Genesis 22:1-14 God has Provided

Genesis 22:1-14           God has Provided                             WC McCarter

By way of introduction, look with me at John 8:48-59 and particularly v56. “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” The ‘day’ refers to Christ’s passion and work of redemption on the cross.

“But when could Abraham have seen anything on that order of sophistication? Probably when he took his son Isaac up on Mount Moriah to be offered. . . . Abraham saw that God himself would provide a substitute, someone in that coming ‘seed’ who would somehow be connected with the sacrifice and deliverance of Isaac, the son of promise” (Kaiser, 50).

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The Testing of Faith (1-2)
Without the first verse in the chapter, we would be completely lost on the events of the chapter. There is nothing in any of the narratives before that would help us to understand where this test comes from. It seemingly comes out of nowhere. We are almost as surprised as Abraham is to hear this command. It is a difficult passage anyway, but Moses, the writer, helps us with the first verse. There he tells us right up front that this is a test. The reader is led to believe that the sacrifice of Isaac will not take place, but that only softens the tension of the narrative because in the story, Abraham does not know that this is only a test. We are forced to focus on the inward, spiritual struggle of Abraham as we read through the passage. Verse two, like 12:1-3 narrows in on the personal nature of the command: son, only son, Isaac whom you love.

Let me say that Abraham would not have considered this request to be normative. Many claim that it would have been because the pagan nations roundabout were constantly offering child sacrifices, but those sacrifices of the pagans would have been mainly of newborns soon after birth. Abraham is asked to offer his teenaged son to the Lord. Yet, here is the thing, God is the giver and taker of life. He is allowed to take life whenever He sees fit. The dilemma for Abraham, the difficult nature of the event is that God requires Abraham to carry out the sacrifice. There are three commands: take, go, and sacrifice his son. We do not get much more elaboration than that, and it doesn’t seem that Abraham does either. The way that Moses constructs the recounting of the event forces us to rely on Abraham’s assessment of the situation. His response becomes our supreme example.

This “testing” is not a tempting of Abraham to sin. God does not tempt in that way. He never coerces believers or unbelievers to sin. What He does is test His people to know their hearts. He wants to “prove” Abraham’s faith, obedience, and fear of the Lord. There is no tricking, deceiving, or entrapment. Abraham is tested straight-up whether he will trust and obey or not.

This kind of testing is done in order to manifest what is in the heart of the person. It is for God to experience, for the person to know, and for the whole world to witness. Many things in the Scriptures are isolated events. For example, the testing of Job does not seem to be normative, neither does this one event of testing Abraham. I would not say that God does the sort of thing all the time that He did with Job and Abraham. Yet, we are put to the test on several occasions in different ways. We are told that this is for our good and that we should count it all joy when we face tribulation. God is glorified in it as we continue to trust and obey Him, and we are made stronger through it.

The Obedience of Faith (3-10)
Verse three is clear right up front that Abraham is willing to obey. He is not perfect in his obedience, and he has had some mishaps in his faith but not on this occasion. He rose early in the morning and got to it. Notice how the narrative is so slow in progressing. The best way for us to go about this narrative is to read through it while making various observations.

Just as Abraham had done what the Lord had commanded in C12, so he does here without hesitation. There are many details here that don't actually contribute much to the story, but may we suppose that they were added to accentuate the inner struggle of Abraham? After three days they arrive at their destination. For three days Isaac is reckoned as dead to Abraham. After what seems to be prolonged, numbing silence on Abraham's behalf, we finally here from the father of faith. A bold statement of confidence is given at the end of v5. He says, "We will come back to you." Abraham may not know exactly how God is going to work in this situation, but he is confident that his God will see to everything that He has promised.

In v6 we get a hint at the age of Isaac. He must be a teenager by now because he is able to carry large enough load of wood for a burnt offering on his back up a mountain. We also learn from this detail that Isaac could have surely fought off his father, but he willing obeys the command of the Lord along with Abraham.

By the time we make it to v8, we receive another confident assertion from Abraham. He says, "God will provide for Himself the lamb." Abraham is already beginning to understand that God will provide a substitute. God will see to it that everything is taken care of. So, Isaac cooperates and allows his father to bind him and lay him on the altar.

How do we reason that Abraham was so confident in God? What is it that Abraham was thinking when he said that God would see to all of the details? Heb 11:17-19 gives us an answer, “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, “In Isaac your seed shall be called,” concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense.”

The Approval of Faith (11-14)
Finally, after one heart-wrenching detail after another, the narrative comes to a head as Abraham stretches out his hand to sacrifice his son, but he is abruptly stopped by an angel of the Lord. He is commanded to not lay a hand on the boy. The test how now been completed. Abraham has been accepted. It has now been shown to God, to Abraham, and to the whole world that Abraham fears God, that is, he is obedient, trusting, and willing to give up what is most precious to him.

Ultimately a substitute is offered in Isaac’s place. Abraham had actually anticipated this when he said, “God will provide for Himself the lamb.” And there is no doubt that this foreshadows the sacrificial death of the Lord Jesus Christ. Like Isaac, Christ willing carries the cross on His back, He willingly heads up the mountain to the place of execution, He willing lays down His life. Like Abraham, God the Father puts His own Son to death. There was a ram caught in the thicket that took Isaac's place this time, but it would ultimately be the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world that would take Isaac's place, Abraham's place, and our places. He bore our penalty for sin as our substitute on the cross.

