Inspiration, authority, infallibility and inerrancy are the necessary prerequisites for preaching and teaching. If a true ministry is to be exercised, these theological foundations are indispensable. This is implied by Paul’s employment of the word ‘ambassador’ to describe the work of the ministry. The word ‘ambassador’ is used twice in the New Testament by Paul. In 2 Corinthians 5:19, he says, ‘Now, then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God”. His second comment is found in Ephesians 6:20 - ‘That I may open my mouth boldly, to make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in bonds: that therein I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak..” The Greek word for ‘ambassador’ is presbutes. This word is derived from the verb presbeuo. The literal meaning of this verb is ‘to be older or oldest’, ‘to take precedence by right of seniority’. This idea of seniority; which includes authority and responsibility as its key elements, is particularly significant for our understanding of Paul use of the expression, ‘to be an ambassador’. Entrusted with God’s inspired, infallible and inerrant Word, the ‘ambassador for Christ’ is to carry out this ministry, with divine authority, as one whose chief responsibility is faithfulness to God.
In these New Testament passages, it is significant that the verb is used rather than the noun. The emphasis is on activity. We have a duty to fulfil. There can be no resting on laurels. We must get on with the job. There is work to be done. In seeking to understand the work to be done by 'the ambassador for Christ', we begin by noting that an ambassador is the authorized representative of a sovereign. It is his representative capacity that gives him his authority and position. He is nothing in himself. One thinks of the analogy of Lord High Commissioner at the General Assembly. For a brief spell in May, he represents the Sovereign. He is to be treated as the Sovereign. He takes precedence over all the dukes. He is next to the Lord Chancellor. In himself, he is nothing. In his office, he bears this position of great authority. He does not speak in his own name. He speaks on behalf of the ruler whose deputy he is. There is a ‘givenness’ about his message. The ambassador is not at liberty to change a dispatch from his government or Sovereign. He cannot tone it down in any way. He must hand it on as it has been given to him. We are Christ's ambassadors. We are not at liberty to change His message. When asked, 'Do you believe in hell?', the minister dare not answer, 'Yes, but I would never preach it'. This is a betrayal of his commission. It is part of his responsibility, as an ambassador for Christ, to ‘warn every man’ (Colossians 1:28). In 1 Corinthians 1:17, Paul gives this description of his ministry: 'Christ sent me ... to preach the gospel'. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, he tells us how he carried out his divine calling: 'I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures...'. As His ambassadors, we are to deliver His message. We are to preach His gospel. There are several things involved in the proper fulfillment of this work.
In the first place, the nature of the gospel has to be made clear. The gospel is the good news of the incarnation, atonement and kingdom of the Son of God. This message is massive in its scope. It needs to be learned before it can be lived. We need to give ourselves to the understanding of the gospel before we can play our part in communicating its message. Before Paul set out on his ministry as an 'ambassador for Christ', he sought earnestly for a deeper understanding of the gospel's truth. Between his conversion on the Damascus Road and his commissioning at Antioch, there were long years of training in the way of discipleship. He was being equipped for the work of teaching God's truth to it to others. In our ministry, we are to follow Jesus who said, 'we speak of what we know' (John 3:11). We get to know Him that we might make Him known. In our proclamation of the gospel, we are to exercise a teaching ministry. We preach 'the unsearchable riches of Christ' as we 'declare' to the people 'the whole counsel of God' (Ephesians 3:8; Acts 20:27).
