Power Through Strengthlessness
Edited from a message given at the Heart-Cry for Revival conference April 2004, at The Cove, Asheville, North Carolina, U.S.A.
Turn with me in your New Testament to 2 Corinthians 12:1-14. The apostle Paul wrote: "It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven Ė whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person Ė whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows Ė was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses.
"But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one will think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too exalted. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but He said to me, ĎMy grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.í So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
"I have been a fool! You forced me to it. Indeed you should have been the ones commending me, for Iím not at all inferior to these super-apostles, even though I am nothing. The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, signs and wonders and mighty works. How have you been worse off than the other churches except that I myself did not burden you? Forgive me this wrong! Here I am, ready to come to you this third time. And I will not be a burden because I do not want what is yours but you."
The above Scripture passage should be looked at in the larger segment of chapters ten through thirteen. These passages are very informative because they tell us things about the apostle Paul that we donít learn anywhere else. We see him as a pastor, and we see his pastoral heart as he cares about a flock of people to whom he had the responsibility and the joy of presenting the Gospel and then leading them to faith in Christ. They are his children, and in a very touching, tender passage in the 11th chapter, he lays bare his heart as to what his dream for them was, and he says his purpose and desire were "to present you as a chaste virgin [as a pure virgin] to Christ" (v.2). What an interesting philosophy of pastoral ministry it is, to present your people as a pure virgin to Christ!
If youíll read the 18th chapter of Acts, you will get the story of his original visit to Corinth and how he began in the synagogue there until they booted him out. When they booted him out, the question came as what he was to do, and God told him not to leave because better things were to come. So Paul began to teach in a house that was adjacent to that synagogue. At the time of writing this epistle, he had been twice to Corinth and now he was planning a third trip, and this letter is preparation for that third visit.
The concern that moves Paulís heart in this whole letter is the spiritual welfare of these, his children in Christ. The problem is that he is getting word about teachers that are coming in and teaching something counter to what he had taught his children. He says the ones who have come in are giving them another Christ, another spirit and another gospel. The whole book and these last four chapters particularly, are concerned about the purity of the Gospel being preserved in and among the people whom he has led to Christ. Look with me to get a glimpse of that at the introduction to the 11th chapter:
"I wish you would bear with me in a little foolishness." Here he is arguing and trying to make his case, and he feels it is necessary to speak about himself and to play a role which is very unwelcome to him. So he says, "I wish you would bear with me in a little foolishness. Do bear with me! I feel a divine jealousy for you," and then we get this beautiful text, "for I promised you in marriage to one husband, to present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by its cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes [and he is speaking of these other teachers] and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you submit to it readily. I think that I am not in the least inferior to these super-apostles. I may be untrained in speech, but not in knowledge; certainly in every way and in all things we have made this evident to you."
In a passage like that you sense Paulís passion for the protection of the purity of the Gospel. That ought to be significant to you and me if we have an interest in revival, because thereís never been a revival where the theology has not been orthodox. There has never been one where Christ was not acknowledged as the eternal Son of God and where God is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the triune God Ė Father, Son and Holy Spirit Ė the God of Moses and God of Christ and Paul, the God that has come down to us.
Paulís Reluctant Boasting
You will notice that Paul is going autobiographical here. He says that if they want to talk about superior apostles, he will tell them a little of what heís done for Christ. This is completely out of style for Paul in much of his other writings.
But look with me in chapter 11 and begin with the middle of verse 21 and that incredible passage that we would not have if it had not been for these who were opposing him: "Öwhatever anyone dares to boast of Ė I am speaking as a fool Ė I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendents of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ? I am talking like a madman Ė I am a better one; with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant?
"If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus (blessed be He forever!) knows that I do not lie. In Damascus, the governor under king Aretas guarded the city of Damascus in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall and escaped from his hand."
Paul is defending himself and defending his apostleship. They are claiming that there are greater apostles than he, super-apostles or as one translation says, arch-apostles. Was he wrong to defend himself and to defend his ministry and his apostleship?
