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Exegetical Analysis of 2 Corinthians 4:7-18

Ministry Despite Afflictions

Important Features of Literary Structure

A. The theme of this passage is anticipated in the epistle's opening thanksgiving: "We share abundantly in Christ's sufferings.... If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation" (1:5-6, RSV throughout). Affliction and comfort are frequent words in chapters 1-9.

B. Paul contrasts his ministry with that of his opponents: "We are not, like so many, peddlers of God's word; but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God" (2:17). "What we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake" (4:5). "We are not commending ourselves to you again but giving you cause to be proud of us, so that you may be able to answer those who pride themselves on a man's position and not on his heart" (5:12). "As servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions [etc.]" (6:4-10).

Paul's opponents were probably criticizing him for his weak appearance, saying that his afflictions indicated that his message was defective (cf. Furnish 277). But Paul turns the argument around and says that weakness gives evidence that the message is from God rather than the messenger; the afflictions likewise indicate that the message is not done for selfish benefit.

C. What is "this treasure"? Perhaps it is in v.6, "the knowledge of the glory of God" (Hughes 135). Kruse (p. 106) goes back to v.4, "the light of the gospel." Some may wish to go back to v.1: "this ministry" (Kruse 135). Perhaps it is in v.5: "What we preach." As Furnish (279) says, it doesn't make much difference.

D. The contrasts given in verses 8-9 support and illustrate the thesis of v.7: human fragility shows that the power belongs to God; he enables perseverance through the afflictions.

E. The "life of Jesus" in vv.10-11 might initially be understood as his life of suffering, but probably not in v.12, which seems parallel in thought. Paul is contrasting death and life -- "death" corresponding to the afflictions, implying that "life" corresponds to power. The "life of Jesus" refers to the risen, glorified Christ (cf. v.6; see also Furnish 256, 283). Paul was persecuted so that the life of Jesus might be manifested, that is, so that it might be obvious that the power comes from God and not the human messenger (v.7). Or perhaps Paul was hinting at the future, at the resurrection when his body would manifest life such as Jesus now has.

F. In v.12b, Paul switches from "us" to "you," reminding the Corinthians that they were beneficiaries of Paul's (God-empowered) willingness to endure. Indeed, they were already evidence that Paul's afflictions were not in vain (Hughes 145). Life is already at work in all Christians, to be more fully manifested at a resurrection. As Paul said in 1:6, his afflictions were for the purpose of bringing [the knowledge of the opportunity for] salvation to the Corinthians.

G. In vv.13-15, Paul returns to the theme of his ministry of preaching1 despite persecution: He speaks because he has faith in a resurrection not only of himself but also of the Corinthians, all to the glory of God. He supports his faithful speaking with a citation from Ps. 116:10, a psalm that has a theme of afflictions. Perhaps Paul had the entire psalm in mind; especially striking is v.15: "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints."

H. Because of faith in a resurrection, Paul did not lose heart, repeating the words of v.1, and launching into another series of comparisons that continues into chapter 5. The "outer nature" is contrasted with the "inner nature," but not in a dualistic way. The contrast seems to be physical appearance (v.18) vs. attitude (5:6-7). Every mortal's body is wasting away, but Paul is not referring to natural processes of aging (cf. Furnish 284); he is talking about problems brought about by preaching the gospel. These afflictions do have an effect on the visible body (v.16b),2 but invisible inner nature, which has eternal significance, can nevertheless be strengthened.

I. V.17 might seem to suggest that affliction prepares for us glory, but Paul does not mean that afflictions earn our salvation. Rather the thought seems to be, which I think is in line with Jewish thinking, that suffering in this age will be compensated with blessings in the next age. Suffering won't get us there -- we get there by grace -- but once we are there we are rewarded according to what we have done and experienced in this life. Paul doesn't actually say that affliction leads to glory, but that it prepares for us a weight (i.e., a greater amount) of glory.3

Hughes (157-8) points out that the Hebrew word for glory is related to the word for weight, so Paul may be making a bilingual pun that his readers would not understand.

The glory that we will be rewarded with is of infinitely greater value than the price we pay in this life. Hughes (158) and Furnish (262) point out the hyperbolic repetition of hyperbol_n.

