Ours the Cross, the Grave, the Skies
Today is a good morning. This is a morning where Christians all over the world remember the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. On this day we remember that Jesus, who was really dead, really came back from the dead. That morning in the tomb a still heart started beating, lifeless lungs started breathing, and a man who a minute before was lifeless stood up and walked out of his own grave.
The resurrection of Jesus was God’s way of overturning the guilty verdict that had been heaped on Jesus. As he hung on the cross, Jesus appeared to be cursed by God. In fact, he was bearing our curse. But in raising Him from the dead, the Father declared that Jesus was righteous and innocent and that He was indeed the Son of God (Romans 1:4).
And in rising from the dead, Jesus brought forward into history the great end-times resurrection that had been promised since the days of Daniel. Many of the Jews of Jesus’ day had no problem with the idea of a resurrection. They knew from Daniel 12:2 that at the time of the end, “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake.” They expected an end-times resurrection.
And Jesus rising from the dead meant that the end times are upon us. The end times resurrection had begun. That’s the meaning of 1 Corinthians 15:20: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). Like the first ripe stalk of grain before a great harvest, Jesus is the firstfruits of a great resurrection that is to come.
And so at this time of year we remember these things. We remember the truth that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, and that whoever believes in him, though they die, yet shall they live, and everyone who lives and believes in him shall never die (John 11:25–26).
The death and resurrection of Jesus re-writes the script for all who believe. He died so that we don’t have to.
But that’s not quite the full picture, is it?
Is it just that Jesus died so that we don’t have to, and rose again so that life would be the only thing we would ever experience?
Is it not also true that Jesus died and rose again so that we could also die and rise again as we follow Him.
Isn’t that what Jesus said in Matthew 16? Right after telling them that “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised,” Jesus “told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’” (Matthew 16:21, 24).
In other words, He did not just die instead of us. From another angle, from another perspective, He died and rose again so that we could also die and rise again with Him.
1 Peter, which we’re hoping to preach through in the fall, captures both of these truths. 1 Peter 3:18 says, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). There’s Jesus dying as our substitute, instead of us.
But a chapter earlier, Peter also wrote, “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21). There’s Jesus dying as our example, calling us to follow as we suffer and endure with him.
And the promise is that as we die with Christ in this life, so we also get to taste the power of the resurrection in this life. And that’s the truth we’re going to unpack and celebrate together from 2 Corinthians chapter 4.
Right before we get there, I wonder if anyone is thinking, “Is this really a good theme for an Easter sermon? Shouldn’t we be just be focusing on the resurrection of Jesus for us, and that’s it?” And I would respond by saying that what we are going to be looking at this morning one of the most important ways that you and I can experience the resurrection today.
And it’s a truth that some of the great resurrection songs have celebrated. Think of the fourth verse of Charles Wesley’s great resurrection hymn, which says “Soar we now where Christ has led / Following our exalted Head / Made like him, like him we rise / Ours the cross, the grave, the skies.”
Or the song we sang earlier this morning, which said “Once bound by fear now bold in faith, they preached the truth and power of grace, and pouring out their lives they gained life, life everlasting.”
I would say this truth is even pointed to right there in the chorus of “Christ Arose,” which says that “He lives forever with his saints to reign.” And who are the saints who will reign with him? 2 Timothy 2:11-12: “The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him.”
So the truth of us experiencing the death and resurrection of Jesus in our lives today is embedded right into the truth of the resurrection and the church’s celebration of it.
And this truth is unpacked for us in a wonderful way by that Scripture we just read together from 2 Corinthians 4.
The Light of the Gospel
2 Corinthians 4 comes in the context of the Apostle Paul explaining and defending his ministry to the church in Corinth. Paul was under attack from a group of fake apostles who were attacking him and his ministry and his message. And so the Corinthians were wrestling with questions like, if Paul’s gospel is so great, why do so many people not want to hear it? If Paul’s gospel is so great, why is Paul’s life so hard? If Paul’s gospel is so great, why is Paul so weak?
