Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Byron Center, Michigan.
We have begun explaining the scriptural and theological basis for the diaconate by demonstrating that God has a special care for His poor and needy. This special care He manifests by commanding us, His church and saints, to care for the poor in our midst and by blessing us in the way of obedience to this command.
While this command is reason enough for us to care for the poor, it does not in itself justify devoting an office of the church to this work. The basis for having an office is found in the fact that Christ is our merciful High Priest, who continues His High-Priestly work through the diaconate.
Fallen, sinful man needs a high priest to atone for his sins and to reconcile him to God. Once his sins are covered by an atoning sacrifice, the saved sinner’s need of a high priest is not satisfied. He still needs that high priest to approach God on his behalf, praying that God would see him as righteous and would bestow upon him all the blessings to which the righteous have a right. Furthermore, the saved sinner needs that high priest to bestow upon him, in God’s name, those blessings which God grants in answer to the high priest’s intercession.
Such a high priest God has provided for His people in Jesus Christ! (For proof, see Psalm 110:4 and the book of Hebrews.) By His death on the cross, Christ atoned for the sins of all God’s elect, reconciling them to God. By virtue of His new resurrection life He has ascended to God’s right hand,
where He intercedes for us. To Christ God has given the gift of the Holy Spirit, whom Christ poured out on the church and shed abroad in the hearts of believers to bestow upon them all spiritual blessings which Christ merited for them.
The salvation which Christ has earned for us is spiritual, not earthly. Christ, our High Priest, does not save us from earthly sickness, earthly injustice, or even earthly poverty, but from spiritual poverty, from the effects of sin, from bearing God’s curse! In saving us, He gives spiritual riches, not earthly. He gives the riches of the enjoyment of fellowship with God as His dear children and of the receiving of His inheritance.
That God saves His people spiritually through Christ does not mean, however, that God has no concern for their bodies and their earthly life. For salvation includes our bodies. Our bodies will be raised! Furthermore, Jesus expressly taught that God cares for our earthly, bodily needs, both by teaching His disciples to pray for daily bread (Matt. 6:11) and by reminding them that their heavenly Father knows their earthly needs and is able to supply them (Matt. 6:19-34).
It is the confession of the child of God, therefore, that all good gifts come from God. Salvation and all gifts which comprise salvation come from God. Also the gifts pertaining to our bodily needs come from God. And they come from Him to His people through our High Priest, Jesus Christ.
Let us look to Christ alone for the supply of all our needs! He is our only High Priest!
Lord’s Days 5 and 6 of our Heidelberg Catechism remind us that one requirement our Redeemer/High Priest had to meet in order to save us was that He must be very man. This was necessary, not only because the justice of God requires that the same human nature which sinned should make atonement for that sin (LD 6), but also because that high priest, being a man, would therefore be able to have true compassion on us in our misery (Heb. 2:17, 18; 4:14, 15; 5:1, 2).
Such compassion Jesus manifests as our High Priest.
Is it not evident that to sacrifice one’s own life for the salvation of another manifests compassion? Does not the fact that He prays to the Father on our behalf show His great pity for us? Indeed! We have a High Priest who pities us because of the spiritual misery into which we have plunged ourselves, desires that we be delivered from such misery into great blessedness, and effectually works to carry out that desire! Were He to be callously indifferent to our spiritual poverty, He would not work to deliver us from it.
This compassion which Jesus showed by His death on the cross, and continues to show as He sits at the right hand of the Father, He manifested throughout His entire life on earth by many miracles. While He walked on this earth, Christ cast out many devils, healed many sick, caused the lame to walk, enabled the deaf to hear, gave sight to the blind, and loosed the tongues of the dumb. Seeing His compassion in His miracles of healing, many people who desired Him to heal them or their loved ones requested Him to “have mercy” on them (cf. Matt. 9:27, 15:22, 17:15, 20:30, 31; Luke 17:13).
These two manifestations of Jesus’ compassion — the one shown to fallen elect mankind by His High Priestly work, and the other to those with bodily afflictions — are not unrelated. His healing of bodily ailments and miraculous caring for bodily needs all pointed to His High Priestly work as the great manifestation of His mercy. So we read that Christ cast out devils and healed the sick, “That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Esaias the prophet, saying, himself took our infirmities, and bare our sicknesses” (Matt. 8:17). Matthew quotes from Isaiah 53, in which chapter we find one of the clearest Old Testament prophecies and descriptions of Christ’s substitutionary atonement and death. God’s purpose through Isaiah is not primarily to teach the church that the Christ will do miracles of bodily healing, but to show that Christ would take upon Himself the weakened human nature of His people, in order to take away their guilt and corruption and reconcile them to God. In pointing to Christ’s miraculous healings as being fulfillment of Isaiah, therefore, Matthew does not mean that Isaiah’s prophecy has no further fulfillment in Christ’s work on the cross, but that the compassion Christ showed on those with bodily needs pictured His compassion shown to His people in their great spiritual need.
That Christ is our only High Priest means that the church has never had any other. How can this be, when the church has existed since Adam, and Christ came 4000 years later? Of course, the answer must be found in the fact that Christ Himself is eternal. He was manifest in the flesh at the time of His birth, but existed from all eternity. So He was the church’s High Priest from the beginning of the world.
Yet it is true that in showing Himself to be High Priest in the old dispensation, He used earthly men to picture Him as High Priest; their work pictured His work. Christ manifested His priesthood in men such as Noah, Abraham, Melchizedek, Job, who offered sacrifices for themselves and their households, according to various Scripture passages. Specific mention is made of Abraham’s intercessory prayer for the righteous in Sodom (Gen. 18:23ff.), and Job’s for his sons (Job 1:5). Such intercession manifested compassion for those for whom they prayed.
