ST PAUL AT THE PARALYMPICS. GOD’S GRACE.
AS WE ENJOY THE LONDON PARALYMPICS.
(A brief series of Bible studies based on references to the Games in the New Testament.)
“GOD’S GRACE IS SUFFICIENT.”
Scripture: PHILIPPIANS 1:12-21
The London 2012 Summer Paralympic Games are being held between 29 August and 9 September. They will be held in London, after the extremely successful Summer Olympic Games. It is the second largest multi-sport event ever held after the 2012 Olympic Games with another 4200 Athletes in 2015 events.
These are the first modern Paralympics solely hosted by the United Kingdom; the 1984 Summer Paralympics were originally intended to be hosted by the United States at the University of Illinois in Champaign, Illinois, but due to financial issues, the university passed on hosting the games shortly before they were set to begin, leading to the British village of Stoke Mandeville and the American region of Long Island quickly stepping in to co-host the games. Stoke Mandeville also played an important role in the history of the Paralympics; in 1948, Dr. Ludwig Guttmann and the Stoke Mandeville Hospital first held the Stoke Mandeville Games, an event for British World War II veterans with spinal cord injuries to coincide with the opening ceremony of the 1948 Summer Olympics in London.
The Stoke Mandeville Games were the first ever organised athletics event for the disabled, and served as a significant precursor to the Paralympic movement as a whole.
The Paralympics have taught us about triumphing over adversity. We have learned about centring our thoughts on our abilities rather than our disabilities and to make the most of what we have got. Disabled people have inspired us to get our little troubles into perspective. They have taught us to persevere and overcome. We have been left with images of amputees running and high jumping, playing basketball and racing wheel chairs, of mentally, visually and physically impaired people achieving. I cannot stop thinking of a Japanese competitor in the 100 metres breast stoke, who was born without arms! As one woman said warmly this week, “Please! No more inspiration!”
In this final address about the Olympics and Paralympics, I want to look at what has enabled Christians who have been disabled and handicapped survive and thrive, despite their disability. We considered last week the disability that St Paul suffered. I tendered the New Testament evidence about his poor sight. He wrote about that disability: 2 Corinthians 12:7-9 “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. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from 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 about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” But why did Paul describe the cause of his sufferings and disability as “a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.” Why was his disability a thorn in his flesh?
1. THE THORNS THAT GROW IN ISRAEL.
Israel is a predominantly dry country and the mountain ranges of Judea upon which Jerusalem stands are barren and rocky. Despite plantations and forests created by the Israelis today, most of the mountainside is totally barren, rocky and growing not a blade of grass. But it does grow dry, rambling thorns.
There are several kinds of thorns, a prickly thistle, and the ‘Crown of Thorns’ tree that can grow up to thirty feet high, which has long trailers of thin, sharp spikes. This kind of tree may have been near Pilate’s palace. Thorns dry completely and burn fiercely. These long briar-like branches bearing their strong thin prickles can pierce a leather shoe inflicting a serious foot injury. But they can be rolled with some difficulty towards a fire. I have warmed myself with dry thorns on a chilly Judean night. Platted and pushed down upon a scalp, they would inflict serious injury and great pain.
2. THE SYMBOLISM OF THORNS.
Thorns were recognized as signs of evil. When the Bible records the Creation of the world there were no thorns in Eden. Thorns grew only after the sin of Adam. Thorns were a sign of human sin. Gen. 3:17-18 “To Adam God said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you.”
When the soldiers pushed upon the head of Jesus a crown of thorns, the soldiers were unknowingly confirming that Jesus wears the curse of sin. On His head is the symbol of Satan’s invasion of mankind.
3. JESUS TAUGHT ABOUT THORNS.
Jesus often mentions the spiritual significance of thorns. He taught the thorns were signs of Satan destroying Word of God. Matt. 13:7,22 “Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. ..The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful.” He taught that thorns were signs of evil in the world, growing alongside God’s work, which He described as wheat in the field. He taught His disciples not to attack every sign of evil because in so doing, they would damage God’s work, but to leave it to God to bring the judgment.
He said: Matt. 13:30 “Let (both the thorny weeds and the wheat) grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’” Jesus took the evil and sin of the world upon His head, and bore sin’s pain bravely. The sin of the world was upon Him. Our sin was part of His pain.
“O Sacred head, once wounded, with grief and shame weighed down,
Now scornfully surrounded, with Thorns, thy only Crown!”
There is a very moving place in Jerusalem you can visit. It is the pavement upon which Jesus actually stood inside Pilate’s Governor’s Palace, where the judgment of criminals took place. It is called the Lithostraton – stone pavement. It measures 48 metres by 32 metres and is worn smooth by thousands of feet. Cut into the pavement are some games that idle soldiers played including “The Game of the King”.
