Convinced of His Own Unworthiness
Alongside Paul’s confidence in God’s sovereignty, he was kept faithful by a powerful conviction that he himself was nothing (1 Cor. 3:7; 2 Cor. 12:11). Paul did not have an exalted view of himself. He spoke of himself as the foremost of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15); “the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle” (1 Cor. 15:9); and “the very least of all the saints” (Eph. 3:8). Here in 2 Corinthians he writes, “We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor. 4:7).
Paul pictures himself as a cheap container holding a priceless treasure. What is the treasure? It is “the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (v. 6). That’s a reference to the gospel. Paul was entrusted with it and called to proclaim it, and he saw it as the treasure of all treasures, far surpassing any other treasure—or all treasures combined. And he viewed himself as a worthless vessel made of dirt. That description, by the way, applies not only to Paul himself but to all of us whom Christ has commissioned to take the gospel into all the world. We are, ultimately, just pottery made from the dust of the earth.
It is a startling contrast: the eternal glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, revealed to sinners through the gospel, which is carried into all the world by feeble, flawed, fragile, ugly messengers—“jars of clay.”
Imperfect Clay Pots
Bear in mind, this is part of Paul’s response to his critics in Corinth. They said he was unimpressive. “His bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account” (10:10). Again we see that he made no attempt to refute charges like those. He conceded the point. He wasn’t embarrassed by such criticisms. He likens himself to a cheap pot made of baked clay—breakable, replaceable, ordinary, ugly, with no intrinsic value, whose usefulness is subject entirely to the discretion of its maker and master.
He was not using hyperbole. The imagery is perfectly apt. Like all men, Paul was imperfect—and he never shied away from confessing that. Furthermore, what Paul said of himself is true of all ministers. As A. T. Robertson wrote, “If God could not use poor instruments and feeble voices, He would make no music.”1 Even the best of men are frail and fallible. The heroes of faith listed in Hebrews 11 were all people with feet of clay— or better yet (to stay with Paul’s metaphor) they were vessels made entirely of clay.
Clay vessels are useful only because of the skill of the potter who makes them. Left alone, clay would harden into a useless, stonelike clod. The adjective translated “clay” is ostrakinos, the word for terra cotta. He’s not describing fine china, but a plain, drab, totally unadorned clay pot.
In 2 Timothy 2:20 Paul says, “In a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable.” Clay vessels were the cheapest, most common pieces of household crockery—literally disposable. But they were used for widely varying purposes, some sublime, some ignoble.
In Paul’s time, it was not unusual for wealthy people and kings to store their gold and other valuables in simple clay pots. These would then be buried in the ground for safekeeping. But a vessel of this type was actually better suited for a less honorable purpose: to remove the household waste.
Sir Thomas More is regarded by Catholics as a saint. But his language when he talked about Martin Luther was frequently too profane to reproduce here. He called him (among other things) “a lousy little friar, a piece of scurf, a pestilential buffoon, a dishonest liar.”2 But his favorite insult was to compare Luther to a privy pot. Listen to what he said:
[Luther] has nothing in his mouth but privies, filth and dung, with which he plays the buffoon more foully and impurely than any buffoon, of whom none has ever been found besides this one such a stupid butt of men’s scorn that he would cast into his mouth the dung which other men would spit out into a basin. . . . He has devoted himself totally to hell. . . . If he will swallow down his filth and lick up the dung with which he has so foully defiled his tongue and his pen, there will be not lacking those who, as is fitting, will discuss serious matters in a serious way. But if he proceeds to play the buffoon in the manner in which he has begun, and to rave madly, if he proceeds to rage with calumny, to mouth trifling nonsense, to act like a raging madman, to make sport with buffoonery, and to carry nothing in his mouth but bilge-water, sewers, privies, filth, and dung, then let others do what they will; we will take timely counsel, whether we wish . . . to leave this mad friarlet and a privy-minded rascal with his ragings and ravings, with his filth and dung.3
Thomas More repeatedly referred to Luther as “Father Tosspot.”4
In his better moments, Luther (like Paul) would freely concede the point. He was in many ways a deeply flawed man and keenly aware of that fact. As insulting as his adversaries could be, Luther was quite capable of smiting himself with reminders of his unworthiness. He knew very well that he was a vessel made of dirt. He said, “We all belong in the ground; there’s no way around it.”5
In a similar fashion, Isaiah said, “I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Isa. 6:5). That in turn is a lament that calls to mind Paul’s famous groan, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24). In 1 Corinthians 4:13 Paul said, “We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.” He uses two Greek nouns that speak of filthy scrapings, the muck left in the bottom of a garbage container when it has been emptied. Paul certainly did not have an inflated view of his own significance.
The power of the glorious gospel has nothing to do with us, except that we are the clay pots in which this precious treasure is hid. We are weak. We are common, plain, fragile, breakable, dishonorable. But our weakness does not diminish the power of the gospel. “It is the power of God for salvation” (Rom. 1:16).
- A. T. Robertson, The Glory of the Ministry: Paul’s Exultation in Preaching (London: Revell, 1911), 147.
- Cited in Peter Ackroyd, The Life of Thomas More (London: Anchor, 1998), 226.
- Thomas More, The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, vol. 5, Responsio ad Lutherum, ed. John M. Headley, trans. Elizabeth F. Rogers (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1969), 683.
- Ibid., 315, 317, 351.
- Martin Luther, Table Talk, vol. 54, Luther’s Works, ed. Theodore G. Tappert and Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1967), 277.
This article is adapted from Remaining Faithful in Ministry: 9 Essential Convictions for Every Pastor by John MacArthur.