Posted in Expository, New Testament

Another Look at Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh

By Glenn A. Jobe

Introduction

In 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 the apostle Paul makes reference to “a thorn in the flesh” that had been given to him:

7 And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. 8 Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. 9 And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong. [NKJV]

In the past any investigation as to the identity of this “thorn” has come to be synonymous to those “secret things that belong to the Lord our God” (Deut. 29:29). Thus, many conclude that no one can know what the “thorn” was that plagued Paul. Can the same be said about the original recipients of Paul’s letter, the Corinthian church? Did they not know what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was? If they could not know what it was, why would Paul include a discussion of it here in Second Corinthians? If they did know, are there any clues from the epistle itself that might identify what Paul’s thorn was?

So what is this “thorn?” Unfortunately, various attempts at identifying Paul’s thorn often remove the study away from the immediate context. Halley’s Bible Handbook offers a typical approach at the question: [from Halley’s Bible Handbook; 23rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1962), p. 607].

. . .Paul suffered from Chronic Ophthalmia, a disease of the eyes which was not extremely Painful, but, at times, made Paul Repulsive in Appearance.

This seems to be borne out by the language of the Epistles. It came upon Paul 14 years before he wrote this Epistle (12:2, 7), which was about the time of his entrance into Galatia, on the First Missionary Journey.

His entrance into Galatia was occasioned by some sort of Physical Infirmity, Galatians 4:13, so offensive in appearance that it constituted a sore trial to anyone in his presence, Galatians 4:14.

They would have given their own eyes, Galatians 4:15. Why eyes, unless that was his particular need?

Paul’s customary “large” handwriting, Galatians 6:11, may have been due to poor eye-sight. This may have been the reason Paul Dictated his epistles to some of his helpers.

Does this not approach the question through the back door? Instead of beginning with the text and from there identify the thorn, the suggestion is to begin with some known ailment and try to make it fit the passage.

Suppose one grants that Paul suffered from poor eyesight. Undoubtedly he did. How do we know that this was his “thorn in flesh?” How do we know that he did not have other “physical” infirmities? Several years ago I had the sad duty of preaching the funeral of a close fellow preacher. Jim suffered for years with many maladies. He had hepatitis C, epilepsy, kidney failure, heart disease, diabetes, and did I mention to you that he was also blind? What would you say was Jim’s thorn in the flesh?

The purpose of this study is to suggest that the identity of Paul’s thorn can be ascertained from the immediate context of 2 Corinthians 12:7-10. Thus, this article hopes to stimulate the reader to look at the question from the immediate context.

Contextual Considerations

Paul’s Defense of His Apostolic Authority

(10:1-13:10)

A. Paul replies to those who reject his apostolic authority. He stresses that he is not a coward, that his warfare is not fleshly (carnal), but mighty before God to the casting down of every stronghold (of the devil) that might stand against the knowledge of God (10:1-16).

B. Paul desires to use his apostolic authority for building up and not for tearing down–but to those who might think his letters “weighty” and his presence “weak”, let them know that what was said in his letters will be followed in deed (10:7-11).

C. Paul is not of the group that compares themselves by themselves: “For not he that commends himself is approved, but whom the Lord commends” (10:12-18).

D. Paul is concerned that the Corinthians might be beguiled by those that parade themselves as “super apostles” (11:1-6).

  1. Paul calls upon them to bear with him in a little foolishness.
  2. He wants them to know that he is not at all behind any that might claim to be apostles.

E. Paul’s sacrificial preaching and the absence of physical sustenance from others demonstrates the genuineness of his apostleship so that the slander of “false apostles” might be cut off (11:7-15).

F. Paul says if they want to get into a contest of foolish boasting he stands ready to meet them on their own ground (11:16—12:13). He cites his (1) “pedigree” in the Jewish religion (11:22), (2) his sufferings for the cause of Christ (11:23-33), (3) his visions and revelations, and states that lest he be puffed up in pride due to such, God left “a thorn in the flesh,” identified as “a messenger of Satan,” to buffet him (12:1-10).

  1. Finally, he states that the signs of a genuine apostle were wrought among them by him.
  2. The only privilege they had missed was that they had not financially sustained him as he worked among them.
  3. In this regard, if the apostle has conducted himself inappropriately, the apostle begs from the Corinthians, “Forgive me this wrong!” (12:11-13).

[Adapted from outlines by Jackie M. Stearsman]

Brief Observations of the Context

Some of the things Paul states in the above outline will surely assist in identifying what his thorn was, that causes him grief. Note carefully that the apostle has already stated that (1) his conflict is not a carnal one (10:3-6); (2) he is confronting those who present themselves as “super apostles” (11:13); and, (3) he is behind no one in his development in the religion of the Jews (11:22).

At the end of 2 Corinthians 11 Paul declares, “I will boast in the things that concern my infirmity” (verse 30). He thus mentions his infirmity in chapter 11 before he begins his discussion of “a thorn in the flesh” in chapter 12. Then in the remaining three verses that end chapter 11 Paul cites an occasion in which he suffered from his infirmity:

31 The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. 32 In Damascus the governor, under Aretas the king, was guarding the city of the Damascenes with a garrison, desiring to arrest me; 33 but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands.

Acts 9:19-25 supplies additional information to the aforementioned “infirmity.” The Jews plotted to kill Paul and apparently they had persuaded the governor of Damascus to arrest him. Paul escaped by the help of disciples who “took him by night and let him down through the wall in a large basket” (Acts 9:25). What is the “infirmity” the apostle mentions? Surely the “infirmity” is identical to “a thorn in the flesh.” By now its identity should be obvious to us, but let’s continue.

After adding to his apostolic credentials in 2 Corinthians 12:1-6, Paul returns to the discussion of his “infirmity,” only this time he adds another descriptive phrase: “a thorn in the flesh.” We can know that 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 continues the discussion of the infirmity in chapter 11 because after Paul describes his thorn in the flesh he concludes:

Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (12:10).

Indeed this is a further description of the “infirmity” that is introduced in the previous chapter.

Paul has received not only every advantage under the law (for he was a “doctor” of the law), but he has also received the advantage of “visions and revelations of the Lord” (12:1). Applebury correctly observes,

It was not foolish to boast in the thing which the Lord had done. Paul spoke the truth about what the Lord had done with him and limited his remarks to this lest anyone should exalt him above what they saw in him and heard from him [Corinthians, Vol. 2, p. 214].

Now, in the midst of his defense, the same apostle refers to a thorn that God had given him. Further he explains why such a thorn was given him: to keep him from being “puffed up.” Thus in light of this, note that in verse 22 he proudly cites his own “pedigree” in the Jewish religion. This acknowledgment is followed by his own affirmation of his sufferings for the cause of Christ (11:23-33). Is there any connection between his “pedigree” as a Jew and the sufferings that he is called upon to endure? Surely there is! Already we are learning the source of his infirmity, “the thorn in the flesh.”

It is within this setting that Paul states,

a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure.

Paul then continues his defense of his apostleship in verses 11-13. The apostle issues a strong rebuke to the church at Corinth:

I have become a fool in boasting; you have compelled me. For I ought to have been commended by you; for in nothing was I behind the most eminent apostles, though I am nothing.

Applebury’s summary on this is interesting: “It is difficult to understand how they could have forgotten all this and gladly listen to the claims of false teachers in the absence of Paul” [Ibid].

