The "Treasure," the "Vessel," and the "Power"
by E. W. Bullinger
“We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us” (2 Corinthians 4:7).
The one object of the Epistles to the Corinthians is to turn away the mind and the thoughts from the agents whom God condescends to use, and to direct the attention to Him who uses them, and sends the message.
While the Apostle magnifies his office, he yet speaks of himself as nothing.
“We preach not ourselves” is the burden of the immediate context. Let us consider
I. The “Treasure.”
We have nothing that we have not received (1 Corinthians 4:7). Whoever the agent may be, whether the greatest or the least according to human reckoning, he is still only a “vessel,” more or less filled with God’s treasure.
What this treasure was in the case of the Apostles we are told in Acts 26:16: “I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast see, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee.”
The word translated minister means a servant – not a slave or domestic servant, but one acting under another – as a rower would act under the direction of the “stroke;” or as a musician would act under the baton of the “conductor.” The figure Hendiadys is used to designate the kind of servant spoken of. Paul was to be a servant – yea, a witnessing servant. Service is of many kinds; but the special service referred to here is that of witnessing for God. This is the treasure. The word “treasure” is not intended to express its value in the eyes of him who has it, but to show the intrinsic value and blessedness of the thing itself.
According to verse 4, it is the illumination with the good news connected with Christ’s glory. In verse 6, it is the illumination with the knowledge of God’s glory.
It is this Divine Illumination which is the treasure; and it is the gift of God. Just as “God commanded the light to shine out of darkness,” so it is He who hath shined in our hearts with the illumination of the knowledge of His glory, as seen in he person of Christ.
His grace is indeed a treasure, but glory enhances its value. “The Lord will give grace and glory.” Grace is the flower, glory is the fruit. The one is an earnest of the other. Many who have heard and know the Gospel of the grace of God, know but little of this Gospel of the glory. The reason of this is, because grace concerns ourselves, but the glory concerns Christ. We, with our natural selfishness, are occupied with that which has to do with ourselves, and are too ready to think little of that which concerns Christ.
He who came in grace is coming in glory. The good news concerns both. It is “the glory of his grace” (Ephesians 1:6).
And the witness of this treasure is committed to “earthen vessels.” This brings us to
II. The “Vessel.”
Among men, a valuable treasure is put into a valuable casket, but not so with this treasure. It is committed to perishing vessels of clay. God’s eye is on His treasure. His purpose is to display and make know the treasure, not the vessel. In this case, it is not so much the vessel, containing the treasure, but the treasure fulfilling the vessel and displaying its glory through the contrast with the vessel. Therefore we are immediately shown in the next two verses (8 and 9) how the vessel is humbled and kept humble, so that the treasure and the power might be seen to “be of God, and not of us.”
“We are troubled on every side,
yet not distressed
We are perplexed,
But not in despair;
But not forsaken;
But not destroyed.”
The utter worthlessness and frailness of the creature is declared; and we are shown that it is entirely a matter of condescension on the part of Almighty God that He sends any message at all; and that He sends it by who He will. In 1 Corinthians 3 we find Paul asking, “Who then is Paul, even as the Lord gave to every man.” Again in 1 Corinthians 1:26, we have another scripture which, we believe, is marred by the common misinterpretation, “Ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble” – then the words “are called” but the Ellipsis should be supplied from the preceding noun “calling”: and this is required by the context; the scope of which is the preachers and their preaching (see verse 23), showing how the “weakness of God is stronger than men”: i.e.: in His choice of weak instruments to witness for Him, His strength is magnified.
It is their “calling” by God. The form of the word signifies the Divine act of Calling; and refers to the act and manner of the way in which God had called them: viz: by having chosen “the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; And base things of the world, and things that are despised, hath God chosen (to call you) – yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought the things which are” (1 Corinthians 1:27,28). And why has God thus chosen to act? Why has He thus chosen small, weak, and despised instruments to carry out His work and proclaim His message? In order, He add, “that no flesh should glory in His presence” (1 Corinthians 1:29).
And why has He chosen to put this wondrous treasure into earthen vessels? He at once tells us, “that the excellency of the power might be of God, and not of us.”
The scope of both passages is, clearly, the principle governing the action of God in the way He chooses to call His People, and not the kind of persons whom He thus calls.
Failing to see this, much false doctrine has been based upon it: as though God has said there was a greater adaptation in the heart of a poor man to receive the Gospel, than there is in the heart of a rich man! Whereas rich and poor are exactly alike before God: “there is no difference:” – neither will turn to the Lord till quickened by the mighty power of His Spirit.
If we take chapter 1:26 according to the scope of the whole passage, it will read: “Ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble call you: but God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.” Why? Because “OF HIM” – not of the minister who calls; not of the poor, weak, and despised, yea, foolish instruments and agencies which He may use – but “of Him are ye in Christ Jesus, who, OF GOD is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption,” and then, once again, the reason for this principle of action is repeated, “That, according as it is written, He that glorieth let him glory in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:31). This brings us to
III. The “Power.”
The vessel which contains this treasure is a weak “earthen vessel,” that “the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.”
Thus there is a power working, as well as a treasure shining. It seems to say to us that it is possible there may be much of human wisdom, fleshly learning, eloquence, in the vessel; much of attention and admiration on the part of those who hear; there may be much of “having men’s person in admiration” (Jude 16), but there must be “power,” power from on high, pneuma hagion from God.
This is the burden of the Acts of the Apostles. There we see rather that acts of the Holy Spirit. Look at the “earthen vessel” Peter; who, in his weakness had denied his Lord; yet, when endued with this power, could chard the people with having “denied him in the presence of Pilate” (Acts 3:13); and again, “ye denied the Holy One and the Just” (verse 14). Here was a manifestation of power working through a poor earthen vessel.
Truly, it is written in 2 Corinthians 10:4,5, “the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty, THROUGH GOD, to the pulling down of strongholds; Casting down imaginations and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God.”
It is when we realize the weakness of the vessel that we see the necessity for this “power.”
This is the one thing needful today. There is plenty of learning and human wisdom; plenty of the energy of the flesh in using and devising of all sorts of novel methods to influence men; but all is in vain without this “power from on high.”
Effort is put forth, ingenuity is taxed, new tricks and contrivances are employed, every device is used, to persuade men, and make what we may call persuaded Christians; but, without the excellency of this power, which is of God, all will be vain; and only for time, instead of eternity; and much of it for a very little, even of time.
Men by their own power may turn the churches upside down: but we need that “power” which would make two weak, and unknown, and insignificant, and humble men “turn the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).
We were recently in a provincial town, where a new tram service was being installed. All seemed to be in readiness. The lines were laid; the posts were set up; the overhead wires were fixed; the cars were standing; and we asked “What are they waiting for?” The answer was “POWER.” The “power house” was not yet finished.
Ah! This it is in spiritual things. It is “power” that is needed. All else may be there, all that human skill can make, and human wisdom devise; but, if there be no “power from on high,” it is all in vain.
And this Divine power is all-sufficient: its excellency or surpassingness is emphasized. It surpasses all human possibilities, and excels all human imagination. It is that which causes the Word of God to work effectually in the heart; and brings the sinner to see what he never saw before. It, and it alone, can make us love what we once hated, and hate what we once loved.
When we think of the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of convincing even a friend on a small point on which we may differ, and then think of the conviction of an enemy and converting him into a friend, who will lay down his life for his gracious conqueror, then we can form some idea of the surpassingness of this power which God put forth.
Then we can understand why it is that God commits this “treasure” to, and will use only, these “earthen vessels.” It is that, the “power” may be seen and known to “be of God, and not of us.”