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:
5 For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 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.
7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 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 11:23-30; Acts 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 53:4; Matt 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 14:26; Phil 1:6; Rom 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 5:10-12; Matt 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!
(words and music by Jonny Robinson, Rich Thompson and Michael Farren.