A Near-Life Experience

The phrase “near-death experience” is a well known part of our language. Despite its frequent use, it is never viewed as trite. This is because we nearly universally recognize that this kind of incident is not to be taken lightly. A man who suffers a heart attack and flat-lines in the ambulance or on the operating table is well aware of how close he came to death. He typically takes his health far more seriously thereafter. A person who narrowly avoids a life-threatening accident is rarely dismissive of what happened. The reason is that we all understand that there is no coming back from death. One does not recover from death. Even unbelievers recognize this truth.

Most of us understand the significance of a “near-death experience.” It is an object lesson in mortality. Reminding ourselves of our mortality and the fragile nature of human life is an important exercise. It helps us keep our priorities straight as we move inexorably toward eternity. Preachers are particularly fond of drawing our attention to this reality as they try to move us to obey God’s will, and rightfully so. As James wrote, our life is “a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away” (Jas. 4:14).

The scriptures do not explicitly speak of “near-death experiences” as we refer to them. They do, however, refer to what might be called the polar opposite of a “near-death experience”. This is what may be called a “near-life experience”, and the records of such incidents are sad and troubling.

In Mk. 12:28-34 the text tells of a scribe who asked the Lord what the foremost commandment in the Law was. When the Lord responded to him, the scribe answered the Lord with such obvious knowledge and wisdom that the Lord exclaimed, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mk. 12:34). The text does not tell us if this scribe became a disciple of the Lord. If he did not become a disciple, this encounter with Jesus was a “near-life experience” for him. He was “not far from the kingdom of God”, but he was not in it. Until he entered the kingdom in obedience to the Lord, he would never have eternal life. Until he became a disciple of Jesus, he remained dead in his sins.

Another “near-life experience” recorded in Mark’s gospel is the story of the rich young ruler (Mk. 10:17-22). This young man came to the Lord, asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. The Lord’s answer distressed him, because he loved his wealth and possessions more than he loved Jesus. He went away grieving and did not become a disciple. He could have had eternal life, and came very near it, but he went away as he had come, dead in his sins.

The classic “near-life experience” in scripture is the story of Lot’s wife (Gen. 19:1-26). God sent His angels to rescue Lot and his family from Sodom before He destroyed it with brimstone and fire. As the angels brought the family out of the city, they instructed them to flee to safety in the mountains. They also specifically warned them not to look back (v. 17). At this point Lot and his family were nearly saved. Their lives would not be spared, however, until they did all that the angels commanded them to do. The proof is in v. 26, where the scripture says, “But his wife, from behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt”.

Lot’s wife had a “near-life experience” and like the rich young ruler, she failed to take advantage of it. Abraham’s bargaining with God for the city, and God’s gracious provision to bring Lot’s family out of the city went for naught. Lot’s wife had life in her grasp and by her disobedience she let it slip away from her.

The lesson for us to consider is a simple one. The opportunity for eternal life is before us in the message of the gospel as it is declared in the scriptures and proclaimed by God’s people. It is offered to us freely if we are willing to see it and to obey what God requires for us to receive it. There is usually some joy in a “near-death” story, but there is no joy in a “near-life” event. Don’t ignore the eternal life for which the Lord Jesus Christ shed His blood. Say, “Yes” to eternal life by obeying the gospel today, for tomorrow is promised to no one.

Where Were You?

After Job and his friends had argued at length about the reason for the calamities that befallen Job, God spoke to finally set the record straight.  As God began speaking He directed His attention to Job and asked him a pointed question.  In Job 38:4 God said, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?  Tell Me, if you have understanding.”

This simple question drew Job and his friends back to the basics.  While they had argued long and hard about Job’s condition and God’s attitudes toward mankind, they had lost sight of the most important aspect of all.  They were not God.  They had done nothing to create or to sustain the world about which they had so forcefully spoken.  Neither did they no much about God Himself.  

God’s discourse over the next few chapters put them all in mind of who He was and is, and what He had done to create and sustain the world in which they lived.  When the Lord finished speaking, Job confessed, “I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of course can be thwarted.  Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge  Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (Job 42:2-3).

Job’s confession demonstrated the personal character about which God bragged to Satan at the beginning of this book (Job 1:8).  Job, in this simple fashion, acknowledged the awesome power and majesty of Almighty God.  He declared that God, alone, is great and that the musings of himself and his friends were weak and pitiful in comparison.

