Jars of Clay and the Glory of God (2 Cor. 4:7)
All of us, at one time or another and some more than others, fear that our weakness is a barrier to God’s purposes. We feel so very keenly the promptings of our flesh, the lack of emotional energy, our ignorance of basic truths, not to mention physical exhaustion or sickness, anxiety, and self-doubt. Then, of course, there is the absence of political and social influence, the ridicule incurred for following Christ and, for some, oppression and more severe forms of persecution and suffering.
It’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking that if God wants to accomplish something of greatness he needs great people to do it. He needs, and will choose, people with power, personality, charisma, money, people who are physically impressive and verbally eloquent, people whose names appear regularly in the newspapers or on the blogs, people whose lives seem to make a significant impact on our culture, people that history will remember with fondness and appreciation.
I’m not suggesting that such people are of no use to God or that their earthly achievements can’t be redeemed for the sake of the kingdom. But they do have one distinct disadvantage (that’s right, disadvantage, not advantage). They are far more prone to take for themselves credit that belongs to God. Weak people apologize far more than they boast. Strong people, beautiful people, people with money and status, are more inclined to draw attention to themselves and divert praise from the One to whom alone all glory is due.
Make no mistake about it, God is determined to secure all the glory for himself! I hope you’re o.k. with that, for your ultimate joy is dependent on God being God. Were God to be less than supremely glorious and praiseworthy, we are the ones who stand to lose. Our ultimate and eternal satisfaction is dependent on his being ultimately and eternally satisfying. If God should ever be less than infinitely deserving of all praise and honor and credit for whatever good is achieved, our delight in him is to that extent diminished. His capacity to enthrall us is to that extent undermined. A God who gets only partial credit is a God who is worthy of only partial praise, and such a “god” would hardly warrant our adoration or be capable of eliciting, much less sustaining, our eternal enjoyment.
This alone makes sense of Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 4:7 - “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” If any degree of power derives from us or if the praise it deserves should go to someone or something other than God, to that degree we endure irrevocable loss.
This is why Paul was so unaffected and undisturbed by his obvious weaknesses. He was keenly aware of his shortcomings, his lack of eloquence, as well as his physical frailty. “If I must boast,” said Paul in 2 Corinthians 11:30, “I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” He had in mind such things as “greater labors, far more imprisonments, . . . countless beatings” and near death experiences. (2 Cor. 11:23). Add to that being “beaten with rods” and being “stoned” and suffering shipwreck and in constant danger from thieves and both Jew and Gentile, not to mention what he encountered while on the sea or in the wilderness (2 Cor. 11:24-26). Then there were times of toil and hardship and sleepless nights, even hunger and thirst and cold and exposure (2 Cor. 11:27).
These aren’t typically the sort of things we associate with greatness. It’s not likely that such a person would evoke much praise or attain to great heights of earthly prominence. And that’s fine with Paul, because it meant that whatever might be accomplished through him would redound to the glory of God alone. This is why he would “not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished” through him (Romans 15:18a).
It’s hard to envision anything more glorious or inherently majestic than the gospel that Paul has just described in 2 Corinthians 4:5-6, a gospel that embodies and expresses the radiant splendor and glory of God as revealed in the face of Jesus Christ. But lest anyone think that Paul had a hand in its creation or was in any way or to any degree responsible for the marvelous, Christ-exalting, life-giving, soul-cleansing, sin-killing effects it produces, he is quick to declare that God has entrusted this indescribable “treasure” to “jars of clay” like himself.
As Philip Hughes has said, "There could be no contrast more striking than that between the greatness of the divine glory and the frailty and unworthiness of the vessels in which it dwells and through which it is manifested to the world. Paul's calumniators had contemptuously described his bodily appearance as weak and his speech as of no account (10:10; cf. 10:1; 11:6; 12:7), hoping thereby to discredit his authority. But it is one of the main purposes of this epistle to show that this immense discrepancy between the treasure and the vessel serves simply to attest that human weakness presents no barrier to the purposes of God, indeed, that God's power is made perfect in weakness (12:9), as the brilliance of a treasure is enhanced and magnified by comparison with a common container in which it is placed" (135).
The unmistakable, inescapable design behind this incredible contrast between the splendor of the treasure and the earthiness of the vessel is so that the surplus or excess or exceeding abundance of the power may be seen to be wholly of God and not from any one of us. Indeed, contrary to the beliefs and expectations of the world, which thinks only in terms of human ability and accomplishment, "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" (Hughes, 137; see also 1 Cor. 1:26-29).
If a treasure were deposited in a chest laden with gold and covered with precious jewels, people might focus on the container and ignore the contents. This accounts for why those who bring the greatest glory to God are often those who are least impressive when judged by human standards alone.
There would appear to be something of a tension in this truth. On the one hand, as Christians we must always strive for excellence. We must never think that being “jars of clay” requires mediocrity or a slip-shod approach to life, far less that we slack off in our use of all the opportunities God has given us. Failing to employ every resource at our disposal or taking on any task or ministry carelessly or half-heartedly is never endorsed in God’s Word.
On the other hand, we dare not ever think that what we achieve we do so without God’s help or energizing presence. We must never put forth ourselves as preeminent or in such a way that the glory of God is obscured or his sustaining grace is marginalized.
The weakness in view here is primarily reflected in our suffering for righteousness’ sake. Although persecuted, Paul persevered. The former revealed his frailty, the latter God’s strength. You may not be extraordinary (according to human standards), but God is.
It is often the case that believers in Jesus are marginalized in society and rarely gain access to the corridors of power. Their voice is muted and their lives are oppressed. When judged by the standards of the world, the church appears insignificant and inconsequential. How can people who value humility above pride and self-sacrifice over ruthless ambition be taken seriously? Those who are called upon to love their enemies rather than kill them, to forsake vengeance, and to do good to those who hate them are especially vulnerable to mistreatment and disdain.
Yet these are the people perfectly positioned to ensure that whatever they achieve be credited to God. God has sovereignly orchestrated the salvation of the weak and despised, the foolish and the frail, so that when much is achieved he, rather than they, will be honored.
Not everyone is willing to embrace this divine design. They resent being clay jars. They deserve better, or so they think. Faith, so called, will deliver them from the weakness and finitude of being human. Ministry, so called, is simply a tool for transforming the earthen pot into a priceless vase. Such folk do, undeniably, appear more powerful and appealing and successful. And God less so. That’s a high price to pay.