Martin Luther King Junior is famous for uttering very gripping statements, especially when those statements are read in light of the socio-cultural winds that were blowing in the society in which he lived. One such statement is, “If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.” King’s point is no exaggeration. All those who have made memorable footprints on the beaches of history were seized by some cause—noble or ignoble—for which they were willing to lose their lives. Once a person becomes death-defying in their commitment to a cause, there is no telling the extent to which he or she can go to accomplish it. Talk to comrades of the Mau Mau uprising against British rule in Kenya or to Mandela and his contemporaries who opposed apartheid rule in SA or to Boko Haram or Al-Shabab militants and they will tell you. But there is a still more excellent cause for which we should be death-defyingly ambitious.
The Bible demands no less than a death-defying allegiance to the kingship of Jesus. Consider the following (very small sampling of several dozens of) breath-taking words from our Lord: “Be faithful unto death” (Revelation 2:10). “Whoever finds his life will lose it and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39). “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matthew 10:28). “They have conquered. . . . for they loved not their lives even unto death” (Revelation 12:11). There is a set number of believers “who [are] to be killed as they [martyrs] themselves had been” (Revelation 6:11). Why such an extreme demand? The answer is simple: God will have to be an idolater to require less. But He is not an idolater; He is God. Anything less than “[our] utmost for his highest, [our] best for his glory” is precisely what God abominates with an eternal and divine intensity. His “glory [He] will not give to another” (Isaiah 48:11). How shall we then live?
Ambitious to Please God
Paul made it his ambition to please God regardless of where he was. He states this unambiguously in 2 Corinthians 5:8-9: “Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim [or ambition] to please him”. It is one thing to please God with a statement here or there. It is quite another to wake up every morning with a renewed commitment to say nothing except that which pleases God. The same is true of our actions. To please God episodically is a very different reality than acts of love and obedience to God that flow from a life that is expressly and self-consciously set on pleasing God. Can you imagine what a difference it will make in your life if you self-consciously decided that the aim of your life (in its every detail) is to please God?
It is one thing to please God with a statement here or there. It is quite another to wake up every morning with a renewed commitment to say nothing except that which pleases God. The same is true of our actions
But we’ve got to ask an obvious question: what was Paul’s motivation? What was the animating power behind this relentless commitment to please God? This is a very important question because the Bible’s answer to it sets the call to please the living God in a class by itself. The Bible calls Christians to a very different kind of fervor than the zeal that characterizes individuals who have championed murderous causes like genocides, terrorism etc. Indeed, biblical zeal is a very different reality than what marks even those who have spearheaded commendable fights like civil rights, fight against apartheid, abolition of slavery etc. who did not do so from faith. So, what made Paul tick? The answer can be articulated in many different ways but in the context of 2 Corinthians 5, Paul states it beautifully: we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens (2 Corinthians 5:1). The locomotive that powered the train of Paul’s life was the hope of a glorified body.
More than that, Paul did not just have a hope, he had—as does every believer in Jesus—an unassailable guarantee of the certainty of this hope. He states: “while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee” (2 Corinthians 5:4-5). One of the ministries of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers in this new covenant age is that His presence in our hearts serves to seal the Father’s promise that we will certainly receive glorified bodies when Christ returns. In Paul’s life, a combination of the Father’s promise to glorify believers and the Father’s pledge to fulfill that promise—in the person of the Holy Spirit—produced an undying and unconditional commitment to please God regardless of his circumstances. So, make it your ambition to please God and let God’s promise to glorify you fuel that ambition in your life.
In Paul’s life, a combination of the Father’s promise to glorify believers and the Father’s pledge to fulfill that promise—in the person of the Holy Spirit—produced an undying and unconditional commitment to please God regardless of his circumstances
Ambitious to Fulfill Your Ministry
Paul also had an enduring ambition to fulfill his ministry. We know this because of what he says of his ministry strategy in Romans 15:20: “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation.” Paul’s aim reveals his understanding of the specific call of God on his life. Paul knew that God had given him a unique role in the church. He was called to be an apostle and even more specifically, the apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 26:16-18). He had the awesome responsibility to take the gospel to places where no missionary had yet reached (Rom. 15:20). And he made that his ambition. It should be clearly stated here that this is not a role that Paul unilaterally took upon himself. Here in Romans 15:20-21 he quotes scripture to show that his understanding of his particular assignment in the mission of God is grounded in scripture. Now there are no Paul-type apostles today, but every believer has a ministry from the Lord. We know this because every believer has a spiritual gift from the Lord (1 Corinthians 12:7). These gifts are not given for any form of self-aggrandisement but for the common good (1 Corinthians 12:7). In other words, these gifts are given as tools for the accomplishment of the particular good works that God prepared beforehand for each one of his children to accomplish (Ephesians 2:10). So, it is a noble thing for every believer to set his/her mind on fully discharging the duties of the particular ministry that God has assigned him/her (1 Corinthians 15:10, 58). There is no reason for any Christian to come to the end of any given day sparing an ounce of the grace that was available to him/her to serve God’s church in that day. Believers should live every day with all the grace that God gives in each day. Spare no grace, squander no ministry opportunity, should be our motto.
There is a caution we must not forget. It is very sobering to realise that even service to God can become an idol. A minister can fall prey to defining his/her self-worth in terms of what he/she does for God rather than in terms of what God has done for him/her in Christ Jesus. Paul exemplarily steers clear of that deadly error (Philippians 1:20-21; Acts 20:24). Paul saw the discharge of his ministry as a means to please God. So, at the end of the day, the ambition to please God in season and out of season and the ambition to fulfil one’s ministry are not only perfectly compatible: one is meant to engender the other. The ambition to please God works itself out in the ambition to fulfil one’s ministry. The essence of ministry whether in a formal or informal context, in a vocational or non-vocational context is supposed to be “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). This is the case because God’s will is that “whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4: 21). So, make it your ambition to please God and let that ambition work itself out in your relentless fervour and labor to fulfil the ministry you have from the Lord (Colossians 4:17; 2 Tim. 4:5).