2 Corinthians 12:9 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. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Mark 10:27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
Based on scriptures like these, we are taught that that while all things are possible with God, nothing is possible for us and we are helpless. We must delight in such weakness, for when we are weak then we are strong. In this way God is glorified. However, let’s take the opportunity to interpret these two verses properly by examining their contexts. Do they really teach us that believers are helpless?
In the first verse taken from 2 Corinthians 12, the “weaknesses” Paul refers to are not physical infirmities in his body or spiritual weaknesses such as doubt and lack of faith. Rather the weaknesses he refers to are the consequences of his preaching the gospel and serving Christ. He speaks of receiving “insults” on account of his ministry for the gospel. He cites also “hardships”—a clear reference to his earlier teaching in Chapter 11:
2 Corinthians 11:23 and been exposed to death again and again… 25 I have worked much harder…three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.
In Chapter 12 Paul also listed “persecutions.” These clearly refer to the physical persecutions he suffered from following and serving Christ as described in Chapter 11:
2 Corinthians 11:25 …been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely… 24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones…
It is abundantly clear from the context that the “weaknesses” taught by Paul were not physical as in the case of bodily sickness, or spiritual as in the case of having sinned or having little faith. Rather, these “weaknesses” were the consequences Paul suffered at the hands of the enemy in a fallen world for preaching the gospel of Christ. In Chapter 12 Paul boasted in such “weaknesses.” He was clearly not boasting in having a sickness, having little faith, or lacking holiness in his life. (We are not saying that Paul never got sick; but we are contending that his “thorn” 1 Corinthians 12 should not be interpreted as sickness, whether physical or spiritual.)
What about “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God”?
Again, let’s examine the context of this scripture. Here we see Jesus teaching the young rich ruler to sell all his possessions, to give to the poor, and then to follow him in order to be saved and to have treasure in heaven. When the young man walked away in disappointment Jesus commented to his disciples that it was very hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. The disciples were amazed and asked him, “Who then can be saved?” And Jesus answered: “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” (Mark 10:27 )
The context here tells us that Jesus is referring specifically to salvation. It is impossible for man to save himself with good works or obeying the Law. But with God, salvation is possible, that is, when sinners put their faith in Him. Jesus is certainly not generalizing and teaching that “with man all things are impossible” and that nothing is possible for us.
Quite the opposite, Jesus told his disciples:
And Jesus said to them, because of your unbelief. For truly I say to you, If you have faith as a grain of mustard, you will say to this mountain, Move from here to there! And it will move. And nothing shall be impossible to you. (Matthew 17:20, LITV)
Here Jesus had just been told by a father that his disciples had failed to heal his son of epilepsy. The disciples asked Jesus to explain to them why they had been unable to cast out the demons. Jesus placed the blame squarely on their “unbelief.” Little faith does not at all please God, and this is not the kind of “weakness” by which God is glorified.
Quite the reverse, Jesus actually declared that “nothing will be impossible to you” if you have faith as a mustard seed or mountain-moving faith. Not only “all things are possible with God”, but “nothing will be impossible to us” if we have mountain-moving faith as a mustard seed. Can we reasonably conclude that God wants and can do the impossible through believers who have mountain-moving faith?
“False prophets” have not helped
Some ministries in certain quarters of the Church may have unwittingly fostered the theology of helplessness which portrays us unable to do anything. Superstar preachers have arisen claiming to have “a special anointing” to minister to others in some supernatural way. These “one-man-show” preachers say that they are specially anointed to heal the sick, to cast out demons, to prophesy, to minister financial and other various blessings to believers as well. Sometimes miracles take place in their ministries and physical infirmities healed. As a result they can draw large crowds to their meetings. Some can moreover be exceptionally adept at receiving very generous offerings. Not a few of them live lifestyles befitting the rich and famous as a result of these seed offerings from God’s people.
The evangelical Church has largely rejected such ministries, perhaps referring to the warning Jesus gave about false prophets.
Matthew 7:21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
The evangelical Church has for the most part rejected the superstar, one-man-show preachers who can perform miracles in Jesus’ name. Instead they have given in to the very human response to one extreme by going to the very opposite extreme. They have denied the miraculous altogether, or at least they deny that God can use human instruments to perform miracles today as He did in the gospels and in Acts. They have “thrown out the baby with the bathwater.”
