Good morning. Let’s ask God for help. Let’s pray:
Heavenly Father, we praise you for your living Word. Please help us by your Spirit to listen to it, and to learn from it. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.
Vivienne and I are both working from home, as so many of us are. The other day we met in the kitchen at coffee time (always a highlight) and I said to her, “I’m really struggling with this sermon.” “What’s it on?” she asked. I said, “It’s about not losing heart.” She laughed (she’s always sympathetic like that) and she said, “So you’re preaching to yourself are you?” “Yes”, I said.
We’ve come this morning in our series on the apostle Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians to chapter 4.7-18. If you’ve got a Bible to hand, please open that up. 2 Corinthians 4.7-18. I’ve called this ‘Hardship That Brings A Harvest’. This is a passage of Scripture that means a lot to me – not least because we seem to be almost engulfed at the moment by reasons that could easily tempt us to lose heart. That’s true for all of us who are trying to get on with our Christian service and ministry in the midst of the current pandemic. Of course I’m not just talking about those of us wearing clerical collars – but all of us involved in service in the name of Jesus, in and beyond the life of the church.
As it happens I heard my son Ben preach on this passage a few months ago, and I’ve kept my notes by me ever since. His title was ‘Don’t Lose Heart’ – so I couldn’t use that! Jon took us through 4.1-6 last week, which are all of a piece with our passage, so this is really part two. Chapter 4 begins (2 Corinthians 4.1):
Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart.
And then Paul hammers that home again in 2 Corinthians 4.16, where he says:
So we do not lose heart…
One of the reasons I was struggling with this is that the teaching of the Bible is so rich, subtle, multi-layered and deep that it seems impossible to do it justice, and it is. So I’ve resorted again to three super-simple headings, and I hope these will help us to suck as much as we can out of this in a short time. So:
1. The Apostle Paul Is Afflicted
He’s hopeful too, and we’ll come to that, but first we need to give proper weight to the suffering he’s gone through and is still going through when he writes this. He wants us to know about his suffering, because through this letter he repeatedly and graphically pictures it. Why? He’s not wanting pity. Quite the reverse. He wants us to learn hope through Jesus in our afflictions, as he has. So he says back in 2 Corinthians 1.8:
For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced…
And then take a look at our passage, 2 Corinthians 4.8-10:
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken;
struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus…
We mustn’t let his hopefulness blind us to the depth of these afflictions that he describes. He says he’s “afflicted … crushed … perplexed … struck down”. Later in the letter he further fills out what he’s been through. So in 2 Corinthians 6.4-5 he tells of:
… afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleepless nights, hunger…
And as he writes this letter it’s all made worse by the fact that he has been separated from the Corinthian Christians, not only by distance, but relationally. Despite the fact that they came to faith in Christ through his self-sacrificial preaching, some were trying to persuade the church there to reject him.
So it could hardly be worse for the apostle. His afflictions are severe and sustained, and we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that they were all brought on him as a result of his ministry. How amazing it is that he says he has that ministry “by the mercy of God” in 2 Corinthians 4.1. All he had to do was stop preaching Christ. Then he could have just retired in peace, back home to Tarsus. But he couldn’t stop. 2 Corinthians 4.13:
Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written [and here he quotes Psalm 116], “I believed, and so I spoke”, we also believe, and so we also speak…
What he knows to be true about Jesus in his mind and heart inevitably pours out of his mouth. He can’t stop. So the afflictions follow. No wonder he describes himself in 2 Corinthians 4.7 as like a ‘jar of clay’. He says there:
But we have this treasure [the gospel, that is] in jars of clay…
He is a fragile, disposable, commonplace container; one of those despised plastic carrier bags, in his terms, a clay jar. And if, once the gospel is handed on, he gets smashed to pieces and thrown in the bin, that’s OK with him. And in the end, of course, that’s what happened to him, executed as he was by the Roman sword. Such are his afflictions that he even dares to liken them to the physical sufferings of Jesus. So in 2 Corinthians 4.10 he uses this striking phrase about himself:
…always carrying in the body the death of Jesus…
Like a kind of slow-motion, life-long crucifixion.
