Paul's 2nd Letter to the Corinthians and Paul's Letter to the Ephesians

 

May 15, 2014

Tom Lowe

The Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians

                                                                                  

               Lesson II.B.4: The Suffering in His Ministry. (4:7-12)

 

2nd Corinthians 4:7-12 (NKJV)

7 But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.

8 We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair;

9 Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed;

10 Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body.

11 For we which live are alway delivered unto death for Jesus' sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh.

12 So then death worketh in us, but life in you.

 

Commentary

7 But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.

The light of the knowledge of the glory of God was a “treasure.” It was an infinitely precious thing Paul had been given to pass on through his life and his message. The light of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the living Lord, has led Paul not only into the Christian life, but also into unselfish ministry for the Corinthians and others. But the credit for this does not belong to Paul. Perhaps the apostle wanted to crush any temptation on his part for personal pride, and especially to keep his readers from misunderstanding, he confesses that “we have this treasure” of the glorious gospel in “earthen vessels,” a figure of speech perhaps suggested by Genesis 2:7{14], and used to show how humble, fragile, temporary, and weak mortal bodies are.

God had entrusted to Paul and his fellow evangelists this treasure of great worth—the gospel of Christ—but why would He do this? Because He delights in empowering the weak in order to confound the strong. The Lord loves to answer the prayers of the needy and bring down those who take pride in themselves (Luke 1:51-55{8]). God works through the weak and powerless so that it is clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from people (1 Co. 2:3-4{9]). The supremely valuable message of salvation in Jesus Christ has been entrusted by God to frail and fallible human beings (“clay jars”). Paul’s focus, however, was not on the perishable container but on the priceless contents—God’s powerful presence indwelling His people. Though His people are weak, God uses them to spread His Good News, and He gives them the power to do His work. Knowing that the power is His should keep believers from pride and motivate them to keep daily contact with God, their power source. Believer’s responsibility is to let people see God through their lives.

The image of “earthen vessels” takes us back to an incident in the life of Gideon. In Judges 7 we learn that Gideon took only three hundred men with him to free their land from a multitude of Midianite invaders. Each man had a trumpet, and a torch and a pitcher or an “earthen vessel.” They carried their torches in the earthen vessels so that the light couldn’t be seen from a distance. Then when they got among the Midianites, they broke the earthen vessels. It wasn’t until the earthen vessel was broken that the light could shine out.

My friend, that is the thing which we need today. We need the vessel to be broken. The apostle Paul was a man who knew what it was to suffer for Jesus’ sake. That vessel had to be broken. The trouble to day is that we don’t have very many who are willing to do that. I am saying that the earthen vessel must be broken. We cannot have our way and His way in our lives. We need to make up our minds whether we are going to follow Him or not.

This and the verses which follow contain a frank acknowledgment of his weakness. Paul’s physical disabilities were obvious to all. They had been flung in his teeth by his Judaizing opponents, with the probable suggestion that they were clear marks of God’s contempt. His bodily presence was “weak and his speech was of no account” (2 Co. 10:10). He was subject to a recurrent malady, “a thorn in the flesh” (12:7)—which disturbed him, and which remained despite his earnest prayer that it would be removed. A second-century letter gives this picture of the great apostle: “A man of moderate stature, with curly [or crisp] hair and scanty; crooked legs, with blue eyes; and large knit eyebrows; long nose; and he was full of the grace and pity of the Lord, sometimes having the appearance of a man, but sometimes looking like an angel.” From what we know of his life, it is obvious that no man, however physically strong he might be, could have come through all he had suffered without their health breaking down. Paul lists many of the trials he faced in 2 Corinthians 11:23-28: “I am. . . in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.” It is an impressive list, and added to it was the mental anxiety due to his concern for the welfare of the churches he has founded. He must have been a tough individual to endure such trials and still faithfully carry on his mission. As Paul wrote this he may have been thinking of his recent narrow escape from deadly peril in Asia (1:8{1]); but 10:10 and 12:7 show that more than one experience had made the point clear to him.

The Lord loves to deliver, rescue, and save. He loves those who conscientiously remember to praise Him for His acts of mercy. For a Christian, powerlessness is never a limitation but an opportunity for God to work in powerful and mighty ways.

