Saturday, March 20, 2021

Beware of False Teachers – Romans 16:17-19


This great epistle is one of the greatest and clearest expositions of the gospel in the whole of the New Testament.  And it puts on display the glories of God’s truth so that it is hard to see why people would reject it for something else.  But, alas, because of sin, it is so.  And because of sin we have to deal with those who not only reject the gospel but who try to supplant it with something else.  So as Paul draws to an end, he warns his readers of the real and urgent danger of false teaching.

This is so important because false teaching is not only dangerous; it can be spiritually deadly.  The apostle is not warning these believers against those who differ on some minor point (like whether you should observe the Mosaic food laws or not), but against those whose teaching will lead folks away from the true faith, and therefore away from saving faith.  It is why the apostle warns against false teachers and describes them as wolves in his final message to the Ephesian elders: “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away disciples after them.  Therefore be alert...” (Acts 20:29-31).  Not just wolves, but fierce wolves!  Wolves that come and kill.  It matters what you believe.  Just as truth will build up, lies will destroy.

And this why men of God in every age have made it a priority to stand for the truth against error.  It is not just enough to feed the sheep, but the wolves must also be fended off.  It is not enough to teach the truth, but lies must be exposed.  The apostle tells Titus that these two jobs of the pastor must go together: “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Tit. 1:9).  There are wolves everywhere.

It is why John Calvin, even after he had been run out of Geneva for his stance of certain issues of doctrine and practice, came to the aid of that city when they turned to him to refute the slick invitations of Rome to come back into their fold.  The church of Rome had enlisted Cardinal Sadoleto to write to the leaders of the city and “by smooth talk and flattery” to “deceive the hearts” of its leaders (Rom. 16:18).  Calvin could have harbored a grudge against the ungrateful inhabitants of Geneva for the way they had treated him and refused to answer and let them fend for themselves.  But this was too serious for him to ignore and in one of his most eloquent writings he put aside his own reputation in order to soundly refute the arguments of the cardinal.  Calvin understood the danger of false teaching, a lesson brought home in these verses.

These verses deal with the dangers of false teaching.  They therefore warrant our attention.  As we look at them together, there are three things that I want you to take away from these verses.  First, I want you to notice that we are told what to do with false teachers.  Second, we are told why we are to do this.  Third, we are told how we are to do this.

Watch for and reject false teachers.

They are to “watch out” for false teachers and when they have found them they are to “avoid them” (17).  In other words, they are to reject false teachers.  But more than that, they are to avoid them, which means at least partly that they are not to dally with them, they are not to put up with them, and they are not to allow them to think they are part of the church.  They are to be treated as they really are: as people who are outside the realm of God’s saving blessing.  These are wolves, not wayward sheep.

Now again it is important that we understand that Paul is not talking about teachers who disagree on minor things.  This does not give us license to excommunicate everyone who does not say “Shibboleth” the way we do.  We have to be very careful that we don’t cut off everyone who differs on issues that do not necessarily differentiate the saved from the unsaved.  But there are truths that, if you deny them, you can no longer be called a Christian.  Admittedly, it is not very popular to say that sort of thing today.  But it is a Biblical thing to say.  So the apostle John writes: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.  This is the spirit of antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already” (1 Jn. 4:2-3). 

At the same time, we must not think that just because someone takes a “divisive” stand on something, therefore they are in the wrong.  The fundamental characteristic of the false teachers is not that they are divisive – it is that they are those who “cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught” (17).  It is important to remember that controversy is not always bad.  In Galatians 2, the apostle reminds us that he had to rebuke the apostle Peter over not standing firm in the gospel.  Schism in fact is sometimes necessary, and functions to separate true believers from pretenders (cf. 1 Cor. 11:18-19).  If standing for the truth causes division, we must not only not shy away from it but we must embrace it.

Nevertheless, there are two ways that causing division is bad.  First, there are those who cause division for division’s sake.  There are people out there who love a brawl.  This is a work of the flesh (Gal. 5:20), not of the Spirit.  People who thrive on disagreement, who look for the smallest things to cause strife, are not to be encouraged but called to repentance.

But the thing the apostle refers to here is division that involves drawing people away from the truth.  This is serious.  It is by the gospel that we are being saved (1 Cor. 15:1-2).  To reject the gospel is therefore to walk away from the truth which saves (cf. Acts 13:46). 

And there are all sorts of people doing that today.  The wolves have not gone away, nor have their numbers dissipated.  There are many, many instances of false teaching in our day.  I’m not just talking about fake news here.  I’m talking about what the older theologians used to call “damnable heresy.”  There are damnable heresies in our day.  There are those, for example, who want to insist that the Bible is outdated and that we need to be progressive and that the way we how progressive we are is by apologizing for the Bible while bowing the sensitivities of the modern idolatries.  This is not a new thing; there have always been those who think being Biblical means being backward.  The apostle John refers to this kind of person in his second epistle: “Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God.  Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son” (2 Jn. 9).  And that was in the first century!  When the teachings of the Bible which do not conform with the norms of the culture we are told that they need to be disregarded.  As a case in point, today our culture is especially offended by the Biblical views on sexuality.  We are therefore told that we must be progressive here.  The question is whether or not we will continue as followers of Christ to be faithful to Scripture or whether we will give in the increasing pressures of our times to conform to the norms of the ungodly.  Will we listen to the voices that tell us to walk away from the truth of God’s word or will we do what the apostle exhorts us to do, to watch out for them and avoid them?

Now the point here is not so much that a person is saved by their views on sexuality.  Of course not.  You can be perfectly orthodox on these issues and yet be eternally lost.  However, the point is that you cannot receive Christ as Lord and deny what he has commanded.  You cannot claim him as your Savior and reject his word.  Our Lord himself taught this (Mt. 7:21-23; Lk. 6:46).  To reject the claims of Scripture is to reject Christ, and to reject Christ is to be lost.  And our Lord clearly rejected the modern views on sexuality, as did his apostles.

Closely related to this is the effort to undermine the importance of truth by saying that everyone can have their own “truth.”  Relativism is pervasive in our generation.  The danger here is not that we are told the Bible is outdated, but that it doesn’t matter whether you believe the Bible or not.  We are told that there are many paths to heaven.  But again, our Lord and his word are incompatible with the philosophy of relativism.  He is the way, the truth, and the life – not a way, or a truth, or a life (Jn. 14:6)!  There is no other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved (Acts 4:12; cf. Rom. 10:13-15).

However, perhaps the most dangerous are those who claim to believe the Bible and yet teach things which are diametrically opposed to it.  It is interesting that our Lord’s strongest words of rebuke were not aimed at the Sadducees who were theological liberals but at the Pharisees who were overall theologically orthodox.  Why?  Because, for all their orthodoxy, the Pharisees missed the truth.  They rejected the Messiah.  But their orthodoxy made them even more dangerous because the naïve would equate the true faith with the Pharisaic representation of it.  Even so, there are many today who claim to believe the Bible and yet teach things that are in direct opposition to its teaching.  Roman Catholicism, for example, claims to have a high view of Scripture and yet by smuggling in tradition and later theological developments changes the very message of the Bible from that which points sinners to Christ to that which interposes the Church as the mediator.  Even some clearly heterodox sects, like Mormonism, claim to believe in the Bible.  And yet they have teaching that separates men and women from the Christ of the Bible.

