Do Not Neglect Your Spiritual Gift
1 Timothy 4:14Ever since the new year rolled around, I have been pondering one verse of Scripture and thinking about its implications for life and ministry, and what it would mean if we started to take it seriously. That verse is 1 Timothy 4:14. Here it is in several different versions:
“Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you” (ESV). This version is clear and easy to understand and accurately reflects the Greek text.
The Amplified Bible offers this expanded version: “Do not neglect the gift which is in you, [that special inward endowment] which was directly imparted to you [by the Holy Spirit] by prophetic utterance when the elders laid their hands upon you [at your ordination].”
Eugene Peterson gives us a typically colorful paraphrase: “And that special gift of ministry you were given when the leaders of the church laid hands on you and prayed—keep that dusted off and in use” (The Message).
Before we look at this verse, we ought to add another one to the mix. “For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands” (2 Timothy 1:6 ESV). Other versions exhort Timothy to “keep ablaze” the gift of God that is in him.
During my growing-up years, I attended many services that ended with a four-fold invitation:
1) For salvation
2) For church membership
3) For rededication
4) For fulltime Christian service
Whether for good or for ill, it is a sign of the times that many Christians under the age of 40 have never heard an invitation like that. I have been thinking lately about the fourth part of the invitation—the call to “surrender” for fulltime Christian service. That was the word that was used. You “surrendered” your life to serve the Lord as a pastor or as a missionary or in some other area of Christian ministry. During my college years, I remember that invitation being given very often. Once when a missionary in a distant land had died in a tragic accident, a friend of mine went forward at the invitation, saying that he wanted to take his place in the Lord’s service. That was at least 34 years ago, and my friend serves as a pastor today. I don’t really know if my friend intended by going forward to say that he was going to be a missionary, and it doesn’t really matter. When you are in your late teens and early 20s, you “try on” various dreams to see which one fits you. Sometimes you end up wearing a dream that doesn’t really fit at all. Along that line, I recall hearing James Dobson quote a certain man who became a dentist but was unhappy with his career choice. “Why should an 18-year-old kid get to decide I was going to spend the rest of my life looking inside someone’s mouth?” Well, it’s a good question for which I don’t have any answer except to say that every day 18-year-old kids make decisions that impact what middle-aged men and women spend their days doing.
The Call to the Ministry
In another generation we heard a lot about the “call to the ministry.” Today for various reasons, that term has fallen out of favor. For one thing, we like to emphasize that every Christian is called to serve the Lord. No one can deny that fact. Christ calls all of us to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him (Luke 9:23). It is not a mistake to say that all Christians are “called to the ministry.” Second, we live in a culture that blurs the lines of authority and stresses the democracy of the body of Christ. We’re all equal, or so we’re told. Again, the true spiritual equality in the body of Christ cannot be denied (Galatians 3:28). Some of this—a lot of it, perhaps—is a reaction again pastors who acted as if their position gave them a place of superiority over their own congregations, who lorded it over their own people. I read about one well-known pastor who when challenged about his leadership replied by saying, “Touch not the Lord’s anointed.” That view, if taken literally, puts the pastor beyond all criticism, and creates the possibility—indeed, the probability—that something bad is about to happen. Lord Acton was right when he remarked that absolute power corrupts absolutely.
And there is a third reason why the call to ministry is not preached much these days. It has to do with the pressure put on young people to have a certain sort of experience that unfortunately does not seem to last over time. I’m thinking of young people who under a certain kind of emotional influence (not wrong in itself) come forward, raise their hands, sign a card, throw stick in the fire, or make some other public decision to spend their lives in fulltime Christian service. But it doesn’t always work out. Either they forget about it or they change their minds or they enter the ministry with disastrous results, which makes it easy to conclude that either they were never called to the ministry or that the whole system itself needs to be junked.
Finally, we live in a materialistic, me-first age where the heroes of today are athletes, rock stars and other media celebrities. I was struck by a recent survey showing that most Americans had never heard of any of the leaders of evangelical Christianity, with the obvious exception of Billy Graham. The vast majority don’t know who Rick Warren is, though he has sold millions of books. But well over 90% recognize Britney Spears. Ours is a pop culture, media-driven generation. We live with very short memories. Everyone knows about Donald Trump and Rosie O’Donnell and their media-induced spat, but if anyone reads this sermon in five years (or five months), that reference will escape them entirely.
