5. Death: No Longer a Foe, but a Friend (2 Cor. 4:16-5:5)
4:16 Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. 17 For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, 18 while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.
5:1 For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven; 3 inasmuch as we, having put it on, shall not be found naked. 4 For indeed while we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed, but to be clothed, in order that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 Now He who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave to us the Spirit as a pledge.
Stepping back for a moment to look at the overall context of Paul’s two Epistles to the Corinthians may be helpful in our study. There seem to be a number of individual problems in Corinth (such as a man living with his father’s wife in chapter 5, or one Christian taking another to court in chapter 6) which we might call “symptomatic problems.” In addition, there are a number of “root problems” in Corinth. Two of those “root problems” are the church’s leadership and doctrinal departure.
Paul introduces the leadership problem almost immediately in 1 Corinthians 1. There are divisions within the church, each with a small group of followers of a particular individual in whom they take great pride. These leaders are regarded as superior to the others, and even to the apostles. From chapter 4 (verse 6), we know these cult-like leaders are not Paul, Apollos and Peter, but deliberately unnamed persons, some of whom Paul hopes will repent and be restored. These leaders are seemingly wise and powerful, but under their leadership, Christians feel free to go to court against one another (chapter 6) and to live in immorality (chapters 5-7), even participating in pagan idol worship celebrations (chapters 8-10). The celebration of the Lord’s Supper (chapter 11) and the weekly meeting of the church (chapters 12-14) are disasters. In the closing chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul endorses men like Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus as the kind of leaders the church should recognize and follow. By the end of 2 Corinthians, Paul speaks of some of the Corinthian leaders as “false apostles,” who proclaim a different gospel, and who, in truth, are servants of the evil one (chapters 11 and 12).
Doctrine is the second major problem in the Corinthian church. Paul quickly contrasts the “wisdom of God” and the “wisdom of men” in 1 Corinthians 1 and 2. Early on in his first epistle, he makes it clear that his message and that of his colleagues is Christ crucified, a message that is an offense to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles (1:22-25). Paul’s message is humanly unattractive and his methods simple and straightforward (see 2:1-5). He shows in chapters 8-10 how human reasoning could justify the participation of Christians in pagan worship celebrations, and that in doing so, men blindly disregard their weaker brethren, and even that they unwittingly are sitting at the “table of demons” (10:14-22). The greatest doctrinal problem of 1 Corinthians is the denial of the bodily resurrection of the dead. And so Paul climaxes his first epistle with a thorough teaching on the importance and implications of the resurrection of the dead in Christian theology. It is obviously the denial of this doctrine which prompts the “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die” lifestyle in Corinth. It is no wonder that the subject of death and dying recur in 2 Corinthians and that it is the central theme of our text.
With the last of Paul’s two recorded epistles drawing to a conclusion, these two problem areas seem to converge as Paul’s argument and instruction comes to a dramatic and decisive conclusion in chapters 11 and 12. These cult-like leaders, who have divided the church into little competitive groups under whose leadership serious moral sins have flourished, are those whose message and methods are inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ. They are thus in direct opposition to Paul and his faithful colleagues. In perverting the gospel, by denying the resurrection of the dead and other ways, and by opposing Paul, these men have shown themselves to be “wolves,” who are not “sheep” at all but “false apostles” who have come with a new gospel. It is time for the Corinthian church to recognize these men (and women) for what they are and to deal with them as the Scriptures require.
Two Crucial Questions
Two questions are crucial to the interpretation and application of our text: (1) To whom is Paul referring besides himself when he uses the plural pronouns “we” and “our”? (2) What does Paul mean by “death” and “dying” in our text? I must confess that I have changed my mind about the answers to both of these questions, and this has changed my understanding of Paul’s words to some extent. Let us begin by trying to answer these two questions before pressing on to tackle the meaning of the text itself.
Question 1: To whom is Paul referring by the terms “we” and “our”?
Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 2:17–3:2,
17 For we are not like many, peddling the word of God, but as from sincerity, but as from God, we speak in Christ in the sight of God. 3:1 Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some, letters of commendation to you or from you? 2 You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men (2 Corinthians 2:17–3:2, NASB).
Here, Paul seems to be speaking of himself, Silvanus, and Timothy as those who preached among the Corinthians (see 2 Corinthians 1:19). Paul contrasts their preaching of the gospel with the “peddling of the word of God,” which is being done by the false teachers and leaders at Corinth. The “we” speaks of those who preach the “apostolic message of the cross” in close association with Paul, as contrasted with those “false apostles” who come with a very different “gospel” (2 Corinthians 11:1-15; compare Galatians 1:6-10).
