Friday, September 3, 2010

"...and there are many adversaries."


Reading through the final chapter of 1 Corinthians recently, I saw something that caught my attention.  Sometimes believers may think of such closing chapters as throwaways.  It’s all goodbyes and random requests, right? 
“Greet Prisca and Aquila...”
“Timothy, my fellow worker, greets you.”
“When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books…”
But there nestled in among the closing remarks of 1 Corinthians, there is a thought-provoking and convicting statement:  I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries (1 Cor 16:8-9).
What jumped off the page at me was the word “and”.  I would have expected “but” or “and yet” or “even though” or “inspite of the fact that.”  It would make more sense to me if Paul had held up the wide door for effective ministry as his reason for staying in Ephesus, while citing the existence of many adversaries as the detractor or downside of staying.  “Since there is so much ministry for me to do here, I’m going to stay, in spite of the fact that there are many adversaries.”
Or I could even understand Paul citing the adversaries as a factor making him unsure if he would end up staying.  “I’d like to stay in Ephesus, since there is great opportunity for ministry here, but still…there are so many adversaries…I dunno.”  That’s probably what I would have written.  I may have seen all those adversaries as a reason to think the door for ministry was closedPeople hate me here.  It must be time to move on.  You may be able to relate.
But Paul, unlike many Christians (pastors included), did not consider opposition, adversity, suffering, or persecution to be an indication from God that it was God’s will for him to move on.  Amazingly, Paul cites the presence of many adversaries as a reason to stay in Ephesus.  That’s the power of that word “and.”  “I’m staying because there is a wide door for ministry and because there are many adversaries.”
One remarkable quality of Paul’s ministry was the efficiency and equity with which his gospel offended both Jews and Greeks.  Acts 19:23ff tells of Demetrius, a Greek silversmith, who made a nice living crafting silver shrines for the false goddess Artemis.  Calling together other craftsmen who profited from this idolatry, he said, “Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship”(Acts 19:25-27).  Subsequently, a riot broke out that endangered the lives of Paul and his companions.
In the next chapter, Acts 20, Paul reminds the Ephesian elders of how faithfully he ministered to them in the face of trials that happened to him through the plots of the Jews (Acts 20:17-21).  2 Cor 11:24 records that on five occasions, Paul received 39 lashes from the Jews. 
And yet, his persecution by Jews and Gentiles he did not regard as the downside of his ministry.  This is because he understood the cause of such adversity – the success of the gospel.  His proclamation of Christ, the wide door for ministry to which he refers in 1 Cor 16:9, is precisely what caused the opposition noted there.  That there was much opposition indicates that there had been much success attained by the preaching of the gospel.  The presence of many adversaries, therefore, was no reason to leave, but evidence that the cause of Christ was advancing there and that there was opportunity for greater ministry still.
The fact that there are people opposing the gospel means that the gospel is being effective.  Satan is no moron.  Matthew Henry, in his commentary on this verse, wrote, “The devil opposes those most, and makes them most trouble, who most heartily and successfully set themselves to destroy his kingdom.”  Those who are being effective for the kingdom of God are those most threatening to Satan and his mission to destroy the church and deprive God of His glory.  Opposition is no sign that it’s time to move on.  It may be a sign that you’re doing something right and that you should stay the course. 
We may be tempted to think that Paul was able to do this because, unlike us, opposition and adversity didn’t bother him.  The truth is that it bothered him greatly.  Speaking of his time in Ephesus, Paul wrote in 2 Cor 1:8-9, For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.  Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.
Paul despaired of life itself?  Yes.  But he continued, understanding that his struggle was for the furtherance of the gospel and to cause him to rely not upon his own strength, but upon God who raises the dead.
How rare such conviction is in the modern church.  How quickly we throw in the towel in the face of any kind of adversity, let alone persecution for the gospel.  We have trouble in our marriages, so we get out instead of seeking to glorify God there.  We experience trials in our work, so we look for a way out instead of seeking to stay and be a light there.  How quickly we leave the rapids and search for smoother waters.  How thoughtlessly we run from difficult situations based upon our own comfort, not considering what would bring God the most glory. 
How we respond to such adversity reveals whether we have a heart that is centered on God or on ourselves.
We need a heavenly perspective.  Suffering for one’s faith is not a mere possibility for believers – it is a certainty, if they are being faithful (Phil 1:29-30; 2 Tim 3:12).  Persecution is not a downside to being in Christ.  It is a cause for rejoicing (1 Pet 1:6-9, 4:12-14; Acts 5:40-41). 
Our objective, according to Paul, should be clear: to let our manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ by standing firm, striving for the faith of the gospel, not frightened by any opposition (Phil 1:27-30).   May the Lord lead us at PBF to be faithful and step fearlessly through the wide door for effective work that has opened to us, emboldened by whatever adversaries we face.

Posted by Greg Birdwell

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