2 Corinthians 4:7-12. “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For 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. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.”
It wasn’t easy for the Christians in that powerful congregation in Corinth to remember that they were the sufferings servants of the crucified Lord Jesus. Paul was grieved at the spirit of smug self-satisfaction that was spreading through the congregation: “Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have become kings!” (I Cors. 4:8) and then he begins a series of contrasts between himself, the loathed evangelist and Christian teacher, and the Corinthians: “We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honoured, we are dishonoured! To this very day we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our hands” (I Cors. 4:10-12). But, he says, “Some of you have become arrogant” (I Cors. 4:18). Certainly Paul’s opponents were arrogant, belittling Paul, saying “‘His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing'” (2 Cors. 10:10). That was what they thought about the apostle. They, of course, were very different. They had presence. They had style. They had rhetoric. What very impressive men they thought themselves to be, and these are the people who are lurking around at the background of the humbling words of our text.
Now, our insistence is this, that before you can ever recognise some living church in whom the last six words of our text are displayed, “life is at work in you” (v.12), then all the other preceding statements must first be fulfilled. There is no short cut to a working living church. Let us look at the definitive opening phrase which sets the tone for all that follows and is the first essential step in bringing life to a congregation.
1. Paul’s Attitude to Himself.
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (v.7). I am sure that you can see that this is fundamental. If the apostle had got this wrong then Paul’s entire ministry would have been destroyed. He was a man who had seen the lives of thousands of people transformed. Men and women enslaved to sin had been liberated. Marriages had been made happy and stable. Bitter feuds had been terminated by reconciliation. Vital churches had been born and were thriving of whom he could say, “Life is at work in them.” All this was due to what he describes as “this all-surpassing power … from God” (v.7). It was all because of a supernatural initiative from God – pure vertical sovereign grace.
But Paul, this greatly used man, was not at all a vain man. In fact he was a most self-depreciating and humble personality. This was the attitude he had of himself, that he was a mere clay pot in which the divine treasure was being held. The treasure was everything; the vessel that contained it, was nothing. It does not take you a minute to appreciate that this attitude runs counter to all the popular worldly psychology of the last twenty years which taught that what is wrong with people is a low self-image and pathetic self-esteem, and what was needed if they were going to make a success of their lives was that they really loved themselves and walked tall and threw their chests out and believed that they were really something. The conclusion of that theory is to send men on a search for the hero inside themselves. But the conclusion of Paul’s attitude is to agree that one is just like a disposable fragile clay pot, but marvel that a treasure of grace and love has been given to us through the all-surpassing power of God alone.
Paul as a jar of clay is a simply marvellous illustration, so familiar to everyone who first heard it. Clay pots of all shapes and sizes would have been found in every house to keep the rodents and insects from contaminating the food and drink. They were used for storing wine, water, grain or even parchments. The famous Dead Sea Scrolls were preserved for millennia inside ordinary clay jars. Lamps made out of clay gave light in every household while Persian kings even kept their gold and silver in earthenware jars. There is a Talmudic story of Rabbi Joshua who was taunted by a daughter of an emperor for his humble appearance. He gestured in turn at the earthen jars which contained her father’s finest wines. So, defiantly, she poured the wine into silver vessels, but in them the wine soon turned bitter. Humble vessels are the best containers of great riches. An ornate frame can detract from the magnificence of an old master.
Clay vessels could be broken easily. Metal vessels could be repaired – that was John Bunyan’s vocation as a peripatetic tinker with his anvil in his shoulder pack. Glass vessels could be melted down and the materials reused if they shattered. But once a jar of clay broke it had to be thrown out. Wasn’t it a risk to put aged wine or treasure into a clay pot? Wasn’t it foolhardy? They crack and crumble. Yet God has put the treasure of his only begotten Son into the lives of men of dust. This week the media have given full attention to the story of a Christian man who has been working full-time for an evangelical student organisation who lured a young boy via the Internet to a hotel room for the most sordid purposes. This man professes to have Christ in his life as his hope of glory, and yet what a jar of clay he showed himself to be as he stood in the dock convicted of this crime. How dangerous of God to put the divine and glorious Son of God into very earthy and vulnerable sinners’ lives. But the Lord has deliberately chosen to do that. That is his strategy. We are dust. It is not that we have feet of clay, but that we are from the clay, earthy men and women. Mortality is written all over us. We crack up; we crumble; the good that we would we do not, and the evil that we would not that we do. Finally we return to the dust. Heaven’s treasure is in such earthen vessels.