In the first part of chapter 4, he’s been answering that first question. If the gospel is so great, why do so many reject it? Is it because there’s something wrong with Paul or the message he preaches? Not at all. Verse 4: “In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4).
There’s nothing wrong with Paul or the gospel he preaches. It’s that Satan is getting in the way and blinding people’s minds to the truth. But even then, Satan’s power is not ultimate. God can overpower the spiritual darkness just like He overpowered darkness at the dawn of creation. Verse 6: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
God is doing miracles through Paul’s ministry, shining the light of the gospel into hard and dark hearts as often as He chooses.
Jars of Clay
But still, if this is true and the gospel is so glorious, why is Paul’s life so hard? Why is Paul so weak? And that question gets answered beginning in verse 7. “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7). God deliberately causes His glorious gospel to be carried by weak and suffering messengers so that everybody will know that the power belongs to God and not to the messengers.
What does it look like to be a “jar of clay,” to be a weak messenger for a powerful gospel? Verse 8: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;” (2 Corinthians 4:8–9).
What an incredible paradox. Just think of the first half of those statements all piled together: “afflicted in every way, perplexed, persecuted, struck down.” What does that sound like? That sounds like death.
What happens if you take the second half of those phrases together? “Not crushed, not driven to despair, not forsaken, not destroyed.” That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? That sounds like life. It sounds like Paul’s experience is this mixture of life and death walking hand-in-hand together, doesn’t it?
And that’s not a coincidence. That’s exactly what he explains in the next verses. Death and life are both at work in and through him because as He preaches a gospel about a crucified and resurrected Lord, he experiences both the dying and the resurrection of Jesus in his own life. He tastes and experiences and reenacts the very things he gets to proclaim.
Death At Work
This is the point he makes three three times over in three different ways in verses 10, 11, and 12. In each of these verses he basically says the same thing with a slight variation to help us understand the way that death and life are at work in and through him.
Let’s start with the first half of each of these verses. Verse 10 says that he was “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus” (2 Corinthians 4:10).
The death of Jesus is not just a message on his mouth—it’s an experience he embodies. You might wonder what that looked like, and the answer is just what he had been describing in verse 8: he was afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down.
He gets even more specific in chapter 11 when he lists out in detail what this included. Starting in verse 23, he describes his life of “imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure” (2 Corinthians 11:23–27).
That’s what it looked like for him to carry in his body the death of Jesus. And we could take it even further than that. Like Jesus on Good Friday, Paul was abandoned by his closest friends (2 Timothy 1:15, 4:10). Like Jesus before the high priests, Paul was slandered and lied about and had the worst assumed about him.
In 6:9-10 he describes his life “through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.”
In addition to the physical pain, He tasted emotional and relational and reputational pain that must have felt like death. His whole ministry was one slow death, each day a fresh taste of death. As he said in 1 Corinthians 15:31, “I die every day!”
So let’s ask an important question: what makes all of this qualify as “the death of Jesus”? That’s what he said in verse 10: “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus.” Why does he say that all of this pain and death he experienced was “the death of Jesus” and just not his own death?
The reason is that all of this pain and suffering he experienced for Jesus as he laboured to serve others in Jesus’ name. That’s what he explains in the beginning of verse 11: “For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake.” There it is. Just like Jesus was delivered over to be killed, so Paul is “given over” to death, for Jesus’ sake. He was working for Jesus’ sake. He was hated by people for Jesus’ sake. He was near death all the time for Jesus’ sake.
In other words he was experiencing exactly what Jesus promised. Remember Matthew 10:22, where our Lord said “you will be hated by all for my name’s sake”? Or John 15:20: “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you”? Paul was suffering the things that Jesus suffered, because of his faithfulness and loyalty to Jesus.
Back in 2 Corinthians 4, verse 12 rounds out this picture when it says, “So death is at work in us.” Every day, he felt death doing its work as he laboured on for the sake of Jesus and the gospel. Luke he’ll say in verse 16, his outer man was wasting away. Death was at work in him.
