Category Archives: Meditations

Paul’s Thorn and Prayer

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.’  Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.  For when I am weak, then I am strong.” — 2 Corinthians 12:7-10

This piece of Scripture often gets discussed because of the “thorn” Paul mentions.  Bible readers are interested in understanding what exactly this “thorn” was.  There are all sorts of theories, but they’re all speculative.  The truth is we have no idea what exactly it was that God sent to Paul to keep him humble.

More important than the exact identity of the “thorn” is the fact that God sends it.  He sent something to Paul which he perceived as difficult, as an adversity.  God had a purpose behind it, but Paul experienced it as something that he would rather do without.  Believers have no difficulty believing that God sends the things we experience as delightful and good.  The challenge is believing that God also sends hardship.  Yet Scripture teaches that, not just once, but repeatedly:  Isaiah 45:7, Lam. 3:28, Psalm 60:1-4, Psalm 66:10-12, Psalm 71:20, Psalm 102:10 and many more places.

In this case, Paul struggled with why he had to deal with this adversity.  So he prayed.  Interestingly, he says that he prayed “to the Lord” about this.  From what follows in verses 9 and 10, it’s clear that this is a reference to Christ.  Paul prayed to Christ, not just once, but three times about his “thorn.”  There are those who continue to argue that believers may not pray to Jesus.  Instead, they say, we must only pray to God the Father (the first person of the Trinity).  That argument is based on a misunderstanding of the address of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father who is in heaven…”  It misunderstands “Father” there to be a reference to the first person of the Trinity.  Instead, “Father” is used there in the Old Testament manner of speaking as a reference to God.  If Christians are only supposed to pray to the first person of the Trinity, then, to be consistent, one must conclude that Paul sinned here in 2 Corinthians 12.  However, the fact that the Lord Jesus heard him and answered him would indicate that there was nothing inappropriate in Paul’s prayer.  It was acceptable for him to pray to the Lord Jesus — and so it is for believers today as well.

The answer Paul received from Jesus is also worth pondering:  “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  Surprisingly, weakness is the way God has often worked.  In the Old Testament, he takes the runt and makes him a leader.  You can think of Gideon or David.  In the New Testament, this principle is exemplified at the cross.  What could be weaker than a naked dying man on a Roman instrument of torture reserved for criminals?  Christ himself exemplified the principle of power made perfect in weakness.  Now he speaks to one united to him and says that he is experiencing the same.  Just as with the cross, there is a goal in the weakness.  There is a purpose in the thorn.  And there is enough divine grace from the Saviour to see it properly and endure it contentedly.

Does it really matter, then, what the “thorn” was?  Obviously it was something difficult.  Yet the Spirit, in his wisdom, hid it from our view.  The situation is comparable to many of the Psalms.  Many of the Psalms are laments — they feature the psalmist singing the blues.  Some of the lament Psalms are tied to concrete historical situations, but many are not.  There too, the Spirit has hid the circumstances from view, reminding us that there is a timeless quality to these words.  The words of Scripture in these cases can and should be easily “universalized.”  As we suffer adversities and hardships, these passages of Scripture can help us with the right perspective.  We too can learn contentment in the midst of difficulty, knowing that God’s strength comes in weakness.


The Mountain of Blessing and Life

For there the LORD has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.”  Psalm 133:3b

There’s a question I often ask my catechism students:  where is the temple today?  We all know that the temple and sacrifices of the Old Testament are gone.  That’s all been fulfilled in Christ.  We know that because the temple curtain tore top to bottom while our Saviour hung on the cross (Matt. 27:51).  That was God’s announcement that this Old Testament institution was finished.  But does that mean that the temple idea is altogether gone?

When I ask that question of my students, I expect a certain answer.  Most students jump to the teaching of 1 Cor. 6:19 – our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.  While definitely not a wrong answer, it is an incomplete answer.  Because it is incomplete, we can sometimes struggle in making New Testament applications of Old Testament passages like Psalm 133.

Let me briefly fill out the New Testament’s answer to the question of the present-day temple.  It begins with Christ himself.  Referring to his own body, he said in John 2:19, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”  Christ is the temple – he is God come to dwell among us.  Christ’s body, the church, is also the temple.  In 1 Cor. 3:16, the Holy Spirit says, “Do you [plural] not know that you [plural] are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you [plural]?”  The Spirit says the same thing in 1 Pet. 2:5.  The church of Christ is the temple of God, his dwelling place.  Then, yes, we do also find that individual Christians are also referred to as the temple of the Spirit in 1 Cor. 6:19.  Finally, in Revelation 21, the entire new creation becomes the temple of God as he comes down to make his dwelling place with man.

Going back to Psalm 133, the Holy Spirit was first speaking about the temple as it existed on Mount Zion.  He spoke of the unity of God’s people being like the dew of Hermon which falls on the tops of Mount Zion in Jerusalem — in other words, on the temple.  The temple is where Yahweh “commanded the blessing, life forevermore.”  The temple is where God’s people would go to make the sacrifices for sin which spoke of the promised reconciliation in the Messiah.  As a place of blood and death it pointed to substitutionary atonement, and therefore, eternal life.

