Prof. Dykstra is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. *Seminary Commencement Address, June 17, 2002, Southwest Protestant Reformed Church, Grandville, Michigan.

The minister is called to preach. This is his stated work. Writes Paul, “We preach not ourselves.” The word translated “preach,” is literally “to herald,” that is, to proclaim as an official messenger or as a herald of a king. A herald is one chosen by the king to proclaim the king’s word. He is officially set in office. He is given a specific announcement and commanded to proclaim the king’s message to all people.

A preacher is the herald of the King of kings, namely, Christ Jesus. Christ calls him to the office by His Holy Spirit, using the church to give the official appointment. Christ commands the preacher to proclaim the will and the message of the King, just as God commanded Jonah, “Arise, go unto Nineveh, … and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee” (Jon. 3:2).

That is all the preacher may ever bring. He is not to preach his own word, or express his opinion on the King’s word. Never may he change so much as the tenor of the message. The content of the King’s message is, therefore, taken from the Bible. Nonetheless, the preacher does this announcing as a thinking, willing messenger. He comes to explain accurately the king’s will. He must be certain that he has that message straight.

“We preach not ourselves,” Paul insists. Some preachers do! They have as their purpose and motive to promote themselves. Such men may attempt to impress people by their learning—perhaps their knowledge of philosophy, or that they are widely read; perhaps even with their knowledge of the Bible or of doctrine. Some desire to impress their hearers with their oratorical skills or sparkling logic. Some try to impress people with their ability to exegete the Scriptures.

Such men promote their own advantage by gaining a large personal following. They desire influence in the congregation or in the denomination, perhaps even influence in the church world at large. Still others promote themselves for the sake of riches.

You graduates do not know it yet from experience, but every preacher of the gospel faces the temptation to make himself look good, rather than simply to extol the glory of God.

Paul makes a point of it—we do not preach ourselves. How could Paul have promoted himself? His heart was filled with the light of the glory of God! God had shined in his heart. In fact, God had lifted Paul up into the third heaven and given him special revelations so glorious that Paul could scarcely speak about them (II Cor. 12:1-5). With such a glorious knowledge of God filling his soul, how could Paul then preach himself!

The minister also works with a revelation—the Bible. That revelation of God in the face of Jesus Christ is complete, infallible, perspicuous, and glorious! The minister studies that Bible day after day. He is continually filled with the knowledge of God’s glory in His being and works.

How could a minister, filled with that glorious knowledge, preach himself? How could he promote himself? How could he draw attention to himself and seek his own glory? Any preacher who does that shows that the light of the glory of God is not shining brightly in his heart, if it is shining there at all.

“We preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord.” As is always the case, the particular names used are significant. Jesus means Jehovah salvation. We preach that salvation is in Jesus alone. We preach Christ, the One anointed by God to fill the office of Mediator. Christ is the One who fully accomplished our salvation as prophet, priest, and king!

We preach Him as Lord. This is not merely another name for the Savior, but it means that the preaching declares that Jesus Christ is Lord! He is Lord of all as the Son of God. He is declared Lord because of His perfect obedience to His Father’s will. Obediently He humbled Himself by taking on our flesh and living among sinful men. He took our guilt and the punishment our sins deserved, even unto death. Therefore, God exalted His Son. He is Lord over all the world, and Head of His church. In this preaching of Jesus Christ as Lord, the glory of God is set forth! For the glory of God radiates most brilliantly in the face of Jesus Christ.

Paul’s constant refrain was, “We preach Christ Jesus.” This was his claim already in the first letter that he wrote to the Corinthians (2:1): “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.”

Where, then, does the minister fit? Almost as a footnote: Ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake.

What does that mean? It means that the minister is called to serve God’s people. Notice that this does not mean that the minister is a slave of the people of God so that he takes his orders from them. A minister is ever the slave of Jesus Christ. He looks to Christ for his orders.

This, then, is the position of the minister. Christ is his Lord and Master. Christ calls a man and commands him to preach. Christ gives him the message. And Christ commands him, “Go serve my people with the Word.” And the minister does serve the people for Jesus’ sake. That he serves “for Jesus’ sake” means that the minister labors for the salvation of God’s people. Because Jesus came in the flesh, suffered, died, and arose again, the minister serves the people of Christ. Because Jesus gathers, defends, and preserves His church, the minister gladly serves that church.

It means more, however. The words “your servant for Jesus’ sake” mean also that he labors in the spirit of Jesus, that is, not for his own advantage. Jesus “came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give himself a ransom for many” (Mark 10:24). The minister likewise gives of himself.

In all the preacher’s work, God must be glorified! This must be the character of the minister and his work. He insists emphatically, “I preach not myself! I preach Jesus Christ crucified and risen again.” He must preach, “Repent and believe in Jesus.” And the wonder of it is that God uses such preaching to cause the light of the glorious knowledge of God to shine in the hearts of His people.

