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Celebrating God’s Power in the midst of Weakness/Adversity

Sermon passage: (2 Corinthians 4:1-18) Spoken on: August 23, 2010
More sermons from this speaker 更多该讲员的讲道: Pastor Daniel Tan
For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: 2 Corinthians

Tags: 2 Corinthians, 哥林多后书

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About Pastor Daniel Tan: Pastor Tan served as the youth pastor of Jubilee Church till his retirement. He is currently serving actively in missions.

Sermon on 2 Corinthians 4:1-18

This is the story of a 10-year-old boy who decided to learn judo despite the fact that he had lost his left arm in a devastating car accident. He began lessons with an old Japanese judo master. The boy was doing well, so he couldn’t understand why, after three months of training, the master had taught him only one move.
“Master,” the boy finally said, “Shouldn’t I be learning more moves?”
“This is the only move you know, but this is the only move you’ll ever need to know,” the master replied. Not quite understanding, but believing in his master, the boy kept training.

Several months later, the master took the boy to his first tournament. Surprising himself, the boy easily won his first two matches. The third match proved to be more difficult, but after some time, his opponent became impatient and charged; the boy deftly used his one move to win the match. Still amazed by his success, the boy was now in the finals. This time, his opponent was bigger, stronger and more experienced. For a while, the boy appeared to be overmatched. Concerned that the boy might get hurt, the referee called a time-out. He was about to stop the match when the master intervened. “No,” the master insisted, “Let him continue.”

Soon after the match resumed, his opponent made a critical mistake: he dropped his guard. Instantly, the boy used his move to pin him. The boy had won the match and the tournament. He was the champion.
On the way home, the boy and the master reviewed every move in each and every match. Then the boy summoned the courage to ask what was really on his mind: “Master, how did I win the tournament with only one move?”
“You won for two reasons,” the master answered. “First, you’ve almost mastered one of the most difficult throws in all of judo. And second, the only known defense for that move is for your opponent to grab your left arm.”
Thus, the boy’s biggest weakness had become his biggest strength! (“Strength Made Perfect in Weakness” Alan Smith)

Yes, brothers and sisters, strength made perfect in weakness is exactly what Paul wants to convey to the Corinthians in the passage we read just now. For Paul, the strength comes from God’s power. As a matter of fact, today sermon is a sequel to my previous one entitled “Celebrating God’s Comfort in the midst of Suffering”. If you could still recall, Paul begins his letter by praising God for his weakness and suffering, the very thing his opponents call his ministry into question. Paul’s defense was that abundant suffering and abundant comfort were in fact signs of his apostolic authenticity. He views his suffering as an opportunity to celebrate God’s comfort given to him in the midst of adversity. So he praises God as the God of all comfort. In today passage, Paul continues to praise God, this time not for God’s comfort but for God’s surpassing power manifested in his weakness or adversity. So, it is appropriate to entitle today sermon “Celebrating God’s Power in the midst of Weakness/Adversity”. For Paul, it is in human weakness that the surpassing power of God would spring to action. This is the first point Paul would like to bring across to his fellow Corinthians.

(1) It is in human weakness that the surpassing power of God would spring to action.

In verse 7, we find both a summary of Paul’s understanding of his ministry and his conviction of God’s surpassing power working in and through him. He states: “We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” Immediately we notice that Paul is describing his ministry in terms of a paradoxical image: a ‘treasure’ housed in ‘clay jars’. I will leave the explanation of treasure to my second point, let us first expound the metaphor of Paul seeing himself as clay jars. It seems that Paul is borrowing his metaphor specifically from the Old Testament, especially from passages where clay pots are depicted as weak and prone to shatter (cf. Psalms 31:12; Isaiah 30:14). We all know that clay jars are fragile, prone to breakage, easily chipped and cracked. A breakable vessel offers no protection for the treasure, the most it could offer is to protect its content from dust and water. The image of clay jars therefore serves to emphasize the contrast between Paul’s own pitiful weakness and the great power of God. Secondly, clay jars implies cheapness or lowliness. Paul does not see himself as a golden vessel exquisitely crafted. Rather, he has in mind cheap earthenware jars that lack any outward luster in contrast to the treasure it contains. He is therefore emphasizing the priceless value of the treasure as compared to his own worthlessness. Thirdly, the image of clay jars highlights Paul’s expendability. Clay jars have no lasting value and are so cheap that when they are broken, no one would attempt to mend them. Easily broken, they are also easily replaced. Thus, by using clay jars as a metaphor, the implication is clear: these earthen vessels are weak and inferior; are fragile and expendable. If that is so, why put treasure in such earthen pots? Paul’s answer is that to show the treasure has nothing to do with the pot, “to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” So, Paul is basically admitting himself to being a worthless, breakable clay pot subject to destruction. But as God’s chosen lowly vessel his “weakness and vulnerability” is necessary for the power of God to be manifested. In other words, Paul continues his defense by pointing out to his opponents that all his conspicuous weakness that so annoys them is divinely intended to highlight God’s strength instead. God houses treasure in him, a worthless vessel, so that others may see the true wellspring of the treasure and power and know that God can mightily use anyone.

