Romans 10: 16&17 “But not all the Israelites accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our message?’ Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.”
Paul is talking about the Christian faith and you will see that he gives it a number of titles. He identifies is as “the good news” because it is the most marvelous that this groaning dying world has ever heard or ever will hear. It tells us of the great achievements of God’s love, that he has delivered sinners from ignorance and guilt and bondage to our sins through his Son Jesus Christ by his coming into the world and by his becoming our teacher and the Lamb of God and our mighty protector. But Paul tells us that many of the Israelites did not accept the message that Jesus was the Messiah. Even then when Lazarus was still alive, and thousands of people who had heard Jesus preaching and seen his miracles and knew the impact he had made on the lives of hundreds of men and women. Still they said, “The jury is out. We want more proof. Unbelief is nothing new. It is not a 21st century post modern frame of mind. It is as old as Noah. Good news has come but many have not accepted it.
Then the next words Paul uses to describe the Christian faith are “our message” and Paul does so when he quotes from the prophet Isaiah, the greatest of the writing prophets of the Old Testament. Interestingly there is nothing antiquarian about how Paul uses his quotation, nothing about “this ancient prophet . . . some wise man centuries ago having said these words . . .” Nothing like that. There is simply the vivid “Isaiah says.” It is the present tense of the verb. Isaiah is still speaking, even today, and what he said will endure for ever because God the Holy Spirit inspired him to speak, to the jots and tittles. In fact Isaiah made the most remarkable predictions about the birth and life and death of Jesus Christ. “A virgin shall conceive and bear a Son and he will be called Immanuel, God with us. Unto us a child is born and unto us a son is given . . . and his name shall be called wonderful counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father and the Prince of Peace . . . He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” It was the prophet Isaiah writing 700 years before the birth of Jesus who said all that and he says it yet, and Paul reminds the Gentile Christians living in Rome, “That will always be our message.”
The actual words Paul next uses are “the message.” Our message is the message, the one and only message from the Creator to his creatures. No man comes to the Father except by hearing this message. It is not one message amongst many others. It is not that Paul had one message and the other writers of the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all had their distinct messages. There was not one message for Jewish Christians and another for Gentiles. Paul the Jews speaks to those Gentiles living in Rome and he says, “This is our message and it is the message.” For every Christian there is ultimately one message, the message which judges us and evaluates what we believe and teach. Do you believe in the message? I tell you it, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that the third day he rose again from the dead according to the Scriptures.
Then notice in our text that Paul goes on to tell us that “the message is heard through the word of Christ” (v.17). So it also is “the word of Christ.” You remember how Paul had been commissioned on the road to Damascus to be the Lord’s servant and to take the message to the Gentiles, and suffer many things doing that. Then during some initial years of reflection and preparation in Arabia while he was still a fledgling Christian Paul was taught by the Lord to understand who Jesus was, how he lived, and how he had to suffer and die. He received a greater understanding of Christianity directly from the Lord himself during those years of preparation. When I lead the communion service I do what every minister does, I quote to you Paul’s words to a congregation in Greece, in the city of Corinth, about the Lord’s supper, and those words go back to that time alone with the Lord before he began to itinerate and evangelize; “I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus the same night he was betrayed took bread and brake it and said ‘This is my body which is broken for you . . .’” Paul did not receive those words second hand from Peter or any of the other disciples who were at the Last Supper. He received them from Christ as he received many other words that he preached and wrote from the risen, reigning Jesus Christ. It applies to the passage before us and the consequence is this, that what we are reading in our text today has all the authority of the Lord Jesus behind it. Why should I preach on Sunday night the words of Paul? Why should you or anyone prick up your ears and listen to these ancient words? The answer is that they are still the “word of Christ” and always will be. The word of Christ endures for ever whether it comes in gospel or in letter. So Paul is focusing on this good news which the believing remnant of Jewish Christians had received, what Isaiah called “our message,” what Paul calls, “the message,” and “the word of Christ.”
