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2 Corinthians 4:6-9

Review and Expositor, 94 (1997)

2 Corinthians 4:6-9
Alan C. Thompson
It was the advent season, and the Minister of Education, who had a gift for
sticking his foot in his mouth, was publicizing the Lottie Moon Christmas
offering. The WMU had created a poster surrounded by lights. The closer we
moved toward the goal, the more lights were turned on. So on this particular
Sunday, the Minister of Education announced loudly, "As you can see, Lottie
Moon is half-litr
In another church, the lady who was the "guardian of all things ancient"
approached me elfter church. She wanted to complain about the recent
renovations in the sanctuary. She was especially disturbed that we had removed
the dark brown and dingy yellow glass from the windows and replaced it with
clear glass to brighten the sanctuary. "Now you oughtn't have taken out that
stained glass," she said with a frown. "Those windows were given in memory of
"In memory of whom?" I asked.
"Well, now, I don't remember," she said.
In another church I heard about a man who had opposed the installation of a
new organ, and now that it was in place he swore that it was much louder than
the old organ. So every Sunday he wore a pair of earmuffs during worship, only
removing them to hear the sermon.
No doubt you have met them as wellthose crack-pots who add their own
peculiar spice to church life. Every church has them. And while I found the
above incidents amusing, sometimes the encounters have not been so amusing.
Human frailty and weakness can surface in the forms of egotism, aggressiveness,
suspicion, dependency, negativism, and a host of other personality disorders.
Wayne Oates makes the unsettling observation:
[P]eople who live in a perpetual state of disorder irritate, aggravate, and
frustrate us. They wear on our nerves. They enrage or depress us or
alternately do both Our Christian conscience disturbs us because we
find something of ourselves in such persons.
We, too, as "pots," are not without our own "cracks." We are all, pardon the
expression, "God's Crackpots." It is a reality we can try to deny, or gracefully
embrace. The apostle Paul embraces it fully in his words to the Corinthian
church in 2 Cor. 4:6-9.
In 2 Corinthians, we find Paul in the thick of his ministry, stripped of any
idealistic illusions he may have had early on. He may have hoped for acceptance
and appreciation, but what he often found was rejection and attack. He may
have hoped for harmonious, spiritually mature churches, but nowhere is it
clearer than in Corinth that this was not always the case. "After twenty years of
it, during which he passed through so many trials, disappointments, and
difficulties, he speaks as a servant of the Gospel in the midst of the daily grind."
So many of us are there as wellin the thick of ministry, slogging away in the
midst of disappointments and frustrations and difficult people, with the debris of
shattered illusions at our feet. And, lest we forget, this is a state not exclusively
reserved for the professional clergy. The church offers people a variety of
opportunities to be over-worked and under-appreciated. In such a situation, we
are tempted to complain against God and defend our own efforts. But the
apostle Paul does just the opposite. He emphasizes his own weaknesses and
limitations, and sings a doxology to God.
We have this treasure in "earthen vessels" (ostrakinios skeuesin). A number of
possibilities have been suggested for the background of this metaphor: The
prophetic image of humanity as a clay pot (Isa. 30:14; Jer. 18:6,19:11), the
Hellenistic idea of the body as a container for the soul,
the common ancient
practice of hiding items of great value in cheap earthenware, or from the
viewpoint illustrated in Sifre Deut. 48:
[A]s it is not possible for wine to be stored in golden or silver vessels, but
only in one which is the least among the vessels, an earthenware one, so also
the words of the Torah can be kept only with one who is humble in his own
Because Corinthian pottery was well-known in the ancient world, others have
suggested that Paul may have in mind the small pottery lamps which were cheap
and fragilewhich would nicely complement his prior reference to God's light
The adjective, "earthen," also takes us back to Genesis 2 where we find
humanity being created from the dust of the groundGod formed adam from the
adamah, "humans" from the "humus."
Regardless of the source, the metaphor's point is one of contrast and irony.
Using a common term for a cheap, common object, Paul emphasizes the lack of
glory in the vessel in relation to the glory of the treasure (thesauron) placed
inside. It is our practice to place our treasures in huge vaults of shining steel, our
jewels in ornate wooden boxes lined with soft fabric or in expensive display
cases. But God has placed His great treasure in common clay pots like you and
mepots with flaws and cracks and imperfections. Within the frail creatures we
are can be found the treasure of "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God
in the face of Christ."
In describing the precious treasure we have received, Paul says that God has
"shined his light in our hearts." The apostle's invocation of the metaphor "light"
2 Corinthians 4:6-9
Review and Expositor, 94 (1997)
to describe God's work in our hearts is not surprising given his experience on the
Damascus Road. The blinding light from heaven which overwhelmed his eyes
also overwhelmed his soul. In that one experience, even in his blindness, Paul's
eyes were opened to his own weakness and fragility and to the power and scope
of God's grace made available in Christ. The light that shined that day was the
"knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ" (v. 6). Stripped of
metaphor, this is the treasure which Paul describes: a personal knowledge of
God and his glory in and through Christ.
