Triumphantly Encouraged: The Privilege of Ministry, Part 3

Desiring God 1997 Conference for Pastors

Triumphantly Encouraged: The Privilege of Ministry

It has been a wonderfully enriching time. I am grateful to John for his invitation to be here. I count it a great honor and a great privilege, knowing who has been here in the past. It’s a very wonderful group for me to be in any way associated with, so I’m very honored to be here. And it’s nice to see John in his natural habitat, in this church, and to sense something of the heart of the people he’s influenced here. We’re grateful for that as well.

Controversies of Spurgeon and Edwards

Turn in your Bible, if you will, to 2 Corinthians 12:7–10. People can make life very difficult as you well know in many ways. I remember talking to a young man who told me he was looking for a church, but he didn’t want one that had any problems, so he was going to wait until he found one that didn’t. You better hope to pastor a funeral chapel if that’s your desire.

Occasionally, in the Summer, when I have to take a long overseas flight, I read some long book, tackling it in the middle of the night over and in the middle of the night back. I’ve done that a number of times in my summer journeys to mission fields and conferences overseas. One Summer recently I read the biography of Jonathan Edwards by Ian Murray, and I was struck greatly by the pain of his life, of what he suffered at the hands of his church, the people to whom he had invested 22 years of his life, and on whom he had unloaded the most profound preaching perhaps in the history of this country.

I was reminded in reading that of the equally painful story of Spurgeon’s sad rejection, how that after he had managed to garner the interest of the whole English-speaking Christian world and was shipping his sermons on every boat that left England to cover the world with his messages, and after being inarguably the most profoundly influential preacher of his time, when the Baptist Association met, they took a vote as to whether he should be retained in the association, and they voted him out — thousands to a handful. Remarkably, the motion to exclude him was made by a gentleman who knew him, seconded by Spurgeon’s assistant pastor, who also happened to be his brother, James Spurgeon.

Jonathan Edwards, of course, ministered in the church at Northampton for those 22 years, and then they voted him out because he felt that people should make a public confession of faith in Jesus Christ before they take communion, which is not exactly a fringe viewpoint. And not only did they put him out, but they did the best they could to destroy his reputation so that nobody else would want him. He couldn’t get a pastorate, though he had a great intellect and he was a profound theologian. He was probably one of the greatest writers of any kind that this country’s ever known. He settled for a congregation of Indians and preached out his days to simple pagans who needed doses of truth at about a third-grade level.

He was broken and he was humbled obviously through all of that. At the end of his life, or toward the end of his life, he was asked if he would become the president of the College of New Jersey, which later became known as Princeton, and he struggled greatly with that, declining repeatedly because he felt that he was utterly unworthy for such a charge. Finally and reluctantly, he agreed and accepted, and within six months he was with the Lord.

The Difficulties We Face

People can stick the knife in pretty deep, and they can break men of God far greater than we are. Sometimes those whom we think we’ve garnered as friends turn out to be brutal enemies. I had the occasion, the last two times I spoke at Moody Founder’s Week, to run into this kind of thing. Some of you may have been there. The last few times I have gone to Moody’s Founder’s Week, there are some people ringing the Moody Memorial Church when I go to preach, passing out anti-MacArthur propaganda. There’s always this long single spaced sheet, written on both sides, articulating all the heresies of John MacArthur, and these are distributed regularly to the 4,000 or so people that show up to hear me preach.

It does tend to generate a great amount of expectation and interest, and I can remember the first time this happened. I was sick. I had gotten sick in Indiana. I was struggling in my motel room in Indiana to put together my messages. I had to preach twice within a 24-hour period, and I was struggling to put it all together because I was sick in bed, and doing all that stuff while you’re sick in bed is more challenging.

I came to Moody, and I got out of the car of the guy who brought me up from Indiana, and he delivered me in. There was a young student who was there at the Holiday Inn in Chicago, and he said, “Oh, Dr. MacArthur, it’s so wonderful to see you. I just want to tell you, Dr. Lutzer will be preaching at Moody in 15 minutes and I know you’ll want to hear him.”

I was sick at the time, but I certainly didn’t want to seem like I didn’t want to hear my friend Dr. Lutzer, and I didn’t want to disappoint this young man or make him think I was indifferent, so I said, “Well, of course.” And he said, “Oh, good, you can go with me.” And as the providence of God would have it, he took me down there, and Lutzer took the text I had spent all the time preparing, and preached a better message, and took a different view of it.

So then I went back even more to my room and spent all night preparing for my message again, only to arrive and have anti-MacArthur propaganda passed out. And it continued for that time and the next two times. I did a little research and found out that the gentleman who’s doing that is a man who had a son whom I met, and to whom I gave a four-year scholarship to the Master’s College. He came and took his education and went back. I suppose you might think that a grateful father would find some other way to express his appreciation.

Paul’s Broken Heart

We all live in those kinds of realities of the unkindness of people and the difficulties that they bring to bear upon us. I suppose unfulfilled relationships are the most heartbreaking. Certainly, that’s what Paul was agonizing over, wasn’t it? It was all about this mutiny, this rebellion, this disaffection, and this indifference to one who loved them so greatly. We find him, as we read this epistle all the way through, grappling with that in his heart. He has been wounded profoundly. He has been cut to the quick. And it seems as though the more he loved them (according to 2 Corinthians 12:15), the less love he got back. He has to deal with that in his own heart, and he does it in this text before us. It’s one of the most powerful texts in all of the New Testament.

In fact, the whole section from 2 Corinthians 10 to the end, those four chapters, may be the most emotionally charged that Paul ever wrote, because in this particular portion of the epistle he lays his heart bare in the midst of these blistering attacks on him and his ministry, and they have more to do with him than his ministry because the whole idea is to discredit him, as I’ve pointed out. His integrity has been called into question by his enemies. His loyalty has been attacked. His ability to lead and make decisions has been questioned. His love has been doubted and even flatly denied. And it’s all coming at a time when he is going through terrible suffering, pain, and agony because of other issues.

