Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Convictions for Christian ministry

Yesterday I completed my final 'mentoring' Bible study of the year, as I finished studying the book of 2 Timothy with Andy and Steve, two first year CU leaders at Lancaster University. I love the book of 2 Timothy - such emotional words from Paul, and such brilliant convictions to hold for authentic Christian serve. 2 Timothy 3-4 have been really important chapters for me as I have served in Lancashire adn Cumbria over the past couple of years. Below is a talk I gave to CU leaders last November, which I looked over as I prepared yesterday's study. It owes a lot to a talk I heard from Don Carson at the European Leadership Forum.

Well let me add my own welcome to today’s CU Leaders’ Day. It’s so encouraging to see you here. It’s good for us to be able to encourage each other and to think about CU leadership in the middle of what I know for many of you has been a very busy term. I know that some of you have seen incredible things happen this term – some of you have seen your CUs step forward in evangelism and witnessing on campus, some of you have seen people become Christians over the past few weeks. It was great to hear of a guy who started professing as a Christian in Preston on Monday. Some of you have seen CU members take real steps forward in godliness as they have let the gospel loose in their lives.

For others it’s been a really difficult term so far. You’ve put in the hours and it seems that no-one has noticed, or they’ve just been ungrateful. Perhaps you had big plans for this term, and they’ve not quite come to fruition. Your own personal evangelism has been really hard. You’ve been discouraged as other Christians seem to be fighting less against sin in their Christian walk. You are discouraged as you look at your own life and your own struggles with sin.

For the majority of us here, I suspect that it’s both of the above. This shouldn’t really surprise us as whenever we read about gospel ministry we read that it is a mixture of these two things – real joys and real frustrations and sorrows. And so, as we start this morning, I thought it would be really good for us to think about authentic gospel ministry in more detail. It’s perhaps particularly appropriate at this point of the year, as I know from my own personal experience that this is a tough point of the term. It’s already been a hard couple of months since the highs of Forum and Freshers’ Weeks, and it still seems like a long slog to come. It all just seems so tiring and not really that worth it. And the temptation is to ease off – to let Jesus slip down our list of priorities, or to quietly divorce ourselves from our CU responsibilities, or in our tiredness to become bitter. We need the reminder not to give up.

Slacking off was something that obviously had crossed Timothy’s mind. In 1:7-8, Paul says this to Timothy: ‘For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline. So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner.’ The situation is this. Timothy is a leader – not at Ephesus University Christian Union, but as a church leader. His predicament, although not identical to anything that anyone here faces, might be familiar to some. He’s finding things really hard. Paul – his mentor – is not around. More than that, he’s in prison and faces execution. And people about Timothy – Christians included – are saying that Paul is a joke. They are saying that identifying with Paul shows just how weak and stupid Timothy is. They are personally hostile to Timothy. More than that, some members of Timothy’s congregation have also turned to false teaching. We read about that in 2:17-18. Finally, it seems that the congregation is also being persecuted by those from outside of the church community too – this is probably what Paul is alluding to in 3:11. All in all, it’s a difficult situation for Timothy, our young leader. And so, despite having been around with and discipled by Paul for years and years, he’s thinking that he faces an impossible task. He’s thinking about giving up, just as Demas had, as we read about in 4:10.

And so when we come to 2 Timothy 3-4, we come to two very precious chapters of Scripture. Because here, Paul, the ageing apostle, probably writing his last letter to Timothy before being executed, passes on to Timothy the convictions he’s going to need to keep going. And these are convictions that we need to hear if we are to keep living radically as Christians, to keep leading our CUs with gospel radicalness. Otherwise, we’ll just want to blend in with those around us, or even worse, we’ll give up, thinking that gospel ministry is an impossible task.

Hold few illusions about the world [3:1-13]

The first thing that Paul says we’re going to need to remember is that we should hold few illusions about the world. 3:1-13 are scary verses. Paul says – verse 1 – that we’re living in the last days. In the Bible, this is the name given to the era between the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and Jesus’ second coming and return in judgement. And the period is called the ‘last days’ because the Old Testament makes it very clear that the penultimate date of redemption history is the giving of the Spirit. And that’s been and gone. And so, if you like, in God’s diary, the next big date is Jesus’ return and judgement of the world. And you can read more about that in Joel 2 in the future.

