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Treasure in Jars of Clay

Date: Oct. 25, 2020

Author: Michael Mark

2 Corinthians 4:1-18

Key Verse: 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.

I would like to begin this message with a riddle: How do you defeat an army of 120,000 with an army of 300 armed only with trumpets, torches and clay pitchers?  That is an army 400 times larger than yours, and you don’t have any swords – just trumpets, torches and clay pitchers, how do you win?  The answer: By the power of God.  This is an event that actually happened in Israel’s history, in the year 1184 BC, and recorded in the book of Judges, Ch. 6-7.  God had called an Israelite named Gideon to defeat the army of the Midianites, who had oppressed Israel so bad that they impoverished the people.  Gideon originally went with an army of 32,000 people, but God said “You have too many men.  If I deliver Israel, they will boast against me saying ‘My own strength saved me.’”  So God instructed Gideon to reduce his army to 300, that is less than one percent of the original fighting force!  Gideon was fearful, but God gave him signs of a sure victory.  At around 10pm at night, Gideon divided the army into 3 and this measly bunch surrounded the vast Midianite camp.  They took trumpets, and hid the torches in the clay pitchers and got into position.  Just when the Midianites changed their guard and most of their men were entering into deep sleep, Gideon’s men sounded their trumpets and smashed their clay jars.  With the torches in their left hands and the trumpets in their right, 300 trumpets blasted into the night.  When the enemy camp heard the trumpets, they started to turn on each other with their swords throughout the camp, and the Midianite army dispersed and fled, and were cut down by the rest of Israel as they entered into the neighboring territories.  And that is how 300 men, with God on their side, routed an army of 120,000 with trumpets, torches and clay jars.  The moral of the story here is that God deserves all the glory for the deliverance, liberation, freedom and salvation of his people and the destruction of their enemies, and we can draw several parallels from this story to our passage today.

As we are making our way through 2 Corinthians, recall that this is a letter of reconciliation to a church that had rebelled against the author and their founder, Paul.  False teachers had arisen within their ranks, corrupted the pure gospel they were following, and turned everyone against their elder.  They seemed to have lost their way.  But after a time of repentance, forgiveness and purging what was evil, Paul reinforces them with the fundamentals of Christ’s church.  He reminds them of the church’s identity and goal.  He makes many distinctions between what is worldly and leads to worldliness, such as the false teachers were, and how transitory that is, versus what is godly and leads to godliness, and how lasting and enduring that is.  So we heard things like we are ministers of the New Covenant, which means, we are ministers of God’s grace through the Holy Spirit, and we preach the simple and direct truth about Christ.  Last week we learned that this ministry of the New Covenant gives glory to the one who is surpassingly glorious, the Lord Jesus Christ.  Simply contemplating on his glory, contemplating on who Jesus is and what he has done for us, transforms us into his own image with an ever increasing glory.

Now look at v.1, “Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.”  The Corinthians were in grief and distress when they realized they had been deceived and caused harm among themselves and Paul.  It was tempting to lose heart, to be discouraged and to despair.  But Paul reminded them that God is merciful, and that they had the ministry of the New Covenant: the basis of this ministry is forgiveness!  Through God’s mercy in Christ, we are forgiven, so do not lose heart.  Share the good news of God’s forgiveness with others.  Share the good news about Christ with others.  Paul says in v.2, “Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God.  On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.”  Paul said this in direct response to the false teachers.  They were the ones with secret and shameful ways and distorted the word of God.  Paul had set forth the truth plainly and preached Christ, Christ crucified, Christ risen and Christ as Lord.  He did not peddle the word of God for profit.  He did not hold back any teachings and charge for the next lesson.  Some were even distorting God’s word, perhaps criticizing Paul for having physical ailments, or getting put in prison, or not being eloquent.  They would say that suffering was a sign of God’s rejection of him.  Paul taught that his suffering was actually a sign of God’s acceptance of him, to be used as a way to minister to others.

Paul preached the gospel very clearly, and even defined it in 1 Cor 15:3-5.  There are a variety of ways to express the gospel, but the basic elements it must contain that should be easily understood is this, according to the late RC Sproul: “It is the message of who Jesus is and what He did.”  So everything Paul teaches is based on who Jesus is and what He has done, this is the gospel.  But still some people will not believe it, and Paul tells us why, in v.3-4, “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.  The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”  The god of this age refers to Satan, who Jesus had also called the “prince of this world (John 12:31, 14:30).”  Of course, humans are also evil in and of themselves, but Satan further blinds the minds of those who do not believe the gospel.  He is the god of this age, little g: he sets up false gods for people to worship – the idolatrous and false gods of all other world religions except for Christianity, to divert attention from the One true God.  The fact that many unbelievers are offended by this statement is proof.  He also sets up ideologies that destroy religions, some ideologies make their way into governments, others make their way into culture, and education, denying the one central fact that Paul has stated: that Jesus is God, and Jesus is Lord, as he says in v.5, “For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.”

