In writing to the Corinthian church, Paul taught that everyone who is called to Christ is also called to serve. All ministry is the Lord’s work: God assigns the tasks and uniquely gifts a variety of individuals to work together to fulfill His plan, for His glory. Noting that great opposition often accompanies effective ministry, Alistair Begg implores us to serve God wherever He has placed us, doing whatever He has given us to do.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to turn with me once again to 1 Corinthians 16. Now, let’s turn to the Lord of the Word before we turn to the Word of the Lord:
Make the Book live to me, O Lord,
Show me thyself within thy Word,
Show me myself and show me my Savior,
And make the Book live to me.
As we move to the close of our studies here in 1 Corinthians, and as Paul, obviously, draws his letter to a close, it’s good for us to remind ourselves that Paul was not writing a letter which was primarily to be dealt with in the way in which we’re dealing with it, but he was writing a letter to a real group of people, living at a real point in time and a real place in time—moms and dads, children, singles, students, artisans, athletes, dealing with the rough and tumble of their days and trying to make their journey through life in much the same way that each of us is doing this morning. And although they were Corinth and we are Cleveland, although that was AD-something and we are almost the year 2000, separated both by geography and by history, the principles and the practical elements to which he addresses himself here in these closing verses are as vitally important for us this morning as they were for the real and ordinary people to whom they were addressed in the first place.
Paul, in providing these personal requests and practical statements as he draws his letter to a close, provides for us, somewhat inadvertently, a perspective on ministry itself. Indeed, I called our study this morning “A Pauline Perspective on Ministry.” That may seem like a little bit of a mouthful for some. Essentially, Paul gives us an insight into what he’s doing, why he’s doing it, and how he’s doing it.
The word ministry may variously be translated “service.” And he has been called to service, as have all who have been called to Christ. It is not that some are called to Christ and then go on to service, but it is that to be called by Christ is to be called to service. So we don’t invite some to be the servants and others to be the served, but all of us are called to be the servants. Jesus, in Matthew 4, in calling the disciples who were working along the shores of Galilee, says to them in the midst of their preoccupations and their normal routine and day, he says, “Follow me … and I will make you fishers of men.” In other words, “Follow me, I’ve got a job for you to do; there is something in which I desire for you to be involved.”
Jesus called people to himself, and he called them to serve. And whether we’re called to serve in the capacity of an elder or an evangelist or a pastor-teacher, or whether we’re called to a whole variety of forms of service within the body of Christ, we are all called to service. And any distinction between those who are “full-time servants” and those who are “lay servants”—from the word laos in Greek, from which we get “lay” ministry—the distinction is not a distinction of value; it is always a distinction of function. And service is where it’s at. Therefore, it’s good for us to get the apostle’s perspective on Christian service or ministry.
Service in the Bible’s terms is not a preliminary or a pathway to greatness; service is greatness. Jesus, in Mark chapter 10, says, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” We sometimes, in being waited on in a restaurant somewhere, will ask our waitress or our waiter, “And what is it that you do when you’re not here?” or “I presume you’re a student; I presume you’re going to have another job, or you have another job, or you’re going to another one.” And every so often, we’re struck by the fact that the person says, “Well, actually, no; this is my job. This is my life, this is my livelihood.” They may even say, “This is my calling.” And in that sense, they express accurately the New Testament’s perspective on ministry.
Ministry in the body of Christ, to the body of Christ, through the body of Christ, is not something that we do in the hope that we may be able eventually to step up a few rungs, in the way that is often true in our office or our commerce or in our academic circles: “If only I can get another few thousand or another few rungs up this ladder, then I won’t have to do anything. Then I’ll get to the top, when everybody does stuff for me. Then I’ll be a great person, and people will know how great I am because of all the folks who serve me.” “No,” says Jesus, “that’s the way the pagans view it.” He says, “I want you to know that he who wants to be great among you should first become the servant of all. And it will be in that expression of service that greatness will be realized.”
Now, Paul clearly understood this. Christian ministry, or Christian service, is ultimately nothing more than the ministry of the risen Lord Jesus among and through his people. Galatians 2:20 is a classic summary of this principle, where the apostle says, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. [And] the life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” And as you take those verses there and look at them, the principle is this: He—namely, Jesus—gave his life for me, that he in turn might take my life from me—“I have been crucified with Christ”—that he then may live his life through me—service.
