In 2 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul listed a multitude of severe hardships and persecutions he had faced, describing them as a “light affliction.” Alistair Begg calls pastors to consider Paul’s experiences when dealing with challenges in their own ministry. With confidence that one’s calling and appointment are from Christ Himself, relying on His Word for guidance and strength, and focused on serving those whom they lead, Christian ministers gain eternal perspective. Following Paul’s example, they can properly balance today’s trials against the surpassing glory of God’s coming Kingdom.
Well, let’s turn again to 2 Corinthians 4, where we have found our theme for the conference and the heading for these two addresses that I have been given the opportunity to deliver. And we’ll read from 2 Corinthians 4:7, just through to the end of the chapter:
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We[’re] afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.
“Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, ‘I believed, and so I spoke,’ we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”
Now just a brief prayer. Our favorite old Anglican prayer:
Father, what we know not, teach us. What we have not, give us. What we are not, make us. For your Son’s sake. Amen.
Well, it is possible for us to say confidently that Paul was a basket case. He was quite literally a basket case, as we saw on Monday when we reviewed the narrative in Acts. And what is quite fascinating—at least to me, and I think it will be so to you—that he recognizes himself that in the midst of a great catalog of affliction, one of the things that was emblematic, was illustrative, of his inherent weakness was in the very fact that in that Damascus encounter, he says at the end of 2 Corinthians 11, “I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall and escaped” the hands of the one who was opposing him. It’s an almost comic-tragic picture, isn’t it? When we think of the immensity of this man, of the stature that he has in Christ and under God, of the influence that he has been enabled to exercise through the churches in his missionary endeavors, his consistency in the gospel, his unrelenting to commitment in every aspect of things, and yet he says, “If I think about things, you know, one of the things that I always remember is when I had to get in that basket and they let me down through a hole in the wall.”
And it comes, of course, at the end of the classic catalog of his experience of affliction and persecution. You remember, he’s taking on the false prophets in 2 Corinthians 11. He’s saying, “If they want to boast, I suppose I could boast. I’ll sound a little crazy to do so, but if you want to know the things I’d like to boast about, I’d like to boast about my imprisonments. I’d like to boast about the times I got a whoopin’. I’d like to boast about how many times I was near death.” And then he says, “Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one.” It’d be bad to get one of those. I mean, it’s beyond comprehension to have that happen to you once. Can you imagine getting laid down, stretched out, somebody beat you with rods, and they did it thirty-nine times? Few of us would actually be around for the rest of our lives, let alone the rest of the week. And this happened to him, he says, five times—the lashes. Three times it was the rods. “Once I was stoned. Three times … shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on [my] frequent journeys, [I was] in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people”—friendly fire—“danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who [thinks they’re] weak, and I[’m] not weak?”
Now, this is familiar material to us, isn’t it? And that’s why on Monday we were considering the immensity of this man’s perseverance as we surveyed it, albeit very briefly, in Acts, in the narrative there, and then as we saw it, in part at least, to look at his testimony here in 2 Corinthians. And in coming back to the passage, we note, as we have seen in the text, that he says, “Outwardly”—in terms of the way it looks—“Outwardly we are wasting away.” “Though our outer self is wasting away… ” I’m quoting the NIV: “Outwardly we[’re] wasting away.” As we read that, we find ourselves saying, “No kidding! In light of what we’ve just read in chapter 11, it’s a miracle that you’re actually even still alive. And you say, ‘We’re sort of wasting away.’” Then he refers to what he has endured as a “light” and “momentary affliction.” Verse 17: “For this light momentary affliction…” And our response to that is that we’re speechless. How could you call this a “light momentary affliction”?
And so, when he says as he does twice in the chapter, “We do not lose heart”—beginning the chapter and coming back to it here in verse 16—the obvious question that emerges for us as we read the text is “Why not?” Why not? Surely he has plenty of justification for having quit the race, given up the fight, thrown in the towel, whatever metaphor you want to use. Why hasn’t he done so? And also, are the reasons for him not doing so, are the reasons for his perseverance, to be attributed simply to his apostleship, to the fact that he was an apostle, or even to his particular constitution, or to his character, or, if you like, to his personality? That’s really the question, isn’t it?
