2 Corinthians 4:7-12
7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11 For 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. 12 So death is at work in us, but life in you. [i]
In our day, there are few things more visible in everyday life than plastic water bottles. They’re cheap. They’re everywhere. Some of you might have one within reach right now. In Paul’s day, clay jars were the throwaway containers for nearly every item. Their lifespan was no longer than a few years. They held water, wine, grain, olive oil, and anything else that could fit inside. They were an anonymous part of everyday life. They were cheap and easy to replace. When one broke, it was no great loss.
Clay jars were the perfect metaphor for Paul’s point in this passage, comparing the glory of the new covenant message with the fragile humanity trusting into that message. Adam himself was formed out of dust and returned to dust (Gen. 2:7; 3:19). Just like clay jars, human beings are all transitory, frail, and subject to falling apart with age and infirmity. In the grand scheme of things, we are all as temporary and easily replaceable as a plastic water bottle or a clay jar.
Throughout his defense of his new covenant ministry (2:14–4:6), Paul has spoken of the gifts of God to the Corinthians, including the Spirit of the living God (3:3), and the light God has shone in their hearts (4:4, 6). These blessings have come through “the word of God” (2:17), “the gospel” (4:4) by which they have the knowledge of God in Christ (2:14; 4:6). But there was this problem: How could such glory be mediated by so inglorious an instrument – the suffering, persecuted, unimpressive-looking-and-sounding Paul?[ii]
TREASURE DEFINED (7)
Paul writes in verse 7, “7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” To what “treasure” is he referring? The answer is in the last clause of verse 6, “…the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” The first words of creation God spoke were, “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3). Describing the knowledge of God in Christ Jesus as “light” reinforces the teaching that the new covenant ministry is “creational” in nature. It transforms rather than condemns. And it has been poured into insignificant, fragile, everyday containers – clay pots, plastic water bottles.
The reason this incomprehensible treasure is placed into fragile, nondescript containers is so that nobody should be confused about the source of this transforming power. It is God’s power given, “to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” This is not false humility on Paul’s part. It is simply an acknowledgement of the limitations of sinful humanity compared to God’s greatness.
This is no casual admission. This is what R. Kent Hughes describes as “Christian realism.” He writes, “This is Christian realism. Christians are never powerful in themselves but are only vessels in which God’s power is exhibited. Paul is speaking primarily of himself, but the truth he teaches is true for every follower of Christ. Our utter frailty and weakness provide the ground for God’s power.”[iii]
Bishop Paul Barnett writes in his commentary on this letter:
Why should Paul teach this? Is it because it happens to be true and worth saying, or is there also a special point to be made? In all probability Paul is giving this emphasis because the newly arrived “peddlers” claim to be superior in ministry to Paul, and even to possess special powers. Indeed, Paul’s word that characterizes their self-presentation is hyper, “above;” they are “superlative” apostles…. It is as if they claim that power for ministry arises from within them; they have more of it than Paul.[iv]
As he ends this letter, Paul rejoices in his weakness because it makes him a conduit for God’s glorious power. “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (12:9). The more our weak and common clay pots begin to crack, the more “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” shines through. Paul is teaching that our weakness is essential to the display of God’s power.
We can be easily tempted to misread what Paul is saying here. We naturally want to interpret this text to teach us the means of growing our OWN power. We want to think that if we learn to embrace our own weakness God will pour more of his power into us so that we can become more powerful. We want to hear Paul saying, “My weakness plus God’s power equals MY power.” That’s a common theme in fantasy novels: the weak underdog character encounters a magical power he or she leans to tame and use for fame and glory in the fight against evil. It appeals to our innate sinful desire to be our own little “g” gods.
That is NOT what the apostle is teaching. We don’t take over God’s power granted to us because of our innate weakness. We receive God’s transformative light so that HE can show HIS power through us. We do not become powerful. We remain weak. In fact, we grow in weakness. To remain vessels of God’s power, we journey from weakness to weakness. He uses us as vessels of his transforming power because of our insignificance. We embrace our weakness as our way of life. It is the invitation to his surpassing power: “to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” The question for all of us is: Have you embraced your weakness and made it your way of life?