A second feature of the ambassador's work concerns his responsibility to convey his Sovereign’s mind faithfully to those to whom he is sent. For Christ's ambassadors, a knowledge of the mind of Christ is necessary. This requires a relationship of fellowship with Christ. This relationship is much more important in the Christian ambassadorship than it is in the natural realm. How can we know the mind of Christ if we are not walking with Him? Walking with Him will involve us in close and continual study of His Word. Through His Word He reveals Himself to us, deepening and enriching our fellowship with Him. We are to 'let this mind be in us which was also in Christ Jesus ... '. We are to follow Christ who 'emptied Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross' (Philippians 2:5-8). Knowing the mind of Christ means having the mind of Christ ourselves. To have fellowship with the Son of God involves being like-minded with Him: 'Do two walk together unless they have agreed to do so?' (Amos 3:3). How can we 'beseech men in Christ’s stead' in any worthy way unless we think like him. We must be able to say, with Paul, “We have the mind of Christ' (1 Corinthians 2:16). In Paul's words, “we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20), there is a clear message. God is speaking through us. Christ is working in us and through us. How can this become real in us? It happens when we are one in mind and spirit with Him, identified with Him in His redemptive work in the world.
A third aspect of ambassadorship, one which underlines what has just been said, is found in Ephesians 6:20 where Paul describes himself as ‘an ambassador in bonds’. Literally, he was a prisoner in Rome at the time. Spiritually, he was also in bonds. He was the bondslave of Jesus Christ, captive to His love, captive to the Word of God. This is what we must be if we are to fulfil our stewardship in the gospel. This means - and here we come to the crux of what I want to say - that it is not merely a question of holding doctrinal orthodoxy. There is something much more important: having a life controlled by, and submissive to, the Word of God and the love of Christ. What say, in our preaching, is important. What we are when we say it is the most important thing of all. This point is emphasized in Scripture. We see this in Philippians 2:6 where we learn that Christ 'did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped’. What do these words mean? What they mean is this. Equality with God might be regarded as a status to be grasped and held on to at all costs. This is not the way Jesus thought. Equality with God was something that was His by right. It was enjoyed by Him, as the Second Person of the Trinity, before the world was created. By right, He could have held on to it. He did not do this. He freely surrendered it for the sake of a mysterious and eternal purpose - the redemption of the world. In the incarnation of the Son of God, the attitude of voluntary self-surrender came into the world. Think of our world, our bent and broken world, self-seeking and grasping, in which values are so distorted and corrupt. Into it came this principle of voluntary self-surrender. This is what happened when Christ came among us. This is a principle of incalculable potential. This is what Paul means when he says, 'let this mind be in you'. As Christ's ambassadors, this is the kind of people we are to be! Paul goes on to show how all this worked itself out in his own experience. “What things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss… I have suffered the loss of all things ... that I may win Christ…’ (Philippians 3:7-8). In the life of this man who has the mind of Christ, we see Christ's own self-surrender. For the sake of the world's redemption, Christ freely surrendered His equality with God. For the sake of the gospel, Paul freely surrendered all that was gain to him..
Paul’s words concerning Christ 'not regarding equality with God a thing to be grasped' (Philippians 2:6) can be understood in another way. We can read them in the light of the contrast between the first Adam and the second Adam. What happened with the first Adam? He was made 'in the image of God'. He was given dominion' over all the creation (Genesis 1:26-27). He was called 'the son of God' (Luke 3:38). Despite all this, Adam was tempted. What was the nature of his temptation. Satan said, 'Ye shall not surely die, but ye shall be as God, knowing good and evil'. Note the phrase - 'as God'. Equality with God - this is what Satan offered him. Adam he snatched at it. He regarded it as something to be grasped. Even though he had no right to it, he reached out for it, claiming it for himself. The second Adam was very different. He had the right to equality with God. He could have reached out it. He could have claimed it as His own. He did not do this. He did not consider it a thing to be grasped. He emptied Himself. For Christ, the appropriation of divine honour and equality in that way constituted a temptation to be resisted. He refused to countenance it. One sees this recurring temptation throughout the story of Jesus. It is particularly evident in the wilderness episode. The words, “all these things will I give thee if Thou wilt fall down and worship me” are nothing more than a thinly veiled suggestion of equality with God. Jesus regarded it as something that He was not prepared to grasp. The first Adam grasped at life - the tree in the midst of the garden - and laid hold upon death. The second Adam grasped death and laid hold on life. That is the heart of the gospel. Jesus did not think of equality with God as a thing not to be grasped at in the way Adam grasped at it. From the outset, the Incarnation becomes a substitution - not that but this, not that way but this way, not Adam’s way, but a new and living way. This is the mind that must be ours in the work of the gospel.