We are never to forget that. It is so easy for men to become perilously proud. Think to what lengths of humbling God put a Spurgeon, a Luther, a M’Cheyne, a Calvin, a Brainerd to preserve them from pride in the midst of all their success, and to keep reminding them how earthy and weak they were. It is absolutely vital that we see ourselves as Paul did as nothing more than a container for God’s truth. We are disposable clay vessels. We are not beautiful glazed Wedgwood pottery. We are throwaway containers, and only fools get excited about cheap packaging. The hobby of nerds only is to make collections of polystyrene containers! What is important are the contents. When you are gripped by that fact then you will see to it that the Lord Jesus Christ gets every bit of the credit and praise for anything good that is done. Paul always made it clear that the all-surpassing power that had characterised his ministry was a gift from God. From heaven redemption and holiness and wisdom had come to sinners in the early church – directly from God – and that is how they come today. At one time God gave Paul a thorn in the flesh and refused to remove it. Paul had been in danger of forgetting he was just a clay pot. That is how crucial is a sense of our own sinful weakness. God will chasten us if we start to forget it.
Now when Paul talks of himself as a jar of clay he is referring to his redeemed human nature. Certainly his body in its weakness and liability to death; his mind also with its limitations, and ignorance, and confusion, but also his moral nature with its yet imperfect conscience and misconceptions. So it was not just in his physique that Paul felt the gulf between what he believed and what he was. It was in his whole being. He once arrived on a missionary journey in Athens and he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. He thought to himself, “Now, I am the one who will have to tell them that they are all worshipping false gods, but I have such tempting thoughts and inconsistencies in my own heart and life?” He did not feel that he was up to this task. He was a clay pot which contained an extraordinary treasure. The living God was in this little Jew who had no rhetorical flourishes, lacked a commanding presence, and personally had no powers to compel a single person to change his life. But instead of that driving him to despair he saw it as the great proof that it was divine grace alone that saved and kept sinners. Salvation is of the Lord in its conception, continuance and consummation.
No one who cast himself on the mercy of God in Jesus Christ and became a true Christian walking in the strength of God for the rest of his days would ever claim that the explanation for this lay in his being manipulated by a earthenware container labeled ‘Paul of Tarsus.’ The source of a sinner’s transformation had to be found in the living God. “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things that are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things which are” (I Cors. 1:27&28).
So there is the Christian’s assessment of himself – a jar of clay, some weak thing, some base thing, a nothing. I am saying that if we are going to get to the state in which we look at a congregation and say, “The life of God is really at work in you,” then we must never loose our grip on that view of ourselves, because God uses weak things to confound the mighty, and thus into death brings life. It is just a wind from heaven that changes the valley of the dry bones. There have always been for brief periods people on the fringes of the church who then show that they are much too clever for God to use. They are too superior for an infallible Bible, and a historic Adam, and substitutionary atonement, and male headship, and eternal punishment. They are much happier mixing with the clever men of this world than with ‘fundamentalists.’ So they are never used to do God’s work because they are so lost in admiration of their own. But the work of God has never depended on men like that, and it does not depend on them now. It depends on those who are aware that they are weak, buffeted, and fragile messengers who are stewards of a most majestic and indestructibly glorious message. The weaker the human vessel the greater glory goes to God. It is impossible for both God and ourselves to get the glory.
This treasure is in earthen vessels, and the pew and the pulpit have to be in agreement about that. The church that is looking for perfection in the pulpit for twenty thousand a year will look in vain. It is a fearful mistake to expect or demand an impossible standard in a minister. Sometimes we have been asked to deliver a sermon when we have married preachers and we have said to them three things, “Remember you are a man of God. Remember you are a man of the Word. Remember you are only a man.” A Scotsman in the 19th century lived to see the decline of the Free Church of the Disruption, and the rise of the new pulpit. He spoke of the last three preachers he had heard. He said, “Our first minister was a man, but he was not a minister. Our second was a minister, but he was not a man. The one we have at present is neither a man nor a minister.” You have to be a man of God, that is, a unpretentious clay pot which has real treasure inside his soul. Then God might use you. If God could not strike a straight blow with a crooked stick there would be no hope for the world. From the time of Gideon until today God has used the least likely weapons – jars of clay. God has used Abraham and Moses and David and Elijah and Isaiah and Peter and James and John. From what we know of their behaviour each one of them was a mere clay pot.
