Jonathan Edwards on the Ministry (16)
For we are God’s fellow workers... 1 Corinthians 3.9
Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ. 1 Corinthians 11.1
“It is not only our great duty, but will be our greatest honour, to imitate Christ, and do the work that he has done, and so act as co-workers with him.”
- Jonathan Edwards, Christ the Example of Ministers
The calling to ministry is at once a source of great pride and great humility, great satisfaction and great disappointment. What a privilege to be set among the flocks of God as an under-shepherd of the Good Shepherd Himself! But what a struggle as well. We cannot expect to succeed in this calling if we take as our defining example for ministry anyone other than the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.
Edwards, following Paul, calls on those entrusted with the ministry of the Word to imitate Jesus Christ in all our ways. While it is true that this calling comes to every follower of Christ, it is especially incumbent on those who teach and preach (Jms. 3.1). What does this entail? We may note five obligations.
Seek the Kingdom. Jesus came to earth proclaiming and embodying the Kingdom, and calling out followers who would make seeking the Kingdom the defining priority of their lives. He came to bring the Kingdom near, so that others could enter it as the Spirit enabled. We are His ambassadors, and the Kingdom is the defining framework of our life. We must strive to bring every area of our lives and work under the rule and authority of King Jesus, so that His rule of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Spirit (Rom. 14.17, 18) comes on earth as it is in heaven wherever we are and serve. We must work hard to nurture Kingdom vision, to practice and inculcate Kingdom disciplines, and to seek and encourage Kingdom outcomes of love for God and our neighbors.
Take up your cross. If we are to succeed in this Kingdom-and-glory calling (1 Thess. 2.12), we must deny ourselves and seek the good of others before our own good (Phil. 2.1-11). Our Good Shepherd laid down His life for His sheep, and He expects the same of those shepherds He has set in place to lead His flock (Jn. 10.11; Jer. 23.1-4). The work of shepherding is difficult and demanding; it must be learned, improved, and consistently practiced. And shepherds should expect that this will mean a life of spending and being spent on behalf of the souls of those they serve.
Make disciples. Why do we lay down our lives for the sheep? That they might become disciples. Like those first apostles, shepherds are called to make disciples. All the time and tools and talents we bring to the task of shepherding must be aimed at the outcome of making disciples. Disciples are those who walk the path Jesus walked – seeking the lost, serving others, shepherding fellow believers, sowing the Word of God, and exercising stewardship over all things for the Kingdom and glory of God. We must aim at such outcomes in all our work of ministry, and taking care to know the condition of our flock, make sure that these outcomes are understood and flourishing.
Build the church. If we make disciples, equipping God’s people for ministry, then we will build the Church. This stands high on the agenda of our Lord (Matt. 16.18), and we must work to build our church so that in everything, the members and body as a whole are increasing in the love of Christ (Eph. 4.11-16). Healthy, growing churches can be of any size, setting, or style. If they are healthy and growing, they will demonstrate unity and maturity. But this doesn’t just happen. Shepherds must aim for such evidence of a growing church in everything they do. We must not be distracted or become fixated on numbers or programs or other outward evidences. Churches are healthy when the saints are equipped for ministry so that body as a whole can increase in unity and maturity in Christ.
Love the people you serve. Finally, shepherds must love the people they serve – love them to the full measure of their love (Jn. 1.1-35). We must not love the work of ministry more than the people that work is intended to serve. We cannot love them on our own strength, but we must seek to increase in Jesus’ love, so that His grace may flow through us to them consistently and sincerely. To the extent that we increase in love for Jesus – spending time with Him, walking with Him, rolling our burdens on Him, and delighting in His beauty – we may expect to increase in love for His people as well.
Our great duty
Such imitating of Christ in our ministries is, Edwards insisted, the great dutyof all who accept this calling.
It is first of all our duty to God, Who calls us to this work. He knows how the work of shepherding should be carried out, what its ends should be, and how we may improve our skills for serving Him. We owe it to God – it is our duty– to make sure that what we do in ministry is what God intends, and not merely what we prefer or what seems to be “working” for us.
Thus we also owe it to our calling. The work of shepherding God’s flock is not whatever we say it is. The calling to ministry is a venerable one, and we have inherited models and examples from great saints who have sought to imitate Jesus in their work as ministers of the Word. We are not free to change that calling or to make of it anything other than what the calling itself has been for nearly two thousand years. God has fashioned the calling to minister His Word, and His Spirit has kept it more or less pure since the days of the apostles. We must learn that model, embrace that template, follow in the footsteps of faithful servants who have gone before, and resist needless innovation in our calling. The calling to ministry that will build the Church in the generations to come is in our hands today. We must preserve and exemplify it well, and not set it aside for trendy or more fashionable modes of ministry.
Finally, it is our duty to those we serve to keep this Jesus-model intact and to work it to the fullest. “As the Father sent Me,” Jesus told His apostles, “so I am sending you” (Jn. 20.21). For those called to the ministry of the Word, this means making sure that whatever Jesus did in ministry, we are doing as well, for the people we serve – the Lord’s flock – will be helped in their journey of faith if we are faithful to imitate Jesus in all our work of ministry.
Our greatest honor
Edwards says that imitating Jesus in the work of ministry is not only our great duty, but also our greatest honor. An unfading crown of glory awaits those faithful shepherds who serve after the example of Jesus and His apostles (1 Pet. 5.1-4). For the moment, it is not clear what this means, only that it appears to be an honor greatly to be desired. An unfading crown of glory awaits those faithful shepherds who, following the example of our Lord, shepherd the flock of God with all diligence and love.
Imitate Jesus in this ministry – in all aspects of this ministry – and that crown will be waiting for you.
Thus it will be, that he, who seems to derive no encouragement from men, will assiduously go on in his labors, knowing that a great reward is prepared for him by the Lord. And further, lest a protracted expectation should produce languor, he at the same time sets forth the greatness of the reward, which is sufficient to compensate for all delay: An unfading crown of glory, he says, awaits you.
- Calvin, Commentary on 1 Peter 5.4
Shepherding God’s Flock?
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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, “Christ the Example to Ministers,” are from Edward Hickman, ed.,The Works of Jonathan Edwards(Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1834, 1995). Unless otherwise indicated, quotes from Church fathers are from The Ancient Christian Commentary Series (InterVarsity Press).