Paul the Basket Case
Before the Battle of Britain, when the Germans would repeatedly bomb London but be repelled by the Royal Air Force, Prime Minister Winston Churchill predicted that it would be said of those heroic pilots, “This was their finest hour.” At the time their country needed them, they’d step up. And they did.
Probably we all like to imagine ourselves being heroic like that, if we really needed to be — that in the hour of need we'd be brave and willing.
The apostle Paul might’ve been tough, as shown by his years of ministry. Comparing himself to the rival ministers in Corinth, he says, “I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again” (2 Cor 11:23).
But so that no one thinks he’s bragging, his list of sufferings ends like this: “In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city guarded in order to arrest me. But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands” (2 Cor 11:33-34).
The story is familiar. After coming to the Christian faith, Paul’s life was in immediate danger, and the believers in Damascus helped him get away. They put him in a big basket and lowered him out of the city. It’s memorable, but seems curious here in 2 Corinthians. What’s the big deal? In talking about his suffering, why would he put this very last, as the climax of the list? Given the choice, I’d take evacuation in a basket over flogging any day!
The apostle wants to show that he was no hero. Mentioning this, he’s probably thinking of something from the Roman military. When the legions would besiege and attack a city, the first soldier up the ladder and over the wall was given great honour. For that was a fine act of bravery! The first one over — if he survived, anyway — might be given a small crown as reward.
But Paul? He wasn’t the first one up, he was the first one out! He didn’t storm up a ladder in boldness of heart — he was let down in a basket through the window! To be sure, God delivered him that day. But in Paul’s eyes, like so many events in his life this was an example of personal vulnerability. He was dumped out of the city like a common fugitive.
This was not his finest hour, and it didn’t matter! Because Paul boasts in the things that show his weakness. His rivals might’ve been outwardly impressive, but he’d celebrate his mediocrity. He would, because then God’s glory would be most clearly seen. His weakness meant people should expect victory from Christ alone, not his human servants!
Sounds good, but it’s hard to accept. For it’s natural to look at things like the Corinthians did, who were drawn by charisma and eloquence. We want riveting speakers, engaging characters, fascinating personal stories.
But the only real strength and wisdom come through Christ and his supremacy. We’ll always try to be strong, and imagine ourselves doing great things for God. We want to be the hero. At the very least, we want to be respectable! But if we’re Christ’s followers, we first need to be covered in shame. A person who admits he needs rescuing looks like a loser. Yet God says good things come from being humbled. Paul might’ve been weak, even a basket case, yet God blessed his labours for many years.
Knowing the certainty of God’s strength, we too, can boast in our weakness. We can finally admit that we don’t have the ability to convert our neighbour. And we can’t save our family. And it’s not up to us to build the church. To God we can confess our emptiness, for then we’ll be ready to trust in him.
That’s what Christ said to Paul when he prayed that his “thorn” be taken away. The thorn hindered the apostle and his work. But instead of removing it, Christ said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness!” (2 Cor 12:9). It was all the Lord needed to say: “Rely on my grace.”
For that’s where the strength is for every weak Christian. When we finally stop focusing on what we can accomplish, and acknowledge that we can’t do it by ourselves, God begins to show his grace in new and surprising ways.
Then we say with Paul, “When I am weak, then I am strong.”
It’s our finest hour.