A Charge for the Christian Minister
As a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ one of my chief concerns is the efficacy of the Gospel message. In fact, I am more and more convinced that the potency of the word is bound up with the character of the preacher. Keeping this in mind, it becomes needful for the Christian minister to take a step back and ask, ‘Why am I doing what I am doing?’
D. A. Carson has posed this question to his divinity students and has frequently and lamentably received the following answer: ‘Well, I think I would like to teach somewhere. Every time I have taught, people have told me I have done a pretty good job. I get a tremendous sense of fulfillment out of teaching the Bible. I think I could be satisfied teaching Scripture.’ What is present in that pathetic response is self-fulfillment. What is absent is self-abasement. And what is desperately needed in our churches is men who evidence the latter.
The fact of the matter is the Holy Spirit delights to attend the message of the Spirit-filled messenger. In this regard Ezekiel’s call has become a welcome corrective to my own soul. In chapters 2 and 3 we find character traits that are requisite for an effective and God-glorifying ministry. What I would like to do is frame these traits in terms of imperatives or charges for the Christian minister. I do so in the hopes that we will remember them, obey them, and ask God for his power to cultivate them in our hearts.
‘He said to me, “Son of man, stand up on your feet and I will speak to you.” As he spoke, the Spirit came into me and raised me to my feet, and I heard him speaking to me.’ (Ezek. 2: 1-2)
Here we witness something that happens often in the Old Testament Scriptures. The Holy Spirit comes upon, or into, God’s chosen man and empowers him for special prophetic service to the Lord. Similarly, in the New Testament economy the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is the necessary prerequisite for an effective Gospel ministry. By implication it follows that the first charge for the Christian minister is that he be reformed. To be clear, I’m not talking about theology. I am using the word reformed in its Puritan sense. Listen to what Richard Baxter wrote in his classic The Reformed Pastor1:
Alas! it is the common danger and calamity of the Church, to have unregenerate and inexperienced pastors, and to have so many men become preachers before they are Christians; who are sanctified by dedication to the altar as priests of God, before they are sanctified by hearty dedication as the disciples of Christ; and so to worship an unknown God, and to preach an unknown Christ, to pray through an unknown Spirit, to recommend a state of holiness and communion with God, and a glory and a happiness which are all unknown, and like to be unknown to them for ever. He is like to be but a heartless preacher, that hath not the Christ and grace that he preacheth, in his heart. O that all our students in our universities would well consider this. (p.56)
Now perhaps some are thinking, ‘This injunction should go without saying.’ You are right to think that way. But given the deplorable state of both churches and ministers in our land it must be said. The Christian ministry is unlike any secular calling, for its efficacy cannot be achieved through a man’s years of experience or, dare I say it, even a sound education. First and foremost, the man in ministry must be a Christian! He must be plucked out by God as a brand from the burning and indwelt by his Holy Spirit; he must be regenerated; he must be saved; he must be spiritually raised to his feet; he must be reformed! To put it another way, if one desires to be used in God’s reformational ministry and see the lost impacted by that ministry then one must first be reformed by God.
Do you know the Triune God through his Son, Jesus? Do you really know him? Have you experienced firsthand his mercy? Minister of the Gospel, be reformed – flee to Christ first and thereafter be his spokesman.
‘You must speak my words to them, whether they listen or fail to listen, for they are rebellious. But you, son of man, listen to what I say to you. Do not rebel like that rebellious house; open your mouth and eat what I give you.’ (Ezek. 2: 7-8)
Ezekiel was charged to speak and listen to what God said to him. His ministry was to be characterized by the phrase ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says’ (Ezek. 2: 4). Likewise, the Christian minister must be resolved to listen to what God says in his word and speak what his word says. The Evangelical Anglican divine, Charles Simeon (1759-1836), broke that resolve down into three parts. First, resolve to declare God’s will, specifically the coming judgment of the thrice-holy God upon sinful man. Second, resolve to assert God’s authority, particularly by offering God’s terms of peace through the Savior Jesus Christ. Third, resolve to have God’s heart for the lost. This is so simple and biblically basic. Yet we witness a purposeful neglect by many so-called Christian ministers because to say what God says brings scorn and unpopularity.