Has Paul wandered away from his subject to speak about the thorn in the flesh or is his thorn in the flesh directly related to his boasting as an apostle? Surely the latter is true. As to the identity of those who questioned Paul’s apostleship, several possibilities exist: (1) unconverted Gentiles and Jews outside the church, (2) unconverted Gentiles only, (3) unconverted Jews only, (4) converted Gentiles and Jews in the Corinthian church, (4) converted Gentiles only, (5) converted Jews only, or (6) converted and unconverted Jews. The descriptions in both epistles seem to indicate the last possibility—converted and unconverted Jews.

The Words “Thorn” and “Flesh”

How are the words “thorn” and “flesh” used in scripture? If “flesh” means literally “flesh”, should we not say that Paul’s “thorn” is a literal thorn that impales his body? And if his ailment is poor eyesight, should one not conclude that that the “thorn” is in his eyes and cannot be removed? However, if the “thorn” is not literal, should we not suspect that “flesh” isn’t either? To so conclude is consistent with the immediate context for the apostle had already stated, “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh” (10:3).

What does the word “thorn” signify in scripture? The usual word for thorn, akantha (Matt. 7:16; 13:7, 22; 27:29; Mark 4:7, 18; Luke 6:44; 8:7; 8:14; John 19:2; Heb. 6:8), designates a wood sliver of a plant or tree. But the word in 2 Corinthians 12:7 is skolops and means literally, “what is pointed,” and it is also related to skallō which means “to hack” [Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, VII, p. 409].

Interestingly, Paul does not employ akantha, but skolops, a word that occurs nowhere else in the New Testament! Fortunately skolops does occur three times in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (LXX). A consideration of these three occurrences is very helpful.

First Occurrence. As the Israelites prepared to enter the promised land, Moses charged the people that they drive the inhabitants out of the land, for if they fail in this, these non-Israelites will oppress the people (Numbers 33:55-56):

NKJV reads: 55 But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then it shall be that those whom you let remain shall be irritants in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall harass you in the land where you dwell. 56 Moreover it shall be that I will do to you as I thought to do to them.'”

The RSV reads: 55But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those of them whom you let remain shall be as pricks in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land where you dwell. 56 And I will do to you as I thought to do to them.”

What proved to be “thorns” in the sides of the Israelites? It was the inhabitants of the land whom Israel had failed to remove from the land.

Second Occurrence. As we know, the Israelites did not drive out the inhabitants from the land. Rather they became like their heathen neighbors and adopted their gods. Consequently, Israel became an unfaithful wife to the Lord. Hosea prophesied to the Northern Kingdom from 750 – 725 B.C. and predicted the coming consequences to Israel:

Therefore, behold, I will hedge up your way with thorns, And wall her in, So that she cannot find her paths” (Hos. 2:6).

The Northern Kingdom fell to Assyria in 722 B.C. What was the hedge of thorns here in Hosea 2? Assyria was. The Assyrian captivity was cruel and painful.

Third Occurrence. The Southern Kingdom also entered captivity. While in captivity, Ezekiel spoke of the time when God would release his people from their misery:

And there shall no longer be a pricking brier or a painful thorn for the house of Israel from among all who are around them, who despise them. Then they shall know that I am the Lord GOD” (Ezek. 28:24).

What was the painful thorn that irritated Israel during the time of Ezekiel’s prophecy? It was Babylon for they were in Babylonian captivity.

What is common about all three of these occurrences of skolops in the Old Testament Septuagint? Each time “thorn” is figurative not literal and every time “thorn” designates an oppressing people who are set against God’s people. Any Jew acquainted with the history of his own people surely is familiar with this usage of “thorn” in the pages of the Old Testament scriptures.

Apparently Gerhard Kittel in his Theological Dictionary of the New Testament sees the connection of “thorn” referring to oppressing people. First, he begins by saying that in the LXX Old Testament skolops is never used for “stake” (i.e., in a literal sense of impaling a person on a stake (VII, p. 305). Kittel then comments,

One may perhaps connect these two passages [i.e., Num. 33:55; Ezek. 28:24; G.A.J.] with the use of skolops in NT even the ref. here is hardly to oppression by men.”

One can only ask, “Why not?” Kittel acknowledges, “Some early expositors referred to the skolops of 2 C 12 to individuals, Plummer, ad loc., 350.” [This is A. Plumber’s A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Second Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians (International Critical Commentary) (1925).] Plummer and other “early expositors” were right!

Thus the figure of “thorn” in the Old Testament refers to a wayward people who harass the people of God. Surely Paul had this picture in mind as he describes his own thorn in the flesh in 2 Corinthians 12. If this be true, the issue boils down to one question: Who are these people?

The identity of these oppressing people must be identified with the words “in the flesh.” What does this phrase mean in our present text and context? The word “flesh” occurs a number of times leading up to our present study. For example he wrote in 10:2-3,

But I beg you that when I am present I may not be bold with that confidence by which I intend to be bold against some, who think of us as if we walked according to the flesh. 3 For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh.

A similar usage of “flesh” is found in the book of Romans. “Flesh” can refer to both the physical body and the unregenerate state. Consider the following readings from Romans.

(1) Paul speaks of the time when he and his hearers were “in the flesh” (7:5). Paul states,

Therefore, my brethren, you also have become dead to the law through the body of Christ, that you may be married to another — to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God. For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were aroused by the law were at work in our members to bear fruit to death (7:4-5).

“In the flesh” is contrasted with “newness of the Spirit” (7:6). The Spirit in this section (7:1-12) refers to freedom in Christ through the Spirit; the “flesh” refers to the old law that said, “You shall not covet,” the Mosaic law (7:7), in which is death (7:9-10).

(2) Consequently, saints walk according to the Spirit (or “in the Spirit”) and not according to the flesh (8:1-4).

(3) We are not in the flesh but in the Spirit (literally “in flesh” and “in Spirit,” 8:9).

(4) Paul speaks of his kinsmen according to the flesh (9:3). His kinsmen according to the flesh were the Jews.

Thus “flesh” refers to the Jews who held to the Old Testament law with its regulations and, failing to realize that the law which once held them has now been done away, they constantly sought to impose that law upon the church. We know them as the judaizing teachers whom Paul constantly battles throughout his ministry. Surely unconverted Jews were in league with judaizers in the church for they were both defenders of the Law. This situation leaps out at us in the immediate context.

Note carefully how Paul concludes his discussion in 2 Corinthians 12:10—

Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

These miseries came from what source? From the Jews!

“Weak” is the same word that is translated “infirmity” in chapters 11, 12, 13. So Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” is termed his infirmity. If we are to understand what he means by infirmity, we must study these three chapters.

Information in these chapters helps establish the immediate context and reveals the infirmities, the reproaches, the needs, the persecutions, the distresses, about which the apostle Paul speaks. Consider chapter 11, verses 22-33:

22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? So am I. 23 Are they ministers of Christ?I speak as a fool—I am more: in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. 24 From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; 26 in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; 27 in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness– 28 besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I do not burn with indignation? 30 If I must boast, I will boast in the things which concern my infirmity. 31 The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. 32 In Damascus the governor, under Aretas the king, was guarding the city of the Damascenes with a garrison, desiring to arrest me; 33 but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands.

What is Paul’s infirmity (astheneias) in 11:30? It is the things that he had suffered as a servant of Christ. What event does Paul reference in verses 30-33? It was the time when in Damascus certain Jews plotted to kill him and he escaped their murderous intentions by being lowered down a wall in a large basket (Acts 9:22-25). Clearly the “they” of verse 22 includes both converted and unconverted Jews and perhaps some converted Jews, too.

