2 Cor 4:7-12

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Mediating the presence of the crucified and risen Lord


7 But we have this treasure in earthenware jars so that the overwhelming power may [prove to] be from God and not from us. 8 In every way we are afflicted, but we are by no means crushed. We are brought to perplexity, but not to despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; cast down, but not destroyed. 10 Always we carry about in our bodies the death of Jesus, in order that in our bodies the life of Jesus may also be revealed. 11 For we who are alive are constantly being handed over to death for Jesus' sake, in order that the life of Jesus may be made known in our mortal flesh. 12 So death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.

Paul has been accused of reckless irresponsibility in his handling of the recent crisis (1:17); what if his attempted intercession had been rejected? Had he not gambled, not only with his own life and eschatological fate, but also with that of the Corinthian church? In response, he has appealed to God’s faithfulness and the binding nature of the covenantal promises (1:18-22), and has portrayed his sufferings as the incense of an epiphany procession, which alerts bystanders to the presence of the deity; to those who are being saved, he is ‘the fragrance of the advance of life’ (2:14-16a). The saving power and presence of God experienced through the apostle’s ministry, a manifestation of an image of the glory of Christ that far surpasses the glory of Moses, transforms progressively all who gaze upon it into that same image (3:7-18). Paul now returns to the processional imagery. The apostle's body is the earthenware vessel carried in the epiphany procession, which contains the sacred object that brings about the epiphany.

Though Paul’s processional imagery is applicable to his evangelistic ministry – and the whole discussion of 2:14-4:10 is so presented that this is certainly intentional – his focus remains upon his ministry to the Corinthians. As Fitzgerald points out, ‘The idea of power deriving from God was introduced in 1:4, discussed in terms of “sufficiency” in 2:16c and 3:5-6, and is unfolded in 4:7-12’. [1] In 2:14-4:6, with echoes of the sufferings he has just described in 1:8-11; 2:12-13 (2:14-16b; 3:3, 12; 4:1), he has explained how the saving, transforming presence and power of God is encountered in his apostolic ministry. In 4:7-12 he states plainly that the epiphany is made visible in the endless cycle of affliction and deliverance that shapes his life and ministry. It is in this light that his ‘Affliction in Asia’ is to be understood, as the means by which divine consolation (deliverance from mortal danger) is being mediated to the Corinthians (cf. 1:3-7).


ἔχομεν δὲ τὸν θησαυρὸν τοῦτον ἐν ὀστρακίνοις σκεύεσιν, ἵνα ἡ ὑπερβολὴ τῆς δυνάμεως ᾖ τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ μὴ ἐξ ἡμῶν·

‘But we have this treasure [2] in earthen vessels, [3] so that this extraordinary [4] power may be [seen to be] [5] from God, and not from us’,

Returning to the imagery of the epiphany procession, first introduced in 2:14-16a, Paul now describes himself as ‘the vessel holding the sacred objects of the cult, which are, in turn, the bearers of the deity's power’. [6] Noting the antithesis ἀπορούμενοι ἀλλ' οὐκ ἐξαπορούμενοι (‘bewildered, but not driven to despair’) in the following  verse, Denney comments,

The earthen vessel which holds the priceless treasure of the knowledge of God… is human nature as it is; man’s body in its weakness, and liability to death; his mind with its limitations and confusions; his moral nature with its distortions and misconceptions, and its insight not yet half restored. [7]

‘This treasure’, through which the glory of God is made known, is evidently knowledge, carried in Paul's heart: ‘the illumination of the knowledge of the glory of God in the persona of Christ’, carried in Paul’s heart (4:6); or equivalently, ‘the illumination of the gospel of the glory of Christ (4:4). A striking parallel to Paul’s metaphor of sacred knowledge as treasure carried in the heart is found in Plutarch’s Isis and Osiris:

These [the bearers of the sacred vessels] are they who within their own soul, as though within a casket, bear sacred writings about the gods clear of all superstition and pedantry; and they cloak them with secrecy, thus giving intimations, some dark and shadowy, some clear and bright, of their concepts about the gods. [8]

The vessel in which the sacred object is carried, Paul himself, is of earthenware, suggesting that he himself is both fragile and of little value (Lam 4:2; Jer 22:28). [9] As a result, the extraordinary saving power of the gospel (cf. 1 Cor 1:18; Rom 1:16) is seen to be from God, and not from the apostle himself. The ἵνα clause echoes 1 Cor 2:4-5, where Paul also associates his human weakness with the demonstration of divine power in his initial proclamation of the gospel in the city  of Corinth; [10] cf. 2 Cor 12:8-10.

