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.