************ Sermon on 2 Corinthians 4:7 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on December 31, 1999
2 Corinthians 4
"Treasure in Jars of Clay"
Old Year's Service 1999
I Jars of Clay
A "Jars of Clay." Our young people know this as the name of a Christian rock group. On this last night of 1999, on this last night before our calendars turn to the year 2000, our Scripture reading uses this phrase to describe Christians: Christians are jars of clay.
Let's not forget who is the human author of these words in front of us this evening. These are the words of the Apostle Paul. To Ananias the Lord said about Paul, "This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel" (Acts 9:15). Paul was the foremost missionary of the early church. He was an equal to the disciples of Jesus. Like them he had been a witness to the resurrected Lord.
Yet, in our text for this evening, Paul can call himself a "jar of clay." The image that is presented is one of weakness and even insignificance. The jar of clay the Apostle has in mind is the most modest of vessels – perhaps what was called a "chamber pot" in previous times. We are not to think of a highly glazed, colorful piece of pottery. Rather, we are to think of an ordinary lump of clay fashioned into an ordinary pot and hardened in a kiln.
Why does the apostle call himself a "jar of clay?" What does he have in mind here? The apostle is thinking of his many imperfections here. He first has in mind his weakness and helplessness in the presence of sin and temptation. He may be an apostle but he also knows himself to be a sinner. He is so aware of his continued sin that he can call himself "the worst of sinners" (1 Tim 1:16). Countless Christians have identified with his description of the believer's struggle in Romans 7:
(Rom 7:15,19) I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do ... For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do -- this I keep on doing.It may very well be that Paul's "thorn of the flesh" (2 Cor 12:7) was some secret sin he was unsuccessfully struggling against. In view of his sin it is understandable why Paul calls himself a "jar of clay."
That's not all that Paul has in mind when he calls himself a "jar of clay." He also looks to the weakness of his appearance. He admits he is timid when face to face, but bold when away (2 Cor 10:1). He admits some say about him,
(2 Cor 10:10) His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.Further on he admits he is not "a trained speaker" (2 Cor 11:6). He is but a "jar of clay."
Also in mind would be the slow decay/death of his body. His outward nature was slowly wasting away (2 Cor 4:16). But, then, consider all the things he put his body through: hard work, prison, beatings, shipwreck, stress, hunger, thirst, cold, heat, exposure ... (cf 2 Cor 12:23-29).
Paul, as he himself admits, is an earthen vessel, a jar of clay. The image he means to present of himself is one of weakness and even insignificance.
B On this last night of 1999 can there be any doubt that we too are but jars of clay?
Consider that those over 30 can feel themselves getting older; already there are grey hairs, wrinkles, aches and pains. By age 22 the outward nature starts the decline that ends in death. I am reminded of what J. Allen Petersen wrote:
Topic: Old AgeEarlier this evening we read from Psalm 39. The psalmist has this to say:
My wife and I were at the beach. I said, "You know, I'm 56. I'm middle aged!"
She said, "How many men do you know over 112?"
(Ps 39:4-5) "Show me, O LORD, my life's end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting is my life. (5) You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Each man's life is but a breath."Consider the many who died during 1999: loved ones of many here; the rich and famous like John Kennedy Jr., his wife, and his sister-in-law; the 217 passengers on Egypt Air Flight 990; students and staff of Columbine Highschool in Littleton, Colorado. It becomes obvious, doesn't it, that we are jars of clay. We are made of dust and to dust we all will someday return (Gen 3:19).
Consider also, for a moment, the sins you commit: the angry words you say, wicked thoughts you have; reflect on your lusts, covetousness, pride, and hate; think about your greed; contemplate your desire for the praise of men rather than of God. Like the Apostle Paul, all of us – that includes me too – have to confess our helplessness and weakness in the presence of sin, evil, and temptation. We too are sinners. We too try to do good but end up doing evil. We are but jars of clay.
