II Corinthians 4:7
Our son-in-law has prepared to be a golf pro. Although he plays very well, he is not a playing pro, but a club pro and a teaching pro. It isn’t easy to achieve pro status. He went to college for two years and studied golf course management. Then, in order to get his pro status, he had to pay almost $1000 to play two games of golf in which he had to get below a certain score in both games. Then he has to spend several years working as an assistant under a qualified head pro. During this time his wages are very low. Then, if he can find a club, he can be a head pro at a golf course. The preparation is rigorous.
I asked Kendall what is required to become an accountant. First of all, he got a business degree, then he worked for a firm for 2 years, during which time he continued to take classes. At the end of that, he wrote a test that took 4 hours a day for 3 days. Ken took 2 months off work before that test strictly to prepare for it. The preparation is rigorous.
In order to be a light for Jesus, you have to be born in a Christian home, you have to go to Sunday School from when you are 2 until you are at least 18 and then you have to attend Bible College for three years and then Seminary for another three years. The preparation is rigorous. Actually you know very well that that is not true. The preparation for being a golf pro, an accountant and many other things is rigorous, but in order to be a light for Jesus, you have to know Jesus as Savior by faith and then begin to live for Him and speak for him. There is almost no preparation. II Corinthians 4:7a says, “we have this treasure in jars of clay or as some translations say, “clay pots or earthen vessels.”
I. The Problem
That is a most amazing thing, almost unbelievable.
A. The Treasure
The text talks about this amazing treasure that we have. It is spoken of throughout the Bible, but the words used in verse 6 are “For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” Through faith in Jesus Christ, we have this tremendous privilege of knowing the glory of God. We know the glory of life and hope and eternity and peace. We have received a glimpse of how amazing God is. We know God! Furthermore, we hold this treasure, not as something to be kept to ourselves, but to be shared with the world. The light that shines in us because God is present with us by His Holy Spirit is a light that must shine from us into the darkness of the world. That is the treasure which this passage is talking about. The treasure of the light of God in our hearts, which is meant to shine in the world.
It is a treasure which is precious, eternal and glorious. A treasure much greater than owning a beautiful house or cottage, than having the best job in the world or owning a really great car. An amazing treasure!
B. Earthen Vessels
A year or two ago, Ron and Wendy were over and we showed them a birch bark biting that I had received many years before. I kept it in a little plastic holder. When they saw it, they let us know that it was a valuable piece of art - a treasure - and really deserved a better frame. So we spent the money to have it appropriately framed. Our reasoning was, if it is something precious, then it deserves a precious way of being held.
Contrary to that kind of thinking, in ancient days, they often used cheap things to hold precious items. They had cheap, little clay lamps, which would give off precious light. In the celebration of the Macedonian victory of Aemilius Paulus in 167 BC - 3000 men, carried silver coins in 750 earthen vessels. A great treasure carried in an inexpensive container.
When a precious item is carried in a cheap vessel, the contrast between the vessel and the contents is magnified and that is precisely the contrast that is intended when Paul says, “we have this treasure in jars of clay.” One writer says, “the treasure of the gospel has been entrusted to men subject to the infirmities and limitations, the instability and insecurity of their finite condition.” How true that is!
We are called to be a holy people. I Peter 1:15,16 says, “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’” Yet we know very well that we are not nearly always holy. Even the same Biblical writer who called for holiness, was not always holy. Paul says about Peter in Galatians 2:11, “When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong.” I John 1:8 says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Clay pots indeed!
We are warned in Matthew 18:6, “…if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” I cringe when I think of what I said to the young fellow who sometimes came to our boys club and was always trouble. On one occasion, I was very critical of him and spoke to him in a hurtful way. How often do our words or our lifestyle cause young believers to stumble?
While being the only light Jesus has left on earth, we are sometimes not too bright. Matthew 5:14 says that we are the light of the world, but Paul’s light was not always completely clear. Peter says in 2 Peter 3:15, 16, “our dear brother Paul’s… letters contain some things that are hard to understand…”
God gives us gifts in order to do His work and it is, of course, through these gifts that we are able to do much of the work of bearing His glory and communicating it, but we often fail in our expression of our gifts. We do not have gifts in every area, we fail to develop our gifts, we hide our gifts, we try to serve in areas in which we are not gifted. Paul admitted in Ephesians 3:8, “Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ…” This is simply another expression of this truth that we have this treasure in jars of clay. He felt totally inadequate to preach the riches of Christ. His inadequacy as a servant of God was picked up by others. In 2 Corinthians 10:10 he admits what people said about him, “For some say, “His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.” If that is true of Paul, how can we be effective in ministry?
