The following is a lightly edited transcript.
There are four questions that are answered by 2 Corinthians 3:17–4:7. There are a lot more than that, of course, but four there are that I want to answer. They are all massively relevant for your life — who you are, what has happened to you, and your role in the world.
1. What’s the sweetest, highest, best, final good of the gospel? What is the sweetest, highest, best, final good of the good news that makes the good news good and without which all the other goods of the good news wouldn’t be good?
2. What obstacle prevented you from enjoying that? Because there was a season when you didn’t — and it may still be the case that you don’t love it, enjoy it, savor it, treasure it. Why? What’s in the way?
3. What has to happen to remove that obstacle? What has to happen so that you did or can now enjoy this highest, best, sweetest, final good of the good news?
4. Is there anything you can do to help others escape that obstacle? What can you do to help them get over it, and have and enjoy the sweetest, highest, best, final good of the gospel? Those are the four questions that we’ll tackle in this text.
What is the sweetest, highest, best, final good of the good news, called the gospel? Is it justification by faith? Now all this list I’m going to give you, I’m going to list ten possibilities, they are all infinitely valuable. There’s no belittling of these and none of them is the right answer. So just know this is intended to make the right answer shine all the more brightly — not to diminish these.
- Is the sweetest, best, highest, final good of the gospel justification by faith?
- Is it forgiveness of sins?
- Is it removal of the wrath of God?
- Is it redemption from guilt?
- Is it liberation from slavery to sin?
- Is it salvation from hell?
- Is it entrance into heaven?
- Is it eternal life?
- Is it deliverance from pain and sickness and conflict and the oppression of this world?
- Is it the new heavens and the new earth?
The answer is No. Those are, as you can see, of infinite value. These are things we would die for. These are the most precious things in our life — almost. They are gospel gifts. They’re what Jesus died to get for you, and I’m asking, Are they the highest, the sweetest, the best, the final gift of the gospel? Is that what he died to procure for you finally, ultimately? My answer is: No, it’s not. Those are not the final, best, highest, sweetest good of the gospel.
Gospel of Glory
The answer I think is given in 2 Corinthians 4:4–6. So let’s read them, and as we read them, notice the similarity in structure. We’re going to lay them on top of each other and let them illumine each other.
In their case [those who are perishing] the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (2 Corinthians 4:4)
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6)
Now lay those final phrases of verse four and verse six on top of each other and compare them. See how they shed light — amazing light — on each other. So “the light” in verse 4 corresponds to “the light” in verse six. “Of the gospel” in verse four corresponds to “of the knowledge” in verse six. “Of the glory of Christ” in verse four corresponds to “of the glory of God” in verse six. “Who is the image of God” corresponds to “in the face of Jesus Christ.”
Now, here’s what I see. The content of the gospel here is called the glory of Christ. You see that in verse four? “The gospel of the glory of Christ.” So, if you ask me, “What’s the good news?” I’d say that it’s the glory of Jesus. That’s the good news. It says so. “The gospel of the glory of Christ.”
If you’re stumbling over the word glory, just think of how we use it in other contexts, like sports. “That was a moment of glory.” Glory is beauty, it’s wonder, it’s awe. Everybody knows what glory is. So, if you prefer the word beauty, because it’s less religious, that’s just fine. Use the word beauty. The gospel is the beauty of Christ, the magnificence of Christ — that’s what it is.
One Magnificent Stream
Now, the question is, when you drop down and do the parallel in verse six and it says, “the glory of God,” instead of “the glory of Christ,” is that a different glory? It’s not. The way you know it’s not is because as soon as Paul says in verse four, “the glory of Christ,” he qualifies it with, “who is the image of God.” And as soon as he says in verse six, “the glory of God,” he says, “in the face of Christ.”
“The gospel is the beauty of Christ, the magnificence of Christ.”
So, you see what he’s doing is he’s saying we’re dealing with one glory here — one divine, magnificent glory, streaming out of the radiance of the beauty of God in the events called the gospel. Jesus died, Jesus was buried, Jesus rose for our sins. Glory is streaming out from that, the beauty of God, the beauty of Christ is streaming out from that. That’s the highest, sweetest, final, best good of the gospel.
