"The Suffering in His Ministry" Page 1 of 3 (series: Lessons on 2 Corinthians)

by John Lowe
(Woodruff, S.C.)

May 15, 2014

Tom Lowe
The Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians

Lesson II.B.4: The Suffering in His Ministry. (4:7-12)

2nd Corinthians 4:7-12 (NKJV)
7 But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.
8 We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair;
9 Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed;
10 Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body.
11 For we which live are alway delivered unto death for Jesus' sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh.
12 So then death worketh in us, but life in you.


7 But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.

The light of the knowledge of the glory of God was a “treasure.” It was an infinitely precious thing Paul had been given to pass on through his life and his message. The light of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the living Lord, has led Paul not only into the Christian life, but also into unselfish ministry for the Corinthians and others. But the credit for this does not belong to Paul. Perhaps the apostle wanted to crush any temptation on his part for personal pride, and especially to keep his readers from misunderstanding, he confesses that “we have this treasure” of the glorious gospel in “earthen vessels,” a figure of speech perhaps suggested by Genesis 2:7{14], and used to show how humble, fragile, temporary, and weak mortal bodies are.

God had entrusted to Paul and his fellow evangelists this treasure of great worth—the gospel of Christ—but why would He do this? Because He delights in empowering the weak in order to confound the strong. The Lord loves to answer the prayers of the needy and bring down those who take pride in themselves (Luke 1:51-55{8]). God works through the weak and powerless so that it is clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from people (1 Co. 2:3-4{9]). The supremely valuable message of salvation in Jesus Christ has been entrusted by God to frail and fallible human beings (“clay jars”). Paul’s focus, however, was not on the perishable container but on the priceless contents—God’s powerful presence indwelling His people. Though His people are weak, God uses them to spread His Good News, and He gives them the power to do His work. Knowing that the power is His should keep believers from pride and motivate them to keep daily contact with God, their power source. Believer’s responsibility is to let people see God through their lives.

The image of “earthen vessels” takes us back to an incident in the life of Gideon. In Judges 7 we learn that Gideon took only three hundred men with him to free their land from a multitude of Midianite invaders. Each man had a trumpet, and a torch and a pitcher or an “earthen vessel.” They carried their torches in the earthen vessels so that the light couldn’t be seen from a distance. Then when they got among the Midianites, they broke the earthen vessels. It wasn’t until the earthen vessel was broken that the light could shine out.

My friend, that is the thing which we need today. We need the vessel to be broken. The apostle Paul was a man who knew what it was to suffer for Jesus’ sake. That vessel had to be broken. The trouble to day is that we don’t have very many who are willing to do that. I am saying that the earthen vessel must be broken. We cannot have our way and His way in our lives. We need to make up our minds whether we are going to follow Him or not.

This and the verses which follow contain a frank acknowledgment of his weakness. Paul’s physical disabilities were obvious to all. They had been flung in his teeth by his Judaizing opponents, with the probable suggestion that they were clear marks of God’s contempt. His bodily presence was “weak and his speech was of no account” (2 Co. 10:10). He was subject to a recurrent malady, “a thorn in the flesh” (12:7)—which disturbed him, and which remained despite his earnest prayer that it would be removed. A second-century letter gives this picture of the great apostle: “A man of moderate stature, with curly or crisp hair and scanty; crooked legs, with blue eyes; and large knit eyebrows; long nose; and he was full of the grace and pity of the Lord, sometimes having the appearance of a man, but sometimes looking like an angel.” From what we know of his life, it is obvious that no man, however physically strong he might be, could have come through all he had suffered without their health breaking down. Paul lists many of the trials he faced in 2 Corinthians 11:23-28: “I am. . . in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus

one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.” It is an impressive list, and added to it was the mental anxiety due to his concern for the welfare of the churches he has founded. He must have been a tough individual to endure such trials and still faithfully carry on his mission. As Paul wrote this he may have been thinking of his recent narrow escape from deadly peril in Asia (1:8{1]); but 10:10 and 12:7 show that more than one experience had made the point clear to him.

The Lord loves to deliver, rescue, and save. He loves those who conscientiously remember to praise Him for His acts of mercy. For a Christian, powerlessness is never a limitation but an opportunity for God to work in powerful and mighty ways.

Furthermore, his weakness was not only physical. The apostle is conscious also of spiritual weakness, which he has always had to strive against. Mental incomprehension and imperfect insight seem to be part of our human nature. The true saint is the last to claim sainthood. Such a claim would be a sign he is no saint, for it would be a sign of spiritual blindness. The closer we live to God the more conscious we become of our own inadequacy. Eloquence, polished speech, an impressive appearance, or high intellectual attainments may actually prevent people from realizing that a preacher’s power—or any other man’s power—is of God. Many who have done outstanding work for the kingdom of God have had some crippling physical disability. I once heard a preacher who was terribly disfigured in the Iraq war, who had a powerful witness. A woman who is a quadriplegic writes Christian books and has a radio program where she sings and witnesses for Jesus. The list of God’s saints with handicaps is a long one. Handicaps can stimulate hidden capacities and give opportunity for a victory of the spirit. Paul sees a divine purpose in the fact that such humble, mortal men preach the gospel; this should make it clear to all that the mystical power, which is superior to all the difficulties and opposition that Christ’s workers may have to face, belongs to God. This is a truth that the Corinthians with their party strife and slogans (1 Co. 1:12{2]) have continually missed. But they need to see it; indeed, it is the very truth of the gospel story, in which, through the humble earthly life and shameful death of Jesus, God did his revealing and redeeming work. The divine life and power are released precisely in the life of unselfish service and of suffering for others.

8 We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair;

Paul now uses a series of four contrasts to show that the constant succession of desperate crisis he has had to meet have never brought him to defeat, because the power of God has been with him in even the most ominous situations. What happened in Asia (1:8-11{3]) is what continually happens as he meets a continuous succession of deadly perils. Though “troubled on every side,” he is not “distressed,” that is, hemmed in and hard pressed so that no escape seems possible, but he does not lose heart. “Perplexed, but not” driven to “despair” contains a wordplay in Greek—“perplexed but not perplexed to the point of complete despair.” Few teachers would admit to being confused because they might lose the respect of their audience. Paul did not shrink from admitting his own weaknesses. At times, the pressures of his ministry had left him feeling surrounded and trapped. The situation suggested is that of frustration, from which God always provides a way out. There is no impasse on the road of God’s service. The way of obedience is never a dead end. The Bible is full of instances of this, for instance, the crossing of the Red Sea and the crossing of the Jordan River.

Perplexities may be of two kinds. There are practical perplexities for which our human wisdom is not enough. There are also perplexities of faith. Our minds are not big enough to solve all the problems which faith presents. In some ways, indeed, faith in the love of God as it meets the cruelties of life and the apparent callousness of the universe deepens perplexity. The materialist who has no place for God in his outlook has no problem of this kind. His trouble is not perplexity but despair. To be without God is to be without hope (Eph. 2:12{4]). But faith gives us light to walk by, and the promise of the perfect day. “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known” (1 Co. 13:12).

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