Strength in weakness. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10

2 Corinthians 12:7-10 is a passage where Paul has some profound things to say about the theme of strength in weakness. And I want us to begin by reading this passage.

. . . to keep me from being too elated by the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 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.

Perhaps it’s my age, but I’m becoming more aware of my weaknesses. But also, I think, a part of this is just becoming more mature. (At least I hope I’m getting more mature.) When you’re young you think you can be anything and do anything. When you grow older and wiser, you can better evaluate yourself. You become more aware of your limitations.

There are many preachers today who present a gospel of strength. God doesn’t want you to be weak. In fact, God will take away all your weaknesses, that is, if you have enough of or the right kind of “faith.”

But this doesn’t match the Scriptures, which teach us that God does allow us to be weak and God wants us to have his strength in the midst of our weaknesses.

First, let’s look at how –

God does often allow us to be weak

Weakness is a part of this fallen, broken world that we live in. And God hasn’t rescued us from it yet. That won’t happen until the resurrection when all things are made new. We long for this, but until then, we will continue to struggle with our weaknesses.

Here are three examples: 

God allowed Paul to be weak

  • Paul suffered much lowliness, going without, physical suffering, but also being shamed and publicly humiliated. In 1 Corinthians 4:10-13 he says, “We are weak . . . we [are held in] disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the earth, the refuse of all things.”
  • Paul’s “thorn” was not taken away. This comes from our passage in 2 Corinthians 12:7-8 – “So to keep me from being too elated by the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.”  There’s lots of speculation about what this thorn is. It was probably a permanent physical disfigurement from persecution. Perhaps damage to his eyes (Galatians 4:15; 6:11)? But in any case, a physical disability. God’s answer to Paul’s request was “No.” In this instance God wanted Paul to be weak.
  • His personal presence wasn’t impressive. We like to glorify Paul, but he didn’t make that big of an impression on many in his day. His opponents said in 2 Corinthians 10:10 – “his personal presence is unimpressive.” Paul agrees in 1 Corinthians 2:3 – “I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling.”
  • His public speaking wasn’t very good. His opponents said in 2 Corinthians 10:10 – “his speech is contemptible.” He could write well, but apparently not speak well, at least not by Greek standards. Paul agrees in 1 Corinthians 2:4, when he says that when he visited them, “my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom . . ..”

A second example, God allowed Timothy to be weak

  • He was apparently introverted. But God called him to a ministry that involved public speaking, and working with people. So Paul encourages him in 2 Timothy 1:6-7 not to give in to a spirit of fear, but to remember that God has given him a spirit of power, and love and self-control.
  • He had bodily weaknesses in terms of his health. In 1 Timothy 5:23 Paul speaks of stomach problems and also “frequent illnesses.”

Finally, lest any should doubt God allowed Jesus to be weak

  • Jesus became human and took on the weakness of the flesh; the weakness of human existence. And we see Jesus struggling with this weakness in Gethsemane facing his death in Mark 14:38. As he said, “the Spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
  • Jesus became a servant to others. Philippians 2:7 says that he “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant.” This is a position of lowliness and weakness.
  • He was persecuted and shamefully killed. As 2 Corinthians 13:4 says, “Jesus was crucified in weakness.” Was there another way for Jesus? No. Weakness was God’s path for Jesus.

What we learn from these examples is that God allows us to be weak: to be persecuted, to have illnesses and bad health, to have physical disabilities, to have personality weaknesses, to be in lowly circumstances in life, to be poor, to be in difficult situations that we are not gifted to handle. God doesn’t rescue us from all weaknesses, but –

God wants us to rely on his strength in our weakness

Rather than always delivering us he calls us to depend on him. Let’s look at how this works:

1. Accept God’s grace to help you. “But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you . . ..” – 2 Corinthians 12:9.

It’s hard to rely on someone else when we’re weak, but this is what God calls us to do. We want to be independent; self-sufficient. Sometimes we have pride thinking that we can do all that we need, that we don’t need anyone else. But in times of weakness we have to accept help and especially from God.

Our text shows us that God promises help to those who are weak when it says, “my grace is . . . for you.” And so we need to accept this help that God gives.

2. Know that God’s grace is sufficient for your need. “My grace is sufficient for you” – 2 Corinthians 12:9.

Here we emphasize the word sufficient. This is the promise of God to us  – God can take care of us no matter our weakness. Nothing is too difficult for God. If God’s grace was sufficient for Paul, God’s grace will be sufficient for you as well.

