Out of Weakness-Strength
June 24th, 1956 @ 10:50 AM
OUT OF WEAKNESS, STRENGTH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
2 Corinthians 12:7-10
6-24-56 10:50 a.m.
You are listening to the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, and this is the pastor bringing the morning message entitled Out Of Weakness, Strength: “for when I am weak, then I am strong” [2 Corinthians 12:10]. In our preaching through the Bible, we have come to the twelfth chapter of the second Corinthian letter. And the message this morning is an exegesis of the verses 7 through 10; 2 Corinthians the twelfth chapter, the seventh through the tenth verses. The reading of the passage is this:
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 Corinthians 12:7-10]
This is one of the great, tremendous passages in the Bible. And I say the message this morning is an exegesis of the passage. We are going to take it and go through it, clause and phrase and word at a time, as we have opportunity.
The chapter begins with the revelations that were vouchsafed to Paul. He, at one time, was taken up into Paradise. “Whether he was in the body, or out of the body, he does not know: God knoweth” [2 Corinthians 12:1-3]. But he was taken up into heaven, even while he lived in the earth. And there he saw and heard things that were not lawful for a man to describe [2 Corinthians 12:4]. A man couldn’t utter them. They belong to the secret counsels of the celestial. Of such an one, Paul says, would he glory, but lest he should be exalted above measure, lest he should become proud, lest he should become vain and conceited and self-reliant, there was given unto him “a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan,” lest he should be exalted above measure” [2 Corinthians 12:7].
Now your Greek word skolops, translated “thorn,” does not in any wise, at least to me, carry the idea of what Paul wrote. For to me, a thorn would be something by which you would prick your finger, or it would be a splinter in your side or in your hand. That is what the idea thorn carries to me, an irritation; something that wasn’t violent or tormenting, just something that aggravated the daylights out of you, “a thorn in the flesh.” There is no idea of that in this thing in the words that Paul used when he wrote it. For the word skolops, translated “thorn,” really is a paling [2 Corinthians 12:7].
The “impalement” of a traitor, of a felon, of a murderer, was the way of capital punishment in the days of the Babylonian and of the Assyrian and up until and even sometimes including the days of the Roman Empire. The Romans invented crucifixion, that is, the nailing of a body to a cross. That was an invention of the Roman people, but up until that time, when they lifted up a felon, or a murderer, or a traitor, or when the king slew his enemies, they impaled him. That is, they raised the great, sharp stick up, one big enough to hold a body, and they jammed the body down upon that sharp paling through his abdomen or through some other part of his body, and he hung there impaled—jammed down on that terrible post. That was the common way and was almost all the time; that was the way of punishment.
Now that is the word, “a stake, a sharp paling”; that is the word Paul uses here. What I am trying to say is that the suffering was far more grievous than you get when you use the term “a thorn” in the flesh.” The word that Paul uses to describe his affliction was a torment, it was a grievous thing. It was an agony, a “stake” in the flesh, shoved into his body, nearly taking away his life, a great affliction, a grievous torment. And he calls it “the messenger of Satan,” the angel of Satan to buffet him, “lest I should be exalted above measure” [2 Corinthians 12:7].
And so grievous was the affliction and so terrible was the torment, and I think almost certainly it was a bodily affliction. What, I do not know, like you will never know who the Unknown Soldier was, it is better that we do not know; so it is with Paul’s affliction. Whether it was in the mind or in the heart or in the body; it is good for us that we do not know because his grievous affliction has come to stand for any grievous torment or affliction that overwhelms any of the children of God. It was so grievous that for the thing that it might be removed: “I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me” [2 Corinthians 12:8].
That, I would suppose, is pattern upon the example of our Savior, when thrice, in Gethsemane, He prayed the Lord that the cup of suffering might pass from Him [Matthew 26:39, 42, 44]. Many times I hear people say, “I prayed for it a thousand times.” Oh no, what you mean is you just have said words a thousand times, an endless number of times. This is earnest agony before the Lord. This is real prayer: “for this thing I parakaleō,” that is where you get the word “paraclete,” the one who exhorts and intercedes and entreats; a word for the Holy Spirit. “For this thing I begged, I besought, I beseeched, I poured out my soul before God; thrice did I do it”—honest prayer, real prayer, beseeching entreaty. “For it I besought the Lord thrice that it might depart from me” [2 Corinthians 12:7-8].
