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The Priesthood of the Believers and the Office of the Ministry

Juhani Liukkonen | The Voice of Zion April 2018 --

1. Introduction

The Fall into sin meant a tragedy for all of mankind. The rebellion against God corrupted the original order of creation and the image of God in man. From that originated the distorted and life-destroying effects of sin, foremost in man’s relationship to God and his neighbor. Nonetheless, the Bible relates of a God who did not want to leave mankind in a hopeless state. In the Large Catechism, it states that “God reveals all mysteries as well as the sheer love of His fatherly heart.” The promise of a Savior, who was to crush the power of evil, was given to mankind who had ended up in the shackles of guilt (Gen. 3:15). In this way, a new phase began in the history of salvation when eternal separation from God was closed and the way to everlasting life was opened for people who had merited judgment for their deeds. The promise of atonement for sin was the central content of the proclamation of the prophets and the Psalms during the entire time of the Old Testament (Isa. 53:5; Ps. 103:12).

2. The Call to Gospel Work

Jesus sent His disciples to proclaim the gospel (Luke 9:6). There was a discussion in Caesarea Philippi in which Jesus prepared His followers for the gospel work in a special way. The turning point in Jesus’ public ministry was already close at hand. Ahead of the Savior of the world was the heaviest part of the way of suffering. Jesus had concern for His followers because the disciples also had times of trial ahead. Jesus had asked them: Who do you think I am? Peter had answered: You are Christ, the Son of the living God. For this reason Jesus may have said to Peter: “Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:17–19). In this way, the discussion became an occasion for confessing faith. At the same time Jesus opened to His followers the significance and seriousness of their duty; Heaven hears that which is forgiven on earth!

The disciples’ faith in Jesus as the Son of God was foremost for them. God had opened this to them through His Spirit. Martin Luther writes of this in the Large Catechism: “We could never attain to the knowledge of the grace and favor of the Father except through the Lord Christ, who is a mirror of the paternal heart, outside of whom we see nothing but an angry and terrible Judge. But of Christ we could know nothing either, unless it had been revealed by the Holy Ghost.”

The power to forgive sins was given to the congregation of God (Luther, Valitut teokset II, p. 327). Peter’s example shows that we cannot trust in the faith of an individual person. Soon after promising the power of the keys, Jesus had to care for Peter’s soul by admonishing him (Matt. 16:22,23). On the contrary, the mutual faith of the congregation will never disappear from the face of the earth. God’s congregation was and is an unconquerable “pillar and ground of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).

3. The Office of the Holy Spirit

Martin Luther emphasizes how the point of origination for the general priesthood of Christians is in God’s revelation in the Old Testament (Luther: Christians’ spiritual priesthood, 1523). The office is founded in the priesthood of Christ into which the Father had chosen, called, and sent Him already in eternity (Eph. 1:4–12, John 3:16, Matt. 3:17). The Son of God became man so that He could become a forgiving and faithful high priest, one who atones for the sins of the whole world (Heb. 2:17).

In the Old Testament, the so-called coronation psalm of the King of Zion (Ps. 104:4) prophesies of the coming Messiah as an everlasting priest according to the order of Melchizedek. In the Bible, Melchizedek is described as a picture of Christ, who as the one atoning for all the sins of the world and as the arisen High Priest, called His followers into the work saying: “Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you. And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained” (John 20:21–23). In this way, the disciples received the general priesthood, partakers of which are the believers of all time, the children of God (1 Pet. 2:9; Gal. 3:28). Christians are consequently partakers of Christ’s priesthood by faith (2 Cor. 4:1–7, 2 Cor. 9:15).

Paul had also become a partaker of the office of reconciliation, of the general priesthood. The same dual viewpoint had been revealed to him, which God’s own have in the work of the gospel even in this time of visitation. He experienced it to be his life’s work to call people into reconciliation with God (2 Cor. 5:19–21). At the same time, the gospel, which he proclaimed to others, had given him a watchful mind in his personal faith (2 Cor. 4:1,2).

The proclamation of the gospel of God’s kingdom is not in its essence a spiritual power for the governance of people. Rather, the general priesthood for Christians is serving our neighbor (Greek diakonia, 2 Cor. 4:1). In the gospel the penitent is given that which the Son of God has earned with His blood (1 Pet. 1:19).

By believing the Word proclaimed through the authority of the Holy Spirit, one becomes a partaker of the grace of God which Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection has accomplished. Even during this time, when children of God release people from under burdens of conscience, Christ himself has already done it. He has no other keys upon earth with which comfort and forgiveness can be received than with those keys which He has given to His disciples (Luther, Valitut teokset III, p. 442). In this way faith is born from hearing, but hearing is born from the word of Christ. (Rom. 10:17).

