Certainties That Drive Enduring Ministry, Part 2

Desiring God 2007 National Conference | Minneapolis

Well again, thank you, John. It’s a delight to fellowship with you a little bit. I hold you in such high esteem, and I thank God for you. And though you may wonder what people are going to think after you’ve gone, all of us know that they are going to remember you as the one who lived for the supremacy of Christ in all things. No one will ever question that. That will be your continuing legacy.

I think the amazing thing about it is we all say, “This is so true, so pure, so essential, and so foundational.” Thank God for John Piper because nobody else has said this since Jonathan Edwards with the clarity and the extent and relentlessness that you say it. So thank you. All of us who are here agree with you with all our hearts, and everybody else everywhere who doesn’t know this would agree with you if they knew it. So we have to tell them. So, I’m on your team, and if my church throws me out, I’m going to fill out an application for Desiring God.

John mentioned all the tapes that have gone out. Somebody told me one time that if all the people who’ve heard me on tape were laid end to end, they would be much more comfortable. I think that’s probably true. I hope you can find a place of comfort while we look together to the word of God.

An Enduring Ministry

We have been talking about the components of an enduring ministry and an enduring life to the honor of Christ. We’re using the apostle Paul as the pattern for endurance, because it is he who, at the end of his life, said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7–8; all Scripture quotations from the NASB). Jerry Bridges reminded us of that in the last session. And we’re asking the question, how do you get there? How do you end up at the summit, being able to say, “I am ready to come into your presence, Lord. I am ready to face you with a clear conscience. I am ready for my eternal reward. Get me out of here. I’m done.”?

That is exactly what he conveys there. How do you get to that point? How do you survive? Especially when you look at the life of this man and the agonizing, continual assaults and attacks from the inside by way of disappointment, by way of discouragement, by way of despair, by way of even depression, and the pain of bearing the sins of the people he loved in Christ. He said, “Who sins and I don’t feel the pain?” That’s very much like the Lord Jesus who says, “The reproaches that fall on you (quoting Psalm 69:9) fall on me.”

How do you survive? How do you survive the disaffection of the people in whom you invested the most? How do you survive a drifting church that wanders off after the best of beginnings into horrendous sin or one in whom you make a major investment, a maximum investment of your life, and send others to follow up that ends up having lost, willingly, its first love? How do you survive when all who are in Asian Minor have forsaken you, even those closest to you? How do you get to the end? How do you survive the assaults of Satan against you? How do you survive a messenger from Satan, ripping and shredding at you, and tempting to destroy your trust in the Lord, a kind of Job-like life? How do you survive without a perceivable family or home? How do you survive this kind of relentless trouble in an itinerant fashion that demands the most vigorous physical stamina, and along with that, probably some lingering illnesses as well? How do you survive?

We Do Not Lose Heart

Second Corinthians 4 helps us look into the heart of Paul, because twice, once in 2 Corinthians 4:1 and again in 2 Corinthians 4:16, he says, “We do not lose heart.” And I told you that comes from the verb enkakeō, which means “to act wickedly”, or “to act badly.” How do you keep from falling into sin, rebellion, discouragement, terminal despair, immorality, indifference, and weariness? How do you avoid becoming weary in well doing? How do you get to that Everest through all of this? Well, there are some things that he says here in this chapter that I think help us get our arms around the things that drove him to an enduring and triumphant ministry.

These are spiritual means. Of course, the power belongs to the Spirit of God, but not apart from the means by which we fix our focus and direction. First of all, he embraced fully the superiority of the New Covenant. He knew he had the great revelation, the mystery which before had been hidden but was now revealed the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ, the better thing that everybody, including himself, had been waiting for. He knew he had the message the world desperately needed, the only message of hope. The full consummation and ratification of the New Covenant prophesied in Jeremiah and Ezekiel had been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. It was finished (tetelestai). It was done. This is the glorious gospel which alone will save, and will never be replaced. This is that final, glorious truth. He never lost the wonder of knowing, believing, and being redeemed by that truth and given the responsibility to proclaim it. The wonder of the superiority of the New Covenant drove him.

Secondly, he embraced the privilege of ministry as a mercy. He didn’t earn it, and in reality, apart from disqualifying sin, he couldn’t forfeit it. It could never be forfeited by his own weakness because in his own weakness, his ministry became what? More powerful. He embraced ministry as a mercy.

