2nd Corinthians 4:5-7
5You see, we don’t go around preaching about ourselves. We preach that Jesus Christ is Lord, and we ourselves are your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6For God, who said, “Let there be light in the darkness,” has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ.
7We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves.
If a VIP comes to your house, let’s say, me, you would prepare your best dish, sushi. And to honor someone you love, but more importantly, to showcase the hours you put into your best dish, wouldn’t you put it in the China set showcased in the China cabinet?
Would you serve your best dish on a paper plate? The plate expresses how you value what you put on it. Angus Barn doesn’t serve steak on a paper plate. There is deep connection between the food and the plate. They shall match.
So it is with anything else, the style matches the substance, the hall matches the performance, and the treasure should match the jar that holds it.
So why would you put such a treasure as the gospel on jars of clay?
Even more, the display deeply affects the experience of the content.
Sushi on a paper plate doesn’t taste as fresh. Starbucks coffee in a dinky paper cup is not Starbucks anymore. And anyone who claims they can pick out Starbucks from Folgers in a paper cup are snobs.
Joshua Bell is the most famous violinist today. What Yo-Yo Ma is to cello, Joshua Bell is to violin. The only reason Yo-Yo Ma is more well known to the public is because his name sounds hip-hop-ish.
“My brother plays cello, oh man he’s Chinese!”
Sociologists did a test to see how much an environment affects experience, whether virtuoso music can be appreciated no matter the place. We would like to think so, that we can pick out beauty no matter its display.
Joshua Bell played at a metro station in D.C. He played pieces he plays at Carnegie Hall with the same sweat drenching passion. The hidden camera shows swell of people, flowing in and out of the station, perfectly ignoring this world class violinist as a homeless. Two or three stop to listen for a minute then rush to their routine. One individual at finally stops and after Bell had finished a piece, identifies him and thanks him, and gets an unexpected blessing of meeting her violin hero in a subway station! Many pay arm and a leg to have dinner with him.
It seems we can only hear a masterpiece when it comes with the concert hall and the ticket price. The external, the display is a great part of the experience.
So why put the gospel in jars of clay?
People would dismiss it!
If someone showed me a relatively unknown drawing of one of Picasso’s later work, I would look at it and ask, “So who is the five year old?”
But because I see it in a museum in a huge fancy golden frame and the tag next to it says “Picasso” I look at it and say brilliant, while looking for what brilliance that is exactly.
The more precious a thing, the more important that the display be equal to what is being displayed. The display is so much of the experience that you can miss out on the treasure.
So why put the gospel in Jars of Clay?
To be clear of the power of the gospel
So there is no confusion to where the power is from. The power is from the gospel and not those who display it. Because the display, the expression, the style can appear so brilliant, that one can forget where the real power of the gospel is from.
Firstly, so the person who hears the gospel truly hears the gospel.
Because we are so easily impressed, a jar of gold can distract from the treasure inside. And God desires his children to be moved by the gospel and not by the show.
This is why in the gospels, especially Mark, Jesus is constantly dismissing the crowd: telling people healed to stay quiet, and sushing demons. Jesus would enter a synagogue and a demon would speak through a person under his influence, “I know who you are, the Son of God to destroy us.”
I would think, well demon, thanks for helping the spread of the gospel because though you say it in fear, it is the truth, now everyone knows who I am and what I am here to do, thanks to you, to restore this world, so you keep on shouting it. But Jesus silences them and sends them out before they can say another sentence. Because there is such a thing as loving the show more than the truth. Because people could follow him to see him exorcise demons, to see him to marvelous things and miss the true power of the gospel which is deep inner transformation of the heart and the world.
I remember a feedback meeting I had after a youth retreat where I counseled as a college student. And the question was what we could have done better for worship. And one student said that it would have been better if the lights were dimmer, if the ceilings were higher, the music was softer, and the carpet was less dusty.
Feedback helps us to be faithful to do our part. But it is dangerous to believe that the experience of the gospel depends greatly on how we present it, as if the gospel is not powerful enough in its unadorned proclamation.
