Jonathan Edwards on the Ministry (6)
“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
“When there is light in a minister, consisting in human learning, great speculative knowledge, and the wisdom of this world, without a spiritual warmth and ardour in his heart, and a holy zeal in his ministrations, his light is like the light of an ignis faturus [gaseous light, emanating from putrefaction], and some kinds of putrifying carcasses that shine in the dark, though they are of a stinking savour. And if on the other hand a minister has warmth and zeal, without light, his heat has nothing excellent in it, but is rather to be abhorred; being like the heat of the bottomless pit; where, though the fire be great, yet there is no light.”
- Jonathan Edwards, The True Excellency of a Gospel Minister
Light and heat
True light in a minister, Edwards is saying, combines Gospel learning with a pious ardor that reaches out to renew and refresh the souls of saints. We must have both: truth and piety, light of mind and heat in the heart. Leave one or the other out and our ministries will suffer.
This is what he observed in John the Baptist. His preaching of repentance and preparation for the coming of the Messiah turned the light of Scripture on the everyday lives of all kinds of people. He was firm in his instructions, manifesting such insights to God’s Word that some of the religious leaders of his day thought he might himself be the Messiah, or at least the great prophet to come.
His preaching was courageous, consistent, and yet caring, as he sought earnestly to help people prepare for the Coming One. Undoubtedly, many of the religious teachers of John’s day had as much knowledge of Scripture as he; yet none of them shined the light of God’s Word so brilliantly or with such far-ranging illuminating power as did John. Certainly, there were pious and caring men amongst the leaders of Israel in John’s day; yet none of them attracted so many, or persuaded such a large number to repent, as John did from within his posture of self-denial and discipline.
A shepherd must evidence both light and heat in his work. He must illuminate the Scriptures clearly, brightly, and in a way that invites people to shelter in them; and he must draw people through the warmth of his humility, dedication, and love to follow Jesus more earnestly and consistently.
Let’s look a little closer at Edwards’ view of each of these essential attributes of shepherds.
Edwards believed that those entrusted with shepherding the flocks of the Lord must be diligent learners. Of course, they must be well acquainted with and skilled in understanding, teaching, and making application of all the counsel of God in Scripture. Ministers must be life-long students of the Bible, reading it through over and over, meditating deeply in the power of the Spirit. Ministers must take the Word to heart in their own lives as of first importance. They must use those skills and tools for rightly dividing the Word of God, bringing forth treasures of grace and truth from both Testaments consistently. They must be able to show Jesus to their hearers – students, counselees, and unbelieving neighbors – from every portion of Scripture, so that the weight of God’s glory may constantly draw the Lord’s sheep into a closer walk with their Good Shepherd.
Edwards also believed that the shepherds who tend the Lord’s flocks must be diligent “in human learning, great speculative knowledge, and the wisdom of this world.” Since God and our Lord Jesus are revealed in all the works of God – all of creation and culture, and all disciplines of study – the more familiar we are with those works, the closer and more constant will be our communion with the Lord, and those we teach. But we must also understand the times in which we live, and the worldviews of those who oppose the Gospel. Some good can be found in almost every human belief system, as Paul demonstrated on Mars Hill. But overall, the worldviews spun and embraced within the unbelieving world are merely the lie of the devil, masquerading as truth and leading the world into corruption, degradation, disappointment, despair, and death. The shepherd of God’s flock most understand these views, and explain to those he serves how they fall short of the glory of God as revealed in Jesus Christ (1 Chron. 12.32).
As to “speculative knowledge,” Edwards had in mind that systematizing genius which allows one to search out light from all parts of God’s Word, bringing passages together to construct larger truths and bring greater light to bear on contemporary issues, personal concerns, matters of church growth, and the various needs of individuals (1 Cor. 2.12, 13). Only by increasing in familiarity with God’s Word, and by understanding the times and the people we serve, can shepherds bring God’s truth to bear, with radiant light and transforming power, on those issues and concerns that confront the flock in his care.
Such learning can help the minister walk in wisdom, showing how the knowledge of truth can be applied in love in every area of life. And such wisdom becomes a model for the Lord’s sheep, as they follow their shepherd and the Good Shepherd to Whom he leads them.
Ministers need to gather light from every available source, and bask in it daily, so that the light of Christ in them may shine brighter and with more effectual focus in all their work.
But without “a spiritual warmth and ardour in his heart, and a holy zeal in his ministrations,” no amount of brilliant light will allow a shepherd to fulfill his calling to feed and equip the Lord’s sheep.
Here I think Edwards is focusing on the kind of love shepherds must nurture for those they serve, as well as the joy they take in serving them as unto the Lord. Shepherds must seek the Lord daily so that they can say, of every person they serve and every situation or task they confront, “I delight to do Your will, O my God” (Ps. 40.8). The truth shepherds gain through the various sources of light from the Lord, must be channeled through spigots of love – words and deeds carefully and prayerfully prepared to encourage and edify the people in their charge.
And they must take up their daily work not grudgingly, but joyfully, knowing that through their labors God can flow grace unto greater salvation through servants like John the Baptist, who deny themselves and faithfully and lovingly serve those whom God sends them.
Light without heat is knowledge that puffs up. Heat without light cannot bring edification that lasts. Edwards insisted that ministers of the Word of God must labor diligently to increase in light andheat as they pursue their callings to shepherd the flock of God.
These words not only maintain the authority of John, but elevate his doctrine above the ancient prophets, that the people may keep in view the right end of his ministry; for they mistook the design of his mission, and, in consequence of this, derived almost no advantage from his discourses. Accordingly, Christ extols and places him above the rank of the prophets, and gives the people to understand that he had received a special and more excellent commission.These words not only maintain the authority of John, but elevate his doctrine above the ancient prophets, that the people may keep in view the right end of his ministry; for they mistook the design of his mission, and, in consequence of this, derived almost no advantage from his discourses. Accordingly, Christ extols and places him above the rank of the prophets, and gives the people to understand that he had received a special and more excellent commission.
- John Calvin (1509-1564), Commentary on Matthew 11.11
Shepherding God’s Flock at The Ailbe Seminary
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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).