This sermon is number 12 in a series of 12
As Sparks Flying Upwards - Part 12
"The Pain Of Paul"
by David Legge | Copyright © 2002 | All Rights Reserved | www.preachtheword.com
I Corinthians 11
If you want to turn with me in your Bibles to Romans chapter 1, this is not our text or in any sense our reading - it would be very difficult to pick out one specific reading for the apostle Paul right throughout all of his great epistles, and the narratives concerning him in the book of the Acts. What we hope to do tonight is to really scale through them all - well, not them all, but trying to get a consensus of opinion of the Scriptures to paint a proper portrait and biography of this great man. I'm sure that we will fail in doing that, but we want to try our best in the time that is left to us. We want to look specifically tonight not at the whole life story of Paul, from his birth to his death, but specifically - as we've been looking in these character studies week after week - at the sufferings of these individuals. These are the 'sparks flying upwards', the sparks we have taken as an illustration and a metaphor of these characters who were born unto trouble, and how they came through it, and how God blessed them. Tonight we're looking at 'The Pain of Paul'.
Before we read anything let me just say that Paul is probably the most difficult character in all the Bible to preach upon - apart from our Lord Jesus Christ, of course, Himself, who no-one can fathom the depths of His person, His attributes, and His great divine work of atonement. In the mere human realm I think Paul must be the hardest man to preach upon from the Bible, not because he had a moral lapse, because as far as we can see throughout his converted life there was no specific dramatic moral lapse that we see in the characters of others - especially those in the Old Testament Scriptures, and even John the Baptist last week that we looked at, who doubted the Lord's Messiahship even if it was for a mere moment. It certainly is not for lack of knowledge that we find it difficult studying the apostle Paul, but in fact it is for the converse of that: it is the amount and the surplus of knowledge that we have. In fact the narrative of Paul's conversion that we find in three places in the book of Acts - once told by Luke who is the author of Acts, twice by Paul the apostle himself - we find that the narrative, the actual literary words, exceed anything else throughout the Scriptures, any story and any other event except the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ.
So that great emphasis alone, literally in the Bible, is laid upon Paul's conversion - let alone the rest of his life. Because there is so much written about the great apostle, it is so difficult to really deal with his life and even his sufferings tonight - but we want to do it as far as we can, and this is a Bible Study and you will be worked hard tonight, and your fingers will be sore flicking through pages of the Scriptures! Clarence McCartney, the great character preacher, captured the greatness of Paul's character and indeed the great gamut of all the truth about him biographically in this statement: 'It would take the golden measuring rod of the angel of the apocalypse to measure Paul. It would take the sevenfold chorus of the archangels to sound his praise'. Isn't that true? He was not divine, he was a mere man as you and I are - or woman, of course! He was an apostle, he was chosen - we are told in the Scriptures that he was separated, in the book of Galatians, for God from his mother's womb for a special use. He was a special man, and I think we're right in saying that all of the characters that we've been studying on these Monday evenings were all special men in one way or another.
As we looked at John the Baptist last week we found that the greater the man becomes, the greater the suffering he endures. Paul, by no means, is an exception to that rule - in fact, I would say that perhaps, arguably, he is the greatest sufferer in the Bible, certainly in the New Testament, beside our Lord Jesus Christ, the Man of Sorrows. In Philippians chapter 3 we find that Paul's lineage was of the tribe of Benjamin, he confesses himself that he was a Pharisee, indeed, of the Pharisees. His own father was a Pharisee also, and then we are introduced to his new life in Christ in the book of Acts. We find that around AD 33-34, at about the age of 30 years old, this man was saved. After witnessing the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr; after seeing his face as an angel, as he saw Christ standing at the right hand of God; I believe Paul's conscience began to be pricked and the Holy Ghost began a work in his life. Then we find that on the road to Damascus this great man was converted, and from that point seeing and witnessing the risen Lord Jesus Christ, not only was he converted by the grace of God, but by the grace of God he was appointed an apostle of Christ - and later would be the apostle of the Gentiles. Once converted, at that very moment of new life, this great man, this great sinner - the chief of sinners as he was - became the greatest propagator of the gospel of Christ.
