What’s so different about the 21st century?
In so many ways, the 21st century is completely different from the 1st century.
With our computers, we can listen to a sermon from the other side of the world. We can listen to it and we can watch it being preached – as it happens, live!
This is so different from life in the time of Christ and His Apostles.
Very different – Yes! – but is it completely different?
Can we, in the 21st century, afford to ignore the voices which speak to us from the 1st century?
We search for a model for Church life, a model for ministry, in the 21st century. We learn about modern methods of communication. Still, we are faced with the question – Have we listened to what the Lord Jesus has to say to us?
When I was a young student at Stirling University, I took the members of our Christian Union Committee to hear my Minister, the Rev George Philip. We were thinking of asking him to speak at our Christian Union Conference. He preached on the third verse of the letter of Jude where we are exhorted to ‘contend earnestly for the faith once for all delivered to the people of God’.
As we listened, our hearts said, ‘Yes. This is it. This is the message for today. This is the message we need to hear. This is the message we must never forget.’
As we seek the way forward, God’s way for the 21st century, are we beginning to see that the way forward begins when when we go back to the Word of God, back to the Saviour, back to His Apostles?
What a wonderful model for ministry we have in Paul’s message to the Ephesian elders! Here is a man who demands our attention. Here is a man who compels us to listen. He is a man of his own time, a man from the 1st century, yet his message is for our time. It is a message which calls us to take God seriously. It is a message which calls us to listen carefully to God’s Word. Paul calls us to centre our lives on Christ. He calls us to commit ourselves to prayer.
Paul’s ministry was a helpful ministry. It was a Gospel ministry. His ministry was a teaching ministry and it was a prayerful ministry.
(1) Paul’s ministry was a helpful ministry. He tells us, in verse 20, that ‘he kept back nothing that was helpful’. In his public preaching of God’s Word and in his pastoral work in the homes of the people, Paul prayed that his ministry would help the people to grow in their knowledge of God, their love of God and their service of God.
Why was Paul’s ministry such a helpful ministry?
It was helpful because it was real. He was a man living in the power of Christ’s resurrection, a man who could truly say, ‘For me, to live is Christ’ (Philippians 1:21).
His ministry was helpful because it was a ministry of fearless preaching, faithful pastoral work and fervent prayer. Paul was fearless as he preached God’s Word to the people. He was faithful in the ministry of bringing Christ to the people in their own homes. He was fervent in prayer as he asked God to bless the people.
I recall an occasion when I spoke at the Presbytery of Dunfermline. The Rev Dr Gordon Jenkins was about to take up a position in Edinburgh. I had been asked to pay tribute to his ministry at the North Parish Church, Dunfermline. Gordon was an enthusiastic supporter of Dunfermline Athletic. I used the letters of the team’s nickname, the Pars, to describe Gordon’s ministry. It was Ministry Anointed by the Renewing Spirit.
Preaching Anointed by the Renewing Spirit – this is where the helpfulness comes from. It comes from above. It comes from the Lord.
When we have done all that we can do, we must look away from ourselves to the Lord and say, ‘It is not by might. It is not by power. It is by the Spirit of the Lord’ (Zecharaiah 4:6).
When we look at all that has been achieved, we must learn to look away from ourselves to the Lord and say, from the heart, ‘This is the Lord’s doing and it is marvellous in our eyes’ (Psalm 118:23).
This is helpful ministry – ministry which serves the purpose of God’s salvation, ministry which depends on the presence of God’s power, ministry which maintains the priority of God’s glory. This is helpful ministry – bringing Christ to the people, bringing the people to Christ.
Helpful ministry – it is ministry that never forgets to say, ‘Our help is in the Name of the Lord’ (Psalm 124:8).
(2) Paul’s ministry was a Gospel ministry. In verse 24, he describes his ministry. He tells us that he ‘received this ministry from the Lord Jesus’. He tells us that it is a ministry of ‘testifying to the Gospel of the grace of God’.
