by Dr. John MacArthur
Years ago, a magazine called New West premiered here in California. The first issue featured an article about Christians on television. The journalist wrote a line at the end of his article that I'll never forget: "Personally, I assume Jesus has more class than most of His agents."
He was right. Jesus definitely has more class than all of His agents. It is an old adage that you can't tell the value of something by the package it comes in. That is certainly true of preachers and of the rest of us who are witnesses to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Like the pearl without price hidden in the ugly oyster shell, the container doesn't always reflect the value of its contents.'
The apostle Paul makes that very point in 2 Corinthians 4. Often I am asked to sign a Bible or one of my books, and when I do so I write "2 Corinthians 4:5-7" under my name, because this is a passage in which I find my life and ministry defined. The passage says: "For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus' sake. For God, who said, `Light shall shine out of darkness,' is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not from ourselves."' Here we see the amazing contrast between the shining glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ and the feeble, imperfect, fragile, ugly containers by which this glorious gospel is carried and delivered to people.
Let me give some background. When Paul founded the Corinthian church, I don't think he had any idea how much these people would break his heart. First of all, they broke his heart by dragging into their lives as Christians all the sins for which they had been forgiven in their justification. So he wrote his first letter to them, pointing out numerous iniquities that were characteristics of their pre-Christian life and urging them to shed those things. It wasn't long after he had unburdened his grieving heart over their sin that false teachers came into the church and brought doctrines of demons. Paul called these heretical teachers hypocritical liars. The first thing on their agenda when they arrived in Corinth was the elevation of their own status-and they sought ascendency for themselves at Paul's expense. They needed recognition (and believability) as teachers. In order to gain that, they had to destroy the people's confidence in their spiritual father, Paul. So they assaulted Paul relentlessly, mercilessly, and consistently. For months and months they attacked him in ways calculated to undermine his credibility, integrity, apostleship, and message. He was so devastated by this on one occasion that he went back to Corinth for a visit, and when he got there in an effort to straighten things out and call the Corinthians back to himself (not for his own sake, but for the sake of the truth), a man in the congregation apparently stood up and blasted Paul to his face, and when nobody defended Paul, he left with an absolutely shattered heart. He then sent Titus there with another letter (one not included in the New Testament canon) containing this message: "Don't abandon me, because if you abandon me you'll abandon the truth."
Titus returned with a good report: the people had responded positively. But Paul knew the false teachers were still there, and he feared for the future because the people were fickle, so he wrote 2 Corinthians. That epistle had to be the hardest thing for a man like Paul to write, because in it he had to defend himself as a teacher of the truth, as the apostle of Jesus Christ, and as the messenger of God-and yet he knew himself to be nothing. That is why 2 Corinthians is a masterpiece of a man walking a fine line. We get a glimpse of how Paul did that in 2 Corinthians 4:5-7.
The false apostles were ruthless and unrelenting in their attempts to discredit Paul. They attacked him with every accusation they could dream up. Therefore, he begins his defense by saying, "Since we have this ministry, as we received mercy, we do not lose heart" (v. 1). This was an echo of a famous statement in his first epistle to that church: "I am what I am by the grace of God" (1 Cor. 15:10). Paul was reminding himself that both his ministry and his salvation were mercies he didn't deserve anyway. That self-reminder became the encouragement he clung to in the face of such a vicious attack.
Paul goes on to say that he and his companions have renounced the things hidden because of shame (v. 2). The false teachers apparently were saying that if the Corinthians really knew Paul, they would know he was a hypocrite and a deceiver. On the surface, they said, he seems religious, holy, sanctified, and pious; but the fact of the matter is that he has a secret life of shame. These were vicious and utterly unwarranted accusations, but persistent talk like that threatened to destroy his reputation-and that in turn was undermining the Corinthians' confidence in what they had learned from Paul.
So he assured them he was not "walking in craftiness" (v. 2). This was a simple, direct answer to the main insinuation of all their complaints against him: He is a manipulator, a con man. The word translated in 2:17 as "peddling" had deliberate connotations of hucksterism. Paul responds, "I am no charlatan!" They also claimed Paul had adulterated the Word, and he categorically denies that charge as well, stating that he and his team declared the truth in such a way as to commend themselves to everyone's consciences. If Paul sounds self-protective, remember that he was directly countering allegations these false teachers had spread around against him. But he was doing this not for his own sake-rather, it was for the defense of the gospel, which would lose its foothold in Corinth if these heretics had their way.
