Knocked Down, but Not Out (2 Cor. 4:8-12)
Last night I spoke briefly with a long time friend who is facing yet another round of intense treatments for a recurring brain tumor. The dosage level of pain medication which he requires simply to survive each day is almost incomprehensible. When I got off the phone, visibly shaken, Ann asked me how he was doing. It seemed only fitting to answer: “He’s afflicted in every way, but not crushed; quite obviously he and his family are perplexed, but not driven to despair; I’m not sure if he feels persecuted but I know he doesn’t feel forsaken; he’s certainly been struck down, but just as certainly not destroyed.”
Given my current meditations on 2 Corinthians 4, this seemed the appropriate language to describe his situation. I can assure you of this, there’s not the slightest chance he’ll be in the least inclined to rely on his own strength or to point to himself as one deserving of glory and honor. He is very much in touch with the reality of being a “jar of clay” (2 Cor. 4:7) to whom God has wisely entrusted the exquisite treasure of the revelation of the glory of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6).
It’s striking to note how differently Christians react to suffering and hardship. The conclusions they draw about their source and design are shockingly at odds. In fact, I’m increasingly convinced that how one responds to trials and affliction is perhaps the most accurate monitor of our maturity in Christ. That being the case, I can’t imagine a more mature and Christ-like man than my friend.
Some, surprisingly, actually deny that such trials really exist. These people aren’t optimistic; they are simply unrealistic, or perhaps they fear that to acknowledge weakness and hardship and turmoil would be an admission of sin or immaturity or, worst of all (to their way of thinking), the lack of faith.
Others fall into despair because of the overwhelming and seemingly inexplicable onset of suffering. They encounter something similar to what Paul endured and immediately conclude that God hates them or has abandoned them, so why bother trying.
Some insist such calamities are demonic. All such trials and tribulations, so they argue, are from Satan, not God. Of course, Satan certainly has it in his heart (assuming he has a “heart”) to torment and oppress God’s people. Job immediately comes to mind. But in all such cases, Job included, no one lays a hand on God’s people apart from either God’s permission or his direct decree.
Finally, a few, like Paul, see them as divinely ordained, lovingly orchestrated opportunities for our growth, the salvation of others, and above all else, God's glory. Let’s look again closely at his words:
“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you” (2 Corinthians 4:8-12).
In v. 8 there are four antitheses designed to illustrate what Paul had in mind when he spoke of our being “jars of clay” in which God has deposited the gospel of the grace of God in Christ. A couple of things should be noted before we examine them.
The first experience noted in each pair is an illustration of human weakness while the second illustrates divine strength. In each case Paul’s point is that “to be at the end of man's resources is not to be at the end of God's resources; on the contrary, it is to be precisely in the position best suited to prove and benefit from them, and to experience the surplus of the power of God breaking through and resolving the human dilemma" (Hughes, 138-39).
Another feature to note is the constant nature of these afflictions, as seen both in the phrase “in every way” (perhaps better rendered “at all times”) and the temporal adverbs in v. 10 (pantote) and v. 11 (aei), both of which are translated “always” (ESV). Paul does not envision a time in this life when such suffering will diminish or disappear. Faithful Christians will always be subjected to such treatment. As Murray Harris has said, “so far from being an anomaly or a proof of the illegitimacy of his claim to apostleship (as some of his Corinthian opponents seemed to believe), his afflictions and hardships were the badge of his apostolicity, evidence that the power of God rested upon him” (342).
In other words, Paul does not have in mind some temporary phenomenon, from which we live in hope of being delivered. This "dying" is daily. This spiritual "being delivered over to death" is as much a part of being a Christian as breathing is a part of physical living. To look at Paul was to see in process a dying analogous to that which Jesus experienced. Each time he was delivered, each time he overcame an obstacle, additional evidence was given that the crucified Jesus is also the resurrected Lord!
So let’s look now at these four realities of Christian experience.
First, Paul was “afflicted, but not crushed” (v. 8a). The word “afflicted” is a broad, all-encompassing term that includes physical, spiritual, and psychological oppression. Notwithstanding the multitude of ways in which this was manifest, Paul never felt “crushed” or so confined by it that he lost hope in God.
Second, he was “perplexed, but not driven to despair” (v. 8b), or as one commentator put it, “at a loss but not completely baffled” (Barrett, 136). Philip Hughes translates it, “confused but not confounded” (138). Though often with no explanation or answer that would account for what he endured, he never felt as if there were none. God always has a reason for permitting or even orchestrating such suffering, although we may have to wait until heaven to discover it.
Third, he was “persecuted, but not forsaken” (v. 9a). Surely he has in mind being persecuted by men but never abandoned by God. Their abuse of us is no measure of God’s affection!
The word translated "forsaken" is the one used by Jesus in his cry of dereliction: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34). Is Paul suggesting that although God actually did "forsake" Jesus on the cross, as he endured the punishment of our sin, he will never "forsake" us? Is not the former the reason for the latter?
Fourth, he was “struck down, but not destroyed” (v. 9b). Or as Barclay put it, “knocked down, but not knocked out”.
Each of these pairs of words is designed to illustrate as vividly as possible Paul’s frailty as a “jar of clay” and his absolute dependence on the superlative excellence and abundant supply of God’s power.
It’s important to note the relationship between vv. 10 and 11 and the antitheses of vv. 8-9. That is to say, “the death of Jesus” in v. 10a and “being given over to death for Jesus’ sake” in v. 11a together summarize what it means to be “afflicted” (v. 8a), “perplexed” (v. 8b), “persecuted” (v. 9a), and “struck down” (v. 9b). Likewise, “the life of Jesus” in vv. 10b and 11b accounts for Paul’s not being “crushed” or “driven to despair” or “forsaken” or “destroyed” (in vv. 8-9) while suffering.
Likewise, the "life of Jesus" is "the deliverance represented by the four 'but nots' of those verses. The former (the 'dying of Jesus') were endured precisely in order that rescue from them (the 'life of Jesus') might be experienced" (Barnett, 236).
Note well: the carrying about in himself the “death” of Jesus is simultaneous with the expression through him, for the sake of others, of the “life” of Jesus! The latter doesn’t eliminate the former. On the contrary, it is only by means of his experience of life-threatening persecution and suffering that the life-giving power of Christ is made available to the Corinthians (and to us). In other words, “the very purpose of the believer’s identification with Jesus in his sufferings is to provide an opportunity for the display of Jesus’ risen life” (Harris, 347).
The phrase in v. 11, we “are always being given over to death” is what we call a divine passive. In other words, we are always being given over to death by God! Paul’s point is “that his sufferings are not merely coincidental, but part of the divine plan for the spread of the gospel” (Hafemann, 184).
Thus, again, when Paul says in v. 12a that “death is at work in us” he has specifically in mind the experiences noted in the first half of the antitheses of vv. 8-9, as well as v. 10a and 11a. We should also ponder the paradox of asserting that "death" is "at work"! Death, by definition, is the absence of life and activity. Yet Paul says that the very "life" that has come to the Corinthians is the result of the "death" that works in him! By "death", of course, he has in mind again those sufferings in ministry described in vv. 8-9.
And what of my friend? Why is he not crushed or driven to despair or forsaken or destroyed, though his body is ravaged by this life-threatening tumor? What accounts for his triumph in the midst of such obvious tragedy? There is only one answer: his undying (though admittedly shaken) faith in the sustaining power and superlative promise of eternal life through the grace of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.
Do I continue to pray for his healing? Yes, always. But whether he lives or dies, the resurrection life of Jesus is ever so vividly manifest through him to me.