There’s a certain CONFIDENCE that comes from knowing you’re in the right. That you know the TRUTH. And that OTHERS have got it wrong. You don’t have to move anywhere. You can proclaim it clearly and confidently. Loud and clear. And people can like it, or lump it.
EVIDENCE may say otherwise. You may LOOK small and insignificant. Weak and helpless. Just a small green dot on a radar screen. But the reality is something different. You’re planted firm on a rock that doesn’t move. Your future is certain, you’re SOLID, and you’re not going ANYWHERE.
Whether you’re a lighthouse keeper in the Irish Sea, or the Apostle Paul in 1st century Greece, or a Christian in 21st century Sydney.
Truth and clarity (1-6)
We pick up Paul’s letter at ch 4 , where he’s just finished talking about talking about the type of GLORIOUS MINISTRY God’s given him. See it there at the end of ch 3?
A ministry that sees people turn to the Lord, that sees the veil that blinds them removed from their eyes so they can see God for who he really is. A ministry that leads to people being transformed into the image of God, made more and more like Jesus as they allow him to be the king of more and more of their lives.
And so he begins Ch 4.
4:1 Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have THIS MINISTRY, we DO NOT LOSE HEART.
In other words. There’s LOTS of things about Paul’s life that would make it tempting to give up. To feel sorry for himself. To take a well-earned break. But it’s the fact that his work sees CHANGED LIVES that gets him out of bed in the morning. Since he has a ministry that CHANGES LIVES, he doesn’t lose heart.
Which is a word FOR ME. I must admit I’ve been doing a bit of soul-searching in the last year or so. It’s looked, at various stages recently, like the church would run out of money to keep paying me. And that I might end up looking for somewhere else to work.
At the moment it looks like we’ll finish the year with about $6000 in the bank. And a loss of about $4000 for the year. So I’m safe for a while yet.
But it caused me to start looking back over the 7 years I’ve been here. And looking for what DIFFERENCE I’d made. Whether things were better at Western Blacktown NOW than when I’d arrived. A reason for me NOT TO LOSE HEART.
I was looking for CHANGE. I wanted to compare the BEFORE and AFTER photos, to see whether there’d been GROWTH.
It’s a funny job, really. Because you can’t get to the end of the month. And report to your production meeting, or your sales meeting, “Yes, I’ve built 7000 widgets” Or “I’ve signed 4 new contracts, and sold 65 do-dads.”
But in ministry, often, from one year to the next, there’s not a lot of VISIBLE evidence that you’ve been significant AT ALL.
And so, in my darker moments, I’d feel a bit DOWN that things weren’t really powering ahead like SOME churches. That there wasn’t a big budget, or multiple staff, or mass conversions, or huge youth groups.
But the reality is God IS working in people. Transforming them. Gradually changing their attitudes and their characters. Shaping their hearts and their hands and their tongues.
And as I look around here, I can SEE EVIDENCE of that change. God IS AT WORK. And that’s ENCOURAGING.
4:1 Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have THIS MINISTRY, we DO NOT LOSE HEART.
And what that means in practice is that we present God’s message with TRUTH and CLARITY. You see, if you can see evidence that God’s Word IS powerful and effective. That it IS changing people. Then that, to put it slightly crassly, affects YOUR ATTITUDE to your PRODUCT.
If you’ve got a DODGY PRODUCT you know people don’t really NEED, or don’t really WANT. Then you work out some sort of SALES PITCH. Like those telephone salesmen. A whole series of questions people can’t say NO to. Which at the end of it, hopefully, they’ll be convinced by, or TRICKED, into buying something they had no intention of buying at the START of the pitch.
I was the target for one just like it on Friday. A nice young , said she was from A CLEANING COMPANY, offering me a free clean of a carpet or rug or mattress.
As I looked at the brochure, in small print I saw. The free offer is part of a presentation of KIRBY products. And straight away I wasn’t interested. Because I’ve had experience with KIRBY. It’s a VACUUM CLEANER. And the offer was basically to sit through a 1 hour high pressure sales pitch, while they SHOWED you how they cleaned the rug.