Paul clearly distinguishes himself and his colleagues in the gospel ministry from the Corinthian saints in 2 Corinthians 4:12: “So death works in us, but life in you” (2 Corinthians 4:12, NASB, emphasis mine).
All of this makes me reluctant to assume that whenever Paul uses “we” or “us” in our passage, he is speaking of all saints. I believe in 2 Corinthians 2:12–6:10 Paul defends not just himself as an apostle, but those who are true apostles while he exposes the false apostles. Paul is not just defending himself and his ministry, but the gospel ministry as proclaimed and practiced by the apostles and their colleagues in ministry, like Silvanus and Timothy. The things about which Paul writes in 2:12–6:10 using “we” and “our” are likely things pertaining to those in the gospel ministry, those who, like Paul (and often with Paul), go about from place to place proclaiming the gospel at great personal risk and expense. The same truths and principles apply to all saints generally, but originally they focus more upon Paul and the apostles. Our consideration of the second question will clarify this.
Question 2: What does Paul mean by his references or allusions to death and dying?
When one considers Paul’s statements about death and dying in 2 Corinthians 2:12–6:10, it is impossible to limit his meaning or application to the physical death which lies before each and every human being.
8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. 11 For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 12 So death works in us, but life in you (2 Corinthians 4:11-12).
Notice these verses especially. We must recognize first that the context is affliction and persecution, not just martyrdom. Paul does not say that we die once (as, for example, we see in Hebrews 9:27), but that “we” die continually. Paul speaks of dying as taking place constantly, as a way of life, rather than merely as the termination of life. This “dying” is the means by which the “life” of Christ is lived out through the one who is dying. Death is a present, on-going process, not a once-for-all life-ending event.
I believe that in our text Paul speaks of dying as the on-going “dying” of those in the gospel ministry, those true apostles and their colleagues who pour out their lives in the preaching of Christ to an often hostile audience. Consider these texts as a definition of dying, as Paul means us to understand it here in our text:
3 Giving no cause for offense in anything, in order that the ministry be not discredited, 4 but in everything commending ourselves as servants of God, in much endurance, in afflictions, in hardships, in distresses, 5 in beatings, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in hunger, 6 in purity, in knowledge, in patience, in kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in genuine love, 7 in the word of truth, in the power of God; by the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and the left, 8 by glory and dishonor, by evil report and good report; regarded as deceivers and yet true; 9 as unknown yet well-known, as dying yet behold, we live; as punished yet not put to death, 10 as sorrowful yet always rejoicing, as poor yet making many rich, as having nothing yet possessing all things (2 Corinthians 6:3-10).
19 For you, being so wise, bear with the foolish gladly. 20 For you bear with anyone if he enslaves you, if he devours you, if he takes advantage of you, if he exalts himself, if he hits you in the face. 21 To my shame I must say that we have been weak by comparison. But in whatever respect anyone else is bold (I speak in foolishness), I am just as bold myself. 22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. 23 Are they servants of Christ? (I speak as if insane) I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. 24 Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. 26 I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; 27 I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure upon me of concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern? 30 If I have to boast, I will boast of what pertains to my weakness. 31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, He who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. 32 In Damascus the ethnarch under Aretas the king was guarding the city of the Damascenes in order to seize me, 33 and I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and so escaped his hands (2 Corinthians 11:19-33).
24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body (which is the church) in filling up that which is lacking in Christ’s afflictions. 25 Of this church I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God, 26 that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations; but has now been manifested to His saints, 27 to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. 28 And we proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, that we may present every man complete in Christ. 29 And for this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me (Colossians 1:24-29).
To Paul, “dying” is something one does daily. It is the equivalent of “taking up one’s cross daily” by the denial of fleshly lusts, by the bold and clear proclamation of the gospel, by the bearing of our Lord’s rejection and persecution at the hands of men, and by experiencing the physical dangers and distresses of taking the message of the gospel to lost men. This “dying” is experienced more fully by the apostles, all of whom suffer in the flesh for their faith, and nearly all of whom suffer martyrdom. It is only partially experienced by others, and this is sometimes to our shame:
12 And indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12).
32 But remember the former days, when, after being enlightened, you endured a great conflict of sufferings, 33 partly, by being made a public spectacle through reproaches and tribulations, and partly by becoming sharers with those who were so treated. 34 For you showed sympathy to the prisoners, and accepted joyfully the seizure of your property, knowing that you have for yourselves a better possession and an abiding one (Hebrews 10:32-34).
