Earthen Vessels God’s power is revealed in weakness – of pastor and congregation
Life's milestones fly past quickly. Some have such poignancy that we’re not sure we enjoy celebrating them. Such was my 40th! My wife, Paula, presented me with a new watch, a gift that I treasure to this day. I was delighted — for both its real worth to me as an item of beauty and value and also for the sentiment and significance of occasion. It was with real delight and pride that I shared the moment with the rest of the family. I wanted the whole family to enjoy it with me.
Amid the celebrations something else caught my eye that morning — my very young daughter. Her eyes lit up too, but not in the way I expected. She pulled herself up to the edge of the table and grabbed ... the box! A simple little container, made of hardened cardboard, with a flip-top transparent plastic lid. Wow! What more could a little one ask for? She ran off, dreaming of all that she could do with it. The container became her delight that day.
Some years later, we bought a new fridge — a superb, gloss-white piece of marvellous machinery ... delivered to us in an enormous cardboard package. Need I finish the story? Never mind the $800 fridge, it was the container that delighted my young son. A massive portable indoor cubby-house to keep him amused for hours.
Children have the ability to take fairly ordinary looking packaging and put them to very special use. This, of course, is misuse. The containers are there to deliver goods and it’s the goods that are meant to delight us. Young children confuse treasure with containers.
This is the warning Paul delivers in 2 Corinthians 4:7 “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” Paul uses a metaphor describing those in pastoral ministry as containers and the gospel of the grace of God in Jesus Christ as treasure. It’s the gospel of grace that gives power and delight — not the preacher.
This is of great encouragement to those in ministry — we ought never lose heart because the Lord brings power through the weakness of the preacher. It also brings focus to the Lord’s people, who are to respond to the treasure and not be so “taken” with the container. Let’s explore these two areas — gospel focus for pastors and gospel focus for congregations.
First, encouragement for the pastor. We can persevere in gospel ministry because the power of the gospel comes from God and not from us.
Paul’s words make a clear connection with the previous paragraph. The first word gives us the clue: “But”. This suggests that he is about to draw a contrast with that which came before. In contrast with the glory of the gospel he had just spoken of (v. 6 “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ”), he now speaks of the humility and weakness of the one who preaches it.
What he says is: the glory of which I speak (v.6) has another side to it. This illuminating power is entrusted to fairly ordinary and unattractive and inherently worthless people. Let’s examine the metaphor’s two parts. This treasure stands for the gospel just explained (v.6). It is the light that floods a person on conversion — the light of the knowledge of the glory of God. The light of the gospel is the treasure. We recall one of Jesus’ parables of the man who discovers a treasure, the pearl of great price.
Jars of clay stands for preachers of the gospel. Archaeology shows that Corinthian pottery was well-known, cheap and nothing really special. Paul could have been talking about any old household receptacle or container. Your sugar canister, for example. The Greek word, as used elsewhere in the New Testament and used in a literal sense, has a fairly flexible meaning. It is used for instruments, implements and containers. Here it’s linked with earth, in the form of earthenware container.
It reminds us of Genesis 2:7. I like to think that Paul was conscious of this connection as he wrote, where we are reminded in Genesis of the frailty of man in the creation account: “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground”. It reminds us of our origins, and teaches us of our weakness and vulnerability — that we’re basically dust until God breathes life into us.
For Genesis 2:7 goes on to explain: “and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being”. In the hands of God, man created of dust becomes something worthwhile and precious — a living, responding, spiritual being. Mankind is worthwhile because of the action of God.
So, in Paul’s metaphor, these jars of clay have a sense of purpose, and have value and meaning in ministry because of the invaluable treasure we preach. One of the main reasons Paul wrote this letter to the Corinthians is found here in verse 7 to teach that human weakness is no barrier to the great power and sovereign purposes of God.
The glory of the gospel is entrusted to the ordinary and reasonably uninspiring person of the minister of the new covenant so that, in the end, all the credit for conversion and all the glory goes to the author of the message and not the messenger.
We who pastor live daily with the inevitable tension, engendered by the paradox that we continually deal with holy and eternal things yet we do so mindful of our fallenness, fallibility and weakness. How can we live with this tension and not be consumed by it? How can we stand up under the crushing weight of our own (self) assessment and then the carping criticism from others? How can we not go under?
The answer has two aspects. First, focus on the treasure of gospel and grace. As pastoral clay jars we hold an imperishable and glorious pearl that shines in a wonderful way by its own inherent quality. The gospel of light shines gloriously by its own worth, even without any help from weary messengers. Remember the power of the light of the gospel. Don’t confuse the container for the treasure.
Second, take a realistic view of yourself — take God’s view. Sometimes we’re so hard on ourselves that we wish God would just do the work of the gospel without us. That God would bypass our humanity. But he chooses not only the glory of the treasure, but also chooses the container, the clay jar. He knows our frame and remembers that we are dust, and chooses to embed the themes of gospel power in the messenger, so others may see and hear the gospel through God’s chosen agent. Cracked pots ministering the life of the gospel to cracked pots.
Pastor, how do you view yourself? As a minister of the gospel? Despite your passion for the Lord, zeal for the gospel and all your hard work, perhaps:
- You still can’t seem to speak well (you lack convincing power)?
- You can’t muster enough energy to cope with the expectations of ministry?
- You seem to be fighting the migraine ... the arthritis ... the depression more than spiritual issues?
- You don’t seem to have the charisma to draw them in like the “super” church nearby?
Remember, your value, your sense of worth as a minister, is found in the gospel you carry. This is the paradox we live with.
The divine power of the gospel becomes all the more conspicuous through the weakness of the preacher. Human weakness is no barrier to the purposes of God.
The second great focus is the gospel focus for the congregations — a warning to the churches.
In evangelicalism generally, there’s too much attention given to containers. Even evangelical churches have fallen for the cult of idolizing containers. Container-driven dependence says that the key factors in securing good ministry are found in the pastor himself — his personal characteristics and abilities.
Then, when a church selects a pastor with container-theology principles, he then teaches the church on those same principles: teaching that focuses on the person and his/her needs and encourages people to focus on their needs and upon themselves and how they feel; their personal image and emotional well-being.
Further, they teach Christians about personal empowerment, about family stability and parental skills and emotional strength — all at the expense of teaching about the treasure: the gospel of the atonement for sins, of justification, of living a holy life and eternal hope of glory.
Congregations have elevated pastors to pedestals and hoped for perfection from them in order to derive comfort from that and to bask in their reflected glory. “Our pastor is so wonderful...” The practice of ministry has become man-centred.
Paul would say powerful ministry focuses not on the container but the contents, the treasure of the gospel.
And all this comes from treasure in clay jars. We admit, the clay jars aren’t the most exciting things to look at. Our work in Christian ministry is not glamorous, nor exciting (in the usual sense of that word). Our work doesn’t seem to pay dividends. For the hours spent, the payoff is very low.
Yet God takes our dead-looking work and fills it with life — the life of the resurrected Jesus — and through the treasure of the gospel brings help to the ailing Christian, conversion to the repentant sinner and glory to his Son: Jesus Christ.
Don’t lose heart! All too often we are finding that people are not responding to the gospel message. We feel like throwing it all in. It’s always so intense. It never lets up. We feel like David Fisher’s friend (mentioned in his book: The 21st Century Pastor) who feels like Winnie the Pooh’s teddy, dragged down the stairs with its head banging on every step.
We need the reminder that it’s only God who can switch the lights on. Which drives us to prayer. It’s not up to us to change people, it’s up to us to persevere in telling the gospel to them.
What more can we want?