The Paradox of the Gospel Ministry

by Pastor Kevin Sadler

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“Peer into the prison and see him for yourself: bent and frail, shackled to the arm of a Roman guard. Behold the apostle of God. Who knows when his back last felt a bed or his mouth knew a good meal? Three decades of travel and trouble, and what’s he got to
show for it?

“There’s squabbling in Philippi, competition in Corinth, the legalists are swarming in Galatia. Crete is plagued by money-grabbers.…Even some of Paul’s own friends have turned against him. “Dead broke. No family. No property. Nearsighted and worn out.

“…Got stoned in one city and stranded in another. Nearly drowned as many times as he nearly starved. If he spent more than one week in the same place, it was probably a prison.

“He never received a salary. Had to pay his own travel expenses. Kept a part-time job on the side to make ends meet.

“…One minute he’s in charge; the next he’s in doubt. One day he’s preaching; the next he’s in prison. And that’s where I’d like you to look at him. Look at him in the prison.

“Pretend you don’t know him. You’re a guard or a cook or a friend of the hatchet man, and you’ve come to get one last look at the guy while they sharpen the blade. “What you see shuffling around in his cell isn’t too much. But what I lean over and tell you is: ‘That man will shape the course of history.’ ”1

A Good Concern to Have

“Giving no offense in any thing, that the ministry be not blamed: But in all things approving ourselves as the ministers of God…” (2 Cor. 6:3-4a).

Paul was concerned about doing something that would discredit his ministry of reconciliation. Paul was protective of the integrity of his mission, the gospel, and the one true God he represented. He did not want the ministry to be blamed or discredited by his actions, the actions of his co-laborers, or the actions of the saints, and so he advised against doing anything that would cause someone to reject the gospel.

It’s a good concern for all of us to have, because people often look for excuses to justify their sinful, worldly lifestyle and rejection of Christ. And a common excuse and a favorite one is that “Christians are just a bunch of hypocrites.” Like Paul, we must be sensitive to our testimony so that it provides no excuse for unbelievers to “obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thes. 1:8).

When Paul wrote, “giving no offence in any thing,” he wanted people to examine and scrutinize their lives as closely as possible and root out anything that would give “offence,” or be a stumbling block. Paul kept the salvation of souls at the forefront of his thinking, and this caused him to avoid anything in his life that might be a stumbling block to someone who might otherwise believe the gospel of salvation.

In verse 3, Paul wrote about what not to do, while in verse 4, Paul wrote about what to do: “In all things approving ourselves as the ministers of God.” Paul understood that one’s character needs to be admirable and consistent with the truth being proclaimed. We therefore endeavor to carry out the gospel ministry in a manner that is above reproach and to live in a way that is appropriate as a minister of God “in all things.” In Paul’s case, his godly, transformed life gave credibility to the gospel of grace that he so
faithfully shared.

When the Going Gets Tough

“…in much patience, in afflictions, in necessities, in distresses, In stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labours, in watchings, in fastings” (2 Cor. 6:4b-5).

Paul didn’t paint the picture of the gospel ministry with only pastels, flowers, and butterflies. Instead, from the palette of his personal experience, he included dark, foreboding colors and storm clouds, painting a realistic picture of what to expect when we give ourselves fully to the Lord’s service. This is not the description of ministry that you would expect to read in a brochure from a theological seminary or hear from someone recruiting people for ministry, but it’s the truth of things in the spiritual battle.

“In much patience,” or endurance, Paul lived as a minister of God. He was faithful in living for the Lord, and he did it over the long run. When a believer lives a faithful life for the Lord, it shows a selfless concern for the souls of the unbelieving around us. And Paul had also been a man of endurance by not quitting when the going got tough in the ministry. We see very clearly in this passage that the going did indeed get tough for Paul but, out of his concern for lost souls, he never gave up.

“In afflictions” Paul had exhibited much patience. “Afflictions” here means a pressing or a pressure, such as physical or emotional pressure, or crushing experiences. It speaks of circumstances that press in on you, that burden you, and weigh you down.

“In necessities” means that Paul did without things that make life comfortable and secure. Paul was often deprived of the basic necessities of food, clothing, and shelter. He experienced the stress which comes from being in need.

“In distresses” means that Paul was pushed into tight spots or narrow places, so he didn’t know what to do or where to turn as he felt the anguish of being cornered and trapped.

