I find there is a persistent temptation in my life and ministry. It is the temptation to just finish my own race faithfully.
“What’s wrong with that?” you ask. It actually sounds fairly biblical, almost Pauline. “I just want to finish the race. I don’t want to be disqualified. I want to be found faithful to the end.” Which is well and good, except if the understanding of faithfulness to the gospel is limited to and concerned only with my allotted three score years and ten, or if by reason of strength, four score.
I don’t know about you, but with the challenges and weight of pastoral ministry, sometimes I can be reduced to “Lord, just help me to be faithful to the end.”
And on the flipside of that temptation is the simple fact that it is very hard to be passionate about, and to maintain passion for, the future, especially if that future is beyond our sight. It is easy for me to be passionate about my children’s well-being. And it is easy to extend that passion to their children. But for how many generations out can you maintain that passion? For me it’s hard to go much beyond three generations without falling into abstraction.
I share that simply to illustrate that there is a difficulty, even in our understanding of something as good as gospel faithfulness, in holding the future clearly and rightly in our minds. This can contribute to a tendency to define faithfulness to the gospel too much in terms of our own tenure.
Let me state my point positively: Necessary to our faithful gospel ministry is an investment in the gospel ministry that will come after ours. I see this laid out in the first two chapters of 2 Timothy.
Disciple Faithful Men
Paul says in 2 Timothy 1:14, “Guard the good deposit entrusted to you.” Then, a few verses later, picking up some of that same language, he tells Timothy, as part of his “guarding,” to “entrust to faithful men” what has been entrusted to him, and part of that “entrusting” is teaching them to pass the same thing on to others (2 Timothy 2:2).
Paul is telling Timothy that an essential part of faithful gospel ministry is this investment in the next generation. It is not some optional add-on. In other words, when Paul tells Timothy to “guard” the gospel, he is not just calling Timothy to protect the integrity of the gospel from the effects of false teaching. He is also calling Timothy to fight to preserve the continuation of the gospel against the effects of erosion over time, even beyond Timothy’s time.
So let me say it again. Essential to our faithfulness in gospel ministry is this investment in a succeeding generation of gospel ministers.
Beware Hezekiah Syndrome
I believe the greatest challenge to this is what we might call the “my lifetime” tendency, a tendency we see exemplified in a certain Old Testament Israelite king. Perhaps you remember the story. Hezekiah is king of Judah. Sennacherib, the king of Assyrian, comes to attack. Hezekiah, with Isaiah’s help, prays and prevails. Hezekiah gets sick and is instructed by Isaiah to get his house in order. Hezekiah cries out to God and is granted fifteen more years. Upon hearing of this, the king of Babylon sends envoys, ostensibly to congratulate Hezekiah on his recovery. Hezekiah in his dim-witted pride shows off the national treasures. The envoys return to Babylon. Isaiah asks for a report of their visit. Hezekiah tells Isaiah what he did. In response, Isaiah predicts the coming Babylonian captivity. Then this.
Then said Hezekiah to Isaiah, “The word of the Lord that you have spoken is good.” For he thought, “There will be peace and security in my lifetime.”
What makes this account even more compelling and sobering as a warning to us is the fact that Hezekiah was extremely influential in reforming the spiritual life of Judah: cleansing the temple; restoring temple worship; reinstating Passover; reorganizing the priesthood. See the account in 2 Chronicles. He made an impressive contribution along very important lines.
But then there is this episode late in his life which betrays both his pride and his myopia. Despite all his zeal, there was, apparently, an absence of zeal for what happened after he passed off the scene.
Avoid Temporal Shortsightedness
Richard Baxter brings a wonderful way of addressing this in his book The Reformed Pastor. He writes, “If you will glorify God in your lives, you must be chiefly intent upon the public good, and the spreading of the gospel through the world.” The alternative, according to Baxter, was “a private, narrow soul always taken up about itself that sees not how things go in the world. Its desires and prayers and endeavors go no further than they can see or travel.”
Baxter is talking about the possibility of a geographical shortsightedness, but we might also be guilty of a temporal shortsightedness. That was Hezekiah’s case.
Baxter called his readers to just the opposite — a largeness of soul that “beholds all the earth and desires to know how it goes with the cause and with the servants of the Lord.” Paul’s words in 2 Timothy call us to the very same thing but looking out into the future. “How will it go with the cause? And what can I do to fuel this cause into the future?”
Let us not be content to simply say, “As long as all is well in my lifetime.”
Cultivate Far-Seeing Vision
In contrast to Hezekiah’s myopia, we see Paul’s far-seeing vision, and it becomes especially poignant in view of Paul’s imminent departure. Remember this is the same letter in which he says, “The time of my departure is at hand.”
So now he’s asking Timothy to think a certain way about gospel ministry. And he’s asking Timothy to train the next generation to think this way about gospel ministry. And God is asking us to think this way about gospel ministry. Necessary to faithful gospel ministry is an investment in the next generation of gospel ministers.
This should translate into very concrete realities in our weekly lives. This is a responsibility the church shares corporately, but it will require of you a very definite investment of time, energy and purpose.
Invest in the Next Gospel Generation
What will this look like? Let me suggest four possibilities. First, devote yourself to faithful gospel ministry, especially the ministry of the word. The best way to train men to faithfully preach the gospel is to faithfully preach the gospel. William Perkins wrote, “So, let every minister both in his teaching and in his conversation work in such a way that he honors his calling, so that he may attract others to share his love for it.”
Second, pay attention to the young men of various ages in your congregation. Notice how they receive your preaching. Notice how they process your preaching. Notice any deepening affections for God and his word. Keep your eyes open.
Third, create contexts for the young men who catch your eye to practice and grow in their handling of the word.
Fourth, and this must not go unsaid, pray very specifically for God to raise up the next generation of gospel ministers. Pray for your replacement, but pray also for more than that. Pray with an eye, and a heart, toward the future and the continuing success of the gospel in the world, until Christ comes.
"Brothers, We Are Still Not Professionals: Reclaiming the Centrality of the Supernatural in Ministry" is the theme of the Desiring God 2013 Conference for Pastors (February 4–6 in Minneapolis).
The forthcoming revised and expanded edition of John Piper's book Brothers, We Are Not Professionals is now available for pre-order.
Other posts in this series:
- Brothers, Praise Somebody Other Than God, Sam Crabtree
- Brothers, Live a Visible, Exemplary, Everyday Life, Jeff Vanderstelt
- Brothers, Supernatural Does Not Mean Stupid, John Piper
- Brothers, the Ministry Is Supernatural, John Piper
- Brothers, Build a Gospel Culture, Ray Ortlund
- Brothers, We Are Not Sisters, Doug Wilson
- Brothers, We Should Stink, Thabiti Anyabwile
- Brothers, We Are Not Superstars, Daniel L. Akin
- Brothers, We Are Not Professors, R. C. Sproul, Jr.