As we saw when we rolled through the epistle in our first session last night, he gives long lists several times of the things that he had been enduring. But on top of it all, according to Second Corinthians 11:28, after all the litany of other things, there was this daily pressure of concern for all the churches. Most debilitating of all was people disappointing, rejecting, failing, wounding, betraying, misunderstanding, and turning on one who loves them deeply. And frankly, gentlemen, I submit to you that the deepest pain and the greatest trouble you will ever know in life will come from people.

Apart from the personal guilt that you feel for your sin, your greatest anxiety will be as a result of the wounds inflicted on you by people, the pain of unrequited love, the pain of unfulfilled relationships, the pain of betrayal. No disease is that painful. No injury is that painful. Rejection, false accusation, misrepresentation, hatred, and betrayal — those are the most painful things that I endure. And we would expect then that when we see Paul at the deepest point of pain — certainly according to his literary expressions — when we see him at a point when his soul is depressed and we confront the most taxing problems that he’s ever gone through in his life, when he’s being attacked the most violently and is the most vulnerable, and he’s feeling the deepest suffering ever, we could probably also find how to deal with that in our own lives.

Lessons from the Apostle Paul

This is what that text does for us. He was unloved, he was unappreciated, he was unrequited in his affection, his integrity was in question, his fruitfulness was denied, his honesty was attacked, his sacrificial service was belittled, his credentials were scoffed at, his authority was absolutely rejected, and this was being orchestrated by some false apostles who had come in. No doubt they had a ring leader who was leading this whole charge. There was one individual in particular who was really trying to destroy him and his ministry, and he was succeeding.

They were saying of him (2 Corinthians 10:2) that he walked in the flesh. That he was a fleshy, carnal, evil man. And as I said before, they maligned his characteristics physically, they belittled his skill at speaking, they did everything they could to attack him. Here was this dear, sacrificial, humble apostle who was repeatedly battered, and these Corinthians to whom he had given almost two years of his life were setting themselves in opposition against him, and that was very, very hard to deal with.

We find ourselves then, feeling along with him a little bit, some empathy, and asking, “How does he deal with it? How does he handle it?” And I think in this passage we really get great insight into the answer, because Paul, in the midst of his deepest pain in his life, focuses on several key issues. When he comes to understand these, he gets back his equilibrium.

1. Suffering for the sake of Humility

Here’s the first lesson, and I’m going to give you several of them. The first lesson that allowed him to pick himself back up again was this: God uses suffering to humble his children. This is not new to you, but it’s dramatic in this passage. In 2 Corinthians 12:7, we read this:

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 buffet me — to keep me from exalting myself! (2 Corinthians 12:7, all Scripture references are taken from the NASB).

Now, there’s only one thing that’s repeated twice in that verse, what is it? It’s the phrase “to keep me from exalting myself.” The initial thing that verse strikes is the reality of God wanting his servant humble. Now, Paul had had many revelations, and here, by the way, he is not talking about the 13 epistles, or if you want (with Hebrews), 14 epistles, which he received by inspiration of the Spirit of God. This is early in his writing ministry. That’s not what he has in mind. Those were certainly revelations, but what he’s talking about are the surpassing personal experiences he had with the risen, ascended, and exalted Christ.

It covers the extraordinary, uncommon, absolutely unique, surpassingly great revelations, such as meeting the Lord himself on the Damascus road, such as having an angel from the Lord come to appear to you, such as having the Lord himself show up and appear to you. You remember when he was in prison. The apostle Paul, certainly on three occasions, encountered the risen Christ, and then he even had a trip to heaven and came back, and he writes about that, of course, earlier in this same chapter.

That’s what he’s talking about. He’s talking about having gone into the third heaven. He’s talking about having had the Lord Jesus Christ appear to him personally. And what he means by that is not, “I was at a meeting and Jesus showed up and we all saw him.” No, nobody ever saw him except Paul. These were private encounters, indescribable encounters of the ascended Christ who met him personally, and then he had a trip to heaven.

The Danger of Pride

These things could easily make a man proud, couldn’t they? I can imagine a staff meeting going like this. Maybe Paul would say, “I think what we ought to do over here is this. This is the plan I want to use.” Maybe some of his coworkers might have said, “Well, Paul, we’ve thought about it and we think there’s a better strategy.” Then he could say, “You do? How many times have you guys been to heaven?” They say, “We’ve never been there, Paul.” He might say, “Oh, how many times has the ascended Christ appeared to you? We’ll do my plan.”

I can comprehend that. I can even comprehend Paul saying, “I think I’ll go on Christian TV. I’ve been to heaven and back.” I was having lunch with a pastor once and he said to me, “Sometimes when I’m shaving, Jesus appears and puts his arm around me and talks with me.” I said, “Pardon me? Like in the bathroom?” He said, “Yes. Do you believe that?” I said, “No, honestly, but I believe you believe that, which is what concerns me.” I said, “I have one question, do you keep shaving?” Because I’ll tell you what, if Jesus ever showed up anywhere near me, I think I’d have an instant Isaiah experience, or something like Ezekiel or John in Revelation 1, wouldn’t you?

Just a footnote on that, if you really did have that encounter, it would not make you proud, it would make you humble, like Isaiah, who was disintegrating (the Hebrew word says). He saw God, that was fine. But if he saw God and he knew God saw him, that was not fine. To keep Paul from exalting himself, to keep him humble because of the surpassing revelations that God had given to him, he says, “There was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me” (2 Corinthians 12:7). May I suggest to you that it was by God? And this gift was unsolicited by Paul. And frankly, it is one that Satan wouldn’t have wanted to give him if he thought about it, since it produced humility, not pride. But God had given him this. That is to say, in the providence of God and the purposes of God, God had allowed this thorn in the flesh, this messenger of Satan, to come into Paul’s life for the purpose of humbling him.

Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh

Now, what was it? Well, he says it was the thorn in the flesh. Well, we know what the flesh is, the flesh is our unredeemed humanness, right? The flesh is that place where sin finds its hold. We are a new creation, but that new creation is incarcerated in unredeemed humanness, and that unredeemed humanness, the flesh that Paul talks about, which is in me, which is in my flesh and finds a propensity to sin, that’s where pride attaches itself. So the Lord knew that there needed to be a thorn for that flesh. And by the way, the word thorn doesn’t mean like a thorn on a rose, a little tiny thing. It means a sharpened stake, now the kind that you know would impale someone on. And Paul is saying, “The Lord has taken a stake, a sharpened wooden shaft, and he has driven it through my otherwise proud flesh.”

What was this? I’ve heard all kinds of things — eye disease, malaria. I even heard one preacher say it was his mother-in-law. That’s hard to prove exegetically. The major infliction is by God’s design. A shaft has been rammed through his flesh — really for the flesh, not in, but for the flesh — to control fleshly tendencies to be proud and to boast. But what was it? I’ll tell you what it was, because it tells you right here what it was. It says “a messenger of Satan.” The word “messenger” is angelos (an angel). The term is used 188 times in the New Testament. If you take this one out, all 187 times it’s used, it refers to a person. It never refers to anything by the person, an angelic person, or perhaps in the case of its use in the second and third chapters of Revelation, a human person, but it’s always a person, and most always an angelic person. A messenger of Satan is nothing more than a satanic angel, and another name for that is what? It’s a demon.

Now you say, “Well, you mean Paul had a demon?” No, but God was allowing a demon to run a painful shaft right through his otherwise proud flesh. What’s he talking about? I believe he’s talking about the demon-possessed, demon-inspired, demon-motivated, satanically-generated ringleader of the Corinthian conspiracy, the one who was tearing up Paul and just ripping him to shreds, because he was destroying his relationship with the Corinthians and because he was trying to destroy his church. I think it was the ringleader of the Corinthian conspiracy.

Disguised as an Angel of Light

Back in 2 Corinthians 11:14, he says:

No wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will be according to their deeds.

Here came Satan’s emissaries, disguised as angels of light, and there was one of them who was the ringleader of this Corinthian conspiracy, who was driven by Satan, because Satan always wants to attack the work of God, right? We shouldn’t be surprised, should we? Satan came to Jesus, according to Luke 22, and said to him, “I want Peter.” Remember that? And the Lord calls Peter and says, “Satan has desired to have you” (Luke 22:31). Now, if I was Peter, I would have said, “Well, you told him no, right?” The Lord said, “I told him yes. He wants you. It’s okay. He wanted Job and he wanted me too on the mount of temptation. It’s okay, because when you get through it and you’re converted, you’ll be able to strengthen the brethren.”

Listen, if necessary, God will use Satan himself to humble his servant, okay? And certainly a messenger from Saint. That’s why you don’t want to be chasing away demons, you might be chasing away the ones the Lord sent. First of all, there’s no indication you could anyway, but if you could, you really don’t have the knowledge of the plan.

I often think about Job’s friends. If they have known some of the contemporary formulas for chasing away Satan, they might have been able to chase him away, or at least to think they could. But here, the apostle Paul, by God’s design, has been made the victim of an unbelievably painful assault on his beloved church, which is grieving him, but the purpose is good because this brings about his humility.

Trials and the Goodness of God

Now, look back at that verse for a moment. He says again in 2 Corinthians 12:7 that the purpose of this messenger was to “buffet me.” Literally, that’s the word “torment.” That’s the same word used in Matthew 26 and Mark 14 of the soldiers beating Jesus in the face with their fists. It’s used in 1 Corinthians 4, of Paul being physically abused. It’s literally derived from a Greek word that means “knuckles.” It talks about just being punched in the face.

Why? You mean to tell me that in my life as a servant of God, in the life of the apostle Paul, God himself is going to allow me to be hammered by a messenger from Satan? That he may be allowing terrible difficulties in my church? That he might even be allowing some kind of chaos and confusion that threatens the very life and future of the church? Why? To keep me from what? Exalting myself.

I’ve learned to expect this in my ministry because of the greatness of the goodness of God. I’ve learned to expect these kinds of things, and when we have a momentary time of peace in our church, I relish that rest, but I know it’s going to crank up again because the blessing of God has been so great that I know my heart needs to be humbled.

Trials have many purposes. They test the strength of our faith, they wean us off of worldly things, they call us to eternal hope, they reveal what and whom we really love, they teach us to value God’s blessing, they enable us to help others who suffer, they produce endurance, which equips us for greater usefulness, but mainly they humble us. There you are, pouring all your life into this church, preaching all your great stuff, and you’re just getting a stake rammed through your flesh.

Now, God wants his servant humble to the degree that God allows Satan to torment his children if that assists in their humiliation. May I suggest that you understand that and bless God for what humbles you. The first lesson that Paul learned in his suffering was that God uses suffering to humble his servant.

2. Suffering for the Sake of Godwardness

Here’s a second lesson: God uses suffering to drive us to himself. Consider 2 Corinthians 12:8, and please notice he didn’t chase the demons:

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

Do you know what I think? I think he prayed the imprecatory Psalms over those guys. He probably said something like, “Kill them, God, kill them. They’re wrecking the church. They’re breaking my heart.” In the time of his greatest need, the time of his deepest pain, the time of his severest trial, Paul didn’t go to Timothy and he didn’t go to Titus and he didn’t go to some counselor to help him; he went to God. And I really believed, gentleman, with all my heart that the times of your deepest pain potentiate the times of your sweetest communion. I can look back on my own life and think of that. Unquestionably, those are the purest and sweetest times of prayer, as I resort to the only place I can turn, and that’s to the Lord. And I find in him perfect peace.

