The three short Scriptures to which I want to draw your attention are as follows: 2 Corinthians 5:9, 1 Thessalonians 4:10-11, Romans 15:20.
The translators of the Authorized Version for some reason used three different words, "labour," "study," "strived," to translate one word which occurs in the Greek of each of these passages. We are told that there is also in English one word which they might have used, but did not, the word "ambition."
It is to that one word that I desire to call attention, and to emphasize in the three places where it occurs-the only three in the New Testament, I believe. Let us read the verses, supplying the word referred to.
"Wherefore we are ambitious, that, whether present or absent, we may be accepted of [acceptable to] Him."
"We beseech you…that ye be ambitious to be quiet, and to do your own business."
"Yea, so have I been ambitious to preach the gospel, not where Christ was named, lest I should build upon another man’s foundation."
If these are matters the apostle was anxious about as to himself and others, it goes without saying they are important for us.
An ambitious man is usually a self-seeking man, whether for power or position, for wealth or fame. Self lies at the bottom of all his endeavours. Everything is looked at in the light of his objective, and is made to bend towards attaining it. But from the above Scriptures we can see that there is an ambition which may enter the Christian life, giving definite purpose and aim to it, without these self-seeking features.
A man of the world without ambition lives a purposeless and aimless life, and even by his fellows is not appreciated. The apostle Paul lived no such life, nor did he desire that others should. Hear him say, in Philippians 3, "One thing I do," for like an athlete he was forgetting the things behind and stretching forward to reach the goal. Yet it is not enough to have desires for we read, "The soul of the sluggard desireth, and hath nothing: but the soul of the diligent shall be made fat" (Proverbs 13:4). We must have energy to pursue and attain what we desire.
The Christian life is no mere drifting with wind and tide, but rather sailing against them. What are we set for? The great determining factor in reaching our object is not so much the strength of the storm as the set of the sails.
Our blessed Lord was wholly set for the will of God, and we know the strength of the winds that blew to drive Him from His course. It was as though all the winds of woe escaped from their caverns and rushed to hinder Him. But, "Thy will be done,"-cost what it may-was His answer to it all. Such was the lovely devotion of that lowly life of purpose. Let us then remember that it is not our environment but our purpose that will determine our course.
Now consider the first of our Scriptures. The apostle’s ambition was as to his personal state, and that in relation to the Lord. Above everything he desired to be personally agreeable or well-pleasing to the Lord. This was not exactly his service, though it would give colour to it. It was not what he wished to be under the public eye but rather under the eye of Christ. Under the public eye the church in Ephesus appeared to be a witness for Christ and to show great energy in service; but under His eye they were a company of backsliders. The Lord had this against them-their love for Him was not what it used to be! Was this being agreeable to Him? It grieved Him sorely, and indicated a fall, from which there was no way of recovery save repentance.
How do we stand in regard to this very thing? It would seem that the apostle is anxious to show us that our spiritual state is far more important to the Lord than the amount of our service. It is all too easy to camouflage a low spiritual and moral state by greater activity in service, or by adopting what appear to be lofty ideals.
There is a decided sidelight thrown on this point by that verse in Mark 3, which tells us how the Lord chose the twelve to be "with Him" before He sent them forth to preach. It is with Him that we get our spiritual state affected and toned up; and a thing that I have been made to feel for myself is that high pressure work in the service of the Lord is not necessarily the best thing for the soul.
Let us make it our ambition to be well-pleasing to God. Under the law there was not only the meat offering (Leviticus 2), but also the new meat offering (Leviticus 23:16-17). The former typified what Christ was personally to God, a savour of delight-not His work but His life of perfect fragrance. The latter typified His people, presented in the power of the Holy Ghost. It is our privilege to form a part of that, and to reflect some of those moral excellencies that shone so brightly in Him. This, again I say, is not service, though it would colour and give character to it.
In the second Scripture Paul speaks of another ambition, for which he would like to see young converts in Thessalonica distinguished: this not exactly in relation to themselves but their testimony towards them that are without. They were to abound in love one for the other, and pursue a quiet, godly, unobtrusive life in their daily business. This would stand out in sharp contrast to the men of the world who were seeking to overreach each other rather than love each other, and to be constantly in the limelight, as people say. Here he puts an honour upon those who glorify God amid the discipline of everyday business life.
Grace teaches us how to do this, as the apostle tells us in Titus 2. To live "soberly," in ourselves, "righteously," in regard to others, "godly," piously in relation to God, will take the hum-drum monotony out of life, and cause us to be approved even of men (see Romans 14:18). Their Christianity was to be seen in its work-a-day clothes-not in books but in boots.
Others were showing a bad testimony in these things and, sad to say, were finding an occasion for it in the sweet hope of the Gospel-the coming of the Lord. They were not working at all and thus they became busy in Satan’s employ, busybodies in other men’s matters. To be doing nothing in the way of work is always bad for spirit, soul, and body. He exhorts them to a steady, quiet, close walk with God, and to let it be their ambition.
When He exhorts them to be quiet, he does not mean them to be dumb or silent. It is quiet in contrast to ostentation, feverish bustle, and excitement. You don’t need to draw attention to yourself, and yet you can speak of the Lord while doing your own business, thus showing a light in the midst of darkness, "They that were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the Word" (Acts 8:4). They just went "gossiping" the Word; keep it to themselves, they could not. Don’t let your business hide your light. Nor is it necessary to thrust it in people’s faces. Just let it shine!
In the third Scripture Paul tells us of his ambition in connection with his service. He did not wish to merely hold evangelical views, but to be evangelistic practically. His ambition was not only to have evangelical sympathies but to be aggressively evangelistic in spreading the truth of the Gospel, where he would not be building on any other man’s foundation.
You may say, I suppose you are now speaking in favour of missionary work. Yes, but missionary work has not the limit which we often put upon it. More correctly, we speak of it as evangelizing. Doubtless the apostle had before him what we call missionary work among the unevangelized masses of heathen; and may God multiply a thousandfold those who have the ambition to visit such places, where there is no fear of building on any other man’s work.
But let me plead and pray for another form of the same ambition, to be found in fields a little nearer home. The pioneering work is as much needed today in where we live and work as it is needed anywhere; for there are tens of thousands of baptized pagans to be found, as there are unbaptized pagans in the dark places of the earth. What are the congregations that enter the churches today listening to? Anything but the Gospel in the vast majority of cases.
The apostle Paul used to plant assemblies; that is, he preached the gospel and taught the believers to gather together in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Then Apollos would sometimes come along and water what he had sown, and God gave the increase.
Has this died out? And if not, could we say that we are conspicuous for it? Has it been one of the ambitions of our lives? Of course difficulties will present themselves but faith sees an opportunity in a difficulty, whereas indolence will seek an opportunity to escape the difficulty.
What I would plead for then, and what I am sure the Lord would approve of, is that the Christian young people get it as the burden of their hearts to go forth with the gospel. Let them carry it to towns, schools and universities enshrouded in darkness, while in many cases boasting in their light and intelligence, but poisoned with the evil of modernism. Let them not wait so much for invitations here and there from other builders, who may indeed have more zeal and courage than themselves, and yet present them with none too good a foundation on which to build.
I would plead too for whole-hearted young men, who will turn their business journeys into opportunities for reaching the people with the Word. How blessed we shall be if we make each ambition of the three our own!