Treasures in Earthen Vessels

2 Cor.:6-7.---' For God, who commanded the light to shine and out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that that excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.'

God commanded the light to shine out of darkness---so from the very first religion has been cradled in paradox; you cannot get away from it. It is always out of darkness that the light shines; it is always in the earthen vessels that the treasure is hidden. No doubt there are those who would like to have everything plain and straightforward, no mystery of spirit prisoned in matter, of good coming out of the evil, of things seen, which are temporal, yet the tabernacle of things not seen, which are eternal.

The treasures of the human spirit appear to be placed at times in very frail vessels indeed. This is St. Paul's viewpoint in the passage. He sees a remarkable ministry of truth, the glory of a splendid ideal, the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ committed to the bodies and to the precarious life of a little company of obscure and persecuted men. The chance whim of an Emperor, a little extra zeal in a proconsul, might sweep them from the earth. It is easy for us to conceive those frail custodians of the treasure wiped out and the treasure lost---the hostile forces were so strong, the chances, men say, against its preservation were so great. But the superiority of the power there present over the forces which threaten the life of the gospel and the hope of men was of God, who willed that the might of His Kingdom should come to pass. And the Apostle would have it remembered, for the encouragement of all battling and hardly-pressed men, that the power of God is not manifested in any vague way, but becomes incarnate in the frail bodies of those who guard the Divine treasure. In a glorious series of antitheses, St. Paul Gillis us glimpses of the pitiless circumstances, and the heroic power of striving, endurance, and hope which rise superior to all that is against them.

'We are troubled on every side, but not distressed.' There have been the earthly vessel and the heavenly treasure. Circumstances crowded him but he was not crushed. He had a troubled lot but he retained his magnanimity. There is something arresting and fascinating in the spectacle of a man who retains a freedom and largeness of spirit in the presence of an unfriendly world. 'We are perplexed but not and despair.' God does not smooth out all perplexities, and untie all our knots. Circumstances arise when we can see no way out of the coil. The Apostle has entanglements on every side, but in the midst of all his perplexities he can sing the song of Christian hope. 'Persecuted but not forsaken.' The circumstances are getting harder and harder. Hatred, envy, malice, jealously, all uncharitableness are always on his track, but he is never forsaken. The lamp smashed but the light still burning! Such was the Apostle's faith always and everywhere. They could not destroy his blessed communion with His Lord.

Truth is often a treasure and earthen and vessels. Even the Bible, our greatest treasure, has not been exempted from the fate of other books. It has been copied, and transmitters across centuries of declining knowledge. Neither were the Biblical writers exempted from some, at least, of their general characteristics of their contemporaries: they shared the literary peculiarities of men of their own nationality and station; they were not supernaturally raised above the level of knowledge to which their contemporaries had attained in matters of science. Even in the things of religion there is a growth and progression running through the Old Testament and the New. No one generation reached the limits of truth all at once; there was a gradual withdrawal of the veil at different times and different portions.

In the Bible, as in other writings of antiquity, there are many phenomena which are not in exact accordance with the literary practice of our day. A later writer will incorporate the work of an earlier writer often with but slight alteration. The annals that are transmitted from age to age receive gradual accretions in their course, and there is often no external mark to show where the older matter ends and the new begins. And laws and customs which grow up by slow degrees are referred to some one great lawgiver who was the first to formulate the leading provisions of the code with which they are associated. There is no deception about this. Some of the best and most competent judges tell us that in the Old and New Testament there are books which are composite in their origin, which were not written as we have them all at once, but which were welded together into a single whole, but not so welded that all traces of a combination are obliterated. They tell us that laws and customs of a later date are sometimes attributed to an earlier; that all the historical statements rest upon contemporary record. We must throw ourselves back into an age when writing was the exception and hearsay the rule. There came a time when regular histories were written, but before that tradition had been at work molding and combining the facts was history records.

We should not think it likely that God would allow the revelation of Himself to be mixed up with such imperfect materials. But we are no good judges of what God would or would not do. 'His ways are not our ways.' Out of the imperfect He brings forth the perfect. Ii is so in the world of Nature, and it is so in the world of grace. 'We have our treasure in earthen vessels.' The vessels may be frail but the treasure they contain is Divine. Through all the fortunes and perils of the ages the truth which was in them has been preserved.

How men have feared for the truth! This very treasure of the Bible---they enshrined it in a sacred dead language, they walled it round with dogma, they restraint scientific thought from it---frail earthen vessels, all of them man's shaping, distrustful of the excellency of the power of God. They are broken, but the gospel is untouched.

One thing is clear about every paradox, every paradox in the moral world at any rate. It is meant to be a spur; to the virile mind it never serves as an excuse for despair, but always as a reason for effort. It is not only that, so far as the vessel is poor and weak through our fault, here is the incentive to make it stronger; we, whom Christ has trusted, should respond to His trust. That, of course, is there. For there is a sense in which the vessel which holds the treasure is meant to be of clay. As St. Paul is looking at the matter here, he does not want to make it different, or least he knows he cannot do so. Those of us who feel that to guard and use and distribute this treasure is the most important thing in life, realize also that we cannot do with it as we would. In a hundred ways we are limited: by our past neglect; by our want of strength or of wisdom, of teaching or of opportunity; by the demands of those about to us, or the circumstances of our home or business; but failure of character or of training. But just because we who make up the Church, the body of Christ, the vehicle through which His power is to be brought into action; just because we are so weak, so poor in prayer, so wavering in our faith, so cold in our love; just because we are such a frail vessels to be called to so high a service, therefore we are thrown back absolutely upon God. It took Paul's thorn in the flesh to teach him that when he was weak then he was strong; so does our consciousness of weakness, our knowledge of our own insufficiency, drive us into the arms of God. And is not the highest service that which makes us turn away from ourselves altogether?

Fra Bartolomeo, the great Italian painter, threw his paints and canvas away because he thought they were stealing his heart from God. But his fellow-monks said to him, "Why should you not paint again for the glory of God?" and he painted those charming, thrilling pictures of gospel scenes and holy martyrs which are still seen in Italy, and before which men stand, and even kneel. When his brother-monks bade him write his name at the foot of each picture, he said, "No; I have not done it for my own glory, but to show forth Christ to men"; and so he just scratched on each work, "Pray for the picture, or pray for the painter---for the painter that he may do his work in a better way, for the picture that it may more clearly show the Lord; and let the name of the artist be forgotten."

In Christ, timothy. maranatha