “living things with hands and feet,” his words “half battles.” A man, consequently, of terrible inward conflicts (read Romans 7:1-25.). You will find there no dull metaphysics; all is intensely personal. So, too, in Acts 16:1-40. He had no abstract perception of Macedonia’s need of the gospel. To his soul a man of Macedonia cries, “Come over and help us.” Again (Acts 18:1-28), a message came in a vision. St. Paul’s life was with God, his very dreams were of God. He saw a Form which others did not see, and heard a Voice which others could not hear (Acts 27:23).
3. But such things are seen and heard under certain conditions. Many of St. Paul’s visions were when he was--
(1) “Fasting.” “Fulness of bread “ and abundance of idleness are not the conditions in which we can see the things of God.
(2) In the midst of trial. In the prison, during the shipwreck, while “the thorn was in his flesh.”
4. This was the experience of Christ Himself. God does not lavish His choicest gifts, but reserves them.
5. Yet though inspiration is granted in its fulness only to rare, choice spirits, in degree it belongs to all Christians. There have been moments, surely, in our experience, when the vision of God was clear. They were not moments of fulness or success. In some season of desertion you have in solitary longing seen the sky-ladder as Jacob saw it, or in childish purity--for “Heaven lies around us in our infancy”--heard a voice as Samuel did; or in feebleness of health, when the weight of the bodily frame was taken off, Faith brightened her eagle eye, and saw far into the tranquil things of death; or in prayer you have been conscious of a Hand in yours, and a Voice, and you could almost feel the Eternal Breath upon your brow.
III. The things seen are unutterable.
1. They are “unspeakable” because they are untranslatable into language. The fruits of the Spirit--love, joy, peace, etc.
how can these be explained in words? Our feelings, convictions, aspirations, devotions, what sentences of earth can express them? In Revelations 4 John in high symbolic language attempts, but inadequately, to shadow forth the glory which his spirit realised, but which his sense saw not. For heaven is not scenery, nor anything appreciable by ear or eye; heaven is God felt.
2. They are “not lawful for a man to utter.” Christian modesty forbids. There are transfiguration moments, bridal hours of the soul, and not easily forgiven are those who would utter the secrets of its high intercourse with its Lord. You cannot discuss such subjects without vulgarising them. God dwells in the thick darkness. Silence knows more of Him than speech. His name is secret, therefore beware how you profane His stillness. The secret of the Lord is with them that fear Him. To each of His servants He giveth “a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth save he that receiveth it.” (F. W. Robertson, M. A.)
St. Paul’s rapture and thorn in the flesh
Paul probably refers to the “trance,” or vision, of Acts 22:1-30.
I. Some explanation of this remarkable passage.
1. The nature of the vision. It was in a state in which the mental faculties, apart from the senses, are so engrossed by certain objects as to render the mind incapable of attending to any other. Such raptures were one of the ancient modes of inspiration. God spake to Moses, David, and the prophets in visions, and their return in the days of the apostles served to evince the identity of the two dispensations in their origin and authority.
2. The special communications made in this vision. If the “third heaven” is the place where God immediately resides, we are sure that “paradise” is the same, from the promise to the penitent malefactor. There Paul “heard unspeakable words,” etc. Doubtless the inhabitants of heaven conceive of objects in a manner as superior to our modes of conception as are the objects themselves to those of earth. How, then, could they communicate their conceptions to beings of our limited and dull faculties! In like manner the apostle on his return to his former state would find an insurmountable impediment to the communications of what he had seen and heard. But though not to be described in the language of sense, it would appear from the effect left on his mind that the revelation was of the most exhilarating nature; a tone had been given to his character, and a new and seraphic passion had been kindled in his soul. He felt for ever afterwards as a man to whom heaven was not altogether future.
3. The affliction with which he was immediately visited.
II. The general instruction which it furnishes. Note--
1. The wisdom and goodness of God in those severe afflictions with which even eminent saints may be visited.
2. The Divine nature of Christ, and His immediate presidency over the affairs of the whole Church. This Divine Saviour is particularly employed about the mission of His servants, their qualifications for office, their trials, supports, and deliverance. Hence the propriety of direct address to Him in critical circumstances, while, in the ordinary course of affairs, the ultimate object of address is the Almighty Father.
3. The existence of paradise and a third heaven as the receptacle of the souls of believers. What ground, then, for the notion of a sleepy condition of the soul after death? (J. Leifchild, D. D.)
2 Corinthians 12:2
I knew a man in Christ.
Seven blessings of being “in Christ”
I. Deliverance from the deadly curse which sin entails (Romans 8:1). In Noah’s ark there was no deluge; in Christ Jesus there is no condemnation.
II. Everlasting life. Of this Christ is the single source. Paul addresses the Church at Rome as “alive unto God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The Master said, “Because I live ye shall live also.” “It is not I,” said Paul, “but Christ that liveth in me.” If the nurseryman inserts the graft of a golden pippin into an apple tree, that graft might say truly, It is not I that live, but the whole tree liveth in me. So Divine a thing is this life that it is described as--
III. A new creation. This word “new” signifies also what is fresh, and unimpaired, and unworn, like a bright garment from its maker’s hand. How imperative is it that we keep this unspotted by the world! Not for ornament merely is it given, but for use.
IV. Acceptance in the beloved. If we are received into favour, it is solely for Christ’s sake.
V. Peace (Philippians 4:7).
VI. Fulness of spiritual supply (Colossians 2:10). “Ye are filled full in Christ.” Why need I hunger when in my father’s house and in my Saviour’s heart are such wealth beyond a whole universe to drain?
VII. Triumph “Thanks be unto God who always causeth us to triumph in Christ!” This is the believer’s battle-cry and paean of victory. Jesus gives the victory, and will bring us off more than conquerors. (T. L. Cuyler, D. D.)
I forbear, lest any man should think of me above that which he seeth me to be.--
Visible character, not private vision, the Christian mark
That we may reach the apostle’s meaning here it is needful to look at what he writes immediately before our text. The favour which certain false teachers had met with in the Church at Corinth had compelled Paul, out of regard for the safety of the believers there, to remind them, by direct assertion, of his own superior claim. Such self-assertion was not agreeable to his own feelings. Yet his was not the self-assertion of vainglory. First and last he gives God the praise. He rejoices not, nor glories, in his strength, but in his infirmities; for it is through his human infirmities that Divine grace and power become more clearly manifest. These very weaknesses are turned to highest account. As a ground of glorying and of claim to their regard, he might urge the “visions and revelations of the Lord” with which he had been favoured, but he forbears. Meantime, we must note the fact of these visions and revelations. They point to intimate spiritual communications--openings, so to speak, into the higher sphere of God’s thought and presence, so bright as to cast into the shade, for the time being, all consciousness connected with the lower sphere of bodily existence. Any philosophy, or way of conceiving of things, which throws doubt on the spiritual contact of God with man, is fatal to spiritual life and growth. For such a way of thinking involves a partial dethronement of the universal God. Never in any age of the world does He shut Himself off from contact with His children. In dealing with claims to spiritual enlightenment and influence, it behoves us to consider them cautiously. And even when we feel sure of them it becomes us to be modest in the assertion thereof. If others assert such claims on their own behalf, we are in nowise bound either to admit or deny them. No man is authorised to demand from others respect for such claims except in so far as he can support them by outward evidence. It becomes us, then, to forbear as the Apostle Paul did. “Visions and revelations from the Lord” we may have--rapt and ecstatic states of mind--sweet and strengthening hours of devout meditation and prayer; but of these it becomes us not to speak in the way of mere assertion as ground of boasting or superiority. From whatever point we approach the matter we find that the last test of true religion is to be found in its manifestation in character and life. “By their fruits ye shall know them,” said Jesus. This is the Christian mark. All divinely inspired prophets and apostles speak in the same strain. If the word revealed within is as the candle of the Lord shining there, lighting up truth, justice, and love clearly to our apprehension, it must be borne in mind that such a light has not been given for private and selfish use. If this be forgotten, the light within becomes darkness. The ambition which seeks the regard of others beyond that which its actual merits justify is the sure token of spiritual poverty and vanity. “I forbear,” says the great apostle, “lest any man should think of me above which he seeth me to be.” And so let every man forbear from boastful reference to his superior illumination and cherish that wholesome fear that he should be judged worthy beyond the measure which his actual life testifies. For to this end was such vision given--that its light should shine by its good works, and God our heavenly Father be glorified in the lives of His faithful children. (John Cordner.)
2 Corinthians 12:7-11
And lest I should be exalted above measure … there was given me a thorn in the flesh.
St. Paul’s thorn in the flesh
I. These verses treat of Christian trials under the figure of a thorn in the flesh. We should inquire not what the thorn was, but why it was sent. Some trials are evidently not of the nature of a thorn.
1. A thorn is a small, invisible cause of suffering; some secret trouble.
2. St. Paul’s thorn was something evil, for he calls it a messenger of Satan. Pain can be blessed to us, but it is not in itself a blessed thing. Now the Bible calls these things evils, to be got rid of if possible. God does not command St. Paul to think the throb of his thorn enjoyable.
3. A thorn causes unvarying, incessant pain: to forget it is impossible. It seems perversely to come in contact with every obstacle. And some sorrows are for ever smarting; some blot on our birth, or some domestic incongruity which the man may forget at his labour; but the time comes when he must go home, and there is the thorn awaiting him.
II. The spiritual uses of this experience.
1. To make us humble. “Lest I should be exalted above measure.” It is strange that pride is felt for those things over which we have the least control, and to which we have the least right. In the school the vain boy is not he who has amassed knowledge by hard toil, but he whose genius is often made an excuse for idleness. Hereditary rank, over which we have no control, and which demands that we should be more noble than other men, is often the cause of pride. He is not usually proud of wealth who has toiled for it, but rather he who has won it by a lucky speculation. The real hard worker is seldom proud; he has known so much of his ignorance, his weakness, in the hard work of acquiring. So in things spiritual. The proud man is he who dreams and lives in the third heaven, and is too grand to have to do with this low earth, and who substitutes his frames and fine feelings for good works. Now to bring all this down God sends thorns. Bitter penury will guard a man from extravagance; and great reverses from reckless speculation will often bring to experience the meanness of debt. There is no better humiliator than constant physical pain. By the constitution of our planet there are peculiar trials to our physical frame; in the temperate zone, biting frosts and cold; in the warmer climate, the serpent and the constant fever; everywhere there is the thorn in the flesh.
2. To teach us spiritual dependence. Liberty is one thing--independence another; a man is free, politically, whose rightful energies are not cramped by the selfish, unjust claims of another. A man is independent, politically, when he is free from every tie that binds man to man. One is national blessedness, the other is national anarchy. Liberty makes you loyal to the grand law, “I ought”; independence subjects you to the evil law, “I will.” So also religious freedom emancipates a man from every hindrance which prevents his right action. Every Christian ought to be a free man, but no Christian is or ought to be independent. “Look not every man on his own things, but on the things of others.” “Bear ye one another’s burdens.” “All things are lawful to me, but all things are not expedient,” etc. Is that independence? There is no independence on earth; we are all dependent on the breath of God. Trial soon forces us to feel this. As well might the clouds that surround the setting sun, tinged with gold and vermilion, boast that they shine by their own light. So when we know ourselves aright we shall feel that we are strengthless and must depend entirely on His all-sufficient grace. (F. W. Robertson, M. A.)
The thorn in the flesh
I. The apostle’s trial. “There was given to me,” says he, “a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me.”
1. Observe, he traces the dispensation to its appointment, “There was given to me.” Affliction cometh not forth of the dust, neither doth trouble spring out of the ground.” “I was dumb,” says David, “and opened not my mouth, because Thou didst it.” “It is the Lord, let Him do what seemeth Him good.”
2. Observe further, that although St. Paul looks upon his trial as proceeding from God, he still denominates it the messenger of Satan. Does this appear strange? The bitter draught was only administered by Satan; it was prescribed by God. God appointed the evil, and Satan, by His permission, inflicted it. This is all that the devil can do.
II. But let us inquire into the design of the apostle’s affliction. As our heavenly Father gives every trial, so He has some object in view in giving them. “He doth not,” says the prophet Jeremiah, “afflict willingly nor grieve the children of men.” The Physician frequently, however, sends trials not to heal our spiritual maladies but to prevent them. “O Lord, Thou hast searched me and known me; Thou understandest my thoughts afar off.” God does not, therefore, require that sin should manifest itself in the outward conduct in order to attract His notice; He beholds its secret risings in the heart; and often before the storm arises He drives us to a place of refuge.
III. The apostle’s conduct under his trial. He did not give way to fretfulness or become sullen and dejected; he did not begin to quarrel with God, to charge Him foolishly, to murmur at His dealings, or to insinuate that the same end might have been attained by less severe means. Three things are deserving of notice in this prayer of the apostle.
1. The subject of it. He prayed that his affliction might be removed. To be patient and submissive under afflictive dispensations is plainly a Christian duty. But prayer for the removal of our trials is not inconsistent with submission under them.
2. And observe how he prayed--
(1) Earnestly. “I besought the Lord.” His was not a cold and lifeless prayer, the prayer of the formalist who is indifferent about its success.
(2) Perseveringly. He besought the Lord thrice. He humbly resolved, like Jacob, to wrestle till he prevailed. He continued to knock till the door was opened.
3. Observe, further, to whom the apostle prayed. It was to Jesus Christ. This is evident, for St. Paul distinctly regards the answer as having come from the Saviour: “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” And to whom should we fly in the hour of trial but to the same almighty Saviour, who “took our infirmities and bare our sicknesses”? He can enter into all the trials of His people. “We have not an High Priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.”
IV. The next point for our consideration is, the answer received by the apostle. “And He said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” As our prayers are not always answered when we expect, so neither are they at all times answered in the way that we look for. Was it not the same thing to him whether his burden were removed or whether strength were given to sustain him under it? Nay, was it not infinitely better for him that the gold should remain in the furnace since it was promised that the fire should not destroy or injure but only refine it?
V. Notice in the last place his pious resolution: “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” Earnestly as he had before desired the removal of his trial he desires it no longer. (W. Cardall, B. A.)
The “thorn in the flesh,” or soul schooling
These words teach us--
I. That the exercise of spiritual discipline is expedient for the best of men. Paul required it. “Lest I should be exalted,” etc.
1. Pride is a great spiritual evil.
(1) Most inimical to soul-progress. “Pride goeth before destruction,” etc.
(2) Most offensive to God. “He resisteth the proud,” etc.
2. Good men have sometimes great temptations to pride.
II. That the mode of spiritual discipline is sometimes very painful. Paul was visited with a “thorn in the flesh.” What the thorn was is a question for speculation; the idea is plain. Note--
1. That suffering stands connected with Satan. The great original sinner is the father of suffering.
2. That both suffering and Satan are under the direction of God. He makes them subserve the discipline of His people, the good of the universe, and the glory of His name.
III. That the means of spiritual discipline are sometimes misunderstood. Paul prays to be delivered from that which was sent for his good. Note--
1. The ignorance which sometimes marks our prayers. We often, it is to be feared, pray against our own interests like a patient seeking the removal of a medicine which alone could restore him. Do you pray for the recovery of a child? Should that child grow up to manhood he might perhaps break your heart; spread vice and misery through the entire circle of his life. There are some blessings which are positively promised by God, such as pardon, etc., for which we may pray not only “thrice,” but incessantly; and there are others which we may esteem desirable, but which are not promised. These we must seek in submission to His will.
2. The kindness of God in not always answering our prayers. He knows what is best. He deals with us as a wise and merciful Father.
IV. That the supports under spiritual discipline are abundant. “My grace is sufficient for thee,” etc. Observe--
1. The nature of this support. What matters the weight of the burden if the “strength” is equal to bear it with ease! “As thy day so shall thy strength be.”
2. The principle of the support--“Grace.” It comes not from merit.
3. The influence of this support. “Most gladly therefore,” etc. (D. Thomas, D. D.)
The thorn in the flesh
I. Discipline (verse 7).
1. It was painful in its nature.
2. It was Satanic in its agency--“The messenger of Satan sent to buffet me.” The devil has been the opponent of the good in all ages. Adam. David. Peter. Good out of evil.
3. It was counteracting in its influence--“Lest I should be exalted above measure.” Counteraction a great principle in the economy of God. In the moral realm--“goodness and severity” of God. Man is prone to the excesses of despair and pride. Paul’s old sin was self. The “besetting sin” before conversion threatens to reassume its old power after conversion. The balloon requires the weight of sandbags. Paul learnt the lesson of humility. He speaks of himself as one “not worthy to be called an apostle”; “less than the least of all saints”; “the chief of sinners.” “Only two safe places for the believer,” says an old preacher, “the dust and heaven, and of the two, the dust is the safer; for the angels fell from heaven, but no one was ever known to fall from the dust.” One way from the valley of humility--upward, and that ends in eternal honour.
II. Prayer (verse 8).
1. The prayer was Divine in its object--“the Lord.” Throne of grace the best resort in trouble. Men are foolish to attempt to carry their own burdens.
2. The prayer was earnest in its spirit--“I besought the Lord thrice.”
3. It was ignorant in its request--“That it might depart from me.” The “thorn” was not pleasant, but it was profitable. Trials are blessings in disguise. Zigzag is often better than straight--though not so easy. Trials bring triumph, and losses gain. A forest in Germany was consumed by fire, but underneath a precious vein of silver was discovered.
III. Support (verse 9).
1. Its nature--“My strength.” Conscious weakness is God’s instrumentality. Thus there is not the shadow of a doubt who the real worker is. God, not man, to have the glory. “Moses’ rod” used to divide the Red Sea. A cannon in itself is a lifeless piece of iron; but when loaded with ball and powder and the spark applied, the ball becomes a thunderbolt, and the powder a flash of lightning, then the fortress comes crashing in ruins to the ground.
2. Its principle--“My grace.” Trials of grace are supports of grace.
3. Its effect (verse 10).”Rejoice in tribulation.” Tunnel leads to the terminus. Why should we complain and despair? Let us remember the Master, whose brow was pierced with a crown of thorns. (B. D. Johns.)
St. Paul’s thorn in the flesh
I. Signal manifestations of Divine favour are apt to beget spiritual pride. It was after he had been signally honoured that Haman began to boast. In like manner, it was after Paul had witnessed the glory of heaven that he was in danger of being elevated “above measure.”
II. Affliction is intended to prevent as well as to recover--“Lest I should be,” etc. The prophet Hosea, when speaking of the infatuated inclination of Israel to wander from the Lord, tells us that God determined to hedge her way with thorns, and make a wall about her, that she shall not find her paths. And in this is the goodness of God, as well as His severity, made manifest.
III. God overrules the immediate actions of Satan for His own glory and good of His people. Our text tells us of Satan casting out Satan. St. Paul was preserved from spiritual pride by a “messenger of Satan.”