This incident calls to mind the proud declarations of unbelievers today who seem to go out of their way to discount or call into question the power of God.  In places of natural beauty, such as the Grand Canyon or the lonely buttes of Monument Valley, AZ, they speak glibly about the lengthy processes of wind and rain erosion which created these marvels.  If one raises the prospect of God’s hand in making such things, the response is regrettably negative.  

So also for the stars in the heavens and the wonders of human life.  The unbelievers argue forcefully and arrogantly about “Mother Nature” and the “fact” of human evolution.  They browbeat those who attribute these things to the hand of Almighty God.  And one wonders if God the Father, looking down on us, isn’t saying, “Where were you?”, when He did them all.

King David wrote, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.'” (Psa. 14:1).  The leaders of the Jews attributed the signs of our Lord Jesus to the power of Beelzebul (Mt. 12:24).  Sadly, there are still such people around us today.  One cannot deny the power and work of God and be pleasing to Him.  One may not believe in the hereafter, but God’s word declares its reality.  

 

Will Your Anchor hold?

 

We all have certain things that anchor our lives.  They are the familiar things, the people or places that keep our feet on the ground.  They are the things that help us feel comfortable or reassured when we face challenges or trials.

As a youngster growing up in Southern California I had several things that were anchors for me.  One anchor was the San Gabriel mountains that ring the Los Angeles basin.  These mountains helped me keep my geographical bearings.  I could look at the mountains and know which direction to travel in order to reach some location.  In my young boy’s mind these mountains were literally the rock that anchored my physical world.  I could depend on them being there and I took comfort from their towering presence.

I also had anchors of a different sort.  Growing up in the Los Angeles area in the 50s and 60s meant being a Dodgers and Lakers fan.  Not only were the teams in their heyday at that time, they also had two of the most iconic voices broadcasting their games.  When I listened to Dodgers games I was captivated by the voice of Vin Scully, who broadcast their games for 67 years.  When I listened to Lakers games, it was the staccato style of Chick Hearn who gave me a “word’s eye view” of each contest.  Their voices, and later their images on television, was a sports anchor in my life.

The mountains were on the horizon, Vin and Chick were on the radio, and all was well in my world. . . . until things happened that “unanchored” these anchors.  The smog became so bad that there were many days when the mountains were not visible.  They were still there, but I couldn’t see them.  Then I moved from Los Angeles and my radio anchors were no longer there for me.  From time to time I might see or hear them on television in my new home, but for everyday purposes I had lost them.  If I had hopes of re-anchoring with them at some point, that hope no longer exists.  Chick Hearn passed away, and Vin Scully finally retired.  These are the natural events of life, but when one loses his youthful anchors the uncertainty of life becomes much more vivid.

This peek into my boyhood anchors illustrates just how carefully we must choose the anchors for our lives.  We sing a great hymn that asks, “Will your anchor hold in the storms of life?”  If one’s anchors are like my childhood ones the answer is definitely, “No.”  The simple truth is that these kinds of things were never intended to hold in the crises of life.  Any anchor that is based upon things of this world, or those who are in this world, will eventually fail us.

In Heb. 6:17-20 the scripture says, “In the same way God, desiring even more to show to the heirs of the promise the unchangeableness of His promise, interposed with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have taken refuge would have strong encouragement to take hold of the hope set before us.  This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil, where Jesus has entered as a forerunner for us, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”

The anchors that give order and stability to our daily lives play an important role for us.  Our families and friends, familiar people and places, keep us from the fears and the uncertainties of the world in which we live.  However, the anchor that truly holds us is our hope in the promises of God the Father.  He has never failed to keep His promises.  He has never failed to provide for and care for His people.  He has always been, and will always be, faithful to the covenant he has made with mankind through Jesus Christ.  We can find assurance, comfort, respite from the cares of this life, and ultimately, eternal life only by holding fast to the anchor of God, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Tomorrow Is Another Day

 

The climax of the classic movie, Gone With the Wind, shows Rhett Butler leaving Scarlett O’Hara, presumably for good.  After momentarily breaking down at this development, Scarlett then resolves to return to her home, Tara, and to start again.  She also exclaims that she will find a way to win Rhett back.  Her final words, which imbue her with hope, are, “After all, tomorrow is another day!”