Conclusion and Christian Application

(1) Genuine faith is always ready to move and go to action when the promises and commands of God are heard. Abraham was always ready to hear and obey. Are you always ready to hear and obey? What is your faith-posture? Are you standing and ready for action, or have you sunken into a spiritual sloth?

(2) What was it that Isaac not only represented but actually embodied? Isaac was Abraham’s only son, the heir of the promises of God, the progenitor of the land, nation, and blessing to all peoples. Abraham was willing to sacrifice everything. The question was, did Abraham desire the promises of God or did he desire God Himself? The same is true for us today. Are you wanting only to maintain some sort of image for others to see? Are you wanting only to escape the torments of Hell? Are you wanting only to go to Heaven when you die? Or are you wanting to know God and to see His glory?

(3) The translation, “God will provide” is literally, “God will see to it.” Abraham trusted that God would take care of the details. You must trust God in the details. He is the God of the long-range plans, and He is the God of the details of day-to-day life. Do you trust Him for the future? And do you trust Him for today? He must be trusted in the big things and the small things. In the easy things and in the hard things.

(4) To finish our challenge to minister to someone in particular. This week you should have another conversation with the person you have been talking to and praying for, and tell them why you are a Christian. Invite them to RHCC.

Genesis 12:1-3 The Gospel in Genesis: God has Blessed

Genesis 12:1-3    The Gospel in Genesis: God has Blessed       WC McCarter

Inscripturated in Gen 9:27 was a messianic promise that God Himself would dwell in the tents of Shem.  After righteous Abel was murdered by his brother, Cain, another son was born to Adam and Eve.  The messianic hope and righteous seed continued through Seth down through several generations including Enoch who did not die but was taken by God, Methuselah who is the oldest man listed in the Bible, Noah who was spared during the great flood, and his son, Shem.  Shem continued the righteous, messianic seed and was the father of many Middle Eastern people groups known today as Semites, or Semitic, such as the Jews. As I mentioned at first, God promised to dwell in the tents of Shem in Gen 9:27. The genealogy of Shem is recorded in Genesis 11 which brings us to the name “Abram.”  Abram, whose name was later changed to Abraham, was the preeminent holy man of the Old Testament.  In our text today we find yet another messianic promise.  Again, we see the Gospel in Genesis as God continues to unfold His plan of redemption.

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Introduction to the Promise Passage (11:27-32)
Gen 11:27-32 forms the introductory paragraph to Abraham’s story. It tells of his father and brothers, sister in law, his geographical setting, and his wife, Sarai. The paragraph has a structure that highlights in the middle of the passage the fact that Sarai was barren and had no children. As one commentator says, “That obituary tightly closes the door on Proto-History. Genesis 12:1-3 will open a new door in salvation history” (Waltke, 199). Because of the names of the people of Abraham’s family, there is very strong evidence that Terah’s family were pagan worshippers of the moon god. In fact, Joshua reports long after in Josh 24:2, “Your fathers, including Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, dwelt on the other side of the River in old times; and they served other gods.” So, it is documented that God called Abram from a family of pagan worshippers.

The introductory paragraph is one of bleak circumstances. Abram’s background does not seem to make him desirable for God’s purposes. He comes from a family marred by the sin of idolatry, and his wife cannot have children. In ancient times, this was an awful thing. “Against this hopelessness, God’s sovereign call of Abraham offers bright hope. . . . God’s grace is beyond human imagination. [Sarah] will bear children not by natural generation but by supernatural life that faith engenders. Through this childless couple, God will bring into being a new humanity that is born not of the will of a husband but by the will of God” (Waltke, 201).

Overview of the Promise Passage (1-3)
The opening line of chapter twelve makes it fairly clear that God had spoken these next few verses to Abram while he was still in Ur before heading toward Canaan and settling in Haran for a time. The following is a quote from the Lord which called Abram out. The Lord was setting Abram apart for a special purpose. Not just a special purpose but a unique, history changing purpose. Here, the seed of the woman, the righteous seed continues with Abram.

This passage is universally known as one of the most important passages in all of holy Scripture. It has been called the Great Commission of the Old Testament. Abram is commanded by God to leave his country and family to go to another place. In going, God would use him to bless others. In fact, God would use Abram to bless all the nations of the world. Now that sounds like global missions, doesn’t it? That sounds like Gospel ministry.

There are seven promises in these three verses of our main text today. The number seven is symbolic in Scripture of the idea of completeness. The seventh and final promise is the climax of the passage.
(1) God would make Abraham into a great nation.
(2) God would bless Abraham.
(3) God would make Abraham’s name great.
(4) Abraham and his seed would be a blessing to others.
(5) God would bless those who blessed Abraham.
(6) God would curse those who cursed Abraham.
(7) God would bless all the families of the earth through Abraham’s seed.

The seventh and final promise of this passage, “. . . always appears in the climactic position, even though it was repeated to Abraham three times and once each to Isaac and Jacob. . .” (Kaiser, 46-47).  It is called the “Gospel” by the apostle Paul in Gal 3:18.

The promise made in the Garden continues with a promise made to Abram. Sin has ravished the earth. Idolatry is rampant. There is great darkness, and, yet, God speaks. Just as God spoke into the darkness of the beginning and said, “Let there be light,” here He speaks again into the darkness of humanity’s condition and brings forth one who will continue His initial messianic promise. The Lord does not forget His promises. His word is true and steadfast. Nothing can thwart the plan of God. What he intended to do to reverse the effects of sin and Satan will be done. He will use Abraham and Sarah to bless the whole world. All the families of the earth will be blessed. From every nation, tribe, and tongue there will be people redeemed by the One that God will raise up. God singles on one family, one man, but will bless him so that he will be a blessing to all families and men of the earth. The Jews would bless the Gentiles.

