It is strange but a fact that often people become bitter at God, not through the sufferings that they are going through, but because of the sufferings they see others going through. The irony is that those who are undergoing the actual suffering many times come through it resilient when it comes to their faith and hope in God. I have found this true in my own life. As I watch others endure tragedy and trials, sometimes it makes me complain to God and doubt his goodness. And yet those who are enduing the tragedy and trials are being drawn nearer to Christ through it all. This is not universally true, of course. There are those who lose their faith in a loving and good God because of the suffering they undergo. And yet I also know that there are people who have endured much more and yet come through it stronger in the faith. I think of Corrie Ten Boom who watched her sister die in a Nazi concentration camp, and who was herself brutally treated by the prison guards. And yet even though she did struggle with her own doubts for a time, at the end of it all she realized, as she put it, that there is no pit so deep but God’s love is not deeper still. She didn’t say that the way Hallmark cards sentimentalize things. She meant it. She experienced it. There is no pit so deep but God’s love is not deeper still.
And still we struggle with the concept of a loving and good God allowing his people to suffer. I say this to remind you of the context of the verses we are considering. Paul is writing this to encourage the Ephesian Christians who have become downcast on account of his imprisonment. It made them “faint” (13). Perhaps they reasoned, how can we trust in the provision and love of God when he allows his foremost apostle to be treated this way? And so even though the Ephesians themselves do not seem to have been going through trials of their own, yet they were really troubled with Paul’s suffering. It caused some of them to lose hope.
The funny thing is that Paul himself did not share their gloomy perspective, even though he was the one in prison, not they. He is not at all ashamed or disappointed in the path that obedience to Christ has led him. Instead, he exults in the ministry that eventually landed him in prison. He never second-guesses the Lord. He doesn’t wish that things somehow would have turned out better. There are no regrets on his part.
Instead, Paul revels in the amazing privilege it was for him to represent Christ to the world. But how could he do this, as he sat in prison year after year? How could he do this, after all that he had gone through? Think about it: everything Paul said had happened to him in 2 Cor. 11:23-28 had already happened to him and then some, with “far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked [by this time it would have been four times]; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (ESV). How could Paul go through all this and not end up jaded?
Well, we saw a couple of weeks ago one of the answers. One of the answers is that Paul’s hope was not in this world, but in the glory of the world to come. It is to that glory that Paul points the believers in verse 13. But I think another answer lies in the fact that Paul did not have any false expectations from Christ. He did not sign up expecting to be on top of the mountain all the time, feeling great, with no worries and a perpetual smile on his face. He knew, from the very beginning, that following Christ in this world was not going to be easy. He didn’t think, unlike a lot of Western evangelicals, that if you just have enough faith you won’t have to deal with the pressures of life. Do you remember what our Lord told Ananias about Paul, right after the Damascus Road experience? “Go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel: for I will show him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake” (Acts 9:15-16). Paul knew from the beginning that suffering would mark that way of obedience for him. So when it happened, he didn’t lose heart.
For a lot of us, we just do not expect suffering. We somehow think that worldly prosperity and blessing is a sign of God’s love. Therefore, when we lose the prosperity we lose confidence that God really loves us, and we become bitter and disappointed. So let’s be very clear. Jesus doesn’t promise any of those who follow him immunity from the disappointments that often meet us in this world. He promises no immunity from pain, or depression, or sickness, or poverty, or loneliness, or persecution. If that is why you are following Christ, then you are following him for the wrong reasons. No wonder we give up when the going gets hard. We think, “I didn’t sign up for this!” No, we didn’t, and if that’s our point of view, then we never truly signed up to follow Christ.
Why then would anyone ever follow him? Well, false expectations have to give way to true expectations. No, Christ has not promised us riches and wealth and ease and prosperity in this world. What he has promised us, though, is “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (8). What are those? Go back and read Ephesians 1-2; those are the riches Christ has given his people. He has promised us “every spiritual blessing” (1:3), including victory over death, the forgiveness of all our sins, and endless fellowship with God forever in never-ending, ever-increasing joy. All this is given to us not because we earned it or because we deserved it, but because God the Father freely elected us before the foundation of the world that we should become his sons and daughters, because Christ lovingly died for us and purchased every blessing on the cross, and because the Holy Spirit has come effectually to apply the merits of Christ to us personally. If we really believe these things, I mean really believe them, then there is no reason why we would not willingly follow Christ through suffering if that’s the way we get to glory.
However, that does not mean that there are no blessings along the way to heaven. The path to glory is not one long wilderness road bereft of any beauty. Paul reminds us over and over again in his letter to the Philippians that the Christian above any other person should be rejoicing: “Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice” (Phil. 4:4). There is manna in the desert. There is water from the rock. Every step between Egypt and Canaan is watched over by the Lord. And that is one of the things that stands out to me in the text we are considering this morning. You cannot read Paul’s description of his ministry and not come away with a sense that here was a man who truly appreciated his work. He wasn’t in it for the fame. He wasn’t in it for the money. He was in it because he loved Christ and the grace he received in serving him was a foretaste of the future grace of the glory to come. Paul found joy in the journey as he labored in the ministry to which Christ had called him.