Because, when my younger brother first left school, he worked selling KIRBY vacuum cleaners. American made, cost over $2000 – and that was about 15 years ago.
And he got paid for each DEMONSTRATION he did, as well as a commission for each SALE. And he did a demo for US. But he was the WORST salesman in the world. Because he didn’t really BELIEVE in the product. He said, “You don’t really want to buy this. Because it’s too expensive. It’s GOOD, but not WORTH IT!”
He didn’t last long in that job. I think he only sold TWO – one to MUM. And one to her BEST FRIEND!
But when you BELIEVE in your PRODUCT, you’ll do whatever you can to point out how GOOD IT IS to people. And Paul’s like that with the gospel. The good news about Jesus. Look there at v2.
…we do not lose heart. 2 Rather, we have renounced SECRET and shameful ways; we do not use DECEPTION, nor do we DISTORT the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth PLAINLY we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.
The gospel needs to be presented CLEARLY. Without TRICKS. As plain, and as obviously as we can. Because it’s by HEARING THE MESSAGE that God works in people to CHANGE THEM. He’s the one who opens eyes, not the cleverness of our pitch.
So they need to hear it LOUD AND CLEAR. And not with SECRET TRICKS, or in a DISTORTED way.
It’s something we’re tempted to do, isn’t it? To invite people to an evangelistic event. Like a men’s breakfast. But not tell them that the gospel will be presented. And they’ll be CHALLENGED to consider Jesus.
Or underplaying what’s really going on.
Or we doubt that people will be convinced by the message itself. And so we feel the need to JAZZ IT UP a bit. Perhaps hold back on a few of the bits we think are less attractive. Like sin and judgment.
Or we try to pump up people’s EMOTIONS. So that they’ll make a rash decision.
And yet, Paul says it’s not like that with Christianity. The message is SO GOOD, all we need to do is make it as CRYSTAL CLEAR as we can. Removing anything that might cause people to misunderstand. Or be distracted.
Polishing up the lens so that the searchlight of Jesus can shine into the dark corners of people’s lives. And restore their SIGHT. Give them LIFE.
Because the world IS a dark place. Which is just how Satan LIKES it. See there in v4?
4 The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
He’ll do ANYTHING to stop people HEARING. To stop people SEEING the truth about Jesus. Microphones not working. Kids misbehaving. Cars breaking down. Late nights and sleeping in. Excuses. Distractions.
All things Satan uses to stop people HEARING.
But God’s WEAPON, his ENDOSCOPE for delivering his light to the darkest corners of people’s lives is Christians speaking of what they’ve found. Speaking truthfully and clearly about Jesus.
And that means presenting things WELL. Plain, interesting talks. Clear amplification. Bright overheads. Pictures. Colour. Explanations. Page numbers. Child-minding.
All done/ so that the MESSAGE will be as clear as possible.
Because that’s how God does his work. Through men and women telling OTHER men and women the message of forgiveness and reconciliation in Jesus. And then God opening eyes. Shining his light. Unblocking ears.
Power and weakness (7-9)
In the next paragraph Paul moves on from the MESSAGE to the MESSENGER. From the content to the conduit. And his point is the contrast between POWER AND WEAKNESS.
The glorious MESSAGE is only carried by a humble MESSENGER. Precious riches in a cheap, disposable container. There in v7. “TREASURE/ in jars of clay”.
Like a wad full of money kept in an old shoe box under the bed. Or a handful of diamonds kept in an old flower pot in the garden shed. The contrast between MESSAGE and MESSENGER. Between POWER and WEAKNESS.
Why would God choose to do things that way? Why not use impressive, charismatic people? Gifted, powerful, successful people? Wouldn’t that SUIT the message better?
The answer’s there in the second half of v7.
to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.
