“We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (2 Cor. 4:7).
Human ego is likely the foremost obstacle to effective missions. Therefore, missionaries must be challenged to define who they are in relationship to God. In this brief Monthly Missiological Reflection, 2 Corinthians 4:7 provides a basis for this self-evaluation.
Study of 2 Cor. 4:7
The verse connects three significant phrases: (1) “this treasure,” (2) “jars of clay,” and (3) “this all surpassing power.”
The phase “this treasure” has two possible referents. First, Paul may be speaking of his ministry as a treasure. He writes, “Since through God’s mercy, we have this ministry, we do not lose heart” (vs. 1). Paul encourages Corinthian leaders to continue faithfully, to not “lose heart” (vs. 1, 16), despite persecution (vs. 8-12).
A second possible referent of “this treasure” is “the light of the gospel” (vs. 4, 6). Paul writes that the gospel is to be presented authentically, not in darkness as if “veiled.” Christian ministers set “forth the truth plainly . . . not with deception.” Unlike unbelievers who are blinded by “the god of this age,” Christians are recreated. God, who first made light shine out of darkness (Gen. 1:2), has “made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (vs.6). Like Moses, who was with God and reflected God’s glory, missionaries must be transformed into God’s likeness as they look upon God (2 Cor. 3:7-18, especially vs. 18). The passage contrasts the spiritual blindness of unbelievers to the light of the gospel, which enables Christian evangelists to become beacons of light. Because they are being transformed into the image of God (3:18), these Christian servants no longer “preach themselves” but Jesus as Lord (vs. 5).
The term “treasure” infers the value of Christian ministry, the importance of proclaiming to unbelievers the light of the gospel.
This treasure is housed in “jars of clay.” Clay jars were imperative to families in the ancient world because they were used to carry water from the local well. Although essential, they were common, scarred, and chipped.
Paul did not describe Christian ministers as jars of gold or silver to indicate their beauty or value or as jars of bronze to denote their strength. Christian servants rather are jars of clay, who minister out of weakness.
This verse climaxes by acknowledging that God uses jars of clay, weak Christian servants, to carry out His mission so that all will know that “this all-surpassing power is from God” and not from innate human ability. This principle can be seen throughout scripture. God used men like Moses and Jeremiah, who acknowledged their weakness by asking “Who as I that I should go?”, to carry his mission.
Three Responses to God’s Mission
Typically missionaries and ministers respond to God’s mission in one of three ways: despair, pride, or reliance on God. The boundaries between these responses, however, are often fuzzy because motives intermingle in the same heart and mind. Thus one might experience two or all three of these responses at the same time. Motives also change at different points in peoples’ lives as they struggle with suffering, encounter temptation, and mature in Christ.
Despair. Missionaries are frequently overwhelmed by the tasks involved in their calling. Like Moses, they may ask, “Who am I …?” They struggle with a difficult language, with a culture contorted by sin, with new churches fighting to survive in a non-Christian context, and with leaders who desire to do God’s will but are tempted by the flesh. Consequently, missionaries despair. Their despondency is expressed by, “How can we do this ministry? It is too difficult, overwhelming.”
Despair leads to hopelessness and hopelessness to tunnel vision. These missionaries can only see what is right before them. They fail to look aboveand fathom God’s presence and mission to the world. Neither do they seebelow to comprehend both Satan’s power and God’s all-surpassing power over all principalities and powers. Despairing, they say, “We are jars of clay. What can we do? How can we accomplish anything!”
Ego. Some missionaries minister primarily out of ego. They believe that theywill accomplish great things because they have made great plans, because they work creatively and ingeniously. They say to all who listen, “We are jars of gold, silver! Look at who we are!” They are quick to tell all who will listen that their work is successful because they have made it so. They have the “Mighty Mouse mentality”: “Here I come to save the day!” They lack the humility to realize that, in reality, they can do little by their own power and ability. “It is not in man who walks to direct his own steps” (Jere. 10:23).
Paradoxically, the responses of despair and ego have much in common. Both are human responses to God’s mission, and both originate in human pride. The first feel inadequate. How can they accomplish their mission? They are searching within themselves for resources to accomplish the mission of God. The second flaunt their abilities but do not fathom their inadequacies. Both responses stem from inadequately perceiving or believing God. The paradox of paradoxes is, therefore, ministers attempting to accomplish the purposes of God by human endeavor.
Reliance on God. Reliance on God is thus founded upon a vastly different response to the mission of God. Missionaries must recognize that Christian ministry, the proclamation of the light of the gospel, is a treasure. During times of hardship and persecution, these missionaries stand with conviction because they understand the worth of God’s mission. They know that they are fragile “jars of clay” unable to carry out God’s mission without God’s help. They have accepted the “all-surpassing power of God” to carry out his mission.
Iguasu Falls, on the border between Argentina and Brazil, is one of the great natural wonders of the world. Millions of gallons of water cascade down the falls each minute. In the midst of this amazing demonstration of power, seemingly fragile grass and ferns cling to the rocks. Even as the water rushes over and around them, they stand firm. Although it seems impossible for these small plants to withstand the force of the water cascading over the falls, they stand—and thrive—because the rock holds them firmly. Likewise, Christian ministers who rely on God are not swept away by the force of discouragement, pride, persecution, and temptation.
Human ego stands as a formidable obstacle to effective missions. Christian ministers with immense talent and creativity flounder when they rely only on their own power, and less talented missionaries who look to God to empower their work frequently are used by Him to accomplish His purposes.