I. IN WHAT FORM THIS MESSAGE COMES TO US.
Now this message is what you find in the whole of the Bible. You know that the Bible is not a cluster of devotional moral comments. It has a history, a theme, a redemptive development, a growing revelation, and it is possible for us to divide up this divine message in the following way:
i] Genesis 1 and 2 where the message is that God has set this all up. The first two chapters of the Bible tell us that the one true and living God created this world, and created both men and women in his image and likeness to live before his face. He created our first parents to serve and love him, and to love one another.
ii] Genesis 3 where the message of that chapter is that we messed up. Our parents Eve, and Adam (who was the head of the human race) chose to defy God. And this rebellion that they started was destined to have a chain reaction on all their descendants without exception. We their children have been biased enough to continue to fight God. All the world is just like them in defying God. Like Adam men and women hide from God. Adam and Eve used fig leaves to cover themselves. That is just like our generation; we are all loners, strangers from God, outsiders who keep him at a distance. We hide from him and each other. The relationship of our first parents with each other broke down the one blaming the other for the fall. Then God expelled them from his presence. We are now aliens living east of Eden in this fallen creation. Then . . .
iii] Genesis 4 to Malachi, (in other words the rest of the Old Testament, the age of the prophets speaking on behalf of God to men), and there the message becomes more full of good news. It is that God had determined that he would open the way of bringing man back to himself. He sent his special servants to explain to the people what he was doing and what he required of them. These prophets spoke his word with the authority that Jehovah had given them. God would send a Messiah, born in Bethlehem, becoming a sacrifice and atonement, so that the sins of his chosen people could be forgiven. It was taught and acted out in the whole sacrificial system which he instigated. A spotless animal had to be offered up for the people’s sins. On the basis of that atonement God could call these people whom he loved back to himself and to one another. “Why do you perish in rebellion and unbelief?” he asked them.
iv] Matthew to John where the message is that this Messianic Lord has finally appeared. Men and women had kept rejecting God, and ill treating his servants the prophets. Then the last of the prophets sent by God came, John the Baptist, to prepare for the greatest of all miracles. This was the Jehovah himself coming in the person of his Son Jesus, taking to himself the form of a man. He has come to give us a wonderful new insight into God’s grace and love. He has come to call us back into a proper relationship with himself. He has come to give his life as a ransom for our redemption. He became the Lamb of God to deal with out guilt. Without the shedding of blood there can be no remission. That is how God is, but it was God the Son who died for us, in our place, as our substitute. Men may be forgiven, and God is reconciled to us because of the Lord Jesus. This is the message . . . our message to you, the word of Christ, the word about him and from him in mercy today.
v] Acts to Jude, and the message of that section of Scripture (which is most of the remainder of the Bible) is that God is now gathering Jesus’ disciples into congregations under appointed leaders, and the message of Jesus is being taken by these congregations through the whole world.
vi] The book of Revelation (the last book of the Bible) whose message is the risen reigning Lamb is going to sort it out. From his throne the Lord Jesus controls angels, men and demons to accomplish his purpose of establishing a new heavens and a new earth, the redemption of the whole creation. There’ll be a final climax to the history of the world at the last judgment, and then a great separation of mankind into heaven (where countless billions of lovers of Jesus will be taken), and hell, which will receive all who stubbornly defy Christ and his heaven.
We are told here in our text of the rejection of the message, that “not all accept the good news.” Face up to the fact that we exist as a congregation, and I live as a Christian preacher in the context of rejection, and that this too has been ordained by God. Isaiah was a preacher full of poetry and pictures and pathos. There was hardly another inspirational speaker of his oratory during the whole of the Old Testament period, and yet even he cried out, “Lord, who has believed our report?” I want to say that the actual number of those accepting the Bible or rejecting it is neither here or there. This message of the Bible endures wherever Christianity figures in the popularity stakes. “Thy word is truth,” said Jesus, and it is that word that stands in judgment scrutinizing the whole world. What are you going to do with this Jesus who is called the Christ? The creation of our world by the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ – what are you going to do with that? The Ten Commandments – what are you going to do with God’s requirements for your life, the standards by which you will be judged? The life of Christ, are you going to mutter, ‘the life of a mad man,’ ‘the life of a crook’? The Sermon on the Mount, the most sublime ethic this world has ever heard, what are you going to do with it? The death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus – don’t those historical events demand a response? Is this message true? Then what are you going to do with this Jesus? If it is God’s word and we believe it then we are saved, but if we reject it then we are lost. This is the message of Christ to a dying, helpless, guilty world. My task is to ensure that you hear it declared clearly with the prayer that you will understand and trust it. Believe it! O sinner receive it! It is the true word of Jesus Christ. Rest on it. Live in obedience to it and die trusting it. You say that you don’t know whether you have faith. Tell that God. I believe, help thou my unbelief! Keep coming! Keep listening, and keep praying, “Lord, I do want to believe and turn from my unbelief. Please have mercy on me!” “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” Let me go on to present to this congregation the implications for us from all that I have said. Here is a man who speaks the word of Christ week after week, and year after year. What do we say about him?