Furthermore, his weakness was not only physical. The apostle is conscious also of spiritual weakness, which he has always had to strive against. Mental incomprehension and imperfect insight seem to be part of our human nature. The true saint is the last to claim sainthood. Such a claim would be a sign he is no saint, for it would be a sign of spiritual blindness. The closer we live to God the more conscious we become of our own inadequacy. Eloquence, polished speech, an impressive appearance, or high intellectual attainments may actually prevent people from realizing that a preacher’s power—or any other man’s power—is of God. Many who have done outstanding work for the kingdom of God have had some crippling physical disability. I once heard a preacher who was terribly disfigured in the Iraq war, who had a powerful witness. A woman who is a quadriplegic writes Christian books and has a radio program where she sings and witnesses for Jesus. The list of God’s saints with handicaps is a long one. Handicaps can stimulate hidden capacities and give opportunity for a victory of the spirit. Paul sees a divine purpose in the fact that such humble, mortal men preach the gospel; this should make it clear to all that the mystical power, which is superior to all the difficulties and opposition that Christ’s workers may have to face, belongs to God. This is a truth that the Corinthians with their party strife and slogans (1 Co. 1:12{2]) have continually missed. But they need to see it; indeed, it is the very truth of the gospel story, in which, through the humble earthly life and shameful death of Jesus, God did his revealing and redeeming work. The divine life and power are released precisely in the life of unselfish service and of suffering for others.

 

8 We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair;

Paul now uses a series of four contrasts to show that the constant succession of desperate crisis he has had to meet have never brought him to defeat, because the power of God has been with him in even the most ominous situations. What happened in Asia (1:8-11{3]) is what continually happens as he meets a continuous succession of deadly perils. Though “troubled on every side,” he is not “distressed,” that is, hemmed in and hard pressed so that no escape seems possible, but he does not lose heart. “Perplexed, but not” driven to “despair” contains a wordplay in Greek—“perplexed but not perplexed to the point of complete despair.” Few teachers would admit to being confused because they might lose the respect of their audience. Paul did not shrink from admitting his own weaknesses. At times, the pressures of his ministry had left him feeling surrounded and trapped. The situation suggested is that of frustration, from which God always provides a way out. There is no impasse on the road of God’s service. The way of obedience is never a dead end. The Bible is full of instances of this, for instance, the crossing of the Red Sea and the crossing of the Jordan River.

Perplexities may be of two kinds. There are practical perplexities for which our human wisdom is not enough. There are also perplexities of faith. Our minds are not big enough to solve all the problems which faith presents. In some ways, indeed, faith in the love of God as it meets the cruelties of life and the apparent callousness of the universe deepens perplexity. The materialist who has no place for God in his outlook has no problem of this kind. His trouble is not perplexity but despair. To be without God is to be without hope (Eph. 2:12{4]). But faith gives us light to walk by, and the promise of the perfect day. “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known” (1 Co. 13:12).

 

9 Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed;

Pursued or “persecuted,” as a soldier who flees from the battlefield; but “not forsaken,” left behind, and abandoned by the army’s commanders and his comrades. Struck down (“Cast down”)in single combat with an enemy in battle, but “not destroyed” (given the final death blow). This may have been an allusion to the time when the citizens of Lystra dragged him outside the city and stoned him, leaving him for dead. Though the apostle’s situation is always apparently desperate, it is never really hopeless; God rescues His people when the human eye sees no hope

There is more to persecution than what a soldier would experience. A more general depiction is “to be singled out for personal attack because of one’s faith or opinions. It is a lonely form of suffering, for it generally involves social ostracism. Like countless others before him, Paul had experienced this loneliness. Yet he never felt that he was forsaken. Dostoevski tells how, when he was kept in solitary confinement for his political opinions, the little shutter in his cell door, was opened every morning, and a mysterious voice whispered, “Courage, brother, we also suffer.” In similar situations Paul was also conscious of God’s presence. When he was placed on trial and made his “first defense” no one was with him. “But,” he writes, “the Lord stood by me” (2 Tim. 4:17). When he was in prison, he could write to the Philippians, “But I want you to know, brethren, that the things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel, so that it has become evident to the whole palace guard, and to all the rest, that my chains are in Christ” (Phil. 1:12-13).

