Monday’s Column: Neal At The Cross
It’s hard to miss the unique tone of 2 Corinthians, a letter full of self-disclosure and self-defense and written in such an intimate way. Paul’s apostleship has been questioned and his extensive work with the Corinthians undermined. But, he was willing to “spend and be spent” for them (12:15). A man who has given so much for the cause of Christ chooses not to boast, but to humble himself in an effort to persuade and encourage these brethren in their spiritual progress.
Due to the “surpassing greatness of the revelations” (7) Paul had received (1-6), he was given a “thorn in the flesh.” It’s useless to speculate about what this specific “thorn” was–poor eyesight, physical pain from being stoned at Lystra, some unspecified temptation, etc. Perhaps it is better for us, not knowing exactly what it was, since many of us as Christians may have to wrestle a thorn in our own flesh. It’s interesting to note how Paul describes it: “humbling” (to keep me from exalting myself), “Satanic” (a messenger of Satan), “tormenting,” “persistent” (8), “perfecting” (9), and “empowering” (10). Is there some physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual struggle in your life that you might describe in some or all of these ways? Perhaps we’re quick to identify the negative aspects, but what about the potential positives that can come out of it? It can perfect and empower us to live a better Christian life and make us content with reverses suffered “for Christ’s sake” and say, with Paul, “when I am weak, then I am strong” (10).
Paul returns to a theme he has touched on several times throughout the letter (5:13; 11:16-19; 12:6). He resorted to defending his motives, position, decisions, and authority against the aforementioned charges. But, Paul points out that this was more for their “upbuilding” than for his own defense (19). He’s not some insecure preacher or missionary whose feelings have been hurt by some perceived slight; he’s fighting for the hearts and souls of relatively new Christians influenced by the culture and false teachers. He wants them to understand that neither he or his co-workers, like Titus, have taken advantage of them. They have loved and served the Corinthians, willing to bear insults, condescension, and rejection in order to help them be saved. As preaching is called “foolishness” (1 Cor. 1:21), those who preach and teach it must be willing to be thought fools for Christ.
It’s hard to find a man more courageous than Paul. What did he fear? First, he feared failure. The time and the teaching he had done would be wasted, if they were given over to “strife, jealousy, angry tempers, disputes, slanders, gossip, arrogance, disturbances” (20). Read through the two letters Paul wrote to them and notice how he addresses all these matters. Second, he feared emotional trauma (21). His mourning over their past sins would be compounded if they had not repented. Neither of these fears was irrational. Have you ever invested a lot of time, energy, and emotion into someone only to see them teetering on the ledge of apostasy and unfaithfulness?
God wants and needs faithful Christians who care about the church. He needs us to fully invest ourselves, to “spend and be spent” for others. The great news (and Paul not only understood this; He wrote about it) is that God gives strength for our weakness, wisdom for our folly, and courage for our fear. He will help pull us out of such figurative valleys as we hold onto His capable hands. Let us do our part and devote ourselves to one another.
Tuesday’s Column: “Dale Mail”
(As Dale’s wife, Janelle, is in the hospital, I am “pinch-hitting” for him)
Of course, we know that preachers are people but sometimes some may have a picture that preachers have super-spiritual abilities when tempted or troubled or that preachers don’t face the same challenges everyone else does. As one of my dearest friends, a preacher, is in a severe health crisis as I type this, he wasn’t insulated from illness more than a non-preacher would be. His wife, children, & other family are experiencing what every family does in these moments.
Paul reverses focus from Corinth (chapters eight and nine) to himself in what we identify as chapter ten. His words serve as a good reminder, first for preachers themselves but also for others who view the preacher. What important truths does Paul reveal here?
PREACHERS WONDER HOW THEY ARE COMING ACROSS (1-2)
Paul sought to urge them with Christ’s meekness and gentleness, but he appears to wonder if that was how they perceived him (1). He was concerned about what tone he would have to take when he saw them, between having some unnamed critics and risking his relationship with the church as a whole (2). While some preachers appear to relish the rebuke and scold approach, they are a distinct minority. Yet, every preacher labors under a divine order to “not shrink from declaring…anything…profitable” (Acts 20:20) and “not shrink from declaring…the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). That includes some challenging subjects, and preachers want to be faithful to that while obeying Paul’s instructions to be kind rather than quarrelsome, correcting with gentleness (2 Tim. 2:24-25).
