Heavenly Helps for Pastoral Problems: 7 Ways Heaven Helps Us Overcome Challenges in Ministry
As pastors, the reality of heaven shapes our ministry. Of course, we know we are laboring for eternal ends. Yet I fear that for many pastors (myself included), “heaven” has yet to step out of the ethereal and theoretical of the next world and into the physical and practical matters of this world.
But in Scripture, future glory is intended to have a profound impact on our current ministries. The pastoral epistles are filled with such reminders. Paul repeatedly connects the implications of eternal life to his pastoral labor. In this article, I will highlight seven of those implications.
1. Thinking about heaven infuses our ministry with hope.
At the opening of 1 Timothy, Paul focuses on the reality of heaven. He reminds Timothy of the nature of his apostleship, but he doesn’t end there. He also reminds Timothy of “Christ Jesus our hope” (1 Tim. 1:1) Why would he say this? Because our calling into the service of Christ is infinitely less significant than our calling into the hope of Christ.
And this hope fuels our present ministry. “For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe” (1 Tim. 4:10). Our hope, set on the living God, fuels our toiling and striving in this age.
Pastor, are you weary and discouraged? Are you finding it difficult to press on? Let me encourage you to fix your mind on Christ’s work for you before you set your mind on your work for Christ. Orient your heart each morning to the hope that is yours because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Then labor in the strength that this hope supplies.
2. Thinking about heaven helps us to take our personal holiness seriously.
As pastors, we can be so focused on ministry that not only do we forget our hope, but we also neglect our character. We need to be reminded to “keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16).
The reality of future salvation is not just for others, it’s for us as well. We rightly keep a close watch on our teaching lest we neglect to faithfully preach the whole counsel of God and declare the blessed gospel of our Lord Jesus. Yet, in so doing, we must not only apply that gospel to our hearers, but also— and chiefly—to ourselves.
The implication is clear: we endure and persevere by grace, making sure we apply the words we preach to others to ourselves. This is evidence that we will be saved by the very gospel we are preaching.
For this same reason, Paul later says: “But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” (1 Tim. 6:11–12)
Eternal life must be seized, and it is seized through the fight of faith. So, fight that fight, brothers. Pursue righteousness, for heaven’s sake.
3. Thinking about heaven enables us to endure suffering.
We know that the call to ministry is a call to suffer. But God has given us an immense source of comfort in the midst of that suffering: Heaven.
In 2 Timothy 1:12, Paul says regarding his suffering: “But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me.”
From the world’s perspective, Paul’s suffering for the gospel ought to make him ashamed. While the world hurls questions at us—Why are you enduring all this? Don’t you know what people are saying about you?—Paul counters with a confident assurance in God’s power and God’s character.
Similarly, in 2 Timothy 2:8–10 Paul writes:
Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound! Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.
Paul’s hope, as he sits in prison, is that the Word of God cannot be chained. It is powerful enough to accomplish all that God intends. That’s why he endures suffering for the sake of the elect, those who have in fact been called by God through his word.
What does Paul think about in jail? The Word of God, God’s invincible purpose to save the elect, and their eventual glory to come. Brother-pastor, are you suffering right now? Dwell on these truths over everything else.
4. Thinking about heaven protects us from bitterness.
To be called to ministry is to suffer betrayal. Jesus didn’t get out of his earthly ministry without a Judas, and for most of us, neither will we. Paul certainly didn’t.
Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message. (2 Tim. 4:14–15)
Alexander hurt Paul. We aren’t told the nature of the “great harm” that he inflicted, but it would have been very easy for Paul to grow bitter, first against people and second against God.
And it got worse—no one came to his aid. “At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me.” (2 Tim. 4:16a). Yet, in the face of this, he was able to say: “May it not be charged against them!” (2 Tim. 4:16b). How could Paul say this?
He could say this because even in his darkest moments he felt the Lord’s nearness: “But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me . . . so I was rescued from the lion’s mouth” (2 Tim. 4:17). But he didn’t stop there. Paul’s celebration of the Lord’s protection also extended into the future, focusing on the promised reality of heaven: “The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” (2 Tim. 4:18)
Brothers, heaven will make amends for all the wrongs done to us. It doesn’t have to get “fixed” or resolved in this life. We can entrust ourselves to him who judges justly. We can love our enemies.
But Paul’s focus on eternity isn’t just for those who opposed him. It’s also for those who helped him:
May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains, but when he arrived in Rome he searched for me earnestly and found me—may the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that day!—and you well know all the service he rendered at Ephesus. (2 Tim. 1:16–18)
Whether lamenting over someone who hurt him or rejoicing in someone who helped him, Paul often focused on eternity. In other words, that gave him tough skin and a tender heart.
5. Thinking about heaven keeps disciple-making a priority.
As pastors, we’re called to invest in others. Sometimes, our investment doesn’t go as planned. Sometimes we spend too much time with Alexander the coppersmith, not Onesiphorus the refresher. We’re rarely intuitive enough to tell the difference, at least on the front end. Nonetheless, we’re still called to invest in reliable men who can pass the faith on to others.
You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also. (2 Tim. 2:1–2)
Paul reminds Timothy that we can do this by the present strengthening grace of Christ, but we also do it by looking forward to eternity:
Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything. (2 Tim. 2:3–7)
Disciple-making is hard work. It requires suffering like a soldier, training like an athlete, and sowing like a farmer. This is slow, often discouraging work. But it’s meaningful and fruitful work that’s sustained by keeping our eyes on the prize—to please the commanding officer, to be crowned, and to reap a harvest.
6. Thinking about heaven fuels us to keep preaching.
Not only is disciple-making hard, but preaching is hard, especially because both of them are so “daily.”
Paul tells Timothy to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” (2 Tim. 4:2). Paul assumes there will be times where preaching isn’t as enjoyable as it is at other times, nor as fruitful. Still, he expects us to be ready and to keep on preaching. Reproving, rebuking, and exhorting with complete patience are the means. Not easy, for sure.
So, how do we keep on? Heaven.
The verse preceding this charge lays out the motivation: “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom” (2 Tim. 4:1). We preach in the presence of the God who will judge the living and the dead and will one day come in power and glory at his appearing. Paul focuses our minds on the end—when preaching will be no more—so that we can press on in our preaching here and now.
7. Thinking about heaven helps us finish well.
One day, our ministry will come to an end. We all want to finish well. It’s no coincidence that heaven pervaded Paul’s mind not most acutely at the end of his ministry.
For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. (2 Tim. 4:6–8)
Brothers, let’s think more of the “crown of righteousness.” Let’s not assess our ministry by what we can see now, but by what will be then, when Christ appears and we’re rewarded for our work. Let’s love him. Let’s love his appearing. This and this alone will enable us to finish well.