2 Corinthians 3: 1 - 3
Would you call this man as your pastor? *Arrested many times. *In and out of prison. *Often run out of town. *Never built a building. *Never spoke on TV. *Never had a website. *Never had a Facebook page. *Never owned his own home. *Had to work on the side to support himself. *Never stayed very long in one place. *Not a skilled public speaker. *Unimpressive appearance. *Sometimes preaches for hours at a time. *Seems to get involved in public controversies. Most churches would pass on a man like that. After all, you can’t trust your pulpit to just anyone who comes along. That’s why the Apostle Paul would not feel at home in many of our churches today.
Success in the ministry is notoriously hard to define. Even if we have met all our goals, have we truly been successful in the eyes of the Lord? How do we measure success in the ministry? That’s the question Paul faced in 2 Corinthians. He had to justify himself because a group of critics had virtually taken over the church, filling the people’s minds with accusations against Paul’s character and his conduct. “You can’t trust him. How do you know he’s not a fake?"
Part of Paul’s answer - he declares that the real measure of the ministry is the lives changed by the Holy Spirit. That is true success in the eyes of the Lord. It’s not about programs or buildings, budgets or titles. It’s not about a big reputation.
1. Inadequate Measures of Success v. 1
Paul says, “I don’t need to boast and I don’t need a letter of reference to prove the validity of my ministry." That’s different from the way we do things today.
Sometimes we measure success by our degrees. Of course these things matter. We should pay attention to them. Sometimes we ordain people to the ministry. That’s important because it means that a certain group of well-respected people examined your testimony, your background, your education, your doctrine, your spiritual life, and your call to the ministry.
Often we measure pastors and churches by size. That matters because 50 is better than 25, 100 is better than 50, 500 is better than 100, 1000 is better than 500, and so on.
There are other ways of looking at success. Who do you know? How well are you connected? How many millionaires attend your church? Because we live in a celebrity culture, it matters who we know. Knowing important people gives you clout, it helps you get things done, and it elevates you in the minds of others.
But these things, the “letters of recommendation” that Paul is talking about, the approval and recognition of others and the applause of the world, these are not the true measures of success. God views it differently.
2. The One Thing That Matters Most v. 2, 3
It’s all about lives changed by the Holy Spirit. The proof of Paul’s ministry was the changed lives of his hearers. He preached the gospel, the Holy Spirit applied it to his hearers so that when they believed in Jesus, their lives were completely changed.
Corinth was a thoroughly pagan city, given over to idol worship and gross sexual immorality. As a seaport town, it was a place where you could say that “anything goes.” So when the gospel entered through the power of Jesus Christ, sinners were converted, and some of them were radically changed. 1 Corinthians 6: 9, 10 - In today’s world we tend to regard that as a “hard passage” that makes us squirm because it seems so negative - and it is! But that’s not the end of the story – v. 11.
“And that is what some of you were.” In those 8 words we find the entire Christian faith. The power of all that we believe is summed up in those few words. Christianity is supremely a religion of conversion. Everything we say and everything we believe is built upon one fundamental and revolutionary premise: You don’t have to stay the way you are. Your life can be radically changed by God. The miracle of conversion happens when the life of God intersects with human personality. Once God enters the picture, your life will never be the same again. Until then, you may be religious and you may be a very good person and you may obey all the rules of the church, but you have not been converted.
Let’s be clear for the whole world to understand. The Christians at Corinth were . . Wicked no more. Immoral no more. Idolaters no more. Adulterers no more. Homosexuals no more. Thieves no more. Greedy no more. Drunkards no more. Slanderers no more.
Talk about a change. Can you imagine the impact in Corinth when an idol worshiper came to Christ and his buddies at the temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, wondered what happened to him? Why didn’t he come around anymore? Why didn’t he offer sacrifices? Why did he partake in sexual escapades with the many priestesses attached to the temple? Why didn’t he join in the drunken celebrations? What happened to him? “I met some people who told me about Jesus, and he changed my life completely."
Suppose a woman was one of those who practiced a form of religious prostitution. What would her friends say when suddenly she stopped plying her trade? Her answer would blow their minds.
Here is a man in Corinth who has lived a homosexual lifestyle. But no more. He has been washed, cleansed, sanctified, given a new heart, a new life, a new direction. Yes, the temptations remain, but the direction of his life has been altered forever. Can you imagine what his friends would say when he declared, “I’m not going to do that anymore"?
There is another way to say it. Conversion is the miracle whereby God changes the tenses of your life: This is what you were. This is what you are. Christians believe that Jesus Christ can do it, and we believe that only Jesus has the life-changing power to utterly transform your life from the inside out. That’s what happened to the first-century believers in the seaport town of Corinth.
How did this radical change take place among those who heard the message? These former idol-worshiping pagans were now . . .
A. Visibly Different v. 2 - It’s a wonderful thing when your conversion is so real that no one can deny the change in your life.
