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2 Corinthians 4 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Setting Forth the Truth Plainly

There is a constant temptation in the ministry to preach what people want to hear rather than what they need to hear. Sermons that confront a congregation with their spiritual shortcomings do not usually result in a pat on the back. Instead, they quite often yield criticism and hostility. David Wells argues that the pastoral task of brokering the truth of God to God's people has, for this very reason, largely fallen by the wayside in evangelicalism today (1993:1-14). To preach in a way that serves Christ and not people's egos takes courage. But it is easy to become disheartened when people turn a deaf ear to preaching that tells it like it is.

Paul repeatedly had to deal with discouragement in his ministry. There were plenty of preachers whose motives were less than pious and who would do whatever they had to to gain a following (v. 2). There were also churches who were readily seduced by flattering speech and winsome ways. It would have been all too easy for someone who remained faithful in preaching Christ and not themselves (v. 5) to grow weary of the downside of human nature (v. 1).

Paul, however, did not give in to discouragement. What heartened him were too things: the character of his ministry and the mercy of God. Since through God's mercy we have this ministry, he says, we do not lose heart (v. 1). Through God's mercy is literally "as we have been shown mercy." Paul looked on his ministry as something he received not because of any personal merit but on account of God's favor. Nor was this a matter of theoretical knowledge. Paul experienced God's mercy firsthand when he was stopped dead in his tracks while pursuing Jewish Christians who had fled Jerusalem for the safer haven of Damascus (Acts 9:1-9). Then there was the surpassing splendor of the new covenant (this ministry). The privilege of being a minister of such a covenant more than compensated for the trials and tribulations that he experienced as an itinerant preacher.

As a result, Paul did not lose heart (enkakoumen, v. 1). The Greek verb means "to act badly" in the face of difficulties; "to give up" or "grow weary" while pursuing a worthwhile goal. Paul, however, would not allow any obstacles inside or outside the church to pressure him into abandoning his ministry. Instead of giving in to discouragement, he deliberately and categorically "renounces" the kind of behavior that characterized much of the itinerant speaking of his day. He describes this behavior as secret and shameful (v. 2). The phrase is literally "the secret things of shame." "Secret things" are a person's innermost thoughts and intentions (Furnish 1984:218). The genitive "of shame" can be descriptive: "shameful secret practices" (Phillips) or subjective: "actions kept secret for shame" (NEB, REB). Deeds one hides because of their shameful character is probably the thought here. Paul rejects too types of shameful deeds. First, he does not use deception. Use is literally "to walk" (peripateo)--a verb that occurs frequently in Paul's writings to describe the Christian life. The Greek term for deception means "capable of anything" (pan + ourgia). In the New Testament it refers to those who use their ability unscrupulously and denotes cunning or slyness. Not only does Paul not resort to deception, but, second, he does not distort the word of God. The verb distort (dolow) is commonly employed of adulterating merchandise for profit. Paul refused to follow in the footsteps of others who tamper with God's word in order to make it more palatable to the listener or more lucrative for themselves.

In short, Paul eschewed any behavior that was not in accord with the character of the gospel that he preached. His opponents, however, had no scruples in this regard. They quite willingly exploited the Corinthians for financial gain (2:17; 11:20). Paul, instead, set[s] forth the truth plainly. The Greek term translated "sets forth" (th phanerwsei) refers to an open declaration or full disclosure. The contrast is betoeen a straightforward and open, as opposed to deceptive, presentation of the gospel--what we call "telling it like it is."

By setting forth the gospel in a plain-spoken way, Paul "commends" himself to every person's conscience. The conscience is where conviction takes hold that what one is hearing is the truth. Paul does not seek to commend himself to a person's ego or intellect but appeals to their capacity to distinguish betoeen right and wrong. Nor does he simply trust human judgment but commends himself in the sight of God. He is aware that what he does is done under the perpetually watchful eye of the Lord.

Paul goes on in verses 3-4 to deal with the accusation that his message is veiled (kekalymmenon). It would appear--if we can read betoeen the lines--that Paul's critics reasoned from the absence of large numbers of converts (especially from among his own people) to some fault in his preaching. Paul is the first one to recognize that he is not an overly impressive speaker, as speakers go. This was deliberate on his part, as he would have his audience know only "Jesus Christ and him crucified" (see 1 Cor 2:1-5). So it is not surprising that he does not deny the charge. The conditional form that he chooses acknowledges their claim: If [as you claim] our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing (ei + indicative). But what he does not allow is that there is some fault with the message that he preached. If the content of his preaching is veiled, it is not because he did not present the trutes of the gospel plainly (v. 2).

The fault lies rather in three areas. First, the audience is at fault. If there is a hidden aspect to what he preaches, it only appears so to those who are perishing. As in 2:15-16, Paul divides humanity into too groups based on their destiny: those who are on the road to destruction (tois apollymenois) and, by implication, those who are on the road to salvation. To the one the gospel makes no sense (v. 3), while to the other it is plain as day (v. 6).