As if attacking his character and theology were not enough, the false teachers even attacked Paul personally. They liberally employed ad hominem arguments, trying to destroy the man himself. They said his personal presence was unimpressive and his speech was downright contemptible (10:10). In other words, he was ugly and couldn't communicate. That is really bad! If you're handsome, even if you can't communicate, people can enjoy looking. And if you're ugly but can communicate, they can enjoy listening. But if you're ugly and can't communicate, you've got nothing! The fact that Paul even needed to reply to such attacks has led some commentators to speculate that there was something believable about them. Some go so far as to imagine Paul as a small hunchback with serious physical deformities. We do know he was aging and scarred. Whatever disfigurement Paul might have had, this was a terribly unkind assault on the man himself, sneering at whatever physical defects he might have had.
Paul also alluded in 1 Corinthians 1 to the fact that they said he gave a simple message about the cross over and over again, never using the wisdom of men or the great themes of philosophy. Clearly (though Paul was a true scholar) he did not show off his erudition, and he didn't try to use charm, charisma, or intellectual gimmickry to make his teaching seem more appealing. Therefore they said things like: Paul just doesn't have what it takes. He doesn't have the persona or the philosophical relevance to step into this culture, meet it where it is, and communicate with it.
But whatever his shortcomings were-appearance, personal charm, oratorical skills-Paul himself was fully aware of them. Notice his response: "What do you want out of a clay pot?" He turned their arguments back on them. He said: "You're right. I agree about my weaknesses. I agree about my inabilities. You can't pick a fight with me about that. I'm not here to defend myself." Like all noble ministers, he was being put in a very embarrassing position; he was being criticized by people much more sinful and weak than he was, and yet he found it very painful to defend himself because he knew he was nothing. But at the same time, he knew that the New Covenant he proclaimed was everything.
The starkness of the contrast between the glory of the message and the crudeness of the vessel used to deliver it is very apparent. Verses 5-6 blaze out at us as if we had stepped into the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle on the day the glory arrived; or as if we were standing beside Moses in Exodus when the glory of God was shown to him on Mount Sinai; or as if we were with Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Transfiguration when Jesus pulled back the veil of His flesh, and the shekinah blazed forth and put them into a temporary coma; or as if we were with Isaiah in the temple in Isaiah 6 when he had his vision of God that crushed him to the ground and made him confess only his sin
and unworthiness; or as if we were with Ezekiel when he saw the vision of God and fainted; or as if we were with John when he saw the glorified Son in Revelation 1 and fell on his face like a dead man. Paul sees the blazing, shining reality that God in Christ, with the New Covenant, is saving sinners. He sees the blazing glory of God revealed in the face of Jesus Christ, this glorious New Covenant revelation. And then he says in verse 7, "But we have this treasure in earthen vessels." Frail, imperfect, and common that he was, he agreed with the false teachers' assessments. It never ceased to be a wonder to Paul that God would put such a priceless treasure in such a clay pot.
In 1 Timothy 1:12, Paul wrote, "I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who strengthened me, because He considered me faithful, putting me into service." He was astounded by God's grace! He had come to the end of his life, a man in his sixties, but he remembered his life before Christ: "I was ... a blasphemer ... and a persecutor ... and a violent aggressor. And yet I was shown mercy ... and the grace of our Lord was more than abundant.... It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all" (1 Tim. 1:13-15). Note that he did not say he was the foremost sinner, but "I am." He never got over God's grace.
God Uses Clay Pots
Preachers are men-that's all. And men are not perfect, so there is no hope of perfection in the ministry. If God could not use poor instruments and feeble voices, He couldn't make music. Abraham was guilty of duplicity, yet he became the man of faith and the friend of God. Moses was a man of stuttering speech and a quick temper, yet he was the one chosen to lead a nation, to represent them before God, and to receive His law and deliver it to them. David was guilty of adultery, conspiracy, murder, and unfaithfulness as a husband and father, but he repented and was regarded as a man after God's own heart. He was also the greatest songwriter of all history. We still sing the songs of this "sweet singer of Israel." Elijah ran from Jezebel, pleading for euthanasia, but this same Elijah defied Ahab and all the prophets of Baal, and heard the still small voice of God at Horeb. In the midst of the heavenly vision, Isaiah said, "I am a man with a dirty mouth; I live among people with dirty mouths. I'm certainly useless to you, 0 God." But when he had been cleansed, he said, "Here am I; send me," and God said, "Go." Peter was another clay pot, the leader and spokesman of the twelve apostles, but he denied his Lord with oaths and curses, and even had the audacity to correct the Lord. However, he was restored by the compassion of Jesus in the midst of his disobedience, and was enabled by the power of the Holy Spirit to speak with such force on the day of Pentecost as to be the agent by which God orchestrated the great introduction of the church. John the apostle expected to be praised by Jesus for refusing to allow a man not of their company to cast out demons in the name of the Lord. Likewise, he and his brother James wanted to call down fire from heaven and burn up a Samaritan village, and they sent their mother to ask that they might be given the chief places in the kingdom. Yet John became the beloved disciple, the apostle of love, the eagle who soared to great heights. He became, it seems, the apostle who pierced the deepest into the mystery of the incarnation.
