My favourite texts: Clay Jars

In 1947, a young Bedouin shepherd tossed a rock into a cave at Qumram near the Dead Sea. He heard a cracking sound and investigated. To his amazement, he found clay jars filled with papyrus and leather scrolls almost 20 centuries old. Tens of thousands more scroll fragments were discovered in nearby caves. These treasures had been preserved by a Jewish sect called the Essenes, before the Romans destroyed their settlement in 68AD. The Dead Sea scrolls contain most of the Old Testament books, including two full copies of Isaiah. In Biblical times, valuables like sacred parchments, money and jewels were often placed inside cheap, ordinary clay jars to safeguard and pass on to future generations. Unlike their costly contents, there was nothing fancy about these clay jars, which were made from sand and cracked easily. They were humble, transient household vessels to steward an enduring treasure. This is what Paul’s readers in Corinth understood when they read 2 Corinthians 4, especially verse 7:

For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11 For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 12 So death is at work in us, but life in you. (2 Cor 4:5-12).

Treasure in clay jars

From the whole chapter, it is clear that Paul’s “treasure” is the gospel of the suffering, crucified and risen Christ. It is a message to be safeguarded and passed on through ordinary Christians like us, who live and speak for Jesus, as He lives in and through us.

As a Christian, it is easy to think that we will live for Christ in the next phase of life, when troubles ease up, or we are stronger, older, wiser and better trained to be his witness. It’s easy to see ourselves as his vessel in church or on mission trips, but not behind the kitchen sink, our desk, our car’s steering wheel or in a hospital bed.

But jars of clay are by definition unimpressive, ordinary and easily broken. They are common household objects made from dust, as we are. The power is not in the container, but in its life-giving contents. Credit is not due to the storyteller, but to God’s great, eternal story, whose protagonist is Jesus (2 Cor 4:5). According to Paul, God’s glory is most vividly seen when His people showcase the life and death of Jesus. Ironically, Christ is revealed not apart from our ordinary lives, but in and through them.

Paul’s clay jar

I’m skeptical of people who speak of things outside their personal life experience. (Like me telling my kids all about the wonders of Maths when I can barely add two and two!) But today’s text rings true, because of the life of the man who wrote it. Paul knew a thing or two about being a battered, undistinguished clay jar. And he knew firsthand that the costly “treasure” entrusted to him on the Damascus road had power to give life to the dead; sight to the spiritually blind; worth to the worthless, and forgiveness to even the worst sinner— Saul of Tarsus, persecutor of God’s people.

Since the day he saw the ‘face’ of the risen Christ and was blinded by God’s light, all that mattered to Paul was magnifying Jesus, who suffered and died in his place. It was the undeserved grace of God that motivated him through rejection and hardships that we can barely imagine—painful floggings, hard labour, shipwrecks, near-death experiences, sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, robbery, a snake bite, exposure in the seas and wilderness (2 Cor 11:23-30Acts 17:5). Added to this were the plots of the Jews (Acts 20:19) and painful attacks of false apostles who undermined his work in Corinth. They boasted of super-spiritual credentials and mocked Paul’s weakness and afflictions as proof that he was not spiritual enough. Yet, knowing that further suffering and imprisonment awaited him, Paul continued to serve the Lord Jesus with single-minded passion. He knew he was a weak vessel through whom Christ lived:  “However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24 NIV).

Quite literally, Paul’s suffering and death for the gospel brought eternal life to millions of believers like us around the world (2 Cor 4:12).

Clay jars that serve

I can hear you say, “But I am nothing like the legendary Paul! I’m exhausted by the mere sight of a map of his missionary journeys! ” I feel the same way.

But the real Paul did not see himself as a legend at all, just a servant of the Lord (2 Cor 4:5). He served with “weakness, fear and much trembling.” He refused to peddle the gospel for his own fame or money, but just spoke directly and sincerely (2 Cor 2:17). He was not eloquent, wise or persuasive, but relied on the Spirit to bring life, so that the faith of his converts would not rest in man’s wisdom, but in God’s power alone (1 Cor 2:3-5).

Paul did not glory in his weaknesses and inadequacies, his sufferings and persecutions as a victim would do, but he knew that they were no barrier to God’s use. His competence and worth came from Christ alone, not himself. And unlike the super-apostles, he had no aspirations to be more than a clay jar.

