Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.
2 Corinthians 4:1
Paul was involved in a great task, that of introducing the whole Gentile world to the glorious gospel of Christ. Barclay compares it to other great tasks, particularly the one given to Handel as he composed the Messiah. He worked feverishly for twenty-two days, scarcely stopping to eat or sleep. Barclay says, “A great task brings its own strength
with it.” 1
In all his difficulty, tribulation and opposition, he did not lose heart. The Greek word for losing heart is ekkakoumen, and it means to give in to evil, to fail in courage, to be faint hearted or to be a coward.2 Rather than giving in, Paul became a very humble hero of the faith. He succeeded marvelously in the great task assigned to him. The apostle always knew that his success was due to the mercy of God. So it was not in any sense due to his own ability or effort. Mercy may be simply defined as “the undeserved favor given
by God.” 3
“Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (4:2). I like the New Living Translation here which says, “We reject all shameful deeds and underhanded methods. We don’t try to trick anyone or distort the word of God. We tell the truth before God, and all who are honest know this.”
Although it is unthinkable for us today, Paul had obviously been accused of all these deceitful and underhanded things. Comfort says, “Paul was facing a church in revolt…” 4 The false Jewish apostles had done everything possible to attack the character and methods of Paul, and the new converts at Corinth had somehow believed them. Paul could have used underhanded methods and trickery to win back the church. There were no doubt plenty of such things around in those early days. However, he flatly refused to use any of these shameful ways.
I think today that there are not so many preachers who can say the same thing. There is a considerable amount of deceit in many of today’s popular ministries. Pastors water-down the gospel and attempt to have “user-friendly” churches so that the crowds will continue to come. They do not dare to preach on many of the needed but controversial doctrines that would turn-off today’s crowds.
There is much trickery in or time. Stedman tells of a California pastor who vowed he would preach from the church belfry if he could get a certain number of people to attend his Sunday School. The goal was met and the preacher did actually preach from the belfry. Stedman calls it simply a case of bribery, of getting people to come to church for superficial reasons.5 The cases of bribery and trickery today are really too numerous for us to mention.
The truth is that the Bible, the word of God, has a great attraction of its own when it is preached clearly and honestly. Nothing need be added. The conscience of faithful people will awaken within them and they will respond to the voice of God.6 Bruce adds, “There is no ‘veil’ in the new covenant, as there was in the old: everything is open and above board where the gospel is concerned, and everything must be open and above board where its preachers are concerned.” 7
We do not want to move on without looking at a couple of the Greek words used in this verse. There is the word for deception (panourgiāi), which has the meaning of being clever, cunning or deceitful. Then there is the word for distort (doulontes), which has the original meaning of diluting gold or wine.8 As we have mentioned, there are a lot of preachers who dilute or adulterate the word of God in order to keep their crowds (cf. 2 Pet. 3:16). Godby calls all this “priestcraft” and he notes that it is one of the devil’s best and most successful inventions.9
THE PLAIN GOSPEL OBSCURED
And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 2 Corinthians 4:3
We have noted how the gospel is not hidden and yet, because of the devil’s deceiving work, the plain and simple gospel can become hidden to the minds of those who refuse to believe. Barker and Kohlenberger state, “Any veiling (cf. 3:14-15) comes from the unbelief of ‘those who are perishing’ (cf. 1 Co. 1:18; 2 Co 2:15)…” 10 John says, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (Jn. 3:19). As Matthew Henry once said it, there are “None so deaf as those that will not hear. None so blind as those that will not see.” 11
“The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (4:4). Here we have the devil called “the god of this age.” Titles similar to this are used several places in Scripture (cf. Jn. 12:31; 14:30; Rom. 16:20; 2 Cor. 11:14; Eph. 2:2; 6:12; 2 Thess. 2:9; 1 Jn. 5:19). We are not to think that the devil is a rival god because he is not. He is only the god of this present evil age (Gal. 1:4) and this evil age is even now passing away. Any authority the devil has is usurped authority gained from the fall of man in the garden. As Guthrie says, “Satan is a mere ‘squatter’ in the world (Mt. 4:8f.) and his apparent power is but temporary.” 12
Clearly, the work of Satan is to blind the minds of unbelievers. As we have seen, he is able to blind these minds because people cooperate with him as they reject the truth of the gospel. In the natural world around us we have a phenomenon known as “global dimming.” This is a process whereby less and less sunlight is actually getting through to us, due to the increase in jet airplane condensation in the atmosphere and other pollutants. Here we have a global dimming of another sort, due to Satan’s efforts at keeping the light of God from shining into people’s hearts. Because of their spiritual blindness, people today cannot see the light of God which is all around them, much like they are encompassed with the natural sunlight. The devil was using the false teachers to blind the Corinthian believers to the glorious truths of the gospel. Hidden to them was the image of their Christ who is the very image of God (cf. Isa. 6:9; Mt. 13:14-15; Jn. 12:40; Rom. 11:8-10).
