Lecture XX, Paul's Thorn In The Flesh

“It is not expedient for me doubtless to glory. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord. I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven. And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) how that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. Of such an one will I glory: yet of myself I will not glory, but in mine infirmities. For though I would desire to glory, I shall not be a fool; for I will say the truth: but now I forbear, lest any man should think of me above that which he seeth me to be, or that he heareth of me. And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And He said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for My strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Cor. 12: 1-10).

We have been occupied with some of the experiences that the apostle Paul went through as he suffered for Christ’s sake. You remember we are told, “All that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (2 Tim. 3:12). So, if we are not suffering persecution for the name of Christ, the inference is that we are not living godly. We may be behaving ourselves decently, we may be living respectably, but God does not have the supreme place in our lives if we do not know something of persecution on the part of a world that hates God and that nailed His own blessed Son to the bitter cross.

Paul had identified himself with that cross from the moment of his conversion. He said, “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world” (Gal. 6:14). Naturally, the world hated the man that spurned it. Walk with the world and the world loves its own. Jesus said, “The world cannot hate you; but Me it hateth, because I testify of it, that the works thereof are evil” (John 7:7). And so the apostle lived and toiled and suffered for an entire generation for the name’s sake of the Lord Jesus Christ. But it was not all suffering. There were times of ecstatic joy, there were moments of wonderful blessing and spiritual refreshment. Did others boast of religious experiences? Well, Paul says, if it is the fashion to boast, I suppose I can boast too. I do not want to boast of myself, but I can tell you, if you want to know, something of the great privileges that at times have come to me.

“It is not expedient for me doubtless to glory. I will come to visions and revelations (or manifestations) of the Lord. I knew a man in Christ.” He is referring, of course, to himself, but what a wonderful thing to be able to speak as “a man in Christ.” Do you know “a man in Christ,” in that sense? You remember on one occasion, writing to the Komans, the apostle speaks of some of his own kinsmen, and uses that expression, “Who also were in Christ before me.” You see, people are not in Christ by natural birth. You are not in Christ because your father was in Christ before you were born. You are not in Christ because you have had a praying mother. You yourself have to be born of God. Unless regenerated you are not in Christ up to this present moment. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh” (John 3:6). It may be very attractive flesh, it may be very agreeable flesh, it may even be religious flesh, but it is flesh still. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” It is the man who is born of the Spirit who is in Christ, and so Paul says, I have told you something of the hardships I have endured for Jesus’ sake, now I want to tell you something of a great experience that came to me once as a man in Christ.

“I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago.” That is very interesting. This man had had a remarkable experience, and as far as we can learn he had kept it a secret between himself and God for over fourteen years. This is very unlike us. I have an idea, knowing myself as well as I do, that if I had been in the third heaven yesterday, I should be telling you about it this morning. I would forget everything else and tell you what a wonderful time I had in the third heaven, and then if you believed me, you would look at me and say, “What a saint he must be that God should want his company in the third heaven!” and I would be getting glory to myself through telling about this. That is probably the reason Paul kept it a secret; he did not want people to think of him. He did not mind telling of the hard things; he did not mind speaking of the time when he was ignominiously let down over a wall in a basket. That was something that people would sneer at, laugh at, but such a wonderful experience as being caught up into the third heaven he could keep to himself until the proper time. But if others are boasting of experiences, he will tell them of his own. I do not know what attention you may have given to the chronology in connection with the apostle Paul’s life. A little over fourteen years before he wrote this second letter to the Corinthians he was laboring in Galatia. He visited the cities of Iconium, Derbe, and Lystra, and the people were so carried away by him that at one time they wanted to worship him as a god, but later persecution broke out, and they turned on him and actually sought to stone him to death. In fact, the moment came when his crushed and bruised body fell in the highway, and as far as anybody could see he was dead, and they dragged him out of the city and threw that body to one side as a bit of worthless refuse. That was apparently the end of the apostle Paul so far as his ministry was concerned. But after his persecutors had gone back into the city, a little group of heartbroken disciples gathered about that body, and one can imagine how desolate they felt. Their father in Christ, the one who had led them to know Christ, who had cared for them in the things of God, lay before them evidently dead, and they were about to make arrangements for a decent burial, when suddenly Paul rose up and gladdened their hearts by what must have seemed like a veritable resurrection. He was ready to go back to the business of preaching the gospel.

