Let’s look to the Lord in prayer, and then I’ll read God’s Word. Let’s pray.
Our Father we thank you for the Word that you’ve given to us through Paul the Apostle. Where would we be, our God, if you had not spoken to us? We pray, Lord, your blessing as we listen. We ask, Lord, we might hear you as you speak. What a great Savior you are. We pray in Jesus’s name, amen.
Now reading the Word of God from 2 Corinthians 4. It’s a brief passage. Verses 7–12:
But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that this surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. In every way we are afflicted, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’s sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.
THE RESURRECTION LIFE OF CHRIST IS BEST SHOWN IN OUR SUFFERINGS
If you have a lovely painting in your home, you probably gave some care to placing it in the correct frame, not too dark, not too ornate, so that the beauty of the colors and the composition stand out. Well, Paul says something like this to the Corinthians. He says that God doesn’t want the power of Jesus Christ to be in any way subject to comparison with the minister. Those who minister, he says this in verse 7, he says, “We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”
So treasure is something worth a fortune, but it’s in a little clay pot worth nothing. Easily smashed. And the contrast here is, I think, easy for us to grasp but hard for us to learn.
The teaching of this passage, if we look at it globally, we could put it like this: it’s been given to Christians, especially those who minister the Word, to share in the sufferings of Christ and, through these sufferings, to experience the power of his resurrection. We minister the message of resurrection life in Christ only as we share in his sufferings
Now in 2 Corinthians, more than any of his other letters, Paul reflects on the nature of his own ministry. It’s not a letter perhaps that gets the kind of attention it ought to get, and I think as ministers we ought to spend a lot of time looking at it and seeing how Paul describes what ministry is as ministers, as elders. And this passage has, I’m quite certain, a claim on every one of us, every minister and elder here. Well, why is that? Because what Paul defends is not something unique to him as an apostle. Rather he calls it the ministry of the New Covenant, the supreme final expression of God’s covenant that’s come with the coming of the Son of God, with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. And that ministry of the covenant is permanent. It’s permanent from his time until we see Jesus Christ with our eyes when he raises us from the dead.
Paul preached the glory of the resurrected Christ. He’d seen him on the Damascus Road; once crucified, but now glorified, Jesus Christ. He saw him in blinding light, and it caused him to fall to the ground as he heard Christ’s voice, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). And it’s this Christ that Paul now proclaimed, and he did this in the power of the Spirit so that God, who in the creation caused light to shine out of darkness, now shone the light of the new creation in the hearts of God’s people that they might see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. That through this message God overcame the darkness of men’s hearts, the demonic darkness that blinds people to the glory of God. And you think that Corinthians would have appreciated this, but Paul was struggling in his ministry to them.
PAUL PROCLAIMS HIS WEAKNESS TO HIS CRITICS
Now as those who serve in the region of the nation’s capital, I think we’re often inclined to measure people by their power, measure them by their wealth, by their education, and perhaps especially by their influence. But weakness is despised in Washington D.C., and weakness was despised in Corinth also. And Paul was having a difficult time ministering to the Corinthians; his task and even his gospel were being questioned. When we think about Paul’s approach to the Corinthians at this point in his ministry, we can see how completely contrary his approach was to their cultural mindset. Because for most of this episode Paul defends his ministry by pointing out not his success, not his strength, but his weakness and his sufferings. And he’s challenging their way of thinking about the gospel, the way they’re thinking about themselves.
What did he have to deal with? Just look at it quickly. There were some very severe critics there in Corinth. They raised questions about his respect for them. They said, “Well, Paul won’t take our money.” And when he was there at one point he wouldn’t take money from the church. So that meant probably that he doesn’t give us the dignity of supporting him. But then they reversed course and said the opposite, “No, he did take the money. He took the money that we contributed from his subordinates but then he wouldn’t really admit it.” So in the letter he’s charged with being crafty. So he’s in trouble if he doesn’t take it, and he’s in trouble if he does take it.