Are you seeing a pattern?
So it was with Paul. He was under assault unjustly; he was falsely accused; he was battered and hammered. The attacks against him were often physical. In 2 Corinthians 11, he lists all of the physical attacks he endured: five times beaten by the Jews with thirty-nine stripes; three times beaten with rods by the Gentiles; and once stoned. Then there were the criticisms of the false teachers. The Judaizers relentlessly dogged his steps, plotting at every turn to get rid of him. He suffered so greatly that he literally says, "I die daily" (1 Cor. 15:31). That wasn't some mystical, spiritual experience; what he meant was, "I get up every morning prepared for the reality that this could be the day I die."
So much of his suffering was at the hands of the very people he loved the most. He even said to the Corinthians, "How is it that the more I love you, the less you love me? I don't get it." And yet, he knew that this treatment was commensurate with what he deserved. He even realized that the ill treatment he received kept him dependent on God. He says, "When I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Cor. 12:10).
His defense all the way through is, "You're right; you're right; you're right. I'm weak, I know." He does not argue against the false teachers' accusations of weakness; rather he affirms them. Yet his weaknesses are not defects; they are credentials of his authentic apostleship. This little section in 2 Corinthians 4 unfolds for us a magnificent tribute to a humble man. He defends himself not on the basis of natural talent, human skill, or achievement. He just agrees, and he makes a comparison that is magnificent.
Paul writes, "We have this treasure in earthen vessels, [so] that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not from ourselves" (v. 7). God puts the priceless treasure in clay pots for this very reason: no one ever has to ask where the power comes from!
In comparison to the glory of the eternal God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, in comparison to the magnificence of the New Covenant expressed all through chapter 3, in comparison to Christ's shining glory, the preacher is nothing! In chapter 10, Paul says, "I don't get into comparing myself with other preachers. I just start here: `We have this treasure, this ministry."' The ministry is "the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God" (4:4). The gospel is the treasure. It is the story of God incarnate in Christ redeeming sinners, that great shining gospel. That is what Paul describes in the wondrous third chapter, where he unfolds the New Covenant. He says the treasure is the truth. It is the truth that God is in Christ, bringing good news of salvation. And He put that treasure in clay pots.
A clay pot is made of baked dirt. It is common, breakable, replaceable, and of little value. If you drop one, it is no big deal. A clay pot is just a clay pot. However, though it may be cheap, it is useful. Clay pots in ancient times were used for a number of tasks. Sometimes something important was put in a clay pot, like the Dead Sea Scrolls. Sometimes they were used to contain semi-valuable things which were then buried in the ground. In the home, however, they were mostly used for garbage and waste-to carry out what was unmentionable.
In 2 Timothy 2:20, the same word for "clay pots" is used, making it clear what we have here: "Now in a large house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also vessels of wood and of earthenware, and some to honor and some to dishonor." The wood and clay pots held things that were dirty, dishonorable, and perhaps unmentionable. The only value they had was in the service they performed. Paul says in verse 21 that if anyone wants to use any of the wood or clay pots for something honorable, he must cleanse it first because it has been defiled.
So now we can better understand 2 Corinthians 4. Paul is saying, "We have this treasure in a garbage can, a waste bucket." In other words, we are common containers for the most humble and most dirty uses; we are never, ever fit, in and of ourselves, to be brought into public. That's how it is in the ministry. Our only value is as containers. It's the treasure that we bring that has the value. That's why the Lord didn't choose many mighty or noble. He has chosen the humble, the base, and the common. This is the essence of spiritual service.
They accused Paul: "You're weak; you're unimpressive; you're not a good communicator; you're plain; you're common; you're not clever; you're not philosophical; and you're not culturally sensitive."