I mean, can we look at this and find in this—as we used to say in Campus Crusade, “Are there any transferable concepts here?” Can we move from what we discover of him here, can we extrapolate from the reasons that he actually provides in the text, that we can deduce from the text, as to why it is that he perseveres, so that we, then, taking a leaf from his book, about to go back to our routine Sundays, to the responsibilities of church life, to the ongoing drama of your life and mine—can we then say in the strength of that, “We may take these things to ourselves, both learning from them and asking the Holy Spirit to apply them to us”? That’s really the orbit of our time now. And what I would like to do is to point out to you what I believe are the underlying reasons as to why it is he was able to persevere and then to make one or two points by way of application for ourselves. I’m not going to delay on them, and much of it you can follow up on your own.
What are they? Why is it that he perseveres?
Number one, because he was in absolutely no doubt concerning the source of his ministry. He was absolutely convinced of why he was what he was, doing what he’d been called to do: “Therefore,” verse 1, “having this ministry by the mercy of God…” In chapter 2, he describes himself, along with others, as being completely insufficient for the task that is before him, but in verse 17, as he ends chapter 2, he says, “We don’t peddle the word of God,” but “as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.”
So, he knows that he’s not on a fool’s errand. He knows that he hasn’t just fallen off his donkey, as it were, and banged his head on the edge of a bridge, and he’s gone all kind of crazy religious on everybody. No. He knows now the reality of what Ananias had to come to terms with when he recoils from the story that this Saul of Tarsus has actually been brought to his knees by the living Christ, and the word that is given to Ananias is: “This man is my chosen instrument to bear my name before the Gentiles.” And at the very heart of Paul’s perseverance is the awareness that he is in this place because God has done what God has done in him. Number one.
Number two, he is clear not only about the source of his ministry, but he is clear about the source of his sufficiency in ministry. He knows why he’s in, and he knows how it is that he is supported in it. Chapter 3, let’s go to verse 5: “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us”—unlike the folks who were strutting around Corinth with their counterfeit gospels—“[we’re not] sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant.” Again, it’s straightforward: Why am I in this position? Because God put me here. How am I supposed to do what God wants me to do? Who is sufficient for a challenge like this? None of us. Then where is my sufficiency? My sufficiency is in God alone.
Thirdly, he is actually very clear about this “spirit of faith.” We’re now down in 4:13: “Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written…” Now, that opening of this sentence is interesting, and again, you can follow it up on your own. I take it that he is quite simply acknowledging that what he has read—and he’s quoting the Septuagint of Psalm 116—that what he has read there, he finds confirmation with in his own life; that what the psalmist was saying all those years before, he concurs with. What was the psalmist saying? In the context of suffering and opposition, the psalmist says, “I believed, and so I spoke.” And so Paul says, “Since we have the same spirit of faith as we find in the ministry of the psalmist, so I believed and I spoke, we believe and we speak”—that the trials through which he has come, which he’s outlined here in verses 7–12, are in keeping with this expression. In fact, you could almost say that verses 7–12 are an exposition of “the same spirit of faith.” “We walk by faith,” and “not by sight.” How do we explain the fact that he’s “afflicted … but not crushed,” “perplexed,” but not in “despair,” “persecuted, but not forsaken,” and so on? By the spirit of faith. Because it is the enabling of the power of God that caused us to confirm the psalmist’s own words.
And it is in that context, he says in verse 14—and this is number four—“knowing,” we believe, we speak. Knowing what? “Knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence.” Now, the process is very clear: we believe, we speak, we suffer. As we speak, we suffer. We speak because we believe. When we speak, we suffer. “I’ve just been telling you about that,” he says in verses 7–12. “But when we enter into the reality of suffering, when death is all around us, when we are exposed to death, and when we’re made aware of our frailty, when they drag me out of the city, leaving me for dead, in that experience, and even,” he says, “as I reflect upon it now, that all took place knowing this: knowing that the same way in which the Lord Jesus Christ was raised, so we will be raised up with him.” In other words, it is in the hope of a future resurrection that his trials are both experienced and endured. In the hope of the then. It is the then which enables him for the now.
One of the dangers of an over-realized eschatology is that we actually lose any sense of the then as enabling us to face the now. And some people even want to say that it’s not very spiritual—you know, we ought to be able to gut it out and handle it in the immediacy of everything. No, sometimes the only thing that gets us through is that there is something at the end of it, that there is a promise at the end. I remember one particular surgery I had years ago, and I’ll never forget it: As the fellow came at me with a large syringe—it looked like it was about seventeen feet long—and he said to me, he said, “If you can endure the next forty seconds, all will be well.” And I said, “You know, I think I can!” And I did. But he told me, “Forty seconds, and it’ll be over. Can you handle it?” That’s what he’s saying here. “We believed, we spoke, we suffered in the awareness of the then.”
