Please, would you take a Bible in hand and turn in it with me to Paul's letter to the Colossians, chapter 1; Colossians 1 at the twenty-fourth verse. You'll find that on page 983 if you're using one of our church Bibles. There were false teachers troubling the church at Colossae and they were actually pretty skilled politicians. They realized that if they were to be effective in poaching the Colossians from Paul, stealing them from Paul and making them followers of their new teaching, they had to do more than simply attack his message; they also had to attack his ministry. "If we can make the Colossian Christians question the validity of Paul the man, Paul the apostle, then no one will listen to Paul's teaching." That was their thinking; that was their strategy. And so we've already seen, haven't we, in verses 15 through 23 of chapter 1, Paul outlined for us really in a very short space, the molten core of his message about Jesus Christ. He's been articulating and defending the message.
Now in chapter 1 verse 24, and really running through the fifth verse of chapter 2, he's going to defend his ministry. You see him introduce this subject at the end of verse 23 of chapter 1 where he has been talking to the Colossians about the Gospel, the hope of the Gospel that they heard, "which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven and of which, I Paul, became a minister." And so the ministry, beginning in the twenty-fourth verse running through chapter 2 verse 5, is the new subject for this section of the letter as Paul defends his apostleship. And as he does so, he gives us what may be the richest, or at least one of the richest sections of teaching in the New Testament, about the nature and purposes of the Christian ministry. We're going to think about it under three headings. First, in verse 24, there is the suffering entailed in Gospel ministry. The suffering entailed. Then in 25 through 28, the stewardship entrusted to Gospel ministers. So the suffering entailed and the stewardship entrusted to Gospel ministers. And then finally in verse 29, the strength that enables Gospel ministry. Suffering entailed, the stewardship entrusted, and the strength that enables Gospel ministry. Before we read the passage and then work through that outline together, let me ask you please to bow your heads with me once again as we go to the Lord for His help in prayer.
O Lord Jesus, You have the words of eternal life. To whom else can we go? Instead, we pray that You would pour out the Holy Spirit upon us anew, filling us afresh, illuminating our sin-darkened understanding, helping us to see the truth, to hear Your voice in Your Word, and to submit to it, believing it, embracing it, and obeying it. For we ask this in Your name and for Your sake. Amen.
Colossians 1 at verse 24. This is the Word of Almighty God:
"Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. To them, God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me."
Amen, and we praise God for His holy Word.
Many of you, I'm sure, are familiar with the ministry, perhaps the writings of the late R.C. Sproul. In one edition of his magazine, Table Talk magazine, he recalls a conversation with a student. “I remember a starry-eyed student,” he says, “who looked at me and said in wonderment, ‘What was it like for you when you were just a minister?’ I lost it,” said Sproul. “I exploded in a paroxysm of indignation. ‘What do you mean, just a minister? Don’t you realize that the parish ministry is the highest calling on earth? God had only one Son, and He made Him a preacher.’” God had only one Son and He made Him a preacher. Without any doubt, the call to proclaim the unsearchable riches of Christ is a lofty and glorious thing. There really is no thrill like opening the Word of God and despite my poor, lisping, stammering tongue, learning that God has blessed His Word to someone’s heart. That’s a glorious thing. Martyn Lloyd-Jones spoke of it as “the romance of preaching.” The romance of the ministry. It’s a thrill like no other.
The Suffering Entailed
And yet, alongside the glory of the ministry that is undoubtedly there, there's this other dimension. It's a dimension often overlooked, downplayed. Young men landing for the first time in ordained ministry are often surprised by this reality as it begins to etch itself into their lives. It's the reality of suffering. Paul talks about it in verse 24. You see it there, don't you? Here's the first theme to notice in the passage. The suffering that is entailed in Gospel ministry. Verse 24, "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and am filling up in my flesh what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church." So Paul does know great joy in the work of the ministry but notice carefully the context. It's great joy in ministry in the context of suffering "for your sake." It's the missing note in the available manuals on pastoral ministry, on preaching. It's often absent from the thinking of many who are preparing for pastoral ministry and a lifetime of ordained service that to follow Jesus and devote your life to preaching His Word will ordinarily be accompanied by suffering. So those of you training for the ministry at the seminary – get ready; saddle up. It's going to hurt. Suffering is part of your call.
