Abstract:Many have written on the difficulties of pastoral ministry, backed by research into the demise of those who become discouraged in the work. These studies provide useful descriptions and helpful insights into the culture of ministry and how it might be changed. Much of this recent work, however, lacks deeper reflection on the biblical-theological themes that frame life in ministry and provide categories through which its difficulties must be understood. This article explores the framework for suffering in ministry through Paul’s letters, focusing on his correspondence with the Corinthians, with the aim of recovering the rich redemptive-historical narrative of ministry that is grounded in Christ’s death and resurrection.
The American church has conducted a substantial amount of research into the health of its pastors since the start of the twenty-first century. Alarming statistics have been amassed suggesting all is not well.1 The general consensus is that over the past thirty to fifty years much has changed in ministry with the result that “pastoral leadership does not seem to offer the promise of a life well lived.”2 This appears evident from the large numbers of those leaving the ministry within the first five years, with some statistics indicating a fourfold increase since the 1970s.3 The mainstream media has taken note too, with an article in the New York Times concluding, “Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen.”4 Studies indicate that many in ministry are unhappy and would leave for some other line of work if they could.5
As desperate as this sounds, action has been taken to address these troubling trends. The Lilly Foundation funded a ten-year project, “Sustaining Pastoral Excellence,” distributing grants totaling in the millions of dollars to 63 different organizations, with the aim of conducting research to better understand the negative conditions of pastoral ministry and develop strategies for positive change.6 These organizations represent the breadth of the American church, from mainline and evangelical Protestants to Roman Catholics.7 As a result of their work, a number of book-length studies have been published, which both describe common reasons for the difficult climate of pastoral ministry and prescribe potential remedies for improving its environment.8
Although operating with diverse theological commitments, the use of the social sciences ties these various studies together. Each explores the habits and practices of pastors in their various traditions with the guiding question of what defines and sustains excellence in ministry, utilizing qualitative research methods in the analysis of data to develop their descriptions and reach their conclusions.9 These studies prove helpful in many ways, noting commonalities in experience that coalesce into themes that frame life in ministry, which need to be examined and of which churches and pastors need to be aware.10 The hopeful expectation through all of this work is that “a new narrative about ministry is coming into being,” one that replaces the discouraging narrative of irrelevance, ineffectiveness, and mediocrity.11
These studies inevitably include a measure of biblical and theological reflection. The primary focus, however, is the research into the immediate causes that make pastoral ministry uniquely difficult in our current setting. So while biblical notions of excellence in ministry are considered, the data gathered on contemporary experience is at the heart of the analyses. While valuable in bringing to light particular difficulties that our present ministry culture may create, this approach potentially overshadows deeper biblical-theological descriptions that are at the core of the hardship ministers face in every age.
The aim of this article is to explore the biblical-theological framework for suffering in ministry that all pastors will endure as they faithfully proclaim Christ. In particular, Paul’s letters will be examined with special attention given to his correspondence with the Corinthians, which is rich with descriptions of his own experience, not only as an account of his life in ministry, but as a pattern for all those who follow. The premise in what follows is that the current need is not so much to develop a new narrative for pastoral ministry, but to recover the rich biblical-theological narrative of ministry found in Scripture that is grounded in Christ’s death and resurrection.12 In doing so, the hope is to see beyond the specific struggles faced today, to the larger story common to all in ministry throughout these last days, stretching from Christ’s resurrection until his return, so that those entering the work of ministry will do so with a narrative informed by the gospel they are called to proclaim.