Yes, there may be hardship. And yet along the way God gives grace and more grace. We rejoice in hope and we rejoice in knowing and serving Christ in the here and now. I think this is true not only for Paul but also for you and me. No matter where God has placed you, if you are a Christian, your purpose in that place is to serve Christ. And as you serve him faithfully, you will find grace upon grace, even in the trials that God is bringing you through.
In other words, if you want to persevere as a Christian in this world, you have to have your eyes fixed on the glory to come, you have to throw away these false expectations of health, wealth, and prosperity in this world, and then you must not live for yourself but live out your life serving the Lord wherever he has placed you. Now I want to focus the remainder of our time this morning on this last point: serving the Lord in the ministry to which he has called you. To see how we can do this, I think we can learn some lessons from the way the apostle describes the ministry to which he was called.
Now I know that the age of the apostles are over. None of us are called to be an apostle. That is not the way God wants you to serve him! But clearly, there are applications of this description of ministry that are wider than apostleship. Clearly, every pastor can say with Paul that the privilege to preach and teach the gospel is a gift of the grace of God. But the fact of the matter is that, as we’ve been suggesting, every Christian is called to some form of ministry. And it is as we serve Christ using the gifts and resources that he has given to us that we will find the “effectual working of his power” in our lives, and there is surely nothing more invigorating and joy-filling than that.
If you are a Christian, you are meant to serve the kingdom of God in some form. In chapter 4, the apostle will say that the reason our Lord gave the church apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor/teachers is “for the perfecting [equipping] of the saints for the work of the ministry” (4:11-12). Thus, the pastor isn’t the only one doing ministry. If fact, one of the main jobs of a pastor is to equip the church so that they will go out and do ministry. If the pastor is the only one in the church doing ministry, something is wrong. The apostle had already written to the Corinthians on this point. In his first letter to the Corinthians, he wrote, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7, ESV). Did you hear that? To each, to every person who belongs to the church, is given “the manifestation of the Spirit,” a spiritual gift, in order to serve the common good of the church. And not every gift is the same. Thank God for diversity! In fact, some of the gifts Paul mentions in Romans 12 might seem to some rather prosaic, and yet they are just as much the ministry of the Spirit to the church as any other gift. Consider the list of gifts he gives there: prophesy, serving, teaching, exhorting, giving, ruling, showing mercy (Rom. 12:6-8). Nor is this list meant to be exhaustive. Any gift whereby the church is encouraged and built up is a Spiritual gift.
However, there is a difference between Christian ministry and charitable activities. There is and ought to be a difference between what happens in the church and what happens in the Kiwanis club. So as we consider and celebrate what it means to engage in Christian ministry, how Paul describes his ministry is very helpful. There are three adjectives that defined Paul’s ministry and these three adjectives ought to always define the kind of ministry we do for our Lord. Thus, Christian ministry is a gospel ministry; Christian ministry is a gifted ministry; and Christian ministry is a gracious ministry. We will now consider each of these statements in turn.
First of all, Christian ministry is a gospel ministry. Paul begins verse 7 by saying, “Whereof I was made a minister.” Whereof what? The word “whereof” is a reference to the word “gospel” at the end of verse 6. In fact, some translations go ahead and put the word “gospel” in verse 7 as a way to clarify what Paul was saying. Paul was a minister, a servant, of the gospel. Everything he did was to proclaim the gospel to Jew and Gentile. The gospel is the good news that Christ has come into the world to do what we could not do, to save us from our sins. The gospel is not the story of mankind’s attempt to save himself. It is the true story that the Word of God was made flesh and dwelt among us. It is the record that the Son of God bore the righteous wrath of God that ought to have fallen upon sinful men and women, and nailed it to the cross. It is the news that the grave is empty, that Jesus rose victorious from the dead, and that the Father accepted the sacrifice so that all who put their trust in him need no longer to anguish over their sins.
Now, perhaps when you think of gospel ministry, you think of a preacher on a street corner sharing the gospel to passersby. That is an instance of gospel ministry. But that is not all gospel ministry is. That is a very small fraction of it. In fact, if you are a mom or dad raising your children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, that is gospel ministry. In fact, everything we do, from eating and drinking to what we do at the job ought to testify to the gospel. Our whole lives ought to testify to the gospel; our whole life ought to be gospel ministry. All of us out to be living and preaching the gospel with our lips and lives. As the apostle put it, “And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Col. 3:17).
