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Clay Shaped In The Hands Of The Potter

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | February 8, 1998
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Scripture Reference: Proverbs 16:4, Jeremiah 18:1—17, Romans 8:28, 2 Corinthians 12:7

Selected highlights from this sermon

Bad things happen. God’s people around the world continue to suffer. To this terrible reality, we affirm that the Lord is good, and His intentions for us are good.

God works in us purposefully, shaping us through our circumstances, other people, and even the devil. Even behind the hands that hurt us are the hands of God. Some resist God’s revealed will for them in His Word. Yet the Lord will reshape and restore even the most obstinate and marred Christian. Will we submit to God’s hands and let Him shape us?

There is the whole question of the relationship between God and people and of how God uses events and people in our lives to bring about His end result, often in the midst of a tremendous amount of pain. I wish that you could read some of the letters that come to my desk. This past week I received another one of a tale of incredible woe and suffering and human anguish in the life of a believer. How do we understand it? What is God’s purpose? Where does it all end up?

Well, I want you to take your Bibles and turn to Jeremiah 18. The prophet has an illustration of the relationship between God and His people. “The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: ‘Arise, and go down to the potter's house, and there I will let you hear my words.’ So I went down to the potter's house, and there he was working at his wheel. And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter's hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do. Then the word of the Lord came to me: ‘O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done?’ declares the Lord. Behold, like the clay in the potter's hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel.”

Let us pray together one more time.

Father, we ask that this passage of Scripture shall be so burned into our minds and hearts that if it pleases You we shall never forget it. We pray that the words that I have prepared may suddenly miraculously become the very Word of God to everyone who is listening. And we ask, Lord, that as a result of being in Your presence and listening to Your truth that we shall be changed both today and forever. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

During the days of Israel potters were very valuable. They still are today. You can go to Israel and you can see potters, just like the one that Jeremiah was asked to visit. What I’d like to do today is to invite you to come with me as we take a look at a potter, and I hope you bring your camera because what we’d like to do is to take four snapshots. If you have a Polaroid, that would be perfect. Four snapshots of the passage that we have just read about!

First of all, we take a picture of the potter who, in this story (in this analogy), represents God. We look at the potter and we see him work, and what can we say about him? Well, first of all he works purposefully. He has a plan in mind. He knows exactly what shape he wants the pot that he is working on to take. Some pots are going to be used for water. They will be water pots. There are going to be those that will be used for flowers – flowerpots. Cooking pots! All different shapes, all different sizes, a host of different uses, and he has one in mind and he works to bring it about.

He doesn’t work blindfolded. He doesn’t work like children in our early children’s learning center who work with Play-Doh with no special idea in mind. It’s not that. It is an intelligent designer who intends to create and to shape a vessel according to his liking, and according to his will.

Now of course God is the potter. What is His purpose? We read in Romans 8 very clearly that “all things work together for good to them that love God,” and then we say, “Well, we know that that is true, but we’re not sure what the good is to which God works.” Well, the very next verse says, “It is His desire that we might be made and conformed unto the image of Christ.”

There are different kinds of pots, different shapes, different sizes, different purposes, but in the end always the same purpose – to be an honor to Jesus Christ, that God might work in us Christ’s likeness despite our diversity. So the potter works purposefully.

Let me say also that He works very patiently. We might be in a hurry and say, “Well, let’s make sure that this pot comes about quickly,” but the potter works so patiently that we would say that He is working slowly. It does not seem as if He is working as quickly as we would like to see it. Time goes by and He works with the clay. It is malleable, and He uses it, and He begins to shape it, and He becomes very intricate in what He is doing.

May I say also that He works very authoritatively? Notice what the text says in verse 6. “‘O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done?’ declares the Lord.” What passage comes to mind in the New Testament? Is it not Romans 9:20? “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show His wrath and to make known His power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of His glory for vessels of mercy, which He has prepared beforehand for glory?”

We read that passage and it becomes very frightening to us as we think about God’s sovereignty and His ability to work. He uses Pharaoh to raise him up that “‘My power may be declared in him,’ says the Lord.” Wow!

