A Study of 2 Corinthians 4:1
Introduction: If you’ve ever gotten discouraged with your life or your work, I have a Bible verse for you, which, once you understand and learn it, will never leave you and never fail to uplift you. It’s 2 Corinthians 4:1: Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Notice it’s clear outline:
- Since through God’s mercy
- We have this ministry
- We do not lose heart.
1. We Have This Ministry
The heart of this sentence is in the middle: We have this ministry. I wish I could pound the professionalism out of the word “ministry.” We tend to think it refers to people who are employed by a church or Christian organization. We say, “That person is in the ministry.” But the word means service and it applies to every follower of Christ. The word ministry is the life we live and the work we do for Jesus.
The Lord Jesus has a life for you to live and a job for you to do – and that is ministry. He has it all planned out. He has thought it through in advance. It is interwoven with your life. It involves being a dad or mom or brother or sister. It involves being an entrepreneur, a homemaker, a schoolteacher, or whatever you are. It might or might not involve being a pastor or missionary.
Each one of us is given an assignment by God. Sometimes our ministries are unusual. I read about a nurse in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. One of her jobs was to dress babies who passed away and prepare them for burial, and to help heartbroken families through the bereavement process. She discovered there was a lack to tiny gowns for babies who passed away, so she thought of an idea. Most brides buy a wedding dress and it stays in their closets for years. This woman started asking for wedding dresses. She would cut them up and make gowns for the babies who had died. In this way, she had a way to comfort the parents and talk about how their babies had arrived safely in heaven. That became her personal ministry.
The apostle Paul said, “We have this ministry.” God has given us a life to live and a work to do for His kingdom. He has called us to serve Him, and we all have different roles to play. Our lives are not insignificant.
Now look at the first word in verse 1. I’ve spent weeks thinking about it: Therefore we do not lose heart. Last month, I had the opportunity of traveling to Asia on a preaching assignment, and I prepared this sermon in my hotel in Rangoon, Burma. My room had an amazing view. The waters of a lake were beneath me, and across the bay in my direct line of vision was the Golden Pagoda, which rises like an inverted cone. It’s a Buddhist shrine, made of bricks covered with gold. The crown is topped with over 5,000 diamonds and over 2,000 rubies. At the tip is a 72-carot diamond. If the gold in this pagoda were hammered out, it would amount to 22,000 gold bars. The entire building glows and shimmers. It’s called Myanmar’s Fort Knox.
Before leaving Nashville I’d highlighted 2 Corinthians 4 with a yellow pencil and underlined the word Therefore…. I kept looking out the window at that towering golden structure across the lake worth billions of dollars and then back at my Bible and the bright yellow highlighted words of verse one. There was no comparison. The richest and most golden thing before my eyes was this one verse of Scripture and its fourteen words, especially that word Therefore.
I thought of Psalm 19:10, which says the words of God are “more precious than gold, than much pure gold.”
I wouldn’t trade anything for this word Therefore. It’s worth far more than all the Buddha’s gold. Why is this word so rich? It links verse 1 with the concept of glory in the prior paragraph. The apostle Paul is building his thoughts one upon another. He is making his case. He is advancing his line of thinking. His statement at the beginning of chapter 4 is connected to his content in chapter 3. Therefore because of what I have just said, and since, through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.
Here, I believe, is what the Lord is telling us: When the Children of Israel left Egypt, it was glorious. They were singing, shouting, and celebrating their freedom. They were unstoppable; the very waters of the Red Sea split before them. When they converged on Mount Sinai the lightning flashed and the earth quaked and the trumpet sounded a blast that rose to a sustained crescendo and the Lord God Almighty Himself came down and settled His glory above them on that mountain. It is as if the atmosphere was charged with enough electricity to light up the entire earth. The angel of the Lord was there as a pillar of fire by night and a column of fire by night. That glorious cloud, which served to protect the Israelites from the blinding brilliance and pure light of God’s presence, settled on top of that mountain. Moses hiked up the hill and disappeared into the cloud. He saw the glory on the mountaintop. He saw the glory of God, and it surged into his body so that his face took on a glow that was almost blinding to see. God gave him the Ten Commandments, which represented the very attributes and character qualities of God, summarized and codified to show us how we should live in a way that reflects His glory.
Oh, how glorious! Oh, how wonderful!
But wait! All that was glorious in the book of Exodus appears as rusted pipes compared to the exceeding glory that came when Jesus Christ appeared on earth. The Gospel of John says, “The Word became flesh and dwelled among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
There was the glory of His birth, when all of heaven was vacated as the angels flooded the skies to sing great anthems of inexpressible praise over the shepherd fields over Bethlehem… the glory of His life, pure and sinless and righteous… the glory of His transfiguration when His face lit up a thousand times more brightly that that of Moses… the glory of His resurrection, when death itself was finally and fatally dealt with… the glory of His ascension, when He flew back up to heaven and resumed His omnipotent place on the throne of the universe… the message of the Gospel that He left us with its power to transform the life of every single person on earth who will respond to it! He Himself is the personification of glory. He does not just reflect glory or bask in glory or possess glory. He is Himself all glorious.
Moses saw God’s glory and he literally soaked it up. He experienced God’s glory and it made His skin shine. He glowed so brightly he put a veil over his face. But it was a glory He experienced extrinsically. It was something similar to a suntan. It came from outside, affected his skin tone for a while, and then faded away. It was wonderful, but extrinsic and temporary. But we have the privilege of experiencing the glory of God in a way that internally, intrinsically illumines our lives and makes our faces shine from the inside and transforms us into His very image—into the personality of Christ. And it is lasting.
Look at 2 Corinthians 3:7: Now if the ministry that brought death [the Mosaic Law], which was engraved in letters on stone [the Ten Commandments] came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, transitory thought it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious.