And that’s the danger.  The danger is false teaching that will turn people from the truth and by turning them away from the truth will turn them away from Christ.  And there is no salvation apart from Christ.  And that is the ultimate test for false doctrine.  Though there are many doctrines that genuine believers can disagree over and yet recognize each other as brethren (like baptism or church government, or a myriad of other things), yet we know we have to get serious when teaching is introduced that will turn people away from faith in the Christ of the New Testament gospel.  We can be open to disagreement over many things.  But we cannot for a moment give any place to those who teach people to embrace doctrines which will turn them away from Jesus. 

Let’s come back then to the way the apostle commands us to respond to these division-makers and smooth talkers.  They are to mark them, to look out for them, and to keep their eyes on them.  In other words, Paul is calling us to vigilance.  His words again remind us of the seriousness of the matter – like a shepherd who watches out for the wolves, falling asleep is costly.  Then we are to avoid them.  We are not to hold fellowship with them.  This is why the apostle John went on to say in the passage quoted above, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works” (2 Jn. 10-11).  You don’t play with fire.  You don’t mess around with poison.  And you don’t play with heresy.  It’s not just wrong, it’s deadly.

In other words, there comes a time when to be friendly is to be false to Christ.  If a person comes and claims to be a Christian and yet teaches that which turns people away from faith and hope in Christ, then that person must be firmly rejected, along with their teaching.  And that is an important point.  You don’t get to have fellowship with false teachers and yet claim to be orthodox.  There are a lot of people who try to do that today.  Historically, it can be demonstrated that this is often the first step toward a denomination’s descent into open rejection of the truth.  The Biblical reality is that to have fellowship with those who teach damnable doctrines is to participate in the damnation that those doctrines bring.  Avoid them!

Why we are to watch out for and reject the false teachers.

We have already really pointed to the main reason we are to reject false teachers: it is because their teaching separates people from Jesus.  This is what the apostle is getting at with these words: “For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive” (17).  They do not serve Christ but themselves.  In other words, the purpose of their ministry and their teaching is to point people, not to Jesus, but to themselves.  That doesn’t mean, of course, that they never say the name “Jesus” or don’t try to appear as his servants.  They do.  That’s where the smooth talk and flattery come in.  They use Christian language, even orthodox Christian language, but the whole point is to get people to look to them, to their wisdom, to their example, to their insights, and so on. 

There are several examples of this in the New Testament.  The apostle said of the Galatian false teachers who taught “Jesus plus law equals salvation” (legalism in this worst sense): “They make much of you, but for no good purpose.  They want to shut you out [from the teaching of the apostles], that you may make much of them” (Gal. 4:17).  That is always the goal of false teachers.  A true teacher points away from themselves to Christ: they want to make much of Christ and they want others to make much of Christ.  But a false teacher, under the guise of caring for his or her audience, wants them to make much of them (cf. 3 Jn 9-10). 

This is what Paul warns Timothy against.  As in our text, note the convergence of dissension and greed as the mode and the motivation of the false teacher: “If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing.  He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain” (1 Tim. 6:3-5).

Not so the apostle: “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.  For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:5-6).  In direct contrast to the imposter, a true servant of God points people to Jesus and away from himself.  He is not in the ministry to be made much of, he is there to be the servant – first of God and then of his people.  You see this attitude reflected in Paul’s words about Timothy to the Philippians: “I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I too may be cheered by news of you.  For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare.  For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.  But you know Timothy’s proven worth, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel” (Phil. 2:19-22).

Beware of men and women who try to build a following around themselves.  The gospel of grace points us to Jesus Christ as our only hope for salvation and eternal life.  It tells us that the only way our sins can be dealt with is through the atoning work of our Lord on the cross as he took the wrath we deserved.  He is the only one in whom we are forgiven and in whom we are counted righteous.  He is the only one whose Spirit can give us spiritual life and raise us from a death in sin.  He is the only one who brings us to the Father.  There is no other person who can do this.  There is no other mediator between God and man.  There is no preacher or teacher who can save you.  And any person who positions himself as such should be watched out for and avoided.

How we watch out for and reject false teachers.

The only way to reject false teachers is to be able to spot them when they appear.  Otherwise, there is no way to “watch out” for them.  But how do we do that?  This is especially made harder given the fact that they come with smooth talk.  “Such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.  And no wonder, for even Satan disguising himself as an angel of light.  So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness” (2 Cor. 11:13-15).  How to differentiate between the true and the false? 

Paul shows us the way when he says, “but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil” (19).  But then the question is, how do you know what is good and what is evil?  And the answer is found in the previous phrase: “For your obedience is known to all so that I rejoice over you” (19).  The obedience of the Romans was the obedience of faith (1:5; 16:26).  They had “become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed” (6:17).  In other words, the way we differentiate between good and evil is by being obedient to the standard of teaching.  Of course the standard for the Christian is the apostolic teaching.  And the repository of apostolic teaching is to be found in the written word of God, the Bible. 

What Paul is saying in verse 19 is that he doesn’t want the obedience of the Roman Christians to be undone by believing false teaching.  He rejoices over their obedience because it is through obedience to the gospel that they will flourish spiritually.  And we wants them to continue in this obedience to God’s word so that they will be wise in what is good and simple concerning evil.  But this means that the bottom line for remaining obedient and wise and watchful is by a steadfast commitment to God’s word.

This is why when Paul warned the Ephesian elders about the wolves bringing in false doctrine and destroying the flock, he immediately follows this up by commending to them the Scriptures: “Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.  And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:31-32). 

God’s word is a bulwark against false teaching for a number of reasons.  First, because any false teaching is a deviation from the world of God.  We can detect counterfeit teaching when we are really familiar with the truth.  But the only way to be really familiar with the truth is by being people of the word.  It is the simple and the naïve who are so easily taken as prey to error.  It is therefore absolutely necessary that we know the Bible, and know its teachings well. 

Second, because it is God’s word, it carries with it God’s grace that builds us up (cf. Ps. 19:7-14; 1 Tim. 3:14-17).  It is the word of God that the Spirit of God uses to make us more like Christ, to bring us into greater and greater conformity to the Son of God, to bring us from one degree of glory to the next (2 Cor. 3:18).  Note the way the apostle speaks of the Thessalonian Christians: “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in your believers” (1 Thess. 2:13).  What does the word of God do?  It works in us, building us up and strengthening and encouraging us.  And it does this precisely because this is not just another word, it is the word of the living God, a word which is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12).  Why would we ever want to substitute the word of men for the word of God?  To do so is absolute folly.  Only those who know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God would want to abandon God’s word for the best of man’s words.  God’s message through the prophet Jeremiah is appropriate here: “Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let him who has my word speak my word faithfully.  What has straw in common with wheat? declares the LORD  Is not my word like fire, declares the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” (Jer. 23:28-29).  Woe to the man who substitutes straw for wheat, the noodle of man’s wisdom for the steel of God’s!

