Encouragement for ministry with Jesus
During the season in the Christian calendar known as "Ordinary Time" we focus on our walk with Jesus as his disciples. As those who follow Jesus, we are called and equipped by the Holy Spirit to participate with our Lord in his ongoing ministry to fulfill the Father's mission in the world. In 2 Cor. 4:1-5:8, the apostle Paul gives us encouragement for our participation.
Ministry with Jesus is often difficult, even discouraging. When we face "down" times (and we all do), we can be strengthened by the apostle Paul’s encouragement:
Therefore, since through God's mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. (2Cor 4:1)
Paul often faced his own difficulties in ministry, and sometimes he grew discouraged. Yet, during such "down" times he did not lose heart. Why? Because he knew whose ministry it was. Instead of bemoaning what he did not have, he rejoiced in what he did have. And Paul wants is to rejoice as well, despite the obstacles we face. So in 2Cor. 4:1-5:8 he shares four compelling gospel truths that impart encouragement for our participation in ministry with Jesus.
1. Jesus’ ministry is glorious (4:1–6)
a. It kept him from being a quitter
1 Therefore, since through God's mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.
Paul confessed to the Corinthians that his trials in the region of Asia had almost brought him to the point of despair (2Cor 1:8). In spite of his great gifts and experience, Paul was subject to human weakness just as we are. But how could he lose heart when he was involved in such a wonderful ministry? Would God have entrusted it to him so that he might fail? Of course not! With the divine calling comes divine enablement. Paul knew that God would see him through. It is Christ’s ministry which we share, and because he will not fail, neither will we.
b. It kept him from being a deceiver
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 every man's conscience in the sight of God. 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
Here’s how verse 2 is translated in the NASB: “We have renounced the things hidden because of shame, not walking in craftiness or adulterating the Word of God, but by the manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.”
Paul is here alluding to the Judaizers of his day who deceptively mishandled the word of God. But Paul had nothing to hide—either in his personal life or in his teaching. Everything was open and honest; there was no deception or distortion of God’s word. The Judaizers were guilty of twisting the Scripture to fit their own preconceived interpretations, and ignorant people were willing to follow them.
But if Paul was such a faithful teacher of God’s word, why did not more people believe him? And why were the false teachers so successful in winning converts? Paul had already explained that the minds of the Jews were “veiled” because of the blindness of their hearts (2Cor 3:14–16). This was true of Gentiles as well. All unbelievers (“those who are perishing”) cannot understand the Gospel. Satan (“the god of this age”) does not want them to “see” the light of the Gospel, so he keeps them in darkness, sometimes using false teachers (like the Judaizers) to assist.
c. It kept him from being a self-promoter
5 For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. 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 the glory of God in the face of Christ.
The fact that Paul had received this ministry directly from Jesus kept him from self-promotion: “We do not preach ourselves.” In contrast, the Judaizers were self-promoters and exploiters of others (2Cor 10:12–18). Paul was genuinely humble: he did not trust in himself (1:9), commend himself (3:1–5), or preach himself (4:5). Rather, he sought to lead people to Jesus and to build them up in the faith. It would have been easy for Paul to build a “fan club” for himself and take advantage of weak people who thrive on associating with great men. The Judaizers operated in that way, but Paul rejected self-promotion.
Note: When we share Jesus with an unbeliever, it is God who works to open their mind to the Gospel, allowing the light to penetrate their darkened minds. Paul here compares this “illumination” (what we call “conversion”) to the creation of the world. When an unbeliever is enlightened, and turns to Jesus, who is both Creator and Savior, they enter a personal and realized participation in the new creation accomplished by Jesus (2Cor 5:17). God works to form and fill the life of this new believer, and his life begins to be fruitful for the Lord.
2. Jesus’ ministry is valuable treasure (4:7–12)
7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 8 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11 For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. 12 So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.
From the glory of participating in the new creation of humanity in Christ, Paul moves to the humility of the individual vessels involved. The believer is a “jar of clay”—nothing extraordinary of itself. But placed within this humble vessel is something quite extraordinary: the life of Jesus with its “all-surpassing power.” Thus we glory in God, not in ourselves. And we don’t complain about being limited in power or ability. Instead we focus on God who both prepares the “jar” for service and then fills it with his own life-giving capability and power. As Paul instructed Timothy, we seek to be “an instrument for noble purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work” (2Tim 2:21).
Paul was not afraid of suffering to do God’s work, for he knew whose work it was and that God would see him through. Indeed, to advance his work in and through us, God often allows difficulties. Sometimes he permits us as vessels to be jarred so that some of the treasure spills out and enriches others. Such suffering serves to reveal both the weakness of man and the perfection of God. Note in this paragraph the series of paradoxes: earthen vessels—power of God; dying of Jesus—life of Jesus; death working—life working. The natural mind cannot understand this kind of spiritual truth and therefore cannot understand why Christians triumph over suffering.
Not only must we focus on the treasure and not on the lowly vessel, but we must also focus on the Master and not on the servant. If we suffer, it is for Jesus’ sake. If we die to self, it is so that the life of Christ might be revealed in us. If we go through trials, it is so that Christ might be glorified. And all of this is for the sake of others. As we serve Christ, death works in us—but life works in those to whom we minister.
Unlike Paul, the Judaizers did not suffer. Instead of turning people to Christ, they enriched themselves by stealing converts from Paul’s churches. These false teachers did not have true treasure to share—all they had were museum pieces from the Old Covenant—faded antiques that could never enrich people’s lives.
