It is a special message that has been on my heart for a number of weeks in preparation for the John Piper Conference, which will come up in a week or so – a couple of weeks from now – that I want to bring to you tonight.
I’ve been thinking, because I’ve been asked to think about it, about what it is that contributes to an enduring, persevering, long-term ministry. This is not something that I have not thought about; in the past I have. I began to think about the end of my life somewhere near the beginning of my life, truthfully.
Somewhere in the very early years of my ministry, I was brought under the power of the words of the apostle Paul. They were dramatically effective in my thinking very early in my ministry. They are the words that Paul wrote to Timothy. He had instructed Timothy to fulfill his ministry. And then he said this, “I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight; I have finished the course; I have kept the faith. In the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day, and not to be to me only, but to all those who love His appearing.
Early in my ministry, I thought how wonderful it would be to come to the end and say, “I have fought the good fight; I have finished the course; I have kept the faith.” Through all the years since then, I have seen men come and go. I have seen men rise and fall. I have seen the faithful and the unfaithful; I’ve seen the persevering and the enduring men and women who have endured to the end, bringing no reproach upon Christ, no scandal.
I have seen the opposite. I’ve seen those who started well and were discredited and brought reproach upon Christ and scandal to the church somewhere along the line. I never wanted to be one of those. Through all these years, I have been exposed, in my reading, to the great heroes of the faith who ended strong, who finished well, very often under dire circumstances – even martyrdom, but did not betray the Christ they proclaimed and sought to honor.
I remember Patricia and I one night got on an airplane to fly to Australia. And in the darkness of that long night of flight, I read the biography of A. W. Pink, written by Ian Murray. It started out so wonderfully. A. W. Pink was one of my spiritual heroes, a gifted teacher of Scripture, a gifted theologian, a gifted communicator. And I started that biography full of hope and anticipation, and it ended in one of the most sad and morose and sorrowful times in my memory, as I watched him fade away broken, discouraged, disappointed, angry, grieving, to becoming a recluse, in an obscure village on the coast of Scotland, who wouldn’t walk out the door. It was a shattering experience for me because I had gleaned so much from his teaching, and I thought, “I don’t ever want to end like that.”
I was talking to my dad about that one time, and he reminded me of another beloved preacher who ended bitter, angry, hostile. And I knew I didn’t want to end my ministry like that either. But how – how does one endure to the end? Avoiding all the moral minefields and all of the discouragements and all of the things that stand in the way, all the hurdles and obstacles over which we might stumble. You can want that; you can desire that; you can long for that. You can set your goal on that, but how do you get there to be able to say, “I finished the course; I kept the faith”?
And so, I have, from those early years, looked to the apostle Paul who is my own personal spiritual hero. There stood Paul, writing his last chapter – 2 Timothy chapter 4 – from which those words are taken. And there he stood high in the thin air of his own ministry Everest, having gone to the summit of faithful service to breathe that rarified oxygen that two few will ever experience. His climb was harder and longer and lonelier than any man would ever imagine he would be capable of enduring. But there he stood, at the triumphant end, at the summit of loyalty to Christ.
There were no earthly crowds cheering him. There were no earthly crowds hailing his achievement. In fact, even those in whom he had invested his life had forsaken him, and he says it, “All who are in Asia have forsaken me.” And Timothy, to whom he writes, is on the brink of forsaking him and even the Lord as well.
His speech, as he stands at that pinnacle, that ministry Everest, his speech does not sound triumphant. Here it is, the following verses, “Make every effort to come to me soon; for Demas, having loved this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Pick up Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for service. But Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus.
“When you come, bring the cloak which I left at Troas with Carpus” – it’s cold here – “bring the books, especially the parchments. Alexander the coppersmith did me much harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. Be on guard against him yourself, for he vigorously opposed our teaching.
