The Right Stuff

2 Corinthians

Lesson Focus: This lesson is about qualities that characterize effective ministers of Christ.

The Right Credentials: 2 Cor. 2:14-17; 3:4-5.

[14]  But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. [15]  For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, [16]  to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? [17]  For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ. [3:4]  Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. [5]  Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God,  [ESV]

[14]  This is the start of what may be regarded as an extended digression. Suddenly and characteristically Paul breaks off from his account in order to praise God for His unfailing goodness which remains constant through all the changing circumstances and tensions of human experience. Paul remembers how unfailingly he has been led in a progress of triumph at all times, and how the savor of the knowledge of Christ has been made manifest through him in every place. This was indeed a triumph! And so he bursts out spontaneously into thanksgiving to God, through whom alone such victory, always and in every place, is possible. The metaphor introduced by Paul here is particularly graphic. The picture is that of the splendor of a Roman triumphal procession, in which the victorious general led his captives as a public spectacle before the multitudes of onlookers. We who were God’s former enemies have been overcome and taken captive by Him and are led and displayed by Him to the world, not just on one passing occasion, but every day and everywhere. From justification until glorification the redeemed sinner is on exhibition as a trophy of divine grace. And this victorious advancement is in Christ. This inclusion of the believer in Christ is fundamental to Paul’s conception of the state of salvation. Christ alone is accepted before God. Through faith in Christ’s perfect work of atonement the Christian is justified and incorporated into Him; but the believer has no standing before God except in Christ. To be in Christ is not merely to be within the sphere of His influence, but is to be mystically and really in Him. There is no context for redemption apart from this mystery. Thus it is only in Christ that God triumphs over us and exhibits us to the world as His captives, subdued by the power of mercy and grace. It was, moreover, customary for the triumphal processions of Paul’s day to be accompanied by the release of sweet odors from the burning of spices in the streets. So, too, the knowledge of Christ, whom to know is life eternal, is manifested like a prefacing fragrance through the Apostle wherever he is led. It is important to notice that the operation is wholly of God: it is God who leads His servant in triumph, and it is God who manifests the savor of the knowledge of Christ. Paul is nothing but the vessel or the instrument through whom the fragrance is released. To know Christ was for Paul the sum of the vital experience of salvation, in comparison with which all other things become unimportance.

[15-17]  Paul emphasizes that it is of Christ that he is a sweet aroma. Paul is only the human vessel of the fragrance that belongs to Christ. In the first place, this aroma directs itself Godward, and as the fragrance of that unique grace of which He is Himself the author it is acceptable to Him, not only in those who are being saved, but also in those who are perishing; for grace, even when it is rejected, does not cease to be grace. It is this grace, moreover, which is the dynamic formative principle of the kingdom of God, of the new or renewed creation, which is already a reality in Christ, but which in its final form of perfection will be introduced only at the conclusion of this present age. It is, therefore, an aroma that is wholly pleasing to God. In the Old Testament the concept of a burnt offering being a sweet aroma to the Lord is frequently encountered, and the sacrifice of Christ, of which the Old Testament offerings were typical, is spoken of by Paul in identical terms [Eph. 5:2]. Paul writes that this aroma of Christ is a fragrance to two different groups of people. For those who refuse to receive the Gospel message the consequence of its proclamation is death; but for those who believe it is life. Thus those that believe on the Son have eternal life; whereas those who do not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on them [John 3:36]. The mention of the awful and ultimate effects, either in salvation or in damnation, of the ministry of the Gospel causes Paul to exclaim: Who is sufficient for these things? How can any frail and fallible mortal fail to be conscious of his own utter inadequacy when charged with so stupendous a responsibility? Paul certainly makes no claim to self-sufficiency; but neither does he disown the responsibility and the authority which are his by virtue of his being Christ’s chosen apostle to the Corinthians. The question asked here is answered in 3:5, where he affirms that his sufficiency is from God. It is a sufficiency, therefore, which is far beyond and very different from mere human self-sufficiency; and this consideration at once places Paul in a category totally different from that of those false apostles (peddlers of God’s word) in Corinth. It is characteristic of these peddlers that they go about hawking or peddling the word of God, cheapening and degrading the message by the illegitimate admixture of foreign elements as a dishonest merchant adulterates wine with water. They seek only their own gain, irrespective of the effect of their teaching on others and careless of the momentous issues which are at stake. Self-interest governs their outlook, accordingly they are unconscious of any sense of insufficiency for the task which they profess to fulfill. They have taken up “apostleship” as a business, and so long as it brings quick returns they are not particularly scrupulous as to how they conduct it. In unmistakable contrast, Paul exercises a ministry which, subjectively, is stamped with complete sincerity and, objectively, is derived from God. It is exercised, moreover, in the sight of God, that is, humbly and tremblingly, and without thought of selfish gain or of the praise of men. It is fulfilled in Christ, that is, by real incorporation, a union so complete that it can best be described in our Lord’s own words, abide in me and I in you [John 15:4], but which no analogy from the physical realm is adequate to explain. This contrast between the true apostle and the false is one that becomes increasingly clear as the epistle proceeds, for it has become essential for Paul to remind the Corinthians of the genuineness of his own ministry as compared with the deception of the false prophets who have sought to usurp the leadership in their church.