As soon as he was converted he began to preach the Gospel. The one who once destroyed the Gospel was now distributing the Gospel, the one who once persecuted those who held to the Gospel is now the very one that God has converted, changed, and is now using by His Spirit to publish the Gospel. Out of all Christians and out of all the apostles and all the prophets and evangelists, Paul primarily is responsible for the spread of the Gospel in the Roman Empire. This great testimony that we have been singing already tonight is found in Romans chapter 1 verses 16 and 17, his epitaph if you like and his motto: "For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith".
It doesn't take you a long time reading the biography of Paul to realise that his words were measured up by a true, godly, righteous and even persecuted life. He was not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, and that can specifically be seen in the fact of how he suffered for the gospel of Christ. During his three missionary journeys alone in the Mediterranean world, first of all we find that he was falsely accused by the Jews in Acts 21, then later on he was beaten in Acts 21 again, thirdly he was arrested by the Romans. He was brought before two Roman Governors - Felix and Festus - and then he was brought before Herod Agrippa. Thirdly we find that he's moved on, although he's found not guilty, he is moved on a stormy shipwreck right through. The Jews keep him in prison on one occasion, after two years he exercises his Roman citizenship to appeal to Caesar and, after two weeks on that stormy ship across the sea, Paul eventually reaches Rome. He is arrested again, he's taken to prison under house arrest, and eventually he's taken before Caesar - and we find within the word of God that between AD 65 and 67 that Nero executes him at approximately 66 years of age.
Paul is another suffering servant of Jehovah. Like those already studied we find that he follows the vain and the testimony of those in Hebrews 11, specifically verses 36 onward: 'Others who had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; (Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth'. All these Old Testament saints obtained not the promise, but of course Paul obtained the promise. It is doubtful, I believe, that any other human being ever suffered as much for Christ as Paul the apostle did.
Let's look first of all at his public suffering, and we'll scale through this very very swiftly, and I want you to please just record in your mind at least the magnitude of what this man suffered publicly for Christ - you'll never be able to record it or memorise it, but just let it flood over your heart and your mind and your soul to realise what this man suffered for Christ. We're led to believe in the record of the Acts of the Apostles that he was plotted against on many occasions. First of all in the city of Damascus straight after his salvation, we find that in Acts chapter 9 verses 23 to 25 - as soon as he is converted people are plotting against him. Then in Jerusalem we find, during his first visit as a believer in Acts chapter 9 again, we find that he is plotted against once more. Then in Macedonia during his third missionary trip in Acts chapter 20; then again in Jerusalem before a Jewish mob in Acts 21; then in Jerusalem again before the Sanhedrin in Acts 23; then in Jerusalem at the hands of 40 men in Acts 23, the latter half; and then in Caesarea at the hands of even more Jews in Acts chapter 25.
So Paul was not ignorant of being plotted against, he was not a stranger of men turning against him and persecuting him and planning all sorts of evil for him. It wasn't just the enemies of the Gospel that he suffered from in his public ministry and life, because we find in Acts chapter 9 that he was first mistrusted not by the Jews but by believers! In Acts chapter 9 verse 26 we find that straight after his conversion: 'When Saul was come to Jerusalem, he assayed to join himself to the disciples: but they were all afraid of him, and believed not that he was a disciple'. That would be enough to put any of us off who were young in the faith! But there Paul the apostle, having a tremendous arresting of the Saviour on the road to Damascus, a conversion experience that is perhaps second to none and certainly far exceeds any that we have experienced, yet his fellow brethren and sisters in Christ at first mistrusted him.