Everything else in the gospel is going there. There isn’t anything after it to which it is a means. Once you arrive at seeing, savoring, enjoying, treasuring, and being wrapped up in and being transformed by that glory, you’re home. There is no place else to go. That’s not a means to anything. Everything is a means to that. So that’s my answer to the question, *What’s the sweetest, best, highest, final good of the gospel?
What Is Forgiveness For?
Now, let’s relate it to a few of those other infinite goods because this is the one that makes the others good. Why would you want to be justified by faith? Well, so that you can stand accepted and loved by the one who, in his glory, satisfies your soul.
Why would you want to be forgiven for your sins? This is really important for you to answer. Why do you want forgiveness of sins? You say, “Well I don’t want to go to hell.” That’s a bad answer. It’s a true answer — I don’t either — but what about God? You just want to get out of hell and go play golf, fish, and whatever else? No.
Win Her Back
Let me give you an illustration. I get up in the morning, it’s dark, and I stumble over a pile of laundry that I happened to ask my wife to move last night. She didn’t move it. I’m making this up, by the way. So I trip over it and I turn around and I snap at her — just snap. You know how you’re hardly awake yet, first thing she hears in the morning is, “I asked you to move that. What’s wrong?” All right, now it’s twenty minutes later in the kitchen, and there’s ice in the air, right? She’s standing at the sink with her back to me. I know what I need. I need forgiveness from her. I sinned against her. It doesn’t matter whether she should’ve moved the laundry. That’s irrelevant. I sinned and that’s my issue. I need to be forgiven.
So why do you want to be forgiven at that moment? Here are some bad answers.
- I hate going to work with a guilty conscience. Bad answer.
- If I don’t get forgiven, she might not fix supper. Bad answer.
Why, what’s the right answer? You want her back. You want her to come back to you. You want the ice to melt. You want the hurt face to smile, you want the hug, you want her. That’s what forgiveness is for. That’s all it’s for, and it’s so with God. Sure, we want out of hell — but for God. We want the ice to go away. We want God’s smile, we want God’s embrace, we want God’s acceptance. We want to have a relationship with the infinitely glorious, all-satisfying God. That’s why. If that’s not your answer, you don’t know him.
Restore a Friend
Here’s another illustration kids might understand: I grew up being afraid to hit anybody, not because I was afraid of a fight, but because I didn’t want to hurt anybody. I watched so many fights on television, I thought that’s impossible that they could swing that hard and not break someone’s jaw. And it is, of course.
But I just never would do it. I never ever would hit anybody, but I got really mad at a friend once. I got so mad at him. We were playing together, we were good friends, and instead of hitting him, I squeezed him as tight as I could. I got his feet off the ground and threw him down like that. I stomped off and went home, didn’t talk. What did I do? Oh, thank you. That’s important.
Now, I like my friend. I want to play with him. He’s my friend and I just wrecked it. I wrecked it. So I need to be forgiven, I need to call him, right? That’s a hard phone call to make though. But I needed to call him and say, “I was stupid. I’m not that mad anymore. Can we be friends again? Let’s go play.” Why did I need to be forgiven? Because I wanted to play with my friend. It’s really simple. That’s what forgiveness is for.
So, when I make this list of ten glorious things that were purchased by the blood of Jesus for me, I’m asking at every one of them, is that the end, or is that a means to the end? All ten of those were means to the end of the light of the gospel of the glory of Jesus Christ, who is the image of God. The end of my life, the end of creation, is that we might see, savor, reflect, embrace, treasure, enjoy, be changed by God’s beauty.
What Stands in the Way?
Here is the second question: What is standing in the way for your enjoyment of that sweetest, best, highest, final good? Or what was standing in the way? If you’re born again, if you’re a Christian, I assume you’ve at least tasted and know what I’m talking about, because otherwise, you’re not a Christian. To be a Christian is to embrace and receive the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ. That’s what it is to be a Christian. So, what’s standing in the way? The answer is given in verse four like this:
In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (2 Corinthians 4:4)
The reason some of you may not be enjoying the beauty of Christ is that you’re blind to it because Satan is conspiring with your unbelief. It says that he’s blinded the minds of unbelievers. He’s conspiring with your unbelief to keep the veil over your face.
Blinded by the Veil
So, when the gospel is spoken to you by your mom or a friend over pizza or by Billy Graham or by the pastor of your church or by a friend, when the work of Christ is spoken to you, it’s boring. Paul said it’s a stumbling block or it’s an offense because there’s a veil. You’re looking at the back of the veil and you don’t see anything.