He didn’t come back to Corinth right away as he’d said he would. And so they said, “Well, he’s vacillating. He says one thing but he’s doing something else.” His discipline at the second visit appears to have been ineffective. Probably the sexually immoral remained impenitent, and people continued to commit idolatry. His collection for the poor in Jerusalem had lapsed. And the false teachers had come in, the false apostles, and their critique was: he’s not really a very good preacher. His gospel was veiled. And then of course he had physical problems, problems that Christ would not take away.
So he really wasn’t a very impressive figure. And it’s as though he agrees. He says in great endurance. He says in afflictions and hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger . . . honor and dishonor, slander and praise (2 Cor. 6:4–8). And then when he gets to chapter 11 he talks about five times 40 lashes minus one, three times stoned, shipwrecked, constant travel, danger from rivers, danger from robbers in the city, in the country, from the Jews, from false Christians, often without food, he says. Cold, exposure, daily anxiety for the churches. And then he says, to cap it all off, I escaped from Governor Aravosis by going over the wall in a basket.
How’s that for credentials, huh? Paul had these difficulties, and they were remarkable difficulties, both in his life and also in his heart. But lest we misunderstand this, we need to recognize this. He doesn’t tell them all this from a kind of narcissism as though he enjoyed talking about himself. He’s not doing that. He’s defending his ministry as an apostle. In chapter 6 he writes this, he says, “Dying, and yet we live; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2. Cor. 6:9–10). And he writes here in chapter 4, “Having this ministry by the mercy of God we do not lose heart” (2 Cor. 4:1).
So how didn’t he lose heart? How did Paul not lose heart? Why could he say, “God through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ everywhere” (2 Cor. 2:14)? Well, because he knew that he had the gospel of reconciliation to preach, the gospel of reconciliation, and he knew something else: that God had ordered it that his life preached that gospel as well as his lips. Paul insisted that the church should learn this lesson.
So when he was called on to defend this ministry, he did it by showing his weakness. And it’s just in that weakness that the power of the resurrected Christ is made evident. There’s no other way. It can’t be done any other way. Suffering with Christ is not the exception in the Christian life. It’s the rule of the Christian life.Suffering with Christ is not the exception in the Christian life. It’s the rule of the Christian life. So when we ask about the ministry of our church, when we ask about what we’re to expect going forward, what should we expect? Well, we’re to expect to see resurrection power, power made evident only through suffering with Christ.
WE SHARE THE GOSPEL OF CHRIST, OUR SURPASSING TREASURE
The gospel is our great treasure. That’s what Paul calls it in verse 7: “this treasure.” He refers there to the content of the gospel, the new creation glory of the resurrected and exalted Christ. And Paul knew that God had entrusted to him this message, the message of reconciliation. And he worked together with God to bring about the praise of this reconciling God throughout the world, the God who reconciled the world to himself, not counting men’s trespasses against them but counting them against Christ.
And notice this is a verbal message. In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting man’s trespasses against them (2. Cor. 5:19). Therefore “we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2. Cor. 5:20). It’s a verbal message. It’s a message proclaimed to be proclaimed by ambassadors. Herman Bavinck put it like this. He said, “God has reconciled his good but fallen world to himself through the death of his Son, and he now renews it into a kingdom of God by his Spirit.” So beautiful, so simple.
And you and I are, as Paul was, in the position to enable people to see nothing less than the glory of the exalted Christ. That’s what Paul says about himself. He says we all, himself as a minister and other believers, we all with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. So Paul rejoiced. “If any man is in Christ: new creation!” he writes (2 Cor. 5:17). See we’re ambassadors, you and I, of this once crucified but now exalted Christ.
AS JARS OF CLAY WE SUFFER AND DIE
But even as a great privilege, that task is a daunting task, as I’m sure you feel. So we have treasure, the treasure is the gospel, but that gospel treasure is held, as he writes, in fragile clay jars that we are. His phrase “treasure in jars of clay” captures the tension in Christian existence, the tension that exists until Jesus comes back. In the opening of 2 Corinthians Paul pointed out to his readers that with him they share in the sufferings of Christ in 1:5–7. Here in 4:7–11 Paul expands on that in terms of his own ministry. In contrast to this treasure, the clay jars are us: believers, fragile, mortal. We have the treasure, but only in the clay jars that we are.
