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Bible Commentaries

James Nisbet's Church Pulpit Commentary

2 Corinthians 4



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Verse 3


‘But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost.’

2 Corinthians 4:3

If the Gospel be hidden, why is it hidden?

A thing may be ‘hidden’ and made invisible to the eye from one or other of three causes: the organ of vision may be weakened or destroyed, or there may come in something between which obstructs the sight, or it may be an act of sovereignty to ‘hide’ it.

I. Weakness of vision.—The Apostle assigns to the Corinthians the first cause. He says that Satan, whom he calls ‘the god of this world,’ hath ‘blinded their minds.’ The spiritual nerve is destroyed. The retina of the mind is out of order. The right image is not formed. There is no reflection of the object inwardly. You have not the capacity of seeing such things as these.

II. Light obscured.—Something has come in between you and truth. You look through a darkening medium, over a thick world. A big sin hinders the view. Heaven is eclipsed. You cannot see God.

III. God’s sovereignty.—It may be true of you, you have driven God to do an act of retributive justice. What you would not see you cannot see. There cannot be sight without light, and the light, which you have neglected, has been withdrawn. God has given you up to the darkness which you chose.

IV. What is at the root of all this?—What underlies the threefold process? Why is the religious faculty of your mind destroyed? From what road is that intervening barrier which shuts out God and heavenly things? For what cause has God ‘blinded your eyes, and hardened your heart; that you should not see with your eyes, nor understand with your heart, and be converted, and He should heal you’? Why does He ‘hide’ Himself and His truth from you? The answer to all three questions is one—your sin. You would not give up your sin. You were not prepared to accept the Gospel of His grace on the conditions. And so sin dulled the perceptive power: sin drew the veil: one sin was punished by another sin; and then that sin by another—till God retired into a distance from you, too far for you really to see Him. Sin did its own proper work. Sin gendered unbelief. You were afraid of the light, because the light condemned you. From long darkness your heart grew dark. Gradually the whole field of moral light was ‘hidden.’ And because you hated holiness, holiness became too bright a thing for you to look at.

Verse 4


‘The glorious gospel of Christ.’

2 Corinthians 4:4

Why is it so hard to convince the world of this truth, that the Gospel of Christ is a ‘glorious’ Gospel?

I. The world must see its own depravity.—It might surprise us that the world is so slow to believe in its own depravity, and individuals so slow to believe in their need of a saving Gospel, were it not that St. Paul tells us in this same passage of Scripture how to account for these facts. He lays down very clearly that such knowledge is only kept from those whose minds are blinded by the god of this world. There is nowhere that Satan finds so much to occupy him, there is no work in which he is so successful as that of ‘blinding the minds of men’ so that they shall be unable to realise their own interests, to see their own necessity. If the world at large really was conscious of its condition, would it not at once rouse itself and try to shake off the chains which are binding it? would it not begin seriously to seek for some means by which it might escape from its present thraldom, and from the ruin and condemnation which are most surely coming upon it? And if individual men and women were fully conscious of their own inherent weakness, which makes them so powerless to fight against the evils which surround them; if they were really alive to their inability to find their way through the dark maze of temptation without a light to guide them, would not they too at once rouse themselves and do what they could to find that light, that so they might be able to break loose from the fetters and chains of sin and infirmity, and rejoice in the glorious liberty of the children of God? Yes! assuredly this would be done; but is it done? Look around you and see! If the world is thus blinded, if such an impenetrable veil hangs over the eyes of men and women so that they cannot see the straitened needs of their own souls, is it any wonder that the Gospel of Christ is so little regarded as the ‘glorious’ Gospel which in very truth it is?

II. The world must rightly understand the Gospel.—If the Gospel is what a large proportion of the Christian world popularly believes it to be, it is simply and solely the Atonement or death of Christ. Hundreds and thousands of ‘converted’ sinners will tell you with a depth of feeling which proves their earnestness, that all they know, and all they wish to know, of the Gospel is enshrined in those words, ‘Jesus died for me!’ Thus the doctrine of the Incarnation, which is of the very essence of the Gospel, is untaught, and therefore not believed by millions of so-called Christians who do profess belief in the ‘Gospel’ of Christ. And it is this distortion of the true character of the Gospel which blinds the ‘believing ‘world to its ‘glorious’ nature. ‘When the fulness of time was come, God sent forth His Son, made of a woman.’ There, in those words, you have the key-note of the Gospel as it really is. Follow it up from that point, viz., from the first moment of the Incarnation; see how on that corner-stone is built the whole marvellous fabric of the great Redemptive Scheme, and then you will no longer doubt the fact that the Gospel of Christ when fully and truthfully proclaimed is a ‘glorious’ Gospel.

Rev. J. H. Buchanan.


