July 12, 1987
If we compare our abilities in ministry to those of others, we can quickly become discouraged. Alistair Begg reassures us, however, that our weaknesses actually make us usable in God’s hands. In this study, we see that despite his youthfulness, timidity, frailty, and fears, Timothy was used mightily in the advancement of the Gospel. Shaped by God and empowered by His Spirit, we can fulfill the unique purposes He assigns us for His glory.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I’d like us to turn to one verse in 2 Corinthians chapter 4—a verse that I think has become familiar to us all. It’s certainly a verse to which I find myself turning again and again, and I feel sure that I’ve already mentioned it many times in the past four years here. And as I thought of our worship tonight, some of you are waiting for the sermon on James chapter 4, which is entitled “Fighting in the Fellowship,” and you perhaps wondering why the delay. There’s no real reason except that last Sunday evening, when we had Communion, I explained to you what took place then, and as I thought of being out on the property tonight and the fairly detailed way in which I want to go through those first six verses of James 4, I didn’t think that it was necessarily conducive to us in being outside. And so, that’s why we’re here, but we can still anticipate that—although by the time we reach James 4, it may have a different title, and it may come out a completely different way. But it’ll still be James 4:1–6.
And 2 Corinthians 4:7 is the verse that I want us to focus on, where Paul says, “We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” And the question that’s on my heart tonight is a simple question which you may have asked from time to time—you may have asked it recently—and the question is “Can God use me?” “Can God use me?”
I’m assuming tonight that you have come to faith in Jesus Christ, that you’ve understood the message of the gospel, that you’ve come in repentant faith and laid hold upon Christ’s mercy for salvation, that you know yourself to be a member of the body of Christ, that you are desirous of progressing in the things of faith, and as you’ve taken those steps, whether short or long, whether over a short or long period of time, one of the areas of accusation that you’ve faced that has come from the Evil One is this: “God can use him. God can use her. God can use them. But God can’t use you.” And so fierce is the accusation many times that we find ourselves capitulating to such a statement and wondering whether God really can use us. The emphasis in that kind of introspection focuses far more upon ourselves than ever it does upon God, and that compounds the problem.
And so tonight, I want merely to address this question in simple and yet, I hope, helpful terms, in a word of reassurance to any of us who are wondering whether God has a place for us at all. I’d like to assure you, in the words of the hymn, that “there’s a work for Jesus” that “none but you can do.” God did not make you like the person next to you—with distinct purpose! He made you as you are; he has redeemed you, knowing who you are; and he wants now to take his truth and baptize it, if you like, through your personality, albeit your personality renewed in the image of the Lord Jesus. But he has a distinct place and a unique purpose and special pleasures for you, just you, so that when you lie in your bed at night and you wonder about yourself and the future and all these things, I believe on the authority of the Bible that God has a unique and special place for you.
Now, the reason that we might say that with such confidence is because when God takes his heavenly treasure—namely, the glorious gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ—he has chosen to do with it what we don’t do with earthly treasure. Those of us who have any earthly treasure—and I can’t really think of any that I have in terms of a thing, although I probably, if I thought long about it, there is something that I want to look after; maybe my guitar, although it isn’t expensive, but it is an earthly treasure, and I put it in a special box, and I keep it safe. If you have a medallion that has come from the mint—Franklin Mint maybe, in Michigan—some special engraved piece of silver, or it may even be of bronze or of gold, I would reckon that you’ve probably got it in a package—it’s black velvet or it’s navy blue velvet—and the treasure has a packaging, a container, that is directly proportional to the treasure itself. If you have special pieces of pottery at home, you probably don’t leave them where the door opens into your hallway, but you have them in a proper place. And we understand why.
But God has chosen to do it differently. He has chosen to take the treasure of the gospel, and instead of putting it in treasures which are apparently and obviously to society very, very special, he has put it in jars that are earthenware and are ordinary. We see this in the lives of the apostles. I think it’s Acts 4:13, where after the apostles have gone out in the power of the Spirit and have ministered in the word and in miraculous power, the people said that they were amazed by it all, and “they took knowledge of them”—why?—because “they were unlearned” and they were “ignorant men” (they were rough in their schooling), and the thing that marked them out was “that they had been with Jesus.” It wasn’t the container that the people noticed, but it was the jewel within the container. It wasn’t the natural ability of the men, but it was the supernatural ability of God revealed through them.
