Let’s think together for a few minutes about the experience of the apostle Paul and the way his body and soul were made the theater of unparalleled revelations of God, lifelong pain, demonic harassment, and the glory of Christ. And then let’s apply this to the next sixty years of your life — or whatever you have left. We are going to focus on 2 Corinthians 12:7–10.
“To keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations . . .” So here’s the situation: God has granted to Paul the absolutely extraordinary experience of special revelations of himself in heaven. Paul says in verses 3–4 that he “was caught up into paradise . . . and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.”
Tempted Toward Conceit
So the situation is that God had caught Paul up into paradise — whether in the body or out of body Paul didn’t even know (verse 3) — and had revealed things to Paul that were so glorious and so wonderful, he can’t even talk about them.
What a spectacular privilege. What an unspeakable — literally unspeakable — joy. And God gave Paul this privilege and this joy, knowing that he was putting Paul at the risk of conceit — pride, self-exultation. Now that’s mind-boggling at multiple levels. First, I thought seeing more of God would make us humble and more like Jesus (2 Corinthians 3:18). And now we’re told that seeing more of God runs the risk of making us conceited.
And the other mind-boggling thing is, I thought God cares for us and does not lead us into temptation (Matthew 6:13). And here he is giving Paul these spectacular revelations, knowing Paul will now have to deal with the temptation of pride and conceit in his life. One of our aims at Bethlehem College & Seminary is to guide students out of simplistic reading of the Bible, through the swamp of cynical questions about the Bible, and out into a wise, deep, coherent understanding of the Bible.
God Gave the Thorn
So, what does God do? Second Corinthians 12:7: “A thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.” So, God has at least two ways that he can prevent conceit in Paul’s life on account of great revelations. (1) Don’t give him any, or (2) give him plenty, plus pain.
Who gave Paul the thorn in the flesh? We know the answer to that question by the aim — the design, the purpose — of the thorn. And Paul mentions it twice, at the beginning of the verse and the end of the verse, lest we miss it. Verse 7 at the beginning: “to keep me from becoming conceited.” Verse 7 at the end: “to keep me from becoming conceited.” You know as well as I do that Satan’s purpose in this world is not to eliminate conceit in God’s people. That’s God’s purpose. So, God is the one who gave the thorn. “A thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.”
And, to make sure that our minds don’t stop being boggled (for the rest of your lives, graduates!), Paul says that God uses a “messenger of Satan” to harass Paul with this thorn. God uses demons to undo the design of the father of demons. God uses Satan to defeat the purposes of Satan. This is not exceptional. He did it with Job. He did it with Judas. And he did it with Paul.
Disarmed in Death
What happened when “Satan entered into Judas” (Luke 22:3)? Judas handed Jesus over to be crucified. And what happened when Jesus was crucified? I’ll read it to you: “He disarmed the [satanic!] rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Colossians 2:15).
The death of Jesus disarmed Satan in his warfare against God’s elect. It stripped him of his only damning weapon — unforgiven sin (Romans 8:33–34). When Satan entered into Judas, he signed his own death warrant with the blood of Jesus. The suicide of Judas was symbolic of the suicide of Satan. Over and over again in the history of God’s people, God shames Satan as a suicidal fool in the service of salvation. That’s what he’s doing here — putting Satan to work for Paul’s protection from pride. Putting the father of all pride to work to deliver God’s elect from pride.
God Perfects His Power in Weakness
So, is that the sum of God’s purpose in these magnificent revelations Paul received in this painful thorn that he lives with — namely, shame Satan and humble Paul? No, that is not the sum of God’s purposes. And they are not his ultimate purposes in this text.
“God uses Satan to defeat the purposes of Satan.”
Verse 8: “Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it [the thorn — the messenger of Satan] should leave me.” The answer of Christ is no. No. No. And the reason he gives is this (verse 9): “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” In other words, Jesus says, “Paul, this thorn — this messenger of Satan — is going to weaken you in such a way that, if you have any power, it will have to be the power of my grace.”
Which means that what’s going on here is not merely the granting of unspeakable revelations, and not merely the preventing of pride, and not merely the shaming of Satan, but the perfecting of the manifestation of the power and grace of Christ. Paul sees that. He understands now that his body and his soul are being made the theater for the drama of Satan’s shame and Christ’s glory. How will he respond? Verses 9–10:
Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Boast Gladly in Weakness
There are some counselors and pastors today who would say, “Paul you’re in denial. Stop putting on that fake Christian face and get real. Get angry at God. He’s hurting you. Learn from the Old Testament what a godly complaint looks like!” If there is anything you have learned, Bethlehem College & Seminary, I hope it includes this: We hate fake, because Jesus hates hypocrisy.
But we love something more than we hate fake. We love the miracle of the sovereign grace of God called serious joy — through tears of suffering. Paul responds to his God-given thorn in verse 9 and 10 with two of the strongest Christian Hedonistic words in the Bible.
“I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses” — hēdista — the superlative of hēdeōs, from which we get “hedonism.”
“I am content with weaknesses” — eudokeō — the same word God used when he said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17)
So, Paul is saying, “Father, if I may have greater revelations of your glory, and be protected from conceit, through the pain of this thorn, for the shaming of Satan’s weakness and the glory of Christ’s power, I will be most glad and well pleased.
Thorns Will Come
If the Lord Jesus delays his coming, some of you are going to live another sixty years inside the tent you call your body. If you have any bent towards pride and conceit, and if you have any true desire for greater revelations of God through his word, you may be virtually certain that God will give you those greater revelations and a thorn to go with them.
The greatest issue that you are going to face will be this: when God makes your body and your soul a theater of revelation and pain, for the sake of your humility, and Satan’s shaming, and Christ’s shining, how will you respond? Will you be like the world, in murmuring, and complaining, and questioning, and accusing? Or will you be like Paul?
“When Satan entered into Judas, he signed his own death warrant with the blood of Jesus.”
I will boast most gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, I am well pleased with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities (2 Corinthians 12:9–10).
And if in a few years you conclude that God has not given you one thorn, but is weaving for you a whole crown of thorns, will you not pray: “Father, if I might get a glimpse of heaven, and be saved from pride, and expose the ugliness of Satan, and magnify the beauty of Christ, then to that end, O God, would you grant the miracle that I be most glad and well-pleased?”
And I ask you, as thoughtful, serious Christian Hedonists, would that not make the power in the grace of the Lord Jesus look magnificent in your life?
God brought you to Bethlehem College & Seminary so that you would learn how to see these things in the Bible, and live them in your body. And as you go, we will pray that your time here will bear such fruit.
In this message, John Piper addressed the 2018 graduates at Bethlehem College & Seminary in downtown Minneapolis. Students are equipped for joyful lives of high-impact, helping other people be eternally happy, by learning and sharing that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.