Structural Outline

I. Our afflictions show that the message is of God.

A. We have unseen power despite the visible afflictions.

1. Statement: We are persecuted, so the power can be seen to come from God, not humans. (7)

2. Illustrating evidence: We are persecuted, but this does not stop us (four overlapping pairs). (8-9)

B. In our afflictions, we illustrate a contrast between death and life.

1. Our physical life illustrates the mortality that Jesus had, and we are persecuted because of him,4 but we nevertheless also show his life [i.e., he lives in us and we preach life in him].5 (10-11)

2. Afflictions of our mortality go hand in hand with your possession of eternal life. (12)

II. Why do we persevere in preaching? Because of our faith in a resurrection.

1. Like the psalmist, faith motivates us to preach. (13)

2. Content of our faith: God will raise us and you to be with Jesus. (14)

3. Purpose of our preaching: for your benefit and for others, so God's giving and people's thanks will continue to expand,6 thus glorifying God.7 (15)

III. Our afflictions are slight compared to our future glory, so we persevere.

A. Therefore [because of our faith] in our inner nature we have a persevering attitude despite the physical afflictions the gospel brings us. (16)

B. Contrasts of physical afflictions and spiritual rewards

1. Temporal contrast: A momentary affliction simply can't compare with an eternal glory. (17)

2. Visual contrast coupled with temporal: We look not at the visible things that will pass away, but at the invisible realities that will last forever.8 (18)

Cultural and Contextual Background

Earthen (ostrakinois) vessels -- pottery was both cheap, providing a contrast with the treasure of the gospel, and fragile, corresponding to the afflictions Paul suffered.9 Lamps (cf. light, v.6) were often made of pottery (Kruse 106), or perhaps the pottery meant here is a jar in which treasure was sometimes hidden (Hughes 135-6). Either way, the pottery illustrates fragility and limited value.

Not in despair -- but Paul says he did despair in 1:8. Furnish (280) tries to explain the difference in terms of appearance: "apart from faith his situation in Asia had seemed hopeless," but I am not completely convinced. Perhaps the difference is in tense: 1:8 is aorist, a momentary attitude, whereas 4:8 is present tense, stating the approach that normally prevailed. Moreover, 1:8 is modified, restricted in meaning by the words "of life": Paul was not completely despondent, but did despair of his [physical] life -- i.e., he thought he was a goner.

Death -- v.10 uses nekr_sin; v.11 thanaton. Furnish (255) notes that most scholars attribute some significance to the difference, but says "it is questionable whether one should place very much emphasis" on that fact (283). Rather, the two verses seem parallel, simply two ways to say the same thing. One uses body, the other flesh. Although at other places such words may be distinct in meaning, they overlap in meaning and here seem roughly synonymous.

"Believe...spoke" -- commentators called attention to discrepancies in LXX and MT grammar and verse numbering, all with little accomplished. Paul doesn't give the wording any theological or logical weight; he simply tosses it out as a phrase the readers would be familiar with. (Were the primarily Gentile Corinthians familiar with the LXX? Probably -- they had been taught both by Paul and by Apollos, a man well versed in the scriptures.) Although the context of Ps. 116 includes some potentially useful connections with suffering and affliction, Paul doesn't draw any further attention to it.

"Bring into his presence" -- This wording suggests the concept of the beatific vision, in that simply being with Jesus is our primary reward. Kruse (109) alludes to this. But the Greek in this verse doesn't seem to support that; it simply means we will be presented. Furnish (259) points out ambiguities in meaning -- such as being presented before a judge or being presented in public.

"We look" -- Hughes (158) says the word, skopein, means "to concentrate one's attention upon" (in contrast to blepein, used in this verse for the things that are temporarily visible). Furnish (263) similarly says skopein means "direct one's attention toward."

The Message and Application

The theological message and its application to Christian life overlap, so I combine the discussion here to avoid repetition. Paul clearly says that his own sufferings, and his attitude toward them, are an instructive example for the afflictions that the Corinthian Christians also experience: God comforts us, Paul says, "so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction" (1:4). "If we are afflicted...if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer.... As you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort" (1:6-7).

The major theological theme is given in 4:7: Our weakness shows that the power comes from God. A similar lesson is stated in 12:9: God's power is made perfect in human weakness. And in 1 Corinthians 1:27-29: God calls the weak and foolish, so no one can boast. As Paul persevered in preaching the gospel despite the persecutions that came, he demonstrated that he was motivated not by selfish benefit but by devotion, and he was empowered not by human power or reasoning, but by God working in and through him. The lesson is still valid as Christians in some nations suffer overt persecution for preaching Christianity or for converting to Christianity.