In regards to scorn, observe how God exhorts the prophet in Ezekiel 2: 6: ‘And you, son of man, do not be afraid of them or their words. Do not be afraid, though briers and thorns are all around you and you live among scorpions. Do not be afraid of what they say or terrified by them, though they are a rebellious house.’ God hints to Ezekiel that he is going to be scorned for the message that he speaks and therefore he commands him not to be dismayed at their looks: ‘Don’t be shattered when they refuse to accept my message. Don’t be demoralized when they ridicule the truth. Press on. Continually be resolved to listen and speak only what I say. Press on!’
I have experienced derision in some small measure at a local pastor’s fellowship. At the first meeting I attended, and I don’t attend often, the subject of the Emerging Church was broached. As the discussion progressed the pastors offered their feedback to some of the valid concerns that that movement has raised. They offered their own homemade solutions to their members’ biblical ignorance, mistrust of leadership and apathy towards Christian service. I had resolved not to speak, but the dearth of wisdom exhibited there compelled me to share something of what God says. I stated, ‘God’s methodology for doing church is quite simple: preach his word and pray and do those things often and you will find that these issues will disappear by God’s grace.’ There was a stunned silence. They knew God’s truth. But there was a deep and profound lack of confidence in God’s word and in his Spirit to effect any change! And though their lips did not speak scorn, their eyes certainly conveyed scorn: ‘What planet is this guy from?’ This sort of reaction should not surprise the true Christian minister. And notwithstanding the ridicule, we ought to be resolved only to speak and listen to what the Lord says.
Lord, speak to me that I may speak
In living echoes of thy tone;
As thou hast sought, so let me seek
Thine erring children lost and lone.
[Frances Ridley Havergal]
In regards to unpopularity, observe the description of the scroll in Ezekiel 2: 10: ‘On both sides of it were written words of lament and mourning and woe.’ The truth God gives Ezekiel to proclaim is one of impending judgment. This isn’t happy news. This isn’t the sort of message that would garner Ezekiel a following or popularity. Notice also that the scroll has writing on both sides. This bad news is so full and comprehensive it requires all the available space! What a message to proclaim for this prospective preacher! At least ministers in the New Testament era have a remedy to proclaim! But I want to make a point here. The trend in today’s preaching is to shun the bad news of God’s word and focus wholly on the good news. This is a grievous error. Doctrines like that of hell and the need for the repentance of sins are absolutely essential to the Gospel. In fact, the bad news is what makes the good news good! Oh, may we never be guilty of gutting the Gospel message!
Minister of the Gospel, be resolved to listen to and speak the whole counsel of God despite scorn and unpopularity. Shun expediency and pragmatism and hold nothing back!
‘And he said to me, “Son of man, eat what is before you, eat this scroll; then go and speak to the house of Israel.” So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat. Then he said to me, “Son of man, eat this scroll I am giving you and fill your stomach with it.” So I ate it, and it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth.’ (Ezek. 3: 1-3)
At first glance God’s command that Ezekiel eat the scroll appears no different than God’s charge to Ezekiel to listen to his word. But there is a crucial difference. A prophet of God can listen to God’s word without truly imbibing it. It can be just an intellectual exercise. The point to be made here is that the Christian minister must be revived before he speaks God’s word if he is to reasonably expect the ministry to be effective. Ezekiel 3: 10 confirms this: ‘Moreover, he said to me, “Son of man, all my words that I shall speak to you receive in your heart, and hear with your ears.” (ESV)
The celebrated Scottish missionary to Canada, William Fraser (1801-1883), had become quite disconsolate in his endeavors by the year 1834. His heart ached because the lost were not being converted in the Ottawa Valley. John Gilmour of Montreal visited Fraser in the summer and sought to encourage his friend. He exhorted him, ‘There must be fire in the pulpit, before there will be a blaze in the congregation!’ God used that interview to revive Fraser’s own heart. He took that as a trumpet call and preached fervently to himself and his congregation and God was pleased to grant an increase the likes of which has rarely been seen in this country.
