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Obviously, this is not only the culmination of a life to this point, and particularly in education, but it is the commencement of a ministry for men who are fully equipped. All that has come before should guarantee the right outcome. The gospel of grace has penetrated the darkness in every heart of our graduates. They have been brought to salvation. They have been in the process of being sanctified, set apart from sin to God. They have been buried for years in the Scripture so that it dwells richly within them.
And it would be our hope and our prayer that all that has been invested up to this point by the Lord Himself in their lives and by the other influences that have come through family and parents and pastors and churches and friends - and now this dynamic influence of study here at The Master’s Seminary - would guarantee a lasting, triumphant life of ministry.
We would love to think - looking ahead down the years from now, if our Lord doesn’t come sooner - that each of these men would be able to echo what we heard read from the apostle Paul. “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 only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing.”
My prayer for these men is that they will fight the good fight, triumphantly; they will finish the course victoriously; and they will keep the faith faithfully. That’s my prayer. So much has been invested, but up to now it’s all preparation and prologue to the realities that await these men. When Paul came to the end of his life, as we know from the very testimony that he gives in the final chapter of 2 Timothy, his last New Testament book, it was in reality a triumphant end. He was really standing on the summit of loyalty to his Lord, and he was bloody but unbowed.
However, there were no crowds hailing his achievement. In fact, all who were in Asia, he said, had forsaken him. Timothy, his replacement, is in danger of defecting from the ministry. His final words, as he closes out this book, are sad words. “Make every effort to come to me soon; for Demas, having loved this present world has deserted me. Only Luke is with me. Pick up Mark and bring him, for he is useful to me. When you come, bring the cloak which I left at Troas and the books, especially the parchments. Alexander the coppersmith did me much harm. 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.”
When you look at that, it’s a sad ending. All who are in Asia have forsaken you? Demas, a close companion, has deserted you? You only have one present friend in Luke? You don’t have the books and the parchments that are such a treasure to you? You’re cold because your cloak is in another place? No one was there to defend you at your trial? We could conclude from this that he didn’t finish strong and he didn’t end well, because he had such faithful, supportive friends. They were minimal.
It wasn’t that he was lifted up by strong accountability partners. It wasn’t that he was undergirded by a mass of loyal followers infusing courage into him as he faced his trials. His life was hard. His ministry was offensive. His enemies were many. So how did he come to this triumphant end with all of that working against him? I believe the answer to that is found in his second letter to the Corinthians, and I want to comment on a portion of it, 2 Corinthians chapter 4.
In this chapter, really the whole chapter, the apostle identifies certainties that anchored him. It’s probably about a dozen years earlier that he recites these things that steeled him to a triumphant end. Twice in this passage, he says this: “We do not lose heart,” verse 1. Then toward the end in verse 16, “We do not lose heart.” The verb that is used there, egkakeō, has to do with malice, evil, wickedness, depravity. What he’s really saying is: “We don’t give in to evil. We don’t give in to temptation and sin. We don’t collapse into sinful defection. We don’t discredit the Lord and His ministry. We don’t fail in being a righteous model and a virtuous example.” That’s a triumphant statement to say, “We do not lose heart. We do not defect.”
So how did he endure? How did he endure in the years from when he said that to the end of his life, when an axe head flashed in the sun and severed his head from his body? Well, he lived on certainties, absolutes, and they are listed in this chapter. I want to just refer them to you. The chapter begins with these words: “Therefore, since we have this ministry.” I want to stop there.
“Therefore” points you back to what he had said previously. That would take you back to chapter 3, and chapter 3, as you students know, is all about the New Covenant. And this is the first anchor that Paul had that kept him faithful, the certainty of the superiority of the New Covenant. “This ministry,” meaning the New Covenant. The New Covenant was everything to him. He was that rare, redeemed, older brother depicted in Luke 15. He was a Hebrew of the Hebrews. He was by tradition a zealous Jew.
Externally, in regard to the Law, he was blameless. He was a Pharisee of the Pharisees, but when he met Christ, he looked back at his former religion and said it is rubbish, garbage when compared to the New Covenant. He begins the declaration of the certainties that anchored him by saying, “We have this ministry,” the ministry he has just defined in chapter 3 as the New Covenant.
