What does ministry look like today? Do we have to be imitate the world? Do we need to seek ‘coolness’ in order be acceptable to the world around us in order to minister effectively? As we’ve already seen in parts 1 and 2, Paul says no.
Paul says the message of the gospel is like a treasure—it is valuable and precious. Yet, he also says, “we have this treasure in jars of clay” (4:7). What does he mean? Simply this: we are the jars of clay. You see, we aren’t the kind of treasure boxes pirates expect to find on lost islands—massive wooden chests with metal locks and hinges; something sturdy that will last for a long time. That’s not us—Paul says, we’re more like clay pots. We’re fragile and weak and easily cracked.
Think about that: the greatest treasure in the world: the gospel of Christ, and God entrusts it to use, mere jars of clay. Why does he do that? Paul says, “we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (4:7). The one with the power gets the glory, so if you’re weak and still serve God, his glory is magnified in you.
Paul understood this. He was a clay jar if there ever was one. Paul himself says he wasn’t much to look at. He says he came to Corinth with meekness (10:1), like one who was weak and unimpressive (10:10). Why do you think he describes himself like that? Well, consider the kind of life he lived. He says he served God “by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger” (6:5). He goes in chapter 11, to say he also experienced many “imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. 24Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure” (11:23-27).
Can you even imagine living that kind of life? Can you imagine what Paul would have even looked like at this point in his life? And it’s for all these reasons that the Corinthians despised him. He wasn’t the kind of apostle they wanted—he was weak. And yet, when Paul writes to defend himself in 2 Corinthians, he says ‘I feel like I’m insane, having to go down to their level, competing with these guys by boasting! But if I’m going to have to boast, then I will boast in my weakness’ (11:16-30). Why? Because Paul has learned that he is weak, God is strong.
More than that, this weakness is part of the very message Paul is bringing. In verse 8 he says, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 12So death is at work in us, but life in you” (4:8-12)
When Jesus experienced weakness, suffering, and death, he did it to secure salvation for sinners. He willingly stood before God as their representative and took the punishment we deserve for our sinful rebellion against God. Yet, being God in the flesh, Jesus wasn’t held down by death, but was raised up to life again to forever reign as King over all things. That’s gospel—the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus for sinners. And Paul says, every time he experiences weakness, the power of God is made manifest in his life, and when that happens the message of the gospel is made all the more clear.
So, how weak are you, dear Christian? I’m not asking you to compare yourself to the apostle Paul or anyone else for that matter. I’m simply asking how weak are you? Do you go around thinking if you’re to be effective as a witness for Christ that you have to look great, or speak well, or be savvy with the culture, or an expert in apologetics? Do you think your life has to be all put together with no problems before someone will listen to you? If so, the God might not be able to use you. What he can use isn’t cups of gold, but jars of clay. For when we are weak, he is strong. When we minister for Christ and proclaim his name in our weakness, then God is shown to be powerful.