Craig's first sermon here at HTG
As we stand, let's pray:
Dear Father God, thank you so much for church tonight. Thank you that we can come together to praise your Name and to learn more about you. Lord, by your Spirit please help us to have humble hearts, to be willing to be changed by what we hear from your Word tonight and more than anything: to love our Lord Jesus more.
And we ask this in His great Name, Amen.
Brilliant, it's lovely to see you all here tonight. Tonight we're not in the middle of a series or anything, I was given free reign to choose any passage from the Bible, and it was pretty much a no-brainer on my part – I've chosen one of, if not my all-time favourite passage of Scripture – and it's a bit of a random one on a first look. Tonight we're parachuting into 2 Corinthians Chapter 12, you can find it on page 819 in the blue Bibles.
Now you might already be thinking, Craigy Boy: how is this, out of everything in here, your favourite passage? I mean it's not like it would make the Match of the Day highlights reel of the Bible, this isn't Jesus walking on water, dying on the cross, this isn't the resurrection, or the promise of Jesus coming back again, it's hardly Noah's Ark –
it's title if you look down is 'Paul's Vision and His Thorn', if you saw that as a movie title going to the Vue Cinema in Trinity Square you'd probably avoid it with a barge pole, it hardly sounds like a blockbuster – but I've found this and by God's help tonight I hope you'll find this one of THE most relatable and encouraging parts of the Bible that God has for us.
It talks about a thorn, and I dunno what experience you have with thorns. When I think of thorns I think of one fateful day, probably when I was around 9 or 10 years old. Picture the scene, we're in the Wild West of Gateshead, not this part, the part I grew up in, in Winlaton Mill. Has anyone heard or been to Winlaton Mill? It's on the road between Swalwell and Consett next to the Derwent Walk. This was back in the day where kids actually played outside, like me and the squad actually preferred playing outside over playing on the PS2. We were in the middle of a construction project, we were building a 3 storey treehouse, I'm genuinely not winding you up, 3 actual stories. It was in Thornley Woods, far enough away that the local charvas wouldn't ransack it, close enough to Winlaton Mill that we could carry things from the skips we would 'borrow from' to build it.
It had this massive thorn bush in the entrance, terrifying. And one day we decided to get, take without paying (this is pre-Christian Craig by the way) we'd take some paintballs from the field round the corner.
I was on the top floor of this megastructure, hammering away and one of my mates thought it would be a fun idea to put all the paintballs in a wheelbarrow, then put loads of lighters in there and put some deodorant cans in there too (I SHOULDN'T HAVE TO SAY THIS: BUT DON'T TRY THIS AT HOME). The inevitable happened. They set it on fire, it properly exploded, I mean it properly went up! I came flying down from the 3rd floor and landed in a heap and being 10 years old we didn't want to stay around to be told off, so we pegged it through the thorn bush alley, the explosion was nothing compared to the pain of these genetically modified thorns. We were in so much pain.
Thorns hurt, and that's what Paul is writing about in our passage from 2 Corinthians. We all will have sufferings, 'thorns in our flesh' that this passage describes going on in our own lives I'm sure. And I'm sure you'll be encouraged by what God has to say into these struggles.
But to understand the thorn we need to backtrack to verse 1 of chapter 12, page 819, please have it open as we look at this tonight to see if what I have to say matches up with what God is saying in here.
Our first point is this
1. The Apostle Paul versus the 'Super-Apostles'
Look down at the first 5 verses, it says
'I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know--God knows. 3 And I know that this man--whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows-- 4 was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.'
What is Paul going on about here?! On a first reading, in a parachute jump into this passage this seems like a very odd story. Paul seems to be talking about his own visions from God then starts bragging about someone else? Who is he talking about?
We need context. Paul is in the middle of rebuking some blokes who saw themselves as the religious top dogs. There was a group of people in the church in Corinth who were known as the 'super apostles'. They thought of themselves as the Ronaldo or Messi of church work. They bragged about how amazing they were, and they often did that by talking about how amazing their visions were from God.
