Jars Of Clay
In 1947, a Bedouin boy was herding his goats in the Judean wilderness along the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. One of his goats strayed from the flock so, naturally, he went after it. As he searched for the goat, he absentmindedly tossed a stone into one of the caves that dotted the sea cliffs in the area. When the stone disappeared into the dark mouth of the cave, it was immediately followed by the sound of breaking pottery.
Boys are curious; ask me how I know. So, he had to find out what had made that unusual noise. The rock had hit a ceramic pot containing scrolls made of both papyrus and leather. I’m sure he had no idea of the impact his accidental discovery would have on the world.
While we don’t know all the details of his discovery, we know these ancient documents today as The Qumran Scrolls, or The Dead Sea Scrolls. When they were discovered, they were already nearly twenty centuries old. Eventually, they lead archeologists to numerous other caves in the Qumran area. Those caves contained tens of thousands of manuscript fragments.
The Dead Sea Scrolls give us confidence in the reliability of the Old Testament manuscripts because the differences between the previous manuscripts and those found in Qumran were so small. It’s a blessing to see how God preserved His Word down through the centuries, protecting it from extinction and guarding it against error.
I thought about The Dead Sea Scrolls because of the text before us today. In Second Corinthians 4:7, Paul writes, “but we have this treasure in earthen vessels…” What is Paul talking about? What is the treasure, and who, or what, are the earthen vessels?
I hope you can stay with me as we explore the answers to those questions and more in our continuing study from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. Our study is titled Jars of Clay. So, listen as I read the text, Second Corinthians 4:7 to 12.
Paul’s teaching informs us of the WAYS God reveals Jesus to the world through “Jars of Clay.”
The first WAY God reveals Jesus to the world through jars of clay is,
Treasure in Unlikely Containers
As I said earlier, I’m sure that Bedouin shepherd boy had no idea of the incredible value of the contents of that random, old, broken clay pot. Most scholars credit the ancient Essenes with the preservation of these precious documents. You would think that something of such value would be stored in a more durable container, like bronze, or stone. But the Essenes knew the climate of the region and concluded that putting these valuable documents in these clay pots would be the best way to preserve them for a long, long time. And history proved them right.
As we reflect on these verses, let’s remember we’re in the section of this letter where Paul is defending his ministry in response to his critics. The sufferings he experienced, and his own personal weaknesses didn’t show the failure of his ministry, but rather, they proved the validity of his ministry.
Paul wrote that “we have this treasure in earthen vessels [or clay pots].” What treasure is Paul talking about? If you go back to the preceding verse, he talks about “…the light of the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (If you want to learn more about this phrase in verse six, I urge you to listen to my teaching just before this session.) That light of the knowledge of God is the Gospel, the Good News; and that’s the treasure we Christ-followers carry in our frail bodies, our clay pots.
Let’s think about clay pots for a moment. Clay pots in Paul’s day were kind of like plastic containers are for us today. They were cheap and they were available in all sizes. Clay pots were used for all kinds of things; some honorable, some not so honorable. But when a clay pot was damaged, it wasn’t repaired, it was thrown away. As a result, broken pottery is something that’s found in great abundance in archeological excavations.
Have you ever wondered why God in His absolute sovereignty chose to rely on flawed human beings like you and me to communicate His message to the world? We’re fearful, we’re selfish, we’re inconsistent in our devotion to Him, and yet He loves us and graciously uses us as part of His plan to bring His light to the world. Why?
Well, the end of verse seven tells us. It says “…so that the exceeding greatness of the power may be of God, and not of us.” If you and I were good, if we were full of courage, if we were unselfish, etcetera, etcetera, we wouldn’t need God. People would celebrate our goodness and would honor us. So, the very fact of our brokenness highlights the power of God. We KNOW, and so do those around us, that we don’t have the power to transform our own lives, much less the lives of others. God chooses to use us in spite of all our faults and failures so that any good that comes from our lives is attributed to Him, not to us.
I don’t believe Paul was disparaging the human body by his analogy with clay pots. He was only contrasting the relative insignificance of the container bearing the light with the surpassing beauty and worth of the Light.
What a privilege that God would place His glorious message in such unlikely containers.
The next WAY God reveals Jesus to the world through jars of clay is,
Trouble for Despised Containers
In the forward of his book, Inside Out, Larry Crabb wrote: “Modern Christianity, in a dramatic reversal of its biblical form, promises to relieve the pain of living in a fallen world. The message, whether it’s from fundamentalists requiring us to live by a favored set of rules or from charismatics urging deeper surrender to the Spirit’s power, is too often the same: The promise of bliss is for NOW! Complete satisfaction can be ours this side of heaven….”
But look at what Paul wrote. In verses eight and nine he uses a series of present, passive, participles to paint a vivid picture of his experiences in ministry. The grammar reveals that these include things that happened to him in the past, things that are happening at the moment, and things he anticipates happening in the future.
