September 13 - 19
Strength for Ministry
READ FOR THIS WEEK'S STUDY: 2 Cor. 12:1-13:14.
MEMORY TEXT: : "For though He was crucified in weakness, yet He lives by the power of God. For we also are weak in Him, but we shall live with Him by the power of God toward you" (2 Corinthians 13:4, NKJV).
KEY THOUGHT: Even visions and revelations cannot compete with the understanding that God is working in one's weaknesses.
IN OUR WEAKNESSES, GOD GIVES US STRENGTH FOR MINISTRY. Building codes for large structures often call for devices that stop the spread of fire. Such devices include heating ducts that have "fire dampers." These dampers have chains with a weak, heatsensitive link. When the temperature rises too high, the link breaks, and the damper falls. The strength of the system is made perfect in its weakness.
Paul understands that, into his life, God has built weak links, which protect against the fires of egotism. "Whenever I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Cor. 12:10, NRSV). Jack Kuhatschek puts it this way, "If I really got my wish for absolute strength, unlimited wealth, and total competence, I wouldn't feel any need for God. I would never experience his faithfulness or discover his sufficient grace. I would never learn to live in humble dependence upon him.... In fact, my feelings of pride and self-sufficiency would make me believe I was a god myself."The Superman Syndrome (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995).
Paul continues his "fool's speech." He has compared his qualifications with those of his opponents in two areas--his Hebrew heritage and his labors and difficulties (2 Cor. 11:22; 11:23-33). Now he turns to the area of visionary experiences. His opponents have apparently praised their own visions as better than Paul's.
What role should direct revelations play in the Christian life? How do you feel when someone says to you, "The Lord told me.. ."? See 2 Cor. 12:1-10. (Compare 1 Cor. 14:26-33.)
This passage raised a number of questions:
1. Paul says, "I know a person. . ." (2 Cor. 1:2, NRSV). Who is this person? Paul seems to deny he is this person (verse 5). However, in verse 7, he identifies the person who experienced the visions as himself, the one with the "thorn in the flesh." He uses the word he, rather than the I, to soften the offensiveness of this "foolish" boasting.
2. Paul describes being caught up to "the third heaven." What does he mean by this phrase? In ancient times, people thought "the heavens" were divided into spheres above the earth. They believed there were three, five, seven, or even twelve such spheres. Because Paul identifies the "third heaven" with Paradise, he must understand there to be three heavens. The point is this: He was "caught up" into the highest heaven, into the presence of God. Doubtless no one among his opponents can outdo Paul's experience.
3. What are we to make of Paul's uncertainty over whether his experience was "in the body or out of the body"? (verses 2, 3, NIV). The experience was so overwhelming that Paul could not decide whether he had been bodily transported to heaven (1 Kings 18:12; Acts 8:39, 40) or whether it had been a vision (Rev. 1:10).
|What does the following mean to your Christian experience? "All are not to the Lord in precisely the same way. Human beings are not to define, arbitrarily and narrowly, the characteristics of God's working on minds. It may be given to one to gain spiritual strength and discernment easily, while another has to contend with 'a thorn in the flesh' (2 Cor. 12:7), and at times is ready, apparently, to step off the heights over the precipice. Yet who dare say that God does not still love and regard as His child the one so sorely beset, and that His hand is not still stretched out to save?"Ellen White, This Day With God, p. 67.|
How unusual was Paul's experience? 2 Cor. 12:1-4.
Paul argues for "the exceptional character of the revelations" (verse 7, NRSV). They were exceptional in their destination-the "third heaven," "Paradise." And they were exceptional in their content-he "heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat" (verse 4, NRSV; We may compare the ban against sharing the revelations to John's experience in Revelation 10:1-4).
What was the relationship between Paulls experience and his "thorn in the flesh"? 2 Cor. 12:7-10.
Another question this passage raises is: What was Paul's "thorn in the flesh"? Over the years, there has been quite a bit of speculation about this. Some have thought of it as a type of spiritual harassment or some form of persecution. Since it is a thorn "in the flesh," most have believed it to be some physical or mental disability. On the basis of Galatians 4:12-15, eye trouble is often suggested. Though the Bible does not clearly identify "the thorn," Paul's point is clear. God used "the thorn" to keep him from being too proud of his vision.
