It’s been my observation that over the recent decades, the modern church’s understanding of ministry has suffered at the hands of ill teaching, wrong motives, and propagated misconceptions. Understanding biblical ministry is essential to church leadership and our success in fulfilling the mission left to us by Jesus Christ.
First, let’s define ministry. Ministry, defined for us in scripture, is simply “’Ministry’ is from the Greek word diakoneo, meaning ‘to serve’ or douleuo, meaning ‘to serve as a slave’.” Our understanding of biblical ministry is outlined for us in the New Testament starting with Jesus as He taught, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28). It is here that the fundamental understanding of ministry was laid out for us to learn and follow.
Ministry is simply our putting others’ needs, concerns and welfare above our own. Paul reiterates this fact as he wrote, “Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus . . .” (Philippians 2:1-5).
Not only must we understand how ministry is defined, but also the correct motive from which ministry operates. There is only ONE correct attitude and motive that drives true biblical ministry, and that is LOVE. But, let’s clarify the focus of this love: Love first for God and then for others, not for ourselves.
If you read it again (Philippians 2:1-5), you will see that Paul makes it a point to draw this connection for us and leaves us with a clear understanding that ministry is the result of our loving each other with the love of Jesus Christ. If the practice of ministry is driven by any other motive, then it becomes “Strange Fire” and God does not recognize it but, in fact, judges it. This is shown to us in an Old Testament account involving Aaron and his sons: “Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took their respective firepans, and after putting fire in them, placed incense on it and offered strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. And fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, “It is what the Lord spoke, saying, ‘By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy, And before all the people I will be honored’” (Leviticus 10:1-3). Aaron was the appointed High Priest and his sons were of the priesthood; however, they improperly administered the ministry they were given and, as a result, God not only did not accept it, but He judged them for it. As New Testament priests, we must be careful that we serve out of the right spirit or heart, and our ministry is motivated by our love for the Father and one another. Here’s what the scriptures say to support this teaching:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light . . .” (1Peter 2:9)
“This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. You are My friends if you do what I command you.” (John 15:12-14)
“Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another because love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaint. As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. Whoever speaks, is to do so as one who is speaking the utterances of God; whoever serves is to do so as one who is serving by the strength which God supplies; so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” (1Peter 4:8-11)
Finally, we need to understand the difference between ministering to God and ministering for Him. We often live with a misconception that our serving others is ministry to the Lord when, in fact, the two are not one and the same, but different. Again, I think there serves no greater example of this than Jesus Himself. We read the many accounts where He ministered to the people whether it was healing them, delivering them from tormenting spirits, miraculously feeding them, or teaching them, but we also see Him withdrawing Himself to be alone with the Father in prayer:
“And He withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and He knelt down and began to pray.” (Luke 22:41)
“So Jesus, perceiving that they were intending to come and take Him by force to make Him king, withdrew again to the mountain by Himself alone.” (John 16:15)
Jesus’ ministry to the people depended first on His ministry to the Father, for it was in this place that He learned how to minister to the people and drew strength to do so. His love was never misappropriated. His service to the people was first out of His love for the Father and His obedience to the Father whom He loved. In this, He would never find disappointment in the peoples’ response whom He served because He was not looking for any glory to come from man, but His Father. If Jesus never took time to minister to the Father, He would not have the virtue within His flesh to maintain the right ministry to the people:
So Jesus said, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He, and I do nothing on My own initiative, but I speak these things as the Father taught Me.” (John 8:28)
“For I did not speak on My own initiative, but the Father Himself who sent Me has given Me a commandment as to what to say and what to speak.” (John 12:49)
I personally learned this lesson during one of my personal devotion times spent alone with God. I remember Him asking me, “Son what have I called you to?” My response was quick and confident as I replied, “To the ministry.” I was certain this was the correct response; after all, I had been serving in the ministry for 5 or more years by this time. You could only imagine the chagrin I felt when I heard His reply, “No I haven’t.” I immediately began to question my ministry and call, second-guessing everything I thought was right about my life: where I was and what I was doing. While I was basking in my perplexity He interrupted with this statement, “I have called you to Myself. Your ministry is just the natural outflow of our relationship.” That statement from the Father quickly brought correct alignment to my misunderstanding of ministry, where my ministry comes from, and how I was to prioritize it.
I often think of all the wrong motives that we find ourselves ministering out of: the need to feel needed, or the need to be appreciated, or the desire to showcase our abilities and talents. Every motive outside of our love for the Father and one another is a self-ambitious motive that has an appetite for the glory of man and, if it is not satisfied, it quickly becomes offended. This, unfortunately, identifies the condition of much of the church and those who serve it, and why ministry has become a catalyst of shipwrecked faith and burned out Christians.
Let me conclude with this scripture out of Revelation. Here God speaks to John and has him write a letter to the church of Ephesus. In its context the Holy Spirit is addressing a church whose ministry was operating out of a poorly prioritized love.
“I know all the things you do. I have seen your hard work and your patient endurance. I know you don’t tolerate evil people. You have examined the claims of those who say they are apostles but are not. You have discovered they are liars. You have patiently suffered for me without quitting. But I have this complaint against you. You don’t love me or each other as you did at first! Look how far you have fallen! Turn back to me and do the works you did at first.” (Revelation 2:2-5a)
If your ministry is poorly prioritized I encourage you to quickly return to your first love in Christ and, by His Spirit, minister to the Father so that your ministry to the people is a service of love that glorifies Him, not a platform for your own glory or praise.