The Three Marks of a True Minister of the Gospel

The Servant Who Preaches

Colossians 1:24-29 (text)
July 8, 2012

In three previous sermons in this series on the doctrine of preaching, I have mentioned that the qualifications most-often required of pastors today are his personal and leadership skills. The catchwords are innovative, progressive, team leader/builder, dynamic, catalytic, and relevant. So very little is mentioned about his doctrinal convictions or preaching the gospel. Are churches looking for a CEO or a minister of the gospel?

In his article, “Wanted: Ministers Who Preach Not Themselves, But Christ,” Michael Horton wonders how the Apostle Paul would fare in today’s market for pastors:

As I read these qualifications, I cannot help but think of how the apostle Paul might have fared… Even though Paul was steeped in theological training and—after his conversion—received the personal instruction of Jesus Christ himself by revelation, his qualifications might not satisfy everyone… But Paul was not skilled in drama, technology, or business—or whatever first-century equivalents might have been.

In today’s marketplace for pastors, the qualifications and responsibilities of pastors and elders as defined in the New Testament, particularly in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and in Titus 1:5-9, are given lip service, if any at all. Ordination of pastors and elders is frowned upon as unnecessary and even legalistic, so much so that self-proclamation as pastor, and even bishop, is commonplace. We often hear pastors promoting the saying, “Every believer a minister,” likening a church to a democracy. The Reformation’s “priesthood of all believers” is often invoked, erroneously at best. Anyone can preach, teach, and even assist in the administration of the Lord’s Supper. All are entitled to their new ideas of “ministry,” such as drama, puppet, health, craft and van ministries.

But Paul has a very different outlook on how it is to be a “minister” in the church, and what kinds of “ministries” he must be doing. In our text, the word “minister” in Greek is diakonos, which simply means “servant,” and is variously translated as “servant,” “minister,” or “deacon.” It could refer to household servants (John 2:5), a civil ruler (Rom 13:4), Christ himself (Rom 15:8; a servant of Christ (Eph 6:21), one who serves in the church (Rom 16:1), or even a false apostle or follower of Satan! (2 Cor 11:15)

Ananias Laying Hands on Paul, stained glass window

Ananias Laying Hands on Paul (Acts 9:17), stained glass window (click to enlarge)

In our text, it obviously refers to one who has a special calling to preach the gospel. Paul says earlier in verse 23, after explaining the mystery of the gospel revealed to him which he “proclaimed in all creation,” that he “became a minister [diakonos] of this gospel (verse 25). In 2 Corinthians 3:6, Paul says that he and his companions have confidence through Christ in their work, because God “has made us sufficient to be ministers [diakonous] of a new covenant.

And in contrast to the prevailing view today of a pastor being a CEO and a team leader living comfortably with all kinds of perks and benefits from his church, Paul describes his office and his work very differently. Instead, he is well aware of the special ministry given to him by Christ. He knows his sufferings are for his Lord and for the sake of the church. But he is confident, even in his struggles, that Christ himself gives him power to persevere in his work as a minister of the gospel.

The faithful servant and minister of Christ does all of these things, not for his own gratification, gain or glory, but for the salvation of sinners and the establishment of the true church. As Reformed believers, we are familiar with the three marks of a true church in our confessions: the faithful preaching of the true gospel, the right administration of the sacraments, and the proper exercise of church discipline.

Today, in this fourth and last in the series on the doctrine of preaching, we will focus on The Three Marks of a True Minister of the Gospel, and these relate to the three marks of a true church. First, he Preaches According to God’s Stewardship, related to true preaching. Second, he Suffers, Struggles and Toils, both from enemies inside the church—those who must be disciplined—and outside. And third, he is Energized with Christ’s Power, which the Word and Sacraments provide.

Preaches According to God’s Stewardship
In verses 23 and 25, Paul says that he “became a minister” or a “servant” of the gospel of Christ. How did he become a minister? Did he merely assume his title and position?

Paul tells the Colossian believers that he “became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you” (verse 25). Instead of lording it over others for his own benefit, Paul calls himself a servant of Christ and of the church, willing and able to do the Lord’s bidding. This is why he calls on all Christians to humble themselves and “count others more significant than yourselves” just as Christ did, “he emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant” or a “slave”(doulos) (Phil 2:3, 7). Christ taught Paul humility and servanthood, as he also taught his other apostles, “whoever would be great among you must be your servant [diakonos] and whoever would be first among you must be slave [doulos] of all” (Mark 10:43-44).

