Do not lose heart

It’s easy to get into a rut. Often we don’t even realise that we are following previously laid down patterns of behaviour and practices that become embedded in our minds and thinking. Ruts have inertia that makes them resistant to change and this has been recognised in the business environment, so much so that ‘change management’ has become a formal process through which companies attempt to bring in new ways of working and thinking. Paul was in the change management business. We saw in the previous chapter how God’s way of dealing with mankind had transitioned from an ‘Old covenant’ restricted to Israel (and involving a temporary relief from sin, based on a condemnatory law) to a ‘New Covenant’ open to all and involving a permanent relief from the penalty of sin, based on an internal transformation. The New Covenant brought a responsibility to live our lives centred on Jesus Christ and as we do we are changed into his likeness.

This raises some questions. What expectations ought we to have of life under this new covenant? What sort of responsibility do we have as we live out our new covenant lives in this world, and what does the future hold for us under this new covenant? Chapter 4 has some answers.

  1. Life under the new covenant: being light in darkness.

This chapter more or less starts with the words ‘we do not lose heart’ (v 1) and near the end we have the same words (v 16). I suspect that most Christians will agree that we are a minority group in society. Most people are not Christian. Lots of people have a vague idea that there is a god ‘out there somewhere’ but few truly believe. The tide of human thinking and culture is largely (and seemingly increasingly) non-Christian if not anti-Christian.  Even in cultures which are apparently more Christianised there is limited evidence of true faith. It seems that we are up against it. In chapter 1 we noted that the earthly experience and destiny of Israel was distinctly different from that of the church. Israel has been promised a land on earth and a future Messiah who will rule the nations with peace, justice and righteousness. The church on the other hand is not at home in this world, it is subject to testing, trials and difficulty. Its destiny is heaven. In view of this, and in view of the general struggle of the church in the world, Paul says that we do not lose heart! He can say this because of the benefits and wonder of the New Covenant and the progressive change this brings about in the life of believers.

This is all well and good, but we have some responsibilities as believers as we interact with the world. The first is that we have a duty to present the truth to the world in a straightforward and undistorted way. Paul says ‘we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God.’ There is a great temptation to twist the message of the gospel to make it acceptable to the thinking of the world. If our churches are empty then why not give the people what they want! Attracting crowds is one thing, but the gospel must not be emptied of its content. We have a duty to present the gospel to the world in an understandable and relevant way but not in a distorted way that empties it of its power. It’s all too easy for us fall into these two extremes, on the one we may with all good intent present the gospel in such an obscure and archaic way that nobody listens and on the other hand water down the gospel for fear of giving offence and to make the message more acceptable and popular. Neither will do. Paul says it’s about ‘setting forth the truth plainly.’

Once in a while I clean the car and more rarely give it a polish. It’s a satisfying feeling to see it sparkling like new again – although it never lasts for long! After the polish has gone on and the rain comes, the polish repels the rain which runs off much more easily than normal – it’s like water on a duck’s back, the polishing process protects the paint with a layer of wax and the rain is repelled. It seems to be like that with the response of many people to the gospel. The truth just seems to slide off them without making any impact. We are involved in a battle for minds. For many people their minds are closed to truth. Paul says that the gospel is veiled to those who are perishing and the veil is put in place by the ‘god of this age’ who blinds the minds of unbelievers so that they cannot see the light of the gospel. Note that there is a deliberate effort on the part of the evil one to blind people to the gospel. We are truly up against it – this really is spiritual warfare. Does this mean that since the minds of unbelievers have been blinded that we should lose heart and give up? Certainly not! We are on the victory side. John says in the 4th chapter of his first letter: the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. God’s Holy Spirit is at work too and ‘he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment.’ (John 16:8). The devil may blind but the gospel is light that overcomes darkness!

The veil can be removed, but how are we to do this? Paul says that we are to preach ‘Jesus Christ as Lord’. The world is for sure a dark place, with the evil one blinding people to the gospel but God is at work and we have light that overcomes the world. God is the author of light – he brought it into being with a few words ‘let light shine out of darkness’. We have this light within us. Paul was as blind to the truth of the gospel as anyone could imagine, but he met Jesus and saw his light and was transformed. We have that same light within us and this is the light that we bring into the world as ambassadors of Christ – do you believe that this light is sufficient to overcome the work of the evil one? Our job is to bring this light to the world without distortion or deception.

