Paul’s ministry philosophy never ceases to surprise me. Toward the end of his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul wraps things up by informing them of his plans to come to them soon, but not yet: “But 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).
Paul says he's going to stay in Ephesus because there's a wide door open for effective work. Apparently people are responding to the gospel, being discipled in the way of the Lord, built up into the image of Christ, developed into community, and trained as elders. The kingdom is moving forward.
Also, “there are many adversaries.”
I don't know why, but that little phrase stopped me short. I suppose that despite everything I've seen, read, and been told about Christian ministry, I still have this sense that if God is for a thing, there shouldn't be any opposition; if it's a real opportunity for the kingdom, that will automatically mean the field is clear and there are no obstacles or enemies. My assumption seems to be that if God is with me, then everything will go smoothly and all will embrace me.
And yet nothing in the story of Scripture leads us to believe that's true.
In his book Death by Living: Life Is Meant to Be Spent, N. D. Wilson highlights this point well by tearing the lid off a common Christian assumption that paradise before the fall was easy living:
Incorrect. It was joyful and glorious, which is a very different thing. Adam and Eve were given an entire planet to tend. Every last creature to identify, name, and oversee. Or, in the case of the dragon, identify, name, and kill. All before the fall. All while the world was perfect. . . . He would have sweat and bled and worked six days and rested one day every week through millennia. He would have done it with joy, with laughter, with a wife and children to labor and triumph with him. Yes, triumph. Because he was also given enemies. Big ones. Bigger than your roommate or that annoying rival in the adjacent cubicle. Fallen-angel-level enemies.
Redemptive History Was a Battle
Beginning with Adam, the people of God have always had a fight on their hands. The serpent was always there to make war on God's people, and the fight didn't let up after the fall.
When God restarted his kingdom project, Abraham, our father in the faith, had to fight kings of the land of Canaan to rescue Lot and his retinue.
Moses had to fight Pharaoah with all of his magicians, hordes of soldiers, and dark, demonic gods in Egypt.
Israel had to fight the Amalekites and the Amorites and all the kingdoms of Canaan to take hold of the promised land.
David had to fight off Philistines who threatened God's people and God's holy land.
Prophets like Elijah had to fight the prophets of Baal through the proclamation of the Word of God.
Nehemiah had a fight on his hands against Sanballat and Tobiah, who hated the idea of Israel rebuilding the wall again.
On and on we go until we come to the man, the final Adam, who fought the powers of sin, death, and the Devil himself in a mighty act of combat through his life, death, and resurrection.
And even though our Lord has ascended as the glorified victor over all, with every power and authority on, under, and over the earth under his sovereign boot, he calls his people to go out against that same adversary, the conquered serpent, in order to spread his kingdom and set captives free.
Following in His Steps
Why would we ever think then that life and ministry would be easy? Where would we ever get the idea that opportunity for the kingdom means a lack of adversaries?
No, we need to prepare ourselves to think as Paul did. Instead of always seeking out the easy road, the assignments or opportunities we think will be smoothest, we ought to have the mindset Calvin describes as he comments on the passage above:
He assigns two reasons for remaining for a longer time at Ephesus—[first], because an opportunity is afforded him there of furthering the gospel; and [second], because, in consequence of the great number of adversaries that were there, his presence was particularly required. . . . We see, then, how this holy man sought everywhere Christ’s glory, and did not select a place with a view to his own convenience or his own pleasure; but simply looked to this—where he might do most good, and serve his Lord with most abundant fruit; and in addition to this, he did not merely not shrink back from hardships, but presented himself, of his own accord, where he saw that he would have to contend more keenly, and with greater difficulty.
As Christians we know that our contending for the gospel in the new covenant isn’t a matter of balling up our fists or planning military adventures. As Paul reminds the Ephesians, “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). No, with Paul, “though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Cor. 10:3-4). We contend through prayer, the strong word of the gospel, and a sacrificial, enemy-loving life that bears a strong testimony against schemes of the true enemy.
This call extends to the job opportunities we pursue; are we thinking only of paycheck and comfort, or about calling and kingdom opportunity? Or how about the neighborhoods where we consider moving? Are we there simply because we think they're safe communities, close to family, or the image of ideal life? Or are we there on mission for Christ? Would we ever consider moving somewhere uncomfortable, where we don't fit in, so that Christ may be seen in us? Or how about the friendships we cultivate? Are they easy, relaxed ones, or do we take the time to build relationships that with people who may be difficult and troublesome so that we may be Christ's agents of grace in their lives?
These questions could be applied to every other dimension of life. We are not to shy away from what the Lord is calling us to simply because there might be opposition. No, in this way that we follow our savior, the brave king who came despite all opposition to rescue us, his bride.