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By Mrs Jessie Penn-Lewis.
“For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, made his light shine in our hearts, that we might be ILLUMINATED with the knowledge of the glory of God . . . but we have this treasure in jars of clay” (2 Cor. 4 v6-7, Syriac version)
“The god of this age has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, so that the illumination of the gospel” (2 Cor. 4 v4) should not dawn upon them, writes Paul to the Corinthians. The “illumination” he describes as coming from the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. And those who are illuminated, shine as “lights in the world” (Phil. 2 v5), in the midst of all that is crooked and perverse and contrary to God.
The Lord intends us to be “Illuminated vessels”. Illuminated by beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord and being transformed continually into the same likeness by the glory which shines upon us (2 Cor. 3 v18).
But, continues Paul, this treasure is lodged in a body of fragile clay, so that the surpassing strength should be God’s, and not our own. An earthen vessel, although illuminated! A body of fragile clay, although indwelt by the Lord of glory.
In practical life it is important that the heavenly treasure should be clearly distinguished from the fragile clay, lest the vessel should forget and imagine itself a heavenly one. Alas, sometimes the vessel of clay does forget that the heavenly treasure is in an earthen vessel, until the Lord permits the buffetings to come and then there is a sharp and sorrowful awakening.
THE EARTHEN VESSEL DESCRIBED.
“A body of fragile clay” (2 Cor. 4 v7). “The earthly house of our bodily frame” (2 Cor. 5 v1). “This corruptible . . . this mortal” (1 Cor. 15 v54). “The body of our humiliation” (Phil. 3 v21).
These words describe the earthen vessel as it always will be until the Lord’s appearing. It is “fragile clay” and therefore liable to be broken beyond usefulness if severely strained beyond its power to bear. Alas, how often God’s vessels forget this and treat the vessel as though it were already of the gold of heaven.
It is the “earthly house of our bodily frame” and therefore subject to the law of God made for all bodily frames until they are dissolved and the house from heaven is given. Alas, how ignorant we often are of these laws of God and break them as we would not break the ten commandments given on Sinai.
It is called the “body of our humiliation”. We are children of God, “heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ”, yet we groan, “as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8 v23).
“We groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling” (2 Cor. 5 v2), for it is humiliating to be fettered by a body of clay, subject to the limitation of its laws, whilst in truth we are citizens of heaven.
THE EARTHEN VESSEL AND ITS SUFFERINGS.
"We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life” (2 Cor. 1 v8). “Hard pressed”, “Perplexed”, “Persecuted", “Struck down” (2 Cor. 4 v8-9). “Weakness”, “Fear”, “Much trembling” (1 Cor. 2 v3).
Here we see the illuminated vessel, manifestly mortal and in humiliation. Paul does not attempt to hide that he felt the buffetings which came to him. There is no trace in his letters of unnatural stoicism.
In the early days of the Christ-possessed life, many of God’s children have thought that it honoured the Lord to hide their feelings under a reserved exterior and a ‘Praise the Lord!’, but how little we understand the real life of Jesus. We do not realize the un-reality brought about by the crushing of our humanity and how, instead of glorifying the Christ, we are really hiding Him and repelling others who see the hardness produced by our unnatural behaviour. We would not confess that we were “troubled” or “perplexed” and we grieve over our “fear” and “much trembling”, sorrowfully telling ourselves how badly we had failed in realizing the life we longed to live.
Yet “ troubled, perplexed, cast down”, writes Paul about himself to the Corinthians as he trusts in the faithfulness of God. He is “hard pressed” it is true, but “not crushed”, he is “perplexed”, but not “in despair”, he is often “struck down” outwardly but he is not “destroyed”, as dying yet behold he lives, the outward man is perishing, but the inward man is renewed day by day.
The force of the tenses the Apostle uses implies that the state of things he describes was constantly going on. Not one great test and one great victory, followed by a life of deliverance from trial. No, Paul writes, “For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus sake, so that His life may be revealed in our mortal body” (2 Cor. 4 v11), that the LIFE WHEREBY JESUS CONQUERED DEATH might show forth its power. How clearly the pattern is given in these words. Daily the vessel of clay is made to know its weakness so that daily the life of Jesus which conquers death might show forth its power.
Again as regards the service for Christ, "weakness, fear and much trembling,” seem always to be the necessary condition of the vessel for the fullest “demonstration of the Spirit and power”. A trembling vessel, energized by the Holy Spirit, is the picture before us in the life of Paul, yet many of us have been disposed to think that we know nothing of the life abundant when we tremble in giving the message entrusted to us by the Lord. We have thought that the day would come when we should have great consciousness of power, forgetting the object lesson of Paul’s life.
THE OUTWARD APPEARANCE OF THE VESSEL.
“I, Paul, am ‘timid’ when face to face with you” (2 Cor. 10 v1). “For some say . . . he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing” (2 Cor. 10 v10).
God’s “illuminating vessels” are not always outwardly beautiful. Man thinks so much of outward appearance, of a noble presence, of fluency of speech, of strength of body, but God chooses to do His mightiest work with instruments that are often manifestly weak, base and despised. Moreover He allows them to remain contemptible in the eyes of others, lest they glory in the instrument and fail to see the power of God.
Paul writes to the Corinthians warning them that no one should glory in human nature. Indeed as regards himself he has found it safest not to speak too freely of himself as he is “in Christ”, lest any one should have an exaggerated reverence for him and think more highly of him than they ought to think. He found it best to glory in his weaknesses and say little of the revelations. He was willing to remain in the eyes of others a contemptible vessel, and to accept the truth that in outward appearance he was base in their midst (2 Cor. 12 v5-6).