This phrase apparently did not originate with Margaret Mitchell, the author of Gone With the Wind, but her use of it certainly cemented it into American culture.  Part of the inherent optimism of Americans is that whatever may have happened today, tomorrow is another day.  We presume that the new day will bring with it new opportunities to succeed in whatever we may have failed today.  In this application it is a worthy attitude.  We need not accept momentary defeat.  We can try again tomorrow.

Christians often appropriate secular ideas or attitudes and apply them to their walk of faith.  “Tomorrow is another day” is certainly among them.  A major tenet of our faith is that what happens today need not be the final word on one’s life.  Part of the grace of God is that forgiveness and renewal are always at hand, if we seek them from Him.  Great men such as King David, and Paul the apostle aptly illustrate this truth.  When David sinned with Bathsheba and then arranged for her husband to be killed in battle, he sank to the depths of sin.  Psa. 51 is his admission of guilt and his plea with God for restoration.  This restoration is attested by the fact that David is still called “a man after God’s own heart” when Paul used this phrase to describe him in Acts 13:22.  David absolutely took advantage of his new day.

Paul also demonstrates the validity of the “tomorrow is another day” principle.  When he was Saul of Tarsus, he was zealous for God to the point of persecuting the church more than any others of his contemporaries.  If this were the end of his story, it would be a tragedy, but God had other plans for Saul.  After meeting the Lord on the road to Damascus, Saul went into the city and the preacher Ananias told him that God had chosen him to be His instrument in preaching the gospel.  He then told Saul, “Now why do you delay?  Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22:16).  The rest of Saul’s life was spent in God’s service as Paul the apostle.  We today owe much of our New Testament content to the pen of this great apostle.  Tomorrow was another day for Saul of Tarsus, as Paul the apostle’s life would readily attest.

There is another aspect to this concept, however, that bears consideration.  My dear wife likes to express it this way: “After all, tomorrow is another day.  But if it isn’t, then I won’t have to worry about it!”  The power of that statement captures both the grace and redemption offered by God’s love, as well as the confidence of a true child of God.  It alludes both to the opportunity to try again when we’ve come up short, and to the fact that our lives are, as James said, “A vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away” (Jas. 4:14).

The truth is that we are not guaranteed “another day”.  We have this day.  We may have another one tomorrow, or we may have hundreds more for many years.  But, we also may not have another tomorrow.  James’ words remind us that life is fragile and it may pass away at any moment.  As much as we might wish for it, we may not have an opportunity to do better tomorrow than we did today.  In addition to this, the Lord warned that one day He will return for judgment, but no one knows when that will be (Mt. 24:36).  Because of this, He warned that we must be ready at all times (Mt. 24:44).

So what should we take from these truths?  First, we must not put off our obedience to the Lord’s commands.  Ananias told Saul to get up and be baptized and wash away his sins (Acts 22:16).  Saul immediately did so.  He did not wait for “another day”.  Had he waited, he might not have had another opportunity to be saved.  We must not put off getting right with God by obedience to the gospel.  We must not put off doing the best we can do in His service.  After all, tomorrow death or the Lord may come, and in either case, we will have no more “tomorrows”.

Those who have obeyed the gospel and who are walking in the light (1 Jn. 1:7-9) have the confidence of my wife’s expression.  Those who belong to the Lord by the blood of His Son can face today and tomorrow without fear.  If tomorrow is another day, they will use it fully in the Lord’s service and to His glory.  If it is not, then they will rejoice either in Paradise or at the return of their Savior.  If we live with this perspective, we’ve already won.

An Asterisk Life

 

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “asterisk” in this way:  “The character (*) thought of as being appended to something (such as an athletic accomplishment included in a record book) typically in order to indicate that there is a limiting fact or consideration which makes that thing less important or impressive than it would otherwise be.”

The most famous example of this definition occurred at the end of the 1961 baseball season.  During that eventful year New York Yankees slugger Roger Maris chased the elusive single season home run record which was set in 1927 by the great Babe Ruth.  Ruth’s record was 60 home runs and on the final day of the 1961 season Roger Maris hit home run number 61 to break this record.  Ford Frick, the commissioner of baseball at the time, decided that Maris’ record should be noted with an asterisk because Ruth had hit 60 home runs in 154 games (the length of the season in 1927) and Maris hit 61 in 162 games (the length of the season in 1961).  The asterisk was later removed but for many years Maris’ record was not as highly regarded as it should have been.

