Paul is having to defend his character and his ministry in this letter to the Corinthians, because the members of the church in Corinth had begun to doubt him and they had begun to criticise him. They criticised his ministry because he didn’t seem very impressive to them compared to some of the other preachers who had come to Corinth. The new preachers boasted about themselves and their credentials and their abilities. Paul will later refer to them as ‘super-apostles’ and that’s perhaps the way they presented themselves. Not just apostles, but super-apostles, who were able to impress the people by the things they said and did. And the Corinthians criticised Paul’s character and the way he kept changing his travel plans. It seemed to them that he was unreliable. He can’t be trusted. He’s not a man of his word. And so, Paul had to defend himself and his ministry.
However, as I said last week, he had to defend himself and his ministry, not because he cared about his own reputation, but because the gospel was at stake and the members of the church in Corinth were in danger of being misled by these new preachers who had arrived in Corinth. I quoted last week from chapter 11, where Paul said:
But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ.
Later in the same chapter he says about the new preachers:
For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ.
These new preachers are false apostles who will only lead you astray. So, don’t listen to them. Listen instead to me, because my gospel ministry is the real thing.
And so, in chapter 3, he compared his gospel ministry to the ministry of Moses. Moses’s ministry brought death and condemnation, but gospel ministry brings life and righteousness, because through faith in Christ sinners are declared right with God and receive the free gift of eternal life. Moses’s ministry was written on stone tablets, but gospel ministry is of the Spirit, who works inwardly in our hearts. Moses’s ministry was only temporary, whereas gospel ministry lasts and will never be replaced by anything better. And then, only Moses was able to see God’s glory, but now, through the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ, God reveals his glory to every believer; and he uses the gospel message which is proclaimed to transform his people into his likeness with ever-increasing glory by the Holy Spirit who works in us. Gospel ministry is glorious.
And then, in the verses last week, Paul said he would not give up or change his ministry. Perhaps at times, because of the opposition he encountered and the suffering he endured, he was tempted to give up. But he resolved not to give up and not to tamper with God’s word or to use deception or any such thing. Instead he would continue to set forth the truth of God plainly.
He knew that not everyone would believe, but the reason they don’t believe is not because there’s something wrong with the message or with his method of preaching it, but it’s because the Devil blinds the minds of unbelievers to prevent them from seeing the glory of God in the gospel of Christ. Paul knew that not everyone would believe; but he also believed that God is able to work powerfully through the preaching of the gospel to enable sinners to see his glory in the gospel of Christ. In the beginning, when God created the world, he said: Let there be light. Let the light shine out of the darkness. And now, when the gospel is preached, God says: Let there be light. Let the light shine out of our darkness. He takes away the darkness in our hearts and his light shines in our hearts so that we’re enabled to see God’s glory; and he makes us new, new creatures, who belong, not to this present evil age, which is destined to perish, but we belong to the age to come, the new creation, the life to come in the presence of God.
Paul continues to defends his gospel ministry in the verses before us this evening.
And he begins in verse 7 by referring to ‘this treasure’. He’s referring here to the gospel ministry which has been given to him by the mercy of God. And included in this gospel ministry is the gospel itself, the good news of Jesus Christ the Saviour, who gave up his life for sinners so that all who believe in him may have forgiveness and the free gift of eternal life. It’s the best news ever. It’s a glorious message. And Paul has been given this glorious message to proclaim. So, it’s like a treasure which he has received.
But, says Paul, this treasure is contained in jars of clay. He’s referring to himself and to every preacher of the gospel. You see, he refers to ‘we’: we have this treasure in jars of clay. Later on he will refer to ‘you’. And when he says ‘you’, he’s referring to the members of the church in Corinth, who have benefitted from his ministry. But when he says ‘we’ he’s referring to himself and to those who were working with him as preachers of the gospel. And by extension, he’s referring to gospel preachers in every generation. And these preachers, these gospel preachers, are like jars of clay.
One of the commentators says that jars of clay were unexceptional and disposable. They were mass-produced, throwaway containers. They were fragile and expendable. In other words, they were ordinary and they were weak. Today we might use the image of a cardboard container. So, you get a takeaway burger and it comes in a cardboard container. And after you’ve finished the burger, what do you do? You stand on the container to crush and flatten it so that it fits easily in the rubbish bin. You don’t take it home, because why would you? It’s only a cardboard container; it’s not special. And it can be crushed easily, because it’s not very strong. Well, that’s what a preacher is like, says Paul. They’re ordinary and they’re weak.
