In the crushing
In the pressing
You are making
In the soil, I
You are breaking
The old missionary thought he had seen it all. For almost ten years he had been traveling and preaching the gospel. He had suffered much and been through everything you could imagine. And then it happened. He was on his way to visit a church with a deep and painful history when a snare of affliction closed around him that pushed him to the brink. He really thought it might be better if he didn’t survive this time. A decade of pouring out his life for the fame of Christ in the midst of harsh adversity, and this is how it ends? Why would God let this happen?
The missionary, of course, was Paul. The city was Corinth. And the affliction he refers to? Well, no one actually knows. At least no one who has lived in the last eighteen centuries anyway. Listen to the words he used to describe the events that befell him toward the close of his third missionary journey:
For we do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves. (2 Corinthians 1:8-9)
Various suggestions have been made as to what Paul refers to here. The most we can say for sure is that some form of persecution met Paul after he left Ephesus in Acts 20:1 on his way to Macedonia that was so devastatingly severe that it vanquished all his strength and left him on the precipice of death. Although we cannot determine the details of this particular trial, Paul’s description later in this book paints a graphic picture of what it might have entailed. These verses should take your breath away.
Are they servants of Christ?—I speak as if insane—I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches. (2 Corinthians 11:23-28)
How does Paul interpret this? Is it because he had done something wrong? It is because God isn’t nice? Did Paul question God’s ability to stop these things from happening? If we are honest, it would be these questions and many more that we would be asking in the face of danger far less severe than what Paul endured. Yet we do not find even a hint of such sentiments as Paul pens this letter to the church in Corinth. The interpretation for the purpose of the affliction which he offers instead is stunning:
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves; we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. (2 Corinthians 4:7-11)
The lyrics of this song are employing a metaphor, of course. The picture is of fruit that must undergo a process of crushing and pressing in order for wine to come forth. Paul uses different imagery, but the concept is exactly the same. There is a treasure inside a vessel of clay. The question is how can that treasure be accessed? How can what is inside come to benefit others? The answer is so simple, but severe. It has to be broken. Affliction was God’s way of breaking the vessel so that fragrance of the knowledge of Jesus could be diffused through Paul’s life (2 Corinthians 2:14-16). The apostle was delivered over to death so that the life of Jesus could be manifested through him. Notice the same logic in the conclusion to Paul’s description of the affliction that we began with:
...indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead; who delivered us from so great a peril of death, and will deliver us, He on whom we have set our hope... (2 Cor. 1:9-10)
So that. The affliction – the breaking of the earthen vessel, the dust of our flesh – is so that we would not trust in ourselves but in the resurrection power of God Himself. Where we are delivered from self-reliance and any boasting in our own strength, there, in the silent ashes of adversity, then the life of the Spirit of Christ who lives within us can flow in freedom and power. We begin to enter into that mystery of the apostolic life where it is no longer we who live, but Christ in us. As we lift our voices in worship with the words of this song on our lips, let us ask the Holy Spirit to change the way we view the hardships we are facing in our lives right now so thatnew wine can come forth for His glory.