2 Corinthians 4:7-12
You know you’re a 90’s kid when you read “jars of clay” in 2 Cor. 4:7 but think immediately of the Christian rock band Jars of Clay. (If you, like me, didn’t know, they’re apparently still a band pumping out music.) Although I was not a nursing infant in the 90’s, my Christian-music-immersed family was fed in part by Jars of Clay. Hence this cheesy introduction. Pardon the cheese and allow it function as the transition into what Paul speaks about in these comforting verses.
Back in the start of chapter 4, Paul mentions that he does not lose heart. Such a statement inspires the reader to ask, “Why would you lose heart, Paul? What are the temptations that would distract you or pull you away from such a glorious mercy-ministry of the New Covenant?” We saw some temptations in vv. 1-6 in an earlier post, and now more appear in vv. 8-12, which we can summarize with Paul’s word in v. 8: “afflicted.” There’s that word again. Affliction is the perfect situation or living condition that our flesh, the world, and the devil would commission into service to deceive us, veil our eyes to the gospel, and set our minds off the face of Christ and direct them to earthly things instead. Christians are often afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down (vv. 8-9). Such is the life for the Christ-follower.
Despite being afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down, Paul is not crushed, despairing, forsaken, or destroyed. He doesn’t lose heart (v. 1). How can that be? How can someone have such fortitude of faith? Answer: Treasure, which is Christ. In v. 7, Paul speaks of the “treasure,” which is another way for Paul to speak of the ministry of the New Covenant. Notice the parallel between “Therefore, having this ministry” (v. 7), and “But we have this treasure.” But “treasure” is also referring to the verses immediately before v. 7, wherein Paul says that he proclaims the Christ who has shone in our hearts. The treasure is in jars of clay, and the light is in Paul’s heart. Let’s connect the dots. Paul proclaims the New Covenant Ministry, the Substance and Minister of which is Christ himself, who has enlightened the hearts of believers by means of the Spirit-worked application of the gospel. The resultant “cardiac illumination” is the treasure stored in the very ensouled bodies of believers.
Christ is that treasure. Lest we focus on the jars of clay themselves without first focusing on the treasure itself, let’s remember that what Paul is speaking of is a treasure! Obvious, to be sure, but the attention that this popular passage normally receives is on the jars, not the treasure. The treasure is the knowledge of the Glory of God, Christ. Treasures are those which pirates seek and expend all their energies to acquire. Jesus is the Pearl of Great Price (Matt. 13:46). He is our Great Reward (Matt. 5:12; Col. 3:24; Heb. 10:35; 2 John 8). As one song puts it, Jesus is our “All in All.” Christ is the one in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3), because Christ is Wisdom from above, and he is Knowledge of the Glory of God.
This treasure is in our bodies, our jars of clay (skueos: frangible, earthen vessels/jars). The life of Jesus is in our bodies. We can say this because (1) jars of clay are our bodies, and (2) the death and life of Jesus are carried in and manifested through our bodies (v. 10). Therefore, the risen, ascended, and seated Christ is in us. When the Father shined the light of Christ in our hearts, he implanted the Glory of God, Jesus as true Image of God, into our very lives, and now we carry that Image in us. As Meredith Kline says, “formal-physical glory-likeness is man’s bodily reflection of the theophanic and incarnate Glory” (Images of the Spirit, 31). Clear as mud, right? Kline is seeking to recover the original image-likeness man was of God. And one aspect of that image-likeness was his physical form, his body. With the Fall, man no longer reflected the theophanic Glory, that is, the Glory-appearance of God. With regeneration, adoption, sanctification, and glorification, the new creature in Christ increasingly reflects in his own bodily person the Original Image and Glory of God, the Son of God. That’s really a fundamental part of our own glorification: conformity to the Son of God, the Glory. And it’s that Glory-Treasure that we carry within us by the Glory-Spirit.