“To be lost, to be perishing, is to be blind to glory.”
We all know people like this and it’s terrifying, especially if they’re in your family. I’ve sat with sons over that pizza at the table, pouring out my best effort to describe Christ as compelling, and beautiful, and everything a human could want in eternity and in this world, and I’ve had the blankest face come back at me. It means nothing. That’s terrifying. Don’t scoff at those people, you were one. Weep and plead.
What was wrong is blindness to glory. To be lost, to be perishing, is to be blind to glory. We are dealing with people who are just blind to glory. They can see glory in football, they see echoes of glory in the stars, they see echoes of glory in their kids, they see echoes of glory in art, echoes of glory all over, but when you present the greatest glory, a haze goes over their eyes — just nothing. It’s just nothing. No sweetness, no beauty, no love, no joy, no treasuring, no satisfaction, just blank — or worse than blank.
How God Breaks Through
What happened to you, if you’re a Christian, or what needs to happen to you, if you are not a believer?
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6)
What’s Paul doing here? He’s comparing God’s creation of light at the beginning of creation to what needs to happen in your heart. The God who said let light shine out of darkness has done it again. And this time he has shone into our hearts to give that light, the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
Let There Be Light
So, our problem is blindness to glory and the answer to the problem is God — as sovereignly as on the first day of creation — strikes light into our heart. He says, “John Piper, let there be light.” And there was light. That’s how I got saved. That’s how all of you saved people got saved. You know it is possible to know that you’re saved and not know how you got saved. Just like a baby has to be taught at about age four how he got born. He has no idea how he got born, and a lot of people have not been taught well about how you got born.
A stork didn’t bring you to church. That’s not the way it happened. You didn’t just bring yourself to the light either. One day, while you were listening to Billy Graham or listening to your pastor or listening to your mom or praying over your Bible or reading some existentialist novel in college or whatever, God shone, and suddenly what had been boring, what had been mythological, what had been irrelevant, what had been a stumbling block was unbelievably real, unbelievably relevant. “Whoa! What have I been doing all this time with regard to this person, Jesus Christ, who has just stood forth from this sermon or this text or this novel or wherever. He’s standing forth, and he’s real at this moment.
That’s how you got saved. It didn’t have to be a big emotional thing. It could have been like a “still small voice” and you just knew something’s changing, something’s different. “Let there be light” happened. God spoke light into your life.
Eyes Opened — A Testimony
We love stories like that, and I want to read you one. It’s an email written to Desiring God, the ministry I work for now that I’m finished with my pastoral ministry after 33 years. I’m full-time with Desiring God and trying to just make as many truths as I can be known by as many people as I can. This is from a Jewish man in the Netherlands, who was listening to a sermon called “Education for Exaltation.”
This just makes me so happy and I want to encourage pastors at this moment. I preached this sermon in a building program. You’re not expecting people to get saved in the Netherlands when you’re trying to raise money for a building program, but we were putting up an education building and I got the idea we should call this campaign “Education for Exaltation.” I thought that was clever. Education: horizontal — we’re going to build Bible into people’s lives, adults and kids, and we’re doing it so that they will exult in God. That’s what I’m about.
So, I preached that sermon to stoke the engines of our church to build that building and several years later, on the web, a Jewish man in Amsterdam is listening. I’m going to read you what he says:
God bless everyone who reads this. I can’t believe it took me two whole years to understand what is said in the audio sermon “Education of Exaltation in Christ.” I am a Jew, a Christian Jew as of two minutes ago. I believe that Jesus is God. Jesus is Elohim. He who has the Son has life.
God used that audio sermon to crush the mind of this stubborn Jew. I must say that I had trouble with the Father’s name being pronounced, as in Jewish culture it is not common to pronounce the Father’s name since we don’t know how it is pronounced, but I decided to go on and listen. My eyes went open.
That’s the line I underlined. It’s not good English, but it’s beautiful: “My eyes went open.”
Just today I was angry with God. I said to him, “Why are you letting me search without finding answers? Well, I found it now. Jesus is Elohim. I will make sure that this message will get spread out here in Europe. I’m from the Netherlands. I can’t believe it. Well, actually I do believe it. Jesus is Elohim. Praise Jesus! Praise Elohim!
