Varnishing The Vessel And Tarnishing The Treasure

By Edward O. Bragwell, Sr.

“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us” (2 Cor 4:7).

The Lord purposely put his gospel “treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us.” These “vessels” were apparently the apostles. However, there is a principle here for all who preach publicly or privately. The Lord wanted attention to go to the treasure (the gospel) rather than the vessel (the preacher). So, he deposited it in plain earthen pottery. Yet, we spend so much of our time polishing and shining the vessel that too much attention is drawn away from the treasure itself.

Did you ever buy a child an expensive toy only to have him set the toy aside and have a ball with a box? It may be that many of us are doing more playing with the box than we would like to admit.

Paul wrote, “And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God” (1 Cor. 2:1).

Faced with sagging interest, dwindling numbers and community rejection in many locales, brethren look for ways to turn things around. Just offering the bare “testimony of God” (the gospel) does not attract enough people. What are we to do? Elders, preachers, and other members wrestle with the problem. Shall we abandon the old gospel truth that we have believed and taught so long? Of course, not! That would be digression, even apostasy! If the meat is not appetizing, we just add spicy dressing to whet the appetite. If one will not buy the product in a plain wrapper, we will jazz up the packaging to grab attention.

So, before long brethren become more concerned with how their approach appeals to a certain age group, a certain educational level, or certain social class than they are in simply presenting the testimony of God and letting it have free course. Preachers are sought, not for being good Bible students, and their ability to share the fruits of their study, but their personal attraction to this or that age, social, economic or intellectual level. Preaching is measured more by its artistic value, entertainment rating and/or the appeal of its rhetorical style than by its biblical content. We can easily rationalize such catering to the fleshly side of man so long as we teach the truth. The problem is that we tend to draw more attention to the dressing and packaging than we do to the gospel itself. One should not detract from the gospel by wrapping it in a rude and crude package (presentation and personality). We have all seen this in some brotherhood “characters.” Neither should one want to wrap it in so pleasingly dynamic packaging that it overshadows the message itself.

Brethren would do well to carefully study Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians I and 2.

We must face the fact that the bare truth of the gospel plainly presented will turn many off. It is not what they are looking for. The Jews wanted a sign. The Greeks sought wisdom. Paul could have given them signs. He did at other times to confirm the word. He was no dummy. He was well-educated. If this would have gotten their attention, why not use it. After winning their attention, then he could have slipped the gospel in to them. He might have reached more of the noble and “better-class” (?) of people this way. Surely such would have been an asset to the church in its early stages.

Why not? It would have shifted attention and emphasis to the wrong place. It would have invited his hearers to place their faith in the wrong things. It would have taken glory away from the Lord (1:31).

The gospel is God’s power to save. It is a stand alone system. It does not need me to dress it up in excellency of speech or with enticing words of man’s wisdom. It doesn’t need the playing up of my dynamic personality (that one that I have been able to keep so effectively concealed) to run interference for it. In fact, Paul indicates that he made a determined effort to avoid dressing it up in any such garb. Such would probably have appealed to the immature (it still does), but the gospel unadorned by such has its own beauty and appeal “among those who are mature” (2:6).

If the Lord’s people will continue to present what the Bible teaches (and support men who will do so) to the world and to the church – unadorned by human wisdom and carnal appeal – souls will be saved. It will not appeal to every one in the community or in the church. It will save some of all classes of people. Their faith will stand in the power of God and not in the wisdom of men (2:5).

There is too much of “I am of Paul” and “I of Apollos” etc. without our encouraging it by using excellency of speech, dynamic personalities, or any other fleshly characteristic as the means of gaining, pacifying and holding members of the church.

Brethren often openly admit that they invite men for local work or gospel meetings because of their personal appeal to certain fleshly classes. He appeals to our young. He appeals to our elderly. He appeals to our singles. He appeals to our marrieds. He appeals to our educated. He appeals to our sports fans. He appeals to our affluent., He appeals to our sophisticated neighbors. On and on ad nauseam.

Brethren, the gospel simply presented convicts and appeals to the spiritually minded of all classes of humanity. It has its own power of persuasion by the sheer force of the truth of it. It has its own appeal to those who honestly consider it. We need to get back to using it as the drawing power. Study it, preach it, teach it, and point to it as the attraction rather than the personal and fleshly traits of brethren, We who preach would do well to project less of ourselves, seek to be less dynamic or dramatic, seek less to make a personal impression, study less rhetoric (developing excellency of speech) and spend more time with the Book, learning its contents and simply telling folks what it says so they can be saved and remain faithful to the Lord. We might even become less concerned with impressing folks with our oratory, rapport, wit and wisdom and more concerned that they clearly see the wisdom of God – the wisdom revealed in the Scriptures. If we could just preach so that people will exclaim, “What truth!” or “What a Savior!” rather than “What a preacher!” or “What a delivery!” then we will be coming closer to the kind of preaching that will get the job done that God wants done.

If we do this and leave the results to God, it will attract and keep all that God wants attracted and kept and “no flesh should glory in his presence” (1:29).

Guardian of Truth XXXI: 19, pp. 588-589
October 1, 1987