A Sermon Preached on April 28, 1993. Recorded, Transcribed, & Revised.
Open your Bibles with me to Second Corinthians, chapter 4. In verse 6 we read, “For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.”
Father, I pray that you might pour out your power tonight, even into this earthen vessel, and that your word might be spoken with power, and Father, that it might go home to all of our hearts with power. Give us your blessing tonight, Father. Warm our hearts. Move us. Do your work in our souls. Give us your grace, Father, through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Now in this verse that we just read it says, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels.” We have two things here—-a treasure, and earthen vessels. What is the treasure? The treasure is the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. The treasure is what Paul talks about in the first verse of this chapter, “Therefore seeing we have this ministry.” It's this testimony, this light, this ministry. That's the treasure. What are the earthen vessels? The earthen vessels are human beings, with all the frailties that belong to humanity—-all of the weaknesses, flaws and foibles, idiosyncrasies, ignorance. Just weakness—-earthen vessels. We have this treasure in earthen vessels.
Now there's a reason why we have this treasure in earthen vessels, and he tells you what that reason is in the 7th verse: “That the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.” He speaks a similar thing back in the first book of Corinthians, in the first chapter. I Corinthians, chapter 1, verse 26: he says, “For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: but God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are; that no flesh should glory in his presence.” God has a reason for putting this treasure in earthen vessels. That is that the sufficiency and the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us. Not only so, but when God chooses earthen vessels in which to put this treasure, he may often bypass the strong earthen vessels, and choose the weakest ones, because the weakness of God is stronger than men, and the foolishness of God is wiser than men. God does his work by his own strong arm, but he does it always through weak earthen vessels.
Now there are two difficulties that these earthen vessels cause. Actually there is a third one, which I'll dismiss first. Quite often folks get enamored with an earthen vessel, and because they are enamored with the earthen vessel they imagine that there's a treasure in it, and there is no treasure. This is how cults are formed—-folks get enamored with an earthen vessel. There is no treasure in it, but because they are infatuated with the earthen vessel they think there's a treasure in it, and they take something which isn't a treasure. They take darkness, and think it's light. And this danger exists in the true church of God as well. There are many earthen vessels in the places of ministry, which are in fact empty vessels, but the vessels themselves have some form and comeliness, and the people gather around them, and take chaff in the place of wheat. Such a thing could not happen if the church of God were really hungry, for hungry folks must have bread, and I believe that a little more of true hunger in the church of God would put a good many men out of the ministry.
But I say no more about empty vessels. I intend rather to speak of vessels which actually contain a treasure. There is danger enough where we have these two things—-where we have both the treasure and the earthen vessel. There are in fact two dangers. The first one is that we see the treasure that's in the earthen vessel, and we value the treasure that's in the earthen vessel, and because of it we begin to set that earthen vessel up on a pedestal, and begin to think that that earthen vessel is a vessel of gold—-forget that it's an earthen vessel—-begin to excuse the faults of this earthen vessel. Maybe fail even to be able to see the faults of this earthen vessel—-maybe even begin to defend moral delinquency in this earthen vessel, because we so value the treasure that we see in it. I could give you some examples of just exactly that, if I pleased tonight, but I don't want to mention any names.
But I want to talk about an error on the other side. There is always a danger on both the right hand and the left. Some see the treasure, and therefore fail to see even moral delinquency in the vessel of clay. Others behold the weakness in the vessel of clay, and their eyes are fixed upon the weakness of the vessel, and they can't see the treasure. Or they allow the weakness of the vessel to stand in the way of their profiting by the treasure that's in it.
Now when I'm talking about the weakness of the vessels of clay, I'm not talking about moral delinquency, though vessels of clay are subject to that, too. Many of God's greatest men have fallen grievously. But I'm not talking about moral delinquency. I'm just talking about the weakness that's common to humanity. And I'll tell you, human beings have all kinds of weaknesses. Here's brother so-and-so over here, and he talks too much, and some folks think he's obnoxious. He doesn't know when to keep his mouth shut. And here's another brother over here, and he's so quiet folks think he's unfriendly. Well, what are those things? Perhaps just human weaknesses. Something that belongs to a person's particular temperament or disposition. Over here's a brother that laughs too much, and folks think he's light and frivolous—-think he's unspiritual, because he laughs so much. Over here's a brother that doesn't laugh at all—-appears to be unhappy, and folks think he's unspiritual because he seems so somber and sad. But you know, you will search a long way to find a perfect earthen vessel. And I suspect that when you have found one, you won't find too much treasure in it, because God seems to go out of his way to choose the weak, and the foolish, and the base, and the despised vessels of clay. Human beings have idiosyncrasies. They have flaws and faults and foibles, and they make mistakes. And it doesn't matter how good your heart is, you'll make mistakes. Most of the difficulties that Christians have getting along with each other, that churches have maintaining harmony and unity, are not over any kind of serious doctrinal difficulties. They're not over any kind of moral delinquencies. They're just over the weaknesses of the vessels of clay.
