INTRODUCTION: You may be familiar with the “best practices” terminology that is used in various training contexts. Usually, after researching “successful” organizational functions and procedures, the presenter will recommend the best practices for a particular business. These practices are the best ways to handle the operations and challenges that are being faced.
TEXT: “Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart” (2 Cor. 4:1-7 ESV, Full text 2 Cor. 4:1-18).
In our text, the Apostle Paul is speaking very personally. He definitely is not putting on a seminar. But, what he states in these verses is an inspired record of Paul’s approach to his own ministry. And this passage of Scripture along with many others provides us with ‘best practices’ for those who are seeking to be faithful in the ministry of God’s Word, especially during difficult seasons.
In the broader context, the Apostle Paul is explaining and defending his ministry to his Corinthian readers. In one very sad sense, we should take encouragement from the fact that the Apostle Paul was “under-appreciated” and criticized often by his converts, especially the Corinthians. You may have felt the same way on occasion. As we read 2 Corinthians, we are reminded of the painful struggle that the Apostle faced in his relationship with the Corinthian church. This was not a small or dispassionate matter. You only have to read chapters 10-13 of this very letter to sense the agony of heart and frustration that the Apostle experienced as he sought to continue his ministry to this church; a church he founded by the grace of God. Maybe you can relate to the struggles that the Apostle Paul experienced. There is some comfort in knowing that you are not alone in the challenges you face.
I remember taking preachers in our Institute program to hear a very able, faithful and well-known preacher in the Memphis area. It was a Wednesday night service. The pastor-preacher delivered a fine Biblical message that night. In my discussion with one of the men in our Institute, he was encouraged by something unexpected. He saw someone fast asleep at the end of a pew. It actually encouraged him to see someone actually sleeping while this very able servant of God was preaching. I guess he may have experienced someone sleeping while he was preaching. He was encouraged to see that this could happen to a very gifted preacher like the one preaching that night! He was not alone in the challenge he faced as a preacher!
But on a much deeper level, struggle in ministry can cause us to ask questions about our ministries: is this what God has called me to do? Should I be “doing ministry” the way that I am doing ministry? Am I doing things the best way? How do I best handle the problems I am facing?
The Apostle Paul is answering some of these questions in this section of his letter. He has affirmed his calling and ministry already. He describes himself and his ministry team as “ministers of a new covenant” (2 Cor. 3:6). Indeed, the ministry he is called to surpasses the ministry of the old covenant, which is saying a lot. He even compares his ministry favorably to that of Moses’ ministry, the great leader of Israel associated with the old covenant. Paul’s ministry was a more glorious ministry. It was a ministry of righteousness (not condemnation) that brought life and transformation by the Spirit of the Lord. It compared favorably to the old covenant whose glory was now surpassed. As Paul continues to describe this new covenant ministry, he presents some of his personal commitments despite the difficult circumstances that he is facing. (Read 2 Cor. 4:8-11 for example, if not 2 Cor. 11:21-33). These commitments really express for us abiding priorities and best practices as we serve the Lord.
We know that there are aspects of the Apostle Paul’s ministry that were unique to him. For instance, none of us is writing inspired Scripture, correct? But, the Apostle is an example to us in many other ways. Here we want to gain from the Apostle Paul specific best practices that are displayed in the verses before us.
So, like the Apostle Paul, when it comes to our ministries, we need to:
When I use the word “resolutions,” I am not thinking of new year’s decisions to do better this year. No, I am talking about basic resolves, commitments that shape the way we live and the way we serve the Lord.
1) A Fundamental Resolve is Needed
The Apostle’s statement “we do not lose heart,” was really a resolution he made in the face of the challenges he faced (see also 4:16). The word translated as “lose heart” can mean “despair,” or “be tired” or “weary” or it can have the sense of being “afraid.” I don’t believe that the Apostle is speaking of temporary feelings of discouragement. In other words, he is not speaking of the Monday morning blues that some preachers experience. He is speaking of not giving up by giving in to how the hardships of ministry were impacting his life.
