Jars of Clay
Date: 19 Feb 2017
Text: 2 Corinthians 4:7-15
Having talked of his ministry and what drove it in 4:1-6, Paul now moves on in the next few verses to discuss his own circumstances. Some of what Paul has to say in this short passage appears to be deeply personal and I wonder how many of us would open up about ourselves in the way that Paul does in 4:8-11. Paul’s thoughts seem to centre on his relationship with God in that Paul is eager to highlight his own weakness when compared with God’s strength. He opens up this passage with an interesting comment about the “treasure in jars of clay” in 4:7; something that we will consider first.
Jars of Clay
In our modern world we can obtain storage containers of all shapes and sizes made of a variety of materials. Many of the containers that we use are purpose made for the job of storing whatever is to be stored in them. During the time that Jesus walked the earth there wasn’t quite so much choice and most things were stored in jars of various sizes. Just think back to the time that Jesus turned water into wine. The dirty water that became vintage wine was stored in huge stone jars. You may recall the occasion when a woman anointed Jesus with a very expensive perfume that she kept in an alabaster jar. That was the perfect vessel for such an expensive liquid. However, the more common material in use was clay and jars of clay were very common indeed. However, these jars were also rather fragile and would frequently break rendering them unusable, even though they could be used for storing any manner of items including food and liquid as well as jewels and valuable items.
When out and about preaching and teaching, Paul frequently followed Jesus’ example in talking about everyday objects as a way of helping people understand the point that he was trying to make. On this occasion Paul talked of the “treasure in jars of clay” and since Paul had no money or material wealth we may wonder what he was referring to. It also seems strange that he should talk of storing treasure in these fragile receptacles when surely a sensible person would want to store treasure in a very safe and secure place. On this occasion the treasure to which Paul was referring is the greatness of the gospel of Jesus Christ; it is the glory of God that is made known though His Son; and it is the knowledge that we have of Him. Everything that Paul had and achieved, and everything that we have and have achieved, came, or comes, from God not from Paul and certainly not from ourselves. Paul claimed no glory or credit for himself but gave all the glory to God, for it was God Who helped him in every way and it was God Who gave him all that he had. We have that same treasure since we too have knowledge of God and all that He does for us. So why does Paul talk about these “jars of clay”? The jars were fragile and disposable and surely you would want to store something as valuable as treasure in a safe and sturdy container. We are the “jars of clay” and it is amazing to think that God has chosen us to be the storage container for this great treasure; the treasure of knowing Him and all His glory. On our own we are weak and fragile, just like the jars of clay that Paul is talking about. But, with God beside us we are strong and capable of storing that treasure. I am reminded of an old song that was originally recorded in 1941 titled Just A Closer Walk With Thee. The opening verse contains the lines: “I am weak but thou art strong ... As I walk, let me walk close to Thee”. That is a great truth in a great song. We may be weak on our own but with God by our side and as part of His family, we become strong.
Paul moves on in 4:8-9 to talk about his own circumstances and admits to his own weaknesses and failings. Just look at what he has to say here: “we are hard pressed, but not crushed”; “perplexed, but not in despair”; “persecuted, but not abandoned”; “struck down, but not destroyed”. Does that sound similar to your daily life? That’s quite some list of problems and it illustrates some of what Paul may have endured. I’m sure that when we think about it we can identify with some of those circumstances in our own spiritual lives. I’m particularly interested in the thoughts of being “struck down” and “persecuted”. We know from the accounts such as that in Acts 14:19-20 and in some of his letters, for instance 2 Corinthians 11:16-33, that Paul suffered amazing persecution. He was repeatedly “struck down” by the lash and by rods and by stones, none of which destroyed him. We know from Acts 14:19 that his opponents followed him from town to town and eventually after stoning him, left him for dead. Yes being beaten and stoned did undoubtedly hurt physically, no doubt greatly, but Paul remained unbowed. Just think about being “hard pressed”. What does that mean? Whatever it means Paul did not despair; God never abandoned him and was with him the whole way; God walked beside him and lifted him whenever he was hard pressed. Many people today find themselves hard pressed by the seemingly never ending pressures of modern life. The ever increasing cost of living compared with barely increasing wages; growing families; the need to find a job and stay employed; the future of our young people; the ever present threat of terrorism; all of these add to the daily pressures that we face. And yet too few turn to God in the way that Paul did. Paul knew that whenever he was hard pressed God would be there to help him and to lift him up. We can do worse than follow Paul’s example and turn to God when the pressure that we face increases. Paul also says that he is “perplexed, but not in despair”. I find that rather interesting since I would suggest that many Pastors and Preachers also become perplexed from time to time; for some of us it may possibly be a permanent state; but we need never despair. No matter what the situation God is always there to provide the words that may be needed, the leading that may be needed and, most of all, the encouragement that may be needed.
