Encouragement for Christians who suffer in Christ’s service (preaching resource for Pentecost 7: 7/7/24)

This post exegetes 2 Corinthians 12:1-10 providing context for the RCL Epistle reading on 7/7/24 (Pentecost 7). This exegesis draws on commentary from Warren Wiersbe in "The Bible Exposition Commentary" and Colin Kruse  in "The New Bible Commentary." 

"St. Paul" by Carpilo (public domain via Wkimedia Commons)


Paul is in the midst of a very painful time in his ministry. He finds it necessary to defend himself against false charges leveled against him by his opponents in the Corinthian church. Chief among his opponents are the Judaizers—false teachers who are tearing down Paul in order to promote themselves. In chapter 11 Paul counters their false claims by recounting his sufferings to serve Christ—a qualification the Judaizers cannot claim. Now in chapter 12, Paul adds to his defense the record of three personal experiences with Jesus. Through his third-person account (speaking in the third person was a common rabbinic device) we learn a great deal about Paul’s passion for and devotion to the Lord Jesus, despite the suffering that he often endured. There is much here for us to learn—much encouragement for Christians who suffer in Christ’s service.

1. Experiencing glory 

2Cor 12:1–6

The Judaizers boasted of their “letters of recommendation” (2Cor 3:1ff). But Paul looked to God, not men, for commendation. And here Paul notes how God honored him early in his ministry with a very special vision of God’s glory. Paul had experienced visions before this one, all meant to instruct and encourage Paul in his ministry. But this vision was unusual and exceptionally vivid—so much so that he’s not sure if it was a vision at all—perhaps it happened to him bodily. 

In any case, this marvelous experience took place 14 years before writing this letter, in about A.D. 43— the time between his departure for Tarsus (Acts 9:30) and his visit from Barnabas (Acts 11:25–26). Paul was transported to the third heaven—also called paradise. Here God manifests his presence, expressing the fullness of his glory, to angels and humans. Perhaps what is most interesting is that Paul kept quiet about this experience for 14 years! During those years, he was buffeted by a “thorn in the flesh”(verse 7) and perhaps people wondered why he had such a burdensome affliction. The Judaizers may have adopted the views of Job’s “comforters” and said, “This affliction is a punishment from God.” (Actually, it was a gift from God.) Some of Paul’s friends may have tried to encourage him by saying, “Cheer up, Paul. One day you’ll be in heaven!” Paul could have replied, “That’s why I have this thorn—I went to heaven!” 

God also honored Paul by permitting him in paradise to hear “inexpressible things” (verse 4). Perhaps God shared with him certain divine secrets. Could the Judaizers relate any such experiences? This vision was one of the sustaining powers in Paul’s life and ministry. No matter where he was—in prison, in the deep, in dangerous travels—he knew that God was with him and that all was well. 

The full glory of heaven lies ahead for us, but we can all be encouraged to know that today we are seated already with Jesus in the heavenly realms (Eph 2:6). United to him, we have a position of authority and victory, in and with him, “far above all” (Eph 2:21–22). While we have not seen the fullness of God’s glory as Paul did, we do experience and share that glory now (John 17:22) and one day we will enter into its fullness through bodily resurrection into a recreated heaven and earth where we will behold face-to-face the glory we now share with Jesus (John 17:24). 

Such an honor as Paul experienced through this event, would make most people big-headed. Yet, Paul remained humble. How?  Because of the second experience God granted him—one that granted him the gift of humility…

2. Experiencing humility 

2Cor 12:7–8

The Lord knows how to bring balance to our lives and character. If he grants us only blessings, we may become vain and self-assured; so he permits us burdens as well. Paul’s great experience in heaven could have ruined his ministry on earth; so God, in his wisdom and goodness, permitted Satan to buffet Paul to keep him from becoming proud. 

The mystery of human suffering will not be solved completely in this life. Sometimes we suffer simply because we are human. Our bodies change as we grow old, and we are susceptible to the normal problems of life. The same body that can bring us pleasure can also bring us pain. The same family members and friends that delight us can also break our hearts. This is a part of the “human comedy,” and the only way to escape it is to be less than human. But nobody wants to take that route. 

Sometimes we suffer because we are foolish and disobedient to the Lord. Our own rebellion may afflict us, or the Lord may see fit to discipline us in his love (Heb 12:3ff). In his grace, God forgives our sins; but he still often permits us to reap what we sow. 

Suffering also is a tool God uses for building in us the character of Christ (Rom 5:1–5). Certainly Paul was a man who was mature in Christ, in large part because he permitted God to mold and make him in the painful experiences of life. One of those formative painful experiences was his “thorn in the flesh” that God gave him to keep him from the sin of pride. Exciting spiritual experiences—like going to heaven and back—have a way of inflating the ego; and pride is a sin that opens the door to many other sins of the flesh. Had Paul’s heart been filled with pride, those next 14 years may well have been filled with failure instead of success in ministry. 

We don’t know what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was. The word translated thorn means “a sharp stake used for torturing or impaling someone.” It was apparently a physical affliction of some kind that brought pain and distress to Paul. Some Bible students think that Paul had an eye affliction (see Gal 6:11); but we cannot know for sure. What we can know is that no matter what our sufferings may be, we are able to apply the lessons Paul learned and get encouragement. 

God permitted Satan to afflict Paul, just as he permitted Satan to afflict Job. While we do not fully understand the origin of evil in this universe, or all the purposes God had in mind when he permitted evil to come, we do know that God controls evil and can use it even for his own glory. Satan cannot work against a believer without God’s permission. And so Satan was permitted to torment Paul. The word means “to beat, to strike with the fist.” The tense of the verb indicates that this pain was either constant or recurring. When you stop to think that Paul had letters to write, trips to take, sermons to preach, churches to visit, and dangers to face as he ministered, you can understand that this was a serious matter. No wonder he prayed three times that the affliction might be removed from him (2Cor 12:8). 

