Paul is absolutely unequivocal when he tells the Corinthians, “What we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5). This was in contrast to the “super-apostles” who had captured the Corinthians’ attention and had much to say about themselves (10:12, 11:18).
Paul continues on this track as he adds, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (v. 7). The opposing figures of treasure and jars of clay emphasize the stark contrast between the gospel and the messenger who communicates it. One is singular and priceless while the other is numerous, fragile and disposable. (Paul is not disparaging the body—see 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, he’s simply negating any salvific power of messengers in the redemptive process).
He goes on to show how this worked out in his ministry. They are he says, “hard pressed on every side, but not crushed, perplexed but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (v. 8-9). The jar is knocked over, kicked around, scratched, marred and chipped—but by the grace of God it does not perish!
But there’s more . . .
The glorious spiritual truth tucked behind the ragged realities of their ministry is that they “always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be revealed in our body” (v. 10). The “death of Jesus” refers to them “being given over to death for Jesus’ sake” (v. 11). “So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you” (v. 12). In their ministry as jars of clay, their regular brushes with destructive forces enabled the treasure (the message/life of Jesus) to shine through.
How exactly did this work?
It had to do with what people heard about Paul and what they heard from Paul.
They heard about (and perhaps even witnessed some of) the life-threatening situations Paul was in and how how he was constantly being delivered from there. The stories of seeming death for Jesus became stories of life through Jesus.
This is exactly what Paul bore witness to (see 1:8-10). When people get to the limit of their earthly resources, you find out what they are about—what is at their core. For some people it is what they are in normal circumstances, but for others it is something else entirely. Either way, tough times reveal our true character. Paul’s setbacks and sufferings provided a window for people to hear about and see his dependence upon the living Christ in a way that confirmed everything he said. People with unveiled faces were able to see these things.
He calls in Psalm 116—a psalm of thanksgiving where the psalmist offers praise to God for delivering him when “the cords of death entangled me” (v. 3, see also v. 8). The psalmist’s faith caused him to speak out even in the midst of his affliction (v. 10). This is the spirit that Paul possesses as well so he sees and uses his hardships as an opportunity to point people to Jesus. He knows a death story for any disciple is ultimately a life story (2 Corinthians 4:14) and that the Corinthians will benefit and God will be glorified (v. 15).
He finishes with a flourish. Despite the hardships that were his, he repeats his earlier conclusion that “we do not lose heart” (v. 1, 16). In the bigger picture that Paul sees, the ministry is part of God’s overall mercy toward them. Furthermore, as he has shown, God sustains them in their sufferings and reveals Jesus through them. Rather than losing heart at his diminishing outward state, Paul was inwardly renewed on a daily basis by understanding the work of God around Him and through him. The difficulties they had which some argued were grounds for disqualifying them as true messengers of Christ were actually working for him to “achieve an eternal glory” (v. 17; Romans 8:18). Paul’s unveiled face meant that he looked at things in a decidedly different way. He refused to fixate on appearances but rather stayed focused on unseen eternal realities.
It’s amazing what you can see when you remove your veil.