As the servant of Christ, Paul is well aware that he is also a steward, entrusted with the treasures and possessions of his Lord and Savior. From this stewardship (Grk oikonomia) of the gospel given to him comes his authority as a minister or servant of Christ. In calling him as his minister, Christ invested him with the great authority over his own household, which is the church. Filipinos call such a person a mayordomo, who “speaks, makes arrangements, or takes charge for another.” In the White House or Malacañang, this person is called the “Chief of Staff.” In the Old Testament, Joseph rose from being a prisoner to the rank of the steward of Potiphar’s household all the way up to the Prime Minister of Egypt after the Pharaoh appointed him to take care of all the affairs of his kingdom.

According to Paul, a minister of the gospel is “God’s steward” (Tit 1:7; see also Eph 3:2), entrusted by Christ the King with the great responsibility of preaching the gospel. This is why Jude says that ministers—in fact all believers—are “to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered [or entrusted] to the saints” (Jude 3). The gospel of the Christian faith is not ours, so ministers are merely stewards responsible for faithfully preaching and keeping it. Then someday, the Master-King will return and all of his stewards will give an account of what they did with his treasure, just as in the Parable of the Talents.

On the road to Damascus, Saul was made a minister by Christ himself. Christ revealed to Ananias his commissioning of Saul as a minister, “He is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:15-16). So Ananias laid hands on him, a Christian rite that we now call an “ordination” to the ministry (Acts 9:17).

In this age of anti-intellectualism and anti-authority coupled with a low view of Scripture, creeds, church, and ministers, ordination is looked upon as unusual, unnecessary, and maybe even Roman Catholic. Unusual, because so many men (and women) are self-proclaimed pastors and “bishops.” Unnecessary, because of a deformed view of the “priesthood of all believers” and church offices. And Roman Catholic, because of unfamiliarity with the Protestant view of the calling of a minister.

Christ is the King of the universe, and the only Founder and Head of the church, not the Pope. Before he ascended into heaven, he appointed representatives to exercise his authority over the church and to proclaim his Word (Matt 28:18-20). He calls these representatives by his Spirit, first through an inner call (“desire” in 1 Tim 3:1), and then through a call by his people, the congregation (Acts 1:23-26; 6:1-6; Eph 4:11-12). Therefore, these men—variously called apostles, ministers, elders, overseers, or pastors—receive their commission from Christ himself.

The end of the apostolic age meant that the unique, foundational office of apostleship also ended (1 Cor 3:10-11; Eph 2:20), but the apostles’ teachings continue to be handed down and entrusted to Christ’s appointed ministers (2 Tim 4:1, 2; Jude 3) until Christ returns to earth. Timothy and Titus were appointed to the ministry by the Apostle Paul, and in turn they and others were instructed to appoint elders in every city and church (Acts 14:23; Tit 1:5). Ordination is a confirmation by the church of a minister’s calling to the office. So it is Christ, not the church, who makes him a minister.

These gifts given to the minister enable him in the ministry of the Word and sacraments, in prayer, and in the shepherding of the flock. But the Reformed principle of the “priesthood of all believers” does not mean that lay people can perform these tasks, while the pastor attends to his administrative duties in the church much like the corporate CEO. In ordination, the minister is set apart from the congregation in a “special priesthood” to preach, teach, lead in worship, administer the sacraments of the Holy Communion and water baptism, and shepherd the flock. In the same way that a plumber is not allowed to do brain surgeries, the church must not ask a person without training and authority to perform the tasks that a minister is specially trained and gifted to do.

What about the laying on of hands – is there Scriptural warrant for this practice? In the Old Testament, laying on of hands has various meanings and purposes: (1) to make a sacrifice offering acceptable to God (Lev 8:18); (2) to transfer one’s sin to an animal sacrifice (Lev 16:20-22); (3) an act of blessing (Gen 48:13-14); and (4) to transfer authority to another (Num 27:18-23; Deut 34:9). The last one, where Moses commissioned Joshua and transferred some of his authority to him by the laying on of hands, has at least some connection to the idea of ordination to an office.