“In stripes” denotes Paul’s beatings and whippings. Later in this letter when he recalled his persecutions, Paul wrote, “in stripes above measure….Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one” (2 Cor. 11:23-24). According to the law of Moses, the Jews did not give more than forty stripes (Deut. 25:2-3), but the Romans had no such law. When Paul was beaten by Gentiles, they whipped him as long as they
wanted. In Philippi, where he and Silas were unjustly beaten, Acts 16:23 tells us, “And when they had laid MANY STRIPES upon them, they cast them into prison.”

“In imprisonments” teaches that Paul was imprisoned many times. Again, recounting his persecution in 2 Corinthians 11:23, Paul wrote, “in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent.” Paul was imprisoned more than we know from the record of Scripture.

“In tumults” is refers to tumultuous situations which put Paul in the middle of riots, mob violence, and public outcries. When Paul wrote this letter, we know he had already faced mobs in Damascus, Jerusalem, Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, Thessalonica, Berea, Corinth, and Ephesus. These tumults and uproars often followed Paul’s preaching of the gospel of grace and resulted from the rejection of that message by both Jews and Gentiles.

“In labors” means Paul toiled to the point of exhaustion and weariness. Paul worked hard in the ministry as he evangelized and established local churches. In addition, he also worked hard in his tentmaking, working with his hands to provide a living for himself so he wasn’t a financial burden on the fledgling churches he planted. He did this to prove the sincerity of his motives and love.

“In watchings” means Paul had many sleepless nights. It’s been said that insomnia should be called “resisting a rest.” Paul was kept awake by the stresses and responsibilities of ministry.

“In fastings” tells of Paul going without food. He fasted because of want and poverty, and Paul also fasted because he was busy. He was working hard. Sometimes his fasting was voluntary abstinence from food because he had a lot to do and had to get things done for the Lord.

Spiritual Enablement

“By pureness, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Ghost, by love unfeigned, By the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armour of righteousness on the right hand and on the left” (2 Cor. 6:6-7).

In these verses, Paul referred to the spiritual graces which enabled him to carry out his ministry and endure its many hardships. Paul labored for the Lord using these spiritual tools found in his ministry toolbox.

“By pureness” denotes cleanness and blamelessness. This is at the top of this list of spiritual virtues because pureness of life and motives in ministry are critical in making the message of reconciliation known to a world that needs Christ.

“By knowledge” records that Paul’s ministry was conducted by a proper understanding of divine knowledge (2 Cor. 11:6). Having been taught directly by the Lord (Gal. 1:11-12), Paul knew sound doctrine and was committed to God’s message of grace. He fully grasped God’s redeeming love and the preaching of the Cross and made it known to others. He understood God’s instruction for the Body of Christ and God’s eternal purpose for us to reign in the heavenlies.

“By longsuffering” refers to patience with difficult people. The Corinthians should not have needed any proof of this! They were a difficult people, but the patient way in which he dealt with them was a prime example of Paul’s longsuffering. People can test your patience, but people never exasperated Paul to the degree where he set the truth aside, threw up his hands, and walked away from the ministry. He was longsuffering for the gospel’s sake and for the sake of the lost.

“By kindness” refers to goodness of heart in action. A lot of people did a lot of bad things to Paul, but it didn’t change him from being good or kind. And Paul’s kindness was shown by how faithfully and energetically he spread the gospel, which is the ultimate kindness.

“By the Holy Ghost” is really at the heart of it all. All the rest of these spiritual virtues were possible in Paul’s life as the result of the working of the Holy Spirit. Because Paul walked in the Spirit, he manifested these fruits of the Spirit: pureness, knowledge, longsuffering, and kindness. Paul wrote that “in the day of salvation have I succoured [helped] thee” (2 Cor. 6:2). It is by the Holy Spirit that Paul was helped to carry out the ministry of reconciliation in the day of salvation.

“By love unfeigned” was also the working of the Holy Spirit in Paul’s life (Rom. 5:5; Gal. 5:22). The love which was so obvious in the life of the Apostle Paul was genuine. His love was not fake, and it was no sham. His love for the unbelieving was unfeigned, and he truly desired what was best for them: that they would be reconciled to God by faith in Christ (2 Cor. 5:20).

“By the word of truth” in this context is the word of reconciliation. Ephesians 1:13 reads, “In Whom ye also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation” (cf. Col. 1:5). The word of truth is the good news that God is reconciling sinners to Himself through faith alone in the substitutionary death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

“By the power of God” points to the power of the gospel and the Cross. In Romans 1:16, Paul tells us that “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth” (cf. 1 Cor. 1:18). As Paul proclaimed the gospel, the power of God manifested as souls saved and lives transformed.

