Ministry for Mission: Sent like Jesus (9)
“But he answered and said to him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. And if it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that you can cut it down.’” Luke 13.8, 9
“If any one should say that the vinedresser is the Son, this view also has a suitable reason on its side. He is our Advocate with the Father, our propitiation, and the gardener of our souls. He constantly prunes away whatever is harmful and fills us with rational and holy seeds so we may produce fruits for him.”
- Cyril of Alexandria (375-444), Commentary on Luke, Homily 96
“A comparison is here drawn between the owner and the vine-dresser: not that God's ministers go beyond him in gentleness and forbearance, but because the Lord not only prolongs the life of sinners, but likewise cultivates them in a variety of ways, that they may yield better fruit.”
- John Calvin (1509-1564), Commentary on Luke 13.6-10
The outcomes we seek
Our concern in this series on “Ministry for Mission” has been how to pursue the work of pastoral ministry to know that our labors in the Lord are not in vain. This concern was ever in the forefront of Paul’s mind, and it ought to be in ours as well.
At the beginning of this series, we asked a number of questions: “What are the outcomes we seek from the work of pastoral ministry? From the long hours of sermon preparation, the many and varied meetings for church business, the counseling, visits to hospitals and in homes, advising and directing and training others? What are we trying to accomplish? Is it enough that our ministry be grounded in the Word, filled with keen insights and observations, and eminently practical? Or that we attract new people to our churches? Multiply services and programs? Meet our budget? See to it that needs are met?”
Over the course of our investigation, we have come to some concrete conclusions about the goals of pastoral ministry. Above all, we want our labors not to be in vain, but to bring glory to God, both in how we carry out our work, and in the resulting good works that issue from the lives of those we are equipping for ministry. By good works of love for God and their neighbors, the saints of God glorify Him and contribute to the building of His Church and the progress of His Kingdom. The shepherds of God’s flocks have been entrusted with the Word of God for the equipping of the saints for loving works of worship, service, and witness; those labors are not in vain to the extent that such fruit results from the work we do.
Jesus’ parable of the fig tree confirms our conclusions, emphasizing the importance of working for fruitfulness in four ways, and suggesting approaches to fruit-getting that should be present in all our ministries. Let’s take a closer look.
Working for fruit
First, Jesus teaches us that bearing fruit is the natural and reasonable outcome of discipleship. We should expect ourselves and those we serve to bear fruit. As a fig tree is expected to produce figs, so believers in Jesus are expected to bear fruit (Jn. 15.1-8, 16). We should expect to bear fruit ourselves – in our lives and all our labors – and we should expect the people we serve to be fruitful in good works of love. We must inculcate such an expectation in them as well, so that bearing fruit is the shared expectation of all members of our congregation.
Second, persistent unfruitfulness should be a concern of those entrusted with the work of bringing the Lord's disciples to fruitfulness. We must not simply blink at unfruitfulness as though it were a matter of no consequence. We run the risk, when we do not lead the saints to expect to bear fruit, of giving the impression that unfruitfulness, or not being zealous for good works that glorify God, is an option for believers. A day is coming when those who have borne no fruit will be cast out of the Lord’s presence, their professions of faith in Him notwithstanding. We must admonish the saints of God to be diligent in every good work, that through them Jesus might fill their Personal Mission Fields for the glory of God.
Third, where there is a lack of fruit, pastors should make every effort to encourage it, even by extraordinary personal measures, if need be. Unfruitfulness should be such a concern, that we simply will not tolerate it, but will by every means available to us, come alongside to encourage and equip each member of our congregation for increasing fruitfulness. The joy of salvation comes from bearing fruit, and we want all those entrusted to our care to know the joy of the Lord. We must not allow ourselves – nor those we serve – to slip into complacency regarding this aspect of our discipleship.
Fourth, those who continue unfruitful in their profession must be warned and admonished to make every effort to make their calling and election sure. Failing to take seriously our calling to bear fruit is sin. The first step of church discipline is to confront those who are in sin, and to call them to repentance and renewal in the grace of the Lord. Beyond that, as needed, admonition from others – including church leaders – should be brought to the pruning and fertilizing effort. The question each shepherd must face is, do I love the people I serve enough to discipline them for obedience? The Lord certainly does (Heb. 12.3-11), and He has appointed means within the local congregation by which His work of discipline should be lovingly, faithfully, and consistently pursued. Church discipline is a tool for nurturing wayward believers and strengthening the Body of Christ, and we must learn to use it faithfully and fruitfully.
The Lord is seeking fruit in those who profess faith in Him. Those who oversee the Lord's orchards and fields must work diligently to bring forth the fruit of repentance and good works in all who believe.
The most obvious implication of Jesus’ parable for our work as shepherds is that we’re going to have to pay more careful attention to the Lord’s methods for making disciples. Preaching, leading courses and seminars, training leaders, sponsoring programs, conducting committee meetings, and visiting the sick all have their place. But none of these, nor all of them together, can substitute for the “in-your-face” work of shepherding the flock of God.
“Be diligent to know the state of your flocks…” (Prov. 27.23). The Hebrew infinitive absolute, “knowing, know”, emphasizes the diligence and thoroughness necessary for caring for the Lord’s sheep. The text actually reads, “Knowing, know the face of your flocks.” Get with your people, or make sure someone is getting with them – each one of them. Get to know them. Pray with them. Help them assess the state of their walk with and work for the Lord. Pray for them. Show them how to map out and begin working their Personal Mission Field. Help them set goals. Encourage them in next steps. Stay after them. Follow-up on decisions and agreements. Make sure they know how to use the means of grace each day, so that they can grow closer to Jesus. Lead them by example. Teach them, personally and individually, if necessary. Show them how to bear fruit. Go with them as they take on new challenges. Defend them against drifting from our great salvation. Work with them to grow in their salvation. Lead them to become effective witnesses for Christ. Give them an ever clearer and more expansive vision of Jesus, exalted, ruling, interceding for us, and coming again soon.
Digging around people’s roots can be hard and even painful work. Helping them to take up disciplines they might not find convenient can seem like spreading manure. But Jesus insists we must do so. He did, and so must we. The people we serve have been sent like Jesus to embody and proclaim the Kingdom of God. And we who serve them by the ministry of the Word have also been sent like Jesus, to shepherd the flock of God for fruitfulness, to the praise of His glorious grace.
“We are your guardians, and you are the flock of God. Reflect and see that our perils are greater than yours, and pray for us. This befits both us and you, that we may be able to give a good account of you to the prince of pastors and our universal head.”
- Augustine, Letters 231
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Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, quotes from Church fathers are from The Ancient Christian Commentary Series (InterVarsity Press).