LESSON THREE: 2 CORINTHIANS 4:1-18
ENCOURAGEMENT FOR MESSENGERS
My husband and I recently had the experience of making “Raku” pottery. (Google it if you are interested. It is fascinating!) Out of 18 pots, my husband’s was the only one that broke while in the kiln (at 1860 degrees!) The cause was unknown – perhaps there was a defect in the clay. We were told that in ancient times, a pot that cracked or broke would be pieced back together and the cracks filled in with silver or gold. When a candle was placed inside and light emanated through, it became unusually beautiful and valuable.
Being a messenger of the New Covenant is a glorious calling, but it is not without challenges. Because this New Covenant is so glorious and eternal, and because the relationship which we enjoy with Christ under the New Covenant allows us to contemplate the Lord’s glory and be transformed increasingly into His image, we must persevere in our calling! Therefore Paul gives the encouragement of chapter 4 explaining how he can remain encouraged and faithful in the face of rejection, persecution and suffering. How can you and I be faithful to our calling in the face of the same?
DAY ONE: GOD’S MINISTRY PARTNERS
READ 2 CORINTHIANS 4:1-2
Paul closed chapter 3 talking about the experience of Christians in general. Now he speaks of his own experience in handling the Good News.
A. MINSTRY OF MESSENGERS
- Read 4:1.
- How we view our commission affects how we carry it out. Does it blow your mind that the holy, righteous God of the universe has chosen to use imperfect sinners (you and me) who have been saved by grace as “co-laborers” in spreading His message to the world?
- Paul viewed his commission as a gift of God’s mercy. How is this described in 1 Timothy 1:12-14? Journal how this mercy applies to you.
B. METHOD OF MESSENGERS
- Read 4:2
- Even though things are difficult, we don’t give up – we persevere in our ministry. Paul says he doesn’t become cowardly or timid. He doesn’t revert to silence to protect himself. What four wrong practices does Paul not engage in? Can you think of an example of each?
- How could taking Scripture out of context lead to a distortion of meaning that might imply something God didn’t intend? How careful are you to always understand the meaning of a verse in its context so that you don’t misapply it?
- Paul does not misuse the Word of God for his own benefit, either financial or otherwise. The ESV uses the word “tamper” which reflects the practice of some wine merchants of watering down their wine. Paul does not water down the gospel to make it palatable to his hearers or change it to say what they want it to say. What right practice does Paul use instead?
- Speaking the truth includes giving the whole message without compromise, not just the parts people want to hear. This includes God’s judgment as well as His love. .
Paul “set forth the truth plainly.” It has been said that unless you can explain something on the level of a child you don’t really understand it. Think of a 5-7 year old child you know and try writing an explanation of the Good News with words and concepts which that child could understand.
DAY TWO: BLINDED MINDS OF HEARERS
READ 2 CORINTHIANS 4:3-6
When people hear the message of the New Covenant, they are confronted with a life or death decision. There are only two choices. There is no in-between choice. Because of our sin nature, we all begin on the side of death. To not choose life is to remain on the side of death. That is why Paul could say he and others were spreading the aroma of Christ which was an aroma bringing death to some and life to others. (2:14-16)
Why don’t some get it? Is the problem with the message? With the messenger? (To be honest, sometimes the messenger is the problem.) With the recipient?
- Read 4:3-4.
- Whose minds are veiled and why? How might this be the result of a refusal to believe and repent/turn to God? (John 12:37) Does a rejection of the Good News speak to the nature of the message or the nature of the one who rejects it?
- Who has blinded the minds of unbelievers? Who is the “god of this age?” (1 Peter 5:8; 1 John 5:19b)
- What are unbelievers unable to see or understand? Therefore, what is the result for those for whom the Good News is veiled and whose spiritual eyes are blinded? (John 3:18)
- How might this truth affect the way you pray? (Luke 24:45)
- Read 4:5-6.
- What is our message? What does it mean that Jesus is “Lord?” Is that merely a title or term of respect or does it imply and require a relationship of willing obedience? (4:5; Luke 6:46; Romans 10:9)
- If Jesus is our Lord, what is our role? Whose interests do we serve? How do we do this?
- God who created physical light is also the creator of spiritual light. What are some ways He makes this light shine in our hearts? (John 16:8-11; Romans 1:19-20)
- As opposed to the god of this world who blinds people to the light of Christ, what are we to do with the light we receive? (Matthew 5:14-16)
How brightly does your light shine? Is your light like that of a lighthouse clearly revealing the truth of both the dangers of the wrong path and the safety of following the right path? Who is able to see your light and what it reveals?
