This metaphor from the apostle Paul pictures our lives’ with God. It’s especially encouraging for those of us who feel weak, ineffective, even useless.
The word translated ‘vessels’ is interesting coming from Paul, since at his conversion God described him as, ‘“my chosen vessel to bare my name before the nations”’(Acts 9:15). This Greek word for general utensil could alternatively be translated jar or pot. Paul saw himself and every Christian as some kind of container. It’s noteworthy that we are not described as oak chests or golden caskets, but clay or earthenware pots, i.e. nothing special, just common ordinary containers. Perhaps he would have used the metaphor of a cardboard box or plastic carrier bag today!
The point is that God can use weak, fragile and vulnerable containers like us. We might feel sinful: ‘I don’t practice what I desire to do; but what I hate, that I do… What a wretched man I am’(Romans 7:15-24); physically impaired in some way: ‘there was given to me a thorn in the flesh’(2 Corinthians 12:7); lacking in ability: ‘unskilled in speech’(2 Corinthians 11:6); stressed or depressed: ‘I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling’(1 Corinthians 2:3), ‘we were weighed down exceedingly, beyond our power, so much that we despaired even of life’(2 Corinthians 1:8). Paul felt all these things, and he recognised that the Corinthian Christians were largely from the ‘foolish… weak… lowly… despised’(1 Corinthians 1:27-28) section of society – the cardboard box and carrier bag class! God built His worldwide church using such people, just like us. So how did that happen? Answer: The treasure within.
So what is the treasure? It’s described in the preceding verse as ‘the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’(2 Corinthians 4:6), and before that as ‘the light of the Good News of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God’(2 Corinthians 4:4). It’s about knowing God through Jesus, which involves divine life actually indwelling our fragility, as Paul put it in his letter to the Colossians, ‘the riches of the glory of this mystery… which is Christ in you’(Colossians 1:27). Later in his writing to the Corinthians, Paul makes the question as to whether ‘Jesus Christ is in you’(2 Corinthians 13:5) a test of true Christianity. This happens through the Holy Spirit: ‘that he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, that you may be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inward man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts’(Ephesians 3:16-17). This indwelling has several powerful effects.
Firstly, secure salvation despite our weaknesses and failings: ‘If Christ is in you… if the Spirit of him who raised up Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised up Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you… as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are children of God… and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ… Who could bring a charge against God’s chosen ones? It is God who justifies… Who shall separate us from… the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’(Romans 8:10-39)
Secondly, as we see and reflect on God in Jesus it changes us from within: ‘we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are transformed into the same image’(2 Corinthians 3:18), ‘though our outward man is decaying, yet our inward man is renewed day by day’(2 Corinthians 4:16).
Thirdly, despite our flaws, this treasure starts to seep and shine out through the cracks: God ‘reveals through us the sweet aroma of his knowledge in every place. For we are a sweet aroma of Christ… Who is sufficient for these things?’(2 Corinthians 2:14-16), and ‘“let your light shine before men; that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven”’(Matthew 5:16). So this includes spreading teaching and doing good deeds, but the power is always in the treasure: ‘“you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you. You will be witnesses to me in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth”’(Acts 1:8), and so the Kingdom advanced to Paul, to the Corinthians, to us…
So, if you think you are weak, ineffective, useless, even crackpot, be encouraged. Despite our flaws, we should offer ourselves to be filled and used, and we will be, because the potent efficacy is from ‘God, and not from ourselves.’(2 Corinthians 4:7)