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4. Distinguishing the Contents From the Container (2 Cor. 4:7-15)


As a seminary student years ago, I sat in a class taught by Dr. Haddon Robinson, our homiletics professor. Dr. Robinson waxed eloquently on the need to be fresh and creative and to avoid getting into a rut. Rather than following our old patterns, he urged us to do something different. “When you drive home, take a different route,” he urged. After class, Bob Barlow, my friend and classmate, collected his books and lunch sack to go eat. “Why don’t you do something different today, Bob,” I teased, “like eating your lunch sack and throwing away your lunch?”

Eating the container rather than the contents might be better for one’s health in some cases. I remember reading about an experiment conducted to test the nutritional value of a certain breakfast cereal. One group of rats had been fed the breakfast cereal; the control group had been fed the box the cereal came in (ground up, of course). Sadly, the rats who ate the container were healthier than those who ate the cereal.

There is a marked difference between the “container” and the “contents.” Usually, the contents are far superior to the container. In our text, Paul addresses a very serious problem in the Corinthian church by contrasting the value of the contents of the gospel with the container in which they are stored and displayed, the saints, who are likened to clay pots. This is a humbling lesson, but one that desperately needs to be heard in our day and age. The truths of our text are essential to our Christian life and service.


Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians gives us a fairly clear picture of the problems he is trying to address and correct at Corinth. Allow me to summarize those problems which Paul seems to address in our text:

(1) In 1 Corinthians 1:10-31, Paul indicates that there are factions in the church at Corinth. People are dividing themselves according to certain leaders, one of whom is the leader of each group. Their leader seems to be the one who baptized them. These leaders are revered as wise and powerful. Paul reminds the Corinthians that the gospel is foolishness to the lost, and that those who are saved are those whom the world disregards.

(2) Taking up this same matter in chapter 3, Paul reminds the Corinthians that those men whom they follow and revere are merely servants whom God has used to bring about blessings in their lives. It is God’s work through men so that no one should boast in men, but rather in God (3:4-7, 21).

(3) Paul and his fellow apostles (4:6-13) stand in contrast to these “super leaders,” who are so esteemed by some of the saints in Corinth. The Corinthians who have aligned themselves with the “super leaders” feel smug and superior to the other saints, including Paul. Paul and his colleagues have become “as the scum of the world, the dregs of all things” (4:13). They are looked down upon as an embarrassment to the church, while their new leaders give the Corinthians a sense of pride since they are so smooth, so persuasive, and so wise. In reality, these leaders, in whom all too many of the saints take pride, are “false apostles,” as Paul spells out in 2 Corinthians 11. Because these messengers are so attractive and winsome, some are only too happy to give up the gospel, as preached by Paul and the apostles, and to embrace whatever “gospel” these false apostles might offer (see 11:1-15).

Tracing the Argument of This Text

The easiest approach to our text is to follow the flow of Paul’s argument. The following points seem to capture the essence of Paul’s words.

(1) The gospel is the Christian’s true treasure (4:4-7); we who believe in Christ are merely containers of the gospel (“earthen vessels,” 4:7), and not glorious ones at that. In chapter 3, Paul makes much of the fact that the gospel ministry, the ministry of the new covenant, is a glorious ministry, one whose glory surpasses the glory of the ministry of the old covenant. The glory of this ministry should sustain us in difficult times, but it should not cause us to feel proud or superior to others. Paul therefore begins verse 7 with the word “but,” indicating that the glory of the new covenant ministry given to us is in contrast to the humble state of the Christian who is but a “clay pot,” a container of the glorious gospel.

The true treasure is the glory of God in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, as presented and proclaimed by the gospel. In contrast to this glorious treasure are the vessels which contain the treasure. Christians are merely “clay pots,” while the gospel is the treasure. Earthen vessels (clay pots) are common and cheap, ones like those red flowerpots we can buy today for very little money. Earthen vessels are also fragile and easily broken. I have broken a significant number of clay pots. Earthen vessels are “earthy” and “earthly”; they are of this world. (Remember that we were made of the dust of the earth—see Genesis 2:7.) Earthen vessels are fashioned by the potter, who creates them for his own purposes (see Romans 9:20-21). Clay pots have nothing in which to boast; they have no basis for feeling superior. The treasure gains nothing from the pots; if anything, the pots gain from the glory of the treasure.