God’s chosen method of advertising is NOT to use powerful, successful, charismatic, attractive people. But normal, weak, everyday people. He’s after JARS, not STARS.
Because THAT way, it’s obvious that the power and change is coming from GOD, and not from people. It’s the way he’s ALWAYS worked. All the way through the Bible.
God didn’t choose Israel because they were big or strong or influential. In fact, the very opposite. Moses says to them in Deut 7:7
7 The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. 8 But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers
God likes WEAK and insignificant vessels. Because THAT way, He gets the credit.
When Gideon’s army turned up to fight the Midianites, he sent most of them home. Because otherwise they’d think the victory came from THEM. And so a huge army was defeated with just 300 soldiers. And God got the credit.
When King David was picked, Samuel overlooked all the bigger, older, stronger brothers. All the likely candidates. And chose the youngest brother – the baby of the family. Because God said “I don’t look at the things MAN looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, But I look at the HEART.”
Weak on the OUTSIDE, but full of God’s strength on the inside.
And it was no different with the Corinthians themselves. Here’s what Paul said about them in his FIRST letter. 1 Cor 1:26-29
26 Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were WISE by human standards; not many were INFLUENTIAL; not many were of NOBLE BIRTH. 27 But God chose the FOOLISH things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the WEAK things of the world to shame the strong. … 29 so that NO ONE MAY BOAST BEFORE HIM.
And when it came to the Apostle Paul and his companions, it was no different. God wants JARS, not STARS. Treasure in jars of clay.
But it’s more than God working DESPITE an unimpressive messenger. That’s like Andrew Johns winning a footy game DESPITE team-mates who aren’t very good.
Paul’s saying that God’s power is seen BECAUSE Paul is such a fragile vessel. God achieves his purposes. And builds a successful ministry exactly BECAUSE Paul is so unimpressive.
When people look at the churches Paul’s helped to grow, and the converts he’s seen. And the way Paul sticks at it. And never gives up. They would be expecting some sort of SUPERMAN.
And yet when they meet Paul, they realise how UN-impressive he is. Unassuming. And so, they’re forced to say – it MUST be God who’s doing all this. PAUL’s not capable of this. “To show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us”
God uses our very imperfections and flaws to make beautiful music.
Imagine someone gave you a Stradivarius violin – hundreds of years old. The best-sounding violins in the world. Worth millions of dollars. And you decided to give it a bit of a clean up. Because it looked a bit dark, and dirty and grimy. So you got to work with the steel wool and the sand paper. With the hot soapy water, and the paint .
And in the end, you MIGHT end up with a violin that LOOKED as good as a NEW ONE. But it wouldn’t SOUND as good. It wouldn’t give the beautiful resonance or sustain or tone it was famous for.
Because it’s the very imperfections and grime. The ancient treatment of the wood. That gives it some of its special character. It’s quality. Without the weakness, there wouldn’t be the special music.
And it’s the same with God working in YOU. It’s only as you recognise your own weakness, and dependence on God, that he can USE you, that he can show that the power comes from him. And so God can get the glory.
See how it works in practice? Look there in v8
8 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.
On the OUTSIDE, Paul and his companions looked weak and insignificant. They looked defeated and overcome. But the reality was God was working THROUGH that very weakness. Enabling them to stick it out. Achieving his purposes, bringing glory to himself.
Is that how YOU think when tough times happen? When you’re tempted to doubt that you can DO something. Or tempted to give up? Throw in the towel?
Your very persistence, and stickability, are signs that God is working his strength through your weakness.
And that should make us stick at it for another week. And rejoice that God is at work in us. And through us!
And it’s got implications for the type of churches we want to AIM for. If successful ministry is about weak and frail vessels, humanly unimpressive, who rely completely on God for strength. Then that’s the sort of CHURCH we should be AIMING at.
Not that we deliberately do things in a slip-shod, or unprofessional way – after all, we want to make sure things are AS CLEAR AS POSSIBLE – but we want to make sure our focus never STOPS at doing things well. That our CONFIDENCE isn’t in our professional presentation, and slick graphics, and buildings, and attendance.
