The critics of the Apostle Paul sought to discredit him. They questioned his authority and judged the motives of his ministry. In defense, Paul uses the image of an earthen vessel to describe the role of an authentic minister of Jesus Christ. He acknowledges that at best we are broken mud pots carrying within us a priceless treasure (2Cor.4:7). But this was not how Paul first understood ministry and it took him tough times to get to say this!
Paul hailed from the influential city of Tarsus where he was given Roman citizenship. He was proficient in the Greek language and part of the ‘superior’ Hellenistic culture (Acts 21:39; 22:3). He was a Pharisaic Jew, zealously devoted to uphold the Mosaic-rabbinical law (26:5; Phil. 3:5) and groomed in the Hebrew Scriptures, Talmudic tradition. He was mentored by Rabban Gamaliel and a brilliant religious expert of his day. Paul was an educated, respected and became self-sufficient i.e. full of himself. Though competent, as far as serving Christ was concerned, he was an empty vessel.
Paul’s encounter with the risen Jesus on the Damascus road transformed his life and his identity. This persecutor of the Christians was now a chosen vessel, filled with God’s Spirit and set apart to show forth God’s glory in Jesus (Acts 9:15). In that day, jars of clay were plentiful, easily available, cheap and readily disposable. Interestingly, people used to store valuables like antique jewelry and official documents in them. Paul, after encountering his Master, considered himself as such afragile and vulnerable clay vessel.
One must ask, as Paul did, why would God want to choose a breakable, clay pot? He goes on to explain (2Cor. 4:7); so that the focus would not be on the carrier but the contents – the Gospel of Christ, the true Treasure (v.10-12)! To have Christ or as Paul put it, ‘being found in Christ’, was all he ever wanted (Phil. 3:7-10). In other words, Christ’s Spirit ‘in Paul’ was the Treasure and he, merely the bearer of this life-giving Spirit. As ministers, our weaknesses only highlight the wonder and worth of Christ in us.
Evidently something else had to happen – this clay pot had to be cracked! Why? so that the light of Christ’s glorious Gospel may shine through for others to see the real Treasure! Hence Paul needed to be a cracked vessel. Sadly, this Apostle turned out to be a problem to the early Christians and was sought to be killed. People were afraid of this noisy, clay pot. The disciples were forced to send Paul away to the Arabian deserts for 3 years, after which the Church enjoyed peace, was strengthened, stabilized and spiritually grew (Acts 9:31). What really happened to Paul in the wilderness?
Paul learnt the twofold call of being a vessel: not only to bear the name of Christ but also to suffer for that name (Phil.1:27). Suffering for Christ or righteousness sake, has a way of breaking our pride and cleansing us from sin and self. It cracks our self-will so it is not us but God’s grace in Christ that is seen. Paul was now sanctified, made a clean vessel, fit and set apart for his Master’s use (2Tim. 2:21) It is one thing to let Jesus into our lives and entirely another thing to let Him shine out of our lives.
Ministers must remember, it is not the stars but the scars that are our brand-marks (Gal. 6:17). Being a cracked pot in order to allow Jesus’ Gospel shine through us is the distinguishing mark of a true servant of Christ.