1. Maintaining the Matters of First Importance in Ministry
In various places Paul presents what appears to be a rather grandiose view of his ministry, such as when he describes his “insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations,” a mystery that, he says, was “made known to me by revelation” (Eph 3:3–5).13 He boldly envisions his labors in relation to great OT prophets, going so far as to compare himself to Moses, leaving the clear impression that his is the greater and more glorious work (2 Cor 3:11–13). These portrayals, on first read, may seem to imply an exaggerated sense of self-importance.14 It is not, however, Paul’s self-perception that leads to this exalted view of his ministry. Instead, Paul understands that the greatness of the age ushered in by Christ’s death and resurrection exalts his work. It is not his contribution that brings distinction. This grand and decisive epoch of redemption attributes greatness to Paul’s own labors in ministry.15
Paul concludes his first letter to the Corinthians with a reminder of what he refers to as the matter “of first importance” in the gospel he preaches: “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3–4). Death and resurrection together constitute the focal point of the gospel he proclaims. Yet in reading Paul, this climactic moment of redemption is not simply the summary of Paul’s message. Jesus’ death and resurrection is of first importance as the event that inaugurates a new era of redemption, which then serves as the setting for all he endures in ministry.16
According to Paul, Christ’s death and resurrection displays God’s “plan for the fullness of time” that has now entered history (Eph 1:9–10). Therefore, he can confidently say that upon us “the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor 10:11), because of “the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim 1:10–11). In every description of ministry, Paul remains fully alert to this time in which he labors. It emboldens his proclamation: “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:2). Regarding Paul, Ridderbos notes that, “before everything else, he was the proclaimer of a new time, the great turning point in the history of redemption, the intrusion of a new world aeon.”17 Paul is urged on in the work, and urges others through his preaching, because Christ’s death and resurrection have brought about this age of salvation in which he now serves.18
Thus, what Paul identifies as the matter of first importance in the message he proclaims is maintained as the matter of first importance for his entire ministry. Christ’s death and resurrection is not simply the great past redemptive event he points back to as he preaches. Christ’s death and resurrection shapes his entire conception of ministry. Through it Paul proclaims the coming of an age within which his ministry takes place, a redemptive epoch of which his ministry is truly a vibrant part. Paul understood, as Vos says, that “the servant is, as it were, made part of the wonder-world of salvation itself.”19 Ministers of this gospel do not tell the story of salvation as if standing at a distance, but instead are made participants in the unfolding drama of the last days inaugurated by Christ’s death and resurrection. According to Ridderbos, “Paul’s preaching itself is taken up into the great eschatological event.”20 His ministry is also a part of God’s redemptive provision, inseparable from this age of fulfillment.
These eschatological themes, therefore, are integral to the framework of, and thus essential to endure faithfully in, the work of ministry. Narrowly viewed, eschatology may be approached as an area of study concerned with distant events and consequently largely fruitless for practical ministry. In considering the above, however, its concern is not so much with obscure matters but with the great mystery revealed in Christ’s death and resurrection. The great end has now truly begun. Jesus himself is “the beginning, the firstborn from the dead” (Col 1:18). All gospel ministry must maintain this outlook. To quote Vos again, “The joy of working in the dawn of the world to come quickens the pulse of all New Testament servants of Christ.”21 Or at least it should, and only will when these “last things” are maintained as the “first thing” in ministry. In this sense, eschatology, rightly conceived, is always protology for the pastor. The eschatos is protos for Paul. The end begun with Christ’s death and resurrection is always of first importance, and must be as we consider the work of ministry.
When this perspective is lost, so is the larger story for our ministry. Bereft of such a vision, we are left simply with the things immediately before us, our work defined primarily by our current activity rather than the age of consummation that has now come. Apart from a rich biblical eschatology, the pastor’s attention will be confined to his own labors while missing the grand narrative that gives them any significance. When this occurs, the tasks of ministry become wearying in their repetition: sermons to prepare and worship to order with the approach of each Sunday, more counsel to offer possibly with little hope of change if experience proves true, meetings with elders that focus primarily on pressing needs. David Hansen laments how in the work of the pastor, “Theology’s venerable already not-yet has become what needs to be done today and what can be left until tomorrow.”22 The immediate pressures and demands of pastoral ministry may cause us to lose sight of this final epoch of redemption in which we serve. And without this larger story, the burdens of ministry may quickly become unbearable and the source of great discouragement.