It isn’t a comforting list, but it agrees with his words to young Timothy, “…all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” And Paul is only echoing the words of Jesus, who told His disciples, “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world,” John 16:33.
Paul says, and I paraphrase, “we are hard pressed on every side, like grapes in the winepress, but we are not crushed. We are bewildered and see no way out, but we’re not driven to the point of despair. We are pursued by our enemies, but not forsaken or left in their power. We are struck down by our pursuers, yet we are not killed.”
And, furthermore, Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, “Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; being defamed, we entreat. We have been made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things until now.” Does that sound like “your best life now?”
As I meditated on Paul’s words, my mind went back to one of the early Anabaptists, Dirk Willems, whose experiences illustrate so well what Paul wrote. The year was 1569 and Dirk was a faithful follower of Jesus in Holland. Like many of his Anabaptist peers, he was wanted by the state church for his heretical views.
When the authorities came to arrest him, he fled, and he was hotly pursued. In the course of his escape, he crossed a lightly frozen body of water at considerable peril. The man who was chasing him attempted to cross the same ice, but part way across broke through.
Now, Dirk faced a dilemma. What should he do? When he realized that his unconverted pursuer was in danger of losing his life, and entering a Christless eternity, Dirk turned around and helped his pursuer to safety. The rescued man pled with the authorities to release Dirk, but they refused. After severe imprisonment and great trials, he suffered a slow death at a lingering fire kindled by the state church authorities.
Now, you might be ready to disagree with me using Dirk Willems as an example because he did lose his life. But what about the words of Jesus in Matthew 16:25? “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” Dirk lost his physical life, but he gained eternal life which he can never lose.
As despised jars of clay bearing the light of the Gospel, the Scriptures, and the experiences of the saints of all ages, assure us that in this world we will have trouble and sorrow. But one day, these despised containers will be recreated in the likeness of our Savior and our sorrow will give way to the ultimate joy.
The final WAY God reveals Jesus to the world through jars of clay is,
Transition for Expendable Containers
Paul makes it clear that our bodies are constantly exposed to the same putting to death that Jesus suffered. His suffering was the result of attacks against Christ. Those who hate Jesus take out their vengeance on those who represent Him. That’s what Paul means by “…always carrying about in [our] body the dying of the Lord Jesus…”
If I understand Paul correctly in verse eleven, he wore his sufferings as a badge of his loyalty to Christ. He realized that these sufferings were a channel for the light of the power of Christ to be revealed. That’s why he wrote, “…for we who live are constantly being handed over to death for the sake of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.”
Being handed over to death is the same language used in Matthew 27:2 where the religious leaders handed Jesus over to Pilate. But this parallel with Christ’s death is offset by the parallel with Christ’s triumph – life through resurrection. The more we die to self, the more clearly Jesus is seen. We echo the words of John the Baptist; “He must increase, I must decrease.”
Few of us have suffered like the apostle Paul, but we all go through hard things in life. Let’s not forget that our earthly containers are expendable, they will wear out, and will ultimately return to the dust from which they were taken. The goal of our lives must be that Jesus is revealed through our unlikely, despised, and expendable containers.
As I close, think about your own experiences, and be encouraged by this story.
A water bearer in India had two large pots, each hung on each end of a pole which he carried across his neck. One pot had a crack in it, while the other pot was perfect. The perfect pot was always full at the end of the long walk from the stream to the master’s house, but the cracked pot arrived only half full.
For a full two years, this went on every day, with the bearer delivering only one and a half pots full of water in his master’s house.
As you might imagine, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments, perfect to the end for which it was made. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfection and miserable that it was able to accomplish only half of what it had been made to do.
After two years of what it perceived to be bitter failure, it spoke to the water bearer one day by the stream. “I am ashamed of myself, and I want to apologize to you.”
“Why?” asked the bearer. “What are you ashamed of?”
“I have been able, for these past two years, to deliver only half my load because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your master’s house. Because of my flaws, you have to do all of this work, and you don’t get full value from your efforts,” the pot said.
The water bearer felt sorry for the old, cracked pot, and in his compassion, he said, “As we return to the master’s house, I want you to notice the beautiful flowers along the path.” That day, as they went up the hill, the old, cracked pot took notice of the sun warming the beautiful wildflowers on the side of the path, and this cheered it some.
But at the master’s house, it still felt bad because it had leaked out half its contents. So, it apologized again for its failure. The bearer said to the pot, “Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of your path, but not on the other side?
I have always known about your flaw, and I took advantage of it. I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back from the stream, you’ve watered them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate my master’s table. Without you being just the way you are, he would not have this beauty to grace his house.”
Each of us has our own unique flaws. We’re all damaged jars of clay. But if we allow Him to do His work, the Lord will use our flaws to grace His Father’s table and to show His beauty and glory to the world around us.