I donít think that Jesus would have thought that he was. Jesus identified His Gospel with His servants and identified His servants with His Gospel. In Matthew 10 where Jesus is sending out the twelve, He says that if the people receive His disciples, they get Him, and if they get Him, they get His Father (v. 40). If the people reject them, they miss Him and if they miss Him, they miss His Father. Thatís an interesting identification of the servant of God with God Himself. Then in the tenth chapter of Luke, when Jesus sends out the seventy, He says the same thing about the seventy. As He says in the high priestly prayer: "Öso that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and You in Me, that they may become completely oneÖ" (John 17:22-23).
Then I read the thirteenth chapter of John and there He says broadly to His servants that whoever receives You receives Me, and whoever receives Me receives My Father (v. 20). Thereís no place for looseness spiritually in the life of a servant of the Lord. If Iím not clean, then what comes through?
Paul is ready to defend his apostleship, and he feels an identity between himself and the message he has to bring. Why does Paul identify himself with his message? Itís not so he can be exalted, but to protect the Gospel from being prostituted, and if the Gospel is prostituted, Jesus loses. There was a passion in Paul for Jesus so that he could not stand silently by while the Gospel was being prostituted. If we are interested in revival, we need to be interested in the theology that makes it possible.
Paul was not comfortable talking this way. He called himself a fool and said, "You forced me to do it. It is necessary to boast." These super-apostles speaking about Paul, ridiculed him and said something like this: "Heís unimpressive when you meet him personally. He writes these thundering epistles you read now, and they radically impact you. But wait until he shows up. Heís really unimpressive." But more, they said that heís really not a great preacher at all. In fact, heís never been trained by the rhetoricians and so heís not an expert in preaching technique.
That was the strong point of his accusers because their business was to persuade people to follow them, and so style was everything to them. Apparently Paul didnít have a great interest in style, but he did have an interest in content. He had an interest in the truth of what he was saying. Iíve taken courage from that. It may not be clever or sharp, but if the Word is there, there is something that God can use to make a difference in peopleís lives. So Paul must not have been impressive physically. It would have been interesting to know what he was like as a preacher. But God through him turned the Mediterranean world upside down.
Paul Glories in His Weakness
These people who are critiquing him and ridiculing him must have felt themselves spiritually superior. The indications are that they were quite proud of their spiritual experiences and so they must have shared these remarkable spiritual experiences, visions and revelations and so forth. Paulís response to that was to tell of one outstanding experience. He told the story in the third person. Perhaps it is too sacred to him to tell in the first person, so he doesnít say he had this experience. He said that there was a man in Christ fourteen years ago who was lifted up into the third heaven, into Paradise itself and he saw things that no man can describe and he heard things that no man can utter. But Paul wants to talk not about visions or spiritual experiences, but about Christ. It is as though he wrote, "I want to talk about Him, and the way Iím going to talk about Him is by contrast with me." And Paul says that he gloried not in his apostleship, not in his visions, not in his personal experiences or in his preaching abilities. He said he wanted to tell about his weaknesses.
In these four chapters of Second Corinthians, 10 through 13, the verb, the noun or the adjective Ė to be weak, weakness, weak Ė occur thirteen times. And the beauty about it is that in First Corinthians you have the same thing. Writing to the Corinthians in the first epistle, thirteen times, and in the second epistle in these four chapters thirteen times, he uses the noun, the adjective or the verb Ė to be weak or weakness. "Astheneia" is the noun; "astheneo" is the verb; and "asthenes" is the adjective. The basic root is "asthen." The noun in classical Greek is "asthenos." Now the "a" at the beginning of that "asthenos" is a privative, a negative element. Itís like the "a" in "atheism": "a" Ė no; "theism" Ė god. And itís like the "a" in "agnosticism": "a" Ė no; "Gnosticism" Ė knowledge. So an agnostic is a person who doesnít know whether there is a god. The word here is "asthenos": "a" Ė no; sthenos Ė strength. So asthenos is no strength.
If Iím weak, I need to be strengthened, but if I have no strength, I need strength. Much of my life Iíve said, "Lord, strengthen me to do Your work; build me up and make me effective, so we can get the work done." Paul is telling me, "Youíve got it exactly wrong. Get all of your strengths out of the way so that there is no question as to who is doing it." Paul is saying something like this: "I want to glory in my strengthlessness." His vision for himself was emptiness and to get rid of his human element of his own workings mixing with Godís. Get that out of the way so God could be glorified.
