Of the bookshelves in my study, one entire shelf bears titles like “Planting Missional Churches” and “Church Planting for the 21st Century.” These books come from a wide variety of Christian confessions. “Church planting” has become a term as ecumenical as “stewardship” or “pastoral care.” Each of the books on that shelf means by “church planting” the establishment of a new Christian congregation where there was none before. No doubt, those books may recommend that the church planter should be bivocational or that he should seek out hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding before he begins. One book may insist that public worship services begin almost immediately; another may contradict that advice flatly and require that at least 200 people be on hand for the first public service. Yet each of those books presumes in common with all the others that there is such a thing as a “church planter” who establishes new churches, an activity obviously biblical called “church planting.”

It is surprising, to say the least, to read the Bible and not to find the phrase “church planting” in it. Is this like how the phrases “Holy Trinity” or “communication of attributes” also don’t appear in the Scriptures? Not really. “Trinity” unites the biblical data on the Father, the Son, and the Spirit in a single word expressing the essential divine reality for which we have no other single word. “Communication of attributes” expresses elegantly the relationship between the human and divine natures of the God-man for which we can cite all manner of passages. New congregations are established in Scripture. There is no question that Christian assemblies for worship and common life in Christ sprang up in Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome, and so many other locations named in the New Testament. But does the Bible speak of “planting” churches?

It does not. It speaks rather about “planting” in a variety of other ways. Jesus speaks of the Pharisees in their obstinate opposition to him as “every plant that my Father in heaven has not planted” (Mt. 15:13) and the sowing of the wheat as “plants that came up” (Mt. 13:26) alongside the Enemy’s sowing of weeds. Here the action is God’s, and the means identified in Mt. 13 is the “word of the kingdom” (Mt. 13:18). In the parable of the tenants (Mt. 21, Mk. 12, Lk. 13) the master of the vineyard plants a vineyard that belongs to Him alone. Paul, the great missionary of the post-Pentecost church, says three times in 1 Cor. 3 that he has planted (3:6, 7, 8), as he has spoken of feeding the Corinthians with milk (3:2) and of himself and Apollos as “servants through whom you believed” (3:5). The object of that planting and Apollos’ watering and God’s gift of growth is explicitly the Corinthian people themselves, “You are God’s field, God’s building” (3:12). Paul’s aim has not been to establish an institution but to call men to faith by preaching Christ crucified.

What’s the difference? This is the difference between thinking of our evangelistic task as people-centered or institution-centered. The Bible speaks about gathering people, cultivating people, God’s field as people, God’s building as people, the temple of God composed of people. Paul plants not a church but the “word of the kingdom.” The sower in Mt. 13 plants not a well-funded institution but the same word that the man sows with good seed later in the same chapter. The focus is constantly on the spread of the word and the cultivation of the Lord’s vineyard, the Lord’s field, the Lord’s building which are the believers who receive that word and bear abundant fruit. Our task is not planting organizations. The organizations with their budgets and boards will arise to manage what has been given, as you can see the church’s forms of life develop in the Acts of the Apostles. Our task is rather planting the word of the kingdom in the field of this world so that the wheat, the good seed, the abundant fruit of the Lord may grow and flourish in His vineyard.

Jeremiah is never one to mince words.  He speaks against the kings of Judah and announces that their house will be broken.  Even if Jehoiakim were “the signet ring on my right hand, yet I would tear you off” (Jeremiah 22:24).  Jeremiah 23 also begins with a diatribe against the shepherds.  While it is certainly possible that he speaks against the priests and religious authorities (cf. Ezekiel 34, for example), the shepherds are set in contrast to “the prophets” in Jeremiah 23:9.  These shepherds are therefore likely another reference to the kings of Judah.  The promise of the righteous Branch, that is, Christ, in Jeremiah 23:5-8 strengthens this, because the Branch “shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jeremiah 23:5), not exactly priestly functions.

