As we are entering Thanksgiving week, I thought it might be appropriate and helpful to consider one of many passages given to us in Scripture about thanksgiving. A few weeks ago I ended a sermon using part of this morning’s passage in 2 Corinthians and as I was perusing which passage to preach upon this week, I decided that Paul’s words here are worth re-visiting in more detail, especially as we ponder giving thanks to God.
I think that one of the difficulties we may have as we approach Thanksgiving day is that we may not be feeling very thankful. And though I don’t—and can’t—know the details of what each of you may going through right now, I do know without question that whether now, or last week, or last year, we have all undergone some form of suffering or trial. Whether due to
an emotional illness like depression,
or some kind of physical affliction,
or financial concerns,
or difficulties in a relationship,
or the loss of a family member or friend or even a pet,
or faith struggles,
or feelings of anxiety,
I know that there isn’t a person sitting here this morning who has been spared suffering in their lives. And the reason I know this is because Scripture teaches us—and experience confirms—that not one of us has been spared the effects of the Fall—not Christians, not agnostics, not atheists, not Muslims, not Jews, not Hindus—no, not one.
Given that this is true, how in the world can we be expected to feel thankful if we or those we love or even those we don’t know but may empathize with—as those we hear about in the news—are suffering? Does God expect us to thank him for suffering? Does he expect us to thank him for evil deeds? And if we do thank him despite our suffering, aren’t we being hypocritical? Aren’t we just putting a smiley face or emoji on circumstances that ought to be met with sadness and tears?
Well, our passage this morning is a vivid reminder that Scripture never pretends that our earthly lives are other than they are—filled with great difficulties and trials. And yet, Scripture never pretends that our earthly lives are the final word. Scripture teaches us to see our earthly lives from God’s perspective, from heaven’s perspective. Consequently, even in the midst of suffering, Christians are shown how we may still have hope—how we needn’t give in to despair—how and why it is that God calls us to persevere and trust in him, come what may.
Paul begins this chapter by stating “Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.” So which ministry is Paul talking about? At the end of the previous chapter Paul compared the old covenant under Moses with the new covenant under Jesus Christ and stressed that the transitory glory of the old, which brought condemnation, cannot compare with the surpassing, everlasting glory of the new through which the ministry of the Holy Spirit brings righteousness (3:7–11). Not only that, but the only way for the veil to be removed from the eyes of old covenant believers—or the eyes of any who don’t know God—is by Christ removing it, helping people to see by means of his Spirit, that he is the Messiah, the Christ, God in the flesh. All who believe in Christ—who believe he is God in the flesh who lived, suffered, died, and rose for us and our salvation—are able to contemplate the Lord’s glory with unveiled faces and so are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory by means of the same Holy Spirit (3:16, 18). Last week we noted that one definition of glory is the presence of God. At the end of I Corinthians 3 we see that for believers to behold God, with unveiled faces, will result in our sanctification, in our being transformed into his image by means of God’s presence, by means of the Holy Spirit’s work.
So the ministry Paul is referring to the new covenant ministry of righteousness—of proclaiming the good news of Christ’s life, love, and work on our behalf. Christ is righteous and his righteousness is transferred to all who come to him, declaring us “not guilty” despite our sin. He has made this possible by taking our sin and its penalty upon himself and giving us his righteousness. And because Christ has assumed this penalty, God’s wrath, on our behalf and clothed us with his righteousness, we never need fear approaching his glorious throne. Spending eternity with God is now our birthright, our inheritance, because of what God in Christ, by the work of his Spirit and the love of our heavenly Father, has done for us. And so, with Paul, we do not lose heart. The good news of God’s grace far outweighs all earthly toils and trials.
And in order to keep this wonderful gift of grace from becoming a cheap grace rather than a costly grace, believers should seek to live lives worthy of God’s sacrifice in Christ. Therefore, verse 2, we should renounce “secret and shameful ways” not using “deception” nor “distort[ing] the word of God.” To commit our lives to Christ is to commit our lives to change according to the teaching he has given us in his Word. Believers are further called to set “forth the truth plainly” and “commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.” We are to speak the truth in love and live out this truth in love. Our orthodoxy—right teaching or teaching that is derived from God’s Word—should lead to orthopraxy—or right living—living that conforms to what God’s Word requires.