When it comes to the gospel, the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Christian’s “self-image,” Paul tries to put matters into their proper perspective. The false apostles in the Corinthian church think far too much of themselves, and they have duped a number of saints into thinking too highly of them also. Paul’s words give us the proper perspective. We who believe in Jesus Christ are merely clay pots, who have nothing to glory about in and of ourselves. We are the containers, and the contents have all the glory.

Paul’s words must have startled some of the Corinthian followers and even stunned their pompous leaders. If these men wish to represent themselves and their ministry as gold-plated, Paul informs the church that even the apostles are mere clay pots. Are these gold-plated frauds willing to forsake the gospel of Jesus Christ and replace it with a gospel which appeals to human wisdom? Paul reminds the church that the gospel is the treasure, and thus it had better not be put into the trash.

(2) Our lives are like earthen vessels, which, when broken by suffering, manifest the light of the gospel (see Judges 7:15-25; Matthew 5:10-16). Reading Paul’s words in verses 8-15 in the light of the “clay pots” imagery of verse 7, one cannot help but feel that Paul draws upon the imagery of Judges 7:15-25. In this text, Gideon’s tiny army of 300 men is about to do battle with the host of Midianites and Amalekites who have assembled against the Israelites. These 300 men are divided into three different companies, who surround their enemies at night with torches hidden within earthen pitchers, held by their left hands. At the blast of the trumpet, the pitchers are smashed, and the light of the torches is broadcast around the camp. Simultaneously, these 300 men blow the trumpets they are holding in their right hands. The enemy armies panic, turning on each other with their swords, bringing a great victory for Gideon and his men.

Paul may be employing this imagery in his letter to the Corinthians to make an important point, one that has never been very popular. We are like the clay pots of Gideon and his men; when we are broken, the light of the gospel is shed abroad. And when we are broken like clay pots, our strength or power is not seen, but God’s. When we are broken by adversity, opposition, and suffering, God’s power is revealed, and God’s work is accomplished in a way that does not glorify the “clay pots” but manifests God’s surpassing power and glory.

Here again is a most important lesson for the Corinthians. Men are brought to the light of the gospel not by the exaltation of the messenger, but by the exaltation of Christ. As we, the clay pots, are broken by suffering, men see the light. Several analogies come to mind. In a sense, we are windows whose purpose is not to be seen, but to be seen through. Men should not see the glass, but in looking through the glass, they should behold the majesty and glory of God, whom we have the privilege of proclaiming. We might say Christians are like the glass in a fire alarm box, which must be broken so that lives may be saved. Or we might compare the Christian to the piata, which is filled with various treats. As the piata is beaten and broken, the “treasure” within is poured out, much to the delight of those seeking it. It is not by the exalting of the messenger that God’s power and glory are revealed, but by the breaking of the container that the contents are dispensed.

(3) The suffering Christian’s experience may seem as though it will break us, but as intense as it may be, God never allows such intense suffering that it defeats or destroys us, or defeats what God purposes to accomplish through it. By means of suffering, we, God’s “clay pots,” are broken, so that the glorious light of the gospel and the power of God are evident. In the midst of our brokenness, it may appear that our suffering will utterly defeat and destroy us, but this is not true. Paul assures us in verses 8 and 9 that no matter what our affliction may be, and no matter how severe, God will not allow us to be destroyed by it. The Christian is afflicted in every way (verse 8), suffering the full orb of afflictions of mankind. In the context, it seems that our affliction arises from our status as Christians, who profess and proclaim Christ. Paul enumerates four forms of intense suffering; each followed by an assurance that our affliction will not result in complete failure or destruction. (1) afflicted — but not crushed; (2) perplexed — but not despairing; (3) persecuted — but not forsaken; (4) struck down — but not destroyed.

