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Jars of Clay (2 Cor. 4:5-15)

by Bob Yarbrough

The other day I was reading 2 Corinthians 4:5-15 and it caused me to think again of the great treasure that we, the church, possess.  Please read it from several translations. The Message Bible is especially striking.  I would like to discuss this passage with you, but first let me tell you a story from the pages of the Old Testament in the book of Judges.

The book of Judges assumes a cyclical mode to describe God’s dealing with Israel.  The sequence can be summed up in five words:  Sin, Oppression, Supplication Deliverance, and Silence. In the story (Judges 6-7), Israel was at a low point in their obedience to God, and He was punishing them under the oppressive hand of the Midianites, and they realized His hand of judgement was upon them.   When they cried out to God, He raised up a deliverer – this time in a most unlikely farmer named Gideon.  An angel of the Lord came and said to him while he was threshing wheat, “The Lord is with you, O mighty warrior.”  Gideon must have looked over his shoulder, for He was anything but that.  He was a  nobody, a weak farmer.  He even said to the angel, “I’m a nobody in a family of nobodies.  My clan is the weakest, and I am the least in my clan.  How can I save Israel?”  As yet he did not realize the potential within him – the power that God would release through this weak vessel.

Through a series of tests which Gideon in weakness felt the need to initiate, (the dew on, then not on the fleece being only one of several of these tests) Gideon agreed to lead an army against the Midianites.  The selection of an Israeli army for him to command was totally unusual and unorthodox.  He mustered together about 32,000 men.  Too big!  Anybody afraid?  22,000 went home.  Then 10,000 could not drink water correctly at the river’s edge leaving only 300 men to fight the enemy.  Now, hilariously outnumbered  –  even the enemy camels could not be numbered.   But more of this story later.

I want to turn again to our scripture text in (4:5-12) which reminds us of our relationship to each other and of our responsibility to the message of the cross.

The first thing I notice is that we do have a distinct message (4:5-7). The Message we have is not about us, it is about Jesus Christ.  Further, it can be summed up quite nicely in John 3:16.  We are simply messengers, errand runners, for Jesus.  He has fashioned us into His body (the church) and we grow in faith as we minister to each other and to a spiritually dying world. God forbid that we should boast or brag about our efforts or on ourselves.  We share Jesus with others and build each other up in the faith.  That is what Paul meant in Ephesians 4:15-16 when he told us to speak the truth in love and grow up in Christ.  It is from Him that the whole body (the church as a whole) is held together by every supporting ligament (individual members – you and me). And the church grows and builds itself up, as we each do our part.   In other words:  the church grows the church.  We support each other and build each other up.   The message is “light” to a dying world, and God has made that light shine in our hearts and to a dark world in order to reflect the glory of Christ, the one who is bright and beautiful.  What an awesome joy and privilege!

 

This message is God’s power (his all-surpassing power (v. 7b).  It exists as a paradox – that God came down in the flesh to die on the cross so that we might live.  Is it any wonder the cross is a stumbling block to so many people: “ For the word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God “(1 Cor. 1:18).  Elsewhere Paul said that he was not ashamed of the gospel, for it was the power of God to save…(Rom. 1:17)

The second thing I notice is that sharing the message and living the Christian life is not without its perils

( 4:8-15)

     (4:8-9As Paul found out, and what he wants us to know is that sometimes we can be sore pressed at every point but not hemmed in….persecuted by men but never abandoned by God…..at our wits end but never at our hope’s end….knocked down but not knocked out.  Sometimes the spiritual battle is real.  Just ask those who have been martyred or suffered greatly for the faith.  We can be somewhat uncomfortable when we sing:

“Am I a soldier of the cross, a follower of the Lamb?

And shall I fear to own His cause or blush to speak His name.

Must I be carried to the skies on flowery beds of ease.

While others fought to win the prize and sailed through bloody seas?”

(4:8-12)  In this passage we are introduced to another paradox.  Experiencing the life of Christ requires an acceptance of death.  To Paul that was very real as he reveals in verse 4:11 “we are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus sake.”  He had just explained what he meant in vs. 8-9 by the terms: afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down.   You see, when we die He lives, when we lose He wins, when we are weak He is strong, when we are dependent He is powerful.  That’s the beauty of this paradox.

Romanian pastor Richard Wurmbrand spent 14 years in prison for preaching the gospel.  Although his captors smashed four of his vertebrae and burned holes in his body, they could not defeat him.  He testified, “Alone in my cell, cold, hungry, and in rags, I danced for joy each night.”  During this time he turned to a fellow prisoner, a man he had led to the Lord before they were arrested, and asked, “Have you any resentment against me that I brought you to Christ?”  His response: “I have no words to express my thankfulness that you brought me to the wonderful Savior.  I would never have it another way.”  These two men exemplify the supernatural joy that can be experienced by believers who live on the edge of death as the result of being severely persecuted.

(4:13-15)  We should not keep this message quiet because it is our hope.  Why did Paul continue to serve God even though it meant suffering for him?  First, because the message was true.  Like the psalmist (Psa.116:10), he preached it because he believed it.  How could he do otherwise?  Second, he knew this life is not all there is.  The same power that raised Christ from the dead would raise him also if he should die.  The resurrection of Jesus guarantees the resurrection of all believers.  This truth united his readers with himself.  His reference to reunion with the Corinthians in heaven probably implies his genuine love for them and for us.