The gospel ought to be a fragrance that blows through every room of our lives. It ought to flavor all our words and affect all that we do. We all do gospel ministry by living out the realities of the gospel in our lives. You don’t have to be behind a pulpit to do that. You just have to be a person who trusts in and loves Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
But more specifically, it means that we ought to be looking for ways to put the gospel on display for others to see and savor. It means that we look at our jobs, not just as a way to make money and pay the bills, but as a way to introduce others to the realities of the grace of God in Christ. If we are truly gospel-centered, it means that we have realized that God has put us where he has put us in order to shine the light in that particular dark spot in this world. It means that we look at our homes as places where we want Jesus to be cherished above all things. It means that we watch our attitudes and affections so that we do not become people whose lives tell others that Jesus is not the most important person in the world to us.
If we are just living for this world, if we are just serving time, then no matter how great our accomplishments, at the end of the day they are only temporary. But if we are living with a gospel mentality, then everything is done in light of eternity. No longer are our lives being wasted, no matter what others may think of our achievements.
As we consider as a church where we want to go in the future, let us always keep the gospel first and foremost. Above everything else, God is calling us to be a gospel church, a church in which the gospel is proclaimed, taught, lived out, and shared. The banner over our church ought to be what Paul said to the Corinthians: “For I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).
Second, Christian ministry is a gifted ministry. The apostle continues: “. . . according to the gift of the grace of God given unto me by the effectual working of his power.” Here Paul is saying that his ability to do the ministry that God had called him to do did not stem from himself. The ability to do the ministry came from God. It was the gift of the grace of God.
Now here is the lesson. If God is calling you to a particular ministry, he is also going to give you the ability to fulfill that ministry. God does not call us to something that he will not empower us for. And at the end of the day, no matter how gifted we are, whether by nature or educationally, we cannot do real gospel ministry unless we do so in God’s power. Consider the apostle Paul. He was probably far and away the most educated of the apostles. Some have said that Paul had the equivalent of a Ph.D. by the age of 21. And yet, Paul never once gives even the slightest hint that any success in his ministry that he had, had come from his own attainments. No, rather he says things like this: “But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me what not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me” (1 Cor. 15:10). Or, “we preach [Christ], warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus: whereunto I also labor, striving according to his working, which worketh in me mightily” (Col. 1:28-29). Or, “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us” (2 Cor. 4:7). If Paul realized that he couldn’t truly serve Christ apart from his grace, how much more do we need his help?
There is no room for pride in the service of Christ. We can’t change hearts, only he can. “So then neither is he that planteth anything, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase” (1 Cor. 3:7). There is no room for boasting about what we have done. In fact, if we have done anything apart from the help of the grace of God, then it will only come to ruin. Only God can build his church and only God can impart the grace to ministry that makes it truly effective, and therefore only he gets the praise.
But there is another side to this coin. The reality that ministry is a gift of grace not only means that there is no room for pride, it also means that there is no room for despair. If God has called us to do something, he will give us the grace to see it through, no matter what the devil and the world will throw at us. Note that Paul describes the help that comes through grace in terms of the power of God: “the effectual working of his power.” The resource at the believer’s disposal is nothing less than the power of God. And if God be for us, who can be against us? So let us not despair or grow weary in well-doing. If God has gifted us, he will support us and bless us. And he will never fail us, even when all our earthly supports come crashing down.
Finally, Christian ministry is a gracious ministry. In the first part of verse 8, the apostle writes, “Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given.” It is not just lack of resources that causes us to shrink back from ministry for the Lord, is it? Isn’t it also the fact that so many of feel unworthy? We look back over our past lives and the darkness of past deeds comes creeping around us and makes us feel that we should not engage in gospel work because we are just not worthy.
So listen to the apostle Paul. “Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given.” Paul actually bends grammar to make this statement. He takes a superlative (“least”) and turns it into a comparative (“leaster”). Less than the least of all the saints: that was how Paul saw himself. This was no false modesty. Paul really felt this way. To his dying day, he never forgot the shame from the role he played in persecuting the church, and in participating in the murder of Stephen. Towards the end of his life, he still described himself as “before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious.” But he doesn’t stop there: “but I obtained mercy” (1 Tim. 1:13). In fact, he goes on, “And the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief” (1 Tim. 1:14-15). But this is not just for Paul: “Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting” (1 Tim. 1:16).
Our past does not need to determine our future, not because we can make our past go away, but because Jesus Christ died for our filthy, shameful past. He can make it go away. The blood of Jesus Christ cleanses from all sin. Whatever ministry we do, it is not to put us on display. It is to put Christ on display. So let us not be discouraged from serving Christ. If you have repented and are trusting in the sacrifice of Christ on your behalf, then grace is given to you. It came to the least of the apostles, to the least of all the saints, and to the chief of sinners.
This is not only true of serving Christ; it is also true of coming to Christ in the first place. Do you think that you are not worthy? Of course you are not, no one is. Do you feel that your sins are keeping you from God? Well, there is only one way to breach the gap between you and God. You will never do it by trying to please God on your own, for you will never be good enough. You will never do it by trying to punish yourself, for you will never erase the guilt of sins against an infinitely holy God. The only way you can come to God is by grace, by the free gift of God in Christ. We are “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24). So come to him this morning, embrace his cross and his righteousness and his forgiveness, and you will be saved.