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Living Epistles: The Proof of True Ministry
By David A. DePra
Do we begin again to commend ourselves? Or need we, as some others, epistles of commendation to you, or letters of commendation from you? You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: Forasmuch as you are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshly tables of the heart. (2 Cor. 3:1-3)
Wrapped up in this passage by the apostle Paul to the church at Corinth, we have the definition of true ministry. This may not be apparent at first, but it is exactly that. True ministry, according to Paul, makes people into living epistles of Jesus Christ.
Contrast this over and against what many of us think of when we think of true ministry. Some assume that ministry that is blessed of God will result in big numbers – members and money. Others think that real ministry will result in everyone being happy with their church. Others – and this is big today – believe that any ministry that is really of God will make people happy with THEMSELVES. Indeed, there are those who would condemn any minister who suggests otherwise. But according to Paul, none of these things have anything to do with ministry that is of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, he says that if there is any proof at all of his ministry, it is this: The people in whom there is formed the measure of Christ. People have become epistles of Jesus through what God is doing in the life of Paul.
Note how he approaches this subject. Apparently there was in that day a practice of commending ministers from one congregation to another by sending letters. If you liked what a preacher taught, you sent a letter of recommendation along with him. And if you were a minister, before you left a congregation, you would get one of those letters from them. Thus, Paul’s statement, "Do we need, as some others, letters of commendation to you, or letters of commendation from you?"
There really isn’t anything new under the sun. This practice continues today. If you have a piece of paper called a DEGREE, and then, along with that, another piece of paper called an ORDINATION, you essentially have a, "letter of commendation." Someone – usually a denomination or seminary – is saying that you are qualified to preach and teach, and that they can recommend you as a pastor. The trouble is, this is quite subjective. Cults have their own theological institutions, and issue their own ordinations. In effect, none of this necessarily means anything. The number of heretics operating under the authorization of ordination, and the number of true preachers who have been fired for preaching the Truth, testifies to the fact that God never established this kind of system. It is strictly of man.
There are other ways in which this practice of sending, "letters of commendation," carries on. It is not restricted to the more formal ordination process. For example, I could probably dig up thousands of people – actually, about 30,000 every weekend – who would recommend Joel Osteen as a minister of God. Same goes for false teachers like Robert Schuller, and many others. Does the recommendation of thousands mean anything? Well, I guess it does mean one thing: Many people are deceived. Indeed, I would venture a guess that at some point the antichrist himself – since he is to deceive the many – would be able to get many letters of recommendation. And yet all of it would be the product of deception – and not of God.
But according to the apostle Paul, the only thing that matters is whether CHRIST has been produced in people. NOT what people think is Christ, or a substitute for Christ – but whether Jesus Christ is manifested in people to the point where they are becoming living epistles of God. THAT was Paul’s letter of recommendation. It was the ONLY one he cared about or talked about.
Do we realize that Paul would NOT have been recommended by many churches of his day – indeed, he was at one point rejected by some of the very churches he started? That Paul, later in his life, said that almost everyone turned away from him? And how about Jesus Christ Himself? Would the religious experts of Jesus’ day have commended Him? No. They condemned Him, and handed Him over to be crucified.
Now, I do realize that there are many so-called preachers out there who love hearing things like this because they want to make themselves into something by pointing to their lack of credentials, and to the fact that no one will let them preach. They might say, "See. The fact that I have been rejected proves that my ministry is of God." But NO. That isn’t true either, and it is not what I am saying. I am saying that credentials and ordinations, and letters of recommendation – these, of themselves, prove NOTHING. But I am also saying that the LACK of all of these also proves NOTHING. The fact that I have been accepted by the masses, or even by my church, doesn’t mean God is in my ministry. But the fact that I have been rejected by the same also means nothing. What proves that my ministry is of God is whether it has produced LIFE – HIS LIFE in other people.
The Goal of True Ministry
Therefore seeing we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we faint not; But have renounced the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully; but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God. But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost: In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them. For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus' sake. For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us. We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body. For we which live are always delivered unto death for Jesus' sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh. So then death works in us, but life in you. (2 Cor. 4:1-12)
This passage is a continuation of the one with which we began this article. Paul is describing what creates the possibility of true ministry flowing through the minister. Do we see even one mention of a theological education? Of a course in counseling? Of the need to find a group willing to ordain you? Nope. Rather, what we see is a relationship going on between the one chosen for ministry and God – a relationship that will produce DEATH in the one chosen, so that out of that may flow LIFE – the life of Christ that is able to minister to others.