2. A Portrayal of What Is Proclaimed
However, it is not simply that Paul has the privilege of serving at the inauguration of this new age. The work of Christ that ushers in this day of salvation also serves as the pattern for his ministry. His life portrays what he proclaims. This is evident at the inception of Paul’s call, heard in Jesus’ words spoken to Ananias, where he says, “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:16). As Ananias relays Jesus’ words, it is unclear if this particular statement was conveyed to Paul at this point. Surely all enter ministry unaware of how the message they bear will so deeply mark their own lives.
On first read, Jesus’ comment may sound vindictive, possibly a form of punishment for Paul’s previous persecution of the church. Yet Paul interprets all of his sufferings as indicative of the Savior he serves. It is not about Paul. It’s about Jesus. Paul is not suffering for his past sins, but as one compelled by Christ’s love, who died that “those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Cor 5:14–15). Therefore, he is willing to “endure everything for the sake of the elect” (2 Tim 2:10). He can even say that he is “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col 1:24). Every experience in ministry is interpreted through Christ’s death and resurrection, as an integral part of the ongoing drama of redemption as it plays out in these last days, which includes his own life.
Paul vividly describes his apostolic ministry in 1 Cor 4:9: “I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men.”23 The Greek word translated as spectacle is θέατρον, also the word for theater.24 This depiction clearly captures Paul’s image, not of what he is called to do in ministry, but of what God intends his ministry to be in this world. His life is to show the very things that he tells, to portray what he proclaims.25 Each instance of suffering he endures is set in a truly cosmic story that centers on Christ’s death and resurrection, visible before heaven and earth, to both angels and men.26 And Paul views his ministry as part of a final act, “last of all,” as a concluding display that captures in his own experience the climactic elements of the entire story.27
The question is whether something equally dramatic can be said for those who serve in ministry after the age of the apostles. Is such a description also true for those who minister today? Should every pastor see himself as part of this final act whose life, similar to Paul, will portray what he proclaims? Clearly the apostles had a unique function, commissioned by Jesus himself to serve as the foundation for the church (Eph 2:20). They had a once for all role that is not to be repeated. Surely, however, if Christ’s death and resurrection forms the foundation in this way, the same will characterize all ministry built upon it.28
This is particularly seen in 2 Tim 1:8–12 where Paul offers himself as an example to Timothy, that he too is called to “share in suffering for the gospel,” and similarly describes the setting of Timothy’s ministry as his own: “the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” Significantly here, Paul identifies himself not first as an apostle, but as a preacher, and then also as a teacher, which he says, “is why I suffer as I do.” In other words, Paul’s experience is not so much a function of his apostolic office as it is of the age to which his ministry belongs. Timothy’s labors share this setting, and so do all who serve in ministry since Christ’s appearing. Pastors today not only may, but must understand that their lives will likewise portray what they proclaim, because they too are participants in this final act initiated by Christ’s death and resurrection.
3. Ministry Will Always Manifest the Same Story
Paul develops this theme of death and resurrection as the framework for pastoral ministry most thoroughly in his second letter to the Corinthians.29 He defends the character of his ministry among them, weaving through the whole the implications of what he has established as the matter of first importance in his prior epistle. In his exposition of Christ’s resurrection in 1 Cor 15, he has already made application to ministry in verses 30–32, describing the threat he continually faces, characterizing it as death, saying, “I die every day!” Yet it is not his own personality or disposition that constantly pushes Paul into the fray despite the danger. His continued boldness has its basis in the resurrection. There is no gain, he says, “If the dead are not raised.” Paul takes up this theme at the start of 2 Corinthians, describing “our affliction” as sharing “in Christ’s sufferings” (2 Cor 1:4–5).30 He returns to it repeatedly as he describes how a ministry that faithfully represents Christ will always manifest the story of his death and resurrection.31
Paul concisely describes this pattern as it is replicated in his own experience in 2 Cor 4:7–18. Referring to the gospel that is centered in the risen, glorified Christ, he says, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” Again, as in 1 Cor 4:9 mentioned above, Paul understands his own frailty, weakness, and suffering as the very setting in which the resurrected Christ is most clearly seen. He then provides a list that captures how this is exhibited in his own life: “afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken, struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor 4:9). Each is an occurrence of death, yet always coupled with resurrection.
