The theme, of course, of preaching Christ drew our attention to 2 Corinthians, chapter 4, and I would encourage you to turn to that; 2 Corinthians, chapter 4, and in particular, verse 5. The apostle Paul writes: “For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.”
I was asked to consider that verse and its context to sort of launch the theme of preaching Christ. It starts by saying, “We do not preach ourselves.” Maybe Paul had in mind the words of Jeremiah about some preachers in his day who preached the deceptions of their own minds, or who speak a vision from their own imagination. Or maybe he even thought back to his first missionary journey when he and Barnabas came to Lystra and they healed a congenitally lame man, and the crowd decided that they were gods: Zeus and Hermes. And Acts 14:15 says, “Paul and Barnabas tore their robes, rushed out into the crowd, screaming, “Men, why are you doing these things? We are also men of the same nature as you, and preach the gospel to you that you should turn from these vain things to a living God. We do not preach ourselves.” Listen to the words of our Lord: “He who speaks from himself seeks his own glory rather than the glory of the one who sent him.” And so we preach Christ Jesus as Lord.
Paul says, “We preach Christ crucified. We preach Christ as the wisdom of God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption. We preach Christ as the one in whom all the promises of God are yes and amen.” And Paul says, “Christ is preached; and in this I rejoice, yes, and I will rejoice.” And why is it so crucial that we preach Christ? Because it says in Romans 10, “Whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved. But how will they call without a preacher?” Because faith comes by hearing the word concerning Christ.
Paul says, “We’re slaves. We’re slaves, in one sense, to those who will hear and believe. But they are not the preacher’s master. We are slaves to them for Jesus’ sake. And so we preach not ourselves, but we preach Christ Jesus as Lord. He is the constant theme of our preaching.” Now, clearly, that was Paul’s calling and passion, and the mandate that he extended to all who follow in his wake. He was faithful to the very end of his life. Preached Christ to the very end of his days.
Somewhere in my early years I fell under the power of Paul. And when people ask me who has been my hero in the faith, there have been a lot of people who touched my life. My father was one. My mentor Dr. Charles Feinberg was one. But the person who had the most influence on me through the years has been the apostle Paul. I’ve always felt like a kind of Johnny come lately version of Timothy, trying to learn from Paul. And of all the words that Paul ever left under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit for us to consider, the one that has been most interesting to me is what is recorded in 2 Timothy 4. He says this: “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering; the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have the finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing.”
To come to the very end of your life and be able to say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith,” I anticipate a heavenly reward. He had followed Christ to the very end. Incomprehensible suffering, difficulty: internally, externally. But he was faithful to the end for the sheer love of the Lord, and the joy of obedience. Paul said, “Be imitators of me as I am of Christ.”
When you come to 2 Timothy chapter 4, his final written words, you see Paul sort of high in the thin air of his own Everest, having gone to the summit of faithful ministry to breathe that rarified oxygen that so few ever experience. There are a lot of people who never make it to the top; some who die on the way up. His climb was certainly harder and longer than most. But he reached that summit, a triumphant end, the summit of loyalty to Christ to the very final breath. Amazingly, there were no earthly crowds there. No one gave him a trophy. No one hailed him or his achievements. He says to Timothy: “All in Asia have forsaken me.”
Timothy, protégé to whom he was to hand the baton is essentially on the brink of bailing out of the ministry. And Paul’s final words don’t sound triumphant at all, they go like this: “Make every effort to come to me soon; for Demas, having loved this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Pick up Mark and bring him with you, for he’s useful to me for service. But Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus. When you come bring the cloak which I left at Troas with Carpus, and the books, especially the parchments. Alexander the coppersmith did me much harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. Be on guard against him yourself, for he vigorously opposed our teaching.
“At my first defense no one supported me, but all deserted me; may it not be counted against them. But the Lord stood with me, strengthened me, in order that through me the proclamation might be fully accomplished, and that all the Gentiles might hear; and I was delivered out of the lion’s mouth. And the Lord will deliver me from every evil deed, and will bring me safely to His heavenly kingdom; to Him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”
There just seems to be a pervasive loneliness in those words from a human viewpoint. And the thankless world is about to chop off his head. The question that I’ve always wondered is, “How do you that? How do you go through everything he went through in ministry and remain so steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord? How do you get there? How do you end up like that? How do you climb that mountain of faithfulness, battling all the way with external and internal obstacles, struggles with your own weakness, your own sin, and all that comes at you from the outside? How do you get there?”
