Jesus' Parables for Disciples
'St. Paul' (c. 799), mosaic fragment, 59.7 x 39.7 x 9 cm, Vatican Museum. Originally decorated the state banquet hall of the papal Lateran Palace. Restored by Giovanni Battista Calandra in 1625.
Many of you who read these words are suffering. It might be finances. Perhaps food or rent. Your marriage may be in trouble. Your health may be an increasing struggle. It may seem like people go out of their way to cause trouble for you
Grace is not only God's favor in terms of eternal salvation. Grace includes acts of favor that are very tangible to meet practical needs in our lives. In this somewhat shorter lesson we'll study a couple of passages that talk about the practical help that God's grace offers us.
7.1 The Throne of Grace (Hebrews 4:16)
First, I want to explore a passage in Hebrews that is quite familiar. In verses 14-15, the author of Hebrews establishes that Jesus is a high priest who:
- Is "great,"
- Has "passed through the heavens,"
- Understands temptation because he has experienced it himself, and
- Is sympathetic to our situation.
Now he exhorts us.
"Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find203 grace to help us in our time of need." (Hebrews 4:16)
Instead of shying away out of fear, a sense of unworthiness, or perhaps uncertainty, we are to come to the High Priest boldly, confidently, readily. Let's examine this remarkable exhortation a bit further.
We are told to "approach"204 the throne.205 The image is of the throne room of a Near Eastern absolute monarch where people come to petition the king about one matter or another. To ask for justice. To ask for mercy.
No one can approach the king unless he is invited to -- upon pain of death. Recall the risk that Queen Esther took in coming before her husband, King Xerxes, without being first summoned (Esther 4:11-16). The exhortation of the writer of Hebrews is radical when you think about it. We who are sinful -- by nature as well as by deed -- are invited to approach the throne of our High Priest in heaven who is also King of all kings and the Lord of all lords.
How should we approach? With trepidation? With fear? No. With "boldness" (NRSV, cf. KJV), "confidence" (ESV, NIV), parrēsia, "'a state of boldness and confidence, courage, confidence, boldness, fearlessness,' especially in the presence of persons of high rank."206 How amazing!
Why boldness? Because our Father's throne is not a throne of judgment for you and me, but a throne where his favor is dispensed freely. "Grace" is charis, "a beneficent disposition toward someone, favor, grace, gracious care/help, goodwill"207 A throne where help can be found, not grudgingly, but with gracious goodwill from our King.
What can we expect when we come? The writer describes the blessings of this throne in a four-fold expression:
- Mercy (eleos), "kindness or concern expressed for someone in need, mercy, compassion, pity, clemency."208
- Grace (charis). Notice that the word is now used as a benefit, a blessing, not just God being predisposed to show favor to us is in previous lessons. Here, and in some other passages, grace is used in a more concrete form, as a "practical application of goodwill, (a sign of) favor, gracious deed/gift, benefaction."209
- Help (boētheia), "assistance offered to meet a need, help."210
- Timely help (eukairos), "pertaining to time that is considered a favorable occasion for some event or circumstance, well-timed, suitable."211
When you're in trouble, don't hesitate. When you come to Jesus' throne in prayer, you'll find a sympathetic ear. You'll find divine pardon for your sins, and timely aid whatever your trouble may be. Why wait? The High Priest who is King is calling you to approach his generous throne so he can give you his best. When we call upon him, he will offer practical help.
From this passage we learn that grace is favor, but it doesn't stop there. This favor is expressed in clear, specific ways.
I think of countless Christian houses of grace across the world -- hospitals, orphanages, shelters for the homeless, shelters for abused women. Then ministries of grace that go into hospitals and prisons with the light and encouragement of Christ. The classes for children taught in neighborhoods. The actual schools and universities that have sprung from this Christian motivation to dispense practical help for those in need. Caring for others is Christ's work.
How about your house? Your apartment? May God grant that it be a house of grace in your own neighborhood. Where neighbors know they can come for help without having to first endure a scolding and a whiny story of how much this will cost you. Generosity, open-handedness, grace, mercy. Through the Spirit of Jesus, these can flow from the chair at your kitchen table to those coming for help. You go before his throne to receive help, and then dispense it to others. It's a tag-team, a partnership with Jesus your Savior.
Q28. (Hebrews 4:16) Why is approaching God's holy throne
in prayer intimidating to some people? Why do we sometimes fear judgment and
condemnation when we approach God. In what ways is God's throne the place where
he dispenses "mercy and grace"? In what ways is your home a place where grace
is given out?
