For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. — 2 Cor 4:5, NRSV
I did not grow up in a believing household. We went to church twice a year at best, and only to please my grandmother. I didn’t understand much about what was going on, but I do remember not liking the pastor. Even at that young age, I could sense something strange and even pompous about a man who, in the middle of a sermon, would suddenly break out in song as if channeling Julie Andrews from the opening of The Sound of Music.
It’s hard to know exactly what kind of arrogance the Corinthians were accusing Paul of, but the verse above seems to echo the way he began chapter 3: “Are we beginning to commend ourselves again?” (3:1). His opponents, not seeing what they thought should be the marks appropriate to a true apostle, probably read the confidence he had in his calling as nothing more than self-promotion. No, Paul insists, we’re not proclaiming ourselves, we’re proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord.
“Jesus Christ is Lord.” We’ve heard those four words so often that we may forget their significance. The gospel declares that the man named Jesus, born of humble stock in Bethlehem, raised in the backwaters of Galilee, is in fact the Christ, the long-awaited Messiah of God, the prophesied King from the line of David. Moreover, this Jesus, through his death and resurrection, has been exalted to the right hand of God the Father, where he reigns even now as Lord.
Nevertheless, Paul adds, We do proclaim ourselves in one sense: we proclaim ourselves to be your slaves for Jesus’ sake.
Hmm. That doesn’t sound much like self-promotion.
Paul knows that the Messiah couldn’t come in glory; as the Suffering Servant (Isa 52:13-53:12), the pathway to exaltation was the deep humility of a slave (Phil 2:5-11). If Paul is to declare the gospel of this Messiah, if his claims to apostleship are to have any meaning, then for Jesus’ sake he must be a servant.
Indeed, in verse 2 Cor 4:2, he describes his preaching as “the open statement” (NRSV), “public announcement” (CEB), or “setting forth” (NIV) of the truth. The word is a rare one in the New Testament; it implies an open “manifestation,” and the related verb can be used of something that shines (see vs. 10, where the translations above render the verb “made visible,” “be seen,” and “be revealed,” respectively). There are other words Paul could have used if all he meant was “proclaim” as in verse 5. I like to think that he chose this particular word to tie into the theme of the light of true revelation in the rest of the passage — and that his humble behavior, not just his words, manifested the truth about Jesus.
But let’s not forget the priority: if Paul declares himself to be the Corinthians’ slave for the sake of Jesus, it’s because his first obligation is to his Lord. Paul willingly suffers the indignity of the Corinthians’ inconstancy, but he’s no shrinking violet when it comes to holding them accountable to what’s right and true.
Thus, Paul proclaims by mouth and living example the truth of the gospel; his preaching is in word and deed.