He works authoritatively and sovereignly. He chooses what kind of a pot you are going to be, not what kind of a pot you are going to have. (chuckles) Well, let’s let that pass, but He does choose what kind of a pot you are going to be – your color, your geography, your giftedness and where you are going to serve. All of those things are chosen by the Lord. He works, and He works sovereignly.

And yet notice that it appears as if He fails. That’s why this passage of Scripture is so difficult. It appears as if He fails. It says, you’ll recall, in verse 4 and 5, “But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands.” And so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it, as it seemed best to him.

We are surprised because the potter is obviously skilled, and yet as we see the wheel turn we notice that this lump of clay seems to be lopsided. It loses its symmetry. The design that the potter has in mind is not made on the clay. It seems to come apart and therefore it is a marred vessel.

Does God ever fail? That would be a good quiz test in a theology exam. Does God ever fail? You say, “Well, no, God doesn’t fail.” That’s right, because when we look at things from the standpoint of God’s hidden will it is always accomplished. In fact the Scripture says that God has made all things for Himself, even the wicked for the day of evil. Therefore, if you are looking at God’s hidden purposes in the mystery of His will He is always successful, but if you look at God from the standpoint of His visible will, there it appears as if His purposes are not achieved. He tells us as believers to rejoice in all things, and we don’t rejoice in all things. He has a certain design in mind for a life and we mess it up. From that standpoint God’s purposes are not always achieved. But as we look at this text we can see here that the potter is working patiently, authoritatively and purposefully with a design in mind, but the plan does not work out. That’s the first snapshot as we look at this picture.

Let’s look now at the wheel. If you have your Polaroid camera take a zoom lens and zoom in, and you’ll notice that this wheel is constantly turning. And we want to look at it because the wheel becomes the means by which the clay is shaped.

And what does God use in our lives to shape us? Well first of all He uses circumstances, doesn’t He? He uses circumstances as His instruments - all of those events that take place in our lives, the broken dreams, the difficulties, as well as the good things – yes, most assuredly. But He uses those circumstances to accomplish His purpose.

Remember Jonah? Do you remember that the Scripture says that after Jonah was disobedient the Lord appointed a fish? And it was that fish that swallowed Jonah. Then it says the Lord appointed a plant. That little word appointed occurs four times in the book of Jonah. The Lord appointed a fish to swallow him. He appointed a plant to shield him. And then He appointed a worm to bug him, and then He appointed a scorching east wind to exasperate him. Don’t miss the point. All four were appointments of God. Some came with great blessing like that plant. It was like an air conditioner in the heat. Some came with great exasperation like the wind that blew and the little worm that chewed down the tree that God had come up overnight. All of those events – some nice and some not so nice – were appointed by God. And God performs the thing that is appointed for me. He shapes us by the events of life.

But He also shapes us through the people whom we meet. You look in the Bible and you find, for example, that God used the family of Joseph to shape Joseph. Here are hate-filled brothers who sell him into slavery, brothers who lie, brothers who are not interested in the welfare of their half-brother, and Joseph has to endure this. And then a false report! God used injustice in his life. He was falsely accused of wanting to, in effect, rape Potiphar’s wife. And that was unjust, and it says in prison there the Word of the Lord tested him. God uses people.

God uses also the devil. The Apostle Paul discovered that. “There was given unto me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, that he might buffet me to keep me humble.” Here is Satan who hates Paul, and yet even Satan becomes God’s servant as God intends to use the devil in Paul’s life for Paul’s greater good.

Now don’t miss my point. It is not up to the pot to tell the potter what he can and cannot use in the shaping process. It is not up to the pot to say, “You can’t use injustice. If you are going to use injustice I am going to become bitter and angry and I will hang on to my anger, and if I cannot get even I will never forget what I have in my heart – that anger and that resentment.” My dear friend, it is not up to the pot to say what the potter can or cannot use. We can’t say, “Well you can’t use injustice.” We can’t say, “Well you know you can’t use shattered dreams because I can’t handle it. That is illegitimate. You can’t use that to shape me.”

I remind you of verse 6. “‘Oh House of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done?’ declares the Lord.” You look at Joni Eareckson. Can God use a diving accident? Can God use such a disability? Can God use the frustration of plans that were supposed to go well but haven’t? Can God use the circumstances and the people connected with those circumstances to do the shaping? Yes, He can and He does, because behind those hands that hurt us are also the hands of God.

