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The Meaning of New Testament Ministry

Introduction to Lesson 11

Married life always begins on a very high and unrealistic note. Each partner enters into the relationship with lofty ideals about marriage, especially about the other partner. Keith Miller, in his book
The Taste of New Wine
,2 says that his wife’s vision of a husband was a “perfectly balanced blend of Big John Wayne, Jack Parr, and Father Flanagan.” On the other hand, his was “a combination of St. Theresa, Elizabeth Taylor, and Betty Crocker.”

All of us who are married may laugh at this, but only because we know that it is true. Marriages are either built or broken at the point of disillusionment, when we become distressingly aware that “the honeymoon is over.” By the commitment and contribution of both partners, a marriage can grow much closer to the high standards that have been set for it in the Word of God.

Church life is much like marriage in this regard. Many enter into church membership with a very ethereal view of what the nature of that relationship should be. It is usually not long, however, before the rosy-eyed Christian becomes sadly aware of the fact that life in the local church is not what he or she might have expected. Most often we are initially distressed because the church has failed to meet our ideals and expectations for it. While this is undoubtedly true of any church, it is also a fact that we have probably not considered seriously enough our responsibilities in the relationship. It is only by the commitment and contribution of all the members that a church can grow in its intimacy with her Lord and with one another.

The purpose of this series, “The Work of the Ministry,” is to expound and explore the commitment and contribution of each Christian to the local church, and more particularly, to one another. It is only as we practice these teachings of the Word of God that we will experience the blessings of living together in the local church.

The Meaning of New Testament Ministry

This past week the media has given considerable attention to the visit of Pope John II to the United States. From what little I know of him, I would imagine that he is a great man, a man with compassion and lofty goals. Without any personal knowledge of his spiritual life, I would hope that he has come to a personal faith in Jesus Christ as Savior.

Watching the television coverage of the visit of Pope John Paul II, I was reminded anew of the Roman Catholic concept of ministry. If I were to try to distinguish the Catholic view of ministry from that of our local church, I would say that Catholicism still practices an Old Testament ministry, while (hopefully) we engage in New Testament ministry. Catholicism continues to perpetuate a clerical priesthood that is almost entirely responsible for what is called “the ministry.”

Probably few Catholics or Protestants would disagree with this analysis. But what most Protestant evangelicals fail to realize is that much of the Roman Catholic conception of ministry is perpetuated in Protestantism with only the labels changed.

The fact is that the Reformation did not go far enough in relation to the doctrines of the church. It dealt primarily with two avenues of truth. First, this area of reform involved the doctrine of salvation. Catholicism taught that salvation was the result of faith and works. The Reformers, on the basis of the Scriptures, maintained it was all of grace, without any works on man’s part.

Second, this part of the Reformation dealt with the area of authority. Roman Catholicism held that spiritual authority resided in the Scriptures, but only as interpreted by the Roman Catholic Church. The Reformers insisted that the Word of God alone was divinely inspired and fully authoritative.

While these matters were of great magnitude, many other traditions and errors of Catholicism remained virtually unchallenged. Even in instances where Catholic principles were corrected (such as the Protestant doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers”), Catholic practices persisted in Protestantism.

This is especially true in the area of ecclesiology, or the doctrine of the church. Protestantism’s practices in the area of ministry are a strange blend of the Old Testament priesthood, which distinguished the laity and clergy, and between the sacred and the profane. In order to rightly practice New Testament ministry, we must see how it differs from that of the Old Testament.

Many Christians have begun to come to grips with the truth contained in Ephesians 4:11-12, that the work of Christian leaders, such as pastor-teachers, is that of equipping, while that of the church at large is to “minister” or to “serve.” The problem is that they don’t understand what is meant by this term, ministry. This is the purpose of our study.