IV. Pride is an object of God’s utter aversion. (J. F. S. Gordon, M. A.)
Paul’s thorn in the flesh
1. We have an apostle in danger.
2. We have Christ using means to protect His servant.
3. We have the wonderful effect of the means which Christ used.
The danger was a real one. This thorn in the flesh was no needless pain. Given by God, it could never have come without necessity. It was a real spiritual danger which confronted St. Paul. But how? St. Paul tells us that the danger was lest he should be exalted above measure, lest his spiritual joy at the revelations should pass into spiritual pride. It is undoubtedly strange that revelations from God should expose His servants to such danger. Some say that it is impossible that it should be so; that spiritual light could never be a danger, or at least not in the case of such a man as St. Paul. St. Paul knew better; he knew that whatever lifts a man above his fellows is in danger of lifting him too far, exalting him above measure. The lesson here is that even God’s best gifts may expose to danger. Illustrations of this may be seen every day in modern life, and the preacher cited the case of a man who had been God’s instrument in the salvation of many souls whose own soul was damaged by it. He learned to boast of his power and fell, and died an awful death. St. Paul knew his peril, and, what is more, he acknowledged it. The means employed to protect St. Paul was a gift from God, though a messenger of Satan. We see that it came from God by reason of the aim for which it was sent. Here, then, we have the wary eye of the Great Shepherd on the watch for the good of His servant. This “thorn in the flesh” was an abiding pain. Three times had the apostle prayed for its removal. At the same time it was something which could be removed, or why the prayer? St. Paul obtains a completely new view of life. The one thorn has explained to him all forms of suffering, and now he takes pleasure in them. Though some of his afflictions came by bad men, he recognises them as a gift of God; and this thorn, a messenger of Satan to buffet him, is transformed into a minister of heaven. Many seem handicapped in their life-work by pain and suffering in themselves and others. Take the case of a young man whose sick mother seemed to be a burden to his every effort. In the light of the text we see that that sickness may be, instead of a burden, the very ballast the young man needs to ensure his safety. (J. A. Beet, D. D.)
The temptation of St. Paul
I. The temptation of Paul.
1. This was probably some physical infirmity, and if it did not obstruct him in his ministerial labours, it rendered them difficult and distressing. He was like a workman whose hand was smarting from a festering wound, or like a traveller with a foot lacerated and lamed. And his affliction was aggravated by the advantage Satan took of it. The Lord put in the thorn, and for gracious purposes; but Satan endeavoured to defeat those purposes by turning the thorn into a temptation. And so Satan may make our afflictions as well as our blessings snares to us or poisons, instead of medicines and blessings. And the apostle represents it as striking and bruising him, and thus felt disgraced.
2. And how many of us can feelingly place ourselves in St. Paul’s situation! We have had thorns in our flesh, shameful marks which the world has seen. Sometimes we are ready to say when suffering under any of these, “Were we really the servants of Christ, it would not be thus with us,” and a scoffing world may say the same; but here is one of the most beloved, honoured, of all the Lord’s servants in the same situation as we. And the Bible and Church history show that it has been the lot of the holiest men.
II. Its design. “Lest I should be exalted.” These words show us--
1. That the Lord foresees any spiritual danger that is coming on us.
2. That the Lord often graciously guards against the danger He foresees. He sends us affliction sometimes, not to chasten us for having fallen into sin, or to recover us out of it, but to keep us out of it.
3. That the Lord sometimes keeps off evil from us by Satan’s efforts to bring us into evil; He overrules temptation by temptation. We shall never know how much we are indebted to Satan till we are safe in heaven, and look back there on all the perilous way which has led us to it.
4. How offensive sin is in the sight of God! He will afflict the servant He loves, rather than allow him to fall into it.
5. What a load of suffering the mere tendency to pride within our souls may bring on us!
6. What danger we are all in of yielding to this hateful and tormenting sin.
III. Paul’s conduct under it (verse 8). One end why the Lord sends us temptation is to quicken us to prayer. When all is smooth the spirit of prayer too often declines. Here, too, is a practical carrying out of the truth on which this apostle is so often dwelling--the ability and willingness of Christ to sympathise with us when suffering and to help us.
IV. The result.
1. A virtual denial of his request. Twice he prays--no answer comes. Here then was a deathblow to all Paul’s hopes of relief. It was like telling him that he must carry his thorn down to the grave. But this is the way in which the Lord often answers His praying people. We know not what to pray for as we ought. We give way to sense and feeling. But though we may not know what to ask, the Lord well knows what to give. Hence He sifts our prayers before He answers them, sees whether they correspond with our necessities and His purposes. Instead of giving us relief He gives us strength; He leaves the burden on us heavy as ever, but He places His everlasting arm underneath us, and causes it so to bear us up, that we hardly feel our burden.
2. A complete change in the view he took of his affliction. Before he regarded it as an evil to be, if possible, got rid of; but now, observe, he has learnt to “glory” in it and “take pleasure” in it. “My infirmities bring glory to Christ, then let me keep them.” (C. Bradley, M. A.)
The thorn in the flesh
Apply this to--
I. Temporal circumstances.
1. If we examine closely the lot even of those who seem the most signally favoured of fortune, we shall perceive that their happiness is not full-orbed. Something is wanting. He is rich, but a stranger, it may be, shall inherit all that he has. He is famous in the world, but has no joy at his domestic hearth. A noble career opens to him, but health fails. Fortune seems to give everything, but yet in a strange irony withholds the one thing which would make all the rest to have any true value. This, of course, is still more observable with the many who are not so favoured; everywhere there is some good thing withheld or some sad thing added, some “thorn in the flesh.” It is sometimes evident to all the world, in other cases only the sufferer himself knows.
2. How easy it is to grow impatient under a discipline such as this--at first to ask that it might be removed, and then if, as it seems, we are not heard, to fret and murmur. Very often a man is the more irritated because there is nothing romantic or heroic about it. Alas! we do not know that such messengers as these to humble us are a most important part of the discipline of our lives. It takes very little to puff up these vain hearts of ours. The “thorn in the flesh,” that is the appointed means to keep us low.
II. Spiritual life. There is perhaps nothing which so much disappoints the young and earnest Christian as the slow progress which he makes in holiness, and his exposure to temptations of the lowest, the meanest kind. He had hoped that he was to travel on from one height of Christian attainment to another without hindrance. He, too, having been in his third heaven, counts that he shall never come down from it, or at any rate does not expect that henceforth he shall be liable to the everyday vulgar temptations which he sees to be besetting so many round him. Soon, however, he learns his mistake. God has provided some better thing, not release from temptation, but victory in and over temptation. (Abp. Trench.)
The thorn in the flesh
Many desire to gaze on the secret lives of eminent personages. For once we are able to gratify curiosity, and yet minister to edification. We are plainly taught how mistaken we are when we set eminent saints upon a platform by themselves, as though they were a class of superhuman beings. Paul enjoyed more revelations than we have, but then he had a corresponding thorn in the flesh. He was a good man, but he was only a man. Note--
I. A danger to which the apostle was exposed ... “Lest I should be exalted above measure.”
1. It was natural that he should stand in danger of this. When God lifts us up we may lift up ourselves, and then we fall into serious mischief. How many among us could bear to receive such revelations as Paul had? Now, if Paul was in this danger, so holy, humble, wise, and experienced; if so massive a pillar trembles, what peril surrounds poor reeds shaken of the wind! Observe that in Paul’s case the temptation was not one which operates in the common, coarse way. It was that he should say within his own soul, “I have seen as others have not. I am the favourite of heaven.”
2. Now, although in Paul’s particular form of it, this temptation may not be common, yet in some shape it waylays the best of Christians.
(1) Every man loves the commendation of his fellow-men. It is vain for us to boast of not caring about it; we do care about it, and our duty is to keep that propensity in check.
(2) There are some men in whom self-consciousness is so strong, that it will come up in the form of being very easily annoyed because they are overlooked, or in being easily irritated because they fancy that somebody is opposing them.
(3) Others who, because they have more real spiritual knowledge, and a deeper inward experience when they hear the prattle of young beginners, or the blunders of saints, cannot help saying to themselves, “Thank God, I do know better than that.” They have probably also been successful in sacred work, a legitimate source of rejoicing, but a temptation to boastfulness. Among the flowers of gratitude will grow the hemlock of pride.
3. None of the things we have spoken of are justifiable grounds for boasting. What if a believer should have received more Divine illuminations than his fellow? Did not the Lord give them to him? There are two beggars in the street; I give one a shilling and the other a penny; shall the man who obtains the shilling be proud, and glory over his companion? Generally the loudest boasting is excited by accidental circumstances.
4. It is dangerous for a Christian to be exalted above measure, for if he be--
(1) He will rob God of His glory, and this is a high crime and misdemeanour.
(2) It is equally evil to the Church. Had Paul been lifted up he would have become the leader of a sect; the rival rather than the servant of Jesus.
(3) It would have been bad for ungodly sinners, for proud preachers win not men’s hearts. He who is exalted in himself will never exalt the Saviour.
(4) It would have been worst of all for the apostle himself, for pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.
II. The preventative.
1. Note every word here.
(1) “There was given to me.” He reckoned his great trial to be a gift. You have not one single article that is a better token of Divine love to you than your daily cross.
(2) “A thorn.” A thorn is--
(a) But a little thing, and indicates a painful but not a killing trial.
(b) Yet it is almost a secret thing, not very apparent to any one but the sufferer.
(c) A commonplace thing, such as might grow in any field and fall to any man’s lot--nothing to make a man remarkable.
(d) One of the most wretched intruders that can molest our foot or hand. Those pains which are despised because they are seldom fatal, are frequently the source of the most intense anguish--toothache, headache, earache, what greater miseries are known to mortals?
(3) “In the flesh.” The evil had an intimate connection with his body. Each expositor seems to have selected that particular thorn which had pierced his own bosom. The apostle did not tell us what it was, perhaps that we may every one feel that he had sympathy with us--that ours is no new grief.
(4) “The messenger of Satan.” Not Satan, but one of Satan’s errand boys. An encounter with Satan might not have humbled him. It is a grand thing to fight Satan face to face and foot to foot; but to be beset by a mere lackey of hell, to be tormented by so mean an adversary, this was galling to the last degree, and therefore all the better for the purpose for which it was sent.
(5) To buffet, i.e., to cuff him. Not to fight with him with the sword; that is manly, soldierly work; but to buffet him as pedagogues box the ears of boys.
2. This preventative was well adapted to work out its design, for assuredly it would recall the apostle from ecstacies. He said once, “Whether in the body, or whether out of the body, I cannot tell”; but the thorn in the flesh settled that question. He had dreamed, perhaps, that he was growing very angelic, but now he feels intensely human. This made him feel that he was--
(1) A weak man, for he had to do battle with base temptations that seemed not worth fighting with.
(2) A man in danger, and needed to fly to God for refuge.
3. From all this I gather--
(1) That the worst trial may be the best possession; that the messenger of Satan may be as good as a guardian angel.
(2) That the worst and deepest experience may only be the needful complement of the highest and the noblest; it may be necessary that if we are lifted up we should be cast down.
(3) That we must never envy other saints. If we meet with a brother whom God blesses, let us not conclude that his pathway is all smooth. His roses have their thorns, his bees their stings.
III. The immediate effect of this thorn upon Paul.
1. It drove him to his knees. Anything is a blessing which makes us pray.
2. In this way Paul was kept from being proud. The revelation now seemed forgotten. A man does not want to tell pretty stories when sharp pains are goading him.
3. Paul continued to pray, till at last he received for an answer, not the removal of the thorn, but the assurance, “My grace is sufficient for thee.” God will always honour our prayers, and sometimes it is a golden answer to deny us our request, and give us the very opposite of what we seek.
4. The result was that the grace given him enabled him to bear the thorn, and to glory that he was permitted so to suffer. Wish not to change your estate. Your heavenly Father knoweth best.
IV. The permanent result.
1. It kept him humble always. Fourteen years rolled away, and the apostle never told anybody that he had been caught up into the third heaven. When he did tell it, it was dragged out of him.
2. It is no small matter when God sends a thorn in the flesh and it answers its end, for in some cases it does not. We have known some whom poverty has made envious, whom sickness has rendered petulant, whom personal infirmity has rendered rebellious against God. Let us labour against this, and if God has been pleased to put a fetter upon us in any shape, let us ask Him not to allow us to make this the occasion for fresh folly, but, on the contrary, to bear the rod and learn its lessons.
1. What a happy people God’s people ought to be, when a curse becomes to them a blessing! If the thorn be a blessing, what must the blessing itself be?
2. What a sad thing it must be not to be a believer in Christ, because thorns we shall have if we are not in Christ, but those thorns will not be blessings to us. I understand drinking bitter medicine, if it is to make me well; but who would drink wormwood and gall with no good result to follow?
3. Remember that he who sent Paul thorns for his good once wore a thorn-crown Himself for the salvation of sinners; and if you will trust Him you shall be saved from the thorn of unforgiven sin, the fear of the wrath to come. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
The thorn in the flesh
The attempt to determine the exact nature of Paul’s trial is like the attempt to ascertain the species of the lily Christ alluded to in the Sermon on the Mount. Scientific determination of the plant may be interesting to the botanist, but the lesson of trust in Providence can be learnt equally well from the daisy or violet. So here, many of the ills that flesh is heir to, can effect the same moral discipline produced by Paul’s special affliction, if borne in the same spirit. There are, however, two figures applied to it in this passage, which partially characterise it. It was “a thorn in the flesh.” Not a crushing stroke, but a protracted trouble, that seemed like a thorn that had buried itself below the skin, and caused a constant sense of irritation. It is also termed “a messenger of Satan” sent to “buffet” him. This expression recognises the frequent connection there is between suffering and moral evil. What is of more importance than a knowledge of the specific nature of “the thorn,” is that Paul felt it was designed to produce spiritual results in his character. That Paul was a man of high spirit we gather from several incidents in his history; we also know that he was a man of fine sensibilities, and the combination of these two qualities form a temperament very apt to run into pride. It was not excessive self-esteem of the ordinary sort that constituted his special danger, but self-esteem in its most dangerous form of spiritual pride; exaltation above measure on account of the abundance of the revelations. Religious ecstacy is a gift rather than an acquirement, and those whose temperament leads to it are liable to plume themselves on this account on a supposed superiority to their fellow-Christians. As he could soar, while others had to remain on the level, he might be tempted to underestimate them and to overestimate himself. Whenever such feelings arose, there was the sharp pang of the thorn to recall him to himself, and remind him that he shared the infirmities of humanity. For just such a purpose does God frequently send a permanent trial. An excessive valuation of self is brought down by repeated failures in life, which remind us how narrow are the limits of human power. It was not at first that Paul comprehended the real meaning of his thorn in the flesh. His first impulse was to get rid of it, and he prayed to the Lord for its removal. Christianity never teaches us to value pain for its own sake, never represents it as good in itself. That is the idea of Indian fakirs or medieval monks. Don’t press the thorn into the flesh; extract and throw it away if it is possible; but if all efforts are unavailing, then submit to it as to the will of God. (W. Bird.)
The thorn in the flesh
I. Paul’s danger. “Lest I should be exalted,” etc. He was in danger of being raised too high--
1. For his usefulness as a minister. Paul had to do with poor mortals upon earth--what was the language of paradise to them? But when he spoke to them of thorns, and prayer, and sustaining grace, he was on their level.
2. For his present condition as a Christian. Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration exclaimed, “Master, it is good for us to be here,” etc.; but he “knew not what he said.” What would have become of his wife and family? As the Saviour does not pray that His followers should be taken out of the world by death, so neither does He draw them out of it by religion.
3. As a favourite of Heaven. Christians are not like the Holy One of God. Owing to the sin that dwelleth in us, we are in danger from everything around us; and therefore must walk circumspectly, and watch and pray.
II. His preservation. “There was given to me a thorn,” etc. All creatures are in the Lord’s hand, and under His control; He gave Joseph favour in the sight of the jailer; brought Elijah food by ravens; and sent Paul safety by Satan himself! Paul does not say, “Because I was exalted above measure,” but “lest I should be.” Affliction is designed to prevent as well as to recover. You were not vain and worldly--but God saw a train of circumstances which would flatter you into self-importance. He therefore determined to prevent the evil; and it is commonly said, Prevention is better than cure.
III. His prayer. Prayer is the refuge of the afflicted, and cannot be offered in vain; its very exercise brings succour. How does your affliction operate? Does it lead you to quarrel with instruments, or to commit your cause unto God? A man under sanctified affliction will “continue instant in prayer.” Thus Paul besought the Lord thrice. The prayer of faith is always heard, but not always immediately answered. The reason is not that God is wanting in kindness, but that He exercises His kindness wisely. We are like children; we wish to gather the fruit while it is yet unripe. But He pulls back our impatient hand. The time of delay is often peculiarly trying. But “he that believeth maketh not haste.”
IV. His answer.
1. The answer does not apparently correspond with the petition. Paul prayed to have the thorn removed: to this God says nothing, but assures him of something unspeakably better. With regard to temporal things we cannot be too general in our prayers, or refer ourselves too much to the pleasure of God. For our prayers, like ourselves, are imperfect; nature sometimes speaks, without our being’ aware of it, in the tone of grace. Hence God sometimes denies a request entirely; at other times He separates the good from the evil, and grants us a part; while frequently He answers by way of exchange. If a child was to ask of a father a fish, and he should give him a serpent, we should be shocked. But suppose the child, by reason of his ignorance, should ask for a serpent instead of a fish; we should then admire the father if he refused what he asked and gave him what he did not ask. Our Heavenly Father always gives according to what we ought to ask.
2. The answer is yet blessed and glorious. “My grace is sufficient for thee!” Sufficient for what? Write all thy wants underneath. Sufficient for--
(1) Thy work, which often discourages thee. “As thy day, so shall thy strength be.”
(2) Thy warfare, which often alarms thee. But “more are they that are for thee than they that are against thee.”
(3) Thy affliction, which often depresses thee. But “When thou passeth through the waters, I will be with thee.” It is sufficient
(a) To sanctify your afflictions.
(b) To render them supportable; yea, to enable you to “glory in tribulation also.” (W. Jay.)
The thorn in the flesh
This has been a thorn in the pulpit expositions of all the Christian ages. By carefully concealing it Paul has made all that want to be wise above what is written uneasy to find it out. But it cannot be of much use to us to know what it was, since the man who suffered from it did not care to tell us, and if we could know that it was a defect in his eyes, or his speech, or a pain in his head, or the want of a foot to his stature, that particular thorn would fasten us down to a particular experience, and we should lose the great general lesson. Note--
I. The thorn in the flesh of our common humanity.
1. We cannot fail to see it in the greatest and noblest lives. It may be a mean thing, like Byron’s club-foot, or as great a thing as Dante’s worship of Beatrice, or a great vice, like that which held Coleridge and De Quincey, or only like the dyspepsia that darkened the vision of Carlyle. In David it was a great sin; in Peter it was the memory of that morning, when he turned his back on the noblest friend that ever a man had; in Luther it was a blackness of darkness, defying both physicians and philosophy; in Wesley it was a home without love, and a wife insane with jealousy, with an old love that was never permitted to bloom. We need not be anxious about Paul’s mystery; some of these things hurt him, and made the poor manhood of him quiver, I was talking with a gentleman who knows intimately one of our greatest living Americans; and I said he must be one of the happiest of men. “There is that in his life,” my friend said, “you do not see, and very few are aware of. I knew him a long time before I guessed it: it is a pain that he carries about with him like his shadow; not a bodily, but a mental pain, which he will carry with him to his grave.”
