In Paul's absence from the city of Corinth persuasive religious leaders were infiltrating the fledgling church to turn the believers from a grace based faith to religion rooted in legalism. The message that Paul had preached to them was one of life and joy. However, to those who manipulate others by enforcement of rules, Paul's message was not so well received.
"To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life." II Corinthians 2:16a
Those who had come to destroy the message of grace delivered by Paul began by being critical of the meesenger, not the message. There was a kind of prosperity gospel evident even in the first century. Surely if a man were in line with God then he would prosper in his physical and spiritual life. So these men listed a number of evidences against Paul based upon his trials. Paul addressed these in his letter to the church we call II Corinthians.
"For we do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, of our trouble which came to us in Asia." 1:8
"Yes we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead, who delivered us from so great a death, and does deliver us; in whom we trust that He will still deliver us." 1:9
Evidently Paul's close calls with death and his many trials were used by the legalists to show God's seeming disapproval of his message. I can imagine them saying, "You know a person gets just what he deserves." However, Paul responds that he gets along with simplicity and "the grace of God." 1:12 The willingness of the Corinthian believers to even entertain such thoughts caused Paul to get hot under the collar. He knew that he could best restrain his words by writing to them instead of a personal visit. "Moreover I call God as witness against my soul, that to spare you I came no more to Corinth." 1:23
In light of such opposition Paul had to remind himself not to quit. He had been given a ministry of grace. It was a unique and unheard of message. Religion up until then had been all about keeping rules. So he writes to them, "since we have this ministry, as we have recived mercy, we do not lose heart." (4:1) It is easy to get discouraged when you are personally being attacked for a message that brings life and hope into people's lives. This is just the opposite of what the enemy wants to happen. Satan's desire is that we tire of trying to keep religious rules and eventually throw in the towel. And if he can discourage enough listeners from hearing, then he may be able to get the messenger to quit too. That's why Paul has to repeat again, "Therfore we do not lose heart." (4:16)
Here's the issue with me. I believe 100% in grace. I also know that I am constantly tempted to do wrong. So while I am regularly claiming the promise of grace (where sin abounds, grace much more abounds) I am also getting discouraged with my many failures. (Raise your hand out there if you can identify with me. I see those hands.) So I slip from grace and begin to establish some rules for me to follow thinking I'll feel better after a few days of "living right." I usually set the bar pretty low. I don't want to add to much legalism to grace after all. One such an attempt was to I set a reminder on my phone at a particular time each morning to read the Bible. For the first few days it was a real blessing. I truly felt spiritual. Then after a few spiritual mornings the reminder on my phone just became an annoying reminder how I missed yesterdays Bible reading and now I have to read twice as much just to remain spiritual. Somewhere mid second week the Bible app on my phone became a daily reminder of how non-spiritual I was. By the third week I had deleted the app from my phone. So what did I accomplish? Let's look at my rationale. I tried to establish some rules when I felt I needed to give grace a hand. When I failed to keep the rules I became angry at myself and then at the reminder on my phone. I ended up being more dis-satisfied with my spiritual well being and more frustrated with my faith. (Anyone else got a few Bible apps hovering on the cloud after being booted off your homescreen?)
So what is the answer? More rules? Stricter rules? Giving up? Paul has the answer. "But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us!" (4:7) (exclamation point mine) Pauls outward ordeals may have been the basis of his detractors arguments against his message, but it was evidence to him that His message was legit. We are all just "earthen vessels" (jars of clay.) We leak. We tip over. We need cleaning and repair. But our worth is not basen on this vessel, but our value is the treasure that God has poured inside of us! PTL Just as the legitimacy of Pauls message of grace could not be evaluated on his outward circumstances, our spiritual walk cannot be measured by the number of religious things we do. We can never match His grace toward us with our worthiness. We will not be worthy. We will never be worthy. Our body is perishing because of sin. Grace is bringing our spirit, who we really are, more in touch with Christ. So keep your chin up. We're in this thing together.
"Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day." 4:16