Christian Reflection: A Treasure in Earthen Vessels
2 Corinthians 4
2 Corinthians 4
2 Corinthians 4. In ch.3 we learned that the Spirit of God is forming Christ in the believer, by occupying us with His glory. In ch.4 we find that the glory of God has beamed into our hearts for the purpose of shining back out again. The subject of the chapter is Christ flowing out from ourselves to the world, and the things that might hinder or help that outflow. The believer is viewed as a vessel containing a treasure. The Christian servant ought to be a willing vessel (v.1), a clean vessel (v.2), an empty vessel (v.5), and a broken vessel (v.6). A nice illustration might be that of a light bulb. The light emanates from the filament at the center of the bulb, but the light must pass through the glass of the bulb to be seen outside. If the glass is dirty, the light will be dim. But if the glass is clean, the light will be bright. The filament is like the life of Christ in each believer. The bulb is like the human body. The dirt is like the things of the world and of nature that tend to obscure the light. God is seeking to reveal His Son in each believer, and therefore it is in God’s interests to “clean the bulbs”; i.e. to pass us through circumstances that remove those things. As Christians, we should develop exercises in our lives that routinely clean the vessel; i.e. the practice of self-judgment and self-denial.
- What We Must Do so the Light Can Shine Out (4:1-6)
- What God Is Doing so the Light Can Shine Out (4:7-12)
- That Which Sustains God’s Servants Through Suffering (4:13-18)
What We Must Do so the Light Can Shine Out (4:1-6)
Take Spiritual Courage (v.1)
¶ Therefore, having this ministry, as we have had mercy shewn us, we faint not. v.1 The first thing we must do is take courage. There is a great danger, “having this ministry” (i.e. the ministry of the Spirit, ch.3), that we would fail to reflect or display it to others. There is much opposition to the gospel, from our own flesh, from the world, and from Satan. But if God gives His servant a work to do, He will also give the grace to needed to face the opposition. What motivates us to take courage, and to press on without fainting, is a sense of the “mercy” God has shown to us. When we realize what God has done for us, all weakness and cowardice is pushed aside by the heart’s response to that mercy. This was particularly important for the apostle and his companions, who faced serious persecution (vv.7-12).
Maintain Transparency of Walk (v.2)
2 But we have rejected the hidden things of shame, not walking in deceit, nor falsifying the word of God, but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every conscience of men before God. v.2 The second thing the servant needs is honesty and transparency in their walk. We need to eliminate things that would hinder the outflow of the life of Christ. Paul’s life was like an open book. He had “rejected the hidden things of shame” that characterized the Gentile world. He was consistent and honest in every way. He would not stoop to the dishonest tactics of this world to accomplish his aims. Rather than act as though the ends justified the means, he acted as though the means justified the ends. Some of the false teachers in Corinth couldn’t claim what Paul says here. The “manifestation” of the truth goes beyond what we say. It takes in our whole walk. Purity of walk gives moral power to our testimony. We can “falsify” the Word of God by the way we live, or we can “manifest” the truth. How many people have been turned away from Christianity by the poor conduct of Christians?
Have Nothing in Ourselves to Veil the Gospel (vv.3-4)
3 But if also our gospel is veiled, it is veiled in those that are lost; 4 in whom the god of this world has blinded the thoughts of the unbelieving, so that the radiancy of the glad tidings of the glory of the Christ, who is the image of God, should not shine forth for them. vv.3-4 If people did not believe Paul’s gospel, it wasn’t because of some inconsistency in Paul’s life; rather it was because Satan had blinded their eyes. Paul is going back again to the idea of the veil over Moses face (ch.3). Not only is the face of Jesus unveiled for the believer to behold, but the preaching of apostle was likewise transparent. Paul passed on the truth in the same pureness in which he received it. Do you? Satan blinds a certain class; “them that believe not”. When a person rejects the testimony of God, they open themselves up to being blinded by the devil (see 2 Tim. 2:26). What does the devil blind? He blinds the thoughts – the reasoning and speculation of man – and hence proceed doubts, atheism, false scientific theories, etc.