1 Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you may not grow weary and lose heart. 4 You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin (Hebrews 12:1-4).
The point of this observation—that death is a way of life more than just the end of life—will become evident in the exposition of our text. Keeping these background thoughts in mind, let us give attention to Paul’s words in our text to determine first how they explain his perspective and practice as an apostle, and then how they relate to the saints of every age, including our own.
Our Dying Produces Good for Others and Glory for God
Although we studied these verses in our last lesson, they relate very closely to the text of this lesson. Paul likens the apostles (and thus all saints) to clay pots who are broken so that the glory of God may be manifest through the revelation of Christ, who is the treasure contained in these clay pots. The breaking of the clay pots is the dying which the apostles experience in full measure. The result is that the dying of the apostles produces life for the Corinthian saints (4:12). The apostles boldly proclaim the good news of the gospel (4:13-14) for the benefit of those men and women who come to faith, whose praises and thanksgiving bring glory to God. What benefit is there in suffering righteously for the sake of Christ and His gospel? In part, the benefits are the blessings brought to those who believe and the glory brought to God.
Our Dying Produces Great
Good in the Present and in the Future
16 Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. 17 For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, 18 while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.
Once again, Paul reiterates the theme of this great section of 2 Corinthians—the confidence the apostles experience in the midst of great adversity and affliction, “dying” for the sake of Christ. “We do not lose heart.” This is the basis for Paul’s boldness and perseverance in the face of great adversity and opposition. The reason for his confidence is that while his (their) “outer man is decaying,” the “inner man is being renewed day by day.”
Initially, it seems Paul is speaking about the on-going natural disintegration of our physical bodies with which most of us are all too familiar. Those who have reached (or passed) middle age know that our bodies are sending us some very distressing messages. All of the proverbial “red lights” on our bodies’ dashboards are beginning to flash, indicating that trouble lies ahead. Our various body parts and organs are in rebellion. We are over the hill. Stuart Hamblen spoke of this phenomenon when he wrote and sang the song, “This Old House.”
While Paul’s words certainly encompass the natural decline of our physical bodies, this does not seem to be the thrust of his focus. Paul explains to the Corinthians why he and his associates (“we”) do not lose heart in the midst of their trials and tribulations as ministers of the gospel. Paul’s outer man, his physical body, is being destroyed25 at an accelerated rate, due to the abuse it receives at the hands of Paul’s adversaries, of nature, and even Paul’s own lifestyle. This may not set too well with those who make much of “taking care of ourselves so they can minister more effectively.” While their point has some validity, there are far more Christians who indulge themselves in rest, relaxation, and recovery than those who burn themselves out for Christ.
Paul finds comfort in knowing that while his outer man—the physical body which can be seen and touched—is deteriorating, his inner man—his spirit—is being renewed daily. The deterioration of Paul’s body (and others’ who are preaching the gospel), is not simply the result of natural processes. If this were the case, Paul’s “affliction” (4:17) would be no different than that experienced by an unbeliever. Rather, Paul’s body is “dying” as he lives out the sufferings, and thus the life of Christ, in his earthly body.
If Paul’s body were a used car, it would quickly be wholesaled out by a dealer who ends up with it. The quality and value of a car are judged not only by how new or old it is, but by its mileage and how it has been used. Paul’s body evidences high mileage and hard use. His body is wearing out, due to the abuses it suffers as Paul dies daily for the sake of the gospel. We know that he has been beaten a number of times; no doubt, he has scars to prove it. He has been stoned and left for dead. I wonder if he also has a few teeth missing. His body is probably not a beautiful sight.
Paul wants us to know the basis for his encouragement and endurance when he continues to boldly proclaim Christ at the expense of his own body. His body is being destroyed at a rapid pace. Like most of the other apostles (and others), he will die a seemingly “premature” death. What comfort does Paul find in living in such a way that he will die sooner than others? Even though his body is being destroyed, simultaneously his spirit is being renewed day by day. Some churches have revivals once a year, which is probably not all that bad, but Paul’s spirit is revived daily, and he seems to indicate that our renewal should be daily as well.