GOD’S LIGHT IN OUR HEARTS
For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 2 Corinthians 4:5
Obviously, many preachers today are preaching themselves rather than Christ. My wife and I remember one church that we dubbed “the Church of Robert” (we have disguised the name of course), because the church was all about the pastor. The Greek scholar, A.T. Robertson remarks about the preaching of self, describing it: “Surely as poor and disgusting a topic as a preacher can find.” 13
Rather than being absorbed with self, Paul describes himself as a slave (doulous) of God. The slave or bondservant had no rights or life of his or her own. The slave was the exclusive property of the owner. Although a slave might be placed in a high position, that person was still totally obligated and bound to the master. In our modern and postmodern churches we are rapidly trying to get away from the idea of being God’s slaves.
“For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ” (4:6). In this verse the apostle is taking us all the way back to Genesis 1:3, where God first commanded light to shine in the world. It is also possible here that Paul is remembering the bright and dramatic light of God that shone around him as he was converted on the Damascus road (Acts 9:1-22).
It is a strange fact of creation that light came into the world before the creation of the sun and moon. The physicist Gerald Schroeder says of this, “Both the Talmud and cosmology acknowledge that this first ‘light’ was of a nature so powerful that it would not have been visible by humans.” 14 The first light could have very well been the spiritual light of God. It could have been the light from the Word of God (Jesus) who created all things (Jn. 1:1-4). That spiritual light has now been placed in every believing heart and there is a faint degree in which all people are enlightened in some way by this divine effulgence (Jn. 1:9).
What is the source of this divine light today? Paul makes it clear that it is found in the face of Jesus Christ, the face of the Creator of this world. We can find light to some degree by reading the word of God, for, “The unfolding of your words gives light…” (Psa. 119:130). However, the main source of our light is found in the face of Jesus. The more we look to him and seek his face, the more our lives are flooded with his divine light. When the darkness closes in upon us we must remember to turn and seek the face of Jesus. The Psalmist said, “Restore us, LORD God Almighty; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved” (Psa. 80:19). In Psalm 27:8 we also read, “My heart says of you, ‘Seek his face!’ Your face, LORD, I will seek.” Wesley said, “It is more useful for us to behold God as he appears in his only-begotten Son, than to investigate his secret essence.” 15
Some years ago, in in a time of deep need as I faced heart surgery in Israel, I scratched out the words of this little song:
It’s me, I want to see your face,
It’s me, let me feel your warm embrace.
Let me hear your voice, let me see your smile,
Even though I’ve been gone awhile.
It’s me, I want to hold your hand,
It’s me, Lord please understand.
Let me hear your voice, let me see your smile,
Even though I’ve been gone awhile.
It’s me, you can see my face,
It’s me, you can feel my warm embrace.
You can hear my voice, you can see my smile,
Even though you’ve been gone awhile.
It’s me, you can hold my hand,
It’s me, yes I understand.
You can hear my voice, you can see my smile,
Even though you’ve been gone awhile.
