Jars of Clay

Audio Player

It’s the 60th anniversary of the D-day landings, so you’ve probably heard a clip of a Churchill speech on the news recently. Well, in old age, Churchill was invited to address Harrow School on Speech Day. When the time came, he shuffled to the lectern, leaned out at his audience and said, ‘Never, never, never, never, never give up’. And sat down again. That’s all he wanted to say. Experience had taught him that one of our greatest temptations is to give up.

And if you’re a Christian, either you’ll already know, or you soon will know, the temptation to give up trying to share your faith with others – ie, give up evangelism. Because negative reactions are never long in coming. It may be just a polite ‘No’ when you invite someone to an event. At the other end of the scale, I heard recently of a guy who ripped a Christian book to shreds – he was so violently against finding out about Jesus. It’s especially hard when the rejection comes after a time of someone showing interest – perhaps they’ve been all the way through Christianity Explored and then walk away from it all. And it’s hardest of all, the closer the person is to you.

So it’s tempting to give up. Which is where 2 Corinthians 4 comes to the rescue. So would you turn to 2 Corinthians 4.1.

We’re in a series in this letter from Paul to the church in Corinth. Let me remind us of one of the problems Paul faced with this church. His ministry was under attack. People were saying that he got few results (in terms of people turning to Christ) but much rejection. So, they asked, was he really an authentic gospel minister? Or was something wrong with his message or his methods?

Well, look at this picture::

The crown stands for Jesus – risen from the dead, back in heaven, rightful Lord of everyone. On the left is Paul, spreading the gospel. On the right is a group of people who reject it – they want to keep running their own lives how they please (which I’ve pictured by the little crowns on their heads). They don’t want Jesus taking charge. But in the middle there’s someone who accepts the gospel and turns to Jesus.

Now that picture shows 1 in 4 turning to Jesus. The highest ever response during Billy Graham’s ministry has been 1 in 10. The results of Paul’s efforts were probably lower than that. I don’t know what yours or mine would be. But most likely, they would tempt us to give up. Which is why we need this next part of 2 Corinthians. So,


Firstly, WHY WE DON’T GIVE UP EVANGELISM, DESPITE REJECTION (vv1-2)

The answer is: because it’s God’s work (through us)… so there will be results. 4.1:

Therefore, since through God's mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.

The ‘therefore’ goes back to chapters 2 and 3. Eg, look back to 3.3. Paul didn’t have letters from anyone saying he was an authentic gospel minister, but he had something far better:

You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. (3.3)

Ie, results are ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit, as we share the gospel. We can only take the gospel as far as peoples’ eardrums. Only the Holy Spirit can take it home from there to peoples’ hearts so that they turn to Christ. And 3.3 leads into the passage we looked at last week – which is all about how the Holy Spirit changes peoples’ hearts. And the last two words of chapter 3 sum it up: ‘the Spirit’. When he’s at work, there will be results. 4.1:

Therefore, since through God's mercy we have this ministry [where we just get the gospel to the eardrum and the Spirit does the rest], we do not lose heart.

So let’s not lose heart if apparently low numbers turn to Christ. After all, God never quoted us a percentage to expect. He’s sovereign over results at any given time in any given place. And let’s not lose heart if we’re getting apparently negative reactions. Reactions are often no indicator of what’s going on in the heart. One of the strongest negative reactions I’ve ever had was from someone on the edge of coming to faith (although of course I didn’t know that at the time my head was bitten off). And let’s not lose heart if we’ve had a long-term, negative reaction. The story isn’t over yet, and what seems impossible to us with the passing of months and years is not impossible for God.

Now this is not saying that everyone we share the gospel with and pray for will come to faith. It is saying that as we evangelise and pray, some will come to faith. So, v1, we do not lose heart, v2:

Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God.

Verse 2 describes what you’re tempted to do if you have lost heart and given up authentic evangelism. You see, there are two ways to give up authentic evangelism. One way is to give up evangelism altogether and do nothing. But the other way to give up is to give u authentic evangelism and do inauthentic evangelism, instead. So you’re still active, but using wrong methods and a wrong message.

