2 Corinthians 4:7–18
How does a church full of earthly problems become a church full of heavenly light? The church at Corinth is notable for its problems, as listed one by one in 1 Corinthians. Yet, by the time 2 Corinthian letter arrived there is a different tone toward the majority. Certainly there are places of correction in 2 Corinthians, but largely it is a letter of great encouragement. I am not speaking in terms of what some commentators say, but only of what I can see by reading the letter for itself.
The apostle recounts both the difficulty and the glory of New Covenant ministry in 2:12 speaking of his journey on the road to Troas. A laborious journey of five hundred miles of closed opportunities until his Macedonian vision. The striking note however is one of triumph in christ at the end of 2:14–16. While on the road with so many roadblocks and discouragement and loneliness, he could see in reality, and say that the gospel was “always triumphing.” Following this in chapter 3 there is the superiority of the New Covenant ministry because the glory of it exceeding that of Moses’ time. Then in Chapter 4 we get to this treasure that essentially is having God in you, the Holy Spirit applying the Gospel’s power. Evidently the nature of New Covenant ministry is quite different from the outward ministry of Judaism and temple worship. There were no brilliant breastplates, jewels, and the like to wear, it was a ministry that appeared on the outside to be small, insignificant, laborious, and failing. Perhaps many in the church at Corinth felt that way themselves. Perhaps many whom I am preaching feel similar pains. For such persons, God has a special personal message in the letter of 2 Corinthians to encourage the saints. It is in sum this:
It is the nature of New Covenant ministry powerfully renew us inwardly to see and say the gospel is triumphing at all times.
The treasure is the Holy Spirit applying the death, resurrection, ascension of Jesus Christ so that we see and say the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ will triumph increasingly, fully, and finally.
1. Jars of Clay—The Early Ministers to the Church Were Not Much To Look At.
A winter tree is not much to look at. It looks dead and lifeless. The apostle Paul was not much to look at either. He described his the life that everyone saw on the outside as “jars of clay” v.7. This is a euphemism for vulnerability. Job pled with God, “Remember that you have made me like clay; and will you return me to dust?” (Job 10:9 ESV). Job speaks of his friends’ sayings to him as “defenses of clay” (Job 13:12 ESV), meaning they were easily destroyed by God. Jeremiah lamented that the sons of Zion were “regarded as earthen pots, the work of a potters hands!” (Lamentations 4:2 ESV). When speaking of the human body in other places, the apostle spoke of controlling his own “vessel” (1 Thessalonians 4:4 ESV alt. reading). Peter does the same speaking of the wife as a “weaker vessel” (1 Peter 3:7). As a jar of clay, man is fragile in this world, and not much to look at. He describes this in four distinct terms of fragility: afflicted (v.8), perplexed (v.8); persecuted (v.9); and struck down (v.9).
“Afflicted” in v. 8 describes a person being pressed in a crowd (Mark 3:9). It is used to describe “besieging” a people. That is a picture of an army pressing around a city to restrict life from it so they can weaken it and ultimately crush it.
The next term of fragility is “perplexed” (v.8). This word means to be without resource. Figuratively it is used to speak of uncertainty, or not knowing how to proceed or act. In John 13:22 the disciples looked at one another uncertain who he was talking about. In Acts 25:20 Paul’s traveling companion Luke was in a state of “being at a loss how to investigate these questions” of Paul’s accusers.
The third word, “persecuted” (v.9) further describes the weak state of the apostles as being pursued with repeated acts of enmity, prosecuted. It means to follow or press hard after.
The fourth word, “struck down” (v.9) is picturesque of falling down prostrate after being made to fall. Psalm 73:18 says, “Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall…” This was the experience of Satan falling from heaven in Revelation 12:10. Yet, here it is descriptive of the ministers of the gospel. They aren’t much to look at. They are fragile and weak jars of clay!
Nonetheless, though the ministers of the gospel are not much to look at, there is something peculiar about them, like a bush burning yet not being consumed. There is some presence of God with them so that while they are “afflicted” and “perplexed” and “persecuted” and struck down” they are correspondingly “not crushed” and “not driven to despair” and “not forsaken” and not destroyed.”
The word “crushed” in v.8 describes the inability to express one’s self. So, while Paul was afflicted or pressed in like an army besieging him, he somehow could continue to speak the Word.
The words “driven to despair” means to be wholly without resource, totally helpless (cf. Psalm 88:15). So though the apostle was perplexed without resource in knowing how to proceed and act at times, he was not wholly without resource to do so. He still managed to make a decision in the end to allow him to move forward.