I know that in Syria, roof torn churches are packed with Christians and they encounter God. I know that in China, small groups meet in apartments because they are not part of the official government-sanctioned church, and God move people to tears of repentance. The gospel is powerful regardless of its display.
And I wonder if sometimes if the American church has made to proclamation of the gospel, too showy, our display so bright that actually it no longer shows the gospel but blinds us to it? After the well done concert and conference, how many go back to follow Christ more faithfully.
But to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, they can hear the music of gospel even in a busy Metro station.
Practically, stop worrying about how to present the gospel. Just proclaim it. Even if you mumble through it.
Last year, a person from Nationwide came to sell me life insurance. We got to talk about what we believe and he told me he was a follower of Christ. I asked him how he came to know Christ. He answered, an elderly lady neighbor told him God loves you when he was a teen, and the next day left a bible in his mailbox. He picked it up and read it, and never looked back.
The simple proclamation is far more effective because there will be no confusion for the hearing, about the power of the gospel, it is from God.
Secondly, it means anyone can be the messenger of the gospel
For the only qualification to show the resplendent treasure of the gospel is that we are jars of clay.
Paul is very intentional about this image. He first means that it is for common people. Only rich have jars of gold. A slave has a jar of clay to hold water.
Every one of us who has received the gospel and baptized are the messengers of God. You have the most crucial assignment, the most important appointment, the most honorable calling. You have the good news of God’s redeeming love.
But I am just so messed up, so easily depressed, so easily distracted, so easily hurt. Perfect! Your very weakness, what makes you so fragile, is what makes you the perfect jar to display the treasure.
Yes! You are the messenger of God.
All those things you list as disqualifications are the exact things that make you perfect.
Paul himself knows this, that actually he is utterly unqualified to be the apostle of the gospel.
This was exactly the accusations of the Corinthian Church and he was admitting to it.
The Corinthian church loved Paul when he first came to them. Paul loved the Corinthian church so much so that he stayed their 2 ½ years. He never stayed that long in any city. He wrote them several letters. We only have two but we think there was definitely a third one, which this letter refers to, maybe even a fourth one. He visited the city at least three times.
But Corinth quickly fell out of love with Paul when other apostles came ambling through their city flashing their credentials.
Some said they walked with Jesus, even dined with them.
Some said they were with Peter, who was the handpicked successor of Jesus.
Some liked the new apostles simply because they were better looking and taller, and when you are listening to a speaker, it helps that the speaker is good looking.
Some liked the new apostles because they spoke really well, gave Cicero a run for his money.
When they saw these apostles and then looked back at Paul, well, Paul just didn’t match up.
It’s like dating your high school sweetheart of your town of 200 and you think you snatched the handsomest boy, then you go to college and the boys are bigger and look like Hollywood stars and you call off the wedding with your now ex-fiance.
Paul was short and balding. Short and bald doesn’t really embody power and authority. So they said Paul writes well, but when you look at him, or rather look down at him, well there is nothing much to him.
In fact they even got to call these newer, better, handsomer, taller, better credentials, longer resumes super apostles, or they themselves used it, which is big-headed of them.
The super-apostles were jars of gold. Paul and his posse were jars of clay.
And they were.
Paul, murderer of Stephen, never met Jesus in person. Only in a vision. And anyone can claim a vision.
Timothy a mutt, half-Jew and half-Gentile, a son of a single mom.
They were all jars of clay. And Paul says you are right. We are nothing. We are absolutely nothing compared to those super apostles. But God puts the gospel in jars of clay so for those who really seek truth can see that the power of the apostles, were never the apostles but the gospel.
Every one of us can display the gospel through lives!
Our very weakness, our very inability, our very fragility, our very breakability makes us the perfect candidate of the gospel
Our mortal weakness
Paul is purposeful using jars of clay. He is referring to the material of our body. We are also clay. We are made of dust. A jar of clay, the mud one walks on, the mud our body becomes is all of the same matter. We are clay. We are frail mortals.
We forget this. We deny this. We act out like we are gods. We live like we are immortals. When Paul tells us we are jars of clay, he is not telling us to lower our self. Rather he is saying be honest with yourself. We are made of clay. When we decompose, and we all will, there is no way to distinguish what was once our eyes and what is a fertilizer.