Even though we are to be examples to others, we know that there are times when we would rather people were not watching us. Paul said in Philippians 3:17, “Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you.” But we find in Acts 15:36-41 that he and Barnabas had such a severe argument that they had to part ways. Is that an action that is imitable?
While being called to do all to the glory of God, all of us share the same physical weakness that demands that we sleep 7 - 8 hours a night and that we need to get a break once in a while. The great apostle Paul had times of great distress in his physical weakness. He says in 2 Corinthians 11:27, “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.”
While being called to be bold in standing for Jesus, the Bible also promises that anyone who does stand up for Jesus will experience persecution and opposition. Paul recognizes this difficulty when in I Corinthians 4:13 he says, “Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world.” How can the gospel draw people when its messengers are scum?
How can God do this? How can God leave the tremendous treasure of the gospel in such inadequate, poor, weak vessels? How can we live the gospel when we fall all the time? How can God entrust us, to proclaim his powerful gospel?
II. The Promise
The answer is amazing and glorious! There is purpose in this seeming mystery. The verse goes on to say, “to show” which indicates purpose. What is that purpose? “To show that this all surpassing power is from God and not from us.”
We are called to something beyond us. Because of our sin, our heredity, our failures, our weaknesses, our humanness, we can’t live the Christian life and we can’t effectively call others to the Christian life. Therefore, when we live faithfully and when people come to Christ, it has nothing to do with us, but it does have to do with a demonstration of the power of God.
Scripture powerfully demonstrates this truth. Ephesians 2:8 says, “by grace you have been saved.” II Corinthians 3:5 - “our competence comes from God.” II Corinthians 12:9 - “my power is made perfect in weakness.” I Corinthians 2:3-5 - “I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.”
It is evident that the gospel is as one writer puts it, “no product of human ingenuity, no clever discovery of human intellect, no bright idea of a genius, rather, a revelation of the power of God.” Philip Hughes says, “human weakness presents no barrier to the purposes of God.”
In this truth there are two wonderful implications. One is that God knows that we are jars of clay. He does not expect more of us than we can do. Even more wonderful is knowing that in some mysterious way, God is powerfully at work, in spite of and even through our weakness.
Just think of how this has worked.
On Friday, the Daily Bread told the story of Gideon. When God called Gideon to defeat the Midianites, we learn in Judges 7 that Gideon was weak in many respects including his family background. God called that weak man and a mere 300 men to fight against an army that stretched from one end of the valley to the other. Was it Gideon’s wisdom and power? No, it was the power of God that brought victory.
When Jesus was crucified, Peter was so afraid that he denied knowing Jesus. Yet just a few days later, on the day of Pentecost, this same Peter stood up and spoke with boldness. Was he speaking by his own power and wisdom? Not at all! It was by the power of the Holy Spirit.
In Galatians 4:13, 14 Paul indicates some of the mystery of this when he says “it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you. Even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself.” Isn’t that amazing! He came to preach to them because he was sick. In his illness, apparently he was not attractive, but they welcomed him and received the gospel. That does not happen by beauty, or attractiveness or power or human wisdom, it happens by the power of God.
I read a story from a Sunday school ministry in the part of New York City that has been rated the "most likely place to get killed." Pastor Bill Wilson tells the story:
"One Puerto Rican lady, after getting saved in church, came to me with an urgent request. She didn't speak a word of English, so she told me through an interpreter, 'I want to do something for God, please.'
" 'I don't know what you can do,' I answered.
" 'Please, let me do something,' she said in Spanish.
" 'Okay. I'll put you on a bus to pick up kids for Sunday School. Ride a different bus every week and just love the kids.'
"So every week she rode a different bus--we have fifty of them--and loved the children. She would find the worst-looking kid on the bus, put him on her lap, and whisper over and over the only words she had learned in English: 'I love you. Jesus loves you.'
"After several months, she became attached to one little boy in particular. 'I don't want to change buses anymore. I want to stay on this one bus,' she said.
"The boy didn't speak. He came to Sunday school every week with his sister and sat on the woman's lap, but he never made a sound. Each week she would tell him all the way to Sunday school and all the way home, 'I love you and Jesus loves you.'
"One day, to her amazement, the little boy turned around and stammered, 'I-I love you, too.' Then he put his arms around her and gave her a big hug.
"That was 2:30 on a Saturday afternoon. At 6:30 that night, the boy was found dead in a garbage bag under a fire escape. His mother had beaten him to death and thrown his body in the trash.
" 'I love you and Jesus loves you.' Those were some of the last words he heard in his short life--from the lips of a Puerto Rican woman who could barely speak English.
"Who among us is qualified to minister? Who among us even knows what to do? Not you; not me. We have this treasure in jars of clay so that the power of God is demonstrated to a lost world.
