The Doctrine of Earthen Vessels

The Doctrine of Earthen Vessels

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Some 60-plus years ago, evangelist Eldred Stevens, then the pulpit minister of the Stillwater (Okla.) church of Christ (and later the director of the Dallas-based Preston Road School of Preaching) used to preach a sermon that, today, ought hold great relevance for us. The sermon has been passed down through at least one other preacher, and altered over the years, but its essential message is still intact. Below there appears a portion of the text of that sermon.

We will use this sermon to determine what is meant by the doctrine of “earthen vessels,” a doctrine that is largely forgotten today, but one that ought be essential for anyone who hopes to understand the full nature of the gospel.

Here is, essentially, what Stevens preached, with some references updated for modern audiences:

Too many times, people will blindly follow individuals  whom they consider to be religious leaders and cloak them with an aura of infallibility. We all have seen examples of this. Unfortunately, it is not hard today to find media evangelists who claim to have received some personal revelation or communication directly from God. [For some flagrant examples of this, see my review of Christianity in Crisis or click here for a couple of examples that I did not include in that review.] Nor are such claims limited to public figures. In the realm of personal salvation, the numbers of people who claim they received direct revelations from God are too many to record. Many of these people say that they were saved at the very moment of their reported revelations.

Yet despite all the testimonials one might hear today from such people, there are three statements that can safely be made along these lines.

The first is that, if you were to have contact today with an angel from God—in any situation—the angel would not tell you what you must do to be saved. And what message could an angel have for you that could be more important than that? The second statement is that if you were to have an encounter with the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Godhead, He would not, in any audible way, tell you the plan of salvation—that being the steps you would need to take to gain eternal life with God. The third statement is this: if you were to have contact with the Lord Jesus Christ personally, in a vision or in some other fashion, as some media preachers have claimed to have done, Jesus would not explain to you the terms of the simple gospel story, which can mean salvation for you and forgiveness for your sins. Now that these statements are before us, the task that remains is plain. It is to prove these points, and to do that we need to turn to the ultimate authority, the Word of God.

Angel with Gideon

An angel appeared to Gideon...

The first statement was that if in some miraculous fashion an angel of God appeared to you, then—whatever else the angel might say—he would not tell you the plan of salvation, that being the steps you would need to take to gain eternal life with God. Well, why shouldn’t someone be able to say that an angel helped save him? We follow the Bible, don’t we? And the Bible is full of stories involving angels, isn’t it? An angel appeared to Gideon to tell him to face the Midianites. Angels talked with Abraham as they were being sent from God to condemn the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. An angel told Mary she would be the mother of Jesus. So God has used angels in encounters with mankind—in the past, before the church was established. But the incident we shall consider now occurred after the establishment of the church and is found in Acts 10. It concerns a Gentile man named Cornelius, who was a devout man and who wished to do the will of God. This account states, beginning with the first eight verses,“Now there was a man at Caesarea named Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian cohort, (2) a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, and gave many alms to the Jewish people and prayed to God continually. (3) About the ninth hour of the day he clearly saw in a vision an angel of God who had just come in and said to him, ‘Cornelius!’ (4) And fixing his gaze on him and being much alarmed, he said, ‘What is it, Lord?’ And he said to him, ‘Your prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before God. (5) Now dispatch some men to Joppa and send for a man named Simon, who is also called Peter; (6) he is staying with a tanner named Simon, whose house is by the sea.’ (7) When the angel who was speaking to him had left, he summoned two of his servants and a devout soldier of those who were his personal attendants, (8) and after he had explained everything to them, he sent them to Joppa.”

Now after the messengers had fetched Peter from Joppa and brought him to the house of Cornelius at Caesarea, Cornelius related the facts of this appearance of the angel to him. Beginning in verse 30, we read,

“Cornelius said, ‘Four days ago to this hour, I was praying in my house during the ninth hour; and behold, a man stood before me in shining garments, (31) and he said, “Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. (32) Therefore send to Joppa and invite Simon, who is also called Peter, to come to you; he is staying at the house of Simon the tanner, by the sea.’ (33) So I sent for you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. Now then, we are all here present before God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord.’ ”

Peter visits Cornelius

Peter visits Cornelius.

