COURAGE FOR THE CONFLICT
2 Corinthians 4:1–5:8
The key theme of this section is repeated in 1 Corinthians 4:1 and 16: “We faint not!” Literally, Paul said, “We do not lose heart!” There were certainly plenty of reasons for discouragement in Paul’s situation, yet the great apostle did not quit. What was it that kept him from fainting in the conflicts of life? He knew what he possessed in Jesus Christ! Instead of complaining about what he did not have, Paul rejoiced in what he did have; and you and I can do the same thing.
We Have a Glorious Ministry(2 Cor. 4:1–6)
“Therefore, seeing we have this kind of ministry” is the literal translation of what Paul wrote. What kind of ministry? The kind described in the previous chapter: a glorious ministry that brings men life, salvation, and righteousness; a ministry that is able to transform men’s lives. This ministry is a gift—we receive it from God. It is given to us because of God’s mercy, not because of anything we are or we have done (see 1 Tim. 1:12–17).
The way you look at your ministry helps to determine how you will fulfill it. If you look on serving Christ as a burden instead of a privilege, you will be a drudge and do only what is required of you. Some people even look on service as a punishment from God. When Paul considered the fact that he was a minister of Jesus Christ, he was overwhelmed by the grace and mercy of God. His positive attitude toward the ministry had some practical consequences in his life.
It kept him from being a quitter (v. 1). He confessed to the Corinthians that his trials in Asia had almost brought him to despair (2 Cor. 1:8). In spite of his great gifts and vast experience, Paul was human and subject to human frailties. But how could he lose heart when he was involved in such a wonderful ministry? Would God have entrusted this ministry to him so that he might fail? Of course not! With the divine calling came the divine enabling; he knew that God would see him through.
A discouraged Methodist preacher wrote to the great Scottish preacher, Alexander Whyte, to ask his counsel. Should he leave the ministry? “Never think of giving up preaching!” Whyte wrote to him. “The angels around the throne envy you your great work!” That was the kind of reply Paul would have written, the kind of reply all of us need to ponder whenever we feel our work is in vain.
It kept him from being a deceiver (vv. 2–4). “But we have renounced the things hidden because of shame, not walking in craftiness or adulterating the Word of God, but by the manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 4:2, nasb). Paul was certainly alluding to the Judaizers when he wrote these words. Many false teachers today claim to base their doctrine on the Word of God, but false teachers handle God’s Word in deceptive ways. You can prove anything by the Bible, provided you twist the Scriptures out of context and reject the witness of your own conscience. The Bible is a book of literature and it must be interpreted according to the fundamental rules of interpretation. If people treated other books the way they treat the Bible, they would never learn anything.
Paul had nothing to hide, either in his personal life or in his preaching of the Word. Everything was open and honest; there was no deception or distortion of the Word. The Judaizers were guilty of twisting the Scriptures to fit their own preconceived interpretations, and ignorant people were willing to follow them.
If Paul was such a faithful teacher of the Word, then why did not more people believe his message? Why were the false teachers so successful in winning converts? Because the mind of the lost sinner is blinded by Satan, and fallen man finds it easier to believe lies than to believe truth. The Gospel “is hid to them that are lost: in whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious Gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them” (2 Cor. 4:3–4).
Paul had already explained that the minds of the Jews were “veiled” because of the blindness of their hearts (Rom. 11:25; 2 Cor. 3:14–16). The minds of the Gentiles are also blinded! Those who are lost (“perishing”) cannot understand the message of the Gospel. Satan does not want the glorious light of salvation to shine into their hearts. As the god of this age and the prince of this world (John 12:31), Satan keeps lost sinners in the dark. The sad thing is that Satan uses religious teachers (like the Judaizers) to deceive people. Many of the people who today belong to cults were originally members of Christian churches.
It kept him from being a self-promoter (vv. 5–6). The awesome fact that Paul had received this ministry from Christ kept him from being a quitter and a deceiver; but it also kept him from being a self-promoter (2 Cor. 4:5–6). “We preach not ourselves!” (2 Cor. 4:5) The Judaizers enjoyed preaching about themselves and glorying in their achievements (2 Cor. 10:12–18). They were not servants who tried to help people; they were dictators who exploited people.
Paul was certainly a man who practiced genuine humility. He did not trust in himself (2 Cor. 1:9) or commend himself (2 Cor. 3:1–5) or preach himself (2 Cor. 4:5). He sought only to lead people to Jesus Christ and to build them up in the faith. It would have been easy for Paul to build a “fan club” for himself and take advantage of weak people who thrive on associating with great men. The Judaizers operated in that way, but Paul rejected that kind of ministry.
