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The surpassing glory of the gospel of Jesus Christ

Back to all sermons Strength in Weakness

Date: January 17, 2021

Speaker: Eric Stillman

Series: Strength in Weakness

Scripture: 2 Corinthians 2:14–4:6

This morning, I am in the third week of my sermon series entitled “Strength in Weakness,” looking at the New Testament book of 2 Corinthians. If you are unfamiliar with this book, it is a letter written by an early church leader named Paul to a church he had started around the year 50 AD in the Greek city of Corinth, which in Paul’s day was part of the Roman Empire. As we have seen in the first two weeks, after Paul moved on to start another church, there were many issues in this young church, and unfortunately, these issues had led to a strained relationship between Paul and the Corinthian Christians. As a result, he had made what he called a “painful visit” to them, followed up by a confrontational letter, and apparently some in Corinth took issue with his brazenness. In today’s section, we find him defending his boldness, and in the process teaching some incredible things about the gospel. Let’s read the passage.

 

2 Corinthians 2:14 – 4:6 - But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him.  15 For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.  16 To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task?  17 Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, like men sent from God.  NIV 2 Corinthians 3:1 Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you?  2 You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody.  3 You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.  4 Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God.  5 Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God.  6 He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant-- not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.  7 Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, fading though it was,  8 will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious?  9 If the ministry that condemns men is glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness!  10 For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory.  11 And if what was fading away came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!  12 Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold.  13 We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from gazing at it while the radiance was fading away.  14 But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away.  15 Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts.  16 But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.  17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.  18 And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. Therefore, since through God's mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.  2 Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God.  3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.  4 The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.  5 For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake.  6 For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. 

 

Let me unpack Paul’s argument here about his boldness:

 

  • The gospel is a glorious message that surpasses the fading glory of every other message

 

7 Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, fading though it was,  8 will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious?  9 If the ministry that condemns men is glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness!  10 For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory.  11 And if what was fading away came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!

 

Now, I need to define a few terms here, particularly glory, covenant, and gospel. Let me first define glory. Glory is a hard word to define. I was reading a definition by pastor John Piper, and he said it’s like trying to define the word beauty. Beauty is hard to define, but when you see it, you know it, and the more beautiful things you see, the more you understand beauty. God’s glory is like that. God’s glory is very much tied to God’s holiness. The holiness of God is his perfection and greatness and worth… that He is in a class by himself, unlike anyone or anything else. The glory of God is the manifest beauty of his holiness… It is the way he puts his holiness on display for people to perceive. The glory of God is His holiness, His perfection, greatness, and worth on display.

 

Psalm 19:1 - The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

 

And Paul says that this gospel message he proclaims is one of surpassing glory. Paul contrasts the old covenant, the law given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, engraved in letters on stone, which he calls “the ministry that brought death” and “the ministry that condemns men,” with the new covenant in Jesus, which he calls “the ministry of the Spirit” and “the ministry that brings righteousness.” He argues that if a ministry like the old one came with glory, how much more glorious is the new covenant in Jesus.

 

So what are the old and new covenants, and what is a covenant in general? A covenant is like a contract, but with greater intimacy. A marriage, for example, is a covenant. After God brought the Israelites out from slavery in Egypt in the Exodus, they came to Mt. Sinai, where God made a covenant with them through Moses. I will be your God, you will be my people. This is what it means to be my people. And these are the blessings and curses that will accompany obedience or disobedience to my laws. And the glory of God was reflecting off the face of Moses.

 

Exodus 34:29-35 - When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the Testimony in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the LORD.  30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him.  31 But Moses called to them; so Aaron and all the leaders of the community came back to him, and he spoke to them.  32 Afterward all the Israelites came near him, and he gave them all the commands the LORD had given him on Mount Sinai.  33 When Moses finished speaking to them, he put a veil over his face.  34 But whenever he entered the LORD's presence to speak with him, he removed the veil until he came out. And when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded,  35 they saw that his face was radiant. Then Moses would put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with the LORD.  

 

Evidently, the glory of God’s holiness and perfection was reflecting off of his face, so much so that they were afraid, because when sinful human beings encounter God’s holiness, they often rightly experience fear of judgment. So if this first covenant was so glorious, why did he call it the ministry that brought death? The answer is that while the law revealed God’s will, it did not give them the power to keep the law, nor could it forgive their inability to keep the law. Consider these passages:

 

Galatians 3:10-11, 21-24 - All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law."  11 Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, "The righteous will live by faith."… 21 Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law.  22 But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.  23 Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed.  24 So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith.

