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Bible Commentaries
2 Corinthians 4

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

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Verse 1


(1) Therefore seeing we have this ministry.—The ministry referred to is that of which such great things have just been said: the ministry of the new covenant, of the Spirit, of righteousness, of glory (2 Corinthians 3:6; 2 Corinthians 3:8-9). Two thoughts rise up in the Apostle’s mind in immediate association with this: (1) His own utter unworthiness of it, which finds expression in “as we have received mercy” (comp. 1 Timothy 1:12); and (2) the manifold trials and difficulties in the midst of which it had to be accomplished. The very fact that he has been called to such a work is, however, a source of strength. He cannot faint or show cowardice in discharging it.

Verse 2

(2) But have renounced the hidden things of dishonesty.—Better, the hidden things of shame. We fail at first to see the connection of the self-vindication which follows with what has gone before, and have once more to go below the surface. He has defended himself against the charge of “fickleness” (2 Corinthians 1:17), but another charge, more disturbing still, had also been brought against him. Men had talked, so he had been told, of his “craftiness” (comp. 2 Corinthians 12:16), and to that imputation, perhaps also to another covered by the same general term (see Ephesians 5:12, and Notes on 2 Corinthians 7:1-2), he now addresses himself. The English word “dishonesty” is used in its older and wider sense. So in Wiclif we have “honest” members of the body in 1 Corinthians 12:23, and in Shakespeare and old English writers generally, and in popular usage even now, “honesty” in a woman is equivalent to chastity. The context shows, however, that St. Paul speaks chiefly not of sensual vices, nor yet of dishonesty in the modern sense of the word, but of subtlety, underhand practices, and the like. Men seem to have tried to fasten his reputation on the two horns of a dilemma. Either his change of plan indicated a discreditable fickleness, or if not that, something more discreditable still.

Nor handling the word of God deceitfully.—The word is nearly equivalent to the “corrupting” or “adulterating” of 2 Corinthians 2:17. In “commending ourselves” we trace a return to the topic of 2 Corinthians 3:1. Yes, he acknowledged that he did “commend himself,” but it was by the manifestation of truth as the only means that he adopted; and he appealed not to men’s tastes, or prejudices, or humours, but to that in them which was highest—their conscience, their sense of right and wrong; and in doing this he felt that he was speaking and acting in the presence of the great Judge, who is also the searcher of hearts.

Verse 3

(3) But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost.—Better, in both cases, as keeping the sequence of thought, has been veiled, instead of “is hid,” and among them that are perishing. (See Note on 2 Corinthians 2:15.) He cannot close his eyes to the fact that the glorious words of 2 Corinthians 3:18 are only partially realised. There are some to whom even the gospel of Christ appears as shrouded by a veil. And these are not, as some have thought, Judaising teachers only or chiefly, but the whole class of those who are at present on the way to perish, not knowing God, counting themselves unworthy of eternal life. The force of the present participle, as not excluding the thought of future change, is again to be carefully noted.

Verse 4

(4) In whom the god of this world . . .—The word sounds somewhat startling as a description of the devil, but it has parallels in “the prince of this world” (John 14:30), “the prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2). The world which “lieth in wickedness,” perhaps in the evil one (1 John 5:19), worships the spirit of hate and falsehood and selfishness, and in so doing it practically deifies the devil. And the work of that god of this world is directly in antagonism to that of God. He seeks to lead men back from light to darkness. “He blinded” (the Greek tense indicates an act in past time without necessarily including the idea of its continuance in the present) “the minds of the unbelievers.” The noun is probably used, as in 1 Corinthians 6:6; 1 Corinthians 7:12-15; 1 Corinthians 10:27; 1 Corinthians 14:22-24, with a special reference to the outside heathen world. Their spiritual state was, St. Paul seems to say, lower than that of Israel. The veil was over the heart of the one; the very organs of spiritual perception were blinded in the other.

