We Are Jars of Clay

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : 2 Corinthians 4:7-12

Every Christian is called to ministry – service – in Christ’s name in the church and the world. But what does that entail? In the apostle Paul’s two letters to the church in Corinth he speaks more about the nature of Christian ministry than anywhere else. David Bast has selected ten vivid metaphors Paul uses in First and Second Corinthians describing ministers of Christ. He explores them in this series: “What Are We, Images of Christ’s Servants.”

The apostle Paul has been describing the characteristics of an authentic gospel ministry to the believers of the church in Corinth. In 2nd Corinthians 2:17 Paul says that he is not, like so many, a peddler of God’s word, but that he speaks sincerely, as in God’s sight. The apostle goes on to explain in chapter 4 that he has rejected underhanded methods of ministry. He refuses to tamper with the word of God. So the outstanding characteristic of an authentic gospel ministry is honesty. Paul would not operate in any underhanded or shameful ways. We have renounced all that, he asserts, we reject anything and everything that smacks of dishonesty or manipulative technique.

There is a kind of preaching that disgraces the gospel, and we could all probably think of some real-life examples. It matters not only what you are doing for the Lord Jesus, but how you do it as well. The end, even the great end of saving souls, does not justify unworthy means. Paul would not practice deception or trickery, a sort of “do-anything-ism” to win followers. In his mind the true gospel ministry was not devious in any way. Paul also refused to distort, or tamper with the Word of God, that is, neither adding to it things people wanted to hear nor taking from it things they didn’t want to hear. Rather, his practice was to set forth the truth plainly and so commend himself to each person’s conscience.

Earthenware Vessels

Now in verse 7 of 2 Corinthians 4 Paul turns from a description of the Christian ministry to the Christian minister: “But we have this treasure,” writes Paul – that is to say, the gospel, the Word of God – “in jars of clay,” – that is, in our fragile, sinful human natures. The point of his metaphor here is the stark contrast between the preciousness, beauty and perfection of the treasure and the plainness, weakness, and imperfection of the container in which it’s held and through which it is delivered.

Maybe you recall the occasion shortly before Jesus’ suffering and death when he was dining at the home of a man called Simon the leper, in Bethany, just outside Jerusalem. The Gospel writer says that “A woman came up to [Jesus] with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table” (Matthew 26:7), and “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume” (John 12:3). That is the sort of thing we would expect. This precious ointment, a kind of perfume, worth a whole year’s wages (John 12:5), was held in an equally precious jar made of translucent alabaster.

But here in 2 Corinthians 4, Paul says that the gospel – an even more precious treasure – is transported throughout the world and conveyed to the human race in very ordinary containers. Jars of clay, clay pots, these were for everyday use in ancient times. They were the pots and pans of that era, the plastic dishes and disposable bottles. Plates and bowls made of other more valuable materials would have been used for fancy occasions, but clay jars were the work-a-day vessels. In a wealthy home it would be gold, silver and stoneware in the dining room, but earthenware in the kitchen. Moreover, clay jars were quite fragile, easily cracked, often broken. But no matter; they were just as easily replaced. And that is what we, as servants of Christ, are: we are all jars of clay, every last one of us.

Glory for God, Confidence for us

There is a reason why God has chosen to entrust the ministry of the gospel to frail and imperfect human beings. For one thing, that’s the only kind there are! If God insisted on using only perfectly flawless messengers to deliver his flawlessly perfect message, he would find himself with none to choose from.

But there is another, more important reason. In fact, God has a clear purpose for using these temporary human vessels to convey the treasures of his eternal gospel. “We have this treasure in jars of clay,” Paul writes, “in order to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (v.7). Earlier he had written something similar in 1 Corinthians 2.

“I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”

1 Corinthians 2:2-5, ESV

Any real results that happen from the ministry of God’s word, any lasting changes that come when the gospel touches peoples lives, are God’s doing, not the ministers, not the servants! The life and power are in the contents, not the container! The Bible tells us this for our assurance, so that if we believe in Jesus Christ, we may be sure it isn’t because some preacher convinced us, or because some argument persuaded us. That would mean that our faith was based on human eloquence and human reason, which might mean that it would last only until some more powerful preacher or more convincing argument came along. No, if we believe in “Jesus Christ and him crucified,” as Paul put it, it is because God himself has worked this faith within us by his Spirit through the message of the gospel. It comes through the Spirit of God and in power. That means our faith doesn’t rest on human wisdom but God’s own strength, which leads us to give all the glory for our salvation to God, and to put all our hope and confidence for the future in him.

Lessons for Ministers

The fact that we have this gospel treasure in jars of clay offers a couple of useful lessons to us as servants of Christ as well. The first is a reminder: the Christian ministry is not about us. We’re just the vessel, not the contents. Once and for all, the gospel is about Jesus Christ, not anyone or anything else. “For we do not preach ourselves,” Paul says, “but Jesus Christ as Lord” (v.5a). Any personality-centered ministry cannot be a true gospel ministry. The ministry of the Word of God is no ego trip. It’s not my ideas, my experience, my insights, my personality that I preach, says Paul; these are not really important.

The business of the ministry is to preach Jesus Christ as Lord, to proclaim that he is Lord, and why he is Lord, and the implications of his lordship for all of life, beginning with my own life. And here’s the great implication of Jesus’ lordship for our lives. It turns each and every one of us into a servant: “What we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” That’s how Paul put it. The ministry is not a glamour profession for power hungry egotists; it is only for those who are willing to serve. Happy the church with such a ministry!

Here’s another lesson for ministers of Jesus Christ. If every true minister of Christ understands himself or herself to be a jar of clay, it can be greatly encouraging. Because it means that despite our weakness and failures, God’s work will go on through us. Every servant of Christ is going to make mistakes, sin, stumble, crack, even occasionally break. Every minister will struggle with weakness, discouragement, and a sense of personal inadequacy. But that does not really affect the truth and the reality and even the power of the gospel. Now this does not in any way condone the sin of ministers. We cannot plead our weakness as an excuse for moral failure.

The gospel is often brought into terrible disrepute by the scandalous behavior of those who bear the name of Christ, especially clergy who have an added measure of responsibility as leaders to live a life worthy of the gospel (Philippians 1:27). We must do everything in our power to follow the Jesus’ way. And if and when we stumble and fall, we must be willing to pay the consequences. But if this truth that we have the treasure of the gospel in our frail and imperfect human selves, if it does not excuse the sin of ministers, neither does it invalidate the ministry of sinners. Our spiritual and moral failures, our weaknesses and our sin, do not and cannot finally negate what God can do through us.

Now the apostle’s practical application of all of this is expressed in a phrase of encouragement that rings out both at the beginning and the conclusion of 2 Corinthians chapter 4: “Therefore we do not lose heart” (vv.1, 16). Paul knew what it was to be disappointed in people. Neither the Christian life nor the gospel ministry was a cakewalk for him. Paul’s heart was broken often, his spirit crushed, when friends failed him, when colleagues betrayed him, when enemies criticized and slandered him, when hearers rejected him. But it never made him quit. He never said, “That’s it, I’ve had it. That’s enough!” (cf. vv.8-9). Paul did not lose heart; he kept on keeping on proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord and himself as a servant for Christ’s sake – and so must we.