2 Corinthians 4:1-12
4:1 and 4:16 flag up the issue Paul is addressing throughout this passage – the temptation to lose heart as we seek to share Christ with others. Paul implies he knew the temptation as keenly as we do, and yet twice he insists “we do not lose heart”, and here he is telling us why. Sometimes we are tempted to give up seeking to “spread everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him” (2:14), because we feel the message is weak – ineffectual, having little response; and sometimes we are tempted to give up because we feel we, the messengers, are too weak. But Paul answers both those doubts with words that should bring great encouragement to us.
4:1-6 addresses the perceived weakness in the message. 4:7-12 addresses the all too real weakness in the messenger.
At the end of chapter 3 Paul had been speaking of the veil that covers people’s hearts – a veil that is removed through the Gospel so that people can at last see the glory of God in the face of Christ. But it’s as though Paul can hear his detractors saying – “But people don’t see! You preach and they throw you out of town! Your results just don’t back this up!”. And we can feel the same nagging doubts – the Gospel doesn’t seem to work, people don’t get it, don’t accept it. Paul concedes that the Gospel is veiled to the unbeliever (v.3), but that’s not the fault of the message. Rather “the god of this age has blinded the mind of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of gospel of the glory of Christ” (v.4).
Faced with such spiritual blindness, a temptation is to try and get a response through devious methods or by distorting the message. But Paul determined rather to “set forth the truth plainly” (v.2) – “plainly” meaning, not boringly, but open statement of the truth, with no attempt to deceive (it’s open) and no attempt to distort (it’s the truth). The truth is essentially “Jesus Christ as Lord” (v.5), that’s what he proclaims. Why bother to proclaim Christ when the spiritually blind can’t see “the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ”? Well because just as God used his Word to bring light out of darkness at the creation of the world, so God uses his Word to bring light to blind eyes (v.6). It’s the Word that brings light, for the God’s Word is powerful and effective. Paul’s convinced of that because it had been marvellously true in his own experience.
Those last words of v.6 are wonderfully rich – the light which is the knowledge (personal, relational knowledge, not merely theoretical knowledge) of God in all His glory, and which is to be found in the face of Christ. How will people see this light and come to know God as He truly is? As they look to Christ. So that’s where Paul points people (v.5). Yes, we are up against blind eyes, but the means God will use to open those eyes is the plain proclamation of Christ. It’s not a weak message, rather it is the power of God for the salvation of all who will believe.
What of the weakness of the messenger? We might acknowledge that in the hands of someone else – someone more gifted, more impressive – the Gospel can be a mighty weapon, but we are too weak for God to use us. Not so, for God delights to use weak people (“jars of clay”) to hold out the treasure of the Gospel. He deliberately chooses weak, unimpressive vessels (our equivalent of a jar of clay might be a polystyrene cup) because he wants people to marvel, not at the container, but at the treasure (v.7).
He goes on to show how that principle of God’s power being experienced in weakness was lived out in Paul’s experience. He describes how he has carried around in his body the death of Jesus, as in the course of seeking tom preach Christ he had known frequently what it mean to be “hard-pressed… perplexed… persecuted… struck down”. Yet in that weakness he had known too the resurrection power of Christ – not so that all his difficulties disappeared, but so that he was able to endure: “… not crushed, …not in despair, …not abandoned, …not destroyed”.
So our weakness is not a reason to despair and lose heart, for it is the perfect context in which to experience the power of God sustaining us, and also working through us. Verse 12 has a surprising twist. The Corinthians had come to know the resurrection life of Christ through the pain and discouragement and difficulty Paul faced in his ministry. God will work in our weakness (sustaining us), and also through our weakness bringing life to others. Gospel ministry won’t be easy, Paul’s very clear about that – it will be tough, disheartening, painful, costly – and we will feel very weak and inadequate, but God’s power is made perfect in weakness. So don’t lose heart!