And so, when Paul writes to the Corinthians in his second letter, and his ministry has been questioned and challenged, his apostolic authority has been called into question, he says, “You know, I could list my credentials before you, but the great wonder is this: that God has put his treasure in old clay pots, and deliberately so, that the power might be seen to belong to God and not to us.”
The earthenware jars to which Paul referred were common as dirt. They were dirt. They were fragile. They were ten a penny, if you like, in the bazaars of the day. They were of lowly use, and they were discarded easily. And he uses that very word, that phraseology, to describe himself, to describe the life of the believer, not to denigrate us as individuals but to give us a rightful sense of who we are.
And so tonight, for some of us, we look at our lives, and we compare ourselves inevitably with other people, and we say, “I can’t sing like that person, and I wish I could. I can’t speak like that person, and I wish I could. I can’t bake like that person, and I wish I could.” And we look around, and we’ve got lots of people that we wish we were like. We wish we were quiet people, if we talk a lot. We wish we could talk more, if we’re quiet people. If we’re effervescent, we wish we had been a little more shy. If we’re shy, we wish we were more outgoing. And if we quantify ourselves on the basis of people around us, we can often be horribly discouraged.
Let me say it again: God made you the way you are to use you as you are, filled and empowered by the Spirit of God. He does not want you to be like the person next to you. He wants you to be like Jesus. And so tonight, as I think of this, it’s precisely our frailty, it’s precisely our finiteness, it’s precisely our weakness which makes us usable in the hands of God. That’s what Paul says when he writes in the twelfth chapter of the same letter, about the ninth verse; he says, “So when I am weak, then I am strong. Therefore, I will delight in my weakness, because when I’m aware of my weakness, Christ’s power rests upon me.”
“Fine!” says everyone. “If that’s the case, give me an illustration.” Well, which illustration would you like? I mean, would you like the illustration of Peter, who had a big mouth? He took one foot out and put the other foot in. Would you like the illustration of Thomas the doubter, who kept saying, “But Lord…”? Do we want to use the illustration of Phillip, who was always stuttering and stammering? We can go through the whole of the Bible! We want to use the illustration of Moses? Moses says, “I’ve got a brother who’s a fabulous speaker. If you only had set your purposes on Aaron; he’s your man.” And God says to Moses, “Who made your mouth, Moses? If I made your mouth, I’ll fill your mouth, and with the things that I want to speak.” And we could go throughout the whole of the Bible and wonder at it again. Jeremiah says, “Hey, I’m no good. I’m only a child!” God says, “Don’t say you’re only a child. When I take you up, I can do wonderful things with you.”
But the person who’s the greatest encouragement to me of them all is Timothy—a young man, a pastor, ministering in an age similar to our own, an age of moral and doctrinal confusion; a young man who had had a heritage that went back through his mother and through his grandmother; a young man who had been placed in ministry, and when he looked at himself and he looked at the task and he looked at the challenge, he said to himself, “I am not fit for this. I don’t need this. I don’t want this. It’s nothing that I can accomplish!” And, if you like, there are more disqualifications in the life of Timothy than there are qualifications.
Let me give you Timothy’s disqualifications for ministry, and see if any of his are any of yours. And when I’ve done that, we’re almost done.
First disqualification for Timothy to be used by God in ministry was that he was physically not a very fit individual. Where do we get that from? First Timothy 5:23. Paul writes to him, and he says, “Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach.” We all know he had a bad stomach, but we forget the next phrase: “and [for] your frequent illnesses.” So Timothy was always getting sick. He was the kind of kid who was always getting a note from his mother saying, “Please excuse Timothy’s absence from school, as such and such is wrong with him.” He was the kind of person who, if interviewed by a modern missionary organization, would probably be sidelined because of his physical condition. He was perhaps very, very frail.
Do you remember a modern missionary just like that? Myriad of them! One that comes immediately to mind is Hudson Taylor. Hudson Taylor was hardly in school up to the age of eleven. Up to the age of eleven, he was a disaster. He wasn’t fit. He wasn’t strong. He was a poor child in many ways. And yet he told his mom and dad when he was five one night at tea, “I’m gonna be a missionary in China one day, Mom.” And he was—and a missionary doctor at that!
