Archive for the ‘Series: Ministers of the New Covenant’ Category
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”
We have just seen that the power to create life and light is from God, not from us. This distinction is so vital and beyond any negotiation that God designed a way for us to constantly be reminded thereof. How does he do this? By revealing to us continuously that we are mere vessels containing the treasure, and very fragile ones at that.
In the following verses Paul provides us with examples of exactly how this message is driven home on a daily basis, and how we are constantly reminded of our own brokenness, mortality and dependence on God: We are hard pressed, perplexed, persecuted and struck down, and in this way we always carry around in our body the death of Jesus. All of this takes place to remind us that it is God’s power, not ours, and that we merely reflect God’s glory.
In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 12, he emphasises the same principle: A thorn in the flesh was given to him to keep him from becoming conceited about his ministry. His conclusion in verse 10, “when I am weak I am strong”, is one that runs like a golden thread throughout the second letter to the Corinthians. We are only qualified to be carriers of God’s glory and to reflect it to the world when we realise exactly how weak and fragile we are. To the degree that we experience death in ourselves the life of God will be revealed through us.
We can summarise by saying that for the message of grace to be truly grace, it must be evident not only in the content of the message, but also in its delivery. It is therefore imperative that the one who brings God’s message should not do it in a boastful way, but “in fear and trembling”, as Paul did when he preached to the Corinthians (1 Cor 2:3). This will reveal the true source of the power behind the message, both to the preacher and the audience.
Paul concludes his teaching in verse 16 by repeating the same statement that he made in verse one: “Therefore we do not lose heart.” The principle is clear: When you understand that the success of the gospel does not depend on you or your efforts, then you will no longer be demotivated when you do not see the results that you would like to see.
The main reason why we lose heart is because we do not understand the glorious nature of the ministry, that this is something that we can only have through God’s mercy and that we cannot do anything to make the message more appealing to people who do not find it appealing enough. We simply do not understand that we do not have to despair when we do not see the visible results of our ministry.
As Paul said in his first letter to the Corinthians:
“For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”
“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 the glory of God in the face of Christ.”
In order to clearly make the point that no human mediation can remove the veil over the gospel, and that no human being can create spiritual sight on behalf of God, Paul points to the creation of the world, and in particular to the creation of light.
There is only one who has the authority and power to create light in darkness, he reminds us. It is God. The same God who said “Let there be light” at the beginning of creation, now says “Let there be light” at the beginning of the new creation. In the next chapter this argument is drawn to its logical conclusion when Paul says: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God…” (2 Cor 5:17)
The history of the Old Covenant begins with the very command that characterises the beginning of our participation in the New Covenant: “Let there be light!” The former was a creation of physical light, the latter of spiritual light. The miracle of removing the veil over the gospel, of delivering people from the god of this age who has blinded their minds, of allowing them to see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, is the very miracle that took place at creation. The power needed to do so is the very power that was needed at the beginning of time. Darkness and light are separated with God’s recreation just as they were at his creation.
The implications of the above are rather stunning: If a preacher thinks he has the ability to remove the veil over the gospel, then such a preacher might just as well claim that he has the ability to create the universe.
Is this possible? Certainly not.
The next point that Paul makes flows logically out of everything that has been said thus far: “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.”
Paul answers the obvious question: “If it is not my affair to interfere with the impact that God’s glory has on people, what about those who do not see the glory and who do not respond? Am I not to go out my way to try and convince them? Surely I cannot just leave them?” His answer could well have been predicted. People who are lost and perishing are so not because they have not had the gospel explained in a fantastic enough way, but because the veil prohibiting them from seeing the glory has not been removed. “It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away” (3:14), Paul reminds us.
Outside of Christ, the minds of unbelievers are blinded by the god of this age. Even religious people, such as the Jews, suffer from this curse: “Even today, when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But when anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.” (3:15). The solution for spiritual blindness, then, is to turn to Christ the Lord. It can never be anything else. Where this has not happened, no amount of manipulation can remove the veil. To try and do create artificial sight by using all kinds of manipulative tactics, thinking that we are assisting God, is carnal and foolish.
We have already referred to the next verse, but it is fitting to do so once again after having said the above: “For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” Clearly this is the choice facing the preacher of God’s word. Either he can preach Christ, or himself. Preaching Christ involves pointing people to Christ, and it happens where the preacher understands that Christ alone can remove the veil. When a preacher is misled to think he himself can remove the veil, his preaching will not be Christ-focused, but self-focused. The party who is thus seen as the revealing agent of God’s light and glory will of necessity receive the prominent place in the preaching. When we understand that Christ alone can remove the veil, we shall never be tempted to preach ourselves.