Grace-work starts with God caring for us and getting us healthy (or healthy enough), and then extends through us, motivated by his love, with a heart to dispense those acts of grace to others. It is the outworking of God's workmanship we read about in Lesson 5.4.
"We are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." (Ephesians 2:10)
The good works are practical applications of God's grace -- through Christ to us, and then through us to the world.
In the New Testament you'll find a number of passages that talk about grace in terms of concrete help to others.
"But he gives us more grace. That is why
'God opposes the proud
but gives grace to the humble.'"
(James 4:6, quoting Proverbs 3:34)
"When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts." (Acts 11:23)
"Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to do miraculous signs and wonders." (Acts 14:3)
"When I arrive, I will give letters of introduction to the men you approve and send them with your gift (charis) to Jerusalem." (1 Corinthians 16:3)
"They urgently pleaded with us for the privilege (charis) of sharing in this service to the saints." (2 Corinthians 8:4)
7.2 My Grace Is Sufficient (2 Corinthians 12:1-10)
Another powerful understanding of God's grace is experienced by Paul in the midst of a continuing physical affliction that keeps striking him.
Let me begin with some context. In 2 Corinthians, Paul is reacting to the cruel and unfair criticisms of some members of the Corinthian congregation, who are comparing him negatively to some "super-apostles" that have impressed them. Paul writes from Ephesus, trying to heal a breach in his relationship with this fledgling church he had planted a few years prior.
To give his detractors some perspective, Paul has boasted about what Christ has done through him -- how he has been a Hebrew, Pharisee, righteous under the Law, etc.
Paul is obviously embarrassed about boasting, though he realizes that in order to reestablish his apostolic authority with the Corinthians, he must lay out all of his credentials.
"1 I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions212 and revelations213 from the Lord. 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know -- God knows. 3 And I know that this man -- whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows -- 4 was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell." (2 Corinthians 12:1-4)
It is interesting that Paul begins as if the person he is talking about were someone else. But verses 5-7 it becomes clear that he is talking about himself.
Paul's Thorn in the Flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7)
If Paul were to talk about such amazing visions, they could easily go to his head and unduly exalt him in the eyes of others, despite the fact that they had happened some 14 years previously, probably while he was in Tarsus.214 But Paul tells the story in order to explain what God taught him through this experience.
"To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me." (2 Corinthians 12:7)
Paul was in danger of pride from these astounding215 revelations. "Conceited" (NIV, ESV), "too elated" (NRSV), "exalted above measure" (KJV) is hyperairō, "to have an undue sense of one's self-importance, rise up, exalt oneself, be elated."216 To prevent pride, Paul "was given" a "thorn in the flesh." So far, we all agree. But what that thorn was and why it was given has caused a great deal of theological controversy.217
Nevertheless, let's try to work carefully through an interpretation that is true to this text and to the larger teaching of Scripture.
A definition of "thorn" doesn't help us. It is just an pointed object218 -- a symbol of something that is painful and annoying. But what else can we learn from this verse?
"Was given" is the passive of didōmi, "to give." Often, when we see the passive voice, it is implied that God is the force behind the event. Certainly, God allowed this thorn in the flesh, just as he allows sin and sickness to exist in our fallen world. But did he actively send it in order to keep Paul humble? That's one of the questions that stirs the controversy about this verse. Some are trying to absolve God from agency for what we deem to be evil.219 See also Romans 8:28 and Genesis 50:20.
The thorn is called "a messenger" of Satan. "Messenger" is angelos, "spirit-being, angel." Often, this word refers to one of God's angels, but here the word refers to an "evil spirit."220
Satan is closely identified with this messenger. This isn't just any messenger, but Satan's messenger or agent.221
The purpose of the thorn was to "torment" (NIV, NRSV), "harass" (ESV), "buffet" (KJV). The verb is kolaphizō, literally, "to strike sharply, especially with the hand, strike with the fist, beat, cuff," here figuratively, "to cause physical impairment, torment."222
"Weakness" in verse 9 is astheneia, "sickness, disease," then more generally, "incapacity for something or experience of limitation, weakness."223 The word could mean "sickness, disease," or the more general "weakness," depending upon the context. When Paul was in Galatia, we know he had some kind of physical weakness -- perhaps an eye ailment, though we can't be sure (Galatians 4:13-15).
