Over the past year or so, I’ve done a fair bit of running. But as I have nursed my ageing body around the streets and paths of Ashgrove, I’ve realized that often it isn’t my legs that are the biggest problem, it’s my head.
The struggle to keep putting one foot past the other, the struggle to keep going when the sun is beaming down and my breath is short, is actually one that takes place in my head. When I feel like giving up, the battle isn’t fought in my limbs, but in my mind. And it’s no different when it comes to living for the Lord Jesus.
As we have seen over the past three weeks, Paul is engaged in a battle for the hearts and minds of the Corinthian church we he himself had been involved in planting. Lurking in the background of all he says is the Corinthian tendency to value everything that sounds impressive. A succession of passing philosophy roadshows were causing chaos in church. But of course, these fine-sounding posers didn’t stick around to see the effects of their pretentious words. They came – they got paid – and they went, leaving other people to clean up the mayhem they left in their wake. And Paul can see what’s going on. That’s why he so desperately wants the Corinthians to get a firm grasp on the gospel, for he knows that only the gospel can equip us for and sustain us in a lifetime of following Jesus. Look at what he says in 4:1 and again in verse 16:
2 Cor 4:1 Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart… .16 So we do not lose heart. Paul wants to help them to keep going, come what may. And that’s what this chapter is all about.
In 2 Corinthians 4, Paul lays out at least eight reasons for people who are following the Lord Jesus not to lose heart. The reasons come thick and fast This is Paul at his most passionate – this is Paul at his most revealing. Here is all that Paul has learned about keeping going with Jesus even when it’s really hard condensed into one medium-sized chapter. So we’d better get started if we are to get through it by morning tea. Here’s the first reason not to lose heart:
GOD HAS SHOWN US MERCY (4:1-2)
We’ve already seen how Paul starts this chapter:
Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. By the word ‘ministry’, Paul is clearly talking about what we were looking at last week from 2:14-3:18: it’s the life-giving, new-covenant, glory-revealing, character-transforming job that God has given ous of speaking the gospel. And Paul insists that God has given us a piece of all this simply because he is immeasurably kind. To show mercy is to be kind when someone deserves the opposite. And that’s us.
And that’s why this morning, no matter what is going on in our church, or our lives, or even in our hearts, there is no need for us to feel despondent, or to slip into thinking that it’s all too hard. Because the enduring reality is that God has treated us and continues to treat us with mercy. As those who belong to the Lord Jesus, we never get past the point where God has treated us better than we deserve. It’s quite astonishing when you think about it. And that’s why we mustn’t pass over this too quickly. If we get this, even this first phrase will have a massively transformative effect on our thinking our life together and eventually our entire service of Christ. We are here together, we are part of his church, because of a dramatic expression of the same mercy that God has shown us in the death, resurrection and rule of the Lord Jesus Christ.
I am standing here this morning because of the mercy of God to me. We get to teach RI because of the mercy of God. We get to be part of youth ministry, and growth groups, and to talk to one another over morning tea, and to speak the gospel lovingly to our families, and to get a hard time for being faithful to Christ for that matter by the mercy of God. God has involved us in his work in our world for his glory – and for our good.
That means we really shouldn’t whinge, because even if we think this is a nightmare, it’s good for us. It means we shouldn’t be scared, or bothered by people, but it is God in his kindness who has involved us in new covenant ministry – so we shouldn’t lose heart, but get on with speaking the truth of the gospel lovingly to everyone we can – look at how Paul goes on in verse 2: Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.
