Dr. Ed Young - Weakness Makes you Strong
I want you to repeat after me eight words, "When I am weak, then I am strong". Does that make any sense at all? It's a paradox. Weakness, strength. When we're weak, then we are strong? Doesn't that sound like nonsense, silly statement? You can't explain it. When I'm weak, then I'm strong. That's the one thing I want you to take home with you following this experience of worship. In worship, we have music, we have prayer, we have offering, we have praise, we have conversations, all before, and after, and sometimes during, but I want you to take home just one thing. Absorb it, understand it, and apply it, and your whole life will be radically different. When I am weak, then I am strong.
It took the Apostle Paul a long, long time to understand that, to get that, and to put it into his life. But once he did, just exactly what we were saying about victory, the same will be with you and with me if we can just comprehend, "When I am weak, then I am strong". Paul established the church at Corinth. Can you imagine trying to establish a church in a place like that? They'd never heard about Jesus Christ. They were not seeped in Judaism. But Paul went there as an apostle to the Gentiles and he established a powerful witness for Christ, the church at Corinth. And as he put that church together, he had great pride in what they had become.
But years went by and he heard rumors and got letters to the effect that some, as he called them, super apostles had showed up in the church at Corinth. And these super apostles were presenting a Jesus that was contrary to the Jesus that Paul had met, and knew, and taught. And therefore, there was division in the church. And you can read in 1 Corinthians an interesting story of how evidently they had written letters to Paul and said, "We've got a problem in the church". What do you do about incest? Right, pretty big problem. What do you do about getting drunk at the Lord's supper table? Now there's a problem. What do you do about Christians suing each other and exploiting?
So all these questions were asked in 1 Corinthians, and Paul answered them. But in 2 Corinthians, they call that these severe gospel because now Paul is speaking out against these so-called super apostles who showed up in the church with all their credentials and all of their background, saying they are way above Paul. They were saying, "Well, Paul established this church. Let me tell you what a church ought to be". And they gave their credentials and they talked about visions they had. They talked about how God means for everybody to be healthy, and everybody to be wealthy, and everybody to be wise. And boy, that's an appealing word, isn't it?
Boy, you know, if I'm sick and I have enough faith, boom, bam, I mean, that's a strong thing. And so you see division in the church and Paul writes a letter to them. He, first of all, sets out his credentials. I want you to see it here in 2 Corinthians chapter number 11. These super apostles said, "Well, we're just Jews like you've never seen before," and Paul said, beginning with verse 22, talking about the super apostles, he said, "Are they hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites"? Paul said, "So am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ"? He said, "I speak as a fool. I am more".
Now, Paul, if you read the 10th chapter, 11th chapter, he is struggling. Arguably, Paul is one of the most brilliant men who's ever lived on the planet. You can argue that from a secular perspective. One of the most brilliant individuals who ever... and he is so gifted with a pen, but you read these chapters, you can see he's struggling for words. I mean, he is grappling. He's saying, "I don't want to boast. If you boast and put yourself up big, you're a fool". And he said, "I don't want to do that, but I've got to establish some credentials to show my credibility to present the truth of God in Christ at the church in Corinth". And he said, "Man, as far as my background as a Jew, it is above any background you could name, all the way back to Abraham".
Perhaps he was a member of the Sanhedrin, a pharisee. He said, "I've got all those bases covered like nobody could equate anything else better than what I have". He's boasting. And then he gives his story, his biography. And this is not how you and I would present our dossier if we want a job. You know, I've read a lot of people who tell about their background applying for jobs and I've never read any dossier someone says about, "This is what happened to me, and this is what I happened, and why I got fired". You don't hear that, do you? But Paul goes and writes his background. No question he's a thoroughgoing, completely Jew, but then he looked... and this is all listed here in the latter part of the 11th chapter, and I'll just, He said, "From the Jews, I've been whipped five times, forty stripes minus one". He said, "I was beaten". And he said, "Once I was stoned".
That was in Lystra, where he's left to be dead. He said, "Three times I was shipwrecked. A day and a night I was in the sea". Think about that. "In journeys often, in perils in waters, and perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils of the city, in perils of the wilderness, in perils of the sea, in perils of false brethren, in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness, beside the other things that come to me, my daily concern for the church". I'm tellin' ya, he was writing this to show his credentials to the church at Corinth. It's not what I'd have put down. I wouldn't have extolled all the suffering, and privations, and tough times he's had, but he did.
And then he presents the last one and it really is strange to me. The latter part of chapter 11, Paul says, "In Damascus", he's talking about all these hard times. "In Damascus, the governor, Aretas the King, was guarding the city of the Damascenes when a garrison, desiring to arrest me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall and escaped their hands". He said, "I was a fugitive". They shut down the whole city of Damascus and he said, "They let me down. I was let down". So here we have it, Paul is trying to ascertain his true apostleship and authority in Corinth without being boastful. And then Paul runs us through three things. And this is so powerful for us to understand, "When I'm weak, then I'm strong". He tells us, first of all, his heaven experience. Heaven experience.