Paul says that he and other saints are “afflicted” (verse 8). This word is used for the squeezing or pressing in upon our Lord by the crowds (Mark 3:9). In spite of great external pressure, we may be assured that we will not be crushed, like a submarine which has descended to depths and pressures beyond its limits. We are “perplexed” but “not despairing” (verse 8). This word is used to describe Herod’s inner turmoil in listening to the preaching of John the Baptist (Mark 6:20). The Christian will face many unanswered questions, many perplexing circumstances. But while we acknowledge there are questions for which we have no immediate answers, we also stand assured that there is an answer, and that someday in eternity we will know what it is. Thus, we may be perplexed, but we do not despair as though there are no answers at all, as though there is no hope.

We are “persecuted” but “not forsaken.” If anyone knows persecution, it is the Apostle Paul. He is a man who dished out persecution as an unbeliever. He is a man greatly persecuted as a Christian. But while men may reject us and our message, as Christians we are never completely abandoned. Like Joseph in Egypt, or Daniel and his three friends in Babylon, the Lord is with us, even in the fiery furnace. Paul witnessed this in a dramatic fashion at the stoning of Stephen. In his dying moments, as he was rejected and persecuted by his fellow Jews, Stephen saw his Lord standing at the right hand of God, waiting to receive him into heaven’s glory (Acts 7:54-56). Even when it seems so, we are never alone, though the whole world seems against us and the message of the gospel we proclaim.

Finally, we may be “struck down,” but we can never be “destroyed” (verse 9). One can hardly think of a more dramatic illustration than Paul’s experience at Lystra described in Acts 14 (see especially verses 19 and 20). Paul was stoned and left for dead, but when the disciples gathered around him, he arose and entered the city. Paul is not assuring us that we will never die a martyr’s death, but that if we do die, we may be assured of our future resurrection. There is no suffering, no affliction, which God will allow to ultimately defeat and destroy us, for He causes all things to work together for His glory and for our good (Romans 8:28).

Not until we have reached the limits of our own capacity do we find it absolutely necessary to cast ourselves on God. God uses our suffering and adversity to take us beyond our own capacities, so that we will turn to Him for strength and survival. Thus, it is His power which sustains us, and it is He who must receive the praise and glory. God does not leave us with a full tank of gas, but with a tank virtually empty. As the gauge reads “empty” and the red warning light begins to flash, we must seek reserves which are not our own.

I am reminded of the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath recorded in 1 Kings 17:8-16. As Elijah arrives, the widow’s flour and oil are gone. She has only enough to prepare one final meal for herself and her son. Elijah promises the widow that if she provides for him, her flour and oil will never run out, but she will be provided for until the time the drought ends. God does provide for Elijah, the widow, and her son, but He never gives her a full barrel of flour. Instead, He continues to provide just enough for the next meal. The flour barrel is always nearly empty, but it never runs dry. God does not give a full barrel of flour, as He could do, because He wants this widow to trust Him daily. Is this not why our Lord prayed, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11)?

(4) The suffering we are called to endure, which will never utterly destroy us, is the divinely appointed, irreplaceable means by which God manifests His life in our mortal bodies. Paul writes in Philippians 1, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” I have always understood these words to mean, “For to me, living is glorious, and dying is even better.” Just what does it mean to live Christ? Paul tells us in our text. But let us be very clear: he is telling us nothing new at all. Over and over again in the Bible, we are informed that to live Christ is to live out His life, experiencing the same things He experienced, and exhibiting the same responses and the same manifestation of God’s power.

10 “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 Blessed are you when men cast insults at you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me. 12 Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. 13 You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how will it be made salty again? It is good for nothing anymore, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men. 14 You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do men light a lamp, and put it under the peck-measure, but on the lampstand; and it gives light to all who are in the house. 16 Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:10-16).

21 But He warned them, and instructed them not to tell this to anyone, 22 saying, “The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day.” 23 And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. 24 For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it. 25 For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses or forfeits himself? 26 For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when He comes in His glory, and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels” (Luke 9:21-26).

18 “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also” (John 15:18-20; see also Matthew 10:16-23).

These same men have written to us what Jesus taught His disciples: we live out the life of Christ by living righteously in a wicked world, thereby experiencing the rejection and persecution of those who want nothing to do with Christ and His gospel:

21 And after they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, 22 strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:21-22).

24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body (which is the church) in filling up that which is lacking in Christ’s afflictions. 25 Of this church I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God, 26 that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations; but has now been manifested to His saints, 27 to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. 28 And we proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, that we may present every man complete in Christ. 29 And for this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me (Colossians 1:24-29).