Conclusion to the Promise Passage (4)
Can you imagine the excitement that must have been building in Abram’s soul? Surely when the Lord spoke to him he was in awe, overwhelmed by the grace of God, adrenaline was pumping through his body, the hairs on the back of his neck were standing up, he was surely giddy with great enthusiasm until. . . wait a minute. . . Abram’s wife, Sarai, is barren. . . she cannot have children. . . and the couple is old, past child-bearing age. . . Abram is 75 years old.

There is no doubt in my mind that Abram puts his faith in God at this point. Verse four says, “So Abram departed as the Lord had spoken to him.” He did exactly as the Lord had told him despite how painful it may have been, or uncomfortable, or costly. Abram did as the Lord commanded. He trusted the word of the Lord. He obeyed the word of the Lord. There is no covenant here, that will come a few chapters later. There is only the promise of God.

Conclusion and Christian Application
Let us end where we began this morning, “What had seemed as an unfair narrowing of the privileges given to the Shemites [Gen 9:27], in that God would live only in their tents, was to be the very means for extending those benefits to all the nations and to all the Gentiles” (Kaiser, 47). This was truly the Gospel in Genesis.

(1) God is faithful to His promises. He is faithful to His word. When He spoke to the serpent in the Garden, that promise had you in mind. When He blessed Abraham, He had the intention to bless you, and He has blessed you. We preach the completed work of Christ today saying, “God has blessed.”

(2) God has always been a world-wide God. He has always desired that none would perish; red, yellow, black, and white; English speaking, Spanish speaking, German speaking, Mandarin speaking. He wills that none would perish and that all would come to repentance and life. Do not give up on your global vision to reach the nations. Continue with the vision, and bring that vision home as the “nations” move to the U.S., move into our neighborhoods, become fellow employees, and their children attend school with our children. God has blessed us in order for us to be a blessing to them.

(3) I challenged you last week to have a meaningful conversation with an unbeliever; someone that you already knew, someone you could follow up with, and preferably someone who was not a family member. This week I want to challenge you to pray for that person every day. Maybe you could even have another conversation with him/her.

Genesis 3:1-15 God has Crushed

Genesis 3:1-15    The Gospel in Genesis: God has Crushed      WC McCarter

I am thoroughly convinced that pressure is coming for Christians in America.  We will have to be prepared.  It is my responsibility, my duty, to equip you for ministry, even (and especially) in a hostile environment.  Maybe you have noticed that I keep coming back to the Gospel.  We need to know what we believe.  We need to know it so well that when tough times come, we will be more than conquerors.  We want to see growth toward maturity in our individual lives and as a congregation.  We also want to see numerical growth in our congregation.  I think that we can accomplish both preparation and evangelism.  We need to gather on Sundays to be built up, and we need to scatter throughout the week in order to be witnesses of Christ Jesus.

Take a look at Genesis 1-2 by way of introduction.

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The Fall (1-7)
Here we find the account of sin entering the human race.  Here we find the cause of evil.  Here is the explanation for why things are the way they are.  Here is spiritual death, physical death, suffering, pain, trouble, and the rest.

The serpent seemingly comes out of nowhere, yet Eve does not seem to be shocked by his presence or message.  We know from the rest of Scripture, that this “serpent” is Satan/Devil.  Both words mean adversary, accuser, or persecutor.  He appears as the “antigod” figure.  Elsewhere in Scripture he is called a murderer and a liar.  Satan uses a serpent, a created animal, to do his work.  As you can see, he also uses communication to cause confusion.

Moses uses a play on words when referring to Adam and Eve’s nakedness and the serpent’s craftiness.  The two Hebrew words sound the same.  We could maybe preserve the word play by translating the words as nude and shrewd.  Moses is signaling to the readers Adam and Eve’s vulnerability.  Remember, the couple was nude and were not ashamed.  They were oblivious to any threats in the Garden of Eden.  And the Serpent was shrewd from the beginning.  Christians must be aware of the craftiness of the Devil’s deceit.  He may appear to be a great theologian, a great teacher of the things of God, but he is a liar who seeks to destroy as many as possible.

In the first recorded conversation about God, it is Eve who speaks with Satan.  We cannot be sure why he approached her and not Adam.  All sorts of reasons have been proposed.  Satan goes to the extreme when he poses his question.  Although Satan suggests that God had prohibited the couple from all of the trees of the Garden, the truth is that God had permitted them to eat from every tree except one.  The seed of doubt has been planted.  What will Eve do with it?

The woman responds to the serpent with the truth.  She completely comprehends the commandment God had delivered to them.  She even exaggerates the commandment as she tells Satan that if they simply touched that one tree, they would surely die.  Satan is good at presenting the truth in a deceptive way, but his response to Eve is an utter lie.  We can learn from verse four that Satan will stretch the truth as far as he can to get want he wants, but he will lie to your face if that’s what it takes.  Satan presents God as a big-bad-bully, as if he doesn’t want Adam and Eve to reach their full potential.  He presents rebellion as a means of advantage.  What we learn from his comments in verse five is that “Deification is a fantasy…” (Hamilton, 190).

