In the foregoing verses we find the apostle magnifying his office, extolling his ministry, and vindicating his fidelity in the discharge of his duty.
In this verse observe, 1. He compares the gospel he preached to a treasure: We have this treasure; a treasure for the enriching and edifying of the church. The gospel is a treasure, for its worth and dignity, for its abundance and variety, for its closeness and secrecy. This treasure Christ keeps under lock and key, only intrusting those with it whom he calls to it, and furnishes for it. They are no better than thieves and sacrilegious robbers, who, without a mediate call or warrant from Christ, do assume this trust, and break open this treasure.
Observe, 2. The repository in which this treasure is laid up, in earthen vessels; so the apostles and ministers of the gospel are called.
Where note, The word of description, they are vessels; and the word of diminution, they are earthen vessels.
1. The preachers of the gospel are represented by a word of description; they are vessels: thus vessels are not natural, but artificial instruments. No man is born a Christian, much less a minister, but made such. Vessels are not of equal capacity; some are less, others greater: thus the ministers of the gospel have gifts and graces of different degrees and excellences.
Again, vessels are not for reception only, but for effusion also; as they receive and retain, so they let out what is put into them. The ministers of Christ are not only to receive and lay up, but to lay out this heavenly treasure, which is not impaired by imparting.
Finally, Vessels are not the originals of what they have; but all they contain is poured into them, and received by them. A mine has treasure in its own bowels; but it is put into the chest. Thus the preachers of the gospel are not the authors, but the receivers only, of those truths that they publish: I have received of the Lord what I also delivered unto you. 1Co_11:23
Note farther, the word of diminution; they are earthen vessels. The preachers of the gospel are divine in regard of the sublimity of their doctrine, but human and earthen in regard of the frailty of their condition. Their being called earthen vessels, may denote the meanness of their condition, which for the most part is little and low in the world: as the poor receive the gospel, so are they very often poor and low that publish the gospel, necessitous and indigent, earthen vessels.
Again, it may denote the frailty of their persons, and the contemptibleness of them. Earthen vessels are little set by, stand in open places, used by every hand, and at every turn; while plate, gold and silver vessels, are laid and locked up with great carefulness. Thus it is often with the preachers of the gospel; they are objects base and vile, contemptible and despised, in the eyes of the world, vessels wherein there is no pleasure; yea, with some, not only our persons are despicable, but our very office and function is contemptible.
In a word, as our mean condition and base estimation, so our bodily constituiton proclaims us earthen: our bodies are earthen, because formed of the dust of the earth, because subject to flaws and cracks, and to be broken in pieces; we that preach eternal life to others, are dying men ourselves; and whilst the word of life is in our mouths, many times death is in our faces.
Observe lastly, The reason assigned why this treasure of the gospel is committed to earthen vessels, men; not to heavenly vessels, angels; namely, That the excellency of the power might be of God, and not of us from the weakness of man the instrument, there redounds great honour to God the agent. This precious treasure of the gospel is lodged in such weak and worthless vessels, that as the power is from God, namely, the awakening, convincing, quickening, heart-changing power of the word, is from him; so the glory, the entire glory, and complete praise, may be attributed and ascribed to him: We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power might be of God, and not of us.