This term is translated from the Hebrew word mesha·rethʹ and the Greek di·aʹko·nos. The Hebrew term is a participle form of the verb sha·rathʹ, meaning “wait upon” or “minister to” a superior, and is used in a secular or a religious sense. (Ge 39:4; De 10:8) Concerning the word di·aʹko·nos, D. Edmond Hiebert wrote in Bibliotheca Sacra: “It has been held that the term is a compound of the preposition [di·aʹ], meaning ‘through,’ and the noun [koʹnis], ‘dust,’ so that the term denotes one who hurries through the dust to carry out his service. But this suggested derivation is not generally accepted today. More probably the verbal root was [di·eʹko], ‘to reach from one place to another,’ akin to the verb [di·oʹko], ‘to hasten after, to pursue.’ Then the root idea is one who reaches out with diligence and persistence to render a service on behalf of others.”
In Hebrew and Greek these words and their related forms are applied to both male and female. (2Sa 13:17, 18; 1Ki 1:4, 15; 2Co 3:6; Ro 16:1) Joshua was Moses’ minister (or, attendant) “from his young manhood on.” (Nu 11:28; Jos 1:1, ftn) Elisha’s attendant was called his minister and waiter. (2Ki 4:43; 6:15) Kings and princes had their royal attendants or ministers (2Ch 22:8; Es 2:2; 6:3), some of whom waited on the royal tables.
Jehovah’s Angelic Ministers. Jehovah God created the angels in their tens of millions, all of whom he has under his control, and whom he doubtless can call by name, as he does the numberless stars. (Ps 147:4) These serve him as his ministers, doing his will in the universe. (Ps 103:20, 21) The psalmist says of Jehovah that he makes “his angels spirits, his ministers a devouring fire.” (Ps 104:4) They are described as “spirits for public service, sent forth to minister for those who are going to inherit salvation.” (Heb 1:13, 14) Angels ministered to Jesus Christ in the wilderness, after he had defeated Satan’s attempts to cause him to deviate from obedience to Jehovah (Mt 4:11); also an angel appeared, strengthening him when he was praying in Gethsemane. (Lu 22:43) In the prophet Daniel’s vision, wherein “someone like a son of man” was given indefinitely lasting rulership over all peoples and languages, millions of angels are shown to be ministering about the throne of the Ancient of Days.
The Tribe of Levi. After the Israelites were delivered from Egypt, and when the nation was organized under the Law covenant, Jehovah chose the males of the tribe of Levi as his special ministers. (Nu 3:6; 1Ch 16:4) Some of them, the family of Aaron, were priests. (De 17:12; 21:5; 1Ki 8:11; Jer 33:21) The Levites had various duties in their ministry; they were caretakers of the sanctuary with all its utensils, ministers of the singing, and so forth.
Prophets. In addition to using all the males of the tribe of Levi, Jehovah employed others to minister to his people Israel in a special way. These were the prophets, who served only as individually appointed and commissioned by Jehovah. Some of these were also of the priestly line of descent, but many were from other tribes of Israel. (See PROPHET.) They were messengers of Jehovah; they were sent to warn the nation when it deviated from the Law, and they sought to turn the kings and the people back to true worship. (2Ch 36:15, 16; Jer 7:25, 26) Their prophecies aided, encouraged, and strengthened righthearted ones, especially during times of spiritual and moral decay, and at times when Israel was threatened by enemies round about.
Their prophecies also pointed to Jesus Christ and the Messianic Kingdom. (Re 19:10) John the Baptizer did an outstanding work, turning “the heart of fathers back toward sons, and the heart of sons back toward fathers” as he prepared the way for Jehovah’s representative, the Lord Jesus Christ. (Mal 4:5, 6; Mt 11:13, 14; Lu 1:77-79) The prophets did not minister only to their contemporaries, for the apostle Peter writes to Christians: “It was revealed to them that, not to themselves, but to you, they were ministering the things that have now been announced to you through those who have declared the good news to you with holy spirit sent forth from heaven. Into these very things angels are desiring to peer.”
Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is Jehovah’s chief minister (di·aʹko·nos). He “became a minister of those who are circumcised in behalf of God’s truthfulness, so as to verify the promises He made to their forefathers,” also, “that the nations might glorify God for his mercy.” Therefore, “on him nations will rest their hope.”
Jesus’ appointment was from Jehovah himself. When he presented himself for baptism, “the heavens were opened up,” the account says, “and he [John the Baptizer] saw descending like a dove God’s spirit coming upon him [Jesus]. Look! Also, there was a voice from the heavens that said: ‘This is my Son, the beloved, whom I have approved.’” (Mt 3:16, 17) In his prehuman existence Jesus had served Jehovah for untold ages, but here he entered upon a new ministry. Jesus proved he was indeed God’s minister, serving both God and his fellowmen. Consequently, in the synagogue of his hometown of Nazareth, Jesus was able to take the scroll of Isaiah and read what is now chapter 61, verses 1, 2: “The spirit of the Sovereign Lord Jehovah is upon me, for the reason that Jehovah has anointed me to tell good news to the meek ones. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to those taken captive and the wide opening of the eyes even to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of goodwill on the part of Jehovah.” Then he went on to say to those assembled, “Today this scripture that you just heard is fulfilled.”