5 For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. 6 You also became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 1:5-6).

12 And indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12).

18 Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable. 19 For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a man bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God. 21 For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, 22 WHO COMMITTED NO SIN, NOR WAS ANY DECEIT FOUND IN HIS MOUTH; 23 and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; 24 and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. 25 For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls (1 Peter 2:18-25).

12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; 13 but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing; so that also at the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exultation. 14 If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you (1 Peter 4:12-13).

God chose to use us, His “clay pots,” because He wishes to display His power and His glory through our weaknesses and brokenness. As we mere “clay pots” are broken, God’s power and glory are revealed through us. The process of being broken is now referred to as “dying” (see 2 Corinthians 4:10-12). There is the once-and-for-all death of our Lord in our place, whereby our sins are forgiven as we are joined to His death and resurrection by the Holy Spirit (Romans 6:1-7; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 2:20). This once-for-all-death which we die in Christ is played out by our daily “taking up our cross” and dying to the flesh and its desires, our persecution at the hands of unbelievers, and perhaps even our martyrdom for the sake of Christ. In our daily living out the dying of Christ, we also live out His resurrection life and power.

As we first must reckon ourselves dead in our trespasses and sins, powerless to save ourselves by any work we can do (Ephesians 2:1-10), we must also realize that, even as Christians, we are powerless in and of ourselves to live a godly life. We, like Paul, must conclude daily, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (Romans 7:24). And as we die daily, the resurrection power of God works in and through us to produce His righteousness:

10 And if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness. 11 But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who indwells you (Romans 8:10-11).

We are not made righteous by trying to live for Christ, but by dying to self and to sin so that Christ’s life is lived out in us. This principle is absolutely crucial. Paul repeats it three times in our short text:

Always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body (verse 10).

For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh (verse 11).

So death works in us, but life in you (verse 12).

Dying is not an option for the Christian. As unworthy sinners, we had to die with Christ and be raised with Him from the dead in order to be saved. As weak and powerless saints, to live out the life of Christ, we must die daily to the world, to sin, and to the flesh.

25 “For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake shall find it” (Matthew 16:25).

24 “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains by itself alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).

Paul says in our text that as clay pots, we must be broken for the light of the glory of Christ to be shown forth. He says that in order for the life of Christ to become evident in our bodies, we must die first. No wonder our Lord speaks of being “lights” in the world in the context of suffering and persecution:

10 “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 Blessed are you when men cast insults at you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me. 12 Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. 13 You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how will it be made salty again? It is good for nothing anymore, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men. 14 You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do men light a lamp, and put it under the peck-measure, but on the lampstand; and it gives light to all who are in the house. 16 Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:10-16).

Do some Corinthians take great pride in some of their leaders? Do they glory in their appearance, their homiletical style, their persuasive powers, their mind-boggling wisdom? Do they look down upon Paul, his physical infirmities, his apparent weaknesses, his simplistic message and methodology? Paul is weak, and he constantly lays down his life so that they might live. Paul is like Christ. What does this say to the Corinthians concerning those who oppose Paul, those “false apostles”? Paul’s words in our text spell out the fundamental differences between true apostles and false apostles. The very things for which Paul is disdained and rejected are those things which make him Christ-like, the very things which certify him as a true apostle (see 11:16-33).

(5) The suffering which breaks these “clay pots” should not result in our silence, but should become the basis for our proclaiming boldly the good news of the gospel. Peter speaks of a kind of silence which is godly in the midst of suffering as a saint (see 1 Peter 2:18–3:6). In the midst of our sufferings, it is all too easy to use our mouths to fight back. This we must not do, but neither should we become silent about our faith to avoid further persecution and suffering. Just as we have experienced the resurrection power of God in our salvation and daily walk, we should hope for our ultimate resurrection at the return of our Lord. If we will be raised from the dead, then men cannot take away our future hope, even by taking our lives. We need not fear death. And if we do not fear death, we need not become silent in times of opposition and danger. This is the intent of Paul’s teaching in verses 13 and 14.