  • Expectations for life under the new covenant

Christians are not the most brilliant lot! Paul says of the Corinthians that ‘not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.’ We have the light of God within us but Paul describes us as jars of clay – cheap containers. This fact emphasises that it is the presence of God’s all surpassing power is God’s and not ours! Under the promises made to Israel there was to be an expectation that the Messiah would bring in a golden age on earth, but during the present period when the church is God’s agent on earth we are not to look for such things, Paul says that our lot is to be characterised by being ‘hard pressed on every side’, perplexed, persecuted, struck down, and ‘being given over to death’.

This is a pretty depressing set of circumstances. Are we left alone to fend for ourselves under these difficult circumstances? Paul says we are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed. Sometimes it seems the pressures on us come from every direction and their force knocks the wind out of us, but we are not crushed – God’s presence is within. We may be perplexed as we watch the world careering on a course of sinful self destruction but we are not in despair, we have a hope that is steadfast and certain! Persecution is not so severe in this country, but we hear of great trouble for believers in other parts of the world, we may know these pressures in our land too as the atheistic naturalism taught in our schools and  universities bears its ugly and intolerant fruit. If this is our experience, be comforted, we may be persecuted, but we are never abandoned. We may be struck down but we are not destroyed – JB Phillips’ translation says we may be knocked down, but not knocked out! Some Christians are laudably attempting to influence our culture through lobbying of MPs, government and defending Christian rights in the courts, as good as this is, Paul says that it is through these experiences of difficulty that ‘his life is revealed in your mortal body’. This is the picture of the ‘church triumphant’ not taking over the world and its institutions, but suffering and being the underdog, but through all of this, shining as light in darkness.

  • How will it all work out?

If all we had to look forward to was persecution and difficulty I suspect we could easily lose heart. Paul is keen to ensure that in the midst of trials we stay strong. If all we had to hope for was some vague notion of possible victory and relief I think we’d easily lose heart, but we have some solid God-given promises that fortify and sustain us. In verse 14 Paul says that ‘the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself.’ The great miracle that kick started the church was the resurrection. The disciples were in a hopeless situation: their master, the one they had given up everything to follow was taken by the powerful Roman authorities and with the backing of the powerful Jewish religious and political establishment he was executed. He lay in a grave and all the dreams of the disciples lay in ruins. But against all their expectations and instincts, Jesus conquered death. He appeared to them and gave them the job of telling the world. What’s the worst that our enemies can do to us? Kill us? Perhaps. But Jesus overcame death and in his power so will we. What an assurance this is! No matter what the world and this life throws at us – even death, it cannot defeat us – we are headed for resurrection. In view of this, Paul says: we do not lose heart!

Now I have some bad news. No matter what age you are, this day brings you one day closer to the grave! It may seem a long way off, but it hangs over every human being. The aging process reminds us of our biological frailty. My grandfather on my mother’s side never lived to enjoy one day of retirement, in contrast my father is into his 19th year of retirement – but whatever stage we are at, our bodies (to use Paul’s words) are wasting away. I’m somewhat amused by the crazy lengths some people will go to, to retain their youth. Botox injections, lip enhancements and surgical interventions can only delay the inevitable and as often as not an aged face looks much better than manipulated one! For the Christian, the failing body is a fact of our biology, but there is an inner life that is being renewed day by day. Anyone who believes in Jesus has eternal life. Tell that to the practitioners of and participants in cosmetic surgery! Shouldn’t this inner eternal life be our source of attention and fixation?

There’s one more remarkable comment Paul makes. The more suffering (or momentary troubles as Paul puts it) we experience now the more we are storing up added glory in eternity. This is a remarkable thought. Rewards will be given to believers according to what they do in their lives on this planet. The harder it is now, the better it will be then. So in view of this, what ought to be our focus in the hear-and-now? Paul has the answer: ‘so we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.’

We had some building work done recently – the entire kitchen was rebuilt. During this time we had a temporary kitchen, it was just enough to keep us going, it was small, inconvenient and rough and ready. Now would it not have been a crazy thing for us to spend all of our energy perfecting, cleaning, polishing and planning for this temporary kitchen when a beautiful new kitchen was planned right next to it? Of course! So it is with our temporary situation now vis a vis our eternal prospects – invest all of our being in the life to come and do not lose heart.