It needs real self-effacement to calmly accept the truth about ourselves as we are seen in the eyes of others and not shrink back in sensitive self-consciousness from any service the Master pleases, content to speak but broken words if souls are led to Him, to be lowly in outward appearance that the “beauty of the Lord” may be seen to be from Him, that no flesh should glory in His presence.
THE INDIVIDUALITY OF THE VESSEL.
“I have been crucified with Christ . . . Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2 v20). "I know a man in Christ . . . I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weakness” (2 Cor. 12 v 2-5).
These words, and many other passages, show how clearly Paul recognized the personal individuality of the one indwelt by the risen Lord.
The expressions used in Galatians 2 v20 seem a contradiction and yet they are true. “I have been crucified together with Christ” (literal Greek), describes a change at the centre of the person through fellowship with the death of Christ which brings in the new force of the life of Christ to be manifested through the “me” - the personality of the earthen vessel. Hence the apostle says, “yet I live”. As if he would say, ‘I have died in the person of the crucified One. I was nailed to the Cross in Him. He now lives in me as His temple. In my personality I live, for I have all my own individual characteristics and tastes. But the life I now live in the body I live by faith in Him, simply working out that which He works in and through me, as the fragile vessel of clay. Of what I am in union with Him, I may glory, but of myself as the earthen vessel, I can only glory in weakness - weakness which is the vehicle for the manifestation of His strength’.
In writing to the Corinthians, Paul made the same clear distinction between himself as the earthen vessel and the Lord who was his life. He was able to discern when the Lord gave the commandment and when he was using his own personal judgment. “I give this command (not I, but the Lord)” he writes. “I have no commandment of the Lord, but I give a judgment”, are his words later on, and again, “In my judgment . . . and I think that I too have the Spirit of God” (1 Cor. 7 v10, 25, 40).
The apostle takes no position of infallibility. He knows when God speaks through him and then he does not hesitate to say it, but he also frankly explains when he is using his own personal judgment and only ventures to add that he thinks that the Holy Spirit is in accord. The manifestation of the life of Christ in earthen vessels is transparent and simple. So ‘natural’, open and free. We need therefore to recognize the humanity and individuality of the earthen vessel, alongside the blessed indwelling of the risen Lord. Then we may faithfully declare, “Thus saith the Lord” about all that is written in His word, not our view of what the word means, but the Word itself, simply as it is written, whilst humbly saying over all light given personally, “I think that I have the Spirit of God”.
THE CONTINUAL NEED OF THE VESSEL.
"I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself (as a vessel) will not be disqualified (or fail shamefully) of the prize” (1 Cor. 9 v27).
These words used by Paul about himself show the need for constant watchfulness in the daily walk. It is always possible at any stage of the spiritual life to fail in keeping the earthen vessel in its subordinate place, under the complete control of the Spirit. “ I beat my body” writes the apostle, clearly referring to the conflict with his body to “make it my slave” and keep it temperate in all things so as not to hinder him from winning the prize of the high calling of God.
There is always a ‘lest I myself should be disqualified’ for each in the Master’s service, always a danger of failing shamefully of the prize, of being not approved at the judgment-seat, where every ones work will be tried by fire, tested for reward. There is even the possibility lest we “frustrate the grace of God” in calling us into His service by making it necessary for Him to alter His purpose concerning His using of us, and put us aside for more pliable and faithful vessels. We may turn from the path of sacrifice, we may fail to be temperate in supplying the lawful demands of the bodily frame, or we may sink and yield to the cry of its weakness instead of casting ourselves upon the Divine strength.
At all times, the earthen vessel must be subservient to the heavenly life, whilst avoiding the extreme of asceticism and unduly severe use of the sensitive bodily frame. The child of God must walk carefully, with vigilance, lest in the lawful things of life there should creep in the choosing of an easier path at the cost of the heavenly prize.
THE DANGER OF THE EARTHEN VESSEL.
“To keep me from being becoming conceited . . . there was given to me . . .” (2 Cor. 12 v7).
We emphasize the fact that Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, uses these words about himself! They show that even the abundance of grace may be a danger, needing the special guarding of the earthen vessel by the Lord Himself. Paul tells us how the Lord provided for the danger. He gave him a “thorn (stake) in my flesh” (v7), which kept him broken and humbled. Paul calls it a “messenger of Satan" although given to him by God Himself. To Paul there were no second causes. It looked a thing that should be taken away but when he understood from the Lord that the stake was necessary to cast him continually upon the strength of Christ, he cries ‘Most gladly, Lord’ and at once rejoices in the will of God.
Spiritual exaltation may be manifested in the looking down upon others not in our stage of experience. It may show itself in self-confidence under the guise of “faith”, a spirit of judgment and criticism with assumption of spiritual knowledge beyond others, or a dogmatic assertion of the truth. How subtle the snare!
But God is faithful and will guard His children who trust in Him. He knows how to give each abundantly-used vessel a “stake” that will keep it broken at His feet. He knows how to protect His chosen vessels from the dangers of their natural temperaments and make it safe for them to be used by Him. He, who is the Creator, will measure the “stake” to the need of the vessel and teach it the secret of how to abound, as well as how to be abased.
Let us therefore, beloved of God, “offer our bodies a living sacrifice, holy and well-pleasing to God”, whilst we wait for the appearing of the Lord from heaven, “who, by the power that enables Him to bring everything under His control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body” (Phil. 3 v21).
From: ‘Power for Service’.
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