A Personal Account of Trial

I think back to my son, Mark, and I shared this at the Southern Baptist Convention a few years ago, though I haven’t spoken much about it. When Mark was playing baseball in college, he started having headaches, and he was having headaches every day at practice. So finally he said, “Dad, I have these headaches. I think I need to go see the doctor and find out about this.”

So, Patricia and I took him to a headache clinic, and they did an MRI, and they found a brain tumor. And I’ll never forget, I went down to this crusty, old brain surgeon. He’d been poking around in people’s brains for years and years, and it was just a day’s work for him. He said, “Well, sit down here, sir. I’ve looked at these things and I’m going to ask your son to go out and do some stuff with the nurse.” So, he left the room and he said, “I just want you to know, this could be fatal.” Now, this was a 21 year old kid who just loved the Lord with all his heart, and he had all kinds of promise to serve the Lord. And my first thought was, “Fatal? This can’t be happening.”

But he said, “This is a serious tumor in a serious location. It’s well-nigh inoperable, and if it continues to grow, it could be fatal.” But he said, “I don’t want you to tell him because I want you to go through a series of tests. It’s going to take about 10 days to do this, and you take him down every day. We’ll do non-invasive tests at the cancer clinic, at the county hospital, at the USC Medical Center, and we’re going to try to find out what the nature of this tumor is before we have to drill into his brain and take the chance that we could sever the optic nerve, and stuff like that.”

Well, when you get to my kids, you’re really getting to me. So I said to Mark after we reconvened, “Well, they’re going to do some tests, Mark.” I didn’t tell him. And I went home and told Patricia that it could be really serious, but I didn’t tell her everything. At that moment I determined that I was just going to fast and pray for the whole period of time. It wasn’t any kind of sacrifice. I really wanted to do that. And so, for those nine days, I drove him every day, down and back, down and back, and we talked about all kinds of things. He’s not stupid. He knew something serious was up when they started probing in through his eyes and doing all kinds of stuff. He would say, “What do you think is going on?” I would say, “Well, we’ll find out, we’ll find out.” I just continued to pray unceasingly and fast through that whole period of time.

All the tests went by and we had wonderful fellowship, down and back every day. I think I understood. At least in my heart, I had a sense that might be more precious than either of us really could ever have hoped, because it could be over soon. And he wasn’t quite at that point in his thinking, but I tried to make the most of it. It was a wonderful time together.

Thrown Against the Rock of Ages

But what really became wonderful was my time with the Lord. It wasn’t hard for me to have prolonged periods of intercession prayer with him. I remember on the ninth day after I’d taken him for the final test I went back to the church. It was a Wednesday night and the tests were all over, and we were going to wait for the report the next morning.

The next morning it came, and I was sitting at my desk. For the first time I felt hungry, for the first time in nearly 10 days. I just thought to myself, “I’m at peace.” I had buried him and I’d sent him on to heaven. Do you know how you lived through that? First I said, “No, not him. You got the wrong guy, check the list again. This isn’t the kid.” And then I sort of got neutral, and then I got all the way over here and said, “Why should he be in this world anymore? It’s better to depart and be with Christ. Take him, he’s yours.” And I went through all of that. I was sitting there at my desk in a perfect calm and a peace in my heart. I said, “I’m hungry.” But I didn’t know how to break this thing. I didn’t want to go to Burger King or something. It just wouldn’t be right.

I was sitting at my desk, just with a calm and a peace over my heart, waiting for later, for the church to begin. I was behind four double doors that were locked. You know how the pastor’s office is in a large church area. All of a sudden there was a little knock on my door, and I thought, “Whoa, it’s all locked, how could anybody be here?” I opened the door, and there was a lady there who has never been in my office before and never been there since. She said, “Pastor, I saw your light on outside and thought you might be hungry, and I just made you a sandwich.” I think I said something, but I don’t know that I ever acknowledged her. She handed me a bologna sandwich. I went back to my desk and my eyes welled up with tears, and I said, “Lord, are you that involved in my life that when the fast is over, you deliver the sandwich?” That woman’s never been back, and she was never there before.

The next day, the doctor called and said, “It’s a benign epidermoid that has no consequences. The headaches are probably just because he’s growing. Don’t worry about it, but call me if his batting average goes down. We really fell in love with the kid and we know he is a baseball player, and if his batting average goes down, it means the tumor is growing because it has started to affect the optic nerve.” So I happily called him and kept telling them his batting average kept going up. And then he went on and played for three years in professional baseball and felt the Lord wasn’t really leading him there, and then he left.

I look back on that time as a time of tremendous intimacy with the Lord. I remember when I went to the school after the doctor called me. I went right out to the school, I went right to where Mark was, I put my arms around him, and I said, “Mark, let me tell you what’s been going on.” I gave him the whole report, that it was inconsequential and they didn’t think it would ever develop into anything. And he said, “Well, why do you think the Lord put me through that?” I said, “Put you through that? You didn’t even know what was going on. I’m the guy.” There were things the Lord wanted to do in my life that you don’t need yet.

A Deepening Life of Prayer

Three years ago my wife had a car accident. It flipped her car into an eight-foot deep culvert. She was in a little Honda. She crushed the roof below the headrests. She had multiple concussions, fractures of her head, and there were lacerations all over her head. There was an explosion fracture on C2 above the respiration line. Then C3 was severed in half. It crushed bones all the way down her back, broke her shoulder, broke her arm, her hand, and broke all the bones around the orbital area of her eye, broke her jaw and separated it. And it crushed her as that car came down on top of her. My daughter was in the car. They gave her less than 5 percent chance to live when they put her on a helicopter and fired her out of there in the trauma center. I can just tell you, when things like that happen, your prayer life escalates.

At the same time, I’m asking the Lord to teach me how to pray all the time, because I can’t keep living through these traumas. I won’t have that many people left in my family that the Lord will be able to use like that. Lord, teach me to pray regularly like I do in crisis times. But I found when those times come, and those times come into your life, that there is a deepening, isn’t there?

