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Bible Commentaries
2 Corinthians 4

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

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2. The great boldness of the new ministers 3:12-4:6

The superiority of Christian ministry should produce great openness and encouragement within Christ’s ministers. Paul developed these qualities in this section to enable his readers to understand his behavior and to respond in like manner in their own ministries.

Verse 1

Paul now returned to the theme of being a minister of the New Covenant (2 Corinthians 3:6). Since we have a ministry in which the Spirit opens people’s eyes and transforms their characters we can feel encouraged. Our job is not simply to lay God’s high standards on people, as Moses did, but to provide God’s grace to them as the Holy Spirit’s agents. Paul acknowledged that God has given us this privilege in His mercy, not because we deserve to be the ministers of a superior covenant.

". . . since the glory of the new covenant ministry ’remains’ (2 Corinthians 3:11), as opposed to the old that is ’abolished’ (2 Corinthians 3:11), it is appropriate that the new covenant minister ’remains,’ that is, ’perseveres,’ ’does not give up.’" [Note: Barnett, p. 212.]

Verses 1-6

The encouragement of Christian ministry 4:1-6

Verse 2

In view of our inevitable success we do not need to resort to disgraceful subtleties and subterfuge. Paul’s critics in Corinth were apparently accusing him of deceitful behavior (cf. 2 Corinthians 7:2; 2 Corinthians 12:16). He continues here his self-defense from 2 Corinthians 2:17. Paul did not need to trick his hearers because the Spirit would enlighten them concerning the truth and transform their characters. Some of the Corinthians may have concluded that because Paul did not require obedience to the Mosaic Law he was watering down the gospel to make it more acceptable. They apparently accused him of preaching "easy believism."

"In any self-defense, self-commendation must play some part. But Paul’s self-commendation was distinctive. He commended himself, not by self-vindication at every point, but simply by the open declaration of the truth (in particular, the gospel and its implications). His appeal was not directed to a partisan spirit or the prejudices of men but ’to every man’s conscience.’ His self-commendation was undertaken with God as onlooker." [Note: Harris, p. 340.]

Verses 3-4

By veiled here Paul meant obscure. The reason some people did not immediately understand and appreciate the gospel was that Satan had blinded their minds. It was not because Paul had sought to deceive his hearers by making the gospel obscure. The gospel is obscure to the lost until the Spirit enlightens their minds (2 Corinthians 3:16-17; cf. John 16:8-11; 1 Corinthians 2:14-16).

"Apparently, Paul is responding to criticism that, to some, his gospel is no revelation at all, in other words, it is ’veiled.’ . . . From whom, according to them, would his gospel be ’veiled’? Their reply would be, ’It is veiled from fellow Jews because Paul’s message is unacceptable to them.’" [Note: Barnett, p. 216.]

The god of this age is not God the Father but Satan (cf. Matthew 4:8-9; John 12:31; John 16:11; Galatians 1:4). He is the one whom this world has made its god. Jesus Christ is the image (Gr. eikon) of God in the sense that He visibly and accurately represents the invisible God (cf. John 1:18; Colossians 1:15). The personality and distinctiveness of God are especially in view when this Greek word describes Jesus in relation to God. [Note: Harris, p. 340.]

"The glorified Christ is the ultimate and eschatological revelation of God. There is nothing more that can or will be seen of God." [Note: Barnett, p. 219.]

Verse 5

Even though Paul occasionally needed to commend himself to every man’s conscience (2 Corinthians 4:2; 2 Corinthians 6:4), he never promoted himself. Instead he proclaimed Jesus Christ as a faithful slave announces his master rather than himself. This is what he had done in Corinth. He did not conduct himself as the spiritual overlord of these Christians (2 Corinthians 1:24). A herald draws attention to himself only to promote the one he or she announces. This is also what Jesus did in the Incarnation. Both Paul and Jesus took the role of a servant and bound themselves to fulfill God’s mission for them, which involved serving others.

"What humbler view of himself could a messenger of the gospel take than to regard himself not only as a bondservant of Jesus Christ (as Paul delights to call himself; cf. Romans 1:1; Galatians 1:10; Philippians 1:1) but even as the bondservant of those to whom he ministers?" [Note: Hughes, p. 131.]

