Monday, November 23, 2015

Work Yourself Out of a Job

Come again? That’s a perplexing statement.

The regions to which Paul refers are, after all, pretty large. He says he has preached to Gentiles “from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum”. At its widest, Illyricum included all the territory west of Macedonia and east of Italy extending south as far as Epirus and north through the Balkans almost to the Danube (see map).

Lots of Room and No Room

In a straight line that’s over 1,000 miles, and Paul’s journey was anything but direct. And he’s not talking about merely travelling TO Illyricum, but testifying to Christ throughout an entire region. It was the work of over twenty years in an area of thousands and thousands of square miles, most of it territory where Christ had never before been preached.

But still, no room for work? I mean, there’s always room for Christian service, isn’t there, especially the preaching of the gospel and the building up of young believers?

English translators have put a variety of spins on the phrase. The NIV says, “There is no more place for me to work in these regions”, which could be taken to mean that Paul was somehow being pushed out, perhaps by others. This is unlikely in a region so vast. Paul certainly encountered plenty of hostility in his travels, but rarely fled from it when there was work to be done, and certainly would not have allowed it to stand in the way of service he had been called to engage in for his Master.

The New Living Translation opts for “I have finished my work in these regions”, which suggests Paul was leaving voluntarily, having achieved his goals. While not a terribly literal rendering, it may most accurately describe the situation.

Time to Move On

What we can say with certainty is that Paul felt it was time to move on. It was not that there was no work at all left to be done, but that there was no work left of the type he was called to do that was not already being done effectively by others. The gospel had been preached. The name of Jesus Christ had been spread all the way into Europe. Churches had been equipped and built up, and others could carry on doing what needed to be done.

That left Paul free to move on to other things. He had effectively worked himself out of a job.

The Purpose of Service

Now I’m not Paul, and you’re not Paul. All Christians are not alike, and all Christians are not called to wander all over Europe and Asia.

But I think there’s a principle here that’s worth considering in our service for Christ. Because whatever our role in the church may be, and however long we may serve the Lord in that role, the time for service is finite, and the purpose of many of the spiritual gifts we have been given is to equip others to use theirs.

Service in the church or to the church is not primarily about you or me; about “finding our place”, “expressing ourselves”, or being satisfied with the results. It is not primarily about knowing we are doing something worthwhile and doing it well. Sure, it may be very fulfilling at times to see the Lord work through us, but inflating our individual egos is not a reason to do what we do. I think most of us are conscious of this (even if we occasionally forget it when we find ourselves unnoticed or unappreciated in what we’re doing for the Lord). Service is primarily about the building up of the Body of Christ.

The Clock Is Ticking

But even if we didn’t have that clear statement from the apostle as to the purpose of Christian service, the practical reality is that we are all in the process of aging and dying. What we are doing today we may not be able to do tomorrow, or next week, or next year. However useful we may be in our role, if we do not make conscious arrangements for handing over our responsibilities to others, having fully equipped them to do the work, we have not completely done our job.

There is a need to pass on what we know and to step aside once others are fully trained to replace us. “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses,” Paul says to Timothy, “entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also”. At the end of his ministry, Paul could be confident his services were no longer required.

“We Wish Her All the Best In Her Future Endeavours …”

No longer required. That’s a great, great thing. But it only happens if we define ourselves by what we ARE in Christ and to Christ, rather than by what we DO in the church; if our self-image is sustained by our relationship to the Lord rather than our relationship to the church.

If we, like Paul, can let go of the job we love when the time comes.

If I have really been doing my job as a Sunday School teacher, an elder, a youth group leader, a deacon, a shepherd, a teacher or an evangelist, at some point — maybe five years in, or ten, or even twenty — I ought to be able to look around me and say, “I no longer have any room for work in these regions”.

Work yourself out of a job. How’s that for a mission statement?

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