Facing death for Christ: 2 Corinthians 4


Today’s reading: 2 Corinthians 1-4.

The words of Paul in today’s passage are hard to accept, for in them he seems to say there is a necessity of suffering – even dying – for Christ in order for the life-giving power of Christ to be shown to others. If so, it is a hard lesson to learn for those of us who have lived without persecution. If true, it may explain why our witness has been so weak.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. 2 Corinthians 4: 7-12

The treasure which Paul describes is “the gospel of the glory of Christ” and “the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” The jars of clay were the common storage containers of his day, similar to our Tupperware. Like clay flower pots, they were cheap but brittle. People did sometimes hide their valuables in them. God used this great contrast between the treasure of his glory and the commonness of his messengers to remind men that the power of the Gospel was supernatural.

Our clay bodies show off the surpassing greatness of God’s glory, but they are easily bruised and broken. Paul lived in a day when men often violently rejected his message and directed their anger at him. It was necessary for him to suffer in order to carry the Gospel through that minefield of opposition. He was risking death so that others might live.

But what about believers who live in times and places where the opposition isn’t so great? Do we still need to demonstrate the death of Christ so that the world can see the life that is in the Gospel? Certainly we must share the story of Christ’s death on the cross, but I think Paul is getting at something more dramatic. In 2 Corinthians 1: 5 he said, “as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.” In Romans 8: 17 he said, “we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” In Philippians 3: 10, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” In Colossians 1: 24, “I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.”

Paul describes the tribulations he endured – hard pressed, perplexed, persecuted, struck down – but also the way his clay pot of a body survived. He quoted Psalm 116 in which the Psalmist faced “the cords of death…the anguish of the grave,” yet was able to cry, “O LORD, save me!” and see God deliver him. I picture Paul’s clay pot being squeezed so hard from the outside that it was bound to break, but miraculously it didn’t because of the strength of the glory of God hidden inside him. This miraculous survival demonstrated the relationship between Paul and God in a way that nothing else could, as the witness of Saeed Abedini in prison in Iran does today.

Believers know how fragile our skins are; we live with them every day. What we miss is the strength of the treasure hidden inside us. We see our weakness. We miss God’s power. Let’s value the treasure inside us more, and dare more, so that others can see the life-giving power of Christ more clearly.

Disturb us, Lord, when
We are too pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true
Because we dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when
with the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wilder seas
Where storms will show Your mastery;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars. – Sir Francis Drake

Image by oatsy40 on Flickr, CC by 2.0


8 thoughts on “Facing death for Christ: 2 Corinthians 4

  1. “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.” 2 Corintians 4: 10

    To this we might add:

    “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. Colossians 1:24

    Dave Armstrong suggests:

    “Catholics believe that such sufferings truly aid others, just as prayer does (Paul refers to “my sufferings for your sake”). No Protestant denies that prayer helps others. Why should not suffering and good works and self-sacrifices undertaken on behalf of others do the same? For prayer is just as much a work as any of these other things. It involves the effort of concentration, mental energy, sometimes moving the lips or raising the hands, and so forth. It is man doing something. We are not robots that do whatever God wants us to do at any given moment. We freely cooperate with God, by his grace.”

    Here is a succinct explanation of the Church’s teaching on penance and atonement:

    Can it be that Christ’s passion alone was insufficient to save us? It left nothing more to be done, it was entirely sufficient to save all men. However, for the merits of the Passion to be applied to us, according to St. Thomas (Sum The. 3, 49, 3), we need to cooperate (subjective redemption) by patiently bearing the trials God sends us, so as to become like our head, Christ” (St. Alphonsus, Thoughts on the Passion, 10).

    • No Protestant denies that prayer helps others. Why should not suffering and good works and self-sacrifices undertaken on behalf of others do the same?

      Well, because Protestants don’t generally think that prayer directly helps others. It isn’t, for lack of a better descriptor, a magic spell: there’s no direct link between the one praying and the one being helped. Our prayer, itself, does not alter the world.

      Rather, our prayer touches the heart of our Father, who wants to give us gifts – and it is his action on our behalf that changes the world. So while our prayer plays an indirect causative role (had we not prayed, perhaps God would have done differently!), it’s not in any way the proximate cause of the change. An equal amount of concentration and mental energy directed in any fashion that doesn’t equally connect us to God would be as useless as attempting Jedi mind tricks to the same end.

      So the question, it seems to me, is: are suffering and good works and self-sacrifice on behalf of others things that appeal to God in the same way prayer does? And they may be, at times! An act of self-sacrifice on behalf of the needy may itself be an act of prayer. But there’s no formula, here; an act is not effective simply because it is hard. We know that prayer is efficacious because Scripture says it is: where do we appeal for the rest of these?

      • Fasting seems to be one Biblical action that we can do for others.

        True! But again, I think it’s important to distinguish the ideas of “the fasting accomplishes a result, directly” and “God acts in a way he would not have, had we not fasted” – in other words, that there’s still no direct link between our effort and the results, and that efforts that don’t matter to God don’t matter at all, in these terms.

        It’s a nitpicky split, but I think it’s important to justify things like why, say, penance isn’t necessarily efficacious, even if it’s hard.

    • In the context of Paul’s teaching in 2 Corinthians and Colossians, he is saying that sometimes we must suffer to advance the kingdom, bring the gospel to the lost, and build up the church. These verses aren’t about atonement or penance but about the reality of suffering as believers in a world that is opposed to the gospel.

  2. And again, Paul refers to suffering “for your sake”. His actions benefiting others.

    Penance is sharing in Christ’s sufferings:

    “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” Philippians 3:10-11

    “and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” Romans 8:17

    These verses would seem to imply cause and effect. Would we not desire it to be so? Is this not the Gospel applied to our lives, something seemingly tragic and final transformed into something sacrificial, beautiful, and eternal? Is that not love personified?

    • I see the connection. Now, what is the primary aim of the suffering, since neither Paul nor Christ would recommend needless suffering. The effect (result) of suffering alongside Christ is glory, but what is the purpose of it to begin with?

  3. Pingback: Bible Daily Devotional – Facing death for Christ: 2 Corinthians 4 | ChristianBlessings

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