THE EXPERIENCE OF PAUL
If we accept the biblical teaching that our body is a member of Christ, we also have to take the teaching that Christ’s life flows inside of our body. The life of Christ flows from the Head to His Body, imparting life, vitality, and liveliness to it. Since our body is a member of that Body, it certainly follows that this life will flow into it. Yet this life is received only by faith. The amount of life we receive depends on the degree of faith we exercise in appropriating that life. From the Bible we have seen that the life of the Lord Jesus can be applied to and received by the believers’ body, but this cannot be done without faith. Many believers may be astonished when they first hear such a teaching. But we must not understate the explicit teaching of the Bible. If we look into Paul’s own experience, we will see the preciousness and reality of this matter.
In 2 Corinthians 12 the apostle Paul mentioned the condition of his body. He told us that he had a thorn in his flesh and that he entreated the Lord three times that it might depart from him. But the Lord said to him, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is perfected in weakness" (v. 9a). Therefore the apostle said, "Most gladly therefore I will rather boast in my weaknesses that the power of Christ might tabernacle over me...for when I am weak, then I am powerful" (vv. 9b-10). What was the thorn in the apostle’s flesh? We can bypass this question for now since the Bible does not answer it. But one thing is certain: this thorn in the flesh had the effect of weakening his body. The original word for weakness refers to weakness in the body. The same word is used in Matthew 8:17. Even the Corinthians knew that the apostle’s body was weak (2 Cor. 10:10). The apostle himself said that when he was first with them, he was in weakness (1 Cor. 2:3). This does not mean that the apostle was lacking in spiritual power, for both the first and the second Epistles sufficiently reveal that he was full of spiritual power. Moreover, the word "weakness" is the same word used to describe the physical weakness mentioned above. It is also used in two other passages to indicate the dying condition of the physical body.
Therefore, from these verses we can see the apostle Paul’s physical condition. His original physical condition was very weak, but did he always stay weak? No. He tells us that the power of Christ rested upon him to make him strong. We should pay attention to the "principle of contrast." The thorn never left Paul, and neither did the weakness that came with the thorn; yet the power of Christ rested upon his weak body and enabled him to meet every need. The power of Christ was in contrast to the weakness of Paul. This power did not take away the thorn or remove the weakness, but it lived in Paul, dealing with everything that his weak body could not handle. This may be likened to a wick that burns with a flame but is not consumed because the lamp is full of oil. The wick is still very weak, but the oil supplies everything that the flame requires of it.
Here we see the principle of God’s life being our body’s strength. His life does not change the weak and mortal nature of our body; rather, it saturates the body with what it cannot provide. Therefore, according to his natural condition, Paul was the weakest, but according to the power he received from Christ, he was the strongest. The strength mentioned in this portion of the Bible specifically refers to the apostle’s body. We know how the apostle Paul worked continually day and night, laboring mentally and physically, doing a work that even three or four strong men could not handle. If his weak body had not received the Holy Spirit’s enlivening, how could it have borne so much burden? It is a definite fact that God gave strength to Paul’s body.
How did God strengthen him? In 2 Corinthians 4 Paul mentioned the problem of his body. He said, "Always bearing about in the body the putting to death of Jesus that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who are alive are always being delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh" (vv. 10-11). What attracts our attention the most is that even though verses 10 and 11 are seemingly repetitive, they actually are not. Verse 10 speaks of the life of Jesus being manifested in our body; whereas verse 11 speaks of the life of Jesus being manifested in our mortal flesh. Many people can express the life of Jesus in their body but do not take a step further to do so in their mortal flesh. The distinction between these two is very great. When they are sick, many believers show real obedience and endure much without murmuring or anxiety. They sense the presence of the Lord and manifest His virtues in their countenance, voice, and action. By the Holy Spirit they indeed manifest the life of Jesus in their body. Nevertheless, they do not know that the Lord Jesus can heal their sickness, nor have they heard that His life is also for their humble body. They never apply their faith to appropriate the Lord’s healing of their body in the way that they did for the Lord’s cleansing and enlivening of their dead spirit. As a result, they do not manifest the life of Jesus in their "mortal flesh." By the grace of the Lord they endure pain but do not receive healing. They have the experience of verse 10 but not of verse 11.
In this verse we see how God heals us and strengthens us by the life of the Lord Jesus. This is very crucial. When our mortal body is strengthened, the nature of this body is not changed to be immortal. The nature of the body stays the same; it is the life which supplies strength to the body that is changed. In the past we depended on our natural life as the source of our strength, but now we depend on the life of Christ for our supply. We can be strengthened to work because we have the resurrection life of Christ for our body’s sustenance.
The apostle did not mean that having once lived by the Lord, he would never be weak again. Whenever the power of Christ did not rest upon him, he would be as weak as before. We may lose the manifestation of the life of the Lord Jesus in our body by way of carelessness, independence, or sin. Sometimes there may be no shortcomings in ourselves, but simply because we boldly attack the power of darkness, we face its assault on our body. At other times we may suffer constantly for the sake of the Body of Christ because of our deep experience with it. However, a man usually does not experience these last two unless he is very spiritual. One thing is certain: although we may be weak, God’s will is that we would never be handicapped, fail in His work, or cause Him to suffer. The apostle Paul was often weak, but God’s work was never weakened because of it. We recognize God’s infinite authority, but we must not excuse ourselves of our responsibility.
Here we see that "the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh," is based upon "always being delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake." In other words, we must deny our own life completely before the life of Jesus will be manifested in our body. In this we see the relationship between a spiritual, selfless living and a healthy body. God’s life is for God. He manifests His life in our body for the sake of accomplishing His own work. He does not have the intention of giving us His life and strength so that we may work and live for ourselves. He does not give His life to our body so that we may waste His strength; nor does He supply strength for the accomplishment of our purpose. If we do not completely live for Him, He has no desire to give us this life. Here we see the reason that many seek healing and strength but never get them: they think that health and strength are something for them to enjoy. They seek God’s life for their body in order that they may be more comfortable, happy, free, and less bound when taking any action. That is why they still remain in weakness and inability. God will never give us His life for our private use in order that we may live by our self-life and cause His purpose to continually suffer loss. God is now waiting for His children to come to their end before He will give them what they are seeking.
What is meant by "the putting to death of Jesus"? It is the life of the Lord Jesus which continually delivers the self unto death. The Lord’s whole life was one of self-denial. Until death He never did anything by Himself; rather, He carried out God’s work. The apostle tells us that he allowed the death of Jesus to work in his body so that the life of the Lord Jesus could also be manifest in his mortal flesh. Can we receive such a teaching? God is now waiting for those who are willing to accept the death of the Lord Jesus so that He may live in their body. Who is willing to obey God’s will completely? Who will not initiate anything by himself? Who is willing to continually assault the power of darkness for God’s sake? Who refuses to use his body for accomplishing anything for himself? This kind of person deserves to have the life of the Lord Jesus manifested in his flesh. If we pay attention to the aspect of death, God will take care of the aspect of life. When we consecrate our weakness to Him, He gives His strength to us.
(Collected Works of Watchman Nee, The (Set 1) Vol. 14: The Spiritual Man (3), Chapter 11, by Watchman Nee)