Thirdly, he embraced the necessity of a pure heart. He renounced the things hidden because of shame (2 Corinthians 4:2). And as we talked about that last night, I mentioned Acts 24:16, which says, “I do my best to maintain always a blameless conscience before God and before men.” He said it another way in 2 Timothy 1:3. He said, “I thank God, whom I serve with a clear conscience.” There he understands that this too is a mercy from God. And so, God is given the thanks.

He writes to Timothy that this is a goal in his ministry. First Timothy 1:5 says:

But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience . . .

In other words, “I want people to love God from a pure heart and a good conscience.” So it was not only his own personal commitment, it was the very objective of his ministry in the lives of others.

Fourthly, we said he embraced the duty of accurately handling the word of God — being a workman, needing not to be ashamed, and rightly dividing the word of truth, as he said to Timothy. Or in this text he says, “not walking in craftiness” (2 Corinthians 4:2). He’s not doing ministry in some unscrupulous and shrewd way, huckstering the Bible for his own gain. He says, “[never] adulterating the word of God, but rather, by the manifestation of truth, commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2).

He was saying what we heard John say about his dad last night: we do evangelism from a doctrinal basis. We do evangelism from the word of God. Why? This may seem a bit surprising to you, but the truth of Scripture has an ally in a very foreign place. The truth of Scripture has an ally in the human heart, and the truth of Scripture’s ally in the human heart is the law of God written in the heart. There is no ally in the human heart for your best idea, but there is for divine truth. And so, even in his enemies, there was an unwilling sense of commendation.

5. Leave the Results to God

Now, that brings us to number five on our little list. Paul embraced the reality that the results of his ministry did not depend on him. Please notice 2 Corinthians 4:2–3, which says:

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing (who are in a state of perishing) . . .

Or, if you will, Ephesians 2:1 says people are “dead in trespasses and sins.” Second Corinthians 4:4 continues:

. . . in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

He bursts into a doxology at the end because he can’t restrain himself, though that’s not his point. His point is, “I’m not in control of results.” It’s so important, I think, to understand this. It’s a point that Jesus made so well in the parable of the soils. You remember the parable of the soils. There was one sower, one seed, and four kinds of soil. The sowing of the seed reveals that there are different levels of receptivity in the soil.

But if someone today in our communication-mad world, in our stylized evangelicalism, were to invent this parable, it would go like this. There would be one soil and four sowers. That’s how the story would go. One sower would have a particular evangelistic technique, and it would do no good at all. The second sower would have another evangelistic technique, and it would do a little bit of superficial good for a while. The next one would also have a different technique, and that too would have a superficial response, without anything lasting. But finally, there would show up number four, who had the right technique and he would have thirty-fold, sixty-fold, and a hundredfold, because it’s all about technique.

But that’s not the way Jesus told the story. It’s not about the sower, it’s about the soil. We all sow the same seed, but only God can plow the soil. There are some serious flaws in the theology of the market-driven movement, but I think the primary flaw is the idea that the preacher’s job, or the evangelist’s job, is to overcome “consumer resistance”. That’s our job. We have to overcome consumer resistance. We have to figure out how to persuade people to buy this product called Jesus. They’re the consumer and we’re the marketers. But this is not a good strategy, because consumer resistance is way too large for me to overcome.

These people are dead and they’re blind. Now, if I want to sell my soap in a funeral parlor, I don’t think I’m going to have any buyers. If our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to the people who are in a state of apollymi (destruction). Compounding that, the God of this world, Satan, has blinded the minds of the unbelieving in order that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ who is the image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4).

The Task of Evangelism

When you think about evangelism and the task that we have, and it’s the only reason we’re here, do you understand that? It’s the only reason we’re here. You might say, “Wait a minute, aren’t we here to worship?” Well, we worship while we’re here, but our worship is really messed up. We don’t even come before God close to the kind of pure-minded worship that we ought to be offering to him. That’ll happen in heaven. In the meantime, he lets us worship here until we can get there and do it right. You might say, “Isn’t it to live holy lives?” Yeah, well, it’s a meager representation of what our pure holiness will be there, isn’t it? We make an effort at it.

No, there’s only one reason to leave us here. Everything we do here, we’ll do better in heaven except one thing, and that’s proclaiming the gospel because there won’t be anybody there to tell. So we’re here for one purpose, and we’re told to go into the whole world and preach the gospel, and then we’re told, “And they’re all dead and they’re all blind.”

