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The meaning of ministry (Ephesians 3:7–8)

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Lionel Windsor
Lionel Windsor lectures in New Testament at Moore College, Sydney.

Christian ministry is hard. If you’re involved in any kind of Christian ministry, to any group of people, whether as a volunteer or as an employee, you’ll know it’s hard. If you don’t know it yet, you soon will. It’s hard because you’re sharing in the ups and downs of the lives of real people, with all the mess and heartache that goes along with it. It’s hard because there are so many different, and often competing, claims on your time. It’s hard because people ignore you or oppose you. It’s hard because you’re not valued by the world. And the more you’re involved in Christian ministry, the more responsibilities you are given, and the harder it is. So why be involved in Christian ministry at all? Why start it in the first place? And why would you want to keep going for the long haul? This isn’t just a matter of the techniques or pragmatics of ministry (though these are important too). This is a matter of the meaning of ministry. What does ministry mean? Or, what gives ministry meaning?

In these verses from Ephesians, the apostle Paul talks about the meaning of his own ministry. As Paul writes these words, he is certainly having a hard time. He’s in prison (see verse 1), in chains for preaching the gospel. He’s probably been there for some years. But even in this situation, Paul writes to encourage his readers. He wants them to know about his ministry. He wants them to know how his ministry started, and he wants them to know what keeps him going. In fact, he wants them to lift their eyes, to see how overjoyed he is by the opportunity to be a minister. In some ways, Paul’s ministry was unique. But in other ways, what Paul says here about his own ministry is a great help to anyone involved (or considering being involved) in any kind of Christian ministry:

I became a minister of the gospel according to the gift of God’s grace that he gave to me, according to the activity of his power. To me, the leastest of all the holy ones, this grace was given: to preach to the gentiles the gospel—the unfathomable riches of Christ.

Ephesians 3:7–8

A minister of the gospel

Paul says: “I became a minister of the gospel”. The first thing we need to be clear on is what he means by the word “minister”. There can be a bit of confusion here. There’s a common idea going around that the word “minister” means “humble servant”. The reason this idea started is that sometimes the original Greek word root for “minister” or “ministry” (diakonos, diakonia, diakoneō) is used to talk about humble table waiters (see e.g. Jesus in Luke 22:26–27). So the logic goes like this: since the word for “minister” is sometimes used for table waiters, Paul must have table waiters in mind when he talks about himself as a “minister”. So he’s talking about being a “humble servant”. However, this logic is flawed, and people who have looked closely at this idea have demonstrated it doesn’t work.[1]

Photo by Kai Pilger on Unsplash

Rather, the basic meaning of these Greek words for “ministry” (diakonia, etc.) is “acting as a go-between”. This normally involves “bringing” or “bearing” something from someone to someone else. The word can be used to refer to table-waiters who are “bringing” dishes from the kitchen to the table. At other times, though, the word has nothing to do with table-waiters. That’s true here, where Paul describes himself not as a “minister of dishes” but as a “minister of the gospel”. Paul is saying that he was given the task of being a “bringer” of the gospel of Jesus Christ from God to the world. So for Paul, the word“minister” doesn’t mean “humble servant”. Rather, Paul is using the word to refer to his role of bringing the gospel—God’s wonderful message of salvation and peace through Jesus Christ—to the world. And so in this kind of context, “ministry” is primarily about bringing God’s word to people (this will also be important when we get to the word “ministry” in Ephesians 4:12).

So for Paul, “ministry” is about bringing God’s word—the gospel—to people. What does this mean for our own ministry? On the one hand, we need to remember that we’re not the same as Paul in every way. We haven’t received a revelation directly from Christ, as Paul did. We haven’t been specially commissioned to be the Jewish apostle to the gentiles, as Paul was. On the other hand, the gospel that Paul preached is the same gospel that we have heard and believed. It’s the message of the Bible. We know that gospel, and we have opportunities to bring that message to people, in many different ways. As we do this, we are right to say we are engaging in “ministry”. To whatever extent we are doing this, Paul’s words here are relevant to us.