Perhaps the best example of such preaching is to be found in the life and ministry of John the Baptist, a man who was born to point people to Christ. His life and reason for being was defined by one powerful sentence: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). The next day he saw Jesus passing by and he repeated the words: “Look, the Lamb of God!” (John 1:35). His ministry was the same as the ministry of every minister of the New Covenant. He pointed Christ out to the people, he prepared the way for the Lord. As the veil began to be removed, John purposefully began to phase himself into the background: “He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30), he said. Ministers and Christian leaders would do well to look in the mirror from time to time and say out loud with the prophet: “I am not the Christ but am send ahead of him.” (John 3:27).
Indeed, preparing the way for Christ is what the New Covenant ministry is all about. We do not preach ourselves, we preach Christ.
The first implication for Christian workers, as ministers of the New Covenant, has to do with the practical way in which they minister to other people. Our methodology is changed once we understand the nature and the source of the glorious ministry entrusted to us, and it can never be the same again.
3.1 We Set Forth the Truth Plainly
In verse 2 Paul goes on to describe exactly how the methods of our ministry are affected. He says that instead of losing heart, “we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.”
The conclusion drawn by Paul is a very logical one. Our business is to reflect the glory of the Lord, and this glory is unsurpassed in its greatness. Even the most glorious appearance of God in the history of mankind, when God descended on Mount Sinai in fire (Exodus 19:18) to give Moses the Ten Commandments, is considered as “no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory” (3:10) of the New Covenant.
The message can hardly be clearer. No human being can ever imitate what happened on Sinai, let alone add to the glory of the New Covenant. If this is the case, then it is a futile exercise to try and do so. There is no requirement for us to try and increase the glory or make it more appealing. We do not have to use deceptive strategies to entice people into the Kingdom of God. We do not have to distort the word of God to try and make it more comprehensible. “On the contrary”, Paul says, we set “forth the truth plainly”. Is that not what a mirror does? It is a mere reflector of reality, and nothing more.
Likewise, we are called to merely testify to the surpassing glory. We point to it, but we do not interfere with it. The glory is great enough to make its own impression.
3.2 We Commend Ourselves to Every Man’s Conscience
Paul says something else which is noteworthy: “We commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.”
A man’s conscience is that part used of God to speak to him. When someone has lost the ability to listen to his conscience, then he has lost the ability to listen to the Spirit of God. The world, however, does not speak to the conscience of a person. Scripture makes it abundantly clear that the love of the world is to be identified with the lusts of the eyes, the lusts of the flesh, and the boastful pride of life (1 John 2:16).
The world appeals to that which a person can see and feel, and to that which boosts his or her ego. These three components of man constitute what we call the sinful nature. The first sin committed in Eden, which is a prototype of all sins that were to follow, teaches us the same lesson. Eve “saw” that the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also “desirable” for gaining wisdom. Behind the lusts of her eyes and her flesh, as we all know, was the boastful pride of life: She wanted to be like God, as the serpent said she could be.
This is how the enemy operates still to this day, and it is how he gets to the will of a person. God never uses such shameful tactics, and neither does he allow his servants to do so. Like God, we are called to address the conscience of those we speak to. A sincere conscience will detect the voice of God, whereas a hardened conscience cannot do so. We are not called to compensate for the spiritual deafness of those we speak to.
Oftentimes it is a great temptation for a Christian worker to use other tactics in convincing a person whose conscience seems unable to respond to the plain truth of the gospel. Such tactics Paul calls deception, a secret and shameful distortion of the Word of God. Literally, this is what Satan did in the garden of Eden to convince his potential converts: He distorted the word of God (“Did God really say…?”), he deceived (“You shall surely not die…”), and all of this was done in a secret and shameful manner.
The temptation to preach the gospel according to the manipulative communication tactics of the devil and the world is a great one, and prohibited by God.
3.3 A Warning to the Modern Church
This point is much more important than we may realise. We live in an age that is highly pragmatic and results orientated. The technological, management and motivational revolutions of the past few decades have changed the world in an unprecedented way. It has created a philosophy of achievement, a success mentality that has seeped into every area of life, the church’s included. According to it, there is an answer for every problem, a way past any stumbling block. Everything can be planned, plotted, programmed and achieved. We are masters of our destiny and nothing can stop us from getting there.
