The Marks of a God-Given Ministry
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The Marks of a God-Given Ministry

From Series: The Pastor's Study, Volume 1

Colossians 1:24-2:5  (ID: 1879)

Paul’s letter to the Colossians provides a standard by which today’s Church can determine the marks of a God-given ministry. Looking to Paul as a model, Alistair Begg walks us through the pattern, purpose, and pleasure of the pastor’s work. By God’s energy and enabling, pastors can present the Word of God in all its fullness, encouraging unity and spiritual maturity in their congregations.


Sermon Transcript:

And now I invite you to take your Bibles and turn with me to the New Testament, to Colossians and to chapter 1—Colossians 1:24.

And the apostle Paul is writing to these believers in the Colossae valley, and he says:

“Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness—the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

“We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me.

“I want you to know how much I am struggling for you and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not met me personally. My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments. For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how orderly you are and how firm your faith in Christ is.”

Amen.

“I want you to know that I’m struggling. I want you to know that I’m struggling.” Now, these are not my words. These are Paul’s words. That’s why we read them there in Colossians. In chapter 2 he says to the church at Colossae, “I want you to know not simply that I am struggling, but I want you to know how much I am struggling.” It’s an interesting word that he would use. It’s a word that is descriptive of his apostolic ministry. It is a very honest word. It is a word that indicates the depth of his feelings for these dear believers. It is a word which indicates the rigorous nature of the ministry to which he has been called. And it is a word with which all who are involved in pastoral ministry find themselves familiar.

The verses that I just concluded reading provide, not only for the church at Colossae but for the church in every generation, a standard by which we might determine, “What are the marks of a God-given ministry?” What should pastors, in general, be doing? And how will we be able to assess what a God-given ministry looks like? How will we be able to assess the nature of spiritual leadership?

Well, here we have in the verses before us not an exhaustive treatment of the subject, but certainly a helpful treatment of the subject. And Paul, in writing in this way, invites the Colossian believers to examine his calling, the shape of his ministry, and his goals. And, realistically, I invite you to do the same. I’m not thinking primarily or exclusively in terms of myself but in terms of the nature of what it means to be called to pastoral ministry in general. Therefore, I invite the assessment, along with my colleagues in ministry here on the pastoral team. And I want to trace a line through the verses by noting with you three things: first of all, the pastor’s pattern for ministry, then the pastor’s purpose in ministry, and then, finally, the pastor’s pleasure in ministry.

The Pastor’s Pattern for Ministry

What then is the pattern of pastoral ministry? Well, clearly it is provided for us by the apostles, both by their precept and by their example—in other words, by their instruction and also by their very lives which they lived. And it is on the strength of that, for example, that Paul is concerned to pass the baton of faith into the hands of his young lieutenant Timothy. And he urges Timothy in pastoral ministry along the very lines that he, the mighty apostle, has established in the privileged opportunities and responsibilities to which God had called him. And so, in looking at what is an apostolic pattern, we recognize that the only pattern that we have for pastoral ministry is the one which has been exemplified for us by the apostles themselves. And while there is an obvious and clear distinction between an apostle (for an apostle was one of a distinct, unrepeatable group of individuals) and a pastor (who is one of multiple individuals)—while there is a distinction to be recognized, there are also clear points of interconnection, which I think will become apparent in the course of our study.

In this pattern, then, for pastoral ministry, I want you to notice first of all the mission to which the pastor is called. In 1:25, Paul addresses this. He says of his relationship to the church—and he’s thinking of it on a wide basis, not least of all in relationship to Colossae—he says, “I have become its servant by the commission God gave me.” Now, this addresses the fundamental question “How does a person become a pastor?” Or better still: “How does the Bible determine the inception of pastoral ministry?” And the answer is, you don’t volunteer for it. The answer is, you don’t exercise an option to engage in it in the course of multiple other options. So, for example, the person finds himself saying, “Well, I think I could do this or that or this—or perhaps I could be a pastor.” Then he scratches his head for a moment or two, and then he says, “And I think… Yes! I think I’ll be a pastor!” That is not the way it happens. The pastor does not choose his task or his mission. Pastoral ministry is given by God, from on high. And that is modeled all the way through the Scriptures, from the calling of God and his servants in the Old Testament, all the way through the prophets, and then into the disciples, and into the apostles themselves. And the Bible makes it very clear that God is the initiative taker in all of this.