III. The Response
How do we respond to this reality? Do we just give up and be weak and let God’s power work? Do we minimize the power of God, and go on trying to do God’s work in our strength? Recognizing that we are cracked pots and that God’s power is great, how do we live the Christian life? How do we serve our Saviour?
God knows that we are weak, but that does not excuse our sin. He calls us to holiness. Jesus, who ate with tax collectors and sinners and accepted them, nevertheless still told people in Matthew 5:48 to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Life is learning - the same lessons over and over again and new lessons in a progressive growth towards holiness. We can never think that we have arrived.
Therefore, the recognition that we are “jars of clay” also involves a constant readiness to repent. The sin Jesus was most harsh about was the pride of thinking that we don’t need to admit that we have done anything wrong. Being jars of clay reminds us that we do make mistakes and we must be quick to admit that and confess what we have done wrong. The other side of that is that we must also be quick to receive forgiveness. Our usual pattern has two components. One is to deny that we have done anything wrong, the other is to admit that we have done wrong and then to beat ourselves up and try to punish ourselves enough to pay for our sin. The gospel message is - you have sinned and Jesus has paid for it. Can we embrace that daily?
On the other side of this verse is the recognition that God’s power is at work in spite of our weakness. But the recognition of that power does not imply that we can let it go and let God do it all. We are still called to faithfulness. As we read further in this passage, in verse 13 it says, “I believed, therefore I have spoken.” Because Paul believed in the power of God’s grace, he spoke the words of the gospel. We are called to be faithful, to walk with Christ and to serve Him in any way we can.
But, we are invited to do so in dependence on Him. We serve not in our power, but in God’s power. Paul says in Philippians, “I can do all things…” but he is not thereby pointing at his own ability. The rest of the passage is, “through Him.” He depended on the power of God. The mystery and wonder of the Christian life and of Christian ministry is that we do it in partnership. We are faithful and God is powerful.
The recognition of God’s power also requires that we serve in humility. When we put our weakness beside God’s power, we have to recognize that it isn’t about us, it isn’t our power or our glory. One of my sins is to desire to receive honor. But in the gospel ministry, there is no place for that. I constantly pray that God will change my heart so that from the bottom of my heart I will desire His glory above all. Humility is recognizing that I am weak and that He has all power and therefore deserves glory.
That is our stance in regards to God, but the humility that is also required in regards to fellow cracked pots is to live with grace. The same Jesus who said, “be perfect as your father is perfect” also said in Luke 6:36, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” When I came into one of my classes a few weeks ago, I had been up late the night before watching the fireworks competition at Kitsalano Beach in Vancouver. I commented to the professor that I might have a little trouble because I had been up late. He had also been at the fireworks but added that it was the barbecue before and the time in the bar afterwards that were the problem. My immediate inner reaction was to wonder why this professor had been in a bar, but I realized that like me, he also was an earthen vessel and to realize that he came from a different culture and that I needed to extend the grace of acceptance to him. We are all jars of clay and so we need to extend grace to one another.
The power of God at work in our weaknesses also calls us to hope. The theme of hope permeates this chapter. Verse 1 says, “we do not lose heart” as does verse 16. Verse 14 encourages “the one who raised Jesus will also raise us…” and verse 16, “we are being renewed day by day.” Verse 18 summarizes “we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.” That is hope and we have it because although we are jars of clay, God is at work!
Hughes calls it “this immense discrepancy” and I know only too well what it is about.
Not too long ago, I was in a situation in which I was being bothered by some things that were being said. Finally I had heard enough and I spoke poorly, with too much passion and too little wisdom. How can I claim to be a Christian if I keep letting my tongue get the better of me? Well, I confess my sin, I keep on speaking and realize that in some mysterious way, in spite of mistakes, God is at work.
In an evangelical church doing the work of evangelism is important. But I do not have the gift of evangelism. I miss opportunities because I am fearful. When I speak, I say too much or too little and not a lot of people come to Christ. Jars of clay! How do I deal with it? Well, I keep on speaking when I have an opportunity. I try to learn more about what God wants of me. I keep in touch with God’s word and in tune with Him and I rejoice that God brings people to Himself in spite of my stumbling efforts.
I sometimes come home tired after an evening out and hope that there is no message on the answering machine because I do not have the energy to do anything more that day. But sometimes there is a message on the answering machine. How do I deal with that? Well, I pray that God will give me strength. I put in a little effort and I ask God to do more than I can at that moment.
I am opposed and become fearful and back off. I don’t want to be opposed, but by the grace of God, I keep on speaking and I pray that God will give strength. I thank Him that when I offer my weak self to Him, amazing things happen, it is clearly not I who have done it, but God and the glory goes to Him.
So, fellow jars of clay. Let us offer ourselves to God and see what our powerful God will do!