“At my first defense no one supported me, but all deserted me; may it not be counted against them. But the Lord stood with me and strengthened me, in order that through me the proclamation might be fully accomplished, and that all the Gentiles might hear; and I was delivered out of the lion’s mouth. And the Lord will deliver me from every evil deed band bring me safely to His heavenly kingdom; to Him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”
In a sense, it’s a solo doxology, isn’t it? Luke was still there, so maybe if was a duet at best. It wasn’t a very triumphant moment. His friends were gone, some for good reason, some for bad reason. His enemies were still after him and mounting attacks on the churches where he had invested his life. Physically he was cold, and he missed his books. And he was fearful because the assault of false doctrine was just beginning, and he knew it. And he was reminded that battling enemies can be a lonely, lonely task, and even in his case, as influential as he was, no one stood by him at his first defense. And soon after this, a thankless world would chop his head off. How did he do it? How was he steadfast, immoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord to the finish?
I could know that speech of Paul, and I have known it all my life. I could know it; I could memorize it; I could wish for it. I could, by positive speech, rehearse it again and again in some personal soliloquy, but how to do it? How did he climb that Everest? How did he get there, still maintaining faithfulness, battling all the way? Without the kudos of the crowd, without the applause and the cheers of those who might have assisted him with their goodwill and encouragement, how did he do it? How did he avoid the internal obstacles, the external obstacles?
There had to be far more to it than self-discipline, far more to it than determination. He had a measure of those things, and I as well have a measure of those things. But those things, on a human level, are insufficient to take us through this course because it is fraught with supernatural assaults.
And so, through the years of my ministry, I have done everything I could to dig deeply into the life of the apostle Paul. Even at this very time, as we speak, I am immersed in a biography of Paul, trying to suck out everything I can about him because he is, to me, the model of endurance in ministry.
I find keys to his endurance all through the Scripture, but nowhere are they gathered together so richly as in 2 Corinthians chapter 4. And so, I want you to look at 2 Corinthians chapter 4 with me, for here we find, I think, the best and most concise expression of this man’s motivations. Second Corinthians chapter 4.
And I want to draw you to two statements that he makes, one in verse 1, and one in verse 16. And those two statements, which are really the repeating of the same statement, will be the foundation of our look at this great chapter.
In verse 1, at the end of the verse, we hear him say, “We do not lose heart.” Again, in verse 16, at the beginning of the verse, “We do not lose heart.” He’s talking here about losing heart. And he’s affirming that he doesn’t do that. And he’s surrounding those two statements with the reasons that he doesn’t do that, hence the several therefores that are interspersed into this chapter.
Well, let me tell you about that verb “lose heart” because I think, as often happens, the English doesn’t really get us to where we need to go in order to understand what he’s saying. This verb egkakeō or enkakeō - either one – offers far more than this translation gives us. The old King James translated it “faint not.” And this “lose heart” – maybe a little bit more, but it’s still not the full understanding of this word. We think of it as perhaps getting tired, getting weary, getting burned out, getting discouraged, and that certainly does happen to people, but there’s a lot more here than that.
Ek the preposition at the beginning, and then after that kakeō. That kakeō verb means to cause evil – to cause evil. Compounding it intensives it. The root kak is found in the word kakos. The word kakos, the noun or kakía means malice, malignity, wickedness, depravity, corruption. It means moral badness. The adverb form of that same root means wretchedly, wrongly, criminally. So, this root is not talking about something as simple and seemingly benign as getting tired, weary, discouraged. We’re really talking about giving into evil. That’s really the best way to understand it. Defecting – a cowardly defection. And the translation that we have here can easily omit the inherent sin in this defection.
Again, in the massive work in Kittel, which is lexicography at its maximum level, it comes down to the fact that this word means to act badly – to act badly. It is the opposite of doing what is right. It is the opposite of doing good. It is used that way, for example – familiar words, Galatians 6:9, “Let us not lose heart in doing doo, for in due time we shall reap if we do not do badly.” In other words, this losing heart, this growing weary is to defect from doing what is good. It is used in the same exact way in 2 Thessalonians chapter 3 and verse 13, “Do not grow weary in doing good.” That is do not cease doing good and begin to do badly. It is the opposite of doing good. Good, in 2 Thessalonians 3:13, is kalos the opposite of kakos which is bad.
