Jars of Clay Filled with the Surpassing Power of God

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.

This passage, written by the apostle Paul is from 2 Corinthians 4.7-10. It is one of my favorite texts in the entire Bible—especially verse 8. The Revised English Bible translates perplexed, but not driven to despair as bewildered, but never at our wits’ end.

Have you ever been perplexed? I draw hope from verse 8 because it tells me that it’s all right to be perplexed. It’s all right to be bewildered. It’s all right to be confused by your circumstances. The key is not to allow perplexity drive you to despair. Do not let bewilderment drive you to hopelessness. Do not let confusion cloud your judgment such that it drives you away from the Lord who can resolve your confusion.

The saying goes, “Life is hard. But God is good.” However, and let’s be honest here, we Americans often reverse it to say, “Life is good. But God is hard.” Is He? Not according to Paul. And Paul knew how hard life could be (see 2 Corinthians 11.24-28). He also knew that the surpassing power to thrive in the hard places came from the God whose mercy filled him with hope so as not to lose heart.

The treasure Paul refers to is the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. He is talking about the Gospel. In saying “we have this treasure in jars of clay” Paul exhorts the Corinthians to remember what they were before they turned to follow Jesus—”not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth,” (1 Corinthians 1.26). The Corinthians were not “perfect” when God called them. No one ever is. We’re all sinners. We’re all jars of clay. That’s the truth. It’s also what makes the Gospel such good news.

It’s why Paul can write . . .

. . . God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord, (1 Corinthians 1.27-31).

We have this treasure in jars of clay because God put it there. We did not choose Him. He chose us. He chose us so that the surpassing power might be from Him and not from us. The surpassing power of the gospel is nothing less than the surpassing power of the Holy Spirit. Just as the Spirit removes the veil from our hardened heart so that we can see the glory of God in the face of Christ, so too, the Spirit empowers us in our weakness to bear witness to Jesus Christ. It is only by the surpassing power of God that the revelation of His glory can be revealed by the gospel. Consider with amazement the fact God has chosen to display this surpassing power, this treasure—the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus (v. 6)—in men and women who are mere jars of clay. Our weakness is God’s opportunity to show Himself strong on our behalf.

It is because the surpassing power is from God we can be His witnesses through the hardships we experience as we follow Jesus. Paul did not call the Corinthians to seek out ways they could suffer for the Gospel. He simply reminded them that their weakness is God’s opportunity to show Himself strong on their behalf. We are not called to seek deliberately opportunities to suffer for Jesus’ sake. However, we should not be surprised when we do suffer. The truth is sometimes we will suffer for Jesus’ sake, and sometimes we will suffer simply because we live in a broken world. Either way, whatever the reason, we can endure because the surpassing power to do so comes from God and not from us. We may not like it, but endurance with praise, not escaping from pain is the evidence that the kingdom of God is here.

Earlier, in 2 Corinthians 1.8-10, Paul explained that the reason for his suffering— “was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril and He will deliver us. On Him we have set our hope that He will deliver us again.” Paul’s evaluation of his present suffering in the light of his future hope explains why following Jesus requires both perseverance and self-denial—especially when we must suffer for the sake of Christ. While such suffering may sacrifice, we will never give up more than we have received (or will ever receive) in, through and from trust in Christ. Whatever we give up in the present—including life itself—pales in comparison to “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus,” (cf., Philippians 3.8).

This is the perfect lead in to verses 8 and 9—

“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; (we are) perplexed, but not driven to despair; (we are) persecuted, but not forsaken; (we are) struck down, but not destroyed.”

The Malanga paraphrase goes something like this: “We are squeezed between a rock and a hard place but not left without an escape route; we are left without a clue but not left totally clueless; we are wrung out but not hung out to dry; we are knocked down but not knocked out.”

The point of all these contrasts is this: as long as we live in this present evil age it is endurance in the midst of hardship, not the immediate deliverance from trouble that unveils the surpassing power of God. Sometimes we are squeezed between a rock and a hard place for Jesus’ sake. But what happens when we are afflicted, perplexed, persecuted and struck down and it’s not for Jesus’ sake? What then? You don’t need a college diploma to know life can be very hard. We live in a fallen world. And a fallen world is often very unfair and cruelly unkind to Christ-followers. Sometimes it seems we Christians suffer more than non-Christians (read Psalm 73 for some perspective on that dilemma). However, when we have hope in Christ, we are equipped with the surpassing power of God. And so equipped we can be afflicted in every way, yet not be crushed; we can be perplexed, yet not be driven to despair; we can be persecuted, yet are confident we are not forsaken; and even when we are struck down we are not destroyed.

We may not feel very brave or very strong as we enter these trials. We may, like Paul, even come to the conclusion that we have received the death sentence. If so, it is important to remember that at his lowest point Paul clung to the revelation that these things happen so that we will learn to rely not our ourselves but on God who raises the dead. Our weakness is God’s opportunity to show Himself strong on our behalf. God uses the weak to unveil the glory of His surpassing power through their weakness. The power to endure comes from God through the Holy Spirit. The Spirit reminds us of our hope in Christ. The Spirit assures us that our faith is not in vain. The Spirit “comforts us in our affliction so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the same comfort with which we ourselves are comforted.”

Paul is not calling all Christians to suffer the same things. Nor is he saying that we should think of suffering as the only means to getting revelation from God. Nor is he saying we should those who suffer as possessing a higher order of spirituality than others. In the providence of God some believers live significantly more peaceful and healthier lives than others. So those who are not suffering should not seek to do so. They should seek to be faithful to God, banking their hope on His promises so that meeting the needs of others becomes more important than securing their own future.

The first question and answer from the Heidelberg Catechism is as follows:

What is your only comfort in life and death?

That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.

To follow Jesus Christ in this life does not confer on us the ability to escape suffering. On the contrary, the Holy Spirit gives us the power to endure suffering for the sake of Christ and His church. The glory of godliness consists in this—the life of faith takes place within the context of the suffering of God’s people, who being “saved in hope” (Romans 8.17-25), live and endure by the power of the Spirit while they await the future consummation. Until then, God will use our weakness to reveal the glory of His surpassing power through our frailty.

You think about that.

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