"It would be hard to describe the Christian ministry more comprehensively in so few words." [Note: C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 134.]

Paul in his preaching presented Jesus as the sovereign God to whom everyone must submit in faith. He did not make total submission to the lordship of Christ a condition for salvation, however. Voluntary submission to the lordship of Christ was a message that he reserved for believers (Romans 6:13; Romans 12:1-2). When Paul preached Christ to the unsaved, he presented Him as God who by virtue of His deity is sovereign over all people (cf. Romans 10:9; 1 Corinthians 12:3; Colossians 2:6).

"The implication here is that lordship equates with deity. ’LORD’ regularly translates ’Yahweh’ in the LXX, and there are numerous NT references to Jesus as ’Lord’ that echo OT (LXX) passages that refer to Yahweh." [Note: Barnett, p. 222.]

To become a believer an unsaved person must submit to Christ’s lordship to the extent that he or she acknowledges that Jesus is God and is therefore over him or her in authority. Trusting in the person and work of Christ is submission to His lordship to that extent. However when one becomes a believer and appreciates what God has done for him or her in salvation, yielding every area of one’s life to Christ’s control becomes a voluntary act of worship (Romans 12:1). To make what is voluntary for the Christian necessary for the unsaved to obtain justification is adding to what God requires for justification.

Verse 6

Why had Paul conducted himself as he did? It was because God had dispelled the darkness in his heart by illuminating it with the knowledge of Himself that comes though understanding Jesus Christ. Individual regeneration is a work of God as supernatural and powerful as the creation of the cosmos (Genesis 1:3). Now Paul wanted to share that light with others. In the physical Creation God spoke directly, but in the spiritual creation of new life He usually speaks indirectly through His servants. Nevertheless it is His Word that creates new life.

"Like the earth of Genesis 1:2, the lost sinner is formless and empty; but when he trusts Christ, he becomes a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). God then begins to form and fill the life of the person who trusts Christ, and he begins to be fruitful for the Lord. God’s, ’Let there be light!’ makes everything new." [Note: Wiersbe, 1:642.]

Paul was probably alluding to his own conversion experience on the Damascus road when he wrote this verse (cf. Acts 9:3; Acts 9:8-9; Acts 22:6; Acts 22:9; Acts 22:11; Acts 26:13; Galatians 1:15-16). It was then that the apostle saw God’s glory in the unveiled face of Jesus Christ.

The sincerity, simplicity, and steadfastness of Paul that surfaces in this passage can and should mark all ministers of Jesus Christ.

Verse 7

The treasure that every Christian possesses is "the knowledge of the glory of God" (2 Corinthians 4:6, i.e., the gospel). Even though it is what dispels spiritual darkness God has deposited this precious gift in every clay Christian. This is a paradox, consequently the "but."

"A vessel’s worth comes from what it holds, not from what it is." [Note: Kraftchick, p. 172.]

God has done this so all may see that the transforming power of the gospel is supernatural and not just human (cf. Judges 7:19-20).

"The pottery lamps which could be bought for a copper or two in the Corinthian market-place provided a sufficient analogy; it did not matter how cheap or fragile they were so long as they showed the light." [Note: Bruce, p. 197.]

Paul was not disparaging the human body by calling it an earthen vessel nor was he saying that it is only a vehicle for the soul. Paul viewed man as a unity of material and immaterial parts (monism) rather than as having higher and lower elements (dualism). [Note: See D. E. H. Whiteley, The Theology of St. Paul, pp. 31-44.] He was contrasting the relative insignificance and unattractiveness of the light-bearers with the surpassing worth and beauty of the light (i.e., God’s glory). [Note: Harris, p. 342.]

"It is precisely the Christian’s utter frailty which lays him open to the experience of the all-sufficiency of God’s grace, so that he is able even to rejoice because of his weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9 f.)-something that astonishes and baffles the world, which thinks only in terms of human ability." [Note: Hughes, p. 137.]

Verses 7-10

3. The sufferings and supports of a minister of the gospel 4:7-5:10

Paul proceeded to explain further the nature of ministry under the New Covenant so his readers would understand his ministry and theirs better. The nature of Christianity is paradoxical. Second Corinthians explains more of these paradoxes than any other New Testament book.

