One of the greatest treasures in the Bible—and an important interpretive key that will unlock the riches and application of many passages—is the concept of already/not yet. While this has at times been overemphasized or misapplied, the fundamental theme is deeply biblical. It simply means that there is a tension to our experience of the salvation, the presence of the kingdom, the Spirit’s power and ministries in our lives, God’s blessings and renewal of the creation, and so forth—some we experience now in a very real, but still partial, initial, and limited, fulfillment; the completion, fullness, and overflowing consummation of these realities awaits the glorious future, which is clearly not yet. (Those of you who have been reading this blog regularly should realize tracing this theme in each passage usually makes its way into almost every post! I believe it is that important.)
2 Corinthians 4:7-12 is no exception to this glorious tension. Because God is sovereign and we live in an inaugurated kingdom, our trials and the weakness of our flesh under the Curse are paradoxically the theater for unveiling the resurrection power of God in great abundance. Yet, this experience is only a down payment of the glorious restoration and resurrection life we will experience in the future.
The overarching theme of this paragraph is that we Christians are the clay pots in which God has placed His glorious gospel. The passage delineates two reasons why, which are the two points of the message.
A. Because the Power of God is More Evidently His (vv. 7-9)
Why would God deign to entrust and place His glorious gospel in the watch-care and within the souls of fallen people like us? Because, as with many things in the Scripture, it is not about us, but about Him! What are “the treasure” and “the power” in verse 7? Specifically, they refer to the “knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (v. 6), “Christ Jesus as Lord” (v. 5) and “the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (v. 4). These things are all either statements of the gospel or the effect of the gospel. These things we carry within us. Moreover, Paul will later say we “carry about…the dying of Jesus” (v. 9), as if to parallel Christ’s glory and lordship especially with His substitutionary death and its aftermath.
Why does Paul mention this? Because it highlights the contrast of the contents with their container. For this treasure and power is hidden within unimpressive, weak, frail, easily broken clay pots. These were cheap, easy ways to dispose of waste and garbage in the first century. Their only value, if they had any, was from what they contained. So too with us. Because of our fallenness and human frailty, any value we enjoy is because of what God has done to, with, for, and through us. (Remember we would not exist apart from Him!) The weakness and brokenness of the frail pot only serves to magnify the glory and magnitude of the gift it contains.
Notice Paul says weak pots are used “so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God.” “Power” here is not only in some sense parallel to the phrases in verses 4-6, but also to “the life of Jesus” in verses 10-11. It is resurrection power, God’s own restoring, revitalizing, renewing power, the power which raised Christ from the dead and which the sovereign Christ wields from His throne in heaven—the sovereign Christ, given to the church for our benefit and blessing (Eph. 1:19-23). How is this power manifest? Recall the already/not yet tension. How does Christ bestow resurrection power—His own personal life? Certainly, He does this through regeneration (and in the context of 2 Corinthians 4-5, that is surely uppermost in Paul’s mind). But regeneration is not the only thing Christians experience, now or in the future, that is owed to Christ’s power. Nor are “spiritual” blessings only in view. Has Christ answered prayer? Revived your marriage? Reversed some trial or given you supernatural grace to endure it? Granted you children after years of infertility? Orchestrated circumstances and situations to give you a beneficial, enjoyable job that is fulfilling and can glorify Him? Blessed you with a comfortable home that is inviting to friends and family and is a base for ministry? Are these and ten thousand other “earthly” blessings in some separate category, owing solely to some other aspect of Christ’s power or covenant with you? Or are they aspects of His personal, continual renewal and restoration of the world, a down payment of the very earthly, real resurrection glory we will experience in the millennial empire and on the new earth? We are not the only thing to be resurrected! The world, nations, and many aspects of human culture and endeavor will survive the fire too. May God give us grace to thank Him for His comprehensive blessings won at the price of blood!