The Egyptian cults carried water jars, because (according to Plutarch), water was believed to ‘the effusion of Osiris’, [11] and was therefore a sign of the presence of the deity. In the processions of the mystery cults, a casket (κίστη) was carried; it contained objects used in the cult’s initiation ceremonies. For example, in the Eleusis processions of Demeter, the goddess of grain, the κίστη contained grain, and a pestle and mortar. [12] However, competition for converts between the various cults led to greater and greater extravagance in the processions; Plutarch complains concerning the festival of Dionysus,

Our traditional festival of the Dionysia was in former times a homely and merry procession. First came a jug of wine and vine branch, then one celebrant dragged a he-goat along, another followed with a bucket of dried figs, and the phallus bearer came last. But nowadays all this is disregarded and vanished, with vessels of gold carried past, rich apparel… [13]

The splendor of the gold vessels, Plutarch believed, eclipsed in the minds of bystanders the symbols of the deity, detracting from the epiphanic power of the ceremony. As the vessel carrying the treasure that mediates the epiphany of Christ in his own ministry, Paul implies, it is actually preferable, even necessary that his bodily presence be weak (cf. 10:10), in order that the extraordinary power of the treasure he carries might be seen to be from God and not from himself (cf. 1 Cor 1:17; eloquent speech was a marker of high social status).


ἐν παντὶ θλιβόμενοι ἀλλ' οὐ στενοχωρούμενοι,
  ἀπορούμενοι ἀλλ' οὐκ ἐξαπορούμενοι,
  διωκόμενοι ἀλλ' οὐκ ἐγκαταλειπόμενοι,
  καταβαλλόμενοι ἀλλ' οὐκ ἀπολλύμενοι
‘being in every way [14] hard pressed but by no means [15] crushed, [16]
  bewildered but by no means driven to despair, [17]
  persecuted, but by no means abandoned, [18]
  struck down, but by no means destroyed’ [19]

Paul now addresses once more the charge of recklessness, portraying his apostolic sufferings by means of four pairs of contrasted participles. The pattern and rhythm of the antitheses breaks into the flow of his rhetoric, making them memorable, pleasing the ear and encouraging assent. [20] The first element of each pair describes the reality of the sufferings, which is then contrasted with a denial: he is by no means crushed, driven to despair, forsaken or destroyed.

The form of the contrast, θλιβόμενοι ἀλλ' οὐ στενοχωρούμενοι, constrains the reader to interpret each participle in terms of the other. [21] When contrasted with στενοχωρέω, ‘crowd’, ‘confine’ restrict’, it is clear that θλίβω must also be interpreted here in its literal sense, ‘press upon’, ‘crowd’. It is also clear that στενοχωρέω must image a more severe pressing than does θλίβω; hence, ‘hard pressed but not crushed’.

Taken together, and in sequence, the first two antitheses clearly echo Paul’s account of his sufferings in the Province of Asia, 1:8. There are verbal links: θλιβόμενοι recalls the use of the cognate noun θλῖψις (cf. θλίβω in 1:6, and θλῖψις in 1:4, 8; 2:4), while the cognate participles of the second antithesis, ἀπορούμενοι ἀλλ' οὐκ ἐξαπορούμενοι recall ἐξαπορηθῆναι ἡμᾶς, 1:8 (‘we despaired’). The connection of thought is striking:

‘We were oppressed so far beyond endurance that we despaired even of life.’ (1:8)
‘[We are] hard pressed but by no means crushed, bewildered but by no means driven to despair’ (4:8)