Another important passage is 2 Corinthians 2:14-16 - 'Thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumph, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?' The picture Paul uses here is that of a Roman triumph, in which the conquering general rode into the capital, with his captives chained to his chariot wheels, watched by cheering crowds, while incense burned on every altar by the way, to celebrate the victory. What Paul is saying is, not that he wins the battle, or that he is made to triumph (although this is taught elsewhere in Scripture and is blessedly true), but that he is the captive led in the conqueror’s train, and men see in him the trophy of the Conqueror’s power. It is he, Paul, who is t:he captive of Christ’s chariot wheels. Christ triumphed over him on the Damascus Road and bound him forever to Himself, and wherever he went, his captivity to Christ made the knowledge of the Saviour available to everyone he met This is the message here. What a tremendous word it is! Let us consider its meaning. Let us think about its significance.
Dr. J. Denney has some very fine things to say on this. Let me quote: ‘When God wins a victory over man, and leads him captive in triumph, the captive too has an interest in what happens: it is the beginning of all triumphs, in any true sense, for him … (The Damascus Road) was the beginning of God’s triumph over him: for that is how God led him in triumph in Christ, But it was the beginning also of all that made the Apostle’s life itself a triumph, not a career of hopeless, internal strife, such as it had been, but of unbroken Christian victory. Furthermore, the true meaning of the word reminds us that the only true triumphs we can ever have, deserving the name, must begin with God’s triumph over us…’ It is not for nothing that Paul begins many of his epistles with the words, 'Paul, bond-slave of Jesus Christ'. Can we say that the way we live, the experiences through which we pass, are for the blessing and redemption of men? Paul speaks not only of God triumphing over him in Christ, but also making manifest through him the savour of this knowledge in every place. Why does he use this word, ‘savour’? This figure is suggested by the idea of the Roman triumph, with the incense, smoking on every altar, and its fragrance floating over the whole procession. What Paul means is that the knowledge of Christ communicated through the lives of believers is a fragrant thing. As Paul went from place to place, men saw in him not, only the power, but also the sweetness of God’s redeeming love. 'The Mighty Victor made manifest through him, not only His might. But His charm, not only His greatness but His grace'. Well! What a challenge! Is our communication of the gospel a 'savour', a 'fragrant' thing? The charm, the winsomeness, the attractivness of it - is this what comes over? Listen again to J. Denney: 'It. is not to preachers only that this word ‘savour’ speaks: it is of the widest application. Wherever Christ is leading a single soul in triumph, the fragrance of the gospel should go forth; rather, it does go forth, in proportion as His triumph is complete. There is sure to be that in the life which will reveal the graciousness as well as the omnipotence of the Saviour. And it is this virtue which God uses as His main witness, as His chief instrument to evangelise the world. In every relationship of life it shall tell. Nothing is so insuppressible, nothing so pervasive, as a fragrance. The lowliest life which Christ is really leading in triumph will speak infallibly and persuasively for Him … And if we are conscious that we fail in this matter, and that the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ is something to which our life gives no testimony, let us be sure that the explanation of it is to be found in self-will. There is something in us which has not yet made complete surrender to Him, and not until He leads us unresistingly in triumph will the sweet savour go forth'. Who is sufficient for these things? There is only one Way: it is to be at Christ’s chariot wheels, manifestly a bond-slave of the Conqueror, manifestly conquered and mastered by the Master of men. Is that what we are?