PREACHERS ARE AT WAR WITH THE DEVIL (3-6)
I know preachers who served in the military, and they no doubt have greater personal appreciation for Paul’s military metaphor. Our warfare is not against the flesh, but our weapons mighty before God (3-4). Part of our work is destructive (4-5) and aggressive (5-6). There is a readiness and activeness apart of this work (5-6). We are not at war with members or other preachers. Paul will say in verse eight that his God-given work was for building them up and not tearing them down (8). But, when we stand against the devil, we know that we may have to stand against those who are ignorant of his schemes (2:11) and led astray by his craftiness (11:3). Yet, we should never relish this part of our work!
PREACHERS WANT TO BE UNDERSTOOD & ACCEPTED (7-11)
Paul knew what his critics said about him. They attacked not only his “preaching style” (cf. 11:6) but even his appearance (10). But, Paul hoped his writing and his words would help these brethren see his heart and better understand where he was coming from and who he was trying to be. I think the vast majority of preachers want that same thing. Each of us has plenty of quirks and flaws, in style and even personality, that become crosses we bear. However, our confidence is that most brethren are so charitable and can see past those impediments (4:7) and allow God to work through our imperfections to his glory.
PREACHERS WILL BE JUDGED AGAINST WHAT IS RIGHT, NOT
AGAINST OTHER PREACHERS OR CHRISTIANS (12-18)
It is apparently an ancient practice for preachers to measure their own success by what others have accomplished. Who’s had more baptisms, speaking engagements, local church growth, debates, books and articles published, recognition, etc.? It sounds pretty petty when read in print, doesn’t it? How much does God care about that?
Paul writes, “We are not so bold to class or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves; but when they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are without understanding” (12). “But he who boasts is to boast in the Lord (Jer. 9:24; he also quotes this in 1 Cor. 1:31). For it is not he who commends himself that is approved, but he whom the Lord commends” (17-18). Let that resonate and sink down into my heart. God is the only measuring stick that matters. Our consuming obsession must be with being good stewards of the opportunities He puts in our laps (13).
Most preachers do not enter preaching for financial gain, fame and glory, or as an outlet for some frustration. We love the church, love God, love the lost, and love His Word. But, it is easy for anyone to lose their way or forget their original intentions. After all, we have our own struggles in the flesh and deal with our own humanity (12:7; Rom. 7:14ff). Some of God’s people may need the reminder of 2 Corinthians 10, and even more preachers may need it. Thank God for His wisdom, who was “pleased…through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21).
My dad was holding a gospel meeting somewhere in the Carolinas and he asked me to preach the Sunday evening sermon of the week he was gone. It was April 12, 1987, and I was a Junior at Bradwell Institute (high school) in Hinesville, Georgia. He gave me one of his sermons and I basically, with little change, got up and preached it. I remember being scared out of my mind. I had no formal training (which is obvious from the grammar and pronunciation). Afterward, the congregation flooded me with compliments, which says everything about them and nothing about my abilities. But, it encouraged me. It helped solidify my desire to preach and became the foundation for my willingness to go preach around the area over the next year-plus (preaching in such places as Glennville, Jesup, and Brunswick, GA). It led me to choose Faulkner University, to major in Bible and meet great preachers and teachers like Wendell Winkler, Ken Randolph, Carl Cheatham, Leonard Johnson, Eris Benson, Donnie Hilliard, and others. My family led me to believe that gospel preaching was an honorable, important occupation. So did the Hinesville church of Christ, on that occasion and subsequent ones. So did brethren in those places where I filled in.
What an important lesson for families and congregations today! Paul asks some questions of eternal consequence: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, “HOW BEAUTIFUL ARE THE FEET OF THOSE WHO BRING GOOD NEWS OF GOOD THINGS!” (Romans 10:14-15). I pray that more adults will send a clear message to young men: preaching is important, respectable, and valuable! It should be considered as an option exercised by normal and even talented and intelligent individuals.