The deception that has filled her heart has caused Eve to see the banned tree in three ways: (1) Good for food (2) Pleasant to the eyes (3) Desirable to make one wise.  These desires are put over her desire to follow the words of God.  The three may have built up to a climax in that Eve desired the deceptively-promised wisdom the most.  Satan’s evil plot fell right in place.  We do not know the fruit, but “She took of its fruit and ate.  She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate.”  Adam does not rebuke her, but simply joins in.  He obeys his wife instead of God.  “Hers is a sin of initiative.  His is a sin of acquiescence” (Hamilton, 191).  Satan promises that Eve (and Adam) can “become like God,” yet, of course, that is not what happens.  We do not become angels (even though that is a common sentiment in America), and we certainly do not become gods.  When their eyes are opened they do not become like God, but find that they are naked.  “Ironically, their opened eyes bring them shame” (Waltke, 92).  Their relationship is immediately damaged, and they create barriers between themselves: fig-leaved clothes.

The Confrontation (8-13)
God was the Gardener of Eden.  Both the Old and New Testaments affirm this idea of God.  He planted the Garden, and was personally involved in its day-to-day process.  The Lord would normally come for a stroll to view and enjoy His creation.  A walk in the Garden would be most suitable in the cool of the day, the evening, and not in the heat.  The word used for God’s movement suggests that it was done on a regular basis.

Adam and Eve were alerted to the Lord’s presence when they heard the sound of Him in the Garden.  They must have expected His arrival in the Garden, since that was the norm in the evenings.  When they heard Him, they hid themselves among the trees.  That reaction to the very sound of God was a declaration of guilt.  All of the previous times that the Lord God had visited with them in the Garden they did not run to hide from Him.  This time they felt ashamed and knew that they were guilty before God.

God is thorough in His questioning.  He asks, where? (v9), who? (v11), and what? (v13).  God knows all things perfectly, why did He question the couple?  We can only conclude that He was demonstrating His righteousness, and He was also allowing Adam and Eve to confess their sin.  (Similar questioning is directed toward Cain after he murdered his brother.)

When God asks where they are, Adam admits that he was afraid when He heard God because he was naked.  He is so overwhelmed with guilt that he answered why he was hiding, which was not the Lord’s first question.  The fear that Adam sensed was obviously not motivated by faith.  Thus, it could not be pleasing to God (Heb 11:6).  Adam’s response to the second phase of questioning does not offer an admission of personal guilt, but deflects the blame toward his wife.  I guess we could say that the guilt is mainly deflected toward God (“whom You gave to be with me”).  The works of Satan convince people that they are not guilty, but that others should be blamed, even God (Jas 1:13).  Eve responds much like Adam in the sense that she will not take blame.  She pointed the finger at the serpent.  Their shame forced them to cover themselves from each other, hide themselves from God, and in the end totally isolate themselves.

Listen closely, sin is missing the mark.  It is falling short of the glory of God by rebellion, utter selfishness, and unbelief.  Sin is the transgressing of boundaries declared in divine revelation.  It immediately builds a barrier between man and God, and it ruins the relationships of people.  Its end is death, both spiritually and physically.  The Bible, and especially the NT, is clear that all have sinned, all are under sin, all are slaves to sin, and all will collect the wages of sin (death) apart from Christ.

The Promise (14-15)
Satan had embodied the serpent, which was a land animal that God had created on day six of creation.  In these verses, God passes judgment on Satan and the serpent by association.  I cannot make a very strong case for this, but I tend to believe that the serpent was some type of legged creature (God created beasts of the earth and creeping things) and after the judgment was caused to slither on its belly for the remainder of history (just a guess).  To be consigned to moving around on its belly and in the dust of the ground was to be utterly humiliated (Ps 44:25).  That judgment was also a sign of defeat (Ps 72:9; Isa 25:12).  Notice that God has ultimate control over the situation.  Satan may think that he can supersede God, but he is in no way able.

Verse 15 has historically been interpreted as a Messianic statement.  We know from the NT that many people are the offspring of Satan, not physically, but spiritually in the sense that they follow his rebellion (John 8:44).  Throughout the ages, there has been the ongoing battle between those who follow God and those who follow Satan (Whose seed are you?).  At just the right time, God sent His Son (Gal 5:3-5).  Satan thought he won, and he thought he had won when Christ died, but he was sorely and eternally mistaken.

Embedded in the curse is the promise of eventual victory.  There is judgment, but there is hope.  The messianic hope begins here.  As one man has said, this is the “mother prophecy” that gives birth to all of the other messianic promises of the Old Testament which is ultimately fulfilled in the Lord Jesus (Smith, 38).  For centuries, this has been called “the first Gospel.”

God says, “I will.”  This is His initiative.  God is sovereign.  Satan may think that he has won some kind of victory.  He may think that he has gained a following, that he has stolen God’s creation from Him, but God says, “I will.”  Her “seed” is a collective word, but the singular pronoun “He” is quickly introduced.  There will be ongoing spiritual battle between Satan’s seed and Eve’s seed, but there will be One who eventually steps forward to end the strife between the two lines.  From Eve’s line, her seed, will come forth One that will crush the head of Satan.

Conclusion and Christian Application
(1) I think it is overwhelmingly comforting to see the Gospel in Genesis.  There is wrath.  God is righteous, holy, and perfect.  Thus, He cannot pass over sin.  He must judge.  He must judge righteously.  Yet, even when God brings down judgment on the man, woman, and serpent–there is hope for humanity.  I am here to tell you today that we are no longer looking forward to that day when this promise is fulfilled.  I can preach the completion of the Gospel from Genesis this morning: God has crushed.  He has already done this marvelous thing in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  Although His heel was bruised by crucifixion, the head of Satan was crushed by the weight of Christ’s sacrificial death and glorious resurrection.

