Perhaps the newcomer is in the pew, or perhaps in the pulpit. But the question is the same, "Who's the minister?" This very matter-of-fact question receives its very matter-of-fact answer. We are probing the question here for a deeper answer. In fact, we arrive at, not one, but three answers all important to our true understanding of the Christian ministry.
Answer One: Jesus Christ
Our first and most basic answer to the question is Jesus Christ. Listen to him, "The Son of man came not to be served (ministered unto, A.V.) but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Matt. 20:28), and again, "I am among you as one who serves" (Luke 22:27c). Think of his actions and words at the Last Supper when he took the lowliest task and washed his disciples' feet (John 13).
By word and deed it is clear that Jesus saw his ministry in direct fulfilment of the Servant prophecies especially found in Is. 4055. God had called his people to obedience, witness and patient endurance. But again and again, they had refused to obey, had drawn back from suffering, and instead of being witnesses to their Lord had turned to idolatry. In these Servant Songs in Isaiah, the Servant is utterly obedient to God's voice (42:1; 50:4, 5), witnesses to backsliding Israelites and to Gentiles alike (49:6), and suffers shame and pain (50:5, 6, and notably in ch. 53). At points, it seems as if the Servant is indeed the nation of Israel (as in 44:1), for to these things God had in fact called them. Or perhaps the faithful remnant (46:3)? Yet finally, it is the One Whom God would send. Certainly, the Jews of Jesus' time did not so understand it (not even his disciples, at first), and for this reason Jesus seems to have deliberately avoided descriptions of himself as Messiah (note Matt. 16:20, for example).
I think no Christian can read Is. 53 without thinking of Jesus Christ. It is so natural that Philip, in talking with the Ethiopian eunuch, began "with this scripture" and "told him the good news of Jesus" (Acts 8:35). The connection is also clear in Phil. 2:6, 7 and in I Pet. 2:2Iff.
What were the outstanding features of the ministry of Jesus Christ? He has been viewed traditionally as the Prophet, Priest and King, and so indeed he is. Yet the Son of God himself seems to have seen his ministry in the less glorious term (in earthly thinking) of the Servant. Centrally, he had come to do the will of his Father, as John's Gospel especially emphasises (4:34; 5:19, 30; 9:4). He came to reveal the Father to human beings, not only in word and deed, but also in his own person (for example, Matt. ch. 6; 12:28; John 14:9). But the world of people has gone its own way of selfishness and sin. To reveal God to people means to "seek and save the lost" (Luke 19:10). In final terms, it meant dying for their sins on the cross, so that God's love for the sinner and wrath against sin can issue forth in forgiveness for all who believe in him (Matt. 10:28; John 3:1416).
But we have said that Jesus Christ is the Minister. The Acts of the Apostles begins with these significant words. "In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach…" Luke knew well that the ministry of Jesus did not end when the "days of his flesh" ended. Many names have been given to Acts. What about this one "The Ministry of Jesus Christ, Part 2"? It is this Jesus who poured out the promised Spirit on the day of Pentecost (2:33). It is through Jesus that the lame man was healed (3:16). It is Jesus who arrested and called Saul (9:46). And so the story could be multiplied. Many have complained that Acts ends so abruptly, leaving unanswered so many questions about what happened to Paul, and so on. True, Acts tells us much about the ministries of Peter and Paul, but it was about the ministry of Jesus Christ, and that ministry is still going on!
Something needs to be said about the importance of prayer in the ministry of Jesus Christ. It was a constant feature of his ministry, part I (e.g., Luke 6:12; 11:1; 22:3946; 23:34, 46), and is a continuing part of his ministry, part 2 (Heb. 7:25). We should mention, too, that although part 2 does not end with the end of Acts there is to be a part 3 to his earthly ministry in his Second Coming. Each time we share together in the Lord's Supper we are reminded that we "proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" (1 Con 11:26).
Answer Two: All Who Believe in Jesus Christ.
Our second answer to the question follows directly from the first one all who believe in Jesus Christ. Jesus' ministry is continuing in the world, we have said. It continues especially through his body, the Church. While we must not get sidetracked here, a few comments are necessary in view of confused thinking on the subject of the Church in past decades. Essentially in the New Testament, the "church" is seen as the assembly or company of believers in Christ. For the fulfilment of Christ's mission in the world, a greater or lesser amount of organisation is, of course, needed. But to equate the "church" with such organisation is to miss altogether its true nature. We have given our answer above as "all who believe in Jesus Christ" because it emphasises the central nature of the church and because it has both corporate and individual application. The "body of Christ" has a twofold application, too, speaking on the one hand of the relation to Christ, who is the Head, and on the other to the world. Individually and corporately, Christian believers have a vital relationship with Christ their Head, and as his Body are his servants or ministers in the world.