So, this losing heart is a sinful defection. It is to cease doing good and to begin to do bad. Paul says, “I will not give in to this. Whether it is immorality, whether it is discouragement – any defection, whether it is cowardice, whether it is indifference, whether it is worldliness, whatever it is that diverts me from this ministry, I will not do that.
He says, in verse 1, “Therefore, since we have this ministry, as we received mercy, we do not give in.” We do not defect. We are not giving in to evil, cowardice, or defection; to immorality; to any kind of impropriety. That’s what he’s saying.
What prompts him here to say this? Well, his experience with the Corinthians had the greatest potential to drive him to sinful defection. If anybody could drive you out of the ministry, it was the Corinthians. They brought him deep discouragement, penetrating disappointment. Their sin, their shallowness, their rebellion, their criticism of him was heartbreaking. Their disaffection toward was a sad return for his love and sacrifice.
After nearly two years of labor there, there were massive issues of sin to which he wrote in 1 Corinthians, sins that destroyed purity and unity and worship, jealousies, incest, lawsuits, desecration of the Lord’s Table, gross immorality. So bad that Apollos, the preacher, would not stay there and would not return to Corinth, though Paul pleaded with him to do that. He wouldn’t do it. Corinth was the church that no one wanted to pastor. He wrote the two letters – 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians – to them. He also wrote two other letters that are referred to in those letters that are not in Scripture. They ate up years of his life and years and years of his heart. Whatever was remedied by the first letter fell short of the mark because false teachers came in and assaulted the church, tried to destroy Paul’s name, Paul’s reputation. There was an all-out attack on Paul’s character so that they could discredit Paul, have the people lose complete confidence in him, then replace him, draw the people’s confidence and teach lies.
When Paul knew this was happening, he made a visit to the church. It was a horrible visit. It could be referred to as the painful visit. They attacked him openly and publicly, and he left with a broken heart. After that, he wrote a severe letter to them. He was reluctant to even return there. He says that in chapter 2 of this letter, “I don’t know if I can come again. I don’t know if I can stand the pain again.” False teachers are gaining ground with his beloved church. This is really painful stuff. He has endured so much; this is enough to drive you out of the ministry. They blasted his character. They said he was in the ministry for money. They said he was in the ministry for favors from women. They said he lied about his accomplishments. They said he had no credentials from the apostles in Jerusalem. They slandered him in every way possible. They said he was an unimpressive speaker and an even more unimpressive person. They said horrible things about him.
This was so agonizing to him that in chapter 12 of 2 Corinthians, he calls it a messenger from Satan, a spear – a stake driven right through his flesh, and he prayed three times for the Lord to remove the agony of what the Corinthians were doing to him. He was so crushed – look at chapter 2, verse 12, “When I came to Troas for the gospel of Christ” – by the way, you need to know he’s on his way to meet Titus because he has sent Titus to Corinth with a letter, that letter I referred to. Titus is supposed to meet him and tell him how they responded to the letter. He comes to Troas to meet Titus, comes for the gospel of Christ – “A door is opened for me in the Lord.” There’s no church in Troas. He arrives, has a wide-open door. Verse 13, “I had no rest for my spirit, not finding Titus my brother; taking my leave of them, I went to Macedonia.” Boy, you know you’re in trouble when you are the great apostle, the greatest preacher in the world, the most significant servant of Christ there is, you walk into a city for the sake of the gospel, and the door is wide open for you to preach, and you turn your back and walk out because your spirit is so tortured. Tortured by the disaffection, the decline of this Corinthian church. They had ripped his heart out, and he had nothing left to give to anyone else.
In the seventh chapter of 2 Corinthians, and the fifth verse, “Even when we came into Macedonia,” he says, “our flesh had no rest” - he says, “I left Troas to come to Macedonia. I got to Macedonia, there was no rest” – “we were afflicted on every side: conflicts without, fears within.” And it wasn’t until Titus arrived, verse 6, “God, who comforts the depressed, comforted us by the coming of Titus.” Here is Paul in depression – depression. How severe was the depression? He was so crushed, so wounded, so stabbed by this thorn in the flesh driven through him, this messenger of Satan, demonically-induced false teachers ripping and shredding his church, he was so tortured by that that he lost all heart by ministry. He is really on the edge of when you quit. He is agonizing.