Does that mean we shouldn’t be humble? Of course not! As we’ll see in a moment, there are many reasons for us to be humble. But the idea of humility doesn’t come from the word “minister/ministry”. The word itself implies a specific task: bringing the gospel to people. If we forget that this is what it’s all about, and if we think of ministry only in terms of “humble service”, we’ll end up with all sorts of problems. We’ll become a servant to whatever expectations anyone has of us. We’ll be driven by the expectations of those we minister to, or the expectations of those with authority over us, or our own expectations. This is a recipe for disaster. That’s because many of these expectations will be unrealistic. And even if they are realistic, these expectations will all be different and in conflict with one another. This can lead so easily to depression and burnout—because as “humble servants” we’re trying to meet everyone’s expectations, including our own. But if we remember that ministry is all about bringing the gospel to people, this focuses our task and our role and helps us to listen to—and manage—the expectations of others. Of course, bringing the gospel to people must involve other vital elements such as prayer (e.g., Ephesians 3:14–19), praise (e.g., Ephesians 3:20–21), and love (e.g., Ephesians 4:1–3). But its focus and its goal is bringing the gospel to people.

People and the Post, Postal History from the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum

Gospel ministry: Abundant grace

So ministry is all about bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ to people. But Paul doesn’t just want to talk about his role and task. Rather, he wants to talk about something that gives meaning and joy and purpose to his ministry: God’s grace. Paul says that he became a minister of the gospel “according to the gift of God’s grace that he gave to me”. He uses three words for grace all in a row: “gift”, “grace”, and “gave”. It’s a bit redundant and overdone, isn’t it? But that’s the point. Paul’s labouring of this point reflects the reality of God’s grace. God has been abundant in giving his grace to Paul. It’s like the language that Paul used at the start of his letter (Ephesians 1:3–10), where he praises God for all the spiritual blessings that believers have in Christ. Here, Paul says that this lavish grace of God is the same grace that has made Paul into a minister of the gospel. Paul’s own ministry is a gift of God’s grace.

So what does this grace of God mean for Paul’s gospel ministry? It means that God is at work, it means that gospel ministry is a gift of God’s grace to the unworthy, and it means that gospel ministry is being part of God’s mind-blowing plan for his world!

Gospel ministry: God at work

Paul’s gospel ministry is ultimately about God being at work, rather than us. God graciously made Paul a minister “according to the activity of his power”. This is similar to the way Paul described God’s saving grace in Ephesians 2:1–10. Salvation is all about God’s activity: God has raised us from death to life and seated us with Christ. So salvation is by grace, not from our own works, but through faith. We are created to do good works, but these are works God has already prepared for us, rather than things we can boast in. This truth about the gift of salvation also applies to the gift of ministry. God is at work, bringing people to know and trust in his Son Jesus Christ. It’s God’s plan and God’s power. He has given us the privilege of taking part in it all, but we aren’t ultimately in charge of it—and even when we fail or feel we can’t do it all, that’s OK.

This is a great comfort, isn’t it? When we forget this truth, we become overwhelmed and anxious in ministry. We think it’s all up to us. We can develop a Messiah complex that makes us think that if we don’t do it, no-one will. But there’s only one Messiah, and it’s not you or me. God’s grace in ministry means that ministry is ultimately God’s work, not ours.

Gospel ministry: God’s grace to the unworthy

Paul’s gospel ministry is also a gift of God’s grace to somebody who is not worthy. Paul says: “To me, the leastest of all the holy ones, this grace was given”. I know the word “leastest” isn’t good English grammar. But it’s my translation of Paul’s original Greek word, which isn’t good Greek grammar either. Paul is bending the language to make a point: he really, really wasn’t worthy of God allowing him to be an apostle. Elsewhere Paul talks about his life before Christ called him: he was a persecutor of the church of God (see 1 Corinthians 15:9). If you were one of the members of the original apostolic community in Israel (i.e. among the “holy ones”), and you had to pick somebody to be the preacher of the gospel to the world, Paul would have been your last choice. No, he would have been less than your last choice: he would have been your leastest choice.