This daily renewal of the spirit is not only simultaneous with Paul’s daily dying, it is the consequence of his daily dying. I may take my car to the airport and on the way be involved in an accident which does $350 in damage (in our dreams!). As I get out of my car at the airport, I may find an unmarked envelope containing $1500. After the money remains in lost and found for 30 days, it becomes mine. I certainly feel a lot better about my crumpled fender because of finding that envelope with the money. But the positive experience of finding money is not a direct result of having an accident. I certainly will not try to collide with someone else in the hope of finding more money!
A person who works out every day must have a great deal of discipline. Our body becomes hot and sweaty, and we must work very hard. This is the price we pay for seeing the scales go down and our body looking better. We are willing to pay a price if we gain something we believe is worthwhile. Paul tells us that our daily afflictions in the body are a part of the process by which we are being inwardly strengthened and renewed. We gain a present reward for suffering for Christ’s sake in a hostile world, and that reward is spiritual renewal and strengthening.
Realizing that God is spiritually strengthening us in spite of our afflictions for Christ’s sake is one thing, but realizing that God is strengthening us by means of our afflictions for Christ’s sake is quite different. God blesses us by strengthening our spirit as we undergo our bodily afflictions.
3 And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; 4 and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; 5 and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us (Romans 5:3-5).
2 Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (James 1:2-4).
There is also a future reward for bodily afflictions which are for the sake of the gospel. For the moment, Paul is vague about what constitutes this future reward. He simply refers to it as an “eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (4:17). When we compare our earthly afflictions for Christ’s sake with the future glory God has for us, there is no comparison. Our earthly and bodily afflictions are light; our future glory is heavy.26 Our present suffering is temporary, short in duration; our heavenly reward of glory is eternal. When the price tag of discipleship is compared with the present and eternal benefits of discipleship, the price is minimal. No wonder Paul does not lose hope.
This brings to mind an important observation regarding heavenly rewards. If I understand the Scriptures correctly, our heavenly rewards are certainly related to our earthly faithfulness. But rewards are not mere compensation for our works. Like every other blessing of God, rewards are based upon grace, not works. We are not able to do anything worthy of God’s approval or rewards. He accomplishes in and through us that which He rewards. And the blessings are not commensurate with our faithfulness. How insignificant our earthly deeds will seem in heaven compared to the magnitude of God’s blessings. Paul’s words indicate that whatever price we pay will in no way be equivalent to the rewards we receive. Like every other blessing of God, rewards are by grace, and they far exceed what we deserve, for in reality we deserve nothing.
The ability to view our present bodily suffering for Christ’s sake as a “light” and “momentary” affliction is based upon a Christian perspective possible only for those who operate by faith, rather than by sight. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Paul says precisely this in verse 18 of chapter 4: “For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).
The only way a person can be joyful and confident in the midst of incredible bodily suffering is to “see” by faith the certainty of the heavenly blessings which await us, due to the work of our Lord Jesus Christ on Calvary. Faith enables us to see heaven as clearly as earth, to look forward to our future hope of glory while in the midst of great earthly tribulations. For the Christian, those things which are eternal are unseen; yet we know they are certain because our Lord has promised them to us. Our earthly afflictions pale in light of these certain, but unseen, eternal blessings.
Our Dying: The Means by Which
We Exchange Inferior Bodies for Superior Ones
1 For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven; 3 inasmuch as we, having put it on, shall not be found naked. 4 For indeed while we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed, but to be clothed, in order that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 Now He who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave to us the Spirit as a pledge.
In chapter 4, Paul likens our physical bodies to earthen pots and the gospel of our glorious Lord Jesus Christ as the treasure contained within. Now Paul changes the imagery to a different kind of “container.” Our earthly bodies are likened to tents which we inhabit for a time. Our heavenly bodies are likened to a “house”—let’s call it a mansion—which we inhabit forever once we leave these earthly bodies behind. Paul is not distressed by the “wear and tear” his body receives, because his earthly body is “disposable” and will be replaced by one that is far better.
These first five verses explain in greater detail the principle Paul sets down in 4:16-18. Paul and his colleagues have not lost heart in the midst of their earthly suffering because the inner man is being built up as the outer man is being destroyed. The apostles view the earthly afflictions they face as insignificant in the light of the glory which they know they will enjoy for all eternity. It is not the things we see which are eternal, but the unseen things. These “unseen things” have far greater value and influence than earthly things.
