Sadly society has made fathers the butt of jokes. Domestic violence and child abuse is a tragic issue of major proportions. Yet an unsung majority of fathers don't beat their wives or abuse their children. So it is good to have a day to celebrate human fatherhood which at its best gives a glimpse into the Fatherhood of God (Eph. 3.14-15).
For weeks now colourful brochures have been urging us to spend as lavishly as possible on fathers. An important question to all fathers here today - "If money were no object, what would you like most from your children?" Put that way, it is a loaded commercial question. It suggests to you that what you would like most can be purchased - "if money were no object." But perhaps what we would like most - more than any other present - is the love and respect of our children. A new tool kit, an outboard motor, an all-expenses-paid trip for two to Hawaii would be fine, but the best and most important thing of all is a good relationship. Don't settle for less!
In his letter to the Philippians Paul describes all the benefits he had - "circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless" (Phil. 3.5-6). But he goes on to say, "I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead" (vv. 8a, 10-11).
What was most important to Paul? Knowing Christ. In knowing Christ he was already experiencing his resurrection power - through his grace in salvation and in the indwelling Holy Spirit. He was looking forward to sharing in the sufferings of Christ and becoming like him in death - with an end goal of his own resurrection into the eternity of God's heaven.
Paul was in prison when he wrote. Humanly, his future was uncertain. Yet he could write, "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain" (1.21). His great desire is "to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far" (v. 23), though he believes that, for the present, it is more important for him to remain alive for their sake.
In 2 Cor. 11, Paul writes about his sufferings as an apostle - "Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness" (vv. 24-26,30).
Paul had endured a great deal - much more, I suspect, than any of us have gone though, or will go through. But what was most important to him? The knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord. No matter what pressures might be placed on him, he could never settle for less than the most important. And in that he was remarkably happy!
The key for Paul was his relationship with the Lord. Yet it was not something he would boast about. Yes, he had visions and revelations extraordinary. The experience was fourteen years ago. It happened to "a man in Christ" (2 Cor. 12.2). But when he speaks of his "surpassingly great revelations" (v. 7), he is clearly referring to his own experience. There was danger in such an experience. It could so easily become part of the spiritual snobbery about which he is warning the Corinthians. But the Christian life is to be lived humbly before God - by faith and not by sight. Our little glimpses into eternity are a small foretaste only. They are not the norm for this life.
"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" (v. 7). What was this "thorn in the flesh"? Some have suggested that it must have been a troublesome person in one of the churches. But this can't be so. The words used clearly refer to a physical condition. It may have been some permanent disability resulting from the illness he had on his first missionary journey to Galatia. When Paul wrote to them about it, he described their welcome and says that, "if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me" (Gal. 4.15b).
"Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me" (2 Cor. 12.8). But, surely, it has been argued, if the apostle Paul had a physical ailment and prayed about it, he would have been healed. That is how we reason - and in the process load ourselves and others with the burden of insufficient faith because our prayers haven't been "successful". But what was most important for Paul? To know Christ Jesus my Lord!
I believe we are called to exercise a healing ministry. I am here today because of a group of church people in Stanthorpe who gathered to pray for me when I was eight years old and the doctor had given me a fortnight to live. But twelve years before, my parents' first-born (the brother I never knew) died at the age of five amid equally fervent prayer for his healing. Across the years I have seen many people restored through the believing prayer of the Lord's people. Others have remained unwell or have died. At times loved ones have felt guilty because of their lack of faith or angry with God because an expected healing didn't happen.
Paul prayed for physical healing. That was a right and good response. As a missionary-apostle, the last thing he needed - humanly speaking - was some physical impairment - impaired vision, many would believe it to have been.
Later James wrote, "Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven" (Jas 5.14-15). Clearly, the Lord's will for us is bigger than physical healing. We rightly pray for physical healing, but our greatest need always is to be restored to him - to know him. And we should never settle for less!
Paul prayed for physical healing and the Lord answered. "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" (2 Cor. 12.9).
That is remarkable! Think about it! Let it sink in! God's grace is all you need, for his power is greatest when you are weak. But Lord, we protest, I need to be healed, I need a financial break, I need a new opportunity to come my way, I need "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."
In the midst of his unresolved need and pain, he knew God's grace - God's gracious care and help - not on this occasion to remove the problem, but to bring the ability to keep going. The "thorn in the flesh" remained, but Paul was able to live victoriously in spite of it.
Ray Stedman helpfully noted, "When is the devil being beaten? Well, not when we feel great and confident, when it looks like wonderful things are happening No. The devil is being defeated when we are feeling attacked and under the gun, when we feel weak and helpless and do not know what to do, when we are not sure how to respond, when in our perplexities and sense of weakness we come before the Lord and plead with him for strength to go on one more day, and for grace to help us stand" (from a sermon "The Ecstasy and the Agony" on 2 Cor. 1-10).
I believe we are called to exercise a healing ministry and many do receive healing. But any healings we receive are only temporary and a foretaste of heaven. Too often we have created a problem of disappointment and guilt - and have walked away from people still affirming that, if we had got the formula right, if we had prayed more, if we had absolute faith everyone would be physically healed.
I don't see that as the promise of God for this present life. What is clearly promised, however, is that "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Don't settle for less!
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