Do we have the same attitude as Paul? Revealing the “face” of Christ is not only for apostles, missionaries or pastors. You are a uniquely placed jar, with a brief lifespan and singular opportunities that you alone will experience. When last did you talk to someone about the goodness of God in your life, or invite them to tell you their story (Ps 107:2)? Do people see that you find refuge and satisfaction in Christ, and rely on him to meet your needs? Do they watch you believing God when you are weak? Do they know that you find peace and joy in His presence, even when your circumstances are hard? Do they see you love and serve people without expecting affirmation? Have you ever thought of reading one of the gospels with a friend to re-discover the beauty of Jesus’s “face” together? Do you have hope when those around you have lost theirs?

All these “ordinary” things spotlight God’s glory and magnify the face of His Son. They also encourage other Christians in their faith.

In The Hobbit, Galadriel asks Gandalf why he brought Bilbo Baggins, a small weak hobbit, on a dangerous journey. Gandalf replies,

“Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keeps the darkness at bay, small acts of love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps it is because I am afraid, and he gives me courage.”

Clay jars that crack

In verse 7-12, Paul spotlights Christ’s power, which is most evident when we are weakest and unable to help ourselves. After all, Jesus did not come to gather the proud, but rather the poor and the destitute, the sick and the outcasts– those who were willing to repent of self importance. It’s no surprise then that our greatest strength and victory in the Christian life comes through hardship, not apart from it. The treasure of Christ shines brightest through the widest cracks in our clay pots.

That’s why Paul can make these four profound statements about every believer through whom Christ lives—Afflicted… but not crushed. Perplexed… but not in despair. Persecuted… but not forsaken. Struck down… but not destroyed (2 Cor 4:8-9). This is how Paul might answer us in our own afflictions:

Paul, I feel squeezed from every side. I’m oppressed by this darkness and can see no relief on the horizon.

“Yes, you’re hard pressed…and so was your Saviour. He bore your afflictions on the cross and stripped them of their power to crush you (Isa 53:4Matt 8:17). That’s why you’re a conqueror through Him who endured the cross for you (Rom 8:37).

Paul, I’m bewildered and confused, and don’t know what to do next. I can’t even pray.

“Yes, you’re perplexed…but Jesus is never confused. His Spirit will help and counsel you. He will strengthen and intercede in your stumbling prayers, until he has completed the work he began in you (John 14:26Phil 1:6Rom 8:26). Nothing in this world has the power to drive you to despair. Through Christ in you, you will overcome.”

Paul, I can’t take the mocking and criticism anymore. I feel a fool for believing you and the Bible, and I don’t know if I can keep standing for you any longer.

“Yes, you are persecuted for owning Christ’s name…but for His sake, you are blessed by God and never abandoned. “Lo, I will be with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt 5:10-12Matt 28:20). Nothing can separate you from God’s love in Christ” (Rom 8:39).

Paul, what if I’m knocked flat on my face by the unthinkable? What if the worst happens?

“Yes, you may be knocked down…but never knocked out. Jesus endured the unthinkable and rose to conquer it. If you are in Him and He in you, nothing can destroy you (1 Cor 4:10-12). He will fill you with joy in his presence, with eternal pleasures at His right hand” (Ps 16:11).

Broken jars that overcome.

Thank the Lord that our lives are not always dark and difficult! The Maker of all good things showers us with sweet pleasures and simple treasures to enjoy every day (Eccl 11:7-8). But we must never buy the lie that ‘victory’ always means sanctuary or deliverance from the troubles of life. That would have made Paul the most defeated Christian and Jesus the most pathetic failure that ever lived. We don’t have to wait for the “perfect” moment to show Christ’s face. That would be like a clay jar saying, “Wait until I’m painted and glazed, or until I’ve mended my cracks!” If He is our Treasure, out of our broken clay pots will come the radiance of Christ himself. That is victory.

Yet not I, but through Christ in me

Listen and pray the beautiful words of CityLight’s hymn, “Yet Not I, but Through Christ in Me”,

What gift of grace is Jesus my redeemer
There is no more for heaven now to give
He is my joy, my righteousness, and freedom
My steadfast love, my deep and boundless peace

To this I hold, my hope is only Jesus
For my life is wholly bound to His
Oh how strange and divine, I can sing: all is mine!
Yet not I, but through Christ in me

The night is dark but I am not forsaken
For by my side, the Saviour He will stay
I labour on in weakness and rejoicing
For in my need, His power is displayed

To this I hold, my Shepherd will defend me
Through the deepest valley He will lead
Oh the night has been won, and I shall overcome!
Yet not I, but through Christ in me

No fate I dread, I know I am forgiven
The future sure, the price it has been paid
For Jesus bled and suffered for my pardon

And He was raised to overthrow the grave

To this I hold, my sin has been defeated

Jesus now and ever is my plea

Oh the chains are released, I can sing: I am free!

