“Treasure in Clay Jars” (2 Corinthians 4:5-18)
by the Rev. Dr. John Reumann,
Ministerium of Pennsylvania Professor,
Lutheran Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA
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.
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).
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.
“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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute
PO Box 300, Garrison, New York 10524-0300