We find that not only did they mistrust him, but in Philippians chapter 1 verse 14 he was disliked by some believers. Even after a little while in the faith it says that: 'Many of the brethren in the Lord, waxing confident by my bonds, are much more bold to speak the word without fear'. We find also that not only was he plotted against, mistrusted by believers, persecuted by some believers and disliked, but his work was constantly opposed wherever he went by his own countrymen specifically. He had enemies within the church, but he also had enemies among his own kinsmen and even other Gentiles. We find when he goes to Antioch in Acts chapter 13 that he's persecuted, constantly opposed, people following him. In Iconium in chapter 14 we find it, Thessalonica chapter 17, and then in chapter 14 we find that his persecution comes to a climax when he is stoned and left for dead! What suffering this apostle of Christ endured! He suffered in Berea in Acts 17, in Corinth in Acts 18, in Ephesus in Acts 19, and we could go on and on and on. So he's suffering from those in the church right from the beginning of his conversion, he's suffering from those outside the church - namely those in Judaism and also other Gentiles - he's left for dead on one occasion, and we find that if it wasn't enough to suffer from them, he suffers from the devil himself and all the hordes of hell. He comes under satanic pressure.
In Acts chapter 13 and verse 8 we read of Elymas the sorcerer who withstood those preaching the Gospel, and specifically Paul. In Acts chapter 16 we read: 'And it came to pass, as we went to prayer, a certain damsel possessed with a spirit of divination met us, which brought her masters much gain by soothsaying' - and this woman followed Paul about! We find when we go into the first Thessalonian epistle chapter 2 and verse 18, that he says to them: 'Wherefore we would have come unto you, even I Paul, once and again; but Satan hindered us'. There was a continual hindering of satanic pressure and influence upon Paul's ministry and life - and perhaps the greatest of all influences, satanically, is found in 2 Corinthians 12 verse 7, and we'll look at it in a little bit more detail later on - but that thorn in the flesh that Paul endured, which he specifically named as 'the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure'. A messenger sent from Satan to Paul!
In Acts 16 we find that he was beaten and jailed at Philippi, and we know the story about the Philippian jailer and how Paul and Silas were miraculously and dramatically freed through that earthquake - but don't forget that he was in prison, he was beaten, and he sang praises to God and prayed all night. He was ridiculed in his public ministry, he was heckled, he was shouted down at Athens. In Acts chapter 17 we find these words: 'Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection...And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked: and others said, We will hear thee again of this matter later'. In other words: 'We don't want to listen to this type of nonsense at this moment, but we'll hear you about it another day'. In Caesarea, Acts 26 verse 24 it says: 'And as he thus spake for himself, Festus said with a loud voice, Paul, thou art beside thyself; much learning doth make thee mad'.
Plotted against, mistrusted by his brethren, disliked by some believers, constantly opposed by the Jews and Gentiles, stoned, persecuted, beaten, subjected to satanic pressures, ridiculed in his public preaching, and often falsely accused. We read of Tertullus in chapter 24 of Acts and verse 5, he says of Paul this testimony: 'We have found this man a pestilent fellow, and a mover of sedition among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes: Who also hath gone about to profane the temple: whom we took, and would have judged according to our law'. In chapter 25 verse 7 we find: 'And when he was come, the Jews which came down from Jerusalem stood round about, and laid many and grievous complaints against Paul, which they could not prove' - but it didn't matter that they couldn't prove it, they ridiculed him nevertheless.
Let alone to say, of all the sufferings that he endured, perhaps one of the greatest in all of nature is chapter 27 of the Acts of the Apostles which has great detail of that shipwreck that took place as he was being taken to Rome as a prisoner. He suffered that terrifying ocean storm, and in the midst of it he showed great leadership and the power of God upon his life. Then as they landed after the shipwreck in chapter 28, we find that he experienced the bite of the poisonous serpent. Then as he got off the boat and was in Rome he was imprisoned, we find that imprisonment goes right throughout his whole life. He was imprisoned in Caesarea for two years, Acts chapter 24; he's imprisoned in Rome, we read of it in Timothy, in Ephesians, and Philippians. But perhaps one of the most poignant and piercing and stabbing pains that Paul endured within the whole of his ministry and life was the moment in his actual evangelistic and Gospel work when he says he was forsaken by all those around him. In his public life, he says in 2 Timothy 4:10 and 16: 'Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world, and is departed unto Thessalonica; Crescens to Galatia, Titus unto Dalmatia...At my first answer no man stood with me, but all men forsook me: I pray God that it may not be laid to their charge'.
