The work of the ministry is a calling both varied and humbling. After years of training in the Scriptures, in theology, in the discipline of scholarship, and in the understanding of human beings, to be a minister of the Gospel which is “a savor of life unto life and of death unto death” is a task calling a man to daily dependence upon God. Among the complexities of ministerial life and work, four are central: the minister’s identity, his burden, his preaching, and his purpose.

Consider first the identity of the minister—who he is as a servant of Christ. According to the Apostle Paul, ministers are men to whom Christ has given special gifts (Eph. 4:7–13). Elementary and higher education are deeply concerned for the training of gifted youth, those students of superior intellectual promise. But in another and different sense the theological seminary also is engaged in the education of the gifted. Paul declares in this passage in Ephesians that the risen, ascended Lord gave particular spiritual gifts to men, so that “some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers.”

Of these five spiritual gifts, four are present in the Church today. The exception is the gift of apostleship, which was unique with those who had actually seen the Lord himself. But the other gifts have been conferred down through the ages according to Christ’s gracious will: the gift of prophecy (no longer the foretelling of the future but rather the speaking forth of rebuke or encouragement, according to God’s principles); the gift of being an evangelist; and, in indissoluble relation one with the other, the gift of being a pastor and teacher.

In thinking of these gifts and their possession under God, it is a mistake to compartmentalize them rigidly. Undoubtedly all ministers of Christ exercise all four gifts to some degree. But to each our Lord gives in a special measure one or another of the gifts. These gifts are to be thought of not as isolated but as related; and, according to the teaching of the New Testament, every gift is made effective by the one great gift of the Holy Spirit, who indwells every Christian.

It is a wise minister who knows his gift and who cultivates it to the glory of God and the upbuilding of believers. If the Lord has endowed a man as a pastor and teacher, an evangelist, or a prophet, then it is that man’s responsibility to develop his gift. Some seminarians may not yet know beyond a doubt what their gifts are, but the Lord who has called them to his service will surely make this plain in the proving ground of experience. And as it becomes plain, they will recognize the appointed field of concentration that is so essential a part of every minister’s life.

Article continues below

The Minister’S Burden

Consider secondly the burden of the minister. Let us go back in our mind’s eye some twenty-five centuries to the situation described in the first chapter of Habakkuk. This man of God, whose book is one of the summits of Old Testament prophecy, lived in the last days of Judah. It was a time much like ours. Habakkuk looked upon the violence and moral corruption and social injustice of his day and cried out to God. The very first sentence of his book shows the prophet’s personal concern: “The burden which Habakkuk the prophet did see.” This man saw the sin and failure of his people and took to himself the burden. And having assumed that burden, he brought it to the Lord.

Why has God’s work gone on through the years? Surely the answer is that there have always been some who, seeing a need, have taken up their burden for the Lord. We should not have the heritage of the Reformed faith had not men like Luther, Calvin, and Knox seen the Lord’s burden and shouldered it. Africa, despite all its problems today, would still be the dark continent it was a century ago had not David Livingstone been burdened to open it for the Gospel. Slavery and child labor would still be practiced in the United States had not burdens been accepted. There would be no progress in race relations were it not for the burdened. Educational institutions have been begun as the result of burdens seen and accepted. Seminaries would not exist had not their founders borne a burden for training men as pastors and teachers, prophets, or evangelists.

To the young man at the threshold of his work as a minister of Jesus Christ, the challenge is: “Recognize your burden and then bear it for His sake.” Why does a man go into the ministry? “Because God has called me,” he answers. But how has God called him? Has it not been through a burden, a sense of the need of men and women for Christ? Moreover, as a man goes on in the ministry, he sees fresh burdens and is confronted by new needs and concerns.

