Paul Improvising Jesus’ Death

Paul speaks of his cruciform ministry as a performance of the death of Jesus in 2 Corinthians 4.  In a rhetorically beautiful passage, Paul dwells on the paradox of inhabiting a broken creation while being sustained by the God of all creation.

Paul and his ministry partners “do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:5).  He then describes how the treasure of the gospel proclamation is contained in pots designed for human refuse:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you (2 Cor. 4:7-12).

Paul embodies the death of Jesus, carrying himself in such ways that re-perform the very dying of Jesus, his life-long march to the cross.

In his postures toward others each day, in his personal presence, in all his relationships, Paul does not seek to further his own interests, to manipulate others, or use privileges to his own advantage.  His life is a participation in the self-giving love of Jesus.

Because of this approach, God is also at work to make manifest in Paul the very life of Jesus.  According to the logic of cruciformity, the resurrection-powered presence of the risen Jesus is unleashed wherever there are improvisations of Jesus’ dying.

Wherever there is self-expenditure after the pattern of Jesus, God pours out resurrection power.  This reality happens both in Paul and among those to whom he ministers (v. 12).

Not only this, however, but participation in the self-expending life of Jesus now, which involves suffering and servant-hood, works to guarantee participation in the future resurrection and eternal life.  This is the dynamic to which Paul refers in the paragraph that follows in 2 Corinthians:

It is written: “I believed; therefore I have spoken.” Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself. All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God. Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Cor. 4:13-18).

We live lives of service and self-sacrificial love for others, therefore, not out of duty or reluctant obligation.  We put into practice small acts of selflessness because of the promise attached to that way of life.  And, astonishingly, we find that when we love and serve others, our hearts are flooded with profound joy and satisfaction.  That’s how God by his Spirit empowers us—overwhelming us with resurrection power.  Indeed, the joy of the Lord is our strength.


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