Now you know, when God has a treasure to give, he always gives it in an earthen vessel. Christ ascended up on high, and he gave gifts to his church. Every one of them was in an earthen vessel. He gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers, helps, governments. From the highest of the gifts down to the lowest, every one was in an earthen vessel.
But here is what happens when God bestows his treasures upon his church. God takes an earthen vessel, and puts a treasure in it, and gives it to you, and you don't look at the treasure, you look at the vessel. You say, “God, that vessel isn't a very pretty color.” And God says, “But there's a treasure in it.” You say, “That vessel is misshapen. There are all kinds of vessels with a better appearance than that one.” And God says, “There's a treasure in it.” You say, “God, that vessel is too small.” And God says, “But there's a treasure in it.” There's an old proverb, by the way, that says, “Precious things come in small packages.” You look at that earthen vessel, and get all taken up with its earthiness. You can't see the treasure in it. You say, “But God, there isn't even any glazing on this earthen vessel. Couldn't you at least have taken it to a ceramic shop and put a little glaze on it? It's just drab, rough earth.” And God says, “But there's a treasure in it.”
Well, eventually we may begin to believe God, and begin to see the treasure after all. But we still have trouble with the vessel. We say, “God, you know, I see that treasure, but I don't like that vessel. See, my idea is not to have a rough, poorly-shaped, earthen vessel to contain this treasure. My idea is a beautiful, golden pot at the end of a shining rainbow, with fleecy white clouds all around, like I used to see in the picture books when I was a kid.” God says, “I don't have any golden vessels. All my vessels are earth.” Well, you may want to say, “God, I want this treasure. Just give me the treasure, but you can keep the vessel.” And God says, “Oh, no, I give no treasures, except in earthen vessels. I know they're weak.
I know they're not what you might want, but it's the only kind of vessels I have”—-“that the excellency of the power might be of God,” and not of the vessel. And God purposely chooses the weak ones, the base ones, the foolish ones, the despised ones.
You know, God could have done something other than he has done. Honestly, God didn't need these weak earthen vessels that he has put his treasures into. He has myriads of angels walking the golden streets. He could have put his treasures into them—-every one of them a vessel of pure gold. Those angels don't have any of the weaknesses of humanity. They're powerful. They don't have any spiritual weaknesses. They don't have any emotional weaknesses. They don't have physical weaknesses. They don't have, as far as I know, they don't have any idiosyncrasies. They don't have any faults and flaws and foibles. They're all just vessels of pure gold. And there's no reason on earth why God couldn't have just filled these vessels of gold with his treasures, and said, “Go down there to earth and spread the light.” Well, there is one reason. He wants the excellency of the power to be of God, and not in the vessel.
Now I want to talk to you tonight about some earthen vessels into which God put some treasures. But I want you to understand, when I'm talking about the weaknesses of humanity, I'm not talking about moral delinquency. I'm not talking about walking in sin. I'm just talking about human frailty. We all have our share of it.
The first earthen vessel I want to talk to you about tonight is Job. I want you to turn back to the book of Job, chapter 1. “There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil.” Verse 8: “And the Lord said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil?” Now Job was a vessel of earth. He may have been, according to God's testimony, the best vessel of earth on the earth, but he was a vessel of earth. And oh, he did very well when God smote him with stroke after stroke, and took away everything that he had. Job bowed his head before the Lord and said, “The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away: blessed be the name of the Lord.” But as time wore on, and Job began to feel the force of all of his losses, all of his troubles, he didn't do quite so well.
Now, in Job chapter three, it says, (beginning with the last verse of chapter two), “So they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spake a word unto him: for they saw that his grief was very great.” Now, sometimes vessels of clay don't handle very great grief very well. Job had very great grief, and it says in chapter three, verse one, “After this opened Job his mouth, and cursed his day. And Job spake, and said, Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night in which it was said, There is a man child conceived. Let that day be darkness; let not God regard it from above, neither let the light shine upon it. Let darkness and the shadow of death stain it; let a cloud dwell upon it; let the blackness of the day terrify it. As for that night, let darkness seize upon it; let it not be joined unto the days of the year, let it not come into the number of the months. Lo, let that night be solitary, let no joyful voice come therein. Let them curse it that curse the day, who are ready to raise up their mourning. Let the stars of the twilight thereof be dark; let it look for light, but have none; neither let it see the dawning of the day: Because it shut not up the doors of my mother's womb, nor hid sorrow from mine eyes. Why died I not from the womb? why did I not give up the ghost when I came out of the belly?”