However, the prophets are no less failing in the exercise of their office.  Jeremiah says that “In the prophets of Samaria I saw an unsavory thing: they prophesied by Baal and led my people Israel astray” (Jeremiah 23:13).  A prophet of a false religion is an “unsavory” thing, sometimes translated simply as “wrong” (Job 1:22; 24:12).  The word itself seems to mean “lacking salt, being tasteless,” since a related form is used in Job 6:6 and Lamentations 2:14 (“deceptive” in the ESV).  Therefore false prophets are bland and tasteless, unpalatable, but by no means guiltless or harmless.  “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet” (Matthew 5:13).

But the prophets in Judah are doing something far worse.  “But in the prophets of Jerusalem I have seen a horrible thing: they commit adultery and walk in lies; they strengthen the hands of evildoers, so that no one turns from his evil; all of them have become like Sodom to me, and its inhabitants like Gomorrah” (Jeremiah 23:14).  Their deeds are “horrible” (also in Jeremiah 5:30), and this word shares the same root with a word translated “vile” in Jeremiah 29:17.  If the deeds of the prophets of false gods are unpalatable and bland, the deeds of the prophets of Jerusalem are vile and rotten, completely inedible.  “And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating” (Luke 12:47-48).  Better is the day of judgment for the prophet of a false god than for the one who claims to serve the living God!

Therefore, the Lord speaks against these false prophets in the reading for the Eighth Sunday after Trinity.  Such prophets do not speak the Word of the Lord, but the vain fancies of their own minds.  Coupled with their godless life is calling good evil and evil good.  “They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you’” (Jeremiah 23:17).  False teaching shows itself primarily in going against what God has said, declaring that God is not angry with this or that sin or that something is in fact not a sin.  That God does not punish sexual sins, especially homosexuality, adultery, and divorce, seems to be the favorite in these days.  “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9).  “Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19).  Hard words?  Of course.  But the consequences are too great to not speak them in their full hardness:  “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6).  False prophets are no joke.

These false teachers also have an urgency about them, because they know that their time is short.  “I did not send the prophets, yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied” (Jeremiah 23:21).  They have a desire to be heard for their own sake, as if the Church needed them.  God’s Church will be somehow sorely lacking if their “unique perspective” or “deep insights” forged in the depths of sin cannot be heard.  “These are hidden reefs at your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever” (Jude 12-13).  Let me be clear.  God needs no one to carry out His work on earth.  When our appointed time is over, the Church will go on, because she belongs to God.  The ministry is not a right and no one is entitled to it.  “Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:1-2).

The Lord emphasizes that He will bring justice upon the prophets because of their sins.  But He also includes a strong commission for those who are indeed faithful.  “Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let him who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 23:28).  As Paul says, the Day of Judgment will reveal what sort of work each one builds upon the foundation of Christ (1 Corinthians 3:12-15).  Straw is useful only for being trodden underfoot or thrown into the fire, but the wheat will be gathered into the barns (Matthew 3:12).  “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1).  “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7).  Pastors would do well to heed the many warnings of Scripture about their great and awesome task, but they should also remember that Christ is with them and that the Holy Spirit uses them as the instruments of the living Word.  It is not their word, but His.

Finally, the Lord says:  “Is not my word like fire, declares the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29).  A magnificent word, deserving of being impressed upon the memory!  God’s Word is living and active, sharper than a two edged sword (Hebrews 4:12).  It is the imperishable seed (1 Peter 1:23) able to make wise for salvation (2 Timothy 3:15)!  God’s Word is not merely words, but the living voice of the Holy Spirit, poured out at Pentecost (Acts 2:4) and through the mouths of the prophets (2 Peter 1:21).  It will never return void (Isaiah 55:10-11).  It is not a plaything for us to mishandle, but the chart and compass leading toward the Lord.  May we receive it eagerly (Acts 17:11)!

It was a truth universally acknowledged that a parish pastor in a free church should “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim. 4:5). Providentially guided to flourishing in America, the early Missouri Synod was ardent in spreading the gospel and planting new congregations. A synod that began with a dozen congregations and scarcely fewer clergymen reached its fiftieth anniversary with many, many times that number of churches and ministers. Without the in-depth demographic research and financial backing that is our contemporary good fortune, they spread the kingdom of God the Lord widely and deeply. They had been freed from the unbelieving strictures of the state church. They were now free to preach the Word in season and out of season.

