That statement sounds positively un-American. As General George Patton famously remarked, ”Americans love a winner. America will not tolerate a loser.” Then we have this from Coach Vince Lombardi: “Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.” We all want to be on the winning team, don’t we? That’s why millions of people filled out brackets during March Madness, and it’s also why over 100,000 people gathered at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky last Saturday for the Kentucky Derby. And it’s why millions more watched the live telecast. That multitude included my wife and me. I learned about the back stories on a number of different horses and their owners. So you find yourself inevitably pulling for this horse or for that jockey or for that set of owners. I say that as someone who generally has no interest whatsoever in horse racing. But the truth is, if I’m watching a sporting event where I don’t already have a favorite team, I’ll pick one of the teams to root for. I just do that automatically. I suppose most people are like that. We like competition, and we like to be on the winning side.
But the preeminent example is football. At least down South it’s always football. Here in Mississippi we have a heated rivalry between Ole Miss and Mississippi State. A few miles east you have Alabama and Auburn. Further south you have Florida and Florida State. Up north you have Ohio State and Michigan. In South Bend you have Notre Dame versus everyone else.
A year ago I attended the Ohio State-Michigan game in Columbus, Ohio. I was one of over 100,000 fans who gathered in the stands to watch one of the most storied rivalries in college football. A few days after the game a friend sent me a copy of The Winners Manualby Jim Tressel, head coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes. Besides being a fine coach (his teams at Youngstown State and Ohio State have won five national championships), he is also a man of character and a strong Christian. In his chapter on “Handling Adversity and Success,” Tressel includes this provocative quote from Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft:
“Success is a lousy teacher. It makes smart people think they can’t lose.”
Then he adds his own commentary:
“I love that quote because it puts so many things in perspective. When ’smart people’ think they can’t lose, there’s an upset brewing. That’s when David beats Goliath and the underdog triumphs” (p. 156).
That’s the problem with winners. Once you think you can’t lose, you feel invincible. At that point, you’re about to become a loser. You just don’t know it yet. You can win too much, too soon, too easily. Before long you prove the old adage that it’s just a short step from victory to defeat. For all the problems that losing brings, at least it cures the illusion of invincibility.
When I say God prefers losers, I mean he prefers people who know their weakness, see their flaws, admit their mistakes, and cry out to him for help. God specializes in taking losers and displaying his power through them. During a radio interview I was asked why so many of the heroes of the Bible had serious flaws. My answer was simple. That’s all God has to work with.All the perfect people are in heaven. The only ones on earth are the folks with serious weaknesses. The talent pool has always been pretty thin when it comes to moral perfection. So God works with sinners because that’s all he has to work with. In heaven we will all be perfected by God’s grace. But until then, he uses some pretty ornery people who fall short in many ways, and he does some amazing things through them.
You can win too much, too soon, too easily.
Consider the roll call of God’s imperfect heroes:
Noah got drunk.
Abraham lied about his wife.
Sarah laughed at God.
Jacob was a deceiver.
Moses murdered an Egyptian.
Rahab was a harlot.
Gideon was fearful.
Jephthah made a foolish vow.
Samson had serious problems with lust and anger.
Eli failed as a father.
David was an adulterer and a murderer.
Solomon married foreign wives who turned his heart toward idolatry.
Elijah struggled with depression.
Jonah ran away from God.
Peter denied Christ.
Paul argued with Barnabas.
Barnabas compromised the gospel.
James and John wanted special seats in the kingdom.
All the apostles argued about who was the greatest.
God prefers people who know their weakness, see their flaws, admit their mistakes, and cry out to him for help.
If God chose only well-rounded people with no character flaws, some of the credit would inevitably go to the people and not to the Lord. By choosing flawed people with a bad past, a shaky present, and an uncertain future, God alone gets the glory when they accomplish amazing things by his power.
And that’s what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:7. It’s one of the most important verses for understanding who we are and how God works through us. “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” In this verse we find three statements we need to ponder.
