Treasure in earthen vessels (August 17, 2014)

Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: 2 Corinthians 4:1-15

Throughout the book of Second Corinthians, Paul is frequently on the defensive as he refutes his critics. We can often infer from Paul’s responses what his opponents were saying about him. They evidently claimed that he was crafty and deceitful (4:2; 12:16), that he was vacillating and self-contradictory (1:17-19), that he wrote powerful letters but was weak and inarticulate in person (10:10), and that he was a self-promoter who had wronged and taken advantage of them (4:5; 7:2). How could Paul defend himself against such criticisms?

2 Corinthians 4:1-6 — Jesus Christ is Lord
Using the editorial “we,” Paul counters the criticisms of his opponents
by clearly stating his mission and his message. Paul emphasizes that his call to be an apostle is rooted in God’s mercy. He may be remembering his conversion experience on the Damascus road. The persecutor of Christ became his missionary.

Paul’s preaching is a bold and open proclamation of the gospel. If his message is “veiled” as his opponents may have claimed, it is because “the god of this age,” Satan (cf. 11:14), maintains the veil that causes unbelievers (and his opponents?) to reject his preaching. In chapter 3 the veil refers to the inability of Jewish readers of the Scriptures, the Old Testament, to see in them a witness to Jesus. Paul is convinced that only faith in Jesus brought about by the Holy Spirit can remove the veil.

Paul’s gospel proclaims Jesus Christ as Lord. This is a very succinct statement of the basic confession of faith of the early Christian church. The cosmic Christ and not any earthly ruler commands the loyalty and service due to God alone.

A corollary of that gospel for Paul is that he is a servant of the Corinthians for Jesus’ sake. As a servant, Paul has been chosen by God to fulfill his call to ministry. Again Paul appears to be reacting to critics who may have accused him of promoting himself and “lording” it over the Corinthians. Paraphrasing Genesis 1:3, Paul says that just as God created light in the beginning, so God has illumined the hearts of the Corinthians who know that God’s glory is visible in Jesus the Christ. As biblical scholar Ben Witherington III notes, Christ as the image of God is “the very manifestation of the presence of God on earth.

2 Corinthians 4:7-12 — Priceless treasure in cheap pottery
Corinth was well known throughout the Mediterranean world for producing inexpensive clay lamps, the ancient equivalent of 40-watt bulbs today. Paul compares himself to a pot made of clay to underscore the truth that God — and not Paul himself — provides the overwhelming power behind Paul’s gospel.

With a rhetorical flourish emphasizing his dependence on God, Paul summarizes the low points in his ministry with clever plays on words in Greek that are difficult to replicate in English. Paul has been pressed down hard but not crushed, at a loss but never completely lost, pursued but never left in the lurch, knocked down but not knocked out. This recitation of his personal misfortunes underscores both his human weaknesses and the divine deliverance that he experienced.

Paul understood the difficulties and criticisms that he faced as vicarious ways of experiencing the suffering that Jesus underwent when he was crucified. It is a profound irony that Paul’s daily “dying” demonstrated the sacrifice of Jesus that brought life to the Corinthians and all believers. Paul willingly gave up his own comfort in order to bring life to the congregation in Corinth.

2 Corinthians 4:13-15— Resurrection hope
Citing the Septuagint, a Greek translation of Psalm 116:10, Paul aligns himself with the psalmist who expressed his faith in God despite his afflictions. Paul is confident that just as God raised Jesus from the dead, God will ultimately unite him and the Corinthians in a resurrection that joins them all with God. And as resurrection hope extends to more and more believers, God’s grace increasingly generates thankfulness. The net result is that God is glorified.

For discussion

  • What is the treasure that Paul says is contained “in clay jars?”
  • Do you think it was presumptuous of Paul to compare his missionary struggles with the suffering of Jesus
  • What can we learn about a healthy pastor/ congregation relationship from Paul’s struggle with the Corinthian congregation? What are the indications that the relationship between a pastor and a congregation is not healthy?
  • Does the annual Easter celebration of Christ’s resurrection give you hope and motivate you to speak out about God’s faithfulness?