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2 Corinthians 4:5-71NIV New International Version Translations
5 For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as LORD, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. 7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.


Any time we study the letters to Corinth, we must remember that what we are reading are the answers the Apostle Paul is giving to questions and issues that the church in Corinth is experiencing. In these verses, it is likely, that Paul is defending himself against his opponents in Corinth who would like people to believe that Paul’s motives are self-serving. Paul responds with two points:

  1. First, the subject of his preaching is “Christ Jesus as Lord.”
  2. Second, Paul isn’t glorifying himself. He is presenting himself as a servant or slave, not only of the Lord, but also of the believers in Corinth.
    The Greek word doulos is used. This choice generally refers to people engaged in involuntary servitude, slavery.  If Paul did not intend to make this point, he would have used the gentler word diakonos, indicating voluntary servitude, being a servant rather than a slave. This latter word is where we take our concept of deacons from. Paul considers himself a slave because it was  Christ who called him into service, and Paul would not and could not bring himself to leave Christ’s service. That is the concept of slavery, you have no choice but to serve.

Light and darkness are frequently used in both Old and New Testaments as metaphors for good and evil, order and chaos, security and danger, joy and sorrow, truth and untruth, life and death, salvation and condemnation ( see Isaiah 5:20; John 3:19-21; 2 Corinthians 4:4; Ephesians 4:17-18). Paul’s point is that God’s light “has shone in our hearts.” Here we can hope that Paul was telling the Corinthian believers that God’s light has shined into their lives as well as his. This is not Paul’s light, it is not their light, it is Christ’s light.

Now comes a more difficult metaphor to understand, clay jars. Clay jars were the common vessel for carrying water and other goods in Paul’s day. Clay was a common substance that was available almost everywhere, and potters had mastered the art of forming clay jars on their pottery wheels. While some clay jars were beautifully ornamented, most were plain vessels. Whether plain or beautiful, clay jars had a life-giving function, gathering, preserving, and transporting water to those who were thirsty. In that sense, clay jars are a worthy metaphor for the role of the Christian church. The role of the church is to gather, preserve, and transport the spiritual water of the Gospel to the thirsty souls of our world.

Clay jars are also fragile. They break easily if dropped or hit by a stone. Not many clay jars survived a person’s lifetime. Even fewer survived to be passed down through several generations. But why have this “treasure” only in “clay jars,” cheap and fragile earthenware? This is metaphor for the vulnerability of our own mortal existence. How is this “treasure” actually experienced in the “clay jars?” Paul portrays how “we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9). The Apostle Paul draws on language found in the psalms, prophets, and history itself. Paul reminds us about Jesus’ life that would later influence the Gospels themselves. Not only were Jesus and his disciples “persecuted,” but Jesus cries out at his crucifixion, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34; see also Psalm 22:1).

We have a few decades at best to proclaim the Gospel to those around us. A few believers continue to proclaim the Gospel after their deaths through their writings but those are soon out dated and forgotten. Even the great theologians of the Christian faith, the Calvins, Luthers, the Wesleys, found their influence waning after a few centuries. When was the last time you read one of their books? This is the reality of life and death. It points to why we must always create and fill new vessels,  to train new believers to proclaim the Gospel. Throughout the history of the Christian Church, it has always been only one generation away from extinction. One contemporary example we have today can be seen through the life of Billy Graham. While he is gone, no stadiums filled with people to hear him speak, he left five children that have faithfully carried the Gospel’s message to the world.

The Apostle Paul thought of himself as a clay jar carrying a precious treasure. Each of us shares that same role and duty, to be a clay jar. We have been entrusted with a precious treasure. It is not the jar that has the power but what is contained within us, the Gospel. Where do we take it? Do we quench the thirsty in our world? Whose clay jar do we help fill?

Items for Discussion

  • How does the metaphor of a “clay jar” help you with understanding the role of the Christian Church and its individual members?
  • We don’t have clay jars to carry water any more. How would you bring this metaphor up to contemporary standards? In other words, how would you modernize it so someone who did not know what a clay jar was could understand Paul’s point?
  • If all of life is like a clay jar, fragile, short lived, how do you make sure you fill it before it is broken?
  • How do you make sure you empty it before it is no longer useful? Or is there ever a point in which one’s jar can be empty?
  • Does removing all history of slavery help or hurt our world’s understanding Paul’s point?
  • Paul is using the metaphor of a slave. In these times, how would you explain the concept of becoming a slave to Christ and not offend our challenged world? 
  • How does the church, its members, keep their message on Christ and not themselves?
  • If the Christian Church is but one generation away from extinction, what are its greatest threats today?
  • What must we do to keep those threats at bay?

Discussion Challenge

  • How can the church help restore the role of parenting to our world so that we are creating new vessels for carrying the Gospel?
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    NIV New International Version Translations