“We have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not us.” 2 Corinthians 4:7
I want you to drift back in time with me. Let’s visit a jail in Rome about nineteen hundred and fifty years ago. We walk into a cell and see two men. One of them is a Roman guard. A broad sword hangs at his side. His uniform bears the crests of the greatest empire the world has known to that point. He is a focused and dedicated soldier.
The other man in the cell is much older, perhaps 60 or 70. He looks quite haggard. He has a stoop in his appearance as if back problems have plagued him. His clothes are simple, a few levels above rags. The only noticeable feature of the clothing is that it does not appear heavy enough for the coming winter. He is hunched over a desk and is writing on a piece of papyrus. By watching him you can tell he has written quite a few letters. In a matter of days he will be executed on a Roman chopping block.
One of these two men will alter history. Which do you suppose it will be? From an objective point of view you would have to say the guard. Perhaps he will rise through the ranks, become a great general, lead the empire to victory over her foes, and eventually become emperor. That would be a good, educated guess. But it would be wrong.
The other man, as weak and unimposing as he appears, will be remembered throughout history. People will call his name. His letters will become scripture and be read and quoted by literally billions of people down through the centuries. His name, of course, is Paul. That is the humble way he ended his life, but what a life it was!
He based his entire outlook on a single principle that is so important that to try to live the Christian life without it, much less to try to grow as a Christian, will result in ineffectiveness and frustration. The principle is simply this: he viewed himself as a broken vessel for the transcendent power of God. He viewed himself humbly, but trusted in a glorious God. His life was not easy, but his circumstances did not define him.
In one list of hardships Paul wrote that he had worked harder, been imprisoned often, beaten countless times, left for dead more than once, been lashed and beaten by both his own people and by Gentiles (Paul was an equal opportunity martyr), been stoned once, shipwrecked three times, been in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger in the cities, danger in the wilderness, danger from false brothers, he had been hungry, thirsty, cold, sleepless, and worried about the churches (2 Cor. 11:23-28). Other than that his life had been one glorious Christian experience! Now the pay wasn’t all that good, so what exactly was the attraction for Paul?
The great irony of the gospel is that God’s power is perfected in weakness. Struggles, therefore, shape us to be filled by God’s grace. The troubles you face are not a verdict on your life, they are simply a part of life in this broken world. The treasure we cherish is that God continues to work through us no matter how plain, unimposing, or even broken we are.
Paul wrote that we have this treasure in earthen vessels. Earthen vessels were the cheap clay pots you could pick up at a first century Wal-Mart or flea market. They’re the kind you use every day, especially when you have small children. They break easily, but they’re inexpensive, just a shade above tupperware. Paul was certainly not one to set himself up too high. He felt that, in all honesty, “I am nothing more than a piece of cheap pottery, fulfilling its purpose. I’m a broken vessel, but I am God’s broken vessel.”
The oddest item I have on my shelves in my office is a 6” tall vase with one side broken and lost. If anyone asks I tell them it’s my 2 Corinthians 4:7 pot. It’s a cracked pot to remind me of my own brokenness, but also of God’s amazing grace to use me still.
So this column is for all the cracked pots out there. You may feel cheap and useless, hopelessly broken. You are not. To quote again from the man in that jail cell: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed but not driven to despair; persecuted but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed. ”
Dr. Terry Ellis
June 11, 2012