The Paradox of Ministry
What do you think about this statement; “the only constant in life is change?” Is that true? Has that been your experience? This is what we call a paradox. A paradox is a statement that seems contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet is often true. In the example I mentioned, we have the words constant and change. We see those words by themselves as opposite, and yet, we must admit the statement is true.
Here’s another example of a paradox, one that’s very relevant to our day. “Social media disconnects us from each other.” The word social implies that media is bringing people together. But scientific studies and our own experiences show us that it actually does the opposite. Social media actually disconnects us from genuine relationships. Most of us know what it’s like to sit in a group of people at a family gathering or in someone’s living room, and most, or all, of the people who are there are looking at their phones instead of talking to each other.
Even the Bible contains paradoxes. One that immediately comes to mind is in Matthew chapter 20. Here, the mother of James and John asked Jesus if her boys could sit on either side of Him in His kingdom. Jesus’ answer reveals the paradox. “Whoever desires to be great among you, let him be your servant.” In our minds, great and servant are opposites, and we know which one we prefer. There are many others, but you get the idea.
In our continuing study of Second Corinthians Paul discusses what I’m calling “The Paradox of Ministry.” At first thought, you may not be able to see it. But as we examine the Scripture together, I think it will become clear to you. Our text is Second Corinthians 6:1 to 10.
But before we read that, I think it’s appropriate to give a bit of a refresher on the background of the situation that Paul is speaking into. Acts chapter 18 records Paul’s initial efforts in planting the church in Corinth and we learn that he spent a year-and-a-half there. After he moved on from there, several groups or factions formed around various leaders and began quarreling among themselves. Evidently, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians didn’t clear up the controversies and the situation continued to get worse.
One thing we learned in previous studies is the deep love that Paul had for the Corinthian Believers. He had poured 18+ months of his life into this congregation and developed many close relationships with the people. And yet, there were those there who were accusing him of being a false teacher, of being an evangelist for hire and other ridiculous things. Because of this, we noted that the last several chapters we’ve studied in this letter are actually Paul’s defense of his apostolic ministry. Our text today seems like the concluding section of that defense.
Someone has said, “it isn’t unusual for the preacher to be the most loved man and the most hated man in his community.” To the ones who hear him and believe what he teaches, he’s a friend, a spiritual father, and a mentor. But to those who don’t believe him, he’s the voice of irritation and conviction, a troublemaker, someone who is accused of being bigoted and hateful because he proclaims God’s unchanging Word.
This isn’t surprising because the faithful pastor/teacher represents Jesus Christ. And we know how the people around Jesus treated Him when He was here on earth. There’s probably no person who was ever more loved or hated than Jesus. And He warned us that we, as His followers, can expect the same intensity of feeling toward us. As we reflect on the opening verses of Second Corinthians chapter six, we come face to face with this paradox of ministry.
In our study just prior to this one we were discussing the ministry of reconciliation that is entrusted to us as followers of Christ. We are called to be His ambassadors. That gives us the responsibility to communicate His message, the Gospel, to the world. The gospel is literally, the Good News, but not everyone sees it that way. So, those who hear us will be divided into two categories; those who believe the Gospel and those who don’t believe. We will experience the love of some and the hatred of others. This is the paradox of ministry.
Now, let’s read the text, Second Corinthians 6:1 to 10, and further discuss this paradox.
In this text, Paul lists four PERSPECTIVES that help us understand “The Paradox of Ministry.”
(We will look at just the first two today.)
The First Perspective (to help us understand the paradox of ministry) is,
The Perspective of Privilege
Regardless of how you serve in Christ’s kingdom, whether you’re a pastor/teacher or a janitor, or a homemaker, or whatever, do you count it a privilege to be an ambassador for Christ? In some ways, being in the role of pastor/teacher can multiply the paradox, but can you see the paradoxical nature of your position in this text? In the latter verses of our text, there’s a lot of pain, a lot of disappointment, a lot of hostility, and a lot of accusation – much of it false. But there’s tremendous joy and blessing here too. So, if you and I don’t understand the great privilege that ministry is, we will be overcome by all the negativity that accompanies it.
Notice with me how Paul begins this text; “we are coworkers with Him,” that is, with Christ. You and I really need to take some time to meditate on what that means; “coworkers with Christ.” Because if we miss the significance of this, we’ll miss the most important perspective. Do you understand the dignity of your work? For the Christian, all work that’s done well, except what the scriptures prohibit by command or principle, has eternal value. You and I are in a cooperative effort with the sovereign God, the Creator, and Sustainer of all things! Do we truly appreciate that the way we should? I am sure I don’t. I need to grasp that more deeply.
Wouldn’t that change our perspective about our work? In my experience, I’m like James and John wanting the seats of power next to Jesus. I’m often more concerned about what I can get than I am concerned about what I can give. Do you find it that way too? The cause of Christ suffers because we don’t understand the tremendous privilege it is to be coworkers with Him.
Sometimes, we look at people who have privileged positions in life and we envy them. Maybe they’re physically beautiful or handsome. Maybe they’re extremely well educated, or naturally gifted in a certain area. Or maybe they’re in a position where our friendship with them can provide benefits for us. But all of those supposed advantages are nothing to be compared with the privilege of being a coworker with Christ!
