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God’s purpose is bigger than your life and your lifetime

Nearing the end of his earthly pilgrimage, the aged patriarch Joseph said to his brothers, “I am dying; but God will surely visit you, and bring you out of this land to the land of which He swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Gen 50.24).


No doubt Joseph was familiar with the story of his great-grandfather’s encounter with God in Mesopotamia, and of God’s promise to make of him a great nation, and to bless all the families of the earth through his descendants (Gen 12.1-3).


Moreover, Joseph would have been aware that God had bequeathed a specific territory to Abraham and his descendants — not the land of Egypt where he had spent most of his 110 years, firstly as a slave, then as a prisoner, and finally as Vizier — but the land of Canaan from whence he had been abducted as a teenager.


And now, facing the imminent prospect of his own death, Joseph gazes beyond the parameters of time and contemplates the eternalness of God: “I am dying, but the purpose of God will continue its inexorable march to consummation.”


As important as we may think we are, our days are but a passing shadow in the divine scheme of things (Psalm 144.4).  Like the grass we will wither and like the flower we will fade, but the declared purpose of God will stand forever (Isa 40.8).  Sooner or later we will have to face the fact that God’s purpose is much, much bigger than our life and our lifetime!


Next generation thinking


As we come to understand the limitations of our mortality, we need to embrace “next generation thinking.”  “I am dying.  But God will surely visit you and fulfill His promises.”  The “you” in this verse refers to the succeeding generations.


We did not start this race, and we will not finish it either.  We are simply called upon to complete the segment of the race that we have been entrusted with and then hand the baton on to the next runner.


The apostle Paul demonstrated “next generation thinking” in his second and final letter to his spiritual son, Timothy.  Conscious of his imminent death, Paul said, “… the time of my departure is at hand.  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim 4.6-7).


In view of this, Paul charged Timothy to “Preach the word … convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching … be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Tim 4.2,5).


However, Paul was not just concerned about Timothy continuing to fulfill the call of God (2 Tim 3.14) after he had left the scene; he also wanted Timothy to invest in the generations to come, thereby ensuring the legacy of the gospel.   


“You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.  And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”  (2 Tim 2.1-2)


In his commentary on Second Timothy, Philip Towner points out that Paul’s directive to Timothy was occasioned by certain historical factors.  There was a leadership vacuum in Ephesus and Asia Minor due to the defection in Ephesus and the desertion in Asia and Rome of a significant number of co-workers who had become disaffected by Paul’s imprisonment.


As Towner notes, “The church leadership ranks were being depleted, and the itinerant Pauline mission was in danger of grinding to a halt.  The command is therefore designed primarily to ensure the continuation of the churches and the mission’s ministry in Asia Minor.”


Towner also concedes that while the process described by Paul may not be intentionally open-ended, reaching specifically to future generations, “it does provide a pattern for the continuation of the ministry and its expansion.”  (The Letters to Timothy and Titus; The New International Commentary on the New Testament).  


In effect, Paul was setting forth a template for the expansion of God’s kingdom that is as relevant today as it was then.  “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.  He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12.24-25).  Indeed, success without a successor is failure.


Some time ago, the Lord spoke to me about my son, Jonathan.  He said, “You must decrease and he must increase.”  As I meditated on these words, I began to understand how leadership transition is supposed to occur in the economy of God.  And yet it never ceases to amaze me how many leaders fight to hold on to power, and only relinquish it when they are forced to (or when they are carried out in a pine box).


How much better it would be if, like Moses, we cooperated with the Spirit of God and commissioned the next generation that He has chosen (Num 27.18-23).  But of course, commissioning involves an element of impartation, and impartation connotes “letting go” (or falling into the ground and dying), which challenges the personal ambitions and primal insecurities of the best of us.


In That Day


The next generation notwithstanding, Paul was cognisant of the fact that some of God’s promises would not be fulfilled until the return of Christ.  Paul uses the phrase “in that day” three times in this one letter to demonstrate his hope of the ultimate consummation of God’s purposes.