The word “forsaken” in v.9 means to be deserted or abandoned. So though the apostle experienced a constant pursuit by acts of enmity via his persecutors, he was never totally abandoned. Even in his worse situation, the Lord stood with him! (2 Tim 4:17)
The next word “destroyed” in v.9 means to cause to perish, even to be excluded from the kingdom of God. So although the apostle was struck down from things, falling at times like Satan from heaven, he never fell from grace! He was in other words, never destroyed! So, although these ministers of the gospel were not much to look at, the world could not get their eyes off them because there was something strange about the fact that they could not be crushed, driven to despair, forsaken or even destroyed! The early church father Tertullian said this, “Kill us, torture us, condemn us, grind us to dust; your injustice is the proof that we are innocent … The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.”
The dead sea scrolls were put inside of clay jars and found in a cave, but what treasure lay therein! We may wish to only look at the “jars of clay” imagery in regards to their being weak and fragile, but the point is not merely that. The point is that while they are weak and fragile, God preserves those weak and fragile ministers of the New Covenant with spiritual treasure within!
Jesus himself was said to be not much to look at. In Isaiah 53,
“Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
(Isaiah 53:1–6 ESV)
These evangelists were explaining the definite atonement of Jesus made them see, it was nothing of power in themselves! The death of Jesus was responsible for making hard-hearted disbelievers believers! Oh, the power of the Cross over the hardness of man! When we look on him who we pierced, what glory!
2. Treasure—Jesus is everything worth looking at!
What is the point? What is worth looking at then? Deep down, what is there that is responsible for this invincible nature of the kingdom of God being spread by the New Covenant ministers of the gospel? What is the “the treasure in jars of clay” (v.7). It is according to the apostle the power of the death of Jesus! This first accords with the verses preceding our text in 4:1–6, where the apostle describes the non-success of the gospel in terms of Satan blinding people from seeing “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” also called the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” The apostle gets more specific in v.7ff giving reason to why they were not crushed, driven to despair, forsaken, and destroyed. He says it was by “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (v.10, and similar in v.11–12). In v.12 “death” is said to be “at work” in them to produce life in the Corinthian congregation. This makes it impossible to be merely a description of identification with Jesus, it has to be a more operative force related to the gospel of Jesus Christ, specifically the Holy Spirit’s application of His Cross and Resurrection.
In a sacramental discourse, John Owen said this of the death of Christ,
“Power comes forth from the death of Christ, if received by faith in a due manner, to render us conformable to him in the death of sin in us.”
He goes on to quote 2 Corinthians 4:10 and then says,
“Then, brethren, we may have an experience of the power of Christ in us, when we can say we always carry about with us the dying of the Lord Jesus,—carry it in our meditation, carry it in our conversation [i.e. behavior], carry it in our constant universal endeavors for conformity to it; and without this we have not experience of the power of his death in us, and it will not avail us to have the nature of his death represented to us.” (Works, Vol. 9, p.619)
When we have Christ as our treasure, we carry in ourselves his death in meditation upon it. We would do well to apply Owen’s treatment here to think more about Christ’s dying love for us! This is where the treasure of power resides! It also resides in behaving according to the dying of the Lord Jesus so as to crucify our hearts to this world, so we do not live after the world’s desires, but rather in us is as the apostle John states, the love of the Father (contrast 1 John 2:15–17). Further, we should apply this not merely negatively by crucifixion to the lusts of the world, but in conformity to the crucified Christ, so we destroy sin and may become like him in character. There is a treasure then in every Christian both capable and certain of inward renewal because of the power and efficacy of the dying love of Christ! The apostles would answer people concerning the miracles they were enabled to perform with Acts 3:12,
““Men of Israel, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we have made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And his name—by faith in his name—has made this man strong whom you see and know, and the faith that is through Jesus has given the man this perfect health in the presence of you all.” (Acts 3:12–16 ESV)
J.C. Philpot writes,
“It is in this earthen vessel, our poor mortal body, that both the death of Jesus and the life of Jesus are manifested. In the trouble, the perplexity, the being cast down, is the dying of Jesus; in not being distressed, in not being in despair, in not being forsaken, in not being destroyed, is the life of Jesus. Thus in the same body there is a dying Christ and a living Christ, Christ in his cross in his weakness, and Christ at the right hand of God in his power. To know these two things is to know the power of Christ's resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, those two divine blessings which the soul of Paul so longed to realise and experience. In the knowledge then, the experimental knowledge, I mean, for all other is of no avail, of Christ crucified and Christ risen, consists the spiritual life of a child of God.” (from Bacas Vale, Jan. 25 devotion)
Thus, anything worth looking at in us is because of Jesus in us, Jesus crucified and risen, mortification (Sin dying in us) and vivification (Christ rising in us). When we see part of him (like his dying love) we can also accept his rising love. When you look at a door on a house, you see a door on the front, steps, and other portions. You only see part of it, but you can assess there is a whole house there, many parts you do not see, including the very life of the house inside. So it is with Christ that when we see his death at work, his life is there also.
