“Death at Work in Us”—The Apostle Paul’s Call to Leadership

One night I had a dream about traveling with the Apostle Paul. In the dream I watched him bathe in a stream, and I saw for the first time the scars on his back. His scars were the mark of an Apostle. In fact, they authenticated his leadership in God’s church.

Later I discovered a leadership thread in one of Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth (a troublesome group of believers who were more impressed with smooth-talking miracle workers than humble servants of God). It starts at the very beginning of the letter:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. (2 Corinthians 1:3-4) 

So many times I’ve heard people refer to “the God of all comfort.” They talk about God’s willingness to come close in our times of need. Comforting indeed, but Paul was actually introducing the topic of his leadership among these people. This thread in 2 Corinthians is unlike the Christian leadership writings North American Christians have produced in recent years.

A few chapters in the thread becomes clear:

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. (2Corinthians 4:7-12)

This passage has encouraged and comforted me for years. I have turned to it often. But in my need for consolation I missed Paul’s main point: He’s talking about himself, and those who served with him as Apostles. The “we” in this passage was Paul and his team; the “you” were the people in Corinth. And the remarkable leadership lesson comes in the final phrase: “So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.”

It is Paul who is hard-pressed on every side, Paul who is perplexed, and Paul who persecuted and struck down. The price of his apostleship was his suffering on behalf of others. Though his earthen vessel—the jar of clay, his physical body—was cracked and weak, the life-giving presence of Jesus oozed through the leaks to the people of Corinth.

Paul wasn’t interested in sharing his personal wisdom or ideas; he simply wanted to carry the life of Jesus; Paul’s body was the vessel. The sign of his leadership was his weakened state and his reliance on Jesus to shine through, even if it meant death was at work in his body. Who knew death was such a big part of being a leader in God’s Kingdom?

Later in this same letter Paul gives us the details of what he meant by “hard pressed on every side”:

Five times I received from the Jews the 40 lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, 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 fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 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. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. (2 Corinthians 11:24-30)

These are the “momentary light afflictions” of Paul. These are the experiences to which God responded with comfort and strength. These are the result of his willingness to serve those he led. How many of us see leadership in this light?

And I wonder what the church would look like if every leader led like Paul, or his Master. This is what it means to first be a disciple, and then to make disciples. It was not simply Paul’s calling, it is ours as well.  

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Ray Hollenbach
Ray Hollenbach, a Chicagoan, writes about faith and culture. His devotional book "50 Forgotten Days: A Journey Into the Age to Come" is available at Amazon.com He currently lives in central Kentucky, which is filled with faith and culture. He's also the author of of "The Impossible Mentor", a deep dive into the foundations of discipleship.