I found the answer to that in the very text which we’re looking at, 2 Corinthians chapter 4. So let me open it up to you if I can. We’ll work our way through that 4th chapter. Embedded in this chapter is that 5th verse where he says that, “We do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.” There’s so much more around this that explains why he could be so faithful to the very end in preaching Christ.
Now I want to call your attention to the 1st verse, obviously, and a phrase at the end of the 1st verse: “We do not lose heart.” And you will notice that same phrase in verse 16: “We do not lose heart.” It’s as if this testimony that he gives here is bracketed by this statement: “We do not lose heart.” I’m not sure that is the best translation; and it does need a bit of an explanation.
If you have the old Authorized Version, it says, “We faint not,” which is even less helpful than this one. The verb is ekkakeó. There’s a lot more there in that verb than just the idea of losing heart. It’s simply ek the preposition, and kakeó which means “to cause evil, to cause evil.” The noun forms kakós kakeó, strong words: malice, malignity, wickedness, depravity, to be morally bad, to be harmful, to be corrupt, to be a criminal. The adverb: wretchedly, wrongly, criminally – very strong words. And a better way, perhaps, to understand it would be Paul saying, “We do not give in to evil. We do not give in to evil.”
It’s not so much about being cowardly. It’s not so much about slipping as it is giving in to evil. Kiddle says, “To act badly. To act badly.” This is really a sinful defection. “We don’t defect.” Paul says, “We are not giving in to evil in any way.”
What prompts him here to say this? Well, I think in part, his experience with the Corinthians had the potential to drive him to sinful defection. He knew deep difficulty and penetrating disappointment in that church: their sin, their shallowness, their rebellion. Their criticism of him was heartbreaking for him, and he says that in this letter. He was concerned about impurity in the church, jealousies, lawsuits, incest, desecration of the Lord’s Table. In fact, you could say that the Corinthian church was so bad in some ways that Apollos wouldn’t stay or return to Corinth, even though Paul urged him to do it. It was kind of the church that nobody wanted to pastor.
He wrote them four letters: two recorded in the New Testament, and two other referred to. Whatever was remedied by the first letter fell short of the mark, because the church then opened up to false teachers who had one objective, and that was to destroy the church’s confidence in Paul. And so they just did everything to malign him. He made a very painful visit to them and went away feeling worse than before he arrived, and wrote back a very severe letter to them again, and was reluctant to ever come back.
False teachers were gaining the ascendency in that church, and it was breaking his heart. It was the kind of thing that could make a minister defect. They were blasting his character. They were exploiting his controversy with Peter. They were questioning his credentials. They were slandering him in every way possible. They said he was unimpressive as a speaker. He was contemptable as to his personal presence. They said he was unskilled in speech. It was a depressing experience to work with that church. That’s exactly what it says in chapter 7; he was depressed.
This epistle was written by Paul reluctantly to defend his own apostleship against the attacks of the false teachers. It was written really in an agonizing time in his life. You can’t help but see that. Even as you start through the epistle in chapter 1 he talks about, “The Father of mercies and the God of all comfort” – verse 4 – “who comforts us in all our afflictions.” And in chapter 2 he talks about sorrow. And in chapter 4, as we will see in a moment, more trouble. In chapter 6, more trouble. In chapter 11, he lists all the things that he has suffered as an apostle; caps it off by saying, “The care of the church is who sins, and I don’t feel the pain.” And here is a man who is dealing with a very, very disappointing congregation of people into whose lives he has poured everything he has.
In spite of it and in spite of all the other vicissitudes that he faced in other places throughout his ministry, he did not give in to evil. There was no evil defection. He was true and faithful to the very end. And I believe in this chapter he sums up the convictions that kept him faithful, and I want to lay them out for you. You’ll need to do a more detailed study to grind down a little bit. But I want to give you the picture as best we can in the time we have.
Verse 1: The first thing Paul was certain about: an unwavering conviction. And convictions are what keep us faithful. Convictions are what keep us faithful. The first conviction that Paul had was a conviction about the superiority and glory of the new covenant over the old one.
In verse 1, he begins by saying, “Therefore, since we have this ministry,” – you can stop right there. We know “therefore” is there to transition. It’s a transition from the previous chapter, which compares the old covenant and the new covenant. This was not some transition, some change, some comparison that Paul looked at from the outside, this is a comparison that Paul lived through on the inside. He was a Jew. He was a Pharisee of the Pharisees: zealous for the law; zealous for the traditions; blameless, as far as people knew, on the outside.
