Notes for teaching on 2 Corinthians 4:5-18, which is featured in Explore the Bible, Spring 2018, Session 10.
2 Corinthians 4:5-18 is part of a larger passage in which the apostle Paul is defending his ministry against detractors in the congregation at Corinth. This part of his argument focuses on why he suffers so much. Paul’s answer is that God allows him to suffer in order to show his power in Paul’s perseverance. The idea is that Paul never breaks completely even though under incredible strain. That shows the life of Jesus within him.
As for application, this text helps Christians understand how they can become vibrant witnesses for Christ in the midst of hard times. When our spirits show the life of Christ even as our bodies are wasting away, we show forth the beauty of the gospel.
Notes on the Text
(Quotations taken from the NIV)
5 For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.
Paul begins a defense of his ministry by describing his message. He goes out of his way in verse 5 to show that he is not the center of his preaching. We might say here that he doesn’t use either his platform as a teacher or his teachings themselves as tools for self-aggrandizement. Instead, he points past himself to Jesus, whom he names as Lord. Moreover, his call to teaching, though giving him authority as a teacher, is ultimately a call to service for Jesus’ sake to those who hear his message. I think his service here probably refers to “serving” the gospel to those in his congregations. Once again, his status and message as a teacher is not about him – it is about serving people in Jesus’ name by proclaiming to them that Jesus is Lord and explaining what that means in everyday life.
In verse 6, Paul explains why he teaches and views himself in this way – because God gave him “the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in Christ.” Scholars are split over whether the “Let light shine out of darkness” reference refers to Genesis 1:3 or Isaiah 9:2. Genesis 1 tells of the creation of light itself, while Isaiah 9:2 speaks of light in a metaphorical sense in a passage that was named as a messianic prophecy by Christians. For my money, I wouldn’t dwell too much on the reference. Paul’s point is that his heart, which was once “in the dark” about Jesus has now been shown the light. Particularly, that light amounts to Paul having received “the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.” In short, Paul points to Jesus as Lord because he has experienced Jesus as Lord (God made his light shine in his heart) and because the message (knowledge) he has been given testifies that Jesus shows forth the glory of God.
7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.
This line begins the crux of Paul’s argument. The knowledge that he has been given and proclaims – “the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ” – is a treasure of the highest degree. However, God has chosen to house that treasure in clay jars. Think here of the cheap and breakable clay pots that you can pick up from Home Depot. Why in the world would God put something as precious as the knowledge of his glory in Christ in something that is cheap, breakable, and plain?
Importantly, Paul uses the clay jar imagery to speak of himself. The wider context of Corinthians shows that Paul was being criticized by some within the Corinthian congregation, not least because he wasn’t as successful or flashy as you might expect an ambassador of Jesus to be. Such was true especially because he seemed to be encounter suffering wherever he went. Wouldn’t God take better care of the bearer of such an important message? This verse, then, is Paul’s defense against that charge.
Note that Paul accepts their criticism of his work and experience. By comparing himself to a clay jar, he admits to being cheap, breakable, and plain. Moreover, because of his suffering, we might argue that his jar is chipped and more than a little cracked. He says somewhere else that he bears in his body the marks of Christ.
Paul’s argument, then, is not about how he is actually great and deserves the Corinthians’ respect, but rather that God himself has chosen to entrust his glorious gospel to seemingly unfit people like Paul. Why? Because you can’t confuse the messenger with the message when the message itself is glorious and the messenger is plain and breakable. When you use a person like that, people can be sure that any power in the message or person comes from God!
8 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11 For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.
In these verses, Paul goes on to show the forces that have caused the chips and cracks in his mortal body. He speaks generally of being hard pressed, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down, all of which can leave their mark. On the other hand, Paul has not succumbed to these forces, and his resilience shows the power of God within him. This is what Paul means when he says that he carries in his body the death of Christ (read here sufferings that have left their mark) so that the life of Jesus may be revealed in his body (read here the fact that he is still standing).
To put this another way, Paul is saying something like: “You Corinthians should not be surprised that I suffer as an apostle. Jesus himself suffered, and I share in his sufferings! That’s par for the course. What should surprise you is that I am still standing! My preservation and perseverance show that the power of God (life of Christ) is working powerfully within me!”
A commentator named David Garland speaks here of light showing through the cracks in a jar, and I think that that is a powerful illustration. Rather than suffering disproving Paul’s message, the cracks that have come through suffering let the light of Jesus shine through. This is particularly true because it is Jesus’ life that enables Paul to keep going.
