What Do You Need Most?

A sermon on 2 Corinthians 12:1-13 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 3/21/04

What do you need most?

What do you need most?

Think about that question as I tell you more of the story of William Carey. Last week I quoted Carey’s humble statement saying the only credit he should receive is for being a “plodder”. “I can persevere in any definite pursuit.” How did a plodder become the father of modern missions?

Care was a shoemaker who felt called into the ministry. As a Baptist pastor of a small church, God moved in his heart, burdening him with those around the world who had never heard the Gospel. Having convinced his small association of Baptist churches to form the first missions agency, he sailed to India in 1793.

His first years were exceptionally difficult:

But from 1800, when he was joined by other missionaries and they all relocated to the Danish enclave of Serampore, much changed. He proceeds to translate the Bible first into Bengali and then into a number of other languages; many Indians come to know the Lord; Carey becomes recognized as a great linguist and is appointed as a professor at a university. Finally, Carey sees the fruit of his labor.

But in 1812, when everything seems to be going well, disaster strikes. Fire breaks out and destroys the printing office in Serampore. The loss is huge – most significantly, a massive dictionary of all the languages derived from Sanskrit is destroyed. This work alone would have made Carey a famous scholar for all time – yet he never reproduces it.

An eyewitness reports, “The scene was indeed affecting. The immense printing-office, two hundred feet long and fifty broad, reduced to a mere shell. The yard covered with burnt quires of paper, the loss in which article was immense. Carey walked with me over the smoking ruins. The tears stood in his eyes. ‘In one short evening,’ said he, ‘the labours of years are consumed.’”

What did William Carey need most? Protection from illness for his family? Protection from fire? How did he respond when he suffered such a loss?

We’ll come back to William Carey at the close. But think of yourself now: How do you respond when you hear such stories? One possible response is fear. You might think, “If God allowed such things to happen to Carey, what is He going to allow to happen to me?”

Will God supply all your needs? Is he your fortress, your strength, your rock?

In today’s text, 2 Corinthians 12:1-13, Paul comes to the high point of this entire letter. He addresses clearly this very issue of suffering, of loss. Let’s see what he has to say. Remember that in chapter 11 Paul tells us that the true servant of God knows he is weak and incompetent on his own. He boasts in his weakness, rather than hiding it. Furthermore, Paul has warned: Take care in deciding whom to follow, for your salvation may depend on that choice.

Recall also that Paul shows the foolishness of the boasts of his opponents in their Jewish ancestry by making the same foolish boast. He begins chapter 12 by making another foolish boast, following the boasts of his opponents in their mystical experiences.

Boasting is necessary, though it is not profitable; but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago-- whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a man was caught up to the third heaven. 3 And I know how such a man-- whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows-- 4 was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak. 5 On behalf of such a man I will boast; but on my own behalf I will not boast, except in regard to my weaknesses. 6 For if I do wish to boast I will not be foolish, for I will be speaking the truth; but I refrain from this, so that no one will credit me with more than he sees in me or hears from me. 7 Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself! 8 Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. 9 And He has said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness." Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ's sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong. 11 I have become foolish; you yourselves compelled me. Actually I should have been commended by you, for in no respect was I inferior to the most eminent apostles, even though I am a nobody. 12 The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with all perseverance, by signs and wonders and miracles. 13 For in what respect were you treated as inferior to the rest of the churches, except that I myself did not become a burden to you? Forgive me this wrong! 2 Corinthians 12:1-13 NAU

We’ll consider this text through four questions:

Why Does God Give Paul this Mystical Experience?

Paul receives this extraordinary mystical experience. Why? Let’s consider several options:

Did Paul receive this experience to provide him with truths to teach?

No! Paul lived with the Corinthians eighteen months, and he clearly had never told them about this. Indeed, he never mentions the content of what he saw and heard, instead saying these are “inexpressible.”

Did Paul receive this experience as an example, a model to others of how to become intimate with God?

No! Once again, how could this serve as a model if Paul did not communicate it?

Did Paul receive this experience to give him special authority, to validate his apostleship?

This is what the false apostles are claiming about their own mystical experiences. They are saying, ‘Look at us! We’re super-spiritual! We’ve had visions, such wonderful experiences! So listen to us! Learn from us, for we are really special!” Such claims have forced Paul to talk about his own experience.