He even gives that kind of testimony to king Aggripa in the 26th chapter of Acts, speaking about the fastidiousness of his legalism and adherence to the Old Covenant. But when on the Damascus Road he was struck down by the Lord Himself, we read the physical story of his conversion in Acts 9. We read the spiritual account in Philippians 3. It’s in Philippians 3 that he says all of a sudden all of that old covenant legalism became manure when he found the righteousness of God granted to him by faith in Christ. He says then, first of all, “We have this ministry.” What ministry? The ministry of the new covenant.
Back in chapter 3 it’s called the ministry of the Spirit. It’s called a ministry with glory. It’s very different than the old covenant, which is called the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of death. This is the “something better” of Hebrews 11:39 and 40.
If you go back into chapter 3 for just a moment and look at verse 6 you will see that the new covenant gives life. The new covenant, it gives life through the Spirit. The old covenant kills. The law passed the death sentence on everyone. No one can keep the law; therefore, the law only has the power to kill.
The new covenant gives life. The new covenant also provides righteousness, verse 7. The old covenant’s a ministry of death, a ministry of death. The new covenant is a ministry of life, because, verse 9, “it is a ministry of righteousness.” The old could not provide righteousness; the new provides righteousness. The old covenant was temporary. It was a fading covenant – verse 7, verse 10 and 11 – its glory fades away. The new covenant is permanent, never to be replaced.
The old covenant had no hope. The new covenant, verse 12, has hope rather than hopelessness. The new covenant is clear as opposed to dark, veiled – verses 13 and 14. The new covenant is Christ-centered. He mentions Christ in verse 14. The veil is removed in Christ. The fullness of the revelation of Christ is the reality of the new covenant, the mystery revealed in Christ. The new covenant is empowered by the Holy Spirit, verse 17. And the new covenant, verse 18, is transforming. The new covenant under the power of the Holy Spirit moves us from one level of glory to the next, until we conform to the image of Christ.
Here was a man who came out of the old covenant, the old covenant of condemnation and death, hopelessness, into the new covenant. And, listen, he never lost the wonder over the reality of the new covenant. He knew what he had been delivered from. Everything else in the world was dwarfed by the deliverance that had been provided to him by God’s sovereign grace through Jesus Christ. It was a staggering, staggering honor to him.
I think that’s what he has in mind in part back in chapter 2, verse 14: “But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place.” Talk about being important in the world. That’s the most important person in the world, somebody, somebody who is moving forward in the triumph of Christ and who manifests the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place, someone who is a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved, and even among those who are perishing: to one, an aroma of death to death; to the other, an aroma of life to life. And who is adequate for these things? No human in himself can have that kind of everlasting impact. But Paul is a preacher of the new covenant. Essentially is so used by God as to make an impact on people’s eternity, whether it’s in heaven or hell. What fool would stoop to anything less than that?
We talk a lot about the gospel. This is one very good reason we need to continually look into the gospel, study the glories of the gospel, sing about the glories of the gospel, so we never, ever, ever forget the privilege of being called into the new covenant. Paul was certain that the new covenant was superior to the old, and he never got past the wonder of the privilege of being part of the new covenant, and given the responsibility to proclaim the new covenant. If no one ever heard and believed, if he was mostly an aroma of death to death – which he was, as is every preacher, as was Isaiah – it was still the highest of all honors, and the greatest of all joys. The more you know about the sinfulness of sin and the sinfulness of man, the more you appreciate the new covenant salvation provided by grace through faith in Christ.
There’s a second reason that Paul was faithful to the end, a second conviction, a second certainty. He was certain that ministry was a mercy. He was certain that ministry was a mercy. Go back to verse 1 again – and I know we’re going slow, but we’ll speed up.
“We have this ministry as we receive mercy.” I just stop there and say, you know, you have to understand your ministry is a mercy. You didn’t earn it, and you don’t keep it because you’re somehow qualified. It is a mercy. And for Paul, it was just a staggering thing to be given this mercy.
Listen to his words, 1 Timothy 1: “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has strengthened me, because He considered me faithful, putting me into ministry, even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor; yet I was shown mercy. And the grace of our Lord was more than abundant with the faith and love which are found in Christ Jesus. It’s a trustworthy statement deserving full acceptance that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him unto eternal life.”
Ministry is a mercy. You’re there not because you’re better than others, but because you demonstrate mercy, you demonstrate grace. We know our own hearts. We know our own weaknesses. We know our own failings very well. And I’m sure we wonder why the Lord called us, why He continues to keep us there.
When Paul was writing to the Corinthians, 1 Corinthians 7, he was speaking to them about issues regarding marriage and he said, “I give an opinion as one who by the mercy of the Lord is trustworthy.” Don’t overestimate your importance in ministry. It’s a mercy. It is a mercy.
