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 Corinthians 4:8-9)
The Sunday school lesson I taught this morning, based in 2 Corinthians 4, asked, “How can I honor God in my suffering?” Who likes to suffer? Who wants to suffer? The title of the lesson congers up all kinds of images of suffering. We might suffer due to a loss of work. We could suffer from loss of health. We can suffer from the loss of a loved one or the breakup of a marriage. We suffer when our children go astray.
Life necessarily includes a certain amount of suffering, and while the manner in which we handle our suffering can produce a testimony that honors God, that is not exactly what Paul had in mind when he penned this passage to the church in Corinth. Paul sets himself as an example of suffering, but not in the way we might think. Let’s examine the passage more closely.
(2 Corinthians 4:7) But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.
What treasure to which Paul refers? It is a mystery veiled in the Old Testament to which the Jews were and still are blinded (2 Corinthians 3:14-18). At the beginning of Chapter 4, Paul explains that he has the task of unveiling the mystery (2 Corinthians 4:1) to the Jew first and also to the Gentiles (Romans 1:16). “But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost. In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not” (2 Corinthians 4:3-4). The “lost” cannot understand the Gospel because it is “spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14). Of this treasure, Paul says, “For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5). He is compelled to preach, “For God, … hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face [πρόσωπον – prosopon — in the presence] of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).
This treasure is kept in “earthen vessels.” By this Paul is referring to his physical body. “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7). The problem with “earthen vessels” – clay pots – is that they are fragile and easily broken. Consider the Fall. “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat. And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons” (Genesis 3:6-7). Man sinned resulting in physical and spiritual death and a curse upon God’s perfect creation.
Why place such a great treasure in such weak containers? When submitted to God, these fragile clay pots make is so “that the excellency of the power may be of God.” In that way, God receives the glory “and not of us.” Having this treasure hidden within comes at a cost. Paul, referring to himself as “we,” explains.
(2 Corinthians 4:8-9) 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;
These two verses demonstrate that Paul suffered for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. A close examination of some key words makes this clear. The word translated “troubled” (θλίβω — thlibo) means to be “pressed, squeezed” – as a grape in a wine press. Yet, Paul is not “distressed” (στενοχωρέω — stenochoreo) meaning “crushed.” He is “perplexed” (ἀπορέω — aporeo) seeming “to have no way out;” “to be at a loss;” “to be without resources,” but not in “despair” (ἐξαπορέομαι — exaporeomai), that is, “to be utterly at a loss; or utterly destitute.” As long as God grants us breath, we can take comfort knowing that God will never abandon us. The psalmist says, “I have been young, and now am old; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread” (Psalm 37:25).
Paul states that he has been “persecuted” (διώκω – dioko), that is. “made to run or flee,” but not “forsaken” (ἐγκαταλείπω — egkataleipo), which means “to leave behind, abandon, desert.” He has been “cast down” (καταβάλλω — kataballo) – “to throw to the ground, prostate.” The implication is to be put down hard with violence, but he’s not been “destroyed” (ἀπόλλυμι — apollumi), that is, “to put out of the way entirely, abolish, put an end to ruin; to render useless; to kill.”
(2 Corinthians 4:10-11) 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.
Paul bears the Gospel (the treasure) in his body – his “earthen vessel.” It is the Gospel is the message of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ outlined in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4. The end to which he bears the Gospel is “that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our [his] body.” The word “manifest” (φανερόω) means “to render apparent;” “to make actual and visible, i.e., realized;” also “to make visible or known what has been hidden or unknown” That “mystery” hidden from the Jews – God’s salvation through Jesus Christ – reveals itself in Paul’s life as it should in the life of every true believer.