In 2 Corinthians 12:5 Paul employs the same word for infirmity, but this time it is plural and he makes a general statement of the benefit that he received from all of his infirmities: “Of such a one I will boast; yet of myself I will not boast, except in my infirmities.”

Verse 7 continues,

And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure.”

Now read chapter 12:9-10:

9 And when I was present with you, and in need, I was a burden to no one, for what I lacked the brethren who came from Macedonia supplied. And in everything I kept myself from being burdensome to you, and so I will keep myself. 10 As the truth of Christ is in me, no one shall stop me from this boasting in the regions of Achaia.”

Paul continues to talk about his weaknesses or infirmities (which includes more than only his “thorn in the flesh” as we saw in verse 7). (1) In chapter 13 Paul speaks of the “weakness” (or infirmity) of Christ that resulted in his crucifixion. Read verses 1-4. (2) The fact is that the word “infirmity,” appears both as a noun or verb some 13 times in chapters 11, 12 and 13 of 2 Corinthians. The noun is the word astheneia and the verb is astheneō, words that refer to weakness of any sort. It is certainly not limited to afflictions to the human body. If astheneia always refers to physical weakness, what was Christ’s affliction (weakness)?

For though He was crucified in weakness [noun], yet He lives by the power of God. For we also are weak [verb] in Him, but we shall live with Him by the power of God toward you (13:4).

It appears that Christ’s weakness was identical to that of Paul. Christ’s thorn crucified him, Paul’s thorn caused him aggravation but not death. In both instances the thorn is people of their own race who were zealous about the Mosaic Law—the Jews.

Let’s now return to these chapters and see if we can identify the infirmity (infirmities) about which Paul speaks. Let’s do a little more analysis of these chapters, especially as they relate to the word “infirmity” which is also rendered “weakness” in our text. Let us see if we are able to follow the continuity of Paul’s thoughts by reading these sections together.

2 Corinthians 11:16-21 Reluctant Boasting

16 I say again, let no one think me a fool. If otherwise, at least receive me as a fool, that I also may boast a little. 17 What I speak, I speak not according to the Lord, but as it were, foolishly, in this confidence of boasting. 18 Seeing that many boast according to the flesh, I also will boast. 19 For you put up with fools gladly, since you yourselves are wise! 20 For you put up with it if one brings you into bondage (i.e. they tolerate judaizers who seek to enslave them in the Law; G.A.J.), if one devours you, if one takes from you, if one exalts himself, if one strikes you on the face. 21 To our shame, I say that we were too weak [verb] for that! But in whatever anyone is bold—I speak foolishly—I am bold also.

2 Corinthians 11:22-33 Suffering for Christ

22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? So am I. 23 Are they ministers of Christ?I speak as a fool—I am more: in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. 24 From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; 26 in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; 27 in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness— 28 besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak [verb], and I am not weak [verb]? Who is made to stumble, and I do not burn with indignation? 30 If I must boast, I will boast in the things which concern my infirmity [noun]. 31 The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. 32 In Damascus the governor, under Aretas the king, was guarding the city of the Damascenes with a garrison, desiring to arrest me; 33 but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands.

2 Corinthians 12:1-6 The Vision of Paradise

1 It is doubtless not profitable for me to boast. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord: 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a one was caught up to the third heaven. 3 And I know such a man—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— 4 how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. 5 Of such a one I will boast; yet of myself I will not boast, except in my infirmities [noun]. 6 For though I might desire to boast, I will not be a fool; for I will speak the truth. But I refrain, lest anyone should think of me above what he sees me to be or hears from me.

2 Corinthians 12:7-10 Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh

7 And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. 8 Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. 9 And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness [noun].” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities [noun], that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities [noun], in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak [verb], then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:11-13 Signs of an Apostle

11 I have become a fool in boasting; you have compelled me. For I ought to have been commended by you; for in nothing was I behind the most eminent apostles, though I am nothing. 12 Truly the signs of an apostle were accomplished among you with all perseverance, in signs and wonders and mighty deeds. 13 For what is it in which you were inferior to other churches, except that I myself was not burdensome to you? Forgive me this wrong!

2 Corinthians 12:14-21 Love for the Church

14 Now for the third time I am ready to come to you. And I will not be burdensome to you; for I do not seek yours, but you. For the children ought not to lay up for the parents, but the parents for the children. 15 And I will very gladly spend and be spent for your souls; though the more abundantly I love you, the less I am loved. 16 But be that as it may, I did not burden you. Nevertheless, being crafty, I caught you by cunning! 17 Did I take advantage of you by any of those whom I sent to you? 18 I urged Titus, and sent our brother with him. Did Titus take advantage of you? Did we not walk in the same spirit? Did we not walk in the same steps? 19 Again, do you think that we excuse ourselves to you? We speak before God in Christ. But we do all things, beloved, for your edification. 20 For I fear lest, when I come, I shall not find you such as I wish, and that I shall be found by you such as you do not wish; lest there be contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, backbitings, whisperings, conceits, tumults; 21 lest, when I come again, my God will humble me among you, and I shall mourn for many who have sinned before and have not repented of the uncleanness, fornication, and lewdness which they have practiced.

Apparently the Corinthian church itself did not walk in Spirit but walked in flesh.

2 Corinthians 13:1-6 Coming with Authority

1 This will be the third time I am coming to you. “By the mouth of two or three witnesses every word shall be established.” 2 I have told you before, and foretell as if I were present the second time, and now being absent I write to those who have sinned before, and to all the rest, that if I come again I will not spare— 3 since you seek a proof of Christ speaking in me, who is not weak [noun] toward you, but mighty in you. 4 For though He was crucified in weakness [noun], yet He lives by the power of God. For we also are weak [verb] in Him, but we shall live with Him by the power of God toward you. 5 Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?unless indeed you are disqualified. 6 But I trust that you will know that we are not disqualified.

2 Corinthians 13:7-10 Paul Prefers Gentleness

7 Now I pray to God that you do no evil, not that we should appear approved, but that you should do what is honorable, though we may seem disqualified. 8 For we can do nothing against the truth, but for the truth. 9 For we are glad when we are weak [verb] and you are strong. And this also we pray, that you may be made complete. 10 Therefore I write these things being absent, lest being present I should use sharpness, according to the authority which the Lord has given me for edification and not for destruction.

So, prior to 2 Corinthians 11:30 Paul had already introduced his “infirmity.” Most students want to begin discussing Paul’s infirmity (thorn in the flesh) beginning with chapter 12. Yet Paul had already introduced the discussion of his “infirmity” in chapter 11. What is that infirmity? Is it not the treatment that he received from his own kinsmen in the flesh? These were judaizing teachers who held that Gentile Christians were obliged to keep Old Testament ordinances of the Law. When Paul makes sharp distinctions between the two covenants, as he fully develops in chapter 3, judaizers attack his apostleship wherever he goes. Paul was also abused by unbelieving Jews nearly every time he entered a city and began preaching in their synagogues.

Conclusion

Consequently “flesh” does not mean literal “flesh” as in Paul’s physical body anymore than “thorn” means a literal irritant to one’s body. “Flesh” refers to his kinsmen according to the flesh who insist in keeping the Mosaic law, walk in flesh, and war against the law of the Spirit.

1 I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, 2 that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, 4 who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; 5 of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen. (Rom. 9:1-5)

Indeed this is interesting in light of the fact that Paul had just contrasted the law of the flesh with that of the Spirit:

1 There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. 3 For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, 4 that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. (Rom. 8:1-5)

These judaizers reject the Law of the Spirit and their conduct demonstrates such (cf. Matt. 7:15-20). The Spirit’s fruit was conspicuously absent from their lives (cf. Gal. 5:22-23).