If we read this passage and are willing to embrace the Truth in it, the result will be a complete renewing of our thinking on this matter of ministry. Indeed, if we really take the Truth in this passage all the way through to what it means about LIFE IN CHRIST – we are liable to emerge with a completely new understanding of Christianity itself. Christianity is NOT a religion – not even the one true religion. It is not merely a list of teaching we adopt. Neither is it an ecclesiastical structure or organization. No. Christianity is CHRIST IN US. And once we understand this, then the purpose of all ministry ought to become obvious: All ministry of the Holy Spirit is unto the fullness of Christ in us.
This is exactly what Paul said in Ephesians:
And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ: (Eph 4:11-13)
Paul here names five ministry callings, if you will, but gathers them all up into ONE purpose. He says all of these are to be at work until when? "Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ." How much more clear could it be as to God’s purpose for ministry? And if that is God’s purpose for ministry, then it certainly is God’s purpose for your personal and individual Christian life and mine!
Of course, Paul tells us that the way in which this, "fullness of Christ," is accomplished is through the, "perfecting (the word is EQUIPPING) of the saints for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ – i.e., for the BUILDING UP of the body in Christ." Note that every part of ministry has to do with CHRIST IN US.
Now, contrast this over and against what the goal of ministry is often made to be: The building of big churches. The accumulation of wealth and influence. Or, often the goal of ministry is made to be the indoctrination of people into teachings and doctrines ABOUT Jesus Christ – which is good and necessary if Biblically sound – but often this indoctrination is not unto the edification and fullness of Christ Himself IN the individuals. The fact is, the Holy Spirit is concerned about CHRIST IN US.
If you read John, chapters 14 through 16, and closely note what Jesus said the Comforter would do, "when He comes," you will see that His words agree completely with those of the apostle Paul. The work of the Holy Spirit is the fullness of Christ in the individual. Anything else, and it is not the Holy Spirit.Paul said, "So then death works in us, but life in you." According to him, THIS was his ministry. God was doing something IN HIM so that Christ could be released THROUGH Him, and consequently, minister LIFE to others. This is NOT about anything less than the ministration of LIFE – the very life of Jesus Christ.
Epistles of Christ
What is an epistle of Christ? Such a question is important because Paul says that such a thing is PROOF that the Holy Spirit has been the agent of ministry.
Well, think about it. A living epistle written by the work of the Holy Spirit would be someone whose life, "reads," in such a way that it glorifies God. In short, if I am a living epistle of Christ, my life will be an example of what happens when God has His way with someone – through His Son, Jesus Christ.
There are many other ways to express this Truth. For example, if I am a living epistle of Christ, my life will not display MY righteousness for MY glory, but rather, my life will display what it means for someone to be a product of God’s grace. Even when I sin or fail, my life will point to Christ – not as the source of my failures, but as my solution. Thus, a living epistle is not perfect – but is a message written in a human being about the One who has done a work of grace in me despite the fact that I am not perfect. My life points to CHRIST, and not to ME.
A living epistle is a witness to Jesus Christ – not a witness to how wonderful God has made ME. The life of a living epistle is DEFINED by their relationship to Christ – through dependence and devotion. Thus, this isn’t about how righteous I have become, or about how much of a spiritual giant I am, or about how much faith I have. No – that would be a sad commentary on MYSELF. Rather, a living epistle is a witness to how wonderful Christ is – because I live in dependence upon, and devotion to, HIM.
This is an especially important point. So many Christians, because they know that God wants to do a work in THEM, and wants to set THEM free, and wants to make THEM into a vehicle for His glory, continue to focus on THEMSELVES. But the best such a focus can do is write an epistle about ourselves. Ugh. No. God does want to do all of those things IN US – but we need to recognize that if He actually does do it, that one thing this will set us free from is a focus on OURSELVES. Thus, we won’t be an epistle or a living testimony about ourselves. Rather, the Holy Spirit will set us free from ourselves, and make us vehicles who glorify Christ.
The bottom line is that a living epistle is someone in whom the Holy Spirit can do as He pleases. This is someone over whom Jesus Christ is Lord. We cannot determine what God is writing in us, and we cannot decide what kind of epistle God will write. No. All of that must be surrendered. A living epistle unto Christ is someone in whom God has written His Son, and someone in whom God is writing a message to His glory.