Because we are in this because of God’s mercy, we don’t do what Paul calls ‘sneaky ministry’. No playing with words, no twisting the message, just an open statement of the truth – that is, a pattern of speaking and living which is ‘commendable’. So that people know we are upfront and honest, and so our words can be trusted. Because what we say comes from the God of mercy, is said in full view of the God of mercy, and will ultimately be assessed by the God of mercy. I’m not sure that’s been a mark of life at MPC over the past couple of years, but we belong to a God of mercy, and from here on, things can be different. So do not lose heart because of God’s mercy. And second? Don’t lose heart because…
GOD HAS TOLD US LOTS OF PEOPLE WON’T LISTEN (3-4)
One of the problems the Corinthians had with Paul was that his message, unlike those of the passing philosophical hucksters, wasn’t very popular. ‘Some people just don’t get your preaching Paul’. That can’t have easy to hear, but Paul doesn’t take it personally. In fact, he sees right to the heart of the spiritual issue, and articulates a principle which is absolutely vital for every Christian to grasp
3 And even if our gospel is veiled (like Moses’ face, and therefore ineffective in revealing God’s glory to people)it is veiled amongthose who are perishing, that is, those who are facing divine judgement. The issue is not with the message, but with the people. As Charles Hodge, the Princeton theologian in the C19 pointed out ‘the sun does not cease to be the sun although the blind do not see it’. And why is this? Paul explains in verse 4: The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
This is the only place in scripture where the word ‘god’ is applied to Satan, the Evil One – but immediately made clear that his influence is limited to ‘this world’ or ‘this age’, in contrast to the universal reign of God. But does manage to do one thing. He does what the veil on Moses’ face back on Sinai did – he has prevented the light which shines from the gospel from doing its transforming work on people. Christ’s glory shines through the gospel bringing light and truth – the evil one does his damnedest to keep people in the dark. And we really do need to know this.
Yes, we can expect God to change people through the gospel, but we also need to be realistic – lots of people won’t listen. Because there are also powers at work who are actively opposing our efforts to bring the light of the glory of Christ to people as we share the gospel. It will be hard. There will be setbacks. We should expect nothing less.
If we face that up front, then it’s much less likely that we’ll lose heart. The third thing Paul mentions will also help. Don’t lose heart because …
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE LORD JESUS, NOT US (5)
5 For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. I think this is just about the most succinct summary of the Christian life in the whole Bible. We don’t proclaim ourselves but Jesus Christ is Lord. We don’t lose heart when it’s tough because it’s not about us. That’s brilliant.
I’m not sure that the Corinthians would have been quite so enthusiastic about Paul’s slogan, at least at first. They quite liked the idea of talking themselves up. Of sounding impressive. They liked visiting speakers to have posh accents, use big words and flaunt their qualification. Paul just banged on about the fact that the wisdom of God seemed like foolishness to me, and the wisdom of men was, well, foolishness. He refused to talk about himself, other than to say he is their slave for the sake of Jesus. But now he points out that the very fact that Jesus is Lord is just about the most powerful reason we have not to lose heart.
Jesus Christ is Lord is the simplest of all Christian confessions. Christians are basically people who embrace this simple, but incredibly rich fact and proclaim it. And when we do that, proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord, it has at least 6 implications:
(1) Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, God’s rescuing king
(2) Jesus Christ is God
(3) He has supremacy over all things including all powers and death itself
(4) All people are accountable to him
(5) Anyone who grasps this has grasped the Christian
(6) Believing this repudiates all other allegiances. Which just underlines what Paul says in the first half of the verse – it’s not about us, it’s about Jesus.
I do hope you’ve got that? The first step in a lifetime of following Jesus is to get over ourselves. To realise that ultimately whether people like us or not doesn’t really matter. Whether we are perceived as successful or not doesn’t matter. Whether we are recognised or not doesn’t matter. All that matters is preaching Jesus Christ as Lord. We keep going because it’s about him, not us. Which leads naturally to number 4 and the half way point: we don’t lose heart because…
GOD HAS SHOWN US HIS GLORY IN CHRIST (6)
Look with me at verse 6:
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. When did God say ‘Let light shone out of the darkness?’ Paul’s probably referring either to creation (Genesis 1) or Isaiah’s statement anticipating the coming of Jesus: 9:2 – The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone. But either way, NOW God has made it possible for people like us to gaze at his glory in unprecedented ways, as we see the face of Christ in the gospel. Seeing and savouring God’s glory in Christ is as good as it gets: Here’s what John Piper so helpfully says on this verse:
This is the highest and best and final good that makes all the other good things promised in the gospel good. Justification is good news because it makes us stand accepted by the one whose glory we want to see and savour above all things. Forgiveness is good news because it cancels all the sins that keep me from seeing and enjoying the glory of Christ who is the image of God. Removal of wrath and salvation from hell are good news because now in my escape from eternal misery I find eternal pleasure beholding the glory of God in the face of Christ. Eternal life is good news because this is eternal life, Jesus said, that they know me and him who sent me. And freedom from pain and sickness and conflict are good news because, in my freedom from pain, I am no longer distracted from the fullest enjoyment of the glory of Christ who is the image of God.