Paul had already written in Romans 5:8-10,

8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. 10 For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.

Paul explicitly states what he means by “flesh” in our present context (2 Corinthians chapters 11 and 12):

18 Seeing that many boast according to the flesh, I also will boast. 19 For you put up with fools gladly, since you yourselves are wise! 20 For you put up with it if one brings you into bondage, if one devours you, if one takes from you, if one exalts himself, if one strikes you on the face. 21 To our shame, I say that we were too weak for that! But in whatever anyone is bold—I speak foolishly—I am bold also. 22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? So am I. 23 Are they ministers of Christ?—I speak as a fool—I am more: in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. (2 Cor. 11:18-23)

As has been pointed out in this analysis, Paul utilizes the word “thorn,” not the usual word for thorn (which we know as a wood sliver), but “thorn” (skolops) in the sense of a pointed thing that causes persistent irritation (2 Cor. 12:7).

“Flesh” is another way of referring to Jews who are diligent to keep the law of Moses which is weak according to the flesh when compared to the law of the Spirit (see Romans 8). Thus, judaizing teachers were Paul’s thorn in the flesh. They were people who persistently opposed God’s righteous economy. Paul felt that these judaizers were a persistent hindrance to his ministry and prayed that they be removed. Judaizing teachers in the Corinthian church went so far as to question Paul’s apostolic authority. Perhaps some of our readers can identify their own “thorn in the flesh” from brethren who oppose them who war against the Spirit and walk in the flesh and not in the Spirit.

Final Exhortation

In reading Paul’s words one can sense the strong political tension in the church between those who had honestly investigated Paul’s credentials as an apostle, his teaching, the abolishment of the requirements of the Law and Paul’s foes who refused to reason through the evidence, deceiving themselves due to the fact they stubbornly refused to lay aside the ordinances of the Mosaic Law which they had always observed. Unable to refute Paul’s arguments, judaizers attacked Paul personally (ad hominem) by impugning the apostle’s character and authority. These false teachers had not the courage to confront Paul in person, so they discredited and ostracized him in absentia.

Sadly, today’s brethren share in the same malady that irritated Paul. Other brethren are so tied to their former understandings of scripture, are so steeped in tradition, feel that they cannot possibly be mistaken, and bow to the approval and pressures of others that they refuse to rethink their assumptions even if a solution is present that could resolve a century of conflict. They use fleshly tactics in order to protect their positions. Paul resolved that, though his warfare is spiritual, he does not fight according to the flesh (2 Cor. 10:2, 3).

Paul never lived to see the results of his labors, but because he fought as one who walked in the Spirit, God saw to it that his efforts have blessed generations for 2,000 years. May we learn to handle whatever “thorn” is given to us in the same graceful manner as did the apostle Paul.

9 And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

REFERENCE WORKS CITED

Applebury, T.R. Studies in Second Corinthians, Volume II in One Volume: Studies in Corinthians Joplin, Mo.: College Press.

Friedrich, Gerhard. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. 10 vols. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm.B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1971.

Halley, Henry H. Halley’s Handbook. 23 ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1959.

Kittle, Gerhard and Gerhard Friedrich, editors. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. 10 vols. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm.B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1971.

Stearsman, Jackie M. II Corinthians. Included in outlines of Bible books, presented to the Central Church of Christ, 1454 Belleair Road, Clearwater, Florida. March 1977.

Posted in Baptism, Doctrine, Evangelism, New Testament

Has the Great Commission Been Fulfilled?

By Mac Deaver

Tarlac Bible Forum

[The Tarlac Bible Forum was conducted in November 2014 at the Nick Hotel in Gerona, Tarlac, in the Philippines. Five lectures were presented by Mac Deaver on the theme of “The Baptism of the Great Commission.” We are publishing his teaching outlines here in the order delivered.]

Lesson 5: Has the Great Commission Been Fulfilled?

Note: The “great commission” has been fulfilled because the purpose of its completion was to make all men answerable to the gospel. The book of Acts is not basically about conversions or even about kingdom entry, though it certainly discusses this in detail, but it is about how God changed human accountability for all time from Gentile-ism and Judaism to Christianity, thus making it possible for the reconciliation of two heretofore separated groups of people (to each other and of these people to God) by means of one divinely authorized approach (Eph. 2:13-22; cf. Acts 19:9). We cannot now do what the apostles were commanded to do (see chapter 15, “Facts That Paint the Picture of Acts” in Except One Be Born From Above).

  1. The apostles were the ones to whom the commission was given (Matt. 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16; Luke 24:44-49; Read carefully Mark 16:15-20; cf. Heb. 2:1-4; cf. Acts 8:1-4).
  2. The ones responsible to the great commission were the “ambassadors” of Christ, distinguished from the rest of the church (Acts 1:21-26; 26:16; 2 Cor. 5:18-20; Acts 1:22).
  3. Two of the apostles were even given special assignments entailed in their great commission (Matt. 16:19; Acts 1:8; 2:1-4; 8:14-24; 10:44-48; Gal. 2:7; Acts 9:15).
  4. Each apostle had “witnessing” power unavailable to other Christians (1 Cor. 12:11; 14:1, 13; 1 Tim. 4:14; 1:6; 2 Cor. 12:12).
  5. Not all Christians were given the gift of tongues (1 Cor. 14:6, 22).
  6. Even if it could be proven that the early church bore the same relationship to the commission that the apostles did, we today still could not have that relationship to it (Eph. 2:20; 4:11; Heb. 2:1-4; the apostles were in a category all their own: Acts 2:42; 1 Cor. 4:9-13; 2 Cor. 12:12; Matt. 18:18 with Matt. 16:18-20; 19:27-28).
  7. During the thirty year period of evangelism in all the world, God was miraculously managing the whole affair (Acts 13:1-4; 16:6-10; cf. 1 Cor. 13:8-13; Acts 14:27; 1 Cor. 16:8, 9, 11; Rev. 3:7; Col. 1:16, 23).
  8. Passages that obligate Christians today to teach cannot in and of themselves prove that the evangelism is to be based on the great commission (1 Tim. 3:15; 2 Tim. 2:2; 1 Tim. 3:2; Matt. 22:37-40).
  9. God has withdrawn all miraculous assistance, which was absolutely necessary to carrying out the commission in the first century (Mark 16:15-20; 1 Cor. 13:8-13; cf. Acts 17:27; Matt. 7:7-11 with Luke 11:13; 2 Pet. 3:9; 1 Tim. 2:4).Note: Our world is not like that of the first century (transition era)! Today all men outside the church die in sin when they die without obeying the gospel. In the first century, there was a way (Judaism and Gentile-ism) for men outside the church to be saved before the gospel reached them because of the religious arrangement that had been made by God for them! Gentile-ism (Patriarchy) and Judaism were finally superseded by Christianity!

Consider these arguments:

Argument #1:

  • All assignments that the apostles were given to do that required the capacity for inspired speaking and miracle working are assignments that Christians today cannot carry out.
  • The assignment that the apostles were given to go into all the world and to preach the gospel to every creature was an assignment that the apostles were given to do that required the capacity for inspired speaking and miracle working (John 14:26; 15:26-27; 16:13; 1 Cor. 2:12-13; Heb. 2:3-4).
  • Therefore, the assignment to go into all the world and to preach the gospel to every creature was an assignment that Christians today cannot carry out.