B. Followers of Christ v. 3a - Their lives were like a letter from Christ, written in their hearts, plain for the whole world to see.
C. Supernaturally Changed v. 3b - They had not been changed by “joining the church” or “walking an aisle” or “signing a card." Those things have no power to change us. Only the Holy Spirit working within can write God’s truth in our hearts.
D. Internally Transformed v. 3c - The 10 Commandments were written on stone, giving them permanence as a rule of life for ancient Israel. If someone said, “Is it okay to sleep with my neighbour’s wife?” the answer was, “Check out the tablets. What do they say?” Rules can do many things. They can tell you right and wrong, and they can provide guidance in tough situations. Only the gospel can change us from the inside out.
Christians are “living epistles,” letters that anyone can read. Jesus is the writer, the Holy Spirit is the ink, you are the letter!
So what is the real mark of a successful ministry – a successful church? It must be the lives changed by the preaching of the gospel through the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s why the proof of the ministry can never be simply counting rands and numbers or listing degrees or size or how many services you have or how big your budget is or who came to preach for you or who serves on your board or how long you’ve been in the ministry.
Paul never gives us any attendance statistics from his churches; never tells us how many baptisms were performed in a given year; never reports on the number of new programs he started; and he never even tells us how the giving was doing compared to budget!
We count those things and say, “Well, if you’ve got those, you’ve got a successful ministry.” Paul said, “I’m not playing that game." He simply said, “If you want to know about my ministry, check out the people who listen to me. Look at what God has done in their lives.” Living epistles. Living proof. That’s the only thing that matters - rest is just details - just window-dressing.
3. The Source of Our Success
God measures our success in terms of lives changed. He’s evidently not that impressed by the size of our budget or by the ornateness of our sanctuary. The One who hung the stars in space doesn’t really care how many books we’ve written or how much money we make or whether or not we see our name in lights. He’s Almighty God, Maker of heaven and earth. Like we’re going to impress him? I think not.
The proof of our ministry is lives changed by the Holy Spirit. So who does the changing? The Holy Spirit (who is God himself). If lives are truly changed under our ministry, God did it!
He has arranged things so that we get the honour and privilege of serving him. To us he committed the message of reconciliation and told us to go into the world and preach it in every nation, saying to one and all, “Be reconciled to God."
We do the preaching. God does the saving.
We do the praying. God does the answering.
Let us be thankful about that. If we had to save people, no one would ever be saved. I can preach till the cows come home, but if God doesn’t work, no one will ever be saved. My success depends on the Lord! Not partly, but entirely.
Three Simple Conclusions
1. I have a part to play and I must do my part.
I am called to preach and teach the Word of God. The where and the how and the when are not specified. Circumstances change all the time. Look at Paul’s life. He had great success in one city and was run out of the next. He stayed in one city for months and in another for 3 or 4 weeks. He was loved and hated, admired and reviled, praised and criticized wherever he went. Some of the churches he started had major problems. Not everyone who heard him believed his message. Not all of his converts stayed true to the Master. Yet he determined to go wherever he was led, to become “all things to all men” so that by God’s grace, he might win some to Christ.
Was Paul successful? From the perspective of 20 centuries later, we know the answer is yes. But he ended up in jail in Rome (twice!) and evidently died by beheading at the order of Nero. 1 Corinthians 4: 1 Paul reveals a key secret of success in the ministry. “It is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful." There it is, plain for all to see.
Be faithful. That’s what God wants from you and me. Be faithful to our calling. Be faithful to the Lord. Be faithful to preach the Word. That is my part and I must do my part. No one else can do it for me.
2. I won’t really know how successful I’ve been until I get to heaven.
Several years ago I watched Larry King interview Billy Graham. At one point he asked Dr. Graham, “How many people have been saved under your ministry?” Without missing a beat, Billy Graham answered, “I have no idea.” “You have no idea?” “No, only the Lord knows that." Here’s a man who has preached to more people in person than anyone else in history. He is the best-known evangelist in Christian history. But when you ask how many have been saved, he says, “I have no idea.” You can count decisions but only the Lord knows the true heart condition of those who come forward.
His attitude is exactly right. Whatever success we have in serving the Lord comes because the Lord himself granted it to us. Since we don’t save anyone, all the glory belongs to the Lord alone.
3. I shouldn’t bother comparing myself with anyone else.
John 21: 20 - 22 - Peter, evidently feeling a bit of apostolic competition, asks the Lord what will happen to the Apostle John. Here is the Lord’s answer in verse 22, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me." It’s a polite way of saying, “What happens to John is none of your business.”
You must follow me -
“Follow me, and don’t worry about anyone else.”
“Follow me, and I’ll take care of the others.”
“Follow me, and you’ll have plenty to do.
Here is our calling put simply: Feed God’s sheep. Be faithful. Follow Jesus. If we do that, we are successful already, and when our work is done, we will discover that the Lord made more of what we did than we knew while we were on the earth. The applause of heaven will welcome us home, and that’s the only success that really matters.