Church people generally possess a high view of ministry. They respect and support those who are ordained to gospel service. But outside of the walls of the church, this is not always the case.
Many view ministers as nothing but effeminate and incompetent individuals, sniveling wimps who are unable to hold down a "real job."
But according to Paul, ministers are action heroes. Paul knows that faithful and effective ministry is no "walk in the park." It demands faithful actions and the command of a wide variety of skills along with a great measure of virtue. This combination of skills and virtues cannot be communicated by only metaphor.
So Paul offers three examples of faithful ministry, all drawn from normal life. A faithful minister must be like a single-minded soldier, a self-disciplined and law-abiding athlete, and a hard-working farmer. A faithful minister must exhibit characteristics from all three of these "action figures." One analogy cannot fully communicate the whole picture. A faithful minister is the ultimate action figure - one who integrates the skills, actions, and attitudes of a soldier, athlete and farmer.
A Soldier of the Cross
"Share in suffering like a good soldier of Christ Jesus" (2 Timothy 2:3). A faithful minister is like a soldier in that he or she is willing to suffer ill-treatment for the good of others. The Greek word translated "share in suffering" is sunkakopatheo and is best translated as "suffer hardship with." It is a compound verb that means to be afflicted, to suffer or endure evil, pain, hardship, or troubles along with others.
Soldiers are willing to do this. They enter the military knowing that this is expected of them. None enter military service expecting a picnic. The rigors of Boot Camp are merely the beginning of personal sufferings endured for the welfare of others. Furthermore, a soldier is aware that other soldiers are willing to also endure suffer alongside him or her, that is, to suffer "with" him or her.
Like a good soldier, a faithful minister must expect some measure of ill-treatment. Loyalty to the gospel is sure to bring about opposition and ridicule. A faithful minister constantly challenges assumptions people have about the Christian life and encourages followers to renew their mind through faithful engagement with the sacred scriptures.
Not everyone is happy to be on the receiving end of ministry. Ministering to others is not always a picnic. People will not like you. They will talk about you behind your back. They will consider you to be meddlin' in their life. They will mistake your boldness for arrogance.
Good actions do not necessarily lead to a positive response. Jesus' faithful ministry was not rewarded with applause or a medal, but with jeers and a cross. Paul recognizes that faithful ministers will share the sufferings of Christ. Paul acknowledges that a certain measure of his suffering arises from his call to ministry. He writes, "Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God... For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher, and for this reason I suffer as I do" (2 Timothy 1:8, 11-12). He reminds Timothy, "Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" (2 Timothy 3:12).
Because suffering accompanies faithful ministry, Paul writes, "No one serving in the army gets entangled in everyday affairs; the soldier's aim is to please the enlisting officer" (2 Timothy 2:4). Good soldiers must possess a single-minded dedication to pleasing their commanding officer.
Soldiers possess a singleness of purpose. They "will one thing." Their life revolves around their identity. Their loyalties must not be divided. They seek to please their commanding officer. They recognize that the duties of military service must always take precedence over civilian affairs. A soldier is a soldier 24 hours of the day. He or she doesn't have a 9 to 5 job. Even on leave, he or she is subject to recall at any time.
In the same way, a faithful minister must not be entangled with other affairs so as to be diverted and drawn aside from his or her duty to God and others. Their highest duty is protecting, preserving, and passing on the truth of God. They are not to become "entangled" in secondary matters. With this word, Paul envisages a soldier's weapons tangled in his cloak, impeding his effectiveness.
Like a soldier pleasing his or her commanding officer, a faithful minister must seek to please one master--Christ. The Greek word translated "please" (aresko) means to accommodate one's self to the opinions, desires, and interests of others. In order to please another, our own desires must often be suppressed. A soldier seeks to please his or her commanding officer. In the same way, a Christian should seek to please Christ. The scriptures are clear in this matter:
- Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. (Ephesians 5:10)
- We make it our aim to please him. (2 Corinthians 5:9)
- Lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. (Colossians 1:10)
- Brothers and sisters, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus that, as you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God (as, in fact, you are doing), you should do so more and more. (1 Thessalonians 4:1)
Our desire to please God must be our supreme pursuit. It must have the priority, especially when it is in conflict with pleasing others:
- Am I now seeking human approval, or God's approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Galatians 1:10)
- Just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. (1 Thessalonians 2:4)
A Christian is one who seeks to please God by conforming his or her life to God's will. Our own desires must become subordinate to God's desires. Like a soldier, our lives are not our own; we are another's possession: "Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body" (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
But this metaphor does not encompass the full breadth of a minister's call. A faithful minister is not just like a soldier, but also like an athlete.
An Athlete for the Lord
"And in the case of an athlete, no one is crowned without competing according to the rules" (2 Timothy 2:5). In order to win a competition, athletes must be committed to following specific rules. Every sport has rules - usually a large amount of complex rules that guarantee the integrity of competition. Games are not just a random display of strength of skill. Competition takes place according to specific rules agreed on by all. Those who disregard the rules are cheaters and forfeit their right to win a competition. No athlete, no matter how skilled, was ever "crowned" unless he or she had competed according to the rules. Careful obedience to the rules is required in order to excel in any event or game.