Now, all true ministry will teach people this, and lead by example in this way. A real minister of the gospel is going to focus people on how to surrender to God for His glory, and is going to lead the way by actually DOING IT. What will result is the DEATH in the minister of everything in his personal life that might have hindered this. And then the LIFE – the greater release of Christ in them – that is produced from this death will be the dynamic by which others are brought into this same process. In short, just as Christ went to the Cross that all of us might LIVE, so those in the ministry – really, everyone to a greater or lesser degree – must carry our own Cross, that Christ might be enlarged in us unto true ministry to others.
In the end, ministry is LIFE. It is the life of Christ, through the Holy Spirit, working through you and I to others. This LIFE manifests along certain lines – certain callings. But it is all about LIFE – His life in us. Anything that is void of His life is NOT ministry.
According to the Bible, "the anointing," is when a person is apprehended by the Lordship of Jesus Christ. In other words, if God has brought you to the place where He can do anything He wants to do in your life, and thus, anything He wants to do THROUGH your life unto others – you cannot have the second without the first – then there is a release of the Holy Spirit in you that can be called, "an anointing." Thus, the entire issue of an anointing upon a person is directly tied to whether the Holy Spirit is sovereign in their lives, and to whether Jesus Christ is their personal Lord. In short, when God is free to do as He pleases, then God WILL do as He pleases, and the limitations are only what God says they are!
I hope we can see this. It is vital. For today we are being told, as never before, that, "the anointing," is a THING or a GIFT that God gives a person, that enables them for ministry. It is sort of God’s unconditional blessing upon them – and because of that, what they do is going to be blessed. Therefore, since God’s supposed, "anointing," is upon such a person, you and I need to go to them in order to partake of that, "anointing." Indeed, on Christian television today, we are being told that this, "anointing," is, "tangible and transferable." That’s an exact quote. We are being told that if we give them money, and PARTNER with them, that the anointing they have been given will be passed onto US.
This is a lie. What it does is completely bypass the PERSON OF JESUS CHRIST and turn the anointing into a THING that God’s gives to people so that they can minister. The Bible doesn’t teach this. And the damage such heresy does cannot be measured.
One place we see the Truth about this is by examining the teachings, and examples of the Bible, about the, "laying on of hands." You will notice that the laying on of hands is listed in Hebrews 6:1 as a foundational doctrine of Christianity. Is this laying on of hands the means by which, "an anointing," is imparted?
No. Not at all. To LAY HANDS ON SOMEONE was an outward action indicative of the fact that the person was to come under the full Lordship of Jesus Christ. In other words, you were expressing the fact that the Lord Jesus was, "grabbing, holding, or apprehending," that person for HIS WILL AND GLORY. Once we understand this, it becomes clear as to why the laying on of hands was often done when a person received the Holy Spirit at their salvation. Sure. There was never any other thought in the mind of God about salvation except that it meant to come under, yes, Christ as Savior, but also Christ as personal Lord.
This is another Truth lost today but which is vital to see. If you think you can receive Christ as ONLY your Savior, but reject Him as your personal Lord, you are deceived. It really is BOTH or NEITHER. Once you receive Christ as your Savior, you have made the commitment to come under the work of the Spirit to make Him Lord of your whole self.
The work of the Holy Spirit for this age is to make us living epistles of Jesus Christ – which is equal to making Him LORD OF US PERSONALLY. This won’t glorify us, will it? No. It will make our lives glorify HIM! And that is really the purpose of any ANOINTING.
But you see, this whole purpose has been skewed by false teaching. For example, the charismatics have divided up salvation and the receiving of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and made them into TWO separate experiences. According to their teaching, it is possible to be saved by receiving CHRIST IN YOU, and to have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit – but to still lack the fullness of the Spirit and all of the gifts and so much more. For that you have to receive what used to be called, "the second blessing." But in these teachings you never hear hardly a mention of the fact that God’s purpose is to make Jesus Christ our personal Lord – which is true holiness and what it means to become a living epistle to God’s glory. Rather, they teach that what you get in the second blessing are gifts, miracles, prosperity, and experiences.