His response was this: "I know; I know. I'm just a pot-but do I have a treasure!"
The New Testament was not written by the elite of Egypt. It was not written by the elite of Greece, Rome, or even Israel. The greatest scholars in the world at that time were down at Egypt; they were in the greatest library of antiquity at Alexandria. The most distinguished philosophers were in Athens; the most powerful leaders of men were in Rome; and the religious geniuses were in Israel's temple. But God never used any of them! He just used clay pots. He passed by Herodotus, the historian; Socrates, the philosopher; Hippocrates, the father of medicine; Euclid, the mathematician; Archimedes, the father of mechanics; Hipparchus, the astronomer; Cicero, the orator; and Virgil, the poet. He passed by them all. Why? Clay pots served His purposes better. From a human viewpoint (and perhaps in their own minds), all those prominent people were magnificent vessels. But someone deeply impressed with his own value isn't going to see value in the gospel. So God chose peasants, fishermen, smelly guys, and tax collectors-clay pots chosen to carry, proclaim, and write the priceless treasure we call the gospel.
God Uses Clay Pots Today
God is still doing it that way. He is still passing by the elite. He is still passing by the hard-hearted, non-listening, proud intellectuals. They may be sitting in their ivory towers in the universities and seminaries, or in their bishoprics and their positions of authority in the churches, but God is finding the humble who will carry the treasure of saving truth.
How can that work? It works because "we do not preach ourselves" (2 Cor. 4:5). We are not the message. The church I pastor has been blessed because God has blessed His truth. It's not me. When Paul says, "When I am weak, then I am strong," he doesn't mean that he is a man with no convictions. Neither does he mean that he is an undisciplined man, a lazy man, an irresponsible man, or a man who can't work hard. What he means by "weak' is this: "I got myself out of the equation. And that's when the strength became apparent when I got myself out of the way."
If you want to be used mightily by God, get yourself out of the way. Learn to see yourself as a garbage pail, or, in the words of Peter, to clothe yourself with humility (1 Peter 5:5). It's not about you; it's not your personality, it's the Word of God. God doesn't need the intellectuals. He doesn't need great people, fancy people, or famous people. The people aren't the power. The power is the message! He puts the treasure in clay pots so that "the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not from ourselves" (2 Cor. 4:7b).
If you look for a human explanation for Paul's success, there isn't one. People have said to me, "I'm studying the Bible to see why Paul was successful." I'll tell you why he was successful: he preached the truth. And the truth is powerful. Or they will say, "We want to come to your church to find out what makes things tick there." I'll tell you what makes things tick there: the truth of God. The truth of God and the power of God; those are what make things tick. The surpassing greatness explains the transcendent might of superlative power from God on the souls of those who hear the truth. We preachers are clay pots at best! In and of ourselves, we have nothing to offer, neither beauty nor power. Paul knew that, which is why he says, "I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling" (1 Cor. 2:3b).
In the end, it's OK that we're so weak and so afraid. Our faith should not rest in ourselves anyway, but in the power of God. We're nothing. As Paul says elsewhere, "Neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth" (1 Cor. 3:7). God is everything!
Years ago, James Denney wrote: "No one who saw Paul's ministry and looked at a preacher like Paul could dream that the explanation lay in him. Not in an ugly little Jew without presence, without eloquence, without the means to bribe or to compel could the source of such courage, the cause of such transformation, be found. It must be sought not in him, but in God." In 1911, in his book The Glory of the Ministry, A. T. Robertson quoted Denney: "There always have been men in the world so clever that God could make no use of them. They could never do His work; they were so lost in admiration of their own. God's work never depended on them, and it doesn't depend on them now. The power is not the product of human genius, or cleverness, or technique, or ingenuity; the power of the gospel is in the gospel." We ministers are weak, common, plain, fragile, breakable, dishonorable, and disposable clay pots who should be taking the garbage out-but instead we're bringing the glory of God to our people.
The amazing thing is that such weakness does not prove fatal to the gospel. Thankfully, the gospel is not from us. The great reality is, God's clay-pot strategy is essential to the gospel, because it makes crystal clear where the power really lies. We are unworthy servants, but God has given us the treasure of the gospel. What an inestimable privilege!
1 This chapter is adapted from a message delivered to pastors at Grace Community Churchs annual Shepherd's Conference in 2001.
2 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations in this chapter are from the New American Standard Version.