2. And what the thorn is to these men in their great estate it may be to us in ours.
(1) We feel the pain of personal defect, and very naturally, because the standard of physical beauty and perfection can no more be altered than the standard of geometry. We admire physical perfection. We notice and pity defects. To those who endure them they are a thorn in the flesh, bringing keen suffering and morbid brooding. I never blamed Byron for feeling as he did about his foot. The blame lay in his never summoning to the maimed part the strength that is made perfect in weakness.
(2) Paul’s thorn may have been a defect in his utterance. What a thorn it is to many that they can never adequately express their thought! “You will find him to be a great lumbering waggon, loaded with ingots of gold,” Robert Hall said of John Foster in recommending him to a church, “and I hope you know gold when you see it, or else he will never do for you.” They called him, and he failed, as he had failed elsewhere.
(3) Nothing but Paul’s saintliness has saved him from the guess that his thorn was some bad passion or appetite. Very sore is this pain, and very common. Children are sometimes born with appetites fatally strong. Old Dr. Mason used to say, as much grace as would make John a saint, would barely keep Peter from knocking a man down. I heard a man say once, that for eight-and-twenty years the soul within him had to stand, like an unsleeping sentinel, guarding his appetite for strong drink.
II. What can we do about it? We can make the best of it, or the worst of it. If I find myself, e.g., in early life in the possession of a passion that is rapidly growing into a curse, I can submit to its dictate without a struggle, or I can stand up and fight it. There may be manliness where there is little grace. I can be so manly in bearing my burden that my silence shall be golden. “Did I break down? was I unmanned?” a great man said when the thorn in the flesh had hurt him so terribly that he lost his consciousness. He felt he must be a man even then.
III. What can come of the thorn if we find out Paul’s way of dealing with it. He bore his trouble man fashion, as well as he could; but then found himself unable to win much of a victory. The pain was there still, and he felt as if he would have to give way at last, and go down. So, in the simple old fashion, he took the matter into the Supreme Court, and said, “I want this thorn removed; I can bear it no longer.” But the Judge said, “No, it must stay. To take it away would be to destroy the grace to which it points. I will not take the bane, but I will give you another blessing.” Lately, when I crossed Suspension Bridge, I got talking with a gentleman about the crystallisation of iron. We agreed that every train which crossed the bridge did something to disintegrate the iron particles and break the bridge down, and that if this process could go on long enough, there would be a last train, which would shoot right down into the gulf. But long before this could come to pass all these strands and cables would be made over again in the fire and under the hammer, and come out as strong and good as ever. To take them out and then let them lie at rest on the banks would be no sort of use. The iron-masters would say, “That would make the strands eternally unfit for their purpose; the hammer and fire can make them better and stronger than ever.” Is not this also the law of life, that the fineness and strength essential to our best being, and to make us do our best work, come by the thorn in the flesh, which may act in us as the fire acts in the iron, welding the fibre afresh, and creating the whole anew (as the apostle would say) unto good works? (R. Collyer, D. D.)
Rejoicing at the misfortunes of others
We have all known people who had no greater enjoyment than to see an acquaintance taken down. The misfortune of a neighbour was a real blessing to these miserable creatures, and I have not the least doubt but that among people who knew St. Paul there would be a man here and there envious of the great apostle’s gifts and usefulness, who would chuckle over the thorn in the flesh, who in his heart would rejoice at the suffering it caused the apostle. Yet who would not venture to express his secret exultation, but would go about saying, “Oh, that Saul of Tarsus needs it all. Very conceited man; do him a great deal of good. It will take him down; teach him sense; and he needs very much to be taught that!” Cannot you imagine how the envious, malicious, tattling gossips at Corinth would go about from house to house saying that kind of thing? Now, let none of us here give way to this wicked and contemptible fashion of thinking and talking (A. K. H. Boyd, D. D.)
Lest I should be exalted above measure.--
Pride and its antidote
I. The danger to which the apostle felt himself exposed, is that of being “exalted overmuch,” or lifted up by pride. In one aspect of the case it seems that of all mere men St. Paul was the least likely to “fall into this snare of the devil.” He was not accustomed to “boast of things without measure” (2 Corinthians 10:12-13). “I have learned, in whatsoever estate I am, therewith to be content,” etc. (Philippians 4:11-13). The life he lived, the suffering he bore, and the shame and reproach that were cast upon him, are not the things which generally cause men to be “puffed up.” But, in another aspect, it is easy to discover in the apostle a disposition to “think of himself more highly than he ought to think.” His spirit, though patient, serene, and humble, when under the influence of God’s grace, was naturally proud and ambitious. His training, too, had fostered this spirit. His educational attainments were in no way despicable. And further, if we think of the manner in which some churches received him--as “an angel from heaven”; the profound respect in which he was held by some of his fellow-Christians, so that “if it had been possible, they would have plucked out their very eyes, and given them to him”; his equality with the chiefest of the apostles, and his almost unparalleled success in preaching the gospel, we shall have little difficulty in conceiving how Paul would be liable to regard himself as superior to most men of his day. This danger arose not from either of the things we have already named, as likely to produce self-glory, but from the abundance of the revelations God had given to him. And is it not so with ourselves? Our greatest successes are our greatest temptations. Failure humbles us.
II. God’s design in giving Paul “a thorn in the flesh” was to teach him a lesson of humility. Humility is the antithesis of pride, and it is also its antidote. It is a grace of the gospel of the choicest quality, and its cultivation is obligatory on all Christians. And yet humility is so repugnant to human nature, is a virtue so difficult of practice, that it seldom occupies its proper place, even in the heart of renewed man. Hence God has to humble us oftentimes by some painful trial. (T. Turner.)
Affliction an antidote to temptation
I. The design of the temptation. The design of this temptation was to subdue the risings of spiritual pride, to which the apostle, from his peculiar circumstances, was peculiarly liable. No one will understand me as saying that this was the design of the tempter. Respecting him, as of Sennacherib of old, it might be remarked, “Howbeit he meaneth not so, neither doth his heart think so; but it is in his heart to destroy and cut off.” There is no recorded incident which conveys such a significant intimation of the utter depravity of the heart of man as the one under consideration. Here was a servant and apostle of our Lord Jesus Christ made a new creature in Christ Jesus, and living under the constant operation of the indwelling Spirit; yet with so much of remaining corruption, that an extraordinary measure of Divine favour would have provoked the pride and naughtiness of his heart but for the gracious provision made to counteract the danger. It teaches us that human nature, fallen nature, is the same under all circumstances. Subject it to what process you choose--put it into what alembic you may--translate it, if you will, in a chariot of fire into the third heaven--yet until that wondrous hour arrives, when we shall all be changed, and this corruptible shall put on incorruption, it will remain corrupt to the last. Let it not be supposed that it requires an equal amount of attainment and privilege to incur an equal liability to the suggestions of the evil one. Alas! which of us does not know that it needs no elevation into the third heaven to exalt us above measure? A little knowledge soon puffeth up.
II. To investigate its nature.
1. A thorn;
2. The messenger of Satan; and--
3. Designed and calculated to buffet the apostle’s spirit.
In the text he characterises this temptation as “a messenger of Satan.” And here the remark seems extorted, How few there are who realise the active agency of the prince of the power of the air in the same sense and to the same extent as did Christ and His apostles--now sowing tares in the Church--now sifting the apostles--now entering into Judas--now assaulting the Son of God Himself! But this is not the particular feature in his work of evil which the text suggests. He is represented as interfering (doubtless by sufferance of the Most High) with the daily providences, and outward circumstances, and bodily condition of our life.
III. What was his resource in this time of need? See wherein consists the real benefit of sanctified affliction. It sends you to your knees.
IV. Let us now notice the answer given to the apostle’s prayer.
V. Such was the apostle’s case, and his after-estimate of the whole dispensation was to that effect. “Blessed thorn which occasions the power of Christ to rest upon me!” Infinite strength sheltering perfect weakness. How grand, how comforting, how transporting the idea! God protecting a worm of the earth; nay, and strengthening it with might. Let me suggest this brief exhortation in conclusion.
1. Adore the gracious providence and consummate skill of the Most High in thus from seeming evil still educing good. Thus the Lord leads captivity captive, and Satan himself is in a manner transformed into an angel of light.
2. Lastly, learn to form a proper estimate of your afflictions, and to believe that, painful as it may be, the thorn which mortifies your pride, sends you to the throne of grace, and issues in praise, must be an unspeakable blessing. (C. F. Childe, M. A.)
2 Corinthians 12:8-9
For this thing I besought the Lord thrice.
Christian trial and ungranted prayer
If it is useful to consider prayers granted for encouragement, it is also desirable to reflect on prayers not granted for instruction. We delight to pass in review Abraham, Hezekiah, etc. But it must not be forgotten there are opposite cases that represent in shade, as the others in light, the will and mercy of God. Was it not so with Moses, beseeching the Lord to cancel His prohibition; with David, as he pleaded for the life of his child; with Jeremiah, as he says, “When I cry He shutteth out my prayer”?
I. God, while blessing His servants, often does not withhold from them painful sufferings. A very striking account of special favour is related. Heaven seemed unveiled. But now, in connection with this experience, “a thorn in the flesh” was appointed, to be a memorial, as the halting on the thigh to Jacob, of what he had passed through. This shadows forth the frequent dealings of God with His people. To some strong assurance, peculiar intimacy, are allowed. Exceptional experiences are related by Mr. Flavel and Mr. Tennant. But the cup of trial has often been put into the hands of such. Remember R. Baxter, through fifty long years, worn with a painful malady, writing his books often in agony lying on the ground; R. Hall, a martyr through his life to torturing pain; Dr. Payson, a sufferer from habitual weakness; the eminent Jay grieving over godlessness in his family. So in the rank and file of Christian life. In all sunshine there are shadows, and, like Job, men ask, under the mystery of Providence, Why. Always feel, however, “It is the Lord,” not in anger, but love.
II. Prayer is the resource of the soul in trial. The apostle did not submit without an effort to obtain the removal of his suffering. Christianity is not stoicism. Ours is to be--
1. The prayer of faith. A real, not imaginary, audience with God.
2. The prayer of earnestness. The little child often a pattern, and in this earnestness not soon baffled, but expecting, hoping, desiring, waiting.
3. The prayer of submission, not of presumption. Paul besought, did not dictate.
III. Prayer, though not granted in our, is answered in God’s way.
1. Often by revealing the purpose of the trial. “Lest I should be exalted.” If we could see what would develop in our character apart from trial we should better understand. An artist, standing on scaffold, was painting the dome of a cathedral; stepped back to see the effect, unconsciously was going too far--in a moment would have fallen, but a friend dashed a brush with colour against his work. He darted forward and was saved. To save us from backward and perilous steps God often appears to deal severely.
2. By giving ability to bear our trial--My grace sufficient. What a conscious rest we have in God when with all griefs and cares we commit ourselves to Him. Like S. Rutherford we can say, “I rest myself on the bosom of Omnipotence.”
3. By sanctifying the experience of the trial and making it a means of advantage. The apostle found the bane a blessing.
1. It is important sometimes to record even our failures. Some may be kept from despondency.
2. God, by His Divine alchemy, can always bring good out of evil.
3. God glorifies Himself in His people when He comforts them. (G. McMichael, B. A.)
Strength in weakness
This page in the autobiography of the apostle shows us that he, too, belonged to the great army of martyrs. The original word seems to mean, not a tiny bit of thorn, but one of those hideous stakes on which the cruel punishment of impalement used to be inflicted. Note--
I. The instinctive shrinking from that which tortured the flesh, which takes refuge in prayer.
1. Paul’s petitions are the echo of Gethsemane; but He that prayed in Gethsemane was He to whom Paul addressed his prayer.
2. Notice how this thought of prayer helps to lead us deep into its most blessed characteristics. It is only the telling Christ what is in our hearts. If we realised this--questions as to what it was permissible or not to pray for would be irrelevant. If anything is big enough to interest me it is not too small to be spoken about to Him. If I am to talk to Christ about everything that concerns me, am I to keep my thumb upon that great department and be silent about it? That is why our prayers are often so unreal. Our hearts are full of some small matter of daily interest, and when we kneel down not a word about it comes to our lips. Can that be right? The difference between the different objects of prayer is to be found in remembering that there are two sets of things to be prayed about, and over one set must ever be written, “If it be Thy will,” and over the other it need not be written. We know about the latter that “if we ask anything according to His will, He heareth us.” But about the former we can only say, “Not my will, but Thine be done.” With that deep in our hearts, let us take everything into His presence, thorns and stakes, pin-pricks and wounds out of which the life-blood is ebbing, and be sure that we take none of them in vain.
II. The insight into the source of strength for, and the purpose of, the thorn that could not be taken away.
1. The answer is, in form and in substance, a gentle refusal of the form of the petition, but it is more than a granting of its essence. There are two ways of lightening a burden, one is diminishing, its weight, the other is increasing the strength of the shoulder that bears it. And the latter is God’s way of dealing with us.
2. The answer is no communication of anything fresh, but it is the opening of the man’s eyes to see that already he has all that he needs. “My grace” (which thou hast now) “is sufficient for thee.” If troubled Christian men would learn and use what they have they would less often beseech Him with vain petitions to take away their blessings which are the thorns in the flesh.
3. How modestly the Master speaks about what He gives! “Sufficient”? Yes; but the overplus is “exceeding abundant.” “Two hundred pennyworth of bread is not sufficient that every one may take a little,” says Sense. Omnipotence says, “Bring the few small loaves and fishes unto Me”; and Faith dispensed them amongst the crowd; and Experience “gathered up of the fragments that remained” more than there had been when the multiplication began. So the grace utilised increases; the gift grows as it is employed. “Unto him that hath shall be given.”
4. The other part of this great answer unveiled the purpose of the sorrow, even as the former part had disclosed the strength to bear it. “My strength is made perfect”--that is, of course, “perfect in its manifestation or operations, for it is perfect in itself already”--“in weakness.” God works with broken reeds. If a man conceits himself to be an iron pillar, God can do nothing with or by him. His strength loves to work in weakness, only the weakness must be conscious, and the conscious weakness must have passed into conscious dependence. There, then, you get the law for the Church and individual lives. Strength that conceits itself to be such is weakness; weakness that knows itself to be such is strength. So when we know ourselves weak, we have taken the first step to strength; just as, when we know ourselves sinners, we have taken the first step to righteousness. All our hollownesses are met with His fulness that fits into them.
III. The calm, final acquiescence in the loving necessity of continued sorrow. “Most gladly, therefore,” etc. (verse 9). The will is entirely harmonised with Christ’s. He is more than submissive, he gladly glories in his infirmity in order that the power of Christ may “spread a tabernacle over” him. “It is good for me that I have been afflicted,” said the old prophet. Paul sounds a higher note. Far better is it that the sting of our sorrow should be taken away, by our having learned what it is for, and having bowed to it, than that it should be taken away by the external removal which we sometimes long for. And if we would only interpret events in the spirit of this great text, we should less frequently wonder and weep over the so-called insoluble mysteries of the sorrows of ourselves or of other men. They are all intended to make it more easy for us to realise our utter hanging upon Him, and so to open our hearts to receive more fully the quickening influences of His all-sufficing grace. Here, then, is a lesson for those who have to carry some cross, knowing they must carry it throughout life. It will be wreathed with flowers if you accept it. (A. Maclaren, D. D.)
And He said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee.--
We may take this comforting promise to ourselves and apply it--
I. To such of our trials as, like St. Paul’s, are secret. You may be called to endure chastenings from God’s hand which no one but yourselves can know or appreciate. Perhaps your affliction also exposes you to misconception from your fellow-men, who condemn your conduct as eccentric and unchristian, when if they knew the reason of it they would compassionate rather than censure. Eli condemned Hannah as a drunkard, when he afterwards discovered that she was praying in a sorrowful spirit. Christ can understand your case, and His “grace is sufficient for thee.”
II. To those trials which are more open. Take, e.g., one of the most common of our earthly troubles, that caused by the voice of calumny. You may be conscious that you are innocent, and it is all very well to talk of superiority to calumny. When Christ was called a gluttonous man and a wine-bibber, a Samaritan and a devil, and crucified as a malefactor, He did not wrap Himself up in His conscious innocence and look with perfect indifference upon the malignant assaults of His enemies. It was one of the severest parts of His earthly trials. And here is our hope, viz., that the Saviour, who has Himself known the trial, will make His “grace sufficient for us.” There is one Friend whom the slanderer cannot alienate. No falsehood breathed against any man ever injured him in the estimation of Jesus, but, on the contrary, made him more peculiarly the object of the Saviour’s care.
III. for the duties of the Christian life, How arduous those duties are! And many have drawn back from them. “My grace is sufficient for thee,” is not a promise for those who neglect duty, but for those who engage in it. The fullest stream cannot move the wheel till the water gate is raised, but then when that is done, it comes down steadily upon it, and as each turn makes place for more, another gushing flood comes down and turns it again, and keeps it ever moving. So is it in our duties. Let us engage in them, let us remove the obstacles, let us draw up the gate, and then it is Christ’s part to send down grace to keep the machinery of the spiritual life in constant motion. It is the absurdest thing to shrink from duties because of our weakness, when the almighty power of Jesus is pledged to be present with us.
IV. to all that yet lies before us, of trial and obedience. We can fancy many dreadful evils in the coming future. We have, at least, one great trial to endure, the severing of friends from us by death, and our own last conflict with the great enemy. (W. H. Lewis, D. D.)
