Stirring Up the Gift of God

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This evening I have been commissioned by the Western Classis of the Reformed Church in the United States to bring a charge to the pastor-elect of this congregation.

Sam, this means that I’m preaching to you. I’ve had the privilege of working with you at Synod over the years and, more recently, in helping you complete your seminary program. You’ve shown yourself to be diligent, faithful and devoted to the cause of Christ. I count it a privilege to bring this word to you on the occasion of your ordination to the gospel ministry.

Although this charge is for the pastor-elect, it’s a message that the congregation also needs to hear. You need to hear it not so that you can shake your finger in his face whenever you think he has failed you (and I’m sure such occasions will eventually arise), but rather to encourage and support your pastor as he labors in your behalf, feeding you the Word of God day by day and week by week.

The work that God has called you to, Sam, is the hardest work of all. You see, we want doctors, lawyers, police and firemen. They come in right handy when we face illnesses, lawsuits, and other threats to life and safety. But it’s different with the ministry. Being the sinners that we are, our natural inclination and propensity is to hate God, despise his Word, and turn our backs on his kindness. And even when we go to the pastor for advice and counsel, we seldom get what we wanted.

It will break your heart, Sam, every time someone leaves the church because they can’t bear something you’ve shown them from Scripture. And it will hurt even more if the one who leaves is a member of your own family. You’ll feel like someone thrust a sword through your heart. But when this happens, it only demonstrates that you’re fulfilling your calling. The Word of God is a two-edged sword. As Paul wrote, For we [i.e., in our capacity as ministers of the gospel] are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish: to the one we are the savour of death unto death; and to the other the savour of life unto life. And who is sufficient for these things? (II Cor. 2:15–16).

We trust God to make us fit for the task and to fulfill his purposes in us. May his name be praised!

Fanning the Flames

Based on the exhortation in our text, many commentators over the years have concluded that Timothy must have been a weak man. Why? Because Paul thought he needed to stir up God’s grace within himself.

But our text doesn’t really say this. The verb translated stir up literally means to fan a flame. The fact that it’s in the present tense emphasizes that this is something that must be done habitually. In other words, Paul exhorted Timothy to stir up a flame that was already burning to burn even hotter. Ministers should never be satisfied with smoldering embers. Letting the fire die out or even die down is not an option. Satan will be busy enough trying to put the fire out. Timothy was to make sure that the fire keeps burning. It’s  also your job to see that it burns hotter and hotter until the glorious day of Christ’s return.

Yet, this is the opposite of what we find in so many ministers today. After they settle into the routine of the pastor’s life, they start to let things slide that they don’t consider to be all that important or necessary. The Biblical languages take too much time. It’s so much easier to open a commentary or two rather than do their own exegesis. They may even grow weary of the countless counseling situations that arise, secretly wondering if the Lord’s people have any real interest in holy things at all. They hide ourselves in the study, excusing their seclusion by claiming that they’re first and foremost teachers of the Word. Of course, there is an element of truth in this, but it too often used as an excuse for not ministering to the flock. Sometimes ministers occupy themselves with all kinds of vain distractions —a multitude of hobbies that fritter away their time, leaving precious little for actual ministry. And in all of this they forget that the Lord Jesus Christ himself commanded his servants to make disciples of all the nations.

Timothy’s situation was even more challenging than the temptations we normally face. Have you ever noticed that Paul seemed to thrive on putting him in the hardest predicaments? He sent him to Thessalonica, where the Jews had taken such a dislike to the gospel that they persecuted Paul from city to city. Later, Paul sent Timothy to Corinth. Of all the churches mentioned in the New Testament none presented greater pastoral challenges than this one. It had a party mentality — some followed Paul, others Peter or Apollos — sexual perversity, Christians suing one another in civil courts, abuses of the Lord’s Supper, as well as a top-heavy and misguided emphasis on miraculous gifts. It’s would be any pastor’s nightmare to be called to a church like this.

