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The essence of ministry

The essence of ministry

What is most essential to your life? What is your focus? Or what do you wish filled your time? Try this quick quiz. Fill in the blanks with just one key word in each:

My life is about ______, but I’d prefer it was about ______.

Okay, all done?

Perhaps you already picked it—well done you, if you did—but my quiz is based on what Paul has to say at the beginning of his letter to the Philippians:

…it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honoured in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again. (Philippians 1:20-26)

The two key words that Paul would write into the spaces seem to be: Christ (by which he means continued ministry) and death (by which he means departing this life to be with Christ in heaven).

Is that what you wrote? No, me neither. (Well, they weren’t my honest answers, at least.) So what is it that can compel the apostle Paul to such radical statements? 

Very helpfully, Paul tells us what that compulsion is in a similar passage in 2 Corinthians 5. After commenting about the fact that he is “longing to put on our heavenly dwelling” (v. 2), he restates his commitment to being an “ambassador for Christ” (v. 20) and pursuing “the ministry of reconciliation” (v. 18). That is, he’d rather depart and be with Christ, but he knows gospel ministry is his thing until then. Much the same as what he’s saying in Philippians.

But notice in 2 Corinthians what he says drives him to this position: 

For the love of Christ controls us [NIV “compels us”], because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” (vv. 14-15)  

Jesus died for me, therefore my life ended. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). So since I died, there’s no point living for me anymore; I live to serve the resurrected one who lives in me, and who ensures my own resurrection (2 Tim 2:11). In other words, the Christian life is service: the ministry life.

With that in mind as the reason why you’re committed to whole-life ministry, going back to the Philippians passage, the main thing I want to draw your attention to is Paul’s distillation, into just a few words, of the essence of ministry. Did you notice it? He describes it as working for the “progress and joy in the faith” of others (v. 25).

Isn’t that a refreshing way to think about it? My job as a disciple-making disciple of the Lord Jesus is to help people find joy—a joy that transcends the sufferings and hardships of this life (1 Pet 4:13)—and help them then to progress in their faith and so become mature, even “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13).

What does “progress” towards maturity look like? Paul comes back to that later in Philippians:

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-14)

So the progress we are working to see in people is for them to increasingly forget what lies behind—presumably the things of their old life which has now ended—and instead focus their energies on the future they have with Christ—that future we all long for and that is “far better” than this life.

I don’t know about you, but I wish I could say that my core reason for not wanting to die was the desire to minister God’s word to others for their progress and joy. For me, the fear of death and the idolising of the pleasures of this life get in the way of such a claim. (Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.)

But joy and progress in the faith—my own, and that of others around me—that’s the essence of ministry. That’s what life is all about until we are invited to the better thing: to depart and be with Christ.

Ian Carmichael

Ian has been with Matthias Media from its beginning (1988). In late 2020 he stepped down from the CEO role, and now works as an honourary consultant and editor for Matthias Media and Vinegrowers. Ian and his wife, Stephanie, have two adult children, two (gorgeous) grandchildren, and are part of Chatswood Presbyterian church in Sydney. Ian is one of the Vinegrowers team providing free consultations for church leaders who want to more effectively grow the disciple-making culture in their church.