Always Dying, Always Living
2 Corinthians 4:10-12
May 18, 2010
“What a privilege to live for our Lord and to die for Him as well.”
That’s what Mehdi Dibaj wrote to his son from his Iranian jail. Raised in a Muslim family, Mehdi Dibaj became a Christian in the 1950s, later becoming a pastor. In 1983 he was arrested and charged with apostasy for leaving Islam and becoming a Christian. Imprisoned without a trial, he was held in solitary confinement for two years and systematically tortured. He ended up serving almost ten years in prison.
When he finally came to trial in December 1993, he declared, “I am not only satisfied to be in prison for the honor of His Holy Name, but am ready to give my life for the sake of Jesus my Lord.” Soon he was sentenced to execution. The sentence would have been carried out except for the intervention of Haik Hovsepian, the leader of evangelical Christians in Iran. Risking his own life, Bishop Hovsepian launched an international campaign for the sentence against Mehdi Dibaj to be overturned. In January 1994 Dibaj was released from prison a few days before his execution date. Soon after that Bishop Hovsepian disappeared. Twelve days later his corpse was identified by his son. The body had been stabbed 26 times.
For the next few months Mehdi Dibaj traveled across Iran, encouraging fellow believers and preaching the gospel of Jesus. On June 24, 1994 he was abducted. On July 5, 1994 his body was found in a park in West Tehran.
Now I quote from an article called The Church in Iran:
More Iranians have become Christians after the 1979 both inside Iran and among the Diaspora than at any other time in Iran’s history since the Muslim invasions of the 7th century.
Much of this growth has been experienced by the Assemblies of God and the Presbyterian Churches. There has also been a major upsurge of house churches who meet underground. The estimated number of Protestant Christians who meet in buildings is several thousand; nobody knows the exact number of underground Christians, but there are at least ten different networks. Most of these home churches grow by the Gospel spreading through extended families. There is also evidence that there are numerous secret believers throughout the country.
One man dies, another man dies, the gospel spreads, the church grows.
This is nothing new.
Jesus spoke about this in John 12:24 when he said, “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”
One seed is planted, then it dies.
From its death, a vast harvest grows.
We all love the harvest. It’s the dying that gives us pause. It helps to remember that when Jesus spoke those words, he was talking about his own death. As Isaiah 53:11 (KJV) says, he shall see the travail of his soul and be satisfied. Out of his death came forth many “seeds,” millions and millions of them, sprouting up into eternal life so that twenty centuries later the worldwide Christian community numbers over two billion.
One man dies. Seeds arise. The Word spreads.
Thus the pattern is set for all the followers of Jesus.
In that same passage Jesus spelled it out very clearly: “The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25).
How much do you love your own life? Pastor Dibaj answered clearly when he said, “What a privilege to live for our Lord and to die for Him as well.” Could we say the same thing?
We all love the harvest. It’s the dying that gives us pause.
And that brings us to the words of 2 Corinthians 4:10-12.
“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 be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.”
The word “always” seems to stand out in these verses like a flashing red light meant to stop us in our tracks. Twice Paul says “always,” both times referring to our daily Christian experience. Let’s start right there and see if we can trace Paul’s argument so that we can discover what it means for us today.
I. We Are Always Dying.
There is a sense in which those words apply to the whole human race. We are born saying “hello” and then we spend the next 40 or 50 or 60 or 70 or 80 years saying “goodbye.” Eventually the undertaker catches up with all of us. Every cemetery bears silent witness to the fact that one day we all will die. As someone has noted, the statistics on death are overwhelming. One out of every one person dies. We can’t escape that even though we do our best to avoid the reality.
But that profound truth, important as it is, does not go the heart of what Paul means in these verses. When Paul talks about death, he’s thinking first of the death Jesus died on the cross. The Greek text in verse 10 literally reads, “the dying of the Lord Jesus.” Paul does not say, “I bear in my body the death of the Lord Jesus,” but rather “I bear in my body the dying of the Lord Jesus.” He’s talking about the process that led to the death of Jesus. Professor James Denney of Scotland explains it this way:
The sufferings which come upon him daily in his work for Jesus are gradually killing him; the pains, the perils, the spiritual pressure, the excitement of danger and the excitement of deliverance, are wearing out his strength, and soon he must die.