The gospel is called “the gospel of the glory of Christ” because it takes in not only His death and resurrection, but also His being raised and seated at the Father’s right hand in heaven! The gospel is not glorious, but the Person presented in the gospel is glorious. The full Christian gospel preaches not only a humbled Man on the earth, but a glorified Man in heaven! Elsewhere we read of “the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). These are the two parts of “the gospel of God” which Paul preached, and what Paul calls elsewhere “my gospel” (Rom. 2:16; 16:25; 2 Tim. 2:8; 2 Cor. 4:3; 1 Tim. 1:5; 2 Tim. 2:14). The gospel of the grace presents God coming down to meet man’s need, and the gospel of the glory presents Christ accomplishing the will of God and being exalted at His right hand.
Christ is “the image of God” in that He perfectly represented God to this world (Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3). The principle is this: Paul’s testimony was so vibrant that the only ones who couldn’t see the “radiancy of the gospel of the glory of Christ” were those whom Satan had blinded. Satan is active in this world to prevent men from receiving the gospel. He is “the god of this world” in a religious sense, and he is “the prince of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11) in a political sense. The higher you get in this world, the closer you get to the devil.
Stay Humble and Reflect Christ (vv.5-6)
5 For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus Lord, and ourselves your bondmen for Jesus’ sake. v.5 We need to be careful to not draw attention to ourselves. If the light is going to shine out we have to realize our nothingness. Paul did everything he could to get himself out of the picture. Naturally, Paul would have been praised by some, because his gifts were very public. The wise thing to do when praised by men is to defer to Christ; “we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus Lord”. In the measure that we promote self, we will obscure the reflection of Christ from our hearts to this world. Paul was so selfless that he considered himself, not only a servant of God, but a servant of the saints “for Jesus’ sake”. Throughout this epistle, Paul places himself humbly at the Corinthians’ feet in order to draw out their hearts.
6 Because it is the God who spoke that out of darkness light should shine who has shone in our hearts for the shining forth of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. v.6 The reason why it is so important to preach Christ is that the whole scheme of salvation, from the very first work of God in our souls, has for its object the reflection of His glory in the face of Jesus Christ. What has God done to counteract the deadness of the natural man and the blinding efforts of Satan? He sovereignly works the new birth; imparting life where there was none before. The same God who commanded “that out of darkness light should shine” in Gen. 1:3 is the same God who has “shone in our hearts”. A comparison is made between the state of the earth in Gen. 1:2 and the condition of man apart from God. The earth had fallen into a state of chaos and darkness. It would have remained that way, except that God began to act by His Spirit hovering over the face of the deep, and by His Word; “let there be light”. As with the old creation, so with the new creation. When we were dead in sins (Eph. 2:5) having no desire toward God, out of His sovereign will He quickened us (John 1:13) through the Word of God in the power of the Spirit (James 1:18; John 3:5; 5:25), and the light of the knowledge of the glory of God shined into our hearts! Paul himself is an example of this: one who was struck down by a light from heaven on the Damascus road. What was the purpose of imparting Divine life to us? The purpose was this: “for the shining forth” of that same light. The in-shining and the out-shining of the gospel are linked together in the power of the Holy Spirit (John 7:37-39). The highest purpose of our presence here on earth is to display Christ (Gal. 1:16). The glory of God is reflected fully and only in the face of Jesus Christ, whose life is shined into our hearts by new birth. He is the full manifestation of all that God is in light and love. We are His representatives now on earth.
