Distractions, disturbances, and interruptions. Those who are involved in ministry are familiar with all of these. Once you set your mind and heart on fulfilling your God-given purpose you will invariably encounter a person or situation that will threaten to deter you from fulfilling your primary calling. This is a problem in ministry today, but it is not something new, it was a problem in biblical days as well. In this article we will look at a few examples of this happening to leaders in the Bible, one case will be from the Old Testament and two will be from the New Testament.
One well-known leader in the Old Testament is Nehemiah. He played a key role in the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. When he heard about the terrible conditions in the city he was greatly moved; he mourned, fasted, and prayed (Neh. 1:3-4). He became emotionally and spiritually invested in the situation. He eventually took steps to get actively involved, he asked the king for permission to go to the city (Neh. 2:5). Nehemiah experienced a number of obvious cases of divine blessing as he stepped out. The king allowed him to leave his position in the palace in order to go to Jerusalem and he also gave Nehemiah letters that would enable him to get the building supplies he needed for the project (Neh. 2:4-9). In the second chapter we learn that Nehemiah’s actions were not just his own, God had put it in his heart to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem (Neh. 2:12). So it was a divine mission. Once he arrived in the city the residents agreed to work together to rebuild the wall (Neh. 2:18). All of this was wonderful; however, like many other great works of God throughout history, it did not go uncontested.
Once the Jews decided to rebuild the walls they encountered harassment from Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem; these men verbally abused the workers (Neh. 2:19). This was not the only time that the Jews suffered verbal abuse. We find it again in the fourth chapter when Sanballat and Tobiah spoke to the Jews (Neh. 4:1-5). When these verbal intimidation tactics did not work they threatened violence against the city (Neh. 4:8). But that did not work either; God frustrated their plans (Neh. 4:15). Because these tactics to stop the building of the wall failed, Nehemiah’s opponents tried a new strategy. Sanballat and Geshem sent messengers to Nehemiah and asked him to meet with them (Neh. 6:2). This time their attack was focused more directly on Nehemiah and we know this was not going to be a friendly meeting. I believe that their strategy was basically to strike the shepherd (the leader) and the sheep (the people) would be scattered. Nehemiah declined their invitation because he knew they intended to harm him (Neh. 6:2b); he told them he was working on a great project and could not stop to meet with them (Neh. 6:3). They persisted in trying to ensnare him, four times they sent him the same message and four times he refused to meet with them (Neh. 6:4). Sanballat sent him a fifth message trying to get Nehemiah to meet with him (Neh. 6:5-7). Sometimes people or situations that attempt to disturb or disrupt ministries do not go away once they have been addressed. They are persistent, they keep coming back. Thankfully Nehemiah did not waver in his resolve to continue to work on the wall.
If Nehemiah’s opponents had been successful in their plot, the building project would very likely have stopped. One point that we can take away from this text is the importance of leadership. Nehemiah kept the people and the project on course in spite of opposition. This case is an example of a situation in which people come with evil intent, they have an agenda to keep a leader from doing what God wants done; these opponents work at cross purposes with God. If they had succeeded it would have had severe consequences for the people of the city of Jerusalem; their safety would have been jeopardized. Fortunately, Nehemiah would not let himself come under the power of his opponents. This same type of situation can happen today. A person, or group of people, can come against you in order to undermine your God-given mission. They want to take you out of the picture or negotiate with you in an attempt to get you to compromise. Nehemiah’s decision shows that he was firmly convinced that what he was doing was God’s will for him (remember, God had put it in his heart, Nehemiah 2:12). Today, we too, need to have the kind of conviction Nehemiah had. He had a sense of mission. We need this when obstacles, opponents, and even the people we lead tell us that the mission is hopeless or too dangerous and that we should stop. I know that actually having this kind of resolve is more difficult than talking about it, but with a call from God it is possible.