Paul turns in verse 13 to the words of the psalmist to underscore that Christians can boldly proclaim the gospel in the face of opposition and danger, knowing that God will raise them from the dead. The words, “I believed, therefore I spoke” are virtually the same as those found in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint. Translations of Psalm 116:10 vary considerably in the way they render this verse.

In our text, Paul is not simply borrowing a phrase, he is establishing a principle. Psalm 116 is about the believer’s confidence in God, even in death. Verse 15 is a favorite for many Christians and a text often employed in funeral messages: “Precious in the sight of the LORD Is the death of His godly ones” (Psalm 116:15).

When the psalmist writes, “I believed, therefore I spoke,” he then goes on to write as his next words, “I am greatly afflicted.” I believe this psalm expresses the psalmist’s faith in God, a resurrection faith. He can call upon God when in great danger, knowing that God may rescue him from death, or that He may rescue him after death by resurrecting him from the grave. Strengthened and encouraged by his faith, the psalmist can face and endure persecution, adversity, danger, and even death. He need not be, and he will not be, silent about his suffering, for his faith sees beyond his suffering and death.

In this same spirit of faith, Paul says that just as he can be bold in his witness, even though it may bring persecution and even death, so can we. We need not hide our suffering and affliction or be silent about the good news of the gospel, for the life of Christ is manifested in our death. If the worst men can do is kill us, and if God has already promised to raise us from the dead, then what should we fear, and why should we keep silent? If suffering and dying are the divinely appointed means of revealing God’s power and glory in our lives, why should we seek to conceal our afflictions? There is little justification here for the “silent witness” approach. There are times when we do need to be silent, especially when our speech will not glorify God or edify others. But when the time comes for us to declare our faith and proclaim the gospel, we must speak (see Romans 10:9-10). When our silence is the result of our shame or our fear, it is evil (see Luke 9:21-26).

(6) Being broken as an earthen vessel means dying to one’s self so that we can serve others and glorify God. In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul indicates that he and others can be bold in their speech concerning Christ because of the vastly greater glory of the ministry of the new covenant, the ministry of the gospel (see 3:12). Repeatedly, Paul speaks of the glory of the gospel ministry of which every saint is a part. The gospel is the revelation of the light of the gospel, which is the “knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (4:6). The glory is not ours, but God’s. The gospel is the treasure, and, as we are broken, we are but the earthly vessels God has chosen to contain and display His gospel. What marvelous grace and privilege God has bestowed upon these earthen vessels.

Some believe that we are to love ourselves first, God next, and others last. They are dead wrong. But many others believe we are to love God first, others next, and self last. Perhaps there is a sense in which this is true, but Paul does not present his argument this way in our text. Paul speaks of our being broken, our dying, so that others may benefit and God may be glorified. I am to die to the world, the flesh, and self-interest so that I may serve others and glorify God. Paul writes in verse 7 that God has entrusted the true treasure of the gospel to “clay pots,” so that the “surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not from ourselves.” There is no ground for boasting or pride here, other than that boasting and pride directed toward God.

As Paul concludes his argument in verse 15, once again his emphasis is on serving others and glorifying God: “For all things are for your sakes, that the grace which is spreading to more and more people may cause the giving of thanks to abound to the glory of God.” Paul’s sufferings are the sufferings of Christ. They are his dying—dying to self-interest, fleshly desires, worldly ambitions and goals. They are like Christ’s sufferings in that they are for the blessing of others. Paul’s dying brings life to the Corinthians (verse 12). Paul’s suffering is for the Corinthians’ sakes (verse 15). And ultimately, as people are brought to faith in Christ and saints are strengthened in their faith, praise and thanksgiving are offered to God, to His glory.

Here is the perspective every believer should have. Here is where Paul and the true apostles stand apart from the false apostles. The false apostles are self-serving, seeking power, glory and personal gain for themselves. Paul and the faithful servants of Christ are, like Christ, sacrificing themselves for the good of others and the glory of God. The false apostles appeal to men on the basis of the flesh, focusing on the satisfaction of fleshly lusts. Like Christ, Paul calls upon the saints to take up their cross and follow Him. The gap between the true and the false apostles grows ever greater as Paul’s letter continues.