‘So long as the Gospel of Christ is regarded as unworthy of our acceptance, we must remain without the comfort which it contains; we must continue to be strangers to the glad tidings which it brings to men; we must continue to grope about in the darkness of worldly wisdom for that light which is to be found nowhere else; whereas, once that Gospel is seen to be a “glorious” Gospel, worthy of our acceptance, well fitted to carry us peacefully through this present world and efficiently prepare us for the world to come, then we need no longer be without its comfort, or be strangers to its glad tidings, or grope in darkness, for when its light once shines it will be both seen and felt.’

Verse 5


‘We preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake.’

2 Corinthians 4:5

Such is this great clergyman’s central and ultimate conception of the Christian ministry. He has much to say about it, elsewhere, from other sides; about its commission and authority, and about the moral dignity of its idea. But here he lays his hand upon its very heart, and gives us the central glory of the thing.

I. The words denote the most absolute antithesis possible to every thought of an ecclesiastical assumption, to all such self-exaltation of a ministerial class or order as can harden it into that far different thing, for which the Christianity of the Apostles has no place, a hierarchical caste. The words delightfully negative all that is connoted by that term of mournful omen, as of mournful history, clericalism. They present to us, in short, a conception not magisterial, but altogether ministerial.

II. He lives to make Christ Jesus great to human hearts.—He lives ‘that Christ may be magnified in his body,’ that Christ may look out at the windows of his life, and may beckon from its doors, that his word alike and his example may persuade men, with an indefinable but strong attraction, to ‘taste and see how gracious the Lord is,’ and never so gracious as when He is most absolutely Lord. To this man all interests are subordinated to these; he rises up with this aim in the morning, and he lies down with it at night. His life is manifold in its contents; he is a man, ‘a man in Christ,’ and therefore all the more a man; nothing that is essentially human is alien to his sympathies.

III. He begins to know for himself that ‘to be ministered unto’ is infinitely less like the regal greatness of the King of Saints than ‘to minister,’ to ‘love and serve.’ He begins to see what he will experience perfectly in the life of glory, that our finite being can never expand and sun itself fully into the fair ideal of power and beauty for which it was created, and for which now it is redeemed, till it goes out and upward from the bondage of self-seeking into the large and holy freedom of a self-sacrificing love for God, and for man in Him. Therefore he is bent upon the enterprise of ‘making Jesus King’ in the souls of others too. He knows that it is the absolute right of his Redeemer that He should reign in them wholly and for ever.

To that end the minister is their bond-servant. He exists for them, he belongs to them, he is at command for them, that they may yield themselves to Jesus Christ, for this world and the world to come, and so may live indeed.

—Bishop H. C. G. Moule.


‘To the Corinthians, whom he loved, and who loved him well, yet perplexed and grieved him too, he presents his whole self, without even the thinnest artificial veil. Affection, hope, disappointment, indignation, irony, bitter rebuke, tenderest entreaty—all comes out precisely as it is felt, in the utterance of a devotion to them which has nothing to conceal. To be sure, all is dominated by a purpose. The Second Epistle to the Corinthians is no fitful rhapsody of troubled feeling. All bears upon the rescue of the disciples back from misbeliefs to the eternal truth, from confusion to a strong cohesion in the Lord, from themselves to Christ, to holiness, to heaven. But into the line of that great purpose the Apostle pours not his reasonings only, nor even his entreaties, but himself. He spends upon his converts his own innermost being. He gives to them his soul.’

Verse 6


‘For God, Who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the Face of Jesus Christ.’

2 Corinthians 4:6

A look is older than a word. You understood your mother’s looks before you understood her words. Your mother’s face was to you the fairest in all the world. And as the years rolled on that face grew fairer and fairer. You thought what Donne wrote of George Herbert’s mother—

‘No spring nor summer beauty hath such grace,

As I have seen in one autumnal face.’

It is said that when Bunsen lay dying, as his wife bent over him he said, ‘In thy face have I seen the Eternal.’ But Bunsen’s words are, after all, only partially true.

I. The fullest revelation of God is in the Face of Jesus Christ (John 14:8-9).—For that Face shows that ‘God is love.’ There is salvation in a vision of that Face. It is the Face of the Lover of souls. The tender phrase ‘Lover of souls’ is applied to the Divine Being in The Wisdom of Solomon. It certainly belongs to Christ by right. But who can paint the Face of the Divine and Human Saviour?

II. But note well the argument of the text.—‘God … hath shined in our hearts, in order to the shining forth (that is, to others) of the knowledge (we have ourselves) of the glory of God in the Face of Jesus Christ.’ As the Revised Version renders it, ‘Seeing it is God, that said, Light shall shine out of darkness, Who shined in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the Face of Jesus Christ.’ If we have light, we are to reflect it and pass it on. If we have seen the Vision, we shall long for others to see it too.