The moral power of Christianity
A human life is a problem of forces. Powers from all worlds are met on this earth and contend for the mastery over us. Influences from all the ages flow in the veins of humanity and beat in the heart of each new-born child. It is a question of forces--physical, moral, spiritual--what shall become of every one of us. Our whole scientific conception of things is formed now in equations of force. The earth quivers to its centre to the influences of the stars. Elemental forces hold each other in firm embrace in the great mountains and in the ancient order of the heavens. It is with the primal and eternal forces that we have to do even in the quietest of things. Human history, no less than the physical processes of nature, is a ceaseless transformation and conservation of energy. Human destiny is a problem of forces. This dynamical conception of history, this view of every human life as a drama of supernal powers, presents a most fascinating study of events and characters and destinies. Not only in the few great lives, but in the passion and action of every soul, universal powers contend for the supremacy, and the issues of eternal life or death are the results of the conflict. When we think thus of each life from earliest childhood as a problem of forces, powers from everywhither contending for the mastery in it, and eternal life or death being its moral victory or defeat, nothing that touches and influences, nothing that may help or hurt the soul in this great conflict of its destiny, can seem indifferent to us. The question of its triumph or its shame, its virtue or its loss, will become a question of motive and of motive-power: in the power of what motives can the victory of spirit be gained? What motive-power is sufficient to reduce all the conflicting forces that work upon us and in us to one harmonious, happy, and everlasting life? Now, our Christian faith has a clear answer to give to this question concerning the sufficient motive-power of a life. When the Apostle Paul preached at Athens or Rome there was one question which he might have asked the philosophers, to which he would have received evasive and very unsatisfactory replies, viz., How can a bad man become a good man? How can a virtuous man overcome all evil? Some one at Athens or Rome might have quoted Aristotle to him, and answered, The good can become better by the practice of virtue; and as for the bad, the State must look after them by the exercise of force. Or some one might have quoted Plato to the apostle, and said, The way of virtue is the way of contemplation; lift your eyes to the eternal ideas, behold their beauty--an answer which might be serviceable to the few wise souls, but which would have no meaning for those born blind, without spiritual eyes clarified for the vision of supernal truths. But St. Paul carried with him in his new Christian experience an answer concerning the moral motive-power of a true life, such as all the books of the ancients did not contain. Let us consider how he had reached that answer, and what his Christian solution of life as a problem of forces was. He had reached it through two courses of experience. First, he had tried the best method which he knew of making himself a master of all virtue, and he felt that he had miserably failed. He had succeeded well enough according to the moral standards of his neighbours and friends, but in his own sober judgment of himself he had failed to reach the one object of his moral ambition, and to become a perfect master of righteousness. He had tried to live by rule, and he had found that to be a very unsatisfactory method of virtue. Then, having failed to live perfectly by rule, he had been taught by a vision of the Lord another method of life--the method of faith and love. The new Christian motive lifts him up and leads him on. And his Epistles ring with a consciousness of power. Among the most frequently-repeated words in these Epistles of the great apostle is this word “power.” St. John has three characteristic words, denoting his pure, fair, Christian conception of what we shall be--the words light, life, love. St. Paul also has three words, oft-recurring, which disclose his new Christian consciousness of redemption--grace, faith, power--in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, the power of the resurrection, the power of Christ. Who is this one man to claim discovery of the secret of a supernal power for life and over death? Who is this man who claims to succeed where all our philosophies fail? What impossible motive-power of life is this of which the converted Jew boasts? St. Paul’s answer, however, concerning the sufficient motive-power for life, others around him began to try, and they succeeded by it. It has been verified in men’s experience thousands of times, and under most widely differing conditions of life. A modern unbeliever, who thinks that the only hope for making men better is through good breeding scientifically carried out, admits that the Christian motive has power over certain high and rare spirits, but it does not much influence, he thinks, the generality of people. But an unbeliever in the second century raised precisely the opposite objection against the new Christian faith, and complained that the Christian converts were made from the wool-dressers, and the cobblers, and the ignorant masses. If we put the two objections together, the ancient and the modern, they render this just tribute to the power of the gospel, that it appeals to the humblest and the worst, while it also has a nobler inspiration for the rarest spirits. Such being the incontestable fact, we may proceed next to consider what this moral motive-power is which St. Paul carried within him to Rome. Our text puts the whole matter in the simplest form--the strength of the Lord Jesus Christ, His power resting on the disciple. We are not, perhaps, accustomed to think of the life of Jesus as the strong life; yet it was the life of strength. We think of Him as the merciful One, who went about doing good; we think of Him as the Man of Sorrows. Gentleness, patience, self-denying, suffering, submission--these are the pre-eminent Christian virtues; and Christ-likeness means self-forgetfulness. Yet the brave, great-hearted apostle seems to have been wonderfully impressed with the strength of the Christ. The power of Jesus commanded him. The despised Nazarene, he discovers, was Lord. The Crucified One, he sees, is Emperor of all worlds. St. Paul receives the Spirit of Christ as the Spirit of power. From beginning to end Jesus’ life was characterised by these three distinguishing moral marks of the highest human power--perfect self-poise, instantaneous decision, sure and unbroken purpose. Estimated by such tests of power, the life of the Son of man was the strongest life ever commissioned of the Eternal upon this earth. First, it is as the personal influence of Jesus. That is to-day the strongest thing in the world. There is no greater force under the stars than the personal influence of the Christ. The generations cannot pass from the spell of it. There is no type of virtue which has not been strengthened by it, no grace of character that has not been enhanced by it. The personal example of the Christ is the kingly and commanding power of modern history. Secondly, in this power of Jesus, of which St. Paul was profoundly conscious, is contained great material of truth for character and conduct. The truths which the gospel presents are truths which are directly convertible into character; they easily break into the pure flame of consecrated spirit. All truths have some relations, direct or indirect, to conduct; but these Christian truths are pre-eminently truths to be done; they are rich in material for motive. This is the value of the Christian doctrines; they are materials for life. The doctrines of the Epistles branch at once into the practical precepts of the Epistles: the truths of the gospel bear the fruits of righteousness. If in our trials, temptations, anxieties, responsibilities, or bereavements, we wish to find truths that shall keep our hearts always young, and impart to us an exhaustless spiritual strength, we must open our Bibles, and let these words of inspiration renew our courage, calm our spirits, set our daily duties to celestial music, impart to us in the midst of the conflicts of the world something of the strength of Jesus and the peace of the Eternal. Thirdly, the power of Jesus, which an apostle prayed might rest upon him, was not only the influence of the remembered life of the Lord, nor was it wholly the strength to be gained by assimilating the truths of the gospel; it was also the living power of the Spirit of Christ. The motive to all goodness in the lives of believers, and the power of the perseverance of the saints, is to be the influences with the soul of the ascended Lord and the working of the Holy Spirit, who uses all the Christian revelation of God as the means and channel of the redemptive power of God’s love on earth. What, then, do we see? What do we find? Everywhere around us--yes, and within us--a conflict of forces, good and evil; and the eternal destinies waiting the issues of this combat of our mortality. (Newman Smyth.)
The power of Divine grace
The close connection between a sincere recognition of all that is implied in the sin of the world and an appreciation of the reality of grace, has been clearly shown in the history of error. It held together the two denials which characterised the Pelagian heresy of the fifth century. For it has been truly said that “it was only by ignoring the great overthrow that Pelagius could dispense with the great restorative force.” He had to say “we have no inborn sin” in order that he might say “we need no inward grace.” And at all times there is no more certain way to drain the life out of our religion, and to quench all brightness in the things of faith, than to trifle with the idea of sin--to mitigate the verdict of conscience in regard to it, to try to explain it away, or to make ourselves easy in its presence. We disguise from ourselves the gravity of the disease, and then the remedy seems disproportionate and unnecessary. But when the conscience is unsophisticated and outspoken; when we do justice in our thoughts to the power and tyranny of sin; then we feel that nothing save a real and living energy could cope with such a misery; that grace must be a reality if it is to deal with the sin of the world. And grace is indeed most real. It is an energy at least as true, as traceable in the large course of human history as any influence that we can find there. But before we try to see its work it is necessary that we should know what grace means in Christian thought and teaching. “Grace,” writes Dr. Mozley, “is power. That power whereby God works in nature is called power. That power whereby He works in the wills of His reasonable creatures is called grace.” Again, in Dr. Bright’s words, “Grace is a force in the spiritual order, not simply God’s unmerited kindness in the abstract, but such kindness in action as a movement of His Spirit within the soul, resulting from the Incarnation, and imparting to the will and the affections a new capacity of obedience and of love.” And yet once more, Dr. Liddon writes, “Grace is not simply kindly feeling on the part of God, but a positive boon conferred on man. Grace is a real and active force: it is the power that worketh in us, illuminating the intellect, warming the heart, strengthening the will of redeemed humanity. It is the might of the everlasting Spirit, renovating man by uniting him, whether immediately or through the sacraments, to the sacred Manhood of the Word Incarnate.” Such is grace as a Christian thinks of it and lives by it. It is the work, the presence of God the Holy Ghost in us, bringing to us all that our Saviour died and rose again to win for us. But here we are moving upon ground which may be resolutely denied to us. The doctrine of grace is as little congenial to natural reason, or to a superficial view of human life, as is the doctrine of the Fall. But here too, I believe, a deeper and more appreciative study of the facts betrays the working of some power, for which it is very difficult to account by any merely natural estimate. As the truth of original sin is at once the most obscure and the most illuminating of mysteries; as all the phenomenon of sinful history forces us back to that imperceptible point, where by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin: so may grace be said to be at once the most inscrutable and the most certain of all the forces that enter into the course of life. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh and whither it goeth; but as the great trees sway like reeds, as the clouds scud across the sky, as the ship leaps forward over the waves and strains towards the haven, you do not doubt the reality of the force that is astir. And grace, the great energy in the spiritual order; grace, the Almighty Power of God in the wills of its reasonable creatures, has its phenomena, its effects, at least as real, as difficult to deny or to explain away--though not so difficult to ignore--as such tokens of the viewless wind. Alciphron, the minute philosopher of Bishop Berkeley’s dialogue, the witty and freethinking gentleman of his day, assails Christianity from this very ground. Grace, he truly says is the main point in the Christian dispensation; but then he complains thus: “At the request of a philosophical friend, I did cast an eye on the writings he showed me of some divines, and talked with others on this subject, but after all I had read or heard could make nothing of it, having always found whenever I laid aside the word grace and looked into my own mind a perfect vacuity or privation of all ideas.” And he adds with ingenuous self-confidence: “As I am apt to think men’s minds and faculties are made much alike, I suspect that other men, if they examine what they call grace with exactness and indifference, would agree with me that there was nothing in it but an empty name.” Alciphron is opposed by Euphanor with an argument which is quite sufficient for its purpose. He is invited to contemplate force as he had contemplated grace, “itself in its own precise idea,” excluding the consideration of its subject and effects; and here, too, he is compelled to discover the same mental vacuity and privation; he closes his eyes and muses a few minutes, and declares that he can make nothing of it:--and so his contention, if it has any value, would involve the denial of force as well as grace; and for this he is not prepared. But what strange narrowness of horizon; what failure of sympathy and imagination; what readiness to be soon contented with one’s own account of one’s own fragment of the world--is shown when Alciphron or any one else can think that there is nothing to be found or studied where Christians speak of grace; that “a perfect vacuity and privation of ideas” is a philosophic state of mind in regard to it; that it can be dismissed with scorn or compassion as a mere empty name. For grace is not offered for attention and consideration as a mere subjective phenomenon, simply an experience of the inner life, supported by a bare assertion, incapable of tests and evidence; no, it has its facts to point to, its results written in the history of men and patent in their daily life; its achievements, accredited to it by those who were certainly nearest to the occurrences, achievements hardly to be explained away, and never to be ignored by any mind that claims the temper of philosophy. The effects assigned to grace in life and history are as serious and distinct, as necessarily to be recognised and dealt with, as the effects of force, or sin, or passion. Take but one great instance out of history. When the power, the dignity, the character of Rome was breaking up; when poets and historians had seen and spoken out the plain truth that society was sinking down and down, from bad to worse; when all the principles of national or individual greatness seemed discredited and confused, when vice in naked shamelessness was seizing upon tract after tract of human life--then suddenly the whole drift of moral history, the whole aspect of the fight was changed. A new force appeared upon the scene. “It seems to me,” says the Dean of St. Paul’s, that the exultation apparent in early Christian literature, beginning with the Apostolic Epistles, at the prospect now at length disclosed, within the bounds of a sober hope, of a great moral revolution in human life, that the rapturous confidence which pervades these Christian ages, that at last the routine of vice and sin has met its match, that a new and astonishing possibility has come within view, that men, not here and there, but on a large scale, might attain to that hitherto hopeless thing to the multitudes,--goodness,--is one of the most singular and solemn things in history.” “The monotony of deepening debasement,” “the spell and custom of evil” was broken now, and “an awful rejoicing transport filled the souls of men as they saw that there was the chance, more than the chance, the plain fore-running signs, of human nature becoming here, what none had ever dared it would become, morally better.” That was a real achievement, if anything in history is real. Such is the unanimous witness of all those through whose lives and labour God wrought that mighty work, and renewed the face of the earth. That rallying of all hope, that surprising reassertion of goodness against the confident tyranny of evil, was the work of grace. Grace was the power that came in and turned the issue of the fight, the tide of human history. His grace is sufficient for us; His grace which day by day does change the hearts and lives of man; His grace which gives the poor their wondrous patience and simplicity and trust; His grace which can uphold a patient, self-distrustful woman through the dreariest and most revolting tasks of charity and compassion; His grace which holds His servants’ wills resolute and unflagging through the utmost stress of overwork and suffering, on in the very hours of sickness, on into the very face of depth; His grace which changes pride to penitence and humility, which wins the sensual to chastity, the intemperate to self-control, the hard and thankless to the brightness of a gentle life. His grace which everywhere, in the stillness where He loves to work, is disentangling the souls of men from the clinging hindrances of sin, repairing, bit by bit, the ruin of our fall, renewing to all and more than all its primal beauty, that image and likeness of Almighty God, in which at the first He fashioned man to be the lord, the priest, the prophet of the world. So is His grace ever working, striving round about us: so is it ever ready to work and strive and win, be sure, in each of us. No aim is too high, no task too great, no sin too strong, no trial too hard for those who patiently and humbly rest upon God’s grace: who wait on Him that He may renew their strength. (Dean Paget, D. D.)
My grace is sufficient for thee
I. There is grace always promised to the people of God in their necessities, but not grace more than is needed for the occasion that calls it forth. God does not fling the gifts of His grace carelessly from His throne without reference to the special circumstances or need of His people. Strength is imparted accurately meted out to the emergency. Were grace imparted more than sufficient for the present need it would be positively injurious. If, after overcoming the trial of to-day, the Christian had still a store in hand that might suffice for to-morrow, he would feel as if absolved from the necessity of prayer and watchfulness for the future. God knows too well our proneness to self-righteousness to give the temptation to independence; He knows too well how inclined men are to security and sloth, to lay in their way this inducement to inactivity. Yet how many are there, even of the children of God, who murmur against such an arrangement, and passionately long for such a store of grace as shall exempt them from the feeling of present weakness, and set them at ease on the score of coming danger! There is a striking analogy in this respect between the dealings of God in His providence and the dealings of God in His grace. The petition in the Lord’s prayer, “Give us day by day our daily bread” (Luke 11:3), sufficiently points out the limits of a Christian’s duty and expectations in regard to his worldly portion. And just as the man who gathers perishable wealth is often seen striving to be rich, that he may at last say to himself, “Soul, take thine ease: thou hast much goods laid up for many years”; so, in like manner, the Christian, in the midst of his weakness and fears, is often seen eager for such a measure of grace and strength as may not only meet the present difficulty, but set his soul at ease as regards future trouble or temptation. But it may not be. Your life in this world must be a life of constant, childlike, entire dependence on God.
II. There is grace promised to the believer in every season of trial, but not grace before it is needed. Both in regard to the measure of grace communicated to His people, and in regard to the time when it is imparted, God would distinctly teach us that He keeps the matter in His own hand. God gives grace to His people in their necessities, but not until the necessity occurs. And why is the grace thus delayed until the hour when it is required, and not imparted beforehand to sustain the soul in the prospect, as well as in the experience, of the conflict? Just because “it is good that a man should both hope and quietly wait for the salvation of his God” (Lamentations 3:26). What shall we say to such a burdened and trembling disciple? We would say, It is not right to compare your present spiritual state with your future or possible trials in the months or years that are to come. The grace that God has given you to-day is intended for the duties of to-day; and it is sufficient for them. If the duties that are allotted for you in the future, or the temptations that shall assail you, are harder to meet than the present, then you may rest assured that a larger measure of strength than you now enjoy will be imparted. And yet, how many are there of the children of God, weak in faith and faint in hope, who disquiet themselves in vain, and draw their souls into trouble by such unwise anticipations of the future as these!
III. There is grace promised to the people of God in their necessities, and grace not less than is needed. The dying man, though weak and worn, has found in that hour provision against all its trials. Like the patriarch of old, he has gathered up his feet into the bed, ready, yea eager, to be away. (James Bannerman, D. D.)
I. Observe that the text guards us against an over-anxious anticipation of the future.
II. But again, the text offers us grace in proportion to our need. This most precious promise is extended to all who are willing to receive it. There are many aspects in which this offer claims our attention.
1. It is universal in its range. There is no case which it does not meet. However varied men’s circumstances, there is something here quite adequate to all their variety. One dreads poverty; another fears the temptations of prosperity.
2. And it is judicious in its purport. It is intended not to gratify our wishes, which are often foolish, but to meet the real exigencies of our case. We should like to choose blessings for ourselves, or at least to know what they are to be. Yet we are never so likely to err as when we are surest of ourselves. How often we see men behaving differently in changed conditions of life from their intended conduct!
3. This is an offer, further, very tender in its compassion. It is rich in mercy of the most considerate kind.
4. Then how rich are the blessings which are thus secured! No day, however dreaded, is without its gracious promise to the ear of faith.
III. If, then, these things are true, we must use God’s grace in the doing of our daily work. Only in so far as we are strong in the Lord now, are we at liberty to expect His strength for the future. On the other hand, there is far more in this text to encourage than to reprove. It bids us not be disheartened with the vastness of the soul’s salvation. We must not think that all that is implied in that expression can be at once accomplished. The story of the discontented pendulum cannot be too often repeated even to grown-up people. The pendulum began to reflect how often it had swung in the hour, and then, multiplying its strokes by the hours of the day, and these again by the days in the week, and these finally by the weeks in the year, it came to see how very often it would have to move backwards and forwards in one year; and overwhelmed with the thought, it suddenly stopped. It began to swing again, only when reminded that, after all, it was never required to move oftener than once a second, and that it had nothing to do with the future. Theft assurance we all need to lay to heart. It is to our present duty, and to it only, that such a text as this summons us. The Divine plan of strengthening us is by degrees. It forms habits of trustfulness and submission and activity. Put away from you all unreasonable expectations of getting more from God’s grace than is sufficient for you, and do not wonder if you get it only as you need it. Were a youth to reckon up the number of mental efforts he must put forth to master any branch of knowledge, would he not despair? Had the Israelites known of all their wanderings, would they have come out of Egypt? God’s grace does its work in every Christian from day to day. (A. MacEwen, D. D.)