In the New Testament, laying on of hands is mentioned as (1) accompanying healing of the sick (Mark 5:23; 6:5; Luke 4:40; Acts 9:12-17; 28:8); (2) an act of blessing (Mark 10:16); (3) resulting in the receiving of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-19; 19:6); and (4) an act of commissioning and sending (Acts 6:1-6; 13:3; 1 Tim 4:14; 2 Tim 1:6). Thus, it is clear that there was laying on of hands by God’s authorized servants on those who were called and sent to proclaim God’s Word. Two texts also possibly points to spiritual gifting that accompanies this rite: “For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Tim 1:6-7; see also Deut 34:9).

A minister is entrusted with the preaching of the gospel to both unbelievers and believers. This is a grave responsibility, for according to the Second Helvetic Confession, when a minister preaches God’s Word,

The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God. Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe the the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful.

But the confession also has something to say about ministers who are not faithful to the gospel entrusted to them:

the Word itself which is preached is to be regarded, not the minister that preaches; for even if he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God remains still true and good.

The confession bases this statement on Paul’s words in Philippians 1:15-18:

Some indeed preach Christ even from envy and strife, and some also from good will: The former preach Christ from selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my chains; but the latter out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the Gospel. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached; and in this I rejoice, yes, and will rejoice (emphasis added).

For Paul, the authority and power rests in the preaching ministry, not in the minister. The skills, personality, charisma, or even personal godliness of the minister are not what builds Christ’s church. The reverse view is what the 4th century Donatism taught, a heresy which qualified a church to be true only on the minister’s piety. So if your minister later turns out to be an unbeliever, or becomes Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, is your salvation and baptism invalid? Are the Lord’s Suppers he administered of no benefit?

But Paul’s words are not to be taken lightly or as a rule. The evil minister preaching the true gospel of Christ is an exception. Ministers must be thoroughly trained in doctrine, worship and piety so that the true gospel might be safeguarded by him.

And in his responsibility of preaching the gospel, ministers suffer, struggle and toil.

Suffers, Struggles and Toils
In all of his letters, Paul never fails to mention his sufferings, struggles and toils as a servant of Christ. Pastors often wonder if their flock think of them as having an easy job of preaching a sermon and teaching a class on Sundays. Are they asking, “What does our pastor do the rest of the week after one day of preaching and teaching?”

For Paul, his work as a minister of Christ consumes his life. The word he uses for the verb “struggle” in verse 29 is agonidzomai which is translated also as “strive” or “fight,” and from where the English word “agony” comes. Christians always recall the agony of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane on the night he was betrayed as he prayed to his Father in heaven. Facing the horrors of hell for his people’s sins, his agony was that of one who is alone and lonely because of his being abandoned by his disciples and forsaken by his heavenly Father. “And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44).

Paul can relate to Jesus’ agony in the garden when he says in verse 24, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” This does not mean that Christ’s afflictions and cruel death are not all-sufficient to atone for his people’s sins. His atoning sacrifice was “once for all” (Heb 7:27, 9:12, 10:10), and no one and nothing can add to it. Jesus himself exclaimed on the cross before his death, “It is finished!” Mission fully completed and accomplished!

So then, what was “lacking” in Christ’s sufferings? Paul remembered Christ’s accusing words to him on the road to Damascus, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4) Jesus identifies with his disciples in their sufferings, counting their sufferings as his own sufferings too. In this sense, Paul’s sufferings for the sake of the church is “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” He uses the same words when he described his fellow worker Epaphroditus as one who “risk[ed] his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me” (Phil 2:30). This knowledge enables Paul to rejoice in his sufferings as a minister of Christ, in the same manner when he tells the believers in Corinth, “In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy” (2 Cor 7:4).

Paul is able to completely relate to his own persecutions as a servant of Christ, for he formerly vigorously persecuted Christians. Paul tells the Philippians that they “suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict” (“agony”) that he fights against (Phil 1:29-30). However, Paul also says that his struggles are not only against persecutors, but he “wrestle[s]… against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12). His struggle as a minister is also a spiritual struggle against one’s own sin, like an athlete who exercises discipline and self-control to win his event (1 Cor 9:25-27). Therefore, men of God like him must train like an athlete or a soldier, “we toil [kopiao] and strive [agonidzomai], because we have our hope set on the living God” (1 Tim 4:7-8, 10).

