Paul’s Perseverance in Ministry

4:1 Therefore, since we have this ministry, just as God has shown us mercy, we do not become discouraged.

Paul has just outlined the splendour of the ministry which had been entrusted to him. Now, in 2 Cor 4:1-6, he tells how in the light of this he conducts himself and proclaims the gospel. He also explains why the minds of some are yet blinded to the truth of the gospel.

This ministry – the ministry of the new covenant, the splendour of which has been described in 2 Cor 3:7-18. He, who was one a persecutor of the church of God, knows that it is entirely ‘through God’s mercy’ that he has this ministry. His vivid awareness of this is the reason he does not ‘lose heart’, even in the face of many difficulties and setbacks.

4:2 But we have rejected shameful hidden deeds, not behaving with deceptiveness or distorting the word of God, but by open proclamation of the truth we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience before God.

Distort – a word used of adulterating gold or wine. Paul therefore seems to have in mind the corruption of the God’s word by the intermingling of error.

Setting forth the truth plainly – we should catch the contrast between the deceitfulness of the false teachers and the open statement of the truth by Paul. We have a sober reminder here that the truth of God, plainly addressed to the conscience of the hearer, is the bench-mark of ministerial faithfulness and integrity.

In the sight of God – who is the ultimate Judge of all our words and actions, whether our human audience will heed them or not. Cf 1 Cor 4:3-4.

4:3 But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing, 4:4 among whom the god of this age has blinded the minds of those who do not believe so they would not see the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God.

Even if our gospel is veiled – Paul has just been speaking of his open statement of the gospel. Why then has it been rejected by so many, especially from his own nation, Acts 13:44-45; 17:5-9; 18:5-6,12-21; 19:8-9. The answer lies in the condition of the hearers, as the next verse will make clear.

Perishing through ignorance

‘It is said that some years ago a vessel sailing on the northern coast of the South American continent was observed to make signals of distress. When hailed by another vessel, they reported themselves as “Dying for water!”

“Dip it up then,” was the response. “You are in the mouth of the Amazon river.”

There was fresh water all around them, and they had nothing to do but to dip it up, and yet they were dying of thirst because they thought themselves surrounded by sea water.

People are often ignorant of their mercies. How sad that they should perish for lack of knowledge! Jesus is near the seeker even when he is tossed on oceans of doubt. The sinner has only to stoop down and drink and live; yet he is ready to perish, as if salvation were hard to find.’ (Spurgeon)

The god of this age – Gk ‘aeon’. Although many translations render it ‘world’, the idea is not so much of a place as of a period of time. Paul writes elsewhere of ‘this present evil age’, Gal 1:4, which is an age which began with Satan’s revolt (the devil has been sinning ‘from the beginning, 1 Jn 3:8) and Adam’s rebellion and continues to the present time. ‘Humanity has…been caught up in the cosmic and supernatural uprising of Satan against the one true and living God.’ (Barnett) Cf. 1 Jn 3:10,12; 4:4; 5:19. ‘The unregenerate serve Satan as though he were their God.’ (Hughes)

Blinded – Just think of it: unbelievers are characterised as blind, walking around in what is at best a half-light, where nothing is seen clearly for what it really is, where obstacles are constantly stumbled over, and opportunities are ignored because they are simply not seen.

Whenever Satan is mentioned in this epistle, it is in connection with his hindering of the work of God. But he can only do this by God’s permission, and at any time the Satan-induced blindness of mind can be penetrated by a divine blaze of light. Such had been the case, of course, with Paul himself, Acts 9:1-19; Gal 1:13-17.

How does Satan exercise such a powerful influence over unbelievers? He has blinded their minds, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel.

Christ, who is the image (eikon) of God –

4:5 For we do not proclaim ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.