The sufficient grace of God
I. What a need there is for any true life that it should have some conception of itself within which all its special activities should move and do their work. What the skin is to the human body, holding all the parts of the inner machinery compactly to their work; what the simple constitution is to a highly-elaborated state, enveloping all its functions--such to the manifold actions of a man is some great simple conception of life, surrounding all details, giving them unity, simplicity, effectiveness. The degree in which the life is immediately and consciously aware of its enveloping conception may vary very much indeed. Some would have to stop and re-collect their consciousness before they could give you a clear statement of it. Nevertheless the dignity, beauty, usefulness of human lives seem to depend on it. Here is a man all scintillating with brightness: every act he does, every word he says, is a single, separate point of electricity, shining the more brilliantly just because of its isolation. Here is another man of far less brilliancy; his electricity does not sparkle-at brilliant points, but it lives unseen and powerful through everything he does and is. Now it is to the second man, not to the first, the world must look for good and constant power.
II. Note the special conception of life which is in the text. That man’s life is to have abundant supply for all it needs, and yet all this abundance is not to come by or in itself, because the human life itself is part and parcel of the Divine life.
1. This conception excludes two ideas--the first, that there is no sufficiency for man; the second, that man carries his sufficiency within himself. How these two ideas divide among themselves the hearts of men! The timid, tired, discouraged men say, “Human life a predestined failure: full of wants for which there is no supply, of questions for which there is no answer.” The self-confident, self-trustful say, “Man is satisfied in himself. Let him but put forth all his powers and he shall supply all his own needs and answer all his own questions.” And then God says, “Nay, both are wrong; you must be satisfied, but you must be satisfied in Me; you must have sufficiency, but My grace must be sufficient for you.”
2. Now man cannot rest in the settled conviction of insufficiency. He has a deep and true conviction that he has no power or need for which there is not a correspondent supply somewhere within reach, e.g., his power of adoring love brings him assurance that there is a being worthy of such love. Then, on the other hand, that man shall find humanity sufficient for his powers and needs is made everlastingly impossible by the strange fact to which all the history of man bears witness, that man, though himself finite, demands infinity to deal with and to rest upon. That fact is the perpetual witness that man is the child of God. The child may be reminded of his limitations, and yet he always mounts up to claim the largeness of his father’s life for himself. You never can rule lines around the realm of knowledge and say to man, “That is the limit of what you possibly can know.” He will rub out your lines, and choose those very things to exercise his knowing faculty upon. What man ever truly loves and sets a limit to the loveliness of that which he is loving? Who that with the best human ambition is seeking after character can fix himself a goal and say, “That is as good as it is possible for me, a man, to be”? There comes no real content until, behind all the patterns which hold themselves up to him, at last he hears the voice far out beyond them all calling to him, “Be ye perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Then the finite has heard the voice of the infinite to which it belongs, to which it always will respond, and straightway it settles down to its endless journey and goes on content.
III. It is in views like these that i find my assurance in these days of doubt about the nature and destiny of man. If man is God’s child, then man cannot permanently be atheistic. This poor man or that may be an atheist, perhaps; this child or that may disown or deny his father; but the world-child, man, to him the sense that he was not made for insufficiency, and the sense that he is not sufficient for himself, will always bring him back from his darkest and remotest wanderings, and set him where he will hear the voice which alone can completely and finally satisfy him, saying, “My grace is sufficient for thee.”
IV. And now, if this is where the soul of man must rest, let us see what is the rest which man’s soul will find here; what will it be for a man when the secret and power of his life is that he is resting on the sufficiency of the grace of God?
1. This grace of God must be a perpetual element in which our life abides, and not an occasional assistant called in to meet special emergencies. I say to one man, “Who is your sufficiency? On whom do you rely for help?” and his reply is, “God”; and it sounds exactly as if he thought that God was a man in the next house, some one at hand when wanted. I ask another man the same questions, and be answers, “God”; and it sounds as if the sunlight talked about the sun, as if the stream talked of the spring, as if the blood talked of the heart, as if the plant talked of the ground, as if the mountain talked of the gravitation that lived in every particle of it and held it in its everlasting seat; nay, as if the child talked of his father “in whom he lived and moved and had his being.”
2. Take special instances.
(1) Here is our bewilderment about truth. One doubter, when his hard question comes, says with a ready confidence, “I wilt go and ask God,” and carries off his problem to the Bible, to the closet, as if he went to consult an oracle, and as if, when he had got, or failed to get, an answer, he would leave the oracle and come back and live on his own resources until another hard question should come up. I do not say that that is wholly bad; but surely there is something better. Another doubter meets his puzzling question with, “God knows the explanation and the answer. I do not know that God will tell me what the answer is. Perhaps He will, perhaps He will not; but He knows.”
(2) And so it is with regard to activity and efficiency. One man says, “Here is a great work to be done; God will give me the strength to do it”; and so when it is done he is most apt to call it his work. Another man says, “Here is this work to be done; God shall do it, and if He will use me for any part of it, here I am. I shall rejoice as the tool rejoices in the artist’s hand.” When that work is finished, the workman looks with wonder at his own achievement, and cries, “What hath God wrought!”
(3) Again, one sufferer cries, “Lord, make me strong”; another sufferer cries, “Lord, let me rest upon Thy strength.”
3. Always there are these two kinds of men. The scene in the valley of Elah is always finding its repetition. David and Goliath are perpetual: proud, self-reliant, self-sufficient strength on the one side; and on the other the slight Judean youth, with nothing but a sling and stone, with his memories of struggles in which he has had no strength but the strength of God, and has conquered, with no boast, nothing but a prayer upon his lips. Goliath may thank his gods for his great muscles; but it is a strength which has been so completely handed over to him that he now thinks of it, boasts of it, uses it as his. David’s strength lies back of him in God, and only flows down from God through him as his hand needs it for the twisting of the sling that is to hurl the stone.
4. It is sad to see even Christian men and times fall into the old delusion. The Christian Church seems to have been far too often asking of God that He should put its power and His wisdom into her, and make it hers; far too seldom that He should draw her life so close to His that His wisdom and power, kept still in Himself, should be hers because it is His.
V. I find in all the life of Jesus the perfect illustration and elucidation of all i have been saying.
1. He never treated His life as if it were a temporary deposit of the Divine life on the earth, cut off and independent of its source; he always treated it as if it lived by its association with the Father’s life, on which it rested. Jesus was always full of the child-consciousness; He always kept His life open that the Father’s life might flow through it. “Not My will, but Thy will, O My Father”; that was the triumph of the Garden. “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” that was the agony of the Cross.
2. What Jesus wanted for Himself He wants for His disciples. Not self-completeness. When He calls us to be His, He sees no day in which, having trained our characters and developed our strength, He shall send us out as you dismiss in the morning from your door the traveller whom you have kept all night, and fed and strengthened and rescued from fatigue, and filled with self-respect. No such day is to come for ever. And with that in our minds how much that seemed mysterious grows plain to us! If He is moving our life up close to His, henceforth to be a part of His, what wonder is it it, in order that that union may be most complete, He has to break down the walls which would be separations between Him and us. The going down of the walls between our house and our friend’s house would be music to us, for it would be making the two houses one. The going down of the walls between our life and our Lord’s life, though it consisted of the failure of our dearest theories and the disappointment of our dearest plans, that too would be music to us if through the breach we saw the hope that henceforth our life was to be one with His life, and all His was to be ours too.
3. And how clear, with this truth before us, would appear the duty that we had to do, the help that we had to give to any brother’s soul. Not to make him believe our doctrine; but to bring him to our God. Not to answer all his hard questions; but to put him where he could see that the answer to them all is in God. Not to make him my convert, my disciple; but to persuade him to let Christ make him God’s child. (Bp. Phillips Brooks.)
On the nature and efficacy of Divine grace
I. The grace of Christ is indispensably necessary to salvation.
II. The grace of Christ, as necessary to salvation, is placed within the reach of every man.
III. The means, by which the grace of God is to be obtained, are distinctly revealed to us.
IV. I propose to set before you the tests and proofs by which the effectual acquisition of Divine grace is ascertained. A tree is known by its fruits.
V. The grace of Christ is all-sufficient.
1. Divine grace is sufficient to supply strength to withstand temptation.
2. The grace of Christ is sufficient to enable His servants to perform efficaciously unto His glory the undertakings with which He entrusts them.
3. The grace of Christ is sufficient to give comfort under afflictions, and to convert them into means of improvement in faith and holiness.
4. The grace of Christ is sufficient for salvation.
1. I would in the first place address myself to those persons who have hitherto neglected or despised the grace of God.
2. To those among you who have laboured to obtain the grace of Christ, and to apply to its proper object the strength which is granted from above, meditations on the nature and the efficacy of the promised gift of the Spirit of God are perhaps not less important than to the careless or the hardened sinner. Grieve not then the Holy Spirit of God. (T. Gisborne, M. A.)
Sufficiency of grace
“And He said.” The Greek tense, here, by a beautiful delicacy of the language, signifies “He has said! He is saying it now! “That one assurance was vocal for every day of Paul’s life, and over every step of his heavenward road. So that by the very principle of the text it becomes ours. Let us describe some of our necessities, showing how they may all be met and fully supplied by the Saviour’s all-sufficient grace.
I. Sometimes there is a great conscious need just at the beginning of a Christian career. “The Lord knoweth,” not only “them that are His,” but also those who are becoming His. And amid all the changes and uncertainties of such a time, He holds in nearness, and offers sufficient grace.
II. Think of the transition as made. After the fervours of the first love are somewhat abated, and after the sweet freshness has passed from the actings of the newborn soul--then comes a coldness and a pause. The young soul, new to the ways of grace, is in danger of falling into a practical unbelief. “Is it so soon thus with me, while I have yet so far to travel, and so much to do? Ah, what must I do in such a strait as this? Were it not better to return as best I may with the burden of this disappointment into the world again? Better profess nothing than profess and fail.” And that feeling would not be at all unreasonable on the naturalistic view of human life. Israel in the wilderness reasoned well from their own point of view. Egypt was far better than the wilderness as a place to live in; and if they had been out in that wilderness on some chance journey, the murmurers would have been the wise men, and Moses and Aaron the foolish ones. But what is that small white thing on the ground every morning? How comes that hard rock to yield the gushing stream? Who is lighting up that pillar of fire for the night? Whence comes that rich glory which shines above the door of the tabernacle? Ah, how do these things change the wilderness state! Even so, we say to every young discouraged soul, if the Lord has brought you out of Egypt, and left you in the wilderness; if He has just come down to convert you and then gone up again to heaven, leaving you to plod earth’s weary way alone--why, then you may as well go back to Egypt. But how is the whole case changed, when you hear the text sounding over your present life! “The Lord is saying now, My grace is sufficient for thee.” The reference is not to a dead grace which was sufficient, but to a living grace which is. “As thy day, so shall thy strength be.”
III. A little farther on we meet with one on whom when he ought to be feeling the full powers of spiritual manhood, there has come a chilling and weakening change. Like Job, he takes up his parable and says, “Oh that I were as in months past, as in the days when God preserved me!” etc. And this change has come he knows not how. Not by any known declensions. Not by any wilful sins. You are omitting no social duty; you are still bowing the knee in prayer; but the sweet experiences are gone. Now there may be many ways of recovery. You might, for example, search out that secret sin which has been working at the roots of your life. Or, conscious that you have been too ready to yield your whole nature to the mood of the moment, you might lift yourself by a purely intellectual effort above too much dependence on your own ever-varying feelings. Or, you might, under the conviction that all has gone wrong, seek for a second conversion--a thing which many Christian men greatly need. But quicker and better way is the way of the text. Take fast hold of that, and the roots of your faith will grip the soil again; and through all the inner channels of your life the nourishing stream will flow; and your “leaf” will grow green; and your fruit will colour and ripen to its “season.”
IV. Another stands out strong and dark to our view, as if the shadow of a coming calamity lay over his life. He has run well, and is not without hope that he may run again. Meantime he can hardly stir. Within him are the strugglings of a tempted soul. He would flee, but he cannot. He must go through or fall, unless God shall make a way of escape. And you hear him ask, “What shall I do? How shall safety and deliverance come to me here?” They will come out of the text. Otherwise God’s providence would be stronger than His grace. He would be leading men into states and perils from which He would know there could be no deliverance. When a temptation comes purely in God’s providence, it will very often be found that “with the temptation” comes the way of escape. God is faithful. Call upon Him, and He will deliver thee.
V. See how the softening shadow of the text will come over the soul that is in trouble. But what picture shall we take from among the children and the scenes of sorrow? Shall we take the man with the sunny face, the helpful hand, who yet at times has a sorrow like death weighing on his heart; or the physical sufferer; or the widow? We had better not select. Let every sufferer hear for himself; then let him apply the sure word of promise; then let him carry it home to all whom it may concern, as the word of a God who cannot lie. Conclusion:
1. “For thee.” If you lose the personal application, you lose all. This text is not for a world, but for a man. “Sufficient for thee,” young pilgrim, wearied runner, tempted spirit, etc.
2. “For thee.” It is for thee now to change the pronoun and say, with a wondering grateful heart, “To-day, and every day, from this time forth, and even for evermore, His grace is sufficient for me.” (A. Raleigh, D. D.)
Grace equal to our need
Whenever the Lord sets His servants to do extraordinary work He always gives them extraordinary strength; or if He puts them to unusual suffering He gives them unusual patience. When we enter upon war with some petty New Zealand chief, our troops expect to have their charges defrayed, and accordingly we pay them gold by thousands, as their expenses may require; but when an army marches against a grim monarch, in an unknown country, who has insulted the British flag, we pay, as we know to our cost, not by thousands but by millions. And thus if God calls us to common and ordinary trials, He will defray the charges of our warfare by thousands; but if He commands us to an unusual struggle with some tremendous foe, He will discharge the liabilities of our war by millions, according to the riches of His grace which He has abounded to us through Christ Jesus. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Grace, secret of
Some living creatures maintain their hold by foot or body on flat surfaces by a method that seems like magic, and with a tenacity that amazes the observer, A fly marching at ease with feet uppermost on a plastered ceiling, and a mollusc sticking to the smooth water-worn surface of a basaltic rock, while the long swell of the Atlantic at every pulse sends a huge white billow roaring and hissing and cracking and crunching over it, are objects of wonder to the onlooker. That apparently supernatural solidity is the most natural thing in the world. It is emptiness that imparts so much strength to these feeble creatures. A vacuum, on the one side within a web-foot, and on the other within the shell, is the secret of their power. By dint of that emptiness in itself the creature quietly and easily clings to the wall or the rock, so making all the strength of the wall or rock its own. By its emptiness it is held fast; the moment it becomes full it drops off. Ah! it is the self-emptiness of a humble, trustful soul that makes the Redeemer’s strength his own, and so keeps him safe in an evil world. (W. Arnot, D. D.)
Strengthening words from the Saviour’s lips
1. Paul, when buffeted by the messenger of Satan, addressed his prayer to Christ, which is a proof of our Lord’s divinity; and Christ was a fit object for such a prayer, because He has endured the like temptation, and knows how to succour them that are tempted. Moreover, He has come to earth to destroy the works of the devil, and it was by His name that devils were expelled after He had risen.
2. This prayer was not only addressed to, but was like the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane. I see the Lord Jesus reflected in Paul, and hear the threetimes repeated prayer, mark the cup standing unremoved, and see the strength imparted in the midst of weakness.
3. Our text fell from the lips of Christ Himself, and when Jesus speaks a special charm surrounds each syllable.
4. The exact sense of the Greek it is not easy to translate. The apostle does not merely tell us that his Lord said these words to him fourteen years ago. Their echoes were still sounding through his soul. “He has been saying to me, ‘My strength is sufficient for thee.’” The words, not merely for the time reconciled him to his particular trouble, but cheered him for all the rest of his life. In the next we notice--
I. Grace all-sufficient.
1. Taking the word grace to mean favour, the passage runs--Do not ask to be rid of your trouble, My favour is enough for thee; or, as Hodge reads it, “My love.” If thou hast little else that thou desirest, yet surely this is enough.
2. Throw the stress on the first word, “My,” i.e., Jesus. Therefore it is mediatorial grace, the grace given to Christ as the covenant Head of His people. It is the head speaking to the member, and declaring that its grace is enough for the whole body. “It pleased the Father that in Him should all fulness dwell,” and of His fulness have all we received, and grace for grace.
3. Put the stress in the centre. “Is sufficient.”
(1) It is now sufficient. It is easy to believe in grace for the past and the future, but to rest in it for the immediate necessity is true faith.
(2) This sufficiency is declared without any limiting words, and therefore Christ’s grace is sufficient to uphold, strengthen, comfort thee, sufficient to make thy trouble useful to thee, to enable thee to triumph over it, to bring thee out of ten thousand like it, and to bring thee home to heaven. Whatever would be good for thee, Christ’s grace is sufficient to bestow; whatever would harm thee, His grace is sufficient to avert; whatever thou desirest, His grace is sufficient to give thee if it be good for thee; whatever thou wouldst avoid, His grace can shield thee from it if so His wisdom shall dictate.
4. Lay the emphasis upon the first and the last words: “My … thee.” Surely the grace of such a one as my Lord Jesus is sufficient for so insignificant a being as I am. Put one mouse down in all the granaries of Egypt when they were fullest after seven years of plenty, and imagine that one mouse complaining that it might die of famine. Imagine a man standing on a mountain, and saying, “I breathe so many cubic feet of air in a year; I am afraid that I shall ultimately inhale all the oxygen which surrounds the globe.” Does it not make unbelief ridiculous?
II. Strength perfected. Remember that it was so with Christ. He was strong as to His Deity; but His strength as Mediator was made perfect through suffering. His strength to save His people would never have been perfected if He had not taken upon Himself the weakness of human nature. This is the strength which is made perfect in weakness.
1. The power of Jesus can only be perfectly revealed in His people by keeping them, and sustaining them when they are in trouble. Who knows the perfection of the strength of God till he sees how God can make poor puny creatures strong? When you see a man of God brought into poverty, and yet never repining; when you hear his character assailed by slander, and yet he stands unmoved like a rock--then the strength of God is made perfect in the midst of weakness. It was when tiny creatures made Pharaoh tremble that his magicians said, “This is the finger of God.”
2. God’s strength is made perfect to the saint’s own apprehension when he is weak. If you have prospered in business, and enjoyed good health all your lives, you do not know much about the strength of God. You may have read about it in books; you may have seen it in others; but a grain of experience is worth a pound of observation, and you can only get knowledge of the power of God by an experimental acquaintance with your own weakness, and you will not be likely to get that except as you are led along the thorny way which most of God’s saints have to travel. Great tribulation brings out the great strength of God.
3. The term “made perfect” also means achieves its purpose. God has not done for us what He means to do except we have felt our own strengthlessness. The strength of God is never perfected till our weakness is perfected. When our weakness is thoroughly felt, then the strength of God has done its work in us.