And they compared themselves to Paul. Paul might be seen by some of us as the top dog of the apostles.
But the Super Apostles did not have this view of Paul. They saw Paul as an old man, a has been of the Christian world. He was not very strong and stable in their eyes.
They were the new blood, they had better visions, they had more to brag about. Paul was a fossil, not an apostle – in their eyes.
That was the pressure he was under, and he had to rebuke them. And that's what these first 5 verses are.
We might look at this see ourselves in both parties here. Maybe you have 'Super Apostle' tendencies? We as Christians can be tempted to rack up our Christian points, and constantly compare ourselves to others. 'Oh she is so more holy than me, she helps at two toddler groups' or 'Pfft, they think they're a Christian, I lead a Bible study every other week' or even myself could say the disgustingly arrogant, self-absorbed, counter-Scriptural, Godless sentence of 'Yeah, I'm better than they are, I even get to do sermons now'
These statements, whether we verbalise them or even entertain these thoughts and indulge in them for a few seconds are exactly the type of sinful paradigm the 'super Apostles' were living in.
The fact is they weren't 'super apostles' at all, they were fake apostles.
Or we might see ourselves in Paul. Now I'm not saying we're apostles like Paul. But he was getting some flak just for simply getting on in his Christian life. He wasn't the fresh faced cool 21 year old Fortnite playing Youth Worker, he wasn't the all-talented guitarist slash vocalist in the worship band.
He was a Christian, an apostle, he loved Jesus, and he was weak and was under attack by people who were simply trying to jealously take his mantle, and use it for their own selfish motives.
They specifically attacked the fact that they thought that having 'visions' made them more worthy to be Christian leaders than Paul. Yeah he had seen the risen Jesus on the Road to Damascus, but that was old news.
It says in 2 Corinthians Chapter 10, verse 10 – just on page 818 there 'For some say, "His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing"'
So that's why he must respond, not to brag in and of himself, but if you look down to chapter 11 verse 4. '4 For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough. 5 But I do not think I am in the least inferior to those "super-apostles". 6 I may not be a trained speaker, but I do have knowledge. We have made this perfectly clear to you in every way.'
And this defence not just of his ministry, but for the actual real Jesus He met on the road to Damascus, the real Jesus who had changed his life upside down - not a made up one of the super apostles or anyone's imagination, this culminates in verses 1-6 of chapter 12. This is not just for Paul, this is for Jesus.
To highlight this he uses a weird but brilliant tactic. He talks about himself as if he's talking about someone else. In verse 2 of Chapter 12, he says 'I know a man in Christ [he's talking about himself] who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know--God knows.' – he defends his ministry so that what he says about Jesus remains authoritative. He cannot allow a load of people to start teaching about a false Jesus, that's why verse 1 he says 'I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained'.
That brings us to our second stop tonight:
2. Paul's vision: Heaven on Earth?
He strikingly does have a vision from God that puts all of these visions the false apostles were having to utter shame, he saw heaven (the third heaven there is using the Greek system of thinking there were multiple heavenly realms, the third one was the very highest, where God dwelt – and Paul had experienced it.
He doesn't know, or perhaps he doesn't even care if he was there in the body of out of it – God knows (end of verses 2 and 3). All that matters is that it was real and it was legitimate and was from God. This wasn't just a vanity trip, this wasn't something to add to his Spiritual CV, this was meant to be a private encouragement just for Paul's eyes.
Now I'm not being funny, but for me and presumably most of us in this room – if we'd experienced heaven, we'd talk about it?!
You'd probably be shouting around everywhere saying 'I've experienced heaven, it's amazing!!! God actually showed it to me!' You'd probably go around whistling 'Heaven is a Place on Earth' by Belinda Carlisle all day long.
But imagine having an experience like that and not being able to tell anyone? In verse 4 he 'was caught up to paradise. He (Paul talking about himself) heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.'
It's like getting 30 A*s at A Level and not being allowed to even tell one other soul, not being able to put it on your CV. That's a terrible example: it's much bigger than that.
