I am shocked and disturbed by what I read in Luke 9. Verses 28-36 describe the transfiguration, where the radiant glory of the eternal Son of God is revealed, where heroes of the faith discuss His upcoming work in Jerusalem, and where the Father declares the matchless supremacy of His Son.
In verses 37-43, Jesus demonstrates His unrivaled power. A desperate father pleads on behalf of his demon-afflicted son. Unlike His disciples, Jesus is able to heal the boy with a word, causing all to marvel at the majesty of God.
In the midst of the celebration, verses 44-45 describe a private conversation Jesus has with His disciples: the Beloved Son and greater prophet, the Son of Man who is to reign, is going to Jerusalem to die.
Behold the shocking beauty of Jesus: His glory declared by the Father; His authority over the powers of darkness; His determination to obey the Father and purchase a bride.
But what most disturbs me in this passage is verse 46, which says, "An argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest."
You’re So Vain
This is insanity. How can one behold such glory and then immediately turn their focus to themself? Even for the nine that did not go up on the mountain, this is inexcusable. It is disturbing that eyes that have seen so much can see so little.
Yet what most bothers me about this text is that it is so . . . relatable.
Whether you serve as a pastor, lay leader, or volunteer, my guess is you jumped into the work of ministry (Eph 4:12) with the best of intentions. You committed to sacrifice time and comfort out of love for God and love for His people. Even better, your role has left you in a position where you are constantly surrounded by the things of the Lord: reading, listening, and praying.
Good ministry will increase your understanding of the Savior.
And yet each of us has the potential to lose our direction and miss the mark. Because of the constant temptation to love self, we can make ministry about us. We can become consumed with our greatness, even while we testify to the greatness of Christ. As a result, we may adopt bad practices, embrace wrong thinking, or even become distracted with misvalued priorities. May we never hijack the ministry of Christ for our own glory.
Asking the Right Questions
How can we avoid self-glorification in the midst of ministry? God’s Word provides several helpful passages that are worthy of consideration. Perhaps you can take time with fellow leaders to compile a list of verses that would help keep your focus on Christ and His people. But for now, let’s consider one simple verse:
Ephesians 3:2 – "Assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you."
I want to put forth three observations from this passage regarding the ministry. With each observation, let’s consider how the truth in the passage should shape our own ministry, and let’s ask some questions to diagnose our own hearts.
Ministry Is about Stewardship, Not Sovereignty
In discussing his work of proclaiming the gospel among the Gentiles (3:1), Paul describes (3:2) his ministry as a “stewardship” (oikonomia). A steward is a manager (see Luke 16:1-4), hired to take responsibility for possessions that belong to another. The image of “minister as steward” is one Paul employs often in the epistles:
- "Of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known" (Col 1:25).
- "This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God" (1 Cor 4:1).
- "For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain" (Titus 1:7).
It is easy in ministry to become puffed up or go fishing for compliments. But at the end of the day, every minister is merely a steward. The ministry is not our own invention, but something that has been entrusted to us.
Consider how comprehensively this truth shapes service. Preachers are not creators of content but stewards of God’s truth (2 Tim 2:15). Our churches are not filled with “our” people, but we are stewards of God’s people (1 Pet 5:2, Acts 20:28). All giftings and abilities are gifts of God, and we are to steward them well (1 Pet 4:10). As stewards, our aim is to please the One who enlisted us (2 Tim 2:4), knowing that ultimately, He will be the one who examines our work (1 Thess 2:4).
Because the ministry is the Lord’s, we are to prioritize His work, emphasize doing it His way, and serve remembering that one day we will give an account to Him (Heb 13:7).
- In your service, who are you trying to get approval from? Do you seek approval from man or from God? (1 Thess 2:1-6)
- What level of effort do you give to ministry tasks that only the Lord will see?
- Are you doing your best (2 Tim 2:15) to grow in your giftedness?
- Are the priorities of your ministry being shaped by the loudest voices at your church, by social media, or by the Word?
- Because you are a steward, is there sobriety and earnestness in your labors?
- Are you valuing holiness (2 Tim 2:20-22)? Or have you used the fruit of the ministry as an excuse to neglect the fruit of the Spirit?
Ministry Is by Grace, Not Grit or Giftedness
To this point, grace has been a repeated theme in Ephesians. God’s work of salvation is to “the praise of His glorious grace” (Eph 1:6). Paul reminded the Ephesians that they were saved by grace and not by works (Eph 2:5-8). In Ephesians 3:2, Paul describes the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to [him].