During the infamous steroid era in Major League Baseball Maris’ record was obliterated by Mark McGwire, who hit 70 home runs in 1998.   McGwire’s record was then broken by Barry Bonds in 2001, when he hit 73 home runs in a season.  Many baseball purists believe that McGwire’s and Bonds’ records should be “asterisked” because of the PEDs we now know they were taking at the time.  The bottom line is that this record is forever tainted because of the “limiting fact or consideration which makes that thing less important or impressive than it would otherwise be.”

When we consider the definition of an asterisk in a spiritual context one biblical character immediately comes to mind.  Surprisingly, he was not one of God’s people, but a leader of one of Israel’s mortal enemies.  In 2 Kgs. 5 the scripture records the story of Naaman, who was living an asterisk life.  In 2 Kgs. 5:1 the scripture says, “Now Naaman, captain of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man with his master, and highly respected, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram.  The man was also a valiant warrior, but he was a leper.”

Naaman was a great man in every human method of measurement.  He held a high position in the army of Aram (Syria), and was a trusted lieutenant to his king.  He was a victorious commander and personally valiant in battle.  He was greatly esteemed in his nation because of his prowess as a warrior.  Naaman had everything going his way.  He was head and shoulders above everyone else in the service of the king of Syria.  But all of these accomplishments came with an asterisk.  Naaman was a leper.

Leprosy was a highly communicable and dread disease.  In the Law of Moses a leper was quarantined from the rest of society.  He or she had to live apart from the community and do everything possible to never come into physical contact with any other person.  The Syrians were not subject to the Law of Moses, but reason suggests that they also imposed restrictions upon lepers in their nation.  Thus, as great a man as Naaman was, he was severely limited in Syrian culture.  In addition to this, leprosy was a potentially fatal disease.  Under these conditions, Naaman’s accomplishments as a soldier were less important than they might otherwise have been.

Fortunately for Naaman, he discovered a way to remove the asterisk from his life.  In 2 Kgs. 5:3-14 the scripture relates how a slave girl from Israel who served in Naaman’s household told her master about the prophet in Israel who could cleanse him of his disease.  To his credit, Naaman believed the girl and with his king’s approval came to the prophet Elisha for cleansing.  After initially balking at the prophet’s command to “go and wash in the Jordan seven times” (v. 10), Naaman was persuaded by his servants to obey the prophet’s command.  When Naaman dipped seven times in the Jordan as the prophet commanded, he was immediately cleansed of this terrible disease.

After his cleansing, Naaman returned to the prophet of God and vowed to only serve the God of Israel from that time forward (2 Kgs. 5:17-19).  With his health restored, Naaman returned to Syria to serve his king.  Although the scriptures tell us no more about his life, we may safely conclude that Naaman lived the rest of his days without any limiting fact or consideration that made his accomplishments less important in the view of his nation.  In other words, Naaman no longer lived an asterisk life.

The lesson for each of us today is that we, like Naaman, are living asterisk lives so long as we are outside of Christ.  No matter what our accomplishments may be, no matter how good we may be, or the good we may have done, our sins are the “limiting fact or consideration which makes that thing less important or impressive than it would otherwise be”.  So long as we are still in our sins, nothing else about our life matters.  However, if we turn to the Lord in obedience to the gospel, then we can permanently remove the asterisk from our lives.  Like Naaman, if we wash, we will be clean.  In Acts 22:16, as Paul related the facts concerning his conversion to Christ, he told the Jews what the preacher Ananias commanded him to do after he had encountered the Lord on the road to Damascus.  Ananias said, “Now why do you delay?  Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.”

Don’t continue to live an asterisk life.  Obey the gospel, wash and be clean.

Bearing Fruit

 

On the night of His betrayal, the Lord spoke at length with the eleven apostles after Judas had been dismissed to complete his treachery.  John’s gospel is the only one that records what the Lord spoke on that occasion.  One of the most important parts of His instruction that night was His comments on the vine and the branches.  In Jn. 15:1-6 the Lord said, “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser.  Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit.  You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you.  Abide in Me, and I in you.  As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me.  I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.  If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned.”

