How Can I Honor God in my Suffering

| 2 Corinthians 4:7-18

Week of February 23, 2020

The Point:  Every part of life – including difficulties – is an opportunity to glorify God.

Treasure in Jars of Clay:  2 Corinthians 4:7-18.

[7] But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. [8] We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; [9] persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; [10] always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. [11] For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. [12] So death is at work in us, but life in you. [13] Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we also believe, and so we also speak, [14] knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. [15] For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. [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]

“Eternal glory [4:7-18]. 1. Power in weakness [7]. Paul contrasts a priceless jewel with its receptacle, an everyday earthen jar. The jewel, or treasure, is the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ which God has shone in our hearts [6]. The earthen jar in which this treasure is contained, the human body, is subject to decay and vulnerable to disease and injury. It is, in ultimate terms, powerless. This is not accidental, but deliberate, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us [7]. The power to lift man out of his powerlessness in the face of suffering, decay and death does not come from within himself; it comes only from God. Man is like a jar of clay in order that the surpassing power might be from God, and not from ourselves. Earlier [1:8], he wrote of being so utterly burdened beyond our strength. Now, in exact answer, he writes of God’s power which surpasses the weakness of the human body. It is, apparently, part of God’s plan that the power is not from us. Had this priceless treasure been contained in a strong and permanent body it would have proved a fatal combination for proud and sinful man. We come to appreciate how powerful God is only when we acknowledge the certainty of our own death. This, apparently, had been Paul’s experience. Human life is short, its form easily defaced and its fabric destructible in a second. It is an earthen jar, a cheap clay pot. The immense discrepancy between the treasure and the vessel serves simply to attest that human weakness presents no barrier to the purposes of God, indeed, that God’s power is made perfect in weakness. This teaching about power in weakness, so far from being applicable only to the apostles, is, along with the teaching on transformation [3:18] and illumination [4:6], true for all believers. In fact, the opinion that the power of God impinges on man not in his supposed strength but in his real weakness is no passing sentiment, but is the theological insight, the chief theme, which binds together the whole letter and gives it its unity. It was stated near the beginning [1:8], is restated here and will reappear near the end in the memorable words of Jesus to Paul: My power is made perfect in weakness [12:9].

