It was many years ago … many years!! It was around the time I was at the end of high school and going into college – so, like age 18 or 19. There was a particular girl that I had come to know through working at both a Christian camp in South Jersey and a Bible conference center at the Jersey shore. She really was a wonderful young woman in every way, particularly with a passionate heart for people who did not know Christ as Savior. We were very good friends, off and on and over a distance, this being at a time of life where communication was pretty much by letters through the mail. Somewhere in that time she sent me her high school picture, and in remarks on the back she included a Bible reference … 1 Corinthians 4:18. And I got my Bible, turned to this reference and noted that it says … Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you.
Hmmm… what did this mean? Was it a cryptic get-lost message? Arrogant? So, she thinks I’m arrogant and does not want to ever see me again? Is that what she thinks of me? Wow! After a time of consideration, I thought that perhaps she just maybe put the wrong reference, as even then I knew that there was a 2 Corinthians with at least four chapters. So, I checked to see what Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth had to say for 4:18, and here it is … So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
Now that sounds a lot better, and I’m sure (I think) that is what she meant to reference! (But even there, I think her message was, “You’re temporary!” And I was indeed.)
Fixing our eyes on things eternal, that is not the way of this world is it? It’s not even the way of the Christian world. How do we measure success? Surely it has to do with numbers and metrics. The biggest churches are surely the best, and the mega-church pastors are absolutely the ones who will have the largest mansions in heaven on “Divinity Drive” just down the street from the throne of God.
I know I’ve wrestled with this line of thought many times. Though the average church is probably about 25% the size and scope of what we have here, I wrestle with the inner accusation that we never became a larger mega-church because it is my fault for failing too often as the pastor. And some have indeed suggested to me that this is in fact the truth. Yet I know that guys leading larger churches have the same struggle, worrying even that all the apparent success might not be God’s work. When is big enough, big enough? Where does faithfulness in the vineyard, wherever you’re placed, factor in? Or is that just an excuse to have not done bigger and better?
But it’s not just pastors and churches who struggle this way. I think most Christian folk at one time or another question if they’ve done what they should have done, looking at results in their lives. Have they given enough time to serving God and His work in churches or other Christian endeavors? Have they given enough of their resources? Would they have been blessed more in material ways if they had been more generous in their time and resources? How well is their faith values system being passed on to the next generations in their family?
And so often it comes back to metrics – the outside appearance of things. Should there not be greater rewards and successes than what can be seen? Is this now, in the latter chapters of life and looking back, all that it adds up to? What chances are there of getting to the other side and hearing any version whatsoever of “Well done, good and faithful servant?”
The Christian life is difficult. It is not just bad enough that we have the inner enemy of self-accusation fueled by the arch enemy of God. There is the very real opposition that we see in the world around us. The systems of the world, the measurements of success as the world measures such things … all of this is often contrary to true spiritual measurement. Our true metrics are, in a phrase, “out of this world.” And we need to grow to understand and think this way – that what is on the spiritual inside trumps in measurement over the visible world’s outside.
And thinking this way is what we might term “counterintuitive.”
Here is a summary idea today as we turn to 2 Corinthians 4 … We are jars of clay. Though we are dying daily on the outside, we are growing in life on the inside day by day.
The Apostle Paul surely had to wrestle with some of this sort of painful thinking and grim analysis as well. Ministry life was not easy for him, as we are aware of his many challenges, persecutions, imprisonments and opponents (Jews, Romans, and even Christian people in the church). And particularly in the opening chapters of the 2nd letter to the Corinthians he finds it necessary to defend his life and ministry…
2 Corinthians 4:1 – Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. 2 Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
Thinking through these verses, let’s look at some of the items that Paul faced as discouragements while doing ministry in this material world …
- The exhaustion and weariness of it all – we do not lose heart – This is a Greek word (ekkakeo) that spoke of physical weariness to the point of fainting. And so was the ministry effort for Paul. Surely there were times when he pondered if it was worth it all, just as we might ponder our commitment to steadfastness in Christ in an unbelieving and hostile world.
- The problems in the church at Corinth – not specifically stated here, but all he is communicating was because these early Christians had been impacted by false teachers and were slow to live out their faith strongly.
- False accusations – we do not use deception – Paul was accused by opponents of being in it for his own personal gain. Perhaps this had to do with an offering he was collecting from the churches to take to Jerusalem – having a passion to unite the Jewish and Gentile wings of the early church.