 

The law could not save them; instead, it condemned them because they could not measure up. But it led them to Christ by showing them their need for a Savior. As Paul writes in Romans:

 

Romans 3:19-24 - Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.  20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.  21 But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.  22 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference,  23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,  24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

 

The old covenant came with glory, as God’s own finger wrote the law on tablets of stone, and as the glory of God reflected off the face of Moses. But the old covenant could not save or forgive sins. The new covenant, however, the ministry of the Spirit, the glorious gospel, the good news, is that through faith in Jesus, we are forgiven of our inability to keep God’s law, and we are given God’s Spirit inside of us to empower us to follow Him. Listen to these prophecies about the new covenant:

 

Jeremiah 31:31-34 - "The time is coming," declares the LORD, "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.  32 It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them," declares the LORD.  33 "This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time," declares the LORD. "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.  34 No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest," declares the LORD. "For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more."

 

Ezekiel 36:26-27 - I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.

 

This is the new covenant, the glorious gospel – intimacy with God, forgiveness of sins, and the very Spirit of God inside of us, giving us a knowledge of God and the ability to see and follow Him in a way that was impossible beforehand. We receive a surpassing glory that will never fade away. The glorious message we proclaim is of God’s love for sinners, of eternal glory, of everlasting life and love and joy and peace. All that our hearts have desired will be ours forever. All given freely to those who believe in Jesus.

 

In this passage, Paul is comparing the gospel to the old covenant for the sake of his hearers. But I would contend that we have a glorious message that surpasses the fading glory of any message this world might offer. Because glory is not just something that God possesses, it is something that our hearts deeply desire. C.S. Lewis, in his book The Weight of Glory, does a great job of helping us understand what glory is and why it is something we are after, even if we don’t fully understand it. Lewis understood Biblical glory in terms of two things: the first is fame, approval, appreciation, like basking in the glory of a political victory or a job well done or an accomplishment achieved or a romantic moment. And the second aspect of glory is light and beauty. Lewis writes:

 

I suddenly remembered that no one can enter heaven except as a child; and nothing is so obvious in a child – not in a conceited child, but in a good child – as its great and undisguised pleasure in being praised…. That is enough to raise our thoughts to what may happen when the redeemed soul, beyond all hope and nearly beyond belief, learns at last that she has pleased Him whom she was created to please… The promise of glory is the promise, almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ, that some of us, that any of us who really chooses, shall actually survive that examination, shall find approval, shall please God… it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is.

 

And with regards to the light and beauty, he writes:

 

We want something else which can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it… What would it be to taste at the fountainhead that stream of which even these lower reaches proves so intoxicating? Yet that, I believe, is what lies before us. The whole man is to drink joy from the fountain of joy.

 

No other message compares to the surpassing greatness of the glorious gospel. Every other glory fades. The glory of romantic love fades. The glory of career success fades. The glory of looks or style fades. Only in the gospel will we find the unfading fame, approval, and appreciation we are longing for, and only in the gospel will we be united to beauty and joy forever.

 

  • We are called to herald this gospel sincerely yet boldly, without deception or distortion

 

17 Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, like men sent from God.

 

12 Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. 

 

2 Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God. 

 

If this gospel message is so glorious, then what is needed is people who will speak the message with sincerity and with boldness, setting forth the truth plainly.

 

Look at what Paul says. We don’t peddle the word of God for profit. We are not trying to sell or manipulate or enrich ourselves as if we’re selling a product. We do not use secret or shameful ways. We do not use deception or distort the word of God. We simply act as a herald, boldly proclaiming the unadulterated gospel message.


What is a herald? A herald is someone who proclaims another’s message. Think of a king sending a message to the inhabitants of his kingdom, and using a herald to proclaim that message. A herald can not add to it or subtract from the message. And the message is not about the herald – it’s about the messenger and his message!

 

5 For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. 

 

If you are listening to someone who is preaching themselves, exalting themselves, run away. If you can tell they are manipulating, deceiving, distorting God’s Word, then run away. Our job is to be a herald! Know the glorious gospel and proclaim it clearly.

 

Romans 1:16 - I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.

 

  • Some will receive this message and find life and freedom as they are transformed into the image of Christ

 

  • Others will reject this message and find death because they are veiled from seeing the glory of Jesus Christ

 

15 For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.  16 To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life.