Now, in wrestling with these verses this week—and there are some verses to which one turns that are immediately obvious, in terms of where one is going. I looked at these for a long time without a great deal of encouragement, I must say. And in my process, which is to think myself empty before I read myself full, I had thought myself empty with great speed, I can assure you. And yet, as the week went on, I decided that it would be true to the text and encouraging for God’s people to summarize these eight verses by considering these three simple factors: in relationship to a Pauline perspective on ministry or service, number one, that we would understand that it is the Lord’s work; secondly, that he uses a variety of people to accomplish it; and thirdly, that there is no ideal place in which to serve him. We’ll notice each of these in turn.
First of all, then, noticing that this work in which we engage, of service and of ministry, is the Lord’s work. Now, this comes out clearly in verse 10, where in referring to Timothy and what Timothy is doing, he says of him, “He is carrying on the work of the Lord, just as I am.” Ergon Kuriou ergazetai: “Works of the Lord he works.” That’s what it says. If you want to know what he’s doing, he is not establishing his name, he is not building a ministry—the Timothy Ministry—he is not seeking to become notorious. He is working the work of the Lord. Now, we saw this in verse 58 of the previous chapter: “Give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord.”
Now, broadly speaking, the work of the Lord is anything to which we might lay our hands as Christians—both within the body of Christ and in seeking to minister to those beyond the body of Christ. It is, as we noted before in Colossians 3, that whatever we do, in word or in deed, we should do it all to the glory of the Lord Jesus. That that when we do our work, we should be working, as it were, in serving the Lord and not, ultimately, in serving men: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, [and] not for men.” And that comprehensive phrase “whatever you do” is there purposefully. And to that we will return.
The “whatever” of Christian service is matched by the particular element of being involved in the work of the good news itself—namely, in seeking to position ourselves in such a way that we might be effectively involved in the activities of the gospel. Now, that simply means that we might recognize that we were born to reproduce, that we were born to be involved in seeing unbelieving people become committed followers of Jesus Christ.
Some years ago, Alan Redpath, quoting statistics that he had gleaned from the average American congregation, said that of all those whose names appear on the lists of congregations in the United States, 5 percent of them don’t exist, 10 percent of them can’t be found, 25 percent of them never attend, 50 percent of them attend only once on a Sunday, 75 percent are never present for corporate prayer, 90 percent have no family devotions, and 95 percent never lead another person to faith in Jesus Christ. So some of us are hiding behind the “whatever” and missing the fact that we are each uniquely called and appointed to the specific task of allowing the light and the truth and the power of Jesus so to invade and fill our lives that, in turn, men and women might encounter that same light and truth and power—in the way in which we do our jobs, in the way in which we fulfill our responsibilities, and in the way in which we answer their questions when they ask of us a reason for the hope that is within us.
Now, when Paul viewed the Corinthians themselves, he actually saw them in relationship to the Lord’s work. If you turn back to chapter 9 and look at it, his description of these people to whom he writes is as follows: the final sentence of verse , he says to them, “Are you not the result of my work in the Lord?” The very existence of the church in Corinth was due to the fact that the apostle was doing the Lord’s work. He was not irrelevant, nor was he preeminent. He was purposefully appointed to a specific responsibility, in the way in which God plans to purposefully appoint each one whom he calls to himself within the framework of his family to specific and particular responsibilities in terms of Christian ministry and of service. And immediately this morning, you ought to be asking yourself the question, as we look at the Scriptures together, “So where am I in relation to the particular and specific tasks of shining out and declaring the truth of the gospel, as it relates to Parkside Church and my involvement here? If I understand that I have been called not simply to sit, not simply to absorb, not simply to learn, but I’ve been called to grow and to go, to fish and to feed, then where am I in this equation this morning?” The Corinthians were the product of the work of the Lord through God’s servant.
Now, Paul was in no question that it was the Lord’s work. And if you turn back another few chapters to chapter 3, you turn to probably the classic statement of this truth that is given to us in this first letter to Corinth. There was a problem in Corinth; indeed, there were a whole host of problems in Corinth, and one of them was that they were stuck on personalities. And they’d begun to gather themselves in little groups around different elements of the pastoral team that was ministering there. And somebody was saying, “You know, I am really of Apollos; he’s my main man.” And someone else said, “Well, you know, I much prefer Paul.” And someone else said, “You know, I am of Cephas.” It wasn’t that Apollos was trying to get a group, or Paul was trying to get a group; it was that these people naturally had an affinity in this way, for whatever reason, and as a result there was division, there was worldliness, there was carnality, there was fleshliness. It was all very childish.
