Jesus said many things that were hard to understand. It’s not that He wanted to cause confusion, only to challenge the people to look deeper into what they’d been taught or heard, to ask what does this mean. Jesus often used exaggerated statements to make His point.
For example: Matt 5:30 “If your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”
How is cutting off a body part going to keep someone from hell? It’s not. What keeps someone from hell is receiving Jesus as Savior and Lord. So, what was He saying? If there is something in your life that is preventing you from following Him, get it out of the way. If you identify a sin that so easily entangles you, quit giving it access to your life.
If it’s internet pornography, put a filter on your internet that blocks it. If it’s drinking too much in a bar, stop going to the bar. If it’s anger or fear from the daily news, stop watching the news.
Never was he suggesting cutting off a body part would help you with your struggles.
Jesus’ hard sayings would not just challenge the people, but at times turn them away. His words created a crisis of belief. What He was asking or saying was beyond the comfort of their commitment to follow Him. “That’s not what I signed up for. If that’s what it means to be a follower, I’d rather not be one.” He did so to prove the world had a stronger grip on them than the promises of God.
Like Demas. Demas had been a disciple of Paul. 2Tim 4:10 for Demas, having loved this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica… What triggered the desertion? Was it something Paul said?
That same thing was happening after an extended teaching session in Capernaum. Jesus had said some things very hard to accept. People were deserting Him.
John 6:60-69 Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this said, "This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?" But Jesus, conscious that His disciples grumbled at this, said to them, "Does this cause you to stumble? What then if you see the Son of Man ascending to where He was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. But there are some of you who do not believe." For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who it was that would betray Him. And He was saying, "For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father." As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore. So Jesus said to the twelve, "You do not want to go away also, do you?" Simon Peter answered Him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God."
Now, how far does Peter’s statement go? "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life.” Do those words apply now, in this life, as well as in eternity?
Peter was convinced the answer to his life was in the words Jesus spoke. He had no alternative but to continue following. His words, no matter how hard, were life to him. They explained how life was to be lived. They held out the offer of eternal life. They revealed the promises of God. The world spoke death – death now and death forever. What kind of choice would that be: life or death?
Moses said the same thing: Deut 30:19-20 "I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the LORD your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him…”
So, if the words of Jesus are designed as life for us, what He says, not only personally in the Gospels, but throughout all of Scripture, must have that same life in them as well. Which is why He said: Matt 4:4 'MAN SHALL NOT LIVE ON BREAD ALONE, BUT ON EVERY WORD THAT PROCEEDS OUT OF THE MOUTH OF GOD.'" His words invite us into the life and sustain us within that life.
But that doesn’t mean those words will be easy to accept. Some will challenge us to exercise faith, to change our way of life, to conform us to a lifestyle counter to today’s culture, to cause us to reevaluate what’s really important, to transform us into new people. And even yet, some of those words will be hard to understand.
Then there’s the other matter: What if we do understand the words but aren’t sure we want what the words say?
I want to take you into the life of Paul to see how he struggled with this very issue. What he wanted God to do and what God did were miles apart. Paul prayed desperately in one direction but God’s provision came from a different direction. When God told him how He would answer Paul’s prayer, it’s important to see how Paul dealt with that? It started in Lystra.
Act 14:8 At Lystra a man was sitting who had no strength in his feet, lame from his mother's womb, who had never walked. 9 This man was listening to Paul as he spoke, who, when he had fixed his gaze on him and had seen that he had faith to be made well, 10 said with a loud voice, "Stand upright on your feet." And he leaped up and began to walk. 11 When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they raised their voice, saying in the Lycaonian language, "The gods have become like men and have come down to us." 12 And they began calling Barnabas, Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. 13 The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates, and wanted to offer sacrifice with the crowds. 14 But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their robes and rushed out into the crowd, crying out 15 and saying, "Men, why are you doing these things? We are also men of the same nature as you, and preach the gospel to you that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, WHO MADE THE HEAVEN AND THE EARTH AND THE SEA AND ALL THAT IS IN THEM. 16 In the generations gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own ways; 17 and yet He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness." 18 Even saying these things, with difficulty they restrained the crowds from offering sacrifice to them.
Act 14:19 But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having won over the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead. 20 But while the disciples stood around him, he got up and entered the city. The next day he went away with Barnabas to Derbe.
Stoning was the easiest way to get rid of a person – pelt someone with big rocks until they died. It was a group activity which took away the guilt of a single person killing someone else. A group of men grabbed rocks and threw them at someone until that person died. Which stone killed him? No one knew. Like a firing squad. Not every rifle has a bullet in it. Some men shoot blanks so the men don’t know who actually killed the person.
In either case, each man could walk away innocent because, in his own mind, he was not personally responsible, though as a part of the group he was.
Stoning was common in that day. Stephen was stoned to death. The woman caught in adultery was about to be stoned until Jesus stepped in. Even Jesus Himself faced a possible stoning as men took up rocks but the Bible says He slipped away.
But, stoning had one prescribed outcome: the person was to die. By all accounts in this story, the men who stoned Paul felt they had completed the job – supposing him to be dead. Even the reaction of those with Paul seemed to believe the same – the disciples stood around him. They weren’t kneeling down trying to revive him. Just standing around looking at him. So, was Paul dead? Sounds like it.
But then, he got up and entered the city. Now, the easiest thing to believe is, he was knocked unconscious and came to. But how does a man stoned into unconsciousness suddenly wake up and go back into the city, then the next set out to walk 60 miles from Lystra to Derbe? I’d have to be hauled back into the city on a stretcher, then laid up for days until I could move without it hurting. But Paul seemed unfazed.
