Jonathan Edwards on the Ministry (8)
Peter said to Him, “You shall never wash my feet!” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.” John 13.8
“The work and business of ministers is as it were that of servants, to wash and cleanse the souls of men: for this is done by the preaching of the word, which is their main business, Eph. v. 26. ‘That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word.’…it is the duty of ministers of the gospel, in the work of their ministry, to follow the example of their great Lord and Master.”
- Jonathan Edwards, Christ the Example of Ministers
Doing church Christ’s way
The work and business of pastors today tends to unfold around ideas such as “church growth” or “church revitalization” or some such focus, which seems most likely to increase interest, attendance, participation, and contentment in the church.
We cannot fault this, surely. What pastor would stand before the flock and flatly deny interest in such themes? Or insist they were not relevant to or important for their congregation?
Something in us as pastors urges us on to do whatever we can to bring our church into more of the life of Christ and His Kingdom, and through our church, to bring more of the life of Christ and His Kingdom into the community around us. This is as it should be, and we should pray for one another and encourage one another, that we might be more effective and fruitful in pursuing these ends.
But in the work and business of doing church within the framework of the divine economy, there are right ways and wrong ways of pursuing our objectives. The right ways always derive from Scripture, especially from the teaching and example of the apostles, grounded in the teaching and example of Christ Himself. He is, after all, the One Who declares, “I will build My Church” (Matt. 16.18), and, presumably, He knows best both what He intends to build and how that building should be done.
Jonathan Edwards understood this, and this is why he looked to Christ, as well as to John the Baptist, to guide his thinking about the work of ministry. In considering his sermon, “Christ the Example to Ministers,” we will follow Edwards as he repeats and elaborates on themes developed in his sermon, “The True Excellency of a Gospel Minister,” which has occupied our attention lately. We will discover even richer and more pointed applications for our work as shepherds here, since Edwards takes as his example that One Who declared Himself to be the Good Shepherd.
Called to serve
Edwards insisted that ministers must be “lights to the souls” of the people entrusted to their care, to bring “comfort and refreshment” to their souls. We have considered some of the implications of this as Edwards discerned them in the example of John the Baptist. Shepherds watch over the souls of the people of God so that, increasingly, they may think with the mind of Christ, desire whatever is on the heart of God, and value above all those priorities that pertain to His Kingdom and glory.
In this sermon Edwards says bluntly that ministers of the Gospel are called to serve, that they are servants of those entrusted to their care, and should see themselves as called to prepare and lead the people of their congregation to commune with, feed on, grow in, and live for the Lord Jesus Christ.
The shepherds of God’s flocks are those who, like Jesus the Good Shepherd, wash the feet of those they serve, applying the Word of God to the washing and renewal of their souls, drawing them ever more deeply into the Word and glory of Christ, and leading them to feast on Him and His Word with greater delight, transformation, and fruitfulness.
Shepherds who serve their people, following the example Jesus demonstrated and expounded in John 10, will work hard to get to know them and to be known them. They will lead the people they serve with clear vision and by convincing example into greater realization of the presence, promise, and power of the Kingdom. Whatever they must do in laying down their lives for those entrusted to their care they will gladly embrace, making available time, they might spend in other occupations, for equipping the saints. They eagerly defend those entrusted to them from false teaching, the ways of the world and the lies of the devil, and the tendency to drift from our great salvation. Shepherds who serve their churches well will bring other sheep into the fold, and equip others to join them in the work of evangelism. And they help their people to grow steadily in the eternal life that is God’s gift to them, to be received, enjoyed, and enlarged by diligent and faithful effort. And all this the shepherd will do as he teaches and guides the Lord’s sheep into identifying and working their own Personal Mission Field.
But if they are to serve like this, so that the people in their care increase in Jesus and His calling to the Kingdom and glory of God, they must themselves submit to Jesus’ washing and renewing work in their own lives. They must be sure that they regularly and intimately “have a part” with Jesus as He shepherds and equips them.
The servant and the Word
Over the years I have participated in many examinations of people who believe God has called them to the work and business of the ministry. I am always struck by how little interest examiners seem to have in the ways candidates for ministry regularly submit themselves to washing by Jesus with His Word. We examine for theology, doctrine, church government, worship and the sacraments, and denominational peculiarities. While such examinations are important, they are too often the occasion for examiners to broach pet interests or to try to trip candidates over theological subtleties or sudden lacunae in their thinking.
But – again, in my experience – we give too little attention to the candidate’s practice of being in the presence of Jesus, of his vision of Jesus, his heart and desire for Jesus, the ways Jesus washes and renews him, how he feeds on Jesus, whether and by what means he communes with Jesus throughout the day, and what his practice is for talking about Jesus with others. Edwards would say, I think, that unless we discover the extent to which this candidate for the work and business of ministry has a deep and renewing and abiding part with Jesus, no amount of excellence and precision in doctrinal or theological matters will suffice for this minister to fulfill the calling of a servant, in laboring alongside the Master and Good Shepherd as He builds His Church.
Shepherds need to make sure they have such a part with Jesus, that they are intimately in His presence to be washed, soothed, fed, nurtured, corrected, and readied for the work and business of each day. Only then will the other aspects of their ministry have the necessary foundation and presence to make them effective for building the Lord’s Church.
As Christ is Lord and Master, Peter thinks it inconsistent that Christ should wash his feet. But the evil is, that, in refusing such a service, he rejects the principal part of his own salvation. There is also a general doctrine contained in this statement, that we are all filthy and abominable in the sight of God, until Christ wash away our stains. Now, since he claims for himself the exclusive right of washing, let every man present himself, to be cleansed from his pollution, that he may obtain a place among the children of God.
- John Calvin, Commentary on John 13.8
Shepherding God’s Flock at The Ailbe Seminary
We’re pleased to announce that our course, Shepherding God’s Flock, is now open for registration at The Ailbe Seminary. Whether you are a pastor, elder, or church leader in some other capacity, this course can show you how to make disciples, build the Lord’s church, and advance His Kingdom according to His example and teaching. Watch this brief introductory video, then register at the website (upper middle of the website), download the Course Introduction and Overview, and seek the Lord about enrolling in this course.
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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).
Jonathan Edwards, “Christ the Example of Ministers,” in Edward Hickman, ed., The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1995), Vol. Two, pp. 960ff.