2 Corinthians 4:16-18
Gaining Perspective: God and Eternity
“[King Nebuchadnezzar] was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, and the king answered and said, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” While the words were still in the king’s mouth, there fell a voice from heaven, “O King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is spoken: The kingdom has departed from you, and you shall be driven from among men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. And you shall be made to eat grass like an ox, and seven periods of time shall pass over you, until you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will.” Immediately the word was fulfilled against Nebuchadnezzar. He was driven from among men and ate grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers, and his nails were like birds’ claws.
At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever, for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?”
At the same time my reason returned to me, and for the glory of my kingdom, my majesty and splendor returned to me. My counselors and my lords sought me, and I was established in my kingdom, and still more greatness was added to me. Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, for all his works are right and his ways are just; and those who walk in pride he is able to humble.”
I love the perspective that this passage gives us of the King of heaven, the Most High, in relation to ourselves. He is God and His powerful rule and reign is from generation to generation. The most powerful among men are but nothing.
How easily we can get our eyes fixed upon ourselves and become swollen with our own power and self-importance and become consumed with the product our own hands. We know that the Scriptures teach us that by nature human beings cannot understand the things of the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 2:14), but even we who have been regenerated and given the gift of the Holy Spirit must put to death what is earthly in us – that earthly bent to esteem ourselves as the measure of all things. We are prone to look no further than ourselves. But Christian, you are called to fix your eyes on things above where Christ is. How far do your eyes reach? It is possible that our whole view extends no further that one grain of sand, when there are endless beaches of sand to consider?
Let Nebuchadnezzar be an example to us of the dangers of nearsighted pride – of failure to consider ourselves before the Most High. We are but a single drop and He a fathomless depth of endless ocean. Nebuchadnezzar looked at his single drop and boasted in his strength and the glory of his majesty and the King of Heaven saw fit to help adjust Nebuchadnezzar’s perspective. What is it that keeps us from losing our minds? What is it that gives our bodies strength? Rather, Who is it? If God was not pleased to sustain our minds in this place, our reason, our understanding would fall away a surely as if the ground gave way beneath us. What power have you to sustain or extend your lives for another moment? None.
Now, this is not to say that our lives don’t matter or that the minute does not matter (your accomplishments, your family, your friends, your reputation, your job, your country, your time on earth, your problems, your pain, your heart ache – it is not that these things don’t matter), it is simply to say that the minute must be seen in perspective, next to, in light of God – what God has revealed about Himself and what He has promised and and what He has done in Christ Jesus. The Lord of Heaven is calling us to gain perspective this morning and consider the immensity of His glory and grace, Word and work and how we are then to live in the light of that immensity. And an incredible thing that we will see in this passage is that what we do in the minutia of this life matters in the immensity of the one to come.
We have come in our study of 2 Corinthians to the rich verses of 4:16-18.
An Ongoing Argument
Focus in on verse 16 as we begin: So, we do not lose heart.
This word “so” tells us that Paul is grounding this statement, that he does not lose heart, in what he has said previously. And if you have been with us you will know that Paul has been powerfully showing us why he does not lose heart or despair in ministry even when that ministry brings with it unceasing anguish, dying, persecution, and affliction. In the verses that we are focused on this morning Paul will in someways summarize and emphasize what he has already said, which is something we need. We need reminding. But these verses also add depth and clarity which are things we need as well.
So Paul continues: Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.
Wasting Away and Growing Stronger
Mark, first, the two components of Paul’s self: his outer self and his inner self. A couple of weeks ago we saw Paul talk about the outer self in terms of a jar of clay. We know as we read through chapter 4 and 5 that Paul is clearly talking about our physical bodies, that part of us that we can see and that can be afflicted and killed. But here Paul contrasts that part of himself with a second category: the inner self. Paul understands that even as human beings where made to have bodies, human beings are more than just physical matter.
