2 Corinthians 4:1-6: An Exegetical Study

 

Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. 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. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. 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. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 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.” (2 Corinthians 4:1-6 ESV)

 

“We are nothing. The whole power is of God; who so orders events as to make his power apparent. I am so perplexed, persecuted, down-trodden and exposed to death, as to render it evident that a divine power is exercised in my preservation and continued efficiency. My continuing to live and labor with success is proof that Jesus lives.” – Charles Hodge1

A Brief Introduction to 2 Corinthians

 

Before one can begin to exegete a text of Scripture, one must understand who the chosen passage was written by and to, as well as some background to the entirety of the book itself. It is this lack of understanding of a particular book of the Bible that contributes in a great way to misinterpretation of the Biblical text.

 

2 Corinthians was written by Paul to the church at Corinth, as is seen in verse one of the book,

 

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God that is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in the whole of Achaia” (ESV Emphasis mine)

 

The fact that this letter is written to Corinth has bearing on how we interpret its content. Corinth, a giant cultural melting pot with a great diversity of wealth, religions, and moral standards, had a reputation for being fiercely independent and as decadent as any city in the world. The Romans had destroyed Corinth in 146 B.C. after a rebellion. But in 46 B.C., the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar rebuilt it because of its strategic seaport. By Paul’s day (A.D. 50), the Romans had made Corinth the capitol of Achaia (present-day Greece). It was a large city, offering Rome great profits through trade as well as the military protection of its ports. But the city’s prosperity made it ripe for all sorts of corruption. Idolatry flourished, and there were more than a dozen pagan temples employing at least a thousand prostitutes.”2 Obviously, Corinth was one mess of a city, and much of this city’s transgression found its way into the church located therein. In fact, in 1 Corinthians chapter five, Paul points out,

 

“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife.” (1 Corinthians 5:1 ESV)

 

So the Corinthian church was recalcitrant, even in the eyes of pagans.

 

Although this aids in the interpretation of the letter, it doesn’t tell us why Paul wrote to the Corinthians a second time. 2 Corinthians was written by Paul as a “personal letter, filled with expressions of deep emotion. As such, it affords us extraordinary insight into the gospel ministry as carried out by Paul. Two chief themes reveal the nature of Paul’s apostolic ministry. In [chapters] 1-7 it is a service of divine comfort and encouragement in the midst of suffering and troubles…and in [chapters] 10-13 it is an experience of God’s strength manifested in human weakness…Supporting themes include the blameless nature of Paul’s conduct,…his frequent suffering for the sake of the church and for God’s glory,…his strong love for all his churches, especially the Corinthian church,…his apostolic authority to build them up and defeat any opposition,…and the frequent emphasis that Paul judges not according to worldly standards but according to the invisible spiritual realm known to the eyes of faith.”3

 

At this point, it would appear, that one has enough information to begin looking into the biblical text itself.

 

This Ministry That The Christian Has

 

Verse 1 states,

 

“Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart.”

 

What is “this ministry” that Paul says that he and his readers have “by the mercy of God”? Well, looking back in the letter to the Corinthians, one will find this brief passage:

 

For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? (2 Corinthians 2:15-16 ESV)

 

Paul is here pointing out that part of “this ministry” that we have is that we are the “aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing”. As Doug Goins states, “Everywhere we go, we leave behind the unforgettable fragrance of Jesus”4.

 

A few verses after this, Paul points out that part of our ministry is to live a lifestyle of sincerity. Paul states,

 

For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ. (2 Corinthians 2:17 ESV)

 

In view of these couple of verses, it would seem that “this ministry” that Paul is speaking of has more to do with how a Christian lives than with what he believes or in what way he presents his message.

 

Now, there are some fundamental things that make a Christian a Christian. To have everlasting life (to be a Christian) one must believe on Jesus. John 3:16, a verse we are all very familiar with, states,

 

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16 ESV)

 

The results of not believing are stated a couple of verses later.

