Any time we gather with our families, there can be temptations to squabble or complain or fear or stress. Christ did not come to give us serene, placid lives. He came in order to fill our hearts, so that His light would shine through our troubles, causing Thanksgiving to abound.
“For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us…” (2 Cor. 4:5-7)
Summary of the Text
Paul is in the middle of defending His apostolic ministry to the Corinthians. His first letter was a bit tart, and since it had been a while since they had heard from Paul, there were apparently rumors starting to go around that Paul was fed up with Corinth. But the truth was that Paul had been tied up, and his previous plans just hadn’t worked out (2 Cor. 1:8-9, 13-16). But Paul was determined not to come to Corinth for fireworks if at all possible (2 Cor. 2:1). While one man had repented, some still wondered if Paul only came around for offerings, and besides, Paul wasn’t on any of the lists of apostles (2 Cor. 3:1-3). However, Paul insists that His ministry is authenticated by the work of the Spirit in the Corinthians themselves (2 Cor. 3).
Our text picks up with Paul explaining how the Spirit has been manifest in his ministry, specifically the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ as a treasure in earthen vessels (2 Cor. 4:5-7). Paul admits that his ministry (and that of the other apostles) is a bit raucous: pressed on every side but not crushed, perplexed but not despairing, persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed – all a manifestation of the death of Jesus in their bodies (2 Cor. 4:8-12). Paul quotes from Psalm 116, a song of praise for deliverance, insisting that this is God’s pattern of death and resurrection (2 Cor. 4:13-14). If we understand that God is working all things together to spread thanksgiving among the saints, we will not lose heart, and we will see with eyes of faith what is in an eternal, lasting weight of glory (2 Cor. 4:15-18).
A Thanksgiving Text
This passage fits well with preparing to celebrate Thanksgiving on several levels. The first level is the sociological circumstances. Paul is preparing to see old friends he hasn’t seen in a while, and there has been some tension between them. If you are in a family, then you know what Paul is dealing with. There are no families on the planet without challenges or tensions of one sort or another. And Thanksgiving is a moment where many families gather together for the first time in a while. If there aren’t troubles yet, there’s generally plenty of flammable material laying around. None of us are Apostles, but we can all relate. And the message here for us is that trouble is part of the plan. To follow Jesus is to take up a cross. And crosses are painful, humiliating, difficult, and full of trouble. Jesus was not a slick, used car salesman. There was full disclosure on the front end: “For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be those of his own household… he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me” (Matt. 10:35-39). Paul added his own encouraging assurance: “Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Tim. 3:12). The point is not to go looking for trouble; the point is that if Christ is in you, trouble has already found you (2 Cor. 4:10-11). To follow Jesus is to follow Him in the trouble of the cross – the trouble of confessing sins, the trouble of forgiving those who sin against you, the trouble of telling the truth in love, the trouble of enduring hardship/suffering with joy, the trouble of being unashamed of Jesus, and more. The trick is to have the wisdom to see the difference between needless fleshly trouble (petty bickering, bitterness, bad attitudes), and the glorious trouble of following Jesus. While the Apostles were put on special display with this plan, these are the only two options for faithful Christians.
“I Believed & Therefore I Spoke”
This quotation is from Psalm 116, which is a psalm of praise and thanksgiving for deliverance, but it’s striking that Paul quotes this particular partial verse because it cuts in at least two different ways. The rest of the verse says, “I am greatly afflicted,” and the next verse says, “I said in my haste, ‘All men are liars.’” In other words, this appears to be the thematic center of the Psalm, and at this center we find faith crying out to God in trouble, but also temptation to despair. This quotation cuts against those who are tempted to despair in the face of trouble (“all men are liars”), but it also cuts against those who are tempted to turn on the faithful who have seemingly “caused” the trouble (“I believed therefore I spoke.”) Paul had spoken/written hard words to the Corinthians, and some of the Corinthians were tempted to be bitter against Paul. Which one are you? Are you generally tempted to just throw your hands up in despair or are you desperately trying to hold everything together and tempted to blow up at anyone who steps out of line? Both kinds of temptations need to hear this: Christ is risen (2 Cor. 4:14). And what trouble, difficulty, sin, brokenness can stand against that power?
The Gideon Plan
From the beginning, God has determined to run all of His plays from positions of physical, human weakness. Even where the odds seemed better – like say when David was king – God allowed numerous weaknesses to hamper David. Why? In order to cause “thanksgiving to abound” (2 Cor. 4:15). That’s the plan. The plan is to maximize thanksgiving. But God wants our thanksgiving to go all the way down to our bones. He wants to give us something that only thanksgiving can give (an eternal weight of glory), but in order to do that, He has to give us the kind of trouble that breaks it out of our selfish hearts.
So call it the “Gideon Plan,” which is another great example of fighting from a position of weakness, starting with an army of 32,000, reduced down to 300 (Jdg. 7). Then Gideon divided the three hundred into three even smaller parties. And their main weapons were torches inside of earthenware pitchers in the dark. The plan was to blow trumpets and break the earthen vessels open. And so, this is still the battle plan. We have the light of Christ in our hearts, and we have this treasure in earthen vessels so that as we are struck by trouble, the light of Christ might shine. This is what it means to be pressed but not crushed, etc. So that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us, in order to cause thanksgiving to abound among many.