From 2 Corinthians 2, we move to Paul’s mighty utterance in 2 Corinthians 4. There is so much here that, in trying not to miss out something valuable, one is almost tempted to say too much. I want to concentrate particularly on verses 7-13, which speak of ‘treasure in earthen vessels’. Paul is speaking of being ‘able ministers of the. New Testament’ (2 Corinthians 3:6). It is in this connection that he gives such important teaching on the stewardship of the gospel, our faithful communication of its message. What is it that makes us able ministers? What is it that makes us effective in the work of the gospel?
First of all, an able minister is one who ‘does not lose heart’ (verse 1). This is because he has a sense of the mercy of God. A sense of what we owe to Christ should be the inspiration of. all our endeavours. This is to be the divine force that keeps us going on and on. Denney comments, 'It was a signal proof of God’s mercy that He had entrusted Paul with the ministry of the gospel; and it was only what we should expect, when one who had obtained such mercy turned out to be a good soldier of Jesus Christ, able to endure hardship and not faint. Those to whom little is forgiven, Jesus Himself tells us, love little. It is not in them, for Jesus’ sake, to bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things. They faint easily, and are overborne by petty trials, because they have not in them that fountain of brave patience - a deep abiding sense of what they owe to Christ, and can never, by any length or ardour of service, repay. It accuses us, not so much of human weakness, as of ingratitude, and insensibility to the mercy of God, when we faint in the exercise of our ministry'.
The second thing that makes us able and effectual ministers or witnesses is that we should have renounced the hidden things of dishonesty (all that hinders the sweet savour from going forth). We see here, by implication, where weakness and discouragement can lead a man, betraying him into dishonesty and compromise in handling the things of God. The question then passes from the emotional realm to the moral. When a man loses heart he may also lose his testimony, yielding, for the sake of keeping the peace, to the temptation to accommodate or adapt his message to suit the spirit of the time, to manipulate the gospel dishonourably, to apply diplomacy in the preaching of it so as to avoid the reproach of the cross that straight preaching will certainly bring.
Thirdly, an able minister manifests the truth. His task is to unveil and show forth what the Word of God says, to lay bare the truth, and allow it to come out and speak for itself. We see this in Nehemiah 8:8 - giving the sense, and causing the people to understand the meaning. Underlying this is a basic, central presupposition, namely, that the truth itself contains the virtue and dynamic of God, and has, within itself, a converting, regenerating power.
A fourth consideration arises from what was said earlier about renouncing the hidden things of dishonesty. One great hindrance to the manifestation of the truth can lie in the preacher himself. If he is not right, the manifestation will not take place. He may say the right words, but the truth will be hidden, not merely in the sense that the hearers will be put off by the speaking of someone whose life they know is not right, but also even when the wrongness is quite hidden and unknown to any but God. Only when the channel is clean does the living water flow. But when it is thus made manifest, the truth will appeal to a man’s conscience, making an irresistible impression upon it.
Paul used the word, ‘commend' (v.2). He does not mean that the message creates a pleasing impression on the hearers. This was certainly not what happened on the day of Pentecost, when Peter manifested the truth, expounding the Scriptures and causing the people cry out, 'Men and brethren, what shall we do?' They were pricked in their hearts as they listened to Peter’s manifestation of the truth (Acts 2:37). There is something very important here. Conscience is God’s monitor in the soul. It is the moral element in man’s nature. It is this that the Christian message has to address. Denney maintains that this is why the preacher’s task is not to prove but to proclaim the gospel - 'not to set out an unanswerable argument (although of course the gospel has a reasoned and reasonable case), but rather to make an irresistible impression (and to make that impression upon the conscience, the moral nature of man, in such a way that it will be futile for him to protest against it), an impression that subdues and holds him for ever, to manifest the truth, to hold up the truth before men until it tells on the conscience of those that hear it.'
