8 April 2023
Yesterday, many churches observed ‘Good Friday’ and tomorrow, they will observe ‘Easter’. The latter remembered the resurrection and the ascension of Jesus. The ministry of Jesus did not end when He returned to the Father in heaven; through His apostles (documented in the book of Acts), and through His body, the church, His ministry continues but assumes a different ‘shape’.
But Jesus’ ministry already began in His life on earth – He lived a perfect sinless life and He was the only One (the second Adam) who fulfilled all the requirements of the Law and He learned obedience through His sufferings.
But at the garden of Gethsemane, He faced the greatest battle of all. Jesus knew all along that it was His appointed task to go into the darkness, the terror, all by Himself, to carry the fate of His people and the world (and fallen humanity) through to the other side. He knew that this death would carry with it the full horror of darkness, of God-forsakenness; He was going to the place where the evil powers of the world could and would do the worst at every level, and part of the ‘torture’ was precisely the mental agony, the insistent questioning that perhaps there was another way to do His Father’s will. He did not even once recoil from fulfilling His Father’s will; all along in His earthly journey, He set His face towards Jerusalem and Calvary. It was not the fear of physical death per se; it was not the physical sufferings he needed to endure – it is being ‘forsaken’ by His Father at the greatest time of need; it is the carrying of all the filth and sins of all the people throughout all generations upon Himself, the One who is holy and pure and the One who was always in deep fellowship of love and harmony with the Father and the Holy Spirit that repelled Him. The intensity of this ‘torture’ was so great that He sweated what looked like blood (or blood itself) as He knelt before His Father.
He chose to do His Father’s will and not His own; in fact, the Triune God (the Three persons of the Godhead) have decided that the only way to save fallen humanity is for the Son to be incarnated, to take our nature, and to die in our place, to redeem the elect and to recreate a new humanity under the Him, the God-man. Jesus triumphed and at the cross, the great exchange took place; our sin was imputed to Him; His righteousness was imputed to us. His substitutionary death on our behalf; His propitiation in turning away the wrath of God upon us; His union with those who believe, His resurrection (and ours in Him) began a ‘new creation’, a new people of God under Him the last Adam and the second Man, and His ascension. But His ministry, unlike that of other religious leaders, did not end: Luke wrote in Luke 1:1 NIV), “all that Jesus began to do and teach “. His earthly ministry did not end with His death, resurrection and ascension to the Father’s right hand. It continues in and through the apostles and the church; our ministry as God’s people today is in fact a continuation of His ministry.
The ministry we, as His people, entered is first and foremost the ministry of Jesus Christ – we must not forget that! It is not what we are doing that counts, but what Christ is doing through us. This is the first realisation and understanding we must have if we were to understand Christian ministry in the image of the Triune God. We should elaborate on this subsequently, God willing.
We noted that the ministry we have entered as Christians is first and foremost the ministry of Jesus Christ; it is what Christ is doing through us. It is in fact the ministry of Jesus to the Father, through the Holy Spirit, for the sake of the church and the world.
Although we desire to serve Christ and often ask Him for help, we assume that it is our ministry, and we are the principal actors. This common understanding of ministry is partially true, but the deeper truth is that the ministry we have entered is, first and foremost the ministry of Christ – it is His ministry more than ours.
Ministry is therefore not so much asking Christ to join us in our ministry as we offer Him to others; it is in fact participating with Christ in His ongoing ministry as He offers Himself to others through us.
If we understand this clearly, then there will not be so much stress and burnout as the result of our failure to grasp this basic truth about ministry. Failing to appreciate this results in us carrying burdens we are not designed to carry, burdens that the Lord Jesus never intended for us to carry. Instead of following Christ the leader, we assume the burden of leadership ourselves.
The ministry of Jesus to the Father on behalf of the world is the basis of all ministry; every aspect of the ministry of Jesus is grounded in the inner relation of mutual love and care between the Father and the Son. ..Jesus’ ministry is first of all directed to God and not to the world. The needs of the world are recognised and brought into this ministry but do not set the agenda.
Unfortunately, for us today, the church and the world, not the Father, are setting our agenda in ministry. Oswald Chambers wrote that we ‘slander God by our very eagerness to work for Him without knowing Him.’ There is always the temptation to want to do things for God without cultivating our relationship with God.
We often get in front of God by the busyness of our own work as we see the enormous needs of the church and the world; yet, involvement in these ‘good things’ can keep us from the best – the particular things the Father is doing that He wants us to be doing. There is a profound difference between doing things for God and doing what God tells us to do.
Discerning the Father’s will lead us to the indispensable role of the Holy Spirit in ministry. For only through the Holy Spirit can we discover what the Father is doing. Jesus Himself was able to know the Father’s will and accomplish His ministry because He was radically dependent on the Holy Spirit – here we see the Trinity intimately involved in Christ’s ministry to the Father through the Holy Spirit. Only through a relationship with the Holy Spirit (being filled with the Spirit) are we enabled and empowered to participate in the ongoing ministry of Jesus and to discern what the Father wants us to do.
As we consider Christ’s death on the cross, it reveals the nature of divine love; it also discloses what is eternally etched in the heart of the Triune God. Before creation, before the existence of a world in need of redemption, self-giving, self-sacrificing love marked the fellowship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Jesus, the Lamb of God who died on Calvary to take away sins, is the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8). Jesus’ dying on the cross should not be seen as the Father’s sending the Son nonchalently to death, without the Father’s deep involvement and grief to see His Son suffering and paying the price of redemption. All three Persons of the Godhead are involved in our salvation; we may not appreciate this deeply without appreciating the Trinity, and this leads to improper outworking of our Christian lives towards the Triune God. There needs to be a wholesome relationship with all three Persons of the Godhead with a proper understanding of their different roles, without compromising their divinity and their oneness in the inner circle of the holy Trinity. And we must also appreciate that this holy circle of love, oneness, harmony and unity is open to all who have come to become His children.