(2) In light of the Gospel in Genesis, I want to challenge each of you over the next few weeks to walk through the process of evangelism with someone that you know.  We will take one simple step each week toward sharing the Gospel.  The first week (which is this week) I want you to speak with an unbeliever.  The second week, I will challenge you to pray for that person each day.  The third week, I will challenge you to share the Gospel with that person.  Lastly, I will challenge you to invite them to church.  It is time that we boldly proclaim the Good News which was first proclaimed in Genesis that God has crushed Satan!

*So, this week, your one, simple challenge is to have a meaningful conversation with someone that you know that is not a Christian.  Let me encourage you to not begin with a family member.  Choose a coworker, neighbor, friend, or acquaintance.  It needs to be someone that you can follow up with in coming weeks.  Invite him or her to lunch or supper at a restaurant or at your house.  If you are not ready for that, then make a phone call or talk over the fence!  Show them you care about them.  You do not even have to mention anything about Christ in this first encounter.  The other thing that I would encourage you to do for the next few weeks is to keep a journal about this experience to record how God moves in this process.

2 Corinthians 12:7-10 The Apostle's Thorn

2 Corinthians 12:7-10            The Apostle’s Thorn               WC McCarter

Paul leaves his discussion of the revelation in the third heaven, and he turns to a discussion that is very earthly.  We use a lot of terms for what he is about to discuss: hardships, trials, sorrows, worries, difficulties, problems, grief, obstacles, hindrances, dilemmas, troubles, sufferings, tribulations, afflictions.  We all have faced our fair share in this life.  We face them every day.  As one of my favorite authors has put it, “For the unavoidable reality is that if we live long enough, we will suffer. . . .”   Now, I do not like to hear something like that anymore than you do, but it is the sobering, truthful reality of our situation.  Some problems are easier to get through than others.  Some pains fade in the rear-view mirror as we continue through life, while others linger on and on.  Some afflictions last a lifetime.  Paul knew this feeling that we describe with so many words.  He called it a thorn in his flesh.  And because he knew this feeling, we have an amazing text that resounds in our hearts.  After learning about the apostle’s visions, we learn about The Apostle’s Thorn.  I think we will find some very helpful and practical lessons in these next few verses.

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As we transition into the next part of this passage, we come to the famous verse about Paul’s “thorn in the flesh.”  Notice how verse seven is clear that the apostle’s thorn is directly connected with the apostle’s visions.  Twice he says, “Lest I be exalted above measure.”  The thorn had a purpose.  It was to teach him something.  It would have been very easy for Paul to be puffed up with pride and arrogance.  He could have gloried in his experiences.  He could have thought much about himself and caused others to do the same.  Yet, he was given a thorn in his flesh.  He even tells us that the thorn was a messenger, a messenger from Satan.  We will talk about that more in a minute.

The “thorn in the flesh” is not to be taken literally as if Paul had a wood splinter in some part of his body.  The nature of the passage tells us that he means this symbolically.  Just as in the Old Testament Israel’s enemies were called “thorns in your sides” (Num 33:55; Josh 23:13; Judg 2:3; Ezek 28:24), so, too, Paul had his own enemy that would not leave him.  For this reason some commentators have thought that Paul must be referring to his opponents, the false teachers or “super-apostles.”  Of course, the opponents would have been an ongoing “pain,” and their challenges would have constantly kept the apostle Paul humble.  There is good reason to interpret the “thorn in the flesh” this way with the Old Testament background.  Yet, there are other good interpretive options.  One commentator says, “Explanations are legion,” and he lists several options including, “malaria, a serious eye condition, feelings of guilt and depression owing to Paul’s failure to convert his fellow Jews, Jewish persecution, epilepsy, a marked speech defect, [and] some sort of continued temptation (taking “flesh” to refer to unregenerate nature).”

What was the Thorn?
I would like to show you what I believe to be convincing biblical evidence for the interpretation that the “thorn in the flesh” was some sort of disease that gave Paul an eye condition.  After showing you that evidence, I will give a summary of what we can learn from this “thorn.”  I believe that Paul’s condition was a chronic one that affected him in a few different ways.  I think it made his eyesight bad, and it made his appearance unsightly.  It surely was also humiliating and painful.  I think this for several reasons.

First, by using the term “flesh” it appears that Paul is referring to a physical condition.  Gal 4:13-14 also refers to an infirmity of Paul’s that was “in the flesh.”  Second, another point from Gal 4:14 is that, from a worldly perspective, the Galatians could have easily despised and rejected Paul because of his obvious weakness.  Third, in Gal 4:15 Paul says specifically, “For I bear you witness that, if possible, you would have plucked out your own eyes and given them to me.”  Now, that seems a bit too particular as an illustration if it were not literal.  A fourth supporting point that the “thorn in the flesh” was an eye problem is the fact that Paul used scribes on several occasions.  That is not a strong point on its own since it was common practice for teachers to use scribes, but it may be another indicator that it would not have been practical for Paul to sit and write because of bad eyesight.  In Gal 6:11 Paul says, “See with what large letters I have written to you with my own hand!”  He had been dictating the epistle but wrote with his own hand at the end.  Maybe he simply had poor penmanship, or maybe he had poor eyesight that was a hindrance to his writing.  A fifth and final point that I will supply as evidence that Paul had bad eyesight which was very likely the “thorn in the flesh” comes from Acts 23.  In that chapter we are given a narrative concerning Paul on trial before the Jewish ruling council.  There he speaks disrespectfully to the high priest and is rebuked for doing so.  Paul replies in verse five, “I did not know, brethren, that he was the high priest. . . .”  How could a good, Jewish man who was at one time a very prominent Pharisee not know who the high priest was?  I think it is very reasonable to believe that Paul had poor eyesight which prevented him from accurately recognizing to whom he was speaking.