And in addressing this, look at what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:5. He says, “What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul?” The question is in the neuter; it’s not in the masculine. He doesn’t say, “Who are we?” He says, “What are we?” The issue is not who; the issue is what. We live in a world that is preoccupied with who. The evangelical world is preoccupied with who. God is interested in what, first of all. “What is Apollos? What is Paul?” Answer: “[They’re] only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord … assigned to each his task.”
So they don’t have any reason to glory in what they did. Says Paul for himself, “All I was doing was being obedient to Jesus. He told me that I was a chosen instrument to bear his name before the Gentiles, and as soon as I understood that, I said, ‘Well, I’d better go and bear his name before the Gentiles.’ So I don’t have any reason to be particularly excited about the fact that all of you people have come to faith in Jesus Christ. I’ve got reason to be discouraged that I’ve done such a job among you that there’s all this fighting and quarreling and immorality and chaos. But I know this: the only reason I did what I did is because the Lord assigned my task. And furthermore,” he said, “the same is true of Apollos. I got the job of planting,” he said, “Apollos got the job of watering.”
Isn’t that the way you divvy it up around your house? Or the way your wife wishes you would divvy it up around the house? That it would be some form of division of labor—one would plant and the other would water? Did you plant the plants? And did you walk up and down and go, “I planted these.” Does your wife walk up and down and go, “Yeah, but that’s irrelevant; I watered these”? And you say, “Yeah, but if I hadn’t planted them, you couldn’t water them.” And she says, “Yeah, but if I didn’t water them, they’d shrivel up,” and so it goes on. And then you both realize that if God didn’t make them grow, you’d both be standing looking at nothing. That’s the point here. Calvin says the key to usefulness in the kingdom of God begins with self-forgetfulness. Do you want to be useful in the kingdom? Forget yourself. You want to be effective in ministry? Die to yourself. It’s hard. Well-nigh impossible without the Spirit’s enabling.
So he says, “[Here’s the deal:] I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.” And then he gives us these three statements. Alright, let me summarize them as three statements.
Notice this, in verse 5: God gave the ministry. He assigned the task. So there’s no point in walking around, preening our feathers about the task: “Do you know who I am, and do you know what I do?” So what? The only reason you do what you do is ’cause God said you could do it, and up until now, he still lets you do it. God gave you the task.
Secondly, verse 6, God gives the growth. “Do you know how many people are now in Corinth?” Paul might have been prepared to say. And then he would have stopped himself and said, “No, I shouldn’t say that. ’Cause, after all, I was only a servant in his hands, and nothing would have happened unless God gave the growth.”
And notice in verse 8, it is God who gives the rewards: “The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own success.” Do you have your Bible open? Your head should have gone like that when I said “success,” ’cause you know it can’t be “success.” It isn’t “success.” “Each [one] will be rewarded according to his own labor.” You’re going to get a reward for being a faithful laborer, not a successful laborer. People around you may not think you’re as successful as you should be. You may not even think you’re as successful as you might be. God’s rewards are not gonna be given on the basis of success. They’re gonna be given on the basis of faithfulness. He gave the task, he made it grow, he gives the rewards.
So the ministry to which we’re all called and in which we’re all involved, then, is the Lord’s ministry, the Lord’s service, the Lord’s work.
Second principle to notice is that the Lord Jesus uses a variety of people to accomplish his work. Paul understood this. We’re going to later on notice the impact of a transformed family, down there in verse 15—can’t wait to get to it. We’re also going to look at these three characters in verse 17: Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus. What did they look like? We won’t know, but we can tell what they did. Paul says, “They refreshed my spirit.” In other words, these guys were important in his ministry.
He wasn’t a one-man show, he wasn’t a one-man band. One-man bands are no longer particularly compelling. I’ve noticed in Glasgow, there used to be a whole host of one-man bands when I was a boy—guys who had drums strapped to all manners and parts of their body, and when they did this, it did that and that, and this and that. And they used to stand and contort themselves and make all manner of sounds. And you couldn’t help but say, “Goodness gracious, is there nothing this fellow can’t do?”
The body of Christ is a peculiar place for producing one-man bands. Paul says, “I’m not a one-man band. The Lord’s servant mustn’t be a one-man band.” He says, “I’m keen that Apollos comes.” That proves that he’s not a one-man band. He knew the territorialism within the church. He knew there was a wee group that favored Apollos. If he was looking out for his own interests, selfishly, he’d make sure that Apollos never went back to Corinth, because when Apollos went back to Corinth, maybe they would like his watering better than they liked Paul’s planting. What would save him from that? The fact that he was only concerned that the plants grew. If his preoccupation was that they would like his planting more than Apollos’s watering, he wouldn’t have been urging Apollos to go back and do some more watering, because he would be fearful of the impact of what would take place when somebody else began to get a little bit of the focus and the profile.