What happens when you share Jesus Christ with lost sinners? The light begins to shine! Paul compared conversion to Creation as described in Genesis 1:3. Like the earth of Genesis 1:2, the lost sinner is formless and empty; but when he trusts Christ, he becomes a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). God then begins to form and fill the life of the person who trusts Christ, and he begins to be fruitful for the Lord. God’s, “Let there be light!” makes everything new.
We Have a Valuable Treasure(2 Cor. 4:7–12)
From the glory of the new creation, Paul moved to the humility of the clay vessel. The believer is simply a “jar of clay”; it is the treasure within the vessel that gives the vessel its value. The image of the vessel is a recurring one in Scripture, and from it we can learn many lessons.
To begin with, God has made us the way we are so that we can do the work He wants us to do. God said of Paul, “He is a chosen vessel unto Me, to bear My name before the Gentiles” (Acts 9:15). No Christian should ever complain to God because of his lack of gifts or abilities, or because of his limitations or handicaps. Psalm 139:13–16 indicates that our very genetic structure is in the hands of God. Each of us must accept himself and be himself.
The important thing about a vessel is that it be clean, empty, and available for service. Each of us must seek to become “a vessel unto honor, sanctified [set apart], and meet for the master’s use, and prepared unto every good work” (2 Tim. 2:21). We are vessels so that God might use us. We are earthen vessels so that we might depend on God’s power and not our own.
We must focus on the treasure and not on the vessel. Paul was not afraid of suffering or trial, because he knew that God would guard the vessel so long as Paul was guarding the treasure (see 1 Tim. 1:11; 6:20). God permits trials, God controls trials, and God uses trials for His own glory. God is glorified through weak vessels. The missionary who opened inland China to the Gospel, J. Hudson Taylor, used to say, “All God’s giants have been weak men who did great things for God because they reckoned on Him being with them.”
Sometimes God permits our vessels to be jarred so that some of the treasure will spill out and enrich others. Suffering reveals not only the weakness of man but also the glory of God. Paul presented a series of paradoxes in this paragraph: earthen vessels—power of God; the dying of Jesus—the life of Jesus; death working—life working. The natural mind cannot understand this kind of spiritual truth and therefore cannot understand why Christians triumph over suffering.
Not only must we focus on the treasure and not on the vessel, but we must also focus on the Master and not on the servant. If we suffer, it is for Jesus’ sake. If we die to self, it is so that the life of Christ might be revealed in us. If we go through trials, it is so that Christ might be glorified. And all of this is for the sake of others. As we serve Christ, death works in us—but life works in those to whom we minister.
Dr. John Henry Jowett said, “Ministry that costs nothing, accomplishes nothing.” He was right. A pastor friend and I once heard a young man preach an eloquent sermon, but it lacked something. “There was something missing,” I said to my friend; and he replied, “Yes, and it won’t be there until his heart is broken. After he has suffered awhile, he will have a message worth listening to.”
The Judaizers did not suffer. Instead of winning lost souls, they stole converts from Paul’s churches. Instead of sacrificing for the people, they made the people sacrifice for them (2 Cor. 11:20). The false teachers did not have a treasure to share. All they had were some museum pieces from the Old Covenant, faded antiques that could never enrich a person’s life.
It has been my experience that many churches are ignorant of the price a pastor pays to be faithful to the Lord in serving His people. This section is one of three sections in 2 Corinthians devoted to a listing of Paul’s sufferings. The other two are 6:1–10 and 11:16–12:10. The test of a true ministry is not stars, but scars. “From henceforth let no man trouble me: for I bear in my body the marks [brands] of the Lord Jesus” (Gal. 6:17).
How can we keep from giving up? By remembering that we are privileged to have the treasure of the Gospel in our vessels of clay!
We Have a Confident Faith (2 Cor. 4:13–18)
The phrase spirit of faith means “attitude or outlook of faith.” Paul was not referring to a special gift of faith (1 Cor. 12:9), but rather to that attitude of faith that ought to belong to every believer. He saw himself identified with the believer who wrote Psalm 116:10, “I believed, and therefore have I spoken.” True witness for God is based on faith in God, and this faith comes from God’s Word (Rom. 10:17). Nothing closes a believer’s mouth like unbelief (see Luke 1:20).