How Does Satan Fit In?
Let us be clear that Satan does not cause all of our problems; sometimes we face suffering simply because we live in a fallen world, other times we struggle because we have brought things upon ourselves, another reason trials may come is because of divine discipline, and then there are times that Satan is given authorization by God to strike us with infirmities.  Satan relishes the opportunity to hammer our weaknesses.  He wants to see us doubt God’s goodness and providence.  He wants to see us miserable and challenged.  God, in His sovereignty, allows Satan to do this from time to time.  The supreme biblical example of this is the story of Job in the OT.  In much the same way, Satan struck Paul with a chronic issue, but God used it for His purposes.

God would bring good out of that evil.  What was the good?  God kept Paul humble, safe, and trusting in Christ for strength and salvation.  As 2 Cor 1:9 says, “Yes, we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead.”  God works out all things for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.

Now, what is the point of that exercise of considering the biblical data and making arguments for a certain interpretation?  Well, we want to be as faithful to Scripture as possible.  We also want to satisfy our curiosity as to what was Paul’s problem.  I also think that this interpretation is very encouraging to many people who live with chronic pain and problems.  If Paul could run the race that was set before him, even with ongoing pain and problems and be as fruitful as he was, then we can do the same.  We can take great inspiration from his witness.  We can also learn from his dealings with God about this issue and rest in God’s answer.  That is what we turn to next.

We have all had seasons in our lives when we were really struggling with something that would not go away.  During those times we threw ourselves at the mercy of God.  We cried out to Him for help, for reassurance, for answers, and primarily for Him to take away whatever it was that was plaguing us.  Most of those things we came out of on the other side.  There was light at the end of the tunnel, and eventually we found it.  As we look back we begin to understand that it was a learning experience.  It was a growing experience.  It was an opportunity to be a witness to the grace and love of God, that we could have joy even in the midst of trials.

There are other sufferings and sorrows in our lives that have not gone away.  They have followed us for years, even until today.  We have prayed and pleaded with the Lord to take these things away, but He never has.  At that point we can listen for the voice of God, look for His purpose in the suffering, and trust Him with everything that we are or we can turn away and abandon our only hope and trust.  Paul prayed and prayed and prayed, three times he says.  Now, was this only three prayers or was it three seasons of prayer in his life?  We cannot be sure, but either way he earnestly pleaded with the Lord.  He did not want to live with this “thorn” for the rest of his life.  We are not those who enjoy pain and suffering.  On the contrary, we want those things to be taken away from us.  Yet, most of us have lived long enough to know from experience that some things are not taken away.  They are chronic.  They are haunting.  They are for a lifetime.  The question is, how do we regard these things?  How do we manage these things?  How do we live with these things?  Where is God in of our suffering?  We want to view these things from a godly perspective.

God did not take away Paul’s “thorn in the flesh,” but He did give Paul a response to his prayers.  I don’t know about you, but this response is comforting to me.  God told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.”  What do you make of that?  Of course, the bottom-line of the message is that the thorn would not be taken away.  That is not what Paul wanted to hear.  He had asked that it would be taken away.  Yet, he did at least hear from the Lord.  The Lord is not silent in our pain and suffering.  He is not absent from our sorrows.  He cares for us.  He loves us.  He wants what’s best for us.  He speaks into our situations.  Notice that this is a quote from the Lord.  Jesus spoke this to Paul.  While Paul’s pleading was in the past and is not continually repeated, the answer that he received was at some point in the past but is continually applicable.  In other words, what Christ told Paul was a once-for-all-time answer to the “thorn in the flesh.”  The promise that Christ made, although it was only said once, would forever be valid.  The prayer was answered, maybe not the way Paul imagined but with more than enough grace.

Did Paul accept what the Lord said?  He sure did.  Was Christ’s promise true?  Would His grace really be sufficient to sustain Paul?  His life is a supreme example of Christ’s gracious power in the life of a person.  Paul was often weak and struggling, but he turned the world upside-down.  He proclaimed the foolishness of the cross all over the known world.  He planted churches and ministered in places that we could not have imagined.  He almost single-handedly spread the Good News through the world.  To summarize why Paul was glad to accept the Lord’s response and, therefore, boast of weakness one commentator has said, “The permanent enabling and protection of the power of Christ more than compensated for the intermittent buffeting of ‘the messenger of Satan’ (v. 7).  Paul could now very gladly boast of his weaknesses.”   The apostle learned that when he was weak, then he was at his strongest.  Why?  That is when he depended most on the power of Christ graciously given to him.

Conclusion and Christian Application
There are profound truths to be found here that are readily applicable to us.  Let me state a few that jump off of the page into my heart and hopefully yours.

First, listen closely, Satan is under God’s authority.  There is no thing and no one not under God’s sovereignty.  Satan may tempt and harass you, but if you put your faith in Christ, God will always use those things for your good and His ultimate purposes.  So, do not view Satan as a being who is equal to God.  Do not view him as all-knowing, all-powerful, and ever-present.  He is a creature.

