Sermons, Uncategorized

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.


A Window of Opportunity


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“Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza” (Acts 8:26).

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

You’re probably familiar with the idiom, “a window of opportunity.” “A window of opportunity” is a phrase used to describe a limited time when things are especially ripe to accomplish a particular task or achieve a particular goal. For example, many early childhood development experts speak of “windows of opportunity” when the brains of infants and toddlers are more open to learn skills like foreign languages and mathematics. Medical researchers use “window of opportunity” trials in which patients receive one or more new compounds between their cancer diagnosis and standard treatment to try to gain further insights into the disease and potential treatments.

You and I come across “windows of opportunity” in our daily life as well. Farmers are looking for “a window of opportunity” to get their crops put in between rain showers or to sell their products at the highest price. Some of you might look for “a window of opportunity” for job advancement, making a sale, or gaining a new client. And parents have “a window of opportunity,” when they can influence and direct their children before sending them out in the world.

But have you ever thought how “a window of opportunity” might be a good way to describe a situation in which you might share your faith in Christ Jesus? Such “windows of opportunity” occur when God opens doors to share His love with others. There are times when people are more receptive to the Good News we have to share about Jesus. But like other “windows of opportunity,” they don’t last forever. So it would be good for us to learn to recognize and seize them when they come.

In our text, Philip seized a “window of opportunity” provided by God to tell an Ethiopian about Jesus. Philip was one of the deacons chosen to assist the apostles. When the believers were scattered after Stephen’s martyrdom, he preached the Gospel in Samaria and it was received with “great joy.”

Then the angel of the Lord came to Philip with special instructions: “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” Philip, who had just done miraculous signs and preached the Gospel to hundreds in Samaria, was sent a long way to open the Scriptures to one individual soul.

Obediently, Philip headed down the desert road. By God’s providence, he met an Ethiopian official who believed in the true God. Having made the 200-mile journey to Jerusalem to worship, it’s obvious that he was committed to his faith and desired to learn more of God’s will. But he must’ve wondered about his own religious status. As a foreign eunuch, God’s law in Deuteronomy 23:1 excluded him from full membership and barred him from entering the temple.

But the fifty-sixth chapter of Isaiah promises something better when the day of the Messiah would come. “Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from His people”; and let not the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.” For thus says the Lord: “To the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths, who choose the things that please Me and hold fast My covenant, I will give in My house and within My walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off” (Isaiah 56:3–5).

While we can’t be certain, perhaps this is why the man was reading the book of the prophet Isaiah. He wanted to know if he had a place in God’s kingdom, and what that place might be. Whatever his reasons, this “window of opportunity” was surely arranged by the Lord. God had prepared this pupil for his new teacher.

As Philip stayed near, he found the perfect “window of opportunity” to tell the good news about Jesus. “Do you understand what you are reading?” he asked. The question was not meant to insult, but was intended to draw out the man’s religious position and conviction. It’s a question that all Bible readers ought to keep in mind. It’s far too easy to just read the words without understanding their meaning and connection with other Bible passages.

The Ethiopian answered, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” This doesn’t mean the Bible can’t be understood without an expert’s interpretation. It simply shows that beginners can use some help in learning how to read and understand the Bible. That’s what we have Bible studies for—not just for the immediate learning, but to learn how to study God’s Word personally.

The Ethiopian invited Philip to sit beside him. He was reading Isaiah 53:7-8: “He was oppressed, and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth. By oppression and judgment He was taken away; and as for His generation, who considered that He was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of My people.”

This was the Gospel of the Old Testament—a beautiful and clear account of the Messiah’s willing sacrifice. But its meaning was hidden from the Ethiopian because he did not know how it had been fulfilled. So he asked, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or someone else?”

And Philip, full of the joy of the missionary who finds an eager inquirer of the truth began to explain. The Ethiopian couldn’t have found a more suitable text, for its subject was the Messiah. Philip had a fine opportunity to talk about Jesus.  That He was the Suffering Servant, the innocent Lamb of God, who was silent before His enemies and judges. How He was falsely accused, wrongly convicted, and sentenced to die unjustly.

