Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) wrote, “Christians can rejoice even in the deepest distress; although trouble may surround them, they still sing; and, like many birds, they sing best in their cages. The waves may roll over them, but their souls soon rise to the surface and see the light of God’s countenance; they have a buoyancy about them which keeps their head always above the water, and helps them to sing amid the tempest, ‘God is with me still.’”1
A Glorious Treasure
“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us” (2 Cor. 4:7).
In the context, the “treasure” of verse 7 refers to “the glorious gospel of Christ” of verse 4, and “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” of verse 6. In God’s eyes, the gospel of the grace of God is a glorious treasure. It is of infinite value. And we are to view it the same way as God does. Through this treasure we have the forgiveness of all our sins, the gift of righteousness, and eternal life. By this treasure, we are rich in Christ (2 Cor. 8:9). And God wants us to spread the wealth!
This treasure has been committed to us, who are “earthen vessels,” that it be made known to this world. God has poured the treasure of His gospel of grace into us who have trusted Christ as Savior so that we might, through God’s strength, pour it out to others.
An “earthen vessel” is an earthenware jar, a common clay pot. These are weak, fragile, brittle containers. This picture depicts humanity and is meant to remind us of our weakness. Paul saw himself for what he truly was: a fragile man of clay who had been entrusted with a glorious treasure to make known by the power of God.
It’s good to have a proper perspective on ourselves and our service. Written by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, God reminds us here how we are weak, earthen vessels, who need Him, and that it is only by Him working through us that we are empowered to carry out the gospel ministry for His glory. It is God’s life and power working through us that produces any and all positive results in the Lord’s work. The victory is entirely the Lord’s in every way, and He deserves the praise.
God has entrusted His message to earthen vessels, so that the “excellency,” the surpassing greatness, “of the power may be of God, and not of us.” God uses us, who are common, fragile vessels, to make His message known so there is no mistaking the source of the power of the gospel: God, and not us and our strength.
Oswald Chambers put it well: “God can achieve His purpose either through the absence of human power and resources, or abandonment of reliance on them. All through history God has chosen and used nobodies, because their unusual dependence on Him made possible the unique display of His power and grace.”2
The Faithful God
“We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8-9).
Bible commentator William Barclay paraphrased these two verses this way: “We are sore pressed at every point, but not hemmed in….We are at our wit’s end, but never at our hope’s end…. We are persecuted by men, but never abandoned by God….We are knocked down, but not knocked out.”3
Paul’s first-hand assessment shows the trials of his ministry, but it also shows God’s presence, power, guidance, and mercy in Paul’s life. The demands of ministry had brought Paul into difficult circumstances, but God was faithful and His power was exhibited through this earthen vessel.
Paul wrote that he was “troubled on every side” or surrounded by trouble and being pressed hard by it. The Greek word translated “distressed” means hemmed in or pressed for room, and Paul says he was not “distressed” or completely cornered. God didn’t allow trouble to crush Paul or break him.
Paul wrote he was “perplexed,” or in doubt, at a loss, not knowing which way to turn. However, Paul says he was “not in despair,” or never despondent or utterly at a loss, because the Lord helped and guided him and showed him the way.
Paul wrote that he was “persecuted” or pursued, put to flight, and mistreated by enemies of the gospel. However, Paul states that he wasn’t “forsaken.” He was never deserted or abandoned, because God was always there. Like Charles Spurgeon said, Paul could know in all his trials, “God is with me still.”
Paul wrote that he was “cast down,” or he was physically struck to the ground in his persecution. However, Paul says he was not “destroyed,” or he didn’t stay down; he got back up by the power of God, and continued to serve the Lord.
Life and Death
“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. 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. So then death worketh in us, but life in you” (2 Cor. 4:10-12).
“A man goes to the doctor and says, ‘Doctor, wherever I touch, it hurts.’ The doctor asks, ‘What do you mean?’ The man says, ‘When I touch my shoulder, it really hurts. When I touch my knee—OUCH! When I touch my forehead, it really, really hurts.’ The doctor says, ‘I know what’s wrong with you. You’ve broken your finger!’”4 Everywhere Paul touched on his body, it probably hurt. Later in this letter, Paul detailed the stripes, beatings, imprisonments, hardships, and stoning that he sustained (2 Cor. 11:23-27).
Paul puts it here in verse 10 of chapter 4 that he was “Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus.” Paul was “bearing” the marks of battle that he fought for Christ. He bore real, physical marks and scars on his body from his sufferings for Christ. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul told them, “…I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus” (Gal. 6:17).
It’s been said well that “We need men of the cross, with the message of the cross, bearing the marks of the cross.”5 This was Paul’s testimony. But Paul points out that the outward marks on his body were a proof of Christ’s life within him. Through Paul’s weakness, Christ’s resurrection life was “manifest” and put on display. Christ’s life was made apparent and clear to others through what Paul endured for his Savior in making the gospel known.
Paul further wrote, “For we which live are alway delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:11a). Paul was continuously exposed to death in the cause of Christ, which in truth was the result of attacks against the Lord Jesus. Paul assumed these risks so that others would know of Christ’s life and the “treasure” of the gospel within him.
And in verse 12 Paul points out the blessed fruit of his sufferings in making the gospel known: “So then death worketh in us, but life in you.” As a result of dying to self and being exposed to physical death as he spread the gospel, Paul reminded the Corinthians that they have life, life eternal in Christ.
