If there was ever a time that the Christian ministry needed to be defined and recovered, it is now. For there is much confusion in our day over the nature and the task of Christian ministry and of the Christian minister.
In many places, the American church has wandered off the old paths of Christian discipleship and courageous preaching and are now more concerned with felt needs, cultural accommodation and numerical success. And of course, the only sure way to recover biblical ministry—or in the case of the Plymouth Church of Christ — to continue biblical, faithful, gospel ministry—is to look to God’s Word for wisdom. For apart from God’s Word, we are only left with our own wisdom. And, to be left with that is to be left in a dangerous place, in a place where there surely will be drift from our biblical moorings.
Which is why I want to consider God’s words at the end of Colossians 1 and this sacred blueprint for Christian ministry. There are five points that emerge from the text: the gospel minister’s calling, the gospel minister’s suffering, the gospel minister’s message, the gospel minister’s aim and the gospel minister’s labor.
1. The Gospel Minister’s Calling
First of all, verse 25. Paul writes that he became “a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you to make the word of God fully known.” Paul begins this section by making it clear that his calling and stewardship were not from men but was ultimately from God. Let’s think for a few moments about this idea of gospel stewardship. Paul often described himself as a gospel steward. For example in 1 Corinthians 4:1 he describes himself and the apostles as “stewards of the mysteries of God.” In Ephesians 3:2, he refers to the “stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me.” What does Paul mean by this? Why is he describing himself in these terms?
Well, first century readers would have been more familiar with this language than we are today. You see, every noble household in antiquity would’ve had a household steward. That is someone who was hired to manage the household. The head of the family would literally entrust the stewardship and care of his entire household to this person. It was a tremendous responsibility. Now, Paul is saying that he and all gospel ministers are stewards of God’s household. That is, called, set apart and equipped by God to exercise spiritual oversight in his church and dispense the riches of God’s grace primarily through the proclamation of the word of God and the administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which are God’s appointed means of grace. One commentator describes the minister’s office as “administrator of spiritual riches.”
Again, Paul writes in verse 25 that he became a minister “according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you,” now look there, “to make the word of God fully known.” The stewardship from God is not for the minister’s selfish gain. It’s not for elevated status. No, it’s given to the minister for the sake of the church. What I am doing here this morning is for the sake of the church: to make the Word of God fully known. And, here, we have this clear and indisputable mandate for every Christian minister, namely to preach the whole counsel of God, to courageously preach all of Scripture, every book, every chapter, every verse, every glorious theme that is set forth in the Word of God. As Paul will remind us in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for the people of God unto every good work.” As Paul was saying his tearful farewells to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20, he declared, “I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all for I did not shrink back from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.” Beloved, he held nothing back. Paul ignored no doctrine, even the less culturally palatable ones like sin and judgment and hell. The divine stewardship that was given to Paul and the divine stewardship that is given to every gospel minister is first and foremost to make the Word of God fully known. That is what as a congregation we are to pray for. That is also what you ought to come expecting to hear every Lord’s Day morning: the Word of God. That is why Paul charges Timothy as he does in 2 Timothy 4:1-5…
I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom: Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
The gospel minister is called to preach the Word of God. By doing so, he feeds and nourishes Christ’s flock and, by way of extension, carefully shepherds the flock that Christ purchased with his very own blood. He does it whether in season or out of season, even if the church does not want to hear it.
2. The Gospel Minister’s Suffering
And that leads to our second point: the gospel minister’s suffering. Look at verse 24 with me. Paul writes, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake. And in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” My friends, remember that Paul is writing this letter from prison. His opening word “now” is referring to his present circumstances. But, it’s not his circumstances or his present suffering that’s controlling his attitude. No. Look what it says. It says Paul rejoices. How, how can it be that he rejoices in these circumstances? How can he possibly rejoice as a persecuted prisoner uncertain of his future, facing the possibility of execution? Paul can rejoice because he rejoices in the Lord. Circumstances may change. Suffering will enter our lives, but the Lord is unmoved and his promises are always sure. And he’s trusting in those promises knowing that his sufferings are being used by God in the advancement of the kingdom and the encouragement of his own soul. Beloved, God’s purposes aren’t hindered by our sufferings. On the contrary, his purposes are often accomplished through our sufferings.
Where do you turn when this kind of affliction comes into your life? Well, we turn to Christ, don’t we? That is what Paul did. Paul models that for us here, as a minister, in faith, relying on the promises of God, and he knew many thorny trials. He was stoned by his own countrymen, persecuted by Gentile Pagans, beaten and left for dead, flogged, shipwrecked, imprisoned, continually slandered and, not to mention, the burden of caring for all of the many new churches rested on his mind. But, Paul rejoiced in his sufferings for the sake of the church confident that God would ultimately use it for his own glory and for the blessing of the church.