Timothy, the young rising lieutenant in his force—he says, “I can’t wait for Timothy to get to you, and here’s how I want you to treat Timothy.” A great variety of people—the Fortunatuses and the Stephanases and the Achaicuses and the Apolloses and the Timothys. They didn’t all look the same, they didn’t all act the same, they weren’t all gifted the same, but they were all vital in the work of ministry, in the same way that as you look around the sweep of people here in the second service, and the same in the first service, the words of the hymn writer are accurate and helpful: “There’s a work for Jesus none but you can do.”
Do you believe that? And do you know what the work is? And are you doing it? See, first of all, you need to know there’s a work that none but you can do, then you need to know what the work is, then you need to go ahead and do it. And that is one of the reasons that we are adding men to our pastoral team—not so that we can do all the work, but so that we can enable this growing congregation to discover, one, there’s a work that only you can do; secondly, to help you find out what that work is; and then, thirdly, to mobilize you in the doing of the work. That’s Ephesians 4: that God gave pastors and teachers to edify the saints so that the saints might do the works of ministry. Don’t fall into the trap of saying, “Oh, good, we’re getting three more; that’s a lot less that we’ll have to do. We’ll have more people to phone, and more places to send them, and more activities in which they might engage.” No, you got it absolutely, totally upside down. It’s gonna get worse rather than better, in the sense of the mobilization of the team.
And look at the wonderful way in which God chooses to put these people together. Timothy, the man who was apparently so disqualified for service. Naturally timid; that’s why he has all these things to say about “make sure he’s got nothing to fear when he’s with you.” Physically frail; why he has to keep taking a little wine for his stomach’s sake. And chronologically disadvantaged, young: “Let no man despise your youth, Timothy,” he says. And people would look on and say, “It doesn’t make any sense at all that you, the mighty apostle Paul, would take the baton of faith and entrust it into the hands of a fellow who’s always getting an upset stomach, who is always naturally timid amongst people, can’t go in amongst a crowd, and he frankly looks far too young to be any use for anything.” Everyone looks at him and says, “Why did you send a boy here?” And Paul says, “I understand that kind of thinking, but here’s the deal: God assigns the task.”
One of the reasons that people don’t engage in ministry is because they’re fearful. There were intimidating characters in Corinth, for sure: big mouths, loud mouths, strong arms, people who thought they knew how ministry ought to be operated. And it probably was a daunting prospect for Timothy, as he made his journey towards the city of Corinth, to think of going in and meeting this group. After all, the group had pulverized and tyrannized his boss and his colleague and his mentor, the apostle Paul. And if they gave Paul such a hard time, what were they going to do to him? He must have gone in there with fear and trembling, the fear of rejection. That is one of the great debilitating factors in involvement in Christian ministry. People are afraid of rejection: “No, I don’t think so; I don’t think I should do that. I might be rejected. I might not be accepted. I might not be as successful as I think I should. I might not be able to bring my perfectionistic standards to bear upon the task. I might not look good, I might not be good, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”
The answer is: listen, if God puts his hand upon you, shows you the pink slip, sign your name on the pink slip and do the job, would you? Don’t let’s make a circus out of it. Accept your limitations; you can’t do everything. Assume your responsibilities; you can do something. And don’t let the Evil One tell you that because you’re young, frail, and timid, that it’s everybody else’s job—or that you’re old, frail, and timid.
When Paul addresses the matter of the Thessalonians and of the leadership amongst the Thessalonians, it is interesting that he encourages the people amongst the Thessalonian believers to hold their leaders “in the highest regard in love,” not because of their personality, but “because of their work.”
You see, when Paul commends Timothy to the Corinthians, he says, “When Timothy comes, see that he has nothing to fear while he is with you, because he’s a great guy.” No. “See that he has nothing to fear with you, when he’s with you, ’cause he’s got a sense of humor, just crack you up!” “See that he’s nothing to fear when he’s with you, ’cause he’s one of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet.” No. “See … that he has nothing to fear while he[’s] with you, [because] he is carrying on the work of the Lord.” That’s the issue. And the issue, ultimately, in Christian service is not, “Well, do I like him, do I like her, do I like the process, do I like the way, do I like his face, do I like her voice, do I like her style, do I like this, or that, and the next thing?” It’s, “Is he or she doing the work of the Lord?”
It’s the same thing, 1 Thessalonians 5: “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you”—the leaders are supposed to work hard; if they don’t work hard, need a kick in the seat of the pants—“who are over you in the Lord … who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love…” “Because you really like them.” No! “Because of their work.”
