A Divine Purpose for Our Pain
2 Corinthians 4:7-12
Q: How do you define a great successful Christian life?
Q: Why are so many of God’s people so average? No, really. Why are so many of us low or even despised by the elite, the movers and shakers of the world? The seats of power and influence are rarely filled with people who are gospel loving and Christ honoring above all else. Consider the society in which we live and minister: Hollywood, the Media, Scholarship, the rich and influential, those in seats of authority are not in large number flocking to Christ. There are some, thank the Lord, but not many. Conversely, many, perhaps most, of Christ’s people are of humble circumstances, ineloquent, uneducated, frail, sick, struggling. Many of our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world are in fact pushed to the margins of their societies. In this society those truly devoted to Christ, willing to honor Him as Lord in every sphere of life are being more and more despised and dismissed and persecuted.
Why? Why do Christ’s people, the people of the conquering King, and Lord of heaven and earth seem so weak? Why is it that Christ’s kingdom, His rule and reign, appears so often weak and powerless and limping along?
More practically, in our own lives: being known as a Christian, and speaking and behaving as if Christ truly is your Savior and Lord and Lord of all, is not always an advantage – in our families, in our work places, among our childhood friends. Throughout the history of the church, and for many of Christ’s people around the world today, and increasingly in our own lives, to be an authentic believer in the exclusive Lordship and exclusive Saviorship of Jesus Christ is to invite raised eyebrows, closed doors, ridicule, imprisonment, and even death. Why? Why are we so weak, so frail, so vulnerable? And why are our lives and the lives of our spiritual brothers and sisters so filled with pain and suffering, persecution and death?
In our passage this morning we will see that there is a purpose in our weakness. We will see that it is to show, to manifest, to display something to a lost world and that something, we will find, is that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. It is for the purpose of displaying the power of Christ in us, and not the power of us for Christ. God wants to spread the fragrance of Christ everywhere; He is not interested in spreading the fragrance of you or me.
Remember that Paul is defending himself as an Apostle of Christ (one specially commission as a “sent one” by Christ to bear witness to the gospel of Christ and establishment of the Church). Remember that the accusations are coming Paul’s way that he’s insincere, that he’s indecisive, that he does not truly care about the people of God in Corinth and that he’s in it for dishonest gain, that he’s weak and his ministry has produced little fruit. So in this letter Paul is defending himself, but more than that, he is defending the very gospel of God in Christ Jesus which he was sent to proclaim.
And the wonderful result for us is that the letter of 2 Corinthians is a kind of template for Christ honoring ministry.
In chapter 3 Paul said that he does not need letters of recommendation commending him to the Corinthian church because they themselves are his letter of recommendation from Christ written not with ink, but with the very Spirit of the living God upon their hearts (2 Corinthians 3:3). It is the presence of Christ in them that gives evidence that they are participants of the New Covenant of which Paul is a minister.
Paul then proceeded to describe the glory of this New covenant, this covenant of the Spirit. And in describing it Paul is laboring to show that this is not a covenant built upon our power or our performance because a covenant like that results in condemnation and slavery to sin and death (note: the result of the Old Covenant). No, this new and better covenant is built upon God’s power, God’s righteousness, His justice and His grace, in Christ Jesus. And this covenant always results in permanence, peace, forgiveness, righteousness, life eternal, and transformation into likeness of Christ.
And so Paul, because he understands the glory of this New Covenant from God in Christ, does not lose heart as He boldly makes Christ and New Covenant in Him known. No, instead of losing heart he will simply and faithful preach the truth about the victorious risen King Jesus and leave the rest in God’s hands.
Last time we saw that if this glorious gospel is not seen to be glorious, Paul knows that it is spiritual blindness which is the cause and that it is only God who can grant eyes to see the good news as good news.
We come now to our passage and verse seven where Paul writes:
2 Corinthians 4:7
But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.
First of all what is this treasure?
As we have seen Paul has been talking about the glorious treasure of the New Covenant in Christ, and now Paul is telling us that the treasure is in jars of clay. But mark again, that this treasure is not just the bare knowledge of facts about Christ and His work, but the very power of God in us, the Spirit of Christ written on our hearts, who applies the righteousness of Christ to us, give us freedom from sin, deliverance from Satan, life everlasting with God, spiritual eyes – to see and embrace spiritual things, spiritual tastebuds – to taste and love Christ Himself and His work. That is surpassing power – to raise dead sinners to spiritual life and restore them to God and bless them everlastingly – and that is the treasure that Paul speaks about here, which is in jars of clay.
As Paul says in Colossians 1:27 “To them [the saints] God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles (not among the Jews only) are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim…” So what is the treasure that Paul is referring to in 2 Corinthians 4:7? It is the glorious treasure of the New Covenant in Christ.
Jars of Clay
But, now, what are the jars of clay?
