It was the custom in Paul's day for the victorious Roman armies to burn sweet-smelling incense along the triumphal route into the city. In the procession were many slaves, captives taken in the war. Some were already condemned to death as offerings to the gods. Others were to be kept as slaves. As these poor creatures sensed the sweet-smelling incense, it became to them symbolic of life or of death.
Paul, that valiant disciple of the Lord Jesus, "bond-slave" whose servitude was self-imposed, brings this custom into comparison with the work of the ministry:
"Thanks be unto God, which always leadeth us in triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest through us the savour of his knowledge in every place. For we are a sweet savour of Christ unto God, in them that are being saved, and in them that are perishing; to the one a savour from death unto death; to the other a savour from life unto life. And who is sufficient for these things?" (2 Cor. 2:14-16, A.R.V.).
God's ministers are compared to a fragrant savor of incense, which is carried to the captives of Satan. Accepted by some, it becomes a savor of life unto life. Rejected by others, it becomes a savor of death unto death.
We are told that "like incense the fragrance of the gospel was to be diffused throughout the world. To those who should accept Christ, the message would be a savor of life unto life; but to those who should persist in unbelief, a savor of death unto death."—The Acts of the Apostles, p. 326. No wonder Paul cried out, "Who is sufficient for these things?"
God has given to the ministers of His remnant church a mighty message, which we call "the third angel's message," a message found in the fourteenth chapter of Revelation. There is no greater work given to man than the spreading of the truths of this message to the ends of the earth. It is the last message of warning and mercy to go to the world prior to doomsday. It is to go to all the world, to every nation, tongue, people, and tribe. It is to be preached and completed in this generation. Christ Himself has given this commission to His church.
It is unfortunate in these last days, days of such great significance in the history of the world, and of Christendom, that some ministers who should be preaching the truths of the third angel's message have turned to preaching philosophical discourses, or short sermons that tickle the ears of their hearers, rather than preaching truths that will prepare a people to meet their God in the judgment.
Well might we ask, "Who is sufficient for these things?" How can a minister know that he is acceptable before God? Notice these words: "Faithfulness in preaching the word, united with a pure, consistent life, can alone make the efforts of ministers acceptable to God and profitable to souls."—Ibid., p. 327.
Perhaps a brief consideration of a few scriptures and quotations from the writings of the Spirit of prophecy might help us to understand more fully the importance and sacredness of our calling as ministers of God.
Paul's admonition to his son in the faith, Timothy, includes the words: "Preach the word. . . . Do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry" (2 Tim. 4:2-5).
Here are three basic principles that undergird the life of every true minister of God. It is not the amount of equipment we may have for evangelistic meetings; not the thousands of dollars we may spend to put on a big effort; not the wonderful pictures on the screen; not the golden-voiced singers we may have to thrill the hearts of the hearers; not our ability to attract crowds, that count altogether. That which indicates proof of our ministry is the conversion of sinners.
So often I have been asked for letters of recommendation, letters of introduction, letters of commendation, for this one or that one. This is a common occurrence in our present world. But what letters of commendation does a minister of the gospel need?
Paul speaks of this in 2 Cor. 3:1, 2. "Do we begin again to commend ourselves? or need we, as some others, epistles of commendation to you, or letters of commendation from you? Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men."
And the inspired commentary on this passage of Scripture says:
"The conversion of sinners and their sanctification through the truth is the strongest proof a minister can have that God has called him to the ministry. The evidence of his apostleship is written upon the hearts of those converted, and is witnessed to by their renewed lives. Christ is formed within, the hope of glory. A minister is greatly strengthened by these seals of his ministry."—The Acts of the Apostles, p. 328.
The ministry is the most honorable calling in which a man may be invited by the Holy Spirit to participate. "Therefore seeing we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we faint not" (2 Cor. 4:1).
"A man can have no greater honor than to be accepted by God as an able minister of the gospel. But those whom the Lord blesses with power and success in His work do not boast. They acknowledge their entire dependence on Him, realizing that of themselves they have no power."—Ibid.
How unfortunate it is to see men boasting of their ability as preachers, or of their powers in ministerial lines. Equally unfortunate is it to see those upon whom the hands of ordination have been laid, ever seeking for some administrative position, as though administration is of higher value in the sight of God than is the ministry. Failure to understand the true worth of ministerial service has ruined more than one promising minister for Christ. Some of these unfortunate experiences that we witness from time to time may be due, to some extent, to the failure to understand what it is that constitutes a call to the ministry.
Called of the Spirit
God's ministers are to be Spirit-called men. It is quite possible that there are men in the ministry who have never felt the call of the Spirit of God. It is possible that some may be called by committees because of their personal charm, or speaking qualities of voice, or other personality qualifications. Perhaps some bright young man just completing his college ministerial training reveals ability in promotional or organizational lines. He may be invited to enter the ministry on this basis.
Again it may be that his scholarship is above that of his fellow students. He is a brilliant young man. Or, it may be that a young man may have "friends" who have "influence." These friends bring "pressures" (gentle ones, of course), and another minister has started on his way. And though these men are thereby given opportunity, they will never make "full proof" of their ministry unless they are guided by an unction of the Holy Spirit.
The true minister is called of God. Paul was "called to this ministry." It is not too difficult to recognize the "true minister." You can easily see in him the marks of the true shepherd of the flock. The evidence of his ministry continues throughout his life. There is no "flash-in-the-pan" success with him. He may not be spectacular in his preaching, or draw huge crowds into the brilliantly lighted arena of a tabernacle, hall, or tent. But follow him through the years, and you will see signs of lasting value, evidences of his faithful ministry.
