These reflections were shared as Bible messages at the Lausanne Regional Consultation on Media and the Gospel, Nov. 2012 by Bjørn Hinderaker, Gimlekollen School of Journalism and Communication.
Four short reflections on 2 Corinthians chapters 4 and 5 from the perspective of the Christian Communicator
(I) True Messengers of God’s Glory 2 Cor.4:1–6
“We do not lose heart” (4:1)
Communication theory is a special fitting subject for Christians to study. At a deeper level, communication is closely linked to the Christian view of God, as a God who communicates. The term “communication” presupposes community. God is not a lonely individual far away, but an intensely personal and triune God. God communicates because He is himself already a community: The Trinity, Father Son and Spirit. God created man in his own image, as someone who could communicate like himself; could express himself, and create new communities. Communication both reflects the character of God and his gift of communication to us as human beings. So it is only natural for God to seek community with humanity, and he does so through communication, more specifically through entering into covenant with his people (ch.3), giving a basis for trust and love to grow.
When in the new covenant all Christians are called to spread God’s wonderful news, this is a pattern reflecting both God’s character and creation: In communication we are fulfilling our purpose as created in the image of the Great Communicator. Moreover, as the good news is about His love for and salvation of all creation, this is certainly something that should make us rejoice, give us confidence and motivation to share it.
We may use a basic model of communication to structure our exploration of these verses, with the elements Context, Source, Channel, Receiver, Message and Effect.
We immediately meet Paul saying “we do not lose heart” (4:1), alerting us to a context where he would have plenty of reasons to get discouraged. From the rest of the letter we know people in Corinth had been slandering Paul and his ministry. Paul couldn’t measure up to the cultural standards of the popular speakers, he didn’t have the confidence or the appearance the audience demanded in the Corinthian context. Nor did he conform to the form of the admired rhetoricians, with their seductive and powerful styles of speech. That is why new preachers in Corinth found more powerful ways of engaging the people of their day, distancing themselves from the embarrassing figure of Paul, including his culturally untenable focus on the ‘Crucified One’. While Paul would actually prefer to speak of Christ, we can see how the context forces him to defend himself as Christ’s messenger.
While Paul was clearly sensitive to local contexts in his evangelism (see 1.Cor.9:19ff and Acts 17:22ff), he refused to let his message be redefined by the context. Paul instead draws up the wider cosmic and biblical context of Gods revelation of himself through Moses (chapter 3), and now in a much more superior way in Jesus Christ.
There are many sources in the communication of the Gospel: We heard the Gospel from some source, maybe a preacher or pastor when we came to believe. The preacher relied on the Bible as his source. Paul is one of the sources for our New Testament Scriptures.
The ultimate source of Paul’s message was not himself: It was the God of Israel, revealing Himself and his purposes for mankind. In the face of Christ we see the glory of God. That is what gives Paul confidence (4:1) in the face of the challenges in Corinth. That is also the reason he is not allowed to change the message (4:2).
Preaching is a powerful weapon. Moving and influencing people from the pulpit can be very intoxicating and even addictive. As in every trade, it is very tempting to revert to tricks to make you “more efficient”. If you are a good communicator, it is very tempting to use the skills to manipulate people
Paul’s enemies in Corinth had accused Paul of using tricks and of being dishonest. In response, Paul stresses the importance of truth both in terms of the content/message, and in terms of the channel/messenger. We lay the truth “open” for everyone to examine. And we ourselves are transparent. This is the opposite of trickery.
It is Paul’s conviction about truth that allows him to do this. As long as we do not trust the truth of our message, we will inevitably resort to tricks to make people believe. If we offer the truth and live the truth, tricks become unnecessary and counterproductive.
Paul’s approach towards the listener (receiver) is to “commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience.” He doesn’t need to overwhelm the listener with emotions, forcing support for his case. Rather, he appeals to the “conscience” of the listener: Conscience means “knowing by oneself”. The truth somehow “rings true” with people: They can know it by themselves.
The receivers can also resist and reject the message, of course, and view it as “foolishness” (1.Cor.1:18). But Paul is very clear that is not because of any deficiency in the message itself. It is rather because they themselves have been “blinded”. Those who prefer darkness, God will not force.
The terms Paul uses to describe his message are very interesting. Today we may hear Christians offering experiences, fulfilment, purpose, community, comfort. Faith is often seen in terms of our needs, and very rarely in terms of truth. Christianity is viewed as private commitment, an interesting hobby for those so disposed. If we are to communicate the Christian faith today I am convinced we have no more urgent challenge than making sure people understand we claim the Christian faith is the Truth. Not “a truth”, but “true truth” as Francis A. Schaeffer would have said.
The message is also God’s Word: If the living God has spoken, we ought to listen. As the “Author” of life he has authority. We are absolutely not at liberty to change anything He has said. The content of this word is a person, Christ, God’s promised Messiah. This Messiah is not simply a political or prophetic figure, but he has been given the divine title “Lord”. In his face we can behold the majesty and beauty (“glory”) of God. Actually, the glory is not only a reflection, but also a communication of His very presence.
