2. Corinthians 4 – Treasure in Jars of Clay

Pasi Hujanen
Taisto Sokka

Read or listen the Second Epistle to the Corinthians - chapter 4 online (ESV, Bible Gateway)

The Ministry of the Gospel – 2 Cor 4:1-6

In verse 1 St. Paul emphasizes again his God-ordained ministry of the gospel. Nobody can take this ministry for themselves, but it is only given by God.

A minister of the gospel is threatened by many discouragements, since Satan constantly tries to deny the work of the gospel: He tries to destroy the good seed sowed into the hearts of people, and therefore, the harvest is less (refer to the Parables of the Sower and of the Weeds, Matt. 13:1-30 and 36-43). A minister of the gospel should not work even with the spiritual gain as motivation, since only God will give the produce, not the great efforts of man. God gives this task, and it might be as the Bible says: “One sows and another reaps” (John 4:37).

Paul was accused of not telling them everything (verse 2), and even what he preached was unclear and confusing according to his opponents. Perhaps they blamed Paul for not preaching about the law of the Old Testament. Another suggestion is that the listeners wanted to receive some hidden revelation like the heretic Gnostics taught. Paul made it absolutely clear that he had preached only the will of God, adding nothing and removing nothing from it.

A preacher at any time is always tempted and expected to preach according to what the listeners want to hear. A charismatic wants a charismatic preacher and sermon while a Roman Catholic wants to hear about works necessary to salvation. Of course, we can, and we even must consider the listeners in how we preach, but it cannot alter the substance of the sermon. We might be silent about controversial topics (like Baptism in an outreach organized with Pentecostals or a certain sin tolerated in the congregation) or change the content of the faith preached according to what the listeners want.

The preacher must also commit fully to what he preaches, even because the listener easily senses if the preacher does not follow what he says. Please note that God commits only to the unaltered true gospel. A preacher of “a different” gospel, whoever it might be, is cursed (Gal 1:8).

The human mind can never understand the gospel of grace: Salvation through faith without works (verse 3). For the human reasoning the greatest truths of faith always remain incomprehensible. Only the Holy Spirit of God can reveal them to us (John 3:5-8).

The time of this world is ruled by Satan, the god of this world (verse 4, refer to Luke 4:5-6). Jesus called him “the ruler of the world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). Therefore, Paul calls this world “an evil age” (Gal 1:4).

To be precise, there are no such things as true Atheists, since everyone has some form of god. Dr. Martin Luther explains the first commandment in the Large Catechism: The god of each person is what he believes and trusts from the bottom of his heart.

The Christian faith is Christ-centered (verse 5). Jean Calvin has said: “The one who wants to preach Christ alone must forget himself.” Wherever the leaders of the flock have become the primary matter the church has gone astray.

A preacher is a servant (verse 5), but not a servant of the listeners but a servant of the gospel (refer to Acts 5:29). It is crucial to understand that serving the gospel properly is the best way we can ever serve the people.

Light reveals the true condition of things (verse 6). In a dark room we can find something by feeling the surroundings, but only when a light is lit, we see its true condition. What is the condition of our hearts if God sheds his lights into them? It will reveal darkness (1 Cor 4:5)! But light overcomes darkness (1 John 5:4-5): Even a little candle overcomes a thick darkness. Even if the darkness of our hearts is pitch black, the light of the gospel is greater than all of it (Rom 5:20-21).

The Outsides and Its Contents – 2 Cor 4:7-15

The gospel is a true treasure (verse 7). Jesus also taught it in his Parable of the Hidden Treasure and the Parable of the Pearl of Great Value (Matt 13:44, 45-46). It is only few people who understand its true value because it is wrapped in a cheap outside.

Many things that are highly pursued reveal to be worthless in the end. Satan lures us to pursue anything that will never fulfil what we are missing.

Why has God hidden the treasure of the gospel in cheap “jars of clay”, that is human beings? Why does God not make Christians perfect? When St. Paul wrestled with his own flaws God answered him:

“My grace is sufficient for you,
for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
(2 Cor 12:9).

If Christians were perfect, it might be that people would never hear the gospel but only see the great preachers.

Clay is used as a metaphor of man in other parts of the Bible as well. God commanded Jeremiah to go to a potter (Jer 18:1-7). There God spoke to him how man is in the hands of God like clay in the hands of a potter. Also, the Creation account speaks of man being created from the dust of the ground (Gen 2:7).

Verses 8 and 9 include four problems which St. Paul and other preachers must face and endure. But all four conclude with a “…but not…” stating that God can guide everything as He chooses. We must learn to view things from God’s perspective. Wherever we see only desperation and failure God can see hope and possibilities. A more complete list of the difficulties Paul faced in his ministry is found in 2 Cor 11:23-28.

These verses speak strongly against any form of prosperity gospel. God does not lead His people to Heaven without trials and temptations but through them. Cheap coal is reformed to precious diamond in extreme pressure. Similarly, God teaches Christians through anxiety and distress: He reforms us. Black coal cannot reflect light, but a shiny diamond can. A Christian “refined” in trials does not reflect his own excellency, but God’s.

These verses speak also about God’s providence: The opponents driven by Satan had tried to destroy St. Paul’s work, but God had supported him and protected the work from failing. Early Christian tradition notes that Paul was a worthless looking man (in Latin “Paul” means “little”) but God did great things through him.

This parable of the jars of clay is explained best through the cross of Golgotha: “…Save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Matt 27:40). Jesus humbled himself to become weak so that we would receive eternal life. The weakness of Jesus Christ is the source and the foundation of salvation for all humanity. The weakness of a preacher of the gospel serves as a tool to preach this salvation alone.

Verse 10 points out that Christians believe in the resurrection of the body (ref. 1 Cor 15:35-58).

In verse 13 Paul quotes Psalm 116:10. Apparently, Paul quotes it according to the custom of Jewish Rabbi’s, that is, to refer also to the whole in addition to the words in question. As ourselves we are helpless, but we receive our help from God (ref. Psalm 116).

In verse 15 St. Paul speaks once again about his duty as a servant (ref. verse 5). His ministry did not aim to add to his own reputation or money, but the focus was to get as many new members to the kingdom of God as possible.

Death Is Not the End, But a Turning Point – 2 Cor 4:16-18

One of the main characteristics of Christian faith is that in this life we cannot enjoy everything that awaits us in Heaven. This has been described by the expression “already, but not yet”. Already, we are God’s own people, but we will experience its blessings fully only when we reach Heaven.

Many people are offended by the faults of Christians and their faith. Regardless, having faith is the best what can happen to any person on earth.

An Atheist does not see any hope in the end of his life. Everything is getting worse and will eventually end and he will receive nothing in return. On the contrary, a Christian sees that the weakening of the body is also a time to prepare for the new that is coming. This is the Christian hope. Death is not only the last enemy (1 Cor 15:26) but also the gate to everlasting life. So, this life is also about preparing for the life to come.

When we compare the troubles of this life with the glory of the life to come, it is clear which one weighs more (verse 17). The problem is that usually we do not focus on the reality that is not visible, the life to come. One of the best definitions of faith is written in Hebrews 11:1: “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (ref. also Rom 8:18; 2 Cor 5:7; Heb 12:2). It is vital to see things from the perspective of eternal life. In eternity there is no time, it is timeless, non-temporal (Rev 21:23-25).

Verse 17 should not be understood so that temporal afflictions will be a reason for inheriting eternal life. Paul means that submitting to this affliction of a Christian brings us salvation. If we would refuse afflictions, it means refusing our faith and losing everlasting life.