For this I toil,” Paul writes in verse 29. What is “this” that he “toils” for? In verses 24-28, we read that his struggles, sufferings, and toils are all for the sake of preaching the gospel to save unbelievers and to make the church mature in Christ.

But how would he preach the gospel according to Christ’s teachings? He must first of all be diligent in his study of the Holy Scriptures so he may explain it clearly and accurately to the people. He must have been thinking of his own tentmaking craft when he instructs Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). The word “rightly handling” or “rightly dividing” is related to his skill as a tentmaker, able to “cut straight” his materials. This means that the minister has to expound Scriptures clearly and accurately to be approved and not be put to shame by God.

More than this “toiling” to “rightly handle” God’s Word is the minister’s physical toil. He also sacrifices his own comfort, leisure and even his safety for the sake of Christ and the church. How many pastors today are willing to forego financial security and the comforts of life—home, car, family, friends—to respond to God’s call to the ministry of the gospel? For many in the megachurches, a lavish salary package and perks, a prestigious church, and a capable supporting cast are the biggest factors in accepting a call to a pastorate.

But Paul’s priorities as a servant of Christ are completely the reverse of what the world requires. Though he says he and the other apostles have the right to be financially supported by the church, he foregoes this right, “Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ” (1 Cor 9:12). The gospel takes priority over everything, including his own comfort and leisure. This is because he looks forward to being rewarded with being able to present the gospel for free, “What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel” (1 Cor 9:18). For many pastors today, Paul’s priorities are unacceptable!

How does he endure all these sufferings, struggles and toils? It is only by the power of Christ in him.

Energized with Christ’s Power
Paul says that he rejoices in all of his sufferings, even boasts of them, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (2 Cor 11:30).

He boasts in his weakness! Why? Because when he is weak, the power of Christ is all the more magnified. Even in all his extreme afflictions and persecutions, Paul is able to rejoice. He lists all of these sufferings in 2 Corinthians 11:23-27:

with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.

He says that he toils “with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (verse 29). Three words stand out here. Two of them, “energy” and “work,” are from the Greek verb energeo, which means “work” or “activity.”

It is God who works in him, not his own charisma, intelligence, eloquence, or skills as a church administrator. It is God who makes him sufficient for the task, and Paul is very much aware of this because he is not an eloquent speaker. He is confident of God’s work in him:

Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (2 Cor 3:4-6).

Who works in the minister? It is the Holy Spirit himself, who gives him mighty works through the “weak” preaching of a “foolish” gospel.

But this is not to say that, like many evangelicals believe today, the education is not important factors in the qualifications of a minister. How else can one preach the gospel effectively and faithfully if he is not able to interpret Scriptures, with all its difficult concepts, principles, stories of peoples of a totally different culture and land, who lived thousands of years removed from us? If he does not have the tools to “rightly divide” the Word of God, how does he safeguard himself not only from his enemies, but from false teachings? Paul himself came under the tutorship of Christ himself in isolation in Arabia for three long years before he embarked on his ministry of the preaching, teaching, and prayer.

The mighty work of God in him is why Paul is also confident that he is invested with God’s “power.” The Greek word for “power” is dunamis, from where “dynamite” comes. Paul contrasts his weakness to the power of God, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor 4:7). God shows his power through the weakness of his servants, so Paul says, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16).

It is not his own eloquence, intelligence, and authority that God uses in the preaching of the gospel throughout the world. It is through Christ who energizes his ministers with the power of the Holy Spirit.

 

Beloved friends, these are the measures by which we should measure our ministers and other servants of Christ.

Is he a minister appointed by Christ himself, through the pastors and elders of the church? Is he qualified to perform his duties through rigorous training in doctrine and worship? Or is he a self-appointed minister who is there for shameful, selfish gain?

Is he willing to forego of his own comfort and safety? Is he willing to suffer persecutions, struggle against his own sin and weaknesses, and toil in the study of God’s Word?

Is he dependent on his own authority, eloquence and intelligence, or does he unceasingly pray and depend on the Spirit powerfully working in him?

Your pastor might be a faithful minister, but what about you? Your responsibility is to attend to the preaching of the Word and to the sacraments. You are to support him with prayers, encouraging words, and the faithful use of your spiritual gifts for the maturity of the whole church.

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