To further explore the meaning of this clay pot image, Paul now gives four vivid contrasts of his life experience in verses 8 and 9. They illustrate what Paul means about being weak and fragile, and how power comes from God to save him. These four vivid contrasts are:

In every way we are:
hard pressed, but not crushed;
perplexed, but not in despair;
persecuted, but not abandoned;
struck down, but not destroyed.
(There is an ascending intensity of Paul’s weakness/adversity countered with God’s power.)

First, we see the earthen vessel of Paul’s life was hard pressed, indicating a sense of being pressured. But hard pressed is best represented by the word ‘squeezed’. Thus, Paul is saying he may be squeezed but by no means squashed. As the divine power goes to work, the pressure Paul encounters never get to the point where there is no escape or way out. Second, he was perplexed but not in despair. Perplex means to be at a loss, to be in doubt, not knowing which way to go or what to do. But with divine power comes into play, Paul says he never feels hopeless or insecure. Third, he is persecuted but not abandoned. Paul was pursued from city to city by hostile Jews. But through it all, God never abandoned him. Paul was absolutely confident of God’s abiding presence regardless of how or where he was hounded. Fourth, the intensity of the four contrasts peaks in this final expression: “struck down but not destroyed”. The verb “struck down” means “laid low by a blow or a weapon”. Paul suffered physical violence many times, but the divine power is always at work so that he was not destroyed. As such, he was quickly back on his feet. Perhaps the expression “knocked down but not knocked out” best catches God’s astonishing power in the midst of Paul’s total weakness.

The above assorted blows with increasing intensity (“squeezed…bewildered…pursued …knocked down”) have definitely caused obvious stress fractures in Paul’s life as an earthen vessel, but it remains intact because it is held together by God. For we see God’s surpassing power: “not squashed… not in despair…not abandoned…not knocked out” springs to action to preserve Paul from ultimate crushing. It wasn’t Paul in each adverse situation reached down into his soul, sucked it up, and became an extraordinary man. It was never his strength. It was God’s. Paul’s weakness was the occasion for God’s power to be demonstrated. Paul remained a clay pot, a cracked one indeed, as his weakness and adversity allowed the power of God to shine so brightly.

Yes, brothers and sisters, Paul has shown us that God’s power is always active and with its purpose. It always prevents his weakness to reach the point where he succumbs to ultimate defeat and despair. Thus, at the end of this letter, Paul once again rejoices that his weakness makes him a channel for God’s power. In 12:9-10, he states clearly that he delights in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions and in difficulties. For when he is weak, then he is strong. It is because Paul knows that God’s grace is sufficient for him, and God’s power is made perfect in his weakness. What does Paul mean that when he is weak, then he is strong? We should not interpret it as God’s power comes to play to make Paul powerful. In other words, Paul is not saying that as he embraces his weakness God will pour His power into him so that he now becomes powerful. Our natural equation is: My weakness plus God’s power equals my power. But that is not what Paul is saying. Rather, he teaches that as we embrace our weakness, God fills us with His power so that His power is manifested through us. So, the right equation should be: my weakness plus God’s power equals God’s power. We do not become powerful. We remain weak. We do not grow in power. We grow in weakness. We go from weakness to weakness, so as to remain lowly vessels for God’s power to continue its manifestation. Thus, we are ever weak and ever strong (R. Hughes). Paul therefore contends that he is most powerful when he is least reliant on his own resources and power. It is because God’s power only comes to its full strength in and through his weakness.