Charles Simeon, who was a great 19th century Cambridge preacher, was for decades persecuted by a large portion of his own congregation. Let me explain this one a bit. In the old days, there were family pews and they had keys and they would lock them and unlock them so people could get in or out. Well, the congregation didn’t want Charles Simeon to be called to their church but the bishop had appointed him to this flock so a large portion of the congregation locked their pews and would not come to church. And people couldn’t sit in the pews. And so literally, for ten years, pews were locked and people sat in the aisles of the church. A friend wrote him in the latter years and said, “How did you make it through all of those difficult years receiving so much persecution even within your own congregation?” He said this, quote, “My dear brother, we must not mind a little suffering for Christ’s sake. When I am getting through a hedge and my head and shoulders are safely through I can bear the pricking of my legs. Let us rejoice in the remembrance that our holy head has surmounted all his suffering and triumphed over death. Let us follow him patiently. We shall soon be partakers of his victory.”
Paul trusted in the promises of God in the midst of his suffering. Suffering as a minister would also help Paul to identify with his suffering people, enabling him to show greater compassion and empathy to his people as he ministers to them. And this is true as it relates to every gospel minister. John Newton once commented that “God appoints his ministers to be sorely exercised both from without and within that they may sympathize with their flock and know in their own hearts the deceitfulness of sin, the infirmities of the flesh, and the way in which the Lord supports and bears all who trust in him.”
But, Paul’s suffering has an even deeper meaning—doesn’t it?—as it does for us all. Notice in verse 24 where Paul writes that through his suffering he is “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of the body his church.” Now, this in no way means that Christ’s atoning work is some way deficient, that his blood only partially redeemed us and that our suffering and the suffering of other Christians somehow helps pay for our redemption like some treasury of merits as the Roman Catholic church teaches. No, there’s nothing deficient in the sacrifice of Christ. Hebrews 10:12 says, “Christ offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins and he sat down at the right hand of God.” In other words, Christ’s sacrifice is complete and perfect.
So if it doesn’t mean that Christ’s suffering is somehow deficient, what does it mean? Well, Paul is referring here to a close and profound identification that Christ has with his people, a fruit of mystical union with Christ so that when they suffer somehow and in some way they participate in the sufferings of Christ. It is not meritorious, but it is real. It’s a consequence of the believer’s union with Christ. Do you remember the Lord’s words to Saul on the road to Damascus: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Our union with Christ grants us the privilege of participating in the sufferings of Christ and thus humbling us, making us more dependent on him, making us more like him, and putting us on that glorious pathway that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ walked, namely the pathway from suffering to glory, from humiliation to exaltation. And, this is the way that we should think of our suffering, our sharing in the sufferings of Christ in this life is the prelude of sharing in his glory in the next. For Paul writes in Romans 8:17 that “we suffer with him in order that we may be glorified with him.” And any suffering that we do in this life is but a light and momentary affliction of the glory that awaits us. So be encouraged, my dear suffering friend, whatever it is you’re going through this morning. Be encouraged, dear friends, whatever suffering you may face in the future, and there will be suffering. May you take heart. And, may you look to Christ…for suffering certainly deepens our love for Christ and weans us off of this passing age, this world.
3. The Gospel Minister’s Message
Thirdly, the gospel minister’s message. What should be the main message of the minister? What should be at the very core of his preaching ministry? Well, according to Paul, according to the apostles, it is the gospel of Jesus Christ and it has definition. It has content. This is the good news that Christ accomplished redemption for sinners by fulfilling all of the requirements of God’s law, the good news that Jesus satisfied God’s justice on the cross by bearing the very wrath of God in our stead, and by rising victoriously from the dead and one day returning to gather his people. The gospel is truth. It is a proposition. You are not the gospel, no offense; you are not the good news. I am not the gospel; I am not the good news. The good news is that Christ came and died for sinners. Look with me again in verse 25. Paul’s preaching this gospel. Paul writes that a stewardship was given to him from God in order to make the word of God fully known “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery which is Christ in you the hope of glory. Him we proclaim.”
Notice what he says: “Him we proclaim.” Not moralism we proclaim. Not politics we proclaim. Not therapy we proclaim. Not cultural transformation we proclaim. Not ourselves we proclaim. But him! Him we proclaim! Jesus Christ, the Savior of sinners, the eternal Son of God who took on human flesh who lived a perfect life for thirty-three years under the law and who died on the cross. Him we proclaim. The one that bled and died for our sins and who rose victoriously from the dead. Him we proclaim. Summing up his preaching ministry to the Corinthians, Paul wrote this, “And when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you but Jesus Christ and him crucified.” It’s the offense of the cross that he preached, that the apostles preached. Paul preached the mystery hidden for ages now realized in Jesus Christ, the mystery that Gentiles too would be partakers of this glory, the riches of the glory of Christ and by engrafted into the covenant people of God that they, too, would be filled with the Holy Spirit, that holy deposit, that guarantee of future glory that they too would have the hope of glory at the return of Christ.
