Uniform 08.17.2014: The Strength within the Clay

2 Corinthians 4:2-15

Many people serve God each day. Some share Jesus quietly, living with kindness and compassion as they go about their daily business at work, school, and other places in the community. Some share Jesus physically, pounding nails into the wood of a home for the poor, spooning food onto a plate at a homeless shelter, or mentoring an at-risk student. Some share Jesus openly, preaching from the pulpit during worship, working as an evangelist to lead others to Christ, and teaching believers in the way of Jesus.

Then there are those who do all three, depending on the situation.

Kent Brantly was one among many who have chosen to share Jesus quietly, physically, and openly. A medical doctor working with Samaritan’s Purse, Brantly had served “in Liberia through [the organization’s] post-residency program before joining the medical team responding to the Ebola crisis.” Sadly, he contracted the highly fatal virus he worked so hard to fight. He was flown from West Africa to Emory Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, on August 2, where he underwent quarantined treatment in the hopes of being healed.

This life-threatening illness is terrifying, but it makes Brantly’s sacrifice and faithfulness—and that of the others who served with him—even more honorable.

Our study text comes from 2 Corinthians 4, where Paul writes about the “treasure” that believers are given to share. This treasure is “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (v. 6). Other translations say that it is “the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ” (NIV) or the fact that “our lives filled up with light as we saw and understood God in the face of Christ, all bright and beautiful” (The Message). Who wouldn’t want to share a treasure like that?

The problem, as Paul puts it, is that we carry this treasure around in fragile “clay jars.” These are not solid boxes inlaid with gold. They’re not locked safes. They’re not even digital files. These containers are made of muscle, blood, and flesh—intricately designed and desperately vulnerable. In people like Dr. Brantly, we see just how fragile the human body is. And yet Brantly chose to go and serve anyway. The treasure was just too bright for him to keep to himself.

Like Paul, Brantly was able to find strength within the clay: a strength that comes from God alone. Because of that strength, he was “afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (v. 8). Others like him will continue to risk the clay for the sake of sharing the Light.

“Doctor with Ebola Safely Back in U.S.,” Samaritan’s Purse, 3 August 2014, http://www.samaritanspurse.org/article/samaritans-purse-doctor-serving-in-liberia-west-africa-tests-positive-for-ebola/ (accessed 4 August 2014).


1. When you read about Kent Brantly, what do you think of his commitment? How do you imagine he felt when he learned that he had contracted the deadly virus while caring for others who already suffered from it?
2. Why do you think some people are willing to risk their lives to serve Christ? Do you think you would be willing to do this?
3. How does it feel to know that God put such a beautiful treasure within your fragile human body? Why do you think God would do that?
4. Do you find Paul’s words in verse 8 comforting or intimidating? Why?
5. How can you use your body—your mind, your hands, and your feet—to share the treasure, the Light of Jesus Christ, with other people?

Reference Shelf

As a sharer in Christ’s death, Paul further understood himself as a recipient of God’s life, but not for himself alone. The dawning of the new age is not just in his heart but in all of creation. Allison’s words offer a framework for reading Paul here. Allison refers to human ordering of the world as “the dominion of death,” for, he claims, the “fatal secret” at the heart of human ways of being is “our need to kill, to persecute, to purify and cleanse in order to maintain security and order.” Thus Rome’s practices. By contrast, God is “completely and entirely alive, living without any reference to death. There is no death in God.” Jesus, imbued with belief in God’s complete aliveness, lived “as if death were not”—he ignored purity rules, welcomed those who had been cast out, called disciples to love those who persecuted them rather than respond in kind, and did not respond violently when violence was done to him. Then God raised him from the dead, showing the power of God’s life. Whenever anyone sees Jesus living as if death were not and sees the power of God to raise him to life, then it becomes “infinitely and creatively possible” for that person to “be possessed by the same dynamic that was at work in Jesus, and so do the same as he.” In so doing, the follower shows others the possibility of living in the power of God’s life even in a world marked by the “dominion of death.” Or, to use apocalyptic language, such a person lives in the age to come even now. Paul certainly would not have used the same words as Allison, but a similar perspective appears to have guided his thinking as he declared that he bore the death of Jesus in his body “so that the life of Jesus may be revealed in our body” (vv. 10b, 11b). He is, in the words of N. T. Wright, “a walking visual aid of the gospel of Jesus.” The conclusion Paul draws, then, is in v. 12: “death is working in us, but life in you.”

