Gordon E. Johnson

DEVOTIONALS from Second Corinthians


A Further Assessment of Paul's "Messenger of Satan"

2 Corinthians 12:7-10

Gordon E. Johnson
Rio Grande Bible Institute

An Analysis of God's Deeper Dealings

In some ways a pause is justified in Paul's narrative against his adversaries who were attacking his person and apostleship.  Paul is sharing the occasion of his request for the removal of the "messenger of Satan" This was the most crucial experience in his life and ministry.  We catch a glimpse of the inner working of what the reality of the Christian ministry may be. Now the defense of his person and apostleship for a brief time fades into the background; he draws aside the curtain and exposes for us God's deeper application of the Message of the Cross in his life. Paul states clearly in a very balanced way why God purposefully sent the "stake in the flesh" in order to unveil to Paul a possible subtle tendency to a secret pride of grace.

Paul returns us to the experience of why God allow what he allowed, how he answered his thrice offered prayer with: "Sufficient is my grace."  Seldom are we privileged to see God's described refining purpose revealed with such precision. No doubt it is for our learning and admonition.

In the context Paul is truly humble in desisting from further detail about the abundance of revelations that God in grace had given to him. We are hearing the fruit of Paul's humility, the benefit of this very difficult experience.

Paul's Outstanding Christ-like Humility

Among all the apostles Paul is the most frequent spokesman for the grace of humility. Possibly because of his Pharisaical background (Galatians 2:14-21; Philippians 3:4-12), God had taken stern measures to break pride's hold on his inner being. Paul now becomes the spokesman for the revelation of the depths of the Message of the Cross.

We do see Paul's transparent humility. "Of such a one I will boast; yet of myself I will not boast, except in my infirmities. For though I might desire to boast, I will not be a fool; for I will speak the truth. But I forbear, lest anyone should think of me above what he see me to be or hears from me" (12:5, 6).

Now comes Paul's inspired analysis of God's inscrutable grace. "And lest (to prevent) I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn (stake, splinter) in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan, to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure (v.7). A closer analysis reveals: 1.) the conjunction "lest," a foreseeable possibility but not a necessary result; 2.) again God's concern was the "above measure" of pride. This specific measure of pride is mentioned twice in the same verse; 3.) God was taking preventive steps so as to avoid his crossing the fine line of humility and gratitude for grace given to the subtly of pride's assuming merit and personal effort. God was seeing in Paul what he could not see in himself.

Pride and humility are incompatibles. True humility recognizes with sincere gratitude what grace has given. Humility speaks with clarity of God's initiative in gifting and in accomplishment. The believer will recognize the sheer grace of God as to both cause and effect. Pride, on the contrary, takes to itself credit for what belongs to God and what he may have given in grace.

Several times Paul has stated to the Corinthians what could be taken as pride, but it was rather deep  gratitude and humility: "But by the grace f God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me" (1 Corinthians 15:10). Twice Paul compares himself realistically with the most eminent apostles: "For I consider that I am not at all inferior to the most eminent apostles" (2 Corinthian 11:5). "I have become a fool in boasting . .  . for in nothing was I behind the most eminent apostles, though I am nothing" (12:11). Humility is gratitude for what God has done in grace. Gratitude must be expressed to be gratitude.

Sometimes there is the notion that humility is self deprecation with never a mention of God gifting and grace. Uriah Heep in Charles Dicken's novel David Copperfield went around professing his feigned humility, seeking to achieve what he wanted deceptively. Uriah's humility was bogus humility, a most despicable characteristic. True humility is a high estimate of God's grace and a very low estimate of our merit.

The Sin of Pride     Its Origin and Blatant Opposition to God

Pride was the original sin that erupted from the angelic creation in defiance of the Triune God. "You were the anointed cherub  who covers; I established you  . . . by the abundance of your trading . . . you sinned; Therefore I cast you as a profane thing out of the mountain of God; and I destroyed you, O covering cherub . . .Your heart was lifted up because of your beauty; you corrupted your wisdom for the sake of your splendor" (Ezekiel 28:14-17).

Pride can, then, be assessed as taking God's grace and beauty and prostituting it for man's glory. Paul describes pride as the root evil that issues in a wide variety of sins. Under six headings Paul exposes human depravity: "Because although they knew God, 1.) they did not glorify Him as God;  2.) nor were thankful;  3.) but became futile in their thoughts; 4.) and their foolish hearts were darkened; 5). Professing to be wise, they became fools; 6). changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man and – and birds, and four footed beasts and creeping things" (Romans 1:21-23).  

In refusal to glorify God as God, they glorified themselves; blatant pride is followed by ingratitude. On the other hand, humility is followed by gratitude for God grace, a personal attribution of recognition of God's unmerited favor.

