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Gazing Intently at What You Can't See (2 Cor. 4:16-18)

I can’t remember who said it or wrote it, but I agree with it: the power to persevere comes from gazing intently at what you can’t see. Needless to say, that calls for explanation. But the explanation itself requires a context.


The context is Paul’s discussion of how we as Christians daily carry about in our bodies the dying of Jesus, and do so without succumbing to despair or bitterness. His comments that concern us today, in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18, still have in view the experience he described in vv. 8-12, one that entails affliction, perplexity, persecution, and being struck down. What that meant for Paul and his ministry in Corinth might not be the same for you and me, but all of us, in our own unique way, face disappointment and suffering that threaten us with discouragement. So how does one not “lose heart,” to use Paul’s very words? Where does one find the power to persevere? Here is what he said:


“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:16-18).


If we’re going to profit from Paul’s perspective, we first need to understand his terms.


The outer nature in v. 16 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 nature, on the other hand, refers to our bodily frame, our physical constitution, our creaturely mortality, the “jar of clay” or "earthen vessel" of 2 Corinthians 4:7. Thus, the "decaying" or "wasting away" of our "outer nature" is most likely a reference once more to the hardships of vv. 8-9 and our carrying about in our bodies the dying of Jesus of v. 10 and our being handed over to death of v. 11 and the death that is at work in us of v. 12. The "renewal" of the "inner nature", therefore, is probably synonymous with what Paul earlier said in 3:18 when he declared that “we are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”


What makes this truly remarkable is that these are simultaneous processes! At the same time Paul was physically weak and materially deprived and oppressed by his enemies he experienced unparalleled spiritual success (see Hebrews 11:32-40)! The Lutheran commentator, R. C. H. Lenski, put it this way:


"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.”


If you aren’t aware of the inner transformation, the outer decimation might well breed bitterness and despair.


Paul explains this in greater detail in v. 17. There he says, in utterly stunning terms, that the persecution he endures and the trials he confronts daily are but “slight momentary affliction”! Paul was no Pollyanna. The suffering in his life was very real, not imaginary, and if viewed only from an earthly or temporal perspective would probably be more than any human might endure. But when viewed from the vantage point of eternity “the suffering took on the opposite hue – it seemed slight and temporary. The eye of faith,” notes Harris, “creates a new perspective” (363).


Note carefully the contrasts in view: “momentary” is contrasted with “eternal,” “slight” is set over against “weight,” and “affliction” is counterbalanced by “glory”. Similar language is used by Paul in Romans 8:18. There he says that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.


God is not asking you 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. Philip Hughes put it thus:


"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.”


It’s encouraging to know that whatever suffering we might endure now, in this age characterized by pain and injustice, cannot overturn or undermine the purposes of God! “Only those who have no genuine vision of eternity,” said Paul Barnett, “think otherwise” (252-53).


But note well: this inner transformation in the midst of outer decay does not happen automatically. Carefully observe the relation between v. 16 and v. 18. In other words, the renewal Paul describes (v. 16) only occurs while or to the extent that “we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (v. 18).


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! Be it also noted that this is no fleeting or casual glance or occasional thought concerning the “glory” of the age to come. The apostle has in mind a fixity of gaze, an attentive and studious concentration on the inestimable blessings of heaven.


When Paul refers to “the things that are seen” he does not mean material or physical things, as if to suggest that “matter” is evil or unprofitable. God created “matter”! All things were pronounced “good” (Genesis 1). After all, we will live forever on a new “earth” which will be quite tangible and physical. Rather, the contrast between “the things that are seen” and “the things that are unseen” has in view the distinction between the present age and all that is temporal and subject to sin and decay, as over against the unchanging righteousness and incorruptible reality of the age to come.


So don’t use this passage to justify a careless, indifferent, or neglectful disregard for the daily responsibilities of life in the present day. Paul is simply warning us against a carnal fixation on what this world system can provide and calling us to set our hope and confidence on the eternal values of God’s kingdom.


Here, then, is the power to persevere: by setting your mind and fixing your gaze and focusing your heart on the unseen yet eternal realities of what God has secured for you in Christ. If I may be allowed to turn the age-old and misguided adage on its head, you will never be of much earthly good unless you are utterly heavenly minded.