Paul's body is affected by this thorn or weakness, since both here and in Galatians the weakness is closely related to sarx, which refers here to "the material that covers the bones of a human or animal body, flesh."224 From this analysis, I can't escape the conclusion that Paul's "thorn in the flesh" was some kind of physical ailment or disease that afflicted his body.225
Q29. (2 Corinthians 12:7) Why do we often feel so weak
in times of sickness or affliction? Why are we tempted to stop ministering to
others when we are struggling?
No matter what kind of sickness Paul had, he certainly didn't want it. Moreover, he came to God again and again in earnest prayer for healing.
"Three times I pleaded226 with the Lord to take it away from me." (2 Corinthians 12:8)
This was earnest, believing prayer. Paul is crying out to God, but receives no answer. However, during Paul's third session of prayer about this, God does answer.
"Grace," of course, is charis, here "exceptional effect produced by generosity, favor." In some places, Danker notes, "Charis is evidently to be understood in a very concrete sense. It is hardly to be differentiated from dynamis ['power'] or from gnōsis ('knowledge'] or doxa ['glory']."229
"My power," literally, "the power" is the noun dynamis (from which we get our words "dynamo" and "dynamic") meaning, "potential for functioning in some way, power, might, strength, force, capability."230 With God, power can be a synonym for any of his deeds of power and his unlimited resources, such as the signs of an apostle -- signs, wonders and miracles (2 Corinthians 12:12).
"In weakness," astheneia, the word we discussed above could refer to sickness or any other kind of weakness -- physical, psychological, financial, you name it.
"Is made perfect," is the passive of the verb teleō, which has the basic meaning of "bring to an end, finish, complete." Here it carries the connotation, "find consummation, reach perfection."231 When you are playing tennis, there is a sweet spot on the racket that will send back the perfect shot. When playing sports, you can get in "the zone" or in "a groove" where you seem to play at your best -- or even beyond your best. Our weakness and dependence on God helps form in us God's "sweet spot," in which he
"... Is able to do exceeding abundantly232 above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us." (Ephesians 3:20, KJV)
Pride, willfulness, lack of love, etc. keep this sweet spot from forming, but sometimes hardship and struggle bring the humility in which God's grace can thrive.
Remember the nuance of grace (charis) that we find in this 2 Corinthians passage: "exceptional effect produced by generosity, favor," in some places, "to be understood in a very concrete sense." Let's pause for a moment and consider some of the Scriptures that speak of God's mighty power in us.
"He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint." (Isaiah 40:29-31)
"I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.... I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength." (Philippians 4:11b-13)
"I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know ... his incomparably great power for233 us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead...." (Ephesians 1:18-20)
"I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being." (Ephesians 3:16)
"Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power." (Ephesians 6:10)
"... Being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience...." (Colossians 1:11)
"So that we may present everyone perfect in Christ ... I labor, struggling with all his energy (energeia) which so powerfully works in me." (Colossians 1:28-29)
Now back to our passage where Paul is struggling with his thorn in the flesh. To Paul's third request for relief, God answers neither "Yes" or "No," but with an alternative that is even better.
"He said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.'" (2 Corinthians 12:9a)234
This is not the answer Paul is seeking. But when God's answer comes, it seems that Paul cherishes it the rest of his life, for he says,
"9b Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults,235 in hardships,236 in persecutions,237 in difficulties.238 For when I am weak, then I am strong." (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)
Have you ever had a revelation from God that seemed to open your eyes all at once so you suddenly had understanding where before it didn't make any sense? For Paul, this was one of those times.
Instead of resenting God's answer, he exults in it. "I will boast all the more gladly239 about my weaknesses," he says. In the next verse he "delights" in all the things we would normally complain about. The verb eudokeō means, "to take pleasure or find satisfaction in something, be well pleased, take delight, like, approve."240
Now, when he encounters weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and difficulties, he gets excited because he knows that, "when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Corinthians 12:10b). These are no longer problems to Paul, but opportunities in which to see God's power in action.
If Paul's word sounds a bit strange to us, it is! We don't see many people who have such a faith and enthusiasm for God that Paul had. May God transform you into this kind of person who delights in weakness (and its attendant power) so you can be an encouragement and inspiration to your church.
Have you felt powerless? In a place where God's grace seemed rare? Turn to him again and embrace the situation you find yourself in. For in your utter dependence upon the Lord you will find his power. His grace will begin to flow through you with ever increasing velocity as you live a life of joyful dependence on the Lord.
Years ago, Annie Johnson Flint, crippled young by arthritis so she could no longer walk, learned this truth about grace in weakness and blessed many through her life, her letters and her poems.241 In one of her poems, she reflected on the passage we've been studying. It became a popular hymn entitled, "He Giveth More Grace." Here is verse 2 and the chorus).
