In the first verse of Colossians 2, Paul writes to the church at Colossae, “I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you.” “Struggle” is an apt description of pastoral ministry. It captures the rigorous nature of this calling, and it will resonate with all whom God has set to the task.
In Colossians 1:24–2:5—the passage within which this testimony about Paul’s pastoral struggle sits—the apostle invites the Colossian believers to examine the shape of his ministry, his goals, and the pleasures he takes from his labor. In the face of false teachers among them, he lays down a spiritual plumb line against which we may measure a ministry’s legitimacy as we ask, “Whom has God really sent to us?” In other words, who should become a pastor, what should their work look like, and what should they hope to accomplish through it?
In these verses, a pastor may learn from Paul what pattern they must follow, what purpose they must pursue, and what pleasure they will take if they would join in Paul’s struggle on behalf of the Lord and His church. In part one of this pair of articles, we will learn from the pattern of Paul’s struggle. In part two, we will then go on to draw lessons from his purpose and pleasure.
The Pattern for the Struggle: What God Gives
While there are obvious distinctions to make between the apostles of the first generation of the church and pastors today, there are also clear points of similarity, particularly when it comes to their care for God’s flock. The pattern of Paul’s suffering for the Colossian believers thus serves as an example to us. In Colossians 1:24–28, Paul demonstrates a pattern for legitimate ministry as he describes his God-given calling, his God-given message, and his God-ordained method:
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.
A God-Given Calling
How does one become a pastor? Paul gives his own answer, describing his relationship to the church: “I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me.” You don’t volunteer for pastoral ministry. You don’t choose it as one among many possible options. It is given by God, from on high. And that is modeled all the way through the Scriptures, from the calling of God’s servants in the Old Testament all the way through the prophets and then the apostles. God is the initiative-taker in raising up pastors in His church.
Anyone who studies to be a pastor should do so with the confidence that it is God who moves them there.
It’s clear how this unfolded in Paul’s life, with the light and voice from heaven on the Damascus Road calling him to apostleship. It’s true that we are no longer in the age of the apostles (as we understand the term) like Paul, who witnessed the risen Christ and received special guidance from God. But we can still say this to anyone feeling the stirrings of ministry: if you can stay out of a pastoral ministry, stay out of it!
This was the advice that Charles Spurgeon gave to his pastoral students:
If any student in this room could be content to be a newspaper editor, or a grocer, or a farmer, or a doctor, or a lawyer, or a senator, or a king, in the name of heaven and earth let him go his way; he is not the man in whom dwells the Spirit of God in its fulness, for a man so filled with God would utterly weary of any pursuit but that for which his inmost soul pants. If on the other hand, you can say that for all the wealth of both the Indies you could not and dare not espouse any other calling so as to be put aside from preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, then, depend upon it, if other things be equally satisfactory, you have the signs of this apostleship.1
Few will ever see a light and hear a voice from heaven, but when a man knows the calling of God to preach and to pastor, that calling will be unmistakable and unavoidable. Paul was no hobbyist. He was consumed with a passion for the Lord Jesus Christ. Like Jeremiah, we can assume he was able to say,
If I say, “I will not mention him,
or speak any more in his name,”
there is in my heart as it were a burning fire
shut up in my bones,
and I am weary with holding it in,
and I cannot. (Jer. 20:9)
No theological education ever made a man a shepherd of God’s flock. Learning is important and helpful, but without the divine commissioning and hand of God upon a life, it will be ineffective and inconsequential in light of the task. Anyone who studies to be a pastor should do so with the confidence that it is God who moves him there.
By contrast, in Jeremiah 23:21, the Lord issues a warning concerning those who have assumed the prophetic role but were not appointed:
I did not send the prophets,
yet they ran;
I did not speak to them,
yet they prophesied.
Not unlike those prophets of old, there seems to be no real heartbeat in the proclamation of the truth from some pulpits. Why? Because only God can make a pastor effective at preaching.
A God-Given Message
Of course, an urge to speak is by no means sufficient on its own to identify a godly preacher. The prophets of Jeremiah’s day overflowed with all kinds of words, and yet God said of them, “They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD” (Jer. 23:16). A pastor who is like Paul, on the other hand, is bound by their calling to a particular message: “to make the word of God fully known.”
Paul’s message was a God-given message. It was the Word of God—the Gospel of Jesus Christ, inscripturated in the Old and New Testaments. And this Word is the means God has ordained to engender faith in human hearts, as Paul says in Romans 10:17: “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” It is the Word of God that builds people up into strong and stable Christians.
