Rethinking Weakness

self madeStrength is the American ideal. The statue on the right is called the “Self Made Man.” He is chiseling himself out of stone, making himself—with his own hands and strength. The self-made man embodies what our culture values. The ability of an individual to go from strength to strength, overcoming all adversity and chiseling out a successful life for themselves.

Hard work and strength—these are cornerstones of the American value system. Weakness has no place in this ideal. We despise it. We don’t have Weak Man Contests, we don’t celebrate the slowest or take pride in last place. The Rocky theme song “getting strong now” is our theme song. “Getting weak now…” just doesn’t have the same punch.

Weakness—we avoid it, shun it, hide it—no one will see us weak. That’s a strong commitment we all have. Weakness only has one purpose in our culture, it is an ingredient for becoming stronger, it definitely has no purpose or use outside of that.

We are rocks. Our physique has to reflect that, anything else and we feel ashamed and weak. Our emotions must reflect it, tears are weak—rocks don’t cry. Our mental wellness is no different—the mentally strong are not susceptible to mental illness— they don’t need help, that’s weak. It bleeds into our spirituality and faith—God doesn’t want tears, pain and frailty. I can only come with joy and gratitude.

Rocks are steady, not unstable. We are rocks at work—no room for failure or mistakes, no need for help. The rock is solid, unmovable, self-sufficient—I got this! I am strong. There is no room for weakness. The culture of ancient Corinth was very similar to ours. They also had a love affair with strength. Into this perspective of strength comes a divine wrecking ball. Check out 2 Corinthians 12:5-10.

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. 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. 10 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.

The language of weakness permeates this entire section. In fact, it permeates the entire letter of 2 Corinthians. Paul has rightly been deemed the “theologian of weakness.” Outside of Paul the term for weakness occurs 39 times in the entirety of the New Testament. Paul uses the term weakness 44 times in his letters. It is a crucial piece of his theology.

In the immediate context Paul is recalling a vision or experience of getting caught up into heaven and seeing things he could not speak. In the larger context, Paul is defending his apostleship. The Corinthians were questioning his legitimacy, because he appeared weak and insignificant, he did not have the charismatic qualities that the culture of the day held in high esteem—-he did not seem strong.

His point is striking: weakness does not disprove my apostleship, it proves it. Weakness does not challenge my authenticity, it demonstrates it! As one commentator said, “The only impressive thing about Paul, according to him, was his weakness.”

But how in the world does Paul get here? Weakness as an asset? What? Weakness as an occasion for God’s strength? Where does this come from? Paul is saying that weakness is something to be embraced not shunned, something to be content not discontent with, something to boast about?!

Paul is not introducing something new here—God has always worked this way. In the next couple posts, we will explore the theme of weakness. My aim, that you and I would grow weaker as a result.

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The Heart of Paul’s Mission Methodology

When you look at the missionary practices of the apostle Paul he seems to be all over the place. He receives support and he refuses support, he circumcises his converts and he abominates the idea of circumcising his converts, he lives like he’s under the law and he lives like it doesn’t exist, he eats certain foods and abstains from certain foods.

And there are many other tensions in his missionary service. It appears at times that his methodology is haphazard and inconsistent. The diversity of his approach warns us against building strategies on one facet of his missionary service. The driving force in his methodology is the gospel. His mantra was: I do all things for the purpose of the gospel (1 Cor 9:23).

His burning passion was to see the gospel advanced to all the nations. This drove his every decision. What is most beneficial for the movement of the gospel? Because every context was different and because he faced diverse circumstances, the answer to this question always varied. The reason he received support at certain times and not others is because refraining and receiving in these various scenarios furthered the gospel.

The reason he circumcised Timothy and not Titus was for the advance and protection of the gospel. The reason he becomes all things to all men, which inevitably changes the way he engages different people, is for the sake of the gospel.

There is a lot of freedom in how we go about building strategy and mission methodology. If we keep the gospel at the center of it all our methods will inevitably be very fluid. We will be more sensitive to our context and more willing to shift and move according the circumstances in front of us.