  1. Deliverance [8-9]. The intruding ministers in Corinth apparently spoke of power and triumph in the Christian life. Down the centuries many have eagerly listened to impressive-sounding preachers who have raised the hopes of their hearers that they too, like the speaker, can enter new and high levels of religious experience. Some who embrace these hopes so much want them to be true that they feel unable to admit to any problem or even a ‘down’ mood. Paul, however, is emotionally honest. He does not cover up his difficulties, but, as one conscious of being a ‘jar of clay’, reveals something of his sufferings and hardships. In speaking of being afflicted he is referring to those ‘pressures’ which impinge on him because he is a Christian. Being perplexed means a feeling of being ‘cornered’. He says he is persecuted or ‘hounded’, doubtless on account of his ministry. Finally, he confesses to being struck down, which probably means, in our language, ‘depressed’. While most of these problems arose from his particular calling, many will recognize and identify with his feelings. Most readers know, to some degree, what he means by these things. Ordinary people will be encouraged to know that their difficulties were also shared by the great apostle. Yet along with each of these problems mentioned in verses 8 and 9 he adds but not. ‘Pressured’ but not crushed; ‘distressed’ but not driven; ‘hounded’ but not forsaken; ‘depressed’ but not destroyed. If the fourfold difficulties show that he is ‘a jar of clay’, the fourfold but not is evidence that the ‘all-surpassing power is from God’ [7]. It seems probable that in each of the four seemingly hopeless situations Paul had prayed to God for help [see 1:8-9]. He identified his problem in prayer to God. Then as the answer from God became apparent he could say but not …. The fourfold but not encourages us to pray specifically about our own personal areas of distress and difficulty. Paul is speaking the language of experience – the experience simultaneously of his own incapacity and of God’s transcending power which transforms every situation.
  2. Death in us [10-12]. The death of Jesus which Paul carries around in his body refers back to the fourfold distress of verses 8-9 and anticipates the two longer lists of suffering in 6:3-10 and 11:23-29. Examination of the three passages reveals that the death of Jesus in Paul’s body is his way of speaking of the physical and emotional pain associated with his ministry of the new covenant. Examples of physical pain are stated briefly in the second list as ‘beatings’ and ‘imprisonments’ [6:5], with much greater detail given in the third list. Emotional suffering includes, from the second list, ‘dishonor’, ‘bad report’, being ‘regarded as imposters’ [6:8], and from the third, ‘concern for all the churches’ [11:28]. It may be that Paul believed his death process was actually accelerated in the pursuit of apostolic ministry. While Paul is referring primarily to himself and his apostolic associates, what he writes will apply to other Christians who give themselves in ministry in a world environment which is generally unsympathetic. All ministry is costly not only in terms of what one relinquishes to pursue it but also in the accompanying misunderstanding or abuse, perhaps from friends and family. This cost, whatever it means in specific circumstances, is part of what Paul means by carrying in the body the death of Jesus. There is a close connection between death … at work in Paul and life in the Corinthians [12]. The apostolic labors and teaching of Paul, which meant that his own life was being forfeited, were the means by which the life of God, through the Spirit, was at work within them. Without Paul’s ‘death’ there would be no ‘life’ for the Corinthians. This principle of life arising out of death or costly sacrifice originates with Jesus. Jesus’ death, literally speaking, is the source of eternal life to humanity; the death of those who minister, metaphorically speaking, is the means of life for mankind. But what does Paul mean by so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh [11]? By the life of Jesus he means, first, the four ‘but nots’ of verses 8 and 9. That the Christian does not succumb to his problems and difficulties is evidence that the life of Jesus is manifested within him, through the transcendent, sovereign power of God. Paul, however, is also speaking of the future when God’s resurrection power will finally deliver us from death [14]. Then, too, the life of Jesus will be manifested within us, but permanently.
  3. Motives for ministry [13-15]. Having stated that death is at work in him so that life may be at work in the Corinthians, Paul now proceeds to state two reasons or motives for his sacrificial lifestyle. The first is that he has the same spirit of faith [13] as the writer of Psalm 116 who thankfully testified to God’s deliverance of him from death. Paul’s recent and profound awareness of death [1:8-10] had led to an intensified understanding of the ‘all-surpassing power’ of God to deliver him [7]. In particular, his more deeply realized faith that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also [14] has led the apostle to say with the psalmist we also believe, and so we also speak [13]. So far from having lost heart [1,16], as his critics claim, the recent experience of deliverance from death has strengthened Paul’s resurrection faith, and because of this he writes we also speak the word of God. The second reason for his missionary zeal was his passion for the glory of God [15]. Paul labored in the ministry of the new covenant so that … more and more people [15] would come to understand the grace of God and increase thanksgiving to God. Paul longed that men and women who neither glorified Him as God nor gave thanks to him [Rom. 1:21] would, in increasing number, be converted through the gospel and express thankfulness to God, and so glorify Him. This passage is an interesting example of the way Paul introduces important doctrines in an incidental way. His focus is on two reasons for involvement in evangelism – the eschatological (God will raise us) and the doxological (thanksgiving, to the glory of God). To make his point he tells us, in passing, that God has raised Jesus from the dead and that others whom God will raise will be brought into the presence of Jesus. Since what Paul says about resurrection is introduced so inconspicuously, we are the more confident to regard the resurrection of Jesus as historically true.