For one thing, do you notice that he prays to the Lord Jesus? I had a good, earnest man come up to me after I had prayed one time, and he said, “We know you are our pastor and you teach us, but there is one thing you do that isn’t correct.” And he told me, “The thing that you do that is not correct is, I heard you just now address your prayer to the Lord Jesus. What you ought to do,” he said, “is to address your prayer to the Father in the name of the Lord Jesus.”
Well, now that’s all right. Most of the times when you pray formally, that’s the way you pray, “Our Father who art in heaven, in the name of Jesus, grant us these requests.” But that’s not the only way to pray; nor is that the only address to make. When Stephen died, he said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” [Acts 7:59]. He prayed to our Savior. When Paul was afflicted and tormented by this terrible impalement, he prayed to the Lord Jesus [2 Corinthians 12:8].
I think there was a reason for it; for the Lord knew what it was to suffer. In all points He was tried as we are [Hebrews 4:15]; the agonies of our lives and the sorrows and the griefs of our spirits, He knew and He understands. And I think, as I read the passage, it is altogether appropriate for Paul to address his prayer to the Lord Jesus; and I say the same thing for me and for you. There are times—and in my experience, there will be times when you are less formal—when I stand up here and pray, most of the times it will be, “Our Father,” and I will pray to God “In the name of Christ.” But I say there are times when the intercessions, and the appeals, and the beseechings of life are so deep and so personal and come upon you in such overwhelming floods that you will just unconsciously say, “O Lord Jesus.”
He, somehow, is our Mediator [1 Timothy 2:5]. He is our close brother and friend. God our Father is the great God who made us and loves us [1 John 3:1], but somehow, in His Son, God is near us. We feel a closeness, and a kinship, and a fellowship, and a sympathy, and an understanding in Christ that otherwise religion and formal prayer never brings to our hearts. “He was tempted in all points like as we are. . . . therefore let us come boldly to the throne of grace” [Hebrews 4:15-16]. For He sympathizes, He is not ashamed to call us His brethren [Hebrews 2:11]. So Paul, I say, addresses his prayer to Jesus [2 Corinthians 12:8]. And I am saying that when we pray to the Lord Jesus, we are correct in our address, and we are right in our spirit and in our attitude. So he prayed the Lord that that impalement, that terrible affliction, might depart from him [2 Corinthians 12:8]. And the Lord answered.
Now look how this thing is stated. There are two verbs here, side by side. “And He said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee” [2 Corinthians 12:9]. Now, there are two different tenses. The first one—eirēken, “He hath”—it is a perfect tense. “He said, finally”—back there He concluded; God, Christ—”finally said.” And when Paul wrote this, that impalement and that affliction was still with him [2 Corinthians 12:7-8]. He was suffering at the time that he wrote the letter. God “said unto me—the Lord Jesus said unto me” [2 Corinthians 12:8-9]; it is perfect tense. “Finally, He said.” And then you have the present tense, which in the Greek language is far more meaningful than arkei, from arkeō—”My grace is sufficient for thee” [2 Corinthians 12:9]. He has it now. You have it now. Whatever the flood that overwhelms, whatever the trial or the fire, you have it now. We are not seeking some strange, esoteric, monstrous experience, nor are we to probe into magic, into hypnotism, and into all of those sorceries and witchcrafts for the great strength and might and comfort and succor of God. We have it now. It is ours. It’s in our hands. It’s in our hearts. It’s in the words that we know. It’s in the Book that we have. It’s in the Spirit of Jesus, in our souls, “My grace is sufficient for thee” [2 Corinthians 12:9]. It was yesterday ours, it shall be tomorrow ours, but it also is ours now. “My grace is,” and then the other part of the verb, “is sufficient,” there is an adequacy in God—an all-sufficiency in God. It is not barely enough, without any margin whatsoever; but it is over and above, “exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think” [Ephesians 3:20]. There is no limit to the sufficiency and the adequacy of God for any trial, or for any trouble, or for any sorrow, or for any overwhelming flood that shall overcome us or overtake us in our lives. There is an all-sufficiency in God! Philip said to Jesus, “Why, two hundred pennyworth of bread”—pennyworth there, that in their language translated “penny,” it isn’t a penny in their language, it’s a day’s labor—”Two hundred days of wages would not suffice to buy the bread that each one might take a little!” [John 6:7].
