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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible
2 Corinthians 4

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-18

Chapter 4

THE BLINDED EYE (2 Corinthians 4:1-6)

4:1-6 Since therefore this part of God's service has been given to us, even as we have received mercy, we do not lose heart. But we have refused to have anything to do with hidden and shameful methods. We do not act with unscrupulous cleverness. We do not adulterate the word which God gave us to preach. But by making the truth clear, we commend ourselves to the human conscience in all its forms in the sight of God. But if in fact the good news that we preach is veiled to some, it is veiled in the case of those who are doomed to perish. In their case, the god of this world has blinded the minds of those who refuse to believe, in order that upon them there may not dawn the light of the good news which tells of the glory of Christ in whom we can see God. It is not ourselves that we proclaim, but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves your servants for Jesus' sake. This we must do because it is the God who said, "Out of darkness light shall shine," who has shined in our hearts to illumine us with the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

In this passage Paul has something to say, either directly or by implication, about four different people or sets of people.

(i) Right at the beginning he has something to say about himself. He says that he never loses heart in the great task that has been given to him, and by implication he tells us why. Two things keep him going. (a) There is the consciousness of a great task. A man who is conscious of a great task can do amazing things. One of the great works of musical genius is Handel's Messiah. It is on record that the whole work was composed and written down in twenty-two days, and that during all that time Handel would scarcely consent to eat or to sleep. A great task brings its own strength with it. (b) There is the memory of mercy received. It was Paul's aim to spend all his life seeking to do something for the love which had redeemed him.

(ii) Then by implication Paul has something to say about his opponents and his slanderers. Again there is the echo of unhappy things. Behind this we can see that his enemies had levelled three charges against him. They had said that he used underhand methods, that he exercised an unscrupulous cleverness to get his own way, and that he adulterated the message of the gospel. When our motives are misinterpreted, our actions misconstrued and our words twisted out of their real meaning, it is a comfort to remember that this also happened to Paul.

(iii) Paul goes on to speak of those who have refused to accept the gospel. He insists that he has proclaimed the gospel in such a way that any man with any kind of conscience at all is bound to admit its claim and its appeal. Even in spite of that some are deaf to its appeal and blind to its glory. What of them?

Paul says something very difficult about them. He says that the god of this world has blinded their minds so that they cannot believe. All through the Bible the writers are conscious that in this world there is a power of evil. Sometimes that power is called Satan, sometimes the Devil. Three times John makes Jesus speak of the prince of this world and of his defeat. (John 12:31, John 14:30, John 16:11). Paul in Ephesians 2:2 speaks of the prince of the power of the air, and here he speaks of the god of this world. Even in the Lord's Prayer there is a reference to this malign power, for it is most probable that the correct translation of Matthew 6:13 is "Deliver us from the Evil One." At the back of this idea as it emerges in the New Testament there are certain influences.

(a) The Persian faith called Zoroastrianism sees the whole universe as a battle-ground between the god of the light and the god of the dark, between Ormuzd and Ahriman. That which settles a man's destiny is the side he chooses in this cosmic conflict. When the Jews were subject to the Persians they came into contact with that idea and it undoubtedly coloured their thinking.

(b) Basic to the Jewish faith is the thought of the two ages, the present age and the age to come. By the time of the Christian era, the Jews had come to think of the present age as incurably bad and destined for total destruction when the age to come dawned. It could fitly be said that the present age was under the power of the god of this world and at enmity with the true God.

(c) It has to be remembered that this idea of an evil and a hostile power is not so much a theological idea, as a fact of experience. If we regard it in a theological way we are up against serious difficulties. Where did that evil power come from in a universe created by God? What is its ultimate end? But if we regard it as a matter of experience, we all know how real the evil of the world is. Robert Louis Stevenson somewhere says, "You know the Caledonian Railway Station in Edinburgh? One cold, east windy morning I met Satan there."

Everyone knows the kind of experience of which Stevenson speaks. However difficult the idea of a power of evil may be theologically or philosophically, it is one which experience understands only too well. Those who cannot accept the good news of Christ are those who have so given themselves over to the evil of the world that they can no longer hear God's invitation. It is not that God has abandoned them; they by their own conduct have shut themselves off from him.

(iv) Paul has something to say about Jesus. The great thought that he drives home here is that in Jesus Christ we see what God is like. "He who has seen me," said Jesus, "has seen the Father." (John 14:9). When Paul preached he did not say, "Look at me!" He said, "Look at Jesus Christ! and there you will see the glory of God come to earth in a form that a man can understand."