It matters what you believe.  Don’t underestimate the danger posed by false teaching.  We should always be on our guard.  Just because  church at present is sound is unfortunately no indication of the future.  And don’t underestimate the worth of sound teaching.  Reject the false and receive the true.  Let us heed Paul’s teaching.  Know the Bible.  Draw close to Jesus. Trust in him, value him, and honor those ministries that cause you to make much of our Lord Jesus Christ as he is presented to us in the pages of Scripture.

Monday, March 8, 2021

Vignettes into the early church – Romans 16:1-16


It is often easy to read over these greetings, but they contain in themselves important lessons for the church today.  For one thing, they give us a glimpse into the early church through the lives of the people that the apostle mentions and greets.  And this is important because the church today is not called to revise itself to the times, but to be faithful to the church that Jesus Christ constituted two millennia ago.

As we come to the end of Romans, it is important that we remember that doctrine is never to be divorced from our lives.  Doctrine is not something just to be believed, but something to be lived.  If the truths of God’s word never penetrate beyond the realm of imagination into the realm of our affections and doings, then we are little different from the wayside hearer our Lord speaks of in the parable of the sower.  And this chapter helps us to remember that Romans was not written to a bunch of ivory tower scholars, but to common, everyday folks (including slaves) who were to take these truths and incorporate them into their lives.  We are to do the same.

 In every generation, Romans needs to be preached and it needs to be lived.  The apostle has preached the message of Romans; now it is up to the Roman Christians to live it out in their daily lives and among their neighbors.  In the same way, when we read this book, or when we hear it preached, we need to take its truths and with full purpose of heart take them and put flesh and blood upon them, to incarnate them among our family and friends. 

 And that brings us to the question we want to consider today as we look at the first sixteen verses of the last chapter of Romans.  The question is this: what sort of person is the apostle addressing in these verses?  What are the kinds of people that he expects to take up these truths and live them out?  Indeed, what does this passage have to tell us about the New Testament church?  There are undoubtedly a multitude of lessons we can learn here.  But I want to point out four of them.

 The fundamental identity of the believer in Christ is that he or she is “in Christ.”

 Notice the way the apostle refers to them, almost off-handedly even.  They are to welcome each other “in the Lord” (2).  They labor and work hard “in the Lord” (9, 12).  They are “beloved in the Lord” (8).  They are “chosen in the Lord” (13).  In other words, everything that describes these Christians is something that connects them to their identity in Christ.  The things that the apostle praises them for stem from their conversion and union with the Lord by faith. 

 The thing that thrilled the apostle was to know that someone was “in Christ.”  He refers to the fact that Andronicus and Junia “were in Christ before me”(7): that is, they were converted before him.  To be in Christ is to be converted to Christ.  And thus, the apostle is thrilled in the fact that Epaenetus “was the first convert to Christ in Asia” (5).  The fact that he was a convert to Christ meant he was in Christ; the fact that he was the firstfruits (this is the meaning of the Greek word) meant that there were many to follow.  And that filled the apostle’s heart with obvious joy.

This then is the line of demarcation between the church and the world.  If you ask what is the fundamental reality that distinguishes the Christian from the non-Christian, it is this: the Christian is someone who is in union with Christ, who is in a saving relationship with Jesus.  You are not a Christian if you do not believe in Christ and if your hope for righteousness before God and eternal life is not completely based upon the merits of Jesus for you.  You cannot be part of God’s people and reject Christ.  This is affirmed by our Lord (John 14:6) and by the apostles (Acts 4:12).  The apostle Paul has been preaching this fact all the way through the book of Romans.  How are we justified?  It is by faith in Christ (Rom. 3-5).  How are we sanctified and glorified?  It is in union with Christ (Rom. 6-8).  It is why the apostle John said, “And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.  Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:11-12).

The doctrine of our union with Christ is so important that is bears reminding ourselves what it means and implies.  It is one way to sum up all the blessings of our salvation.  In fact, this is precisely how the apostle puts it in his epistle to the Ephesians.  There, he writes, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:3).  He then goes on in that great chapter to unpack all that that means.  It means, in particular, that we are chosen in Christ (1:4), that we are predestined to adoption in Christ (5), that we have the forgiveness of sins in Christ (7), and revelation (8-10), and an eternal inheritance (11), and the earnest of the Spirit (13-14).  There is not one spiritual blessing, not one thing that will bring you to heaven, that does not come to you because of what Jesus Christ accomplished by his redemptive work.  We have come to be saved, not because of our goodness but because we have become connected to Jesus by faith.  It is the fundamental identity of the Christian. 

A Christian is someone who is in possession of these great realities, and they are in possession of them, not because they have made themselves worthy of them but because they are united to the only one in the universe who is worthy.  And this is something that we must continually remind ourselves of.  It is so easy for us to separate our work for Christ and our union with him, as if our work for him makes our union with him more certain or secure.  But this is not so.  It is the other way around.  Our work for the Lord is not significant or meaningful because of what people think of it.  It is not significant because of the numbers associated with it.  It is significant and meaningful because it is work not only done for Jesus but fundamentally because it is done in him.

A Christian is therefore someone who recognizes their need of Jesus Christ and that he is the answer to man’s greatest need – the need of forgiveness of sins and freedom from its crushing dominion.  Every other problem in the world is but the symptom of this greater problem and thus to be free from this is the greatest possible freedom.  True freedom doesn’t come in the ability to express ourselves anyway we please – for this is another symptom of sin’s turning us into ourselves – but freedom from sin which separates us from God.  And we need to constantly focus on Jesus and to preach the gospel daily to ourselves and to renew our commitment to him daily and to constantly trust in him every day.  In other words, we need to put into practice Scripture passages such as these: Heb. 12:2; Gal. 2:20; Jn. 15:5.

Christians manifest their union with Christ through mutual love.

This is a passage suffused with love.  We especially see the love the apostle had for the believers at Rome, but it is clear that this was love that was reciprocated.  It becomes explicit in verse 16: not only is Paul greeting the believers at Rome but he is joined by all the other churches as well: “All the churches of Christ greet you.”

First of all, we see how love is manifested in the way believers see each other, as part of a family.  Thus, the apostle opens by saying, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe” (1).  In verse 13, Paul identifies the mother of Rufus as his own; not because Rufus was the apostle’s biological brother, but because they were all part of the same family.  It was in this family environment that the “holy kiss” was commended and commanded (16).  It was a sign of affection, as members of a family would greet each other.  (I would argue that this is culturally conditioned, but the principle remains the same.  We are to show affection to each other in a way that is appropriate to belonging to the family of God.)  It reminds me of what the apostle exhorted Timothy to do: “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women was mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity” (2 Tim. 5:1-2). 