Rejoice in Sufferings
And in the midst of suffering – that’s the context – Paul says, “I rejoice.” Now how do you make sense of that? “I rejoice in my sufferings.” Normally you avoid people who say things like that. Don’t you? You lock them up! “I rejoice in my sufferings.” Unless the reason for their joy makes sense of their suffering. Think for a moment about an immigrant mother who has endured unspeakable privations, all sorts of dreadful suffering and hardship. And there’s a joy on her face that just shines from her and you say, “How come? How can there still be this joy when you’ve endured so much to come and make a new life here?” And she says, “Look, I would gladly bear it all, I would endure it all over and over again, there’s no suffering too great if, as a result of my suffering, I know for sure my children have a better life.” And we understand that, don’t we? There’s nothing we wouldn’t do for the people we love most. We would endure anything. And if by suffering we knew things would be better for them, that they would have a better life as a result of our sufferings, we would be glad. Somehow in the midst of the pain of it all, there would be satisfaction, even rejoicing. That’s exactly what Paul is saying about his sufferings for the sake of the church. There’s nothing he wouldn’t do for them, no trial he wouldn’t endure for them, no burden he would not bear for them if by doing it he may be sure that he might be a blessing to them. He loves them, and so he suffers for them.
And do notice carefully the second half of that verse. He rejoices in his sufferings for their sake, "and in my flesh, I am filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, that is, the church." Now, what in the world does that mean – "what is lacking in Christ's afflictions"? Well, we can rule out what it doesn't mean, first of all, fairly quickly. Can't we? It doesn't mean that there's some deficiency in the worth or value or efficacy, effectiveness, of the obedience and suffering of Jesus Christ. When He said, "It is finished," He meant it. He's done it all; it's complete. A perfect atonement, a perfect redemption, so that anyone who looks at Jesus and trusts Him to be their Savior will be redeemed. There's no inadequacy in the sufferings of Christ. That's not what Paul means by "what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ."
Presentation of Christ’s Afflictions
So what does he mean? There’s one thing missing from the afflictions of Christ. It’s not their worth or their value or their power. It’s merely their presentation to the world. That’s what’s missing; that’s the additional piece. They must be presented to the world. Presented to the world, as we’re going to see in a few moments, in the proclamation of those called to preach the Word. But Paul is saying here presented to the world also in the sufferings endured by those called to preach the Word. The reason the Lord will send surprising sorrows into the life of a Gospel minister is so that, as they serve the people of God, they may put the people of God in mind of the Suffering Servant Himself, the Lord Jesus Christ, who loved us and gave Himself for us.
Brothers in ministry – there are a few Gospel ministers in the congregation; students training to be pastors here in the seminary; anyone really devoting themselves to a lifetime of vocational Christian ministry – we need to understand that if we are to be faithful to the call of Jesus Christ it is going to mean suffering that will mark the course of your ministerial career. Pray that God will give you a heart that beats with love for His people so that when you suffer for their sake you may do it with joy, pointing them even in your trials to the Savior Himself. And members of First Presbyterian Church, would you pray for us who are called to serve you as your pastors? Pray for the whole ministry staff team – the men and women who serve you here – that God would fill us with love for you so that we would gladly bear any cost, any trial, if in doing so we may promote your eternal welfare. That’s the model that Paul sets before us. We are to be reminiscent, to be signposts pointing a way to the Lord Jesus Christ as we gladly endure our own trials for the good of the flock, the people of God; representing to the world, representing in our suffering a little picture of the sufferings of the Savior, “filling up in our own flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ for the sake of His body, that is, the church.” And so the first thing is a sobering thing to see here, isn’t it? The sufferings entailed in Gospel ministry. It’s not all glory and romance. There is suffering involved; suffering essential and necessary to the faithful discharge of the pastoral office.
The Stewardship Entrusted
And then secondly, notice in verses 25 through 27 the stewardship entrusted to Gospel ministers. What exactly is it that a minister is called to do? Sometimes people will ask me that. “What is it you do all week?” Actually, quite often it’s asked in my favorite question, my favorite line – I love this – “You only work on Sundays, right?” Haha! You’re so funny! Paul tells us what to expect of our ministers. If you’ll look at verse 25, Paul became a minister of the church, he says, “according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you.” Now you might well know a steward in those days was a slave working in the household who was entrusted with the daily necessities of the family, to ensure that provision was made day by day for the welfare of the household. The steward isn’t the master; the steward is a slave under orders from the master. He’s not free to decide what his own job should be. He is given orders and those are orders he must follow.
In this case, Christ is the head of the household, the minister is the steward, and the household is the family of God, the Church of Jesus Christ. It’s actually a favorite metaphor. Paul loves to call a Gospel minister, particularly for his own ministry, a “steward.” 1 Corinthians 4:1-2, “This is how you should regard us,” he says, “as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful.” The central characteristic mark of a good steward is faithfulness to the orders, to the mandate given to them by the Master, the Lord Jesus Christ. So laziness is excluded and carelessness has no place and private agendas and selfish motives are out of bounds. It is required of stewards that they be found faithful.
