Purpose 1: Manifesting the Life of Christ
Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body. For we which live are always delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh (2 Cor. 4:10-11
As Paul continues the sentence begun in verse 7, he expresses the first purpose of God in applying heat to His saints: that they might better manifest Christ to those around them. Paul introduces this idea by using a powerful paradox: the gospel minister is simultaneously bearing about the dying of Christ and manifesting the life of Christ. What does this mean?
To bear about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus is equivalent to always being delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake (v. 11a). In 1 Corinthians 15:30-31, Paul gives as evidence of the reality of the resurrection that he “stand(s) in jeopardy every hour,” which he expresses in the next verse in terms similar to our text: “I die daily.” As Calvin commented long ago, “He says that he dies daily, because he was constantly beset with dangers so formidable and so imminent, that death in a manner was impending over him.” Paul was willing to do so because of the hope of eternal life. [1. John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 39.]
Here, he uses a similar expression to say that gospel ministry involves identification with Christ in His death. Paul had learned what it means to take up the cross and follow Christ. Later he will express that the goal and aspiration of his life is to know Christ in His sufferings, being made conformable to His death (Phil. 3:10). Union with Christ was such a present reality to Paul’s consciousness that he recognized all of his sufferings as expressions of that union. Put less mystically, perhaps, the sufferings and death of Christ injected meaning and purpose into all of Paul’s sufferings so that the apostle couldn’t suffer for Christ without being reminded that Christ suffered for him.
At the same time, Paul says, he is manifesting the life of Christ. The union with Christ that he enjoys in his sufferings is enabling him to show others what Christ is like. Never does the Christ-life in believers shine out with more startling distinction from this world than when believers respond in a Christ-like way to pain and pressure. The crucible revealed the gold in Paul. But what was this gold? Was it Paul’s character, his goodness, his strength? No! He was just a clay pot! Christ was shining through Paul. It was the crucible of affliction that was burning away the old Paul and manifesting the new man, created anew in Christ Jesus.
Purpose 2: Maturing Our Faith
We having the same spirit of faith, according as it is written, I believed, and therefore have I spoken; we also believe, and therefore speak; knowing that he which raised up the Lord Jesus shall raise up us also by Jesus, and shall present us with you (2 Cor. 4:13-14).
Samuel Rutherford, the great Scottish preacher of the seventeenth century, wrote to one of his parishioners who was undergoing a severe health problem with the following encouraging words:
Whether God come to his children with a rod or a crown, if he come himself with it, it is well. Welcome, welcome Jesus, what way soever thou come, if we can get a sight of thee. And sure I am, it is better to be sick, providing Christ come to the bed-side, and draw aside the curtains, and say, ‘Courage, I am thy salvation,’ than to enjoy health . . . and never to be visited of God. [2. Samuel Rutherford, Letters of Samuel Rutherford (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1973), 19.]
Rutherford’s point is that believers get to know Christ better when they are driven to their knees by adversity. He knew what he was talking about. Rutherford experienced considerable adversity in his life, losing his first wife to a thirteen-month illness, bed-ridden himself for over three months, banished from his pulpit by Anglican authorities, forbidden to preach in all Scotland for 18 months, eventually burned in effigy and accused of high treason while on his death bed. He knew something of identifying with the sufferings of Christ. He had learned firsthand the benefits of suffering. Addressing one of the Scottish lords, Rutherford wrote,
I find it most true, that the greatest temptation out of hell is to live without temptation. If my waters would stand, they would rot. Faith is the better for the free air and the sharp winter-storm in its face. Grace withereth without adversity. The devil is but God’s master-fencer, to teach us to handle our weapons. [3. Rutherford, 69.]
What the Scottish preacher is expressing is the same spirit of faith that actuated Paul, and that Paul found in the writer of Psalm 116. The unidentified psalmist speaks autobiographically in verses 1-10. He was encompassed with the sorrows of death, finding only trouble and sorrow (verse 3), but he called out to God for deliverance. God heard the psalmist’s voice, inclined His ear, dealt bountifully in grace, and delivered the suffering man’s soul from death, his eyes from tears, and his feet from falling (verses 1-9). No wonder the psalmist cried out, “I believed, therefore have I spoken: I was greatly afflicted,” or, as the ESV renders it, “I believed, even when I spoke, ‘I am greatly afflicted.’” The point is, the psalmist found his faith growing in the midst of pain and suffering.
Paul sees the parallel between the psalmist and himself, and expresses the same faith. Our faith is strengthened during suffering in that we especially turn to God during those times that stretch us beyond our natural capacities.
The apostle then makes a natural connection. If he is constantly experiencing life in the midst of death—that is, deliverance in the midst of suffering, then he can surely expect to one day experience deliverance from death itself. That is, every time we experience God’s deliverance from trials, pressures, and so forth, we have received a foretaste of our final deliverance from our final enemy. Every time we experience God’s presence in the midst of our trials and pressures, we enjoy a little bit of heaven. In these ways, pressures mature our faith.
