Teaching series from 2 Corinthians

Treasure in Earthen Vessels

2 Corinthians 4:7-18

Teaching t05787

Introduction

Review of series of vivid descriptions of authentic Christianity. Remind of AROMA from 2:14-16. We talked about ways we may exude this aroma (communicate GRACE; show LOVE). Paul reveals another way. Read verse 4:7.

In the ancient world, precious perfume was a common heirloom. It was kept sealed in common pottery which belied its value. The woman in Mark 14:3a brought such an heirloom to Jesus.

Paul says Christians are like this. We have a precious treasure--the life of Jesus--indwelling us (vs 6?). But this treasure is hidden in our common, fallen humanity.

Only by breaking the vial could the aroma of the perfume be released to fill the air with its fragrance (Mark 14:3b).

In the same way, God manifests the aroma of Christ through us by "breaking" us. It is this "breaking" that Paul goes on to describe in vs 8-12 (read). Vs 10,11 describe this breaking as a participation in the death resurrection of Jesus. As we submit to "the dying of Jesus," we are able to manifest "the life of Jesus"--the aroma of Christ is exuded. What does this strange language mean? The answer ties into the most important spiritual principle in the Bible . . .

The Principle: Life Out of Death

The fundamental principle of Christianity is life out of death. God's will is life for the world, but life must be preceded by death. Jesus enunciated this principle in Jn. 12:24 (read).

AGRICULTURAL

The kernel of wheat contains actual life, and the potential for bushels of wheat. But for that life to be multiplied, the grain must "die." The husk must be broken and decayed by the soil so the kernel can germinate and reproduce.

JESUS

But Jesus is not merely discoursing on horticulture. Vs 23 shows us that he applies this principle to himself. "Glorified" here refers to his imminent crucifixion. He is the life of God incarnate, and he has come to make this life available to a spiritually dead humanity. But how can this life be made available to people? Only by Jesus submitting to death on the cross. Unless he was willing to voluntarily pay the penalty for our sins by dying, God's life would have "remained by itself, alone." Had Jesus inaugurated God's kingdom, as his countrymen desired, he would have been a lonely King because no one else would have been eligible to enter it. But because Jesus was willing to die, his life became available to all who come to him (GOSPEL HERE).

US

But the following verses show that Jesus also applies this principle to Christians (read vs 26a,25). After we receive Jesus' life, he wants us to experience his life and multiply it through us to others (FRUITFULNESS). Many of us have come to realize this is the purpose of our lives, and have told the Lord that we want to be fruitful for him.

But perhaps we have underestimated the problem of the earthen vessel. The problem is our "love of self"--our deeply ingrained desire for self-sufficiency, self-protectiveness, self-exaltation--which keeps the life of Jesus hidden. Our flesh is willing to become religious (PRAY; SHARE) as long as it can stay in control. This is why Jesus calls us to "hate self"--to die to this way of life (Lk. 9:23) and give ourselves over to him so his life can be multiplied through us.

To help us along, God initiates an ongoing process of "death" and "life out of death" (back to 2 Cor. 4:10,11--note "always" and "constantly"). God gradually breaks the clay pot so that the aroma of Christ can be manifested. He does this by working through various sufferings which Paul describes in vs 8,9 . . .

The Process

Paul speaks of four different kinds of sufferings involved in this process:

AFFLICTED

This word means the "nagging negative circumstances" of life. For Paul, it meant the dangers and discomfort of travel, etc. For you and me, it may mean anyone of a number of things: FINANCIAL REVERSALS; HEALTH PROBLEMS; HECTIC SCHEDULE; etc.

PERPLEXED

Literally meaning "without a way", this refers to the confusion about exactly what God is doing. God's leadership is not a BLUE-PRINT handed over to you so that it is under your control. It is a step-by-step walk that often leads into a FOG. Sometimes God seems absent, sometimes it is unclear what he is doing or where he is leading. (CONCERN FOR OTHERS)

PERSECUTED

This refers to mistreatment by others. We may experience heart-breaking pain from spouse or family members or friends or work associates because we have taken following Jesus seriously. Christians may wrongly attack us. We will also experience the attacks and oppression of a supernatural enemy who seeks to neutralize our effectiveness for Christ.