 

17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.  18 And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

 

3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.  4 The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 

 

My role is to be a herald. Proclaim His message, the gospel of Jesus Christ dying for our sins, the message of God’s kingdom, clearly and boldly, without using deception, manipulation, or distorting the word in any way. My job is do all I can to display the glory of God. My job is to be faithful to the one who sent me.

 

But Paul tells us this sad truth: to some who hear, the glory will be veiled. Like those magic eye hidden pictures things. Remember the Psalm we read earlier that told us “the heavens declare the glory of God?” Remember how the angels say in Isaiah 6:3 as they look upon God in His throne room, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” If you had eyes to see, you would see the glory of God everywhere. You would look outside and see His glory. You would look in the face of your neighbor and see His glory. You would look up in the skies, and at the ocean, and at the fields, and the trees, and breathe in the air, and see His glory, His holiness made manifest! You would be in awe, you would find peace, you would experience joy. But we do not see the glory of God clearly. And some do not see at all:

 

3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.  4 The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 

 

Do you understand that those in your life who reject God have a metaphorical veil covering their eyes so that they are blind to God and His reality and His glory? That Satan has blinded them so that they can not see the glory of God, so that the gospel message smells like death to them? Pray that He would lift the veil and show us His glory!

 

15 For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.  16 To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life.

 

Paul tells us that some will hear the gospel message clearly and boldly proclaimed and will receive this glorious gospel and find life and freedom as they are transformed into the image of Christ. Others will reject this message, think it stinks, and find death because they are veiled from seeing the glory of Jesus Christ. And we can not change that. We can only be faithful to boldly and clearly herald the glorious message God has given us.

 

Consider how this dynamic is true: If I proclaim that God has created you, that you are not an accident, but that you are designed by a creator for a purpose, some of you will hear that and receive it with joy. It will transform you to know that your life has meaning, and that there is a purpose for your life. Others will hear that same message and it will sound like death to them. Because what that means is that if there is a God who created you, then you are not god. If there is a God who has called some things good and some things bad, then you are not free to call good whatever you please and bad whatever you please. You can not create your own meaning or value. You can not just decide the right or wrong way to live. If there is a creator God, then just because you feel something is right does not make it right. If there is a God who created you, then you have a choice: you can either discover and submit to true meaning and value and righteousness as defined by God, or you can rebel against that.

 

If I proclaim that we are fallen, broken by sin, in need of a Savior, some of you will hear that and say, amen, I that; that explains why I and this world are so messed up, and thank God that there is an answer to my sin problem. But some will hear that and it will sound like death to them. Because what that means is that your feelings are not pure, and your heart is not right and your desires should not always be followed, and that you are not amazing just the way you are. It means that your heart is deceptive and your mind is mistaken and you do not see the world as clearly as you think you do. It means that you are utterly lost and that you need a Savior.

 

If I teach you that Jesus Christ died for your sins, to some of you it will be the fragrance of life. It will overwhelm your heart with the knowledge that you are loved, that you are forgiven, that there is no more shame or guilt or condemnation, and that there is hope, not only for tomorrow for eternity! But for others, it will smell like death, because it means that you can not save yourself, you can not stand before God on your own good works. And it means that Mohammed can not save you, that following the Ten Commandments can not save you, that there is no other name given under heaven except for Jesus by which we can be saved.

 

And if I teach you that there is life eternal, for some this will mean life and joy. It will give you courage to face the troubles of this world, and peace and strength in the face of aging and death. For others, it will mean death, because it means that you are spending your life and money on things that in the end will not matter. It will mean that the wisest investment you can make is not to save up everything you can in the bank and spend it on yourself but to give all you can to God’s kingdom work in this world so that you might store up treasure in heaven.

 

15 For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.  16 To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life.

 

17 Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, like men sent from God.

 

We do not peddle the word of God for profit. The message can not be bought and sold. We must speak faithfully as heralds to what this book says. And if it smells like death to the crowd, and they decide that we must be cancelled or thrown in prison or killed because this message is so dangerous, then so be it. We will not peddle the word of God for profit. We will not sell out this glorious message for the sake of those who think it smells like death.

 

The glorious gospel message is a message of life and freedom. Eternal life, eternal joy and peace and so much more for all who believe. And freedom from sin, from shame, from guilt, from condemnation, freedom to become the men and women that God has called you to be in all your glory. The glory you are seeking in romantic love, in career, in your passions and hobbies, will not be found there. The fading glory of this world is meant to point you to the surpassing glory that is found in knowing Jesus. Run after Him with all you are, until you radiate the glory of God off your face and through your life.