TRIBULATION AND TRIUMPH (2 Corinthians 4:7-15)

4:7-15 But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the power which surpasses all things may be seen to be of God and not of us. We are sore pressed at every point, but not hemmed in. We are at our wit's end, but never at our hope's end. We are persecuted by men, but never abandoned by God. We are knocked down, but not knocked out. In our bodies we have to run the same risk of death as Jesus Christ did, so that in our body the same life as Jesus lived may be clear for all to see. For all through our lives we are continually handed over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life also which Jesus gives may be clear for all to see in our mortal flesh. The result is that death operates in us, but life operates in you. Because we have the same spirit of faith as appears in that passage of scripture where it stands written, "I have believed and therefore have I spoken," we, too, believe and therefore speak, for we know that he who raised up the Lord Jesus will raise us up also with Jesus, and will present us with you. Everything that happens to us is for your sake, so that grace may abound more and more, and so swell the thanksgiving which rises from many to the glory of God.

Paul begins this passage with the thought that it might well be that the privileges which a Christian enjoys might move him to pride. But life is designed to keep a man from pride. However great his Christian glory he is still a mortal man; still the victim of circumstances; still subject to the chances and the changes of human life; still a mortal body with all that body's weakness and pain. He is like a man with a precious treasure contained in an earthen vessel, which itself is weak and worthless. We talk a great deal about the power of man and about the vast forces which he now controls. But the real characteristic of man is not his power but his weakness. As Pascal said, "A drop of water or a breath of air can kill him."

We have already seen what a proud and glorious thing a triumph was for a Roman general. But there were two things designed to keep the general from pride. First, as he rode in the chariot with the crown held over his head, the populace not only shouted their applause but also, ever and again, they shouted, "Look behind you and remember you will die." Second, at the very end of the procession there came the conquering general's own soldiers, and they did two things as they marched. They sang songs in the general's praise, but they also shouted ribald jests and insults to keep him from too much pride.

Life has surrounded us with infirmity, although Christ has surrounded us with glory, so that we may remember that the infirmity is ours and the glory is God's, and recognize our own utter dependence on him.

Paul goes on to describe this Christian life, in which our infirmity is intermingled with God's glory, in a series of paradoxes.

(i) We are sore pressed at every point but not hemmed in. There are all kinds of pressure on us, but we are never in so tight a corner that there is no way out. It is characteristic of the Christian that, even if his body be confined in some difficult environment or some narrow circumstance, there is always an escape route for his spirit to the spaciousness of God.

Matthew Arnold writes of his meeting with a minister of Christ in the London slums.

"'Twas August and the fierce sun overhead

Smote on the squalid slums of Bethnal Green,

And the pale weaver, through his window seen

In Spitalfields, look'd thrice dispirited.

I met a preacher there I knew, and said:

'Ill and o'erwork'd, how fare you in this scene?'

'Bravely,' said he, 'for I of late have been

Much cheer'd with thoughts of Christ, the living bread'."

His body might be hemmed in in a slum but his soul reached out into the spaciousness of communion with Christ.

(ii) We are persecuted by men but never abandoned by God. One of the most notable things about the martyrs is that it was amidst their sorest times that they had their sweetest times with Christ. As Joan of Arc said when she was abandoned by those who should have stood by her, "It is better to be alone with God. His friendship will not fail me, nor his counsel, nor his love. In his strength, I will dare and dare and dare until I die." As the psalmist wrote, "When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take me up." (Psalms 27:10). Nothing can alter the loyalty of God.

(iii) We are at our wit's end but never at our hope's end. There are times when the Christian does not know what is to be done, but even then he never doubts that something can be done. There are times when he cannot well see where life is going, but he never doubts that it is going somewhere. If he must "stoop into a dark, tremendous sea of cloud", he still knows that he will emerge. There are times when a Christian has to learn the hardest lesson of all, the very lesson which Jesus himself had to learn in Gethsemane--how to accept what he cannot understand and still to say, "God, Thou art love; I build my faith on that."

Francis Thompson wrote of the presence of Christ on the darkest days:

"But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)

Cry--and upon thy so sore loss

Shall shine the traffic of Jacob's ladder

Pitched betwixt heaven and Charing Cross.

Yea, in the night, my soul, my daughter,

Cry--clinging heaven by the hems;

And lo, Christ walking on the water

Not of Gennesaret but Thames."

A man may be at his wit's end but he can never be at his hope's end while he has the presence of Christ.

(iv) We are knocked down but not knocked out. The supreme characteristic of the Christian is not that he does not fall, but that every time he falls he rises again. It is not that he is never beaten, but he is never ultimately defeated. He may lose a battle, but he knows that in the end he can never lose the campaign. Browning in his Epilogue describes the gallant character:

"One who never turned his back but marched breast forward,

Never doubted clouds would break,

Never dreamed, though right were worsted, wrong would

triumph,

Held we fall to rise, are baffled to fight better,

Sleep to wake."