Lest the light of the glorious gospel.—Better to the end that the radiance (or, light-giving power) of the gospel of the glory of God . . . The words describe not merely a purpose, but a result. The word for “light” here, and in 2 Corinthians 4:6, is not the simple noun commonly used, but a secondary form, derived from the verb “to give light” or “illumine.” The English version “glorious,” though a partial equivalent for the Greek idiom of the genitive of a characteristic attribute, lacks the vigour and emphasis of the original, which expresses the thought that the gospel is not only glorious itself, but shares in the glory of Christ, and has that for its theme and object. But even that gospel may fail of its purpose. The blind cannot see even the brightness of the noon-day sun. The eye of the soul has to receive sight first. So, in the mission to the Gentiles given to the Apostle on his conversion, his first work was “to open their eyes, to turn them from darkness to light” (Acts 26:18).

Christ, who is the image of God.—The Greek word is used in the LXX. of Genesis 1:26 for the image of God, after which man was created. So in 1 Corinthians 11:7 man is spoken of as “the image and glory of God.” (Comp. Colossians 1:15; Colossians 3:10.) In Hebrews 10:1 it stands as intermediate between the object and the shadow, far plainer than the latter, yet not identical with the former, however adequately representing it.

Should shine unto them.—Literally, should irradiate, or, cast its beams upon them.

Verse 5

(5) For we preach not ourselves.—The words, like those about “commending ourselves,” imply a reference to something that had been said. He was charged with being egotistic in his preaching, perhaps with special reference to passages like 1 Corinthians 2:1-4; 1 Corinthians 3:1-10; 1 Corinthians 4:11-13. He indignantly repudiates that charge. “Christ Jesus” had been all along the subject of his preaching. (Comp. 1 Corinthians 2:2.) So far as he had spoken of himself at all, it had been as a minister and servant for their sake (1 Corinthians 3:22-23; 1 Corinthians 9:19).

Verse 6

(6) For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness.—Better, For it is God who commanded . . . that hath shined. The whole verse is in manifest antithesis to 2 Corinthians 4:4. The god of this world did his work of blinding; the true God called light out of darkness. Here there is obviously a reference to the history of the creation in Genesis 1:3.

Hath shined.—The English tense is allowable, but the Greek is literally shone, as referring to a definite fact in the past life of the Apostle and other Christians at the very time of their conversion.

In the face of Jesus Christ.—Some MSS. give “Christ Jesus,” others “Christ.” The clause is added as emphasising the fact that the glory of God is for us manifested only in the face (or, possibly, in the person, with a somewhat wider sense; see Note on 2 Corinthians 1:11) of Christ, as it was seen by the Israelites in the face of Moses. The word for “give light” is the same as that rendered “radiance” in 2 Corinthians 4:4.

Verse 7

(7) But we have this treasure in earthen vessels.—The imagery here begins to change. The treasure is “the knowledge of the glory of God” as possessed by the Apostle. It was the practice of Eastern kings, who stored up their treasures of gold and silver, to fill jars of earthenware with coin or bullion (Herod. iii. 103. Comp. also Jeremiah 32:14). “So,” St. Paul says, in a tone of profound humility, “it is with us. In these frail bodies of ours—’earthen vessels’—we have that priceless treasure.” The passage is instructive, as showing that the “vessels of wood and of earth” in 2 Timothy 2:20 are not necessarily identical with those made for dishonour. The words have probably a side glance at the taunts that had been thrown out as to his bodily infirmities. “Be it so,” he says; “we admit all that can be said on that score, and it is that men may see that the excellence of the power which we exercise comes from God, and not from ourselves.” The words that follow, contrasting sufferings and infirmities in their manifold variety with the way in which they were borne through God’s strengthening grace, show this to be the true underlying sequence of thought.

Verse 8

(8) We are troubled on every side.—The Greek presents all the clauses in a participial form, in apposition with the “we” with which 2 Corinthians 4:7 opens. The careful antithesis in each case requires some modification of the English version in order to be at all adequately expressed. Hemmed-in in everything, yet not straitened for room perplexed, yet not baffled; or, as it has been rendered, less literally, but with great vividness, bewildered, but not benighted. The imagery in both clauses belongs to the life of the soldier on active service.