In a sermon by Matthew Henry given on the occasion of the funeral of Anthony Burgess, it was brought out in that sorrowful time that this “treasure” is hidden in God, meaning in his wisdom and counsel. It is hidden in Christ, and his undertaking for us, which contains all we need as sinners. It is hid in Scripture, for there it may be found and fetched by faith acting on divine revelation, assenting to it with application and surrender. It is not amazing though that it is found in God, and in Christ, and in Scripture. What is amazing is that this treasure is found now in us! Glory to God!
Remember we read in Isaiah 53 of the Holy Spirit’s application of the power of Christ’s death in vv.1–4, but if you read on to Isaiah 54, there is this note of the gospel’s exceeding spread on earth. There Isaiah says,
““Sing, O barren one, who did not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud, you who have not been in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her who is married,” says the LORD.
“Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes.
For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left, and your offspring will possess the nations and will people the desolate cities.
“Fear not, for you will not be ashamed; be not confounded, for you will not be disgraced; for you will forget the shame of your youth, and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more.
For your Maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called.
For the LORD has called you like a wife deserted and grieved in spirit, like a wife of youth when she is cast off, says your God.
For a brief moment I deserted you, but with great compassion I will gather you.
In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,” says the LORD, your Redeemer.
“This is like the days of Noah to me: as I swore that the waters of Noah should no more go over the earth, so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you, and will not rebuke you.
For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,” says the LORD, who has compassion on you.
“O afflicted one, storm-tossed and not comforted, behold, I will set your stones in antimony, and lay your foundations with sapphires.
I will make your pinnacles of agate, your gates of carbuncles, and all your wall of precious stones.
All your children shall be taught by the LORD, and great shall be the peace of your children.
In righteousness you shall be established; you shall be far from oppression, for you shall not fear; and from terror, for it shall not come near you.
If anyone stirs up strife, it is not from me; whoever stirs up strife with you shall fall because of you.
Behold, I have created the smith who blows the fire of coals and produces a weapon for its purpose. I have also created the ravager to destroy;
no weapon that is fashioned against you shall succeed, and you shall refute every tongue that rises against you in judgment. This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD and their vindication from me, declares the LORD.””
(Isaiah 54:1–17 ESV; compare 2 Corinthians 2:12–27; 10:1–6)
3. Application of the Treasure in the Jars—Inward Daily Renewal
Christ conquering death and reigning and sending His Holy Spirit guarantees the triumph of the gospel increasingly, fully, and finally. The character of God and God’s steadfast covenant love, guarantees the success of the gospel in the world. The apostle could forget his past and go forth in triumph in the Lord knowing the steadfast love and mercy poured out on him through the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ! The apostle shared the faith of old. The Holy Spirit reignited and made permanent and lasting this faith for his and all time; and thus we must apply it with faith for today!
We must be confident of the success of the gospel on earth based on God’s character and covenant love.
In verses 11–15 the apostle tells us that he was confident of the fruitfulness of the kingdom of God on earth. Even though Paul did not have the power to avoid being afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down, he did have the power in the death of Jesus to not be crushed, driven to despair, not be forsaken, and not be destroyed. The means to this power was the same spirit of faith that was in any believer in all of time. He quotes Psalm 116, which is a psalm about the all-sufficient grace of God. J.C. Ryle rightly says, “Grace is stronger than circumstances.” That is what Steven Lawson communicates in his commentary on that Psalm. One writer translates, “I believed I was lost” or “I was greatly afflicted” (contra. W.S. Plummer). The Psalmist was thanking God for deliverance by the grace of God before he was actually delivered. He was speaking by faith in spite of trying times. He was saying simply that God can be trusted (Lawson). He was saying that the reason he was not giving up was because he shared in the same faith in God and His covenant that the Psalmist had who also would not give up by faith. The apostle who had the power and efficacy of Christ’s death in him knew that:
“he who raised the Lord Jesus will also raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. 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.”
Lawson says that Psalm 116’s main idea is: “The psalmist testifies how God heard him and delivered him from death, vowing always to thank and serve God.” Here Paul is doing the same thing. He is unwilling to give up because instead of looking at the outward things, he is looking and thinking upon and behaving and sharing the power and efficacy of the death of Jesus Christ with the unquenchable hope of the resurrection! So, he not only believes he is able to stand and survive his circumstances, but that God will bear increasing fruit in the world through his ministry because of God’s covenant and character—just like the Psalmist believed. This is nothing short of the Christian hope.1
We are daily renewed from the inside out based on the efficacy and power of the cross applied to our own sufferings.