“For this reason I also suffer these things; nevertheless I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day.”   (2 Timothy 1.12)


What was the deposit that Paul entrusted to God for protection, and that Paul expected to be returned safely and securely in that Day — the day of Christ’s appearing?  Perhaps it was the purity of the gospel that he had preached.  Or the future of the Pauline mission in Asia Minor and the churches that he had founded.  Or his faithfulness as an apostle and bondservant of Jesus Christ.


Whatever the case, it was something precious to Paul … something he had invested his life in … something that he would not live to see fulfilled … something that he entrusted to God to bring to completion in the day of Jesus Christ (Phil 1.6). 


“The Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chain; but when he arrived in Rome, he sought me out very zealously and found me.  The Lord grant to him that he may find mercy from the Lord in that Day — and you know very well how many ways he ministered to me at Ephesus.” (2 Timothy 1.16-18) 


Again, Paul expresses the hope that a faithful servant — Onesiphorus — may receive mercy from the Lord in that Day.  We may not receive our reward or see the fruit of our labour in this life.  But our ultimate reward is in heaven, and we will one day stand in absolute transparency before the judgment seat of Christ and give an account of the works we have done (2 Cor 5.9-10; Rom 14.11-12).   


“Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not me only but also to all who have loved His appearing.” (2 Timothy 4.8)


Ironically, Paul died as a failure in the eyes of the Romans, the Jews, and even some of his fellow Christians.  In his book, The Life and Work of St. Paul (1879), the former Archdeacon of Westminster Abbey, F. W. Farrer, paints a vivid picture of Paul’s final days:


What visible success had he achieved? — the founding of a few Churches of which the majority were already cold to him; in which he saw his efforts being slowly undermined by heretical teachers; which were being subjected to the fiery ordeal of terrible persecutions.


To the faith of Christ he saw that the world was utterly hostile.  It was arraying against the Cross all its intellect and all its power.  The Christ returned not; and what could His doves do among serpents, His sheep among wolves?  The very name “Christian” had now come to be regarded as synonymous with criminal; and Jew and Pagan were united in common hostility to the truths he preached.


And what had he personally gained?  Wealth? — he is absolutely dependent on the chance gifts of others.  Power? — at his worst need there had not been one friend to stand by his side.  Love? — He had learnt by bitter experience how few there were who were not ashamed even to own him in his misery.


And now after all — after all that he had suffered, after all that he had done — what was his condition?  He was a lonely prisoner, awaiting a malefactor’s end.  What was the sum total of earthly goods that the long disease, and the long labour of his life, had brought him in?  An old cloak and some books.


No blaze of glory shone on his last hours.  No multitudes of admiring and almost adoring brethren surrounded his last days with the halo of martyrdom.  Near the spot where he was martyred it is probable that they laid him in some nameless grave — in some spot remembered only by one or two who knew and loved him.


How little did they know, how little did even he understand, that the apparent earthly failure would in reality be the most infinite success!  Who that watched that obscure and miserable end could have dreamed that Rome itself would not only adopt the Gospel of that poor outcast, but even derive from his martyrdom, and that of his fellow Apostle, her chief sanctity and glory in the eyes of a Christian world?


And that over his supposed remains should rise a church more splendid than any ancient basilica; and that over a greater city than Rome the golden cross should shine on the dome of a mighty cathedral dedicated to his name?


Indeed, Paul himself envisaged a day in which the Lord Jesus would be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel … a day in which He would come to be glorified in His saints and to be admired among all those who believe (2 Thess 1.7-10).


Like the chiming of the bells of St. Paul’s cathedral, the words of Joseph continue to ring through the ages: “God will surely visit you!”


God’s kingdom will finally come in all its glory.  God’s will shall be done just as perfectly on earth as it is in heaven.  And God will be supreme in every quarter and in every way. 











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