Are you beginning to witness a portrait of the suffering of the apostle to the Gentiles? More generally Paul's overall testimony concerning all of his sufferings can be found in a few specific texts, and I want you to turn with me to them. First of all 2 Corinthians chapter 4, and we begin reading at verse 8, he says: 'We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body'. Chapter 6 of the same book, verses 4 through 10: 'But in all things approving ourselves as the ministers of God, in much patience, in afflictions, in necessities, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labours, in watchings, in fastings; By pureness, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Ghost, by love unfeigned, By the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armour of righteousness on the right hand and on the left, By honour and dishonour, by evil report and good report: as deceivers, and yet true; As unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and, behold, we live; as chastened, and not killed; As sorrowful, yet alway rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things'.
What suffering! Chapter 7 verse 5 alone testifies it: 'For, when we were come into Macedonia, our flesh had no rest, but we were troubled on every side; without were fightings, within were fears'! Chapter 11, of course I hope you're beginning to see that 2 Corinthians is a great epistle about suffering and trouble. In chapter 11 he continues in verse 23: 'Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool)', speaking of false prophets, 'I am more a minister of Christ; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches'.
If you turn to Philippians, and remember that this epistle was written when Paul was in prison in Rome, Philippians chapter 3 and verse 7, verse 8, and verse 10: 'But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things', now don't run by that phrase and statement, 'for whom I have suffered the loss of all things' - why? - 'I count them but dung, that I may win Christ, And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith: That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death'.
Finally, Romans chapter 8, Romans 8 and verse 18, his conclusion of the whole matter is this: 'For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us'. Now if you have observed with a keen eye tonight, with the eye of faith, the sufferings and the pain of this man Paul - imagine what the glory's going to be like when we get to heaven! Alexander the Great's veterans on one occasion threatened a mutiny on the grounds that their great leader was indifferent to their hardship and to their wounds that they bore for him. When it got too much he sprang up and he stood on the dais, and he said to his disgruntled men: 'Come now, who of you have wounds? Let him bare himself and I will show mine - no member of my body is without wounds! I have been wounded by the sword, by the arrow from the bow, by the missile from the catapult. I have been pelted with stones and pounded with clubs while leading you to victory and to glory!'. But Paul, who was a greater than Alexander the Great, could say finally: 'Let no-one cause me trouble, for I bear in my body the marks of Jesus'.
This man suffered for Christ, and I believe that that is one of the greatest reasons why he succeeded for Christ. More than any apostle or perhaps any Christian, or any man besides our Lord Jesus Christ, he was exposed to suffering, hardship, distress. His sufferings are listed - there are so many of them that I'm caused to think it seems more than any normal human being would be able to survive! Yet this man of God survived it and emerged triumphant as a 'more than conqueror'!
That is his public suffering in a brief survey, but we haven't even touched on his private suffering. When we look at that we see that, more than any apostle again, as in his public suffering in his private suffering he suffers immensely. Perhaps the greatest of all that would be conjured right away to your mind is what is found in 2 Corinthians chapter 12, turn to it with me. In verse 1 he feels necessary to declare his experience that he has in his life, not out of boasting or pomp, but out of the fact that other false prophets were coming into the church and boasting their experiences that were false. He says: 'It is not expedient', verse 1, 'for me doubtless to glory. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord. I knew a man in Christ', speaking of himself, but he doesn't even speak of himself in the first person out of humility and modesty, 'above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven. And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter'. What an experience! Paul had been granted, not only on this occasion but we're lead to believe on other occasions, special revelations from God - none other and none less than the mystery of the church of Jesus Christ in this particular age.