Eventually the undertaker catches up with all of us.
II. We Are Always Living.
It seems like a contradiction, and to the world it makes no sense at all. The Christian lives and dies at the same time. While he is dying, he is living. Only it is the life of Jesus living in him. This is precisely the sort of supernatural reality that outsiders simply cannot understand. And ironically, the more Paul dies, the more he lives because Christ lives in him. What exactly does he mean by this? I think the answer comes in the twice-repeated word “body.”
It is the body that slowly dies.
It is in the dying body that the life of Christ is clearly seen.
When Clarence Jordan wrote his “Cotton Patch” version of 2 Corinthians, he gave us this wonderful paraphrase of verse 11:
We who live for Jesus always flirt with death, in order that Jesus’ life may be all the more evident in our fragile flesh.
The Christian lives and dies at the same time.
That’s good, isn’t it? We “flirt with death” so that Jesus’ life can be seen in our “fragile flesh.” I think that catches the sense of Paul’s message. Paul meant this quite literally. Later on in 2 Corinthians 11:24-27 he gives us a list of some of the things he had endured in his ministry:
Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.
Three times I was beaten with rods,
Once I was stoned,
Three times I was shipwrecked,
I spent a night and a day in the open sea,
I have been constantly on the move.
I have been in danger from rivers,
In danger from bandits,
In danger from my own countrymen,
In danger from Gentiles;
In danger in the city,
In danger in the country,
In danger at sea;
And in danger from false brothers.
I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep;
I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food;
I have been cold and naked.
We “flirt with death” so that Jesus’ life can be seen in our “fragile flesh.”
So I have just one question. What makes a man keep going under those pressures? Why doesn’t he just give up, call it a day, and find another way to make a living? Did he have some sort of stoic resolve? Did he have a martyr complex? Was he a John Wayne-type who never gave up? Paul’s answer is simple and profound:
“I survived all that because Christ was living in my mortal body.”
Now you may make of that what you will. Perhaps it doesn’t seem real to you. I can see why some people would think that. Paul doesn’t feel the need to prove himself to anyone else. He just states the fact and says, “It’s not me-it’s Christ at work in me.”
III. We Always Die So That Others May Always Live.
There is one more part to this puzzle and then the picture will be complete. It’s not as if Paul takes pleasure in what he suffered and counts it as a badge of honor. He’s not bragging on himself at all. But he does mean to say that what had happened to him had happened for a reason so that through those hardships the life of Jesus might be clearly seen in him. That’s a startling thought.
The beatings were necessary.
The shipwrecks were necessary.
The unending opposition was necessary.
The sleepless nights were necessary.
The hunger was necessary.
The hatred by others was necessary.
The danger day in and day out was necessary.
The mind-numbing cold was necessary.
The shipwrecks were necessary.
It’s one thing to look at a heartbreaking circumstance and say, “God must have a purpose in this even though I don’t see it right now.” We have all been there, some of us are there right now, and we will all be there again in the future. It’s a good thing to affirm our confidence in God’s providence through our tears. But Paul goes much further than that. He affirms that the worst things that happened to him happened with the express purpose of demonstrating to the world the living power of Christ.
Unless someone dies, there can be no resurrection.
The empty tomb means nothing without the cross to provide the dead body.
At this point Paul expands his thought by adding a key phrase: “Life is at work in you.” We might call this the “evangelistic” purpose behind our sufferings. The NLT catches the idea with these words, “We live in the face of death, but this has resulted in eternal life for you.”
“I’m dying but you’re living.”
“My dying is worth it to bring you the gospel.”
We can understand this better if we go back to Paul’s own words in verse 7: “We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves” (NLT). If you have a light inside a jar, how will it ever light up a room?
“My dying is worth it to bring you the gospel.”
The jar must be broken.
Once broken, the light shines everywhere.
So it is with us. As long as we stay in control of everything and life is good and we are in excellent health and our marriage is fine and our children are doing well and we have a good job and our friends love us and we don’t have a problem in the world, as long as that is true, when people look at us, they will barely see the light within. But let the “clay pot” be broken, then the beauty of the light can be clearly seen.
But the breaking hurts, you say.