And some of us are here tonight, and one of our greatest alibis for usefulness is our physical condition: “Oh, I’ve got such a bad back. Oh, if only I could sit. Oh, if only I could stand. Oh, if only I could walk, if only I could run.” The Lord knows all about what we can and what we can’t do, and our physical impairment is no detriment to the fulfillment of his purposes if he sets his hand upon our lives. That was his first disqualification.
His second disqualification was that he wasn’t only physically weak, but he was naturally timid. He was not the kind of young man who was immediately in charge of a situation. He was not the kind of individual who went into a room and took control, but rather, he was diffident. When Paul writes his first letter to the church at Corinth, in 1 Corinthians 16:10, he says, “When Timothy comes to see you, put him at his ease.” Now, you don’t send word ahead to put somebody at their ease unless they are by nature ill at ease, unless they’re the kind of person who finds it difficult to go. And some of us are just like that. And we have excused our involvement in ministry because we think that our natural timidity is a more powerful thing than God’s power, which he gives to negate that timidity. It was a disqualification for Timothy, and yet it never hindered God.
Thirdly, his usefulness… His youthfulness. I beg your pardon. He was physically beat, he was naturally timid, and he was too young to be doing what he was doing, as far as the majority of people were concerned. And as a result of his youthfulness, he had two key challenges: one was the challenge of inferiority, so that Paul has to say to him, “Don’t let anybody disqualify you because of your youth”; and the other challenge of youthfulness was the evil desires which are particular and peculiar to youth—i.e., the stirrings up physically in the sexual realm of life, the longing after things, the longing to be well thought of, the longing to be prosperous, the longing to have this world’s goods are uniquely true at that age of life. What age of life? Somewhere between the realm of thirty-five and forty years of age. So those of you who are feeling old, be encouraged. Paul writes to a forty-year-old and says, “Don’t let anybody despise your youthfulness. It’s ultimately no disqualification.”
Fourthly, his tendency to be ashamed of the gospel. Second Timothy 1:8, Paul says, “So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord. And don’t be ashamed of me his prisoner.” Isn’t that another one? The Old Smutty-Face comes to us and says, “You were frightened in McDonald’s to tell somebody you were a Christian. You were frightened to tell your friends at work that you love the Lord Jesus. You were frightened to invite them to worship with you. You’ll never be any good!” Tell him to go back where he belongs, and remind him of Timothy, who was also ashamed of the gospel—didn’t really want to be known as one of the ragtag and bobtails that hung around with Saul of Tarsus, who was a major troublemaker in the universe at that time. And Paul says to him, “Come on now, Timothy. Don’t disqualify yourself as a result of your shame.”
And his fifth disqualification was a proneness to chuck it. To chuck it. Somebody asked me the other day what is my greatest temptation in the ministry, and this is it: to chuck it. That’s the greatest temptation which confronts me. Now, it may be that tomorrow it will be a different temptation. It’s not the only temptation by any means, but it is the greatest temptation—that is, to say, “Enough’s enough! Let’s fold it up.” And Timothy was just like that. That’s why Paul wrote the first seven verses of 2 Timothy chapter 2: to remind him! He said, “It’s a hardworking farmer that receives the fruits of the crop. It’s the soldier that keeps going. It’s the athlete who keeps running, Timothy. You’re not gonna quit, are you? You’re in a relay race, Timothy, and somebody’s waiting to take the baton from you. You’re not gonna throw it down now, are you? You’re not gonna lie down in the middle of the track. You’re not gonna walk away at this stage. No, no, Timothy. I have to urge you to keep going.”
Well, those were disqualifications for ministry: physically weak, naturally timid, too young by the general standards of the day, prone to chuck it, and a tendency to be ashamed of the gospel. And what does Paul say to him? He says, “God did[n’t] give us a spirit of timidity,” but he gave us “a spirit of power” and “of love and of self-discipline.” Two Timothy 1:7.
Okay? Right. Are you still with me? It’s starting to rain. I think it is starting to rain, isn’t it? I’m just starting to perspire. Alright. The sun shines on the righteous, and the rain falls on the rest. Okay.
Here’s what I want to present you with as a challenge in conclusion: because God can use you and me, he wants to. And because there is a work for Jesus that no one else except you can do, you better find it—right?—so that you can spend your life doing it. Now, whether that’s in an office, or in a bank, or in a factory, or in a school, or in a surgery, or whatever it is—behind a kitchen sink, at the dryer or the washer—that’s okay! God knows, and you find out. And when you find out, then you’re going to do what? Fulfill the Great Commission. Which is to do what? To “make disciples of all nations,” to reach the world for Jesus Christ, to do the task, enabled by the Spirit of God and quickened in the way that he desires.