The number one problem with every mission methodology is that it is built off one portion of Scripture and it fails to take the rest into consideration. It is paradigm driven rather than principle driven. We get locked into a certain methodology that appears to be bearing fruit and we then believe it is the only or the most effective way to reach people.

This principle of “all things for the gospel” liberates us from the slavery of missionary methods and enables us to engage people in fresh ways. There is much to draw from in Scripture regarding various strategies for going about mission. At the heart of them all is the principle of gospel advancement.

But if we would be well rounded we need to sit at the table with all the various missionary voices. We must not restrict ourselves to Paul. We must sit down at the table with Jesus, Peter, Timothy, Titus, Epaphras, James, Silas, Stephen, Phillip, Apollos, Priscilla, Aquilla, Silvanus, and Barnabas among others.

We need to hear the perspective of married couples as they have engaged mission. We need the voice of the single man. We need the voice of the church planter, encourager, preacher, evangelist, and apprentice. Each of these missionaries will give us a fresh perspective.

We may utilize the various strategies implemented by Jesus, Paul, Peter, and Barnabas at various times in our ministry. As we are driven by the gospel, we will find that fluidity between the various methods is most appropriate rather than rigidity and dogmatism. If we weave all our methodological thinking through the gospel we will be just fine. We will be free and equipped to do what is best in any given context.

Gospel Strength

“You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”

In one sentence Paul pulls back the curtain on the link between strength and the gospel (2 Tim 2:1). What can we learn from Paul’s words to Timothy?

  • The source of strength in this text is grace. Paul affirms here that the journey of the Christian is by “grace alone.” In other places, Paul asserts that we are “saved by grace” (Eph 2-8-10). Here he shows us that we are “strengthened by grace.” The journey begins and continues by grace.
  • The grace that Paul speaks of is that which is located in Christ Jesus. Here he pushes us toward a gospel-centered understanding of strength. The grace of God is found in the message of the incarnate, crucified, risen and exalted Lord. As we press into the gospel of our salvation, meditate on it, study it, internalize it, speak it to one another, trust it and allow it to permeate our hearts and minds we are strengthened.
  • The word translated “be strengthened” is the present passive imperative form of a verb that is concerned with being strong (ἐνδυναμοῦ). Paul commands Timothy toward strength and yet, Timothy’s role is passive. Strength is required of us, it is a command. Strength comes to us, it is a gift. Timothy is called upon here to unfurl the sails of faith and position himself to catch gospel wind. The call here is to strategically position ourselves to be reminded of the gospel of God. We are to put ourselves in situations where reading, hearing, speaking and believing the gospel is sure to happen.
  • Strength comes from the gospel. Weakness must also be gauged by the gospel. Proximity to the gospel determines both strength and weakness. Full battery on a cell phone indicates recent close proximity to its power source, just as low battery indicates distance from its power source. Paul is helping us grasp that weakness is no mystery in the Christian journey. When we are far from the gospel we will certainly be weak. When we are near the gospel we will certainly be strengthened.

Indwelling in 2 Corinthians: Empowered and Sealed

“And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (2 Corinthians 1:21-22).

This text locates the Spirit in the heart of the believer. Here indwelling is connected to two important theological concepts. First, Paul connects anointing to indwelling. Anointing has a rich biblical history. Throughout the Old Testament the language of anointing was used to set apart objects and individuals for a particular task determined by God. Certain items used in the sacrificial system were anointed to make them holy in their usage (Lev 8:10).

Certain individuals were anointed for specific tasks related to God’s purposes. For example, certain kings (1 Sam 16:13), prophets (1 Kgs 19:16), and priests (Ex 40:15) were anointed to carry out their vocations to the glory of God.The anointing of people was coupled with the Spirit’s presence and empowerment. The anointing communicated that the Spirit was with the individual empowering them to fulfill their God-given role (1 Sam 16:13).

This anointing motif comes to a head in the work o Jesus. His title “the Christ” literally means anointed one and Messiah. He was the subject of Isaiah’s words in this text (cf. Lk 4:18).