In writing this epistle Paul wanted his readers to realize that his ministry was not faulty, as his critics charged, but that it was solidly within the will of God. To do this he described his own ministry as a projection or extension of Jesus’ ministry. As Jesus had died and been raised, Paul was similarly dying, but he was also experiencing the benefits of resurrection. He used the death and resurrection of Jesus metaphorically to describe his own ministry. This becomes most evident in 2 Corinthians 4:7-15, but also in 2 Corinthians 5:14-21 and in chapters 8-9 where the metaphor describes the ministry of giving. [Note: See Steven J. Kraftchick, "Death in Us, Life in You," in Pauline Theology. Vol. II: 1 & 2 Corinthians, pp. 156-81.]

Verses 7-15

The contrast between the message and the messenger 4:7-15

Paul presented many paradoxical contrasts involved in the sufferings and supports of the Christian to clarify for his readers the real issues involved in serving Jesus Christ.

"This passage, which is about suffering and death (2 Corinthians 4:7-12), stands in stark contrast with the theme of ’glory’ so brilliantly developed by Paul in 2 Corinthians 3:7 to 2 Corinthians 4:6, to which he also will return in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18." [Note: Barnett, p. 227.]

Verses 8-9

Paul pointed out four specific ways in which the weakness of his earthen vessel contrasted with God’s power (cf. 2 Corinthians 1:5; 2 Corinthians 1:10). He may have been thinking of himself as a gladiator or soldier in view of what he wrote. He had been on the ropes but not trapped in a corner. He was without proper provision but not completely without resources. He was a hunted man but not totally forsaken. Finally he felt beaten down but not destroyed. In these respects his life, representing all believers who herald the gospel, was very like our Lord’s. Paul’s numerous escapes from defeat and death were signs of Christ’s power at work in him.

"To be at the end of man’s resources is not to be at the end of God’s resources; on the contrary, it is to be precisely in the position best suited to prove and benefit from them, and to experience the surplus of the power of God breaking through and resolving the human dilemma.

"As death is the culminating moment of the Christian’s weakness, so also it is the point at which the all-transcending power of God is most marvellously [sic] displayed." [Note: Ibid., pp. 138-39, 140.]

"Verses 8-9 represent the first of the ’tribulation lists’ (peristaseis) found within 2 Corinthians (see also 2 Corinthians 6:3-10; 2 Corinthians 11:23-33; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10; cf. 2 Corinthians 1:5-11; 2 Corinthians 2:14-17)." [Note: Barnett, p. 232.]

Verse 10

Paul summarized the four preceding contrasts with another paradox. He was in one sense always dying but in another sense never lifeless. Paul’s use of nekrosis ("dying," 2 Corinthians 4:10) rather than thanatos ("death") shows that what he had in mind was not our identification with Jesus in His death. It was rather our sharing in His sufferings by being exposed to danger and death for His sake daily (cf. 2 Corinthians 1:5-6; 1 Corinthians 15:31; Philippians 3:10). The next verse makes this clearer.

Verse 11

Paul faced threats to his life daily for his witness to Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:30-31). This seems clearly to be what he meant by "the dying of Jesus." There are three other ways that the New Testament associates us with Jesus’ death, but these are not in view here. They are our identification with His death in baptism (Romans 6:3-5), our daily mortification of the flesh (Galatians 5:24), and our physical debilitation as we serve Christ.

Paradoxically the death and the life of Jesus were simultaneously obvious in Paul’s experience (cf. 2 Corinthians 1:4-5). Though living, Paul was always in danger of dying because enemies of Jesus rejected him and tried to kill him. However even though his body was in the process of aging and dying God kept giving him life, as He provided resurrection life to Jesus, so Paul could continue to serve Him.

Verse 12

There is another paradox. While Christ’s ministers suffer because of their testimony for the Savior, those to whom they minister experience new and greater spiritual life because of those ministers’ faithfulness (cf. 2 Corinthians 1:3-7). The more faithful Paul and his companions remained to God’s will the more they suffered and the more the Corinthians prospered spiritually.

Verses 13-14

Why did Paul continue to serve God faithfully even though it meant suffering for him? First, Paul believed, as the psalmist did, that inner conviction about the truth must result in outward confession of that truth (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:16). Paul quoted the Septuagint translation of the Psalms, which represents the spirit of the original Hebrew here. The psalmist also spoke from a context of deliverance from suffering. He had trusted in God, and God had vindicated him (Psalms 115:1-11). Therefore he expressed his devotion to the Lord (Psalms 115:12-18).

