In a previous post, we identified three ways in which “Jesus Christ is the church’s paradigmatic pastor.” From John 4 and 8, we considered that Christ demonstrates pastoral compassion in addressing spiritual needs through addressing felt needs, He wisely exercises authority in His pastoral ministry, and His aim as a pastor is the full harvest of souls. Building on this brief consideration of Jesus as the Paradigm, it may be helpful to outline and assess the Apostle Paul’s pastoral practice as the paradigmatic Reformed pastor (since Christ, being perfect, required no reformation).
The Apostle Paul ministered out of his experience of the grace of God through his lived union with Christ. As one united with (and thus, re-formed by) Christ in his ministry, Paul described and defended his apostolic ministry in 2 Corinthians 4. This chapter expresses the reality of Paul’s union with Christ in both His humiliation and exaltation, described respectively in 2 Cor. 4:10 as “always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus,” and in 2 Cor. 2:14 as “God who always leads us in triumph in Christ.” Paul’s two-part outline of his philosophy of ministry defines what pastoral ministry ought to be like according to Scripture. In other words, a faithfully biblical church’s pastoral ministry ought to reflect the realities of dying with Christ and living to Christ.
12 Characteristic Traits of Paul’s Pastoral Ministry
Paul describes at least twelve characteristics of pastoral ministry in 2 Cor. 4 that help Christians to identify a properly and truly Christian church ministry. First, Paul’s ministry was one of humility. He ministered as one who had “received mercy” (2 Cor. 4:1), and not as one that had somehow earned preeminence in Christ’s church by inherent virtue, skill, or attainment.
Second, Paul’s was a hopeful ministry, for he ministered as one who did “not lose heart” (2 Cor. 4:1, 16). Just as God had granted mercy to Paul, so too did the Spirit of Christ sustain Paul’s hope in pursuing “things above” over pursuing “earthly things” (2 Cor. 2:15; Col. 2:6-7; 3:2).
Third, Paul’s was an open and transparent ministry. Paul and his colleagues “renounced the hidden things of shame,” forsaking “craftiness” and “deceit” (2 Cor. 4:2). This forthrightness was so important to Paul that he emphatically defended himself and his ministry from a position of spiritual transparency. There was no ‘beating around the bush’ or ‘slickness’ about Paul’s gospel ministry.
However, Paul understood that his ministry was under trial. The fourth feature of Paul’s ministry was that it was opposed by “the god of this age” who blinds the minds of those who persist in unbelief (2 Cor. 4:3-4). To combat the triplex enemies of sin, the flesh, and the devil, Paul knew that his ministry had to be one founded on Christ. Thus, the fifth characteristic of his ministry was its unabashed Christocentrism. Paul did not preach a message of his own devising, but rather, he preached “Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your bondservants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:5). This dovetails into the sixth feature of Paul’s ministry, that it was one of service to the church for the sake of Christ (2 Cor. 4:5).
The seventh feature of Paul’s ministry was that it was prosecuted out of a deep self-awareness of his own inadequacy, and in full dependence upon God (2 Cor. 4:7). Thus, it could be as well – in the eighth place – a ministry of abundant life through self-denial pictured as death (2 Cor. 4:8-12).
A ninth feature of Paul’s ministry concerns how he spoke. Paul’s preaching, speaking, and teaching was done on the basis of faith and for the upbuilding of the faith of the saints to whom he was ministering (2 Cor. 4:13). The tenth feature of Paul’s ministry is seen in all his epistles as wedded tightly to the content of his speech; Paul’s ministry was marked by intense gratitude and thanksgiving. In fact, the whole thrust of his ministry was that it “may cause thanksgiving to abound to the glory of God” (2 Cor. 4:15).
The last two features of Paul’s ministry apply the first feature of humility and self-abasement. In the eleventh place, Paul’s ministry was for the sake of the church, and not for his own self-aggrandizement (2 Cor. 4:15). Twelfth and finally, Paul’s ministry was geared for the advancement of God’s grace to and “through the many” (2 Cor. 4:15). These twelve features begin to describe Paul’s philosophy of ministry as one lived out of union with Christ, whose Spirit sustained him during his earthly pilgrimage.
With the Apostle, we should bring these twelve characteristic traits together as we consider the overarching two-part outline of his philosophy of ministry as “dying with” and “living to” Christ.
Dying with and Living to Christ
In union with Christ, Paul was “always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body” (2 Cor. 4:10). The Apostle Paul was a man intensely aware of the difficulty of Christian living and ministry. His was no ‘armchair Christianity.’ Rather, he suffered vigorously for the sake of the gospel and glory of Jesus Christ.
This suffering was no mere byproduct of ministry, reserved for some fictitious ‘champion class’ of Christians. Suffering was and is knit into the warp and woof of Christian living, devotion, and ministry because it is Christ with whom the Christian is united, and it was through suffering that Christ is said to have been “made perfect” (Heb. 2:10). It stands to reason that it is through suffering that the Christian shall be perfected in Christ. Paul encouraged the Philippians that to them “it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake” (Phil. 1:29).
In 2 Cor. 4, the outline of Paul’s ministry reflects the reality of ministry in union with Christ in His death. Paul admitted that his ministry was opposed by earthly and spiritual powers, was prosecuted on the basis of faith when sight was wanting, was performed in a condition of utter personal inadequacy, and was characterized by service to and for the sake of the church.
Paul’s philosophy of ministry describes the reality of Christian ministry in union with Christ. Ultimately, this suffering for the sake of Christ will erupt into triumph, as Paul wrote in Rom. 8:17, “if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together.” In union with Christ, Paul was able to write in exultant thanksgiving, “now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place” (2 Cor. 2:14).
As illustrated by the keynote characteristics of his pastoral ministry, Paul defined this “always triumphing” reality as the constant diffusion of the fragrance of the knowledge of God in Christ throughout every field to which he was called as a pastor. The great resurrection hope which Paul described in 1 Cor. 15 is certainly an indispensable element of Christian triumph in Christ, but so too is the present reality of evangelization, discipleship, and proclamatory ministry of the gospel despite virulent opposition. Paul’s description of his ministry in 2 Cor. 4 reflects both the weighty reality of self-denial and the glorious truth of triumph in the spread of the gospel and glory of Christ in this present evil age.
The constant refrain of “we do not lose heart” (2 Cor. 4:1, 16) captures the duplex nature of Paul’s distinctly re-formed philosophy of pastoral ministry. The faithful Christian, church, or gospel minister will be tempted to lose heart as sufferings, trials, and tribulations rear their ugly heads. However, the faithful Christian, church, or gospel minister will not lose heart, for God invariably sends encouragements, triumphs, and life through the lived experience of union with Christ. Paul’s entire ministry flowed out of the reality of his union with Christ. Thus, his ministry as outlined in 2 Cor. 4 was one of both humiliation and exaltation in union with Christ. In short, Paul’s pastoral ministry and the philosophy undergirding it are distinctly Christian, and distinctively Reformed according to God’s Word in the life of one truly and vitally united to Christ.