I. The Gospel is a treasure.
When Paul says, “We have this treasure,” what does he mean? We can see the answer in verses 3-6:
“If our gospel is veiled” (v. 3).
“The light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (v. 4).
God “made his light shine in our hearts” (v. 6).
The gospel of Jesus Christ is the treasure we possess. Yesterday I came across the website for John Barnett, a pastor from Kalamazoo, Michigan. While looking at various things he has written, I came across a wonderful statement called The Confessing Church. Pastor Barnett puts it this way:
“Through seven divine works of God, guilty sinners are made ready for dwelling in the Presence of God forever; and their bodies, formerly slaves to sin, instantly become the very dwelling place and temple of God. How does God do all that? He does it through the seven elements that make up the Gift of Salvation.”
He then offered this list (with supporting material) of those seven elements:
1. I am FORGIVEN: God has removed my Debts.2. I am JUSTIFIED: God has changed my State.3. I am REGENERATED: God has transformed my Heart.4. I am RECONCILED: God has become my Friend.5. I am ADOPTED: God has changed my Family.6. I am REDEEMED: God has changed my Ownership.7. I am SANCTIFIED: God has changed my Behavior.
If a man has all this, he is rich. It doesn’t matter how much money he has in the bank because if he has all this, he is rich in what matters most. Compared to this, Donald Trump is a pauper.
How do we come to possess the treasure that is the gospel? Verse 4 says that unbelievers are blinded by Satan who keeps them from seeing the glory of the gospel of Christ. But then verse 6 puts the credit where it belongs when it says that God “made his light shine in our hearts.” In other words, God did it! If we are saved, it is not because of anything we said or anything we did. Our condition was so hopeless that apart from God’s grace, we had no hope at all. We would never have discovered the truth about Jesus on our own. As the song says, “Once I was blind but now I see.”
If we are saved, it is not because of anything we said or anything we did.
II. God hides his treasure in jars of clay.
Have you ever watched “Antiques Roadshow” on PBS? That’s the show where people bring their knick-knacks, their family heirlooms, and things they found at a flea market to an appraiser, hoping to discover that that funny-looking ceramic clown turns out to have been made by some obscure Polish genius who lived for a while outside of Warsaw but later moved to Buffalo in the early1820s where he made only a few dozen of these very rare ceramic clowns. And you have one. “How much did you pay for it?” “Eighteen dollars.” “Well, Mrs. Jones, I have good news for you. At auction I would expect this ceramic clown to go for at least $45,000.” Camera cuts to Mrs. Jones who looks like she’s about to faint. And all the viewers start scouring their attic to see if they might have one of those ceramic clowns stashed in a box somewhere.
Sometimes a vase turns out to be a “vahse.” And $18 becomes $45,000. Sometimes the greatest treasures come in ordinary pots. In 1947 a Bedouin shepherd found a ceramic jar containing very ancient scrolls in a cave overlooking the Dead Sea. Since he could not decipher the scrolls, he had no idea what they said. Later more scrolls were discovered in the same cave and in other caves nearby. The shepherd eventually sold three of the scrolls for approximately $29. Only later was it determined that he had stumbled upon the greatest collection of biblical manuscripts found in the 20th-century, the Dead Sea Scrolls. Those scrolls contained parts of every Old Testament book except Esther-all of them dated a thousand years earlier than any copy known at that time.
You never know what you might find in a clay pot.
Sometimes the greatest treasures come in ordinary pots.
The word used for “jars of clay” in verse 7 refers to ordinary earthenware. These clay pots were used by common people to store grain, hide valuables, and to keep oil for lighting their lamps. Paul is saying, “We’re not like a vase from the Ming dynasty. We’re cheap brown pots you can buy at Wal-Mart.” Here are two things we know about those clay plots:
They were fragile.
They were easily broken.
That’s us, folks. And it’s true of all of us all the time. When I gave this talk at David Langerfeld’s Sunday School class in Tupelo, a woman on the front row listened intently to everything I said. Afterwards she remarked on how true it seemed to her. “My father died in February. It’s been a hard year. I know all about being fragile and easily broken.”
