And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Bring the tribe of Levi near, and set them before Aaron the priest, that they may minister to him. They shall keep guard over him and over the whole congregation before the tent of meeting, as they minister at the tabernacle.” (Numbers 3:5-7)

A number of sources inform the New Testament calling of “pastor/teacher,” to use Paul’s designation from Ephesians 4:12, some of which are to be found in the Old Testament. Throughout the centuries, ministers have drawn inspiration and instruction from the offices of prophet and king, as they have provided instruction and exercised oversight of the people in their care. They have also looked to the work of the priests, an office that combined teaching and ruling with leading in worship. The priest more than any other Old Testament office provides the most footing for the New Testament idea of “minister,” which explains why in some communions the pastor is still referred to by that title.

So we’re on good ground in looking at the Lord’s purpose for priests in the Old Testament in order to see what we can learn there for the work of pastors today. And where we find the New Testament drawing upon that office, and ideas related to it, we may be certain that we have solid footing for determining just what the work of the local pastor should be.

Images of Pastoral Ministry
That’s a good thing, because in our day the work of ministers has become, well, confused. Pastors today are just as likely to find their inspiration from leaders whose success has come in the secular realm, in such areas as business, politics, social movements, or entertainment, as in any biblical exemplars. Today’s pastors value the ability to cast a compelling vision, manage a multi-faceted ministry enterprise, create a national following, or keep ‘em laughing and coming back for more as the skills most necessary for effective ministry leadership.

Over the years I’ve seen this reflected in many, many ways: books and publications that focus on the importance of vision-casting; protocols and procedures for ministry management that reflect a business orientation to growing the church; the use of drama, video, stories, and humor as the primary substance of preaching; stress on image and positioning in presenting the church to the community; multiplication of programming and upgrading of facilities to attract as many people as possible; and big investments in technology — lights, sound, Internet — as critical to success in ministry. Not that these things are inherently evil. They aren’t; indeed, the Scriptures encourage ministry leaders to look to every possible source for the best guidance in how to accomplish the mission of the Church (cf. Exodus 18).

The problem comes when these extra-biblical sources and resources begin to loom so large in our understanding of the work of pastoral leadership that they blind us to the more enduring and, therefore, more important biblical principles and practices that must inform our work. So it can be useful, in the midst of our present quest to give sharper definition to the work of the minister, to return to some of those ancient models, such as the Old Testament priest, just to make sure we’re still on course with what God has revealed in His Word.

The Priest as Guardian
From Numbers 3 it seems clear that first in the mind of God was the idea that the priests of Israel should function as guardians. The Hebrew of verse 7 is telling: the Levitical priests were to attend to Aaron, to guard him as he was exercising guardianship over everything that the assembly was to be guarding. Three times in one verse the work of guardianship is associated with the work of the priests. They were to attend to Aaron, the high priest, as he was conducting his own particular ministry of guardianship. They were to guard him, and they were to guard that which the people, gathered as an assembly, were to be guarding as well.