David Mathis

Christ Did Not Please Himself: The Joy of Bearing with Others’ Failings

We are born with a knack for spotting the failures of others, and we’ve been conditioned to develop that skill. Identify specks from a distance? No problem (even as we somehow persistently struggle to see our own planks). And life gives us plenty of specks to spot. Life on earth, for now, means a life surrounded by failures.

Amazingly, the Christian gospel is not too grand and lofty for these regular disappointments, for the dark and painful nooks and crannies of real life. In fact, Paul’s grand epistle to the Romans — one of the greatest letters ever written — points us to the specks, uncovering such relational challenges as proof of the power of Christ’s person and work.

In Romans 14 and 15 in particular, Paul addresses emerging fault lines between Christians over adiaphora (literally “not differences” regarding the essence of our faith but various nonessential issues). Such matters are not clear instances of sin — plain violations of Christ’s law, like lying or stealing — but differences of opinion (sometimes even of conviction), like whether to observe certain holy days or not, or whether to eat meat or drink wine that had been sacrificed to idols. In the first century, these issues related to the epoch shift from the old covenant to the new. Some differences, as in Galatians, were of the essence of the faith; others were not.

Though Romans 14–15 speaks to controversies that are not differences of the essence of Christianity, Paul doesn’t overlook them, ignore them, or treat them flippantly. Rather, he sees in them an opportunity to bring the very heart of the faith to bear on Christ’s people, by focusing on how we treat one another despite such differences. Paul dignifies the pain and grief such differences of opinion can cause by bringing to them the greatest possible remedy and solace: Christ himself.

To the Strong (and the Weak)

Elsewhere we have instructions for what to do when a brother sins against us (Matthew 18:15–22). But what about when others aggravate us with errors and immaturities that are not plain instances of sin? And what if these are not simple differences of opinion but of conviction?

In Romans 14–15, Paul does believe that one group is right, so to speak, and the other wrong, in terms of the truth of the matter. One group he calls “the strong”; the other, “the weak.” He concedes, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself” (Romans 14:14). So, as he writes elsewhere, “If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience” (1 Corinthians 10:27). However, if your host announces, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat — not for your own sake, but for the sake of your host, lest you confuse and confirm him in soul-destroying idolatry. In other words, consider his eternal good, not just your own momentary appetite and ability to exercise freedom.

In Romans 15:1–7, Paul specifically addresses “the strong,” who know in faith and conscience all food and drink to be clean. Sure, both groups are flawed. Paul’s strategy, however, is to begin by addressing the strong, and charge them to take the first step toward peace. Paul appeals to them to rise above “the failings of the weak,” even as he acknowledges that these are genuine failings. And as he does so, he clarifies the truth of the matter for “the weak” who are listening in.

Our tensions today may not be the ones that hampered the church in Rome in the first century, but we have plenty of fault lines and unnecessary divisions of our own. So what might we learn from these verses for not simply bearing with the blind spots of others, but, even more, as those who are “strong,” to literally carry the failures (Greek ta asthenēmata bastazein) of the “weak” (Romans 15:1)?

The Call

First is the calling to love. Appeal as he does, Paul does not see this as just an opportunity — take it or leave it — but as an obligation. As Christians we owe each other love, which, for the strong, means “to bear with the failings of the weak” (Romans 15:1). In fact, it would be sin to violate Christ’s law by failing to love. Christians are not obligated to eat meat or not, or celebrate certain feasts or not, but we are obligated to love one another. “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8). “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). Pork, wine, and holidays are optional; Christian love is not.

“Pork, wine, and holidays are optional; Christian love is not.”

Yet Paul doesn’t leave such love unqualified or unspecified. He gives terms, an example, and the source of power.

The Terms

After the call to love neighbor comes the terms of this love: “for his good, to build him up” (Romans 15:2). The obligation to love does not require the Christian to make others feel loved on human terms. Christ sets the terms. We love with others’ good in view, as God defines good, not the whims or momentary preferences (or demands!) of sinners. The Christian call to love is not to cater to immaturities or unbelief, or to coddle sin, but to view our neighbors with the mind and eyes of Christ and love them for their good, to build them up in Christ.

“The obligation to love does not require the Christian to make others feel loved on human terms.”

This call to higher pleasures for our neighbors than their whims is also a call for our higher pleasures in our loving them. To the strong: don’t just give in to the weak’s immediate wants — or to your own. Love seeks the eternal (rather than momentary) good both of neighbor and of ourselves. Which leads to Paul’s striking example in Romans 15:3: “Christ did not please himself.”

The Example

When it comes to inconvenient, uncomfortable love, Jesus provides the greatest example and model imaginable. “It is noteworthy,” writes John Murray, “how the apostle adduces the example of Christ in his most transcendent accomplishments in order to commend the most practical duties” (Romans, 516).

On his knees, with sweat pooling like drops of blood, Jesus did not give into his own immediate wants in Gethsemane. Rather, he came to embrace the divine will, and with it the timeless good and upbuilding of others. He did not choose momentary desires, whether his own or others’. Surely, in the moment, the disciples, if given the choice, would have been eager for Jesus to flee. Peter had said, “Never, Lord!” when first hearing of the cross; the disciples were not yet able to conceive of how Christ’s death could possibly lead to greater joy.

At a basic level, pleasing himself would have meant giving in to his own momentary (very natural and human) desires to avoid death, especially the utter torture of death on a cross, and worst of all, the sense of separation from his Father. Yet in the garden, Jesus abandons his human desires for self-preservation and wills the divine will. He chooses it. In saying to his Father, “Not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42), he makes the divine will his own (as man). At one level, he very much does not want this, but at a deeper level he does, even as Isaiah 53:11 prophesied: “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied.” So too, Hebrews 12:2 confirms that in the anguish and horrific distress, it was, at bottom, the holy pursuit of joy that animated and sustained his obedience: “For the joy that was set before him [Jesus] endured the cross.”

This does not mean we counsel Christians, contrary to Paul’s letter and Christ’s life, to “please yourselves.” Rather, we say that God in Christ is so deeply and enduringly pleasing that we are freed from “pleasing ourselves” in relation to others. Pleased in God, and knowing that in Christ he is pleased with us, we are liberated to turn our eyes from ourselves to others and their genuine needs, and to love them for their good and upbuilding.

The Power

Finally, marvelous as Christ’s example is, Paul presses even deeper. He not only says that Christ succeeded in love but shows us how. What enabled Jesus, as man, to look past his initial human desires to the joy set before him on the other side of torture and death? He trusted in the word of his Father.

Paul represents Jesus living out and drawing strength from Psalm 69:9 in Romans 15:3: “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” Note the Godward orientation and God-centeredness this brings to Christ’s great act of love (and to our little ones). And the way the power to endure came to him was not simply through truth but through Scripture. With his uniquely holy, sinless human mind, Jesus might have theologized and philosophized in any number of ways to put his calling, and excruciating pain, into a larger perspective. Surely he could have preached to himself in many creative ways. But in his moment of greatest duress, he turns to the very words of God (in this case, captured in Psalm 69). Which prompts Paul to write, “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the [comfort] of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). Like Jesus did.

