The Word Among Us

November 2021 Issue

A Treasure from Above

What Kept St. Paul Going?

A Treasure from Above: What Kept St. Paul Going?

Everyone has their heroes. It could be a grandparent whose years of experience have given them deep wisdom. It could be a political leader whose bravery in the midst of opposition inspires us. Or it could be a fictional character, like Harry Potter or Jo from Little Women. Usually we choose heroes whose virtues shine with intense brightness: their extraordinary courage, their enduring patience, or their sharp wit.

It’s a little different with the saints. Of course, they demonstrate heroic virtue of some kind or another. That’s why they’re saints! But all the saints have one thing in common that you might not see in other heroes: they are extremely humble.

Take St. Paul, for example. This man had it all. He was a brilliant thinker, a talented writer, a courageous apostle, and a compassionate pastor. But when his reputation was attacked by a group he called “false apostles,” Paul’s self-defense was a bit unexpected (2 Corinthians 11:13). Rather than list all of his skills and accomplishments, Paul described himself as nothing more than an “earthen vessel” holding the great “treasure” of Christ in his heart (4:7).

The “False Apostles.” It might seem odd that Paul did not talk about his own talents, but if we look at the background to this statement, we can begin to understand what compelled him to write in such a humble way. Paul had spent eighteen months (between AD 49–51) in the city of Corinth, evangelizing, teaching, and establishing the church there. But after he left, some outsiders arrived and began to teach a gospel that was different from the message Paul had given them. 

As if that wasn't bad enough, these false apostles tried to destroy Paul’s reputation as well. They focused on his personal defects, such as his physical appearance and his preaching style. They said, “His letters are severe and forceful, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible” (2 Corinthians 10:10). They boasted about their own mystical experiences and even produced letters of recommendation to enhance their reputation—two things Paul avoided doing so as not to seem prideful (3:1-3; 11:1-7; 12:1-4). 

These attacks on Paul’s reputation and attempts to discredit his teaching hurt Paul deeply. So he decided to respond. He felt he had to defend himself so that he could continue to help the believers in Corinth. He knew that if these false apostles were to go unchallenged, many of the people would end up following them, and the church there could end up in ruins. 

So how did he handle the situation? Masterfully! At one and the same time, he told the Corinthians that he was nothing more than a humble, imperfect servant but that he carried within himself and proclaimed a great treasure: Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Paul may not have been as flashy in his appearance or as polished in his presentation as the others, but his message more than made up for his personal shortfalls. So if the Corinthians were being persuaded to disregard Paul’s message because he was not a dynamic speaker or because he had a shabby appearance, his letter made them think again.

This same truth applies to every single believer: no matter how flawed we may feel as messengers of the gospel, the treasure that we hold is glorious and perfect. 

Changed by His Glory. How did Paul come to the conclusion that he was just a vessel and that the true treasure rested in the Lord? How did he become so clear about his need to place the spotlight on Jesus and not on himself? The answer lies back in time, at the moment of his conversion. Paul’s dramatic encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus changed his life forever (Acts 9:1-19). In a flash, his eyes were opened to the greatness and glory of Jesus—and to his own flaws and weaknesses.

It can be very tempting to place Paul on a pedestal because of his memorable conversion experience. But that would be a mistake. Paul wasn’t the only one who experienced the presence of the Lord in so dramatic a fashion. Moses trembled with fear and hid his face when he met God in the burning bush (Exodus 3:6). The prophet Isaiah, when he saw the Lord, fell to his knees and cried, “Woe is me, I am doomed!” (Isaiah 6:5). Ezekiel could do nothing more than fall facedown when he saw the Lord (Ezekiel 2:1; 3:23). When Peter, James, and John witnessed the transfiguration of Jesus and heard God’s voice, they fell to the ground in fear (Matthew 17:6). 

This kind of experience is not limited to these special heroes of our faith. Just as he did for St. Paul, Jesus wants to open the eyes of our hearts to his glory and majesty. He wants to show us who he is: a God of mercy and love. This is the magnificent treasure we have dwelling in us! And the more we experience God’s glory in this way, the more we will want to surrender to him and live as committed, humble disciples.

Christ Is in You. God calls all of us to spread the gospel as Paul did. He is asking us to tell people about Jesus and to help them welcome him into their hearts. He also calls us to serve the poor and to stand up against the immorality in our world. And he wants us to do this with love, respect, and gentleness (1 Peter 3:15-16). This might sound intimidating because we tend to be very aware of our weaknesses and flaws. But God knows our weaknesses and flaws even better than we do, and still he calls us. That’s because he also knows that with Christ living in us, we can do “everything” (Philippians 4:13).

We may run into obstacles, as Paul did. It is possible we may be the subject of negative and hurtful remarks at times. People may mock us when we take a stand against abortion. A coworker may gossip about us behind our back. Even our own children may try to shake our faith by reminding us of ways that we still don’t live out the gospel. 

To make matters even more challenging, it’s possible that Satan will tempt us to shrink back when we do face opposition. He may whisper in our minds, “Who needs to serve the Lord if this is your reward? You have enough aggravation and tension in your life.” Or he may urge you to respond with your own harsh words. 

Still, Jesus asks us to stay faithful. He asks us to keep building his Church and caring for his people. He urges us to keep up our strength and courage, to hold on to our peace and our joy, and to say no to the temptation to give up when we feel we are being misunderstood or attacked. 

How do we do this? By looking to the treasure within us: “Christ in you, the hope for glory” (Colossians 1:27). By saying with St. Paul, “We are not discouraged; rather, although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16). 

Look to the Vessel. Paul’s strength came from his initial experience of the risen Christ and from his ever-deepening life of prayer and surrender to the Lord. Paul was careful to keep alive the memory of his conversion, and he was careful to let the Spirit take this experience to newer and deeper levels as the years progressed. 

Brothers and sisters, this is our call as well. Jesus Christ wants to be our treasure. He wants to fill us— mere earthen vessels—with more and more of his life and love until we become convinced that he who is in us is stronger than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4).

How Did They Do It?

St. John Chrysostom on the Apostles As “Earthen Vessels”

The following excerpt, which has been adapted by the editors, is taken from St. John Chrysostom’s eighth homily on 2 Corinthians. Here, Chrysostom explains the contrast between Christ in us, the great treasure, and our human weakness, the earthen vessel.

In the Old Testament, God used weak things to overcome the strong. Great armies of men were beaten back into retreat by gnats and flies. Construction on the great tower of Babel was halted by confused language among the workers. In wars, God used small armies to overcome impossible odds and rout superpowers. Cities were conquered by the sound of trumpets. David, a teenager, drove away a whole military force of Philistines. And now, twelve men overcame the world despite fierce persecution.

So let us stand amazed at the power of God. Let us admire it and adore it. Let us ask Jews and Gentiles alike: Who persuaded so many people around the world to convert to another way of life? Wasn’t it fishermen, tentmakers, tax collectors, and the uneducated? This isn’t logical at all, except when we stop to consider that it was God working through them. . . .

How did the apostles overcome the world? How did they topple philosophers and gods? Isn’t it evident that it was because God was with them? These successes aren’t from human origins but a divine and unspeakable power. From divinity working through humanity.

Consider all these things. Accept what has been done as proof of God’s promise for the future. Come worship the crucified Christ with us so that you may belong to the everlasting kingdom by the grace and love of God!