I believe Paul’s argument in this passage may be summarized in this way: As Christians die daily, by living righteously and boldly speaking forth the truth of the gospel, we live out the death and life of our Lord Jesus Christ, to the consternation of those who reject the gospel, to the benefit and blessing of those who believe, and ultimately to the glory of God.

This passage clearly distinguishes between the container (clay pot) and the contents (the glorious gospel). But at the same time it distinguishes between the true apostles and the false. Slowly, the veil is being lifted, and the false apostles are exposed. Are the false apostles gold-plated vessels? They think so. Is Paul a mere “clay pot”? He knows so, and he rejoices in the privilege that is his, as an unworthy vessel, to contain and display the gospel for the good of others and the glory of God.

This passage speaks not only to the Corinthians centuries ago, it speaks to us as well. There are many today like the false apostles of Paul’s day. They are something like Job’s friends in that they seek to rebuke the sufferer for his suffering, insisting that those who are godly must prosper. The sufferer is not encouraged to faithfully endure, and all the while to proclaim the gospel to a lost and dying world; the sufferer is subtly, or not so subtly, encouraged to keep quiet and look inward to discover what sins lurk within, causing him to suffer. False apostles are able to gather many followers because they disdain suffering and promote self-indulgence. True servants of God are not those whose faces have been frequently touched up so that evidences of age are concealed; they do not often live self-indulgent lives and promise peace and prosperity to those who follow them (contributing to their programs, of course). True servants of God make much of Christ and much less of themselves. True servants are much more scarce than the false. True servants are like Christ, often unrecognized and persecuted. They give their lives for the good of others and the glory of God.

One can hardly avoid mentioning the current fixation on “self-esteem” as the root of success and the cause of failure in our society. I do not like the term “self-esteem” (or its synonyms) because it is not a biblical term, and it is hardly a biblical concept. Some attempt to correct the error by telling us that our self-esteem is rooted in Christ. There is a measure of truth here, perhaps, but Paul’s words cause us to ponder much of what is accepted today by Christians on the subject of self-esteem. Let us remember that we, as Christians, are “clay pots,” meant to be broken, so that the glory of God may be displayed.

Another contemporary application to our text comes in the area of evangelism. I have been involved in prison ministry in past years, and I have a real heart for the men and women behind bars. But so often prison ministries come into the prisons to evangelize by bringing in the superstars. Highly talented, highly regarded men and women are brought in, often drawing large crowds and producing a number of professions of faith. These are the “Weekends of Champions,” and I do not doubt that some are genuinely saved as a result. But would the apostles have been invited as guest speakers to such events? For Paul to speak, there would have to be a “Weekend of Scum” or “Days of the Dregs,” for that is how he is regarded (see 1 Corinthians 4:13). If we want people to be saved, do we not also want them to become like Christ? And if they are to live out Christ, must they not also be rejected and persecuted and disdained by the world? Is a champion in the eyes of the world the model for the saint? These questions need more consideration, especially in light of Paul’s Epistles to the Corinthians.

Finally, Paul’s words here underscore the on-going value of the weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper, which we and many others observe every week. The celebration of communion is a reminder of Christ’s incarnation, His sinless life, and His sacrificial death by which we were saved. But it is also a reminder of what God expects of us, if we are to live out the dying of Christ to the glory of God. As the “bread” is without leaven, because our Lord was a perfect sacrifice, free from all sin, so our lives are to be godly as we die daily to sin. Ours will not be a perfect obedience, but that should be our desire and our goal. And as our Lord poured out His life, symbolized by the “wine,” we must die daily, becoming broken vessels so that the life of our Lord might be manifested in and through us.

Have you ever recognized that you are a sinner, dead in your sins (see Ephesians 2:1-10)? Have you ever cast yourself upon the Lord Jesus Christ as the One who died for your sins, who bore the guilt and penalty for all your sins, and who rose from the dead to give you life? This is the good news of the gospel. God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to die for unworthy sinners, to forgive them of their sins and to give them eternal life to the glory of God. This can be yours, when you acknowledge that you are an unworthy sinner, and when you trust in what Christ has done on the cross of Calvary for you. And this is the pattern which should ever be before the Christian, who is to live Christ before a lost and dying world.

Related Topics: Sanctification, Suffering, Trials, Persecution

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