The words “live” and “life” are related. The Greek word translated “live” (ζάω – zaō , verb) means “to have true life and worthy of the name;” the “essence” of living. Like was the Greek word translated “life” (ζωή – zōē, noun) means “the absolute fullness of life, both essential and ethical, which belongs to God.” Jesus said, “… I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10)
There is another Greek word translated “life” that expresses life to a lesser degree. The Greek word βίος means “the present state of existence,” biological life. This is just mere existence. Jesus spoke of this kind of life in His “Parable of the Sower” also known as the “Parable of the Soils” (more appropriately). Comparing the soil to people, Jesus explained, “And that which fell among thorns are they, which, when they have heard, go forth, and are choked with cares and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to perfection” (Luke 8:14). These people did not have ζωή (zōē), but Paul did.
Still, he says that he is “alway delivered unto death.” The “death” to which he speaks is not the cessation of physical existence. He referred to death to self (Romans 6:4-5; 12:1-2; Galatians 2:20; Colossians 3:3), death to sin (Romans 6:1-2; 8:10; 1 Peter 2:24), and death to the law (Galatians 2:19). Paul summed up his attitude toward his “suffering” like this, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Paul dies “for Jesus’ sake.”
Verses 10 and 11 repeat the same ending phrase: “that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body/mortal flesh” We “suffer” so that the “life of Jesus” in us may be apparent to the lost world around us.
(2 Corinthians 4:12-13) So then death worketh in us, but life in you. 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 (quoting Psalm 116:10).
By putting his life to “death,” Paul helps others to find “life.” One commentary put it like this: “The “death” of Christ manifested in the continual “perishing of our outward man” (2Co_4:16), works peculiarly in us, and is the means of working spiritual “life” in you. The life whereof we witness in our bodily dying, extends beyond ourselves, and is brought by our very dying to you.” (Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary)
(2 Corinthians 4:14) Knowing that he which raised up the Lord Jesus shall raise up us also by Jesus, and shall present us with you.
The One who raised up Jesus will do the same for us. Death is not the end. We have a hope beyond. We are joined to the “living” Christ. Paul is dead to the things of this world because he is joined to Christ. We should follow his example!
(2 Corinthians 4:15) For all things are for your sakes, that the abundant grace might through the thanksgiving of many redound to the glory of God.
Paul’s suffering is for the sake of the church; it is for their benefit – “for your sakes.” The Greek word translated “abundant” (πλεονάζω – pleonazō) means “to do, make or be more, that is, increase.” The word “grace” (χάρις – charis) is “that which affords joy, pleasure, delight, sweetness, charm, loveliness: grace of speech.” The result of this “abundant grace might through the thanksgiving of many “redound” (περισσεύω – perisseuō), that is, “to superabound (in quantity or quality), be in excess, be superfluous” “to the glory of God.”
(2 Corinthians 4:16) For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day.
Through his “suffering,” Paul presses on – “we faint not.” Paul expresses this sentiment when he writes to the church in Philippi. “Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14). Not dissuaded by his circumstances, Paul notes that “though the outward man, [i.e., the physical body] perish, the inward man [i.e., the spirit] is renewed” (through the power of Jesus Christ in us).
(2 Corinthians 4:17) For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory;
Our suffering is small compared to our eternal reward. Our time on earth is but a nanosecond in the light of eternity. The “suffering” our Lord asks us to bear is but a “light affliction.” Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:29-30).
(2 Corinthians 4:18) 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.
Everything in this life is temporal. What lies beyond in the unseen future is eternal. The writer to the Hebrews reminds is that following the Lord requires faith. “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).
Paul’s example of “suffering” had more to do with self-denial for the furtherance of the Gospel. Indeed, Paul suffered physical and mental anguish and material deprivation. His list of sufferings was long.
Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. (2 Corinthians 11:23-27, emphasis mine).
After all of this, he concludes,
I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me. (Philippians 4:12-13)
The answer to the question, “How can I honor God in my suffering?” is to die to self, live for God in all that we do, and trust Him to supply all your needs – especially when it comes to sharing the Gospel so that others may live. “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33).