Paul’s life felt like a series of Good Fridays, maybe even one big Good Friday, as he picked up his cross and followed Jesus.
Life At Work
But that’s not the whole picture, is it? We’ve only considered the first half of these verses. What truths do we discover in the second halves? Consider verse 10: “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (2 Corinthians 4:10). Verse 11 ends with almost the same words: “…so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our mortal flesh.”
Death was only half of the picture. As he tasted Jesus’ death, he also got to taste Jesus’ resurrection life.
And this is why we’re studying these verses this morning. These verses show us that the resurrection isn’t just an event that happened in history that won’t mean anything for us until we die someday. For Paul, the resurrection was a here-and-now, every-day experience. He tasted the resurrection life of Jesus in His body.
Well, what is that talking about? What does he mean by that?
Is he talking about the way that the resurrection power of Jesus has caused us who believe to be born again and walking new life in Christ? That’s what he describes in Ephesians 1 and 2, but that doesn’t seem to be what he’s talking about here.
Is he talking about the way that the resurrection power of Jesus helps us who have been born again to live holy and righteous and loving lives like Jesus? That’s what he describes in Romans 6 and 7, but that doesn’t seem to be what he’s talking about here.
What he seems to be talking about here is the resurrection power of Jesus that enables him to keep going in ministry in spite of his almost unstoppable suffering. I mean, don’t you just read that list in chapter 11 and think, “how does any human survive all of that and keep on going?”
The answer is found in 1 Timothy 1:12: “I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord.” The power of the resurrected Lord Jesus sustained him through His suffering to keep pressing on for the sake of Christ.
And we can see this power working on two levels. First, the risen Jesus Jesus actually supernaturally empowered Paul at a physical level to keep going past his physical limits. “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” he says in 1 Corinthians 15:10.
On the other hand, we see the resurrected Jesus bringing rejuvenating life to Paul’s inner man, so that even when his body was crumbling, he did not loose heart. “…Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16).
You’ve met people like that, who are stuck in a chair or a hospital bed but glow with the life of the resurrected Jesus. And in these ways, and perhaps more that we haven’t thought about here, Paul tasted the life of Jesus in his life, here and now.
This is what it means, or at least a part of what it means, when verses 10 and 11 speak about the life of Jesus at work in his mortal body.
But what about verse 12? Is he changing the subject there when he says “So death is at work in us, but life in you” (2 Corinthians 4:12)? In verses 10 and 11 he said that Christ’s life was at work in him. And then, verse 12, he says life is at work in them.
I don’t think that’s a change of subject, because the resurrection power at work in him was for them. Verse 15 puts it this way: “for it is all for your sake.” The resurrection life that Paul experienced was not just so that he could enjoy his best life now. The resurrection power of Jesus sustained him through hardship so that he could press on in ministry to help more and more people connect with the resurrected Jesus.
Every ounce of strength and power that Paul received from the risen Lord Jesus he re-invested back into living Christ and loving His people. That’s what his life was for. So whatever he received was for them (See 2 Corinthians 1:5-7).
Death and life. All for Christ, through Christ, and for Christ and His people.
That was the cycle of Paul’s life. If you read through Acts or read through the epistles you can see this pattern of death and resurrection. Arrested and beaten in Philippi, but the jailer and his family come to know the Lord (Acts 16:16-34). Chained up in Rome, all the imperial guards learn about Christ (Philippians 1:12-14). Death and resurrection, over and over again.
Eventually, though, the cycle ended. Caesar had Paul put to death with the sword. Paul finally experienced real, absolute, final death for the sake of Christ.
But was that the end of the cycle? Did death finally win? Of course not. For Paul, to live was Christ and to die was gain because then he got to be with Christ in the place where he is (Philippians 1:21-23). But even that wasn’t the end of the cycle. Even now, Paul is still awaiting the final resurrection, where life will finally win once and for all.