The first terms of the third and fourth antitheses, ‘persecuted’ and ‘struck down’, almost certainly, also echo the great affliction of 1:8. Paul ‘despaired even of life’ because, in his human weakness, he feared that God had abandoned him; yet he was ‘by no means abandoned … by no means destroyed’. ‘By no means abandoned’ (οὐκ ἐγκαταλειπόμενοι) echoes the language of the LXX (Gen 28:15; Deut 31:6, 8; 1 Chron 28:20; Pss 15[16]:10; 36[37]:25, 28; Sir 2:10); [22] Paul is by no means abandoned by God, and God’s agency is clearly implicit in the other three negations also. It is through God’s protection that the apostle is not crushed, not driven to despair, not destroyed. Savage rightly remarks,

Verses 8 and 9 thus reveal that the power of verse 7 is an active and a purposeful power. It always prevents Paul’s suffering from running its full course. No matter how grim the situation may become … it never reaches the point where the apostle succumbs to ultimate defeat and despair. In Paul’s mind this is a tribute to the surpassing excellence of God’s power working in him. [23]

Paul has presented himself as a righteous sufferer; in attacking his opponents, he has employed the language of anti-sophistic rhetoric. Without the ἵνα clause of v. 7, the peristasis catalogue of vv. 8-9 would easily be seen as depicting the apostle as a ‘man of steel’, an ideal philosopher whose disciplined mind enables him to remain serene despite the most severe hardships. [24] Plutarch, for example, parodies the bravado of the Stoic sage:

confined, [he] is not impeded, and thrown from a precipice is not subject to force and stretched on the rack is not tortured and being mutilated is not injured and taking a fall in wrestling is unconquerable and under siege is impregnable and being sold into slavery by his enemies is not taken captive. [25]

To endure severe afflictions with serenity was admired throughout the Greco-Roman world as a mark of true character. [26] Nevertheless, the notion of divine power enabling a fragile human being to endure and to overcome great hardships was also well established. Fitzgerald cites Seneca: [27]

If you see a man who is unterrified in the midst of dangers, untouched by desires, happy in adversity, peaceful amid the storm, … will not a feeling of reverence for him steal over you? Will you not say, “This quality is too great and too lofty to be regarded as resembling this petty body in which it dwells? A divine power has descended upon that man,” … A thing like this cannot stand upright unless it be propped by the divine. (Ep. 41.4-5)

In his patient endurance and his deliverance from endless and severe afflictions and mortal dangers, Paul mediates the saving presence and power of God.


πάντοτε τὴν νέκρωσιν τοῦ Ἰησοῦ ἐν τῷ σώματι περιφέροντες, ἵνα καὶ ζωὴ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ a ἐν τῷ σώματι ἡμῶν φανερωθῇ. 11  ἀεὶ b γὰρ ἡμεῖς οἱ ζῶντες εἰς θάνατον παραδιδόμεθα διὰ Ἰησοῦν, ἵνα καὶ ζωὴ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ φανερωθῇ ἐν τῇ θνητῇ σαρκὶ ἡμῶν.

a א 0243 326 1739 1881 r t vg syp bopt read  ἐν τοῖς σώμασιν, probably a scribal alteration under the influence of ἡμῶν.

b p46 F G ar b syp Irenaeuslat Tertullian Ambrosiaster read εἰ for ἀεί, probably a scribal error.

‘always carrying about in our bodies the death [28] of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be clearly seen in our bodies. 11 For again and again [29]  we who live [30] are being handed over [31] to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed [32] in our mortal flesh.’