We do not preach ourselves – In contrast, Jesus did preach himself!  ‘He was central to his [own] gospel, indeed he was central to it.  It had no life or power without him.  He was its form and content.  From the beginning, Christianity has been ot a philosophy, not a mysticism, not even an ethic, but “the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (cf. Mk 1:1).’ (Peter Lewis, The Glory of Christ, p3)

Preach – the Gk verb comes from the noun ‘keryx’, ‘herald’. Such a person brought important news from the king or emperor to the people, scattered throughout the land. Barnett suggests that a modern near equivalent would be the radio or television news reader. Like the the news announcer, the herald would need to possess a good voice and the self-discipline not to embellish or alter the message.

Bondservants – Gk doulon = slave. The translation of this word as ‘servant’ misses much of the point. A servant is one who serves. A slave is one who is in bondage to the one he serves. Freedom was highly values in the Graeco-Roman world. ‘How can a man be happy if he is in bondage?’ (Plato). Jesus exemplified the status of slave by washing his disciples’ feet, Jn 13; Christians are urged to follow suit, Php 2:7.

4:6 For God, who said “Let light shine out of darkness,” is the one who shined in our hearts to give us the light of the glorious knowledge of God in the face of Christ.

No wonder that Paul preaches not himself but Jesus Christ as Lord (v5) in view of the truth contained in this verse.

“Let light shine” – recalls Gen 1:3, ‘And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.’ However, an alternative reading has, ‘For it is the God who said, “a light shall shine out of darkness”’. This could then be an allusion to Isa 9:2, ‘The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.’

‘A double misery lies upon a great part of mankind, viz. Impotency and Pride. They have not only lost the liberty and freedom of their wills, but with it have so far lost their understanding and humility as not to own it. But, alas! Man is become a most impotent creature by the fall; so far from being able to open his own heart, that he cannot know the things of the Spirit, 1 Cor 2:14. cannot believe, Jn 6:44. cannot obey, Rom 8:7. cannot speak one good word, Mt 12:34, cannot think one good thought, 2 Cor 3:5, cannot do one good act, Jn 15:5. O what a helpless, shiftless thing is a poor sinner! Suitably to this state of impotence, conversion is in scripture called regeneration, Jn 3:3, a resurrection from the dead, Eph 2:5. a creation, Eph 2:10. a victory, 2 Cor 10:5.’ (Thomas Watson)

An Eternal Weight of Glory

4:7 But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that the extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.

‘This treasure is not the light or inward illumination spoken of in 2 Cor 4:6, but the ministry of the gospel which Paul had received, and of which he had spoken in such exalted terms. It was a ministration of life, of power, and of glory. It revealed the grandest truths. It produced the most astonishing effects. It freed men from the condemnation and power of sin; it transformed them into the image of Christ; it delivered them from the power of the God of this world, and made them partakers of eternal life. These are effects which infinitely transcend all human power; and to render this fact conspicuous God had committed this treasure to earthen vessels. By earthen vessels is not meant frail bodies, but weak, suffering, perishing men, because it is not on account of the frailty of the body merely that ministers are so incompetent to produce the effects which flow from their ministrations. The apostle means to present the utter disproportion between the visible means and the effects produced, as proof that the real efficiency is not in man, but in God. The excellency of the power, i.e. the exceedingly great power, the wonderful efficiency of the gospel. May be, i.e. may be known and acknowledged to be, of God, i.e. to flow from him as its source, and not from us. Although what the apostle here says is true of all ministers, yet he had, no doubt, special reference to himself and to his own peculiar circumstances. He had magnified in the highest degree his office, but he himself was a poor, weak, persecuted, down-trodden man. This, he says, only renders the power of God the more conspicuous, not only in the success of my ministry, but in my preservation in the midst of dangers and sufferings which it seems impossible any man could either escape or bear. It is to show, on the one hand, how weak he is, how truly a mere earthen vessel, and, on the other, how great and manifest God’s power is, that in the following verses he contrasts his trials and his deliverances.’ (Hodge)

