2 Corinthians 4:7-12
May 3, 2020
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts around 16:10 in the audio file.
Or, Death by a Thousand Breaking Points
I was glad to hear that at least a few of you laughed when you saw the title to this message. It is definitely playing with words, teasing out the ambiguity of the word pot. Somehow pot shops, marijuana stores, are deemed “essential” in our coronavirus lockdown, perhaps because WA State gets 37% sales tax. Hmmmm. But, alas, that’s not the kind of pot I’m talking about.
Some of you have heard me talk about this before, and I pray your resolve to not lose heart will be rekindled. For those who will look along for the first time, I pray that you will have some new or sharpened categories of thought for what the Christian life looks like and feels like and accomplishes by God’s grace. Among other analogies, we are all jars of clay, and because we inessential in one way, the pot services we offer are essential.
In this paragraph, we’ll see death at work by considering a pot’s calling (verses 7-10), thinking (verse 11), and effect (verse 12).
Verses 7-10 form one sentence, with one primary verb, followed by three subordinate phrases that flesh out the reality. The main statement is:
But we have this treasure in jars of clay
What is the treasure? One option is that the treasure is the gospel message (verse 3), the new-covenant news. Another option is that the treasure is the light of the gospel (verse 4), the light of the knowledge (verse 6), emphasizing the effect of the message. But I don’t think either of those options are sufficient. I think the treasure is the gospel ministry; the treasure is the service of getting out the message that has the effect of light-giving.
Ministry, that is, everything involved in spreading the message, was the theme in chapter three. It was the topic in chapter four verse 1, “Having this ministry.” So now in verse 7, “We have this treasure.” The flow of the epistle and the similar phrasing of verses 1 and 7 draw attention to the work. The rest of the paragraph, verses 7-12, emphasize not only a certain message, but a certain kind of life that bears the message. The treasure is not less than the gospel, but neither can we put the gospel in a jar of formaldehyde. The treasure we have is to speak and live the gospel in person.
That said, the persons themselves are not much to speak about. We are jars of clay (ESV), “earthen(ware) vessels” (NAS), pots made of dirt. We are not the treasure; we carry the treasure.
Clay pots were simple, common, inexpensive, and easily replaceable. They were made of baked earth, so it didn’t really matter how they were treated or if they got dinged up or even if they broke; there’s a lot of earth. They were meant to be used, not admired. Treasure, on the other hand, was special, uncommon, and valuable.
The service we offer is amazing. We are not. Every pot’s calling is essential even if the pots themselves are insignificant.
Compared to the treasure, clay pots are cheap. Compared to God’s power, clay pots are weak. That’s good.
to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.
God’s intention for using clay pots is to make it clear that God’s power is excellent. In God’s economy, a pot’s weakness is an asset, not a liability.
It’s not just “power” at work, it’s surpassing power (ESV), “the surpassing greatness of power” (NAS), the “excellence of power” (NJKV), the “all-surpassing power” (NIV). No other power is comparable to His extraordinary, superlative power. Causing light to shine in darkness, creating light, is some kind of power indeed (see verse 6). God uses clay pots–cheap, breakable, replaceable–so that the pots don’t forget their place and so that God is exalted, not pots.
If we elevate pots, if we depend on pots, if we think ministry is about proper pot placement, or about pot self-care or pot branding, we are ignoring the essential purpose of being pots which is not to exalt the pot.
What does it look like for a clay pot to carry the treasure of gospel service? Verses 8-9 describe it. The gospel ministry is more than directing someone down the Roman’s Road, it’s more than preaching world-class sermons about Jesus from a pulpit. It is people, living among people, and suffering in gospel ways.
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; (verses 8–9)
Though every major English translation treats these as independent phrases, they are all participles (in Greek), indicating that they are dependent, and each one hangs on the primary verb “have” in verse 7. There are four pairs of “but not”s that reveal the severity of ongoing life for clay pot ministry.
Many commentators refer to these pairs as contrasts. They are not. Some see them as paradoxes. That’s also wrong. Verse 10 presents a gospel paradox, but we’ll treat that separately. Rather, verses 8-9 are breaking points. Clay pot ministry is a process for the pot of being used, abused, beaten, battered, and almost but not quite broken. We’re at the precipice, but He preserves us from being pushed over.