I’m reminded of Isaiah after the vision of God. Isaiah says, “Here, am I, send me” (Isaiah 6:8). And it was a devastating vision. I remember when I was a kid, I heard a preacher, in a dramatic gesture, say, “Isaiah rose up and said, ‘Here am I, send me!’” I don’t think so, not after what he just saw. I think Isaiah was probably saying, “I don’t see anybody else around. I’m here. You could send me.” The Lord says, “Go. Tell these people. By the way, their eyes are blind, their ears are deaf, their hearts are hard, and they won’t listen.” Oh, so that’s my commissioning message? “Yeah, go.” My response would be, “How long do I do that? A couple of weeks maybe, just for the experience, just to refine my approach? How long do I do that?” And God answers and says, “Until there’s no one left to do it to.” Why? And then in the final verse of Isaiah 6, he says that it’s because the Lord has a holy seed, a stump, and he’ll use you to reach them (Isaiah 6:13).

An Unbelievable Gospel

A reporter asked me many 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?” I’m not very smart, but I’m smart enough to answer that. Think about it, you have the dead and the blind, and then you’ve got a message that’s unbelievable. To the Jews, it’s what? It’s a stumbling block. And to the Gentiles it’s foolishness. A crucified messiah? a crucified God? God dead? It’s idiotic, moronic. And equally foolish to the Gentiles.

There is an etching near Circus Maximus in Rome. I’ve seen it several times behind a metal grate, so you can’t touch it. It shows a picture of a crucified jackass with a man’s body and the head of a donkey, and underneath it says, “Alexamenos worships his God.” It depicts the mockery of the Gentile world on anyone who would worship a crucified man, because only the scum ever made it to the cross. Even a Roman citizen couldn’t be crucified unless he had become involved in sedition against the state.

So, we have this unbelievable message that is contrary to all natural inclinations, and we’re trying to give a message that’s unbelievable to people who are dead and blind. So if you’re not seeing a lot of numbers in your church, that might be a reason. You say, “Well, what overcomes this?” Look at 1 Corinthians 1 for a moment. After having said all of this in that great section of first Corinthians 1:18–30 and following, after he has talked about the impossibility of salvation, the message that is both foolish and a stumbling block, in 1 Corinthians 1:26, he says:

For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble . . .

Now, just stop there for a moment. Okay, the people we’re trying to reach are dead and blind. The message is unbelievable. Now, in order to overcome these very serious problems, you better pick some pretty high-powered folks to convey this. I mean, when you’re going to pick people, you better go to the elite. You better find the influential and the powerful and the brilliant and the articulate. No, it says, “Not many were wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble . . .” And then he continues:

But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not . . . (1 Corinthians 1:27–28).

Literally, that means the nobody’s, the “no-births” in Greek, the people who aren’t even born. That is to say, they don’t even have a place in the world. So he has the most impossible message being given to the most impossible people to reach — the human race, of course, all in the same situation — and he puts it in the hands of the lowliest of all people.

Because of Him

How does he do anything? Well, 1 Corinthians 1:30 says, “By his doing, you are in Christ Jesus.” Would you agree with that? You can’t overcome consumer resistance. It’s by his doing. And the reason is so that no one can boast before God. “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:31). Then, in 1 Corinthians 3:5–7, he says:

What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.

I’ll tell you something, folks. An enduring ministry without getting discouraged, without bailing, settles into the great reality of divine, sovereign, regenerating grace. All the results come from God.

Now, you can go back to 2 Corinthians 4. Paul is faithful to the message. In 2 Corinthians 4:5, he continues, “For we do not preach ourselves . . .” What he means by that is, “We do not preach our ideas, our insights. We’re not working up some means by which to overcome consumer resistance. We’re not developing some synthetic gospel (as Walter Chantry put it some years back). We’re not reinventing the message. We do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus.” Faith comes by hearing the word of Christ (Romans 10:17). He says, “For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’s sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5).

The Meaning of Doulos

I want to stop here for a minute and give you a footnote. Do you see the word in your Bible that’s probably translated “bond-slave” or “bond-servant” in 2 Corinthians 4:5? Maybe some translations have the word “servants”. I want to tell you about that word. That is, in Greek, the word doulos. That is a very familiar word in the New Testament. It appears 130 times. Ten times it occurs as the word syndoulos (fellow slave). The verb form appears a few times. The word doulos means slave. It doesn’t mean anything but slave. It doesn’t mean some kind of hyphenated, hybrid word as the English translators have used. It does not mean servant.