I think if you and I could really get ahold of this perspective, it would change the way we do life! If you take the final verses of chapter five and connect them with verse one of our text it’s powerful. Verse 19 says, “God was in Christ reconciling the world and He has committed to us the ministry of reconciliation.” And then verse 20, “We are ambassadors for Christ, but it is God entreating through us.”
So, God wants to use you and me as the channel through which the message of reconciliation is proclaimed to the world. When we experience reconciliation with God, personally, we will have a desire to share that message of hope and joy, and peace with others. If we don’t have that desire, we need to do some serious thinking about our relationship with Him.
Paul never lost sight of the privilege of proclaiming the message of reconciliation. God was working through him for His glory, that’s God’s glory. I believe Paul worked diligently regardless of the response. I base that on what he wrote in chapter two, verses 15 and 16. “For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life.” You and I can’t control how people respond to the message, but we can proclaim it faithfully. The transformation is up to God and His Holy Spirit.
But we must understand the perspective of privilege, the privilege to work with God in reconciling people to Himself.
The Next Perspective (to help us understand the paradox of ministry) is,
The Perspective of Passion
This perspective is closely related to the first one. When you and I realize that we are in a cooperative effort with the sovereign God, the Creator and Sustainer of all things, how can we not be passionate about what we’re doing?
Paul was passionate in his love for the Corinthian Believers. He said, “I urge you; I beseech you, not to receive the grace of God in vain.” There were false teachers in Corinth attempting to lead the people astray. There were people there who accused Paul of being a false teacher. But Paul says, “like God we are pleading with you, be reconciled to God.”
The word Paul uses is parakaleo. It’s as though he’s saying, “together, God and I are coming to you, we’re putting our arm around your shoulder, and we’re begging you, we’re entreating you not to receive the grace of God in vain.” Why is Paul so intense and so insistent?
He quotes Isaiah 49:8 from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. “In an acceptable time, I have heard you, and in the day of salvation I have helped you.” Paul takes this Old Testament messianic prophecy and applies it to their situation. And then he adds, “Behold now is the accepted time: behold, now is the day of salvation.” None of us know if we’ll be alive tomorrow. We don’t know when our physical life will end. That gives an urgency, a passion to proclaiming the ministry of reconciliation.
If you remember in our previous study from chapter five, verse 20, Paul said “we implore you, we beg you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God.” And we noted that the force of the language was, “DO IT NOW!” Sometimes, at home, when we boys were less than enthusiastic about our work, my dad would say, “let’s get moving, we don’t have all day.” He was trying to help us see the urgency of the time and put a little passion into our work.
As God’s ambassadors, you and I need to learn how to become pleaders, and how to become exhorters. Our passion is to see people embrace the grace of God and grow in it! The apostle Peter closed his second epistle with these words, “But grow in grace and knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” We have way too many professing Christians who come to faith in Christ and never grow in Him. If we had a child like that we’d be concerned, we’d be going to the doctor pretty quickly. But too often, we just ignore Believers whose spiritual growth is stunted.
The writer of Hebrews stated it this way: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles [or sayings] of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are [mature], that is, those who by reason of [practice] have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.”
So, our passion as ministers, and servants of the Lord, is to plead with people to leave spiritual infancy and grow to maturity in the Lord. And that takes pleading, it takes repetition, it takes patience. Sometimes it looks like we’re getting nowhere with people; they seem to take two steps forward and three steps back. And we may think our work is all in vain. I’m sure Paul felt that way about the church in Corinth. They were like a bunch of squabbling toddlers.
Paul’s passion was for the pure word of God. As followers of Christ and reconcilers with Him, we need that same passion. You know, human nature hasn’t changed at all since the sin of our first parents. Every so often people come along with some supposedly “new understanding” of Scripture. But if you do a little bit of digging, you find out they’ve just recycled an old heresy; gave it a new name, and dressed it in different clothes.
In Corinth, the Judaizers were saying, “yes, you need Jesus, but you also need to keep the Law. That way you’ll be acceptable to God.” Paul said, “No, no.” In fact, he asked the Galatians, who were facing the same heresy, “Are you so foolish having begun by the Spirit are you now being perfected by the flesh?” Paul’s passion was that the grace that the Believers in Corinth had received would not be in vain, it would not be to no purpose. That would be a tragedy for both them and him. And it would be a tragedy for those we work with too.
And so, the minister of God must continually be alert to error, he must continually take people back to the Scripture. He must warn them not to let their latest experiences dictate their theology, but rather let their theology dictate their experiences. He must be a bit like a hound on the trail of a rabbit; he must keep focused on the pursuit of righteousness; for himself and those who hear him. But let me quickly say, his passion won’t always be appreciated. That’s part of the paradox of ministry.
If you and I are going to be coworkers with God, if we are going to be passionate about the grace of God not being in vain, then it’s time for us to get to work. Paul wouldn’t settle for anything less than the grace of God achieving its purpose. We shouldn’t either. So, he pleads as God does – with a crisis mentality, with a sense of urgency. Don’t let the grace of God be in vain.
Sure, there are going to be difficult times. There’ll be times of disappointment and heartbreak, as we plead with people against the grain of trends. We can’t choose for them. But we have to be faithful. We need to embrace the privilege and the passion as part of the paradox of the ministry of reconciliation.