POWER PARADOXES (8-9)
In verses 8 and 9, Paul lists four parallel paradoxes to illustrate his clay pot experience in his own life and show that weakness invites God’s power. This is the apostle’s autobiography in broad strokes. But these paradoxes also touch on every believer’s experience. They show a portrait of Christian history and even describe some of the people we may have known along the way. Each paradox is balanced and stacked on top of the preceding, all hinging on the adversative “but not.” Together the four paradoxes present and increase of human weakness countered with divine power.
Paul begins with, “8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed” (8a). The word translated “afflicted” can also be rendered “squeezed” – which is a more fitting translation to fit with “not crushed.” One translator renders this phrase, “We are squeezed but not squashed.” [v] Paul was squeezed by the daily pressure of his anxiety for all of his churches and those seeking to destroy his missionary ministries. But he was never squashed.
His second level of paradox describes him as being “Perplexed, but not driven to despair” (8b). In the original text, these words rhyme (aporoumenoi …exaporoumenoi) and the second adjective intensifies the first. Hughes writes of this phrase:
Various attempts have been made to capture the word play in English — “at a loss, but not at a loss” (Tasker), “in despondency, yet not in despair” (Plummer), “confused but not confounded” (Hughes). But …Dr. Tenney seems to get it best: “bewildered but not befuddled.” Fragile as Paul’s humanity was when confronted with difficulties and loss, he was never befuddled and despairing. It was said of Napoleon that he had an unquestioned magic for victory, but no technique for defeat. …But Paul had a technique for defeat and weakness in “the surpassing power [that] belongs to God.”[vi]
Paul was perplexed and anxious much of the time. But he did not give in to despair. He questioned what God was doing, but he did not bog down in trying to explain providence. Toward the end of his life, he would write to Timothy:
As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. 6 For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. [vii]
Paul could advise this because this is how he ministered. He kept plugging away at lifting up Christ to the lost and the found alike. He was being perfected in his weakness because he knew the only truth that mattered, the only light shining in the darkness of a sin-cursed world, the only reason to keep on pressing forward was the Good News of the person and work of God in Christ Jesus. He had learned that no self-salvation project our sinful flesh conjures up can fill the void of that God-shaped hole in our souls.
Third, Paul wrote he was, “persecuted, but not forsaken” (9a). The first participle, “persecuted,” is used elsewhere by Paul for the specific assault on Christians, whether his prior hounding of believers (Gal 1:13, 23; Phil 3:6) or his own sufferings at the hands of others. The second, “forsaken,” has a rich background in the OT (LXX) for Yahweh’s determination not to forsake his people (e.g., Gen 28:15; Deut 31:6, 8; Josh 5:1).
This is the word from the mouth of the Crucified, quoting Ps 22:1 (Mark 15:34, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). Here the word implies an eschatological intent; God will not abandon his chosen ones whom he has redeemed.[viii] Christ was forsaken so that we who are forsaken by other sinful human beings can cling to God’s loyalty love displayed openly at the cross and the empty tomb.
A good translation of this phrase is, “Hunted down, but not abandoned.” The empty tomb is proof that God will not abandon his beloved. Messiah was forsaken but not abandoned. Paul was forsaken but not abandoned. In his final letter to Timothy, imprisoned and facing death, he wrote, “You are aware that all who are in Asia turned away from me.”[ix] You who trust into his perfectly-lived life and sacrificial death WILL be forsaken by fellow sinners running after the idols of their hearts. But you cannot, will not be forsaken by God whose Son has purchased you at incalculable cost – his own forsaken and blood-shedding death.
Fourth, Paul’s paradoxes peak in intensity with his final phrase: “struck down, but not destroyed” (9b). The imagery suggests a wrestler or warrior in battle:
The first passive— “struck down” —employs a verb not used elsewhere by Paul, but in contemporary literature it means “laid low” (as by a weapon), “bullied” or “stricken.”[x]
Paul got knocked down, but never out. He always got back up and got back to his mission. One example can be found in Acts 14 where the apostle is hunted down and ritually stoned (a cruel and crushing death!). His lifeless body was dragged outside the city as buzzard food. Imagine his companions’ astonishment to see Paul start to breath the breath of life again, open his swollen eyes and lead them all staggering back into the town of Lystra. He was knocked down, but not out. His life was restored by the power of God in a moment of Paul’s complete weakness.