Paul uses quite a few words in the verses that follow to help us get a clear idea about what he is talking about when he says jars of clay:
If we follow Paul’s thought he is taking about the body (Soma, twice in 4:10).
He is talking about our mortal flesh (Sarx in verse 11: flesh, meat, by implication the human nature: mortal body with its frailties and passions, both moral and physical frailties and corruption.).
He is talking about the outer self (in verse 16 as opposed to the inner self. The outer self is that which is the visible, that which is physical, corrupted, weak, dying, transient).
In 5:1 he refers to it as a tent (skenos: hut, temporary dwelling, to indicate that which is temporary and flimsy, transient).
In 5:4 he refers to it as that which is mortal (thnetos: to indicate that which is subject to death).
In the ancient world clay jars were the throw away, cheap containers. Easily made, easily broken, easily replaced. If one chipped or broke – no biggie – it’s not particularly precious or valuable.
As such, jars of clay provided Paul with a penetrating metaphor for his and his followers’ humanity. Indeed, Adam was formed out of the dust of the ground, and to dust he returned. As clay jars we are all frail, weak, transitory mortals.
Paul is not diminishing the dignity of what it means to be made in the image of God, rather he is highlighting the weakness, frailty, and temporary nature of what it means to sons of the fallen man of dust – Adam, subject to death and dying.
So, we have this glorious treasure of the New Covenant in jars of clay: Christ in us.
Again, remember that Paul is describing the nature of authentic gospel ministry in this world. Ministers of the gospel have infinite treasure in throwaway breakable clay pots. And in the following verses Paul shows us what this looks like in his own ministry.
But as we go through these verses be listening for the why. Why has God designed gospel ministry this way? Why has He left us in these dying, weak, jars of clay? Why do we have and why do we spread infinite treasure in and through what is weak, wilting, withered, and dying? So be thinking about that question as we examine…
What having this treasure in jars of clay looks like in Paul’s ministry.
2 Corinthians 4:8-12
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ 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.
Paul describes here the painful afflictions he experienced in ministry but in doing so he highlights God’s powerful sustaining and preserving. Let’s just look quickly at how Paul describes these painful afflictions and God’s powerful preserving.
(v8)We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed…
The idea here is that of a combatant hard pressed by his opponent and yet still finding hope to maneuver and continue fighting. So ministry does not look like winning the wresting match with ease, it looks like getting creamed and yet not crushed. Somehow the wimpy, weak kid isn’t crushed by the champ and in fact somehow keeps fighting.
The phrase “afflicted in every way” might be better rendered “afflicted at all times.” Paul is emphasizing that this is not a temporary circumstance, but a constant affliction. Add to this the idea of “always” in verses 10 and 11. As one commentator said, “Paul does not envision a time in this life when such sufferings will be diminished or disappear. Faithful Christians will always be subjected to such treatment.” But they will not be crushed.
(v8)perplexed, but not driven to despair…
Constantly doubtful what way to take, and yet always finding some way open. The root of the Greek word translated perplexed means, ‘to be at a loss as to what to say or do’; the intensive used here means to be absolutely shut up so as to have no way or means available.
Faithful Christians may often be perplexed, but not driven to despair. Still there is hope.
(v9)persecuted, but not forsaken;
The word persecuted here is literally “pursued” or “hunted down.” Yes, God allows people to hunt, persecute, and hurt His people, but God will never abandoned us. Faithful Christians will often have enemies at their heals, but they will never be forsaken by their Lord.
(v9)struck down, but not destroyed
Paul’s enemies, not only pursued close behind, but actually struck him down, but they did not kill him. When it looked like that was it for Paul, God delivered him. And this happened over and over again in Paul’s life.
But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city, and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe.
But, let’s not miss the true force of 2 Cor 4:9 – even if Paul had been killed, he would not have been destroyed. All mere men can do is kill the body, the clay pot. They have no real power over us in Christ.
There is in this verse (9) an evident climax, which reaches its culmination in the next sentence. He compares Himself to a combatant, first hard pressed, then hemmed in, then pursued, then actually thrown down. This was not an occasional experience, but his life was like that of Christ, an uninterrupted succession of indignities and suffering.
This is how Paul describes what it looks like to minister the treasure of the New Covenant in a fail, vulnerable, weak jar of clay.
But the question I want to wrestle with is why. Why are we called to bring the gospel to a lost world in these frail, vulnerable, and dying vessels? Why do we have this treasure in jars of clay?
In verse 7 Paul says it this way:
But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.
In verses 10-11 Paul says it this way:
[We are] always carrying in the body the death (the dying) of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.
Now note the important relationship between verses 10&11 and verses 8&9.