As we consider these words, most of our attention focuses on the question of what it means to “bear fruit”.  For generations of Christians in the last one hundred years this question has been answered with a single statement:  “The fruit of a Christian is another Christian.”  This is a simple, easy to understand, and quantifiable answer to the question.  Whoever first made this statement undoubtedly believed he had captured the heart of the matter.  However, as this answer was repeated from person to person and congregation to congregation, an unintended consequence arose.  Many Christians became burdened with the idea that the only way one may bear fruit in Christ is to convert lost souls.

There is no question that saving the lost is indeed bearing fruit.  This is the expected result of preaching the gospel, as the Lord enjoined upon us in the Great Commission (Mt. 28:18-20; Mk. 16:15-16).  But, is this all the Lord meant by this statement?  Is our bearing fruit only to be measured by the number of souls we have converted?  If we are honest with ourselves, many Christians have never had the joy of seeing one obey the gospel primarily because of our personal teaching and influence.  Some faithful Christians, in spite of their best efforts, have never been able to persuade a lost soul to obey the gospel.  Are we then to judge them as unfruitful and thus in danger of being cast into the fire?

In the larger context of the New Testament the answer to this question is an unqualified “No!”  The most similar imagery of bearing fruit is found in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  In Gal. 5:22-23 he said, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”  When we study this statement we typically speak of bearing the fruit of the Spirit.  In other words, one whose life is filled with the Holy Spirit will exhibit these qualities as evidence of His presence with him.  We correctly observe that one whose life is not characterized by these qualities is not bearing the fruit of the Spirit.

Bearing the fruit of the Spirit shows that one is growing and maturing in the faith.  It shows that one is serious about his commitment to the Lord, and is striving to be all he is capable of being in the Lord’s service.  One who is thus growing in the faith may indeed persuade others to become Christians as well, but he might also never bear that kind of fruit.  The parable of the sower (Mt. 13:3-9) certainly suggests this. The sower sowed the seed, but three of the four soils were unproductive, through no fault of his own.  The lesson from this parable must be that not everyone will obey the gospel.

Our job is to sow the seed (God’s word, Lk. 8:11).  If we do this, we have fulfilled our responsibility.  What happens thereafter is outside our power and control.  Indeed, Paul made this very point in 1 Cor. 3:6.  He said, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth.”  In other words, the outcome of our sowing does not determine if we have borne fruit or not.

Is it not likely, then, that bearing fruit in Christ must not be judged solely by the number of converts one has made?  Indeed, even in the context of Jn. 15 the emphasis seems to be more on personal growth and maturity than on the multiplication of numbers.  This is not to suggest that we need not be concerned about converting the lost.  Rather, it is to suggest that if we are growing and maturing in the faith in accordance with our gifts and abilities, then we are indeed bearing fruit in Christ.  If we are faithful to the Lord and are dedicated to serving Him to the best of our abilities, we are bearing fruit and the Father will prune us so we may become even more fruitful in His service.  If we bear fruit on this level, we will faithfully sow the seed of God’s word, and He will cause that seed to grow in good soil.

If We Never Meet Again

 

This is the pulpit of the 4th & Bois d’Arc Church of Christ in Pecos, TX, where I preached for sixteen years.

I presented my final sermon there on August 26, 2018.

The following is my final bulletin article as the preacher for the 4th & Bois d’Arc Church of Christ in Pecos, TX.

 

One of the most moving songs in our hymn books is entitled, If We Never Meet Again.  The words and music were written by Albert E. Brumley in 1945.  Brother Brumley was one of the most prolific songwriters in churches of Christ, with over 800 songs to his credit, including, I’ll Fly Away, which is one of the most-recorded hymns in history.  Since its publication, If We Never Meet Again has been a staple in hymn books and a particular favorite among older Christians.

In this song Bro. Brumley captured the sentiment we all experience when we are about to separate from loved ones for the last time.  Our hearts ache because of the impending separation, and our love for those we are leaving makes us yearn for the time when we will be with them once again.  These feelings are especially deep when we have lost a loved one to death.  Bro. Brumley’s song is particularly comforting on such an occasion.

The stanzas say:

“Soon we’ll come to the end of life’s journey, And perhaps we’ll never meet anymore, Till we gather in heaven’s bright city, Far away on that beautiful shore.  O so often we’re parted with sorrow, Benedictions often quicken our pain, But we never shall sorrow in heaven, God be with you till we meet again.  O they say we shall meet by the river, Where no storm-clouds ever darken the sky, And they say we’ll be happy in heaven, In the wonderful sweet by and by.”