In the same way, a faithful minister must work completely within the bounds of God's law. He or she is committed to submitting to God's commands.
Athletes also understand the absolute necessity of self-discipline for success. Self-discipline is necessary to excel in the games. Discipline is "structured training." An athlete's whole life revolves around their training. Their diet, sleeping habits, and schedule are ordered to maintain tip-top condition. Their intense training includes arduous, repetitive drills. Discipline is a way of life in all things. It must become a delight rather than drudgery in order to maintain a disciplined lifestyle. Their mind and body is focused on one goal: winning the prize.
In the same way, a faithful minister must delight in discipline, knowing the freedom that self-control and discipline brings. Discipline is not drudgery, but a delight to a faithful minister, because of the freedom and strength it gives. Paul writes,
Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable garland, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)
Paul competes with himself. He possesses a healthy fear of his ability to slack off - to fail to compete according to his full potential. He refuses to be bound by his own desires but aspires to excellence.
Effective ministry calls for the single-minded devotion of a soldier, the self-discipline of an athlete, and also the patient endurance of a hard-working farmer.
The Hard-Working Farmer
"It is the farmer who does the work who ought to have the first share of the crops" (2 Timothy 2:6). Farmers know that hard work is expected and endurance is essential for a good harvest. The Greek word translated "work" is kopiao and means to toil intensely, to sweat and strain to the point of exhaustion if necessary. A farmer works hard at inconvenient hours. They wake up early and quit late. They endure cold, heat, rain, and drought. They cannot wait to plow the hard soil at a convenient time. The work does not wait for them. He or she must endure even when exhausted for the sake of the harvest.
Likewise, a faithful minister must exert herself in spiritual labors. Spiritual work demands exertion: "Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard (kopiao) at preaching and teaching" (1 Timothy 5:17). The work must not wait for a convenient time: "Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction." (2 Timothy 4:2).
Farmers are driven to endure because they know that their hard work is ultimately rewarded in the harvest. Without the hope of harvest, the farmer will despair of working. In the same way, a faithful minister is driven by the hope of reward. Paul writes,
- Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58)
- And let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we shall reap if we do not grow weary. (Galatians 6:9)
A farmer spends long hours alone in repetitious and unexciting labor with no one to cheer him on. His exertion is not immediately rewarded. It is in this way that the farmer is different from the soldier and athlete. A soldier experiences the thrill of battle, an athlete the thrill of competing, but the farmer's work is humdrum, often unexciting, tedious, and repetitious. A farmer often works alone with no fellow soldiers to fight with and no team-mates and crowd to cheer him on.
A faithful minister, likewise, must work hard at her tasks, willing to wait long periods before being rewarded. Blessing comes from faithful enduring action. Paul is the ultimate example of faithful endurance.
The blessing of God rested upon the ministry of the apostle Paul in quite exceptional measure. No doubt many explanations of this could be given. But I find myself wondering if we attribute it sufficiently to the zeal and zest, the almost obsessional devotion, with which he gave himself to the work. He gave and did not count the cost; he fought and did not heed the wounds; he toiled and did not seek for rest; he laboured and asked for no reward except the joy of doing his Lord's will. And God prospered his efforts. Again, it is "the hardworking farmer" who gets a good crop.
Significance: Think it Over!
If we hope to be effective ministers, we must integrate Paul's action figures in our lives. We must be singularly dedicated like a good soldier. We must practice law-abiding obedience and self-discipline like a good athlete. We must painstakingly labor with endurance like a good farmer. Without these actions we cannot expect results: "There will be no victory for the soldier unless he gives himself to his soldiering, no wreath for the athlete unless he keeps the rules, and no harvest for the farmer unless he toils at his farming."
These truths must be impressed on our hearts. Paul calls us to "Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in all things" (2 Timothy 2:7). The Greek word translated as "think over" (noeo) means to perceive clearly with the mind, consider carefully, ponder or mull over, to understand. We are to meditate on the significance of Paul's teaching - to chew these truths over and over in order to mine their deep spiritual significance. As you ponder how this applies to your life, the Lord will increase understanding. God gives understanding as we apply ourselves to meditate on these truths.
Note the human-divine dynamic in Paul's final command. Two processes are necessary to obtain spiritual understanding. On the human side, Timothy is to reflect on Paul's teaching and consider its significance in his life. On the divine side, God grants understanding. We consider and God gives understanding. God works through our actions and empowers us to action. This is a gift from God that enables us to practice faithful and effective ministry.
Are you willing...
- To suffer hardship from others in order to please your Master?
- To be disciplined in order to win the prize?
- To labor to the point of exhaustion with endurance in hope of harvest?
Ministry is not for wimps. Ministry demands action heroes. Like soldiers, we "fight the good fight." Like athletes, we "run the race." Like farmers, we endure until the end. Effective ministry will not happen unless we are willing to be the ultimate action hero.
 John R. W. Stott, The Message of 2 Timothy (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 1973), 58.
 Stott, 2 Timothy, 58-59.
© Richard J. Vincent, 2009