Yes, brothers and sisters, Paul’s understanding of human weakness vis-à-vis God’s power is a hard message for the twenty-first century mindset. We like to be in control of our circumstances and operate from a position of strength. As such, we are in hot pursuit of personal power at all cost instead of letting God’s power to be manifested in our lives. But isn’t it heartening to know that despite our weak and breakable nature, God still places treasure in us. As jars of clay, God still uses us to demonstrate His power and His glory. So, we do not have to go all out to prove our worth or strength in order for God to use us as His vessels. On the other hand, if we are proud and arrogant believing only in ourselves, then by Paul’s understanding there cannot be divine power manifested in our lives. Yes, in our journey of life, we will still be facing our limitations, feeling a sense of weakness, helplessness and overwhelming failure, but that is not where we stop. We are able to draw strength from God’s power to continue our journey, for we are cracked pots in the hands of the mighty God. Remember it is in our weakness that the surpassing power of God would certainly spring to action!

(2) The surpassing power of God is to sustain and spur us on to proclaim the gospel of glory.

Yes, we are cracked pots in the hands of the mighty God with His surpassing power working within us. All is because God has poured out His treasure and placed it within us as His earthen vessels, the jars of clay. Paul actually does not specify what he means by treasure. So, many have speculated endlessly on the contents of the treasure. However most would agree that the clue comes from the preceding paragraph where Paul talks about the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ (4:4), and would also include the glory of God in the face of Christ (4:6). In other words, by ‘treasure’ Paul means the preaching of the gospel of the glory of God in the face of Christ. And this ministry of spreading the gospel of glory has been entrusted to him as Christ’s apostle. So, though as an inadequate human agency as jars of clay, Paul is fully aware that he is a bearer of the good news of Christ, the glorious divine treasure, even for those who despise him. And precisely because he is weak and vulnerable, all can see that the power he imparts in spreading the gospel does not derive from him but from God alone. Thus, we come to the second point of Paul’s message, which is, the surpassing power of God is to sustain and spur Christians on to proclaim the gospel of the glory of God in the face of Christ, the divine treasure God has already placed within us as His earthen vessels.

Having the assurance of God’s surpassing power to sustain and spur us on, what then should be our attitudes in spreading the gospel of glory? Paul lists out three guidelines for us to follow. First, we must be faithful to the content of the gospel. Paul renounced two types of behavior that characterized some preachers of his day. In verse 2, he says we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. By not using deception, Paul is attacking his opponents who were attempting to cover up their true motives with a mask of apparent piety and counterfeit spiritual power. He described this type of cunning, cover-up tactics as secret and shameful. These people would do whatever they had to to gain a following. In addition, Paul refused to follow in the footsteps of his opponents who tamper with God’s word in order to make it more palatable to the listeners or more lucrative for themselves. Yes, there is a constant temptation in the ministry of God’s word to preach what people want to hear rather than what they need to hear. For example, the content of the gospel has been watered down in such a manner that repentance, the cost of discipleship and the Lordship of Christ are played down so it will be easy for people to respond. Still others would use the gospel to support worldly values that are actually in conflict with the true Christian life. In short, Paul eschewed any behavior that was not in accord with the character of the gospel that was entrusted to him. Paul therefore 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 (4:5).

