Treasure In Earthen Vessels

April 23, 2006
日本キリスト教団 頌栄教会牧師 清弘剛生 Pastor Takao Kiyohiro, Shoei Church, Church of Christ, Japan
Translator M.A.F., Indiana, USA
Second Corinthians 4:7-18

In Earthen Vessels

1. In today's second scripture reading I read to you from Paul's epistle addressed to the church at Corinth. This is what he says there, "So, we store this treasure in earthen vessels," (Second Corinthians 4:7).

2. This phrase of "earthen vessels" is very easy to understand in a certain sense. We certainly are "vessels from the earth." A quality of an earthen vessel is its weakness, its fragility. They break easily. Ultimately, they always end up breaking. In that sense, we're earthen vessels. No matter how much we try to show off how tough we are, we are no more than earthen vessels. Indeed, it is precisely because of the fact that we know that we are no more than earthen vessels that we're probably working so hard at looking tough. -- Because being an earthen vessel is scary. Because we're afraid to admit that we're breakable pottery.

3. But, in Paul's having admitted that he himself was an earthen vessel, he is proclaiming something truly astonishing. "Even though we [may be] made to suffer from all sides, we are not stuck, even though we [may be] perplexed, we do not lose hope, even though we [may be] oppressed, we do not give up, even though we [may be] knocked down, we are not destroyed," (verses eight and nine). The times we might fully sense ourselves to be earthen vessels might be when we're put into [some] hardship. When everything is going along well, our weaknesses are not a problem. [Our] frailty is not a problem. But, during hardships, [our] frailties become a problem. When we are made to suffer from all directions [our] weaknesses become a big problem. When [we're] put into [some] difficulty, [we're] afraid to be earthen vessels. So, to get to the point, what Paul is saying is that "Even though we're earthen vessels, we're okay." We're weak, but we're fine. We're frail, but we're fine. We're okay.

4. The most important matter lies else where. Paul said, "we store 'this treasure' in earthen vessels." The important thing concerns this matter of "what does [one] store in it? [We're] good but [we're] vessels made of the earth that will end up broken. One is to have treasure in it. [We are] to store the treasure that [we're] supposed to have.

5. What is "this treasure," that Paul's talking about? Actually, it is written in the text just before today's scripture reading. "God, who commanded, 'Let the light shine forth from the darkness,' shines in our hearts and has given us the light to enlighten [us] with the glory of God which shines on the face of Jesus Christ," (verse six). This is the treasure.

6. Paul obviously has in mind the story from the beginning of Genesis, [the story of] the creation of the heavens and the earth. "God said, 'Let there be light,' and so there was light," (Genesis 1:3). In Genesis, the text doesn't say, "Let the light shine forth from the darkness" but, the meaning is the same because it was dark until "Let there be light." The God who commanded "Let there be light" also said "Let there be light" in our hearts. In that way then, he has given us the light of faith. He has shown us the crucified Jesus Christ as the son of God filled with glory, the savior, and he has made us persons who believe in Jesus. [The phrase "he] has given us the light to enlighten [us] with the glory of God which shines on the face of Jesus Christ" means that. And, if we said more it would this, the text says here that "he shines in our hearts." Who is the leading noun? God is. The text says oh how God himself is the light, he shines and he illuminates us. This is the treasure.

7. The gospel of Jesus Christ is more than just an idea. The faith we are given is more than just "something for the heart." The reason Paul deliberately brings the story from Genesis up is that the faith given to us is truly a work of God so much so that it ranks with the creation of the heavens and the earth. It is an event such that God comes, he himself scintillates, and becomes the light and shines into the darkness of our hearts. Paul knew this. Thus, he calls it "treasure." Paul wouldn't call merely an idea "treasure." It is treasure because it is a work that comes by means of the overwhelming mercy of God. It is a treasure that is beyond any other. Whenever we're not thinking that way, we just don't understand the value of what we've been given.

8. We may be earthen vessels no doubt. But, we can be earthen vessels in which one has stored within it these treasures. We have salvation in them indeed. This treasure saves both us and society. We cannot save ourselves on our own. We cannot save this world on our own power because we are all earthen vessels and because this world itself is an earthen vessel. Salvation comes from God. The very treasure from God saves us and the world.

9. Since salvation comes from God, the fact that we are earthen vessels is not a problem at all. We may be weak but we're fine. We may be frail but we're fine. We may be something that decays and withers but we're fine. We may ultimately end up being broken apart, but we're fine. -- Because it is in that where the value of the treasure that God has given us shows itself. Because the power of God at work through faith is manifested. Because the power of God is not to be confused with the power of human beings, but will be displayed as simply the power of God.

10. As a matter of fact, Paul himself, who is saying this, seems to have borne some kind of illness, which is one manifestation of being an "earthen vessel." He expresses it as "a thorn" given to his flesh. We don't know what kind of pain it was. But, it was probably something that caused a hindrance even to the mission work of Paul. So, Paul prayed for this thorn to be removed. But, the Lord never took the thorn out. The Lord told Paul, "My grace is enough for you. [My] power is demonstrated sufficiently even in [your] weakness," (12:9). That's the answer Paul got. For that reason Paul went on to say, "Thus, I would rather take pride in my weakness and rejoice greatly so that the power of Christ will dwell in me. Therefore, even though I may be in a state of weakness, derision, poverty, persecution, and at the last extremity, I am content on behalf of Christ; because when I am weak, I am strong," (12:9-10).