A whole message could be preached on the reasons given by the Apostle in this context for not losing heart. In short, 1) the glorious ministry itself was a reason to stay faithful. As he begins his comments in chapter four, the very first word is “therefore” or “on account of this.” On account of what? On account of the glory-filled ministry of life in the Spirit, a ministry better than the old covenant ministry, because of that ministry - he does not lose heart. 2) Right in verse one he also mentioned the mercy he had received (4:1). Knowing that God’s mercy was the basis of receiving this ministry and it was the continued resource for fulfilling the ministry - was a means of encouragement. His sufficiency was of God, and all that God provided in His mercy. 3) The Apostle maintained an eternal perspective that gripped his soul firmly enough so that it enabled him to view present sufferings as being light and temporary (4:16-18). You and I should not lose heart for the same reasons.
Rather than losing heart, the Apostle makes two strong statements, one negative and one positive, concerning the way he approached his ministry. Notice the word “but” or “rather” in verse 2. I think this gives us further insight into what “losing heart” would look like. “Losing heart” does not just mean giving up, it means giving in to pressures that would cause him to sacrifice integrity in the ministry.
2) A Negative Resolve is Needed “we have renounced….”
Daniel was an example of a man, a young man, making a negative resolution (Dan. 1:8)
The blessed man in Psalm 1 is also known for what he does not do.
Likewise, the Apostle makes a strong statement of renunciation. He is saying that he refuses first of all to do anything that is shameful. Here he is speaking of hidden things, things that may not be perceived by others, but are certainly known to God and would receive God’s judgement (1 Cor. 4:5).
Paul’s focus here is seen in the next few phrases: he refuses to walk in craftiness. This reminds me of his comments later when he writes: “but I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (11:3). “Cunning” is our word. So, Paul is saying that he refuses to be deceitful or use cunning and trickery in his ministry. This is the method of the evil one himself, who will use any form of dishonestly or deception to win his converts or keep them. The Apostle says that he does not “walk” in such a practice. This has no place in his life or ministry. It is not part of his method of ministry.
What a warning this is to us to make sure that we are honest and straightforward in our communication of God’s Word. We cannot have false motives, or use half-truths or deceiving promises to win a hearing. Sadly this can and does happen in ministry done in the Name of Jesus. How tragic when people are hurt and think less of the gospel due to a lack of integrity in the ministry.
The next phrase is even more specific when Paul speaks of “tampering” with the Word of God. One Greek Lexicon translates this to mean falsify or adulterate the Word of God (BAG). It actually is only used this one time in the NT. The Apostle resolved not to handle God’s Word in any deceitful, corrupt, or false way. This is a fundamental renunciation on the part of anyone who wants to minister the Word of God.
This really speaks to the purpose of our Institute for Biblical Preaching. Our hope and our passion are to help those handling the Word of God to avoid any practice that would discredit or dilute or falsify God’s Word. This is the negative side of the resolve we must have. With all the different approaches to preaching and teaching, I think this negative description is helpful. Preachers may quibble about styles of exposition if they hold to the exposition at all. But, the real issue is bringing any sort of discredit to God’s Word through our ministries and doing our utmost to let the Word of God speak without corrupting the message.
For example, we cannot give in to “itching ears” that want to hear certain things. So the truth is diluted, dulled, or covered up in some way (2 Tim. 4:3).
For example, we have to be careful in our use of Social Media. It is so easy for words to be used “without a meaningful context.” Because of that, statements can be misleading and can be manipulated or used in numerous ways. This can happen without evil intent, but it can also be done because someone wants to use the truth for a personal agenda far from God’s agenda in His Word.