Verse 9

(9) Persecuted, but not forsaken.—Better, perhaps, as expressing in both terms of the clause the condition of a soldier on the field of battle, pursued, yet not abandoned. The next clause is again distinctly military, or, perhaps, agonistic: stricken down (as the soldier by some dart or javelin), yet not perishing. In the “faint, yet pursuing,” of Judges 8:4, we have an antithesis of the same kind in a narrative of actual warfare.

Verse 10

(10) Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus.—The word for “dying” (again, probably, a distinctly medical term) is literally “deadness,” “the state of a corpse.” Comp. Romans 4:19 for the word itself, and Romans 4:19, Colossians 3:5 (“mortify”), Hebrews 11:12 (“as good as dead”) for the cognate verb. The word describes, as by a bold hyperbole, the condition of one whose life was one long conflict with disease: “dying daily” (1 Corinthians 15:31); having in himself “the sentence,” or, possibly, the very symptoms, “of death” (2 Corinthians 1:8-9). He was, as it were, dragging about with him what it was scarcely an exaggeration to call a “living corpse;” and this he describes as “the dying” (or death-state) “of the Lord Jesus.” The thought implied in these words is not formally defined. What seems implied is that it brought him nearer to the likeness of the Crucified; he was thus made a sharer in the sufferings of Christ, filling up what was lacking in the measure of those sufferings (Colossians 1:24), dying as He died, crucified with Him (Galatians 2:20). It may be noted that Philo (2 Alleg. p. 73) uses almost the same word to express the natural frailty and weakness of man’s body—“What, then, is our life but the daily carrying about of a corpse?”

That the life also of Jesus . . .—The life of Jesus is the life of the new man, “created in righteousness and true holiness” (Ephesians 4:24). It is not that the Apostle is merely looking forward to the resurrection life, when we shall bear the image of the heavenly; he feels that the purpose of his sufferings now is that the higher life may, even in this present state, be manifested in and through them; and accordingly, as if to guard against the possibility of any other interpretation, he changes the phrase in the next verse, and for “our body” substitutes “our mortal flesh.”

Verse 11

(11) We which live are alway delivered unto death.—Better, are always being delivered. The opening clause emphasises the paradox of the statement: “We live, and yet our life is a series of continual deaths. We are delivered as to a daily execution.” The words are often interpreted—but, it is believed, wrongly—of the dangers and sufferings caused by persecution. The whole tenor of the Epistle suggests rather (see Note on preceding verse) the thought of the daily struggle with the pain and weakness of disease. It has been urged that the words “for Jesus’ sake” determine the sense of the context as referring to the trials of persecution. The position is, however, scarcely tenable. The words, of course, as such, include the idea of such trials; but a man who laboured ceaselessly, as St. Paul laboured, as in a daily struggle with death, and yet went on working for the gospel of Christ, might well describe himself as bearing what he bore “for Jesus’ sake.”

In our mortal flesh.—The reason for the change in the last two words has been given in the Note on the preceding verse. The very “flesh” which, left to itself, is the source of corruption, moral and physical, is by the “excellence of the power of God” made the vehicle of manifesting the divine life. As has been well said: “God exhibits DEATH in the living that He may also exhibit LIFE in the dying” (Alford).

Verse 12

(12) So then death worketh in us, but life in you.—“Life” is here clearly used in its higher spiritual sense, as in the preceding verse. We trace in the words something of the same pathos as in 1 Corinthians 4:8-13, without the irony which is there perceptible. “You,” he seems to say, “reap the fruit of my sufferings. The ‘dying’ is all my own; you know nothing of that conflict with pain and weakness; but the ‘life’ which is the result of that experience works in you as well as in me, and finds in you the chief sphere of its operation.”

Verse 13

(13) We having the same spirit of faith . . .—The “spirit of faith” is not definitely the Holy Spirit, but the human spirit in fellowship with the Divine, and therefore characterised by faith. And then, as if pleading that this faith must find utterance, he falls back on the words that are in his mind, almost as an axiom, from Psalms 116:10 : “I believed, and therefore I spoke.” It will be noted that the context of the words quoted is eminently in harmony with the feelings to which the Apostle has just given expression: “The sorrows of death compassed me; the pains of hell gat hold of me. I found trouble and heaviness . . . I was brought low . . . Thou hast delivered my soul from death” (Psalms 116:3-8). It is as though that Psalm had been his stay and comfort in the midst of his daily conflict with disease.

