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(The text, slightly revised, but maintaining as much as possible the spoken form and personal address, of the graduation speech for the Protestant Reformed Theological School. Commencement took place on June 15, 2017, in Hudsonville PRC auditorium, for seven graduates: Matthew DeBoer, Brian Feenstra, Joseph Holstege, Jonathan Langerak, David Noorman, Stephan Regnerus, Justin Smidstra.)

Till I come, give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine. Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery. Meditate upon these things; give thyself wholly to them; that thy profiting may appear to all. Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee. I Timothy 4:13-16

Graduates and families of the graduates; delegates of Synod 2017, who by unanimous vote have approved the examination of these brothers; colleagues in the seminary; Theological School Committee; members and friends of the PRCA; this is a momentous occasion for us tonight. It is for you graduates. By the decision of Synod this afternoon, the door has been opened for you to receive a call to the ministry of the Word and sacraments. You have not yet received a call. One more significant decision needs to be made before you become a minister: the decision of a church to call you. But the PRCA has declared you eligible for a call because they have judged you to be fit, qualified for the work of the ministry. This is of monumental significance for you.

The occasion is momentous for the churches. Seven graduates—a thing unheard of in our 92-year history! In His goodness to us, God provides pastors to feed us, teachers to instruct and exhort us, faithful men who have promised to devote their lives to our spiritual care. Synod has judged this as well. Synod has judged that the graduates have gifts—the ability to speak and teach, the wisdom to lead a consistory through quagmires, and the good qualifications to counsel a troubled marriage or a member ensnared in sin. But Synod has judged more than that. The PRCA has judged that these men are committed to giving their lives to this work, willing to sacrifice everything for the spiritual well-being—the salvation—of you and your children.

That is, the graduates recognize that the ministry is not merely an occupation but an existence (although I do not belittle other “occupations” tonight). This is the teaching of the apostle as he addresses the calling of young pastor Timothy.

That the ministry is an existence means that a man gives his life to the ministry unlike anyone else gives himself to any other occupation. Unlike the occupations of your cousins and friends, which must not consume them, this occupation must consume you. In a very real way, it will become your existence. It will define you.

A minister is like Samuel, who was given to the Lord. When Samuel’s cousins and friends went their ways into various occupations, Samuel went to the ministry in the tabernacle. A minister is not unlike Jephthah’s daughter who devoted herself to the Lord, so much so that she and her friends requested a two-month observance to “bewail her virginity,” after which, for the rest of her life she remained a virgin in the service of the Lord. Again, all her friends and relatives went their way to marry and have children.

What Paul says about himself in II Corinthians 12:15—“I will very gladly spend and be spent for” the church, that is, be consumed in the service of God’s people—in I Timothy 4 he makes obligatory for newly ordained Timothy, and for every minister of the gospel today.

In five ways in this passage, Paul emphasizes that the ministry is an existence.

First: “Give thyself wholly to them” (v. 15b)

This translation gives the sense of the words in the Greek, but not at all literally. Other translations also struggle—but do pretty well—to bring out the force of this imperative. “Give yourself entirely to them.” “Immerse yourself in them.” “Be absorbed in them.” “Devote yourself to them.” But none of these captures fully the original: “Be in them!” That is, “Exist in them.” The ministry is an existence.

Other occupations may demand a great deal of a person—time, lots of time, commitment, energy, focus, even a measure of devotion. This calling requires your being! Be in them!

Second: “Meditate upon these things” (v. 15a)

That is, “care for them; practice them; attend to them carefully.” Meditate is a good translation here because meditating is done by one’s mind—thoughts are involved.

The minister’s mind must be fully engaged in ministry of the Word. When he has quiet times (in the car, on his walk, lying in bed) the ministry is on his mind: how to make the truth clear, what to say to the burdened soul, how to find opportunity to address the young person in need. He is not meditating on his golf scores, his next fishing trip, the investment he considers making to increase his wealth, but the ministry!

For this reason, the formal “call letter” a consistory sends to a candidate says what it does: “Convinced that the laborer is worthy of his hire, to encourage you in the discharge of your duties, and to free you from all worldly cares [other thoughts] and avocations [other ways to enrich yourself] while you are dispensing spiritual blessings to us, we…do promise and oblige ourselves to pay you….” Other occupations do not forbid an employee to take on a part time job to supplement his income, or some hobby that takes up all his spare time. The ministry says, “If you have much spare time at all, you are likely not allowing me to be your existence.”

The ministry is not a job a man puts away when he walks out of his study, as another man may do with his occupation, perhaps should do. In other occupations, when a husband comes home, his wife may say, “Let it go!” A minister cannot let it go. The ministry is his existence. When he sleeps, he does so in order to awake with reading, exhorting, teaching in view. When he cannot sleep, he probably ‘counts sheep,’ praying through the church directory from Aalsma to Zylstra. Abdelkader and Zetterberg are not on his mind, because the ministry—not hockey—is his life.