The God of endurance and comfort awakened persevering love in his own Son through the instrument of his written word. Jesus was comforted and given strength to endure by rehearsing Scripture. And so it will be for us. Just as the soul of Christ himself was fueled by what was written in former days, so we also fill our tank on God’s promises, to free us from selfishness and sinful self-regard, to both know what is truly for our neighbor’s good and building up, and to “not please ourselves” but gladly do it. The God of endurance and comfort himself does the miracle in and through us by his word.

As Christ Has Welcomed You

Such a “disinterested” pursuit of joy in the good of others (called love) leads, in time, to Christians strong and weak living in “harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 15:5–6).

Our rising above our own whims and initial preferences, like Jesus did, glorifies him and his Father. After all, this is precisely how Christ welcomed us: by not pleasing himself in the garden but trusting God’s words to take the (much!) harder path for our good. So Murray asks, “Shall we, the strong, insist on pleasing ourselves in the matter of food and drink to the detriment of God’s saints and the edification of Christ’s body?” (517).

The joy of not pleasing ourselves comes not only when a neighbor is needy, but even when he’s in error or the need stems from his own defective faith and conscience. While dying to our rights, liberties, and selves cuts against almost every impulse of our age, we learn instead, in Christ, to “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7).

Lovers of Good

Pastors — and increasingly their churches with them — are to be doers of good, not mere self-proclaimed lovers, deceiving themselves. Genuinely loving the good leads them to dream up ideas, take fresh initiatives, and do good that benefits all, especially those of like faith.

An overseer, as God’s steward, must be . . . a lover of good. (Titus 1:7–8)
In times when the love of many grows cold, we will do well to pause over an overlooked Christian virtue that warms against the chill.
Not only is such a trait designed by Christ to be increasingly true of all Christians; it is required to serve in the church’s lead office.
To be clear, what Christ requires of his pastor-elders (1 Timothy 3:1–8; Titus 1:5–9) is not simply for qualification to enter the office. Rather, these virtues are the ongoing, daily graces needed to serve well in the office. Yet these too are the qualities Christ means to grant in growing measure to his whole church. Pastor-elders are examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:3). They not only labor at teaching and governing, to feed and lead the church, but they model, as a team, the Christian maturity toward which we hope all Christians will progress.
So, in days that seem embattled and divisive, it might be freshly helpful, if not convicting, to remember that Christians, with their pastors leading the way, are not to be known for circling wagons and battening down hatches. Rather, we are to be wide- and warm-hearted, maturely magnanimous, “lovers of good” (Greek philagothos), as Titus 1:8 obliges church leaders. That is the opposite of how Paul characterizes the last days in 2 Timothy 3:3: “not loving good” (aphilagathos).
What, then, might lead to, mark, and accompany such “lovers of good,” that we might discern whether we ourselves, and our leaders, embody what Christ designs?
1. Believe in good.
First, let it not go unsaid that those who love the good believe in good. In distressed days, such pastors and Christians still believe in good. They know their God — who is Goodness himself and the source and standard of all good — made this world and called it good. Good came first and is deeper than evil. And we know, in Christ, that whatever devastations evil has wrought, one day the sin and death which so pervade and pain us will be no more (Revelation 21:4), while good endures forever, as the one who is Good dwells with his people (Revelation 21:3).
Lovers of good believe that true good is older, deeper, and will outlive the bad. And even outside the church, in the darkest of places, still the light of good flashes for those with eyes to see. They believe it. And so too they look for it.
2. Look for good.
Those Christians who genuinely believe in good become the kind of people who are hopeful for good. Knowing Christ and his promises, they know that good is to come — it’s only a matter of time. They cannot long entertain cynicism, or stand to become Chicken Littles nervous that the sky is falling. Rather, they consider the present moment, with all its uncertainty, turbulence, and change, to be a great time to speak the gospel, press for conversion, plant churches, and pour fresh energy into global mission.
Philippians 4:8, addressed to the whole church, well captures what good pastor-elders model for their congregations in relation to their surrounding unbelieving society:
Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
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Ordinary Elders, Part 2: Governing as Men Who Teach

Forty-three years ago today, on October 14, 1979, John Piper felt himself irretrievably called to pastoral ministry. He was on sabbatical, after teaching six years at Bethel College. He was studying Romans 9. Reflecting back on that season, he would say later, in 2002:

As I studied Romans 9 day after day, I began to see a God so majestic and so free and so absolutely sovereign that my analysis merged into worship and the Lord said, in effect, “I will not simply be analyzed, I will be adored. I will not simply be pondered, I will be proclaimed. My sovereignty is not simply to be scrutinized, it is to be heralded. It is not grist for the mill of controversy, it is gospel for sinners who know that their only hope is the sovereign triumph of God’s grace over their rebellious will.”

In 2019, on the fortieth anniversary of John’s October 14 call to the pastorate, Justin Taylor published an article at Desiring God called “This Word Must Be Preached,” which quotes extensively from John’s 1800-word journal he wrote longhand that night — and very much relates to our second session here tonight. (See here for Part 1.)

First, Justin comments: “It is remarkable how realistic [John] was that night. He knew himself well.” Then a quote from John’s journal:

I know, really know, I would despair as a pastor. I would despair that my people are not where I want them to be, I would despair at ruptured study and writing goals, I would despair at barren administrative details. [But he asked himself:] “Who shall shepherd the flock of God? People who love barrenness? People who feel no flame to study God and write it out? People who weep not over the tares and the choking wheat? Is the criterion for judging one’s fitness for the ministry that one feels no pain in the mechanics of ‘running a church’? Is the calling so managerial in our day that the Word burning to be spoken and lived and applied is no qualification?

Second, another quote from John’s journal, contrasting himself with his father, who was a traveling evangelist: “My heart is not in one time shots or one week shots. I am not a gifted evangelist. My heart leans hard to regularity of feeding [that’s the work of pastor-elders]. I believe little in the injection method to health. I believe in the long steady diet of rich food in surroundings of love.”

Third, Justin comments about John that “he had a hunger to be the direct instrument of the Word.” For John, that meant being a local church pastor, not a seminary professor. He wanted to be “a vessel of [God’s] Word” in the church. So he left the academy for the pastorate. He became a preacher, but he emphatically did not cease to be a teacher. Because pastors are teachers.

Two Main Tasks

In our second session tonight, we turn to the two qualifications for the eldership that correspond most directly with the two main tasks of the elders. The two tasks are feeding and leading the flock. The two qualification, then, are “able to teach” and “sober-minded.” And we’ll end with how all of us, young and old (and perhaps especially young, and those aspiring to the work) might grow in these two central qualifications.

