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The Gospel of Our Weakness

Guest essay by Dan Lewis, Senior Pastor of Troy Christian Chapel, Troy, Michigan.

For Sunday July 9, 2006

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)
           2 Samuel 5:1–5, 9–10 or Ezekiel 2:1–5
           Psalm 48 or Psalm 123
           2 Corinthians 12:2–10
           Mark 6:1–13

Temple of Apollo at Corinth.
Temple of Apollo at Corinth.

           The meaning of virtue was one of the prominent ethical discussions in the writings of ancient intellectuals. So-called "virtue lists" abound in classical literature; they typically commend such traits as piety, reverence, excellence, practical knowledge and patience. One quality of character, however, that one never finds in the Greco-Roman "virtue lists" is the trait of weakness.

           You probably have noticed how often this quality was mentioned by Paul in his Corinthian letters. We are weak...  Who is weak and I do not feel weak? If I boast, I will boast about the things that show my weakness. Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest upon me. Not only does Paul champion weakness in himself, he extols the weakness of Christ. For to be sure, he was crucified in weakness... And then he says about us all, Likewise, we are weak in him... The point is this: true holiness is not a matter of personal power—it is a matter of God’s power in the midst of personal weakness.

           The city of Corinth, like many ancient cities, was inundated with the images of power. The impressive temple of Apollo under the brow of the acropolis greeted all visitors to the city. The biennial Isthmian Games featured contests of athleticism and feats of power. Corinth, the “master” of two harbors, was an economic trade center and power-broker for much of the Mediterranean world. Hence, it is not surprising that the cult of power was alive and well among Corinth’s citizenry and even among the Christians who responded to Paul’s preaching. Sometimes the exaltation of power infiltrated even their understanding of the graces and gifts of the Holy Spirit.

           It is almost certain that Paul’s detractors in Corinth boasted of superior ecstatic experiences, since Paul chose such an experience for his own climactic “boast.” His words, “I will go on to visions and revelations,” indicate as much, and we know from 1 Corinthians that the Corinthian church valued highly the more sensational kinds of spiritual experiences. The ecstatic experience that Paul chose to recount in 2 Corinthians 12 occurred some fourteen years prior, and it happened to someone Paul does not name but says he knew. It becomes clear that the person of whom Paul speaks is Paul himself, since, still in the same context, he shifts from “the man” to “me.”

Map of first century Corinth.
Map of first century Corinth.

           There is no way to directly identify this experience with any known occasion recorded in the book of Acts or in Paul’s correspondence. Some have suggested his vision on the Damascus Road as a possibility, others his trance in the Jerusalem temple, and still others his near death in Lystra. None of these have any undeniable claims.

           In this experience, Paul was caught up to the “third heaven,” to “Paradise.” Both of these terms are known from the Jewish and Christian Pseudepigrapha. Heaven, the abode of God, was depicted as multi-layered, usually in a sevenfold way. By entering the third heaven one could stand near the Lord. Paradise was a Persian loanword meaning “garden,” and in Jewish apocalyptic literature it represented the home of the departed righteous.

           The irony of this ecstatic experience is sharply upheld in that in it Paul heard things that were not possible to describe nor permissible to repeat. It is a further irony for Paul to say, “I will boast about a man like that, but not about myself,” since that man was, in fact, Paul. Instead, Paul contents himself to boast of his weaknesses. If he wished to follow the lead of his opponents in boasting of transcendent experiences, he could do so truthfully. However, he declines.

           Paul saw an inner connection between the ecstatic experience he had just recounted and another personal situation, this time a debilitating one. Paul suffered from some deep personal affliction, so deep that he compares it to a skolops (= thorn, splinter). While Paul obviously uses a metaphor, the reference is ambiguous. Tertullian thought it a physical affliction, Augustine and Luther a temptation. Arguments have been put forth in favor of migraines, epilepsy, convulsions, ophthamalia, malaria, a speech impediment, rheumatism, fever, and even leprosy.

           Whatever the case, Paul certainly understands his experience in a Job-like context. Just as Job’s affliction was dealt by Satan but permitted by God, so Paul understands his own affliction to be a blow from his archenemy, yet at the same time, allowed by God in order to prevent any conceit on his part. If ecstatic experiences might tend toward conceit, the direct refusal by God to answer Paul’s prayer for healing drove him toward humility. Three times he prayed for deliverance, but God declined, only letting Paul know that saving grace was enough and that divine power is brought to perfection in human weakness.

           In this divine “no,” Paul understood more clearly the nature of God’s power. If his opponents boasted of spectacular things, Paul was obliged to boast of his weaknesses, not because weakness itself was glorious, but because it was the arena in which Christ’s power was most clearly displayed. “Therefore,” Paul says, “I delight in sickness, insult, pressing needs, persecution, and distress.” His final summation is without question one of the most quotable quotes in the Bible: “When I am weak (in myself), then I am strong (in the Lord)!” What a foil for his opponents’ misguided philosophy, “When I am strong (in personal power), then I am strong (in spiritual things).”


           Holiness often is confused with personal power. A holy person is construed as one who is disciplined. He or she is a person with a rigorous code of conduct. Holiness is believed to be the expression of religious fervor, the measurement of oneself and others by a demanding litany of religious criteria. The problem with this way of seeing holiness is that it misses the very heart of what holiness is all about in the first place.

           Perhaps that is why Paul says so much about weakness when writing to the Corinthians. As Greeks, the Corinthians took great pride in their intellectual and cultural history. They were especially enamored with the classical virtues of wisdom and power.  In their approach to the Christian life, they championed all the ancient Greek virtues that were part of their heritage.

           Paul, to the contrary, knew that the message of the cross put all virtues in a very different light. The cross was shameful. To the Jew it was the symbol of God’s curse. To the Greek, it was the ignominy of public disgrace. To the Roman, it was the death of traitors and rebels. Nothing in the whole structure of ancient culture, either Jewish, Greek or Roman, prepared anyone for the preaching of the cross. It was a stumbling block to Jews and absurd to the Greeks. But to those whom God had called, it was Christ—the wisdom of God and the power of God. In a contemporary culture that stresses personal autonomy and social advancement—even in a Christian sub-culture that at times succumbs to the siren song of political clout—we should more directly conform our mindset to the gospel of our weakness.

For further reflection:

* Identify some of the ways that culture in general and Christians in particular worship power.
* Consider the ways we see the virtue of weakness in Jesus.
* What have been your personal experiences of human weakness, and how did you respond?
* Read and meditate upon 2 Corinthians 12:2–10, and especially Paul's words, "When I am weak, then I am strong."

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