Rev. Smit is pastor of the Immanuel Protestant Reformed Church in Lacombe, Alberta, Canada.
Does a daily concern for the churches press upon your soul?
In II Corinthians 11 the apostle Paul mentions many things that illustrated his faithfulness as an apostle. Outstanding among them is the mark mentioned in II Corinthians 11:28. In addition to those things that he mentioned in the preceding verses about his persecutions, perils, and painfulness (a long list to which he could have added much more), there was one mark of importance that proved his faithfulness as an apostle and a believer. That mark, which weighed heavily on his heart and mind, was this: “the care of all the churches.”
Among all the things that mark you as a faithful officebearer or faithful believer, things which you have suffered for the sake of Christ, does this care of all the churches also weigh on your soul?
The apostle Paul had a deep concern for the churches in which he had personally labored. Because of his apostleship, he was concerned also for all of the churches established in the early New Testament. He was concerned for the church of Jesus Christ as she was locally manifested in many different places and regions, each with its own unique set of circumstances and tribulations. Ultimately, he had deep, spiritual concern for the church of Jesus Christ throughout the New Testament age until the final appearing of the Lord Jesus Christ.
For the churches, Paul was full of godly concern. His concern was not whether the churches were prospering in the world and whether they were making a name for themselves among men. Earthly prestige and earthly fame was of no concern to the apostle. His concern was for the spiritual prosperity of the churches in the apostolic truth of our Lord Jesus Christ. His concern was that they resist the false teachers and heretics that beset the church with sly and crafty attacks. His concern was also that the churches, and particularly the Corinthians, not backslide into the sins from which they had been delivered. His concern was that they remain faithful, and that in their faithfulness they continue to prosper spiritually.
This concern arose out of a true love for the churches. Primarily, it was a love for Christ the Great Shepherd of the sheep, who with His own precious blood has bought us to be His sheep and who dwells in us by His Spirit. The love wherewith Paul loved Christ was also the love wherewith he learned to love all the different and unique sheep that the Lord graciously gathers into His flock.
Out of that same love, pastors, elders, deacons, husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, teachers, young people, aged saints, and even covenant children are filled with a godly concern for all the churches. That concern is for the catholic church of Jesus Christ wherever she is manifest in the offices of the church under the preaching of the Word. We are concerned for our sister churches in Singapore. We are concerned also for those churches with whom we have contact in other countries. And, of course, we have a great concern for our own local congregations and for our denomination, the Protestant Reformed Churches.
Essentially, that concern is no less than or any different from the apostle’s concern. Our concern is that our congregations grow spiritually in the knowledge of the Reformed faith and in a godly life to adorn that faithful confession. Our concern is that they maintain and rejoice in the preaching of Christ crucified and risen again as it reveals the wonder of God’s sovereign, particular grace. We desire that our covenant children may prosper and grow up in the fear of the Lord. Our concern is that the wayward be rescued by our great Shepherd and be returned to the path of life. We desire that our churches be preserved from apostasy and remain steadfast against temptations — temptations, on the one hand, to become radical or, on the other hand, to modernize and liberalize. Our concern is that our churches may remain faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ through troubles, tribulations, and trials of whatever sort the Lord sovereignly brings upon us. Our concern is whether we will have sufficient preachers for our churches and future generations. Our concern is that we not only remain faithful to the Lord in our duty in our local congregations and on the mission fields, but also that we remain consciously aware of our total dependence upon Christ and our total unworthiness to be used by Christ as instruments for His cause and glory.
As with the apostle Paul, according to II Corinthians 11:28, this concern for God’s church militant becomes for us a daily concern.
The apostle compares this spiritual concern to a mob of people who surround a man on every side and begin to close in on him. The result is that the man cannot escape the tightening press of the people.
Similarly, the concern of all the churches pressed upon the apostle’s soul from all sides. The concern wrapped around his soul and held him in an inescapable grip.
This was quite different from the other things he suffered according to II Corinthians 11. Being stoned, beaten, shipwrecked, hungry, robbed, imprisoned, and slandered were very difficult to endure, but they did not last. However, his concern for all the churches was with him daily and affected him constantly.
Does not that care of all the churches affect you daily to one degree or another?