This is evident later in the passage as Paul continues to juxtapose these two dimensions of his experience in ministry. He describes a “wasting away” that is accompanied by ongoing inward renewal (2 Cor 4:16). The pattern is death and resurrection. He speaks of a “momentary affliction” along with “an eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor 4:17). Again, it is death and resurrection. There are the things “that are seen” which he describes as “transient,” but alongside them are “the things that are unseen” which are “eternal” (2 Cor 4:18). Here Paul pictures one age that is passing away, brought to its terminus in Christ’s death, but the presence of another age that, though unseen, commences with Christ’s resurrection. Paul understands that in ministry, he will embody both death and resurrection as his life is set within this new epoch of redemption, at the intersection of these two ages, both continuing concurrently for a time, the one characterized by death and the other by new life. 32
This leads to another essential aspect of this pattern that must be noted. As Paul explains the dimensions of death and resurrection in ministry, they are not experienced sequentially but simultaneously. In other words, Paul does not describe an experience of death that is then followed by an experience of resurrection. They are not separate moments or distinct occasions. Both are present at the same time.33 This is seen clearly in 2 Cor 4:10–11, where Paul provides the key interpretive framework for these contrasting features that characterize his life in ministry. The whole of his experience is condensed in these words: “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.”34 He continues, “For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.” It is not first death and then resurrection. The pattern is always death and also resurrection.35
Paul is not describing occasional moments but the consistent pattern that frames his conception of ministry as grounded in Christ’s death and resurrection. According to Gaffin, “Paul’s mortality and weakness, taken over in the service of Christ, constitute the comprehensive medium through which the eschatological life of the glorified Christ comes to expression.”36 In other words, resurrection moments in ministry only occur when accompanied by experiences that may rightly be characterized as death. But likewise, there is no experience of death that will not also include the life sustaining power of Christ’s resurrection for those who serve him. Paul’s experience is not truly understood until this is grasped, nor will ours be unless we similarly interpret life in ministry as a display that always includes the simultaneous show of Christ’s death and resurrection. In fact, this is the very thing our ministry is to manifest. In what appears to be sure and certain death comes resilient life, not because of our strength, but in the midst of our great weakness, because Jesus has risen from the dead.
4. The Redemptive Purpose of This Pattern
Paul, however, is not portraying suffering simply as an inescapable mark of ministry. Hardship is not to be stoically embraced merely because it is a necessary, though unfortunate, part of this age. There is a redemptive purpose to this pattern. God himself intends to further accomplish his plan of salvation, both in Paul and those he serves in ministry, through all he endures.37 Therefore, Paul can honestly document every instance of adversity without falling into despair. Paul catalogues his sufferings in various places: “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger” (2 Cor 6:4–5). He records what apparently remained vivid in his memory: “Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea” (2 Cor 11:25). Such things are not to be forgotten, nor can they be. Yet how they are remembered is all-important.
Paul provides an example of how he recalls such memories as he relays to the Corinthians one particular instance of affliction he endured in Asia (2 Cor 1:8–10). Although he does not describe the detailed circumstances, he captures the experience well: “we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself” (v. 8). But he continues by explaining the purpose of this experience, saying it “was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (v. 9). Surely this is true in all such occasions. Each incident must be interpreted as an opportunity to forsake self-reliance, as a reminder that there is nothing life-giving in this mortal body but only in Jesus risen from the dead. Paul remembers all of his sufferings this way, as occasions God provides to see displayed the power of the resurrection as he once again encounters his own weakness.