3) A Positive Resolve is Needed
In keeping with these resolutions is a positive commitment or resolve to communicate the truth of God’s Word openly and honestly. Such a ministry of the Word is done “in the sight of God.” Let’s remember Paul’s charge to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:1: “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word…..” Ministry is done in the sight of God always. God doesn’t lose interest or decide to look away to give us a break.
It is interesting here to see Paul’s emphasis on commending “ourselves to everyone’s conscience” (4:2). How is this to be done? The ESV translates this “by the open statement of the truth.” The NIV translates it as “setting forth the truth plainly.” Even though the NKJV uses a less common word, I like their translation, “by the manifestation of the truth.” The word can mean “reveal, make know, show” (BAG). The Apostle is not saying that everyone will accept or enjoy the truth being revealed. He will make that perfectly clear in the next verse. What he is saying here is that the Apostle (in his ministry) reveals, declares, or manifests the truth of God’s Word in such a way that his life and ministry will not cause any problem to the consciences of people. And even non-Christians have a good sense of smell for lack of integrity, and Christians also have been deceived at some point in their lives.
Years ago in England, I had a wonderful time of fellowship with a man who formerly had been deceived by a Guru, and he became that Guru’s disciple. His conversion story was awesome in and of itself. But, what impressed me was his sensitivity to deceit and lack of integrity in contemporary life at that time. His past experience had made him very vigilant about any type of manipulation and or falsehood. Integrity counts.
In short, we must minister the Word with authenticity and integrity. The Apostle sets a standard for us, which challenges us today to make the same resolutions if we are to be faithful as new covenant ministers.
A best practice is to make and keep these resolutions as a guide and guard for our ministries. To simplify these resolutions, I will put them in another way for us today:
Make These Resolutions
But, let’s move on; like the Apostle Paul we must:
The Apostle makes it clear that not all will receive this ministry of the new covenant. He has already spoken of God’s people who are veiled or blinded when Moses is read (3:15), whose veil is removed when they turn to the Lord (3:16). The best way to see the relationship to what the Apostle has said in verses 3-4 is just to read 3:7-18. (If you have the time read that whole section carefully.)
Here the Apostle makes it clear that there are those for whom the gospel is veiled. They are on their way to destruction, they are perishing. I believe that the Apostle has moved now from thinking simply of the Jews in chapter 3. The real opposition is stated clearly. These perishing people have been blinded by “the god of this world.” Paul is affirming that there is a real spiritual enemy, and there are those who will fail to see the light of the gospel because of the enemy’s working. There are two practical reasons to be very aware of the workings of the evil one in relation to the preaching of the gospel.
1) Specific Application #1 – The Reality of the Spiritual War
First of all, we need to recognize that we are in a spiritual war that is real. There are those who truly hear and “see,” and there are those who may hear but do not see “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (4:4).
In the case of “the perishing,” the god of this age has blinded the minds of these people now called unbelievers. This blinding of the mind has resulted in these people not having the light of the gospel shine on them. The Apostle uses a beautiful phrase when he writes of “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” Paul has already spoken of the glory of the Lord being seen by “unveiled” faces in chapter three. And that glory is parallel to the image, the image of the Lord. Those “unveiled” are being transformed into that same image by the Lord the Spirit as the image is viewed (as in a mirror). These are deep truths, and they reveal the power of transformation through this ministry of the gospel of Christ.
One has to wonder if Paul’s own experience has colored his wording here, especially in chapter four, for he indeed was exposed to the glory of Christ on the Damascus road. This could be behind how he develops his thought here in these verses. God had to break through (Saul’s) Paul’s spiritual blindness by revealing Christ to him. The physical blindness of Saul being healed by Ananias is a picture also (in a sense) of his personal veil being removed. He experienced “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” He experienced “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (See also Colossians 1:15.)