After the officebearer makes his vows and takes up the work of the office, very soon there envelops his soul a heavier concern for the churches. The care of the saints in the congregation and the concern for the churches become for the pastors, elders, and deacons, a unique and weighty burden. Such a weight on the soul often causes sleepless nights and other physical effects. Pastors carry that weight on their soul to the pulpit. Saints in a congregation, deeply shaken by tribulation, bear the heavy weight of spiritual concern for the cause of Christ and His church in their midst. Believing parents bear that weighty concern upon their souls when they think of their children after them and the increasingly wicked world in which their children must live. As the day of Christ swiftly approaches, more and more acute becomes the concern for the gathering and preservation of that eternally chosen church of Jesus Christ here below.
That concern motivated the apostle Paul to do two things.
First, it motivated the apostle to instruct and admonish the churches. For example, motivated by his deep concern for the churches, Paul admonished the elders of Ephesus in Acts 20:28 to take heed to the flock of God and to guard it against spiritual wolves. Again, the apostle in II Corinthians 11:20-21 sharply exhorted the Corinthians not to turn again to their former sins of strife, tumults, fornication, and other sins, but to keep themselves in godliness and peace.
Similarly, the concern for the churches ought to motivate us to instruct and admonish. Officebearers must lead and instruct the congregations in all the truth and the way of godliness. Parents must act out of that desire for the future church’s spiritual prosperity by instructing their covenant youth to the best of their ability in the truth of the Reformed faith. The wayward brother must be sought out and called to repentance. This godly concern for the churches ought to motivate young men to seek the ministry of the gospel for a lifetime of faithful service to Christ and His church. This deep concern is used by the Lord to impel His faithful servants to the pulpits each week to proclaim clearly, faithfully, boldly, and antithetically the truth of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In a sermon on II Corinthians 11:28, Martin Luther similarly explained that Paul’s concern motivated him unto faithful admonition and instruction. Luther said,
Paul would say: “I exert myself, I have a continual care, I urge and admonish constantly, that offenses and false doctrine may not invade and destroy my planting; may not violate and ruin weak consciences…. such is his vigilant anxiety to guard them from the tempter…” (p. 115, volume 4.1, The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000).
Secondly, this deep, daily concern for all the churches motivated the apostle unto fervent prayer. He took that godly care and cast it into the Lord’s hands daily (I Pet. 4:7). For example, we find in I Thessalonians 3:10 that Paul prayed night and day exceedingly to see the Thessalonians in order to “perfect that which is lacking in your faith.” At the end of that chapter, he offered up the petition for the spiritual prosperity of the Thessalonians. This example illustrates Paul’s concern and prayers for all the churches.
Likewise, we must bring our deep, daily concerns for the welfare of the churches before the Lord in prayer daily. Only He has the strength to carry that burden and to carry us with that burden through our tribulations. He has the mercy and grace to cause us to labor with that burden on our hearts. He knows what we need to bear up under that weight because He puts that spiritual concern upon us. He does that in order to make us more fervent in prayer to Him and more conscious of our total dependence upon Him to save His church by His grace alone.
In prayer, cast also this spiritual concern for all the churches upon the Lord because He cares for you.
Will that concern be met by the Lord? Will the Lord grant prosperity to His church? Will the Lord answer our prayer and bless our labors that are motivated by this deep concern?
The answer is rather urgent, especially so when often the Lord sovereignly leads His church through controversy, strife, hard battles against false teachings and sin, persecution, perplexing tribulations, shortages of pastors, or through the sharp consequences of our sins.
Our hope that the Lord will answer our prayers and bless our faithful labors is expressed in Hebrews 13:20-21.
Now the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you perfect in every good work to do His will, working in you that which is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
That prayer expresses both our concern for the churches, and also the foundation of our hope and of our prayer offered in light of that deep concern.
Our concern is that the people of God will do God’s will and keep His Word faithfully.
Our hope is that the blood of the everlasting covenant was not shed in vain. The sheep of Christ have been purchased by His blood for His everlasting inheritance. That shed blood of Christ guarantees that by His Spirit He will gather, feed, and protect His flock unto the end. It assures us that Christ will in His mercy be pleased to gather and feed His flock, even by the faithful labors of His servants who labor in and out of this godly concern for His sheep.
Because of Christ there is hope that God will bless and preserve His people through trial and tribulation, which is the humanly impossible way of this life. In His sovereign way and time, He will cause His people to experience the peace established by our Savior’s precious blood, the blood of the everlasting covenant of peace.
This truth is reflected in Psalter 273, stanzas 2 and 5, where we sing in the fear of Jehovah:
O Lord, regard the prayer of those
Who love the walls of Zion well,
Whose hearts are heavy for her woes,
Who sad amid her ruins dwell.
The Lord has heard and answered prayer
And saved His people in distress;
This to the coming age declare,
That they His holy Name may bless.