Jonathan Edwards on the Ministry (4)
For we have great joy and consolation in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed by you, brother. Philemon 7
“Ministers are set in the church of God to be the instruments of this comfort and refreshment to the souls of men, to be the instruments of leading souls to the God of all consolation, and fountain of their happiness: they are sent as Christ was, and as co-workers with him, to preach good tidings to the meek, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound, and to comfort all that mourn…”
- Jonathan Edwards, The True Excellency of a Gospel Minister
Focus on the soul
The proper focus of pastoral ministry is the souls of God’s people (2 Cor. 12.15; Heb. 13.17). The goal of this focus is that the souls of God’s people might be firmly connected to Christ, and through Him, to God the Father, so that they might derive strength, encouragement, comfort, and hope from Him.
How easy it is to become distracted from this focus. John the Baptist would not allow himself to be enticed into ramping up a movement, organizing a following, or anything other than being the forerunner of Christ. This was his calling, and in this calling, he preached and taught directly to the souls of the repentant, turning their minds to God, igniting their hearts with hope, and steadying their consciences for the priorities of God’s Word.
Pastors and shepherds share this calling with John, as Edwards pointed out. We may be tempted to think that our calling is to build a big, active church, bursting with members and bristling with fun things to do. Or we may believe that our calling is to create and maintain an expansive missions outreach. But if we lose sight of our calling to refresh the souls of God’s people, we cannot expect the Lord to bless us as He did John.
The shepherds of God’s flock are called to invest themselves entirely for the wellbeing and growth in Christ-likeness of the souls of those entrusted to their care. They must preach and teach and counsel to the soul. And their work of shepherding must give continuous attention to the souls of all God’s people, that they might know the condition of God’s flock so as to enable each one to make progress according to the Lord’s work in their life.
Let’s look more closely at three foci of this investing in souls, that Edwards mentions with reference to John the Baptist.
Comfort and refreshment
As the forerunner of the Christ, John brought a message of repentance unto hope.He spoke peace to the souls of God’s people, that they might be comforted and refreshed by the coming of the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world.
It’s no wonder people came out to John in droves and from every direction. They didn’t come because they wanted merely to be harangued or admonished. They came because of the hope of forgiveness and new life John’s ministry portended. John himself was not the hope, but he pointed people to the hope, to Jesus, in all his preaching and baptizing.
It does not surprise us that followers of John like Peter, John, Andrew, and others, quickly latched on to Jesus. John’s ministry was not to build a following, but to inspire the souls of his hearers with hope so that, when that hope arrived, they would turn and follow Him.
The comfort and refreshment of soul that God’s people need is to be found only in Jesus. None of our most earnest counseling, most powerful preaching, or most detailed organizing can bring the lastinghope of new life that comes from knowing Jesus. John understood that, and we must never lose sight of this objective – connecting people with Jesus unto the refreshing of their souls – in all our ministries.
Leading souls to God
But what does this mean? How do we lead souls to God, so that they find in Him the comfort and refreshment and strength they need to follow Jesus?
We must be careful in our work to make sure that nothing we do is perceived as an end in itself, like: Come to worship because worship is fun; get into a small group because being with Christian friends is a good thing; give to this outreach because it’s what we ought to do; help us with this building campaign because we need the space to keep growing.
None of these objectives is inherently inappropriate. But they become inappropriate when they are treated as ends in themselves. Everything the local church is or does, and everything shepherds do in ministering the Word of God to His people, must be to the end of knowing God and Jesus Christ, for this is eternal life (Jn. 17.3). What doesn’t move us closer to Jesus, connect us more firmly and consistently with Him, and lead us into the transforming glory of God is simply not worth doing.
We must think through all our efforts and activities carefully and prayerfully, so that we may confidently say, concerning each of them: this effort is bringing us closer to Jesus and enabling us to abide more consistently and comfortably in Him.
Or as John would say of his own ministry, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn. 3.30).
Watching over the souls of God’s people
When our ministries bring hearers into the presence of God, we don’t need to burden our messages with frothy formulas for feeling better in the Lord, or belabor endless lists of possible applications, or rehearse a litany of every possible sin, just to make sure we leave no one out. When our ministries lift and enlarge the souls of God’s people, and lead them into the presence of the Lord of glory, He will give them the comfort, refreshment, and strength their souls require.
But the shepherds of God’s flock must carefully watch over the souls of those entrusted to their care. And the people must happily submit to such oversight (1 Thess. 5.12; Heb. 13.17). This suggests some approach to shepherding that has a shepherd watching over and refreshing the soul of every member of the flock, on some recurring basis, to discern the needs of their souls and to encourage them in drawing nearer and walking more consistently with Jesus.
It is plain enough what he means, that he has great joy and consolation, because Philemon administered relief to the necessities of the godly. This was singular love, to feel so much joy on account of the benefit received by others.
- John Calvin (1509-1564), Commentary on Philemon
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.
Please prayerfully consider sharing with The Fellowship of Ailbe through your giving. You can contribute to The Fellowship by clicking the Contribute button at the website or by sending your gift to The Fellowship of Ailbe, 19 Tyler Drive, Essex Junction, VT 05452.
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).