Let me guess. You are tired of the superficial.
You want to be a force for good in a world of evil—a person of authenticity in a world of hypocrisy. You are weary of witnessing what you see happening around you. You want to be part of the answer, not part of the problem.
There is no question that Jesus expected each of us to shine the light of God’s love among this dark, lost world. We are to spread it abroad and to share the truth that we have been granted. In our homes, schools, workplaces, recreations, and in every other area of our lives, there are ways we can serve others.
That means moving beyond theory and wishful thinking. That means reaching out, taking risks, and doing what Scripture commands.
Paul wrote with urgency, “I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (2 Timothy 4:1–2). In other words, stick with the preaching plan God has promised to bless and use: preaching the Word. Deliver the biblical goods! Be a man of the Book!
Did you notice something here? This exhortation is not addressed to the hearer; it’s for the speaker. The one who is to obey this command is the one proclaiming the message. That’s you. That’s me. That’s all who are called to stand and deliver.
We’re to be ready to do it in season and out of season. Being ready implies being prepared both mentally and spiritually. Don’t try so hard to be so creative and cute that folks miss the truth. No need for meaningless and silly substitutes for God’s Word. They may entertain but rarely convict the lost or edify the saved. Teach the truth.
In essence, Paul says, “Don’t be lazy. Do your homework. Don’t stand up and start with an apology that you didn’t have adequate time to prepare. That doesn’t wash.” And prepare your work faithfully—when it’s convenient and when it’s not.
Sadly, in an alarming number of churches today, God’s people are being told what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear. They are being fed warm milk, not solid meat. A watered-down gospel will attract large crowds (for a while), but it has no eternal impact. I’ve not been able to find any place in the Scriptures where God expresses the least bit of concern for increasing numbers. Satisfying the curious, itching ears of our postmodern audiences is an exercise in futility.
The task of ministry is to deliver truth. Frankly, I intend to continue doing just that, by God’s grace, until the day He calls me home. I believe that’s your passion as well. That’s why you became a pastor. Thankfully, there is an ever-increasing body of believers who long for nourishing messages based on the Word of God, not human opinion.
Will you answer the charge?
Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all nations. . . . And surely I am with you always” (Matthew 28:19–20 NIV). There is no greater challenge and no more comforting promise. Believe it. Trust it. And by the grace of God, just do it!
I’m right there with you.
For God is not unjust. He will not forget how hard you have worked for him and how you have shown your love to him by caring for other believers, as you still do. (Hebrews 6:10, NLT)
Because Jesus Christ, the Son of God, took upon Himself the role of a servant while He was on earth, so must we.
The one who could have been or done anything, consciously and voluntarily chose to be one who served, one who gave.
So then, if we are to become increasingly more like Christ (that is still our goal, isn’t it?) then we, too, are to give and to serve. Not just stand and preach.
To those who serve, to those who stand and preach—as Jesus Christ once stood and preached many, many years ago—He promises a reward. And we can be sure He will keep His promise.
Four truths will help put all of this in proper perspective.
In Matthew 25:14–30, Jesus told a story of three men who were asked to steward their master’s treasure while he was away. When he finally arrived back, the master asked the stewards how they had managed his finances.
The first servant told his master that he’d doubled his treasure and now he had ten talents to give back. The second man had doubled his portion as well and now he had four to offer. The landowner was delighted with both of them.
He then turned to the third servant, who had been given a single talent. This servant had been afraid to take a chance, so he had buried his talent in the ground, then returned it to his master. Poor guy. You can almost feel his shock at what comes next. His master exploded in anger: “You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed?” (Matthew 25:26 NIV). Then he added, in effect, “And yet you buried my gold so that now you’re giving me back only what is mine?! Those who risk nothing, do nothing, invest nothing, and fail to obey my command, I will take away even what they have.”
