There’s a fable about a hermit who lived in the desert of northern Africa. Satan’s agents had tried their worst but failed to draw the man into sin. Angered with the incompetence of his subordinates, the Devil himself decided to take a crack at the old man and to teach his demons a lesson. He hissed, “The reason you’ve failed is that your methods are too crude for one such as this. Watch me.”
Cautiously he approached his target then whispered softly in his ear, “Your brother has just been made Bishop of Alexandria.” Instantly the holy man’s face showed that Satan’s venom had hit his veins as a great scowl formed over his mouth and his eyes tightened.
For every preacher whose ministry has been destroyed because of sexual indiscretions, I wonder how many more have had their ministries spoiled by a sulky, dissatisfied spirit? I know from experience how easy it is to fall victim to this sin. You feel the Lord’s call upon your life. You surrender. Filled with ambition for the Kingdom, you prepare yourself for ministry. Then one day while you’re out there in the vineyard, toiling away, you look up and see another brother who started later and prepared less enjoying greater success than you. Before you realize what has happened, you have become a disgruntled minister.
In Acts 9, Luke records the Lord’s conversation with one such servant, a man dealing with his own mixed feelings. Having struck Saul blind on the road leading to Damascus, the Lord turns His attention to Ananias. (Acts 9:10-19.)
You can excuse Ananias for being a bit hesitant when he first heard God’s command to go to Saul’s bedside. Through the grapevine he’d heard about what Saul had done to the church in Jerusalem, how he’d been as destructive as a bull in a china shop. Ananias also had it on good authority that Saul was coming to Damascus to continue his bloody crusade. But was there something more than fear behind his objection? Did the very thought that the Lord wished to heal Saul and a sneaking suspicion that He was willing to accept and use him just like anyone else take Ananias aback? It’s possible.
Slide yourself into Ananias’s sandals for a minute. By the standard of the Law you’re a devout man, respected in the community. That’s how Paul describes Ananias later in Acts 22:12. For Paul to call anyone “devout” by the Law’s standard was not faint praise. For years you’ve devoted yourself to Yahweh and have been one of the few Jews you know to accept Jesus as Yahweh’s Son. Now He wants you to go and welcome the butcherous Saul into the Christian community. How would you feel?
Looking back we see that Saul’s entrance into the Church forever affected the face of Christianity. This was a watershed event, but Ananias couldn’t see it then. His uncertainty, his mixed feelings about the whole matter were hindering the Kingdom’s progress.
So what does the Lord say? Without explaining or defending Himself, He repeats the command: “Go.” Then He says something more, something we need to hear when we’re dealing with our own feelings about the way God uses us as compared with others. About Saul, Jesus says, “he is a chosen vessel to Me.” What a rebuke! These words remind us that the Lord uses whom He chooses.
Let’s make an important distinction at this point. Jesus calls Saul a “chosen vessel” and not a “choice vessel.” The designation “chosen vessel” draws attention to the One Who does the choosing. The phrase “choice vessel” draws attention to the character of the vessel itself. In the days prior to His resurrection, Jesus chose the Twelve. Following His resurrection, He chose Saul. In the years since, he has chosen thousands more, including you and me.
He has chosen us to be vessels. As vessels we are to bear His name to others, clay jars carrying the water of life. 2 Corinthians 4:7 reminds us that none of us in ourselves are sufficient for this task. Only the power of the God Who has called us can keep us from cracking up under the stress of it all.
Like Saul of Tarsus, every true minister of the Lord is a chosen vessel. Before we move on, let’s pause here to ask an important question. Can a man make himself commendable for God’s use? Yes and No.
Yes, according to 2 Timothy 2:20-22. By forsaking, fleeing from, and following after the things Paul mentions in these verses, you can make yourself commendable for the Lord’s greater use. That may sound presumptuous, but that is what the Scripture indicates.
I remember how this thought rubbed me the wrong way the first time I seriously considered it. I had a friend in Bible college named Tim. On a Sunday night we were driving back to school from a weekend of preaching at a local church. Tim said, “Holly,” that was his nickname for me, “I believe the sky’s the limit for me. I grew up in a preacher’s home. I’ve been preaching since I was a kid, and I’ve kept myself pure. There is no telling what God can do with me.” That sure sounded arrogant at the time, but based upon 2 Timothy 2, he may have had a point.
The Lord looks for certain things in a servant. Men look for degrees; God looks for desire. Men look for a charismatic personality; God looks for a quiet and teachable spirit. Men look at what the man has made of himself; God looks at what He can make of the man in the future.
Can you make yourself commendable for the Lord’s use? Yes, and no.
No, based upon Romans 9:10-13. Before Jacob ever drew his first breath, before he ever prayed his first prayer, before he ever rejected his first temptation, God chose him. In the same way, He chose Jeremiah, John the Baptist, you, and me. That’s a humbling thought, isn’t it? Before you were born, the Almighty God chose you to follow in the footsteps of His own Son and serve as one of His messengers.
That thought humbled Paul. He knew that the Lord had chosen him. Ananias told him so, the Spirit confirmed it, so, too, did the church at Antioch. Paul knew that he was chosen, but listen to his testimony, “For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am…”
Imagine for a minute how it humbled Peter and the rest of the apostles to hear that the Lord had chosen Saul to join their band. They had walked with the Master and rode the roller coaster of public sentiment with Him for three years, and now, out of nowhere, God wants to add Saul. More than that, He wants to give him a ministry that they would never have. That’s humbling. What do you do? You either accept it as the King’s prerogative, or you bow up and become an obstacle to the Kingdom’s progress.
