He Lifts and He Lowers

February 8, 2015 Preacher: Randy Smith Series: 2 Corinthians

Scripture: 2 Corinthians 12:1–6


He Lifts and He Lowers

2 Corinthians 12:1-6
Sunday, February 8, 2015
Pastor Randy Smith


Though being overly consumed with our death is a bad thing, there are many advantages to reminding ourselves that this life will come to an end. For instance, how do you want to be remembered? I often wonder what people will people say of me at my funeral. What will they say of you at your funeral? Will our lives really have counted for Jesus Christ?

I think one of the greatest tests of a person's Christianity is what others say about an individual at their funeral. Between the funerals I've attended and the one's I've officiated, I've witnessed hundreds of them. While some pastors suddenly become Universalists and always guarantee to the grieved audience that their loved one is in heaven, a pastor's opinion oftentimes carries little weight. Most people act "Christian" while in church and in the presence of their pastor. The reality of our faith is best seen outside of the church, in the home and amongst our closest friends. The rubber hits the road when these individuals choose to take the microphone at the funeral. It's then that we really learn how much a person truly gave Jesus Christ first place in everything.

Second to our Lord, my hero in the Bible is the Apostle Paul. The bleak circumstances that surrounded him as his life came to an end probably prevented a big funeral. He even said that most had deserted him as he rotted in a disease-infested prison awaiting his execution. But if there were a big funeral, I can only imagine what would have been said on his behalf. It probably would have driven Paul nuts if the glory was going to him, but I think people would speak of his godly character. They'd speak of his loyal friendship. They'd speak of his passion to reach the lost with the Gospel. They'd speak of his love for the church. They'd speak of his service in the name of Christ.

Yet when I contemplate the life of the Apostle Paul, one thing that always comes to mind for me was his incredible spiritual strength. How did he sustain the depth of love for people? How did he stay so focused on his calling? How did he endure the extreme suffering that he faced? He was a human no different than any of us. Yet it seems his game was always on. Staying spiritually strong for Jesus; I'd love to know how he did it!

Well, answering that question is our goal for the next two weeks. What is the secret of being spiritually strong? We've been studying this man's life as he personally exemplified this. Now we have to ask the question, how did he do it? How did he do something all Christians desire, but not all Christians consistently achieve? The Scriptures have the clear answer for us.

1. Paul's Vision

Before we talk about what gave him strength, we'll talk about what didn't give him strength. Let's look at the first of two points, "Paul's Vision."

As we have been learning, the purpose of 2 Corinthians was for Paul to defend his ministry against the efforts of the false teachers who were seeking to remove Paul's influence by undermining his character and his service to the church. 11:4 taught us that the false teachers were preaching "another Jesus" and a "different spirit" and a "different gospel." They were sabotaging God's work by leading the young converts in Corinth astray. Thus Paul, though reluctantly, was left with no choice but to defend himself as God's true messenger by comparing himself these false teachers who had won over the hearts of the church.

Some was "righteous boasting." In these cases, he revealed how God's grace was operative in his life. Last week we looked at the suffering he faced strictly because of his service to Jesus (11:23-33). Some was what he called "foolish boasting." In these cases, he revealed how even in the meaningless areas that enamored and infatuated the Corinthians so much that he was superior to the false teachers as well. Last week we looked at how he too was an Israelite, a Hebrew and a descended of Abraham (11:22).

Now as we turn to the beginning of chapter 12, we see another example of Paul's "foolish boasting." We go from his ethnic pedigree in chapter 11 to his spiritual pedigree in chapter 12. Look at verse 1, "Boasting is necessary, though it is not profitable; but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord." In other words, boasting in this area is necessary only because of the desperate situation we find ourselves in. But boasting on "visions and revelations" leaves us with (NIV version) "nothing to be gained." I like the way the NASB translates it: "not profitable."

Did you hear that? What is one of the badges worn by Christians today in an attempt to testify to the strength of their relationship with God? Visions and revelations! "In my dream last night God said…" "God told me..." "I went to heaven and came back…" More on that one later! This is the very boasting that Paul said is unprofitable!