This week witnessed one of the largest Vatican gatherings in all of history when on Wednesday February 21 2001 the Pope conferred red hats on 44 new cardinals. St Peter’s Square was pronounced by the Times reporter to be “a sunlit sea of red as the princes of the church” gathered together. The Pope in his green and gold vestments contrasted with the crimson birettas and robes of the 184 cardinals and the purple dress of bishops from around the world adorned in their gold chains and crucifixes. The Pope claimed that this was “a great day for the universal church”. So we must make a thoughtful response. It was certainly a great day for those who love religious spectacle. It was a great day for the media. It was a great day for cheering friends of the new cardinals who were each applauded as their names and countries were read out and the birettas was placed on their heads – the noisiest cheers came from the Americans present rooting for their local bishops. It was a great day for the publicity machine of Rome. But in our judgment it was not a great day for New Testament Christianity. How can such triumphalism live in the light of these words of Paul – “jars of clay” not ‘princes of the church’?
Now I’m commenting on that occasion not only to show you how far the Roman church has wandered from the New Testament attitude to Christian ministry but for another reason. All these years we live under pressure to become part of one world-wide united church, and what is the one non-negotiable doctrine that that organisation must have? It is not the doctrine of the trinity. It is not the doctrine of the deity of Christ. What is it? It is a particular doctrine of ecclesiology, that the church must be governed by bishops. There is no way that there is going to be a hyper-denomination without it being led by the bishops. That axiom is a reason why such a fuss is made of the 184 cardinals of the Roman Church.
Now we may ask where in the New Testament are there bishops? Is it bad taste to ask this question? Is it only the crude ‘fundamentalists’ who raise it? Does not every religious person acknowledge the complete necessity of a man being named a ‘bishop’ and given special authority? But in the New Testament are bishops not identical with elders? Are they not the congregation’s overseers? Where in the New Testament are there popes? Cardinals? Archbishops? Deans? Canons? Rectors? Archdeacons? Nowhere. There are preachers, elders, and deacons, and all of them are men – not women. And they are all jars of clay. Now we hear much today about church ‘renewal’, and talk of radical reformation. Good, just as long as our church structures be radically renewed in the light of the jars of clay ecclesiology of the New Testament.
Jars of clay, yet containing costly treasures. The world would look at such a pot and never dream what it contains. I can bring out of it eternal life! I can bring out of it a new heart. I can bring out of this jar of clay God’s declaration of pardon for a repentant sinner. I can bring out of it a robe of righteousness. I can bring out of it the seal of the Holy Spirit. I can bring out of it God’s official legal declaration of adoption. Those are some of the treasures in this jar of clay.
When you enter a church building you will find commonplace people, indistinguishable from yourself. You look around and you might recognise one or two and you think, “They’re just ordinary folk too.” Then the man who gets up into the pulpit is just like you. No purple robes: no crook and mitre; no gold rings; no vestments. A jar of clay. That is what strikes everyone on the occasion of their first contact with a preacher of surpassing divine power. They say something like, “I had heard so much about the famous preacher of that church, but I thought he must have been unable to be present that first day I attended his church. I thought it was one of his officers who was taking the service instead of him. That man in the pulpit was nothing at all to look at.” He was a jar of clay, wasn’t he? But then, my friends, that humble ordinary man proceeded to bring before you one treasure after another, and soon you had forgotten all about him as you were gripped by the grandeur of the God he preached, the promise of grace and the forgiveness of sins and eternal life which he made to you. He showed you Christ in all the glory of his person and the perfection of his finished work, which treasures he offered to you in the gospel. “Take him!” he cried. “He is for you, sinner!” You blessed God that there were no distractions of trappings and rituals which could divert you from taking this Christ for yourself. In the one whom you heard about were hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, and they came out of this jar of clay. And your one longing was that that glorious Saviour should enter your life too.