‘As the precious pearl is found in a shell, so this precious treasure of the gospel shall be found in frail men, that the excellency of the work may be of God. The more contemptible the instrument, the more glorious appears his divine power in using it for so high and noble an end. To see a man wound another with a sword that is sharp and weighty would carry no wonder; but to wound him with a feather in his hand, this would speak it a miracle. To see men fall down and tremble when an angel-a creature of such might and glory-is the speaker, is no great wonder; but to behold a Felix quivering on the bench, while a man, and he a poor prisoner at the bar, preacheth to his judge, this carries a double wonder. First, that so poor a creature as Paul was, and in the condition of a prisoner, durst be so bold; and also, that so great a person as Felix was should be smitten with his words, as if some thunderbolt had struck him. Who will not adore the power of a God in the weakness of the instrument? Had God employed angels in this business, we should have been in danger of ascribing the efficacy of the work to the gifts and parts of the instrument, and of giving credit to the message for the messenger’s sake that is so honourable. But now, God sending those that are weak creatures like our-selves, when anything is done by them, we are forced to say, ‘It is the Lord’s doing,’ and not the instruments’. What reason God had this way to provide for the safeguarding his own glory, we see by our proneness to idolize the gifts of men, where they are more eminent and radiant than in others. What would we have done if angels had been the messengers? Truly, it would have been hard to have kept us from worshipping them, as we see John himself had done, if he had not been kept back by the angel’s seasonable caveat, Rev 19:10.’ (Gurnall)

4:8 We are experiencing trouble on every side, but are not crushed; we are perplexed, but not driven to despair; 4:9 we are persecuted, but not abandoned; we are knocked down, but not destroyed, 4:10 always carrying around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our body.

‘Whatever condition the children of God may be in, in this world, they have a “but not” to comfort themselves with; their case sometimes is bad, yea very bad, but not so bad as it might be.’ (MHC)

Struck down, but not destroyed – or, as J.B. Phillips paraphrases it, ‘We are knocked down, but not knocked out’!

4:11 For we who are alive are constantly being handed over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our mortal body.
4:12 As a result, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.
4:13 But since we have the same spirit of faith as that shown in what has been written, “I believed; therefore I spoke,” we also believe, therefore we also speak.

“I believed; therefore I have spoken” – ‘This is a text which should be written over every minister’s study door, and over his pulpit, too. What have we to say if we have a doubt about it? How can we move others if we have no fulcrum for our lever, if we are not ourselves sure and certain! If there is no element of dogmatism in our message because of our confidence concerning what we have to deliver, in God’s name let us go to bed and hold our tongues until we do believe it.’ (The Best of Spurgeon, 333)

4:14 We do so because we know that the one who raised up Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus and will bring us with you into his presence.

Present – ‘To present, parivsthmi, is to cause to stand near or by, to offer to. We are required to present our members, (Rom 6:13) or our bodies, (Rom 12:1) unto God; Paul says he desired to present the Corinthians as a chaste virgin unto Christ, 11:2; God is said to have reconciled us to present us holy in his sight, Col 1:22; and Jude (2 Cor 4:24) gives thanks to him who is able to present us faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy. This is the idea here. It is true that in the following chapter it is said that we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, whence many suppose that the apostle means here that having been raised from the dead, believers shall be presented before the tribunal of the final judge. But the idea of judgment is foreign from the connection. It is a fearful thing to stand before the judgment seat of Christ, even with the certainty of acquittal. The apostle is here exulting in the assurance that, however persecuted and down-trodden here, God, who had raised up Jesus, would raise him up and present him with all other believers before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy. This it was that sustained him, and has sustained so many others of the afflicted of God’s people, and given them a peace which passes all understanding.’ (Hodge)

4:15 For all these things are for your sake, so that the grace that is including more and more people may cause thanksgiving to increase to the glory of God.
4:16 Therefore we do not despair, but even if our physical body is wearing away, our inner person is being renewed day by day. 4:17 For our momentary, light suffering is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison 4:18 because we are not looking at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen. For what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.
Outwardly wasting away, inwardly being renewed