And I think that’s one of the things that God wants to do in suffering, and I think one of the things that happened in Paul’s life was he was driven to the Lord, and that’s good. He went to the Lord on three separate occasions. He prayed and every time he drew nigh into the Lord’s presence, he unloaded his heart. His prayer was simple, “I want this out of my life. I don’t like this. This is not comfortable. This is grief. Could you please remove it? It’s painful.” And you know what? The Lord didn’t. The Lord didn’t remove it.

3. Suffering for the Sake of Grace

That takes us to the third principle or the third lesson: God uses suffering to display his grace.

He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you . . .” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

“He has said” indicates that the three times he asked, he got the same answer every time. God had a standing answer, and after three times, Paul dropped the question. His answer was, “My grace is sufficient.” Gentlemen, here it is, as simply as is indicated in the text. God answered, not by removing the pain but by increasing the grace to endure it. He gave relief, not by the removal of the problem, but by the sufficient strength to persevere through the necessary humbling process.

Can you say in your own heart, “Lord, bring into my life whatever is necessary to humble me. Lord, bring into my life whatever is necessary to drive me into your presence.” Can you honestly say that? There’s something human that says, “Get this stake out of my flesh. Stop this process.” And you run to God, and like Deuteronomy 33:26, and you remind him, “There’s none like the God of Jeshurun, who rides to your help, and flies across the heavens to your aid.” You remember Joshua 1:9, which says, “Be strong and courageous. Do not tremble. The Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” You pray, “Lord deliver me.” But God’s answer is the cornerstone of Christian living, gentlemen. It’s the cornerstone of all life.

You will always have trouble. You will always have temptation. You will always have pain. There will always be difficulty. In this life it is inevitable. It is useful for humility, and God never promises to remove it, but he does promise to crank up the grace to endure it, and that’s reality. That is what grieves me so greatly when I hear these health and wealth preachers, who set people up for disastrous responses to the realities of life.

Sufficient Grace

The word “sufficient” is arkei, and it means “enough.” There’s enough grace for that. There’s enough grace to endure the loss of a child. There’s enough grace to endure the loss of a life partner. There’s enough grace to endure the terrifying, cutting criticism that tears your ministry up. Grace is a magnificent word used 155 times in the New Testament, and we need all of it we can get.

Paul talks about abundant grace, he talks about standing in grace, and he talks about the riches of grace. John talks about the fullness of grace. James talks about a greater grace. Peter, never wanting to be left out, talks about the multi-colored, manifold grace. Grace, grace, grace, grace, grace — sufficient grace. It is enough. Second Corinthians 9:8 says:

And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed;

There’s enough for you. There’s enough for you, and that’s why we call it “amazing grace.” Spurgeon, one night was riding home after a heavy day’s work, and he was feeling depressed. He confessed this, and he began to meditate on this verse, “My grace is sufficient” (2 Corinthians 12:9). And in his inimitable way, this is what he wrote. He said:

I immediately compared myself to a little fish in the Thames, apprehensive, lest drinking so many pints of water in the river each day, he might drink it dry, and hearing Father Thames say, “Drink away little fish, my stream is sufficient.” I thought of a little mouse in the granaries of Joseph in Egypt, afraid, lest it might, by daily consumption of the corn it needed, exhaust the supplies and then starve to death. When Joseph came along, sensing his fear, said, “Cheer up, little mouse, my granaries are sufficient for you.” And then I thought of myself climbing some high mountain in the Alps and reaching the lofty summit, and dreading, lest I might exhaust all the oxygen in the atmosphere by my breathing, only to hear the Creator, booming out of heaven, “Breathe away, O man, my atmosphere is sufficient.”

There’s enough.

4. Suffering for the Sake of Perfected Power

There’s a fourth lesson that we learn in suffering, and that is this: God uses suffering to perfect power. God uses suffering to perfect power. And this, of course, is the culmination of this passage. Second Corinthians 12:9 continues:

“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.

Power is perfected in weakness. That is a great statement. The suffering that humbles us in weakness becomes the means of power in our lives. It’s paradoxical. It is when the Christian has lost all human ability to deal with his difficulty, when he is weak and exhausted and without resources in himself and destitute, that he has left totally to trust God. And at that point, divine power is released.

Have you ever read Romans 8:31, not as a theological statement, but as a personal testimony? It’s a good corollary passage to what we’re saying here. Paul, in Romans 8:31–34, says:

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but delivered him over for us all, how will he not also with him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is he who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us.

And then he launches into this:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? (Romans 8:35).

Will that do it? No. How about “death, life, angels, principalities, things present, things to come, powers, height, depth, created things?” (Romans 8:38). No.

Nothing Can Separate Us

Do you understand that all of that was basically right out of Paul’s experience? He knew what it was to have tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and sword. All of that is listed in 2 Corinthians. He knew what it was to suffer death. I personally believe that he actually died, and probably it was when he died being stoned that he went to the third heaven.

He experienced life and all that it brings. He had been embattled with the angels, the principalities, the demonic world with its forces, and with powers of great height and depth. And I think what he is saying is, “I’ve been through it all, and in the end, nothing separates from the love of Christ. Nothing brings condemnation. Nothing changes God’s relationship or promise.” And here he takes it to the final step, and in fact, power becomes perfected when we have nothing of ourselves left.

No one is too weak to be powerful, but many people are too strong. So these are great lessons to learn in your pain and in your suffering. God uses suffering to humble us. God uses suffering to drive us to himself. God uses suffering to pour out more grace. God uses suffering to display his own power, because when you’re at the end of your strength, you’re in just exactly the place where his strength takes over.

So, the sum of it all is 2 Corinthians 12:10, which says:

Therefore, I am well content . . .