At the time Peter preached to the first Gentile convert, Cornelius, he described Jesus’ course during his three and one half years of earthly ministry, calling Cornelius’ attention to “Jesus who was from Nazareth, how God anointed him with holy spirit and power, and he went through the land doing good and healing all those oppressed by the Devil; because God was with him.” (Ac 10:38) Jesus literally walked throughout his assigned territory in the service of Jehovah and the people. Not only that, but he actually gave up his very soul as a ransom for others. He said: “The Son of man came, not to be ministered to, but to minister and to give his soul a ransom in exchange for many.”
Christian Ministers. In his ministerial work Jesus associated with himself many others, apostles and disciples, whom he trained to carry on the same ministerial work. He sent out at first the 12, then 70 others. God’s active force was also upon them, enabling them to perform many miracles. (Mt 10:1, 5-15, 27, 40; Lu 10:1-12, 16) But the major work they were to perform was to preach and teach the good news of the Kingdom of God. In fact, the miracles were primarily to give public evidence of their appointment and approval by Jehovah.
Jesus trained his disciples, both by word and by example. He taught not only publicly but also in private homes, taking the good news directly to the people. (Mt 9:10, 28; Lu 7:36; 8:1; 19:1-6) From the accounts given by the writers of the Gospels, it is evident that Jesus’ disciples were present in many instances when he gave witness to various kinds of people, for the very conversations are recorded. According to the book of Acts, his disciples followed that example, making calls from house to house to declare the Kingdom message.
Jesus told his disciples what a true minister of God was, saying: “The kings of the nations lord it over them, and those having authority over them are called Benefactors. You, though, are not to be that way. But let him that is the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the one acting as chief as the one ministering. For which one is greater, the one reclining at the table or the one ministering? Is it not the one reclining at the table?” Then, using his own course and conduct as the example, he went on to say: “But I am in your midst as the one ministering.” (Lu 22:25-27) On that occasion, he forcefully demonstrated these principles, including that of humility, by washing the feet of the disciples.
Jesus further pointed out to his disciples that true ministers of God do not accept flattering religious titles for themselves, nor do they bestow them on others. “You, do not you be called Rabbi, for one is your teacher, whereas all you are brothers. Moreover, do not call anyone your father on earth, for one is your Father, the heavenly One. Neither be called ‘leaders,’ for your Leader is one, the Christ. But the greatest one among you must be your minister [or, servant]. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
The anointed followers of the Lord Jesus Christ are spoken of as ‘ministers of the good news,’ as Paul was (Col 1:23); they are also “ministers of a new covenant,” being in that covenant relationship with Jehovah God, with Christ as Mediator. (2Co 3:6; Heb 9:14, 15) In this way they are ministers of God and of Christ. (2Co 6:4; 11:23) Their qualification comes from God through Jesus Christ, not from any man or organization. The evidence of their ministry is not in some paper or certificate, like a letter of recommendation or authority. Their “letter” of recommendation is found in the persons whom they have taught and trained to be, like them, ministers of Christ. On this matter the apostle Paul says: “Do we, perhaps, like some men, need letters of recommendation to you or from you? You yourselves are our letter, inscribed on our hearts and known and being read by all mankind. For you are shown to be a letter of Christ written by us as ministers, inscribed not with ink but with spirit of a living God, not on stone tablets, but on fleshly tablets, on hearts.” (2Co 3:1-3) Here the apostle shows the love and the closeness, the warm affection and care of the Christian minister, for those to whom he ministers, they being ‘inscribed on [the minister’s] heart.’
Thus, after Christ ascended into heaven, he gave “gifts in men” to the Christian congregation. Among these were apostles, prophets, evangelizers, shepherds, and teachers, given “with a view to the readjustment of the holy ones, for ministerial work, for the building up of the body of the Christ.” (Eph 4:7-12) Their qualification as ministers is from God.
The Revelation given to the apostle John pictured “a great crowd, which no man was able to number, out of all nations and tribes and peoples and tongues.” These are not spoken of as being, like the anointed brothers of Jesus Christ, in the new covenant and therefore as ministers of it; nevertheless, they are shown to have a clean standing before God and “are rendering him sacred service day and night in his temple.” They are therefore ministering and can properly be called ministers of God. As both the Revelation vision and Jesus himself showed (by illustration), in the time of Christ’s presence on his glorious throne, there would be such persons who would also lovingly minister to the brothers of Jesus Christ, giving them aid, attention, and assistance.