Or, consider our imperfections as a congregation. Can we say we have done our very best in reaching out to the lost? As a congregation, have we always built each other up and prayed for each other and encouraged each other or have we also torn each other down? As a church, have we loved each other as much as we love ourselves? Honest answers to these questions reveal that the Trinity congregation is but a jar of clay.
I know only too well that in my role as pastor I too am but a jar of clay. Not all sermons hit the mark; sometimes visits are ineffective; sometimes words of comfort are inadequate; sometime prayers are meaningless; sometimes the message of grace does not come through clearly enough.
You and I and Paul are but jars of clay.
II The Gospel Treasure
A In our text for this evening, the Spirit inspired apostle speaks not only of jars of clay but also of "treasure."
What is this treasure?
The apostle gives the treasure a couple of different names: "the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ" (vs 4), and "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ" (vs 6). Notice, both times Paul talks about the treasure in terms of "light" and "glory." Paul probably has in mind his conversion experience. At that time, if you remember, he saw "a light from heaven, brighter than the sun" blazing around him and his companions (Acts 26:13). That light was so brilliant it blinded him (Acts 22:11; 9:8). That light was the brilliance of Christ's glory. That light was the glory of the crucified but now resurrected and ascended Lord Jesus.
The treasure that Paul mentions, then, is the wondrous Gospel story about Jesus:
That He was conceived by the Spirit and born of the virgin;
That He suffered under Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried;
That He rose from the dead;
That He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God;
That He shall some day come back to judge the living and the dead.
The wondrous Gospel story – that is the treasure Paul is speaking of.
B What is a treasure? A treasure is what you value most, what you put the greatest importance on, what you try to get whatever the cost.
Don't forget what Jesus said, "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Mt 6:21). A man's heart worships what is his treasure.
Think back on the past year, congregation. Tell me, what was your treasure in 1999? If your treasure, what you value most, is the things of this earth, your heart worships those things. But if your treasure is the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, then your heart will worship the Lord.
III The Gospel Treasure in Jars of Clay
A Jars of clay and the Gospel treasure. Our text for this evening joins the two concepts together when it says, "But we have this treasure in jars of clay ..."
Think about this for a moment: the most precious treasure on earth is within sinful, mortal, frail human creatures. The most valuable treasure ever is within earthen vessels.
Do you know what this is comparable to? It is comparable to putting a two million dollar Picasso painting in a manure pit. It is comparable to putting the crown jewels of Queen Elizabeth – worth over ten million dollars – in a public bathroom. It is comparable to hanging the original copy of the American Constitution on a wall in my garage. It is comparable to laying a hand-knit 400 year old Persian rug in a dog house.
In today's world we lock valuables in bank vaults or safety deposit boxes. Precious paintings are locked within rooms with strict humidity and temperature controls. Furs are put into cold storage when not in use. But the treasure of the Gospel is put in jars of clay!
Topic: God's PeopleTwenty centuries later, God still has no other plan. He is counting on jars of clay like you and me to spread the glorious treasure of the Gospel.
There is a legend which recounts the return of Jesus to glory after his time on earth. He bore the marks of his cruel cross and shameful death. The angel Gabriel approached him and asked, "Master, do they know all about how you loved them and what you did for them?"
"No," replied Jesus, "not yet. Right now only a handful of people in Palestine know."
Gabriel was perplexed. "Then what have you done to let everyone know about your love for them?"
Jesus said, "I've asked Peter, James, John, and a few others to tell people about me. Those who are told will tell others, and my story will be spread throughout the earth. Ultimately, all mankind will know about my love."
Gabriel frowned and looked rather skeptical. He well knew what poor stuff men were made of. He said, "But what if Peter denies you again? What if they all run away again in the face of opposition? What if Peter and James and John grow weary? What if the people who come after them forget? What if way down in the twenty-first century people just don't tell others about you? Do you have another plan?"
Jesus answered, "No. I'm counting on them."