And Mankind alone, unlike any other creature that Lord God had made, was made in the image of God. God gave man and woman capacities, yes to understand, but more than that, to value and love and praise and cherish what is good and beautiful and true in a way that uniquely fit him to image forth God to the rest of creation.
The Bible will simply not allow us to affirm what many are telling us we must affirm these days, that human beings are but one more product, albeit complex, of an evolutionary process of chance mutations and survival of the fittest. Those that control the scientific discussion in our day and culture have no basis for setting anymore intrinsic value on human life than on a spider or a cactus or a gorilla or a rock. We are all one and the same. But Paul, here is describing a completely different world view – a world view that acknowledges that mankind is more than matter. Do you understand that you are more than what can be seen and tested and measured in the physical world? You are more than what can be afflicted and killed by mere men. You have an inner self.
Mark, secondly, the contrasting movements of these two components of Paul’s self. They are moving in opposite directions. One is wasting away while the other is being renewed continually (day by day). The outer self, Paul says, in deteriorating while the inner self is growing stronger, it is being renewed day by day.
The outer self is wearing out, wasting away, like a sand castle on the shore – the waves come in and do their wasting work, slowly but surely taking the castle away. That’s how Paul described what was happening to him physically and in a very real sense that is exactly what is happen to each one of us. We are wasting away, dying. Day by day a bit more gets washed to sea until our outer self is extinguished. This is the physical condition of man because of the Fall.
But remember that Paul has in mind most immediately the afflictions and persecutions he experiences as he ministers the gospel to a hostile world. In principle, we all experience this wasting away reality, but in Paul’s case it is accelerated. We are all wasting away, but Paul was a striking example – like a drink offering being poured out and wasted (Philippians 2:17; 2 Timothy 4:6). Do you understand that your outer self is wasting away and will soon be gone? Fast or slow it will be poured out.
But mark, also, that Paul’s inner self is being renewed. It is growing stronger day by day even as his outer self is diminishing. For the believer, there should be a strengthening taking place internally even as there is a wasting away taking place externally.
So I want to wrestle out the question: How? How is Paul being renewed day by day? And more practically, how can we be renewed in our inner self day by day? What is it that keeps Paul strong and focused and encouraged as the waves keep coming and the cup of his life keeps getting poured out to the last drop?
As we saw last week, the short answer is: his faith. His faith in God who has raised Jesus from the dead, who will raise Paul and all in Christ from the dead, and will present us to Christ. Paul believes that this is true and so he does not lose heart. Because of this faith.
But in the verses before us Paul adds more content and clarity to what he believes. Day by day Paul says he is renewed by truth, by specific content, not vague faith in nothing, but faith in realities. Paul is strengthen by specific truths. Are you? What is it that renews Paul continually? It is this fact:
2 Corinthians 4:17-18
For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
First, let’s make sure we understand the content of what Paul believes. There really is so much richness here so let’s walk through and see if we can taste it.
First, let’s see what Paul believes about his affliction.
He describes it as this light and momentary affliction. Does Paul really believe that his labors, imprisonments, countless beatings, being often near death, having five times received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one, the three times being beaten with rods, being stoned, shipwrecked again and again; a night and a day being adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from his own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure, not to mention his daily anxiety for all the churches, does Paul really believe that these are light and momentary afflictions? These sound heavy and life long.
How can Paul describe such affliction as being light and momentary? It is not that Paul didn’t feel pain. He did. Paul is not denying that pain is painful. Instead, he is putting his pain in perspective.
Look at what Paul places beside his pain: an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. A forever, never ending, weight and significants of blessedness. Paul understands that all the pain that could possibly be packed into his life will amount to no more than a single grain of sand compared to the endless beaches of eternal blessedness which will be his in Christ Jesus. But I have just tried to do what Paul says can’t be done – there is no comparison that comes close to this contrast. Any comparison we could make falls miserably short. Any contrast we could fathom (a pin prick next to the Sun, the Galaxy, the universe) does not go far enough – Paul says the reality is beyond all comparison.