Third: “Give attendance to” (v. 13)

If that is possible, this expression is even stronger in emphasizing that the ministry is an existence. Also this expression means to turn the mind to, to take heed to, to be attentive to something. But “give attendance to” adds something new. It is an exhortation to cleave to, attach one’s self to, the ministry. It would not be wrong to paraphrase this, “Have such a relationship to the ministry that you are devoted to it and only to it.”

It is significant that this is the same word Paul uses in I Timothy 3:8 regarding another relationship, one that God prohibits, the relationship between an officebearer and wine. An officebearer may not “give attendance to” wine. The KJV says that he may not be “given to” wine, that is, may not be occupied by it, love it, be controlled by it, have nothing stand in the way of his getting it, even to his own hurt! He may not be addicted to wine.

In a very real way, such is a faithful minister’s relationship to the ministry. He is given to it. So occupied by the ministry, he can do almost nothing else. As a drunk thinks of his bottle when he first awakens, the minister thinks of his work! Like an addict, who will let nothing stand in his way of getting at his fix, even to his great hurt, so a minister will let nothing stand in the way of his “giving himself wholly to the ministry.” It is his existence!

Fourth: “Take heed to thyself and to the teaching…” (v. 16a)

In addition to taking heed to the work, a minister must take heed to himself. So intimately and inseparably connected are the minister and his work, he must first take heed to himself. “Take heed to thyself and the doctrine.” Without taking heed first to himself, he cannot rightly take heed to teaching.

Men with other occupations may possibly, even to a certain degree successfully, separate themselves—that is, their own personal lives—from their occupation. A capable doctor may be a compulsive gambler, a good accountant an alcoholic, a crack mechanic a wife abuser. Not a gospel minister.

For His precious church’s sake, God will (usually) not allow a man to go on in the ministry whose personal life is wrong. From the people’s point of view, they will see behind the façade put up by the hypocritical minister—little children can—and reject his ministry. But even from the point of view of the man himself, I ask, “Except for absolute hardness of heart, how can he ever teach, if he himself personally is wrong?” Take heed to thyself! The ministry is your existence!

Fifth: “The gift that is in thee…” (v. 14a)

It is one thing to remember that the ability to do the work of the ministry—reading, exhorting, teaching— is a gift, a spiritual aptitude that is given to a man “by the laying on of the hands of the presbytery.” It is quite another to realize that this gift God puts within him. The gift is in him, not like a penny is in the belly of a child who accidentally swallows it, but like a medicine is in a man when it is injected into his veins. So closely are the man and the ministry related that the gift of the ministry is bestowed upon a man by God putting it in him.

That a man gives up his life for the ministry does not mean that he has no family life. If he does not care for his family, he is worse than an infidel. Why, his good care of his family is a prerequisite for his entering and continuing in the ministry.

Nor does it mean that he has no recreation or exercise. He does understand Paul’s point that bodily exercise profits only for a short time (KJV: “profiteth little”). So he focuses on exercising “unto godliness” (vv. 7, 8). But because “profiteth little” does not belittle bodily exercise, but only emphasizes the contrast between the temporal and the eternal, a minister budgets time for some physical exercise to keep both his mind and body in good shape.

Nevertheless, almost everything is different for a gospel minister, whose calling is not an occupation, but an existence. He does not have time to play very much, like others might, and may! His hours are not 9-5, or even 6-6, but every day and almost every night. Even elders and deacons—close as they may become to us, for which we thank God—have different lives. They serve part time; the minister serves day and night. They serve terms; the minister’s term does not expire.

Even some of the minister’s family life is different: He is always on call, day and night, 49 weeks of the year. And even those three weeks of vacation might be different. Many ministers have left campgrounds to drive four hours home, have even flown home from a vacation, to minister to a bereaved family and conduct a funeral. He will get up at 3 a.m. to visit a man whose wife just passed away in bed. Or, on Friday night, instead of the important family night he promised to his children, go to counsel the parents of a young man whom they just picked up from the police station.

Which all means that, when a minister speaks about the ministry at one of our high school’s career days, putting him right alongside of bankers, accountants, engineers, doctors, lawyers, or salesmen, may well leave a very wrong impression. Of none of these other occupations can it (should it!) be said, “You give your life to it, devote your existence to it….”

And, (this is far more than a “by the way” comment) I thank God that those of you candidates who have wives have wives who understand this reality. We thank God for the women who realize that their life and calling—inseparable from your life and calling—are from this point of view very different from the life and calling of most of the other women of the church. Your wife’s calling also is a ‘gift’ from God. We celebrate them tonight, too!

What does this existence look like? It is the reading, exhortation, and teaching of Scripture.