Boy, to get there and stay, huh? To be content with weaknesses, with insults, with the stresses, with persecutions, and with difficulties, for Christ’s sake. I’m not content with sin, but all that stuff that comes for Christ’s sake I’m content with, because “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). There’s a joy in that verse. There really is. Nothing has changed, by the way, folks. He’s like the Psalmist, who switches gears at the end of a Psalm and starts praising God and nothing has changed, except perception. Nothing has changed, nothing.

He is thinking, “I don’t like the abuse. I know it’s satanic, but I accept it because I want divine power, so I am well content with weaknesses. I will even boast about my weaknesses. If you say I’m weak, I agree. If you say I’m frail, I agree. If you say I’m not clever, I agree. If you say I lack personal charm, I agree. If you say I fail, I agree. I just want to be so weak that Christ is the only power in my life.” When you come to the deepest troubles of life and the deepest pains of life, it may just be that you are closer to the real power than you’ve ever been.

The Paradox of Weakness and Suffering

It’s the paradox of suffering. Sampson, strong in weakness, crushed the enemies of God. Joseph, strong in weakness, rose to the throne of Egypt. Job, strong in weakness, saw the face of God. I asked for prominence, and God gave me humiliation; I asked for power, and he gave me weakness, and then I became usable. The lovely hymn says:

He giveth more grace as our burdens grow greater, He sendeth more strength as our labors increase; To added afflictions he addeth his mercy, To multiplied trials he multiplies peace.

When we have exhausted our store of endurance, When our strength has failed ere the day is half done, When we reach the end of our hoarded resources Our Father’s full giving is only begun.

His love has no limits, His grace has no measure, His power no boundary known unto men; For out of his infinite riches in Jesus He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again.

I think what we really want to say is, “Lord, do what you need to do to make me what you need me to be.” Right?

The Refiner’s Fire

One of the guys in our church sang this song, and it really is all I want to say. I’m going to end with this. Learn to embrace your suffering. Learn to take it as your friend because of what God is accomplishing in it. And I think this is magnificently stated in the words of this song:

There burns a fire with sacred heat White hot with holy flame And all who dare pass through its blaze Will not emerge the same Some as bronze, and some as silver Some as gold, then with great skill All are hammered by their sufferings On the anvil of his will

The Refiner’s fire Has now become my sole desire Purged and cleansed and purified That the Lord be glorified He is consuming my soul Refining me, making me whole No matter what I may lose I choose the Refiner’s fire

The second verse goes like this:

I’m learning now to trust His touch To crave the fire’s embrace For though my past with sin was etched His mercies did erase Each time his purging cleanses deeper I’m not sure that I'll survive Yet the strength in growing weaker Keeps my hungry soul alive

The Refiner’s fire Has now become my sole desire Purged and cleansed and purified That the Lord be glorified He is consuming my soul Refining me, making me whole No matter what I may lose I choose the Refiner’s fire

Beloved friends, therein lies spiritual maturity, when you choose the fire.

Questions and Answers

Shall we take a few minutes for some questions?

What makes you think that the thorn in Paul’s flesh was someone who tried to undermine Paul’s ministry?

The whole of 2 Corinthians 10–13, if you read it, focuses on false apostles. The greater context of the book is written with the perspective of what the false apostles had done. They’re clearly the focus of attention in that section of the book

It’s also because of what I read to you in chapter 11 about Satan and his angels being disguised as angels of light. Paul’s comments about the false apostles and there is that link. And it’s also because of the use of the word angelos, which is “angel.” I think it makes sense to fit that in the demon realm. There’s nothing in the context whatsoever to identify any specific personal issue in Paul’s life. What was tearing Paul up was what was going on in the church, which was orchestrated by those who came, pretending to be bringing the light, when in truth they were not. So I think it’s the greater context. I think the word word angelos assists in the idea that it was a demon, but there’s nothing in the text to specifically indicate that this demon was some demon buzzing around in Paul’s head.

You have to make some choices, but I think context is the great argument. I don’t think there’s anything particularly exegetical in those several verses that would identify the ringleader of the Corinthian conspiracy. There’s been some work done, writing on this, that takes some of the nuances of the passages around this that lead to that conclusion.

That’s when the messenger of Satan came?

Well, the point is that he had always had the revelations. The trip to heaven and back was not the only one. There were others. There were also successes he had had at Corinth. There’s a theological point here. You realize of course, that we would all just totally abandon our salvation if God didn’t keep us, right? Is this not true? The doctrine of eternal security is not that you’re eternally secure because you raised your hand up and walked an aisle; you’re eternally secure because he never lets you go.

It doesn’t matter how far back my glory years were. In fact, the older I get, the more glory they seem to have carried. The point is simply that the man had accumulated these massive revelations and this great reputation, and had it not been for the humbling process, what God was doing in the Corinthian church would have contributed to his pride. God knew his heart and God brought into his life what was necessary to keep him to be the man he wanted him to be.

Does your wife have ongoing injuries and complications from her accident?

No, what happened was that the damage never touched the spinal cord. They said she had less than a five-percent chance to live, and there was almost no chance that she wouldn’t be a quadriplegic. But all those bones fractured and split and flew everywhere and didn’t hit the spinal cord, so it was an incredible providence of the Lord. She was paralyzed on the right side because of total devastation to the nerve system on that side, but those nerves rejuvenated themselves, and her jaw grew back together with no disfigurement. You would never know she had a problem. And I always say, the Lord knows it’s a privilege for her to stay here and be my wife, but I can’t compete with the presence of the Lord, so I know he didn’t leave her here for her sake. He left her here for my sake, and it’s true. I should tell the end of that story. I’m sorry I didn’t do that.

You made a statement last night about God being glorified even in the rejection of the gospel. The aroma is a savor of life to life and death to death. Could you elaborate more on that?

It’s simply this, that according to Romans , clearly I think, the intent of the apostle Paul to say that. If God so desires to gain glory from judgment, he has a right to do that. The whole text of Romans 9:15 says:

I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.

Scripture says to Pharaoh:

For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed throughout all the earth” (Romans 9:17).