Why this ironic divine action of placing so precious and glorious a treasure in
so common and frail a container? So that there would never be any mistaking
the container for the contents: "in order to show that the all-surpassing power is
from God and not from us" (v. 7). Contrary to the opinion of some in the church
who have inflated egos, or those who would elevate pastor or deacon to the level
of demigod, none of us are the treasure. We are fragile and imperfect vessels,
one and all.
Years ago when Mohammed Ali was in his prime, he was about to take off on
an airplane flight. Following standard procedure, the stewardess asked all
passengers to fasten their seat belts. Noticing that he hadn't fastened his, the
stewardess gently reminded him to buckle up. In his usual brash style, Ali
retorted, "Superman don't need no seat belt!" Quickly but gently the stewardess
reminded him, "Superman don't need no airplane either." And Ali reportedly
fastened his belt.
It's a humbling reality, but we need the reminder. We are weak, frail human
beings. There are no "super-Christians," and even though we have "super
power" (h huperbol ts anameos) within us, it is not our doing but the work of
Anyone who studies the church's 2000 year history would have to be blind to
miss this truth at work. There are heresies, conflicts and schisms, violence,
arrogance and ignorance, failures and follies. Yet, in spite of it all, the church has
continued and prospered. How could it be? It is because the all-surpassing,
extraordinary, abundant, and preeminent power that has been at work across the
ages came not from imperfect Christians, but from our perfect indwelling
treasure, Jesus Christ.
In verse 8, Paul begins describing the practical implications of this reality. The
apostle, in the thick of his ministry, explains how that priceless treasure within
has gotten him through a litany of difficulties and trials. He uses four pairs of
terms, given in antithetical form, contrasting each pair with an alla ou ("but not").
Paul's choice of terms are not only descriptive, but also biographical.
"We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed." Thlib ("to pressure")
and stenoxre are linked often enough in hellenistic (Epictetus, Diss. I. 25,26) and
biblical literature (Job 18:11; Deut 28:53 ff.; Isa 8:22; 30:6; Esth 1:1, LXX) to suggest
that this is a stereotypical formulation. In Paul's experience at Corinth, in which
he was fiercely tested and his apostleship was questioned, we can see how he
was "under pressure" but not "flattened." This testing may be precisely what he
has in mind as he employs this formula.
A pastor with whom I served in Florida was locking up his office following
the Sunday morning worship service. A member burst in asking to talk to him
privately. This person spent five minutes complaining about his preaching.
"Your preaching is just not evangelistic enough. People are lost and they need to
hear the gospel." The church member left, and the pastor was admittedly shaken
by the complaint and was prepared to go home and give it more thought. But
before he could get out of the door a second church member burst in with a very
different complaint: "I just feel led to tell you that your preaching is too
evangelistic. Most of us are already Christians, and we need something to grow
on." Thanking this member for the feedback, he smiled, turned out the lights
and went home with more self-assurance than ever before. "We are hard pressed
from all directions, but not crushed," Paul said.
"Perplexed, but not in despair"the translation does not do justice to Paul's
play on words: aporoumenoi all' ouk exaporoumenoi. The ex- adds perfective force
to the repeat of the participle. Perhaps some of Paul's pun may be seen by
translating the phrase "At a loss, but never lost," or A. T. Robertson's "lost, but
not lost out."
"Persecuted, but not abandoned." The first participle, also translated
"harassed," is from the root dik, "to hunt down." In 6:3-13, Paul catalogs some
of the harassment he had endured: beatings, imprisonments, riots, libel and
slander, and the rejection of 'friends.' But, though the world be against him
(egkataleip, "to abandon," used of a person's sense of being forsaken by others)
Paul was confident of God's presence and sustaining love. His statement is
reminiscent of the psalmist's assurance: "Though my father and mother forsake
me, the Lord will receive me" (Ps. 27:10).
"Struck down, but not destroyed." Katball, "to throw down, strike down
with force," was used of throwing an opponent down in wrestling or of striking
someone down with a weapon. Perhaps Paul has in mind here his stoning at the
hands of the Jews in Lystra in which they thought they had killed him.
A young salesman was demonstrating his "unbreakable combs" at a display
table. Before a crowd of people he bent a comb with great force. When the comb
snapped in two he was momentarily at a loss, but then quickly recovered by
saying, "And this is what the unbreakable comb looks like on the inside!"
Our situation is just the opposite. We lay no claim to "unbreakableness." We
are weak and fragile "earthen vessels," "jars of clay." And yet, when
encountering crushing pressures, we are not crushed. Though perplexed,
somehow we find our way. Though abandoned, we sense a faithful presence.