Garland (NAC) remarks that we have here ‘the exact reverse of the plot in Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. In that story the vain Dorian Gray has his portrait painted; and when it is finished, he laments: “How sad! I shall grow old and horrible, but this picture never will be older. If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! I would give my soul for that!” He got his wish. The portrait became a mirror of his soul, which showed every sign of evil and aging. He locked it away to prevent the world from seeing the truth about himself and deceived others with an outward appearance of one who was young, pure, and handsome. The contrast between the loathsome, evil, and wrinkled visage on the canvas fed by mad, ravenous passions, and his exquisite outward appearance grew more stark every day. In Paul’s case others may only see a withered, crushed apostle, pounded by overwhelming hardships. If they do not look at him with the eyes of faith, they will not see the real Paul on a portrait locked away in heaven that is ever being transformed into the likeness of Christ. As his outward life conforms ever more closely to the crucified Christ, his inward life conforms ever more closely to the glorified Christ.’

We do not lose heart – Kistemaker illustrates this from two episodes from Paul’s own experiences: ‘First, he was beaten with rods, thrown into prison, with his legs in the stocks; yet he was praying and singing hymns in the middle of the night (Act 16:22-25). Next, when the raging storm caused the people aboard ship to give up all hope, Paul told them to be courageous. He predicted that they would run aground on an island but everyone would be rescued (Act 27:20-26).’

Faith keeps us from losing heart, v13; hope keeps us from losing heart, v14; the benefit of others keeps us from losing heart, v15; as does the consideration of God’s glory, v15; the benefit to our own souls keeps us from fainting, v16; the prospect of eternal life keeps us from fainting, v17.  (See MHC)

Outwardly we are wasting away – It is not the ‘old man’ – the unregenerate nature – which is being referred to here, but the human constitution with its physical and mental faculties and energies. This outward and visible nature is ‘wasting away’ – a steady and irreversible process.

The unbeliever, of course, also experiences this outward decay; but there is no compensating renewal, no hope of glory.

We should not suppose that Paul is subscribing here to the view, common in Greek philosophy, according to which the body was transient but the soul was immortal.  If that were the case, Paul would have abandoned his belief in a bodily resurrection and replaced it with a Platonic doctrine of immortality.  But the context (2 Cor 4:14) shows that Paul held firmly to the doctrine of a bodily resurrection.

What is temporary

‘Beauty is only temporary. Sarah was once the loveliest of women, and the admiration of the Court of Egypt; yet a day came when even Abraham, her husband, said, “Sell me some property for a burial site here so I can bury my dead.” (Genesis 23:4)
Strength of the body is only temporary. David was once a mighty man of valor, the slayer of the lion and the bear, and the champion of Israel against Goliath; yet a day came when even David had to be nursed and ministered to in his old age like a child!
Wisdom and power of the brain are only temporary. Solomon was once a marvel of knowledge, and all the kings of the earth came to hear his wisdom — yet even Solomon in his latter days played the fool, and allowed his wives to “turn his heart after their gods.” (1 Kings 11:2)’

(Ryle, Practical Religion, emphasis added)

‘This expresses a categorical distinction that is basic to Paul’s anthropology and his understanding of the Christian life, a distinction that the church blurs to its peril. In terms of bodily existence (i.e. “outwardly”), along with the entire creation, (Rom 8:20-21) believers are subject to unremitting decay leading to death; (1 Cor 15:42-44) that mortality may be temporarily alleviated byt not removed. Only at the core of our being (i.e. “inwardly”) do believers presently experience the Spirit’s eschatological power. No physical exam or or psychological test will ever enable us to tell the difference between believers and unbelievers (though, in general, faith in Christ and obedience to God’s commands promote health in mind and body). Balance here is not only requisite but critical; it may be captured by saying (of believers) that what is true in the body is not yet true for the body.’ (Gaffin, in Are miraculous gifts for today? p59)

As Garland (NAC) points out, this verse begins a series of contrasts between the present, temporary, affliction and the future, eternal, glory that is to follow:-