The pressure of these kinds of ministry situations had worn Timothy down. But look at Paul’s exhortation. He didn’t say, “That’s too bad, Timothy. It’s obvious that God never really intended to start churches in these places. Trying to plant churches in the face of such resistance is just too hard.” No, he told Timothy to do even more than he had been doing. He was to stir up the flame, to rekindle his zeal for the ministry of the gospel. In short, he was to keep the gift active and working.

Paul instructed Timothy to stir up the gift of God. What gift did he have in mind? Christ’s death on the cross for our sins was a gift — the most wonderful gift of all, but his work was finished long ago. That’s not the gift that Paul meant. No, the gift that Timothy was to rekindle was given to him in conjunction with his ordination to the ministry. That’s what Paul wrote in verse 6: Wherefore I put thee in remembrance that thou stir up the gift of God, which is in thee by the putting on of my hands. He mentioned the same gift in his first epistle to Timothy. There he wrote, Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery (I Tim. 4:14). In other words, Timothy was to stir up his ordination.

In his comments on this verse, Calvin notes a little bit of a problem here. If the gifts necessary for the ministry are conferred at ordination, how is it possible to elect a man to office? His election presupposes that he already has the gifts that will not actually be given to him until later.

Of course, Calvin was addressing a Roman Catholic understanding of ordination, which teaches that in the sacrament of holy orders the outward laying on of hands actually confers an inward and spiritual grace upon the man being ordained. He rejected this view, insisting instead that God is just as sovereign in the administration of gifts to ministers as he is in the administration of life to sinners. He further observed that, since ordination is often the result of God’s people praying for a new pastor, ordination tends to bring an increase of those divine gifts that the individual already had.

What Calvin wrote so long ago is good, but we need to say just a little more. The one thing that ordination does confer is the authority of Jesus Christ. It authorizes the man who is ordained to do the work of a shepherd of Christ’s sheep — to preach the Word of God. The personal qualifications that Paul listed in I Timothy 3 must already be present and clearly discernible long before the man is ever elected to office; his ordination empowers him to discharge the duties of his sacred calling. Never forget, Sam, that your sermons are not mere editorials. To the degree that your preaching reflects Scripture, your sermons are God’s Word to the congregation. And as a minister, you will also have authority to administer the sacraments, bless the congregation in God’s name, rebuke the wayward and encourage the penitent.

The power to do these things is not intrinsic to you as a person. Rather, it is derived from the Word of God itself, and the authority of Scripture comes from its author, the Lord Jesus Christ. Note what Paul wrote beginning with verse 8: Be not thou therefore ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me his prisoner: but be thou partaker of the afflictions of the gospel according to the power of God; who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began, but is now made manifest by the appearing of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel: whereunto I am appointed a preacher, and an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles (II Tim. 1:8–11).

You see, brother, this is how you should view your ministry!

The Nature of God’s Gift

In verse 7 Paul zeroes in on this gift that Timothy was to stir up. It’s a gift that has everything to do with spirit.

But what spirit did Paul have in mind? Some translations and commentaries capitalize spirit, i.e., they take it as a reference to the Holy Spirit. God gives his Spirit to ministers. Thus, Paul reminded Timothy that the Holy Spirit does not make Christ’s ministers cowardly or timid, but rather imparts to them power, love and a sound mind. Others understand spirit in verse 7 as the chief attitude of the human soul after the Holy Spirit has showered a man with ministerial gifts. The gift, according to this view, is the power, love and soundness of mind. Since a pastor’s spiritual attitude is, if he has truly been called by Christ to preach the gospel, the result of the Spirit of Christ working within him, the difference between these two views is minimal. I tend to prefer the former view, and the reasons for that will become apparent as I proceed.

The first thing Paul wrote about the Spirit is that he is not a spirit of fear. The word translated fear here is not the usual word for fear. In fact, it would be better translated as abject cowardice. It’s a cowardice that prevents a man from fulfilling his duties. In the fourth century BC, Aristophanes reported that a man could be criminally prosecuted in the civil courts for this kind of cowardice. Cowardice in a citizen is contrary to the best interest of the state. It’s also against God’s interest. That’s why God warned the prophet Jeremiah not to give in to it. He said, Be not afraid of their faces: for I am with thee to deliver thee, saith the LORD (Jer. 1:8).

