Every pastor is a prophet, and every prophet is a pastor. What distinguishes a minister as a prophet is not the prophet’s criticism of society, even though prophets were critics of their society. And, it is not that prophets preached judgment and condemnation, even though they did. What distinguishes a minister as a prophet is the call of God to speak on behalf of God.
There are two words used in the Bible to describe a prophet. The first word is found in the Old Testament. It is the Hebrew word nabi. The word nabi is translated “prophet” in English, but in Hebrew the word means “one who is called.”
The second word is found in the New Testament. It is the Greek word prophetes, which in English is translated as “prophet.” The word prophetes is composed of two Greek words: pro and phetes. In English, the word prophetes means “to speak on behalf of” someone.
Pastors are prophets. They are prophets because they have a call from God to proclaim the word of God to a lost world. They are prophets because in their ministry they speak on behalf of God.
In describing the call to preach, I have chosen the call of the prophet Jeremiah to illustrate a pastor’s ministry and to emphasize what is involved in being a minister of God.
The most important thing in the ministry is knowing that one has been called of God. In the Old Testament, a prophet was not “called of God,” but rather, the prophet was “sent by God.” Speaking about false prophets, the Lord said: “I did not send the prophets, yet they ran” (Jeremiah 23:21).
Jeremiah 1:1-10 is a narrative that introduces the call experience of Jeremiah, a man from Anathoth. The elements that are present in the call experience of Jeremiah are also present in the call experience of every minister.
First, a minister is in the ministry because of a direct call from God. The ministry is not a job, it is a vocation, and unless someone is called by God to preach God’s word, that person has no place in the ministry.
The Lord said to Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” (v. 5). Every pastor has an intimate relationship with God. The word “to know” refers to a special relationship between God and Jeremiah. It was the same word used to describe the relationship between God and Israel. The Lord said to Israel: “You only have I known of all the families of the earth” (Amos 3:2). And when Israel failed God, God lamented that there was no knowledge of God in the land. Thus when God said that he knew Jeremiah, God was emphasizing his personal commitment to Jeremiah.
God knows every person whom he calls into the ministry and the Lord has a personal interest in their ministry. Because God called them and cares for them, he is also committed to their success as ministers.
Second, a minister is set apart for a special work. God said to Jeremiah: “before you were born, I set you apart” (v.5). The expression “to set apart” in Hebrew means “to make it holy.” God sets a person apart for ministry, for special work. In the Bible, anything or anyone who belonged to God was holy, set a part for God’s use.
God also sets apart people and gives them special tasks. All believers are holy people; we are set apart for God’s special use. We, as believers, are set apart from the world to become a special people, a holy people.
Prophets had two very important functions as people called by God. First, a prophet acted as an ambassador for God. God told Jeremiah: “I appointed you as a prophet to the nations” (v.5). One is appointed by God in the same way an ambassador is appointed by the president. Jeremiah was appointed to represent God and to speak on behalf of God to all the nations.
Ministers are God’s ambassadors. Their assignment may not be to a specific nation, but to a specific state, a specific city, or a specific community. Ministers represent God in their community in the same way Jeremiah represented God before Israel and before Babylon.
Second, a prophet acted as a representative of God. The prophet Jeremiah had been “set apart” by God. “Set apart” means “holy.” The prophet was a holy person. God commanded his people: “You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). Because the prophet represents a holy God, the prophet is a holy person who lives a holy life. Not a perfect life, because only God is perfect. A holy life means a life set apart.
That is the only way a minister can be effective in the ministry. Ministers must learn how to live a life that is completely dedicated to God and to his cause. The word “sanctify” is the same word translated to “set apart” or to “make holy.” Because Jesus desired that his disciples would learn how to live a holy life, he had to set himself apart, he had to sanctify himself for his work. Jesus said: “And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth” (John 17:19). Jesus also said: “Sanctify them by the truth: your word is truth” (John 17:17).
“Your word is truth.” The ministry of those who are called by God is focused on the word of God. It is through God’s word that people are made holy, set apart for God’s work. This is why Jeremiah’s ministry was a ministry of the word of God.
When Jeremiah heard God’s call to the ministry, Jeremiah objected. He said: “Ah, Sovereign Lord, I do not know how to speak; I am only a child” (v. 6).
“I do not know how or what to speak, for I am only a child.” In Hebrew the word “child” does not mean a little boy; it means someone who has little experience. What Jeremiah was saying was this: “Oh Lord, why do you call me to preach, when I do not know what to say.”
The proclamation of the word is the key factor of the ministry of those who are called. The minister must preach the word of God every week. Sunday after Sunday, week after week, the minister must be ready to proclaim the word of God. But the question is: what to preach?
Different people deal with this problem in different ways. Some pastors go to the Internet and get a sermon every week. This, I say, is the poorest way of preaching God’s word. I doubt that Jeremiah would search the Internet for a word from God. Other pastors buy books of sermons and preach them every week. These sermons outlines are very popular today. Hundreds of books are written every year providing sermons for busy pastors. Everything comes included, even the illustrations.
But if you read the book of the prophet Jeremiah, he would be against this practice of preaching other people’s sermons. In Jeremiah 23:29-30 the Lord said: “Is not my word like fire, says the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” God’s word has power: it is like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces.
How does a prophet prepare to preach? A prophet receives the word directly from God. When God called Jeremiah to preach, God also equipped Jeremiah to preach: “Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, ‘Now, I have put my words in your mouth’” (v. 9).
Because ministers have been called by God and because he has appointed them to speak on his behalf, God himself will put his words in their mouth and they will speak on behalf of God. This is the ministry that God has given to ministers: the ministry of the word of God.
If ministers want to be effective as ministers of Jesus Christ, if they want to speak on behalf of God, then they must allow God to put his words in their mouths. There are several things ministers must do to succeed in their ministry.
God said: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.” God knows those whom he called. In turn, ministers must know God. Ministers must be good students of the word of God. When they study, God will teach them. Ministers must be people of prayer. When they pray, God will speak to them the things they must proclaim.
God said: “Before you came forth out of the womb, I sanctified you.” God has sanctified those whom he has called; he has set them apart. Now, ministers must take seriously the words of Jesus. Jesus said: “For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified” (John 17:19).
For the sake of the people under their care, ministers must sanctify themselves, they must live holy lives. Ministers must allow their lives to reflect the holiness and the love of God. Ministers must learn to love their people in the same way God loves them. Ministers must serve their people that their people might be sanctified by the truth, the word of God.
Ministers must focus their ministry on the word of God. They must preach God’s word with power. They must teach God’s word with enthusiasm. God’s word to Joshua should be a guide to those who are called to be ministers of God: “Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful” (Joshua 1:8).
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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