Faith Presbyterian Church – Evening Service
2 Corinthians 4:1-6
January 10, 2016
I am picking up my occasional series on Second Corinthians this evening, by jumping ahead a little from where we left off in October.
To review just a little, Second Corinthians is a letter written by the Apostle Paul to the church in Corinth over several issues, one of the biggest being that the church in Corinth has been listening to false apostles who oppose Paul, and now that church is questioning the trustworthiness of Paul and of his apostleship.
Paul begins his letter by talking about how God works in the mist of despair and comfort, and how true godly love is steadfast but adapts in its expression to the changing situations it faces. He discusses a difficult pastoral issue in Corinth in chapter two, and he goes on to describe his apostolic ministry as being like a captive conquered in battle, now gladly serving as a slave of his new Lord, Christ. Paul begins chapter three by saying that the authenticity of his ministry is not written in ink, but on human hearts – particularly the hearts of those he has ministered to – the Corinthians. Paul goes on from there to discuss the nature of his new covenant ministry, and that then brings us to our text tonight – 2 Corinthians 4:1-6.
In his letter so far, Paul has responded to questions about his ministry – to the doubts the Corinthians have about him – by describing the messiness of true ministry, and the humble form it usually takes. After beginning his defense, Paul now turns to the topic of discouragement. And this is understandable, in light of the troubles Paul faced in general during his ministry, but it is especially fitting in the context of his needing to write this letter to the Corinthians. Paul has poured himself into this church – he has served them, and suffered for them. And now they are doubting him. They are doubting both his effectiveness and his sincerity. Discouragement is a natural response to that. But Paul instead writes here about why he is not discouraged.
With that in mind, let’s hear from our text, 2 Corinthians 4:1-6. Please listen carefully, for this is God’s word.
4:1 Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. 2 But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5 For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
This is God’s Word.
In our text Paul addresses the issue of discouragement when we serve or minister to another person. As we said, given the context of this letter, we would not be surprised if Paul was discouraged – if he had lost heart when he heard of the Corinthians’ growing suspicion of him.
But instead Paul begins with the bold assertion that he is not discouraged.
In verse one, Paul writes, “Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God we do not lose heart.”
He goes on to say in verse two: “But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.”
Verse two might seem an odd follow-up to verse one, but it actually makes sense there. Paul says he has not resorted to underhanded ways of promoting his message. And when does someone resort to underhanded or deceptive ways? Well, when they’re discouraged over whether or not honest and straight-forward ways will work. It is discouragement with the results of doing something legitimately that often leads someone to try doing it illegitimately.
But Paul asserts that he has not lost heart, and part of the evidence of that is that he has not resorted to the types of things people do when they do lose heart.
So Paul says here that he has not lost heart – but even by bringing it up he is acknowledging that discouragement is an expected temptation in his circumstances. He is agreeing that losing heart would not be an unusual response to his situation.
Paul understands that discouragement may be a natural response when facing a situation like his. And we have all experienced that kind of discouragement ourselves – haven’t we? We have all been discouraged when we minister – when we serve or care for someone else and they respond with indifference … or even hostility.
It reminds me of a passage from Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Dostoevsky describes people coming to speak with a monk named Elder Zosima. One person who comes to see him is Madame Khokhlakov, and Madame Khokhklakov is discouraged by the state of her heart. She has thought a lot about what it means to love others and she sees some of the obstacles to it in her own character. Elder Zosima talks to her then about “active love” – love that actively works and serves. Love that is a service and a ministry.
And this is what Madam Khokhlakov says in response – she says:
“Active love? That’s another question, and what a question, what a question! You see, I love mankind so much that – would you believe it? – I sometimes dream of giving up all, all I have, of leaving Lise and going to become a sister of mercy. I close my eyes, I think and dream, and in such moments I feel an invincible strength in myself. No wounds, no festering sores could frighten me. I would bind them and cleanse them with my own hands, I would nurse the suffering, I am ready to kiss those sores …”
Elder Zosima interrupted her: “It’s already a great deal and very well for you that you dream of that in your mind and not of something else. Once and a while, by chance, you may really do some good deed.”