And so, Paul wants us to have this image in mind. Think of an ordinary container, a jar of clay, a cardboard box. But it holds a treasure: silver and gold and precious stones. That’s how you’re to picture preachers of the gospel, because you’ve got this ordinary person, but he’s holding a treasure, this glorious gospel ministry and the message of Jesus Christ, who is the only Saviour of the world.
And why would God place this treasure in an ordinary container? Surely he’d want to place this treasure in the hands of the super-apostles in Corinth? Surely he’d want to place this treasure in the hands of impressive-looking and impressive-sounding preachers and not in the hands of someone like Paul who was weak and unimpressive? Well, Paul explains in verse 7 why God chose to put this treasure in an ordinary and weak container. It was to show that ‘this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.’ God’s all-surpassing power is the power he uses to let the light shine in our dark hearts. By his mighty power, he’s able to overcome our natural darkness and gives us light; and he’s able to overcome our natural blindness to enable us to see his glory in the gospel of Jesus Christ. And by his mighty power, he makes us new. That is, new creatures. He demonstrated his great power in the beginning when he made the world; and he demonstrates his great power today when he re-creates sinners through the preaching of the gospel and by his Spirit.
And by placing the treasure in the hands of ordinary and weak men like Paul, God was making clear that the power to transform lives comes from God alone and not from the preacher. As one of the commentators says the weakness of the human minister serves to keep the focus on the God of the gospel, and not on his messenger. So, God puts this treasure into the hands of ordinary and weak preachers, in order to show that the power of the gospel is from him and it’s from him alone.
Verses 8 and 9
In verses 8 and 9, Paul goes on to describe his own experience as a gospel preacher. And this would be a great passage to preach whenever a new minister is being ordained, because it lets the new preacher know what gospel ministry is really like. But then again, given what Paul says, perhaps it might not be wise to preach this passage at an ordination service, because the new preacher might change his mind about becoming a minister. Paul says: We are hard-pressed on every side. We are perplexed. We are persecuted. We are struck down. That’s the experience of preachers of the gospel.
So, we are hard-pressed on every side. Or it should really be: We are hard-pressed ‘in every way’. And the words, ‘in every way’ perhaps refer to all four terms. So, in every way we are hard-pressed and perplexed and persecuted and struck down.
The word for ‘hard-pressed’ can refer to the experience of being crushed in a crowd. And here it refers to the troubles and trials which Paul experienced as part of his gospel ministry; all the afflictions that pressed down on him and which threatened to crush him. Back in chapter 1, Paul wrote about a time when he despaired even of life because of the troubles he was going through. In chapter 6 he’ll refer to troubles and hardships and distresses and to beatings and imprisonments and riots and to hard work and sleepless nights and hunger and so on. In chapter 11 he’ll refer to being whipped and beaten and stoned and to being ship-wrecked three times and having to spend a night and a day in the open sea. He was constantly on the move and faced all kinds of dangers from dangerous people. He’s known hunger and thirst. He’s been cold and naked. And he’s also had the daily pressure of his concern for all the churches. Paul knew what is was to be hard-pressed in every way.
Now, Paul’s experience may have been uniquely bad, but every gospel minister in every generation knows something of this.
Then he says we were perplexed. There were things which happened to him which perplexed and baffled him. They puzzled him. Why has God let this happen? Why did he let it happen to me? Perhaps you think that way sometimes. If so, it’s encouraging to know that the Apostle Paul was also baffled at times.
Next he says they were persecuted. In Acts 9 we read about Paul’s conversion to the faith and how he began to preach in the synagogue about the Lord Jesus. And in the very same chapter, we read that the Jews conspired to kill him. And so, he had to be lowered in a basket from an opening in the wall of the city of Damascus in order to make his escape. So, just days after his conversion, he faced persecution for the faith. In Acts 13 we read that the Jews in Pisidian Antioch began to talk abusively about him and they stirred up persecution again Paul and Barnabas. And so, it continued: wherever he went, some believed, but others persecuted Paul and his companions. In fact, when Paul was in Lystra, Jews travelled all the way from Antioch and Iconium to turn the people against him. They stoned him and dragged him from the city, thinking he was dead.