The world is covered in darkness because of Satan, but God shines the light brightly.  Look at v.6, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.”  It is an incredible, I mean indescribably incredible work of God to create light in the universe.  Think about how scary it is to walk the streets at night.  Or think about the difference you see when you are driving on a road trip, and the day has turned to night.  You no longer see the trees, or the mountains (depending on where you’re driving), or even the sky.  All you see is darkness, and the 10-20 feet in front of your headlights.  Imagine if you had no headlights.  You wouldn’t even want to drive.  But God created the light, the light called the sun, and it illuminates everything we see.  It even makes our moods feel better.  Now this same concept of light, God has also made shine in our hearts, and this is an even greater miracle.  The light that God made in the universe has to be placed 93 million miles (150 km) away, and we can’t even look directly at it.  But the light in our hearts transforms us inside out.  Without this light, our hearts are a dark place.  God even said in Genesis 6:5 “every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.”  Jeremiah 17:9 says “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.  Who can understand it?”  But this light in our hearts changes all that.  We might still have evil thoughts, due to the corruption of the flesh, but with the light, it’s not “only evil all the time.”  The light cures the deceit of our heart.  It might still try to deceive us, but the cure has been administered and fights against deceit.  And here, in verse 6, that light is very clearly defined: It is the “light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.”  When we see Christ, we see God, and when we see God, we see the truth, and this truth illuminates our hearts.

Now look at v.7, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”  The treasure Paul refers to here is the light.  It’s that light of the knowledge of God’s glory, displayed in the face of Christ.  A few commentaries have noted that Paul here might be referencing the story of Gideon we heard at the beginning of the message.  At least, we can draw some parallels.  The torches, the jars and the trumpets were used to demonstrate to the Israelites that it was God’s power to save, and not their own.  Here is treasure in jars of clay to show that there is an all-surpassing power that is from God and not from us.  Perhaps treasure here is used instead of light, or torches, to make it a more concrete idea.  Light is pretty abstract, it’s not solid, but a treasure we can understand.  It’s something of great value, and something glorious.

This metaphor also extends to represent us.  We are the jars of clay.  As noted in Gideon’s story, these jars were smashed and broken before the lights were revealed.  This is a true and humbling description of our humanity.  Our bodies are quite weak and frail – susceptible to weakness, disease and aging.  My daughter Ellie just turned 15 months, and when she gets a bruise on her head, it heals in 2 days.  I’m almost 40, and when I get a bruise on my head, it took 2 weeks to heal.  Even Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player of all time, had to retire when he got a certain age.  He was dazzling in his prime, but after a couple of decades he can’t keep up with the fresh legs and lungs of a recent college grad.  No one 30 years older can.  But not only are our bodies weak, but our minds are too.  They are vulnerable to pride, anger, envy, depression, and many other mental disorders.  Once our minds or bodies reach a certain threshold or limit, they break, like jars of clay.

 But, there’s a but, we have this treasure.  Who is the we?  It is those who believe, who can see the light and receive the light.  Believers have a treasure – and the treasure is power.  Believers have power – but let it be known that the believer is nothing but a jar of clay, so that it is also known that this power is not from them, but from God.  We see this power at work in v.8-9, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”  Amazing!  These are among some of my favorite verses in the Bible.  They show such power, and such strength – but such power and strength is only displayed in our weakness.  But the more weak we appear, the greater that power appears.  The closer we come to breaking, the more glorious is that power to preserve us.  Paul experienced all of these afflictions, and lived to tell the story.  He was shipwrecked, but landed on an island.  He was bitten by a poisonous snake, but was unharmed. He was stoned for preaching and left for dead, but he did not die. Wounded, he got up, and went back into the city to preach.  I can think of an example of a couple of missionaries that we know, who went to preach the gospel in Rwanda when they were older than 70.  They taught the Bible to many students, drove for 3 hours every week between the two cities they were serving, and prepared Sunday messages.  They might have gotten tired, and weary, I can only imagine, but when they came back, to me they looked 10 years younger.  They offered their lives in service to God, and God sustained them by his power and mercy.

Paul goes on to say in v.10-11, “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.  For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.”  These two verses say almost the same thing.  What Paul means is that those things that caused the death of Jesus – both the physical and mental afflictions, they also carried in their bodies.  Paul no doubt had wounds from being stoned and flogged.  Jesus himself was flogged before his crucifixion.  Paul had been rejected by his own people the Jews, who plotted to murder him.  Jesus was also rejected by his own people, and targeted for death.  Jesus went all the way through to death on the cross, but by the power of God he was raised from the dead, and lives forever, sitting on the throne in heaven at the right hand of God.  This life, this vitality, this power of Jesus, is what was on display in Paul’s mortal body.  Paul was constantly given over to death, many times coming within an inch of his life, but his recoveries are in a sense a series of resurrections.  Every time he was brought close to death, he was raised back up, until the Lord finally called him home.  Now, one might get tired of going to such extremes so many times, but why did Paul do this?  Look at v.12, “So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.”  Not only Paul, but all of his associates suffered with him in the same way.  The apostles all also suffered in the same way.  But why?  So that life will be at work in us.  They were suffering for Jesus’ sake, for our sake.  Jesus’ full power was on display in them, so that we might be strengthened in our faith, and emboldened by their faith.  When we hear of what faithful men endured and overcame, it is a consolation and comfort for us.  More than that, when we think about what Jesus had endured for us, it is also a great comfort.  And what’s more, is that life is at work in us.

