But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves; (4:7)
But introduces a contrast with verse 6, which describes the immense and incalculable glory of the eternal God revealed in the incarnate Christ. That priceless divine treasure is contained in a lowly human container—a humbling perspective every preacher and believer must have. Paul’s humble view of himself was at the heart of what made him so usable. Later in this epistle he wrote, “For we are not bold to class or compare ourselves with some of those who commend themselves” (2 Cor. 10:12). He refused to evaluate himself based on the false apostles’ shallow, external criteria; he was not interested in comparing himself with those who “measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves” (10:12). He would not “boast beyond … measure” (10:13), because “he who boasts is to boast in the Lord” (10:17) and, “It is not he who commends himself that is approved, but he whom the Lord commends” (10:18).
The treasure in view here is the same as the “ministry” in 4:1. Both terms describe the glorious gospel message that the eternal God came into the world in the person of Jesus Christ, and died on the cross and rose again to provide forgiveness of sin and eternal life for all who repent and believe. The treasure is of incalculable worth, because “in [Christ] are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.… For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Col. 2:3, 9). The gospel message reveals the most profound truths the world has ever known, which produce the most powerful eternal effects. Through the gospel people are freed from the power of sin and death (Rom. 8:2; Heb. 2:14), released from condemnation (Rom. 8:1), transformed into the image of Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18), and given eternal joy, peace, and satisfaction.
Yet, amazingly, that priceless gospel treasure is contained in simple earthen vessels. Ostrakinos (earthen) refers to baked clay. The vessels Paul describes here were just common pots: cheap, breakable, easily replaceable, and virtually valueless. Occasionally they were used to hide valuables, such as gold, silver, and jewelry. The pots containing such valuable items would often be buried in the ground. In fact, the man in Jesus’ parable who found the treasure hidden in a field (Matt. 13:44) might have discovered it when his plow broke a buried pot. Clay pots were also used to store valuable documents; the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered stored in clay pots in a cave near Qumran.
But earthen vessels were most frequently used for ignoble, everyday purposes. In ancient times, human waste and garbage were stored and transported in clay pots. They were “vessels … of earthenware … to dishonor” (2 Tim. 2:20); that is, they were used for dishonorable, distasteful, unmentionable tasks. Such clay pots had no intrinsic value; their only worth came from the valuables they contained or the service they performed.
Far from disputing the false apostles’ disparaging assessment of him, Paul embraced it and turned it into an affirmation of his authenticity. The apostle acknowledged his human limitations and weaknesses, even describing himself as the “foremost” of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). But like a cheap, fragile, ordinary clay pot used to hide valuable treasure, Paul carried the priceless treasure of the glorious new covenant gospel. Therefore he could boldly affirm, “I consider myself not in the least inferior to the most eminent apostles” (2 Cor. 11:5). In the next verse he declared, “Even if I am unskilled in speech, yet I am not so in knowledge.” Though he lacked the polished oratorical skills so highly prized by the Greeks, Paul was not at all lacking in spiritual knowledge.
God delights in using humble, common people, those who are overlooked by society. He places in such clay pots the incalculable treasure of the gospel. In his first inspired letter to the Corinthians, Paul reminded them of that truth:
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 of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. (1 Cor. 1:26–29)
Earlier he asked rhetorically, “Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Cor. 1:20). By using common clay pots, God gets the glory, “so that, just as it is written, ‘Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord’ ” (1 Cor. 1:31). The prerequisite for spiritual usefulness is to be humble, to see one’s self for what one really is, and acknowledge that all the glory for one’s accomplishments belongs to God, who placed the treasure in us. His own trials had taught Paul the lesson that God’s glory and strength were best manifest in his weakness. Because God said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9), Paul could joyously affirm, “Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (12:10).
The world is filled with people too enamored with their own cleverness, importance, and ability to be used by God. But when God chose the men through whom He would give His Word to mankind, He did not choose the learned scholars of Alexandria, the distinguished philosophers of Athens, the eloquent orators of Rome, or the self-righteous religious leaders of Israel. He passed them all by in favor of simple Galilean fishermen like Peter, John, James, and Andrew, despised traitors like Matthew the tax collector, and obscure men like Philip, Mark, and Nathaniel (see John MacArthur, Twelve Ordinary Men [Nashville: Word Publishing, 2002]). Even the educated people He chose, such as Luke the physician and Paul, the rabbinic scholar, were humble, unimposing people. To those common, earthen vessels God entrusted the priceless treasure of the gospel.
God chooses humble people to proclaim the gospel message so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of Him. He alone reveals “the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (4:6). By using frail, fallible people, God makes it clear that the power lies not in the human messenger but in the divine message. God’s power transcends the limitations of the clay pot. And it is precisely those limitations that allow Christians to experience the greatest demonstration of God’s power.