Though knocked down, we are not knocked out. We survive to minister another
Dr. Cecil Sherman tells of an experience he had as a pastora conflict with an
individual in the days of the civil rights movement. When a black woman
expressed interest in joining the church, a member pointed out that a unanimous
vote was required for the acceptance of members. In the days that followed, Dr.
Sherman worked to get the unanimity requirement removed, though the battle
was long and hard. When he succeeded, this hostile individual reacted by telling
2 Corinthians 4:6-9
Review and Expositor, 94 (1997)
Dr. Sherman, "I'm going to bury you!" Several years later it was Cecil Sherman
who read the scripture at this man's graveside.
How do we handle the strain of pastoral ministry? The pressure of conflict,
the perplexing problems that far exceed our wisdom and expertise, the loneliness
of being related to in the context of your role rather than as another fellow
human being, the strain of balancing the roles of prophet and priestthese and
the many other common pressures of ministry are enough to destroy anyone.
And what do we say to hurting peoplethe wife whose husband of thirty years
suddenly found her worthless and abandoned her, the couple whose newborn
has a critical congenital heart defect, or the stigmatized individual who discovers
that "church people" sometimes do not express grace as freely as they have
received it? Often the only healing affirmation we have to lean on and offer is
that within these fragile, fractured vessels has been placed a treasure that will
somehow see us through. Our relationship to God in Christ brings with it a
"super-power" that can give brittle, weak clay a strength and resiliency which
can only be described as "miraculous." Under loads that should have destroyed
usbattered and bruised, scarred by conflict and fractured by fatiguethrough
Christ we press on.
"We have this treasure in earthen vessels." Paul's powerful metaphor,
composed in the thick of ministry, free of naive idealism, has had a transforming
effect on my own life and ministry. First, it has set me free through increased
self-acceptance and self-awareness. Knowing that weakness and imperfection
are the norm for us all has allowed me to explore my own weaknesses and
imperfections without embarrassment. Because I now know where many of the
"cracks" are in this pot, I am able to be more effective in ministry.
Second, it has greatly increased my patience and effectiveness with others.
The people to whom I minister will always be weak, fragile peoplewith broken
hearts, irritating habits, neurotic tendencies. Helping them accept their flaws
and imperfections has been a powerful first step in helping them compensate for
them. There is no such thing as the perfect spouse, the perfect parent, the perfect
friend or sibling or child. But using John the Baptist's words ("He must increase
and I must decrease," Jn 3:30) as our guide, we can strive to share more of the
treasure and less of the vessel.
Third, it has increased my appreciation for this wonderful institution called
the church. Given its makeup, its resiliency and accomplishments can only be
described as miraculous.
Fourth, it has helped me understand how Marshall McLuhan's statement, "the
medium is the message," applies to ministry. The mediuma fragile, common
vessel into which God has placed his treasureis the messageinto fragile,
common vessels, the God of grace places his treasure.
Finally, it has inspired me to be a "better vessel." Knowing what a glorious
treasure God has entrusted to me has motivated me to grow in personal
commitment and professional skill. As one seminary professor said in his
characteristic Scottish brogue, "Ye may be earthen vessels, but ye needn't be so
earthen as ye are!"
What an amazing irony! Into these common, clay vessels, God has placed the
greatest treasure known to humanity: "the light of the knowledge of the glory of
God in the face of Christ." How odd to think that a quest to uncover knowledge
about God should focus attention, not on the quasars and pulsars and distant
galaxies discovered through the Hubble Space Telescope, but on the discoveries
of a fellow who insists on wearing earmuffs during worship.
A certain woman took a trip to the Holy Land. While she was there she
purchased some of the fragrant spices sold there. After returning, she placed the
small container on her mantle as a reminder of her trip. But one day, while
dusting, she knocked off the fragile container which broke on the floor. Being in
a hurry, she quickly scooped up all the pieces and wiped up the remaining liquid
with her dust cloth, tossing the pieces and cloth into a large clay pot which sat
nearby. As those spices leaked out of the broken container, they began to soak
into and permeate that clay pot. As a result, even long after the broken pieces
and dust cloth had been removed, no matter which room she placed the pot in,
her whole house was filled with the fragrant smell of those spices.
"We have this treasure in earthen vessels"but not in such a way that the
treasure can be removed, for it has permeated our very being. And, to the extent
that we admit the weakness and limitations of the vessel, we emphasize the
miraculous power of the treasure. The indwelling Christ has transformed our
Wayne E. Oates, Behind the Masks (Louisville: Westminster Press, 1987), 11.
Carlo M. Martini, In the Thick of His Ministry, trans. Dinah Livingstone (Collegeville,
MN: The Liturgical Press, 1990), 11.
John B. Polhill, "Reconciliation at Corinth," Review and Expositor 86 (Summer 1989):
Ralph P. Martin, 2 Corinthians, The Word Biblical Commentary, no. 40 (Waco: Word
Books, 1986), 85.
A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, vol. 4 (Nashville: Broadman Press,
1931), 226.