Ministry in the Old and New Testaments

Ministry in the Old Testament was often depicted by two Hebrew words, Sharath (and its most common Greek counterpart, leitourgein and Abad (commonly rendered latreuein in Greek). Significantly, the Greek term for ministry in Ephesians 4:12 (diakonia) is found only in the Book of Esther. This indicates a crucial change in the concept of ministry from the Old Testament to the New.

Neither leitourgein nor latreuein was an appropriate term to convey the New Testament concept of ministry. Leitourgein was a “reversed collar” term, which referred to the service and ministry of a select priestly class.

And they must be on Aaron and his sons when they go in to the tent of meeting, or when they approach the altar to minister (leitourgein) in the holy place, so that they bear no iniquity and die. It is to be a perpetual ordinance for him and for his descendants after him (Exodus 28:43; cf. Numbers 3:6, 31).3

In the New Testament, leitourgein was used to describe the work of the Jewish priesthood (Luke 1:23; Hebrews 9:21) and that of Christ (Hebrews 8:6).4 But this term is no longer employed strictly for the priestly service of the few in this dispensation, for we are all priests.

    But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9; cf. Philippians 2:17; Revelation 1:6).

Latreuein was not a fitting term for New Testament ministry either. Because of its Old Testament associations, it is a “stained glass” term. It was used for the religious service of either the entire congregation or of an individual.

    And God said, “Surely I will be with you; and this will be the sign to you that I have sent you: When you bring the people out of Egypt, you will serve [latreuein] God on this mountain.” (Exodus 3:12; cf. 4:23)

While this term did not restrict ministry to the clergy, it did confine religious service to a rather narrow spectrum of form and function. Such a narrow term could never convey the broad scope of ministry that we find in the New Testament.

The predominant word for ministry in the New Testament is diakoneo (the noun form of which is diakonia). From this root, the term, deacon, (in Greek, diakonos) is derived. One of many possible expressions, it most accurately conveys the New Testament function of ministry. Our Lord and the apostles employed diakoneo to invest ministry with a meaning to both the Jews, and the Greeks.

To the Greeks, there was no dignity in service. In the words of the Greek sophist:

“How can a man be happy when he has to serve someone?”5

The only service deemed to be of high value was that rendered in behalf of the state.6

How different was our Lord’s concept of the ministry:

“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served (passive form of diakoneo) but to serve (active form of diakoneo), and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

Jesus taught His followers that serving was a vital part of discipleship:

If anyone wants to serve (diakoneo) me, he must follow me, and where I am, my servant (diakonos) will be too. If anyone serves (diakoneo) me, the Father will honor him (John 12:26).

In the teaching of Jesus, greatness was to be measured in terms of service:

42 Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high positions use their authority over them. 43 But it is not this way among you. Instead whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant (diakonos), 44 and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of all” (Mark 10:42-44).

All of this invested New Testament ministry with a dignity unimagined by the Greeks of that day.

In contrast to the Greek’s disdain for service to others, the Jews believed it had great dignity.7 The religious leaders of Israel began to think of ministry in terms of status, rather than service. Jesus repudiated such thinking and placed all ministry on the same level of importance:

8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher and you are all brothers. 9 And call no one your ‘father’ on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one teacher, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:8-12).

We can see from the teaching of our Lord that His concept of ministry differed greatly from that of the Greeks, as well as that of the Jewish religious leaders, and even that of His disciples.

By far, the most accurate and complete description of New Testament ministry is to be found by a study of the various uses of the term diakonia in the New Testament. As we consider its occurrences, we find these general characteristics of ministry:

    1. New Testament ministry is humble service. The term diakonia in classical Greek clearly implied menial service.8 Originally, a diakonos was one who rendered service as a table waiter. Our Lord’s own ministry and teaching highlight the humility fundamental to Christian service.

