Jonathan Edwards on the Ministry (2)
As they departed, Jesus began to say to the multitudes concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Indeed, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet.” Matthew 11.7-9
“He also shone bright in his conversation, and his eminent mortification and renunciation of the enjoyments of the world; his great diligence and laboriousness in his work, his impartiality in it, declaring the mind and will of God to all sorts without distinction; his great humility, rejoicing in the increase of the honour of Christ, though his honour was diminished, as the brightness of the star diminishes as the light of the sun increases; and in his faithfulness and courage, though it cost him his own life.”
- Jonathan Edwards, The True Excellency of a Gospel Minister
Tools of ministry
A minister has three basic tools with which to prosecute his calling. Realizing the blessings of the Lord in our ministry depends on making the best use of these tools, trusting that they are the Lord’s appointed means of caring for His flock.
Those tools are prayer, the ministry of the Word, and our own personal example (cf. Acts 6.2-4; 1 Pet. 5.1-4). Whatever else we do in ministry, however many methods or means we employ in our calling as shepherds, these three tools must feature large, and we must use them with increasing consistency and skill.
As we have seen, Jonathan Edwards considered that John’s use of the Word in his ministry is an example for pastors in all ages. We must engage all of Scripture in our work, being careful always to give the plain meaning of Scripture clearly and showing how all of God’s Word leads us to Jesus, that His people may better follow Him. Edwards will elaborate more on John’s example of preaching the Word, as we shall see in subsequent installments.
We do not know much about John’s practice of prayer; however, since he was for so long in the wilderness alone, we can imagine that he made much use of this privilege in seeking the Lord and His will.
Edwards was greatly impressed by John’s personal example, and he did not hesitate to commend that example for ministers of his day. Ministers looking for Biblical examples to guide them in their work typically turn to Jesus, Paul, Timothy, and certain of the prophets. So they should; however, we must not overlook him whom Jesus described as the greatest of those born of women up to his day (Matt. 11.11). As Edwards noted, we have much to learn from John about the kind of example we should set for the people entrusted to our care.
Easy to overlook, hard to ignore
John is one of those “minor” characters in Scripture whom it is easy to overlook in seeking examples and instruction for the work of pastoral ministry. The paragraph quoted above provides a rich catalog of virtues toward which every pastor should aspire. John’s overall conversation – or manner of life – shone like a bright light in his day. He stood out in his demeanor as one who was literally “more than a prophet,” and the way the multitudes streamed out to him suggests that they agreed with Jesus’ assessment.
Edwards notes five attributes of John’s conversation which he considered important for all who take up the calling to minister the Word of God.
Self-denial: Edwards remarked John’s “eminent mortification and renunciation of the enjoyments of the world.” He did not allow himself more than a single raiment of clothing, and he was content with the meager food which his wilderness lifestyle supplied. John’s calling required the extreme of such mortification and renunciation. Pastors today should embrace that willingness to give up whatever comforts, luxuries, diversions, and avocations may inhibit their ability to lay down their lives for the Lord’s sheep.
Diligence: Second, Edwards held up John’s diligence and hard work as an example for ministers. From the accounts we have in Scripture, John’s preaching, baptizing, and advising those who came to him took up all his available time. He was utterly devoted to his calling, and his calling was focused exclusively on those works reported in the gospels. The calling of a pastor today includes more than his ministry; he has a marriage and family to shepherd, a home to care for, colleagues to encourage, and more. And he must give equal diligence in all these areas to serve the Lord.
Impartiality: John’s message was the same to all comers: repent and make ready for the coming of the Lord’s Anointed. Whether his audience consisted of peasants, priests, soldiers, or a king, John’s word was unfailingly the same, and equally demanding. Pastors must be consistent in requiring all those who hear them to repent and believe the Gospel, and to follow the Lord Jesus in faith and obedience. And they must set the example of what such impartiality requires.
Humility: John exhibited great “humility, rejoicing in the increase of the honour of Christ, though his honour was diminished.” He knew himself not even worthy to unleash the sandals of the Lord, and he was content to be regarded as an anonymous voice crying in the wilderness. Here certainly is an area where pastors need to exercise a continuous self-watch against vanity, unholy aspirations, pride of place, or mere self-indulgence.
Faithfulness and courage: Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in John’s steadfast opposition to Herod’s violation of God’s Law. He faced imprisonment and death because of the Word of the Lord. Leading the Lord’s sheep means standing up to wolves and thieves of various sorts, some of whom may even be camouflaged among the flock. Pastors must identify, confront, and overcome them all, wherever they appear.
John the Baptist is an example for ministers by his faithful use of the word and his uncompromising manner of life. We can be grateful for Jonathan Edwards pointing out these five aspects of a Christ-like example that every minister must work to express.
“So Jesus does not rebuke them but merely corrects their understanding. He then defends John, signifying that he had not fallen away from his former confidence, nor had he changed his mind. For John was not a man easily swayed and fickle but steadfast and sure. He was far from being such as to betray the things committed to him.”
- John Chrysostom (344-407 AD), The Gospel of Matthew Homily 37.1
T. M. Moore
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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).