In April of 1916, his ship Endurance crushed by ice, Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer left the majority of his crew on a bleak and barren rock called Elephant Island. Vowing to return and save them, he set out with 5 men in a tiny lifeboat to attempt the 800 mile journey to the whaling station on South Georgia. When he left, most of their provisions were running out, and the only prospect for food lay in the few Penguins on the island. Amazingly, Shackleton succeeded in making the perilous journey through the savage seas of the South Atlantic and landed on the wrong side of South Georgia. Never the one to give up, Shackleton then crossed over the mountains of the island, something no one else had ever done, and finally arrived at the whaling station a little over a month after he had set out. Unfortunately, the terrible Antarctic weather made the immediate rescue of his stranded crew on Elephant Island impossible. His men had to endure alone on Elephant Island for four more months, their hopes of rescue dwindling with their strength, until the day when Shackleton was finally able to make good on his vow and return to rescue them.
When Shackleton left his men, all he could offer them was a promise to try his hardest to return with help. They suffered terribly in the months while he was gone, having only what meager resources they had brought and what they could scrape from the rock they were stranded upon to survive on. That Shackleton made it to South Georgia and came back at all was only by the grace of God, and had he tarried much longer, it is certain that the men he was coming back for would have all died.
When Jesus Christ ascended into heaven He too was no longer bodily present with his followers, but Christ did not leave the church in the same manner that Shackleton was compelled to leave his men.
First, although they too had come through an amazing journey culminating in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, the Church was not left to scrape for itself, Jesus who had triumphed over the devil, and sin, and evil, and even death left the church with everything it would need to fulfill the great Commission, and He promised that this church that seemed so weak and insignificant would not just survive, but that it would prosper and carry the good news of the Gospel to the entire world. At his ascension Christ promised: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
The Holy Spirit was given to the church, and through His power, the Apostles did miracles and wonders that confirmed the truth of their message to the world. It was also by the agency of the Holy Spirit that Christ’s disciples wrote the books that make up the New Testament.
Christ also provided for the needs of the church by providing teachers and shepherds for his people to do the work of the ministry, and most importantly he gave each and every believer spiritual gifts that enable them to fulfill their assigned roles.
These gifts that Christ freely gives to all Believers were not ultimately designed for their own edification. Rather each gift is intended to be used for building up of the church and the edification of the body. And as Christ calls believers to various vocations, he gifts them accordingly for it. The gifts are not scattered randomly or arbitrarily about the church, but rather with God’s express intent and purpose in mind.
Therefore if God intends for a man to become a Pastor, he will give him gifts for preaching and teaching. If the man does not evidence any sign of these gifts, that is a fairly good indication that it is not God’s intention for him to become a Pastor.
Because of the abiding effects of sin, two problems of equal importance afflict the church in regard to this distribution of gifts. The first is in the case of people who receive gifts intended to build up the body of Christ, and yet neglect them. They become like the servant who neglected his gift by burying it in the ground (Matt. 25:25). They are called to some act of service to the body and equipped for it, and yet instead, like Jonah, they run away from it and pursue a different course. In this case some joint or part of the body is failing and not doing its share. In some cases you see individual Christians of enormous potential never properly exercising their gifts. They spend their lives “kicking against the goads.” But happily, it’s been my experience that most men in this category like Jonah, eventually repent, and exercise the gifts they have been given according to their calling.
People are never happy running from God, and so to turn and obey his manifest will is always a great relief. No matter what hardships they may encounter in exercising their gifts, they are nothing compared to the regret experienced by someone who has spent a lifetime neglecting them.
The second problem occurs when people who have not been gifted to fulfill certain roles nevertheless decide that they have been called to those roles. The saddest examples of this often involve someone leaving their true vocation in order to fulfill one they are unequipped for. This often happens when we forget that we can serve and glorify God in any legitimate calling, not just Christian ministry.
The story is sometimes told of a cobbler who was converted to Christianity came to Martin Luther and full of zeal for the faith asked him, “What should I do now that I’m Christian instead of being just a cobbler?” Luther asked him, “Are you a good cobbler?” The man reportedly replied, “oh yes Herr Luther, people say I’m one of the best!” To which Martin Luther replied “Then be a cobbler to the Glory of God!”
Never forget that as a Christian you are always called to serve the Lord 24 x 7 in the world, in the workplace, and in the home. We all have gifts, and while all Christians are called to fulfill their important role in building up and edifying the body, very few are specifically called to Pastoral ministry for instance. But don’t ever think that this makes your role of little worth. The Kingdom of God is seen in giving little ones cups of cold water as well as the preaching of the Word.
