By many accounts, this has been a difficult season for believers in general and pastors in particular. We have experienced as much hardship as we are able to stomach in the past year. Many of us have been physically ill from the virus. Our people too have gotten sick. Some have even died. Churches are closing due to generational attrition, or being forced to shut their doors for too long by authoritarian governments. It appears by some counts that pastors are leaving the pulpit in droves. For many, COVID-19 has brought with it a perfect storm of frustration and opposition. In-fighting among our congregants about masks and social distancing has worn our patience thin. Dynamic social change, political battles, and civil unrest has foisted upon us a bevy of new troubles, each of which demands a pound of flesh from our congregational unity.
It is time to issue a “call for the endurance of the saints” (Rev. 14:12).
Considering the courage of the Apostle Paul provides a refreshing salve to the exhausted soul of the pastor who is reconsidering a new and exciting career in used car sales. Paul’s letters and incredible ministerial endurance provide a model of a pastor-evangelist who had the mettle to continue moving forward despite innumerable obstacles. Here is a man who simply could not be deterred, discouraged, or dissuaded. Like a journeyman cage fighter, Paul lists his battle scars as badges of honor: “As servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities…” (2 Cor. 6:4).
Paul has seen it all. He has endured it all. And still he has not quit and turned in his resignation letter. To whom would the Apostle to the Gentiles give his two-week’s notice anyways? This is the man who has been through “beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger…” (2 Cor. 6:5).
The Corinthian Situation
Things were dire in Corinth in 55 A.D. Having plodded painfully and haltingly throughout Asia Minor by land and across the Mediterranean by way of the sea, Paul planted churches all over the region. This particular church, among the most complex Paul had planted, had required an extraordinary amount of maintenance. 1 Corinthians reads like a catalog of errors, both theological and ethical. There are divisions, instances of sexual immorality, and several significant false teachings. It’s a pastor’s nightmare. In 2 Corinthians, Paul’s reputation with the church had been compromised by an infiltration of false prophets, whom he derisively refers to as the “Super Apostles” (2 Cor. 11:5). Their exact identity is not fully understood by modern scholars. Some hold this group to be a clique of proto-gnostics, and others a variation of the Judaizers who beset the churches of Galatia. Who they were and what they believed can only be discerned through inference and guesswork.
We do know that the so-called Super Apostles came with glowing endorsements in the form of written recommendations (2 Cor. 3:2), and that their focus seems to have been on success, numbers, vitality and other forms of “outward appearance” (2 Cor. 5:12). It seems obvious that they came with rhetorical firepower in terms of their training and speaking abilities (2 Cor. 11:6). But theirs was a ministry of death. Their message, a false gospel. Their power, Satanic. Rip the “S” off of their Super Apostle costumes, and there remains an “F” for false prophets beneath (2 Cor. 11:13). These men had to be confronted, and the Corinthians needed to be fortified in their faith to deal with this issue, or else the church would be broken beyond the point of repair
…by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love…2 Cor. 6:6
Personally, I could not blame Paul if 55 AD was the year that he quit to take up leather work full-time. Open an Etsy shop maybe? Perhaps he should let the church of Corinth finally sink below the line of viability. After all, he could cheer himself with “I gave it my all” sentiments, and call it a day. It would have been so much easier for Paul to admit that circumstances beyond his control did him in. But he didn’t. He pressed on. Pastors are called by divine vocation to a life of ministry, and that mantle cannot be laid aside so easily. We were literally ordained for this. For trouble. A council of elders laid their hands upon us and prayed that we would persevere when trouble came.
And so instead of quitting, Paul drafted yet another letter to the city of Corinth. His fourth appeal to this congregation to rise up in integrity, and deal with their innumerable problems as Christian men, though they were nearly torn asunder between warring leadership parties. Paul would go there himself when able (12:14). He would rise to fight in the spiritual arena again another day with a quill-feather pen in one hand and the Sword of the Spirit in the other.
…by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left…2 Cor. 6:7
Reasons to Keep Going
In chapters five and six of 2 Corinthians, Paul lays down an impressive argument for why he cannot be deterred in his pastoral efforts. Here, he makes three arguments for a sustained ministry. First, Paul argues in 2 Corinthians 5:11-13, that his motives are pure. For starters, he actually loves these people, as hard as that is to believe. He is compelled by the love of Christ. That alone is his spiritual caffeine, causing him to get out of bed in the morning with hopeful aplomb. More than that, he owes a life-debt to the same Christ who redeemed him by dying and rising for his sake. Second, Paul argues convincingly in 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 that his message is pure. In contrast to the message of the Super Apostles, the Apostolic message is the only message that saves. The Gospel wins souls. Paul preached that salvation is the supernatural conversion of the heart, something more like a new creation than a new paint job (5:17). As ambassadors for Christ, the Gospel ministry offers men and women the only hope of being reconciled to a holy God through grace and the forgiveness of sins (5:20). The completed work of Christ in granting righteousness to sinners through imputation by faith (5:21) must be heralded. The message itself is too important to be silenced. This megaphone cannot be set down in good conscience. Third, Paul lists off the innumerable setbacks that he has already endured in 2 Corinthians 6:5-10 that have not stopped him yet. If these things couldn’t drive a stake in his heart, no amount of circumstantial discouragement can. He seems to be invulnerable to the most extreme adversities.
