Our weaknesses

Jesus’ ministry on earth involved a lot of miracles that were intended to persuade the children of Israel that their Messiah had finally arrived. Matthew’s gospel linked one incident in particular to a prophecy that verified this aspect of Jesus’ ministry. Matthew stated:

And when Jesus was come into Peter’s house, he saw his wife’s mother laid, and sick of a fever. And he touched her hand, and the fever left her: and she arose, and ministered unto them. When the even was come, they brought unto him many that were possessed with devils: and he cast out the spirits with his word, and healed all that were sick: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Esaias the prophet, saying, Himself took our infirmities, and bare our sicknesses. (Matthew 8:14-17, KJV)

The Greek word that is translated infirmities, astheneia (as-then’-i-ah) is typically used in reference to different types of physical ailments, but the primary implication of this word is moral frailty or weakness (G769). A word that is related to astheneia is asthenema (as-then’-ay-mah). “This word is found in the plural in Romans 15:1, ‘infirmities,’ i.e., those scruples which arise through weakness of faith. The strong must support the infirmities of the weak (adunatos) by submitting to self-restraint” (G771). From this standpoint, Jesus taking our infirmities upon himself means that his moral strength makes it possible for us to live godly lives. Paul talked about this in his final warnings to the Corinthians. Paul said:

I warned those who sinned before and all the others, and I warn them now while absent, as I did when present on my second visit, that if I come again I will not spare them—since you seek proof that Christ is speaking in me. He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you. For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we also are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God. (2 Corinthians 13:2-4)

Paul contrasted Christ’s human weakness with the power of God in order to point out that we have the same weaknesses that he did as well as the same power of God when we accept Jesus as our Savior. The word that Paul used in 2 Corinthians 13:4 that is translated weakness is astheneia. Jesus experienced moral frailty because he lived as a human being and had a sin nature. In other words, just like us, Jesus had a natural tendency toward rebellion against God, and yet, Jesus lived a perfect life and therefore, overcame this weakness completely. Hebrews 4:14-16 talks about the example that Jesus set by living his life according to God’s commandments. It states:

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

In order to draw near to the throne of grace, we have to understand Jesus’ role as our great high priest. It is explained to us in Hebrews 5:7-10 where it states, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.” This verse indicates that Jesus was being made perfect. The Greek word teleioo (tel-i-o’-o) means to complete in the sense of being mature (G5048). In 1 Corinthians 13:10, teleios is used to refer to “the complete revelation of God’s will and ways, whether in the completed Scripture or in the hereafter…One who is teleios has attained the moral end for which he was intended, namely to be a man in Christ” (G5046).

Paul concluded his discussion of his sufferings as an apostle with the statement, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (2 Corinthians 11:30). Paul understood that suffering was a part of the process of reaching spiritual maturity. The way that Paul seemed to view his weaknesses was that they were opportunities for him to grow in his faith. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul explained that our weaknesses are transformed into supernatural power when we are resurrected from the dead. Paul stated:

But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. For not all flesh is the same, but there is one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is of one kind, and the glory of the earthly is of another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory. So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.

According to Paul, the weaknesses of our earthly bodies will result in miraculous power that will benefit us throughout eternity.

One of the things that Paul made clear in his second letter to the Corinthians was that his weaknesses had kept him from thinking too much of his personal accomplishments or becoming conceited about his special position as an apostle of Christ. Paul shared his experience of being caught up to the third heaven in such a way that it couldn’t be misconstrued as a claim that he had somehow already been resurrected from the dead. Paul said, “I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses—though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me” (2 Corinthians 12:1-6). Paul went on to say that because of this experience, he was given a physical affliction that plagued him the rest of his life. Paul said:

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.

Paul’s personal message from the Lord, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9) was most likely intended to encourage him in his spiritual growth. Paul may have been thinking about giving up on his goal of reaching the farthest regions of Asia because of the pain that his thorn in the flesh was causing him, but the Lord told Paul that his grace was sufficient to get him through. The Greek word that is translated sufficient, arkeo (ar-keh-o) is related to the word airo (ah’-ee-ro) which has to do with the expiation of sin with regard to the effect of atonement on the believer’s life (G142) which is moral purification (G2512) or in Old Testament terms, becoming clean (H2891) and therefore, consecrated to God.