Even when attacked, the point when Paul was most likely to respond with his Spiritual CV, he still doesn't mention the contents of the vision, just that it had happened. Look at verse 6 'Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no-one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say.'
If that's not amazing enough then the end of verse 5, just before that, should blow us away:
'but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses.'
This is an incredible counter-intuitive move.
When people attack our credentials, we're supposed to look strong, fight back, to put our case across strongly. You know in my day if someone hit you on the playground the advice wasn't to tell a teacher, it was to hit them back harder. Our culture values strength highly, look at corporate culture, it's a dog eat dog world, bring other people down and climb the ladder!
And God's Word here says that Paul, a godly man – instead boasted of his weakness.
This is where this passage becomes beautiful, we needed to look at the context, which let's face it is quite difficult to understand at first. But now when we read about the thorn, the suffering – we understand far more deeply what Paul, and what God, is trying to teach us all here, today in Gateshead, in 2018.
3. Where is God in our suffering?
We might just sit here and think, 'cheers Craig for telling us really indepth about a weird story about a church dispute 2000 years ago and how Paul had a vision, but mate – what has that got to do with MY LIFE' – I hear you I really do.
That bit was difficult to understand, but this bit is deeply challenging to our lives.
So this is where the rubber hits the road for us.
Look down at verse 7
"To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me."
Paul was given a thorn, what that thorn was we don't know. But it had to be bad. Paul was no wet wipe, he had endured hardship of a massive scale. The Bible doesn't tell us what it is but some say it could have been his eyesight going citing Galatians 6 verse 11 where it talks about his large handwriting, to be honest that's stretching what the Bible says a bit for me. It could have been his eyesight, but it could have been opposition to his message, it could have been beatings, malaria, whatever! And if you've suffered with stuff like chronic fatigue, anxiety, depression, persistent dizziness, cholitis, deafness etc. etc. you'll know how debilitating suffering may be described as a 'thorn in your flesh'.
And they can make you think that God, if he's really there, just doesn't care about you – or infact worse, that He is actively against you, that he's some sort of Black Mirror villain, a sadistic puppeteer just relishing causing you suffering.
If that's you tonight can I say, please take in these words of truth from the Bible and what God really thinks about you.
I can empathise with Paul a bit here. I've probably mentioned this to a few of you, but I used to and still do in parts, really suffer with anxiety. This isn't the 'cute' anxiety that Twitter or Pinterest or Tumblr would have you believe. This wasn't just a little bit of worry.
This was constant, persistent, every waking moment fear of everything. Everything was a disaster. I would catastrophise everything. And the worst bit about mental health suffering, or one of the worst bits is that on the surface, you look absolutely fine. I was still the silly, happy on the surface clown. But behind it all, was a dark cloud.
I think the worst times of it were about 2 or 3 years ago. It sapped any enjoyment out of anything. Meeting friends was horrid, in fact I can remember going to ASDA with my mam and nanna and every time I tried to talk to them, I would feel sick to the point of retching. The devil was attacking the very central relationships of my life, and there was seemingly nothing I could do about it. My thoughts led to worse thoughts, I got Cognative Behavaral Therapy (CBT) and then had to extend my course of it cos I was so bad. I had, I think this is genuinely the only time I've ever experienced actual persecution, I went to the doctors and told her everything and said when I was in church it got worse cos I was around loads of people. She was laughing, she told me extensively not to go to church, to come away from everyone, to stop serving in the youth work, she was going to pill me up to make me better.
There is nothing wrong whatsoever with using medication for mental health but she didn't care about the problem, she just wanted rid of me.
Anxiety was a thorn in my flesh, I even stopped getting excited about things.
If you think about excitement it's anticipation of the future just like anxiety is, so I switched it off. I went years without ever getting remotely excited about anything. I was trapped. I pleaded with God more than 3 times to get rid of it, like Paul says in verse 8 'Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.'
But amazingly, this is utterly one of the best moments of my life, I read this passage and the Holy Spirit opened my eyes to one of the most beautiful truths in existence.