The point is this. The devil, though defeated in principle, is still outraged and violently active. Although the end is secure – death really is dead, love really has won, and Christ really has conquered – the devil is doing his very best to wreak havoc in our world before he is condemned forever. We really do live in a spiritual battle. Sometimes when we think about the devil and about spiritual battle, we think about supernatural occurrences. And around the world these do happen. But, far more often, and far more sneakily and subtly, the devil works to disarm the church. And this is both through persecution external to the Christian community, and false teaching and tension within the Christian community.

Paul describes both here. Verses 1-9 describe the sort of false teachers that it appears were within the church in Ephesus. Notice how many of these words focus on self – so we have – verse 2 – they are ‘lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud’; but they are also socially destructive in their behaviour – ‘abusive, disobedient to their parents’. They disrespect authority. They treat others without grace – ‘ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving’. They treat others nastily, as we read, they are ‘slanderous, without self-control’. They are also ‘brutal, not lovers of the good’ – literally, Paul says they are ‘unlovers of good’. Their fundamental attitude problem is then described: ‘treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God’.

And what does Paul say it all boils down to? Verse 5 – they have ‘a form of godliness but [deny] its power.’ For them, godliness is just an outward thing; it’s just a veneer and has absolutely no power to transform lives. And what’s the really scary thing here? It’s this: Paul is describing people within the Christian community. He’s describing people who would have described themselves as Christians. They were probably even Christian leaders. Yet, still they are described in this way.

The history of the Christian church has been littered with Christian leaders who have been set up on moral pedestals, only for them to come crashing down. Some of those people have shown short-term moral slips; they have fallen and found themselves in situations of which they are truly repentant. Yet, Paul says, there are others within the Christian community who deliberately are in it for themselves and care little or nothing for the gospel. And do you see Paul’s command to them? ‘Have nothing to do with them.’

Paul isn’t saying that Christian leaders have to be perfect. If I’m honest, I know that some of the words in these verses describe me, and I’m sure there are words there that would describe you. If we obeyed this completely rigidly, we’d have to excommunicate ourselves! But this is not quite what Paul is saying. What he is saying is this: genuine Christianity will show itself in conduct. An increasingly godly person attests the reality of the gospel in their life. The gospel is powerful. When it is genuinely at work, it will change people. In the false teachers, it clearly isn’t at work. In fact, as we read on, we see that they prey on the vulnerable (verses 6-7), and that they have depraved minds.

Why is Paul so strong in his wording here? I think it’s because he knows what we can be like as leaders. He knows that being in positions of authority can lead to the abuse of the position that we have been called to. And so he’s implicitly calling us to check our motives. How are our hearts? Do we strive after genuine godliness or are we more bothered about outward show? Do our lives attest to the power of the gospel at work, or are they simply made up of veneer? Check yourselves, says Paul, otherwise you might shipwreck your faith. A bad motive at work now when it comes to fruition might lead to something far worse. If that’s you, repent. Spend time asking God to forgive you and to purge you of bad motives.

Not only is there a danger of disruption from within the church, but also externally as well. Paul knew all about this. In verse 11, he reminds Timothy of the persecution he received at Antioch, Iconium and Lystra. You can read about that in Acts 16. Paul was flogged and left for dead, simply for preaching the gospel. And whilst that’s unlikely to happen on any of our campuses, we do see genuine persecution. I know that many of the people here today have seen genuinely hostile reactions to the gospel. We shouldn’t be surprised.

Paul finishes this section with verses 12-13, which are two of the most sobering verses in the whole Bible: ‘In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil men and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.’ Everyone who wants to live a godly live in Christ Jesus WILL BE persecuted. We WILL BE. If we’re not now, we will be in the future. And with all of this, there’s the temptation to think that we must be doing something wrong. We see hostile reactions to gospel events that we put on, from non-Christians, and sometimes even from Christians. We think we must be doing something wrong. Well, that’s not necessarily the case. Because we live in a spiritual battle. The devil is sneaky. He will try anything to stop us doing gospel work. But knowing his schemes helps us to spot them. And so this is Paul’s first instruction to Timothy: hold few illusions about the world; we really do live in a spiritual battle.

Hold on to the Bible [3:14-17]

We can read something like 2 Timothy 3:1-13 and think, well then, why do we bother? We feel so ill-equipped and so small and so scared. It seems like we’re facing a losing battle.

But then … But then Paul chimes in with these famous words about the Bible:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

What a great tonic these words are! Don’t just hold few illusions about the world, but hold onto the Bible says Paul. We do live in a spiritual battle, but the Bible is well able to cut through these spiritual dimensions and right to a person’s heart. It’s through the Bible that the Spirit transforms people. We live in a spiritual battle in these last days, and it seems such hard work, but we have the Bible! And notice what Paul says the Bible does through the power of the Spirit: ‘it’s able to make you wise for salvation!’ Hallelujah! It’s able to tell us what we need to know in order to be saved. It’s there to help us trust in Jesus.

