Some thoughts on 2 Corinthians 4 (NRSV) in bits and pieces…

Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

It would seem that there are “unbelieving believers” if you would call them that.  That is, they believe in God and even in Jesus. They would be willing to follow this Savior to death in obedience to the gospel.  They have “trusted” Jesus to save them from his Father’s wrath, forgive them of their sins and bring them to heaven when they die. And yet, in one sense, they do not believe the gospel.  The gospel is not, “Good news, Jesus has saved you from God if, and only if you believe.” The gospel is, “Good news, Jesus has revealed the Father as your faithful Savior from sin and death. If you believe you can participate in the kingdom of God in this age and experience the forgiveness of sins and eternal life now, and grow in a personal relationship with God.  When you die you will face God with certainty and hope, not fear and regret and doubt. You can bring a life of service through the ‘fire of judgment’ and not suffer the loss of all things.  You can begin to experience life as it was meant to be lived.”

I was an “unbelieving believer” myself for 34 years. Because I suffered an experience that might be likened to the “fire of judgment” in this age, the fear that distorted my understanding was exposed and confronted.  We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ to receive the things done in the body.  We can begin to face this reality now and deal with it, or we can persist in our stubbornness.  But mark my words, everyone will have to deal with it fully at some point.  And the sooner, the less shame and regret, the less damage done. “Every knee will bow…” may not mean that every knee will be forced into submission before being cast alive into an eternal lake of fire, but it absolutely means there is not a single thing that will escape notice and require rectification. 

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.

This is the necessary calling of those who would believe and proclaim the gospel.  It is sort of a “judgment-with-mercy drama” played out in time, before the end of the age.  It is performed for the benefit of those who do not yet trust in the mercy of God. The reality is that death comes to all and with it comes the perishing of everything that is false.  Life will also come to all, but all must pass through the fire. Some will have nothing on the other side having been saved, yet so as by fire. Their lives were not lived in a relationship of trust and obedience that bore fruit in self-sacrificing love.  Those who proclaim the gospel are living letters, concrete examples or demonstrations in this age of what is to come to all. We must all face the destruction of the body, but we do not need to fear. No one needs to fear. Mercy will come to all. Fear is the very thing that destroys the life of trust for which we were created, and the only means by which a life that can endure the flames can be lived.  The calling upon gospel heralds is to endure the hardships, afflictions, and persecutions, which are nothing more than the natural consequence of going against the flow of unbelief. Suffering believers model a living hope in the mercy that is to be revealed to all and has already been revealed in Jesus Christ.

But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—“I believed, and so I spoke”—we also believe, and so we speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

There you have it!  Paul was confident that all would be raised to life.  Paul was certain that his readers would be brought into God’s presence along with those who proclaim the good news.   Grace for all is truly here in the present age, but it has not yet reached all people. Not all have begun to participate in the mercy that is to come to all.  Believers in the mercy to come, proclaim this good news in word and through the backdrop of their own lives. Suffering–perishing really–becomes the perfect context for manifesting hope, thereby shining light upon the goodness of God that will ultimately bring glory to God as people understand the gospel and respond with trust and gratitude.

So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

This is the perspective that is required to maintain life as a living parable, a little Christ if you would.  Jesus modeled a life of faithfulness. He trusted in God and gave his life in self-sacrificing love to others. Paul understood this.  This is the very message he is trying to get the Corinthians to understand in this chapter. This is time, not eternity if you will. This age is arranged the false, the Adamic, the age of sin and death and perishing.  It is flowing away from God. Jesus has stepped into this flow to reverse it, one trusting life at a time. He has gone ahead and stopped the flow of sin and death, the principalities that govern this age. They are defeated and the system has been overthrown, but in his wisdom, God allows its unbelieving influence to remain until the end.  

I am not certain how things play out after death, that is, I do not know fully how dying unbelievers go from where they are at the point of death, in a state of unbelief, to a full, free-will choice to trust and belief.  What I know is that we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ where everything we have done in life will be held up to the life for which we were intended revealed in Christ. But rather than punishment in the form of retribution, what we must all receive is the destruction of all that is false.  This is an act of mercy, not violent retribution. We must all face judgment so that mercy may come to all. If it is vengeance, it is vengeance in the sense that God’s fury is poured out as an unwillingness to permit death and lies to hold us in their power any longer.  It is what a surgeon must do to remove cancer or set a broken bone. It is what a loving parent must do to a disobedient child. Love and mercy must confront and expose every lie we have ever believed about God and ourselves, and then it must lovingly, yet firmly, untwist and untwine our false selves from the true-hearted image of God within us all.  Having experienced this to some degree already, I can attest that it is not a pleasant experience at all. The process hurts like hell, but it doesn’t kill the true us. Our true self will survive.  It is, in fact, the only way to the life for which we were intended.

This is what believers are to model in this age.  God is not as we have feared. His justice demands restoration, not violent retribution.  There is no way ahead without going against the flow of unbelief, the world that is false, controlled by the principalities and powers of blameshifting, scapegoating, sacred-violence, exclusion, justified murder…and on and on. Believers go against this flow by imitating Christ as his apprentices. We embrace the blows and afflictions and endure them with steadfast hope because we trust in the mercy that is to come to all. Through such a life of faith, we dramatically model the reality of the age to come in the present.  As we continue to herald this good news against the backdrop of suffering, the glory alone goes to God whose loving face is revealed for who he really is: Jesus!

Sadly, I find the greatest opposition to the gospel comes from those who believe that Jesus rescues us from the retributive violence of his Father. Having embraced such a view of God, the mimetic brain produces a justification for violence in the defense of truth. It strangely feels like the same opposition that Jesus and Paul faced from the “believers” in retributive Messiah of their day–the Pharisees for Jesus, and the Law-observing Jewish Christians for Paul.

Having lived as a believer in violent, retributive God for such a long time, I am motivated to see “believers” set free from the distortion and lies that leave the good news mixed with bad news and opens the door for fear and insecurity to restrain our experience of love for God and others.  Perfect love casts out all fear.  Only a gospel without fear can produce such a perfect love.  This is the mission of believing believers to unbelieving believers, and the mission to the whole world: to model and proclaim a love that casts out all fear for all people.

Good news!  God is just like Jesus!

Blessings!

Dave Griffith, IAM, Pangonu Kampse