Sadly, some will not believe, some will be blinded to the truth. You may wonder why Paul doesn’t go on the attack against the god of this age in these verses. He just seems to state the reality of veiled perishing people blinded by the god of this age. Why no specific reference to the triumph of the gospel, or the power of God? Why no reference to “standing” in the spiritual battle, or other aspects of truth related to gospel proclamation? Well, of course, this is only one section of Paul’s writings, and we need to consult other parts of Paul’s letters and other Scriptures to get the bigger picture. But, remember that he has already spoken of being led in triumph in the ministry (2 Cor. 2:14-16). Indeed, he thanks God for that triumphant experience. But even there, Paul speaks of a separation that takes place in triumphant ministry some heading to life and some heading to death. The Apostle sees this as a reality. The triumph is in the very spreading of the knowledge of Christ to the pleasure of God (“we are to God the fragrance of Christ”). First and foremost, the Apostle preached to please God, to do His will, to exalt Christ. Ultimately the response of people is not under the control of the Apostle. And you can’t control it either. Let’s remember that. It this spiritual battle there are different responses to the truth. That is in keeping with what Paul is saying here in 2 Corinthians 4. The results (belief or unbelief) lead to different futures.
Specific Application #2 – The Response to the Spiritual War
Then, second, this truth challenges us not to change our message when we experience its rejection. Even though the preacher always wants to improve the communication of the message as a steward of God’s Word, ultimately there is much more to the rejection of the truth than human communication. Some will reject the message. But, we must resist the temptation to change the message, knowing that the real opposition comes from “the god of this world.” We still face this opposition today.
The Apostle fought the fight. He talks about that is chapter 10. Here, the Apostle is not explaining in full the spiritual warfare involved with the god of this age. But, one thing is very clear, the opposition that the Apostle faces in ministry will not cause him to give up or to change the character of his ministry. I believe the Apostle is saying this in relation to the resolutions he has made. A person might give up because of the rejection of the message, or change the message to try to get a better response. The Apostle would never do that.
What about us? We face opposition at various levels in ministry. Ultimately behind serious opposition is the god of this age, the devil himself. To use Peter’s instruction, we need to be “sober-minded and watchful” (5:8). We need to cast all our cares upon the Lord (5:7), and resist the devil, “standing firm in your faith.” This call to stand firm in our faithfulness is what Paul is displaying as he speaks of his own ministry. He is not going to give up, or give in, or change his message. He will continue to preach knowing that the proclamation of the Word be will be rejected by some. Some will receive the light of the glory of Christ, some will be blind to it. The issue ultimately is spiritual and calls for perseverance and prayer.
The Apostle is in no way fatalistic. Even in relation to his own people’s rejection of the gospel, he expresses his passion and prayer for their salvation (9:1-5, 10:1). The preacher is not a neutral observer in the spiritual war. Through preaching, we are seeking to win souls for Christ and to grow believers. But, the Apostle’s purpose here is to exalt the gospel regardless of its rejection. He is also clarifying the source of the opposition to the gospel. Like the Apostle, me must acknowledge and face the opposition without changing the message. That is a best practice.
This leads us to affirm with the Apostle that we must:
Paul makes it clear that his message is “Jesus Christ the Lord” (2 Cor. 4:5) and not himself. It was not about him, it was and is all about Jesus Christ the Lord. One has to wonder why the Apostle emphasizes so strongly that the message is not “ourselves.” It could just be that he is continuing his theme of integrity and clarity and illustrating that his focus in ministry has nothing to do with himself or his team. He may be responding to the criticism that he has received and that is impacting his statement here. On the other hand, he could be making an implicit critique of some who do seem to preach about themselves and emphasize their authority in ministry. Whatever background concerns have “flavored” Paul’s language, he wants to draw attention now to what he preaches in the light of the resolutions he has made and the opposition he faces.
His message is literally “Jesus Christ Lord.” He expands on this in verse 6, the God of creation has chosen to shine into people’s hearts “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). As Paul speaks of preaching Jesus Christ as Lord (ESV), we need to remember his earlier exposition concerning the glory of the Lord. It is when one turns to the Lord that the “veil” is taken away. And “with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, [all] are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord the Spirit." So, Jesus Christ the Lord is the message, and in Christ God reveals his glory, and transformation takes place through the Spirit of the Lord. As Paul speaks of it here, you might call it a new creation glory.
