I recently saw a video of a preacher talking about (against) the doctrines of Joel Osteen. He included several clips of Mr. Osteen saying that because he was a follower of God he was beautiful/blessed/powerful/etc. This preacher then proceeded to make an argument from scripture that we are “earthen vessels” rather than vessels of precious metal. He essentially said that God sends the world his message in chamber pots rather than golden goblets, arguing that Mr. Osteen thinks of himself more as the latter. It sounded like a good argument. Then I looked at the scriptures and realized that he was as guilty of twisting the scriptures as he claimed Mr. Osteen was. While I don’t agree with Mr. Osteen’s doctrine, neither do I agree with hand-picking your scriptures to prove a point, while ignoring the whole context. Instead we should look at everything the Bible says about vessels of gold or clay.
The two passages this preacher used come from the apostle Paul. They are:
But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and of earth; and some to honour, and some to dishonour. (1 Tim 2:20)
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us. (2 Cor 4:7)
The problem with the argument that was given is that the passage in Timothy does not equate the precious metals with honor and the wood and clay with dishonor. Some of each may be for dishonorable purposes. The passage continues
If a man therefore purge himself from these [vain babblings, verse 16], he shall be a vessel unto honour, sanctified, and meet for the master's use, and prepared unto every good work.
(The passage may be used against the so-called Prosperity Gospel by pointing out that both the rich and the poor vessels are pure before God. Unfortunately for that preacher, it was not used that way. He forgot that Paul said both the metal and the clay vessels are part of the great house.)
The point of the passage in Timothy is the purging or cleansing, not which vessels are more honorable than the others. The Law of Moses, with which Timothy was intimately familiar, had rules for cleansing all types of vessels that may have become unclean. The difference was not in the use of the vessel but whether it could withstand fire. In purging (cleansing) ourselves from vain babblings and immorality, some must go through the fire while others through the water. God knows which you can withstand. If this says anything about the gold and silver vessels (the rich of this world?) it is that they will suffer more in their cleansing than the wood and earthen vessels.
Then there is the passage in 2 Corinthians. It must be noted that it is an entirely different context than the passage in Timothy. Paul says we have the gospel in less glamorous vessels so that the glory of God is not diminished by the container. It is not that the container is less honorable, but rather that it is less noticeable. Earlier he said, “But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost.” (2 Cor 4:7) It makes me think of Gideon. In Judges 7, Gideon took a small army against the hordes of Midian. Each Israelite held a sword and a lamp inside a clay pot. At the trumpet sound they broke the clay pots so that the light which was hidden now shined forth, confusing the Midianites but encouraging the Israelites. So it is with our earthen vessels. The light is hidden from those who will not see, but shines from the clay pot to enlighten those who would believe.
When God gave the law for the water to cleanse one who had touched a dead body (Num 19:17-19), it had to be in an earthen vessel. We may be “earthen vessels,” but we are not chamber pots. We are the containers for the gospel. Some vessels in the church may be gold and silver, but the earthen vessels are no less honorable. Nor any more so.