7 Here is the first paradox—the difference between the indescribable value of the gospel treasure and the relative worthlessness of the gospel’s ministers. Verse 6 referred to the treasure in jars of clay as the illumination that comes from “the knowledge of the glory of God.” In describing as “earthen vessels” (NASB) those to whom the gospel is entrusted (1 Th 2:4), Paul is not disparaging the human body or implying that the body is simply the receptacle of the soul (see Notes). Rather, he is contrasting the relative insignificance and unattractiveness of the bearers of the light with the inestimable worth and beauty of the light itself. Behind this contrast Paul sees a divine purpose—that people may recognize that “this all-surpassing power” is God’s alone. His power finds its full scope in human weakness (2 Co 12:9).
4:7 / Having shown the transcendent power and glory of his apostleship in 2:14–4:6, Paul is careful not to claim personal credit for these things. Paul wants to avoid the appearance of self-commendation (3:1) and claims instead that his competence is from God (3:5). This treasure probably refers to the revelation of the glory of God in the face of Christ through which Paul received his apostolic commission (4:6). Paul has this revelatory treasure in jars of clay. It is difficult to know exactly why Paul has chosen this metaphor for his physical body (cf. b. Taʿan. 7a; Acts 9:15). In the ancient world, the most common vessels were earthenware. They were used for storing and transporting (of water, oil, grain, and olives), cooking, eating, drinking, and presenting offerings. They are found in every domestic excavation site and in graves, where they accompanied the deceased with provisions. Pottery vessels became the main type of containers in most Near Eastern cultures. Yet the vessels were fragile and their usual life spans were probably a few years at the most. Therefore, when Paul refers to his body as a clay jar, he may be regarding himself, on one level, as quite ordinary and transitory (cf. Lam. 4:2; Song Rab. 1:19: “Just as water does not keep well in a vessel of silver or gold but in the commonest of vessels, so the Torah resides only in one who makes himself like a vessel of earthenware”).
Paul’s metaphor, however, has a deeper significance: His body is a “jar of clay” because “the Lord God formed man (ʾādām) from the dust of the ground (ʾadāmāh)” (Gen. 2:7; cf. Ps. 103:14; Isa. 29:16; 45:9; Sir. 33:10, 13; 1QH 1.15; 3.21; 1QS 11.21–22). The Hebrew verb yāṣar here is most often used of a potter who “forms” a vessel out of clay (cf. Isa. 29:16; 41:25; Jer. 18:4, 6; 1 Chron. 4:23; Lam. 4:2). In the account of the curse, Genesis goes on to underscore the relationship of human beings to the soil: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19; cf. Ps. 104:29; Job 10:9; 17:16; 21:26; 34:15; Eccl. 3:20; cf. Schäfer, §973). Therefore, when Paul refers to his body as a clay jar, he regards himself as having a mortal human body.
Verse 7b goes on to give the purpose for which the revelatory treasure is contained in the clay jar of Paul’s mortal body. In the previous context, Paul has been careful not to claim any credit for the surpassing glory and power of his apostolic ministry (cf. 3:6, 10). In fact, the apostle strictly denies any sufficiency in and of himself (3:5). If his body fails to emanate this glory and power, that merely underscores the point, for while Paul considers himself to possess all-surpassing power, this power is not inherently Paul’s own; it is from God (v. 7b; cf. 6:7; 12:9; 12:12).
Power in weakness (4:7)
Paul contrasts a priceless jewel with its receptacle, an everyday earthen jar. The jewel, or treasure, is ‘the knowledge … of God in the face of Christ’ which God has ‘made … shine in our hearts’ (verse 6). The earthen jar in which this treasure is contained, the human body, is subject to decay and vulnerable to disease and injury. It is, in ultimate terms, powerless.
This is not accidental, but deliberate, to show that this all-surpassing power is from God (verse 7). The power to lift man out of his powerlessness in the face of suffering, decay and death does not come from within himself; it comes only from God. Man is like a jar of clay in order that the all-surpassing power might be from God, and not from ourselves. Earlier (1:8), he wrote of being ‘under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure’. Now, in exact answer, he writes of God’s power which surpasses the weakness of the human body.
It is, apparently, part of God’s plan that the power is not from us. Had this priceless treasure been contained in a strong and permanent body it would have proved a fatal combination for proud and sinful man. Like Adam, he would have reached for the heavens to be a spiritual superman, a ‘god’, a reference perhaps to Paul’s opponents (cf. 12:6–7, 11). We come to appreciate how powerful God is only when we acknowledge the certainty of our own death. This, apparently, had been Paul’s experience. Human life is short, its form easily defaced and its fabric destructible in a second. It is an earthen jar, a cheap clay pot. Hughes comments that ‘the immense discrepancy between the treasure and the vessel serves simply to attest that human weakness presents no barrier to the purposes of God, indeed, that God’s power is made perfect in weakness’.