This catalogue of examples is not only a reminder for Paul. It is also an important aspect of his ministry to others. After describing this pattern of death and resurrection that God intends Paul’s life to manifest, he tells the Corinthians, “For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God” (2 Cor 4:15). This is the last of four purpose clauses Paul strings together, each introduced with ἵνα, stretching from 2 Cor 4:7–15.38 Each conveys the divine intent Paul identifies in their experience of weakness and suffering in ministry: first, so that it might be clear the power originates from God and not themselves (v. 7); second, and most central, so that the resurrection-life of Jesus would be evident as their lives are sustained in suffering (vv. 10, 11); and finally, so that it might function as an effective witness to the Corinthians and a means God uses to extend his grace to them (v. 15). In this way, Paul provides a compact apologetic for the direct relationship between suffering and his apostolic office. It shows him to be sent by God (v. 7), as witness to Christ’s death and resurrection (vv. 10, 11), in response to which the Gentiles receive grace to God’s glory (v. 15).
As the life of Jesus is portrayed against the backdrop of Paul’s suffering, it is seen by those he serves in ministry. And Paul continually provides an interpretation that centers others on Christ, making it clear that his letters are to be read not as the story of Paul and his ministry, but the story of Christ’s death and resurrection as exhibited in Paul and his ministry. Of course, the same must be true for all ministry built on this apostolic foundation. It is never to be a story about me and my ministry, but the story of Christ’s death and resurrection exhibited in me and my ministry. This is what others are to see. We are to play within our ministry a supporting role in this greater story that focuses others on Christ.
This must shape all of our expectations. Ministry itself never enlivens. It will always expose weakness and make one weary. The glorified Lord Jesus, however, enlists those who are weak, who belong to this passing age, in order to demonstrate the power of the resurrection and the age to come that begins in him, the firstfruits, who has passed from death to life. For this reason, as James Denney has said, “To wear out life in the service of Jesus is to open it up to the entrance of Jesus’ life.”39 Only Jesus enlivens. The minister must never rely upon his own resources, but on the risen Lord himself. Both the minister and those he serves must learn to identify this pattern of death and resurrection, how our own experience is inseparably wed to redemptive history, with the purpose that we might look to Christ for life, and that others might be led to do the same.
Although suffering features prominently in ministry, with Paul we can have great confidence. “We do not lose heart,” he says, even though “our outer nature is wasting away” (2 Cor 4:16). More so, Paul says, “we are always of good courage” (2 Cor 5:6, 8). Paul can express himself this way only as he embraces the larger story his ministry is intended to manifest, centering on Jesus’ death and resurrection. As Lim observes, “The story of Jesus appears to be the master story behind Paul’s understanding of his suffering,” and “It is this story that Paul wants his life and ministry to tell, and it is this story that he wants this community to embrace.”40 This provokes an important question for those engaged in this work: What story do I want my ministry to tell?
Could there be another narrative at work when I lose heart and find myself constantly discouraged? Of course, suffering is always suffering. Possessing the correct theological system, including the vibrant role of eschatology, does not diminish the experience of hardship. It is hard. Paul himself speaks of the daily pressure and constant anxiety he experiences (2 Cor 11:28). Weakness is always truly experienced as weakness. This, however, leads to despondency when our focus remains inward, which magnifies the suffering in such a way that keeps us from seeing any deeper purpose in what we endure. When this occurs, we have likely lost the storyline, leaving us with our narrow circumstances without the larger redemptive-historical framework providing the interpretation that constantly directs us to Christ.
5. Ministry That Tells Another Story
The larger danger, of course, is when ministry begins to tell an altogether different story. As mentioned above, Paul describes his weakness and sufferings as θέατρον (1 Cor 4:9). His life in ministry is portrayed as a kind of theater. Yet the show is not intended to draw attention to Paul. In contrast to some, he says, “what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Cor 4:5). For this reason, Paul commends his ministry with patterns that most clearly display Christ’s death and resurrection: “by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger,” all of which are “acts” that show forth death; yet also “by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech, and the power of God,” which show forth resurrection life (2 Cor 6:4–7). This is the show, so to speak, that must go on.