So why are visions and revelations unprofitable? First of all they are unprofitable (in our lives today) because I believe they are no longer existent. There were certain periods of history for a specific purpose when God communicated through these means. With the completion of Scripture and Jesus being the final word, those periods have ended. Second, they are unprofitable because they are not beneficial to others in the church. The church is unable to verify one's experience. How can they know if it truly happened? Furthermore, people are also left wondering why God has chosen not to speak with them in such a way. Third, they are unprofitable because they lead to personal pride (more on this as well), and pride is never the source of spiritual strength, but rather the ultimate cause of all spiritual weakness.

So if visions and revelations are not "profitable," we need to ask the question what is profitable? We do have a clear answer to that question. 2 Timothy 3:16, "All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness." Scripture is something that is within the reach of all Christians. Scripture is God's final and sufficient word and does not need to be supplemented with dreams and visions. Scripture is something objective whereby we can all verify the truth. It might not sound as spiritual, but God speaks to us today through the revelation, the revelation revealed in your Bible. Boasting in visions and revelation is unprofitable. Knowing and applying the Bible is profitable.

That's why when Paul left Ephesus in Acts 20 he didn't leave them with some of his visions (and he did have several of them). He commended them "to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified" (Ac. 20:32).

Why do so many have this backwards?

It's interesting that Paul despite having visions, only referred to them in this one account in 2 Corinthians 12, and he brought it up with great reluctance (he talks about that in verse 6). In 12:7 he speaks of it as "surpassing greatness," but has kept his mouth closed as it pertained to sharing this one. As a matter of fact, in 12:2 he says this particular vision happened "fourteen years ago." Talk about the ability to keep a secret! If it were today's church, a lucrative book-selling contract would have been signed long ago. But for Paul, there was no interest. It didn't build-up the church. It didn't validate his calling as an Apostle. Obviously it was unimportant for successful ministry. He lived with the Corinthians for 18 months as their pastor and only now are they hearing about it! He's breaking silence only because it's absolutely necessary for the spiritual stability of the church.

As a matter of fact, Paul is so concerned about this vision leading him to pride that he speaks of himself in the third person. Verse 2, "I know a man." Verse 2, "Such a man." Verse 3, "Such a man." Verse 5, "Such a man." This has even left some commentators to incorrectly believe that Paul was speaking of someone else! Verses 6 and 7 make such an interpretation impossible. Paul's talking about himself, but just too humble to speak about himself in the first person. So what was the vision? Paul's going to tell about the time he saw heaven.

In verse 2, Paul's not sure if it was "in the body" (body and soul) or "out of the body" (soul only), but he is confident that he was able to see in this vision what he refers to as the "third heaven." That was just a Jewish way of viewing the heavens. The first heaven is the atmospheric heaven (air). The second heaven is the interplanetary heaven (celestial bodies). The third heaven is the abode of God. More confirmation that it was the heaven that we commonly think of is found in verse 4 where he calls the place "Paradise." That same Greek word is found in Revelation 2:7 when Jesus refers to the tree of life in the "Paradise of God" and the popular one in Luke 23:43 when Jesus tells the repentant thief on the cross, "Today you shall be with Me in Paradise."

In verse 4 Paul says he heard "inexpressible words." I believe that means they were heavenly words that were unable to be communicated with an earthy language. And even if Paul could repeat them, verse 4 says he was "not permitted [by God] to speak" them. Due to both of these components, God was able to ensure that the basis for an Apostle or any other Christian for that matter did not center on ecstatic or mystical experiences.

Even after Jesus brought Lazarus back from the dead, we have no record on his experience of spending a few days in heaven.

So I think of the Apostle Paul's encounter with heaven and I can't help but recall the many books available about people that supposedly go to heaven and relay the experience with vivid details. So an Apostle is not permitted to speak, but a small child is? I spoke about it recently, but thankfully one of those young children (from the book, "The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven") recently came out with the following statement: "I did not die. I did not go to heaven; I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention. When I made the claims that I did, I had never read the Bible. People have profited from lies, and continue to. They should read the Bible, which is enough. The Bible is the only source of truth. Anything written by man cannot be infallible."