The ministry of the Spirit is the life of Christ conveyed to us by the Holy Spirit.
If the ministry that brought condemnation was glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory! And if what was transitory came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts.
The writer says, “Moses experienced the glory of God and it make his face shine as he received the Ten Commandments. It was glorious. But it cannot compare to the glory we have in receiving and transmitting the Gospel.” And down in verse 18: And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into His image with ever increasingly glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
This was the favorite Bible verse of one of my mentors and friends, Dr. Robertson McQuilkin. I heard him quote it over and over. As we look on the face of the Lord Jesus Christ, we are transformed into His image, from one degree of glory to the next.
Our ministry—the life we live and the work we do—flows out of the ocean of God’s glory. Therefore, since our lives and work are illuminated by the golden glow of the glory of God in a way that not even Moses could have imagined, we do not lost heart. We radiate hope and joy as we contemplate the face of Jesus and as the Holy Spirit daily transforms us step-by-step into the image of His wondrous personality.
3. Through God’s Mercy
But now, notice the next phrase: Therefore since through God’s mercy we have this ministry. Why does the Bible say this? We would have thought the verse would have said, “Therefore, through God’s grace….” There is a difference between mercy and grace. Grace is when God gives us what we don’t deserve. Mercy is when He doesn’t give us what we do deserve.
We don’t deserve the joy and privilege and opportunity of serving God, but He gives it to us anyway. That’s grace. But the Bible doesn’t say grace here. It says mercy. In what way does our ministry represent an act of God’s mercy?
Mercy is when God delivers us from some distress we deserve and are experiencing. So what distress does God deliver us from by giving us a ministry?
When I was a boy, I spent a lot of time with my Aunt Louise who lived on Fairmont Avenue in Bristol, Virginia. She had a neighbor across the street named Miss Ballard, and Miss Ballard cared for her elderly mother. But when her mother died, Miss Ballard didn’t have anything to do. She sat in her house all day long, unoccupied, trying to figure out how to pass the time. I suppose about once a week she walked around the house and dusted off her collectables, but there wasn’t much for her to do. Sometimes Aunt Louise would say, “Why don’t you go over and visit poor Miss Ballard. She’s bored.” So I’d run across the street, ring the doorbell, and Miss Ballard was just thrilled to see me. I’d sit down in her living room and in about five minutes I’d be bored too. That house just exuded boredom. I’d run back across the street and Aunt Louise would say, “Well, how was poor Miss Ballard.” “She’s bored,” I’d say.
God in His mercy does not want us to live a bored, insignificant, meaningless life. Boredom is, in its essence, being unaware that Jesus Christ has something special that He wants you to do—and that only you can do. He placed you on this planet for ministry. He has a special life He wants you to live and a special work He wants you to do. God, in His mercy, has taken away the futility and vanity of a meaningless life. He gives us a ministry to do.
4. We Do Not Lose Heart
And that brings us to the end of the verse: Therefore since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.
That is, we don’t allow ourselves to become discouraged and to lose our motivation and enthusiasm in life. Both here and in verse 14, the apostle Paul puts this in the negative. Why does he do that? Why doesn’t he put it in the positive? Why doesn’t he said, “Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we are encouraged. We are enthused. We are passionate and full of motivation and fervor and optimism.” In essence, that is exactly what he was saying, but he put it in the negative. Why is that?
Because he was acknowledging that after what he had been through he should have lost heart. No one would blame him for losing heart. When you read 2 Corinthians, there are two times when the apostle Paul goes into great detail about the physical and psychological pain he had absorbed. He talks about his rejection, his persecution, his beatings, his anxieties, his sleepless nights, his constant concern for the churches. There are very few human beings on earth—maybe there is no one—who could have endured so much without losing heart.
But Paul, “I did not lose heart.” Because of God’s glory and because of God’s mercy, he could never lose heart. And neither can we.
Conclusion: What is your ministry? You say, “I don’t know. How do I find out?”
In the book of Acts, chapter 22, the apostle Paul gave His testimony. He said he was headed toward the city of Damascus, Syria to persecute the Christians there when the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ broke in through the sky with such brilliant light that he was immediately blinded. He fell to the ground and he asked two questions: Who are You, Lord? and What do You want me to do?
Those are good questions, and we can ask them over and over. We want to get the Lord better and better, and we want to continually be in His will, engaged in whatever work He wants us to do. And it makes a difference.
Last week, I was with my friend Reese Kauffman, and he told about visiting in a refugee camp filled with thousands of homeless, hungry children. A handful of Christian workers there had gained permission to hold Good News Clubs, and they gathered a good group of children and said, “Let’s begin with some games.” But the children said, “We don’t want to play games.”
“Why not?” asked the workers.
They said, “Everyone comes and has us play games, but you come with the Bible stories and we want to hear the Bible.” So these Christian workers were teaching the Bible, and Reese was watching the whole thing. And then he stepped outside and saw the thousands of children whom they were not reaching. The workers did not the permission or the resources or the ability to reach the children. Reese said and heart sank and a great feeling of sadness came over him. And one of the workers saw him and understood the expression on his face. She came over to him and said, “I know what you’re thinking, Reese. We cannot save the whole world, but” – looking over to one of the children – “we can save the whole world for that little girl, for that little boy.”
The life God wants you to live and the work He wants you to do is truly glorious. It is illumined by the Holy Spirit of Christ, who is being formed within you. He has given you this ministry by His mercy, and it can change the world for unknown numbers of people who cross your path. You have significance. You have purpose. You have a personal ministry in life if you’ll do it. In fact, as we go through life the Lord brings us many opportunities to serve Him—and they are all glorious. The last verse of our paragraph says: All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.
Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.