Two weeks ago, we took a look at the orienting principle for Christian ministry: we have the treasure of the Gospel in earthen vessels. In other words, there is a disproportionate relationship between the glory of the New Covenant message and the glory of the New Covenant messenger. There is a fundamental contrast between the glory of the New Covenant ministry and the shame of the New Covenant minister. In the next verses, Paul turns to illustrate this principle by means of two paradoxical truths that characterize the Christian ministry.
And the first of those paradoxes comes in verses 8 and 9. There we learn that the Christian ministry is marked by power in the midst of weakness. He says, we are “in everything afflicted, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” In what commentators have called “one of the more powerful rhetorical moments in the Pauline corpus” (Barnett, 233), Paul makes his point by means of four antitheses. In each first word, we see the weakness of the earthen vessel. And in each second word, we see the surpassing greatness of the power of God. Let’s look more closely at each pair.
Afflicted, but Not Crushed
First, he says, “We are afflicted.” Thlibō, from thlipsis. This word communicates the idea of being pressed, or of being under pressure. It’s the most general term for describing any kind of distress or tribulation. I think the New King James renders it best: “We are hard pressed.” Paul endured pressure on every side. Everywhere he went, persecution and affliction pressed in on him. Earlier, he said, “We do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength” (2 Cor 1:8). He was weighed down by the affliction—by the pressures that he faced because of his testimony about Christ.
But, he says, we are not crushed. He might have been hard-pressed from every angle, but that pressure never crushed him. He might have been hemmed in, but he was never cornered. Because the power of God was active in preserving and delivering him, Paul always found a way of escape.
We see Paul afflicted in Corinth as outlined in Acts 18. In the midst of the kind of trials that resulted in personal comfort from the Lord Jesus Himself, Paul was dragged before the seat of the Roman proconsul, and accused of breaking Roman laws concerning worship. And I imagine Paul’s back, wrists, and ankles began to tingle. Not fully healed from the last time, he started anticipating another beating and imprisonment. He began to feel the pressure of having to defend himself again. “But,” says Acts 18:14, just “when Paul was about to open his mouth,” the proconsul Gallio spoke up and dismissed the case out of hand.
Paul was hard pressed, but not crushed. In his weakness, Paul was pressed with the prospect of another beating and imprisonment. But the Lord had worked, and by the surpassing greatness of His power, He provided a way out.
Perplexed, but Not Despairing
Second, Paul says, “We are perplexed.” Aporeō. It means to be confused, to be bewildered, to be at a loss. Paul used this verb of himself when he tells the Galatians he’s perplexed about them; he is at a loss to understand how a church that had seemed to begin so soundly in the Gospel had become bewitched by the heresy of the Judaizers (Gal 4:20). As he experienced this daily concern for the health of all the churches (2 Cor 11:28–29), and as he experienced the opposition and the persecution in every city, Paul would just be at a loss to understand what God was doing or how he was going to get out of the predicament that he was in.
“But,” he says, “we are not despairing.” And there is great wordplay going on here in the Greek: aporeō, but not exaporeō. Perplexed, confused, bewildered, at a loss; but never in a decisive state of despair—never losing all hope. Always ultimately confident and hopeful in the sovereign power of God.
Commenting on this antithesis, Philip Edgcumbe Hughes wrote, “To be at the end of man’s resources is not to be at the end of God’s resources; on the contrary, it is to be precisely in the position best suited to prove and benefit from them, and to experience the surplus of the power of God breaking through and resolving the human dilemma” (139).
Persecuted, but Not Forsaken
Third, Paul says, “We are persecuted, but not forsaken.” “Everywhere I go, I am hunted, chased down, and harassed by men. Five times whipped with 39 lashes, three times beaten with rods, once stoned, three times shipwrecked, in dangers from rivers and robbers, from Jews and Gentiles, in the city and in the wilderness” (2 Cor 11:23–26). If there was ever a word you could use to describe the Apostle Paul it was persecuted.