Purpose 3: Ministering to Others
So then death worketh in us, but life in you (2 Cor. 4:12).
For all things are for your sakes (2 Cor. 4:15a).
Interspersed with the other three purposes that Paul develops in this section is a notion that he emphasizes at a number of points in 2 Corinthians: our suffering enables us to minister to others (see, especially, 1:3-7). Like the rest of this section, he expresses this truth autobiographically. He is subject to the constant threat of death so that the message of life can be communicated to the Corinthians. Indeed, all that he is going through is divinely intended for their benefit.
Nothing can cause us to be self-absorbed more than pain. As the heat increases and pressure is applied, we can easily lose our focus both on God and others and become preoccupied with our own troubles. Christ, however, modeled a suffering that was entirely unselfish. When the women bewailed Him, He turned the tables and urged them to weep for themselves and their children (Luke 23:27-31); when the soldiers drove nails into His hands, He forgave all who were persecuting Him (Luke 23:34); while hanging between two thieves, He showed compassion on one of them, assuring him of imminent rest in paradise (Luke 23:39-43). Ultimately, of course, Christ’s embracing of the cross as a whole was entirely voluntary because He saw the joy that was set before Him, namely, the bringing of many sons to glory (Heb. 12:2; 2:10). That is why John can write that we know what real love is by looking at the cross and seeing unselfish sacrifice (1 John 3:16).
In all of Paul’s sufferings, he sought to imitate Christ in this regard. He viewed the sufferings of his missionary task as intimately related to the sufferings of Christ. Paul’s sufferings, of course, were not atoning, but they were sacrificial, and they were used by God to complete the one thing lacking in Christ’s sufferings: that those sufferings were not yet believed on throughout the world (perhaps part of the meaning of Paul’s enigmatic expression in Colossians 1:24).
Implied in this dynamic is a divine purpose in Christian suffering. We are enabled by suffering to minister more effectively to those around us. This takes several forms. When we suffer for the gospel, we are giving evidence of the reality of the thing for which we are suffer. As Blaise Pascal noted, “I [believe] those witnesses that get their throats cut.” [4. Quoted in Tim Keller, The Reason for God (New York: Dutton, 2008), 210.] We already noted Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 15 that the fact that he was willing to die daily on behalf of the resurrection of Christ is evidence that the resurrection really occurred.
Suffering also tends to humble us and makes us more sympathetic to those around us who are hurting. Wesley wrote,
Sanctified afflictions have, through the grace of God, an immediate and direct tendency to holiness. Through the operation of His Spirit, they humble, more and more, and abase the soul before God. They calm and meeken our turbulent spirit, tame the fierceness of our nature, soften our obstinacy and self-will, crucify us to the world, and bring us to expect all our strength from, and to seek all our happiness in, God. [5. Robert W. Burtner and Robert E. Chiles, ed., John Wesley’s Theology: A Collection from His Works (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1954), 226.]
This may be what Spurgeon was alluding to when he said, “There is no greater blessing than good health, except for sickness.” If this is true in general, most of us have experienced the comfort that one can give who has already walked through the valley we are enduring. This appears to be Paul’s point in 2 Cor. 1:3-7. As we are comforted by Christ in our afflictions, we are enabled to comfort those in like affliction.
My wife and I had been married for three years when she experienced severe hemorrhaging one evening. After an emergency call and a trip to the hospital, we learned that she had probably had a miscarriage. As a young husband, it was difficult for me to fully understand how deeply my wife was hurt by that news. Though I tried to comfort her, I could not do so with the genuine empathy that an effective comforter possesses. Thankfully, God provided a dear friend to my wife who had herself experienced a miscarriage and knew well the pain and sense of loss my wife was feeling. That friend was God’s instrument to minister to my wife during a time when God was applying heat to her life to make her a better vessel for the gospel. [6. In God’s providence, an ultrasound performed a few weeks after the hemorrhage revealed a healthy baby boy, for whom we were and are profoundly thankful. Doctors believe that my wife’s miscarriage may have been our son’s twin.]
When we suffer, whatever we suffer, we should always regard our sufferings as pathways to more effective ministry to those around us.
Purpose 4: Magnifying God’s Grace
For all things are for your sakes, that the abundant grace might through the thanksgiving of many redound to the glory of God (2 Cor. 4:15).
