Noah, Peter, Elijah and Paul
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I have a question for your consideration. What do Noah, Peter, Elijah and Paul share in common apart from very special assignments? It would appear not a great deal, yet collectively their ministries can teach a valuable lesson. Let’s see what there is to learn from their stories.
Noah lived a life hard to fathom even today. Our world is in sad shape spiritually and morally, but his was worse. God’s assessment was bleak. Speaking of the population of that day God said, “every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). Everyone had sunk to the place where every thought on every person’s mind every day was corrupt!
Noah spent 100 years building an ark and preaching the way of God to a deaf audience. Converts? Zero! Only he and his family were saved. Was God surprised with a zero conversion rate? No, God had already assessed that the society of that day was a loss (Genesis 6:6-8)—any converts would have been a bonus.
Peter’s experience was diametrically opposite. If there was a biblical Guinness’ Book of World Records, Peter would probably hold the record for the single most effective sermon in Church of God history—3,000 baptisms on one day (Acts 2:41). If each of those baptized represented a family of six—husband, wife and four children then a church of 18,000 would have been born in one day—a church larger than the United Church of God.
But as the infomercial says, “But wait, there’s more!” Acts 2:47 says more were added daily. Following what is called “Peter’s Second Sermon” the census was now 5,000 just counting men (Acts 4:4). With our previous metric that’s a church of 30,000, and it was still growing.
Between Pentecost and Stephen’s death, growth in Jerusalem continued unabated. Acts 5:1 and Acts 6:1 tell us multitudes of men and women were being added, and the number of the disciples was “multiplying.” The last growth indicator before Stephen’s death and the scattering of the Church is in Acts 6:7 where it says, “And the word of God spread, and the number of disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great number of the priests were obedient to the faith” (emphasis added throughout).
What a difference between the work of Noah and Peter and his fellow apostles.
That brings us to Elijah—sandwiched between Noah and Peter. One of the great men of the Bible—doer of great miracles, honored in the Transfiguration vision along with Christ and Moses. He is so highly esteemed that twice his name is attached to the work of later men—John the Baptist and an “Elijah” yet to come.
His stature aside, there are few if any who have accomplished so little with so much, and Elijah knew it. His flight to a cave in the wilderness was his signal of defeat as he lamented that no one was left in Israel. Even God’s assurance of 7,000 who were faithful was of limited comfort to Elijah.
Paul’s story is somewhat like Peter’s but more closely parallels the modern history of the Radio/Worldwide Church of God between 1950 and the death of Herbert Armstrong in 1986. Paul’s ministry was roughly 36 years in length with the first 19 years spent starting congregations throughout what is today modern Turkey. In the latter 16 years he started congregations in Greece and Italy and traveled as far as Spain by some accounts. His preaching bore varying results. In several areas the ground was fertile, and in a few he remained for some time working with those God was calling (Acts 18:8-11). Overall Paul had a very fruitful ministry, but even he preached in some cities where few would listen.
So here we have four great men of biblical history and a brief account of their accomplishments or lack thereof. But why bring this up? Because it clearly demonstrates there is no one experience, no one model, no single level of response to God’s call.
I expect Noah would have been elated to have Paul’s results. Elijah wouldn’t have been sitting in a cave in the desert if his Mount Carmel confrontation with the priests of Baal had produced what Peter’s Pentecost sermon had produced.
All of us desire the response levels of a Peter or Paul, but the choice isn’t ours. We don’t get to choose whether we will work Noah’s field or Paul’s; Elijah’s field or Peter’s. All we get to choose is what we will do with the work given to us.
In the 23 years since United began no subject has generated more discussion and debate within the Council of Elders than how to preach the gospel and, whether it is said or not, how to get more response. Elijah didn’t know the answer to that question. Neither did Noah. Paul reminded us that we may “plant” and “water,” but God gives the increase (1 Corinthians 3:6-7). The story of Noah reminds us that there are times when despite the effort there isn’t any increase.
There is a part of the history of these men’s lives that flies under the radar so to speak when we look at their ministries. Even the productive ones were only productive to a point. We read Acts and are inspired by the fruit borne by the preaching of Peter and Paul, but do we stop to read the end of their stories—2 Timothy 3 and 4; 2 Peter 2 and 3, and can we add Jude?
If I were to define the end of their ministries with one word it would be beleaguered. All three accounts describe something quite different from the glory days of the founding of the Church in Jerusalem and its expansion into Asia and Europe. These accounts are about withstanding erosion and holding on to what God had given.
Results aside, all their stories—Noah’s, Peter’s, Elijah’s, Paul’s and ours, too, contain a common element. It’s a commission—not a promise of results, but an assignment. From the time of Peter and Paul onward the marching orders are found in Matthew 28:18-20 and Mark 16:15-16—go to all the world, preach to everyone and, if disciples result, teach them the way of God.
And if we can take a final lesson from the end of the Olivet Prophecy, “Blessed is that servant whom his master, when he comes, will find so doing.”