As I looked at that and realized that it is an old and biblical theme, I thought immediately of Zechariah 4:6, where God needed to do something for His people, and God spoke and said, "ĎNot by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit,í saith the Lord." The two words which are used here in Hebrew Ė "not by might," "nor by power" Ė represent all human capacities. What you have in this interpretation of Paul is from Zechariah. But then you get to Galatians 2:20 Ė "I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the fleshÖ" Ė and the incredibly complicated thing of it is that it isnít I but Iím still here. Not I, but Christ in me.
The Need to Come to the End of Ourselves
Then I find at Caesarea Philippi when Jesus said, "Whom do men say that IÖam?" (Matt. 16:13), the people had all sorts of notions. Jesus then said, "Whom do you say that I am?" Peter said, "You are the Christ" (v.16). "From that time forth began Jesus to show unto His disciples, how that He must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day" (v. 21). Jesus went on to say: "If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for My sake shall find it" (vv. 24-25). Our fulfillment is when we come to the end of ourselves and He fills us. We find out what it really means to be the person God wants a person to be.
We read in Isaiah 40: "They that wait upon the Lord will renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint." In the Hebrew it says, "They that wait upon the Lord shall exchange their strength." The Hebrew word "chalaph" is an exchange of strength where you quit doing it in your strength and then His power, His Spirit flows in and you operate in His Spirit.
What is being said is that weíre never causes; we are simply occasions. Weíre never the cause of anything ultimately eternally significant; weíre the occasion. You donít want to interfere with the One who is the cause and He needs to be in full control, and when He is, then itís wonderful what comes out. When you get to the place where the Holy Spirit is free and He can flow and do His work, you find thatís the greatest moment that youíve ever had.
Paul talks in the eighth chapter of Romans about the flesh and the Spirit. You can live in the flesh and itís death, or you can live in the Spirit and itís life. Christ came so that I could live in the Spirit. That is the great concern of Paul here. What we are talking about here is very important. Let me give you a biblical illustration.
Do you remember the two experiences of Moses getting the water to flow out of the rock? In Exodus Moses speaks to God and says the people are complaining because they are thirsty. God tells him to strike the rock with his rod and the water will gush. Moses struck the rock, and the water gushed (Ex. 17:1-7). But then you get into Numbers 20:1-13, and the people are complaining again. They irritated Moses and he was impatient and angry with them. God said, "Speak to the rockÖand it shall give forth water." Moses stood and spoke strongly against the people, who were testing God, and then he struck the rock with his rod and the water flowed. But God told Moses that he had made a mistake. "You shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them," God told Moses, and it was because of what Moses had done.
I think I understand why God said that. It was because if He let Moses into the promised land, then the message would be mixed. The source of water is not Godís work and mine. Itís Godís work. God could not let that message be mixed. Thereís no salvation in anything you and I ever do, unless God is in it and working through us. It has to be very clear that God alone can save.
Paulís Thorn in the Flesh
As the Second Corinthian passage tells us, Paul had done much sacrificing for Christ, and heíd had divine visions. Lest he become exalted above measure and think too much of himself, there was given him a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet him. Paul didnít like the thorn, and so three times Paul sought the Lord to take away that thorn in the flesh. Finally, and with the verb written in such a tense that God is telling him not to mention this again, God said, "My grace is sufficient for you." Godís power is "made perfect in weakness," in strengthlessness. The word for power is "dunamis" and God is saying that spiritual power is perfected in strengthlessness and "My grace is sufficient for you."
I believe somewhere in the lives of every one of us in our fallen world, in any state of grace you ever come to, something in you will help you know that you need to be totally dependent upon God and not depend upon gifts or anything else but depend upon Him.
I was a senior in seminary. We had a very elderly lecturer on our campus. I found myself sitting on a bench with him on the college campus, and he said to me, "Son, Henry Clay Morrison was a great preacher," and I said, "Oh, yes, our family came to the Lord because of his ministry. Elsie, who became my wife, came to Asbury, and the second week she was there, Henry Clay Morrison preached and she found Christ, so I know that Henry Clay Morrison was a great preacher. He was the greatest I ever heard."
The elderly man said, "No, you donít understand what I mean." I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "I was preaching in a camp meeting with him back in the old days. One Sunday morning I preached. There was a great crowd and the Spirit came, and it was glorious. You know there are days when you preach better than what you are capable of preaching. It was one of those days, and I loved it."
