Paul’s Agony

Christian conversation about pastoral ministry often includes the expression “a pastor’s heart,” but what does that expression actually mean? Though Scripture may not use the exact phrase in question, it absolutely answers questions about the nature and the practical proof of pastoral affection.

Pastoral affection certainly involves the general love all Christians are to have for one another, but a pastor’s heart beats with a particularly intense affection for God’s people, and it moves the pastor to particularly strenuous actions on their behalf. When God gives a man a pastor’s heart, it is evident in that man’s intense love for the sheep and his hard work of preaching, prayer and personal visitation.

The Word of God – especially as it is preached – and prayer are the primary means by which we grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. Thus, the Apostles devoted themselves to these duties as the driving forces of their ministry (See Acts 6). Their hard work in these means of grace surely benefited the people of God during worship on the Lord’s Day, and yet their ministry of these means did not conclude as the Lord’s Day closed.

The Apostle Paul gives us a particularly potent example of a minister who was not satisfied to preach to and pray with the saints once a week; his affection for Christ moved him into the rest of the week to be among Christ’s people, to have as much face to face ministry with them as he possibly could.

Note in Colossians 2:1-3 Paul’s description of his heart’s desire for the saints and therefore his work among the saints. “For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, 2 that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, 3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”

We see in Paul’s ministry the very heart of pastoral ministry: reverent passion for the Savior and its inevitable result: fervent love for the saved. A heart aflame with love for the Shepherd cannot help but be warm toward the sheep, each and every one of them (see 1:28), even those whom that heart has not met! Psalm 16 expresses this same interaction of affections: Psalm 16:1 – “. . . Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge. 2 I say to the LORD, You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.” 3 As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight.”

As Reformed Christians, we emphasize – and rightly so – the importance of preaching. We are known for our exertions in study, our efforts to improve the exegetical depth of our sermons. Pastors in general are always wanting to improve their preaching. In addition to refining hermeneutical skill by studying and praying, face time with the flock inevitably improves pulpit ministry. Taking our cue from Paul once again:

Acts 20:18ff: “And when they came to him, he said to them: ‘You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ’.”

1 Thessalonians 2:8 – “So, affectionately longing for you, we were well pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God, but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us.”

On the Lord’s Day, the pulpit may be only a few feet away from a particular member in the church, but if the pastor does not actively seek to love and minister to that member, that pulpit will feel miles away. The pastor becomes a visiting lecturer and not a true minister of Christ, not a true pastor.

Yes, God’s Word is objectively powerful; when preached, it always accomplishes the purpose for which God sends it. The imperfections of Scripture’s ministers do not diminish its inherent light and glory. A diamond is still a diamond when held in muddy hands! The power of the gospel itself can never be diminished, but the power of pastoral influence can be.

In ministering among us, Jesus Christ was never impersonal with His people. Nor is He now! One of the great duties and joys of pastoral ministry is expressing to the saints Christ’s very real, active, personal presence with His people.

A pastor preaches week by week not to a faceless mass, but to particular people, each of whom carries personal burdens, fears, joys and hopes into the worshiping assembly. Knowing the condition of the sheep allows the pastor to preach his biblical text in a deeply personal way. Personal preaching is not the public disclosure of the private details of the hearer’s lives, but is preaching which tangibly demonstrates to the hearers just how directly the Word of God applies to their lives – preaching during which hearers not only contemplate the power of God, but feel it at work within them. As the sheep continue to hear heart-level preaching, they will come to know all the more the deeply personal care of their Shepherd.

When Christ-exalting preaching meets Christ-centered personal visitation, the people of God come to know that their Shepherd is not a distant Deity. As His love is palpably felt through the preaching of His Word on the Lord’s Day and the tangible touch of His mercy through the week, they hear and see that His love for them is constant.

Such pastoral labor is strenuous, but only such labor can be described as truly pastoral. Paul describes his efforts with a Greek word in which we can easily see our English word “agony.” It is not an agony of relentless pain, though it does involve pain. It is the agony of the athlete for whom running is simultaneously exhausting and exhilarating. And as the pastor sets his heart on Christ – note in 3:1-4 Paul’s affectionate descriptions of his Savior – and realizes that his ministry serves Christ and the bride for whom Christ gave Himself (1:24-29), he is blessed with the strength to continue the work to which Christ calls him.

When the pastor lovingly labors this way among the people, and when the sheep lovingly receive this ministry, the beautiful bond between them in their mutual service to the Lord is strengthened. The pastor’s sometimes hard words from God’s Word become easier to hear. The sheep encourage their pastor to get the rest he needs, the rest he is sometimes all too willing to do without. When the pastor stumbles at times in his strident service, the sheep have every reason be understanding and patient, because they know from experience that their undershepherd loves them. They recognize in his imperfect work the perfect love of the Great Shepherd, the One who personifies perfectly a pastor’s heart.

2 Comments

  1. Tim Bloedow May 17, 2013 at 1:25 pm #

    How is the pastor supposed to differ from the other elders in disposition and affections as outlined in this piece, or is there to be a difference?

    • Rut Etheridge III May 17, 2013 at 10:25 pm #

      Hi Tim! Thanks for reading and for the question. The piece is obviously focused on pastoral ministry, but it is not meant to alienate other elders in their ruling respoonsibility. While the details of duty may differ between ruling elders and teaching elders (in RPCNA polity), certainly Paul’s posture of heart ought to inspire all who aspire to the office of elder.

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