Argument #2:

  • Any assignment that the apostles were given which changed human amenability on earth for all time is an assignment that cannot be carried out following its fulfillment.
  • The assignment that the apostles were given to go into all the world and to preach the gospel to every creature is an assignment which changed amenability on earth for all time (Col. 1:23; Acts 10:36; 17:30-31).
  • Therefore, the assignment that the apostles were given to go into all the world and to preach the gospel to every creature is an assignment that cannot be carried out following its fulfillment.
Posted in Doctrine, New Testament

What Happened in Samaria (Acts 8)?

By Mac Deaver

Tarlac Bible Forum

[The Tarlac Bible Forum was conducted in November 2014 at the Nick Hotel in Gerona, Tarlac, in the Philippines. Five lectures were presented by Mac Deaver on the theme of “The Baptism of the Great Commission.” We are publishing his teaching outlines here in the order delivered.]

Lesson 3: What Happened in Samaria (Acts 8)?

  1. This account of kingdom entry must correspond with Acts 2:1-4 and Acts 10, 11.
  2. Consider the background (Acts 1:8; Acts 8:1-11).
  3. Baptism in water only is baptism into the name of the Lord Jesus only (Acts 8:12, 16; cf. Acts 19:5).
  4. The Holy Spirit came as a result of prayer offered and hands laid (Acts 8:15-18).
  5. The hands identified those to receive the Spirit and provided the conceptual connection between the water and the Spirit (Acts 8:12, 14-19; cf. Acts 19:6; John 3:3, 5; cf. Heb. 6:2).
  6. Jesus was the One who administered Holy Spirit baptism (Matt. 3:11; Luke 3:16; John 1:33).
  7. With both water and Spirit, the Samaritans had been now baptized into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (cf. Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 2:33).
Posted in Baptism, Doctrine, New Testament, Salvation

Was the Baptism of the Holy Spirit a One Time Event Only?

By Mac Deaver

Tarlac Bible Forum

[The Tarlac Bible Forum was conducted in November 2014 at the Nick Hotel in Gerona, Tarlac, in the Philippines. Five lectures were presented by Mac Deaver on the theme of “The Baptism of the Great Commission.” We are publishing his teaching outlines here in the order delivered.]

Lesson 2: Was the Baptism of the Holy Spirit a One Time Event Only?

Discussion: No, because —

  1. There are no measures of the Holy Spirit (John 3:34).
  2. All who obeyed the gospel received the Spirit (Acts 5:32). [Question: Why didn’t the kingdom arrive ten days prior to Pentecost?]
  3. Baptism in the Spirit is no more miraculous than the forgiveness of sins is (Romans 8:2).
  4. There is only one way into the kingdom (John 3:3-5; Ephesians 4:4-5). [Note: If some entered at the point of Spirit baptism (Acts 2:1-4), and if some entered at the point of water baptism (Acts 10:44-48), then all entered when water and Spirit were combined in their human experience (John 3:3-5)!]
  5. Of the meaning of John 3:3-5.
  6. Of what Jesus did not say in John 3:3-5 —
    (1) Water must come first and then the Spirit;
    (2) Spirit must come first and then the water;
    (3) Water and Spirit must come at the same time;
    (4) One’s forgiveness had to occur at the moment of kingdom entry;
    (5) Forgiveness would occur in every case of water baptism;
    (6) One born of water only could enter the kingdom;
    (7) One born of Spirit only could enter the kingdom.
  7. Entering the spiritual body of Christ (the church) is accomplished by means of entering the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:9-11; Galatians 3:26-27).
Posted in Expository, New Testament

The Superiority of Love

By Mac Deaver

Have you ever wondered why Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:13 said that love is greater than faith and hope? In this article I want us to explore at least a few reasons why that is true. We know that no one can be saved without faith (Heb. 11:6; John 8:24), and we know that a person in his becoming a Christian is expressing his hope (Rom. 8:24-25). There is a sense in which hope is surely the anchor of the soul (Heb. 6:17-20), and faith is absolutely essential to a person’s pleasing God (Heb. 11:6), and yet in some way love surpasses these two essentials. In context, Paul is showing in 1 Corinthians 13 that while the miraculous gifts characteristic of the early church would in time pass away, the characteristics of faith, hope, and love would be the permanent characteristics of the faithful church for all time. And yet in the abiding permanent characteristics of faith and hope and love, somehow love would always be the superior trait. How could that be? Let me identify a few of the reasons.

The first reason why love is superior to faith and hope is that nothing a man does that is not motivated by love is of any value to himself at all. In fact, this is the point that Paul is making in the context of the 1 Corinthians 13:13 passage. This is the message of verses 1-7. Others may receive benefits from things done by unloving people, but the people who do things without love are not in any way improved or benefited by the deed. There are various awful reasons (perhaps pride or guilt or even spite) why on a given occasion, a person might do something that is of benefit to others, but love is the necessary element to self-benefit in all things, including eloquence (v. 1), in revealing information or in the demonstration of the power of faith (v. 2), and even in benevolence (v. 3).

The second reason for love’s superiority over faith and hope is that love must be present before faith can obey and before hope has a basis for its existence. Love is ontologically prior to the existence of faith and to the reason for hope. A man must love God first before he can obey God. There is no such thing in scripture as divinely accepted faith that is founded on non-love for God. Even faith that works is not acceptable if the work done is not motivated by love (1 Cor. 13:1-3). No man can be saved without loving God since God is fundamentally love and light (1 John 4:8; 1:5). In Gentile-ism (under moral law—Rom. 2:14-15), Gentiles had to love God (cf. Isaiah 17), and in Judaism the Jews had to love God (Deut. 6:5). And in Christianity we must love God, too (Matt. 22:37-40). It is worthy of emphasis that no man ever went to Paradise following life on earth who did not love God. Love for God is essential to the implementation of any other obligation that we have toward God and neighbor. Consider 1 John 4:20 thoughtfully, “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, cannot love God whom he hath not seen.” We are to love the brotherhood (1 Pet. 2:17), most of whom we will never see. The incapacity to see cannot cancel the obligation to love.

We love God because God first loved us (1 John 4:10, 19). One cannot now be saved without having faith in God’s word (Rom. 10:17; Heb. 11:6), but faith in truth can exist without love for that truth, and without love for truth no man can be saved by truth even if it is believed (2 Thess. 2:10).

Remember Jonah. After being deposited back on land by the big fish, Jonah finally went to Nineveh (Jonah 2:10-3:3). But he still didn’t want the people of Nineveh to be forgiven by God, and he was afraid that his preaching would bring them to repentance. He had plenty of trust in God and absolutely no love for the people to whom he was being sent. His preaching did the Ninevites good but, according to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3, it was of no value to Jonah whatever. So, we can say that Jonah finally “obeyed” God only in the sense that he carried out his overt assignment, but his “obedience” was not complete and, thus, not acceptable because of his terrible attitude. The overt act of going and preaching did not negate the sinfulness of his attitude. He did not fully comply with God’s will in the assignment. In fact, he got very angry following the successful results of his preaching. He even asked God to kill him (Jonah 4:1-3). Later, God tried to get him to see how bad his attitude was (Jonah 4:4-11).

If a person objects and affirms that faith can in some cases precede love, for faith when it arrives produces love, we respond by saying that surely faith can produce more love, and people of faith are under obligation to grow in love (2 Pet. 1:5-7), but any faith whatever not already grounded in love is unacceptable to God and is in no position to comply with the will of God. In the Warren-Ballard Debate, Warren called upon Ballard to give the order of things in his concept of the plan of salvation (p. 17). We usually give it as faith, repentance, confession, and baptism. But in answer to Warren’s question, where in the order do we find love? As Warren showed Ballard, it is not always mentioned in texts where other obligations are specifically given, including passages requiring faith.

