I contributed this week’s edition of the ABTS blog here in Lebanon. It begins: I recently joined the faculty of ABTS and, given ABTS’s new hybrid format, I’ve been asked several times how I feel about beginning to teach from a distance…
This is the sermon I shared with our seminary community here in Zambia at chapel this morning. Hopefully parts of it can speak beyond this context.
Our passage for today is 2 Corinthians 4:5-12. Remember, our theme for this term is the pastor’s calling. 2 Corinthians focuses on Paul’s experience of ministry. 2 Corinthins 4 is a difficult passage, but it’s also deep, and practical. And it includes such relevant topics as suffering, power, perseverance, witness, true prosperity, and avoiding discouragement. Focusing on the whole chapter would take more time than we have; verses 5 to 12 give us a chance to get an in-depth look at our calling to ministry. The passage gives us an inside look at the light and treasure we have received, the life of ministry we live, and the light and message we have to share.
Let’s focus first on verses 5-6. In verse 5 Paul mentions what we preachers don’t do and what we do: We don’t preach ourselves, and we do preach Jesus Christ. But then he backs up and gives a basis in verse 6 for what he has said in verse 5. God has shown light into our hearts. This is a picture of conversion, but it’s also a picture of a call. In the book of Acts, Paul tells the story of seeing a light (Acts 9, 12, 26). Jesus spoke to him. And then he was told what he was to do. I think the book of Isaiah played a huge role in Paul’s mind, in how he interpreted his experience of this light. Paul saw a light, and then, in the words of Isaiah, he saw himself as called to be a light to the nations (see Is 42:6; 49: 6; Acts 9:3; 13:47). We’re not that different from Paul: God has shown a light in our hearts – we’ve experienced that ourselves – and ever since, and from now on, we have light to share.
Let’s look at the end of verse 6. God has made his light shine in our hearts, but then the NIV says, “to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ”. The words “to give us” are not there in the Greek text, and other translations are closer to the original when they say, “to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (NRSV, ESV). No mention there of us as the object of the light. In other words: We’re illuminated, not just for our sake, but to become illuminators: we’re illuminated in order to go forth and illuminate others. God has shown forth in our hearts, so that we can go forth and reveal, Paul says, the face of Christ.
What a high calling we have. What dignity God has given you and me, that not only would he shine his light into our lives but also give us the task of illuminating others with the light of the glory of God in the face of Christ.
And so that’s the basis of what Paul says in verse 5: “We do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants on account of Jesus.” We don’t preach ourselves, because the message is not about us. We preach to help others encounter the face of Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately, we who are called to reveal the light sometimes get confused and lose our way. We begin to get the idea that the ministry is actually about us and our own success. We look around at who seems to be doing well in ministry. We see the nice car. Maybe we see preachers on TV. And something in our hearts says, “That’s where it’s at. You need to think big. You need a big voice, a big personality, a big house, big buildings. You need to see your picture on a big sign. You need a big name.” So our ambition grows. And before we know it what we really want is that others will encounter not the face of Jesus, but our own face. We preach ourselves, not Jesus Christ. And the light that came to our hearts falls dim.
But our passage presents a different picture. “We do not preach ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” Servants for Jesus’ sake. We’re not trying to become masters here on earth; the only master is the Lord Jesus Christ.
As servant-preachers, the picture we want to leave with people is the face of Jesus. “We do not preach ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord.” And this happens best if the image of ourselves is a picture of serving. We serve the church for Jesus’ sake.
Next, let’s look at verses 7-9. “We have this treasure in jars of clay.” Paul sometimes used common objects as symbols. In chapter 5, he will say our bodies are like tents. Here in 4:7, we believers are like clay jars, earthen vessels, with a treasure inside. Now a clay jar is a practical thing to have. It’s fragile, but it’s useful because things can be put inside it. One could even put a treasure inside, like precious gems or gold.
Paul is using a symbol to say important things about our calling. We are jars of clay. But not just any clay jars. We are distinguished because of what we carry. Based on verse 6, the treasure we carry is the illumination, the making known, of God in Christ. Verse 5 is also clarifying: the message we carry is not how special we are, but Jesus Christ. The treasure is the message of Jesus Christ.
Let’s think more about this treasure we have. Here in Africa, there’s a lot of talk among believers these days about prosperity. I don’t think we can really get to the bottom of how the Bible speaks to that topic without looking at the whole canon of Scripture. But this passage does speak to it: 2 Corinthians says, we who carry Jesus Christ inside us have treasure.
I wonder, who in our lives gets to define what success and prosperity mean? Do we let the billboards along the highway tell us what success is? Do we let what’s on television tell us what prosperity and success are? Do we swallow those messages? That we won’t be a success, and we won’t be content, until we have every last object on those billboards? If we swallow this message ourselves, how much more might the people in our congregations swallow it!