So in v2, Paul talks about ‘secret and shameful ways’ and ‘deception’ – ie, wrong methods. I remember speaking at an evangelistic dinner and some poor guest had to sit next to me. So after I’d spoken and sat down again, I asked him what he thought about Christian things. And he said this was really the first time he’d thought about it. So I said, ‘Oh, well, thanks for coming.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, well, they didn’t tell me about the talk, did they?’ That’s wrong method. Whereas Paul says, v2, ‘we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception’. That comment of his was a sign that his Christian friends didn’t trust God to get him there if God wanted him to be there. They took getting results – getting him there - into their own hands - using deception, basically. As if God can’t move a person’s heart if he wants him or her to come to that event or join this group. So let’s not do wrong method. Let’s be totally above board. Eg, let’s have no families whose children come to Holiday Club saying afterwards, ‘We didn’t realise there was going to be all that Christian stuff.’

And let’s not do wrong message: next bit of v2, ‘nor do we distort the word of God.’ We don’t change it to try to get results. Marks & Spenser’s have been in the headlines again with poor results – which surprises me after the trolley-load of boxer shorts I bought in the sales. So what will they do? Change the product. Find out what people want and sell it to them.

But we don’t do that, because the church is not a business and the gospel is not a product. The gospel is God’s Word to the world. We didn’t make it up and we have no liberty to change it. But it’s a big temptation to. Eg, here are a few of the questions that non-Christians have fired at me in conversation: ‘But you’re not saying all the other religions are wrong are you?’ And, ‘But surely people are basically good rather than basically evil, aren’t they?’ And, ‘So are you telling me I’m going to hell?’ Each of those was a big temptation to ‘distort the Word of God’, like v2 says - to deny that Jesus is the only way, to fudge the truth of sin and judgement, and so on. That would be giving people what they want to hear - just like M&S sells people what they want to wear. But Paul says, middle of v2, we don’t:

distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God.

Ie, we stick to the truth of the Bible, knowing that the other person’s conscience is on our side. Conscience is like a ‘Trojan horse’ within the ‘walled city’ of someone’s personality. Now people can suppress conscience. But they know that what they’re suppressing is true. So every unbeliever here this morning and across Tyneside knows that God is there; knows that they’re living wrongly in his sight; knows that they deserve judgement; knows that only forgiveness, rather than trying harder, can put them right with God. We think, ‘But they’ll never believe that if we say it.’ But it’s the gospel, so we say it - and their conscience testifies to the truth of it, however strongly their mind objects to the truth of it.

So: we don’t try to ‘get results’ by deceitful methods or a distorted message. Those are the symptoms of having given up authentic evangelism. And once we grasp that evangelism is God’s work through us, we’ll realise that results are God’s part – we can’t influence results and shouldn’t try. Faithful communication and prayer is our part. Because we can only get the gospel to the eardrum then ask God to do what we can’t.


Second, WHY WE ARE CONFIDENT IN THE GOSPEL, DESPITE REJECTION (v3-6)

After vv1-2 we might soldier on in evangelism, yet still sometimes wonder, ‘But isn’t something wrong with the gospel? Otherwise, wouldn’t more people believe it? So Paul goes on to say, ‘No: rejection of the gospel shows that something is wrong with people, not that something is wrong with the gospel. V3:

3And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5

For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake.

(vv3-5)

If you were here last week, you’ll remember that Paul used the picture of a ‘veil’ in chapter 3. Look back to 3.15. Talking about Jewish people, Paul says:

15Even to this day when Moses [ie, the Old Testament, which should have pointed them to Christ] is read, a veil covers their hearts.

Now for Paul, your ‘heart’ or your ‘mind’ (same thing) really means the centre of you, where you make your ultimate commitments. And Paul’s saying that by nature, it’s as if there’s a veil over our hearts, a barrier up against God. In 4.4 he puts it another way:

The god of this age [by which he means Satan, the devil, a personal force of evil] has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

What Satan does, according to Genesis 3, is to get us believing that we can rebel against God and that there’ll be no consequences – that we can ‘get away with it’. And if we believe that lie, we become blind to the truth. It’s like a driver who wants to go whatever speed he likes: however many 30 mph signs you put up, however big you paint them on the road, he won’t see them. He can’t see them because he’s become wilfully blind to anything that would interfere with driving however he pleases.

