The apostle Paul compares the ministry of the gospel to a “treasure in jars of clay.” In Paul’s metaphor, God stores the priceless gospel ministry in fragile, everyday human vessels. Then Paul lists some of the real hardships he and other ministers encounter: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8–9).
Jars of clay are common, earthenware containers, but the ministry of the gospel is the most valuable treasure on earth. The New Living Translation makes Paul’s meaning evident: “We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves. We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies” (2 Corinthians 4:7–10, NLT).
Paul cites four contrasts to show the lives of gospel ministers are like ordinary jars of clay containing a precious possession. First, he describes the hardships they experience. Then he explains how God’s power sustains them through times of adversity.
We are pressed but not crushed is the first hardship and corresponding display of God’s power. The word for “pressed,” in the original Greek, means “afflicted, to be brought into difficulties, trouble, distress, or suffering.” The term translated “crushed” is similar but speaks of being afflicted or distressed to the point of total hopelessness. It describes being in a situation without any hope of escape or survival. Paul asserts that, even when placed under the most severe pressure and strain, the jar of clay—the frail human minister in a perishing body made of dust—will not be broken or smashed to the point of hopelessness and despair because of the great treasure held within—the gospel of Jesus Christ or the grace and truth of God.
We are pressed but not crushed means that, even though we suffer tremendous affliction, we will not be overcome by it because of God’s sustaining power. We have the treasure of Christ within us and the message of the gospel, which is the power of God (Romans 1:16).
Paul often spoke of suffering as part of the Christian experience, especially for ministers of the gospel (Galatians 6:17; Philippians 3:10–11). “If we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering” (Romans 8:17, NLT). We should not be surprised or give up when we experience hardships, “For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever!” (2 Corinthians 4:16–17, NLT). Although we may feel hard pressed on every side, the power of God working within us will never leave us without hope (Psalm 94:14; Hebrews 13:5 Matthew 28:20).
We have hope in this life because we know that the difficulties we endure as believers will give way to future glory in the world to come. Our suffering has an eternal purpose: “Yes, we live under constant danger of death because we serve Jesus, so that the life of Jesus will be evident in our dying bodies” (2 Corinthians 4:11, NLT). The life of Christ is displayed through what God does in our weakened earthen vessels. Our sufferings give opportunity for God’s power to be revealed, but they also bear witness to the death of Jesus and His resurrection life (2 Timothy 2:11).
Paul never sugar-coated the Christian experience, and neither should we. If we are to speak honestly about what it means to be a sold-out minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, like Paul, we won’t cover up the gritty and sometimes harsh realities. At times we will feel hard pressed on every side by troubles, but we will not be completely crushed. We can admit when our circumstances are perplexing, but they will never reach the point of hopelessness and despair. We may sometimes feel hunted down, but God will never abandon us. Even if we get knocked down, with God’s power in us, we will never be destroyed. The priceless treasure hidden deep within assures us “that when this earthly tent we live in is taken down (that is, when we die and leave this earthly body), we will have a house in heaven, an eternal body made for us by God himself” (2 Corinthians 5:1, NLT).