11. Because Paul was like that, even in today's passage of scripture, he had said with confidence, "Even though we [may be] made to suffer from all sides, we are not stuck, even though we [may be] perplexed, we do not lose hope, even though we [may be] oppressed, we do not give up, even though we [may be] knocked down, we are not destroyed." When we're relying on God and take pride in our weakness, we're okay. If we can claim we're strong right at the time when we're weak, we're fine. We might be earthen vessels, but we're fine. That was the conviction of Paul.

In Order For The Life Of Christ To Be Revealed

12. Moreover, Paul goes on to speak as follows in verses ten and following. "We are always wearing on [our] bodies the death of Jesus. In order for the life of Jesus to be revealed in [our] bodies. While we are living, we are endlessly exposed to death for the sake of Jesus. In order for the life of Jesus to be revealed in [our] flesh which is supposed to die," (verses ten and eleven). About being earthen vessels, Paul expresses this further as "[We] are always wearing on [our] bodies the death of Jesus." The expression "to wear death on the body" is an unfamiliar and strange phrase. But, let's think about it just a bit.

13. It's getting a bit detailed, but the term "death" being used here is not the word normally used to express "death" itself. If I could add to this word, it would be the phrase that says "the condition of a person who is dying right now." Rather than of death itself, it would be better to say it is the process in which one is dying and has been dying. While Jesus was suffering, he was dying. It stands for that.

14. A certain doctor said something like this, "The death of a human being is not at the end of one's life. The person lives bearing death upon oneself." I do think that's exactly right. The process in which a person is dying has begun from the moment one is born. That's what it means to be an earthen vessel. In that definition, anybody can say, "I have been putting death on my body since birth." Therefore, as long as we live, there will be all sorts of suffering. There may be illness. There may be a time along the journey of life when we lose some part of our bodily functions. There may just be a gradual fading away and decline. -- Because we wear death on our bodies. Not one person is an exception to that. Not even Christians are an exception. If you're a Christian, you never get sick? That's not so. You will never have pain and encounter calamities? The believer doesn't die? That's not so. No, much rather, like Paul did, some have experienced being shattered like earthen vessels amidst persecutions. Because of the faith some have been martyred and have died.

15. But, whenever one has treasure in an earthen vessel, whenever one has a faith that believes in Jesus Christ, there is a decisive difference. It is that one never bears any kind of suffering whatever it be by oneself alone ever again. So, what we are experiencing there is our own pain and is our own death, and though [we] should be wearing our own death in our bodies, what is taking place there is that "[we] are wearing the death of Jesus in [our] bodies! In suffering we become one with Jesus. If Jesus said it for himself, he would say, "You aren't suffering alone." "You aren't sick by yourself. You are wearing 'my death' on [your] body. In the flesh in which you suffer, you and I are one." That's what Jesus meant to say.

16. And, we know -- that Jesus, who hung on the cross, suffered and died, has risen from the dead. There was a resurrection beyond the cross. There was. If we are one with the Jesus who hung on the cross, we are also one with the Jesus who has risen from the dead. When one "wears the death of Jesus on one's body," the life of Jesus also will be revealed in one's body. Paul even says that "The reason one always wears the death of Jesus on the body is to reveal the life of Jesus on the body."

17. As a matter of fact, the truth that we often see with our very eyes is the believer during [some] difficulty truly shinning with the life of Jesus. On the sick bed, during persecution, in a hardship that seems futile, in something that cuts off a person's life by some years even, it will happen that "the life of Jesus will be revealed in [such a person's] body." When you bear in your flesh the death of Jesus, the life of Jesus will also be revealed.

18. Earlier, we sang the praise song "At Any Time," (Hymn 21-533). This hymn comes from the lyrics by a girl named Junko Takahashi. Her life lasted just seven years. I heard that she came down with osteosarcoma when in kindergarten and in no time after she entered elementary school, she passed on. "Any time, at any time, never be defeated and beaten by suffering. In Jesus, in Jesus, believe."

19. I'm told that this child, a girl by herself believing in Jesus, made this song upon her bed when she was waiting for surgery in four days, to amputate her leg. Her leg would be gone. [She was to be] a chipped earthen vessel. But, wasn't the life of Jesus overflowing within [her]? She felt [his life in her], so she wanted to sing with him come what may.

20. When one wears the death of Jesus on one's body, the life of Jesus will also be revealed on one's body. Furthermore, when we bear the death of Jesus completely upon our physical selves, when we have borne it completely, when we finish out our lives on this earth in that way, and when the earthen vessel returns to the ground, the life of Jesus will also be revealed completely. Just as the Jesus who died on the cross rose again from the dead and shines in eternal life, we too will soon rise from the dead unto the kingdom of God and shine in eternal life, and receive permission to stand before God. "We know that God, who caused Jesus to rise from the dead, will cause us to rise from the dead along with Jesus, and will let us stand with you before Him," (4:14). This indeed is the ultimate hope that is being given to us earthen vessels.