DAY THREE: WEAKNESS OF WITNESSES
READ 2 CORINTHIANS 4:7
Clay is a weak material from the earth, fragile, easily broken. Clay is also a very ordinary material. The value of clay pots comes not from the clay but from what the pots contain and what they are used for. These are a good metaphor for our lives in our human bodies. When I look at myself, I see a clay pot which has been broken by sin. I also see a pot that is not the most beautiful nor is it the strongest physically. My “pot” is also not the most intelligent or the most articulate. Why would a holy, perfect God use imperfect people as His messengers? Why would He use me? Isn’t that risky?
- Read 4:7a.
- David was called a man after God’s own heart. How could a person who sinned as egregiously as David did be seen that way by God? (Psalm 32:1-5)
- Paul himself was an example of a jar of clay which had been broken by his own sin. Paul had also been broken physically. What promise did God give Paul in relation to his weakness? (4:7; 12:9)
- Why would God choose to use imperfect people/clay pots? (4:7; 1 Corinthians 1:26-31)
- What is required for a broken person to become a useable “pot”? (2 Chronicles 16:9a; 2 Timothy 2:20-21; 1 John 1:8-9)
- The Greeks saw the body as merely the container for the soul with the soul having spiritual value but the body having none. Paul saw a different, bigger contrast – a contrast between our sinful humanity and God’s holiness. In addition to our souls, what superior treasure is also contained within the believers’ “pots?” (4:6; 1 Corinthians 6:19)
- What warning are we given which is made easier to obey when we recognize brokenness in ourselves? (Isaiah 42:8) Don’t touch the glory!
In addition to your and my own imperfections (!) there are the cracks and brokenness that happen to us because we are His messengers. How are we to view those?
God does not ordain that His servants be spared all human suffering. Instead He promises His grace to us in those times. Paul did not downplay his suffering, but saw present meaning in it, and future deliverance from suffering which would come when he was finally raised with Christ. For those who saw him as a fragile “jar of clay” he encouraged a closer look.
- Read 4:7b.
- Sometimes God’s servants are permitted to experience opposition or persecution which causes stress, hardship, brokenness, or in severe cases even death. What power is available to us as we face these things? The fact that God’s servants can endure such afflictions, with fractures, yes, but without being shattered, proves that their power is from God.
- Paul gives an example of this in 1 Corinthians 2:3-5. From this passage, why is his obvious weakness important?
- As God chose to demonstrate weakness at the cross of Christ followed by power at His resurrection, so it is with Paul’s weakness. Paul’s suffering doesn’t discredit his ministry, rather it points to God’s power. God gets the glory for all that is accomplished through Paul.
There are stress fractures in Paul’s “jar of clay” but he has not been crushed, nor has he fallen into despair, nor has he been abandoned by God even when some of the Corinthians abandoned him. He is intact because of the power of God within him. How does your interior life with God compare to Paul’s? Is your faith as firm as his? What needs to change?
This verse is the primary theme of 2 Corinthians. You will find benefit for your life in memorizing and meditating on this verse.
DAY FOUR: PURPOSE OF PRESSURE
READ 2 CORINTHIANS 4:8-12
As messengers, our focus is to be more on the treasure than on the container. Our job is to guard the treasure entrusted to us; God’s job is to guard our “jar of clay.” Sometimes God allows our “jars of clay” to be jostled or broken so that the treasure inside may become visible and spill out to bless others and to bring glory to Himself.
Paul’s suffering is not theoretical; it is real. Paul is not a stoic, he admits to discouragement. Paul also does not spiritualize his suffering; he endures it fully, but also understands why he is being forced to suffer so deeply. Paul is stressed, but not stressed out! He gives testimony to the way God has fulfilled His promise of 2 Corinthians 12:9.
- Read 4:8-9 which illustrate the paradox of being God’s messenger, and the truth of man’s weakness versus God’s power from verse 7.
- Paul does not deny or minimize his sufferings. They are real. What are the physical, psychological and spiritual implications of each type of affliction mentioned in verses 8-9?
- Rather than the negatives, Paul emphasizes the fact that each affliction is balanced by an appropriate encouragement. Are these “stiff upper lip” type responses or something different? How do they show the glory of God?
- Find Scriptural promises that encourage you for each of these afflictions. Here are a few to start with. Journal these and add your own for future reference. (Deuteronomy 31:6, 8; Matthew 28:18-20; 2 Timothy 4:16-18)
- What do the following passages say are benefits to us from affliction? (Romans 5:3-5; James 1:2-4. You may want to add other passages)
B. DEATH AND LIFE
Paul’s message was the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. As Christ’s apostle, it was not surprising that he suffered for the sake of Christ. In fact, suffering was normal. As in verse 7, it was the human suffering he endured which allowed the reality of God’s power in his life to shine through.
- Read 4:10-12.
- Notice the first half of verse 11. As God handed Jesus over to death on the cross, God also handed Paul over to a type of death. What kind of “death” do you think that was? Why did God do that?