Is life painful? Yes. Is affliction real? Yes. Is ministry hard? Yes. But placed next to the glorious blessedness that will be ours in Christ Jesus it is light and momentary. A lifetime of non-stop suffering here compared to the eternal ages of joy which shall be ours will be see to have been but a snap of the finger.
But notice that Paul does not simply believe that glory out weighs our present pain. That is true, but it is not all Paul believes which renews him day by day. Paul actually believes that the present pain is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory. That is what he says: For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison…
How is affliction preparing for us eternal glory?
First of all let’s define the affliction correctly. In this context, Paul is not talking about pain we experience in this life as a result of our sin. Nor of pain we inflict on ourself. Rather, he is taking about pain we experience in the cause of Christ and for the sake of Christ and because we value Christ, to include sickness (thorns in the flesh) and natural circumstances (shipwrecks).
But Paul is making the incredible statement that this kind of affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory. How are these kinds of trouble preparing eternal glory?
Well, we need to be careful not to think that our suffering somehow earns God’s favor or pays for our sin or creates a reason to boast about our own works. No, Christ and Christ alone is the great foundation stone of our joy and salvation. All that we have and will have is owing to Christ, given by grace and grace alone. And all praise, honor, and glory will ultimately belong to Him.
But, nevertheless, somehow our sufferings for the sake of Christ are, according to Paul, a means that God is using of preparing for us future unimaginable joy. And perhaps that is as far as this text explains and we just need to believe it: Suffering now because we trust and esteem Christ is preparing an eternal weight of glory.
Yet, I think it is good to wrestle with the question of how. How does suffering now for Christ’s sake prepare for us unimaginable glory?
I will suggest one possible part of the answer and there is likely more, but could it be that Paul has in mind here (at least) that every moment and degree of suffering endured for Christ sake (that is, because of our faith in Christ) only serves to sweeten our joy on the Day of our Master’s return because it will demonstrate the genuineness and quality of our faith which glorifies Christ and pleases Him? In other words, it is when we have stood with the Lord, trusting the Lord, unwavering in our allegiance and devotion to Him as our Lord and Savior and strong tower, when the going got tough, it is then that our faith in and esteem of Christ is proved to be real; it is when we have persevered in faith, believe in the Lord, when the earthly benefits had gone that the quality of our faith in Christ is revealed; it is when all around our soul gives way and He is all our hope and stay that we show the genuineness of our esteem for our Savior.
And Paul is tell us here, I believe, that there really is a connection between how we have esteeming and trusted Christ in the midst of affliction which will truly affect the joy we will experience on that Day. It is one thing to say you love and esteem and trust someone, but it is in what you are willing to suffer for their sake and it is in what you are willing to lose for their sake and it is in what you are willing to entrust to them that the quality of your love and faith is revealed.
I believe this is what Paul is getting at. Paul so valued and trusted Christ that he was willing to suffer greatly, give up everything in this life, for Him, to have Him. Catch this now, how is that connected to the glory Paul would experience in the future? Paul’s willingness to suffer because he so honored and value and trust Jesus was producing a unique glory and joy for Paul on the Day he would stand before his Lord Jesus Christ and hear Him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in a very little…” When we glorify Jesus now, glory is being prepared.
It follows that the more often and more difficult the trial endured faithfully trusting Christ, the sweeter the meeting will be with Christ. Which is why Paul said that he rejoiced in his sufferings. And why Jesus told us to rejoice and be exceedingly glad when we are persecuted for his sake (Matthew 5:12). Paul knew that every moment and every degree of suffering for the sake of Christ meant a deeper, richer, weightier kind of joy than if he had had no opportunity to demonstrate the quality of his faith in and love for esteem of Christ through suffering.
