Was the apostle Paul a good minister of the gospel?
- 5 October 2021
- Dan McKinlay
I begin with a question for you all. Was the apostle Paul a good minister of the gospel? Of course, many of us know Paul as the author of much of the New Testament. We can maybe think of some familiar events in his life; a former persecutor of the early Christian movement, his dramatic conversion. In my own time I’ve heard Paul both lauded as the clearest articulator of Christian doctrine and dismissed as someone who twisted Jesus’ teachings and now needs rearticulation and reinterpretation for a modern world. Well, we may not get to each acclamation or criticism of the apostle but my aim today is simply to examine the evidence and ask the question, ‘Was Paul a good minister of the gospel?’
In today’s New Testament readings we came to the famous section of Paul’s farewell to the elders in Ephesus. In it, the apostle prepares to leave that church, a congregation of believers that he had nurtured and taught, protected and grown. And he takes the time to look back on what their time together has been like, and to give some insight into the threats that lie ahead for them.
What is it that makes a minister a ‘good’ minister though? Well you would think that the qualities are being personable, being engaging, and having good community rapport are good. Now those things are great if a minister has them. But Paul was, as far as we can see, not known for those things. He was persecuted both from outside the Christian church and even believers within picked many theological fights with him. And immediately prior to this passage we read that he preached so long that a poor soul called Eutychus fell asleep, then out a window to his death!
But Paul was a good minister. Why? I want to propose to you that Paul’s ministry was both faithful and fruitful. Faithful and fruitful. And I want to show you that in his report to these elders.
So firstly, let’s consider Paul’s faithfulness.
In verses 19 and 20, we learn that even through tears, trials and plots against him, Paul did not shrink from declaring anything that was profitable and teaching in public and from house to house, testifying of repentance towards God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
There are many things that a minister can fill their time with. In fact, much of their work is about building bridges with those who are outside of the church and far from God. But the thing about building bridges is that those bridges are there to be crossed. We didn’t build the Sydney harbour bridge just to look at, did we? It’s there to be crossed.
Paul’s ministry was filled with speaking of repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus. What he does is leverage his connections, he takes advantage of the relationships that afford him both a public platform and a warm welcome in family homes in order to bring people understanding and take them towards trust in the Lord Jesus.
We are not all the apostle Paul, but faithfulness for us will look like crossing those bridges. It will look, as Paul wrote, like’ not shrinking back’ from taking the opportunities as they arise. And I see many of us doing that all the time. I see those who are eager to bring the Lord Jesus into conversations, to speak of the gospel with those who have no idea. Friends, that is faithfulness to the gospel.
It’s hard though, isn’t it. We can face mocking or scorn, rejection or loss of friendship if we do such things. For Paul, the price of faithfulness was altogether different. He writes that he has many places to still go and preach on his mission, But he knows that imprisonment and affliction wait for him because of it.
Paul was a good minister of the gospel because he was faithful, despite what it would cost his reputation, and even despite the threat of persecution.
But Paul was also a good minister of the gospel because his ministry, under God, was fruitful. Now in some ways his ministry is fruitful simply because he was faithful – the fruit is, in part, the proclamation itself. But there is more. The fruit of his ministry is that there is now a church of the living God here in Ephesus. We hear that there is a flock, and there is leadership over that flock. Now let’s not underestimate that.
Ephesus was a city that had been turned upside down by the gospel. We heard last week of the radical change in the city. And now quite possibly the greatest demonstration of Paul’s fruitful work is that there is succession in leadership. People have stepped up to continue to guide the flock of God.
As I prepare to leave South Head Anglican Parish, one thing that I have been struck by is our commitment to team ministry. The vast majority of work in our church is not done by clergy but by the many unpaid volunteers who fill various rosters, who organise and manage various aspects of ministry. This willingness to step up and serve is in itself a demonstration of fruitfulness in our midst.
We can only imagine what we don’t read in Acts about how the church in Ephesus grew. How Paul spent hours with the future leaders of this church, teaching them about the Lord Jesus, preparing them for leadership, investing in them personally. And now he can leave knowing that they will continue to steer the ship in his absence.
That said, there is choppy water ahead, Paul warns. He tells them that they must have their eyes open, that there are people who will seek to ruin and deride that work of God in this place. Not even ministries started by those such as Paul are immune from destruction by the evil one, and neither are we. It’s a sobering warning that it might even be from among their own leadership. We often don’t know false teachers straight away, sadly they don’t wear t-shirts that tell us. Rather they tend to be those on the inside, who slowly erode the faithful and fruitful work. Be alert, Paul says.
Now there is much more we could say on this passage but time escapes us. Let me return to our opening question: was Paul a good minister of the gospel? Yes he was. He was faithful and fruitful, and he taught others to be likewise. And for us, who each have a part to play in the great task of proclaiming Christ on the south head – we too must strive for these things: to be continually faithful, not shrinking away from proclaiming salvation through Christ alone, but also pursuing fruitfulness, developing ourselves and others and building a gospel legacy on the south head of the harbour.