I ask the reader just here: Is it possible that the faith that leads to other acts of obedience first exists in hearts that have no love for God? If we say, yes, we are saying that the other acts are not being fully or completely or adequately performed since they are not based on love. Again, remember Jonah. Repentance is certainly acceptable before baptism (Acts 2:38), and confession of faith is certainly acceptable following faith and before baptism (Rom. 10:9-10; 1 Tim. 6:12; Acts 8:37 in KJV). But is faith acceptable before love? Not according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 13. Did Jonah please God simply by going to Nineveh and preaching? No. The overt act was not based on love for those to whom he was sent. Love for the people was absent. Therefore, his action was not complete compliance with God’s will.

Third, love’s superiority to faith and hope is seen in the fact that since obedience must always follow faith, and faith must follow love, then obedience must follow love, too. No one can come to faith or any other act of obedience and that act be pleasing to God without those acts growing out of or being produced by a heart of love. Obedience never precedes love. If all that a Christian does is to be done in love (1 Cor. 16:14), and if all that anyone does is to be done in love (1 Cor. 13:1-3), then all that is done by men is to be done in love. No act of seeming “obedience” is actually obedience unless love is present. Conversion becomes coercion without love. If a person attempts to become a Christian while not loving God, he does so for some unauthorized reason. He may be trying to escape hell, but without love, he cannot become a Christian. He is not converted; he is intimidated! It is a contradiction of concepts to think that one can become a child of God without loving God. Every act of compliance with God’s will, including coming to faith, is an act of compliance by virtue of the fact that it is prompted by love for God. Faith without love is without value to the one with the love-less faith just as faith without works is without value to the one who has life-less faith (Jas. 2:14-26). Sampson had great faith (Heb. 11:32), but the writer of Judges never attributes to him any love for God or even any regard for morality (cf. Jud. 16:1-3).

Fourth, the superiority of love over faith and hope is seen in the ease with which love for God can grow. Read Luke 7:36-50 very slowly and carefully, and be staggered by the lesson that the Lord is attempting to get the Pharisee to understand. The Pharisee had asked Jesus to come and eat with him, so Jesus went. Since Jews ate in a reclining position, Jesus’ feet were behind him. He reclined at the table. A woman approaches the Lord from behind with a cruse of ointment and, at first, she stands there crying, and her tears fall on the Lord’s feet. She then bends down and wipes his feet with her hair and kisses his feet and anoints them with the ointment. The woman has a reputation for much wickedness, and the Pharisee thinks to himself that if Jesus were a real prophet, he would know what kind of woman it is that is touching him and would certainly then disallow such activity. Jesus, knowing both the woman and the Pharisee, then presents to the Pharisee, Simon, the story of the two debtors. In the story one debtor owed five hundred shillings and the other fifty. Neither could pay, so the lender forgave both men of their debts. The Lord then asks, “Which of them therefore will love him most?” Simon correctly responds: “He, I suppose, to whom he forgave the most.”

Jesus then compares the absence of any loving attention from Simon with the great care extended by the woman from the moment she arrived. And then in verse 47 we read, “Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.” Now, dear reader, be careful. Notice what Jesus is and is not saying about the woman. The illustration of the two debtors teaches that the one who is forgiven most loves most because he was forgiven most. The forgiveness precedes the love and produces it. He does not say that because she already loved most, that she was then forgiven most. That point does not fit the illustration. The illustration teaches that forgiveness produces love. If the Lord had wanted to emphasize the fact that God forgives most someone who already loves him most, he could have done so. However, it is not always true that the one who already loves most is forgiven most because the one who loves most in most cases needs less forgiveness!

The illustration of the two debtors teaches that forgiveness can produce love. And much forgiveness can produce much love. The second crucial point in understanding the force of the whole scene is given in verse 47 when Jesus says, “Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.” And that verb translated “are forgiven” is a perfect tense verb which indicates completed action with a resulting state of being. In verse 48 we come to the words that Jesus now speaks to the woman, “Thy sins are forgiven.” Do you see the picture? The woman had followed the Lord into Simon’s house because he had already (perfect tense verb—v. 47) promised her forgiveness for her many sins! She was loving much because he had already promised much forgiveness! And then in Simon’s presence, he repeats his promise to the woman (v. 48), “Thy sins are forgiven.” It was her faith which made possible her forgiveness (v. 50). It was her much forgiveness that produced her much love!

Now let me make my point regarding why love is superior to faith and hope in the light of this passage. Love for God grows partially in proportion to the forgiveness that God grants! As God continually forgives us of our sins, he doesn’t give up on us and we do not have to despair. We love God more as we are forgiven of more. This means that this aspect of love grows proportionately to sins forgiven. So, our perpetual weakness (Matt. 26:41) with its resultant perpetual lapses (1 John 1:6-10) cannot destroy us since the forgiveness of the sins committed because of that weakness can and should produce in our hearts more love for God. That is absolutely incredible! It reminds us of Paul’s point in 2 Corinthians 12:9. Just as divine power is perfected in human weakness, just so love for God continually grows and is being completed in the hearts of those whose momentary sins are continually being forgiven!

Fifth, love’s superiority to faith and hope is seen in the fact that faith can trust that God will keep his word even in cases where the person of faith does not love God and does not want God to keep his word. If a demon can believe and tremble, then certainly a man can tremble at the thought of his own eternal prospects if he believes scripture but has no desire to obey scripture (Jas. 2:19; cf. Heb. 5:8-9). We read of some Jews who believed Jesus but would not confess him (John 12:42-43). It is certainly possible today for a person to be brought to faith and yet not be brought to repentance. But how can a man love God without trying to please God? It is impossible. This is why Jesus could say, “If ye love me, ye will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Jesus came to do the Father’s will (John 6:38). And since God is love and since Jesus is God, Jesus is love. Before the Word became flesh, the Word as God was love. And in the incarnation, Jesus as the son of God continued by his divine essence that maintenance of love characteristic of divinity. He learned obedience by the things he suffered (Heb. 5:8-9). He didn’t learn love; he was love. Going back to Jonah, we see that he knew that God was “a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil” (Jonah 4:2). But he did not want that mercy extended to Nineveh. His confidence in God that God would not destroy Nineveh if she turned from her evil was well placed, but extension of that mercy to the Ninevites was not something that Jonah desired.

Sixth, love’s superiority over faith and hope is seen in the fact that love is basically what makes us most like God. God is never described, and for good reason, as “faith” or as “hope” or even as “obedience.” But he is described as “love” (1 John 4:8). This is not the only infinite characteristic of God, but it is one on which God wants man to focus as he thinks of his own duty to God and other men (Matt. 22:37-40). It is a trait of God to be implemented always even to the point of including our enemies. If we would intend to be like God, we must love all men (Matt. 5:44-48; Rom. 12:20-21). We are not under obligation to trust all men or to place any hope in all men, but we are to love them. God is also described as “light” (1 John 1:5). In this case, light stands for purity and knowledge. There is no impurity and no ignorance in God just as there is no weakness (Psa. 147:5; 1 Cor. 1:25). God’s own personal love infinitely coexists with his knowledge and his moral goodness. A man’s love cannot be expressed through impurity or ignorance. A man’s finite knowledge is not worthy to be compared to God’s omniscience (and it is knowledge that gives rise to faith and, thus, to hope), but when a man has love that encompasses even his enemies, the degree of that love and the quality of that love makes him like his Father (Matt. 5:44-48; Gal. 5:22).

