“Tell Bud, ministry isn’t everything. Jesus is.”
Ray Ortlund Jr. tells the story of his father’s last words for him. Ray and his wife were overseas on July 22, 2007, when Ray Sr. awoke in his hospital room in Newport Beach, California, and realized that day would be his last. The rest of the family gathered to read Scripture and sing. Then the dying patriarch went around the room addressing his beloved with final blessings and admonitions.
“Bud” wasn’t in the room, so Ray Sr. left these memorable, and beautiful, last words to pass along to the son who had followed him into full-time ministry.
For two decades, beginning in the late fifties, Ray Sr. had been pastor of Lake Avenue Congregational Church in Pasadena, where he had pastored a young seminarian named John Piper and convinced him that, despite the talk of the late sixties, the local church had a future, and always would. Ray Sr.’s name and signature are affixed to Piper’s ordination certificate dated June 8, 1975.
Ray Sr. loved the church, and gave decades of his life to full-time Christian ministry. So, on his deathbed in 2007, he was no armchair critic throwing shade on his beloved son. But he was a man who knew his own heart, and his son’s. He knew both the remarkable joys of pastoral work and the attendant dangers. And he knew where his final counsel should terminate: on the one who is the sovereign Joy.
Good Work, Great Joys
At the outset of the pastor-elder qualifications, the apostle talks joy: “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1). This labor is bound up with aspiration, desire, joy.
“Noble task” here is literally “good work.” He desires a good work. Christian ministry is good work — and work to be done by those who desire it. Ministry is not for those who don’t really want to do it but can exercise their will to make the sacrifice for Jesus. Rather, in this calling, aspiration and the desire for joy are nonnegotiable.
In the pastoral vocation, as distinct from other callings, laboring from joy, with joy, and for joy is essential. According to Hebrews 13:17, pastors must labor “with joy and not with groaning” if they are to be an “advantage” to their people’s faith, rather than a disadvantage. So too Peter requires that pastor-elders work “not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly” (1 Peter 5:2).
Christian ministry is good work, and often joyful, to be undertaken by those who desire and anticipate the joys that will make its many hardships sufferable. Yet in such good and joy-giving work lies a danger. It’s the good, more often than the overtly evil, that inches its way past Christ himself as foremost in the Christian minister’s heart.
Ministry Joys, Amen
Jesus himself puts his finger, and surpassingly powerful words, on this precise point in Luke 10:20.
“In the pastoral vocation, as distinct from other callings, laboring from joy, with joy, and for joy is essential.”
Jesus had sent six dozen “others,” beyond the twelve disciples, “on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go” (Luke 10:1). He commissioned these 72 with solemnity, warning them about rejection and being “as lambs in the midst of wolves” (Luke 10:2–16). Yet their training exercise proved far more fruitful than they might have anticipated, and they were thrilled. They return with joy, exclaiming, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” (Luke 10:17).
Jesus, the master teacher, seizes upon the importance of this moment. Here is an opportunity to leave an impression for a lifetime, and for the whole church age. To be sure, it is no evil to rejoice in ministry fruit, to find joy in what God Almighty graciously chooses to accomplish through his people in the lives of others, whether in preaching and teaching, or offering cold water, or dispatching demons.
Here the 72 marvel, in part, at “even the demons.” Their joys were not only those of steady-stream, ordinary ministry but the pulsing thrills of the extraordinary, the delight of the unexpected, the felt-sense of supernatural power. Clearly their ministry had been fruitful. The 72 were not mistaken in what they observed and reported. Jesus affirms it, and their joy: “Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy” (Luke 10:19). “Yes,” Jesus says, in effect. “These are real joys and good ones. It is right to rejoice at seeing God’s kingdom advance and oppressed souls set free.”
Then comes the twist.