First, pots are pressed but not crushed. Paul says, [being] afflicted in every way, but not [being] crushed. Being “afflicted” means being pressured or squeezed. Things start weighing on us. What things? We are afflicted in “all things” or “in all ways.” There doesn’t seem to be a limitation on the nature of pressing things. Sheesh, how true. However, we are not [being] crushed. It’s a play on words, but not a contrast. A contrast would be, we are pressed but we make progress. No, we’re brought right up to the point where any more pressure would crush us. We’ve been checked, but not yet at check mate.
Second, pots are confused but not clueless. Paul says, we are [being] perplexed, but not [being] driven to despair. Each participle comes from the same root (ἀπορέω and ἐξαπορέω), with the second having an additional prefix. Being “perplexed” means being confused, at a loss. We don’t know what to do or how to fix it. We’re uncertain. Hello? how true. But we’re not totally at a loss, “not despairing.” We’re not paralyzed by our confusion. We’re not humiliated or hopeless, even though we’re brought right up to the edge.
Third, pots are attacked but not abandoned. Paul says, we are [being] persecuted but not [being] forsaken. Being “persecuted” means being pursued, hunted, chased. We’re on the run, but not deserted or being forsaken. God doesn’t leave us when enemies come after us, whether with fists or false accusations (on Facebook). But having God on our side doesn’t keep us from being hunted, or feeling like we’re all alone. We’re one step ahead of the teeth.
Fourth, pots are down but not out. Paul says we are [being] struck down, but not [being] destroyed. There could be physical elements to being struck down, knocked down, thrown down; Paul endured beatings and stonings. But the breaking point isn’t death, it’s ruin or loss. Many things can be ruined or lost, from physical health or resources. We are on the mat, the 10 count has started, but we get up for more.
Each of these four “but not”s are normal pot activity. These are real extremes: being afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down. But being brought to the edge of the cliff without going over is how clay pots carry the treasure and show that the surpassing power is God’s. Let me make two more observations.
First, if you’re trying to protect the pot, the pot probably isn’t doing anybody any good. The pot is supposed to be used; that’s the purpose. If you never feel weighed down, if you think you’ve got it figured out, if everyone’s your friend, if you never hit the floor, you’re probably stuck on the shelf. Pots get used. They get banged around. They get dings. They get chipped. They get left out on the counter overnight. Ministry pots aren’t saved for special occasions; these pots are for every day use. They’re valuable to the degree they are worn out carrying good stuff (treasure) to people.
A second observation, pot ministry is primarily about being used up and worn out, not about being broken. For example, you can empty a pot that’s full of expensive oil in (at least) two ways: pour out the oil or smash the pot. God does break some of His pots in spectacular ways, but most of his pots are just worn out through daily use. It would actually be easier to be broken, or at least it would be quicker. But there is a divinely designed process of patiently pouring out, filling up, and being poured out again.
Verse 10 includes another dependent participle that sheds light on clay pot ministry, but I’ve separated it because it doesn’t follow the “but not” pairs and it includes a number of modifiers.
always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.
This part of ministry is a paradox, and it may also be the pinnacle of the process: the process described in verses 8-9 amounts to a life of dying. Dying is an abridged reference to suffering because all of life’s afflictions get us thinking about the end of life and the end of our afflictions.
It’s a paradox because it seems self-contradictory that carrying the dying of Jesus reveals the life of Jesus. This paradox dominates the rest of the paragraph, so we can’t skip it.
Note the instrument is our bodies, used twice. Our bodies carry the dying of Jesus, our bodies reveal the life of Jesus. That’s part of why I think the treasure is what we do, not merely what we say. It takes a life to do this and the process confirms, it’s “always” happening, not only during worship services or Bible studies or quiet times or programmed evangelism.
Carrying about is a vivid image. Men carried sick people on beds to Jesus so that He might heal them (Mark 6:55). In a figurative way, men are carried about by every wind of doctrine (cf. Ephesians 4:14; Hebrews 13:9). False teaching has a way of moving people. Clay pots are to be moved by the dying of Jesus.
I keep saying “dying” instead of “death” of Jesus because the word in verse 10 emphasizes the process, not the event. Our carrying about is ongoing, so it isn’t a one time finishes all behavior. We’re not dead yet.
The paradox is that when clay pots are in the rotation so much that their usefulness is being used up, then they are most useful.