We all have our limits whether we like to admit it or not. We can go and go and go but sooner or later, life catches up with us, and we are broken like everyone else.
We like to think we can handle anything. We can’t.
We like to think we can go forever. We can’t.
We like to think we can stand up to anything. We can’t.
Here’s a good lesson in biblical self-esteem:
Ashes to ashes,
Dust to dust.
We’re nothing but a bunch of ordinary clay pots. God formed the first man out of the dust of the earth (Genesis 2:7), and we’re all made from the same clay. What happens to our bodies when we die? They begin to decompose, returning back to the earth from which they came. So this is our true identity-we’re all just little clumps of dust, some of us dressed up a little better, some of us look a little stronger, some of us last a little longer, but in the end we all go back to the dust.
And this is where God “hides” his gospel-in fragile jars of clay. Perishing people who are here today and gone tomorrow.
In one of his sermons John MacArthur writes about what it means that God chooses to work through “jars of clay.” He points out that when God wanted to communicate his message, he didn’t go to the elite of Egypt, Greece, Rome, or even to the elite of Israel. “Where did He go? He went to the shore of Galilee and found a bunch of fishermen.” Then he adds these words:
I think God absolutely delights in that. He chose clay pots through whom to preach his great salvation message. He passed by Herodotus the historian, he passed by Socrates the philosopher, he passed by Hippocrates the father of medicine, Plato the philosopher. He passed by Euclid the mathematician, Archimedes the father of mechanics. He passed Hipparchus the astronomer, Cicero the orator and Virgil the poet. And he chose what some would tell us is a little hunchback Jew with a deformed face without great oratorical abilities. And he put in that little clay pot the priceless treasure and he’s still doing it.
The last phrase is the key. “He’s still doing it.” God intends to bless the world by “hiding” the gospel in “clay pots” that don’t seem very impressive by worldly standards. We wouldn’t do it that way. But God had a special purpose in mind.
III. He does it to demonstrate the true source of spiritual power.
Translators use different phrases to highlight the power Paul has in mind. They speak of the “surpassing greatness” of this power or “this extraordinary power” or “this transcendent power” or even “this splendid power.” The Greek word for power is dunamis, from which we get the English word dynamite. That’s a fitting word because in our world power is often very negative. In the hands of sinners power can be very dangerous. Power divides people, it separates families, it creates a gap between the rich and the poor, and it destroys the ties that bind us together. Before I went to bed on Saturday night, I turned on the TV and saw a live news report about an attempted car bombing in Times Square in New York City. Someone filled an SUV with gasoline, fireworks (meant as a detonator), black powder, electrical wire, two clocks (as timers), and a white substance thought to be fertilizer. When street vendors saw smoke coming from the SUV, they alerted authorities who were able to defuse the bomb before it exploded. It was a sobering reminder of the dangerous nature of power in our world. Police said they think the perpetrators wanted to create a fireball that would kill and wound many people on a Saturday night when thousands of people crowded into Times Square.
That’s one kind of power.
God’s power is different.
God’s power is different. It unites people, tears down walls, restores marriages, rebuilds families, lifts up the downtrodden, heals broken hearts, forgives the deepest sins, imparts hope in the darkest hour, and gives light in the valley of death.
God arranges things so that the whole world will know that this sort of life-changing power comes from God and not from us. He has lots of different ways of reminding us about that. Consider the story of Gideon in Judges 7. When the Midianites attacked Israel with 135,000 soldiers, Gideon led an army of 32,000 men in the counterattack. That’s a 4 to 1 advantage for the bad guys. Evidently God didn’t like those odds because he told Gideon to tell all those men who were afraid to fight to go home (v. 3). Twenty-two thousand men departed, leaving him with only 10,000. That would make it 13 to 1. Evidently that was still too low so God instructed Gideon to dismiss all the soldiers who didn’t lap water like a dog (vv. 5-6). Only 300 men were left, making it about 450 to 1. That suited God just fine so he told Gideon to attack whereupon Gideon divided his men into three groups of 100 for a nighttime assault. He instructed his men to wait until the changing of the guard (around midnight), and then blow the trumpets (the ram’s horn, called a shofar), hold up torches, and shout “A sword for the Lord and for Gideon” (v. 20). That “ambush” so greatly shocked the Midianites that they fled in fear and confusion, attacking each other in the process, leading to a total rout by Gideon’s band of 300 men. Guess who got the credit when the battle was over?