One of the absences in contemporary hymnody is the then. When I was a boy in Scotland, in a Bible class group I was in with a lot of boys, they would take us in the Cairngorm Mountains in the Highlands of Scotland. And we were given horrible, uncomfortable boots—at least, the ones my mother got for me were horrible, uncomfortable boots. I never had experienced blisters like it in my life. And they gave you a bag—you know, a knapsack—to make you feel like you were a mountaineer or something. I can’t even remember what was in it; I just remember it was heavy. And off we would go with our fearless leader. Here we go! And here we go. And so, after about a minute and a half, I’m like, “How long is this thing?” And then, five minutes: “Are we done? Are we there? Why… Aw man, my boots, aw! Could somebody hold this for me?” I mean, I was a star pupil in this kind of thing. I really was. And the leader would always say to us the same thing: “It’s going to be worth it when you get to the top. It’ll be worth it when you get to the top. Shut up! You’ll be okay when you get to the top. All right?”
And then, as if to pour oil on troubled waters, he would say, “Why don’t we sing while we’re going?” And because it was so annoying to me that we were now gonna sing, I’ve never forgotten what he wanted us to sing. It wasn’t, you know, “Yo-ho, yo-ho!” No, not that. He was from a church background, obviously, and these are the words I remember. They went like this:
A few more marchings weary,
Then we’ll gather home!
A few more storm clouds dreary,
Then we’ll gather home!
O’er time’s rapid river,
Soon we’ll rest forever;
A few more marchings weary,
And then we’ll gather home!
Now, the point that he was illustrating for us was the reality of the experience of the journey of life itself, which is marked by weariness, by steep climbs, by difficulties, by complaining people in your group, and by elbows in the ribs, and by spikes in the shins, and all of the rest of it. And if we lose sight of the reality of the resurrection, then everything collapses. Because think about it in relationship to Paul’s ministry: without faith in a future resurrection, Paul’s experience would not only have been intolerable; it would have been meaningless. Meaningless! He would have been as the one he writes of in 1 Corinthians 15, the man who is most pitiable. He would have been most pitiable, wouldn’t he? “And so it is,” he says, “we have this same spirit of faith. We believed and spoke. We did so knowing that Jesus will raise us too.”
Fifthly, why does he endure, how does he endure in this way? “For it is all for your sake.” In other words, Paul says, “This is not about me. This is not about how well it’s going for me.” And this, of course, is not unique to 2 Corinthians 4. This is Paul’s recurring emphasis. For example, in Galatians, in chapter 4, remember, he says, “My little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” That’s an amazing metaphor for a man to pick up, isn’t it? “This is agony for me. This is the closest,” he says, “that I think it is possible for a man to come to the experience of childbirth. And the reason I am in this extremity is for your sake. For your sake.”
Now, I’m resisting the temptation to keep applying this, ’cause I’m gonna come to it in a moment. So we’ll leave it as it is. But notice how he goes on. He says “so that”—it’s a hina clause—“so that as grace extends to more and more people” through the experience of suffering, not only through his proclamation but also through his endurance—as that “grace extends to more and more people,” it will result and increase in “thanksgiving,” and that will be “to the glory of God.” So the ultimate objective and the enduring dimension is in relationship to the fact that this is for the glory of God.
Sixthly, he says, “my inner self,” or “my inner man” that Don was talking about yesterday and helped us out with, and I needn’t go back to it—he says, in our inner self, “our inner self is being renewed day by day.” Now, he comes back to “We do[n’t] lose heart,” and he says, “You know, what I’m telling you about here is that I’ve persevered. And the reason I’m persevering is that although outwardly things are collapsing, inwardly there is a daily renewal taking place.”
Now, depending on how you’re wired together, this allows you, when you’re doing your personal study, to say, “Well, at least I know one hymn that we’re gonna sing on Sunday morning,” depending on your context. And you’re gonna include in the hymnody of the morning:
Day by day, and with each passing moment,
Strength I find, to meet my trials here;
Trusting in my Father’s wise bestowment,
I’ve no need for worry or for fear.
He whose heart is kind beyond all measure
Gives unto each day what he deems best—
Lovingly, the path of pain or pleasure
Till at last we come to find our rest.