In verses 8 and 9, he expounds with four contrasting pairs, one, two, three, four, some of the psychological and physical experiences involved in being a jar of clay. Noticed the fourfold repetition of “but not.” He says, “We are afflicted, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.”
As jars of clay we’re hard pressed, we’re straightened, we’re perplexed, we’re persecuted, even struck down. But as possessing the treasure, we’re not crushed, we’re not given to despair, we’re not forsaken, we are not destroyed.
And then verses 10 and 11, he summarizes the tension that he’s been describing: “Always carrying around the dying of Jesus in the body so that the life of Jesus [this treasure] may be manifested in our bodies,” clay jars. And then verse 11 parallels 10 with just a little change: “Always being given over to death for Jesus’s sake so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh.” Now we can see in verses 10 and 11 that suffering and the life of Jesus are not separate sectors of Christian experiences, as if they alternate it, as if the life of Jesus somehow compensated for the dying of Jesus. No, the life of Jesus is revealed in, as he puts it, our mortal flesh.
As long as we’re in the mortal flesh, as long as we’re dying, which we all are until Jesus returns, the life of Jesus shows itself as the dying of Jesus. You hear the paradox there? The life of Jesus manifested in our dying flesh. It’s very strong, the way he puts it.
And again this is the rule, not the exception. Listen to the descriptive words that begin and end the contrast in verse 8. He says so in every way afflicted, et cetera, and then in verses 10 and 11, always carrying around the dying of Jesus. In verse 11 again, “always given over to death.” Dr. Richard Gaffin puts it this way. He says, “Until the resurrection of the body at his return, Christ’s resurrection life finds expression in the church’s sufferings.” God conforms us to the death of Jesus in our experience. This is true for every Christian, and it’s true especially for those who minister, for those who seek to bring the Word of God. Put another way, Christ’s power is made evident in weakness.
Now what is this weakness? What kind of suffering is Paul talking about? Well, he’s not making excuses. He’s not making excuses. The summarizing word in verse 10 is “dying,” and this gives us the clue to go further in analyzing the sufferings. There’s more to this even than persecution. If we look at the passage in Romans 8 we’ll see how it corresponds. In Romans 8:17, Paul says that we are God’s adopted children if in fact we suffer with him in order that we also may be glorified with him. And then he goes on to specify what he calls the sufferings of the present time. In verse 30: “The whole of creation has been subjected to futility.” Sorry not verse 30, verse 18: “The whole of creation has been subject to futility and bondage to corruption,” he says, to death. Verses 20–22: that suffering then is a function of this futility at work in the creation since the fall and since God’s curse on sin, and the whole creation experiences it.
The creation groans, and we groan, and the Spirit groans longing for the resurrection of the body at Christ’s return. And see, living then with all the conditions of the curse on the creation until Jesus Christ’s return and the resurrection of the dead, these are the sufferings of the present time. And see how why they are and how much it includes: all the things that are characteristic of living in a fallen world, the not-yet-renewed cosmos, all these things borne in faith, borne in service to Christ, show the very life of Jesus Christ, the resurrected one.
This is the glory of ministry. Now please notice that these sufferings are a given; they’re an indicative; they’re not an imperative. They don’t need to be sought out. The indicative of the gospel is not just that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, praise God, that he’s been raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Cor. 15:3–4). The indicative of the gospel is not only that we’ve been brought into union with him by faith, worked in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. The indicative of the gospel includes that we’ve been united with Jesus Christ in his sufferings.
And again, don’t misunderstand. I’m emphatically not suggesting that we should be pessimistic or that we should expect to fail. Paul was nothing if he wasn’t confident in the work of Jesus Christ through his ministry. And Paul does not glorify suffering for its own sake. And Paul is not whining. He says, “We are not crushed; we are not in despair; we’re not forsaken; we’re not destroyed.” Paul is on the edge, but he never goes over the edge. But on the edge is where the resurrection life of Jesus Christ is. It’s where he writes in verse 7: “God makes the surpassing power visible.” Paul is rejoicing. Paul is making many rich. But he wants the church to understand that it’s just through our mortality and the sufferings that Christ’s power has made known.
