The Strength of Weakness

Originally published as a three-part series in Pulpit Helps, September-November 2006.

Weakness in our spiritual culture today is evidently politically incorrect. We do not tolerate weakness. We have adopted the secular culture's lie that somehow we can accomplish anything if we just suck it up and try harder. On the walls in most college sports facilities is a sign that reads "When the going gets tough, the tough get going." "You can do it, you can do it" is the silent cheer of our flesh in its endeavor to survive in this stress-filled world. Sadly, the message of "Jesus, be Jesus in me; No longer me but Thee; resurrection power, fill me this hour; Jesus, be Jesus in me" is lost in the voices of those who have no clue about the Christian life. 

But God has His own way of bringing us to the end of ourselves. One of the ways is through persecution. You see, it's quite a wake-up call when the believer discovers that not everyone is going to be in favor of his living a life yielded to Christ. In fact, there is a lot of pain from the "enemies of the cross" when we choose to allow Jesus to be Jesus in and through us. If we would but consider the life of the Apostle Paul and the pain he had to endure because of Christ living in him, we would begin to better understand.

What we have to go through pales in comparison to what he endured. It reminds me of the story about a man who survived the Johnstown Flood, and when he died he went to heaven. He kept pestering Simon Peter for the opportunity to give his testimony. Simon Peter finally gave in and said "Okay, it will be Saturday night at 7:00." The man could hardly wait to share how God had delivered him from that great flood-until Simon Peter added, "you might want to know that Noah will be sitting on the second row!" 

In this article we will learn from Paul how to appreciate weakness in our Christian life.

The context is found in 2 Corinthians 11, where Paul says that false teachers have one motive, to deceive their listeners, and one method, pretending to be servants of righteousness, while in fact their master is the devil himself. In view of this, Paul has to resort to what makes him most uncomfortable: He is going to sound like he is commending himself. Thus he says in verse 16: "Again I say, let no one think me foolish; but if you do, receive me even as foolish, so that I also may boast a little."

The Greek word for "foolish" is aphrōn. It identifies a person who has lost the correct measure of himself and of the world around him. It comes from a-without; and phren-understanding. Paul is saying it is possible that someone might think that he has lost touch because he is about to once again boast of himself. Since the false teachers are evidently playing on the sympathy of the Corinthians by speaking of how they have been wrongly treated, Paul feels that he must respond to them: "What I am saying, I am not saying as the Lord would, but as in foolishness, in this confidence of boasting. Since many boast according to the flesh, I will boast also" (vv. 17-18).

The problem is that the Corinthians were listening to and tolerating the false teachers, who were taking them for all they were worth: "For you, being so wise, tolerate the foolish gladly" (v. 19). Anechō is the Greek word translated "tolerate." It expresses the thought that "You're listening to them. You bear with what they have to say." The irony is that the Corinthians thought themselves to be so wise! But they showed how foolish they really were by not only humoring the fakes that were calling themselves apostles, but doing it gladly! They were even paying large sums of money to hear their false message. 

The Corinthians had thus put themselves back under bondage: "For you tolerate it if anyone enslaves you, anyone devours you, anyone takes advantage of you, anyone exalts himself, anyone hits you in the face" (v. 20). Besides "devouring" the Corinthians' finances, this bondage included the false teachers exalting themselves at their expense and even harming them physically. And the Corinthians were so blinded that they put up with the false teachers' immoral and illicit behavior gladly.

Paul says in effect "Wow! We should have been a lot tougher than we were, since you are willing to tolerate that sort of thing!"-"To my shame I must say that we have been weak by comparison" (v. 21). Then, in a tone of righteous indignation at their foolish behavior, Paul goes on to say: "But in whatever respect anyone else is bold, I speak in foolishness, I am just as bold myself." 

This begins to set the stage for our discovering the strength of weakness. Let me ask: Are you too strong for God to use? Suffering is a means to bring us to weakness, to the end of ourselves. What is so amazing is the way God chooses to bring it about in our lives. He uses people and the pain they cause more often than not to bring us to weakness. It was not just the false teachers that caused Paul so much pain, but it was really the believers of Corinth who listened to them. Paul identifies the false teachers as being Jewish when he says "Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I" (2 Cor. 11:22). Evidently, they were the "legalists" that followed Paul wherever he went and put those who were under grace back under law. 

After exposing their deceit in verse 23, he begins to unveil what he feels uncomfortable in doing but knows that there is no other course to take because of the seriousness of the problem in Corinth. He wants them to know of his own suffering for the sake of Christ which was from persecution, even from believers: "In far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death" (v. 23). "Labors" translates kpos, which refers to hard work, to the point of total exhaustion! It's not the actual exertion but the weariness that occurs because of the exertion. Paul had labored to the point of being worn out but never burnt out, because of Christ's energy within him!