What happened to him at that time when his body lay there in a coma? I like to think that it was then he had the experience he refers to here. “I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago.” That was just about the time they tried to stone him to death, and God at that time may have said, “Paul, I am going to give you a little vacation; I am going to take you up to let you see the land to which you are going. Come up with Me, Paul,” and he found himself, he says, “caught up into the third heaven,” and he tells us he was so enraptured by the glories that he witnessed that he was not conscious whether or not he was in the body. Observe, it is possible to be thoroughly conscious, and yet be out of the body. The body is not the real man. I am not the house in which I live. I live in this house, but some day I am going to put off this my tabernacle; I am going to move out unless it should please God that I live in the flesh till Jesus returns again. But if death takes me, the real man leaves the body. The body dies, but the believer is “absent from the body, present with the Lord.” Paul had no consciousness of having a body, or on the other hand, he did not miss his body. “Whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth.” That always helps me when I think of my loved ones gone over to the other side. They have left this scene of trial and toil and care, and have gone Home to be forever with the Lord, but they are just as real, and just as truly intelligent beings out of the body and with Christ, as they were when they were down here in the body. In Ephesians 3:15 Paul speaks of “the whole family in heaven and earth.” Paul was not a materialist, he was not a “soul-sleeper,” for if he had been, he would have said, “The whole family in the grave and on earth,” but he did not recognize any of the family as lying in the grave, it was just their bodies that were there, but the members of the family are in heaven and on earth.

      “Millions have reached that blissful shore,

      Their trials and their labor o’er,

      And yet there is room for millions more.”

Are you on the way? Have you trusted that blessed Saviour? These all died in faith, they are at Home with Christ which is far better. Do you know Christ? You have often said that you hoped when life was over that you would find a place in heaven. Are you quite sure you would be comfortable there? Are you quite sure you would be happy in heaven? I know people who cannot enjoy an hour at a prayer-meeting who imagine they would enjoy eternity in heaven. If you have not a new nature, a life that is hid with Christ in God, so that you can enjoy Him now and delight in fellowship with His people, how do you expect to enjoy God and fellowship with the saints in heaven? I am afraid that if some of you were suddenly caught up into heaven without any inward change, you would hardly be there before you would be seeking to get out of that holy place because you have not a nature that is in touch with heaven. You do not appreciate the things of heaven now; how could you expect to enjoy them if you went there as you are? “Ye must be born again” (John 3:7), Jesus said. Paul was born again, he had a new life, and when he found himself in heaven he was at home there. If you were suddenly to be called away from the body, would you be going Home?

A dear fellow was dying. He had been brought up in a Christian home, but he had spurned the grace of God, and someone was trying to comfort him, and leaning over him, said, “It won’t be long now, and after all, death is only going Home.”

He looked up startled and said, “Going Home! What do you mean? This is the only home I have ever known. Death for me will be going away from home, and going I do not know where.”

What would it mean to you? Can you sing:

      “My heavenly home is bright and fair,

      No pain nor death shall enter there;

      Its glittering light the sun outshines,

      Those heavenly mansions shall be mine.

      I am going Home to die no more.”

Or would death for you mean going away from home? Is this world your home, and would you be going away into the darkness and distance? Byron says, and Byron was not a Christian, “There are wanderers over the sea of eternity whose bark glides on and on and anchored ne’er shall be.” Oh, can you say:

      “By faith in a glorified Christ on the throne,

      I give up the joys of this world to its own;

      As a stranger and pilgrim I plainly declare,

      ‘My Home is up yonder.’ But will you be there?”

      “Home, Home, sweet, sweet Home,

      There’s no friend like Jesus,

      There’s no place like Home.”

Paul went Home for a while. He tells us in the next verse, “I knew such a man (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell; God knoweth;) how that he was caught up into paradise.” That word is found three times in the New Testament, and is not a Greek word although written in Greek letters. “Paradise” is a Persian word, and means “a royal garden.” It was the name of the garden of the King where every lovely fruit and flower could be found, and it helps me to understand what it is like up yonder. I am glad God has given us flowers, I am glad He has given us fruit. He could have given us shade without fruit, but “He giveth us richly all things to enjoy,” and I try never to partake of the fruit of His bounty or to gaze upon the flowers of His love without being reminded of Paradise.

It is intended to give us a little idea of what it is like up yonder. When we talk about the believer not loving the world, we do not mean that he should not be interested in this creation. He should love the things that God his Father has made.