Thus, in a city shaped by Roman imperial presence, where wealth, power, and triumph were proclaimed as evidence of the gods’ favor, Paul offers a radically different criterion for judging the “success” of his ministry: life in the midst of death. In effect, he called the Corinthian believers to see their world, and his ministry in particular, through the lens of Christ’s death and resurrection rather than through the lens of imperial power. When, through such a lens, they see the “clay jar” being persecuted, imprisoned, and beaten, and still not cracking, they can realize the power of God’s life and how it was at work in his ministry. Then they may open themselves to its work in their own lives.

An important caveat should be offered here: nothing in these verses calls us to seek or glorify suffering. To borrow Kraftchick’s language, there is no Christo-masochism here. Nor is this suffering to be considered redemptive. Rather, Paul’s suffering was a result, not a goal, of his work on behalf of the gospel. The amazing point he highlights is that God’s life was at work even as he suffered.

Initially v. 13 seems to offer an abrupt shift in Paul’s thinking, but the shift is not as great as contemporary readers first experience it. Paul claims the “same spirit of faith” as the psalmist who wrote, “I believed, therefore I spoke” (from Ps 116:10), and then declares “we also believe, therefore we speak . . . .” The specific belief he has in mind is given in v. 14, the first part of which reads, “knowing that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will also raise us with Jesus.” If, as seems likely, Paul’s “speaking” refers to his proclamation of the gospel, then he is asserting that, like his Jewish forebears who believed in God through difficult times (the psalm celebrates God who delivered the psalmist from death), his faith in the One who raised Jesus from the dead enabled him to preach the power of God’s life even in the midst of suffering.

There’s more to v. 14. Following the claim that God will raise “them” (Paul and his coworkers) with Jesus, the last part of the verse adds “and will bring us together with you.” As Wright is fond of saying, Paul believed he lived “between resurrections,” i.e., between Jesus’ resurrection that had already happened and inaugurated the new age, and the future resurrection of all God’s people when the new age comes in its fullness. Then, that which is perishable will put on imperishability, mortality will put on immortality, and God will be all in all. Participating in this moment will be the “crowning evidence” not only of the authenticity of the Corinthians’ faith but also of the authenticity of those by whom they have come to faith. That is, this resurrection moment when all are gathered before God will, in Paul’s thinking, be vindication for the Corinthians and also for him. We readers are reminded again that Paul is defending and defining himself throughout this section of the letter.

“All things are for your sake,” Paul then says (v. 15a), which is probably another way of saying “death is working in us but life in you” (v. 12). It is an odd beginning to the thought he is about to express, but then v. 15 is odd altogether. The grammar is so choppy and unclear that, as Victor Paul Furnish says, “The construction here must remain problematic.” The gist of the thought, though, seems to be that as grace increases within the Corinthian church so that more members respond to it genuinely, the more they will experience grace, which causes it to increase even more. Then, as they have this experience, their sense of thanksgiving will abound with the result that God is glorified.21 “All things” for the “Corinthians’ sake” could lead to an ancient version of egocentricity if they do not grasp that all the things Paul has discussed show God’s grace poured out on them. But if they “get” God’s grace, then they will be thankful and glorify God rather than themselves.


Mitzi L. Minor, 2 Corinthians, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006) 90-92.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys curriculum since 2001. She is a member of West Highland Baptist Church in Macon, Georgia. She enjoys reading and writing fiction, spending time with her husband and two daughters, and watching British television shows. Her goal for 2014 is to learn to play the piano.


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