III. The Face of Jesus Christ is the only Face that never fades.—When God spoke to Moses his face shone, and then Moses spoke to the children of Israel with his face still shining, and when he had done speaking he put a veil on his face that they might not see the glory fade. This appears to have been the case if we compare two passages in the Revised Version: ‘And are not as Moses, who put a veil upon his face, that the children of Israel should not look stedfastly on the end of that which was passing away’ (2 Corinthians 3:13): ‘And when Moses had done speaking with them, he put a veil on his face’ (Exodus 34:33). But the glory on the Face of Christ ‘remaineth’ (2 Corinthians 3:11). We have seen many a face that we have loved, perhaps one specially whose face was to us ‘as it had been the face of an angel,’ and the face faded out of our sight. One of the saddest little poems is that one by Charles Lamb in which the refrain recurs again and again, ‘All, all are gone, the old familiar faces.’ But there is one Face bright with eternal Youth from which the glory never dies, from which the light never vanishes, from which the beauty never fades; it is the Face of the Divine and Human Saviour, the Face of ‘Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, and to-day, and for ever.’

—Rev. F. Harper.


‘In one of Charles Dickens’s tales there is a touching line: “Tell them,” whispered little Dombey when he was dying, “that the Face of the picture of Christ on the staircase at school is not Divine enough”—very true, for in that Face there is a “light that never was on sea or land.”’

Verse 7


‘But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.’

2 Corinthians 4:7

This metaphor of the Divine treasure in earthen vessels sums up in a picturesque and easily remembered form much of the Apostle’s teaching in this the least systematic of his epistles. It hints at truths which have often been verified, and as often forgotten, in the history of the Christian Church. Let us look at one or two of the lessons which may be learnt from an application of the principle contained in this metaphor. Let us briefly apply it (1) to the Bible, (2) to the Church, (3) to the individual minister of the Gospel.

I. The Bible.—The application of these words to the written records of Revelation is no new thing. In recent times it has been made by Dr. Sanday, one of the most learned and reverent of living critics, in a most helpful book. If few of us can be critics, all of us must be aware of the great change of view which has come about during the last fifty years; and those who are called upon to strengthen the faith of others will soon discover how many shipwrecks of faith, partial or total, have been caused by difficulties about the Bible—its historical accuracy, the apparent conflict between its statements and the discoveries of science, the morality of some of the teaching of the Old Testament. Who has not known instances in which men have found it honestly impossible to retain the theory of inspiration in which they were brought up, and then, in abandoning that theory, have also abandoned wellnigh all belief in the reality of Revelation? Our forefathers saw that in the Bible there was a glorious treasure, and assumed that the vessels which contained it could have no admixture of so common a thing as earth. Our own generation sees that the vessels are of earth, and therefore some men rush to the conclusion that they can contain no Divine treasure. Must we not remember Bishop Butler’s memorable warning against framing our ideas of Revelation by what we should have expected God to do, instead of observing the method which, in point of fact and experience, we see that He has adopted? There are hundreds of difficulties in Biblical criticism which will not be solved in the lifetime of the youngest person here present; on numberless points we must be content to suspend our judgment. But there is no principle that can help us more than that which is contained in this metaphor of St. Paul, more especially because it brings the explanation of the Divine method with regard to Revelation into line with the explanation of the working of the Holy Spirit upon mankind in general.

II. From the Bible we turn to the Church.—Here again history tells us the same tale. Just as men constructed false theories of mechanical inspiration because they did not understand that the Divine treasure could be contained in earthen vessels, so, for the same reason, they have sometimes contructed false or exaggerated theories about the Church, which is the witness and keeper of Holy Writ, the ‘Spirit-bearing body.’ Men have thought it a dishonour to God to suppose that His Church could ever be polluted by sin or deceived by erroneous doctrine. More than once in the history of the Church, from the Montanists of the second century to the Puritans of modern times, there have been zealots who would fain have uprooted the tares without delay, and have purged the Church of all unworthy members. And just as men have often sought an impossible perfection in the Church on earth, so also have they looked for an unattainable freedom from error. Sometimes, as by the Church of Rome at the present day, this infallibility has been attributed to an individual; sometimes, and with much better reason, it has been supposed to reside in the general voice of the Church as expressed in its assemblies. But a patient study of the Divine method seems to show that God does not work after this fashion. Do not misunderstand me. It is not that I would belittle the Church’s mission or disparage her authority, or cast doubt upon the reality of the guidance of the Holy Spirit from age to age. God forbid! What I urge is that, as in the written Revelation, so here also, this guidance does not supersede the human channel or overpower the human instrument. Doubtless our Lord might have committed to the Church, or to its chief ruler, the power of deciding every doubt with infallible certainty, just as He might have invoked legions of angels to deliver Him from death. But we know that He did not choose that method of deliverance for Himself; and the Church, which is His Body, shares in the humiliation to which His human Body was made subject. The Church, indeed, is indestructible—the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Yet it has its dark hours, its agonies, its periods of corruption, as well as its times of illumination and refreshment. It has been stained by the cruelties of persecution; by the profligacies of its spiritual rulers—its teaching has at times been largely overlaid with travesties of the Gospel. Even now we see it rent asunder, and weakened by disunion. Few of us can read Church history without a sense of melancholy, almost of despair; and yet we have been told on excellent authority that the study of Church history is the best cordial for drooping spirits. What is the explanation of the paradox? Surely this. If we look at the human element only, at the earthen vessels, our spirits sink when we see their frailty and unworthiness. If we look at the Divine element—the unfailing treasure of the knowledge of the glory of God in Jesus Christ—we take courage again, for we perceive that even through human shortcomings God is fulfilling Himself in many ways—in many fragments and after divers fashions—and that the exceeding greatness of the power is of Him and not of man.