We move now to our first example from the New Testament. The situation we will be focusing on is in Acts 6 and it also takes place in the city of Jerusalem. In this chapter we learn that there was a problem in the church there. Unlike the situation in the book of Nehemiah, this problem was not initiated by unbelievers, that is, by people from outside of the community of faith. This situation originated inside the community of faith. There was an issue regarding the widows; the Grecian Jews claimed that their widows were not being treated fairly in the daily distribution (Acts 6:1). This was a need that had to be addressed so the apostles called the church together (Acts 6:2). We would expect the apostles to get involved because they were looked to as the leaders of the community. As leaders they dealt with the situation, but they did not take the project on themselves. They gave the church some guidelines and asked them to select appropriate individuals to take care of this ministry. Why did the apostles respond in this way? Was it because this ministry was beneath them? No, it was not because they were too proud, it was because this was not the primary focus of their ministry. They were committed to devoting themselves to the Word of God and prayer (Acts 6:4). When Jesus called the original twelve apostles to Himself it was so they would be with Him and He could send them out to preach and cast out demons (Mark 3:14-15). These are the apostles that we find in Acts 6 except for Judas Iscariot who was now dead and had been replaced by Matthias-(Acts 1:26).
The ministry that was vying for the apostles’ attention was a good thing, but it would have taken them away from their primary purpose. Please note that the staffing for this ministry required seven leaders. If the apostles had assumed the leadership of it over half of them would have been occupied with this. Thankfully they did not feel compelled to do it. As a result of their handling of this matter Acts tells us what happened, “So the word of God spread” (Acts 6:7 NIV). Many people came to believe in Jesus. Ministers typically want to address needs, it is part of their ministry, but there are more specific reasons. First, the needs concern people, those for whom Christ died. Second, needs that are unmet can lead to larger problems. However, it is important for ministers to remember that they are not called to personally meet every need that arises in the church, not even valid needs! Church members should not expect them to personally get involved in every issue that arises. This text shows us that sometimes what needs to be done is to involve other qualified individuals, after all the teaching of the New Testament is that every believer is to be involved in ministry. In Acts 6 everything worked out; the widows were cared for and the apostles stayed true to their primary purpose (which resulted in the expanding of the kingdom).
Up to this point in our study we have seen that unbelieving detractors can attempt to divert a leader from their primary calling. We have also seen that disciples can potentially do the same thing. In this third case we will see that the devil’s workers also seek to disturb or disrupt God’s servants. This is no surprise because the devil seeks to hinder or interfere in the work of God (2 Cor. 2:11; Eph. 6:10-18; 1 Thess. 2:18).
In Acts 16 the apostle Paul and his coworkers were in the city of Philippi in Macedonia. They felt they had been directed to Macedonia by a vision that Paul had during the night (Acts 16:9-10). Upon their arrival in Philippi they bore some fruit for the gospel, a business woman named Lydia and her family became believers in the Lord Jesus (Acts 16:14-15). The next account that we read in Acts tells us about a slave girl who followed Paul and his coworkers around shouting that they were servants of the Most High God who were declaring the way of salvation (Acts 16:17-18). What she said sounded true, but after many days Paul silenced her. The source of the problem was not really the girl but the spirit that resided in her. Paul cast the spirit out and her outbursts stopped. This solved an immediate problem but created a new one. Once the owners of the slave girl saw that her powers to predict the future were gone (and thus their ability to make money from it) they took action against Paul and Silas. This resulted in Paul and Silas being thrown into prison. But here again the gospel spread, the Philippian jailer and his family came to faith in Christ (Acts 16:30-34).
This text shows us one of the ways that the devil works to disrupt or disturb the work of God. He uses his demons to carry out his purposes. In our text we see that it is possible for a demon to work through a human being (the slave girl). This passage in Acts 16 is not the only Scripture that teaches this (see 1 Tim. 4:1-2). The enemy’s human instruments may not always froth at the mouth or roll on the ground but they are nonetheless used by him to hinder God’s work.
As this very brief and selective survey shows, distractions in ministry can come from multiple sources. They can come from detractors, disciples, or the demonic. These distractions sometimes come without warning. Since this is so, it is important that we be prepared in advance. This preparedness involves a number of things but one of them is being thoroughly convinced about what the Lord has called us to do. If we have this assurance it will go a long way in keeping us on track to accomplish what God has raised us up for. May the Lord grant all us this assurance and the wisdom necessary to deal with each situation which would seek to distract us from our primary callings.
John P. Lathrop is a graduate of Zion Bible Institute and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and is an ordained minister with the International Fellowship of Christian Assemblies. He has written articles and book reviews for a number of publications including: the Pneuma Review, the Africanus Journal of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Christian Trends Magazine, in India, and Berita Mujizat and Jurnal Jaffray, both in Indonesia. He is also the author of four books.