Robert D. Decker is professor of New Testament and Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
The great joy of a minister of the gospel is not easy. In fact, it is very difficult. The ministry involves a great deal of hard work. Sermon preparation takes much time and effort. To prepare two good sermons each week is no small task. Catechism classes must be taught and Bible study societies must be led. There are various pastoral labors which must be done: visiting the sick, comforting the sorrowing, family visitation, etc. The minister is called upon to chair consistory meetings, serve on committees, do a certain amount of work for the denomination. In addition there is the work of writing for various church magazines and a certain amount of lecturing.
All of this work must be done while the minister and his family live in the proverbial “glass house.” There are always people who carefully watch the minister’s every move. Some are quick to criticize. Pastors are sinners like everyone else. They display all kinds of weaknesses. Some take advantage of this.
There are all kinds of disappointments and griefs. Always there are those who oppose the truth of the gospel. Discipline often results in people leaving the church. Numerical growth can be frustratingly meager. Some of the youth leave for other churches.
All of this, along with the everyday trials of his personal life, must be borne by the minister. The Apostle Paul, who suffered far more than any of us probably ever have or will, spoke of this:
Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice I was beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. Besides those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is offended, and I burn not?
But all of this you who graduate will experience soon enough.
I wish to stress the JOY of the ministry. The ministry of the gospel is after all the highest calling to which a man can aspire. To pursue that calling in college and seminary; to pass the oral examinations before the Synod and be declared a candidate for the ministry of the Word; to have the call of Christ confirmed by one of the congregations and to be ordained into the office of the ministry of the Word; that in itself affords great joy. That God should use you and me—weak, sinful, earthen vessels—that in itself is a great blessing, a wonderful gift of grace, a great joy. But there is a greater joy for the minister. And while it is a difficult, even frustrating work sometimes, there is a unique joy which the faithful minister experiences. It is to that greater joy that I wish to call your attention.
In What Does This Greater Joy Consist?
The Apostle John speaks of this greater joy in the fourth verse of his Third Epistle: “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth.” The Apostle regards Gaius (cf. vs. 1) and the saints as “my own children.” They are his own children because the Apostle is their minister. He taught them the truth of the gospel and he loves them in Christ, cares for them, leads them in the truth, admonishes and disciplines them when they wander. He comforts them and encourages them. John is their spiritual father and they are his own children. In the deeper sense, they are his own children because they are GOD’S children: elect in Jesus Christ, washed in Jesus’ blood from all their sins; born of the Spirit. God’s beloved, precious children they are, and God has entrusted them to the care and nurture of the Apostle. The Apostle is, therefore, accountable to God for the spiritual care of his own children.
John is deeply conscious of this. Notice, the letter is addressed to “. . . the well-beloved Gaius, whom I love in the truth.” Gaius is John’s “beloved” (cf. vss. 1, 2). Just who this Gaius is we do not know. Probably he was an elder in one of the churches of Asia Minor. The Apostle wishes him prosperity and good health both physically and spiritually. And, the Apostle rejoices to hear the testimony of the brethren that Gaius walks in the truth [vs. 3). In fact, the Apostle confessed, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my own children (all of them, R.D.D.) walk in truth.” John puts it negatively for emphasis, “I have no greater joy.” Nothing makes him happier than this that he hears that his dear children are walking in the truth. This is his great joy.
His children are walking in the truth. The truth is reality over against the lie. The truth is that which is real, the very opposite of what is unreal. That which is unreal is the lie. The truth always opposes the lie, that which is false. Then too, the truth is always the faithful presentation of reality, and that too with respect to all things: God, Christ, the church, the world, the past, present, future, heaven, earth, all things.
This means God is the truth. Scripture says, “He is the rock, his work is perfect . . . a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is he” (Deut. 32:4). Truth is one of the virtues of God; it belongs to His divine being. That God is the rock means He is unchangeable, and that too in justice, for “just and right is he.” The truth, therefore, is the un changing, ever faithful, just God. God is the eternal reality before all things, the Creator of all things. God is the truth because He never changes, never denies Himself or contradicts Himself. Always God remains the same. The Lord Jesus Christ is the truth. He is the Word, the eternal, only-begotten Son who came in the likeness of our flesh. Jesus is the reality of all the types of shadows of the Old Testament Who gave Himself to the cross for our sins. Christ is the complete, perfect revelation of God as the God of our salvation. He Himself said: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” The Holy Spirit is the truth. As the Spirit of Christ poured out into the church He comforts us by leading us into all the truth. He is the Spirit of truth Who imparts to us the life of Christ.
That eternal truth is revealed in Scripture. Holy Scripture is the inspired (God-breathed) revelation of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit. Not merely is Holy Scripture the account of men’s religious experiences or encounters with God, nor is it the witness of men to God, but Holy Scripture is the very Word of God. Scripture is, therefore, the truth, the whole truth, the truth about everything, the truth about all of reality. Scripture is the only truth. There is no truth apart from Holy Scripture. Scripture is the only source of the truth. Everything apart from Scripture is of the fallen creature and is, therefore, distorted and corrupted by the lie. Because Holy Scripture is all of this it may not be contradicted. All that speaks against Scripture is the lie. Nor may Scripture be doubted. We do not approach the Bible to see whether it is true. Nor do we approach Holy Scripture in the spirit of the new hermeneutic to see what is true and what is not. We approach Scripture in the faith that everything we find in it is the absolute truth of God in Jesus Christ.