It is a principle that a need may under God constitute a call. Our country with its violence and corruption, its God-forgetfulness which we call secularism but which is actually atheism by default, its moral callousness and selfish materialism, its racial prejudice and internal strife, is full of needs and burdens that summon Christians to join what Emile Cailliet calls “the brotherhood of the heavy-laden.” Yet basic to all these needs is the need of sinful human beings for the transforming Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Article continues below

As Habakkuk’s dialogue with the Lord continued and as the Lord showed him the Babylonian menace on the horizon much like the Communist menace in our day, the prophet complained that the Babylonians were more wicked than Judah. Then it was that Habakkuk went to his watchtower, to a place where he could be alone with God. There God spoke to him and gave him the truth needed for bearing his burden.

The Work Of Preaching

So we come to a third aspect of the ministry—the work of preaching. Nothing probes personal commitment more deeply than the responsibility of proclaiming God’s truth. Are you and I concerned with meeting the needs of men through preaching the Word and proclaiming Christ according to the Scriptures? Then we must first do as Habakkuk did in going apart before God. At the center of our lives we too must practice being alone with God and waiting upon him. Without this spiritual discipline, no minister, indeed none of us, minister or Christian layman, can be a truly effective witness.

The minister’s disciplined continuance in study and scholarship is indispensable. But along with it there goes the inescapable obligation of growing spiritually. The greatest peril to powerful service for Christ is the temptation to neglect the devotional life alone with God. This is a simple truth, but it is nonetheless vital. Out of Habakkuk’s waiting upon God came the seven short words, “The just shall live by his faith,” that are the germ of the Gospel as the Spirit of God led Paul to expound it in Romans and Galatians. Out of a personal relation with God in prayer and searching the Scriptures come the shaping of the minister’s message and strength for proclaiming it.

One of the most remarkable portrayals of preaching is not in any textbook on homiletics but in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. One winter Sunday, Ishmael goes to the Whalemen’s Church in New Bedford. In a howling storm Father Mapple preaches a sermon on Jonah. But it is the pulpit from which he preaches that interests us. Melville devotes a chapter to it, as he tells how Father Mapple mounts it. It is shaped like the prow of a ship with the Bible on a projection jutting high over the people. It has no stairs, but a rope ladder with red side cords gives access to it. Mapple mounts it with dignity. Then he draws up the ladder after him. There he is, alone in the pulpit. It is an unforgettable picture, rich in symbolism.

Article continues below

Oh, the aloneness, the holy isolation of a man in the pulpit! Who of us preachers has not felt it! Although we do not draw up a ladder after us when we enter the pulpit, we do stand alone and speak to men for God. Yet all the time, by a blessed paradox, we are not alone. Outside Boston’s Trinity Episcopal Church there is the great St. Gaudens Statue of Phillips Brooks preaching; behind him stands Christ, with his hand on the preacher’s shoulder. It is a moving portrayal of the unseen Companion of the faithful minister in the solitude of the pulpit.

The isolation of the pulpit is one of responsibility—the great and inescapable responsibility of declaring the whole counsel of God, of preaching not ourselves but Jesus Christ the Lord, of never substituting the fallible word of man for the inerrant Word of God. But though we stand alone before men, paradoxically we must also stand in nearness of mind to mind and heart to heart with those who hear us. The isolation of the pulpit is that of individual responsibility to God for the faithful preaching of his Word; it is not and must never be confused with the isolation that comes from faulty communication.

Perhaps the greatest lack of the evangelical ministry today is failure to proclaim the Gospel clearly. All the orthodoxy the minister holds, all the great body of evangelical truth committed to him, is of little avail unless those who hear him understand the way of salvation through Christ alone and the obligations God places on those who belong to Christ. The problem of preaching is always the problem of communication, and woe to the minister who forgets this.

When Habakkuk waited alone before God, God gave him the answer to his problems and with it this instruction: “Write the vision and make it plain … that he may run that reads it.” God is interested in our making the Gospel plain. We have the message in the unchanging, powerful Gospel of Jesus Christ. It would be well for every minister to resolve never to preach a single sermon without mentioning salvation through Christ. Why? Because there may be someone before him who may never have another opportunity to hear the message of salvation. Always the obligation is to proclaim the redeeming Christ. Paul set the right example when he declared, “I determined not to know anything among you save Jesus Christ and him crucified”; and he was also right when he disclaimed “excellency of speech and of wisdom,” which was another way of disclaiming rhetoric for rhetoric’s sake.

