Four related terms occur in Paul’s epistles, Luke-Acts, and the Epistle to the Hebrews. These are the verb leitourgeō (Acts 13:2; Romans 15:27; Hebrews 10:11), the nouns leitourgia (Luke 1:23; 2 Corinthians 9:12; Philippians 2:17, 30; Hebrews 8:6; 9:21), and leitourgos (Romans 13:6; 15:16; Philippians 2:25; Hebrews 1:7; 8:2), and the adjective leitourgikos (Hebrews 1:14). All of these terms have significant usage in Greco-Roman literature, as well as in inscriptions. They are part of a word group that has ten different terms (as well as additional compounds). The Greek translators of the Hebrew Scriptures also used these terms frequently. The use of leitourgos in Hebrews 1:7, for example, reflects its occurrence in the Greek translation of Psalm 103(104 Hebrew):4. According to Lewis (Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 3(1960): 181-81) the term leitourgia originally refers to state services that wealthy citizens were expected to provide, such as equipping ships, supporting dramatic festivals, or resourcing religious ceremonies. It then comes to describe any kind of public service. Finally, it becomes a term describing any kind of service for any beneficiary. Within this general usage it gains a specialized application for “cultic service to deities” (as early as the 4th century BCE).
The Greek translators of the Old Testament employed leitourgeō, leitourgia, leitourgos, and leitourgikos with some frequency. For example, in the Septuagint of Exodus 30:20 Aaron and his sons are to wash their hands and feet with water from the bronze washbasin before they enter the tent of witness “to come near to the altar to minister (leitourgein) and to offer the whole burnt offerings to the Lord.” According to Isaiah 61.6 Yahweh proclaims that in the future strangers and aliens will be called “priests of the Lord, ministers (leitourgoi) of God” (cf. Psalm 102(103):21). When New Testament writers use this terminology, it probably is influenced by its previous occurrence in the Septuagint, but may on occasion reflect usage in Greco-Roman civic contexts.
In Romans 15.16 Paul describes himself as leitourgon Xristou Iēsou, translated in the NIV 2011 as “minister of Christ Jesus,” and that is a very common rendering, with a few translations rendering it as “servant of Christ Jesus.” However, Paul’s usual term to describe his role in God’s work is diakonos (assistant, representative, servant, ministry), doulos (slave), or apostolos (authorized representative). So why does he choose leitourgos in Romans 15:16 to characterize his kingdom role to a group of Christians and churches that he had not met previously? This is the only place he applies this term to himself.
Paul employs the verb leitourgeō once in Romans 15
;27, but with a secular sense of public service. In order to make a strong case to the Roman Christians for their participation in his campaign to collect an offering to assist the Jerusalem church, he argues that if non-Jews have shared in the Jewish spiritual benefits, then they should also serve (leitourgēsai) them (Jewish Christians) with their worldly resources. In secular Greek the verb means to “perform a public duty at personal cost” (Liddell-Scott, 1036). One of the public works wealthy citizens would perform was to purchase grain for general distribution during times of famine. Paul’s campaign for the offering to alleviate the famine pressures upon Jewish Christians in Jerusalem follows this convention. Luke also uses the verb in Acts 13:2 (“while they were worshipping (leitourgountōn) the Lord and fasting” NIV) in a religious sense. The idea is that these leaders in the Antioch church were performing some religious service for their God, but no specifics are given. In Hebrews 10:11 the writer uses it to describe the service of Jewish priests in the temple, including the offering of sacrifices.
The noun leitourgia occurs six times in the NT, in writings by three different authors (Luke 1:23; 2 Corinthians 9:12; Philippians 2:17, 30; Hebrews 8:6; 9:21). Paul uses it in 2 Corinthians 9:12 in reference to his collection for the Jerusalem church, as he declares that “the assistance through this public service” will generate considerable gratitude to God, as it supplies the needs of the ‘saints’. So this is similar to his use of the cognate verb in Romans 15:27. In the two Philippians’ passages, Paul first uses it to claim that even in his imprisonment he offers himself in sacrifice and service of the Philippians’ faith (2:17). And then in 2:30 he uses the noun to describe how Epaphroditus has made up the Philippians’ lack of assistance to Paul through his exemplary leitourgia (even though it almost cost him his life because of sickness) to Paul in prison. The other three occurrences (Luke 1:23; Hebrew 8:6; 9:21) reflect the Septuagint use of this noun to describe cultic service to Yahweh by priests associated with the tabernacle or temple. In the case of Luke 1:23 it describes Zechariah’s service in the priestly order in Jerusalem, during which he received the angel’s announcement about the conception of a son (John the Baptist). Jesus’ service in his role as high priest is defined by this term in Hebrew 8:6, but in 9:21 it describes the function of the implements used for cultic purposes in the tabernacle and temple, and their need to be purified with blood.