Yes, it does.
But out of our brokenness the light of Jesus shines clearly.
Will that be worth it to you? Maybe, maybe not. It depends on your perspective.
Paul would say, “It’s worth it to me.”
That leads me to a very contemporary question. How we will convince the world that Jesus is alive today? We might take an apologetic tack and offer various proofs that Jesus really did rise from the dead. We could talk about fulfilled prophecy, we could discuss his many sufferings, we could describe the brutal process by which our Lord was scourged and then crucified. We certainly could offer many reasons to believe that Jesus really did die on the cross and that he was buried. But how will we demonstrate that he rose from the dead? Again, we can offer the testimony of the four gospels, the utter surprise of the first Christians, the crude attempts by the Jewish leaders to bribe the Roman guards, and we could discuss the state of the tomb when Peter and John first saw it. Certainly we could bring forward the various resurrection appearances of Christ. And that alone would be enough to convince many people.
How we will convince the world that Jesus is alive today?
But we live in a skeptical age. What else can we do to demonstrate that Jesus is alive today? We can offer a different sort of apologetic, the kind that Paul offers in 2 Corinthians 4. By that I mean we can live in such a way that others see Christ in us. But for that to happen we must be broken so that the light of Christ can come shining through us. As long as we are sufficient in ourselves, we may believe in Christ but others will not see him in us. The early Christians believed that Christ was their life, that he dwelt in them, and that they lived by his divine power. When Charles Simeon wrote about this text, he said that Christians should live so as to “carry conviction” to all that we serve a risen Lord. Lost people may not listen to our sermons or pay attention to our doctrine, but they notice the way we live under pressure. When we are broken by life, if Christ still shines through us, they may see our faith and come to believe that Jesus is alive today.
A Martyr’s Testimony
When Mehdi Dibaj was tried by an Islamic court in 1993, he prepared a defense that has become a timeless statement of the Christian faith. It spread around the world through the Internet and today stands as a testimony of what it means to be a Christ-follower facing your own death sentence. I hope you will take the time to read the entire statement online. This is how he speaks of his time in prison:
During these nine years he has freed me from all my responsibilities so that under the protection of His blessed Name, I would spend my time in prayer and study of His Word, with a searching heart and with brokenness, and grow in the knowledge of my Lord. I praise the lord for this unique opportunity. God gave me space in my confinement, brought healing in my difficult hardships and His kindness revived me. Oh what great blessings God has in store for those who fear Him!
“God gave me space in my confinement, brought healing in my difficult hardships and His kindness revived me.”
He ended his statement to his Islamic judges with this incredibly brave declaration:
Jesus Christ says “I am the door. Whoever enters through me will be saved.” “I am the way, the truth and the life. No-one comes to the father except through me.” “Salvation is found in no-one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” Among the prophets of God, only Jesus Christ rose from the dead, and He is our living intercessor forever.
He is our Savior and He is the (spiritual) Son of God. To know Him means to know eternal life. I, a useless sinner, have believed in this beloved person and all His words and miracles recorded in the Gospel, and I have committed my life into His hands. Life for me is an opportunity to serve Him, and death is a better opportunity to be with Christ. Therefore I am not only satisfied to be in prison for the honor of His Holy Name, but am ready to give my life for the sake of Jesus, my Lord, and enter His kingdom sooner, the place where the elect of God enter everlasting life. But the wicked enter into eternal damnation.
“Life for me is an opportunity to serve Him, and death is a better opportunity to be with Christ.”
And these are his final words:
May the shadow of God’s kindness and His hand of blessing and healing be and remain upon you forever. Amen. With Respect,
Your Christian prisoner,
I submit to you that this is what it means to be always dying, yet always living so that others may find eternal life through Jesus Christ. This is genuine Christianity.
I suppose the question comes down to this. How much do we really want to be like Jesus? If we would be like our Master, we will suffer as he suffered, be rejected as he was rejected, and be misunderstood as he was misunderstood.
Do you really want to be like Jesus?
That through our dying and living others may live eternally.
Our God and Father, help us not to waste our pain or to fear what others may do to us. Thank you for putting us to the test so that the world may know that Jesus is alive today. May the light of Christ shine through us so that others may be drawn to him. Amen.