Vanity of vanities. All is vanity.
That’s our world, and welcome to it. I’m not complaining at all. Far from it. I would rather live now than a hundred years ago. What a great time to be alive. We have technology that allows us to minister to the world with the press of a button. I can hit Send and this sermon goes to the Internet where anyone with a computer can read it.
And there is a true spiritual hunger in this generation, especially among those under 30. I confess that I am very impressed with two generations—the one above us and (speaking as a Baby Boomer) the one below us. I see in the quickly-departing Greatest Generation commitment, perseverance and a set of values that have stood the test of time. And in the younger generation I sense a passion for God that sometimes scares me because it challenges my own comfortable brand of Christianity. We Baby Boomers weren’t happy with the church, but when we took over, we became as traditional in our own way as the generation that came before. Plus it seems that we were very impressed with size, glitz, packaging, image and appearance. Yes, that’s a broad generalization, but it seems true from where I sit. I see in the twentysomething generation a gritty determination and a desire to serve the Lord with a passion that approaches ferocity. They don’t reject the Christian faith, but they want the real thing, not some ginned-up flashy substitute.
And that brings me back to the question of the call to the ministry, a noble phrase not heard very much these days. Here is part of what Martyn Lloyd-Jones says about it:
(P)reaching is never something that a man decides to do. What happens rather is that he becomes conscious of a “call.” This whole question of the call is not an easy matter; and all ministers have struggled with it because it is so vitally important to us. (Preachers and Preaching, p. 104).He goes on to list several marks of the call to the ministry, by which he means the call to be a preacher:
1) A growing inner awareness
2) Confirmation by wise spiritual leaders
3) A burden to preach to others
4) A sense of constraint
I pause at #4 because this is a topic that many writers discuss. “It means that you have the feeling that you can do nothing else.” Lloyd-Jones quotes Spurgeon as saying, “If you can do anything else, do it. If you can stay out of the ministry, stay out of the ministry.” A sense of God’s calling produces in you such an overwhelming desire that you will never be happy doing anything else. A man who is called to preach won’t be happy serving as president of the United States. Paul said, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16) and Jeremiah said that the word of the Lord was like a burning fire inside him (Jeremiah 20:9).
Then Lloyd-Jones adds a fifth characteristic:
5) A sense of unworthiness
Here he means diffidence, a healthy (as opposed to morbid) sense that you are not equal to the task of bringing God’s Word to the congregation. True ministers will often feel weak, hesitant and fearful. Who wouldn’t? It is an awesome thing to stand between heaven and hell, warning men and women and pointing them to the only path that leads to heaven. Who among us is equal to such a thing? Lloyd-Jones call so far as to say that “the greater the preacher the more hesitant he is to preach” (p. 107) and offers George Whitefield as an example. Oddly enough, if a man feels that he can preach, he probably shouldn’t. If he feels like he can’t, he probably can.
Lloyd-Jones goes on to emphasize the importance the church plays in discerning the call to the ministry. He points out that in Acts 6, the early Jerusalem believers chose leaders who were well-known for their godliness. The same is true when you come to 1 Timothy 3 which lists several qualifications that demand observation by others:
Manages his own household well
Having his children under control
Not a new convert
A good reputation among outsiders
Actually all of the qualifications require someone else to validate them. No one who reads that list, if he is honest with himself, will think, “I can do this.” I have never forgotten the day when the church in Oak Park chose its first board of elders under the new constitution. One of the men they chose was John Sergey, who was in his 70s at the time and had served as a missionary to Russia through radio broadcasts and a preaching ministry for over 50 years. Simply put, he was then and is now one of the godliest men I have ever known. When he prayed on Sunday morning, he brought us into the very presence of God. I know of no man I respect more than John Sergey. But when we talked about the qualifications for leadership in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, I recall him saying, “I don’t measure up. I see too many areas of my life that are lacking.” But that qualified him even more in my judgment. It is the job of the church to validate its spiritual leaders. No man calls himself into the ministry or into local church leadership. A self-called man and a God-called man are two different people. They may superficially be alike, but the differences go to the core. One man thinks he is qualifies so he calls himself. The other man feels unworthy but responds to God’s call, which is confirmed by the church.