But in Scripture God uses men
However, we see God directly using His people in miraculous ways in both the Old and the New Testaments. Among other miracles, God used Moses to divide the Red Sea.
Exodus 14:16 Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground.
Hebrews 11:32 And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; …and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies.
Clearly miracles did not always take place with the heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11, but the fact is miraculous victories were won as God’s people went on the offensive and took action instead of only praying to God and waiting for Him to act. These Old Testament men were all a type and foreshadowing of the Christ—the Man who would appear to save us from sin and fulfill the Old Testament shadows.
In Christ in the New Testament, God became a man who preached the gospel, healed the sick, cast out demons, and made disciples. His disciples in the gospels and in Acts followed in his footsteps and did the works that he did to fulfill the promise he made in John’s gospel.
John 14:12 Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing…
In Acts God continued to use men to preach the gospel and to perform His miracles as evidence to the lost that Jesus was the promised Messiah.
And suddenly they ceased?
How is it that following the death of the original twelve disciples (or the completion of the New Testament Canon as taught by some) God suddenly stopped using men in the realm of the miraculous? We are taught that now in this new “dispensation” miracles have ceased and that now God uses us only to preach the gospel and make disciples. We are no longer to heal the sick and cast out demons as evidence to the billions of gospel-resistant Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and idol-worshippers that Jesus is the Son of God.
Matthew 28:18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
In this Great Commission passage, Jesus received all authority from his Father. He then sent out his disciples to make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey everything he commanded them. That would certainly include preaching the gospel, healing the sick, and casting out demons. The Christ who has been given all authority is with us always, to the very end of the age, delegating to us power and authority over disease and demons to be used as evidence of the truth of the gospel to the lost.
The scriptural backing for the teaching of dispensationalism or cessationism is extremely flimsy, drawing more on what happened during the first few centuries of Church history than on solid support from scripture. It is taught that since miracles were generally not recorded in early Church history, it must have been God’s will to cause them to cease. But this argument is weak at best. Was everything that happened in Israel as recorded in the historical books of the Old Testament God’s perfect will? Similarly, not everything that happened or happens now in the New Testament Church is necessarily God’s perfect will. But everything that Jesus did and commanded his disciples to do was in accordance with God’s perfect will.
Luke 9:1 When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, 2 and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.
Luke 10:1 After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. …9 Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’
And “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). He still gives power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases to his disciples. He still commands us to heal the sick and proclaim the kingdom of God to the lost. He is the same yesterday and today.
In the Old Testament, God used very imperfect human beings to perform miracles. In the fullness of time God sent His son to take on flesh and become a perfect human being. This perfect Man performed miracles to prove his identity as the Savior. Today his disciples—human beings whose sins are forgiven and are being perfected by the Spirit of Christ in them—are being used by God to continue those miracles as evidence to the lost that Jesus is the Son of God.
John 20:21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”
The Body of Christ
Christ our head is now seated at the right hand of the Father. He has left behind on earth His BODY—the Church which consists of his followers. We are now his feet, his voice, his hands on earth. We now go forth on our feet, we now voice the gospel, we now lay hands on the sick to heal them in Jesus’ name. We now make disciples of all nations to prepare them for the coming of the King. We now do the works that Jesus did in accordance with John 14:12. The teaching that God no longer uses disciples to heal the sick is part of the theology of helplessness which has crippled the Church in the area of missions, and in part resulted in our inability to fulfill the Great Commission even after 2,000 years.
Failure of the Church in India
When I was training servants of God in Hyderabad, India in January 2014, I brought up the question of which came to India first—the gospel, or Islam? With one voice they replied that the gospel had been brought to India by the apostle Thomas in the first century—some 600 years before even the birth of Islam in the Middle East. Yet despite this impressive headstart of the gospel in India, I was told that while Christians comprise only 6% of Hyderabad’s ten million residents, Islam claims 40% of the population. The remainder are Hindus.
Part of the reason for the Church’s failure in missions is the theology of helplessness embedded in the Church which has paralyzed us.
Interestingly, when missionaries return home to America from the field and share about the miracles they’ve witnessed, there’s little objection to God doing such things for Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and idol-worshipers. But God forbid that He should do such things in America which is already a “Christian country” and where miracles are not needed. However, as is becoming apparent, America has already become a mission field with millions of followers of the prophet, Hindus, and Buddhists living in our cities.
Senior Associate Pastor of Houston’s Second Baptist on cessationism
Paul’s Thorn & the Theology of Helplessness
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