Jonathan Edwards on the Ministry (3)
And I will very gladly spend and be spent for your souls; though the more abundantly I love you, the less I am loved. 2 Corinthians 12.15
“Ministers are set to be lights to the souls of men in this respect, as they are to be the means of imparting divine truth to them, and bringing into their view the most glorious and excellent objects, and of leading them to and assisting them in the contemplation of those things that angels desire to look into…by which they may know God and Jesus Christ, whom to know is life eternal.”
- Jonathan Edwards, The True Excellency of a Gospel Minister
The work of shepherds
It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the work of ministry is what shepherds are called to do.
It is of course; but then again, it is not.
Shepherds are called to shepherd the flock of God so that the people entrusted to their care flourish as the Lord’s precious flock, bearing fruit, living their witness for Christ, ministering to and serving one another, and bringing their Personal Mission Fields fully into the orbit of Christ’s grace and truth. The work of shepherding is for the equipping of the saints for works of ministry (Eph. 4.11, 12). This is what shepherds are called to do; the work – whatever it may entail – is merely the means to this end.
We must not allow ourselves to be contented merely with doing the work such shepherding requires. The work is not the goal. The goal is healthy, growing, reproducing, abounding-in-grace-and peace sheep. The work is essential, but the work is untothe goal, and not the goal itself.
Focus on the soul
To accomplish the goal of shepherding God’s flock, we must make sure our focus is where it should be. Jonathan Edwards saw John the Baptist focusing on the soulsof those who came to him for baptism. He warned them about hypocrisy, called them to examine their souls and repent, and directed them to invest their souls for works befitting one who has turned to the Lord.
The shepherds of God’s flock must be willing to spend and be spent for the souls of God’s people, to watch over their souls, so that they might flourish in eternal life (Heb. 13.17). They must preach, teach, counsel, disciple, visit, encourage, confront, and instruct so that the minds of God’s people increasingly reflect the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2.16), their hearts are firmly set on the Law and Word of God (Ezek. 36.26, 27), and their consciences are bound by the righteousness of Jesus and the glory of God in all things (Rom. 2.14, 15).
The work of shepherds should enable the people of God to see more clearly into any lingering areas of darkness in their souls. It should raise their minds to heavenly matters and tune their hearts to desire the beauties and excellencies of the unseen realm. Shepherds fulfill their role in the church as they pierce and enlarge the souls of God’s people, focusing them on God and Christ and inviting and leading them to drink more deeply from the Fountain of salvation and eternal life.
How can we work as excellent shepherds to reach and transform the souls of those God has entrusted to our care? Edwards makes three observations from John the Baptist.
Strengthening the souls of God’s people
First, Edwards observed that excellent ministers must hold before the people they serve glorious and excellent objects. This begins with the vision of Christ, which John saw in portent and Paul saw through disciplined study and diligent meditation.
Are we leading the people we serve into the very presence of Jesus, exalted in glory? Do we invite them to contemplate His many excellencies? To envision the glories of His Kingdom coming on earth? To urge them on in building His Church in unity and maturity? To point to and lead them into the glory of God in His Word, in worship, and in the creation around us?
Or are we so determined only to speak to what we perceive to be their needs that the only vision that guides them is one of feeling better, happier, less anxious, and less stressed? The excellent things God’s people need to lead them into exciting growth and courageous Christian living are found in Christ and His Kingdom, not in their own feeble souls. Let us concentrate more on the excellencies of Christ, and we will bring light to the souls of God’s people to revive and renew them.
Second, shepherds must lead and assist the people they serve by going before them as examples of Christ-likeness and walking with them step-by-step along the path of holiness. If all we ever do is urge the people of God to take comfort in the Lord, or enjoy their church family, or find some niche to grow and serve, we may not be moving them along in their journey of discipleship. John demonstrated a life of self-denial, courageous witness, patient waiting, and faithfulness in his appointed calling. Let God’s shepherds show such a faithful and unwavering example, and the sheep they lead will gladly follow into a life of increasing Jesus and decreasing themselves (1 Pet. 5.1-3; Jn. 3.30).
Finally, shepherds must at all times hold out the vision, set an example, and be ready in every way to assist the Lord’s sheep to grow in their salvation. We are the heirs of a great salvation (Heb. 2.3); yet for many Christians, their salvation seems merely “good enough.” They are just fine doing what they’re doing, and they’re not likely to commit to much more than what suits their needs or comfort. But if we give them a larger and more compelling vision of Christ’s great salvation, if we demonstrate zeal and desire for and progress in this salvation, and invite and lead the Lord’s sheep to come with us in working out our salvation, we may realize more of that great salvation to which John called those who came to him for baptism.
The Lord’s shepherds are called to be lights to the souls of His people, so that, as His Word penetrates their minds, hearts, and consciences with the brilliance and glory of Jesus, they will give themselves entirely to the great and glorious work of seeing Him increase in them daily. This, and not merely the work we do to fill up the hours of our week, is the true work of shepherds.
Now Paul is openly expressing the love and affection which he had for them, since he is prepared not only to spend lavishly on their behalf but even to die for the salvation of their souls.
- Ambrosiaster (fl. 366-384 AD), Commentary on Paul’s Epistles
T. M. Moore
Shepherding God’s Flock
The work of watching over the souls of God’s people – the work of shepherding – involves a specific raft of disciplines, as Jesus explained in John 10. Our workbook, Shepherding God’s Flock, can help you and all the shepherds in your church identify, improve, and put those disciplines to good use in helping the Lord’s flock to grow in their salvation. Order your copy by clicking here.
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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).