The chorus says:

“If we never meet again this side of heaven, As we struggle through this world and its strife, There’s another meeting place somewhere in heaven, By the side of the river of life; Where the charming roses bloom forever, And where separations come no more, If we never meet again this side of heaven, I will meet you on that beautiful shore.”

For some, the words of this song bring back memories of loved ones, long-departed from life, whom we will never meet again this side of heaven.  The faithfulness of these loved ones while they lived tells us that we can only see them again if we, too, are faithful to the Lord.  Therefore, when we sing the words of this song, this truth should move us to greater diligence in our Christian walk.

There is no more comforting thought than the promise of scripture that the redeemed will have a sweet reunion in heaven at the end of time.  In 1 Th. 4:16-18 Paul said, “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.  Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up other with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.  Therefore comfort one another with these words.”  We may never see one another again before that time, but the joy of that meeting will far outweigh the loss we feel in the meantime.  This truth should compel us to take the words of this song more seriously than we may have before.

As we consider the words of this song, we are compelled to take stock of our lives.  Are we living in such a way that we may truthfully sing, “If we never meet again this side of heaven, I will meet you on that beautiful shore”?  If so, then we may sing with all the fervor within us, and in full confidence that it will happen.  If not, then we must repent and turn back to the Lord before it’s too late.  Life is too short, and eternity too long, to risk missing the great reunion by the side of the river of life.

Until we meet again, may the Lord keep you in His watchful care.  God bless you!!

The Work of Ministry

 

Someone once said that the work of preachers is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.  While this is almost certainly an over-simplification of the work of ministry, it does capture, at least in part, the spirit of this work.  We absolutely see this principle in the work of the Old Testament prophets.  The messages they brought to the people of God sometimes comforted and encouraged them.  On other occasions they scolded and chastised to try to bring the people back into faithful service to God.  The work of the apostles and other preachers, as it is recorded in the book of Acts, suggests that this work did not change in the transition from the old covenant to the new covenant.  It was then, and still is, hard work that takes a toll on the one who undertakes it.  Even so, there have always been, and Lord willing there always will be, men who are willing to take on this challenging work.

One of the greatest challenges preachers and churches face is properly defining what that work should be.  When left to our own devices, we may expect far too much or far too little from preachers.  Fortunately the scriptures give us the direction we need in this regard, if we are willing to let them set the bounds of this good work.  Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus have long been used to set the parameters of the work of ministry and their contents should guide us still today.  However, we find an excellent summary of the work of ministry in Paul’s farewell to the elders of the church in Ephesus.

In Acts 20:17-35 Luke recorded this final meeting between the great apostle and these shepherds.  He had worked with them longer than with any other church of which we have record.  At the time of this meeting Paul was hurrying to Jerusalem where he would undergo great hardship.  He knew he would never see these men again, so he spoke with them one last time.  His words to them show us what the work of ministry should be.

First, Paul reminded them that he had persevered through all kinds of trials as he worked with them (Acts 20:18-19).  Too many men are unwilling to work through the rough spots with a congregation.  Paul shows us that the work of ministry is to persevere through all such things.

Second, he reminded them that he had taught them everything they needed to know from God’s word (Acts 20:20-21, 27).  Too many men lose sight of the big picture and focus instead on their pet themes, or on what the congregation wants.  Paul shows us that the work of ministry is to proclaim the whole purpose of God (Acts 20:27).

Third, he warned them to be prepared to meet every spiritual challenge that would arise in the future (Acts 20:28-31).  Too many men are so focused on being a spiritual fireman that they fail to teach the church how to meet these challenges themselves.  Paul shows us that the work of ministry is to equip the saints for every good work and to discern right from wrong.

Finally, when all was said and done, Paul commended the elders of Ephesus to God and to the word of His grace (Acts 20:32).  Paul knew he would never see these men again on this side of life.  They could fulfill their responsibility as shepherds only if they depended on God’s word.  Too many preachers assume that they are indispensable.  Paul shows us that the work of ministry is to point God’s people to the implanted word which is able to save their souls (cf. Jas. 1:21).

May all who preach commit themselves to the work of ministry, as the scriptures define it.  If they do so, they will be the kind of ministers the Lord intends them to be.  May all God’s people commit themselves to expect ministers to do the work of ministry as the scriptures define it, nothing more and nothing less.  If they do so, our churches will be what the Lord intends them to be.