And it’s not just their – oh, no, it’s not just this. Go back to the beginning of 2 Corinthians for a moment, and let’s compound the assaults on this man. Verse 3 in this letter he writes, after his depression has been lifted some by the coming of Titus – Titus gave a good report, but the false teachers were still there, and he knew he had to write another letter to defend his own credibility and integrity or the people would then, again, follow the false teachers away from him, and that’s why he writes this letter.
But in this letter, he mounts up the suffering. “Blessed” – verse 3 of chapter 1 – “be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our afflictions so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer.” It’s all about suffering and trying to survive and draw on the comfort of God.
Verse 8, “We do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively beyond our strengths so that we despaired even of life; indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves in order that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead” - it got to the point where I was in such a peril of death that my only hope was in resurrection. God was going to have to raise me from the dead were so many enemies after my life.
“God” – verse 10 “who delivered us from so great a peril of death, will deliver us. It is He on whom we have set our hope. He will yet deliver us, you also joining in helping through your prayers.” He lived every day under assault from so many directions.
In chapter 4, verse 8, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but no forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake” – so many people wanted him dead; they were trailing him everywhere he went – “we do this that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death works in us, but life in you.”
In chapter 6 he says, in verse 4, “As servants of God, we are in much endurance, afflictions, hardships, distresses, beatings, imprisonments, tumults, labors, sleeplessness, hunger” – further down, verse 8 – “by glory and dishonor, by evil report and good report; regarded as deceivers and yet true: unknown and yet well-known, dying yet behold, we live; punished yet not put to death, sorrowful yet always rejoicing, poor yet making many rich, having nothing yet possessing all things.” Tough, hard life.
And then go to chapter 11, where he says in verse 23, “Are they servants of Christ?” – these false teachers, are they servants of Christ – sarcastically – “I far more.” How can you tell a true servant of Christ? Not by his successes but by his suffering. “I’ve been in far more labors” – verse 23 – “far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, robbers, countrymen, Gentiles, in the city, in the wilderness, on the sea, among false brethren. I’ve been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.” Unbelievable. This is his life, and above that, verse 28, “Beyond that, those external things” – and here you get to the heart of this man, there is the daily pressure upon me of concern for all the churches.” This is what really went after his heart. “Beyond all that” is what the Greek says, on top of all that, more importantly “there is this unrelenting concern for the churches.” And then he defines it, “Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern?” He’s so bound up with the church that the weakness of the church debilitates him, that the sin of the church crushes him. “This is my life.” How do you survive this? How do you survive all the external assaults and attacks? How do you survive all the internal disappointments of churches that you’ve poured your life into that turn on you? How do you get to that triumphant summit and stand there and say, “I’ve finished the course; I’ve kept the faith.” How do you rise to the point of saying, “We do not lose heart”? The editorial “we,” part of his humility. He spoke in plural terms. How do you get there? How do you survive this? How do you deal with what he talks about in chapter 12, as I referred to it earlier, a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan sent to buffet me? How do you deal with that?
Verse 10, how do you become content with weaknesses, insults, distresses, persecutions, difficulties? What do you hang onto? Well, you’ve got to have something outside yourself. Let’s go back to 2 Corinthians chapter 4 and find out what he says. And that’s just a glimpse, kind of the overview of what the man went through. I could give you the same approach biographically, step by step, but you get the picture. What do you turn to? What do you hold onto? What keeps you going so that you don’t quit, burn out, become discouraged, fall of into some sin? How can anybody possibly endure this?
You say, “Well, it’s by the grace of God.”
Of course it’s by the grace of God.
“It’s by the mercy of God.”
Of course it’s by the mercy of God.
“It’s by the power of God.”