We want to see the face of Christ and we want to be transformed in the process. As C. S. Lewis said: “We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words— to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part
of it… ” 16
But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 2 Corinthians 4:7
In this verse we no doubt have some of the most meaningful symbolism in the whole letter. We are all pictured as mere clay vessels. We, like the clay vessels, were made from the dust of the earth (Gen. 3:19). This is a very common picture, since earthenware vessels were found in most every home in the ancient world.17
Yet, we see that God has placed his glory in us. As Guzik says, “…God chose to put his light and glory in the everyday dishes, not in the fine china….” 18 Why would the Creator do such a thing? The answer is given in this verse. It is so that the real power will be from God and not from us. In that way, God himself will get the glory, not the lowly pots. The word for all-surpassing, or exceeding greatness of God here is huperbolē. Robertson sees it as the preeminence of God’s power (dunameos).19
It seems that God’s power becomes even greater when it is worked through human beings. Chrysostom said, “The power of God is most conspicuous when it performs mighty works by using vile and lowly things.” 20 “People keep treasures in safety deposit boxes and vaults. But God places his glorious treasure – the message that frees people from sin – in fragile, cheap, and ordinary clay jars.” 21
God gets the glory when frail people put their absolute trust in him. The heroine, Joan of Arc, was finally abandoned by those who should have helped her. She said on that occasion, “It is better to be alone with God. His friendship will not fail me, nor his counsel, nor his love. In his strength, I will dare and dare and dare until I die.” 22
So, we have a great heavenly treasure in our little clay jars. We must remember one thing about this transaction. Jars, in order to be useful, must be kept clean and ready for the Master’s purpose.23
“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair…” (4:8). Barnes says of this, “The whole passage is one of the most pathetic and beautiful to be found in the New Testament…” 24 Bruce adds, “in view here is not identification with the death of Christ in baptism but that daily exposure to danger and death for his sake which constitutes their sharing in his sufferings…” 25 In these verses Paul gives us several paradoxes concerning himself and the Christian life. Bible commentators have toyed with many alliterations as they have described Paul’s situation: “often felled, never finished… at wits end, but never at hope’s end…knocked down but not knocked out… hemmed in, but not hamstrung… often felled, but never finished.” Trapp comments: “This is the world’s wages to God’s ministers…Truth goes ever with a scratched face.” 26
Paul was pressed and pressured on every side. The Greek for “hard pressed” is thlibomenoi (from thlibō), and it means to press, as one would press grapes.27 No doubt, many believers have felt themselves pressed by this age. It seems that the pressure from this present evil age mounts with each passing year. These afflictions not only come from the world, but they can sometimes come from those who are closest to us.
The apostle continues to cite his woes. He was also “persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (4:9). Meyer says of Paul: “Few men have been more conscious of their weakness than was the apostle. The earthen vessel had become very cracked and scratched, but the heavenly treasure was unimpaired…” 28
This verse, with its words for “persecuted” and “struck down,” picture for us a chase after a deer or bird, that is finally struck with a dart and captured (1 Sam. 26:20; Heb. 11:35-38).29 Such is the lot of God’s faithful in this present evil age.
THE MARKS OF JESUS
We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 2 Corinthians 4:10
No doubt, it was an alarming sight when Paul took off his shirt. His body was certainly striped, bruised and broken from his many encounters with evil men. To the undisciplined Galatians Paul declared: “From now on, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (Gal. 6:17). In our soft and easy age we often forget some of the words of Jesus. “…If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also…” (Jn. 15:20); “…Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mk. 8:34-35). Peter says the same thing: “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Pet. 2:21). Wiersbe adds, “The test of a true ministry is not stars, but scars….” 30
The Scottish commentator Barclay, tells about one of America’s great building projects, the Boulder Dam. He says:
The great Boulder Dam scheme in America brought fertility to vast areas which had once been desert. In the making of it there were inevitably those who lost their lives. When the scheme was completed, a tablet was let into the wall of the dam bearing the names of the workmen who had died, and below stands the inscription: “These died that the desert might rejoice and blossom as the rose.”..When a man has the conviction that what is happening to him is happening literally for Christ’s sake he can face anything.31
Paul’s philosophy of life is expressed very well in Philippians 3:8-11, “What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him…I want to know Christ— yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” It is here that we see the bright side of all this – the rainbow after the awful storm – the resurrection and the life that is forever with Jesus.
Unfortunately, we want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection but we draw back when the thought of sharing in his suffering is presented to us. Strangely, there are many Christians today who firmly believe that the Christian should never face suffering of any kind, providing his or her faith is strong enough. It is a crude fact of life that when we suffer for Christ and our vessel is broken, the victorious light of the Lord Jesus seems to shine the brightest (Jud. 7:19-20).
“For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you” (4:11-12). We can see that the apostle had a fully developed theology of suffering, a theology is almost entirely lacking in the present-day western church. That theology was forged on the anvil of his long experience as God’s worker.32 We must remember that the cross is not something we wear around our necks but something which is laboriously borne upon our backs.
GRACE AND THE GLORY OF GOD
It is written: “I believed; therefore I have spoken.” Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak, 2 Corinthians 4:13
Paul is here quoting Psalm 116:10 in the Septuagint. When we believe, we do speak. Guzik says, “This is a great principle – that faith creates the testimony.” 33 When the Psalmist spoke these words he was in grave difficulty. He says in this psalm, “…The cords of death entangled me, the anguish of the grave came over me; I was overcome by distress and sorrow” (Psa. 116:3). There is a popular Christian saying today, and it seems to be true, that without a test there can be no testimony.
