Spiritual Ministry

by T. Austin-Sparks

Chapter 1 - The Nature of Spiritual Ministry

Reading: 2 Cor. 1.

The Second Letter to the Corinthians is very largely gathered up into the words at the beginning of chapter 4:

"Therefore seeing we have this ministry..."

As you know, this letter is occupied with the personal manifestation of Christ as being the nature of true ministry. It shows that ministry is really that which is born of personal experience, and not just the impartation of static truth. In a new way this was realised by the Apostle because of a combination of elements which had brought him afresh to an end of himself. As you read these chapters you see that there are, so to speak, parallel columns. On the one side there are the sufferings, and on the other side the fruits of the sufferings.

It is worth our while to take note of these for a moment. Beginning with chapter 1 and taking the suffering side alone we have:

Verse 4: "all our affliction".
Verse 5: "the sufferings of Christ abound unto us".
Verse 6: "we be afflicted".
Verse 8: "our affliction which befell us in Asia", "weighed down exceedingly beyond our power". "We despaired even of life" (the word "despaired" means literally "there seemed to be no way out").
Verse 9: "we had the answer of death within ourselves".
Verse 10: "so great a death".
Chapter 2 verse 4: "much affliction and anguish of heart".
Verse 13: "I had no relief for my spirit" (lit. no easing of).
Chapter 4 verse 7: "vessels of fragile clay".

Then there are all these other statements and words that are so full of meaning: "pressed on every side... perplexed... pursued... smitten down... always bearing about in the body the dying of Jesus"; "We which live are alway delivered unto death for Jesus' sake"; "Our outward man is perishing"; "We that are in this tabernacle do groan being burdened". That is all a list of the sufferings.

Now we turn to the other side, to the fruit of the sufferings:

Chapter 1 verse 4: "Who comforteth us... that we may be able to comfort them which are in any affliction".
Verse 5: "So our comfort also abounded through Christ".
Verse 6: "we be comforted for your comfort".
Verse 9: "that we should trust in God Who raiseth the dead". "Who delivered us out of so great a death".
Chapter 4 verse 7: "the exceeding greatness of the power of God and not of ourselves" (over against "the vessel of fragile clay").
Verse 10: "the life of Jesus manifested in our body".
Verse 16: "our inward man is renewed day by day".
Verse 17: "a more exceeding and eternal weight of glory".

So you have the parallel, the balance, the compensations for the sufferings. That all lies behind "this ministry", and shows what the nature of ministry is. It reinforces the statement made above that ministry is not an impartation of static truth. Ministry is that which is born out of experience.

We are occupied with the matter of ministry, both personal and corporate ministry; for what is true of the individual who is called to this ministry is true of any company of the Lord's people as a collective vessel. Their ministry is the result of personal experience, and the nature of the ministry is the personal manifestation of Christ as born out of personal experience, and that mainly known in suffering.

The Path of True Ministry as Seen in Paul

How close Paul's experience was kept to his teaching! Take the first letter to the Corinthians as a letter of teaching, and then mark how the Apostle was made to base experience on the teaching contained in that letter. For instance, in chapter 13 Paul has spoken of the transcendence, power and victory of Divine love. That chapter is a matchless unfolding of Divine love, and Paul sums it all up in one ultimate statement, "Love never faileth", meaning that love always goes through, comes out triumphant, never falls out on the way. Now read through the second letter and mark how great a demand for this very thing arises in Paul's own life. There are many references to the opposition, the antagonism, the hostility, the hatred of professing Christians in Corinth toward the Apostle. Indeed the letter opens with a reference to what had taken place there. One man at Corinth had taken up an attitude of open and bitter hostility to the Apostle, and the Church there had not taken sides with the Apostle in behalf of the truth. Paul wrote a letter which shamed them, and eventually they held a meeting and by a majority vote decided to discipline this man. That is what caused Paul to write as he did at the opening of this letter. To them he says: If you have forgiven him, so have I in the presence of Christ. Be kind to him, lest he be broken by overmuch sorrow. They had disciplined him, but the whole assembly seems to have been affected by this man at the outset, and many references are made to the things which are said at Corinth against the Apostle. It was said of him that he was a Yea and Nay man. Some of us could enter into Paul's side of that, and perhaps some could enter into the experience of the Corinthians, if we stand on the same ground. Paul had said he was coming to them, and the Lord had not allowed him to go. He had said again that he was coming, and again he had been prevented. Thus it began to be said, Oh, this man says a thing and never does it; he makes a promise and never keeps it! You never can be sure that he will carry out his word. That is what is said when you stand on natural ground. But take your position at the side of Paul. He purposed in the Lord to do something, and found at the last moment that the Lord did not allow him to carry it out, so he became exposed to much criticism. If people have a prejudice against you, or are open to be disaffected, they will pounce upon something like that and use it against you.

A great many other things were there; the letter is a great unveiling of hostility, dislike, prejudice, but, oh, what a letter of love's triumph this second letter is! Love has gone through that, been tested by that; his love for them has been put into the fires of their antagonism and criticism and prejudice, but it is triumphant. It is all very well to write the thirteenth chapter of the first letter, and say, "Love never faileth"; it is quite another thing to go through that test of love in a measure like this and to come out triumphant. Paul's ministry had to be kept abreast of his teaching. "This ministry" is not a statement of glorious truths as words; "this ministry" is a manifestation of Christ that is born out of suffering.