Secondly, Paul tells us to preach what we believe. By citing Psalm 116:10 “I believed; therefore I have spoken”, Paul likewise finds the same spirit of faith as proclaimed by the Psalmist. Psalm 116 describes a time when King David almost died (cf. vv.3,8,15), but God delivered him from death (cf. vv.8-10). David believed that God had delivered him and therefore spoke of it. Paul likewise believed that God had also delivered him from death in many occasions, and so he also must speak in terms of preaching God’s word (4:2), the gospel (4:4), and Jesus Christ as Lord (4:5). For Paul, the gospel is not some abstract theory that can be accepted and hidden away in the heart. It requires proclamation, and proclaiming it to a hostile world is risky. If Paul did not go around preaching the gospel, he would never have been persecuted or become perplexed. But Paul did not shrink from speaking the gospel boldly to unbelievers and to any believers who get out of line, whatever the consequences, because God had entrusted the treasure of the gospel of glory to him as God’s earthen vessel. So we see belief leads to speech. If we genuinely believe something to be important, we will talk about it. If we truly believe God’s salvation has already imparted to us through His Son, Jesus Christ, we should be spreading this good news to people who are yet to know Christ. Our weakness in whatever areas should not be an excuse to shun us from spreading the gospel of glory. After all, the gospel does not depend on our human strength for its success. We are never powerful in ourselves but are only vessels in which God’s power is exhibited. So, why preach the gospel if it leads to ridicule, personal deprivation and hostility? It is because “I believe, therefore I speak!”

Thirdly, we must not lose heart so as to continue spreading the gospel. Given the hardship of spreading the gospel and the various sufferings he has to go through, one might presume a great despair for the Apostle Paul. But far from it. In the beginning of today passage, Paul affirms that “since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart”. And later in verse 16, Paul reiterates the same statement: we do not lose heart! Paul admits that the gospel he preached could appear veiled to some, and his own weakness as one who is afflicted and persecuted would certainly not augur well for his audience to embrace his gospel message. Paul also knows very well that when God entrusted him with the eternal treasure of the gospel, God did not endow him with immunity from illness, torment or other human afflictions. Nevertheless, Paul is bold to continue preaching the gospel and does not lose heart. So, what motivates Paul for not losing heart? Paul looked on his ministry as something he received not because of any personal merit but on account of God’s favor. Though undeserving God has poured the divine treasure within him as God’s earthen vessel accompanied by God’s own surpassing power. What a privilege for him to be the instrument of God? As such he treasured the ministry entrusted to him by God. In addition, Paul firmly believed that the gospel did not have to be accepted by everyone to remain valid. After all, Paul is convinced that the gospel is not merely a message that confronts the human mind but an explosive power that could turn a person’s life upside down. It is because the gospel reveals the life of Jesus that continues to live on in the lives of those who believe. This I will explain later in my third point. Thus, God’s entrusted sacred ministry and the power of the gospel itself caused Paul not to lose heart. And so are we. God has given each of us a specific ministry—something we can do and that it needs to be done. Do you treasure the ministry God has given you, especially in the ministry of spreading the gospel? Would you allow hardships, troubles and frustrations to stop you from serving God and others? “Do not lose heart!” is Paul’s exaltation to us! By faithfully carry out our given ministry, we will find encouragement about ourselves and about life.

(3) The surpassing power of God also opens up a whole new way of Christian life.

Yes, brothers and sisters, the surpassing power of God will sustain and spur us on in carrying out the ministry God Himself has entrusted to us. In addition, this surpassing power of God will also open up a whole new way of our Christian lives. This is the third point Paul wants to highlight to the Corinthians.

How did Paul come to realize that his weakness was the occasion for God’s power? Paul realized that his experience of power through weakness was, in fact, like that of Jesus in His death and His resurrection. In the end of this letter (13:4), Paul made a summary statement that “Jesus was crucified in weakness, yet He lives by God’s power. Likewise, we are weak in Him, yet by God’s power we will live with him to serve you.” In fact, Jesus’ unselfish, self-emptying and servant-like life was viewed by His opponents as weaknesses in Him. And especially on the cross, Jesus was totally powerless. But it was precisely in Jesus’ ultimate weakness that God showed His resurrecting power to raise Him from death. And this is indeed the weakness—power principle Paul came to understand. The weakness of Jesus’ cross in actual fact attests to the most striking power of God. So, God’s action vis-à-vis Paul’s weakness is consonant with God’s action in Christ. Paul therefore is confident that the same divine power that raised Jesus from death is at work in him as long as he is united with Christ. As such, Paul can say in today verses 10-11 that: “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that His life may be revealed in our mortal body.”

