The Unobserved Ministry

“But we will not boast beyond limits, but will boast only with regard to the area of influence God assigned to us, to reach even to you. 14 For we are not overextending ourselves, as though we did not reach you. For we were the first to come all the way to you with the gospel of Christ.15 We do not boast beyond limit in the labors of others. But our hope is that as your faith increases, our area of influence among you may be greatly enlarged, 16 so that we may preach the gospel in lands beyond you, without boasting of work already done in another’s area of influence. 17 “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” 18 For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends.” (2 Cor. 10:13-18)

Every one of us Christians is in ministry. Without exception. We may not all be formally ordained or have a huge following of some kind, but God does not define ministry in this way. First, He gives you Christ. Second, He assigns an area of influence to you, and third, He asks that you use your influence to increase the faith of those in your area so that your area of influence may grow and others’ faith may be increased as well. This is what Jesus meant when he talked about us going to Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and even to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8). We begin in one area of influence and as the faith of the people there increases, our area of influence is greatly enlarged “so that we may preach the gospel in lands beyond [them].” (v. 16)

So, look around you. What are the areas of influence that God has assigned to you?

…Wait. You don’t have one?

Are you sure?

Do you have a family?

A job?

A blog?

A church?

A community?

How about a Facebook account?

Or a little league baseball team that you coach?

Maybe you have a business partner, a client list, or employees?

Perhaps your area of influence is a neighbor, a best friend, or the hobo you always see on the street corner.

The list could go on and on.

The point is: we are all in ministry. And the areas of influence that God has assigned to us are plural, not singular, in nature.

We are called to be a gospel people in each of these areas, teaching all that Christ commanded us so that the faith of others grows, our territory expands (1 Chron. 4:10) and we make disciples of all nations.

Such a perspective may be a different way of looking at your life and admittedly there are traps along the way. Therefore it is helpful to use the above passage as a helpful model in praying for your ministry, whatever your area(s) of influence may be.
1) Focus on the area of influence God has assigned to you

2) Ask that God will prevent you from overextending yourself or boasting as though you reached those you have not reached with the Gospel.

3) Ask that God will greatly enlarge the people’s faith so that your area of influence may also expand, so that you may be able to preach the gospel in other lands beyond the original people or group God assigned to you.

4) Pray that as you grow you will be humble, not taking credit for the work others have already done in those lands but boasting in only what the Lord does through you in those new places.

5) Earnestly pray that your only boast will be boasting in the Lord, both for the willing and the doing of the work.

6) Ask that you will not be approved because you commend yourself (i.e., clever marketing or prideful boasting in how you have used your talents) but because God commands you. Let the whole work, the spreading of the Gospel, the preaching, the expansion, and the approval be God-centric. “For it is God who works in you, BOTH to will AND to work for his good pleasure.” (Php. 2:13)

Amen

Remember, God gives you authority in the areas of influence He has assigned to you in order to build up, not tear down, someone’s faith (2 Cor. 13:10). Now go, asking God to answer this one question through you: How can I build up someone’s faith in my areas of influence today?

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Quick Thoughts: For the Sake of Christ

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I was recently walking through a Half-Price Books when I saw a title in the religious section that grabbed my eye: “The Power of I Am.”

Hmm. That sounds interesting, I thought, imagining the different theological approaches someone could take by focusing on the name of God. Ignoring the author, I flipped the book over to read the description on the back cover. I quickly discovered that I had not only picked up a Joel Osteen bestseller but I had also stumbled upon a blatant theft of God’s precious name in the service of the prosperity gospel. Since I didn’t buy the book, here is the description according to Amazon.com:

Whatever follows the words “I am” will always come looking for you.
So, when you go through the day saying:
“I am blessed”…blessings pursue you.
“I am talented”…talent follows you.
“I am healthy”…health heads your way.
“I am strong”…strength tracks you down.
Joel Osteen reveals how THE POWER OF I AM can help you discover your unique abilities and advantages to lead a more productive and happier life. His insights and encouragement are illustrated with many amazing stories of people who turned their lives around by focusing on the positive power of this principle. You can choose to rise to a new level and invite God’s goodness by focusing on these two words: I AM!

It shocked me that a pastor would blatantly encourage me to adopt God’s name as my own personal mantra to self-improvement, but then I wondered how many stars reviewers gave this book. Wanna guess? Out of 1,491 reviews, the average rating  (on a 1-5 scale) was…

4.27 stars!

I would assume these ratings are by people who consider themselves Christian and/or spiritual. But one has to wonder how representative are these readers of the Christian community? And do they understand this principle is not even biblical?

