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This Treasure in Clay Jars: 2 Corinthians 4:7

November 16, 2015

2 Corinthians 4:7 reads, “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”

“Change is the only constant” is an oft-repeated truism.  It mirrors our experience and existence, as it is precisely what we come to understand happens to us as a creature in God’s creation.  In short, it is part and parcel to what Paul is pointing to with his use of the image of clay jars.  The prophet Isaiah says the same thing using a different set of images, “The grass withers and the flowers fade…” (Isaiah 40:8).

These verses capture a fundamental message of the entire scriptures as well as a central experience and understanding of a life lived in faith.  That is to say, those who have heard and believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ find that Paul’s language resonates with their personal experience and confession, namely the Gospel is a treasure kept in clay jars.  A closer look at the verses preceding and following this phrase provide further insight.

A treasure contained in a clay jar may be an unsettling image at first glance. One would think a treasure, something of great value, would be contained in an impermeable, permanent vessel. But this is precisely the opposite of what Paul is stating in these verses. The treasure of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is contained in jars that will crack, crumble, and, ultimately, no longer exist.  In fact, Paul actually identifies what will cause those clay jars, the very things that contain the treasure of Christ, to crack: affliction, persecution, and ultimately death – and all for Jesus’ sake. In other words, Paul tells us that these afflictions will be the direct result of being the very vessels that contain that treasure.

With that noted, what is the treasure?  It is “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6).  The glory of God exemplified in Christ is none other than the “glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”  As is typical of Paul, he is harkening back to the stories, promises, and language of the Old Testament.  In particular, Paul is talking about God’s life-creating and sustaining “Word” that makes the “light shine out of the darkness.”  It is in this context that he speaks of the image of God, which is none other than that which God established with his creative Word in the Garden of Eden.  God established Adam and Eve “in his image” as his creatures who live on the very Word God speaks.  That is to say, they live by faith alone.  This is precisely the life our Lord Jesus lived (Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 4:4).

So, what is the fate of clay jars?  Paul is clear about the way in which this affliction, persecution, and even death itself will end: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; so death is at work in us, but life in you.”  In other words, Paul is confessing his experience and the experience of all Christians, all clay jars which contain Christ’s Gospel – we will suffer affliction, persecution, even death, but these things will not have the final word over us – Christ will.  Isaiah, too, is confessing this in 40:8: “The grass withers, the flowers fade but the word of our Lord remains forever.”

These verses from Paul mirror the confession of Christians throughout history, and they are no less true for our time today.  We see this especially in the state of theological education in our country; in particular the state in which we find institutions charged with serving these needs.  These institutions, too, are made out of clay, and this includes Sioux Falls Seminary.  In other words, institutions, too, are jars of clay which nurture and promulgate the treasure – Christ’s Gospel.  And as such, institutions will crumble and crack.

At the same time, we do have the promise Isaiah, and in fact all of Scripture, gives us: the treasure remains.  Our task at Sioux Falls Seminary, and in all of theological education, is to promulgate the treasure while acknowledging the frailty of all institutions.  Thus, we do not despair about changes, struggles, or even deaths of institutions.  For these afflictions are momentary and our identity and hope are not founded in them.  Our hope is in the creative Word of God, the image of Christ.  It is that Word we foster here in the mission and ministry of Sioux Falls Seminary as we develop servants to proclaim that very message.

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