Let us mark carefully, that no suffering in your life for the sake of Christ will be wasted. It is producing a specific kind glory for you beyond all comparison. A kind of glory that you will realize when you see His face and your faith is vindicated and (astoundingly) He will delight to reward you for your faithfulness in the sufferings you endured counting all thing lose to gain Christ. What a weight of glory that will produce.
So suffering for the sake of Jesus produces glory.
As We Look
Faith in Christ is clearly what Paul is focused on as he says in the next phrase: “as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.“
We need to pay attention especially to the words as we look.
The word translated fix our eyes (in the ESV it is translated, we look) is derived from the Greek skopos, ‘scope,’ meaning the mark or goal on which the eye is fixed, as in Philippians 3:14, ‘I press on toward the goal.’ Therefore, this verse is talking about making unseen things the goal, the end toward which our attention, desires, and efforts are directed. As usual with the apostle, he states both what is not and what is the absorbing object of the believer’s attention. Not…what is seen, but what is unseen. That is, not the world and the things of the world, but the things that pertain to the state that is invisible to us now. The reason why these, and not the things of this world, engross the believer is that visible things are temporary, whereas what is unseen in eternal” (Charles Hodge p.87).
Paul’s eyes are fixed, he is looking to, and setting his sights on things that are not of this worlds. He is not setting his hope and joy and peace upon anything in this world because everything here is passing away and transient – here today gone tomorrow. No, Paul’s hope and joy and peace is fixed upon what is solid, immovable, eternal. Things that are not yet seen.
As we saw last time, Paul is trusting God, who raised Christ and will raise and present us to Christ – He is trusting God to keep His very great promises in Christ Jesus.
So what is it that renews Paul’s inner self day by day? What strengthen him internally even as he is being wasted externally? It is his faith. He believes that as he sets his eyes and heart upon the things that are eternal, promised by God for those in Christ Jesus, that every affliction experienced in this world for the sake of Christ is preparing for him an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.
Who are the people who can experience the most severe kinds of trials and to them they seem light and momentary? It is only those who look with the eyes of faith to the unseen joys promised in Christ. Worldly people whose hearts are set upon the passing pleasures here will not consider trials for Christ’s sake light or brief. Do you?
Charles Hodge helps us summarize this passage:
Few passages in Paul’s writings show so clearly his inner exercises admit sufferings and when death seemed to be near. When he wrote this passage, he was in great trouble. He felt that his life was in constant and imminent danger, and that even if he was delivered from the violence of his enemies, his strength was gradually wearing away under the uninterrupted trials to which he was subjected. Under these circumstances we see him feeling suffering and sorrow keenly; he was very susceptible to the conduct and feelings of others toward him. He was well aware of his danger, and yet his confidence in his ultimate triumph was unshaken. He was firmly determined not to yield either to opposition or to suffering, but to persevere in faithfully and energetically doing the duty that had brought all his trials on him and to exult heroically in the very troubles that tried him so sorely. He was sustained by the assurance that the life of Christ secured his life; that if Jesus rose, he would rise too; and by the firm conviction that the more he suffered for the sake of Christ or in such a way as to honor his divine master, the more glorious he would be through all eternity. Suffering, therefore, became not just endurable for him, but a [reason] of great joy. (Charles Hodge p. 87-88)
Challenging What is Earthly In Us
Do we so love Christ that we are willing to suffer for Christ’s sake?
If not, are we fixated on the single grain of sand or are we looking to the unseen endless beaches yet to come?
And do we realize that if we will value and love and trust Christ in every difficulty, then every trial and affliction in this brief life will produce for us a special specific glory when we are presented to our Lord? Can you rejoice in your sufferings for Christ knowing that your union with Christ will be all the sweeter because of them?
The world around us is fixated on this life and this world. We are to fix our eyes on Christ and his kingdom and His victory and His rewards. Let this be the great endeavor of our lives. Do what you must today to get Jesus and all that is yours in Him front and center. Make this your great ambition in this hour and every hour until you enter into His arms.