Now with respect to our own physical bodies, Paul explains that the bodies in which we presently dwell are really disposable and are to be set aside at the time of our physical death so that we can indwell glorious eternal bodies. These earthly bodies, these “tents” in which we presently dwell, are to be “torn down” at the time of our death, and it is then that we will be given new bodies—new houses—in which to dwell. These are not man-made, but dwellings made without hands by God. These houses are not earthly but heavenly, and they are not temporary quarters but permanent dwellings.
Is there groaning in this life? Yes, indeed. This groaning is not inconsistent with our faith but is an expression of our faith. Groaning is a necessary and realistic response to living in a fallen world:
18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. 23 And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. 24 For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one also hope for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it (Romans 8:18-25).
There is something wrong with the world in which we live. There is something temporary and incomplete about these bodies in which we dwell. Our earthly groaning reminds us that we live in a fallen world, and that these bodies and this earth are to be replaced by something far better. Do we groan? We should. This groaning will be replaced by constant rejoicing, as we inhabit our new bodies in the eternal presence of our God.
For this reason, destruction of the earthly body does not distress Paul. Our earthly body will be replaced by a vastly superior body. And we come to possess our new bodies by the death of our old ones. It is something like the old Opel Kadett I once owned. Since I had a replacement for it, literally the old one was headed for the metal rendering plant. After removing all the parts I wanted to keep, I let the kids go out in the driveway with hammers and pound on it. They loved that, and I enjoyed watching them destroy it. Why should I care, when I had something better to take its place? And so Paul is not hesitant to boldly preach Christ, even though men will persecute him, and his lifestyle in ministry will take a heavy toll on his body. This only hastens the day when his better body will be given to him.
How are we certain of such things? Because we “see” them by faith (4:18) as we daily turn to the Word of God for perspective and instruction. In addition, we have an internal witness, the Holy Spirit of God, who indwells every true believer in Jesus Christ. The very same God who prepared us to possess our heavenly blessings, including our new and more beautiful bodies, is the God who also gave us His Spirit as a pledge or, as the marginal note of the NASB indicates, as a down payment. The Holy Spirit’s dwelling within us is a pledge of the certainty of our future blessings, which God has promised in His Word.
How can Paul be so confident, so bold in proclaiming his faith when doing so will almost certainly bring him physical affliction? His answers are right here in our text. Our “dying” in this life is the means by which the life of Christ is manifested in us, bringing about what is good for others and what is glorifying to God. God also uses our “dying” to bring about our own good, since it is by means of bodily suffering that God strengthens and renews our spirits within us. By the “dying” and putting away of these earthly bodies, we also obtain our heavenly bodies, which are far better than these temporary dwellings (tents) we now inhabit. And the certainty of all this is known by faith in God as we trust in His Word and as His Spirit bears witness to the certainty of our hope within us, where He dwells.
We have said that Paul speaks primarily with reference to himself and his colleagues in the ministry of the gospel. Paul speaks of both his and their confidence and encouragement in the midst of adversity, so that we might experience this same “heart” for sharing the gospel with a lost and dying world. Let me conclude by suggesting some of the ways Paul’s words apply to us today.
We must view suffering as an expected part of our lives, as those who know Jesus Christ and live according to His Word. Some would have us think that being a Christian and living in obedience to God’s Word means that our lives will be happy, prosperous, and successful. They look to outward, material prosperity as the evidence of inward spirituality. We see this same error in the Pharisees of Jesus’ day:
14 Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, were listening to all these things, and they were scoffing at Him. 15 And He said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God” (Luke 16:14-15).
This error flawed the thinking of the disciples as well. Thus, when they saw a man who was blind, they concluded that someone must have sinned:
1 And as He passed by, He saw a man blind from birth. 2 And His disciples asked Him, saying, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was in order that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:1-3).
Physical suffering in the life of the Christian is not automatic proof of sin and divine judgment. This is where Job’s friends erred. Neither is material prosperity the evidence of spirituality, which is where Asaph had to have his thinking straightened out (see Psalm 73). Physical suffering can be the result of godly living, and it can also be the means by which we grow spiritually. The health and wealth movement so popular today in some circles is wrong fundamentally in its theology. Those who promote this movement need to give much more thought to Paul’s words in our text. If we are to live out the Lord Jesus Christ through our lives, it must be by our daily dying, and by His daily “living” in us as we die daily.
A friend of mine who lives in India once told me that we who live in the West know and speak too little of taking up our cross. I believe he is right. Jesus spoke much about taking up our cross, and so does the Apostle Paul. We must recognize that it is the world who speaks of “living,” and, in the process, is on its way to eternal destruction. We as Christians should think and speak much of dying, while in the process of being on our way to life eternal.