As we examine these circumstances, one thing is apparent to us. The angel stood in the presence of Cornelius—and if he had wished to tell Cornelius what he must do to be saved, he had a wonderful opportunity to do so. Cornelius was eager to hear, and anxious to do, God’s will. And this is precisely the reason why the angel is here—so that Cornelius will know that he can be saved, and what he can do to be saved. So the angel will tell Cornelius, right? No, instead, the angel went to a lot of trouble to direct Cornelius to send men to Joppa to fetch a gospel preacher named Peter. This caused a four-day delay. Caesarea and Joppa were more than 30 miles apart. So it was more than 60 miles round trip, on foot. It is no wonder it took four days. When the men returned with Peter, Peter told Cornelius and his household about Jesus Christ and, upon their belief, they were baptized as Peter directed them. So the angel did not personally give the gospel facts to Cornelius… Peter did. And this despite the wonderful opportunity afforded the angel.

Now let us turn our attention to our second statement, and that is the idea that if you were to have contact or an encounter with the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Godhead, He would not in any audible way tell you what you must do to be saved.

We have a lot of respect for the Holy Spirit of God. The Spirit has manifested himself in various ways. At the baptism of Jesus, the Spirit descended in the form of a dove and lighted upon Him. The incident we will consider now, however, is one described in Acts 8 in verses 26 to 39, wherein the Spirit appeared to a preacher named Philip of the province of Samaria. Here we read,

“But an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip, saying, ‘Get up and go south to the road that descends from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a desert road.) So he got up and went; and there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure; and he had come to Jerusalem to worship, (28) and he was returning and sitting in his chariot, and was reading the prophet Isaiah. (29) Then the Spirit said to Philip, [NOTE: This is where the Spirit enters onto the scene], ‘Go up and join this chariot.’ (30) Philip ran and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and said, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ (31) And he said, ‘How could I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. (32) Now the passage of Scripture which he was reading was this: ‘He was led as a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, So he does not open his mouth. (33) In his humiliation his judgment was taken away; Who will relate his generation? For his life is removed from the earth.’ (34) The eunuch answered Philip and said, ‘Please tell me, of whom does the prophet say this? Of himself or someone else?’ (35) Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture he preached Jesus to him. (36) As they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch said,

‘Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?’ (37) [And Philip said, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may.’ And he answered and said, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’] (38) And he ordered the chariot to stop; and they both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch, and he baptized him. (39) When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; and the eunuch saw him no more, but went on his way rejoicing.”

Philip preaches to the Ethiopian Eunuch

Philip preaches to the Ethiopian Eunuch.

The Spirit wanted the eunuch to hear about Jesus. The simplest way, and the most impressive to the eunuch, would have been for the Spirit to simply appear to him and explain the facts of the gospel. That is the kind of revelation that many modern-day media preachers would have you believe they received. But in this case, the Spirit instead went to a lot of trouble to bring Philip from Samaria down to this road near Gaza. The commentator H. Leo Boles wrote that Philip would have had to cover 60 to 70 miles to get there. After Philip had his discourse with the eunuch and baptized him, the Spirit again caught Philip away. So, the Holy Spirit did not personally convey the gospel facts to the eunuch… Philip did.

In fact, H. Leo Boles observed that there were three agents who cooperated to bring to the eunuch a knowledge of the gospel. There was Philip, the Holy Spirit, and an angel who spoke to Philip in Samaria. Neither the Holy Spirit nor the angel spoke to the eunuch. They merely coordinated the effort that brought Philip to the eunuch.

Now let us examine our third statement. If you were to encounter Jesus Christ personally, in a vision or in some other manner as some media preachers have claimed they have done, He would not explain to you the terms of the simple gospel story. And what message could He possibly have for you that could be more important than that?