A month ago, a pastor I know got into a car accident. The talk around the congregation was that he must’ve gotten into an accident because he was judged. No, it is part of being clay. We live in a broken world with a broken body that will break and eventually break for good until God reforms it.
So Paul lists all the physical difficulties and harms. He says it not so much to boast of his suffering, but that he suffers as any other clay mortals.
And it is the fact that his bodily suffering, by the way he endures them, will only bring greater glory that he can endure:
2 Corinthians 5:8-18
8We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. 9We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. 10Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies.
11Yes, we live under constant danger of death because we serve Jesus, so that the life of Jesus will be evident in our dying bodies. 12So we live in the face of death, but this has resulted in eternal life for you.
13But 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.” 14We know that God, who raised the Lord Jesus, will also raise us with Jesus and present us to himself together with you. 15All of this is for your benefit. And as God’s grace reaches more and more people, there will be great thanksgiving, and God will receive more and more glory.
16That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. 17For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! 18So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever.
Ron knows this firsthand, how we are clay thus we suffer in our body, but how our suffering, the weakness of our body makes us trust God and thus make the power of God more brilliant.
Practically, don’t take the difficulties and suffering as judgment. It is part of the living with this clay. But know that how you deal with it is going to shine the treasure of the gospel.
Our Moral Weakness
Even our moral weakness can serve the glory of the gospel. For what if only the righteous can share the gospel? The power is not in the gospel but the power of virtue. And that would be a contradiction. For the gospel is that we are all sinners. So the one who can prove the gospel is a sinner.
In fact, it is sin that makes the gospel clearer. As Paul says in Romans 5, where sin abounds, grace abounds even more.
So does this mean I should sin greatly! Paul continues on in Romans 6 to address that question, “Should we go on sinning so grace may abound more? No!”
It simply means that our sins cannot disqualify us because our righteousness cannot qualify us. Our desire for righteousness comes from the love of God. But in this clay, we can never love God perfectly. And when we botch up, and we will, we should not stop proclaiming the gospel.
Paul had lot of strength and lot of weakness. He was a Roman citizen that helped him appeal to Caesar’s court. But do you know what got him there? Not every citizen gets to go to Caesar. It was because of his past. He killed Christians. Now he is ready to die for Christ. His life was too much of a testimony. So the leaders who once coddled him wants to kill him. So much so that a group of them commit to fasting until they have his head. This alarms the Roman centurion to think Paul can cause such behavior in the Jewish leadership that they have to send him away from Jerusalem. So Paul goes to Rome.
Paul’s strength played a part. But it was Paul’s weakness, that Paul murdered Stephen, that is actually used to make this great accomplishment. So that in 30 years, you have a Christian standing before Caesar saying Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. It was Paul’s moral weakness that gave him the largest stage for proclamation.
Practically, if you have great sin, or in a great sin, or in habitual sin, then you have to proclaim the gospel. Love God, be transformed, but don’t wait until you are better. You won’t get much better. You’ve got to learn to trust. And part of that trust is preaching the gospel as jars of clay.
Lest you think for Paul this sin does not wear heavily on him:
1 Timothy 1:12-17
12I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength to do his work. He considered me trustworthy and appointed me to serve him, 13even though I used to blaspheme the name of Christ. In my insolence, I persecuted his people. But God had mercy on me because I did it in ignorance and unbelief. 14Oh, how generous and gracious our Lord was! He filled me with the faith and love that come from Christ Jesus.
15This is a trustworthy saying, and everyone should accept it: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I am the worst of them all. 16But God had mercy on me so that Christ Jesus could use me as a prime example of his great patience with even the worst sinners. Then others will realize that they, too, can believe in him and receive eternal life. 17All honor and glory to God forever and ever! He is the eternal King, the unseen one who never dies; he alone is God. Amen.
This does not mean we have to commit some great sin. Because are all great sinners. It is coming to face with the greatness of our sin. What you think of yourself, your self-regard, do you think that is who you really are before the Holy God.
We are all great sinners. But that is what makes us so perfect for the gospel!