by Jeremy Walker; BANNER OF TRUTH ONLINE; April 30, 2021
We can be creatures of extremes. Sometimes our reading of church history pushes us toward one or the other end of a certain spectrum. We absolutise the light or the darkness. It was never, to paraphrase Dickens, the best of times and the worst of times. To us, it was either the best or the worst. It was either the absolute misery of paganism and spiritual darkness, or it was the absolute delight of the gospel running unfettered and conquering all before it. Perhaps we are quick to over-interpret providences: because things are hard, it is time to move on; because things are good, it is right to press on.
But church history is not like that, and neither is the life of a local church. To be sure, there may be a particular trend or tendency that can last for months or years, seasons of particular hardship or particular blessing. Usually, however, those things go hand in glove.
Writing to the church in Corinth, Paul spoke about his passage through Macedonia and his ministry in Ephesus. He decided to stay in Ephesus for a while, ‘for a great and effective door has opened to me, and there are many adversaries’ (1 Cor. 16:9). Ephesus was a godless place, riddled with pagan teaching and practice, and yet it was a place in which the light of the gospel was shining brightly, a place in which people were being brought from spiritual death to life in Christ. In Ephesus, battle was joined! A great and effective door had opened to Paul. We do not know precisely what this opportunity was, but the words indicate a splendid opening for the gospel to be preached, and every expectation of God’s saving blessing upon the truth proclaimed. Perhaps it was some heavenly indication of favour made to the apostle directly. Perhaps it was a particular invitation for the truth to be made known. Perhaps there were evidences of a work of God beginning in certain hearts. Perhaps there were saints vigorous in prayer and service who were laying a foundation. Perhaps some prominent and earnest converts were carving open a path for the preaching of the word. Whatever might be the case, a great and effective door had opened to the apostle.
But the Adversary was neither silent nor still. So often we find this to be the case. It is not always a direct cause-and-effect pattern in this sequence. At times there is a season of painful pruning and difficulty followed by a time of blessing and peace. At other times there is a season of unity and growth which prepares God’s people for harder and leaner times. Often opportunity and opposition simply seem to go hand in hand. In Ephesus, this was the case. As opportunity developed, so opposition festered. This may well be a summary of what we read in Acts 19 and 20, where there was antagonism from all kinds of people and in all kinds of ways to the ministry of truth. When God is at work, the devil is stirred up. The health and growth of the church typically provokes the enemies of the truth to redouble their efforts. When the gospel comes with power, it often stirs up opposition not just outside the professing church, but from within: holiness is required, hypocrisy is exposed, carnality is rebuked—there can be no more halting between two opinions.
While this is painful, it is also to be expected. Furthermore, far from being a reason to cave in, it should become a reason to dig in. As on the rugby field, the more fiercely our opponents press us, the more we dig in our heels and the harder we hit back, so in spiritual combat: ‘Let courage rise with danger, / And strength to strength oppose.’ Like Nehemiah, this is not the moment to run, but the time to stand. Paul’s heart was stirred by opportunity in the face of opposition, and so he determined to hold fast and press on in Ephesus. The more fiercely his opponents raged, the more faithfully the apostle laboured. Perhaps Paul even said to himself, in effect, ‘If this is the kind of difficulty I face, I must be doing something right!’
Opposition without opportunity can be disheartening, even crippling, for pastors and churches. Opportunity without opposition can be unhealthy, even dangerous, for pastors and churches. But, in God’s wisdom, opportunity and opposition often come together. The opportunity fires the heart before God in the teeth of the opposition. The opposition bows the heart before God in the light of the opportunity. Very often the more opportunities there are, the more opposition rises. They often keep pace with one another, and it is important that we have an eye to both. The opportunities must not keep us from addressing the opposition, nor the opposition keep us from embracing the opportunities. Read again the history of Christ’s people more carefully, and you will typically find that the seasons of greatest blessing and greatest hardship are often one and the same. When God works in reviving power, there is fierce and truly fiendish opposition; when God’s champions are raised up and take the field, so Satan sends forth his most bitter and vicious agents to stand against them. But the battle is not an even one. Christ is triumphant, though his people must strive in the face of the most vicious and violent antagonism. We should expect the same today.
If I am meeting other believers for the first time, I often get asked, ‘How are things going at the church?’ My default answer, I hope not carelessly given, has become this: ‘It is kingdom life in a fallen world.’ There are opportunities and there is opposition. Sometimes there is, or seems to be, more of the one, and sometimes more of the other, but both typically co-exist. And so the kingdom comes: the kingdom of grace is extended, the kingdom of darkness is assaulted, and the kingdom of glory draws near. As we go, we find great and effective doors opening for us, and many adversaries.