Christ manifested His priesthood in the entire nation of Israel, whom God at Mount Sinai designated “a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation” (Ex. 19:6). As priests, they were consecrated to the service of God which the Mosaic law required of them. In particular, this required them to show compassion on all in distress (as we noted last time in speaking of Israel’s duty to care for the poor), to bring their offerings and sacrifices to the tabernacle at appointed times, and to set aside their firstborn males for the service of Jehovah to represent this kingdom of priests.
To this last mentioned requirement of the law God added another one: the firstborn must be redeemed from that temple service; they would not have to perform it. Instead of the firstborn, God appointed the tribe of Levi as the tribe of priests, with the descendants of Aaron as high priest. Particularly their work in the temple pictured Christ’s work, as they offered sacrifices for sin and interceded for the people. The high priest was also instructed to bless the people (Num. 6:22ff.). Such work was not to be done merely formally, but with a heart that desired the salvation of the people — that is, with a heart of compassion.
We must see, then, that Christ continues to work as High Priest in the church today.
He does so through all believers. Just as was true in Old Testament Israel, so in the New Testament church all God’s saints are priests (cf. I Pet. 2:9, Rev. 1:6).Romans 12 shows that this has implications for how we live: we must present our bodies living sacrifices (v. 1); we must distribute to the necessity of saints and be given to hospitality (v. 13); we must weep with those who weep (v. 15); we must feed our hungry enemy and give drink to our thirsty enemy (v. 20). In sum, we must be holy and compassionate!
But particularly, Christ functions as our merciful High Priest today through the diaconate.
That Christ does function through the diaconate is evident from the fact that the diaconate is a proper office in the church, instituted by Christ through the apostles. The office of apostle in the New Testament church was a temporary office, a sort of bridge between Christ’s ministry while on earth, and His ministry through the office of pastor, elder, and deacon in the New Testament church. When Christ ascended He gave all authority to His apostles. They were prophets, priests, and kings to the New Testament church. But the church soon grew too large for the apostles to be able to do all the work. Furthermore, while the day would come when the temporary office of apostle would cease, the need of the church for men to hold office, to work directly in Christ’s behalf, would not cease. So out of the office of apostle, directly instituted by Christ, came those of pastor, elder, and deacon. Because Christ worked through the apostles, and because the office of deacon was instituted by Christ through the apostles, we can say that Christ works through deacons!
That the diaconate is a particular manifestation of Christ’s priesthood must also be proven. Doing this is not so easy. Are we merely to assume that the diaconate manifests the priesthood of Christ because the pastorate clearly manifests Christ’s prophetic work, and the eldership Christ’s kingly work, leaving the priestly work of Christ to be matched up with the office of deacon by default? Were this our sole proof, it would seem perhaps a bit simplistic and rationalistic. So we will not make it our sole proof. Yet, there is something to it! Scripture is clear that Christ is our only and eternal Mediator, and shows Himself as such by being our Prophet, Priest, and King! In the Old Testament church He functioned through the three offices of prophet, priest, and king. Being our only and eternal Mediator, He must continue to perform each aspect of His Mediatorial work in the New Testament. If He doesn’t, the church has lost her Mediator! Furthermore, Christ has instituted three offices in the New Testament church. One of them must manifest that priestly work — else the church is lacking a manifestation of an essential aspect of Christ’s Mediatorial work! And if it is clear that the pastorate manifests His prophetic work, and the eldership His kingly, to conclude that the diaconate must manifest His priestly is justified on the basis of the fact that Scripture teaches us some things, not by direct statement (such as “The deacons manifest the priestly work of Christ”), but by good and necessary consequence.
But there is more. For the word “deacon” means “servant.” (The English word “deacon,” incidentally, is of Greek origin; the Greek word is transliterated “diakonos.”) So, while it is true that pastors and elders also serve Christ and His church, the name “deacon” emphasizes that the diaconate in particular is an office of service or ministration. In the Old Testament a Hebrew word with the same meaning was commonly used to refer to the priests — they were the ministers, the servants, of God. Furthermore, Jesus Christ drew attention to the fact that He had come to minister, in giving His life a ransom for many (performing His High Priestly function, sacrificing His body! Cf. Matt. 20:28). By the use of the word “deacon” to refer to this office of which we speak, therefore, God directs us to see the diaconate as the continuation and manifestation of the priestly work of Christ. Remember that the use of these words in Scripture was inspired!
Certainly more work could be done to show that it is biblical to speak of the diaconate as being a manifestation of Christ’s priestly work. This fact is generally assumed, rather than carefully proven, in many books dealing with the diaconate. For now, however, we will leave demonstrating this.
What remains to be done, briefly, is to answer this question: what implications does this fact, that the diaconate is a manifestation of Christ’s priestly work, have for the deacons of the church today?
First, it speaks to the qualifications of deacons. They must be men of great compassion and pity for those in need. The church of Jesus Christ does not need deacons who are indifferent to the plight of the poor and suffering. Were Christ indifferent, He would not have saved us! So must the deacons be ready to “save” those in need. This means, too, that they must be willing to serve, willing to give of themselves for the good of others.
Second, it speaks to the work of deacons. In their work, they must bring Christ; they must show that Christ is a merciful High Priest to His people! It is above all things most essential that the deacons, in bringing aid to the poor, bring the Scriptures! For Christ is present by His Spirit and Word. Man lives, after all, not by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God (Deut. 8:3). When the deacons show this in bringing Scripture, they may be confident that Christ uses them to care for the needs of His church. Furthermore, the deacons must bring material gifts for the relief of the poor, thus manifesting concretely their compassion and Christ’s, and showing again that Christ cares, not only for the souls of His people, but also for their bodies.