Of course it’s by the power of God, but not apart from the servant of God. What did he cling to? I find in this passage some certainties – some certainties. In the uncertain circumstances, in the shifting disappointments of life, in the relentless temptations that flow at any believer, and especially at one who serves the Lord in this fashion, you’ve got to have some fixed points. You have to have some rock bed foundation. There are some things that he was absolutely certain about that gripped him and held him firm in the midst of these amazing storms that came against his life.
What I’m going to try to do is just give you a little bit of an insight into what these certainties were. I call them the certainties that drive an enduring ministry.
Number one, he was certain about the superiority of the new covenant. He was certain about the superiority of the new covenant. Now I’m going to get a little bit like the Puritans here and dive in and try to extract out of just a few words what I think is in this opening few verses. He was certain about the superiority of the new covenant.
Verse 1, Therefore, since we have this ministry” – emphasis on the “this.” Which ministry? This ministry. And just which ministry is this ministry? It’s the ministry that he’s been talking about. That’s what the “therefore” is there for, to take us back. The theme of chapter 3 is the new covenant. The new covenant. And it is this ministry to which he refers in verse 8, calling it the ministry of the Spirit. Calling it in verse 9 the ministry of righteousness. We’ve received this ministry.
Now understand he’s talking about the new covenant ministry in Jesus Christ, of which he said, in chapter 3, for example, verse 6, “It gives life.” He says, “As servants of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” The new covenant produces life. It also produces righteousness. That is why he says, in verse 9, “It is the ministry of righteousness.” The old covenant, the Law, could not produce life; it only killed. It could not produce righteousness; it was a ministry of condemnation. He says, “The new covenant, unlike the old, is permanent. It is permanent. The old covenant is represented in verse 7 as that which is on the face of Moses with a fading glory – with a fading glory.
Verse 10, “For indeed what had glory” – the old covenant had a glory of its own – “in this case has no glory on account of the glory that surpasses it.” Its glory is nothing like the glory of the new covenant. Verse 11, “For if that which fades away was with glory, much more that which remains is in glory.” So, he sees the glory of the new covenant. Remember, the old covenant was the law; it exposed men to sin and condemnation, and it could not save. The new covenant brings life, brings righteousness, and brings salvation. And it is the everlasting covenant. Thus, the new covenant brings hope. Verse 12, “Having therefore such a hope, we have boldness.” It is clear, he says, verses 13 and 14. The old covenant was all veiled; the new covenant removes the veil. Verse 14, “The veil is unlifted in the old covenant, but it is removed in Christ.” “The new covenant,” he further says, “is Christ-centered. The new covenant is empowered by the Spirit. Verse 17, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” It brings freedom from sin and death and punishment by the power of the Spirit. And finally, the new covenant is transforming, moving us from one level of glory to the next through the work of the Holy Spirit.
Now, you’ve got to understand this is a Jew. This is a fastidious Jew. This is a Jew. This is a Jew who is a Pharisee, who is loyal to the Law, and the old covenant to the max. This is a fanatic. This is one who lived under the bondage, under the horrible bondage of that old covenant and made the most of it, never coming to embrace new covenant salvation by grace alone through faith alone, never understanding the reality of the new covenant. This is a Jew not having a final sacrifice, not having one to whom he could turn as the lamb that finally and forever makes the offering that satisfies God so that no other offering could never – could ever be made. This is a Jew who is working under the massive load of law and guilt that came to those who were honest about their endeavors. And this is a Jew who, stumbling under the weight of this Law, fell on his face on the Damascus Road, this Pharisee, and under the sovereign power of God met Jesus Christ and was redeemed and was given the understanding of the new covenant redemption provided in Christ, and was in that moment liberated from the bondage of the Law under which he had lived his whole life, and under which he endeavored to bring everybody he could influence. He was converted in a staggering way.
The record of his conversion is given in the ninth chapter of Acts, and he rehearses it in a wonderful testimony. I like the one in Acts 26, but the spiritual work is in Philippians 3 that he describes what he used to be. He says, “I put my confidence in the flesh: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation Israel, tribe of Benjamin, Hebrew of the Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless. And I thought that was gain, but when I saw Christ, it was all loss,” he says, “it was manure when I found Christ. And I have suffered the loss of all things and count them rubbish in order that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.”
