2 Corinthians 4:16-18
Eternal Weight of Glory
My belly lightly chortled when I recently saw the following bumper sticker: “But did you die?” Many thoughts flooded my mind when I read that, the first of which being that of a child overreacting to a minor conflict (“He stood where I was standing!”), and the parent helping the child to see that such a reaction was wholly unnecessary (“Son, is throwing yourself on the floor the proper reaction?”). I suppose that the sticker’s intent is to humorously bring the sufferer back to reality: you’re still alive, so can your problem really be all that bad? This mindset is analogous to what Paul does in vv. 16-18, though the analogy is imperfect, and the difference will be worthy of a biblical analysis.
What the bumper sticker gets right is the downplaying of our suffering. Yes, you read that correctly. In these few verses, Paul downplays our suffering. He minimizes it. But he doesn’t minimize it by denying it. He calls it what it is: affliction (v. 17). Our “outer man” is wasting away (v. 16). Back in v. 12, he speaks about death being at work in him. You’ll recall that Paul begins this letter even by telling the Corinthians that he was so beset by affliction that he thought he had been judged to death (1:8-9). That doesn’t sound good at all. Our physical bodies, however new, strong, healthy, and well-exercised, are wasting away. As soon as a baby is conceived in his mother’s womb, the clock of life starts ticking. As the glory on Moses’ face began to fade when he departed the Lord’s presence, so too our life on earth begins to pass away as quickly as it starts. Tic-toc, tic-toc. That’s a life of affliction, and we’d be wrong to deny the real pain we experience as humans and as followers of Christ.
Then where’s Paul’s downplaying of affliction? In his adjectives “light” and “momentary” (v. 17). Before you object and say, “Paul, you don’t know my suffering and ALL that I have endured up to this point!” be reminded that this Paul is not writing from an ivory tower. He’s been schooled in the life of hard knocks, you might say. Here’s a man who recounts the significant sufferings he’s undergone in chapter 11: many imprisonments, so many near-death beatings he can’t count them all, flogged five times by his ethnic people, stoned, shipwrecked thrice, adrift at sea a whole day, in danger from robbers, Jews, Gentiles, rivers, wilderness, seas, cities, and false brothers. Does that sound like a man who stoically denies affliction, or like one who doesn’t intimately know suffering?
Still, here’s a man who has suffered beyond our measure that can say, “All this suffering is light and momentary.” Wow. Is that how you describe all the pain in your life? Labor and delivery: light and momentary? Shot on the battlefield: light and momentary? Verbally hated for standing against child-murder in front of a Planned Parenthood: light and momentary? Getting punched in the face for preaching the gospel on a university campus: light and momentary? Not your experience (because you’re alive), but being burned at the stake for your commitment to justification by grace alone through faith alone: light and momentary? Yet Paul says that the affliction is light. It is easy to bear. The word Paul uses for “light” (ἐλαφρός/elaphros) is used only one other time in the NT. You guessed it: when Jesus said, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:30). The pain, like the yoke of Christ, can be handled by the Spirit-given grace of God. This affliction is also momentary. The idea behind this word (παραυτίκα/parautika) is that it describes an on-the-spot, in-the-moment pain. Kind of like a stubbed toe, actually. The pain is immediate but not everlasting. It hurts for the moment, and you can endure the pain. The pain doesn’t last long, and when that pain is viewed in the light of your other suffering, you’d probably wish for more stubbed toes if that meant a reduction of other, more serious pain in your life.
Likewise, when viewed from eternity, which is what Paul has in mind in these verses and at the start of chapter 5, this present, earthly life (along with all its affliction) is quite literally “momentary.” It’s not going to last long comparatively. And when viewed in the light of the weight of glory, you can endure the present pain. Let’s use an analogy that Paul gives in another context. Remember that in chapter 3, Paul downplays the Old Covenant and its mediator, Moses. That was a bold minimalization, right, especially coming from the best Jew (aside from Jesus, of course) of the first century? And that downplaying of the Old Covenant and Moses was based on the Christological termination of both (however glorious they were) in the light of the realities and the explicitly Christ-full ministry of the New Covenant. Using that as an analogy, we can say that our affliction has been downplayed and eclipsed by the dazzling refulgence of our awaiting glory-weight. What awaits us quite literally pales in comparison to our present pain, because the glory we’re being prepared for is beyond all comparison (v. 17). We’d be hard-pressed to compare how good it will be to how good and bad we have it now. O Lord, come!
Revisiting the bumper sticker, it appears that since every affliction short of death still means life for the afflicted, one needn’t worry too much. That’s the downplaying of our pain. But here’s where the bumper sticker breaks down. The underlying worldview of the sticker is that death is the final brush stroke on the canvas of a person’s life, the last sentence in the final chapter of her life: “And she died.” But, of course, from this viewpoint, death is the worst a person can get. It means that the only thing to fear is death itself. However, to that mindset the Christian, following Paul here, ought to object. What if that sufferer does die? That’s likely, isn’t it? What could the author of the bumper sticker say in reply? Nothing of consequence or of hope, to be sure, as the dead sufferer, were he paradoxically alive, would rightly object, “But I DID die! What now, O Bumper Sticker, can you say about my suffering?” (All this talk about a bumper sticker may seem unwarranted or strange. However, even bumper stickers promote worldviews worthy of analysis.) And what Paul is saying is that death is not the end of it all. It is not to be feared. In fact, as we get closer to death, as our bodies waste away, as our outer man is buffeted by the pains of the world, this very process is used by God to prepare us for glory, for eternity (vv. 17-18).
Two paragraphs ago I mentioned the glory that awaits us, but I didn’t specify the nature of that glory. What is this eternal weight of glory? Put simply but profoundly, it is our consummate glorification when we are given new, resurrected bodies at the visible return of Christ, the firstfruits of the resurrection. Connect the logical dots from chapters 3 to 5. In 4:4 Paul says that Christ is the Image of God immediately after mentioning the glory of Christ: notice the link between glory, image, and Christ. Back in 3:18, Paul tells us that we are reflecting that glory-image as we are being transformed into it from one degree of glory to another. Then in chapter 5, Paul, still carrying on his thought from the end of chapter 4, encourages our hearts with the knowledge of the eternal building, a heavenly dwelling, with which God will clothe us (5:1-5). That God clothes us assumes a naked body in need of clothing (5:3). What else could this clothing be but our very body-soul glorification? What is this glorification? It is the consummate creaturely glory-reflection in both body and spirit of the resurrected Image of the glory of God, Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:29; 1 John 3:2). And that is our eternal weight of glory.
All this is why Paul can say, “So we do not lose heart” (v. 16) when he considers his affliction. This is why our inner man is being renewed daily while the outer is failing. This is how we can compare an entire lifespan of pain to the fleeting discomfort of a stubbed toe. This is how we can say that our heaviest, most burdensome, worst sufferings collected amount to a lightness of affliction in the face of the weightiest weight of an eternal glory. Our God with his glory-promise is beyond all comparison.