Jars of Clay – 2 Corinthians 4:7-12

Series: 2 Corinthians

II Corinthians 4:7-12
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.


In this letter the apostle Paul has just presented the surpassing, transforming, and enduring glory of the new covenant in Jesus Christ. He rejoices that God has given him the privilege of serving God and others in this glorious ministry. Here we can know and take pleasure in God’s glory in Christ Jesus. We ought to be very satisfied with the goodness of the living God to us in placing us in such a position. People ought to want what we by God’s grace possess, since here we find true humanity. Remade in the image of God, we can again enjoy the glory of God. So we should be enjoying pleasure in this new covenant treasure.
However, people outside the people of God do not view gospel ministers and indeed all true Christians this way. We do not find people running up to us, asking “Please tell me how I can know the Lord Jesus and experience this glory!” The reason for this has been explained in the previous verses (4:3-6). So, we can understand that fact. Yet what is in some ways more troubling is that many who claim to be Christians act and talk like they have not seen the glory of God in Christ. They look at things from a worldly point of view and say something like, “If there is really glory in your worship, church, ministry, or whatever, then we should be able to see the glory now. They want to experience the superiority now. Let us see how the Spirit through the apostle teaches radically different expectations.

I.          God’s purpose in the experience of Christ’s people (4:7)
A.        The paradox of the believer’s life in this present age

1.         We have the treasure of God’s glory in the gospel of Christ.

2.         Yet we have this treasure in “jars of clay”. This refers to our whole humanity, not merely our bodies. “Jars of clay” were both inexpensive and of low quality. What they contained was more valuable than the container. In our day think of ubiquitous plastic bottles used to hold all kinds of stuff. Far more important is what is in the jars; in this case it is the glory of God in Christ. Obviously, if you focus on the clay jar, you will not think much about what is inside it. But the content is a treasure; in fact, it is priceless—eternal glorious salvation through his precious blood.

B.        The explanation of God’s purpose

1.         By putting his gospel treasure in jars of clay, the living God does not want anyone to concentrate on the minister bearing the gospel. Some might be slightly better clay jars than others, but like the plastic bottles we use daily, they all end up broken and discarded. You can line up all the preachers of Christ in the world through the ages, and there really is not much difference between us. You might like some of us better—until you have the opportunity to know us. Then you will see all our flaws. I’ve often joked around that pastors’ wives get to sit in the first three rows in heaven. This is partly because they’ve lived with pastors and tearfully know just how deeply their husbands are jars of clay—yet they still believe in Jesus.

2.         By putting his gospel treasure in jars of clay, the Lord makes clear that all the power is from him. If you had the opportunity to listen to a steady diet of every preacher of Christ, you would quickly fall on your knees and exclaim, “Lord, know I really know that gospel power comes from you and not from these guys! How do you do it?” God wants us to see the extraordinary quality of his power. He can speak through jars of clay and raise the spiritually dead to new life in Jesus Christ. This is truly amazing! If the Lord blesses your soul with the bread of life when you hear his word preached or taught, you have primarily experienced the power of God and not the skill of the speaker.

II.        A catalog of the experiences of Christ’s people (4:8-9) – Four antitheses, in each the first element illustrates human weakness, but the second shows the intervention of God’s power that delivers us from the consequences stated; the phrase “on every side” applies to each of the four antitheses
A.        “Hard pressed but not crushed”

1.         “Hard pressed” is the most comprehensive term. It refers to all kinds of physical, emotional and spiritual pressure. “Crushed” speaks of confinement into a very restricted space. Think of having no room to breathe.

2.         The Lord allows his adult sons to experience great pressure. It is like being an NFL quarterback being blitzed by the opposing defense. Yet the Lord does not allow his people to be knocked out of spiritual commission. He gives unexpected supplies of strength and opportunities to serve him anew.

B.        “Perplexed but not in despair”

1.         Paul uses a play on words here that is very difficult to translate. We can be “at a loss”, but never “totally at a loss”. Sometimes it can be very difficult to know what to do.  “What should I do now, Lord?” Being an apostle did not spare Paul this experience. None of us are spared either.

2.         However, since we know the God who raises the dead (1:9) and since his power works in us (Eph 1:19-20), he keeps us from final despair. Mike’s dad reminded me this weekend about the first crisis Sharon and I faced in the ministry. (It’s always good for friends to remind you of these things!) But God is faithful! His promise is certain: “I will never, absolutely ever, leave you of forsake you” (Heb 13:5).

C.        “Persecuted but not abandoned”

1.         The word “persecuted” first meant “chased”, but it came to mean persecuted (1 Cor 4:12; 15:9; Gal 1:13, 23; Ph 3:6). When your life and all you hold dear is in danger, it is easy to feel abandoned.

2.         However, the good news that believers in Jesus are not ever abandoned by God, because Christ was abandoned for us (Mk 15:34). A good example of how this worked in Paul’s life was his imprisonment at Philippi. Though intensely persecuted for his faith, God did not abandon him, but shook the jail to set him free. God is able to shake whatever jail you are in to accomplish your release, if in his perfect plan. If not, you have the promise of Jesus that you will never be abandoned as an orphan (Jn 14).

D.        “Struck down but not destroyed”

1.         “Struck down” is a term used in wrestling (“throw down”), boxing (“knock down”), and hand to hand combat (“strike down”). To borrow from the world of boxing, “the boxer was knocked down, but he was not knocked out”. But the second term goes further, meaning “destroyed” or “finished off”. When Paul was stoned at Lystra, his enemies thought that they had destroyed him, but by God’s power he got up again.

2.         Life can look hopeless for true believers, but nothing can stop us until God’s purpose for us is completed in this world. We must always include the infinite power of our sovereign God in all our calculations.

Apply: We must notice in summary that the Lord does not spare his people from severe trials. But he does prevent such trials from overwhelming our souls. As has often been said, human extremity is God’s opportunity. “When all around my soul gives way, he then is all my hope and stay. On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.”
Apply: We must also notice that the antithesis of any trial during this new covenant era is not ease, prosperity, and a pleasure cruise. In our flesh we want such things, but we must learn contentment with the deliverance that God gives us! Ah, that is the hard part, isn’t it?

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