V. 10. As Duff points out, their is a striking structural parallel between 2:14 and 4:10 which suggests that in 4:10 Paul is clarifying or redefining the metaphors of the former: (a) a time element: πάντοτε / πάντοτε (b) a processional term: θριαμβεύοντι / τὴν νέκρωσιν τοῦ Ἰησοῦ περιφέροντες (c) processional language related to the apostle: ἡμᾶς ἐν τῷ Χριστῷ / ἐν τῷ σώματι ἡμῶν (d) conjunction: καί / ἵνα (e) theological phrase: the content of the gospel: τὴν ὀσμὴν τῆς γνώσεως αὐτοῦ / ἡ ζωὴ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ (f) reference to the manifestation of the gospel through the agency of the apostle: φανεροῦντι δι' ἡμῶν / ἐν τῷ σώματι ἡμῶν φανερωθῇ. [33] His being led as a prisoner of war in a triumphal procession, yet acting as God's incense bearer, is now redefined  in terms of the apostle's central role in an epiphany procession.

The verb περιφέρω is often found in descriptions of epiphany processions. [34]  These processions featured the carrying of sacred objects which made visible (φανερόω) the presence and power of the deity. In this way the procession mediated ‘the power of God’ (v. 7) to the believer. In 4:10, ‘Paul describes that which is being carried about as 'the state of death' or, alternatively, 'the putting to death' of Jesus’; the νέκρωσις of Jesus represents the cult object which mediates the epiphany. The antitheses of 4:8-9 have just reminded Paul’s readers of his ‘Affliction in Asia’ (1:8-11), and his intense anxiety over the fate of the church  as he journeyed from Asia to Macedonia (2:12-13). His journey has been presented as an epiphany procession, in which his sufferings ascend to God like incense and are accepted as the pleasing aroma of an acceptable sacrifice, the sacrifice of Christ, making intercession for the rebellious Corinthians (2:14-16b). As he suffers, Paul carries about in his body the Christ-sacrifice. In view of his self-description as Χριστοῦ εὐδὶα τῷ θεῷ, 2:15, we may conclude with Gütgemanns that Paul’s sufferings – and his recent sufferings in the Province of Asia in particular - mediate an epiphany of the crucified Christ. [35] The following ἵνα clause states that Paul’s constant carrying about of death of Jesus also (καί) results in (ἵνα) the revelation of the life of the risen Lord; for as often as he is seized by the jaws of death, he is miraculously delivered (vv. 8-9).

Some of the Greco-Roman mystery cults emphasized not only the beneficent acts, but also the saving activity of the deity. Of special interest is an inscription, second century AD, from Torre Nova, Tuscany, [36] a record of the subscribers to the erection of a statue to Agripinilla, a priestess of the Dionysiac mysteries. From the order and titles of the listed devotees, the elements and order of the procession has been reconstructed. As Duff rightly remarks, ‘Two of the most significant objects carried in the procession were the phallus and the winnowing fan, which evoked the hope of rebirth through the power of Dionysos… Paul draws on this background when he constructs his metaphor.’ [37]

V. 11 amplifies v. 10 by means of repetition, but also adds some clarifying details (γάρ). Paul’s Affliction in Asia was just one episode among many, as again and again (ἀεί) he takes the lead role in the re drama of the epiphany procession, the death and resurrection of Jesus. The expression οἱ ζῶντες contrasts with εἰς θάνατον, underscoring the central paradox of the drama, and giving rhetorical balance to the two clauses of the sentence. [38] The verb παραδίδωμι (‘handed over’) is used in 1 Cor 11:23 in a citation of the Jesus tradition, and frequently in the Gospels of the betrayal and handing over of Jesus; cf. Rom 4:25; Gal 2:20. Paul is repeatedly handed over to death [39] διὰ Ἰησοῦν (‘for Jesus’ sake'). As Christ’s envoy, it is Paul’s role to represent bodily the presence of the one who has sent him, the one who died, and yet who lives. ‘In our mortal flesh’ underscores once more Paul’s human fragility (cf. v. 7).


ὥστε ὁ θάνατος ἐν ἡμῖν ἐνεργεῖται, ἡ δὲ ζωὴ ἐν ὑμῖν.

‘So then, [40] death is at work [41] in us, but life is at work in you.’