I want to illustrate this—and I can’t recall if I’ve done this before—from mathematics. When I do this, I move into a realm of great danger. And I want to talk briefly about exponential growth, which’ll be familiar to most of you, right?
Here, let me ask a question of any who are under the age of twelve, okay? If you’re under twelve, this is for you. I’m gonna ask you the question: If your dad comes to you on a Saturday morning, and he says this—you and your brother or you and your sister—“I’m going to give you an opportunity to make a decision. For your allowance today, you can either have a dollar a week starting now, or you can have one cent this morning, I will double it next week, I will double it the following week, and I will double it every week to the end of the year.” So you can walk away to the store with a dollar or a cent in your hand. How many of you under twelve would just quite honestly go for the dollar? Put up your hand if you want the dollar now. Okay. One or two would say, “Give me the dollar.” How many of you think that you would go for one cent? And how many of you don’t have a clue? Okay, the majority haven’t got a clue.
Well, let me tell you what would happen. If you took one cent on that first week and had it doubled every subsequent week, this would be your allowance on the fifty-second week of the year. If you don’t believe me, do it with a pen and a pencil or with your computer; you’re gonna find I’m right. Your allowance on the last week—not the cumulation of fifty-two weeks, but the last week, your dad would have to come up with $22,517,998,138,832.48. So remember: if he gives you the chance, take it! Okay? That is exponential growth.
Let me illustrate it in terms of church growth. Supposing an evangelist came to town, preached every day of the year, saw 1,000 people profess faith in Jesus Christ every day, there would be how many at the end of the year? Three hundred and sixty-five thousand. Okay? Supposing you or I, as an individual in that day, were privileged to lead 1 person to faith in Jesus Christ, and we spent the remainder of the year with me having led that individual to Christ, discipling them in the things of God, so that at the end of the year there were 2 of us and 365,000 others. If we reproduced ourself in the following year, there would be 4 of us, and there would 730,000 that had been won to faith in Christ by the evangelist. Okay? If I had a screen, I’d illustrate this to you.
But let me tell you what happens. It would be 19 years which would elapse before those of us who were involved in the discipling ministry would be able to exceed the figures of the evangelist’s first year. Okay? So, if we just discipled in 2, 2, 4, 8, 16, it would take us 19 years to get beyond the evangelist’s 365,000. But let me give you the figures at 25 years. Year 25, the evangelist, at 1,000 a day, had seen 9,125,000 people profess faith in Jesus Christ. Those of us who were involved in the discipleship ministry have now been involved in a growth procedure which has seen 33,554,432 people come to faith in Jesus Christ. By the twenty-sixth year, the discipler has had a part in winning a total number of people that the evangelist—listen to this—after year 26, we have seen the amount of people come to know Jesus Christ that the evangelist will not know, at 1,000 a day, for another 158 years. And if you take the world population and compute it roughly to be 4 billion people, then the discipler, in exponential growth, would reach the world for Christ in 32 years. The evangelist would take 10,960 years to communicate and reach those 4 billion people.
Now, that’s just a load of figures and stuff. But what’s the deal? The deal is this: that is the growth principle which Jesus set in motion. The early church grew without the aid of two things that we have deemed most important in the twentieth century, and they’re these: one, church buildings, and two, mass evangelism. And with neither mass evangelism nor church buildings, the disciples went out and turned the world upside down for Jesus Christ.
Now, that’s not to denigrate mass evangelism. Every one of us here doubtless has cause to thank God for the ministry of people like Billy Graham, whose sandals one is not fit even to untie. But if you met him, he would tell you this: that the way to reach the masses is to reach them one by one.
And it was to that same individual, Timothy, that Paul said, “The things that you have heard from me, the same entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” If a group like this—and it would only need to be this group. In fact, if fifty of us were involved in it, in a commitment to reaching one, and two reaching two, and four reaching four, and on—then the growth in our fellowship would be absolutely unstoppable. And when we think of the ministry, let’s not think in terms of professionals. Let’s not think in terms of pastoral superstars who make it happen, and we ride along in the back of the bus. But let’s realize that God wants to use you as you are: vital to the ministry, special in his purposes, unique in the future.