“‘Yes, but could I survive such a life for long?’ the lady went on heatedly, almost frantically as it were. ‘That’s the main question, that’s my most tormenting question of all. I close my eyes and ask myself: could you stand it for long on such a path? And if the sick man whose sores you are cleansing does not respond immediately with gratitude but, on the contrary, begins tormenting you with his whims, not appreciating and not noticing your philanthropic ministry, if he begins to shout at you, to make rude demands, even to complain to some sort of superiors (as often happens with people who are in pain) – what then? Will you go on loving, or not? And, imagine, the answer already came to me with a shudder: if there’s anything that would immediately cool my “active” love for mankind, that one thing is ingratitude. In short, I work for pay and demand my pay at once, that is, praise and a return of love for my love. Otherwise I’m unable to love anyone!’”
As Dostoevsky does so well, he takes some of the complex, often hidden, realities of the human heart, and displays us for them in honest, stark terms.
We may not feel exactly as Madame Khokhlakov does – but if we’re honest, we share at least some of her feelings, don’t we?
We too feel deep discouragement when we pour ourselves out in service and receive ingratitude back in return. Or when we serve and minister to someone and we see little fruit result from it. When we try to love someone and they respond to our work with disdain or indifference. We too feel deep discouragement. We lose our motivation. We lose heart, as Paul puts it. We wonder if we can continue in the work.
I want you to consider this evening where you see this in your life – in what relationship or ministry you face this discouragement, or at least the potential for this discouragement.
And when I say “ministry” in this context, I mean the term fairly broadly. If you are a Christian – trusting in Christ and anointed by baptism – then you are a member of God’s priestly people. You are called to serve as a priest to other Christians and to the world as a whole. Of course there is a special priesthood of ministers within God’s people, but from the book of Exodus onwards, God has also identified a general priesthood of all who are members of His people.
And as a royal priesthood, we Christians each have places where we serve – places where we are God’s instruments to bring love, and help, and healing, both to other Christians and to non-Christians. It could be with a peer or with someone we minister to who is less mature than we are, it could be in an organic relationship or in a formal ministry, it could be to a Christian or a non-Christian, but each of us have those relationships – those ministries to others.
We each have peers we minister to – friends or acquaintances, fellow church members or co-workers, family members or spouses – people whom we are called to love well – to be an instrument of Christ to, to be a means of expressing God’s love.
Who are those people whom you minister to in that way? And how do you encounter the type of discouragement described by Madam Khokhlakov? Who in this category has responded coldly to your attempts to serve them? Who have you been discouraged by, when you pour yourself out for them, but you see no growth? Maybe a friend who seems to be stuck in a bad pattern of life. Maybe a spouse who you are trying to love well, but who right now seems to be responding only with coldness. Who are the peers you are called to minister to right now – but maybe feeling discouraged about? Who you are maybe beginning to lose heart over?
In addition to peers we also often minister to those who are less mature than we are. The most obvious category for many of us is our own children. We are called to minister to and serve our children, to be the primary providers of their physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs … and it can be incredibly discouraging work. They can be incredibly ungrateful, and even cruel, and it does not take long to become discouraged – to lose heart. To wonder why things aren’t going better. To wonder what we have done wrong.
And finally, in addition to these natural and organic relationships, you may also have some sort of formal ministry you participate in – whether teaching Sunday school, working with our ESL ministry, or volunteering your time in some other way.
But whatever it is for you – formal or informal, to a Christian or a non-Christian, to a peer, a child, or someone else – ask yourself where in your ministry you have experienced discouragement. Where have you poured yourself out but seen no fruit as a result – or maybe even received ingratitude, coldness, or indifference as a response?
