But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil your ministry.
I had to apologize to Tyson a couple months ago. When the Kentucky snake-handling pastor died of a snake bite, I thought this might be an opportunity to expand the LCMS mission. But alas, the son has taken over where his father left off and even added a touch of fire to the services. Tyson is OK with this disappointment however; he says he prefers sled dogs over snakes any day, so I suspect he will be happy with his placement.
I always find it fascinating, and disturbing, that some people will base a whole religion on one or two verses taken out of a larger, more meaningful context. The end of Mark’s Gospel [16:18] is the only mention of picking up snakes and there are many scholars who think this does not belong to the original text. Bernard Ramm, in The Pattern of Religious Authority, defines a cult as “a religious group which places a secondary need in position of a primary need.” He continues: “Any group which puts its emphasis on health, or mental hygiene, or some religio-political program is cultic. The chief enemies of man are sin and death, and the divine remedy is Jesus Christ crucified and risen from the dead. This is the first witness of the Bible. If the cultists heard the Holy Spirit they would hear this message” (35f). Is it not strange then that a group would focus on serpents and poison and ignore the greater context and the commission to “proclaim the Gospel to the whole creation … and baptize.” That the disciples understood this to be the main aspect of their ministry is clear from the concluding verse: “And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs.” Any signs were by-products of, not substitutes for proclamation. The only account of an apostle surviving a snake bite that I can remember is Paul in Acts 28, when he shook off a viper in Malta and suffered no harm. Ramm is correct when he reminds us that it is too easy to get distracted from a major task by minor ones.
Perhaps it is in this light that the Apostle penned the inspired words to young Timothy to be doing the work of an evangelist. He then goes on to lament how he seems to have been forgotten and deserted, being thankful that Luke is still with him, and then he requests that Mark be brought. It sounds like a strange request at first—if you remember the history between the two. Mark was not one of the 12 nor did he have a special call and personalized training. We cannot be certain he even knew Jesus personally but some scholars feel that he identifies himself as the young man who ran away naked when Jesus was arrested. He may have seen Jesus more frequently and heard him preach, perhaps even witnessed a healing or other miracle. Paul and Barnabas took him along on the first missionary journey, but for some reason he returned home alone. It is evident from Paul’s refusal to let him come along on the second journey, despite Barnabas’s insistence, that Mark had displeased Paul. However, the notation in our text suggests the trouble did not last long. Otherwise we know next to nothing about Mark. He is usually identified with the Mark of Acts 12: when Peter escaped from prison he went to the home of Mark’s mother. Some scholars hold that Mark became the first bishop of Alexandria. Venice claims him as its patron saint (as do notaries). His symbol is the winged lion. The lion is derived from his description of John the Baptist as “a voice of one crying out in the desert” and the wings from Ezekiel’s vision.
A Catholic commentator noted: Mark fulfilled in his life what every Christian is called to do: proclaim to all people the Good News that is the source of salvation. In particular, Mark’s way was by writing. His gospel is the gradual manifestation of a “scandal”: a crucified Messiah.
That Christianity is a “scandal” is one of the obstacles still faced by proclaimers of God’s Word today. No one, by nature, wants a you-can-do-nothing approach to religion. Preferable is a list of 5 to 10 things we can do with an assurance of being eternally rewarded for our best earthly efforts. Gene Veith in our circles has popularized Adolf Koeberle’s observations about the three most common forms of spiritual aspiration: (1) moralism, in which the will seeks to achieve perfect conduct; (2) speculation, in which the mind seeks to achieve perfect understanding, and; (3) mysticism, in which the soul seeks perfect union with God. These three approaches are repeated over and over again in other religions around the world (clearly seen, for example, in Thailand and Cambodia, among Buddhists). Lutherans insist that there is nothing we can do, but that God does literally everything (Veith, Spirituality of the Cross, 18). God became one with us in Christ. Christ kept the moral Law perfectly, for us. Jesus knows “his sheep”. God’s grace invites us to benefit from what He did for us by entering this world, by suffering on the cross, by rising from the dead by His own power. Suffering, crucifixion, death, and resurrection are the themes for Christian proclamation.
As Paul points out here and elsewhere, speaking the truth about sin and forgiveness only by grace, through faith, on account of Christ, may upset and anger people relying on their own righteousness. Some people get really, really upset when told they are wrong—and that their fathers and grandfathers were too. Paul, as a Jew, was perceived as a traitor to his own tradition. On occasion he talked about what Bonheoffer would later label as “the cost of discipleship.” He wrote:
24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. … 31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, he who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. 32 At Damascus, the governor under King Aretas was guarding the city of Damascus in order to seize me, 33 but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall and escaped his hands. (1 Corinthians 11).