Second, Paul believed that physical death was not the end of existence but that the power of God presently at work in him would continue working in him after death. When the apostle could serve God no longer due to death, God’s power would raise him from the dead. The resurrection of Jesus guarantees the resurrection of believers in Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:23). God’s power would unite Paul with his readers whom God would also resurrect (cf. Ephesians 5:27; Colossians 1:22; 1 Thessalonians 4:14). Paul’s reference to reunion with the Corinthians in heaven probably implies his genuine love for them.

Verse 15

This concluding statement also reflects the apostle’s sincere desire for the Corinthians’ welfare. All Paul had been experiencing would result in the Corinthians’ good and God’s glory. He gladly endured suffering for the gospel in view of this prospect. Paul had brought God’s grace to Corinth, and now the Corinthians were taking that grace to other people in other places. Gratitude is always the proper response to God’s grace.

"As God’s grace expanded in their hearts and through them reached ever-increasing numbers, so too, the volume of thanksgiving to God for the receipt of illumination (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:6) would increase and promote the glory of God." [Note: Harris, p. 344.]

So far Paul gave three reasons for his refusal to become discouraged as he served the Lord. In the past he had received a divine commission to proclaim a new and better covenant (2 Corinthians 4:1). In the future he looked forward to sharing Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead (2 Corinthians 4:14). And in the present he had the opportunity to promote the Corinthians’ spiritual welfare and the glory of God (2 Corinthians 4:16).

Verse 16

In view of the reasons just sited, the apostle restated that he did not lose heart (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:1). However, Paul’s sufferings, while not fatal, were destroying his body. Nevertheless even this did not discourage him for, even though physically he was decaying, spiritually he was still developing (cf. Ephesians 3:16). In this verse Paul resumed the thought he began in 2 Corinthians 4:1.

"We are, in fact, on the threshold of one of the most important eschatological passages of the New Testament." [Note: Hughes, p. 152.]

Verses 16-18

The contrast between outward deterioration and inward renewal 4:16-18

Verse 17

Paul introduced another paradox. Suffering now will result in glory later. He could consider the afflictions he had undergone as a servant of Christ as "light" only in comparison with the heavy weight of glory he would receive at Christ’s judgment seat (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:23-27).

"His choice of the expression ’the weight of glory’ may be influenced by the fact that in Hebrew ’weight’ and ’glory’ come from the same root kbd. It is because the coming ’glory’ is so ’weighty’ that the present ’affliction’ seems so ’slight’ (Gk elaphron, ’light’), just as the eternity of the coming ’glory’ makes the ’affliction’ seem ’momentary.’ It is not simply that the ’glory’ is the compensation for the ’affliction’ [cf. Romans 8:18] . . . rather, the ’glory’ is the product of the ’affliction,’ produced in measure ’beyond all comparison’ . . ." [Note: Bruce, p. 199.]

Paul spoke of the glory as something that he could increase by continuing to suffer, the result of following God faithfully. He was referring to his eternal reward.

"No more [i.e., Neither] does the Apostle mean that all suffering is productive of glory, as though it were an infallible means to this end. The history of the Church has shown that such a concept leads to an unscriptural self-interest and to a misconception of the true character of Christian suffering. Paul is concerned here with suffering for Jesus’ sake (2 Corinthians 4:11; cf. Acts 9:16), which means suffering in which there cannot possibly be any self-interest. It is precisely as the ’I’ decreases that Christ increases (John 3:30)." [Note: Hughes, p. 157.]

Verse 18

Another irony is that the physical things that we see now appear to be permanent, but really the spiritual things that we cannot see are permanent (cf. Hebrews 11:1). What we can see now is only temporary. The present momentary visible things of life paled for the apostle as he considered the future eternal invisible things on ahead. These things included his fullness of joy, his completed salvation, and his heavenly inheritance. By keeping these unseen realities in view he could avoid discouragement when what he could see tempted him to feel discouraged (cf. Colossians 3:1-2).

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 4". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/2-corinthians-4.html. 2012.
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