We are reminded this evening that in his own ministry, Paul faced similar – in fact, probably greater – reasons for discouragement than we do, and in Corinth especially, as the people he had poured himself out for, served sacrificially, and suffered for, now questioned whether he should really be trusted or even listened to, and considered allying themselves with Paul’s enemies instead.
But it’s in the midst of that situation that Paul tells us that he does not lose heart. And we should probably ask: Well, why not? Why wouldn’t you lose heart in that situation? Why wouldn’t you be discouraged?
And thankfully, Paul gives us an answer. He tells us why he has not lost heart. And his reasoning applies to us as well.
What we see from Paul in this text is that as we minister to others, we must remember our enemy, our message, and our position.
We learn from Paul that if we want to combat the discouragement we feel when those we minister to and serve, hurt, or reject, or are indifferent to us, then what we need to do is to remember our enemy, remember our message, and remember our position.
We’re going to look at those three elements this evening, as they appear in our text.
So first, if we are to combat discouragement in our ministry to others, we must remember our enemy.
We see this in verses 3 and 4 – Paul writes:
“3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
Paul begins his explanation of why he is not discouraged by pointing to the fact that he has a cosmic enemy – Satan, who is actively opposing his work – who is veiling the hearts of those he ministers to.
Now – this might strike us as odd at first. How would knowing that we have a cosmic enemy fight off discouragement when a ministry in our lives seems fruitless?
It reminds me, oddly enough, of an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond.
I know it seems odd, but bear with me. On the show Everybody Loves Raymond there was a regular tension point over the fact that Ray’s mom Marie is a great cook, but Ray’s wife Deborah is not that great of a cook. And this causes conflict at regular intervals.
But in one episode, called “Marie’s Meatballs,” Ray goes to Marie and asks her if she will teach Deborah how to cook meatballs the way Marie does.
And Marie says she will do it. She shows up that afternoon with a box of all the supplies – all the ingredients and spices they will need to use.
They spend the afternoon cooking – Deborah doing all the work while Marie watches and talks her through it. That night Deborah serves the meatballs to Ray. He takes a bite and tells her it’s great. And he convinces her at first – until she catches him trying to spit it out behind her back. It turns out that they are not so good. Deborah spends the rest of the night agonizing over what could have gone wrong – why the results were so off from what she had expected. She is upset – confused, frustrated, and certainly discouraged.
Finally, after not being able to figure out what went wrong, Deborah gives up. Ray comes down in the middle of the night and finds her gathering up all the supplies and spices that Marie, her mother-in-law, had brought over that afternoon, and loading them back in the box to return to her. Deborah is giving up on being a good cook. But as she picks up one of the bottles of spices that Marie had brought her, the label falls of. And Deborah sees that there is another label underneath it.
What was actually a bottle of tarragon had been intentionally mislabeled as basil, by gluing a label for basil over the original label of the tarragon bottle. And it all comes together. Marie, not wanting to be matched or outdone by Deborah, had sabotaged her. She had mislabeled a spice so that Deborah would use the wrong thing and it would ruin the meatballs.
In that moment, Deborah learns that in the kitchen, she has an enemy. She realizes that she’s been sabotaged by, as she puts it, “an evil genius.” But Deborah’s first response to this new information is not more discouragement. It’s actually relief. Deborah is relieved. In fact she’s almost giddy!
Now – why is that? Why is Deborah happy and relieved to learn that she has an enemy? Because the fact that Deborah has an enemy means that the poor results were not necessarily her fault. In fact, it means that it can both be true that she acted as a perfect cook … AND that the meatballs came out badly.
Odd as it may sound, Deborah’s discouragement is removed for one of the same reasons the Apostle Paul’s is.
Paul too has worked hard. He has ministered to and served others. He has preached the gospel. But his ministry has sometimes – in fact frequently – been rejected by others.
If Paul and those he was ministering to were the only ones involved, then we might assume that the cause of the fruitless ministry was Paul – that he was responsible for the failure of others to respond rightly to his work.
