"This ministry" (verse 1) is that of the New Covenant, the salient features of which are given in 2 Cor. 3, whilst its practical effects are presented in 2 Cor. 4. These outstanding features are "the ministration of righteousness" and, "of the Spirit" with, "the glory that excelleth."
They are contrasted with the ministry of condemnation and death with a glory which was transient — being that of the Old Covenant which was done away. The glory of the Old Covenant in the face of Moses its mediator, was unbearable because of the state of its subjects which was exposed by it. But that in the face of our Lord is bearable because of righteousness revealed and supplied. Thus, we look upon the glory of the Lord with unveiled face. Impressions of this glory, divine in their source, are made upon the fleshy tables of the heart so that, when we come to the teaching of chapter 4, expression of it morally can now be made while we are here in the body. Here we have not so much the ministry but rather the manifestation of the truth and that, to every conscience of man, in the sight of God. This is a word of searching to each of us and, where accepted by us, would keep us right in a day of man-pleasing.
As there is no veil on the face of the Lord — unlike the Old Covenant mediator — so there is no veiling of the gospel on the part of His servants. What, then, does the gospel convey? Glad tidings, which consist in the truth of Christ Who is the image of God. The revelation of God's nature is in Him. True, assuredly, when here in the days of His flesh, and just as true now that He has been glorified above. Do we not read in Colossians 1:19, "in Him was pleased to dwell all the fulness"? Again in Colossians 2:9, for in Him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily."
The preachers then are hidden — but not the preaching — for Christ Jesus is set forth Lord, and they themselves servants for Jesus' sake. What has been responsible for servants with so great a message to be content with obscurity? The shining into their hearts, by God, "the God Who commanded that out of darkness light should shine," of the light of His glory in the face of Jesus Christ.
What a treasure! The vessels which contain it — how frail! "But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God and not of us." Hence all the trial to which the vessel is subjected does but render it the more transparent for the outshining of the treasure. Herein is the triumph of God, that men here in flesh and blood, exposed to all these pressures, seemingly so adverse, account the treasure of such infinite worth that, morally, they accept the pressures in order that the outshining may be the more distinctly seen.
The dying of Jesus being borne in the body means the practical appropriation of the truth of the cross. His death is ours — how real the identification! This extends to the physical in its practical application; "we which live are always delivered unto death for Jesus' sake, that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in our mortal flesh" (2 Cor. 4:11). This eventuated for Paul (and for how many others!) in actual martyrdom, gladly accepted because the body is held for Him, just as in Romans 8:10 it is held as dead in view of sin.
This identification with the death of Christ is practised in the certain knowledge that resurrection "with Jesus" is as sure as was His own resurrection. The power which raised Him from among the dead enables us now to be practical exponents of the grace and truth of God, and will raise us up with Him and will present us with all saints. This day of presentation is fast bearing into view, may we then express in our lives the witness of the glory which we now behold in the face of Jesus, that glory which we then shall enter with Him.
"While we look not at the things that are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are for a time, but those that are not seen, eternal" (2 Cor. 4:18).