The following is excerpted from the Way of Life Commentary Series, The Corinthian Epistles, www.wayoflife.org -
“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us. We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; 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 alway delivered unto death for Jesus' sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh. So then death worketh in us, but life in you. 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. For all things are for your sakes, that the abundant grace might through the thanksgiving of many redound to the glory of God. 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 Corinthians 4:7-18).
The theme of the Corinthian epistles is correction of a carnal church. See 1 Co. 3:1-4. Here we see the major characteristics of carnality: First, the carnal believer is not spiritual (1 Co. 3:1). Second, the carnal believer is a babe who has not grown to maturity (“babes in Christ,” 1 Co. 3:1). Third, the carnal believer is weak in understanding Bible truth (“I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able” (1 Co. 3:2). Fourth, the carnal “walk as men” (1 Co. 3:3). This means he is still thinking and acting like the natural man. Fifth, the carnal believer engages in envying, strife, and divisions (1 Co. 3:3-4).
2 Corinthians 4:7-18 is a major passage of Scripture on the nature of the Christian life. The Corinthian epistles contain many other great passages of Scripture that summarize major doctrines:
- The divine inspiration of Scripture (1 Co. 2:6-16)
- The judgment seat of Christ (1 Co. 3:11-15; 4:4-5; 2 Co. 5:9-10)
- Church discipline (1 Co. 5)
- Marriage (1 Co. 7)
- The Lord’s Supper (1 Co. 11:17-34)
- Spiritual gifts (1 Co. 12)
- Charity (1 Co. 13)
- Tongues speaking (1 Co. 14)
- The bodily resurrection (1 Co. 15; 2 Co. 5)
- Suffering in the Christian life and ministry (2 Co. 1:4-10; 4:16-18, 7-11, 16-18; 12:7-10)
- The superiority of the gospel over the law (2 Co. 3:6-18)
- Ambassadorship (2 Co. 5:17-21)
- Separation (2 Co. 6:14-18)
- Repentance (2 Co. 7:6-11)
- New Testament giving (2 Co. 8-9)
In 2 Corinthians, Paul answers those who were opposed to him in the church and the false teachers they were listening to (2 Co. 10:10; 11:3-4).
In the marvelous passage of 2 Corinthians 4:7-18, Paul describes the true Christian life as one of weakness and suffering and he explains the reason why this is so. He is reproving the false teachers as well as instructing the saints. The false teachers apparently criticized Paul for his suffering lifestyle; they sought the easy path. They were more oriented to a “prosperity gospel.” In contrast to Paul, they were full, rich, reigning, strong, honorable, or at least thought of themselves so (1 Co. 4:8-13). This is the teaching of “kingdom now” theology. They believe they are already reigning; they promise kingdom miracles, healing, riches. Paul corrected this thinking.
We have “treasure.” This is the salvation that is described in verse 6. It is the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. It is regeneration, forgiveness of sins, justification, eternal life, adoption, all spiritual blessings in Christ, a royal priesthood, and a joint-heir with Christ. We have treasure indeed!
“We have this treasure in earthen vessels.” The earthen vessel is the natural body. Though we are now the sons of God (1 Jo. 3:2), in this present world we are not yet manifest as the sons of God. “For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God. For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope, Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body” (Ro. 8:19-21). In the natural body we are subject to vanity, corruption, pain, groaning. We live in “a body of this death” (Ro. 7:24). We have the “old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts” (Eph. 4:22). We have the “flesh” that wars against the Spirit (Ga. 5:16-17). We have the willing spirit, but we also have the weak flesh (Mt. 26:41). We live in a body that is subject to weakness, tiredness, pain, sickness, sorrow, and death. It is like having a precious jewel in a clay pot. An earthen vessel is not valuable, not durable, unimpressive, little esteemed. It has many flaws. It is easily broken. It is heavy, earthbound. In contrast, the resurrection body will not be an earthen vessel. It will be characterized by incorruption, glory, and power (1 Co. 15:42-43).
Paul describes the believer’s condition in the earthen vessel (2 Co. 4:8-12).