- Truthful teaching over nice sounding rhetoric that was easy to hear and accept – nor do we distort the word of God – other teachers made it work easily for the hearers, whereas Paul stood for the hard truth that hit the Corinthians in the face at times.
- The opposition to the gospel from those who could not see it – if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light – It takes a work of God in any person’s life for them to have their lost/blind condition thawed sufficiently to even hear the gospel in order to respond. The Evil One is active and thwarting this proclamation … indeed, there is a great enemy of the truth.
All of this put together is enough to make one despair in the active work of living for Christ and being an agent of gospel proclamation. Yet Paul was writing that he was not giving up and not fainting from it all. Though the outside problems were great, there was an inner reality that trumped it and was greater by far.
The rest of the chapter gives the reasoning for his hope and encouragement in the midst of it all. And let us consider his thoughts by pointing out four great truths in this passage. And the first is this …
- The Content of the Core Gospel Message (5-6)
That content is the life-giving person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ …
2 Cor. 4:5 – For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.
Paul was an interesting character, given his background as a persecutor of followers of Christ. But just as God brought life to a dark world by bringing light into darkness (quoting from Genesis 1), God brought life to Paul through a bright light shining upon him on that road to Damascus. But it was more than a physical light, it was a light that shone into the heart and brought life, as it would for all those who receive the message of truth. And this is the content of the message Paul preached. It was not about him at all; he was now simply a servant of God and of the church – tasked with communicating a message of life.
But it is oft difficult for the messenger to get out of the way of the message. And Paul now gives a picture of what the messenger’s life consists of …
- The Content of the Gospel Messenger’s Life (7-12)
The gospel messenger’s life is one that presents with a weak exterior constantly pummeled by difficulties, yet the greater reality is the obvious light of Christ’s life within…
2 Cor. 5:7 – But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 8 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11 For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. 12 So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.
What do you do with something of great value in your home? With something you want to protect from all harm? Perhaps you have valuable documents, like savings bonds or even physical gold and silver. What would you do to protect it? You’d probably buy a safe. But you certainly wouldn’t put such things in clay jars!
The most valuable treasure of them all is the gospel. And yet God entrusts it to us (flesh and blood jars of clay) to carry it and communicate it. This is rather counterintuitive for God to do, wouldn’t you think? But what it does is communicate to a watching world that the power cannot be sourced in the human vessel, it has to be from God.
Here’s another way we could actually see this: God most often chooses the biggest losers of them all, humanly speaking, to be his primary bearers of the message of Christ. It essentially says this very thing in Paul’s first letter to these Corinthians: 1:26-27 … Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. OK… so let’s come right out and identify the biggest loser at TSF? Yep… this writer!
I remember my first days at Dallas Theological, looking around at the gathering of guys starting seminary studies that would lead toward ministry careers. And it scared me for the future of the church!! These guys had A LOT of academic credentials from other places, but they were pretty much lost on understanding the Scriptures and how to communicate them, let alone to have many very obvious leadership skills. And the word kinda leaked out during our senior year that the faculty thought our particular class of 1982 was filled with weaklings. Yet, somehow, even as too many dropped out of the race, God has used so many others in powerful ways. There are names most of you would know from Christian media and publication. And many went to all corners of the earth to serve in a myriad of ways to preach the gospel, often in obscurity, but powerfully. And this is because God uses the weakest jars of clay to show the power of his eternal truth.
The passage also speaks of some realities that will be the common experience of those who live actively and intentionally for Christ – be they in what we might call “vocational Christian ministry” or serving elsewhere openly in other avenues of life. It will be the normal experience to have many difficulties (and this was a theme of this series earlier in the summer). Let’s look at some of these descriptive words ….
– “hard-pressed” on every side … a Greek word that would be used of pressing and crushing grapes … metaphorically saying this WILL happen at every turn for the servant of the Lord.
– “perplexed” … means to be without resources – to not know what to do our think – to be at a total loss. The word was used in the Gospels to say that the disciples were “perplexed” when Jesus said that one of them would betray him.
– “persecuted” … here is a Greek word that would be used to describe someone who is chasing another person in a hostile manner … so it’s a running word! But Paul says, though chased, one is not abandoned and alone.