The writer of Hebrews (1:14) uses the adjective leitourgikos in a reference to angels that are described in a quotation from Psalm 101:26-28 and 109:1). He comments that “all (of these heavenly messengers) are ministering (leitourgika) spirits sent for assisting” believers. In other words they serve God by helping his people in various ways.
The noun leitourgos occurs five times in the New Testament (Romans 13:6; 15:16; Philippians 2:25; Hebrews 1:7; 8:2). In Philippians 2:25 Paul uses it to describe the role of Epaphroditus, the one delegated by the Philippian Christians to be the leitourgon for Paul’s needs. As Paul is in prison, this Christian brother serves him by caring for his needs, presumably his physical requirements. This usage is not specifically religious, but defines what the Philippians did out of Christian love and respect for their leader Paul who is in prison for the sake of the gospel. The term characterizes a person who performs acts of Christian charity under the sponsorship of a Christian assembly in order to care for another believer.
Paul’s usage in Romans 13:6 is quite unexpected. He is discussing the role of secular authorities and how Christians should relate to them. In 13:4 he describes such officials (undoubtedly unbelievers) as diakonos theou (2x) and then in essence repeats this in 13:6 by naming them leitourgoi theou. Paul seems to regard the terms diakonos… leitourgos as synonyms. The genitive defines under whose auspices they carry out their functions as assistants and servants. In both contexts God is the one who appoints them to this function in order that human society may be ordered and some form of justice will be available. Paul affirms God’s sovereignty and providential care in such matters.
The writer of Hebrews also uses this noun (1:7; 8:2). In 1:7 the writer is quoting from Psalm 103(104):4 which describes how God “makes his angels spirits and his servants (leitourgous) flames of fire.” They worship God through their assigned, priestly service. The writer describes the Messiah with this term in 8:2, reflecting on his role as high priest being the cultic servant (leitourgos) of the holy things in the heavenly tabernacle, in his ascended role.
With this background we come back to Paul’s use of leitourgos in Romans 15:16 to describe his function within the plans of God. First, we should note that Paul uses the phrase leitourgon Xristou Iēsou, categorizing himself as “cultic servant of Messiah Jesus.” This is a religious function that nonetheless affects every aspect of his life. Second, he attributes this role to “favour given to me by God” (Romans 15:15). In Ephesians 3: 7 he attributes his function as diakonos to the same source. Third, God intends Paul to carry out his role as the Messiah’s leitourgos “for the nations.” This function is not fulfilled in some temple or sacred site, but throughout the world, as the Messiah’s emissary. Fourth, he employs another cultic term hierougeō which means “to perform some sacred function, to act as priest” (Romans 15:16) with respect to the gospel of God. The idea seems to be that as he communicates the gospel, the response of people becomes an “offering of the nations” (prosphora tōn ethnōn) which is “acceptable” (euprosdektos) and “sanctified in the Holy Spirit.” Paul uses these terms, all of which are associated with the Jewish temple and its functions, to describe in metaphorical terms, his work as an apostle of the Lord Jesus. In this way he dedicates his entire life to the service of God and the advancement of his mission for the nations. What a dramatic way to express to these Roman Christians, whom he has never met, the call of God upon his life and why they should support his work in the gospel. In all of this Paul may see his life as fulfilling God’s intent for his people to be “a priestly kingdom” (Exodus 19.5-6).
Why does Paul use this language in Romans 15:16-17 to describe his role in the Kingdom of God? One reason might be to underscore his argument in Romans 9-11 that Israel’s mission was to bring the good news of God to the nations, but they failed. So with the coming of the Messiah, his followers now take up this task and fulfill a priestly service by communicating the good news to the nations. Secondly, if the offering of the nations to God is now acceptable and sanctified, it emphasizes that the definition of the people of God is being recast. Thirdly, it might serve to remind these Christians that as they meet, they form as a community the temple of God and continue his priestly service in their loyal obedience to the new covenant.