That’s what Paul is saying.
You can also include “I Need Thee Every Hour.” That would be another one. In the World’s Fair in Chicago, where Moody and his team was involved in an evangelistic endeavor, when they gathered one evening at the end of the day’s proceedings for a time of devotion, the hymn that was given out for them to sing in the room was “I need thee every hour, most gracious Lord.” And in the singing of that hymn, one of the men declared the fact that he really couldn’t subscribe to that in its entirety; he said that he needed Jesus every moment. He was an Englishman by the name of Varley. Another person who was in the room was a retired major, and his name was Major Whittle. And Whittle went up to his bedroom, and he couldn’t get it out of his mind, the idea that we need him every hour, but then that Varley said, “You know, I need him moment by moment.” And before he finally got to sleep at about two o’clock in the morning, he had written down, “Dying with Jesus, by death reckoned mine; living with Jesus, this new life divine.” And then my phone just quit on me with the photograph. There we go:
Looking to Jesus till glory doth shine,
Moment by moment, O Lord, I am thine.
Moment by moment I’m kept in his love;
And moment by moment I have life from above;
And I’m looking to Jesus till glory doth shine;
Moment by moment, O Lord, I am thine.
Never a trial that he is not there,
Never a burden that he doesn’t bear,
Never a sorrow that he doesn’t share.
Moment by moment, I’m under his care.
This is Paul’s testimony. “Why is it that you’ve managed to get through all this stuff, Paul?” “Well, because in my inner man I am being renewed.”
Now, you see, looked at from the outside, his life is really a bit of a disaster. His circumstances are terrible. But it’s only these false folks who are looking at the outside. Chapter 5, he says, “We [don’t commend] ourselves to you again [by] giving you cause to boast about us”—this is 2 Corinthians 5:12—“so that you may be able to answer those who boast about outward appearance and not about what is in the heart.” Corinth was just full of self-aggrandizement, and the church was not free from it. And people were attracted by that kind of thing. And so Paul says, “My outward decay is contributing to my inward renewal. There’s a direct correlation between what’s happening to me on the outside at the moment and what I’m able to endure and how I’m able to persevere.”
Seventhly—and it’s all in the text, isn’t it? Why is he enduring? Well, he says because there is “an eternal weight of glory”: “This … momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” Those of you who were paying attention on Monday—which limits the group significantly—will perhaps recall that I said in the opening statement or so, in 1:8–9, that the phraseology there should be paid attention to, because we can come back to it. Well, now we’re back to it. And what we’re talking about is in 1:8, where Paul says, “We don’t want you unaware of what we’ve been up against,” and here it is: “We were so utterly burdened,” weighed down, “beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.” Okay? Now, both in the verbal form and in the noun, both “weight” and “glory,” you find them together. You come back now to chapter 4, and what he does is he makes this, again, amazingly paradoxical statement: “This light [and] momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”
In other words, “We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength. But now we’ve discovered, in thinking about it, that the afflictions are actually light, and the glory is weighty.” When he puts the two things on the scales, as it were, he says, “It is because the coming glory is so weighty that we can view this affliction as being actually light.” How else can it be regarded as “momentary”? Momentary! Now, the surgeon says to me, “You got forty seconds.” That is momentary. But thirty-nine lashes is not momentary. And certainly not five times!
And the catalog of affliction—he says, “[So] this light and momentary affliction…” Now, you’re saying to yourself, “Paul, I think you’re stretching it a little bit now.” But no. It’s momentary in light of eternity. It’s light in terms of the immensity of the glory that will be revealed in us. “This affliction,” he said, “felt sometimes like a huge weight around our necks. But when we lifted our eyes to see the triumph of Christ, suddenly we realized that that was where the real weight and the real strength and significance lay.”
You have the same thing, don’t you, with Peter? When Peter in his first letter says, “In … this you … rejoice, though now for a little while you may have … to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.” Loved ones, let’s be honest: we have marveled at our brothers and sisters whose lives have been marked by particular challenges in relationship to physical affliction, or to mental challenges, or whatever it might be. And we’ve feared to ever suggest, you know, “It’ll be over soon.” Because it doesn’t seem like it is ever going to be over. But even an entire lifetime of suffering, in the context of eternity, will be seen to be what it is: just a little while.
