Certainties That Drive Enduring Ministry, Part 2

Desiring God 2007 National Conference

Stand: A Call for the Endurance of the Saints

This message appears as a chapter in Stand.

Paul Embraced the Truth That the Results of His Ministry Did Not Depend on Him

Paul continued, “Even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:3–4). Paul realized he was not ultimately in control of the results of his evangelistic ministry.

That is the same point Jesus made so well in the Parable of the Soils, which our Lord himself thought was so important. He said, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?” (Mark 4:13). The sowing of the seed reveals that there are different levels of receptivity in the soil, but if someone today representing technique-driven evangelicalism were to reinvent this parable, it would go something like this:

There was one soil and four sowers. One sower had a particular evangelistic technique that did not go over well at all. The second sower had another evangelistic technique that did a bit of good for a while. The next one had yet another technique that also produced a superficial response. But finally came number four who had the right technique and he had thirtyfold, sixtyfold, and a hundredfold responses because it’s all about technique.

But that’s not the way Jesus told the story: He focused not on the sower but on the soil. We all sow the same seed, but only God can plow the soil.

There are serious flaws in market-driven theology. Perhaps foremost is the notion that the preacher’s primary job is to overcome consumer resistance to persuade people to buy this product called Jesus. Perish the thought! It’s bad enough that the notion is blasphemous, but it also is utterly ineffective, because the fundamental reason for consumer resistance to the gospel is much too big a problem for you or me to overcome. Let me put it this way: if I try to sell my soap to corpses in a funeral parlor, I don’t think I’m going to have any buyers!

I’m not exaggerating either, because Holy Scripture describes the spiritual state of unbelievers this way: “You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:1–2). So “if our gospel is veiled,” says Paul, it is veiled to people who are in a state of destruction, compounded by the fact that “the god of this world [Satan] has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:3–4).

Try to grasp this thought: Everything we as believers do here on earth we’ll do better in heaven except for one thing, and that’s evangelism, because there won’t be anyone in heaven who hasn’t already embraced the gospel. Evangelism is our Lord’s Great Commission to us. He said to go into the whole world and preach the gospel, but then we’re told that our audience is dead and blind!

I am reminded of what happened to Isaiah, who saw a vision of God in heaven. God gave him a message to deliver, saying, “Go, and say to this people: ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” Isaiah naturally asked, “How long, O Lord?” (Isaiah 6:9–11). The Lord responded that it would take awhile, and most people would be devastated, but not all, for he would establish his “holy seed” (verse 13). Salvation is a work of God. Jesus, in response to the question, “Who can be saved?” replied, “What is impossible with men is possible with God” (Luke 18:26–27).

A reporter asked me several years ago, “Do you have a great desire to build the church?” I said, “Are you kidding? Jesus said he would build the church. Do you think I want to compete with him?”

You don’t want to spend too much time thinking about the task of evangelism from only the human perspective, but a little reflection can help us thank God for his work in salvation. This is how Paul explained it:

The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. (1 Corinthians 1:18–21, citing Isaiah 29:14)

Paul goes on to tell why the gospel at first appears hard to believe to those who hear it: “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.” But those whom God prompts discover that the gospel is both “the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Why? “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:22–25).

There’s an etching near the Circus Maximus in Rome that’s behind a metal grate so you can’t touch it. I’ve seen it many times. It’s a picture of a crucified jackass with a man’s body and the head of a donkey. The translation of what’s written underneath is, Alexamenos worships his god. That represents the scorn of the Gentile world on anyone who would dare worship a crucified man because as far as they knew, only scum ever made it to a cross. The gospel is, in a sense, an unbelievable message that is contrary to all natural inclinations, and we’re trying to deliver it to people who are dead and blind. If you’re not seeing people coming to Christ in droves, you know why.

To overcome those very serious problems, shall we recruit an elite crew? That is not what God did. “Consider your calling, brothers,” writes Paul. “Not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not” — the nobodies — “to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God . . . so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (1 Corinthians 1:26–31, citing Jeremiah 9:23). That is why Paul later wrote, “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:5–7).

We are sent to proclaim an unbelievable message to a dead and blind audience.