Maybe we need to listen to 2 Corinthians: We have prosperity already, because we have a treasure already, because we have Christ and the light of the gospel inside us. Paul knew he had a treasure; he had genuine prosperity, and it was something that no circumstance and no person could take away. He still worked with his hands to meet his needs, but he already had contentment that no one could take away. He says in Philippians 4:12-13 “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”
These things may seem easy for me to say, since I grew up in a rich country. But when we allow what’s on TV and what’s on the big signs to define success for us, we can miss the real contentment that is freely ours to enjoy through the treasure of Jesus Christ already living inside us. Let’s be careful about who gets to define true prosperity and success in our life of ministry.
We are common clay, but we carry something very special inside, something extraordinary. Our calling is not about us; it’s about the treasure inside, the message we carry and have to share. We are here for something larger, more beautiful, more precious, and more important than ourselves and our own success. Christ is the message, the light, and the treasure. Our calling is to something bigger than what the world calls success and prosperity.
Verse 8 says, “We are hard pressed on every side.” What happens when a clay jar is hard pressed on every side? It’s crushed. But the jars of clay in our passage are different. Despite being hard pressed on every side, they are not crushed. This says something about perseverance. We’re exposed to risk, because we’re made of common clay. But we’re also resilient, uncommonly resilient. “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”
Verses 8-9 raise the question: What keeps us from being crushed and destroyed? There is something about the light that has shown in our hearts, and there is something about the treasure inside us, that make us tough, resilient, and durable. Christian leaders take heat sometimes. We may take heat, and sometimes in our minds we may fantasize about hiding, and running away from the ministry.
But our passage says: we can take heat. We can be hard pressed, and we can handle it. Verse 1 says that even as we have received mercy (even as we have received the light), we do not lose heart. And later verse 16 will say, “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.” Inwardly – that’s where the treasure is. There’s something about having that light and treasure inside us that gives us power to persevere. And verse 7 even speaks of “surpassing power”. It’s not from us – we’re clay jars – but it is inside us. It’s from God, yet we derive a benefit. So even though we are clay, clay that gets hard pressed on every side, we are not crushed or destroyed. We have access to surpassing power.
In Paul’s mind, having Christ in our lives simultaneously subjects us to vulnerability AND makes us strong to withstand vulnerability. Since we’re not living first for ourselves, since we realize there’s something larger at stake than our own success, we do put ourselves at risk. We risk what is good for us for the sake of a larger good. That’s why we often say yes when we get the call to some task or some place that looks difficult. Maybe it’s not the village you would have chosen for yourself. Maybe it doesn’t look like a place for personal advance. But if we’re there, then the light, and the treasure, will also be there, because it goes with us.
We get exposed to hardship because our purpose is to live not for our own welfare but for proclamation. We live to illuminate, to help people see the face of Jesus. That’s what leads to God’s glory, as verse 15 will say. But living for something larger than ourselves also makes us vulnerable. God gets glorified. But that can also get us into situations where we’re at risk. Yet let’s take courage: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”
Let’s move on to 4:10-12. These verses build on what Paul has been saying about suffering, and about revealing Jesus Christ, but they take it further.
The first half of each of these three verses use symbolic language to speak of hardship we go through in a life of ministry. All three verses use the word death to describe the life of ministry. Paul is using symbolic language to try and describe how difficult true ministry is. Each one of these statements doesn’t necessarily mean a literal death but rather the suffering that we keep going through as we minister.
The symbolism of the first half of each verse is a little difficult: For all of us who carry the treasure of Christ, we have a strong relationship with the death and life of Jesus. In 2 Corinthians 1, Paul says our relationship with Christ’s death is so strong that his sufferings flow over into our lives. And here in 4:10-12, Paul says the hardships which we go through in a life of ministry are actually a carrying around of his death in our bodies. When Paul uses the word “body”, he’s emphasizing that these hardships affect our whole being. It’s not just a spiritual thing but something that involves the whole of our lives.
The second half of each of these three verses, 10 to 12, is a little easier to understand. Each second half states the result of these hardships we go through, and each speaks about the larger purpose of a life of ministry. Namely, the life of Jesus is revealed, and that life (the life of Jesus) is at work in those to whom we minister. No matter how difficult the things are that we walk through, we can take courage because the life of Jesus gets revealed to others through these hardships.
Just to explain it again: Paul says, we who minister always go through hardship. And these difficulties are a result of us being in a special relationship to Jesus and his death. But the result of the hardship we go through is that the very life of Jesus gets revealed. The ministry brings difficulties, no doubt. But through these things, we become revealers of the life of Jesus.
It’s like what Paul said earlier: We are illuminated, and we become illuminators, except here it’s clarified that the suffering we go through plays a big role in our becoming people who illuminate others.