2. GOD HIMSELF ACTS AND SPEAKS THROUGH THE GOSPEL PREACHER
We can never consider a faithful preacher apart from the Lord whose representative he is. For God has chosen to mediate his own ministry to the world through carefully structured congregations of his people. In other words, gatherings of people ruled and disciplined by elders and deacons. God is working in the world this very day through such gatherings, each one the body of Christ and, in each of those bodies it is preachers who have a unique place. Their ministry is, in fact, God’s ministry to the church and the world. You see what is envisioned by Paul in our text? He says, “Faith comes through hearing,” says Paul, “and the message is heard . . .” (v.17). The scene Paul describes is of someone speaking, isn’t it? Someone is addressing others, and he is not talking about himself he is preaching the good news, the message, and the word of Christ and he does so because God has commissioned him and gifted him, and the gift is recognized by those who have called him to teach them, whom they hear attentively each week. God draws them there for that end, to hear the word of God, his word through his servants. Christ speaks and they speak.
We find, for example, identical terms being used concerning the Lord and his ministers. God is often called the “shepherd of Israel” (Ps. 80:1), “For we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture” (Ps. 100:3). Yet, when Moses is about to die, he is concerned that God does not forget about these people of God after Moses’ days, and he prays, “Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation . . . who shall lead them out and bring them in, that the congregation of the Lord may not be as sheep that have no shepherd” (Num. 27:16). The Lord doesn’t reply, “It’s O.K. I shall be there for them. You needn’t worry. I will not leave them.” No. God says to him, “Take Joshua.” God is the shepherd and Joshua is the shepherd. They are both pastors.
Again, we find both God and men being spoken of as engaged in the same work. In Exodus chapter three and verse 8 God says, in effect, “I will bring my people out of Egypt.” Two verses later he says to Moses, “I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people . . . out of Egypt” (Exod. 3:10). Who is going to bring the people out of Egypt, God or Moses? God is going to do it through Moses.
The task of the gospel minister is to bring the Word of God to God’s people. He is God’s mouthpiece, God’s spokesman. He does not add to what the Lord has said. “The prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak . . . that same prophet shall die” (Deut. 18:20). Nor may he omit any part of the divine message: “Stand in the court of the Lord’s house, and speak to all the cities of Judah . . . all the words that I command you to speak to them; do not hold back a word” (Jer. 26:2).
This means that God himself is speaking through gospel ministers. They are prophets, heralds, ambassadors. Ezekiel is commanded, “Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me” (Ezek. 33:7). It is God’s warning that the prophet brings. As our Lord puts it in Luke 10:16: “The one who hears you, hears me, and the one who rejects you, rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me.”
Paul is very aware that Christ is active in his ministry. He writes to the Romans, “I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience” (Rom. 15:18). “What Christ has accomplished through me” — here is his summary of his ministerial achievements. He tells the Ephesian Gentile believers concerning Jesus Christ that, “He came and preached peace to you who were far off” (Eph. 2:17), and indeed Christ did, but he did so through his servants, preaching in a city which Jesus of Nazareth had never visited. The Lord is speaking not only through Paul but also through his contemporaries, for “We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Cor. 5:20). For Paul, ministry includes all that the reigning Christ is doing through his people for the extension of his kingdom.
Have preachers in the church today lost the awesomeness of this truth, that God is acting through them? Such is the authority with which we have been invested. Such is the dignity of our office. God is speaking through us, working through us. That is the significance and the fruitfulness of what we do. Here is a call to humility, for “Neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor. 3:7).
