August 12, 2016

The Orienting Principle for Christian Ministry

by Mike Riccardi

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels
so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God
and not from ourselves.
– 2 Corinthians 4:7 –

This verse teaches a fundamental, orienting principle for Christian ministry: there is a disproportionate relationship between the glory of the New Covenant message and the glory of the New Covenant messenger. There is a fundamental contrast between the glory of the New Covenant ministry and the shame of the New Covenant minister.

True North

Gospel Treasure

We see that by the word picture that Paul employs. “We have this treasure in earthen vessels.” The Gospel is a treasure. The glorious Good News of the New Covenant is absolutely priceless.

  • Whereas the Old Covenant brought only death and condemnation, the New Covenant brings spiritual life and saving righteousness (2 Cor 3:7–8).
  • Whereas the Old Covenant provided only limited access to the concealed glory of God, the New Covenant provides continual access to open-faced admiration of the glory of God shining in the face of Christ (2 Cor 3:12–18).
  • Whereas the Law made nothing perfect (Heb 7:19) and only further aroused our sinful passions (Rom 7:7–11), the New Covenant brings inward transformation and conformity to the image of Christ (2 Cor 3:18).
  • Whereas the Old Covenant was powerless to transform the heart of man, the Gospel of the glory of Christ shines into that dead heart, and the Holy Spirit Himself awakens the affections to hate sin and to love righteousness (2 Cor 4:4, 6).

This Gospel is a treasure!

Earthen Vessels

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels. The way that God shows off the splendor of this treasure that is the Gospel, is to house it in the most humble, unremarkable, unimpressive containers. Paul compares himself—and all of us who are ministers of the New Covenant—to earthen vessels.

Earthen VesselsAn “earthen vessel” was just a common clay pot or jar, and was the very quintessence of that which was ordinary, unremarkable, easily breakable, easily replaceable, and not attractive or valuable at all. One commentator said, “Earthen vessels had no enduring value, and were so cheap that when they were broken no one attempted to mend them. They simply discarded them. Broken glass was melted down to make new glass; an earthenware vessel, once hardened in a kiln, was non-recyclable” (Garland, 221). Another writer said, “No one took note of clay jars any more than we would of a fast-food container. They were simply there for convenience. It was no great tragedy when such vessels were broken. They were cheap and easy to replace” (R. K. Hughes, 89).

This is what we are, friends. We are not the fine china that people use to impress their dinner guests. We are the ordinary, unremarkable, fragile, expendable earthen vessels. We are not the high-powered, put-together, well-respected, perfectly-polished, cultural elite. Remember what Paul had already told the Corinthians:

“For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things [agenēs, lit., “no birth”] of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not [ta mē onta, “the nobodies”], so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God.” (1 Corinthians 1:26–29)

And

“For, I think, God has exhibited us apostles last of all, as men condemned to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are prudent in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are distinguished, but we are without honor. To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless; and we toil, working with our own hands; when we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure; when we are slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become as the scum of the world, the dregs of all things, even until now.” (1 Corinthians 4:9–13)

Our very comfortable, middle-class lives can make it easy to forget that we are the nobodies, of no birth, the scum of the world, and the dregs of all things. And yet that is precisely who we are, and we must never forget it.

What a stark contrast between the treasure of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, and the earthen vessel in which that treasure is housed. The container is worthless, but the contents are priceless. The Gospel is glorious, but God has chosen to commit the priceless treasure of the Gospel message to weak, suffering, perishing men and women like you and me.

Divine Power Displayed in Human Weakness

Now, why would God do such a thing? Why would He choose such a disproportionately shameful medium to display the priceless treasure of the Gospel to the world? Paul tells us in verse 7: “We have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves.”

Do you see the genius of divine wisdom, here? God entrusts the priceless treasure of the Gospel to be borne by insignificant, frail, unattractive earthen vessels, so that when something amazing happens—when the Gospel does its work and hearts are awakened and affections are renewed and wills are transformed and eyes are opened to treasure Jesus—there will be no doubt about who’s responsible. There will be no doubt about where that kind of transforming power came from.

Stars in Night SkySee: God delights to use humble, weak, common people to proclaim His Gospel, because most fundamentally, God is committed to showcasing the beauty of His own glory. If He were to place the treasure of His Gospel in an ornate treasure chest decorated with precious stones, the glory of the container might compete with the glory of the content. But by committing the Gospel treasure to earthen vessels, He magnifies the brilliance and the beauty of the Gospel message by setting it against the backdrop of weak and suffering messengers.

So the high-powered, wheeling-and-dealing, self-sufficient, gifted-communicator, professional-and-polished ministers actually detract from the glory and power of God in Gospel ministry. Because when they see “results,” people wonder whether it was God’s power or their ingenuity that accomplished those things. But Paul has nothing. He’s beaten, homeless, hungry, thirsty; he’s not attractive, he’s not eloquent, he’s not charming; he is the scum of the earth! Nobody is looking at him and saying, “Wow, it’s sure cool to be like Paul! Maybe I could be a Christian too!” So when someone does turn from their sin and does put their trust in Christ, there is no question as to whose power is responsible.

The false apostles in Corinth are saying that Paul’s weaknesses and sufferings are disproportionate to the glory of the New Covenant Gospel. Paul’s response is: “Yup. I’m nothing special. I’m anything but glorious. But so far from disqualifying me from being a true servant of Christ, my sufferings and weaknesses are the very badges of my authenticity. Because it is these very afflictions that become the means through which God reveals the abundance of His divine power.”

Human weakness is the black backdrop for the brilliant display of the Spirit’s power. Human dishonor is the dark sky in which the dazzling stars of God’s glory shine forth. It is in the shadowy gloom of Good Friday—the suffering and shame of the cross—that makes the gleaming sun of Resurrection Sunday shine all the more brightly. And so true Christian ministry is not marked by the “glory” of worldly power and eloquence, by prestige and reputation, by financial success and freedom from conflict, but by the weakness and suffering of the cross.

Be Well Content with Weakness

Therefore, dear reader, I exhort you: flee from any conception of self-aggrandizement in Christian ministry. Don’t run from difficulty. Love your weakness. Love your powerlessness. Love your indignity. As you minister to the body of Christ and things get difficult, overwhelming, tiring, and frustrating, remind yourself that you are exactly where God has designed for you to be. You are an earthen vessel, bearing the riches of the treasure of the Gospel, so that when God works through your frail and feeble efforts, and makes the Word of God effectual in the life of His people, your weakness will showcase the glory of God’s power, and there will be no doubt who the glory belongs to.

This is the orienting principle for Christian ministry: there is a fundamental contrast between the glory and strength of the New Covenant message and the shame and weakness of the New Covenant messenger. Let us embrace this principle—to be well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties for Christ’s sake. For when we are weak, then He is strong (cf. 2 Cor 12:9–10).

Mike Riccardi

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Mike is the Pastor of Local Outreach Ministries at Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. He also teaches Evangelism at The Master's Seminary.