Now, don’t get me wrong: I like being liked. But ultimately, I don’t care whether you like me or not, but I do care whether I’m doing the Lord’s work or not. And you’ll like some more than others. And some of you are more drawn to the planters, and some of you are more drawn to the waterers, and some of you are more drawn to the evangelizers, and some of you are more drawn to the quiet, and some of you are more drawn to the extrovert, and some of you are more drawn… It doesn’t make a bit of difference. The issue is the work of the Lord, in which he uses a variety of people.
Now, if you doubt that Paul was not committed to team ministry, just turn to the final chapter of Romans, and look there at this amazing list that he begins. Paul was dramatically effective. Even though he described his ministry not in the most glowing of terms, there’s no question: this guy was powerfully useful. God helping him, he had been used for the establishing of churches, for the evangelizing of people. Although his words were not dramatic and powerful by his own reckoning, nevertheless, they were “a demonstration of the Spirit’s power” in Corinth. The reason there was a church in Corinth under God was because of Paul’s willingness to go. But when he gets to the end of the book of Romans, he starts off, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea. I [want] you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and … give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me.” In other words, Phoebe was vital. We don’t know much about her beyond this.
Most of us will live our lives without anybody knowing very much about us beyond our immediate circle of influence. But at the end of the day, it will be enough for our epitaph to read, “She has been a great help to many people.” You want an objective for your life? “I give my life today, Lord Jesus, to be a great help to many people. I don’t care if I’m known or unknown, I don’t care if people think I should be doing something else. I don’t care if they want me playing a piano or singing solos. I am just gonna be a great help to many people. And I thank you that you’re not putting me in the job because of my personality. I thank you that I don’t step up to this because I’m so uniquely, powerfully gifted. I just realize that you give the jobs, you assign the tasks, you make it grow, and I’m gonna trust you for the rewards.”
Have you ever reached that kind of spiritual milestone in your pilgrimage? Have you ever had that kind of encounter? Where suddenly along the journey you sang a hymn like that:
O Master, let me walk with Thee
In lowly paths of service free.
Help me the slow of heart to move
By some [poor], winning word of love;
Teach me the lowly feet to stay,
And guide them in the [narrow] way.
You go through this list: there are twenty-four names, two complete families. Paul knew that God, in the Lord’s work, used a variety of people. You read Philippians, and he’s big on Epaphroditus. You read 2 Timothy 4, and he’s big on John Mark—interestingly, after he’d blown John Mark out on a previous occasion. It’s a reminder to us that even good guys make mistakes. He says, “Get John Mark”—2 Timothy 4:11—“he is very useful to me in the ministry.” Barnabas must have looked at him and said, “Yeah, you’re right he is. Pity you didn’t realize that back then.” But that was then, and this is now. “Get him,” he said, “he’s useful.” He writes to Philemon about his runaway slave Onesimus, and he says, “Hey, Onesimus is big time. Onesimus is useful to the Lord, and he’s useful to me.” In other words, you just couldn’t rub up against Paul without that he was talking about the people—the variety of people—who made the ministry happen.
The last point, along with the first two: the first being, it’s the Lord’s work; the second being, God uses a variety of people; and the third being, there’s no ideal place in which to serve him. There’s no ideal place in which to serve him. Paul talks here about Ephesus, he talks about Macedonia, he talks about Corinth. He talks about maybe staying, about going, about how he doesn’t want to come for a little while, he wants to come for a longer while, and so on. But irrespective of geography, he realizes all that he’s supposed to be doing is evangelizing and edifying.
And I like Paul for a variety of reasons, but one of the reasons I really like him—not that you care whether I like him or not—but one of the reasons is, he’s always looking ahead, he’s always planning. There’s nothing static about Paul. He’s not in some little cottage somewhere on the Adriatic Sea, having people come and kiss his fingers because he’s such a mighty apostle. He’s like a general poring over a map in the battle headquarters, saying, “Now, where can we go next? Where can we send the next group of troops? Where can we go get the enemy and give ’em a hiding next?” He’s always looking out: “Maybe Ephesus, maybe Corinth, maybe I’ll go to the departments of Achaia, maybe I’ll go to Laodicea. Now, what about Iconium and Lystra? Now let’s go to Derbe.” The guy’s go, go, go, go! He’s all the time thinking, “We can go there, we can do this, we can do that.” And people got to be saying, “Hang on, Paul, wait a minute!”