The very first act of God’s creation was, “Let there be light.” It is this God, the very God of creation who is acting in the gospel. Now He is shining into our hearts “to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (Verse 6). What a description of the gospel following the simple statement of preaching Jesus Christ the Lord. Paul’s own experience of “Jesus Christ Lord” on the Damascus road could be in the background of these words as we have noted previously. For he experienced an encounter with the “face” of Jesus Christ when the light of the knowledge of the glory of God struck him down and began a transformation of everything that Saul of Tarsus knew up until that moment in time.
Having clarified that he does not preach himself, Paul goes on to speak of his personal role towards the Corinthians. He makes it clear that he is just a slave, his job is not to speak about himself, but about his Lord. Indeed, Paul describes himself and his ministry team as “your” slaves, meaning that they are slaves of the Corinthians. Paul did not want there to be any room for self-promotion or pre-occupation with his role or reputation. Again, it may be that the Apostle has some of his critics or opponents in mind especially. He is stating clearly and strongly that he is not only a servant of his Lord, he is a servant of the Corinthians themselves for Jesus’ sake. This is not false humility. It is doing what Jesus has called him to do, indeed he is following in the footsteps of his Lord.
The message was to be primary, and the message was “Jesus Christ as Lord.” It is interesting to match this with Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 2:2 when he wrote that his message was “Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” Is this a contradiction? No, the wonder of it all is that there is one Lord Jesus Christ, crucified and now exalted. It is good to remember that on the day of Pentecost Peter took the people through the cross to the exalted Lord and Christ (2:36). This was a special message for a special day, but instructive nonetheless. Luke’s account climaxes this way: “Let all the house of Israel, therefore, know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (ESV). The people crucified Jesus, but God the Father made Him Lord and Christ. The Apostle Paul glories in the cross in Galatians 6:14, but it is the cross “of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
We, therefore, need to be careful to see Paul’s emphases in context. The cross was at the center of Paul’s teaching in the early chapters of 1 Corinthians. In this section of 2 Corinthians, the surpassing glory of the Lord is central to the Apostle’s teaching about his ministry. Here the Apostle is speaking of the Lord as the glorious one. He is to be exalted and the preacher is not to be exalted, period. Preachers serve. Jesus and the gospel must shine because that is God’s method. God shines into our hearts to give us “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Jesus Christ is the gospel, “HIM” we preach Paul declares in Colossians 1:28.
For us today, we need to make sure that we do not get in the way of the message. Jesus Christ crucified and exalted as the glorious Lord is our message. We are simply servants of the Word, and a slave serving obediently. As a slave, we are to be slaves of those we minister to - for Jesus’ sake. It is all for Him.
“All for Jesus, all for Jesus! All my being’s ransomed power:
All my tho’ts and word and doings, All my days and all my hours.
Let my hands perform His bidding, Let my feet run in His ways;
Let my eyes see Jesus only, Let my lips speak forth His praise.
Since my eyes were fixed on Jesus, I’ve lost sight of all besides;
So, enchained my spirit’s vision, Looking at the crucified.
Oh, what wonder! How amazing! Jesus, glorious king of kings,
Deigns to call me His beloved, Lets me rest beneath His wings.”
We must recognize that God is the one who must break through to human hearts. We must preach and pray that the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, or the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, will transform lives. This gospel will take people from death to life. This gospel will transform people from one degree of glory to another by the Spirit of the Lord.
This gospel message and Jesus Christ the Lord Himself must be primary, we are just the messengers relying upon Him. As pastors and preachers, we are also leaders. But as we truly submit to the glory of the gospel we should be willing to be servants of the gospel. As we recognize the power of the gospel to save, we can serve people and let the gospel do its work.