In the course of our leadership development in these last couple of years, we’ve been working through a couple of books: one with our elders on Saturday mornings—and yesterday was our morning—we’ve been going through the book Know the Truth, which has been some of the best times I’ve ever enjoyed in this church, and yesterday was one; and with our pastoral team, we’ve been going through a little book entitled Pastors and Teachers. But in the course of this book, Derek Prime makes this point that I am suggesting to you. And I quote him:

Advice frequently given is, “If you can avoid entering [pastoral] ministry, do so! If you can do something else, do it!” This is sound counsel. If it is right for a man to give himself completely to the ministry of the gospel, he will feel that it is the only thing he can do. John Ryle, a nineteenth-century bishop of Liverpool, had no early sense of call, and when he shared his decision to enter the ministry it came as a complete surprise to everyone. His explanation was, “I felt shut up to do it and saw no other course of life open to me.”[1]

How will you know that you are called to pastoral ministry? When you can do absolutely nothing else. If you can do anything else, do it. For the mission—the co-mission—comes from God, on high, to unlikely individuals, in time, on earth.

The pastor does not choose his task or mission. Pastoral ministry is given by God, from on high.

Well, you say, “Do you think every pastor is there by divine appointment?” Well, I’m not to judge. But I do think that there are clear indications when God has appointed somebody to a task, and there are obvious discrepancies when it would appear that the person has simply opted into it. And therefore, I say to young men who are here this morning, upon whose life God is beginning to move, then continue to seek him, continue to follow him, but beware of becoming like some of these Colossian teachers who were self-styled teachers. They were impressive, but they were also dangerous. They were like the prophets of whom Jeremiah spoke in Jeremiah 23, where God speaks through his prophet, and he says of these individuals, “I did not send these prophets, [and] yet they have run with their message.”[2] It will actually be apparent to all when a man is in the place of divine commission.

So, the pattern is that the mission is given by God; it is not simply opted into by man. And secondly, the message is a God-given message. If you scan the verses that we read, you will notice that Paul says that it is his express responsibility and privilege—in 1:25—“to present to you the word of God in its fullness”—“in its fullness.” In other words, not simply to preach little sermonettes for Christianettes—not to be like the pastor of whom it was said, “Ten thousand-thousand [are] his texts, but all his sermons one,”[3] so that no matter where he was, you always got the same sermon, whatever it might be; but to present the Word of God in all of its fullness. That does not come about as a result of five minutes of study on a Saturday night. That does not come about as a result of five hours of study. It comes about as a result of hours and hours and hours of study, which is part of the reason that, having been called to the week-by-week continual exposition of the Scriptures, the elders in their grace and their kindness have surrounded me not only with themselves but with other men, recognizing the unique responsibility which falls to me and holding my tail to the fire in the fulfillment of it, insofar as they expect me to present the Word of God in all its fullness.

I have no greater joy. I have no other desire. It is the immense privilege of my life. Long may he preserve me to at least approximate to the wonder of what it is to do that to which I have been called. Mercifully and hopefully, one will be better next week than this, and the following months than the months that have already passed. And one of the great benefits for me in these coming weeks is simply not to have the responsibility of the coming Sunday, Sunday, Sunday, Sunday. It is… I can’t explain to you what it’s like—I know that there are parallels—but it is a wonderful gift from you to me to relieve me of that for these next twelve or thirteen weeks. And I want you to know how deeply appreciative I am. Because I want to get reading and thinking and praying and listening, so that I might be better able to fulfill the pattern for ministry, having been given a mission and having been given a message.

You see, the way that faith is engendered, the Bible says in Romans, is that “faith [comes] by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”[4] Therefore, God would use his Word to bring men and women to faith. And the Bible also says that it is by the instruction of the Word of God that people are built up—that they become strong and stable Christians. Therefore, any ministry which sets aside or denigrates the place and priority of the message of the fullness of God’s proclamation is a ministry that will eventually tend to nothing. That’s why, for example, when Peter is reinstated by Jesus, and on the morning hours as they meet with one another and Jesus asks him three times, “Do you love me? Do you love me, Peter?” “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” He says, “Then feed my lambs. Peter, do you really love me?” “Yeah, I love you, Lord.” He says, “Then feed my sheep. Peter, do you really, really love me?” “Yes, I love you, Lord!” “Then feed my sheep.”[5]