The third thing I notice, and the most astounding of all, is that we have this Message (TREASURE) in Jars of Clay (4:7).  That message is also a person: Jesus Christ.  In Colossians 1:27 Paul calls it a mystery: the fact that Christ dwells within believers.  The indwelling Spirit of the Godhead dwells within!  Romans 8:9 says, “If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is none of His.”  Now the mother of all paradoxes is the fact that Jesus Christ (this treasure) dwells in clay pots (v. 7).  The term “earthen vessel” is used to emphasize the human body; and contrast our physical earthly condition with the tremendous spiritual power of the gospel and the indwelling Spirit in our lives.  The treasure that every Christian possesses is “the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (v.6).  A small copper coin could purchase a pottery lamp in the Corinthian market place.  But the analogy was clear: it did not matter how cheap or fragile they were so long as they showed the light.  Its worth comes from what it holds, not from what it is.

The name Michelangelo brings to mind one of the great artistic geniuses of all time.  As a painter and sculptor, he produced some of the masterworks of Italian Renaissance art.  One of his greatest achievements is the statue of David that stands in the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence, Italy.  It is of particular interest because it was created out of a huge block of marble on which another sculptor had worked without success 40 years before, and which had been lying idle ever since.  Michelangelo took this piece of stone, which had refused to yield itself to an earlier hammer and chisel, and produced a figure of the young David, poised and watchful ready to spring into action against the challenging Goliath, which has been the wonder of the world of sculpture ever since it was completed in the year 1504.

Like that block of marble, or like the jars of clay of which Paul wrote, we are of little value in ourselves.  It takes the hand of the master sculptor to refashion us into something of enduring worth.  But when we allow Him to have a free hand, we have the marvelous privilege of becoming containers for an eternal treasure – the glorious person and gospel of Jesus Christ.

Can you just imagine what God has entrusted to us?  We are just clay pots holding a supernatural and eternal treasure.  God’s purpose (v.7) is to prevent anyone from confusing His incomparable power to that of us; and further contrast the relative insignificance and unattractiveness of the light-bearers with the surpassing worth and beauty of the light (i.e., God’s glory).  But as the old song so eloquently says:

“We shall not wait till that glorious morning breaks on the vision so fair,

Now we may welcome the glorious morning.  Now we his image may bear.”

It is precisely the Christian’s utter frailty which lays him open to the experience of the all-sufficiency of God’s grace, so that he is able even to rejoice because of his weakness – something that astonishes the world, which thinks only in terms of human ability.  Our glory is in the cross. What a privilege to bear the image of Christ – this unspeakable treasure in our jar of clay!

So now, as Paul Harvey was fond of saying, “And now, the rest of the story.”

Poor Gideon, outnumbered 1000 to 1.  He gathered his army of 300 and further divided it into 3 companies of 100 each.  Their weapons consisted of a trumpet, a lighted torch hidden within a clay jar (Judges 7:16).  At night, they encircled the enemy’s camp and at the signal they blew their trumpets and broke the jars, then the light of the torch shone brightly for the enemy to see.  As they did, they gave a shout of attack and victory – “The sword of the Lord and of Gideon.”  The enemy was routed, and in confusion they fought with each other.  As they fled, Gideon called out for all Israel to pursue the Midianites – which they did and drove the enemy out of the land capturing their leaders.

The analogies are plentiful, so I shall mention just three.

  1. Gideon, a weak, frail farmer and a jar of clay himself, used a jar of clay to defeat the enemy. What an ironic lesson for us – a jar of clay used a jar of clay.  God can use us (jars of clay) for His glory. “Just as I am, I come.”
  2. The jar of clay was broken to reveal the torch that reflected the light (the treasure if you please) that caused the enemy to flee. Merely breaking a jar would be nothing – just another sound in the night. It was only when the jar was broken to reveal the light was there fear and confusion in the enemy camp.  The jar of clay was something to be broken in order for the treasure inside to be revealed.  Similarly, we jars of clay must be broken to let the light of Jesus be seen in our lives.  It is not about us, it is about the treasure inside us (vs. 4:7).
  3. God performed this victory so that all may see that it was he who delivered Israel – not Gideon. Similarly, God has made us clay pots so that the transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ (the treasure inside the jar) is supernatural and not just human.  You see, a vessel’s worth comes from what it holds, not from what it is.  God did it all.  “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:8)  It is all of grace.  “Because of His great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved.” (Eph. 2:4-5)

As a result, Gideon’s name is mention in the list of the Hall of Heroes in

Hebrews 11.  These are all people who lived by faith.  Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see (11: 1).  And I might add, that is the only way to please God (11: 6).

Paul encouraged Timothy to be the kind of person Christ could use for his noblest purposes.  He said for him to “be an instrument for noble purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work.” (2 Tim. 2:21).  In other words, just be an old clay pot, while  holding a treasure that is beyond your wildest understanding and imagination.

 

               Bob Yarbrough lives in Forney, Texas and is an Elder at Centerpoint Church in Mesquite, Texas




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Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.

2 corinthians 1:3-4