If you think Jesus was trying to get our attention with that story, you’re right. Read on. In the very next sentence, He tells of the day of judgment when the Son of Man, surrounded by all His holy angels, will separate the sheep from the goats. To those who have obeyed the Master, however great or however small their initial gifts, the very gates of heaven will fling wide open. It is not the size of the talent that matters at this point but the faithfulness of the servant. Those who have obeyed will be welcomed with open arms and abundantly rewarded. Those who have disobeyed, however, and those who simply sat on their treasure will be shown to the nearest exit. This is not a salvation by works but a revelation of responsibility. This declares how the saved are to steward God’s resources.
I can offer no more sobering challenge than Christ’s own words, not mine. Our Lord Jesus says, “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love” (John 15:10).
Oh, that we pastors might take that admonition to heart and obey His Word so that we might rejoice in our Father’s love!
Last week, we began our look at five eternal “crowns” set aside for God’s servants. After listing the first three crowns again, I’ll add the final two and offer a brief explanation of each.
1. The Imperishable Crown (1 Corinthians 9:24–27)
2. The Crown of Exultation (Philippians 4:1; 1 Thessalonians 2:19–20)
3. The Crown of Righteousness (2 Timothy 4:7–8)
4. The Crown of Life (James 1:12)
This wonderful reward awaits those saints who suffered in a noble manner during their earthly life. The significance of this reward is not only related to the words perseveres under trial but also the words those who love Him. This crown is not promised simply to those who endure suffering and trials . . . but to those who endure their trials, loving the Savior through all the pain and anguish! Therefore, loving the Lord and having the desire that He be glorified in and through the trials become the dual motives for the believer’s endurance. Those saints who qualify (and the Lord is the Judge!) will receive the crown of life.
5. The Crown of Glory (1 Peter 5:1–4)
This reward is promised to those who faithfully “shepherd the flock” in keeping with the requirements spelled out in verses 2 and 3. Those faithful under-shepherds who fulfill these qualifications (willingness, sacrificial dedication, humility, an exemplary life) will receive this crown of glory.
After receiving these crowns, what then? Is that all there is? Look at Revelation 4:9–11:
And when the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, to Him who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders will fall down before Him who sits on the throne, and will worship Him who lives forever and ever, and will cast their crowns before the throne, saying, “Worthy are You, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and because of Your will they existed, and were created.”
What a scene! All God’s servants are before His throne. What are they doing?
- Strutting around heaven displaying their crowns? No.
- Separated from one another, like peacocks, proudly displaying their tangible trophies? No.
The servants are bowing in worship, having cast all crowns before their Lord in adoration and praise, ascribing worth and honor to the only One deserving of praise—the Lord God. What a scene that will be!
As those who serve the living God, we occasionally need to consider the eternal “crowns” being set aside for God’s servants. What an intriguing study!
There are at least five specific crowns promised in the Bible. For our purpose here, I will simply list the eternal crowns mentioned in the New Testament and offer a brief explanation of each. We’ll cover three today and the other two next week.
1. The Imperishable Crown (1 Corinthians 9:24–27)
This reward is promised to those who victoriously run the race of life. Taking into consideration verses 26 and 27, that is, the “buffeting” of the body, it is clear that this reward will be awarded those believers who consistently bring the flesh under the Holy Spirit’s control, refusing to be enslaved by their sinful nature. In other words, those who carry out the truths of Romans 6:6–14.
2. The Crown of Exultation (Philippians 4:1; 1 Thessalonians 2:19–20)
This crown will be one over which its recipients will glory and rejoice! This is the “soul-winners crown.” It is claimed by Paul regarding two bodies of believers whom he had led to and discipled in Christ Jesus . . . the Philippians and the Thessalonians. Our Lord will distribute this crown to those servants who are faithful to declare the gospel, lead souls to Christ, and build them up in Him. And remember: the rewards at this judgment will be based on the quality not quantity of our earthly works (1 Corinthians 3:13).