In verse 6, Paul speaks of 'the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face Jesus Christ'. This is 'the treasure that we have in earthen vessels' (v.7). We must note the association of ideas: this light has shined in our hearts, and now, having been enlightened it is our responsibility to let the light shine before men. (Matthew 5:16). How are we to let the light shine? Through preaching, through witnessing? Yes - ‘we preach not ourselves but Christ Jesus the Lord’ (v.5) - but there is another prerequisite. What I mean is this: look at the link between ‘earthen vessels’ (v.7) and being ‘troubled on every side’ (v.8). The ‘light’ has to be let out. How can the light shine out of an earthen vessel? Well, there is not much you can do with an earthen vessel except break it. If the vessel is broken, the light gets out. Matthew Henry has a remarkably fruitful interpretation of these words. He suggests that Paul may have in mind the well-known story of Gideon and his three hundred men (Judges 7:13-21). When the light shone through the shattered pitchers, there was such a display of light that the enemy thought they were surrounded by an army of thousands, and fled the field in disarray. This is how the victory was won! Whether Paul had this in mind or not, it: is an excellent illustration, and very pertinent for our point. How can light shine out of an earthen vessel? There is only one way this can happen. The earthen vessel needs to be shattered. Paul goes on to say, ‘We are troubled on every side yet not distressed, always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might he made manifest in our body' 'The life also of Jesus' - what does this mean? It is ‘the light of the knowledge of His glory'. To speak of that light shining into us to transform us means nothing other than this - the risen Lord of glory comes, by His Spirit, into our hearts. Once He is in our hearts, He wants out from our hearts to bring blessing to men. Paul expresses the same idea, in different imagery, when, in Galatians 3:1, he speaks of Christ crucified being ‘placarded’ for all to see. The phrase, ‘earthen vessels’ refers our whole human nature - 'man’s body in its weakness, and liability to death; his mind with its limitations and confusions, his moral nature with its distortions and misconceptions, and its insight not yet half restored.' It is to such 'earthen vessels' that the rnighty God commits the treasure of the light of the gospel. This idea is very deeply embedded in Paul’s theology. You might call it the theology of Christian experience. In 1 Corinthians 2:3-5, Paul describes what it means to have the knowledge of God's glory in an earthen vessel - ‘I was with you in weakness, and fear and much trembling that the excellency of the power may be of God and not of us - and my speech was not with the enticing words man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power' The earthen vessel was shattered, and the light shined out all over Corinth! Accompanying the marks of the cross, there are the marks of the resurrection. The one produces the other, as an infallible law of spiritual harvest: 'Death worketh in us, but life in you' (2 Corinthians 4:12). Denney comments, 'Suffering, for the Christian, is not an accident; it is a divine appointment and a divine opportunity. To wear life out in the service of Jesus is to open it to the entrance of Jesus’ life: it is to receive, in all its alleviations, in all its renewals, in all its deliverances, a witness to His resurrection. Perhaps it is only by accepting this service, with the daily dying it demands, that the witness can be given to us; and “the life of Jesus” on His throne may become incomprehensible and unreal in proportion as we decline to bear about in our bodies His dying. The evangelist 'always carries around in his body the death of Jesus' so that those who receive his message partake of Jesus’ risen life and power - 'Death is at work in us, but life is at work in you' (verses 10-11). Our lives are to reflect the death of Christ in such a way that men are somehow reminded of Calvary. We are to be signposts to Calvary. Our lives must say to men, 'Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world' (John 1:29). They must say, positively and convincingly, 'I know a fount where sins are washed away.' In verses 13-15, Paul underlines this point. His message to us may summed up thus - 'I believe this to be the pattern of effective service for God. I believe this is what He promises to bless, and I am going forward on that assumption, that my sacrificial living, my bearing in my body the dying of the Lord Jesus, the shattering of the earthen pitcher, will be owned of God in revealing the risen and omnipotent Saviour to dying men and women.'