III. As with the Bible and the Church, so it is with the individual minister of the Gospel.—There are few, perhaps, among those who have been set apart for God’s service who have not felt what Isaiah and Jeremiah felt. ‘I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.’ ‘Ah, Lord God! behold, I cannot speak: for I am a child.’ It is well that we should feel this, and remember our own unworthiness; and yet we must not let the feeling paralyse us. We must remember also the live coal from off the altar, the touching of the mouth by the hand of God. God chooses us poor earthen vessels; and even when He has committed to us the Divine treasure, earthen we still remain. The great contrast must not unfit us for our task. It must not make us reject the call when first it comes, or despair when in after-years we have to acknowledge mistake after mistake, failure upon failure. God, we believe, has chosen us as His instruments. He has made our poor humanity the medium of the Divine message to mankind; and we know that wherever in this life the human element meets the Divine there must be this contrast, this overpowering sense of imperfection and incongruity. But here again a study of the past may help us. Christ chose twelve Apostles, and amongst them there was a Thomas who doubted, a Peter who denied, a Judas who betrayed. And from that day to this the work of the Church has been carried on by men who, if in some cases they have been canonised after death, certainly had their faults very freely recognised when they were alive. Martyrs, confessors, saints, and doctors of the Church—a noble army truly, but still an army composed of men of like passions with ourselves; and in proportion as each deserved the name of ‘saint,’ he was most conscious, probably, of his own inadequacy for his mighty task.

—Rev. Chancellor Hobhouse.


‘There was a “crisis” in the Church of Corinth; we see it both in the First Epistle and in the Second. There were scandals in the Church of Corinth. The First Epistle tells us what they were—faction and partisanship, spiritual pride, doubts and false doctrines about the Resurrection, profligacy, drunkenness, apparent relapse into the notorious wickednesses of the pagan community which surrounded the new-born Church. We know how St. Paul dealt with these matters in the First Epistle. Yet the troubles were not at an end. St. Paul’s opponents were still active. During his absence they undermined his position by assailing his Apostolic authority, by slandering his personal character, by ridiculing his physical infirmities, by trying to emphasise the differences between Jewish and Gentile converts, by appealing to the superior claims of those who, like St. Peter, had been the companions of Jesus Christ in the days of His flesh. And what was St. Paul’s line of defence against these attacks? He traces back his authority to our Lord Himself, he speaks of the “visions” which had been vouchsafed to him, as well as to the “more abundant labours” which were the best evidence of Apostolic mission. As he confesses repeatedly in a half-ironical tone, he has recourse to “boasting,” his critics have forced him into it. He is possessed with a sense of the dignity of his office, the truth of his “Gospel,” the importance of his mission, the real value of the results already achieved; and yet, in the midst of this same “confident boasting,” he never loses sight of his own infirmity, nor forgets the disproportion between the worker and the work. For himself, he is content that it should be so, provided only that the message of the Gospel is not discredited thereby, provided that men learn to distinguish between the precious treasure of the Revelation of God through Jesus Christ and the “earthen vessels” in which that treasure is contained.’

Verse 10


‘Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body.’

2 Corinthians 4:10

We cannot reasonably suppose that it is necessary or desirable to aim at a literal interpretation of these words, as far as we are concerned. The modern Christian need not seek to make a martyr of himself, yet he may still bear about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus in other ways.

I. By bearing about the remembrance of what the Lord Jesus did, and how He died for us, so that the thought of it may unconsciously affect our views of things, and may give a tone and colour to all our thoughts and ideas and opinions. Most of us know what it is to mourn over relatives and friends. Some of us can never quite forget father or mother, child or brother or sister who has gone. We always carry in our secret hearts a fond and loving remembrance of all that they were to us when they were here—a reverent and affectionate regard for the carrying out of their wishes.

II. We may show in our daily life the transforming power of His death.—Our whole life ought to be changed and affected by the fact that Christ died for us. This carrying about with us the dying of the Lord Jesus should make us have—

(a) A decided horror of sin.

