The Servant of the Word: New Testament Portrait of the Minister

How do you address a minister of the Word? You call him “pastor.” But is that a correct description of his calling? You will know that a physician is called a doctor of medicine, and thus he puts the initials M.D. behind his name. That means he has studied medicine and now practices the medical profession. But what about the minister of the Word? Well, naturally, he has studied the Word of God during his seminary training and now in the ministry is a minister of the Word of God. Very well. Then the minister should put the initials V.D.M. behind his name. These letters stand for the Latin saying: Verbi Divini Minister (minister of the divine Word). That is what the minister is and should he. Of course he is a pastor and he is a teacher. But his calling is Minister of the Divine Word, or if you wish, Minister of the Word of God.

Servant of the Church

This is not always understood. Certainly not by the public. The public is of the opinion that the minister is a servant of the Church. And this can be understood readily, for Church and minister go together. The Church does not flourish in the absence of the minister. Paul even makes mention of this in his letter to the Romans. I quote Romans 10:14, “How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear with. out a preacher?” The reverse is also true. A minister does not flourish without a Church. A minister cannot bring the Word of God separate from the body of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Church. The minister brings the Word as a member of the Church of Christ.

Yet the minister is not a servant of the Church, even though the public regards him as such. A clergyman is the official functionary of the Church. And I grant much more so in the Roman Catholic Church than in the Protestant Church. Yet in the eye of the public, the clergyman officiates at the wedding ceremony, he is the person in charge at a funeral, and he is the person that baptizes new members of the Church. Also the minister is the representative of the Church, let us say at a meeting or event. The minister represents the Church.

It is obvious, however, that the minister is not merely a servant of the Church. One can readily delegate other members of the Church to an event or a gathering. Certainly, the minister is not the only person who is able to represent the Church. And his function at a wedding ceremony or a funeral is rather incidental to his calling. It could happen, and I am sure that cases are not hard to find, that a minister never conducts a funeral. I was a minister for six years before I conducted my first wedding, and seven years before my first funeral.

Servant of the Congregation

How do the members of the Church look upon the work of the minister? They see the minister busy as their pastor and their teacher. Does not Paul in Ephesians 4:11 give ministers the descriptive title: pastor and teacher? He is the pastor of the congregation. Is someone sick, the minister comes for an encouragement. Is someone bereaved, he comes to speak words of comfort. He is present at the bed of the sick and the dying.

As a pastor he watches over the Rock entrusted to his care. He does so in accord with the word of Paul spoken to the elders of Ephesus, “Take heed unto yourselves, and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Acts 20:28). And he does so in harmony with the word of Peter, “Tend the flock of God which is among you, exercising the oversight” (I Peter 5:2). And that is exactly what pastors do. They are on call, so to speak, twenty-four hours every day. When the pastor is called somewhere, he must go. When the telephone rings, he has to answer. When someone knocks at his door, he must invite the visitor. Whether it suits him or does not suit him, he must be ready. It is expected of him. He must always have a suitable word for the occasion.

Many ministers have regulated their pastoral work in such a way that the members of the congregation can visit the minister at set times. Much the same as the physician, the minister can be found in the church office from two to four in the afternoon. The members of the congregation see their minister as their counselor, their arbitrator, their psychiatrist, their encyclopedia. After all, the minister has studied in schools for many years, and therefore he ought to be an expert. And he is known as teacher, for he teaches catechumens; therefore he should share his knowledge with those who consult him.

Yet is the minister a servant of the congregation? Is he merely the counselor, the arbitrator, the psychiatrist, the expert? The answer is NO. He is pastor and teacher. Let no one stress the first word “pastor” and neglect the second word “teacher.” Certainly, the minister is a pastor, but he is also, or rather above all a teacher of the Word of God.

Servant of the Consistory

A minister works under the auspices of the consistory. The elders and the deacons, in name of the congregation have sent the call letter to the minister: “Come over and help us.” And the consistory has determined the salary of the minister: As a body, the consistory is responsible for the material well-being of the minister and his family. And as a consistory, the elders exercise spiritual supervision over the minister’s life. In short, they are responsible for the parsonage and pulpit. They are the watchmen on the walls of Zion.

The consistory calls the minister for the task of preaching the Word on Sundays and at special occasions, such as Christmas, New Year, Good Friday, and Ascension, and at prayer services. They call the minister also for the task of visiting the sick, and teaching the youth of the congregation in weekly catechism sessions. And they expect of him that he is willing to give leadership wherever needed, such as in the societies of the congregation. The consistory expects that the minister works in accordance with the stipulations in the call letter. But, in all seriousness, is the minister the servant of the consistory? The answer is NO.

Servant of the Word of God

The minister is a servant of the Word of God. A minister is not a servant of the Church, is not a servant of the congregation, and is not the servant of the consistory. He is the servant of the Word of God. When the apostles in the early days of the Christian Church were too busy so that certain widows were neglected, then they called a congregational meeting. They said, “It is not fit that we should forsake the Word of God, and serve tables. Look ye out therefore, brethren, from among you seven men of good report, full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will continue stedfastly in prayer, and in the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:3, 4). Then they appointed seven deacons to care for the poor. But the result of the decision of the apostles is found in the text that follows: “And the word of God increased” (verse 7). God’s blessing rested upon the work of the apostles who went forth as servants of the Word.