Men and women, when we glory in jars of clay we are not glorying in ignoramuses, and obscurantists, and ranters in the pulpit. The man who writes our text had the most transcendent intellectual gifts. Of all the men of his age in Jerusalem or Rome or Greece he outshone them all. There were times when Paul could sing and soar like a lark ascending into heaven. God will take and use such a gift, but God is not dependent upon it. And God will humble those who glory in anything but the cross of Christ. He will certainly bring low those who glory in the fact that they didn’t go to college and have no degrees. One knows of certain people who will go shopping in Harrods and buy something very cheap just to be able to carry it along the streets of London in a Harrods’ bag. We are not to glory in any container. We are jars of clay, and that is what we are all to focus upon, not any type of container, truly base or perhaps rather posh. In the end, they are all mere containers. They are not the treasure. Inside is the treasure, and when that is displayed men are changed by the surpassing power of God. That is to be the theme of our glorying.
2. Paul’s Attitude to Trouble.
“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (vv.8&9). There were days when you might ask the apostle how was he feeling, and Paul would pause, think for a moment, and, choosing his words as if inspired, would reply to you, “Hard pressed … perplexed … and struck down.” Then he would pause again as you savoured those phrases coming from lips that never lied. Then he would add, smiling to you, “but I’m not crushed, nor in despair. I don’t feel abandoned and I am certainly not destroyed.” Now that spirit is normative Christianity.
I am sure we could find many other words to translate these particular terms, but the ones in our own version are a perfectly adequate selection. I want to say just a couple of things about them. To begin, notice that they progress from one degree of trouble to another. The screw is being turned at every command. God cries, “Hard-pressed!,” and then we start to feel the burden. Then he gives the order, “Perplexed!” and we don’t know where to turn. Then thirdly he decrees, “Persecuted!” and out come the thumb-screws, the slavery, and the stakes. Then God cries, “Struck down!” and we are felled. We are really on the floor. Paul had once been stoned and left for dead, but he got up again. He was not destroyed. So you see that each new trouble he mentions is more severe that the previous one. That is the pattern for our Christian lives, from fighting with the footmen to battling with the horsemen, and we should be alarmed if our lives are becoming easier, for then we might judge that God is no longer using us.
Then, the other obvious point, that for every trouble there is also the corresponding counter-poise of the keeping power of God specifically related to the trouble we are in. In the most general way we know that the Lord is a Sovereign Protector. There is that great statement made so categorically: “And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it” (I Cors. 10:13). The Lord cries into our storms, “Fear not! Peace be still!” The Master of ocean and earth and sky is with us in the storms of life. So the Saviour always measures our spiritual condition for each individual trial, and at the exact time we are about to perish he gives the order in these words of our text, “Do not crush her!” (v.8). Then he cries, “Deliver her from despair!” (v.8). Further still, in our persecution he ensures we are not abandoned (v.9), and even when we are struck down we are not being destroyed (v.9). There are limitations which God places on your circumstances. There are lines God will not let one of his people cross. When we get to the line we find God is there on the line. Things are never as bad as they could be. As an old Christian would say, “It might be worse.”
Now why is the normal victorious Christian hard pressed, perplexed and struck down? You can answer by beginning with yourself. What Christian is satisfied with his progress in grace, the service he has rendered to the Saviour, the knowledge he has, his victory over the sin that besets him, the way he loves his brethren, his neighbours, his enemies? The old hymn says,
Cold as I feel this heart of mine,
Yet, since I feel it so,
It yields some hope of life divine
Within, however low.
Our own self-watch and our self-knowledge is one reason we feel hard-pressed. But then extend the circle and consider any congregation. There are those who have left their first love. Others have fallen into temptation and the joy has gone out of their life. The initial promise they showed as Christians is no longer there. There are divisions, and former friends have turned against you. Are we not hard-pressed and perplexed by the life of the church? Or extend the circle further and see the state of the world, the injustice, the cruelty to women and children, the blatant hostility to the name of Jesus Christ and the fog of apathy that is everywhere. We are hard-pressed to find any interest in the gospel of Jesus Christ. We are perplexed as to how we can make meaningful contact with non-Christians. If we press people too hard then we meet an unmistakable snarl – “Back off.” While we live in the body in such a world as ours shouldn’t the normal Christian life be characterised by these tensions – “perplexed, but not in despair” (v.8)? Wasn’t the Saviour himself once perplexed because of the unbelief in sinners and he marvelled at it?
