Paul was a man of great resolve. He had to be. It was a sad fact that many opponents undermined Paul’s ministry, some from within the brotherhood and some from outside. In spite of strident opposition Paul would not be distracted from his duty to preach the gospel. Paul was no shrinking violet: he stood for what he knew to be true. His courage was extraordinary. In 2 Corinthians 11: 23–28 he played his opponents at their own game by declaring his qualifications as a faithful servant of the Lord Jesus Christ. He was willing to endure agony, deprivation and anxiety for the faith he had embraced. Nothing was too daunting, too painful, too much trouble in the Master’s service.

In 2 Corinthians 4:1 Paul spoke about what it was that motivated this unparalleled level of devotion. It was his awareness of “the mercy of God”. The Pharisee Saul who had been the virulent persecutor of the saints encountered not just a blinding light on the Damascus Road—he encountered the Lord himself; he encountered the mercy of God. Even Saul, blasphemous persecutor of the followers of Christ, had access through Christ to forgiveness and reconciliation. Is it any wonder that the mercy of God remained a powerful driving force in his life!

And what about us, brothers and sisters? Is the mercy of God a powerful, motivating force in our lives? Does it drive us, like Paul, to preach the gospel and minister to the ecclesia? We are not all called upon to endure the deprivations Paul described in 2 Corinthians 11, but we can nevertheless take up his mantle of dedication.

We need to “faint not” in the face of the challenges of life. Like Paul we must fight the battle of faith, but in an appropriate, Christlike way. We renounce “the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully” (2 Cor 4: 2). Notice the strong language Paul used to condemn his detractors—dishonesty, craftiness, handling the word of God deceitfully—terms that could apply to the work of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. The word used by Paul for deceitful in 2 Corinthians 4:2 is translated “beguiled” in verse 3 of chapter 11: “But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.” The serpent beguiled or deceived Eve by twisting and misconstruing the word of God. And the serpent influence has continued to afflict the saints ever since. In Paul’s day there were those who misused the word of God. There are those today who do the same, who allow the fast and loose ways of the world to corrupt their teaching and their service in the ecclesia. Let us remain faithful to ourselves and to God in all we do, knowing that the seed of the woman ultimately will crush the thinking of the serpent.

Paul was determined that such serpent-inspired tactics should not deflect him from the vital task of bringing the gospel to perishing men. In 2 Corinthians 4:3,4 he exhorted the Corinthian brethren not to place their light under a bushel. This is a serious challenge. Let us meet it ‘head on’. Each Sunday in Christadelphian halls around the world we hold gospel addresses of some kind. We place a neat notice outside the hall to inform passers by of the arrangements for the lecture. Sometimes we might even place an advertisement in the paper. All of this is fine so far as it goes but it does not discharge our duty to preach the gospel. Merely being members of an ecclesia with a regular program of public witness will not allow us to measure up to the model Paul promotes. Even if we support the lecture, and even if some unenlightened stranger by chance happens to stumble into the hall at the right time, we cannot honestly claim to have done all that is necessary to proclaim the “light of the glorious gospel of Christ”. Supporting these activities might be a valuable start, but that is not enough to meet Paul’s implicit challenge in these verses.

No, we cannot abdicate or avoid our responsibilities in this way. We who have experienced the mercy of God have an obligation to share that message with others. Preaching is not mainly about lectures and booklets—it is about communicating with our workmates, our neighbours, the other mothers at school, the patient in the next bed in hospital, the tradesmen with whom we do business—any one and every one with whom we come into contact. By word, by action and by example we must shine in a world of darkness. If we hide our light under a bushel it will be hid from “them that are lost”. Could we be so callous as to ignore the plight of the lost? Who would refuse to help a lost child? If we would help a lost child why should we ignore a lost adult? What have we to fear? Certainly nothing as daunting as that faced by Paul! And this preaching is not about self-promotion. That was the furthest thing from Paul’s mind: “We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us” (2 Cor 4:7). Do we regard ourselves as inadequate to the challenge? Do we think that we are not articulate enough, not educated enough, not outgoing enough to preach? If so, so much the better!

Notice that Paul uses the plural pronoun “we” in this verse and indeed throughout 2 Corinthians 4. “We”, he says, not “ye”. We have this treasure in earthen vessels. Now Paul was a skilled orator, he was well educated, he was outgoing, but he still recognised that he was a frail earthen vessel. As one of our hymns puts it: “How frail at best is dying man”. Remember the example of Moses. He believed that he was inadequate for the task assigned to him by God, but God made it clear that his own prowess was of no relevance. It does not matter how inadequate we might perceive ourselves to be—in fact in some respects the more inadequate the better—because the power of the gospel is derived not from us but from God.