This was unique, Paul was a unique man, he went through unique experiences such as these. This experience in particular, Paul says, was so unique that it presented him with an opportunity and a temptation to pride. Would it not do that to you? I'm sure it would do it to me, I'm certain it would. That pride that he was tempted to fall into would have inevitably limited his great ministry that God had planned for him, and ordained for him from his mother's womb - so God had to do something to equalise the balance, an equalising factor was introduced. He says in verse 7: 'Lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure'. God gave him a thorn in the flesh to redress the balance, to guard him against pride, and to safeguard his ministry from the great fall of it.
Now his description of what this thorn in the flesh is is very unspecific, and it seems that the great apostle is even reticent in his expression. For that reason, down all the ages, theologians and Bible scholars and commentators have speculated beyond reason, and been divided over what this thorn in the flesh is. Some put it down to a mental problem, a spiritual problem, doubts and depressions of the great apostle, internal problems, external problems, physical problems, sickness, disease. Some say it was epilepsy, some say malaria, others say bad eyesight because of indication and evidence in the book of Galatians - but the fact of the matter is this: the Holy Spirit not only includes things in scripture for our benefit, but He excludes things also for our benefit and for our learning. I think it is no mistake that the Holy Spirit does not specify what Paul's thorn in the flesh is, and I believe it is for your benefit and for mine, so that we can come to this passage - the whole epistle, the whole life of Paul, the whole pain of Paul - and we can identify with it, and not only identify with his pain but look at the problem and how he got through it.
Perhaps more than identifying with his pain, we can identify with the grace of God that was administered to him in verse 9: 'And he', God, 'said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness'. If it was eyesight or malaria or a spiritual problem, if it was depression, if it was anything like that we would be narrow in our interpretation according to the context - but God does not do that, He tells us just that it was a thorn in the flesh from Satan to buffet him. But what we need to take away with us tonight: in all of Paul's public pain and all of his private pain, the grace of Almighty God was sufficient for his need! Praise God, the Holy Spirit has allowed us to take that with us tonight, and identify it with ourselves and personalise it in our particular lives! We can take it as this scripture to us.
The point was that in Paul's life, whatever this thorn in the flesh is, it doesn't really matter, the fact is that it is introduced into his life, it is the painful humiliating price of the greatness of Paul's ministry. There you see it again: the greater the service the greater the suffering. It was a consequence that if he wanted to do for God what God wanted him to do, he would have to suffer pain, he would have to have this thorn in the flesh - otherwise his head would get too big, and his whole dream would burst and it would be over. It was a messenger of Satan to buffet him, there's no doubt about it, but like Job it was divinely appointed. It was allowed of God, it was directed in God's sovereignty, and although it came from the hand of Satan it was allowed actually to save the ministry of Paul that inevitably has brought us the Gospel even in these isles.
If you think of it and rationalise it and reason about it, it was actually an equipment for Paul's ministry! It was something useful, and although he prayed three times that it would go away, in all probability without its presence, the presence of this infirmity and this thorn, Paul could and would never have achieved the great work that he did. It was necessary, it was needed and God ordained it. Even though we don't know the nature of the thorn, there are certain facts about it that we do know that we can identify with tonight, and we can see the great value of looking at our sufferings in the light of Paul's private personal suffering.
First of all we notice that it was over a period of time, it was with him for a while. It was something that continued, and if any of you are going through trials and problems, even in these twelve weeks of studies: have you entered into and exited and even embarked upon the greatest trials and problems that you've ever faced in your life? Well, that's what Paul faced. Secondly, it was the subject of repeated but unanswered prayer, verse 8 he asked three times that the Lord would take it away - and how many of you have asked that the Lord would stop this problem, or take this trial out of your life, but God has not given you the answer that you want? Thirdly, it was an instrument of humbling - it says in verse 7 that 'God gave it to keep me from becoming conceited'. It deflated his ego, it sapped his self-confidence - and there are things that come into our lives that are deeply humiliating experiences, that we just feel takes away any self-gratification of pride that we ever had.