Feeding the Flock (Able to Teach)

Perhaps you can imagine a scenario in which a man is being considered for eldership, and the question comes, Is he “able to teach”? Let’s say the man is not a known teacher. But the one who is advocating for his candidacy responds, “It’s not his strength. He’s rarely willing to do public speaking. But if you put a gun to his head . . . . Such a minimalistic understanding is not what Paul means by “able to teach.” Rather, what he’s after, and what we should be after is the more maximalist assertion: “He’s the kind of man who will hardly stop teaching — even if you put a gun to his head.”

Pastors and elders, paid and unpaid, fulltime and lay, are to be teachers. “Able to teach” (one word in the Greek, didaktikos), we might say, is the most central of the elder qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 (listed eighth of the fifteen) and also the most distinctive. The single qualification that most plainly sets the pastor-elders apart from the deacons is “able to teach” — or perhaps even better, “apt or prone to teach.”

Such teaching bent and ability in pastors is not to be minimal, but maximal. We want the kind of man who will hardly stop teaching, even if you put a gun to his head. As he learns, he wants to teach. As he studies, he thinks about teaching. He breathes teaching. We might say he’s a teacher at heart. He loves to teach, with all the planning and discipline and patience and energy and exposure to criticism that good teaching requires.

Given to Teaching

A pastor who is didaktikos, “able to teach,” is not just “able to teach if necessary,” but rather “eager to teach when possible.” He’s bent to teach — not only able in terms of skill but also eager in terms of proclivity.

In English, we have the word didactic, built on the Greek didachē for teaching. But we don’t have an easy equivalent for the Greek adjective didaktikos. Maybe we need something like didactive or teachative. If talkative refers to someone who is “fond of or given to talking,” teachative would mean someone “fond of or given to teaching.”

The point is that New Testament leaders — the pastor-elders — are teachers. Christianity is a teaching movement. Jesus was the consummate teacher. He chose and discipled his men to be teachers who discipled others also (Matthew 28:19; 2 Timothy 2:2). After his ascension, the apostles spoke on Christ’s behalf and led the early church through teaching, and when their living voices died, their writings became the church’s ongoing polestar, with Old Testament Scripture, for teaching the churches. And so, fitting with the very nature of the Christian faith, Christ appoints men who are teachative, didaktikos, which entails at least three important realities we would be wise to keep in mind today: we look for men who are equipped to teach, effective at teaching, and eager to teach.

Equipped to Teach

First of all, a man may be off-the-charts teachative, and be little more than a liability if he has not been sufficiently equipped in sound doctrine. The miracle of new birth does not imply any instantaneous miracles of equipping for leadership. Now, we might grant a kind of miracle status to any sinner coming, in time, to have genuinely sound theology, but this would be a long-range miracle worked out through diligent training over time, not the endowment of a mere moment.

As Walter Henrichsen wrote almost 50 years ago (in 1974), disciples are made, not born. Jesus spoke about a righteous scribe being “trained for the kingdom of heaven . . . [he] brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52). “A disciple is not above his teacher,” he says, “but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40). To become a Christian requires no training, just faith: “to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:5). But one does not become a teacher (nor practically holy) by faith alone. Rather, grace trains us, in sanctification “to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions” (Titus 2:12), and in those whom Christ gives his church as pastor-teachers, he sees to their being “trained in the words of the faith” (1 Timothy 4:6).

Training is necessary for maturity (Hebrews 5:14), and training requires the discipline of persisting in momentary discomfort, even pain, for the reward set before us (Hebrews 12:11). So when we emphasize, in pastors, the necessity of proclivity and ability to teach, we do not overlook a critical component of Christian teachers: training. Pastors must be equipped in sound doctrine to teach sound doctrine. It doesn’t happen without work.

Effective at Teaching

Second, the pastor-elders of the church must also be effective teachers. That is, they must be skillful — able in the sense of good. It’s not enough if they want to teach, and have been trained in sound doctrine, but they’re not any good at teaching. Then the church becomes a sitting duck, or unprotected flock. If the pastors aren’t effective teachers, it’s only a matter of time until wolves carry the day and feast on the lambs.

“If the pastors aren’t effective teachers, it’s only a matter of time until wolves carry the day and feast on the lambs.”

And so Paul says, as his culminating qualification in the Titus 1 list, the pastor-elder “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). That is, he must know “the trustworthy word,” and be trained in it, and genuinely “hold firm” to it. But then commences the work of teaching in its twofold sense: feeding the flock (“give instruction in sound doctrine”) and defending the flock (“rebuke those who contradict it”). And if the pastors and elders are poor or ineffective teachers, the sheep go hungry or get eaten.

So pastors and elders, as a team, must be effective teachers — that is, effective in the context of the particular local church where they are called. They need not compete with the world’s best orators on popular podcasts or television. But they must be effective teachers of their people, in their context. When push comes to shove, the pastors-teachers must get the job done, or the wolves take the sheep.

Eager to Teach

Third, we come back to where we started and the heart of the teaching qualification, that is, the heart of a teacher. We need men who are eager to teach. Not just men willing to have their arm bent once in a while to fill a slot. But men who are teachers. The pastor-teachers.

“Remember your leaders,” says Hebrews 13:7, “those who spoke to you the word of God.” Hebrews could assume that their leaders were those who spoke God’s word to them, because their leaders were teachers.

Christianity is a word-critical, teaching-critical faith. The leaders teach. And good teachers, in time and with sufficient maturation, come to lead. The pastor-elders, then, are not only called to lead, or govern, but first and foremost to labor in word and teaching. And since the work, at its heart, is the work of teaching, we want men who want to teach. They are eager to do it. (And brothers, this too can be cultivated.)

Such didactive men think like teachers, not judges. Their orientation toward the church is not mainly as those rendering verdicts but envisioning possibilities, providing fresh perspective and information, faithfully teaching the Scriptures, making persuasive arguments, patiently reviewing and restating and illustrating, and praying for God’s miraculous work in life-change.

Is it not amazing that when Paul speaks into how Timothy should carry himself in the midst of the conflict with false teachers in the Ephesian church, he says, “the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness” (2 Timothy 2:24–25)? Look at what company “able to teach” keeps: not quarrelsome but kind, patient, gentle — not apart from correction, but gentle in “correcting his opponents.”

Leading the Sheep (Able to Govern)

Now, pastors are not only teachers. As overseers, they “watch over” the flock. As elders, they counsel and guide the people. As shepherds, they muster the collective forethought to envision where to go next for green pastures and still waters and lead the sheep in that direction, and wield the “comfort” of their rod to crack the skulls of wolves to protect the sheep.

So, not only does Christ gift his church with leaders who have such a proclivity, being teachative, but he also — strange as it may seem to us — puts these teachers in charge as the church’s lead officers. The elders feed and lead. Teaching and oversight are paired in 1 Thessalonians 5:12 and 1 Timothy 5:17, and 1 Timothy 2:12 provides that particularly memorable coupling of the elders’ teaching with their exercising authority in the local church, particularly in the gathered assembly:

I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man. (then, three verses later, those who exercise authority through teaching: the elders)

“Jesus is more interested in the church’s effectiveness than its efficiency.”

