2 Corinthians 3 and 4.
There has been a ministry on this earth, which had its day and purport in the mind of God; it was introduced at Mount Sinai by Moses; it carried the law, which claimed righteousness from man, and was in form written on stone; it was thereby the knowledge of sin came in, and consequently it became a ministration of condemnation and death. It is to this ministry these words refer, viz., "If the ministration of death, written and engraven on stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not stedfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance, which glory was to be done away, how shall not the ministration of the Spirit be rather glorious."
It is of the deepest importance to remember that this ministry was suited to bring out the unwelcome but solemn truth, that the trial of man in the flesh only displayed his entire and complete ruin not only had man come short of the glory of God, but the reflection of that glory in the face of the mediator, carrying with it, as it did, the claim for righteousness from man, repelled him instead of attracting; the glory of God in the face of Moses, had the same effect as "the sound of the trumpet and the voice of words" at Mount Sinai. With regard to the first, Israel demanded that Moses should hide his face; with respect to the other, they entreated that the word should not be spoken to them any more.
Moreover, this ministry being, as has been said, one of claims and demands from man in the flesh, it could never be formative in character or power; indeed, it would cease to be of its own nature were it to produce in man that which it claimed from him under the sanction of condemnation and the curse. To sum up, then, respecting this ministry, its sphere was the earth, its character, a principle of claim and demand, and its issues, bondage and death.
Now the contrast to all this is, what is entitled in chapter 3 the ministry of the Spirit, as well as the ministration of righteousness, and the great point in the contrast is that what the first claimed, the second carried with it. The source of this ministry too, was very different from the former, as was also its basis. Its basis was the accomplished victories of the Son of God, who as Son of Man, glorified God on the earth, and finished the work which was given Him to do. It is to this blessed culmination of all His obedience, He Himself refers as follows, "Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in Him. If God be glorified in Him, God shall also glorify Him in Himself, and shall straightway glorify Him." (John 13:31, 32).
We know that this was spoken in anticipation of the sufferings and judgment of the cross, as well as the blessed proclamation, in resurrection and ascension, of how completely and fully He had glorified His God and Father. The basis then of this ministry from the heavens was the perfected atonement of the Lamb of God; therein was demonstrated the truth and love of God, as never declared before; therein was established a righteousness before God for man, in perfect accordance with the claims of His throne; and therein was judged sin, the world, and Satan. True it is, that He, in Whose precious death all this was made good, died to establish it before God in consistency with His nature, yet He was raised from the dead on the third day by the glory of the Father, afterwards ascended into heaven, and is not only the one Man now before God, — "the last Adam" — but the One in and from Whose face the whole glory of the Lord now shines.
But there is even more contrast in the consequence of these two ministries, for the effect of the first was bondage and condemnation as well as the entire absence of anything approaching to likeness to the mind and thoughts of God; it were impossible for the law from Sinai to be in
any sense formative in its nature or effects; in truth we may say, plainly, that if it in any sense imparted to man, it would cease to be what it was in principle a demand upon man; but not so this ministry from the heavens, the very nature of which is to impart and thus to be formative. In this respect its contrast with the law is its glory. By what it ministers, viz., righteousness, and the Spirit, the believer is competent both as to title and power to gaze at the full and undimmed glory of God, as seen in the face of Jesus Christ, and thus the formative power of this ministry is maintained. Righteousness and the Spirit are the basis, transformation into the same image from one degree of glory to another is the result. What a blessed, wonderful ministry! Well may our hearts exclaim — Surpassing glory! excelling glory!
Now it is perfectly clear that, as another has truly expressed it — "A man of like passions with us, he (Paul), was one who in a wonderful manner lived with God so as to carry out this ministry; he (Paul) laboured more abundantly than they all. Still what he ministered we receive; only he was a vessel filled in more than ordinary degree. But this same blessed truth, as it especially regards the testimony, is committed to us, whatever the sphere, whether the greatest as an instrument or the least, and therefore the thing that he ministered is ours, so that we are vessels, each one in his own little measure, of that with which he was filled."
