As we read 2 Corinthians carefully before God, we seem to meet two persons—Paul in himself and Paul in Christ. Everything Paul speaks of, from chapter one to chapter thirteen, is all according to this principle. If we summarized Paul’s message in this book, we could cover everything with his words in chapter four, "We have this treasure in earthen vessels." In chapter one we see this treasure being put into the earthen vessel. From 3:1 through the end of the book, we see the earthen vessel on the one hand and the treasure on the other hand. After reading these words before God, we spontaneously will see under His enlightenment that the earthen vessel does not hinder the treasure from shining. The earthen vessel does not bury the power of the treasure.
Here we see a person. We have mentioned before that 2 Corinthians is the most personal book in the New Testament. Many Epistles are filled with doctrine, truth, and revelation. Many Epistles move from God’s point of view to our point of view. Second Corinthians, however, is the only book in the New Testament which shows us the very kind of person whom God used to pass on His revelation. If we did not have the book of 2 Corinthians, we would never know Paul himself. We would know what he accomplished, but we would never know this ministry. Second Corinthians shows us his ministry, and from his ministry, we meet the man. We see that he was an earthen vessel.
When I first became a Christian, I had my own concept of the ideal Christian, and I tried my utmost to be that kind of Christian. I thought that if only I could attain to the ideal I had conceived, then I would attain perfection. I wanted to be perfect, but I had my own ideal and standard for being a perfect Christian. I thought that if I could reach this standard, I would be perfect. I thought a perfect Christian should smile from morning to night. If he shed tears, I thought he was not victorious, but a failure. I would even say he was wrong. I thought a perfect Christian should be bold, unafraid, and courageous in every situation. If he was fearful in anything, I would say he did not have faith. I would say he was not perfect because he did not trust in the Lord. I also thought the perfect Christian was never sad. If a person was sad, I doubted that he was perfect. I could mention many other criteria, but I do not need to mention too many of these concepts to you. I believe that many of the younger brothers and sisters have ideals of what a Christian is. I am not criticizing because I used to think the same way myself.
One day I read the passage in 2 Corinthians where Paul was sorrowful. I asked, "Was Paul sorrowful?" I read that he shed many tears. I asked, "Did Paul cry?" I read that Paul suffered and was sad. I asked, "Did Paul suffer, and was he sad?" I read that he was burdened and despaired even of his life. I asked, "Did Paul despair?" As I continued reading, I saw that there were many things of which I had never thought. I had never considered that a person like Paul would have these problems. I began to realize that Christians are not another type of angel. God has not put a race of angels on the earth and said, "These are Christians." I also began to see that Paul was very close to us; he was not so far off. Paul was someone I know; he was not a stranger. I know him because I saw that he was a man.
Many people have a concept of an ideal Christian. Please remember that this ideal was created by us, not by God. That kind of ideal Christian does not exist, nor does God want us to be such. Here we meet an earthen vessel, but the special characteristic of this earthen vessel is that a treasure has been put into it. The treasure transcends and overshadows the earthen vessel and manifests itself from within the vessel. This is the meaning of Christianity and of being a Christian. In Paul, we see a man who was afraid yet strong. He was troubled in his heart yet had hope. He was surrounded by enemies yet was not captured. Although he met with persecution, he did not feel rejected or cast aside. He seemingly was knocked down, but he did not die (2 Cor. 4:7-9). We see his weaknesses, but when he was weak, he was powerful (12:10b). We see him bearing about in the body the putting to death of Jesus, but the life of Jesus was manifested in his body (4:10). We see him being slandered, but he had a good name. He seemingly led others astray, but he was honest. He seemingly was not famous, but everyone knew him. He seemingly was about to die, but he lived. He seemingly was punished, but not unto death. He seemingly was sad, but he always rejoiced. He seemingly was poor, but he made many rich. He seemingly had nothing, but he had everything (6:8-10). This is a real Christian. This is true Christianity.
A Christian is a person in whom there is a basic, but harmonious, paradox. Christianity means having a life in which there is an incomprehensible, spiritual paradox. God gives us this paradox. Some people think there is only a treasure but not an earthen vessel. Others think that the earthen vessel prevents them from going on. Human thought is always so extreme. We think it would be ideal just having the treasure. We think that the earthen vessel prevents us from going on. Before God, however, we see a treasure placed in earthen vessels. The earthen vessel is not destroyed, and it does not frustrate anything. The treasure is in the earthen vessel.
(The Treasure in Earthen Vessels, Chapter 1, by Watchman Nee)