Ministerial Servants in the Congregation. After listing requirements for those serving as “overseers” (e·piʹsko·poi) in the congregations, the apostle Paul lists such for those designated as “ministerial servants” (di·aʹko·noi). (1Ti 3:1-10, 12, 13) The Greek word di·aʹko·nos is in places translated simply “minister” (Mt 20:26) and ‘servant.’ (Mt 22:13) Since all Christians were “ministers” (servants) of God, it is evident that the term di·aʹko·noi here takes on a particular sense, one related to congregational order and structure. Thus, there were two bodies of men filling positions of congregational responsibility: the “overseers,” or “older men,” and the “ministerial servants.” There were generally a number of both overseers and ministerial assistants in each congregation.
The list of requirements for the ministerial servants as compared with that for the overseers, as well as the designations for the two positions, indicates that the ministerial servants were not assigned the responsibility of teaching or shepherding (a shepherd being an overseer of sheep). Teaching ability was not a prerequisite for their assignment. The designation di·aʹko·nos of itself indicates that these men served as assistants to the body of overseers in the congregation, their basic responsibility being that of caring for matters of a nonpastoral nature so that the overseers might concentrate their time and attention on their teaching and shepherding activity.
An example of the principle governing this arrangement may be found in the action of the apostles when problems arose as to the distribution (literally, the service, di·a·ko·niʹa) of food supplies made daily to those Christians in need at Jerusalem. Stating that it would not be ‘pleasing for them to leave the word of God’ to concern themselves with administration of material food problems, the apostles instructed the disciples to “search out for yourselves seven certified men from among you, full of spirit and wisdom, that we may appoint them over this necessary business; but we shall devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry [di·a·ko·niʹai] of the word.” (Ac 6:1-6) This was the principle; but it does not necessarily hold that the seven men selected were, in this case, not qualified as “older men” (pre·sbyʹte·roi), for this was not a normal or regular situation but a special problem that had arisen, one of a rather delicate nature due to the feeling that discrimination existed because of nationality. Since it affected the entire Christian congregation, it was a matter calling for “spirit and wisdom,” and thus the seven men selected may, in fact, have been in a spiritual sense “older men.” But they were now taking on temporarily an assignment of work such as that which “ministerial servants” might normally handle. It was business that was “necessary” but not of the same importance as “the ministry of the word.”
The apostles showed their proper evaluation of matters in this action, and it may be expected that the bodies of overseers in the congregations that developed outside of Jerusalem would follow their example in assigning duties to the “ministerial servants.” There were doubtless many matters of a more material, routine, or mechanical nature that required attention, perhaps including the purchase of material for copying the Scriptures or even the copying itself.
The qualifications to be met by the ministerial assistants provided standards that would protect the congregation from any legitimate accusation as to its selection of men for particular duties, thus maintaining a right standing with God and a clean reputation among outsiders. (Compare 1Ti 3:10.) The qualifications governed morality, conduct, and spirituality and, where observed, would bring into service men who were sensible, honest, conscientious, and reliable. Those who ministered in a fine manner would acquire for themselves “a fine standing and great freeness of speech in the faith in connection with Christ Jesus.”
Earthly Rulers. God has permitted the governments of this world to operate until his due time to bring them to an end, after which Christ’s Kingdom will rule the earth undisputedly. (Da 2:44; Re 19:11-21) During the time of their tolerated rule, they perform many services for the people, such as the building of roads, operation of schools, police and fire departments, and other services. They also have laws to punish thieves, murderers, and other lawbreakers. Therefore, as they perform these services and justly carry out these laws, they are ‘ministers’ (di·aʹko·noi) of God. If anyone, even a Christian, violates such laws, the punishment he receives at the hands of the government is in an indirect way from God, for God is against all wickedness. Also, if the government protects the Christian from violators of the law, it is acting as a minister of God. It follows that if the ruler misuses his authority and acts against God, he is responsible and must answer to God for it. If such wicked ruler tries to get the Christian to act in violation of God’s law, then he is not acting as God’s minister and will receive punishment from God.
False Ministers. There are men who claim to be ministers of God but who are hypocrites, actually ministers of Satan fighting against God. The apostle Paul had to contend with such ones who were troubling the congregation in Corinth. Of them, he said: “Such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself keeps transforming himself into an angel of light. It is therefore nothing great if his ministers also keep transforming themselves into ministers of righteousness. But their end shall be according to their works.”
The appearance of such false ministers was foretold many times in the Scriptures. Paul told the overseers of the congregation at Ephesus that after his going away, oppressive wolves would enter in among the congregation and would not treat the flock with tenderness; they would speak twisted things to draw away the disciples after themselves. (Ac 20:29, 30) Paul also warned of such apostate ones in his letters (2Th 2:3-12; 1Ti 4:1-5; 2Ti 3:1-7; 4:3, 4); Peter described them (2Pe 2:1-3); and Jesus Christ himself foretold their existence and destruction (Mt 13:24-30, 36-43).