I am ploughing slowly through 2 Timothy at the moment, chewing over the morsels of ministry instructions that the imprisoned Paul gives his young protege Timothy.
At fifty I can no longer view myself in the Timothy camp, in terms of age at least, but I am certainly in need of hearing the advice, and heeding the warnings, that the apostle hands out. There’s really no room for complacency in the Christian life, whether that’s in our daily lives in general (family, marriage, work, stewardship of finances etc), or whether that’s in teaching ministry roles in particular, especially those who have been paid to set aside time to do ministry.
In chapter two, verses 3-6 Paul offers three pictures of what teaching ministry should look like, and all of this in the midst of trying times, both for Paul in obvious external persecution from the world, and for Timothy, in terms of ongoing internal problems in the church.
Paul offers two possible negative models and one positive model in ministry; the distracted solider, the deceitful athlete and the diligent farmer.
1. Distracted Soldier
Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.
The longer one is in a teaching ministry role the easier it is to get distracted by side projects. This is not to say that all side projects are unimportant, but the risk that those involved in a teaching ministry should lose focus and concentrate on other things, is always lurking.
Paul gives a hint at what could lead to this distraction – suffering. Paul himself is experiencing suffering for his constant proclamation of the gospel. He realises that it is the proclamation itself that has led to prison. He calls on Timothy to endure suffering for the proclamation, and to avoid the easier path of what he calls “civilian pursuits”. By this I take it to mean anything other than the preaching of the gospel to which Timothy has been entrusted (2Timothy 1:6).
Why would Timothy be tempted to get entangled in civilian pursuits? The answer is implicit in the text: Because it would be pleasing to other people in a way that preaching the gospel is not. See what Paul says to Timothy? His aim is to please the one who enlisted him, not others.
I have found that the teaching pastor who leaves aside the preaching of the gospel often does so because they will receive more kudos from the world if they are involved in every other ministry save for that. To be involved in many a noble campaign against injustices and wrongs in our world is going to elicit praise, even from those who hate the gospel message and find it offensive.
It’s a badge of honour in our culture to hear good things said about you by the wider world for your good works in the public square. But to refuse to be distracted or enticed away from the “military pursuit” of gospel proclamation towards “civilian pursuits”? That is a constant battle, and it never goes away. Indeed as you age you can find that, if you are not careful, your zeal for proclamation gives way and you go into cruise control. The approval of the world is intoxicating, and many a teaching pastor has been lured from the unpopular and “waste of time” ministry of proclamation. Don’t be distracted!
2. Deceitful Athlete
An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.
At the famed South African Comrades Marathon in 1999, identical twins Sergio and Fika Motsoeneng tried to cheat the system. Sergio ran the first 45 minutes, before taking a “port-a-potty” stop. His twin was conveniently hidden in the loo, and he then ran on before Sergio swapped later in another loo. “Sergio” came ninth in a race in which the gold medal is awarded to the top ten. The twins were only found out when race photos showed them wearing their watches on opposite arms. A ten year ban ensued. Unbelievably in his first Comrades back in 2010, Sergio came third, but was then found to have an illicit drug in his system and disqualified and banned for a further two years.
Deceitful athletes stink. Whether it’s the cack-handed efforts of the Motsoeneng brothers or the sophisticated system of Lance Armstrong. We all hate cheats and those who take short cuts.
And Paul warns Timothy not to take shortcuts. It’s possible in a teaching ministry to take a short cut and earn the “prize”. The prize of a good crowd, a seemingly successful church, the praise of the world, whatever.
And for the teaching pastor the obvious shortcut is to strip the message of the gospel challenge to take up the cross and follow the suffering Saviour. So whether it’s a baptised version of “your best life now”; a rejection of the holiness ‘without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14); a legalism that gets results by creating guilt, all of these are short cuts that are deceitful.
We are to compete according to the rules. And by rules Paul means for us what he meant for himself: proclaiming “Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David.” That message resulted in Paul’s imprisonment. It was a message that a Jewish man called Jesus was actually God’s chosen king, that his humiliation and rejection by humans had been reversed by God by dint of his resurrection, and that he was the fulfilment of God’s covenant promises to King David to build him a house forever.
Unless that’s the gospel inherent in, and announced by, our proclamation, we are being deceitful athletes, we are cheating by seeking a ministry success on the biblical equivalent of blood doping. Could anyone accuse you of cheating in your teaching ministry?
3. Diligent Farmer
It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops.
Notice that it is not the farmer who ought to have first share, but the “hard-working” farmer. It’s so easy to either find cruise control at fifty, or busy yourself looking for cruise control. Severely tempting as age catches up with you. It’s easy too to look busy, but not be busy. Especially in ministry.
But not, I suspect, in farming. The results of your laziness in that industry will be there for all to see – or to not see as the case may be. You can fudge a sermon. You can’t fudge a crop.
My brother is a diligent farmer. He owns a mango farm in Darwin, in Australia’s north. And he has just purchased a deceased estate farm near Perth, where we live. It was run down. It was overgrown. The fences were fallen over. The pump was not working. The house was a mess. The fields were not ready for a crop. The shearing shed was falling apart.
But over time my brother’s diligence has turned things around. Over time he has built fences, re-plastered the house, sorted out the pump, and started raising livestock. And all on a property that had gone to the dogs. And who should enjoy the fruits of his labours? He should – he and his family. We were up at the farm the other week and the transformation was wonderful. There’s something about a working farm that feels right.
Diligence in ministry comes at a cost. The cost of your time. The cost of your energy. The cost, we have found, of some of your long term friendships outside your church which falter due to the lack of time and energy you can put in to them given your concentration on the local work.
And it’s tempting to run on cruise control, or outsource the work to others. It’s one thing to build a team to strengthen the work, it’s another to employ people to hide your lack of diligence. As we mature we constantly need to take stock of that in our ministries.
You can’t fudge a crop on the last day. The fruit of your ministry will be revealed by King Jesus. And that’s the point of all three examples, soldier, athlete and farmer. The end stress of each example is that there is a reward to be gained or lost. The soldier’s aim is to please his commanding officer. He will be rewarded by promotion. The athlete’s aim is to win the race. He will be rewarded by the prize. The farmer’s aim is to work hard. He will be rewarded by a share in the crop.
God is no person’s debtor. Those of us called to work in teaching ministries may find it hard going. And it is. And that never stops. It is never easy to prepare God’s Word for God’s people It’s as hard at fifty as it was at thirty. But God repays his faithful servants.
Let me conclude with Paul’s own words as you reread this passage in 2 Timothy 2, remembering that it is the epistle that is God’s words, not my blog post!
Think over what I Paul say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything. (2Tim2:7)