The weakness of the kingdom
In the past couple of blog posts, I have talked about the weakness of the kingdom of God. By this I mean, the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed and inaugurated was a kingdom that was not impressive or powerful. Jesus came to an inconsequential Jewish backwater province as an itinerant preacher, without status, money or military might. He saw the need of the people, and sought to address it, but his kingdom was sorely understaffed. To the disappointment of his little band of followers, the movement he started did not expel the Roman conquerors. Instead, this humble king was arrested and executed as a criminal by these Romans. His poor, uneducated and apparently unreliable disciples, were deemed incapable of carrying on the vision of this upstart king.
But Jesus’ kingdom proved to be remarkably resilient and defied all expectations. Crucifying the King did not destroy the kingdom. In fact, the King’s power to save his people was actually expressed in his moment of greatest weakness.
The cross is not contrary to this King and kingdom, but the center of it. This King has power, but it is a paradoxical power, one of suffering and weakness.Patrick Schreiner, The Kingdom of God and the Glory of the Cross, p. 153.
But this principle of paradoxical power expressed through weakness is not only seen in Jesus. For many years, I have marveled at Paul’s characterization of his own ministry. On the one hand, he describes his apostolic calling and ministry in the most glorious terms. He compares what he is doing by the Spirit with what Moses did – and Moses comes in a distant second! See 2 Corinthians 3:6-11.
On the other hand, he describes himself as coming in weakness.
I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling.1 Corinthians 2:3
In the same vein, Paul frequently and at some length talks about the trials and hardships of his ministry (2 Cor 4:8-11, 6:4-10, 11:23-29). They almost overwhelm him at times (2 Cor 1:8). His thorn in the flesh will not go away, despite his fervent prayers.
Yet he is a confident and bold witness for Christ. What was the basis of Paul’s remarkable confidence? It wasn’t because he thought his job was easy. In fact, when he thought about being an apostle, he realized that he had an impossible job.
God had given him the task of telling a story about a Jewish Messiah with the goal that people from many other cultures would decide to follow this Messiah and become citizens of God’s kingdom. Not only were these non-Jews fairly skeptical of the relevance of this message. Even the majority of Jewish people were downright antagonistic to Paul’s story. As a result, Paul’s audience regularly chased him out of town or even tried to kill him. He realized that his job was challenging to say the least. Some might have said it was hopeless and futile.
And who is equal to such a task?2 Corinthians 2:16
Nevertheless Paul was confident. However, he didn’t base this confidence on his own knowledge and abilities.
Such confidence we have through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.2 Cor. 3:4-6
In other words, Paul was saying that despite all evidence to the contrary, God considered him to be competent. How did he come to this strange conclusion? Did he believe that God had really low standards for evaluating his work performance? Was he he just overly optimistic?
To understand Paul’s surprising confidence, we have to move on to chapter 4 of 2 Corinthians. Here Paul uses a metaphor of himself that at first seems pretty demeaning.
We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.2 Cor 4:7.
Paul says he is just a clay pot – not very pretty, not very durable, but useful. What is a clay pot supposed to do? It is designed to hold what you put inside it until you need to pour it out. The value of a clay pot is not the pot itself, but what is inside the pot.
So in what way is Paul a clay pot? He is saying what makes him a competent messenger of God is not himself (his body, his mind, his abilities), but the message that he is carrying.
It is clear from the context that the treasure inside Paul’s clay pot is the Gospel that he was preaching, the message of the New Covenant. So Paul is a simple container of an extremely valuable treasure. He is a delivery boy delivering God’s glorious good news. Paul realized that his competence was not because he was so great, but because he had a great message. His competence was based not on the quality of the messenger but on the quality of the message.
My favourite commentary on 2 Corinthians is David Garland’s work in the New American Commentary series. Talking about this metaphor of a clay pot, Garland notes,
The term earthen vessels (ostrakinoi skeuē) implies something fragile, inferior, and expendable. Picturing himself as an ordinary, everyday utensil conveying an invaluable treasure is as striking an image as Paul’s picture of himself as a defeated but joyous prisoner marching in God’s triumphal procession (2:14). Such an image underscores his weakness. An earthen vessel is “quintessentially fragile,” prone to breakage, easily chipped and cracked. A breakable vessel offers no protection for the treasure (except from dust and water). The image therefore serves to emphasize the contrast between Paul’s own pitiful weakness and the great power of God.David E. Garland, 2 Corinthians, The New American Commentary, (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999), 29:220–221.