God was glorified in the obstinate unbelief of Pharaoh, as he was glorified in the deliverance of Israel.

Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use? (Romans 9:21).

Then Romans 9:22 is key:

What if God, although willing to demonstrate his wrath and to make his power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?

God endures vessels of wrath, prepared for destruction, because it displays his wrath and his power, and those are the essence of God’s nature. God is on display in judgment, is he not? That’s the only point I’m making. I’m not saying that God has pleasure in the death of the wicked. In some ways it’s a reluctant display of his glory, but it is nonetheless a display of his glory, and he is going to be equally glorified in what he does in hell as he is glorified in what he does in heaven, and that’s the point. God will be glorified in the end. Look at the Old Testament and ask yourself, “In the destruction of the ungodly, was the glory of God on display or not?” Sure. That’s the point.

Yesterday, you said you’re a “leaky dispensationalist,” but what are your specific views?”

Right, you want to know how much I’m leaking. Okay, here’s my dispensationalism. I’m going to give you my entire dispensationalism in one sentence: I believe there is a distinction between the church and Israel. Why do I believe that? It’s not because my hope is built and nothing less than Scofield’s notes in Moody Press; it’s purely an exegetical belief. I am a dispensationalist to that degree, and to that degree alone. And I am a premillennialist, not because of anything in the New Testament, but because of the Old Testament. I believe the Old Testament teaches five major things, and these are the five hooks you can hang everything in the Old Testament on.

Number one: The Old Testament is designed to reveal the nature of God. Everywhere you go, from Genesis to Malachi, throughout the entire Old Testament, God is being revealed everywhere.

Number two: Obedience produces blessing. That is a principle. Now, there are times when God brings trouble into lives for the purposes of producing greater blessing, but obedience brings blessing. That’s the second great truth. You hear it articulated in Deuteronomy 28, and you see it played out time, and time, and time, and time, and time, and time again. All the narratives of the Old Testament demonstrate that, whether you’re talking about individuals, or nations, or whatever.

Number three: Disobedience to the law of God produces cursing and judgment. You see story, after story, after story, after story of that.

Number four: Men need a savior, and the Savior will come. Whether it’s the one who will bruise a serpent’s head in Genesis, or whether it’s the prophet that shall come in Exodus, or whether it’s the final sacrifice depicted in all the Levitical sacrifices, there will come a savior. He’s described in the Psalms. He’s described in the Prophets. There will be an offering. There will be the Suffering Servant. God will bring the Lamb, and John knew it. Bang — “Behold, the Lamb of God.”

The fifth great Old Testament theme that is absolutely throughout the Old Testament, is that human history ends with an earthly kingdom, reigned over by the Messiah. That’s what it says, and it says it over and over. I’ve just been through it for a year and a half, over, and over, and over. I take it at the same hermeneutical level as I take all the rest of that. Literal, historical, grammatical hermeneutics yield an end-time kingdom, featuring the nation Israel in the land with their Messiah, and all the world is coming to hear from them and to be brought to the Messiah by them. I see that in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and I see it in lots of other places inherently. If you don’t have that, in my judgment, you have all this absolute precision through those first four great truths, and then it all self-destructs. I think it’s going to end with the same kind of precision that has been flowing through redemptive history. And as I read the characteristics of that kingdom clearly outlined on the pages of the Old Testament, I’m convinced that God will fulfill his word.

I don’t divide stuff up any more than that. I just believe that God made promises to Israel, all of the curses were literally fulfilled in Israel when they disobeyed, and in the same passages, you have promises for their obedience that therefore must also be fulfilled literally when they obey. And I think it’s confirmed in Romans 11:26, which says, “So all Israel will be saved.”

If you want to define me as a Reformed, pro-Israel pre-millennialist, I just see that the church and Israel have a distinction. It’s not that there are two different gospels or two different ways of being saved. I think Jews in the Old Covenant were saved by grace through faith. They came to God, they knew they couldn’t keep the law, so they beat their breasts. That’s a perfect illustration from Luke 18. The guy beats his breast and says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). And that’s what an Old Testament person had to do. They couldn’t keep the law. All they could do was fall in their face before God and plead for mercy, based upon the fact that God would forgive because he had promised to do that, but they hadn’t yet seen the One who would bear their sin.

They came the same way we come. But I do believe God made promises, and I believe that history doesn’t just all of a sudden explode in a plethora of 55 different views. I think it ends up just the way God designed it and laid it out in Scripture. It’s going to culminate in a kingdom, and the Messiah is going to bring back Edenic-like qualities into this world, and history is going to end with his story coming to pass.

Now you understand where I fit. You’ve heard enough from me and known enough from me that I don’t see that there’s any contradiction with that in Reformed theology, because the great genius of Reformed theology is that it is precisely what the text of Scripture yields, and I think if you keep the same hermeneutics, you should end up in the same place. Just keep your same hermeneutics when you get to the end. So, there you are. Now some of you’re excited and some of you’re disappointed, such is life.

What do you think about the rapture and the great tribulation?

Look, either way, I’m not going through the tribulation. If rapture’s before the tribulation, I’m not going through. If I see that the rapture didn’t happen and I’m in the tribulation, I’ve read about that tribulation. I really don’t want to go through that. I’d rather be in heaven. So I’m going to get on a plane, go right to Antichrist headquarters, and preach the gospel. Boom, I’m out of here. So I’m pre-trib any way you cut it. Does that seem reasonable?

Can you tell us a little bit about the history of Grace Community Church?

This year (1997) is our 40th anniversary. I’ve been there 27 years. I had one qualification to be their pastor. I was young. They had two pastors in a row die of a heart attack, and the committee just said, “Get a young one, we can’t support another widow.” So they were very pragmatic.

