Out of Despair, Hope; Out of Weakness, Power

2nd Corinthians

Paul has introduced this theme of his “ministry” in 2:14 where he described it as the manifestation of “the sweet aroma of the knowledge of [Christ] in every place.” As an apostle, saved by irresistible grace, appointed to preach Christ, he is an aroma of Christ, both in Christ’s work and in the message about him. In his weakness he bears the dying of Christ and in his survival he shows the resurrection life of Christ. The aroma of Christ means life to some and to others it finalizes the sentence of death. He refers to the Corinthians as an epistle of Christ “ministered by us.” God has made him sufficient as a “minister of the new covenant” (3:6) to whom has been committed a “ministry of righteousness” (3:9). This ministry looks to the completed work of Christ and is effected in its fullness by the gracious operations of the Spirit of the (Lord (3:14-18).


I. The confidence of Paul’s ministry (Verses 1, 2)

A. The foundation of Paul’s confidence

  1. When he says, “Since we have this ministry,” he refers to the way his ministry is described in the chapter above. His ministry is one of the Spirit who writes the law on the heart and brings the glory of Christ to the minds and hearts of sinners.
  2. He looks at the fact that himself received mercy. If he received it, could penetrate the heart of even the most hostile and inveterate enemy of gospel truth. After all, had not he received mercy so that “in me as the chief sinner Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering as a pattern to those who are going to believe on him for everlasting life “ (1 Timothy 1:16).

B. His conduct in light of his confidence—he needs no trickery, but only the truth.

  1. In the first phrase, Paul probably refers to the moral transformation that the gospel brings. He is not using his religion as a cover for self-promotion or for gaining material advancement or sensual satisfaction.
  • He makes a clear presentation of the clarity, transparency, sincerity, and purity of his motives and his deportment in 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12.
  • He characterizes those who do otherwise in 2 Timothy 3: 6-9. Paul in that place contrasts his doctrine and his conduct with such false teachers (2 Timothy 3:10-13). Peter also described them in 2 Peter 2:12-22). Truly having received mercy, love for holiness and righteousness follow in its train. So Paul argues and teaches by admonition and warning in many places (e.g Romans 12:1, 2; Galatians 5:16-26; Ephesians 4:17-24).
  1. Nor did Paul either hide, manipulate, modify, mix, or mar the message in any way. He uses four phrases to seal his testimony to pure word-centeredness, not self-centeredness, in his message.
  • First, he knew that he dealt, not with human opinion or vain philosophy, but with divine revelation. Both his exposition of the Old Testament with the words, “It is written,” and his confidence assertion of special revelation as an apostle (1 Corinthians 2:10-13” Ephesians 3:4, 5) constituted his message. His preaching to them had been received as the word of God even as he testified about the Thessalonians in 1 Thessalonians 2:13. In his testimony to Agrippa, he stated, “To this day I stand, witnessing both to small and great, saying no other things than those which the prophets and Moses said would come” (Acts 26:22).
  • He sought no psychological subterfuges or tricky ways of commending either himself or his message, but made a straightforward declaration of truth. That which was revealed in all it power, purity, and conviction he set forth.
  • He commended himself in this ministry, not with flattery (see 1 Thessalonians 2:5) or circuitous appeals to vanity, but he went right for the conscience. He appealed to the deeply embedded sense of right, wrong, virtue, judgment to come (See Acts 24:25) and reasoned with them from the Scriptures about Jesus as the absolute fulfillment of all truth and righteousness (cf. Acts 18:4, 11; 28:23).
  • The court to which he finally must answer in that adjudicated by God himself. He dare not perjure himself or make himself liable to the final judge (See 2 Timothy 4:1, 2).


II. The challenge of unbelief (Verse 3-6)

A. There is both a natural and spiritual implacability in the unbelieving heart. (Verse 4) Paul knew that he was speaking a message that had the highest degree of offensiveness to the unbelieving mind. If he spoke truly, no natural attractiveness could give him success in his calling. He worked, therefore, in absolute dependence on the sovereign purpose of God that would be effected by his irresistible power.

  1. The mind of the natural man does not understand the things of the Spirit of God, nor can such a mind comprehend these things, for they can be discerned only by minds that have been shown Christ as their only hope in life and in death. He had taught them this in the first letter (2:14-16). The natural man walks in darkness, in sin, in spiritual deadness (Ephesians 2:1).
  2. Satan himself opposes this message and already has control of those who are as yet in their natural condition, in love with self and sin, hostile to God and holiness, and thus under the domination of the god of the world (Ephesians 2:2; 1 John 5:19).
  3. Their blindness truly is profound, for the thing to which they are blind is light. Spiritually in darkness aggravated by moral blinders, they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ. No greater glory than this exists, for in the gospel, Christ peculiarly expresses in his person the image of God. Not to see God as manifest in the gospel work of Christ is to miss the fullest revelation of God this side of the end of history. Justice and mercy kiss each other. Grace and wrath merge in the death of Christ on the cross. Creation, providence, and judgment have their purpose filled up to overflowing in the words, “It is finished.”

B. The rejection of his message is not a rejection of him but of Christ. (Verse5) False teachers are concerned about their personal esteem and their being accepted by those to whom they speak. Paul want his acceptance to rest solely on their acceptance of the message about Christ. He does not preach himself, he does not seek to attract anyone to himself, but is determined to preach nothing but Christ and him crucified. If Paul is accepted, it is only as the bond-servant of the people of God who receive the message about Jesus of Nazareth.