Of what was Paul so confident? That he had nothing to fear from life or death! He had just listed some of the trials that were a part of his life and ministry, and now he was affirming that his faith gave him victory over all of them. Note the assurances that he had because of his faith.
He was sure of ultimate victory (v. 14). If Jesus Christ has conquered death, the last enemy, then why fear anything else? Men do everything they can to penetrate the meaning of death and prepare for it, yet the world has no answer to death. Until a person is prepared to die, he is not really prepared to live. The joyful message of the early church was the victory of Christ over death, and we need to return to that victorious emphasis. Note too that Paul saw a future reunion of God’s people when he wrote, “and shall present us with you.” Death is the great divider, but in Jesus Christ there is assurance that His people shall be reunited in His presence (1 Thes. 4:13–18).
He was sure God would be glorified (v. 15). This verse parallels Romans 8:28 and gives us the assurance that our sufferings are not wasted: God uses them to minister to others and also to bring glory to His name. How is God glorified in our trials? By giving us the “abundant grace” we need to maintain joy and strength when the going gets difficult. Whatever begins with grace, leads to glory (see Ps. 84:11; 1 Peter 5:10).
He was sure his trials were working for him, not against him (vv. 16–17). “We faint not” (see 2 Cor. 4:1) was Paul’s confident testimony. What does it matter if the “outward person” is perishing, so long as the “inward person” is experiencing daily spiritual renewal? Paul was not suggesting that the body is not important, or that we should ignore its warnings and needs. Since our bodies are the temples of God, we must care for them; but we cannot control the natural deterioration of human nature. When we consider all the physical trials that Paul endured, it is no wonder he wrote as he did.
As Christians, we must live a day at a time. No person, no matter how wealthy or gifted, can live two days at a time. God provides for us “day by day” as we pray to Him (Luke 11:3). He gives us the strength that we need according to our daily requirements (Deut. 33:25). We must not make the mistake of trying to “store up grace” for future emergencies, because God gives us the grace that we need when we need it (Heb. 4:16). When we learn to live a day at a time, confident of God’s care, it takes a great deal of pressure off of our lives.
Yard by yard, life is hard!
Inch by inch, life’s a cinch!
When you live by faith in Christ, you get the right perspective on suffering. Note the contrasts Paul presented in 2 Corinthians 4:17: light affliction—weight of glory; momentary—eternal; working against us—working for us. Paul was writing with eternity’s values in view. He was weighing the present trials against the future glory, and he discovered that his trials were actually working for him (see Rom. 8:18).
We must not misunderstand this principle and think that a Christian can live any way he pleases and expect everything to turn into glory in the end. Paul was writing about trials experienced in the will of God as he was doing the work of God. God can and does turn suffering into glory, but He cannot turn sin into glory. Sin must be judged, because there is no glory in sin.
Second Corinthians 4:16 should be related to 3:18, because both verses have to do with the spiritual renewal of the child of God. Of itself, suffering will not make us holier men and women. Unless we yield to the Lord, turn to His Word, and trust Him to work, our suffering could make us far worse Christians. In my own pastoral ministry, I have seen some of God’s people grow critical and bitter, and go from bad to worse instead of“from glory to glory.” We need that “spirit of faith” that Paul mentioned in 2 Corinthians 4:13.
He was sure the invisible world was real (v. 18). Dr. A.W. Tozer used to remind us that the invisible world described in the Bible was the only “real world.” If we would only see the visible world the way God wants us to see it, we would never be attracted by what it offers (1 John 2:15–17). The great men and women of faith, mentioned in Hebrews 11, achieved what they did because they “saw the invisible” (Heb. 11:10, 13–14, 27).
The things of this world seem so real because we can see them and feel them; but they are all temporal and destined to pass away. Only the eternal things of the spiritual life will last. Again, we must not press this truth into extremes and think that “material” and “spiritual” oppose each other. When we use the material in God’s will, He transforms it into the spiritual, and this becomes a part of our treasure in heaven. (More on this in 2 Cor. 8–9.) We value the material because it can be used to promote the spiritual, and not for what it is in itself.
How can you look at things that are invisible? By faith, when you read the Word of God. We have never seen Christ or heaven, yet we know they are real because the Word of God tells us so. Faith is “the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). Because Abraham looked for the heavenly city, he separated himself from Sodom; but Lot chose Sodom because he walked by sight and not by faith (Gen. 13; Heb. 11:10).
Of course, the unsaved world thinks we are odd—perhaps even crazy—because we insist on the reality of the invisible world of spiritual blessing. Yet Christians are content to govern their lives by eternal values, not temporal prices.