Now, it is on account of that that he then explains—and this is eighthly, if you’re even taking notes—eighthly, he says, “This is where we fix our eyes. We’re not looking to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen.” What are the things that are seen? Outward affliction. His body! You know, we’re all disintegrating—you know, whether you like it or not. Some more obviously than others, I think, perhaps. But we’re all approximating one way or another to the picture in Ecclesiastes 12, where eventually we walk along like grasshoppers, and desire is no longer stirred. This is largely a male group. “And desire is no longer stirred.” You might not be there, but you’re going there.
Outwardly, this thing is collapsing. He says, “That’s not where we’re looking. The people who are the counterfeit-gospelers, that’s exactly where they’re looking. That’s why they’ve said to you, ‘You know, Paul, he’s a big shot when he writes his letters, but if you see him up close, he’s nothing.’” What does Paul do? He doesn’t say, “Oh, they’re wrong! I am actually something. They just haven’t really seen the best of me.” No, he says, “They’re right. I am nothing. I don’t look like much, I don’t sound like much, and frankly, I ain’t much. But God is everything. And it is because of that that I have my gaze where it needs to be. I fix my eyes on Jesus.” He’s doing what elsewhere in the Scriptures we’re encouraged to do: “looking [to] Jesus the author and the finisher of our faith.” He is concentrating on inward renewal rather than outward affliction, inner glory rather than external decay. And he’s gonna go on and encapsulate it in chapter 5, where he follows right through on the line of thinking, and he says, “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God.”
You see, the decay of the godless is a really melancholy and tragic picture, isn’t it? ’Cause they got nowhere to go. I hope they’re not looking for their “best life now.” I hope it is their best life now, ’cause what’s coming next, they’re not gonna like.
“In the precious goodness of God,” he says, “we look here.” And then he says, “And I’ll tell you why we do.” And this he ends the chapter with; he says, “And the reason that we do this is because what we can see is temporary and what is unseen is eternal.” In other words, he says, “If I look at my body and how much time I’ve got left and how well everything is apparently going, this is not looking real solid.” He says, “But when I look at what’s going on in the heart—this working of grace and goodness—then it changes everything.”
Okay. So, I’m suggesting to you that these—not in exclusive terms, but certainly these—are key elements in his ability to endure and to provide in himself by the grace of God an example of endurance. In the moments that remain, let me just try and apply these things to us. Let’s acknowledge that his apostleship is unique, but insofar as these are elements of the grace of God, the adequacy of grace in securing our endeavors as ministers of the gospel, I think they serve us well.
James Stewart—and the reason it’s so important to quote James Stewart in Heralds of God is because he says,
There are [surely] few figures [as] pitiable as the disillusioned minister of the Gospel. High hopes once cheered him on his way: but now the indifference and the recalcitrance of the world, the lack of striking visible results, the discovery of the appalling pettiness and spite and touchiness and complacency which can lodge in narrow hearts, the feeling of personal futility—all these have seared his soul. No longer does the zeal of God’s House devour him. No longer does he mount the pulpit steps in thrilled expectancy that Jesus Christ will come among His [people] that day, travelling in the greatness of His strength, mighty to save. Dully and drearily he speaks now about what once seemed to him the most dramatic tidings in the world. The edge and verve and passion of the message of divine forgiveness, the exultant, lyrical assurance of the presence of the risen Lord, the amazement of supernatural grace, the urge to cry, “Woe is me if I preach not the Gospel”—all have gone. The man has lost heart. He is disillusioned. And that, for an ambassador of Christ, is a tragedy.
How then, says Stewart, do you “maintain yourselves against the menace of this mood”? For “maintain yoursel[f] you must: or else—don’t try to speak to men in the name of God!”
Well then, how? I want to suggest to you: by the very same pattern of Paul, here. You and I will not endure in pastoral ministry over the long haul unless we can clearly identify the fact that God alone put us in this deal—that we may have aspired to the office of an overseer, but it is God that put us in the spot, that the source of our ministry is God. M’Cheyne—who was dead, what, at 29?—in his trials before the presbytery in 1835, writes in his journal before he goes for his interview the following day, “If God see [fit] to put me into the ministry, who shall keep me back? If I be not [fit], why should I … thrust forward? To [your] service I desire to dedicate [my service] over and over again.” In other words, he’s Isaiah in the temple: “Would I do, Lord? Would I do?” God says, “Yes, you will do. Not because you’re particularly eloquent, skillful, bright, and so on, but you’ll do fine. Because you’re my man.”