Amazingly, the risen Christ, in building his church on his terms, not the world’s, is so audacious as to appoint teachers to lead, which is both surprising (because teachers, as a group, can be so idealistic and inefficient) and fitting (because Christianity is a teaching movement). That Christ made teachers to be pastors (and pastors, teachers) confirms what a few sharp souls might have suspected all along: that Jesus is more interested in the church’s effectiveness than its efficiency.

So, pastors teach. They are, at heart, teachers. The plurality of elders is, in an importance sense, a team of teachers, who also govern. The call to pastoral ministry is not for specialized administrators of large church departments. Nor is it a call for brawlers and pugilists, more apt to quarrel than to teach. Pastors teach, and are the kind of men who will graciously hardly cease. Even if you put a gun to their heads.

Sober-Mindedness

Now, what are we to say about their governing?

If “able to teach” (didaktikos), as we’ve said, is the most central and most distinctive of the elder qualifications, “sober-minded” might be the most underrated, or underappreciated.

I remember, on several occasions, sitting as an elder, among elders, brainstorming names for future additions to the council. By God’s grace, the voicing of some names elicited words of praise. Sometimes there was largely enthusiasm, with some minor misgivings. On occasion, it seemed as if many of us intuited that “something’s not right” or “doesn’t resonate” when thinking of this man as an elder. Over time, I came to learn that often the language we were groping for was right here in the eldership qualifications: sober-minded.

It is a remarkable turn of events that Jesus appoints a team of teachers, in essence, to lead his local churches.

However — this is where we come especially to “sober-minded” — Jesus does not call these pastor-teachers to teaching alone. He calls the pastor-elders, under the gathered assembly of saints, to lead the people — leadership that requires they be, both individually and collectively, sober-minded.

Level-Headed, Not Imbalanced

As I said, of the fifteen pastor-elder qualifications in 1 Timothy 3, sober-mindedness might be the most underrated. Not only is teaching (with preaching) central to the pastors’ work, but also vital is “exercising oversight” (1 Peter 5:2). Pastor-elders not only “labor among you” as teachers but “are over you in the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 5:12). They both feed and lead. The elder “must manage his own household well” because, as a team, the elders are charged with caring for God’s household, the church (1 Timothy 3:4–5, 15). Not only are pastors who preach and teach well worthy of honor — and “double honor” (remuneration) when laboring at the work as a bread-winning vocation — but also as governors, that is, “the elders who rule well” (1 Timothy 5:17). The pastor-elders teach and rule, that is, lead or govern. And to do so requires a kind of spiritual acuity the New Testament calls “sober-mindedness.”

“Men who are sober-minded are level-headed and balanced. They are responsive, without being reactive.”

Men who are sober-minded are level-headed and balanced. They are responsive, without being reactive. They are not given to extremes, not suckers for myths and speculation and conspiracy theories, and not dragged into silly controversies. They are able to discern what emphases and preoccupations would compromise the stewardship (1 Timothy 1:4) at the heart of their work, and they stay grounded in what’s most important and enduring. Keeping the gospel “of first importance” as their center (1 Corinthians 15:3), they are able, like increasingly few modern adults, to “keep [their] head in all situations” (1 Timothy 4:5, NIV).

Together, the team of sober-minded elders is able to navigate complicated challenges, like church-size dynamics and generational dynamics and, perhaps above all, issues of timing in the life of the local church. Many, young and old, are able to see various problems, and feel various tensions, in church life, but the pastor-elders are those with the sober-mindedness, and the accompanying “superpower of patience” to know how and when to address the challenges. Sober-minded pastor-elders, together as a group, figure out how to give Caesar his (tiny) due without robbing Christ of any of his. Together they keep the church on mission (Matthew 28:19), keep the gospel central, and demonstrate that the essence of leadership is not personal privilege and preference but self-giving, self-humbling, and self-sacrifice for the church’s good.

Such sober-mindedness, without doubt, is also critical for teaching — for determining what to teach and when and how — but such spiritual acuity especially maps on to the call to govern or lead, and the untiring vigilance it requires. “Be sober-minded; be watchful” (1 Peter 5:8; also 1 Thessalonians 5:6). “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Acts 20:28). The pastor-elders are those who “are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account” (Hebrews 13:17). So they must be sober-minded (1 Timothy 3:2) — in fact, “always sober-minded” (2 Timothy 4:5).

How to Get a Sober Mind

In Acts 6, we are not yet dealing with pastors and deacons, but apostles and “the seven.” But we can see a kind of analog here for what was to come in local congregations. As “the seven” were appointed to “serve tables” that the apostles might not “give up preaching the word of God” (Acts 6:2), so local-church pastor-elders have a particular calling to lead and feed the flock — that is, “devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). Word and prayer.

We teach the word to feed the church. And sober-minded men pray to God, and take counsel with each other, to lead the church in the ups and downs on the raging seas of real life. It will not be enough to have balanced thinkers who do not pray (besides, prayerlessness would betray their imbalance). Nor would it be enough to have prayerful men without sober minds. We need both prayer and prudence, even as we need both teaching and leading. And Christ appoints that his local church leaders be such prayerful, sober-minded teachers.

All well and good, you might say, but what about the gaffs in my own sober-mindedness that I’m aware of — not to mention the many of which I do not even know? Whether already a pastor-elder, or aspiring to the office, or not, How might I become more sober-minded?

The good news is that sobering our minds is part of the work the Holy Spirit is doing on all those who are in Christ. And in particular this is work he does, over time, through the word of God, Old Testament and New. However naturally balanced and level-headed you might be, the word of God is critical in giving us real balance in a destabilizing world and sobering us up to what really matters in God’s economy. Sober-mindedness is not a miracle God does in just a moment, but the effect of thousands of quiet, early morning miracles over his word day after day, for years.

In the days to come, as in the last two thousand years, the church needs men who keep their heads under pressure, in conflict and controversy. And in just the normal, steady-state life of the church, we need level-headed, wise, spiritually and emotionally intelligent leaders rather than those who are impulsive, imbalanced, and reactive because pastor-elders are not just God-appointed teachers but God-appointed governors. Such men the Spirit loves to produce through years of quite Scripture meditation and real-life accountability in the local church. And such men, then, years in the making, the risen Christ loves to give to his church to feed it through faithful, effective teaching, and guide it through patient, composed, reasonable team leadership.

Which leads to our concluding focus on how a young or aspiring pastor-elder might go about pursuing growth and development in their teaching.

Developing as a Pastor-Teacher

With this short list, I’m assuming eagerness. Without some initial aspiration or eagerness, there would not be interest in growth. So assuming some measure of eagerness, here are six avenues to consider in seeking to develop yourself as a teacher:

1. Know the Word himself, that is, Jesus.

How? In the word itself, the gospel. How? Through the word itself, Scripture. So know the Word (Jesus) in the word (gospel) through the word (Scripture).