We’ve been engaged in full-time ministry for 28-plus years, and it has blessed our lives tremendously! It’s thrilling to watch our three sons giving themselves to that life, too. Let’s send more preachers!
(It’s hard for me to listen to, but it should encourage anyone who says, “I don’t have any talent for preaching!”)
I’ve never known a day when I didn’t live in a “preacher’s home.” “Preacher’s homes” are very much like every other home–problems, inside jokes, traditions, hobbies and interests, sin, laughter–except the chosen profession of the father is to serve either full-time or part-time as a proclaimer of God’s Word. At times, the home I grew up in was made of figurative glass, meaning I was occasionally subjected to unfair favoritism and criticism. Kathy, also a lifetime resident of a “preacher’s home,” knows that feeling, too. Then, we subjected our sons to the exact same thing!
Whenever we are asked about what it is like to live this unique life (and lifestyle), different words would be appropriate:
- Challenging–There can be elevated expectations and unrealistic assumptions about the preacher’s personal life, marriage, parenting, and the like. What Shakespeare’s Jewish character says of his people in the “Merchant of Venice” applies: “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?” Life’s pressures and temptations visit our homes, too.
- Lonely–Occasionally, we feel alone and stand alone because of the message we preach. Usually, it’s not others who make us feel this way, but an innate part of the life.
- Ordinary–Most preachers probably love to hear church members and those in the community say, “You’re just an ordinary person with an ordinary life.” To be genuine and real is, in my view, a worthy aim. See the opening paragraph.
But, please understand that the most fitting, usual words used to describe the life in preaching are positive, superlative words and phrases–“important,” “exciting,” “fulfilling,” “full,” “rewarding,” “humbling,” “meaningful,”and “uplifting.” Yesterday, we said “so long” to one of God’s greatest churches as we prepare to move to work with another one. I asked Kathy to describe a one-word assessment that best described how she felt in light of the generous words and acts from our spiritual family throughout the day. She used words like “Overwhelmed,” “grateful,” and “touched.” But then, scanning her brilliant mind as if to find that perfect summary word (as she usually does), she simply said, “Blessed.”
We’ve been blessed by a lifetime of living the “preacher life.” Blessed by 27 years of full-time preaching. Blessed by 13 years of preaching at Bear Valley. Blessed by the opportunity to preach in this “next chapter” of life at Lehman Avenue. Blessed, as cracked pots (2 Cor. 4:7), to be used by the Master Potter. Far from a perfect life, it is certainly a blessed life.
I write this as someone who has spent his entire life in a preacher’s home. I grew up a preacher’s kid, whose dad was fired twice (once for baptizing a black woman and later for standing against the “New Hermeneutic”). I have been a full-time preacher for nearly thirty years myself. Now, my sons are devoting their lives full-time to preaching. To an extent, our family’s lives have revolved around preaching. Have there been hurts, disappointments, and occasions of mistreatment? Certainly. Of course, plumbers, lawyers, accountants, engineers, and builders will tell you the same. But, we work with Christians, who should know better? That’s true, but they are still humans constantly struggling with the battle of self.
My dad has always spoken of the value and blessing of the church, even when dealing with personal hurts. He loves the Lord and His church. As we grew up in the home, he taught us to have a high esteem for the precious bride of Christ. In college, I had one teacher who especially counseled us to look at the church–and the people who make it up–with hopeful, optimistic eyes. We generally find what we are looking for. If we are looking for injustices, offenses, and disappointments, we’ll see an endless supply of it whether we’re looking at elders, deacons, long-time members, or new or weak Christians. If we can view the foibles of others with patience, compassion, and empathy, we are likely to help each other grow and transform. We will definitely steer away from an “us versus them” mentality.
If you are in full-time ministry for any length of time, you will have some stories to tell. Some will be full of joy and excitement. Share these generously. They will encourage and edify. Some will be unbelievable, but not in a good way. Use wisdom and discretion about how, who and if you tell those. What are we hoping to accomplish by such sharing?
