I remember my old mentor, Dr. D. James Kennedy, telling me that the pastor must love three things more than all others: God, God’s Word, and God’s People. I believe his admonition of these simple and profound intuitive desires came from a singular passion stirred in the heart of the pastor by God Himself. These three “loves” cannot be manufactured by man or instilled by a seminary. This is altogether the incomparable work of God in the human soul. However, these “three loves” must-be stirred, kindled and expanded for even more productive ministry through the ordinary means of grace given to the pastor.
Consider one passage from the mind and heart of Paul, one passage that has meant to so much to me in every station of my pastoral ministry. We think of this peerless genius and tireless teacher of truth as the great apostle, evangelist, missionary and ambassador of the Gospel to the Gentiles, and yet, here and in some other places in his writings, we come face to face with one of the greatest pastors of all time. Oh, what a portrait of a true, Christ-like good shepherd is here painted by Paul’s heart disclosed and open for all to see! What do we learn about the “secret love life”-the passionate life-of a pastor of Christ’s flock? The illuminated are those who simply, purposely, patiently and carefully read the ink of the Holy Spirit in the scribbling of Paul’s pen.
“But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, 18 because we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again—but Satan hindered us. 19 For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? 20 For you are our glory and joy” (1 Thessalonians 2:17-20 ESV).
A Broken Heart
Paul’s words in seeking to communicate his heart to the Thessalonians not only convey his love to them but demonstrates to us that the pastorate is risky work-you risk your heart. “It is dirty work,” O. Palmer Robertson said of those who are compared to sheep tenders by Jesus. Quite. When you preach the Word, publicly and privately; when you bring the Word in the Bread and the Cup to the saints, and when you are there at their spiritual and physical births, and pour the covenantal waters of God over the dear heads of these people, I assure you that you will never be the same.
“Is it like being in love with a girl, then? Is it like being away from the one you love? Is that the pain that Paul speaks of when he writes about being ‘torn away from you?'”
It is that and more. It is like being in love with the Church, I say. It is like having your heart filled and overflowing with the celestial-earthly beauty of what Christ is doing in human soul. “But aren’t they ornery creatures, these sheep?” Yes, and so are you! But I tell you that the most difficult child is still loved by the tender-hearted mother. God loves these for whom Christ died and you will too if you minister in the power of the Spirit (and not the flesh). The saints of God may not understand that your love is greater than their insults or indifference or waywardness or criticisms. “But,” the applicant continues, “I have heard it said that there are ‘divine subtractions!'” No, I say. No, there are problem-people but if there were not would there be a need for a pastor? I tell you that the greatest heartache and regrets I have are not in the time invested in the “lovable saints,” but in protecting myself from the “unintentional dragons.” I would rather, now, spend more time with them than any other. Their nasty e-mails and their thoughtless barbs are so often the cloaked cries of a wounded spirit. And I withdrew. Oh, how I would go back a thousand times to hold them until the stiffness went away. Of course, there are wounded sheep and, then, there are wolves in sheep’s clothing. Knowing the difference requires a life of prayer and most often the wisdom of other elders.
Just ask a pastor who is loved and then, through one circumstance or another, is removed from the saints. He will tell you that his heart has been torn in twain. But here is the thing, my beloved: this is your life as a pastor. You will have a broken heart. To love is to be hurt, they say. To open your life to others is to open your heart to brokenness. Christ had a broken heart like no other pastor (and He is the Chief pastoral model in all of Scripture). Think of His heart being broken as he wept at the funeral of his friend, or as he wept over Jerusalem who would turn against Him. He was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. Yet through this broken heart, He comes to us as One who knows our broken heart. So God breaks your heart as a pastor so that you love even more. For God does not need shepherds who do not love, who do not weep, who cannot feel the pain of separation from the flock. “Love God, Love His Word, and Love People,” Dr. Kennedy said and I cannot but become very emotional as I recall that charge to me and then read these words of Paul’s; and as I write to you, my beloved.
An Unexpected Journey
Note that Paul said that “we wanted to come to you,” but he had been “torn away.” He had intended to come to them personally. He did not want to write an epistle. He wanted to bring the Word to them personally. But his ministry here, and in other places, was always being re-routed by the devil (only a mere secondary cause in the glorious redemptive plan of God) or even in some case (no in all cases, even in this case) sovereignly diverted by the Holy Spirit to accomplish God’s purposes in the world at just the perfect time. But oh how costly these diversions are to the soul of the minister of Christ! There would be no pain, of course, if there were no love. Ask the pastor who has loved a flock and expected to minister to that congregation for the rest of his life, only to discover that his plan, a good plan, was not God’s? Was Paul’s desire to go to Asia wrong? Of course not. Yet the Holy Spirit forbid him to go so that he would head westward to bring the Gospel of life to Lydia and her European spiritual progeny. What of Paul’s journey from Corinth to Jerusalem after he declared that he would never preach again to the Jews? Yet this same man was redirected to return to the Jews to preach Christ to them. The old Methodists took a vow of itinerary, realizing that they would be sent wherever Bishop Asbury would send them. So, too, do you, in a way, take such a vow when you surrender to the Gospel ministry. For the Bishop of your soul, the Head of the Church, may send you places you do not want to go. Yet His kingdom vision is what guides you; not your own. Thus the ministry is, as it was to Pastor Paul, a most unexpected journey. The sooner you come to terms with this vow of love the sooner you will be contented in God’s service, and trust that unexpected journeys are never unexpected to God.
