The ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ is a holy endeavor.
Lest pastors and elders think they are trying to vie for God’s blessing, remember, He is the One saving souls, not us. We are certainly workers, but we do not produce the fruit. We plant, we water, and we wait. However, as Paul wrote, “God [causes] the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6). So, our goal is not to do things so that God, like a pleased father, will look down, pat us on the head, and bless us. We submissively minister alongside the Father as He works in hearts and lives by His Word effecting His purposes.
However, even though it is God who is at work, even though it is God who is moving hearts, even though it is God the Spirit recreating souls, we must be fit for the work. Since God does not dwell in darkness, have any sort of sin, nor does He do anything but what is good, righteous, and perfect, so also the man ministering to God must himself be righteous. Consider Leviticus 10:3:
“Then Moses said to Aaron, “It is what the Lord spoke, saying,
‘By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy,
And before all the people I will be honored.’ ”
So Aaron, therefore, kept silent.”
Nadab and Abihu were not holy. They were operating outside of the parameters God had set in His Word concerning the offerings of fire. Their disobedience, which was motivated by greed and self-glory, caused their consummation by fire. The resulting reminder to Aaron from his brother, Moses, was that anyone who serves God must demonstrate to the others who are looking on that the God they are serving is holy and must be fearfully honored.
God is holy and as such He must not be treated as common. If He is treated like anything else in this world, then judgment ensues. He is holy, without sin, without darkness, and He is a consuming fire. His hatred of anything offensive is evident in His wrath, justice, and punishment of the same. If we learn anything at all from the Old Testament regulations of the sacrifice, we learn that there are acceptable offerings and unacceptable ones. For example, Leviticus 22:17–21:
Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and to his sons and to all the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘Any man of the house of Israel or of the aliens in Israel who presents his offering, whether it is any of their votive or any of their freewill offerings, which they present to the Lord for a burnt offering—for you to be accepted—it must be a male without defect from the cattle, the sheep, or the goats. Whatever has a defect, you shall not offer, for it will not be accepted for you. When a man offers a sacrifice of peace offerings to the Lord to fulfill a special vow or for a freewill offering, of the herd or of the flock, it must be perfect to be accepted; there shall be no defect in it.'”
By the demand of flawless, particular, animals used for sacrifice, God is demonstrating to the people what Nadab and Abihu learned the hard way — God is holy, and only holy things must be brought near to Him.
This is a fearful thing. This means that our worship in the church is only acceptable if under the proper instructions of the Lord. James wrote, James 4:8-10:
Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.
The phrases “Draw near to God…cleanse…purify…presence of the Lord” are all worship terms taken directly from the Old Testament tabernacle worship practices. James is saying, “Don’t even think that you are acceptable to God in worship and ministry if you are harboring dirty hands and dirty hearts.” As Ananias and Sapphira learned (Acts 5:1-16), God has the right, even in the church, to punish with immediate death anything that offends His holiness.
Who Is Worthy?
Now having said all of that, we now ask, “How is it that any man can serve God in ministry? Aren’t we all defiled?” The answer is “Yes. Yes, we are.” That is the point. None of us are acceptable to serve the Lord in ministry. Not only are we incapable to effect the work of the Word in hearts, but we are incapable of ridding ourselves of the sins that reside still in us before we say, “Please turn in your Bibles to…”
How do we reconcile this? Why aren’t we all consumed before we ever enter the pulpit? Here is the answer: grace.
In this article, we will introduce this dynamic of acceptable service to God via grace and with the next article answer very difficult questions like, “Can a person who was (before regeneration) a pedophile/murderer/extortioner/etc… serve in the church?” Although there are qualifications that will be discussed, the answer to these questions is “Yes.”
Let’s begin by looking at our base text, 1 Corinthians 15:8-10. We will use Paul as our example (1 Timothy 1:16) throughout this series.
“…and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also. For I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me.”
The Apostle Paul was used tremendously of the Lord. He received visions, saw the Lord personally, exhibited the miraculous gifts of an apostle, suffered persecution, and, most miraculously of all, Saul was God’s child from before the foundation of the world! Yet, here is what Paul did before his regeneration:
“So then, I thought to myself that I had to do many things hostile to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And this is just what I did in Jerusalem; not only did I lock up many of the saints in prisons, having received authority from the chief priests, but also when they were being put to death I cast my vote against them. And as I punished them often in all the synagogues, I tried to force them to blaspheme; and being furiously enraged at them, I kept pursuing them even to foreign cities.” (Acts 26:9–11)
Saul was an aggressor; he hated the church, Christ, and His Name. He consented to the death of Stephen and others, by his own admission. He did this all in the hypocritical name of religion. In short, because of this behavior, Saul was the foremost of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15).
And yet, he became an apostle. He was elder-qualified. How is this possible? Again, the answer is grace. He knew himself to be the least of all the apostles and did not deserve to be an apostle. However, transferring from what he was to what he would become was the work of redemption through grace.
You see, grace is not as simple as being treated as if you have never sinned. Grace is the provision of absolute righteousness freely to sinners — those who willfully transgress. The perfect, holy, beautiful righteousness of the Son of God is given, not earned, to the hardened, darkened, devilish sinner whom God has called. This is grace (Romans 5:20-21).
Paul understood that this was the only reason he was an apostle, since grace is not idle (Titus 2:11-12). Grace is effective — every time! Therefore, it does not matter what a person was before grace, but only after grace. The provision of righteousness is most on display in sinners, not saints. That is to say, the transgressor, the pedophile, murderer, racist, adulterer (see 1 Timothy 1:8-11), they are the theater of grace, not the one who already has enough righteousness (see Luke 18:9-14).
If we see this in a man like Saul/Paul, we must also be willing to see this in today’s pastor or elder. The matter is not about personal righteousness. The matter is about the evidence of the grace of God in the heart of the man displayed over time. It is not about what he was, but about what he is. Does he now show the evidence of regeneration? Has he been tested and found fruit-bearing? Has he joyfully left those sins in order to follow Christ? If so, let him serve!
Time and truth go hand in hand. Given enough time, the true nature of his regeneration will be evident (1 Timothy 5:24-25). But by no means should we condemn the servant God has justified. Do not beat a man whose impossible debt was forgiven by God as if he owed you a little.
Next time, we will be a bit more specific and explain why this is the case.