There are at least seven other words that mean “servant” and refer to all levels of service. This is the word that means slave. It means nothing but slave and only slave. So firm is that, that in the vastest of all dictionaries of the Greek language, Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, the article says this — and this is completely out of character for Kittel, because they exhaust every aspect of every Greek word:

The meaning is unequivocal and self-contained. It is superfluous to give examples or trace history, this word means nothing but slave.

That’s it. There are over 20 English translations of the New Testament that you have access to. One of them out of the 20 that I have seen translates doulos as “slave” every single time, and that’s the Goodspeed translation. Goodspeed was a Greek scholar in the twenties and thirties at the University of Chicago who did a translation, and he was faithful to doulos. Someone told me the other day that the Holman Christian translation is faithful to doulos, but I haven’t checked it out. The Goodspeed translation is the only one that always translates doulos as “slave.” They have avoided it.

Sometimes they will translate it as “slave” in the case of an inanimate thing like being a slave to sin, or in a case where you’re actually talking about a slave and making a spiritual comparison, where they can’t escape it, such as 1 Corinthians 7, or Ephesians 6:5, where it says, “Slaves be subject to your masters,” and then says, “You also be slaves of Christ.” In that text, there’s an obvious comparison that can’t be avoided. But they run from this translation, though this is the only meaning of the word, and consequently the tragedy of this is we have lost a massive, dominating New Testament paradigm for understanding our relationship to Jesus Christ.

When you say doulos and then you say kurios, everybody in the Greek culture at that time knew exactly what you were talking about. There is no such thing as a kurios without a doulos — no such thing as a master without a slave. If you don’t have slaves, you are not the master of anybody. If you are the master, you have slaves.

Belonging to the Will of Another

What did it mean to be a slave? Well, Paul was talking about slavery, and by the way, he calls himself the “slave of God”. He calls himself the “slave of Christ” in Romans, Galatians, Philippians, and Titus. James calls himself the same thing. Paul calls himself that in Romans 1:1, and then goes on through Romans about six or seven times to call all believers through all ages down to the end “slaves”. Peter calls himself “the slave of Jesus Christ” in 2 Peter. Do you understand that in the ancient world this was the most demeaning term possible by which to identify yourself? Freedom was everything. They would’ve stood with Braveheart and screamed, “Freedom!” They understood the value, the virtue of freedom, and they mocked slavery. So here comes an evangelistic effort to dead people, blind people, being approached with a ridiculous message by a bunch of nobodies who see themselves as slaves, and happily identify themselves as such.

What did it mean to say you were a slave? The difference between a servant and a slave was this, a servant was hired for a job and paid; a slave was owned. Big difference. What did it mean to be a slave? You were bought and there was exclusive ownership, and you owed total availability and obedience without question. You were subject, all your life, to an alien will.

You were dependent for all your provision and all your protection on your master. And your master determined the final disposition of your life as to punishment or reward. That’s what a slave did. He was bought, exclusively owned by one master, totally available and obedient to an alien will. He was dependent for all his provisions and his protection coming from that master. And the final disposition of his life as to discipline and reward came from his master. In the ancient Greek world, there were somewhere between 10 and 12 million slaves. Everybody knew what it meant. When you said you were a “slave of Jesus Christ”, everybody knew what that meant. Do you think they had a lordship controversy then? I don’t think so.

What did it mean? Look, the Bible doesn’t condemn slavery, and the Bible doesn’t condone slavery. It just borrows it as the perfect metaphor to picture a Christian’s relationship to the Lord. We were bought with a price, redeemed, not with things like silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Jesus Christ. We are owned by one master, and Jesus said, “No man can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24). Everybody would have thought, “Of course you can’t do that. You can’t be fully owned by two people. That would make conflicting wills and put you in an impossible situation.” You have been bought, you have one master, and you are submissive to that master. That is your life. You subject yourself to an alien will. You do what he asks you to do, and where he doesn’t ask, you seek to please him, even in the thing he doesn’t require.

You are dependent upon him totally for every provision. Paul says, “My God shall supply all your needs” (Philippians 4:19). You are dependent on him for your protection, and in the end, the ultimate disposition of your life as to discipline and reward is totally in his hands and his hands alone. You’re a slave.