The sad history of mankind bears out the original sin transposed to everyone.  The believer is not exempt for the thrust of pride in its multiple forms. God was aware of Job's self righteousness hidden from his own eyes; hence God in love took the painful of exposure of Job's so called integrity. Saul of Tarsus, an optimum Pharisee, needed to be guarded from its deception, even in areas of grace's gift of visions. 

What is God's Remedy for Pride Endemic in All

God's remedy for human pride was drastic, nothing less than the death of his own son in our place. With a holy God no temporizing remedies would be attempted. Paul states the work of the Cross in an unequivocal manner: "For what the law (that is - our best intentioned efforts) could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh" (Romans 8:3).  God judged your pride and mine as incorrigible. He could never ever tolerate it. But in our helpless estate he paid the price, the highest price of his own suffering. What, then, devolves on us  -  brokenness before him in repentance that is genuine and evidenced by a turning from selfishness and pride in all its forms.

Frequently God's deeper dealing revolve around critical areas of our selfishness, our secret sins. In times of failure and defeat he comes in convicting power. This is our Calvary. On other occasions God may choose to deal in different terms but always calling on our Amen to his judgment of the flesh at the Cross two thousand years ago. So often it is through a death to self that we enter into the fullness of life in Christ. But in every instance it is work of faith in God's Word.

God enjoins on us the following response: "Knowing this (a gerund, an ongoing practical and personal knowing) that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with (its power over us annulled, cancelled), that we should no longer be slaves to sin"

(Romans 6:6). Paul has just asked the pertinent question: "Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? (6:1,2).

The crux of our response is an act of faith, a heart embrace of our death to sin in our representative as truly as God affirms that divine fact. That act of faith becomes a moment by moment attitude of faith and obedience (v.6.). Then Paul sets forth the "how" of victory: 1.) count yourself dead to sin and alive unto God (v.11); 2.) Let not sin reign (v.12); 3.) rather be presenting your members as instruments of righteousness to God; (v.13a) and finally a presenting of your renewed will, yourselves to God (v.13b). The result that follows is: For sin shall not have dominion over you; for you are under law – (that is, your best intentional efforts) but under grace (v.14).

Humility the Crown Jewel of Holiness

There can be no greater example and producer of humility in the believer than Jesus himself.

In his authentic invitation to all, he captures the essence of holiness "Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Mathew 11:28-30).Im,that the body of sin might be done a waya wiwth ( Annulled cancelled

Jesus defines salvation as a rest graciously given to the few that receive it in faith. Then in the faith process the believer takes his yoke and becomes a true learner. The major area of learning is not in knowledge, skills and activity but in Christ's humility, his very life lived out in the believer who comes, takes and learns. Notice the predominance of faith and obedience with no mention of duties, efforts and religious activities.

Very little has been written on Humility. I can understand the reluctance of many to write. But if pride is the root sin, humility is the first fruit of holiness or sanctification.  I conclude this extra study with some quotes from Andrew Murray's book: Humility, the Beauty of Holiness. I recommend it most highly. 

Andrew Murray (1828-1917) of Scotch descent was a lifelong pastor and writer in the South African Dutch Reformed Church. He was co founder of the Africa Evangelical Fellowship

(current mission name). His writings were centered on Christ Crucified, the Cross and a devotional life of holiness. He had a deep interest in revival which led to his knowing Mrs. Jesse Penn-Lewis whose biblical teaching Romans 6 was used greatly by God  in the Welsh Revival of 1905. Andrew Murray's writings greatly impacted my life and ministry

From 1955-2000, I taught the Missionary Spiritual Life course at RGBI to hundreds of missionaries to Latin America. I highly recommended his writings. I quote a few pertinent sentences of his book on Humility[1]

"Humility is not a thing that will come of itself, but that it must be made the object of special desire and prayer and faith and practice." p. 16

"Pride has its root and strength in a terrible spiritual power, outside of us as well as within us; as needful as it is that we confess and deplore it as our very own, is to know it in its Satanic origin." p. 21

"Even as we need to look to the first Adam and his fall to know the power of the sin within us, we need to know well the Second Adam and His power to give within us a life of humility as real and abiding and overmastering as has been that of pride!" p. 22

"Our need is to study and know and trust the life that has been revealed in Christ, as the life that is now ours, and waits for our consent to gain possession and mastery of our whole being," p.22

"Just as water ever seeks and fills the lowest place, so the moment God finds the creature abased and empty, His glory and power flow in to exalt and to bless." p. 41

"How impotent all external teaching and all personal effort are to conquer pride or give the meek and lowly heart." p. 45

"It is only by the indwelling Christ in His divine humility that we become truly humble." p.47.

Yours in the Message of the Cross,

Gordon E. Johnson

[1] Andrew Murray, Humility the Beauty of Holiness (Fort Washington: Christian Literature Crusade), 1980.