Making the Word Fully Known
But faithful in what? Stewards of what? What is it that they are to be stewards of in the household of God? Look at verse 25 again. Paul is a minister “according to the stewardship from God that was given to him for them to make the Word of God fully known.” To make the Word of God fully known. Here’s his great work, his fundamental task – a minister is a steward of the Word of God to make it fully known to the people of God. This is what the Bible says you should look for from your ministers. Administration is important. Wisdom and empathy and skill in pastoral care – that’s essential. An array of ministry gifts – indispensable. But the great question that reveals a good and faithful steward is this – do they make the Word of God fully known? That’s the key question.
The word that Paul uses translated there “fully known” is related, it shares the same root as the word he used back in verse 24 when he talked about “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” He was talking about allowing the Word to have full scope, have its way, to let it loose that it might be accomplished in the lives of all those who hear. That’s the task of a faithful steward – to make the Word fully known. Look, a good story or two might really tug on the heartstrings. A touch of pulpit vulnerability may draw people in. A few flourishes of rhetoric may even dazzle or inspire and we might enjoy ourselves immensely listening to preaching like that, but it will not have done us any good whatsoever unless it drives us into the Word. Does he make the Word fully known? That needs to be our criteria for evaluating a faithful steward’s ministry.
And before we move on, do notice how Paul characterizes the content of the Word that he dispenses like a steward to the people of God. Here is the message he proclaims. It is, he says, “the mystery that was hidden for ages and generations but revealed to his saints,” God’s saints. “To them, God chose to make great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery.” The riches of the glory of this mystery. So something that was hidden is revealed; it’s glorious. We expect something extraordinary and he tells us what it is – “the riches of the glory of this mystery which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Here is the heartbeat of Paul’s message. Here’s the heart of the Gospel. What do you get in the Gospel? Not just forgiveness, not just reconciliation to God, not just a clean conscience. You get Christ Himself. Christ in you, the hope of glory. You are united to Jesus Christ forever in the Gospel and that is, that is something for which Paul will spend his life gladly – the wonder and the glory of that great truth.
Christ and Him Crucified
That’s why he will say in verse 28, “Him we proclaim.” Whatever other messages he may have, whatever else he must address, whatever challenges or struggles the churches may endure to which Paul must respond, he does it all bringing it back to Jesus Christ and Him crucified. “I resolve,” he told the Corinthians, “when I came to you to know nothing among you save Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” That doesn’t mean he had only one sermon and he preached it over and over and over. It means that no matter which subject he dealt with – lawsuits, immorality, divisions in the church, chaotic worship and so much else beside – and you’ll see it if you read through 1 Corinthians, whatever he is dealing with he deals with it in light of who Jesus is, what He came to do, and what it means to follow Him. Christ is the center, Paul is saying. That’s why in verse 28 he’s saying, “I’m giving myself, I’m pouring myself out warning everyone, teaching everyone in all wisdom, proclaiming Jesus Christ in order that we may present everyone mature in Him, in Christ.” You begin the Christian life by trusting in Christ and being united to Him by grace through faith and you go on enjoying Him and receiving from Him every benefit of His redemption. And when at last maturity is reached, when the work is finished in fact, it is a maturity in Christ, it is a likeness to Christ when you see Him face to face at the last day.
Every blessing and benefit you may know or enjoy as a Christian is a gift that is yours in Jesus Christ. So Paul says, “The burden of my life’s ministry, my message, is the Word of God, at the center of which is Jesus Christ. He is the answer to the heart’s need. He is the answer.” And so we really do need to demand of our ministers more of Christ. Whatever else they may teach us, however else they may train us, whatever discipleship we may enjoy from the pulpit and in classrooms and in small groups and one-on-one, if it’s to be fruitful and enduring it must be Christ brought to bear upon the issues and concerns of our hearts. We need to become like children at the dinner table but not satisfied, if at the end of the sermon the minister hasn’t pointed you to Jesus. You need to come to us, come after us and demand more of Christ because Christ is who we need. Settle for nothing less.
Suffering entailed. Stewardship entrusted. It’s a stewardship of the Word. It’s a stewardship that proclaims the unsearchable riches of Christ.