God will deliver us, God will save us from these mortal bodies, these jars of clay, even though we may suffer for a while.  We must trust in God at all times.  Look at v.13, “It is written, ‘I believed; therefore I have spoken.’ Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak.”  Paul references Psalm 116:10, where King David was overwhelmed by anguish, distress and sorrow, but he believed in God, he trusted him to save, and he confessed his faith.  The natural flow of faith in the heart comes out of the mouth, and this is the gospel Paul constantly preached.  This is what he believed, in v.14, “because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself.”  Here we have a great hope and are looking forward to a great day.  One day, all believers, past present and future – that includes you, me, Paul, Peter, Moses, Abraham, we all will be raised together as one body, one multitude, and presented to Christ as his people.

Paul continues in v.15, “All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.”  This is the great purpose of the display of the power of God: the glory of God.  This is the reason to endure under suffering.  More suffering produces more knowledge of God’s grace; more knowledge of God’s grace produces more receiving of God’s grace, and more receiving of God’s grace produces more thanksgiving to God.  So finally, in heaven, this is what we will see: millions upon millions of people, saved only by the grace of God, and the power of God, praising God.  Rev 19:6 says, “Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting, ‘Hallelujah!  For our Lord God Almighty reigns!’”  What a day of rejoicing that will be!  When we all see Jesus, we’ll sing and shout the victory!

So Paul concludes with these last 3 verses, with even more words of encouragement, and displaying this all-surpassing power of God – look at v.16, “Therefore we do not lose heart.  Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly, we are being renewed day by day.”  He returns to his exhortation in v.1, “Do not lose heart.”  “Take courage,” as Jesus said.  Outwardly, we are wasting away.  This is quite obvious to all of us.  All of us are getting older, losing our hair and our health, and sometimes even expending our energies for God.  But look at what’s happening inwardly: we are being renewed day by day.  Your inner being, your soul is growing day by day, and being renewed.  This is amazing, and gives us hope yet.  Death will not be the end, there is something inside of us, our very personal souls, that are being developed for the life to come.  Paul continues in v.17, “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”  Funny of Paul to say our light and momentary troubles.  Sometimes they seem like heavy and never ending troubles.  But look at the grand scale of eternity; what is 100 years compared to 100 thousand years, and more?  And as we studied, God will take us through and overcome our troubles, but we have to go through them.  Notice the principle: the troubles achieve glory.  Your afflictions, your sufferings, your toils for Jesus’ sake result in glory that will last for eternity, like the honor a soldier receives, and for some soldiers, honor for their wounds, in service of their nation.  The troubles here on earth are light, when compared to the enormous weight of eternal glory.

Paul tells how we can endure in v. 18, “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”  The temporary is this world, and these jars of clay.  We don’t fix our eyes on these things – but we fix our eyes on that light in our hearts, that treasure: the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Christ.”  We fix our eyes on God’s glory, and on Christ, who is God.  Meditate on the glory of God.  Think about who Christ is and what he has done.  Jesus is seated at the right hand of God: but how did he get there?  He came to suffer and die, he humiliated and humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on the cross: for us, so that we can be forgiven and reconciled to God.  As we also learned from last week’s message, when we contemplate on the Lord’s glory, we will grow more like him.  2 Cor 3:15 says, “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”

We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.  This is the all-surpassing power of life.  An unstoppable, indestructible, eternal, infinite power of life that is put in us through the light of the gospel.  Remember the riddle in the beginning: how do you win a war with a trumpet, a jar and a torch?  You win it by breaking the jar, lifting the torch, sounding the trumpet, and trusting in God.  The jar must be broken to reveal the light.  So Paul said in v.11 “For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.”  Die daily.  Die daily to your sin.  Die daily to your “self.”  Look out to the interest of others.  Serve and love one another, so that Christ’s life may be revealed in your mortal body.  Do not lose heart, but continue to serve and love the Lord, even in times of change or times of uncertainty, trusting in him, obeying his commands, until the day the trumpet sounds.  I would like to close now, with some words Paul wrote to the Corinthians a few years earlier, from 1 Cor 15:50-58:

“I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.  Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed – in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.  For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.  For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable and the mortal with immortality.  When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory. 

‘Where, O death, is your victory? 
Where, O death, is your sting?’ 

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God!  He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm.  Let nothing move you.  Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”

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