Joseph is thrown into prison unjustly, but as I mentioned, it is there that the Word of God tests him. Paul has the thorn in the flesh and he ends up by saying, “I will therefore rather glory in my infirmities that the power of Christ may rest upon me because God can even use the devil to shape a vessel.”

We looked at the potter. That was your first snapshot. He works purposefully and patiently but authoritatively. We’ve looked at the wheel. The wheel represents the circumstances of life and the people of life who sometimes deeply hurt and betray us (and of course, I’m putting it negatively), but also the good people in life who encourage us and strengthen us and pray for us. It’s all part of the process.

But there’s a third portrait now. You have to take your camera and get a close-up of this, and that is the vessel that was marred in the hands of the potter. This vessel is actually wobbly. It is unshapely. It is actually - what shall we say? It has lost its consistency, and so in working with it the potter simply takes it and finally he gives up on it as it were and he squishes it together and he wants to start over again.

That is the vessel that is marred in the hands of the potter. Who is this vessel? Well, my dear friend, this vessel could be you. It could be me because now the analogy, you have to understand, is extended, and the analogy refers to those who resist the potter – those who stand against the potter’s will, those who simply resist God and say therefore, “You cannot use this in my life to shape me. You have to take my instructions or I will become bitter and angry and withdrawn, and I will no longer trust You. I will pull the shutters of my soul together and I will simply resist what You are planning to do in my life.” And the vessel is marred in the hands of the potter.

Let’s look at this now through the eyes of Scripture. You think of all the dreams that God had for King Saul. Saul was a tall man. He was handsome. He was good looking. He was Israel’s first king. He was to rule under the leadership of God. The Spirit of God came mightily upon Saul several times during his ministry, and yet what happened? Jealous! David is coming up. Saul is jealous. Saul is envious. Saul is so angry that God sends him a wicked spirit that he might be brought to despair and repent, but Saul does not repent. Saul goes to his grave resisting God and even seeing a medium in rebelling against God, and says, “If God is not going to speak to me I’m going to find some place that will speak to me.” Saul died a marred vessel.

Just think for a moment. You know people like that too, don’t you? I was just thinking this week, as I was meditating on this passage, of people with whom I went to Bible College, and young men with whom I went to seminary. I think of one man who was very gifted and wanted to be an evangelist but immorality and a forced marriage kept him from it. He was the kind of person that you say, “Now there is a person on whom God has placed His hand and who is cut out for ministry with natural, strong, God-given gifts. Yet I saw him one time and he was so disheveled that he had told me that he was contemplating suicide. I don’t know where he is today but he was a vessel that was marred in the hands of the Potter because he resisted that which God had revealed to him and eventually went his own way. That’s the marred vessel, and you look at it and it’s enough to make angels weep. A vessel that was shaped by God, gifted by God, given blessings by God, and nevertheless sinned against incredible blessing! A fine family, a wonderful church, Bible teaching! In light of all of these blessings, and in light of all of the care that the Potter takes, there is still a vessel that says, “I will not have this Potter rule over me.” Do you see the picture in your camera of a marred vessel that’s lost its shape and usefulness?

Well, there is a fourth picture. We’ve taken a picture of the potter, of the wheel, of the marred vessel and that is the remade vessel. I pick it up again actually there in verse 4. “And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter's hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do.” Isn’t that beautiful? This is the remade vessel. You and I might have taken that lump of clay and said, “Well if you’re going to be that way, we’ll simply toss you on the heap.” Well, no! What the Potter does is He takes that clay that will not respond to His loving hand (the circumstances and the people that He brings into his life) and He brings it together and He says, “I’m going to use the same clay, but the vessel is going to be a different vessel. It’s going to be shaped differently. It’s going to be a vessel for another purpose because maybe this one purpose no longer actually can be fulfilled, and now it’s time to have another purpose.” You say, “Well, where is that in the text?” Notice it says, “He formed it into another vessel, another pot, as it pleased him.” And so it’s a remade vessel.

