Date: 05 Feb 2017
Text: 2 Corinthians 4:1-6
Last week we thought about what Paul had to say about the glory of God as shown in the New Covenant when compared to the glory displayed in the Old Covenant. Paul felt that there was no comparison to be made since the glory of God displayed in Jesus Christ far exceeded that of the Old Covenant. In these opening verses in 2 Corinthians 4 Paul now moves on to explain how his ministry came about and existed to share that glory of God with as many as possible.
During his time in Corinth Paul had been criticised and abused by many in the church as well as the numerous false teachers who were active at the time. These people had gathered together to express doubt over Paul’s authority as an Apostle and in doing so tried to cast doubt on his message. Rather than defend himself directly, Paul dealt with these complaints and doubts by pointing directly to God, His mercy and His grace.
Rather helpfully, the six verses that I want to look at today, 4:1-6, splits very nicely into three sets of two! In 4:1-2 Paul describes the nature of his ministry; in 4:3-4 he deals with the problem of why the gospel is not totally received by so many people, and in 4:5-6 Paul describes what he preaches and how. Whilst it could be seen as a bit of a personal manifesto, Paul was always careful to point to God and His grace and mercy rather than his own attributes.
Paul starts 4:1-2 by acknowledging that he was only in ministry as a result of God’s great mercy and grace. Prior to coming to faith in Jesus Christ, Paul had been known as Saul and as a zealot for the persecution of Christians. Indeed, he was on his way to persecute more believers in Christ in the synagogues of Damascus when he had that dramatic encounter with the risen Jesus on the Damascus Road. As a result of that encounter Paul was forgiven for all that he had done and called by our merciful God to serve Him in ministry. As part of his conversion experience Paul was temporarily blinded and needed help. God asked His faithful servant Ananias to help Paul even though Ananias knew what sort of a person Paul was. However, notice what God said to Ananias in Acts 9:15, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel.” I suggest that that comment leaves little doubt that Paul was ordained by God Himself to serve in ministry. Paul himself was confounded that having persecuted God’s people God should choose him to be an Apostle. He summed up that thought in 1 Corinthians 15:9-10 where he said, “For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them — yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.”
Just as God showed His great mercy and grace towards Paul; so He also shows great mercy and grace towards us. Nothing that we do can ever earn our salvation; that only comes though the amazing grace of God in forgiving us for all that we may have done in the past. Without that grace and mercy we would remain condemned as sinners. How should we respond to that? Paul responded by serving Jesus Christ with all his heart and whilst I’m not suggesting that we can all become Apostles like Paul, we can surely love God with all our heart and serve Him as He calls.
Paul moves on in 4:2 to describe the message that he proclaimed. He is at pains to remind everyone that his message was clear rather than distorted and it did not attempt to deceive. Paul preached a simple message of the gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ; a gift that is available to all who come to faith in Jesus and acknowledge Him as their Lord and Saviour. Paul was happy to preach this message wherever and whenever he possibly could and never received nor asked for payment for doing so. He certainly received hospitality from friends and church members but he never received a fee for sharing the news of God’s free gift. Remember that Paul was a tentmaker by trade and when he first arrived in Corinth he worked at that trade whilst preaching in the synagogue at the weekends. Contrast that with the behaviour of his opponents, people who Paul described with a word that the Americans translate as “hucksters”! The NLT puts 2 Corinthians 2:17 like this, “You see, we are not like the many hucksters who preach for personal profit. We preach the word of God with sincerity and with Christ’s authority, knowing that God is watching us.” It was these people who were leading the attacks on Paul over his authority as an Apostle, his change of travel plans and his honesty. On the other hand, Paul’s preaching was straightforward and did not use linguistic tricks or clever words to deceive people, nor did he distort God’s word in any way. The Greek word that is translated as “distort” was generally used with reference to tampering with merchandise of any sort to make it more profitable. That was not Paul’s way; he relied exclusively on the word of God and on God’s calling.
Gospel Not Received
Just as winning souls for Christ is difficult today so it was for Paul when he ministered in Corinth and elsewhere. He had a real battle to get his message across and win people for Christ and it is a struggle that is all too familiar for those in any form of ministry. The apparent failure of Paul to win more converts to Christ was a cause of great criticism from his opponents who believed that it was because Paul wasn’t a genuine Apostle. They failed to understand Paul’s difficulties simply because they had no faith of their own to begin with.
In 4:3-4 Paul explained precisely what the problem was. Paul pointed out that the gospel of Jesus Christ was open to everyone except to those who refused to believe. Such people had their minds veiled by Satan and they could not or would not see and accept the message of salvation in Jesus. It’s a bit like that old adage: there are none so blind as those who will not see! We saw in 3:13-18 similar references to people’s minds being veiled and dulled as a result. You may recall that whenever Moses spoke to God face to face on Mount Sinai his face was so radiant that when he came down the mountain the people were unable to look at him. Consequently he wore a veil to conceal the glowing glory of God. That meant that the people could no longer see that glory and the veil acted as a dividing point between God and His people. Similarly there was the veil in the temple that cut off the holy of holies from the ordinary people. These actions combined together to dull people’s hearts and minds to both the glory of God and His message. Satan exploited this and used this division to his advantage by also acting to dull the minds of the people. Satan had no wish for the people to hear the message of Jesus Christ and preferred to keep them dulled and under his control. So dulled were their minds that they wouldn’t accept the message of Christ. Paul now expands a little on those thoughts here in 4:3-4.