In spite of the alleged accomplishments that this thinking has led to in the worlds of business and economics, and even in the private lives of individuals, it has nothing to do with the power or the methods of the Holy Spirit. The success of the gospel does not depend on man’s will or effort, but on God’s grace. God’s grace is strongest when man is weakest, a point that is clearly made in the next few verses. The “success at all costs” mentality detracts from the great doctrine of God’s sovereignty in the work of salvation, and elevates man to the level of God.
If we return to that initial fateful sin once more, we shall see that the first motivational speaker in the history of humanity was a serpent. He introduced the concept of possibility thinking into a world governed by the providence and love of a most powerful God, and it shattered that world forever. The great error of Adam and Eve was to think that they were to take responsibility for that which was, in fact, God’s responsibility. Satan might have called it the maximisation of their potential, but God called it rebellion. The serpent has not changed his tactics in all the millennia since then, and we, it seems, are still as gullible as we were back then. The foolish assumption, that we can act as though we are God, lies at the root of all sin.
3.4 Uzzah’s Fatal Mistake
I mentioned earlier that the New Covenant ministry can be likened to the ministry of Uzzah and Ahio (1 Chronicles 13) who guided the ark on a cart. We are like them in the sense that we are carriers of the glory for the sake of God.
The story of Uzzah and Ahio teaches us something else, though. As one point in their journey the oxen stumbled, and Uzzah reached out his hand to steady the ark. We are told that the Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah, and that he struck him down because he had put his hand on the ark. Uzzah died because he tried to compensate for what seemed to be a threat to God’s glory. In his he has become an eternal symbol of the flesh of man trying to interfere when the reputation of God seems to be under threat.
God does not allow this. He can protect his own glory, and he does not need our assistance. People ask: “How can God kill a man for doing that which was only natural and instinctive?” To this we have to answer that the price of one life is a small price to pay for the eternal testimony of God’s transcendence and glory that need not the arm of man to support it.
Much of the modern church has become like Uzzah, feeling that without their assistance the glory of God is under threat. We interfere with the majesty of God. We want to stabilise an ark that seems wobbly to us. We do this in a multitude of ways, and we do not realise that we are working against ourselves and against the purposes of God.
It is for this reason that Paul has the courage to speak the plain truth of God’s Word, and to direct himself to the conscience of each one he speaks to. He is not deceived into thinking that he can accomplish more than the convicting power of the Holy Spirit. He does not distort or go beyond the word of God, and neither does he allow any minister of the new covenant to do so.
3.5 We Do Not Preach Ourselves
In verse 5 Paul points to another way in which our methodology has been affected by the nature and source of the New Covenant ministry: “For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.”
In the light of that which has already been discussed above, it becomes obvious why Paul says this. If it is true that our ministry is one of reflecting the Lord’s glory and spreading his fragrance and aroma, then we shall be foolish to preach ourselves. It is not about us, it is about him. We do not possess the glory, we merely carry it. We dare not preach in such a way that the focus falls on us. It should always be on Christ.
It is told that the donkey who carried Jesus into Jerusalem went home that night and boasted to his friends and family about what had happened. He had never noticed who sat on his back and was thoroughly convinced that the uproar was about him. The story might make us smile, but the fact is that many of us are like that donkey. When we reflect the glory of the Lord and we see the effect that it has on people, we are tempted to think that there is something special about us.
(Next Post: The Effects of the Ministry)
After having explained the nature of the New Covenant ministry, Paul continues by pointing to the source of the ministry. It is as though he anticipates the obvious question: “If this ministry is so glorious, where can I get hold of it? Where does it come from?”
His answer is clear: We have this ministry “through God’s mercy”. It is not something we have fabricated, or something that originated because of anything we have done. We have no part in its creation or in the fact that it has been entrusted to us. It is given to us solely by the mercy and grace of God.
This is a very important principle, and it is is emphasised throughout the first few chapters of 2 Corinthians. Note the following verses which all underline our total reliance on God as ministers of the New Covenant, and the fact that the New Covenant ministry in all its glory is solely “from God”:
Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. 1:9
Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. 1:21
But thanks be to God, who always leads us in truimphal procession in Christ and through us spread the fragrance of the knowledge of him. 2:14
Not that we are competent to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. 3:5
He has made us competent as ministers of a New Covenant. 3:6
And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. 3:18
Therefore, since through God’s ministry we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. 4:1
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 the glory of God in the face of Christ. 4:6
But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 4:7
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation. 5:18
It can hardly be clearer. The acting party in each and every case is none other than God Himself. Understanding the source of the New Covenant ministry is essential to understanding the nature of it. It is a ministry of reflecting the glory of God, and it is ministry designed, sustained and given by Him and Him alone. In short, it is His ministry!