Paul anticipates that God will grant abundant grace to him in his sufferings. God does not turn up the heat and then leave us on our own. MacArthur comments on this wonderful facet of God’s character as revealed in Peter’s first epistle:
Peter called it the “manifold” (in Greek, poikilos, “multifaceted” or “multicolored”) grace of God (1 Pet. 4:10). He used the same Greek word in 1 Peter 1:6 with reference to the various trials that believers face. That’s a wonderful parallel: God’s multifaceted grace is sufficient for our multifaceted trials. [7. John MacArthur, Jr., Our Sufficiency in Christ (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1991), 244.]
Here, however, Paul is not focused on the grace that he will receive. Instead, he says that his sufferings are the occasion for grace to extend “to more and more people” (NASB). Just as God used Paul’s sufferings to introduce the gospel to the Corinthians, so He is continuing to work through the afflictions of His saints to add daily to the church those that should be saved.
The result is abounding thanksgiving. The word translated abound means to overflow, as a river overflows its banks. It is difficult to feel thankful (although we are commanded to give thanks) when the heat is applied. But when the meal is cooked and the beneficial results of the heat are evident, then we rejoice and overflow with thanks.
This thanksgiving is tacit recognition that God knew what He was doing all along. That is, Christian gratitude is a function of faith. Abraham was a great model of such faith. Given an impossible promise, he “staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God” (Rom. 4:20). It is not a coincidence that he named his son, the fulfillment of God’s promise, “Laughter.”
Because faith honors God as all-sufficient in times of pain and suffering, His grace is magnified and He receives great glory.
Paul has argued that God has definite purposes in our pressures and pains. His grace is magnified in our lives as we thank Him for working in and through our sufferings. We have multiplied opportunities to minister to others. Our faith matures and grows stronger, i.e., we get to know God better in our suffering. And Jesus Christ shines out of our lives, a spiritual result that is severely retarded by the pride and self-sufficiency we have by nature. In short, the process of being pressed, perplexed, persecuted, and overpowered demonstrates that the excellence of the power of the gospel is not in us; it’s all about God.
The Promise of God’s Pressure Cooker – 2 Cor. 4:16-18
For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal (2 Cor. 4:16-18).
If you are suffering, you probably do not want to hear that your afflictions are “light.” I would never say such a thing; but Paul does. He is not unsympathetic, uncaring, or callous. He is exercising biblical realism. Weighed in the eternal balance, our sufferings are seen to have several encouraging characteristics:
1. They can afflict our mortal bodies, but they cannot affect our spiritual state. God has predestinated every believer to conformity with Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:29). He is progressively renewing His saints, and no persecutor, no trial, no adversary has the power to hinder that divine work. Compared to “the glory that shall be revealed in us,” “the sufferings of this present time” (Rom. 8:18) are light and temporary (“just for a moment”). Packer commenting on Romans 8:32 puts this subject in stark perspective:
The meaning of “he will give us all things” can be put thus: one day we shall see that nothing—literally nothing—which could have increased our eternal happiness has been denied us, and that nothing—literally nothing—that could have reduced that happiness has been left with us. What higher assurance do we want than that? [8. J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: IVP, 1973), 270-71.]
2. We need a Pauline perspective: our pressures and pains are passing preludes to eternal joy. And this is an eternal joy that is surpassingly great. Paul heaps up words to describe it. Twice using the same word translated excellency in verse 7, Paul says our eternal weight of glory is surpassingly surpassing. It will exceed beyond our imagining anything we suffered in this life.
3. Our pressures and pains are also necessary preludes to eternal joy. Paul says they are “working for us” a weight of glory. They are preparing us for heaven. Our suffering service for Christ here is fitting us for blissful service there.
The promise of God’s pressure cooker is that nothing important will boil off, the result will far outweigh the process both in quality and duration, and it is exactly what we need to best worship God and enjoy Him forever. May God give us a biblical perspective on the pressure cooker that is Christian ministry. It may be hot, but it’s worth it!
Resources for Studying 2 Corinthians 4
Barrett, C. K. The Second Epistle to the Corinthians. Harper’s Row New Testament Commentaries. San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1973.
Bruce, F. F. 1 and 2 Corinthians. New Century Bible. Greenwood, SC: The Attic Press, 1971.
Garland, David E. 2 Corinthians. New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999.
Hafemann, Scott J. The NIV Application Commentary on 2 Corinthians. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000.
Harris, Murray J. “2 Corinthians.” Frank E. Gaebelein, editor. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 10. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976.
Hodge, Charles. Commentary on the Second Epistle to the Corinthians. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1950; reprint.
Hughes, P. E. Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians. NICNT. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1962.
Kruse, Colin G. The Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians. TNTC. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987.
Martin, Ralph P. 2 Corinthians. Word Biblical Commentary. Waco: Word Publishing Company, 1986.
Plummer, Alfred. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Second Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians. ICC. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1915.
Scott, James M. 2 Corinthians. NIBC. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1998.
Tasker, R. V. G. The Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians. TNTC. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1963.
Originally published Winter/Spring 2009