Well, this looks to me like weakness, and a lot of it. In fact, I have a great suspicion that if any of us heard one of our people, or heard one of our ministers, talking like this, we'd rebuke him very sharply. They have no business to talk like that. I'm not going to try to answer the question of whether it was sinful for Job to speak so, but it is certainly a picture of the weakness of a vessel of clay. The best vessel on earth, by the way, but oh! so weak when he's smitten down with very great grief. So weak that he curses his day, and curses the night, and lets forth a volley of imprecations against that poor innocent day upon which he was born. That's the weakness of humanity. You say, “Well, I'm not that weak.” Well, I don't think I am either, but I don't know. I haven't really been where Job was. I'm not sure what I might do if I was there, but I do know I'm weak. You know, the interesting thing is that God never called Job to account for this, never mentioned it to him. I honestly don't know if this volley of imprecations was sinful or not. It looks to me like it was, but I won't try to answer the question. But whatever else it was, it was very great weakness. Yet in the forty-second chapter of Job, God never calls Job to account for this. He just says in the seventh verse, “And it was so, that after the Lord had spoken these words unto Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite, My wrath is kindled against thee, and against thy two friends: for ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job hath. Therefore take unto you now seven bullocks and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you: for him will I accept: lest I deal with you after your folly, in that ye have not spoken of me the thing which is right, like my servant Job.” In spite of all of that weakness, probably even sinful weakness, what does God say? Well, he says, “He knows our frame. He remembers that we're dust. He hath not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.” He didn't chide Job for that volley of imprecations, but accepted him, and filled him with his treasures.
I want to talk to you about another weak earthen vessel—-a very weak earthen vessel. His name is Jonah. You can turn to the book of Jonah. In the fourth chapter of the book of Jonah, we read, “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry.” What displeased him? Well, his prophecy didn't come true. God sent him to Nineveh to preach, “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” And Nineveh repented, and God spared Nineveh, and Jonah didn't like it. So it says, verse two, “He prayed unto the Lord, and said, I pray thee, O Lord, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil. Therefore now, O Lord, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.” Now, this was the weakness of a weak vessel of clay. Just pouting because God spared the people. You say, “Well, was this sinful weakness?” I think it was. I suppose he should have been rejoicing because God spared the people. But his reputation as a prophet was spoiled, and so he sits down and prays to God to take away his life. Now, what would you have done, if you had been there? I have an idea what some of you would have done. You would have said, “We can't acknowledge Jonah as a man of God. How can we sit under the ministry of a man like this? He's selfish and childish. His own reputation means more to him than half a million souls.” Nevertheless, it was this poor, weak vessel of clay that God chose to be his prophet, and never chose Jonah's detractors at all.
God saw Jonah in all of his weakness and discouragement, but he didn't cast him away, but went to work to teach him better.
But there's more yet to come, and it may be worse rather than better. “So Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd. But God prepared a worm when the morning rose the next day, and it smote the gourd that it withered. And it came to pass, when the sun did arise, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah, that he fainted, and wished in himself to die, and said, It is better for me to die than to live.” Well, you see here human weakness. God prepares a gourd to shield him from the heat and encourage him in his grief, and he's exceeding glad of the gourd, and the gourd withers, and the next day he's wishing to die, and saying, “God, take away my life. It's better for me to die than to live.” Why? Because the gourd died! Can anybody here relate to Jonah's weakness? I can. One little circumstance happens, and I'm exceeding glad, and the next day another little circumstance happens, or somebody says a little word to me, and I'm all discouraged. That's just how Jonah was. So God said to Jonah, verse 9, “Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd? And he said, I do well to be angry, even unto death.” God comes to him with just a mild, gentle reproof. Do you think you're doing well, Jonah, to sit here pouting about that gourd? Jonah says, “Yup, I'm doing well. I do well to be angry, even unto death.” Well, that's human weakness. You can say, that's more than weakness—-that's sin. Well, maybe it is sin. Maybe there's something of sin in it anyway, but it is certainly the weakness of the emotions of a vessel of clay. Yet that vessel of clay was a prophet of God, with a divine treasure inside.
