Ministers in Their Weakness and Strength
2 Corinthians 4:7-18
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.

There is the ever-recurring contrast. It is now the ministry as a "treasure," and this treasure is "in earthen vessels." We understand the apostle to refer to the body when speaking of the "clay vessel," the contrasted elements being the glory of the ministry as a Divine illumination and the fragile human form in which it was contained. It was thus that "the excellency of the power" was seen to be "of God, and not of us." Not only was it the power of God, but of "exceeding greatness" (Kling), and while the "surpassing might" demonstrated itself in the gracious and widespread effects of the ministry, it was also obvious in the physical support given in the midst of such unprecedented labours and trials. To illustrate this "surpassing might" (Conybeare and Howson), St. Paul adduces his own experience. As it respects the "earthen vessel:"

1. Troubled on every side.

2. Perplexed.

3. Persecuted.

4. Cast down.

5. Always dying; bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus.

As it respects the "excellency of the power:"

1. Not stressed.

2. Not in despair.

3. Not forsaken.

4. Not destroyed.

5. Life of Jesus made manifest in our mortal body.

These ideas of suffering are taken from the body.

1. Pressed or hemmed in on every side.

2. Benighted on our path.

3. Pursued in a conflict.

4. Thrown down and expecting to be killed.

5. The dying of the Lord Jesus never absent as a bodily impression.

This is the second of those vivid pictures St. Paul has given of his personal life, the first being found in 1 Corinthians 4:9-13. There is a marked difference between the two representations, the former referring to the contrast between himself and the self-sufficient Corinthians, while the latter sets forth the contrast between "the glorious gospel" and the weakness of its ministration by means of men. Here the prominence is given to the similarity of his own life to that of Christ," that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh." Had he spoken in the previous Epistle of self-denials and voluntary sufferings over and above "other apostles," going on a warfare "at his own charges," planting a vineyard and eating not "of the fruit thereof," a shepherd who "eateth not of the milk of the flock"? No such allusions (except in the reference made in the twelfth verse) are found in this chapter. Before him, in full view, is the career of Jesus of Nazareth, his resignation of the comforts of earth, the homelessness and other privations he endured, and he, the apostle of the Gentiles, is conformed in outward or physical aspects to the sufferings of Christ. Still more, the life of Christ's resurrection and exalted glory appears in him, and this life, so manifested in "our mortal flesh" and the more signally exhibited because of infirmities and afflictions, is for their benefit. "Death worketh in us, but life in you." But is death a shadow, a discouragement, a paralyzing terror? Nay; the life imparted to the Corinthians through him returned from them to his own soul. He believed and spoke; they heard and believed. Furthermore, he had another consolation, the hope of a resurrection, when he and they should be presented by Christ to the Father for final acceptance. Yes; the fellowship would be immortal as well as glorious. "All things are for your sakes," whatever had befallen him, and this "abundant grace," extended to an ever-enlarging number, would swell the volume of thanksgiving to God. In his mind "the glory of God" is never associated with narrow bounds, never with a few, always with the "many" - "through the thanksgiving of many redound to the glory of God." This is his manhood; largeness in everything; breadth of thought and sentiment for this world and the future! a manhood that could breathe in nothing smaller than a universe. How much he is worth to us in this particular! On this account "we faint not." Nothing had power to dishearten his spirit or depress his efforts. The burden rallied the strength; the heavier the weight the more energetic the resistance. Another contrast - outward man, inward man: man in each. St. Paul, who is the theologian of the Bible on the subject of the body no less than of the soul, is here in one of his favourite moods, and, as usual, his philosophy (if we choose so to regard his discernment) is as profound as his piety. "Though our outward man perish." It cannot but perish. "Dust thou art, and unto dust shall thou return." The body exists for no independent purpose, it is for the soul, and the ideal of the soul determines the ideal of the body's history. It eats, sleeps, works, for the soul. It decays for the sake of the soul. Now, this decay which the apostle is considering, we may look at in the light of modern physiology. St. Paul is no teacher of physiology or of science in any form, but he mentions facts, which we can interpret by aid of recent science. What, then, do we know of decay as a bodily law? We know it is a law coexistent and cooperative with our physical life. It sets in early, goes on continuously, and ends only when the body dies. It is a succession of decays. Viewed in this light, decay is a function of activity or a sequel to activity, and, accordingly, a condition of renewal. Exercise the arm like a blacksmith, and it rapidly wastes matter. Exercise the brain as a student, and certain constituents are constantly thrown off and expelled from the system. Yet, in all this, there is reproduction and even growth. The decay has an order; it proceeds from the less serviceable to the more useful functions. Early in life, animal sensations are in excess. The outer world floods the young senses, and no image is painted on the brain that is not a copy of something external. But this abates. It lessens by providential law. The spirits decline in boisterousness; perceptions are not so vivid; reflectiveness increases; and the pulse is more of a pulse of thought, will, emotion. What we can spare best is the first to decay. Long before eye and ear show signs of failing other organs begin to advertise their decline. And hence the decay proceeds as to time and method in such a form as to answer the ends of the body in its relation to the soul. Seldom are there violent changes, No great revolutions occur. Little by little the alterations go on, so that the mind is insensibly accommodated to them. Agreeably to this law, decay contributes till late in life to the development of the mind. Not until decay