So, We Must Preach Jesus Christ the Lord in All of His Fullness
Lastly, like the Apostle Paul we must:
We can only touch on a few of the main ideas in this next section as Paul speaks of the reality of suffering in his ministry. Paul realized that he ministered in personal weakness and necessary humility. He was simply a “jar of clay” carrying a treasure. Paul saw God’s purpose in this, which was to make clear that the power for ministry is God’s power.
When I say “understand” God’s power I include the call to rely upon God’s power. But, I emphasize “understand” in this context, because it is easy to misunderstand how God works. And here the Apostle is clarifying that God’s power is at work in the midst of human weakness. This is the way God has designed it! Paul equates himself with a jar of clay. The treasure is the gospel of Jesus Christ Himself. There is nothing particularly impressive about a jar of clay, it just holds something precious. And in like manner the power for ministry is not in Paul, not in man, the surpassing power belongs to God.
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor. 4:7).
We must admit our weakness and rely completely on the “surpassing” power of God. The Apostle Paul realized that it was through hardship and suffering that ministry was to take place. Understanding God’s power means that it is not power versus suffering, it is power in the midst of suffering. Again, there is a spiritual truth at work here, it is through “being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, …. that the life of Jesus also may be manifested” (2 Cor. 4:11). Death is experienced as the minister suffers for Christ, and yet life is ministered to others. The pattern of the cross and resurrection is seen in the very nature of ministry. And ultimately, if the minister is martyred for the faith, resurrection will follow. Such an understanding of ministry will help us endure the sufferings that are a part of authentic ministry. The power is from God and not in us. And it is a power that works in the midst of suffering. Despite hardships and what may look like apparent “loss,” God is at work by His power through the gospel accomplishing His will.
But, there is more. Endurance in suffering is enabled not only by the power of God but by having a set of values that go along with this understanding of God’s power. The Apostle put a greater value on inner personal renewal rather than on outward bodily deterioration (2 Cor. 4:16). The Apostle placed greater value on eternal glory than temporary affliction (2 Cor. 4:17). The Apostle sought to focus on the unseen eternal realities rather than the “transient” seen world (2 Cor. 4:18). Such a perspective enabled him and enables us to endure hardships, trials, and persecutions.
These values are easier to list on paper than to be lived personally and practically in a world focused on external, physical, temporary, and visible realities. It is only as we fellowship with Christ, and deeply embrace the message of Christ crucified as well as Jesus Christ the Lord, that we can really have these convictions at work in our lives.
It is only as we value “the treasure” and have the appropriate understanding of ourselves that we will appreciate how God works. We want His surpassing excellent power to be made known, do we not? We want the treasure of the gospel and Christ Himself to be made known and to receive glory. This will not mean that we will appear powerful or be kept from hardships. Indeed, the opposite was Paul’s experience. But, that did not concern him. He wanted the life of Christ through the power of God to be manifested in ministry to others.
So, we must understand and rely upon God’s power to endure the suffering that is a part of ministry. We must always trust that God can be powerfully working even when we are experiencing such hardships. Ministry ultimately is not about us, it is about God using us to manifest His treasure powerfully.
CONCLUSION: There is too much at stake for us to give up! There is too much at stake for us to give in. The glory of the Lord is at stake. The glory is in the gospel. The glory of God is in Jesus Christ revealed in and through the gospel. Those in Christ are transformed from one degree of glory by the Spirit of the Lord after people believe the gospel and focus on the Lord. So, we must commit ourselves to these best practices.
These commitments and practices will demonstrate that we have not given up or given in – in our service of Christ and His gospel. Take courage in the Lord, and be encouraged that we have a glorious Lord, we have a glorious gospel, we have a glorious ministry, and God Himself has glorious power though we are jars of clay.
Therefore, with God’s mercy, we press on in the midst of hardships.
How about you today?