Article continues below

In a day when philosophy has invaded the pulpit and professional theological jargon obscures basic Christian truth, we need to remember that, aside from the power of the Spirit, the greatest asset a preacher may have is plain speech. The late C. S. Lewis told of a young parson whom he heard close a sermon like this: “My dear friends, if you do not accept this truth, there may be for you grave eschatological consequences.” “I asked him,” said Dr. Lewis, “if he meant that his hearers would be in danger of going to hell if they didn’t believe. And when he said, ‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘Then why didn’t you say so?’ ”

It is significant that among the gifts of Christ to the Church, two are clearly linked—those of “pastors and teachers.” To a very real extent preachers are teachers. For a preacher there could hardly be any more valuable training than some kind of experience in teaching. Such experience is important simply because the good teacher must constantly ask himself: “Am I making this plain? Are my students understanding this? How can I make this point more clear?,” questions the preacher ought to ask of every sermon he preaches.

Few ministers will be college or seminary professors, but no minister can escape being an essential part of the great enterprise of Christian education. This means that preaching that expounds the Word of God is not optional but obligatory. A question that every preacher ought to face as he takes stock of his ministry year by year is not just, “Have my people been inspired and challenged?,” but, “Do they know more about the Bible than they did last year?” For through the Bible we know more of Christ.

The good teacher must know his pupils—not just their names, but their backgrounds and what interests them and what they are thinking. So with the pastor-teacher. He cannot make himself understood unless he understands the cultural environment of his hearers. The godly isolation of the pulpit does not mean lack of cultural awareness. Evangelicalism has been making great strides in overcoming anti-intellectualism, but it has far to go in overcoming cultural provincialism. For effective communication of the Gospel the minister must speak to people where they are—not just on Sunday morning but where they are every day in their interests and thoughts and recreation.

Article continues below

Purpose Of The Ministry

The fourth aspect of the ministry—namely, its purpose—may be stated with urgent brevity. Some of you have been given spiritual gifts, Paul is saying in Ephesians 4:7–13, and you have been given these gifts for a purpose. That purpose is both broad and wonderful. As the New English Bible correctly translates Paul’s words: “These were his gifts: some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, [and now note the purpose] to equip God’s people for work in his service.” And, Paul continues, “so shall we all at last attain to the unity inherent in our faith and our knowledge of the Son of God—to mature manhood, measured by nothing less than the full stature of Christ.”

Every minister should be careful of an overly exclusive view of his ministry. Yes, he is a man specially endowed. By ordination he is set apart. He has special functions such as preaching and pastoral care and the administration of the sacraments. But the purpose of it all is that as pastor and teacher he should help the rank and file of believers exercise for themselves the work of the ministry in the unity and maturity of truth and love. The test of the minister’s exercise of his gift is the growth into maturity of those entrusted to his pastoral care and instruction. And mature Christians we must have! The moral and spiritual flabbiness of undernourished, underdeveloped church members cannot stand up to the pressures of this secular age.

In the third movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony there is a passage built on what musicians call an organ point, a tone long sustained, measure after measure. In this case the organ point is A, the note to which all the instruments in the orchestra are tuned. Over it, Beethoven quotes an old Austrian pilgrim hymn. First the A sounds softly; then, as the hymn sounds over it, the A grows louder until finally the brasses join in a veritable blaze of tone. It is one of the great moments in music.

There are indeed various aspects of the ministry; Christ gives men different gifts. But the spiritual A, the central point of reference to which all else (evangelism included) is related, the purpose always to be kept in mind and heart in the work of the ministry, is nothing less than the growth and unity of the body of Christ unto mature manhood, even unto the full stature of Christ.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.