When God permits suffering to come to our lives, there are several ways we can deal with it. Some people become bitter and blame God for robbing them of freedom and pleasure. Others just “give up” and fail to get any blessing out of the experience because they will not put any courage into the experience. Still others grit their teeth and put on a brave front, determined to “endure to the very end.” While this is a courageous response, it usually drains them of the strength needed for daily living; and after a time, they may collapse. 

It is certainly a normal thing for a Christian—like Paul did—to ask God for deliverance from sickness and pain. God has not obligated himself to heal every believer whenever they pray; but he has encouraged us to bring all our burdens and needs to him. Paul did not know whether this “thorn in the flesh” was a temporary testing from God, or a permanent experience he would have to learn to live with. 

There are those who want us to believe that an afflicted Christian is a disgrace to God. “If you are obeying the Lord and claiming all that you have in Christ,” they say, “then you will never be sick.” This "health and wealth" teaching is not biblical. It is true that God promised the Jews special blessing and protection under the Old Covenant (Deut 7:12ff) but he never promises New Covenant believers freedom from sickness or suffering. If Paul had access to “instant healing” because of his relationship to Christ, then why didn’t he make use of it for himself and for others (such as Epaphroditus—see Phil 2:25ff)? 

What a contrast between Paul’s two experiences! Paul went from paradise to pain. He tasted the blessing of God in heaven and then felt the buffeting of Satan on earth. He went from ecstasy to agony, and yet the two experiences belong together. His one experience of glory prepared him for the constant experience of suffering, for he knew that God was able to meet his every need. Paul had gone to heaven—but then he learned that heaven could come to him. 

3. Experiencing the sufficiency of God’s grace 

2Cor 12:9–10

The thorn in the flesh was Satan’s message to Paul, but God had another message for him in it: a message about grace. The tense of the verb in verse 9 is important. Translated literally it reads: “But he [God] has once-for-all said to me.” God gave Paul a message that stayed with him. The words Paul heard while in heaven, he is not permitted to share; but he does share the words God gave him on earth—and what an encouragement they were to him; and to us.

This is God’s message of grace. And what is grace? It is God’s provision for our every need when we need it. It has well been said that God in his grace gives us what we do not deserve, and in his mercy He does not give us what we do deserve. “From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another” (John 1:16). 

  • The message to Paul was of sufficient grace. There is never a shortage. God is sufficient for our ministries (2Cor 3:4–6), our material needs (2Cor 9:8), and our physical needs (2Cor 12:9). If God’s grace is sufficient to save us (and it is), surely it is sufficient to keep us and strengthen us in our times of struggle and suffering. 
  • The message to Paul was of strengthening grace. God permits us to become weak so that we might receive and rely upon his strength. This is a continuous process: “My power is [being] made perfect in [your] weakness” (2Cor 12:9). Strength that knows itself to be strength is actually weakness, but weakness that knows itself to be weakness is actually strength. 

When Paul prayed three times for the removal of the fleshly thorn, he was asking God for substitution: “God, give me health instead of sickness, deliverance instead of pain and weakness.” But often God does not meet our need with substitution—instead, as was the case for Paul here, he meets our need with transformation. He does not remove the affliction, but he gives us his sufficient grace so that the affliction works for us and not against us. 

As Paul prayed, God gave him a deeper insight into what he was doing. Paul learned that the thorn was a gift from God. What a strange gift! There was only one thing for Paul to do: accept it as from God and thus allow God to accomplish his purposes. God wanted to keep Paul from “becoming conceited,” (2Cor 12:7) and this was his way of accomplishing that. When Paul’s acceptance came an open door in his heart for God’s grace to do its transforming work in his life. It also gave him an open ear to hear God’s promise to him: “My grace is sufficient for you Paul.” We are reminded that as Christ-followers we walk by faith—confidence in God’s promises to us—not confidence in detailed instructions or lengthy explanations. Reliance on God’s promises generates faith, and faith strengthens hope for the journey.

So Paul heard God’s word to him, and drew on the grace that God promised. This transformed in his heart a seeming tragedy into a great triumph. Indeed, God does, indded, “give more grace” (James 4:6). No matter how we look at it, God’s grace is sufficient for our every need. But understand that this grace is not given so that we would merely endure suffering. God’s grace enables us to rise above our circumstances and feelings so that our afflictions produce positive good. Above all, our trials are used by God to conform us to the likeness of Jesus. God transformed Paul’s weakness into strength. The word translated rest in verse 9 means “to spread a tent over.” Paul saw his body as a frail tent (2Cor 5:1ff), but the glory of God came into that tent and transformed it into a holy tabernacle despite the physical infirmity.

And so Paul was able to glory in his infirmities. This does not mean that he preferred pain to health, but rather that he allowed God to turn his infirmities into assets. Paul was thus able to “delight” in his trials, not because he was psychologically unbalanced and enjoyed pain, but because he was suffering to serve Jesus, and he was experiencing the sufficiency of God’s grace.


From Paul’s three experiences we learn a great deal about our God and about ourselves as men and women called to God’s service. We serve him through many difficulties, but always with a vision of his glory, tempered by an honest and humble appraisal of ourselves—and thus looking to and trusting in him alone; for we know, with Paul, that God’s grace is sufficient. 

Thank you Jesus. Our sufficiency is in you. Amen.