The elderly man continued, "That night Henry Clay Morrison was to preach. Everyone knew Henry Clay Morrison was a greater preacher than I was. He preached on Moses in the giving of the law at Sinai. The lightning flashed and thunder rolled and the earth shook under our feet, but" he said, "the longer he preached, the more a little suspicion grew in me. We had a great service this morning but tonight Henry Clay Morrison is preaching. It has got to be greater."
"When the service was over, I went to my tent," said the elderly man. "I had my prayers and I crawled in my cot. There I lay in the darkness. Things got quiet on the campground and total darkness, when suddenly I heard somebody in the grass outside my tent. I knew someone was moving there and then, to my surprise the person came to my tent and started fumbling with the canvas opening to the tent, and to my shock he came into the tent. I didnít say anything. I just lay there. The person fumbled around in the dark until he found the foot of my cot and then he got down on his knees and buried his face in the covers over my feet and wept like his heart would break. I never said a word. He never said a word. It wasnít necessary. Spirit spoke to spirit. Son, Henry Clay Morrison was a great man."
Why does God give us some of these things that we donít want in our lives? Itís to keep us dependent upon Him, and He wants to keep us where the tone is not corrupted in our witness, but itís pure.
There are three things that we ought to think about in conclusion. One of them is the importance of the purity of the Gospel, because if the Gospel is not clear, there is no hope. That is dramatically clear for some of us in our denominational context. There are some places there will never be revival unless there is a radical change in the theology.
Secondly, grace cannot be stored. When youíve been a Christian for as long as I have, you get to the place where you say, "I know enough about grace. I can handle this." Well, you canít handle anything significant without Him. One of the reasons preachers get trapped into pornography is they think theyíve got a bank-load of grace they can count on. But you canít store grace. Thatís not bad, however; thatís good because it helps keep you in touch with Him and walking in Him.
I have a son who is an emergency room doctor. Every day is a crisis. He calls me almost every day now that Elsie is gone. We pray together. At the end of the conversation heíll say, "Dad, are you going to pray or am I going to pray?" The other morning he prayed, "Lord, keep us in You today and donít let us get out." Thatís not a threat; thatís a privilege.
The third thing is, we need a teacher and God has given us one Ė the Holy Spirit. Heís the One who, when Henry Clay Morrison finished that sermon, checked that great preacher and said, "You interfered with the Breath of God tonight, and that will destroy you, and it damaged your tone tonight." That means we should live sensitive to the checks of the Holy Spirit. That means we should walk in the Spirit.
I was reading that passage in Romans that we translate: "For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23). But I found that the verb in that verse that we translate "come short" is the Greek word "hustereo." It is also used in the second chapter of John where Mary turned to Jesus and said, "They have no wine." They lacked wine. Do you know how Romans 3:23 can be translated? The verb used there is the verb used in the New Testament for "to lack": "For all have sinned and lack the glory of God." Do you know what the glory is? Itís His presence and itís worth any price, any cost to have His glory filling, thrilling our soul.
There are two or three questions we should raise. Are you clean, or is there something inside that needs to be cleaned out? Like Paul, my desire is to present you as a pure virgin to Christ, where the love for Christ is not contaminated or mixed with something else, and it is the controlling factor in your life. Are you clean? "Be ye clean," said God, "that bear the vessels of the Lord" (Isa. 52:11). There is a power in the blood of Christ that can cleanse the deepest depth of the human heart.
The second thing is, do you know why God has you where you are? Heís got a purpose for you being there, and Heís got work for you to do. Are you clear as to what it is? What is His burden that He wants you to carry?
And the third thing is, have you made a covenant with Him that you are willing to pay any price to get it done? Have you made a commitment and you say, "Lord, everything Iíve got is laid on the altar for You to be able to accomplish what Youíve got me there for." Is your heart divided? Have you prayed George Mathesonís prayer, "Make me a captive, Lord, and then I shall be free," because Heís the only one who can capture the totality of your heart. Might we say, "Lord, Iím making a covenant with You. I will stick with You until itís done, whatever the price, Lord, whatever the price."
Dr. Dennis Kinlaw is founder of The Francis Asbury Society, Wilmore, Kentucky.