(b) Trust in His love.

III. We will show the dying of the Lord Jesus in that daily dying to sin and living unto holiness which is so essential to the Christian, and in the mortifying, killing, and extinguishing the evil thoughts, the bad desires, the crooked, perverse ways, and the aggravating temper which are to-day our inheritance from the first Adam.

IV. Always bear it, never lay it down.—Always bear it, not in discontent, but in humility. There need be no change in our outward position or circumstances, but amidst the busy occupations and the multitude of little things to be thought of and done every day—letters to be written, business to be attended to, work to be got through, household affairs to be looked after, family and domestic concerns to be seen to—we may preserve in the inmost depth of the heart the secret of success and of happiness, the sacred remembrance of the dying of the Lord Jesus, in the light of which every anxiety, every trouble, every worrying detail, and the little trials of daily life will become easy to be borne.

Rev. Dacre Craven.


‘The old librarian at the Bodleian used every morning to look up at the portrait of John Bodley at the top of the staircase and say to himself, “I will try to do to-day all that I am sure you would wish me to do.”’



The world does not ask so much for Christ to be preached as it does for Christ to be lived. That is the meaning of our text.

What does it mean, and how is it to be done? We must now die the death that Christ died in order that we may live again here and now, and be ourselves proofs of the truth of this resurrection.

Consider what the death of Christ means.

I. It was an act of complete self-renunciation—the voluntary death of self. There was no thought of self in the death of Jesus. What a large place self occupies in our hearts! Self must die and Christ must reign in its place. That is one way in which we may bear about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that His life may be made manifest, that men may know that self indeed is dead in us and that Jesus lives instead.

II. It was a death to the world.—Christ might have been an earthly king surrounded with all pomp and power, but His Kingdom was not on this earth. It is as hard to die to the world as it is to die to self, and yet if we are to bear about in our bodies the dying of the Lord Jesus we must die to the world as He did. It takes time for people to say that the business and pleasures of the world cannot satisfy, and yet it is perfectly plain that any man serving Jesus Christ properly must put Him first in all things.

III. The death of Christ was an act of completion.—For some of us this struggle goes on through all our life, and is only ended with actual, physical death, yet this death to self and the world should take place now and here. Jesus Christ did not remain in death, and as He rose so we must rise to a new life altogether.

Rev. Martin Shewell.


‘There can be no difficulty in understanding what St. Paul meant by these words. He and his fellow Apostles and preachers of the Gospel literally bore about in the body ‘the dying of the Lord Jesus,’ in stripes, in imprisonments, in watchings, in fastings, in hunger and thirst, in cold and nakedness, and every conceivable privation; in perilous journeys amongst savage tribes, in shipwreck and exposure to the storm and tempest. These experiences had a marked effect on their health, and left behind them unmistakable traces. We know how in past days men, and women too, have literally followed their example, and experienced the privations and bodily sufferings of the Apostles, some voluntarily and some by force of circumstances.’

Verse 17-18


‘Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.’

2 Corinthians 4:17-18

The key to this passage, with its triumphant confidence, lies in the words ‘while we look.’ It was the Apostle’s gaze upward and onward which put the things present into their true focus. For all magnitudes are best measured by comparison. While we look at the Alps, the great cathedral at their base is dwarfed into insignificance. While we ponder on the stupendous wonders of the starry heavens, this world of ours seems but a speck. So was it with St. Paul. While he looked away from the seen and temporary and gazed at the eternal; while he turned from the trials of this brief life and thought upon the weight of glory, then the present, with its sorrows and suffering, appeared not worthy of comparison with the tremendous issues which the future disclosed.

I. St. Paul’s spiritual elevation was evidently the product of certain beliefs.

(a) He believed in immortality, and in the light of that belief he measured the significance of this present life.

(b) He had the conviction that his work was given to him by God. There was a consequent touch of the eternal in it all. He knew that his everyday life was of a piece with that unseen world of perfect glory into which his Lord had entered. The effect of this was to produce magnanimity, courage, power.

II. Was St. Paul right?—Can we vindicate his confidence, or was he but a dreamer? We may be quite assured that the good soldier did receive the crown of life, which to his dying eyes seemed ready to drop upon his brow. To doubt this would be to doubt God; but we have no voice from the unseen telling us it was so. Yet we may gain from other sources such proofs that his sacrifice was not in vain as may, to that extent, vindicate his splendid confidence. For had St. Paul seen what were then among the things unseen, and beheld the results which his labours and sufferings would secure even in this life; had he been able to catch the echoes which his life and work would awaken age after age, with what increased firmness would he have spoken of the lightness of his afflictions compared with the glorious consequences of his toil. For Christendom has been created by him more than by any mere man. As we look back on the two thousand years that have passed since the lonely and distressed man wrote this letter to Corinth, we can vindicate his estimate. For where are now the ‘things seen’—the wealth, pleasure, and power, for which men were then struggling after as the only things worth striving for? Verily, the ‘things seen’ were indeed temporary, but the unseen world of righteousness and of Christ is eternal. If St. Paul’s confidence has been vindicated even by the immortality of his work on earth, how infinitely more must it have been vindicated in that world in which he enjoys the blessedness of the saints in light!