Ananias needed to be reminded, we need to be reminded, that the Lord uses whom He chooses. To carry it one step further the Lord uses whom He chooses as He chooses.
The Lord’s choice of a man encompasses the scope of that man’s ministry. Jesus chose to give Saul a cross-cultural, international, prominent ministry. He chose Saul to bear His name before the Jews, Gentiles, and kings. What about Bartholomew? You remember him. Bart was one of the Twelve who walked with Jesus for three years. We really don’t know what kind of ministry he had. Certainly it wasn’t anything as big or as flashy as Saul’s. It seems unfair when you think about it.
Have you ever gone to an associational meeting and heard some old boy stammer his way through a sermon? He couldn’t preach his way out of a brown paper bag laying on its side with the top open, but then you thumb through the minutes and see that his church is running 500 while yours is running 50.
There’s a passage from the Psalms that you need to remember in times like those. Psalms 75:6-7: “For promotion cometh neither from the east, nor from the west, nor from the south. But God is the judge: He putteth down one, and setteth up another.” To quote Ecclesiastes 9:11, “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill,” and I would add, nor is the biggest pulpit to the best prepared.
If you’re a Type A personality, that’s hard to accept. None of us want to be like Reuben. Two statements summarize his life: What potential! and What a waste! We all want to succeed and succeed big, but God doesn’t always measure success like we do. When He chooses to use a man, that choice will encompass the scope of that man’s ministry. He chooses some for big ministries and others for smaller ones but none for unimportant ministries.
For most of the men God chooses to use, that choice will include some suffering.
Suffering in ministry is not necessarily consequential. Saul the minister did not suffer as a consequence for inflicting so much pain upon others during his unsaved years. That is unfortunately the way we often read this text. Ananias complained about what Saul had done, and we read God as saying, “Don’t worry. I’ll get even with him.”
Yahweh is not the Hindu god Vishnu in disguise. You don’t have to worry about working off bad karma from your pre-conversion days during your post-conversion days. If you pastor a small church, are fighting an unruly board, or are the target of a gossip’s sharp tongue, it isn’t because of something you did before you were saved.
The Lord told Ananias that Saul would suffer for His sake. Chances are, if you’re suffering as a minister, you’re suffering for His sake and not for some past sin’s sake.
Suffering is not incidental to ministry. If Saul’s sufferings were to be incidental, Jesus would not have brought them up here.
Suffering is a real and significant part of the ministry. A few years back a friend told me that I looked like I was 38 or 39 years-old. Problem was I was only 33 at the time. He added six years to my age. Then it hit me. I had pastored about 6 years. The way I figure it, one year of a dog’s life equals six years of a man’s life, and one year of a preacher’s life equals two years of a layman’s life. Ministry can be tough, and suffering is not incidental.
Suffering is more than additional to ministry. The Lord was not saying, “Saul will bear My name to the Jews, Gentiles, and kings, and, oh, by the way, he will suffer for Me, too.” Suffering is not just something thrown into ministry for good measure. So what is it? What was it for Saul?
Suffering is often central to ministry. Officers in the Lord’s army aren’t known by the stripes on their sleeves but by the stripes on their backs. Suffering was to be central to Saul’s ministry. For him, the purest gold of ministry emerged out of the hottest flames of tribulation. The Lord said that Saul would stand before kings bearing His message. Read Acts again. Rarely, if ever, did Paul stand before any government official except under duress, in the chains of a prisoner. Were it not for the suffering, Paul would not have enjoyed much of the ministry that he did. Think of it, he wrote five books of our New Testament from prison.
Unbeknownst to you, you will perform some of your best ministry during your worst moments. Missionary Adoniram Judson suffered through years of barrenness trying to win the cultured Buddhist Burmese to faith in Christ. He spent years witnessing to them and translating the Bible into their language. Early on, he took a rough character by the name of Ko Tha Byu under his wing. Kotie was of the Karen people.
The Burmese looked down upon the Karens. “You can teach a buffalo, but not a Karen,” is what they said. Judson finally succeeded in wining Kotie to Christ. As he traveled throughout Burma, Kotie went with him, witnessing to the Karens scattered across the land. To Judson, the Karens were a side-issue. His main concern was ministry to the Buddhist Burmese.
Today the mission to the Buddhist Burmese counts a membership of 20,000. The number of Christians among the Karens and Karen-related peoples numbers into the hundreds of thousands. Church growth father Donald McGavran claimed, “The Christward Movement among the Karens may well be the source of a Church numbering millions, and exercising a decisive influence upon the history of all South-East Asia” (Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, B149). Judson did not realize that he was performing his greatest ministry while suffering through those barren years. So take heart! The most important results of your ministry may be taking place when you feel your worst.
Ananias knew on the front end that suffering would be central to Saul’s ministry.
Over time, Paul learned to embrace his suffering. In Philippians 3:10 he expressed his heart’s desire with these words, “That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death.” If you truly desire to know Him, to serve Him, you’ll probably need to suffer along the way.
After some initial resistance, Ananias went. Saul received his sight back, was baptized, and received the Holy Spirit. Christianity would never be the same. All of that happened only after Ananias learned to accept the fact that whom the Lord uses and how is His choice alone. The sooner we learn to accept that fact, the better off the Kingdom will be.
The Christian mystic Meister Eckhardt claimed that the foundation for spiritual blessing is to live alone before the goodness of God with nothing and no one in between. Out of His goodness God has chosen you and me to be His vessels. What He chooses to do with or through anyone else is no loss to us but is a gain for the Kingdom. Let’s learn to accept that and let the Kingdom move forward.