These notes on pastoral vocation grew out of my meditations on Acts 13.
A pastor’s calling:
“Brothers, if you have any word of encouragement for the people, say it.” (Acts 13:15)
Pastor, the gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ is the ultimate word of encouragement — and it is for the people. It is for the people whether they gather in a synagogue or a storefront, in a cathedral or a coffee house, in a building or back alley. You are called to speak the gospel to the people and for the people. They need to hear that God is coming for them: The Father loves them. Jesus is on their side. The Spirit is for them.* This is the crux of the matter. You must speak God’s word of comfort to people who are helpless and harassed; his word of encouragement for the discouraged; his healing balm for the wounded soul; his breath of life to the dead in sin. If you cannot speak this word of encouragement, then sit down, shut up, and don’t speak at all.
A pastor’s message:
“And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus… through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is justified.” (Acts 13:16-41)
The pastor’s message is the good news of God’s promises of renewed life fulfilled in Jesus Christ. You must tell the story of Jesus from the Law and the Prophets, and from the Gospels and the Epistles, from creation to redemption. (Take note of a pastor’s hermeneutic below.)
A pastor’s warning:
“Beware lest what is said in the Prophets should come about: ‘Look, you scoffers, be astounded and perish.'” (Acts 13:40-41)
A pastor must encourage people to believe the gospel, and he must discourage them from not believing it. How? By telling the truth about the long term consequences. Some pastors find one easier to do than the other. Both are necessary.
A pastor’s counsel:
Abide deeply in the grace of God. (Acts 13:43)
There’s no need to burden people who are rooted and grounded in the gospel of grace with a long list of dos and don’ts. The ordinary means of grace — prayer, word, sacraments, discipline — will nurture them in the way of Christ and nudge them in the way they should go.
A pastor’s dream:
“the people begged that these things might be told them the next Sabbath” and “almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord.” (Acts 13:42, 44)
Every pastor wants to preach to a larger congregation than the one he is called to preach to. (Partly, because of selfish pride; partly, because of selfless love.)
Whether the congregation gathered before you is large or small, all who gather to hear the word of the Lord on the Lord’s day deserve to hear the word of the Lord from your mouth. They deserve your very best efforts. The pastor is not there to pacify himself, or to perform for men, but to proclaim for God (as a spokesman for the Lord).
A pastor’s nightmare:
“Since you thrust aside the word of God and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, we are turning to others.” (Acts 13:46)
The fact is that some people will despise and reject the gospel no matter how graciously or patiently you preach and teach it. (Sadly, in my experience, some of the most dedicated church-goers I have ever known reacted like this when they heard the gospel of God’s saving grace.) If you have faithfully discharged your ministry, and your duties as an evangelist, you may grieve for them, but do not grieve for yourself. Their eternal loss will be far worse than your temporal one.
A pastor’s mission:
“For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’” (Acts 13:47)
A pastor needs to remember that he is on a mission from God. His mission is to take the light of the gospel into the church and out to the world for the sake of real people. That requires you to close your fat books, and get out of your study, and hang out in public spaces, and mingle with folks on a regular basis.
A pastor’s confidence:
“As many as were appointed for eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region.” (Acts 13:48-49)
All pastors are results-conscious to lesser and greater degrees. We all want to see a tangible sign of the fruit of our labors, a quantifiable return on our investment, a larger number of people in the pews. The truth is that we will rarely, if ever, know the extent of what the word of the Lord is accomplishing through us. In my experience, pastors do not have the ability to measure success or failure accurately. For example, I know people who are unfaithful atheists today who once were known by me and others as faithful Christians. Go figure. The Lord knows those who are truly his even if we don’t. We do the best we can to judge charitably and grant benefit of doubt, but we cannot look on the heart as the Lord does. He effectually calls those who are his by the Spirit and the gospel through the weakness and foolishness of our preaching.
A pastor’s resolve:
In response to actual rejection and persecution, shake the dust off your feet and move on to another place. (Acts 13:51)
Some pastors feel that every criticism or complaint is a sign from God that they should seek another call and move elsewhere. Not so! A pastor ought to stay at his post and endure his share of rough treatment as long as grace enables him. It takes time to get traction in the lives of people. According to statistics, most pastors leave their flocks just about the time when they’re finally going to get traction. Yes, there are legitimate reasons for moving on from a congregation — we just need to know that those reasons are few and far between.
(On a side note: Curiously, I know of very few pastors who have ever felt “called by God” to take a demotion and go to a smaller church with a lower salary and fewer benefits. Guard your heart; grill your motives.)
A pastor’s prayer:
That the disciples will be filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit come what may. (Acts 13:50-52)
Whether you feel compelled to stay or go, always pray for God’s richest blessings to flow into the life of your congregation. While pastors come and go, the Holy Spirit abides forever. In the grand scheme of things, the Spirit of Christ is the only truly necessary minister of the church. The church without the Spirit is a corpse without life. So, ask God to abide with his people by his Spirit and fill them with joy to defend against sorrow and silliness.
A pastor’s hermeneutic:
A pastor must proclaim the whole counsel of God from Genesis to Revelation. That means he must be able and willing to show how the Law and the Prophets center on, and reach their goal in, the person and work of Jesus Christ.
The way a pastor reads the scriptures determines the way he teaches and preaches from them.
This is not a peripheral matter of academic taste and style; it is a central matter of apostolic and catholic faith and life. It is a mark of evangelical (gospel-shaped), Christo-telic, exploration of revelation. (See Luke 24:27, 44-49)
*My adapted version of a saying by the late Pastor Eugene Peterson.