4. The strength of God is most perfected or most glorified by its using our strengthlessness. Imagine that Christianity had been forced upon men with the stern arguments which Mahomet placed in the hands of his first disciples, the glory would have redounded to human courage and not to the love of God. But when we know that twelve humble fishermen overthrew colossal systems of error and set up the Cross of Christ in their place, we adoringly exclaim, “This is the finger of God.” And so when the Lord took a consecrated cobbler and sent him to Hindostan, whatever work was done by William Carey was evidently seen to be of the Lord.
5. All history shows that the great strength of God has always been displayed and perpetuated in human weakness. What made Christ so strong? Was it not that He condescended to be so weak? And how did He win His victory? By His patience, by His suffering. How has the Church ever been strong? What has brought forth the strength of God so that it has been undeniably manifest, and consequently operative upon mankind? Has it been the strength of the Church? No, but its weakness, for when men have seen believers suffer and die, it is then that they have beheld the strength of God in His people. The weakness of the martyr as he suffered revealed the strength of God in him, which held him fast to his principles while he was gradually consumed by the cruel flames. Quentin Matsys had to make a well-cover in iron one morning. His fellow-workmen were jealous, and therefore they took from him the proper tools, and yet with his hammer he produced a matchless work of art. So the Lord with instruments which lend Him no aid, but rather hinder Him, doeth greater works of grace to His own glory and honour.
III. Power indwelling. The word “dwell” means to tabernacle. “Just as the Shekinah light dwelt in the tent in the wilderness, so I glory to be a poor frail tent, that the Shekinah of Jesus may dwell in my soul.”
1. Paul puts the power of Christ in opposition to his own, because if he is not weak, then he has strength of his own; if then what he does is done by his own strength, there is no room for Christ’s; but if his own power be gone there is space for the power of Christ.
2. But what is the power of Christ?
(1) The power of grace.
(2) Christly power: the kind of power which is conspicuous in the life of Jesus. The power of Alexander was a power to command men, and inspire them with courage for great enterprises. The power of Demosthenes was the power of eloquence, the power to stir the patriotic Greeks. Love and patience were Christ’s power, and even now these subdue the hearts of men, and make Jesus the sufferer to be Jesus the King.
(3) It was a part of the “all power “which our Lord declared was given unto Him in heaven and in earth; “Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations.” Paul desired to have that power tabernacling in himself, for he knew that if he had to “go and teach all nations” he would have to suffer in so doing, and so he takes the suffering cheerfully, that he might have the power. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
This saying has a paradoxical sound, but many paradoxes hide a deep and true meaning. Let us see what meaning is latent in this declaration of Paul. There are two theories of moral force; one we will call the Pagan theory, the other the Christian theory. Paganism says: “The secret of power is in self-confidence, self-esteem, self-reliance. Believe in yourself, then others will believe in you. Speak boldly, confidently, with assurance, and you will convince and persuade. Assume that you know, and you will have the credit of knowing. The race is to the swift, and the battle to the strong. God is on the side of the heaviest battalions. The men who have self-confidence carry everything before them. He who claims the most will get the most. Confidence carries everything before it; it gives success to the lawyer, merchant, physician, clergyman, politician. It is an element in all popularity.” Thus speaks the Pagan theory of force, and there is much truth in it; for if there had not been some truth in Paganism, it would not have lasted as long as it has. This Pagan doctrine still rules, and passes for wisdom. The Christian theory of moral force is opposite to this. It says; “The kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor in spirit. He who exalteth himself shall be abased; he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” Jesus, on all occasions, emphasised this law. Even in so small a matter as the point of precedence at a feast, He called the disciples’ attention to the fact that those who pushed forward to the best places were requested to retire, and that those who took the lowest places were invited to go up higher. I suppose all will admit that the Christian theory is the most sound as regards knowledge. The first condition of learning anything is to confess our ignorance. In seeking truth, said Socrates, we must begin by admitting our ignorance. In seeking goodness, said Jesus, we must begin by admitting our sinfulness. The work of Socrates, as he himself describes it, was to make men understand how little they knew. By his keen questions he brought one after another of the young men of Athens to admit that he really was totally ignorant of what he professed to understand. And, in fact, one of the chief obstacles to knowledge is our fear of being thought ignorant. Weakness is often strength, and strength only weakness. A human infant is the weakest of living creatures. It is unable to help itself, and therefore it is strong in the help of others. Its cry calls to its aid the tenderest and most watchful care. The same principle is often seen in national affairs. Consider the case of the Ottoman Empire. At one time it was so strong that it seriously threatened the safety of all Europe. It brought together vast armies of the bravest soldiers from Egypt, Persia, Hungary, and Asia Minor. Proud and defiant, they prepared to march through Vienna to Rome. But their pride went before destruction. Their terrible strength gave them such arrogant confidence that they were destroyed. Now Turkey is weak; weaker than any of the great nations of Europe. But because she is so weak that no one fears her, the nations of Europe protect her. They prevent Russia, whose strength they fear, from taking Constantinople from the Turks, whose weakness they know. In like manner the weakness of Denmark, Belgium, Switzerland, have given them safety amid the revolutions of Europe. In all practical matters, only he who sees the difficulties of his task is prepared to overcome them. The merchant knows how hard it is to acquire a great estate; the scholar knows what long and laborious days must be spent in the pursuit of knowledge. No man is fitted to be a reformer who has not infinite resources of patience and inexhaustible supplies of hope. Then he will trust, not in himself, but in the principle he advocates, and out of weakness he will be made strong. There is a power in the silent appeal of weakness to strength. When Alexander, in his amazing conquests, had overcome Persia, he came to the tomb of Cyrus, which to-day is still to be seen. On that tomb he read the inscription, “O man! whosoever thou art, and whencesoever thou comest (for come thou wilt), I am Cyrus, the founder of the Persian empire. Envy me not the little earth that covers my body.” Alexander was much moved by these words, and gave orders that this tomb should be respected. The weakness of the grave was stronger than the armies of the Persian king to prevent the desecration of the tomb of Cyrus. But though the knowledge of evil is necessary to make us cautious and prudent, it is the sight of the good which gives us courage and energy to attack the evil. The inspiration which gives us power does not come from that habit of mind which dwells on evil, but on the opposite habit which loves to look at good. Everything great, noble, generous, and brave comes from keeping in sight this heavenly ideal, this supreme glory and beauty which descends from God into all hearts that trust Him. The great danger, therefore, is of being discouraged by dwelling exclusively or mainly on the dark side of the world; for this ends in despondency, apathy, and moral indifference. To work without hope is discouraging. We need the sense of progress to cheer and sustain us. To go round and round in a treadmill of mere drudgery takes our spirit out of us. Therefore we need a deeper and larger hope. We need to have faith in mental, moral, and spiritual progress; in the growth of the soul; in the unfolding of its higher powers, its larger faculties. When we have this sense of spiritual progress, we can bear outward disappointments more easily, sure that pain and sorrow may work for our highest good. But suppose we have no such sense of spiritual progress; that we do not seem to be growing wiser or better as the years pass by; that we often find ourselves, in some respects, worse than we were; that our conscience is not as sensitive, our purpose to do right not as fixed, our aim not as high. This is the most discouraging fact of all. I suppose that this is the very time when faith in Christ comes to our help. When we find nothing in ourselves on which to lean, Christ teaches us to lean more entirely on the pardoning grace of God and God’s spiritual help. The meaning of the gospel of Jesus is this: that He does not come as a physician to those who are whole, but to those who are sick. He comes to the poor in spirit; to the spiritually poor; to those who find little in themselves in which to trust. Jesus comes to us all to say, “Do not be discouraged. Never be discouraged.” Though evil may abound, and the love of many grow cold, though we see no way out of surrounding difficulties, though even our brethren discourage our heart by their gloomy forebodings, and abandon the good cause, leaving us alone, still, let us never be discouraged. The Lord reigns. Chance does not reign. Bad men do not reign. He reigns who for ever educes lasting good out of transient evil. It is this perfect trust in a Divine Providence that gives us new power, and prevents us from being discouraged. Do not be discouraged about public affairs. In this country we have the least reason to fear; for experience here shows us that, in the long run, things come right. Courage can here overcome the worst dangers. Do not be discouraged because there seems so much to be done. If there is a great deal given us to do, there is plenty of time given us wherein to do it. Do not be discouraged in doing good. It may often seem as if you accomplished very little, as if, with all your efforts, you cannot effectually help those whom you wish to serve. When you lift them up, they fall again. But I believe we have, not merely to help ourselves, but to help each other. We may often make mistakes. We may sometimes do harm. But the greatest mistake of all would be to stand aloof from human sorrow. Best of all blessings is that human love, that generous sympathy which puts itself in the place of the sufferer, and gives him the comfort of knowing that he is not alone in the world, not forgotten by his fellow-men. The good of this is never lost. And let us not be discouraged by the amount of suffering, sin, and crime which we see around us. If the vast majority of men did not tell the truth, keep their promises, hold fast to honesty, society would dissolve and become a heap of sand. Be not discouraged, then, because you see and hear so much of what is evil in the world, but be sure that the good is much more widespread and more powerful. Thus we see that we cannot live without courage, and that courage comes to us from faith in things unseen and eternal. Courage comes to us from faith in an infinite Providence guiding all things aright, and making all things work together for good. Courage comes from knowing that when we stand by what is true and right, all the great powers of the universe are working with us. (J. F Clarke.)
Man’s extremity, God’s opportunity
I. It is Christ who says these words. It is the “strength,” therefore, of a man--of One who knows weakness, and has been through weakness. This at once gives a reality to the promise, and makes it practical. Jesus, who had “strength” given to Him, says it. There is the same propriety and adaptation as when He says, “My peace”--the peace you see Me have--the peace I carry--“I give unto you.” Then think of what “strength” Jesus had upon this earth to resist sin--to labour in those mighty works--to endure the reproaches, the unkindnesses, the treachery, the Cross, and then read these words.
II. What is it to “make perfect”?
1. It means, “My strength finds its occasion and opportunity to work itself out, to consummate itself in weakness.” Man’s impotence invites and gives scope for the opportunity to display God’s omnipotence. So God is strong for us just in proportion as we are helpless. He cannot and will not act where there is self-sufficiency. The ground is pre-occupied. You have only to be “weak” enough, to put out self enough, and give God range enough, then, if you will only believe it, as necessarily as nature always fills up her vacuums, God will come in to supply all your lack, and “His strength will be made perfect in your weakness.”
2. All history and all experience bear their testimony to this truth. The “weak” ones have done all the work, and “the lame take the prey.” What arm slew the greatest giant on record? A stripling’s. Who changed the moral character of the whole world, and established a system which has outlived and outgrown all the empires of earth? A few ordinary unlettered fishermen. Or, say, when have you done your best works? In what frame of mind were you when you performed the things on which you now look back with the greatest satisfaction? The lowliest.
3. Here is the comfort to our ministry. God does His own work in the way in which He may best magnify Himself. Therefore He does not employ “the angels,” which “excel in strength,” but the most unlikely of sinful men (1 Corinthians 1:26-31). There is much ministerial work in the Church which seems to do great things; but that of which the effect is deep and abiding is almost always that of which, at the time, there was little praise, and no celebrity.
1. Every one ought to have in hand something which they feel to be quite beyond them, and therefore compels them to cast themselves on the broad undertaking of God.
2. Whatever is strong in you, whatever you may call your talent, always recognise it as something in you, but not of you.
3. Never be afraid of any work which is clearly duty. Your capital may be nothing; but your resources are infinite.
4. Wherever you find yourself fail in anything, you have nothing to do but to go down a little lower, and make yourself less. Think more of emptying than of filling. To fill, is God’s part; to empty, yours. (J. Vaughan, M. A.)
Most gladly, therefore, will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.--
The quietness of true power
Men are often deceived about power. Sometimes the man who appears strong is delicate, because his heart is weak. The bravado is generally a coward. We are tempted to admire power, after the type of Caesar and Napoleon. But the gospel gives us a new revelation of what power is. It elevates our idea of the power of God, to begin with. Jove came down with his thunder from the old Olympian Hills, and departed. Christ gave a manifestation of God’s power in gentleness. Quiet power is--
I. Constructive power. There is the power of the cannon and the power of the trowel; the sculptor’s power and the mitrailleuse power! So it is in life! There is destructive power; you can blast the reputation; you can inflame the passions of the mob. Yes, and there is an iconoclasm that destroys the temples of lust. John the Baptist did a great work in blasting the citadel of evil; but Christ came and took the living stones, and built a temple. But then it is quiet, slow! There is no sound of hammer; and the true power of the gospel is in that quiet influence which, day by day, comes upon your heart and life, and so distils as the dew.
II. A wise power. Everything depends upon adaptation. A sentence may save a soul; a word fitly spoken may never be forgotten. How many people are strong, but wrong! How much more would they have done if they had been quiet! “Christ the power of God”; let me add, “Christ the wisdom of God.” Take His parables. The humblest peasant in Judaea could understand them. Take His warnings. How quiet they are! Take His tender, delicate, refined way of handling guilt. There is no rude touch there.
III. A beautiful power. Such a power is that which we exercise at home. The sceptre is full of jewels that are rich in loveliness, held in a mother’s hands. Oh, how beautiful is the power of God! It is the power of grace. Quietness is power, and we admire it in every sphere. There is no power in dress that is loud and full of glaring colours. When all the young guests have gone into the room, the one in the muslin dress with a summer rose wins the supremacy of glory. So it is in speech. It is only over very uneducated minds that language full of coarse colour has a charm. The beauty of truth needs no adornment! So in highest things we see power always allied with beauty in religion.
IV. Christ-like power. All power is given to Christ. Yet it seems as if it broke upon the world without men knowing it! There was no earthquake, no storm! So it is now with the Christian man coming into a house; there is nothing startling about it! So it is where Christian woman wields her might of influence. It is not the notes of exclamation which make a powerful writing or a powerful life! “In quietness and confidence shall be your strength.” The lives that have exercised the most potent influence have been the “silent rivers” that never broke over the boulders and the rocks! Not the Mississippi or Missouri, the Niger or the Nile! not Abana or Pharpar have exercised the most influence in history--but the little Jordan!
V. Lasting. The noisy little decanter bubbles and chokes in its throat, makes a noise, and is empty; the stream flows on and on. I have been at Dolgelly, and have gone out a few miles, after a storm, to see the majesty of the waters; and I remember how grand appeared the torrent, and how beautiful the colour in the waterfall. Other guests, however, went two days afterwards, and found it just a little trickle. All its power was spent. So it often is in life. There is your very fast and furious friend, the man boiling over with adjectives; and there is the less demonstrative, quiet, steady friendship.
VI. Terrible power. The Word of God is quick and powerful. I preach the retribution of conscience and memory, an absent God, and an avenger within; and that is a punishment greater than you can bear. VII. The spirit’s power. “Ye shall receive power after the Holy Ghost is come upon you.” (W. M. Statham.)
2 Corinthians 12:10
Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities … for Christ’s sake.
The use of infirmities
“Some of the arable land along the shore on the south-east coast of Sutherland is almost covered with shore stones, from the size of a turkey’s egg to eight pounds weight. Several experiments have been made to collect these off the land, expecting a better crop; but in every case the land proved less productive by removing them; and on some small spots of land it was found so evident, that they were spread on the land again, to ensure their usual crop of oats or pease.” We would fain be rid of all our infirmities which, to our superficial conceptions, appear to be great hindrances to our usefulness, and yet it is most questionable if we should bring forth any fruit unto God without them. Much rather, therefore, will I glory in infirmities that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
The sanctifying power of sorrow
“For Christ’s sake,” that is the main point: the apostle took pleasure in pain, not as pain, but for Christ’s sake. In itself sorrow is not sanctifying. It is like fire, whose effect depends upon the substance with which it comes in contact. Fire melts wax, inflames straw, and hardens clay. So it is only in afflictions borne for Christ’s sake, that is, in Christ’s name, and with Christ’s spirit, that we can rejoice. Forasmuch as Christ hath suffered in the flesh, arm yourself likewise with the same mind. The Cross alone extracts life out of pain; without this it is death-giving. (F. W. Robertson, M. A.)
For when I am weak, then am I strong.--
Weakness a source of strength
I. Paul’s weakness. That is a quality which we are not accustomed to associate with the apostle, knowing what we do of his labours; but when we go deeper we discover that one of the most distinctive preparations for the work which he accomplished was his feebleness. Wherein, then, did it consist?
1. It was not intellectual. Even his vilest detractors could not deny his mental superiority.
2. It was not moral. There was no vacillation about him.
3. It was physical. Paul had to contend with some distressing bodily infirmity.
II. The connection of Paul’s weakness with his strength.
1. There was a strength in his weakness. In the Divine administration there is a wonderful law of compensation.
2. There was strength as the result of his weakness.
(1) The consciousness of his own weakness led him to cast himself unreservedly upon the Divine help.
(2) But looking toward man, the result of this weakness was in Paul a great outflow of tenderness. One cannot read his letters without feeling the heart-beat of his sympathy.
3. But there was, also, strength surmounting his weakness. In spite of his infirmity, he laboured on just as though he had nothing of the kind about him. He was impelled to do this.
(1) By his faith. Men as they looked on Dante when he walked the streets after he had written his “Inferno,” and marked the intensity of his earnest face, said one to another, “See the man who has been in hell.” The apostle moved in the midst of unseen realities.
(2) By gratitude. Never was consecration more thorough than his. He felt that he owed everything to Jesus, and to Jesus he yielded all. Conclusion:
1. Here is a use of explanation. You wonder, perhaps, why you have such feebleness. When you see others with robust frames and unbroken health, you are apt to say, “Ah, if I had but their strength how much more might I do for my Saviour!” But you are mistaken. If you had their strength you might not really be so strong as you are now.
2. A use of consolation. You wish to work for the Lord, and think you can do nothing because of your feebleness. Then see in Paul’s life how much can be accomplished, weakness notwithstanding. Nor is he a solitary instance. Think of Calvin and his irritable temper and a fragile and diseased body.
3. A use of direction. We can overcome our weakness only through a faith and a consecration like Paul’s. The one answer that will avail to the cry “Who is sufficient for these things”? is this: “My sufficiency is of God.” “Out of Saul, what has made Paul?” Faith. (W. M. Taylor, D. D.)
Strength in weakness
I. This general law apart from its religious bearings.
1. Weakness is sometimes perfected in strength. Its greatest manifestations are constantly seen in those whom the world deems the strongest. A strong man is likely to be a self-reliant man, and such a man is morally certain to display some weakness. A man, again, who is consciously strong at some point, is likely to think that his strength at that point will make up for his carelessness at other points. For instance, you often see men of great intellect who are morally weak and loose, and who count on their intellectual strength to cover their moral deficiency. The man who is financially strong is now and then tempted to believe that money can carry him over the lack of courtesy or consideration for others. The strong men of the Bible are also its weak men. Abraham’s falsehood, Noah’s excess, Jacob’s worldliness, Moses’ unhallowed zeal, Elijah’s faithless despair, David’s lust and murder, Solomon’s luxuriousness and sensuality all tell the same story which we read in the biographies of the scholars, statesmen, monarchs, and generals of later times.