  4. Eternal glory [16-18]. We do not lose heart, he declares, repeating the exclamation of verse 1. In the former reference it was the knowledge of what God was doing through him that kept Paul at his task, despite opposition and discouragement. By means of this ministry he was imparting life to the dying and sight to the blind [3:6; 4:6]. Yet the cost to him in the pursuit of the ‘ministry’ of the new covenant was, apparently, the acceleration of his own death process [12]. Now, in verse 16, his perseverance as an apostle flows out of this understanding of what God is doing in him. While Paul wrote verses 8-15 from the viewpoint of an apostle, with only indirect application to believers in general, he penned verses 16-18 as an apostle and a Christian and so they apply directly to all Christians. While Paul suffered and felt the power of death within as he exercised his ministry, he also knew that all people, in fact, suffer and are conscious of their mortality. Therefore what is happening to him is happening to all; in writing we … our he writes for all. The distinction between our outer self and our inner self must be carefully understood. Paul is not distinguishing, as the Greeks did, body from soul or body from mind, but rather is considering our total existence from two different viewpoints. By outer self Paul means a person in his creaturely mortality, as belonging to this age, which is passing away [1 Cor. 7:31]. By inner self Paul means the person who belongs to the age to come, who already possesses the Spirit of the new age. Paul is employing the peculiar Christian eschatology, which insists that the age to come has already (but not completely) come into the present. With our outer self wasting away, why does Paul not lose heart? It is because God will raise his body from the dead [14]. More, he knows that the progressive decay of himself outwardly is being accompanied by the proportional renewal of himself inwardly. While it is not too difficult to know what Paul intends us to understand by our outer self is wasting away, the meaning of our inner self is being renewed day by day is not self-evident. It can be said, however, that he does not mean only that our inner lives are renewed day by day in the sense of being repaired or refreshed. It is more particularly that God is creating within our inner nature a new person out of the old, so that when it is finished it will be completely new. It is by faith, not sight [5:7], however, that we understand that our inner self is being renewed day by day. The renewal of which he speaks is not something we see, feel or experience; it is apprehended by faith and hope. The problem of knowing precisely what he means is intensified by his shift from psychological imagery (our inner self) to architectural imagery (building, house, dwelling) in the following verses. What these complex word-pictures appear to be saying is that God is preparing a permanent home for us after the dissolution of our present bodily frame. It is helpful to notice the form of these verses. In verse 16 Paul writes outwardly wasting away and inwardly being renewed, thus establishing a pattern of negative/positive contrasts, which he will follow in the ensuing verses. Moreover, as we examine the negative elements in the verses we discover that they are inter-related. The same is true of the positive elements; they too are connected. Thus our ‘outward’ selves [16] belong to the present world of things that are seen and is wasting away on account of affliction. By contrast an eternal weight of glory is the culmination of our inner self being renewed day by day which belongs to the new creation which is, as yet, unseen. What is glory? Man cannot see God [John 1:18]; what God shows man and permits him to see is His ‘glory’ or ‘brightness’. God displays His ‘glory’ for all to see in the sun by day and the moon and stars by night [Ps. 19:1]. He revealed His glory to His servant Moses and in His Son’s miracles and through His death [John 12:23-24]. Three disciples, together with Moses and Elijah who reappeared for the occasion, witnessed the glorified Jesus on the mount of transfiguration [Mark 9:2-8]. Paul saw the glory of God in the face of Christ on the road approaching Damascus. Although ‘glory’ belongs to God alone, He imparts His glory to His people. Through the gospel God shines His light into the darkness of our hearts [4:6]. Thereafter the Spirit progressively intensifies the glory within the believer’s life [3:18]. This is indeed difficult to comprehend, since our eyes tell us of decay outwardly and our consciences remind us of sin inwardly. We infer from this passage that as the decaying human frame approaches disintegration, the finishing touches are being applied to the new creation. At death the scaffolding of our outer frame will be removed and God will unveil to us the building from God, the house not built by human hands, eternal in heaven [5:1]. In a brilliant and paradoxical statement Paul contrasts this light momentary affliction of this existence with the eternal weight of glory of the new creation, which far outweighs them all. Seen in true perspective, the troubles of our outer nature are ‘light’ in weight and of momentary duration, while the glory of our inner nature is of heavy ‘weight’ and eternal duration. According to Paul, our momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory of which he writes. It is not that he viewed sufferings as ‘good works’ or as virtuous in themselves. They do not automatically or mechanically intensify the ‘glory’. Rather, it is that troubles cause us to look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. Troubles help us to understand that there is no future for us here in this tawdry, fading existence. Therefore we focus, increasingly, on the unseen, resurrected and glorified Christ [4:4-6,14]. Bodily needs are important, certainly; and so are the needs of others. Yet what we are to long for is not the pleasures and possessions put before us by the advertising agencies in the media, but the promises of the gospel in the Bible. The Christian’s study of holy Scripture, both privately and in the context of fellowship, prayer, worship and service, will be very important to rivet his attention on what is unseen. Because the things that are unseen are eternal they are more real than the things which are seen. Our future eternal existence with God is a true existence; this one is only a shadow cast by the coming reality. This life, with its troubles, is a preparation for our true destiny – an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. God graciously prepares for our future in a twofold way. Using our troubles, He prepares for us an eternal glory, the new habitation which will be ours at death [5:1-2]. Secondly, in case we may not be spiritually or emotionally ready, God prepares us for the new existence so that we are able to receive it [5:5]. God’s preparation for our future is complete, being both objective and subjective: He prepares it for us and us for it.” [Barnett, pp. 86-95].

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What is the treasure that God has placed within every believer? What are the jars of clay? Why does God place His treasure in jars of clay? What does God want us to do with this treasure? How can we do this in the midst of suffering?
  2. What is Paul’s point in verse 16? What does he mean by outer self and inner self? Why does Paul not lose heart even when his outer self is wasting away? How is your inner self being renewed day by day? How does Paul contrast what is happening to our outer and inner selves? What lessons does he intend for us to learn in this contrast?
  3. What do we learn from Paul in this passage concerning how we are to encourage one another? To what does Paul direct his readers attention in order to not lose heart? How do we move from focusing our attention on the things that are seen to the things that are unseen?
  4. How does Paul answer the question of our lesson: “How can I honor God in my suffering”?
  5. As you experience suffering in your life focus on Paul’s “but not” statements to guide, strengthen and encourage you. Pray that God will enable you to see that the power to survive suffering must come from Him and not from ourselves.

References:

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

2 Corinthians, David Garland, NAC, B & H Publishers.

2 Corinthians, George Guthrie, BENT, Baker.

The Second Letter to the Corinthians, Mark Seifrid, Pillar, Eerdmans (ebook).