[3:4-5]  Paul’s confidence in his ministry has nothing to do with his own personal competence. He has not measured himself against his opponents and declared himself to be superior. His confidence, significantly, is directed towards God. Paul, it seems, has laid himself and all he has done before God and he has been able, in his conscience, to declare his ministry to belong to the new covenant, to be true and acceptable to God. He makes it clear, however, that he does not minister before God or draw near to God in his own right or in his own name. It is only through Christ that he has this confidence before God. Paul’s opponents claimed that they were sufficient in their own abilities to accomplish the tasks of ministry. But Paul recognized that his sufficiency did not come from himself but only from God. The ministry of Paul and all who have subsequently become ministers of the new covenant is not offered for the approval of man but for the endorsement of God. It was before God that Paul had his confidence. Nor does the strength which all ministers of the word of God need come from within themselves. Ministers of the gospel will say with Paul, our sufficiency is from God.

The Right Character: 2 Cor. 3:18-4:2.

[3:18]  And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. [4:1]  Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. [2]  But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.  [ESV]

[18]  The expression we all signifies all Christians without exception since Paul is speaking of an experience which is common to all believers. The glory is the glory of the Lord and we behold it as in a mirror. To gaze by faith into the gospel is to behold Christ, who in this same passage is described as the image of God [4:4] and elsewhere as the image of the invisible God [Col. 1:15] and the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature [Heb. 1:3]. To see Him is to see the Father, and to behold His glory is to behold the glory as of the only son from the Father [John 1:14; 14:9]. And to contemplate Him who is the Father’s image is progressively to be transformed into that image. The effect of continuous beholding is that we are continuously being transformed into the same image, that is, into the likeness of Christ, and increasingly so: from one degree of glory to another. In contrast to the glory seen on Moses’ face, there is no prospect of the evangelical glory fading or diminishing, but only of its increasing more and more until the coming in person of the Lord of glory Himself. Until then we behold this glory by faith, as in a mirror. But then, when He appears, we shall behold Him face to face and our transformation into His image will be complete. This process of transformation into the image of Christ is none other than the restoration of the image of God which was marred through the fall of man. The image of Christ is the true seal of the Spirit with which the believer is impressed. The design of the gospel is precisely that the image of God, which had been defaced by sin, may be repaired within us. The progress of this restoration is continuous through the whole of life, because it is little by little that God causes His glory to shine forth in us. Through the operation of the Holy Spirit who enables the believer constantly to behold the glory of the Lord, that image is increasingly imparted to the Christian.

[4:1-2]  This ministry of Paul’s is that of the new covenant, which is the ministration of the spirit and of life and righteousness and liberty and glory, so vividly described in the preceding passage [3:6-18]. However severe the opposition, and however intense the conflict, Paul is ever urged forward by the stimulus and exhilaration of the task committed to him of making known Christ as the Mediator of the new covenant. For him who ministers the eternal riches of the gospel there can be no question of abandoning the struggle. The evangelical ministry is by virtue of the mercy of God. It is not an achievement of human ability but a consequence of divine mercy. Paul, in fact, is making an acknowledgment of his own utter unworthiness: mercy is shown only to the guilty, the condemned, the hopeless. Against this background of mercy his ministry is seen in its true perspective as something from which self-esteem is entirely excluded. While Paul speaks of the purity and candor of his ministerial conduct, it is evident from the whole context of this epistle that he does so not out of concern for his own reputation, but rather that by implication he is contrasting himself with others whose behavior has been inconsistent with their claims to be ministers of Christ. The tampering with God’s word refers to the falsification of the gospel, probably by robbing it of its unique glory and essential content in such a way as to suggest that the old covenant was still in force. So far from being marked by cunning, self-interest, and deceit, however, Paul’s ministry was one in which the truth was manifested, openly displayed, outspokenly proclaimed in such a manner that none could refute the genuineness and sincerity of his motives. There is a higher scrutiny than that of the human conscience: it is to God that every minister of the gospel is ultimately and eternally answerable. In the light of the divine presence the true is infallibly separated from the false.

The Right Focus: 2 Cor. 4:5-6, 16:18.