3. The Crown of Righteousness (2 Timothy 4:7–8)
The crown of righteousness will be awarded those who live each day, loving and anticipating Christ’s imminent return . . . those who conduct their earthly lives with eternity’s value in view. Kenneth Wuest captures the complete meaning of verse 8 with these words:
To those who have considered precious His appearing and therefore have loved it, and as a result at the present time are still holding that attitude in their hearts, to those the Lord Jesus will also give the victor’s garland of righteousness.
Those who qualify for this crown anxiously look for His return from one day to the next.
During my days in seminary, I formed a habit that has helped me immensely throughout almost 50 years of pastoral ministry. I had my artistic sister, Luci, print a simple, three-word question on a small rectangular card I placed on the wall above the desk where I spent so much of my time.
Just black letters on a white card, with a bold question mark at the end:
WHAT’S YOUR MOTIVE?
I no longer have the card, but the question is now indelibly etched on my mind. I ask it almost every day of my life. It has proven to be an essential checkpoint I now apply on a regular basis:
- Why are you planning this?
- What’s the reason behind your doing that?
- Why did you say yes (or no)?
- What is the motive for writing that letter?
- Why are you excited over this opportunity?
- What causes you to bring up that subject?
- Why did you mention his or her name?
- What’s your motive, Swindoll?
Searching, probing, penetrating questions.
Because the path of servanthood is so perilous, we need to cultivate a sensitive walk with God marked by obedience.
If we think we can’t win the fight against the incessant temptations of the flesh, then Scripture is mocking us. We’re being dangled by a hope that will never be realized. To put it even more bluntly, Paul was a liar.
But fortunately, we’re in a winnable war. Paul wasn’t lying. I offer four truths that can arm us for the conflict.
First, appreciating the nature of the battle is essential. It’s a universal war that began all the way back in the garden of Eden and includes every one of us. Our flesh craves satisfaction in the very things that God hates. And until we stand with the Savior in heaven, the age-old civil war rages on! Yes, we will experience the attack of Satan from the outside, but we have an enemy within that we must never forget or ignore. The flesh never takes a holiday.
Second, we are powerless to win the war against the flesh without the Spirit of God. By conscious submission, we engage the Holy Spirit in the first moments of crucial decisions. Our ability to do that will grow as we practice the spiritual disciplines. All of them prepare us for battle. All of them give us greater intimacy with the Almighty, who lives within us. The result is predictable: when faced with temptation, the Lord fights the battle on our behalf.
Third, developing this discipline is a personal matter. We can depend upon no one else to develop our own discipline of self-control. Paul wrote, “I discipline my body” (1 Corinthians 9:27, emphasis added). This is something each of us must do in the Lord’s strength. If someone else has to restrain us, it’s not self-control! As a pastor, I’ve seen a lot of people marry with the hope that a partner’s strength will prop up his or her own weakness. (I’m sure you’ve seen it too.) The opposite is more often the case. There’s no magic in marriage. A godly marriage can be the instrument of God’s working to make us more like Christ, but marriage by itself makes nobody strong. Developing the discipline of self-control cannot be the responsibility of a husband or wife.
Finally, ignoring the consequences invites disaster. Lack of self-control will invariably lead to embarrassment for us, for our ministries, and for those we love. With issues of self-control, we’re usually dealing with things that we know are wrong and will have negative fallout. And they usually involve something habitual, which means that the people we hurt are probably growing weary. What’s worse, it adversely impacts our spiritual life.
In 1 Corinthians 9:27, Paul uses a word that most translations render “disqualified.” It’s in keeping with his word picture of the athletic competition, but “disqualified” can lead us to wrong conclusions about the spiritual consequences. Salvation and the assurance of heaven are not the issues in Paul’s mind here. Obviously, you will not lose your salvation if you fail to control yourself.
However, you quite possibly can be put out of the race by God’s disciplinary action. I have seen, on more than one occasion, a pastor sidelined by God for the good of the family, the ministry, and, of course, the individual.
I repeat: I urge you to appreciate the nature of the battle. Remember that you need the Spirit of God for victory. Take personal responsibility to develop self-control . . . and refuse to ignore the consequences.
