“For all things are for your sakes, that the abundant grace might through the thanksgiving of many redound to the glory of God.” —II Cor. 4:15
It is said that the word “thanksgiving,” in one or another of its forms, flows from the heart and pen of Paul more than 50 times, while in all the rest of the New Testament Scriptures it is found only 21 times. Since the size of the rest of the New Testament is about two and a half times that of Paul’s epistles, this makes the ratio 6 to 1. That is, for every time some other New Testament writer uses the word, Paul uses it six times. This is probably correct, for Paul’s epistles are indeed filled with thanksgiving.
DISRESPECT AND INGRATITUTE
What a contrast this was to the pagan world about him! Long centuries before, the Gentiles who “knew God…glorified Him not as God, neither were thankful” (Rom. 1:21). Their attitude was that of disrespect and ingratitude. The result:
“…[they] became vain in their imaginations [or reasonings], and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, And changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image make like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things” (Vers. 21-23).
How superstitious and stupid intellectual man can be! Five hundred years of paganism showed its results in the great moral and spiritual depravity of the Egyptian dynasties. The Egyptians were intellectual people (Acts 7:22). They knew secrets that we moderns know nothing of. We do not know how they built their great pyramids and it is said that no engineer today would know how to build one. They knew also how to embalm their dead so that the mummies of many of their dead are still, after 3500 years, in existence in museums in Chicago, New York, London and elsewhere.
The Great Pyramid at Gizeh is a marvel of geometry, astronomy, and engineering, a permanent record of geometric facts, and a living proof that the ancients had an amazing knowledge of astronomy. Joseph A. Seiss calls the Great Pyramid “the oldest and greatest existing monument of intellectual man.”1
But think of the superstition and fear involved in their worship of the hawk, the bull, the cow, the cat, the frog, the baboon, the jackal, the crocodile, and other beasts and reptiles! To these the Egyptians prostrated themselves, bringing them sacrifices to placate them when angry or ill-tempered. And to this we must add religious rites so vile that they are deeply repulsive to the Christian mind and heart. Little wonder, for five centuries before this,
“God…gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonor their own bodies between themselves” (Rom. 1:24).
God did not instill unclean desires; He simply gave them up to “the lusts of their own hearts.”
The record further states:
“[They] changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator…” (Ver. 25).
Again, the results:
“For this cause God gave them up to vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lusts one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly [Lit., shameful], and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet” (Vers. 26,27).
Ah, but surely all this had changed a great deal by the time of Paul, for it was then that the great Greek philosophers stepped forth, those men after whose wisdom modern western culture is said to be patterned. But was it so different in Paul’s day? Listen to his not-very-complimentary description of the wise of his day, as they gathered at Ephesus, that seat of learning where the goddess Diana was worshipped. To the Christians who lived there, he wrote:
“This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye henceforth walk not as other Gentiles [i.e., the unsaved Gentiles] walk, in the vanity of their mind, Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart” (Eph. 4:17,18).
Again, the moral result:
“Who being past feeling [Lit., calloused], have given themselves over to lasciviousness, TO WORK ALL UNCLEANNESS WITH GREEDINESS” (Ver. 19).
Had the pagan world changed so much by the time Paul arrived on the scene? Indeed, has it changed even since then? Have not pagan philosophies gained amazing headway even in “Christian” America? And have they not brought their sex-madness with them? Are there not millions here in America who “work all uncleanness with greediness”?
But how did Paul combat heathenism in his day? And how should we combat it in ours? First, we should recognize, as Paul did, that we are nothing in ourselves and that the power to bring light and salvation must come from God. Referring in the passage we are considering to “our gospel” (II Cor. 4:3), he says:
“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us” (Ver. 7).
We do not put diamonds and rubies and other precious items in “earthen vessels.” They are too fragile. They are too easily broken and crushed. Yet God has deposited “this treasure,” the riches of His grace, in “earthen vessels”—us! Why? So that when hearts and lives and homes are changed by the gospel, it may be evident that the power was “of God, and not of us.”