So, to die is also truly to live. Paul’s logic is this: as long as he carries about in his body the dying of Jesus as he lives out his missionary calling, the power of Jesus’ resurrection life (or God’s power) will also become operative in his mortal flesh, preserving him from being crushed. But in what sense does Paul carry about the dying of Jesus? In the sense that he too must conform to the weakness and humility of Christ, so as to become a fitting vessel for the manifestation of God’s power. By claiming to carry about the dying of Jesus, Paul is thus making the assertion that he too will have to endure the sufferings just like Christ did. And he is confident that in carrying about the dying of Jesus will allow him entry into the life of the resurrected Jesus. In other words, the life of Jesus will be living in him. The risen power of Christ will manifest itself in his life. As a result of this, a whole new way of life will be made possible for him with God’s surpassing power working in him. This whole new way of life he further explains in verse 16 that: “Though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.” (NASB)

Paul is not describing physical decay as such. Yes, physically we begin to die as soon as we are born. But by outer man (outwardly) Paul does not refer to the body. And the inner man (inwardly) Paul does not refer to the soul. There is no outer body/ inner soul dichotomy here. Both “outer man” and “inner man” refer to the whole person. (Someone says it well that the outer man refers to the believer’s existence under the decaying mortality inherited from Adam. And the inner man is the believer’s existence in the new age already inaugurated by Christ as the ‘last Adam’.) In simple term, the outer man refers to one’s outer life, visible to human eyes. And the inner man refers to the inner life one linked to Christ, not visible to human eyes. The believer’s inner life united with Christ, is always being renewed and proceeding toward ever increasing glory (3:18; 4:11); while the believer’s outer life which belongs to this world is temporary and crumbling. In short, Paul wants the Corinthians to understand that the Christian’s inner life is constantly being renewed and transformed into glory even as his mortal body is wasting away. This ever increasing renewal of the Christian’s inner life is made possible by the surpassing power of God and the life of Jesus that lives within us. It is in light of this ongoing renewal that Paul can view his troubles as merely light and momentary. Earlier, when Paul began this letter, he stated that the afflictions he had experienced in Asia were far beyond his ability to endure, so that he despaired even of life (1:8). But now, he seems not to focus his thoughts on how heavy his afflictions were. This change of Paul’s perspective is brought about by his encounter with the surpassing power of God so that even when he was hard pressed he was not crushed; perplexed but not in despair; persecuted but not abandoned; struck down but not destroyed. In addition, he is confident that as his outward life conforms ever more closely to the dying, crucified Christ, his inward life conforms ever more closely to the risen, glorified Christ. In other words, Paul came to realize his weakness and afflictions carrying the dying of Jesus, in fact serve to multiply the glory of his inner life as he is being transformed day by day to the likeness of Christ, though his outer life is wasting away. Thus Paul affirms in verse 17: “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”

But this whole new way of life transformation is not for our own benefit only. Paul moves on to point out the result of his carrying about the dying of Jesus. He says: “So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. All this is for your benefit.”(v12,15) Paul understands his weakness and suffering as benefitting the Corinthians in some way. As jars of clay, his apostolic ministry makes the life of Jesus present to the community by the hardships he endures. They are thus able to know that God’s resurrection power in Christ could also be at work in their lives. By embracing the life of Jesus, the Corinthians too will undergo day by day transformation. So, Paul keeps preaching what he believes and endures suffering, no matter what, because he knows by doing so the life of Jesus may also be reflected in the lives of others. This is the grace that God wants to impart to all people, to have Jesus living in their lives. As more and more people experience this grace, they would give thanks to God in return. And as more and more give thanks, God’s reputation is enhanced and extended.

Yes, brothers and sisters, what a privilege for us to reflect the life of Jesus in us, “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies”. How heartening to know that when we live this way, life is at work in those whom God has called us to serve. As we preach what we believe, God’s grace will lead to more converts. We may be jars of clay with cracks in life here and there, but God still pours His treasure within us. What an honor for us to reveal this treasure to others, with the promise from God to empower us in our weakness. Most importantly, we are assured of an ongoing life of transformation day by day as we live out the life of Jesus in our lives. So, what is stopping you from being a blessing to others? May the God of almighty continue to empower you as you faithfully carry out the task He has entrusted you!