After he has stated the great paradoxes of the Christian life Paul goes on to give the secret of his own life, the reasons why he was able to do and to endure as he did.

(i) He was well aware that if a man would share the life of Christ he must share his risks, that if a man wished to live with Christ he must be ready to die with him. Paul knew and accepted the inexorable law of the Christian life--"No Cross, No Crown."

(ii) He faced everything in the memory of the power of God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. He was able to speak with such courage and such disregard of personal safety because he believed that even if death took him, that God could and would also raise him up. He was certain that he could draw on a power which was sufficient for life and greater than death.

(iii) He bore everything in the conviction that through his sufferings and trials others were being led into the light and love of God. The great Boulder Dam scheme in America brought fertility to vast areas which had once been desert. In the making of it there were inevitably those who lost their lives. When the scheme was completed, a tablet was let into the wall of the dam bearing the names of the workmen who had died, and below stands the inscription: "These died that the desert might rejoice and blossom as the rose." Paul could go through what he did because he knew that it was not for nothing; he knew that it was to bring others to Christ. When a man has the conviction that what is happening to him is happening literally for Christ's sake he can face anything.

THE SECRET OF ENDURANCE (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

4:16-18 That is the reason why we do not grow weary. But if indeed our outward frame is wasting away, our inward self is renewed day by day, for the light affliction which at the moment we must endure produces for us in a way that cannot be exaggerated an eternal weight of glory, so long as we do not think of the things which are seen, but of the things which are unseen, for the things which are seen are passing, but the things which are unseen are eternal.

Here Paul sets out the secret of endurance.

(i) All through life it must happen that a man's bodily strength fades away, but all through life it ought to happen that a man's soul keeps growing. The sufferings which leave a man with a weakened body may be the very things which strengthen the sinews of his soul. It was the prayer of the poet, "Let me grow lovely growing old." From the physical point of view life may be a slow but inevitable slipping down the slope that leads to death. But from the spiritual point of view life is a climbing up the hill that leads to the presence of God. No man need fear the years, for they bring him nearer, not to death, but to God.

(ii) Paul was convinced that anything he had to suffer in this world would be as nothing compared with the glory he would enjoy in the next. He was certain that God would never be in any man's debt. Alistair Maclean, minister father of the author of H.M.S. Ulysses and the rest, tells of an old Highland woman who had to leave the clean air and the blue waters and the purple hills and live in the slum of a great city. She still lived close to God, and one day she said, "God will make it up to me, and I will see the flowers again."

In Christmas Eve Browning writes of the martyr whose story was set out "on the rude tablet overhead."

"I was born sickly, poor and mean,

A slave; no misery could screen

The holders of the pearl of price

From Caesar's envy,--therefore twice

I fought with beasts and three times saw

My children suffer by his law;

At last my own release was earned;

I was some time in being burned,

But at the close a Hand came through

The fire above my head, and drew

My soul to Christ, whom now I see.

Sergius, a brother, writes for me

This testimony on the wall--

For me, I have forgot it all."

Earth's suffering was forgotten in the glory of heaven.

It is a notable fact that in all the gospel story Jesus never foretold his death without foretelling his Resurrection. He who suffers for Christ will share his glory. God's own honour is pledged to that.

(iii) For that very reason, a man's eyes must be ever fixed, not on the things that are seen, but on the things that are unseen. The things that are seen, the things of this world, have their day and cease to be; the things that are unseen, the things of heaven, last forever.

There are two ways of looking at life. We can look at it as a slow but inexorable journey away from God. Wordsworth in his Ode on the Intimations of Immortality had the idea that when a child came into this world he had some memory of heaven which the years slowly took away from him.

"Trailing clouds of glory do we come,"

but,

"Shades of the prison house begin to close

About the growing boy."

And in the end the man is earthbound and heaven is forgotten. Thomas Hood wrote with wistful pathos:

"I remember, I remember

The fir-trees dark and high.

I used to think their slender spires

Were close against the sky.

It was a childish ignorance

But now 'tis little joy

To know, I'm farther off from heaven

Than when I was a boy."

If we think only of the things that are visible we are bound to see life that way. But there is another way. The writer to the Hebrews said of Moses: "He endured as seeing him who is invisible." (Hebrews 11:27). Robert Louis Stevenson tells of an old byreman. Someone was sympathizing with him about his daily work amidst the muck of the byre and asking him how he could go on doing it day in and day out, and the old man answered, "He that has something ayont (beyond) need never weary."

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

 


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Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 4:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/2-corinthians-4.html. 1956-1959.

Lectionary Calendar
Monday, October 21st, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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