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the shepherd’s responsibility is not actually to feed sheep, in the sense of taking grass and sticking it in their mouths. There are peculiar responsibilities for lambs, and especially lambs that are not doing well—to hold them close, to nurture them, to give them a bottle. But you don’t find shepherds—and my grandfather was a shepherd—you don’t find shepherds sitting with big ewes on their lap, you know—sort of moving their horns out of the way so they can read the newspaper, saying, “Come on, now. Eat your grass, eat your grass.” The responsibility of the shepherd is to lead the sheep into the pasture, and they eat. They eat. So the real question is whether the shepherds in this church are leading you into the pastures. Then the question is, Are you eating? For we don’t anticipate that mature sheep will need to be spoon-fed and/or with bottles.

But the real question is, Is the message that is being proclaimed the ideas of a man or the very truth of God’s Word? Because, you see, there were people in Colossae who were into all kinds of things, and that’s why in verse 8, Paul says—of chapter 2—“See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.” Don’t allow anyone to sneak up on you and give you a bunch of bunk. Make sure that the man is a man with a mission, and make sure that the message that he brings is to present to you the Word of God in all its fullness, verse upon verse, line upon line, chapter upon chapter—as opposed, again, to the false prophets of Jeremiah 23, of which it says, “I did not speak to them, yet they have prophesied.”

Now, the methodology is also clear. Paul is a preacher. And he is presenting to them, he says in verse [1:25], “the word of God,” and he is proclaiming to them, in verse [28], all that they need. He is true to his calling. And this is exactly what we need, and this is the way in which we ought to assess how well things are going. In Acts chapter 20, he says of his ministry amongst the Ephesians, “For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.”[6] “I haven’t kept back anything from you. I haven’t tried to sugarcoat it. I haven’t tried to be a nice guy. I haven’t tried to make you like me. There is stuff that’s been painful. There are things that are hard to receive,” he says. “But I have endeavored—at least, as you know my heart—to proclaim to you the full counsel of God, so that,” as Peter says, “after my departure you may always be able to bring these things to mind.”[7] And that’s the real test.

Derek Prime, again, writing of this, says,

It is not easy to be balanced in our presentation of God’s truth. William Burns, an early Scottish missionary to China, wrote in his diary, “How hard it is to unite in just proportions the humbling doctrine of man’s inability to come to Christ without regeneration, and the free gospel offer which is the moral means employed by God in conversion! Oh! Spirit of Jesus, my Saviour, lead me, a poor, ignorant, and self-conceited sinner, to the experience of this great mystery of grace, that I may know how I ought to declare thy glorious gospel to perishing fellow-sinners!”[8]

I want that prayer to be my prayer: “O Spirit of Jesus my Savior, lead me, a poor, ignorant, self-conceited sinner, to such an experience of God’s grace that I will be able then, on the strength of the mission, with the clarity of message, to be unashamed in the methodology.”

It’s interesting, is it not, that the Bible has so much to say about the preaching of God’s Word, and yet we live in a time when there is nothing that is quite as denigrated in all things that are happening in the church as the preaching of God’s Word. People say, “People can’t listen to anything more than sound bites. People don’t think logically anymore. Their thoughts are nonsequential. They read USA Today. They don’t read the New York Times. They would be hard-pressed to read the London Times; it has too many words, and they would need a dictionary to read it. And therefore, how in the world are you possibly going to be able to build a church with a methodology such as that? Don’t you think you ought to back it off, back it down, introduce a little drama, produce some dancing girls, make the lights flash a little, make it fun? After all, life is dreary and dull. Surely we’re not going to rely on such an outmoded methodology. Why would we ever do so?”

And the answer is, because we’re told to do so. It’s as simple and straightforward as that. When Paul goes into the city of Corinth, that is dominated by the temple of Aphrodite, with a thousand sacred courtesans plying the streets in the evening, filling Corinth with prostitution; when he looked up on the skyline and saw the temple of Venus, which was dominated and preoccupied with homosexuality; when he ministered within the environment of a succession of Roman governors, having been themselves overtly homosexual; when he was surrounded by a group of consumers who were interested in dramatic, spectacular things happening and powerful rhetoric taking place, what did he do? He said, “When I came to you, I did not come with impressive words of man’s wisdom, nor with superior eloquence. I recognize that the Jews demand a sign and the Greeks seek wisdom. I assessed the consumer expectations, understood perfectly what it was they wanted, and determined to give them nothing of what they wanted. Instead, when I came to you, I came in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. And my words were not wise and impressive, as I determined to know nothing among you, save Jesus Christ and him crucified.”[9]