Why is there no need to lose heart? Because God has shown us his glory. OK. It’s downhill all the way from here. Reason 5: Don’t lose heart because…
OUR WEAKNESS IS PART OF GOD’S STRATEGY (7-12)
This section begins like this:
2 Cor 4:7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. Clay jars were the plastic bags of the ancient world. They were cheap, rough and ready and disposable (they weren’t really thinking of the environment in the first century).
I have one from around the time of Paul, which was found near Jerusalem, in my office at QTC. It’s a bit chipped, not quite symmetrical, and not finished all that well. But that’s Paul’s point. God has deliberately decided to reveal his glory, to show his mercy to people like us, who are chipped, not much to look at, unremarkable and pretty fragile. Our weakness is actually part of God’s strategy. It isn’t that God didn’t realise that we would be so hopeless. It isn’t that God didn’t have any choice – he deliberated decided to set things up in such a way that he works in our weakness.
The treasure of gazing at the glory of God in Christ with unveiled faces is transported in disposable, affordable, unexceptional pots – and God set it up like this on purpose and for a purpose. To show that the surpassing power belongs to God, not to us. Our weakness is part of God’s strategy to display his glory to a watching world. It’s SUPPOSED TO BE LIKE THIS. And once we realise this, it enables us to keep going without being flattened. Without losing heart.
Verses 8 and 9 explain how this works – We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. Our suffering provides the platform for the display of God’s power.
God will display his glory through us, and how will this happen? In the context of pain, struggle, difficulty, discouragement and suffering – this is the lot of plastic bags. If all this weren’t enough, Paul hammers it home in verses 10 and 11 – there are no exceptions to this – this is for all of us, all the time: We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus (the word actually embraces his long journey through suffering up to and including the cross), so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.
Weakness and suffering are the the basics of the Christian life. Because God uses weak people – terracotta pots/ plastic bags to bring the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ to people . Paul sums it up in verse 12:
So death is at work in us, but life in you.
Do you want a sentence to carry around in the front of your Bible or your wallet, or write above your desk that will keep things in perspective and keep you on track in the years ahead? Try this for size – death is at work in us, but life in you. We are not immortal. We aren’t even strong. But we are dying – and we take a message as men and women who are dying to men and women who are dying – but it is a message which God uses to bring LIFE. Three more reasons to go. We don’t lose heart because…
THE BIBLE TELLS US NOT TO (13)
That’s his point in verse
13 It is written: “I believed; therefore I have spoken.” Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak. To be honest, Paul could have picked almost any part of the OT to make his point for the theme of suffering in the service of God is everywhere. But I suspect he had been reading Psalm 116 in his quiet time, so Psalm 116 it is: Ps 116:8 For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling; 9 I will walk before the LORD in the land of the living. 10 I believed, even when I spoke: “I am greatly afflicted”; The Psalmist knows that suffering is real, and opposition is real, and death is real but he speaks out in the midst of suffering. The Psalmist tells us not to lose heart, even when it’s tough.
Paul’s point is this: every time he picks up his Bible, it reminds his that he can expect to suffer, and biblical, realistic expectations are a great help when it comes to keeping going! I think the most important email I have ever received summed this up in 15 words – ‘Dear Gazza, please remember they crucified the Lord Jesus – why should you expect anything better?‘ Remembering that helps me not to lose heart. As does the fact that …
WE WILL BE RAISED WITH CHRIST (14)
Part of the problem with living in Queensland is that life here is just too nice.
