Jars of Clay (II Cor. 4:7-18)

Maryam and Marziyeh are glowing. The two young women are not fashion models or Hollywood actresses; they are not corporate leaders of successful businesses or wives of men who can afford to give them any of this world’s trinkets.

“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”

Maryam and Marziyeh are simply followers of Jesus who found themselves prisoners in Iran’s infamous Evin Prison for their faith. They were not treated well there.

“Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.”

There is something that seems to radiate out from their faces that belies the ordeal of their experience as prisoners. Released from their prison only a few months ago, the young women tell the story of their ordeal in a book entitled Captive in Iran.

It’s not a new story, though – it’s the story of those who have immersed themselves in the ministry of God’s internal affairs. The movement of God’s Spirit in the lives of His people is remarkably relevant because He is not passive in the midst of our various sufferings. We all suffer in various ways; that’s part of being human. But when we participate as ministers of His kingdom plans, we find that our hardships, rather than crushing us, become the catalyst for our internal growth. That is what the Apostle Paul means when he says, “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.”

It’s something worth pondering when we examine our own lives. Think of the trials, the upsets, the traumas we’ve experienced. Have they crushed us? Do they leave us in despair, feeling abandoned and destroyed? That is what this world will do to every one of us. That is its default setting. We’re all jars of clay wondering whether our next fall will be all it takes to shatter us.

But Paul reminds us that the treasure of Christ living deep within these feeble clay jars of our lives accomplishes something eternal. It testifies to the fact that there is something supernatural going on in our lives when we are facing troubles.

He says, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” He is not saying the power is within us, as if we ourselves were capable of staving off destruction. We are not jars of steel. He is saying that we reveal God’s power to transform lives from the inside out, when we allow Him to work through our pain. Others will see Christ in us as we face difficulties aware of His presence with us. That is the glow we see on the faces of the Iranian women.

Rather than trials wreaking havoc on our lives, God’s ministry in and through us is a resource for our growth and development. It’s not just for today or tomorrow, but it makes us people fit for eternity’s vast realm.

“Therefore we do not lose heart…for our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

Father God, we choose to embrace Your presence in our lives today, not to escape our troubles but that You would transform us through them. May Your strength carry us, Your love comfort us, and Your truth embolden us to be ministers of Your kingdom.

We are but jars of clay in Your hands.


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The Light of Truth

When Bilbo Baggins finds Gollum’s ring, in Tolkien’s The Hobbit, something begins to happen to him. Do you remember? Rather than possessing the ring, the ring seems to possess him – it begins to change something central to his character as it had done to its previous owner, Gollum. It has to do with light and truth. When worn, the ring enables Bilbo to become invisible, which helps him escape from several dangers, to be sure. But invisibility is immunity from light’s effects, for better or worse; Bilbo finds himself lying to cover up others’ knowledge of this possession. He becomes a victim of the ring’s corrupting influence, just as Gollum had been.

While Tolkien’s world of The Hobbit is fictional, we relate to it because our world spins on the same axis; the central pivot of our lives regards our relationship to truth or to its enemy, deception. The choices we make to apprehend deception or truth will eventually apprehend us. Listen to how the Apostle Paul puts it.

“The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God” (II Corinthians 4:4,2).

We’re hearing ‘us’ and ‘them’ language, but we’re all part of this cosmic struggle between light and dark, truth and lies. We’ve all known the power of deception in our lives – we’ve been hurt by it when others have used it against us, and we have done the same to them. We’ve discounted the image of God in Christ, distorted the Word of God for our own purposes, and been caught up in the tangled web the practice of deception produces. Is this the truth or not?

The Ministry of Internal Affairs, as we’ve been terming God’s kingdom influence, is a ministry of truth. It calls us to take action by making a choice. We must renounce deception; we must toss away the ring of lies that has possessed us, and peel off the spidery web of deceit that has held us captive. It begins with the choice to proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord — the central Truth of reality.

The complexity of deception beginning with a ‘will not see’ attitude toward Christ becomes a ‘can not see’ limitation. No one is born an atheist – rather it is the culmination of many small choices to slip on the ring that lures us with its advantages. Our souls turn Gollum-like pale and our eyes become unable to endure the searing nature of light.