has accomplished higher ends does it tend towards dissolution. Gently, indeed, the hand of the Father touches the frail tenement, here a nerve and there a muscle, so as to make it less a body for the earth and more a body for the soul. Physiologically, therefore, there is a basis for St. Paul's theology of the body. Now, physiologists may say, as some of them have said, that their science has nothing to do with religion, and, forsooth, this in one sense may be true. But it is certain that Christianity has a good deal to do with their science. Nor, indeed, have we to look further than the text for proof of the fact that, while St. Paul was doing nothing more than unfolding the glory of the gospel, one or more of the rays of that splendour shone on facts which science is only just now beginning to understand. But the inner man, what of him? "Renewed day by day." We have seen that Providence uses decay for restoration and even enhancement of power, and moreover, not until physical development has attained its maximum in respect to mind, does it happen that decay operates towards dissolution. Outward and inward - both the man, as we have said - and yet the differencing adjectives are very expressive. Look at the outside of a tree, the rough bark adapted to the hard usages of wind and weather, and fitted to enclose and protect the fibre and circulating sap. So of the body. It is a sheath to the soul, preserving its freedom from being overpowered by the outward world and guaranteeing self-direction to its activity. More than this, body is a developing instrumentality of mind, and, in this respect, fulfils the special purpose of Providence. Nevertheless, the soul has its own prerogatives. It is God's image, and, as such, witnesses to its own nature as infinitely different from matter. We call it soul because it is perfectly unlike body. We call it spirit because "God is a Spirit." Such words as body, soul, spirit, stand alone and contain the truth of all truths. Now, the apostle urges this contrast; body decays and dies, spirit under the influence of the Holy Ghost is renewed daily. Spirit has a capacity for interminable growth. Day by day, a clearer knowledge of itself, a keener penetration of consciousness, a deeper sense of sinfulness in its nature, and, anomalously enough, while gaining a victory more and more over particular sins, having an acuter conviction of inbred sin. Day by day, the world falling away from its senses, and yet, amid the decay of sensuousness, a continual ascension of delight and gladness as the spirit loses its hold on merely aesthetic beauty and enters more fully into moral beauty, so that, while the body becomes more and more the "temple of the Holy Ghost," the earth grows into a sanctuary of God, where the hours fail not to observe their ritual of worship and the air is never so hushed as not to breathe praise to God. Day by day? Ah! are there not idle days, apparently useless days, even days when prayer and holy service seem a burden? Doubtless; but we must not conclude that these seasons are altogether unprofitable. If we are learning nothing else, we are learning how weak and impotent we are, and how unreliable are our constitution and habits except we have daily renewing grace. God leaves us to ourselves sometimes, that we may find out what company we keep when he is absent. Day by day, the most precious of all is a growing nearness to the Lord Jesus Christ. We can recall the time when he was mainly to our young souls a traditional Christ. We knew him by the hearing of the ear and by the sight of the eye. Voices there were that spoke of him and commanded our listening. Faces there were that shone with unearthly light and touched our eyes to a reverent gaze. They are gone now. Sorrow has done its work, and, if that be done, all other work is made effective for spiritual progress. How real he becomes when we suffer as Christians! In the loneliness that comes with all profound grief, what a personal Christ is he to our hearts! Hearts, we say, for the revelations of sorrow, the fullest and grandest ever made to the soul, are all revelations of the blessed Jesus to the affections. Once we could not have thought it possible, but, in later years, the secret of the Lord is with us, and we commune with him as friend with friend. The wonder now is, how we could ever live an hour without this sense of sonship possessing the soul. "Out of the depths" we have learned to say, "Abba, Father," and then we can rejoice with "joy unspeakable and full of glory." The outward man perishing, the inward man renewed day by day, how would such a man as St. Paul look upon trial and adversity? We know more of the nature, variety, and depth of his sufferings than of any one among the saints of the New Testament, and yet he calls his affliction light. It is also "but for a moment? Why he spoke in this way is made clear at once, for the light and momentary affliction is working for his benefit, fulfilling a purpose, executing a design, and this is a "far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory." These words are best left to private meditation. "Glory" in contrast with "affliction," "weight" with "light," "eternal" with "moment," and then the "exceeding," the "more exceeding," the "far more exceeding;" we honour the sublimity most by thoughtful silence. And this winking, which is now going on by means of Christ's presence in affliction and derives no merit from him, is so far realized by the apostle that he cannot look upon the things about him other than as transient. It is not the mere decay of the outward man nor the evanescence of the world's glory that produces in him this exalted state of mind. The point of view is altogether different. From the height of spiritual life as essentially eternal life, he glances at the panorama of the world as it passes by, but his look - the fixed eye, the earnest gaze - is on the things which are eternal. For him this eternity has already begun; and while every new grief and every repetition of an old sorrow "worketh" a deeper feeling of the spiritual and eternal life within, he is equally well assured that each one adds something to the accumulated glory of the heaven awaiting him as an apostle of the Lord Jesus. - L.

Parallel Verses
KJV: But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.

WEB: But we have this treasure in clay vessels, that the exceeding greatness of the power may be of God, and not from ourselves.

Heavenly Treasure in Earthen Vessels
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