We cannot recall their fervency without a mixture of confusion and of shame, confusion due to the sea-change in our common life and shame due to our lukewarm efforts by comparison to our fathers who were threadbare in the things of this life and rich in the things of the life to come. Everywhere we look, congregations are struggling mightily, and pastors are drowned in busyness, when they do have the means to be supported by the church. When they do not, the church’s work suffers so that the minister can put some food on his family’s table. Everywhere we look, we hear that the Faith is receding from our shores and going elsewhere, that the “passing shower of the gospel” has passed us by. What has become of us? Where has all our fathers’ resolve and confidence and joy gone? Yet we cannot recall their fervency only to bemoan our degeneration. The saints are our examples for imitation, not the occasions of our piously mournful recollection. This cloud of witnesses spurs us on to look afresh at how we might yet in our own time fulfill our calling and do the work of an evangelist.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll look closely at the evangelistic nature of the office of the ministry as the New Testament teaches it. We’ll do that in the firm conviction that if the Lord has placed us in a difficult field, yet it is here that he has given us the work that is his to bless. We do not find Saint Paul bewailing the difficulty of his task or being at all daunted by the ideological and political forces arrayed against him. In the firm conviction that “now it is the opportune time, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2) for all mankind, we preach in season and out of season the Word of reconciliation also here and now in America, also here and now to the actual neighbor next door.

Here and now God has put our free church, our confessional church, our church of the pure Gospel, to proclaim that Gospel and to fulfill our calling to teach and to baptize all nations, including this one, including the spiritual-but-not-religious, including the less-than-exotic auto mechanics and coal miners and sugar beet farmers. We know that God works by calling something out of nothing and not by the wisdom of the world. We know that Christ died for us while we were yet his enemies and committed to us the Word that in Christ God was reconciling the world, even present-day Americans, to himself (2 Cor. 5:19).

Jerusalem had just fallen.  Yet the Lord commands Ezekiel to still rebuke those who had contributed to its downfall.  It was a pride which misapplied what God had actually said and turned His grace into a false security.  The people left for a time in the land said things like “Abraham was only one man, yet he got possession of the land; but we are many; the land is surely given us to possess” (Ezekiel 33:24).  But how can one be a son of Abraham and yet not do the works which he did (John 8:39)?

Among those who led Israel astray were the false shepherds, the teachers of Israel.  They had been neglecting their calling, and they were feeding themselves (Ezekiel 34:2 ff.).  It is tempting to identify this sin of the shepherds with openly false teachings, which practically repeat the ancient question of Satan, “Did God actually say” (Genesis 3:1).  But while this is certainly included, false prophets are often far more alluring because they are far more subtle.  They take what God has indeed said and misapply it.  “Hear this, you heads of the house of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel, who detest justice and make crooked all that is straight, who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with iniquity. Its heads give judgment for a bribe; its priests teach for a price; its prophets practice divination for money; yet they lean on the Lord and say, ‘Is not the Lord in the midst of us? No disaster shall come upon us’” (Micah 3:9-11).  “Precisely because they have misled my people, saying, ‘Peace,’ when there is no peace, and because, when the people build a wall, these prophets smear it with whitewash” (Ezekiel 13:10).  And perhaps the most to the point:  “Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord’” (Jeremiah 7:4).  The false shepherds distorted the promises and the grace of the Lord and turned them into a false security.  Surely they, the very sons of Abraham, would not be taken away from the inheritance!  (Consider also Jeremiah 5:12; 14:13-16; 23:17.)

The Lord therefore promises that He will do what the shepherds had not done.  He would seek His sheep even though the shepherds had neglected to do this.  The false shepherds had fed themselves; God would feed His people.  Everything that the shepherds did not do, described in Ezekiel 34:4, God would do, as He says in Ezekiel 34:16.  The Lord is the Good Shepherd, and this passage clearly finds parallels in other well-known and beloved places like Psalm 23 and John 10.