B Why? Why does God do this? Why does He put such a valuable treasure in such a poor location? Why does the victorious Christ entrust the riches of the Gospel to His human followers? Why does God put the Gospel treasure – a treasure beyond all worth – in jars of clay?
Paul borrows an image here from the Roman army. After victory in battle the Roman legions would march into the city of Rome displaying the spoils of war, the booty they had taken from the defeated enemy. In these victory processions it was customary for plunder like gold, silver, and jewels to be carried in jars of clay. Within such containers all the sparkle and glimmer belongs to the treasure. The people would look not to the container but to the treasure within.
In modern merchandising, packaging is everything. Many is the time when a little child unwraps a toy and then plays happily with the glossy pictured box it came in. Advertisers and political advisors have found out that packaging sells goods, services, and presidents. In some instances, the packaging is even more important than the contents. For instance, did you know that 60% of the cost of perfume goes toward the bottle and box it comes in?
Like the Roman legions, God wants all the attention drawn not to the packaging but to the treasure. God wants people to see the sparkle and glimmer of the treasure. "But we have this treasure in jars of clay," says Paul, "to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us." The Gospel treasure is put in jars of clay so that the praise goes not to man but to God.
C "But we have this treasure in jars of clay." Do you realize what this means? It means Jesus needs to shine in us and through us as a church and as individuals. There is no doubt that we are jars of clay. There is no doubt that God has entrusted to us the treasure of the Gospel. But can we say that the world can always look at us and see the Gospel treasure? They are supposed to, you know. That's why God has given us the treasure – so it can sparkle and glisten and shine within us earthen vessels, us jars of clay.
D "But we have this treasure in jars of clay." Do you realize what this says about how we do evangelism and outreach? God puts the Gospel treasure in us jars of clay so that the lost will respond to the treasure rather than the packaging. God wants people to respond to the Gospel and not to the messenger.
"But we have this treasure in jars of clay." Do you realize what this says about us as a church? What is most important is not the size or beauty of our buildings, not the majesty of our music, not the pageantry of our liturgy, not the number and variety of our programs, not the deficit or surplus of our budget, not the amount of monies given to missions. What is most important is the Gospel treasure. What is most important is whether we hide our light or let it shine. What is most important is whether all the glitter and glimmer belongs to the treasure or to the packaging. What is most important is whether the glory goes to God or to man.
"But we have this treasure in jars of clay." Do you realize what this means about individual believers? What is most important is not the piety of our appearance, nor our eloquence in defending the Reformed faith, nor our knowledge and understanding of the Scripture and Creeds, nor the size of our contribution to the church budget. What is most important is whether we hide our light or let it shine. What is most important is whether all the glitter and glimmer belongs to the treasure or the packaging. What is most important is whether the glory goes to God or to man.
E Tell me, congregation, about 1999. During the past year did the Gospel treasure shine forth: in your life and my life, in the life of the Trinity congregation? During 1999 did all the glitter and glimmer belong to the treasure or the packaging?
And what about 2000? In 2000 will the treasure of the Gospel shine forth in us jars of clay to show that the power and the glory is God's and not ours?
Our text is in reality a celebration of the power and might of God. Think of it this way: God is able to make the Gospel treasure shimmer and sheen in us jars of clay; God is able to get the message out in spite of the messenger; God is able to convict sinners and redeem saints by a treasure in lowly jars of clay. The extent of God's power is such that it overcomes and transcends and far exceeds all human weakness.
We are but jars of clay. This speaks of a weakness and even a helplessness that can do nothing unless it has received strength from God. Which means that all of our accomplishments of the past year are in reality God's accomplishments. Were you successful in school – give God the glory. Were you successful on the dairy and in business – give God the glory. Were church programs a success – give God the glory. We jars of clay can do nothing without God's strength. In fact, God's power is made perfect in our weakness (2 Cor 12:9).
"But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us." Was this my experience, your experience, our experience, in 1999? And, will that be our experience during 2000?
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