12 So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.
Paul notes here how his ministry is a service to the Corinthians. Though he suffers, they receive the benefits of his perseverance, which is made possible by the power of the risen Christ. If we read between the lines, we might hear Paul saying, “You have benefitted from my suffering because I have showed you the gospel. That in mind, you might stop complaining about it!”
3 It is written: “I believed; therefore I have spoken.”[b] Since we have that same spirit of[c] faith, we also believe and therefore speak, 14 because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself. 15 All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.
As the curriculum notes, Paul is quoting from the Greek version of the Old Testament. Psalm 116 contains the line “I trusted in the Lord when I said, ‘I am greatly afflicted.’” In much the same spirit, Paul also expresses trust in the midst of his own affliction. Why? Because he trusts (1) that God will raise him from the dead and (2) that God will present Paul with the Corinthians to himself. We might say here that Paul trusts in the midst of his sufferings because he believes that God has a glorious future planned for him and because he believes that his suffering is not in vain – his congregation will share in that same glory.
Paul ends this section by pointing out again how his suffering benefits the Corinthians.
16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
Paul reiterates his argument in this climactic statement. He does not lose heart because (1) the risen life of Christ sustains him in suffering (or his outward wasting away) and (2) his present suffering isn’t even worth comparing to his future glory. Note here that Paul’s trust in God causes him to call really hard things like being stoned and shipwrecked (see 2 Corinthians 11) “light and momentary troubles.” He really expects the coming glory to be beyond compare!
Paul ends with a practice that he teams with his trust and hope. He makes sure to focus on what is unseen rather than what is seen, on what is eternal rather than what is temporary.
Notes for Teaching
Often, when we approach passages like this, we assume that Paul is talking about suffering in general. That is not the case. Instead, Paul is suffering specifically because of his allegiance to Jesus. His situation is the same as the one described by Jesus in the beatitudes: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
In teaching the passage, then, we should begin with suffering for Christ. This is not to say, however, that we can’t then move to suffering in general. The same dynamics present in suffering for Christ are often present in more general suffering. The key is not to rush past persecution. Instead, have a conversation about that and then move to general suffering.
When it comes to application, I would focus on three things:
- We can approach suffering as an opportunity for witness.
- Hope can help us in our suffering.
- We should seek God’s power in times of suffering.
A Possible Teaching Plan
Ask your group if they have ever known a Christian who showed remarkable strength in suffering. Let them share their stories of what this looked like. If possible have your own story ready to go first – that will break the ice. I personally would talk about a friend of mine who showed serenity and strength as she died from cancer.
Explain: Explain that Paul is talking about similar situations in our passage today.
Intro to the Text
Read: 2 Corinthians 4:5-6
Explain: Explain that Paul is describing his ministry. He points to Jesus as Lord and serves for Jesus’ sake because God has made his light shine on Paul’s heart, giving him “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God displayed in the face of Christ.”
Treasure in Jars of Clay
Read: 2 Corinthians 4:7
- What is Paul referring to when he speaks of treasure?
- What is Paul referring to when he speaks of clay jars? Why use this image in particular?
- Why would putting treasure in clay jars show that “this all surpassing power is from God and not from us?”
Read: 2 Corinthians 4:8-11
- What are ways that Christians can be hard pressed, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down?
Explain: Explain that Paul is speaking specifically of suffering for Jesus. Read 2 Corinthians 11:21b-28 to give your group a good understanding of what Paul endured in his ministry.
- In what ways do Christians suffer for Jesus in the world today? What about in our own context?
- What does Paul mean in vv 10 and 11 when he talks about carrying and being given over to the death of Christ in order to reveal the life of Jesus in his body?
- How does all of this tie back to Paul’s discussion of jars of clay?
Explain: Explain that glory of the treasure shines through the cracks and chips and plainness of the clay jar because the jar itself is not destroyed by the pressure. The fact that Christians keep going in times of persecution is a witness to the risen life of Christ.
Looking at Suffering Today
- How does this help us understand the moments when we may be called to suffer for Christ?
- Can the principle of treasure in jars of clay also function in more general suffering like sickness or loss? How?
Read: 2 Corinthians 4:13-18
- How can Paul call suffering “light and momentary”?
- How can a person’s suffering be beneficial to others?
- What does it mean to focus on the unseen rather than the seen?
- How is it that Christians like Paul can show strength and grace in suffering?
- What kind of person is able to show the life of Christ when suffering comes?
- How does a Christian come to know the life of Christ when things are hard?
- What should Christians do when they don’t feel “renewed inwardly day by day” as they suffer?
- How does hope factor in to suffering?
David Garland’s 2 Corinthians in the New American Commentary Series – this one is really good
2 Corinthians in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary
Ralph Martin’s 2 Corinthians in the Word Commentary Series
Explore the Bible Curriculum