Look down at verse 14, where Paul speaks about “knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence” (2 Corinthians 4:14). That’s the final hope. Not just tastes of resurrection power in this life, but actual, literal resurrection. Actually raised from the dead at the last trumpet, actually given a new, resurrected body just like Jesus got on Easter Sunday, actually with Jesus and like Jesus forever.
And that’s the hope that kept Paul going. You can imagine he was grateful to receive these tastes and experiences of Christ’s resurrection power here in this life. But we know that his hope was set on something even greater. He really believed that just as Christ came alive out of his own grave, so would Paul. Life would win. Glory would win. And this kept him from losing heart as he tasted death again and again.
As he said in verse 16 and following, “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16–18).
All this suffering, the shipwrecks and the stonings and the slanders and the sword that finally ended his life, it’s all transient. A little blip that will soon be swallowed up into an eternity of weighty glory (see also Hebrews 12:2).
So let’s take a breath and sum all of this up: Jesus is alive, reigning in glory, and if you are his, that’s your destiny. But, just like it was with Christ, that glory and resurrection life lie on the other side of death.
One day, we’ll experience that in a full and final way as we literally die, go to be with Christ, and then together with all the waiting saints are literally resurrected on that great day that’s coming.
But until then, we get to live lives shaped by both life and death as we love Jesus and love his people. We carry around His death in these bodies, so that we might also carry around His life in these bodies. We walk through life with one foot planted in Good Friday, and another foot planted in Easter Sunday, until the day when life finally wins.
Living This Out
Here’s why I find this vision of the Christian life so helpful and so hopeful.
First of all, it helps make sense of just how hard it can be to serve the Lord and love His people. Think of how tough it can be to surrender our rights. To care for difficult people. To love people who don’t show us any love in return. To try to share Jesus with people who don’t care, and actually punish us for trying to invite them into eternal life.
To pour ourselves out for people who turn around and stab us in the back. To open up our lives and our homes and our hearts again and again and again when we’re just so tired. To say yes to Jesus one more time when we just want to give up. Or just all of the many pains and inconveniences and moments of surrenders as we lay down our schedules and our preferences for the sake of Christ and His body.
It can feel like death.
But in that death, we taste life. And not just as some idea floating out there somewhere. 2,000 years ago Jesus Christ rose from the dead. And that living Jesus empowers His people for lives of love and service. He can sustain our bodies when our physical reserves just aren’t going to cut it.
And He can renew our inner selves with His presence so that we can press on with joy as we love him and His people—even when our bodies are falling apart.
I love this vision and how it brings the resurrection of Jesus from “back there somewhere” right into the here and now. Every day gets to be Resurrection Day in your heart as the Holy Spirit brings you right into contact with the power and the presence of the risen Lord.
Now, there’s one final question we want to ask as we end: how does this actually happen? Does this all just happen automatically, or are there means or ways that God has in place for these ends to actually happen?
For an answer, we can look up at verse 18 of chapter 3: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”
The Holy Spirit works this inner transformation in us as we behold His glory. And how do we do that? Where do we do that? Where do we see His glory?
The answer to that is the spot where we started in this chapter: Verse 4, and “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4).
It’s the gospel that shows us the glory of God in Christ, the son of Abraham, son of David, crucified for our transgressions, buried and raised on the third day by the power of God, reigning over the universe, saving all who come to him by faith, returning soon to gather together His church and reign forevermore.
That’s why we’ve been doing what we’ve been doing this morning, and why we do this every week. This is a supernatural event where our souls feast on the gospel of Christ crucified and risen, and we see his glory, and we encounter His resurrection power. And we’re transformed by His spirit to be strengthened for lives of sacrificial love for Him and His church.
And I hope this isn’t the last time you’ll encounter Jesus before we meet again next week. I hope that you’re regularly seeking Him in His word, encouraging one another in your small groups and other conversations, reminding each other of the gospel and helping each other encounter the risen Christ. We are his body, after all. We are His temple. Jesus is here by His spirit.
And as we end now, let’s pray for His strength to sustain us, and to help us help each other, for another week of death and life for Jesus’ sake.