“Timothy, Timothy,” he says, “remember! Stir up the gift that was in you through the laying on of the hands of those men. Do you remember those big, gnarly hands—including mine, the tentmaker—when they clasped on the back of your neck? Bring that to mind. Bring it to mind. You’ll need to. You have to remind yourself why you’re in this.”
Had a wonderful illustration of it last night when a few of us had dinner together. And one of the men in the group—as we went around and spoke about pastoral ministry and how long and how we’re doing and so on—and one man said, “You know, if it were not for the fact that I had been ordained to this gospel ministry and had been given that little thing that said, ‘X on such and such a day was set apart to the gospel ministry,’” he said, “were it not for that, I would have chucked it a long time ago. And the fact that I’m still in it owes in large measure to the fact that I am convinced that it is God who put me in it. And if he put me in it, then he can keep me in it. And when I think about those men and their commitment to me, it sustains me.”
Do you remember when you were baptized—if you were baptized properly? My baptismal hymn was “O Jesus, I Have Promised.” You remember that?
O Jesus, I have promised
To serve thee to the end;
Be thou forever near me,
My master and my friend;
I dare not fear the battle
If thou art by my side,
[Or] wander from the pathway
If thou will be my guide.
O let me feel thee near me!
The world is ever near;
I see the sights that dazzle,
The tempting sounds I hear;
My foes are ever [with] me,
Around me and within;
[O] Jesus, draw thou nearer,
And [keep] my heart from sin.
Paul was doing this.
Why are you still married? Why are you married? Are you married? Did you get married? Yes. Yeah. And what did you say that day? Do you remember your vows? Do you remember when you said, “The first time ever I saw your face, I felt the earth move in my hand”? And your wife ran up the aisle, and you’re married to somebody else now. No! You didn’t say that. There was none of that. You made promises! “For better, for worse…” It’s worse? I’m sorry, but you signed up for worse. How’s the church thing going? “Worse!” Okay! You signed up for worse. It’s not about us.
The source of our ministry: if God hasn’t put you in, get out, ’cause you shouldn’t be in. And if you’re not convinced, get out anyway. There’s nothing worse than the person who says, “I don’t really know. I mean, I don’t know. I don’t know.” What kind of leadership is that? “But I’m a nice person.” I don’t care if you’re a nice person! I mean, I care, but only a little bit. If you fly out of Cleveland tonight, you’re not gonna check in the cockpit if the guy’s a nice person. You want to know if he’s called to fly airplanes and if he can do so safely. That’s the issue: number one, that we are kept because we’re put.
And along with Paul, we are, then, aware of the fact that our sufficiency comes from the same place, comes from God—that we are competent in Christ, not in ourselves. In the same way that he says, “It is this same spirit of faith that is the same for us.” Paul says to Timothy, “I want you to continue in the things you’ve become convinced of, knowing those from whom you have learned them, and how in your case, Timothy, since from infancy you’ve known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation.” It is in that spirit of faith that Timothy must now continue, and so must we. We will not endure if we lose confidence in the truth and in the power and in the relevance of the gospel. As soon as we begin to walk by sight and not by faith, we’re on shaky ground.
We believe. We speak. There’s pushback in that. But in the same way, it is the story of the glory of the resurrection that keeps us—that we’ve been born again to a living hope. We’re not distracted by the nonsense of those who are making a big fuss and a bother. We are resting in the fact that our eyes will finally see “beyond [a] beckoning grave,” as Townend puts it.
Fifthly, in the same way for Paul, it is for us: it’s not about us; it’s about the sake of those whom we serve. In On Being a Pastor, Derek Prime tells a story of Sangster when he went to his charge in Wales. The story’s told by Paul Sangster, the junior to Dr. Sangster. And apparently, when he went, they had an opening session on the Saturday night before he preached his first sermon. And they had the people stand up from the various departments of the church, and everybody stood up and explained to the minister what he was gonna have to do to meet their expectations, and everyone explained that their little area of ministry was the key to the success and the influence of the church. And it went on for so long that Sangster Jr. says that his father, being totaling overwhelmed by the presentation that had been made, stood up and said, “I will try my best, with God’s help,” and then he sat down.
And as he pursued ministry, he said the thing that sustained him was the constant reminder that he had been put there by God’s appointment, and it was not for his own personal benefit, but it was for the sake of those who were under his charge—like another who, when he took up his charge, he said to the congregation, “I will be your servant, but you must never be my master. You are not my master.” We have one master—namely, the risen Lord Jesus himself. And so he says, “It is for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people, God will be glorified.”
