Dear friends in Christ. Today the Church remembers one of our Lord’s lesser-known apostles, St. Bartholomew. He is listed only four times in Holy Scripture. Just as Simon was also known as Peter, so also Bartholomew was also known as Nathanael. When Philip came to know Jesus as the Messiah, he told his friend, Nathanael, that is, Bartholomew, about Jesus of Nazareth. Bartholomew ridiculed and slurred Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown asking whether anything good can come from there, let alone the Messiah. Later, Jesus called him to come to faith, and by the power of Lord’s almighty word, Bartholomew came to faith. The Lord’s word, the working of His Holy Spirit, is powerful, creating faith even in the hearts of the most skeptical.
We don’t know for sure what happened to Bartholomew after Pentecost when the disciples went into the entire world to preach the Gospel. One tradition has Bartholomew going east to India, but other traditions have his ministry and martyrdom in Armenia, which is in modern day Turkey. The Armenians honor Bartholomew as the Apostle to their people.
During Jesus’ earthly ministry, Bartholomew’s life was marked by watching, listening and following Jesus. All the while, the Holy Spirit was strengthening his faith and working such a strong faith in his heart that Bartholomew could give up his life as a martyr. After being beaten with sticks, he was flayed, his skin being almost entirely removed, and then he was crucified. By the Lord’s grace, Bartholomew remained firm and steadfast in faith in Christ, whom He confessed to the very end.
1. Today we see in St. Bartholomew the truth of what the Holy Spirit says through St. Paul in the first words of our text: But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. Earthen vessels—that is, clay pots. What is that treasure that God puts in clay pots, and what are the clay pots? In the verse right before our text, Paul says that God…has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. That treasure that God puts in clay pots is the Gospel; it is true faith, rightly knowing Him, the true God. So, then, what are the clay pots? They are, you, me, St. Bartholomew, all Christians. In His grace and mercy God has given us His Gospel Word; He has worked through that Word, true faith in Him in our hearts. Dear Christian, God has given us a treasure, which we see pictured in the life of the blessed apostle, St. Bartholomew. The Lord gave him the treasure of the Gospel Word that worked a true faith and which Bartholomew also shared with others. Through Bartholomew’s preaching of that Word, that treasure, God put that treasure in other clay pots, in other people.
When are called earthen vessels, clay pots, we are reminded of the great blessing that we have been given. Just as a vessel, a pot, was made to be filled with something, so too God created us to be filled with something--love and trust in Him. After the fall into sin, however, we, by nature, are filled with anything but that; but now the Lord comes to us in His Word and fills us with His Word, fills us with faith in Him, fills us with fear, love and trust in Him. He puts the treasure of His Word and faith in us clay pots.
Here we see the great grace of the Lord—He puts the treasure in us clay pots. A clay pot cannot produce, make or generate the treasure; it has to be put into it. So too us. We, by our thinking about it, cannot come to the right and true knowledge of the holy Triune God Who is also our Savior. He comes to us and gives us the treasure of His Word in which He reveals Himself to us. By that Word He works faith so that we receive the gift, the treasure He gives us—forgiveness of sins, life and salvation. We cannot come to faith by our own reason or strength; we cannot “decide to follow Jesus.” Just as a clay pot can merely receive the treasure that is put into it, and cannot produce that treasure, so also we cannot produce true faith and love of God. He fills us with the treasure of His Word and faith.
The question: why are we compared with clay pots? A clay pot was a cheap, weak pot that were easily made and easily broken. When the apostle calls us clay pots, we are reminded of our frail and weak humanity. We are reminded of our sinfulness. We are reminded how unworthy we are that the Lord should come to us and give us such a great treasure of His Word and faith. We don’t deserve it; just like a cheap, weak clay pot was not worthy of a treasure of gold and jewels that the rich man put in it. But once they are inside, the pot becomes valuable. So too us—once the Lord comes to us in His Gospel Word and works faith in Him in our hearts, then our great dignity that was lost because of sin has been restored. Then, because of this great treasure the Lord has put in us clay pots, we are again dear children of God and fellow heirs of heaven; then we are holy people, priests of a King.
When we recognize that we are the clay pots and the treasure is the Word and faith, then we properly recognize what great value the treasure is. When we recognize that we are the clay pots and the treasure is the Word and faith, then we rightly recognize that we do not make ourselves worthy, that we do not earn or deserve God’s gifts, but that He gives them to us solely by grace.