What God Is Doing so the Light Can Shine Out (4:7-12)
Breaking the Vessel. God isn’t going to leave us alone without trial. He wants to break us down that the life Christ might shine out. Trials are used by God to manifest His glory (John 11:4). Particularly in this chapter, the trials are those of the physical body. References to the body are abundant in 2 Cor. 4 and 5: “earthen vessels” (v.7), “our body” (v.10), “our mortal flesh” (v.11), “our outward man” (v.16), and “this tabernacle” (5:1-4). The treasure of the life of Christ is allowed to shine more brightly when self is removed; and the breaking down of the physical body contributes to this. We see it in a collective sense in Rev. 21, where the glory of Christ shines through the various foundation stones of the heavenly city, made translucent though sufferings, but in that day perfectly reflecting the glories of Christ to the Millennial earth. A nice Old Testament example of this is seen with Gideon’s victory over Midian (Judges 7). Gideon’s three-hundred men were each told to put a torch into a clay pitcher. When Gideon blew his trumpet, the men were to do likewise, then they were to break the clay pitchers and let the light shine out. The effect startled the camp of Midian, and resulted in a great victory for Israel. So it is with us; God wants the light to shine out, and in order to do so the vessel needs to be broken down. Are trials the only way to increase the outshining of the life of Christ to the world? No. Light shines from our earthen vessels: when (1) we walk uprightly as children of light, Eph. 5:8, or when (2) men see our good works, and glorify our Father in heaven, Matt. 5:16, or when (3) we practice self-denial and self-judgment, 2 Cor. 4:10, or when (4) trials and persecution break down our bodies, 2 Cor. 4:11.
Breaking the Vessel (vv.7-12)
7 But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassingness of the power may be of God, and not from us: v.7 The knowledge of the glory of God is called a “treasure”, contained in “earthen vessels”. Clay vessels in scripture are frequently used to represent the human body. “The LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Gen. 2:7). Job repeatedly speaks of himself as having a “body of clay” (Job 10:9; 13:12; 33:6). Earthen vessels are made of dust, are very brittle, and have a limited useful service-life. The thought here is the contrast between the treasure and the vessel. The treasure is glorious, the earthen vessel is not. It is the wisdom of God to place the life of Christ in the power of the Spirit of God into frail human bodies, so that “the surpassingness of the power may be of God, and not from us”. The power demonstrated in the believer’s walk evidently Divine. Others looking on, knowing the weakness of the vessel, will be forced to see the hand of God at work. How opposite is this from human wisdom! The party-makers in Corinth taught that the earthly glory of the vessel was great, but in reality the Christian’s “strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). In fact, the weaker the vessel, the more abundantly manifest is the power of God. What power? The power that God used to shine the light into our hearts (v.6) is the very same power by which the light shines out of our hearts (v.7); i.e. by the Spirit of God.
Practical Application. The principle of v.7 is immensely practical. When serving the Lord, do we seek glory for the vessel? If so, we actually diminish out own effectiveness. We should not give others the impression that the power is from us. The constant tendency is to exalt self.
8 every way afflicted, but not straitened; seeing no apparent issue, but our way not entirely shut up; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; cast down, but not destroyed; vv.8-9 Pressure from Without. Physically, the apostle and his companions were passing through deep trials. The vessel was being broken down; “troubled… perplexed… persecuted… cast down”. Nevertheless, God was with him sustaining the vessel, that it might not break entirely; “yet not distressed… yet not in despair… yet not forsaken… yet not destroyed”. It was a testimony to all that his ministry was of God, and not of himself. So in our lives, we may find ourselves in great suffering, but we never have cause to despair. The attitude of the believer in suffering is a testimony to the world, and through it the light of the life of Jesus is manifested. This gets into the purpose of trial. God is seeking to “reveal His Son” is us (Gal. 1:16), and allowing trials in our lives is one way that reveals the hidden treasure of the life of His Son.
