“Power in Weakness”Categories: Iron sharpens iron
So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12.7-9)
The apostle Paul teaches us so much about Christ’s salvation and his plans for us. Most of this comes from direct teaching in his 13 letters in the New Testament, but we can learn from his experiences, too. When we put together the record of his work in Acts with the letters he wrote, we get a fuller picture of Paul that is more relatable today.
Paul’s second missionary journey started out fairly well, with a jaunt through the churches of southern Galatia he’d established the first time around. This was familiar territory and familiar work—it was Paul’s comfort zone, and the churches grew in strength and numbers while he was there. But when the Holy Spirit instructed Paul and his crew to cross the Aegean Sea and spread the gospel in Macedonia, they set off into the unknown.
Their first major stop in Macedonia started out well, but soon took a distressing turn:
The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates tore the garments off them and gave orders to beat them with rods. And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, ordering the jailer to keep them safely. (Acts 16.22-23)
God rescued Paul and Silas, and brought salvation to the jailer and his household in the process; but while that’s cause for rejoicing, the next day the authorities sent them away from the city. They went to Thessalonica, where at first they had success spreading the good news of Jesus. However, once again some of the local Jews took great offense,
and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason, seeking to bring [Paul and his helpers] out to the crowd. (Acts 17.5)
The mob was unsuccessful, but it alarmed the church to the extent that they smuggled Paul and Silas out of the city that night—chased away before his work was finished.
His reception in Berea was better; but when the angry mob from Thessalonica down the road got wind of what was happening, they followed Paul to Berea and chased him from there, too! This time, he set off alone, and went much farther, to Athens. There he continued his work of preaching the gospel, including a beautiful speech appealing to these pagan Gentiles to turn their devotion away from idols and toward “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth” (Ac 17.24), who had appointed a man to “judge the world in righteousness,” and proved it “by raising him from the dead” (v31). He had some success, but his departure from Athens seems abrupt and lacks an obvious cause; on top of that, there’s a suspicious silence about Athens for the rest of the New Testament. This suggests that, in the midst of an intensely pagan culture, the church fizzled out quickly.
By the time Paul made it to Corinth, he was alone and battered by a string of what must have seemed abject failures. He was clearly frustrated, and his enthusiasm somewhat diminished—he later tells the church at Corinth, “I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling” (1Co 2.3). He did his best, but at this point, he probably expected another short-lived success before the rug would be jerked out from under him. But this time, things were different.
And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” And he stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them. (Acts 18.9-11)
What changed, so that Paul’s long streak of swiftly established, then abandoned churches came to an end at Corinth? Was he doing something wrong at Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, and Athens? Not necessarily. Some find fault with his approach to preaching the word in Athens—a lofty, philosophical presentation built on the words of pagan poets. There’s a kernel of truth to this, but it ignores that this was only intended as an introduction to the one and only God and his Son. Additionally, Paul was already preaching Jesus in the synagogue before the pagans invited him to speak. So it’s not that he was failing in his duty before—it’s that Paul’s labor was never the key to the audience’s response. “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1Co 3.7).
Paul was keenly aware of this while at Corinth, and we should learn the lesson, too! The power isn’t in us—to impart salvation, to defeat sin, to pass judgment, to vindicate Christ, or anything else. We may become discouraged, as Paul was, when we do the right thing, and it still doesn’t turn out the way we want or expect. That’s not an excuse to give up, but it is a reminder that we’re not in control of the world. God shows his power in weakness. If you want his power to be shown in you, then stop pretending to be powerful yourself! Admit that you’re broken, and submit yourself to his will, to obey what he tells you. Like Adam and Eve from the beginning, we’ve only ever messed things up when we tried to take over God’s role. We’re too weak. Trust him to do the heavy lifting.