2. On the other hand, strength is perfected in weakness. Let an ignorant but conceited man go to a foreign city. He says, “A guide is a nuisance, and I will have none of them. I will find out the objects of interest for myself.” And so he goes blundering along, exposing himself to insult and even to danger, wasting hours in his search for a palace or an art-gallery--a sorry exhibition of weakness. Another man goes into the same city, quite as ignorant, but follows a trustworthy and intelligent guide. He gains new ideas, while the strong man, so independent of help, is standing at street corners and painfully studying his guide-book. When they return home, the man who was weak enough to accept guidance is the stronger man in knowledge. Can you imagine any object more weak and helpless than a blind child, and yet what a strength it wins from that very weakness! Out of weakness the child is made strong. And then there is the familiar fact of the increased power imparted to touch and ear by the very infirmity. Then, again, the consciousness of infirmity often makes its subject so cautious that he really accomplishes more than another who is free from infirmity. The man whose health and strength are exuberant, is likely to be careless of them; while he who rarely knows what it is to be without an aching head or a feverish pulse, therefore works by rule and economises minutes and brings discipline to bear on rebellious nerves and muscles. It is this power of self-mastery wrought out through weakness, which gives such power over other minds and hearts.
II. The truth on its religious side.
1. Real strength comes only out of that weakness which, distrustful of itself, gives itself up to God.
(1) Take the case of Paul. Here is a man beset with various infirmities. And yet at this distance we can see that that very weakness of Paul was his strength. For it gave God’s power its full opportunity. It is a strange gift that we have of preventing God from doing for us all that He would. God often sees fit to use the very elements you and I would throw away. We do not count weakness among the factors of success. The world is at a loss what to do with it; but when God takes hold of weakness it becomes another thing and works under another law. So then Paul, having abandoned the idea of doing anything by himself, God took this weakness and wrought out victory for Christ’s cause and for Paul by means of it.
(a) Take the impression which the character and history of Paul make on your own minds. You know something of the power which Luke’s record of his life and labours exerts in stimulating Christian zeal and in educating character. Do not all these things get a stronger hold on you through the very sympathy which the apostle’s sufferings call out? Did not his very infirmities endear him to the churches in his own day? Had not these somewhat to do with the liberal supplies from Philippi, and with the heart-breaking sorrow of the Ephesian elders at Miletus?
(b) After all that we read of Paul, we rise from his story and from his writings with a stronger impression of Christ than of him. The radiance of the light eclipses the wonder of the lamp. That is as Paul would have had it.
(2) Or go farther back. Christ called Peter a rock; and yet at that stage Peter reminds us rather of those rocks which one meets with in clay-soil regions, which crumble at the touch, and are, least of all stones, fit for foundations. Peter, blustering, forward, boastful, with a great deal of strength of his own, which crumbled into weakness at the first touch of danger--and yet--“On this rock will I build My Church,” etc. The Church which began under the ministry of weak Peter is surely no feeble factor in to-day’s society: but the Peter of Pentecost was not the Peter of Gethsemane. Between these two he had learned a great deal about the weakness of human strength and the strength which God makes perfect in human weakness. The consequence is that whereas in Gethsemane Peter asserts himself, at Pentecost he asserts Jesus. Where he asserts himself the issue is a coward and a traitor. Where he passes out of sight behind Jesus, he is the hero of the infant Church, whom we love and honour.
2. The text is no encouragement to cherish weakness. The object of Christian training is to make men strong: and Paul can do all things, but only through Christ that strengtheneth him. How beautifully the context brings out this thought! What was the ark of the covenant? Nothing but a simple box overlaid with gold, such a thing as any skilful workman could make. And yet, when it fell into the hands of Israel’s enemies, the priest declared “the glory is departed from Israel.” What gave it this importance and meaning? It was that which rested upon it--the glory which made its resting-place the holiest spot in the world. And so, when the power of Christ rests upon a life, all its commonplace, its weakness, are transfigured, and the weak things of the world confound the things which are mighty. Thus it comes to pass that out of the mouth of babes and sucklings God ordains strength.
3. The truth of the text is wider than some of us have been wont to think. It asserts not only that God will assist our weakness, but that He will make our weakness itself an element of strength. We are, naturally, like one who carries round with him a rough precious-stone, ignorant of its value, and ready to throw it away or to part with it for a trifle, This thing, weakness, we should be glad to throw away. Christ comes like a skilful lapidary and shows us its value. I remember a little church among the mountains, which sprang up through the labours of a man the best of whose life was spent in trouble--a church founded among a population little better than heathen; and in the church building there was framed and hung up a magnificent rough agate which he had picked up somewhere among the hills, with the inscription, “And such were some of you.” And that stone tells the story of our text--the story of the Church on earth; a weak, erring church, its leaders stained and scarred with human infirmity, yet with a line of victory and spiritual power running through it like a track of fire: rough stones hewn out of the mountains, carved into polished pillars in the temple of the Lord. (M. R. Vincent, D. D.)
2 Corinthians 12:11-21
I am become a fool in glorifying; ye have compelled me.
Paul’s state of mind concerning his connection with the Church at Corinth
I. In the past.
1. He remembers the ill-treatment which forced him to speak with apparent boastfulness of himself (2 Corinthians 12:11). The words are partly ironical, partly speak of an impatient consciousness, that what he had been saying would seem to give colour to the opprobrious epithets that had been flung at him.
2. He remembers the work which he had done amongst them, and which raised him above all the apostles (2 Corinthians 12:21). Paul possessed supernatural power, and wrought supernatural results. This they could not deny (1 Corinthians 2:4). Can a man who was conscious of such power as this be charged with egotism in proclaiming it in the presence of his detractors? Does he become “a fool in glorying”?
3. He remembers that for his labours amongst them he had not sought any temporal assistance (2 Corinthians 12:13). Probably it had been insinuated that Paul cared less for the churches at Corinth than for those at Macedonia, because he had maintained his independence and sought no gifts.
II. Prospectively. Here are--
1. Loving resolves (2 Corinthians 12:14). He resolves that he would not be burdensome to them, but pursue the same independency and act as a father laying up for them, not they for him, etc. And all this, whether they love him or not. What noble generosity breathes in all these resolves!
2. Painful memories (2 Corinthians 12:16). This, again, is ironical. You say that although I made no demand on your purses for myself, that I did want a collection for the “saints,” and that out of that I would craftily take what I wanted. He seems to fling back upon them their accusation of his being crafty, and catching them “with guile” (2 Corinthians 12:17-18). Neither Titus, etc., nor he had ever sponged on them, but had maintained their high independency. In saying this, he deprecates the idea that he was amenable to them for his conduct, but to God only (verse 19).
3. Anxious apprehensions (verse 20). His tender nature seemed to shrink at the supposition of the old evils still rampant there (verse 21). The great thing to be dreaded is sin. It is the “abominable thing,” the soul destroyer of humanity.
1. Do not judge any minister by the opinions of his brethren. Paul was the best of men; but in the opinion of his brethren he was the worst.
2. Do not cease in your endeavours to benefit men because they calumniate you. The worst men require your services most, the “whole need not a physician.”
3. Do not sponge on your congregation. Do not seek theirs, but them.
4. Do not cower before anything but sin. (D. Thomas, D. D.)
Though I be nothing.
A sermon upon one nothing by another nothing
1. The Divine discipline had succeeded well with Paul. There was danger of his being exalted above measure, and therefore there was given him a thorn, etc. His humility comes out in the incident before us. He was compelled to defend himself, and in the midst of strong expressions of self-assertion, every one of them severely truthful, his true humility is manifest.
2. Although Paul was undoubtedly humble, yet there is not a particle of cant in any of his expressions. There is no humility in such self-depreciation as would lead you to deny what God has wrought in or by you: that might be wilful falsehood. Mock humility creeps around us, but every honest man loathes it, and God loathes it too. Now, the apostle says that he is not a whit behind the very chief of the apostles, etc., and yet for all that he finishes his detail of experience by saying, “Though I be nothing.”
I. This was other men’s estimate of him. You may be starting the Christian life full of zeal; but you dwell among a people who count you hot-headed and self-conceited, and do their best to thwart you. Be comforted, for if Paul heard that, in the judgment of many, his personal presence was weak, etc., you need not wonder if the like thing happens to you. The case is harder with older servants of God. After a long life of usefulness the churches often forget all that a man was and did in his vigorous times, and now they treat him with indifference. You must not marvel. The apostle of the Gentiles, when he was “such an one as Paul the aged,” knew that to many he was nothing. Paul was nothing--
1. In the estimation of hatred. His Jewish brethren, when he was an advocate of their principles, thought him some great one; when he went over to the hated sect he was nothing. Such is, in a measure, the case when men become thoroughly followers of Jesus. If a scientific man is of infidel principles he is cried up as an eminent thinker; but should he be a Christian, he is antiquated and narrow.
2. In the valuation of envy. There arose even in the Church certain brethren who loved pre-eminence, and found the apostle already in the highest place. They strove to rise by pulling him down. It is an unfortunate thing for some men, if they love their own ease, that they have risen to conspicuous usefulness, for in a middle place they might have been allowed to be something, but jealousy is now resolved to rate them at nothing.
3. To those who desired that Christianity should make a fair show in the flesh. Certain brethren had thought to adorn the doctrine of Christ with human wisdom. Our apostle abhorred this. “We use,” saith he, “great plainness of speech,” and therefore they retaliated by declaring that he was not a man of great mind--that, in fact, he was nothing. Other teachers arose who took the way of tradition and ritualism. To which Paul replied, “If ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing. By the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified.” Straightway the High Churchmen discovered that Paul was nothing.
II. His own estimate of himself.
1. This is a very great correction upon his original estimate of himself.
2. This corrected estimate resulted from the enlightenment which he received at his conversion. What a flood of light does the Lord pour in upon a man’s soul when He brings him to Himself! Then great Saul dwarfed into little Paul, and the learned rabbi shrivelled into a poor brother, who was glad to learn from humble Ananias.
3. The force of that estimate had increased by a growing belief in the doctrine of grace. In proportion as he learned the fulness, freeness, richness, and sovereignty of Divine grace did he see, side by side with it, the nakedness, the filthiness, the nothingness of man, and so he who could best glory in the grace of God thought less and less of himself.
4. His own internal experience had very much helped him to feel that he was nothing, for he had experienced great spiritual struggles. “Oh wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”
5. When the apostle said this he meant that he was--
(1) Nothing in comparison with his Lord.
(2) Nothing to boast of. Albeit he had been a faithful sufferer for Christ, that he had preached the gospel in the regions beyond. If we rise very near to God, and conquer open sin, we shall still have to look within, and say, “I am nothing.” Boasting is a sure sign of failure. Gilded wood may float, but an ingot of gold will sink.
(3) Nothing to trust in. I am strong in the Lord when He strengthens me, but I am as weak as an infant without His aid. “In me, that is, in my flesh, there dwelleth no good thing.”
(4) Nothing worth considering. “If there is any good thing for me to do, I never calculate whether I shall be a loser by it or a gainer, for I am not worth taking into the account. If Christ’s kingdom will but come, it does not matter whether Paul lives or dies.” Christ’s kingdom will go on without me.
1. May we all be made by Divine grace to say “Though I be nothing.”
(1) It will prevent pride. It will prevent our being mortified, because notice is not taken of us. No man will look for honour among his fellows when he owns that he is nothing.
(2) It will also prevent severe censures of others. We are all very handy at picking holes in our brethren’s coats; but when we are nothing we shall draw back our hand. I wish that those who criticise ministers would think of this.
(3) It will help us to avoid all self-seeking. A man who feels himself to be nothing will be easily contented.
(4) It will inspire gratitude. “Though I be nothing, yet infinite grace is mine.”
2. When the apostle says, “Though I be nothing,” that word shows that there was a fact in the background.
(1) He had been caught up into the third heaven, and had enjoyed a special revelation of Christ. We, too, have been very near the Beloved, and He has manifested Himself to us as He does not unto the world. All this you know, and I also know it, “though I be nothing.”
(2) “The Lord hath done great things for us, whereof we are glad,” by enabling us to serve His cause. This we are right glad of, though we heartily add, “though I be nothing.”
(3) We can also believingly say, “though I be nothing,” yet the Spirit of God dwells in me. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
2 Corinthians 12:12-15
Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you.
The signs of an apostle
are frequently referred to by Paul, and are of various kinds. By far the most important and frequently insisted on is success in evangelistic work. He who converts men and founds churches has the supreme and final attestation of apostleship (1 Corinthians 9:2; 2 Corinthians 3:1-3). In this passage Calvin makes patience a sign. Patience is certainly a characteristic Christian virtue, and it is magnficently exercised in the apostolic life, but it is not peculiarly apostolic. Patience, here--“every kind of Christian patience,” rather--brings before our minds the conditions under which Paul did his apostolic work. Discouragements of every description, bad health, suspicion, dislike, contempt, moral apathy and moral licence the weight of all these pressed upon him heavily, but he bore up under them, and did not suffer them to break his spirit or to arrest his labours. His endurance was a match for them all, and the power of Christ that was in him broke forth in spite of them in apostolic signs. There were conversions, in the first place; but there were also miracles, viewed under three different aspects.
1. “Signs,” as addressed to man’s intelligence, and conveying a spiritual meaning.
2. Wonders, as giving a shock to feeling, and moving nature in those depths which sleep through common experience.
3. Powers, as arguing in him who works them a more than human efficiency. But no doubt the main character they bore in the apostle’s mind was that of charismata--gifts of grace, which God ministered to the Church by His Spirit. It is natural for an unbeliever to misunderstand even N.T. miracles, because he wishes to conceive of them, as it were, in vacuo, or in relation to the laws of nature; in the N.T. itself they are conceived in relation to the Holy Ghost. Even Jesus is said in the Gospels to have cast out devils by the Spirit of God; and when Paul wrought “signs and wonders and powers,” it was in carrying out his apostolic work, graced by the same Spirit. What things he had done at Corinth we have no means of knowing; but the Corinthians knew, and they knew that these things had no arbitrary or accidental character, but were the tokens of an apostle. (J. Denney, B. D.)
What is it wherein ye were inferior to other Churches, except it he that I myself was not burdensome to you?--
What the word signifies is evident, for it was what the apostle steadily declined to do--viz., live at the expense of the Corinthians. Now there are in all languages many ways of expressing this idea, mostly more or less uncomplimentary. It is likely that the apostle would in this place have used one of the more disparaging expressions, for evidently there is a good deal of restrained sarcasm and scorn of mercenary motives in this part of his letter. Yet the word does not at first sight appear to have much point, for it is generally translated “render numb” or “make torpid” (cf. Genesis 32:25, LXX.), and is a verb formed from νάρκη, the name of a kind of torpedo which has a reputation for numbing the hand that touches it. But I venture to go back to the fish itself, and to suggest that the popular use of the word was a somewhat different one. Was not the torpedo supposed to attach itself by suction to some creature of larger growth, and to make use of it for its own support? Whether it does so is of comparatively small concern, for neither then nor now has popular language had much regard for the facts of natural history. I strongly suspect that the idea really embodied in the word is theft vulgarly expressed by our own phrase, “to sponge upon.” I can only guess that this latter phrase borrows its meaning from the real or supposed parasitic habits of the sponge as a living creature. If it be so, then there would be a singular resemblance in history and meaning between the two expressions, each borrowed by a seafaring people from the apparent habits of a marine animal, and applied with some contempt to the conduct of unworthy men. At any rate, it does not seem to me at all unlikely that the apostle would have used such an expression as “sponging upon” here. He was never careful of the elegance of his language when he wished it to be forcible, and in this Epistle especially he makes no attempt to be dignified. Evidently he had in his mind the very words and phrases which his vulgar detractors at Corinth had used concerning him. They had reached him in no mild dilutions, and he made no pretence of not feeling their point. They had accused him, as I think, of having “sponged upon” other Churches, while, with a truly natural inconsistency, they did not conceal their vexation at his refusal to put himself under any obligation to them. Wonderful is the lofty earnestness with which he deals with these vulgar topics, gilding the muddy levels with the glow and sparkle of his own ardent charity. But I think he did not hesitate to repeat their own shrug. He had not “sponged upon” them, it was true, and did not intend to sponge upon them, however often he came to them. (R. Winterbotham, M. A. , B. Sc. , LL. B.)