In verses 3 and 4, Paul addresses a mystery we all wonder about—namely, if Christ is the truth, the life, and the way to the Father, why doesn’t everyone who hears this truth turn to him? Paul states first that “even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.” Christians should never forget about the “the god of this age” or the devil who seeks to veil—who seeks to conceal, to disguise, to obscure—the truth of the gospel. He is the one who “has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” The devil’s work is to distract people away from the truth of who Christ is towards anything else that might draw their attention away from Christ. Elsewhere Satan is referred to as the “prince of this world” (John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11). Though a foe conquered by Christ, for the time being Satan is alive and well and at work in this world—at least until Christ returns to make all things right once and for all. Satan is also referred to as “the father of lies” who “was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him” (John 8:44). As the father of lies, the greatest lie he tries to get people to believe is that Christ is not the truth—that Christ is not the way to the Father—that Christ is not the giver of eternal life to all who come to him.
This past week as I was walking through the corridors at the seminary, I saw a photo posted on a bulletin board of a message board in front of a church stating: “I hate this church.” Signed “Satan.” Though a little eye-rolling to read, the message board is a reminder that Satan does hate the church of Christ especially if we, as part of that church, are seeking to live faithfully in our love and service to God and to those whom he’s placed in our lives. To proclaim and live out the Gospel is to be a light and truth to others as we point to Christ who is the light and truth. And Satan, who is the prince of darkness and the father of lies, seeks to put out that light and distort that truth to keep a veil over the eyes of those who don’t yet know Christ.
In verses 5 and 6, Paul indicates what ought to be the content of our preaching—“not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.” So the proper focus is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord. We are only servants—or slaves—for Jesus’ sake. Since Jesus is the light of the world (John 8:12), he is also the source of all light. And as believers we have been given his light—we have been given the knowledge of God’s glory, his presence—which is displayed in the face of Christ. He is the one who has called us, his followers, to be the light of the world (Matthew 5:12) as we point to him in this world of darkness. And we are called to let our light shine before others that they may see our good deeds and glorify not us but our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16).
In verse 7, Paul changes the metaphor as he goes on to note that our light—our treasure and message about the one and only light, Jesus Christ—is contained in “jars of clay” or “earthen vessels.” People living in Paul’s day sometimes kept their valuables in clay pots so that if their homes were broken into, the treasures wouldn’t be noticed and taken. Their treasures were hidden in humble garb. So, too, we who are finite, dependent, perishable, and breakable are nonetheless the primary means—other than Jesus Christ himself—that God has chosen to display his “surpassing” or “transcendent power.” We who are clay jars, who are but dust, nonetheless have been entrusted with the most precious treasure in the world, that of sharing the truth about God in Christ. And if we are living according to God’s will and ways, we will reflect his light despite our clay natures.
In the next few verses, Paul sets up a number of contrasts that illustrate ways in which our “clay jars” are nonetheless filled with God’s surpassing power:
As jars of clay we are “hard pressed on every side;” but because of God’s surpassing power we are not crushed (verse 8). God will keep us from breaking;
As jars of clay we are perplexed; but because of God’s surpassing power we are not in despair (verse 8). God will provide us his hope and truth;
As jars of clay we are persecuted; but because of God’s surpassing power we are not abandoned (verse 9). God will never leave us or forsake us, no matter what the circumstances;
As jars of clay we are struck down; but because of God’s surpassing power we are not destroyed (verse 9). God will always protect and care for us;
As jars of clay we “always carry around in our body the death of Jesus.” We have been baptized with him and so have died to our former nature; but because of God’s surpassing power “the life of Jesus [will] also be revealed in our body” (verse 10). We are new creatures in Christ whom God will one day raise up with Christ that we might spend eternity with him;
As jars of clay we are “always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake”; but because of God’s surpassing power Jesus’ “life [will] also be revealed in our mortal body” (verse 11). Because of Jesus, even if we die, no person or thing can ever separate us from God love, not in this life, not in the next;
As jars of clay “death is at work in us”; but because of God’s surpassing power “life is at work in you” (verse 12). Our lives are no longer our own but they belong to God and those whom he would have us serve and share Christ’s life with.
Paul then stands with the Psalmist (116, Septuagint) stating “I believed; therefore I have spoken.” The same Spirit who gave Old Testament believers faith to believe in God is the one who gives all believers faith to believe in Christ and share him with others—“because,” verse 14, “we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself.” As God was faithful to his word in Old Testament times, and was faithful to and through Jesus, he will also be faithful to those who belong to God through Christ. As he raised Jesus, so, too, will he raise those who follow Jesus once they die. And, again, this is for the benefit of the Corinthians and all believers, verse 15, “so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.”
Throughout this passage, Paul’s point is that our lives are not our own. We have been placed on this earth—and redeemed by God in Christ—that we might know, love, and serve him, which means we must know, love, and serve others by proclaiming the truth of who Christ is to others. And, having rehearsed in the most tangible and genuine sense possible the realities and trials of our earthly lives, Paul nonetheless, encourages these believers to give thanks.