Earthen Vessels

How wise God is to use the weak and sinful means of ministers to bring this glorious knowledge. The situation demands it. You graduates do not yet know how prone the minister is to think highly of himself, and to take some of the glory to himself. From a human point of view, that is quite understandable. The minister has this knowledge of the glory. You graduates have stored up a great amount of knowledge. You were examined publicly at synod and demonstrated that you have much knowledge. People came up to you perhaps and told you how impressed they were by your knowledge. You will be ordained into the ministry, the Lord willing, and people will look up to you. Men and women older than your parents will come to you for advice. The congregation will ask you to tell them the meaning of various Bible passages. They will say to you, “Good sermon, Reverend.” And you will realize that the welfare of the flock depends on the preaching that you bring week by week.

At the same time, the congregation tends to elevate the pastor. This is particularly true of those whom the minister has helped the most—the youth who, if they are treated with the love of Christ, will love their pastor; those converted under the preaching of the minister; those who are comforted by the minister in times of great sorrow or affliction. The minister is conscious of their near adoration. And every day, pride sits like a devil in the chair across the minister’s desk. Does he not bring the glorious mysteries of the kingdom of heaven? He brings treasures beyond anything this world has to offer.

God, in His wisdom, gave these treasures to ministers who are nothing more than earthen vessels. Ministers are merely the container. The Holy Spirit uses a figure of speech well known to us. On this earth are many vessels of different value and varied usefulness. There are golden vials fit for a king. Solomon drank from gold vessels. There are silver vases that are given as precious gifts to friends at their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. There are beautiful china dishes, set out for special company. There are vessels of wood—beautifully polished oak or mahogany, set out on the coffee table to be admired.

And there are earthen vessels. Literally, these are vessels of clay. That is the figure used to describe a minister. We might be inclined to say, “What? Can that be right?” But there is no mistake here.

God is a deliberate Creator. He makes the reprobate vessels of wrath, fitted to destruction. God makes His elect vessels of mercy, to be filled with His glory.

He makes the minister a clay pot.

We notice several pertinent characteristics of a clay pot. First of all, there is nothing glorious about a clay pot. It is not valuable. Not only that, but a clay pot can chip and even shatter easily. It is useful, but certainly not a vessel that one would set on an end table in order to admire the vessel! Really, the only beauty about clay pots is the flowers that they may contain!

A minister is like an earthenvessel in many ways. He is weak and sinful. There is nothing special about him. A minister is not particularly brilliant or powerful. Ordinarily he is neither rich nor of the class of nobility. He is a creature of the dust. This is manifested in that he tires and requires food and drink. The minister makes mistakes. He also grows old and feeble as the earthly house of his tabernacle is dissolved. In short, he is just like any other member of the body of Christ. Not only that, but his preaching is far from perfect in style, depth, and delivery. It can always be criticized.

This is God’s wise plan. For the purpose of God, writes Paul, is “that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us” (v. 7).

Any Reformed man knows that all power belongs to God. His is the power not only to create all things, but also to uphold and govern the universe and every creature in it. God’s power alone saves from death and hell, and that sovereignly. God gives life and preserves it. God sovereignly brings His own to glory, but judges and condemns the evildoer.

Paul writes not merely of God’s power, but of the excellency of that power. The word “excellency” literally means “that which flows over, an abundance.” The point is that all must take notice of the fact that the power is God’s alone.

Certainly, God could determine to send angels to preach the gospel. But what would happen? First of all, the immediate reaction of the people would be terror. Remember the reaction of the shepherds outside of Bethlehem when an angel appeared to them? They saw the glory of the Lord and were sore afraid.

Consider also that the angel could tell the people to set their minds on heavenly things and keep themselves unspotted from the world. And the people would quickly respond that it was an easy thing for the angel to say—he lives in the glory of heaven, and he has no sinful nature to battle.

It is also likely that no one would bother to read or study the Bible any longer. Why read that when you have an angel’s word every Sunday. Besides, people might well swarm to church in droves—not for the truth’s sake, but due to the novelty of an angel preaching.

No, God in His wisdom determined that the preacher must be an earthen vessel. In so determining, God’s testimony is this: Let there be no mistake about the power. I, the Lord, save. These men are only vessels in whose heart I have shined. They are my servants. Indeed, they have treasures—glorious treasures! But the saving power is not from them, nor does it depend on them.

The excellency of the power belongs to God. He will share His glory with no one.

Is that the way you view the ministry of the word, graduates? I know that you do. The faculty is confident that you do. If there were reason to believe that you were seeking the ministry in order to promote yourself, we would not recommend you to the churches. But we are confident because we have seen the light of the glory of God shining from you.

The minister is called to preach Jesus Christ the Lord, and himself a servant for the benefit of the people. Do that, graduates, when the Lord Himself, as we trust, will presently call you officially and give you a place to labor. Unfold the riches of the glory of God. Preach the Reformed faith, even the unique heritage of the truth that God has given to the Protestant Reformed Churches. Such preaching gives all glory to God alone.

That is the character and work of the Reformed preacher.

We will pray for you, that God keep you faithful.