"When we have exhausted our store of
When our strength has failed ere the day is half done,
When we reach the end of our hoarded resources,
Our Father's full giving is only begun.
His love has no limits, His grace has no measure,
His power has no boundary known unto men:
For out of His infinite riches in Jesus,
He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again!242
God's grace through us is so often limited by our own power struggles. But when we come to a place of trust, his grace can flow.
Ezekiel had a vision of the river of God flowing from under the threshold of the temple. At first it was ankle-deep, then knee-deep, then up to his waist. Finally, it was a river that could not be crossed except by swimming. The trees on each side of the river would bear fruit each month because of this flow.
Q30. (2 Corinthians
12:9) Why does God's power flourish best when we feel weak? If God's grace is
"sufficient," what is it sufficient to do or accomplish in or through us? What
are the practical limits of the sufficiency of grace?
In the passages we've studied in this lesson, grace is more than goodwill towards us. More than potential assistance. It is actual help when we are hurting, strength when we are weak. Encouragement when we are struggling.
I can't help but believe that it is exactly this kind of practical grace that God wants to shine through his children. A grace that helps. A grace that lifts a burden. A Good-Samaritan kind of grace. And a grace that is so ingrained in the character of a disciple, that becomes so natural an expression, that he or she is surprised when it is pointed out.
My mind goes to Jesus' Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46). In this parable, the king invites those on his right hand to receive their inheritance in the kingdom and speaks of how they ministered to his needs. They look to each other in confusion and then reply:
"37 Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'
40 The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'" (Matthew 25:37-40)
This is the kind of practical help for the needy that Jesus' love inspires in his disciples. Grace that flows naturally through them to others. Lord, let that grace flow through me to your hurting world!
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- In the New Testament, charis ("grace") describes God's favor. It can also refer to specific acts of God's favor.
- We are told to come before God confidently expecting to receive mercy and grace when we are in need (Hebrews 4;16).
- Our houses can become "houses of grace" where our neighbors can come for help in time of need, as we become like our Father.
- God has created us specifically to do good works (Ephesians 2:10).
- When Paul pleaded with God to remove a "thorn in the flesh," probably some physical ailment, God instead told him that God's grace was sufficient, that God's power is especially abundant in times of weakness, when we are most dependent upon him.
- Sometimes charis ("grace") is used nearly synonymously with God's power and glory.
- In the times we feel most weak and powerless, we may be on the threshold of experiencing God's grace and power in greater measure than ever before.
- Practical help for those in need is the practical expression of outflowing grace that Jesus wants to inculcate in his disciples.
Father, let me find grace at your throne. And may this grace in me not be stopped up by my flailing and fears, but flow through me with your power and love to bless many. Let me be a grace-giver like my Lord. In Jesus' holy name, I pray. Amen.
"Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need." (Hebrews 4:16, NIV)
"We are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." (Ephesians 2:10)
"7 To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong." (2 Corinthians 12:7--10, NIV)
 1 Corinthians 13:12.
 "Find" is euriskō, "find," here "to attain a state or condition, find (for oneself), obtain" (BDAG 411-412, 3).
 "Approach" proserchomai, "to move towards, approach" here "of approach to or entry into a deity's presence, approach" (BDAG 878, 1b).
 "Throne" is thronos, "chair, seat" generally. Then specifically a chair set aside for one of high status, "throne." Here and at Hebrews 1:8; 8:1; 12:2; often in Revelation (BDAG 460, 1bβ).
 Parrēsia, BDAG 781-782, 3b.
 Charis, BDAG 1079, 2a.
 Eleos, BDAG 316.
 Charis, BDAG 1079, 3b.
 Boētheia is from boētheō, "to render assistance to someone in need, furnish aid" (BDAG 180).
 Eukairos, BDAG 407.
 "Visions" is optasia, "an event of a transcendent character that impresses itself vividly on the mind, a vision, celestial sight" (BDAG 712). A vision is where a deity permits a human being to see, either of the deity personally or of something else usually hidden from mortals.
 "Revelations" is apokalypsis, literally, "uncovering," here, "making fully known, revelation, disclosure" (BDAG 112, 1b).
 The Corinthian letters were written about 55 to 56 AD. Subtract 14 years from 56 AD and you get 42 AD. Barnabas went to Tarsus to get Paul to help him in Antioch about 45 AD.