Now I want to talk about one more vessel of earth. That's Elijah. You'll find him in the first book of Kings, the 19th chapter. “And Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and withal how he had slain all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger unto Elijah, saying, So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I make not thy life as the life of one of them by to morrow about this time. And when he saw that, he arose, and went for his life, and came to Beersheba, which belongeth to Judah, and left his servant there. But he himself went a day's journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree; and he requested for himself that he might die; and said, It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers.” Now, I honestly don't understand one thing. I don't see a whole lot of difference between Job and Jonah and Elijah. They were all just weak vessels of clay. The thing I don't understand is why everybody criticizes Job, and criticizes Elijah almost to death, and they never say anything about Jonah. Actually, I think if I were going to pick the worst of the three, I'd have to say it was Jonah. Yet everybody leaves Jonah alone. Too busy picking on Elijah and Job. I don't think there is much difference between them, except maybe that Jonah's weakness was worse. Elijah fled and went out a day's journey into the wilderness, and went out there and started praying to God to take away his life. That same Elijah who has filled all of our hearts with admiration when we see him standing on Mount Carmel boldly defying all the hundreds of prophets of Baal, calling down fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice. We see his great faith pouring twelve barrels of water over the sacrifice before he prays to God to send the fire. All of your hearts have been inspired by him I'm sure. That same Elijah two days later is out in the wilderness praying to God to take away his life. How is that? Oh, he's a vessel of clay, that's all.
But God didn't take away his life. One of the most touching passages in the Bible follows immediately upon this: “As he lay and slept under a juniper tree, behold, then an angel touched him, and said unto him, Arise and eat. And he looked, and, behold, there was a cake baken on the coals, and a cruse of water at his head. And he did eat and drink, and laid him down again. And the angel of the Lord came again the second time, and touched him, and said, Arise and eat; because the journey is too great for thee. And he arose, and did eat and drink, and went in the strength of that meat forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mount of God. And he came thither unto a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said unto him, What doest thou here, Elijah?” You know, it's a very interesting thing, how God dealt with all these weak vessels of clay. How did God deal with Job in all of Job's frailties? God just came to Job and started asking him questions. He didn't come to him to rebuke him. He didn't come to him and slap him up, or knock him down, or kick him while he was down. He just came to him and started asking him some questions. The same thing God did to Jonah. He just came to Jonah twice, and said, “Jonah do you do well to be angry?” And then he encouraged him. And he does the same thing here to Elijah—-just comes to Elijah and says, “Elijah, what are you doing here?”
Now, this was Elijah's opportunity. Now he's going to give vent to his pent up feelings. And he said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts, for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” Oh, I've heard so much criticism of Elijah. J. Frank Norris talks about the criticisms that he used to heap on Elijah for sitting out there pouting in the cave, discouraged to death, praying God to take away his life, feeling sorry for himself. And Norris says, “You know, one of the things I'm going to do when I get to heaven, I'm going to hunt up old Elijah, and I'm going to apologize to him.” You know Norris was there once, too, and he was ready to quit. He was discouraged to death. Thought everybody was against him—-and I guess everybody was. He said, “All the stars had gone out of my sky.” He didn't have anything left, and he was ready to quit. Well, that's human weakness, but it's worse weakness to get up from that state and start criticizing Elijah. But I'm sure that by now Norris has apologized to Elijah. But I am never going to have to apologize to Elijah, or Job, or Jonah either. I'm just going to tell them when I get to heaven, “I always defended you with all my might.” Oh, I've got some other folks I'm going to have to apologize to up there—-and I plan to. But not Elijah.
Well, God says to him, “What doest thou here, Elijah?” Feeling sorry for yourself. Praying for God to take away your life. Making intercession against Israel. What does all this prove, by the way? Well, it just proves this. It proves that Elijah was an earthen vessel. That's all. WHAT IT PROVES IS THAT ELIJAH WAS A MAN OF LIKE PASSIONS WITH US. We're all the same. You say, “Oh, no, not me. I don't act that way.” Well, you may yet, when they're seeking your life. And if you don't, you've got some other weakness. We're not all constituted alike, but we are all constituted weak. All that Elijah's conduct proves is that Elijah was a vessel of clay. It proves that he was a man of like passions with us, or should I say a man of like passions with you? All it proves is that Elijah was a human being, and yet Elijah has been so condemned and criticized for this! God didn't criticize him. Elijah sat out in the wilderness, feeling sorry for himself, and praying that God would take away his life. God said, No, Elijah you've got a little too much treasure in you for that. I have a different plan. I'm just going to rapture you away to heaven in a whirlwind, and never take away your life at all.
