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Displaying the Gospel - the Paradoxes in 2 Corinthians 4:5-18

Keep your eyes on Jesus, and the rest of the world will notice.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for 2 Corinthians 4:5-18

We know someone is a true follower of Jesus by watching how they respond to troubles and struggles in this life: if they keep their eyes on Jesus and keep their hope in Him. When we do that, our service for the Lord will never leave us discouraged or despairing, and we will shine the light of Jesus all around us.

[Throughout the years, I have produced a newsletter for teachers to help with that week's Bible study. I'm going through the very slow process of online-ifying old lessons in order to easily reference past ideas and topics.]

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Built to Last

Here’s an icebreaker idea that you might enjoy (and that I haven’t used before): “what’s something you own that’s really built to last?” Most families have great stories of things that have been passed down through the generations that are still in good working order. I found a couple of lists of “products you should own that are built to last forever” (sponsored by Amazon, of course). They include things like

  1. a cast-iron skillet,

  2. stainless steel utensils,

  3. a Jansport backpack (?? they get around the “last forever” part by saying there’s a lifetime warrantee),

  4. a Saddleback leather wallet (100-year warrantee),

  5. a TI graphing calculator (I still have mine from high school),

  6. Craftsman tools,

  7. Gransfors Bruk axe,

  8. Zippo lighter.

So, yeah, with proper care, those things are designed to last a very long time. Some of them will last to our grandchildren and beyond! Now stop and think about that—how impressive is that really? Well, actually, not very.

What are the most enduring structures on earth that you can think of? The oldest structures we know of are generally burial mounds or underground tombs (below is a picture of a cairn in England from 3600BC, and there are others like it from 1,000 years earlier). Another picture is of a “proto-village” in Turkey that dates all the way back to 7,400 BC. (Of course, from an earlier study we know that the walls of Jericho date back to 8,000 BC. For context, the oldest Egyptian pyramid dates to about 2,600 BC; the Great Wall of China got started around 300BC; the amazing pagoda in China pictured below was built in 524 AD!)

Let’s be honest—we’re impressed with things that last a few hundred years; but even our most enduring structures slowly turn to dust. That’s why Paul tells us not to focus on what is seen, but what is unseen (what is unseen is eternal).

This Week's Big Idea: “Let Light Shine out of Darkness”

The Christian Index ran these numbers last week, and I find them fascinating. In the verse right before our passage, Paul says that “the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers so that they cannot see the light of the gospel.” There is enough exposure to the gospel in our country that the light “pushes back” on the darkness in their hearts, but we can see statistically that without Jesus, even those who believe in [G]od have a muted understanding of Him. We should respond to this by thanking God that He has shined His light to give us a truer knowledge of Him. Amen?

That’s exactly what Paul is talking about, with two purposes: (1) this is nothing to be egotistical about because we can take no credit for having light shined upon us, and (2) this light shines through us (in our behavior) to the people around us who need Christ’s light shined into their lives. So—about those poll results to the left—we realize that there are a lot of people around us who, although they don’t yet believe in God, are open enough to the idea that we have opportunity to share the true and full gospel with them. Let’s do that.

Our Context in Second Corinthians

We skip a whole bunch to get to this passage. Here’s how to explain the context quickly: Paul’s background priority is to explain to Corinth what a true apostle is like. Paul’s authority has been challenged and threatened by “super apostles” who have been laughing at Paul’s failures and weaknesses. So Paul counters by describing what his past few months have been like: (1) his change in plans not to come to Corinth (1:12-2:13, with an aside about needing to forgive the person that Paul would have chewed out if he had come then); (2) his ministry in Macedonia which seems to have been failure and rejection (2:14-6:2, with a long aside about God’s perspective on Christian ministry). He uses this for two main purposes: (1) to encourage them in their trials and struggles, and (2) to tell them what the true “prize” is. That’s where we find ourselves this week. The lesson focuses on the role of the gospel in this process (which is great), but we could just as easily spend Sunday focusing on “God’s perspective” or “God’s priorities”.


Part 1: Proclaim (2 Corinthians 4:[3]-5-6)

But if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case, the god of this age has blinded the minds of the unbelievers to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we are not proclaiming ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’s sake. For God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ.

I’m going back to verse 3 for the context. Why is it so hard for people to hear and respond to the gospel? Because their hearts are blinded by the god of this age. Ask, “What is the god of this age?” The simple answer is of course Satan, but think about David’s series on the Ten Commandments. The real answer is “every idol we make for ourselves”—lust, pride, money, intellect, laziness—all of those things keep people from Jesus. Then ask this mind-blowing question: “what is it about pride, money, etc., that keeps people from seeing the truth of the gospel?” It’s like what David said last Sunday: when we try to fill our God-shaped hole with anything but God, we make ourselves angry, exhausted, and cynical.

I watched the new Bible Project video on “exile”, and it explores this idea:

The further we get from God, the harder it is find our way home, but that doesn’t stop us from trying to make our own way home. And when we’re searching for/making our own path, we’re completely missing the path that God has already made for us: Jesus Christ. That is the gospel, and that is what true apostles proclaim: Jesus Christ is Lord, and we humbly reach out with that news to everyone.