Fourthly it afforded Satan the opportunity of tormenting him, we see it in verse 7. How many of us are tormented, perhaps even on a daily basis, by the devil and all the hordes of hell themselves? Fifthly, it became a channel of grace. My friend, you could be going through troubles, a thorn in the flesh, over a period of time; you could have experienced repeated and unanswered prayer, it could be Satan himself tormenting you, your ego could be deflated and you're absolutely humiliated and downcast - but never forget that in Paul's life this was a channel of the grace of God. Rather than God coming in and intervening in his life, and bringing a remedy or solution, God compensates with His divine grace. He doesn't take away something that is harming him, but He gives him something else to help him. It's not answered by subtraction, but the addition of the grace of God into the apostle's life. It was an opportunity for Paul to experience the fellowship of the sufferings of Christ, and ultimately to experience a fresh knowledge of God.
Sixthly it provided the occasion for rejoicing in his weakness. He said: 'Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, I delight in weaknesses for when I am weak, then I am strong'. Seventh and finally, it proved and provided a backdrop for the displaying of Christ's power, because when he was weak Christ's power was strong - 'so that Christ's power may rest on me', he said. Isn't it amazing that in the life of Paul what many and most of us regard as a restricting handicap, in reality was heaven-sent? In fact, it was a heavenly opportunity and an asset to his ministry, and it is the very thing perhaps above many things that enlarged the ministry of Paul! Thus his weakness became a potent weapon in the hand of God.
Violet Allen's story in a book entitled 'Tea in an Old House', writes about great men of history. She says this: 'Milton the blind, who looked on paradise; Beethoven deaf, who heard vast harmonies; Byron the lame, who climbed toward alpine skies - who pleads a handicap remembering these?'. In the spiritual realm we can say exactly the same with regards to Paul, and even Moses - all the excuses that Moses gave - and all these excuses are put to shame in the life of Paul, because he uses his weaknesses, that Moses used to get out of the work of God, for the work of God, for the power of God to be channelled through his ministry! He used his weakness in the hand of the Holy Spirit as a weapon against evil. As an unknown poet has said, speaking of Paul:
'I asked the Lord that He should give me success
To the high task I sought for Him to do.
I asked that every hindrance might grow less,
And that my hours of weakness might be few.
I asked that far and lofty heights be scaled,
And now I humbly thank Him that I failed.
For with the pain and sorrow came to me
A dower of tenderness in act and thought.
With the failure came a sympathy,
An insight which success had never brought.
Father, I had been foolish and unblessed
If Thou hadst granted me my blind request'.
Note that Paul didn't say a thorn was imposed upon him, he says 'there was a thorn given to me' - a gift of grace. By the time it took him to reach this point in his life, he realised that it was no longer a messenger of Satan to torment him and buffet him, but he viewed it as the grace of God's gift to his life to prepare a way for his wider ministry in the community. Now what that tells me, and we've learnt this in the weeks gone by: how you will come through suffering, and how you will or may eventually get out of suffering, will be largely determined by your attitude to the suffering. When will your suffering change from a messenger of Satan to buffet you into a grace of God that has been given to you for your good? That will be the revolutionary time in your life.
