Teaching series from 2 Corinthians

Treasure in Earthen Vessels

2 Corinthians 4:7-18

Teaching t08983


Remind of Paul’s series of vivid descriptions of authentic Christianity. Remind of AROMA from 2:14-16. We talked about ways we may exude this aroma (communicate NEW COVENANT). Paul reveals another way in 4:7 (read). Paul seems to be returning to the "fragrance of Christ" theme in this illustration.

In the ancient world, precious perfume was a common heirloom. It was kept sealed in common pottery vials that belied its value. A woman in the gospels brought such an heirloom to Jesus.

Paul says Christians are like this. We have a precious treasure--the life of Jesus--indwelling us. 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.

In the same way, God manifests the aroma of Christ through us by “breaking” our "earthen vessels." It is this “breaking” that Paul goes on to describe in 4:8-12 (read). 4:10,11 describe this breaking as a participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus. As we participate in “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 wants to give his life to the world, but life must be preceded by death. Jesus enunciates this principle in Jn.12:24-26.

AGRICULTURAL: Read 12:24. The kernel of wheat contains biological 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. 12:23 (read) shows us that he is applying this principle to himself. “Glorified” here refers to his imminent crucifixion and resurrection. Jesus is the spiritual life of God incarnate, and he has come to make God's life available to a spiritually dead humanity. But how can this life be made available to people? Only by Jesus' 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.” But because Jesus was willing to die, God raised him from the dead and his life became available to all who come to him.

GOSPEL: Do you want God's life to indwell you? He is ready and willing to give you this precious treasure, no matter how badly you have sinned against him. The only requirement is that you ask Jesus to forgive you and come into your heart.

US: But the following verses show that Jesus also applies this principle to his followers (read 12:26a,25). After we receive Jesus’ life, he wants us to experience his life and multiply it through us to others (FRUIT; AROMA). 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/fragrant for him. How does this happen?

Partly, by feeding the life of God within us through prayer, his Word, and vital fellowship with other Christians. This builds up the "inner man."

But this is not enough--there remains the problem of the "earthen vessel" which prevents the flow of God's life through us to others. This refers not so much to our physical bodies as to our fallen, sinful nature--our deeply ingrained desire for self-sufficiency, self-protectiveness, self-exaltation--which blocks the life of Jesus from coming forth. No amount of prayer, Bible study, or fellowship will get through this container. It requires another, more radical solution...

The Process

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

AFFLICTED: This word means the nagging negative circumstances that beset us as we follow and serve Christ. For Paul, it included the dangers and discomfort of travel, toil, etc. For you and me, it may mean anyone of a number of things: FINANCIAL REVERSALS; HEALTH PROBLEMS; PROBLEMS PILING UP; HECTIC SCHEDULE; etc.

PERPLEXED (literally, "without a way"): This refers to the confusion about exactly what God is doing. God’s leadership is not a BLUEPRINT handed over to you so that it is under your control. It is often a step-by-step walk through a thick fog. Sometimes God seems absent, sometimes it is unclear what he is doing in your life or where he is leading you.

PERSECUTED: This refers to mistreatment by others. You may experience heart-breaking pain from spouse or family members or friends or work associates because you have taken following Jesus seriously. Even fellow Christians may wrongly attack you. You will also experience the attacks of a supernatural enemy who seeks to neutralize your 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 setbacks throughout his ministry (Galatians; Corinthians; Macedonia in 2nd Journey). If you serve Christ, you will experience many setbacks in your service (ME: failed Bible Studies; people who you count on dropping out, etc.), loss of cherished relationships and dreams, etc.

God does not cause these sufferings, but he sovereignly works through them to break our self-sufficiency and promote deeper dependence on him (NEWTON POEM).

So (as NEWTON says) these sufferings are necessary--but they are not the end of the story. This "death" process is not an end (read 4:10b,11b). It is only the means to God’s end of increasing life. Submitting to this death process releases the life of Christ in two magnificent ways:

Christ's life sustains us with his power in the midst of suffering. This is the reason why Paul can say “but not” after each suffering. We find a growing stability and freedom from our circumstances. We experience God's renewing hope and joy and peace in the midst of suffering that Paul describes in 4:16 (read).

God enables us to have greater spiritual impact on others. Christ’s life comes out through us in increasing measure to draw people to Christ and build up spiritually other Christians (read 4:12,15). The church is fed and people come to Christ because some are willing to die (RICK'S 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). The satisfaction of being used by God in this way is more than worth the sufferings that enable it!

Our Part

Many of us long to experience this kind of spiritual sustenance and impact--and God wants us to have it and is faithfully doing his part to bring it about! But if this process is to be productive, we have to play our part.

Paul identifies a key to our part in 4:18 (read). Notice that Paul says we experience inward renewal “while we look 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 is also translated "keep your eye on" (Rom.16:17) and "observe closely" (Phil.3:17). It means to fasten your gaze upon, to fix your focus on something, in spite of other distractions.


We are not to fix our focus on "the things that are seen"--namely, our sufferings. 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, and we do not believe the thoughts and feelings associated with them. When you focus on these things, you go down just like Peter did when he looked at the wind and the waves.

Rather, we are to fix our focus on "the things that are not seen." This refers to the invisible but eternal truths of God--especially the promises God has given to his children in scripture. As one seasoned Christian servant told me recently after I listed all of my sufferings: "Yes, yes--but then there is God..." In other words, instead of getting overwhelmed by the sufferings, be sure to factor God's promises into the equation.

Many of these promises concern what God has prepared for us in the next life. It is these promises that Paul has primarily in mind in this passage, and we will look at them NEXT WEEK.

But many of these promises concern God's care for us in this life. Rick covered some of richest of these promises last week in Ps.23. Here are some of the promises that I fix my gaze on:

Heb.13:5,6 when I fear what people can do to me.

Rom.8:28 when I feel like my circumstances will destroy my life.

Rom.8:38,39 when I feel like God has abandoned me.

1Cor. 10:13 when I feel like my temptations are too strong to resist.

Phil.2:13 when I feel empty of all spiritual motivation and power.

Heb. 12:11 when I like God's discipline is too painful to be worth it.

Jer.29:11 when I fear that following God won't be fulfilling.

Phil.4:19 when I fear I won't have material provision.

These things are eternally true and utterly reliable. Learn them and memorize them! When you are suffering, choose to recall them, remember how God has kept them in the past, and affirm that God will keep them now. As you walk by faith in this way, the life of God is released to renew you and impact others.