He had been saved, freed from the Law and its horrible bondage. This is the something better of Hebrews 11:39 and 40. This is the greater covenant, the superior covenant of the book of Hebrews. Here is a man who is saying, “Why would I be faithful to the end? Why would I persevere to the end? Why will I go through all the obstacles? Because we have this ministry.
He comprehends the glorious, unequaled reality of new covenant gospel ministry. This ministry of the Spirit, this ministry of life, this ministry of righteousness, this ministry of hope, this ministry of redemption and forgiveness. It is the wonder and the glory of the new covenant ministry, a privilege beyond all privileges. It has come in his lifetime, and he is an apostle of Jesus Christ, the great bearer of the new covenant. What privilege – privilege beyond all privileges. This most noble, this most glorious truth is given to him to preach. It is the highest calling on Earth. It is the great news from God concerning salvation. It dwarfs all other duties, all other acts, all other ministries, all other service, all other privileges. It is a staggering honor. And whatever the price might be to pay to fulfill it, the price is not nearly high enough to buy him out. Not nearly enough.
Think of it. Look at chapter 2 for a moment. Think of it, verse 14. Listen to what he says, “Thanks be to God, who always leads us in His triumph in Christ.” This is triumphant. You may have your problems, but we win in the end, and Christ wins. And in the meantime – look at this – he manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place. He is stunned by that, that a mere mortal – a mere mortal can be the instrument, the tool through which God “manifests the sweet aroma of the knowledge of himself in Christ in every place.” You’re talking about real eternal influence. “We are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one, an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life. Who’s adequate for these things?” No human being could have that much power.
If you’re a believer, your life is an aroma through which God gives the fragrance of Christ. To those who believe, it’s an aroma of life to life. To those who refuse, it’s of death to death, meaning that you are used by God to bring them life and compounding blessing in that life or, to those who reject your testimony, to bring death and compounded death because of greater responsibility since they have heard from you. Who’s adequate for this? What human being on this planet, on his own, has eternal influence on people? No one. He’s just stunned by such a life. Stunned by it.
Hey, I have the joy of this. I hear the testimony. Somebody hears me preach on a radio somewhere, and God graciously saves that person. Would you do anything – what would you do in your life that has that meaning?
People say to me, “When are you going to retire?”
What? What are you talking about? This isn’t a job; this is a calling from God. What would I retire from? What am I going to do? Whatever Patricia says all the time? That isn’t going to work. And I can’t fix anything. I just want to get to the end, to the top, and finish the course, because the course is so staggeringly glorious. How could you let go of it if you get it, if you understand it, if really immersed in it, bathed in it, saturated in it? What do you want your life to be, comfortable? Want to lick your wounds and feel sorry for yourself and have people commiserate with you? Want to wander off with some woman who’s not your wife for a moment’s pleasure and forfeit this? Staggering. If you get it, then you understand this, and you understand what drove Paul through everything.
That’s just one point; let me give you at least one more. You probably put some money in the offering; you deserve it. Point two - and I know I’m not moving through this chapter very fast – point two, he was certain of a second thing: he was certain of the superiority of the new covenant. Secondly, he was certain that such a calling is a mercy. Such a calling is a mercy.
How did we get here? How did I get to this? How did anybody, in the service of the Lord, get there? How did you get to be a Christian? Did you earn it? Did you achieve it? It is a mercy.
Back to verse 1, “Therefore, since we have this ministry, as we received mercy, we don’t lose heart.” It wasn’t just the glory of the new covenant, it is the staggering reality that it was given as a ministry to a sinner, and it is a mercy.
Paul writes to Timothy, in 1 Timothy 1, “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who as strengthened me, because He considered me faithful, putting me into ministry, even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. Yet I was shown mercy.”
