PAUL’S “THORN IN THE FLESH.” Its impossible to know with absolute certainty what affliction Paul was talking about in II Cor. 12: 1-10, as he himself describes it with some veiled language. Some conjecture that it was an eye ailment, from Galatians 4: 12-16 where Paul says that “it was because of an illness that I first came to you,” and later, that “you would have torn out your eyes to give them to me.” He ends Galatians by saying, “See with what big letters I sign my name,” as though the audience might have known how hard it was for him to see to write.
But I lean toward the “weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and difficulties” mentioned in 12: 10 being his “thorn in the flesh,” both because of the context, and because these were the very things for which the alleged “super-apostles” were calling Paul into question. The point of this self-revelation is made in verse 10, and it may even sum up II Corinthians and Paul’s defense against his detractors and competitors: “When I am weak, then am I strong.”
GALATIANS: THE SPIRIT AND THE CROSS, VERSUS THE LAW AND THE FLESH, the latter symbolized most clearly by circumcision, is the basic conflict in Galatians. No simple matter of a polite agreement to disagree, the conflict is so severe and so important that Paul dispenses with the usual praise for his audience, with which he begins most of his other letters, and dives right into confrontation mode: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting”…Christ and the gospel. The issue: Judaizers, who insisted on some level of conformity with the ritual, ceremonial and civil law of Israel, especially circumcision, evidently did not take No for an answer during the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). They seem to have followed up Paul’s missionary work in a number of places to load Jewish rules and regulations onto the new Gentile Christians, as prerequisites for salvation.
Its one thing to take such regulations on voluntarily, maybe for reasons of health or identification with heritage. Its another thing to make them prerequisites for salvation and justification before God. “Will you complete through the flesh what you began by the Spirit? (3:2) Paul asks. God’s Spirit alone effects salvation and true Christ-like transformation of life in response to our faith. That is pure gift; whenever we attempt to earn such gifts by our own efforts according to rules of externalized laws and taboos, we have effectively declared our distrust of God, and our saving faith in ourselves.
Paul spends the first two chapters of Galatians establishing his credentials as an apostle of Jesus Christ, and therefore of the Gospel of salvation (and sanctification) by faith, as well as the credentials of salvation by grace through faith in the Bible, from Abraham on. The latter is important, because while the Judaizers are focusing the new Christians’ attention on minute details of the Law, Paul confronts them with the big picture of the Bible: faith in God’s faithfulness.
Naturally we wonder if such freedom in faith will lead to license. Paul address that question in Galatians 5 onward: The Spirit cultivates vitues in us that no law can do nor hinder (5: 14-26), while unredeemed human nature (the flesh) tends toward sin, even by means of God’s good laws!
Paul’s assertive and controntational tone in this letter lends to what many see as a controlling and over-bearing spirit on his part. This they may pose in contrast to the graciousness Jesus showed to sinners. So why bother with Paul and the pastoral letters? many wonder. Why are they even in the Bible?
But in this and every other case in which Paul takes a confrontational tone, he is fighting for our liberty as Christians, not against it, provided that we understand that our liberty is not for license but for the saving, transforming grace of God. The only options to the gospel of Paul (and Jesus) still are either enslavement to sin, or enslavement to irrelevant, obscurantist and legalistic rules and regulations, and the lifelong fear that we will not have done enough by them to earn God’s favor. These two options still afflict Christians and the church today.
EPHESIANS 1 lacks a name for a destination in some of the earliest manuscripts, or even includes another city, which leaves us wondering if this isn’t a circular letter intended for all or many of Paul’s churches, perhaps the very letter to Laodicea that Paul wanted the Colossian Christians to read (Col. 4: 16). The concerns are more general than specific, more broadly theological than local and pastoral. But that does not detract from the inspiration, power and importance of this letter, for it grandly and majestically sums up and connects the very concerns that Paul has addressed in Romans and his other correspondence, especially his vision of the one new humanity that God is making out of Jew and Gentile through Christ.
PSALM 120 is the first of the “Psalms of Ascent,” the songs of pilgrimage sung or prayed for any of the three major annual festivals that would have drawn people to Jerusalem. The more I read them, the more I wonder if they roughly follow the chronological order of a pilgrimage. In the first, Ps. 120, the pilgrim, living among the nomads of Kedar (Arabia) is ready for pilgrimage, because he has had his fill of insincerity, and because he is peaceable, while “they are for war.” (v. 7) Often it is our grief and distress over the same qualities in the world that start our spiritual pilgrimage toward God.
PSALM 121 gives the pilgrim assurance of God’s power and protection on his or her behalf. Lifting up his eyes to the hills, where he sees either the challenge of travel, or even the shrines of other deities and cults, he receives assurance that not even the sun nor moon, deities worshiped on some of those hilltops, will impede his arrival. Though we don’t fear the sun nor moon today, we still face an uphill climb in our pilgrimage.
PSALM 122 might reflect the fact that the pilgrims have just arrived at their destination. “Our feet are standing in your gates, O Jerusalem.” Then there is the impressive visual impact of Zion: “Jerusalem is built like a city that is closely compacted together” (unlike the smaller villages from which many pilgrims would have come). In answer to the prayer of Ps. 120 and the longing for peace, the pilgrims pray for the peace and the justice (“judgment” in v. 5) of Jerusalem, whose name means “Foundation of Peace,” or perhaps “Rain of Peace.”