Paul wrote this letter of 2 Corinthians when the church in Corinth had been visited by some very impressive preachers who had a very fatal flaw: they thought that what made a good minister or missionary was a matter of human skill, and they belittled Paul to the Corinthian Christians because of his weaknesses and trials. Paul, on the other hand, knew better. Paul saw that it wasn't just about our natural talents, but instead it was about how we let God use us for his mission and about how we followed in the footsteps of Jesus. For Paul, it isn't about our strength, but about God's power being shown off completely in the middle of our human weaknesses (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:9). Paul thought that the priorities of these preachers were so out of line with what Jesus taught that they might as well have been talking about someone else entirely (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:4); their values were more like the world's values than like God's values.
“Therefore, since through God's mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. 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.” [[2 Corinthians 4:1-2]]
“And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 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.” [[2 Corinthians 4:3-4]]
“For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. For God, who said 'Let light shine out of darkness' [Genesis 1:3], 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.” [[2 Corinthians 4:5-6]]
In this chapter, Paul stresses that his ministry is completely above board. He isn't attempting to trick people or trying to make Scripture say something it's not. He isn't hiding what he's doing, and he isn't holding back any part of his message. Instead, Paul is being completely honest. Paul says that the fact that the Spirit of the Lord is with him means that he has the freedom to boldly tell the truth without trying to dress it up. The preachers he's criticizing may have prided themselves on using all sorts of word games to get their message across, like a lawyer, but Paul wants to lay it all out on the table when he does his ministry. Paul's ministry is marked by his good conduct, his sound biblical teaching, and his honesty. Not all of us are apostles, and not all of us are pastors, but all of us are given some kind of ministry by God. Our ministry also needs to be honest in explaining why we as Christians believe the things we believe and do the things we do, and when we do that, we need to be clearly rooted in the Bible and relate to people by seeing them as God sees them, so that we can 'speak the truth in love'.
Paul admits that, even with his honest ministry, not everyone will be able to get the gospel; for many people, it seems to go right in one ear and out the other. Paul says that this is because people are made blind by the devil, who loves things to be dark and unclear so that people will stay in their sin and not turn back to God. Paul doesn't say this to judge those people, because he knows that before we turned to God, we were also in that same boat. None of us had the power, before God touched us and lifted us up, to see through Satan's scheme. We couldn't do anything unless God made the first move. It's easy, once we've seen the light, to be judgmental of those who “can't see the light of the gospel”, but while we do have to speak God's truth about human sin, God didn't put us here to put the world down. God put us here to shine God's light of love on the world, and trust him to do the rest. And no matter how dark it gets, Paul reminds us that God's motto from the very start has always been, “Let there be light”.
But Paul's emphasis in these verses is that it isn't our light that ultimately gets through the darkness. As Christians, when we bring the good news to people, it isn't the good news of how good we are, or how gifted we are, or how rich and successful and accomplished we are. It's the good news of how good Jesus Christ is, and he makes that goodness clear by showing off his strength especially when we're not strong. We're just called to be the faithful messengers and to play our role by listening to God. And that's when God's light of glory can shine in our hearts. Making a comment on these verses, the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas commented that when we turn to Jesus, “the power of the glory of Christ’s brightness shines in us, and it shines on us in such a way that not only are we enlightened so that we can see, but we enlighten others”. When we put a candle or a light bulb inside a clear lantern, people can see the light clearly; but if we try to paint over the outside of the lantern to make it look pretty, all that paint just gets in the way of the light. When we paint over ourselves by focusing on our gifts, on our talents, on our abilities, then the focus is on us – the shell, the clay jar – instead of on the light that God put inside of us.