4. Soul Care Is God’s Care

In the work of God’s kingdom there is always a soul caring approach. Jesus spoke of that to His followers soon after He had given them the power of the keys (Matt. 16:26). It is important to remember that as participants in the Christians’ general priesthood we can respond to our neighbor’s deepest longing, to the question of how a sinful person can find a gracious God and inherit eternal life.

Constrained by the love of Christ, a Christian desires to approach his neighbor and, if possible, carry his burdens. Luther said that he rejoices of the occasion in which we “open our conscience to our brother and in confidence reveal the evil of our heart and take from the brother’s mouth the word of comfort as from God” (Valitut teokset II, p. 453).

We experience holy timidity and weakness in our own faith in bringing forth the matter of faith. The Christian doubts, am I worthy to proclaim the forgiveness of sins to one who is asking? Speaking of sin, no one can take the place of one on the sidelines and evaluate the effects of sin only as an observer. With regard to sin, everyone is party to it. As contrary to our minds as it is, God uses pardoned sinners in the gospel work. Sometimes it happens that people ask about our faith. Then it is good to remember the apostolic exhortation: Be always ready to answer everyone that asks about the basis of your hope. But answer in a good-natured and respectful manner and preserve a pure conscience (1 Pet. 3:15,16).

Soul-caring discussions should always be guided by mutual respect, trust, mercy, and truthfulness which holds to God’s Word. Christians have been called to be responsible for their brothers and sisters. According to Christian Doctrine the general priesthood obligates them when necessary to rebuke in love and comfort one another (CD 1948:51). The keys of binding, mentioned by Jesus, have also been given to help people and as a protection against sin. When God cares for a person in His congregation, He expects an obedient and humble mind. First Corinthians relates an example of how a person carrying the name of a child of God can impenitently live contrary to God’s will. When Paul exhorts that this person be bound in his sins, as an incentive or encouragement, love is shown towards the undying soul of this individual (1 Cor. 5:5). The congregation of God prays even for those people who do not have conscience over sin that the almighty God would open their hearts and that they would receive grace to return.

5. The Office of Preaching in the Congregation

The distinct office of preaching was known already in the Old Testament time. God promised that He will give His people “pastors according to mine heart, which shall feed you with knowledge and understanding” (Jer. 3:15). They related God’s will to the people of their time. Often the main message of the proclamation was an exhortation to repentance and the forgiveness of sins.

In the early congregation it was understood that God’s own selection and call was needed for the servant of the Word. In the congregation they discussed and considered brothers who would be suitable for the duty. God would reveal His will when it was asked of Him in prayer (Acts 1:23–26;13:2; see also 1 Cor. 14:34,35). In the congregation of Antioch they received the understanding that the Holy Spirit had called Barnabas and Saul as servants of the Word. Trusting in the call of the Spirit, the congregation sent them with prayers and the laying on of hands to proclaim Christ’s gospel. In that way God called and still calls through His congregation. In 1964, Einari Lepisto wrote in the Päivämies: “God has placed abundant grace gifts into His congregation, not only the manifold gifts of the servant of the Word, but also those gifts and lights, from which there is understanding to call and establish new servants into gospel work. The old brothers, who have worked a long work day, pass away one after another. New workers are needed, because it is still a time of work. Night comes when no one can work” (Päivämies, no. 34, 1964). The servant of the Word is placed into the duty by God together with the congregation. For that reason, he has responsibility to both in carrying out his duties. In this way preaching is not a private matter, but of God and the congregation (1 Tim. 4:16; 1 Cor. 4:1–).

6. Characteristics of a Servant of the Word

Calling a minister in Christianity is based on mutually realized need, prayers, and discussions in the congregation. The desire is to prepare the matter in a spirit of one mindedness. When the intent is to bring forth a brother as a servant of the Word, one who is known by the Christians and is endeavoring in the love of Zion, we desire to tactfully also discuss the matter with the individual in advance. Most important is the biblical starting point of which Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “We having the same spirit of faith, according as it is written, I believed, and therefore have I spoken; we also believe, and therefore speak” (2 Cor. 4:13).

Paul precisely described the characteristics and abilities, which would be good to have for one being called as a servant of the word in the congregation. “A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach;

Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous; One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; (For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?) Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover he must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil” (1 Tim. 3:2–7).