Hard Times in Ephesus
At this point we see the vital importance of Paul’s word to Timothy:
“Do not neglect your gift.”
“Stir up your gift.”
The gift evidently was a divine enablement, a calling if you will, to do the work of the ministry. If you read all of 1 & 2 Timothy, you can see clearly that he faced a daunting challenge in Ephesus. First of all, he was a young man who evidently felt somewhat intimidated by his surroundings. And some of the leaders in Ephesus had fallen prey to serious false doctrine. It also seems that he was of a sensitive temperament, easily prone to discouragement and to feeling overwhelmed by the opposition he faced. In 1 Timothy 4:11-16 Paul offers a six-fold answer that serves as a good model for ministry in the 21st-century:
Teach the truth (v. 11).
Set a godly example (v. 12).
Preach the Word (v. 13).
Don’t forget your calling (v. 14).
Stay focused (v. 15).
Stay faithful (v. 16).
All of those things are important, but they all depend on the command in verse 14. If Timothy forgets his calling, he will never find the strength to face unrelenting opposition in Ephesus. External pressure and internal doubts will combine to finally cause him to give up. Those of us who have served in the local church understand how real this is.Churches are only beautiful at a distance. Inside the church, behind closed doors, there are problems everywhere. A man who forgets his calling will not last very long. Pastors like to joke that the ministry would be wonderful if it weren’t for the people. That’s true, but without the people, there would be no ministry at all.
So Paul encourages Timothy to remember these things:
1) Godly men laid their hands on you.
2) They believed in you.
3) They saw God at work in your life.
4) They foresaw God doing great things through you.
5) They prayed for God’s blessing upon you.
6) God answered by granting divine enablement.
7) Therefore, you have everything you need to succeed in God’s eyes.
8) But you must not neglect your gift.
9) You must stir up that gift until it is blazing.
The surrounding verses suggest how this might be done. We might simply say that Timothy will find confidence as he uses the gift he has been given.
Walk in purity and you will be pure.
Be an example and others will follow.
Preach and you will learn how to preach.
Be strong and you will be made strong.
Sometimes you have to “man up” and do what you don’t want to do, even when you don’t feel like doing it, and especially when you feel unable to do it. In those moments, you simply must not trust your feelings.
Remember Your Ordination
Your feelings are not always a reliable indicator of God’s calling. Feelings matter, but feelings can also lead us in the wrong direction. That’s why Paul doesn’t say, “Remember when you felt called to the ministry” because that memory alone would not sustain him in hard times. Memory fades over time and it can play tricks on you. What he does say is, “Remember when we laid hands on you and prayed for you. Something happened that day. God imparted a divine empowerment to your life. Don’t forget that.”
I am sometimes asked if I have been called to the ministry. Not long ago I was asked that question by a young man who seemed surprised when I answered yes. I told him the following story. Shortly after my junior year of high school, I came to saving faith in Jesus Christ. That moment of faith is etched forever on my mind. Over the next year, my senior year in high school, I went through the usual ups and downs of a student trying to match my faith and my life. A month after I graduated from high school, I spent many nights wondering what I should do with my life. Late at night, after everyone else had gone to bed, I paced around my bedroom, thinking, wondering, praying, pondering. One night during that month of June, I went to sleep, still thinking of all these things. I recall waking up in the middle of the night with a strong sense that God was calling me into the ministry. I remember saying, “Lord, if you want me to, I’ll be a preacher.” Then I went back to sleep. The next morning I remembered what happened and the experience was very real in my mind. I never walked an aisle and “made a decision” to enter fulltime Christian ministry. I have not told that story very often simply because I do not wish to make my experience the standard for anyone else. It is my story, not a pattern for others. God deals with each of us individually, and he is amazingly creative in the ways he speaks to us.