The Strength that Enables Gospel Ministry
Then finally notice the strength that enables a ministry like this. The strength that enables Gospel ministry. Look at verse 29. "For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me." Those of you who are in or who have been in seminary will know that it is a fallacy to take an English word derived from a Greek root and import back into that original Greek word all the meaning found in the English word that's been derived from it. That's a dangerous practice; it's not safe. But, I'm going to do it anyway! Actually, I think it's helpful just as an illustration to notice the three words that Paul uses to describe the work of the ministry here, how they've come down to us in English as agony, energy, and dynamite. Agony, energy, and dynamite.
Power of God
“I toil on your behalf,” he says, “struggling” – so it’s a wrestling match – “I wrestle with sin and self. I wrestle with expectations and opposition and overwhelming obligations. There’s an agony of labor for your sakes. But I’m sustained by the energy that God so powerfully works in me.” That word “power” is the Greek word, “dunamis” – power of God. We get the word “dynamite” from that. It’s not really a good connection because the power Paul is talking about is not explosive power like dynamite. It’s not a loud bang and flash of something spectacular that’s there for a moment or two and then it’s gone. That’s not the picture. It’s actually much more powerful than that. It is not dynamite power, but the dunamis of God that sustains and keeps and enables a suffering servant of the Lord to stay there under the suffering and remain faithful. It’s not always a felt power. It’s not always a power of which we are conscious. Don’t go looking for some power encounter.
Actually, ministers find themselves often enough wondering, "However will I make it through this nightmare?" That's a question, I dare say, is found on the lips of many a Christian. Ministers find themselves thinking, "The people that I'm called to care for are suffering and I can't help them. I don't know what to do for them. And then there's all the unrealistic expectations that I put upon myself, not to mention the unrealistic expectations that other people put upon the minister. They're all pressing down on me. And then there are people who are hostile and they scare me. And then there are the needs of the lost all around me. And then there's the pressure of time and the care of family and then the limits of understanding and physical stamina and that all bears down. And then there's the sin of my wicked heart that threatens to derail my best intentions. At every turn, I'm overwhelmed and I don't think I can make it through this next season." Most of my pastor friends think that way most of the time. And then a month later they look back on that season and wonder, "However did I get here still in one piece, still fighting, still praying, still serving, still rejoicing, still striving to be godly, still working to preach Christ and love His people. How did I make it? I felt like I was running on fumes and yet here I am. What's happened?"
They didn’t have some extraordinary power encounter that overcame their fatigue and they were filled with new energy in the service of God. That wasn’t it. No, they were quietly kept and sustained with a resource not found in them; upheld and supported by the power of God. Not dynamite that is a bright explosion of energy and then burns itself out. That’s not what we need in ministry, is it? No, we need the dunamis of God to undergird and hold us up and enable us to persevere when trials come as well as triumphs. Would you pray, please, for me, for the ministers, ministry staff, the men and women of the ministry staff at First Presbyterian Church that God would save us from dynamite and give to us dunamis, the power of God, that helps us persevere and remain sometimes in a place that’s painful and sore, suffering for your sake and thus rejoicing.
And let me also remind you that everything that has been said here of a minister is true of a Christian. Suffering and rejoicing and putting the world in mind of Jesus as we do, entrusted with a Gospel to proclaim to the world and promised to be kept by the power of God, sustained and upheld by Him. Listen, when God calls you to serve Him, do not rule yourself out because you look at the tank and you say, “You know, the tank is empty. I don’t have the resources.” If the Lord is calling you, He will supply the strength you need to obey. There’s power to sustain, to keep you, to energize you and to enable you, even if it involves toil and struggle and suffering, that you may live for His glory and praise.
Suffering entailed in Gospel ministry. It’s meant to put others in mind of the suffering Savior. The stewardship entrusted to Gospel ministers. We are to make the Word of God fully known and proclaim Christ. And the strength that enables Gospel ministry. The Lord will give us the power, the resources we need when we need them. “My God shall supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” May the Lord give a ministry like that to the church for our good and for the glory of His name. Let’s pray together.
Lord, we do confess those moments when we’ve said ‘No’ when You’ve called us to serve You because the tank was empty, we were running on fumes and we did not believe You could sustain and strengthen us. We confess our unbelief that we have measured the possibility of success by the strength of our own arm or the wisdom of our own minds instead of clinging to You for the provision of grace and enabling power. Help us as a pastoral staff, help us as a whole church to look to You, to cling to You, and as we do grant to us the dunamis of God, the dynamite, the power of God, to keep and strengthen and sustain us in our trails and in our triumphs so that we can indeed present to the Word a picture, a reminder of Jesus who, for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God, and so that we can proclaim His riches, the unsearchable riches of Christ to the world as good stewards. Do that among us for Your glory and honor in Jesus’ name, amen.
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