That is why the aged Apostle can warn young Timothy about sufferings to be endured and the possibility of also being “poured out as a drink offering.”
It’s easy for Paul to say, “fulfil your ministry.” He had a vision directly from Christ. But for the rest of us it is not always that clear, is it? With recourse to that marvellous source of everything you probably never wanted to know, the internet, one can find a myriad of sermons based on 2 Timothy 4:5 with the title, “Fulfil your ministry.” More disturbing than what appears, is the realization that much of this has been proclaimed and believed and practised. Dr. Ray Ortland of The Gospel Coalition notes:
There is a grandeur to every man’s ministry. It is a massive opportunity not to be diminished but to be exploited every day, to the end. Let all small thoughts of gospel ministry be put out of our minds. The world, and even the church, may not grasp how much is at stake. But we can fill our minds with this awareness: “I have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel (1 Thessalonians 2:4). I don’t minister for his approval; I minister with his approval. I can go for it.”
A sermon from “Executable Outlines” suggests using the first 2/3 of the sermon pondering the question, “Do I have a ministry?” and then provides a rather extensive list of do’s and don’ts to emphasize firstly that “We need to find our ministry,” and then eventually to admonish hearers, “We need to fulfil our ministry.” Suggestions include learning to recognize your spiritual gifts, considering your natural abilities and your opportunities (where age, location, etc. may be factors), experimenting a bit, praying and then, of course, “presenting yourself and your plans for service to the Lord” while remembering Proverbs 16:3 “Commit your work to the LORD, and your plans will be established.” If that does not work, try again because only by fulfilling your ministry will you bless others, glorify God, and be ready to face the Lord at judgment. So “take heart.”
The reality, as Lutherans almost always discover, is that such approaches confuse Law and Gospel, the theologies of glory and of the cross respectively. Whenever we “poor, miserable sinners” are left to determine the ministry to be fulfilled, then we are going to get the wrong end of the stick and end up being untrue to the Word of God. The challenge for a seminary is to help students discern their vocations, and it is not always easy to say to an aspiring servant who claims, “God told me to become a pastor,” “Well, that’s strange, because He told me not to let you become one!”
A common complaint about authentic Christianity is the need for passivity. God’s Word clearly tells us in more than once place, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9 not of works, lest anyone should boast.” (Eph. 2). But we like to boast. It’s in our nature. We like to feel proud of our accomplishments. We do not like to say that we are “by nature sinful and unclean” and have sinned against God in thought, word and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. And we certainly do not get excited or feel happy about confessing, “We justly deserve Your present and eternal punishment” (LSB 151).
The same passivity problem enters into ministry concerns. We dare not overlook Ephesians 2:10: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Martin Luther had lots to say about this in his treatise on good works—a kind of additional commentary on the commandments. The Formula of Concord picks up much of Luther’s thoughts on the matter and comments on this verse in particular in Article IV, Concerning Good Works (par. 7):
First, there is no argument among our people on the following points: that it is God’s will, order and command that believers shall walk in good works; that true good works are not those which people invent for themselves or that take their form according to human tradition but rather are those that God himself has prescribed and commanded in his Word; that true good works are not performed out of our own natural powers, but they are performed when a person is reconciled with God through faith and renewed through the Holy Spirit, or as Paul says, “created” anew in Christ Jesus…. (KW, 575)
Since this is true about such mundane things as daily Christian living, how much truer the principle must be in regards to the ministry of the Holy Word and the Holy Things. It is also in Ephesians that we read of God’s gifts to the Church as including, but not limited to “the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints, for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”
God does the sending and the empowering. We are messengers of His divine mercy and power. Our ministries are normed by faithful adherence to the Word. Or to put it more crassly: we do not decide what we are going to do and then ask God to bless it. Rather, we do what is already revealed in His Word as His will, and confidently expect to see the blessings He chooses to bring into and out of any servant situation.
It is only because of the sure promises of a faithful God and Saviour that Paul can be certain of the crown of righteousness awaiting for him as he leaves this world and enters the next while hearing: “Well done, good and faithful servant …. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:21). May we likewise be blessed to hear such a gracious invitation at the conclusion of our ministries. IJN. Amen.