Second, this love is manifested and seen in the way the believers helped each other.  Phoebe is described as a woman who was a patron of Paul and of many others.  It is probable that she, like Lydia of Philippi, was a businesswoman and a woman of means who used her wealth to support and give lodging to traveling saints (Cenchreae was a port city adjacent to Corinth).  In addition, she is called a servant of the church, for she ministered to the needs of the saints.  Mary, the apostle says, “has worked hard for you” (6).  She is not the only one: so did Tryphaena and Tryphosa, and “the beloved Persis” (12).  Here are saints who are bearing each other’s burdens (Gal. 6:1-5).  Then we have Prisca and Aquila “who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well” (4).  They are working for Christ, yes.  In fact, first and foremost we work for him (cf. ver. 9).  But in working for him we labor for the saints.  It is impossible to work for the Lord and to do so without a due consideration for the needs of the church.  If we are a family, we will inevitably and naturally work hard for each other. 

This is work, by the way, that is never forgotten.  It may be forgotten by men, but not by God: “For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do” (Heb. 6:10).

This is love that does not show preference.  Commentators note how that the names that Paul mentions in these verses probably contain the names of slaves along with freedmen and freedwomen.  Names like Junia and Ampliatus, Tryphosa, Tryphaena, Stachys, and many others.  Those in the households of Aristobolus and Narcissus are probably referring to their household slaves.  Nevertheless, there is no distinction in the greetings between slave and citizen.  They are all one in Christ (Gal. 3:28).  Again, this is a natural outflow of the love of God in us, as well as a recognition that what puts us in the family of God is not our status in society but the sheer grace and mercy of God. 

Another way that is obvious but is easily overlooked is the simple fact that the mutual love of Christian brothers and sisters is verbally expressed.  You see this in the greeting which Paul and the other churches give to those at Rome.  The apostle obviously saw that it was important.  And it is important.  Sometimes we can take for granted that others know how much we love and appreciate them.  But we must not take it for granted.  Let it be expressed.  Let others know how much you have been blessed by their ministry to you. 

Note how these Christians had a zeal for the gospel.

We are told that Prisca and Aquila were Paul’s “fellow workers in Christ Jesus” (3).  They were often at Paul’s side, laboring with him to advance God’s kingdom among men.  They were the ones who took Apollos aside and discipled him (Acts 18:26).  We can see how diligent they were, for they risked their necks for the apostle, presumably in his evangelistic labors, and their labors called out the thanks, not only of some, but of “all the churches of the Gentiles”! (4).  Moreover, it seems that many of the early Christians met in each other’s homes, and so it was natural that the apostle could say, “Greet also the church in their house” (5).  They were deeply committed to the cause of God and truth.

Moreover, the apostle commends Urbanus, “our fellow worker in Christ” (9); again, this most certainly means church work; either evangelizing the lost, discipling new believers, or encouraging the established.  And when Paul points to the work of believers in verse 12, it was probably not only a reference to their work for the saints in meeting their needs, but their work for the Lord in advancing the gospel among men.

Again, this is a natural outflow of what it means to be in Christ.  I was reminded recently of Spurgeon’s definition of evangelism: it is one beggar telling another beggar when they can find food.  We, who have been filled in Christ, who have found that water and bread of life, will want others to find Christ as well.

Note the role that women had in the early church.

There is something to be said just in the number of women mentioned in this list of greetings: Phoebe, Prisca, Mary, Junia, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, Persis, Rufus’ mother, Julia.  The phrase “to labor” is used of four women: Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis, a word often associated in the New Testament with ministry (1 Co. 16:16; 1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Tim. 5:17).  The word diaconos is used of Phoebe (1).  Prisca was a co-worker with Paul, who is more times than not mentioned before her husband (though always with him). 

It is not only that the ministry of these women was worth mentioning, but that it was significant.  It was commended by the apostle, and elicited the praise of all the churches of the Gentiles.  Much of the work for Christ that the apostle mentions here would not have been done without these women.

Now I believe that there is an emergent feminism rising in the evangelical church here in the West.  There are calls for women to preach, for example.  There are calls for women pastors.  For my part, I believe this would be dangerous because this would be in contradiction to the repeated and clear prohibitions of the New Testament (cf. 1 Cor. 14:34; 1 Tim. 2:11-15).  When Paul gives the qualifications for the overseer in 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1, it is a qualifications list that implies that the bishop/elder is a man.  In other words, in the New Testament, the church is to be led by qualified men.  And that means that the pulpit, from which the pastors primarily exercise leadership, is to be reserved for qualified and called men. 

However, we can go the other direction and end up denying women a place in the ministry of the church, and we must never do that.  And it doesn’t begin and end in the nursery.  It doesn’t mean that there is no place for women to teach or to speak.  We know that there is a significant and important need for this, especially for older women to teach the younger women, as the apostle instructs Titus (Tit. 2:3-4).  We also see from 1 Cor. 11 that the apostle encourages women to prophesy (whatever that means, but it certainly is a speaking gift), and this is in the context of the gathered church.  God forbid that we mute the believing woman!  There is a place where women can and should encourage others by their words.  There is even a place where women, like Prisca, can disciple younger men, like Apollos.  Though all this must be done in a way that acknowledges the leadership that God has put in place in the church, we must at the same time give it its rightful place.  Romans 16 would not be possible apart from the ministry of women.

In connection with this, there is the question as to whether Phoebe is an example of a deaconess.  For the word “deacon” is used to describe her relation to the church of Cenchreae.  I personally am not convinced by the arguments for this.  For one thing, diaconos is a very generic word.  It is used of the ministry in any sense, not just that done by those who inhabit the office of deacon.  For example, our Lord is called a “deacon” in Rom. 15:8.  So the fact that this word is used to describe this woman doesn’t settle the matter.

What settles it for me is the way the apostle refers to the office of deacon in 1 Tim. 3:8-13.  In this passage, deacons are men (see esp. 11-12).  The fact that women are mentioned in verse 11 doesn’t contradict this.  Paul doesn’t refer to them as deacons but as the wives of the deacons.  If it is asked why he doesn’t refer to the wives of elders in the previous verses, it is because whereas the wife of the elder cannot assist her husband in those duties which are peculiar to the spiritual oversight of the church, the wives of deacons would have been able to assist their husbands in their duties as a deacon. 

But we don’t need to say that since women cannot hold offices in the church that they have therefore no ministry in the church, or that they cannot do important and necessary ministry in and for the church. 

One final thing…

There is one final thing to say about this text.  How many of these people do we know beyond these pages?  Very little to nothing!  They performed no feats that are told to this day.  They are not famous as men count fame.  Like the shepherds at the birth of Christ, most of these names appear briefly in the NT story and then vanish.  But here’s the point: these are the kinds of people that God populates his church with and these are the kinds of people by which God advances his kingdom and cause in this world.  You may look at yourself and think that because you are no great shakes as men count greatness, therefore you have little to no place in the ministry of the church.  But this is not the case.  Isn’t it the case that God has shown us again and again in his word and in history that he loves to work through the weak and the worthless, the little people whom no one else notices?  We must therefore go back to where we started.  The important thing is not our gifts, or our goodness.  The important thing is whether or not we are in Christ.  And being in Christ, whether we are willing to live out our identity in Christ in faith and obedience?  Are you?  There is no greater privilege in all the world!