As Christ’s envoy, Paul is always participating in a procession in which those who are being saved experience ‘the fragrance of the advance of life’ (2:15-16a) in the epiphany of the crucified and risen Christ. The apostle is always being handed over to death by God, so that the life of the risen Lord might also be seen in his mortal flesh. The divine glory, God’s saving presence and power in the persona of Jesus, is made manifest in Paul's mortal body with such power that believers who gaze upon the epiphany are themselves being transformed into the image of Christ (3:18; cf. Phil 3:10). [42] Despite his being divinely delivered, these episodes, and particularly his recent experience in the Province of Asia, take a heavy toll on his fragile body (cf. 4:16b; Gal 6:17): death is at work in him. However, through his ministry the Corinthians are experiencing inward transformation through the Spirit, which 'makes alive' (3:6-18): life is at work in them (cf. 1:6a, 'If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation'). Paul's opponents have clearly ridiculed his physical appearance (cf. 5:12); his bodily presence, they say, is pathetic (10:10). His frank admission that death is at work in him would certainly have won their approval. Even his converts in Corinth have protested his alleged recklessness (1:17). In his next subunit, Paul explains his readiness to lay down his life.

[1] Fitzgerald, Cracks in an Earthen Vessel 166 n 140.

[2]s.v. θησαυρός 2.

[3] ὀστράκινος, ‘earthenware’; σκεῦος, ‘container of any kind’, ‘vessel’, BDAG s.v. 2.

[4] ὑπερβολή, ‘excess’, ‘extraordinary quality/character’, with genitive of thing; BDAG s.v..

[5] Here ᾔ seems to have the sense of φανῇ ('might be seen to be'), or εὑρεθῇ ('might be found to be'); RSV; REB, NLT; cf. Rom 3:4, γινέσθω δὲ ὁ θεὸς ἀληθής (‘Let God be [seen to be] true’). Plummer,  Second Epistle to the Corinthians 127; Thrall,  Second epistle to the Corinthians I 324 n 923.

[6] Duff, Metaphor, Motif and Meaning 88. For a discussion of alternative (and far less persuasive) views of the background of the metaphor, see Thrall,  Second epistle to the Corinthians I 322-5. The image of the individual, or of Israel, as a clay pot is found in the Hebrew OT in Isa 29:16, but also in Isa 30:14; 45:9; 64:8; Jer 18:6; 22:8; Ps 31:12; Job 10:9. Cf., in the LXX, 2 Esd 4:11; Lev 6:21; 11:33; 15:12. For the practise of storing valuable treasures in earthen vessels see Plutarch Amelius 32; for the metaphor of treasure in clay pots, Herodotus 3.96; for storing important documents in clay jars, Jer 32:14. (McCant, 2 Corinthians 42)

[7] Denney, Second Epistle to the Corinthians 159; cf. Fitzgerald,  Cracks in an Earthen Vessel 167 n 142. The imagery of the whole person, as opposed to just the body, as a vessel is also found in Epictetus Diss. 2.4.4-5; Ps-Heraclitus Ep. 8.4; Fitzgerald Cracks in an Earthen Vessel 167 n 142.

[8] Plutarch, Isis and Osiris 352B, quoted by Duff, The Transformation of the Spectator: Power, Perception and the Day of Salvation, SBL.SP 26 (1987), 233-243, 234 n 9.

[9] Fitzgerald,  Cracks in an Earthen Vessel 167-8.

[10] Litfin, St Paul's Theology of Proclamation 158 n 20.

[11] Plutarch, Isis and Osiris 365B; 366A.

[12] Burkert, Homo Necans (tr. P. Bing) 272-76, cited by Duff.

[13] Plutarch De cupiditate divitiarum 527D, quoted by Duff, Apostolic Suffering 161.

[14] The eight participles, together with περιφέροντες, v. 10, seem to be dependent on ἔχομεν, v. 7.

[15] οὐ with the (dependent) participle is emphatic; ATR 137-38. See also BDF §430; Moule, Idiom Book 105.

[16]s.v. θλίβω 3, ‘to cause to be troubled’; s.v. στενοχωρέω 2, ‘to be in a circumstance that seems to offer no way out’.