      “Heaven above is softer blue,

      Earth beneath is sweeter green,

      Something lives in every hue

      Christless eyes have never seen.

      Birds with sweeter songs o’erflow,

      Flowers with newer beauty shine,

      Since I know as now I know,

      I am His and He is mine.”

And heaven is a place of wondrous beauty.

Paul found himself in a royal garden, and says he heard “unspeakable words.” That really means words that could not possibly be declared, words that no human tongue could make plain, the song of the redeemed, the praises of the saints, the joy of the angels. Now he says, “Of such an one will I glory,” of this man in Christ he will glory, but not of himself as a poor lost sinner. “Of myself I will not glory, but in mine infirmities.” But why? He says, “I will tell you how I got them; my infirmities were a love gift from my Father.” I once heard of a man who was very wealthy and lived in a lovely and magnificent manor house. He had grown up away from God, and then was struck with that dread malady, paralysis, and for many years he had to be wheeled about in his chair, and as a result of that affliction, unable to get out and enjoy the things of the world, his heart turned to the things of God and he found Christ. They used to wheel him down to the gathering of the saints, and trying to half raise himself in that chair he would praise God and say, “O God, I praise Thee for my dear paralysis.” He knew that if God had not permitted that infirmity to come upon him, he might have lived and died in independence of God.

And then Paul says, “And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.” You see, there is no danger to any one in the third heaven, but the danger comes if you have been in the third heaven and return to earth. Think of walking up and down the street saying to yourself: “I am the only man in this city who has ever been in the third heaven and come back again.” Paul had been there and when he returned God said, “I must not let My servant be spoiled by this experience,” and so gave him, we are told, a thorn in the flesh, but He gave it through the devil. Do you know that Satan cannot do one thing against the child of God until the Lord gives him permission? That is the lesson of the book of Job. “Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10). Job took everything from God, and so Paul says that this was given to him lest he be exalted above measure. “For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.” What was the thorn in the flesh? I cannot tell you because I do not know. Paul has not told us, and there is no use in our guessing about it; but I know it was in the flesh and therefore a physical infirmity. It was a weakness of some kind that pained and hurt just as though one were driving a thorn into the body, it may have been something that affected his public utterances, something humiliating, and he went to the Lord and prayed in agony of soul three times, “O Lord, deliver me from this thing.” The Lord finally said, “No, Paul; I am not going to deliver you from it, but I am going to do better than that; I am going to give you grace to bear it.” Oh, those unanswered prayers of our lives, how they bewilder some of us! Think of the many unanswered prayers recorded in the Bible.

Abraham prayed, “O God, that Ishmael may live before Thee.” Now Abraham meant, “Let him be the inheritor of the promises.” But God said, “No; in Isaac shall thy seed be called.” How thankful Abraham is today that his prayer was not answered. Moses prayed, “O God, let me go into the land,” and God said, “Do not talk to Me about that any more; you cannot go in,” and today as Moses stands yonder in the glory how glad he is that God had His way. David prayed for the child of Bathsheba, “Heal the child, and let him live.” But God said, “No; I won’t heal him; I am going to take him Home,” and David bowed his head at last and said, “He cannot come back to me, but I will go to him,” and David’s heart was drawn toward Heaven in a way it would never have been otherwise, and how thankful he is today that God did not answer his prayer. Elijah went out into the wilderness when an angry woman frightened him. The man who could stand before King Ahab ran away to the juniper tree when Jezebel was after him, and he flung himself down before God and said, “I am no better than my fathers.” Did you think you were, Elijah? He found out that he was not, and then he said, “Let me die.” How thankful he is today that God did not answer that prayer. Elijah is the only man between the flood and the cross of Christ who never died at all. He went to heaven without dying. And Paul prayed, “Remove the thorn from my flesh,” and the Lord said, “I won’t remove it, but I will give you grace to bear it.” Have you a thorn, some great trial, some infirmity, some distress, something that is just burdening your heart and it seems as though you will break under it? You have prayed and prayed, “O Lord, deliver me from this.” It may not be the will of God to deliver you, but He says, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” When Paul heard that, he said, “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” The weaker I am the better opportunity Christ has to manifest Himself in me.

And then in the concluding verse of this section he says, “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.” May God give each one of us to take that place of subjection to the will of God where we can glory in infirmities.