Everything that comes to us is a mercy. To the Philippians, Paul says, “Epaphroditus was sick to death, and God showed mercy to him and to me, so that I was not in sorrow.” All our ministries are mercy: mercy, mercy, mercy. It calls us, it equips us, it surrounds us with men and women who come alongside to serve the Lord with us. It’s a give of grace. It’s a mercy to the utterly undeserving and unworthy. Don’t ever lose sight of that. It’s never earned. You didn’t earn it. You’re not perfect, and your imperfections won’t forfeit something you didn’t earn.
Paul was reluctant to defend himself. He had to do it in the case of the Corinthians so that the false teachers didn’t gain more ground. Hopefully they could be reversed and put out and they would return to trusting him. But even as he defends himself, he wants everyone to know that he’s in the ministry purely by mercy.
There’s a third thing here that’s very foundational. He’s a faithful man to the very end, driven by some convictions: the conviction of the super superiority of the new covenant, and the ministry was a mercy. And the third thing he was very certain about was the conviction that he needed to have a pure heart, a conviction that he needed to have a pure heart. He didn’t start down the road to evil, and he says this right away in verse 2: “We have renounced the things hidden because of shame.” Very interesting statement: “We have renounced the things hidden because of shame.”
They had accused him of a secret life of sin. Apparently reading between the lines in 2 Corinthians, they have accused him of doing what he did with women to gain sexual favors from them. They accused him of being corrupt in the sense that he was in ministry for money. They accused him of lying about his successes. He says, “Look, we don’t have any hidden life. I don’t have a hidden life. There’s nothing that you can’t see.”
Was he perfect? No. At the same time he wrote that, he wrote Romans and said, “O wretched man that I am. Who will deliver me from the body of this death?” On the one hand, on the one hand, he has renounced the things hidden because of shame. On the other hand, he’s a wretched man.
How do those reconcile? He acknowledges his wretchedness, he doesn’t hide it. He’s open to confess it. He can, on the one hand, say, “I’m a wretched man. I see a principle working in me against the law of God leading me into sin. I hate that. I hate that I don’t do what I ought to do, and do what I ought not to do.” But on the other hand, he can say, “I have renounced a hidden life of shame. I don’t have any secret life.”
Renounced is a kind of gnomic aorist. It’s kind of timeless. “I’ve renounced that. There’s a permanent renunciation of this. And, oh, by the way, I used to be a Pharisee, and I had crafted the art of secret shame to its perfection. I was so good at secret shame that nobody knew I ever violated the law of God. That’s how good a hypocrite I was. I was a skilled hypocrite. I’ve renounced all of that.”
I love what he says back in chapter 1, verse 12, because he’s again trying to defend himself against accusations. And this is so interesting. He says in verse 12: “Our proud confidence is this,” – and it must have been very difficult for him to even put that on paper though inspired by the Holy Spirit, or put it on whatever he put it on. “For our proud confidence is this: the testimony of our conscience, that in holiness and godly sincerity, not in fleshly wisdom but in the grace of God, we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially toward you.”
You know what he’s saying? “I have a clear conscience. I have a clear conscience. You can accuse me all you want; I have a clear conscience. You’re accusing me; my conscience is not accusing me. It doesn’t mean I’m perfect, O wretched man that I am, but what it does mean is I don’t hold onto sin. I don’t cultivate an inner life of secret shame. I have a clear conscience.”
You know, that’s what you want. It doesn’t matter what comes at you; if your conscience is clear, no accusation sticks. The conscience is a gift from God. It’s a skylight. It triggers fear, anxiety, dread, even panic if it strikes the light on the reality of hidden shame, and you’re terrified to be found out, especially if you’re in the ministry. “My conscience is clear,” Paul says.
How do you keep your conscience clear? By winning the sin battle on the inside, winning it on the inside. “I’ve conducted my life in the world, and especially toward you, in holiness and godly sincerity, moral purity and transparency.” You know, that’s what godly sincerity is. The term transparency: “I’m an open book. I’m transparent.” He repeats this quite a bit, several times in the book of Acts, giving testimonies toward the end of the book, and also in a letter to Timothy. Battle’s always on the inside, James 1. It works its way on the inside to the outside. You have to win the battle on the inside.
It was Charles Wesley who wrote one of the very few hymns that I’ve ever seen on the conscience. He wrote this: “I want a principle within of watchful, godly fear; a sensibility of sin, of pain to feel it near. Help me, the first approach to feel of pride or wrong desire, to catch the wandering of my will and quench the kindling fire. From Thee that I know more may stray, no more Thy goodness grieve. Give me the filial awe I pray, the tender conscience give. Quick as the apple of an eye, O God, my conscience make. Awake my soul when sin is nigh, and keep it still awake.”