The ‘death (or dying) of Jesus’ in verses 10 and 11 is the affliction, perplexity, persecution, and striking down of verses 8 and 9. The ‘life of Jesus’ in verses 10 and 11 is the deliverance described by the four ‘but nots’ (but not crushed, but not driven to despair, but not forsaken, but not destroyed) in verses 8 and 9.
So identifying with the death and dying of Jesus in this mortal life is designed to highlight the resurrection life and power of Jesus as He sustains us in faith and joy and thanksgiving, and life everlasting.
Even now, in this life, we give evidence of new creation, of resurrection life, of Christ in us when we do not lose heart – even when our mortal lives are miserable, persecuted, wasted, struck down, dying, and final dead. It is then that the power of Christ is on display – when in those things we are sustains in faith and joy and love and life in the Spirit.
I think much of our discouragement and lose of heart as believers grows out of the fact that we do not grasp the Divine purpose behind our present struggle, pain, weakness, and dying. And make no mistake this is a Divine design. It is God who has left us in these clay pots for a short time.
Why is life so hard, for the beloved bride of Christ? Why do things seem so futile, for the believer? If what Paul described in chapter 2 and 3 is true (that we have a far superior relationship with God through Jesus Christ!) why are we afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, struck down, carrying death around in our our bodies, being given over to death? Why?
The answer is given over and over in these verses. There is Divine purpose in this. God has a good reason.
Verse 7 “…to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us…”
Verse 11 “…so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh…”
God is interested in displaying to the world the resurrection power of Christ. He is not interested in displaying your power or mine. God wants Christ on display in our lives. Paul understood that the great goal of ministry was to put Christ on display in the church (in our families and relationships here) and before a lost world that we and they might see Him for who He is as the mighty Savior and believe upon Him and so also live.
God wants to make it clear that the surpassing power for life, for fellowship with God, for triumph over sin and death, belongs to God and not to us! The treasure that we posses was not produced by any mere mortal. God wants to show this glorious New Covenant treasure of peace with God, forgiveness, imputed righteousness, Christ-like love growing our of the heart, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, resurrection, new creation life – He wants to show that these things are not and could not arise from the will or wisdom or exertion of mere man.
Why does God use such ridiculously weak, frail, dying people – people the world scoffs at? To make plain that we are not the heroes, that we are not the power, that there is no way that this glory could come from us, but only from God through Jesus Christ. Who is the hero in your story? Who are you trying to put forward as the strong, powerful, worthy one? Is it you, or is it Christ?
Greatness and Success
So, what would a great successful Christian life look like – according to the Apostle Paul? Perhaps we need to seriously consider if we have an accurate defined greatness and success. God believes the best conduit through which to spread the powerful grace of God in Christ Jesus is through weak, frail, dying people because that highlights our need and His abundant strength. Are we willing to be the weak ones for the sake of His glory? Will we rest in His power and trust in His promises as all our earthly hopes and dreams crumble away so that the world will see Christ in us? Are we eager to highlight the surpassing power of God in our lives by trusting and adoring Him even as we face affliction, perplexing difficulties, persecution, and being struck down?
It’s not that we have to go looking for trouble – it’s is rather that we must not compromise our love for and devotion to Christ and His Word and work in order to avoid trouble. Truly, if we will be Spirit filled people – truly people with the life of Jesus in us, walking according to the Spirit in us, obeying our Lord to love as He did, we will be bearing in our bodies the dying of Jesus.
It is truly as we give up our lives in this world without fear because our lives are hid with Christ that we will show the world that God is powerfully at work to redeem and recreate and save. It is in fact in the context of weakness and frailty and dying to ourselves that the power of Christ in us can be seen most clearly for what it is.
It is when we are pressed hard on every side and yet we remain faithfully clinging to Christ, it is when we are perplexed and uncertain about how things are going to end or perplexed about the wisest course of action and yet we are not in despair but remain hoping in Christ, it is when others are against us, despising us, ridiculing us, hunting us down, even striking us down and yet we remain upheld by God’s omnipotent hand, unafraid to loose reputation, unafraid to lose a job, unafraid to lose our lives in world – because in Christ we know that we cannot truly lose – it is in these contexts that that power of Christ in us is powerfully displayed.
How do you define greatness and a successful Christian life?
I think what we need to do is bore down into the roots of our discouragement and feelings of hopelessness and feelings of frustration and ask ourselves if we are truly functioning from faith. Do you believe that this life is all there is? That you’d better enjoy it while it lasts because this is as good as it gets? That is wisdom of people who have no hope. We have been freed from that foolishness.
Fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore have been secured for you in Christ if you His. This life is not intended to fulfill all your hearts longings. Rather it is now intended to show others that your hearts desire is for Christ and that you trust Him by being willing to let goods and kindred go this mortal life also.
As we relate to one another are we functioning from faith? Freedom? Love? Are we more concerned for Christ to be honored or for our own honor and comfort? Do not despise your frailty and weakness in this life. God has designed it to display His strength.