Why? Because that is the only answer to the drugged-out teenage kid. That is ultimately the only answer to the self-assertive, proud businessman. That is the only answer to the fractured family and to the disintegrating culture. The world says, “Do something dramatic.” The church, in many places, says, “Do something political.” And I want you to know that for thirteen years, on the basis of this pattern of ministry, I have done what I am doing, and if God spares me for another thirteen years, I want you to know it’s going to be just as boring. It is the same mission, it is gonna be the same message, and it is gonna be the same methodology. And if that should be something other than is desired, then so be it. But I have no other strings to my bow, I have no other mission than the one I have received, I have no other message than the one I must proclaim, and I have no other apostolic pattern of methodology than the one that has been given. And I want you dear folks to realize that that is a shared perspective on the part of my colleagues.

The Pastor’s Purpose in Ministry

Well, that’s a word or two about the pastor’s pattern. Let’s spend less time on the pastor’s purpose. What is the pastor’s purpose in ministry? If, as we have noted, his posture on the one hand is to make the Word of God fully known, he is equally concerned—and so he says—to see the people of God become fully mature. Isn’t that what he’s saying there in verse 28? “We proclaim, admonish, teach with all wisdom, so that”—it’s a hina clause in the Greek—“so that we may present everyone perfect—or mature—in Christ.”

Now, the phraseology that he uses here is in the present continuous tense. In other words, he is speaking about continual and habitual action. He is speaking not about a kind of slam-bam-jam approach whereby as a result of slick talk and instantaneous dramatic results everything is transformed. He is talking about that which takes place over a period of time. And if I’ve learned one thing in the last twenty-one years in pastoral ministry, I’ve learned this: you better minister with a sense of history. And what I mean by that is simply this (and I tell my colleagues all the time): as much as we may desire to have a significant opportunity at this point in history, all that we may be being called of God to do at this point is to keep our foot in the door for another who will come after us, who will be manifestly blessed, and who will enjoy a great ingathering of souls—so that, whether we are apparently successful on the basis of numbers, or whatever criteria may be used by people, we do not use that as our own personal manner of assessment. What we do use is to see whether the people who are under our care are growing to maturity—or whether we have a congregation of people that are always on their training wheels, who can never go very far from the door, who are not being prepared to step out and to share their faith.

And the responsibility of a father and a mother is to prepare their children for the day when, having taken off the training wheels of emotional responsibility and financial security and so on, the child is able to go off on their own. “And that,” says Paul, “is my purpose.” And that is why he says, “I am involved in admonishing,” in verse 28. That is to correct through instruction and warning. “That is why I teach as I do.” And he taught in all these places to the point of his own virtual demise—not because he was thrilled in hearing his own voice, but because he was convinced about the message.

Do you know how tired I get of hearing my own voice? Do you ever think about that? You say, “Well, we hear it.” Yeah, but I hear it all the time. And now, courtesy of Truth For Life, I hear it every day when I’m in my study as I walk the corridors, coming out as the radio programs are produced. And I’m not enamored by the sound of my voice. I’m not thrilled by the quality of the messages. I keep them so that I can cry over them when I think about how bad many of them have been. Because the issue is, on a cornerstone out here when you entered: “God has planned to exalt above all things his name and his Word.”[10] And the ultimate issue is whether the people who are being fed are becoming mature; whether they are making the connection between doctrine and discipleship; whether their faith is beginning to function; whether they are understanding why it is that the instruction of God’s Word is so crucial for their own growth as Christians.

And I want you to know, it is a struggle. It’s a struggle to be prayerful. It’s a struggle to be positive. It’s a struggle to keep going, in light of setbacks, in light of discouragements. When the people that you thought were the starters on your team have quit showing up, even at the training practices. When folks that you thought you could bank on for always turn and just walk right out of your life. It’s a struggle. I don’t say that to be encouraging any kind of condolence on your part. I just say it to be honest. It’s a cotton-pickin’ struggle to stay in pastoral ministry in one church, week after week after week after week.

