Priceless treasure in cardboard cups

‘Ministry’ can be a very vague and unstructured idea. The joke that clergy work only one day a week is untrue, but it’s not immediately obvious what they do the rest of the time—are they some kind of spiritual social workers (as the confused mother of my best school friend asked when I quit university to become an Anglican minister)? It’s not really any clearer for those who attend church but are not in paid positions of leadership there. What does ‘ministry’ look like? Lots of coffee (preferably espresso)? Serving on endless rosters? Church politics?

I recently had the privilege of speaking at the ordination ceremony of a number of deacons into the Anglican Diocese of Sydney. I found Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4:5 to be tremendously helpful in spelling out what ministry entails for those who have given up something in order to do it, a definition clearly true of new ordinands who have moved from other careers to a full-time ministry leadership position. But ‘ministers to others’ ought equally to describe all of us who serve in the gospel, whether it’s in an official or ordained role or as volunteer fellow workers.

For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. (2 Cor 4:5)

CK Barrett said of this verse, “It would be hard to describe the Christian ministry more comprehensively in so few words”.[1] This is a man whose Guardian obituary described him as the “greatest British New Testament scholar of the 20th century”[2]—so perhaps this verse is worth reading again before we start. This verse acts as a lens on the whole chapter, because it gives us the method, matter, and manner of ministry.[3]

The method: preaching

The method of ministry is simple: preaching (‘preach’ and ‘proclaim’ are equally good translations of the term in verse 5). Now I’m well aware there are other aspects to ministry, but at its heart is preaching. It’s certainly fundamental to the charge deacons are given in their ordination: to take authority to read and preach the word of God.

It’s important to see here that by preaching, I do not simply mean pulpiteering. Not all of us regularly occupy church pulpits. Ministries operate in classrooms, by the bedside, and around the lounge room. While I am convinced that the consecutive explanation and application of the Scriptures ought to be our bread-and-butter method in the pulpit, the heart of preaching is not a 30 minute monologue.

Rather, the heart of preaching is captured by that word used in verse 5 for the same reality: proclamation. Preaching is a declaration of the truth. Now, remember Paul’s context: he refuses cunning, or tampering with God’s word, or watering down the Bible in order to make it more popular or palatable (2 Cor 4:2). A fisherman baiting a hook to hide the reality of what’s really there can never be a picture of proclamation. As Paul says in verse 2, the essence of preaching is the “open statement of the truth”.

This kind of proclamation can occur in the context of public dialogue and debate. You can state the truth in conversation, as others declare their opinion just as vigorously back at you. You can declare the truth while also carefully listening to questions before and responses afterwards. You can preach in the gentlest of tones, with fairly few words and plenty of silence in between them, at the hospital bedside.

The one thing ruled out by this ministry method here is preaching yourself. We do not proclaim ourselves. We’re not the heroes of ministry: Christ is. So we do not use our platform to advance our personal status. Those in church leadership will know that a real temptation when your job means lots of talking is to talk about yourself. Apart from anything else, Facebook and Twitter keep training us to get lots of followers and lots of likes.

Kevin DeYoung recently wrote that the sermon for his seminary graduation was based on John the Baptist’s words in John 1:20: “I am not the Christ”. The preacher said:

“You may be part of the bridal party, but you are not the groom. You are not the Messiah, so don’t try to be. Along with the Apostles’ Creed… make sure you confess John the Baptist’s creed: I am not the Christ.”[4]

That means you can’t achieve everything you want in ministry. You’re not the Messiah. You can take a day off! Most importantly, it’s not the intellectual power or rhetorical quality of your own preaching that will change people’s hearts; only the creative power of God can shine the light into blind minds.

John Gray, the minister who trained me as a deacon, put it more bluntly: “When you get up in the morning and look in the mirror, what do you see?” I thought it was a trick question, and I paused. So he answered, “Well, it’s certainly not God looking back at you, is it? So don’t try and do his job for him!”

The matter: Jesus Christ as Lord

Which leads neatly to the next aspect of ministry Paul gives us in 2 Corinthians 4:5: the matter—that is, the subject matter—of your preaching. Paul puts it ever so simply: it’s “Jesus Christ as Lord”. The content of your message is just four words. But they’re important words, recurring again and again throughout the New Testament as the best short summary of the Christian message.

To an ancient Greek or Jew, this pithy summary would have sounded decidedly oxymoronic—imagine claiming that someone crucified as a criminal could be the Jewish Christ, let alone ‘Lord’! That was a title given to the emperor. Caesar was Lord, the supreme leader. Crucifixion, on the other hand, implied defeat and disgrace. What changes all that?

The resurrection changes all that. The resurrection is what demonstrates publicly that Jesus is Lord and declares that his sacrifice for sins was effective. Romans 10:9 famously says that “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved”. Paul also states it in our passage in 2 Corinthians:

Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. (2 Cor 4:13-14)

In the intervening verses, Paul is explaining how he endures the sufferings and sacrifices of ministry because of what he believes: that God will raise believers from the dead. Now that’s an incentive for perseverance!