When we die to our schedule (think: good Samaritan), to our comfort, to our budget, to our convenience, to our preferred bedtime, to our privacy, to our expectations, then we’ll see life grow around us. When we are carrying about the death of Jesus in our bodies, we are at that time showing the life of Jesus in our bodies. No dying for Jesus is wasted. That’s the reality.
As if Paul anticipated that we might question the logic of weakness showing power, and of dying showing life, he provides an explanation in verse 11, For (γὰρ).
For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh.
The living are dying and dying shows off the life of Jesus. We who live, or, “we, the ones living” includes all those who are spiritually alive, and so it refers to all believers. Paul’s discussion of ministry thus far primarily consisted of his apostolic calling and the work of his partners but this clearly pulls every believer into the ministry of dying.
The living ones are always being given over, or, “delivered over” to death. “Given over” is an official term, as when a prisoner or criminal is sentenced and handed over to the court for punishment or imprisonment. We who live have been given a death sentence. We are assigned a life to death. Why?
Paul mentions two incentives. First, for Jesus’ sake (διὰ Ἰησοῦν). This is the same phrase as in verse 5. We’re slaves because of, or for the sake of, Jesus. Now, we are being given over to death for Jesus’ sake. His incarnation was the ultimate living for dying to give life. He gave His life for our sake (sacrifice that atoned for us), and we give up our life for His sake (service that exalts Him).
Second, mortal, weak, dispensable flesh shows off the life of Jesus. The second half of verse 11 basically repeats the last part of verse 10, substituting “flesh” for “body” and adding “mortal” or merely human. Paul says essentially nothing new in verse 11 than he said in verse 10. The repetition of thought verifies the importance of the principle.
In our economy, living leads to more living, dying leads to being overlooked. A daily dying for Jesus’ life, shows off His life. That is how things work in God’s economy.
Paul’s summarizes the point of the paragraph.
So death is at work in us, but life in you.
So (ὥστε) is bringing the point of the paragraph to the surface for one last look-see. The result of personal, painful, patient being-used-up ministry is that death is at work working life. This is the actual outcome, this is what occurred, not what he hoped for. Death is at work in us, but life [is at work] in you. “Death” condenses all of the suffering, the life of difficulty. We are liable to death, but before that, we’re tired, exhausted, overwhelmed, hurting, almost lost. That brings life. And “life” is more than breath, life is blessing.
Again, it isn’t our death, it is our dying. Death is at work, death is working. Our life, as slaves, ebbs away into others. As we’re emptied out, others are filled up. As we lose our lives, others find life. There is no sarcasm on Paul’s part, only celebration. The result of dying is life giving. That is motivation.
It seems like every great sailing story involves a storm and a smiling captain. You feel for the crew being battered by brutal conditions. So why is the captain smiling? Because strong winds move ships if the sails catch it right. A storm is an advantage to a skilled seaman. We’re land-lovers when it comes to trouble, and we often miss ministry because of it.
Also, for believers, a difficult life is not a destroyed life. For unbelievers, a difficult life is difficult and the beginnings of destruction. You are at the edge and you have no safety harness. Suffering leads to ministry for those who serve Christ; suffering is only misery for those who serve themselves. Turn from darkness to the Light. Make Jesus your only refuge.
Finally, be content to be worn out in His service. You may be spectacularly broken, but probably not. Most of us will fall apart over a long, drawn out life of use rather than be smashed in a moment. Must of us will be exhausted from late nights. Our testimonies will probably have more tears and sweat than prison and swords. The accumulation of aches and pains will get us before assassination attempts. Ours will be a death of a thousand little breaking points instead of being burned at the stake. But the principle is no less effectual: when death is at work in us, life is also at work. When that happens, there’s no explanation except for God’s surpassing power.
We can’t change a culture by having someone else do it for us. More specifically, we can’t change a culture by having someone else do the dying for us. We can’t change a culture by buying it on Amazon. This isn’t a call to do something extraordinary, it is a call to be exhausted and let His excellent power work to bring life.
In case of emergency, we are the pots to be broken, or at least banged further up and further around. You are an essential pot, an expendable pot. Your pot’s work now is to pour out grace, and your pot’s future is to bear the weight of eternal glory. You cannot go by how good it feels, you must go by faith.
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9–10, ESV)