What about the suffering in particular? The cross of Jesus Christ turned the providential suffering of the apostles into glory! We must hold to the same Christian hope. Suffering does not produce glory meritoriously, but providentially for the glory of God. This is why the Cross is the power behind graciously transforming our sufferings into sight and greater vision of all ‘not seen yet’ realities.
Concerning vv. 16–18, John Owen describes
“He lays all sorts of afflictions in one scale, and, on the consideration of them, declares them to be “light” and “but for a moment.” Then he lays glory in the other scale, and finds it to be ponderous, weighty, and “eternal,”—“an exceeding weight of glory.” In the one is sorrow for a little while, in the other eternal joy; in the one pain for a few moments, in the other everlasting rest; in the one is the loss of some few temporary things, in the other the full fruition of God in Christ, who is all in all” (Works, Vol. 7, pp.323-24).
We are thus called to be “martyrs in resolution” (Ibid) even if we are never to lose our lives physically.
“He who is thus spiritually minded, who hath his thoughts and affections set on things above, will have always in a readiness what to oppose unto any circumstance of his sufferings” (Ibid).
So, one may feel crushed and disillusioned, but that never proves faith to be dead! (TNTC) When the treasure of the efficacy and power of the death of Jesus is in us, we have the ability to know and feel the weight of glory over and against the weight of this world. We are then made able to be inwardly renewed day by day, as we look at these unseen things.
Thus, instead of viewing your life as a winter tree, give thanks to God for the life within! This is how 1 Corinthians became 2 Corinthians! This is how a whole church body full of earthly problems became a whole church body full of heavenly light.
When we make this point about inward renewal, we want to be sure we are not speaking in error about transient things. As opposed to the Greek philosopher Plato, transient things are actually real things. Plato taught that the world we live in is one of non-reality that is steered by a world of reality. What the apostle is teaching is a world, though transient, that is nonetheless real. “Things …unseen” means “things that cannot now be seen.” But this real world we live in is steered by putting our minds on realities that are yet fully come to pass in our world. While consistently pointing believers to look above (E.g. Colossians 3:1ff), the apostle remains interested in the future renewal of earthly things by doing so (Romans 8). The power and efficacy of the gospel being experienced now in the dying love of Christ in believers through their sufferings, are said to be birth pains of a new creation in the future (Romans 8). To live a life with the realities of heaven escaping you is a tragedy. It is to live a life blinded from the treasure of such power and efficacy of the gospel (cf. 2 Cor. 4:4). So, we may conclude with saying, the greatest hope right now for a transient world is that of lowly ministers filled with an eternal one! Or the greatest hope for the future world are those who are being renewed inwardly by that world daily today. The one who brings this hope is God who speaks the treasure of recreative light into the heart of man by the preaching of the gospel. Christians therefore do not fear the winter, but know the Winter is sent by God to prepare for the Spring!
The apostle says elsewhere,
“Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.”
(2 Timothy 2:20–21 ESV)
So, “we don’t lose heart.” We focus on inward renewal by magnifying the gospel of Jesus not the problems in our lives. We live with hope based on God’s promises. We certainly do not discount problems, but we put glory up against those things in the scales. When Lloyd-Jones was in his last days suffering with cancer, and could not speak, he asked his daughter Elizabeth to read v.16 of our text. She said, “Is this how you feel Daddy?” And he vigorously nodded yes. Another account states that someone asked him if he was sad, and said not sad, and pointed to this text.
Consider also Joni Eareckson Tada, who was paralyzed as a result of a diving accident. She has gone on to be one of the foremost apologists for the sovereignty of God in affliction, and putting the glory of God on the scales to see things and say things rightly.
We are not Paul and suffering as he did. We are not the apostles suffering in extreme ways that had profound effects on the world. But we do have afflictions that compared to the glory on the scales, and it finds it’s proper perspective. The treasure we have is Holy Spirit helping us apply the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension daily to our lives afflictions and believing God’s promises of triumph of that gospel will be accomplished in our daily lives and in the future world.
I am postmillennial in view of eschatology. Not everyone has to be that. There are several orthodox views. Nonetheless, all must have a victorious eschatology. I think the postmill puritan view is most consistent and historically accurate. Nonetheless, my point is from the text. Paul did not look at waiting for Christ to triumph but believed he was leading them “always in triumphal procession” cf. 2:14.