But how are believers today to find encouragement from these words?  By asking ourselves, “Where is the temple today?” and then applying the New Testament’s four-fold answer.

First and foremost, God has commanded blessing and life forevermore in the temple of Christ’s body.  He was where our sacrifice for sins was made.  We have blessings because of what happened with the New Testament temple.  We have eternal life because that temple was destroyed and then raised up again in three days – as Christ prophesied in John 2:19.

God has also commanded blessing and life forevermore in Christ’s body, the church.  The church is where the means of grace point us to the gospel.  The preaching of the Scriptures and the administration of the sacraments both tell us of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.  The church is also where we’re discipled for life in Christ.  God’s blessings are heaped upon us corporately through this manifestation of the New Testament temple.

What about the individual believer as a temple of the Holy Spirit?  If we’re Christians, the Spirit has regenerated us.  That has brought us the blessing of faith.  That has connected us to Christ and life in him.  The Spirit also constantly works renewal and holiness in our lives.  You see, God has lavished us with blessing and eternal life in these fleshly temples too.

Finally, we need to reflect on the new creation temple in Revelation 21.  There, because of the gospel of Christ’s redemption, we’ll certainly experience God’s blessing and life forevermore.  It will all culminate in this eternal joy in God’s presence.  The blessings of the original Old Testament temple pointed ahead to Christ and the blessings in this temple will point back to Christ and his cross.  Blessings and life forevermore will be based on the worthy Lamb who was slain.

Embedded in the biblical idea of the temple is God’s grace in effecting reconciliation with sinners.  God never owed it to the Israelites to dwell among them, nor did anyone ever deserve to have Christ dwell on this earth to suffer and die for sinners.  However, also embedded in the idea, in both the Old Testament and New Testament, is human responsibility.  Israelite believers were called by God to approach him at the temple with sacrifices.  Today, we’re called by God to approach him through Jesus Christ.  We’re “to enter into the temple” through faith in our Redeemer.  We’re called to be “living stones” in his temple, to be living members of his body, the church.  We’re called to keep ourselves holy as temples of the Holy Spirit.  Now, as we walk in faith, we can look forward to blessings and life forevermore in the ultimate fulfilment of the temple in the age to come.


He Came to Save Sinners — A Meditation on 1 Tim. 1:15

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If you were somewhere with some unbelievers and they were to ask you for a brief summary of what you believe, what would you say?   A great answer would be what we have here in 1 Timothy 1:15, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”  If you’re looking for the briefest summary of the gospel, it’s hard to beat these words.

From the first words of verse 15, it would seem that it has served as a summary of the faith since the time of the apostles.  Paul writes that it is a trustworthy saying.  By calling it a “saying,” he indicates that this was a common expression amongst Christians.  Perhaps they used it to encourage one another and perhaps they used it to witness to unbelievers – probably both.  Whatever the case may have been, the expression was well-known to Paul and Timothy and other early Christians.  Moreover, it was a trustworthy or reliable saying and worthy of full acceptance.  You know how sometimes there can be sayings that are not so reliable.  There can even be sayings that circulate amongst Christians that we think are biblical, but really aren’t.  For instance, “God helps those who help themselves.”  It’s not in the Bible and it doesn’t express a biblical truth.  God helps the helpless – that’s the truth.  “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” is also the truth, a fully reliable saying that everyone should sign on to.

There is a lot packed into this little saying.  If you were to give this brief summary of your faith, you could certainly use it as a springboard to explain all the important elements of the gospel.  For example, the one who came into the world is “Christ Jesus.”  Who is this person?  You could explain that he is the eternal Son of God.  He is the second person of the Holy Trinity.  He is true God.  He is the Messiah – Christ means “Messiah,” and Messiah means that he is the anointed one of God – anointed to be a prophet, priest, and king.  He is the Messiah that was promised in the Old Testament.  In the fullness of time, at just the right moment, he came into the world.

How did he come into the world?  There you get to the story of Christ’s conception and birth.  He took on our human flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary through the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit.  He came into the world as one of us, a human being in every respect, yet without sin.

And who sent him into the world?  Scripture is clear that the Father sent him out of love for his creatures.  The Father sent him in faithfulness to his promises to Adam and Eve, to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David and others.  And when the Father sent him, the Son willingly agreed to go.  The Son of God didn’t have to be bribed or forced.  Instead, he gladly came into the world, even though he knew the cost involved.  He gladly came because of his love for fallen creatures like us.

