Biblical Commentary
(Bible study)

2 Corinthians 4:5-12



In 3:12-15, Paul talked about speaking boldly, “and not as Moses, who put a veil on his face, that the children of Israel wouldn’t look steadfastly on the end of that which was passing away” (3:13; see also Exodus 34:29-35). Paul characterized the veil of the old covenant as anachronistic––outdated––passing away. He said, “To this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart” (3:14-15). He went on to say, “Whenever one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away” (3:16).

He spoke of the liberty that the Spirit of the Lord brings––and the transforming power of viewing the glory of God without a veil (vv. 17-18).

Paul spoke of the stalwart quality of his ministry––and of the mercy he had received––a reference to his vision of Jesus (4:1; see Acts 9). He said that he had “renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully” (4:2)––a defense against opponents in Corinth who were questioning his motives. He went on to say:

“Even if our Good News is veiled,
it is veiled in those who perish;
in whom the god of this world
has blinded the minds of the unbelieving,
that the light of the Good News of the glory of Christ,
who is the image of God,
should not dawn on them” (4:3-4).


5 For we don’t preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake; 6 seeing it is God who said, “Light will shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

“For we don’t preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your servants (Greek: doulos) for Jesus’ sake” (v. 5). In these verses, Paul says “we.” This is probably a royal “we”––a form of address typically used by a king or queen.

Most likely, Paul is defending himself against his opponents in Corinth who would like people to believe that Paul’s motives are self-serving. In response, Paul makes two points:

  • First, the subject of his preaching is “Christ Jesus as Lord.”
  • Second, Paul isn’t glorifying himself, but instead presents himself as a servant or slave, not only of the Lord, but also of the believers in Corinth.

The Greek word doulos is used for people engaged in involuntary servitude––slavery. The gentler word diakonos would indicate voluntary servitude––being a servant rather than a slave.

If Paul is a slave, it is because Christ called him into service, and Paul would not and could not bring himself to leave Christ’s service.

“seeing it is God who said, ‘Light will shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts” (v. 6a). We aren’t certain which Old Testament passage Paul has in mind. it could be the “Let there be light” verse from Genesis 1:3––or it could be “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…. On them the light has shined” from Isaiah 9:2.

Light and darkness are used in both Old and New Testaments as metaphors for good and evil––order and chaos––security and danger––joy and sorrow––truth and untruth––life and death––salvation and condemnation (Isaiah 5:20; John 3:19-21; 2 Corinthians 4:4; Ephesians 4:17-18).

Paul’s point is that God’s light “has shone in our hearts.” While we can’t know for sure whether or not “our” in this verse is another Royal “we,” I like to think that Paul is telling these Corinthian believers that God’s light has shined into their lives as well as his.

“to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (v. 6b). Paul saw “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” in his vision of Christ on the Damascus Road (Acts 9:1-20). These Corinthians haven’t seen that kind of vision, but Paul has brought them “the knowledge of the glory of God”––and his teaching has given them a glimpse of “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”


7 But we have this treasure in clay vessels, that the exceeding greatness of the power may be of God, and not from ourselves. 8 We are pressed on every side, yet not crushed; perplexed, yet not to despair; 9 pursued, yet not forsaken; struck down, yet not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the putting to death of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11 For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life also of Jesus may be revealed in our mortal flesh. 12 So then death works in us, but life in you.

“But we have this treasure in clay vessels” (v. 7a). Clay jars were the common vessel for carrying water and other goods in Paul’s day. Clay is a common substance that is available almost everywhere, and potters had mastered the art of forming clay jars on their pottery wheels. While some clay jars were beautifully ornamented, most were plain––humble vessels. But whether plain or beautiful, they had a life-giving function––gathering, preserving, and transporting water to parched throats. In that sense, clay jars are a worthy metaphor for the role of the Christian in gathering, preserving, and transporting the spiritual water of the Gospel to parched souls.