We’ve Only Done What’s Required of Us

I was talking about this a few weeks ago over in somewhere in North Carolina. It was at Wake Forest University, and a gracious guy stood up and he said, “I come from the African American church, and I’m not sure this would go over real big, this slavery idea.” And I said, “Well, I understand that. Look, I was down in the south in the office of Charles Evers, the brother of Medgar Evers, when Martin Luther King was assassinated. I was in Jackson, Mississippi with some leaders down there, and they actually put me in a car and took me to Memphis and they took me in the building where James Earl Ray shot him. I climbed up on the toilet and looked through the window where he held the gun. I know those people. I’ve known them through the years and ministered there. I understand all the pain and agony of that in the past.”

But I said to him, “For you, that’s a memory. For the people living in the New Testament, that was now. That was reality. And as abused as it was in many cases, for some people, it was the best of all worlds. There was a perfectly benevolent, loving, and gracious master, who meets all your needs and gives you complete protection. What else could you ask for? But it is the metaphor for the Christian.”

And if you’re still struggling with that, please listen to these words. Philippians 2:5–8:

Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the morphē of a doulos, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

That’s as low as you can go in the eyes of that society. So if you think it’s beneath you to be a slave, it wasn’t beneath your Lord to be a slave. And as a result of that, God has what? “Highly exalted him and made him Lord” (Philippians 2:9). Listen, your Lord was once a slave. In the Roman world, the only way you got dignity if you were a slave, was by the status of your master. And so the only dignity that we get is that which comes from the glorious status of being a slave of Jesus Christ. There’s never been a master like him. He’s a master who makes his slaves sons. He’s a master who seats his slaves on his throne with him and makes them joint heirs of all that he possesses. He’s a master who calls for a banquet, and when we all get there, he serves us. Why am I saying this? Because I think we’ve lost this.

In Luke 17:7–10, Jesus says:

Which of you, having a slave plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, “Come immediately and sit down to eat”? But will he not say to him, “Prepare something for me to eat, and properly clothe yourself and serve me while I eat and drink; and afterward you may eat and drink”? He does not thank the slave because he did the things which were commanded, does he? So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, “We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done.”

The God Who Creates Light

What is the Lord asking of me in this unbelievably difficult challenge of a dead, blind world? A message that’s a bizarre, foolish, stumbling block, and I’m coming from a platform of being a nobody? What does he ask of me? To overcome consumer resistance? No, to do whatever he commands me to do and he commands me to preach the word, to proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth, and leave the results to him. And so, back to 2 Corinthians 4:5, Paul says:

For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake.

And then come this triumphant conclusion to this point, “For God who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness . . .’” What is that? That’s creation. If God could step out in the middle of eternity — if it has a middle — on the edge of nothing, and speak the universe into existence, and speak light into existence, and he alone can do that, then he is the one who has turned on the light in the heart to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6). And that’s where he can’t resist that doxological phrasing again. He just keeps bursting out over the glory of the gospel and of Christ.

The only one who could turn on the light is whom? God. It’s the light that God shines in our hearts. The same God who created light in the world creates light in the dark heart. It’s not about your style. It’s not about the stuff going on around you. You see so much about this in churches today, this style and that style, and we do worship this way and we do worship that way. That’s fine. I’ve been all over the world. I’ve seen it every way you could possibly do it, but style doesn’t do anything. The only way the light goes on is if you preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, the glory of God shining in the face of Jesus Christ. Faith comes by hearing that. Well, I could say more about that. That’s what preachers always say when they’ve run out of material — “Brethren, we could go on and on,” and you know you haven’t got another thought or another note or anything. But I’m actually not finished.

6. The Reality of Our Insignificance

I hate to let that last one go. I know that’s one that fires John’s heart, that section. When I sign my name in a Bible, I always put 2 Corinthians 4:5–7, so I hate to let it go. But here’s the sixth point. To have an enduring ministry, you not only have to be faithful as a slave to obey your master and proclaim the pure glory of the gospel, trusting in the power of God to overcome the sinner’s difficulties, but Paul also embraced the reality of his own insignificance.

I love 2 Corinthians 4:7. He says, “We have this treasure . . .” What treasure? It’s the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ, the glorious New Covenant gospel. It’s the gospel, as it’s called in 2 Corinthians 4:4, of the glory of Christ who is the image of God. Paul says:

We have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves . . .

Look, we are never the explanation for spiritual impact. Paul wasn’t, I’m not, and none of us are. You can’t explain spiritual impact by looking at us. We have this treasure, this massive, blazing, shining, glorious gospel, in earthen vessels.

Treasure in Clay Pots

Let me get a little closer to that earth and vessel idea if you’ll let me. In Greek, it’s the term ostrakinos (clay pots). Do any of you ladies have clay pots around the house? You put a plant and a bunch of dirt in, throw a little fertilizer in, and stick a plant in a clay pot. They’re cheap, common, breakable, replaceable, valueless, and ugly. They were the most menial things. What did they use them for? Plants, and some valuables would be buried within them in the ground like the Dead Sea scrolls were found in clay pots. They were commonly used every day to remove household waste. I don’t want to get too graphic, but in 2 Timothy 2:20 Paul says that there are vessels unto honor and vessels unto dishonor. And the vessels unto honor are precious metals, and the vessels unto dishonor are wood and clay. What’s he talking about? In a house, there are those things you serve the food on, and there are those things you take the waste out in. He’s talking about a garbage bucket, which would be a refined way to refer to it.

What are you talking about, Paul? He is saying, “I have, by contrast, this glorious gospel in a garbage bucket.” Sir Thomas Moore hated the gospel. He was Catholic, and he despised the Reformed faith, and he hated Martin Luther. He wrote some things about Martin Luther that are not fit to be read, but if I can clean it up a little bit, he called him a toilet. He called him a privy pot full of filth and dung. He called him a buffoon, full of bilge water. He called him a sewer. I think Luther probably would’ve agreed, compared to the message he had.

Isaiah did. He said, “I’m a man of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). He is saying, “I have a dirty mouth, Lord. You don’t want to use me. I have a dirty mouth.” And so they accused Paul of being a privy pot. It’s true. He says, “I’m nothing. I’m a waste bucket.” In 1 Corinthians 4:13, he says, “We have become as the scum of the world . . .” That means the dregs at the bottom of the garbage bucket, after you dump out the garbage and all you have is the scum that has accumulated. The terms “scum” and “dregs” are synonyms for the filth left in the bottom, used figuratively in that society of the lowest, most degraded criminals, often sacrificed in pagan towns to appease deities. Paul says, “We’re viewed as scum, dregs.”

You see, Paul never ever saw himself as the explanation for his life. The power of the glorious gospel is not the product of human genius or technique. We’re garbage buckets. We are weak, common, plain, fragile, breakable, disposable, and dishonorable. But that does not prove fatal to the work of God because 2 Corinthians 4:7 says, “Though we have this treasure in earthen vessels, the surpassing greatness of the power is of God and not from ourselves.” What are we talking about? It’s not out of us. We’re talking about humility here. In contrast to our message, we’re nothing.

7. The Benefits of Suffering

This sustained Paul, this incessant sense of unworthiness sustained him triumphantly to the end, and along the way, he was certain about another thing. Seventh, he was certain about the benefits of suffering. He embraced the benefits of suffering.

Success scares and frightens me. It panders to my flesh. Paul looked at his own life, and not only was he a garbage bucket in his own view, but he was a battered one. Second Corinthians 4:8–9 says:

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed . . .

There are four contrasts there, and they all say the same thing. He had severe trials, but he is, again, bent and not broken. He is crushed. This all has a spiritual impact.

Look over to 2 Corinthians 12:7–10 again for a moment, that we commented on it last night, and I’ll make a couple of other comments on it. In 2 Corinthians 12:7, Paul speaks about the surpassing greatness of the revelations he received. Paul said, “I’ve had so many revelations.” I don’t think he’s talking about the books that he read necessarily. How about your own private trip to heaven and back, and not even being able to articulate that? How about seeing the exalted, heavenly, ascended Christ on several occasions one on one? That could make you proud, right? The next time you’re having a committee meeting to decide your evangelistic strategy and everybody says, “I have this idea. I have that idea.” And Paul could say, “This is my idea. I think we ought to do mine. How many of you guys have been to heaven? How many of you have seen Jesus?” That could be a big club to use.