Now what’s gorgeous about that is when he says, “My eyes went open.” Why? He said he’d been battering for two years on this. Why not earlier? He didn’t decide that now’s the time. I’ll turn the switch now. He didn’t turn any switch. God turned the switch on. God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light in this man’s heart. That’s what has to happen.
What God Calls Us to Do
Last question: If God is completely sovereign, is there anything you can do? Because you’ve got people you care about who aren’t there — they’re blind. I’m just so eager to be biblical rather than superficially logical. Some people might be tempted to say that if God is sovereign, then we ought to just wait around for him to change us. That sounds logical, doesn’t it? But it’s irrational and it’s unbiblical. So I’m going to spend the last few minutes showing you why, from this text and from a couple of others, and then we’ll all go out and do it with somebody.
For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.
We are proclaiming Jesus as Lord, we’re offering ourselves as your servants, for Jesus’ sake. That’s what’s sandwiched between blindness and sight. Why? Because that’s the way God does it. Nobody anywhere in the world has their heart opened in a saving way without some human being presenting the gospel, either in a tract or on the internet or in person.
There’s no point in you praying that some totally isolated person in the middle of a tribe in Papua New Guinea who has never had access to the gospel, be born again today. There is a point in you praying, “God get them the gospel. Send someone with the gospel. Be preparing them for the gospel.” Because when the jet of the gospel flies, the Holy Spirit awakening and giving light flies in tandem with it. If the gospel lands, the Holy Spirit lands. The Holy Spirit was sent into the world to glorify Jesus. If Jesus is not being lifted up in the gospel in front of people, if their eyes go open, there’s nothing to see. The Holy Spirit doesn’t open eyes to see nothing.
I’m making a case here for how utterly essential you are in people’s seeing. You don’t make the miracle happen; God just uses you to make the miracle happen. Now, let me give you two other texts to support that so you can see this is really not a misuse of verse five. This is really the way Paul thinks.
Open Blind Eyes
Let’s look at Acts 26:17–18. The situation is that Paul is on the Damascus road, Jesus Christ the Lord has appeared in glory, knocked him off of his horse, blinded him, all kinds of interesting stuff going on here. He wonders, What does all this mean? What am I supposed to do? Jesus gives him a commission. It’s an amazing commission. It’s an impossible commission. It’s crazy.
I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.
I find it to be an amazing correlation that he would mention they need light and they need freedom from Satan, and God says to make it happen. I’m sure Paul could’ve said, “I can’t make that happen. Only God says let there be light. Only God is as strong as the devil. What do you mean you’re sending me to open their eyes?”
“The Holy Spirit was sent into the world to glorify Jesus.”
What Jesus means is you go, you open your mouth, you declare the Lordship of Jesus and the facts of the gospel, you plead and pray with people, and I will come with thunderbolts through your life and raise the dead. I will give light to the blind; I’ll lift the veil; I’ll do that through you.
I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. (1 Corinthians 3:6–7)
Nothing by comparison, but essential. Farmers are essential to crops, but hey don’t make the seed grow; they just watch it. The parable says they go to bed at night, they get up in the morning, the ear comes up, and they have no idea. To this day we have no idea. Scientists put names on those miracles when the little seed becomes this big stalk of green corn with more ears. They put names on that, but they don’t have a clue what’s going on there. Well, it takes a farmer to plant the seeds. So, Paul went and he opened eyes.
God Grants Repentance
Second Timothy 2:24–46, for 33 years of ministry, was profoundly influential in the way I counseled, the way I considered demonic possession and oppression. Have you ever been involved in an exorcism? I mean a real one? I’ve been involved in one, I think. Others were kind of like it, but just one. I believe in the devil. He’s real, he’s ugly, he’s powerful, he’s the god of this world, and he can’t stand before the gospel. He can’t stand before God Almighty, who made him, rules him, governs him. He’s on a leash.
So, if I’ve only been involved in one, did I only liberate one person from the devil in 33 years? I think God used me to liberate hundreds. Well then if it doesn’t happen by exorcisms how does it happen? That’s what this text is about.
And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.
Now, pause there and just realize what he’s doing. He’s naming some attitudinal or moral qualities, not yet the content of the message, just a kind of person. Then, the person must be able to teach. I’m going to be a teacher of truth, of gospel, and in the context of kindness and non-quarrelsomeness.
