Commentary on 2 Corinthians 4:5-12
This short cryptic passage presents us with a synopsis of what life in Jesus the Messiah looks like.
Even though it is part of Paul’s long “apology” — or personal defense — for his apostolic ministry against some detractors (in 2 Corinthians 2:14-6:10), it applies to the rest of us since Paul’s basis for defending himself is rooted in “God’s promises,” which are always for everyone (2 Corinthians 1:20; 7:1). What it depicts, with vivid imagery, is a brief phenomenology (a study of a phenomenon) of what being united with the death and life of Jesus the Messiah means for how we experience ourselves and others around us.
Proclaiming the Messiah as Lord and ourselves as your slaves
The passage begins with what could be described as its thesis statement. In the Messiah, what we announce or commend when we present ourselves to others is not our personal or collective egos — our achievements, what makes us special or important, or even the disclosure of some idiosyncratic personal or communal truth (regardless of how authentic it might be). Rather, what we announce is that the Messiah is Lord (the Greek kurios translates the Hebrew YHWH) and that announcement — if sincere — binds us to being slaves of others for Jesus’ sake (2 Corinthians 4:5; see also Mark 8:27-9:1).
Where does this announcement come from, if it does not come from ourselves? Its source lies in God’s speaking creation into being: “Let light shine out of darkness” (see also Genesis 1:3). This “light” reverberates in the coming of a just and merciful Messiah (Isaiah 9:2) and in the righteous who conduct their affairs with justice and distribute their wealth freely to the poor (Psalm 112:4). And it shines in our hearts as well, giving us knowledge of the glory of God in “the face” — the personal presence — of Jesus the Messiah in our lives.
Treasure in clay jars
But we have this “treasure” only in “clay jars” — cheap and fragile earthenware. A metaphor for the vulnerability of our mortal existence, earthenware vessels were also used in the priestly service of temple sacrifice. They could easily be broken or contaminated (see Leviticus).
Why link this treasure with such inexpensive and easily broken vessels? So that it can be clear that this excess — this “hyperbole” — of power comes from God and not from us.
How is this “treasure” actually experienced in the “clay jars” of our vulnerable human lives? Paul portrays how “we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9). Drawing on language found in the psalms, prophets, and wisdom literature (as well as probably ancient depictions of a sage’s hardships), Paul could also be appropriating traditions about Jesus’ life that would later influence the Gospels. Not only were Jesus and his disciples “persecuted,” but Jesus cries out at his crucifixion, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34; see also Psalm 22:1).
Paul does not depict these extreme hardships in order to highlight his own strength amid adversity. Indeed, he will later parody such displays of prowess (see chapter 11). And he does not present them as an ideal of suffering to follow. Instead, his point is to stress that God’s “shining” through us occurs precisely as we — like the Messiah and the righteous of old — rely solely on God’s promises of justice and mercy in spite of what may happen to us.
Dying and living in Jesus
So “who” do we become as a result of all this? What marks our inexpressible core as individuals? And “what” now defines our identities over time? What identifies us as selves, in spite of what happens to us?
Paul’s response is stark. “Who” we become is now defined solely by carrying Jesus’ death around in our bodies. Only in this way can Jesus’ life be manifest (phaneroo) in those bodies. And “what” defines our identity over time is nothing other than being continually given up to death for Jesus’ sake and the reign of God he embodied. Only in this way is Jesus’ life manifest amid the exigencies of our finite flesh (2 Corinthians 4:10-11).
In other words, we no longer live to preserve our “identities,” whether they take an individual or collective form. Dying in Jesus, we now live solely for the one who died for all so that all might live. This now is what defines our inexpressible core as individuals. This now is what identifies us as selves, in spite of what happens to us. As Paul succinctly put it, “death in me, life for you” (2 Corinthians 4:12).
Of course, ancient and contemporary (so-called) “ministers of righteousness” and “apostles of the Messiah” have often manipulated the starkness of this language to get others to submit to their own agendas (see 2 Corinthians 10-13). Thus, we need to point out that this dying and living in Jesus is not about submitting to a human will, whether it be that of one’s own or another’s ego, or some collective expression of either. And it is not about conforming to an ideal of suffering at the expense of one’s own or anyone else’s humanity.
Rather, what Paul seems to be getting at is this: As all that distorts and spoils our created goodness dies in Jesus — whether we have created that dysfunction or others have imposed it on us — Jesus’ life is manifest as the flourishing of new creation in our lives. But that flourishing and renewal also entails sharing in the sufferings of Jesus — continually being put to death by all that goes against what this crucified Messiah, the Wisdom of God, embodied. In fact, it is precisely as we share in Jesus’ life and sufferings that the light of God’s glory shines — amid our fragile human existence — in the “face” of this crucified Messiah. This is how death in us becomes life-giving for others.