DEATHS WORKS IN US BUT LIFE IN YOU
And then last look at verse 12 where Paul brings home this basic evangelistic reality. “So,” he says, “death works in us, but life in you.” Death works in us, but life in you. Of course this is difficult for us to accept. We’re inclined to say, why? Why does it have to be this way? Why can’t we have a megachurch and a ministry that makes us and other people wealthy? Well, the answer is there’s no glory there. Because the deepest reality and the deepest privilege of being a Christian is to be united to Jesus Christ.The deepest reality and the deepest privilege of being a Christian is to be united to Jesus Christ.
And it’s no surprise, is it? God will bring glory to his Son by making you like him. Making him the firstborn of many brothers, and God has made the way of Christ’s life, the way of suffering and then of glory, the way of fruitfulness in Christian service. And so if you will be part of bringing the gospel to others, you must lay down your life for people. Death works in us but life in you. “If anyone would come after me let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. And he who loses his life, he’ll find it” (Matt. 16:24–25).
Now the ministry of an elder is basically that of a father. I don’t know anybody who’s more glad to be a father than I am. But think of what you have to do or what you are called to do as a dad. You provide. You guide. You teach. You protect.
As a teaching elder, as a ruling elder, you care about people’s needs, and just carrying the needs of people can be exhausting, and it can be very frustrating and always humbling. There’s misunderstanding. There’s the person you just cannot seem to connect with. Or another person whom you just can’t tell whether they’re growing enough or not. And there’s another who always misunderstands your comments. And then somebody else who just won’t stop talking, and you’re running out of patience. Another guy’s wife dislikes you, and there are those to whom the cross is falling.
These are the people whom God is enabling by the power of the Holy Spirit in his own sovereignty to see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
How many times in preparing a message or a sermon have you said, “I just can’t do this. I can’t do it. I don’t understand enough about Scripture. I don’t know God well enough, and I don’t care about the needs of these people. And I’m out of time. But I have to do it.” And so you do it. But you go ahead and do your best and someone comes alive from the dead. How many times?
How many times do you go and walk into a hospital room to visit a dying father of a church member, somebody you didn’t know, somebody you had very little hope of connecting with. But you went anyway and you read them the words of 2 Corinthians 5 about God making him who knew no sin to be sin for us and that man was converted.
Or you’re preparing to meet with someone to give counsel, and you cried out to God, “You have to help them. I cannot do it.” And God did help them. How many times? More times than you can possibly number. That’s true for every one of us, praise God.
Or you’ve had to deal with an elder who’d lost confidence in you, but you had to work together in ministry activities, and God healed your relationship. Where you have to deal with exhaustion or being torn away from your wife and children when they need your attention. Or losing sleep because you were worried about immorality in the church. Or just sickness, aging, financial, difficulties.
Death worked in you, life worked in others.
And this is how it will be. All these things, borne in faith. Let the treasure shine. God has made it a rule in his church that the surpassing power is to be seen to be from God and not from us. So brothers don’t try. Excellent brothers, wonderful brothers, godly brothers: you just serve. Don’t try to resolve this tension. If you resolve it by living a lie or by giving up the difficulty, then you’ll lose the glory and the ministry will not go forward. Embrace the calling that God has given you and see the power of the resurrected Christ in your sufferings.
WE ARE RICH IN CHRIST
Now let me just close by rejoicing with you that Paul was not looking for sympathy. He did not see himself as a victim. He saw himself as the recipient of God’s eternal mercy. He saw himself as enjoying the resurrection power of Jesus Christ. He says the ministry is a great mercy. He says he has the treasure. He says he makes many rich. He says that life comes to the Corinthians as a result of his service. And this is our privilege too. You are the richest men in the nation’s capital.
Let’s pray together.
We love you, Lord, and we exalt your great name. And we ask you that you might teach us these lessons, we might believe these things, O Lord. And we’d see the power of the resurrected Christ in our lives. We know this is yours to give. We know that you do it by uniting us to him. We know, our great God, that you will have your glory in this world. And we adore you and thank you for the privilege. We ask now your blessing on us in Jesus’s name, amen.