Paul goes on to highlight four participles that epitomize the weakness of the vessel—and demonstrate the sustaining, restring power available to him in the gospel. He is under intense pressure through afflictions internal and external, but kept breathing and fruitful by grace; he is hemmed in by pressing confusion, but the sovereignty and promises of a good God give unshakeable hope; he is chased down and his death is lusted for by enemies, his reputation desecrated, his relationships undermined, but the ruling Christ is manifestly and personally present; he is metaphorical and literally thrown to the ground in humiliation and attacks, but the One who sustains every atom and bears it to an appointed glorious end keeps his heart beating, his mind alert, his faith clinging to the resurrected Lord.
God’s gospel gives us not only saving mercy but sustains former enemies who are now beloved children in the tumult of a fallen world. Truly the surpassing greatness of the power is of the creating, ruling, preserving God, and not of us.
B. So That Christ’s Life Will be More Obviously Manifest (vv. 10-12)
Notice verse 10 is a continuation of the sentence begun in verse 7; verses 8-9 expand on the thought of weakness, while verse 10 is a subordinate clause which reaches all the way back to verse 7 for its subject. (The thought it only complete with the sub-clauses of verses 8 and 9, as Paul is summarizing those verses in verse 10, but the thought begins in verse 7.) Paul says that all the trials he (and we) experiences is his “carrying about…the dying of Jesus.” What does this mean? Besides being another allusion to the gospel, it has a twofold idea: Death to self and death on behalf of others. Jesus’ human will had to be subordinated to His divine intentions in order for the crucifixion to be accomplished. Moreover, His death unleashed life for all who would believe. So also, Paul says, the trials and testing experienced by believers are opportunities to die to self—to say no to our will (which, unlike Christ’s, is weak, compromised, sinful, and fleshly) and yes to God’s. Moreover, our trials are frequently a way for God’s life to be manifested and unleashed in others. This is of course most obviously done when our testimony or perseverance wins someone to Christ (or we minister to win the lost in the face of great suffering; cf. 2 Tim. 2:10), but it can also be done for other believers. Think of Paul’s words in 1:8-10; the sorrow he experienced resulted in him being personally comforted by God—so that he could have an experience of divine comfort with which to encourage other Christians. Think of laboring in intercession or counseling or discipling (Gal. 4:19). Think of answered prayer or God’s reversing of a trial—would this not encourage another Christian to seek God’s sustaining and transforming power for themselves? We exist for one another, not for ourselves—we have been redeemed and are being sanctified not only for our own salvation but so we can be the human means to accomplish God’s loving and glorious purposes in the lives of others.
Think of it—God Himself uses us to be the conduit for the resurrection power and life of His Son! Christian, do you realize this role in your life—and in your trials? Do not waste them! Do not let go of Him until you grasp the depth of its potential and power! You, friend, are a worker with God in His redemption of the world on all levels! Tremble at the honor given to you, a former enemy of the only God!
Verse 11 sounds like a repetition, and it is that, but it is moreso an explanation (“for” sometimes means “because” and is at other times an explanation why something is, or what it is). Here Paul explains the specific way he experiences the dying of Jesus—the constant threat of physical death he faced because of his ministry to advance God’s kingdom. Indeed, Paul did experience this a few decades later. But look at the life that has been gloriously unleashed because of his suffering, his imprisonment, his sleepless nights, his death! It is difficult to estimate the glory brought to Jesus Christ and the power He has manifested in millions of lives over more than two thousand years because of Paul…because Paul himself was a recipient of His power.
Paul sums the whole thing up in verse 12: Death works in him and the other apostles, but the Corinthians reap the benefit of life. Of course, Paul experiences the life too (vv. 10-11). But his emphasis here is on the other-centered effects of his experience of death. Will you die so other Christians can live? You are never more like Christ than when you hand yourself over in this way. You do not die to stay dead. God promises resurrection—and it will be glorious! Trust the Lord to use your trials for your good ad the good of others, as the pathway to a greater manifestation of the life of your powerful, resurrected, loving Savior.
God in His mercy and kindness uses us for the fulfillment of His redemptive purposes for the world. May we anticipate with overflowing joy—and be spurred on to faithfulness by–the consummation that will be ours at the return of Christ!