The real Truth is, there is only ONE Lord, ONE salvation, and ONE blessing. When we receive Christ we are COMPLETE IN HIM. We still need to grow, but this is what it means for the Holy Spirit to begin writing on our hearts. It is what it means for us to be apprehended by the Holy Spirit for God’s purpose. When we receive Christ we receive Him THROUGH the Holy Spirit – which IS Holy Spirit baptism – and we ARE at that point coming under the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit and the Lordship of Jesus Christ. There isn’t any other blessing or time this can happen! And this is precisely why, at the time of conversion, when we are baptized into Christ by the baptism WITH the Holy Spirit, that the LAYING ON OF HANDS is supposed to be done. When we receive Christ we receive Him as BOTH Lord and Savior, and are committing ourselves to come under that work of the Holy Spirit to make Him our Lord.
Of course I recognize that the NT indicates that the laying on of hands was also done on special occasions when God was setting apart someone for special use. But do we think that God would do this to the exclusion of Jesus as personal Lord of that person? No. Jesus wants to be Lord of them regardless of special use -- Lord of ALL of us. But until that person has come under the Lordship of Jesus there can be very little use! The laying on of hands in that case is not so much an impartation of something NEW, as it is an extension or outworking of the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit -- in apprehending that person for specific purposes. God is saying, "You have yielded to Me. So now I can use you for what I desire." In effect, once Jesus is Lord of a person, His Lordship over them makes it possible for God to use them in special ways. It is good and right to express this through the laying on of hands on those occasions.
Can we see that this is never an arbitrary IMPARTATION, or something that happens if we give a few buck to someone? No. This is about the Lordship of Jesus Christ. This is what THE ANOINTING is all about -- coming under His Lordship as a Christian, and then, yes, perhaps being used of God because of it. But NEVER is the anointing peddled around with money, or bought and sold like merchandise.
Now, in case anyone doubts this, we merely need to read the ONLY place in the entire NT where THE ANOINTING is mentioned:
These things have I written unto you concerning them that seduce you. But the anointing which you have received of him abides in you, and you need not that any man teach you: but as the same anointing teaches you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it has taught you, you shall abide in him. (1 John 2:26-27)
Can we see from this passage what now ought to be the only thing that makes sense, that Jesus Christ in us IS the anointing? Sure. "Christ," means, "anointed one." And that because Christ is in us through the Holy Spirit – ONE blessing, not two – that this automatically means that we have come UNDER the anointing, that is, that we have been apprehended for the work of the Holy Spirit to make Jesus our personal Lord?
According to the Bible, if we have missed the mark and are not under the Lordship of Jesus Christ – I mean personally and in a real way, not just by word or theory – that we have strayed from the very purpose of God, and from the very purpose of all ministry? Absolutely. Read the words of the apostle Paul:
Wherefore I give you to understand, that no man speaking by the Spirit of God calls Jesus accursed: and that no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost. (1 Cor 12:3)
According to Paul, if you are able – by your life – to say that Jesus is the Lord, it is only because the Holy Spirit has made you into a living epistle that DECLARES this Truth. This is about more than words – about more than saying Jesus is Lord. It is about whether you are under the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit. It is about whether the only anointing God knows anything about – Jesus as Lord – is operating in your life.
So if you want, "the anointing," you really want Jesus Christ both in you as Savior, but also OVER YOU as sovereign Lord. You cannot have one without the other. The Holy Spirit must have freedom to be making that happen in ways that will come to totally govern you. Anything else is NOT the anointing. And as you can see, this true anointing is not transferable. You cannot get it by giving money – as the evil Simon wanted to in the book of Acts. And you cannot get it by having someone lay hands on you. No. The only way to get the anointing is if the ANOINTED ONE – Jesus Christ – lays His hands upon you for His purpose and glory.
The Fullness of Christ
True ministry, when the people embrace it, will result in those people personally coming under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. And they never will unless the minister himself comes under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Sure. The minister himself must be a living epistle whose life in Christ is a message that can bring others along the same line. It is the way God works.
Paul said, "I do not need a letter of recommendation from anyone. I don’t need a resume. I don’t need someone else to tell you that I am ok. The proof of my ministry is Christ. Has Christ been formed in you? Do your lives speak OF HIM – as both Lord and Savior? If they do, then the Holy Spirit has ministered through me. That is the proof."
The only way in which true ministry happens is if the Holy Spirit is working through those who minister. And the Holy Spirit will not do much through anyone who is not themselves under the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit! Why would that be a surprise? This is why Paul says, "Death in me produces life in you."
The purpose of all ministry that is of God is that the fullness of Christ might be made manifest in the individual, and then because of this, through the Body of Christ. We are to become living epistles of His glory, because we have come under the redemptive power of His Lordship.
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