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Plans and the Providence of God – Rom. 15:23-33


It is right to make plans.  Isn’t this what the Proverbs point us to when they call us to consider the ant (Prov. 6:6-11).  In some sense, a lack of planning can be a manifestation of laziness as well as a lack of wisdom, and that in itself is sin.  We have no right to use God’s sovereignty as an excuse not to prepare or make plans or to exercise careful forethought about our future.  The Bible commends planning for the future, although it condemns anxiety about the future (the KJV translation in Mat. 6, “take no thought for your life…” should be translated, “take no anxious thought…”).  In other words, we are again confronted with the necessity of balancing both the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man.

Now I believe the Bible.  And that means that I believe that God has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.  However, some will take the necessity of careful preparation as an evidence against the fact that God has foreordained all that comes to pass.  But those who do so have assumed that I can’t make meaningful decisions if my decisions are foreordained by God.  But this is exactly what the Scriptures teach.  For example, God foreordained that Cyrus would make a decision to allow the Israelites to return to their own land (cf. Isa. 45-46), and that did not make Cyrus any the less free or make his decision any the less meaningful.  God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and at the same time Pharaoh hardened his own heart.  Those are compatible statements, even if we cannot understand them.  (And, by the way, it is a false solution to say that Pharaoh hardened his own heart and God only hardened Pharaoh’s heart in response.  Nowhere is that taught in the Exodus account, and in fact the very opposite can be demonstrated from the text.)  God takes the hearts of kings, the most free and sovereign people in the ancient world, and turns them as rivers of waters, wherever he wills (Prov. 21:1). 

On the other hand, the fact that God’s plan is all-encompassing does not mean that I can sit on my haunches and wait for life to happen.  It does not mean that when bad things happen to me because of mismanagement on my part or because of sin or because of laziness that God is to blame (cf. Jam. 1:13-15).  My bad choices can lead me into bad health, financial ruin, broken relationships, and spiritual barrenness, and this is not God’s fault, it’s mine.  What then are we to do?  One way to avoid this is to plan carefully in accordance with Biblical principles.  For example, if you aren’t reading your Bible, you should have a Bible-reading plan.  If you don’t, you are probably not going to read your Bible consistently.

This last point should be emphasized.  There are all sorts of books out there that counsel people to plan.  We are told how to plan for our future in a multitude of ways.  We are told how to plan for a spouse, how to plan for a family, how to plan for financial security, and so on.  But most of these books say little or nothing about God and the gospel.  The reality is that you can plan in all the wrong ways.  Planning is good, but if you plan wrongly, it can lead to real spiritual catastrophe.

Here’s a Biblical example of what I’m talking about.  In Luke 12:13-21 our Lord tells the Parable of the Rich Fool.  But here’s the deal: this was a man who knew how to plan. When his crops did well and he had an overabundance, he planned to store it up so he would have plenty for the future.  But our Lord was not holding this man up as an example to emulate!  For there was a serious problem with his decision-making: it did not include God.  This was because this man was all about this life and did not take care about the next.  He was the perfect example of the secular man.  He is also the perfect example of a man whose plans are ultimately meaningless and eternally ruinous. 

Now what does this all have to do with our text?  In these verses, it’s clear that the apostle is discussing his travel plans with the Roman Christians.  But in making these plans, he again gives us an example of what it means to do this as a Christian, as someone who is consciously under the authority and sovereignty of God.  Paul believes that God is sovereign.  He believes in trusting him for the future.  And he believes in taking careful preparation about the future and making decisions about the future even as he trusts in God who holds the future in his hands.

And what plans!  There are three destinations that the apostle mentions here: Jerusalem, Rome, and Spain.  He is writing from Corinth, and talks about traveling from there to Jerusalem to bring a monetary contribution from the Christians in that part of the world to help alleviate the ills that had resulted from a long and serious famine in Judea (25-27).  This in itself was a trip of around 800 miles.  A lot of planning had to go into it, not just in terms of the traveling but also in terms of how to transport the gifts in a way that protected Paul’s integrity.  He also talks about traveling from Jerusalem to Rome (24, 28-29), a trip of about 1500 miles.  Finally, there is the trip from Rome to Spain (24, 28), which was about 700 miles.  Altogether, the apostle is planning on traveling a total of 3000 miles or so, a very ambitious road trip, especially in the ancient world when people would often plan their wills before leaving on extended travel!

A question that is sometimes asked is whether or not the apostle ever made it to Spain.  We will never know with certainty.  We do know that the apostle did make it to Jerusalem and then to Rome – though not in exactly the manner he intended.  He went to Rome, not as a free man but as a prisoner.  And when the book of Acts ends, it ends with Paul under house arrest in Rome.  According to Eusebius, Paul was released from this first imprisonment, after which he continued to minister for a time until he was re-arrested, whereupon he was executed.  It is possible, therefore, that between his first and second arrests, he was able to fulfill this ambition to preach the gospel in Spain.  There is a further testimony in Clement of Rome’s epistle to the Corinthians, in which he testifies that Paul was able to go to the limits of the West.[1]  Was this a cryptic reference to Spain?  Again, we will never know for sure.

Here then, we have the example of Paul’s plans.  But again, they are instructive.  They show us how we should look at our future and how we should make our plans.  In particular, they show us that we should make plans that prioritize the kingdom of God, that submit to the will of God, and that include the people of God.

In our plans we should seek first the kingdom of God

Paul did this and the text illustrates it.  His whole being is bent on putting the interests of God’s kingdom first.  He has been striving to preach the gospel, as he has been speaking in the previous verses, and the point he is making in these is that he wants to continue this.  His purpose in coming to Rome was at least partly to enlist their support for his Spanish mission.  All of Paul’s plans were about extending the kingdom of God.  It was about advancing it through sending aid to the churches in Judea.  It was about bringing the gospel to new places, like Spain.  Paul’s plans were a practical illustration of what Jesus exhorted his disciples to do: “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Mt. 6:33).

But what does it mean for you and me to seek first the kingdom of God?  Must we be, like the apostle, engaged in full-time ministry?  Who are able to say they are seeking first God’s kingdom?  What does this look like when I’m not a preacher or a missionary?

Well, consider the context of the statement of our Lord in Matthew, in the Sermon on the Mount.  It is a bookend of sorts.  At the beginning of the section of which verse 33 concludes, our Lord reminds his followers that they cannot serve God and mammon, and that they are not to be laying up treasures upon earth but in heaven.  We cannot serve two masters (Mt. 6:19-24).  Then in verse 33 we are exhorted to seek first God’s kingdom.  What is in between?  In verses 25-32, we have an extended exhortation to not worry about the things of this life, like food and clothing.  He sums it all up in verses 31-32: “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.”

What does this imply?  It means that we are to live in such a way as to show to others that our trust is in God, that we have a heavenly Father who will take care of us.  We are not anxious because we trust in a God who can and will provide for our needs.  That is the mindset we are to have.  You don’t have to be a preacher or a missionary to live that kind of lifestyle.  It is the kind of lifestyle that invites questions, like, “Why do you live like that?”  And then you can tell them about the hope that lies within you.  That is at least partly what it means to seek first the kingdom of God.