The effect of this message is described in the dramatic terms of God’s original creation (v.6) of light, also echoing the prophetic promise of light to those living in darkness (Is.9:2). God’s salvation is a miraculous act created in us by his word. This creative act is not just something that makes us alive, but makes us see: Becoming a Christian means seeing life in a different way. And this new perspective is influenced more than anything else by Jesus himself. What this means more specifically Paul will elaborate on in the following section.
Questions for reflection:
- What does it mean for us that our message is the truth? Do we really trust the truth? What does that imply for the way we communicate it? And what does it actually mean for the way we live?
- What would you respond to the objection: “Believing you have the truth is dangerous. If you believe you have the truth you will turn to violence.”
(II) Treasures in Jars of Clay: 2 Cor.4:7–15
The question addressed here is: How is God (source) mediating (channeling) his message?
The Treasure: God’s message
Paul has just stated (v.6) that we have a special treasure: Gods glorious salvation and presence in our lives. He uses all these weighty terms to describe it: God’s word; the gospel, the truth, Christ, power, light, glory.
Now, if God is the source of our message, we should expect a stunning display of power. Surely, God is the ultimate communicator and should be able to do this right, impressing us irresistibly? We might think that if God has such a precious treasure, he would provide best possible – preferably irresistible – channels for his message? He wouldn’t ruin a nice piece of art with an ugly frame? He wouldn’t serve his perfect dish on an ugly, unclean plate? Surely, you don’t keep a valuable treasure in a simple and fragile clay pot?
The clay pot: God’s chosen channel
We are God’s chosen mediators of his beauty and majesty. This is an amazing thought. Does God think we are that perfect for this job? Paul says God has on purpose chosen weak and fragile vessels for His treasure. We are chosen not because we are perfect, but because God’s perfection can be seen even though our weaknesses. This is of course a challenge to our own (and the Corinthians’) worship of success and self-indulgence.
Paul reminds his readers they have this ministry “because of God’s mercy”. Not only salvation, but also ministry is based on God’s mercy! The fact you are chosen as his messenger is based on his mercy, not on your qualifications. The origin of our ministry was not based on our own merits. And Paul should know: He was a persecutor of the church – thereby assaulting God himself – when Jesus stopped him and called him to be his messenger. A violent persecutor, by grace turned into His ambassador.
From the origin of his ministry, Paul turns to the principle of ministry: (v.7) God’s power revealed through weakness. This principle is revealed in Paul’s life. Paul’s suffering is not his failure, but reveals the resurrection life that has been motivating him all the way. Just as Jesus suffering was not a failure either, but rather a pattern for our lives. Paul is quoting Psalm 116, and shows this is also the pattern for faith in the Old Testament: Faith is speaking in spite of suffering.
Realizing our weaknesses keeps us from relying too much on ourselves: God want us to rely on him. Weakness to him is not ugly and repulsive. It is part of the beauty of true dependence on Him. Our weaknesses also brings us together, it makes us need one another.
It is as if Paul is saying: “if you want to experience resurrection life, you must taste the cross”. The resurrection life is not only manifested in miracles, healing and success. Resurrection life in our present experience is rather revealed in power through weakness, modeling Jesus Himself. Just as we follow his pattern for our present life, we will also follow the pattern of Jesus resurrection as our future hope: He will raise us, like he raised Jesus.
Questions for reflection:
- How would you describe the treasure that God has committed to you?
- What are your weaknesses? How do you feel about them?
- How do your weaknesses make you depend on God? How do they make you need fellow Christians?
(III) Walking by faith, not by sight: 2 Cor.4:16–5:10
What is your script for life? We all have our “scripts for life”. Many years ago people in the West found their “scripts” to a large extent in the Bible. Today popular culture, and especially film, has taken over that role: Telling us what to fear and what to long for, whom to admire and whom to resent, how to act and what to expect. Our scripts help us act.
The Corinthians were living according to scripts from their culture. That is why Paul is so careful about explaining and arguing: It is not only their acts that are wrong: their fundamental understanding, their ‘script’ is wrong. They actually need to change their script.
We have the same challenge today. I think Christians in many ways have taken over scripts that are not biblical. We can see this in three areas dealt with in this passage
1. Present vs. future: Getting our hope wrong
Very often we hear Christian faith presented as “going to heaven when I die”. Actually, this idea of “going to heaven” is not entirely Biblical. It is a legacy of the combination of Greek thought with Christian theology, talking of a movement from earth towards heaven. The Biblical perspective is rather that God is bringing his future to us, renewing and redeeming whole creation. It is rather of God (and “heaven”) coming down to us (Rev.21).
We quickly misread Paul here, thinking he is talking of us going to heaven. He is talking of life in three stages: 1) “home in the body”, our present life as a “tent”. 2) Next he is talking of being “away from the body, with the Lord”. This is in one sense “heaven”, being with Christ. But this is clearly not our final destination, because he is also talking of 3) “being clothed with the heavenly building”. This is our resurrection hope: Not of a disembodied state in heaven, but of a renewed creation (cf. 1.Cor.15, Rom.8).