This saying also answers the question of why he came into the world.  It does that with the three simple words, “to save sinners.”  Again, there’s much compacted into these words.  We can tease it out and see the full weight of what’s being said here.  “To save sinners,” but to save them from what or whom?  Sinners need to be saved from the guilt of sin, from the heavy burden of a guilty conscience.  Sinners need to be saved from the slavery of sin, from the chains that keep you doing the foolishness that will destroy you.  But most of all, sinners need to be saved from the eternal consequences of sin.  Sin arouses the wrath of God against the sinner.  God is holy and he does not turn a blind eye when people rebel against him and slap him in the face.  He is the King of the universe, and when people sin they are committing treason against this King.  The problem is that he does not tolerate it.  It justly provokes him to wrath.  Sinners need to be saved from the expression of God’s justice in an eternal, conscious torment in hell.

Who are these sinners who need to be saved from all that?  The answer is simple:  all of us.  All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  No one is exempt.  We all need Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ is the one who came to save sinners.  How did he do it?  First of all, God demands perfect obedience from all human beings.  He expects every single human being to perfectly keep every single part of his law.  Jesus Christ came into the world to do that for those who believe in him.  As we look to him in faith, his perfect obedience is credited to us.  The gospel announces that Christ Jesus came into the world to live the obedient life that you could not live for yourself.

He also died the death you were supposed to die.  He suffered and died in your place.  In his suffering and especially on the cross, he bore the wrath of God against your sin so that you would be forgiven.  When he was on that cross, you were with him.  You were on his heart.  He offered up the sacrifice which turned away the wrath of God from you and returned his favour.

We have the guarantee of that in Christ’s resurrection.  When Jesus rose from the dead, that was God’s way of saying, “The sacrifice for these sinners has been received and approved.”  It was God’s sign to us that sin and death had been definitely conquered.  A risen Saviour promises us that his mission to save sinners was truly accomplished.

The saying provides a simple summary of the gospel.  It would be easy to memorize this and keep it in your back pocket, so to speak:  “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”  But then Paul adds something about himself, “of whom I am the foremost.”  There are some who stumble over these words.  People will say, “Paul, how can you say that?  How can you say that you are the chief of sinners, the worst of sinners?  Don’t you have Jesus Christ as your Saviour?  You’re righteous in him.”  That would be one approach.  Another approach would be more in line with the dominant thinking around us today, “Paul, you have low self-esteem.  You shouldn’t think so low about yourself.  Stop being so negative about yourself and start looking at the positives.”  However, you cannot get around these words.  They are in the Word of God.  They were written by inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  These words come from God and God has a purpose in these words.  So we must be very careful not to discount these words and throw them away as being merely the words of an apostle suffering from either bad theology or a bad self-image.

What does God want to say to us here?  We need to look at the context.  In the immediate context of verse 15, Paul writes about his past life.  He had been a blasphemer, persecutor and insolent or bold opponent of the gospel.  His past involved much sin against the Lord.  Paul looks back at that with regret.  He knows how huge a debt he’s been forgiven, how much grace he’s been shown.  So there’s that.

However, if we look at the broader context of Scripture, we also see Paul as a Christian who was quite aware of the darkness which still lingered in his own heart.  It was Paul the apostle who wrote Romans 7:24, “Wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death?”  When he wrote that, he used the present tense, “Wretched man that I am!”  That parallels 1 Timothy 1:15, “of whom I am the foremost.”  That’s also present tense.  While he was a sinner in the past before Christ saved him, he continues to be a sinner in the present.  Yes, he is justified by faith in Jesus Christ through grace alone.  In God’s sight, he has been declared righteous.  Yet, his life still involves this struggle with sin each day.  He is both justified and a sinner.

Here’s the point:  Paul writes this letter to Timothy as someone who has been a Christian now for several years, probably for about 30 years.  The life of a Christian involves growth and part of that growth is a growing awareness of your sin.  You grow in holiness, but also grow in becoming more sensitive to your remaining sinfulness.  As you mature as a Christian, you became ever more aware of your need for Jesus Christ.  That’s where Paul is writing from.  He’s writing from the position of someone who’s been growing in his faith.  He doesn’t need to look at others and their sin.  He knows that the remnants of his old nature are there and they’re horrifically ugly.  From where he stands, he can’t see any comparison with others because he knows the great need he himself has.  God wants all of us to be moving to that point.  He wants all of us to be saying, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, and I’m the one who needs him most because I know my own wickedness.  I see it more than anyone else.”

Now when we share the gospel with unbelievers, they might lash out at us and call us self-righteous.  They’ll assume that we think we’ve got it all together and we’re talking down at them from a position of righteousness.  We have to disarm them right away.  Maybe even beat them to the punch.  You have to say, “Do I think I’m better than you because I’m a Christian?  No, in fact, if you were to look into my heart, like I look into my heart, you would know that I’m not.  I’m a sinner too, a terrible sinner.  Friend, I need Jesus Christ and so do you.  Listen, I’m just a beggar telling other beggars where to find bread.”

“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”  — it is indeed a trustworthy saying and deserving of full acceptance by us and others.  Let’s believe this today as we worship and always.  Let’s also go out into the world with the only good news that can reconcile sinners to God.