Paul knew he needed to have a pure life, and that meant he had to keep a clear conscience, and that meant he had to deal with sin on the inside. And if you don’t do that, when it conceives it’ll show up and bring about death.
What kept Paul faithfully preaching Christ to the end? A fourth conviction: He was certain of the responsibility to accurately preach the Word of God. He was certain of the responsibility to accurately preach the Word of God. And he says that in verse 2 again. He says, “We have not only renounced the things hidden because of shame, not walking in craftiness or adulterating the word of God, but by the manifestation of truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.” That’s a lot to say; very, very important truth.
He is certain of the priority of not adulterating the Word of God, but manifesting truth; not walking in panourgia. That’s a combination of words that mean all and work, not letting the end justify the means, not doing whatever it takes to be successful by whatever measurement you want to use. Panourgia, the idea of someone who is capable of doing absolutely anything to gain whatever end that person wanted to gain: something shrewd, something unscrupulous, something deceptive – whatever it takes to achieve goals.
It’s kind of synonymous with kakourgia which means “an evildoer, a criminal.” It is criminal to take the Word of God and manipulate it to achieve your ends. So he says, “I’m not like that. I don’t operate that way. I don’t operate taking the Word of God and twisting it to my own ends, adulterating the Word of God.” Favorite sport of false teachers and fake preachers.
Back to chapter 2 for a moment, verse 17, he says, “We’re not like many, peddling the word of God: kapélos, street hawkers, con men, hucksters, charlatans, phonies. “I’m not playing a shell game with divine truth. I’m not watering it down. I’m not cheapening it. I’m not a cheater. I don’t adulterate.” That’s really a word connected to “fish hook.” “I don’t use the word to hook you to consume you.”
It’s also used for diluting wine, which was a kind of a scam. “I don’t handle the Scripture in a deceptive way. I don’t use it as a hook to pull you in and make merchandise of you. I don’t dilute the truth. I don’t corrupt it to achieve an end with you, whatever that end might be. But rather I will be faithful to the manifestation of truth” – phaneroó, the unveiling, the revealing of truth, divine truth; open, clear exposition of the Word of God, the truth.
This is my relentless effort, commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.” That is such a fascinating statement. You can manipulate the Scripture. You can tamper with it. You can tone it down. You can twist it and turn it in order to achieve some end with the people in the culture that you think you need to appeal to. You can play with it in order to take the offense of it out. You can do all those kinds of things. But in the end, you have defeated the very purpose for which the truth exists. You underestimate something that God has put into every person created in the world, and that is the law of God written in the heart; and that is the only point of attachment that you have with the sinner. If you tamper with that, you’ve cut yourself off. You may make a friend, but you will not change a heart.
No matter what trials, hardships, difficulties, disagreements, assaults, persecution; no matter what comes unjustly, what attacks, what criticism, Paul is saying, “I will be faithful to the truth, because I know that the truth carries its own internal commendation.” You don’t have to defend the Word of God. It has a glory all its own. It has a power all its own.
It was Hodge, the great theologian, who said, “Paul knew that the truth had such a self-evidencing power, that even where it was rejected and hated, it commended itself to the conscience as true.” He went on to say, “And those ministers who are sincere and declare simply the truth as God revealed it commend themselves to the consciences of men.” That ought to be great news to you. You don’t have to change it, you can’t do that, certainly not in the sight of God. And Paul reminds us then at the end of verse 2 that he does everything because he knows God is watching. He was certain of his responsibility to preach the Word of God; to preach the truth without deception, without alteration, without manipulation, the whole counsel of God rightly divided. That was a conviction that kept him from defecting sinfully.
Number five: He was certain that the results did not depend on him. He was certain that the results did not depend on him.
You say, “Okay, I’m out there, and I’m preaching the truth, and I’m preaching the law of God and then the gospel, and opening up the Word of God and letting the Word of God go, and I’m trusting God that His Word does find a connection to the sinner because of the sinner’s predisposition to the law of God that’s built in. I’m trusting that, but I don’t see any results. I’m just kind of wondering why things aren’t happening the way I would like to see them happen.” Here comes a hasty answer. Paul knew that the results did not depend on him.
Now let me remind you, they didn’t depend on him at all. So altering the message somehow would be to think that they did depend on you, and you needed to do something different because you were the issue. No. He says in verse 3: “Even if our gospel is veiled, even if it does not get through to the sinner, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” That is a powerful portion of Scripture.