In I Timothy 4, Paul teaches his son in the faith to “give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine.” Because “doctrine,” in this text, means the activity of teaching, the exhortation can be understood: “Read, exhort, and teach Scripture.”

Doctrine

Put last in Paul’s exhortation, “doctrine,” or the activity of teaching, is the heart of the minister’s work. Implied, of course, is the content of his instruction as the truth of the gospel, the Reformed faith. But Paul is not referring to what he teaches as much as his calling to teach!

The context shows that Paul is speaking of the activity of teaching. “These things command and teach” (v. 11). Verse 13: “Give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to teaching.” Verse 16 should be understood: “Take heed to yourself and to the teaching.…

Teaching is what Jesus’ ministry consisted of, as the gospels record Jesus going into the synagogues, and everywhere, to teach. What Jesus began both to do and teach, says Luke at the beginning of Acts, the apostles continued to do, and teach. According to Acts, Paul’s apostolic ministry ends with him, under house-arrest, “preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ.” Twice in the epistles to Timothy, Paul said “I am ordained a preacher, an apostle, a teacher…” (I Tim. 2:7; II Tim. 1:12). The gift, therefore, that the ascended Christ gives to the church, still today, is “pastors and teachers…” that is, pastors who are teachers.

A preacher is not a comic, a psychologist, a culture critic, a redeemer of society, a business adviser, a manipulator of emotions. He is a teacher. In the pulpit and the catechism room, doing pre-marriage counseling and broken-marriage counseling, helping someone ensnared in sin, at the bedside and at the graveside, he is a teacher.

Reformed Christians may not forget that the preaching is a means of grace only insofar as preaching is teaching. We are not Roman Catholic. That is, we do not believe that the minister’s sermon is a means of grace even if it is not understood. We do not believe that, as long as the minister says some good words, incomprehensible to most, those words are God’s power unto salvation for the hearers. No, God’s work of grace in His people is by means of a word that is understood.

I am always glad to hear praise of a preacher’s sermon, but most impressed when the one who offers the praise says, “I learned something in that sermon.” Or, “He is a good teacher!” Or, “I understand now what I did not ‘get’ before!” And, by the way, that indicates one good way for elders to judge sermons— by asking the question, “Are the people of God learning from the sermons? Was truth reinforced, or the doctrine made clearer, by these words? Can the young people grow in grace by growing in knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (II Pet. 3:18) from the sermons?”

People of God, this is our task at the seminary. We train men to be teachers of the Word. And we judge, all through their training, whether they have an aptitude to teach.

Graduates, look at yourself, think about yourself, always consider yourself: Teacher of the Word of God. “Teach those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 28:31).

Reading

In order to teach, a preacher must read. Reading is first in the text, as the indispensable means by which a man is prepared to teach. “Reading, exhortation, teaching.”

By “reading” the apostle does not mean reading good books in theology, or church history, important for the minister as this reading is. He means reading the Scripture! To teach Scripture, the minister must read Scripture. He reads from the pulpit, with carefulness, clarity and reverence; for this is God’s own Word! Privately, he reads with even greater carefulness. In the original languages (God forbid that any preacher ignores the Greek and Hebrew), in order that he is able with utmost carefulness to teach the words of his text.

Let your existence be in reading! Look at yourself, think about yourself, always consider yourself: Reader of the Word of God.

Luther’s practice of reading Scripture is a model for us preachers: “For a number of years I have now annually read through the Bible twice. If the Bible were a large mighty tree and all its words were little branches, I have tapped at all the branches, eager to know what was there and what it had to offer.”

My dear brothers, soon to be colleagues, God willing, budget your day so that you give more time to reading Scripture than you do the news (certainly), and possibly more time to reading the Scripture than you do other good books! Give attendance to—be in!—reading!

Exhortation

Yes, the gospel we preach is primarily in the indicative. It tells you what God has done. Facts predominate. But what IS (the indicative) does not preclude what must be (the imperative). Reading, exhortation, teaching!

Preaching is not only the declaration, in the indicative, that only those who repent and believe will be saved. It is also, “Repent, believe, and be saved; or perish in your unbelief!”

Preaching is not only imparting the information that God calls His people to holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord. It is also the exhortation, “Be ye holy! And you who are not will not see him, now or in the day of your demise and death.”

Good teaching by a faithful minister is not only telling the people about God’s covenant, graciously established with His elect through Jesus Christ. Good preaching exclaims it with comforting words for every believer, with exhortations to these believers to live with God faithfully, obediently. It also warns against violating that covenant, threatening with the judgments of God those who do not.

I am convinced that, if the ministry is your existence, it will be impossible for you to preach in any other way than with urgent imperatives and fervent exhortations. For apart from repentance and faith, men perish; and those “men” are the objects of your love and desire for good.