“I am what I am,” said Paul, “by the grace of God.” It’s a mercy to be in ministry. It’s a mercy to be sustained in ministry. Listen to Philippians 2:27, talking about Epaphroditus, a dear companion to Paul. It says, “He was sick to the point of death, but God had mercy on him.” It is a mercy to be in ministry, and it is a mercy to have the physical health to sustain that ministry. My life and your life, as you serve the Lord, is a mercy. It’s a mercy to be in ministry. It’s a mercy to be enabled in ministry. It’s a mercy to be gifted in ministry, that is to say, something we don’t deserve. It’s a mercy to be given strength and health. Everything in my life is a mercy. My wife, my children, my friends, my church – it’s all a mercy. What do I deserve? Nothing.
You hear pastors sometimes say, “Well, that church doesn’t treat me the way I should be treated.”
I don’t think you really want to be treated the way you should be treated. New Testament, new covenant ministry is a mercy. It is a gift of grace. It is a favor to the utterly undeserving. It is given – it is given as a pity to us. God pities us for our worthlessness and gives us this ministry in spite of it so that we, in our worthlessness, may be blessed both in time and eternity.
I used to hear a lot about people having burnout in the ministry. You ever hear about that? People in the ministry having burnout? You know, that’s not related to work. I don’t know ditch diggers that have burnout. That’s not related to work. People who have burnout, who get discouraged, become despairing, end up like A. W. Pink, a recluse, not wanting to talk to a human being because they’re so angry and despondent. That isn’t a result of labor; that’s a result of unrealistic expectations not met.
So, if you go into ministry, and you think you’re there because you’ve earned it – you know, you went to school, and you graduated from seminary, and you do the work, and you have the skill, and you’re there because you have achieved a certain thing, and you expect a certain response - you’re a candidate for disappointment. I tell pastors all the time the best way to approach ministry is to start from the fact that you deserve absolutely nothing. I don’t. And whatever you get is a mercy. It’s a mercy.
This is why Paul is so reluctant to defend himself; even though he’s forced to do it in 2 Corinthians, he hates it worse than anything. He hates it. He would rather speak about his weaknesses. He would rather speak about his suffering and his failure.
And he says, in chapter 10, verse 17, “He who boasts, let him boast in the Lord. For not he who commends himself is approved, but he whom the Lord commends.” Ministry is never earned. It is a mercy of which we will never, ever, ever be worthy. He was driven by the superiority of the new covenant, and he was driven by the mercy of his calling.
Quickly a third one - just a couple of minute on this – a third certainty, he was certain about the need for a pure heart. He was certain about the need for a pure heart. Verse 2, “We have renounced the things hidden because of shame” – now stop right there; we don’t lose heart because we have renounced the secret life – “but” - is alla. A-L-L-A in English transliteration; it means on the other hand. “We do not lose heart” - we don’t fall into sin – “on the other hand, we renounce the things that are hidden because of shame.” We don’t fall into sin – listen – we don’t fall into moral iniquity, we don’t behave badly, we don’t defect, we don’t leave because we don’t cultivate sin on the inside.
James says, in James 1, that lust conceives on the inside and produces sin. And you’ve got to understand that this is a former Pharisee who is a well-trained, highly skilled hypocrite, a master at hidden shame, a whited sepulcher in the words of Jesus – white on the outside and dead men’s bones on the inside.
He says, “We renounced” - timeless aorist – “We renounced.” On the other hand, we don’t defect on the outside. We don’t abandon ministry; we don’t give up no matter how difficult it might be, no matter how great the temptations because we have renounced things hidden because of shame, meaning the secret sins that eat at character. If you’re going to have an enduring ministry, folks, I’ll tell you something: you’ve got to be dealing with sin in your own heart all the time. Time and truth go hand in hand; I say that all the time. Time and truth go hand in hand. Given enough time, the truth comes out.
People who endure triumphantly, who endure to the end, who breathe that rare oxygen at the peak of faithful ministry are those who have renounced hidden sins, things that he calls hidden things because of shame, meaning they’re too shameful to speak of them; you would never admit you did them; you would never confess to them because they’re too shameful. And shameful means ugly, disgraceful thoughts and actions that pollute the soul and lead eventually to the forfeiture of ministry.