But does Paul use this experience to validate his authority? No! Instead, he says in verse 11, “I have become foolish; you yourselves compelled me.” He says boasting in this experience makes him a fool. Throughout his letters, Paul never bases his authority on this experience. Instead, he bases his authority on the power of God working through him – especially the power manifested in the lives changed by his ministry. As he says in verse 6:

For if I do wish to boast I will not be foolish, for I will be speaking the truth; but I refrain from this, so that no one will credit me with more than he sees in me or hears from me.

Paul wants credit for what others see in him, what they hear from him. He wants them to see the impact of his teaching, the lives that are changed through that teaching; he wants them to see that his teaching is consistent with truth. He wants them to see that his life is consistent with that teaching.

Paul has said something similar earlier in this letter, in 3:1-4:

Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you?  2 You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all.  3 And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.  4 Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God.

The Corinthians are his “letter of recommendation.” They themselves should see clearly that God uses him mightily.

Paul also appeals in 12:12 to the “signs, wonders, and miracles” that have been performed through him. These too form part of what the Corinthians have seen in him. But since Satan’s agents can imitate such signs and wonders (2 Thessalonians 2:9), the primary verification of Paul’s authority is changed lives.

So if this mystical vision did not provide Paul with teaching material – if it was not to serve as an example, and was not to be used to validate his authority – why did God give Paul this mystical experience?

God gave Paul this experience for himself. Given the trials ahead of him, given the nature of his task, God provides Paul with this encouragement, so that he might have even greater confidence in God during the tough times ahead.

My friends, don’t seek mystical experiences. If God seems to grant such to you, be discerning – test the spirits – but if it is consistent with biblical teaching, be encouraged. Yet don’t boast in such experiences, don’t feel any pride about them, don’t base any doctrine or teaching on them, and be very circumspect in sharing them; never share them with any person who could possibly be impressed by that experience.

Who Gives Paul a Thorn in the Flesh, and Why?

Paul now speaks of his pain:

Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself! 2 Corinthians 12:7

Who gives this thorn in the flesh to Paul? He uses the passive voice, saying, “there was given to me.” It was given by whom? Who is the agent?

Not Satan. The thorn torments Paul, and Satan is happy to be involved in tormenting God’s people. But this thorn serves a purpose. Do you see the purpose Paul states? To keep him humble! To keep him from exalting himself after such revelations! And who wants to keep Paul humble? Surely not Satan – but God Himself!

God is the one who gives Paul the thorn in the flesh.     

Does this seem strange? Certainly it is no stranger than Isaiah 53:10:

It was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief.

It was God’s will for His Son to be killed; it was God’s will for Paul to suffer; it may very well be God’s will for you too to suffer. God gave Paul the thorn in the flesh for His own good and wise purposes. God uses suffering for His glory.

If this is the case, we need to ask the logical question:

Is Paul Wrong to Request the Removal of the Thorn?

He clearly asks, more than once. See verse 8:

I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me . . .

If the thorn is sent by God, according to His plan, for God’s glory and Paul’s good, perhaps Paul should not ask to have it removed. Indeed, if God’s power is made perfect in weakness, should Paul – should we - intentionally become weak? Should Paul be an ascetic – one who seeks hardship because there is merit in hardship?

No! Paul asks for the suffering to be removed, and there is not even a hint in the text that this request was wrong. There is never any biblical injunction to seek suffering. We can always ask for the removal of such suffering. But when we ask, and God says, “No, I won’t remove it,” we need to respond like Paul. He asked more than once – but when God makes clear that He will not remove it, Paul gladly glories in his suffering.

This should be our attitude also: We do not seek hardship. When hardship comes for ourselves and for others, we are right to pray against it. But we also must pray for joy in the midst of suffering, for eyes to see Jesus Christ clearly in the midst of suffering, for satisfaction in Him despite the suffering. For in this way we bring glory to Him.

So Paul is not wrong to ask. But note that this verse also undercuts clearly those who argue something like this: “The Christian life is one of victory over all evil in this life – so rebuke the disease, and God will heal you! Only ask!”