This is it, take this in: Look down to verse 9: "But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."
Wow. If I wasn't a wimp I'd get that tattooed on me.
Beautiful, beautiful Jesus.
We have the God, the real God, the only God – who doesn't just stand off high and mighty from our weaknesses. But in the person of Jesus Christ, came down here, suffered unjustly, died the worst death on the cross, to save you – and me.
The Christian writer R Kent Hughes rightly points to the huge similarity between Paul pleading for the removal of his thorn, the removal of his suffering and the same prayer Jesus gives to His Father for the removal of his suffering the night before he died.
Remember what Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane that we read a little earlier?
Mark 14, starting at the end of verse 33 says this
"he (Jesus) began to be deeply distressed and troubled. 34 "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death," he said to them. "Stay here and keep watch." 35 Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. 36 "Abba, Father," he said, "everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will."
This is the real God, not the made up one we imagine who is far off from our suffering but the one who knows suffering so much deeper than we can even comprehend.
This Jesus is our God.
Paul knew that, that's why he says in the second part of verse 9 'Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me'
And so we come to our final point, quickly.
4. Do you trust God with your suffering?
Hearing all of this stuff about God and suffering can raise up memories, or maybe even present situations that are so incredibly tough for us.
But we can hear about God's view of suffering and still let it go in one ear and out of the other.
We all need to deeply examine ourselves and our attitudes to our suffering, but most importantly our attitude to God in suffering.
Paul saw the bigger, eternal perspective in his suffering. Where his visions were used to give him an encouragement, his thorn was used to stop him from becoming conceited, which literally translates as being 'puffed up', it was to stop him from becoming like the false apostles who's visions led them to pride in themselves and not adoration of God.
Paul thorn had a purpose, and we can be sure that God will use all of our sufferings, no matter how deep, painful or persistent they are – we can know the truth of Romans 8 verse 28 which says 'And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.'
ALL THINGS, that's good or bad, ALL THINGS God will work for the good of those who love him. So, do you love him?
God doesn't cause suffering, in our passage tonight we clearly see that it's a 'messenger of Satan' that comes to harass Paul as his thorn, that's the same for us. God never causes suffering, but amazingly, in his infinite wisdom and his infinite love in Jesus Christ he often uses our sufferings which Satan means for our harm, and he beautifully uses them for our good.
That doesn't mean we'll be able to see that always, if you look back at the Old Testament you find the whole book of Job going on about a bloke who suffers not because of his sin, but just suffers – and God still uses even 'pointless' over-the-top, too hard to bear suffering for the eternal good of the people he loves.
We need to remember that in our trials, when we're so tempted to give God the two fingers we need to be running back in the arms of our saviour who knows our suffering.
We need to have the attitude of Paul in verse 10 ''That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.'
He doesn't weirdly love suffering. Lots of people think the Christian life is about trying to weirdly enjoy and embrace and even seek out suffering as if that is to make God happy. No it's not, Paul hates his thorn just like we hate our thorns. But He still trusts in God, he allows God to use the thorn for his good, and the amazing paradox of all of this is that when we are weak, we are strong in God. God's power is made perfect in weakness. His grace is sufficient, He will get us through until we meet him face to face.
And there we have our hope, which is said in Revelation 21:4 'He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away."
God knows what you're going through or have gone through – and He loves you so much and wants you to turn to Him.
So let's keep our eyes on Jesus during our suffering. We can talk to him about it in prayer and we can support one another by pointing one another to Jesus.
We all have thorns, but Jesus took his crown of thorns for us.
He is coming back, that is the truth, and only if we trust in Jesus will our suffering then come to an end as we enjoy eternity forever, with him.
Thank you for this incredibly difficult and challenging passage in your Word tonight. Lord we hate our suffering, we ask that you may lift the thorns of our lives if that is your will. But if that is not your will, or is not yet your will please help us to rest in you, not run away from you in suffering. By your Spirit help us to trust in Jesus Christ who suffered on our behalf.
In his name we pray Amen