So said Phillip when he looked over the five thousand [John 6:3-5, 10], “How shall they eat?” But Omnipotent said, “Bring to Me the few loaves and the few fishes,” and faith dispensed it, and experience gathered up the fragments, twelve basketsful over than enough [John 6:8-13]. A little fish in the Amazon River might think, “Oh, oh, oh! How worried I am. There may not be enough water in the river for me, and I shall surely perish.” But the great Amazon river said, “Why poor little fish, my stream, the great flood of my river is sufficient for thee.” A man, breathing so many cubic feet of oxygen a day might worry, “I am afraid that the oxygen will give out, and I shall surely perish,” but the whole atmosphere says, “Why, poor little worrier, don’t you fret, my vast atmosphere is sufficient for thee.” That is the same thing here; God said to him, “My grace is all-sufficient” [2 Corinthians 12:9], more and beside. There is a margin on it as big as the thing itself and over superabundance.
“Most gladly therefore,” he says, “most gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. I take pleasure in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake” [2 Corinthians 12:9-10]; hēdista, “most gladly”—mallon, “more.” That is a funny way that he says it, but he sure gets across the idea that that thing, instead of being a cause of despair and absolute frustration and defeat, why, to him it’s an instrument of glory and gladness; hēdista mallon, most gladly more, “Therefore would I rather glory in the infirmity, and the reproach, and the necessity, and the persecution and the distress for Christ’s sake” [2 Corinthians 12:10].
The saints are not gloomy folks; they just aren’t, that is, if they are true saints. If I could ever grow in grace, and if we could ever grow in grace, we would be like that. The saints are not long, heavy face, gloomy people. Here is a dear, blessed woman. She is sick and invalid and suffered the years of her life, and look at her—when you go see her in her affliction and in her twisted limbs and arms, or body, or hurt—invalidism, she smiles at you and says sweet things. When a great, big, strong man stands up here and he says fine things, why, that is just fine, yes. But, oh! it blesses my soul to go see somebody like that, and you want to cry just to look at them, just to look at them you just want to cry, but they never shed tears in your presence. Maybe only when the pastor prays will they find themselves unable to control themselves, and wipe a tear out of their eyes while the pastor prays. Ah, there is something about the strength that God gives that’s beyond what a man can describe. Or a sorrowing heart, a broken spirit, and I see them comforting other people when they themselves need all the comfort that any kind word or ministering hand could afford, and yet, I see them comforting somebody else.
“My grace,” that’s a beautiful word in the Greek, charis. We name our children sometimes “Caris.” There is a Sunday school class named Caris, “my grace.” “My grace, most gladly therefore,” Greek, charis, love , favor, the benedictions, and abundance of the presence and mercy and goodness of God, charis; to have God’s love and favor, if it please Thee Lord that I be poor, let me be poor that I might have God’s favor. If it please Thee Lord that I be sick, let me be sick that I might have Thy favor. If it be best Lord, that I be forsaken and forgot, or forlorn, or persecuted, or cast down, Lord, that I might have Thy favor and Thy strength.
Oh, when I read these things, Lord, Lord, who among us is a Christian? Who among us is a Christian? Certainly not I. “Most gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest” [2 Corinthians 12:9]. There is a magnificent word: “may rest;” Paul goes way out of his way—episkēnosē—goes way out of his way using that different word. In John 1:14, “The Word was made flesh and ‘tabernacled’,” there is your word, “among us.” Back there in the Old Testament, the shekinah glory of God came over His people, there is your strange word again. “That the power of Christ may tabernacle over me” [2 Corinthians 12:9], actually the actual meaning of the word is “to put a tent over me”—cover me with a tent, cover me with a tabernacle, cover me with the shekinah glory of the presence of God—”that the presence of the Lord might cover me.”
Now, in this last part I want to speak on what He said: “for My strength is made perfect in weakness” [2 Corinthians 12:9]; then what Paul said, “for when I am weak, then am I strong” [2 Corinthians 12:10]. Now the first one: and the Lord said unto me, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’“ Isn’t that something to say? “For My strength is made perfect”—teleō; teleō means “the end,” the thing accomplished; it has achieved the goal for which it was intended [2 Corinthians 12:9].
You have that same thing said about the Lord Jesus; “My strength is made perfect in weakness.” In the passage that we read together, “For it became Him, for in whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings” [Hebrews 2:10]. Isn’t that an unusual thing to say about Jesus, that God made Him perfect through sufferings, that the captain of our salvation was made perfect through sufferings?
