Treasure in Jars of Clay

Elmali hoard
A coin hoard stored in a clay jar at the Aydın Museum. Photo: Mark Wilson.

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“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ! 

The Cyprus National Museum in Nicosia has an interesting display—a clay pot lays on its side with a bunch of coins spilling out of its mouth. It was part of a coin hoard found nearby dating to the first century A.D. This is just one of thousands of such hoards discovered in the Greco-Roman world. The size of these hoards ranges from fifty to fifty thousand coins. The coins were buried in clay jars for safe keeping, often during times of war or instability. And it worked quite well. 2,000 years later, many of the jars and coins remain intact. Though clay jars, like other pottery, are fragile and must be handled carefully, they have proven to be quite durable and reliable.

Clay jars were the common storage containers of the ancient world. The Tupperware of the day. No, make that the Cool Whip or Country Crock container of the day. Most often used for storing the staples of the family kitchen, such as oil, flour, dried fruits and vegetables. They were cheap, plentiful, durable, and easily replaced. Only, unlike plastic containers, clay jars were breakable. That’s why even though archaeologists discover a remarkable number of whole jars from antiquity, there are many more shards found. It seems the clay used in jars could probably give the plastic used for Cool Whip containers a run for their money for length of time to break down in a landfill.

Given all that, it seems strange that St. Paul considered his earthly existence to be well-represented by such pottery. Jars of clay. Not the beautiful, ornate works of art that collectors seek. Plain, ordinary, everyday clay jars. Think terra cotta pots. Useful, yet easily replaced. Quite durable, yet very breakable.

And do you want to know what is even stranger? God, in His love and mercy, entrusts the greatest treasure in the world, the Gospel of His love for us in His Son, Jesus Christ, to people like Paul and you and me. Sinful mortals. Earthen vessels. Jars of clay.

In our text, St. Paul focuses immediately on the message: “What we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5).

This is an apparent reference to the way that Paul’s opponents operate. Using secret and shameful ways, deception and distortion, they are in it for themselves. In contrast, Paul and his coworkers are not serving themselves; rather, they are servants of the Corinthians “for Jesus’ sake.” In view of all that Christ has done for them, they are inwardly compelled to preach Jesus to others.

At the time of creation, God had said, “Let light shine out of the darkness,” and it did. That same God had removed the veil from Paul’s heart and brought light to it. He defines that light as knowing, that is, personally experiencing, “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

This appears to be a reference to the day of Paul’s conversion when, quite literally, a light from heaven penetrated the darkness of his heart. On that day, he came face-to-face with God’s greatest glory. He saw Jesus and, seeing Jesus, saw the glory of God’s love. That is why Paul does not lose heart, even though the Gospel remains veiled to some. If Jesus Christ could bring light into his dark heart, he could do it for anyone. And so Paul proclaims “Jesus Christ as Lord.”

Paul contrasts this splendid, glorious message, with those who serve as its messengers: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7). Christ is the treasure. Those who proclaim “Jesus Christ as Lord” are “jars of clay,” simple earthen vessels who carry within us the precious treasure of the Gospel.

The reason the Lord deposits such great treasure in fragile vessels is “to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” Paul said much the same thing in chapter 3: “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God” (v. 5). Time and again the Lord permits Paul to undergo great difficulties to impress this truth both upon him and those who hear him. In Asia, Paul faced persecution of such a severe nature that he felt the end of his life had come. “That was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raised the dead,” he wrote (2 Corinthians 1:9). When Paul asks the Lord to remove his “thorn in the flesh,” the Lord responds, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Paul continues: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9). Note the four antitheses in these verses, each emphasizing the same truth: that Paul is a weak, fragile jar of clay, but that the Lord’s power is stronger than Paul’s weakness.

Paul is “afflicted in every way.” The Greek verb translated as “afflicted” was used for pressing grapes. There were times of great pressure in Paul’s ministry. Think of the constant opposition he faced—threats to life, limb, and liberty. He was never completely “crushed,” however.

There were times that Paul was “perplexed,” at a loss; but he was never totally at a loss. He was never at wit’s end, driven to the point of “despair.”

We are “persecuted,” says Paul. He could already come up with quite a list of persecutions he had endured (11:23-33), and there would be more facing him in the future—ultimately martyrdom—but he had not been, nor would he be “abandoned.” This is the same word Matthew used to translate Jesus’ cry on the cross (27:46). Because Jesus was abandoned by God on Calvary, those who belong to Him will never be abandoned.

Paul had been “struck down,” but he had not been “destroyed.” Think of what happened in Lystra on his first missionary journey. He was stoned by a mob, dragged outside the city, and left for dead. But “he got up and went back into the city” (Acts 14:20). His enemies struck him down, but they could not destroy him.

In each of these contrasts, the point is the same: Paul is weak; he is nothing but a jar of clay. And yet he displays a “surpassing power.” That power comes not from himself but from God, who is with him.

The closing verses of our text amplify this idea. We are “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” Sent by the Father’s love, the eternal Son of God took on one of these mortal jars of clay Himself, from womb to tomb. He suffered all that it means to be human in this fallen world, including pain, temptation, and even death. He obediently gave up His sinless body into death on the cross as the payment for the sins of the world. Paul understands that his constant suffering for Jesus is an echo, a small sampling, of the suffering and death Jesus had undergone for him.

Paul does not despair, however, for Jesus not only died, He also rose on the third day. Paul knows that if he shares in Christ’s dying, if he is persecuted as Christ was, he will also share in Christ’s resurrection. Paul says that he always carries around in his body the death of Jesus “so that the life of Jesus may always be manifested in our bodies.” The weaker Paul is, the more fully will the resurrection life of Jesus be revealed day by day in his body.

Paul repeats this thought in the next verse: “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.” Again, we see the contrast: Paul is weak, a fragile jar of clay, “always being given over to death,” but in the fragile jar of clay is a precious treasure, the power of the resurrection life of Jesus, the source of Paul’s strength. All this so people will focus their gaze on Christ’s life in Paul, rather than Paul.

Paul concludes: “So death is at work in us, but life in you.” When Paul is weak, when he is being given over to death for Jesus’ sake,” then he is strong with the life that Jesus gives. And that life, in turn, is what he gives to his readers.

Ultimately, then, this is for the benefit of those whom Paul serves as a minister of the new covenant. Paul is willing to endure constant suffering for the sake of seeing repentant sinners come to newness of life in Christ. In that, Paul is like his Lord who “endured the cross, scorning its shame” (Hebrews 12:2) because he knows the victory it will win for others.

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7).

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, you and I are plain, ordinary, average everyday people. Nothing special about us. Useful, yet easily replaced; durable, yet quite breakable. In fact, quite broken—broken by our own sin, broken by the sins of others, broken by our anguish over not living the lives to which the Lord has called us to. Yet, God, in His mercy and grace has shown His light into the darkness of your hearts and lives. Even though you are common, plain old jars of clay, you possess the greatest treasure in the world. You have Jesus. It is His person and His work of salvation that you proclaim.

Sharing the Gospel with others will always be challenging in this sinful, rebellious world. Believers are not exempt from pain and suffering. In fact, your faith can make you the target of such. But take heart! It is all for the glory of God in the face of Christ Jesus. When jars of clay are broken, they even more clearly reveal the treasure of God’s power and grace within.

You are jars of clay. Christ is the treasure. In Him, you have forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. Indeed, for His sake, you are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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