[ezcol_1half]outward man / inner man (2 Cor 4:16)
wasting away / being renewed (2 Cor 4:16)
slight / beyond measure (2 Cor 4:17)
momentary / eternal (2 Cor 4:17, 18)
affliction / glory (2 Cor 4:17)
what can be seen / what cannot be seen (2 Cor 4:18)
tentlike house / building from God (2 Cor 5:1, 2)[/ezcol_1half] [ezcol_1half_end]earthly / heavenly (2 Cor 5:1)
destroyed / eternal (2 Cor 5:1)
stripped naked / clothed (2 Cor 5:2–4)
mortality / life (2 Cor 5:4)
preparation, the guarantee of the Holy Spirit / not yet (2 Cor 5:5)
sight / faith (2 Cor 5:7)
at home in the body / away from the Lord (2 Cor 5:7–9)[/ezcol_1half_end]

Trials as opportunities

  • They remind us of Christ’s suffering for us.
  • They keep us from pride.
  • They cause us to look beyond this brief life.
  • They prove our faith to others.
  • They give God the opportunity to demonstrate his power.
  • They bring an eternal reward.

(Life Application Bible Commentary)

Note the contrasts:-

  • momentary and eternal
  • light and weighty
  • troubles and glory.

Paul here ‘sets side by side the things present with the things to come, the momentary with the eternal, the light with the weighty, the affliction with the glory.’ (Chrysostom)

For – The connection of ‘wasting’ with ‘renewal’ (v16) is not incidental. There is an inner logic, as this verse shows (cf the conjunction ‘for’). The trouble endured is ‘achieving’ for us the eternal and surpassing glory.

‘The trials which Paul endured, to many persons would have seemed to be any thing else but light. They consisted of want, and danger, and contempt, and stoning, and toil, and weariness, and the scorn of the world, and constant exposure to death by land or by sea; see ver. 7–10; comp. chap. 11:23–27. Yet these trials, though continued through many years, and constituting, as it were, his very life, he speaks of as the lightest conceivable thing when compared with that eternal glory which awaited him.’ (Barnes)

The trouble we endure does not merit glory; nor does all suffering produce glory. True Christian suffering is suffering for Christ’s sake, v11.

The ‘light and momentary troubles’ are not trivial. Paul’s sufferings were both severe and prolonged, (1 Cor 4:11-13; 2 Cor 1:8-10; 4:8-9; 6:4-10; 11:23-27; 12:10).  But ‘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.’ (P.E. Hughes)

Light – ‘ἐλαφρὸν means that which is easy to bear, and is usually applied to a burden; see Mat. 11:30, comp. 2 Cor. 1:17.’ (Barnes)

Momentary troubles – ‘Though your life be evil with troubles, yet it is short – a few steps and we are out of the rain.’ (Gurnall) ‘”Mercy hath a heaven, and justice a hell, to display itself to eternity, but long-suffering hath only a short-lived earth.” (Henry Smith)

Achieving for us an eternal glory – ‘These hard frosts hasten the spring flowers of glory!’ (Thomas Watson)

‘The effect of these afflictions is to produce eternal glory. This they do,

  1. By their tendency to wean us from the world;
  2. To purify the heart, by enabling us to break off from the sins on account of which God afflicts us;
  3. By disposing us to look to God for consolation and support in our trials;
  4. By inducing us to contemplate the glories of the heavenly world, and thus winning us to seek heaven as our home; and,
  5. Because God has graciously promised to reward his people in heaven as the result of their bearing trials in this life.’ (Barnes)

Far outweighs them all – Paul has previously used these terms (hyperbole, ‘beyond all measure’, bara, ‘weight’) to describe his sufferings in Asia (2 Cor 1:8).  But now he evaluates them as ‘light and momentary’, when compared with what God has in store.

The weight (βάρος) of glory stands in opposition to the (ἐλαφρὶν) light affliction.