They are disastrous.
Many years ago I was on an annual retreat with our church leaders.
After a busy afternoon of work, most of us men decided to relax and watch a championship playoff game between the Lakers and the Pistons. The Lakers weren’t playing very well, so the network kept switching back and forth from the game to coach Phil Jackson. As the gap in the score widened, he was getting more and more perturbed.
Just over Phil Jackson’s shoulder sat a woman wearing a low-cut blouse. Whenever the cameraman showed the coach, he made sure to frame the shot to include the woman. Not her face, mind you. Just what he and most red-blooded men in America would find most interesting. Not surprisingly, the network showed the coach a lot during the latter half of the game. With each shot of Jackson, we saw less of the coach and more of the seductive woman behind him—though never her face.
I noticed that the pastors grew more and more silent, and after a little while it was as quiet as a room full of nuns. Finally I blurted out, “Kinda hard to keep looking at Phil Jackson, isn’t it?” The guys burst into laughter as every ounce of tension fled away. I don’t think anyone there was guilty of lust, though that’s exactly how it can start.
In an unguarded, unexpected moment, something grabs our attention, and without appropriate boundaries and an honest acknowledgment of the temptation, we silently and secretly yield. We can dwell on the image, nurture it into a fantasy, and—even in the middle of a room full of fellow pastors—allow the impulse to drag us into lust.
But remember: simply noticing an enticing image doesn’t qualify as a lack of self-control. However, what happens in the five seconds after that may or may not qualify, depending on what we choose to do.
The apostle Paul obviously had the same penchant for lack of self-control as the rest of us. He wrote, “I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27).
I wish that full-time ministry made the battle against the flesh easier, but you and I know it doesn’t.
Even when Paul was writing God-breathed words, he still had to suit up and face the enemy in a civil war that never skips a day.
Not many years ago our church had the privilege of ordaining several men to the gospel ministry. These occasions always remind me of my own ordination—both the privileges and the challenges that accompany the pastoral ministry. This particular service was extra-special because one of my mentors, Dr. Howard Hendricks, offered the prayer of dedication I felt should be in print. If you are able, please read it out loud.
Father in heaven, we rejoice in what You have done in the lives of those ordained today. The Savior called them, He taught them, and He greatly used them. And today they stand on the threshold of a lifetime of ministry. Our passionate concern, Lord, is that You will use them way beyond their highest expectation. We know that You are “able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us.” And today we thank You for their parents and grandparents, their spouses, their children, their loved ones, their friends, their teachers, their mentors—godly men and women who have built into the lives of these young men, preparing them uniquely for the occasion to which You are calling them.
And we pray that You will keep them, each one, clean from the midst of a corrupt generation. May they shine their lights in the midst of a darkened world. We pray that God will use them with increasing effectiveness for His greater glory. Your Word tells us that when You call us to do anything, You will always provide the resources needed. And may they draw deeply from the rich well of grace. We are excited to think of how desperately they are needed—men who are committed to the gospel of the grace of God, the exposition of the Word of God, and the faithful and loving service in the will of God. Keep them on their knees, learning the power of prayer and always asking the question, “Is it really worth doing anything if I can do it without prayer?” Give them the passion of our Savior who at the end of His life commanded His disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19).
Father, as a good Shepherd, go before them, lead them in a plain path to do Your will and to do it courageously. Keep them from sin and, in their success, prevent them from believing their own press reports and humble them under the mighty hand of God. Multiply their giftedness to extend and enrich the body of Christ. Reproduce in each individual the body of Christ, the heart of Christ, and the life of Christ. And now, men, we exhort you. Acts 20:32 states: “Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” And we ask it expectantly and believingly in the wonderful name of our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Now brothers, let me challenge you to remember your own calling and ordination by personalizing this prayer. Change every “them” and “their” to “me” and “my.” Go ahead, please—take time to do that.
I encourage you to read and pray this often—and also to those you may serve alongside in vocational ministry. What a marvelous challenge. What a magnificent privilege.