2003 Scriptural Theme:
“Treasure in Clay Jars” (2 Corinthians 4:5-18)
by the Rev. Dr. John Reumann,
Ministerium of Pennsylvania
Professor, emeritus,
Lutheran Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA

Who are we who today share in the many topics of this theme passage for 2003? We are ministers, of all sorts, pastors, priests, teachers, people of God, ecumenists concerned about church unity. Throughout the world we are sometimes afflicted, persecuted, always earthen vessels, but we affirm faith in Jesus, for we have a great treasure.

Even a surface reading of 2 Cor 4:5-18 brings out what we proclaim (4:5, kerygma), light in darkness (4:6), God’s power (4:7), our own frail human existence (4:8-9), the death and resurrection life of Jesus and its meaning for us now (4:10-13), and the future hope of grace and glory (4:14-18).

But who is “we” in the passage? First-person plural forms occur in almost every verse (4:5, 6 “our hearts,” 7-12, 13 “I/we,” 14, 16-18), indeed from 2:14 on. Note 3:1-6, God “has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant” (3:6), “the ministry of justification” and the Spirit, in contrast to that of Moses and Sinai (3:7-18). The word “ministry” (diakonía) runs through the chapters (3:7,8,9; 4:1; 5:18); “ministers (díakonoi) at 3:6 and 6:4 (NRSV “servants”). “We” refers most often to the apostolic ministry and existence of Paul and coworkers. Yet at 3:18 (“all of us”) and 4:16-17 (“we do not lose heart … affliction is preparing us for … glory”; cf. 5:10, “all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ”), “we” has a broader reference, Christians in general.

The “we” references thus plunge us into what is perhaps the most intractable ecumenical issue, “ministry,” of apostles and successors and/or of the whole people of Christ. Who sounds forth, as ambassadors, the message of reconciliation (5:19-20)? Clergy (the Luther Bible, Tyndale, and the Great Bible of 1539 rendered 5:18 as “the office to preache the atonement”)? Or the church as a whole, each believer in his or her own way? These are verses that speak to, or strike at, our ecclesiologies, doctrines of ministry, and personal existence.

Understanding 2 Cor 4:5-18 is also complicated by other factors. The verses are part of a letter that was preceded by a long history involving Paul and the Corinthians. At the least, 2 Corinthians in the canon was preceded by 1 Corinthians and a letter referred to at 1 Cor 5:9 (likely lost, unless preserved in 2 Cor 6:14 - 7:1). At the most, the verses are part of one of the two to five letters now found in our 2 Corinthians, a defense by Paul of himself and his gospel in 2:14 - 6:13; 7:2-4.

However one decides such issues, the more immediate context for 4:5-18 includes how Christ “leads us in triumphal procession” (2:14, likely as his captives, not victors as yet with him). It also describes how “the aroma of Christ” that we are in the world is “a fragrance from death to death” as well as life to life (2:15-16; cf. 4:10-11). Who is sufficient (2:16)? The context also includes the fact that “the god of this world” (or “this age” as god) “has blinded the minds of unbelievers,” so that they do not see the light of the gospel (4:4, cf. 4:12 “death,” like sin, is always at work).

Understanding 4:5-18 is further made difficult by the fact that Paul is trying to do so much in these verses, written in the mid-50s AD. He writes to house churches throughout the Roman province of Achaia (2 Cor 1:1; 9:2), in Caesar’s cosmopolitan colony of Corinth, with its two seaports, Lechaeum on the Gulf of Corinth and Cenchreae (Rom. 16:1, Phoebe) on the Saronic Gulf. One concern is hope for reconciliation (1:3 - 2:13; 7:5-16 reflect his joy at it, compared with a “painful visit,” 2:1). Another is that the Corinthians will participate in the collection for “the poor” among the saints in Jerusalem (2 Cor 8-9). The apostle is battling opposition groups in Corinth, different from those in 1 Corinthians (1:11-17; 3:4; 11:17-22; contrast 2 Cor 10-13). With rhetorical sophistication, he tries to wean those who stress the Spirit from those who stress Moses (chap. 3). He defends his apostolic ministry in a church that was “a letter of Christ prepared by us” (3:3 diakonétheisa, ministered to, served as agent for Christ, by Paul and his mission team). Moreover, our passage cuts across two or three units in most outlines of 2 Corinthians. What Paul says in this complicated situation moves from Ministry and the Message it proclaims (4:1-6) to the Ministry as Treasure in Clay Jars (4:7-15) and then Future Glory from God (4:16-5:10). Throughout, reasons are given not to lose heart (4:1, 16; 5:6, 8 confidence).