…through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true…2 Cor. 6:8
No Amount of Suffering
In comparing the list of sufferings in 2 Corinthians 6:5-10 to the book of Acts, we can generally show that Paul is not playing some sort of “victim card,” to elicit the pity of the Corinthians. His experiences are easily validated by reading through the sufferings that he endured in the first, second, and third missionary journeys (Acts 13:4-14:26, 15:36-18:17, and 18:23-21:17 respectively). He was dishonored and slandered in Pisidian Antioch. In Lystra they stoned Paul so thoroughly they thought he was dead. He was flogged, placed in the stocks and imprisoned in Philippi. In Thessalonica, he was chased by a mob. He was treated as an impostor in Corinth. The slander continues even now as he writes. He narrowly escaped with his life from a riot in Ephesus.
Most of us have seen some hard times in our lives in recent months, but nothing like this. Yet Paul proceeded from city to city with a constitution of steel, a conscience purified by justifying faith, and an indefatigable resolve to win souls. Paul is unstoppable because the Gospel itself is unstoppable. Though obviously an instrumental part of the growth of first century Christianity—Christ Himself promised Paul that he would be such an instrument of grace (Acts 9:15)—the success or failure of the Kingdom does not rest on Paul’s weathered shoulders alone. Rather, the whole weight of the Kingdom is in the omnipotent hands of Christ. Paul, though a mortal, is empowered by the immortal Holy Spirit, and has learned to be content in all situations.
The Apostle Paul is the Rocky Balboa of evangelists; the Energizer Bunny of missionaries; the whack-a-mole of faithful pastors. Whenever Paul enters a new city, Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger is playing triumphantly somewhere in the distance.
…as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed…2 Cor. 6:9
We Press On
Pastor, perhaps you have had a rough year, but you are not dead yet. As the Teacher says, “a living dog is better than a dead lion” (Ecclesiastes 9:4). And you are the dog of which he speaks. Perhaps you have had a rough series of elders meetings, but you are still alive. You probably didn’t deserve those complaint letters (or at least several of them) but you are still breathing. And just as Paul took a rock to the noggin in Lystra and got up the next day to enter a new city, so too must you get up again and keep going. A lucrative career in insurance sales may seem attractive for the moment, but you have been ordained for more than that alone. You cannot quit right now: not when the church is in such a dire moment in redemption history.
It’s true that your church’s attendance is probably waning, and that you are going to have to face the reality that many of your people are not going to come back. They said they would return in a few weeks. Or when the lockdown ended. Or when a vaccine was available. Or when they received the shots themselves. Or when the pandemic is finally over. But their real motives are known only to God. More than a few were looking for an excuse to leave the Church before COVID anyways, and the pandemic gave them just the excuse they were looking for.
You have work to do, pastor. You cannot quit now. Get up. Dust yourself off. Lick your wounds. You have every spiritual blessing in Christ (Eph. 1:3). Resolve today that you will not continue to use COVID as an excuse to neglect your God-ordained duties as a minister. You have the same Holy Spirit dwelling within you that inspired Paul’s sermon to the philosophers at Athens. The Gospel that you preach is just as powerful to call the elect as that which opened the heart of Lydia (cf. Acts 13:48; 16:14). Get your Bible back out on your desk. You have people that need prayer. Pray for them. You have people that need visits. Visit them. Your strategic plans were ruined for 2020. Draft new ones. The Gospel is too powerful, and the souls of men are too precious to leave off. Paul could not quit despite the incomparable list of his sufferings, and neither can you. This is your hour to persevere and prevail, not to fold and fail. For we press on as men who are,
“sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.”2 Cor. 6:10
Dr. Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Gospel Fellowship PCA, just north of Pittsburgh. He is the author of several books, including Hold Fast the Faith: A Devotional Commentary on the Westminster Confession,Unknown: The Extraordinary Influence of Ordinary Christians and A Theology of Joy: Jonathan Edwards and Eternal Happiness in the Holy Trinity. He is currently writing a book on Edwards’s seventy Resolutions for Hendrickson Publications. His Youtube Channel is filled with content for pastors and those who are interested in Reformed theology.