The Old Covenant brought death, he said. The New Covenant gives life. The Old Covenant stimulated sin. The New Covenant grants righteousness. The Old Covenant is temporary. The New Covenant is permanent. The Old Covenant offers no hope. The New Covenant provides everlasting hope. The Old Covenant is veiled. The New Covenant is clear. The Old Covenant is centered on ceremony. The New Covenant is centered on Christ. The Old Covenant depends upon the will of man. The New Covenant is empowered by the Holy Spirit. The Old Covenant is superficial. The New Covenant is internally transforming.
The glory of the New Covenant captured his soul, and he knew well the weaknesses of the Old. He never got over the majesty and the glory and the wonder of the New Covenant. The highest calling that any human being could ever have would be to be a minister of the New Covenant. It dwarfs all other work, all other responsibility, all other professions. It is the most noble of all enterprises in the world. And he never lost the wonder of that privilege. I think no matter what came at him in life, no matter how difficult it was, he was always elevated above everything by the staggering glories of the New Covenant of which he was a living part.
I just suggest to you, men, that if you ever lose the sense of the wonder and majesty and elevation and singularity and uniqueness of the New Covenant, then you’ve lost one of the anchors to your own enduring faithfulness. You should live your whole life with an overwhelming sense of wonder that there is a New Covenant, you’re in it, and you’re allowed to preach it.
There’s a second certainty that this passage declares to us in very simple language. Verse 1, “Therefore, since we have this ministry, as we received mercy, we do not lose heart.” The second certainty is he saw ministry as a mercy. He saw ministry as a mercy. What do we mean by that? That it’s undeserved. Ministry is not a right, and we don’t deserve to be in this ministry. We don’t deserve to be preachers of the New Covenant. We don’t deserve to belong to God and Christ. We don’t deserve to be participants in the New Covenant, let alone preachers of the New Covenant. Paul recites that in the wondrous words of 1 Timothy chapter 1 where he talks about himself as a murderer and a blasphemer. And then he says, “But I received mercy,” “mercy.”
Let me just warn you. If you go into ministry thinking you deserve something, you have missed the point. We deserve nothing. Salvation is a mercy. Our calling is a mercy. Our ministry is a mercy. It is a kind gift to unworthy sinners. We need to feel the way Isaiah felt. Don’t expect anything from me. “I am a man of unclean lips.” Always unworthy, always humbled by that unworthiness, and even if your ministry is a small one by relative measures, it is a mercy that even at that level we don’t deserve.
There’s a third certainty that held Paul captive to Christ to the end. In verse 2 he says, “We have renounced the things hidden because of shame.” This was the certainty of the need for a pure heart. What does he mean, “We have renounced the things hidden because of shame”? He means, “I don’t have a secret life. I don’t have a life that if anybody knew about it, would shame me, shame Christ, shame the church. I have renounced all that is hidden, all that is secret. All secret sin, all hidden vice, all thoughts of impurity, all acts of impurity, I’ve set them aside.”
And when he was confronted and accused of that, you remember in 1 Corinthians 1:12, he said, “I have a clear conscience. My conscience does not accuse me. My conscience tells me that in faithfulness and humility and righteousness, I have served God among you.” You win the battle in the heart, first of all.
There’s a fourth certainty that comes out in verse 2 again. “Not walking in craftiness or adulterating the word of God.” This is the certainty of the responsibility to preach the Word accurately, not walking in panourgia. Literally, panourgia means “all work,” doing anything to gain ground that you want to gain. This is essentially being a compromiser, being unscrupulous, trying to fit in, trying to adapt. As a result of that, you wind up adulterating the Word of God in your effort to accommodate. This is the favorite sport of false teachers, the favorite sport of false prophets - to twist Scripture for their own gain.
Back in chapter 2, verse 17, he says, “We’re not like many peddling the word of God.” Hucksters, conmen, charlatans, frauds, using the Word of God deceptively to hook people and manipulate them for their own personal ends. “Adulterating” simply means “to tamper with.” We don’t tamper with the truth, but on the other hand, “by,” he says, “the manifestation of truth” – “the truth,” definite article - “commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.” Clear exposition; proclamation of divine revelation. And “that commends us to every man’s conscience.”
How does the disclosure of divine truth recommend itself to the enemies of truth? The truth of the Word of God strikes the conscience. We have an ally in the unregenerate. We have an ally in those that are without God and without Christ. And that ally is the law of God written in the heart. The conscience is triggered by that law when that law confronts behavior. When we are faithful to proclaim the truth rather than adulterate the Word, twist the Word, pervert the Word, tamper with the Word in order to accommodate ourselves to people. When we rather than that are willing to proclaim the truth right at every man, there is a receptor in every human being, and that is the law of God in the heart. That’s our ally in the human heart, and we strike the conscience.