To understand why, let’s take a quick look at 2 Cor. 4:5:

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

WHAT WE PROCLAIM IS NOT OURSELVES

Paul centers his sights directly on the pride of man. He knows that it is an easy criticism for others to say that he is only doing what he is doing for himself. When a person receives attention, fame, wealth, power, or any other of the myriad of earthly pleasures, no one cares what vehicle they used to acquire these things. They only care about replicating the same success for themselves. They assume that these rewards are the result of Paul creating a successful brand centered around himself. So, Paul counters this argument and insists “what we proclaim is not ourselves.”

Notice, he does not deny that he is proclaiming something. Nor does he deny that it is for someone’s glory and fame. His point is that their proclamation is not for his own benefit but for Christ’s. It is to make Jesus known as Lord.

The tragedy is that so many people, including Christians, get this confused today. They place all their focus on the gifts God has given them and forget all about proclaiming the Giver as Lord. In other words, they make the gifts the object of their worship, and an unbelieving, cynical world looks on, scratching its head and saying, “There’s no difference between you and me. You want the same things I want. You value the same things I value. You just tack ‘God’ on the end of it and I don’t.” Such a proclamation is not winning anyone to Christ and is failing to make Jesus known as Lord.

BUT JESUS CHRIST AS LORD

So, how do you keep from falling into this trap? How do you demonstrate to a lost and unregenerate generation that there is more than just a difference in belief (i.e., theistic vs. atheistic) that separates you from them? You must live in such a way that the undeniable conclusion others come to is that your life proclaims one truth: Jesus is Lord. You cannot serve two masters. You will either love one and hate the other or you will hate the one and love the other. But you cannot be a “both-and” believer. This is an “either-or” choice. Either you pursue money, recognition, approval, ease, and comfort to make much of yourself, or you deny yourself, pursue the approval of God, and exert all your energies into making it known that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Be honest. Who do you seek to exalt? Whom does your heart desire to receive all the glory? You or Christ? You cannot have it both ways, for God is very clear on this point: “My glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols.” (Isa. 42:8) Therefore, if your attempts at self-exaltation are doomed to fail, if God will not relinquish one ounce of His glory to share with you, if your pride always precedes a fall, then give up this inexorable effort and proclaim not yourself, but Jesus Christ as Lord.

WITH OURSELVES AS YOUR SERVANTS

Paul continues to extrapolate the point that he did not proclaim himself by reminding them that he became their servant. Servants do not lead. They follow. They minister to the needs of those they serve. They make themselves humble. They put themselves in the place of others and are committed to their growth. They do not seek exaltation. They do not desire power. They are meek, longsuffering, good stewards, and practice restraint.

But perhaps the most definitive, yet challenging, quality of a servant is their selflessness.

To refuse to put one’s needs and desires above the person he serves is one of the most difficult things to do. But when a person is the servant of another this characteristic must exist in order to be called a servant. We cannot look to ourselves. We cannot proclaim ourselves. We cannot place ourselves above others. Instead, we must follow the instruction of Philippians 2:3-4, which says “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

So, when Paul says that he was the servant of others, he is reinforcing the idea that he did nothing out of selfish ambition.

FOR JESUS’ SAKE

But then Paul goes one step farther when he says that he was their servant for Jesus’ sake. This is how we all ought to serve. We are servants to others only for the sake of Christ. We are not servants to others for THEIR sake. That would mistake the missional work of the Church for a man-centric work, whereby we focus on the short-term physical needs of people. Nor are we servants for OUR sake. That would mistake the work of the Church for a man-exalting work, whereby we are more about self-promotion than the eternal glory of Christ. We serve, yes. But we serve others FOR THE SAKE OF CHRIST. We serve to set forth Christ as supremely valuable, so that all other pursuits may be exposed as transient and insignificant in comparison to Him. It is for this reason that Paul says, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Cor. 10:31)

We do not serve to alleviate a human ill, but to elevate a glorious God. Alleviating the need may be a byproduct of our God-glorifying action, but it is not the reason for the action. When the focus of missions is on making the beauty and the perfections of God public and not on the temporary needs of man, the Gospel can be preached effectively, and many can come to a saving faith in Him. Suddenly they will no longer see the Church as another helping institution but will see God working through His people in His power by His instruction and for His glory.

Such behavior will transform “receiving Christ” from holding one’s self as supremely valuable and using God and His grace as the means of honoring or protecting that value. Rather, it will hold Christ as supremely valuable, over and above ourselves and anything else in this world.  For, any prize that I cling to above Christ does not reflect a new nature but only the same old carnal, man-exalting nature I have always had. But when I proclaim not myself, but Jesus as Lord, when I become your servant for the sake of Christ, I demonstrate more than a difference in belief. I demonstrate a change has occurred. I have not taken an old thing, clothed it in new garments, and sprinkled it with glitter. My nature and everything I live for has been changed from the inside out.

