This is part of Paul’s apology (defense) for his ministry. Some people were doubtful of Paul’s leadership and authority as he demonstrated apparent hardships and “weaknesses” rather than Homer’s ideal of self-glorifying warrior virtues and Aristotle’s “great-souled one.” (Rikk Watts)
“For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” (2 Cor. 4:5)
Paul goes on, “but we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.” (2 Cor. 4:7-12)
Paul is willingly suffering his hardship for the sake of the people. He is “weak” because he chose to sacrifice and lay down his life for the people for the sake of the gospel. He doesn’t proclaim himself. He proclaim Jesus as Lord. And he becomes a servant to all because of the gospel. His apparent weakness is not due to his inability. Well, in a sense it is, but it is more than that. It points to Jesus who is able. So his hardship is even more intensified.
This passage makes me examine myself. There are times when I serve people like this by the grace of God, and I am very thankful for those times. But there are also times when I forget about this. I forget about this calling that God has given me to willingly serve people for Jesus’ sake. Instead, I used my freedom in Christ for my own sake, for my own glory, and for my own pleasure and comfort.
Paul’s letter calls me to repentance today. I want to turn away from my selfish ways and live a life of service for others and for God. I want to become a servant of others for the sake of Jesus. It will be hard, it sounds hard, as soon as I say this, I’m thinking at the same time, ‘I can’t do this. I’m not good enough.’ Yet, it is a lie. There’s partial truth in that sentence, that I am not good enough, yes. But I can do this, because I’m not alone. I’m a fragile jar of clay that is afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down, but I have this treasure of the gospel inside of me. God’s unending love makes sure that I’m not crushed, not driven to despair, not forsaken, nor destroyed. I can do it because God can. And he will get all the glory which belongs only to Him.
“So death is at work in me, but life in you.” I hope I can say this. I pray that this will be my confession about my life and the lives around me in the midst of suffering and hardship. Not the kind of suffering I allow in my life as a result of my sin and my shortcoming, but the kind of suffering that I choose for the sake of others. Not even the kind of hardship that I choose “to become a good person” with a selfish motivation of a Pharisee, but the kind of hardship that I willingly accept because I love God and others.
Paul meditated on Psalm 116 as he wrote this. (2 Cor. 4:13) And the Psalmist believed God in his affliction confessing that he is God’s servant even to death and promising to pay his vows to the God of grace and mercy who has given him salvation. Paul believes likewise,
“knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.” (2 Cor. 4:14-15)
Yes, there is freedom in Christ. Yes, in Christ I can accept myself. But God does not want me to stop there. He wants me to follow him and participate in his grand plan of salvation for all nations of humanity. God didn’t give me freedom and life to indulge in selfish living in this world. He didn’t make myself acceptable with all the trouble (too weak of a word of course for what Christ experienced) he went through so that as soon as I become clean I would go back into a pool of mud and make myself filthy again. No, God wants to make me perfect, without spot or blemish (2 Pet. 3:14), as a bride ready to meet her groom.
God help me. Help me remember that “the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Cor. 4:18b) Help me as I “groan in this tent, longing to put on my heavenly dwelling” (2 Cor. 5:2), I have “a building from God, a house not made with hands, but eternal in the heavens” (2 Cor. 5:1b).
“So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.” (2 Cor. 5:6-9)
The aim is to please God.
“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” (2 Cor. 5:10)
Whether Paul here is talking about the judgment for determining the amount or degree of rewards in heaven or the distinguishing of the lost and the saved based on the necessary demonstration of real faith, what we must do is clear. Clearly, he is not saying that we should please God out of fear of condemnation as our motivation. He just talked about the whole dynamic of a Christian’s heart brought by the new covenant in the previous chapter. Our basis of salvation is through faith alone by God’s grace alone.
And Jesus’ teaching about the judgment entails separating of sheep and goats where the sheep are those who served people in need around them (Mat. 25:31-32). It’s not about me. It’s not about how good I am. It’s about them. It’s about helping them, serving them in love.
“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” (Gal. 5:13)
Father God, help me serve others for their sake and for Jesus’ sake with the freedom that you gave me. Help me remember my hope is in you, in eternal life with you, not in this earthly life of selfish indulgence.