Little Alex Malarkey got it right! An understanding of God should only be gleaned from the Bible. Everything God wants us to know about heaven is contained in the Bible. Not only do these best-selling books cast doubts on the sufficiency of the Bible and also contradict each other, but they are contrary to everything the Bible teaches us about heaven. The books make it all about one's self-focus. According to the Bible, heaven is about worshipping the greatness of God.

When the biblical writers were given a vision or glimpse of heaven (and there were only six of them), it was all about celebrating God's glory.

Consider Isaiah, "And one [Seraphim] called out to another and said, 'Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory.' And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke. Then I said, 'Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts'" (Isa. 6:3-5).

And Stephen, "But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, 'Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God'" (Ac. 7:55-56).

And John, "Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne and the living creatures and the elders; and the number of them was myriads of myriads, and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, 'Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing.' And every created thing which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all things in them, I heard saying, 'To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever.' And the four living creatures kept saying, 'Amen.' And the elders fell down and worshiped" (Rev. 5:11-14).

So if he didn't want to share it and even was not permitted to share it, you have to wonder why Paul was then given this incredible vision of heaven not long after his conversion to Christ? Who knows, but many have surmised that it was because God knew how much this man was going to suffer for His name. Did this vision give him the unflinching strength? In knowing the greatness of heaven, did this vision galvanize his words: "Having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better" (Phil. 1:23) and "For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us" (Rom. 8:18). We can't be certain, but I do believe if we fully understood the eternal glories of heaven, the way we live out short lives here on earth would be radically different.

2. Paul's Humility

So if visions and revelations are not the key to spiritual strength, what is? And the answer, as we move to the second point, is Paul's humility. What we see is that Paul refuses to boast in a man caught up in Paradise (that's what the false teachers did), but he is more than happy to boast about the man that was brought down in weakness as a result of that very experience.

In chapter 11, verse 30 Paul said, "If I have to boast, I will boast of what pertains to my weakness." Boasting in the vision would have been boasting in his strengths. Look at verse 5, "On behalf of such a man I will boast; but on my own behalf I will not boast, except in regard to my weaknesses." According to Paul, this was where he and the false teachers parted company. According to Paul, this was all that really mattered when it came to boasting. What made this man so great in God's eyes were his weaknesses.

Not the quick revelation, but the diligent labor to pore over the Scriptures. Not the applause and fanfare, but the endurance of tremendous suffering from others. Not the care for money and his own reputation, but the sincere love for God's church. It was not the pride, but the humility that forced him to conceal his vision for 14 years and then only bring it up by referring to himself in the third person.

His goal was to have people see his life and ministry and then understand the success he experienced, then concluding that only God could have done that. This is spiritual strength. And where did that strength come from? The church answer: God Himself. The real answer: God Himself, but only after He drove a stake through this man's flesh to keep him humble.

If the Lord permits we'll cover these amazing verses next week, but for now just look at verses 7-10. "Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me - to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.' Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ's sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong."

Listen. Paul boasted not in the vision, but rather in what God did in his life as a result of the vision. Paul pleaded three times that this "thorn in the flesh" might leave him, but God said it's going to stay. The thorn kept Paul humble. Humble people are weak in themselves. Humble people then because of that weakness depend on the Lord. And those who depend on the Lord are really strong because they are strong in His strength and not their own.

So we finish where we started. What will the people who know you best say at your funeral? Will it be the traits we spoke of today that characterized the Apostle Paul? If so, the only way we'll get there and do it in a way that honors Christ is to fully depend on His strength. So trust that His Word is sufficient for all you need to know about Him. And embrace the thorns knowing that His grace is also sufficient through your weaknesses to enable you to be the person He wants you to be and the person you too deep down in your soul want to be as well.

More in 2 Corinthians

March 8, 2015

Optimistic Admonitions

March 1, 2015

Severity In Weakness

February 22, 2015

Signs, Sacrifice, and Sorrow