But it is also a powerful antidote to timidity and discouragement, for Christ’s involvement with his spokesmen didn’t end with the New Testament. As we have seen, the command to go and make disciples of all nations is fortified by the promise, “Behold, I am with you always to the end of the age.” “We are”, says Paul, “God’s fellow workers” (1 Cor. 3:9). God is acting through the gospel minister.
3. THE GOSPEL MINISTER IS THE SERVANT OF GOD’S PEOPLE.
He is their example, and inspirer, and shepherd, and teacher, and facilitator. I have been making this point that some are specially called to serve God in the full time ministry of the word and in the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. But Scripture knows nothing of a ‘clergy/laity’ distinction. Since the new Pope has been voted in, and a new Archbishop of Canterbury has been appointed, our news media have been dominated by pictures of ‘clergy.’ They could be nothing less than ‘clergy’ in their religious costumes. On the day of Pentecost, when the Spirit of God filled every disciple, and Peter preached so effectively under God that 3,000 men were converted, then in the Temple in Jerusalem there was no clergy-laity distinction evident in the dress or posture of Peter or the apostles. When the persecution soon broke out against the church and they were scattered we are told that, “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went” (Acts 8:4). All of God’s people, whatever their daily callings might have been, present their bodies to God – their tongues and lips and larynxes – to serve him and save the world. They give their voices to God. We are all engaged in his full-time service. The roots of this concept are found in Exodus chapter nineteen and the 6th verse where the Lord, addressing all his people, declares to every one: “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ Peter takes this reference up in the New Testament and applies it to the Christians he is writing to in what we call today Turkey: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Peter 2:9).
Who are priests today? Every believer, men and women, children and pensioners who serve him — everyone who is loved by Christ: “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father” (Rev. 1:5). As priests, each of us has a holy service to discharge. There is a ministry for every member, as the metaphor of the church as a body makes clear: “We, though many, are one body in Christ . . . Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them” (Rom. 12:5,6). “God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is there are many parts yet one body” (1 Cor. 12:18-20).
This means that a major part of the responsibility of a gospel minister is to equip God’s people to work for their Lord. I don’t go to a conference these days without this being pointed out laboriously by one or two of the speakers, the duties we all have to do edifying, encouraging, inspiring and sanctifying the people. The minister doesn’t do a Christian’s work for him. Far from that! The minister’s task is to facilitate, in other words, to enable Mrs. or Mr. Christian to do much more for himself. It is there in Ephesians four and verses 11 and12, affirming the office of the pastor/teacher as the enabler: “And the Lord gave . . . pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”
In particular I need to keep this clearly in view, because I must constantly resist the temptation of overreacting against contemporary downgrading of the ministerial office. I need constantly to resist the stress on what is called ‘every person ministry, by just emphasizing that there is call to be pastor-preachers and for congregations to show they recognize it by calling men to this office. However important that is there is more to the life of a church than that. We can all see how the office of the preacher is being undervalued and marginalized. Ten theological colleges and seminaries in Wales have closed since I began my ministry, and in such a climate my temptation is to go to the other extreme, and exalt in unwarranted prominence the office of the pastor-preacher because it is being neglected, and so to ignore the biblical pattern of every-member ministry. Some pastors are so insecure that they regard anything as a threat which they themselves don’t do or don’t control. But we have to be clear in our minds that such an approach is unbiblical and stunts the ministry and growth of the church. We need the general call of every Christian to serve God and the specific call to office.
If we were to remember that the gospel minister has a special call to be in the word each day, and preach it to the congregation in its meetings and personally in pastoring individually and enabling the people of God, then that is the way for most blessing and balance to come to a congregation. Ministers would be less stressed and harassed than they are at present. We preachers would liberate our fellow Christians and equip them to go where we cannot go and do what we cannot do. More work would be accomplished. Much of the heat would be taken out of any controversy over the status of the minister, for it would become clear that, far from being a restraint on the gifts of others, the preacher is the means appointed to encourage the development and use of their gifts. Our calling is not to stop anyone doing anything that Christ has entrusted to him or her, but rather to encourage and help others to do more and more for him.
