2 Corinthians 4:1-18
F. New Covenant Ministry and its Ministers: Treasure in Earthen Vessels - 4:1-15
1. Treasure: the glory of the message - 4:1-6
a. an open ministry - vv. 1-2
1) steadfastness in ministry - v. 1
In all likelihood, had Paul ever doubted the authenticity and power of the gospel he proclaimed, he would have fallen into despair (he would have "lost heart", resulting in, among other things, murmuring, impatience, bitterness, anger).
2) sincerity in ministry - v. 2
a) a response to attacks on his personal character - v. 2a
· we renounce the shameful things one hides
· we are not crafty or deceitful
b) a response to attacks on his preaching of Christ - v. 2b
· we do not adulterate the word of God
· we do commend ourselves by openly speaking the truth
(Transition: But doesn't widespread unbelief and callous rejection of the gospel invalidate its claim to truth? Does not the spurning of the light of the gospel cast a shadow on its lustre? No. The glory of the gospel does not guarantee its acceptance. "The blindness of unbelievers in no way detracts from the clearness of the gospel, for the sun is no less resplendent because the blind do not perceive its light" [Calvin].)
b. a closed mind - vv. 3-4
1) the reality of unbelief - v. 3
The veil is in their minds, not in the gospel.
2) the cause of unbelief - v. 4a (cf. Jn. 12:31; 16:11; Eph. 2:2; 1 John 5:19
3) the result of unbelief - v. 4b
Using the analogy of sight, consider how people respond to the gospel.
· Some suffer from Myopia or nearsightedness; they are blind to the gospel because they can only see themselves.
· Some suffer from Hyperopia or farsightedness; they are blind to the gospel because they can only see the world and its glitter and not the need of their own heart.
· Still others suffer from Presbyopia or inelasticity of the lens that comes from old age; one grows old looking at the gospel and with the passing of time decay and spiritual petrifaction set in.
c. a light in the darkness - vv. 5-6
1) what Paul preaches - v. 5
a) he preaches Jesus Christ as Lord - v. 5a (cf. Rom. 10:9; 1 Cor. 12:3; Phil. 2:11; Col. 2:6)
b) he preaches himself as a slave - v. 5b
"When telling Thy salvation free
Let all-absorbing thoughts of Thee
My heart and soul engross;
And when all hearts are bowed and stirred
Beneath the influence of Thy word,
Hide me behind Thy cross."
(in the vestry of Hatherleigh Parish Church in England)
2) why Paul preaches - v. 6
Note the contrast with v. 4. Unbelievers are blinded by Satan. Believers are enlightened by God. Satan takes one from unbelief into total darkness. God takes one from total darkness into the brilliance of Christ's light!
Gen. 1:2-3; Acts 26:12-18. The original, primeval darkness that enshrouded the creation was dispelled by the divinely creative command: "Let there be light!" Likewise, by way of analogy, in sovereign, creative mercy, God fixes his gaze upon the darkness of sin, death, and blindness in the human soul and says: "Let there be light!"
We must not miss the emphasis Paul places on the glory of the gospel as it is proclaimed and what it means to those who believe. Paul himself literally saw the glory of God revealed in the literal face of Jesus when he was encountered on the Damascus road. That which Paul saw, he now sets forth by means of "the truth" (v. 2) of the gospel addressed to the ears of his hearers (i.e., to the Corinthians, to you and me). When we respond in faith, light from the glorified Christ shines into our darkened hearts (v. 6). As Barnett points out, "such 'seeing' of 'the light . . . of the glory' is, of course, metaphorical for hearing. The gospel of Christ comes first not as an optical but as an aural reality (see, e.g., Rom. 10:17; Gal. 3:2,5; cf. 3:1). Nonetheless, his words are not merely figurative. The intensity of Paul's language suggests that he is appealing to shared spiritual experience, his own and his readers'. When the gospel is heard and the hearer turns to the Lord, the veil is removed so that he now 'sees' the glory of the Lord (see on 3:16,18)" (219-220).
Don't miss this: the glory of God is present in the proclamation of the gospel (4:4-6)! This is why Paul is so appalled at the "peddling" (2:17) and "adulterating" (4:2) of the gospel by his opponents in Corinth. This is not a matter of mere words or a routine speech or a competitive attempt to appear more powerful or persuasive or verbally impressive than the other guy. The proclamation of the truth of the gospel is not entertainment. It is not a platform for a preacher to enhance his reputation or pad his pocketbook or impress people with his eloquence. A preacher or teacher must never open the Scriptures flippantly or casually, as if setting forth the truths of the gospel were no different from any other form of communication. The same applies anytime anyone shares the gospel with a passing stranger in a restaurant or distributes a tract to a friend. Just think of it: when you speak or write or share the message of the cross, "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God as revealed in the face of Jesus" (v. 6) is shining forth. What an awesome calling we have! What an exquisite treasure we carry (4:7)!