 

Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (John 3:18 ESV)

 

Paul is not saying that there is not an absolute truth. He is not denying the exclusivity of the Christian message. Paul is saying that right doctrine and proper dogma is not to be the entire focus of “this ministry”, but that the ministry is one that gives God the most glory possible. This kind of ministry comes from, once a person becomes a Christian, living a holy life in full reliance on the grace of God.

 

How A Christian Gets “This Ministry”

 

After mentioning “this ministry”, Paul makes an interesting statement. Let’s look at the verse again.

 

Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. (Emphasis mine)

 

What Paul is saying here is that “this ministry” is not something that a Christian achieves on his own. It is given to him by the mercy of God; and because this ministry is given to the Christian, he does not “lose heart”.

 

The Result of “This Ministry” Being Given “By the Mercy of God”

 

A Christian has no excuse to “lose heart” when his ministry gets tough if it has truly been given by the mercy of God. Jesus told His followers,

 

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30 ESV)

 

Only the most pathetic of Christians, and of human beings for that matter, would faint under a light burden.

 

In 2 Corinthians 4:1, the word rendered “lose heart” is the Greek word ἐκκακέω (ekkakeō)”. The word literally means “to be bad or weak” and has the nuance of “being weary”.

 

Paul uses this same word in other of his writings as well. Here are some examples.

 

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. (2 Corinthians 4:16 ESV Emphasis mine)

 

And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. (Galatians 6:9 ESV Emphasis mine)

 

So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory. (Ephesians 3:13 ESV Emphasis mine)

 

As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good. (2 Thessalonians 3:13 ESV Emphasis mine)

 

When Paul uses the word ἐκκακέω, he seems, the majority of the time, to associate it with “doing good”. The one time that he doesn’t in connection with doing good is when he is speaking of his own sufferings and he tells them, in essence, “Don’t worry about me. I am suffering for your sake and it should bring you joy as it beings me closer to being with the Lord”.

 

The Way Paul Does “This Ministry”

 

Once he tells the Corinthian Christians that they have no excuse to be tired over their ministry, he says,

 

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. (2 Corinthians 4:2 ESV)

 

To quote Doug Goins again:

 

“In verse 2, he says he doesn’t need any kind of devious supports, and no phony props to make life and ministry work” 5.

 

A pastor by the name of John Paul Miller states, “Paul didn’t handle holy things with unclean hands or an impure heart”6.

This is such a rich verse. It is so full of practical advice for the modern preacher. Too many times, pastors in today’s American church (and quite possibly elsewhere in the world as well) are willing to sacrifice proper Biblical teaching to bring people together. This was shown to be most true with the appointment of the openly homosexual bishop in the Episcopal church. An Episcopal Bishop made the statement, “If you must make a choice between heresy and schism, always choose heresy”7. This is the mindset of most people behind pulpits today. The latter portion of 2 Corinthians 4:2 just isn’t the way they do ministry.

 

 

We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, (2 Corinthians 4:2b ESV)

 

 

“Paul says he will never water down the Word of God or distort it to please the hearers”8. When someone waters down what the Bible says about anything, but particularly salvation, they begin preaching what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace”. The grace of God is anything but cheap. Relying on man-made rules for preaching and church growth is cheapening the grace of God and, in essence, saying that His grace is not sufficient to run the ministry. This is why so many ministers get tired. They are not relying on the grace of God but on the words and teaching of sinful and fallible men.

 

What the Christian Should Rely On for “This Ministry”

 

 

Paul ends verse 2 with the statement,

 

 

by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. (2 Corinthians 4:2c ESV)

 

 

“This ministry” that the Christian has been given by the grace of God is to be done by the grace of God. He should be relying on God for every aspect of “this ministry”.