A hope in “heaven” can calm us down and disengage us from life. But hope in resurrection and renewed creation drives us to action. As Paul says: Because “you know your hard work is not in vain!” (1.Cor.15:58)
2. Tent vs. building: Getting the body wrong
Even Christians often see their bodies as disposable shells, to be shed when going to live as pure spirits in heaven. Paul’s contrast here is not between being a body now, and going to be a spirit in heaven. Paul’s contrast is between our present preliminary existence (tent) and our future permanent one (building). Our present bodies are vulnerable. Our resurrection bodies will last forever: they are more solid than our permanent ones. It is like the beautiful tabernacle in the desert, being replaced by a more permanent temple in Jerusalem.
Our hope is not of getting rid of the body to live as pure spirits with God: The resurrection hope is a hope for a new body; it is not about being spirit, stripped of our bodies: At the resurrection we will be ‘clothed’ with a new and heavenly body (v.4).
When we live by this script, that our present mortal bodies are good gifts from God, our actions will respect our bodies. This is in conflict both with an ancient Corinthian denigrating view of the body (cf. 1.Cor.6), and with a worship of the body we see in modern Western popular culture.
3. Faith vs. seeing: Getting ‘faith’ wrong:
Christians sometimes view faith as something like “subjective feelings about something we cannot know.” I have found Francis A. Shaeffer and bishop Lesslie Newbigin really helpful in the way they have described the modern view of knowledge. This is based on a dichotomy between on the one hand the objective “facts” of the public world, and on the other hand our private values, which are subjective. Modern people are committed to pluralism in the area of religion and feeling, where everyone has his own subjective “truth”. In the area of “facts”, however, you are expected to agree to what is perceived as scientific and objective.
The modern fact-value dichotomy (Lesslie Newbigin)
Subjective, religion, feeling
Objective, science, knowledge
It is important to see that Paul does not view “faith” as a purely subjective commitment, contrasted with public and objective truths. The resurrection is seen as an event in ‘space and time’, based on reliable testimony (1.Cor.15:1ff). We can be confident of our faith (v.8).
There is still a personal element in Christian faith, an element which actually is present in all real knowledge. Faith in the knowledge we have leads you to act in particular ways, like a script. The Christian “script” includes confessing Jesus as Lord, the real king (Rom.1:4), recognizing him as a judge of the universe (v.10) and redeemer of the whole of creation, including our bodies. What actions flow naturally from someone with this script for life? It is this: We make it our aim to please him! (v.9)
Questions for reflection:
- Which of the misunderstandings mentioned have you met among Christians?
- How does the doctrine of the resurrection change each of these misunderstandings?
- How would you describe your own “script” for life? What actions flow from this script?
(IV) The Ministry of Reconciliation: 2 Cor.5:11-21
Communication is about influencing people. As Christians we are guided by the larger perspective about the motivation, the methods and the aims of our influence:
1. Why do we influence people?
Paul has already mentioned the judgment seat of the Messiah (5:10) as an important motivating factor: We will influence the world with building justice, and on making the Messiah, our righteousness, known. When we understand who God really is, it will also instill in us a “fear of the Lord” (5:11), a recognition of who he is, with respect for his power. But the most powerful motivating factor is the love of the Messiah (5:14): God’s promised Saviour who gave his life for us. Finally, we influence people because we are commissioned to do it, we are made His ambassadors (5:20).
2. How can we influence people?
There are many ways to influence people, and not all of them are for good. In spite of our good intentions, we know that our way of influencing can sometimes be unhelpful. Every parent has experienced that. The challenge is to connect appropriately with the will.
When we influence for God’s kingdom we should 1) not coerce, trying to overrun other people’s will. We should 2) not manipulate, twisting their will (4:2) without their knowledge. Rather, 3) we persuade (v.11), inviting their will by addressing their mind. This means trusting in the sufficiency of truth, allowing unforced response.
3. What is the aim of our influence?
Is our key aim creating “converts”, building communities or the improvement of society? We should not forget that the great commission is about making disciples, which means training students. The Christian faith always involves studying the truth because it has cognitive content. This content is the secret behind the changes we want to see:
- A new direction of our lives: that we may live for Him.” (v.14f)
- A new worldview: a new mind (v.16)
- A new relationship: God reconciled us to himself. (v.18)
The Christian faith is not about “going to heaven when we die”. It is a message of reconciliation. It is a story of a king and his rebellious subjects. The king offers an amnesty to everyone who lays down his weapons. This reconciliation involves 1) a message, a story of what was completed on the cross, 2) an appeal, calling people to respond, and 3) a commissioning of God’s ambassadors who bring this story an appeal across the world.
At the very centre of this act of reconciliation is what Martin Luther called “the glorious exchange”: “Messiah took our sin, we are given his righteousness!” (v.19) This act of salvation is something God has done outside of us. It should give us great confidence in the Christian faith and in our role as communicators of that faith: We can now see clearer why Paul is not losing heart (4:1), in spite of the demanding challenges in Corinth. We may have different reasons for losing heart in our own circumstances. But we can find courage in the same deep truths Paul has expounded for us in these two key chapters.
Questions for reflection
- Who are the people you influence? How do you influence these people?
- How does the “ministry of reconciliation” give you confidence as a communicator?