But Paul points out that he and those he’s ministering to are not the only active ones. Paul has a cosmic enemy who is actively working to sabotage Paul’s work. Satan is actively working to put a veil over the hearts of those Paul serves.
And because he knows that, when things go badly, Paul does not lose heart. Because he knows that it can both be true that he has ministered faithfully, and that those he ministered to have responded to him with indifference or even rejection.
Think again of that relationship – that ministry – where you might be discouraged. Do you think about the fact that you have an enemy in that ministry? Do you think about how, as you try to serve that other person, a cosmic enemy is trying to thwart your work?
The implications are important. It means that an individual or a church could faithfully serve someone, and love them, and that person could still in the end bear little fruit, or even reject the ministry they received, and that such a response is not necessarily the fault of those who served them.
It means that you can love a friend, a family member, or a spouse well, and they could respond negatively and it’s not necessarily your fault – because as much as your work may be good and faithful, it’s not the only work being done. Someone else is fighting against you. And the final result is NOT, at the end of the day, within your control.
It also means that we can parent our children well, but that our parenting will not guarantee that things will go well or easily, or that they will be free of sin. It means that when they go through a period of struggle or disobedience, it is not necessarily the result of a failure on our part. Our part is to continue to parent them faithfully. But a child is not a machine. It’s not just a matter of pulling the right levers and if we do it just so they will be without sin. No. There is a battle over our children’s hearts – just as there is over ours. God gives us his covenant promises, this is true. But from day to day and from season to season there is still a battle – a back and forth. When we expect that – when we know that we have an enemy working against the work we put into our children, then we will not be as shocked or as discouraged when our hard work does not bear immediate fruit in their lives.
Now of course we want to see progress in those we minister to – especially in those we love. Our desire to see them grow doesn’t change.
But realizing our ministry to them is in the context of a battle with Satan resets our expectations.
Imagine you arrive one morning at the north end of a field. You decide that your goal is to head south – and to move as far south as you can that day. And after an entire day of trying to fulfill that goal, you make it only one mile south from where you started.
How you view that amount of progress depends wholly on the context within which it happened. If you are just a person traveling – whether by foot, or by bike, or by car – then one mile is kind of pathetic for a day’s work. But if you are a soldier, who is part of an army, who is working hard to push back a well-armed and well-fortified enemy, then advancing one mile may be a great success.
So it is with those we serve and minister to. When we realize our service to them is part of a battle over their hearts, we see the results differently. And if our results for the moment are small, or even negative, if we view them in the context of a battle, we will not be nearly as discouraged as we would be if we thought we were working without any opposition.
So first, Paul reminds us that we have an enemy.
Next, Paul reminds us of our message and our position. He does this in verse five – he writes:
“For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.”
The word translated “servant” in this verse is often (and maybe more accurately) translated “slave”.
Paul here reminds us of our message and our position. First, he reminds us that we do not preach ourselves – we preach Christ. Our ministry is not about us, it is about our King.
And so far from our work being about us, so far from it being about self-promotion, Paul says that as heralds of Christ, as messengers of the King, we are servants to – we are slaves to – those we serve … not for their sake, but for Jesus’s sake.
We, as Christians, Paul often affirms, are slaves of Christ. And Christ has given us the task to go out and witness to others of this kingship – to proclaim his kingship by our words and deeds. Paul reminds us that as Christ’s slaves, we proclaim not ourselves, but Him. And then Paul adds that part of our commission, part of our calling, is to serve those whom we make our proclamation to, as slaves, for Jesus’s sake – not because those we serve have such a right over us, but because Christ our true master has called us to that.
And so Paul shows us that we must remember our message and our position. Our message is Christ. Our position is to serve those we minister to as slaves, for Jesus’s sake – because He is our master.
Gregory the Great was one of the last church fathers of the Patristic period, and the bishop of Rome from 590 to 604. He is actually the second most cited church father by John Calvin in his Institutes, and Calvin refers to him as the last true or genuine bishop of Rome.