- The participles (“troubled,” “perplexed,” “persecuted,” “cast down”) are present tense, signifying continuous, repeated action.
- “We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed.” “Trouble” is thlibo, “to press together, compress, afflict.” It is translated “narrow” (Mt. 7:14), “afflicted” (2 Co. 1:6; Heb. 11:37), “suffer” (1 Th. 3:4). We have trouble, compression, pressure, affliction, suffering. Note that we are troubled “on every side.” There is a lot of trouble; there are all sorts of troubles; there are troubles from many directions. Yet we are not “distressed.” This is stenochōréo, “from stenos (narrow) and chora (space), to crowd into a narrow space” (Complete Word Study Bible). So we are compressed but we are not compressed! This means that though we experience pressures from trouble and suffering, we are not crushed by it. God allows us to be pressed in with troubles on every side, but He does not allow us to be crushed. “With Paul there was always the upward look. Paul may have been hard pressed but he wasn’t boxed in” (Phillips).
- “We are perplexed, but not in despair.” “Perplexed” is aporeo, “not knowing how to proceed” (Complete Word Study Bible), “lit. means ‘to be without a way’ ... ‘to be without resources, embarrassed, in doubt, perplexity, at a loss” (Vine). The believer is often perplexed by situations. He doesn’t have the wisdom and resources in himself to deal with things. But he is not in “despair.” This is exaporéomai, “to be quite at a loss, without resource. ... the word ‘perplexed’ translates the verb aporeo, and the phrase ‘unto despair’ translates the intensive form exaporeo, a play on the words” (Vine). Paul is saying that the believer is perplexed but not totally perplexed, not perplexed to despair, because he has God’s presence and promises. The believer is perplexed because of his weakness and trials, but he is not in despair because he has God’s promises and resources. He always has access to God’s wisdom (Pr. 3:5-6; Jas. 1:5-7). “There is a play on words here. Paul was at a loss, indeed, but not at a hopeless loss. Often doubtful which way to take, yet always finding some way open” (John Phillips). We see this in the lives of the saints throughout Scripture (e.g., Moses’ in Midian, Joseph in bondage, Hannah’s barren condition, David fleeing from Saul, Jeremiah’s persecutions, Paul forbidden to preach in Asia).
- “Persecuted, but not forsaken.” “Persecuted” is dióko, “to put in rapid motion; to pursue; to follow” (Mounce). It is used of following in general (Ro. 9:30, 31), but when it is used of persecution it means to “follow with malignity.” It is translated “persecute” 31 times in the New Testament. Believers who determine to live godly are promised persecution (Ac. 14:22; 2 Ti. 3:12). But though we are persecuted, we are “not forsaken.” God has given a double promise, “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee” (Heb. 13:5). Paul had great experience with persecution (Ac. 13:50; 14:2-5, 19; 16:22-24; 17:5, 13), but he was never forsaken by the Lord. “Notwithstanding the Lord stood with me, and strengthened me” (2 Ti. 4:17).
- “Cast down, but not destroyed.” The believer is cast down by suffering, persecution, devilish attacks, besetting sins, but he is not destroyed. He cannot be destroyed, for he is in God’s hand. Paul was stoned, beaten, imprisoned, slandered, rejected by his own churches, and otherwise cast down, but never destroyed. John Phillips observed, “The word for ‘cast down’ is kataballō. It means to be smitten down or flung to the ground. ‘Thrown over and again to the ground’ is one way of putting it. In prison at Jerusalem (Ac. 22:24-26). In prison at Philippi (Ac. 16:23-24). In prison in Caesarea (Ac. 23:31-35). In prison at Rome (Ac. 28:16). In prison at Rome again (2 Ti. 1:17). Paul, indeed, knew what it was to be flung to the ground. ‘But not destroyed!’ he cries triumphantly. ‘I may be knocked down and knocked down and knocked down, but I’m never knocked out!’ The word for ‘destroyed’ here is apollumi, the same word that is translated ‘lost’ in verse 3. Even though many and many a time it must have seemed that the enemy had a stranglehold on Paul, Paul laughed in his face. Perish? He? Paul? Impossible! His soul was in safekeeping (Joh. 10:27-28). ... Nobody could knock Paul out. His enemies could mob him and malign him and mock him and maul him. They could even murder him, but even then they could not win. In the end, all they could do was martyr him!”