Verse 14

(14) Knowing that he which raised up the Lord Jesus . . .—From his present experience of the triumph of life over death he passes to the future victory of which that triumph was the earnest. It is clear that he speaks here not of any deliverance from danger or disease, but of the resurrection of which he had spoken so fully in 1 Corinthians 15:0. The better MSS. give with Jesus, the Received text having apparently originated in a desire to adapt the words to the fact that Christ had already risen. St. Paul’s thoughts, however, dwell so continually on his fellowship with Christ that he thinks of the future resurrection of the body, no less than of the spiritual resurrection which he has already experienced (Ephesians 2:6), as not only wrought by Him but associated with Him; and in this hope of his he includes the Corinthians to whom he writes. It will then be seen, he trusts, that “life” has indeed been “working” in them. The verb “present,” as describing the work of Christ, and, we may add, his own work as a minister of Christ, under this aspect, is a favourite one with St. Paul (2 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 5:27; Colossians 1:22).

Verse 15

(15) For all things are for your sakes.—We can scarcely doubt that he thinks in his own mind, and intends to remind them, of the glorious words of 1 Corinthians 3:22-23.

That the abundant grace might through the thanksgiving of many . . .—More accurately, that grace, having abounded by means of the greater part of you, may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God. The passage is nearly parallel to 2 Corinthians 1:11. He takes for granted that the grace which he has received has been given in answer to the prayers, if not of all the Corinthians, yet at least of the majority (comp. the same distinction drawn in 2 Corinthians 2:6), and he is sure that it will, in its turn, cause their thanksgiving to be as copious as their prayers. The passage is, however, obscure in its construction, and two other renderings of the Greek are grammatically possible, which is more than can be said of the English version: (1) “that grace having abounded, may, for the sake of the thanksgiving of the greater part of you, redound . . .”; and (2) “that grace having abounded, may, by means of the greater part of you, cause thanksgiving to redound . . .” What has been given above is, it is believed, the closest to St. Paul’s meaning.

Verse 16

(16) For which cause we faint not.—Ho returns, after a long digression, to the assertion with which 2 Corinthians 4:0 had opened, but in repeating the words he enters once again on the same line of thought, but under a different succession of imagery. The “outward man,” the material framework of the body, is undergoing a gradual process of decay, but the “inward man,” the higher spiritual life, is “day by day” passing through successive stages of renewal, gaining fresh energies. This verb also, and its derivative “renewal,” are specially characteristic of St. Paul. (Comp. Romans 12:2; Colossians 3:10; Titus 3:5.) The verb in Ephesians 4:23, though not the same, is equivalent in meaning.

Verse 17

(17) For our light affliction . . .—More accurately, the present lightness of our affliction. This is at once more literally in accord with the Greek, and better sustains the balanced antithesis of the clauses.

A far more exceeding . . .—The Greek phrase is adverbial rather than adjectival: worketh for us exceedingly, exceedingly. After the Hebrew idiom of expressing intensity by the repetition of the same word, (used of this very word “exceedingly” in Genesis 7:19; Genesis 17:2), he seeks to accumulate one phrase upon another (literally, according to excess unto excess) to express his sense of the immeasurable glory which he has in view.

Verse 18

(18) While we look not at the things which are seen.—The “while we look” is, according to the Greek idiom, the condition of what had been stated in the preceding verse. The “look” is that of one who contemplates this or that as the end or goal for which he strives. The “things that are seen” are, of course, all the incidents and circumstances of the present life; the “things that are not seen” (the very phrase of Hebrews 11:1) are the objects of faith, immortality, eternal life, the crown of righteousness, the beatific vision. These things are subject to no time-limits, and endure through all the ages of God’s purposes. The others are but for a brief season, and then are as though they had not been. Striking as the words are, they find an echo in the words of a contemporary seeker after wisdom: “These things (the things which most men seek after),” says Seneca (Ep. lix.), “are but objects of the imagination, and present a show of being but for a time . . . Let us give our minds to the things which are eternal.”

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/2-corinthians-4.html. 1905.
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