But in most of Western society, persecution is more subtle. The academic world may sneer at faith; the economic world may ridicule those who have scruples; civil-rights advocates may not want to associate with people who do not accept homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle, etc. NonChristians may have more employment options and may make more money. When we face such discrepancies in society, our lack of anxiety about our disadvantages testifies to our belief that the things of this world are passing away, and our faith that a far greater reward is at stake. When we face trials that strike believer and unbeliever alike, our calmness and positive approach can likewise show we have knowledge and hope of life and reward in a new aeon. People can see that we have hope in a situation that appears hopeless, and such contrast may lead them to inquire about our faith and to give it credence because its value is demonstrated.

In our afflictions, our life follows the pattern of Jesus. In our current state, especially in our day-to-day trials, our bodies manifest mortality, such as Jesus himself had. Yet we also manifest eternal life, the life of Jesus in us. His life is shown in the message we preach and in the lifestyle we have. We have life evident in us, and that life is energized by faith (4:10-11, 18) -- faith that our life will continue to follow the pattern of Jesus, that we will also be raised into glory (4:14, 17). Our determination comes not from human stubbornness or grit, but from God, and the life of Jesus, and the Spirit of faith. We of course have nothing to boast of, for it is all done for the glory of God.

Our life illustrates the "not yet" paradox of Christianity: The consequences of mortality are evident in our bodies, and our faith in eternal life is evident in the way we respond to that mortal weakness. We worship a Being who had a life of suffering and a death of shame who also had a triumphant resurrection and now has a life of glory. We, in this "not yet" phase of the kingdom of God, are given opportunity to follow this pattern. Few of us actually have a death of shame, but all Christians should be willing to endure it if necessary for the kingdom of God. Most of us escape overt persecution, but all of us should be faithful if it comes. Why? Because we believe and trust that God will give us glorious, spiritual, eternal life. We believe, and therefore we do whatever God calls us to do. Our afflictions will be followed by glory.

Endnotes

1 Hughes (148) waxes eloquent about belief always being accompanied by confession, but Paul is clearly talking about his preaching, not merely his confession of Christ.

2 "Similar lists of hardships are found in the philosophical and ethical treatises of many of Paul's contemporaries, especially those influenced by the Stoic ideal.... The presuppositions and intentions which underlie Paul's list of hardships in 4:8-9 are quite different. For one thing, the apostle does not hesitate to acknowledge the real impact outward circumstances have had on him" (Furnish 281). Paul also points to God as the source of power rather than himself (282).

3 Kruse (111) has a different thought: "There was a belief that the messianic age would be ushered in by a definite and predetermined measure of afflictions to be experienced by the people of God." If this is so, perhaps Peter alludes to it when he suggests that we can hasten the day of God (2 Pt 3:12).

4 "On account of Jesus...is not to be interpreted...as if for Jesus' benefit. Rather, the preposition has causal force here" (Furnish 257).

5 "The one who proclaims the crucified and risen Lord find that what is proclaimed in his message is also exemplified in his life" (Kruse 107).

6 "The intention is doxological, not analytical.... This has doubtless contributed to the jumbled syntax" (Furnish 287).

7 "We see here then both the penultimate...and the ultimate...purposes of Paul's apostolic ministry" (Kruse 109). "The ultimate aim of all apostolic service and...of every believer is to glorify God" (Furnish 261).

8 Furnish (263, 191) does not convince me that Paul has begun to include his readers in this first-person verb. Although Paul's attitude to suffering provides a good example for the Corinthians (1:6), his primary approach in this paragraph is to explain his own approach to his afflictions, and only indirectly encourage his readers to look at their own sufferings in the same way.

9 "Pottery vessels, unlike those made of glass or precious metal, have value only while they are whole and intact. Once damaged they cannot be repaired or melted down [unlike glass and metal]" (Furnish 254, 278).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Barrett, C.K. A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians. Harper's New Testament Commentaries. New York: Harper & Row, 1968.

Furnish, Victor Paul. II Corinthians. Anchor Bible 32A. New York: Doubleday, 1984. A bit laborious, but detailed enough to confirm my feeling that commentary on this passage needn't be long. The passage wasn't as interesting as previous exegetical studies I've done in this class.

Hughes, Philip E. Paul's Second Epistle to the Corinthians. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1962. An old commentary, filled with extraneous expositions and quotes of dubious value from ancient commentators.

Kruse, Colin G. The Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987. Too brief to be of much value.

Martin, Ralph P. "Gifts, Spiritual." Anchor Bible Dictionary, edited by David Noel Freedman. Volume 2, pages 1015-1018. New York: Doubleday, 1992.