But also, notice that it’s useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness. What an encouragement this must have been to Timothy, as he is reminded of the Bible’s power. Timothy is serving a church in Ephesus that is in an utter mess, and Timothy must have felt powerless. But Paul reminds him: no, you are not alone – you have the Bible, and with the Spirit that is powerful to change people. Do they need teaching? Let the Bible do it! Do they need rebuking? Again, trust the Bible! And the same applies for correcting and training in righteousness. In fact, if we want people to be equipped for any good work at all, the Bible has it covered.

This is a good reminder for us in CU leadership. Often people don’t behave as we want them to. We get frustrated. Why don’t they seem to share the same passion for the lost? Why aren’t they bothered about sin? Why are they so half-hearted about things? Well hear the encouragement. Keep teaching the Bible, because through God’s Holy Spirit, the Bible will teach, rebuke, correct and train in righteousness. There’s no situation that the Spirit can’t change as the Bible is taught, there’s no heart too hard. Sometimes I think about an individual’s hard heart and the God of the Universe. God is well able to change a heart as his Bible is taught. We can count on it.

All of this means that, as CU leaders, we’re going to privilege the teaching of the Bible highly. It means we’ll commit to reading the Bible ourselves, so that we’re taught, rebuked, corrected and trained in righteousness. It means that we’re not just going to fill up our CU calendars with anyone we can get to speak at short notice or just the speakers who tell the most jokes, but we’re going to try and get the very best Bible teachers in, so that God’s Word can be faithfully taught and radically set loose in our lives. It means that, as small group leaders, we’ll put in the hours to prayerfully get our heads around the passage. And it also means that we’re going to trust the Bible to do its work. Often the temptation is, particularly before mission weeks, which we’ll be thinking about a bit more this afternoon to rely on other things to whip people up. A guilt trip perhaps, or an emotionally passionate speech to frenzy people for mission week. But do you see what Paul says? Teach the Bible and trust the Bible to do its work. That is the only way in which people will be changed at their core. Hold onto the Bible.

Hold the Bible out to others [4:1-8]

Related to this, Paul tells Timothy to hold the Bible out to others. This is 4:1-8. Hold the Bible out to others. And I want us particularly to think about verse 5: ‘But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.’

I guess Timothy could have given any good reason for his church not to be doing evangelism at their stage in history. The church was in a mess, there was false teaching within and a lot of tension. Timothy himself wasn’t exactly the most popular person as he taught the church there. Yet Paul says: ‘do the work of an evangelist.’ This is quite amazing, isn’t it? Paul is saying: don’t let evangelism drop off of your list of priorities, even though there are all sorts of problems within the church.

Perhaps we need to hear this too. When the chips are down, it’s really easy to evangelism to completely drop off of the radar. It seems that we’ve got enough fires to fight first before getting out and sharing the gospel with non-Christians. But Paul knows exactly what situation Timothy is facing, and yet says: do the work of an evangelist. I think it’s sometimes easy to think, well, we’ll just get all of the other issues in CU sorted and then we can focus on doing some evangelism. Well, let me say this. If you wait for that time, you’ll be waiting for ever! You’ll never do any evangelism!

Instead, says Paul – verse 2 – preach the Word in season and out of season; when the gospel is popular and when it is not; when the CU is flavour of the month with the SU and when it is not; when the CU are really excited about doing gospel outreach and when they are not. Why? Because it doesn’t depend on us! Because God’s Word is powerful in itself. And just to underline the point, Paul tells Timothy to correct, rebuke and encourage – the very things he’s just said the Bible does! Keep going. Keep proclaiming, because even when you are feeling at your very weakest, the Spirit is able to use God’s Word to change hearts. Again, it’s this conviction that keeps us going.

Pretty much all of you here have heard recently about a guy in CU history called Norman Grubb, who in 1923 went around all of the rooms in his hall and shared the gospel with the undergraduates there. It was the beginning of UCCF: The Christian Unions. Well, now let me add the name of Howard Guinness. He was a medical student in London in the 1920s, who was challenged when he heard Norman Grubb speak about the lack of CUs in Canada. He shared this with his CU, who between them sold their bicycles and camera equipment in order to pay for Norman Grubb to have a one-way ticket to Canada, to set up the CU movement there. And that’s precisely what he did – he spent a few days on each campus, did some evangelism, put the Christians together, founded a CU and then he moved on. That’s how the CU movement started in Canada. And he then went on to start the CU movements afterwards in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and several other countries! If you’d like to read more about the growth of the CU movement around the world, I’d highly recommend this book ‘From Cambridge to the World’. You’ll see that CUs have had a truly global impact.