This kind of fear can easily enter the heart of a minister, who is, after all, made of flesh and blood like all other men. Being sinners, we want others to think well of us. We want to be liked and respected. But we also know that preaching the gospel will make us look like backwoods buffoons to most of the world. They’ll say we’re outdated, unscientific, superstitious, uneducated, and a lot worse.

Thankfully, the Lord not only warned Jeremiah to beware of cowardice, he also gives his ministers courage and strength. Our text says that God gives his servants a Spirit of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. Because the God of all wisdom and might prospers the labors of his ministers, there is no reason to fear anything.

The meaning of power in Paul’s statement is self-evident. The Holy Spirit, being the third person of the Trinity, manifests his power in all that he does. He specifically manifests his power in the preaching of the gospel, i.e., he uses our preaching to effectuate his purposes. We have to understand, though, that his purposes are not always ours. When Peter preached on Pentecost in Acts 2, those who heard were pricked in their heart and cried out for mercy (v. 37). But when Stephen gave his glorious testimony to God’s covenant faithfulness a few chapters later, the Jews were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth (Acts 7:54). They hated his message so much that they killed him for it. Yet, both responses were ordained by God. How do we know this? It’s because God himself says, So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it (Isa. 55:11).

Sam, as a minister of the gospel, your job is to be faithful to your commission to preach the Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit will work through your preaching to deliver his people from sin and misery, and to harden those who have no part in Christ. You have to accept the fact that your preaching will accomplish both.

Next comes love. Love is the motivation that lies behind faithfulness. Scripture admonishes us to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). Love for God and love for man demands that we do so. Yet, there are so many times in the ministry where it would be easy to sugarcoat what we know we should say so that someone will not take offense at us. When you’re tempted to do so, remember this: lies and half-truths are not the fruit of love, but of fear. Jesus prayed, Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth (John 17:17). Love requires you to speak the truth because you know that the truth is the only thing that will help. The Spirit of God doesn’t bless lies and half-truths. If you really love the people, you will always speak the truth as it is in the Lord Jesus Christ.

The sound mind that Paul refers to can be best translated as sober judgment. It indicates that the minister will be self-controlled and disciplined in his assessment of situations — both in his own life and in the lives of those committed to his care.

More is involved in this that what we often refer to as “common sense.” Common sense, of course, is really a misnomer because nothing is less common than sense. To the contrary, what Timothy needed was a composure of spirit that can bear any infirmity without being sidetracked from duty. It’s the opposite of a feeble mind that is easily frightened by the least opposition.

The gospel ministry demands sober judgment. We deal with the souls of men. Our job is to teach God’s people to apply the eternal truths of his Word to their lives. This is far more important than making silicon chips in a computer factory or designing the next cell phone technology. It’s more significant than who wins the nomination of the Democratic party or, for that matter, who the next president will be. It will have a more lasting impact than any of the justices of the Supreme Court. Through his ministers, the Lord Jesus Christ builds his church, and his church will endure long after all these other things have come and gone.

Sam, if you enter the ministry and do not draw your power, love and soundness of mind from the Spirit of God, you’ll make a lot of noise but you’ll be ineffective as a soldier of Christ. The church will not grow. Lives will become more and more enslaved to sin. Brother, pray daily for the Spirit’s grace. Encourage the people in the church to pray for you and for each other. Show them the grace and mercy of our God by example.

Now, before we leave this subject, we need to look at two questions that Christians sometimes ask.