Preaching is not lucrative business. It’s not paradise on earth. It’s not easy and not everyone can (or should) do it. But, it’s the greatest work in the world! It constantly impacts eternity in seen and unseen ways, in a way that perhaps nothing else can match. There will be some lumps and bumps. Ask Paul (2 Cor. 11:23ff). But, listen to Paul, too. In prison, he wrote of rejoicing about preaching despite its various pitfalls (Phil. 1:14-24). Some seem bitter about how they have been treated in preaching, and I hope they can work through it. But, I love this life so much, and I just can’t share their bitterness!
Recently, a young woman present to hear me speak in Kentucky asked me if I was related to a “Neal Pollard” who preached in Missouri in the 1960s. She had just attended her father’s funeral, and in going through his things after his death she found his baptismal certificate. I was elated to hear these details. Her dad and his mother, her grandmother, were baptized on October 13, 1963, by a young Freed-Hardeman student. This young man who was baptized would go on to serve for many years as an elder in the Lord’s church. Later that night, I called my dad and found out that Charles Eddy was one of 15 people who was baptized when he preached his “tryout” sermon at Kewanee. He had only preached four times in his life and this was his only sermon at that point. It was on the judgment and entitled, “What Will The End Be?” He had no idea what had happened with any of these men and women he baptized when only 19 years old. That was 55 years ago.
I have seen my dad go through some trials as a gospel preacher. There have even been times when he has been mistreated, but he has faithfully preached the gospel for well over half a century. In that time, he has done countless Bible studies, counseled Christians and non-Christians over literally tens of thousands of hours, ministered to young and old, healthy and sick, preached “in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2) and even occasionally “endured hardship” while fulfilling his ministry (2 Tim. 4:5). He is a man of great faith and prayer, but I’ve seen him discouraged. He has wondered if his efforts mattered very much. That is often a side-effect of service. But, I reveled to hear his excitement as we relived that memorable day and talked about that first work–of course, he was hired after having 15 baptisms in his “tryout” sermon! Dad also has done local work in Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, West Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia for those five-plus decades. Now that he’s retired, he still preaches every week for the church in Andrews, North Carolina. At 74-years-old, he’s still studying with and baptizing people and helping to build the faith of all different kinds of people. My dad has always been very evangelistic, but I don’t know how many have been baptized under the influence of his preaching. But, he’s also helped so many stay faithful and encouraged their growth and development. Occasionally, I still get to hear from them in person or through social media.
There are so many men through the years who have labored, like my dad, in anonymity–not considered “big names in the brotherhood.” Yet, many, many people will be in heaven because of their work. May every one, including but not limited to preachers, be encouraged in doing the Lord’s great work! “But as for you, brethren, do not grow weary of doing good” (2 Th. 3:13).
Devoting himself to a theme of godliness in writing his spiritual son, Timothy, Paul writes to encourage him to teach godliness to people who enjoy financial prosperity (1 Tim. 6:3-10, 17-19). Part of his instruction is to point rich Christians (the case can easily be made that American Christians qualify as this in nearly all instances and many preachers in foreign lands on U.S. support do, too, among their fellow natives) to where the truest treasures lay. Along with encouraging righteous behavior, Paul points to God. He gives life to all things (13). Paul also points to Christ Jesus, who is faithful (14) and who is coming again (14) to give “life indeed” in “the future” (19). Certainly, as Christ is divine, this picture describes Him, though it is obvious this is a portrait of God. He depicts God as:
- Privileged—“Blessed” (15)
- Particular—“Only” (15); “Alone” (16)
- Predominant—“Sovereign” (15)
- Preeminent—“King of kings and Lord of lords” (15); “Whom no man has seen or can see” (16)
- Possessor—“Possesses immortality” (16)
- Phenomenal—“Dwells in unapproachable light” (16)
- Praiseworthy—“To Him be honor and eternal dominion!” (16)
Why would Paul remind a preacher (or have a preacher remind Christians) about who God is? As we see in the second letter to this young man, motivation is vital! What keeps me serving God when life is difficult? When the world around me ignores Him, mocks Him, rebels against Him, blasphemes Him, and dismisses Him, I need to serve and glorify Him. What will help me do that? I need to see Him for what He truly is! So Paul pulls out a series of superlatives to drive home the point, “How great is our God!”
