Never give in to despair, even in the face of failure!
Facing failure is, sadly, an all-too-common experience in the life of every child of God. We face failure in ourselves, failure in our service, failure in our relationships, and failure in others. Failure comes in many forms, and elicits a wide range of emotional responses, from anger to sadness, discouragement to despair. Sometimes, when blindsided by another reminder of failure in the work of God or in one of the servants of God, or (perhaps most devastatingly) in one’s own heart, there’s an almost tangible temptation to just drop out of the race, step out of the firing line, and give up in the service of God. We may not act on it (thank God for everyone who doesn’t) but if we’re honest, we’ll admit to feeling this response of defeat.
When struggling recently with such thoughts, I was encouraged by glimpses Matthew gives us of our Master, and the work He is doing in this age of grace. While Matthew’s primary focus is the presentation of the King, there are at least four occasions when the Lord seems to specifically address His plans and purposes for this church age in which we live. He makes bold predictions, outlines unstoppable purposes, and provides specific promises that should be a real encouragement to us as we seek to serve Him.
His Work Will Not Fail
The first glimpse of the Lord’s vision and purpose for our age is found in Matthew 16:18: “Upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Quite a statement! Not a hint of trepidation or uncertainty. The Lord cast His omniscient eye over the coming centuries and scanned the expanse of the glorious work He would undertake, and with absolute certainty and authority, He guaranteed its success. Did He not realize the scandals that would rock much of what was associated with His name? Did He not anticipate the inherent weakness of His servants, or foresee discouraged, disillusioned believers, or damaged testimony? Of course He did; but He saw something more. Something greater and grander. He wasn’t so much looking at what we were going to try to do for Him, He was focused on what He was going to do through us, and He guaranteed that His work ultimately would not fail.
What an encouraging perspective for us to have fortified and reinforced in our thinking. We’re all familiar with the well-worn saying, “Only one life, ’twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.” But maybe, more correctly, we should remember “Only what’s done by Christ will last.” Everything of eternal value ultimately requires His resources. He said “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5, ESV). His servants might fail, but His work will never fail. Whether that is His work in each of us as individual believers, or His work in maintaining local assembly testimony, or His work in the world at large of building His Church, none of His work will ever fail. Isaiah said, “He shall see of the travail of His soul and shall be satisfied” (Isa 53:11). Surely Matthew captures a little of this truth when he records the Savior’s triumphant prophecy, “I will build my Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18).
Someone Is In Control
The second encouraging glimpse of our Master in Matthew’s writing is His statement to the disciples in chapter nine. He looks with compassion at the crowds around Him and then exhorts His disciples to “pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest” (v38, ESV). What strikes me in this passage is not so much the exhortation He gives the disciples, but rather the title He gives to Himself: “The Lord of the harvest.”
Have you ever looked around at the work of God and thought, “The whole thing is just in shambles. It’s so disjointed, so weak, so faltering, and so dysfunctional?” Has it ever seemed to you that there’s no coordination, nobody in control, no sense of cohesive direction and progress, and little in the way of organization and oversight? Maybe worse still, some of the human instruments to whom you have looked, and in whom you’ve placed confidence for this very type of leadership, have proven unworthy of your trust. You’ve been left shattered and disillusioned. How vital for us to remember that there is a “Lord of the harvest.” There is One Who is over it all. There is One Who has the big picture, Who knows His objectives, Who understands His resources, Who mobilizes His instruments and energizes their efforts, and Who ultimately accomplishes His purposes.
We value every human instrument that the Lord chooses to use, and we should. Ultimately, our confidence must be in Him. The same one Who, in chapter 16, states with absolute certainty that His work would ultimately succeed, describes in chapter nine a little of how He would accomplish this success. He would personally oversee it all. He would control it. He would not be some distant deity, detached from the everyday activities of those in the trenches. No. He would be “the Lord of the harvest,” marshalling resources, sending them out, sustaining them, and using them for His ultimate glory.