Second, did you notice that God deems humility to be more important than comfort?  Let that sink in.  We all want to experience rest and peace, but what Christ offers is not rest and peace in the sense that there is no turmoil or conflict.  The world hates Christians, so we will always be counter-cultural and in tension with the things and people around us.  We are to be holy, that is, separate, different, unique–light in a dark world, salt in an impure and savorless society.  To accomplish that holiness, God has seen fit to consider humility more essential than relief from suffering.

Third, you can be fruitful in life and ministry even with chronic difficulties.  Many Christians are facing disparaging and disabling difficulties.  My heart goes out to you.  For some of you who are not facing those things, if you live long enough you will possibly face those things.  The odds are against us.  We live in a fallen world.  Things are not the way they are supposed to be.  Things are broken.  We are broken.  The apostle Paul was broken, but that did not stop him from enduring through hardships and pushing forward in the cause of Christ.  You can do the same.  It is through weakness that God shows His strength.  It is through suffering that God brings Good News to the world.  Let Him use you–your weaknesses, problems, pains, and all!

Lastly, notice that in this passage Paul relays to us significant parts of his life that come from opposite ends of the spectrum, but they are both forms of grace.  On the first side, he received marvelous revelations from Christ.  That was a wonderful experience for him.  I would also add the experience of hearing Christ speak in response to his prayers as a wonderful experience.  On the second side, he was given a thorn in the flesh which was humiliating and painful.  So, you see, there were many positives and negatives in Paul’s life and ministry, and the same is true of all of us.  We can all tell of wonderful memories over the years, and we can tell of difficult and painful times.  If I may pull in a verse from Romans to help tie this application together, let me quote 8:28 where Paul says, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”  I think Paul may have learned that lesson personally through his experience with the “thorn,” his pleadings, and the Lord’s response which is recorded here in 2 Corinthians.  Through your years, you will go through many things (some of you older folks can attest to this best); if you put your confidence in the Lord, He will work out everything for good–the good, the bad, and the ugly–He will work it all out for good.

Christ’s message to Paul and to you is: “My grace is sufficient.”  Ample, plenty, rewarding, enough, satisfying, endless, fulfilling, abundant, bountiful, limitless, gratifying, adequate, unlimited, sufficient.

To those who are hurting emotionally- His grace is sufficient for you
To those who have physical illnesses- His grace is sufficient for you
To those who have relationship problems- His grace is sufficient for you
To the old- His grace is sufficient for you
To the young- His grace is sufficient for you
To those who think they are perfect- His grace is sufficient for you!
To the tired- His grace is sufficient for you
To a smaller church- His grace is sufficient for you
To the doubters- His grace is sufficient for you
To the most rotten sinner- His grace is sufficient for you
*For when you are weak, then you are strong.

2 Corinthians 12:1-6 The Apostle's Visions

2 Corinthians 12:1-6    The Apostle’s Visions                      WC McCarter

In an age when America has been labeled “post-Christian” and there is a mass exodus from the church, folks are not necessarily running to atheism.  For the most part, people still have a need to check their “religious duty” off of the weekly to-do-list.  What is it that people most often claim to be now?  They claimed to be “spiritual,” as if they have progressed beyond Christianity.  They are no longer archaic, legalistic Bible-people.  They have ascended to a new plane.  They remain moralistic.  They like for their “religion” to make them feel good about themselves and are thus therapeutic in nature.  They like God, but only at a distance.  They will call on Him only when they absolutely need Him.  The religious folks of today are what sociologist Christian Smith has called, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deists.”   Now that is . . . “spiritual” (I mean that sarcastically, of course).

With this kind of worldview, it is easy for folks to become stirred by emotions and only interested in the miraculous.  In fact, media covering such things (whether books, television, or movies) are great sellers.  Evangelical church buildings sit at only half capacity on Sunday mornings, but people flood the theaters to see the latest, “I had a vision of heaven” documentary.  Well, let me bring you to another man who had a vision of heaven.  I think it is appropriate for Christians to take this man as a great example of how to manage these sorts of things.  Why do I think we should take his experience and witness as our example and deny what the popular culture believes?  This man was an apostle, the apostle Paul.  He had a great vision, but he did not make a movie out of it.  He did not even write a book about the experience.  He only mentions the fact that it happened with no elaboration.

Let’s take a look at what the apostle said about his visions of heaven to see what we can learn from his experience.  I invite you to read with me from II Corinthians 12:1-6.  This is the Word of God. READ Scripture.

Visions and Revelations (1)
This passage is the first of a two part series.  Next week we will look at verses seven through ten about The Apostle’s Thorn.  The first of these is verses one through six which declares The Apostle’s Visions.  The apostle Paul had an experience unlike any other.  Of all the folks that claim to have seen a great, white light, or were ushered into heaven by angels, or saw God sitting on His throne–of all those people–I trust what the apostle Paul says and how he handled it.  Notice the humility that he exhibits.

In the apostle’s spiritual battle with the “super-apostles,” he must repeatedly explain to the Corinthians (and also to his opponents) why it is that he endures so much hardship and humiliation.  It would have been effortless for his opponents to simply state that Paul was not blessed by God.  All they had to do was point to all of the trouble and sufferings that Paul had to constantly undergo.  We can almost hear those false teachers say, Surely God is not blessing Paul’s ministry.  Clearly Paul is not preaching and teaching God’s will.  Just look at his sorrows.  Don’t you see how weak he is?  Those experiences are not that of an apostle of God, a preacher of the truth.  Follow us, we will teach you the ways of God.