Now, why would you? And how could you? The answer is right in the verse. Because he is “struggling,” he says in verse 29, not with his energy, but with God’s energy! Because ultimately, it’s not man’s struggle—to struggle. It’s God’s enabling which gives us the ability to keep going. And that’s as true for you as it is for me.

And to the end that my purpose would be in pastoral ministry to see you in maturity, I share with Paul the conviction that these things ought to be happening—there in 2:2—my purpose is, number one, that you might be “encouraged” in your hearts. That you would be encouraged. That, at the very core of everything, you would be strengthened, you would be stirred, and you would be picked up. Even when you get one on the back of the head that is a “wooo!” that still you would understand that the purpose is that you would be encouraged. Even when we have to admonish and when we have to warn and when we have to speak with forcefulness, still that the people of God would understand that his Word comes in order to encourage us. That’s why the lovely song we’ve been learning from Philippians 2:1 is so nice in our congregation: “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, any comfort in his love, then make my joy complete by being of the same mind with one another.” What is the source of encouragement? It is being united with the Lord Jesus Christ. And mercifully, God anticipates that the encouragements within the body of Christ will come from multiple sources.

I love some of the unsung heroes of the New Testament, don’t you? I’m looking forward so much to meeting this chap Tychicus. I like his name, for a start. I wouldn’t call my son that, but I do like his name, the sort of ring that it has to it: Tychicus. They probably called him “Tych” for short. I’m sure they didn’t call him “Cus.” And he’s mentioned in Ephesians 6:21: “Tychicus, the dear brother and faithful servant in the Lord, will tell you everything, so that you also may know how I am and what I’m doing. Now, here’s why I’m sending him to you—it’s for this very purpose—that you might know how we are, and that he may encourage you.”[11] You get the same thing in Colossians 4:8: “I am sending [Tychicus] to you for the express purpose that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts.”[12]

It’s surely obvious that Paul was unable personally to offer the same level of encouragement to everybody to whom he wrote in all these churches that he established. And it would be an unrealistic expectation on the part of the people who were under his care and under his tutelage to feel somehow or another that unless they were personally encouraged as a result of personal interaction, that somehow or another this was not the place for them to be. I’ve told you before that the greatest indication of my love for you as a congregation will be if I fulfill my calling, which is to study the Bible and bring the food for you regularly in a way that is palatable. And in the same measure, my ability to encourage you must largely come through this vehicle.

I hope, in personal difficulty, in the rigors of life and death and in marriage and in these things, to be a pastor to you to the best of my abilities. That is my heart’s longing, it is my desire, and it is my calling. But I’ve long since concluded that it is impossible for me on an interpersonal basis to fulfill your expectations of me in relationship to personal encouragement. And recognizing that that is one of the reasons that God has moved the elders of this church not only to their own wonderful involvement in pastoral ministry but also to surround me with a pastoral team. So that encouragement may come from not simply Paul but from Tychicus, and from the others too.

It’s not unusual, of course, for people to tell me that they need to speak to me. It’s equally not unusual for me to say, “Are you sure?” And when, if they would tell me what they wanted to speak of, I would guide them in the direction of somebody else, it’s very difficult for me to convince them that I’m not simply trying to alleviate myself of burdens that I don’t want to carry, but I actually have a Tychicus over here who can deal with that question far better than I and will be able to encourage your heart. And since I know you want to be encouraged, I am actually safeguarding you by not talking to me.

Those of you with whom I have been in bereavement know that I can pastor people there. For those I’ve had the privilege of marrying, you know that I can do what’s expected of me, and the older I get, the more it makes me weep. Those of you who have dealt with difficulties in your personal experience—maritally and whatnot—know that I will be there for you as I am able to. But the fact of the matter is, many of you are far better at these things than I. And that’s why my responsibility is to edify the saints, so that you in turn may do the works of ministry.

So if I haven’t come to your home, it’s not ’cause I don’t love you. It’s just I don’t know where you live! And if I haven’t had a meal with you, it’s not because I don’t like you. And if I have, it’s probably not because I like you more. Do you understand that? It’s just that somehow or another, incidences have conspired to make that the case. As best as I know how, I have no “special friends” in Parkside Church. And I feel sorry for those of you who always thought you were particularly special to me. ’Cause you just found out: you’re not. And somehow, in a warped way, I mean that to be encouraging. You mean no less to me than you did the last time we were together, but you mean no more than that. And I have tried as best I can to live with that. But anyway, that’s enough about me.