And Gregory was a man who tried to live out what Paul is talking about in this text. That’s part of why Calvin liked him so much. Contrary to what some people argue, the Roman bishop did not have unquestioned supremacy in the early church. In fact there were often power struggles between several of the top bishops, or “patriarchs,” in the church at that time. One bishop who regularly vied for supremacy at the time was the patriarch of Constantinople. And during the time while Gregory was bishop of Rome, the bishop of Constantinople took to himself the title “Ecumenical Patriarch,” and by doing so, claimed supremacy over all the other leaders in the church.
Gregory condemned this title, but he did not respond, as others might in the future, by ascribing that title or a greater title to himself. Instead, he insisted on referring to himself with the title “Servant of the Servants of God.”
Gregory did not want to preach himself. He instead saw himself as a slave to others, for Jesus’s sake.
But beyond that, Gregory wanted other pastors to see themselves the same way. Gregory wrote a book intended to be used in the training and direction of bishops and pastors. It’s often titled Pastoral Care or The Pastoral Rule. In it, Gregory warns about the dangers of making our ministry about us, instead of about Christ. This is what he writes – he says:
“That man is an enemy of his Redeemer who on the strength of the good works he performs, desires to be loved by the Church, rather than by [Christ]. Indeed, a servant is guilty of adulterous thought, if he craves to please the eyes of the bride when the bridegroom sends gifts to her by him. In truth, when this self-love captures [one’s] mind, it sometimes rushes him into inordinate laxity, sometimes into asperity.” (Gregory the Great, Pastoral Care II.8)
What is Gregory saying here?
Gregory compares a pastor – though it works for any Christian serving someone else – to a servant whom a bridegroom employs to send gifts to his bride. The task of such a servant is not to draw attention to himself, but to faithfully serve his master, the bridegroom, and to draw the bride’s thoughts and gaze to her groom, by delivering the gifts the bridegroom sends her through the servant.
Imagine though, that the servant instead tried to get the bride to notice and admire him, rather than the bridegroom. Such a servant would be an unfaithful one – he would be an adulterous servant. That, says Gregory, is what is happening when a pastor wants his church to notice and admire him for his ministry, rather than wanting them to be more enamored with Christ as a result of his ministry.
That point should strike us as both an incredibly accurate summary of what we are doing in our hearts when we make any ministry about people noticing us – and it should cause us to reflect, as we begin to realize how often we do just that. How often we make our service about people noticing us, and so try to divert the bride’s gaze from the bridegroom, and onto ourselves.
Gregory says that in addition to the unfaithfulness involved, approaching our ministry this way will have other effects on us as well. It will make us lazy and self-satisfied when we get good results, and frantic and discouraged when we get bad results.
And we can see this in our ministry to others, can’t we? We are so quick to make things about us rather than Christ. So every success becomes a trophy for us, and every failure a condemnation of us. We act as if we are the message – as if we are the focus, and we are the central person in the interaction, rather than seeing ourselves as slaves – as servants pointing to the bridegroom, pointing to the King.
How do you tend to do that?
Maybe one example will suffice. For those of you with children – whether younger or older – when they publically do something they should not, what is your response like?
Whether they are teenagers or adults, and they do something wrong publicly, something sinful or foolish; or if they are younger, and they misbehave at school, or church, or at a friend’s house; or if they are even younger than that … and maybe they decide that the middle of the sermon is the best time to be defiant and throw a fit … if you stop and think about your reaction to them – how much of it is about your concern for their relationship to Christ … and how much of your response is about what other people might think about you?
In our response to situations like this we get a glimpse of how much we are concerned about the message of Christ and serving our children for Christ’s sake, and how much we are concerned with how we look to others.
Gregory tells us that our minds should be so set on the task our master has given us – in this case raising, loving, nurturing, and rebuking our children well – we should be so focused on directing their eyes to Christ, that we become self-forgetful. It is not about us.