Or again, take chapter 15 of the first letter, that great chapter on death and resurrection. The whole of that long chapter is summed up in one glorious phrase and declaration: "O death, where is thy sting; O grave where is thy victory?" "Death is swallowed up victoriously". That is the declaration. Now with all the zeal and enthusiasm that springs from the consciousness of the truth being the truth, you can proclaim statements like that. The contemplation of a great fact can draw out a very emphatic statement. But wait a moment: come away to Ephesus, and see what Paul has to meet there; mark all this that comes upon him from Corinth, this great anguish of heart, and let us hear what Paul will say after that. "We had the sentence of death in ourselves..." Death is swallowed up victoriously, Paul! "We despaired of life". But, Paul, you said death is swallowed up victoriously! We despaired of life, it seemed there was no way out, we were pressed beyond measure. This is the same man talking, the man who has proclaimed death and the grave to be vanquished. We were pressed beyond our measure, we had the answer of death in ourselves. Ah, but it did not end there; for the Apostle goes on to add, "that we should not trust in ourselves, but upon God who raiseth the dead". Paul, in other words, is but saying here: We proclaimed death as swallowed up victoriously, and then we were plunged into it, and death almost swallowed us up, but what we said has proved true. "God, who raiseth the dead"! He delivered, He doth deliver, we have set our hope on Him that He will yet deliver from so great a death.

Do you see how Paul's experience was kept in touch with his teaching? It is one thing to make statements; it is another thing to go through the experience, to have those statements proved to be true. That is what Paul means by "this ministry".

This ought to be a tremendous comfort to us, and also an explanation and illumination. We should not feel depressed about it. If the ministry of which Paul speaks here is the ministry to which you and I, and the rest of the Lord's people are called, individually and collectively, this is the way of such ministry. There is no royal road to the ministry. The ministry is not a professional thing, not a matter of a set, a class. Ministry is born out of that anguish and suffering in which Christ is known as He can be known in no other way.

At the beginning of his first letter to the Corinthians Paul said that God chose the weak things of this world. It is as though the Lord says: Well, Paul said that you must prove it by experience; and out from so great a death, with new meaning, the Apostle says, "We have this treasure in a vessel of fragile clay". But that consciousness of weakness, that conception of the vessel, is a new conception, a new consciousness, since the time that Paul made the statement in his first letter.

We have said enough to show that true ministry springs from the discovery of Christ in deep places. This ministry, which is the manifestation of Christ, the manysidedness of Christ, the deep secrets of Christ, the wonders and the glories of Christ, the manifestation of Christ, is born of a necessary experience in which Christ, and Christ only, is sufficient. So you see that in all this, and much more, the outcome is an enlarged apprehension of God in Christ, to be manifested by Him in all believers.

Christ the Power and Wisdom of God in the Believer

We have then in this second letter some wonderful intimations and clues as to Christ the expression of God in the believer, so far as Divine intention is concerned. I say, intimations and clues. There we have to start upon a new phase of things, but if we go on into the letter we shall see that we have a whole series of intimations, and with some of these we may be occupied later.

"It is God, that said, Light shall shine out of darkness (that is an intimation, a clue), who shined into our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ". Then Christ is the light of God for a new creation.

Here is another clue, and another intimation. When Moses read the law he put a veil upon his face because of the glory with which it shone, albeit it was a glory which was passing; the people could not bear to look upon him. There is a surpassing glory in the face of Jesus Christ, and when we turn to Him there is no veil, the veil is taken away. This is an intimation that Christ is the glory of a new covenant.

"We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the exceeding greatness of the power should be of God and not of ourselves". This, again is an intimation and a clue. There is little doubt that, in writing of believers in these terms, Paul had in mind Gideon's mighty army, reduced to three hundred, lest Israel should vaunt themselves: that the power should be of God and not of them. What is the treasure? "The light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ... in our hearts". What were the vessels in the hands of Gideon's three hundred? Earthen pitchers and a torch within! They were means of a mighty conquest. Weakness over against all the power of the enemy! What a power it was. The Holy Spirit does not hesitate to give us the measure of the power of the Midianites, and the Amalekites, and all the children of the East. They were like the sand of the sea. Three hundred men triumphed by treasures in earthen vessels. It is the intimation that Christ is the energy of a new kind of conquest over all the power of the enemy. The second letter to the Corinthians is strewn with clues, suggestions, intimations as to what Christ is.

We go thus far in order to bear out what we have just said, that for this ministry in greater power, in greater fulness, Paul had discovered God in Christ in a new way through suffering. All this suffering issued in a new apprehension of God in Christ as the power, and glory, and fulness of ministry. That is ministry. If we aspire to ministry, that is Holy Ghost ministry. It is something more than standing up to preach, and to give addresses, to produce that which has occupied us in the study. This kind of ministry is the personal manifestation of Christ, resulting from an apprehension of Him in deep and dark places. If we aspire to true ministry the Holy Spirit will see to it that by experience we are kept abreast of everything we say. The truth will become a thing inwrought and wrought out.

Thus in this letter the Apostle says, "We believe, therefore we speak". It is but another way of saying, We know, therefore we testify. "Having obtained mercy we faint not..." It is a ministry which, but for the mercy of God, would kill us. Having this ministry, and having obtained mercy, we faint not. The two things go together. It is no small thing to be really in the ministry. It is a costly thing, but then there is the mercy of God, and because of the mercy of God we faint not. And that is another clue, for Gideon's army, the Word says, pursued... "Faint, yet pursuing". Having obtained mercy we faint not.

Is it necessary to say again that this has not to do with a class of people called ministers? We are all called to this ministry. It is not merely preaching, it is a personal manifestation of Christ. To that we are all called.

May the Lord strengthen us unto our ministry.

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