Who Does Gospel Ministry?
What is gospel ministry?
It’s a deceptively simple question. So much of modern church life is described as a ministry of some sort, but biblically speaking there is rather narrow meaning to the idea.
The equivalent of the English word “ministry” is absent from both biblical Hebrew and Greek. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word sharath is often translated as “minister” and has the idea of administration or service in a variety of contexts (e.g. Genesis 40:4, Numbers 3:6, Psalm 103:21). The word most frequently translated “ministry” in the New Testament, diakonia, also conveys the idea of service. This does not just encompass the idea of helping others (e.g. Acts 11:29), but serving things to others, to deliver or administrate things to them. So, in Acts 6:1, food is diakoniaed (administered) to the needy, with the apostles later dedicated in 6:4 to the diakonia (administration of) the word of God. Another word often translated as “ministry” is leitourgia (where we get the English word “liturgy”), which similarly describes service, though usually in the context of corporate worship (e.g. Luke 1:23). It is not coincidental that in English, worship gatherings are called worship services.
Ministry is the administration, the serving of something, to others. So, what is gospel ministry? It is the administration, the serving up of, the gospel to other people. How is this done, and how do we see this in scripture?
God’s gracious, redemptive covenant has been administered in different ways to his people throughout history. All of these ways in the Old Testament, circumcision, the Paschal meal, the Mosaic sacrifices, prefigured Christ, and were shadows anticipating him who is the substance of God’s grace. This is what Paul means in 2 Corinthians 3:7-11 and Colossians 2:17, and what is taught in Hebrews 8 when the Mosaic sacrifices, described as copies and shadows of Christ, are contrasted with the better leitourgia (ministry) obtained by Christ in the new covenant. Jesus is the leitergous(liturgist!), the administrator or server, of the new covenant (Hebrews 8:2) of which he is the substance. In other words, in the new covenant, gospel ministry is Jesus serving himself to his people.
How does Jesus do this? By his word and sacraments. This is what the apostles are doing in Acts 6:4 when they diakonia(administer) the word in obedience to Christ’s commission in Matthew 28 (preach the gospel!). The diakonia (service) of Timothy is in being an evangelist through preaching God’s word, by which people are saved (1 Timothy 4:4, 2 Timothy 4:5). It is through this preaching of the word that salvation comes (Romans 10:14, 1 Corinthians 1:21), not because of the ones preaching, the noise coming from their mouths, or the persuasiveness of their speech, but because the preaching of Christ’s word is the administration of Christ in the new covenant to his people. Preaching God’s word is Christ coming to his own (Ephesians 2:13,17). Likewise, the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper represent the new covenant of the gospel, of which Christ is the substance: “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ,” “Baptism, which now saves you,” “This is my body”, “This is the new covenant in my blood.” Is not participation in the bread and cup participation in Christ’s body and blood (1 Corinthians 10:16)?
It is not water, bread, and wine that save, but the body and blood of Christ, by which he cleanses and reconciles sinners to himself. The sacraments communicate this reality, and are a means by which Christ administers himself to his people by faith.
Christ uses servants to accomplish this. Jesus administers the gospel to his church, via word and sacrament, by qualified and called (ordained) administrators: pastors. The Great Commission to preach and baptize was given not to all Christians, but those called by God as his witnesses (Acts 10:40-42). It was to this apostolic diakonia (administration) that Matthias was called to replace Judas (Acts 1:17, 25), exactly what the apostles needed to be freed up to do in Acts 6. The greater diakonia of Jesus that surpassed the diakonia of Moses (1 Corinthians 3:7-11) is being diakoniaed by the apostles (2 Corinthians 4:1), who are caretakers of the mysteries of God, of which Christ is the substance (1 Corinthians 3:23-4:1). The apostles, as Christ’s ambassadors, received the diakonia (administration) of gospel reconciliation, which is the good news of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:18-20).