And this, you see, is the great corrective—as I draw this to a stop—but this is the corrective to the stultifying, devilish temptation to constant comparison. “Well, what about him? What about this? What about…? Look, if I’ve…” My brothers, don’t allow yourself to go there. It is a pathway to despondency, or to arrogance, to jealousy, to anger. And how things appear now is not how things necessarily are. We don’t know how they are. One man’s ministry that seems particularly powerful may actually prove on that Day not to be gold and precious stones but to be wood, hay, and stubble. And some apparently small, apparently inconsequential—how could anything in the economy of God be inconsequential?—and these things that are apparently inconsequential will on that Day of reckoning be revealed for what they are. It is “the Day” that “will bring it to light.” It’s the Day that will bring it to light.
That’s why we don’t compare ourselves. He actually speaks of those, doesn’t he, who are comparing themselves with one another? They’re writing their own CVs and then heralding them around. No, he says, “We don’t view things in that way. We do not”—I’m looking for it desperately; I’m sure it’s in the Bible. It is 10:12: “Not that we dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who are commending themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another,” they’re nuts! He actually says they’re “without understanding.” “That’s a really bad idea!” he says. “You gonna set up the standard and compare yourself against one another? That’s not a good idea. We’re not gonna boast beyond limits, but we will only boast regard to the area of influence that God has assigned to us: to reach even you.”
“For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends.” In other words, it’s not what we say about ourselves that matters. It’s what God says about us that matters. It’s not what your congregation who like you say about you that matters, or the ones that don’t like you say about you that matters. Those things are not irrelevant. We pay attention to them. We don’t run roughshod. We’re impacted by them. We may be lifted up, we may be cast down. But when we put our heads on the pillow at night, we have to say with Paul, “Listen, we recognize that it is in this spirit of faith that we function, and it is for their sake.” And that is why we can experience the daily renewal to which we alluded in quoting from the hymn, and then we can also turn our gaze to a weight of glory that is our prospect, and as we turn our gaze to our prospect, then we gain perspective, and the perspective we gain is in light of how he ends: “The things that are seen are ephemeral, they’re transient, they pass away. But the things that are unseen are eternal.” In other words, learning to live now, in all of the vicissitudes of life, in light of the then.
Two quotes and we stop. This from the second volume of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, as Iain Murray describes for us the end of Lloyd-Jones’s life. I wonder, do you remember this? And if you haven’t the two volumes of Lloyd-Jones and your wife is buying you a present, this would be a really nice present, and you’ll come to cherish these books.
Iain Murray’s writing, and he’s describing the fact that we’re now in the final days of Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s life. One of the men that came to visit him was a consultant—what we would call here… I don’t know what we’d call him here. What do we call a doctor who’s, like, a really good one? What? Nah, not a specialist. No. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. This doctor came to see him, and he’d been in his congregation since 1952. In other words, you become a doctor, and then you become a better doctor in Britain, and then you become a consultant, and then, you know, you consult. And so the consultant came to see him. (I wish I hadn’t mentioned that.) But anyway, his name was Mr. Williams, in case you’re interested. And the doctor, who wasn’t his—it wasn’t his GP, that’s the point. He was a friend. So he sees Lloyd-Jones. He’s known him since ’52, and he wants to give him antibiotics.
Lloyd-Jones has lost the power of speech by this point.
[So] he shook his head in disagreement. “Well,” said his doctor, “when the Lord’s time comes, even though I fill you up to the top of your head with antibiotics, it won’t make any difference.” His patient [Lloyd-Jones, who, of course, himself was a doctor] shook his head [vigorously]. “I want to make you comfortable, more comfortable,” Mr. Williams went on, “it grieves me to see you sitting here ‘weary … worn and sad’” (quoting [from the] hymn). That was too much for [Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who’d lost the power of speech]. [He blurted out,] “Not sad!” … “Not sad!” The truth was that he believed the work of dying was done and he was ready to go. “Last night,” Grant Williams wrote to ML-J’s local doctor on February 25, “he refused to take any antibiotic, could hardly talk and I think will die very shortly. I think he is very lucid and knows exactly what he wants to do.”
… [His daughter] Elizabeth sat beside him [and] he pointed very definitely to the words of 2 Corinthians 4:16–18 …: [“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.”]