Now he comes back to moral qualities: “patiently enduring evil.” So, you start teaching and people rough you up — verbally, maybe, or worse, and you endure it patiently. That’s part of the process that we’re going to see here of liberating people from the devil. And this person must correct his opponents with gentleness as well.
You’ve got a speaker, he’s teaching, he’s correcting, and his whole demeanor is one of patience and kindness and gentleness. He’s not trying to punch people out here, he’s not uptight with demonic people. I’ve read one really good writer about this issue of demonic reality distinguished between power encounters and truth encounters. A power encounter is like an exorcism that I experienced one time with a demon-possessed woman whose face was not her face, whose voice was not her voice, who walked around with a knife threatening people, and when we were finished, her face was another face, her voice was another voice, the knife was on the floor.
And instead of knocking the Bible out of my hand for two hours, she held it and read all of Romans 8 and the next Sunday was sitting in the second pew, and I was terrified she’d have a demonic possession or something because I had never in my life seen anything like this. That’s not what’s going on here and this is real. This is just as real.
“If God is pleased to grant repentance, it will stream into their hearts.”
They were taken captive by the devil to do his will. The way they were taken captive is by deceit and falsehood. God, through your teaching and your patience and your kindness and your gentleness, grants them to repent and truth floods into their hearts and the devil flees because he’s a god of lies and a murderer from the beginning. He can’t stand before the light of truth, and that person is free, and it came through you. God did it. God gave repentance. It says so. God gives repentance. You don’t make repentance happen. They don’t make repentance happen. God makes repentance happen, and when they turn on their evil, truth floods in and the devil — a liar from the beginning — flees in the face of truth flooding into the soul.
And so you see again the correspondence with 2 Corinthians 4:4. You have the devil blinding the minds of unbelievers, and you’ve got the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ, and that’s what you’ve got here. You’ve got knowledge flooding in through repentance, and you’ve got the snare of the devil being broken.
So, my answer to the fourth question — What can you do? — is: you can teach. And by teach, I don’t mean anything formal. I mean sitting over pizza with somebody and asking them if you can share your story, share whatever you think would be appropriate for that moment. They need truth. They need truth. They need truth. You speak truth, and then you’re loving them. You’re a servant. You’re under them. You’re not lording it over them. You’re a servant, and you’re not quarrelsome, and you’re kind, and you’re gentle, and you’re patient, and God Almighty may grant repentance.
That means it’s God’s to call. You cannot make this happen, but you can put yourself in the way of God’s power. You can put yourself in front of somebody with truth coming out of your mouth. You will know the truth and the truth will set you free from this kind of bondage. You can let truth be pouring out of your mouth — whatever truth you know. You don’t have to have any degrees at all. You can have an eighth-grade education as far as I’m concerned, and you know some Bible and they don’t. You’re that step ahead and you just pour out some Bible truth. God loves to touch with fire this kindling of truth you lay on their lives. He loves to do that.
Tell the Greatest Story
What’s the best thing that the gospel bought for us? Forgiveness of sins, justification, eternal life — those are glorious. They’re all means to the end, and the end is the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, the beauty of Christ, the person shining forth. You were made for a person, not just a world, not just an experience. You were made for a person. You all know your deepest joys come through people.
Big joys come through beautiful sunsets. Big joys come through food. Big joys come through all kinds of things. But the biggest, deepest, most satisfying joys are the ones that come from the kind of friendships, the kind of relationships, or even admiring the kind of people you love to admire — and they’re all pointing to the one person for whom we were made.
Why couldn’t you enjoy that once upon a time? Because the god of this world was blinding you. Lostness, “unsavedness” is blindness to glory.
What had to happen in order for you to enjoy the highest good of the good news? God had to say, “Let there be light.” It happened while somebody, either in person or through a book or a text, somebody was telling you about the Lord Jesus — what he did, when he died for sins, what he did when he rose triumphant, what he did when he ascended to heaven, what he’s doing today in reigning over the world, what he’s going to do again when he returns.
You are just telling the story — the greatest story in the world. There’s a glory in that story, and if God is pleased to grant repentance, it will stream into their hearts. So that’s what you do. Be servants, be loving, be kind, be patient, and speak the truth no matter what it costs. And sooner or later, you will become the instrument of the miracle of sight in people’s lives.