 "Surpassingly great" (NIV), "exceptional character" (NRSV), "abundance" (KJV) is the adjective hyperbolē (from which we get our word "hyperbole"), "state of exceeding to an extraordinary degree a point on a scale of extent, excess, extraordinary quality / character" (BDAG 1032).
 Hyperairō, BDAG 1031.
 Part of the controversy centers around the ministry of healing by prayer. To oversimplify the issues a bit, some who teach miraculous healing are unwilling to acknowledge that St. Paul could have been sick at all. Others, who don't believe in healing by prayer, look to this verse to prove that God can use their sickness for some positive purpose. The healing faction, on the other hand, sees sickness as an evil from Satan. Those are the landmines in the road.
 "Thorn" is skolops, "originally, "anything pointed," such as a "(pointed) stake," then "something that causes serious annoyance, thorn, splinter, etc.," specifically of an injurious foreign body (BDAG 930).
 Imagine the controversy over God sending a lying spirit to Saul (1 Kings 22:23-23; 2 Chronicles 18:21-22). It disturbs our theology.
 Angelos, BDAG 9, 2c.
 Probably the genitive of possession. H.E. Dana and Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament (Macmillan, 1927, 1955), §§85-86, §90(2).
 Kolaphizō, BDAG 555, 2.
 Astheneia, BDAG 142, 2a.
 Sarx, BDAG 914, 1.
 This isn't the place to argue for or against the proposition that Satan brings sickness, not God. You can see my comments about this at https://www.jesuswalk.com/2corinthians/12_thorn.htm
 "Pleaded" (NIV, ESV), "appealed to" (NRSV), "besought" (KJV) is parakaleō, here, "to make a strong request for something, request, implore, entreat" (BDAG 765, 3).
 "Sufficient" is arkeō, It is an old Greek word, rich in meaning, says Archibald Thomas Robertson (Word Pictures in the New Testament (Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1932, 1960)). The basic idea is "to be possessed of unfailing strength." Then "to be strong, to suffice, to be enough" (as against any danger, hence, "to defend, ward off," used in Homer) (Thayer 73). "Be enough, sufficient, adequate" (BDAG 133). "To be strong enough, suffice" (Liddell-Scott).
 "For" (gar) introduces the cause or reason for this statement (BDAG 189, 1a).
 Charis, BDAG 1079, 4.
 Dynamis, BDAG 262, 1a.
 Teleō, BDAG 997, 1.
 The phrase "exceeding abundantly" (KJV), "far more abundantly" (ESV, cf. NRSV), "immeasurably more" (NIV) consists of two words: (1) the adverb hyperekterissou, "quite beyond all measure," the highest form of comparison imaginable (BDAG 1033), also used in 1 Thessalonians 3:10 and 5:13; and (2) hyper, "over and above, beyond, more than ... a marker of a degree beyond that of a compared scale of extent, in the sense of excelling, surpassing" (BDAG 1031, B).
 Eis, "extension involving a goal or place, into, in, toward, to" (BDAG 288, 1). KJV translates it here as "to us-ward," clumsy but evocative. "In us" (RSV), "toward us" (NASB), "for us" (NIV, NRSV).
 "Sufficient" is the active present of the verb arkeō, "to be enough, sufficient, adequate" (BDAG 131, 1). "Made perfect" is the present passive of the verb teleō, "bring to an end, finish, complete," here, "finds its consummation" or "reaches perfection" (BDAG 997, 1).
 "Insults" (NIV, NRSV), "reproaches" (KJV) is hybris (from which we get our word "hubris," exaggerated pride or self-confidence), "insolence, arrogance," then "the experience of insolence, shame, insult, mistreatment" (BDAG 1022, 2).
 "Hardships" (NIV, NRSV), "necessities" (KJV) is anankē, "a state of distress or trouble, distress, calamity, pressure," or even, "compulsion by forcible means, torture" (BDAG 61, 2 and 3).
 "Persecutions" is diōgmos, "a program or process designed to harass and oppress someone, persecution" (BDAG 253).
 "Difficulties" (NIV), "calamities" (NRSV), "distresses" (KJV) is stenochōria, literally, "narrowness," but here figuratively, "a set of stressful circumstances, distress, difficulty, anguish, trouble" (BDAG 943).
 "Most gladly" (KJV) is hēdeōs, "pertaining to being pleased in connection with something, gladly" (BDAG 434).
 Eudokeō, BDAG 404, 2b.
 "He Giveth More Grace," by Annie Johnson Flint (1866-1932), © Lillenas Publishing Company. Music by Ray Steadman-Allen.
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