Below I put more detail about the content of the gospel (as a refresher), but Paul’s focus here isn’t the "what" but the "how". There is only one way to live and proclaim the gospel, and that is in humility. Paul chooses “light” as his image for revelation because it is very personal to him—on the road to Damascus, he encountered Jesus in a flash of blinding light. Paul is almost certainly referring to Genesis 1:3 here, making the point that everything we have, from the breath in our lungs to the light on our path, comes from God—physically and spiritually.

“Knowledge of God’s glory” is more than an intellectual thing. (Remember two weeks ago we noted how knowledge without love is worthless.) Paul (and the whole Bible) most closely associates “knowledge” with faith—just see 2 Cor 4:14. And “glory” is not some New Age-y, super-spiritual, meditation experience. Rather, Paul (and the rest of the New Testament) associates God’s glory with Jesus—just see John 1:14. Paul is simply saying that God has shown us what we need to know to have faith in Jesus. But again, Paul’s focus isn’t on what exactly that is, but rather how we share it. God has shown it to us, now we live it to others. (At the end of the lesson, you want to make sure that everyone knows what the “knowledge”, but for now, just move on.)


Aside: Things that Really Last

You probably have the same response that I do to these lists of things that really last: how long do they really last?

Cast iron pans—they can certainly last for more than 100 years, but they cannot be dropped, you don’t want to scrape them too much, and you really don’t want to leave them in water for a long time. How durable is that, really?

Stainless steel—these items have been observed to be usable for more than 1,000 years under dry conditions. That’s impressive. But they really don’t do well when exposed to acid or chlorine.

What about other stuff?

“Diamonds are forever” right? Well, actually, kind of, yeah. A small diamond would take billions of years to decay into graphite. And since I think that Jesus will come back long before then, I can bravely say that your engagement diamond will last until the end of time.

“Plastic is forever” right? This is a little harsher to think about. Our bottles made of indestructible plastic we’ve learned do not decompose. Kept in sunlight, and exposed to very specific kinds of bacteria, these plastics will slowly decay over hundreds of years, but release a bunch of toxic chemicals in the process (that’s why we recycle).

Here’s the surprising one: glass lasts a long time. A very long time. Some folks estimate that it would take more than a million years for an average glass bottle to decompose (it will erode first). Luckily, there are a lot of uses for glass.

BUT STILL—even the most enduring stuff, stuff that people go to war over, can be destroyed or made unusable.


Part 2: Live (2 Corinthians 4:7-15)

Now we have this treasure in clay jars, so that this extraordinary power may be from God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way but not crushed; we are perplexed but not in despair; we are persecuted but not abandoned; we are struck down but not destroyed. We always carry the death of Jesus in our body, so that the life of Jesus may also be displayed in our body. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’s sake, so that Jesus’s life may also be displayed in our mortal flesh. So then, death is at work in us, but life in you. And since we have the same spirit of faith in keeping with what is written, I believed, therefore I spoke, we also believe, and therefore speak. For we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you. Indeed, everything is for your benefit so that, as grace extends through more and more people, it may cause thanksgiving to increase to the glory of God.

There’s a goofy song from the early 2000s that I can’t help but think of when I hear these verses. The point here is that God works in paradox. Remember what Paul told them back in 1 Cor 1:26-31? God uses the weak to shame the strong so no one can boast before Him. “Jars of clay” is a great image. There was an art to making fine pottery (see below). When finished, the pottery would be fired, and the resulting product would incredibly hard and enduring (going back to the topic of “things that last”, we have pottery that is 5,000 years old that doesn’t look like it has aged at all!), surviving harsh conditions of the desert. But if you dropped them, they would shatter. What a paradox! Something strong, enduring, useful, and utterly fragile—exactly like people.

That’s the image Paul wants the Corinthians to understand. We are like clay jars that are used to carry someone’s valuables (people actually did that back then—they would put their treasures in a jar and carry it around with them). And that’s great. Some of those jars would be beautiful; ornately decorated and filled with incredibly valuable treasure. But the moment they get dropped . . . So therefore don’t get too proud of your appearance or contents. (If you have time, ask about some of the silliest places they’ve heard people store their valuables. In a world of safety deposit boxes, the sock drawer doesn’t seem like a wise place for the family diamond.)

Once we realize that we aren’t as self-made as we think we are, we can appreciate how God uses paradoxes in our lives to accomplish His purposes. We are afflicted (“pressed”) but not to the point of being crushed. We are perplexed (“uncertain”) but not to the point of losing hope. Persecuted? Yes. Abandoned (which is usually what happens when one is being chased)? No. It’s the paradox of life and death. Jesus died so we can live. Now we must be willing to die so that others can live. The phrase “death of Jesus” is not the Greek word for the moment of death, but rather for the process of dying. In His life, Jesus was tested, opposed, abused, and exhausted. But we realize that even in death, Jesus was never abandoned, despairing, or destroyed—because three days later He walked out of the grave. Paul believed that his own sufferings were part and parcel with following Jesus. Everything Paul endured was for the purpose of proclaiming the gospel to people, including those in Corinth. Whatever he suffered was for their gain. That is what a true apostle cares about.