The first question has to do with miracles. The word translated gift in verse 6 is χάρισμα, which sometimes refers to miraculous gifts. So the question is, Wouldn’t it be that far more glorious if the Lord confirmed Timothy’s ministry, and the ministry of all other preachers as well, with great displays of supernatural works? Though it might seem so, the answer is NO! For one thing, God gives his gifts according to his own will (I Cor. 12:11). He chose to give Timothy the Spirit unto power, love and a sound mind, and not for healings and speaking in unknown tongues. Who are we to tell God what would work better? And further, it’s really a greater demonstration of God’s power to use things that the world considers insignificant or even stupid to advance his kingdom (I Cor. 1:24–29). We expect the kings of the world to use their most powerful weapons and best trained armies to win battles. But the Lord wins by raising up a ragtag band of misfits under men like Gideon and David. He builds his kingdom through the labors of one who was condemned by this world’s judges and crucified for the sins of others. And he is pleased by the simple preaching of the gospel to extend that kingdom throughout the world and into the hearts of his people.

The second question concerns the fact of the gift given to Timothy. If ordination really confers the gifts of power, love and a sound mind, why do so many ministers lack these things? Some pastors are real duds in the pulpit. They lack enthusiasm, conviction and earnestness. Others seem to care little for the flock and let the sheep run wild. Still others are destitute of sober judgment. Ministers are sometimes the most foolish people of all. Why is this?

Well, we have to pay attention to what Paul actually wrote. The gift that Tim­­­­­­othy received at his ordination was not power, love and a sound mind. These things were secondary. The primary gift was the Spirit of God. But didn’t Timothy already have the Holy Spirit? Of course he did; otherwise, he could not have believed (I Cor. 12:3). But salvation is not the only work of the Spirit. He also equips men for the ministry. In the Old Testament we often read of the Spirit coming upon this one or that one to equip them for various task — governing, prophesying, etc. (Num. 11:17; Judg. 3:10; 11:29; 14:6; I Sam. 10:6, 9–10). So, the gift was the Spirit. Power, love and a sound mind were given to Timothy only as the Spirit of God saw fit.

This means that ministers cannot take these gifts for granted. We cannot assume that that the Spirit’s power, love and right judgment will always be manifested in what we do just because we are ministers. If this were so, Paul would not have found it necessary to remind Timothy to stir up this gift. He would not have told him to call out the Spirit to rescue him from his own sin, shortsightedness and folly, so that his work glorifies the crucified and risen Savior.

Sam, your greatest challenge in the ministry is to stir up the fires of God’s gift. Give yourself to it entirely, brother.

Be Not Ashamed of the Gospel

Verse 8 concludes with a solemn reminder to Timothy not to be ashamed of the Lord’s testimony. There are several points to be made here, which I have time to lay out only briefly.

First, remember that we are stewards of the Lord’s testimony. It’s his message, not ours. He sent us to proclaim it. There is nothing to be ashamed of in that. Nor should we be ashamed of others who bear that testimony faithfully even unto death. It’s a glorious testimony. It’s the message of divine grace to condemned and ruined sinners. Nothing could be more wonderful.

Second, the reason that Paul encouraged Timothy not to be ashamed of the gospel is that Paul was in prison awaiting his own condemnation. He knew where things were headed. He didn’t want Timothy to be overwhelmed by grief for his father in the faith.

And third, there is also the very real possibility that Paul envisioned the day when Timothy himself would be arrested for the faith. If bearing Paul’s execution were challenging, facing his own would be even more so. The apostle wanted his spiritual son to be prepared for that day.

How would Timothy prepare himself and others for these challenges? By stirring up the gift of God. By preaching the unsearchable wisdom of God.

Sam, the words that I challenge you with today were written by Paul to his younger colleague almost two thousand years ago. They’re just as necessary today. God still saves his people the same way that he did then. He still advances his kingdom by the simple, unadorned preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He still uses our suffering to bring glory and honor to his holy name.

I, therefore, by the authority of the Word of God, put you in remembrance to stir up the gift that is given to you in ordination. The ministry is not an easy job, and anyone who enters it with the mistaken notion that it’s for pansies, is destined for failure, but God not only calls you to do the work, he also equips you for it. Beg God to give you more and more of his Spirit every day. Cry out for his mercy.

And brother, may God add his blessing to your service! Amen.

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