7. Preach the Word

The risen Jesus sent His followers to preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins in His name to all nations starting from Jerusalem. For their work, they were endowed with power from on high, the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:47,48). The sermon of the Word has unique significance as a tool of the Holy Spirit. According to the Augsburg Confession, the first characteristic of the congregation is the pure sermon of the gospel (Augustana VII). Both the listeners as well as the preacher of the Word can be certain of the Holy Spirit effecting when God’s Word is purely preached (Formula of Concord: 2:55). In this way, the sermon and teaching are to be built upon the foundation of the aforewritten Word of God. According to Martin Luther a minister has been installed into the office of the Word. In this duty, he is a shepherd who feeds and protects the flock of Christ. Protection means, among other things, guarding against wrong doctrine. Luther emphasizes the sermon of the Word, even in this way, that according to him, administering the sacraments is secondary. To Luther the sermon is important for this reason that it proclaims the Word from which faith is born. (Valitut teokset II, pp. 322, 358).

Paul exhorts Timothy to preach the Word to fulfill the work of the gospel (2 Tim. 4:2–5). It is important that the servant of the Word does not hesitate to proclaim the gospel of forgiveness because it brings salvation to all who believe it (Rom. 1:16; 2 Tim. 1:8). Foremost in the sermon of the Word is to answer the question how God justifies a sinful person: How a person receives his sins forgiven and how he is preserved as a child of God. The teaching about the kingdom of God belongs to the doctrine of Christ. Jesus preached: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15).

Väinö Havas preached in the Big Summer Services at Oulu in 1933 on the basis of the aforementioned mission command: “When we remain firmly in the Bible, there then sounds forth two main parts: Repentance and the forgiveness of sins, Grace and Truth, the Law and the Gospel. The preaching of the Law belongs to the impenitent and hypocrites to awaken them to the knowledge of their sins. The gospel is proclaimed to all creatures. Travelers on the narrow way are fed with grace and instructed and rebuked with the truth. A correct servant of the Lord divides thus to all at the appointed time. This is that faithfulness which is required of the stewards in the House of God (1 Cor. 4:2). In this, slavery to human opinion and seeking one’s comfort cannot become a hindrance, neither seeking of one’s glory or desire of anything else that is temporal.”

8. Faithfulness to One’s Own Gifts

The prayers and support of the congregation carry the servant of the Word. A minister who is just beginning to serve feels especially secure when more experienced workers in God’s kingdom take him into their brotherly care and encourage him. It also edifies the congregation when brothers supplement and confirm each other’s sermons.

It is required of a servant of the Word that he is faithful to those gifts which he has received from God for the work. Timothy had received the grace gift in such an occasion in which the congregation elders and Paul placed their hands upon him. Paul saw it important to remind Timothy that he would not neglect the grace gift but would awaken it. According to the original languages of the New Testament, Paul exhorts Timothy to “fan into flame the grace gift given to him” (2 Tim. 1:6).

It is related of Laestadius that he directed his sermons to two groups of people: To the impenitent and to those who had become partakers of God’s grace. Ultimately, he left the entire sermon in the hands of God alone: “Here is my part. I can do no better. Do what you will with this.” When he watched the effects of the sermon, he was left in wonderment. (SRK’s Vuosikirja 2006, p.140).

The Bible text and the servant of the Word join together in the service occasion. We can trust that God’s Holy Spirit makes the sermon alive. The minister does his duty as a servant of God’s Word as a human being, who feels his own weakness and lacking. For that reason, it feels secure and is comforting to remember the confession of Paul who was stripped of his own presumptions: “And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:1–5).

9. Nurturing One’s Own Faith

The servant of the Word needs to receive care for his own faith so that the voice of the Good Shepherd would be preserved in his preaching. According to Christian Doctrine, “In order to be strengthened and remain in faith, a Christian must diligently use God’s Word and the Lord’s Holy Supper, prayer, and mutual Christian fellowship.” (CD 1948:77)

It is important that the minister himself can also be in the place of a listener. When one distributes the bread of heaven to others, the desire arises to personally hear the core message of the gospel. During a sermon, God can open a bright outlook for the work to the doubting minister and give him trust that God fills the poor with his goodness (Matt. 5:6). Paul instructs young Timothy to battle nobly and to preserve faith and good conscience (1 Tim. 1:18,19). The gift of faith is preserved in a clean conscience (1 Tim. 3:9). Throughout time God has called workers to the vineyard and has equipped them with gifts. Now it is our turn to serve. Jesus said to His followers: “When ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do” (Luke 17:10).

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