If you’ve been doing ministry over any significant period of time, you learn that you can’t predict how people’s spiritual journeys will turn out. The one who seemed to be really following Christ might end up renouncing the faith altogether, while another who seemed indifferent or even hostile to the gospel might come to faith down the road.
During my time working in high school youth ministry, I witnessed many stories along this spectrum. In particular, a high school student whom I knew several years ago comes to mind. He was a good-natured young man, and he often attended our events. He was willing to engage in conversation on serious topics but not terribly interested in the gospel and what it meant to his life. He went off to college and I didn’t see him again for a few years—until one day at one of our camps, where he was working for the summer, having come to faith at some point.
I am reminded of this story when I read the first chapter of Ephesians. Paul wrote this letter during his first imprisonment in Rome between AD 60 and 62. There is an interesting passage that some critical scholars have used to dispute Pauline authorship of the epistle: in Ephesians 1:15, Paul says he had “heard of [the Ephesians’] faith.” The critics point out that this is a strange thing to say, since Paul had spent two years during his third missionary journey in Ephesus (Acts 19). He would certainly have known the Ephesians personally and would not have had to “hear of” their faith. Therefore, they say, it is likely that an impostor, using Paul’s name and emulating his style, wrote the letter.
This critique ignores the passage of time. Five years could have elapsed between Paul’s departure from Ephesus and his writing of the Ephesian epistle. Who knows how much the church may have grown in that time? Paul likely heard from friends about the church’s growth, and upon hearing the news, he rejoiced, which explains his extended, passionate teaching in chapters 1 and 2. He exulted in the news, and he yearned to share some encouragement with these new believers.
I felt similarly when I met my former high school friend at that camp—I rejoiced. I don’t know what role, if any, I played in his conversion. But I was grateful that I had the chance to preach the gospel to him years before.
We are all like the sower of Jesus’ parable (Matt. 13:1–9, 18–23). We are called to scatter seed. We hope that seed takes root and bears fruit. But we are to scatter seed nonetheless, to proclaim the gospel widely, joyfully, and expectantly. We may not witness the fruit that results in this lifetime. But one day, the sower and the reaper will rejoice together (John 4:36–38).
Think back on your own journey to faith and maturity in Christ. Perhaps there are some whom God used to bring you to Himself and to sanctify you by His Holy Spirit. They may not know the role they played, just as you might not know the role you’ve played in others’ lives. How might you encourage them today, that you can both rejoice in the work of God?