This text is about Christ the Treasure, but it’s also about Christ in our afflictions. Recall that these verses are intended to bring comfort to the afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down. In that light, a brief word on the word “surpassing” (hyperbolē) in v. 7 is in order. We saw it back in 1:8, and only Paul uses it in the NT, with its use predominating our letter. Back in 1:8, Paul connects his affliction with a burden beyond his strength. Here in 4:7, there’s affliction (which is perplexing, persecuting, and striking), but it’s God’s power that is beyond or surpassing Paul’s despair. Then in 4:17, Paul again contrasts affliction with the weight of glory that surpasses the light, momentary affliction. It is “beyond all comparison.” Last, in 12:7, Paul speaks of the “surpassing greatness of revelations” he received from God coupled with affliction, and this time in the form of the thorn in the flesh. Whenever we see this word “surpassing, abundance, beyond,” (hyperbolē) in 2 Corinthians, feet-crushing affliction is set in contrast and nipping at its heels (Gen. 3:15).
Why does this surpassing v. affliction conflict matter? Getting there; bear with me. Look at another connector piece in Acts 9, the account of the conversion of Saul, the apostle Paul to the Corinthians. In Acts 9:10-16, the Lord and Ananias have a conversation. The Lord tells Ananias to go and lay hands on Saul, that he might regain his sight (v. 12). Ananias, confused because Saul is not a sympathizer but a persecutor of the early church, questions God. The Lord assures Ananias that Paul has been changed, and that Paul will suffer as a chosen instrument to Israel and the Nations. The word for “instrument” is the same as “jar” in 2 Cor. 4:7 (skeuos) by the way. In this brief illustrative episode, we have both light and affliction. Ananias was used by God to regain Saul’s eyesight, which is reflective of the light that has already shone in the darkness of Paul’s heart: Acts 9:17-18 with 2 Cor. 4:6. But then there’s affliction for the sake of the gospel: Acts 9:16 with 2 Cor. 4:7-8. Light and affliction. Paul knows what he’s talking about. His very life illustrated the truth that with the light of the gospel comes affliction for the gospel.
The interplay of light and affliction is pronounced and fulfilled in the irony of Paul’s words in vv. 10-12. Paul is essentially saying, “Our suffering, our life of death, is for you, Corinthians.” His suffering existence was for the benefit of the Corinthians, for their life. Wherever he went, he carried in his own body the life and death of Christ, just like when he says that he carries the aroma of Christ as he speaks with people about the Aroma of God, the sweet sacrifice which is Christ. If Paul is an example of one who brings light while afflicted, of one who carries the death and life of Jesus in his body, there must be the Exemplar of which he is an example. Of course, this Exemplar is the original Light-bearer, the Suffering Servant (Isa. 53). Jesus, the true Light, enlightened men, yet he was afflicted. It was Christ whose heel was crushed for our iniquities (Isa. 53:5, 10). It was Christ who was perplexed (Ps. 22:2; Isa. 53:11). It was Christ whose soul was cast down (Ps. 42:5-7, 11; Isa. 53:4). It was Christ who was persecuted (John 15:20). It was Christ who was forsaken (Ps. 22:1; Matt. 27:46). It was Christ who was struck down (Isa. 53:5). It was Christ who was destroyed (Matt. 27:50). The seed of Satan truly did crush the heel of the seed of the woman. But with that crushing came a greater crush, the crush of Christ on the head of the serpent by the cross of Christ. With his death and resurrection, Christ is victorious. And it is that victory from Christ our Treasure that comforts us in all our affliction, so that we need not be crushed, driven to despair, forsaken, and destroyed. Beloved, in affliction, we don’t lose heart (we don’t lose our hearts even), because in our hearts we have the treasured glory of God, the Image of Glory, the humiliated-then-exalted Christ himself. What a Treasure Christ truly is!
Even though Paul speaks of himself as afflicted, he’s not the focal point. Yes, our suffering is real. But our suffering is about God. God is glorified. The passage is Godward (v. 7), and at the center is Christ. You can imagine Paul, with his arms up in the air and fingers pointing to the heavens, saying, “This is all of God.” The surpassing power of the knowledge of God that is proclaimed through the ministry of the New Covenant—this abounding power isn’t Paul’s; it’s God’s. The New Covenant is God’s covenant, so the power accompanying it is God’s as well. What a comfort these verses are. Even in Paul’s application of God’s truth is God the center. It is God who is the God of all comfort. Soli Deo Gloria!