Some of us, our vision doesn’t go beyond the end of our nose. We’re happy with “us four, no more, shut the door.” We’re happy with a Bible study group, rub each other’s backs, and turn ourselves into great fathers, so we can all sit around and commend ourselves for being great dads for the rest of our lives, while the world outside wonders, “Who in the world is this Jesus of Nazareth person?” You say, “Oh, he did the sermon, he was knocking dads.” No, no, that was last week! I was commending dads. Keep it all in context. I just spent forty-five minutes saying about rubbing each other’s backs and being dads. But that is a means to an end; it’s not an end in itself. The end is the evangelization of the world. That’s the end. And that’s Paul’s great calling.
He didn’t choose places for ministry that would suit his convenience or his pleasure—unlike many who are looking for opportunities in ministry today. I am staggered by the letters that I get for young men looking for places of ministry. They want the church to be at least five hundred members, they want it to be a “white-collar church,” they want it to be a multiple-staff church, they want it be a church in which they can have this, this, this, this, and this, and this, and this, and bye, bye, bye, and blah, blah, blah, and “PS: I would be very happy to come and serve along with you, if you realize how brilliant it would be for you to invite me to be a member of your pastoral team.”
“No, I don’t think I would like to be in Michigan; Michigan is a little cold in the winter. No, I don’t think I would like to be in Florida; it gets rather steamy in the summer. No, I don’t think I would like to be in New England; there’re too many pagans up there.” Well, where would you like to be? Let’s just determine where you would like, John, and then we’ll just get you in the ideal spot.
You go back in the Acts of the Apostles and ask yourself whether Paul was involved in ideal places of ministry. Acts chapter 14, he comes out of Iconium with people coming flying at his heels, verse 5: “a plot amongst the Gentiles and the Jews, together with their leaders, to ill treat them and to stone them.”
“How’s it going in Iconium?”
“Not so good.”
“Where you going next?”
“Well, we’re going to hit Lystra and Derbe.” So they go to Lystra and Derbe. We’re in Acts chapter 14:19: “Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul … dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead.”
No, Paul was not on the Adriatic in a little cottage. Paul was in the thick of the battle. He accepted the challenges and the oppositions. He accepted them not as a hindrance but as a great privilege. And you have this amazing paradoxical statement here: there is, he says, in Ephesus “a great door for effective work [that is open] to me, and there are many who oppose me.” Let us be done once and for all with the idea that if you’re really in touch with God, if you’re really in the place you should be, it all goes smoothly. That is a prevalent notion; it is an unbiblical notion. “This is perfect: great opportunity, great opposition!”
Do you think that you can kick the devil’s posterior and not face his fiery darts? Do you think that you can invade the territory of the damned and not face opposition? But you can live in cozy, comfortable, “us four, no more” evangelical Christianity and never know a bit of opposition. You can get your family to where there’s no opposition. You can silence your witness so well in your office that you’ll never have anybody say anything bad about you. And you’ll assume that because everybody likes you and thinks you’re great, that you’re really being effective for the gospel, when in point of fact you are anemic, you are benign, you are ineffective, you are useless—and so am I. “A great door” of opportunity and opposition.
Now, if you have any doubt about it, just look in Acts chapter 19, because it’s described there. Ephesus had an elaborate system of organized idolatry. The temple of Diana, or Artemis, sponsored ritual prostitution and sexual perversion, which was part and parcel of the religious product of the day. So if you lived in Ephesus and you were a religious person, guess what? You got to do all of these things along with it. And Paul comes in and challenges that with talk of purity. He comes in, and he demonstrates the great power of the Holy Spirit, both in his teaching and in his persuasive arguments about the kingdom of God, where he gives himself daily, according to Acts 19:9, to discussions in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. You want to build a work of God, then here’s one way to go at it: spend two years every afternoon, find a public building, go in there, and just argue with people and discuss with people the reality of who Jesus is, why he came, and what he’s about.
And as a result of that, all kinds of things happened. There are some Jewish exorcists that are described in verses 13 and 14; he has to deal with them. There are occult practices in verses 17, 18, and 19, and you have this big fantastic bonfire that takes place when, in discovering the truth that he’s proclaiming, they begin to burn their scrolls. In other words, what happens is, the palm readers get converted, bring all their claptrap out, and burn it.
And what about the little silversmiths, under the prosperous control of Demetrius—verse 24? Demetrius had a great gig going. He’s building these little silver deals that are directly related to all the cultic prostitution of the temple of Artemis. It’s perfect for people: you can be religious and do what you want, with whoever you want, anytime you want. People love that kind of religion. That’s why they’re buying it up wholescale at the end of the twentieth century in America: “We’ll give you a religious experience with no rules. You can do what you want, with who you want, anytime you want, and just find your own God.” People say, “Sign me up for that.”
