Enduring (pt. 2)

Endurance in Gospel Ministry

2 Corinthians 4:7-12

we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death works in us, but life in you.

Here the apostle Paul reveals to us how he endured in his own ministry.  As we look at this passage we will see that if we want to endure the difficulties of gospel ministry we must understand the purpose for those difficulties.  And here Paul gives us two reasons why we must endure difficulties in gospel ministry. First, we must endure difficulties in order to display the power of God.  Second, we must endure difficulties in order to reveal the message of the gospel.

I. We must endure difficulties in order to display the power of God. (vv. 7-9)

The first reason that we must endure difficulties in gospel ministry is found in vv. 7-9.   Here we see that we must endure difficulties in order to display the power of God.  Paul begins to explain this point to us in v. 7 by using a paradoxical illustration.  Paul writes, “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves.”

In this verse Paul does not tell us exactly what “this treasure” is, but the context makes it clear what Paul is referring to.  Paul has in mind the gospel, but more specifically Paul has in mind his ministry of the gospel.  This is the same ministry that Paul referred to in 4:1 when he said, “Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart.”  Paul viewed his ministry of proclaiming the Gospel as a “treasure.”  He knew that the message of the gospel was the most important message that anyone could ever receive because of its eternal implications.  Paul had been entrusted with the message of Christ crucified.  Because of its glorious nature, this message was rightfully treasured by Paul.  However, the glorious nature of the gospel is not the only point that Paul has in mind here.

Paul goes on to say that he has “this treasure in earthen vessels.”  To understand Paul’s point here we must understand the phrase “earthen vessels.”  This phrase translates two words from the Greek.  The first word, ὀστρακίνοις, literally means something that is made of clay.  The second word, σκεύεσιν, denotes a vessel or container used for various purposes.  Thus, Paul is literally referring to a container made of clay.  Containers such as this would have been extremely common in the ancient world.  They were used in all kinds of different ways and for all kinds of different purposes.  These “jars of clay” were essentially the ancient world’s version of cheap Tupperware.  As Kent Hughes puts it:

Clay jars were the throwaway containers of the ancient world, so that their life spans were generally a few years at the most…. No one took note of clay jars any more than we would of a fast-food container. They were simply there for convenience. It was no great tragedy when such vessels were broken. They were cheap and easy to replace.[1]

Paul’s metaphor is clear.  Just like jars of clay, ministers of the gospel are fragile, chipped, and common vessels.  Yet they are carrying the priceless treasure of the gospel.  All the difficulties that we face and all of our weaknesses confirm this truth.  We are nothing more than “jars of clay,” but there is a reason that God chose “jars of clay” to carry his treasure.

Paul says that all of this is “so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves.”  This is the purpose for our frailty and weakness.  This is why we face difficulties that we are unable to resolve by our own ability.  If we were powerful beings who never had any troubles with anything it wouldn’t take the power of God to spread the gospel.  This is why we must face difficulties.  Our suffering and our weaknesses play such an intricate role in gospel ministry.  It is all a part of the divine plan to make it clear that the power of the Gospel comes from God not from those who are ministering the gospel.  This is why God chose “clay pots.”   

Even though the false teachers saw Paul’s difficulties in ministry as a sign of failure, Paul understood that his difficulties in ministry displayed the power of God.  For this reason Paul did not mind being a clay pot, he was not like the false teachers who fancied themselves to be jewel covered goblets.  Paul viewed himself simply as an instrument for God’s use and he saw his weaknesses as an opportunity to display the power of God.  In 12:9 he said, “I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”

Do you have this same mentality that Paul had?  As you involve yourself in gospel ministry are you satisfied with being a clay pot, or are you seeking to display your own power, giftedness, and worth through your ministry?  If you are satisfied with being a pot then you will be able to effectively endure through difficulties as Paul did because you will understand why you are facing these difficulties.  However, if you are not satisfied with being a pot-ministering in the way that God has gifted you, being behind the scenes while someone else is up front, serving wherever the Lord has placed you-then you will never be able to endure in gospel ministry.  You may be able to hang onto your ministry for a long time, but you will not be effectively endure for the gospel.

In v. 7 it is clear that our weaknesses display the power of God, but Paul does not leave it at that.  In vv. 8-9 Paul specifies exactly how our difficulties display the power of God.  He does so by listing four paradoxes that illustrate what it means to be a clay pot.  Here it says, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed….”  This list of paradoxes is obviously influenced by Paul’s own experiences, but it is also applies to all who are involved in gospel ministry.  These paradoxes illustrate what it means to be a clay pot holding a glorious treasure.  They illustrate this by outlining our weaknesses and God’s provision.

First, Paul says, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed.”  The word here, θλιβόμενοι, literally means to press, compress, or to make narrow.  Here it is used passively and it refers to being under enormous pressure.  As a clay pot Paul should have been squashed by this kind of pressure.  However, Paul tells the Corinthians that despite this great pressure he had not been crushed.  As you hear Paul’s vivid language, you can almost picture an action movie where the hero is trapped in a room with the walls closing in around him.  At the last minute the hero finds something to wedge against the wall or some window to escape out of at the last minute.  The only difference here is that Paul did not save himself with some heroic act of ingenuity.  It would have been impossible for a clay pot to withstand this kind of pressure alone.  This is the point.  The clay pot-Paul-was sustained only by the power of God.

Second, Paul says that he was “perplexed, but not despairing.”   Here Paul is using a play on words that does not transfer over in our English bibles.  Both words that Paul uses here (ἀπορούμενοι/ἐξαπορούμενοι) are actually from the same root word.  The idea is that Paul was at a loss because his situation but never at a total loss.  As perplexed as Paul was in the midst of his difficulties because of the power of God he never reached the point of utter despair. Even though he did not know what to do, he never reached the point of hopelessness only because of God’s provision.

Third, Paul says that he was “persecuted, but not forsaken.”  John Calvin paraphrased it this way, “Many enemies are in arms around us, but under God’s provision we are safe.”[2] Another commentator pointed out that “the idea here is that God did not leave Paul behind or in the lurch for the enemy to pick up.”[3] Paul knew persecution all too well, but he also knew that God would never abandon him.

Fourth, Paul says that he was “struck down, but not destroyed.”  In this last paradox you can almost picture Paul in a boxing match getting “beat like a drum,” but always getting up before the ten count.  In other words, Paul may have been knocked down by the difficulties that he encountered, but because of the power of God he was never knocked out.  By God’s power Paul, as well as all Christians, persevered.

In each and every one of these paradoxes you can see the frailty of man as a clay pot, and the power of God.  God is so powerful that He is even able to use clay pots such as these for His purposes.  This should be a comforting thought to us as we seek to minister the gospel in the face of overwhelming difficulties.  We can be assured that as we faithfully serve our God we may be afflicted in every way, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down, but we will never be crushed, driven to despair, forsaken, or destroyed.

In all of this the power of God is on display.  In fact, the very reason that we must endure these difficulties is in order to display the power of God.

[Read Part I HERE]

[1]R. Kent Hughes, 2 Corinthians: Power in Weakness, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2006), 89.

[2]John Calvin, Commentary on the Second Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, Reprinted 2005), 203

[3] Linda L. Bellevile, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series: 2 Corinthians (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity press, 1996), 121.