Charles Spurgeon once told his students that “we cannot afford to utter pretty nothings in our preaching.” Pretty nothings. He says, “This is the sum. My brethren, preach Christ always and evermore. He is the whole gospel. His person, offices and word must be our one great all comprehending theme. We are not called to preach philosophy and metaphysics, but the simple gospel. Man’s fall, his need of a new birth, forgiveness through an atonement and salvation as a result of faith. These are our battle ax and weapons of war.”
4. The Gospel Minister’s Aim
And, this brings us, fourthly, to the minister’s aim. Did you notice that the minister’s aim in verse 28 is not simply to make converts or to gain church members. No, it is to make mature disciples. Once again, Paul states, “Him we proclaim warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” That’s the goal, beloved. That’s the goal: to make everyone mature in Christ from youngest to oldest.
Paul’s aim in ministry is not simply to point people back to their justification without any real concern for their growth and godliness. No, his aim is to point people to Christ alone for their redemption and to teach them to walk according to his commands. He does not say that you must do these things in order to be a Christian. He says do these things because you are a Christian saved by grace through faith in him.
The gospel minister must aim for the spiritual maturity of everyone. Everyone. Did you notice this word that’s repeated in verse 28? Three times he repeats the word “everyone.” It’s emphatic here in this verse. Spiritual growth and maturity, beloved, are not for some elite portion of the congregation. It is my prayer that every one of you will grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. First and foremost, that you will believe the gospel and be saved. But, then, to grow in Him.
The gospel minister therefore aims for the spiritual maturity of every soul within the ranks of the church. He is called to courageously warn his flock of the dangers of the trinity of evil: the world, the flesh and the devil. Notice that the gospel has both warnings and instruction and this what will come from this pulpit to you. It is gospel ministry at its very core. It is for this that the gospel minister toils and struggles.
5. The Gospel Minister’s Labor
And, here, we come to our final point: the gospel minister’s labor. Look with me, finally, at verse 29. “For this I toil,” he says, “struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.”
Here is how Paul carries out his gospel stewardship. Here is how he able to rejoice in his sufferings. Here is how he is able to boldly and faithfully proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ from all of Scripture. Here is how he makes disciples and seeks everyone’s maturity and perfection in Christ. He toils and struggles for it in the strength of Christ. How can any minister do these things? Who is sufficient for these things? It’s the strength of Christ that fuels the ministry. You see that Paul says elsewhere that he can “do all things through Christ who strengthens him.” Let us notice here also that Paul is a hard worker. He’s a hard worker for the sake of the church. No one can accuse him of being a lazy country parson or a worldling in minister’s dress. The Greek verb that Paul employs here is agonidzomai. It’s where we get the English word “agonize.” Paul is agonizing in the ministry. He is toiling. He’s laboring and agonizing to the point of exhaustion over the spiritual condition of God’s people, preaching the Word, shepherding God’s people, praying for them, loving them at times to sheer exhaustion.
Charle Spurgeon was once told, “You need to get some rest, sir.” And he said, “I will rest in heaven.” This should be the heart of every minister to labor and toil over the flock.
Paul’s toilsome labor and suffering for the sake of the church was motivated and fueled by his love for Christ. To the Corinthians he wrote, “By the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me” (1 Cor. 15:10). God gave Paul the strength to work hard at his ministry. Galatians 2:20 really sums up the two components in this human divine action: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me.”
What is true of the apostle and the minister is true of every man and woman who bears the name of Christ. We have not entered into the business of evangelizing the city or the world until we have put our own lives into the business. What do you think God is calling you to do in ministry? In a world where everything revolves around yourself — PROTECT yourself, PROMOTE yourself, COMFORT yourself, and TAKE CARE of yourself —Christ comes into our lives and says CRUCIFY YOURSELVES!
Paul’s ministerial drive is a model for us all, is it not? We will never have an authentic, apostolic ministry unless we are willing to work to the point of exhaustion. Dear friends, the ministry of the gospel is a glorious thing. But we do not have to be an apostle or a reformer or a preacher to do it.
Some years ago a woman in Africa became a Christian. Being filled with gratitude, she decided to do something for Christ. She was blind, uneducated, and seventy years of age. She came to a Christian missionary with her French Bible and asked him to underline John 3:16 in red ink. Mystified, the missionary watched her as she took her Bible and sat in front of a boys’ school in the afternoon. When school dismissed, she would call a boy or two over and ask them if they knew French. When they proudly responded that they did, she would say, “Please read the passage underlined in red.” When they did, she would ask, “Do you know what this means?” And she would tell them about Christ. The missionary says that over the years, twenty-four young men became preachers due to her work.
May God give our labors such fruit.