Jonathan Edwards on the Ministry (1)
“Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Matthew 11.11
“John the Baptist was not only a burning but a shining light: he was so in his doctrine, having more of the gospel in his preaching than the former prophets, or at least the gospel more plainly exhibited with greater light and clearness, more plainly pointing forth the person that was to be the great Redeemer, and declaring his errand into the world, to take away the sin of the world, as a lamb offered in sacrifice to God…”
- Jonathan Edwards, The True Excellency of a Gospel Minister
A surprising example
During the course of his ministry, Jonathan Edwards sometimes preached at the ordination of new ministers. On those occasions, he addressed himself to the pastor’s calling with keen insight and clear applications. In the Pastor to Pastor series that begins today, we will unpack the main points of two of those ordination sermons, “The True Excellency of a Gospel Minister” and “Christ the Example of Ministers.” Let’s look at this as a refresher course in those aspects of our calling to which Edwards addresses his remarks.
“The True Excellency of a Gospel Minister” takes a somewhat surprising focus for its theme. We don’t usually hold John the Baptist up as an ideal for pastors to emulate. But Edwards saw some very important lessons in John’s example, which he used to promote excellence in ministry for all those who have received such a call.
He begins by focusing on John’s preaching, examples of which we have precious little in the gospel accounts, but from which Edwards was able to mine some very precious gems.
John the Baptist was a great preacher in Edwards’ eyes because his preaching turned people to Jesus. He did not attempt to humor people or to condescend to scratch their spiritual itches. He called for repentance in view of the coming of Him Who would take away the sins of the world. And when at last He finally came, John insisted that Jesus must increase and he must decrease.
Let’s observe three aspects of Edwards’ insight to John’s preaching, as we see them in this first excerpt.
Fulfilling the prophets
John the Baptist shone like a light in his preaching, first of all because he understood his work to be the fulfillment of Old Testament revelation. John knew the Gospel, as it had been revealed to the prophets, and his own preaching built on that revelation and brought it to greater clarity and fulfillment. He appealed to Isaiah and Malachi to justify his ministry, and hinted at other Old Testament Scriptures as he explained the mysteries of Old Testament revelation and brought them into brighter light and clearer focus.
John did not shy away from preaching truth to power, as we see when he confronted Herod concerning his violation of God’s Law in the matter of his brother’s wife (Matt. 14.1-4). He understood the relevance and application of Old Testament revelation to the issues, events, and people of his day, and he made sure that his own preaching was grounded in and developed from the works of earlier divine messengers.
This is an excellent example for us, especially since certain pastors today have simply left off preaching and teaching from the Old Testament, and those who do preach it often get bogged down in details more relevant to ancient Israel than to the contemporary Church. Our preaching and teaching must be grounded in all the counsel of God in all of sacred Scripture, giving the Spirit plenty of rich resources to employ in confronting and shaping the souls of those we serve (Lk. 24.27; Acts 20.26, 27; 1 Cor. 2.12, 13).
Plain, bright, and clear
Second, Edwards considered John an excellent example of preaching because his preaching was without equivocation, dissimulation, accommodation, or compromise. He spoke to people plainly and “exhibited with greater light and clearness” the truths of God’s Word and will (cf. Lk. 3.7-17). John made sure that the people who heard him understood clearly both what God required and what the consequences were of failing to obey His Word.
The Word of God, as John proclaimed it, had saving and moral implications. In our preaching and teaching, we must follow this same example, being careful to unpack the implications of God’s Word for all aspects of our salvation, at every stage of our working it out; and speaking out against those sins and moral evils that blind people to the beauty of Christ and take them captive to the lies of the devil.
Finally, Edwards admired John and held him up as an example for preachers because John understood that the end of all preaching is Jesus Christ. He is the subject of all Scripture (Jn. 5.39). He is the great need of the world and the hope of every believer. He is the Treasury of all wisdom and knowledge, the Light of the world, and the only Name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved.
All Scripture leads to Jesus, and no teaching of Scripture is complete that does not usher us all the way into His presence. In His death we are delivered from judgment. In His resurrection we enter into fullness of life. In His reign we bring righteousness, peace, and joy to the world. In His Church we grow in grace and peace unto unity and maturity in Jesus. In His coming again we cling to the only hope that transcends every trial and allows us to know the joy of the Lord, come what may. And in His mission we are sent to proclaim the Good News of His Kingdom, to call all men everywhere to repent and believe the Gospel, and disciple the nations to carry out God’s calling to glorify Him in every vocation and situation of life.
Preaching is incomplete that does not resolve into Jesus and some aspect of His life, saving work, present reign and mission, and imminent return. Every preacher, as he sits down to prepare his message and stands before the people to proclaim it, must have etched into his soul the words of those ancient Greeks, “Sir, we would see Jesus.”
Preach from the whole counsel of God. Preach boldly and with specific attention to the requirements of God’s Word for the people entrusted to your shepherding care. And preach Jesus, and all aspects of His Person, life, ministry, calling, and coming again. This is what Edwards did, emulating John the Baptist, and it’s what preachers must do in every generation if they are to be truly excellent in their calling.
“Having said that he is greater than a prophet, Jesus signifies also in what way he is greater. And in what is he greater? In being so very near the One who was to come. For ‘behold, I send,’ he says, ‘my messenger before your face,’ which means in proximity to Messiah. For as with kings, those who ride near the chariot are more illustrious than the rest, just so John also appears in his course near the advent itself’”
- John Chrysostom (344-407 AD), The Gospel of Matthew Homily 37.2
T. M. Moore
Pastoral Hope Initiative
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Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Quotations from Jonathan Edwards, “The True Excellency of a Gospel Minister,” are from Edward Hickman, ed.,The Works of Jonathan Edwards(Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1834, 1995), Vol. 2, pp. 955 ff. Unless otherwise indicated, quotes from Church fathers are from The Ancient Christian Commentary Series (InterVarsity Press).