The fourth term Paul uses is struck down. Wrestlers are struck down. Boxers are struck down. Soldiers are struck down. And here’s Paul saying that preachers of the gospel are struck down. Perhaps he’s using the term literally, because I’ve just said that he was stoned in Lystra and left for dead; and I’ve heard of preachers who have been physically assaulted. But perhaps he’s using the term figuratively, to refer to the ways he’s been attacked and knocked down by the words and complaints and criticisms he faced.
So, that has been Paul’s experience. And perhaps not as severely, but it’s the experience of gospel preachers in every generation. But, of course, that’s not the whole story, because God helped him and sustained him. So, even though he has been hard-pressed, God has kept him from being crushed by his trials. Even though he has been perplexed, God has kept him from utter despair and from giving up. Even though he has been persecuted, God has not abandoned or forsaken him. Even though he has been struck down, God has kept him from being destroyed.
He’s like a jar of clay. He’s like a cardboard container. He’s ordinary and he’s weak. And this ordinary, weak man has suffered in all kinds of ways while he’s conducted his gospel ministry. However, God has helped him and sustained him and kept him.
Verses 10 to 12
But why would God put him through this? Why would God put any preacher through this? Why would God let any preacher suffer these things? After all, God is all-powerful and he could easily put a protective wall around his preachers to keep them from all harm. He could easily surround his preachers with an army of angels to keep them safe. God could do that. Why doesn’t he? Why does he let his preachers suffer?
That’s what verses 10 to 12 are about. Paul says about gospel preachers that ‘we always carry around in our body the death of Jesus’. That’s in verse 10. He says the same thing in verse 11: ‘we are always being given over to death for Jesus’. The word for death in verse 10 is unusual, because it refers, not so much to being dead, but to the process of dying. So, it could be translated: we always carry around in our body the dying of Jesus. And, you see, he’s referring to the suffering of the Lord Jesus during his life on earth and especially on the cross which led ultimately to his death. And Paul is saying that gospel preachers suffer a similar kind of experience to the Lord Jesus. His life was a life of sorrow and suffering; and their life will be a life of sorrow and suffering. Their life in gospel ministry is patterned after and modelled on the life of the Lord Jesus. And you see, it’s so fitting, isn’t it? It’s fitting because preachers are called to preach Christ, who was a man of sorrows and who was familiar with suffering. And so, it’s fitting that the ones who are called to preach Christ are made like him and become familiar with sorrow and suffering.
And God has arranged things this way because in this way ‘the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body’. That’s in verse 10. And Paul says the same thing in verse 11: ‘so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body’. Paul and his fellow preachers were hard-pressed and perplexed and persecuted and struck down in order to make known the good news of Jesus Christ who died, but who is alive and who gives eternal life to all who believe. And because God wants the good news of Jesus Christ to be proclaimed, he sustains them and enables them to persevere when they’re hard-pressed and perplexed and persecuted and struck down. He sustains these ordinary, weak men through troubles and trials and sorrow and persecution and criticisms and complaints so that they will declare the good news of Jesus Christ.
And Paul sums it up in verse 12 where he says that death is at work in us. And by ‘us’ he’s referring to himself and to gospel preachers in every generation. Death is at work in us. The preacher’s life can be hard and difficult and painful because of the ministry he has received. Death is at work in us, but life is at work in you, the resurrection life of the Lord Jesus Christ, who gives eternal life to all who believe the good news.
Think of the apostle Paul. We don’t know what he looked like, though there is, somewhere, in some ancient history book, a very brief description of his physical appearance that said he was small and without much hair. But we don’t really know what he looked like. But think about all that he had been through, being beaten and whipped and stoned and ship-wrecked and all the other things he suffered. Imagine how it must have affected his appearance. You see movies sometimes of special agents or soldiers who are captured and tortured. And perhaps they take off their shirt and you can see the scars on their back where they were lashed. Presumably Paul was left with scars. And then, as well as the physical scars, what about the mental scars because so many people outside the church and inside the church were against him. So, here’s this small, scarred and broken man; and here are these super-apostles in Corinth, who look and sound impressive. Who will you listen to? Well, the world is impressed by what looks and sounds good, but here’s Paul reminding this church that God has chosen to reveal the good news of the gospel through men like Paul, who are ordinary and weak and broken down, but not destroyed.