Let me tell you something important about that word servants: It literally speaks of slaves — people who were owned by someone else and had no personal rights. We in America have a built-in contempt for all forms of human slavery. And it is well that we should, given the almost unbearable agony and generations of sin that have been bred by every system of slavery that has ever existed. However, if we are going to understand how Scripture portrays what it means to be a true follower of Christ, we need to understand something of what it meant to be a slave in Roman times.

Paul made the point clear in 2 Corinthians 4:5, where he described his own ministry: “What we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” The Greek term translated “servants” referred to the bottom rung in the slave chain, galley slaves who rowed the oars, for instance. While it is true that Jesus is the friend of sinners, he is also Lord and Master of all, telling his disciples:

“Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” (Luke 17:7–10)

The Bible doesn’t condone slavery, but neither does it expressly condemn it. The New Testament does employ the imagery of a slave as an appropriate metaphor to picture the Christian’s relationship to the Lord. We depend on him to provide for all our needs, both physical and spiritual. Even our ability to work comes from him, for the Word instructs, “You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:18). The ultimate disposition of your life regarding judgment and reward is likewise in his hands.

If you’re still struggling with the biblical concept of slavery, especially because it was a part of your forefathers’ past, realize that for you and me it is but a memory, but for earlier generations and for people in Bible times, it was reality. Look at these words from Philippians 2 with new eyes: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant [slave], being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (verses 5–8).

If you’re tempted to think it’s beneath you to be a slave, remember that it wasn’t beneath your Lord to be a slave. What happened as a result? God the Father “has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9–11, citing Isaiah 45:23).

Here is another triumphant conclusion from Paul: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). Paul was thinking, of course, about Genesis 1:3: “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” He who turned on the lights of the universe can do the same in a darkened heart by turning that heart toward Christ, in whom “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9).

We don’t need to worry about matters of “style.” That is grossly overemphasized in Christendom today, and church leaders waste untold energy fussing over whether to style their worship services as contemporary, postmodern, traditional, formal, informal, Emerging, Emergent, or country-and-western. I’ve been all over the world and have seen just about every possible way you can conduct a church service, but style alone doesn’t mean much of anything. In fact, more often than not, too much stress on style obscures the significance of the message itself. The only way the light goes on in a person’s life is if you preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. Trying to find whatever style suits the most people is folly if it’s really true that “what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants [slaves] for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5).

Paul Embraced the Reality of His Own Insignificance

I’ve already written about verses 5–6, but here is verse 7: “we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” You cannot explain the impact of the gospel message by looking at those whom God has called as preachers. What a contrast: a treasure (the massive, blazing, shining, glorious gospel) in earthen vessels or clay pots (things that are cheap, common, breakable, and replaceable)!

The power of the glorious gospel is not the product of human genius or technique. We are weak and common, plain and fragile, breakable and disposable, but that does not prove fatal to the work of God. On the contrary, we demonstrate that God must be at work, for that is the only logical explanation! Paul’s humility sustained him, as it will all true servants of Christ. In contrast to our message we are nothing. When we humble ourselves in the presence of the Lord, he will exalt us (James. 4:10).

Paul Embraced the Benefits of Suffering

Success frightens me because it panders to my flesh. When Paul looked at his own life, he thought of himself not only as a mere clay pot but also as a battered one: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9). These four contrasts all say the same thing, which is that Paul experienced severe trials in his ministry, but none of them prevailed.

One of the greatest trials Paul experienced was his thorn in the flesh. Do you remember what Paul learned from God’s own lips about that trial? The Lord said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul got the message, for he responded, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:9–10).

Life is what you choose to focus on, and Paul learned to focus on the good that God could work out of even the most distressing circumstances. He could say a hearty amen to James 1:2–4: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” We began by considering the end of Paul’s life, so we know that he is a perfect example of that principle.

“Life is what you choose to focus on.”

The prosperity gospel is absolutely non-biblical. It is an affront to God. The way to power is through suffering and weakness. As Paul said, “For the sake of Christ . . . I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” All true servants of Christ learn through the years to embrace the assaults that cut to the heart, the mutinies, the betrayals, the disaffection, the massive disappointment, the heartache, and even the physical pain and suffering because they know all those things work together to destroy self-reliance. Paul said, “[We are] always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (2 Corinthians 4:10).