I am reading William Jay’s “Morning Exercises” this year, a daily devotional book written in the nineteenth century, and in my judgment the best of that kind of book. William Jay was a pastor for 63 years in Bath dying at 85 years of age in 1853. Sprinkle Publications have done us a great service by recently bringing it and the companion “Evening Exercises” back into print. This week on February 21 I was reading what he had to say on the text, “And the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way” (Num. 21:4). What Mr Jay had written fitted in so well with what the apostle Paul says here, and it was a confirmation that I was on the right track. Of course, if I should read you an actual extract it would slow this sermon down to a crawl, and my whole goal in encouraging you would be lost, but what William Jay does is to list such discouraging things as the length of the way we have to walk, the enemies that infest the journey, the fact that many turn back and they are never silent in wanting us to turn back too. The way is narrow, and there are special danger spots we have to pass through – the Valley of Humiliation and Vanity Fair – and all that is what I wanted to say about the normal Christian life creating the tensions recorded here in 2 Corinthians 4. But then William Jay reminds us of all there exists to encourage us – our unerring Guide and Shepherd, the companions who are travelling with us, the strength given to us to keep holding on and the refreshment we are given along the way, and at the end the perfect rest and peace and glory and joy. So these are the dynamics of the Christian life, “hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed but not in despair” (v.8).
3. Paul’s Attitude to Christ’s Life and Death.
“We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For 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” (vv.10&11). Paul speaks so vividly about his ministry. The first thing he tells us is that he carried around in his body the death of Jesus. When he arrived in a Greek city the crowds quickly gathered to hear something new. They wanted a display of wisdom, but Paul had carried there a very different message and he preached the death of Jesus to them, and they thought the whole talk was foolishness. When he went to a synagogue he carried there the same message. The Jews demanded he perform a miraculous sign, but Paul preached the death of Jesus even though that was a stumbling block to them. That didn’t change Paul. He resolved to know nothing while he was with Jew or Greek except Jesus Christ and him crucified. He went up and down the Mediterranean basin carrying around in his body as he walked from city to city and home to home this single burden – “I must tell them of the death of Jesus. Christ has died for our sins according to the Scriptures.”
It was foolishness and a stumbling block to many of the people he most wanted to help. Who else would dream of carrying around the death of Jesus? Who else would think there was universal help in a rubbed-out preacher, hanging dead weight from spikes though his hands and feet on a black afternoon? Think of the paradoxes involved. Paul told them that God had dealt with sin through the actual sin of Gentiles and Jews. God had conquered death by death entering the holy Trinity. God had overcame misery by the misery of his Son. Because of the capital punishment of Jesus, last minute pardons are issued to us. By his scarred hands and feet we are healed. That was what Paul carried about in his body, that is, with his lips and tongue and larynx and gestures and physical and mental resilience and his concentrated attention and thoughtful answers. What he carried was the burden of the death of Jesus. Only that event could help sinners. Let me explain this carefully.
The plight all men are in stems from the justice or the righteousness of God, in other words, that he is supremely straight, and he hates all that is mean and crooked. When someone behaves in that way God will see to it that he pays. From Genesis through Leviticus to Revelation, this truth is written in blood across the Bible. God will not go soft on sin. The axe must fall. Payment must be made. The blood of sacrifice must be shed. For what we sow that we must also reap. This is a moral universe.
We all understand that don’t we? We feel a sense of outrage and a sense of justice. Think of one of the most wicked crimes ever to have occurred in south Wales. It happened almost two years ago when a grandmother, mother and two little girls were all battered to death and their house was set on fire The murderer has still not been caught. We all feel deeply that he should be arrested and tried and convicted and punished for what he has done. Why? Because that is right! Because it is just. Because only then is the debt paid, the wound healed, the emptiness filled up again.
Now think of the living God. He is light and in him is no darkness at all. He is our Creator to whom we offer what we owe. We live and move and have our being in a righteous God, and so that means making amends, balancing things out on the scale of justice. There is however this problem that what we owe, we are unable to pay. God’s justice requires satisfaction, but we can’t come through with it. Our bill has come due, but we are bankrupt.