2. Earthen Vessels: the trials of the minister - 4:7-15
a. theme: divine power through human weakness - v. 7
1) the contrast - v. 7a
"There could be no contrast more striking than that between the greatness of the divine glory and the frailty and unworthiness of the vessels in which it dwells and through which it is manifested to the world. Paul's calumniators had contemptuously described his bodily appearance as weak and his speech as of no account (10:10; cf. 10:1; 11:6; 12:7), hoping thereby to discredit his authority. But it is one of the main purposes of this epistle to show that this immense discrepancy between the treasure and the vessel serves simply to attest that human weakness presents no barrier to the purposes of God, indeed, that God's power is made perfect in weakness (12:9), as the brilliance of a treasure is enhanced and magnified by comparison with a common container in which it is placed" (Hughes, 135).
Amazing! This man (or, for that matter, you and I), who proclaims such an indescribably powerful and beautiful message, is himself nothing more than a fragile "jar of clay" (v. 7).
2) the consequence - v. 7b
The unmistakable, inescapable design behind this incredible contrast between the splendor of the treasure and the earthiness of the vessel is that the surplus or excess or exceeding abundance of the power may be seen to be wholly of God and not from any one of us! Indeed, contrary to the beliefs and expectations of the world, which thinks only in terms of human ability and accomplishment, "it is precisely the Christian's utter frailty which lays him open to the experience of the all-sufficiency of God's grace, so that he is able even to rejoice because of his weakness" (Hughes, 137). See esp. 1 Cor. 1:26-29.
· If the treasure were in a chest laden with gold and covered with precious jewels, people might focus on the container and ignore the contents.
· Human weakness presents no barriers to God's purposes.
· When God wants to achieve a seemingly impossible task He takes a seemingly impossible person and breaks him (of self-sufficiency, of pride, of self-confidence, of position and power, etc.).
· Those who bring the greatest glory to God are often those who are least impressive when judged by human standards.
b. illustrations: down but not out - vv. 8-11
"As problems and oppositions close in on him from all sides the Apostle is perplexed, at bay, not knowing which way to move; but, notwithstanding this, he is never in a state of hopeless despair. To be at the end of man's resources is not to be at the end of God's resources; on the contrary, it is to be precisely in the position best suited to prove and benefit from them, and to experience the surplus of the power of God breaking through and resolving the human dilemma" (Hughes, 138-39).
1) afflicted, but not crushed - v. 8a
2) perplexed, but not despairing - v. 8b
There is a wordplay (paronomasia) here that is not evident from the English translation: aporoumenoi and exaporoumenoi, the second word being an intentional intensification of the first. Literally, we would render this: "at a loss but not absolutely at a loss!"
3) persecuted [by men], but not forsaken [by God] - v. 9a
The word translated "forsaken" is the one used by Jesus in his cry of dereliction: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34). Is Paul suggesting that although God did "forsake" Jesus on the cross, as he endured the punishment of our sin, He will never "forsake" us? Is not the latter the result of the former?
4) struck down, but not destroyed - v. 9b
5) always dying, but ever alive - vv. 10-11
The "dying of Jesus" that daily takes place in Paul's body is the very affliction, perplexity, persecution, and humiliation that he just described in vv. 8-9. Likewise, the "life of Jesus" is "the deliverance represented by the four 'but nots' of those verses. The former (the 'dying of Jesus') were endured precisely in order that rescue from them (the 'life of Jesus') might be experienced" (Barnett, 236).
Paul does not have in mind some temporary phenomenon, from which we live in hope of being delivered. This "dying" is constant. This spiritual "dying" is as much a part of being a Christian as breathing is a part of physical living. To look at Paul was to see in process a dying analogous to that which Jesus experienced. Each time he was delivered, each time he overcame an obstacle, additional evidence was given that the crucified Jesus is also the resurrected Lord!
Note: Sadly, many Christians encounter the obstacles and trials that Paul has just described and draw far different conclusions about their source and design. (1) Some deny they really exist. Such people are not optimistic: they are simply unrealistic, or perhaps they fear that to acknowledge weakness and hardship and turmoil would be an admission of sin or immaturity. (2) Others despair because they exist. They encounter something similar to what Paul endured and immediately conclude that God hates them or has abandoned them, so why bother trying. (3) Some insist such calamities are demonic. All such trials and tribulations, so they argue, are from Satan, not God. (4) Finally, others, like Paul, see them as divinely ordained, lovingly orchestrated opportunities for our growth and God's glory.
