Question: "What does it mean that we have treasures in jars of clay / earthen vessels (2 Corinthians 4:7)?"
Answer: In 2 Corinthians 4:7, Paul makes a beautiful statement that “we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves.” The context helps us understand what is the treasure in earthen vessels (other translations say “jars of clay”). Paul is exhorting his readers that, even though there is great difficulty in their ministry, he is encouraged (2 Corinthians 4:1). He acknowledges that in his ministry he had received mercy and that he and the others who shared that ministry are not losing heart (in this case he is also referring to Timothy, see 2 Corinthians 1:1). They could have confidence because they were walking in the truth of God’s Word and not in their own cleverness or craftiness (2 Corinthians 4:2). Because their confidence was in His truth and not their own ability, they could fulfill their ministry with good conscience even as God could observe their actions (2 Corinthians 4:2).
Even though Paul and Timothy’s gospel-proclaiming ministry was at times met with rejection, it was not because of any flaw in the good news itself. Unbelievers suffer from a blindness of the mind and are unable to see the “light of the gospel of the glory of Christ who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:3–4). Because of this great need, the message of the gospel is so important. They weren’t proclaiming or promoting themselves; rather, they were serving others by proclaiming the message of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:5). The light that Paul and Timothy were proclaiming had come from God—that same God who had originally created light (Genesis 1:3) and who had determined that Christ would come to provide light to humanity (John 1:4–9). God had accomplished the creation of light and the coming of Jesus. What He determines shall happen; it will indeed take place, and God had shone light in Paul’s and Timothy’s hearts that they would be equipped to present the wonderful truth of Jesus Christ and the eternal life He provides (2 Corinthians 4:6). It is for this reason that Paul explains that they have the treasure in earthen vessels (2 Corinthians 4:7) and why that is significant.
Paul says elsewhere that, if he will boast, he will boast in the Lord (2 Corinthians 10:17). He is doing exactly that here when he says that they have the treasure in earthen vessels (2 Corinthians 4:7). The marvel that Paul is communicating is that, even as Paul and Timothy (and presumably the other disciples) were proclaiming Christ, they were not fulfilling this responsibility in their own power. Instead, God had provided the life, the power, and the message. Paul understood that those who were doing the actual proclaiming were simply earthen vessels—with no glory or merit of their own. As he said to the Corinthians in his previous letter, “Neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:7). Such lowly and humble people were given an incredible treasure—the personal and lifegiving knowledge of Jesus Christ in their own lives and the good news to proclaim to others. This shows how surpassing is the strength and power of God, and those who hear the message can be encouraged that the power is from God and His truth. The power does not originate in the cleverness or strength of people.
As God uses broken and imperfect people, we can also be encouraged that God can use us to accomplish important things and that, when we use the tools He provides, the power is not our own, but His. We are simply earthen vessels; the treasure is God’s gift inside.