In comes the apostle Paul, says, “No, no, that’s totally bogus. Let me tell you this: Jesus of Nazareth died upon the cross to bear your sins. The things you’re doing under the name of religion are totally up the left. Therefore, let me tell you, God has commanded that all men everywhere repent, and he has set a day when he will judge the world.” And guess what happened? People start to believe the gospel of Jesus Christ. The demonstration of the Spirit’s power is so strong that the impact begins to be felt right from the very central element of the city of Ephesus. And Demetrius and his boys call a meeting to say, “If we don’t shut this guy up, our whole business thing is going to go right down the Swanee River”—or whatever river, you know, was around.
Now, let me ask you a question: What was the strategy that led to the burning of the scrolls of the sorcerers and led to the dramatic impact on the commerce of the city of Ephesus? Now, you guys are tired of hearing me say this, but I am going to continue to say this until somebody shows me that I am erring against Scripture in saying it. Let me say it to you again: It was not a political campaign to close down the perversions of the goddess Artemis. It was not a 1-800 target against all the sorcerers in the city of Ephesus. It was the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And a lady whose life was consumed with reading palms began to read her Bible, and she closed her shop. And a man who was making a healthy living from prostitution and sexual perversion was redeemed by Jesus Christ, and he closed his stall.
With a few years left in the twentieth century, we have been sold a bill of goods—uniquely in America—that somehow or another we are going to be able to legislate sin out of this country. And I want you to know, it will never, ever, ever happen. That is not the same as saying that we should not strive for godly legislation; yes, we should. It is not the same as saying that we should not be involved in the political democratic process; yes, we should. But it is saying this: we will never by means of political manipulation, ideology, and 1-800 numbers see the sorcerers and the sexual gods and goddesses brought to destruction. Only one way: by the power of the cleansing blood of Jesus Christ. And when the church gives up on that message, it will be forced to find another message—as it has. And millions and millions of dollars are currently being generated to try and make this a nicer place for us all to bring up our children and our grandchildren.
Well, poor old Paul. He says, “You know, I’m gonna stay longer at Ephesus, ’cause it’s really ideal. Let me tell you about Ephesus: it’s full of paganism, idolatry, occultism, demonism, superstition, sexual vice, racism, religious bigotry.” And what does Paul say? “A great and effective door has opened to me.” Do you think he wanted to live in some cozy little bourgeois establishment? Paganism, idolatry and the occult, demonism, superstition, sexual vice, racism, and religious bigotry. Welcome to Cleveland, Ohio.
Now, our time has gone, so let me make three points of application, on each point. Number one, the work to which we are called is the Lord’s work. In our studies yesterday with our elders—in Christian doctrine, in Bruce Milne’s book—we were noticing the fact that Jesus Christ, when he takes hold of us, lays his hand on all of our lives. The quote from Kuyper, the great Reformed theologian: “There is not a single inch over which Jesus Christ does not say, ‘That is mine!’” There is not a single inch of your life over which Jesus Christ does not say, “That is mine!” Therefore, my home, my employment, my vocation, my vacation, my friendships, my college, my leisure, my society, my culture, everything that goes up to making the content of my days, is claimed by him and may be dedicated to him. Billy Graham’s wife, Ruth, in their home in the Carolinas, has a sign over her kitchen sink that says, “Divine service performed here three times daily.” Every inch of her life is the work of the Lord.
Secondly, he uses a variety of people to do his work; therefore, he can use you, and he plans to use you.
Only to be what he wants me to be,
Every moment of ev’ry day;
Yielded completely to Jesus alone,
Ev’ry step of [the] pilgrim way;
Just to be clay in the Potter’s hands,
Ready to do what his [will] commands,
Only to be what he wants me to be,
Ev’ry moment of ev’ry day.
It won’t be the same for all of us. For me, that kind of crisis, crossroads encounter in my life redirected the whole span of my future. For you, it may send you back with renewed emphasis to the work of your corporation, to the task of mothering, to the opportunities of singleness, to the responsibilities of academia, whatever it might be—but every inch of this great variety of people.
And then the last thing: there’s no ideal place in which to do the work of the Lord, except the place he puts you. I like the song we’ve begun to sing, “Here am I, here am I.” I was thinking about it this week, and I think we ought to say, “Here am I”—reminding ourselves that we’re here. We’re not there; we’re here. Half the time when we’re here, we think about being there—wherever there is. “Well, if I wasn’t here, I’d be there. And if I was there, it would be a whole lot more successful than this, I’m sure, ’cause, you know, this is… there’s opposition here.”