Listen to the increasing intensity of Paul’s biography and his heart of mission:
Afflicted but not trapped
Bewildered but not in despair
Persecuted but not forsaken
Felled but not destroyed.[xi]
The surpassing power belonged to God alone! Paul NEVER reached down into his own soul, sucked it up, and found his own strength to soldier on. He had no such strength. He was NOT the hero. Paul’s strength came from Christ alone by and through the person and work of the Holy Spirit alone. Paul’s powerlessness was the means by which God displayed his own power. The apostle Paul was a cheap, replaceable clay pot – a plastic water bottle containing “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
POWER PRINCIPLE (11-12)
Paul finishes this section of his self-defense by showing that God’s power in human weakness was displayed in Messiah Jesus. Paul was like Christ in his death (human weakness) and in his resurrection (divine power). He sums up his ironic circumstances with a Christ-focused statement that he is, “10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.”
The word Paul uses for “death” refers to the process of dying rather than the final state of death. In other words, the apostolic life is cross-shaped. As Paul lived out his missionary calling, his inglorious life reflected the inglorious crucifixion of the glorious Messiah. He wrote to the Galatians, “From now on let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (Gal. 6:17). He had been squeezed, bewildered, hunted, and knocked down. His entire body was a roadmap of scars. Jesus knew Paul’s sufferings intimately – just as he knows yours. Jesus could have asked of Paul’s persecutors the same question he once asked Saul Paulus of Tarsus on the Damascus Road, “Why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4; Col 1:24).
Though Paul lived a cross-shaped life as a part of his new covenant ministry, his suffering was not an end in itself. All of us who serve Christ share in his dying so that we might display his life rather than our own (10b). Jesus’ life is manifested in us not through what we consider to be victories, but through our perseverance in suffering.
But the apostle has more than just his present circumstances in mind. These realities of dying and divine power become full-blown realities in our deliverance from mortality at the great resurrection of the dead. For Paul, life was a journey toward the New Heaven and the New Earth. Only then will God’s people receive the full consummation and reconciliation of all things for which we all presently long.
Paul reemphasizes his last point in stronger terms: “For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our mortal flesh” (11). The word translated “given over” is the same word used to describe Jesus’ being handed over to his persecutors (Mk. 9:31; 10:33). Our sufferings are not random. They are part of the divine plan for the spread of the gospel. God’s will for his fragile jars of clay is that his surpassing power be displayed in our weakness.
SURPRISING POWER (12)
Following the flow of Paul’s argument, we would expect him to say in verse 12 that both death and life are at work in the apostles. However, he says, “So death is at work in us, but life in you.” This is part of the theology of the cross. Christ died in order that we might live. The gospel is about a great exchange: Christ’s life for ours. Those who are used most to spread the good news of Christ are those who embrace death as the operational principle of ministry.
All who were called by the risen and ascended Christ to trust into his perfect, law keeping life and sacrificial blood-shedding death must come to realize we are clay pots, fragile, temporary vessels of weakness. We are all generic plastic bottles into which God has poured the treasure of knowing and trusting into Christ. That surpassing power is NOT a formula for our power. My weakness plus God’s power ONLY equals God’s power. My human nature naturally hates the idea that even if I acknowledge my weakness, doing so will not make me strong. Embracing weakness only leads to more weakness.
We have to keep on learning this crucial lesson: God’s power in our lives does not come from our pursuit of power. God allows us to be squeezed but not squashed; bewildered but not befuddled; pursued but not abandoned; knocked down but not knocked out. Why? So that, like Paul, we can be “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (10).
That is a crucial message in our day as it was for the Church in Paul’s day. The Corinthians wanted messages that encouraged them to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps, access their inner power, and exalt themselves financially, socially, and even spiritually. The Judaizers offered just such a religion. But their religion had truly little to do with the reality of the new covenant and its gracious Mediator, Messiah Jesus.
The power of the gospel comes in our weakness, not in our human strength, not in our greatness, but in the fact that we are all cracked and crumbling clay pots. Paul puts it this way to the Roman Church:
31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. [xii]
[i] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Co 4:7–12.
[ii] Barnett, 227.
[iii] Hughes, R. Kent. 2 Corinthians. Crossway. Kindle Edition.
[iv] Barnett, 231.
[v] Tenney, Merrill. Quoted in Hughes, Op. cit.
[vi] Hughes, id,
[vii] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Ti 4:5–8.
[viii] Barnett, 233–234.
[ix] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Ti 1:15.
[x] Barnett, 234.
[xii] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ro 8:31–39.