The words of Jeremiah, the son of Hilkiah, of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, to whom the word of the Lord came in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign. It came also in the days of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, and until the end of the eleventh year of Zedekiah, the son of Josiah, king of Judah, until the captivity of Jerusalem in the fifth month. Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations." Then I said, "Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth." But the Lord said to me, "Do not say, 'I am only a youth'; for to all to whom I send you you shall go, and whatever I command you you shall speak. Be not afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord." Then the Lord put forth his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, "Behold, I have put my words in your mouth. See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant."
Equipping Laypeople for the Sake of Witness
One of the main purposes of SPAN the NINETIES Part II—the creation of an Institute and Training Center on Wednesday evenings (Sept. 13), the emphasis on small home groups instead of Sunday evening services three Sundays a month, the redefinition of staff responsibilities—one of the main purposes of these changes is to maximize the equipping and the ministry of laypeople; to mobilize the whole priesthood of believers; to shape the mindset of the church more and more into a centrifugal ministry-evangelism-giving mindset and less of a centripetal gathering-receiving mindset.
Gathering and receiving and being strengthened and equipped is thoroughly biblical and crucial. That is why we have Sunday morning worship, Sunday School for all ages, the Bethlehem Institute and Training Center, monthly all-church gatherings on Sunday evening and other times. But there is a world of unbelievers out there perishing eternally without Jesus Christ who don't know the joy of our gatherings. And we can multiply in-house services which we love and which make us feel very good, but for which they may never come to in this building. And it may be that in the end our worship and study gatherings will all be in vain as far as reaching lost people is concerned.
The gatherings here are for the worship of the King, the strengthening of his loyal subjects, and sending them out in the conquest of love among the rebel subjects of our city. But we believe that loyal subjects of the King can discover their spiritual gifts and become more personally active in ministry through small groups than through an all-church gathering here on Sunday evening. And we believe that many of those rebel subjects who might respond to the love of the King's amnesty are more available Sunday evenings than any other time—not to come here, but to come to your home.
The aim of SPAN II is to maximize the equipping and the ministry of the lay people of this church for the sake of people dying without Christ, and for the sake of whole peoples who have never heard the great gospel that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. And my heart's desire and prayer to God is that he might bless our imperfect dreams and pour out his Spirit on our church in awakening power and unprecedented passion for ministry and love for perishing neighbors. And to that end I am preaching to younger and older in these three Sundays to inspire you to seek the kingdom first and make ministry the goal of your life.
Hindrances to Ministry for Old and Young
At both ends of the age spectrum there are special hindrances to ministry. We talked about some of those last week at the upper end of the age spectrum—especially the leisure, retirement mentality that is so foreign to the Scripture. We said that older people are to be prized (Leviticus 19:32) and mobilized and evangelized (Psalm 71:18). The kind of ministry that you can do will change with age. But there is no biblical teaching to suggest that between 65 and 95 saints should play while the world perishes.
Now today I want to focus on the younger end of the spectrum and simply let Jeremiah express the kind of hindrances there are to ministry for the young and let God give his three answers to inspire and encourage all of us.
Jeremiah 1:6 gives Jeremiah's response to God's call. "Then I said, 'Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.'"
He feels a sense of incompetency ("I do not know how to speak") and he says that this incompetency is because he is too young for the job God is calling him to do ("for I am only a youth").
Now, I realize that God is not calling most people in this room to the kind of authoritative prophetic ministry Jeremiah was to have. But I think the principle here will apply to any kind of caring service or outreach or church ministry the Lord is putting in your heart to do. There may be some who say, "I do not have the experience I should," or, "I do not have the maturity needed," or, "I don't yet have the ability needed." But sometimes our perceptions about ourselves are wrong. God sees things we don't see and he creates things in us that we didn't know could be. This doesn't mean that gifts don't count. It means that when the Holy Spirit, ordinarily confirmed by the body of Christ, inclines you to serve people in a certain way, your objections need to be met with the encouraging Word of God.
Three Encouragements to the Young (and to All)
God gives reasons why Jeremiah's objection shouldn't keep him from following the call. He says in verse 7, "Do not say, 'I am only a youth.'" Do not use your youth as an excuse not to venture something great for God. And here are three reasons for why Jeremiah (and we) should be thrilled and not chilled at the call to serve the Lord. Let's just take them in the order that they come in the conversation between God and Jeremiah.
1. Jeremiah's Life Is Rooted in the Purposes of God
The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah and said, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations." (Jeremiah 1:5)
The first reason Jeremiah should be encouraged to take up the ministry is that his very life is rooted in the unshakable, sovereign purposes of God. Notice the four acts of God surrounding the birth of Jeremiah:
1.1. God Knew Him
First, God knew him: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you." God took Jeremiah into his loving acquaintanceship, he set his caring eye upon him and chose him—that's the biblical idea of God's knowing his people (Amos 3:2). This is true for every child of God according to Romans 8:29.
1.2. God Consecrated Him
Second, God consecrated him. "Before you were born I consecrated you." God set him apart for some special holy purpose. He destined him for something significant. And that is true for you too. In giving every Christian grace and gifts, God consecrated us to be like Jesus and to use our gifts for his glory.