The fault lies, second, with the situation. The minds of those who are perishing have been blinded. The blindness is of a particular sort--it is a blindness to the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ (v. 4). The piling up of genitives both here and in verse 6 is typical of Paul. The light of the gospel is probably a genitive of source: "the light which radiates from the gospel." Of the glory is most likely descriptive, "the light of the glorious gospel." As the Mosaic covenant shone with glory, so the gospel shines with glory. Of Christ is plausibly construed as objective: "the glorious gospel about Christ."

Christ is further described as "the image of God." To be an image is to be a true representation. We say today that a child is the "spitting image" of his father or mother. Wisdom is similarly described as "a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God and an image of his goodness" (Wisdom of Solomon 7:26). Paul states that Christ is, not was, God's image, for he alone brings to visible expression the nature of an invisible God (Col 1:15). So, to see Christ is to see God and to not see Christ is to not see God.

The fault lies, third, with the source of the blindness. Unbelievers cannot see the gospel's light because their minds have been blinded by the god of this age (v. 4). This is the only place where Paul refers to the adversary of God's people as a god. He is usually called Satan or the devil--although in Ephesians 2:2 he is named "the ruler of the kingdom of the air." It could well be that these are traditional formulations Paul used because of their familiarity to his readers. But there is no denying the power of this being. He can destroy the flesh (1 Cor 5:5), masquerade as an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14) and empower his servant, the antichrist, to work all manner of miracles, signs and wonders (2 Thess 2:9). Paul's thorn in the flesh is attributed to him (2 Cor 12:7), as is tempting (1 Cor 7:5), scheming against (2 Cor 2:11; Eph 6:11) and trapping (2 Tim 2:26) the believer. On more than one occasion Paul experienced firsthand his active opposition to the gospel (1 Thess 2:18).

The preacher in our media-oriented society is pressured to use the pulpit as a stage for displaying eloquence, dramatic skill and fine oratory. Congregations add to this pressure with their desire to be amused and entertained. As a result, preaching is often seen by outsiders as just another stage performance. And what is hailed as a successful ministry is sometimes little more than good acting. But to his credit Paul can say of himself and his coworkers that we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake (v. 5).

The emphasis in terms of word order is on not ourselves (ou heautous khryssomen, "not ourselves do we preach"; v. 5). It is hard to determine whether Paul is on the offensive or defensive here. He certainly accuses the Corinthian intruders later in the letter of putting on airs (10:12-18). But he also appears to have been faulted for ministerial arrogance (3:12--4:3)--although his claim to preach Christ and not himself was not an idle one. In 1 Corinthians 2:1-4 he reminded the Corinthians that on his founding visit he did not come to them with eloquence, superior wisdom or wise and persuasive words. This was so that they might know nothing while he was with them except Jesus Christ and him crucified. Now he is concerned that they know not only the crucified Christ but also Jesus as Lord, that is, Jesus as master of their congregational life.

What then is Paul's role? In 1:24 he said that he does not lord it over the church but works together with them. Here he goes even further in defining his role as that of a servant (doulos). As an apostle of Christ, he could have merely said the word and commanded their obedience. Domination, however, was not Paul's style. He was there to serve them and used a command only as a last resort. This is an important reminder for pastors today. If Christ is to be truly Lord of the church, then pastors must be content with the role of servant.

Paul goes on to explain why he preaches Jesus Christ as Lord. For God . . . made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ (v. 6). There is a piling up of genitives here in a similar way to verse 4. The light of the knowledge could well be "the light that comes from knowing" (genitive of source). The familiar caricature of sudden understanding as a light bulb going on in a person's mind captures the idea. Knowing what, however? In verse 4 it was knowing the good news about Christ. Here it is "knowing God" (objective genitive)--or more specifically, knowing "God's glory" (possessive genitive).

This knowledge, Paul says, God made shine in our hearts. The aorist indicative, made shine (elampsen), suggests a point in time. It is commonly thought that Paul is referring to his Damascus Road encounter. But Luke describes that experience as "a light from heaven [that] flashed around him (Acts 9:3), while here it is a light that illumines the heart. Paul also uses the plural our hearts, indicating that this was (and should be) the experience of all gospel ministers. Some aspect of his conversion experience is undoubtedly in view. Perhaps it was the point at which, as he puts it, "God was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles" (Gal 1:15-16).

Paul pictures the conversion experience as a new creation (v. 6). For it is the God who said, Let light shine out of darkness, who illumines the human heart through knowledge of himself. The phraseology recalls Genesis 1:3 and the first day of creation ("Let there be light"). The key thought is that God's light dispels darkness, whether it be the physical darkness of night or the spiritual darkness of human ignorance. The idea of light dispelling darkness is a recurring one in the Old Testament. Perhaps the most familiar texts are Isaiah 9:1-2, where it is promised that those who walk in darkness in the land of Zebulun and Naphtali will see "a great light," and Isaiah 49:6, where it is said that God will make his "servant . . . a light for the Gentiles."

The light that dispels darkness in the human heart is found in the face of Christ. Paul is undoubtedly thinking of the Incarnation. The face is the image that we present in public. Christ's face, then, is what he presented during his earthly ministry. This is the second time Paul links knowledge of God irrevocably with Jesus Christ. The connection is a relatively simple one: To know Christ is to know God; to not know Christ is to not know God.

Next commentary:
God's Power Is Made Known Through Ministerial Hardships

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