But never forsaken. He was persecuted by men, but he was never abandoned by God. In Acts 16, Paul cast out the spirit of divination from the slave girl in Philippi whose masters were using her as a fortune teller. And because they lost their meal ticket, those men had Paul seized, charged, beaten and imprisoned. Paul was indeed persecuted. But of course, God had not forsaken him. You remember the story. God used Paul’s impossible situation to put the surpassing greatness of His power on display. He sent a midnight earthquake to shake the foundations of the prison. All the doors flung open and everyone’s chains fell off (Acts 16:26). And when the jailer saw such a miraculous display of divine power, he fell at Paul and Silas’ feet and turned to Christ.
Now there’s an illustration of ministry! Go to jail! Be absolutely helpless and dependent on the power of God! Pray and sing hymns, and watch God show up and save people! The jailer didn’t look at Paul and say, “Man, that guy’s got it all together! Look at how blessed he is! Look at how healthy and wealthy and favored! I’d like some of that blessing! I think I’ll become a Christian!” No! In the minister’s abject helplessness, God shows up and displays His surpassing power. Who gets the glory for the jailer’s conversion? God alone. Because in his weakness, the earthen vessel could never compete with the glory of the treasure! Marvel at the genius of divine grace!
Struck Down, but Not Destroyed
Finally, Paul says, “We are struck down.” Kataballō. Literally, “to throw down.” Paul uses this word in a technical sense that it acquired from athletic and military contexts. In wrestling, it referred to being thrown to the mat. In boxing, it referred to being knocked down to the canvas. In battle, it referred to being knocked to the ground by enemy forces. Paul was often struck down, but he was never destroyed. I think the boxing metaphor captures this the best. There were countless times that Paul was knocked down, but because God’s power is perfected in weakness, he was never knocked out. There are no TKOs in the squared circle of Christian ministry.
In Acts 14, the Jews came down from Antioch and Iconium to where Paul was preaching in Lystra. They started a riot among the crowds and had Paul stoned! Paul was struck down—to the point that the crowd dragged him outside of the city and left him for dead! But he was not destroyed. Acts 14:20 says, “But while the disciples stood around him, he got up and entered the city.”
How about that for missionary strategy! Preach the Gospel, and get knocked unconscious by an angry mob throwing rocks at you! See, the ministry-gurus who had infiltrated the Corinthian church saw Paul get stoned and said, “How could you conclude anything other than that this guy is under divine judgment!” But when Paul just got up and walked away afterwards (!) was there any doubt where the power of his ministry came from? It’s brilliant! God has specifically designed that His messengers be weak, so He can show off His power—His treasure—in the Gospel message.
And this kind of suffering—this kind of weakness—this was not some sort of anomaly in Paul’s ministry; it was not an occasional experience. Each of these participles is in the present tense, which speaks of continuous action. At the beginning of verse 8, Paul prefaces all four of these antitheses with the phrase, “in everything.” In verse 10, Paul will say that he always carries about in his body the dying of Jesus. In verse 11 he says he is constantly being delivered over to death. Dear reader, suffering is the business of Christian ministry!
Don’t Waste Your Suffering
Now, it’s true that the great majority of us won’t suffer in the precise ways that Paul suffers. But when you are doing the hard work of laboring with someone in their sanctification, pleading with them and strengthening their hands to put off sin and put on righteousness, there will be times when you’re perplexed, bewildered, at a loss as to how to move forward profitably. When you’re serving people who are difficult to serve, there will be times when you feel the pressures rush in from every angle. And when these dear brothers and sisters you’re ministering to, whom you love—when they turn on you, and in order to nurture their flesh and protect their sin accuse you of prying into their business, or—on the opposite end—accuse you of not caring enough—friends whom you could never imagine speaking to you that way—you’re going to feel like you just took a shot to the gut that knocked you straight to the mat.
And in those moments, don’t you dare give up. In those moments, recognize that you are right in the middle of fulfilling your calling to be a minister of the New Covenant in the body of Christ. Recognize that it is only against the backdrop of those pressures, in your perplexity, in your weakness, that God is able to show up, and, through the ministry of the Word you’re speaking, is able to display the surpassing greatness of the glory of His divine power.
Don’t waste the suffering that you experience in ministry. Receive those trials and difficulties as opportunities sent from God to make Himself look glorious and powerful. The nature of the Christian’s life of ministry is not health, wealth, and prosperity—not conflict-free mountain peaks of success after success. No, God displays His power in the midst of weakness.