Ten Thousand Times Better
Jesus stuns the delighted ministers by transposing their song into a different register. He honors ministry joys, and does so by taking them up into heaven, making the moment electric by drawing attention to what is even more important:
Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven. (Luke 10:20)
Surprising as it may be, spirits subject to you is really a small thing in Jesus’s way of reckoning. Even greater than what God does through his ministers, even over supernatural powers, is what he does for them. Far surpassing a ministry name below is the etching of their names above. With the declaration “your names are written in heaven,” Jesus puts ministry joys in their place — for the 72 and for us — not by talking them down, but by talking up something even better.
How much better? As good and right as it can be to rejoice in ministry fruit, here Jesus would have us feel the force of the contrast. He says, “Rejoice not in this . . .” Jesus does not oppose ministry joys, or charge us, universally, to never rejoice in them. Rather, Luke 10:20 is an acutely comparative statement, cast in these simple, stark terms to emphasize how much greater our rejoicing can be, should be, will be, in what God does for us than in what he chooses to do through us.
Which is why “names written in heaven” matters so much.
Where We Enjoy God Himself
“Names written in heaven” is so significant because God himself, in Christ, is the sovereign Joy, the Joy of all joys, and heaven is where he is. “Names written in heaven” is the surpassingly superior joy not because heaven gives us all that our hearts want apart from God, but because there, in the immediate presence of God, we get proximity to him, closeness to him, unhindered enjoyment of him.
“The heart of Christian ministry is the person and work of Christ, not the person and work of the minister.”
In heaven we get God himself. Heaven is where, finally, the many barriers and distractions and veils of earth are removed, that we, without further obstruction and distortion, might more fully know and enjoy the one we were made to know and enjoy.
Which brings us back to the dangers that accompany ministry joys, as good and important as they are.
Made for More Than Ministry
When working for Christ takes the place of Christ himself as the chief enjoyment in the soul, the shift is both subtle and significant. The incremental incursions can be so small as to be hardly recognizable at first, but if the pattern persists, the long arc will be utterly devastating — to the minister himself and to his people. Paul thought it perilous enough to issue repeated warnings to ministers to pay careful attention not only to the flock and to their teaching but to themselves. “Pay careful attention to yourselves” (Acts 20:28). “Keep a close watch on yourself” (1 Timothy 4:16).
Christian ministry is undermined, and soon utterly corrupted and ruined, when the ministry itself becomes first and foremost in the soul. The nature of Christian ministry is such that it cannot long operate, and will not in the end prove fruitful (no matter how successful it seems in the moment), if it turns in on itself as the sovereign joy. The very nature of Christian ministry is that the person and work of Christ himself is the origin and essence, not the person and work of the minister for him. The minister’s work is important, but as a second principle; Christ’s work, and Christ himself, is vital as the first and final principle.
Ministry for the King can be treasonous if it becomes a replacement of the King himself. And the peril is in how subtle and common a shift it is, even for the healthiest of Christian workers. Yet we have this hope: how readily the hearts of healthy ministers fly back to their first love when awakened to marks of the subtle shift.
Practically, the return can happen each new morning, with our nose in the humbling word and prayer. It comes through knowing our sin and being honest about our ongoing failures, weaknesses, and needs for change. It comes, then, through never letting the world-changing weight and wonder of Matthew 9:2 become old hat: “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” And apart from our initiative, it comes through God’s special brew of providence in our lives, his particular humbling moments, seasons, and conditions for each of us. He has his ways. For some, it’s marriage or parenting. For others, it’s finances. For others still, disease, disability, chronic pain, the devastating setback.
Ministry Isn’t Everything
Ray Sr.’s final words to “Bud” were perceptive. And much like Jesus’s own to the 72. And every pastor and minister and missionary — all those in full-time ministry vocations and beyond, in all posts of formal and informal labor — will do well to heed them from Ray Sr., as Bud did, and all the more from Jesus.
Jesus is the Joy of all our joys. Apart from him as central and supreme, ministry joys soon hollow and spoil. Yet, with the King of kings himself on the throne of our soul, the ministry joys of sharing him with others are real and substantial, and continually lead us back to him.