Yet not I, but Christ in me.

With every breath I long to follow Jesus

For he has said that he will take me home

And day by day I know he will renew me

Until I stand with joy before the throne

To this I hold my hope is only Jesus

All the glory evermore to Him

When the race is complete, still my lips will repeat:

Yet not I but through Christ in me!

Amen.

(words and music by Jonny Robinson, Rich Thompson and Michael Farren.

Habakkuk’s Hope

Though the fig tree should not blossom,
    nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
    and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
    and there be no herd in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
    I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
19 God, the Lord, is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the deer’s;
    he makes me tread on my high places.

To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments (Habakkuk 3:17-19)

The last three weeks may have convinced you that Habakkuk was a prophet of doom, not hope. After all, his nation is corrupt to the core and God is about to punish them through the Babylonians. Habakkuk’s job is to tell Judah of impending disaster and then wait in faith and faithfulness. But surprisingly, Habakkuk’s oracle ends on a note of confidence, joy and hope. Even triumph. Is Habakkuk’s hope just wishful thinking or naïve optimism? I don’t think so. The prophet’s beautiful closing hymn is realistic about the coming desolation of his homeland. He knows that the land’s barrenness is the outcome of Judah’s sin. But Habakkuk’s hope is based on Yahweh himself. The Lord is his salvation… his strength…his joy. Though crops and everything else may fail, the God of his salvation will never fail.

The source of Habakkuk’s hope

Habakkuk’s hope springs from Yahweh’s character, his acts and promises. He rehearses God’s great acts of salvation in the past (Hab 3:2). He catches a glimpse of the holy Judge and Ruler of the earth, before whom all humanity is accountable (Hab 2:20Hab 3:16). He is convinced that God will show mercy to his believing remnant (Hab 2:4Hab 3:2). And he is assured that the whole earth will one day be filled with the Lord’s glory, as extensively as waters cover the sea (Hab 2:14). Despite desolation, the prophet draws joy and strength from his certain hope in the God of his salvation (Hab 3:18-19).

Judah’s curse is universal

Although Habakkuk’s message is deeply rooted in Judah 600AD, it has timeless value for God’s people in every generation. Like Habakkuk, we too live in a world where things have gone horribly wrong. Pete and I often joke that Habakkuk 3:17-18 should be adapted for marriage vows or business partnerships– a vivid picture of “for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health!” Earthly prosperity and human flourishing is fragile at best.

Habakkuk 3:17 is the antithesis of the blessings Yahweh offered His people if they walked in his ways (Deuteronomy 28:1-12). God’s blessings and curses were demonstrated in the land of Canaan, the homeland of milk and honey promised to Abraham and his descendants (Gen 15:18-21Gen 26:328:13Ex 23:31). It was supposed to be a land of fruitfulness, fertility, freedom and favour.

But Habakkuk pictures a land that is nothing like the bread basket of Judah and Israel under king Solomon (1 Kings 4:20-21). Instead, it is a basket case, in bondage to ruthless enemies, marked by frustration, failure and famine. Despite all this, Habakkuk ends his oracle on a note of confidence and joy—even triumph (Hab 3:18-19). The prophet’s hope in suffering sounds a lot like Paul’s in Romans 8:

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience….37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:18-2537-39).

Earth’s curse and a hopeful longing

Just as the first human stewards of the earth fell in Genesis 3, all Creation fell with them. Paul isn’t just being dramatic or pessimistic about the earth groaning as if in labour, captured in the continuous cycle of death and decay. He is realistic about his world, just as Habakkuk was about his homeland.

Personally, I love the beauty of this world. I love marriage, family and friendships. I love good food and laughter and my dogs. I have hope for the future. But I know that this world will never meet the infinite longings of my heart. Bodies get sick and die. Good people lose everything. Work is hard, and hard workers lose their jobs. Nature is threatened by man’s poor stewardship, and natural disasters strike back.

