2 Corinthians 4:7
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.
This verse is often quoted to express human insufficiency for the ministry of the gospel. It deserves to be quoted, for, if St. Paul felt so deeply his powerlessness without God, how much more should this feeling influence ordinary ministers of the Word of life!
I. THE TREASURE. Paul, working in the factory making tents, or passing through the street undistinguished by dress or retinue, may have been taken for a poor artisan. But he was conscious of possessing a treasure by the use and distribution of which he, while poor, made many rich. It was no store of silver or gold. It was not even the treasure of intellectual eminence, the wealth of a large and lofty mind; for, though he had this, he could not impart it to others. It was the ministry of righteousness and liberty whereby he communicated to his fellow men "the unsearchable riches of Christ." There is no need to draw a distinction here between the ministry which is the topic of the whole context and the light of knowledge which is the immediately preceding subject. In the apostle's thought these are intimately and necessarily combined and together constitute the treasure. It was as an illuminated man that he showed the light to others. And so at this day, only a man in whom the true light shines can be a minister of Christ. But who has the light may spread the knowledge of the glory of God, and has a treasure better than silver and more to be desired than fine gold.
II. THE EARTHEN VESSELS. It was and is the custom of Orientals to keep valuables and money in jars which might be hid, and, in case of danger, might be buried underground. A mere earthen jar might thus contain an enormous treasure. Alluding to this, St. Paul pointed to his own body, hard pressed by labours and afflictions. His bodily presence was weak. He had no external advantages for making an impression on either Jews or Greeks. Yet in such an earthen vessel was contained a treasure beyond all computation, and not needing to have its worth enhanced by adventitious surroundings. If we think of the treasure as one of light - the light of the knowledge of God's glory - there is a story in the Old Testament which may illustrate the phrase. The followers of Gideon had their lamps in pitchers, or earthen vessels, when they stole a march on the invaders from Midian, and, with sound of trumpet and loud war shouts, fell upon their camp. So, by the light in earthen vessels, with the trumpet notes of their testimony, did the apostles and other early preachers assail and defeat those opposing powers of the world that would have laughed at their weakness. It is still the same. Gospel victories are gained, not by a great array of human might, but by the treasure of light in earthen vessels, and by the shout of faith that makes appeal to Heaven.
III. THE POWER. "That the excellency," etc. This corresponds to the previous expression, "excellency of the knowledge," and both illustrate an Hebraic form of the superlative. The excellency of the power was that surpassing energy which, in St. Paul's time, attended the ministry of the gospel, and bore down the most formidable opposition. The contrast between the power of the ministry and the weakness of the ministers struck the apostle in thinking of his own early labours at Corinth (see 1 Corinthians 2:1-5). It is a remarkable, and in some respects a mortifying, fact that the modern Christian ministry, with all its advantages of special training, public respect, and perfect protection by law, shows less of conscience convincing and heart compelling power than the primitive ministry did when it was surrounded by difficulty and threatened with death. When it seemed weak, it was strong; and now that it seems strong, it is weak. As some explanation of this, it is only fair to admit that the modern ministry in Christendom has no longer the charm which lies in novelty. It has to be exercised where the terms and facts of our religion are already known, and the Holy Bible is the most widely circulated book. And when it goes to fresh fields, as India, China, or Japan, it has this disadvantage as compared with the apostolic ministry, that in those countries there is no such preparation for the gospel as there was in the countries and cities which were visited by St. Paul. The settlements of Jews, and the very considerable number of proselytes who knew the Old Testament in the Greek Version, and looked for a Messiah, gave an important facility to the Christian preacher, who formed out of them an intelligent nucleus round which to gather his converts from among the heathen; whereas now preachers must go to heathen communities that know not their language, and are wedded to religious conceptions quite different from those in which the missionaries have been trained, and, if there be Christians living among the heathen, holding office or in pursuit of commerce, too often they impede rather than promote the success of the gospel. All this may be recognized, and still it is true that the ministry might and should exert much more spiritual power everywhere than it does. Let prayer be made for this, since the power belongs to God, and only he can enable the ministers of his Word to overcome the dulness of religious routine as well as the hardness of anti-religious prejudice, to sober the frivolous; to abase the proud; to arrest minds that engross themselves with trifles, and recover those that have debased themselves with fleshly vice or avaricious deceit; to wound and to heal; to warn and to win; to kill and to make alive. Oh for power to prevail, to search the breasts of men, to make conscience start and hearts quiver, to reprove sin, to shatter vain excuses, to kindle new resolves and hopes! We cannot do it; but he who supplied all sufficiency to St. Paul can supply it to us, "Our sufficiency is of God." - F.
Parallel VersesKJV: But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.