When I was in college I took a couple of archeology classes. I found them fascinating. For a while I thought about pursuing that path. My professor spent his summers at archeological digs in the Middle East, seeking to gain new insights into the ancient world. He would regale us with stories about the discoveries that his team made.
A couple of years ago I went to an archeological dig on Johnson’s Island, Ohio. It was the site of an American Civil War POW camp. Captured Confederate soldiers were brought there to wait out the war. The man who oversaw the project was trying to discover all he could about life in a Civil War POW camp. Ironically, one of the most fruitful places to dig was the latrines, where all the broken bits and pieces of life were discarded.
One of the things that archeologists look for is pottery. Pottery can tell a person much about a society. The pottery from early societies is crude, primitive and functional. It may have little in the way of decoration on it. It will have large, functional handles for ease of use. The walls of the pottery will be thick and substantial. As the archeologist moves along the timeline of history the pottery changes. It becomes more and more ornate. At first, crude designs are cut into the pottery. Then, more elaborate pictures of people, animals and nature. As the decorations increase, the functionality of the pottery decreases. The pottery itself becomes more delicate and refined. Those large functional handles shrink to small decorative handles. An archeologist can measure the sophistication of the society by its pottery.
The Bible likens us to clay pots. We are the pottery of God. Isaiah says that we are like clay on the potter’s wheel. God has the right to shape and mold us as He wills. He shapes us for particular purposes and the more we understand our purpose the more functional we become.
Paul picks up this idea of being God’s pottery in 2 Corinthians 4:7-10. 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.
The treasure that Paul is talking about is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We are the vessels that God has chosen to entrust this great treasure to. There are a couple of things that Paul teaches us through this passage.
We are the containers and not the treasure. In ancient times it was not uncommon to display treasure in common vessels to show off the glory of the treasure. Jewelers do something similar today. They will place a diamond or a piece of expensive jewelry on a black cloth to show off the jewelry. The black cloth is just a contrast, a backdrop to the treasure. Paul wants us to see that what is most important is the treasure we carry and not the vessel. We are just clay pots.
Paul doesn’t stop there. He tells us that, with the treasure inside of us, we are resilient. The ability of our clay pots to withstand the negative forces around us is a testament to the power of God within us. We may get beat up on the outside, but we will not be crushed. A good way to think about this is a two-liter bottle of soda. The bottle itself is flimsy and flexible. When it is empty, it is easily crushed. But, when the bottle is full with the cap on, it can withstand enormous pressure. The pressure on the inside gives it strength. Our lives are a living testimony to the power of Christ at work in our world.
There is one more thing that Paul teaches us. These clay pots are being refined for the glory of God. As we go through the trials of life, our clay pots reflect more and more of the glory of God. Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (NIV)
When something is refined it often means removing impurities or rough edges. We begin as crude clay jars, which God refines into fine porcelain vessels. He smoothes the rough edges of our lives. He removes some of the unnecessary weigh. He adorns us with his glory. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. 2 Corinthians 3:18 (NIV)
An archeologist can tell much about a society by its pottery. The world can tell much about our faith by the pottery we are becoming. We are Christ’s clay jars, chosen to hold the most amazing treasure, to make known the glory of God in our world.