So, the apostle Paul is afflicted. And, in some way, if we try to serve Jesus faithfully and show him to the world, we too will be afflicted. One of the things that I find very moving about the fact that I’ve been around JPC for some decades now is that I’ve seen something of the afflictions that many of you have been through, and are going through still. I know that many of your afflictions are hidden. Few if any are aware of those, but some of them you can’t hide.
And Paul wouldn’t be surprised. But he does want us to find comfort in our afflictions. How then do we find that comfort? By learning hope from the afflicted apostle. So to my next heading. First, the apostle Paul is afflicted. Then:
2. The Apostle Paul Has Hope
Why does he have hope in such dire circumstances? Here are six reasons.
i. He knows that he has treasure filling his afflicted life. 2 Corinthians 4.7:
But we have this treasure in jars of clay…
What is this treasure? Back up to 2 Corinthians 4.6. The treasure is:
…the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
He knows Jesus – who was afflicted, killed, raised from the dead; who ascended to heaven and poured out his Spirit. Jesus is his treasure
ii. He knows that God has a purpose in his afflictions. 2 Corinthians 4.7 again:
We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.
It was one of Paul’s great life lessons that our fragility and suffering, far from being a problem, is in fact an asset if what we want is for other people to see Jesus in us and come to know him through us. It’s a tough but crucial lesson for the disciple of Jesus. Paul returns to it later in the letter when he famously describes how God said to him:
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” [2 Corinthians 12.9].
He has learned that his transparent fragility let’s the light of Christ shine through so that people can see Jesus and not get mislead into thinking that Paul was the one they should follow.
iii. He knows that in the end nothing can destroy him. However fiercely burn his fiery trials, there is never any place at all for despair in Paul’s make up, because he knows that he is safe with Jesus.
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.
iv. He knows that his affliction is for the sake of Jesus. 2 Corinthians 4.10-11:
…always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.
And it is the glory of Jesus that is his supreme concern – not his own comfort.
v. He knows that his affliction is also for the sake of those young Corinthian Christians. And indeed, beyond them, it is even for our sake. 2 Corinthians 4.12:
So death is at work in us, but life in you.
And again in 2 Corinthians 4.15-16:
For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
So we do not lose heart…
vi. He knows that present temporary afflictions are far outweighed by future eternal glory. Given the scale of his sufferings, what he says in 2 Corinthians 4.16-18 is one of the most staggering statements of faith in the whole Bible:
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
Light momentary affliction! Of course when he says that he’s not making light of his sufferings. Not at all. It’s just that, however bad they are, he knows they will overwhelmed by the blazing eternal glory to come.
If I might jump from the sublime to the almost ridiculous, here’s an illustration. The other day Vivienne and I went blackberrying. We have a favourite and fruitful spot. I’m not going to tell you where! We spent about two hours getting scratched by thorns and stung by stinging nettles as we reached into the hedgerows over and over again. Why didn’t we lose heart and give up? Because we could see the growing pile of juicy delicious berries. And I for one was thinking of all the blackberry jam, and blackberry-and-apple pies to be enjoyed throughout the year ahead. Our hardship, such as it was, brought a harvest.
On a rather different scale, the apostle Paul did not lose heart, because he had such a powerful hope. Finally then, and:
3. Let’s Learn From The Apostle
Let’s listen to him. Listen because he is an authentic servant and apostle of Jesus. His afflictions testify to that. Listen because what he teaches is treasure beyond price. Listen because his afflictions put ours in perspective. Whatever we go through in our lives and in our service of Jesus, few if any of us get anywhere near what he went through.
And let’s learn from him too. Learn that our afflicted faith is a blessing to others. They draw strength and hope from us. Learn that our afflictions bring us closer to Jesus. That is the experience the Holy Spirit gives as we meet affliction with faith. Even dare learn that in the perspective of eternity our afflications are light and momentary, as we keep our eyes on future glory. And learn never to lose heart in our service of Jesus. The temptations to do so are great. There is hardship before the harvest. But the harvest will surely come. Let’s pray:
Heavenly Father, we thank you so much for the power of your grace at work by your Spirit in the life of your servant Paul. Help us we pray, whatever afflictions we face, now or in the years to come, to learn from him. And teach us too, we pray, never to lose heart. In Jesus name. Amen.