Augustine said: “Those just men also were saved by their salutary faith in him as man and God. They, before he came in the flesh, believed that he was to come in the flesh. Our faith is the same as theirs, since they believed that this would be, while we believe that it has come to pass.” 34
What was the basis of Paul’s faith? It was, “because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself” (4:14). The apostle could face death because he knew that Jesus would raise from the dead all those who trusted in him (Jn. 6:40). Wiersbe remarks, “Until a person is prepared to die, he is not really prepared to live.” 35 Chrysostom adds here: “Once again Paul fills the Corinthians with lofty thoughts, so that they may not feel indebted to the false apostles.” 36
“All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God” (4:15). Robertson sees the two Greek words used here, pleonasasa and pleionōn as meaning, “making more through more.” 37 The apostle seems to be speaking of a superabundance of grace shown through a superabundance of people. It seems to speak of grace abounding, as well as thanksgiving abounding. Wiersbe notes how this verse is a parallel to Romans 8:28. He says “Whatever begins with grace, leads to glory (see Ps. 84:11; 1 Pet. 5:10).” 38
FIXING OUR EYES ON THE UNSEEN
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 2 Corinthians 4:16
Our bodies are indeed wasting away. Scientists have proven that most cells in the body are replaced within a period of seven to ten years. We particularly notice this process when our skin flakes off or our hair falls out.39 Our physical bodies are designed for a limited time on earth. In Psalm 90:10 we read, “Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.”
Although our physical bodies are wasting away, our spiritual lives are being renewed each day. At this writing I have reached the eighty-year mark, but let me say that I can now see things that I never could have seen at age twenty. I can hear things that I could not have heard back then. Also, I can leap over a wall that I could have never gotten over at age twenty (Psa. 18:29). I am speaking now of spiritual realities and not physical ones.
Our sight really improves when we begin to see the spiritual realities around us. In Hebrews 11:27, the writer says of Moses, “By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible.” It is imperative for Christians to begin living in the unseen spiritual realm. Scripture says, “However, as it is written: ‘What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived—the things God has prepared for those who love him— these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God” (1 Cor. 2:9-10). Clearly, God’s great secrets are hidden, but, they have now been revealed to believers.
“For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (4:17). In light of eternity, even our most difficult troubles are classed as light and momentary. Some of our troubles seem grave to us. I know a dear Christian woman who lost her only son, her marriage and her profession. She says that she now has a PhD in suffering. Yet, that does not compare to the glory that she will soon have.
Barnes notes how this passage abounds with emphatic expressions. The Greek words used together here are kath’huperbolēn eis huperbolēn (that far outweighs). We get our word “hyperbole” from this. It means literally a casting or throwing beyond.40 It may be a little like our expression, “it’s over the moon!” We have a glory coming to us that it is impossible to describe. With this in sight, our troubles amount to nothing.
Here we see the expression “glory…that outweighs,” or as in other versions, the “eternal weight of glory” (NKJ, NJB, NET). It is interesting that the Greek “glory” (doxēs) is often used for the Hebrew kavod, meaning “glory.” 41 The Hebrew word speaks of something that is heavy or weighty. Some precious things like gold are extremely heavy and so is the glory of God.
“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (4:18). When we stop to think about it, there are a lot of things around us that are unseen, even in the physical world. The prolific commentator, James Burton Coffman remarks:
If one can see it, it cannot last. All visible things are temporal…Faith itself is “a conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1)… God framed the universe itself out of things unseen…(Heb. 11:3). It is literally true that the whole universe is made of “things unseen,” even regarding the tiniest particles of it; and, in addition to that, the great fundamental laws controlling all things in space, such as gravity, centrifugal and centripetal forces, inertia, radiation, etc., are, all of them, invisible.42
If many physical things are unseen, we can surely believe that the spiritual things are unseen or invisible. Our father Abraham could not be satisfied with Babylon or Jerusalem. He was looking for a city that had foundations, a city in the spiritual world (Heb.11:10).
With this in mind, we must not keep our eyes fixed on the physical things around us. They are all passing away. We must begin to see and appreciate the spiritual things that we cannot see, for these things make up the real world and universe.
The great biblical scholar Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) had an impact on all the thinking after him for several hundred years, even up to present in some degree. He had a lifetime of brilliant writings including Summa Contra Gentiles and Summa Theologiae. Yet, he finally had a mystical experience that caused him to look upon all his writings as “mere straw,” when compared to the great knowledge of God he received in his experience.43
Yes, let us fix our eyes and hearts on the unseen things— on the spiritual things— for these things will last forever.