How often do we crave direct access to heaven? How often do we long to hear the unbearable and know the unknowable? Paul could respond that he had experienced these things. Yet he had come to treasure God's presence in his weakness more than his own presence in the "third heaven." He came to treasure God's negative response to his thrice-offered plea more than the thrill of his trip to Paradise!
In the midst of what crisis or sickness have you come to know the unequaled comfort of God's presence? Would you trade the experience for a visionary one? Explain.
The greatest joy of the Christian life is not to be caught up to God in vision. The greatest joy is when God comes down to us and makes His presence known in the midst of our weaknesses. Our exaltation is no match for God's condescension.
|What would you say has been your "thorn in the flesh" to keep you humble and dependent on the mercy of God? In what ways has God's grace proved sufficient to you in the midst of your weaknesses?|
How does Paul end his "fool's speech"? 2 Cor. 12:11-13.
About what event does Paul worry? What does he fear? How do you think he wishes the Corinthians would respond to his concerns? 2 Cor. 12:14-21.
In the last verses of 2 Corinthians, Paul is concerned about preparations at Corinth for his "third visit." His first visit had been during his second missionary journey, which featured an eighteen-month stay at Corinth (Acts 18:1-18). His second visit would have been the painful one, during which his relationship with the church was strained (2 Cor. 2:1-5). Paul writes 2 Corinthians from Macedonia on his third missionary journey, to prepare for his "third visit" to Corinth (Acts 20:1-3). If we are to judge from the report Paul provides in Romans 15:25-27, his final visit to Corinth was successful.
Paul is still concerned about the Corinthians' hurt feelings because he refused to accept their support (2 Cor. 12:13). Strangely, an opposite charge also seems to be circulating that Paul had been taking financial advantage of them (verses 14-18). Perhaps some had suggested that Paul's refusal of support was a cover for extortion through his associates in arranging the collection (verses 16-18).
What claim does Paul make about his motives? 2 Cor. 12:19 (compare 2 Cor. 10:8; 13:10).
Earlier in 2 Corinthians, Paul already has asked the Corinthians to imagine him making important statements about his motives in the presence of Christ (2 Cor. 2:10, 17). Could you make such a declaration about your motives for ministry? Does everything we do for others spring from a loving desire to build them up in the Lord?
Can we say with Paul that in "everything" we do in serving others we do it for their spiritual welfare?, Do we consider the benefits that may come to us, or do we serve others simply for their sakes?
|"We are speaking in Christ before God. Everything we do beloved, is for the sake of building you up" (2 Cor. 12:19, NRSV).|
Paul plans to visit the Corinthians soon. What warning does he give about this visit? How would you feel if you received such a warning? 2 Cor. 13:1-4.
Paul has just expressed concern over the many problems at Corinth. He was troubled that the problems he had dealt with earlier in his letters and visits may still be there when he returns (2 Cor. 12:20, 21). Now he warns that he will come to Corinth to take bold action. He has given such a warning before: "Choose, then: am I to come to you with a rod in my hand, or with love and a gentle spirit?" (1 Cor. 4:21, REB). If he did not live up fully to the spirit of that warning in his second visit, he promises he will do so on his third.
Paul writes to the Corinthians, "He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you" (2 Cor. 13:3, NIV). In what sense is this statement a warning and in what sense a promise? What do these words reveal to you about Paul in his approach to the Corinthian believers?
Paul has discussed "power" and "weakness" a great deal in 2 Corinthians. He believed that "power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor. 12:9, NRSV). This understanding comes from his view of Christ's work. The Crucifixion represents "weakness." But that event must always be viewed in light of the Resurrection, an event that demonstrates God's "power" (2 Cor. 13:4). Why can Paul, in his weakness, promise to return to Corinth with such power? Because he identifies both with the crucified Christ and the risen Lord: "For we are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God" (2 Cor. 13:4, NRSV).
Though Paul's words seem threatening to the wayward Christians of Corinth, we may still hear in them a hopeful promise: "He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful in you" (2 Cor. 13:3). God knows exactly what we need to help us grow in His grace. Do we avail ourselves of what he longs to do in our lives? Whether our need is for Christ's discipline or comfort, may it be so for us!
|How has Christ been powerful in your life and congregation during the past year, month, and week? Prepare a testimony to share with your class of how Christ's power was manifested in your weakness.|
Paul commands his converts in Corinth to practice self-examination. In what ways does this remain an important Christian duty? 2 Cor. 13:5-10.
