Treasures in jars of clay (2 Corinthians 4:7)
We are very conscious these days of making sure we get our takeaway coffees in cups that can be recycled. And many are the patterns and designs you can get to enhance your pleasure of drinking your skinny mocha latte, or flat white. Even so, the cups are not really the point, are they? In the end, they are merely containers - it’s what’s inside the cups that matters: your fresh roasted coffee beans served in just the way you like them.
And so it is with us, says Paul. We have been given an incredible treasure (Christ in us the hope of glory) and yet we are just earthen vessels, jars of clay, throw away containers, styrofoam coffee cups if you like. And the point is not to make people be impressed with us as containers. And so we must realise that any power we have to live a Christ-focused life doesn’t naturally reside in us. Rather, we have Another who lives in us and He has all the fruit and the gifts of the Spirit freely at his disposal - and he wants to express his life, love, joy, power and peace through us. William Still, an extraordinary pastor from Aberdeen, once shocked his congregation by interrupting himself in a sermon on this very passage from 2 Corinthians 4:7ff: he proclaimed, “Christ is in you and he is shouting, ‘I want out!’”
It seems to me that Paul must have been meditating on that passage in Judges chapter 7, which, as you remember, describes the overcoming of the thousand of Midianites by Gideon and his three hundred men. Evidently the Midianites were down in a valley and it was the darkest of nights. And Gideon arranged his three hundred to stand on top of the hills that encircled the valley, holding torches and trumpets. They were to light the torches and place them in clay jars, large enough to ensure that the oxygen would keep them alight. Thus the torches would remains alight but hidden. At a given signal from Gideon, his men were to smash the jars and blow their trumpets. The Midianites below heard the awful clamour and saw all the shining lights on the hills around them, and were put into a mad panic, thinking they were outnumbered. This is what Christ wants to do in all of us: break us so that the resurrection light of Christ may be revealed and send the demonic hordes packing!
There are three strange contrasts in this passage: treasures in jars of clay; life coming from death; and trouble but glory.
First then, treasures in jars of clay: I have already addressed this, but let me restate the wonder: the heavenly treasure of Christ living in us is really being deposited in the most unsuitable of locations. Since the Fall of Adam, our bodies have been marked by sin, disease, and corruption. We are living away from the grace of God and have twisted his kindness towards us in such a way that we are bent in on ourselves. But God in his abundant mercy, sent his Son, born of a woman, and he entered all our darkness, becoming sin for us, and on the Cross he took all our offence and made it his own, no longer fit for heaven, but for hell, crying out the anguished ache of the human heart, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And having reconciled us to God, he rose so that we might rise with him too. And now, far from leaving us to struggle on our way, he comes to live in us by his Holy Spirit. Charles Wesley expressed his wonder like this, “Of our flesh and of our bone/Jesus is our brother now/ And God is all our own.” Treasures in earthen vessels - the King of Glory at home in our lives.
We often talk about making a decision for Christ...but in reality Jesus has made a decision for us. He accepted us into his heart when he willingly went to the Cross, and chose to forgive our sins that we might be made friends with God. It is Jesus who shed his blood for me and who now lives and prays for me. My sins are forgiven. There is no question about that. Here is the wonderful, confidence-building assurance: I have been made a child of God, and Christ lives in me by his Spirit. Treasure indeed!
Second, life coming from death: from our dying springs life. I love the way Peterson paraphrases verse 8-10 of this passage in The Message: “If you only look at us, you might well miss the brightness. We carry this precious Message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives. That’s to prevent anyone from confusing God’s incomparable power with us. As it is, there’s not much chance of that. You know for yourselves that we’re not much to look at. We’ve been surrounded and battered by trouble, but we’re not demoralised; we’re not sure what to do, but we know that God knows what to do; we’ve been spiritually terrorized, but God hasn’t left our sides; we’ve been thrown down, but we haven’t broken. What they did to Jesus, they do to us - trial and torture, mockery and murder; what Jesus did among them, he does in us -he lives! Our lives are at constant risk for Jesus’ sake, which makes Jesus’ life all the more evident in us. While we’re going through the worst, you’re getting in on the best.”
That says it all, really. God asks us to give to him the very little we have - and it can often feel like a death, like we are dying in the giving of ourselves to him - and he takes our weakness, our dying, and does far more with it than we can possibly imagine. As we suffer for Jesus, so he alleviates, he renews, he rewards with his resurrection life. One poet said it like this: “All my wounds cry alleluia, all my bruises honour you.” We must remember though - often the price of the light of Christ shining through us and in us is the clay jar needs to be shattered. Life coming from death.
Jesus said it is the principle of the seed sown into the ground: “Most assuredly, I say ton you, unless an ear of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” (John 12:24) Jesus is like that seed being buried, and from him many seeds, much fruit came to life. As with Jesus so with us: here is the pattern of our discipleship - we die to ourselves, die to our own wishes and ambitions, and, out of this dying, this burial, new life emerges and new fruit is grown.
Third, trouble but glory: a fruitful Christian ministry involves trouble, but brings glory. When we yield ourselves to God, we know he will win. It is useless to wring our hands and complain how awful everything is. God loves us and he will bring us through. We shouldn’t be afraid to admit that times are trying, or that things are hard: but we must not let them get the better of us. There may be a whole load of trouble, but the glory more than outstrips that. The dying will result in the life of Jesus being manifested among us. Whilst we are not ignoring the troubles or the pain, or foolishly pretending all is fine, yet that is not where our focus is: that would be the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” None of us can predict the troubles we might see - whether of body or spirit, whether we will see our children prosper or not, whether our careers will be be successful or not, whether we will be popular or be lonely - but all of us can make a decision not to be over concerned with these things that are passing away, but rather let us concentrate on the eternal glory that is coming. We can afford to be those who rest in the knowledge that temporal things are passing for we can abide in the good providence of God - and he will not disappoint us. Charles Wesley expressed it like this, “By thine unerring Spirit led,/We shall not in the desert stray;/We shall not full direction need,/Nor miss our providential way; As far from danger as from fear,/While love, almighty love, is near.”
Paul was clear in Romans 8: he said we Christians “face death all day long” That’s why elsewhere he calls us “living sacrifices”. But, no matter what we go through, no matter how difficult our circumstances, whether we are ill or in the finest of health, whether we are successful in the world’s eyes or not, here is the glorious truth we build our lives on: we are loved more than we can possibly know. As Peterson paraphrases the end of Romans 8:
”Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture...None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us. I’m absolutely convinced that nothing - nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable - absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.”
This is glory. And “of his fullness we have all received, and grace for grace.” (John 1:16) We are changed from one degree of glory to the next. We don’t stay the same - we are increasingly changed, transformed, transfigured even, to become more and more like Christ; so much so that one day when we get to see Christ, when we see him face to face, when we see him smile upon us, we shall forget all the hardships and disappointments we have been through to get there - and just for a glimpse of his wondrous majesty, we shall think it all worthwhile, whatever we went through; and we shall bow the knee in humble and grateful adoration.