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Is 61:1-2).

Jesus is the anointed servant of God tasked with saving the world. His work is enabled by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. Through his death and resurrection he secures our redemption. In his ascension and exaltation he shares the Spirit with his people (Acts 2:33).

The Spirit now anoints all believers without exception. The indwelling of the Spirit universalizes anointing to include the entirety of the covenant people. The task assigned the new covenant people is to expand the kingdom of God by bringing the gospel to all nations.

The second theological concept in this text tied to indwelling is sealing and guaranteeing. The coming of the Spirit to live within us is equivalent to God setting his seal of ownership upon us. The text identifies God as the “one sealing us.” The Father is the subject of this sealing, the actor in our text. Believing humans are the objects of this sealing. God seals, believers are passively sealed.

God’s seal is God’s guarantee that we are his people and he is our God. It is the promise of inviolable mutual ownership. The doctrine of indwelling is a rich source of encouragement in this passage. It communicates the permanent empowering presence of the Spirit for the tasks to which we are called. It speaks of the assurance of belonging to God through his seal and guarantee.

Indwelling in 1 Corinthians: No Longer Your Own

“Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

This is an important passage for the theme of indwelling as it situates the doctrine within an important redemptive historical theme, namely the temple. The text indicates that the indwelling presence of God signals the establishment of a temple. The strands of this theme are evident throughout the storyline of Scripture.

God dwells with his people in Eden. When Eden is lost his saving presence is manifest as he indwells the tabernacle and then the temple. Temple means God’s presence with his people. This is why the destruction of the temple leading to exile was so horrific to the Hebrews.

In the New Testament the temple theme finds ultimate expression in the incarnation. Jesus is the new temple (Jn 2:19-21). God’s presence is manifest fully and perfectly in Christ.

By faith people are united with Christ, the Spirit is granted, and they become temples of the living God. This text points to individual believers as temples. The New Testament also connects the corporate people of God to the temple motif (1 Cor 3:17).

The presence of God is now a reality in the physical bodies of believers. Temple language is always connected to indwelling, ruling, and covenant faithfulness. These concepts are now true for us. One implication and one imperative flow from the doctrine of indwelling in the text.

The implication is that we do not belong to ourselves. We are not our own. We were purchased at the cross and sealed as God’s possession by indwelling. God has made us his own through the blood of his Son and the home-making of his Spirit. Every square inch of our bodies belong to another.

The imperative attached to indwelling is the call to glorify God in our bodies. These bodies belonging to God are to be used for his honor and pleasure. The doctrine of indwelling is a game changer. It forever alters our sense of identity and compels to live in a way fitting of someone who is literally a residence of the divine.

Indwelling in 2 Timothy: Gospel Faithfulness

2 Timothy 1:4 states the following, “By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.”

Paul’s letter to Timothy is concerned with doctrinal fidelity and gospel centrality in the pastoral context. Paul practices what he preaches as he passes on what he has learned to faithful men (2 Tim 2:22).

Paul is making a disciple of Timothy. He opens his letter with a lofty exhortation grounded in the rich truth of indwelling. In essence he states, “Timothy you have been tasked with protecting the message of the God-man who has come, died, and rose for our salvation. The Holy Spirit dwells in you and this is how you will accomplish your task.”

The Spirit takes up residence in believers for many reasons. In this text, his permanent residence in Timothy is connected to faithful ministry.The Holy Spirit is devoted to safekeeping the message of Christ. This means he is strongly opposed to any false doctrine that would challenge the claims of Christ’s person and work.

His indwelling work aids the pastor by infusing the same passion and devotion to doctrinal faithfulness. The Spirit protects the “good deposit” in and through the leaders of the church.

One important implication of this truth is that the Spirit will labor within every believing individual to insure they hold fast to the central claims of Christianity.The Spirit is fully aware that salvation depends on sound doctrine. Trusting a very specific individual who has done a very particular work is a salvific necessity.

Yet again the doctrine of indwelling is pastoral in nature. This time, however, we learn how indwelling equips and empowers the pastor for his unique task and calling.