This teaching about power in weakness, so far from being applicable only to the apostles, is, along with the teaching on transformation (3:18) and illumination (4:6), true for all believers. In fact, the opinion that the power of God impinges on man not in his supposed strength but in his real weakness is no passing sentiment, but is the theological insight, the chief theme, which binds together the whole letter and gives it its unity. It was stated near the beginning (1:8), is restated here (verse 7) and will reappear near the end in the memorable words of Jesus to Paul: ‘My power is made perfect in weakness’ (12:9).
4:7. Paul began this section with a clear thesis statement that he would develop in the verses to follow. Although Paul and other apostles were determined to serve in ministry because of the light of Christ in their hearts, they had this treasure in jars of clay. The image of this metaphor is twofold. On the one hand, there is treasure. The treasure represents the new covenant ministry empowered by “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God” (4:6). In Paul’s day earthenware containers were used to hold many different items. Paul had in mind precious items such as silver or gold. Paul viewed the gospel and its ministry as precious cargo.
On the other hand, this priceless gospel ministry was carried about in jars of clay. Artifacts from Paul’s day indicate that not all items were stored in earthenware containers. Boxes of gold and ivory, decorated with precious stones, were available for the wealthy. Yet, it was common for items of great value to be stored in inexpensive pots of clay.
The counterpart to the jars of clay in Paul’s metaphor is the ministers themselves. Paul had in mind not only the physical body, but also the many trials and troubles that came upon him and those who ministered with him. He introduced the idea that God had placed the treasure of the gospel ministry in frail, ordinary humans. A priceless treasure was contained in common earthenware.
Paul chose this metaphor because it symbolized the reality of his ministry. He had received the incredible light of God in Christ and was commissioned to spread this gospel throughout the world on Christ’s behalf. Yet, this precious treasure did not raise Paul out of ordinary human life. He still faced the weaknesses of physical trials and persecutions in this world.
What was the purpose of this design? The grand message of Christ was carried through the world by ordinary, weak human beings to show that this all-surpassing power was from God and not from the ministers. The expression all-surpassing power alludes to 4:6, which focused on the divine power demonstrated first at the command that light appear (Gen. 1:3), and later in the order that the light of Christ shine in the hearts of believers. God spoke and the light of creation shone; he spoke and the light of re-creation shone as well.
This power of God was also evident in the preaching of the gospel (Rom. 15:18–19). The weakness of Paul and other ministers, coupled with their refusal to use deception, could not have produced the powerful, re-creative effects that the gospel produced. God chose weak creatures to minister the gospel so that it would be all the more clear that he had accomplished the work through these ministers (2 Tim. 1:8).
The effectiveness of their ministry might have caused some people to attribute honor to the ministers themselves. But Paul insisted that the weakness of the jars of clay demonstrated that ministers of the gospel deserved no glory for their work. The power came through weak instruments to demonstrate that it was from God and not from the ministers.
7. And we have this treasure in earthenware pots, so that the extraordinary power may be of God and not out of us.
This verse shows double contrast: first, the treasure of gospel light (v. 6) and worthless clay pots; next, God’s supernatural power and human weakness. The first clause states a fact that in the second results in achieving purpose.
- “And we have this treasure in earthenware pots.” The phrase and we have refers not to Paul only but to everyone who has received and possesses the good news of salvation. This treasure consists of the gospel message that we have received from the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul tells us that this message is a priceless gift that we carry around in earthenware vessels. He uses an illustration taken from everyday life: clay pots that contained everything from wealth to worthless things, from foods to liquids. Because jars, pots, and vessels were made from clay, they were subject to breakage and, therefore, were inexpensive and discarded in short order.
Jewish rabbis used to say: “It is impossible for wine to be kept in gold or silver vessels but in the most inferior of containers, namely, in earthen vessels. Similarly, the words of the Law are kept only in the person who is most humble.” An analogy is the valuable Dead Sea Scrolls, which were stored for more than two millennia in ordinary clay jars that were decaying while the scrolls remained intact. E. F. F. Bishop suggests that Paul may have had in mind “earthenware lamps of different shapes and sizes.”29 Other scholars wish to link earthenware jars to Paul’s remark about the triumphal procession in Christ (2:14). Filled with coins, grain, wine, or water, vessels were carried along in offering processions.
