Friday, October 29, 2004

THE OLD TESTAMENT MODEL OF MINISTRY

By Rev. Dr. Philip Teng


Dear brothers and sisters, this afternoon we shall examine some of the characters in the Old Testament who served God and have set fine examples for us to follow. Indeed, these men of God have left a great deal for us to emulate. However, I would like to highlight one main point today. It is the fact that their ministry had a lot to do with the fire of the word.

The four great prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel – all had the element of fire present in their service to God. Isaiah was known as the fiery chariot and blazing horse of Israel. Moses, on the other hand, was the prophet who foretold the coming of Jesus as a prophet, and who saw a burning bush (did not burn up although enveloped in flames) on Mount Horeb.

I reiterate that these great prophets were servants that God used mightily, and their ministry had fire in it. This is something that those who serve God today crave for. Some say that our ministry is cold as ice. This is why we need the fire of the spirit, the fire of the Holy Spirit, the fire of God’s word, the fire of God’s love and the fire of the altar. Let us pray for God’s guidance, the dispensation of his grace and that he may use us in our life journey, so that we can please him.

Let us now explore how the four great prophets demonstrate the element of fire in their ministry.


Isaiah

All of us should be familiar with the challenges that Isaiah had undergone in his ministry. I will explain only one of the main attributes of his ministry. In the first paragraph of Isaiah 6, we read that Isaiah saw a vision of God when God called him. He heard the cry: “Holy, holy, holy.” The doorposts and thresholds of the temple shook at God’s calling. Isaiah’s heart was even more terrified. He immediately realised that he was unclean. He cried out: “Woe to me! I am ruined!” ‘Ruined’ originally means undone or wretched. “I am wretched!” Isaiah cried out. This was because he felt deep within his soul that he was unholy. He said again: “I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips...” ‘Unclean lips’ here does not only indicate that the choice of words used is unholy. Lepers in those times also had to shout, “Unclean! Unclean!” when they walk in the streets. This implies that ‘unclean lips’ also refer to the uncleanness of lepers.

In his darkest hours, the prophet Isaiah saw two angels of God touched his lips with live coal taken from the altar, signifying that God had cleansed him. Then, Isaiah heard the voice of the Lord saying: “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” Isaiah replied: “Here I am. Send me!” If Isaiah had not gone through the process of sanctification, he would not have been qualified to be used by God and he would not have been able to respond boldly to God’s calling: “Here I am. Send me!”

The words, “Holy, holy, holy”, appeared twice in Scriptures, once in Isaiah and another time in chapter 4 of Revelation, where the apostle John received a vision. At that time, John was filled by the Holy Spirit and saw seven golden lampstands, which signify the seven spirits of God, before the throne of God. John also saw, from the light emitted by the lampstands, what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal.

The light from the lampstands shone towards two directions. First, it illuminated the throne of God, enabling John to see it clearly. The word ‘throne’ was mentioned forty two times in Revelation. Actually, Revelation is the scroll of the throne. It is the scroll that reveals the glory of the throne. The light emitted has cast the throne in a radiant glow. And in this light, we have rediscovered our innermost affections for the reality of the throne.

Some time ago, the Dutch evangelist Corrie Ten Boom came to Hong Kong to evangelise. On one occasion, she was preaching in a Bible college. During her preaching, she showed the reverse side of a piece of knitting to the students present and asked them what they saw. One of them replied that he saw only a distorted mess. Corrie said it was right. Then, she turned the knitting over and what the students saw was a beautiful work of art. She explained that the world today look at certain things and consider them chaotic and disorderly. There appears not to be a God holding all these things together. However, when we understand God, we can clearly see the glory of the throne through God’s words, the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit and his revelations.

The throne! The throne! The throne! This is something, which we who are serving the Lord must feel deeply for and recognise clearly. We are serving God before his throne and with the authority of the throne.

Secondly, the light from the lampstands illuminated the sea of glass before the throne. To John, everything in the sea was clear as crystal to the naked eye. We see our true original form in front of the throne. There, everything is transparent. And before it also, everyone who serves God is transparent. This is a very important factor in our ministry. All servants of the Lord must go through the experience of being laid bare before him. Nothing escapes from the microscopic lenses of God. If we do not undergo this process now, but leave things as they are until the day of judgement, we would have much to be ashamed of. Be it today, be it on the day of judgement, our true selves will be revealed one way or another. The wisdom shown to us by the apostle John is to allow the light of the throne, the light of the seven lampstands to illuminate us, so that we might be persons who are transparent when serving before the Lord. We can stand boldly before the Lord once all that is unholy and displeasing to him has been dealt with. This is what the cry “Holy, holy, holy” meant to Isaiah and us today.