It is very instructive to see in the case of Paul, the double character of testimony, if I may so say, which he was, as a vessel, called to bear. We read in Acts 26:16, "But rise, and stand upon thy feet: for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness, both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee." We learn from this he was to be a minister and a witness, if I rightly apprehend the mind of the Spirit of God; the expression "witness" meaning that he was to exemplify what he ministered. What a wondrous calling beloved friends, — poor, feeble, failing man on this earth, now the vessel, and the "chosen vessel" of heavenly glory, was to be in his own person the expression, as a witness, of that ministry to which he was called by the Son of God, whom he had seen in the way. I cannot conceive anything more wonderful than the testimony of a witness; all are not called to be ministers, but I submit that every saint is called to be a witness, and I am bold to say the most telling and weighty ministry at this present time, is the silent, noiseless, but explicit unfolding in one's own person of this heavenly testimony. Oh, to be more like clay in the hands of the potter; shaped and fashioned by His blessed hand as He Himself pleases. The purpose of God as to His people being His witnesses here on the earth, is their being so controlled and handled by Himself, that He can point to them as the living testimony to what His own Son from glory can effect for His people on this very earth. Now in chapter 4, where the subject of the ministry is pursued practically in every detail, we find in verse 7, three distinct subjects, viz.: — "this treasure" "earthen vessels," "surpassingness (excellency) of the power." It is on my heart to say a little on each of these.
"We have this treasure" I do not believe "this treasure" is intended to express the value of the possession to him who has it, valuable though it be, but the intrinsic blessedness of the thing itself: this treasure is described in verses 4 and 6; it is, according to verse 4, "the radiancy of the glad tidings of the glory of the Christ," as well as in verse 6, "the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." What a treasure to enrich us, as well as for us to be enriched by! Nor is it less wonderful and blessed the way in which we are taken possession of by it, hence we read — "The God who spake that, out of darkness, light should shine, has shone in our hearts." The possession of this treasure is nothing less than a revelation of the Saviour in glory in us; producing, as illustrated in the history of the Apostle himself, a moral revolution in the subject of it: this, and this alone, takes the brilliancy out of the best here. I ask, can you say, as the Apostle did, "We have this treasure?"
The next subject is the vessel, and the contrast is sharply marked between the treasure and the vessel in which it is lodged; nothing could be more significant than the expression, "earthen vessels," i.e., perishing vessels of clay; in human things, man looks out for a casket commensurate with the value and beauty of his treasure; so much so, that the brilliancy of the treasure is often obscured by the magnificence of the casket, — but far otherwise is it with God; in His eye the treasure is everything, and the vessel is selected with a view to the display of the treasure; it is not the vessel holding the treasure, but the treasure governing the vessel, and displaying itself through the vessel. Could anything be more blessed? In verses 8 and 9, are set forth the inward and outward exercises to which the vessel is subjected, with a view to the display of the treasure. Then in verse 10, we have the only power in our hands by which we can have common thought with God in His purpose for displaying this treasure through us; hence we read, "always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus." Observe, it is not our dying, but the dying of Jesus, the practical application of the cross to every part of us; the death which alone could set us free from all that was against us being now used by us to silence all that would interfere with the display of the life of Jesus in our mortal flesh. Wonderful object, wonderful power for accomplishing it; glory the starting point, but death the only road back to glory, and Christ the goal! And as we travel that road back to the heaven we have come from, His blessed purpose about us on the way is, to display His own Son in each one of His people, this costly, blessed treasure, placed designedly in these poor earthen vessels of ours.
Lastly, we have a power working as well as a treasure shining, hence we have the word "that the surpassingness of the power may be of God and not of us." What wonderful contrasts are thus grouped together by the Holy Ghost; the costliest conceivable treasure to shine out through an earthen vessel, by the surpassingness of Almighty power!
This power, too, is displayed, at this present time, so differently from what we would naturally conclude; there are two scriptures which speak of it in the manner of its energy, viz., Col. 1, 2." Strengthened with all might according to the power of His glory unto all patience (endurance), and longsuffering with joyfulness." These are the elements in which surpassing power declares itself in earthen vessels at this present time. The other scripture is 2 Cor. 12:9, "Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities that the power of Christ may rest upon me" — i.e., "may pitch its tent over me." What a calling, beloved brethren, vessels in whom such a treasure shines, weak and feeble in ourselves, but so held by the treasure, and so wrought in and upon by surpassing power, Almighty energy, that Christ and Christ alone is seen and heard; and each circumstance on the road to the Father's house, used up by Himself, and wonderful to say, by us too, in fellowship with Him, that He may be magnified in our bodies whether by life or by death. The Lord awaken our hearts to the dignity and glory of such realities, for Christ's sake!