A Diabolical Opposition
If you have never seen the reality of Satanic activity, you need not go to an ancient, arid Animistic culture in a third world country or a pagan pageantry in a foggy, green-jungle, or an idolatrous village along the Ganges; you have only to do the work of the Lord with zeal where you are. Satan sought to disrupt the relationship of Paul and the Thessalonians. And why? The answer to that is no more remote than the very vision of the Great Commission of Jesus Christ! In the pastoral ministry, the saints are grown by the preaching of the Word, prayer, Scripture reading, singing the Psalms and hymns of faith, by pastoral visitation, and through the ministry of presence-the faithful, week-in and week-out pointing to Jesus of Nazareth. All of this regular pastoral work leads to a growth in the kingdom (too often unnoticed by even the pastor) as faith is strengthened and then passed from generation to generation. But fear not oh messenger of Christ! He who overcame the devil in the wilderness will guard you in such seasons of devilish attack. He who was comforted by heavenly angels in the desolate place after an obedience in the desert which Moses and the Children of Israel could not accomplish, and which you and I cannot accomplish without Him, will send angels to succor you. Paul’s heart-wounds, after being diverted by the devil, become the sacred time of writing this very letter, which instructs us today. Thus will Christ always deliver His pastors, even unto everlasting life, should the devil and the world bring martyrdom to the pastor. We live under the motif of the Cross and the Empty Tomb. This is the ground on which we conduct our ministry to the world.
An Other-Centered Identity
Paul asks, “For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at His coming?” This is a question that has already been answered in the heart of this pastor on display. What Paul is saying, is that his hope, joy, and crown of boasting is in “you” at Christ’s coming, has become his very identity. The pastorate is not a job or a career like so many. It is, rather, most like the identity of a physician of the body. The physician’s work flows from his identity. He is “Doctor so and so.” He cannot separate himself from his healing arts and his availability to the wounded community. He is a doctor of the body whether he is a spectator at a high school football game or whether he is in his lab coat in his office. He is and must always be a doctor. Thus, the physician of the soul is one whose identity is totally tied to a sacred encounter with the Christ who calls, and with the people that the pastor is called to serve with his very life. So, as Paul poses this rhetorical question (a question that Paul wanted to answer so that he would bring joy into the hearts of his spiritual children, the Thessalonians), so we who are pastors join with the “Apostle of the Heart Set Free” and declare that our identity also is in Christ and is with His Church, the blessed redeemed of God. Our identity is others-centered.
A Present Joy in a Future Hope
In a similar and climactic way, Paul links the hope and the joy and the rejoicing or boasting, not only in the saints of God but in a day when his ministry will be completed: at the parousia of Jesus. There, in that Day, when as Fanny Crosby wrote in her hymn, there will be “souls safe in the arms of Jesus,” Paul will know the fully ripened fruit of his pastoral ministry. And so will you! Your pastorate is not judged by only those who come to Christ, or are healed of soul, or commit to the Kingdom of Jesus in your lifetime, but who multiply that conversion, that healing, that Kingdom work, by sharing their faith through the ages, through their familial and their spiritual descendants. They, all of them, are yours (that is, they are Christ’s), in the sense that you will see how powerful Christ is with so weak a worker as yourself. You will see how God multiplied ministry even though your heart was broken as you were “run out” of one pastorate only to find a new love in another pastorate (though you never stopped loving the saints where you were led from; for the saints in all the churches we serve are like flowers we gather from the several parts of the fields of Christ that we serve; flowers which are preserved for us for all the days of our lives, and here, even unto eternity). This is our hope and our joy and our crown-our people safe in the arms of the true Shepherd. But of course, that is where we shall also be. Safe in his arms. The shepherd’s heart healed, his journey completed, all opposition thwarted (and used to bring him home), and his identity absorbed into the One he followed, as the pastor joins with the saints and processes to the Lamb’s throne-that which was preached for so long and with so many tears and trials-is now the hope fulfilled. And the pastor’s tears are wiped away by God Himself.
Dearest students in the Gospel of grace, and especially those of you called by Christ to shepherd his flock, read Paul-read his pastor’s heart in his pastor’s words-and be comforted by the Holy Spirit. Then go and love God, love God’s Word, and love God’s saints. There is no other work like it in all of this world. But it will end in another world that is already on its way.
Don’t you just love it?
Dr. Michael A. Milton (PhD, University of Wales) is the Distinguished Professor of Missions and Evangelism at Erskine Theological Seminary where he also serves as the Director of Chaplain Ministries. The retired fourth presidency and chancellor of the RTS System, Dr. Milton founded and shepherded 3 churches (KS, GA, and NC), and was the senior minister of the historic First Presbyterian Church of Chattanooga. Mike Milton is a US Army Chaplain (Colonel) retired, and remains President of the D. James Kennedy Institute of Reformed Leadership. Dr. Milton’s life verse is from Philippians 1:6: “Being confident of this, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it unto the day of Jesus Christ.” Or, as Mike puts it in the title of his autobiography, “What God Starts God Completes.”