God did. And that’s what he had in mind all along. Before the battle began the Lord said to Gideon, “You have too many warriors with you. If I let all of you fight the Midianites, the Israelites will boast to me that they saved themselves by their own strength” (Judges 7:2 NLT). Sometimes God has to “cut us down to size” so that when the battle is over, he alone gets the glory.
“God is looking for nobodies who will become somebodies in his hands.”
When God wants to win a victory, he chooses a loser and makes him a winner. Or as Jack Wyrtzen used to say, “God is looking for nobodies who will become somebodies in his hands.” God put this treasure in earthen vessels – on purpose! He does it so that when great things happen, the people around us will come to only one possible conclusion:
“All I know is, it can’t be him. It can’t be her. He’s not that smart. She’s not that strong. It’s got to be God.”
God wants the world to see what he can do through people whose trust is in him alone. And that’s why he puts the treasure of the gospel in fragile “jars of clay.” He delights in people like us! The weaker we are, the more he can do through us.
That brings me back to the quote from Bill Gates: “Success is a lousy teacher. It makes smart people think they can’t lose.” That’s why God prefers losers. The less we are, the more he becomes to us. Winners think they don’t need God very much. If we think we’re moderately strong, all we need is a “moderately strong God” to help us out. But when we see how little we bring to the table, then we cry out, “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Those simple words, prayed in hours of deep darkness, receive an answer from heaven because they touch the heart of God.
If we think we’re moderately strong, all we need is a “moderately strong God” to help us out.
As I prepared this message, I ran across a hymn based on this verse, translated from the original German in 1907. It forms a powerful summary of the message of 2 Corinthians 4:7.
Earthen vessels, marred, unsightly,
Bearing Wealth no thought can know;
Heav’nly Treasure, gleaning brightly –
Christ revealed in saints below!
Vessels broken, frail, yet bearing
Through the hungry ages on,
Riches giv’n with hand unsparing,
God’s great Gift, His precious Son!
Vessels of the world’s despising,
Vessels weak, and poor, and base;
Bearing wealth God’s heart is prizing,
Glory from Christ’s blessed face.
Naught of earth to cloud the Glory!
Naught of self the light to dim!
Telling forth Christ’s wondrous story,
Emptied to be filled with Him!
That’s all we are, folks. Clay pots, fragile and easily broken. But God delights to place the gospel treasure in people like us. A while back I was reading about the great ministry of Dr. Billy Graham. What is the secret of such a fruitful life? Scholars agree that his sermons are not particularly unique. You cannot explain his success merely by the force of his intellect or his many natural gifts. Why did God raise up a young man from North Carolina and catapult him to worldwide fame? Years ago one writer gave this answer: “God uses Billy Graham because he knows he can trust him with his glory. Billy won’t try to claim it for himself.” That explanation stands in good harmony with our text. And it ought to lead each of us to ask, “Can God trust me with his glory?”
Professor James Denny of Scotland remarked that “there always have been men in the world so clever that God could make no use of them.” Are we too clever for our own good? Are we so self-sufficient that we have no need of God, and he makes no use of us? Questions worth pondering.
But let’s end with this encouraging thought. God uses broken, fallible, and very weak people because that’s all he’s got to work with. Do you sometimes feel like a “cracked pot?” Do you sense your own weakness and cry out to Jesus for help? If so, take heart and be glad. God’s army isn’t perfect. Someone has called the church “the march of the unqualified.” So get in line and join with the rest of God’s clay pots and see what he can do through you.