Jesus is the savior, the sole agent in making possible the gospel story. It’s His story. During his ministry on earth, He went around doing good, performing mighty works, and teaching the people. But after Jesus died, was buried, and arose from the dead, and the church came into existence, things changed. As a case in point, let us examine the story of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus as recorded in Acts 9, beginning in verse 1.

“Now Saul, still breathing out threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the High Priest, (2) and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. (3) As he was traveling, it happened that he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; (4) and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’ (5) And he said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And He said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, (6) But get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.’ (7) The men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. (8) Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; and leading him by the hand, they brought him into Damascus. (9) And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank. (10) Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias; and the Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ And he said, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ (11) And the Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying, (12) and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him, so that he might regain his sight.’ (13) But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he did to Your saints at Jerusalem; (14) and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name.’ (15) But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; (16) I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake.’ (17) So Ananias departed and entered the house, and after laying his hands on him said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ (18) And immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he regained his sight, and he got up and was baptized; (19) and he took some food and was strengthened.”

"...suddenly a light shone around him from heaven..."

"...suddenly a light shone around him from heaven..."

This is a remarkable incident. Jesus the Savior appeared to Saul on the Damascus Road and spoke with him. Upon this experience, Saul was a penitent believer, and this would have been an excellent opportunity for Jesus to have told Saul what he must do to be saved. But Jesus didn’t do that. Instead, he sent him into the city to a gospel preacher (anyone who proclaims the gospel is a gospel preacher) named Ananias, who told Saul what he must do.

As we examine all three of these incidents involving the conversion of believers in the New Testament church—the most complete and detailed accounts we have in the Bible of New Testament conversions—we are struck by one fact that they all have in common. That is that in each instance it was left to a mere man, a gospel preacher, to tell the convert the good news about the gospel of Christ. In the case of Cornelius, the angel had him send for a preacher named Peter. In the case of the Ethiopian eunuch, the Holy Spirit arranged for a preacher named Philip to arrive on the scene. In the case of Saul of Tarsus, Jesus sent him to a preacher named Ananias.

These do not sound like the type of experiences that we hear about from people on television—or in front of other audiences—when someone is eager to testify about his alleged contacts with deity. The media religious leaders who claim to have had a divine revelation never say they were told to contact a local gospel preacher who would tell them what they needed to do to be saved.

So what is the difference? We see in this the hand of God, and the method God planned, from time immemorial, to bring the terms of salvation of the gospel story to mankind. Salvation is a precious thing. You cannot put a dollar value on it. All the money on earth could not purchase for you the reward of a home in heaven with God. That is why it is called a treasure. And it is a treasure that is given freely by the Lord to all those who receive the gospel story and obey it. But it is not a treasure that is dispensed in a miraculous manner by deity. Instead, it is a treasure that is dispensed only by humans—not by angels, not by the Holy Spirit, not by Jesus Himself.

God has decided that the simple gospel story be dispensed by mankind. The apostle Paul says in Second Corinthians 4, verses 5-7: “For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord; and ourselves as your bondservants for Jesus’ sake. (6) For God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. (7) But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves.”

How is this treasure dispensed? Through “earthen vessels.” Some translations say “jars of clay.” Containers made of the very ground beneath us. We’ve always been made of the same stuff as the earth itself. We are those clay vessels. And the gospel is the treasure that has been entrusted to us. Paul writes to Timothy in Second Timothy 1:14, “Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you.”

So today, when you hear stories by someone who says that he received a revelation from an angel, or from the Holy Spirit, or from Jesus Himself, and as a result he knew he was saved, well, you can discount that story.

In the long ago before the cross, God did make known his will through angels and other means. But in these last days Heaven has ordained that the simple gospel story of Jesus Christ should be proclaimed by human vessels.

It might not be as spectacular a method as some men might desire, but it is the one chosen by the Almighty, and it will be the method in use until time shall be no more.

This study is included as part of my chapter on "Earthen Vessels" in my book Rightly Divided. Anyone wishing a copy of that work ($16.95 postpaid) can contact me direct by email at jfm at jessemullins.com.



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