Progress

In all these—reading, teaching, exhorting—there must be progress. “Profiting” in verse 15 is progress.

Progress is always needed. Early in his ministry a young man will be quite limited. Do not think too highly of your abilities, no matter what grades you got in seminary or how the people commend you. One great temptation of gifted young men is that they think far too highly of themselves.

But when you give yourselves wholly, your progress will be manifest. It makes me happy to remind you that when you work hard, the people of God will not only be patient with your youthful inabilities and even overlook many faults in you, they will also see you grow in your abilities to read, teach, and exhort. Your profiting “will appear unto all.”

If it makes the hearts of your teachers glad when they hear that you are teaching well, how much more when they hear, “Our pastor is growing! He’s becoming better every month!” The people of God love to tell us this of their young ministers.

Graduates, do not be satisfied with yourselves unless you are growing. Work hard, so that your reading is more careful, and frequent; your teaching clearer; your warnings sharper; your exhortations spoken with greater urgency; your consolations deeper…because you are growing in your own heart’s ability to be first partaker of the fruits of the gospel.

People of God, hold your ministers to these standards. Yes, be patient with them. Do not expect them to be great preachers overnight. Remember that they are just beginning their ministry. But hold them to the promise they have made: “The ministry is my life.” Give them no pass for sloth or indolence in any respect. Give them the time they need for study, and then expect growth and development for their entire ministry, even when they are old.

And their profit will be your profit, and your children’s!

Salvation!

Brothers, of no other occupation can it be said as is said of a minister’s: The salvation of those whom you serve depends upon your work.

It does. “…in doing this [reading, exhorting, teaching], thou shalt both save thyself and them that hear thee” (v. 16).

Your work in the ministry is the means God is pleased to use to save His beloved. We all know that your labors are not the basis for salvation. They are not the cause or ground of salvation. We preach Christ alone!

But the reading, exhorting, and preaching of the Word is the indispensable means by which God expresses His love and administers saving grace to His beloved people. It saves them. Very really saves them. And you! A recognition of this is what drives a man to make the ministry his existence, and to grow in it, dying to himself. God, our good God, gives grace to save through this means—clear reading, good teaching, heartfelt exhortations.

I am so thankful for our traditions. How humbly glad we may be that they have been delivered to us—thorough catechism instruction of the children, preaching doctrinal sermons twice each Lord’s Day, preaching of the Heidelberg Catechism, and all the other traditions that center in the ministry of the Word of God. How sad when some abandon them.

Do not betray these traditions by making the ministry another ‘occupation.’ Be in them. Let them define you! Let them be your existence. And thou shalt both save thyself and them that hear thee!

I may conclude this evening by telling you all what one of the graduates said to me after lunch last week. It gladdened my heart in a way he had no idea. “You know prof,” he said, “when I first started seminary, I didn’t know whether I had the qualifications for the ministry, because I didn’t know whether I had the will-power to study, and read, and hunker down to write and to make sermons. But the Lord changed me. He truly made me a new man. And now I’m hardly happy unless I’m reading, studying, and preaching.” He could not have known the chills that went down my spine when I heard him say that. The angels in heaven join in that rejoicing.

Brothers! The blessing of Jehovah God be upon you and your ministries.


Quote from Calvin

Nor ought they to think it strange that Paul ascribes to Timothy the work of saving the Church; for, certainly, all that is gained to God is saved, and it is by the preaching of the gospel that we are gathered to Christ. And as the unfaithfulness or carelessness of the pastor is ruinous to the Church, so the cause of salvation is justly ascribed to his faithfulness and diligence. True, it is God alone that saves; and not even the smallest portion of his glory can lawfully be bestowed on men. But God parts with no portion of his glory when he employs the agency of men for bestowing salvation.

Our salvation is, therefore, the gift of God alone, because from him alone it proceeds, and by his power alone it is performed; and therefore, to him alone, as the author, it must be ascribed. But the ministry of men is not on that account excluded, nor does all this interfere with the salutary tendency of that government on which, as Paul shews, the prosperity of the Church depends (Eph. iv. 11). Moreover, this is altogether the work of God, because it is he who forms good pastors, and guides them by his Spirit, and blesses their labour, that it may not be ineffectual.

If thus a good pastor is the salvation of his hearers, let bad and careless men know that their destruction must be ascribed to those who have the charge of them; for, as the salvation of the flock is the crown of the pastor, so from careless pastors all that perishes will be required. Again, a pastor is said to save himself, when, by faithfully discharging the office committed to him, he serves his calling; not only because he avoids that terrible vengeance which the Lord threatens by Ezekiel—“His blood will I require at thy hand” (Ezek. Xxxiii. 8), but because it is customary to speak of believers as performing their salvation when they walk and persevere in the course of their salvation. Of this mode of expression we have spoken in our exposition of the Epistle to the Philippians (ii. 12).