How can the apostle respond to this?  It seems to be a strong argument by his opponents.  What is Paul’s claim to divine authority?  Will he really rest on the fact that he had faced persecution and trouble almost everywhere he went?  What is the explanation?  Well, Paul has been hesitant to even respond to this matter, but he begins to reply in verses one through ten.  He even states in verse one that he knows that it is not profitable for his sake to boast of his successes and unique relationship with the Lord Jesus, but it is necessary to bring it up at this point in time.  He even uses the third person to tell of his glorious experiences with God.  We know that he is referring to himself because he later returns to the first person.  He is backed into a corner and begins to respond to the claim that his sufferings represent God’s disapproval of him.
He says, “I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord.”  Like many of the Old Testament prophets and people of God before him, Paul could speak of visions and revelations of the Lord.  Notice that there are two terms used and both are plural.  These divine and wonderful things may not have happened often (notice that he refers back to an event 14 years before), but it happened on more than one occasion.  Since there are two different terms used, we can assume that Paul received messages from God and experienced God in more than one way.  As one commentator has said, “. . . the difference is that a vision is always seen, whereas a revelation may be either seen or perceived in some other way. . . .”

A Particular Incident (2-6)
While the apostle evidently had several visions and revelations, he only speaks of one incident here that happened 14 years earlier.  Why he chose this one particular time, I do not know; and he does not give us much information about it because he was not permitted to do so.  Even though Paul does not relay to us many specific details of this exact revelation, there are still many interesting details surrounding the event.

First, Paul does not know whether this happened in the body or out of the body.  Of course, he states that God does know and is the only one who does know.  Maybe due to the overwhelming nature of the event Paul lost all awareness of the physical.  He honestly did not know if this was something his soul experienced or his soul and body.  What an amazing thought of being in the presence of God!

Second, he says that he was caught up to the third heaven.  Many people in Paul’s day claimed to have extraordinary experiences of heaven and stated that it happened in the highest heaven.  Some would say that they traveled to the 365th heaven, some the seventh, but most often the reference was to the third heaven.  The idea most common was that the first heaven was the sky that we see with the clouds and the birds; the second heaven referred to outer space with the sun, moon, and stars; while the third heaven was the place where God resides.  Paul calls this third heaven, “Paradise.”

The third interesting detail surrounding this revelation is how Paul says that he was “caught up” to God’s heaven.  It was as if God unexpectedly reached down from heaven, abruptly grabbed Paul, and suddenly snatched the man up to where God was in Paradise.  This doesn’t happen to just everybody.
Thus, we know a little bit about how this experience came to happen, but we know only two things about the content: one, Paul heard inexpressible words and two, Paul was not allowed to explain those words.  Now, we know those two things, but that information tells us absolutely nothing about the actual content of the revelation.  Paul says that he heard inexpressible words.  What can this mean?  Apparently what Paul heard (and possibly saw) was something that could not be expressed in human language.  It would have been impossible for Paul to explain to the Corinthians, to us, or to anyone what he had heard while in the heavenly presence of God.  So, why was he not permitted to utter these things?  What Paul probably means here is that although it would be impossible to relay in human language what he heard in heaven that would not necessarily keep Paul from attempting to relay those wonderful things on earth.  Therefore, he was not even permitted to try to explain to content of the revelation.

As many scholars have shown, it was Jewish tradition (and even widespread in Greek culture) to use a rhetorical device of picturing one’s own experiences as happening to someone else in order to indirectly brag on those experiences.  Paul does not want to directly boast in himself as verse five indicates, so he has relayed this majestic experience as though it happened to some other man.  Another rhetorical device that Paul is using here is to assert that he could boast, but then to not actually do so, and in essence Paul outdoes the boasting of his opponents “while maintaining the foolishness of their boasting.”   The opponents liked to boast and thought Paul couldn’t.

The apostle could continue to boast.  From a human, worldly perspective Paul had every reason to go on boasting in his heavenly and unique experiences.  Yet, the only boasting he will do is in his infirmities, which the opponents were undoubtedly using for the complete opposite reason.  Paul, without the use of rhetorical devices, says candidly that boasting in such things is foolish.  He does not want to be hypocritical and make himself out to be someone that he is not.  He does not want the Corinthians to think too highly of him than they should.  Of course, the opponents, the false teachers, the “super-apostles” were doing exactly what Paul said he would not do.

Conclusion and Christian Application

What a wonderful grace it was for God to provide the Apostle to the Gentiles with such amazing visions and revelations.  Paul did not deserve those experiences.  He had not earned the right to visit Paradise.  That is grace, Paul received something from God that he did not deserve.  By way of conclusion, notice several things from the passage that I think are relevant to discerning heavenly reports today.

#1 Paul was an Apostle.

#2 Paul was hesitant to boast.

#3 Paul cannot remember some of the particulars.

#4 What Paul heard was inexpressible.

#5 Paul was not permitted to report what he experienced.

#6 It is foolish to boast in such things.

Now, if we take those things and compare them with some of the things that we hear and see today, do they line up with Scripture?

The point of this sermon is to mainly direct us into next week’s sermon.  I hope that you will be here to see where all of this is heading.  We will pick up where Paul leaves off at the end of verse five when he says, “. . . yet of myself I will not boast, except in my infirmities.”