Ellen White gave similar counsel: "You do not know your own spiritual condition. You are lacking in every heavenly grace. You should humbly and carefully examine your own hearts, your own individual characters. You need to open your hearts that light may shine upon your darkness, that you may see and understand your motives. The apostle's injunction is, 'Examine yourselves whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves' [2 Cor. 13:5]. What is the character of your thoughts, your spirit, your purposes, your words and actions? Compare them with Scripture, and see whether you represent the character of Christ. Go to Jesus humbly, and break your hearts hardened by feelings of bitterness and hatred. Let the grace of Christ soften and melt you that you may put away everything that is destructive of your peace."Manuscript Releases, vol. 13, p. 87.
List the benefits and risks of self-examination. Are there some times when we should practice self-examination and some times when we should not? Explain your answer.
" 'Examine yourselves, whether we be in the faith' (2 Cor. 13:5). Some conscientious souls, on reading this, immediately begin to criticize their every feeling and emotion. But this is not correct self-examination. It is not the petty feelings and emotions that are to be examined. The life, the character, is to be measured by the only standard of character, God's holy law. The fruit testifies to the character of the tree. Our works, not our feelings, bear witness of us."In Heavenly Places, p. 131.
Paul helps the Corinthians to write their take-home test. The questions he suggests they should ask themselves are: (1) Are you living in the faith? (2) Does your life show you are completely aware that "Jesus Christ is in you"? (2 Cor. 13:5, NRSV). Because Paul hopes for a good outcome on the test, he concludes:
|"May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all" (2 Cor. 13:14, NIV).|
FURTHER STUDY: Many places in Scripture reflect the "strength in weakness" theme. One such place is the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3. Take time to review these letters. Note especially the messages to Smyrna and Sardis. Think of other passages in which you can trace this theme.
Ellen White applies the need for self-examination (2 Cor. 13:5) to parents. "Parents, as you deal with your children, remember that you are dealing with a reproduction of yourselves. Therefore be sure to examine yourselves, to see whether you are indeed transformed in word and spirit."Manuscript 79, 1901, p. 7 (Manuscript Releases, vol. 7, p. 75).
SUMMARY: We are not to conduct our ministry on the world's terms. Rather, we are to follow Christ's own pattern. Instead of pointing to our own credentials, we are to allow God's power to shine through our weakness.
A Daughter's Prayers
When Sanggulna Sihotang of Sumatra, Indonesia, was ready for the sixth grade, she enrolled in a school in a neighboring city. It was too far away to return home at night, so her parents arranged for her to live with a family near the school.
One of Sanggulna's friends lived with the Simbolons, an Adventist family. Sanggulna visited them often and grew to love them. One day she asked them, "Why do you go to the church on Saturday?"
"We worship on the Sabbath day as the Bible commands," Mr. Simbolon said. "Jesus says that those who love Him, keep His commandments." Sanggulna thought that made sense, and the next Saturday she skipped school and went to church with her friends. When she told her parents, they were angry. "I just want to know what the truth is," she explained.
Mr. Simbolon invited her parents to visit the Adventist church. They went to church and were impressed. They allowed Sanggulna to live with the Simbolons while she attended school, and the next year she transferred to an Adventist school. Sanggulna became convinced that the Adventist Church taught the truth, and she wanted to share her faith with her parents.
When she returned home for vacation, her father was not there. She learned that on his way home from working in another area, he had suddenly jumped off the train and fled into the fields, shouting wildly. Someone found him and had tried to care for him. Apparently he was possessed by a devil. He consulted a witch doctor, but he still did not get well. When Sanggulna learned this, she urged her mother and siblings to pray for Father. Not long after that, he returned home, apparently well.
Then one day he became angry. He threatened his family and forced them to sleep outside that night. Sanggulna prayed earnestly for her father to give his heart to God. Her prayers were answered, and her father has not had a problem since then.
The entire family began attending church, and recently Sanggulna and her parents were baptized. Jesus rules their hearts now; they do not need to fear devils.
Esther Simbolon is associate director of child evangelism in the North Sumatra Mission.
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