The New Testament was not written by the elite of Egypt. It was not written by the elite of Greece, Rome, or even Israel. The greatest scholars in the world at that time were down at Egypt; they were in the greatest library of antiquity at Alexandria. The most distinguished philosophers were in Athens; the most powerful leaders of men were in Rome; and the religious geniuses were in Israel’s temple. But God never used any of them! He just used clay pots. He passed by Herodotus, the historian; Socrates, the philosopher; Hippocrates, the father of medicine; Euclid, the mathematician; Archimedes, the father of mechanics; Hipparchus, the astronomer; Cicero, the orator; and Virgil, the poet. He passed by them all. Why? Clay pots served His purposes better. From a human viewpoint (and perhaps in their own minds), all those prominent people were magnificent vessels. But someone deeply impressed with his own value isn’t going to see value in the gospel. So God chose peasants, fishermen, smelly guys, and tax collectors—clay pots chosen to carry, proclaim, and write the priceless treasure we call the gospel.
God is still doing it that way. He is still passing by the elite. He is still passing by the hard-hearted, non-listening, proud intellectuals. They may be sitting in their ivory towers in the universities and seminaries, or in their bishoprics and their positions of authority in the churches, but God is finding the humble who will carry the treasure of saving truth.
How can that work? It works because “we do not preach ourselves” (2 Cor. 4:5). We are not the message. The church I pastor has been blessed because God has blessed His truth. It’s not me. When Paul says, “When I am weak, then I am strong,” he doesn’t mean that he is a man with no convictions. Neither does he mean that he is an undisciplined man, a lazy man, an irresponsible man, or a man who can’t work hard. What he means by “weak” is this: “I got myself out of the equation. And that’s when the strength became apparent—when I got myself out of the way.”
If you want to be used mightily by God, get yourself out of the way. Learn to see yourself as a garbage pail, or, in the words of Peter, to clothe yourself with humility (1 Peter 5:5). It’s not about you; it’s not your personality, it’s the Word of God. God doesn’t need the intellectuals. He doesn’t need great people, fancy people, or famous people. The people aren’t the power. The power is the message! He puts the treasure in clay pots so that “the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not from ourselves” (2 Cor. 4:7b).
If you look for a human explanation for Paul’s success, there isn’t one. People have said to me, “I’m studying the Bible to see why Paul was successful.” I’ll tell you why he was successful: he preached the truth. And the truth is powerful. Or they will say, “We want to come to your church to find out what makes things tick there.” I’ll tell you what makes things tick there: the truth of God. The truth of God and the power of God; those are what make things tick. The surpassing greatness explains the transcendent might of superlative power from God on the souls of those who hear the truth. We preachers are clay pots at best! In and of ourselves, we have nothing to offer, neither beauty nor power. Paul knew that, which is why he says, “I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling” (1 Cor. 2:3b).
In the end, it’s OK that we’re so weak and so afraid. Our faith should not rest in ourselves anyway, but in the power of God. We’re nothing. As Paul says elsewhere, “Neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth” (1 Cor. 3:7). God is everything!
Years ago, James Denney wrote: “No one who saw Paul’s ministry and looked at a preacher like Paul could dream that the explanation lay in him. Not in an ugly little Jew without presence, without eloquence, without the means to bribe or to compel could the source of such courage, the cause of such transformation, be found. It must be sought not in him, but in God.” In 1911, in his book The Glory of the Ministry, A. T. Robertson quoted Denney: “There always have been men in the world so clever that God could make no use of them. They could never do His work; they were so lost in admiration of their own. God’s work never depended on them, and it doesn’t depend on them now. The power is not the product of human genius, or cleverness, or technique, or ingenuity; the power of the gospel is in the gospel.” We ministers are weak, common, plain, fragile, breakable, dishonorable, and disposable clay pots who should be taking the garbage out—but instead we’re bringing the glory of God to our people.
The amazing thing is that such weakness does not prove fatal to the gospel. Thankfully, the gospel is not from us. The great reality is, God’s clay-pot strategy is essential to the gospel, because it makes crystal clear where the power really lies. We are unworthy servants, but God has given us the treasure of the gospel. What an inestimable privilege!
This excerpt is adapted from John MacArthur’s contribution in Feed My Sheep: A Passionate Plea for Preaching.