The soldiers played a game with prisoners. It is played with dice and the winner ends up impaled with a sword on a pole set in the ground. It is here the soldiers played with Jesus: Matt 27:27-30 “Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand and knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they said. They spat on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again.”
We can understand why they stuck a pretend crown on a head of a prisoner who claimed to be king. But in taking some long briar thorns that were growing wild nearby and weaving them into a crown to be spiked down onto the head of Jesus, they were not just mocking Him, not just inflicting more injuries as part of his pre-crucifixion torture. They were unknowingly doing something of deep significance. For the thorns spoke of Jesus bearing all human sin upon his head.
4. GOD TRANSFORMED THORNS INTO A CROWN!
Jesus’ crown of thorns was a sign of Satan’s triumph. Jesus nailed to the Cross was a sign of human evil at its worst having won. Jesus was wearing the Devil’s crown. In His body, and on His head, He bore the signs of the sins of the world. He was there paying the price for our sin. That is why the Cross has stood for centuries as a sign of man’s inhumanity to man. There are always some Christians who avoid the message of the Cross. Some preachers never preach about the sacrifice of Christ for the sins of the world.
The blood of Christ has no place in their preaching because they have a cross-less Christianity composed of good feelings, being nice, and having a positive outlook. That is not real! That is escapism! Truncated Christianity! We must never hide it. We need never be shamed of it. The Cross represents the very worst that sinful man can do to another. But God transforms those thorns into a crown. God transforms that Cross into an empty tomb. God raised Christ Jesus from the dead on Easter morning. Life had triumphed over death. The power of sin had been broken.
For Christ has destroyed Death and defeated the Devil. The Letter to the Hebrews says 2:14-15 “He too shared in our humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” Jesus on the Cross wears the sign of our sin and takes our place to free us from sin’s penalty.
Jesus took our place and in His body bore the penalty for our sins and upon His head bore the sign that sin had reigned in us. Because of what Jesus did on the Cross, in the new creation of God, the thorns will be destroyed because there will be no longer any sin in the new Eden. As the Bedouin each night bundle the thorns upon their fires, so Satan and all sin will be destroyed forever.
5. OUR EXPERIENCE OF THORNS.
Thorns were seen as tools of Satan, evidence of Satan’s attempts to defeat the believer. The Apostle Paul wrote: “there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.” Thorns were the symbols of sinfulness and of the Evil One’s attack.
But we can by Christ’s power triumph over sin, those thorns of the flesh, those messengers from Satan. As Paul wrote: 2 Cor. 12:9-10 “But God 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. 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”.
By God’s power, Christ transforms your thorns, your sins, suffering and death, and makes them something about which we can boast. Because we wear thorns from His crown! “Did ere such love and sorrow meet Or thorns compose so rich a crown!”
Some have identified Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” as persecution, epilepsy, chronic ophthalmia, a speech impediment, and a recurrent malady such as malaria. But Paul does not say what his skolops, or thorn was. Yet countless believers have been helped by his reference to his “thorn.” Paul regarded his affliction as given by God and yet as “a messenger of Satan.” Certainly a recurrent illness could be considered “a messenger of Satan,” for it would hinder the advance of the gospel.
The answer to Paul’s prayer for God to remove the thorn did not come as he expected. The thorn remained. Instead, in every time of distressing weakness inflicted by his ailment, he would have the grace to overcome it like a conqueror. Romans 8:35-37 This grace of Jesus Christ was more than adequate for Paul, weak as he was. For the divine power finds its full scope and strength only in human weakness.
In the same way, the cross of Christ forms the supreme example of “power-in-weakness.” With this spiritual lesson well learned, Paul could boast about things that exposed his weakness: “insults.., hardships.., persecutions.., difficulties” v10 rather than pray for the removal of the “thorn”. Suffering endured “for Christ’s sake” gave him Christ’s power within.
It can be the same with you. Whatever disability you may have, whatever hardship, whatever hurt or insult, persecution or difficulty, you can find to strength to overcome through God’s grace within the believing heart.
Whenever you see long thorns with strong spikes, think of Jesus who was crowned with the symbols of your sin that He bore on the Cross, so that you may share His glory. Recognize that on the Cross in all His weakness, you can see the power of God. Whenever you see a paraplegic in a wheel chair, or a quadriplegic on a waterbed, know that by God’s grace that person in weakness can know the power of God if only they will believe. The thorn in the flesh may remain. But the strength of God within can overcome all problems.
Most of all make sure your sin has been forgiven through believing that on the Cross Jesus died for you. Accept Him as your Saviour and trust Him as your Lord now! For by His grace you can overcome every weakness. The grace of God is sufficient for your every need. The grace of God is sufficient. The grace of God!