“I want you to be encouraged in your hearts; I want you to be united in love.” That’s what he says: “united in love.” Not mushy sentimentality, but love that is formed by truth. Making sure that we’re “speaking the truth in love”—Ephesians 4:15. Making sure that we are united on the basis of our understanding of God’s truth and our preparedness to tell the truth. Whenever the belt of truth is left off in the armor,[13] chaos will ensue. And love and truth are always interwoven. It’s very important that you speak the truth to one another—that when you have concern about another person—a brother or a sister—that you speak to that person. And it is important when you’re spoken to that you respond in honesty and you do not lie by your silence. For failure to do so will set in process a bad viral infection, which will lay the body, sooner or later, flat on its back.

Whenever the belt of truth is left off in the armor, chaos will ensue. And love and truth are always interwoven.

Paul says of the Colossians, “I want you to be encouraged in your hearts, I want you to be united in your love, and I want you to be complete in your understanding.” Indeed, the first two frame the way for complete understanding. He says, “Encouraged hearts and united in love gives way to the riches of complete understanding.” Because, you see, if you’re not encouraged in your heart and united in your love, then you’ve got a bad attitude. And when you have a bad attitude, you can’t take in the Word of God. And when you don’t take in the Word of God, you can’t have a full understanding. And it all fits together perfectly. That’s why we’re laboring hard to say to you, “Doctrine—or teaching of the Bible—is so very, very important.” We could do series that are different from what we do. We could do as many other places do and simply have “How to Do This” and “How to Do That,” and the next six weeks, well, “How to Be the Perfect Dad,” and the following three weeks will be “How to Be the Perfect Husband,” and so on. And from time to time we do, and in classes and in different ways we will. But we’re not going to make that the staple diet.

And the reason is that while there are a lot of men out there who feel that what they need is a course on how to be the perfect husband or how to be the right kind of dad, what you actually need is a course in biblical doctrine. See, what you need is to understand who God is and what man is in relationship to God. Because once you begin to work that out—once you begin to understand the first three chapters of the book of Romans and understand that all men are accountable before God,[14] and then understand the wonder of justification, and then understand what it means to be sanctified and grow in grace and the knowledge of Christ,[15] and understand what it means that there is “no condemnation to them [that] are in Christ Jesus,”[16] and understand that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him”[17]—suddenly, when you begin to put all of that superstructure together, your ability to be a husband and a father and all these other things begins to fall into line. That doesn’t mean that you won’t benefit from the books or you don’t need the answer to your question. But it’s not really your question!

And the church in the United States of America at the moment is a kind of tertiary-level experience—a bunch of pragmatic “how-tos.” And it is about to fall on its face. Because people are not taking the time to put the foundations of biblical doctrine in correctly. And as soon as the winds and the waves blow and beat upon the house, it will fall with a great crash.[18]

It’s not as spectacular to spend such times in the foundations. It’s not as spectacular to have such slow growth. It’s not as spectacular to have things done in this way. And the only reason is because it is our express purpose that you would be encouraged in heart, united in love, and complete in your understanding. That’s why he says in verse 4, “The reason I’m telling you this is so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments.”

Isn’t it interesting when your children come home from a trip—you know, one of the first times that they went out in one of those bazaars or in one of those open markets, and they had a little bit of money in their pocket—and they come back and tell you how they got this great deal on such and such a thing, and, oh man, the guy was gonna charge, you know, $15.00 for it, and then he said he wouldn’t charge $15.00, he was gonna charge $12.00, and then he knocked it down from $12.00, and finally they bought it for $5.00, and they show the sorry piece of merchandise to you, and it isn’t worth $1.50. And they have been deceived by high-sounding arguments. And so, what do you do? You try and walk with them, and walk through that experience, and show them and guide them and nurture them, so they won’t be trapped.

Loved ones, that’s what this is all about. And as you think about the instruction of God’s Word from the pulpit week by week—and not least of all in my absence—listen to this: learn to examine all the teaching on the truthfulness of its content, rather than on the attractiveness of its packaging. Learn to examine the teaching on the truthfulness of its content, not on the attractiveness of its packaging. Nothing is as dangerous as feeble reasoning allied to fast talking. And unless a congregation has been nurtured and instructed in the things of biblical doctrine, then they will be suckers for feeble reasoning allied to fast talking.