C. He personally knows the power of Christ’s saving purpose (Verse 6). Already in verse 1 he has given reference to his experiential persuasion of the message he preached in the words, “as we have received mercy.”

  1. God spoke light into existence by the word of his power. The power of creation, resurrection, healing, etc. shows the sovereignty of God over the physical realm and that every atom is immediately under his original power of creation to be continued in existence and governed according to his purpose.
  2. This God performs a work of even greater power when he speaks light into hearts under the darkness of unbelief and satanic oppression. Physical resurrection is glorious but spiritual resurrection from deadness to spiritual and eternal life is a greater demonstration of power, for it operates in the moral realm. Paul’s spiritual blindness was symbolized to him when Jesus took away his sight by the brightness of his appearance on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:8, 9). At the same time, he was told that he would go to the Gentiles “to open their eyes, to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God” (Acts 26:18).
  3. Paul counted everything that had preceded as loss—all that was gain to him must pass away—that he might gain Christ. He saw the unsurpassable riches of the knowledge of Christ (Philippians 3:7-11). This image is just one of the images that Scripture gives for the effectual exertion of saving grace to bring the elect to a spiritual and saving knowledge of Christ.
  4. The Second London Confession condenses the idea into this language: “In God’s appointed and acceptable time, He is pleased to call effectually, by His Word and Spirit, those He has predestined to life. He calls them out of their natural state of sin and death to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ. He enlightens their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God. He takes away their heart of stone and gives them a heart of flesh. He renews their wills and by His almighty power turns them to good and effectually draws them to Jesus Christ. Yet he does all this is such a way that they come completely freely, since they are made willing by His grace.” [Article X, “In Modern English”]


III. The challenge of great difficulty (Verses 7-15). Another point that shows that salvation is of God, is the weakness of the instruments who present the message.

A. Paul looks at the insufficiency of human power to effect the required change. This section is given a clear thesis statement in verse 7. “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves.” This would be true under any circumstance, but Paul’s own weaknesses, his physical fragility and consistent living under the sentence of death shows that the work of conversion does not arise from the desire of anyone to be like the messenger. His moral example will be important as converts consider how they should live (Philippians 1:30; 3:17; 4:9), but in his in initial presentation, he was with them in “weakness and fear and much trembling” (1 Corinthians 2:1-4) so that his preaching was a “demonstration of the Spirit and of power.”

B. External difficulties reveal spiritual resilience. In addition, his circumstances constantly reveal that he is sustained only by the determining grace of God. He is “afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” His life from external appearances is not one that anyone would see as inviting. Who would purposefully dive into such a miserable temporal existence. So it is not “Your best life Now,” that attracted people to the gospel, but only the opening of spiritual eyes to see eternity and to sense the infinite and immutable excellence of Christ.

C. All of this happens for a greater demonstration of the saving purpose of God through Christ’s resurrection (Verses10-16a). Indeed, even Paul had confessed, that “if in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable” (1 Corinthians 15:19).

  1. Paul shows that the constant subjection to death now, gives opportunity for the resurrection of Christ to energize us in our spirits. We live only in accord with the power of God who raised Christ and sustains his messengers. Christ’s power manifested in the resurrection will be seen as their sustaining energy.
  2. Their only reason for Paul’s continued existence is that the gospel which has saved him may reach them—“So death works in us, but life in you.” It is this alone also that motivates his speech, his teaching, his preaching. He was brought to belief by this sovereign intervention of resurrection power and thus can only speak of that which he has been brought to believe. When blind he was enlightened by the sovereign speaking of light in to his heart, a light that shed abroad the glory of Christ—so what he has been brought to believe in such a manner, he now speaks. Like the Psalmist (Psalm 116:10), having the same spirit of faith, having had his soul delivered from death, he says, “I believed, therefore, I spoke.”
  3. Paul knows that he is sustained, even though weak, even though on the verge of death at all times, so that the Gentiles might continue to reap the benefits of his calling “So that the grace which is spreading to more and more people may cause the giving of thanks to abound to the glory of God.” That is why God kept him alive and that is the only reason that Paul would want to live—an increase of gratitude to God for his matchless saving grace.


IV. The Challenge of physical decay. (Verses 16b-18). Since his continued life mean that the mercies of God are spreading to others and God’s effectual grace is demonstrated, he does not lose heart.

A. The great struggles and difficulties of Paul have caused physical decline that keep him on the edge of death. His “outer man is decaying, wasting away.” Yet his understanding of the glorious purpose of such weakness means that, instead of finding discouragement in physical decline, he finds internal and spiritual encouragement. So too must we perceive God’s purpose in such a way, that we realize he keeps us alive for his glory, to have the spirit of faith and speak accordingly. The inner man, therefore, is encouraged with every day of life even in every display of decay.

B. Compared to the glory of eternity, physical challenges are inconsiderable. In fact, their weakness, which is only temporal and thus light and momentary, is the source of the eternal, imperishable glory that is being prepared.

C. When we look at each aspect of the troubles of this life, we find two paths that may be taken. Those who desire their joy and fulfillment in this life will be sorely disturbed and disappointed as troubles increase. Those whose troubles are seen as divine appointments in order to sanctify us and prepare us for greater service to Christ, will find joy in this preparation for the glory of eternity.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
Get Founders
in Your Inbox
A weekly brief of our new teaching resources.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Teaching BY TYPE
Teaching BY Author
Founders Podcasts