The Treasure, quite simply, is Christ (2 Cor. 6:8-9)
On June 22, 1750, Jonathan Edwards was fired. After twenty-four years of ministry at the church in Northampton, Massachusetts, twenty-one of which as senior pastor, America’s greatest pastor-theologian was dismissed by an overwhelming vote of the male membership (women were not allowed to vote).
Edwards’ response? After enduring years of theological wrangling, bitter opposition, rancorous slander, and malicious gossip, one might have expected him either to wallow in self-pity or lash out in angry recriminations. Not Edwards. One observer described his reaction in these memorable words:
“That faithful witness received the shock, unshaken. I never saw the least symptoms of displeasure in his countenance the whole week, but he appeared like a man of God, whose happiness was out of the reach of his enemies and whose treasure was not only a future but a present good, overbalancing all imaginable ills of life, even to the astonishment of many who could not be at rest without his dismission [i.e., dismissal]” (quoted in Iain Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography, 327).
Edwards was a pastor, not an apostle, but he had obviously learned much from the experience of Paul. Something was at work in both men that elevated their happiness beyond the grasp of even the most vicious of their enemies. A treasure of inestimable value more than compensated for “all imaginable ills of life.”
Nowhere does Paul say it with greater clarity than here in 2 Corinthians 6, as he describes a ministry and a life characterized by great endurance in the midst of afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger (vv. 4-5). He responded to such trials with purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, love, and truth, all in the power of God through the Holy Spirit (vv. 6-7).
The paradox of Paul’s experience is nothing short of stunning: “through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything” (vv. 8-10).
I want to briefly note the first six of these paradoxical pairs in vv. 8-9.
We love it when others hold us in high regard (“honor”, v. 8). A good reputation is easy to live with. But “dishonor” is something else. When people hold opinions of us shaped by misinformation and unjustified criticism, we either respond in kind or retreat to a defensive posture. All too often our emotional equilibrium fluctuates with our public opinion poll. We’re high when the numbers are. When the polls go down, so do we.
Paul was neither over-inflated by “praise” nor destroyed by “slander” (v. 8). He could enjoy public affirmation without becoming dependent upon it. He was largely unaffected by what others thought of him. This is stunning when one considers the customary defamation he endured at Corinth. Notwithstanding his most humble and self-sacrificial posture, he was often excoriated and denounced. They accused him of being fickle (2 Cor. 1:17), of being motivated by worldly ambition (10:2), and for falling short in regard to physical appearance and lacking verbal eloquence.
“We are treated as impostors, and yet are true” (v. 8). Paul is in good company here, as Jesus himself was regarded as a deceiver by his enemies (cf. John 7:12; Mt. 27:63). Yet his calling was genuine (Gal. 1:1,15-16), his message was authentic (2 Cor. 4:2; 6:7), and he consistently spoke the truth (2 Cor. 11:31; Rom. 9:1; Gal. 1:20; 1 Tim. 2:7).
What does he mean in saying he was “unknown, and yet well known” (v. 9)? Some say this refers to views of Paul held outside the church (he’s an unknown quantity, insignificant, uncelebrated, easily ignored) versus inside the church (respected and acknowledged). More likely a human perspective is being contrasted with a divine one. The false teachers in Corinth, together with some of the members there, refused to recognize him as an apostle. But God did (cf. 2 Cor. 1:1). And it’s the latter’s opinion that mattered to Paul.
There may even be a more personal dimension to this contrast. Yes, he was largely unknown to the world, a “nobody”, if you will. Yet God knew him, loved him, and cherished him as a good and faithful son. “The Lord knows those who are his” (2 Tim. 2:19; cf. John 10:14), Paul wrote to young Timothy. And the apostle was no exception. Others may forget who I am, says Paul, but the Lord Jesus has written down my name in the Lamb’s book of life (Luke 10:20; Phil. 4:3)!
Yes, we are constantly exposed to life-threatening circumstances (“as dying,” v. 9), yet “we live” (cf. 2 Cor. 1:8-9; 4:11ff.; 1 Cor. 15:30-31; Acts 14:19-20). We are “punished” but “not killed” (v. 9), knowing that “all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:11).
What has to happen in the human heart to make such a life possible? How does one attain to this perspective? Is there a formula? A magical incantation? A prayer to pray? A task to perform? What accounts for the presence of joy rather than bitterness in Paul’s soul? How was he able to keep his happiness “out of the reach of his enemies”?
For this, we must return to the words of that astute observer in 1750. His “treasure,” this man wrote of Edwards, “was not only a future but a present good, overbalancing all imaginable ills of life.” Something was of such immeasurable value that Edwards happily let go of all earthly goods and gain. There was something he prized above the praise of men. The root of his dependency on the accolades of others was severed by his delight in a far surpassing pleasure.
Edwards (like Paul) was captivated by a treasure so radiant that he was blinded to the light of fool’s gold. Its glorious sound rendered him deaf to the slander of his enemies. The sweetness of this “present good” turned sin sour in his soul. He had experienced a joy so satisfying and a pleasure so all-consuming that “all imaginable ills of life” dwindled in their capacity to embitter or enslave. The treasure, quite simply, was Christ.