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The Character of the Christian Minister

A Realistic Picture of Christian Ministry

In 2 Timothy 4:5, Paul shows how the charge and the challenge of pastoral ministry provide Timothy with an opportunity to display his character: “As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”

This verse adds four imperatives to the five in verse 2. Timothy is given a tall order, a man-sized task. Here we have, as one commentator puts it, “a realistic statement of what Christian ministry is all about.” Confronted by opposition, it would be all too easy for Timothy to throw in the towel, to quit the fight, to exit the race. But this is no time for self-pity. Here is an opportunity for him to stay steady, to face whatever suffering might come, to keep on preaching the gospel, and to complete the task.

Always Be Sober-Minded

Timothy is surrounded by some who have become intoxicated with all of their mythological notions. They have wandered away; they have drifted off. This is not a good time for Timothy to set his pastoral cruise control or automatic pilot. He doesn’t dare to fall asleep—for his own sake and for the sake of those under his care.

He must be vigilant. He must be prepared to endure. He must make sure that he’s not susceptible to speculative notions and that he’s not unduly influenced by the numbers of people who flock in the direction of false teachers. So Paul counsels him, “Always be sober-minded,” or, “Keep your head in all situations” (NIV).

Endure Suffering

Paul began this letter by inviting Timothy to join him in “suffering for the gospel” (1:8). He has spoken about his suffering all the way through. He could never be accused of sugarcoating the troubles that Timothy will face. Timothy would not be able to recognize many of our approaches to gospel ministry because they are soft and self-focused. In Paul’s case, the suffering was obviously physical, and it probably would be so for Timothy. Many of our brothers and sisters in the world face the same.

For those of us in the West, at least for now, it may be more mental and emotional, but it is real nonetheless. However, as people grow to expect a more politically acceptable gospel, the cost involved in guarding the good deposit may grow. It is costly to declare publicly or privately the Bible’s assessment of man as sinful, guilty, responsible, and lost. It’s hard to proclaim that message over coffee and doughnuts. When the welcoming pastor explains, “We want you all to have a lovely time this morning and don’t want anybody getting upset or unsettled!” it’s hard to follow that by declaring: “It is appointed unto man once to die—and by the way, you’re sinful, guilty, responsible, and lost! Don’t spill your coffee.”

That’s why superficial worship and silly introductions do not set the scene for decent biblical preaching.

That’s why superficial worship and silly introductions do not set the scene for decent biblical preaching. Man-centered gatherings that have only the vaguest approximation to biblical worship neither focus the mind nor stir the heart. Timothy is not called to create suffering, but to endure it. He (and contemporary Timothys) will be on the receiving end of the accusations and insinuations of the Evil One, who comes to deceive, discourage, and derail him if possible. No doubt Timothy often will have occasion to find rest in the encouragement from Paul: “Be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2:1). This is how a believer can endure suffering.

Do the Work of an Evangelist

Paul does not want Timothy to get a new job. He is simply reinforcing Timothy’s charge to preach the Word. As Phillips paraphrases verse 5, “Go on steadily preaching the Gospel” (PHILLIPS). Paul is saying: “Be a gospel man, Timothy. If you are going to be known for one thing, be known as a gospel man.”

In A Quest for Godliness, J. I. Packer writes, “If one preaches the Bible biblically, one cannot help preaching the gospel all the time, and every sermon will be . . . at least by implication evangelistic.” [1] The pastor is consistently saying, “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20). He issues a personal, passionate plea. He must preach, as the Puritan pastor Richard Baxter preached, as a dying man to dying men and women, declaring confidently and wooingly that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting our sins against us, and that the only safe haven for the sinner is in the mercy of God himself. When this message begins to grip the preacher and dawn on the listeners, useful, effective, biblical evangelism is taking place.

In my lifetime, I have watched sadly as a number of good, godly, effective gospel ministers turned from this message by exercising a ministry of denunciation, constantly cursing the darkness. They chose to point out the predicament but failed to point to the Savior. Others have embraced political agendas, ecology, or human rights. But when they changed their focus, what happened? The work of evangelism was neglected.

Those entrusted with the gospel dare not neglect this work. We must declare that the Son of God came to die for us and that he offers to clothe us in his righteousness. We must make clear that all that God has done for us, as John Calvin said, “remains useless and of no value to us” as long as we remain outside of Christ. [2] The late John Murray observed, “The passion for evangelism is quenched when we lose sight of the grandeur of the gospel.” [3]

There is a new breed of young Reformed preachers who are in danger of going wrong at this point. Some have happily awakened to discover biblical theology, and for that we rejoice. However, in some cases, the incumbent problem that has come with this discovery is that somehow or another they are stymied when it comes to pressing upon people the claims of Christ and the free offer of the gospel. We must beware of this. Choose your mentors well and listen again to Murray: “It is on the crest of the wave of divine sovereignty that the unrestricted summons of the gospel comes to the weary and the heavy laden. This is Jesus’ own witness and it provides the direction in which our own thinking on this subject must proceed. Any inhibition or reserve in presenting the overtures of grace should no more characterize our proclamation than it characterizes the Lord’s witness.” [4]

Fulfill Your Ministry

Finally, Paul urges Timothy to keep going so as to finish the job. He must carry out to the full the commission that God has given him. In secular Greek, the verb sometimes denotes the fulfilling of a promise or the repaying of a debt. Timothy had promised in his ordination to follow Christ and to make him known, and we have done the same. Timothy is indebted to Paul, just as we are indebted to those who led us to Christ, who nurtured us, and who continue to encourage and inspire us. Jesus, in paying a debt he didn’t owe, kept his promise to the Father. In turn, he received the promise of his Father, granting him the nations as his inheritance.

Forty years into pastoral ministry, I am not jaded or discouraged. Indeed, if I were given the opportunity to start again at the beginning, I would seize it in a moment. So we must work while it is day, for the night comes. The challenge that we face is clear. The character that we forge is in process. The charge to preach the Word is straightforward.

I say to you, open the door and let the lion out!

This article is adapted from a chapter entitled “Let the Lion Out” by Alistair Begg in The Inerrant Word: Biblical, Historical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspectives, edited by John MacArthur.

[1] J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1990), 169.
[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, Library of Christian Classics, vols. 20–21 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 3.1.1.
[3] John Murray, The Atonement and the Free Offer of the Gospel, in Collected Writings of John Murray (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1976), 1:59.
[4] John Murray, The Sovereignty of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1940), 12.

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