But a word of caution is in order here. Remember that God never calls on men and women to exercise their gifts contrary to his teaching. Therefore, we know for certain that no Father is called upon to abandon his family in pursuit of a ministry, no one is called upon to lie, cheat, or steal in order to establish a Television ministry, and no woman is called to the pastorate. There are countless possibilities for a women to serve and glorify the Lord, not the least of them being in the family, but 1 Cor. 14:34, 35; 1 Tim. 2:11, 12 amongst other scriptures make it quite clear that those possibilities do not include ordained ministry. This has nothing to do with inferiority, it has everything to do with the hierarchical roles that the only wise God has assigned men and women. We might just as well ask why the various members of the Trinity each fulfill their own assigned roles when they are absolutely equally in substance and power.
When one examines the purpose of the gifts that Christ has given to the church, the answer that scripture gives for them is Growth. Growth both individually and corporately as the body of Christ. We are not saved to remain babes in Christ, never able to understand and digest anything but the simplest of doctrines – the “milk” of the Word. Rather, the assumption is that after we are united to Christ by faith and justified, that the process of sanctification by which we grow in holiness and in the grace and knowledge of Christ would constantly be taking place. That is why there are so many references to and metaphors for “growing up” or maturing in the New Testament epistles. Just as babies physically grow up and mature, Scripture assumes that Christians will spiritually mature and grow as well.
Part of the purpose of this growth is to safeguard the church from destructive errors and heresies. Babes in Christ are terribly prone to being deceived and misguided by false teachers. If we don’t know what the Word of God really teaches, we will be ill-equipped to spot a lie. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, for instance, will often tie Christians who haven’t grown in grace into scripture pretzels because these people know that the Bible is the word of God, but don’t know what that word teaches, so the JWs can build on that fact to mislead them. If you don’t know what the Word of God teaches you are likened by Paul to ships without rudders blown back and forth by every wind of doctrine. As you are sanctified by the power of the Holy Spirit, you will, God-willing be more and more able to rightly divide the word of truth, and be able to tell truth from error.
The process of sanctification will not be fully complete in you until you get to heaven, and it won’t be complete corporately in the church until Christ returns. That is what is meant in Eph. 4:13, about all coming to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God. Christ gives the church ordained servants and gifts for the purpose of building it up, and this process will go on till the day of His return at which point both the servants and the gifts will no longer be necessary for building.
At that point believers will be perfectly conformed to the image of Christ – the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; and at that point their communion with both Christ and one another will be perfect. Our unity, which is being built in this life will be perfected in the next.
All of this points to the grand design of Christ in building or growing His church. Each part of the body is vital in this growth, the body needs hands, eyes, feet, organs, skin, etc. and each part assists the others. The brain would die without the heart, but the heart wouldn’t pump at all without the brain. The church cannot simply get by with teachers, it needs preachers, and evangelists, and prayer warriors, and counselors, and servants with their hearts of compassion, and so on. The Church needs Paul, and Apollos, and Timothy, and Dorcas, and Phoebe, and Priscillia and Aquilla. Christ has provided each one of these people for the church, each one of these parts and gifted each of them for the work he has called them to. It is He who equips Christians and makes them effective.
All of these things that Christ has done, and is doing, he will continue to do until He returns, and in so doing He provides for His people far better than any human leader could. He has not left the church to scrape for itself, there is no possibility that the Church will run out of resources and die before He returns, and more importantly unlike Shackleton for instance, in leaving Jesus has not left his people alone. He continues to abide with and in his church just as he promised in Matthew 28:20 “lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen. Through the Holy Spirit, Christ abides with his church and gives it his constant support.
Therefore Christians should know beyond a shadow of doubt that they have not been abandoned, left on some desolate rock, exposed to countless dangers, ill-equipped for the hostile environment and constantly in danger of starving to death. Christ has given them gifts, given them shepherds, provided abundant spiritual food (so whose fault is it if they malnourished?) and he has promised to abide with them through His Spirit.
He has promised that He will return, and this promise of His is absolutely sure. There is nothing of the uncertain hope that He might return to rescue the church in the nick of time. Rather, He who is sovereign over all things is causing all things to work for together for the ultimate good of His body, the church, and each and every member of it. In fact in His grand plan, even the members of the body of Christ work together to bring about their ultimate perfecting.