And one of my favorite verses in this whole thing – and I’ll close with this – 2 Corinthians 1 – I love this, and I may develop this a little more when I talk about this in a couple of weeks back in Minneapolis. But in 2 Corinthians 1, verse 12 - this is such an interesting statement to me. Now remember, Paul’s being attacked by false teachers. They say, “He’s immoral; he’s a liar; he’s a deceiver.” They’ve just – they’re just giving him an all-out assault among the Corinthians, and the people are listening to it, some of them buying into it.
How’s he going to defend himself? Verse 12, “Our proud confidence is this” – where am I going to go to defend myself? – “Our proud confidence is this: the testimony of our conscience” – wow, conscience? What is he saying? He’s saying, “Say what you will about me, my conscience does not convict me. It does not.”
The highest court on Earth is your conscience, and it’s put there to accuse or excuse you by God, Romans 2. He says, “Say what you will, the testimony of our conscience is that in holiness and godly sincerity, not in fleshly wisdom, but in the grace of God we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially toward you.” Here is a man who won the battle on the inside, and his enemies could accuse him of anything and everything and his conscience would not agree. He could appeal to the highest court in the world, apart from the heavenly court, his own conscience and say, I stand before my own conscience in holiness and godly sincerity.
This becomes a testimony that he gives numbers of times in Acts 23:1. He says, in defending himself, looking at the Council, “Brethren, I have lived my life with a perfectly good conscience before God up to this day.” Let me tell you, the reason he could say what he said in 2 Timothy 4, “I’ve finished the course; I kept the faith,” is because he had lived with a perfectly good conscience. That is a conscience that did not accuse him relentlessly for his hidden, secret sin.
In the twenty-fourth chapter and sixteenth verse in Acts, “In view of this,” he said – in view of the coming resurrection and facing the Lord – “I always – I also,” he says, “do my best to maintain always a blameless conscience before God and before men.”
Enduring ministries come to people who win the spiritual battle with temptation and sin on the inside over the long haul. And in that letter, of course – or in that book of Acts – he is giving that testimony in worldly tribunals. They would all understand that.
Beloved, if you want to have an enduring ministry to the glory of Christ, don’t cultivate secret sin in your life or your conscience will torture you. And if you silence your conscience by overriding it continually, you will sear your conscience, turn it into scar tissue, and eventually it will not function, and your sin will become known.
Charles Wesley wrote a great hymn, one of the only ones I’ve ever found about the conscience. This is what he wrote, “I want a principle within of watchful godly fear/A sensibility of sin, a pain to feel it near/Help me the first approach to feel of pride or wrong desire/To catch the wandering of my will and clinch the kindling fire/From Thee that I no more may stray, no more Thy goodness grieve/Grant me with filial awe, I pray, the tender conscience give.” Wesley pled for a hypersensitive conscience. There’s no magic coming at the end of your life and enduring all that comes in ministry. It’s all about understanding the privilege of new covenant ministry. It’s all about understanding that you don’t deserve anything anyway, and all ministry is a mercy; and it’s about cultivating holiness in your heart.
Now, I think I have six more. But I don’t know if I can get through them all next week. I will; I promise. If not, when I get back from my trip. Let’s pray.
Father, we thank You for Your sustaining grace. We know that no matter how we struggle, You hold onto us securely forever. You never leave us or forsake us. You never allow us to be tempted above that we are able, and always, with the temptation, make a way of escape that we may be able to bear it.
Lord, we’re so grateful for those who’ve gone before us and those who surround us now who are faithful over the long haul, who have enduring ministry – both those who preach and teach the Word and those who serve humbly in the congregations around this world. We thank You for faithful believers, men and women who, to the very end, bring no reproach on Christ, who never lose their wonder over gospel privilege, over the mercy of ministry, and who always, always deal with sin on the inside.
Give us confessing hearts. Give us pure hearts. Give us the constant thrill of being privileged to carry this magnificent gospel in clay pots, as we shall see later in the passage. Thank You for teaching us again through the example of Paul and his words to us, in Christ’s name, amen.
This article is also available and sold as a booklet.