Clay jars are also rather fragile––breaking if dropped or hit by a stone. Not many clay jars survived a person’s lifetime––and even fewer survived to be passed down through several generations. In that respect, also, clay jars are a good metaphor for our brief lives. We have a few decades at best to proclaim the Gospel. A few believers continue to proclaim the Gospel after their deaths through their writings––but those are soon dated. Even the giants of the faith––the Calvins and Luthers and Wesleys––find their influence waning after a few centuries. We always need to train new believers to proclaim the Gospel. The church is always one generation away from extinction.

I love the metaphor of clay jars, because I am aware of my calling to proclaim “this treasure”––the Gospel––but I am also conscious of my inadequacy for that task. But if the Apostle Paul thought of himself as a clay jar carrying a precious treasure, that encourages me. I, too, am a clay jar, but I, too, have been entrusted with a precious treasure.

“that the exceeding greatness of the power may be of God, and not from ourselves” (v. 7b). It isn’t the clay jars that have power, but the treasure that they contain––a treasure put there by God. Those of us who proclaim God’s word have reason for humility.

“We are pressed on every side, yet not crushed; perplexed, yet not to despair; pursued, yet not forsaken; struck down, yet not destroyed” (vv. 8-9). In his first letter to the Corinthian church, Paul said:

“For, I think that God has displayed us, the apostles,
last of all, like men sentenced to death.

For we are made a spectacle to the world, both to angels and men.
We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ.
We are weak, but you are strong.
You have honor, but we have dishonor.

Even to this present hour we hunger, thirst,
are naked, are beaten,
and have no certain dwelling place.
We toil, working with our own hands.

When people curse us, we bless.
Being persecuted, we endure.
Being defamed, we entreat.

We are made as the filth of the world,
the dirt wiped off by all, even until now” (1 Corinthians 4:9-13).

Keep in mind that, when Paul wrote that first letter to Corinth, he was not facing personal opposition there––but now he is. One of the points that his opponents make is that the adversities that Paul is suffering indicate that he doesn’t enjoy God’s approval.

But Paul won’t be put off by such criticisms. He mentions in this verse some of the difficulties that he has encountered, but concludes by saying, “yet not destroyed.”

Later in this letter, Paul will list in more detail the difficulties that he has suffered. Answering his critics, he says:

“Are they servants of Christ? …I am more so;
in labors more abundantly, in prisons more abundantly,
in stripes above measure, in deaths often.

Five times from the Jews I received forty stripes minus one.
Once I was stoned.
Three times I suffered shipwreck.

I have been a night and a day in the deep.
I have been in travels often,
perils of rivers, perils of robbers,
perils from my countrymen, perils from the Gentiles,
perils in the city, perils in the wilderness, perils in the sea,
perils among false brothers;
in labor and travail, in watchings often,
in hunger and thirst, in fastings often,
and in cold and nakedness.

Besides those things that are outside,
there is that which presses on me daily,
anxiety for all the (churches)” (11:23-28).

While Paul’s critics might think that his sufferings suggest that God is not with him, Paul lists his sufferings as evidence of his authentic discipleship.

“always carrying in the body the putting to death of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body” (v. 10). In this verse, Paul takes his argument a step further. His sufferings not only authenticate his discipleship, but they also amount to a participation in the “death of the Lord Jesus.” Jesus suffered on the cross, and Paul has also suffered. Therefore, something of Jesus’ sufferings are revealed in Paul’s body––in the scars on his back from the times he was beaten––and from his stoning––and from the other evidence that he has suffered sacrificially––like Christ.

“For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life also of Jesus may be revealed in our mortal flesh” (v. 11). See the comments on verse 10.

“So then death works in us, but life in you” (v. 12). In the opening of this letter, Paul said, “If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation” (1:6). Now he says that his sufferings and death serve a Godly purpose, even as Jesus’ suffering and death served a Godly purpose. Paul has given generously of himself so that the Corinthians and the believers in the other churches he had founded might have life.

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.


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Copyright 2017, Richard Niell Donovan