The apostle Paul has been giving wonderful pictures of what it looks like to be a Christian. In the first six verses of 2 Corinthians 4, Paul has described Christians as those who are beholding the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ (3:18; 4:4; 4:6). Those who do not see the glory of the gospel of Jesus are the ones who are perishing (4:3). Therefore, Paul has declared that the gospel message that they are proclaiming, which was written down by the apostles and you hold in your hands today, is the means by which you are able to have God’s light shine in your hearts so that you can see the glory of God. This is why Paul does not lose heart. He has a magnificent ministry given to him by the grace of God (4:1). So what does this mean for us? How does beholding the light of the gospel of the glory of God change who we are and how we live?
Treasure In Clay Jars (4:7)
Paul says we have this treasure. The gospel message of Jesus is a treasure. This is what Jesus said in his parables. “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” (Matthew 13:44 ESV)
To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. (Colossians 1:27–28 ESV)
To our context, Paul describes this treasure as the light of the knowledge of the glory of God is the treasure. We have a precious treasure in the word of God because the gospel reveals the glory of God. But notice what Paul says about this treasure. Paul says we have this treasure in clay jars.
Clay jars were insignificant in the ancient Near East. They were common, unimportant, temporary, and expendable. If a clay jar broke, you did not try to fix it. You just discarded it and replaced it. So Paul does not say that this treasure is contain in gold treasure boxes. The treasure of the gospel message is held in clay jars. This is how Paul pictures himself and it is how we must consider ourselves. Paul does not say that he is a unique work of art, worthy of the highest value. No, he is a clay jar among many clay jars, carrying the treasure of the gospel. Why is this the case?
Paul continues in verse 7: “to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” The power is in the message, not the clay jar. God put the treasure of the gospel in human containers like Paul and the apostles with a purpose: to show that the treasure of the gospel has nothing to do with the jar. The image of clay jars was used as a metaphor for human weakness in ancient writings, including the Qumran writings. Our flaws show the flawless gospel. We are the clay jars so that we are not stealing the glory away from God and his glorious gospel. We are to embrace our weaknesses so that the power of God can be made visible in our lives. Think about how God’s power is on its greatest display when it transforms a weak, selfish, fragile, broken person and into a God-loving, Christ-believing, standing in the strength that God supplies Christian. Paul reminds us that the value is not us. We are just clay jars. The value is the gospel and we are valuable in relation to the task and value given to us by God. When we promote ourselves as anything more than a clay jar, we have taken away the attention from God, where the attention always belongs. We must never draw attention to ourselves but to God and the gospel.
What Being Clay Jars Looks Like (4:8-9)
To reinforce this concept, Paul describes what being a clay jar carry the treasure looks like. Paul describes his weaknesses. He and the apostles are afflicted in every way, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down. But because they carry the treasure they are not crushed, driven to despair, not forsaken, nor destroyed. They may be knocked down but they are never knocked out. Our strength comes from God’s sustaining power, understanding the mission he has given us. Our strength does not come from ourselves because we are just clay jars. Paul is not destroyed because he carries the treasure that is too valuable and too glorious. So he does not stop. He can be knocked down but he will not give up or be stopped. Thus, we see Paul when he is stoned and left for dead in Lystra, getting up and going to Derbe to preach. How did you do that Paul? The strength was not in himself. The strength was the gospel message he carried. He had a mission that would not allow him to stay down. God sustains us through our hardships because of the hope we have in the gospel and the ministry we are compelled to proclaim.
When you behold glory, you have to tell others. We have taken many family vacations each summer. We have had a goal for the five of us to see all the states together before our children left home for college. We have come to some amazing places in the creation. We have seen the Grand Canyon. We have seen Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Yellowstone National Parks. When we were at Yellowstone last year, there is an iconic waterfall there that is powerful and massive. But to get to it is a very long, steep hike. There were signs warning you about how difficult the hike would be. It is so steep that there are benches for trying to hike back up because you are going to need a break. As we were walking down this long, weaving walkway, I was thinking in my mind, “Is this going to be worth it? Each steep step I take down is a hard step back to the top.” I am making this calculation in my mind. We would pass people who were winded and sitting on the benches. Others are huffing and puffing as they slowly would walk past us. But hardly a person would fail to say, “It’s just a little further and it is worth it.” So we continued to descend until we finally got to this waterfall. It was amazing! It was thundering. It shook the platform. I have never seen a waterfall like this one. Do you know what we had to do? We had to talk about it to each other as we stood beholding the majesty and glory of this waterfall. We are all taking pictures. We are pointing out things, making sure we all see everything there is to see. We had to share what we saw. Do you know what we did as we walked back up? We did the same thing everyone did for us when we came down. As we were huffing and puffing our way back to the top, we were telling people, “It is worth it. Keep going. You have to see it.” This is the picture Paul is giving. What keeps us going? We have beheld the treasure and it is amazing. What keeps us going? We have to tell others about the glory that we saw. So the apostles could be beaten but they would not stop because they were carrying the treasure.