Read, study, and meditate on the Bible — and all the Bible. Those who lead and aspire to lead the church would be wise to have all the biblical text pass before their eyes every calendar year. Obviously there will be (many) passages you not only read but study and meditate on and teach on, perhaps multiple times in a year, but reading through the Bible with some plan each year at least lets each biblical text pass before you each year. As you do, you’re increasingly understanding Scripture as a whole — and most of all, knowing and enjoying Jesus in it.

2. Self-educate in the information age.

This is a step in equipping. Leverage the amazing availability of books, messages, and essays (meaty articles). Perhaps some limited social media exposure would help you be aware of new books, essays, and articles, but I would highly caution you against any more than a pretty modest, controlled portion of social media.

Beware the radicalizing effects of social media. Algorithms are no friend to the pursuit of sober-mindedness.

3. Pursue some formal program of training.

This is a distinct step in equipping, that goes beyond self-educating. I’m talking about some curriculum and course of study, designed by someone other than yourself, to develop in knowledge and skill, and fill in areas you’ve never gravitated to studying on your own.

4. Take what at-bats you can and make them count.

Now, we’re moving to effectiveness which grows, over time, with the Spirit’s help and hard work. You need hundreds of at-bats, not dozens. Teaching, like singing (not like athletics), is a life-skill.

5. Always keep learning and be ready.

After Paul says “preach the word” in 2 Timothy 4:2, the very next charge is this: “be ready in season and out of season.” Then again in verse 5: “always be sober-minded.”

And this for those who continue to learn and grow. In 1 Timothy 4, after just telling Timothy to “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching,” Paul says, “Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress” (1 Timothy 4:13–15). Our people ought to see our progress, our growth — in all areas, but particularly in our teaching. Which means — this should be encouraging — you grow in teaching. It is not fundamentally a gift you have or do not.

6. Rejoice more in being saved than in being a fruitful teacher.

We come back to Luke 10:20: “Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you [as your teaching ability and effectiveness improves and matures], but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” I don’t think Jesus means this absolutely, as if there is not any holy joy to be had in faithful, fruitful teaching. But we dare not let the joy of teaching the faith eclipse the joy of the faith itself.

Brothers, rejoice most that your names are written in heaven. Being a Christian is ten thousand times more important, and sweeter, than being a pastor-teacher.

Ordinary Elders, Part 1: Working for the Joy of Others

Tom Carson died thirty years ago this month. He was an ordinary pastor.

He grew up in Ottawa a century ago, attended seminary in Toronto, did evangelism in Montreal for a decade in the 1930s and ’40s. Then from 1948 to 1963, he was a paid pastor in Drummondville, which I understand to be about seventy minutes from here.

In 1963, at age 52, he returned to Ottawa as a translator for the Canadian government and began serving as an unpaid pastor. He died quietly and without fanfare on October 26, 1992. He was not well-known or celebrated in his day. He was an ordinary pastor and elder.

In fact, his son, Don, as you may know, wrote a short book about him called Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor. Today some of us remember Tom because of Don, and because of the book, but we remember Tom Carson for his blessed ordinariness. So, in his honor, I’ve entitled these two sessions tonight “Ordinary Elders.”

In this first session, I would like for us to linger together in perhaps my favorite eldership passage of Scripture: 1 Peter 5:1–5. But before I read those verses and pray for our time together, note the “So” at the beginning of verse 1, which links this passage to chapter 4 and therefore to the hard times Peter and the elders knew.

First Peter 4:12 mentions “fiery trials.” Verse 13, “sufferings.” Verse 14, “insults.” Verses 15, 16, 19: “suffer,” “suffers,” “suffer.” This is a word for elders who know hard times, like the last two years perhaps for some.

God-Given Under-Shepherds

Now to 1 Peter 5:1–5:

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

One of the most precious promises in all the Bible for pastors in particular is Jesus’s words in Matthew 16:18: “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Jesus is the chief shepherd, and the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls (1 Peter 2:25; 5:4), “the great shepherd of the sheep” (Hebrews 13:20). He builds his church. And his work will not fail. He will prevail. Over hell, and sin, and death, and disease, and division.

And one of the ways Christ builds and governs his church, and blesses her, is by giving her the gift of leaders under him: “He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11–12).

Faithful pastors and elders are a gift from Christ to guide and keep his church. This is a truth that may not be healthy to regularly preach to ourselves personally, but it can be good to have someone else preach to you from time to time. Brother pastors and elders, you are a gift from the risen Christ to your flock.

No matter what that recent email said. No matter how flat it seems your last sermon fell. No matter what you hear whispered about leaders in society, not to mention the cynicism that isn’t whispered. No matter what that person posted online about your church — and you didn’t see it, but your wife saw it and said, “Did you see this?” No matter what has been said explicitly or implied, to the contrary, you, dear brother, as you lean on Christ and remain faithful to his word, you are a gift from him to your church.

Are we pastors and elders flawed? Of course. Sinful? Regrettably. Have some who carry the name “pastor” made terrible mistakes, sinned grievously, fleeced their flocks, and harmed the very ones they were commissioned to protect? Sadly, yes, some have. But such failures were not the fulfilling of the vision of what true Christian leadership is. Such failures fell short of God’s vision, or departed from it altogether. In fact, such failures show — by contrast — what real leadership in the church should be.

That’s our focus this evening: what Christ calls leaders in his church to be — especially the “lead office” or “teaching office” in the church, that of “pastor” or “elder” or “overseer,” three terms in the New Testament for the same lead office.

Preliminary Observations

Now, I want us to give most of our focus to the three not-but pairs in verses 2–3, but first let me make three preliminary observations on the passage.

1. Elders are plural.

Elders is plural in 1 Peter 5:1. One of the most important truths to rehearse about Christian ministry is that Christ means for it to be teamwork. As in 1 Peter 5, so in every context in which local-church pastor-elders are mentioned in the New Testament, the title is plural.

“One of the most important truths to rehearse about Christian ministry is that Christ means for it to be teamwork.”

Christ alone reigns as Lord of the church. He is head (Ephesians 1:22; 5:23; Colossians 1:18), and he alone. The glory of singular leadership in the church is his alone. And he means for his under-shepherds to labor, and thrive, not alone but as a team.

The kind of pastors we long for in this age are good men with good friends — friends who love them enough to challenge their instincts, tell them when they’re mistaken, hold them to the fire of accountability, and make life both harder and better, both more uncomfortable and more fruitful.

2. Elders are pastors.

Second, observe the main verb in 1 Peter 5:1–5, which is Peter’s charge to the elders: “shepherd the flock of God.” Shepherd, as a verb, is a rich image. Consider all that shepherds do: they feed, water, tend, herd, protect, guide, lead to pasture, govern, care for, nurture. To shepherd is an image of what we might call “benign rule” (the opposite of “domineering,” as we’ll see), in which the good of the shepherd is bound up with the good of the sheep.