Assembly Testimony Matters To Him
Many involved in the service of God will know, all too well, that often, the “glory days” of a work are the early gospel outreach efforts, when Seed Sower distributions are completed, souls are responding, people are attending gospel meetings, God is moving in salvation, believers are being baptized, and the whole thing is marked by enthusiasm, energy, progress, and passion. All of this, hopefully, culminates in the formation of a local assembly for the Lord’s honor and glory. Then, sadly, before too many years go by, there are often heartaches, struggles, discouragements, and tragedies. When these come, it is easy to be swallowed up by the failure, defeated by the circumstances, disillusioned by the squabbling, and to question if it’s all worthwhile. Would it not be easier to just keep pioneering the gospel, see people saved, take joy in knowing that they are rescued from eternal fire, and then keep moving on to hopefully rescue others? Is it really worth the headache and heartache and discouragement of trying to see local assemblies established, built up, maintained, and sustained when, in reality, the material seems so weak and the results seem so insignificant? That’s where the third glimpse of the Master’s plans outlined in Matthew comes in.
In chapter 16, the Lord speaks of His grand plan for His glorious church being assembled (what we refer to as the “universal church”). But in chapter 18, the Lord references the church again, not now in its wide, universal aspect, but in a small, local context. Significantly, the first mention of a local church involves interpersonal strife among believers. These are the very circumstances that we see around us all too often, that sap our spiritual vitality, drag our spirits down, and fill us with discouragement. Yet we see in the Lord’s words that local assembly testimony is incredibly important to Him. He states with clarity, “Where two or three are gathered together in my Name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt 18:20). His work is not just about rescuing souls from eternal fire, nor is it even just about populating heaven for eternity and having a glorified bride at His side. He is intensely interested in the here and now. One of His heart-throbbing desires is to have a meeting place with His people here on earth, a little oasis of love and loyalty to Him, surrounded by millions who reject Him. He cherishes these local churches. He makes them the focus of His attention, and He provides His promised presence whenever they are gathered together.
If we look at the risen Christ in Revelation 1-3, we can’t help but notice His keen interest in, and love for, each of the seven representative churches. He is intensely aware of what is going on. He is actively involved in moving among the lampstands, and values all that is for His glory and that demonstrates loyalty to His name. He promises in that context that He “holds the seven stars in his right hand” (Rev 1:20). Ultimately, assembly testimony will be preserved by Him and for Him, so if you find yourself discouraged by the seemingly impossible task of seeing an assembly built up, or overwhelmed with the challenges of working with human failings and shortcomings (including your own), don’t give in to the temptation to turn your back on the importance of local assembly testimony to Christ’s name. Remember that this is a precious part of His plan and program for this age. We won’t have the opportunity to gather as local churches in heaven. Our risen Lord cherishes them now, He appreciates them now, and He promises to presence Himself with them now. Local assemblies matter immeasurably to Him!
He Uses Failing Human Instruments But He Doesn’t Leave Us Alone
The final reference our Lord makes in Matthew to our present time of service is found in the very last chapter of the gospel. The disciples were gathered with Him on the slopes of the Mount of Olives. He was just about to leave them and ascend in victory to His father. He cast His eye ahead to an expanse stretching almost 2000 years into the future, and instructed those men He loved to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them … [and] teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19-20, ESV). Notice the words He says immediately preceding and immediately following this instruction.
He begins His communication by saying, “All authority is given unto Me in heaven and on earth” (v18, NASV) and His subsequent direction to them is actually based squarely on this reality. He says “therefore go and make disciples” (v19, NIV) That is an amazing truth, and important for us to remember. He has all authority in heaven and in earth. He has no shortage of resources, no need for contingency plans, and no hand-wringing desperation. Yet He chooses to further His great work in our age by using weak, flawed, vulnerable human instruments. He wants to use loving, devoted hearts and consecrated, committed lives. With all our inadequacies, He wants to use you and me, to ultimately bring honor and glory to His own name.
Notice also the words at the end of His communication. After telling the disciples to go and make disciples … and teach them, He makes a wonderful promise. “Lo I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (v20). While we might at times be overwhelmed with a sense of our weakness and insignificance, there is one thing we can be absolutely certain about. We are never left alone. Through the deepest trials, through the darkest valleys, through the toughest circumstances, through the most gripping crises, this truth remains. He has promised to be there.
So, dear believer, take courage. If your service is for Him it is still worthwhile. If it isn’t, then it never was.
In all the heartaches and disappointments and disillusionment and failure, never despair. Lift your focus to the Master. Listen to His words as Matthew records them. His work will ultimately triumph. The Lord of the harvest is still in control. He values and cherishes each little company of believers. Even though He is all powerful and has infinite resources, the marvel of His grace is that He chooses to use failing, faltering vessels such as you and me, and promises to be with us right to the end. What an honor to serve Him!