One of the notable things about this passage is how Paul just casually assumes Jesus’ resurrection as the foundation for his belief. As Paul Barnett writes, “We are more confident to regard the resurrection of Jesus as historically true since what Paul says about the resurrection is introduced in 1:9 and 4:14 so inconspicuously and gratuitously, as an undisputed reality”.[5]

You see, the Damascus experience changed everything for Paul. He’d been a vigorous, violent opponent of Christianity. When Paul travelled to Damascus as a vigorous, violent opponent of Christianity, he was convinced by the blinding light and voice that identified itself as Jesus that he had risen from the dead. The resurrection changed his life.

I imagine that’s what motivated every deacon sitting in the ordination ceremony I preached at. I hope that’s what motivates you. I’m certainly not just saying this as a nod to conventional religious sentiment. I say this because I believe. By the normal tools of historical investigation—multiple attestation from different sources in the New Testament, strong evidence for the empty tomb, the claimed presence of female eyewitnesses, and the changed lives of the disciples—I am convinced that Jesus rose from the dead.

I’ve been an ordained Anglican minister for 20 years, almost to the day. Recently I attended the funeral of a mate from that class of ’93. He was just 51, and suddenly left behind a wife and three kids. But his family stood as one to praise God for the gift of their husband and father, and to hold onto this hope of resurrection. With Jesus, God will raise Andy, because in his first appearing our saviour Christ Jesus destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.

This Lord Jesus—the image of God, the one who shares and expresses God’s very nature, who died and was raised—is the best advertisement for the existence of God. He is the subject matter of our preaching.

The manner: servanthood

And so, thirdly and lastly, to the manner of ministry: servanthood.

We proclaim… Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. (2 Cor 4:5)

The New Testament often uses the word ‘service’ in association with ministry (e.g. 2 Cor 4:1). Sometimes, as in verse 5, we see a different word for this kind of service, often translated as ‘slave’ (see the Holman). In fact Jesus combined the two words himself:

“But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:43-45)

We take our lead from Jesus, and his sacrifice on the cross. It reminds us that when we enter the Christian ministry we give up our rights. That’s what happens to a slave. And if Jesus is Lord, then our role is clear: to serve him. Or, as Paul puts it here, to serve others for his sake.

That means ministry will be messy and inconvenient. We won’t always be able to focus on our strategic leadership tasks in some zen-like, undistracted way. We’ll have to get down on our knees and serve. Servanthood means the minister should be the first to help when someone throws up in the church hall. It might not be in your job description, but get down on your knees anyway.

This doesn’t mean jumping to every demand from every person. Notice how Paul serves the Corinthians, but he doesn’t say they’re his masters. What is good for others is not necessarily what they want—and their greatest good is to hear about Christ. So preach, in season and out, sensitively, with appropriate discretion and humility, but persistently, whether people like it or not.

The pressures to this ministry of proclaiming Christ that Paul lists in 4:8-9 draws language from the arenas of wrestling and boxing, military combat and manhunt. He says: we’ve been knocked down, but not knocked out. There will be plenty of hardship along the way in ministry, but it’s not ultimate hardship, because Jesus is such a good master. His resurrection secures our resurrection, so we can fix our eyes not on what is seen—earthly health and success, or lack of it—but on what is unseen, on Christ in heaven.

Something a friend said on this picture of ministry some years ago has stuck with me. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:7, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay”. The fragility of pottery is obvious. But my friend’s point was that clay jars back then weren’t just fragile: as opposed to gold or silver they were the cheap and disposable containers. He said our modern equivalent is the styrofoam cup: easy to crack, and easy to throw away.

I doubt you’d be caught dead serving coffee in a styrofoam cup at a café today, but the principle is the same. I’ll bet that the last time you grabbed a takeaway caffeine hit, you weren’t focussed on the cardboard cup (unless it leaked). As far as takeaway coffee goes, it’s the contents that matter. In fact, rubbish coffee in the fanciest cup doesn’t please anyone. The cardboard cup is made to be crushed and thrown away when you’ve finished drinking its contents.

That’s what we are. That’s what those who serve you in the ministry of the gospel are. Fragile. Fallible. But if we preach Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as people’s servants for his sake, then no matter how fragile we feel, we’ll be offering people the priceless treasure of the gospel.

[1] P Barnett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Wm B Eerdmans, Michigan, 1997, p. 221.

[2] R Morgan, ‘The Rev CK Barrett obituary’, The Guardian, 4 October 2011.

[3] Barnett, op. cit., p. 221.

[4] K DeYoung, Crazy Busy, Crossway, Illinois, 2013, p. 48.

[5] Barnett, op. cit., p. 242.

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