“If our gospel is veiled, there’s a reason.” We’re talking to a category of people identified by Paul as “the perishing.” That’s a category of people: the perishing. He refers to the perishing back in 1 Corinthians chapter 1: “The gospel is foolishness to those who are the perishing.” People who are in the category of the perishing are the spiritually dead, the spiritually blind. They are spiritually dead and blind by nature, and then they’re doubly blind because Satan, the god of this world, has blinded the minds of the unbelieving. So they are blind by nature and they are blinded by Satan. They are double blind. They are profoundly blind. They cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ who is the image of God. The glory is bright. It is the very glory of God shining in the face of Jesus Christ coming through the gospel. It is blazing light, but they can’t see it. They’re stone dead blind. So welcome to the ministry. This is who you’re talking to.
Second Corinthians 10, Paul says they are in a kind of tomb, a kind of prison that becomes a grave. He says they are in fortresses: the word for “prison, tomb, grave.” People are literally captive to anything raised up, any idea, any logismos, raised up against the knowledge of God. They’re captive to lies; blinded and then captive to lies. They’re impenetrable, absolutely impenetrable from a human viewpoint. If our gospel is veiled, it’s veiled because people are in the category of “the perishing.”
The other category, 1 Corinthians 1, is those who are being saved. There’s the category of those who are being saved, and there’s the category of those who are perishing. The perishing can’t respond. That’s why Paul also says in 1 Corinthians chapter 1, that when they do respond it is because of the wondrous work of God. “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.”
On the one hand you could say that the doctrine of depravity is the most discouraging doctrine in the Bible. It is in some sense. But in another sense, the doctrine of depravity is an encouraging word. You say, “That’s odd.” Well, it encourages me that I can’t do anything to awaken the dead sinner, so let me just be faithful to the manifestation of the truth in the Word of God, that God uses that to awaken the dead sinner.
Enduring ministry to the end, faithful to Christ, settles into the great reality of divine sovereign regenerating grace. All the results come from God. We looked at verse 5, so go to verse 6. Here is the explanation: “For God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ – you remember that. When did God say that? Genesis 1 – “God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness, let there be light,’ is the one who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” The only way that a blinded dead sinner will ever see the light is when God does a creative miracle in the soul like the miracle of creating light in Genesis. What a parallel. God stepped into darkness, nothing but darkness, infinite darkness and said, “Let there be light.” In the same way, only God can step into the darkness of the human soul and say, “Let there be light.”
If I thought that the quality of my message determines someone’s eternal destiny I don’t think I could preach. I think I’d be paralyzed. I don’t need that credit. I’d be happy to give up all the credit to get rid of the responsibility. I don’t need either. I just find such joy in just preaching the Word and leaving all the results to the Creator.
Paul was faithful to the very end because he knew the results didn’t depend on him. It could have been really discouraging. And that leads him to a sixth conviction: He was certain about his own insignificance. He was certain about his own insignificance.
Verse 7: “We have this treasure.” What treasure, Paul? The treasure of the gospel of the glory of Christ who is the image of God, the treasure of the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. Those magnificent phrases demand more attention than I’ve been able to give them this morning.
He says, “We have this treasure, this treasure of all treasures, far surpassing any other treasure or all treasures combined.” This is a startling contrast, an almost shaking contrast between the shining glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ propagated through the gospel, and the feeble, flawed, fragile, ugly container in which it is held. We have this treasure in clay pots. They said he was unimpressive. They said his speech was contemptable. They said he was unskilled. That’s not news to him. He’s not embarrassed about that. What is beyond his comprehension is how God could take the glory of this gospel and put it in a clay pot like him.
I remember A. T. Robertson, reading a statement he made years ago: “If God couldn’t use poor instruments and feeble voices, He couldn’t make music. That’s all He’s got.” This New Testament gospel of glory is in ostrakinos, clay pots: common, cheap, ugly, breakable, replaceable, valueless clay pots.
What do they use clay pots for? Well, apparently they use them to bury certain things in the ground: valuables for safety’s sake. They also use them to remove the household waste. That’s what clay pot would do. They’re distinguished in 2 Timothy 2:20 from vessels unto honor. There are vessels unto honor and vessels unto dishonor. And the vessels unto honor are gold and silver. That’s what you serve the food on. The vessels unto dishonor is when you take out the processed food. No intrinsic value in those, they’re ugly.
It was Sir Thomas More who called Martin Luther a privy pot. Listen to what he said: “Luther has nothing in his mouth but privy filth and dung with which he plays the buffoon. He would cast into his mouth the dung which other men would spit out into a basin. If he will leave off the folly and rage and the till now too familiar mad ravings, if he will swallow down his filth and lick up the dung with which he is so foully defiled his tongue and his pen to carry nothing in his mouth but bilge-water, sewers, privies, filth, and dung; we will take timely counsel whether we with to leave this mad friar and privy-minded rascal with his ragings and ravings with his filth and dung.”