Jesus is the Servant who fulfills in His passion, death, and resurrection all the Scripture passages about the Messiah. Jesus is the Servant who has brought the day when foreigners and eunuchs are not barred from the assembly, but are wholeheartedly welcomed into His body and are given His everlasting name.

And while Philip was still picturing the glories of Christ in glowing colors, they came to some water. And the Ethiopian, half in eagerness and half in fear, pointed to the water and said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” While he was hesitant to dare believe he could have full benefit of God’s blessings, the eunuch wanted very much to be baptized.

His question demonstrates the centrality of Baptism in Christian preaching and teaching. Jesus’ Great Commission directs the church to “make disciples” by baptizing and teaching the Good News to all nations. And that is what Philip did. He first taught the Ethiopian and then baptized him, making him a disciple of Jesus Christ. And suddenly, Philip was taken away by the Spirit of the Lord.

The Ethiopian went his way rejoicing. He was no longer dependent upon his teacher. He had heard the essential facts that enabled him to understand the Scriptures. In Baptism, he had received Christ’s everlasting name, and was made a full member of His church. According to tradition, he went home to share the good news, establishing the church in Ethiopia.

Philip was sent to a new “mission field.” He appeared in Azotus and preached the Gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea. Mission and ministry are never finished on earth. One conversion does not mean the end of work in the harvest fields. It continues, day and night, in many different people and locations. When God closes one window of opportunity, He opens another!

The story of Philip and the Ethiopian offers valuable insights for our own Christian faith and life. First, the Ethiopian understood the harsh truth of separation and spiritual ignorance. He had been excluded from full membership in the religious community because, as a eunuch, he was considered unclean. And until Philip pointed him to Jesus, he lacked a complete knowledge of God and His plan of salvation.

But all people are ultimately separated from God because of sin. All of us are by nature sinful and unclean. And because of that nature, no one has a saving knowledge of God and His will. No one can understand His saving Word. But that all changes when we are brought to faith in Jesus Christ. He is the fulfillment of God’s purpose and Word. By faith in Him—in His death and resurrection as God’s solution to our need—we know God’s plan of salvation. Jesus willingly offered Himself, the perfect sacrifice, for the sins of the world. We are His chosen people, saved by His mercy and grace.

Second, the Ethiopian recognized his own need. As Philip proclaimed the truth of God’s judgment upon sin and His call to repent, the eunuch, like the first converts at Pentecost was “cut to the heart.” He believed God’s Word. He felt His guilt. The Spirit was at work in his life. He repented and asked to be baptized.

All people are separated from God because of sin. By nature, no one has a saving knowledge of God and His will. Yet Christ is the fulfillment of God’s purpose and plan. He lived the perfect life we cannot. He died to pay the penalty for our sin. And through repentance and Baptism He makes these ours.

Baptism brings us into a new relationship with the living God. It is God’s appointed means to forgive sin and strengthen His people for service in the Kingdom. In our Baptism into Christ, we are connected with His crucifixion and resurrection. We share in His death, that we may also share in His life—now and forever. And knowing God’s plan of salvation, we are motivated by His love to seek windows of opportunity in which we can tell others of His love for them.

One of those “windows” is coming up soon. We’ll be holding an Every One His Witness Workshop, where we will learn how to be more effective witnesses of Jesus in our everyday life. We’ll also be hosting several community outreach events, like the Trosky Carnival and Our Saviour’s Block Party. Vacation Bible School is a wonderful opportunity for our congregations to reach out to the children in our area. Take the time to invite the children in your family and neighborhood to join us. Each of these is a “window of opportunity,” a time that is ripe for sharing the Gospel. I encourage you to seize it. But it’s very likely that your “window of opportunity” is probably something we couldn’t even begin to imagine. God likes to surprise us. Look for your “window” this week!

We must humbly confess that in the past we’ve neglected to seize many of the “windows of opportunity” that we’ve had to share our faith. For those failures, we repent. But we rejoice in the forgiveness Jesus earned for us on the cross, which covers all sin—even that sin of neglect of His Word and failure to love our neighbor. Renewed by His Holy Spirit, we pray that we would go out as witnesses and givers of mercy. And that we would be empowered to boldly seize whatever new “windows of opportunity” we may encounter in the mission field of our own world. May God grant this to us all! Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. 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.