The simplicity of truth begins with a ‘will to see’ desire which transforms into a ‘can see God in Christ’ capacity. Gone is the shame. Removed is the distortion of God’s Word in our lives. Instead, we open ourselves to the truth, plain and simple, and are able to see that Christ alone is truly God. Our hearts begin to glow with the precious knowledge of Christ as we give ourselves over to truth.

The ministry of God’s Spirit in our lives expands with every step we take into it. It begins with the aroma of Christ, moves into our hearts, replaces law with covenant, and now frees us from the bondage of deception.

“ O Truthful Father, Son and Spirit, come into our hearts and minds and relieve us of this burden of deception into which we have fallen. Replace it with your truth and light. Change the core of our being so we can become the people you desire us to be. Amen.”

(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)




 The Spirit of the Law

There are some strange laws. In Alabama it is illegal for a driver to be blindfolded while operating a car. In Florida, if an elephant is left tied to a parking meter, the parking fee has to be paid just as it would for a vehicle. And in Oklahoma, it is illegal to make ugly faces at a dog. We laugh at these antiquated attempts to ensure the civility of society; they seem random and unlikely to require enforcement.

Look again at these examples, though. In the context of early Alabama, what did lawmakers intend this law of the road to accomplish? The letter of the law surely is obsolete, but what is the spirit of this particular law? Public safety, is it not? The prudent and careful use of a vehicle is the goal, and the blindfold restriction was a means of safeguarding drivers, passengers and pedestrians at that time. And Florida’s elephant law, bizarre as it sounds, is similar, is it not? Isn’t it designed to ensure the fair and equitable use of public facilities, without slipping under-the-table concessions to a favoured few? Those letters of the law are preposterous now, but the spirit of the laws remains contemporary.

God’s kingdom, His Ministry of Internal Affairs, as we’ve been calling it, has some similar elements regarding His intentions for human society. The Apostle Paul gives some direction to followers of Jesus regarding our role as ministers to our race.

He says, “He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant – not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (II Corinthians 3:6). He’s talking here about the intent of God for humanity. As Creator of each of us, God’s design was to make us image-bearers of Him, able to commune with Him and enjoy the full range of abilities and tasks He designed us to accomplish. His early Promise-based covenant with Abraham was based on faith and foresaw a time when both Jews and non-Jews would be blessed with a relationship with Him. The later Law of Moses was not a covenant in the truest sense. It was law. It was, ‘You follow these commands letter by letter, because you have shown you are unable to live by the spirit of the covenant.’ It was a sign of our failure as humans to relate to God the way we were designed to.

Then comes Jesus. He does something for us that no one else could accomplish. He makes the letter of the law obsolete by reimbursing all past violations of the Law through His death; then, through His resurrection He rewrites the Abrahamic covenant in new language. It’s back to the spirit of the law, but now He offers the presence of His Spirit into our own dead, lawless souls to enable us to keep the heart of the covenant. The letter of the law was death, but the Spirit of the law is life – real and eternal life.

Why does this matter, all this talk of the letter of the law and the Spirit of the law?

The Apostle Paul expands, “God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father.’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir.” (Galatians 4:4-7).

We are so used to living as slaves, like elephants tied to parking meters, it is easy for us to be blind to the offer: God wants to makes us His children, sons and daughters, heirs of His amazing and eternal kingdom. The heart of His Ministry of Internal Affairs is working from the inside out. Shallow legalism is replaced with authentic spiritual growth as we embrace the work of Jesus for us, in us and through us.

Come, Abba Father, Brother Jesus, Holy Spirit, fill us with faith that we may live out Your covenant of love as Your children.




 Written Not With Ink

The Abbe Faria recounts to his prison mate, Edmond Dantes, his discovery of a treasure map. In the dim light of dusk one evening before his arrest, the Abbe needs to ignite the kindling in the room’s fireplace. Twisting a blank piece of paper into a wick, he lights the end of it on fire from a lantern and reaches toward the hearth to transfer the flame. In so doing he begins to notice letters appearing on the crumpled paper in his hand. Quickly stamping out the flame he unrolls the paper and smooths out its creases. The heat of the flame has revealed a message of treasure, written with invisible ink. So goes the classic story of The Count of Monte Cristo, written by Alexander Dumas in the 1800s.