What is the Gospel? – It is the Good News: Christ has died for our sins, Christ has risen from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Is the preaching of the Gospel simply the announcement of these facts? No! It is more than that. There is also the challenge of the Gospel, the call to repentance, the call to faith (v. 21).
God is not only telling us something. He is asking us something. Will you repent? Will you believe?
God is saying something to us – ‘This is My beloved Son with whom I am well pleased. This is My beloved Son. Listen to Him’. He is also asking us to say something to Him – ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner’ (Luke 18:13).
This is the prayer of repentance. This is the prayer of faith. We turn from sin. We turn to God. We take our sin to Jesus. We trust Him for forgiveness.
To every one who hears the Gospel, the question is asked, ‘What will your response be?’
As I look back over my own spiritual journey, I am forever grateful to those who impressed on me the need to make my personal response to Jesus Christ. It was not enough to say, ‘God so loved that He gave His only Son’ (John 3:16). There needed to be something more personal – ‘the Son of God loved me and gave Himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20). It was not enough to say, ‘Jesus Christ is the Saviour of the world’ (John 4:42). There needed to be the personal confession of faith – ‘Jesus Christ is my Saviour’.
Paul was a faithful and fearless preacher of the Gospel. If, in our generation, we are to follow his example, we must not hesitate to impress upon the people the necessity of ‘repentance towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ’ (v. 21).
Earlier this year, I had the privilege of attending a service conducted a recently retired minister, the Rev Dr Sam Hosain. In his sermon, Dr Hosain directed our attention to three verses in the letter to the Hebrews:
‘without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins’ (9:22),
‘without faith it is impossible to please God’ (11:6),
‘without holiness no-one will see the Lord’ (12:14).
In these three statements, we have the key features of Gospel ministry:
First, we are to hear the Gospel – the Good News that Christ died for our sins;
Second, we are to believe the Gospel – ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be
saved’ (Acts 16:31);
Third, we are to live the Gospel – Christ has died for us. Now He calls us to live for Him.
This is Gospel ministry – hearing the Gospel, believing the Gospel and living the Gospel. May God help us to be faithful to His Gospel – in our hearing, in our believing, in our living.
(3) Paul’s ministry was a teaching ministry. In verse 27, Paul reminds the Ephesian elders that ‘he had not hesitated to proclaim to them the whole will of God’.
In his book, Evangelism in the Early Church, Michael Green emphasizes the importance of ‘teaching evangelism’ (pp. 204-206). At the very beginning of the book, he speaks of his own commitment to both evangelism and teaching. His words, written in 1970, are still very relevant to our 21st century Church. This is what he says,
‘Most evangelists are not very interested in theology; most theologians are not very interested in evangelism. I am deeply committed to both’ (p. 7).
Deeply committed to both evangelism and teaching – what a good description of Paul’s ministry! His ministry was a Gospel ministry, calling on men and women to come to Christ in repentance, to come to Christ in faith. His ministry was also a teaching ministry. He did not rest content with inviting people to make a new beginning with Christ. He called them to go on with the Lord. He called them to press on to maturity.
God has so much to say to us. There is so much more than the call for conversion. The Lord is calling us to walk with Him all the days of our life. True conversion is not just a one-off event. It is a lifelong experience of divine grace, a lifelong experience of turning to God in repentance, a lifelong experience of learning to trust in our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.
If this lifelong experience of God’s salvation is to grow strong in our hearts and lives, we need ‘the whole counsel of God’. We need solid teaching from the Word of God.
We need teaching which rebukes us when we move away from the paths of righteousness, teaching which corrects us, calling us back into the paths of righteousness.
We need teaching which will lead us in the paths of righteousness, teaching which will keep us walking in the paths of righteousness.
During the late 1990s, I began writing Daily Bible Reading Notes. The full set of notes covers the whole Bible – from Genesis to Revelation. Each quarterly booklet begins with these words of ‘Introduction’:
‘Welcome to an exciting … journey of discovery. On this journey, you will visit places you know well. You will also travel to places you hardly know at all. They will be places of blessing – places where you will meet with God and be blessed by Him … May God bless you richly as you journey with Him to the many places of blessing found in His Word.’