The Pastor’s Pleasure in Ministry

Well, the last thought is simply the pastor’s pleasure in ministry. What is the pleasure in ministry? Well, goodness, it is so many we could stay here all day. But the one that he mentions in verse 5 is so clear. He says, “[Although] I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit, and [I] delight to see how orderly you are and how firm your faith in Christ is.”

He uses two military metaphors here in these verbs—or adverbs. The orderliness to which he refers is the orderliness of people in the ranks of the army. It is the opposite to chaotic disarray. I’ve never served in the forces; I’ve listened to my father ad nauseam tell me about him serving in the forces, and so I feel as though I’ve actually been there. But I do know this: that in that boot camp, in that training period—if I had it correct—the sergeant major does not get the recruits in and say to his friends, you know, “Now, this is George, and he has a bunch of donuts; and here is Fred, and he’s going to be bringing the coffee and the lemonade, whatever you might like. And what I want you to do is, I want you all to get together and sort of cozy up to one another and tell each other about stuff, and I want you to get so you like one another and that you’re all a happy group of campers. And then, finally, I’ll come back in a few days, and when you’re all perfectly united and encouraged and committed and devoted and stuff, then we’ll see if we can’t go out and fight the army—you know, fight the war.”

Unless a congregation has been nurtured and instructed in the things of biblical doctrine, then they will be suckers for feeble reasoning allied to fast talking.

It’s a ridiculous idea, isn’t it? What does the guy do? He said, “All right, folks! My name is Fred. I’m your sergeant major. Sit up, Jones! And shut up! You’re in the army now.” And then he calls for absolute unquestioning commitment to the standing orders. And he doesn’t give a rip whether Fred likes Bill, or Bill wants to spend the rest of his life with Rodney. It doesn’t even focus in his thinking. Because he’s got a battle to fight, and he’s got an army to get together, and they need to be orderly, you see.

And once they get in order underneath the commanding officer and in obedience to the standing orders and they go out and understand who the real enemy is, then a number of things happen. One, they don’t fight each other. They don’t fight each other. In downtime, armies may fight each other, when they get the chance to go play ping-pong, etc., but not when the howitzer is pointing right up their nose. Every time you have a church that fights with each other, I guarantee you one thing, absolutely certain: that church has lost sight of the real enemy.

But here’s an interesting thing that happens: Out of that orderly array and out of that unified commitment to the commanding officer and the standing orders, what do you find when you go into McDonald’s, and there are old guys there with the hats and the badges on them? You’ll find when they open up their wallet, every so often out come those old army photographs, tattered at the corners—guys they haven’t seen for forty-five years, whom they grew to love with a passion, not because they both went to the same school, not because they both had the same general interests in life, not because they had a kind of homogeneous approach to things, but because they were called underneath the standing orders.

Do you want to understand what it is to be perfectly united in mind and in thought? Submit to the commanding officer and pay attention to the standing orders. You’ll make friends like you’ve never made before. You’ll make the best friends you ever had in your life. You’ll make friends for eternity. Stand firm! He says, “I’m so delighted. I’m delighted to see how orderly you are, and I’m thrilled to see how firm your faith is.”

Well, our time is gone. I pray one thing for my children, always. My wife knows it, ’cause it’s a cliché now in my prayers; I’m sure you have clichés in your prayers as well. But when I pray for the kids, I always pray the same thing; I pray other things, but I always pray, “Lord, I do pray that my children may grow up to love you and to serve you. Whatever else happens, wherever they go, whatever influences I have, wherever mess-ups I make, whatever foul-ups I’m doing as a dad, I pray that in your great mercy they will grow up simply to love you and to serve you.” And that is exactly what I pray for my children here at Parkside Church. Whatever else happens, I pray that you may grow up to love and serve the Lord Jesus, even as you are now doing. And the greatest delights in pastoral ministry, in the awareness of our insufficiency for the task, is to see that our children are walking in the truth.[19]

God, in his providence and goodness, gave me a little encouragement in this respect, even after our first service. Somebody followed me all the way up the stairs and into my study. Incidentally, the reason I don’t come and shake hands with you at the door in between the services is because I’m frightened to. I’m frightened that one of you asks me a question that will completely distract me from the responsibility I yet have to fulfill. That’s all. Otherwise, I’d hang out, especially if somebody gave me donuts. But that’s why I go and hide. Well, the people followed me up the stairs. [Knocks.] So I looked at the wall; I said, “Here we go.” I said, “Yeah?” And in they came—came in to tell me that about two and a half years ago, they had searched for a church, searched for somewhere that God would speak into their lives. They’re about to leave and set up their home in Indiana. And they came simply to say, “Thank you, because here we heard the message, here we grow into maturity, and here we understood that these things are absolute essentials.”