The obedience and humiliation of the Son, culminating in His death on the cross, are thus a revelation of the inner life of God. The cross is at the centre of the Trinity. Before the world was, the sacrifice was already in God. No Trinity is conceivable without the Lamb, without the sacrifice of love, without the crucified Son – He is the slaughtered Lamb glorified in eternity. The amazing love displayed in the self-emptying of God on Good Friday is no arbitrary expression of the nature of God; this is what the life of the Trinity is, translated into the world. Each divine person in the Trinity is always denying himself for the sake of the thers and deferring to the others. The Father gives up his only Son for the sake of the world (John 3:16; Rom. 8:32). The Son never seeks to do his own will but only the will of the Father (John 4:34; 5:19; 6:38). The Spirit, in turn, seeks only to glorify the Son and the Father (John 16:13-15). This means that the triune persons in the Trinity are self-actualized not through self-assertion but through self-giving and self-surrender. In the fellowship of the Trinity, self-giving and self-sacrifice equals self-fulfilment and unspeakable joy. And this also holds true for us as God’s children: self-giving and self-sacrifice take us not only to the heart of God but to the heart of all creaturely existence as well.
When Jesus urged His disciples to lose themselves in order to find themselves (Mark 8:34-35), He was merely telling them to follow the eternal trinitarian pattern embedded in all creation. As bearers of the divine image. we too find our life by losing it.
Because self-giving is at the heart of God and all creaturely being, it is also at the heart of Christian ministry. Sacrificial self-giving is at the heart of Christ’s ministry and consequently all Christian ministry, which is a participation in His ongoing ministry.
The late John Stott wrote: “The place of suffering in service and passion in mission is hardly ever taught today. But the greatest single secret of evangelistic or missionary effectiveness is the willingness to suffer and die. It may be death to popularity (by faithfully preaching the unpopular biblical gospel), or to pride (by the use of modest methods in reliance on the Holy Spirit), or to racial and national prejudice (by identifying with another culture), or to material comfort (by adopting a simple lifestyle). But the servant must suffer…..to bring light to the nations, and the seed must die if it is to multiply.”
C.S. Lewis puts it in this manner:
“Christ says, “Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work. I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there. I want to have the whole tree down. I don’t want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires that you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked – the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.”
Eventually, every Christian and everyone in Christian ministry will come to such a crossroads. Will we give ourselves and surrender ourselves totally to Him? What we decide will determine the fruitfulness of our ministry. Many ministers are willing to follow Christ halfway; they are willing to give up many things for Christ but will not disown themselves.
What we can do is offer ourselves to God as fully and completely as we know how. Then in response to our surrendered act of will, God will accomplish a deeper work of grace in us, consecrating us completely to His service. Self-giving and self-surrender flow out of love. Embracing the divine embrace, the joyful trinitarian intimacy evokes the response of glad surrender. But dying to self is both a crisis and a process. But if and when we surrender to God, we are set free to lay ourselves down for others, to choose the way of surrender and self-giving in particular situations we face in our ministry.
When we refer to the ‘Trinity’, often the question, “How can God be three in one?”, often comes up. Christians have made use of many analogies and illustrations to help make sense of the ‘Trinity’; although these analogies have their place, all of them have their limitations and eventually ‘break down’.
The point is this: in spite of our best efforts to understand and explain the ‘Trinity’, it will always remain a mystery – in fact, Christians make the point that if the concept of God is created in Christianity, then the subject of the ‘Trinity’ will be counter-productive in this ‘creation’; the fact that God reveals Himself in the ‘Trinity’ points to the reality of God in three Persons as the Bible reveals it, and as Christians believe it, and teach it. As one old believer said, “a God understood, a God comprehended, is no God”.
The Trinity reminds us that our highest reasoning powers and most profound logical understanding cannot fully penetrate or fully comprehend or explain or resolve satisfactorily the mystery of God. The Trinity actually compels us to acknowledge that there are things we do not know now, but there are also things we will never know simply because we are not God.
So where does this leave us? It bids us to take a posture of humble adoration and reverence; we are no longer in the position of control – it ought to evoke in us humility and worship – the very attitudes we need to enter the holy circle of triune fellowship. Of course, we must also be clear that even though the Trinity is a mystery and beyond our comprehension, this does not mean we know nothing definite about God – God, in His mercy, love, and goodness has chosen to reveal to us Himself, through the Scripture, through His Holy Spirit, through creation, and particularly through His Son, Jesus, who is the very essence of God in the flesh. We did not come up with this knowledge on our own; God has taken the initiative and revealed it to us (even condescending to speak to us in our language) and also ‘speaking to us in His Son’ (Hebrews 1:2).
As believers, we need to approach life and ministry as a mystery to be entered in, and not as a problem to be solved. Even after we have exerted our best efforts and skills, there is always more in any ministry situation and in any life situation for us to comprehend. Knowing this actually frees us from having to figure everything out, to have all the answers and to be always in control; instead of causing us frustration, the presence of mystery evokes gratitude, for it is the gateway to humility and wonder, and to the realisation that we are just the creature and God is the creator. We then will not fall into the situation that Job’s three friends were in; they thought they knew all the explanations for Job’s sufferings and they even accused Job of sinning terribly – but the end of the book clearly revealed that they did not speak right of God or of Job’s predicament. Christian ministry must always be in the context of understanding and appreciating that God works through us, even though we may be sinful forgiven ‘vessels’ and even though we do not fully understand the mind of God in the situations He chooses to work through us.