Anyway, the point is this. What spurred people like Norman Grubb to share the gospel with those on their corridors? What spurred Howard Guinness to cross continents for the gospel? I can tell you, it’s not because they thought they were great. Read sections of their diaries, and you’ll see, far from it. Most of the time they were petrified. Yet they had a sure confidence that God works as his word is proclaimed, as his gospel is preached. It’s that which changes hearts. And this conviction keeps us going. Regardless of the situation, God’s word can speak into it. It’s why we have CU mission weeks. It’s why during mission weeks we’re not just wanting to be nice. We want people to know that Christians are not freaks, but the main thing is that we want the gospel proclaimed. Because we’re never going to change the situation, but God’s Word can. Hold out God’s word to others.

Hold the future at the front of your mind [4:1, 8, 14, 18]

Paul’s final instruction to the Timothy doesn’t come so much as a block of text, but as a theme that runs throughout the whole letter. It’s a theme that we also see in the verses here, and it’s this: hold the future at the front of your mind.

I want you to imagine that you go into university or college on Monday, and you have been sent an email in error. It was supposed to be a confidential email sent only to university authorities, but somehow you’ve been copied in. And, to your amazement, it says that all of the people on your course are going to be automatically awarded firsts, regardless of how well you do in your coursework and exams. They’re going to be awarded by the university because they’d like to draw attention to the high quality students that they have attracted. Now, I know this is pretty far fetched, but how would you respond to that? How would you spend your time? I know that, if it was me, I’d kick back and enjoy myself knowing that a first was coming my way.

Similarly, the future always affects how we behave now. If we know something is coming, then we behave accordingly. And Paul speaks of the future regularly, because he knows that it should affect our behaviour now. Have a look a chapter 4, and you’ll see that Paul mentions it very regularly: verse 1 – ‘In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge’; verse 8 – ‘Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day…’; verse 14 – ‘Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm. The Lord will repay him for what he has done’; and, finally, verse 18: ‘The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom.’ Do you see what Paul is saying? He’s saying this: live in the light of eternity.

It’s so easy to lose our eternal perspective. It’s very easy to get caught up in the here and the now. And, as CU leaders, if we do this then we’ll probably slip into one of two traps. One of them is that we’ll just get so caught up by the here and now that we never do anything with eternity in sight. I know myself that it’s very easy to get caught up with the trappings – with room bookings and socials and emails and meetings and the rest – that, even though the CU has been set up with eternity in mind, that we never do anything with eternal consequence. And the CU just becomes a social club. Or the other danger is this: we know that evangelism should be a priority, but we’ve forgotten about eternity and we’re only bothered about results in the short term. We’re only bothered about packed meetings and looking good on campus. In both cases, we’ve forgotten about eternity.

One of the most helpful verses I’ve found here is 1 Corinthians 3:13, where Paul says that judgement day will test the quality of a person’s work. It’s at judgement where we’ll see the eternal value of our work. And so let’s work for things that will last for eternity. It’s so easy to get caught up with projects, but let’s commit ourselves to people – to investing the gospel into the lives of Christians and non-Christians, praying that God will transform it and give eternal value.

Sometimes eternity is not popular. Living for eternity means that we’re going to find ourselves in messy situations where, if judgement did not exist and there was no eternal perspective, we’d be completely wasting our time. But let’s commit to keeping eternity in view – let’s commit to not letting our CUs or small groups just get subsumed with ‘stuff’, and let’s not fall into doing evangelism for just the here and now. Let’s keep eternity in view.

Paul wrote to Timothy because Timothy was under pressure to give up, to slack off. We’re going to face the same pressure. It’s part of living in a society that has very different priorities and focus. And so let’s remember those things Paul reminded Timothy: hold few illusions about the world; hold onto the Bible; hold the Bible out to others and hold the future at the front of your mind. If we hold onto these things, by grace, we won’t give up or lose heart.


Don Biro said...


You might be interested in a book called My Dear C.U.M.B.: Norman Grubb's Letters To The Cambridge University Missionary Band 1922-1989.

It's available from the following site as an electronc book and as a paperback:

God bless.

peterdray said...

Thanks :)

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