Paul’s words in our text surely should put our suffering into perspective. Many of us think we have “punched our martyr’s card” when we experience even a raised eyebrow in response to our witness. Our Lord’s suffering and dying serves as our example (1 Peter 2:18ff.) and our standard. Paul and the apostles suffered more than most of us can imagine, much less experience. When we begin to feel sorry for ourselves, let us remember these words from the pen of the writer to the Hebrews:
1 Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you may not grow weary and lose heart. 4 You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin; 5 and you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, “MY SON, DO NOT REGARD LIGHTLY THE DISCIPLINE OF THE LORD, NOR FAINT WHEN YOU ARE REPROVED BY HIM; 6 FOR THOSE WHOM THE LORD LOVES HE DISCIPLINES, AND HE SCOURGES EVERY SON WHOM HE RECEIVES” (Hebrews 12:1-5).
Paul’s teaching in this text should say something to those who feel obligated to have a “mid-life crisis.” More and more, I am inclined to think that modern psychology invents many of our maladies, encourages us to have one of them, and then treats us for them. The so-called “mid-life crisis” is one such malady.
I do not doubt that many men and women go through some kind of crisis at the mid-point of their lives. But it troubles me that it takes us half a lifetime to realize a truth so simple which we should have known earlier. We live in a fallen world, and our bodies are deteriorating. We have high hopes and ambitions in our youth; then as we reach the declining point of our lives, we realize we have not achieved what we had hoped, and that probably we can only expect things to get worse rather than better. If we view life as Paul does, we will not feel hopeless, but hopeful. The more the Christian’s body declines, the more his or her spirit should be strengthened. The closer the Christian gets to death, the closer we are to heaven’s glories, including a flawless body. How can we be depressed by these certainties? We must realize that our time on earth is limited, and thus we must be good stewards of the time, energy, and resources God has given us so that we can and will lay up treasure in heaven.
Our text has a word for those who might ever contemplate suicide. Suicide is tempting for those who are without faith, who falsely assume there is no judgment beyond death (see Hebrews 9:27). But suicide is also a temptation for the Christian who knows that at the time of our death, we enter into the eternal presence of God, free from suffering and sorrow and tears. I once took part in the funeral of a young Christian who killed himself as he knelt beside his bed, reading the last chapters of the Book of Revelation. Paul says that for the Christian, death is not a foe, but a friend. He encourages us to “die daily,” and even to hasten the day of our death (if necessary) by living a godly life and boldly proclaiming Christ. He does not encourage us to bring about our own death by our own hand by committing suicide. Suffering for Christ is a means to bless others and to glorify God, as well as to bring about our own blessing. To attempt to end our suffering by ending our own life is to act contrary to Scripture and contrary to our own best interests, the interests of others, and the glory of God. We are to die daily by setting aside selfish interests. We are not to end our own lives with our own hand, but to entrust our lives to God as we trust and obey Him. Suicide fails to act in accordance with the Word of God, especially in our text.
Finally, I must remind you that the reason death is no longer an enemy, but a friend, is because Jesus Christ died and rose from the dead. God told Adam that in the day he ate of the forbidden fruit, he would die. Death was, and is, a curse for those who are lost in their sins; death is a blessing for those who are saved by faith in Jesus Christ. God said that men who sin must die. This means that we are all condemned, for we are all sinners (Romans 3:23; 6:23). But the good news is that God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to die in the sinner’s place, bearing the penalty for the sins of all who trust in Him. Christians need no longer fear death because, in Christ, we have died and been raised from the dead. Christians now are privileged to die daily for Christ, so that He may live daily in and through us. Have you experienced this freedom from the fear of death? You can, by simply trusting in Him who died for your sins and who was raised from the dead so that you might be declared righteous and live forever in the presence of God (see Hebrews 2:14-15; Romans 3:19-26; 6:1-11; 2 Corinthians 5:14-20; Ephesians 2:1-10; Revelation 5).
25 I realize that many of the translations seem to be inclined toward the “corruption” or “decaying” sense. The word used here is found five times in the New Testament, and in every case the word speaks of a destruction from an external force, rather than from an internal source. Paul’s point is not that the body is deteriorating in and of itself (as it would do in the aging process), but that it is being destroyed from without. See the other uses of this same word in Luke 12:33; 1 Timothy 6:5; Revelation 8:9; 11:18.