I.b. Let us not be surprised that the Lord puts His treasure in clay pots, that He gives us frail, sinful human beings His greatest treasures of the Word and faith. After all, this is how the Lord always works. Think of when He came to earth—He became true man. All of His divine glory He, for the most part, concealed under His humanity. He put the treasure of His divine glory and power in the clay pot of His humanity. In the clay pot of His human nature Jesus could get tired, hungry and thirsty; He could be tempted; He could die. But what does Scripture say of Jesus about the time of His earthly ministry? In [Christ], that is, in His body lives all the fullness of Deity. He did this so that He could be our Savior, and die on the cross for all of our sins. Since He perfectly did this, He rose form the dead, Victor over all of our spiritual enemies, and ascended into heaven. Now the clay pot of His human nature shines forth with all divine power, glory and honor. Jesus is true God and true man for all eternity.
Jesus entrusted the proclamation of His work, that He is the only Savior of the world to His disciples and told them to go into the entire world. That glorious proclamation, that treasure, He put into the clay jars known as His disciples. These clay jars were frail and could sin—like Peter did; they could be broken, that is, killed, like Bartholomew and all the rest if them, except for John. But through them He has His saving Word go out into the entire world. Through the Word they taught, the Holy Spirit was at work creating and preserving faith, putting that treasure into more clay pots.
The Lord still works this way. He has put His treasure in the clay pots of simple words, water, bread and wine. Just as clay pots were common in Paul’s day, so too are water, bread and wine common among all people. But through the Word that is spoken, heard or read; through the water and the Word of holy Baptism; through the simple Bread and Wine of Holy Communion to which Jesus comes to us with His body and blood; in and through these “clay pots,” God comes to us giving us the greatest heavenly treasures of forgiveness of sin, life and salvation. Don’t look at the outward; instead, recognize that in these humble ordinary things, these clay pots, the Lord is working mightily. In the same way, recognize that you are the clay pot to whom God has given the greatest treasure—His Word and faith.
II. God works great things using humble, lowly instruments—clay pots, his Christians. Why? Our text: that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. As our Lord’s Christians, not only has He given us the treasure of His Word and faith, but also He is now working through us. What a tremendous comfort this is when we think to ourselves: why and how can God use me? After all, I’m just a weak, clay pot. Rejoice, dear Christian, not only does the Lord work through you, He wants to so that you and all people will see that He is the One who is really doing the work. God’s power is most obvious as He works mighty things using lowly, humble instruments. What a comfort to know that our weaknesses are no barriers to the things God wants to accomplish. Elsewhere some Corinthians said of Paul: his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible, but the Lord worked mightily through him. The Jews said of the apostles: when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and perceived that they were uneducated and untrained men, they marveled. And they realized that they had been with Jesus. As we see any good that the Lord works through us or other Christians, may we rejoice and be humbled—the Lord uses us as His instruments to carry out His purposes; may we see the Lord’s power all the more.
B. In the persecutions that Christians, like St. Bartholomew, faced, in the trials and hardships that we face, especially on account of our faith in Christ, we really feel our frailty as clay pots. But Paul writes in our text: We are hard pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down but destroyed. Precisely in times of trial and hardship, we see and experience the Lord’s power and grace. They drive home the point that we should not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead. Where human help ends, there God’s help begins. If we never suffered trial, temptation, affliction, then the greatness of God’s power would never be revealed when He helps us. When we experience God’s help and grace, then our faith, our reliance on Him is strengthened; then we will go to Him all the more and all the sooner the next trial because we know and have experienced His help. We realize all the more that because of God’s help we are not crushed. We realize that He is true to His promise always to be with us; and that He sends help in His way, the right way, and in His time, the right time—why? Because we have already experienced it. Having experienced His power and grace, we then are driven to prayer to the Lord for help and to His Word to receive the comfort and strengthening of faith and soul that we need until He helps, in His time and way.
In times of trial, as we truly feel ourselves to be the frail, weak, clay pots, we are, but yet, because the Lord is at work in us and through us, we are not crushed, in despair, forsaken or destroyed. We experience, and others see, Jesus’ life and strength in us. As He blessed and preserved Christians down through the ages, like St. Bartholomew, so He will do with us, too. What Paul says of himself applies also to us, that we are always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. In these trials the resurrected Jesus is with us. Because Jesus is alive, He is with us and in us in our sufferings. He miraculously preserves us; in Him we patiently suffer and conquer and overcome all evil that comes upon us. Because of our risen Jesus, we will one day share with Him eternal, blessed life. As we see the Lord’s power now as we overcome in trial, we will one day eternally in heaven, see so clearly and brightly that the Lord’s almighty power was at work in us, clay pots. We will see the true treasure it was that He put in us, when He gave us His Word and faith. INJ Amen.