The term “earthen vessels” is another phrase that takes our mind back to Genesis. Man was created from the dust of ground. And the man so created was pronounced “very good”. The corrupting, dishonest reasoning of the serpent marred that creation, but it could not frustrate the grace of God. God had made man from the dust with the object of filling the earth with his glory. And Paul reminds us that God still works with the sons of Adam to bring many sons to glory. The treasure is still in vessels of earth, but God’s power works its transforming miracle through Christ.

Having made this point Paul goes on in an eloquent passage to describe the emotional turmoil he experienced on a daily basis: “We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor 4:8,9). Like 2 Corinthians 11 this is not just vain triumphalism. Paul was describing real turmoil as he described the daily stress he endured, especially in relation to the “care of all the ecclesias”. As in the case of Moses, Paul’s leadership role was stressful. He was pushed to the limit, and it was only his faith in God and his reliance on God’s strength that helped him through.

We may never be asked to face the extreme trials Paul faced, but we can take comfort from his example. When the difficulties of our daily round threaten to swamp us let us remember his exhortation and remember that we will not be overwhelmed. If Paul was not conquered with his load of woe our minor inconveniences could never bring us down.

The Fellowship of His Sufferings

Paul saw the challenges and trials he faced in the context of the sacrifice of our Lord. “Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body. For we which live are always delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh” (2 Cor 4:10,11). Paul was inspired and driven by the mercy of God, and now he draws even closer to the sacrifice of Christ. He links his own ministry directly with the suffering of the Lord on the cross. What are we to make of this? What point is being made for the benefit of the Corinthians and for us?

At one level Paul is drawing our attention to the fact that, as members of the body of Christ, the life we now live is the life of Christ. We crucified the old man at our baptism and we now live the life of the resurrected Christ. This is a first-principle concept we learn from many places such as Romans 6 and Galatians 2. But Paul’s point here in this passage is more personal and profound: there is a deeper layer of meaning in these verses. Paul links his trials with the trials and agonies of the Master. This might seem a little presumptuous, yet it is a recurring theme in his writings. In the account of his conversion on the Damascus Road we find the first reference to this theme. When the Lord told Ananias to go to Paul and cure his blindness Ananias was shocked. He was reassured that the persecutor Saul was a changed man and that he had a mission to perform as a servant of Christ. As part of that mission Christ would “shew him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake” (Acts 9:16).

At the very beginning of his ministry Paul was told he must suffer many things for the gospel. Some of those sufferings were listed in 2 Corinthians 11. In Philippians Paul specifically linked his sufferings with the crucifixion. “I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ… That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death” (Phil 3: 8–10). Nothing was more important to Paul than becoming associated in a direct and real way with Christ’s sufferings to experience the fellowship—the sharing—of his sufferings.

Paul makes his point even more strikingly in Colossians: “(I) now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind [lacking, rv] of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the ecclesia” (Col 1:24). This is a very confronting verse. We can understand how Paul could accept his sufferings as the price of having preached the gospel to those in darkness. But the second half of this verse poses a real challenge to our minds. The av rendering “fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh” masks the enormity of what Paul says. The rsv reads “in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions”. The niv renders it as “I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions”. Weymouth, Young’s Literal Translation and many other translations all confirm that Paul is speaking of how his sufferings fill up that which is lacking in the sacrifice of Christ. Paul was in no doubt about the all-sufficiency, the efficacy, of Christ’s death. Christ’s atoning work was final. Nothing else was needed. That message is reiterated throughout the Acts and the epistles. So in what sense can Paul suggest that he needed to suffer to fill up what was lacking in this work?

Paul’s point in 2 Corinthians 4, Philippians 3 and Colossians 1 is this: Paul rejoiced in his afflictions because it was appropriate that as a representative of Christ he should suffer to the same extent that his master would suffer if he were acting in his own person rather than through his agent Paul. And notice in verse 24 that Paul’s willingness to suffer was not vain asceticism. Paul was not seeking agony as some form of bizarre personal fulfilment. No, Paul endured these agonies for the sake of the ecclesia. As we saw in 2 Corinthians, Paul was motivated by his appreciation of the mercy of God and he was determined to bring that home to others.

Paul’s situation and special calling were unique and his example in this rather extreme matter might seem remote to us. Yet in 1 Peter 4:1,2 we encounter the same principle Paul demonstrated in the passages above, but Peter applies it to each one of us. “Forasmuch then as Christ hath suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves likewise with the same mind: for he that hath suffered in the flesh hath ceased from sin; That he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh to the lusts of men, but to the will of God.” We who have crucified the old man live as members of the body of Christ. We no longer serve the flesh. On the contrary, we are servants of God. God’s mercy was an all-encompassing motivating force in the life of Paul. “The love of God constrained” him and it must constrain each of us. As John says in 1 John 3:16: “Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” Thus each of us, motivated by the mercy of God, can become a follower of Paul even as he also was of Christ and “fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in (our) flesh for his body’s sake, which is the ecclesia.” “As we have received mercy, we faint not.”