Charles Hodge said, “Paul knew that the truth had such a self-evidencing power that even where it was rejected and hated, it still commended itself to the conscience as true,” “as true.” Paul in Romans 1 says, “Even though men know the judgment coming on their sins, they still do them.” There were certainties that made Paul’s ministry lasting - certainty of the glory of the New Covenant, the certainty of the mercy that ministry is, the certainty of personal purity, and the certainty of the responsibility to handle accurately the Word of God.
There’s a fifth certainty, and it takes a few verses for him to unload this. It is the certainty - very important - that results depend on God. Results depend on God. Listen to these words: “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake. For God who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”
This is a critical thing to understand. No matter how well you preach the gospel, you are preaching to people who are in darkness, who are in double darkness. They’re in darkness by the very fact that they inherited their humanity. They’re in darkness by a pattern of sinful behavior. They’re in darkness because the darkness is compounded by Satan himself. You are speaking to the people who are blind and dead. If your gospel is veiled, if they don’t understand it, if it doesn’t penetrate, it doesn’t get through, it is because of their condition.
This is also illustrated in the soils parable, isn’t it? It’s the state of the soil, not the skill of the sower. But when a heart opens up, it is just like creation. It was God who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” in Genesis, and the light came into existence. And it is God who is the, “One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”
Salvation is a divine miracle. It is sovereign miracle. All results belong to God. Spiritual life is a creative miracle, done by God. If you’re faithful to proclaim the truth, that’s as far as you can go. Only God can save the soul.
Two more certainties. Number six, Paul was certain about his own insignificance. He was certain about his own insignificance. “But we have this treasure,” meaning the gospel. “We have this treasure in clay pots so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves.” The shining glory of God in the revelation, the incarnation of Jesus Christ, that glorious reality, that glorious truth, that treasure is packaged in us. We’re described here as “clay pots,” “earthen vessels.”
Well, what is that intended to convey? Well, a clay pot is a clay pot - fragile, frail, feeble, flawed, replaceable, homely or ugly, and that is how we have to see ourselves. We are ostrakinos - cheap, ugly, breakable, replaceable “clay pots.” That is who we are, and in us has been deposited the most glorious treasure in the universe.
The enemies of Martin Luther called him a privy pot, and he agreed. He was nothing more. Paul speaks about that when he contrasts vessels unto honor and dishonor in writing to Timothy. “Vessels unto honor” are used to serve the food. “Vessels unto dishonor” are what you take the waste away with. We are wastebaskets, in a sense. Compared to the glory of the gospel treasure that is in us, we are like a trash bin. The amazing reality is this: that our weakness and our smallness and our insignificance does not prove fatal to the work of the gospel. It is the very means which God has chosen.
Then one final certainty. The certainty of the benefit of suffering. “We’re afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so 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 that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death works in us, but life in you.”
It is true the more you suffer, the more powerful you can become because - as Paul says in 2 Corinthians, in that marvelous passage in chapter 12 - “His strength is made perfect in our weakness,” “in our weakness.” Suffering reveals how much like Christ you are, and when you accept suffering and the perfecting work that suffering brings, you are like your Savior.
Paul lived in these certainties. This was his life, and all of these certainties were capped off in how he ends the chapter, the certainty of eternal glory where he says, “We do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, the things which are not seen are eternal.”
It’s the eternal perspective. It’s the eternal vision, the eternal view, the anticipation of what the Puritans used to call - and others - the beatific vision, the ultimate blessing of being face-to-face with Christ. Men, it can be a great biography. Your story can be a glorious story of enduring faithfulness, but you’re going to need to be anchored to these very certainties. I submit to you that it would do well for you to memorize the fourth chapter of 2 Corinthians. Make it your own, live in it, think about it, meditate on it, and cry out to God to sustain you in faithfulness.
Father, we thank You that we have had a few moments tonight to think on the revelation that You have given us through the personal testimony of Paul - the truth of which extends to all of us, not just ministers, not just preachers of the Word, but all of us as believers. These are the certainties that anchor our lives in enduring faithfulness to You.
I pray for these men, that there may come a day when they can say in triumph, even if they’re alone, even if they’re isolated, even if there’s no recognition, even if there’s no fanfare, even if there’s not a special event to commemorate their faithfulness, but they can say before you, “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the course. I have kept [guarded] the faith.” And henceforth, there will be for them a crown of righteousness. This is my prayer for them. For the glory of our Lord we ask, amen.