John S. Shaw
The world exalts the strong and the mighty. The world celebrates the victory of power over weakness. Historians tell the stories of powerful nations defeating weaker nations.
Yet the gospel of Jesus Christ proclaims a different way. The Lord described the Christian life in this way: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). This side of glory, the believer should expect a life of difficulty and weakness, because we live in a broken and sinful world characterized by opposition to Christ and his kingdom.
The apostle Paul makes this a theme of his two letters to the church in Corinth. He finds reason to glory in a seemingly weak message and means of salvation: the cross of Jesus Christ. He describes the message of the cross as foolishness to the perishing, but the power of God to those who are being saved (1 Cor. 1:18). He also reminds the Christians in Corinth of their own weakness. God chose the foolish, the weak, the low, and the despised in order to shame the wise, the strong, and the noble (1:26–30). For what purpose did God save a weak people with a seemingly foolish message? So that we might boast in the Lord (1:31).
Paul continues to build on that theme in 2 Corinthians. God not only chooses a weak people, but he providentially sends affliction “to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Cor. 1:9). He invests these same weak and afflicted people with the glorious message of the gospel—unremarkable jars of clay, carrying the priceless treasure of the blessed Savior. He does this to make clear “that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (4:7).
Finally, to drive home the point, Paul points to himself (11:16–33). He offers his own reasons to boast: greater labors, more imprisonments, countless beatings, and near-death experiences. The irony, though, is that this list hardly presents reasons for boasting of great strength. Rather, Paul’s life displays great weakness. As Paul goes on to say, “Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (vv. 29–30).
Like his Savior, Paul lives a life characterized by weakness, opposition, and tribulation. He not only describes such experiences as characteristic of the Christian life, but even argues that such obvious displays of weakness give reason for much boasting.
Then Paul mentions a vision and a thorn (12:1–10). A man (certainly Paul) received visions and revelations from the Lord. He had reason to boast, and maybe he was even tempted to boast, for he had been “caught up to the third heaven” (v. 2) and had “heard things that … man may not utter” (v. 4). So the Lord also gave Paul a thorn in the flesh, to harass and humble him (v. 7). Three times Paul pleaded with the Lord to remove this affliction, but he would not. Rather, in his mercy, the Lord used this affliction to confirm his grace and power in the life of the apostle (vv. 8–9).
What does the Lord teach Paul in affliction? First, Paul learns humility. Notice how many times the apostle highlights his weakness. He sees his weakness, he acknowledges it, he boasts in it, and he finds contentment and even glory in it. The apostle knows the truth about himself.
Second, Paul finds real power. The Lord tells him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (v. 9). The power of Christ rests with Paul in his weakness. Paul even boasts in his weakness, because the Lord makes the weakness of his people the stage on which he displays his power and majesty. The apostle can say, “When I am weak, then I am strong” (v. 10).
Third, Paul finds true and lasting hope. Everything that the world recognizes as powerful and strong—whether possessions or position or reputation or fame—passes away. Rust and moth destroy them. Thieves steal them. The grave separates us from them. On the other hand, Paul finds something that fully satisfies forever. Nothing can separate us from the love of God that is ours in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:31–39). Paul finds Christ, and once he possesses Christ, nothing else can ever satisfy.
Fourth, Paul finds real purpose for his life. He no longer lives for himself, but for the sake and for the glory of Christ. The apostle finds contentment and gladness in weakness, insult, persecution, and hardship as long as Christ might be exalted and his strength displayed to the world.
Paul teaches us about human weakness and God’s strength in these letters. What do we learn as believers and as the church of Jesus Christ? And how should we respond as Orthodox Presbyterians to these instructions?
First of all, we should respond in humility as we consider our own weakness. We are helpless sinners saved only by the grace of God. Yet we should also acknowledge our weakness with gladness. We belong to the foolish, the weak, the low, and the despised that God in his grace delivered through his Son. Praise God for his rich mercy that he has lavished on his people.
Second, we should celebrate the paradox of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He turns expectations upside down. The Lord chooses a weak church and a foolish message to display his manifold wisdom to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places (Eph. 3:10). The church has a wonderful opportunity to display the wisdom and power of God, who in Christ saved people like us.
Every year, the congregations of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church gather a joint offering in the months of November and December. The Thank Offering supports the ministries of the Committee on Christian Education, the Committee on Foreign Missions, and the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension. This offering provides more than one-fourth of the financial resources needed for the work of these committees.
By giving back to the Lord through the Thank Offering, we have the opportunity to give thanks for the Lord’s generous provision for us and for his church. God has displayed his abundant power in our salvation. We give out of gratitude for his inexpressible gift.
We also have the opportunity to participate in the display of God’s saving power. He uses our gifts to build his church, gather the lost, and display his glory to the nations.
Our congregations support missionaries who embody the message of power made perfect in weakness. In humble conditions, armed with the Word and the Spirit, they boldly preach the gospel in countries like Haiti, Uganda, and Uruguay. Although they go in much weakness, the Lord displays his saving power as he gathers new believers into the church.
Our congregations support ministerial interns who embody the message of power made perfect in weakness. Supported by ministers, elders, and local congregations, they gain experience in preaching, teaching, serving, and discipling. Although they go in much weakness, the Lord uses them in present service and prepares them for future service to his church.
Our congregations support church planters who embody the message of power made perfect in weakness. With newly developed core groups, often in small, rented facilities, they confidently proclaim the truth in cities like Anaheim Hills, California, Lander, Wyoming, and Springfield, Ohio. Although they go in much weakness, the Lord gathers his church as people are translated from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light.
With so much of the world rebelling and resisting the truth of the gospel, we might be tempted to hopelessness. Can we truly expect the evangelistic efforts of the church to prosper when the drift of our culture pulls in another direction?
Paul’s message to the Corinthians answers our doubts. Are we weak? Yes. But the Lord is strong and powerful to save. In his infinite wisdom, he chooses to display his power on the stage of our weakness. What a glorious opportunity we have to participate in that endeavor through our giving and our prayers.
The author is the general secretary for the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension. New Horizons, November 2015.