“Cast down, but not destroyed” implies more than physical attack. Paul had received most of his opposition from Jews. They had persecuted him, even following him to different cities to malign him (Acts 14:19{13]). What he suffered through the disloyalty of the church at Corinth was a blow at the heart. Such an experience can sap the springs of courage. A great sorrow can have the same disabling effect. Faith is the secret of resilience. “It is a perpetually defeated thing which survives all its conquerors.” It gives us contact with the inexhaustible resources of God. Part of the secret of Paul’s victory was the attitude toward his sufferings which faith brought. As we read about this man, it seems, at times that he is fighting a losing battle. Can’t you sense that this man is very weak? If we could have seen this little crippled, weak, sick Jew up against the juggernaut of Roman power, we would have concluded that he was nothing. But, my friend, the fact is he brought a message that withered the Roman Empire. Even the historian Gibbon said that the Roman Empire could not stand up against the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul seemed to be so weak, and yet God delivered him again and again. He used miraculous means and He also used natural means. God will never forsake His servants.

 

10 Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body.

Paul realized that his sufferings were a kind of death. But death is more than physical decay. Its meaning depends on the purpose it serves. Christ’s outlook on it was twofold. By it His Spirit would be released into full and fruitful life. The words He used before Calvary reveal this: “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain” (John 12:24).  His death was also the central act of God’s redeeming movement in history. The atonement has many aspects, but this includes them all.

Because of his union with Christ Paul saw the same process at work in his own dying. It was the continual laying down of the life of the body through which the life he had in Christ might be manifested and released. Through it also he shared in the same redemptive movement. This outlook shaped his attitude to the hardships and enabled him to accept them rationally and calmly. They were not a fate or misfortune. They were the operation of the law of sacrifice through which the Spirit is released into fruitfulness and power. It enabled him also to dedicate them. He consecrated his hardships to the purpose of God. By opening his heart to the spirit in which Christ bore His cross he made his own sufferings tributary to the stream that flowed from Calvary.

This divine power that Paul has received works through the close union of the apostle with Christ his Lord. For Paul this is not merely a union in final glory, but even now, “always,” in the midst of hardships and daily service. The glory comes only to those who suffer—“and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together” (Rom. 8:17). “The promises of God are to those who endure,” as Roger C. Cumberland wrote just before his martyrdom on the mission field. The “dying” (lit., “the putting to death”) of Jesus is being re-enacted in a series of sufferings and crisis the apostle must endure; the “dying” here seems to be, not as in verse 16 a constant process, but a series of escapes and deliverances (Col. 1:24{5]; Phil. 3:10-11{6]). The life that comes to Paul in such sufferings is the resurrection life of the crucified but risen Jesus. United with the living Christ, Paul knows both the suffering and decisive triumph of his Lord—“I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).

There is no theoretical solution to the problem of the suffering that prematurely destroys the body. Christ offers us none. But in His own outlook and attitude he reveals and communicates the spirit by which “death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Co. 15:44). The redemption of suffering is part of the redemption Christ brings through His cross. Even the suffering we bring on ourselves through sin and selfishness can be transformed and made to serve God’s redeeming purpose. Paul’s sufferings were not all free from the bitterness of self-reproach; some may have been more intense than they need have been had some defect of character not complicated the situation. But even the suffering that in part at least we bring on ourselves is not excluded. Guilty suffering can be a purifying power. It also can enable us to manifest the forgiving spirit toward others. In confidence that the life of Jesus is being manifested in his body Paul can face the long hard way of increasing physical weakness. He sees that even as a historical fact the life of Jesus is not ended. Jesus lives in and through those who suffer with Him and who give their lives in his service. This is Paul’s comfort.

Remember that in 1 Corinthians 15:31 Paul could say that he died daily. In Romans 8:36 he wrote, “As it is written: "For Your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter." In 1 Corinthians 4:9 he wrote: “For I think that God has displayed us, the apostles, last, as men condemned to death; for we have been made a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men.” Christian, do not be afraid to suffer. Jesus said the world would hate us if we were following Him. It is wonderful to take our place with the Lord Jesus Christ in these days.