Paul did not just preach grace, but he was a recipient of grace. In fact, Paul repeatedly describes the ministry given to him as another extension of God’s grace:
- "Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power" (Eph 3:7).
- "Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart" (2 Cor 4:1).
- "For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God" (1 Cor 15:9).
- "But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life" (1 Tim 1:16).
It’s not a privilege we have earned. God doesn’t call us because of any aptitude or proficiency we develop on our own. We are not in the ministry because we are somehow more righteous or more worthy than others. It is a mercy.1
Our sinful past and our present struggles against the flesh remind us that we do not deserve to be in the King’s service. But just as He has shown us mercy in forgiving our sins and securing our eternal reward, so now He employs us according to the riches of His grace.
- Do you love Christ more than your ministry? Do you treasure the gospel more than you enjoy proclaiming the gospel?
- Have you started finding more joy in ministry success than your own personal salvation (Luke 10:20)?
- Do you find yourself easily frustrated at the sins of others while showing extreme patience or even disregard for your own sins?
- Do you thank the Lord for opportunities to serve?
- Do you complain that you don’t get to serve more? Or do you find yourself frustrated that you have tasks that are “below” you (Luke 17:10)?
Ministry Is for God’s People, Not for Yourself
If we miss the end of Ephesians 3:2, we might miss the whole point. Paul tells the Ephesians that the stewardship that was graciously given to him is “for you.” Two little words but consider their profundity. The ministry is not for the servant, but for the served.
Friend, however you find yourself serving, you need to remember that the ministry that was given to you is not ultimately for you. It is not even primarily for you, but for the benefit of the people you serve.
God graciously equips individuals so that they may be used to accomplish His purposes in the lives of His people.
Our culture loves to say, “find a job you love, and you’ll never work a day of your life.” We could discuss this saying another time, but we must banish the thought that the purpose of the ministry is for our personal fulfillment. If you preach, you do not preach in order that your inner self will be content, but for the benefit of the people you speak to. We are to pray for people, give time to people, be patient with people, and ultimately shape our focus on the people God has purchased with His own blood. Our preferences, our own platform, and our niche passions take a back seat to the call to “shepherd the flock of God.”
- Is your ministry schedule shaped by what the people need or what you most enjoy?
- Do you find the sins and weaknesses of the people you serve a hindrance to your ministry? Or do you see them as the reason you were called into ministry?
- If you were to preach a “bad” sermon but people responded to the truth, would your frustration with your own shortcomings outweigh the joy of children walking in the truth?
- Do you pray for the souls you serve? Seriously, how many hours a week do you bring them before the throne of grace?
- When you pray for serving, do you pray that you’d do well or that God would grow, save, and comfort His people?
Medicine from the Doctor
Near the end of his life, the preacher Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones found himself so ill he was unable to preach.2 In his biography on Lloyd-Jones, Iain Murray gives an account of his conversation with the pastor during this time:
"Our greatest danger is to live upon our activity. The ultimate test of a preacher is what he feels like when he cannot preach.” Our relationship to God is to be the supreme cause of joy. To lean upon sermons or words of testimony from others is a “real snare for all preachers.” “We cannot lean on them.” … “People say to me it must be very trying for you not to be able to preach – No! Not at all! I was not living upon preaching.2
Friends, to avoid being obsessed with our own greatness, let us flee from living upon our ministry and live upon Christ. May we not only proclaim Him, but may we relish Him in all His splendor. May our hearts treasure Him as we consider His eternal glory, His righteous life and death for sinners, and His position now at the right hand of the Father. To avoid making the preaching of the cross about us, let us remember that the cross was for us first. As we shepherd our people, may we find joy in that we have a Great Shepherd who leads us, keeps us, and intercedes on our behalf before the Father. Don’t settle for self; be overwhelmed by the greatness of Christ.
1. John MacArthur, Remaining Faithful in Ministry: 9 Essential Convictions for Every Pastor, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019) 29.
2. For more details of this account, see Iain Murray, David Martyn Llord-Jones: The Fight of the Faith 1939-1981 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1990), 737-739. I found the quote on page 158 of Bobby Jameson’s The Path to Being A Pastor, a book I would commend to all who aspire to pastoral ministry.