The concept of shepherding also has a rich Old Testament background, not just in the Patriarchs and the nation of Israel in Egypt and in the wilderness, but also in King David, the shepherd boy who became the nation’s greatest king, the anointed one, who anticipated the great Anointed One to come. So, with David, shepherding takes on messianic meaning. David, of course, had his own grave failures in shepherding the nation, but after David, the trend of the nation’s kings became worse and worse.

Five centuries later, the prophet Ezekiel condemned the nation’s leaders for “feeding themselves” rather than feeding the sheep:

Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. (Ezekiel 34:2–4)

The leaders of Israel should have fed the people, not fed on them. They should have strengthened the people, and healed them, bound them up, brought them back, and sought them, but instead they have governed them “with force and harshness” — not benign rule but malignant rule.

The people long for a shepherd, a king, who will rule them with gentle strength, with persuasion and kindness, with patience and grace, even as he protects them from their enemies. And God says in response, again and again, “I will rescue my flock,” but also, “I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd” (Ezekiel 34:22–23). Note the prominence of feeding in shepherding.

Good Shepherd and His Help

The prophet Micah foretold that from Bethlehem, the city of David, will “come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel” (Micah 5:2; Mark 2:6). During his life, Jesus himself says he is the good shepherd (John 10:11), who, rather than taking from his sheep, comes to give, to give them life, and even to give his own life for them. He is the long-promised Shepherd.

Then amazingly, at the end of the Gospel of John, when Jesus asked Peter three times — this same Peter who wrote 1 Peter — if he loved him, Peter said yes, and then Jesus said three times to Peter, “Feed my lambs,” “Tend my sheep,” and “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15–17).

Here “feeding” and “pastoring” are synonymous. Jesus is the good shepherd, but he is leaving, and he will now pastor his sheep through Peter and other under-shepherds — not just apostles, but local church elders, overseers, pastors, as Paul says in Acts 20:28 to the elders in Ephesus: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock [!], in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” The elders are also overseers, and they are to “care for” — or literally, “pastor the church of God” (elders = overseers = pastors).

Finally, in the book of Revelation, we have two images of Jesus as shepherd. The Lamb, as shepherd, “will guide them to springs of living water” (Revelation 7:17), and in three texts, he will rule “with a rod of iron” (Revelation 2:27; 12:5; 19:15), which doesn’t mean he is forceful or harsh with his people, but that he protects them from their enemies (with his rod). The shepherd’s rod and staff are for protecting and guiding his flock: “your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4).

Elders shepherd. So there’s just a taste of the richness in this shepherding image: centrally, feeding and watering (“green pastures” and “still waters,” Psalm 23:2), but also protecting. Shepherding means caring for the sheep, and leading with gentleness and kindness, with persuasion and patience, and wielding the rod of protection toward various threats to the flock.

3. Elders exercise oversight.

A third and final preliminary observation, more briefly: the verb that augments “shepherd” is “exercising oversight.” It’s a form of the noun “overseer” used in Acts 20:28, as well as four other New Testament texts (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:7; 1 Peter 2:25). “Oversee” in this context doesn’t mean only to watch and observe, but also to “see to it” that important observations about the flock, and any threats to it, also become tangible initiatives and actions in the church.

Which brings us to the heart of this passage where Peter gives us three “not-buts” — not this but that. Verses 2–3: “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight . . .

not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you;
not for shameful gain, but eagerly;
not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.”

Let’s take them in reverse order.

1. Not Domineering, but Exemplifying

We saw God’s condemnation for the leaders of Israel who ruled “with force and harshness.” Peter says “not domineering” — which is the same language we see elsewhere translated “not lording it over.” It’s built on a strong verb (katakurieuo) that can refer in other contexts to Jesus’s lordship (Romans 14:9; 1 Timothy 6:15); or the kind of lordship sin once had, and should no longer have, over us (Romans 6:9, 14; 7:1); or the kind of lordship Christian leaders do not have over those in their charge (Luke 22:25).

The intensified form of the verb here in 1 Peter 5 is the same one Jesus uses in Mark 10:42:

Those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you.

Then, what will be so among us? Verse 43: “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” So the opposite of “not lording it over” others is serving them, their good, their joy. Like Christ himself, not coming to be served but to serve.

And so Paul says to the Corinthians, about his labors as an apostle: “Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy” (2 Corinthians 1:24).

As in Mark 10, “lord it over” implies the exercise of privilege, the seeking and obtaining of personal/private benefit; benefit from them (versus through or with them). Rather, Paul’s vision of the opposite in leadership is “working with you for your joy.” The “we” here is Paul with his assistants Timothy and Silas (2 Corinthians 1:19). He says “we work”: we give effort, expend energy; it is not just “overflow” but work, labor (as Jesus says in Matthew 9:37–38: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest”). It might begin almost effortlessly, as “overflow,” but then takes effort (sometimes great effort) to complete. Spiritual leadership, pastoral ministry is work, requiring a work ethic. And Paul, of all people, was not one to suffer laziness, and especially among pastor-elders.

But this work isn’t alone. Not only is there a “we” in the company of the leaders but it’s also “with you” — with the people. Pastors equip the saints to engage, expend effort, and invest energy — to work with us (which is vital to keep in mind in our discipling and counseling; we work with them, not instead of them).

And that work, Paul says, is “for your joy.” Not thin, fleeting sugar highs. He’s talking real, deep, lasting, long-term, durable joy in Christ. Joy that tastes of the next age even in this painful, evil one. In Christian joy, our promised, blissful future in Christ is brought into the painful present — which means the frictions and sufferings of our present times do not preclude real joy but make us all the more desperate for real joy.

So, Christian leaders, as workers for the joy of their people, are not to be controlling and domineering, lording over them. Rather, they are to serve (in the words of Jesus), as workers for their people’s joy (in the words of Paul) and examples to the flock (in the words of Peter): “not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.”

Pastors Are Examples

Examples. You might hear that as terrifying, if you don’t want your life observed and imitated. Or, you might hear “examples” as humbling. “Examples? That’s all? Nothing about great oratory, or thoroughly entertaining, or gifted communicator, or local hero?” Examples might sound so normal. And it is. Ordinary elders. What was Tom Carson? He was an example.

Twice Peter says the elders are “among” the flock: “I exhort the elders among you . . . : shepherd the flock of God that is among you” (1 Peter 5:1–2). Not above, or off to the side, or far away — not remote — but among.

“Good pastors are first and foremost sheep. They know it and embrace it.”

Good pastors are first and foremost sheep. They know it and embrace it. Pastors do not comprise a fundamentally different category of Christian. They need not be world-class in their intellect, oratory, or executive skills. They are average, ordinary, healthy Christians, thinking for the flock, praying for the flock, and serving as examples for the flock, while among the flock, as they lead and feed the flock through teaching God’s word, accompanied with wise collective governance. The hearts of good pastors swell to Jesus’s charge in Luke 10:20: “Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” Their first and most fundamental joy is not what God does through them as pastors but what Christ has done (and does) for them as Christians.