 

11 For we which live are alway delivered unto death for Jesus' sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh

This verse repeats and so emphasizes the thought of verse 10. The main addition is the idea that the suffering that Paul endures he accepts for Jesus sake, that is, to serve the Jesus who suffered and died, and yet rose, and now rules as Lord. Paul speaks of Jesus to make vivid the memory of the earthly suffering of his Lord, but here, as elsewhere, he thinks of Him as risen and now in authority. We the living workers for Christ are always being led into situations so full of danger that we can speak of them as times when we are “delivered unto death,” but the triumphant life of Christ is made clear in His apostles; He delivers them and makes them able to continue their service for Him.

Those who had been tempted to despise Paul for his weakness might well be ashamed. All they had experienced of Christ had come to them through Paul’s sacrifice. There is no other way by which spiritual work can be fruitful. It may be a material sacrifice such as contributing money or renouncing social position. It may demand the giving of ourselves to the point of exhaustion in the care of people and in the meeting of their deep spiritual needs. A minister who tries to save himself from physical or mental labor is blunting his own power. Paul’s attitude concerning his own sufferings is the secret of turning burdens into inspirations. Someone has said, “He that takes up that bitter tree and carries it quietly will find it such a burden as wings are to a bird or sails to a boat.”

 

12 So then death worketh in us, but life in you.

The thought takes a sudden turn. Paul has said that both death and life are at work in him as he works in close union with the crucified and risen Jesus. He has said that he accepts this suffering for Jesus sake. Now he says that while death is at work in Christ’s ministers, it is for the good of others that they suffer. The result is life in you Corinthians. This is not ironical; it is deep spiritual truth that one suffers for another; this truth is embodied in Jesus’ cross that the followers of Jesus takes up and caries. Only by the great cost that Christ paid and by the voluntary suffering of Paul and his fellow workers do the Corinthians have the gospel and continue in its blessings (1:6{7]). Jesus Himself was Paul’s model. Although Jesus had all the glories of heaven—all its power and privilege—He gave it all up to suffer humiliation, insults, and finally death (Phil. 2:5-11{10]). Paul had been specifically called by Jesus to suffer for His name (Acts 9:15-16{11]). He considered his many sufferings as a badge, or proof, of his authority as an apostle of Christ (Gal. 4:12-15{12]).

It is interesting to note here, and this is very important to see, that Paul did not consider death to be the end. He is looking beyond death. Death is merely one of the experiences we will have.

 

Scripture reference and special notes

{1] (2 Co. 1:8) For we do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, of our trouble which came to us in Asia: that we were burdened beyond measure, above strength, so that we despaired even of life

{2] (1 Co. 1:12) Now I say this, that each of you says, "I am of Paul," or "I am of Apollos," or "I am of Cephas," or "I am of Christ."

{3] (1:8-11) For we do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, of our trouble which came to us in Asia: that we were burdened beyond measure, above strength, so that we despaired even of life. Yes, we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead, who delivered us from so great a death, and does deliver us; in whom we trust that He will still deliver us, you also helping together in prayer for us, that thanks may be given by many persons on our behalf for the gift granted to us through many.

{4] (Eph. 2:12) in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience,

{5] (Col. 1:24) I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church,

{6] (Phil. 3:10-11) that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.

{7] (2 Co. 1:6) Now if we are afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation, which is effective for enduring the same sufferings which we also suffer. Or if we are comforted, it is for your consolation and salvation.

{8] (Luke 1:51-55) He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, And exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, And the rich He has sent away empty. He has helped His servant Israel, In remembrance of His mercy, As He spoke to our fathers, To Abraham and to his seed forever."

{9] (1 Co. 2:3-4) I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 

{10] (Phil. 2:5-11) Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

{11] (Acts 9:15-16) But the Lord said to him, "Go, for he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name's sake."

{12] (Gal. 4:12-15) Brethren, I urge you to become like me, for I became like you. You have not injured me at all. You know that because of physical infirmity I preached the gospel to you at the first. And my trial which was in my flesh you did not despise or reject, but you received me as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus. What then was the blessing you enjoyed? For I bear you witness that, if possible, you would have plucked out your own eyes and given them to me.

{13] (Acts 14:19) Then Jews from Antioch and Iconium came there; and having persuaded the multitudes, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead.

{14] (Ge. 2:7) And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.

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