I had spoken to some of the young people. The church was founded by a Methodist, and they really didn’t have a doctrinal statement. Then there was a moderate Baptist pastor. They were both very good men, wonderful men with the hearts of evangelists. The church had about 400 people. I had spoken to a lot of their youth groups and things like that, and there were some dynamic kids in the church. So they asked if I could come and preach there, and I did, and I was young, and it really is true. I had been turned down at another church because I was too young, and I was really ready to start pastoring. I was working at Talbot Seminary at the time, so I preached.

The first time I preached there, I really got carried away. I was preaching on Romans 7, and I had been studying it all Summer. I just unloaded, and they didn’t have a clock on the back wall, and when I got all done, I stepped down. It was the first Sunday night I’d ever preached there. There were about 200 people there. I went down feeling really good. I thought, “Boy, I really gave it a whole three months of working this stuff through, and I just poured out my heart.” And she looked over in her inimitable way and she said, “Well, it’s the end of that church.” I said, “Why?” She said, “Well, do you know how long you talked?” I had no idea. It was like an hour and 25 minutes or something. So afterwards they came and said, “If you were our pastor, would you teach every week like that? Would you open the Word and teach it to us?” And I said that I would, and that’s what my heart was to do. So they invited me back the next Sunday, and there was a huge clock that they had installed.

So that’s how it all started in 1969, and the church just began to grow. We really caught a wave. I’m no church growth person. I really don’t care much about that. I don’t pay any attention to it, really. Our church grew with factors that really were way beyond my control. There was a dearth of Biblical teaching, and yet there was an explosion in interest. New Bible translations had come, the Jesus Movement was rocking in Southern California, and there was a great new interest in the new translations of Scripture and individual Bible study. The Student Movement was ripping and snorting. We went down in 1972 to fill the Cotton Bowl with kids in a campus crusade deal with 75,000 college kids.

When we look back in history, I think it was a real revival time. People really were coming to Christ in droves, and there was this hunger for the word of God. I just started teaching the word of God and the thing just started to take off, and we were the only ones doing it. It was just God’s purpose in the right place at the right time. He was going to build a church, and he did. So, through the years, the Lord has really blessed and continued to bless the teaching of the word there. But that’s really the story in short. It’s an independent church. We don’t belong to anything. We’re just independent.

In your comment last night, you said you are a fourth generation preacher. Can you tell us more about that?

Actually, I’m a fifth generation preacher. There were some Scottish Presbyterians who came over to Canada, to Prince Edward Island. I have a picture of one of the old guys, Dr. Stewart MacArthur, who went to Australia and preached, then came back to Canada. And then, interestingly enough, my grandfather was on the Canadian Pacific railway. He was assigned to Calgary and he went out to Calgary. He was not a pastor, but his wife’s father was, so the generations crossed over at that point, and came through my grandmother’s side.

My grandfather was not a pastor. He worked for the railroad, but was called to preach and came to Los Angeles to study at the old Bible Institute of Los Angeles, and of course, then my father came with him as a young boy. My father was born in Calgary and my mother was born in Vancouver, so they migrated down. My dad came down and grew up his high school years in Los Angeles, and then he went to Eastern Baptist Seminary in Philadelphia. Then he came back to Los Angeles in 1938, I think, and pastored his first church, and I was born there.

What advice would you give someone in a liberal denomination for determining when to stay and when to leave?

It’s not an easy question to answer, but I would answer it in the language of the apostle Paul from 2 Corinthians 6:14, which says, “Do not be bound together with unbelievers.” I don’t want to go into the whole deal, but I think he’s talking specifically about being involved with unbelievers in a common religious or spiritual enterprise.

I don’t think he’s talking about working for an unbelieving boss or being in a mutual fund together. I think he’s talking about any religious enterprise. If you are linked to lawlessness, if you are linked to darkness, if you are linked to Belial, if you are linked to unbelievers, what agreement does the temple of God have with idols? That’s the issue. If you’re talking about weak Christians who are maybe missing the point and drifting, that’s one thing. If you’re talking about unbelievers, then you’re talking about a false religious system and there’s absolutely no possible harmony and concord, and I think you wind up carrying needless burdens yourself, and you wind up with a negative tone of your ministry. You wind up compromising truth at that point and compromising the Lord at that point. So, that’s tough, I know, but I think God would honor the severing of any kind of linkage between Christ and Satan. And Satan is the author of those systems.

How would you encourage us to remain humble in ministry?

Well, it’s a daily battle. You never get to the place where you’ve become humble, so you just keep working on it. I’ll tell you, the answer for me is simple. I pastor a church. That’s constantly a humbling experience. It is, especially the same church. I’m with the same people. They know my strengths, they know my weaknesses. I’ll tell you something else, a godly wife helps — an honest one who loves you. My wife only did one cross-stitch thing in her life, and she did it for me to put on my desk a few years ago, and it says, “Walk humbly with thy God.” It’s there, a few inches from my face every day of my life.

If you pastor a church, you just live with a lot of failure and disappointment. I think I would be afraid to take my show on the road. I have found, the nature of my ministry is that it just doesn’t seem like I get more and more popular, it seems like I just get more and more responsible. Do you know what I’m saying? I don’t feel like, “Wow, isn’t this great? All these people are listening to me.” I feel like, “How in the world did I ever get to the place where I have to account for so many words, written and spoken, to so many people?” It’s the reverse to me. I would like to go and hide most of the time.

John was saying, “Well, somebody Is going to record you.” Well, that’s not news. I can’t say anything that isn’t recorded and analyzed. As a pastor, my whole life is analyzed — my wife, my kids, my grandkids. I want to stay in that kind of accountability, but the weight of responsibility is great. Hebrews 13:17 says that I have to give an account to God for this whole thing. I don’t really see much value in the popularity part of it, it just elevates the accountability. And God has been good. My kids are the same way. My wife and my children expect me to live what I preach. Is that ridiculous? All of it? All the time? That’s part of the accountability

is the pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church, as well as an author, conference speaker, president of The Master’s University and Seminary, and featured teacher of Grace to You.