Some people think that Paul was “the strong, bold type,” but not so. To these same Corinthians he wrote:
“And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling” (I Cor. 2:3).
Nor was his moral background such as would inspire respectful attention. True, he had been conscientious and religious but, in his unsaved state, also ruthless and cruel, “breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1).
Thus he says,
“…I thank Christ Jesus, our Lord, who hath enabled me, for that He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry; Who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious…” (I Tim. 1:12,13).
Paul had been anything but faithful to God, to his Messiah, or to his people, but he was divinely enabled and counted worthy, as God entrusted him with the dispensing of the riches of His grace to a doomed and lost world. Thus, when these riches yielded great dividends, it was evident that the results were not due to Paul’s oratory or his persuasive powers; they were of God, for the instrumentality employed in defending and dispensing this treasure was altogether disproportionate to the amazing effect produced.
SATAN’S ATTEMPTS TO CRUSH THE EARTHEN VESSEL
And now let us see how Satan, in the case of Paul, sought to crush the “earthen vessel.” In II Corinthians 4:8-14 we have the story of the Apostle’s struggles—and his victory in Christ. It is replete with metaphors, some taken from the Corinthian games, with which his readers were so familiar.
Verse 8: “We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed.” The words “on every side,” or “all around,” are expressive. The Apostle was hard-pressed, as by a wrestler seeking to suffocate his opponent with his hold—yes, hard-pressed, but not crushed!
“We are perplexed, but not in despair.” He himself testified that “we know not what we should pray for as we ought” (Rom. 8:26). But he was “not in despair,” for he knew that the Holy Spirit does know what is good for us and pleasing to God (Rom. 8:26,27). What an encouragement the Spirit’s intercession should be to us who likewise, so often, find ourselves not knowing how to pray! We need not “despair” that our adversary will succeed in crushing these earthen vessels if we simply trust God for the outcome.
Verse 9: “Persecuted, but not forsaken.” The metaphor seems to be that of one pursued, harassed, by wild beasts. Constantly pursued by Satan’s henchmen, plotted against, waylaid, hunted down, surrounded by enemies (I Cor. 15:32 cf. II Cor. 1:8), he was not abandoned or left to perish, for in life or in death, deliverance and victory were his (II Tim. 4:17; Phil. 1:20,21), so that spiritually he could say what Daniel said of his physical circumstances after a night in the lions’ den: “My God hath…shut the lions’ mouths” (Dan. 6:22).
“Cast down, but not destroyed.” Evidently a metaphor from the boxing ring. In fight after fight, the count had seemed to pronounce the end—6,7,8,9! but God had again raised him up to go on fighting the good fight of the faith. The above phrase has been rendered, “knocked down, but not out”!
By this time the Apostle had already suffered almost constant persecution, as II Corinthians 11 tells us.
Five times he had received “forty stripes save one” (II Cor. 11:24). Why does not the record simply say “thirty-nine stripes”? Because the Romans had a law on their books which said in effect: “Don’t give a man forty stripes; you will kill him.” So they gave him “forty save one.”
Three times he had been “beaten with rods” (Ver. 25), those terrible clubs that could break a man’s spine or leave him terribly disfigured.
Once he was stoned (Ver. 25)—and left for dead, and who cannot see, as they read II Corinthians 11, that repeatedly his very life stood in jeopardy.
AMBASSADORS FOR CHRIST
It should be noted in Verses 10,11 that the Apostle bore in his body “the dying of the Lord Jesus…alway delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake.” Why? Because, as an ambassador for Christ, he appeared before men “in Christ’s stead,” i.e., instead of the rejected Christ. Men would not have Christ, so the Lord sent Paul—and us—as His ambassadors.