[17]s.v. ἀπορέω, ‘to be in a confused state of mind’; s.v. ἐξαπορέω, ‘to be at a loss psychologically’.

[19] RSV, NRSV; BDAG s.v. καταβάλλω 1, ‘to strike with sufficient force so as to knock down’; s.v. ἀπόλλυμι 1, ‘to cause or experience destruction’.

[20] Plank, Paul and the Irony of Affliction 78, 79-80.

[21] Plank, Paul and the Irony of Affliction 78-79.

[22] Hafemann,  Paul, Moses and the History of Israel 250.

[23] Savage, Power Through weakness 172.

[24] ‘Ancient moralists repeatedly use both individual calamities and peristasis catalogues in describing the sage in order to demonstrate that he not only endures adversity commendably but also that he is relatively or absolutely unaffected by it. In general, therefore, the sage’s hardships serve as literary foils in the depiction of his serenity and endurance.’ (Fitzgerald,  Cracks in an Earthen Vessel 59)

[25] Plutarch Moralia 1057D-E, tr. Thrall,  Second epistle to the Corinthians I 326 n 936; cf. Epictetus 2.19.24; the true Stoic is he ‘who though sick is happy, though in danger is happy, though dying is happy, though condemned to exile is happy, though in disrepute is happy’; similarly, the true Cynic (4.8.31). By dying or enduring disease with serenity, he shows others ‘the sinews of the philosopher’ (2.8.27-29). (Fitzgerald,  Cracks in an Earthen Vessel 64-65 n 48)

[26] Fitzgerald,  Cracks in an Earthen Vessel 59-70 offers a concise survey of the various philosophical schools’ accounts of the serenity of the ‘righteous sufferer’, the suffering sage.

[27] Fitzgerald,  Cracks in an Earthen Vessel 171.

[28] The term νέκρωσις can mean either the process of dying (BDAG s.v. 1) or the state of death (s.v. 2). The translation is intended to leave open both possibilities.

[29] BDAG s.v. ἀει 2, ‘duration of time as episodic, of a freqently recurring action or situation’.

[30] Taking οἱ ζῶντες adverbially; BDAG s.v. ζάω 1a.

[31] BDAG s.v. παραδίδωμι 1.

[32] BDAG s.v. φανερόω 1, ‘to cause to become visible’.

[33] Duff, Metaphor, Motif and Meaning 89-90.

[34] Plutarch, Isis and Osiris 357F; 365B. For the metaphorical use of περιφέρω in processional imagery, see Clement of Alexandria Protrepticus 4.59.2; cf. Epictetus Diss. 2.8.12-13. For these references, and for the close association of the φερ- root with processions, see Duff, Mind of the Redactor 169-70 n 44.

[35] Gütgemanns, Der leidende Apostel 116.

[36] A. Vogliano and F. Cumont, La grande inscription bachique du Metropolitan Museum, AJA 37 (1933) 215-70.

[37] Duff, Apostolic Suffering 162 col. 2, citing Harrison, Nilsson. A famous literary example is found in Apuleius’ account of a redemptive drama enacted during the Navigium Isidis, the Isis Ship Procession; see comment on 2:14.

[38] Thrall,  A critical and exegetical commentary on the second epistle to the Corinthians : Volume I 336.

[39] Cf. 1 Cor 15:31, καθ᾽ ἡμέραν ἀποθνῄσκω ('From day to day I court fatality'; tr. Thiselton,  First Epistle to the Corinthians 1250).

[40] BDAG s.v. ὥστε 1a.

[41] BDAG s.v. ἐνεργέω s.v. 1b.

[42] ‘As the resurrected “Lord” (4:5) encountered by believers with “unveiled faces”, Christ is not merely reflecting the glory of God as Moses did, he is the glory of God. Conversely, it is not Christ, but Paul who mediates God’s glory in the new covenant. The comparison throughout 2 Cor. 3:7-18 is not between Moses and Christ as mediators of the glory of God, but between Moses and Paul, with Christ equated with YHWH himself as the glory of God.’ (Hafemann, Paul, Moses and the History of Israel 415-6).