You still living with the idea that there’s an ideal place to serve God? There isn’t. I mean, let’s face it, I’ve been here in Cleveland for twelve years. You can’t call that ideal, can you? When I came here in 1981, I came to Cleveland, never been here before, looked for it on the map, preached in Cleveland—then went to San José and preached there. The people in San José were really proud of San José. They told me it was very cool in the mornings, got to the optimum temperature around midday, cooled off in the evenings. It was beautiful riding bikes, fabulous for golf. It really was exceptional. Took me in a private plane, and flew me all over San José, and down over San Francisco Bay, and down over San Quentin or whatever it is, and down over the Golden Gate Bridge—five hundred feet above the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the elders in the church just cruising me all around. Took me home, parked the plane, got me in a car, took me to the country club for dinner, showed me all the fairways and the lush green. And they said, “Now, don’t you think this would be an ideal place to serve Jesus Christ?”
And then I thought, “Well, what about Cleveland? What do I remember about Cleveland now? Cleveland? Was I in Cleveland? Oh yeah, I remember Cleveland. I remember driving from the airport, and I remember that wind blowing off those chimneys there on the freeway.”
But you know what? Cleveland is like paradise to me. I don’t mean that in any funny kind of way. God has made of this place, to me, paradise. Because of the relationships he’s given me with his people. Because of the opportunities that he grants in ministry, supplying the needs of my wife and my kids and myself far and beyond our ability to even cope. I don’t say that in any sense of self-preoccupation. I just say it to say, I’ve proved again that God is no man’s debtor. You can give up your mom, your dad, your brothers, and your sisters, for the sake of the kingdom of God, and you will receive a hundred times more in the present age and in the age to come.
It’s God’s work, he uses a variety of people, and there’s no ideal place. Thinking of leaving your home ’cause your marriage isn’t ideal? Thinking of moving on ’cause your boss isn’t ideal? Thinking of leaving Parkside ’cause we’re not ideal? There is no ideal place to serve God, except the place in which he sets you down.
Let’s pause in a moment of prayer:
Father, thank you that you do use a variety of people. Thank you that all of us are better off in a group than any of us are on our own. Forgive us for thinking that the work is our work and that we’re really special. Forgive us for despising the task that we might play or the task that others fulfill. And forgive us for always looking over our shoulders for greener pastures, more ideal circumstances. Raise up a mighty army, we pray—for your glory, for greater Cleveland’s good. Thank you that we are many, but you’ve made us one body, and that you love us in the way that a mother loves her newborn child. And we want to tell you that we love you too, and we desire to serve you. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
 R. Hudson Pope, “Make the Book Live to Me” (1943).
 Matthew 4:19 (NIV 1984).
 Mark 10:45 (NIV 1984).
 Mark 9:35 (paraphrased).
 See Colossians 3:17.
 Colossians 3:23 (NIV 1984).
 See Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 187.
 See 1 Peter 3:15.
 See 1 Corinthians 3:3–4.
 Acts 9:15 (paraphrased).
 1 Corinthians 3:6 (paraphrased).
 See, for example, John Calvin, Institutes 3.9.1.
 1 Corinthians 6:6 (NIV 1984).
 1 Corinthians 16:18 (NIV 1984).
 1 Corinthians 16:12 (paraphrased).
 1 Corinthians 16:10–11 (paraphrased).
 Elsie Duncan Yale, “There’s a Work for Jesus” (1912).
 See Ephesians 4:11–13.
 1 Corinthians 16:10 (paraphrased).
 See 1 Timothy 5:23.
 1 Timothy 4:12 (paraphrased).
 1 Thessalonians 5:13 (NIV 1984).
 1 Thessalonians 5:12–13 (NIV 1984).
 1 Corinthians 2:4 (NIV 1984).
 Romans 16:1–2 (NIV 1984).
 Washington Gladden, “O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee” (1879).
 See Philippians 2:25–30.
 2 Timothy 4:11 (paraphrased).
 Philemon 1:10–11 (paraphrased).
 Acts 14:5 (paraphrased).
 1 Corinthians 16:9 (NIV 1984).
 Acts 17:30–31 (paraphrased).
 See Bruce Milne, Know the Truth.
 Abraham Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty,” in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 488. Paraphrased.
 Norman J. Clayton, “Every Moment of Every Day” (1938, 1943).
 See Matthew 19:29; Mark 10:29–30; Luke 18:29–30.
Copyright © 2022, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.