III. This passage has much helpful teaching for ourselves, especially for those enduring suffering or sorrow. The estimate we form of these will depend on what we fix the eye upon. Our trials may be in themselves anything but light. It would be wrong to shut our eyes to their significance even if we could do so. St. Paul not only realised his trials, but he often dwells on them, and weighs them one by one as very real.

(a) The change of feeling is great when we change our point of view—or, as the Apostle puts it, ‘while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are unseen.’ To the Christian who rises on the wings of faith above the pressure of what is close at hand, and thinks of the eternal, the sufferings of the present fall into their right place, and he will be able to say, however falteringly, ‘This is but for a moment; when I shall look back upon it all a thousand years hence it will appear like some passing trouble of infancy. It is also good to look at the magnitudes of existence in order to measure aright the value of our present aims and ambitions, and to consider what there is in them which will last. In that great future it will be of little consequence whether we are now rich or poor, famous or unknown. These are not the things which shall abide. But whether we are loving or selfish, pure or impure, serving God and our brother men or our own wills and our lusts and passions, these are the matters of real importance.

(b) It is only as we look upward and onward that our trials work for us ‘an exceeding weight of glory.’ Difficulty and trial have as little inherent power to benefit us as the wind has to benefit the ship; everything depends on the direction in which she is being steered; and whether the things of life shall work together for our good or not similarly depends on the objects we are following. They will work together for the highest good only when we love God, and are governed by the vision of the unseen and eternal.

(c) The encouragement these verses give for nobler living. The life of faith led by St. Paul ought to sound like a trumpet note stimulating to duty in an age when there are so many temptations to exchange the spiritual for the material.


(1) ‘It requires the power of the Holy Spirit to persuade the sensualist, the thoughtless trifler, the over-anxious man of business, that his pursuits are unsatisfactory and insufficient to make him happy, but there is one quality which pervades them all, which every one must acknowledge and feel to be true, they are short, they endure for a little while and then vanish away. Let this simple truth sink down into all your hearts, let the remembrance of it haunt your gayest and most thoughtless moments, and when you are eagerly pursuing your pleasures and feel your heart entwined with some earthly object, say within yourself: This is all but for a season, it is merely temporal; it may be agreeable to my earthly nature, but it may be taken from me in a moment, and then if I have loved these things that are seen, the things of this world, more than the things that are not seen, more than God and the truths of His religion, what will become of me, where shall I be?’

(2) ‘We do not admit that to live mainly for the unseen world is to inflict damage—upon the whole and in the long run—on man’s life in this. The case is in part parallel to that which many a parent encounters in the matter of education. The parent sometimes grudges the years that are spent at school and at college, when his boy might be earning his bread and perhaps doing something for the family. But if the boy is worth his salt the delay will justify itself. The larger cultivation of the mind will bring with it in due time its full reward—in wider views of life, in keener and more practised faculties, in a power of acting with and upon other men that could not otherwise have been secured.’



The familiarity of these words conceals their real boldness from us. They challenge our normal and unreflecting way of looking at life. The things which are seen, in the midst of which we live and move, seem to us to be vivid, substantial, real; the things which are unseen, of which we only catch rare visions, seem to be unsubstantial, unreal, illusive. Yet our deepest conscience tells us, when we think in quiet moments, that the converse is really true, that the things which are seen pass away, and that the things which are unseen endure. We know that we cannot rightly estimate human life and character in history by outward things, by visible successes, by actual results, but only by the witness which it gives to inward ideals. As to ourselves, our conscience tells us we must look, not without, but within. All my thought, all my struggle, all I could not be, all men ignored in me, is my worth to God. The one life which we know to have been true is that Life which sacrificed the things which were seen on the Cross of failure in loyal witness to the things which are unseen.

We all know of men and women who have lived, and of triumphs which have been won in the world which is seen; we know, too, of the sharing of toil and of effort of those who have themselves manifestly risen above their struggles, and it has been as if there had been a tranquil secret which had upheld and uplifted them, through their constant communion with the Unseen. Such lives are of unspeakable value; they preserve the truth of our travelling condition, that here ‘we have no abiding city.’ They have been helped from making the mistake, so pitifully natural, of surrendering to the claim of the visible present their birthright to the unseen eternal.

As the years pass we have the greater need of the great memory which is thus given to us. Let me point out three ways in which the legacy of good lives points to our particular need.