We don’t need to know too much about Paul to realise that he always had the crucifixion of Jesus at the front of his mind; it was the thought of that event that was his motivation. Paul knew that his constant suffering was bringing him ever closer to death, although that didn’t worry him because he knew that in death he would become like Christ and he would also be resurrected like Christ. Paul said on a number of occasions that he wanted to be like Jesus, and perhaps the most powerful of these thoughts comes in Philippians 3:10-11 where he says, “I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” It was the death of Jesus on the cross of Calvary that drove Paul on to share with others all that Jesus meant to him. Paul did indeed suffer for his faith even though he never let it get him down or beat him. He told the Galatians in Galatians 6:17, “From now on, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.” It is almost as if he was proud to suffer for Christ because it drew him ever closer to his Saviour.
In the remaining verse of this short passage, 4:13-15, Paul expands a little on his own faith; a faith that remained strong no matter what happened. And it was because of this strong faith that Paul felt compelled to “speak”. He says in 4:13b, “With that same spirit of faith we also believe and therefore speak”. Since the vast majority of the population are able to speak what do you suppose Paul means by that comment? The NLT translation of the verse helps to answer that question when it says, “But we continue to preach because we have the same kind of faith the psalmist had when he said, ‘I believed in God, so I spoke.‘ ” Paul is quoting from Psalm 116 in that verse and in doing so identifies himself with the writer of the Psalm. The Psalmist had suffered greatly and yet couldn’t keep quiet about his faith in God, and Paul is exactly the same. So when Paul says that he speaks he actually means that he preaches and tells others about the glorious life giving gospel of Jesus. Paul doesn’t keep quiet about his faith; about what Jesus has done for him or what Jesus can do for others if only they would ask Him into their lives. Although he doesn’t use the word, it is possible to sense that Paul felt compelled to preach and to share the good news of Jesus with others. He wasn’t coerced into doing this; he wanted to do it and very clearly felt that it was what God wanted him to do.
As ever Paul was concerned for the church and its people. Whatever he did and said was “for your benefit” (4:15a). He never seemed concerned for himself but only ever wanted to share the good news of Jesus with as many as possible so that they may benefit. Paul wanted to see that grace of God reach more and more people since when that happened he knew that the people would offer up their praise and worship to God and that it would “cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God” (4:15b). God’s grace is that undeserved gift that He bestows on everyone who comes to faith in Jesus Christ, and as Paul told the Ephesians, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). It is God’s grace and only His grace that draws us nearer to Him and it is that same grace that keeps us going through the hard times. And as Paul reminds us, it is also God’s grace that causes our thanksgiving to God to overflow to His glory.
Once again we see Paul cover a lot of ground in just a few verses. He talks of how God trusts weak and frail human beings to be the storage vessels for the great treasure of knowing Him. He moves on to admit to, and then highlight, his own weaknesses and how God helps him every step of the way. Paul then admits that he faced death every day but didn’t let it worry him since he knew that that prospect drew him nearer to Jesus. Finally he emphasised God’s grace in all that happened to him and to us and how important it is that our worship should increase as the flow of grace that we receive also increases.
Just as Jesus used everyday objects to help Him make His point, so Paul also used everyday objects, such as jars of clay, to make his point. We are those jars of clay and it is within us that we store the treasure of our knowledge of God and all that He does for us.
In his various other letters Paul made fleeting references to the hardships that he suffered during his ministry. Now in these few verses he draws those thoughts together in a very simple and straightforward way. He contrasts four ways in which he suffered with the four ways in which his suffering didn’t win. He was hard pressed, perplexed, persecuted and struck down. Notice though that he wasn’t crushed nor in despair, nor abandoned and definitely not destroyed. He was protected and helped at all times by God Who was his constant companion.
Paul always knew though that he could face death at any time. That didn’t seem to worry him though since he knew that any death he suffered for Christ would make him more like Christ and bring him ever nearer to his Lord and Saviour. If only we had a faith that was as strong as Paul’s!
Finally, all of this added up to compel Paul to preach the good news of Jesus and to share that news with as many as possible. His preaching and the death of Jesus was all for the benefit of those in the church and they were Paul’s primary concern. The more that they knew of God and all that He did for them; the more that His grace would abound and lead to an overflow of thanksgiving. We can all do worse than to live our own grace filled lives in the way that God leads us and then let our own thanksgiving to God also overflow.