What glory is contained within vessels of clay? In 2 Timothy 2:19-21, Paul makes a curious statement: “Nevertheless the solid foundation of God stands, having this seal: “The Lord knows those who are His,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity.” But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay, some for honor and some for dishonor. Therefore if anyone cleanses himself from the latter, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified and useful for the Master, prepared for every good work.” It seems paradoxical to the reader–and deliberately so–that cleansing oneself from a vessel for dishonor made of wood and clay would sanctify someone and make them prepared for every good work, able to become a vessel of honor as a result. The key here is that those who consider themselves to be Christians should be to depart from iniquity, and that a certain humbling process is necessary for this task to be done well.
Throughout the Bible, believers are often compared to clay, and the symbolism of the red clay from which Adam was formed is one that appears over and over again. During the time of Paul, the Roman Empire had an abundance of vessels of clay. Called amphorae, these humble clay vessels were created in a standardized fashion that allowed them to be sent in massive numbers throughout the Mediterranean world, filled with grain, oil, or wine, piled on top of each other in the humble boats and barges that were responsible for transporting these important but not very glamorous food crops from one area of the Roman world to another, allowing people to eat richly for modest prices, occasionally running afoul and getting wrecked, where they show the contemporary archaeologists and historians important aspects of the logistics of the ancient world.
The most notable aspect of clay, for many of us, is the way that it can be easily formed into whatever shape we wish, and then have its form fixed after being put in the fire. If being a potter has never been a particular hobby of my own, it is certainly a hobby whose appeal I can understand. Isaiah 29:15-16 tells us: “Woe to those who seek deep to hide their counsel far from the Lord, and their works are in the dark; they say, “Who sees us?” and, “Who knows us?” Surely you have things turned around! Shall the potter be esteemed as the clay; for shall the thing made say of him who made it, “He did not make me”? Or shall the thing formed say of him who formed it, “He has no understanding”?” Whatever glory is possessed in clay vessels reflects on the glory of the one who formed the vessel, and to the extent that we are vessels of clay, the glory that can be found in us is at best reflected glory from our Maker and Creator. To the extent that we seek glory for ourselves in ourselves, we go astray if we fail to give glory to the proper place. It is interesting that the prophet Isaiah finds in the vessel of clay the same sort of lesson about departing from iniquity that Paul did, a lesson that is all too rare in our times.
If we are humble vessels of clay, and nothing impressive in ourselves, that is no reason for despair. As Isaiah says in Isaiah 64:7-9: “And there is no one who calls on Your name, who stirs himself up to take hold of You; for You have hidden Your face from us, and have consumed us because of our iniquities. But now, O Lord, You are our Father; we are the clay, and You our potter; and all we are the work of Your hand. Do not be furious, O Lord, nor remember iniquity forever; indeed, please look—we all are Your people!” This same lesson is graphically portrayed in Jeremiah 18:1-10: “The word which came to Jeremiah from the Lord, saying: “Arise and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will cause you to hear My words.” Then I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was, making something at the wheel. And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter; so he made it again into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to make. Then the word of the Lord came to me, saying: “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter?” says the Lord. “Look, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel! The instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, to pull down, and to destroy it, if that nation against whom I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I thought to bring upon it. And the instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it, if it does evil in My sight so that it does not obey My voice, then I will relent concerning the good with which I said I would benefit it.” Let us hope that we are fit for the purposes that God has planned for us.