Or consider what our Lord said in an earlier part of that sermon.  He talks about us being the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  Why?  “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 5:17).  But you’re not going to live that way if what is important to you are the things of the world.  You cannot be light or salt if you look and live like those who have no faith in Christ.  Be different.  Don’t prioritize making money; prioritize holiness and faith and God’s word in your life.  Don’t spend your life on this world, but spend it on the next.  We are to live what we profess to believe: that there is a heaven and that this is where we will spend eternity – in the presence of God Almighty and holy.  Do you live like that? 

And surely this works its way out in the plans that we make.  We are all constantly making plans, plans about what to wear for the day, about the next meal, about what we are going to do in our daily tasks, where we might go on vacation, what we are going to do with our money, and on and on.  When we are making our plans, whether short term or long term, where does the kingdom of God figure in?  Our Lord said that we are to seek first God’s kingdom.  It’s not second or third, but first.  Does that describe you and me?  Well, look at your plans, and see.

We are not throwing our lives away when we prioritize the concerns of God’s kingdom above short term pleasures and earthly security.  We are throwing our lives away when we do the opposite.  Luther’s hymn puts it exactly right when it says: “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill, God truth abideth still, his kingdom is forever.”  Live for something that is forever and your life is not in vain.  But put your effort into something that will evaporate in a few years, and what have you done?  Let me remind you of Jim Elliot’s famous dictum: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”  Don’t be a fool!  Gain what you cannot lose!

In our plans we should be guided by the revealed will of God

There is an important distinction we should make with reference to God’s will.  There is God’s revealed will and there is God’s secret will (also called the decretive will of God, or God’s will of purpose).  This is not a distinction made up by theologians with too much time on their hands: it finds expression in Scripture.  For example, in Deut. 29:29, we read, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”  In other words, we don’t plan by trying to discern God’s secret will, his eternal purpose.  Rather, we plan by looking to see what the Bible has to say.  For the Israelites that meant the words of the Law.  For us, it means everything from Genesis to Revelation.

What does this have to do with Paul?  For Paul, the revealed will of God came to him directly from Christ who appeared to him to make him an apostle.  And what was this will?  The apostle spells it out for us.  He tells us how Jesus told him, “I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles – to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:16-18).  Now isn’t this what the apostle had been doing?  And is this not what determined his plans for the future?  He was obeying the explicit and revealed will of God for him.

Again, for us that means looking into Scripture.  Here we have God’s will for us.  Here we have something that will make us mature, that will make us complete (2 Tim. 3:16-17).  So many people make plans based on what feels good.  But that is not the baseline for the Christian.  The baseline for us is: what saith the Lord?  What does the Bible say?  It doesn’t matter in the end how I feel about it – what matters is what God’s word has to say about it, and I simply need to obey it.  We will never go wrong if we are seeking to obey the Bible.

In our plans we are to be submissive to eternal purpose of God

Now I said a minute ago that we are not to seek to guide our decisions by God’s eternal decree, which we do not know.  True.  I am not to expend energy trying to discern that – it’s none of my business.  If God wanted me to know it, he would have revealed it!  However, this does not mean that God’s secret will has nothing to do with our plans.  On the contrary, our plans cannot be properly made without a due consideration of God’s decretive will.

How do we relate our plans to God’s eternal and unchangeable plan?  In this way: by understanding that God is sovereign over all, we recognize that our plans are not ultimate, no matter how well-intentioned or Bible-based.  God’s plans are ultimate.  And it is a matter of faith and humility to recognize that.  We are not sovereign; God is.  It means that we submit all our plans to God and be willing for him to make them or break them.  It means that we follow our Lord’s own example when he prayed, “Not my will, but yours be done” (Mt. 26:39).  It means that we pray how our Lord taught his disciples to pray: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, as in heaven so in earth” (Mt. 6:10).  It means we hold with open hand all our dreams and plans, knowing that our Father knows what is best for us.  As it has been put, God is too wise to err and too good to be unkind.  And we submit our plans to him.

This is what the apostle Paul means when he asks them to “strive together in your prayers to God on my behalf . . . so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company” (30, 32).  This is what the apostle James was getting at in his epistle: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’ – yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring.  What is your life?  For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.  Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’  As it is, you boast in your arrogance.  All such boasting is evil” (Jam. 4:13-16).  Paul was doing what James was commanding.  It’s not a matter of knowing God’s decree, but it is a matter of submitting to it.

But this leads to an important point.  Why make plans which may never come to pass?  We know that part of Paul’s plans didn’t happen the way he envisioned them, and perhaps he never made it to Spain.  Why go to all the effort of making something that can fall apart?  If my plans must submit to God’s plans, why make plans at all?

There are several reasons planning is still important, even when they don’t come to pass the way we imagined they would.  One is that God commands us to plan in faith.  Second, God can use our broken plans as a way to fulfill his purposes through us.  Calvin is a tremendous example of this.  His plan was initially to go to Basel to spend his life in quiet, contemplative study.  But on the way, he had to pass through Geneva, and the rest is history.  But here’s the point: if Calvin had not made his plans to go to Basel, he would never have made it to Geneva – which is apparently where God wanted him to be! 

In our plans we should include the people of God

The final thing I want to say is this: our plans should always include God’s people.  I think it is instructive that when Paul thought about going to Spain, we wanted to go through Rome first to enlist the help of the believers there.  He didn’t want to go it alone.  And I don’t think he was simply looking for a handout.  It is very possible that he was looking for folks to go with him on his trip.  And he was also looking forward to the fellowship and the personal strengthening that he would receive as a result of being with them (cf. 15:24, 33; 1:12).  He includes them in his plans so that they can pray with him (30-33). 

But it’s not just the Roman Christians who were important to Paul.  So important was the unity of the church that he was willing to postpone Rome to travel in the opposite direction to Jerusalem!

We are not apostles.  None of us have the gifts that the apostle.  So if Paul felt this kind of need for the fellowship of the saints, how much more should we!  We need each other in our lives.  We need other believers to show us our blind spots, to keep us balanced, to encourage us when we get discouraged.  And they can keep us from making really bad choices.  We need the gifts of other Christians.  It should, in fact, be normal for us to gravitate towards other believers, and to include them in our lives (“by the love inspired by the Spirit,” ver. 30).

Now this is true for us individually.  But these principles are also true for us collectively.  It is true for us as a church.  How do we plan for the future of this church?  Well, we should plan in these ways.  We should plan so that Shiloh is a part of the advance of God’s kingdom in this world.  We should plan so that God’s word is honored.  We should plan so that the people of God are encouraged, convicted, and are growing together.  And we should plan in reverent faith and humility, submitting all to God’s will and purpose.

Let our plans reflect our faith and hope in God.  Let them reflect the priorities of the gospel.  Let them show others the goodness and faithfulness and trustworthiness of our gracious Father.  Let them point others to Jesus Christ, our only hope in life and death.

[1] See William Hendriksen, Romans (Baker: 1980), p. 492.

Paul’s Resume – Romans 15:15-21

In these verses, we have what you might call “Paul’s resume.”  He is arguing why it has been appropriate for him to write to them in the way he has, even though he was not a founding apostle for the church.  His credentials are such that he is justified to have written “very boldly” to them, even if it was “by way of reminder” (15).  But in doing so, the apostle has done us a great service.  In a day when charlatans are on every side, when fakers abound in the ministry, when false prophets and false teachers are vying for our attention, it is as necessary as ever to have before us Biblical portraits of godly and faithful pastors. 