 

 

When the Christian tells someone the truth of the Scriptures, people are not going to like it very much. That is part of what it means to be a Christian. As was pointed out earlier,

 

For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? (2 Corinthians 2:15-16 ESV)

 

A Christian’s living of a Godly life may lead someone to reject Jesus Christ. This is just the way that it is going to be. He can’t try to force the gospel down someone’s throat. He can’t try to make getting saved look like something that the person needs to “choose”. The responsibility of the Christian is to live a holy life and to serve God and to live out his “chief end”. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever”9. This can only be done when he relies fully on God and preaches the truth and lives out his life in such a way that people will know that he has been given a ministry of God.

 

Who the Gospel is Veiled To

 

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. (2 Corinthians 4:3 ESV)

 

This is a self-explanatory verse. Paul has just finished up stating that he and his people don’t use man-made methods of preaching the gospel and they don’t twist the Scriptures to tickle the ears of their listeners but that they preach the truth the way the truth is.

 

Now Paul is saying, “If people don’t understand what we’re saying, than it is because they are going to hell and we can’t do anything about it”. Paul is reliant on God for the outcome of his preaching of the gospel. If someone doesn’t understand, he can’t force them to understand and can’t give them enough evidence to convince them. They will understand only if God grants them the ability to understand (1 Corinthians 2:14).

 

Why People Don’t Listen To the Gospel

 

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. 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. (2 Corinthians 4:3-4 ESV)

 

The reason that people don’t receive the gospel and can’t seem to get a good understanding of it is because “the god of this world” has blinded them to it. Most people interpret that phrase (“the god of this world”) as being Satan. This is not a wrong interpretation, but what if there is a “better” interpretation?

 

People don’t readily worship Satan these days, at least not for the most part. Most people worship other things. Whether those things are money, sex, or drugs, the majority of people don’t say that those things are “Satan”. “The god of this world”, and this is my honest opinion, is anything that would take our worship away from the true God. Yes, ultimately this would be Satan, but when a Christian decides to pursue an evening of sexual encounters over the glory of God, he doesn’t say to himself, “Tonight, I am going to worship Satan”. His mind is on the women and his pleasure. “We are far too easily pleased”10 is how C. S. Lewis would say it.

 

The Whole Focus of “This Ministry”

 

For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 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. (2 Corinthians 4:5-6 ESV)

 

As Paul always does, he concludes by bringing the focus back to Jesus. Paul may be boastful at times and prideful, but he always takes the focus off of himself in the end. The same is true for the Christian and his ministry as well. The focus should not be on himself and what he is doing but on Christ and what He is doing. “We need to keep on telling people who don’t know the Lord Jesus, that he is the Lord. Literally, it’s not ourselves we proclaim, but Jesus is Lord. It’s not about making ourselves indispensable to them so that we become some sort of fount of all relational and spiritual insight and biblical understanding. Jesus should always be our central focus in our conversations, our council and in our communication with non-believers”11.

 

Paul points out that God “has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6b ESV). A Christian’s coming to any kind of knowledge of God is based on God revealing Himself to them. “God’s sovereign initiative is necessary to enable us to embrace the gospel message. Just as God’s original creative word made light where there was no light, so now God’s creative word gives spiritual life and understanding of the gospel where previously there was none”12.


1 Parallel Classic Commentary on the New Testament. Mark Water. 2004 John Hunt Publishing Ltd. Pg. 815

2 Life Application Study Bible NIV. 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991 by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Pg. 2061

3 The Reformation Study Bible. R.C. Sproul, General Editor. 2005. Ligonier Ministries. Pg. 1670-1671

4 http://www.pbc.org/dp/goins/4637.html

5 http://www.pbc.org/dp/goins/4637.html

6 http://www.calvarychapel.org/redbarn/library.htm

7 http://www.washtimes.com/national/20040131-120323-2290r.htm

8 The Reformation Study Bible. R.C. Sproul, General Editor. 2005. Ligonier Ministries. Pg. 1676

9 http://www.reformed.org/documents/WSC_frames.html

10 http://www.desiringgod.org/who_is_dgm/about_piper/ideas.html

11 http://www.pbc.org/dp/goins/4637.html

12 The Reformation Study Bible. R.C. Sproul, General Editor. 2005. Ligonier Ministries. Pg. 1676

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