In commending this pattern for ministry, Paul also provides a critique of those he calls “false apostles” (2 Cor 11:13).41 Their ministry puts on an entirely different kind of show. Paul describes them commending themselves by reference to themselves (2 Cor 10:12). In so doing, they become the story. Paul ironically gives them the rather theatrical title “super apostles” (2 Cor 11:5; 12:11), with what appear to be greater exploits and leaving an impression that far surpasses any he’s made.42 Yet, their ministry in effect simply draws attention to what’s immediately on stage, focusing others on nothing but their own presence and accomplishments.
Those Paul criticizes are likely Judaizers.43 However, in this instance, he does not contend with the particulars of their teaching. Instead, Paul exposes other features of their ministry that contrast with his own. Most prominent is their boast in the flesh (2 Cor 11:18). It is a form of ministry that, in effect, seeks to make a good show of this present age. Paul confronts the same among the Philippians, contrasting himself with those who put confidence in the flesh (Phil 3:2–4). Also, he warns the Galatians about “those who want to make a good showing in the flesh” (Gal 6:12). Although the immediate form in this case was the requirement of circumcision, Paul’s broader concern, and more significant point, is that this show is one-dimensional and self-referential with its incessant focus on, as Paul repeatedly cites, the flesh. In other words, its concern is worldly and singularly directed to what is of this age.44 Their ministry, in effect, presents a story devoid of Christ’s death and resurrection. Paul’s ministry, however, displays this new epoch of salvation that has entered history in Christ, which is the drama that faithful ministry must follow. Absent this, the actors on stage become the primary attraction rather than Jesus, crucified and raised.
Paul presses the point, describing how the show of these “super apostles” actually proclaims “another Jesus” and presents “a different gospel” (2 Cor 11:4). The θέατρον that is ministry will always convey a certain message. Theirs creates dissonance with the matters of first importance in Paul’s gospel. As Savage notes, rather than proclaiming Jesus as Lord, “By their self-exalting behavior, they are effectively preaching ἄλλον Ἰησοῦν.”45 Paul’s ministry draws others’ attention to the triumphal procession of Christ, with Paul humbly led as one of the conquered (2 Cor 2:14).46 Instead, this other expression of ministry attempts to portray itself in triumph.
This challenge, of course, is not limited to the age of the apostles. A persistent temptation in ministry is to make a good show in this present age. A central premise in Paul’s ministry, however, is that his life will exhibit the features of the gospel he tells. Christ’s death is the climactic judgment against this age, against the flesh. It is a story about what is passing away, as well as of that which has come, through Christ’s resurrection that sustains him in all of his suffering and even allows him to rejoice in it (Col 1:24–27). Faithful ministry in this age, therefore, will always include this dynamic of death and resurrection. Suffering must not be seen as an indicator that something is wrong with ministry. In fact, apart from suffering, an altogether different gospel story is told. Back to our earlier question: What story do I want my ministry to tell? A subtle danger in ministry is to proclaim the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection, while expecting to live out a story that, though it may include some difficulties and occasional hardship, primarily shares a script with this world, exchanging the theme of death and resurrection for another storyline more appealing to this age.
Although the particulars of what Paul’s opponents advocated may be foreign to the church today, these deeper issues will always remain the same. Those in ministry, therefore, must take Paul’s assessment of these false apostles to heart. We are no less prone to commend our flesh, measuring ourselves in relation to the personality, intelligence, and skills of others, delighting in the places we excel and despairing of our usefulness when we don’t. We also desire for others to be attracted to our presence through our performance in the tasks of ministry, as if the stage was ours rather than the setting for the death yet resurrection of Jesus to be displayed through us. We feel the pressure to put on a show of sorts that will produce some enlivening effect in others. We delight when our strengths are exhibited, not our weaknesses, and to that extent veil the power of God in the gospel and instead encourage others to place their confidence in us. These are ways that we, to use Paul’s words, “want to make a good showing in the flesh” (Gal 6:12). The perennial temptation is to adopt the metrics of this age as the measure of ministry rather than the pattern of Christ who suffered before entering his glory.
