3rd in Advent

O Lord Jesu Christ, who at thy first coming didst send thy messenger to prepare thy way before thee: Grant that the ministers and stewards of thy mysteries may likewise so prepare and make ready thy way, by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, that at thy second coming to judge the world we may be found an acceptable people in thy sight, who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Epistle 1 Corinthians 4:1-5
Gospel S. Matthew 11:2-10

The Collect is a prayer that the work of Christian ministers would be blessed by Jesus Christ, whose ministers they are, as they fulfil their vocation in calling sinners to repentance. The example given is that of John the Baptist.

The Epistle is part of Paul’s great statement on the nature of the Christian ministry. He began to deal with this subject almost from the start of this Epistle, 1 Cor 1:10ff, and has just set out the vital truth that everyone will see their work tested in the fire. Whatever survives will have been built on the only sure foundation, 2:11, that “foundation which no man can lay that is laid, which is Jesus Christ”. Whatever is not of God, nor of our Lord Jesus Christ will be destroyed, and whatever is left will have been purified. What, then, of those who minister the mysteries of God? Paul’s teaching in the five verses of the Epistle portion amount to this: those who minister do so as ‘assistants’ (‘ministers’) and ‘stewards’. That is, they are called and appointed to this task by him whose mysteries they are. They are called in Jesus Christ whose gospel they preach. This has two direct consequences.

The first is that they are to be found faithful in their calling. They eye of the Lord is upon them at all times, and they are conscious of it. Since they are servants of God and of Jesus Christ, and since it is their privilege and duty to serve, it follows that they do so to the height of their God-given ability.

As a result of this the second consequence flows naturally. No man’s judgement of them counts for anything. It is God in Christ who judges, and he will not judge until the appointed day. Our version does not translate one word found in the Greek of v 3; the clause ‘of man’s judgement’ ought to express the idea of an appointed day of judgement—appointed by man. It is as though men have set a trial date, and intend to judge the ministers of the mysteries by their own understanding and judgement, even though Paul has spoken of the foolishness of human wisdom, 2:18. No, says Paul, it does not matter to me what you do, for I do not even judge myself. There is only one judge of the faithfulness and effectiveness of a man’s ministry, the Lord Jesus Christ. There is only one day of judgement appointed, the day of his glorious appearing to judge the living and the dead. Have that day in mind, and know that God will bring to light all that has hitherto been hidden. Then will all have praise of God; if indeed any praise be due.

The Gospel takes up the ministry of John the Baptist, and the verdict of our Lord Jesus on it. John sent two disciples to Jesus from his prison cell, to ask a vital question: “Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?” John knew that Messiah was coming, as did all faithful Jews. John had been told that one was coming, “the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose” (Mark 1:7). This was he upon whom the Spirit descended in the form of a dove at his baptism (Mark 1:10) and about whom the voice from heaven spoke, saying, “Thou art my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). How, then could John need to ask such a question? There are two possible answers.

The first is that John wanted to convince his disciples, so he sent two to ask the question, intending them to be convinced and to convince the others. This would mean that they were having trouble accepting John’s testimony of Jesus. The second possibility is that John himself had doubts. The argument for this suggests that John’s preaching showed him to be expecting imminent judgement (Luke 3:16-17). That judgement was not appearing, and John may have been wondering if he was mistaken.

The answer Jesus gave would fit both scenarios. He alluded to Isaiah 35, that great chapter of hope for the remnant of Israel. he said, in effect, “This is being fulfilled even now”. In other words, ‘Yes, I am that one, and the evidence for it is before your very eyes”.

Then he turned to the crowd, after the two messengers of John had departed, and asked them their opinion of John! “What went ye out into the wilderness to see?” The answer he gave to his own question was that John was that very messenger prophesied in the Scriptures, who would do a work of preparation. The final reference to that messenger is found in the last chapter of the Old Testament, in Malachi 4:5,6. “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD: and he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.” The coming of this messenger is to turn men’s hearts back to God, to obedience to his will. A judgement is coming, and unless repentance occurs, it will fall heavily. So John was right to prophesy judgement in the hand of the Lord Jesus, as our Lord spoke of restoration and healing flowing from his ministry. Our Lord’s testimony of John shows him to be that promised one, whose ministry it was to prepare men for the coming of the Lord in judgement. And in s doing he was giving a testimony to his own ministry, which culminates for the wicked in judgement, and for the righteous in everlasting joy and happiness with God.

Conclusion. These two passages share a theme, namely how the ministry is to be judged. It is to be judged by Jesus Christ, in the last day, and by this standard; did it seek the turning of people’s hearts back to God? That is the purpose of the ministry, and all who are under a minister ought to be sure that he has this as the object of his labours. If your minister does not, do not think that by blaming him you have excused yourself, for our Lord’s testimony of John shows that we can find these things out for ourselves, if only we will apply ourselves to the reading of God’s Word. Let us therefore be clear about the nature of the ministry, be sure we are under a faithful minister, and pray for all such ministers, that they may be found faithful in their calling, and effectual in that calling.