3. Know that when you are weak, you can be strong in the Lord. “My grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness” – 2 Corinthians 12:9.

Here we focus especially on the last phrase. When we’re weak and we’re relying on God’s strength, then we are truly strong, for it’s God’s strength working through us, not the strength of our own flesh.

As Paul says in v. 10, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” When we accept our weakness, in that we know that God has chosen not to take it away, or at least not yet – then we can rely fully on the Lord; then we can be truly strong in the Lord.

4. Bring glory to God through your weakness. “My grace is sufficient for you” – 2 Corinthians 12:9.

If we ask, “sufficient for what?” The answer is, to bring glory to God. When we are weak and yet we remain faithful to him; when we are weak and yet God does great things through us – this brings much glory to his name, which is what we were created to do.

As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:7, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” We are indeed clay vessels, easily shattered and full of weaknesses. But within us is the Spirit, who works through us and does great things that are beyond our strength and so others know it’s not us – and give glory to God.

So this morning I am encouraging you to be strong in the Lord. In the words of Ephesians 6:10, “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.” In your times of weakness, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Whatever your circumstances might be, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.

Jesus ministers to us in our weakness. Hebrews 4:15-16

Have you ever come to someone to share a weakness or a failure, to get some help, only to have them be hardhearted or even condemn you? A story from my life . . .. Notice in our Scripture today how Jesus is not like this.

15For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

We all have weaknesses. We are human. And as Jesus said of us, “the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38). This phrase, “the flesh is weak” refers to the frailty and weakness of being human; our fears and our desires which so often control us.

And so when we go through times of trial and suffering we are tempted to give in to our fears and our desires and to take the easy way out so that we fail, so that we sin – instead of doing God’s will. As James says, “we all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2). This is what the writer is talking about when he speaks of “our weaknesses” – our frailty and our failures.

Well, Jesus was fully human. As Hebrews 2:17 says, “he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God.” As a human, he knows all about human weakness and frailty.

And he went through trials and suffering as well, which tempted him in all the kinds of ways that we are tempted. As the author puts it in v. 15, “in every respect (Jesus) has been tempted as we are.”

  • Remember, just before he began his ministry – the devil tempted him in the wilderness three times.
  • Jesus himself characterized his whole time of ministry as a series of trials in Luke 22:28.
  • And at the end of his ministry, in the garden of Gethsemane, facing death, he was tempted not to go to the cross. The writer of Hebrews refers to this in chapter 5:7. “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death.”

Jesus knows all about human frailty and weakness.

And this is precisely why he can sympathize with us in our weakness. Hebrews 2:18 says, “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”

The word “sympathy” includes in its meaning the ideas of empathy and compassion. He can relate to our situation. And the word also can carry with it the sense of giving help (Hebrews 10:34). He is not waiting to condemn us. Rather he understands our struggle and wants to help all who desire to overcome.

You might say, “Well, yes Pastor, but Jesus was sinless. That makes him different than us.” This is true. But the difference doesn’t disqualify him from helping us, it is exactly what qualifies him to help us. It shows that he knows how to overcome in the midst of weakness and temptation – and so he can help us overcome as well.

Because all this is so, v. 16 exhorts us to act. “Let us then, with confidence draw near to the throne of grace . . ..” We can come with confidence – or courage or boldness, and draw near, that is, into the very presence of God, because we know that through what Jesus has done, we can find grace with God (Hebrews 10:19-22).

Indeed, God’s throne is called here “a throne of grace.” It is often associated with judgment, but because of Jesus it is a throne of grace for us.

16 tells us that we are to draw near to God so “that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Mercy is mentioned first, and this certainly includes forgiveness for our failures.

But we also receive aid. It says, “that we may receive . . . grace to help in time of need.” Jesus gives us the mercy of his forgiveness, but he also wants to strengthen us in our weakness and to cause us to overcome in our times of testing and suffering, just as he did. This is an empowering grace; this is the strength that the Spirit gives. For thought the flesh is weak, the Spirit is willing (Mark 14:38), that is, willing to empower us to do God’s will even when it seems impossible.

Are you weak this morning? Are you struggling? Are you going through trials and temptations? Are you in a “time of need”? Have you failed? Come to Jesus in prayer; draw near with confidence “that you may find mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”