Question: How does one know (indeed, can one know) when such incidents are divine or demonic? When does one (indeed, should one) humbly submit to such tribulations and when does one struggle to eliminate them?
c. application: for life and faith - vv. 12-14
1) for life - v. 12
Philip Hughes again captures Paul's message:
"The Corinthian believers are themselves an assurance to the Apostle that his severe sufferings, his constant 'dying,' are not fruitless. Through his endurance the gospel had been brought to them, and by believing its word they had passed from death to life. To see repentant sinners entering into newness of life in Christ makes every affliction borne for Jesus' sake and in His service a thousand times worth-while. And this is the joy of all Christian witness. It is the unconquerable life of the risen Jesus within that enables His servants willingly and perpetually to be handed over to death for His sake, in order that the same life of Christ may be kindled in the hearts of others, enabling them in turn to win others. . . . The wonder of all this is enhanced by the consideration that it is those who are weak, despised, and persecuted by the world, those who in the eyes of the world are losing their life, who yet are mighty in the Holy Spirit – a reality very evident to the Corinthians in the person of Paul, their Apostle, in whose body death was working as he labored on so that his limitations and afflictions were obvious to all and despised by some, but through whose ministry none the less the life of eternity was working in them" (145).
Note the paradox of asserting that "death" is "at work"! Death, by definition, is the absence of life and activity. Yet Paul says that the very "life" that has come to the Corinthians is the result of the "death" that works in him! By "death", of course, he has in mind again those sufferings in ministry described in vv. 8-9.
2) for faith - vv. 13-14
d. conclusion: for your sake and God's glory - v. 15
The more people who come to know and experience the grace of God through Paul's gospel, the more numerous will be the thanksgivings that are evoked to the glory of God.
G. The New Covenant Hope - 4:16-5:10
1. the incomparable glory of heaven - 4:16-18
[2. the incorruptible life of heaven - 5:1-5
3. the intimacy of the intermediate state - 5:6-8
4. the inevitability of divine judgment - 5:9-10]
a. encouraged though encumbered - v. 16
1) daily decay of the outer man - v. 16a
2) daily renewal of the inner man - v. 16b
The outer man is not a reference to the old man of Romans 6:6 or Col. 3:9 or Eph. 4:22. The old man refers to the moral or ethical dimension of our fallen, unregenerate nature. Outer man refers to our bodily frame, our physical constitution, our creaturely mortality, the "earthen vessel" of 4:7. Thus, the "decaying" or "wasting away" of our "outer man" is most likely a reference once more to the hardships of vv. 8-9 = the dying of Jesus in us of v. 10 = being handed over to death of v. 11 = the death that is at work in us of v. 12. The "renewal" of the "inner man", on the other hand, is probably a reference to the "we are being transformed" of 3:18.
Paul was physically weak and materially deprived but spiritually successful! See Hebrews 11:32-40.
"With perfect calmness Paul can watch the destruction of his outer man. What if his enemies hasten the process, yea, bring it to a sudden end by means of a violent death! He loses nothing. The inner man blossoms into new youth, beauty, and strength day by day. This inner renewal is not hindered but only helped by the tribulation that assails the outer man. These 'bloody roses' have the sweetest odor. These enemies are only defeating their own end; instead of causing Paul to grow discouraged, his elation is increased" (Lenski).
And what of unbelievers? As James Denney says, "The decay of the outward man in the godless is a melancholy spectacle, for it is the decay of everything."
b. an eternal perspective - vv. 17-18
1) our earthly hardships - v. 17
See Rom. 8:18. Christians are not asked to treat pain as though it were pleasure, or grief as though it were joy, but to bring all earthly adversity into comparison with heavenly glory and thereby be strengthened to endure.
"Christian suffering, however protracted it may be, is only for this present life, which, when compared with the everlasting ages of the glory to which it is leading, is but a passing moment; affliction for Jesus' sake, however crushing it may seem, is in fact light, a weightless trifle, when weighed against the mass of that glory which is the inheritance of all who through grace have been made one with the Son of God" (Hughes).
Paul's words here remind us that "'suffering' does not overturn the purposes of God in an age that is characterized by pain and injustice. God's purposes for his people are not thwarted in the 'present evil age,' as Paul calls it (Gal. 1:4). Indeed, under his loving hand every evil thing works together for the good – that is, the end-time good – of those who love him (cf. Rom. 8:28). Only those who have no genuine vision of eternity think otherwise" (Barnett, 252-53).
2) our eternal hope - v. 18
things seen temporal
things unseen eternal
Note the connection between v. 18 and v. 16. Our "inner person" is being renewed as we look or while we look at the unseen, eternal things of the age to come. In other word, the process of renewal only occurs as the believer looks to things as yet unseen. As we fix the gaze of our hearts on the glorious hope of the age to come, God progressively renews our inner being, notwithstanding the simultaneous decay of our outer being! PT: inner renewal does not happen automatically or mechanically . . . it happens only as or provided that we "look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen" (v. 18).
Paul is here describing in his own terms the battle for the mind of mankind that has been raging since the beginning. On what shall we set our sights (cf. Col. 3:1-4)? To what shall we give our allegiance? On what shall we meditate and ponder and focus?
One frightening statistic about this battle in our own day is the fact that the average teenager watches 18,000 murders and 35,000 commercials before he/she graduates from high school! Someone has calculated that by the time one reaches the age of 65, he/she will have spent 10 years watching TV!