Before You Quit the Ministry

Learning to Count Like Jesus

Sacred Task Pastors’ Conference | Phoenix

We have over two hundred pastors in this room, and if Barna’s recent report is accurate, then about 85 of you considered quitting in the last twelve months.

This past March, Barna’s survey on pastoral confidence and vocational satisfaction reported that 41 percent of the pastors they queried thought about walking away in the last year. That was down 1 percent from 2022, which was up 13 percent from 2021.

But most of us don’t need survey numbers to know that these last few years have been hard times to be a pastor and to endure in the challenges of pastoral ministry. And in such times, Philippians is a great choice for a pastors’ conference.

In particular, I love the pairing of “the epistle of joy” with this theme of endurance. Paul wrote while enduring incarceration, and he wrote to a church enduring opposition. And yet Philippians is known for radiating with joy. No other epistle, and maybe no other biblical book, shines so brightly with so many explicit mentions of joy and rejoicing and gladness in such short space. So we are set up very wisely and wonderfully for illuminating both this theme and this letter, and for learning to count the joys of ministry, not just the costs.

Unity, Humility, and Joy

Chapter 2 continues the focus on unity begun in Philippians 1:27, with exhortations to unity within the church (verses 1–2, 14–16), and humility in the soul (verses 3–4), and with four personal examples.

Verses 1–2 extend the charge to unity, and verses 3–4 commend humility as the channel to such unity. And the Philippians are not on their own to obey, but God himself is at work in them (verses 12–13) to humble themselves, and so, in the face of external opposition, to strive side by side for the gospel, not against each other.

For the Philippian church, opposition was not new. Acts 16 tells us how quickly persecution followed on the heels of the gospel first coming to Philippi. Paul cast the spirit out of a slave girl, and he and Silas were soon beaten with rods and imprisoned. What’s new, and newly threatening, is that Paul has heard of some emerging divisions inside this local church. So Paul, imprisoned again, now in Rome, writes with the burden that the Philippians freshly seek unity and humility, and follow four tangible examples of humble, joyful endurance.

Chapter 2 is wonderfully concrete with these four personal examples: Timothy and Epaphroditus in verses 19–30, and Christ himself in verses 5–11 — which is the heart of the chapter and the Christian faith. And it’s where we’ll focus in this session, and see not only that Jesus endured but ask how. And there’s a sneaky fourth personal example, Paul himself, in verse 17.

If we try to capture Paul’s essential structure in this chapter of exhortations and examples to a church newly encountering tensions within, perhaps it would go like this: pursue (1) unity in the gospel, (2) through humility in your minds, (3) learning foremost from Jesus’s enduring to the cross. So: unity in the gospel, through humility of mind, like Christ at the cross.

And since this is a pastors’ conference, let’s work through that sequence with our work as pastors in view. I don’t think Paul would begrudge this approach because he addressed this letter “to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons” (Philippians 1:1). Overseers, plural. In the New Testament, “overseers” and “pastors” and “elders” are three titles for one office, the lead or teaching office — the office that is our common denominator in this conference.

So, let’s ask of chapter 2, How would the pastors in Philippi have received Paul’s letter to the church? And what might be our calling, as pastors today, related to congregational unity and personal humility and the work and example of Christ in helping our local churches obey Paul’s letter?

From that perspective, then, consider the call to pastoral endurance here in Philippians 2 with its key and its incentives.

1. The Call: Lead our people into unity in the gospel.

The specific unity in view is local-church unity. The focus here is not elder teams, or large denominations, or evangelicalism at large, but the particular congregation in Philippi, and your particular congregation.

And that qualifier — “in the gospel” — is critical. We have stated terms on which to maintain and seek unity. Verses 1–2:

If there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.

And remember what Paul has just written in Philippians 1:27: “standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.” This is not simple unity, or general unity, or undefined unity, no matter the cause. This is unity in the gospel — the unity of striving side by side for the faith of the gospel. This unity is not just getting along without conflict, but unity in the gospel, on gospel terms.

So, given the qualification, it’s good for us doctrinal, theological types to pause and appreciate that unity in the local church matters. Paul values it, and means for us to value it. When the whole church maintains and enjoys Christian unity, with the pastors leading the way, it serves both the endurance and health of believers and the evangelism and conversion of unbelievers. Gospel advance is the context in which Paul calls for gospel unity.

The reason to say maintain is that unity in the gospel isn’t first something we produce. First, God gives it. That’s why Paul talks in Ephesians 4 about maintaining unity: he says, “With all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, [be] eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:2–3). God gives us, as his church, unity in knowing his Son, believing his gospel, and having his Spirit.

