It is not unspiritual in gospel work to make plans, to look ahead and give careful thought to how and where witness should be carried on. The apostle Paul was a missionary who thought carefully about the next steps in his work and who had in mind places where he hoped to preach the gospel and minister to the Lord’s people. Rome, for example, was much on his mind (Romans 1:10-12).
The danger, however, is that we come to rely on our plans or our methodology instead of relying on the Lord. It is, after all, his work and we need to be seeking his leading and guiding regarding gospel ministry, taking the opportunities he provides, not the ones we have decided we want. Again Paul is an excellent example. Let’s take a look at what he says in 1 Corinthians 16:9.
As he writes to the Corinthians from Ephesus he is planning ahead, perhaps for an extended visit and then a trip to Jerusalem with the collection for the poor. He is however conscious of an overruling factor: ‘if the Lord permits’ (v7). At present the Lord is overruling. Paul cannot move on from Ephesus ‘for a wide door for effective work has opened to me’. The Lord is providing significant opportunities and Paul has to respond appropriately. Literally he says that a door stands open and remains open. This is not a fleeting opportunity. There can be no doubt that in Paul’s mind that it is the Lord who opens doors of gospel opportunity, as for example at Troas (2 Corinthians 2:12). The sovereign, gracious Saviour opens doors that no-one can shut (see Revelation 3:8). This is, in every sense, his work.
If this is the case, we surely need to discern the opportunities he is providing. Whilst we may ‘push’ at doors to see if they will open, we must not be guilty of trying to force open a door that we have decided we want to go through. We require submissive spirits and contentment with what the Lord provides. We also need a readiness to exploit the opportunities the Lord gives: open doors are to be entered. Above all we surely need to pray for open doors. Note Paul’s request in Colossians 4:3 ‘pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ’. Prayer to the sovereign Lord is essential. It is because he is sovereign that we pray.
Paul is conscious that the Lord is providing ‘a wide door’. In Ephesus he has many opportunities for ministry. The work, described in Acts 19, is among both Jews and Gentiles, including the sick, practitioners of magic and even some public officials. From this influential city the gospel spread into the surrounding area ‘so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.’ Wherever the Lord has placed us there is scope for gospel ministry that will make use of all our gifts and resources. Disciple making, in obedience to Matthew 28:19, is always possible.
Note that Paul speaks of ‘effective work’. He expects success. Sometimes we are suspicious of ‘success’ in gospel work in reaction to an unspiritual focus on, for example, numbers. Nevertheless faithful work can expect to be blessed with ‘biblical success’ – the Word of God coming home to the hearts of men and women with transforming power, bringing the spiritually dead to new life in Christ and renewing them in his likeness. When the Holy Spirit applies the Word, lives will be transformed and gospel work will be ‘effective’, all to the glory of God.
Paul’s experience in Ephesus also offers dramatic evidence that ‘there are many adversaries’. He is utterly realistic about the warfare entailed by gospel work, and the record in Acts 19 bears this out, not least in the riot stirred up by the Ephesian silversmiths. ‘I fought with beasts at Ephesus’ he says in 1 Corinthians 15:32. This is not a contradiction of the ‘open door’ of which Paul speaks. In a sense it confirms it; where there is effective work, the enemies of the gospel will be stirred to oppose it. Behind the human adversaries of course stands Satan, the ‘roaring lion’ of 1 Peter 5:8.
Nothing has changed in this regard. Gospel work is warfare (Ephesians 6:10ff) and there are still ‘many adversaries’. Such warnings should help to guard us against complacency and confidence in ourselves and should keep us spiritually watchful. We must not be intimidated, however. Effective work will be opposed and that very opposition may show that the Spirit is rescuing sinners from the enemy’s grasp. Christ has bound the strong man and his possessions are being plundered (Matthew 12:29). The work will accomplish the Lord’s perfect purpose.