Well, there again the word “perfect” does not refer to without blemish, or without spot, or without stain, or without sin. For Jesus was already without spot or stain or sin. The word there, “made perfect,” teleō, means He achieved His purpose [Hebrews 2:10], the purpose that brought Him into the world [Matthew 18:11; Luke 19:10]. He achieved that great end through suffering [Matthew 27:26-50]. Had He saved Himself, we could not have been saved. It was through His poverty that we are made rich [2 Corinthians 8:9]. And so for our salvation the great God Jesus, the second of the Trinity, the Lord Jesus, He descended and He descended [Hebrews 10:5-14], and He came down, and He descended, and He humiliated Himself, and He emptied Himself, and He humbled Himself [Philippians 2:6-8], and He descended, and He came down, until finally God was wrapped in swaddling clothes [Luke 1:7]. But more than that, He descended and He descended and He humbled Himself, until finally God was nailed to a tree [1 Peter 2:24]. And He descended and He humbled Himself, and finally God is a ghastly corpse hanging on a cross [Matthew 27:32-50]. And He descended and He descended, and finally God is dead among the dead. He is in a tomb [Matthew 27:57-60]. It behooved Him who saved us to make the captain of our salvation perfect through His sufferings [Hebrews 2:10]. Through the sufferings of Christ, we are saved. He humbled Himself [Philippians 2:6-8].
Now, that passage is that thing here also where “My strength,” says God, “is made perfect in weakness” [2 Corinthians 12:9]. That is, the strength and the might and the power of God is displayed in our weakness. Where we are strong and self-sufficient, there is no opportunity for the strength and power of God. But where we are weak and have come to our extremities, then that is the opportunity for God to display His strength.
For example, I could easily have imagined that twelve great emperors and kings with a sword, like Mohammad the prophet, could have won the civilized world to Christ. Those kings would have sent out an edict, and they could have said, “You be a Christian or we will cut your head off, or we will crucify you or destroy you and your families.” I could easily see that. But the glory of God is this, that the civilized world was won to Christ by eleven, humble, unnamed, unknown, uneducated men without prestige or patronage, without science or sophistry, without armies or armor; they went out just by the power of God. And when you look upon it, and when you read it, that is what you say and that is what you think, “That thing was done by the finger of God!” Their weakness displayed the strength of the Almighty. It’s in our weakness that God has opportunity to display His strength.
On a cold, bitter morning, before the sun had melted the frost, one of the pastors in London, several hundred years ago, one of our pastors in London was taken to Smithfield and tied to the stake. And early that morning there was gathered around him a group of young people who were wont and accustomed to listen to the pastor and what he said. Why were they there? Why were they there? It is written that they were there to learn the way, in that instance, how to die triumphantly and victoriously! And when they set fire to all of the debris and brush and wood around the stake to consume the life of the pastor of the church, why, they found there in the martyrdom of the pastor, they found the strength of God! “His strength made perfect in our weakness” [2 Corinthians 12:9].
What is the power of an Alexander the Great? It’s the power of conquest and armies and might. What is the power of a Demosthenes? It’s the power of an inflammatory oratory. What is the power of a Croesus? It’s the power of money and wealth. What is the power of Christ? Is it not this? The power of Christ is to be nothing, to be nobody, to humble yourself, to descend, to be in the dust. The power of the five wounds, of the pouring out of blood, of the sacrifice of the cross [John 20:28-34], of the crown of thorns [Matthew 27:29], of death [Matthew 27:50], of hanging [Acts 10:39], of being buried [Matthew 27:58-60]; isn’t that the power of Jesus Christ? “For My strength is made perfect in weakness”; the power of God is what God can do with nothings and nobodies. That is the all-sufficiency of God. “My strength is made perfect in weakness” [2 Corinthians 12:9].
I hasten to that last: “for when I am weak, then am I strong” [2 Corinthians 12:10]. And I tell you, these dialectical characterizations of life in the Bible, oh, by the word dialectical I mean “the saying of a thing oppositely, the apparent contradictions.” A fellow will pick up the Bible, and he will say, “Why, it is just full of contradictions; just full of contradictions.” What he doesn’t realize is that when you say the story and tell the message and say it exactly as it is, what you say will be filled with contradictions, dialections. Life is that way. It is not always, just draw a straight line, ah! It is much complex, much ramified, and is the silly, even though he may be greatly educated; and it is the foolish, even though he may be highly degreed; it is those people who, when they read the Bible, cannot see in it the great, profound wisdom of Almighty God. And so they go away and flippantly say and teach their students, “Why, it is full of contradictions, full of contradictions.”