3. Jesus’ ministry is grounded in faith (4:13–18)
13 It is written: "I believed; therefore I have spoken." With that same spirit of faith we also believe and therefore speak…
Here Paul alludes to Psa 116:10, using the phrase spirit of faith to refer to the attitude of confidence in God that is the privilege of every believer and noting that effective witness for God proceeds from this confidence. We are confident in ministry, because it is the ministry of God himself, who raises the dead. Note the assurances that Paul had through faith, despite hardships:
a. He was sure of ultimate victory
14 because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you in his presence.
If Jesus Christ has conquered death, the last enemy, then why fear anything else? Until a person is prepared to die, he is not really prepared to live. The joyful message of the early church was the victory of Christ over death. Paul saw a future reunion of God’s people when he wrote that God “will also raise us.” Death is the great divider, but in Jesus there is assurance that we will be reunited in his presence.
b. He was sure God would be glorified
15 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.
This verse assures us that our sufferings are not wasted: God uses them to minister to others and also to bring glory to his name. How is God glorified in our trials? By giving us the grace we need to maintain joy and strength when the going gets difficult. Whatever begins with grace, leads to glory (Psa 84:11; 1Pet 5:10).
c. He was sure his trials were working for him, not against him
16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.
“We do not lose heart,” was Paul’s confident testimony. What does it matter if “outwardly” we are wasting away, so long as “inwardly” we are experiencing renewal? Paul was not suggesting that the body is not important, or that we should ignore its warnings and needs, but we cannot avoid physical deterioration and ultimately death. When we consider all the physical trials that Paul endured, it is no wonder he wrote as he did.
When we live by the faith of Christ, we gain the right perspective on suffering. Note the contrasts that Paul shares in verse 17: light trouble—weighty glory; momentary—eternal; working against us—achieving for us. Paul was weighing the present trials against the future glory, and he discovered that his trials were actually working for him (see Rom 8:18).
d. He was sure the invisible world was real
18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
The things of this world seem so real because we can see them and feel them—yet they are all temporal and destined to pass away. Only the eternal things of the spirit last. Of course, we must not press this truth into extremes and think that “material” and “spiritual” oppose each other. When we use the material in God’s will, he transforms it into the spiritual, and this becomes a part of our treasure in heaven. We value the material because it can be used to promote the spiritual, and not for what it is in itself. How can we see the invisible? With the eyes of faith. Faith is “the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1).
4. Jesus’ ministry has a hope-filled future (5:1–8)
a. We know
1 Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.
How do we know? Because we see Jesus. Paul’s “we know” points back to his “knowing” in 2Cor 4:14 concerning the resurrection of Jesus. We know that Jesus is alive; therefore, we know that death cannot claim us. “Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:19b). If our tent is “destroyed,” we need not fear. At death, the body goes to the grave and the human spirit returns to God (Phil. 1:20–25). When Jesus returns, he raises dead bodies and joins them to the human spirit—providing a glorified human “house” perfectly fit for a glorious eternity with God (see 1Cor 15:35–58).
b. We groan
2 Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, 3 because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. 4 For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.
Paul does not have a death wish, but is eager for Jesus to return so that he may be “clothed" with a glorified body (“heavenly dwelling”). Here he alludes to three states: (1) alive—in the tent; (2) dead—“naked”, out of the tent; (3) clothed—alive forever in a glorified body. Paul hoped that he would be alive at the return of Christ, so that he could go straight to the third (final) state and thus bypass death with its “unclothed” intermediate state between death and bodily resurrection. But whatever the state, Paul knows that God is in control. And whatever the circumstances we face in this world (including difficulties in ministry), we are assured of a glorious future with God in a permanent, glorified body.
But how can we be so sure? Because the Holy Spirit lives within us. Paul already mentioned the sealing and the earnest of the Spirit in 2Cor 1:22. And now he says that the Spirit is the “deposit” or down payment that guarantees our coming full inheritance in a glorified body where we will see Jesus, face-to-face. Through the indwelling Spirit, we now see Jesus through eyes of faith. He is always with us and will never leave us.
c. We are always confident
6 Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. 7 We live by faith, not by sight. 8 We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.
For believers there is little fear of death. Like Paul, we realize that to be alive is to be “at home in the body”— and we are grateful for this life, though we see Jesus now only by faith (v 7). Though death means for a time to be “away from the body”—it means that we will be “at home with the Lord” (v 8). It’s not that the Lord is absent from our lives now, but we see him only by faith, and death, for us, is a “homecoming”—entrance into a time when we will see Jesus face-to-face. Thus death is not something to be feared. And this knowledge, this hope, helps us deal confidently with the suffering, trials and dangers that often come in ministry with Jesus.
Heaven with God is not simply a destination for Paul: it is a source of strong motivation. Like the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11, he looked forward to the heavenly city with God and governed his life by eternal values.
How can we keep from giving up when ministry gets tough? Paul has given us four truths in answer to that question. Though, in this life, we are but “jars of clay,” we are privileged to participate with Jesus in his New Covenant ministry. And that ministry, despite hardships…
- Is glorious
- Is valuable treasure
- Is grounded in faith
- Has a hope-filled future
These four inspiring truths are for us sources of courage and comfort; armed with them we do not lose heart—even when the going gets very tough. So hang in there follower of Jesus, and persevere in your participation in the ministry of Christ. With, in, and through Jesus, by the Spirit, you are “more than a conqueror.”
Note: this message draws on commentary from Warren Wiersbe (Bible Expository Commentary) and Colin Kruse (New Bible Commentary).