But that’s the point. It’s fitting that the leastest of all the holy ones was given the grace to preach God’s grace. That’s what God’s grace is: it’s a grace shown to the unworthy. In fact, none of us is worthy to receive God’s grace—that’s the point Paul has already made in Ephesians 2:1–3. None of us is worthy to have any role in bringing that grace to others. And yet, God graciously allows us to take part in it. How wonderful! And how humbling.

This is why humility is fundamental to gospel ministry. We need to remember, and indeed be overwhelmed, by God’s grace: God’s grace in saving us, and God’s grace in allowing us to take part in the ministry of the gospel. When we forget this, we become proud and self-sufficient. We start to think that we are worthy of something—worthy of honour, or a position, or a title, or thanks. But that attitude is the precise opposite of the gospel we preach, isn’t it?

Gospel ministry: Part of God’s mind-blowing plan

Paul’s gospel ministry is also a wonderful privilege. It involves being part of God’s mind-blowing plan for his universe. God has given his grace to Paul “to preach to the gentiles the gospel”. This task of preaching the gospel to the gentiles isn’t a side-issue for God—it’s the way God is achieving his great plans for the universe to sum up all things under Christ (see Ephesians 1:10 and 11–14).

So the ministry of the gospel involves sharing “the unfathomable riches of Christ”. No matter how poor we might feel, we have the greatest riches in the world, and we have the privilege of sharing it. There is a present dimension to these riches: even now we are made God’s children; we have redemption and forgiveness in Christ (see Ephesians 1:7). And there is also a future dimension: we have that great hope that we can look forward to of life in abundance (see Ephesians 1:18, 2:7). This is something we can understand in part, but it’s so rich and amazing, we will never be able to say we’ve got to the bottom of it. And the great thing about gospel ministry is that we have the privilege of sharing those riches with others, and seeing the joy and amazement they too have as they discover the mind-blowing riches of God’s great grace.

This God

This amazement is something we should never lose. In Christian ministry, it’s so easy to be become self-absorbed in our own small areas of responsibilities or our individual tasks, isn’t it? We can take it for granted. It can become just a job, or just a task, or just a drudgery. We need to lift our eyes, to look and see what God is doing in our lives and the lives of others. Gospel ministry involves the privilege of being part of God’s amazing plan.

Gospel ministry: Grace all the way

So what is the meaning of ministry? The meaning of the word—the task—is bringing the saving and reconciling gospel of Jesus Christ to people. But the thing that gives it meaning is God’s grace. Salvation is a gift of God’s grace, and ministry is also a gift of God’s grace. God’s grace is abundant and lavish. God’s grace means that God is in charge, and God is at work. God’s grace is a grace shown to the unworthy. And God’s grace means that we, unworthy as we are, have the privilege of being part of God’s mind-blowing plan, sharing the unfathomable riches of Christ with those we meet.

For reflection

Consider an area Christian of ministry you are involved in. Ministry is about bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ to people: How does this fact help to provide focus and to set right expectations for this ministry?

How might God’s grace motivate you to keep going in Christian ministry, or to be involved more in Christian ministry?

[1] I’ve written more on this in my article “The Work of Ministry in Ephesians 4:12”, pages 1–25 in “Tend My Sheep”: The Word of God and Pastoral Ministry (Keith G. Condie, ed.; London: Latimer Trust, 2016); available online here.

Audio podcast

Want more?

This post is part of a series of 70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It’s also available in audio podcast format. You can see all the posts in the series, and connect to the audio podcast using the platform of your choice, by following this link.

The academic details behind these reflections

Reading Ephesians & Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ's Mission through Israel to the Nations

In this series, I don’t go into detail justifying every statement I make about the background and meaning of Ephesians. I’ve done that elsewhere. If you’re interested in the reasons I say what I say here, and want to chase it up further with lots of ancient Greek, technical stuff, and footnotes, check out my book Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations.