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Bible Commentaries

F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary
2 Corinthians 4



Other Authors
Verses 1-18

THE NEW COVENANT ministry entrusted to the Apostle Paul is unfolded to us in chapter 3. As we open chapter 4, our thoughts are directed to the things that characterized him as the minister of it. And first of all he was marked by good courage. Since God had entrusted him with the ministry, He gave with it suitable mercy. So, whatever the opposition or difficulty he did not faint. The same thing holds good for us. The Lord never calls us to ministry of any kind without the needed mercy being available. “Ministry” of course is just “Service;” the kind of thing that any of us might render, though it is a word of wide meaning and covers things that many of us might not be called to do.

The second verse emphasizes the honesty and transparency that marked Paul in his service. He descended to none of the tricks that so commonly disfigure the world’s propaganda. Many a zealot, religious as well as political, will stoop to a great deal of craft and falsification in order to gain his end. The end justifies the means, to his way of thinking. Paul was very conscious that he was proclaiming the “Word of God,” and this must not be falsified, but rather made manifest in all its truth. His transparent honesty in handling the truth was thus made manifest to every upright conscience.

And another thing also was gained. Things were brought to an issue in the case of those who did not receive his message. The word, “hid” which occurs twice in verse 2 Corinthians 4:3, is really, “veiled;” the same word (in a slightly different form) as occurs several times in the latter part of chapter 2. “If also our gospel is veiled, it is veiled in those that are lost.” (N. Tr.). There was no veil on the Gospel, for Paul declared it in its purity and its clarity: but there was a veil upon the hearts and minds of the perishing who did not believe; a veil that had been dropped in their minds by the god of this world. Had Paul preached the word only partially, or in deceitful fashion the issue would not have been so clear.

What a word is this for those of us who preach the Gospel! Are we rightly affected by the awful solemnity of preaching the Word of God? Have we renounced every “hidden thing,” whether of dishonesty, craft, deceit, or anything else unworthy? Do we make manifest the truth, and only the truth? These are tremendous questions. If we do not, the unbelief of our hearers may not be attributable to their blindness, but to our unfaithfulness.

However, even when the Gospel is preached as it should be preached there are found those who do not believe; and the explanation is that the devil has blinded their eyes. The sun in the heavens has not been eclipsed, but a very dark blind has been dropped over the window of their little room. The light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ shines, but it does not shine into them. The god of this age will use anything, no matter what, so long as it blots out the Gospel: not usually material things, but rather speculative notions and teachings of men. During the past three-quarters of a century he has very effectually blinded multitudes by the revival of a favourite speculation of the pagan world before Christ—evolution. The light of the gospel of the glory of Christ does not penetrate where the evolutionary blind has been securely dropped. The blinded soul may entertain miserable notions of man as the image of a monkey—or some other elementary creature—or of a monkey as the image of man. He cannot in the nature of things know Christ as “the Image of God,” though he may talk about a Christ of his own imagination. There are many imaginary Christs: Christ, as men wish He had been. There is only one real Christ, the image of God; Christ as He was and is, the Christ of the Bible.

Christ Jesus was the great theme of the Apostle’s preaching, and he emphasized His position as Lord. He kept himself out of sight as a mere bondman of others. Preaching Him as Lord, he of course presented Him in His present glory at the right hand of God; and so he could speak of his message as, “the glad tidings of the glory of the Christ” (ver. 4. N. Tr.). Elsewhere He speaks of preaching, “the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). There are not two gospels, of course. The one Gospel of God has both the grace of God and the glory of Christ amongst its outstanding features, and so either may be presented as characterizing it. Here the glory of Christ is the prominent feature as befits the context, for he had been speaking of the passing glory of the Old Covenant which once shone in the face of Moses. We can declare that the glory of God now shines, and will for ever shine, in the face of Jesus Christ.

Verse 2 Corinthians 4:6 is very striking, for it clearly alludes first to God’s act in creation, then to His act in Paul’s own conversion, and lastly to the ministry to which he was called. Of old God said, “Let there be light,” and light shone out of the darkness. That was in the material creation. But now there is a work of new creation proceeding, and something analogous takes place. Divine light—the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus—shines into dark hearts, as it did in such a pre-eminent fashion into Paul’s on the road to Damascus, producing marvellous effects. It shines in that it may shine out. It is “for the shining forth of the knowledge” (N. Tr.). In that way the believer becomes luminous himself. He begins to shine, just as the moon shines in the light of the sun, save of course that the moon is a dead body merely reflecting light from its surface without being affected itself.

The fact we are dwelling on accounts for the wonderful character of Paul’s ministry. He was not a mere preacher—a mere professional evangelist—throwing off so many sermons a week. He preached more than others indeed, but his preaching was the shining out of the light that was shining within, the telling forth of things that were thus wrought into every fibre of his being. No one knew better than he that every Divine excellence shines forth in Jesus, and that He dwells in light above the brightness of the sun, for he had seen it on the road to Damascus. That which he knew was as a precious treasure deposited within him.

We have not seen Christ in His glory as Paul did, yet by faith we do see him there; so that we too can speak of having a treasure. As with Paul so with us, “we have this treasure in earthen vessels.” The allusion here is to our present mortal bodies, for as to his body “the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground” (Genesis 2:7). As originally formed, man’s body was perfect, and perfectly suited to his environment and his place in the scheme of creation. As fallen his body becomes marred, and so the earthen vessels in which the treasure is found are poor and feeble. But then that only makes more manifest the fact that the power at work is of God and not of man.

In the passage before us, extending to the early verses of 2 Corinthians 5:1-21, we have many allusions to the body, and it is spoken of in various ways. In verse 2 Corinthians 4:10 it is clearly mentioned apart from figurative language as, “our body.” In verse 2 Corinthians 4:11 it is, “our mortal flesh.” In verse 2 Corinthians 4:16, “our outward man.” And in the next chapter, verses 2 Corinthians 4:1; 2 Corinthians 4:4, “our earthly house of this tabernacle,” and “this tabernacle.” The whole passage instructs us as to the dealings of God with Paul as regards his body, and it throws great light on many an event in our own histories.

All God’s dealings with us, as regards the earthen vessel of the body, have as their object the better and more adequate shining forth of the treasure which He has placed within. There is an “excellency,” or “surpassingness” of power about this treasure, which was very manifest in the case of Paul. By virtue of it not only was he sustained under unparalleled afflictions, but life worked in those to whom he ministered, as verse 2 Corinthians 4:12 shows. Now, as we know, there is truly a surpassingness about the power of natural life which is inexplicable by us. Seeds get buried under heavy flagstones, and lo, in the days to come tender green shoots, filled with life, manifest surprising energy sufficient to lift the stone and push it aside. Life of a spiritual sort manifests even more surprising powers.

Now this power was operating very energetically in a frail mortal man like Paul. Had he been sent into the world to serve, clothed in a splendid body of glory, he would have been viewed as a kind of superman, and the power largely attributed to him. As it was, the surpassing power that wrought in him and through him was obviously of God.

The trouble with us so often is that we rather want to wield power as though it were connected with ourselves. We are not content to be like an earthen vessel containing a power manifestly not its own. Hence very little power, or perhaps even complete absence of power, is what marks us. This indeed is the inveterate tendency of our poor human hearts.

And it was also the tendency of Paul’s heart, for he was a man of like passions to ourselves. Verses 2 Corinthians 4:8-11 clearly show this. He was continually faced with seas of trouble and difficulty. On the other hand, he was continually maintained and carried through, and made a blessing to others by the power of God.

If we examine these verses carefully we see that what he had to face came upon him in a threefold way. First, there were adverse circumstances. These are mentioned in verses 2 Corinthians 4:8-9. Trouble, perplexity, persecution, castings down, all these came upon him. Verily he was “a man,” as he told the Jews, (Acts 22:3), and hence not beyond these things. He knew what it was to be perplexed and cast down like the rest of us.

Second, there was the spiritual exercise and experience expressed in the words, “Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus.” The dying of the Lord Jesus was abidingly impressed upon the mind of the Apostle, so that he bore it about with him continually. But these words seem to convey more than this, for as a consequence the dying of Jesus laid its finger, so to speak, upon every faculty and every member of his body, controlling all his ways. It laid its finger, for instance, upon his tongue, repressing many an utterance that would have been unworthy. The thing was not perfect with him, as we know. Yet it was characteristic with him, marking him normally, in spite of occasional deviations and failures.

Third, there was God’s disciplinary action which he describes as being “alway delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake.” God permitted many a thing to come upon him, such as that episode at Ephesus, which he described in chapter 1 as “so great a death,” by which he was delivered to death in his experiences amongst opposing men. In this way the inward and spiritual experience of which he speaks in 2 Corinthians 1:10, was supplemented by outward experiences, sent of God to further help him in his service. By these things he lived, and his light the more brightly shone.

We have only noticed so far one side of the matter. The other side is concerned with the wonderful results, with the way in which the surpassing excellence of the power of God was displayed in and by means of these things. Though circumstances were continually against him yet he was not distressed, not in despair, not forsaken, not destroyed. Obviously a sustaining power was working in him which counteracted all that was working against him. He was rather like one of those self-righting lifeboats, pounded by the stormy seas and even overturned, which nevertheless comes up, the right side up, when the thundering billows have passed. It was indeed the power of the divine life in Paul that accomplished this.

Again, whether the action of faith and love in his own experience, leading him to bear about in his body the dying of Jesus, be in question, or whether God’s disciplinary actions in keeping with that experience be in question, the same end was achieved, and a wonderful end it was. The life of Jesus was made manifest in his body, his mortal flesh. In verse 2 Corinthians 4:2, referring to his service, he had spoken of the manifestation of the truth. Again in verse 2 Corinthians 4:6, still referring to his service, he had spoken of the shining forth of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Now we have something additional to this, for the manifestation of the life of Jesus is not just service. It is character. In his unconverted days Saul of Tarsus manifested himself, as a man of imperious energy and self-will, in his mortal flesh. Now all was changed. The dying of Jesus was so applied to him that the Saul character was effectually stilled in death, and the life of Jesus manifested.

Nothing less than this is true and proper Christian testimony. Behind preaching and service lies the life. Christ in His glory should be clearly manifested in the preaching, but that manifestation will only reach to its maximum of power and effect as Christ is manifested in the life. And this is as true in regard to ourselves today as it was for the Apostle Paul. Without a doubt here lies one of the main reasons for the ineffectiveness of so much modern preaching, even though the preaching itself is correct and sound.

Verse 2 Corinthians 4:10-11, then, show us that, as the result of death working in Paul, life wrought in him, and the life of Jesus was lived by him. Verse 2 Corinthians 4:12 shows that there was a further result—life wrought also in those to whom he ministered, and notably the Corinthians. Some years before life had worked to their conversion. Now he was rejoicing to see further evidence of life in their genuine repentance as regards their wrongdoing, and their affection for himself in spite of his rebukes. And lastly he looked forward to the resurrection world where they together with him would be presented in due season. Verse 2 Corinthians 4:14 mentions this.

The words, “I believed, and therefore have I spoken,” are quoted from Psalms 96:10. If that Psalm be studied it will be seen that the circumstances of the Psalmist when he wrote were very similar to those of Paul. He had been confronted by death and tears and falling, but had been delivered; and now he had the confidence that he would “walk before the Lord in the land of the living:” that is, he had the resurrection world in view. Believing that, he was able to open his mouth in testimony. Now Paul was just like that. He had “the same spirit of faith.” The resurrection world was full in view for him.

Is it fully in view for us? It should be. Life and incorruptibility have come to light by the Gospel: and that which was known partially to the Psalmist may be known in full measure by us. It is only as we live in the light of resurrection that we can be content to bear about in our bodies the dying of Jesus; and only as we do that is the life of Jesus manifested in our bodies, and does life work in others whom we may serve.

Paul’s ministry and service are still in view in verse 2 Corinthians 4:15, and the “all things” of that verse refer to the treasure with which he had been entrusted, the mercy that carried him in triumph through the persecution and discipline, the resurrection world which lay at the end. All these things were not matters purely personal to Paul, but through him were for the sake of the whole church of God. Consequently the Corinthians had an interest and a share in it all, and could add their thanksgivings to Paul’s to the greater glory of God. We too may join in the thanksgiving though nearly nineteen centuries have passed; for what great blessing has reached us through his inspired epistles which sprang out of these experiences, written for our sakes as well as for the Corinthians. We too shall be presented with Paul and the Corinthians in the resurrection world.

There is nothing like having the resurrection full in view as an antidote against fainting. That glorious hope sustained the Apostle and it will sustain us. In the last verse of 1 Corinthians 15:1-58, we see how it inspires to active labour in the work of the Lord. Here, we discover how it sustains and encourages under the severest trials which threaten the perishing of the outward man: that is, the dissolution of the body in death.

And not only is there resurrection in the future but also a work of renewal in the present. “Our outward man” is the material body with which we are clothed. “The inward man” is not material but spiritual—that spiritual entity that we each possess, and which (since we are believers) has become the subject of God’s new creation work. The current usage of this phrase in the world is a total misapplication of it. A man speaks of paying attention to “the demands of the inner man” when he means having a good meal to satisfy his stomach; and thus even the inner man is turned into a part of the anatomy of the outward man. This of course is symptomatic of the fact that the spiritual does not come within the range of the natural man.

The outward man is subject to all kinds of buffetings and wear and tear, yet it may in the mercy of God receive a certain amount of renewal, which may stave off for a time that ultimate perishing which we call death. The inward man IS renewed day by day. This renewal is doubtless produced by the gracious ministry of the Spirit of God, who indwells us.

What an extraordinary and inspiring picture is presented to our mental vision by this passage. Here is the Apostle; he has years of strenuous and dangerous labours behind him. He is continually being troubled and persecuted and battered by men, and again and again “delivered unto death” in the providential dealings of God. Yet he is pressing forward with undaunted courage, with the light of the future glory of resurrection before his eyes; and though he is worn as to his body, and signs of decay are appearing, he is being renewed daily in his spirit so that he goes forward with unabated or even increased spiritual vigour. He felt all the trouble that came upon him, yet he dismisses it as “our light affliction.”

The affliction is not only light but also only “for a moment.” In Paul’s case it lasted from the days shortly after his conversion, when the Jews of Damascus took counsel to kill him, to the day when he suffered martyrdom: a period covering thirty years or more. This period is only a moment to him because his mind is set on an eternity of glory. What tremendous contrasts we have here! The coming glory is weighty and not light: for eternity and not merely for a moment: and it is this in a “far more exceeding” way. It might have seemed enough to say it was exceeding. To say it is “more exceeding” seems almost superfluous. But, “far more exceeding!” Paul piles on the words. It is something excessively surpassing! He knew it, for fourteen years before he had been caught up into the third heaven and had glimpses of it. He wishes us to know it too.

The secret of the Apostle’s wonderful career is found in the last verse of the chapter. The “look” of which he speaks is, of course, the look of faith. He was passing through the scenes and circumstances of earth, which were very visible, yet he was not looking at them. He was looking at the eternal things, which are not visible to mortal eyes. Here doubtless is discovered to us where much of our weakness lies. Our faith is weak like Peter’s was when he essayed to walk on the waters to go to Jesus. He looked at the raging waves which were so very visible, and he began to sink. If, like Paul, we had our eyes upon Christ, upon resurrection, upon glory, we should be upheld by divine power and inwardly be renewed day by day.


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Bibliography Information
Hole, Frank Binford. "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 4:4". "F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary". 1947.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 20th, 2020
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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