Thirdly we find within his epistles, specifically in his teachings, that out of his public suffering and pain and private turmoil there evolved a philosophy of suffering that was inspired by God's Holy Spirit. Now you know and I know that in the world in which we live that worships power - military power, economic power, scientific power and even in the church today we're worshipping charismatic power - yet God says in Isaiah 55: 'My ways are not your ways, my thoughts are not your thoughts' - and unlike anything that we find in worldly philosophy that's based on survival of the fittest and the strongest and the smartest, isn't it wonderful that the gospel of God's grace comes to the sinner? It comes to the weakest, and even Paul could say: 'Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief'. He comes to save the weak and the poor and the needy and the destitute - those who need a physician. It's not even the fact in Paul's philosophy of weakness that he teaches that God uses us despite, or regardless of our weaknesses - don't get that into your head. He doesn't bypass our weaknesses, it's the exact opposite: Paul teaches, the Holy Spirit inspired him to tell us, that it is precisely because of our weaknesses that God uses us! Have you got that? Not in spite of them, not regardless of them, but because of them.
Now listen to some of the great apostle's statements: 1 Corinthians 1:27: 'God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty. First Corinthians 2:3: 'And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling'. Second Corinthians 12:10: 'Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong'. 'My strength is made perfect in' - what? - 'weakness'. 'Of myself I will not glory', he says, 'but in mine infirmities'. It's a complete reverse of the worldly standard, isn't it? The opposite of it! This is what his ministry was based on: who would think that weakness was an asset to leadership, and a quality to look for? But he learned in his life that God's philosophy of ministry is that the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men, and the weakness of God is stronger than the strength of men!
Look at 1 Corinthians 1 and verse 26 for a moment, 1 Corinthians 1 verse 26: 'For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: That no flesh should glory in his sight'. That's the key! If you want a ministry that does anything for God and for Christ, you can't glory in it! All you can glory in is your weakness, for that lets the strength of God shine forth. Never forget that the Lord chose His own disciples out of a band of unschooled fishermen and terrorists of Galilee. Isn't it interesting that He passed by the intellectual rabbis - do you know why? Because with all their learning and schooling their heart was not open to the Spirit of God, and I believe that God is doing the same thing today.
The Scottish preacher Dr James Stewart said this: 'Nothing can defeat a church or soul that takes not its strength but its weakness, and offers that weakness to God as a weapon. It is always upon human weakness and humiliation, not human strength and confidence, that God chooses to build His kingdom - and He can use us not merely in spite of our ordinariness and helplessness and disqualifying infirmities, but precisely because of them, and that discovery will revolutionise your ministry!'. Our problem is today that we're too big for our boots, we're too advanced and sophisticated and theological and intelligent for our great God to use - our strengths, today, have become our weaknesses! We need to remember as F. W. H. Meyer says in his poem:
'So with the Lord, He takes and He refuses,
Finds Him ambassadors whom men deny,
Wise ones nor mighty for His saints He chooses,
Nor such as John or Gideon or I.
I for this Paul, a scorn and a despising,
Weak as you know him and the wretch you see
Even in his eyes shall ye behold him rising,
Strength in infirmities and Christ in me!'.
You may argue, and you argue rightly, that Paul out of many people was wise, and he was noble and he was influential. Note what it says: it doesn't say not any wise, noble and influential will be called, but not many - but the fact of the matter is that Paul didn't rest upon his intellectual prowess and power, he didn't rest upon his Pharisaical zeal and legalism. He didn't rely on them, he said himself: 'I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of men's wisdom but in a demonstration of the Spirit and power' - and that's what made the difference! A theological education means nothing in the eyes of God, but the demonstration of power in the Holy Spirit means everything!
Samuel Chadwick said - and I remember, I don't know whether they knew it was me or not, but I pinned it up on the noticeboard of the Bible College when I was there - that God doesn't want a college trained ministry, he wants a Spirit-filled ministry. D.L. Moody, the great evangelist, I'm told in physical appearance was unattractive, he was lacking in education, his voice was high-pitched and nasal. On one occasion a press reporter was assigned to cover his campaigns, he was given the assignment to discover the secret of this man's extraordinary power and the influence he had over people all types and strata of society. This is what that reporter wrote: 'I can see nothing at all in Moody to account for his marvellous work'. When Moody was told this he chuckled, he said: 'Of course not, because the work was God's, not mine'. Moody's weakness was God's weapon. We use our weaknesses as getting out of serving God, don't we? We're too sick, we're too weak, there's too much wrong with us - but God is saying: 'I've given you these things as a weapon to use in my service'.