But instead, Gregory wants us to admit, we are often like that adulterous servant – trying to catch the eye of other people for ourselves, instead of directing their gaze to him – wanting our children to behave, so we will look admirable to others.
This is not an easy lesson to learn. It’s not a single decision, but a life-long discipline. But Paul encourages us here to pursue it. It is something we must pursue both for the good of those we serve, and for our own good. Because the more we pursue it, the better we will be at pointing others to Christ, and the more we view our work that way, the less discouragement we will feel as we fulfill God’s call on our lives. Because every rejection, every lukewarm response, every failure, will not be viewed by us as a verdict about our worth, but will be seen as another call to direct our own eyes and the eyes of others to the Master we serve.
So, we remember our enemy, our message, and our position. How do we bring those three together?
I think, once again, the picture of a battle is helpful for us.
First, we have already said that we must remember that we have an enemy. We are not just a man or a woman trying to walk up a hill, we are soldiers who are trying to take a hill while under enemy fire.
Second, we do what we do for a bigger cause than our own. We fight not to take that hill in our own name. We serve not for our own glory. But we fight for a cause much bigger than ourselves. We fight in the name of Christ. We serve for His glory. And so the outcome of the battle is not finally a verdict on us, it is about the advancement of Christ and his kingdom.
Third, we remember our role. We are humble soldiers. Some of us may have a bit of authority over a few others. But none of us is the Commander. None of us is the King. And that last point is important.
Because in the face of a cosmic enemy we can find a new kind of discouragement. We can wonder if we have any hope of making any progress at all – of seeing any fruit from our work. Who are we against such an enemy?
But that is where we are reminded of the power and wisdom of the One we fight for. A soldier need not have a plan to win the war. A soldier knows his duty and his job is to serve faithfully. He trusts those over him to bring the power and wisdom to bear that are necessary to win the war. And in the same way we must trust Christ our king.
Paul ends this passage by reminding us of the power at the command of our King. In verse six he writes:
“For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
Alluding both to his own miraculous conversion on the rode to Damascus, and to every other ordinary conversion – every case where God works to change someone’s heart – Paul reminds us that the same power that created the universe is at our King’s disposal for changing both our own hearts, and the hearts of those we serve.
We serve a King who is powerful when we are not. And when we are ministering to others, at His service, He is there, and He is at work. Yes, we have an enemy, but we also have an all-powerful King.
Another way to put it is like this: Earlier in this letter Paul put our personal conflicts in the context of a cosmic battle in order to show us how significant they really are. Here Paul puts our ministry in the context of a cosmic battle in order to show us that the weight is not all on our shoulders.
And an important implication of this viewpoint is that we are not just a soldier on the battlefield, trying to take a hill from an enemy. It means we also have a direct communication line to our Commander and King. And we can plead with Him to throw His resources into taking that hill that He has called us to fight for in His service. In prayer, we have the ear of the King. We can plead with Him, and ask for His help, and He hears us. We do not always know how He will respond in one case or another, but we know three things: that He is powerful, that He is trustworthy, and that He wants us to bring such things to Him in prayer.
And so whatever situation of service or ministry you face – view it as Paul does. Remember you have an enemy. Remember you fight for Christ’s kingdom and not your own. Remember you cannot yourself control the final outcome of that person you serve. But remember also that you serve a faithful God who can.
Take those things to heart.
Love well. Serve faithfully. Pray often. Trust God. Do not lose heart.
This sermon benefited from material from:
Barnett, Paul. The Second Epistle to the Corinthians. NICNT. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997.
Wright, N.T. Paul for Everyone: 2 Corinthians. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2004.
Illustrations are Drawn From:
Dostoevsky, Fyodor, Brothers Karamazov. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990.
Everybody Loves Raymond. Season 2, Episode 15: “Marie’s Meatballs.”
Gregory the Great, Pastoral Care. Translated by Henry Davis, S. J. Ancient Christian Writers. New York, NY: Newman Press, 1978.