What the Bible is, is a true picture of life, and these things cannot be said except sometimes in dialectical sentences, sentences that say the opposite, contradictory phrases. All right, now here’s one: “For when I am weak, then I am strong” [2 Corinthians 12:10]. Now, I want to apply that, and then I will have to quit because our time is done. I want to apply that. And to do it, let’s turn it around. Let’s turn it around like the men of the world. Let’s turn it around, for Paul says here, “for when I am weak, then am I strong.” Now, let’s turn it around, “for I’m strong, for I’m strong, I’m not weak, I am strong.” That’s what the man of the world says. He doesn’t know he is weak. He doesn’t realize he’s weak. He says, “I’m strong, I’m strong”; though he is weak, but he says, “I’m strong, I’m strong. There is adequacy in me, there is sufficiency in me. I’m strong. Why, I am a veritable Sampson I am! Why, I am a veritable Solomon, I am! I am strong. I am a veritable Goliath, I am! I am strong. And as far as getting to heaven, why certainly, why certainly, my good works will take me to heaven, why certainly. Oh, I admit there may be a few flaws and there may be a few faults in my character, but they are such of a trifling nature, and God in His great mercy will pay no attention to those little trifles about me, for I am strong, and my good works, they are going to be sufficient to take me to heaven. Yes sir, why, this ship of my character is sailing in fine shape. There may be a few leaks, but the pumps can easily keep the water down. And the sails are not ripped, and the old hulk is intact, and I am going to sail into that final haven of peace with an abundant entrance! That’s I. That’s I, I’m strong and adequate.”
Way up there in glory in the life that is to come there is a multitude up there, and they’re singing a song, and they’re singing, “Worthy is the Lamb [Revelation 5:9-12], for we have washed our robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” [Revelation 7:14]. That is what they sing in heaven. But you are going to sing this, you strong man, you are going to sing, “My robes never needed to be washed, I kept them white as snow. Oh, glory and honor to me, I made my own way to heaven. I did. I’m strong.”
There is a poor publican who beats on his breast, and he says, “O God, be merciful to me, the sinner” [Luke 18:13]. But you, you strong, you say, “O Lord, I thank Thee that I am not a wretch like other men. That one, that one, why, I am better” [Luke 18:11-12]. That is the way you are going to heaven, just you being you. Strong you, good you, don’t need God, don’t need the church, don’t need Christ, don’t need the sacrifice. You just are going to make it yourself and stand up there on your own. That’s your strength.
But God says that is weakness. God says the strong man is the humble man [Luke 18:14]. God says the saved man is the man that walks beneath the shadow of the cross; God says the saved man is the confessed sinner-man [1 John 1:7-8]. He bows, he humbles himself, he kneels, he looks up into the face of Jesus, he acts, he beseeches, he importunes, he begs. “O God, have mercy upon me. Remember me, remember me” [Luke 23:42-43].
When you are strong, you are way down, down, down, and down. It’s only when you are weak that you are up and up and up. I say, the Bible is full of those things, those contradictions, but it is the truth of God, and it is the revelation of Jesus. His people are a humble people. They are a beseeching people. They are a praying people. They are an interceding people. They are a people of confession [Romans 10:9-10]. They descend, “For My strength is made perfect in weakness” [2 Corinthians 12:9]. Lord, there is no sufficiency or adequacy in me, I am not equal! O God any equalness, any sufficiency must lie in Thy grace and Thy favor.
Just this moment before we go off, no, we are staying on the air, in this moment before 12:00 o’clock, if you have been listening to this sermon, down there, down there, right where you are sitting, would you kneel, and would you give your heart to God? I don’t know any other way to find God, but in humility, in confession, in looking up into His face. Would you trust Jesus as your Savior? “Lord, I care, I’m not equal, but there is an adequacy in Thee, dear God, and I trust Thee for it” [James 4:6].
And in the great throng of people in this house today, if you have never given your heart in confession and in faith to Christ, would you today? [Ephesians 2:8]. Would you go out this door a confessed believer in the Son of God who died, who descended, who humbled Himself? [Philippians 2:6-8]. Would you today? Would you?
“Lord, Lord, I’m not righteous, not that way; I’m not clean and washed, not that way; Lord, the righteousness I plead would be the righteousness that comes by faith in Jesus” [Romans 3:22]. A forgiven sinner, would you today? Or, into the fellowship of His church, “I’ve been saved, preacher, by trusting Jesus, and I’ve been baptized, and I belong to His church, here I am, here I come.” Would you so? Would you? I do not make this call. If it is just what I say, it is nothing. If the Spirit calls, would you come, would you? The Lord bids you, “And here I am; by confession of faith, or by baptism, or by letter,” however God shall say the word. Maybe somebody you would like to give your life anew to Christ, you come? As God shall make the appeal, you come, while we stand and while we sing.