Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 2, 2024

2 Corinthians 4:5-12 Commentary

God graced my father with a long and fruitful career as a professor of Germanic Languages. He was widely respected and appreciated by his students and colleagues. However, his teaching style was quite understated. My dad seldom raised his voice or made demonstrative gestures while he was lecturing.

I sometimes wonder if that was the genesis of the only advice my dad ever gave me about preaching. He encouraged me never to draw attention to myself by my intonation and bodily gestures. I suspect that advice was prompted not only by my dad’s style, but also by the numerous preachers who’d served as my parents pastors. While those preachers’ sermons were deeply meaningful, the preachers seldom drew attention to themselves.

Paul would have considered himself in good company with my parents’ pastors. He, after all, relentlessly pointed his hearers and readers away from himself. The apostle relentlessly pointed the people to whom he wrote toward the God who’d graced him in Jesus Christ.

Christ’s centrality in Paul’s preaching, teaching and writing is not just a theme of the first part of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. It also shines light on the second part of 2 Corinthians 4:5-12. In fact, the apostle at least suggests that his brokenness about which he writes near the end of this Lesson helped deflect attention away from himself and toward his risen Lord.

This text, obviously, has implications for how preachers proclaim the gospel. But it also has implications for how all of Jesus’ friends share the gospel by what we both say and do. So  as we prepare our message, preachers might let the Spirit keep one eye focused on preaching and the other on helping our hearers to think about the ways we proclaim the gospel to our neighbors.

“For we do not preach [keryssomen]* ourselves,” Paul writes in verse 5, “but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves [heautos] as your servants [doulous] for Jesus’ sake [dia Iesoun].” While the conjunction gar (“for”) links this assertion to what Paul has previously written, it’s not easy to know just what that link is.

Verse 5 may be part of the apostle’s defense of the effects of his preaching. He’s perhaps implying that his hearers’ unbelief that verses 1-4 describe is not the result of his poor preaching, but of the “veil” the “god of the age” has lowered over unbelievers’ hearts. It’s not Paul’s weakness but that “veil” that has prevented them some people from recognizing Jesus Christ as Lord.

In verse 5 the apostle insists that he’s neither the object nor subject of his proclaiming. Jesus Christ is the heart and soul of his gospel proclamation. Paul is simply the messenger, literally the “herald” of God’s good news in Jesus Christ the Lord. The Message paraphrases the apostle as referring to himself in verse 5 as an “errand runner from Jesus” for Corinth’s Christians.

Yet preachers may want to draw hearers’ attention to the way that Paul uses the second person plural throughout this Epistolary Lesson. It shows that he’s not just talking about his own ministry and fragility. The apostle is also likely primarily referring to Timothy and his (cf. 1:1) work. But preachers stand on firm ground when we invite our listeners to let the Spirit help them hear themselves in Paul’s references to “us” and “our.”

“For God,” as the apostle continues in verse 6, “who said, ‘Let the light [phos] shine [lampsei] out of [ek] darkness [skotous],’ made his light shine in our hearts [en tais kardiais] to give us the light of the knowledge [genoseos] of the glory [doxes] of God in the face [prosopo] of Jesus Christ.” God, in other words, didn’t shine God’s light into Paul’s heart so that the apostle could draw attention to himself.

No, God graced Paul with the Spirit in order to help him see how God’s glory is reflected in Jesus’ face. It’s as if the apostle insists that God graced him with knowledge of Jesus Christ so that he could relentlessly point others’ attention away from himself and toward Christ.

In fact, Paul continues in verses 7 and following, it’s as if Timothy and his misery helps point people’s attention away from themselves and toward the living God. “We have,” writes the apostle in verse 7, this treasure [thesauron] in jars [skeuesin] of clay  [ostrakinois] to show that this all-surpassing [hyperbole] power [dynameos] is from God and not us.”

Jesus’ followers carry the “treasure” that is knowledge of Jesus Christ in fragile “containers.” Paul compares people to earthenware jars that are easily cracked, broken and even smashed. This, the apostle insists, helps serve to deflect attention from God’s dearly beloved people to the God who empowers us to share that treasure. Our fragility keeps people from focusing on us and, instead, through the work of the Spirit, concentrate on the living God.