Seventh, love’s superiority over faith and hope is seen in the fact that coming to faith in God and obeying God (which gives us hope) are expressions of our love for God. Obedience is the expression of love just as work or some kind of effort is the demonstration of faith (1 John 5:3; Jas. 2:14ff). As actual existent characteristics, love is ontologically prior to its actual overt expression just as faith is ontologically prior to its demonstration. Obedience is the proof of already existent love and an effort or work is the demonstration of the already existent faith. But love without expression cannot save any more than faith without work can.

Let me note in passing that there is great danger in attempting to “read” people at the expense of “reading” scripture. Alexander Campbell found it almost impossible to deny that a man was a Christian even if the man had not been immersed for remission of sins, as long as the man’s life seemed to be morally and religiously in harmony with the character that is demanded in scripture. Listen to him. This quotation comes from an article entitled “Any Christians Among The Sects?” which was published in the 1837 volume of the Millennial Harbinger on pages 561-567:

The case is this: When I see a person who would die for Christ; whose brotherly kindness, sympathy, and active benevolence know no bounds but his circumstances; whose seat in the Christian assembly is never empty; whose inward piety and devotion are attested by punctual obedience to every known duty; whose family is educated in the fear of the Lord; whose constant companion is the Bible: I say, when I see such a one ranked amongst the heathen men and publicans, because he never happened to inquire, but always took it for granted that he had been scripturally baptized; and that, too, by one greatly destitute of all these public and private virtues, whose chief or exclusive recommendation is that he has been immersed, and that he holds a scriptural theory of the gospel: I feel no disposition to flatter such a one; but rather to disabuse him of his error. And while I would not lead the most excellent professor in any sect to disparage the least of all the commandments of Jesus, I would say to my immersed brother as Paul said to his Jewish brother who gloried in a system which he did not adorn: “Sir, will not his uncircumcision, or unbaptism, be counted to him for baptism? And will he not condemn you, who, though having the literal and true baptism, yet dost transgress or neglect the statutes of your King? ( p. 565).

I say that Campbell’s position just made is absolutely false! Furthermore, he has distorted good scripture in wrong application. There is great danger in taking the position that one can read a person more clearly than he can read a divine proposition! I warn us all that it is easier to understand the proposition of scripture than it is to “read” correctly the character of some religious people. God who knows the hearts of all men (Acts 1:24) wrote scripture in the light of his own “human heart knowledge.” And God knows exactly what genuine love and genuine obedience are. We cannot afford to dismiss plain scripture in order to credit human claims. We evaluate men in the light of God’s word; we do not evaluate God’s word in the light of any human claim. We must “let God be found true” in all cases of human evaluation (Rom. 3:4).

We must be content with the conclusion that truth reveals to us: genuine love leads to obedience (John 14:15; 1 John 5:3). The seeming moral harmony that exists at times in the lives of some religious people with the commands of scripture cannot at all be taken as justification for a claim of their alleged attachment to Christ. Only Christians can produce Holy Spirit fruit (Rom. 6:20-23; Gal. 5:22-24). Moral “likenesses” must not mislead us into devaluating plain and obvious scripture while elevating alleged claimants to the status of real Christians. It is true that we can know people by their fruits (Matt. 7:16), but there are times when what we think are genuine fruits are but imitations. We remember that Paul tells us that if we have great faith but no love we are nothing (1 Cor. 13:2). Love that believes and obeys is something, however. John said it like this: “Hereby we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and do his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous” (1 John 5:2-3). Obedience is the way that we express our love for God. There is no other way to express it! Neither is there another way to demonstrate our faith in God other than through our actions (Jas. 2:18). Love can be merely claimed by the lips, but it is shown in the life. John wrote, “My little children, let us not love in word, neither with the tongue; but in deed and truth” (1 John 3:18).

Eighth, love’s superiority to faith and hope is seen in the description of love as “the bond of perfectness.” Paul wrote, “Put on therefore, as God’s elect, holy and beloved, a heart of compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, longsuffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving each other, if any man have a complaint against any; even as the Lord forgave you, so also do you: and above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfectness” (Col. 3:12-14). The word for “bond” is sundesmos and means, “that which binds together; a ligature (Col. 2:19); a band of union (Eph. 4:3; Col. 3:14); a bundle, or, bond (Acts 8:23)” (Harper’s Lexicon, p. 387). The word for “perfectness” is teleiotatos from teleiotas which means, “completeness, perfectness (Col. 3:14): ripeness of knowledge or practice (Heb. 6:1),” (Harper’s Lexicon, p. 401). It is love, then, that bundles everything together in one unified and complete package of Christian character that makes it all acceptable to God.

Ninth, love is superior to faith and hope because it is love that finally is able to cast out all fear from the Christian’s heart and make his hope complete. With his eye on the judgment, John writes, “Herein is love made perfect with us, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as he is, even so are we in this world. There is no fear in love: but perfect love casteth out fear, because fear hath punishment; and he that feareth is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:17-18). And the Hebrews writer having already assured the brethren that God is well aware of their work and love, then says to them, “And we desire that each one of you may show the same diligence unto the fullness of hope (ASV footnote: full assurance of hope) even to the end: that he be not sluggish, but imitators of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (Heb. 6:11-12).

The immature young heart of the one obeying the gospel and the immature heart of the saint are partially (and rightfully) motivated by fear of punishment and hope of reward. N. B. Hardeman said in his great sermon entitled “Repentance,” that “Men are moved by motives. The fear of punishment, on the one hand, and the hope of reward, on the other, are the strongest incentives to our action in the more serious concerns of life” (Hardeman’s Tabernacle Sermons, Vol. I, p. 199). And as he well pointed out, in the scriptures we have divine threats meant to move us to repentance as well as, according to Paul in Romans 2:4, the goodness of God. But we add just here that John assures us that in mature love, the fear of punishment once characteristic of the Christian’s heart becomes history.

Let me conclude this article with this argument:

The Fear and Love of God

  1. If (1) fearing God and keeping his commandments constitutes the whole of man, and if (2) keeping the commandments of God expresses one’s love for God, and if (3) perfect love casts out the fear of punishment, then the proper abiding fear of God is respect (or reverence) which entails the love of God.
  2. (1) Fearing God and keeping his commandments constitutes the whole of man (Ecc. 12:13-14), and (2) keeping the commandments of God expresses one’s love for God (1 John 5:3), and (3) perfect love casts out the fear of punishment (1 John 4:18).
  3. Then, the proper abiding fear of God is respect (or reverence) which entails the love of God.

“But now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

Posted in Expository, New Testament

Three Definitive Descriptions

By Mac Deaver

In Peter’s sermon on Pentecost of Acts 2, we find three descriptions that are worthy of much thought. In his great sermon Peter describes for us Jesus and then David. Next, he gives us David’s own description of Jesus. It would be good for us all to ponder well the facts presented.

