We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves. We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies. Yes, we live under constant danger of death because we serve Jesus, so that the life of Jesus will be evident in our dying bodies. So we live in the face of death, but this has resulted in eternal life for you. (2 Corinthians 4:7-12, NLT)
This paragraph has been one of my favorite passages in all of Scripture. As a person who tends to speak in metaphors and analogies, I appreciate Paul’s use of imagery to describe his boldness for the gospel in the midst of suffering and persecution.
He begins with a word picture that would have been easily understood by his original audience. In the first century, clay jars were unexceptional, affordable, disposable, and could be used for a variety of purposes. As mass produced, throw away containers for the general population of the ancient world, they were fragile and expendable. Paul leveraged this ordinary household item to describe his life in relationship to the power of the gospel. He presented himself as a simple container which housed something of far greater value. The power of the gospel is not diminished when conveyed through weakness. In fact, the opposite is true. In reality, the ordinariness of the vessel actually accentuates and magnifies the gospel. In this way, the message of the gospel is the focus, not the beauty of the messenger.
When I was in college, I took the required classes on preaching. In “Preaching Lab” we would each preach two sermons to the class and then receive feedback from our peers and finally the professor. One particular student, named Jerry, had a severe speech impediment. He preached a simple gospel sermon and then sat down. It was clearly an uncomfortable sermon to listen to, but we as a class found the silver lining within his content. Finally, the professor spoke his critique. He commended the message, but told the young man that he could never pastor a church due to his speech impediment and recommended he find secular employment and serve a church as a lay volunteer. We all sat in stunned silence as the professor invalidated the calling of the preacher due to his fragile container.
I think of that story each time I read this passage.
Paul continues the paragraph by describing the difficulties of the gospel ministry. I find it interesting that Paul used second person pronouns to describe these four contrasts, as if to invite his audience into his experience. First, he states that we are afflicted, but not restricted. Next, we may find circumstances confusing, but are never driven to resignation. Third, he writes that we are pursued, but never alone, for God is always present. Finally, we are knocked down but never knocked out. We just keep getting up! Ministry today, like then, will never be void of challenges. Those challenges can come from within the walls of the church as well as beyond those walls. The greater the boldness, the greater the level of difficulty we should expect to face. It reminds me of a quote that has been widely attributed to G.K. Chesterton, who once said, “Jesus promised his disciples three things — that they would be completely fearless, absurdly happy, and in constant trouble.”
Paul concludes this section with the purpose of all these experiences and does so by invoking “resurrection language.” In Paul’s thinking, death and constantly living in the face of death revealed the life that Jesus offers. He couldn’t be hurt because he had already been crucified with Christ, and the life that he now lived he lived by faith in the Son of God who loved him and gave himself for him. (Galatians 2:20) God will never be out of the business of bringing life from death. If we wonder why we don’t see the same results as recorded in the New Testament, perhaps it is because we don’t have the same willingness to live sacrificially for the gospel as those in the New Testament.