Jeremiah

Now, let us consider the prophet Jeremiah. In Jeremiah 20:9, we read about the conflict within his soul: “But if I say, “ I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.” Undeniably, Jeremiah had a burning fire constrained in his being. He could suppress it no longer and was compelled to proclaim the word of God. This is the fire of burden, the fire of zeal. If Isaiah’s ministry was marked by the fire of holiness, then Jeremiah’s ministry had the fire of burden and the fire of zeal.

When I examine closely the book of Jeremiah, I found that the word ‘weeping’ had appeared eleven times. Jeremiah is known as the weeping prophet. His tears were shed for the burden he carried deep in his heart. He did not weep for himself, but for the people of God. He was a minister who served with tears. This attitude is greatly needed today, a challenge and reminder to us.

In Exodus 32:32, Moses pleaded with God to forgive the sins of the Israelites and refrain from destroying them. It is also in this verse, that the notation marks “…” appeared for the only time in the Bible. Lord, if you do not forgive this “…”, I believe Jeremiah broke down in tears and became speechless at this point. Jeremiah’s heart was filled with an overwhelming burden for the chosen people of God. God hears such intense prayers and shows his compassion. In Revelation, John wept when he heard the angel of God proclaimed that no one in heaven or on earth was fit to open the scroll that God, seated on his throne, held in his right hand. The scroll represent God’s plan for salvation. God’s will is contained in the scrolls. If it is not opened, then his will cannot be fulfilled. John wept and wept upon hearing this proclamation. But praise God, because as John was crying, a voice rang out: “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.” Immediately, John’s mood changed.

We know of servants of God who preach his word with their hearts aflame from church history. John is such a servant who served with his heart on fire. George Whitfield, John Wesley’s fellow worker, was known as the Preacher of Fire; John Sung, the Chinese evangelist, preached with the feeling that his spirit was on fire. He preached three times a day, two and a half hours each time, for a total of seven and a half hour of ranting and raving. He expended so much of his energy for the cause of evangelism, not forgetting that he rose at four o’clock in the morning everyday to intercede for the many people who requested for his prayers. Labouring with such dedication, it is hardly surprising that God brought him to rest after only fifteen years of ministry. John Sung’s wife, in her biography of her husband, wrote about seeing a light in John Sung’s room on the day he passed away. The testimonies of such devoted servants of God serve as a source of great encouragement to us. John Calvin often leaves a mark on his letters or books. The mark was the picture of a burning heart being lifted up as an offering to God. Calvin left such prints on his letters and books to remind himself that this was his pursuit in life - a complete and wholehearted offering born out of a ministry of fire.


Ezekiel

In chapter 1 of Ezekiel, we find mentioned the vision of the living creatures, burning coals and torches. Thermal energy produced by burning coals and light emitted from torches are both due to fire, but each give a different meaning to fire. In the Old Testament, there are two special angels by the names of seraphim and cherubim. Seraphim means fire while cherubim means knowledge. Fire and knowledge are two vital elements. A heart on fire must be accompanied by knowledge of the truth. Preaching with knowledge alone while the heart is cold or preaching with a fiery heart yet having no content of the truth is insufficient. In God’s revelation, we can observe before him the presence of both seraphim and cherubim and these qualities of fire and knowledge are clearly manifested from the service of Ezekiel.

Now, let us turn our thoughts to Apollos, a servant whose heart is on fire for the Lord and eager to testify for him. In Acts 18, we see that although Apollos was eager to learn and testify for God, he lacked a complete understanding of Christ. Because of this, Aquila and Priscilla had to explain to him the truth of Jesus Christ in order to provide him with a better grasp of Christ. With a fiery heart equipped with a thorough spiritual understanding of God, he was able to accomplish great works for God. Therefore, we need both fire and substance of truth to complement each other. This, I believe, is the best partnership. We can see for ourselves how evidently such a combination of fire and truth is revealed in Rev. Stephen Tong’s preaching. We pray that the Lord will raise more servants whose ministries harmonise the workings of seraphim and cherubim so as to please him and be used by him.