We do not want to think of ourselves as fragile. I have written about the importance of resilience for missionaries in this blog. Through training, member care, and realistic expectations, we prepare our people to survive and even thrive in times of difficulty and discouragement.
But we must admit that we are mortal. None of us are permanent or unbreakable. Despite our best efforts in training, member care, support and mentoring, missionaries do resign and go home. We would be badly mistaken if we concluded that all or even the majority of those who leave the field are guilty of abandoning their call. We are simply human beings, and our bodies, minds and spirits are not impervious to illness, stress or ageing.
Garland goes on to highlight another facet of the metaphor. Clay pots are not expensive.
Second, the image highlights Paul’s lowliness. He does not depict himself as an object d’art such as an exquisitely crafted Grecian urn, or bronze vessel, or delicate goblet with gold inlay. He has in mind earthenware jars or, perhaps, the small, cheap pottery lamps.David E. Garland, 2 Corinthians, p.221.
In our mission organization, and in many others, we say that our people are our most valuable resource. How could we ever say that they are cheap or even inferior? We bristle even at the thought of saying something like that about ourselves.
But when we are being truthful, we make no claims that we or our co-workers are among the world’s elite. By and large, our missionaries are not among the most powerful preachers, the most brilliant theologians or even the most fluent speakers of a foreign language. We are common folk, often from small, unknown colleges and churches. I sometimes refer to myself as a shy Mennonite farm boy who grew up on the wrong side of the highway. I am a illustration of Paul’s words to the Corinthian church.
But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. – 1 Corinthians 1:27–29
Third, the image highlights Paul’s expendability. Earthen vessels had no enduring value and were so cheap that when they were broken no one attempted to mend them. They simply discarded them.David E. Garland, 2 Corinthians, p. 221.
We abhor any talk about discarding our cross-cultural workers. We seek to help them in whatever way we can. When they experience brokenness, we are quick to look for ways to restore them to health and wholeness. We encourage people to pursue counselling, take sabbaticals, and participate in retreats designed to foster personal renewal.
Furthermore, we never take lightly the risks associated with sending our people to unreached people groups. Thorough preparation in security training is critical to fulfill our organizational duty of care for those who choose to go to places that are hostile toward messengers of the Gospel. The risks are real, and we want our people to be aware of them.
Nevertheless, our people take those risks, because access to the Gospel is more important than personal safety and comfort. We are not of the generation that sent their possessions to the mission field in coffins, because they expected to be buried in the places where they served. But we have no guarantee that all of us will return to retire in our home countries. None of us is indispensable. I personally have known a number of good missionaries who died while on the mission field. But as mission history has proven over and over again, the kingdom of God does not die when its messengers die or resign.
Embracing the metaphor
Should we as cross-cultural Gospel workers embrace the metaphor that we are simply clay pots? Obviously, as I have sought to point out, there are dangers in over-extending that metaphor. We must recognize that Paul did not use this metaphor because he wanted to make derogatory statements about himself or any of his co-labourers.
His point was simply that the Gospel really is a glorious treasure, and its value far exceeds the durability, quality or glory of the Gospel messengers. He was weak, but the Gospel he was communicating was powerful. He was serving the King who conquered by dying. So Paul was also prepared to take up his cross, to carry around in his body the death of Jesus, so that the message he carried might give life to the world.
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 also be revealed in our mortal body.2 Cor. 4:10–11
When we see ourselves as jars of clay, we will be willing to take risks for the sake of the kingdom of God. We will be less concerned about our imperfect pronunciations and grammatical mistakes when we speak of Jesus with our friends and neighbours. As clay pots, we will be less obsessed with impressing others with our theological or biblical knowledge. We won’t be as devastated when our co-workers or our neighbours overlook or criticize our contributions to a ministry or community project.
Clay pots experience renewal
By way of encouragement, we need to also recognize that the clay pot does not remain unchanged by that valuable treasure it contains. This is where Paul has to abandon his metaphor as he continues his discussion about the glories of the Gospel ministry in 2 Corinthians 4.
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.2 Corinthians 4:16
Clay pots do not take on the properties of the treasure they contain. But we, as messengers of the Gospel, do change. The Gospel we bear transforms and renews us. We are still weak and unimpressive from the world’s perspective. But our inner lives demonstrate a life that points to the resurrection. The kingdom to which we belong has power, even though it is displayed in weakness.