The Lord had to humble him because of those things, so he says, “To keep me from exalting myself, there was giving me a thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7). Literally, the word “thorn” is not like the thorn on a rose bush; it’s a stave or a spear that rammed itself right through his flesh. It ripped into his body. It was a tormenting experience, and it’s defined as a messenger of Satan, as we said, a Satanic angel. I believe that it’s very likely the demonic leader of the false teachers that were destroying the church as much as they could. But the Lord allowed that. How interesting, the Lord would even allow false teachers, demon-possessed false teachers, to attack a church if, in the doing of it, it brought about the humbling of his servant. He prayed three times, and the Lord three times said, “No.” The Lord did say, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

The prosperity gospel is absolutely non-biblical. It is an affront to God. The way to power is through suffering. The way to power is through weakness. Paul said, “Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9–10). You learn through the years to embrace the assault that cuts you to the heart, to embrace the mutiny, to embrace the disaffection, to embrace the traitor, to embrace the massive disappointment and heartache, and to even embrace physical pain and suffering, because you know that it destroys self-trust.

Carrying About the Dying of Jesus in Our Bodies

So he says in this text how he embraces the pain. Back in 2 Corinthians 4:10, he says:

[We are] always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body.

In other words, Christ is going to be more powerfully revealed in his body if he is under severe affliction. It shatters all self-trust and self-confidence. And so, he says they are always (the operative term) carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus. What does that mean? Jesus had already died. People couldn’t kill Jesus anymore. They couldn’t attack him. They couldn’t persecute Jesus, because he was gone, so they persecuted Paul in his place.

So every blow that came to him was a blow meant for Christ. It wasn’t because they didn’t like him as a person. They didn’t like his personality or his style. They hated him for Christ’s sake, for the gospel’s sake. And so the blows that came to him came to Christ, and he took them. In Galatians 6:17, Paul says, “I bear in my body the scars of Jesus Christ.” “My suffering,” he says, “is for the church and for the sake of the advance of the gospel” (Colossians 1:24). He’s saying, “I bear in my body the marks of Jesus Christ, who bore in his body, my sins. He took the blows meant for me. I take the blows meant for him. Let them come.”

Paul spoke of death 45 times using the common Greek word thanatos, but here, when he speaks about the dying of Jesus, he doesn’t use the word death. He uses the word dying (nekrōsis) because he’s talking about a process and not an event. My whole life is a process of bearing the dying of Jesus, headed toward death. I’m in the process of dying and it’s dying because of Christ. The Lord was stalked by his enemies to death, and Paul is stalked by the enemies of Christ to his death as well. But it’s necessary in order that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body, as Paul says:

For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh (2 Corinthians 4:11).

He saw sacrificial suffering as the way to spiritual weakness. He saw spiritual weakness as the way to spiritual power. He saw spiritual power as the way to demonstrate the glory of the transforming power of Christ that was in him and that had an impact on people and built the church. Paul was never the explanation for his impact. It’s always the power of God working through his suffering.

We all learn more, far more, from suffering — all kinds of suffering. I remember when my son had a brain tumor. I remember when my wife had a car accident, the explosion fractured C2 and completely shattered C3. They said she’d be a quadriplegic if she didn’t die. There was such agony in those days and hours as she, by the grace of God and his providential care, survived that. But I buried her many times every day, as I had buried my son many times every day before that was resolved. I mean, you know all those kinds of things. You experience those things — the great disappointments, the disappointments of your own heart being unfaithful to the Lord. But in all of that, we are shattered. We need things in our lives that break us. That’s one of the great benedictions of being with the same people for a long, long time.

8. The Need for Bold Conviction

I think I’ll just give you two more briefly if I can get those into the next couple of minutes. If you want an enduring ministry, these are the kind of things that you must pursue. I don’t know exactly how to say this eighth one. I’ve been just thinking about it in my mind. I didn’t think I’d get this far, but I’ll give you what comes to mind. There’s an embracing of the need for bold conviction. Enduring ministry I don’t think belongs to people who blow easily with the trends. Is that fair enough?

There are pastors that just wait for the next trend going by to jump on, the next Calliope to play the next tune and go around town. And when that one’s over, they’re looking for the next one and the next one and the next one. And it’s all about methodology and it’s all about style and it’s all about gimmicks and it’s all about numbers and crowds — nickels, noise, and numbers. It’s all about that. That’s not a long-lasting, enduring ministry. That’s planned obsolescence.