The Bible and the Christian church describes a remarkable solution to this problem. Already in the Old Testament sacrifices, God himself provides a way to satisfy his own justice A sinner could sacrifice an animal to take her place. And the Bible says that the aroma of roast lamb is to God what a good meal is to a hungry eater: satisfaction. God’s justice demands satisfaction, but God’s mercy provides a substitute so that the sinner herself does not have to pay. That is where the death of Jesus fits in. A sacrifice is made in order to satisfy God’s justice. He is the Lamb of God. Our Saviour is a kind of priest, offering a sacrificial victim to God. But this time the victim is not a sheep or a bullock. This time the victim is the priest himself who lies on a cross which is then lifted up, and so it has turned into an altar. When someone sins, someone must pay, and the wages of sin is death, even for God the Son. He has no sins himself to pay for, but as we know from history that Jesus did die he must have freely paid for others to go free.
Ben Ramsbottom tells the story of two boys who were close friends: “As they grew older they went different ways, and then for years did not see each other at all. One day they met again – in tragic circumstances. One was the judge. The other was the criminal in the dock. The case was heard and the criminal was clearly guilty. What could the judge do? Could he say it did not matter because it was his friend? No true judge would do that. Justice would prevent him. So a fascinating action took place. The judge pronounced the criminal guilty. He stated the heavy fine that the convicted man had to pay (but he had no money at all to pay it). Then the judge left his seat, went and stood by his old friend, the criminal, and said, ‘I’ll pay the fine for you.’ So the judge himself paid the fine that he himself had set, and the criminal went free. The wages of sin is death, but the Lord Jesus so dearly loved his people that he paid their debt, he bore their punishment and satisfied the justice of God ” (Ben Ramsbottom, “Bible Doctrines Simply Explained,” Gospel Standard Trust Publications, 1988, p.28). Little wonder that Paul carried about in his body the death of Jesus.
But Paul does not only say that he carries about in his body the death of Jesus, he adds this second point, that “we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake” (v.11). This is the divine method of evangelism. There is no other. The preacher knows that he is being delivered to death as a consequence of his faithfulness to Jesus. Consider the apostle and Silas arriving in Europe for the first time, and all the consequences that would reverberate throughout that continent for two thousand years from the gospel going there. In this continent would be Tyndale, and Huss, and Luther, and Latimer, and Bunyan, and Owen, and Whitefield, and Rowland, and M’Cheyne, and Spurgeon, and Lloyd-Jones. On this continent would be the Reformation, and the translation of the Bible into the language of the people, and the Puritans, and the Synod of Dort, and the Westminster Assembly, and the revivals at Cambuslang and Llangeitho, the Scottish Disruption, and the Metropolitan Tabernacle, and Sandfields, Aberavon.
On this continent millions of ordinary believers would live and die for Jesus, and one day the first two Christian men Paul and Silas stood for the first time on European soil in Philippi, Greece, sent by God with the intention of bringing his gospel to the whole continent. These evangelists carried around in their bodies the death of Jesus, and the response to that message was devastating. They were flogged to within an inch of their lives, and thrown into a stinking dungeon with their feet locked into the stocks. But they were quite prepared to deliver themselves to death because of Jesus. That was part of the covenant God had made with Saul of Tarsus when he saved him. “I will show him what he must suffer for me,” the Lord had said in Damascus at the very beginning. So Paul willingly gave his mortal flesh to the 39 stripes, and his legs to the stocks, and his eyes to the darkness of the cell. He was completely willing. We know that, because at midnight he and Silas filled the prison with the sound of their praises. They had been found faithful. Just as the Suffering Servant had in his mortal flesh delivered himself to death, they had done the same. Out of his death such blessings flowed for the world, and from their deliverance of themselves to death for Jesus’ sake such blessings would come to Philippi and to Greece and to all of Europe.
Do you see how in these words is found this principle of the true servant of God being nothing more than a disposable clay pot containing great treasure? It is a huge biblical theme. The Lord Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me” (John 12:24-26).