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” [[2 Corinthians 4:7-9]]
“We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 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.” [[2 Corinthians 4:10-12]]
In Paul's time, some of these mistaken preachers thought that a good preacher wouldn't have to go through hard times. They'd overcome everything easily, God would clear away all their difficulties, everything about their lives would spell success, even in the eyes of the world. They made fun of Paul for everything he had to go through. Even today, we have some preachers who say that if we just have enough faith, then we'll always be rich and healthy and be liked by everyone. Paul says just the opposite here. The Christian life isn't the easy road. It's the road that Jesus took. And the road that Jesus took is the one that he carried his cross down on his way to suffer and die. Remember that Jesus defined being his disciple as setting everything else aside to take up our cross and follow him. Paul says that as Christians, we carry Jesus' death on the cross with us, because that's the only way that a Jesus-like life is made known in us. We often tell people that God has a wonderful plan for their lives, and he does! But we sometimes forget to share with them that this wonderful plan means “always being given over to death for Jesus' sake”. God's wonderful plan for our lives is seldom what the world calls wonderful. That's especially difficult to remember as Christians in America, where we aren't outright being persecuted for our faith, and where comfort is the #1 rule of life. But being a Christian the right way might not mean being blessed the way the world counts its blessings. Paul says that we have treasures in jars of clay – beautiful prizes hidden deep inside fragile, ungussied-up bowls – exactly so that we won't make the mistake of thinking that we deserve the credit for what God does in us. We don't. All the credit, all the glory, goes to God, who put the treasure there. His plan for us in this life isn't to stop being a jar of clay; it's to show off the treasure on the inside, and that is God's wonderful plan for our lives.
“It is written, 'I believed; therefore I have spoken' [Psalm 116:10 LXX]. Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak, 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. 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.” [[2 Corinthians 4:13-15]]
As jars of clay in a world that doesn't understand how God does things, we're pretty likely to get chipped. In the end, we get broken into pieces, just like Jesus was broken for us. But God never planned to leave Jesus in his tomb. Jesus didn't stay there. Instead, Jesus came back from the dead; he came back to the body that was dead, and God made him alive again in his body, but this time with outward glory. Paul says that we know for a fact that God has the same plan in store for us. These jars of clay are going to be glued back together after they break. In the next chapter, Paul says that what God has in store for us isn't just to leave our bodies behind as if they weren't a part of God's plan for our everlasting life. Paul says that that would be like being stripped naked. Instead, Paul says that we put on a new set of clothes that God has set aside for us. Our certain hope is to be raised from the dead someday, but without the weaknesses or the pain or the sadness. Like we read last week, God will wipe away every tear. This is what motivated Paul to speak out in preaching the gospel, and it should be one of our motives to speak out too. We don't want our friends to be lost. We want them to meet Jesus, because we know from experience how Jesus can change someone, and he isn't even done with us yet! Paul says that ultimately, the point isn't even just for our friends to be saved. That's part of it, but being saved isn't the end, it's the means. The most worthwhile thing someone can do is praise God. When we get to help people come to know the Lord, we know that they'll be able to live with us and with Jesus in glory – but what's more, they get to finally live out the reason why God made them: to bring glory to God through receiving and sharing his love.
“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” [[2 Corinthians 4:16-18]]
In looking at what Paul said here, we've said a lot about how the Christian life isn't an easy one. Paul talks about being jars of weak clay, about being handed over to death, about being persecuted, about being struck down, about being put under a lot of pressure and stress in this life for the sake of the gospel. But Paul isn't one to end on a depressing note without shouting from the rooftops about the big silver lining. We need to remember, he says, that it's what's on the inside that counts. We might have to go through a lot of difficulties, but they're only mild and brief when we compare them to what's in store for us on the other side. It can be easy to be distracted by worldly things. We're surrounded by them all the time. Sometimes they can be the pleasures that the world is offering us – money, power, success, pleasure, the latest toys and gadgets – and sometimes they can be the hard times and inconveniences that come our way. But all of these things are temporary. An hour after Jesus comes back, it won't matter what the number in our bank account was, it won't matter how much stuff we had, it won't even matter how well people liked us; and our trials will also all be over. But what will matter are the things we can't see directly yet – things like what God has in store for us, the visible fruit of our relationship with him. We aren't supposed to focus our attention on the things that won't last. We do need to give our attention to the things that will. And if we have our eyes fixed on Jesus and his promises, then the Holy Spirit will do with our ministry in the world exactly what God has planned for it.