In Colossians 1:24, he declares that he suffers to “fill up that which is behind [or still remains] of the suffering of Christ,” for His Body’s sake. He, of course, refers not to our Lord’s vicarious sufferings, for these are complete and all-sufficient to save the sinner, but rather to the fact that our Lord, now glorified in heaven, is still despised and blasphemed and hated on earth. But who suffers this hatred? Paul did; we do! We stand before men “in Christ’s stead.” One of the greatest evidences that the present dispensation is “the dispensation of the grace of God” is the fact that the Book of Acts closes with the Apostle of grace in prison.
From Psalm 2 and Acts 2, it is evident that at Pentecost the stage was set, as it were, for the outpouring of God’s wrath upon the nations—and the nation Israel. This was the next number of the prophetic program.
But God, so “rich in mercy,” in “His great love wherewith He loved us” said, “Not yet!” and saved His chief enemy on earth, making him both the herald and the living example of His love and grace. And—mark well—when man declared war on God and threw His ambassador into prison, God did not make a counter-declaration of war, but left Paul in prison, to be beheaded by the enemy. Thus our Lord waits in grace, as a Royal Exile—waits to judge this world, meanwhile letting us, His ambassadors, take part in “the fellowship of His sufferings” (Phil. 3:10) as we plead with men to be reconciled to God.
“For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on Him, but also to suffer for His sake, Having the same conflict which ye saw in me [at Philippi] and now hear to be in me” (Phil. 1:29,30).
But there is more: In II Corinthians 4:10, the Apostle declares that he bears about in his body “the dying of the Lord Jesus,” that “the life also of Jesus” might be made manifest in his body. Remember, the Lord Jesus died and rose again, and, as Paul ministered for Christ, he did not only share “the fellowship of His sufferings” but also “the power of His resurrection.” As men saw him preach the gospel, they did not see a whipped, defeated man before them, but one who was animated by the glory of the message of life which he proclaimed. Paul did not cower before death; he trusted in “God, who raiseth the dead” (II Cor. 1:9). He had been “in deaths oft” (II Cor. 11:23); he had to face it almost constantly, “always delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in [his] mortal flesh” (II Cor. 4:11).
“So then, death worketh in us, but life in you” (Ver. 12).
The idea is that his having been constantly delivered to death for Christ had borne its fruit in them. Death working in him had wrought life in them!
And he meant, by God’s grace, to go right on proclaiming Christ and His grace, for he had “the same spirit of faith” as the Psalmist, who said (in Psa. 116:10), “I believed, therefore have I spoken” (Ver. 13). Unlike so many men of God today, who are dominated by “the spirit of fear,” Paul declared: “We having the same spirit of faith…we also believe, and therefore speak” (Ver. 13). Paul had placed his trust, not merely in one who would keep him physically safe, but in the One who raises the dead! (Ver. 14). Long ago he had answered the college professors and their senior students who had come running up, all out of breath, scoffing that according to biology and half a dozen other sciences, resurrection from the dead is impossible! His devastating reply to them was simply:
“Thou fool! That which thou sowest is not quickened [brought to life] except it die” (I Cor. 15:36).
“Look about you,” he said: “Resurrection impossible? You are surrounded by it!”
Our Lord had said the same thing during His earthly ministry:
“Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn [grain] of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24).
Back now to our original text:
“For all things are for your sakes, that the abundant grace might through the thanksgiving of many redound to the glory of God” (II Cor. 4:15).
Paul’s heart often sang with thanksgiving for those whose hearts and lives had been changed through his ministry, but this thanksgiving was being—certainly was meant to be—multiplied in them: “that the abundant grace might through the thanksgiving of many redound to the glory of God.” “Redound,” here, means to greatly exceed. God’s abundant grace is enhanced by our thanksgiving! In Romans 5:20, “where sin abounded, grace did much more abound,” or “exceedingly overflow,” but here “abundant grace” is made to abound still more, or shine still more brightly, “through the thanksgiving of many.” Indeed, the joy of heaven will be the gratitude of the redeemed for the infinite grace of God in saving and glorifying them!
It is God’s eternal purpose “that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us through Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:7) and it will be our joy to praise Him for His grace through all eternity.