[ezcol_1half]

The one is,

1. AFFLICTION, θλίψις.
2. Light, ἐλαφρὸν.
3. For a moment, παραυτίκα

[/ezcol_1half] [ezcol_1half_end]

The other is, by contrast,

1. GLORY, δόξη.
2. Weight, βάρος.
3. Eternal, αἰώνιον.
4. Eminent, or excellent, καθʼ ὑπερβολὴν.
5. Infinitely excellent, eminent in the highest degree, εἰς ὑπερβολὴν.

[/ezcol_1half_end](Barnes)

‘The Hebrew word for glory signifies pondus—a weight. The weight of glory adds to the worth, the weightier gold is, the more it is worth. This glory is not transient—but permanent, an eternal weight. This glory will be better felt than expressed.’ (Thomas Watson)

‘Who will grudge to part with the lease of a low-rented farm, in which he also hath but a few days left before it expires, (and such our temporal life is,) for the perpetuity of such an inheritance as is to be had with the saints in light?’ (Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour)

We fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen – Some, such as C. Peter Wagner, suggest that ‘what is unseen’ is the realm of spiritual powers. This, however, neglects the context.

Wright says that ‘the contrast between that which is seen and that which is not (2 Cor 4:18a) could by itself, of course, come straight from Plato, and might imply a dualism in which physicality, present and future, was downgraded in favour of a non-physical world and human existence. But this ontological dualism is questioned in the second half of verse 18, and disproved entirely in 2 Cor 5:1–5.’ (The Resurrection of the Son of God)

What is seen is temporary – As Ryle (Practical Religion) remarks, ‘The houses we live in, the homes we love, the riches we accumulate, the professions we follow, the plans we formulate, the relations we enter into — they are only for a time.’

The same author adds this appeal to anyone who is living only for the present world: ‘Oh, be careful what you are doing! Awake to see things in their true light, before it is too late. The things you live for now, are all temporary and passing away! The pleasures, the amusements, the recreations, the profits, the earthly callings, which now absorb all your heart and drink up your entire mind — will soon be over. They are poor fleeting things which cannot last. Oh, do not love them too much; do not hold on to them too tightly; do not make them your idols! You cannot keep them, and you must leave them. Seek first the kingdom of God, and then everything else will be given to you. “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” Oh, you that love the world, get wisdom! Never, never forget that it is written, “The world and its desires pass away — but the man who does the will of God lives forever.” (Col 3:2; 1 Jn 2:17).’

‘Note, [1.] There are unseen things, as well as things that are seen. [2.] There is this vast difference between them: unseen things are eternal, seen things but temporal, or temporary only. [3.] By faith we not only discern these things, and the great difference between them, but by this also we take our aim at unseen things, and chiefly regard them, and make it our end and scope, not to escape present evils, and obtain present good, both of which are temporal and transitory, but to escape future evil and obtain future good things, which though unseen, are real, and certain, and eternal; and faith is the substance of things hoped for, as well as the evidence of things not seen, Heb. 11:1.’ (MHC)

Temporary…eternal – ‘The predominant meaning of aionios, that in which it is used everywhere in the NT, save the places noted above, may be seen in 2 Cor 4:18, where it is set in contrast with proskairos, lit., ‘for a season,’ and in Philem 15, where only in the NT it is used without a noun. Moreover it is used of persons and things which are in their nature endless, as, e.g., of God, Rom 16:26; of his power, 1 Tim 6:16, and of his glory, 1 Pet 5:10; of the Holy Spirit, Heb 9:14; of the redemption effected by Christ, Heb 9:12, and of the consequent salvation of men, 5:9, as well as of his future rule, 2 Pet 1:11, which is elsewhere declared to be without end, Lk 1:33; of the life received by those who believe in Christ, Jn 3:16, concerning whom he said, ‘they shall never perish,’ Jn 10:28, and of the resurrection body, 2 Cor 5:1, elsewhere said to be ‘immortal,’ 1 Cor 15:53, in which that life will be finally realized, Mt 25:46; Tit 1:2.’ (Vine)