Praise God, He will heal all our diseases and wipe every tear from our eyes on the last day. But in this life, we should expect tribulation and suffering (John 16:33, Acts 14:22). Note that:

·        God did not heal Paul;

·        He did not heal Trophimus, whom Paul left sick in Miletus (2 Timothy 4:20);

·        He did not heal Timothy, who seems to have suffered from some chronic stomach illness (1 Timothy 5:23).

So by all means, pray for healing! And praise God that He does give us a foretaste of the last day by providing miraculous healing on occasion in this life. Praise God that He will eventually destroy death and end all sorrow and pain for His people. But in this life, remain content with the answer God gives you. Why? The last section tells us.

How is God’s Power Perfected in our Weakness?

Look once again at verses 9 and 10:

And He has said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness." Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ's sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.

What is the result of Paul’s suffering for Christ? What is the result of his thorn in the flesh? Two results are mentioned in this passage: First, he is humbled. In this way, he becomes Christlike. And this is a cause for joy. If he had become proud because of the revelation he received, he would have been less like Christ. The thorn keeps him humble, transforming him more fully into what God intends him to be.

The second impact of the thorn is that God’s power is clearly manifested in his life. The thorn makes absolutely clear that Paul is a weak man. His physical weakness requires him to depend physically on others. He needs help continually. Perhaps he is repulsive in some way. Yet God works mightily through him. So he can say, “When I am weak, then I am strong.” Strong not in himself, but in Christ.

Thus, this suffering results in joy! God says to him, “My grace is sufficient for you.” That is, “I am all you need! You need nothing else! You have Me! So delight in my presence!” Paul takes this to heart, saying in verse 10 that he is well content, or well-pleased, with weaknesses, insults, and distresses.

The same was true of Jesus. As the author of Hebrews tells us:

Jesus for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame. Hebrews 12:2

Paul and Jesus experience joy in suffering because they see the purpose of that suffering. They are confident that God is indeed working all things together for good. God’s working all things together is an indication of His power. And when God works, His power is displayed. Thus, when God works through your obvious weakness, His power is displayed in all its greatness. When great things are accomplished through a weak man, there is no question that God is the one who works. And thus He is glorified.


Let’s return to William Carey. We left him having witnessed the destruction of his life’s work, lamenting, 'In one short evening, the labours of years are consumed.’ He continues:

How unsearchable are the ways of God! I had lately brought some things to the utmost perfection of which they seemed capable, and contemplated the missionary establishment with perhaps too much self-congratulation. The Lord has laid me low, that I may look more simply to Him.'

An eyewitness continues:

Who could stand in such a place, at such a time, with such a man, without feelings of sharp regret and solemn exercise of mind. I saw the ground strewed with half-consumed paper, on which in the course of a very few months the words of life would have been printed. The metal under our feet amidst the ruins was melted into misshapen lumps—the sad remains of beautiful types consecrated to the service of the sanctuary. All was smiling and promising a few hours before--now all is vanished into smoke or converted into rubbish! . . . [So] regard God in all thou doest. . . .Let God be exalted in all thy plans, and purposes, and labours; He can do without thee.

“He can do without thee.” “The Lord has laid me low, that I may look more simply to Him.” Contemplate these statements.

Dear friends: God can do without you. Your task is to look more simply to Him.

Isn’t this what suffering so often does to us – causes us to look to Him? Doesn’t God work through suffering to force us onto our knees, to force us to admit that without him we can do nothing, to bring us to the end of our own resources so that He might get all the praise, instead of us – so that we might know with all clarity that He is the One who works, that He is the one who accomplishes all? As the Psalmist writes,

It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes. Psalm 119:71

What do you need most?

You need Christ, and the power of His resurrection. When you have Him, you have all you need. And so you, like Paul, can be well pleased with weaknesses, with insults, with hardships, with calamities. For when you face such trials with joy, when you face such difficulties and remain satisfied with Jesus, then Christ’s power is shown in you. His infinite value shines forth.

His power is made perfect in your weakness. So rejoice in Him – rejoice in your weakness!

This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 3/21/04. Scott Hafemann’s The NIV Application Commentary: 2 Corinthians (Zondervan, 2000) was helpful. There are numerous sources for William Carey’s story; the quotations are taken from George Smith, The Life of William Carey, Shoemaker & Missionary (1885), available online at www.ccel.org .

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