THE THREEFOLD PRAYER IN 2 CORINTHIANS 12

In modern warfare, one of the necessities to a successful mission is good radio communication. When I was still a soldier, nothing was worse than losing communication with the T.O.C. (Tactical Operations Center). All of the resources that find their origin in the T.O.C. can seemingly be cut off from the soldiers on the battlefield. Most soldiers descend upon the battlefield with plans for such events, but even the most highly trained soldiers will eventually need to reestablish radio contact. However, there are times where even when radio contact is reestablished, the modern soldier does not get what he needs in regards to permission to continue, more resources, etc. Suffering in the Christian life can be very similar to the modern day battlefield. We long for our King to answer us according to our desires, only to feel like we hear radio silence at times.

2 CORINTHIANS 12: PLEADING FOR HELP

In 2 Corinthians 12, we read of a pretty familiar story to most. Paul has spent 11 chapters making absolutely clear that his weakness is the evidence of his apostolic authority. In 12:1-6, Paul breaks out of his shell of not boasting and begins boasting, but it is a boasting that is meant to prove a point. He then tells of this vision he received where the Lord raised him up to the third heavens and he saw exceedingly great things. This vision could have been the grounds for boasting and quieting the Corinthians up from their false accusations of Paul. In his loving care, Jesus sovereignly administered a thorn in the flesh to keep Paul humble (2 Cor. 12:7). This thorn, according to Paul, was a “messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.” The same God who gave Paul this great vision also gave him a thorn to keep him humble.

Old TESTAMENT ALLUSION IN 2 CORINTHIANS 12:8

After describing the thorn and its purpose, Paul rewinds so that we could see what he did when the thorn was given. In 2 Corinthians 12:8 he says, “Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave.” The Corinthians got a glimpse into the life of Paul. In the midst of suffering, he cried out to God. His knees were the place of communication as he cried out and “pleaded” with Jesus himself to come along side him in this suffering.

Behind this threefold pleading is an Old Testament allusion that may color in our view of Paul’s pleading. In Psalm 55, we have a Psalm by David filled with a moment of crying out to the Lord. In fact, it one of pleading. In 55:16 David cries, “But I call to God, and the LORD will save me.” David knows that the Commander of all things hears he pleas and entrusts himself to God the King. Then like Paul, David prays three times asking for help. Psalm 55:17 says, “Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan, and he hears my voice.” This threefold prayer was not a random number but a daily rhythm of prayer for God’s people throughout history. In fact, it is pretty fair to say that Paul’s threefold prayers were a single event, or a day of prayer: morning, noon, and evening.

As David prayed these prayers, he was in great need of something. His circumstances became to much to bear so he cries out again in Psalm 55:22, “Cast your burden on the LORD, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved.” Clearly, Paul has this whole Psalm in mind as he prays and asks the Lord to bear this burden of the thorn. Did Jesus take this burden? Or would there be radio silence?

KING JESUS: HIS THREEFOLD PRAYER AND HIS POWER FOR THE WEAK

In the very next verse of 2 Corinthians 12, we get a rare glimpse into the glorified King speaking to the Apostle. After Paul pleaded three times for the thorn to be removed, Jesus says to Paul in verse 9a, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul was adamant that weakness was the way that Christ showed his power, and he was adamant because Christ himself told him so. It is in weakness where the resurrection power of Christ flows through his weak followers (2 Cor. 4:7-11). And yet, Jesus doesn’t just tell Paul these things without understanding them personally and experientially.

In Mark 14:32-41, we are allowed entrance into the beginning of one of the greatest experiences of suffering in all of human history. As we come to the edge of the Garden of Gethsemane, we come as mere spectators; we can only watch and listen. But if we watch and listen, we will see grace at work. As Jesus begins his onslaught against sin and Satan, he bears the burden of what he alone can bear. The reality of his coming suffering sets in and Jesus prays a threefold prayer pleading for God the Father to take away the cup. And like Paul’s thorn, the cup remains. So the Son presses on and drinks the cup of suffering to its very dregs so that the people of God can receive the cup of blessing. God’s no to Christ’s threefold prayer was an astounding “no” so that we could receive the eternal “yes.”

WHY THIS MATTERS?

If you are like me, waiting is hard. We want to be a people that faithfully serve God and see “prayer as the chief exercise of faith” (Calvin), but we often are discouraged when God seemingly says “no.” In his incredible commentary on 2 Corinthians, R. Kent Hughes encourages us, “Whenever Christ says no to our desperate passionate pleadings, the no is freighted with his perfect, compassionate goodness and love. The Lord’s answers to our prayers are never negative, except in a superficial sense, because ultimately they are fully positive, bringing God’s unending blessing” (Hughes, Preaching the Word: 2 Corinthians, 213). There may be times where God administers a “thorn” in our lives. May we be a people who fellowship with David, Paul, and ultimately King Jesus in our threefold prayers, knowing that Christ’s grace is sufficient for us and his power is made perfect in our weakness. We have been given access into his presence (Rom. 5:1-3) and will never lose communication with our Commander.

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