You think of the outworking of this principle, for example, in the way churches have spread everywhere throughout Ecuador since five young missionaries were speared to death there in the middle of the 20th century. You think of all that J. Gresham Machen died to – the prestigious professorship at Princeton Seminary and a reputation as a scholar and an academic – to yield his life in death by going to the wilderness of the Dakotas by train in the depths of winter, carrying around in his weary body the death of Jesus, to give help to one of the Lord’s servants in the state who was taking his stand for his master. Now how many seminaries in the USA have Machen as their role model, and how many thousands of students who believe what he believed are being trained for the ministry? Jesus’ life has been revealed through their mortal bodies. Machen was always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake. He did not love his own life more than he loved its great Giver.
Consider again Mehdi Dibaj of Iran, born into a Muslim family but becoming a Christian in the 1950s. On December 21, 1993 an Islamic court in the city of Sari condemned him to death. The conviction was based on the charge of apostasy, in other words, that Mehdi Dibaj had abandoned Islam and embraced Christianity. When the news of his death sentence reached the rest of the world, the reaction was one of disbelief followed by prayer and action. Bishop Haik, an Armenian pastor also in Iran, shared the news of this horrible injustice with Christians all over the world. The reaction brought about Mehdi Dibaj’s release on January 16 1994, the same month as Bishop Haik was murdered, and five months later Mehdi Dibaj was abducted, tortured and killed.
The famous written defence which he delivered to the Sari Court of Justice appeared in every country around the world. If anyone types the name ‘Mehdi Dibaj’ into any search engine on the Internet then in two seconds you will be given over 150 references to him, and now this sermon will be added to that selection. So his courage is not being forgotten. He was a disposable clay pot containing wonderful treasure, and though the pot was shattered, the treasure is being spread by his death all over the world. Mehdi Dibaj was another who recently was given over to death for Jesus’ sake. But who would have heard of him or the persecuted church in Iran if he had not been given over to death for Jesus’ sake? Jesus’ life had been revealed through the mortal body of Mehdi Dibaj through his years of imprisonment, and two years of solitary confinement in a tiny cell, and now through the underground church that treasures his memory and carries in their bodies too the death of Jesus.
4. Paul’s Attitude to Other Christians
“So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you” (v.12). This is how Paul checked up on himself, that he was really going on as a Christian. Was death still at work in himself? If God were using him then he would be constantly being given over to death for Jesus’ sake. If God were marginalising him then he would be an increasing stranger to the fights, and the hostility of the world, and the broken body. You would find Paul upon a bed of ease. The apostle had been called to be a good soldier of Jesus Christ. There was a war on. What would you think of someone who never saw a skirmish from one year to another, and yet who claimed to be a full-time soldier? We would call him an arm-chair soldier. C.T.Studd would have called him a “chocolate soldier.” For Paul death, which is the absence of life and activity, was at work in him. He was having a work out and his personal trainer is death.
The memoirs of General Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart who died in 1963 are called “Happy Odyssey.” What a soldier he was! He fought in the Boer War and was severely wounded. He fought in the First World War and was seriously wounded eight times, including losing one eye and a hand. He fought in the Second World War commanding the doomed Namsos raid in Norway. He was shot down and imprisoned by the Italians before he tunnelled his way out. What is remarkable man he was. He refers in passing to such things as tearing off the occasional finger which doctors were unsure whether to amputate. He doesn’t mention that he won a VC during the battle of the Somme. He never mopes or whinges or sues the army for his injuries and for post-traumatic stress. He called his autobiography, “Happy Odyssey” because he was a career soldier fighting for his monarch and nation. He expected death to be at work in himself that a better life might come to the people of the nation he loved.
Thus it was for the apostle. He endures hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. He stands in an evil day and having done all keeps standing. So the arrows strike him. They do not destroy him. Death is at work in him, and for this he thanks God who made him a soldier and a herald and ambassador. He is most thankful of all that he can look at a church in Corinth and say, “but life is at work in you.” He gave his life in death that they might live. He looked at them and he saw such evidences of heavenly life as love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness and self-control. He saw the evidence of a good appetite for the Word of God. He saw the strong bearing the burdens of the weak. He saw men and women able to forgive seventy times seven. He saw servants patiently bearing with their masters, and he saw masters and slaves taking the Lord’s Supper together. Though the apostle himself had worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again, death was at work in him that life might be at work in them. That was his desire and when he saw it fulfilled he reckoned that his life was a ‘happy odyssey’ too.
25 February 2001 GEOFF THOMAS