This gospel administration of word and sacrament then is not to be taken up by anyone, but only to those who have been called to and entrusted with it. Paul states that his leitergous (administration of) Christ was given to him by God as a “priestly work” of the gospel (Romans 15:15-16). The continuity between old and new covenants, with the shadow leading to the greater, can be seen here. It was the priests, called by God, who administered the sacrificial and sacramental types that prefigured Christ, and no one claimed this for themselves, but only when called by God (Hebrews 5:4). During Ezra’s reformation of Israel, it was the priests who read and expounded scripture (Nehemiah 8:2-3, 8), because God’s priests were the ones called by him to teach his word (Hosea 4:6, Malachi 2:7). John the Baptist did not take it upon himself to baptize, but only did so when called by God (John 1:33).
This is the continuity Paul’s ministerial call fits into, and it continues on through the apostolic commission to the elders of the church. The saving word of God is to be preached by those sent (i.e. commissioned; Romans 10:15, 1 Timothy 2:7). Titus and his companions preached the gospel as a diakoneo (administration) of grace for which they were appointed by the church (2 Corinthians 8:18-19). Timothy is instructed to entrust the work of the word to faithful men (2 Timothy 2:2), and he himself had been given the gift of teaching scripture from elders who had done the same with him (1 Timothy 4:11-14). Timothy is reminded not to grow complacent in his work, but to study in order to be qualified in handling God’s work (2 Timothy 2:15), and to ensure that new bishops are able to teach (1 Timothy 3:2). Ministers might not need to be “experts”, but they do need to be competent and qualified in the administration of the gospel.
The apostles and prophets are the foundation of the church precisely because their gospel ministry is the administration of Christ, the church’s cornerstone. Pastoral, gospel ministry is a continuation of the apostles’ gospel ministry. The offices of Ephesians 4:11 flow from the foundational serving of the gospel to the perpetual: Administration of Christ continues in the church through the work of pastors and teachers.
It is by pastors that gospel ministry is done. The reason Christ gives his church pastors is described in Ephesians 4:12, with the beginning of that verse sometimes rendered as one clause: “To equip the saints for the work of the ministry (diakonia).” This implies that the Christians in general are the ones who are doing ministry. However, the phrase in Greek should be rendered as two clauses: “For perfecting the saints, for the work of the ministry (diakonia).” It is pastors, like Paul in Romans 15, that Christ has given to his church to administer the gospel, of which Jesus is the substance. Historically, confessional Anglican, Lutheran, and Presbyterian & Reformed churches have all held that only ordained (called, entrusted, commissioned) pastors are to administer the gospel in word and sacrament, a position consistent with the early church (e.g. the Didache, Ignatius, Clement).
Does this mean that Christian ministry is limited to pastors? Absolutely not. Gospel administration is for the good of the church, which is called to receive Christ in his word and sacraments. Gospel ministry is the gospel being served, as in Acts 6, which means the saints are to receive the gospel. The diakonia of reconciliation is an appeal and imploring to be reconciled to God in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20). The saints’ participation in gospel ministry is a reception and response to it. Be reconciled to God! This is the very language Paul uses about the sacraments, “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you” (1 Corinthians 11:23). In gospel ministry the church in its worship receives Christ who is served to us, and our service is responding to him in praise (Psalm 100).
The work of gospel ministry described in Ephesians 4 is that Christ gives the church pastors so that his saints will be built up into the faith, knowledge, and fullness of Christ (4:13). The church is to receive Christ by word and sacrament so that we may be perfected in our imitation of him (Ephesians 5:1-2). It is for this purpose that the apostles are commissioned in Matthew 28: to disciple people to observe all that Christ has commanded. Pastors are called to handle God’s word so that God’s people may be equipped for good works (2 Timothy 3:17).
Paul tells us that Christ by his Spirit gifted his church with a variety of diakonia (services; 1 Corinthians 12:5), but not all have been called to gospel ministry (1 Corinthians 12:4-11). Acts 6 not only describes the ministry of the word, but the diakonia of serving food to the needy. The financial support given by the Macedonian church is described as a diakonia(service) to the saints (2 Corinthians 8:4). God in his grace gifts his people to diakonia (serve) each other in imitation of Christ (Romans 12:6-8) so that whatever we do, we do to the glory of God. The saints’ duty to gospel ministry is to receive Christ in it so that we may imitate our savior in loving God and our neighbor. This is, Paul says in Romans 12:1, our spiritual latria –our spiritual worship, our spiritual ministry.
Cameron Shaffer is a pastor in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, ministering in Clarkston, MI. He can be found online at cameronshaffer.com."
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