The Apostolic Message (and Messengers), 4:5-6
As succinct yet comprehensive a summary of Christian ministry as can be found anywhere is provided in 4:5; it is foundational for all that follows: “we preach not ourselves but ‘Jesus Christ as Lord’ (a basic New Testament confession, Phil. 2:11; Rom. 10:9; 1 Cor 12:3) and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake” (first of seven references to “Jesus” in our passage). “Slave” stands in contrast to Jesus as “Lord”. It also means to belong to Christ, be under the Lord’s protection, chosen by God like Moses and the prophets, “slave of all” (1 Cor 9:19; Rom. 1:1-5), here specifically slave of Corinthian converts. Ministry serves people.

The call of Paul (Gal 1:15-16), on Damascus Road (Acts 9:3-9; 22:6-16; 26:12-18), seems to lie behind 4:6. But what God says, “Let light shine out of darkness,” sounds to many like Gen 1:3 (creation); here, new creation (cf. 2 Cor 5:17). The Greek, “Out of darkness light will shine” (Revised English Bible), reminds others of Isa. 9:2 (and 49:6, God’s servant). The activity of the ministry is to create light and knowledge of Christ. Is the experience “in our hearts” that only of Paul or of Christians generally (cf. 3:18)?

Ministry as Treasure in Clay Jars, 4:7-15
Paul’s self-description, a defense of himself and his gospel (an apologia in the sense that Socrates or Philipp Melanchthon used the term) begins with a thesis: “we have this treasure in clay jars” (4:7). The treasure has commonly been taken to refer to “this ministry” (4:1), but also to “God’s word” and “the truth” (4:2), the gospel (4:3-4), the light and knowledge in 4:6, or all of the above (3:1—4:6, new covenant ministry). Or, looking ahead to 4:10-11, 14, the dying and rising of Jesus. “Message” sums it up.

The contrast is clay jars (ourselves). Earthenware was the everyday material for jugs, plates, even lamps, in antiquity. Once broken, their fragments had no use, only for writing short messages (ostraka, the scrap paper of the day) or, in earlier Athens, as potsherds to vote ostracism. Commentators sometimes compare earthen vessels in Temple cult (Lev 6:28; 11:33); God as potter (Is 29:16; Jer 19:11), who formed people out of earth (Gen 2:7; Is 45:9); in Hellenistic usage, the vessel containing the soul, or the person as a whole; and even the practice of storing coins or manuscripts in clay jars (as in Qumran caves). Clay jars and their shards were in antiquity like plastic shopping bags and disposable bottles in our throwaway civilization of today.

The point of Paul’s contrast has been taken as the expend ability of us clay jars; or fragility; or even as a vessel of election (Acts 9:15, “instrument whom I have chosen”). Occasionally it has been conjectured that the very cracks in a clay vessel are the point: they let light through! Paul himself supplies the point of his everyday analogy: the contrast makes clear, it can be seen (Chrysostom), “that this extraordinary power” belongs to God and does not come from us” (4:7b). This point is borne out in what follows.

A Catalogue of Hardships, 4:8-9
Listing adverse circumstances and sufferings in one’s life was a common rhetorical form in Paul’s day (cf. 1 Cor 4:9-13; 2 Cor 6:4-5; 11:23-29; 12:10; Rom. 8:35). The eight participles here are carefully structured, in four contrasting pairs:

8a in every way, afflicted but not crushed;
8b perplexed but not totally perplexed;
9a persecuted but not forsaken;
9b knocked down but not knocked out, always…

Each word is vivid. In the first pair, “afflict(ions)” occurs a dozen times in 2 Cor 1-8; “crushed” suggests a tight spot, like the Cilician Gates near Tarsus, or the narrow pass where the battle of Thermopolae was fought; “oppressed, pressed”. 8b involves a wordplay in Greek. Roman persecution against Christians or everyday harassment is suggested in 9a, though some see a reference to a foot race, “pursued but not overtaken”; “forsaken” is the same verb used by Jesus on the cross (Mark 15:34), an analogy probably not intended by Paul, whose point is that he was “not forsaken by God”. The rendering of the final pair comes closest to the imagery of wrestling that has been suggested to give unity to the whole (Greco-Roman wrestling, not TV wrestling mayhem): “not driven into a corner” (8a) or “thrown down” (9b); even the suggestion that oiled bodies, sweat, and take down on the ground left the wrestlers’ bodies so encrusted with clay that they looked like clay statues (4:7)! This tour de force has met with only limited acceptance. The list, like others, is oriented to Paul’s experiences. Does it also fit the experiences of other Christians? In not being forsaken, the power is God’s.