I. We have need of the profound sense of reverence.—Blinded by the development of material comforts, perplexed by the atmosphere of discussion and of controversy, it is hard to realise of this our life that from the great deep of God to the great deep of God it goes. It is a help to such a realisation to remember lives which were penetrated through and through with the self-abasing reverence of God.

II. We need the witness to the supreme fact of the Incarnation.—All over the world the ground is clearing for a great issue between a vague Christianity, warmed by admiration for Christ, and a Christianity which is to declare that in Him was God Almighty made manifest, and through Him man was raised to communion with God. In India and China, in lands of the past and of the future, Christianity is asked to part with the doctrine of the Incarnation. Just as in the fourth century when this attack was made, when the temptation assails the Church, it will be a help to many to remember that the greatest intellect of the nineteenth century [Mr. Gladstone] resolutely placed himself with Athanasius. It was the inspiration of his politics. His faith in the honour of humanity, in the truth and the justice of the instincts of the people, sprang from the Incarnation, and it was the inspiration of his personal life that through all his desires and ambitions there was the presence and the comradeship of God in Christ.

III. There is a third lesson, and that is the stern reality of sin.—‘What is the greatest need of the century?’ Mr. Gladstone was asked on one occasion. ‘The sense of sin,’ he replied. Unless there is the sense of sin, the whole edifice of redeeming grace, the home of so many deep and high expectations of the human race, dissolves into a dream. Man cannot long for a Saviour without he feels the need of a Saviour, unless he feels the sense of sin. We need to remember the necessity for a realisation of sin and of the need of pardon as being the primary essential in the things which are unseen.

Deep reverence, trust in the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, humble penitence, all springing up into the ardent joy of a real faith, this is the threefold message. May we thus learn ‘to look not on the things which are seen, but on the things which are unseen, which are eternal.’

—Archbishop Lang.



The world is divided apparently into two hostile camps. There are those whom we may call eternalists, and there are those whom we may call temporalists, and they say, ‘We never can meet. We must belong to either one camp or the other; we are enemies rather than friends and neighbours.’ And there is the mischief, there is where the harm has been done, and Christianity has been so much misunderstood, and people who do not see what we are making for have been given a distaste and a disrelish for the spiritual.

I. The profile of Christianity.

(a) The eternalists.—There are the eternalists. We cannot do without them. They have seen the unseen. They have had a secret whispered to them that has altered the whole tone and meaning of their life. They are very beautiful in their lives. They have seen something of the Christ, but it is a profile and Christianity is full-faced. Therefore, too, they lack something that the temporalist can and must teach them. They become unpractical because they do not see both sides of the face of Christianity. Living in the unseen, they remind us of what we should otherwise forget. God multiply their number exceedingly, only let them learn from looking at the other side of the face of Christianity. Christianity, like the Christ, is both Divine and human, and the temporalists have something that they have seen if they are in earnest, which is necessary, that the full-faced Christ may be embraced by the individual soul.

(b) The temporalists.—There are, of course, the temporalists who sneer at all that is unseen and eternal, that do not believe in the very existence of a clever Christian. The man who disbelieves and sneers at the unseen because it is unseen is scarcely worth dealing with. But there are hundreds of men and women who are facing the temporal who say, ‘God has placed me in the temporal; I have to get my living in the temporal. The seen, it is awful, it is close, it presses upon me. Does it all belong to man, does it all belong to evil?’ And to the temporalist we say in the name of Christianity, ‘Yes, you are right. You are living in the temporal. You have seen the profile of the Christ, you have seen one side of the face of Christianity, but there is more for you to see. There is something that you may learn from the eternalist, if only you will shake hands together and be friends instead of deadly foes.’

II. The full face of Christianity.—We say to both, ‘There is a third camp, a third position, and it is to be found in a full-faced Christianity. It is the Christianity of the Nicene Creed, that reminds us that God is the Maker of all things, visible and invisible, the temporal and the eternal, the seen and the unseen; that God loves the temporal; that at the Incarnation He threw His mantle over the seen and the earthly, the sphere of your life and of my life. God is the God of the streets as well as of the churches. God is the God of the present as well as of the future. The temporal and the eternal were never meant to be pitted one against the other, but the temporal is like a road leading to the eternal, and we must keep the road in good repair if we would ever get to our journey’s end.’ So, again, we would say to the eternalist, ‘Now, do not undervalue the temporal, do not frighten people away from religion and away from Christianity by underestimating the forces of the seen, the life that God has yoked you to live in.’ The temporal has an ethical value of its own, and we cannot afford to lose it. And to the temporalist we say this, ‘Look beyond.’ The temporal and the eternal are meant to be in apposition, not in opposition. The things that are seen and the things that are unseen both belong to God, and both find their place in a full-faced Christianity.

—Rev. Canon Holmes.


