Virtually every archaeological dig in the Middle East has unearthed innumerable pieces of pottery from earliest civilization forward. Pottery seems to have been a favorite material for fashioning a wide variety of utensils. It was not a costly material. The well-to-do turned to materials such as ivory, glass, marble, brass and costly wood. Pottery, on the other hand, was the material of the common person. It was used to make everything from pitchers, oil jars and bowls to griddles, washbasins and pots. Coarse clay was preferred for utilitarian ware. For more expensive vessels, the potter first refined the clay by treading it out in water. Clay pots found many uses. Items of value could be kept in them, and clay jars were especially popular for storing liquids because the pottery hindered evaporation and kept the contents cool at the same time. Even broken pieces of pottery, or "shards," found a use as writing material for notes, receipts and messages.
In verses 7-15 Paul compares the gospel minister to a piece of Palestinian pottery. We have this treasure in jars of clay (v. 7). This treasure is the glorious good news about Christ (vv. 1-6). Jars of clay is actually "earthenware vessels" (ostrakinois skeuesin). The noun skeuos refers to a vessel serving a specific purpose (such as a jug, cup, pan or pot). When used of people it often carries the sense of "implement" or "instrument" (Maurer 1971:358-67). So to be God's "vessel" is to be his instrument in carrying out a specific service—in this case, the gospel ministry.
The marvel of Paul's statement is not to be overlooked. The gospel minister is a vessel made of common, run-of-the-mill clay—fragile and easily broken. And yet God has entrusted the treasure of the gospel to such a vessel, just as Palestinians stored their valuables in common clay pots. Why does God do this? According to Paul, he does it to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. God uses what is fragile and yet serviceable so that there might be no mistaking the origin of the gospel minister's power. The adjective all-surpassing (hyperbolh) stresses the extraordinary quality or extent of something (Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich 1979). The "something" here is power. The Greek dynamis is the term from which we derive our English word "dynamite." The gospel is not merely a message that confronts the mind but an explosive power that turns a person's life upside down. On May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens in the Cascade Range of Washington exploded with a stunning demonstration of nature's power. The explosion ripped thirteen hundred feet off the mountain and leveled 150-foot Douglas firs even seventeen miles away. We stand in awe of such force and yet forget the equally awesome power that is unleashed in the preaching of the gospel.
To develop this comparison of the gospel minister to the common clay pot, Paul employs an accepted literary form of the day called res gestae, or "cataloging of deeds." Much like our curriculum vitae, it highlighted a person's exploits and accomplishments. Paul highlights four exploits that would not by any stretch of the imagination be considered impressive or desirable either in his day or in ours. All four point up the hardships and trials that confront the gospel preacher. On every side (v. 8) and always (vv. 10, 11) underline the extent and intensity of these so-called exploits.
First, he is hard pressed on every side, but not crushed. The verb hard pressed means "to press in hard against" someone, or, as we say today, to squeeze the life out of a person, while the term not crushed indicates that the pressure never got to the point where there was no escape or way out.
Second, he is perplexed but not in despair. There is a play on words here that the NIV misses. To be aporoumenoi is to be at a loss how to act, while to be exaporoumenoi is to be utterly at a loss (i.e., in extreme despair). Although Paul may have been at a loss about how to proceed, he never—as we say—went off the deep end.
Third, he is persecuted but not abandoned. The Greek verb means "to pursue" and is commonly used of tracking a prey or enemy. Paul was pursued from city to city by hostile Jews. But through it all, God never abandoned him. The idea here is that God did not leave Paul behind or in the lurch for the enemy to pick up.
Finally, he is struck down by the enemy but not destroyed. Paul was not only pursued by hostile Jews, but when they caught up with him, they stirred up trouble whenever they could. He may also be thinking of the time he was stoned at Lystra and left outside the city for dead. Yet he lived.
Hard pressed, perplexed, persecuted and struck down are summed up in the clause we always carry around in our body the death of Jesus (v. 10). Carry around refers to the itinerant life of the gospel preacher. Always points to the commonplace versus exceptional character of these experiences. The death of Jesus is actually "the dying of Jesus"—a term that stresses the ongoing nature of the process. When we think of the "dying" of Jesus, we tend to think of the cross. Paul, however, has in mind the hardships, troubles and frustrations that Jesus faced during his three-year ministry—the loneliness, the disappointments with his disciples, the exhaustion, the constant harassment by opponents, the crowd's continuous demands, the incredulity of his family, the mocking and jeers of his foes, the flight of his friends, the hours on the cross, the thirst and then the end. "I die every day" expresses the same thought (1 Cor 15:31). Paul is acknowledging the wearing effect that the gospel ministry had on Jesus mentally, emotionally and physically. Nor is his a unique experience. Jesus taught his followers that if anyone would come after him, "he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me" (Lk 9:23; compare Mk 8:34).
Paul further explains this thought in verse 11: For we . . . are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake. Given over is the legal term used in the Gospels of Jesus' being handed over to the authorities. If this is the sense here, then the gospel ministry is being pictured as a "delivering up into death's custody [eis thanaton]." The verb is present tense: "constantly delivered up." The NEB's "continually . . . we are being surrendered into the hands of death" captures well the sense. For Jesus' sake excludes a reference to the aging process or to the normal trials of everyday life. Paul is thinking of the hardships and troubles that he experienced as a result of carrying out his ministry. He catalogs them at some length in chapter 11.
To what end? Why does Paul put up with a life of hardship and trouble? It is so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body (v. 10)—or as he says in verse 11, "in our mortal flesh." As Jerome Murphy-O'Connor notes, it is a Pauline paradox that "dying" should manifest "life" (1991:46). But this is why Paul likens the gospel minister to the expendable, perishable clay pot.
Christian reaction to adversity has tended to be "grin and bear it" or "keep a stiff upper lip." Paul's approach is to make clear that it is God's power (v. 7) and the life of Jesus (v. 10) that empower and sustain him, and not his own fortitude. It has been debated whether by the life of Jesus Paul has in mind a human mode of existence or the power of the risen Christ. It need not be an either-or choice. The already/not yet character of salvation means that Christ's resurrection power is already impacting human existence. Paul acknowledges this very thing in his summary statement, So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. While the Corinthians might have looked on hardship (death) as incompatible with a Spirit-directed ministry, it nonetheless produced a life that even now is at work, or better yet, is "energizing" (en + ergew) them.
There is an important lesson here. The Corinthians, like many Christians today, believed that adversity was inconsistent with the Spirit-filled Christian life, let alone with the gospel ministry. At issue is how God manifests his power. Paul's opponents claimed that it is through the working of signs, wonders and miracles. Paul, on the other hand, maintained that God's power is able to make itself known most effectively through ministerial hardship and distress. His second catalog of ministerial troubles drives this point home even more forcefully: "Dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed . . . having nothing, and yet possessing everything" (6:9-10). It is the "yet" side that attracts attention. How is it that gospel ministers live on? Certainly not by their own strength. Theirs is a position of weakness. But it is in their very weakness ("dying," "beaten," "possessing nothing") that the life of Jesus is revealed ("live on," "not killed," "possessing everything").
This is a hard message for the twentieth-century mindset. We like to be in control of our circumstances and operate from a position of strength. I doubt that a pastoral candidate who responded to the question "How has God been at work in your ministry?" with "To this very hour I go hungry and thirsty, I have nothing but rags to wear, I have been brutally treated by the community in which I have been ministering and I am currently homeless for Jesus's sake" (1 Cor 4:11) would be given further consideration. And yet in Paul's opinion this is exactly the kind of vita that authenticates the true gospel minister.