Authentic Ministry 9/Second Corinthians
The persistent and obvious weakness of God’s servants is not a bug, but rather a feature. God does it this way because He wants us to glory in Him, and not in ourselves. If we were to win the battles all by ourselves, we would be tempted to trust in ourselves. But God wants us to trust in Him as the one who raises the dead. If we lapse into trusting in ourselves, we are trusting in a power incapable of raising the dead—and in a world like ours, that’s no good.
“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us. We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; 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. 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. So then death worketh in us, but life in you” (2 Cor. 4:7–12).
Summary of the Text
Earthen vessel, clay pots, were the cardboard boxes of the ancient world. They were used to store anything and everything. But because they don’t degrade like cardboard does, archeologists find pieces of them everywhere. In Paul’s metaphor, our lives are the cardboard box while the pearls and diamonds inside it were the gospel, the excellency of God (v. 7). Paul has shifted from the metaphor of light to the metaphor of treasure. He then moves on to describe how beat up the cardboard box was (v. 8). All of his comparisons are meant to describe how the box remained functional, despite having gone through a lot. The box was still able to hold what it held. Troubled, but not distressed (v. 8). Perplexed, but not despairing (v. 8). Persecuted, but not abandoned (v. 9). Down, but not out (v. 9). Always carrying the death of Christ on the box so that the life of Christ might be seen within the box (v. 10). Coming at the same idea from another angle, he says that death has tattered the box to such an extent that the resurrection gems inside it can be seen (v. 11). Paul then adds a surprising twist—the death works in the apostles, but the life he is talking about resides in the Corinthians (v. 12). They were, as it were, part of Paul’s internal glory (v. 12). And the more beat up the box, the easier it is to pull down the sides and see the diamonds.
Weakness as God’s Copper
Just as copper wire conducts electricity, so also man’s frailty and weakness conduct the power of God. Anyone who has ever touched an exposed hot wire is learning something about the power of electricity, and only secondarily about the nature of copper.
Paul was squeezed but not squashed (v. 8). As one translator puts it, he was “bewildered, but not befuddled” (v. 8). He was persecuted by men, but never abandoned by God (v. 9). Paul was knocked over, but not knocked out (v. 9). They came close once at Lystra, when they stoned him in the city, and then dragged what they thought was his corpse outside the city limits, and left him there for the birds. But when they were gone, and the disciples were standing around his body, Paul opened his eyes and said, “We done here?” He then got up and went back into the town (Acts 14:19-20). What a mensch.
The afflictions of those who are closely following Christ are not haphazard. They are not random. They are not meaningless. They are not pointless. On the contrary, they are the point. How else can the copper conduct the electricity unless it is strung into wire?
What Passes Understanding
When all these sorts of things are barreling down on us, it is easy to give way to anxiety. We are juggling cares, responsibilities, obligations, possible disasters, and tenuous relationships. In his metaphor, “death” represents being “given over to death,” the entire, threatening process. And so Paul—who knew quite a bit about this whole subject—said that we were to be anxious “for nothing, but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving” we should present our prayers to God (Phil. 4:6). He then says that the peace of God will protect us (Phil. 4:7).
There are two crucial things here. One is that we shouldn’t be worrying on our knees. Worry and anxiety are not sanctified just because we give way to them in a posture of prayer. The key is that we are to present our petitions to God with thanksgiving. Sing a psalm, and hand it over to God. Hand it over to God, and then sing a psalm. With thanksgiving.
That leads to the next thing. Doing this will not protect the peace of God down in the nether regions of your heart somewhere. No, the peace of God is not the frail thing that needs protecting, but is rather the great shield of God that does the protecting. What needs protecting are our “hearts and minds” (Phil. 4:7). Our hearts and minds are not the shield. They do not do the protecting. They are our soft innards that need to be protected. To say the same thing another way, you do not protect your helmet with your head.
Bears Much Fruit
Fruit bearing is a function of substitution, and we are called to imitate the Lord in this. It is not just suffering, but rather suffering for others.
Now some people assume that as Christ is the only one who can die as a fully efficacious substitute, then that must mean that we do not participate in any kind of substitutionary exchange at all. We think that Christ is the only one who could suffer “for others.” But this is false. Remember what Paul said here—death was in him, and life in the Corinthians (v. 12). Husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her, and this results in their ability to wash her with the water of the Word (Eph. 5:25-26). Paul says that in his sufferings, he fills up the remainder of Christ’s sufferings (Col 1:24), which means there is some kind of a connection. And Jesus tells us plainly that unless a grain of “wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal” (John 12:24–25). So we do not duplicate what Jesus did, but we are commanded to imitate it, and God is pleased in His grace to make that imitation efficacious. Imitating the ultimate fruitfulness is fruitful.
And so Christ sets the pattern of “my life for yours.” But He sets the pattern so that we might follow His example. And as we follow His example, He is pleased to enable us to “bear much fruit.” We are Christians. This is the Way.