The truth of Holy Scripture is summed in the Reformed Confessions: the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession of Faith, and the Canons of Dordrecht. These Confessions systematically set forth the truth of the Bible. This is the truth. The truth is, moreover, the truth of Scripture as set forth in the Confessions as taught by the grace of God in the Protestant Reformed Churches and in those churches of like precious faith with us.
The Apostle’s spiritual children were walking in the truth. Walking means, literally, regulating their lives and conduct in the sphere of the truth. The truth governed their lives. This implied that they knew the truth. They knew what the Scriptures taught. They were knowledgeable in the doctrines of Holy Scripture. Theybelieved the truth. The truth was in their hearts. They were convinced of the truth; it meant everything to them. Nothing was more important to them than the truth. They would gladly suffer and even die for the truth. And, these saints lived the truth. It was manifest in all of their daily life.
All of this applies to the minister. Christ gives pastors for the care of the church (Eph. 4:11-16). Just as God gives children to the care of their parents and calls parents to train and provide for those children, so God calls pastors to teach, govern, discipline, and care for His children in Christ. The people of God are, in this sense, the spiritual children of their pastors.
The pastor’s great joy consists not in the real or wrongly perceived honor the office of the ministryaffords, nor in a big salary, a beautiful parsonage, a prestigious pulpit, or in being wined and dined by his parishioners. His great joy consists in that he hears that his children are walking in the truth. This is his greatest joy. Nothing gives him greater satisfaction. He has no greater joy!
How Is This Joy To Be Attained?
To attain this joy a pastor must be a faithful minister. This means he must be a man of God. The pastor himself must walk in the truth. He must know the truth, believe the truth, and live the truth. He must be at pains not to contradict the truth he preaches by an ungodly life. He must be an example of godliness to the believers. In this way the pastor will experience this great joy. The joy of salvation will flood his own soul. He will be at peace with himself because he is at peace with God. There is joy and peace in believing and in nothing else! To be a faithful minister the pastor must be a man of prayer. God’s faithful ministers are men of prayer, much prayer. The chief Shepherd, Jesus, needed much prayer. How much more don’t we?! Ministers must pray without ceasing for grace to do the work, to preach and teach, for wisdom to shepherd the flock of God.
A pastor must be a man of the Word. He must always bring the Word of God. God’s people who are in affliction whether of body or mind need God’s Word and the “prayer of faith” of the pastor. Only the Word of God can fill the terrible void caused by the death of a husband, wife, parent, child, or dear friend. The Word of God must be brought to the wayward, for only the Holy Spirit of Christ through the Word can convert the sinner. A pastor must bring the Word to the families of the congregation and to individuals who need answers to life’s perplexing problems.
In all of this remember that just because we are ministers of the gospel who are college and seminary graduates does not mean we have all the answers. We do not! But God’s Word does! Search the Scriptures prayerfully and daily!
If you, who graduate tonight, wish to attain this great joy you must be preachers of the Word. The Word of God you must preach. Do not come into the pulpit with your own word or the words of mere men. The words of men are vain, empty, futile. They are of no effect. Only God’s Word can save. This is Scripture. Hebrews 4:12teaches: “For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” Likewise we learn from II Timothy 3:16, 17 that “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.” Because this is what the Word of God is, the Apostle goes on to say, “I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ . . . Preach the word . . . .” This is your calling.
This means you make a colossal blunder if you ignore what you have been taught: the original languages of Holy Scripture (Hebrew and Greek), Hermeneutics and Exegesis, Homiletics, Catechetics, Dogmatics, the history of God’s church and of the dogma of the church. Not only do you make a colossal blunder if you ignore these studies, you commit a heinous sin. Study! Work at it! Make it your own. Give yourselves wholly to the task. Yes, it is hard work. There is little or no glamour in the study. It takes a great deal of self-discipline.
The fruit of this work will be that the congregation, your spiritual children, God’s children will walk in the truth. Many will not. The Word of God has that effect too. It is a savor of death unto death in them that perish. But God’s children will walk in the truth. They will know the truth, believe the truth, and live the truth. NOTHING affords a minister greater joy! How can one describe the joy the minister experiences when he is given the firm handshake of the elders after he has preached the word?! How can one describe the joy the minister experiences when he observes the children growing in grace under his preaching and teaching and when he sees the youth standing before the congregation to confess their faith in Jesus Christ?! How does one describe the joy the minister experiences when he brings the word of Psalm 4:8 to the lady facing major surgery: “I will both lay me down in peace and sleep: for thou Lord, only makest me dwell in safety.” She was so fearful that she was visibly shaking, but her husband tells the pastor that she did not even need a sleeping pill that night?! How does one describe the joy the minister experiences when he brings the Word to the saint whose body is wracked by the pain of cancer and he dies in peace?! How does one describe the joy the minister experiences when he hears of God’s people walking in the truth in their homes, at the job and in all of life?! There is NO GREATER JOY for the minister.
Finally, I leave you with the admonition the late Rev. Gerrit Vos left me in a personal letter which I received in the first year of my ministry: “Of all the things I counseled you, my son, remember this: Be humble. There is a humility which is feigned. That’s abominable in God’s sight. Be humble from the heart and God’s people will bear you up in their arms.”