Fourthly and finally, his prize for suffering. Philippians 1:23 and 24, he said that he would long to depart and be with Christ which is far better, but it was expedient for him to stay for the good of the church. Many of us can say that: if we'd be invited to go to heaven now we would just take the ticket right away! He said: 'I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, but it's more needful that I stay'. Now look specifically at 2 Timothy, and we're nearly finished - I want to finish this tonight - 2 Timothy chapter 4 verses 5 to 7: 'But watch thou in all things', verse 5, 'endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry', his advice to Timothy, 'For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing'.
He wrote that from prison, and he held on right through his life of persecution - public and private suffering and everything - he took that philosophy right through, why? Because he was going towards a prize he had to gain at the end of it all! The poet F. H. Allen said:
'Blessed is he whose faith is not offended
When all around his way
The power of God is working out deliverance
For others day by day.
Though in some prison drear his own soul languish
Till life be spent,
Yet still can trust his Father's love and purpose,
And rest therein content.
Yea, blessed art thou whose faith is not offended
By trials unexplained,
By mysteries unresolved, past understanding,
Until the goal is gained'.
That's what kept him going, and that word 'depart' in the Greek literally means 'loosing the moorings of the boat'. He saw that he was departing, embarking on a heavenly shore, leaving the world, for his mission was almost accomplished. Tradition has it, you don't find it in the Bible, that after Paul appealed to Nero he went to Rome. When he arrived in Rome, during one of Nero's little holidays on vacation somewhere else, his favourite mistress was converted to the Lord Jesus Christ by none other than Paul the apostle. When Nero arrived home he was none too pleased, for she had left and joined a Christian band and was away ministering the Gospel. Traditional tells us that Nero was mad with rage, and he took vengeance on Paul, and they took him out onto the Ostian Way and they beheaded him.
Lord Nelson reported to the British Admiralty his great victory over the French fleet in the battle of the Nile. He said that 'victory' was not a large enough word to describe what had taken place. When Paul spoke of his victory through Christ in his life and in his death, over all his trials and all his adversaries and adversities, and temptations and woes of life - the greatest of all words was not sufficient, 'conqueror', what did he say? More: 'Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us'.
Do you know what's amazing to me right throughout this whole series, and as we close our message and our meetings tonight? He didn't say: 'I am more than conqueror', what did he say? 'We', 'What shall separate us from the love of God' - and what greater message at the end of these meetings, and at the end of this man's biography, than this: he could say for us and of us, 'If God be for us, who can stand against us?'. Can you take that with you tonight? God is for you, and nothing can be against you.
I hope in these weeks that, as you've looked into the mirror of God's word, that you've have seen a little bit of why - or at least how - you can go through what you are going through, and how you can do it to the glory of God, and in the communion of the Lord Jesus Christ and His Holy Spirit, and how others can see it and fear and trust in the Lord.
'Faint not, nor fear, His arms are near,
He changeth not and thou art dear.
Only believe and thou shalt see
That Christ is all in all to thee'.
Father, we believe that whatever we do, whether we eat or drink, whether we live or die, whether we suffer pain, cancer, loss - that we can, through the grace of God that is sufficient for us, do it to the glory of God. We have to believe upon Thy word that in our weaknesses God can be seen; and we pray, Lord, we believe, but help us with our unbelief, and enable us to stand in our suffering upon the word of God, and do what Paul did: look unto the Author and Finisher of our faith, considering Him who suffered such contradiction of sinners. In Whose name we pray, Amen.
Preach The Word
This sermon was delivered at The Iron Hall Assembly in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Pastor David Legge. It was transcribed from the twelfth tape in his 'As Sparks Flying Upwards' series, titled "The Pain Of Paul" - Transcribed by Andrew Watkins, Preach The Word.
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