Nevertheless, brethren, I have written more boldly to you on some points, as reminding you, because of the grace given to me by God, that I might be a minister [λειτουργόv] of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, ministering [ἱερουργounta] the gospel of God, that the offering [προσφορά] of the Gentiles might be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
From Strong's Dictionary and Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon:
- a public minister, a servant of the state
- a minister, servant
- so of military labourers
- of the temple
+ of one busied with holy things
+ of a priest
- of the servants of a king
- to minister in the manner of a priest, minister in priestly service
- of those who defend the sanctity of the law by undergoing a violent death
- of the preaching of the gospel
- the act of offering, a bringing to
- that which is offered, a gift, a present. In the NT a sacrifice, whether bloody or not: offering for sin, expiatory offering
These are key words which lose their force in translation. I have posted some years in the past about this text, but now it is showing its usefulness in a project I am working on, so I repeat it here.
λειτουργός is best contextualized by the sacrificial language St. Paul is using here, thus rendering the meaning a servant of the temple busied with holy things. Further added to the context is St. Paul's use of the word ἱερουργέω, which has at it's core ἱερόν meaning temple, and is naturally connected to ἱερός meaning sacred in relation to God and ἱερωσύνη meaning priest, which is different from διακονός (a servant minister). The word προσφορά used by St. Paul here is also used of Christ's self-offering in Hebrews 10:10.
Though Protestant commentaries often see no logical connection between St. Paul's words and regular ecclesiastical life, and thus deem this passage figurative, the connection is not figurative for those living within a traditional ecclesiology conditioned by the patristic witness. St. Paul is setting his apostolic work in the context of the eschatological kingdom, which now is centered explicitly in the throne room of heaven, from which the Church on earth lives from in communion with the Trinity. He is a servant of the temple, the one made without hands in the heavens. His priestly work is carried out on earth, for Christ has given to him to gather the Gentiles into the Church, that they may be united in the Passover of Jesus Christ.
But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation. [Galatians 6:14-15]
This incorporation into the new creation finds its locus in the Eucharistic offering and partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ. From this center the entire life of the Christian is to be transformed into a living sacrifice, as St. Paul says in Romans 12:1 with similar liturgical overtones. This transformation comes not by magic, or by God overrunning passive animals with His power, but by free (i.e. uncoerced) participation in the Life that the Gospel provides and directs. So Christ institutes salvation, the Spirit constitutes salvation in us, and we are called to realize what God has done in us on the existential level.
So this passage is not an allegory but a direct representation of the Apostolic ministry in the reality of the Church. This priestly work continues in the Church through the Apostles' successors, the bishops assisted by those who serve with them in the three-fold ministry. It also depends on us to receive this priestly work in such a way that we are not hearers only but doers of the work, that is, members of the Royal Priesthood who offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God, doing the work given to us in the Gospels.
In the Byzantine Eucharistic Liturgy the bread that is offered is called prosphora, the same term used by St. Paul here and in Hebrews. It is the bread that is offered together with the wine as the Eucharistic sacrifice instituted by Christ and carried out by the Apostles. It is prepared with many prayers beforehand, offered to God, and received as gifts Eucharistized and changed by the Holy Spirit - the Body and Blood of Christ. The remaining prosphora that was not included in the Eucharistic offering at all is divided up, blessed (similar to the nature of holy water), and distributed after the Communion.
We are to become like this bread, and this bread is a symbol of the Body of Christ (in both senses, which is one and the same anyways). It is made with holy water, just as we are baptized into Christ's death. It is imprinted with a seal, just as we are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Chrismation. It gives of itself, through the priest's instrumentation, with prayers for the salvation of many people and the whole Church entire. We are to give of ourselves to our neighbor, both in prayer and of our substance, drawing upon our trust in God to overcome our fears. It is presented to God in holiness. We are to present ourselves to God, both in the Liturgy at the Eucharist, and also in life through the love we have for others. It becomes Christ. We do not become Christ Himself, but we become participants in Him. We are to be like prosphora.
Christ help us to labor in love as wise and faithful servants, and may He cleanse us of all wickedness and laziness in His mercy.