This is the real challenge of the minister’s inner life and preparation for his work. It is a costly way to live. We will often be tempted to take lower ground. Evangelical orthodoxy can become a substitute for living, fruitful faith. No doubt you, like me, will have attended theological conferences, at which intellectualism, though impeccably orthodox, has been lifeless. Evangelical brilliance has been a brilliance without a heart. It has come across as mere cleverness. After more than thirty years, I still remember, with pain, a paper on Dispensationalism. The speaker, a well-known scholar sneered at the naivety of those who hold such a view. Much more recently, I recall the clever points-scoring of a brash young intellectual taking part in a debate on the ‘separation’ issue. On both occasions, I was in substantial agreement with the theological positions taken by these men. Nevertheless, my heart was grieved by the empty cleverness of men who spoke without unction. Such cleverness is not far removed from the kind of cynicism which is frightening to behold. This kind of thing can be such a terrible blight on those affected by it. One fears that it conceals the sad truth that there is a death that men are refusing to die.
A man needs unction if his ministry is to do anything in this generation. Let me quote to you some words from E.M. Bounds’ remarkable booklet ‘Power through Prayer”, in which he speaks of unction as 'the indefinable in preaching which makes it preaching. It is that which distinguishes and separates preaching from all mere human addresses. It is the divine in preaching. This unction vitalizes God’s revealed truth, makes it living and life-giving, Even God’s truth spoken without this unction is light, dead and deadening. Though abounding in truth, though weighty with thought, though sparkling with rhetoric, though pointed by logic, though powerful by earnestness, without: this divine unction it issues in death and not in life. Unction is that indefinable, indescribable something which an old, renowned Scottish preacher describes thus: “There is sometimes somewhat in preaching that cannot be described either to matter or expression, and cannot be described what it is, or from whence it cometh, but: with a sweet violence it pierceth into the heart and affections and comes immediately from the Lord; but if there be any way to obtain such a thing it is by the heavenly disposition of the speaker.” This divine unction is the feature which separates and distinguishes true gospel preaching from all other methods of presenting the truth, and which creates a wide spiritual chasm between the preacher who has it and the one who has it not. It supports and impregnates revealed truth with all the energy of God. Unction is simply putting God in His own Word and on His own preacher. By mighty and great prayerfulness and by continual prayerfulness, it is all potential and personal to the preacher; it inspires and clarifies his intellect, gives insight and grasp and projecting power; which is greater than head power; and tenderness, purity, force flow from the heart of it. Enlargement, freedom, fulness of thought, directness and simplicity of utterance are the fruits of this unction.'
That must be all - except to say this: this theme in Scripture is one that has held a fascination for me over the years. I have been preoccupied with it, and gripped by it for I have felt that here I was at the heart of all that is absolutely vital in Christian service. I have felt that, if I was to be any use to God in the service of the gospel, this pattern must become a continuing reality in my life. And I want to say that To the extent that this has been a reality, in that measure God has been pleased to bless the testimony. Sometimes, I feel that I have only caught the merest glimpse of it and that only a pale, fitful reflection of it has been there in me. How deeply I wish it had been far more than it has been. I believe with all my heart that all that there has been of good in my ministry has been so because something of all this has touched my life. I know that I must be brought to this place again and again, day by day, as I continue to preach His Word..
When Peter was at a low point - 'death' - that he was raised by the Lord's commission, 'Feed My sheep', to the great privilege of bringing 'life' to others (John 21:15-17). Like Peter, we need to be brought again and again to that place of 'death' to ourselves where we can begin to become useful to the Lord in bringing His 'life' to others. The earthen vessel must be broken for the light to show forth. We must become broken bread and poured out wine for the life of the world. The shapes taken by the ‘crucible’ may be various. The principle is always the same. Behind every life that has ever spoken for God, there is a continuing experience of the cross. Christ re-enacts a thousand Calvaries in us to bless the lives of men. What we say is important, but what we are when we say it is also important. This is the message. It beckons us on, whispering in our hearts with monotonous insistence: 'The message of Christ crucified can be preached effectively only by a crucified man'.