    2. New Testament ministry is very broad in scope. It is noteworthy to observe that serving tables (diakonia) in Acts 6:1 (diakonein verse 2) and ministry (diakonia) of the Word (verse 4) are both described by the same term. Ministry is not only that which involves speaking, but also that of service:

Whoever speaks, let him speak, as it were, the utterances of God; whoever serves (diakoneo), let him do so as by the strength which God supplies(1 Peter 4:11).

While the contemporary concept of ministry focuses upon verbal or spoken ministry, Peter defines service so as to include the vast amount of ministry that is not proclamation, but practical service.

The clearest demonstration of the breadth of New Testament ministry is achieved by a survey of the multitude of services that are denoted by the New Testament term diakonia (or its verbal counterpart). Here are some of the instances of the word groups related to Christian ministry.

      A. The ministry of those women who cared for the material needs of our Lord (Mark 15:41; Luke 8:3).

      B. The ministry of feeding the widows in Jerusalem (Acts 6:2-3).

      C. The ministry of preaching the Word (Acts 6:4).

      D. The work of the Old Testament prophets (1 Peter 1:12).

      E. Personal ministry to the apostle Paul (Acts 19:22; 2 Timothy 1:16-18; 4:11; Philemon 13).

      F. Ministry to the financial needs of others (Acts 11:29; 12:25; Romans 15:25f; 2 Corinthians 8:4; 8:19-20; 9:1).

      G. The ministry, in general, to the saints (Hebrews 6:10).

      H. The ministry of an apostle of Jesus Christ (Acts 1:17; 20:24).

      I. The ministry of reconciling men to God (2 Corinthians 5:18).

      J. A particular short-term task of service (Acts 12:25).

    3. Individual ministry is both general and specific. We have just demonstrated that New Testament ministry includes a broad spectrum of services. Having shown this, we must go on to point out that every Christian has two spheres of ministry. We have a broad or general ministry which encompasses the whole spectrum of ministry. We are all obligated to give (2 Corinthians 9:7), to teach (Matthew 28:19-20; Colossians 3:16; Ephesians 6:4; Titus 2:5; Proverbs 31:16), to encourage (1 Thessalonians 5:11, 14; Hebrews 10:25), and to pray for one another (James 5:16). While these ministries should be motivated and empowered by the Holy Spirit, they do not require a special spiritual gift.

But each Christian does possess at least one spiritual gift, or perhaps a combination of gifts, which equips him or her for a specific ministry. This ministry is divinely appointed. The results of this ministry are ordained by God.

4 Now there are different gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 And there are different ministries, but the same Lord. 6 And there are different results, but the same God who produces all of them in everyone (1 Corinthians 12:4-6).

The New Testament thus speaks of ministry in a specific sense as well as in a broad sense. Every Christian is responsible to minister to others in a wide range of services. But in addition, each Christian has a very special and specific ministry for which the Spirit of God has uniquely equipped him and to which the Lord directs him. A more restricted kind of ministry can be seen in the following passages.

      A. In 1 Peter 4:10, Peter identifies a person’s ministry with the exercise of their particular spiritual gift.

      B. In Romans 12:7, Paul informs us that there is a specific gift of service, possessed by some Christians.

      C. In Philippians 1:11 and 1 Timothy 3:8, the word diakonos sometimes refers to the office of deacon.

      D. In numerous passages, “ministry” is used of the specific calling of an individual.

And say to Archippus, “Take heed to the ministry which you have received in the Lord, that you may fulfill it” (Colossians 4:17; cf. Also Acts 21:19; Romans 11:13; 2 Corinthians 4:1; 2 Timothy 4:5).

    4. New Testament ministry is practical and beneficial. Old Testament ministry was often ceremonial and liturgical. As I mentioned before, it had a “stained glass” connotation. Ministry in the New Testament is much broader, as we have seen, and it is that which benefits others.

Just as each one has received a gift, use it to serve (diakoneo) one another as good stewards of the varied grace of God (1 Peter 4:10).

11 It was he who gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry (diakonia), that is, to build up the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-12).

