1 It is not expedient for me doubtless to glory. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord.
2 I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven.
3 And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;)
4 How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter…
7 And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.
8 For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.
9 And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.
In verse 7 the Apostle Paul reveals that it was he who was “caught up to the third heaven… into paradise”. And he writes that it was he, while there, who “heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.”
Paul was a man who was held in high esteem indeed by God. He was a man to whom God revealed His deepest secrets. In the natural order of things we would therefore expect that God would “uplift” His most trusted servant and send him about with angels on trumpets announcing his arrival in every city. Paul’s name and persona ought to have been growing with his every appearance.
But it did not work that way for Paul. On the contrary, instead of sending ministering angels, God sent to Paul a messenger of Satan – to buffet him! Paul called this his “thorn in the flesh”. In other words, God’s style of “blessing” Paul was to put a thorn in his flesh.
The next thing we see is that initially Paul was not happy about this thorn. He did not go about singing “Glory, hallelujah!” on account of this thorn. On the contrary, we read that Paul prayed to God thrice to have this thorn removed from his flesh. In practical terms, Paul was not happy about the situations that came into his life.
For a long time, I personally had no idea about what Paul went through here. I thought I knew, but one day God decided to show me that I did not know. I do not claim to have any association with Paul’s persecutions, but one day God put me through something similar, or close to what Paul went through. It was something I had never experienced before. It was so painful. It was all the more painful because it appeared unreasonably unjust. It was one of the hardest things I had ever experienced in my Christian life. And so, just like Paul once did, I “kicked against the pricks” (Acts 9:5).
The last thing we notice in this scripture is the most important. Paul finally realized and accepted what God wanted to do with the thorn He had placed in his flesh. He realized that God wanted to humble him. Paul realized that God did not want him to serve Him in his own strength. This would have made him to boast. God wanted Paul to serve Him in His grace so that all glory and honor would return to God.
Paul finally accepted that and, once that had been settled in his heart, Paul was not content with passively accepting adverse situations in his life. He went further and welcomed them for he knew, just as God had told him, that it was these very situations that would break him and enable him to serve God in a manner that pleased Him – in God’s strength, not his own.
This acceptance by Paul was the turning point in Paul’s ministry and life. From that moment on, Paul became a truly spiritual man.
In the particular test that God gave me, I failed miserably. Yet, in hindsight, when I think about the ordeal, I have reason to smile. In the first place, it was wonderful that God would put His hand upon my life in such a manner. The textbook understanding in mainstream Pentecostalism is that God only has a soft hand which He gently wraps around us to comfort us in our distresses.
But God has two hands. With the other hand, He moulds and fashions us into the image He wants us to be in order for us to carry His purpose on earth. And the moulding is hard and painful.
I am sure the Apostle Paul had no argument against carrying God’s revelation in his heart. None of us would. It is an exalted position to be so entrusted by God. Paul admits that it was something that would have brought pride into his heart. But in our lack of spiritual understanding we fail to realize the price we have to pay in order to carry the secrets of God.
We cannot serve God as we should until a messenger of Satan has been sent to deal with our flesh. It is incredible how, in Pentecostalism, we have learned to elevate men to impossible heights while here we see God beating Paul to a pulp! But Paul was there for God’s purposes, not his.
[Below: The Moshi Town bus stand, with Mt. Kilimanjaro looming in the background]