It is also very important to have the examples of men like Paul – men who were able to say at the end of their lives, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith” – when there are examples abounding of men who have not finished well.  Such men give great occasion to the enemies of the Lord and his people to mock the truth.  They have discredited the cause they were supposed to have upheld.  Men like Ravi Zacharias, who spent a life supposedly “defending” the faith but in a moment of tragic revelation tore everything down in a single blow.  Not that the Christian faith is any the less true or good because of what Zacharias did.  But he has undoubtedly made it harder for the rest of us to defend and commend it now.

I contrast that with men like D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones.  Recently while watching the documentary on his life, “Logic on Fire,” I was encouraged anew at his example of faithfulness, godliness, and God-centeredness.  You cannot look at his life and say that it is all fake.  Here was a man who gave up a lucrative career in medicine to be a physician of souls.  And how God used him!  And his ministry continues to bless and encourage the people of God.  That is the kind of person I want to be. 

But then we have the example of the apostle Paul.  Here was a man who could tell others, “Follow me” (cf. Phil. 3:17).  He was not a man who was involved in arm-chair ministry, but a man who led from the front.  His life was marked by consistent faithfulness.  He was a man who was described by others as a man who had risked his life for the name of Christ (Acts 15:26).  He was martyred for the faith (cf. 2 Tim. 4).  And when his life had ended, there were no revelations of a secret double life. 

So we need to learn from the example of men like Paul.  We need to look at them and see what kinds of things marked their ministry and model our own lives after them.  With the apostle Paul, however, we have another reason to consider his life and example.  It is the fact that he was not just chosen by the church, but chosen directly by Christ. “I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service” (1 Tim. 1:12).  To the Galatians, he wrote, “I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel.  For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”  The Lord Jesus, he tells us, “set me apart before I was born, and . . . called me by his grace . . . in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles” (Gal. 1:12, 15, 16).  For this reason, the apostle has the right to speak to us and to set his life before us for us to imitate.

What sorts of things characterized the man and the ministry of the apostle Paul?  When we look at the impromptu resume he gives us of his ministry in these verses, we see a number of important things.  There are of course things that are unique to the apostle.  For one thing, the apostleship itself was unique.  And yet the apostles laid a foundation upon which others were to build.  And surely there needs to be continuity between the foundation and the structure upon which it is built.  That is what we want to look at.  What things?  Well, I see at least three things.  Paul’s ministry was a ministry which was exercised in the sight of God, proclaiming the gospel of God, and empowered by the Spirit of God.  And to some extent the life of every Christian ought to be characterized by these things.  And especially the ministries of all those who are in the pastorate or are evangelists – who are the public face of the Church in the world. 

A ministry in the sight of God

What do I mean by a ministry in the sight of God?  I mean that the apostle was a man who was conscious of the holiness, power, and authority of God in every aspect of his ministry.  He wasn’t a man who simply had a form of godliness but denying the power of it (cf. 2 Tim. 3:5).  The reality of God was always present with him.  For the apostle, God was not something or someone at a distance but a living reality.   In other words, he was a true servant of Christ (Rom. 15:16).  He wasn’t working for himself but for God (17). 

A clear evidence of this aspect of Paul’s ministry can be seen in the priestly language that he uses to describe it.  Of course, Paul did not see himself as a priest in the sense that Roman Catholic priests see themselves, for the apostle makes it very clear that there is only one mediator between God and man, and that is not the apparatus of the Roman Catholic priesthood, but the Lord Jesus Christ himself (1 Tim. 2:5).  Rather, he saw himself as a priest in the sense that the priests were men who were consecrated exclusively to the Lord and ministered before the Lord.  Everything about the priest was determined by God.  They were men who served in the very presence of God.  They did not have an inheritance among like the other tribes of Israel, for God was their inheritance.  I think this is the way the apostle saw himself.  He was a man whose life was given for the service of God.

Again, you see this in the language the apostle uses to describe himself.  The word for “minister” (leitourgos, 16) in the New Testament is applied (in its verbal form) to the Jewish priesthood in Heb. 10:11, and to Jesus as our great high priest in Heb. 8:2.  You see it explicitly in the phrase “the priestly service of the gospel of God” (15).  You see it in the “offering” of the Gentiles, in the word “acceptable” in verse 16, which is God’s response to a pleasing sacrifice.  Finally, you see it in the word “sanctified” in verse 16, a term used to describe things that were consecrated in sacrifice.

This view of himself as a priest worked itself out in very practical ways.  It inevitably leads to a very God-ward and God-centered focus in ministry.  In particular, the apostle offered up his converts as living sacrifices to God.  He was not like preachers who are out for themselves, who use the ministry as a way to feed their greed, lust, or pride.  When Paul gained a convert, it was not to himself, but to Christ.  The Gentiles who became believers through the ministry of the apostle, were then offered by him to God (16; cf. 1 Cor. 1:12-17; 3:5-9, 21).  He hated it when believers became followers of men.  As he saw it, the apostles were not there to be served but to serve (1 Cor. 4:1). You can tell a God-centered person versus a man-centered person based at least partly upon who they are trying to please and who they are looking to for affirmation.  A man-centered person fears man and looks to him for affirmation and fulfillment.  They are also the most likely to be abusive in the ministry, since in this way people become pawns and the means of achieving their own fulfillment.  On the other hand, a God-centered person fears God and looks to him for both identity and security.  Because they find these things in God and not in men, they are freed to truly become the servants of others.  This was the kind of man that Paul was. 

And again, you see it in the fact that the apostle saw himself as a priest ministering in the presence of God.  As he puts it to the Corinthians, “For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ” (2 Cor. 2:17).  Note the difference between those who are peddlers of God’s word (using it only as a means to enrich themselves and therefore lying in their claim to serve the Lord) and those who are ministering the gospel in sincerity: it is that those who are the real deal are those who speak the gospel as conscious of being in the presence of God.  Of course every Christian should seek to maintain a walk before God (cf. Gen. 17:1).  We should strive to live coram Deo.  But this is especially important for those, like Paul, who are in vocational ministry.  No one can truly call themselves a servant of God without this God-centeredness.

We need pastors and teachers in the Church who live in a continual awareness of the presence of God.  It is a primary qualification.  Those who lack it should not be in the ministry.  And those who have it should strive to constantly maintain it.  These are men who consequently have a high view of God.  They are men who are holy.  They are men who are happy without being flippant and who are serious without being dour.  They are men of faith and prayer and the word.  They are all these things because they are first and foremost men of God.  We need men like this in our pulpits.  We need pastors and teachers and evangelists and missionaries like this.

A ministry proclaiming the gospel of God

Paul’s priestly service was a service in the gospel of God (16).  All that Paul did, he did so that the gospel of Christ would be preached in every corner of the world (19).  As he puts it in verse 20, “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel.”  Paul’s ministry, therefore, was fundamentally a ministry of the gospel.