Paul clearly blamed Satan for all this and in 4:4a he referred to Satan as the “god of this age” a statement that was, and still is, in many ways very true. Interestingly this is the only place in any of his letters that Paul uses that phrase. It is sad but true that Satan does appear to rule the world. In Luke 4:5-8 we saw Satan trying to tempt Jesus. As they looked down on all the kingdoms of the world, Satan promised the Lord that if He, that is Jesus, followed Satan then Satan would give Him, “all their authority and splendour; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to." In John 12:31 & 14:30 Jesus described Satan as the “prince of this world” whilst in Ephesians 2:2 & 6:12 Paul talked of the battles that we constantly face against the “the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient”, and “against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms”. This suggests to me that Satan had some power in the world, power that will of course be defeated when Jesus returns.
It is Satan who so blinds the minds of people that they are unable to see the “light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (4:4), they are living in the darkness of sin and have no wish to move into the light of Christ. The opposite of the light of the gospel is the darkness of sin. It is a darkness that people both love and choose since they feel that they can do what they like with impunity. What they forget is that God sees everything, even in the darkness. Jesus Himself summed it up brilliantly in John 3:19-20 when He said, “This is the verdict: light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.” It is Satan who encourages people to remain in the darkness to keep them blinded to the glorious gospel of light and salvation in Jesus. It is in Satan’s interests to keep people in the dark and right now he may seem to be succeeding. However, victory will belong to Jesus and all those who believe in Him. Paul told the Thessalonians, “This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels.” (2 Thessalonians 1:7b). At that point Satan will be defeated and the light of Jesus will reign for eternity.
Later in 2 Corinthians 11:13-15 Paul attacked the false teachers and preachers and said of them “such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve.” This was the battleground on which Paul worked and it explains why he struggled to win people to Christ. The same problems exist today as people are still led by the “prince of this age” and seem to have no wish to move away from the lifestyle that comes as a result. As I mentioned a moment ago they prefer to stay in the darkness thinking that they will never be found out.
In the final two verses of this short passage, 4:5-6, Paul explained the nature of his preaching. The Apostle made it very clear that he only preached “Jesus Christ as Lord”. To me that is very similar to his comment in 1 Corinthians 1:23 where he said “we preach Christ crucified”. For Paul, just as should be the case for any preacher, there is no other message. A preacher is tasked by God with preaching the gospel of the risen Lord Jesus Christ and no other. Paul makes it clear at the beginning of 4:5 that he didn’t preach himself or any social gospel, only Jesus Christ. Preaching is a wonderful occupation. However, it is also very difficult and it is all too easy to move away from the good news of Jesus and into “softer” and easier topics that revolve around the preacher themselves rather than around Jesus Christ. Paul knew that having seen many preachers following that softer path. It still happens today where preachers avoid the gospel and the tough aspects that are contained within it preferring instead to focus on themselves and their own lives. That is not what God wants and it was certainly not the way that Paul preached. He wanted people to come to faith in Christ because he knew that such faith would bring about changed and transformed lives that would in turn lead to social action. We saw reference to this transformation of believers in 3:18 where Paul said that they were, “being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” This transformation can only come about through faith in Jesus Christ and people can only hear of Jesus Christ through the God-given words of a preacher preaching Jesus Christ and Him alone.
As part of his conversion event on the Damascus Road Paul was blinded. However, his sight was soon returned and he was restored both physically and spiritually by Jesus Christ. The brightest of lights which temporarily blinded Paul also shone into his heart and led him to faith in Christ which is why Paul was able to say “God...made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ” (4:6). It was the light of Christ shining in his heart that was Paul’s inspiration and motivation and that gave him the knowledge that he needed to preach Christ. All that meant that Paul didn’t need to add or take away from the gospel of Jesus Christ; he only preached Christ with no adornment as no adornment was needed.
I hope that the message that comes out of these verses is clear; Paul was in ministry only as a result of the grace and mercy of God; it was God Who called him and appointed him to preach. Paul only ever preached Jesus Christ, no other message, since no other message was needed. Finally it was the work of Satan dulling the minds of people that was Paul’s biggest problem. There were people who simply refused to hear the gospel and worse still, to believe the gospel.
The same problem still applies today and we need to persuade people to step out of the darkness of the fallen world and into the light of Jesus. We need people to listen and hear the good news of Jesus since it is only Jesus Who can lead people into the light. Jesus is the light of the gospel; without Him we all be in the darkness.