– “struck down” … literally means to throw down on the ground … only used 2 other times in the Bible, one of them in Revelation 12 where it describes the demise of Satan being thrown down. But, here it says that one is “not destroyed” even when hitting the deck at times.
Folks, this is part of the deal in knowing and serving Christ. And Paul goes on to say that though these things will happen, they are an asset to the follower of Christ. By having these experiences, one is following in the path of Christ himself who was struck down. Yet through that death came LIFE eternal. Wo we too have that as well as the ability, prior to that time, to live a life that has true meaning. And though sorrows will abound, greater good and greater life for self and others will come through it.
So, there is a message of life … housed within a fragile vessel … but thirdly …
- The Content of our Encouragement to Others (13-15)
This encouragement is a specific message that is the most amazing truth ever to be known and told to others …
2 Cor. 4:13 – It is written: “I believed; therefore I have spoken.”[from Ps. 116] Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak, 14 because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself. 15 All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.
The quote of Ps. 116 may be a bit obscure, but it is one where the Psalmist spoke of the anguish of the grave, but later spoke also of his confidence in God to deliver him. And Paul had this same confidence in God’s ultimate, faithful plan for him. He knew it would end well, therefore the sufferings were fully bearable.
Beyond that, all of his sufferings and all of his teachings in the midst of trials were benefitting not only the Corinthians, but people everywhere God enabled him to minister.
The results of Paul’s ministry were a mixed bag of successes filled with many difficulties and setbacks. Though he could point to many who trusted Christ and churches planted and beginning to grow, there were no shortages of difficulties and conflicts. There were other teachers with poor motives who led some astray. And everywhere there was persecution and obstacles. Yet the gospel was going forward, and he believed he could trust God to multiply his efforts according to God’s power and plans. In this was satisfaction, even in the face of sadness and challenges.
So, there is a message of life … housed within a fragile vessel … that message giving eternal life that makes all the difference for the believer … and then …
- The Content of our Ultimate Hope (16-18)
Hope … peaceful assurance … there was every reason to have this, IF one also had the proper big picture perspective about the end of the road …
2 Cor. 4:16 – Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
These verses are filled with contrasts …
– Outward / Inward
– Wasting / Renewing
– Light / Weighty
– Temporary / eternal
– Seen / Unseen
Paul says there is no reason to get discouraged in light of all that happens. The picture is like an hourglass. As the sands diminish in one part of it (the outward, wasting away, light-weight world of temporary troubles that are seen), the sands are building up in the other chamber (the inward, renewing, substantive, eternal world that is currently unseen).
Let me try to picture it this way. Let’s say there is a whole new line of technology coming out – say in the area of phones, or television … being manufactured by entirely new companies. It is wholly different and incomparably better, so much so that the current technology will before long be completely antiquated and worthless. Would you continue to buy that type of phone or TV? Beyond that, would you invest all of your savings and IRA/401K monies into those old companies. Of course not!
So why would you invest all of your time and energy into things that are merely the stuff of this brief and transitory world? The word in the final verse for “temporary” is one that pictures something that is a mere flash. Compared to all of eternity, this world is exactly that – a mere flash. Boom! It’s gone!
I am not sure how much more practical the Bible can get than these final verses that tell us to live in a way that is counterintuitive to the way the rest of the world says to function. This world says to grab for all the gusto because you only go around once. But godly wisdom tells us to understand that this world is a mere flash, so have your mind set upon what is the bigger picture of that which is eternal.
So what are the things that are eternal? Building on last week’s message and theme, it is those things that define being on the narrow road while eschewing the stuff that is pervasive on the wide road leading to destruction.
It is caring about the stuff that is eternal, and what is that? God’s Word and the gospel message, and the souls of people.
– So we care about the people closest to us, beginning with family and nearest friends … to care where they are at in terms of trust and faith for life and eternity.
– So we care about the local body of Christ – the church and its work and mission.
– And we care about the cause of Christ as it intersects with culture, and as the church takes the gospel around the world in missionary endeavors.
As well, these truths inform us about how we see everything in this world. So we’re not undone by horrible diagnoses or circumstances that are not in the prosperity category. We have a bigger, better, lasting inheritance that makes all the difference.
So, are you living in light of eternal values, or are you too consumed by the stuff that is, honestly, just a flash?