I seek not yours, but you.--
The property right we are to get in souls
It is our common way, as well as delusion, to be desiring what men have, and not the men themselves, to get a property, if possible, out of their property, and not to create the same by our own industry. The manner of our great apostle is exactly contrary. The value one man has to another; or, what is the same, the real interest of property which a true disciple has, or may have, in the souls of other men. I propose to show the real value of one soul, or man, to another. I suppose there maybe some who had never such a thought occur to them in their lives. We have so many public wars and private quarrels, so many rivalries, that it becomes a great part of our life to keep off or, if possible, to keep under, one another. Furthermore, we get accustomed to the idea that there is no property but legal property--no property right, therefore, in a man to be thought of, save the ownership that makes him a slave. Whereas the dearest, broadest properties we have are not legal. The wife does not legally own her husband, though she says, with how much meaning, “He is mine.” No man legally owns his friend, or the landscapes, or the ranges of the sea. Putting aside, then, all such false impressions, I now undertake to show that one man has to another a value more real than gold, or lands, or any legal property of the world can have. And I open the argument here by calling your attention to the fact that God so evidently means to make every community valuable to every other and--so far, at least--every man to every other. We see this on a magnificent scale in the article of commerce. Here we find the nations all at work for each other, Your breakfast is gotten up for you, as it were, by the whole world, and so far you possess the world. The same, again, is true of all the arts, professions, trades and grades of employment in a given community. They are at work for each other in ways of concurrent service. All injustice, wrong, and fraud excluded, they so far own each other. Their industries and gifts are all so many complementary contributions. And again, what we discover in these mere economic relations is the type of a mutual interest and ownership in qualities that are personal. The very idea of society and the social nature is that we shall be a want and a gift of enjoyment one to another. We possess, in short, society, and society is universal ownership. To see what reality there is in this, you have only to imagine how desolate and how truly insupportable your life would be in a state of complete solitude or absolutely sole existence. Not that you want merely to receive outward conveniences; you want society of soul, to speak and be spoken to, to play out feeling and have it played back by some answering nature. You wade the rivers, and creep through the forests, and climb the hills, looking for you know not what, resting nowhere, sighing and groaning everywhere. What we call society, in this manner, is the usufruct we have of each other, and has a property value as truly as the food that supplies our bodies. Again, what interest every soul may have, or what property get, in other souls will be seen still more affectingly in the fact that, bittered as we are by selfishness, almost everything we do looks, in some way, to the approbation, or favouring opinion, or inspiration of others. We dress, we build, we cultivate our bestow-ments generally with a view to the impressions or opinions of others. I have lingered thus in the domain of the natural life because the illustrations here furnished are so impressive. Let us enter now the field of Christian love and duty, and carry our argument up into the higher relations here existing. If selfishness even finds so great value in the sentiments, opinions, homages of other men, how shall it be with goodness and benefaction? Here it is that we come out into the great apostle’s field, where he says, “Not yours, but you.” “It is not,” he would say, “what you can give me or withhold from me, but it is what I can do to you, and be in you, and make you to be--to raise you up out of sin into purity and liberty and truth, to fill you with the light of God and His peace, to make you like God. This is my reward, which, if I may get, I want no other. For this I journey, and preach, and write.” He makes them in this manner a property to himself. Let us look a little into this matter of property. How does a man, for example, come to be acknowledged as the owner of a piece of land and to say to himself, “It is mine”? The general answer given to this question is that we get a property in things by putting our industry into them, in ways of use, culture, and improvement. This makes our title. Just so when a Christian benefactor enters good into a soul; when he takes it away from the wildness and disorder of nature by the prayers and faithful labours he expends upon it, the necessary result is that he gets a property in it, feels it to be his, values it as being his. Neither is it anything to say that he gets, in this manner, no exclusive title to it, therefore no property at all. No kind of property is exclusive. God is still concurrent owner of all the lands we hold in fee. The State is so far owner. So a man may get ownership in his neighbour and his poor brother, and the State may have ownership in both, and God a higher ownership in all. And the ownership in all cases is only the more real because it is not exclusive. And how great and blessed a property it is to him we can only see by a careful computation of the values by which he measures it. First, as he has come to look himself on the eternal in everything, he has a clear perception of souls as being the most real of all existences--more real than lands and gold, and a vastly higher property. Next, finding this or that human spirit or soul in a condition of darkness and disease and fatal damage, he begins forthwith to find an object in it, and an inspiring hope to be realised in its necessity. He takes it thus upon himself, hovers round it in love, and prayer, and gracious words, and more gracious example, to regain it to truth and to God. For if it be a matter so inspiring to a Newton that he may put into other minds the right scientific conception of light or of the stars, how much greater and higher the interest a good soul has in imparting to another goodness, the element of its own Divine peace and well-being. Then again, as we get a property in other men by the power we exert in them, how much greater the property obtained by that kind of power which is supernaturally, transformingly beneficent, that which subdues enmity, illuminates darkness, fructifies sterility, changes discord to harmony, and raises a spirit in ruin up to be a temple of God’s indwelling life. What a thought, indeed, is this for a Christian disciple to entertain, that he may exalt the consciousness of a human soul or spirit for ever, and live in it for ever as a causality of joy and beauty. Furthermore, when one has gained another to a holy life, there is a most dear, everlasting relationship established between them. Hence, also, it is that the Scriptures of God’s truth are so much in the commendation of this heavenly property. If we go after fame, they tell us that the name of the wicked shall rot. If we go after riches and cover ourselves with the outward splendours of fortune, they tell us that we must go out of life as poor as any, for that, having brought nothing material into the world, we can carry nothing material out. And then they add, do the works of love and truth, and these shall go with you. He that winneth souls is wise. If thy brother sin against thee, gain, if possible, thy brother. Just here, in fact, will be opened to your now purified love the discovery of this great truth, viz., that there is indeed no real property at all but spirit-property, or property in spirit--a possession, that is, by each soul of what he has added to the moral universe of the good. All values here become social, values of truth, and feeling, and worship, and conscious affinity with God. And this is heaven, the state of mutual ownership and everlasting usufruct, prepared in all God’s righteous populations by what they have righteously done. Accepting now the solid and sublimely practical truth thus carefully expounded, the salvation of men is seen to be a work that ought to engage every Christian, and a work that to be fitly done must be heartily and energetically done. To this end consider well that you are set to gain a property in every man you save. In some dearest, truest sense he is to be yours for ever, to own you as his benefactor, and to be your crown of rejoicing, having your life entered into and working through his for ever. Consider, also, how this double-acting property relation holds good, even between Christ and His people. “Not yours, but you” is the principle that brings Him into the world. (H. Bushnell, D. D.)
Not yours, but you
Men are usually quick to suspect others of the vices to which they themselves are prone. It is very hard for one who never does anything but with an eye to what he can make out of it to believe that there are other people actuated by higher motives. So Paul had over and over again to meet the hateful charge of making money out of his apostleship. Where did Paul learn this passionate desire to possess these people, and this entire suppression of self in the desire? It was a spark from a sacred fire, a drop from an infinite ocean, an echo of a Divine voice.
I. So, then, first of all I remark, Christ desires personal surrender. “I seek not yours, but you,” is the very mother-tongue of love; but upon our lips, even when our love is purest, there is a tinge of selfishness blending with it, and very often the desire for another’s love is as purely selfish as the desire for any material good. And that is the only kind of life that is blessed; the only true nobleness and beauty and power are measured by and accurately correspond with the completeness of our surrender of ourselves to Jesus Christ. As long as the earth was thought to be the centre of the planetary system there was nothing but confusion in the heavens. Shift the centre to the sun, and all becomes order and beauty. The root of sin and the mother of death is making myself my own law and Lord; the germ of righteousness and the first pulsations of life lie in yielding ourselves to God in Christ, because He has yielded Himself unto us. And be sure of this, that no such giving of myself away in the sweet reciprocities of a higher than human affection is possible, in the general and on the large scale, if you evacuate from the gospel the great truth, “He loved me, and gave Himself for me.”
II. Christ seeks personal service. “I seek … you”; not only for My love, but for My tools, for My instruments in carrying out the purposes for which I died, and establishing My dominion in the world. I cannot imagine a man who in any deep sense has realised his obligations to that Saviour, and in any real sense has made the great act of self-renunciation and crowned Christ as his Lord, living for the rest of his life, as so many professing Christians do, dumb and idle in so far as work for the Master is concerned. It is no use to flog, flog, flog at idle Christians, and try to make them work. There is only one thing that will set them to work, and that is that they shall live nearer their Master, and find out more of what they owe to Him. This surrender of ourselves for direct Christian service is the only solution of the problem of how to win the world for Jesus Christ. Professionals cannot do it. This direct service cannot be escaped or commuted by a money payment. In the old days a man used to escape serving in the militia if he found a substitute and paid for him. There are a great many good Christian people that seem to think that Christ’s army is recruited on that principle. But it is a mistake. “I seek you, not yours.”
III. Christ seeks us and ours. Not you without yours, still less yours without you. Consecration of self is extremely imperfect which does not include the consecration of possessions, and, conversely, consecration of possessions which does not flow from and is not accompanied by the consecration of self is nought. If, then, the great law of self-surrender is to run through the whole Christian life, that law, as applied to our dealing with what we own, prescribes three things. The first is stewardship, not ownership, and that all round the circumference of our possessions. Again, the law of self-surrender, in its application to all that we have, involves the continual reference to Jesus Christ in our disposition of these our possessions. Again, the law of self-surrender, in its application to our possessions, implies that there shall be an element of sacrifice in our use of these, whether they be possessions of intellect, of acquirement, of influence, of position, or of material wealth. The law of help is sacrifice. So let us all get near to that great central fire till it melts our hearts. Let the love which is our hope be our pattern. (A. Maclaren, D. D.)
Property in souls
1. The instinct of acquisition is a primordial element of human nature that ought to be gratified. Not to acquire property of some kind or other is to be a pauper, a parasite, a leech. We all are born poor, though sons, it may be, of a Croesus; but, unless we die rich, life is a failure. By pulling at the oar we gain muscle; by the sail or the engine we subdue the sea; and by intellectual and spiritual mastery of forces we make higher possessions really ours.
2. Christianity appeals to this instinct. The Master tells us it is His good pleasure to give us the kingdom. Lord Bacon wanted all knowledge; Alexander wanted other worlds to conquer. So would I desire a title-deed to heaven--nay, more, be able rightfully to say to God, “Thou art mine!” I will not consent to be a pauper; possession alone can gratify my aspiration for property.
I. What is property, and how can it be rightfully ours? Property is my other self; it is that into which I put my spirit, life, toil, culture, and affection. Thus it acquires a value, as it represents all these. Christ sees the travail of His soul; and is satisfied in the redemption of this world. The universe is God’s. He has put Himself into it, His wisdom, power, and love. The Church is Christ’s; He has put Himself into it. So that is mine into which I put myself, whatever may be the legal view of it. Let us try the key to different locks. Look at--
1. Material wealth. The millions which a gambler wins are not really his property. Reckless speculation does not create wealth. Inheritance is not real property till I make it mine. Caleb gave away Hebron, but the sons of Anak were to be dispossessed. A rich man leaves property. It is merely “addendum” till the son puts his impress of thought and enterprise upon it; otherwise it is a mere income, as is the cheese on which the mouse nibbles in the granary. The name of the originator sticks to an invention, or to whatever has creative art in it, though the man be dead. We say, Morse’s Telegraph, Fairbank’s Scales, Raphael’s Madonna.
2. Art. I build and furnish a house. Paintings are hung up; but I know nothing of art, and cannot get into the creations of a Claude or a Titian. My neighbour studies them, feasts on them, for they represent and reflect his beautiful soul. The pictures are really his.
3. Literature. I buy a book, but cannot understand it. My neighbour borrows, reads, understands, and appropriates it. He returns it--no, only the leather, paper, and ink, for the thoughts, spirits, and life are his. Thus all theology, philosophy, and history come to be my own.
II. But it is in human souls that the thought of the text is realised. It is our privilege to have property in another, to call them ours. We may even say of Christ, of the Holy Ghost, and of the Father, “Thou art mine!” When we are one with Him in fellowship and love, we live in Him and He in us. But look at the three ways of securing property in human souls.
1. By friendship. I open my heart and let another in. He opens his heart and lets me in. Some hearts we cannot enter; they are mean, coarse, unclean, uncharitable. We should not be tolerated could we force our way in. But when we come to our own, to those who respond to our tastes, desires, and plans, how enriching and exalting is the mutual ownership enjoyed!
2. By education. A true teacher is a king; he gets property in souls. Dr. Arnold put his soul into his pupils, and to-day the broadened thought of England is, in part, a result of his work.
8. By redemption. This is the Via Sacra of our Lord. Into the lost soul, the unclean, the poor, the dead He went with purity, riches, and life. So Paul could say that he was ready to give his own soul to those who in the gospel were dear unto him. Yet Paul could truly say, “I seek not yours, but you.” His converts were his children, begotten in the gospel. He won them, not by imparting truth merely, but by giving his very life. (C. B. Crane, D. D.)
The children ought not to lay up for the parents, but the parents for the children:--
Parents and children
I. The way in which this dictate of nature is seconded by the example of God in His dealings with His family. He is as a parent providing for his children. Behold Him as the God of providence. He is the great housekeeper of the universe. But it is more important still to consider God as the God of grace, for here you will see in a more striking manner how God the Father has laid up for His children, and not they for Him, that He is the giver and they the receivers from first to last (Ezekiel 16:8, &c.). Thus God has provided washing, clothing, ornaments, and food for all the members of His family. Moreover, God not only provides present maintenance, but a future inheritance for His children.
II. The duty of parents with respect to their children. They are bound to make temporal provision for them. Even the beasts of the field, the monsters of the sea, provide for their young. But we are least likely to err on this point. Oh, that our concern about it were always regulated with a view to the spiritual interests of our children and to the glory of God! But how many are there who neglect the spiritual welfare of their children, like the folly of a man who would expend much in decorating and adorning a house which was ready to crumble and fall into ruin, while he neglected one which was substantial and likely to last for many generations. (H. Verschoyle, A. B.)
And I will very gladly spend and be spent for you.--
I. Spending one’s self. The ministry is a work. Its duties, if faithfully discharged, require great skill and ability. Paul was laboriously employed in preaching and travelling by sea and land about thirty years, and during those years scarcely ever ceased from his beloved work. Thus it was that he was willing to spend till he was spent.
II. For whom i feel this self-devotion. The apostle felt this self-devotion, or self-sacrifice, for the Corinthians. Why for the men at Corinth? Because St. Paul had been instrumental in their conversion. The believers in that city were all, or nearly so, seals of his ministry. Can we then wonder at the strength of his love of them? What will not an earthly parent do for his sons or his daughters? No; warmed by the love of Christ, he will cheerfully spend himself for their spiritual edification, welfare, and comfort. (R. Horsfall.)
The cost of saving souls
Paul is conspicuous among men for his self-sacrifice.
I. The apostle’s aim--the souls of men.
1. Certainly to be kept steadily in view by preachers.
2. But not by ministers alone, for we all influence for better or for worse the soul life of each other.
3. To injure it is an offence in God’s eyes (Matthew 18:6).
II. This aim requires not only that we “spend,” but that we “be spent,” for the higher the life we seek to develop, the deeper is the sacrifice we must make. If a father wishes only physical life in his child the cost is little--food, soap, and clothing. If he wishes the mental life of his child to grow strong and full, then the cost is greater, not only in money, but in his own patience, etc. But if he wishes the highest life of all--the moral life--the life of the lad’s soul to flourish and bear fruit--the sacrifice is deeper still.
III. This is precisely the kind of sacrifice we are least willing to give.
1. In almsgiving--works of charity. We give money, the cheapest sacrifice we can give.
2. In church life. Again we give money or a speech to escape the deeper sacrifices.
3. In social life. How few will forego the utterance of a bitter word or a doubtful deed lest they hurt the soul-life of those around us.
IV. Compare this reluctance with the alacrity of Paul. He said, “I will very gladly spend,” etc. Better still compare it with the spirit of Christ (John 10:15; John 10:18).
1. The loveliness of Christian sacrifice is its voluntariness. “God loveth a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7).
2. The blessed life either on earth or in heaven is not one exempt from sacrifice, but where its joy overwhelms its pain (2 Chronicles 29:28). (J. Telford, B. A.)
Ministerial affection poorly requited
It is love that speaks, and unkindness that is spoken to. Many ways it may be manifest that St. Paul loved the Church of Corinth more than many other. By the time he spent with them, a year and a half full: scarce with any so much. By his visiting them three several times, not any so oft. By two of his largest Epistles sent to them: not to any the like. Now there should be in love the virtue of the loadstone, the virtue attractive, to draw like love to it again. There should be, but was not. For their little love appeared by their many unloving exceptions which they took to him. This cold infusion of so faint regard on their parts might have quenched his love.
1. There was a world when one said, bestow your heart on me, and I require no further bestowing; and the bestowing of love, though nothing but love, was something worth.
2. Such a world there was, but that world is worn out. Love and all is put out to interest.
3. Such is now the world’s love, but specially at Corinth, where they set love to hire and love to sale.
4. There is no remedy then. St. Paul must apply himself to time and place wherein love depends upon yielding and paying.
5. Now, there is nothing so pliant as love, ever ready to transform itself to whatsoever may have likelihood to prevail.
6. St. Paul therefore cometh to it; and as he maketh his case a Father’s case towards them.
7. Yea, “I will bestow.” Now, alas! what can Paul bestow? Especially upon so wealthy citizens? What hath he to part with but his books and parchments? Ware, at Athens perhaps somewhat; but at Corinth, little used and less regarded. But, by the grace of God, there is something else. There be treasures of wisdom and knowledge in Christ Jesus. Indeed, this it is St. Paul can bestow; and this it is Corinth needs, and the more wealthy it is the more.
But it is much more to be bestowed than to bestow.
1. For, first, they that bestow give but of their fruits; but he that is bestowed giveth fruit, tree, and all. Himself is in the deed of gift too.
2. Secondly, before there was but one act; here, in one, are both bestowing and being bestowed, and there being both must needs be better than one.
3. Thirdly, before that which was bestowed, what was it? Our good, not our blood; our living, not our life.
4. And indeed we see many can be content to bestow frankly, but at no hand to be bestowed themselves. But hither, also, will St. Paul come without any reservation at all of himself; to do or suffer, “to spend or be spent.” Bow to be spent? will he die? Yea, indeed. What, presently here at Corinth? No; for at this time and long after he was still alive. If there be no way to be bestowed but by dying out of hand; they that in field receive the bullet, or they that at the stake have the fire set to them, they and they only may be said to be bestowed. That is a way indeed, but not the only way. And that is said to be bestowed, not only that is defrayed at one entire payment, but that which by several sums is paid in, especially if it be when it is not due, nor could not be called for. By intentive meditation (for his books and parchments took somewhat from his sum), by sorrow and grief of heart he bestowed himself by inchmeal. And so far it is the case of all them that be in his case, as Christ termeth them the light of the world, lighting others and wasting themselves. True it is we value the inward affection above the outward action or passion. With men it is so too. When a displeasure is done us, say we not, we weigh not so much the injury itself as the malicious mind of him that did offer it? And if in evil it hold, why not in good much more? And will you see the mind wherewith St. Paul will do both these? Bestow he will and be bestowed too, and that not in any sort be contented to come to it, but willingly; willingly, nay readily, readily, nay gladly, most gladly. And now must we pause a little to see what will become of all this, and what these will work in the Corinthians. We marvel at the love, we shall more marvel when we see what manner of men on whom it is bestowed. He complaineth though that, seeking their love, and nothing else, so hard was his hap, he found it not. And as he to be pitied, so they to be blamed. All other commodities return well from Corinth, only love is no traffic. St. Paul cannot make his own again, but must be a great loser withal. But all this while he lived still under hope, hope of winning their love for whose sakes he had trod under foot the love of himself. Love endureth not the name of difficulty, but shameth to confess anything too hard or too dangerous for it. For, verily, unkindness is a mighty enemy and the wounds of it deep. It serveth first to possess our souls of that excellent virtue, the greatest of the three. Nay, the virtue without which the rest be but ciphers--love. But love, the action of virtue, not the passion of vice. Love, not of the body, but of the soul, the precious soul of man (Proverbs 6:1-35.). And for them and for their love to be ready to prove it by St. Paul’s trial. They that do thus, no good can be spoken of their love answerable to the desert of it. Heavenly it is, and in heaven to receive the reward. But when all is done we must take notice of the world’s nature. For, as St. Paul left it, so we shall find it (that is) we shall not perhaps meet with that regard we promise ourselves. Surely, if love or well-doing or any good must perish (which is the second motive), and be lost through somebody’s default (where it lighteth), much better it is that it perish in the Corinthians’ hands than in Paul’s; by them, in their evil receiving, than in his not bestowing. For so the sin shall be theirs, and we and our souls innocent before God. But perish it shall not. For howsoever of them it may be truly said, the more we love the less they; of Christ it never can nor ever shall be said. For St. Paul, for the little love at their hands, found the greater at His. Not lost, but laid out; not cast away, but employed on Him for whose love none ever hath or shall bestow aught but he shall receive a hundredfold. (Bp. Andrewes.)
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "2 Corinthians 12". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 12 / Ordinary 17