What Paul read, what Paul experienced, what Paul learned, all of those things fed into his faith. All Paul did was pass on to the Corinthians what he believed. (That’s how we share the gospel.) And Paul’s faith was so strong that he knew not even death would keep him from rejoicing with the Corinthians (at the Second Coming). This is a very helpful humility reminder for all of us. Our livelihoods are built on the sacrifices of countless people over centuries. We cannot take credit for our blessings. That is even more true in spiritual matters; someone has been heroically passing down the truth of the gospel for millennia until it reached us; and then God had to keep the world spinning so that it would even be here when it time for us to be born. Is it not amazing that God accomplishes these miraculous chains of events with weak and fragile people like us? Hammer this home: (1) you are not so great that you can have an ego about yourself, and (2) you are not so weak that God cannot use you for great things, and (3) your circumstances are not an obvious indicator of what God is doing in and through you for other people.


Unrelated Aside: Great Band Names

I can’t read this passage without thinking of a formative band in my early Christian life: Jars of Clay. I always remember thinking, “What a great name for a Christian band. Is there a better name that anyone could come up with?” I’m not convinced that there’s a better name out there. If you want to chase a quick rabbit, ask “What are your favorite Christian band names?” Here are some possibilities I came up with (rule #1: no person names—sorry David Crowder Band; rules #2: it has to mean something biblical—sorry Skillet)

  • The Second Chapter of Acts

  • Casting Crowns

  • Third Day

  • Petra

  • Jesus Wept

  • Wolves at the Gate

  • Big Tent Revival

  • What We Do in Secret

  • Rapture Ruckus

  • Consider the Thief

  • Thousand Foot Crutch

  • Everyday Sunday

  • Greater Vision

No offense, but Jars of Clay wins going away for the best Christian band name. Just because it’s fun, ask if they could start a great Christian band and name it, what would they name it?


Part 3: Focus (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

Therefore we do not give up. Even though our outer person is being destroyed, our inner person is being renewed day by day. For our momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory. So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal .

Then Paul ends with a very helpful perspective check that we all need to hear regularly. What should be the Christian attitude toward material wealth and worldly success? It’s nice, but it’s not nearly as important as people make it out to be. What should be the Christian attitude toward suffering and failure? It’s hard, but it is nothing that God cannot redeem as He walks through our life with us. We read this and want to say that Paul is talking about heaven—that of course our troubles on earth will be nothing like the glory in heaven. But he’s not! Paul believes that in this life our time with God is so much greater than any hardships we face. Why don’t we all feel this way? This is the ultimate question, right? Because the truth is that we tend to focus more on our suffering than on the healing power of God’s presence with us. Why is that? Well, according to what Paul says here, it is due to our faith and our focus. When we take our eyes off of Jesus, when we don’t think about the mission God has for us, we get distracted by the temporary and inessential.

Your leader guide really focuses on the “proclaim Jesus, not yourself” angle, which is fine. But this passage is really more about our perspective than our proclamation. What is important to you? What do you care about the most? If it’s not Jesus, then you’re probably going to be miserable (remember David’s message on coveting?). Focus on Jesus!


Aside: Ancient Pottery Making

It is likely that pottery was discovered by accident, after a fire left clay bricks incredibly hard. Over centuries, the use of a potter’s wheel, greater technology in controlling fires, and better methods for “cleaning” clay led to more consistent vessels. Clay would be separated in water, with heavier, coarser clay being used for things like mixing bowls, and finer clay for utensils and pitchers. The potter would then put a ball of clay on his wheel (the one we have in our Drive Thru Nativity is basically the same technology) and slowly shape it into a symmetric bowl. Its final shape would often depend on how the clay “behaved” during shaping. Then, based on size and shape, the potter would determine its use and add handles or spouts or decorative features as appropriate. Then, the pottery would dry for several days and finally be fired in a kiln. What a great image!


Closing Thoughts: What Is the Gospel?

Let’s let Paul answer this question. We skipped these verses when we were going through 1 Corinthians, so this week would be a great time to remember:

Now I want to make clear for you, brothers and sisters, the gospel I preached to you, which you received, on which you have taken your stand and by which you are being saved, if you hold to the message I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I passed on to you as most important what I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. Then he appeared to over five hundred brothers and sisters at one time; most of them are still alive, but some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one born at the wrong time, he also appeared to me. (1 Cor 15:1-8)

Got that? The gospel is just the good news that Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead. It’s that simple.

Now—for it to actually make a difference in our lives, we need to believe it and trust in Jesus for our salvation. That includes repenting of our sins and turning to Jesus as Lord. (What's often called "The ABCs of salvation" is actually a summary of how we should respond to the gospel - admit, believe, confess.)

So, when we share the gospel, we just share those simple basic facts about Jesus, then we tell the person that he/she needs to make a decision about it. Will they trust in Jesus?

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