- “Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus ... always delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake” (2 Co. 4:10, 11). Christ promised His people that they would suffer in this present world as He suffered because they bear His name. “If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my saying, they will keep yours also. But all these things will they do unto you for my name’s sake, because they know not him that sent me. (Joh. 15:18-21). “For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps” (1 Pe. 2:20). See also Mt. 10:22-25; Joh. 16:1-3; 17:14; 2 Ti. 2:11-13; Heb. 12:2-3. Paul called these troubles “the fellowship of his sufferings” (Php. 3:10) and “the afflictions of the gospel” (2 Ti. 1:8). We suffer for the sake of the kingdom of God (2 Th. 1:4-5). Paul exemplified being “always delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake” in the most literal way, being stoned, beaten with rods and whips, imprisoned, shipwrecked, in constant perils, yea, “in deaths oft” (2 Co. 11:23-27).
Paul gives the reason why we have the treasure in earthen vessels.
- Why does God subject His redeemed children to such difficult situations? Why does He allow sin to remain and the devil to roam about and persecutions to abound, so that the Christian life is one of constant warfare, both external and internal? Why did He commit the gospel to such frail creatures? This passage is the Bible’s answer, and what great light it is!
- First, we have the treasure in earthen vessels “that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us” (2 Co. 4:7) and that God might be glorified (“that the abundant grace might through the thanksgiving of many redound to the glory of God,” 2 Co. 4:15). An earthen vessel gets no glory, no matter what it contains. God does not save us for our glory, but for His own. By leaving us in earthen vessels and subjecting us to every type of suffering and yet upholding us in the suffering and showing His power in the suffering and using us to preach the life-changing gospel, it is evident that the power is His and not ours. Whether or not unbelievers recognize it, the brethren recognize it and give God the glory. Religious men are themselves glorified for their self-righteousnesses and reformations and self-denials, but the born again believer gives all glory to God. “We may wonder why the Lord allowed His servant to go through such testings and trials. We would think that he could have served the Lord more efficiently if He had allowed his pathway to be free from troubles. But this Scripture teaches the very opposite. God, in His marvelous wisdom, sees fit to allow His servants to be touched by sickness, sorrow, affliction, persecution, difficulties, and distresses. All are designed to break the earthen pitchers so that the light of the gospel might shine out more clearly” (Believer’s Bible Commentary).
- Second, we have the treasure in earthen vessels “that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body ... that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh” (2 Co. 4:10-11). The believer’s sufferings and weaknesses and inabilities manifest the resurrection life of Christ. We are 100% dependent upon Him. The true Christian life is His life, not my life; every progress and victory is His. I am kept aware of this at all times by the fact that I live in an earthen vessel and have no spiritual power of my own and yet am beset with difficulties and troubles.
- Third, we have the treasure in earthen vessels that we might benefit others (“so then death worketh in us, but life in you,” 2 Co. 4:12). Paul repeats here what he said in chapter 1. “For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also aboundeth by Christ. And whether we be afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation, which is effectual in the enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer: or whether we be comforted, it is for your consolation and salvation” (2 Co. 1:5-6). “Here the apostle sums up all that he has said by reminding the Corinthians that it was through his constant suffering that life came to them. In order for Paul ever to go to Corinth with the gospel, he had to suffer untold hardships. But it was worth it all, because they had trusted in the Lord Jesus and now had eternal life. Paul’s physical suffering and loss meant spiritual gain to others. Robertson says, ‘His dying was working out for the good of those who were benefited by his ministry’” (Believer’s Bible Commentary).