Minister of the Gospel, be revived. Eat, be filled and experience the sweetness of the word in your own heart. Preach the word to yourself first and then proclaim it to the world.
‘But I will make you as unyielding and hardened as they are. I will make your forehead like the hardest stone, harder than flint. Do not be afraid of them or terrified by them, though they are a rebellious house.’ (Ezek. 3: 8-9)
In verse 7 the Lord reveals to Ezekiel that the house of Israel will not listen to the divine message. Instead, they will display a hardened, shameless, stubborn defiance as the truth is proclaimed. It is in this context that God promises to make Ezekiel just as hard as the people. In fact, Ezekiel’s name means ‘God hardens’. God’s will was exactly the same for another one of his ministers, the prophet Jeremiah: ‘Today I have made you a fortified city, an iron pillar and a bronze wall to stand against the whole land””against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests and the people of the land.’ (Jer. 1: 18). Indeed, God’s desire for all faithful Christian ministers is that they be relentless in declaring God’s word in the face of opposition.
The Gospel ministry can be discouraging. And it can be discouraging precisely because we are prone to forget that it is God alone who gives the increase (1 Cor. 3: 6). All of us need to remember that it is simply the duty of the Christian minister to be hard, to be relentless or to be faithfully stubborn in disseminating God’s message. In my office, I pin up sayings that encourage me to stay focused in the task that God has called me to do. Most of the quotes are from other ministers. But occasionally I come up with a gem of my own, if I do say so myself! Here is one maxim that I seek to apply as a faithfully stubborn minister:
Preach fervently as if the people can respond. Pray fervently because they cannot.
Minister of the Gospel, be relentless. Persist in your proclamation of the oracles of God. Pray in God’s will that you would outlast your opponents and not be worn out by their stubbornness, and wait for God to make things grow.
‘The Spirit then lifted me up and took me away, and I went in bitterness and in the anger of my spirit, with the strong hand of the LORD upon me.’ (Ezek. 3: 14)
With God’s message ingested, Ezekiel returns to the exiles completely in tune with his Lord’s will. He comes to them in bitterness and anger of spirit, being caught up in the righteous indignation of the Lord. God’s fury is Ezekiel’s fury. In fact, his fury is uncontainable. So replete or full of God’s word is Ezekiel that the only thing that will relieve him is the message’s release. Jeremiah felt the same way: ‘But if I say, “I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.’ (Jer. 20: 9).
Do we feel the burden of bearing the Lord’s word like these servants of old? I’ve told my congregation that on occasions I feel like a soda pop bottle that has been shaken up, ready to explode! Oh that I would be so replete with God’s word all the time! It has been said that when T.T. Shields (1873-1955) arrived on a Sunday morning at Jarvis Street Baptist Church, Toronto, he would go straight to his study without greeting a soul. For those that did not know the man they considered this an affront. But for those who were close to him they knew it was because of the burden of bearing God’s word. He was a man possessed by the revelation of God. And he would not, nay he could not, be deterred from the message God had given him until that message was released.
Minister of the Gospel, be replete or full to overflowing with the word of God that it may have effect. This is an attainable condition. May I suggest a prayer that you may know the strong hand of the Lord upon you?! Pray this prayer of Richard Baxter’s often:
Lord, wilt thou send me with such an unbelieving heart to persuade others to believe? Must I daily plead with sinners about everlasting life and everlasting death, and have no more belief or feeling of these weighty things myself? O send me not naked and unprovided to the work; but, as thou commandest me to do it, furnish me with a spirit suitable thereto. Amen. (p. 122).
In Ezekiel 3: 15 we read that God’s prophet sat for seven days among the exiles overwhelmed before he delivered the message. Christian minister, do you feel the weight of these charges? Is your heart overwhelmed as you recognize that an efficacious ministry is dependent upon cultivating these traits? If your answer is ‘yes’ then good, you have understood your own weakness aright. May God continually teach each one of us to abase self and lead us to the Rock that is higher, that we may be empowered by his Spirit and spent for Christ and his kingdom. Amen.
Taken from Sovereign Grace Journal, May 2007, with permission.
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