The Lord mentions that He will do all of these things which He promised “on a day of clouds and thick darkness” (Ezekiel 34:12).  This phrase occurs in several other passages.  In Deuteronomy 4:11, it is used to describe the glory of the Lord as it appeared on Mount Sinai.  Joel 2:2 and Zephaniah 1:15 both use the phrase to describe the Day of the Lord.  Job 38:9 does not use the phrase exactly, but uses both nouns in parallel to describe the sea.  Perhaps the most helpful, however, is Psalm 97:2, where the expression is used to directly describe the glory and majesty of the Lord.  Taken together, therefore, the phrase seems to describe the glory which the Lord shows forth when He acts just as He has said.  On the day when the Lord gathers His sheep like a shepherd, His glory will be clearly seen, because He will glorify His name (John 12:28).  The Lord makes this clearer in Ezekiel 36:22 and following, when He says that “it is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name.”

As a final note, it is worth noting that using “shepherd” to describe the teachers of Israel happens in the days of the prophets.  Scripture first uses “shepherd” to describe someone who shepherds people of King David (2 Samuel 5:2; 2 Samuel 7:7; 1 Chronicles 11:2; 17:6; Psalm 78:70-71).  To call Jesus the Good Shepherd thus seems to recall also that He is the Son of David.  Of course, the New Testament also, together with passages like Ezekiel 34, calls ministers “shepherds” (which is identical with the Latin word “pastor”) in 1 Peter 5 and in passing in Ephesians 4:11.  But to call those whom Christ has sent to speak on His behalf shepherds or pastors is always in a derivative sense, for there is only one Shepherd (John 10:16).

“Your fathers, where are they? And the prophets, do they live forever” (Zechariah 1:5)? Do we hear these words of the prophet Zechariah? While in their context these words are meant to call to mind the need to return to the Lord, they also point to the time which is always flying away. The previous generations once lived and worked and loved just as we do, but now they have gone. Our way is also short, but we are always on the brink of eternity.

But Zechariah’s words are especially important for those the Lord has called to proclaim His Word. It is one thing to call to mind that we are mortal, and that cannot be stressed enough. The men called to serve as the messengers of the living God, however, must remember that the time spent in His service is shorter still.

Pastors are, after all, jars of clay bearing the treasure of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:7). They are not from everlasting to everlasting. We have been given a charge and appointed a time to fulfill it. Will this sermon be our last? “As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more” (Psalm 103:15-16). The prophets, do they live forever?

These words are meant to remind us that we too will pass away, but they should also spur us to action. It does no good to turn back when handed the plow (Luke 9:62). Our time may indeed be short, but that should remind us of the urgency of our task. “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2). “As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Timothy 4:5).

Even if the field is rocky and the plow is in less than perfect condition, a pastor is sent to do what his Lord would have him do. Would you run away like Jonah, complaining of the Lord’s mercy (Jonah 4)? Would you point out your inadequacy like Jeremiah, being but a youth (Jeremiah 1:6)? Would you demand that the Lord send someone else like Moses, who could not speak well (Exodus 4:10)? The Lord has given you a charge and sent you to carry out His will. It is not yours to hesitate (1 Kings 20:35-36; Jeremiah 48:10). Who indeed is sufficent for these things? In ourselves, we are nothing, but in Christ, we have been set for this great task. “For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ” (2 Corinthians 2:16-17).

But our fathers and the men who served in the same field as we call to us as well to fulfill the ministry which has been given to us by the mercy of God. They knew hardships and toil, great joys and great sorrows, just as we do. They are the forgotten shepherds of the living God, who eagerly ran the race set before them. They planted churches, serving dozens of congregations and preaching stations, often at the same time. They travelled long miles in the days before roads. They braved bad weather and endangered their health to bring the Word to people far off. They rode on horseback or on the trains or through dirt roads that turned to mud in the rain. Their task was long and hard and is now largely forgotten among men, nameless men who will not grace the pages of history books. But their deeds have not been forgotten by their Lord whom they served, and He will give to them a crown which will never fade.

So take heart, sons of the prophets. Your time is short and your calling is urgent. But the Lord who is faithful has called you, and He will sustain you for the work. “Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:4-6).