The word used for got up is: anisthemi – to stand up, to rise up
It’s what Jesus said to Martha in reference to Lazarus being in the tomb: John 11:23 Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again."
In reference to Himself, Jesus said: Matt 20:18-19 "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn Him to death, and will hand Him over to the Gentiles to mock and scourge and crucify Him, and on the third day He will be raised up."
Now, obviously these are not the only ways this word is used. There is still the rising up that has nothing to do with death, but it is interesting that under these circumstances Paul’s condition was uncertain but I lean toward him being temporarily dead and brought back to life.
Suffering at the hands of men was not uncommon to Paul. He often used his scars as badges of honor in following Jesus.
Gal 6:17 From now on let no one cause trouble for me, for I bear on my body the brand-marks of Jesus.
2Cor 11:23 Are they servants of Christ?—I speak as if insane—I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. 24 Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. 26 I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; 27 I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern? 30 If I have to boast, I will boast of what pertains to my weakness.
Weakness? Who boasts in their weakness? Those with special insight in what’s provided for this weakness.
Gal 4:13 but you know that it was because of a bodily illness that I preached the gospel to you the first time; 14 and that which was a trial to you in my bodily condition you did not despise or loathe, but you received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus Himself. 15 Where then is that sense of blessing you had? For I bear you witness that, if possible, you would have plucked out your eyes and given them to me.
Many have connected Paul’s eye problems with his stoning. Getting hit with stones is gonna leave some marks. Perhaps it left an ongoing condition that bothered him regularly. Like a splinter or thorn you get stuck under your skin you can’t remove and keeps irritating.
So, how did Paul handle this thorn?
2Cor 12:1 Boasting is necessary, though it is not profitable; but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a man was caught up to the third heaven. 3 And I know how such a man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows—was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak. 5 On behalf of such a man I will boast; but on my own behalf I will not boast, except in regard to my weaknesses. 6 For if I do wish to boast I will not be foolish, for I will be speaking the truth; but I refrain from this, so that no one will credit me with more than he sees in me or hears from me. 7 Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself! 8 Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. 9 And He has said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness." Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ's sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.
Paul gains new insight for life struggles he didn’t seem to have had before and wouldn’t have had without the thorn. The insight? Grace makes the difference. Not just in having grace as a part of salvation but the difference Grace makes in living out that salvation.
Grace is our famous word for God doing in us that which we cannot do for ourselves. Him giving us what we don’t deserve as a gift necessary for how we can receive the life and live the life in a way that honors Him and blesses us.
This was a divine moment of clarity for Paul. Hearing God’s grace was sufficient for him, gave Paul a perspective that made the thorn not only bearable but necessary. Without that thorn and the moment of insight, he never would have understood what God’s grace could do. He’d never have accepted his weakness as an acknowledgement of his need for God’s strength. He would have thought like we do: weakness means I’m inferior, I’m inadequate, I’m never enough, this has got to go away before I can have joy again. Instead, Paul learned that the grace that saved him was the sustaining work of God in him. The impact of that phrase – My grace is sufficient – changed his life when he embraced it as a personal message from God answering his prayer.
What makes God’s word so difficult, so hard to understand? Accepting it as a specific word from God to us which we are to apply to our lives.
Teacher said: “Clear off your desks, take out a sheet of paper and prepare for the quiz. A little girl said, “I didn’t know we were having a quiz today.” The teacher said, “I told the whole class yesterday.” She answered, “But you didn’t tell me.”
Had Paul not embraced the words: My grace is sufficient, he never would have been able to handle his thorn issue. He would have spent the rest of his life angry about the thorn and resenting God for not removing it. Instead, he experienced amazing insight that literally changed his life because it changed his perspective.
God wasn’t ignoring Paul’s cries. He wasn’t rejecting his requests for help. He wasn’t abandoning Paul to deal with things as best he could – like a lady from Plum Grove who would always say: Pull up your big girl panties and deal with it.
No, God was graciously undergirding Paul with a strength Paul didn’t know was available, and although he hadn’t realized it yet, it was included within his salvation. It would become a single lesson that had multiple applications in Paul’s life.
Paul if you learn this lesson, you will be better able to deal with all you’ve been through in the past and discover resources for handling whatever is coming in your future.
What was the great lesson? Since God is God, let Him be God in your life. Let Him say what you need to hear. Let Him provide what you need provided. Let Him give you what you need when you need it.
If He says wait, then wait. If He says pray, then pray. If He says trust, then trust. If He says go this way, then go that way. If he says stay, then stay.
A Pilot was asked what was the hardest part of flying. Trusting your instruments. He said once he was caught in a storm and unable to see. Everything in him wanted to look out the windows and get his bearings, but his teaching told him that is a fatal move. He said he had to force himself to trust his instruments.
We listen to the words of Jesus or read instruction from Paul and say, “This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?" And the Lord asks: "You want to go away also?"
Jesus was giving His disciples a choice. He gives us the same choice.
Unless we answer that question with: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life, we have yet to discover the ultimate value of God in our lives, the truth of His word, the necessity of the trials or the sufficiency of His grace for all we need.
What was Paul’s choice? To take the role of victim or live in victory. Paul chose victory. “But, Paul still had his thorn.” Yes, but now he knew something he didn’t know before. Now he knew God’s grace was sufficient. For this and all of his thorns.
- Life is full of thorns.
- We can’t go through it without getting pricked and even having some thorns get embedded in our lives.
- When God chooses not to remove the thorn, He has other provisions in mind.
- Him leaving the thorn will help us learn more about the sufficiency of His grace than by taking it out.
- Because God is good – all the time. And all the time – God is good.