10 always bearing about in the body the dying of Jesus, that the life also of Jesus may be manifested in our body; v.10 Pressure from Within. Next we find a spiritual exercise of the apostle Paul that contributed to the light shining out of the vessel; namely, self-denial. We cannot be a “vessel” for God’s use if our own will is at work. Paul went about as one who realized that our Lord’s portion here on earth was a cross. The expression “the dying of Jesus” is not exactly the death of Christ, but rather the putting to death of Christ; not His atoning sufferings but His martyrdom sufferings. It speaks of the perfect obedience of Christ, which led Him to submit to all kinds of suffering at the hands of men. “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus”… that He “became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Phil 2:5-8). It is the application of the cross to our own wills. Also, His manhood name of “Jesus” is used twice in this verse; that name carries the thought of His earthly pathway. The thought is this: to bear in our body the putting to death of Jesus is to live in complete self-denial. Jesus lived, not do do His own will, but the will of Him that sent Him (John 6:38). For us, that means refusing to give place to the our own will. Jesus did not have the flesh, but we do. Peter brings this very comparison out in his first epistle; “Forasmuch then as Christ hath suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves likewise with the same mind: for he that hath suffered in the flesh hath ceased from sin” (1 Pet. 4:1). This is an ongoing thing. It is similar to the typical meaning of circumcision. Circumcision is the practical recognition of God’s judgment on the flesh. It is seen in scripture as both a one-time thing (pictured by Israel’s initial act at Gilgal) as in Col. 2:11, and also as an ongoing thing (constantly returning to Gilgal) to continually put the flesh in the place of death as in Col. 3:5. When we believed the gospel we “crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts” (Gal. 5:24), but there is an ongoing need to act on that truth. The result of practicing self-judgment is that “the life also of Jesus” is manifested in our bodies. The life of Christ wants to shine out of us, but the working of our own will interferes, and the light is obscured. We can contribute to the light shining out by consistently practicing self-judgment and self-denial.12
11 for we who live are always delivered unto death on account of Jesus, that the life also of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh; v.11 Pressure from Above. Now we find what God is doing to help those “who live” (who have the life of Christ) to exercise self-judgment in our lives. God constantly exposes the believer to trial, suffering, and even the danger of death to further the work of self-judgment, which ultimately furthers the manifestation of “the life of Jesus” in “our mortal flesh”. A long life of self-less devotion to Christ is a tremendous testimony to the glory of God’s grace; perhaps even greater than the testimony of a martyr’s death. Hence we see that God’s purpose in the suffering of His saints is not merely punitive; sometimes it is purgative. Purgative chastening is given by God to remove unnecessary hindrances from a believer’s life, in order that they might produce more fruit (John 15), and be more radiant (2 Cor. 4). Read more… Here the suffering was in the form of persecution “on account of Jesus”. Little by little, the “chaff” was winnowed away – the natural man, his wisdom, his own will – and the life of Jesus was manifested more and more! Note that v.10 and v.11 have the same result; i.e. the life of Jesus made more manifest. The only difference is the use of “mortal” connected with the body when actual death is presented.
12 so that death works in us, but life in you. v.12 Paul and his companions were being broken down as “death” worked in them through circumstances and their own exercises; all that was natural in them was diminishing. But it resulted in “life” flowing out of their breaking vessels to the Corinthians. He counted himself as already dead (2 Cor. 1:9). The will of the vessel was broken. Life “in you” shows that the effect on the Corinthians was spiritual growth, seen by their dealing with the evil that was addressed in the first epistle. This was true of Christ in a fuller way; He was put to death in order that we might live. Paul rejoiced that he could follow in those footsteps, and be a channel of blessing to others at his own expense. As he grew weaker and weaker, there was less of self and more of a conformance to Christ.
None of Self and All of Thee
by Theodore Monod
Oh, the bitter pain and sorrow
That a time could ever be,
When I proudly said to Jesus,
"All of self, and none of Thee."
Yet He found me; I beheld Him
Bleeding on th’ accursed tree,
And my wistful heart said faintly,
"Some of self, and some of Thee."
Day by day His tender mercy,
Healing, helping, full and free,
Brought me lower while I whispered,
"Less of self, and more of Thee."
Higher than the highest heaven,
Deeper than the deepest sea,
Lord, Thy love at last has conquered:
"None of self, and all of Thee."
That Which Sustains God’s Servants Through Suffering (4:13-18)
vv.13-18 At least two things are presented that sustain the servant: confidence in God, and hope in Christ. One is below us, the other is ahead of us.