One may think that nothing remains to be said after these two very important points have been brought to our attention. Yet Paul is not finished. He uses the rest of chapter 4 to expound the implications of having received this glorious ministry in the way just described.
(Next Post: The Method of the Ministry)
Years ago I spoke to a group of Christian workers on what it means to be a “minister of the New Covenant.” It turned out to be one of the most unforgettable mornings of my life. The message was transcribed on request, and I thought it would be a good idea to divide it into a series of blog posts.
In his final letter to Timothy, the young Christian worker at Ephesus, Paul writes: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day.” (2 Timothy 4:7-8)
Paul “finished the race”, not only as a believer, but also as a Christian worker. It is clear that he expects his readers to do the same.
How did he do it? What was the secret behind his perseverance?
Paul’s Letter to the Church at Corinth
The answer is provided in another of Paul’s letters: His second letter to the Corinthians.
In the first verse of chapter 4 he says something remarkable: “We do not lose heart.“ We need to note that he is not talking about the Christian life, but about the Christian ministry. The whole context, starting from 2:12, deals with the issue of “ministers of the New Covenant”. Paul is therefore saying: “As ministers of the New Covenant, i.e. as Christian ministers, we do not lose heart, we do not give up.”
Is there a reason behind this statement? Can we learn something from him that we can apply practically as ministers of the New Covenant so that we, too, shall not lose heart? Does Paul give us some kind of underlying motive as to why he makes such a bold statement?
He does indeed.
If we read the sentence we shall see that it begins with Paul’s classic “therefore”. This tells us that the reason for his statement is to be found in the preceding passage. It is as though he is saying: “In the light of what I have just shared with you, it becomes clear why we do not lose heart.”
This observation is confirmed when we read the rest of the sentence: “Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry…” The preceding passage is about the nature of the New Covenant ministry, and Paul is concluding his teaching by making a practical application: It is as though he says: “Therefore, since we have this ministry, a ministry that I have just explained to you, we do not lose heart.”
Our answer, then, is to be found in the particular nature of the New Covenant ministry of which we have become ministers. If we understand the peculiar nature of the ministry, we shall also discover the secret of persevering in the ministry.
1. The Nature of the Ministry
What is the nature of this ministry? The preceding passage makes it very clear: It is a ministry that reflects the glory of Christ. Note especially verse 18: “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”
Paul has an interesting way of explaining this ministry of reflecting the glory of Christ. He uses as his point of departure the great minister of the Old Covenant: Moses. In a sense we have the same ministry as Moses, Paul shows us, albeit with one very important difference: The ministry of the New Covenant is much more glorious.
The analogy can hardly be clearer. We, like Moses, have been somewhere. We have seen something, and we are affected. The glory of that which we have seen has rubbed off on us, and we are now returning to the camp as ministers of the covenant in all its glory.
We are, therefore, carriers of the glory. Like Uzza and Ahio (1 Chronicles 13) who moved the Ark of the Covenant in a cart, in all its power and glory, every Christian worker carries the New Covenant in all its power and glory into the assembly of the people. The focus is not on us, but on the glory of the treasure we are carrying. Our ministry can best be described as a ministry of reflection. We are not the treasure, the glory of God is. We are not the focus, the glory of God is.
This fact is confirmed by another verse earlier on in the same passage (2:14). Here the New Covenant ministry is described as a “triumphal procession in Christ” led by God, who through us “spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him”.
The picture that comes to mind is that of the priest carrying a censer and spreading the fragrance of the incense. Once again, the minister is depicted as a mere carrier of something extraordinary, not as one extraordinary in and of himself.
There is, however, an important difference between Moses and us. When Moses returned from the mountain the radiance of the glory had to be veiled. It was too much to look at. But when the New Covenant is ministered, no veil is necessary.
We find the reason in 3:14: “Only in Christ is it taken away.” Verse 16 reads: “But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.”
Jesus Christ is the mediator of the New Covenant, which is why the glory is unveiled in the New Covenant. As a minister of the Old Covenant, Moses did not have this privilege. The glory, therefore, had to be veiled.
(Next Post: The Source of the Ministry)