Verses 13 to 15
In the next three verses — verses 13 to 15 — he gives three reasons why he was prepared to keep going. Firstly, he refers to a verse from Psalm 116. The whole of the psalm is a song of thanksgiving to the Lord who had delivered the psalmist from trouble. The psalmist said: The cords of death entangled me. The anguish of the grave came upon me. I was overcome with trouble and sorrow. You can see why the psalm must have resonated with Paul, who had suffered so much for the gospel. And the psalmist called on the Lord for help, and the Lord — who is gracious and righteousness and full of compassion — delivered his soul from death and his eyes from tears and his feet from stumbling. That’s the psalm. And now Paul refers to just one line from the psalm, where the psalmist says that he believes and therefore speaks. And Paul applies that to himself: I believe. The Lord God met me on the road to Damascus and he shone his light into my dark heart and enabled me to believe. And now, now that I believe, I am resolved to speak in his name and to preach the good news of Jesus Christ. And, of course, that’s the experience of every believer, because we want to declare to one another what God has done for us. But here’s Paul saying that this is especially his experience: now that he believes, he is resolved to speak in his name and to proclaim the good news.
Secondly, he refers to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus which has already occurred; and to the resurrection of believers which will take place in the future. So, why does Paul keep going? Why does he continue to preach the good news despite all the hardships it brings? Why does any preacher keeping going when often it brings sorrow and suffering? Well, look what Paul says in verse 14. And we need to watch the pronouns, because Paul refers to ‘us’ and to ‘you’: ‘us’ preachers and ‘you’ believers. So, God will raise ‘us’ preachers with Jesus and present us with ‘you’ believers in his presence. The life of Paul and his fellow preachers in every generation is a life of being hard-pressed and perplexed and persecuted and being struck down. But they keep going, because they believe that, in the end, because of Christ who died and was raised, they too will be raised to resurrection life and will come into the presence of God, where they’ll enjoy rest from all their labours and everlasting joy and pleasures forevermore. And, and, Paul and his fellow preachers will not be there on their own, because all who heard their message and who believed the good news will be there as well. Why do preachers keep going, when gospel ministry is often accompanied by troubles and trials and sorrow? Because in the end, it leads to the resurrection: their own resurrection and the resurrection of those who believed their message.
Thirdly, he refers to thanksgiving for God’s grace. Why was Paul prepared to put up with so much suffering? Why are gospel preachers in every generation prepared to suffer for the gospel? Because ‘all this’ is for your benefit. Everything we go through. Being hard-pressed. Being perplexed. Being persecuted. Being struck-down. All of this is for your benefit, because through of all this preachers are able to make known the grace of God, his kindness to sinners, and his willingness to pardon your sins and to give you eternal life for the sake of Christ. Preachers are prepared to put up with all of this so that you might discover for yourself and experience for yourself the kindness of God. And preachers want that to happen, because they want people everywhere to give thanks to God and to give him the glory and the honour and the praise for his indescribable kindness to sinners in Christ Jesus.
That was always Paul’s aim. That was his purpose in life. That’s the reason he did everything he did. That’s why he was prepared to travel so much and to suffer so much and to endure so much. His whole purpose in life was to bring glory to God by fulfilling the gospel ministry he had received to preach the good news of Jesus Christ. He wanted people everywhere to see the glory of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ and to fall down and worship God.
And so, today, around the world, preachers will be going into pulpits and onto platforms and they’ll be standing in front of large congregations and small congregations. And perhaps they’ve had a rotten week. And they’ve been hard-pressed by the demands of their work, and there just seems to be one problem after another. And perhaps they’ve been perplexed, because things are not going well and they’re wondering why God has let these things happen. And perhaps they’ve been persecuted for Jesus’s sake. And perhaps they’ve been struck down by an angry telephone call or email or conversation. Perhaps it’s been a rotten week. But they’ve received their gospel ministry from the Lord. And so they will stand before the people and preach the good news of Jesus Christ in the hope that God will work through what they proclaim to shine light into dark hearts and to bring sinners to faith so that they might have their sins forgiven and receive the hope of everlasting life; and so that believers will be transformed more and more into God’s likeness. And may it be all to the praise, all to the praise of God’s glorious grace.
Think again of Paul and the super-apostles. Who would you listen to? The super-apostles who looked and sounded impressive and who boasted about themselves? Or Paul, that ordinary, weak man, who was broken, but not destroyed; and who preached about Jesus Christ; and who wanted more than anything else for people to see God’s glory and to give thanks to God.
We should ask the Lord to raise up more and more preachers like Paul. And we should ask the Lord to sustain them so that they will not be crushed, so that they will not despair, so that they will not feel abandoned, so that they will not be destroyed, but will make the life of Christ known.