And Paul says what it’s like with that driver and the 30mph sign is just what it’s like with an unbeliever and the gospel. Have a look at this second picture:

Again, on the left is a believer sharing the gospel – talking about Jesus who lived as a man, died on the cross and rose from the dead. That’s v5: ‘we preach… Jesus Christ as Lord’. (By the way, that word ‘preach’ in the NT doesn’t just narrowly mean what I’m doing now. It literally means, ‘spread the news’, which is what all of us are doing whenever we’re talking about the Lord.) But how come we do believe that and preach that in the first place? Read on, v6:

For [ie, this is why we believe and preach that in the first place] 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 the glory of God in the face of Christ.

Ie, with the same kind of power that created in Genesis 1 (see Genesis 1.1-5), God by his Spirit worked in our hearts to overcome our wilful blindness so we could see Jesus for who he really is. That word ‘glory’ is the Bible word for the character of God, for what God is like if only you could see him (see Exodus 33.18-34.7). And Paul says: in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus we have seen him. In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus we have seen God’s glory most clearly displayed.

At first Paul himself believed that Jesus was just a blasphemous false teacher who got what he deserved when they crucified him. And then the risen Jesus appeared to him on the Damascus road (Acts 9.1f). And Paul realised that Jesus must therefore be the Son of God as he’d claimed to be. So then he had to work back and ask, ‘So why did he die on the cross?’ And if you look across to 5.19 you’ll see Paul’s answer in a nutshell. It was:

that [on the cross] God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. [Instead, letting his Son have them counted against him, in our place]. (2 Corinthians 5.19)

So can I ask: is that what you see when you read about Jesus’ death on the cross? Do you see him taking responsibility for every last sin of yours, past and future? Do you see him dying under the judgment that had your name on it so that you’ll never have to face it? Do you see that ‘all forgiving love’ we sang about earlier - that knows everything about you, and has paid to forgive it all? Because that’s the glory of God. And if we do see that it’s because, v6, God by his Spirit has overcome our blindness and shown us our sin as it really is and shown us his love as it really is.

But unbelievers, on the right of that picture, don’t see that. I can remember not seeing that, and not being able to. I think I did hear the gospel faithfully preached sometimes before I was converted, but I just couldn’t see it - like looking at a building on a pitch black night: you just can’t see it, even though you’re looking at it. And then someone switches on the floodlight, and there it is. Well, Jesus and his cross is like the building and the Holy Spirit is like the floodlight. To begin with, you just can’t ‘see’ it. But once the Spirit has opened your eyes, you look back and wonder how you could have been so blind.

So, the point Paul is making is that rejection of the gospel shows that something is wrong with people, not that something is wrong with the gospel.

So those of us who are believers, let’s keep our confidence in the gospel. After all, it worked in our lives. We may be discouraged by what’s apparently not happening in others. But it worked in us. Just look around you if you need reassurance of the power of the gospel.

And before we move on, notice v5 again:

For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake.

Paul’s critics, the new teachers who’d arrived in Corinth, were full of themselves. From the rest of 2 Corinthians we know they relied on the power of personality and presentation skills to win people over. They gave you the impression that to be effective in witness or your ministry area of church, you’d have to be like them. But Paul says, v5: no, we do not preach ourselves [we’re not full of ourselves], but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake.’ Ie, ourselves like waiters on your table – and the best waiters are the ones where the meal appears and the empty plates disappear, yet you barely notice them the whole evening, they were so unobtrusive.