Daniel

Let us consider Daniel who went through trials of fire. He was thrown into a furnace and a den of lions. In spite of such fiery testing, Daniel did not bow to pressure. He remained steadfast even when threatened with death and refused to compromise his beliefs. Nothing could alter his faith towards Jehovah. How great it is to serve, testify for and glorify God in such a ministry!


Moses

When Moses was on Mount Horeb, God showed him the vision of a burning bush that did not burn up. This vision more or less reflected Moses’ personal experience and the history of the Israelites – set on fire yet not destroyed, under attack yet never exterminated. Their long history of oppression never disappeared from the face of history; until today, it is still a testimony for God.

Having drifted from one corner of the earth to another for two thousand years, serving different people and countries, the Jews did not vanish in the tide of history, but were instead restored to their homeland, as prophesised in the Bible. Such an event is unprecedented in history.

In 1948, when Israel was restored, the Prime Minister of Israel read aloud chapter 54 of the book of Isaiah that the prophesy of the restoration of Israel had been fulfilled. This is the only time in history that such an event had happened. The vision of the burning bush, on fire yet not destroyed, was actually a picture of Israel and Moses.

Moses encountered great pressure, difficulties and trials in his ministry. In Numbers 11, Moses pleaded to God to put him to death because the Israelites refused to accept the word of God that was preached to them. The people living in their tents came out and assembled in front of the entrance to Moses’ tent and wailed at him. This was a demonstration against Moses. Moses could not stand it and cried to God to take his life so as to spare him from the emotional torment. The great and mighty Moses, who had led the Israelites for forty years in the wilderness, broke down under such unbearable pressure.

Under such dire circumstances, we see God’s grace. God told Moses to select seventy elders and officials to serve together with him. A one-man ministry had expanded to become a 70-man ministry; seventy times the size of the original ministry. This is a revelation regarding ministry – a corporate ministry.


Elijah

Elijah also received a similar revelation from God. He fled for his life after his glorious victory over the prophet of Baal on Mount Carmel and pleaded with God to put him to death under a broom tree. But God provided Elijah a way out by telling him to anoint Elisha before relinquishing his role as a prophet.

Following the same line of strategy, one person expanded to a large number of people. This was God’s revelation to Elijah and Peter as well. In the book of Deuteronomy, we are told that when Moses died, neither were his eyes weak nor was his strength gone. Despite his difficult and testing labour, Moses was still preserved by God -- set on fire yet not destroyed. What a precious message we have from the history of Israel and the personal experiences of Moses. Likewise, in our own ministry, we should keep the fire in our hearts burning, regardless of the pressure or obstacles we face. As we maintain a fiery passion to serve the Lord in our ministry and look to him for help and support under all circumstances, he will bestow his grace to inspire and guide us, providing us with new strength so that our ministry will have greater fervour and progress.

Finally, we think of Elijah who challenged the four hundred and fifty prophets, male and female, of Baal on Mount Carmel alone. At that time, many Israelites had abandoned God for Baal. Facing great opposition, Elijah built an altar with twelve stones and poured water on it. Then, he prayed to God to send down fire from the heavens to burn his sacrifices, which was for God’s pleasure. When the Israelites saw what had happened, they realised that Jehovah was God and cried: “The Lord – he is God! The Lord – he is God!”

What an extraordinary victory!

What was this Baal that the Israelites worshipped? Actually, it is an idol of a naked woman on a horse. The woman’s breasts are exposed. She holds a snake in one hand and a daffodil in the other. This shows the four-fold significance of Baal.

First, the picture of Baal riding on a horse signifies that she is the God of War. Her followers must worship her in order to obtain victory in war. Next, the naked breasts symbolise harvest, and depict her as the God of Agriculture. Those who want harvest must worship her. The hand that holds the daffodil represents freedom of sexual love. Those who seek sexual satisfaction must worship Baal. Finally, the hand that holds the snake refers to Satan. It is a religion under Satan’s control.

The religion of the four-faceted Baal is really quite similar to the mixed and relativistic religions of today.

In that spiritual battle on Mount Carmel, we see the prophet Elijah setting the altar on fire. We also observe the Israelites coming to their senses under his leadership, proclaiming that Jehovah is God. Today, the Church is also being confronted by a trend similar in content and belief to that of the Baal religion, a trend that has captured their hearts.

In moments of such spiritual warfare, let us pray to God for determination and strength as that of Elijah, so that we can stand firm in the face of such a trend. Let us depend on God for the gospel to prosper even more in these end times. Amen.

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