What is the gospel?  Let me remind you.  The gospel is fundamentally the news of what God has done in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ.  It is the good news that Christ has come into this world to die for our sins, and to rise again triumphant over sin.  It is not a story of human achievement, but of what God has done through the God-man.  The gospel is not a self-help manual.  It is not something we do to save ourselves but the announcement of the salvation that God achieved.

All this assumes that something is so wrong with man that only God can rescue us from it.  That cause is sin.  Sin has separated us from a holy God, and brought us under his just wrath.  It has exposed us to the fires of hell.  But it has done more than that.  It has deformed us and turned us in on ourselves so that, left to ourselves, we won’t even recognize our need or seek God for salvation from sin.  Instead of humbling ourselves before God, we justify ourselves and blame God.  We are dead in our sins.

It is this situation from which Christ came to rescue us by his death – by taking the punishment that we deserve and purchasing for those who believe all the blessings of eternal life.  Now this is truly good news.  And such news deserves a fitting response.  And that response is the response of faith and repentance.  The gospel not only announces what God has done, but calls us to embrace Christ as he is presented to us in the gospel by turning from our sins and turning to God in Christ by trusting in him for our salvation.  It is this gospel the proclamation of which the apostle devoted himself.

How was the cause of the gospel advanced by Paul?  He mentions “word and deed” and “signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God” (18-19).  The goal was “to bring the Gentiles to obedience” (18).  This is another way of the apostle’s description of conversion, of seeing the Gentiles brought to faith in Christ (cf. 1:6; 16:26).  Note, in particular, the conjunction of “word and deed.”  Paul not only preached the gospel; he also commended it with his life.  We must have both.  We must preach the gospel with our words and works.  Not one or the other but both!  In addition, it was important especially in the first century, for the gospel to be additionally confirmed by miracles, or “signs and wonders.”  Though we need not expect miracles (though neither should we write them off, for Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever), yet we must not remember that “the poor have the gospel preached to them” is a miracle in and of itself (cf. Mt. 11:5).  And it is a miracle every time a sinner is converted to Christ.  It is truly only by the power of the Spirit of God that this can happen.

Though we must not discount the importance of what is sometimes called “mercy ministries,” such as feeding the poor, etc., we must also remember that the issue of primary importance for the church is to always proclaim the gospel with our lives and lips, with our words and works.  It is not enough to put food in the belly if the soul is left bereft of Christ.  Even our Lord and his apostles only saw ministry to the body as a pointer to our greater need and the platform for gospel preaching.  People need forgiveness of sin infinitely more than they need healing of the body or a job.  Gospel living and gospel preaching is what the apostle was all about, and it is what any faithful ministry will be about.  Does it describe us?  Does it describe our lives and our churches?

In conjunction with this, the apostle mentions the extent to which he had fulfilled this ministry and his desire to continue it.  He writes, “so that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ” (19).  In other words, he had preached and founded churches in this region which stretched from Judea to what is modern day Albania.  But he wanted to go on: “and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, but as it is written, ‘Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand” (20-21). 

Though God does not call everyone to be a church-planter like the apostle, yet even if we are not personally doing this, we ought as part of the church to support those who do.  It was for this task, after all, that the apostle was seeking the help of the Christians in Rome.  Not every Roman Christian was called to be a church planter, but they could support Paul who was.  In the same way, we ought to have a special care for those who have never heard.  The church is healthy when is it filled with men and women of like spirit with William Carey, who would point at his globe and weep over those who were without any access to the witness of the gospel.

With the apostle, we are to be about preaching the gospel of Christ.  Let us seize every opportunity of doing so.  It is only in this way that we exercise a faithful ministry that honors Christ.

A ministry empowered by the Spirit of God

Paul’s ministry was a powerful ministry.  It was powerful especially in bringing men and women, especially Gentiles, to Christ (17-18).  But it was not powerful because Paul had such a great personality.  We know from other things the apostle has written that he was not an especially impressive speaker.  “Even if I am unskilled in speaking” (2 Cor. 11:6), meaning he was not a gifted speaker.  How then could he exercise an effective ministry?  To what do we attribute his success?  He tells us: “And I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:3-5).  It was not Paul himself, but the Spirit of God, that explains the success of his ministry.

Though we don’t necessarily need to look for miracles of extraordinary healing (again, though I am not saying God can’t or doesn’t do this!), yet at the same time we should be constantly looking for the power of the Spirit to enable our ministries.  If the success of our ministries and ministers can be fully explained by their own natural gifts or by human planning, etc., I worry if they are doing anything that will have any real eternal significance.  God didn’t leave anyone without doubt that he was behind Paul’s ministry.  Note the words he uses to talk about it: “power” – God’s might displayed (19); “signs” – miracles as pointers to the significance of the gospel; “wonders” – the inevitable response evoked upon those who saw and experienced the miracles.  In the same way, we should be looking to the power of the Spirit to enable and bring success to the gospel preached: “our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thess. 1:5).  This is what we want to want and pray for.

As a result, Paul ascribes all his successes to God.  For it is “in Christ Jesus” that he has a reason to be proud of his work for God (17).  It is only “what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience” (18) that Paul will speak.  It is “by the power of the Spirit of God” (19; cf. ver. 13, 16) that any of this is done.

If we believe (and we should) that conversion is a work of God, and if we believe (and, again, we should) that God is the only one who can carry on and finish the work that he has begun, then the only way faithful ministry can be done is in total reliance upon the Spirit and grace of God.  Now that does not mean that we sit back and wait for God to do all the work.  We are not to let this make us fatalistic.  That is certainly not the effect it had on Paul (1 Cor. 15:9-10).  We are fellow-workers with God – and yet even this is in such a way that only God gets the credit for spiritual increase (cf. 1 Cor. 3:5-9).  But the point is that we are to be working in reliance upon God.  I sometimes cringe when I hear well-meaning people say, “Work as if it is entirely up to you but pray as if it is entirely up to God.”  No.  This makes it sound like there are certain aspects that we do and certain aspects that God does.  But the Biblical picture is that in everything that we do God is also working.  In other words, we do all and God does all.  We can’t do anything for God unless God is simultaneously working in and through (Phil. 2:12-13).  So the Biblical balance is this: we work with all our might while trusting completely upon God for the success and the blessing (Col. 1:29).

So godly and faithful ministry is characterized by these three things.  These are not the only things, of course, they are not sufficient, but they are necessary.  We especially need pastors and teachers who are men that live in a conscious sense of the presence of God, who faithfully preach (and live) the gospel, and whose ministries are empowered by God’s Spirit. 

Now, I have spoken primarily in terms of men because I believe that God has ordained male spiritual leadership in the church.  Elders and pastors are to be men.  But that does not mean that the only ministry in the church is to be done by men.  Older women are to teach the younger women.  Priscilla along with her husband Aquilla helped to disciple Apollos.  So no matter what ministry we have in the church, men or women, they really all should be characterized by these things.  As believers, we all have spiritual gifts, and they are to be exercised in these ways.  We all need to walk before God.  We all need to be living and preaching the gospel.  And we all need to be living lives dependent upon the Spirit of God as we look and labor for spiritual fruit.

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