Three or four weeks of humidity is as tough as it gets. The problem with that is that it lulls us into a false sense of security. We don’t want anything better than this – just what we’ve got with a slightly cooler breeze. The unfortunate side effect of all this is that we’re not looking forward to anything, whereas for Paul, who was constantly being chased, beaten up and accused, the fact that, verse 14,
we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself, was an enormous incentive not to lose heart, and to hang in there to the end.
Until moving to Brisbane, my entire life was punctuated by travelling to watch Northern Ireland play international soccer matches in Belfast.
I generally went with my Dad and my brother. And at almost every game, my Dad suggested leaving early to beat the traffic. It drove me nuts. I am a ‘to the bitter end’ kind of guy’ – no matter how slim the chances, no matter how dire the situation, I always cling onto the hope of a last minute revival. And Paul says we have every reason to hang in there to the end, not because we are optimists, or because wishful thinking is good, but beause the end will bring the most stunning reversal in fortunes, as we are raised together to delight in his presence. This is going to happen… That’s number 7 – and the final reason not to lose heart? In a way it sums up the first seven…
GOD IS WORKING FOR OUR GOOD AND HIS GLORY
In verse 15, Paul adds this: All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God. Everything Paul does, in fact everything we all do as ministers of the new covenant will result in more and more people discovering the grace of God, giving thanks to God, bringing us more and more joy, and resulting in the glory of God. This is what’s happening in us and through us. This is what enables people like you and me to keep pressing on – because we know that God is at work through the gospel for our good and his glory.
It is this conviction that stands behind this extraordinary prayer I came across written by the 17th Century Scientist and Theologian Blaise Pascal:
“I ask you neither for health nor for sickness, for life nor death; but that you may dispose of my health and sickness, my life and my death, for your glory… You alone know what it expedient for me; you are the sovereign master, do with me according to your will. Give to me or take away from me, only conform my will to yours.
“I know but one thing Lord – that is good for me to follow you and bad to offend you. Apart from that, I know not what is good and bad in anything. I know not which is most profitable to me, health or sickness, wealth or poverty, nor anything else in the world. That discernment is beyond the power of men or angels, and is hidden among the secrets of your Providence, which I adore, but do not seek to fathom.”
Trusting the God who works for our good and his glory is Paul’s final reason not lose heart, which is where he finishes in verses 16-18.
In many ways, this is a very unusual Pauline passage. I get the strong sense that Paul has thrown the theological kitchen sink at the Corinthians in one final, impassioned attempt to push them over the line into gospel faithfulness. His approach in 2 Corinthians 4 is less careful theological persuasion and more go in all guns blazing with every conceivable reason he can think of to keep pressing on. And in verses 16-18, he has one more go before we’ll hit pause: Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
If we get all this, it really will make a difference. We’ll have a growth mindset, an unshakeable optimism and a clear grasp on reality as we serve Christ for the rest of our lives. We’ll have a growth mindset because even though ‘everything to do with this present life and world’ is wasting away, the gospel is changing us, remaking us in the likeness of Jesus himself. We’ll have an unshakeable optimism becauseour light and momentary troubles are preparing for us an eternal tonnage of glory beyond all comparison. This means the pain we have been through is not meaningless. Pressure and frustration are not pointless. It is achieving something. So we don’t fix our eyes on the hurt , but on how heavy the glory will be because of the hurt.’
That’s why we need to fix our eyes on, to pay special attention not to what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. Living wholeheartedly for Christ in the long haul is hard. I’d be lying to you if I said anything else. You have signed up for suffering, disruption and abuse. For frustration, lack of appreciation and disappointment. But you know what? Every second of it will be worth it – because God is at work for your good and his glory. We need not lose heart because we are being changed and because we are storing up an eternal tonnage of glory. That’s why it really does make sense to hang in there. To focus on Christ, who is the one person who really matters.
So brothers and sisters – DO NOT LOSE HEART!