And then he tells us his thorn experience. How about that? Then he tells us his grace experience. And from those three experiences of Paul, if we extrapolate from that led by the Holy Spirit, it'll help us understand that thing that we've all recited twice already in this time of worship. Weakness is a prelude to strength. Look at it. Here he tells us his heaven experience. It is really something. Chapter 12, "It is doubtless and not profitable for me to boast. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord". And then he tells a story of visiting heaven in the third person. Isn't that interesting? He doesn't say, "I'm the one," but he talks in the third person and he talks as if... he uses the phrase, "A man in Christ".
Stewart has written a biography of Paul. He called it, "A Man in Christ". All through the letters of Paul, you see that's who he was, a man in Christ. A man in Christ. And he tells it as if he's looking at another person, though we know he's talking about himself, tryin' to be somewhat modest talking about a man in Christ. He said, "This is experience a man in Christ had". He said, "I know a man in Christ," verse 2, "who 14 years ago, whether in the body I do not know, whether out of the body I do not know, God knows. Such a one, I was caught up in the third heaven". A man in Christ, Paul, 14 years ago.
Now, understand this. Paul had never referred this experience before this moment. 14 years had gone by since he was caught up into heaven. And we're going to see the word there is "paradise". "Paradise" is a Persian word. It's a picture of a walled-in garden where a Persian king would take somebody who was special, invite them to come into the garden with him. Oh to go in the garden with the King of Persia. The beautiful... that was a special honor that someone would be given. And so we see the picture. Paul says, "I was taken up into the third heaven".
What is the third heaven? We have the atmosphere, we then have the ionosphere, the stratosphere, the third heaven is in another dimension outside of anything we know in the creative order of the universe. It is with God. Paul went into the presence of God. I was taken up. I was caught up. I like the phrase we just read in the latter part of the 11th chapter. He "said, I was let down, a fugitive... the wall". And now he says, "But I was caught up". When did this happen? 14 years ago. Already Damascus Road experience and he saw the resurrected Lord. Already the vision came for him to go to Macedonia and preach the Gentiles. Already an angel had spoken to him when there was a storm in the sea and said, "Don't worry, you're gonna make it out". He'd had all these experiences, but this one big experience, he'd never written about, he'd never talked about.
In the very presence of the living God, third heaven, paradise. What a moment. When did he have this experience? 14 years ago. That would be about 42 AD. That would be after he had been disgraced. He'd had Damascus Road experience. He'd preached, they'd paid no attention to them in Damascus. They'd been suspicious of him in Jerusalem. He went out into the desert for three years. I think in the desert, Paul was putting together Old Testament prophecy that he knew so completely with what would happen in Jesus Christ, showing how Jesus fulfilled all that prophecy. And then he goes back and he's teaching truth in Damascus. That's when they said, "We can't handle him". He's going to synagogues.
Those scholars said, "He's too strong for us," and they put a contract out on him. You know what that is? Kill him. Take him out. That's when he was let down over the wall. That was when he went home to mother, to his hometown Tarsus. And that was when he had this experience that he'd never told anything about, when he was taken up into the very heavens with the Lord God Almighty. Let down the wall, nothing, then he was caught up. A low moment, God caught him up. And he was there in Tarsus probably 12 years plus, a nobody. We didn't know what was going on, but this gives the hint. But he had that encounter with the Living God.
Now, he goes on to comment on that magnificently. He says in verse 5, "Of such a one, I will not boast". He said, "I'm not boasting of this". By the way, he doesn't tell us much about that encounter. He says, "And heard inexpressible words, which are not lawful for a man to utter. Of such a one, I will boast, yet not of myself I will not boast, except in my infirmities". He's already listed the hardships. "For though I might desire to boast, I will not be a fool, but I will speak the truth". This is the verse, listen. "But I refrain, lest anyone should think me above what he sees me to be or hears from me". This is where a lot of people get messed up. Paul said, "Man, I had this supernatural experience, but I can't tell you about it. It is too sacred".
There is the shyness of holiness. The shyness of holiness. It was so sacred, it was so intimate, it was so filled with shekinah, with the presence of God, he said, "I can't speak about it. It's beyond anything I can express". He talks about words like "inexpressible". He said, "I want you to judge my leadership on the basis of my life and the basis upon what I teach". See, these super apostles were coming in there, "Oh, I've been with God. I've had these visions. I know all about it and I'm right there with the Lord. And when I teach and when I speak, I'm far superior to the Apostle Paul". Paul says, "No, no, no, no".
We have these holy experiences, don't get me wrong. God speaks, God leads, God directs through the Scripture and through an event. Oh yeah, that's real. I'm not throwing that out the window by any stretch of the imagination, but we don't use that to lord it over people, to out-pious people. Paul says, "I don't do that". He said, "You judge me by my character, by my words. My character and my words ought to give an indication as to whether or not I've been with God and I walk with the Lord". See it? Very, very important. So we see Paul's heavenly experience, and then we see Paul's thorn experience, of all things. Here he's been to heaven, and following his experience to heaven, what happens?