Christians who pretend that we will experience only victory and abundance in this life pour salt on the wounds of real people. Augustine reminds us that so much of our restlessness and disappointment is the result of trying to convince ourselves we are already home.

Curse in reverse

But Paul’s conquering spirit arises from his hope of future restoration. He imagines the labour of creation culminating in new birth. The Bible speaks of the dramatic, visible day of the Lord, when every inch of creation, including our bodies, will be fully liberated, resurrected and re-created (1 Cor 15:521 Thess 4:16)! The blessings we enjoy now on earth as children of God are just a foretaste of the abundant harvest that awaits us when the sons of God are revealed (Rom 8:1923). It is good to think about our homeland and to know that the best is yet to come!

Living with hope

Our hope for the future is not built on wishful thinking, but on the blood-bought certainty that God has never abandoned his plans for us and the earth. The God of Habbakuk established His rule among men through His Messiah-King 2000 years ago. Christ defeated Satan and is bringing reconciliation, redemption and restoration to the earth, one heart and one life at a time. He is gathering His redeemed people from the four corners of the earth and transforming them into His image, by his Spirit (2 Cor 3:18). Restoration is taking place under our very noses, though it is often silent and subtle. And God uses his redeemed people as his tools of restoration.

That’s why William Wilberforce made it his life’s work to end slavery and reform healthcare, education and prisons in the 18th century. That’s why Helen Roseveare left England to start mission hospitals and training colleges in the Congo in the 20th century. It’s why Love Trust and Nokuphila schools exist today in Tembisa. It’s why we pray and labour for revival in our time, as Habakkuk did (Hab 3:2).

And it’s why we wait with longing and expectancy for the Lord Jesus to return at the close of history (Rom 8:19). On that triumphant day, Christ will fully and finally destroy his enemies and deliver his people and all creation from evil. He will establish his eternal rule in the new heavens and new earth where only righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:13). The holy city, the new Jerusalem will come out of heaven and God will dwell with his people on earth. They will be His people and He will be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes and bring a final end to death and pain (Rev 21:1-6Rev 21:22-29).

As Greg Beale puts it, “New creation is the goal or purpose of God’s redemptive-historical plan. New creation is the logical main point of Scripture.”

I love reading the final hymn of Habakkuk alongside Romans 8, because it unites tragedy with triumph for those who have placed their faith in God’s Messiah–the “adopted heirs” of God (Rom 8:15-17). The heaviness of our worst suffering is outweighed by the infinite mass of eternal glory. Faith in God’s Saviour is the only basis for true hope.

Randy Alcorn’s book, titled Heaven, urges us to think more of our new homeland on earth, where our hearts will be fully and finally satisfied in the God of our salvation. This was Habakkuk’s hope, and it’s ours too.

Worship

Listen to There is a Day by Lou Fellingham, based on 1 Cor 15:52:

“In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.”

Extracts from Heaven, by Randy Alcorn:

“In Genesis, the Redeemer is promised; in Revelation, the Redeemer returns. Genesis tells the story of Paradise lost; Revelation tells the story of Paradise regained. In Genesis, man and woman fail as earth’s rulers; in Revelation righteous humanity rules the new earth, under King Jesus. The river of the water of life, flowing from the throne of God, and the tree of life, now a forest of life, growing on both sides of the river (Revelation 21:1–2). That’s a picture of the New Eden, located in the heart of the New Jerusalem. Satan and sin will not thwart God’s plan!

In Acts 3:21 Peter said that Christ must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets. What does it mean that one day God will restore everything? Read the prophets: you’ll see how God promises to restore earth itself to Eden-like conditions (Isaiah 35:151:355:13Ezekiel 36:35)…

I am convinced that the typical view of heaven — eternity in a disembodied state — is not only completely contrary to the Bible but obscures the far richer truth: that God promises us eternal life as totally healthy, embodied people more capable of worship, friendship, love, discovery, work, and play than we have ever been. Don’t wait until you die to believe that. Believing it now will change how you think, how you view the people around you, and what you do with your time and money, which are really God’s…

The bucket-list mentality reveals an impoverished view of redemption. Even Christians end up thinking, If I can’t live my dreams now, I never will. Or, You only go around once. But if you know Jesus, you go around twice — and the second time lasts forever. It’s called “eternal life,” and it will be lived in a redeemed universe with King Jesus. We do not pass our peaks in this life. The best is yet to come. “