What is the appropriate clothing for the gospel minister? Is it a Genevan gown? Is it a clerical collar? Is it a surplice? When the old pope was resigning then there was a lot of discussion in the press about new fashions for cardinals, what recent popes had been wearing, and the clergy dress shop in Rome was photographed, where the latest styles can be seen on models in the shop window from little white hats to distinctive red shoes. Well, I will tell you what the preacher’s most appropriate clothing is. It is the servant’s apron. The church in Dowlais which my father attended a hundred years ago had men whose lives had been redeemed by grace. Numbers of them worked in the vast tinplate works, and some would come straight from those works when their shifts ended to the prayer meeting, still clothed in their leather aprons, and pray fervently full of love for their Lord. They were mere servants of his. You know the great words of Jesus; “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all; for even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45). The gospel minister is the servant of the people of God.
We pastor; we visit; we know where the trouble is, where people are losing heart, where the doubts are. We go to the hospitals; we write letters to the members when they are overseas. We serve the families; we hang around the church after meetings; we make ourselves accessible. We bring the congregation into our lives sharing with them letters of counsel given and help asked for. The preacher is the servant of the people of God.
There is no detailed outline of a mechanism of calling to this office, but it is quite clear that the Lord does choose some men to be pastor-preachers, and the reality of ‘every-member ministry’ in no way contradicts that fact. God indicates his choice to the men themselves, but the church should also have some peace of mind about that fact. A man will find his mind turning increasingly often to this subject. That will become a bit of a burden to him. He will need to talk about it with sympathetic church leaders. He has a feeling of constraint and longing to do this work. He may need to be assured that he really is equipped with the requisite gifts. The church will acknowledge that he is fit for this work and will support his endeavors and training.
A persuasion of a call is important. There are ministers today in barren spots, tempted to leave the pastoral ministry for other Christian work, who have been kept in it only by the absolute conviction that God had laid his hand on them and he had sent them there to do this for him. He has burned the words into their consciousness: “Woe to me if I don’t preach the gospel!” and, in the final analysis, they found that they didn’t really have a choice. The Head of the church was still commissioning them saying, “You teach them to observe whatever I have commanded you.” That Christ is the same today. That Christ is ever present today. He is the head of preaching, praying and praise; the Supper is his and he instituted baptism. There can be no authority in doing any of those things that does not come at that moment from Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Think of Christ’s own commission to his office. We are told, “So also Christ glorified not himself to be made an high priest; but he that said unto him, ‘Thou art my Son, today have I begotten thee’”, (Hebs. 5:5). Those words were spoken by the Father to the Son. What was necessary to give validity to the office of Christ, is no less necessary to give validity to the office of any pastor or teacher of Christ’s church on earth. We are called of God when the church calls us. God calls. The church calls. And so it goes on year after year. God continues to call. The church continues to call, “Preach to us the whole counsel of God. Speak the message, the good news and the word of Christ. Pastor us by it. That is the present call that keeps us in the office until our time is over, and God makes that plain again, through the church and by his own providence.
I am not arguing for individualism or fanaticism. I am not claiming direct revelation for the prospective minister. But I am saying that God calls individuals into the ministry and he continues to call them to serve him thus, and that such men know that he has called them. There have been many pastoral tragedies, unsuitable men convinced that the Lord was calling them. The church, overwhelmed by the passion of the individual’s conviction, swallows its doubts and accepts these men, only for the fullness of time to show that they were mistaken. Yet such sad exceptions do not call into question the reality that God does call men to the work of pastor-preacher, and he does not call others. And that the validity of his call is made apparent both to the man and to the congregation.
This awareness of a specific individual call is a strength and a motivation throughout the demands of the ministry. We pastor the flock over which, as Paul says, “The Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God” (Acts 20:28), and we have the assurance that he who calls, enables. In fact, the enabling is evidence of the calling. Gospel ministers in the Scriptures were a mixed lot — flawed, limited, often reluctant, occasionally obtuse, each with some personality problem or weakness. Nothing much has changed since then! But behind them and within them and around them is the enabling Lord. Remember how the mighty Paul, overwhelmed with his own weakness and sense of the awesome responsibility, cries out “Who is sufficient for these things?” but then at once provides the answer, “Our sufficiency is from God” (2 Cor. 2:16; 3:5).
24th March 2013 GEOFF THOMAS