To be a servant of the Word means that the minister must proclaim the Word, in season and out of season, as Paul admonishes Timothy in the last letter written to him. The minister is a servant of the Word, and that Word drives him on. He must stand before the congregation every Sunday, not because the consistory tells him to do this, not because the call letter specifies this, not because the congregation comes together at set times, not because the minister is the representative of the Church. The minister stands before the congregation every Sunday because of the Word. The Word of God takes possession of the minister. The Word of God tells the minister to lead the worship service, to visit the Sick, to comfort the sorrowing, and to admonish the wayward. The Word of God uses the minister in teaching young people and adults during the catechism lesson and the society hour.

To be in the service of the Word of God means that the minister must be busy with his Bible daily. Daily he must read, study, and examine his Bible. 1n prayer he must ask for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. He must ask God to enlighten his mind so that he may have the correct insight in the Word, that he may correctly understand the message of the Gospel. When God through the working of the Holy Spirit shows the servant of the Word the meaning of the text, then the servant knows that he must preach the riches of salvation in Christ Jesus.

Preaching the Word of God as a servant of the Word implies that the minister understands the Word fully. That is, he must know the content of the Bible and be able to show the way of salvation to all who listen to him. Preaching the Word of God fully also implies that the minister knows the spiritual condition of his listeners. He must build them up gradually, first with the milk of the Gospel and afterwards with solid meat. And preaching the Word implies that the minister understands the times in which he lives. He must bring the Word in such a way that it speaks to the needs of this age. He must bring it in sincerity and simplicity.

Service to the Congregation

The minister who understands the scope, the depth, and the implications of his task, trembles. He trembles before the face of his God. He has been called to preach the Word of God fully; that is, he must proclaim the whole counsel of God. And he must bring that Word to the members of the congregation during the worship service or in the homes. He has to preach the content of the Word. Fearlessly he must say: the Bible says. That means that he may not preach that which the members of the congregation would like to hear, he may not preach that which the consistory desires, and he may not preach what theology prescribes. He must preach the Word, nothing less and nothing more.

The Word which he must proclaim is sharper than a two-edged sword and that Word will touch the preacher quite often personally. That Word will cut deep into his own soul. That Word speaks to him first of all. Nevertheless he must proclaim that Word faithfully and joyfully. He must preach about sin and grace, destruction and redemption, reprobation and election, heaven and hell.

If the servant of the Word proclaims the Word faithfully, he will know that the Word cuts deep into the hearts of the people. Because of the proclamation of the Word, some people will harden themselves; they have built a shell around their spiritual life and nothing. not even the Word, can penetrate that shell. Others hear the Word gladly and long to hear it again. Eagerly they come back, again and again, asking for the Bread of Life. The servant of the Word will see that the proclamation of the Word is for the one a fragrance of death to death and for the other a fragrance of life to life (II Cor. 2:16).

As servant of the Word, the minister passes the Word on to his fellowmen. He is as it were a conduit: he receives the Word from God and passes it on to his listeners. Thus he is a servant of the Word in service to his fellowman. He is of service to the people of God by being the servant of the Word. And thus the servant of the Word prays with the psalmist, “Let not them that wait for thee be put to shame through me, O Lord Jehovah of hosts. Let not those that seek thee be brought to dishonor through me, O God of Israel” (Psalm 69:6).

God will hear the prayer of such a servant when he proclaims the Word faithfully, not in such a way that man is central in his preaching, but that in every sermon the Lord Jesus Christ is fully revealed as the Savior of man.

The Servant

At the beginning of this lecture I asked the question: How do you address a minister of the Word? It is clear by now that the use of “pastor” is somewhat one-sided for the task of the minister is broader than merely being a pastor. To call him “teacher” does not really do justice to his calling either. The name “teacher” applied to the work of the minister points only to one facet of that work. Certainly, we do not wish to call him “overseer” or “bishop” for this implies that he rules. We have seen that the minister is a servant of the Word. He serves.

The minister must realize the full meaning of the word “servant.” That is a beautiful name, indeed. He is a servant, not ruler. In the mind of the church member, he must be the servant of the Word who comes in the Name of Jesus Christ. He is the servant sent by Christ. Thus he does not serve as a mouthpiece for the Church. Rather, he is the mouthpiece of Christ who through him speaks to the members of the Church.

Who is worthy of such a high and glorious calling? The New Testament lays down the conditions, the specifications, and the requirements for this unique office. Paul mentions them, for example, in his letters to Timothy and Titus. A few of the pastoral directions given by Paul are these: “Be all example to them that believe, in word, in manner of life, in love, in faith, in purity. Give heed to reading, to exhortation, to teaching” (I Tim. 4:12, 13). “And the Lord’s servant must not strive, but be gentle towards all, apt to teach, forbearing, in meekness correcting them that oppose themselves” (II Tim. 2:24, 25). And even though no minister of the Word shall be able to fulfill all the conditions and requirements for being a servant, nevertheless they must be maintained and upheld.

The minister is the ambassador of the Lord Himself. When he brings the Word of God the Lord himself is busy bringing sinners to salvation; the Lord himself is busy strengthening the Church in faith; the Lord himself speaks to his bride, the Church. In the service of the Lord, the minister can only repeat the words once spoken by John the Baptist: “He that has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom who standeth and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice; this my joy therefore is made full. He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:29, 30).

Dr. Simon Kistemaker is professor of Bible and languages at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa. This lecture was presented to the 4th Annual Minister’s Institute of the Independent Presbyterian Church of Mexico.