Our Foundation: Faith in a God of Resurrection (vv.13-16)
13 And having the same spirit of faith, according to what is written, “I have believed, therefore have I spoken” [Psalm 116:10]; “we” also believe, therefore also we speak; 14 knowing that he who has raised the Lord Jesus shall raise us also with Jesus, and shall present us with you. vv.13-14 Paul was willing to suffer, even to die, because he was confident in the Lord. He really believed what he taught. The gospel is preached by servants who are convinced of its reality. He quotes from Psa. 116:10 to underscore the fact that he truly believed what he spoke. If we read the whole Psalm, we find that the Psalmist was passing through similar circumstances to those of Paul. He speaks of the Lord delivering him from facing death, crying tears, and of his feet falling (v.8). Having passed through those trials, now he had increased confidence in the Lord, even to know that if called to die, “Precious in the sight of Jehovah is the death of his saints” (Psa. 116:15), because He believed in the God of resurrection. It was that confidence, built up through experience, that caused him to open his mouth in testimony. Likewise, Paul’s confidence was in God who “raised the Lord Jesus” from the dead. What God has done with Christ is what He will do to those who have His life. The dead in Christ will be raised “with Jesus”; that is, they will share in the resurrection of which He is the first-fruits (read more…). Paul had assurance, that even if called to die a martyr’s death on the mission field, God would raise him up and present him with the others who remained alive unto the coming of the Lord. Glorification (takes place at the rapture) and presentation or manifestation (takes place at the appearing) are the guaranteed portion of the believer. We will all be presented together in glory. Our faith is in the God of resurrection (Rom. 4), and therefore it is immovable. Not even death can rob the servant of his or her portion in Christ. Confidence of heart therefore leads to boldness of action.
15 For all things are for your sakes, that the grace abounding through the many may cause thanksgiving to abound to the glory of God. v.15 Paul counted all his sufferings as for the sake of the Corinthians. He was willing to sacrifice himself, one man for the blessing of “the many”, following the footsteps of his Master; “Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church” (Col. 1:24). Ultimately, if the Corinthians went on well, they would be thankful and God would be glorified. In addition to the glory of God being reflected in his own life, in this roundabout way, Paul’s sufferings brought glory to God through those he impacted. The same can be true for us.
16 Wherefore we faint not; but if indeed our outward man is consumed, yet the inward is renewed day by day. v.16 The believer’s confidence in God (vv.13-4) serves as a powerful sustaining force. This allowed Paul to wake up every morning refreshed in spirit, even though physically weakened. The same faith which sustains the martyr on the morning of his execution is what renews our “inward man” each day of our lives. Prolonged life on earth, therefore, becomes the incubator for spiritual growth. By passing through trials “day by day”, each wave of suffering consumes a little more of our physical strength (“our outward man”), but increases a little more our capacity for spiritual things (“our inward man”). We pass judgment on the flesh more readily, we value the things of this earth less fondly, our feet so to speak come to rest on the Word of God more solidly, and our joy in the Lord deepens. In terms of 1 John 2, the little child becomes a young man, and the young man becomes a father. Faith is really the key to this spiritual growth. Without it, the trials will not profit us. With faith, we not only endure trials, but profit from them.
Our Focus: On Unseen Eternal Things vs. Visible Temporal Things (vv.17-18)
17 For our momentary and light affliction works for us in surpassing measure an eternal weight of glory; v.17 The servant of Christ understands that the hardships of the pathway are actually working “for us”. In Romans 5:3-8, we learn that the trials of this pathway are used by God presently to further the moral development of the soul. Here in 2 Cor. 4, we learn that those same afflictions work to bring us closer to our true hope; the “hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:2). Paul later recounts in this very epistle that he had been scourged, imprisoned, stoned, shipwrecked, lost at sea, robbed, persecuted by Jew and Gentile, endangered in every possible circumstance, starved, dehydrated, frozen, and exposed to the elements (2 Cor. 11:23-27), and this went on for thirty-plus years! To think of the apostle Paul considering all his sufferings to be “momentary and light affliction”. But they were momentary and light in view of what is ahead in “surpassing measure”. Our portion of glory in heaven is compared to our portion of suffering on earth. Several things are contrasted:
|Our portion in this life||The “surpassing measure”|
Having this vision of coming glory will sustain us through this pathway of suffering.