Now there’s a healthy, uplifting paragraph. My, I can’t even fathom anybody writing all of that. Luther might have said, “Yeah.” Isaiah would have said, “Lord, you don’t want me, I’m a man of” – what? – “unclean lips.”
Paul saw himself as the least of all apostles, didn’t he, the least of all apostles. In 1 Corinthians 4 there’s a passage there, another one that struck me early on in my ministry as I thought about ministry. He says this, 1 Corinthians 4:9, “For, I think, God has exhibited us apostles last of all, as men condemned to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are prudent;” – this is sarcasm – “we are weak, but you are strong; you are distinguished, we are without honor. To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, poorly clothed, roughly treated, are homeless. We toil, working with our own hands; when we are reviled, we bless; when we’re persecuted, we endure; when we are slandered, we try to conciliate.” And then he sums it up by saying this: “We have become as the scum of the world, the dregs of all things.” Scum and dregs, synonyms for the filth left in the bottom of a garbage container used figuratively for the lowest, most degraded criminals often sacrificed in pagan cultures. This is Paul’s self-humiliation: “I’m nothing; a blasphemer, a murderer,” – as we read earlier.
The power of the glorious gospel has nothing to do with us. We have the treasure in clay pots. We’re weak. We’re common, plain, fragile, breakable, dishonorable. But such weakness does not prove fatal to the power of the gospel. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation.”
So how does Paul sustain his faithfulness in preaching Christ? By a set of convictions, unwavering convictions that steeled him against any defection, any sinful defection. He was convinced of the superiority of the new covenant. He was convinced ministry is a mercy. He was convinced of the need for a pure life. He was convinced that he needed to continually preach the Word, the truth. He was convinced that the results did not depend on him but on God. And he was convinced about his own insignificance.
The chapter ends with a couple more convictions. He was convinced of the benefit of suffering. He was convinced of the benefit of suffering. He’s a clay pot and he’s a brutally battered clay pot who never won a popularity contest. Verse 8: “We’re afflicted in every in every way, not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death works in us, but life in you.” Three times he says the same thing: “Death works in us; and as a result, life works in you. My suffering works to your living.”
Four contrasts appear there in verses 8 and 9: “Afflicted, but not crushed.” Afflicted is thlibó, it means “pressure.” “But not crushed” – meaning, “I’m not so confined and pressured that there’s no escape. I’m perplexed, a certain kind of despondency, but it’s not final despair. I’m persecuted” – diókó – “I’m hunted like an animal to be killed, but I’m never abandoned by God. I’m struck down, thrown down with force, but not destroyed. Through all of this, what comes out of it is in my suffering, you benefit.”
How does that happen? Well, he explains that. Go to chapter 12 for a moment in 2 Corinthians. He says, “Because of” – verse 7 – “the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was a thorn in the flesh given to me, a messenger of Satan to torment me – to keep me from exalting myself!” Just briefly to say that this is a thorn, but that really means a spear. It’s not some thorn as on a rosebush, but a stake. It’s driven through his flesh. It’s a painful dire wound to him.
He calls it a messenger of Satan, an aggelos. That’s a person, that’s not an illness. It’s a satanic messenger who’s tormenting him, and I think most likely it is whoever was leading the assault on him among the false teachers in Corinth. And he prays that the Lord would remove it for three times, and the Lord will not remove it because it humbles him. Wow. Some of the trouble in your church the Lord is allowing to humble you.
“I asked Him three times. He said, ‘No.’ He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you,’ – and here’s the statement – ‘for power is perfected in’ – what? – ‘in weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I’m well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions and difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I’m weak, then I’m strong.”
Here is a group of false teachers led by a demon-possessed leader tearing up this church that he loves, that he holds in his heart with such close intimate feelings, that if there’s sin there he feels the pain. And demons have been allowed to tear through his field, and he says, “Please, Lord, stop this.” “No. You’ve had so many revelations, you need to be humbled, and you need to learn that your strength is found in your weakness.”
Go back then to where we were in 2 Corinthians, and you see that, without getting into detail, he says, “I’m carrying about” – in verse 10 – “in my body the dying of Jesus.” In other words, all the pain, suffering, and even death that came to him was intended for Christ. Christ wasn’t there, so they inflicted it on the one who represented him. But it has a purpose: “So that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body.”