Against Celebrity

On this note, and consonant with our remembering Tom Carson as an ordinary pastor-elder, I can’t help but share quickly Bonhoeffer’s lightning strike against “celebrity” instincts in the church, as he saw it in the 1930s German church. This is at the end of chapter 4 in Life Together:

Jesus made authority in the fellowship dependent upon brotherly service. . . . Every cult of personality that emphasizes the distinguished qualities, virtues, and talents of another person, even though these be of an altogether spiritual nature, is worldly and has no place in the Christian community. . . . One finds there [in the elder qualifications in 1 Timothy 3] nothing whatsoever with respect to worldly charm and the brilliant attributes of a spiritual personality. The [elder] is the simple, faithful man [ordinary!], sound in faith and life, who rightly discharges his duties to the Church. . .

The Church does not need brilliant personalities but faithful servants of Jesus and the brethren. . . . The question of [the church’s] trust . . . is determined by the faithfulness with which a man serves Jesus Christ, never by the extraordinary talents which he possesses. Pastoral authority can be attained only by the servant of Jesus who seeks no power of his own, who himself is a brother among brothers submitted to the authority of the Word. (84–85)

Such is Bonhoeffer’s call for ordinary elders: “a brother among brothers,” present in the life of the church and accessible. They invite, welcome, and receive input from the flock. They don’t presume to shepherd God’s flock in all the world through the Internet, but focus on the flock “that is among you” (verse 2) — those particular names and faces assigned to their charge — and they delight to be among those people, not removed or distant.

2. Not for Shameful Gain, but Eagerly

“Shameful gain” would be some benefit not commensurate with the work, or some gain that is against the gain of the flock, and the glory of Christ — whether money as the driving motivation, or power, or respect, or comfort, or the chance to perform, enjoying being on the platform. In terms of “eagerness,” the epistle to the Hebrews gives this important glimpse into the dynamic of Christian leadership as workers for the joy of the flock:

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:17)

Here is a beautiful, marriage-like vision of the complementary relationship between the church and its leaders. The leaders, for their part, labor (they work hard, as we’ve seen; it is costly work) for the advantage — the profit, the gain — of the church. And the church, for its part, wants its leaders to work not only hard but happily, without groaning, because the pastors’ joy in leading will lead to the church’s own benefit. The people want their leaders to labor with joy because they know their leaders are working for theirs.

“Pastors are glad workers for the gladness of their people in God.”

Christ gives leaders to his people for their joy. Pastors are glad workers for the gladness of their people in God.

For Your Advantage

How eager, then, might the people be to submit to such a leader? The prospect of submitting to a leader drastically changes when you know he isn’t pursuing his own private advantage but genuinely seeking yours: what is best for you, what will give you the deepest and most enduring joy — when he finds his joy in yours, rather than apart from or instead of yours.

The word “submission” has negative connotations today in many circles. But how might the charge to “submit” in Hebrews 13:17 and “be subject” in 1 Peter 5:5 change when we see it in the context of this vision of shepherding and oversight and pastoring as working for the joy of our people? There’s no charge to submit in verse 5 until verses 2–4 establish a context of “workers for your joy” who are willing, eager, and exemplary: they feed the flock, not themselves; they attend to the flock’s needs, not their own; they gain as the flock gains, not as the flock loses.

It’s amazing to consider what actions and initiatives and care are presupposed (and commanded) in the New Testament, from husbands and fathers and governors and pastor-elders, before the charge is given to submit:

husbands, love and be kind, not harsh (Colossians 3:18);
fathers, do not provoke your children to anger but joy (Ephesians 6:3);
civil governors, be God’s servants for society’s good, avenging wrongdoing (Romans 13:1; 1 Peter 2:13);
pastors, feed the flock through public teaching (1 Corinthians 14:34) and paying careful attention to (Acts 20:28) and keeping watch over (1 Timothy 4:16) the flock.

Pastor-elders are to give of themselves, their time, their energy, their attention, to work for the joy of the flock. Therefore, church, submit to your leaders. In Hebrews 13:17, negatively, God will hold the pastors accountable, and positively, it will be to your advantage, church, to your benefit, to your joy, if you let them labor with joy, for your joy, and not with groaning.

When leaders in the church show ourselves to be workers for their joy, we walk in the steps of the great shepherd — the great worker for joy — the one who bore the greatest cost for others’ good, and not to the exclusion of his own joy. He found his joy in the joy of his Beloved. “For the joy that was set before him [he] endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2). Or, as I just recently have been struck by in Isaiah 53:11, “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied.”

As workers for the church’s joy, we pastor-elders emphatically pursue gain — not shameful gain but the shameless gain that is our joy in the joy of the church, to the glory of Christ. Joy now, and joy in the coming shameless reward: “When the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:4).

3. Not Under Compulsion, but Willingly

Churches want happy pastors. Not dutiful clergy. Not groaning ministers. The kind of pastors our people want are pastors who want to do the work, and labor with joy for their joy. They want pastors who serve “not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have them” (1 Peter 5:2).

That is, God himself wants pastors who labor willingly, from the heart, not under compulsion. He wants us to aspire to the work (1 Timothy 3:1), and do it with joy (Hebrews 13:17). Not dutifully, or under obligation, but willingly, eagerly, and happily. And not just “as God would have you” because he’s requiring something of us that is different than his own character and actions. But “as God would have you” meaning “as God himself is” and does — literally “according to God” (Greek: kata theon).

It says something about our God that he would have it this way. He is the infinitely happy “blessed God” (1 Timothy 1:11) who acts from the boundless, immeasurable bliss of the eternal Godhead. He wants pastors to work with joy because he works this way. He acts from fullness of joy. He is a God most glorified not by heartless duty, but by our eagerness and enjoyment, and he himself cares for his people willingly, eagerly, and happily.

Happy pastors and elders, not groaning pastors and elders, make for happy churches, and a glorified Savior. Pastors who enjoy the work, and work with joy, are a benefit and an advantage, to their people (Hebrews 13:17).

Two Ways Toward Joy

Let me close with just two practical manifestations of this vision for what it might mean for you, as a pastor-elder (or aspiring pastor-elder), to be a worker with your people for their joy in Christ. One private, early morning one. One corporate, late-night one (at least late-night for us, as we do our pastors’ meetings every other Thursday night after our kids’ bedtimes). There are countless implications of this vision, whether for discipling, or counseling, or your scheduling and calendar, or sermon prep, or husbanding and fathering, or sleep and exercise, on and on. But let me start with just two.

What does it look like for me to pursue my joy in the joy of our people (to the glory of God)?