God's ministers are to be stewards of Christ. "Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God" (1 Cot-. 4:1). "A true minister does the work of the Master."—Ibid., p. 329.
"The heart of the true minister is filled with an intense longing to save souls. Time and strength are spent, toilsome effort is not shunned; for others must hear the truths that brought to his own soul such gladness and peace and joy. The Spirit of Christ rests upon p. 371.
This paragraph contains the key to ministerial success as a steward of the mysteries of God. How can any man upon whom rests the Spirit of Christ be other than faithful? How else can he feel than with an "intense longing to save souls"? No toil will be too hard. No sacrifice too great. The message of truth means all to him, and he is compelled by the Spirit that is within him to do all that he humanly can, because the divine Spirit of Christ rests upon him.
It is highly essential in these days of commercialism and easy money that a minister be careful to avoid entanglements in any business outside his ministry. The temptations to make a quick dollar, to engage in some side line because others do it, touch all of us. Sometimes we envy a fellow worker who, through speculation or commercial dealings of some kind, has made extra money, or acquired what may appear to be more than his normal share of property. The true minister of God will overcome these temptations. Subservience to the call of the god of this world in these things can cause us to be considered failures by the Lord, even though our brethren may continue to accept us.
Some who have labored in the ministry have failed of attaining success because they have not given their undivided interest to the Lord's work. Ministers should have no engrossing interests aside from the great work of leading souls to the Saviour. . . . Ministers cannot do acceptable work for God, and at the same time carry the burden of large personal business enterprises. Such a division of interest dims their spiritual perception. . . .
"The energies of the minister are all needed for his high calling. His best powers belong to God. He should not engage in speculation, or in any other business that would turn him aside from his great work. . . . The minister who is wholly consecrated to God refuses to engage in business that would hinder him from giving himself fully to his sacred calling. He is not striving for earthly honor or riches; his one purpose is to tell others of the Saviour, who gave Himself to bring to human beings the riches of eternal, pp.365, 366.
This inspired counsel will be accepted and heeded by every true minister of the gospel. God will not account any guiltless who, while wearing the robes of sanctity as ministers of the mysteries of God, traffic in the things of this world to the extent that the ministry is held in disrepute and the work of the minister is impaired.
It is essential that we give earnest thought to the highest attainment that can be reached by any minister of Christ. We use the words of Paul to the brethren at Colosse, "Whereof I am made a minister . . . to fulfil the word of God; . . . this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory: whom we preach, warning every man, . . . in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus" (Col. 1:25-28).
There are various methods of presenting the truth of God. The Lord has bestowed upon His church a variety of gifts and all of them are important. No one among us has all the gifts. Nor should any of us despise any gift of the Spirit even though it may seem to be a lesser one, if there is any such thing in God's reckoning of gifts.
In the inspired commentary on the Scripture that has just been quoted, we read:
"These words present before the worker for Christ a high attainment, yet this attainment all can reach who, putting themselves under the control of the great Teacher, learn daily in the school of Christ. The power at God's command is limitless, and the minister who in his great need shuts himself in with the Lord may be assured that he will receive that which will be to his hearers a savor of life unto, pp. 368, 369.
Read this statement again. Think carefully upon the significance of these words. Herein lies further revelation of the secret of abounding success and power in your ministry. God is anxious to bless our efforts, but we stand in our own way through our failure to appropriate His blessings. Our wholehearted surrender to God is essential if we are to be true ministers, stewards of the mysteries of God.
The success, therefore, in our ministry can be summed up in the following passage of Scripture and comments from the writings of the Spirit of prophecy.
"I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live; yet not 1, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal. 2:20).
"As faith thus receives and assimilates the principles of truth, they become a part of the being and the motive power of the life."—The Desire of Ages, p. 391.
"The knowledge of God and of Jesus Christ expressed in character is an exaltation above everything else that is esteemed on earth or in heaven. It is the very highest education. It is the key that opens the portals of the heavenly city. This knowledge it is God's purpose that all who put on Christ shall possess."—Testimonies, vol. 8, p. 317.
This is how we become sufficient for all these things. And so, the call of Jesus to His ministers is that they come up in the mount with Him. We need a clearer vision of Him. We need to have the world around us, with its multitudinous temptations, blotted out. We need to come as close to Jesus as it is possible for human beings on this earth to do. None need be a day's journey from Him. Even now He bids us come up into the mount and see Him in His dazzling and spotless purity.
"To our ministers, physicians, teachers, and all others engaged in any line of service for the Master, I have a message to bear. The Lord bids you to come up higher, to reach a holier standard. You must have an experience much deeper than you have yet even thought of having. Many who are already members of God's great family know little of what it means to behold His glory and to be changed from glory to glory. Many of you have a twilight perception of Christ's excellence, and your souls thrill with joy. You long for a fuller, deeper sense of the Saviour's love. You are unsatisfied. But do not despair. Give to Jesus the heart's best and holiest affections. Treasure every ray of light. Cherish every desire of the soul after God. Give yourselves the culture of spiritual thoughts and holy communings. You have seen but the first rays of the early dawn of His glory. As you follow on to know the Lord, you will know that His going forth is prepared as the morning. 'The path of the righteous is as the dawning light that shineth more and more unto the perfect day.' Proverbs 4:18, A.R.V. Having repented of our sins, confessed them, and found pardon, we are to continue to learn of Christ until we come into the full noontide of a perfect gospel faith."—Testimonies, vol. 8, pp. 317, 318.
May the dear Lord help us all, as ministers of the gospel of Christ, to reach this high standard, and through divine help become sufficient for the work of winning souls for the kingdom of God.