One final little thought. You’d be surprised if you got away without this—especially when I tell you what it is. What’s gonna be the biggest challenge to this congregation in these next twelve or thirteen weeks? Not my absence. The biggest challenge is gonna be the Sunday evening service. ’Cause I’ve noticed, ’cause I read the figures when I’m gone. And those of you who are afraid of me and just come back in the evening ’cause you’re frightened I’ll come to your house or something on a Monday are clearly not as afraid of the guy who takes my place, and so you just don’t show. I just have a word of exhortation for you: Would you determine—prayerfully—would you determine to make a commitment to evening worship in these summer months? And then, having made your commitment to evening worship, would you work your schedule around that, instead of seeing evening worship as a number of options that you will move around other fixed points? Would you?

My son tells me that I have to be here, starting on the twenty-eighth of July, because he has two-a-days. As best as I can understand this inhumane practice, they all get together, get shouted at unbelievably, and they sweat themselves into a slithering mess from seven thirty in the morning till lunchtime. They then lie on the floor for approximately forty-five minutes, and they get up, and in the afternoon, they sweat themselves for another four hours. It’s called two-a-days. Apparently, he can’t wait. “Now, let me understand this: this is so that you can chase a bag of wind around a field on a Friday night. Right? You’re gonna take a complete month out of your life, you’re gonna take every day of the month, bar Saturday and Sunday, and you’re gonna give yourself expressly for the majority of available hours in the day so that you may be fit and ready, united, understand the playbook, believe the coach? Go for it!” “That’s what I’m going to do, Dad.” I said, “Boy, I’d like to take that kind of devotion and apply it to my own life, to the reading of my Bible, to prayer, and to the fellowship of God’s people.” Will you make a commitment to two-a-days?

Let’s pray:

Our God and our Father, we thank you for your Word, that it is a lamp which shines on our path.[20] It’s food for our souls. We thank you for the wonderful example of the apostle Paul, his pattern—the mission which you gave him, the message which was yours, the methodology which was unappealing in his day, and certainly in ours. Thank you for his clear purpose—that his people would be encouraged in their hearts, united in their love, complete in their understanding. May that be so. Thank you, Lord, for the way in which he was able to affirm them. In declaring his pleasure, he said, “I’m delighted to see how orderly you are, and how firm your faith in Christ really is.”

And Lord, as I look upon your people here today, I say the same. What a wonderful joy it is to see lives in conformity to your truth, lining up underneath your headship, submitting to your standing orders, and standing firm for the cause of the gospel. To this end, we pray that you will pour out your Spirit upon us. Save us from pride, save us from discouragement, keep us on track, so that on all occasions we may be a help and not a hindrance to one another.

And may the Lord bless us and keep us. May the Lord make his face to shine upon us and be gracious unto us. May the Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon us, and give us his peace, today and forevermore. Amen.


[1] Derek Prime and Alistair Begg, On Being a Pastor: Understanding Our Calling and Work (1989; repr., Chicago: Moody, 2004), 19.

[2] Jeremiah 23:21 (NIV 1984).

[3] R. C. Lucas, The Message of Colossians and Philemon: Fullness and Freedom, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1984), 92.

[4] Romans 10:17 (KJV).

[5] John 21:15–18 (paraphrased).

[6] Acts 20:27 (NIV 1984).

[7] 2 Peter 1:15 (paraphrased).

[8] Prime and Begg, On Being a Pastor, 53.

[9] 1 Corinthians 2:1–3 (paraphrased).

[10] Psalm 138:2 (paraphrased).

[11] Ephesians 6:21–22 (paraphrased).

[12] Colossians 4:8 (NIV 1984). Emphasis added.

[13] See Ephesians 6:14.

[14] See Romans 3:19.

[15] See 2 Peter 3:18.

[16] Romans 8:1 (KJV).

[17] Romans 8:28 (NIV 1984).

[18] See Matthew 7:27; Luke 6:46–49.

[19] 3 John 1:4 (paraphrased).

[20] See Psalm 119:105.

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.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.