Then we, eager to maintain it, beware incursions into it — however big or small; doctrinal or ethical; what we believe about God, his world, and his gospel; how we’re influenced and shaped by unbelieving society (especially through our devices); and how we treat each other in everyday life.

Pastor — and Peacemaker

And we, as pastors, have a requirement for our office that helps us in the work of leading the charge for gospel unity in the local church. Pastor-elder-overseers, says 1 Timothy 3:3, are to be “peaceable” or “not quarrelsome” (ESV), or “not a brawler” (KJV; Greek amachon). In pastoral ministry, unity, not conflict, is our long game. We’re not angling for conflict. We angle for real peace and unity in the gospel. Our calling is not to spoil the peace, but to pursue true peace, even when it requires tension and conflict to get there.

At heart, pastors are peacemakers, not troublemakers. And we sometimes (if not often) discover trouble that regretfully requires more trouble, in order to pursue true unity and, in the end, have less trouble. But we don’t delight in trouble. Nor do we seek to add unnecessary trouble to the sad amount of necessary trouble we already have in this age. Rather, we delight to be unified in the gospel — and unity in the gospel is precious enough that we’re willing to endure intermediate tensions and conflicts along the path to peace and unity.

Which presents us as pastors with countless needs and challenges for wisdom. We need to know when to handle challenges to gospel unity with one-time private conversations, and when to give trouble more extended private attention, and when to address trouble with public attention in some form, as in a sermon or sermon series, or in a letter, or at church meetings.

In other words, how much attention do we give to error and for how long? These are some of the most difficult challenges in pastoral ministry. And this is why plurality in leadership is so important and precious. Alone, none of us makes such decisions perfectly, and perhaps not even very well. We need a team of brothers to help discern what challenges in our own congregation to unity in the gospel are worthy of our attention, and not, and how much attention, and for how long.

And is this unity uniformity? Twice verse 2 says to be “of the same mind” and “of one mind.” We might call it like-mindedness, a shared perspective or cast of mind. It doesn’t mean sameness, that everybody believes all the same things about all the same things, but that at the heart, and in the end, there is a like-mindedness in what matters most — in getting the gospel right and longing for it to advance.

So, we are not afraid of relational tensions in ministry, and we check ourselves to make sure that our part in those tensions is owing to the long game of unity, not division, and especially those divisions that stem from selfish ambition and conceit.

Which leads us to verses 3–4 and humility, which is set in contrast to conceit.

2. The Key: Lead our people in humility of mind.

In other words, we aim to serve the church’s needs, not the pastors’ preferences. Paul’s call to unity from Philippians 1:27–2:2 leads to the focus on humility in 2:3 and following.

Humility is far more conducive to real unity than pride and arrogance. Pride may lead to semblances of unity for a while, but in time, pride will produce division. And humility will at times lead to awkward moments and seasons of necessary conflict, but in the end, humility tends toward, and is essential for, true and lasting unity. Much division in churches stems from pride — selfish ambition and empty conceit. And often the first practical step toward addressing division in local churches is individual Christians coming to humble themselves. So, verses 3–4:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Verses 3–4 are the key exhortations in the chapter, leading into verse 5 and the example of Christ. And as pastors, these are charges not just to teach to our congregations, but first to apply to ourselves and model.

“Brothers, let’s not wait till we’re on the brink of quitting to count the joys.”

The idea of humility as looking to the interests of others holds this chapter together from Jesus, to Paul, to Timothy and Epaphroditus. Though he was sick and almost died, Epaphroditus, says verse 26, “has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill.” And Paul says of Timothy in verse 20 that he “will be genuinely concerned for your welfare.” Then verse 21, most strikingly: Timothy will not seek his own interests, but those of Jesus Christ.

Verse 4 calls it “the interests of others,” and verse 21 calls it “those of Jesus Christ.” There’s a good caution for us here in how to understand the terms of verses 3–4. Counting others more significant than ourselves does not mean catering to their whims. Looking to the interests of others does not mean letting their desires, however sinful, set the terms for how they will be loved by us or not. Rather, the terms are clarified, and sanctified, in verse 21: the interests of Jesus Christ. The interests of others to which we look, in humility, are those that correspond to, and are not in contradiction to, the interests of Jesus, as revealed in Scripture.

Why ‘the Mind’?

But why the emphasis on “the mind”? I said this key was to lead our people in humility of mind. The reason for emphasizing the mind is that Paul talks about unity “of mind” in verses 2 and 5, and then twice talks about “counting” or “reckoning” or “considering”:

  • Verse 3: “In humility count others more significant than yourselves.”
  • Verse 6: Jesus “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.”