And when we take these things to heart, then we’re able to rise to each new day and say, “O Lord, I want to be used by you today, either across the street or across the sea. But I want you to use me today. I want to count for Jesus Christ. Leave me in my job, or move me out my job. Use me here or take me somewhere else. But use me. Let me know that I am part of your purposes. I’m only an old clay pot. I’m aware of my frailty. I’m aware of my fear. I’m aware of the futility that marks so much of me. But I am ready to be used.”
Is there a prerequisite? Well, there are a number of them. One I mentioned this morning, and that is spiritual fullness. And God never, ever filled a life that he first didn’t clean. And if you wonder why it is that God does not flow through you and use you to the fullness that he might, part of the problem will be, for some of us, that there’s a blockage in the pipe, that there’s silt which has built up—the silt of a dirty mind, the silt of an unforgiving spirit, the silt of jealousy, the silt of a rebellious heart, the silt of all kinds of things flow into the pipe, and we wonder why it is that God does not flow through in all his fullness. When he lays his hand upon an individual, he takes us first to clean us, for cleanliness is a prerequisite of usefulness.
May I encourage every one of us tonight to see that God has unique and special purposes for us? You’re perhaps a mum, and you’re tied, as it were, to so many duties of children. Well, listen: God gave you children; disciple them, and in eternity they’ll rise and call you blessed. Of all the people whose names are on the roll of American churches, the statistics tell us 5 percent don’t exist, 10 percent can’t be found, 15 percent never attend, 25 percent attend only once on a Sunday, 50 percent are involved in no meaningful ministry opportunity, 75 percent have no family worship, 90 percent have no devotional life, and 95 percent never lead a person to faith in Jesus Christ. And even when you allow for all the statistical analysis, if it’s even marginally the case, it says this to us: “Hey, we better shake a leg. ’Cause Jesus is coming back, and time is getting short, and the world looks kind of dark, and our friends look kind of gloomy.” And they might not come into our church building—and hey, we don’t even have one to bring ’em in at the moment, so that’s fine! But they will talk with us in McDonald’s, and they will eat in our homes, and they will listen to us when we walk with them and talk with them on the way. So don’t let’s use any excuses. Let’s get down to business, “you in your small corner, and I in mine.” And it will not be to one another we give an account, but to Jesus Christ on the day of judgment.
Shall we bow together in prayer?
O God our Father, we thank you tonight that it is your purposes to make your strength made perfect in our weakness. We confess to you our weakness. I confess to you, Lord, how easy it is to become dispirited along the pathway of faith, how easy it is to have one’s gaze turned, how easy it is to drop the baton, to forget the person that’s waiting to take it from our hands, to forget the heritage that we’ve been privileged to know. But I thank you for the people around who say, “Come on. Let’s go! There’s a race. There’s a finishing tape.”
And tonight we praise you from our hearts for those who’ve helped us along the journey, and even today have helped us on the journey. Yes, we’ve had spikes in the shins and elbows in the ribs, but we understand it’s part of running. We’ve heard the cannon roar over our heads, but we know it’s part of being in the army. We’ve been discouraged because the plants haven’t grown as quickly as we might have liked, but we know that that must be part of being a farmer. Make us, God, what you want us to be. Make us clean. Make us useful. Make us men and women of God, that we might win men and women for God, and all the more as we see the day of Jesus Christ’s return drawing near.
We commit one another to your care, asking that you will watch over and between us. Bless our lives as we live them out before you. And may we always be a help and never a hindrance to one another, so that on the day when we stand before you, we may do so without shame and with cause to thank you for all of your grace. For we ask this, committing one another lovingly to your care and keeping, through Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Amen.
 Elsie Duncan Yale, “There’s a Work for Jesus” (1912).
 Acts 4:13 (KJV).
 2 Corinthians 12:9–10 (paraphrased).
 Exodus 4:10–15 (paraphrased).
 Jeremiah 1:6–7 (paraphrased).
 See 2 Timothy 1:5.
 1 Corinthians 16:10 (paraphrased).
 1 Timothy 4:12 (paraphrased).
 2 Timothy 1:8 (paraphrased).
 2 Timothy 2:3–7 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 28:19 (NIV 1984).
 2 Timothy 2:2 (paraphrased).
 See Proverbs 31:28.
 See Deuteronomy 6:7; 11:19.
 Susan B. Warner, “Jesus Bids Us Shine” (1868).
Copyright © 2023, 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.