But that we always recognise that confidence in THE MESSAGE, and in the one who WORKS through the message. They’re the things we need to be aiming for. They’re the things that last for eternity.
And we’ll see it in how we PRAY. If we really recognise God as the one who does the work, then we’ll be COMMITTED to bringing ALL we do to him. Asking for HIM to DO HIS WORK. To GUIDE us. To PRESERVE and KEEP us. To USE us. To achieve HIS PURPOSES. For HIS GLORY.
Seen and unseen (10-18)
And the way we can keep going. Keep sticking it out in the face of defeat and despair and disappointment. Is to recognise the difference between the SEEN and the UNSEEN.
Whether that be the difference between the INSIDE and the OUTSIDE. Or between the PRESENT and the FUTURE.
Firstly, the inside and the outside. Look there in v11.
11 For we who are alive are always being given over to for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body.
He’s summarising the sorts of things he was saying in vv 8 and 9. Following Jesus, and proclaiming him as the King of life and means that Paul will SUFFER like Jesus. Given over to . That’s on the OUTSIDE. Things look GRIM. DIRE. DANGEROUS. LY. A FAILURE.
But ON THE INSIDE, there’s something different happening. God is at work producing LIFE. The Christian is HEADED for eternal life. And God is at work in him making him more and more fit for heaven. God’s Spirit gives us the power to be conforming our thoughts and words and actions into the likeness of Jesus. Strengthening our FAITH. Intensifying our HOPE. Deepening our LOVE.
He puts it a bit differently down in v16.
16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.
The bones are getting stiffer. The skin a little saggier. The hair a little thinner, and greyer. The eyes a little blurrier. The mind a little slower. The back a little tighter.
But if God’s at work in us, we’re being RENEWED DAILY. ON THE INSIDE. Does that describe the transformations in YOUR life? Are you getting more and more like Jesus?
As you get older, are you MORE patient with people? Or are you developing into a y old man or woman?
Are you MORE generous with your time? Or are you in more and more of a hurry?
Is your love for God’s Word GROWING? Or are you getting BORED with studying the Bible?
Are you MORE keen to see people come to Jesus? Or does evangelism just make you feel TIRED?
Because God is at work among us, we can look beyond THE SEEN. To the UNSEEN. Beyond the OUTSIDE to the INSIDE.
But also beyond the PRESENT. To the FUTURE. That’s how Paul finishes the chapter. v17-18.
17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us AN ETERNAL GLORY that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is UNSEEN IS ETERNAL.
Things might be GORY NOW, but there’ll be GLORY LATER.
Because ETERNAL GLORY is the ultimate goal. That’s long-sighted ministry. Ministry that sees beyond the tiredness, The late nights. The unresponsive Scripture class. The unappreciative Bible study group. The poor singing. The thankless tasks repeated week after week. The doors shut in your face.
Therefore, we don’t lose heart
So don’t lose heart. Paul BEGAN the chapter that way. And he FINISHES with it. DON’T LOSE HEART.
Paul doesn’t lose heart. He keeps going. He sticks at it because his eyes are ON ETERNITY. His body’s getting weaker, and flabbier, and slower. But he’s becoming more like Jesus. And that’s better by far.
Life is full of trials, and struggles, and disappointments. But the end result will be an eternal glory far more significant than any of that.
Life is full of visible and noisy distractions – Temporary, passing. Noises, sights, smells. But Paul’s not looking at any of that. His eyes are on the unseen. The spiritual. The eternal.
And so he’ll proclaim his message to all who’ll hear it. The message that Jesus Christ is LORD. The staggeringly good news that God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.
That’s a message that’s worth standing rock solid on the promises of God. In the midst of a stormy sea.
That’s the message of brilliant light that’s worth beaming out like a searchlight into a dark world.
That’s a message that’s worth proclaiming LOUD and CLEAR.