The Christian life is a journey. On this journey, we are travelling with God and we are travelling in faith. On this journey, God has a plan for us. It is His perfect plan. He wants us to grow – in our knowledge of Him, in our faith in Him, in our love for Him.
God does not want us to remain ‘babes in Christ’. He does not want us to remain content with ‘the milk of the Word’ (1 Peter 2:2). He wants us to move on to ’solid food’ (Hebrews 5:12-14). He has given us ‘the whole counsel of God’ so that we can grow more and more like Christ, so that we can bring more and more glory to God.
We must never rest on our laurels. When the challenge of God’s Word comes to us, calling us on to maturity, we dare not say, ‘I’m a believer’ as if that was the end of the matter. When God is calling us on to maturity, He is not asking, ‘Are you a believer?’ He is asking, ‘Are you a growing believer? Are you growing in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ?’
On this journey with God, this journey of faith, this journey of spiritual growth, may our whole life – in the 21st century – be a living echo of this great prayer from the 13th century:
‘Day, by day, O dear Lord, three things I pray, to see You more clearly, to love You more dearly, to follow You more nearly, day by day’.
(4) Paul’s ministry was a prayerful ministry. Paul did not only speak to the people. He also spoke to God. He spoke to the people for God and he spoke to God for the people. In his message to the Ephesian elders, Paul said, in verse 32, ‘Now I commit you to God’. At the end of his message, ‘he knelt down with all of them and prayed’ (v.36).
Paul was a preacher. Paul was a pastor. Paul was a man of prayer. He prayed for the people. He prayed with the people. He prayed that they would receive God’s grace. He prayed that they would know that all of their sins had been forgiven. He prayed that they would grow strong in their faith. He prayed that they would be sanctified, that they would live a Godly life, a Christ-like life, a Spirit-filled life, a life which brings glory to God.
How are we to live the kind of life which brings glory to God? – In his prayer for the Ephesians, Paul points us in the direction of a life that is full of God’s blessing:
‘I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God’ (Ephesians 3:17-19).
Get to know how much the Lord loves you and you will be changed by His love. As you think of the Lord’s great love for you, you will want to love Him more. The story of your life will be ‘Loving Him who first loved me.’
God calls us to worship Him. He calls us to walk with Him. He calls us to be His witnesses. He calls us to be His workers. Can we ever hope to live such a God-centred life? We cannot do so in our strength. Without Christ, we can do nothing. With Christ, everything changes. We become a new creation in Christ Jesus. We receive new strength.
Paul speaks about this strengthening when he prays for the Ephesians:
‘For this reason I kneel before the Father … I pray that out of His glorious riches He may strengthen you with power through His Spirit in your inner being’ (Ephesians 3:14, 16).
Paul was a man of action. He travelled from place to place, preaching here and preaching there. This is not, however, the full story of Paul’s life. We must always remember that he was a man of prayer. From Paul’s ministry, we learn this great lesson:
‘The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective’ (James 5:16).
There is such a clear connection in Scripture between prayer and blessing. We ask, ‘Why is there not much blessing?’ James tells us – ‘You do not have because you do not ask God’ (James 4:2). We wonder, ‘How can we receive more of God’s blessing?’ Jesus tells us – ‘Ask, and it will be given to you’ (Matthew 7:7).
If we are to see God’s blessing in our worship and witness, in our walk with God and our work for God, we must come to the Lord with this request, ‘Lord, teach us to pray’ (Luke 11:1).
We have looked together at the ministry of the Apostle Paul – a helpful ministry, a Gospel ministry, a teaching ministry, a prayerful ministry. May God help us to learn from this ministry. May we learn the great lesson contained in 2 Chronicles 7:14 – ‘If My people, who are called by My Name, will humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.’