It’s the same verb in verses 3 and 6. Paul is telling the Philippians, and us, to do what Jesus did. He counted. He reckoned. He regarded. He considered. This involves thought, making calculations and valuations. It requires the use of the mind that serves the forming and shaping of the heart, which then issues in choices and behaviors.

And how we think about ourselves, and others (in our own minds and hearts), really matters. It is critical to actually being humble and not just putting on an external pretense of humility. Humility grows first in the quiet, unseen place of our own thinking and feeling. It is the product of habitual thoughts about ourselves and others that are humble or conceited, loving or selfish.

And this is first and foremost for us as pastors. One danger in ministry is that we quietly, subtly, inconspicuously come to count ourselves as more important, gifted, necessary, respected. Leadership comes with privileges. I deserve them, so we might begin to think. How good a preacher I’ve become. Or what great leadership instincts I have. How many years I’ve put in for these people.

Slowly, over time, pastors can begin to count ourselves more significant than our congregants. We’d never verbalize it that way, but in our own patterns of thought our minds and hearts develop those instincts. And ministry decisions begin to serve our preferences, rather than the true needs of the congregation — which are often at odds with our preferences.

When we come to forks in the road in pastoral leadership, sometimes (if not often) the truly loving, humble course of action for us as pastors is the more personally costly path — more work, more study, more care, more double-checking, more conversations, more patience, more teaching, more time. But the reason we are pastors, and the reason we sit together at the table making week-in and week-out decisions for the church, is not to cater the church’s life to our comforts and ease, but to discern and seek to meet the church’s needs.

In other words, we are workers for the joy of our people. That’s how Paul talks in 2 Corinthians 1:24: “Not that we [leaders] lord it over your faith [that is, to our convenience and private benefit], but we work with you for your joy.” And serving the church’s needs, putting the church’s joy foremost in our counting, is often the harder, more costly avenue for the pastors — but not joyless. In fact, in the end, more joyful. But in the meantime, less convenient.

So, our call is to endure in leading our people into unity in the gospel, and the key is to lead, through our teaching and modeling, in humility.

3. The Incentives: Lead our people to count like Jesus.

And now the focus is especially on how to endure in ministry — that is, to endure in our work as Jesus endured. And how did he endure?

Now, Philippians 2 does not mention explicitly the joy of Jesus. Verses 5–8 put Jesus’s endurance in terms of self-humbling. But what in the world are verses 9–11 doing here? Incentivizing our self-humbling with what incentivized Jesus’s self-humbling.

We have in this famous Christ hymn something like six stanzas, each with three lines. The first three stanzas capture the increasing degrees of Christ’s self-humbling descent:

[1] [Being] in the form of God,
[he] did not count equality with God
a thing to be grasped,

[2] but [he] emptied himself,
by taking the form of a servant,
being born in the likeness of men.

[3] And being found in human form,
he humbled himself by
becoming obedient to the point of death . . . (Philippians 2:6–8)

Then, the last three stanzas, which we’ll come to, capture the heights of his incentivizing, rewarding exaltation.

But in the very middle, Paul breaks the three-line pattern and includes one extra line that is conspicuously out of place at the very heart of the hymn: “even death on a cross.” And the stray line is all the more arresting because it ends with an obscenity.

In the first century, the cross was known to be so horrific, so gruesome, so shameful that it was not a topic of polite conversation. The Latin crux, the Greek stauros, pained the ears and imaginations of the dignified.

Think of all the trials Jesus faced, of all his needs for endurance. He endured decades in obscurity, rejection from his hometown, spiritual dullness and unbelief in his own disciples, opposition from religious (Pharisees) and political (Sadducees) leaders, carnal and fickle masses, one of his own betraying him, another denying him, all his men fleeing, being unjustly accused, tried, and condemned, flogged, reviled, mocked, blasphemed — and worst of all, the suffering and shame of crucifixion.

How did Jesus endure this, of all things? How did he keep going? How did he humble himself and obey to the point of death, even death on a cross?

In a similar passage, Hebrews 12:2 says, “For the joy that was set before him [he] endured the cross.” So, joy, yes — but I want to know more. Specifically, what joy could that have been? What reward could have been valuable enough in his reckoning, in his counting, to pull him forward to finish this race, with the very emblem of suffering and shame standing in the way?

What foretaste of joy, or joys, could endure the cross?

The Gospel of John gives us the best glimpse into his mind as he readied himself for the cross and counted not only the costs, but the joys. Two particular sections speak to the substance and shades of his joy as he owned and embraced the cross in the hours leading up to his sacrifice.