Verse 12 states the message differently, but it’s the same message. For those called to a life of ministry, death is at work in us (that is, we go through adversity), but for those we minister to – they receive life (Christ’s life).
I’m sure we’ve known people who have both walked through difficult things and yet have also revealed Christ to us. And the difficulties we know about in their lives, the hard things they’ve walked through, just make their witness shine brighter. That’s what verses 10 to 12 are about. The things that make our lives difficult also bring out the light and life of Christ.
If we’re preaching not ourselves but Jesus Christ, if we’re doing genuine ministry, we encounter hardship. But our difficulties serve a higher purpose. They help people realize we’re not the message — Christ is. Our difficulties transform us to become people who reveal the life and power of Christ.
To conclude: God has shown us mercy by shining forth in our hearts. He has illuminated us, and he’s called us to be illuminators. We’ve given ourselves to something larger and more precious than our personal welfare and success. And so we don’t preach ourselves; we preach so people will encounter the face of Jesus. We are like clay jars carrying a treasure. And we don’t just preach with words. We preach by who we are. Even our hardships preach Jesus. People see that the power in our life comes not from us but from God. We’re knocked down, but we get up. We’re hard pressed, but we’re not crushed. All these things point to a greater reality: Jesus becomes manifest. The face of Jesus becomes visible through our words, and through our lives, to the glory of God. Amen.
Note: I wrote this with the interpretation of New Testament epistles in mind, but most of it applies to other parts of the Bible, too.
1. Read through the book in its entirety, seeking to understand it as a whole and trying to follow the line of thought. As you read the whole book, be aware if you see things you haven’t noticed before or if you recognize parts that may not have been emphasized in your prior exposure to the book. Also, does reading the whole give you have a sense of the basic structure of the book?
2. What clues do you discover about the rhetorical situation and aims? That is, can you find evidence for the occasion that gave rise to the book, or what situation the writer is addressing? Do you find information about the original audience and their circumstances? What clues does the book give about the writer? What rhetorical aims do you find? That is, where and how does the writing express what the author was seeking to accomplish by writing this book?
3. What primary themes stand out? Look for literary devices like repetition of key nouns, verbs, images, phrases, and ideas. Look for “book ends”, where a theme stands out at the beginning and end of the book. Try to trace how the author develops the main themes. Making an outline of the book will help you follow the flow of thought and the way the themes develop. Where and how do the key themes intersect? As you read this book of the Bible, keep asking what the main thought is and where it changes.
4. In light of your attention to the book as a whole, what have you come to understand about the theological perspective of the book? What seem to be the most important beliefs, and how are they described?
5. What perspective on the Christian life do you find? How does this piece of literature describe the inner dynamics and outward behaviors of the Christian life? What are the Christian’s resources for living in this way? Try to figure out and describe how the Christian life works, according to this document.
6. This is optional but possibly clarifying: How do your observations regarding numbers 5 and 6 compare with what you’ve seen in other books of the Bible? Does the comparison help to distinguish the particular perspective of this book?
7. In light of all that you have discovered above, how does this document speak a living word to you personally, and how might it speak to your church or to others you know?
8. If you are writing an essay, teaching a class, or preparing for a preaching series that will interpret the book as a whole, read and dwell with your observations until you can develop a way of organizing your discoveries in a meaningful way.
Our faculty had a good discussion about this Bible study I wrote, so I thought I would share it.
Justo Mwale Theological University College
Faculty Bible Study
READING: 2 Cor 10:1; 10:10; 11:2-6; 11:20; 12:7-10; 12:19; 13:4-5
When I was getting started in ministry, I watched the Christian leaders around me very closely. I was trying to learn from their example and figure out my ideal image of a Christian leader.
It’s likely that many of our students are doing the same, searching with their eyes and hearts for an image to follow, an image of what kind of pastor, preacher, and leader they will become. Naturally they look at the leaders and pastors around them and ones that appear on TV and the radio. A problem is that the media only allows us to see a public image, which tends to promote the preacher as a successful, larger-than-life personality. We don’t get a view of the pastor as a real human being, weaknesses included.
As people who train pastors, it’s important that we faculty members be aware of our own image and expectations of a pastor. Does our image only allow for strength and success?
OUR TEXT AND ITS CONTEXT
In our passage, Paul faces an attack. His opponents say his appearance is “lowly” and “weak” when he’s among the Corinthians, even if he comes across as strong in his letters. The Corinthian church isn’t sure Paul measures up to their preferred image of a teacher and leader. It is curious that Paul does not respond by saying, “Appearances don’t matter.” Instead, he spends most of 2 Corinthians 10-13 explaining his manner of ministry. Instead of denying that he has weaknesses, he rejects the idea that his weak personal presence does not suit his position and authority. In fact, he gives his weakness a basis in his own experience with the Lord (12:7-10) and in the weakness (crucifixion) of Christ (13:4).