- Fourth, we have the treasure in earthen vessels that we might live by faith (“we having the same spirit of faith,” 2 Co. 4:13). This is a major lesson. We are kept in a body of death; we are left with the “old man” even though we have the “new man.” We are subject to trouble on every side, perplexity, persecution, casting down, and being delivered unto death that we might live by faith and not by sight. Paul emphasized this in the companion passage in Romans 8. “For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for? But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it” (Ro. 8:24-25). Paul quotes from Psalm 116:10, “I believed, therefore have I spoken.” The Psalmist was in great trouble. “The sorrows of death compassed me, and the pains of hell gat hold upon me: I found trouble and sorrow” (Ps. 116:3). But he believed God’s Word and called upon the Lord, and God delivered him (Ps. 116:4-8). Paul also believed God in his troubles, and because he believed he spoke, he continued to preach, he continued to testify of Christ.
- Fifth, we have the treasure in earthen vessels that we might be in constant watchfulness for the Rapture (“Knowing that he which raised up the Lord Jesus shall raise up us also by Jesus, and shall present us with you,” 2 Co. 4:14). The resurrection of church age saints will occur at the Rapture (1 Th. 4:13-18), and they are to live in expectation of it (1 Th. 1:9-10). Life in an earthen vessel keeps one in remembrance of his mortality and keeps one’s focus on the Lord’s coming.
- Sixth, we have the treasure in earthen vessels that we might depend on the renewal of the inward man (“though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day,” 2 Co. 4:16). We are subject to trouble and lack and spiritual warfare so that we will focus on the inner man. In this moral body, the outward man is dying, but the inner man is renewed by the Spirit of God. “He restoreth my soul” (Ps. 23:3). Note that the renewal is “day by day.” We don’t grow by leaps and bounds, but by steps. We don’t achieve spiritual perfection by a “second baptism” or some such thing. It is a process. We “are changed into the same image from glory to glory” (2 Co. 3:18). We “grow in grace” (2 Pe. 3:18). We add to faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly kindness, and charity, not all at once, but as a process of spiritual growth (2 Pe. 1:5-7).
- Seventh, we have the treasure in earthen vessels that the affliction might “work for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Co. 4:17-18). The unsaved have no promises of God; if they have “hope” in their afflictions, it is a vain hope. But the saved are in God’s hands and “we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Ro. 8:28). Our afflictions in God’s will have manifold purposes and benefits. They “work for us.” They produce an “exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” This looks ahead to eternity and to the manifestation of the sons of God when we will be glorified with Christ in His magnificent kingdom. “And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together. For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God” (Ro. 8:17-19). An “eternal weight of glory” describes the unspeakable splendor and benefit of being a joint-heir with the Son of God. Note that in comparison with the glory to come, our present afflictions are called “light” and “but for a moment.” We must see things through God’s eyes, and that comes by filling our minds with God’s Word and meditating therein day and night.
- Eighth, we have the treasure in earthen vessels that “we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen” (2 Co. 4:18). To keep one’s eyes on the eternal things is the path of victory in the midst of suffering. The meditation of the heart is the chief battleground in the Christian life. What do we think about, dwell upon, ponder, meditate on? This will determine the quality of our spiritual lives. If our minds are filled with the things of this world, we will be worldly; if our minds are filled with the things of God, we will be spiritual. Transformation of life requires renewal of the mind (Ro. 12:2). We must meditate on God’s Word day and night and thus fill our minds with truth and righteousness and wisdom (Ps. 1:2). We must “set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth” (Col. 3:2). We must cast down every imagination that is contrary to the knowledge of God (2 Co. 10:5). We can look “at the things which are not seen” by the Word of God. We can see the invisible God, His character, His actions, His plans. We can see Christ. We can see the future. The unbelieving world has no such ability. All of this world’s philosophers and prognosticators are groping in darkness. That God’s people have the light of Bible prophecy shows the importance of its study. A large portion of Scripture is prophecy, and the New Testament epistles are filled with it. The apostles and prophets showed the example of grounding the churches in prophecy. Yet a great many churches today neglect prophecy. The members of these churches are largely ignorant of Bible prophecy and are incapable of interpreting prophecy for themselves. They do not have a prophetic mindset. This is a sad and sinful situation that produces great spiritual weakness, and it is the fault of the pastors and teachers.
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