6. An Example from among Paul’s Company of Pastors
The lure of this age is evident not only in Paul’s opponents. There is also a danger for those closest to Paul as seen in an example from his company of pastors. In various places through his letters, Paul includes the names of those serving alongside him. Some are more familiar, such as Timothy and Titus. There is also Silas, who features prominently in Acts, where we also find Mark, Aristarchus, Erastus, Gaius, Tychicus, and Trophimus, who are mentioned too in Paul’s letters.47 Others include Epaphras and Archipus.48 Of course, Luke must be included, and mentioned twice with Luke is another individual, Demas, whom Paul also lists as one of his “fellow workers” (Col 4:14; Phlm 24). Yet Paul refers to Demas once again in 2 Tim 4:10, where he reports, “Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.” This brief statement is powerfully descriptive when placed in the eschatological framework that provides the vision for Paul’s life in ministry.
Although there is no evidence that Demas began to teach anything contrary to the gospel Paul proclaims, his apparent abandonment of his call to ministry indicates, at least in his case, a failure to grasp the bearing of this gospel upon his own life in ministry.49 Whatever reasons Demas may have given for his departure, Paul identifies the deeper source as a love for “this present world.” The Greek text reads, τὸν νῦν αἰῶνα. This same construction is found in 1 Tim 6:17, where it describes the “rich in this present age,” and in Titus 2:12, calling believers to “godly lives in the present age.” Paul’s use of this wording, τὸν νῦν αἰῶνα, is instructive. It is not a simple matter of Demas’s love for the physical world that is at issue. Paul’s chief concern is not with a basic worldliness that stands in contrast to a focus on more important spiritual matters. Paul is describing, instead, Demas’s identification with “this present age” as opposed to the new age that has arrived with Christ. Once again, the eschatological drama is all-determinative.50
No doubt, Paul personally feels the impact of Demas’s decision to leave, evident as he expresses his desire for Timothy to come to him and as he mentions the departure of others to various places of ministry (2 Tim 4:9–11). Paul’s primary concern in regards to Demas, however, is not interpersonal. Though Paul has described him as a “fellow worker,” what distinguishes Demas is not his standing with Paul but his standing in the midst of these two ages. Paul has just reminded Timothy that his faithfulness in the tasks of ministry must be motivated by Christ’s “appearing and his kingdom” (2 Tim 4:1). Likewise, this is true for Paul himself, as he describes the nearness of his own departure, implying his impending death, as one who has “loved his appearing” (2 Tim 4:8). The contrast with Demas is unmistakable as just afterward he is described as “in love with this present age” (2 Tim 4:10).51 And the evidence of his love for this present age, more so than Christ’s appearing and the age to come, is his departure as he abandons his ministry alongside of Paul.
Surely Demas did not begin his ministry anticipating this outcome. There is no sense that his intentions were false as he served alongside the apostle Paul. The reasons for the shift, however, can be surmised from the context as, once again, Paul describes his own experience in ministry. Paul is at this point in prison (2 Tim 1:8; 2:9). As he recounts the course of his own life since his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, he reminds Timothy of his “persecutions and sufferings” (2 Tim 3:11). At the conclusion of his ministry, Paul says that he is “already being poured out” (2 Tim 4:6). Demas too was there to witness these things, and likely experienced a measure of the same sufferings in his association with Paul. Yet evidently Demas lost sight of what sustained Paul’s ministry in this present age. Vos describes Paul’s awareness of the “invisible background” to his ministry, “that at every step his presentation of truth was accompanied by a ministry from heaven conducted by the Christ of glory.”52 Without this in view, all that remains is the world before us, and it appears as though Demas decided to make the most of it, or at least hoped to find some comfort in it, rather than endure the suffering associated with the call to gospel ministry.
Reading through 2 Timothy, there is a sense that Paul may have had similar fears for Timothy. This final letter is full of encouragement that can also be read as a warning, both to Timothy as well as to all who are called to ministry. Hints of Paul’s concern are found as he prays for Timothy and recalls his tears (2 Tim 1:3–4). He exhorts Timothy not to be ashamed but to “share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God” (2 Tim 1:8). Paul recounts Timothy’s past faithfulness, following not only Paul’s teaching, but also, he says, “my persecutions and sufferings” (2 Tim 3:10–11), calling him to “fulfill your ministry” (2 Tim 4:5). There is no indication that Timothy wavered, but at this point Paul could have no more confidence than he had previously in Demas.53 Will Timothy continue in ministry, motivated by a love for the Lord’s appearing, or will he leave his call in love with this present age? Only the conclusion of his ministry will tell.