I think about this when I go to Tulsa, Oklahoma. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Oral Roberts University. It’s really an amazing place. It looks like a parking lot for old spaceships, and that’s not any comment on the school or the education, it’s the architecture that they chose. But when you go to a university, typically what you see is classic brick, colonial, enduring, timeless kinds of things. It’s an illustration, in a sense, of why you don’t do faddish things. And it’s the same in ministry. If you want to have an enduring ministry, there’s got to be something else going on besides jumping on the latest bandwagon.

I just want to take you from that vantage point, if I have to pick one among many, into 2 Corinthians 4:12–13. Second Corinthians 4:12 really wraps up the previous point: “So death works in us, but life in you.” But 2 Corinthians 4:13 says:

But having the same spirit of faith (as exhibited in Psalm 116:10), according to what is written, “I believed, therefore I spoke,” we also believe, therefore we also speak . . .

A Ministry Rooted in Conviction

Here is a ministry driven by, not fads, but convictions. I believed, therefore I spoke. This is being faithful to convictions. The message never changes. Oh, you may change some things on the outside. You need to know the difference between what can change and what cannot change, but enduring ministries don’t chase after fads. They’re not, as Jerry said this morning, quoting from Ephesians 4:14, tossed to and fro and carried about by every wind of doctrine. They’re not blown all over the place by the latest fad. There’s a kind of integrity that says, “I have truth that I believe, and that’s what I speak, and I’m not ashamed.” Silence might mean comfort, acceptance, popularity, or life, but like Luther, he is bound, he can do no less. He speaks because he believes it’s the truth. This is conviction. This is a staple of long, enduring ministry. A person with deep conviction is not hunting for something to say; a person with conviction is just hunting for someone to say it to.

And I’ll tell you, men of conviction are often unwelcome in churches today. I’m so thankful for the men that we train at The Masters Seminary. We send out about a hundred graduates a year. Some of the stories that come back are just heartbreaking. They didn’t want a person with conviction who said, “I believe, therefore I speak. We can’t do that. We can’t do this because the Bible says this. We can’t accept that. We can’t accept that approach. We can’t do it that way, because Scripture says this.” But bless those men, even though sometimes it’s a trial in the early years. Eventually, God in his grace finds a place for them where spiritual integrity and biblical fidelity matter. We can only pray that it’ll matter more and more.

Paul is so committed to this and you might say to him, “But Paul, it gets you into so much trouble. But Paul, it causes people to want to kill you. But Paul, you’re going to end up dead.” That’s okay. In 2 Corinthians 4:14, he says:

Knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and will present us with you.

In other words, “Okay, I’ll meet you in heaven, but in the meantime all things are for your sake” (2 Corinthians 4:15). He is saying, “I’m headed down this dying path inevitably to death. I will not change the message because I believe it to be true. Therefore, I speak it, and I know that the worst that can happen is I’m killed and I’m going to see you in the presence of the Lord. All things are for your sake.” And 2 Corinthians 4:15 is really the objective:

That the grace which is spreading to more and more people may cause the giving of thanks to abound to the glory of God.

All that means is that we’re just doing what we do to add one more voice to the hallelujah chorus.

9 The Priority of Eternity

And that’s the last point. Paul embraced eternity as the priority. This is all about the gospel of grace spreading to more and more people who will give thanks that abounds to the glory of God. We have eternity in view here. This is not about comfort in this life. This is not about popularity. This is not about success in this life. I just want to add souls, voices, to the heavenly hallelujah chorus. Because heaven is my concern.

Now he comes back and concludes, “Therefore, we do not lose heart,” for all those reasons in 2 Corinthians 4:1–16. He is saying, “For all those reasons, we do not lose heart.” And here is the haarpunkt:

Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:16–18).

We don’t lose heart in the end because, as Paul says, 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 container, battered and bruised in the struggle. Paul embraces the perfecting power of suffering. He is faithful to his convictions. He faces life or death — for to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain (Philippians 1:21) — in the confident assurance of his own resurrection and eternal reward. And his focus is always on heaven.

He prefers the spiritual over the physical (2 Corinthians 4:16), the future over the present (2 Corinthians 4:17), and the invisible over the visible (2 Corinthians 4:18). He is looking for an eternal weight of glory, far beyond all comparison. Nothing that can come our way in this world can compare with the baros doxa, the heavy, heavy weight of glory, which will exceed all limits (hyperbolē eis hyperbolē) and will be granted to us in the presence of the Lord.

is the pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church, as well as an author, conference speaker, president of The Master’s University and Seminary, and featured teacher of Grace to You.