You look at the Bible and you find from one end to the other people who were remade. David was a man who was certainly remade. David committed adultery and murder. He tried to cover it up. He tried to hide it, but he could not hide it from God, just like we cannot hide it from God. He could not even hide it from other people, just like today you cannot hide it from other people when God wants it to be revealed. There is nothing that you can do to hide sin if God wills that it be revealed. David is an illustration of that. And so God took David and God crushed him, and God worked with him, and God disciplined him, and He remade him into another vessel.

Is it true that the bird with a broken wing flies just as high again? No, David never flew that high again. He lost his family. He lost his kingdom. He lost a lot of things because of that skid into the moral ditch. But God didn’t say, “Well, okay, you know I was shaping you so beautifully. You messed it up. Onto the scrap heap you go!” No, God says, “David, I have to now shape you into another vessel with different purposes and a different agenda. Things are going to be different but I will not leave you alone. I will remake you into something that is still beautiful for Me.” Isn’t that marvelous?

Peter was remade. Peter is there and denies Christ, and he felt so deeply about it. He’s in remorse for three long days, and Jesus says, after He is raised from the dead, “Go tell my disciples and Peter.” He has to add “and Peter” because Peter no longer thinks that he is a disciple of Christ. And Jesus very lovingly invites Peter back into the inner circle and restores him and remakes him, and this vessel becomes a stronger vessel than the first vessel. He is remade in the hands of the Potter.

And you and I are remade, are we not? Hopefully we’ve not sinned in these ways but we are remade. The Christian life is a whole series of new beginnings. We begin at the foot of the cross every day, and it is even there that God is remaking us as it pleases Him.

Now what happens to the vessel? It’s reshaped and this time it has its symmetry, and it meets the specifications that are needed for usefulness, and so what does the potter do? He then takes it and puts it in the fire. He puts it in the kiln, and he heats the fire. And if that pot could speak, it would say, “No, no, no, get me out of here.” But the potter keeps his hand on the thermostat. He knows how high the thermostat must be turned in order that the work might be done. He knows what happens if a pot is not put through the fire in the kiln because that pot might be made to be (what shall we say?) a water pot. It might be a flowerpot. It might be a pot for treasures. It might be a cooking pot. But if it is not heated it will leak, and, I was going to say, become a cracked pot. (laughter) You knew that at some point that was going to come out today.

And so what the potter does is he puts it in the kiln so that it might have that consistency, and the right kind of toughness so that it can be mightily used, and he puts it there and the heat is not comfortable. The heat is very hard and excruciating, but the potter knows what He wants. He has an end in view. This is going somewhere.

What are the lessons that we can learn from these four snapshots? The first is this. God loves to remake marred vessels. There’s no question about it. He loves to take people whose dreams have been shattered, people who married unwisely and people who are in relationships that have caused difficulty. He loves to take those kinds of situations, and if the clay is willing, the Potter does not take the clay and throw it on the heap, but He takes it and He remakes it into another vessel. He gives that clay a new beginning.

You say, “But Pastor Lutzer, you know you have talked about the fact that circumstances and people are used by God to shape us, but the reason that I am marred is not because of people and circumstances. The reason I am marred is totally my own fault. It is my series of bad choices that has gotten me into a mess that seems to be absolutely overwhelming and I know of no way out.” I need to remind you that the Potter is very wise. The Potter is very strong. The Potter has knowledge of all things, both actual and possible. The Potter knows what could have been as well as what is, and I encourage you today to remember that the Potter is just as willing to remake a vessel that has been misshaped because of others, as He is to remake a vessel that has been misshaped because of the vessel’s own rebellion, the vessel’s own inability to line up with God’s purposes. God loves to remake marred vessels into another kind of vessel.

A friend of mine in ministry committed immorality – a tragedy – and yet today years later he will never be a pastor again. You see, that first vessel was marred in the hands of the Potter, and when God reshapes sometimes you can’t go back to what you used to be, and what you used to do. But the thing that I delight in is that as he has chosen another vocation and how mightily God is using him as a soul winner and as an encourager in a vocation now that he had to learn as a result of his failure. And I look at him now years later and I can see that God took a vessel that was marred and remade it into another vessel even as it pleased Him because God did not take that friend of mine and simply throw him on the heap and be done with him. That’s grace. That’s God’s love and that’s God’s mercy.