Formerly, ministry was thought of primarily in terms of service directed toward God. Now we are to serve God by ministering to others. We minister to God through people. New Testament ministry is people serving people. As we look over the passages that employ the terms for ministry, we see that the services described are directed toward people. While it may be accurate to say that our ministry toward the unbelieving is largely evangelistic (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:19), and our service toward the saints is intended to edify and encourage (Ephesians 4:12), this is not totally the case:

So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who belong to the family of faith (Galatians 6:10).

The ministry is characterized by grace as well as empowered by it (Matthew 10:8; Romans 12:6;
1 Peter 4:10, 11). We are to minister to men without a consideration of what they might do in response. Because of Christian ministry, some may come to faith, while others may not. Regardless of this, our service will bring glory to God (cf. 1 Peter 2:12). The point we are trying to highlight here is that one of the essential characteristics of New Testament service is that it is beneficial to those who are its recipients.9

    5. New Testament ministry is spiritual service. While it is important to recognize that Christian ministry is intensely practical, we should not overlook the fact that it is also spiritual. This is true in at least two senses.

First, New Testament ministry is spiritual in that it is motivated and empowered by the Holy Spirit.

7 But if the ministry that produced death, carved in letters on stone tablets, came with glory so that the Israelites could not keep their eyes fixed on the face of Moses because of the glory of his face (a glory that was fading away), 8 how much more glorious will the ministry of the Spirit be? (2 Corinthians 3:7-8)

The Holy Spirit energizes New Testament ministry. It is the Holy Spirit Who gives spiritual gifts to men which empower their special areas of service to the entire body (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:1ff., especially verses 4, 7, 8, 9, and 11; 1 Peter 4:10). It is the Holy Spirit Who prompts any genuine spiritual ministry, even that which is not in the area of our gift.

Second, New Testament ministry is spiritual in that it seeks to produce spiritual results. This is the point of Ephesians 4:12-16. As we minister to others, the body of Christ is edified, and our service results in the growth and maturity of the saints.

Now this is a vital point. Many have endeavored to distinguish between a spiritual gift and a natural talent. While a natural ability may not produce spiritual results, it surely can do so if God chooses to empower its use. Musical talent is only one example. A song sung skillfully can be used of God to encourage the saints or to convict the lost. This natural talent can be divinely used to produce spiritual results. Spiritual gifts may not be identical with natural talents, but they can be closely related, I believe.

Some of you know that I have a certain facility with things of a mechanical nature. This ability is no doubt a natural talent. There have been a number of times that this ability has been used to repair cars, stereos, washing machines, etc., of those who were unable physically and financially to fix these things themselves. Now a Sears repairman could have done the same task, but in that case, it would not have been done as a ministry to the saints. The ones who have benefited from ministry through a secular talent can give thanks to God for His infinite care as expressed through one of the members of the body of Christ.

We cannot judge the “spirituality” of a ministry by the form it takes as much as by the results it produces. When I go to the hospital, I sometimes carry my big, black, “preaching” Bible. There I am wearing (usually, at least) rather formal clothing, and I look as though I am about “spiritual work.” Hopefully that is true. But I may be engaged in ministry that is just as spiritual when I am laying under a car, up to my elbows in grease and broken parts. This will be so if the needs of men are met, if they accept my service as from God, and if they are brought closer to Him by my service.

There is nothing particularly “spiritual” about the writing of a check or the exchange of funds, and yet this service, when initiated by the Holy Spirit and carried out in Christian love, has brought great spiritual results:

12 Because the service of this ministry is not only providing for the needs of the saints but is also overflowing with many thanks to God. 13 Through the evidence of this service they will glorify God because of your obedience to your confession in the gospel of Christ and the generosity of your sharing with them and with everyone. 14 And in their prayers on your behalf they long for you because of the extraordinary grace God has shown to you. 15 Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift (2 Corinthians 9:12-15).