And then he says essentially the same thing in the next verse: “We’re constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.” Says it again: “Death works in us, but life in you.” “This is how it goes: I put my life on the line. I suffer persecution. I am tortured. I am persecuted so that I am weak. And out of my weakness comes spiritual strength that brings life to you.”
This is how you have to embrace your suffering. If you don’t embrace your suffering, you’re more likely to defect from ministry, fall on the hillside before you get to the summit. The Lord, of course, was stalked by His enemies until they killed Him. So was Paul. But all the way along, in his weakness, God was working powerfully. Paul could never be the explanation for his impact. Paul could never be the explanation for his impact. It was not him. They saw that he seemed to be nothing, nothing, and tormented in his soul by the terrible arrival of false teachers in the church he loved; and yet the power of God came through his weakness.
All right, let me just give you two final things to think about in this chapter that were convictions of Paul that I think held him faithful to the end. He was certain of the need for courage. He was certain of the need for courage.
I love this word in verse 13: “Having the same spirit of faith, according to what is written,” – and he reaches back to Psalm 116 – ‘I believed, therefore I spoke,’ we also believe, therefore we also speak.” I like that, don’t you? Boy, you say what you believe. That’s right. I don’t edit myself. If I believe it, I say it.
Sometimes people ask me, “Do you ever think about what people are going to think when you say something?” I’ve never thought about it up to now. I’m sure there were times when I might have said things differently and it would have been better off. But I only think of one thing: “Is this what is true? Is this what is true?” “I believed, therefore I spoke.”
“We also believe, so we speak.” What would the church be like today if pastors did that: “You believe it, say it”? You believe it because it’s true, it’s revealed in Scripture. So it brings suffering. So it brings rejection. I will not change the message.
I stand in faith. It’s the Spirit of faith that says, “I believed, so I said it.” I can’t, I can’t believe something and not say it, no matter what persecution comes. Silence may mean a measure of comfort or acceptance or popularity. But like Luther, we’re bound to speak what we believe. Courage, courage.
Well, aren’t you afraid you might die, Paul? No. Why? Verse 14: “Knowing that He who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and will present us with you.” There you are; so they kill you. You’re going to get – what? – resurrected. The sting is out of death.
Furthermore, “I say what is true even if I die for it, because I do it for your sakes,” – verse 15 – “so that the grace which is spreading the grace of the gospel of salvation which is spreading to more and more people may cause the giving of thanks to abound to the glory of God.” What he means by that is more and more people are going to be converted to Christ, and they’re going to be added to the hallelujah chorus, giving thanks everlastingly to God’s glory.
So I say what’s true for two reasons. Reason number one: “If they kill me, the Lord will raise me.” Reason number two: “People hear the truth, believe the truth, and they are saved, and the grace of salvation spreads to more and more people who then are added to the voices of those giving thanks that abounds to the glory of God.”
Well, one final conviction. He was certain that future glory was better than anything this world could offer. Verse 16: “We don’t lose heart, though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison. We look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.”
In view of the astounding and all-glorious reality of new covenant gospel truth, new covenant ministry, a mercy that flourishes in the life of an unworthy preacher, under the sovereign power of God, in the faithful preaching of the Word, even in the midst of being battered and bruised in the struggle, he embraces the perfecting power of suffering. He’s faithful to his convictions. Faces life or death in the confident assurance of resurrection, and does it all because he looks for an eternal weight of glory.
As I said, nobody gave him a trophy at the end. He’s looking for the reward that comes to him from the hand of his Savior, an eternal weight of glory – heavy, baros, heavy – exceeding all limits, far, far beyond all comparison. And I mean that has to be the goal. We don’t look at the things that are seen: “The things that are unseen.”
You will not lose heart if you live by these convictions. You will not defect. You will one day stand at the peak the end of your life and breathe that rare air of faithfulness to the very end, and you will be able to say, I hope, “For to me to live has been Christ; and to die, gain.”
Father, we thank You for the opportunity to be together this morning and the enrichment of our fellowship and our worship, and the blessed power of Your truth. We’ve covered a lot, we’ve gone through a whole chapter; and, Lord, we’ve left out many things that are so wondrous and need to be considered. But to help us understand the big picture, we’ve taken a look at the life of a man who is for us an example. He himself said, “Follow me as I follow Christ.” May we do that which he has asked us to do, follow in a pattern that will bring us to such an end where we’ll be able to say, “I have not defected in any evil way.” Stand at the end bloody, unbowed, unbroken, and faithful, and looking only for that reward which in turn having received I may cast at the feet of the one to whom all glory belongs.
Give us a great week, Lord. Accomplish all Your good intensions in every life, and we’ll thank You in our Savior’s name. Amen.
This article is also available and sold as a booklet.