Clement of Rome says in his writings that Paul was imprisoned seven times. We only have record of five of those imprisonments. We know from Acts that he was imprisoned in Philippi; we know he was put in jail in Jerusalem; we know he was imprisoned in Caesarea; and we know that he was imprisoned twice in Rome. But neither Luke nor Paul tells us of them all. They were all because of Christ. He was "beaten times without number," which is a great translation of huperballntōs, meaning to excel beyond!

The scope of Paul's suffering and pain involved being weary to the point of exhaustion; being thrown in jail many times; beaten so many times he couldn't count them; and facing death was a constant companion. You can hear the pain in his voice as he realizes that the Corinthians were tolerating those who taught that the Law was the way of salvation and he had suffered to the point of death so many times, caused by most of these same people! That's a slap in the face, isn't it? Are you sensing Paul's pain as the tolerance of the Corinthians for false teaching was driving him to the end of himself?

In verse 24 Paul gets more specific: "Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes." Neither the Book of Acts nor any of the epistles record all these. But the seriousness of these beatings needs to be understood. "Thirty-nine lashes" was a beating described in the Jewish "Mishnah" which formed the basic part of their Talmud or book of instructions. It said that the maximum stripes a person could be beaten was forty, as specified in Deuteronomy 25:2-3. The Jews fixed the maximum at 39, to make sure the Law was not exceeded. Again, we note that it was the false teachers tolerated by the Corinthians who were responsible for Paul's beatings.

In verse 25 Paul says "Three times I was beaten with rods." This refers to a Roman form of punishment. But Paul was a Roman citizen and should have been exempt from this kind of punishment! Just as in our times, officials in government were not always careful to uphold the law. Recall how outrageously he was treated by the Romans in Philippi (1 Thess. 2:2).

Paul next says "Once I was stoned." We do have a record of this in connection with Paul's visit to Lystra. After a failed first attempt (Acts 14:5-6), the Jews succeeded in verse 19: "But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having won over the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead." Stoning was usually a capital sentence that was cast upon an apostate, blasphemer, or an adulterer!

Next Paul says "three times I was shipwrecked." Again, we don't know of these three because they were before the one we do have a detailed account of in Acts 27. Paul recalls one instance of "a night and a day I have spent in the deep."

 Mark it down: Paul suffered many times simply because he allowed Christ to live in and through him. Who or what is in your life that causes you pain and suffering? Have you come to the end of yourself? If you have, there is good news ahead.

God had Paul very busy with a burden to take the message of God's grace to as many places as God would direct. He says in verse 26: "I have been on frequent journeys." Then he catalogs for us what dangers these journeys held for him, both from the elements of nature and also from human meanness.

"In dangers from rivers." The word "dangers" in the Greek is kndunos, which refers not just to the danger but to the fear or peril that accompanies it. The rivers of Asia Minor were known to swell and rise without warning. This suggests that in Paul's journeys many times he feared for his life trying to cross them.

"Dangers from robbers." Travel in Paul's day, especially through the mountains and wilderness areas, was dangerous because of the robbers who tended to lurk in these places.

"Dangers from my countrymen." Paul's own people, the Jews, were his biggest enemy because of the message that he preached of Christ and the grace that He alone offers. He was like a man with no country because not only did the Jews hunt him down but the Gentiles also were on his case!

"Dangers from the Gentiles" because of the crowd's hostile response. Both Gentile officials and Gentile crowds were quick to react to Paul and his preaching, as in Philippi (Acts 16:20) and Ephesus (Acts 19:23).

"Dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea." Paul faced peril everywhere he went.

"Dangers among false brethren." False teachers that constantly criticized and planned against him were always around!

 On these journeys he suffered greatly physically: "I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure" (v. 27). You know, we should all be ashamed when we complain with what God has allowed to happen in our life, shouldn't we?

Paul's greatest suffering was the anguish he had for the spiritual condition of the churches. While much of his pain was brought on by enemies, that was not the whole picture: "Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches" (v. 28). "Concern" is the translation of mérimna, which expresses deep emotional care. He was concerned as a pastor shepherd for the welfare and the spiritual health of all the churches!

He asks in verse 29: "Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern?" We must understand that Paul is not complaining about his difficult life and circumstances he has had to face! That's why he started all of this in vs. 16 by saying "Don't think I've lost touch with reality in any way! He has shared all this that has happened to him in order to combat the foolish garbage that the false teachers were telling them.

Paul was a man who had suffered much for the sake of Christ. What are you going through because of your love for Christ and your willingness to share with others? We will see in chapter 12, that Paul knew the rest that only Christ can bring in the midst of suffering for the sake of Christ! In Matthew 11:28-30 there is a rest that is given; and there is a rest that is found when we are willing to submit ourselves to His yoke, accepting whatever circumstances comes our way! "Come unto me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest" (Matt. 11:28). The rest that is given. But He goes on to say: "Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls" (v. 29). The rest that is found.

When we allow the sufferings of life to drive us to Christ and we are willing to take the yoke of His will upon us then we will find rest such as we have never known. When we are at the end of ourselves and we yield to Him, we find His strength to carry on!

Wayne Barber is senior pastor of Woodland Park Baptist Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

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