We all love stories of hidden treasure – or rather, of treasures found. There is something deep within us that hopes beyond hope that we will find a letter written in invisible ink that will reveal a hidden treasure of some sort.

The Apostle Paul’s second epistle to the church in Corinth, Greece, in the middle of the first century, A.D. describes such a letter. He explains that God’s ministry of using Christians to bring others closer to God, not only has an aroma to it (see Part 1: Aroma of Christ), but also comes with a task of revealing treasure-letters. Listen to what Paul writes to believers:

“You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God.” (II Cor. 3:3-4).

Ink is unnecessary here. The Spirit of the living God is indelibly impressed on hearts when believers minister to people around them. The ministry spans human experience from stone inscriptions to digital texts. The message is Christ transforming hearts from the inside out. Neither chisels nor ink nor touchscreens can send the kind of message the ministry of Christ accomplishes. He uses His people to reach out to other people with the message of His love, His redeeming work, and His transforming power.

And our role in the ministry of God’s internal affairs is active. We are to allow Christ, by His Spirit, to minister to our own hearts as we minister to others. Another Apostle, Peter, gives us a clear picture of the map leading to the treasure of lives lived for Christ.

He says, “…make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (II Peter 1:5-8).

It’s worth memorizing these steps, isn’t it? They are guidelines to move us into the direction Jesus wants us to take to find His treasure. His Spirit is present with those who love Him, pricking our conscience when we need prodding, urging us to be moving always closer to the treasure He’s written on our hearts, providing us with His resources. His goodness becomes ours; His self-control enables ours; His kindness and love become ours to be used to minister to others. That’s a message that becomes visible when we step into the ministry of Christ. That’s a message of treasure.

(Photo Credit: Beria Lima, Wikimedia Commons)




Part 1: Aroma of Christ

Russia’s unmarked troops were successful. They were able to seize the Supreme Council of Crimea and Council of Ministers buildings in Simferopol, Crimea’s administrative capital, this past spring. From this position they could raise the flags of Russian annexation without identifying themselves. It was important for Ukraine, the world, and the people of Crimea itself to believe this was a grass roots movement of the people, for the people. Wearing uniforms without insignias became the means by which Russian forces were able to accomplish the goal of Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs.

There have been mixed reactions to Crimea’s annexation by Russia. Some think it was justified; some think it was illegal and refuse to recognize it. Like most things in life, mixed reactions show us how perspective makes all the difference in how we think and with whom we align ourselves.

God’s kingdom, as it is often referred to, has a sort of Ministry of Internal Affairs too. But it’s there the similarity between the Russian secretariat and the Divine authority ends. For instance, there is no guile exerted by God to manipulate people into an unwilling union with his kingdom; He speaks Truth and people may choose to heed Him or not. He recognizes the rights of autonomy over annexation of the human will; He offers His Son’s redemption as a resolution to our internal conflict, but accepts the intrinsic rights of humans to reject it. Further, He sends His emissaries out in undisguised agency as ministers of His affairs. Or rather, He leads.

Just as Jesus himself generated mixed responses among those with whom He bumped shoulders, generations of His followers elicit the same. The vast majority of this world’s inhabitants have set their teeth against the invitation of Christ offered by the ministers of His gospel; precious few have tasted the news as good. To many the aroma has seemed bitter; those few who have treasured the scent embrace it like a corsage on the heart. He is not bland, this Jesus Christ, whose name is used by some as a profanity and by others in worship.

The Apostle Paul speaks of the aroma of Christ and the influence its ministers can expect to produce. Perhaps his purpose in describing it is twofold: it prepares those who minister the gospel for the mixed and sometimes-violent reaction they will unearth, and secondly, it may serve to prepare those who hear the gospel that there are ramifications to their response. Listen:

“But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task?” (II Cor. 2:14-16).

Incredible, isn’t it? To some it is the smell of death, to others the fragrance of life. The vast expanse between the two is worlds apart – but not insurmountable. A prayer deep from within the heart of one who desires to move from death to life will place itself within the hand of God who will do it. That is what His ministry is designed for. There is no doubt; Christ is not neutral. There is a strong aroma about Him — smell Him. Now is the time to decide if His aroma is to you the smell of death or the fragrance of life.

(Photo Credit: Aleksei Chalyi, Wikimedia Commons)