(1) ‘There was an old motto of Charles 5 that he was fond of in the latter part of his life as when he was in active work: Plus ultra, he would say, plus ultra, more beyond. There is more beyond the temporal, there is more beyond that which we can explain by the seen, by that which surrounds us. Plus ultra, we would say to you. Look at Christianity as a full-faced picture, both sides of the face, the eternal and the temporal, and your life will be full of meaning and it will be full of joy.’

(2) ‘This is what the English people of days gone by have set before us to-day as something to be aimed at. Take some great expression such as ‘the Court of St. James’s.’ You see how it combines the eternal and the temporal. There is the world at its height. There is the expenditure of money, of wealth, there is the Court; but there in that name we are reminded that it was held in a place dedicated to St. James, a place wherein was a hospital where lepers were cared for and tended. Still we keep the name, still must we keep the idea. Again, St. Stephen’s, Westminster. There is the House of Commons, there is the business of the nation transacted day by day as Parliament meets, but it is all on a spot where once there was a chapel which King Stephen dedicated to his namesake, the proto-martyr, St. Stephen, ever combining the eternal and the temporal. Or Americans may like to be reminded how their country, too, will ever preach the same lesson as the English nation preaches. Go back in thought to the day when Columbus discovered that new land. What is the first thing he does? He plants a wooden cross on the soil that he first pressed his foot upon, and there he kneels down and dedicates that new land to the holy Saviour, and in the name San Salvador, or “the holy Saviour,” you have the combination of an eternal truth with an earthly fact.’

Verse 18


‘While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen.’

2 Corinthians 4:18

The Apostle is here engaged with a matter of personal experience. He is explaining to his converts, as a true pastor will sometimes care to do, certain secrets of his activity, an activity in itself so exhausting, so wearing, nay, if we may use the word, so lacerating in its course of toils and sufferings, but which yet finds him always ready to go on.

I. Behind it, within it, was the secret of the Lord.—The veil of tired and suffering humanity concealed below it, beating with immortality, the Life of Jesus. And while the man felt ‘the things seen,’ and handled them, and sometimes endured and sometimes wonderfully used them, he saw, with the open eyes of the soul, not them but the things unseen, the things eternal, as the true landscape of his life. For this cause he did not faint. The outward man, he admits, was perishing, but it did not matter. The inward man, the pulse of the machine, was renewing day by day.

II. There is such a ‘secret of the Lord,’ and that it is for us to-day, if indeed we are His disciples. It is a talisman as potent in the twentieth century as in the first. Now as then the eternal Master claims our whole devotion, in whatever path it is to be shown. Now as then world, flesh, and devil cross that path at every turn, and make the Christian life not only difficult, but impossible, if we try to live it of ourselves. But now as then the oil of heaven is ready to run in from behind the wall. The life of Jesus, the living Lord dwelling in the heart, can still prove inexhaustible, victorious, in the mortal flesh. The things which are not seen can be still brought within the spirit’s sight, and then that which is impossible with man is, in man, found possible with God.

III. This is no poor plausible theory, fit for a reverie, annihilated by life.—Who has not known examples of it, modern as ourselves? There was the mother, given wholly to every duty of domestic love, yet wholly also instinct with the unearthly power of her beloved Saviour’s presence. There was the friend, alive to every problem of his period, practical and laborious in its service, yet for whom the mastering and empowering passion, elastic with eternal life, was always Jesus Christ. There was that other friend, put to fiery proof in the extremes of pain and weakness, yet still lifted by an unseen embrace above them, calm to the end, and cheerful, and full of thought for others, and all because the Lord was with him, and was in him; so he would affirm with indescribable simplicity and joy.

IV. The facts of conquering faith are no antiquarian study.—The living specimens of the immortal race are all around us. The life of Jesus and the things unseen are modern as well as ancient, contemporary always, because they are eternal; ‘the same yesterday, and to-day, and for ever.’ And for us all at our baptism it was prayed that those forces might be our own. It was asked, and the Cross sealed the prayer upon our brows, not that we might walk in a vain shadow of the Christian life, but that we might have power and strength to have victory, and might triumph, against the devil, the world, and the flesh.

Bishop H. C. G. Moule.


‘The Apostle’s life might be illustrated by that remarkable scene in the Pilgrim’s Progress where the Interpreter, in his house of parables, takes the Traveller in to watch the fire which burns on ever brighter under difficulties. There is the glowing hearth, always more alive with flame. Yet in front of it stands one who continually casts water on the heat, to put it out. Christian is much perplexed. Then his host leads him round behind the wall, and lo! another Agent is at work there, pouring through a secret channel oil into the fire; and the paradox is explained. So it was with the Apostle’s life, and the forces which threatened hard to bear it down.’


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Bibliography Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 4:4". Church Pulpit Commentary. 1876.

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