1.3. God Formed Him in the Womb
Third, God formed Jeremiah in the womb. "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you." What Jeremiah became though the genetic make up of his mother and his father Hilkiah was no accident. God shaped and designed him in his mother's womb. The Hebrew word (tsur) refers to the design of a house or the sculpting of a statue. The "you" that God has to work with today, minus the remnants and effects of sin, is a "you" that God designed and knows very well. If he calls you to something, it is because the design is right.
1.4. God Appointed Jeremiah to Be a Prophet
Fourth, God appointed Jeremiah to be a prophet. "I appointed you to be a prophet to the nations." This is why Jeremiah was born. This is his destiny. And you have one too. No Christian exists merely to make an honest living, raise a family, enjoy retirement, and die. Every one of you is called to a ministry.
So the first great incentive to take up our ministry is that our life is rooted in the unshakable, sovereign purposes of God. You are not your own. You are God's. You are not self-made. You are God-made. You did not first choose him. He first chose you. You are not an accident. You are a design. Your life is rooted in God and that is a great source of strength and stability in accepting God's call.
2. God's Authority Is Behind His Going and Speaking
The second reason God gives to young Jeremiah that he should overcome his fearful objection is that God's authority is behind his going and his speaking. This is found first in verse 7.
The Lord said to me,
"Do not say, 'I am only a youth';
for to all to whom I send you you shall go,
and whatever I command you you shall speak.
The emphasis here is on God's sending where he will, and God's commanding what he wants said. Jeremiah's youth does not matter if he is sent by God's commission and if he is speaking what God commanded.
The same point about his speaking is made in verse 9: "The Lord put forth his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, 'Behold, I have put my words in your mouth.'"
And then the power and effectiveness of Jeremiah's word is described in verse 10: "See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant."
In other words, when Jeremiah speaks the words of God—when he announces judgment, or when he promises blessing—it will come to pass. Judgments will break down, and promises will build up. Not because of young Jeremiah (that's the point!), but because the word of God is powerful.
What all this means for us is this: to the degree that you are led by God into a path of service today, and to the degree that your words conform to what the Bible really teaches, to that degree can you say with Jeremiah: I am not here by my own commission, nor do I speak with my own authority, but I am sent by God and what he commands is what I say. I am humbled by my youth, but I am encouraged that my commission and my word is not my own.
3. God Will Be with Him to Deliver Him
The third reason God gives Jeremiah not to let his youth deter him from ministry is that God will be with him to deliver him. Verse 8:
Be not afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord.
A great obstacle to serving the Lord, especially among the young, is the fear of rejection and opposition. All kinds of thoughts enter the mind about how some people might not like the way I do it. People might disagree or be offended. I might make a mistake and get criticized. The fear of man is a great hindrance to ministry.
So God says, Don't fear, because I will be with you and I will deliver you. God's presence and approval is more valuable than all the accolades of men. And God says that in and through all your troubles, I will deliver you. You will triumph in the end. You will be more than a conqueror. And the same thing is promised to all of us in Christ Jesus today:
- "God has said, 'I will never fail you or forsake you.' Therefore we can confidently say, 'The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid; what can man do to me?'" (Hebrews 13:5–6)
- "If God is for us who can be against us?" (Romans 8:31)
So God said to Jeremiah, and God says to younger people today whom he is calling to serve him, "Do not say, 'I am only a youth.'" Why?
- Because your life is rooted in the unshakable, sovereign purposes of God. You have been chosen and consecrated and formed and appointed for a great purpose.
- Because God's authority, not your own, is behind your going and your speaking.
- And because God himself will be with you to deliver you in all your trials.
What Form Will Your Priestly Ministry Take?
Now let me close with an observation that I hope will persuade every Bible-believing person among you that these things have immediate personal bearing on your life. 1 Peter 2:9 says to all believers, "You are a chosen race a royal priesthood . . . " All Christians belong to a priesthood. You are priests. You have the calling of a priest. You do not have to guess or wonder whether you are called into the ministry. You are a priest by virtue of your calling to be a Christian. "You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood."
This great doctrine of the priesthood of all believers was rediscovered during the Reformation and especially in the wing of the Reformation called Pietism, of which we are a part. Philip Jacob Spener described beautifully in 1675 what your priesthood means:
Every Christian is bound not only to offer himself and what he has, his prayer, thanksgiving, good works, alms, etc., but also industriously to study in the Word of the Lord, with the grace that is given him to teach others, especially those under his own roof, to chastise, exhort, convert and edify them, to observe their life, pray for all, and insofar as possible be concerned about their salvation. (Pia Disideria, Fortress Press, 1964, p. 94)
Spener is right. There is no question about this. If you are a Christian, this is your priestly calling. The only question is: what form will my priestly ministry take this fall? Is the High Priest, Jesus Christ, leading me to be a small group leader? Is he leading me to nurture the faith of children on Wednesday evenings or Sunday mornings? Is he leading me into a ministry of personal one-to-one discipleship of teenagers or new believers? Is he leading me to train for a lay evangelistic Bible study? Is he leading me to visit the shut-ins or organize an inner-city soccer team or invest in pro-life efforts? Is my priestly calling a ministry of hospitality, or writing, or mobilizing prayer, or literature distribution, or feeding the hungry, or housing the homeless?
That is the question we need to pray about, and so I ask you to bow with me now and seek the Lord afresh about the great privilege of ministering with Jesus Christ in the priesthood of all believers.