In a world full of ungodliness, of “worldly and empty chatter and the opposing arguments of what is falsely called ‘knowledge’” (20), we must be on “guard.” Nothing clarifies the task better than intently focusing on the nature of God. He provides (1:4), He is (1:17), He saves (2:4; 4:10), He is one (2:5), He lives and rules (3:15;4:10), He created (4:3-4), and He sees (5:21). What motivation!
Paul writes two letters of instruction to Timothy, the preacher at Ephesus. As his father in the faith (cf. 1 Tim. 1:18), Paul wanted the younger man endowed with the wisdom and courage to be God’s man. Timothy would face pressures and temptations from many different directions. The apostle’s words also provide some common sense to help him do the sometimes difficult task of preaching and ministry.
In a letter full of the theme of godliness, 1 Timothy, Paul gives him some intriguing encouragement in the sixth chapter. He says, “If anyone advocates a different doctrine and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing; but he has a morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words, out of which arise envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions, and constant friction between men of depraved mind and deprived of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain” (6:3-5). In this brief admonition, he gives Timothy several tips to help him be a useful communicator of God’s truth. He urges Timothy to avoid:
- Compromise. Not only here, but throughout the letter, Paul urges Timothy to teach the pure doctrine of Christ, those sound words and that godly doctrine. If we bow to pressures and change the revealed word of Christ, we become deadly communicators.
- Conceit. Ironically, the conceited often look down upon others. Yet, Paul ties the arrogance to ignorance (“understands nothing”). When we encounter one who condescendingly communicates, we are prone to tune them out even if they are telling the truth. It is incongruous to have a pompous preacher speak of the lowly Jesus. It’s a credibility killer.
- Controversy. We live in the age of controversy. It is splashed all over the traditional media and social media. It is often manufactured, and it is the mark of a morbid (literally, “sick”) mind. The controversialist will be found at the heart of disputes, ever seeking to dig up something, hash and rehash it, and keep it going. We can be accused of that for simply trying to communicate God’s will, especially when unpopular, but some are never far from contention. It is characteristic of them.
- Constant friction. This is listed last among several other results of controversy, along with envy, strife, abusive language, and evil suspicions. Have you ever been around someone who keeps up an atmosphere of tension? The chip is always on the shoulder. Their communication is always confrontational. It appeals to the depraved and deprived, according to Paul.
Paul was so bold that he would die for preaching the truth (cf. 2 Tim. 4:1-8). Yet, he urged Timothy to be peaceable, kind, adept, patient, and gentle when communicating it (2 Tim. 2:24-25). Is it possible to courageously stand with the Christ but do so using the precise scalpel of Scripture (Heb. 4:12) rather than the reckless explosives of excess? Yes, and each of us must predetermine that we will do so no matter how others act and react.
- The greatest message to communicate (Rom. 1:16). It is infinitely better and more important than that shared by broadcasters, news anchors, and sports analysts (cf. 1 Cor. 1:18).
- The greatest “boss” to please (Eph. 6:6-7). I have known and worked with so many great elders. I understand that they “hired” me and can “fire” me. Ultimately, though, I work for God–no greater One for whom a man could work!
- The greatest mission to fulfill (Mat. 28:18; Mk. 16:15; Lk. 24:46). Doctors save bodies, firemen save lives and property, and accountants save money. Preachers save souls!
- The greatest people on earth to serve (Eph. 3:21). The church certainly has its problems and members who hurt the cause. Yet, so many are wonderful, encouraging, and supportive! They love the Bible.
- The greatest colleagues in the world (Ph. 1:15-17). True, some are sore tails, jacklegs, unethical, theologically radical, and theologically liberal. However, the “average” preacher (far from that) is worthy of hero-status! Remember Romans 10:15.
- The greatest opportunities in the world (cf. Gal. 6:10). You never know what the new day will bring! Preachers get to study the Bible several hours each day, visit with Christians, set up and teach Bible studies, do mission work, preach gospel meetings and lectureships, and just have the privilege of preaching and teaching week after week!
- The greatest retirement plan possible! It includes a crown of life (Rev. 2:10), a heavenly home (Heb. 11:16), and souls won to Christ “to their account” (1 Cor. 3:12ff).