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Monday, July 22nd, 2024
the Week of Proper 11 / Ordinary 16
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Bible Commentaries
2 Corinthians 4

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

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Verses 1-6

Preaching Christ as Lord (4:1-6)

Paul admits that the ministry is at times a discouraging busi­ness (4:1), but he refuses to be downhearted. The minister first of all speaks the truth openly, the truth about God and about man. This may or may not be what people want to hear; but if the minister is muzzled, if he cannot or is afraid to speak his own conviction, he is no true minister. Paul faces the fact (4:3-4) that some people will not hear the truth, nor see it. "The god of this world" (probably meaning Satan) blinds the eyes of some, so that they cannot see the light even when it is shining into their eyes. But the light is there; the light is Christ.

Paul says "we" all the time he is writing of the ministry. Per­haps he just means himself; or perhaps he means himself and all true ministers. At all events the genuine minister does not preach (talk about, praise, recommend, proclaim) himself. The best sermons do not leave as strong an impression of the preacher as they do of Christ. "We preach . . . Jesus Christ as Lord" (4:5). It is a mistake, or at least it is out of line with Paul’s ideal, to proclaim Christ as Savior but nothing more. People can accept him as Savior, happily sing "Jesus paid it all," and proceed on their same stupid, sinful ways, very little changed. If Jesus is proclaimed as Lord—that is, with supreme authority for faith and life—we cannot take him as such and stay the way we were. And of course the reason Christ must be Lord is that he is "the likeness of God" (4:4). Paul has many ways of describing the change to being a Christian from not being one. Here it is as light shining into darkness. Christian life does not begin with something we do or accomplish; it begins with God shining into our hearts, but the light comes from the face of Jesus Christ.

Further, Paul cannot split preaching off from service. A sick person gets a diagnosis from a doctor, and a prescription too. This will not get the patient well. There has to be a great deal of service by doctor, nurse, and others. So the minister’s work is not all proclamation or preaching. It is not all diagnosis and prescription. Ministers are "your servants for Jesus’ sake"; that is it in a nutshell.

Verses 1-13

The Work of the Ministry (4:1-6:13)

The longest single passage in Second Corinthians with one over-all theme is this on the ministry. Here is the essence of what it means to be a minister of the gospel, of the "new covenant" (3:6), or "the ministry of reconciliation" (5:18). Indeed, we can think of this section as beginning with 2:1-7, where Paul speaks of "peddlers" as contrasted with those who are "com­missioned by God." If we think of the section on the ministry as beginning there, we can say now (at the start of chapter 4) that he has already spoken of the minister’s commission, of his true recommendation, and of the glory of the New Covenant which he proclaims and in which he stands.

Now Paul begins more plainly to speak of what it means to be a Christian minister. Laymen may think this is only for preach­ers, and skip it; but Paul is not writing to preachers. He is writ­ing about preachers to people who were not professional preach­ers. You cannot afford to skip this, if you are a Christian. What kind of church would we have if only the ministers knew what they were trying to do? Indeed, that is just what is wrong with some churches—the minister is almost alone in knowing what his real work and aims are. Pulpit committees will call men who turn out to be failures because the committee and the congre­gation in selecting and calling them ask the wrong questions.

Verses 7-12

Treasure in Earthen Vessels (4:7-12)

The gospel of Christ is always better than any preacher. Paul feels as if he were a cheap crockery jar containing a hoard of jewels. The minister is like a very frail wire carrying a vital message. But if the message comes through it does not matter how frail the wire may be. Life and death were mingled in Paul’s experience. He was literally never far from death, yet his very weakness shows that "the . . . power belongs to God" and not to his own strength or genius.

Verses 13-15

All for Your Sake (4:13-15)

Here we come to one of Paul’s typical transitions, showing how his mind worked and where it was centered. He intertwines two thoughts in this short paragraph: (1) All that he does and suffers is for the sake of others; and (2) he is sure that as he shares the sacrificial suffering of Christ he will share also in Christ’s resurrection. (This is not a lone offhand surmise on his part; it was central in his thinking. See Colossians 3, where he later worked out this theme of rising with Christ and applied it to this world rather than the next.) Now the thought of the Resurrection leads him on to speak of death and what comes after it, so, for the moment, he drops the theme of the Christian ministry.

A Parenthesis on Death (4:16-5:10)

This is a real parenthesis, because 5:11 fits very nicely to 4:15; but, like Paul’s side remarks in general, it lets us in to some vital truths. You might put it this way: Paul is saying, "I know that I am in constant danger and am wearing myself out work­ing so hard; my life may be short and death only around the corner. But so what? Death will not destroy me; it will only bring me closer to the Lord." Physically, Paul is growing every day older and weaker, and yet inwardly, spiritually, he keeps forever young. In 4:7-10 and 11:23-29 Paul speaks of the very great hardships he had suffered, but here he dismisses all of this lightly as a "slight momentary affliction" (4:17). It is all a preparation for an "eternal weight of glory"; that is, glory so great that one can­not bear the thought of it. This word "glory" is one Paul often uses to describe the Christian’s next life. It is an indefinite word, used on purpose, because our minds are not capable of imagining what God has in store for us (see 1 Corinthians 15:43; Romans 8:18; Romans 9:23; Colossians 1:27; Colossians 3:4).

The things which are unseen are eternal (4:16-18). Death is dismal only if you think that nothing is real except what you can see and touch and hear. Death, physically, means decay, destruc­tion. The great dividing line between religion—any religion and not only Christianity—and no-religion is right here: Can what is neither seen nor heard nor felt be real? Are all realities only those we can measure with some kind of scales or yardstick? The person who is a materialist—that is, one who believes that all that is real can always be seen, touched, and measured—can think of death only as the great destroyer. A person who believes only in the "natural" cannot see beyond death—not an inch; only believers in the supernatural (that is, in reality that no lab­oratory can ever discover or measure) can believe in life beyond this life.

Paul compares the difference between this life and the next (remember he is speaking for himself and other Christians) to the difference between living in a tent and in a house (5:1-5). The tent is temporary; it is temporary on purpose. It is made to be portable. But a house is built to last. To be sure this is an imperfect illustration, for even a house wears out in time, and Paul does not mean that the next life, like this one, finally ends in decay! Still, just as most people would much rather live in a house than in a tent, so the next life is actually more livable than this one. Here we are camping out; yonder we shall be at home. Paul made tents and sold them, and he knew what he was talk­ing about. A man who lives in a tent never belongs where he is; he belongs somewhere else. A man in a house belongs there. So death is not a leaving home; it is a going home. We could ask no finer words for the next life than Paul’s immortal phrase, "so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life." (Isn’t that the exact opposite of what irreligious people think? They suppose that in death, life has been swallowed up by destruction!)

There are two kinds of courage in the face of death. One is the courage of despair, the other the courage of hope (5:6-10). Paul expresses the second: "We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord." Paul does not even consider the possibility of not being. Philosophers and others who talk about Christian courage as if it were calmness in the prospect of "non-being," are talking about the courage of despair, not of hope. For Paul, the truth is that now I am, and then (beyond death) I shall be. The difference which death makes is not be­tween being and not-being; it is a difference between being in a tent and being in a house, being away from home and being at home, being away from the Lord and being with him.

Paul does not ever go into much detail about the next life, and we may well believe his silence was inspired. Yet one feature of that life he often mentions: the Judgment. Two points in verse 10 should be noted. One is that Christ is the Judge; this is one of the notable ways in which Paul ascribes to Christ a final and absolute authority equal to that of God. If we could say so rever­ently, when Paul draws a picture of either this life or the next, in the place where we expect to find a blank space for the in­visible God (Paul’s own word, Colossians 1:15), we see the Lord Jesus. The other feature of verse 10 is that here Paul seems to teach that human destiny depends on what we do, good or evil. There are people who believe that this is what Paul meant. Others, in­cluding most Protestants, know that when Paul set out to discuss this very question, On what does a man’s final destiny depend? his answer can be summed up (as all readers of Romans know): Not on actions but on faith; it is not what man does but the grace of God that saves him. So here Paul is not contradicting himself. What he most likely means is that not justification but rewards are given in accordance with what men have done of good or evil. In other words—if you want to push this further—there are grades of joy and blessedness in heaven, and grades of horror in hell.

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on 2 Corinthians 4". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/2-corinthians-4.html.
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