Verse 7, it said, "Lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations," he just met God, "a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure". Whoa, with heaven, comes back, bang, a thorn in the flesh. What was that thorn? You ought to read the commentaries, the ideas that people have. What was the thorn? Somebody said, "Well, he couldn't see well. He had an eye problem. He was going blind". They referred to a passage when he said, "I'm writing in big print". Others think he had malaria, which would come and go with fevers, chronic headaches.
Some people said he was epileptic. Some people said it was a besetting sin that he had that kept coming back in his life, and they refer to Romans 7. And we don't know what that thorn was. When a thorn comes in your life and my life, it always carries with it two messages. One is a message from God, which we'll see what that was for Paul, and the other is a message from evil. It's the message from the devil. What would the devil say when a thorn in the flesh comes in your life or in my life? He would say, "Grin and bear it". You just grin and bear it. He'd say, "Get mad at God". He was just with God, now he's... man, get mad at God. The devil would say do that, or just forget about it. It's no big deal, just forget it, forget it, forget it. How does God wants us to respond? We learn exactly how God responded to the thorn of Paul. God tells Paul, "Lest you be exalted above measure".
In other words, "Paul, you've had these wonderful experiences. You've been in the presence of the Living God in the third heaven. Unless that boasts you up too much, you get too big for yourself and too prideful, I've sent this thorn. I've sent this thorn to keep you grounded". Pride is a big thing, folks. I love the story about them. Here's a monk who's very pious, praying 24/7, fasting, working, godly man. And Satan is lookin' all his little imps, all his little devils, tryin' to tempt this godly man, all kind of sensual things, and they're unsuccessful. This monk is prayerful and godly, and they keep trying to tempt him.
And finally Satan shows up and tells all his little devils, "Step aside, let me show you how to handle him". And he whispers into the ear of this very pious man, a monk, "Your brother has just been made Bishop of Alexandria". "My brother? They picked him over me? My brother lifted to this lofty position of Christian authority"? And the devil backs up and tells all of his boys, he said, "That's the way you handle somebody like that". Pride. Pride. God sent that thorn in the flesh of Paul to keep him from being too pumped up with all of his talent, and ability, and being taken bright into the throne room of God. And then look what Paul did. He pleaded three times with the Lord, "It might depart from me".
When a thorn comes, it's not we say, "Well, I'm masochistic. I'm just gonna get it. Go on, bring on more poor..." Oh no, he prayed. He said, "Lord, I think I'd be a better apostle, I think I'd be able to do things with more efficiency if I didn't have this thorn". He pleaded with God three times to take the thorn away. That's what we're to do. Somebody said, "Well, God didn't answer his prayer". Yes, he did. He said no. Jesus prayed three times in the garden, "Lord, this cup, this embarrassment, this crusade, is there any other way"? God didn't answer Jesus's prayer. Yes, he did. He said no. And then God tells Paul, as he would tell all of us when these thorns show up, he says, "Jesus said to me", by the way, just a little parenthetical thing here. Paul prayed directly to Jesus. That's very unusual.
You see that when the apostles were looking for someone to take Judas's place. They prayed exact directly to Jesus, Acts 1. And then in Acts 7, you see when when Stephen was being stoned to death, the heavens opened and he prayed directly to Jesus. I don't know of any other illustration. Don't hold me to that, there may be others, but here is a rare moment in which he prayed directly to Jesus the Lord and Jesus gave him a very clear answer. He said, "Paul, my grace is sufficient for you". Grace: God's Riches At Christ's Expense. That's the old acrostic. Grace is the power of Jesus Christ here. God is saying to Paul, "You've got this thorn. This thorn is there to keep you from being a big shot and acting like you're somebody because you have all this ability and all this giftedness". And he said, "My grace is sufficient for you even with this thorn". And then he says, "My strength is made powerful in you".
Let me read it exactly to see what Jesus says. "My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness". You know what this story's a shorthand for? The cross. Look at the weakness of the cross. What did the weakness of the cross lead to? Your salvation and my salvation, but it led to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Weakness, strength. Without the cross, there is no resurrection. Without the cross, there is no salvation. Without the resurrection, there is no eternal life for you and for me. Weakness, strength, amazing. That he says, "Therefore most gladly I would rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest in me".
What does that mean? The power of Christ, that's this resurrection power. "Rest in me" is a tabernacle phrase. It means to pitch your tent with me. It means to get in the tent with Christ and Christ gets in your life, in your tent. It means to dwell in Christ. So look what happened here. We understand a little bit, my brothers and my sisters, what we said at first which sounded like a mystery to us. When I am weak, then I'm strong. When the thorn comes, his grace is sufficient. When I'm let down, I'll be caught up with God. And then we see the grace operating in this life on and on. And Paul just winds up this by saying, "Therefore I take pleasure," listen to this, this is all of his thorns, "in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecution, in distress, for Christ's sake". And then there's our little phrase, all we have to take home with us. "When I'm weak, then I'm strong".