Lamps made out of clay spread light in every home and jars filled with various commodities were part of triumphal processions. But if Paul had intended to draw attention to either a lamp or a jar in a procession, he would have been able to express this in appropriate words. For him, the contrast of the incomparable value of the gospel and the cheap, fragile clay jars is important. He emphasizes not so much the fragile pots but their content, namely, the treasure.
Assaulted and battered numerous times, Paul’s own body was living proof of its frailty and impending mortality (5:1). For this reason, Paul uses the example of earthenware pottery to illustrate the bodies and minds of humans. He himself calls attention to the potter who fashions vessels for noble and common purposes (Rom. 9:21; Isa. 29:16; Jer. 18:6). And Jesus describes Paul as “a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles” (Acts 9:15, KJV).
- “So that the extraordinary power may be of God and not out of us.” We hold the gospel as it were in clay jars to exhibit the phenomenal power of God, so that everyone may see that not we but God is its source. The original text reads: “the extraordinary (quality of the) power.” The Greek perhaps reflects Hebraic syntax that merely says “extraordinary power.” What is this great power? It is God’s word that created light (Gen. 1:3), that led Israel out of Egypt (Exod. 3:7–10), that raised Jesus from the dead (Rom. 1:4), and that called Paul to be a missionary to the Gentiles (Acts 26:16–18).
God’s power is revealed in human beings who, in the eyes of the world, are of no account. For example, a company of uneducated fishermen follow Jesus and, filled with the Holy Spirit, spread the gospel to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Jason and some fellow Christians are dragged before the city officials in Thessalonica and are accused of causing trouble all over the world (Acts 17:6). Paul is told that he is unimpressive and lacks oratorical skills (10:10), yet he proclaimed the gospel, founded congregations, strengthened the believers, and composed epistles that have brought the message of salvation to countless multitudes around the globe. Commenting on his physical weakness and Christ’s power, Paul affirms that when he is weak, the divine power of Christ is resting on him (12:7–9). The authority of the gospel is not human in origin but has its source in God. “For from him and through him and to him are all things” (Rom. 11:36).
4:7 Having spoken of the obligation to make the message plain, the Apostle Paul now thinks of the human instrument to which the wonderful gospel treasure had been committed. The treasure is the glorious message of the gospel. The earthen vessel, on the other hand, is the frail human body. The contrast between the two is tremendous. The gospel is like a precious diamond that scintillates brilliantly every way in which it is turned. To think that such a precious diamond has been entrusted to such a frail, fragile earthenware vessel!
Earthen vessels, marred, unsightly,
Bearing Wealth no thought can know;
Heav’nly Treasure, gleaming brightly—
Christ revealed in saints below!
Vessels, broken, frail, yet bearing
Through the hungry ages on,
Riches giv’n with hand unsparing,
God’s great Gift, His precious Son!
O to be but emptier, lowlier,
Mean, unnoticed and unknown,
And to God a vessel holier,
Filled with Christ, and Christ alone!
Naught of earth to cloud the Glory!
Naught of self the light to dim!
Telling forth Christ’s wondrous story,
Broken, empty—filled with Him!
—Tr. Frances Bevan
Why has God ordained that this treasure should be in earthen vessels? The answer is so that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. God does not want men to be occupied with the human instrument, but rather with His own power and greatness. And so He deliberately commits the gospel message to weak, often uncomely human beings. All the praise and glory must go to the Creator and not the creature.
It is a secret joy to find
The task assigned beyond our powers;
For thus, if ought of good be wrought,
Clearly the praise is His, not ours.
There is something wrong when the vessel robs the treasure of its glory, when the casket attracts more attention than the jewel which it bears. There is a very perverse emphasis when the picture takes second place to the frame, and when the ware which is used at the feast becomes a substitute for the meal. There is something deadly in Christian service when “the excellency of the power” is of us and not of God. Such excellency is of a very fleeting kind, and it will speedily wither as the green herb and pass into oblivion.
As Paul penned verse 7, it is almost certain he was thinking of an incident in Judges 7. There it is recorded that Gideon equipped his army with trumpets, empty pitchers, and lamps within the pitchers. At the appointed signal, his men were to blow their trumpets and break the pitchers. When the pitchers were broken, the lamps shone out in brilliance. This terrified the enemy. They thought there was a vast host after them, instead of just three hundred men. The lesson is that, just as in Gideon’s case the light only shone forth when the pitchers were broken, so it is in connection with the gospel. Only when human instruments are broken and yielded to the Lord can the gospel shine forth through us in all its magnificence.
 Harris, M. J. (2008). 2 Corinthians. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, p. 469). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Second Epistle to the Corinthians (Vol. 19, pp. 146–147). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1834). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.