Understand now, I'm talking about human frailty. I'm not talking about moral delinquency. I'm not talking about crime and sin—-just human weakness. The weakness that belongs to vessels of earth, because they're vessels of earth. We're weak in body. Maybe weak in mind, weak in heart, weak in emotions. We're just frail vessels of clay, but yet God has chosen to put his treasures into us.
But there's something further involved here. I don't want to preach all on one side tonight, because you know sometimes there is something in those earthen vessels that really does obscure the treasure that's inside them. You know, we're not just weak. We're sinful, and some of our weakness is sinful. I think some of Job's was. I think some of Jonah's was. God chooses to put his treasure into these earthen vessels, but then he does something with the earthen vessels. You see, that treasure which is in those earthen vessels is the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. It's light. But light in an earthen vessel may not be seen very well. Light doesn't shine through earthen vessels. But God has a way to take care of that. He breaks those earthen vessels.
You'll find this back in the book of Judges, the seventh chapter, verse 16. Of Gideon and his men it says, “He divided the three hundred men into three companies, and he put a trumpet in every man's hand, with empty pitchers, and lamps within the pitchers.” Now this is exactly the same thing you have in II Corinthians, chapter 4—-earthen vessels with light in them. You can't see the light in the earthen vessel. (By the way, that's why Gideon put it there, so the enemy wouldn't see them approaching.) “And he said unto them, Look on me, and do likewise; and, behold, when I come to the outside of the camp, it shall be that, as I do, so shall ye do. When I blow with a trumpet, I and all that are with me, then blow ye the trumpets also on every side of all the camp, and say, The sword of the Lord, and of Gideon. So Gideon, and the hundred men that were with him, came unto the outside of the camp in the beginning of the middle watch; and they had but newly set the watch: and they blew the trumpets, and brake the pitchers that were in their hands.” Now this is something that God does with every earthen vessel into which he puts a treasure. He breaks it. You may want to go to God and make intercession against these vessels of clay that God has put this treasure in, and say, “God, you have the wrong kind of vessel here—-too weak, too many faults and foibles and idiosyncrasies, makes too many mistakes.” And God says, “You leave that vessel to me. I'll take care of it.” And he will. And he goes to work to break those vessels so that the light can shine out clear and true. God will break every vessel of clay.
But oh! how hard it is to be broken! But we cannot escape this. God breaks some of his vessels by the hands of their enemies. Some of his vessels he breaks by the hands of their friends. Some he breaks by providential afflictions. Some he breaks by poverty. Some he delivers into the hand of the devil and says, You sift him for me. But he breaks every one. If you are a vessel of clay into which God has put his treasure and his light, and if you are going to be used of God to carry that light out to the dying world, you're going to be broken. You can't avoid this. It will happen. God is going to do it.
Now for most of us this turns out to be a long drawn-out process. We don't break very easily. I see the hand of God at work to break me in this thing and that thing from time to time, and I say, “O God, break me gently!” You may be saying that, too, some time. And God may say to you, “Do you really think I should break you gently, after all that criticism you poured out on poor discouraged Elijah out in that cave—-or on some other vessel of clay that you judged so harshly, just because he was a vessel of clay?—-just because he was a man of like passions with yourself?” Oh, we ought to be careful not to despise God's vessels of clay, and not to despise the treasure in despising the vessel. There were some folks that despised Job when God was breaking him—-sat around him pointing an accusing finger, saying, “If it wasn't for your sin, none of this would have happened to you.” But God sent them to Job, to have him pray for them, when they were all done despising him. And God told them, “Job I will accept.”
Well, God is going to break his earthen vessels, and if you're one of them, he's going to break you. And it won't be easy. It won't be pleasant. But when he's done, the light will shine, and oh! the glory, the excellency of the power will be of God. You, just a weak, failing vessel of clay, making mistakes, failing often, blundering along through this life—-just a frail vessel of clay, and a broken one besides, but a clear, pure light of the gospel shining out into all the world.
Let's pray. Father, we thank you for your earthen vessels, and oh, we thank you for the precious treasure that you've put into them. Grant us, Father, that we may value both the treasure and the vessel as you do, and bear with all the frailties of the vessels of clay, love and forgive, and help, and appreciate; and God, help us to deal as we ought with our own vessel of clay, lest the thickness and the hardness of the vessel stand in the way of the light that is in us. Oh, Father, pour out your grace upon us, and make us vessels meet for the Master's use. Amen.