Ministry for Mission: Afterword
You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men; clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart. 2 Corinthians 3.2, 3
Proof of purchase
How do we know that the blood of Jesus Christ has in fact purchased us from our sins into His Kingdom and glory?
Every believer’s “proof of purchase” takes the form of those good works of ministry by which the grace of God spreads throughout their Personal Mission Field, to the praise and glory of God. We are not Christians because we or think we are. We are not Christians merely because we say we are, or because at some point we underwent some ritual or procedure which seemed to provide us entrée with the Lord.
We are Christians, and may know ourselves to be such, as the love of Jesus grows within us, and overflows from us to bring the Good News of God’s love to all the people in our lives. “They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love”, as the now-forgotten praise song has it. Love, in the form of good works and true words, is the fruit born from a tree rooted in Jesus Christ, nurtured, cultivated, cared for, and coaxed to fruition by careful and diligent husbandmen – ministers and shepherds of the Lord.
And as the proof of any believer’s salvation is in the good works of love that characterize his life, so the proof of any shepherd’s ministry are the believers who are thus nurtured and equipped under his oversight and feeding (Eph. 4.11, 12).
Paul made it the seal of approval of his ministry that the churches he served bore evidence of fruitfulness unto the Lord. His second letter to the Corinthians provides the guidelines for our own efforts in equipping the saints.
A letter for all to read
Paul described the Corinthians as an epistle of Christ, written on his heart and on the hearts of those who ministered with him. All men knew and read that epistle, because they heard Paul boasting in the Lord about the Corinthians and their faith, and they saw the Corinthians themselves, like a broadside published for all to read and note.
The world could see that the Corinthians were different. Paul could see it, as could his colleagues. And he wanted the Corinthians to make sure they could see it as well. His labors among them had not been in vain after all, and he celebrated the evidence of Christ at work with them, individually and as a gathering of churches.
The Corinthians were an epistle for all to read. Like Luther’s 95 Theses, nailed to the church door in Wittenberg, but then copied and distributed throughout Germany for all to read. Like the dozens of patriotic broadsides and political sermons that circulated up and down the eastern seaboard in the days prior to the American Revolution. In each case, something new was afoot, and everyone could read about it and ponder its meaning and implications.
Just so, the Corinthians, shaped by Paul’s ministry and epistles, had become a letter “known and read by all men”. The proof they gave of true commitment to Christ was the proof of Paul’s ministry among them.
A work of the Spirit
The content of this Corinthian epistle was Christ, Whom Paul was seeking to form in them individually and as a community. Paul’s concern was always qualitative first, and quantitative only as a result of increased Christlikeness in members and congregations alike.
This, he knew, was the work of the Spirit of God (vv. 12-18), Who was the ink with which Paul wrote, the power for true disciple-making. He and his colleagues “ministered” this epistle – an interesting juxtaposition of terms – relying on the Spirit and His presence, power, and Word to liberate the Corinthians from their former corruption into the glory of the Lord and the image of Jesus Christ. Paul’s “writing” of this epistle – his ministry among them – was from and for his heart, to and for theirs, to refocus their love and nurture them to love God and one another.
This is the work of the Spirit, the promise of the Gospel and the substance of the New Covenant. This is where the glory of God is encountered and how it is displayed. This love, the love of Christ, begotten, borne, and brimming in the power of the Spirit, this love is our commendation to the world, the proof we bear concerning the truth of the Gospel, and the credentials by which we carry on our ministry for the Lord.
Thus, we end this series by returning to the conclusion we proffered from the beginning: “Can we embrace any other outcome for the work of pastoral ministry than that which the Spirit seeks? If our efforts in God’s Name and on behalf of His people are not deliberately, consistently, unapologetically, and effectively aimed at seeing the saints of God formed into the beauty of Christ and His holiness, then we are simply aiming too low.
“So also for the church. The Spirit gives gifts to church members for their mutual edification as the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12.7-11). Pastors and teachers are to equip the saints of God as the image-bearers of Christ for works of ministry reflective of Christ’s own work, so that the local congregation can ‘grow up in all things into Him Who is the Head – Christ’ (Eph. 4.11-16).
“The measure of a local church, and the outcome we should seek for the churches we serve, is thus that the grace of God should be so lively and effective amongst us that the church itself becomes the incarnation of Jesus in the local community, demonstrating and proclaiming the reality of His Kingdom, precisely as He did (Matt. 4.17).
“Pastors are set in churches by the Spirit of God to facilitate and enable the great work whereby God makes believers and churches reflect and refract the risen Christ to the world.”
Our prayer is that this may be increasingly so, as we devote ourselves daily to writing the epistles God has assigned for each of us.
“What letters would have done to gain respect for the apostle, the Corinthians achieve by their life and behavior. The virtues of disciples commend the teacher more than any letter. They are an epistle of Christ, having the law of God written in their hearts. God wrote that law, but Paul and his companions prepared them to receive the writing. For just as Moses hewed stones and tables, so Paul shaped their souls.”
- John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians 6.1, 2
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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).