That fragility was on full display in Paul and Timothy’s lives. In verses 8 and following they write, “We are hard-pressed [thlibomenoi] on every side, but not crushed [stenochoroumenoi]; perplexed [aproumenoi], but not in despair [exaporoumenoi]; persecuted [diokomenoi], but not abandoned [enkataleipomenoi]; struck down [kataballomenoi], but not destroyed [apollymenoi].”

It makes me think of the package a prominent American company recently delivered to our home. That package was “hard pressed on every side.” But the precious medicine in it wasn’t. The box in which it came had been “struck down.” But its valuable cargo was not destroyed.

The Message paraphrases Paul and Timothy as insisting, “We’ve been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we’re not demoralized; we’re not sure what to do, but we know that God knows what to do; we’ve been spiritually terrorized, but God hasn’t left our side; we’ve been thrown down, but we haven’t broken.”

Their enemies have basically rendered the apostles powerless. Yet Paul believes God uses the apostles’ misery to deflect people’s attention away from Paul and Timothy’s power and toward God’s power. The apostles’ misery has served to point people toward the living God in Christ.

In fact, they go on to write in verse 10-11, “We always [pantote] carry around [peripherontes] in our body the death [nekrosin] of Jesus, so that the life [zoe] of Jesus may also be revealed [phanerothe] in our body. For we who are alive [zontes] are always being given [paradidometha] over to death for Jesus’ sake [dia Iesoun], so that his life may be revealed [phanerothe] in our mortal body. ”

These are, candidly, mysterious assertions. Some scholars claim they allude to the way the apostles’ suffering at least somewhat mimics Jesus’. Preachers may choose to dig into verse 10-11’s meaning. But it may suffice to say that the apostles are again relentlessly pointing away from themselves and toward Christ.

Paul and Timothy wish more than anything else for their lives to be shining testimonies to both Jesus’ death and life. God’s adopted sons and daughters, including the apostles, “preach” not ourselves, but Jesus. However, Paul, Timothy and all of Jesus’ friends also wish to draw others’ attention not to ourselves, but Christ by the way we respond to our misery.

*I have here and elsewhere added in brackets the Greek words for the English words the NIV translation uses.


In his October 23, 2020 article in Christianity Today entitled, “Beyond Self-Help Chatter” David Neff describes visiting a church while on vacation. He found that its preacher didn’t relentlessly point his hearers toward Jesus Christ. “The first Sunday I visited that church was among the worst of circumstances.

“It was the Sunday of the church year devoted to celebrating the Trinity. The Old Testament reading from Exodus 3 told the story of Moses at the burning bush. There God reveals to Moses how he plans to fulfill the pledge he made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob by using Moses to liberate their descendants from slavery. God not only renews his pledge in this story, he [also] reveals his ineffable name.

“This is a pivot point in the Bible, a hinge on which the door of sacred history swings. But the preacher trivialized it. He talked not about the doors of history but of life’s stages. Moses was afraid to walk through the door set before him, the preacher said, but he walked through it anyway. We too face doors that we must walk through. End of message. No God. No divine plan revealed. No theophany. Just stages in the life cycle.

“The bulletin promised a different preacher for the next Sunday, so I came back. The next Sunday’s … Gospel lesson was from Mark 4, in which Jesus stills a storm on the lake and the awe-struck disciples wonder aloud, ‘Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?’ The Scripture leaflet in the church bulletin placed this title over the Gospel story: ‘Jesus stills the storm and shows that he is Lord of all creation.’ Mark took this event as a theophany.

“But the preacher took it as a story about our anxieties when we travel, and offered us a lame joke about a woman who was not comforted by knowing that three bishops were flying on her airplane. The sermon may have soothed some fears, but theologically it crashed and burned. I didn’t come back the third Sunday.”


Preaching Connections: ,
Biblical Books:

Sign Up for Our Newsletter!

Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!

Newsletter Signup