He lies motionless in the living room, his body gaunt and his breathing labored. His wife of over three decades stands close by. These are sober and holy moments.
I visited him at the care facility a week earlier. A month before that, we talked at the hospital. There he gushed over his wife and how she loved him. When I walked in, he was sharing the gospel with the interfaith chaplain. But now this dear saint is unconscious, days before his death. The psalm I read may be the last words he hears before he is face to face with the incarnate Word. The hymn we sing may be the soundtrack that ushers him into heaven. I cherish this moment.
I’m reminded of a quote from Richard Baxter: “I preached, as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men!” (The Poetical Fragments of Richard Baxter, 35). Our lives, and the lives of those we minister to, will come to an end. We serve and labor to prepare our people to meet Jesus. This is our primary task. All pastoral ministry labors in light of the end.
We all will die. We all will stand before Jesus. The apostle John describes the great white throne of judgment, where all the books are opened (Revelation 20:11–15). All will be judged for what they have done. No one will escape accountability. The apostle Peter charges the church, “The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers” (1 Peter 4:7). In other words, live wisely in light of the end. Moses, likewise, prays for insight as he draws near to imminent death: “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).
We are dying, and so are our people. God has numbered our days. We are not guaranteed sixty, seventy, or eighty years of life. Eternity informs our labors in the present. We serve as men aware of judgment day, ready to stand before Jesus. We are dying ministers who minister to dying people.
The inescapable end keeps us sober — or it should. God will pronounce our labors as straw or gold (1 Corinthians 3:12). Will earthly ministry result in shame or commendation? Leaders watch over souls as those who will have to give an account to God (Hebrews 13:17). These are hard words with profound implications. Who is sufficient for such a task? The stakes could not be greater, nor the difficulty of the task more pronounced.
Within this sobering reality are embedded two beautiful and complementary truths: Jesus will judge, and God gives grace.
Jesus Will Judge
The chief Shepherd will judge his under-shepherds. The sheep don’t give out the grades. Judgment will not be on a sliding scale. Self-assessments will be irrelevant. Christ himself will judge according to his infinite wisdom.
While every shepherd longs for commendation — “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21) — the reality is that not all will receive such words. We are all independent contractors that build upon the foundation of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 3:11). Did we cut corners? Did we use quality materials? The final judgment will lay bare the quality of the work. In fact, one can labor, have their work burn up in the judgment, and yet still be saved by God’s grace. One can labor and yet still miss the mark.
Deceived, slothful, wicked, and unfaithful servants will perish. Jesus will render judgment and lay everything bare. James instructs us, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1). The standard for those entrusted with teaching Christ’s church is great. One can labor and still miss the mark. Eldership is a dangerous calling.
God Gives Grace
But that is not all. Eldership is likewise a sublime privilege. Peter promises elders that “when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:4). A great reward awaits those who labor in the Lord. God uses weak and frail vessels for his glorious purposes. Our clay-jar appearance is designed to display God’s surpassing power (2 Corinthians 4:7). How then can church leaders not be paralyzed by the task but enter into it with clearheaded confidence in Christ?
We strive to minister with a clear conscience and clean hands. The apostle Paul writes to the Ephesian elders, “I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house” (Acts 20:20). He goes on to say, “I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:26–27). Paul is innocent because he taught the whole counsel of God. He didn’t hold back or hide any aspect of God’s word. He taught them everything he knew. He did not intentionally avoid or distort anything that was profitable for the Ephesians’ faith.
Pastor-elders, strive to never mislead your people, making every effort to not distort, undermine, or contradict God’s word. If a pastor flies the rainbow flag of the sexual revolution over his church in the name of so-called love, he condemns himself and his parishioners. Faithful pastors submit to God’s word and herald it boldly. And they don’t pit the Jesus-breathed red letters against the God-breathed whole (2 Timothy 3:16). They don’t pervert biblical justice or condone immorality. Brothers, labor to teach God’s word to God’s people for the good of God’s church.
And as you labor to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12), serve as an example to the flock. Shepherd willingly and with joy, not in a domineering way and not under compulsion (1 Peter 5:2–3). God’s grace enables ministry marked by grace. Serve his bride with “the strength that God supplies” (1 Peter 4:11). We can’t be perfect, but we can be faithful. “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2).
Enter into the Joy
Fellow pastor, ask yourself: Am I helping my people get ready to stand before Jesus? When I stand before Jesus, are my hands and conscience clean? Was I faithful? Did I contend for the faith? Did I struggle in God’s strength and by his grace for the good of his people? Did I promote godliness and love? Did I help my people live faithfully, stand firm, suffer steadfastly, and die well?
By God’s grace, those who have been faithful over little will be entrusted with much, and hear the sweet words, “Well done, good and faithful servant. . . . Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21, 23).