“But we have this treasure in jars of clay…” (2 Corinthians 4:7a) Paul describes himself as an unassuming clay jar. It is an image of humility and weakness. Jars of clay were cheap, useful, and breakable. What was important to the users of clay jars was the contents, the treasure inside.
The point of the image is not to say that Christians are unimportant. Even within this paragraph, Paul notes that it is “so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (2 Cor. 4:11, ESV). And Paul is working towards the statements that although our outward self is wasting away, “our inner self is being renewed day by day.” Even though our mortal body can be compared to a tent which can be pulled down, we await our heavenly dwelling.
Paul’s point is seen in his purpose statement: “to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor. 4:7b, ESV). The Corinthians seem to have a problem with pride (see 1 Cor. 4:6, 4:18-19, 5:2, 8:1). They are way too convinced of their own wisdom, strength and honor (1 Cor. 4:10). It sometimes even causes them to complain about Paul: “his bodily presence is week, and his speech of no account” (2 Cor. 10:10, ESV).
Paul is chipping away at this Corinthian pride all through 1 and 2 Corinthians.
- God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 1 Cor 1:27
- Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord. 1 Cor 1:31
- “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends.. 2 Cor. 10:17-18
- If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. 2 Cor. 11:30
- Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 2 Cor. 12:9
Calling himself a jar of clay with a treasure inside, Paul can admit his weakness and reliance on the power of God. He can take afflicted, perplexed, struck down, and carrying in the body the death of Christ and use the power of God to face these difficulties. It is with God’s help that he is not crushed, not driven to despair, not forsaken, not destroyed, and manifesting the life of Jesus in our bodies. These contrasts (4:8-11) are instructive.
“The light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” is in us. What a treasure! Yet, we must acknowledge we are but jars of clay. When we admit our weaknesses, we find that God can use the weak things of this world to show his power. “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).