A Confident Faith
“We having the same spirit of faith, according as it is written, I believed, and therefore have I spoken; we also believe, and therefore speak; Knowing that He which raised up the Lord Jesus shall raise up us also by Jesus, and shall present us with you” (2 Cor. 4:13-14).
In this passage, Paul quoted Psalms 116:10: “I believed, therefore have I spoken….” he remainder of this verse in Psalms reads, “I was greatly afflicted.” Paul and the Psalmist had something in common: they were both afflicted in their lives. But Paul felt as the Psalmist did, by stating that they had “the same spirit of faith…we also believe, and therefore speak.” In spite of his affliction, Paul believed, and therefore he spoke “the glorious gospel of Christ.”
As a result of what Paul believed with conviction, he spoke for Christ, even in the face of those who would persecute him, strike him to the ground, or try to kill him. Because of what he knew to be true, Paul refused to allow his sufferings to keep him from telling others the truth.
The basis for his confidence and boldness was “knowing that He which raised up the Lord Jesus shall raise up us also by Jesus.” Paul knew he could submit himself to the danger of death because of Christ’s resurrection, knowing he had hope of his own resurrection “by Jesus.” This gave Paul boldness to take the gospel to the world in spite of persecution.
Paul told these Corinthians in his first letter to them that “if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain” (1 Cor. 15:14). But Christ is risen from the dead, thus our faith is true, and our preaching is not vain or fruitless. The fact that Christ lives caused Paul always to press forward in his ministry in spite of difficulties and afflictions. He knew that none of his labors were ever in vain, and what he did for Christ had meaning and would echo into eternity
“For all things are for your sakes, that the abundant grace might through the thanksgiving of many redound to the glory of God. For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:15,16).
The “all things” Paul refers to are all the afflictions he endured in his ministry, and he states they were “for your sakes,” or for their benefit, that they might be saved and grow in the truth.
Paul had come to realize that the more he suffered in order to make the gospel known, the more the abundant grace of God was made available to others. The more people who were saved, the more thanksgiving would be given to God. And the more thanksgiving that was given to God, the more it redounded to His glory. Paul desired that “many” be reached for Christ so that many more might lift up their thanksgiving to God for His grace. He wanted thanksgiving to God to overflow as the result of many being saved and thanking God for it.
Paul earnestly then wrote, “For which cause we faint not” (v. 16). The “cause” Paul referred to was the cause of preaching Christ and reaching souls for Him for the glory of God. The word “faint” here means to lose heart, to be discouraged, to give up. In spite of the hardships, Paul was not discouraged and he refused to give up. His desire was strong for many to be saved by God’s abundant grace.
And Paul states that he was not giving up even if his outward man, his frail, earthen vessel, was wearing down steadily as the result of aging and his many sufferings. He was not discouraged by this because his inward man was at the same time spiritually renewed day by day. Thus, he remained encouraged, invigorated, and motivated to continue on in his ministry.
The perishing and wearing down of our outward man happens to all of us whether we like it or not. Our bodies are getting older and wearing down steadily, but we too can be spiritually renewed day by day in the inward man by growing in the Word, praying, and living by faith, allowing us to remain motivated to serve the Lord and get His truth out to others.
Unseen Eternal Things
“For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:17,18).
Paul looked at his afflictions through the eye of faith and with an eternal perspective. He
looked beyond his adversities to glory, which sustained him in and through them. As the late President of Moody Bible Institute Dr. James M. Gray (1851-1935) put it in song, “Who can mind the journey when the road leads home?”6
In light of eternity, Paul saw his afflictions as “light” and momentary. While we usually look at our troubles from an earthly perspective as working against us, Paul teaches that from an eternal perspective, they are actually working “for us.”
Think ahead one million years into eternity and look at our trials from heaven’s point of view. From that vantage point, if you were to look back at the seemingly endless trials of this life, they would seem as brief as a moment. Yet, these momentary afflictions work for us an eternal weight of glory
Again, looking at our trials from heaven’s point of view, thinking ahead one million years into eternity, and then looking back at the afflictions in this life which seemed too heavy to bear, they will seem light as a feather. Yet these light afflictions, work for us a far more exceeding weight of glory.
We will be rewarded for our service to the Lord one day. There are eternal ramifications for how we allow the Lord to use our lives now. If we live for the Lord and make His truth known, we will be given eternal glory by Christ at the judgment seat of Christ (2 Cor. 5:10). And the weight of glory will be commensurate with the extent we serve and sacrifice for Him.
Paul stated in verse 18 of chapter 4 that he looked “not at the things which are seen.” The word “look” in the original Greek means to consider or contemplate. Paul was not fixing his attention or contemplating the things which are seen in his life and ministry, “for the things which are seen are temporal.” Rather, his ability to endure his afflictions and persevere was the result of keeping his attention fixed on things not seen, for these “things which are not seen are eternal.”
We gain a proper perspective on life as we keep our focus on the eternal and the eternal consequences of our lives and service for Christ. The things which are seen are all passing away and temporal. God would have us focus on the things that no human eye has seen because they are the things of eternal value.
“Whom having not seen, ye love; in Whom, though now ye see Him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory” (1 Pet. 1:8).
Most of all, as we look by faith at things “not seen,” we look at Christ our Savior, Whom we have not seen—yet. Looking to Him by faith, we “rejoice with joy unspeakable” because of all He has done for us. We look to Him for the strength, guidance, and
comfort we need in life. And we look for Him to come at any moment to catch us away to heaven at the Rapture.
“For our conversation [citizenship] is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:20).