[5]  For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. [6]  For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

[16]  So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. [17]  For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, [18]  as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.  [ESV]

[5-6]  In the gospel that Paul preached all the glory belongs to Christ, and accordingly the burden of its proclamation is Christ Jesus as Lord, for the Lordship of Christ is central and altogether indispensable to the evangelical message. Paul is a minister, not a master; a bondservant, not an ecclesiastical lord. He is nothing, but God who gives the increase is all. How could there be room for misunderstanding among the Corinthians when he who had lived humbly in their midst, selflessly ministering the gospel to them, had also in writing repeatedly emphasized this aspect of his relationship with them? What humbler view of himself could a messenger of the gospel take than to regard himself not only as a bondservant of Jesus Christ but even as the bondservant of those to whom he ministers? Does not this place Paul in unmistakable contrast to the false apostles who had invaded the church at Corinth? Paul is not suggesting, however, that those to whom he ministers are his masters. There is but one Master, and so he affirms that it is for Jesus’ sake that he assumes the role of the servant of others. As Jesus, the eternal Son made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant [Phil. 2:7], so His followers should also become servants in order to further the cause of the gospel. The clinching reason why there is no place in a genuine evangelical ministry for self-esteem and self-proclamation is that in the believer’s experience of salvation all is of God, nothing of self [see 5:18]. Unbelievers are helplessly blinded by the god of this age so that they cannot see the light of the gospel; spiritual sight and enlightenment can come only through the intervening grace of Almighty God. The evil work of Satan is sovereignly counteracted by the redeeming activity of God, who by delivering us out of the power of darkness makes us partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light. In verse 6, Paul describes this light as the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. It is in the face of Him who is the true image of God that the glory of God is manifested in such a way that it can be known by those whose eyes have been opened by God as He has caused His light to shine in our hearts. It is true that the believer’s knowledge of the glory of God is as yet partial and incomplete; but it is none the less accurate and authentic knowledge.

[16-18]  Paul repeats his statement we do not lose heart from verse 1. The repetition serves to tie together his argument from verses 1 through 15 with what Paul now says in verses 16-18. The outer self corresponds to the jars of clay, the body, and the mortal flesh in verses 7, 10 and 11. These terms must not be confused with the old man of which Paul speaks in Rom. 6:6; Eph. 4:22, and Col. 3:9, which the Christian is enjoined to put off and to reckon as having been crucified with Christ on the cross. The connotation of the latter is strongly ethical, referring to the old unregenerate nature and its desires; whereas the connotation of the outer self is physical, referring to the human mortal frame which is undergoing decay and moving towards the grave. The present tense, is wasting away, indicates a steady and irreversible process. The significance of the outer self is to be found most simply and adequately in terms of that aspect of Paul’s being which is visible to others: it is what they see of him. Similarly, the significance of the expression the inner self should not be sought in terms of anatomy or psychology: it indicates that which is hidden from the gaze of others. Paul is speaking of a great Christian reality, of the remarkable fact that the advance, evident to all, in outward decay is accompanied, day after day, by the experience of an inward renewal. For the unbeliever, of course, the decay of the outward man is also a fact of experience; but his heart is darkened, he knows no inward renewal, and his way becomes more and more confined until it brings him to the narrow limits of the grave and the grim reality of judgment. In verse 17 we find a series of extreme contrasts. Paul sets side by side: the things present with the things to come, the momentary with the eternal, the light with the weighty, the affliction with the glory. The conjunction for shows that what Paul says here is explanatory of what has immediately preceded. The astonishing fact that the decay of the outward man is accompanied by the renewal of the inward man is not merely an experience; it has an inner logic. The affliction endured is itself in process of achieving or making effective the surpassing glory. It is Paul’s purpose here to extol the inexpressible magnitude of the grace of God, which, so far from being bestowed because of man’s merit, is bestowed solely because of God’s mercy. Paul is concerned with suffering for Jesus’ sake [11], which means suffering in which there cannot possibly be any self-interest. Paul’s theme throughout this epistle is that the frailty of the human frame and the afflictions which it sustains in the cause of the gospel magnify, by reason of the astonishing contrast, the all-transcending glory and power and grace of Almighty God. Christian suffering, however protracted it may be, is only for this present life, which, when compared with the everlasting ages of the glory to which it is leading, is but a passing moment. Affliction for Jesus’ sake, however crushing it may seem, is in fact light, a weightless trifle, when weighed against the mass of that glory which is the inheritance of all who through grace have been made one with the Son of God. The verb translated look has the force “to fix one’s gaze upon” or “to concentrate one’s attention upon” some object. The gaze of faith is focused upon eternal realities which are no less real because they are unseen. The things seen of which Paul is speaking are precisely his obvious human frailty and suffering. The things not seen are the glory of verse 17 and like that glory the unseen things are eternal.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         What does Paul mean by in Christ in 2:14-17? What does he mean by saying that we are the aroma of Christ? How can you be the aroma of Christ this week?

2.         What does Paul mean by the outer self and the inner self; between things seen and things unseen? Take time this week to examine your own life. How do you see your inner self being renewed day by day? What role does focusing your attention upon the things that are unseen play in your renewal?

3.         In this lesson, what instruction does Paul give believers that will enable us to distinguish between true and false teachers of God’s Word?


The Message of 2 Corinthians, Paul Barnett, Inter-Varsity Press.

Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Philip Hughes, Eerdmans.

The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Leon Morris, Eerdmans.

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