If you are alive, and that is one of the requirements to attend church here by the way (We don’t have many but that’s one.), God is willing to remake you.

Now what happens if He begins to remake the clay and it becomes hard and it simply will not submit to the Potter? It will fight. It will argue. It will harass. It will maintain its independence. It will resist the Potter. Well eventually of course the clay does harden, and it becomes like a potsherd, and then it is thrown out. Now I don’t believe that that happens to any true believer because God hangs onto His own people all the way to heaven, but there have been some believers who eventually possibly God simply said, “Look, we just have to leave them to their own devices because they refuse to submit.”

You know it says in Psalm 2, “Thou shall break them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” It’s talking about the sovereignty of Christ over nations that would reject His authority. God simply crushes them. Judas would be a good example of a potsherd, someone who never really belonged to God and then eventually his heart is so hard, so deceitful, so filled with wickedness that the proof of his own lack of commitment becomes evident and he is cast aside. I hope I speak to no one like that today, though certainly I could be. I could be. But if you know Christ as Savior would you let Him remake you and cease striving against God. Don’t fight Him. Don’t say to yourself, “I have to get even because I cannot sleep until I get even because I am so angry.” I understand your anger when I think of some of the things that have been done against you, and some of the things I hear about. That is no mystery, but there comes a time when you say, “God, even this I submit to You, and I do not tell You whom You can use or what You can use because I have to remember I am the clay and You are the potter.”

Now I have to say in parenthesis, of course, that if you are in a situation where you are being abused, please go for help either as a child or as an adult. And I do not mean to say that people should simply endure what they are going through without any recourse to help that God has given to us as a society and as a church. But I’m saying that in the normal course of life, in the normal day-by-day shaping, you have to see behind the hand that is used the hand of God. You are fired unjustly. You are spoken about unjustly. There are situations over which you can never bring justice. What is the Potter doing? Isn’t the Potter watching? Doesn’t He know what’s going on?

My dear friend, do you know what the Potter does? He looks at that vessel that He is making and He knows it so intricately. He knows its inward designs. What does the Scripture say? It says, “Before I formed thee in the womb I knew thee. In Thy book, all of my members were written which in continuance were fashioned when as yet there was none of them. Oh God, before I was born, You knew all things about me, and You know my heartache, and You know how I desire certain things that I will never get. You know that I have to live with these unfulfilled dreams.” And the Potter says, “Yes, I know, I know, I know but just listen to Me. I am remaking you into something that will be a delight to Me - people who go on believing Me even against incredible odds.”

My dear friend, submission isn’t the only discipline of the Christian life. There is prayer. There is Scripture memory. There’s fasting and all of the other things we’ve talked about in other messages, but submission lies at the heart of them all. There has to be a fundamental willingness to say, “You be God, and I’ll remember who I am, and Father, have Thine own way.”

Some of you who are listening to this message ten years from now are going to be the same person you are today, still bitter, still upset with God, still feeling resentment and jealousy because life has not done well for you as it has to others. You look at others. And you will not be remade.

There are others of you who bring a life full of shambles, full of your unfulfilled dreams, full of your desires, and full of injustices even that have been done to you. But as best as you know how you say, “Lord, I remember that You are God and I do not have a right to tell You what it is that You will use to make me look like Jesus,” and so you submit. And you say in the words of the song,

Have Thine own way, Lord, have Thine own way.
Thou art the Potter, I am the clay.
Mold me and make me after Thy will,
While I am waiting, yielded and still.

Finally the Potter says, “Wow! Here’s some clay I can use.”

Let’s pray.

Our Father, You know our hearts. You know all the hidden agendas of the mind that we bring to this hour. You know all the rationalizations that we have carefully cultivated, the videotapes of our mind that justify our feelings. You know the multitude of reasons why we hang on to bitterness, why we are filled with jealousy. You know, Father, all these things, and at the end the day You also know it is because we are resisting the hand of the Potter. We don’t like it that there are some vessels that are made for great honor, at least in the sight of men, and others for obscurity. We don’t like it that some are shaped by great adversity and others are shaped by endless successes it seems. And we pray that in these moments, Lord, that You might help us to throw open the doors of the soul and simply say, “Father, have Your way.” Lord, confirm these decisions we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.

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