The distinction between clean and unclean things made it difficult for the Israelites to remain in fellowship with God. Something as natural as her menstruation cycle could keep a woman from being able to come into the presence of God (Leviticus 12:4). The most extreme case was the disease of leprosy which could cause a person to be permanently separated from loved ones and quarantined for weeks at a time (Leviticus 13:4-5). Leviticus 13:45-46 describes what happened when the priest determined that a person had leprosy. “The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.” Jesus demonstrated that he had the power to make a leper clean. In fact, one of the first miracles Jesus performed was the cleansing of a leper. Matthew’s gospel tells us:

When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him. And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. And Jesus said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” (Matthew 8:1-4)

Jesus later explained to his disciples that a person becomes defiled or you might say spiritually weak by the things that come from inside the person’s heart. Mark’s gospel states:

And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:14-23)

Paul made it clear in his letter to the Corinthians that he wasn’t ashamed of the thorn in the flesh that was given to him as a result of the surpassing greatness of his revelations. Paul said, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Paul looked at his weaknesses as an advantage in getting God’s attention. The Greek word that is translated rest, episkenoo (ep-ee-skay-no’-o) means “to spread a tabernacle over” (G1981). Paul may have been thinking of the way that God dwelt among the Israelites when they were in the Sinai Desert before they entered the Promised Land. Exodus 14:19-20 describes the protection that God’s presence provided the Israelites when they were fleeing from Pharaoh’s army. It states:

Then the angel of God who was going before the host of Israel moved and went behind them and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them, coming between the host of Egypt and the host of Israel. And there was a cloud and the darkness. And it lit up the night without one coming near the other all night.

Moses indicated that the pillar of cloud moved from the front of the Israelite camp and to a position behind it in order to create a barrier between them and the Egyptian army. Psalm 51, which was written by King David after his sin of adultery was exposed, talks about the presence of God being associated with a clean heart and a right spirit. David prayed, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit” (Psalm 51:10-12). The Hebrew word that David used that is translated clean in Psalm 51:10, tahowr (haw-hore’) is used six times in Leviticus 13 in reference to a leper being pronounced clean. Tahowr means “pure (in a physical, chemical, ceremonial or moral sense)” (H2889). According to the Mosaic Law, “Clean things were considered normal; unclean things were considered polluted, but they could be restored to their state of purity (Leviticus 11-15)…God expected his people to be morally pure and to imitate Him (Habakkuk 1:13). This word served to express this state. Clean hands merited God’s favour (Job 17:9), and pure words were pleasing to the Lord. God judged a sacrifice’s value by the quality of the offerer’s heart (Psalm 51:10[12]); thus, David prayed for a pure heart.”

Paul told the Corinthians, “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 12:10). Paul’s statement, “when I am weak, then I am strong” may have been designed to make his listeners aware of the fact that God’s power is available to us on an as needed basis. If we think we are powerful enough to do something ourselves, we are not going to rely on God’s ability to intervene on our behalf. Paul said that he was content with his weaknesses, meaning that he accepted them and had no problem admitting that they were affecting his ability to do the work that God had assigned to him. Paul’s attitude made it possible for God to do extraordinary things through him and resulted in his ministry becoming a focal point of the book of Acts. Paul’s defense of his ministry included an explanation of how he was able to accomplish so much when his bodily presence was considered to be weak and his speech of no account (2 Corinthians 10:10). Paul said:

I, Paul, myself entreat you, by the meekness and gentleness of Christ—I who am humble when face to face with you, but bold toward you when I am away!—I beg of you that when I am present I may not have to show boldness with such confidence as I count on showing against some who suspect us of walking according to the flesh. For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:1-5)

Paul’s reference to using divine power to destroy strongholds and destroying arguments by taking every thought captive was linked to spiritual warfare. Paul indicated in his letter to the Ephesians that the key to defeating our adversary the devil is to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might” (Ephesians 6:10).