Death and Life, Jesus, Us, and You, 4:10-12
We who live are described as “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus” (10a) and “always being given up to death” on account of Jesus (11a). The word for Jesus’ death in 10a is not the usual one (thanatos) but nekrósis, “putting to death” or the “killing” of Jesus in his passion; or, post mortem, the dead-and-buried Jesus, even putrefied (cf. 2:15-16, odor of death), i.e., everything up to his resurrection; or it might imply that we are “pallbearers”. No life of glory, to be an apostle or a Christian. Why? “… so that the life of Jesus may be visible in us” (10b, 11b, “the life that Jesus lives,” New English Bible, i.e., his risen Life). Visible in us, for you. The apostolic norm is “death at work in us, but life in you,” our converts (4:12). This conclusion is so surprising that Calvin and others thought v. 12 ironic. Others call it an aside. But such is missionary witnessing (John 3:30; 1 Cor 9:19; Phil. 1:22-25; Rom. 11:11-12). Cf. 2 Cor 4:15, “Everything is for your sake”. Can we be so oriented to others? Is this an outcome of being united with Christ’s death (Rom. 6:3)?

Faith Speaks Out, Now and for the Future, 4:13-15
The stance of the apostle – and all Christians – shares the spirit (or Spirit) of faith “in accord with what is written” in Ps 116:10 (Greek Old Testament, not Hebrew or NRSV): “I believed and so I spoke”. We too believe. What we believe and speak out on is specifically the credo about God raising Jesus (1 Cor 6:14; 15:4,20). That happened in the past. For us, resurrection will be in the future, with you, together into the divine presence, for a tribunal (2 Cor 5:10) and ultimately triumph (1 Cor 1:8; 15:51-57; 1 Thess 4:17; 5:9-10). Here, plainly, “us” means all the Christian faithful. We speak out in witness to the gospel.

There is another, more immediate result of “all things for you”: grace abounding (4:15) works to the glory of God. This may be “through the majority” (dia tón pleionón) of the church in Corinth grasping (with Paul) their dependence on grace in Christ or, more widely preferred in translations, grace extending “to more and more people” (dia tón pleionón) through evangelism, so that there are more people to say ‘Thank you,” to God’s glory.

Why We Do Not Lose Heart, 4:16-18
These verses, about all Christians (though Paul is the paradigm for not losing enthusiasm), begin to list reasons why faith, proclamation, ministry, existence in Christ go on, even when circumstances are adverse. First, our “inner nature” or person is being renewed daily (4:16), the true self, the “I” of the Christian, participant in the new creation (2 Cor 5:17). While the emphasis in 4:16 - 5:10 is on the future, the phrase “renewed daily” implies the final blessings already impinging on life now (cf. 3:17-18). Second, the afflictions (4:17, cf. 4:8) are slight and momentary, compared, third, to the weight and eternity of glory to come, glory “to the nth degree” then; cf. Rom 8:18-39 on sufferings, then glory, and 5:3-5. Fourth, eyes are fixed on the eternal, what cannot be seen (4:18). More reasons are given in 5:1-10, the hope for a future home and the Spirit as guarantee now for what will be (5:5). But realist about us that Paul is, he has phrased 4:18 as a condition, “provided that our eyes are fixed … on things that are unseen,” not on the transient (Revised English Bible). Promise, Spirit, faith, not possession as yet.

And Today, Ecumenically?
In 2 Cor 4, “we” refers at most points to Paul and his coworkers in the apostolic ministry. If they were “clay jars,” mortal, in perils of all sorts, subject to death, how much more their descendants in ministry – pastors, bishops, evangelists, those Spirit-gifted, or whatever later ecclesiologies have carved out as important, often as a secure zone in the church, supposedly invulnerable to the hazards of being clay jars. Ditto if all Christians are meant; all of us, we too, are frail earthenware. There are no elite super-saints beyond the dangers of existence in clay flesh-and-blood, short of eternity. In contrast, only the word, the gospel, Christ, God stand secure, always.

Henri Nouwen spoke of “wounded healers”, a great phrase. But some point out that it has led to self-fulfilling prophecy; we sometimes wish some healers in ministry were not quite so wounded. Paul’s point is different. Beyond the normal vicissitudes of human existence, all Christians, even apostles, are vessels of clay. Ministers not only preach Jesus’ passion, they live it. Though God can use them, they are never sufficient for the task and must let everything be of grace and faith, for others.

That applies to ecclesiologies too. A 1992 letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in Rome, “Some Aspects of the Church as Communion”, spoke of both “venerable Christian communities” and other “ecclesial communities” as wounded (vulnere) because of lack of communion with Rome. But then the letter went on to say that this “also injures (vulnus) the Catholic Church”. Lack of communion (koinónia) injures all and prevents what the New Testament envisions.

Wounded churches, wounded ministers, hobbled, hurting Christians. Yet a treasure. So our passage speaks of not losing heart. Keeping enthusiasm also applies to the quest for, and recovery of, Christian unity, through continuing prayers, self-appraisal, repentance, and koinonia of communities and ministries of clay vessels, for we are never forsaken by God.

Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute
PO Box 300, Garrison, New York 10524-0300