Leading and Serving (2 Corinthians 4)
Second Corinthians 4 brings together themes that are closely related in Paul’s work—transparency, humility, weakness, leadership, and service. Because we are seeing Paul at work in a real-life situation, the themes are entangled as Paul tells the story. But we will try to discuss the themes one at a time in order to explore each one as clearly as possible.
Transparency and Humility (2 Corinthians 4)
In chapter 4 Paul returns to the theme of transparency, as we noted in our discussion of 2 Corinthians 1:12–23. This time he emphasizes the importance of humility for maintaining transparency. If we are going to let everyone see the reality of our life and work, we had better be prepared to be humbled.
Naturally, it would be much easier to be transparent with people if we had nothing to hide. Paul himself says, “We have renounced the shameful things that one hides” (2 Cor. 4:2). But transparency requires that we remain open, even if we have engaged in conduct that is not commendable. For the truth is, we are all susceptible to errors of intention and execution. “We have this treasure in clay jars,” Paul reminds us (2 Cor. 4:7), alluding to the typical household vessels of his day that were made of common clay and easily breakable. Anyone who visits the remains of the Ancient Near East can testify to the shards of these vessels lying scattered everywhere. Paul reinforces this idea later by recounting that God gave him a “thorn in the flesh” in order to restrain his pride (2 Cor. 12:7).
Maintaining transparency when we know our own weaknesses requires humility and especially the willingness to offer a genuine apology. Many apologies by public figures sound more like thinly veiled justifications than actual apologies. This may be because, if we depend on ourselves as the source of our confidence, to apologize would be to risk our ability to carry on. Yet Paul’s confidence is not in his own rightness or ability, but in his dependence on the power of God. “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” (2 Cor. 4:7). If we too acknowledged that the good things we accomplish are not a reflection on us but on our Lord, then maybe we could have the courage to admit our mistakes and look to God to put us back on track again. At the very least, we could stop feeling that we have to maintain our image at all costs, including the cost of deceiving others.
Weakness as the Source of Strength (2 Corinthians 4)
Our weakness, however, is not just a challenge to our transparency. It is actually the source of our true abilities. Enduring suffering is not an unfortunate side effect experienced in some circumstances; it is the actual means of bringing about genuine accomplishment. Just as the power of Jesus’ resurrection came about because of his crucifixion, so the apostles’ fortitude in the midst of adversity testifies to the fact that the same power is at work in them.
In our culture, no less than in Corinth, we project strength and invincibility because we feel they are necessary to climb the ladder of success. We try to convince people that we are stronger, smarter, and more competent than we really are. Therefore, Paul’s message of vulnerability may sound challenging to us. Is it apparent in the way you go about your work that the strength and vitality you project is not your own, but rather God’s strength on display in your weakness? When you receive a compliment, do you allow it to add to your aura of brilliance? Or do you recount the ways God—perhaps working through other people—made it possible for you to exceed your native potential? We usually want people to perceive us as ultra-competent. But aren’t the people we admire most the ones who help other people bring their gifts to bear?
If we hold up under difficult circumstances without trying to conceal them, it will become apparent that we have a source of power outside of ourselves, the very power that effected Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.
Serving Others by Leading (2 Corinthians 4)
Humility and weakness would be unbearable if our purpose in life were to make something great of ourselves. But service, not greatness, is the Christian’s purpose. “We do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:5). This verse is one of the classic biblical statements of the concept that has come to be known as “servant leadership.” Paul, the foremost leader of the Christian movement beyond the confines of Palestine, calls himself “your slave for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:5).
Again, Paul seems to be reflecting on Jesus’ own teaching here (see 2 Cor. 1:24 above). As leaders, Jesus and his followers served others. This fundamentally Christian insight should inform our attitude in any leadership position. This does not mean that we refrain from exercising legitimate authority or that we lead timidly. Rather, it implies that we use our position and our power to further others’ well-being and not only our own. In fact, Paul’s words “your slaves for Jesus’ sake” are stricter than they may at first appear. Leaders are called to seek other people’s wellbeing ahead of their own, as slaves are compelled to do. A slave, as Jesus pointed out, works all day in the fields, then comes in and serves dinner to the household, and only afterwards may eat and drink (Luke 17:7–10).
Leading others by serving will inevitably lead to suffering. The world is too broken for us to imagine there is a chance we may escape suffering while serving. Paul suffered affliction, perplexity, and persecution nearly to the point of death (2 Cor. 4:8–12). As Christians, we should not accept leadership positions unless we intend to sacrifice the privilege of taking care of ourselves before taking care of others.
Murray J. Harris, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 349.