Brothers and sisters, ultimately the meaning of our lives isn’t to be found in the things that we do, or in the things that we own, or in how much money we make, or even in whether or not we have good health or an easy life. No, the meaning of our lives is to be found in knowing the Lord and Giver of Life and, knowing him, then sharing with others the wonder of his grace—that for those who give their lives over to God in Christ, no matter what the circumstances of our lives may be, God is ever with us; he will never leave us; he will never forsake us; we are never alone. And this is how his grace “may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.”
This grace is to the “glory of God” because the “glory” of God, in the sense of his presence, is ever with us and therefore if we live our lives intentionally in his presence, mindful of his presence, seeking his will by praying—by talking to him—in all circumstances, we will always have cause to express our thanksgiving to him. And this deep sense of thanksgiving, even in the midst of trials and perhaps especially in the midst of trial, is possible only because of him and therefore all the glory, all the honor, will be to him.
“Therefore,” Paul continues in verse 16, “we do not lose heart.” Paul is ending this chapter with the same affirmation he began with in verse 1: Because of all that God has done for us in Jesus Christ, we do not lose heart. Notice what a strong grasp on life Paul has here. “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.” We live in an age of fitness, don’t we? Especially as the New Year again approaches, we will be bombarded with lures to health clubs and diets and we’ll make vows that this year things will be different. This year we’ll take better care of ourselves. This year we will exercise. This year we will eat right. But, as a pastor I once sat under observed, even if we keep all of our resolutions to live healthier lives, all that will do for us is guarantee that when we die we will do so in better health. Our good fitness won’t keep us from dying. We are all aging—we are all wasting away outwardly.
But another way of understanding this “outwardly…wasting away” is to understand that as believers, our old nature—the secret and shameful ways that have been renounced in verse 2—is also wasting away while our new nature—Christ’s nature—is being renewed in us. This is the work of God’s Holy Spirit in us— each day he renews us—each day he gives us fresh life and strength—each day he makes us more like Christ—each day he gives us his eternal nature, his eternal life. So one of the keys in the life of a follower of Christ is learning to see our lives through God’s lens—through his perspective. And Paul is reminding us of this in verse 17 as he states “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” How can we measure—how can we weigh—how can we compare the weight of our present troubles—which are only momentary, since our earthly lives, compared with eternity, are but a blink, are but a moment in time—with the eternal glory of which we can be assured and which far outweighs them all? What Paul is saying is that if we were to take all of our suffering and all of our trials and place them on one side of a scale; and take the eternal glory that awaits us and place it on the other side of a scale, it would be like putting a mouse on one end of a see-saw and having an elephant sit on the other side—the mouse would go flinging far into space. And hard as is it may be to believe—especially if we are in the midst of suffering right now—one day our suffering will seem as but a mouse to us when we compare it with the vast treasure of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.
Paul ends by encouraging us in verse 18 to develop this eternal view. With him, we are to “fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” Real and hard and painful though our present trials may be, we need to remember that they are not the final word. This is not how the story of our lives ends. These trials will one day be removed, once and for all. Our earthly lives—which are the short part of eternity—will one day come to a close. And, when they do, our earthly story will be joined with the eternal story God has been weaving together from the beginning of creation and its ending will leave us breathless with wonder and praise to him who has loved us so well and will love us so well throughout both our earthly and our heavenly—our eternal—lives.
Brothers and sisters, this is why we can express our thanksgiving to God even if we do not feel thankful.
This is why we can express our thanksgiving to God even if we—or those we love—or those we don’t know but may empathize with—are suffering.
God doesn’t expect us to thank him for suffering.
God doesn’t expect us to thank him for evil deeds humans may do to one anther.
And the reason that it isn’t hypocritical to thank him despite our suffering is because we know the larger picture. We know the greater truth God has provided for us in his Word.
God knew we would turn from him.
God knew our turning from him would result in suffering in this world.
God knew that Satan who turned from him first would ever be at work to harm us and turn us against God.
God knew the Fall would cast this world into darkness.
But God also knew, before the foundation of the world, that his light—which is greater than any and all darkness—would overcome that darkness.
God knew how deep his love for us is.
God knew his love for us is so deep that he would become one of us, live among us full of grace and truth, take on the penalty of sin for us and our salvation, die for us, and rise for us.
God knew his light would draw us to himself and save us by his grace.
God knew he destined us for himself and that nothing in heaven or earth could ever separate us from his eternal love.
God knew that by his light and love, he would enable us to know his love even in the midst of suffering and trial, and persevere in hope, knowing that our true life is held even now in these earthen jars of clay.
And this is why we are able to thank him, the font of thanksgiving, in the midst of all circumstances—because of his never-ending, all-encompassing, eternal love in Christ, to the glory of God the Father, by the all-surpassing power of his Holy Spirit of Comfort.
Let us pray.