Christian ministry is at one and the same time, both practical and spiritual. Christians should never be accused of being “so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly good.” The New Testament concept of ministry forbids such a thing.

The Purposes of New Testament Ministry

New Testament ministry should achieve several purposes. First, our ministry should serve to continue, in one sense, the ministry commenced by our Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Acts 1:1-2). We are His body, expressing His life to men today (cf. Romans 12:4-5; 1 Corinthians 12:12ff.).

Second, the purpose of ministry is to bring glory to God.

Through the evidence of this service they will glorify God because of your obedience to your confession in the gospel of Christ and the generosity of your sharing with them and with everyone (2 Corinthians 9:13).

Whoever speaks, let it be with God’s words. Whoever serves, do so with the strength that God supplies, so that in everything God will be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen (1 Peter 4:11).

Third, ministry is an expression of love and gratitude to our Lord Jesus Christ (cf. John 12:26; 15:10-11; 21:15-19).

Fourth, ministry builds up the church, the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-16). In the words of Paul, it supplies the needs of the saints” (2 Corinthians 9:12).

Finally, ministry gives meaning and purpose to our lives. Each of us has a unique role to play for which no one else can serve as a substitute (Cf. 1 Corinthians 12:14-27).

Conclusion and Application

I hope that this study has considerably broadened your concept of ministry. I hope you have come to perceive of the ministry as the work of all the saints, rather than of the few. I pray that you will begin to think of ministry as encompassing the whole spectrum of service to others, rather than just those activities that outwardly appear to be spiritual.

New Testament ministry is Christian service motivated by a love for our Lord Jesus Christ – which publicly displays the love and concern of Christ in us for those about us – by serving those whose needs we are able to supply.

In the past, I have spent considerable time describing the structure and organization of the New Testament church. I fully realize many Christians feel that New Testament forms may be out of date for our times. But I must maintain that no structure more encourages and enhances New Testament function than the forms (organization and practices) of the New Testament church. I understand that while New Testament forms do not guarantee New Testament functions, they do make New Testament ministry easier to practice. I also realize that there are some churches that endeavor to practice New Testament living without the structure of the New Testament church. More power to them. As for our church, I would pray that we might have both New Testament forms and New Testament function (ministry) to the glory of God, and for the growth and maturity of every member of our church.

As we begin this series on the work of the ministry, I would encourage you to pray, asking God to give you the wisdom and insight to deal accurately with the Scriptures as they instruct us concerning ministry. I would ask you to open your hearts to the responsibilities that we all have as Christians, and to seek to fulfill the ministry that God has ordained for you. In that service, you will find great satisfaction.


1 This is the edited manuscript of a message delivered by Robert L. Deffinbaugh, teacher and elder at Community Bible Chapel, on October 7, 1979. Anyone is at liberty to use this edited manuscript for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel. Copyright 1979 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081.

2 Keith Miller, The Taste of New Wine, Waco: Word Books, 1965), p. 41

3 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

4 In these passages, it is the noun form, leitourgeia, which is used.

5 Plat. Gorg. 491e, as quoted by Herman W. Beyer, “Diakoneo, Diakonia, Diakonos,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Gerhard Kittel, ed., trans. and ed. by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), II, p. 82.

6 Ibid.

7 “Judaism showed a much deeper understanding of the meaning of service. Eastern thinking finds nothing unworthy in serving. The relation of a servant to his master is accepted, especially when he serves a great master. This is supremely true of the relation of man to God.” Ibid, p. 83.

8 R.A. Bodey, “Ministry” The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, ed. by Merrill C. Tenney (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975), IV, p. 233. Bodey’s article is excellent and well worth reading.

9 “In the NT, however, where the root idea is supplying beneficial service, diakonein is dignified by the highest associations and employed with a wide range of application.” R. A. Bodey, “Ministry,” ZPED, IV, p. 233

Related Topics: Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Leadership