- When you experience hardship beyond the normal, you can take comfort that this is not outside of God’s knowledge or control. How does this make your suffering bearable?
- Describe a time when you experienced suffering for His sake. Did you find this to be a time of rich spiritual growth? Why or why not?
- How can Paul’s summary in verse 12 be a comfort to you? Who might be benefitting from the way you are responding to suffering in your life? Have you seen someone respond to the Good News through your suffering? If not, will you examine your own attitude in it and then will you trust God with your suffering?
- Meditate on the following verses on suffering. Which one do you need today? You might find it helpful to mark them for future reference. (1 Peter 2:12, 15; 2:19-21; 4:1-2; 5:6-11)
We are fragile, cracked jars of clay, but we are held together by God’s grace. The cracks serve not to diminish us as much as to glorify God, highlighting His power in our lives. It is in our suffering more than in our strength that the reality of God’s presence and power in our lives is most visible. The command of 1 Peter 3:15 is very appropriate at these times. Are you ready?
DAY FIVE: COMFORT FOR MESSENGERS
READ 2 CORINTHIANS 4:13-18
If we only live good moral lives, who gets the glory? If we really love and believe in Christ we will also speak about Him. Who gets the glory then? If we really believe something, we talk about it. We are compelled to.
- Read 4:13-15.
- Paul had the same attitude of trust in God the psalmist had in spite of his suffering as a righteous person. Paul quotes Psalm 116:10a, but you will want to read it in the context of the entire Psalm. What additional insights do you gain?
- What did Paul literally believe (so strongly that he says he “knows”) that caused him to speak?
- Believers live with the certainty that those who belong to Jesus on this side of death will also belong to Him on the other side. How does this bring you security and joy? Stop right now and thank Him!
- How should confidence that the resurrection of Christ guarantees our resurrection affect the way you and I face suffering and even the threat or reality of our own death or that of our loved ones due to persecution?
- Suffering by itself doesn’t cause spiritual growth. Some people become embittered by suffering. It is when it is faced in an attitude of trust in our Father that He uses it for our good and His glory. Then our sufferings aren’t wasted (Romans 8:28-30).
- If we were to “play it safe” rather than speaking, what would be the consequences? When instead we speak about the grace of God, the Good News, what result can we expect? (4:15)
- Read 4:16-18.
- What is another way to describe “losing heart”? (4:1, 16) Paul is not talking about losing heart in the face of suffering but rather why he does not lose heart in sharing the Good News in spite of opposition and hardships.
- Paul describes the very dramatic difference between what people see of him on the outside (his “jar of clay”) and what God sees happening to him on the inside. Which is more important? How do the promises of Hebrews 4:16, James 1:5, and 1 Peter 5:6-7 help you when you feel that you are “pressed beyond measure” and “wasting away?”
- How should this also cause you to pause before judging the fitness of a coworker? How might it to be wise to be patient, prayerful and encouraging with the inner transforming process that may be going on? (3:18)
- When we read the list of Paul’s problems, we wonder how he can call them “light and momentary troubles!” Skim another list of them in 11:23-33. It is Paul’s perspective that allows him to say this. Compare 4:17-18 with Romans 8:18 for his perspective.
- Verses 16-17 tell us that it is not only future rewards which we can expect, but also present comfort and strengthening. It is not suffering itself, but one’s attitude when suffering that makes the difference. Someone has well said: “glance at your problems, but gaze on God.” Picture a balance scale in your mind. On one side are the many ways you have or will suffer because of your stand for Christ. On the other side are the rewards you will receive now and in eternity. They are just as real as what you are experiencing now. Do you believe it? Truly?
- Read Hebrews 12:1-3 for Jesus’ example when suffering and dying. Where are your eyes focused?
It has been said that people today do not want a Messiah who suffers and who calls them to also suffer, take up their cross and follow Him. They want one who provides all that is comfortable and convenient at little or no cost to themselves. What do you want? Are you willing to die to self so you can live for Christ? Are you doing so now?
This is a powerful chapter in understanding our role before God and people. Ask God to show you the lesson He has for you today. Spend time meditating on it. Journal your response to God.
Perhaps this might be a good time to set aside a “day with God” to examine your heart in His presence. Make an appointment – put it on your calendar – and find a private place where you can be alone with God. Just you, your Bible, your journal, and God. If this is a new idea for you, you might begin by devoting a half day to listen to God as well as dialogue with Him. If childcare is an issue, ask God for a creative way to meet that need.
None of us likes to suffer! And we wish that all who hear the gospel message would quickly and gladly receive it. The reality is usually different. Understanding what is necessary for unbelievers to see and receive the light of the gospel helps us know how to pray. It also motivates us to persevere in living a godly lifestyle while clearly proclaiming the Good News. We should not be surprised that there is a personal cost to us. Sometimes that cost is great, but the eternal benefits are worth it!
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