For this reason, we must take the same warning to heart. Paul had numerous companions in ministry. Not all proved to be faithful to the end. Barclay’s sentiment is surely correct when he says, “We think of Demas, not to condemn, but to sympathize, for so many of us are like him.”54 Truly, to rephrase Paul, no temptation has overtaken any that is not common to all in ministry (1 Cor 10:13). In pastoring those who suffer, we too will bear a measure of their burdens, multiplied across the congregation, while also enduring many other hardships that are unique to ministry.55 As we do, the constant temptation is to search for solace in this present age, turning to this world for some measure of comfort. Yet, as learned from Demas, we cannot love this present age and also remain faithful in ministry.
Paul presents his apostolic ministry as another example, foundational for all those who follow. Although his assessment may appear largely negative in his many descriptions of suffering, he understands this as the sign that the present age is passing away. The appearing of Christ is what brings him constant encouragement. And Paul has both appearances of Christ continually in view: his first appearing that has inaugurated this new era of salvation and serves as the basis of Paul’s call (2 Tim 1:8–9), but also another appearing, “that Day” which will bring this present age to a close and consummate the age to come for which Paul longs with anticipation (2 Tim 4:7–8).56 These are the fixed points that orient Paul’s ministry. Christ’s first appearing is characterized by humiliation, and Paul therefore expects to experience the same. Christ’s second appearing, however, is characterized by exaltation which Paul awaits, now empowered by Christ’s resurrection to faithfully fulfill his call. This is the epochal framework, focused on Christ, that sustains Paul in ministry. Likewise it is the vision he holds before his fellow workers. Paul exhorts Timothy, and all those who would follow, “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering” (2 Tim 2:8–9). Always in view is “the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (2 Tim 2:10).
The missionary Lesslie Newbigin recounts a question he was frequently asked concerning his ministry in the non-Western world: “Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the gospel in India?” Newbigin developed a standard reply that captured his great hope: “I believe in the resurrection of Jesus and therefore the question does not arise.” He proceeds to explain, “The gospel is news of a fact” and regarding a fact you cannot be pessimistic or optimistic. Instead, “you have to ask a different question: ‘Do you believe it or do you not believe it?’”57 Although personal experience may give rise to pessimism and leave us cynical about the church, the greater reality of the resurrection allows us to maintain confidence in all we endure. The focus, therefore, must not be narrowed to our circumstances in ministry. Instead we must be continually oriented to the fact of Jesus’ death and resurrection as the object of our faith, always maintained as the matter of first importance.
Recent studies into the decline of pastoral ministry may provide accurate descriptions along with immediate reasons for the demise of many who become discouraged in the work. Such conditions should be addressed. Yet to be truly understood, these experiences must be placed into a much larger setting in which Christ remains central. Although current features may vary and create unique stresses that differ from previous generations and other cultures, the underlying narrative for all ministry remains the same. Those in every age who faithfully preach this Christ will manifest his death and resurrection as participants in what they proclaim. If this is missed, so too will be the significance of the suffering we endure: that the gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection might be displayed against the backdrop of our own moment in redemptive history.
In his work The Resurrection of Our Lord, William Milligan reminds us, “The Living Lord is with us, who once knew every such disappointment as we experience, and every such cause of despondency as weakens us; who once sighed over the stubbornness of men more deeply than we can sigh, and shed more tears for those who refused to listen than we can weep. Yet he triumphed; and he comes to us now that he may communicate to us his joy of victory.”58 Such was the vision of the Apostle Paul, and the same must be shared by all whose ministry is built upon this foundation once laid, that we might rejoice even as we long for his return.