How Peter described Jesus. Regarding Jesus, Peter says that he was “of Nazareth” (v. 22). In harmony with what the prophets had long ago predicted, “he should be called a Nazarene” (Matt. 2:23). The reputation of one from that town evidently was not so good (John 1:46). Thus, Jesus was born in a manger, lived in humble economic situation, and grew up in a town with a bad reputation. From a merely human point of view, his start on earth did not look all that promising. Peter says that Jesus was “a man approved of God” (v. 22). God approved him by empowering him with miracle working ability. Peter calls on his audience to reflect on the fact that “mighty works and wonders and signs” were done in their midst, and they knew it was so. Then, Peter declares that Jesus was “delivered up by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God” and that the Jews “by the hand of lawless men did crucify and slay” (v. 23). Christ’s death was according to God’s grand divine plan. His marvelous will was worked out at the cross. The evil Jews were being utilized by God to bring about a result that they did not comprehend. God’s will was predetermined and his knowledge of what would happen was set. He used the free will of man to accomplish the deed at the cross. And the men who crucified Jesus were lawless. But then, Peter announces the wonderful truth that God raised Jesus from the dead (v. 24). In fact, he affirms that it was impossible for Christ to remain dead. He then provides a quotation from a prophecy long ago made by David regarding the resurrection of Jesus (vv. 25-28). Later he points out that Jesus has now been exalted by God’s right hand, and that he had received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, which he had now poured forth on the apostles, the evidence of which was discernable by the audience (v. 33). He claims that Jesus is now sitting on David’s throne (vv. 30, 33) and that God has now made him “both Lord and Christ,” the very man that the Jews had earlier crucified (v. 36).

How Peter described David. Having provided the prophecy that David had earlier made from Psalm 16, he then states that David was a patriarch (father-ruler) and a prophet (vv. 29, 30). Regarding his death, Peter said that David died, was buried, and his tomb still existed (v. 29). God had sworn to David that he would raise one of David’s descendants to sit on David’s throne (v. 30). Jesus was “of the fruit of his loins.” Of course, this involved the profundity of the incarnation (John 1:14). Jesus’ mother was a descendant of David (Luke 3:31). Jesus’ legal earthly father also was a descendant of David (Matt. 1:6, 20). And, thus, long ago David predicted that God would not leave Jesus’ soul in Hades nor allow his flesh to see corruption. Though long dead, David had not yet ascended into heaven (v. 34). His soul remained in Hades, and his flesh had already seen corruption.

How David described Jesus. Peter quotes David who refers to Jesus as “thy Holy One” (v. 27). That is, Jesus was the Father’s Holy One. According to the flesh, Jesus was a descendant of David or “of the fruit of his loins” (v. 30). David predicted that God would in time set one of David’s descendants upon David’s throne (v. 30; cf. 2 Sam. 7:12-16), and this placement on David’s throne would follow the Lord’s being raised from the dead (vv. 30-31). Interestingly, all the other kings in Israel served as kings prior to their deaths, of course. But, Jesus’ kingship would take place after his death via the resurrection! This strange fact also indicates the change in the nature of the kingdom over which he would rule. The throne upon which he sat was still “David’s,” but it was now to be viewed as a purely spiritual throne at the right hand of God (vv. 30, 33). When God had Nathan inform David that his throne would be established forever, God was referring to a spiritual kingdom and to a spiritual throne (2 Sam. 7). The one now sitting on David’s throne is David’s Lord. “The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, Till I make thine enemies the footstool of thy feet” (vv. 34-35). That is, the Father said these words to the Son (Jesus Christ). David’s son was David’s Lord. Jesus was David’s son and Lord. The divinity of Christ was mixed with the humanity of David’s lineage, and made it possible for Jesus to be both the son of man and the son of God. During his ministry, Jesus had once posed a question to some Pharisees as to the sonship of Christ, and he quoted David’s statement that Peter later quoted on Pentecost (Matt. 22:41-44; Acts 2:34). Indeed, Christ was both David’s son and David’s Lord!

Posted in Expository, New Testament

A Funeral in Nain

By Weylan Deaver

All of us have attended funerals, perhaps even accompanied the casket to the cemetery. But none of us has been to a funeral where the deceased sat up. It did happen once, long ago. We know where, though we do not know his name and, were it not for Dr. Luke, we would not know about it at all, since he is the only writer to record it (in Luke 7:11-17).

Verse 11 brings a crowd, tagging along with Jesus and his disciples on the way to Nain, a town not elsewhere mentioned. It was in Galilee, probably along a road from Capernaum to Jerusalem. What was it about this carpenter’s son from Nazareth (a town of no reputation) that caused a crowd to follow him? Since the crowd is distinguished from the disciples, we might question their motives. Were they following just to be part of what was going on? Were they hoping to see some great sight? Were they bored, with nothing better to do? Were they truly interested in Jesus? What of us? Are we Christ-followers, or crowd-followers?

Verse 12 reveals a solemn ceremony. A dead man is being carried out of Nain (Jewish custom forbade burying within city limits). The mother of the deceased was already a widow, so her grief must have been acute. This was her only son. Her financial situation might now be precarious, indeed, with neither husband nor son to depend on. It speaks well of the townsfolk of Nain that a considerable crowd followed the funeral procession. Thus, two crowds met—one headed toward town and another coming out of it. Coincidence? Since God knew what would happen, and that Luke would record it, and that we would study it, surely more than mere chance was involved in the fateful meeting. But it reminds us life is fragile, and brief, and sometimes parents outlive their children.

Verse 13 shows Jesus’ compassion, as he singles out the grieving mother, telling her “do not weep.” There is no hint they had met before, or knew each other, or even that they are introduced on this occasion. Jesus tells her not to weep, but without explaining what is about to happen. He tells her not to weep while her son is still very much dead. Are we aware of the grieving? Can we, like Jesus, single out those in need of compassion?

Verse 14 finds the Lord issuing a command. Interrupting the funeral, Jesus touches the bier and the procession comes to a standstill. Jesus does not direct his words to the disciples, or to the crowd, or to the mother, or even to his Father in heaven. He speaks to the young man: “I say to you, arise.” Anyone can talk to the dead. But, when Jesus speaks, the dead actually listen.

Verse 15 tells of the incredible cure, as the formerly dead man sits up and starts talking. How could it be otherwise? A corpse can no more resist a divine command than could a storm on the sea of Galilee. In point of fact, the only ones capable of refusing God’s orders are living humans. Such is the sobering and remarkable power of free will that each of us has. Jesus turns the young man over to his mother. Just think of the conversations those two had later. Surely, were they still alive when the church began, this widow and her resurrected son would have been among the earliest Christians.

Verse 16 records the conclusion reached by the crowds. Glorifying God, they inferred that Jesus was a “great prophet” and that “God has visited his people!” Both counts were right, though the people could have gone further, since Jesus was much more than a prophet—he was Immanuel (literally, “God with us”). And, not only had God visited by way of a miraculous healing, but God was actually standing there among the crowd in the person of Jesus (if only they would see it). The people’s assertion that Jesus was a divine messenger would have been more on target had they said he was their Messiah. At least the people attributed what happened to God. How many today grow up in a sea of blessings, but never think to glorify God for them?

Verse 17 indicates the circulation of a report about Jesus. How could a lid be kept on such news? It spread like wildfire through Judea and vicinity. And this was just one miracle. Recalling that John said Jesus’ miracles were too numerous to chronicle (cf. John 21:25), can you imagine all the reports that went out, and all the conversations that must have taken place about Jesus? It must have been impossible to live in Palestine and not hear about Jesus. Truly, the report about him is still circulating, and has spanned two millennia to reach our own ears.

There is no discussion about sin in this story (contrast Matt. 9:5). There is no mention of faith in this story (contrast Matt. 9:22). There is no request made of Jesus (contrast Luke 7:3). And, refreshingly, there is no criticism of Jesus (contrast Luke 13:14). Instead, Jesus, himself, takes the initiative and the whole account seems to rest on the twin pillars of his compassion and his power. It was an unforgettable day in Nain when there began a funeral that could not be completed!