John 12

The first section is John 12:27–33, not long after Jesus’s Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. Previously, Jesus (and John) had said “his hour had not yet come” (John 2:4; 7:30; 8:20). Now he owns that it has:

“Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” (John 12:27–28)

Here we find a first source of his joy: the glory of his Father. When Jesus owns the arrival of his hour, and need to endure, this is the first motivation he vocalizes. He had lived to his Father’s glory, not his own (John 8:50), and now, as the cross fast approaches, he prays first for this, and receives the affirmation of an immediate answer from heaven: “I have glorified it [in your life], and I will glorify it again [in and through your death, even death on a cross].”

Next comes a second joy: what the cross will achieve over the ancient foe. John 12:31: “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out.” Satan, whom Paul would call “the god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4) and “the prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2), would be decisively unseated as “ruler of this world,” and Jesus would experience the joy of unseating him, and being his Father’s instrument to disarm “the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them” (Colossians 2:15) at the cross.

Jesus mentions a third joy in John 12:32: the saving of his people. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He would be lifted up from the earth — which first meant being lifted up to the cross, as John immediately adds (John 12:33). Make no mistake, in the “joy that was set before him” was the joy of love. He had come to save (John 12:47), and on that Thursday night, he would wash his disciples’ feet to show them the love that, in real measure, sent him to the cross. John 13:1: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

John 17

The second passage is Jesus’s High Priestly Prayer in John 17. On the very night when he gave himself into custody, he echoes two of the joys already introduced, and adds one further “joy that was set before him” that brings us back to Hebrews 12 and, with it, Philippians 2.

First, Jesus prays explicitly about sharing his own joy, and that (again) as an expression of his love for disciples. John 17:13: “These things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves.” Jesus’s joy — deep enough, thick enough, rich enough to carry him to and through the cross — will not only be his, but he will put it in his people, through both his words and sacrificial work, that they too might endure. John 15:11: “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” This is love: it was his joy to share his joy to increase their joy.

Second, Jesus also prays in John 17 in anticipation of his Father’s glory. He recalls that his life has been devoted to his Father’s glory, to making known his name (John 17:4, 6, 26). But now, in the consecration of prayer, and on his final evening before the cross, he prays, third, for his own exaltation:

Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you. . . . Now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed. (John 17:1, 5; see also verse 24)

Misunderstand the holiness of Christ, and this moment, and we will misunderstand this culminating joy: returning to his Father, and being seated, as the God-man, with his work accomplished, on the throne of the universe. The joy of being enthroned in heaven — glorified — at the right hand of his Father, will not come any other way than through, and because of, the cross. And his exaltation and enthronement will mean not only personal honor but personal nearness (“in your own presence” and “with you” in John 17:5). “At the right hand” is the seat of both honor and proximity to his Father. Jesus wanted not only to have heaven’s throne but again to have his Father.

And this coming exaltation, with its nearness, is the particular joy that Hebrews 12:2 points to, like Philippians 2: “For the joy that was set before him [Jesus] endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Joy Will Have the Last Word

Which brings us back to the epistle of joy. As Paul’s hymn says, Jesus endured the cross, and therefore God “highly exalted him.” Jesus endured by looking to the reward — that is, through joy. He counted the joys — his Father’s glory, his people’s good, his enemy’s defeat, and his own exaltation and nearness to his Father, which the final three stanzas of the Christ hymn celebrate:

[4] Therefore God has highly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name,

[5] so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

[6] and every tongue confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9–11)

So, weary pastors, “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Hebrews 12:3–4).

And let’s learn to count the joys like Jesus. We can hardly rehearse too often that the glory of Christ is our great goal and great joy. What a calling we have in him, as we lead our little churches in the cosmic victory, crushing Satan underneath our feet. And we pastors, as workers for the joy of our people, enrich our joy (not impoverish it) by folding others deeper into the joy we have in Jesus.

The day is coming when the many sacrifices and challenges and costs and self-humblings of pastoral ministry will be done. Brothers, on that day, “when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:4).

Then the frustrations and discouragements of ministry in this age will feed our unending joy. At last, we will see how our trials and setbacks have been setups for eternal glory. And the church — of which we are part, and for which we have labored — will be finally perfected, in perfect unity, a bride holy and without blemish, presented to Christ in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing.

Final unity will come. Division and threats will be no more. And every hard step along the path of pastoral endurance will be swallowed up in peace, and glory, and joy beyond our best imagining.

Brothers, let’s not wait till we’re on the brink of quitting to count the joys.