STRUCK DOWN

This refers to the unexpected failures and disappointments in our service of Christ. Paul began his ministry this way (Acts 9) and he continued to encounter set-backs throughout his ministry (Galatians; Corinthians; Macedonia in 2nd Journey). If you serve Christ, you will experience many set-backs in your service. For me, this has been manifest in things like failed Bible studies, people drop out, the loss of cherished relationships and dreams, etc.

In other words, God uses any and every kind of adversity in our lives. We must remember an important QUALIFICATION: God does not cause these sufferings, but he sovereignly works through them to accomplish his will (Rom. 8:28,29).

Yet this is not the end of the story. Death is not an end; it is only the means to God's end of life. Submitting to this death process releases the life of Christ in two magnificent ways:

God sustains us with his power and hope in the midst of suffering.

This is the reason why Paul can say "but not" after each suffering. We find a new stability and freedom from our circumstances. We experience his sustaining hope and joy and peace in the midst of suffering that Paul describes in vs. 16 so that he can say vs. 17a.

Many of us have met Christians who have this quality, and they touch off a thirst within us to have it ourselves. How did they get it? By coming to Christ and gradually learning to trust God through suffering.

God enables us to have greater spiritual impact on others. Christ's life comes out through us to spiritually feed other Christians and to draw others to him (vs 12,15). The church is fed and people come to Christ because some are willing to die (DENNIS' TEACHING LAST WEEK: This was not simply natural ability, spiritual gifting, devotion, practice, etc.--it is the life of Christ being manifested through a broken vessel, through one who has submitted to years of breaking through the kinds of suffering described above). It will always work this way.

Many of us long to have this kind of spiritual impact--and God wants us to have it! In fact, he is actively at work through all the circumstances of your life (especially the negative ones) to impart this to you. The problem may be your response . . .

Our Part

Our response matters. This should be obvious, since while God is equally committed to manifesting his life through all Christians, some never become more aromatic, while others do. Paul provides the clues at the beginning and end of this passage.

Commit your life to serve Christ and others (vs 5).

If you are still committed to your own will, you will find this process a maddening hindrance, an obstruction to your goals of self-enjoyment and self-advancement. You will avoid suffering whenever possible, even if this means disregarding God's will for your life. And you will resent God for the suffering that you can't avoid.

Your life has not been given to you for this purpose. It has been given to you so that you might lay it down in service to Jesus Christ and others. When you acknowledge this and present yourself to God, saying "Do whatever you need to do to fashion me into a useful servant," you will begin to understand what God is doing in your life, and experience his sustaining power and the joy of bearing fruit for him.

Focus on the unseen rather than the seen (vs 18).

Notice that Paul says he experiences inward renewal and God's perspective on his sufferings "while (he) looks not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are unseen." The word "look" is skopeo, from which we get "scope." It means to fasten your gaze upon, to fix your focus on something, in spite of other distractions.

"The things that are seen" refer in context to the sufferings we experience. It's not that we don't acknowledge them as real, nor that we refuse to acknowledge the pain they cause--but that we do not focus on them as all of reality, or even as the most important part of reality. There is another part of reality that warrants our focus . . .

"The things that are not seen" refer to the invisible spiritual realities described in scripture (5:7), including:

The fact that eternal life exists and that we will have a certain and glorious future in it (vs 17).

The fact that God is a God of sovereign love who is working for his glory in our good in all things (Rom. 8:28).

Recall these promises, thank God for them, and step out on them . . .

When we allow ourselves to focus on the "wind and waves," we sink. But when we choose to focus by faith on God's promises, he strengthens us and deepens our confidence in these promises. What have you been experiencing? What have you been focusing on?