Carrying in the Body the Death of Jesus (4:10-12)
Notice the next picture Paul uses to describe his work in verse 10. Paul says that we lose our lives so that Christ is always on display. We embrace our weaknesses so others will see Jesus. This point ties back to verse 7 — so that the surpassing power is shown to be with God and not us. We die to ourselves so that the life of Jesus is seen. Paul declared in 1 Corinthians 15:31, “I die every day!” To the Romans he wrote, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” (Romans 8:36 ESV) To the Philippians he wrote that he was being “poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith” (Philippians 2:17). To Timothy he wrote,
Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; (2 Timothy 2:10–11 ESV)
Paul says that they are mistreated, beaten, and are dying to give others life. Being a Christian is the sacrifice of self. Christ died that we might live. We die so that others might live. We might read about what the apostles sacrificed and think that we are glad that we are not apostles. Do you supposed we have been called to be any different? Why is Paul writing all of this to the Corinthians? Remember what he will say in 2 Corinthians 12:19. He has written this for the upbuilding of the Corinthians. This is the picture of taking up the cross and following Jesus. This is what it means when Paul tells the Colossians:
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1–4 ESV)
We have this gospel treasure and our lives are hidden so that Christ is on display. You have died and Christ is your life! We die to ourselves so that others may live. We do not satisfy our desires but forfeit our lives so that others can see the treasure of the gospel and find life. We have beheld the light of the glory of the Lord and we must share it. This is why we may be knocked down but we are never knocked out.
Have The Same Faith (4:13-15)
Paul now uses the scriptures to exemplify what they do, quoting Psalm 116:10. Turn to Psalm 116 so you can see what Paul is saying. It is far too easy to read 2 Corinthians 4:13 and think that Paul is saying that he speaks because he believes. But this misses the power of what Paul is saying. We need to look at Psalm 116 to see the point.
Psalm 116 begins with a declaration of loving the Lord because heard my pleas for mercy (1-2). Verse 3 pictures the dire situation that death, distress, and anguish surrounded the psalmist. He was doomed. But then he was delivered from death (4-9). Suddenly the author is rescued. The quotation Paul makes is from verse 10 but see the context of what the psalmist is saying. Even when he was greatly afflicted, he had faith. Though distress and anguish surrounded him, he believed. When death encompassed him, he had faith. So he will call on the name of the Lord (13), pay his obligations to the Lord (14), offer thanksgiving (17), and praise the Lord (19). Notice another declaration that you probably have heard at a funeral is found here: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” What is the point? Even when surrounded by death, we will still believe and we will still speak. Even when distress and anguish overwhelm us, we will still have faith and we will still speak. For even in our death, we are precious before God. Now what is Paul saying? “Since we have the same spirit of faith…we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence” (4:13-14).
We have the same faith! We may be killed for what we preach, but we have faith in God and we will still speak because we know that precious in the sight of the Lord are death of his saints. Or, to say this as Paul did, because we know that the power that raised Jesus from the dead will also raise us from the dead and bring us with you into the Lord’s presence. The hope of resurrection changes our bodily concerns for the gospel. We will be killed and the reward is resurrection and to be brought back together with you. This is why they do not lose heart (4:16). This is why we do not lose heart and do not give up. We have faith and so we speak. Whatever we must do “so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God” (4:15). Paul’s goal was never to be comfortable, or worry about his reputation or his popularity. His concern was that people were giving thanks to God and praising God. Paul lived so others would glorify the treasure, not the clay jar.
Being Clay Jars
I want to end by each of us reflecting on the pictures Paul has given us in this paragraph. We have beheld the treasure of the gospel. But are we causing people to see the treasure we carry or are we causing people to look at the jar, which is us? Do we draw attention to ourselves or do we draw attention to the gospel? We must have the glory be directed to God and never to ourselves.
Further, are we more concerned about protecting our clay jar or about protecting the treasure? I believe too often we are willing to discard the treasure to protect this body, this clay jar. But the clay jar is not important. You are a clay jar with a purpose: protect the treasure and show the treasure. If we fail in this purpose, then we have failed God who gave us this purpose. We have died and our lives are hidden in Christ. People must see Christ, not us. We must be willing to allow the clay jar to be broken and laid in the dust so that people will see the glory of the treasure. We believe and so we speak because we believe in the resurrection of Jesus. Believing in Jesus’ resurrection means we believe in our own resurrection. So why protect the clay jar? Protect the treasure and share the treasure. Give it all to the Lord and one day we will all be joined again in the Lord’s presence.