Most scholars who interpret these chapters say that Paul is preoccupied with defending himself and fighting his opponents, but he gives us clues that he is also trying to teach the Corinthians something about the gospel and the Christian life. Paul himself says: “Do you think that all this time we have been defending ourselves to you? Before God we speak in Christ. Everything, beloved, is for building you up” (12:19). Paul speaks about himself for the sake of his pastoral task, to build up the Corinthians.
Paul thinks that the Corinthian church has a problem with misplaced confidence in human strength (10:7, 10, 12). The Corinthians reject weakness, including Paul’s unimpressive appearance. Paul is concerned about where his opponents place their confidence and about the effect this has on the Corinthian church. He sees a different Jesus, Spirit, and gospel behind their actions. Paul takes his cue to boast from his opponents, but he turns boasting on its head by concentrating on weakness, thus challenging the Corinthians’ ideals. Paul is saying of his critics’ standards: “I can boast in those ways, too, but I do not.” He states: “I will boast of things that demonstrate my weakness” (11:30). As he talks about himself, he emphasizes his vulnerability as he carries out his ministry.
In 12:7-10, Paul tells the story of the thorn. Instead of removing the thorn of weakness in response to Paul’s repeated prayer (12:8), the Lord replies that his grace is sufficient for him (12:9). In Paul’s narration of the Lord’s answer, and his own reaction to it, we can identify numerous clues indicating that Paul wishes to teach the Corinthians an approach to power and weakness.
1) Even before the account of Christ’s words, the reality that it is Christ the Lord speaking (very rare in Paul’s letters) sets these words apart for the Corinthians’ reflection.
2) Paul uses the term “he said” in the perfect tense, the only time he uses this word in the Greek tense that indicates a completed action with continuing significance. The result of Christ’s words is of lasting significance.
3) When Paul presents Christ’s words, the first half of the saying, “My grace is sufficient for you,” is made on the basis of a broad, general principle: “For power is perfected in weakness.”
4) Paul does not identify the nature of the thorn, leaving it to remain general in its application. Perhaps Paul does not name the thorn so that more of the believers can appropriate its message in their own lives.
5) Similarly, Paul keeps the list of afflictions in 12:10 general: he is content in weaknesses, hardships, and calamities. Such experiences are not unique to apostles. We see a similar list of sufferings in 1 Cor 4:10-13, where the call to imitate Paul follows the list.
6) Finally, Paul’s use of the phrase “for the sake of Christ” in 12:10 explains why he is glad to endure hardships. Hardships provide points of entry to Christ’s power. His use of the phrase reminds us of Phil 3:8, 10, where suffering is a means toward the knowledge of Christ and the experience of fellowship with him.
In 12:7-10, by presenting a personal illustration instead of only defending himself, Paul is able both to answer his opposition and teach the Corinthians. Christ’s reply to Paul, and the apostle’s response, establishes an example for holding weakness and power together in Christian life and ministry. Situations of weakness open believers’ lives to the power of Christ. Such circumstances are times when Christ’s power may enter and become manifest: “When I am weak, then I am strong.” The Corinthians can learn through Paul’s situation to anticipate God’s presence and power in the midst of weakness. Therefore they don’t need to be ashamed of weakness or hide its reality.
Paul is concerned that his opponents are distorting the Christian life and its connection with Christ crucified and raised. His adversaries’ boasting has led the Corinthians to put confidence in human strength and in the absence of weakness. Paul models for the Corinthians the way to true strength: by the path of the cross, through weakness. 2 Cor. 13:4 states: “For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we are weak in him…” Paul presents a model of participation in the crucified and risen Christ. Just as the cross and resurrection go together, Paul maintains that power and weakness must go together, even though this brings him into conflict with the cultural ideal that says a strong public presence is a fundamental precondition for a leader and teacher.
Paul’s personal example illustrates that Christian life and leadership are not matters of moving beyond weakness. Experiences of vulnerability are not aberrations from an ideal; they grant access to the grace and power of Christ. If Paul can win the Corinthians to this truth, the recognition of it will authenticate Paul’s authority, undermine the boasts of his opponents, and secure the congregation’s relationship with Christ and the gospel.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. What images of pastors and leaders do we see in Christian media? What images do our students have of a successful pastor? Do these images allow a pastor to experience weaknesses like sickness, opposition, and financial hardship?
2. Do the images mentioned above serve what we are attempting to do at this college? Do they detract from what we are trying to accomplish?
3. Can 2 Corinthians 10-13, especially 12:7-10, offer guidance for how we define what a pastor should be like?
4. What images and ideals are we placing before our students? What are our hopes for them? And what do we expect of and for ourselves?
Dustin W. Ellington