Is the message being proclaimed the ideas of a man or the very truth of God’s Word?
Paul describes this Word as “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints.” And “this mystery,” he says, “is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Those who call on the name of Christ have been placed in Him. Because Christ is today seated at the right hand of the Father, they share access to the Father in Christ. Because Christ has known victory over death and the grave, they share in His victory. And because Christ has sent His Holy Spirit to them, He indeed lives in them too.
This is ultimately the difference between a Christian and a non-Christian. It is not religious observance, not church attendance, not whether one has filled out a card and dropped it in an offering box. It is a personal, living relationship with Jesus. When someone comes in repentance and in faith and says, “Lord, when you died on the cross, you died for me; I acknowledge my sin; I ask you to be my Savior,” then they will be placed in Christ, and Christ will be placed in them. Any ministry that sets aside this message is a ministry that will eventually tend to nothing.
Here’s the issue: Is a preacher’s message made up of the ideas of men, or does it tell the very truth of God’s Word? There were people in Colossae who taught all kinds of “philosophy and empty deceit” and “human tradition” (Col. 2:8). Anyone can teach such things. But when God calls a man, He calls him to proclaim His own Word.
Faithful pastors are indeed those who “make the word of God fully known”—book by book, line by line, verse upon verse, even word by word. The word of the Gospel is given to us in the Word of the Scriptures, and every word that we find there is “is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). Preachers must be selective, since they cannot teach all God’s Word at once; but they must not be exclusive, neglecting one part of Scripture to overemphasize another, perhaps more appealing word.
Pastors must therefore necessarily be immersed in the Scriptures. Such immersion does not come about as a result of five minutes of study late on a Saturday night. It does not come about as a result of five hours of study throughout the week. It comes about as a result of hours and hours and hours of prayerful study over the course of years, so that one is prepared to declare “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).
This is a task that can only be undertaken in the fear of the Lord, recognizing that “we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1) and remembering the awful judgments that have fallen on those teachers who have led God’s children astray (Matt. 18:6). There is great danger for both the shepherd and the flock when God’s Word is declared as anything other than the words that God has indeed given us. It is because this is a unique responsibility, and a uniquely difficult one, that it cannot be accomplished—and should not be sought out—without the assurance of God’s calling and dependence on His provision.
A God-Ordained Method
Once assurance and dependence are worked out, method is ready to be considered. Take Paul, for example. He was many things; not least of all, he was a preacher. “Him we proclaim,” he says of Christ, “warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom.” As preachers proclaim God’s Word, they deliver a God-given message by means of God-ordained method, since it is through preaching that people hear the Word of Christ (Rom. 10:14, 17).
The Bible has a great deal to say about the preaching of God’s Word—and yet we live in a time when people seem more interested in sound bites. Many prefer to get their spirituality from thirty-second video clips set to the latest song and punctuated with the latest trending social media hashtag. And so people say, “How in the world are you possibly going to build a church on the foundation of a half-hour lecture? Don’t you think you ought to introduce a little drama, make the lights flash a little, make it fun? After all, the workweek is dreary and dull enough!”
While such an impulse may be understandable in our attention-drained world, it must ultimately be rejected. God’s pastors preach, and they preach because they’re told to do so. It’s as simple and straightforward as that.
Consider Corinth, one of the cities in which Paul ministered. It was dominated by the Temple of Aphrodite and its cult prostitution. It was filled with many who were preoccupied with sexual immorality, ruled by promiscuous and overtly homosexual governors, and filled with consumers who were interested in the dramatic and the spectacular. Like many other Greeks, they “would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new” (Acts 17:21). But when Paul went there, what did he do? As he himself tells us in 1 Corinthians 2:1–3, he didn’t conform his ministry to what the Corinthians found appealing: “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
The ultimate difference between a Christian and a non-Christian is not religious observance or church attendance. It is a personal, living relationship with Jesus.
Why? Because “Jesus Christ and him crucified” is the only answer to the addict. It is the only answer to the proud and self-assertive businessman. It is the only answer to the poor and needy. It is the only answer to the fractured family and to the disintegrating culture. The consultants say, “Do something dramatic.” The news junkies say, “Do something political.” But God says, “Preach the word; … reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2). It is the Word of Christ that saves—“And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Rom. 10:14).
In every age, when a pastors receives God’s calling to share God’s message, the method God has given to him is to boldly proclaim it in its simplicity.
Continue reading in “The Marks of God-Given Ministry, Part Two.”
C. H. Spurgeon, “The Call to the Ministry,” in Lectures to My Students (1875–94; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2011), 24–25. ↩︎