“When I asked him,” says Elizabeth, “if that was his experience now, he nodded his head with great vigour.”
Endurance. Endurance. That’s quote one.
And this is quote two. Do you know this Wesley hymn? I only really know the first verse of it. I sing it to myself quite often in the morning when I’m driving along to Parkside. And the opening line is,
Forth in thy name, O Lord, I go,
My daily labor to pursue;
Thee, only thee, resolved to know,
In all I think, or speak, or do.
And it goes on:
The task thy wisdom hath assigned,
O let me cheerfully fulfill;
In all my works thy presence find,
And prove thy good and perfect will.
Thee may I set at my right hand,
Whose eyes [my] inmost substance see,
And labor on at thy command,
And offer all my works to thee.
Give me to bear thy easy yoke,
And every moment watch and pray,
And still to things eternal look,
And hasten to thy glorious day.
For thee delightfully employ,
Whate’er thy bounteous grace hath given;
And run my course with even joy,
And closely walk with thee to heaven.
That was the eighteenth century. This is the twenty-first century. Paul was in the first century. What is he a testimony to? The adequacy of the saving, keeping grace of God—the exact same saving, keeping grace of God which is yours and mine.
Brothers, who knows about this political stuff? I dodge the question, deliberately so. Who knows? Who knows? We don’t know. But I tell you what we do know: God has many people in these cities in which we live whom he has marked out, to whom we go, proclaiming the gospel and asking God to open blind eyes and to soften hard hearts. And we go in the awareness of the fact that it’s a big task, that it is an unfinished task, and it is quite remarkable that we have been included in the program. And having put us there, he will supply the needs that we have there, and he will accomplish all these things for their sake, through grace, to his glory.
Let us pray together:
Father, thank you. Thank you that your Word constantly turns us again and again to the Lord Jesus Christ, who for the joy that was set before him scorned the shame. And really, what we have described in Paul is a cruciform perspective on enduring and continuing to the end. And so we pray that as we ponder these things, as we face the ups and downs and challenges of our everyday existence—the temptations of our own sinful hearts, the people that annoy us, the ones that seek to encourage us in strange ways, whatever it might be—Lord, help us not to throw ourselves down in the middle of the race. And for the challenge that is before us, we acknowledge that all that we need is granted to us by the Holy Spirit in Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.
 2 Corinthians 11:33 (ESV).
 2 Corinthians 11:24–29 (ESV).
 2 Corinthians 2:17 (paraphrased).
 Acts 9:15 (Phillips).
 2 Corinthians 5:7 (ESV).
 Fanny Crosby, “A Few More Marchings Weary” (1882). Lyrics lightly altered.
 See 1 Corinthians 15:19.
 Galatians 4:19 (ESV).
 Karolina W. Sandell-Berg, trans. Andrew L. Skoog, “Day by Day” (1865). Lyrics lightly altered.
 Annie S. Hawks, “I Need Thee Every Hour” (1871).
 Daniel W. Whittle, “Moment by Moment” (1893). Lyrics lightly altered.
 2 Corinthians 1:8 (paraphrased).
 1 Peter 1:6 (NIV).
 See Ecclesiastes 12:5.
 See 2 Corinthians 10:10.
 Hebrews 12:2 (KJV).
 2 Corinthians 5:1 (ESV).
 James S. Stewart, Heralds of God (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1946), 20–21.
 Andrew A. Bonar, Memoir and Remains of the Rev. Robert Murray M’Cheyne (Edinburgh: William Oliphant, 1869), 37.
 See Isaiah 6:1–13.
 1 Timothy 4:14 (paraphrased).
 John E. Bode, “O Jesus, I Have Promised” (1868).
 Ewan MacColl, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” (1957). Lyrics lightly altered.
 2 Timothy 3:14–15 (paraphrased).
 Stuart Townend, “There Is a Hope” (2007).
 Derek J. Prime and Alistair Begg, On Being a Pastor (Chicago: Moody, 2004), 33–34.
 See 1 Corinthians 3:12–13.
 1 Corinthians 3:13 (NIV).
 2 Corinthians 10:18 (ESV).
 Iain H. Murray,David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, vol. 2, The Fight of Faith: 1939–1981(Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1990), 747.
 Charles Wesley, “Forth in Thy Name, O Lord” (1749).
 See Hebrews 12:2.
Copyright © 2021, 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.