Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
January 31, 1957
NUMBER 38, PAGE 11-12a

Treasure , In Earthen Vessels

Robert C. Welch, Louisville, Kentucky

Paul speaks of having "The light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" in earthen vessels. This light he calls a treasure. In fact, he uses several terms in the context to describe this treasure. It is called the word of God, the truth, the gospel, the preaching of Christ Jesus as Lord, the light of the knowledge and this treasure. The verse in full under consideration is: "But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the exceeding greatness of the power may be of God, and not from ourselves." (II Cor. 4:7.)

Abuse Of The Passage

Preachers of the gospel have sometimes used this passage to prove that no being, heavenly or earthly, divine or otherwise, can preach the gospel except men. They have arrived at a conclusion which is correct, but have used the wrong passage in proof thereof. That is not the point made in the passage. The commission to preach the gospel was given unto men. (Mark 16:15, 16; Luke 24:46-49; Matt. 28:18-20.) At no time thereafter do we find any being besides men telling other men specifically what to believe and do in order to be saved. The Holy Spirit appeared unto both the sinner and the preacher but never told the sinner directly and specifically how to be saved. Angels appeared unto unsaved people and unto preachers but never did they specifically teach the facts and commands of the gospel unto salvation. Christ himself spoke to the sinner but did not tell him specifically how to be saved. In all such cases the sinner was referred to the man who preached or the preacher was directed to the sinner in order for the man who preached to tell the sinner how to be saved by the authority of Christ. Thus all beings respected the commission which was given unto men to enact, preach the gospel.

The foregoing being true, why does not Paul's statement about the gospel's being in earthen vessels apply to this principle? In the first place, he was not talking about every preacher's being an earthen vessel. He wasp speaking of those who had the Spirit enabling them to reveal the gospel. Today we have the revealed and inspired word in written form which we are to study and teach. Hence, preachers of this day do not have the word in them in the sense spoken of by the apostle. Here is the sense in which he describes the treasure as being in them: "But we received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is from God: that we might know the things that were freely given to us of God. Which things also we sneak, not in words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Spirit teacheth; combining spiritual things with spiritual words." (I Cor. 2:12, 13.)

Earthen, Not Earthly

The word used in the passage is not the proper word for distinguishing between heavenly and earthly. It is the word used to distinguish the kind or quality of vessels. It denotes earthenware in contrast to vessels of silver. gold or wood. It comes from the Greek word, ostrakinos, which definitely had the meaning of contrast between kinds of vessels and did not have in mind a contrast heavenly and earthly at all. The English term, earthly, signifies this difference; and the Greek term used in thescriptures to denote this contrast is epiqeios. You will notice that the two words are totally different. Paul uses this second term in the next chapter: "For we know that if the earthly house of our tabernacle be dissolved, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal, in the heavens." (II Cor. 5:1.) Here he clearly shows which term contrasts heavenly with earthly things. But in the other place he is definitely not speaking of earthly beings in contrast with heavenly or divine beings.

If his mention of the earthen vessels had meant a contrast with the heavenly beings, the latter part of the verse would be meaningless. In fact, it would contradict the first part. If it had merely meant earthly beings, how could the power be of God more than if the treasure had been in and preached by heavenly and divine beings?

Surely heavenly beings could exercise and demonstrate as much divine power as human beings if God had so willed that they proclaim the gospel. That is just not what the earthen vessels signify.

The apostle is describing those Spirit imbued men as being lowly vessels as of earthenware in contrast with vessels of higher quality. See the comparison made by him in another place: "Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver, but also of wood and of earth; and some unto honor, and some unto dishonor. If a man therefore purge himself from these, he shall be vessel unto honor, sanctified, meet for the master's use, prepared unto every good work." (II Tim. 2:20,21.) Here he tells Timothy that it makes no difference what the material of the vessel, he must not be a vessel unto dishonor, he must purge himself, and then he will be suitable for the Lord's use. The individual may not be great but he can be suitable for the Lord's use.

This comparative description of himself and other Spirit endowed men is found in other places in words which cannot be misunderstood. Notice this paragraph:

"And I, brethren, when I came unto you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling, And my speech and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: that your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God." (I Cor. 2:1-5.)

Then compare that with a statement made about two other apostles on another occasion: "Now when they beheld the boldness of Peter and John, and had perceived that they were unlearned and ignorant men, they marveled; and they took knowledge of them, that they had been with Jesus." (Acts 4:13.)

God's Power In Lowly Vessels

In the light of these passages the statement under study takes on a logical and sensible connection. Paul, Peter, John and the others who were endowed with Spiritual powers were not depending upon human wisdom and power, because they did not have it; in that sense they were earthen vessels. Since they were earthen vessels, unable to teach and do these mighty works and wisdom by human endowment, the exceeding greatness teacher and show the danger of this, and get a promise from the teacher that such will never happen again, that teacher should be removed just the same as if the teacher had taken the children to a dance.

And just why and how Bible teachers reason that mixed bathing is all right in the immodest apparel that is worn, in view of God's teaching that Christian are only to adorn themselves in "modest apparel" is something I cannot see. Peter used more modesty than that in the presence of his Lord. He put a "fisher's coat" on him before he came into the presence of the Lord. He went in swimming to get to his Lord, but he didn't go in the nude, or half nude, as mixed bathers do today. And just how any preacher can take a mixed group of the little flock of Christians, and so nearly undress for bathing, without blushing with shame, I cannot understand. Would we feel comfortable in wearing the bathing attire for worship? If it were "modest apparel" we would. Oftentimes bathers in the immodest apparel get an urge to pick up another bather in such apparel, and carry them around. And the sex was opposite. Would this work at the worship, too? I have never seen anything like this, but I have heard of it. (Capers at the beach, I mean.)

Frankly, and I don't care who knows it, and I don't want you to hold any one responsible for this statement other than myself, I believe unless there is sufficient repenting, the elders are going to have to get a lot of new teachers, that set better examples before the Bible classes they teach. So help us Lord to get the best. Submitted in love, and in reverence and prayer to God, through Christ, that this article may do some good wherever it is needed.