Maybe you think you’re a bit of a nobody when it comes to sharing your faith, or when it comes to your ministry area – doing the Bible thought at Rainbows or stumbling through that conversation at Mothers & Toddlers. Maybe you’re kicking yourself for signing up for helping at Holiday Club thinking you haven’t got the Size 10 extravert personality it takes. Or whatever. Well, people who feel like nobodies are precisely the people God can use, because like good waiters, they stay unobtrusively out of the way and let people see Jesus. And the only qualification you really need is in v6. All you need to begin gospel ministry is to have come to see who Jesus is for yourself.

For those who are not yet believers, this part of the Bible may seem alarming. It seems to say that whether or not you’re able to believe is ultimately out of your hands. And that is exactly what it’s saying. Only God can bring us out of our rebellion and to the point of believing in Jesus. That was true of me. We simply cannot change our own hearts. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do. If you’re at the point of saying, ‘I’d like to believe, but I can’t,’ the thing to do is to pray and ask God to bring you to believe. It doesn’t matter if you’re not even fully sure he’s there, yet. He answers prayers that are far less than sure.


Third, WHY GOD ALLOWS US TO EXPERIENCE WEAKNESS AND REJECTION IN EVANGELISM (vv7-12)

After vv1-6, we might be re-encouraged in evangelism, and reassured about the gospel, and yet still thinking, ‘But why is evangelism often so hard for us? Why do we often feel and look so weak? Why is opposition to the gospel often apparently so successful – eg, in our denomination, or our schools and campuses, or in government legislation? Or I wonder if you’ve ever found yourself thinking like this: ‘Why didn’t the Lord let me have a massive IQ so I could wipe the floor with people and argue them into the kingdom? Or why didn’t the Lord allow me to become a Wimbledon-winning tennis player, so I could ‘wow’ people into the kingdom with my testimony?’ And so on. Well, v7:

But we have this treasure [the gospel] in jars of clay [in order] to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.

‘Jars of clay’ were the throw-away containers of the day – the equivalent of the carrier bag. So Paul’s saying we’re just ‘carrier bags’ for the gospel - completely unremarkable and dispensable. So that peoples’ attention goes on the Lord Jesus, not on us. And so that when God does bring people to faith, it’s perfectly obvious that the power that did it was his, not ours. So we don’t put results down to ‘great preaching,’ or, ‘a great Holiday Club team’ or whatever - but to him. V7 again:

7But we have this treasure in jars of clay [in order] to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 8We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. 12So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. (vv7-12)

That’s a bit tricky to understand, but he’s basically saying: if we carry the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection-to-life, our lives will take on the shape of that message. It’s like if you put a packet of Cornflakes in your carrier-bag, the bag takes on the shape of a packet of Cornflakes. If you put a watermelon in your carrier-bag it takes on the shape of a watermelon. And if we human ‘carrier bags’ carry the gospel to people, our lives will take on the shape of the gospel. On the one hand, that means taking on the shape of Jesus’ death - ie, to some extent experiencing rejection. (Try not to take it personally: people are not reacting to you, the ‘carrier bag’, but to what’s in the carrier bag – ‘Christ in you’.) But on the other hand, at the same time, it means taking on the shape of Jesus’ risen life and power – ie, experiencing his power sustaining our witness despite rejection.

The best illustration I can think of is this. A friend of mine turned to Christ after giving his Christian friends a very hard time. He once said to me, ‘I could argue better than all of them, and I spent months knocking them down and putting them down. And if I’d have been them I’d have either given up or at least got up and changed my ground. But they just got up on the same ground and let me knock them down again and again. And it was that perseverance, that refusal to change their ground that finally made me realise they really had something – there was something behind their lives I didn’t have. I just had ideas and clever argument. They had something.’

And that’s what Paul’s saying here. God allows us to experience weakness and rejection not just so that the glory for any results goes to him, but so that people look at persevering witnesses and say, ‘They really have something.’


So:

• Don’t give up - because results are God’s part, and they will come.
• Don’t give up - because the gospel, taken home by the Spirit to the heart, can change anyone.
• And don’t give up through feeling weak or because of rejection – God uses those very things by sustaining us in them to show people that we really have something – or rather, Someone – in our lives.

Therefore, since through God's mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. (v1)

Back to top