We are All Theologians

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Dear Friend,

I was excited and intrigued the other day when you sent me a text message that stated you were feeling God’s call to be a theologian. I think this is exciting and wonderful and a glorious thing and would love to talk to you more about it in detail. But first I have some preliminary things I want to say.

First, please be aware that we are all theologians. From the most strident atheist to the most devout moralist to the most humble evangelist, all of us humans participate in the study and analysis of God, His attributes, and His relationship with the universe.

The atheist does this through denial. He examines the evidence to the best of his ability, analyzes God, the premises established regarding God’s character, and how God is to relate to the universe (particularly on an individual level), and he denies the existence of a supreme being. For him, something else is more valuable in this universe than any proposed god, particularly a Christian one. For some that is the universe itself. For some it is science. For others it is hedonism. But whatever it is that they decide to attribute supreme value to, then that thing becomes the object of their study and analysis and the defining framework for their lives. In other words, it becomes their god.

The moralist is only slightly different. Like the atheist, moralists have examined the evidence and done some analysis as well but they have concluded that there is a supreme being; however, they may or may not agree that this god is the Christian god. The moralist’s approach this supreme being, though, through the lens of works, not denial. They believe that it is the accumulation of good deeds that gains the favor of the supreme being, so they spend the majority of their lives performing good works in an attempt to outweigh all the bad that they have also done. Moralists, it must be pointed out, can be avid students (or followers) of other religions or they can be non-religious altogether. It doesn’t really matter, because their god is not the supreme being that they acknowledge. It is themselves and the good works that they can accomplish. And they spend their lives organizing their lives around this central ideal.

The last category of theologian, I would argue, is the Christian. This is the most difficult position to maintain, not because there is no evidence to support their position but because they are called to do everything in their lives in such a way as to make Christ appear more valuable than anything else.  Christians are called to live their lives defiantly. To organize their lives around the central principle of “whether through my life or through my death, I will endeavor to display Christ as not only supremely valuable to me but to also make His value and His perfections publicly seen and experienced so clearly through ALL that I do, that He is recognized as supremely valuable over all.” (Php. 1:20-21; 1 Cor. 10:31) Such a calling is both convicting and conforming at the same time. For as we seek through our lives to make others see and experience the supreme value, worth, and desirability of God, we find ourselves constantly being challenged to release the selfish ambitions of moralism and the intellectual conceit of atheism so that we may, in humility, put on the mind of Christ and conform more and more to His image (Php. 2:3-8).

We Christians are theologians of a different stripe. We are not called to love ourselves. We are called to love the Lord with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Because we are self-centered people we do love ourselves, as is pointed out in “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But this is not a command to love yourself. It is a command to love your neighbor. It works off of the assumption that you do and you will love yourself and that this selfish, self-centered action can teach you how you ought to act towards others. Indeed, Jesus paraphrased this command in the famous Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (Matt. 7:12)

“Christians,” He seems to be saying, “as you study and analyze the attributes and character of God, as you make Him the center of your life (and not yourself) love God so passionately that your love for Him overflows into your love for others…Remember, you are God’s representative on this earth and He makes His appeal to the lost through you.” (2 Cor. 5:20)

Therefore, my dear friend, I would ask you to please consider what you mean when you say, “God is calling me to be a theologian.” If you imagine a theologian to be a deep thinker about God or a seminarian or even a pastor/priest of some kind, that’s all well and good, but please do not fall into the trap of being so intellectually or morally invested in Christianity that you fail to actually apply or live out the truth of the Gospel among the lost. Good theologians are not only good students or good citizens. They are people of defiant faith. The ones who stand up against the tide of a post-truth culture and create a fixed reference point for all those seeking land in a fluid-truth society.

Good theologians are not ashamed. They are full of courage so that Christ is always honored in their body, whether by life or by death (Php. 1:20). They hear the edict, know the consequences of honoring God, and say, “I am trusting in God, and regardless of whether I die or not, I will only worship and serve Him.” (Daniel 3:17-18) Such faith can be found throughout both the Old and New Testaments as well as in modern examples, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who faced down the Nazi regime and its horrible atrocities with a steely will and the Word of God.

Make no mistake, my friend, if God is calling you to be a theologian, He is calling you to action. He is calling you to take the Word and show the world how it is not only an efficacious and viable option for life but how it is the supreme framework for living. The absolute truth among many choices. Be aware that such living comes prepackaged with danger and suffering as well as with rewards and the eternal echo of “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

God may be calling you to learn more. He may be calling to live better. But please, be the theologian who also “plays the man,” (2 Sa. 10:12) facing down the evil within this world, and making the value and the glory of God shine brightly within the encroaching darkness, whether it be by your life or your death.

Go with God,

Mark