“By the armour of righteousness on the right hand and on the left.” The word translated “armour” is not the same Greek word used for “armour” when referring to the whole armor of God in Ephesians 6. It is, however, the same Greek word translated “weapons” later in this epistle, when Paul wrote of “the weapons of our warfare are… mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds” (2 Cor. 10:4). Paul is referring to the weapons of righteousness that bring what is right to lost sinners and expose what is wrong so that what unbelievers believe crumbles before the power of the gospel. The weapons of righteousness are the Word of God and prayer (Eph. 6:17-18).

With these weapons Paul fought and battled for souls on the right hand and on the left to deliver captive sinners from the power of darkness (Col. 1:13).

Opposite Responses

“By honour and dishonour, by evil report and good report: as deceivers, and yet true; As unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and, behold, we live; as chastened, and not killed; As sorrowful, yet alway rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things” (2 Cor. 6:8-10).

In these verses, Paul described the sharp contrasts and opposite responses that are found in the ministry of reconciliation.

“By honor and dishonor” means that, as Paul was a witness for Christ, he was praised by some and despised by others. Paul was treated as a man of honor and was loved and respected by those who believed the gospel, and he was dishonored and treated with contempt and disrespect by those who rejected it.

“By evil report and good report” means that some people gave a good report of the Apostle Paul and some gave an evil report. Many happily celebrated the impact of his life on them as he brought the truth of God to them, while others assaulted his character and slandered him. Paul was a force for the truth and the gospel, and it led to these polarized, opposite responses.

“As deceivers, and yet true” was said of our Lord as well. John 7:12 reads, “And there was much murmuring among the people concerning Him: for some said, He is a good man: others said, Nay; but He deceiveth the people.” Satan desires to destroy the reputation of those who speak the truth of God’s Word. Paul was called a liar and deceiver by those who hated the truth of the gospel, and yet he was “true,” a true servant who spoke the truth of God.

“As unknown, and yet well known” reminds me of a faithful grace pastor from years ago, Harland Shriver, who once described himself as “unknown from coast to coast.” Paul was ignored, unappreciated, and unknown by many in the world, yet for others he was well known and meant so much because he brought them the truth of the gospel. At the same time that Paul was an obscure nobody to the world, he was a well-known minister of God to the Church.

“As dying, and, behold we live” reminds us how Paul was always living on the brink of death as he took the gospel to the world. In 2 Corinthians 1:9, Paul wrote, “We had the sentence of death in ourselves.” The enemies of the gospel were always dogging Paul, trying to destroy him. Though death was a constant stalker in his ministry, Paul was alive to Christ and really living, living a passionate, meaningful life for the Savior.

“As chastened, and not killed” means that while Paul was beaten and imprisoned, persecuted and punished relentlessly for sharing the gospel, he was not killed and not put to death. Thus, he was going to continue sharing the gospel as long as he lived.

“As sorrowful, yet alway rejoicing” shows Paul’s heart and how sorrowful he was over the rejection of the gospel (Rom. 9:2-3). He longed for people to respond to the gospel and be saved. This phrase shows us that Paul sometimes got down and discouraged. Yet he was always rejoicing, and he never lost his joy. He had an abiding, unfailing joy because of all he had in Christ by God’s grace (Phil. 4:4).

“As poor, yet making many rich” reminds us that Paul had very little of this world’s possessions and wealth. Paul was poor, and yet he made people eternally rich. Through his ministry, lives were enriched by faith in Christ. By Paul’s sharing of the gospel and God’s Word, people were made rich by knowing Christ, by finding the true riches of our hope and the eternal, spiritual blessings we have in Him.

“As having nothing, and yet possessing all things” means that, although Paul possessed nothing in this world, he had what really mattered. By God’s Word, we learn that, in Christ, we possess true blessing and lasting treasure. In Him, we have what is of true and everlasting worth.

These paradoxes of ministry are expected. It happened to Paul and it will happen to all those who faithfully preach the ministry of reconciliation. There is a cost to the gospel ministry, but it’s worth it. It’s worth it to save just one soul from an eternity of conscious suffering in hell. On the front lines of the spiritual warfare and in spite of the hardship of his ministry, Paul can be seen as weary but undaunted, beaten but not broken, bruised but never giving up. May the same be true of us as we go forth as faithful ambassadors for Christ.

1Max Lucado, Book of 2 Corinthians: Remembering What Matters (Thomas Nelson: Nashville, Tennessee, 2007), p. 66.

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