At the same time other people encouraged me to consider going to a Christian college and then on to seminary to prepare to serve the Lord. Two weeks after I graduated from Dallas Seminary, I was ordained into the gospel ministry by the elders of Midlothian Bible Church in Midlothian, Texas. They put me through a grueling exam, which I passed by the grace of God, and one bright Sunday afternoon, the church had a picnic and presented us with a “money tree” (with dollar bills tied to the limbs) to help us prepare for our move to Downey, California where I would soon become the pastor of Redeemer Covenant Church. Then those good, godly men gathered round us and prayed over us, commending us to the grace of God. They gave me an ordination certificate which each man signed:
And there were several others also. I confess that I didn’t feel anything as they prayed for me, but I don’t know if Timothy felt anything either, and it doesn’t really matter. Laying on of hands is one of the oldest biblical traditions. By laying on of hands, the men were saying, “We love you. We support you. We believe in you. We ask God to bless you. And we send you out with our endorsement, our support and our blessing.”
This is the ultimate argument for some form of ordained ministry. It preserves the church from self-called leaders, and it gives qualified men the confidence of knowing that when they go out to serve the Lord, the church of Jesus Christ goes with them. And if we believe in the power of united prayer, we may also believe that the Lord himself stands with the church to bless those whom the church sets apart for service (cf. Matthew 18:20).
My ordination happened thirty years ago. Some of those men are now in heaven, and most of them I have only seen once or twice since then. But having been ordained by them, I am still ordained by them today.
Ordained All Over Again
Last month when we were in Chicago, I had the unique experience of going to a home meeting hosted by our son Josh and his wife Leah. They not only opened their home to us, Josh introduced us and when the meeting was concluded, he asked those assembled (most of them in their 20s) to gather around Marlene and me and lay hands on us, committing us and our ministry to the Lord in prayer. Then he closed with a prayer that was powerful, personal and deeply moving. I felt ordained all over again.
Two days later we had a similar experience at another home meeting. At the end everyone present came around Marlene and me, laid their hands on us and prayed fervently to the Lord. One particular sentence stuck in my mind. “Lord, please help Pastor Ray and Marlene know how much confidence we have in them.” I do not have words to say how encouraging that was to me. And God answered that prayer with a new infusion of hope and strength from heaven.
Should this surprise us? No, not at all. This is how the body of Christ is supposed to function. In these stressful, exciting, challenging days of the early 21st-century, when the world is changing so fast that no one can keep up with it, when Islam and militant secularism are on the march, and when “this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us,” what will keep us going and how will we find the strength to get up every day and go forth into the world, carrying with us the Good News of Jesus, with words of hope and healing, with words of rebuke and exhortation, with a heart full of love and a burning desire to see men and women come to life through the gospel of Jesus Christ, how in the world will we find the strength to do it if not by the call of God and the gift of God and the memory of God’s people who long ago stood with us and commissioned us to serve the Lord Jesus and who stand with us today?
That’s a long sentence, isn’t it?
But it says all that is in my heart, and I think it captures something of what Paul had in mind when he told Timothy, “Do not neglect the gift of God that is in you.”
Let me offer a few closing thoughts in light of all of this.
1) We need to recover the importance of the call to the ministry.
2) We need to challenge all Christians to use their gifts and talents for the service of the Kingdom.
3) We should expect God to answer our prayers by calling more and more of our people to fulltime service for Christ.
4) We would do well to uphold the importance of the prayers of godly elders.
5) We must strive for church environments where Christians can be encouraged to use their gifts.
6) We must continually encourage those who serve the Lord because without our encouragement, they may give in under pressure.
7) Finally, let us not forget to pray with each other and for each other for it is by prayer that the church advances in the world.
I close with this word to those who may feel a bit like Timothy. If for some reason, you feel unqualified and unworthy, if you struggle with a deep sense of inadequacy, I am happy to say that you are an excellent candidate to be used greatly by the Lord. Take Paul’s advice to heart. Remember those who have prayed for you. Remember that the Holy Spirit indwells you. Remember God’s call. Then rise up, go forth and serve the Lord. Do not neglect your spiritual gift. This is the word of the Lord. Amen.
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