In other words, Christ is more powerfully revealed in his servants when they bear up under severe affliction. Jesus has already died, risen, and ascended to heaven. People can’t get at him anymore, but they can get to us. People will sometimes hate us for Jesus’ and the gospel’s sake. Paul knew all about that, saying, “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (Galatians 6:17) and “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Colossians 1:24). Can you and I say with Paul, “He took the blows meant for me, so I’ll take the blows meant for him — let them come!”?

Paul spoke of death many times using the common Greek word thanatos, but in 2 Corinthians 4:10 he speaks about dying (nekrosin), not death, because he’s talking about a process, not an event. He is saying, “My whole life is in the process of dying because of Christ, but it’s necessary in order that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in my life.” The power of God will be on display in our suffering. We all learn more, far more, from suffering.

I remember when my son had a brain tumor and then my wife was in a car accident. The doctors said if she didn’t die she’d be a quadriplegic. Oh, the agony of those days and hours! I gave her to the Lord in prayer many times every day, just as I had given my son to him, before those trials were so wonderfully resolved in their complete recoveries. You experience those kinds of things, and they shatter you, but they also make you stronger than before and help you sense a closer kinship with Christ.

Paul Embraced the Need for Bold Conviction

Enduring ministry does not belong to people who easily go along with the trends. I think about that when I go to Tulsa and see Oral Roberts University. The radically modernistic look of the buildings is stylized from the 1960s, and something about the campus reminds me of a parking lot for antique spacecraft! The style of architecture they chose was very forward-looking in 1965, but today it’s outmoded. When you go to a university, typically what you see is classic brick, columns, and other enduring, timeless kinds of features.

That’s an illustration of why faddish things are best avoided. The same is true in ministry. Paul wrote, “Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, ‘I believed, and so I spoke,’ we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence” (2 Corinthians 4:13–14, citing Psalm 116:10). His was a ministry not driven by fads but by convictions.

The message itself never changes. You need to know the difference between what can change and what cannot change. There’s integrity in having truth that you believe firmly, so that’s what you speak, and you’re not ashamed of it. Silence might mean comfort, acceptance, popularity, or even life. But like Martin Luther, your conscience is held captive by the Word of God. On it you stand and can do no less.

Paul’s ministry was not driven by fads but by conviction.

A person with deep conviction is not hunting for something to say. Rather, he is hunting for someone to say it to! I am sorry to tell you, however, that men of conviction are often unwelcome in churches today. I am thankful for the men we train at The Master’s Seminary, and we send out about a hundred graduates a year. Some of the stories that come back are heartbreaking, however. Many churches don’t want pastors who say, “I believed, and so I spoke.” They don’t want a biblical approach to life and ministry — but praise God for the churches that do! Eventually God, in his grace, finds a place for our graduates where spiritual integrity and biblical fidelity matter. We can only pray that it will matter more and more.

Paul Embraced Eternity as the Priority

Paul was so committed to the cause of Christ that his church probably cautioned him that he’d wind up dead. But Paul surely lived by the words of Jesus: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). He told the Corinthian church that he knew that “he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God” (2 Corinthians 4:14–15). That is to say, “I will not change the message, because I believe it to be true. Therefore, I will continue to proclaim it, knowing the worst that can happen is I’m killed, but I’m going to see you in the presence of the Lord anyway. In the meantime, I’ll do all I can to add one more voice to the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’!”

We have eternity in view here, not comfort, popularity, or success in this life. Paul concludes:

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16–18)

Those are staggering thoughts that come close to scraping heaven and put all our struggles into perspective. We don’t lose heart in the end because we have an eternal perspective.

In view of the astounding, all-glorious reality of the new covenant, in view of the reality that ministry is a mercy that flourishes in purity and is effective only by the sovereign power of God in response to the preaching of the Word, even in the lowliest clay pot battered and bruised in the struggle, Paul embraced the perfecting power of suffering. He remained faithful to his convictions no matter the cost. His motto was, “To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21), for he was confident of his own resurrection and eternal reward. His focus was always on heaven, preferring the spiritual over the physical (2 Corinthians 4:16), the future over the present (verse 17), and the invisible over the visible (verse 18). He kept his eye on the prize, which is an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison (verse 17). Nothing that can come our way in this world can compare with the magnificence of the glory that will be granted to us in the presence of our Lord.

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