Jars of clay: Power made perfect in weakness

Jars of clay: Power made perfect in weakness

If you are a child of God, you don’t lose your status if you have a bad week.” Tim Keller

A few days ago I shared this quote on social media; I don’t know about you but following our holiday in the Lake District it has been a bit of a challenge to adjust back to work and everyday family life in Southampton. Its definitely not been easy getting out of bed in the mornings! I am not sure whether it was just holiday blues, a belated response to disappointments in ministry, disappointment springing from a seemingly unproductive week or just the challenges associated with transition but what an encouragement it was to think that even a bad week has no impact on my status as a dearly loved ‘child of God’.

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Strength in our weakness

Its also got me thinking about one of my favourite chapters in the Bible which addresses the subject of strength amidst weakness. Some will remember from previous posts (for example The power of Hope) that learning to trust God through the storms of life has been a significant area of learning for me over the past few years. It is also a message that I hear loud and clear as I hike in the mountains because all around me I see the contrast between strength (the splendour of the mountains) and my own weakness (realising that I am not as young as I used to be and my body is certainly not).

It is no surprise that this idea of ‘strength in weakness’ is something Paul often writes about especially in his letters to the Corinthians. The chapter I have in mind is 2 Corinthians 4 in which the first and last verse begin with the phrase “Therefore we do not lose heart” (v1, 16). Why write such words unless there was a danger of losing heart? The writer to the Hebrews also uses this phrase in Hebrews 12 in the context of ‘opposition from sinners’ (v3) and discipline (v5). The truth is that at times the things we are experiencing in life conspire to cause us to lose heart and get us down. I wonder what it is for you that causes you to lose heart at this time? Whatever it is as I spend a little time reflecting on this chapter I hope that these words of Paul will be a cause not for discouragement or despair but for hope and faith.

The Glory of the New Covenant (2 Cor 3:7-4:1)

We begin with the context and so Paul in chapter 3 of his letter has been comparing new covenant with the old covenant. His conclusion is that the glories of the Old Covenant are ‘nothing in comparison’ to the surpassing glory of the New Covenant. He contrasts the transitory ministry that brought death and condemnation with the lasting ministry of the Spirit which brings righteousness and glory (v8-11). This then leads him to a place where he is able say “since we have such a hope, we are very bold” (v12). The glories and blessings of this new covenant is a cause for much hope and it is a wake up call to us when we are in danger of losing hope. This ministry of the Spirit brings freedom and it brings transformation “as we are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (v18).

If the ministry that brought condemnation was glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! 10 For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. 11 And if what was transitory came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts! 2 Corinthians 3:9-11

This is the context into which Paul says “therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry we do not lose heart” (v1). Even during the hardest of times God’s purpose in our lives is to “transform us into His image with ever increasing glory” (v18). It is the realisation of what God is doing through them that causes Paul to be able to say that ‘we do not lose heart’. For it was ‘through God’s mercy’ that they had this ministry.

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Treasure in Jars of Clay (4:2-12)

Several verses later Paul is again making a contrast this time between the priceless treasure and its receptacle, an everyday earthen jar. The treasure is the light that God ‘shines in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of His glory’ while the ‘jars of clay’ are our earthly and distinctly fragile bodies in which this treasure is contained;

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 2 Corinthians 4:6-7

Notice that this contrast is not accidental but deliberate because God wants to make it abundantly clear that “this all-surpassing power” is from Him and not from us. That there is a such a huge difference between a jar of clay and this priceless treasure tells us that there are no hindrances to the purposes of God in our lives. Paul writes in chapter 12 of this letter that “God’s power is made perfect in weakness” (12:9) and that is the message we also see here in the face of the many challenges faced by Paul and his team;

We are hard pressed on every side,but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 2 Corinthians 4:8-10

We are indeed jars of clay which are by nature fragile, breakable and easily damaged. What I like about Paul though is the realness of the way that he writes about their struggles here. The more I live of the Christian life the more I appreciate the reality of the challenges, struggles and losses that will inevitably come our way. Yet I think I am also learning to see that while I might be ‘hard pressed’, ‘perplexed’, persecuted’ and ‘struck down’, I am not ‘crushed’, ‘in despair’, ‘abandoned’ or ‘destroyed’. Even as ‘Jars of Clay’ we can and will experienced that God’s power is made perfect in and through our weakness.

Our troubles are light, momentary and not worth comparing (4:13-18)

We jump forward a few more verses in which Paul has been talking about his motivation to live out such a sacrificial lifestyle. Paul points to faith (v12-14) and then explains that these hardships were for this benefit so that more people would give glory to God;

15 All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God. 16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. 2 Corinthians 4:16-18

I don’t know about you but when I am struggling the benefits to those around me are probably not my highest priorities but here we see Paul testifying that this is another reason why they do not lose heart (v16). Back in verse 1 Paul was speaking about what God was doing through them but here the focus is more on what God was doing in them. This is what Paul now explains is what motivates him to keep on  going.

Paul again points us to the contrast between the ‘outward ‘ (we are wasting away) and the inward (daily renewal) in v16. Then comes that amazing verse in which Paul labels his troubles as “light and momentary” and in which he claims that they are achieving for us eternal glory that “outweighs them all”. We’ve seen that Paul’s troubles were anything but light and momentary but I think that Paul is speaking here about a question of perspective. Paul writes in elsewhere that “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). Paul is so focused on the glory of eternity that everything else pales into perspective.

As Jars of Clay it is easy to dwell on our frailties and failures but Paul encourages us to place our focus elsewhere. Specifically Paul encourages us to fix our eyes on the unseen reality of faith; that which is ‘eternal’ rather than that which is ‘temporary’ (v18). If like me you have experienced a ‘bad week’ or just been having a hard time recently I encourage you to spend some time thinking about the truths of 2 Corinthians 4. I am convinced that if our focus was characterised by this kind of perspective then we would not find ourselves in danger of losing heart. The place of weakness is actually a place where we can see more of God and experience how His power is made perfect in weakness.

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