In what way do present sufferings “work for us” eternal glory? The contrast is clear between the present and eternity, light and heavy, affliction and glory. But just how does suffering “work for us” eternal glory. Does it indicate that the measure of our suffering in this life will have a commensurate reward in eternity? Certainly there will be rewards in the kingdom: “If we suffer, we shall also reign with him” (2 Tim. 2:12). But rewards are varying in degree, and they are only for the 1000-year kingdom of Christ. Some suggest it could be the thought of capacity rather than reward; i.e. that our experiences on earth form our capacity for heaven, since we keep the enjoyment of the time spent on earth walking by faith. I have never been quite comfortable with the idea of special reward or even increased capacity that is fixed for eternity, although I would not be dogmatic on the issue. The scripture clearly teaches of rewards at the judgment seat of Christ (ch.5), and I do believe we retain our individuality for all eternity, but this is different. In the context, it seems to have the thought that we will exchange our present suffering for eternal glory, and that the sufferings, while bringing us closer to the glory, seem relatively light and temporal in comparison.
18 while we look not at the things that are seen, but at the things that are not seen; for the things that are seen are for a time, but those that are not seen eternal. v.18 Where is the believer’s focus? Is it downward or upward? Are we to be materialistic or spiritual? Paul says “we look not at the things that are seen”… because they are only “for a time”. To focus your life on what is material is but to waste your life. It will all pass away one day. But the things that are not seen (i.e. spiritual things) are eternal. So often we tend to think of material things as more real than spiritual things; to relegate spiritual things to mere abstract theory. The truth is, the things which are not seen are actually more real than material things. That will be proven by their eternal duration. They are not imaginary. If our eyes are focused on the earth we will be discouraged, but if we have our eyes on the things of eternity we will be encouraged in the pathway. What is your focus? Are you building your life on things that will pass away? Or are you building your life on what will last for eternity? Note: William Kelly pointed out that “we must not lay unfounded stress on the ‘while’ which introduces the last verse”, because it doesn’t really mean that we are only blessed during the times when we look at unseen eternal things. Certainly, that is true, and it is true that we should focus on what is heavenly and eternal rather than earthly and temporal, but the point is really that the Christian is generally assumed to have a lifelong, spiritual, eternal focus.
- “Then you come to the way the vessel is dealt with. A thing with a will is not a vessel: a person is acting for himself if he has a will; he must not think or will anything for himself, and therefore it says, “Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus.” That is obedience, of course. Christ was obedient unto death; that is not a man’s will, and I am always to bear about in my body His dying; that is, Christ’s dying or being put to death. There are two Greek words used in verses 10 and 11, for “dying” and “death.” The first is the fact of death, just the matter of fact, and the other is rather the moral character of it, or includes that here. The fact in Christ becomes the moral character of us. As we have it in Peter, “Forasmuch, then, as Christ hath suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves likewise with the same mind.” Christ did actually die, and Peter had just been speaking to them not to suffer for evil doing, but, if it were God’s will, for well doing. Christ had once suffered for sins: arm yourselves, therefore, with the same mind. This would be carrying about the dying Christ had died; and this dying of Christ I apply to myself, so that the body never stirs, and the will of the body never moves.” – Darby, J. N. Notes of Readings on the Epistles to the Corinthians. G. Morrish. 1889, p.328
- “What gave patience in a path so strange to flesh and blood? “Always bearing about in the body the putting to death of Jesus, that the life also of Jesus may be manifested in our body.” Such was the habitual course of the apostle himself. He went about everywhere as one that realised Christ’s portion in the world, at all times applying death to the body, keeping it down as dead. It is the power of the cross applied to that which otherwise craves present ease and enjoyment, in order that the life also of Jesus may be manifested in our body.” For the believer lives of the very same life as the Saviour, in contrast with his old Adam life shared by all the race; and it is the activity of the natural life which hinders the working and manifestation of the life of Jesus. Hence the importance of ever applying by faith the putting to death (νέκρωσιν) of Jesus, in its moral power, to the body, disallowing its energy by holding it for dead, that the life of Jesus also may be shown out.” – Kelly, William. Notes on the Second Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians. Bible Truth Publishers, 1975.