In Rom. 12:38, we note Paul's emphasis that each member of the body has an active part to play in the life and ministry of the whole body. The various gifts of God to the individual. believers ensure the enrichment and proper functioning of the body. There is no thought that these gifts have been restricted to a select group the clear inference is that all have some gift. The same is true of I Cor. 12.
Eph. 4 calls for special study. Clearly, each member of the body has received Christ's gifts (v. 7). Perhaps when we reach v. 11, we are thinking of special gifts for special ministries. but we have only half of the truth if we do not go on to v. 12. Many translations do not express well the meaning of the original Greek here. The sense is that Christ has given some to be apostles, prophets, etc. "for (pros) the equipment of the saints (those who believe in Christ) for two purposes, viz. (a) for (eis) the work of ministry, and (b) for (eis) building up the body of Christ." So then, Christ has not appointed these people so that they can do all the ministering and all the building up of Christ's body. Their purpose is rather to assist and encourage the individual Christian to a more effective ministry in and through the whole body, as together we grow up in Jesus Christ. Notice how graphically v. 16 describes the ministry of the individual within the whole - "from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love".
What is the purpose of Christ's service through the members of his body? We have already noted that it is a continuation of the first part of his ministry. Even as Jesus Christ himself had come to do the will of the Father, so in his commission to the disciples they were to "teach them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Matt. 28:20; note also Rom. 12:2; Eph. 6:6; Col. 4:12; I Pet. 4:2; I Jn. 2:17). In life, action and word, they will reveal God to other people (note Matt. 5:16). Yet, as with Christ himself, revealing God to people involves seeking the lost and making known God's way of salvation in Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1: 1825) notice carefully that, following the martyrdom of Stephen and the persecution that followed, "those who were scattered went about preaching the word" (Acts 8:4), but these were not the apostles (v. 1). Much could be written also on the ministry of the Christian within the body of Christ, but we mention here the importance of stirring up and encouraging one another (Heb. 10:24, 25), of praying for one another (James 5:16), of feeling with one another (Rom. 12:15), and, above all, of loving one another (John 13:34, 35, and throughout I John).
Answer Three: Those Called and Set Apart by Jesus Christ.
Our third answer follows from the first two, for, from the earliest times, Christ has called and set apart some from among the body of believers to be his ministers in a special sense. We note that Jesus, from among his many disciples, "appointed twelve to be with him" (Mark 3:14).
We note, too, the recognition of the call of the Spirit in the church at Antioch, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them" (Acts 13:2). We observe further that Paul and Barnabas "appointed elders for them in every church" (14:23).
The need for such a ministry is clear. The Corinthian church, for instance, was conspicuous for the wealth of spiritual gifts in which the Christians shared ( I Cor. 12), yet we find Paul writing, "all things should be done decently and in order" (14:40). We have already noted on Eph. 4 that Christ has given special ministries for the more effective ministering of Christians within the whole body. Note carefully that Christ has given these specialised ministries. Paul, for instance, in his own case, recognised the call of God, not simply to believe in Jesus Christ, but to be an apostle (Acts 22:14, 15; Rom. 1:1).
Two words help us to understand the nature of this ministry. The first is apostle. There is a tendency (following Acts 1:15ff) to view "apostle" only in terms of the original twelve witnesses of the resurrection. There is no doubt that the Twelve did have special significance, but there is evidence in the New Testament of a widening of the term (as in Acts 14:14; Rom. 16:7). "Apostle" reminds us that this is the ministry of those called and set apart by Jesus Christ. Jesus was the great Apostle, sent by the Father "even so I send you" (John 20:21). The second word is bishop. It seems clear that in the New Testament the terms "bishop" and "elder" apply to the same people (Acts 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5 ff). "Bishop" emphasises oversight, and so the functions mentioned in the previous paragraph. We need to note carefully, however, that this ministry is a part of the total ministry of Christ's people, which, in turn, is a part of the continuing ministry of Christ.
"To serve this present age . . ."
Much more could be written on this important subject. I trust that, as we have read (and studied), we have gained a wider understanding, not only of the ministry, but also of what God requires of "me". Of one thing I am quite sure, as Christians we all need a closer relationship with Jesus Christ, our Saviour and the Minister. Further, if prayer was so important in the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ, how much do we, whether ministers or people, need to give ourselves to prayer that we may serve him and "this present age". My brothers and sisters in Christ, Jesus Christ is calling us let us heed his call!
© Peter J Blackburn 1969, 1999. From The Aldersgate Journal, October 1969, published by the Aldersgate Fellowship which combined with other conservative evangelical groups in 1977 to form the National Fellowship for Revival within the Uniting Church in Australia.
Except where indicated, Scripture quotations are from the Revised Standard Version, © 1946 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America.