Alone Each Morning

In the words of George Mueller, my “first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day” is “to have my soul happy in the Lord.” Don’t hear this as an obligation but an opportunity — not first and foremost a “have to” but a “get to.” To feed on God, get our souls happy in him, not with the accent on us but on him. He gives, we receive. He speaks, we listen. We come hungry, and he says I am the bread of life. We come thirsty, and he says, Ho, everyone who thirsts come to the waters. Mueller says, “The first thing to be concerned about [is] not how much I might serve the Lord [what I might do for others’ joy] . . . but how I might get my soul into a happy state, and how my inner man might be nourished.”

How did he pursue this? Mueller’s focus, in his words, was “the reading of the word of God and . . . meditation on it” — oh the joys of unhurried, even leisurely, meditation on the words of God himself — “that thus my heart might be comforted, encouraged, warned, reproved, instructed; and that thus, while meditating, my heart might be brought into experiential communion with the Lord.”

How did he go about approaching God’s word? He would meditate, he said, “searching as it were into every verse to get blessing out of it; not for the sake of public ministry of the word; not for the sake of preaching on what I had meditated upon; but for the sake of obtaining food for my soul.”

He asks, “Now what is the food for the inner man?” He answers “the word of God,” and adds, “here again, not the simple reading of the word of God, so that it only passes through our minds, just as water runs through a pipe, but considering what we read, pondering over it, and applying it to our hearts” — in other words, meditation. He says at the end, “How different when the soul is refreshed and made happy early in the morning.”

So apprenticing yourself to God’s own joy, through his word, feeding on him, enjoying him, letting him satisfy your soul, and warm your heart — not for sermon prep, but food for your own soul — is the well from which we draw in pastoring from joy, for their joy.

Together as Pastors

How often in our call to govern, to lead through prayer and collective wisdom and decision-making for the church, do we find two (or more) options lying before us? This is a good moment to check ourselves. What is our framework for the decisions of leadership? It can be easy to slip into a selfish mindset: what is easiest, what’s most convenient for those of us sitting around the table. Without saying it, or thinking it explicitly, how might our preferences and comforts shape this church? How might church life be more convenient for us? Rather than asking, Which path, so far as we can tell, will be best for our people’s true joy in Christ?

But beware: when you ask a question like this, and answer in light of it, you find that it’s often the path that is more costly to the pastors and elders. But this is the work to which we are called, as workers for their joy. If our team of pastors and elders trends toward the personal preferences and conveniences of the pastors and elders, then we are not loving our people well. We are not working with them for their joy. We are using them for ours.

But when we are “workers for their joy” — knowing that Christ is most glorified in his church, when his church is most satisfied in him — then, from joy, we set aside our own convenience and personal preferences and together we labor for the joy of our people in Jesus.

Lovers of Good: Eyes of Hope in a World Gone Bad

An overseer, as God’s steward, must be . . . a lover of good. (Titus 1:7–8)

In times when the love of many grows cold, we will do well to pause over an overlooked Christian virtue that warms against the chill.

Not only is such a trait designed by Christ to be increasingly true of all Christians; it is required to serve in the church’s lead office.

To be clear, what Christ requires of his pastor-elders (1 Timothy 3:1–8; Titus 1:5–9) is not simply for qualification to enter the office. Rather, these virtues are the ongoing, daily graces needed to serve well in the office. Yet these too are the qualities Christ means to grant in growing measure to his whole church. Pastor-elders are examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:3). They not only labor at teaching and governing, to feed and lead the church, but they model, as a team, the Christian maturity toward which we hope all Christians will progress.

So, in days that seem embattled and divisive, it might be freshly helpful, if not convicting, to remember that Christians, with their pastors leading the way, are not to be known for circling wagons and battening down hatches. Rather, we are to be wide- and warm-hearted, maturely magnanimous, “lovers of good” (Greek philagothos), as Titus 1:8 obliges church leaders. That is the opposite of how Paul characterizes the last days in 2 Timothy 3:3: “not loving good” (aphilagathos).

What, then, might lead to, mark, and accompany such “lovers of good,” that we might discern whether we ourselves, and our leaders, embody what Christ designs?

1. Believe in good.

First, let it not go unsaid that those who love the good believe in good. In distressed days, such pastors and Christians still believe in good. They know their God — who is Goodness himself and the source and standard of all good — made this world and called it good. Good came first and is deeper than evil. And we know, in Christ, that whatever devastations evil has wrought, one day the sin and death which so pervade and pain us will be no more (Revelation 21:4), while good endures forever, as the one who is Good dwells with his people (Revelation 21:3).

“Lovers of good believe that true good is older, deeper, and will outlive the bad.”

Lovers of good believe that true good is older, deeper, and will outlive the bad. And even outside the church, in the darkest of places, still the light of good flashes for those with eyes to see. They believe it. And so too they look for it.

2. Look for good.

Those Christians who genuinely believe in good become the kind of people who are hopeful for good. Knowing Christ and his promises, they know that good is to come — it’s only a matter of time. They cannot long entertain cynicism, or stand to become Chicken Littles nervous that the sky is falling. Rather, they consider the present moment, with all its uncertainty, turbulence, and change, to be a great time to speak the gospel, press for conversion, plant churches, and pour fresh energy into global mission.

Philippians 4:8, addressed to the whole church, well captures what good pastor-elders model for their congregations in relation to their surrounding unbelieving society:

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Far from being a call to remove ourselves from the world and bunker down to think Christian thoughts in isolation, Paul’s charge is to engage the world, looking for the good, as argued by commentators Moisés Silva (Philippians, 196–98) and Gordon Fee (Philippians, 413–21).

Paul selects the verb consider (logizomai, to count or compute; rather than, as we might assume, phroneo, to set one’s mind). So also he chooses six adjectives and two nouns that are more typical of the first-century pagan society than the church. Along with his “if anything” double proviso, this comprises an exhortation, writes Fee,

designed to place them back into their world, even as they remain “over against” that world in so many ways. . . . Paul is telling them not so much to “think high thoughts” as to “take into account” the good they have long known from their own past, as long as it is conformable to Christ. (414–15)

Pastor-elders, as “lovers of good” (Titus 1:8), are to be men like this, who see the world with realistic yet hopeful eyes and can spot and point out the good, even as they warn of and reject sin and deception. But such leaders will not be content with looking for the good. Quite naturally (and supernaturally), their belief in the good, and hope for the good, will lead to their commending the good, and their own doing of good.

3. Do good.

Lovers of good are eager to “do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10). Christians in general, and pastor-elders in particular, are to be the kind of people, according to commentator Robert Yarbrough, who are “zealous to see that what is good flourish in and out of the church,” noting “a connection between this pastoral quality and the ‘good works’ enjoined on Titus and the congregations elsewhere in the letter” (Letters to Timothy and Titus, 486–87). This is a conspicuous thrust in Paul’s short letter to Titus:

In contrast to false teachers who are “unfit for any good work” (1:16), Titus is to “be a model of good works” (2:7) and so lead the church to be “a people . . . who are zealous for good works” (2:14).
Expressly in relation to their unbelieving society, Christians are “to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people” (3:1–2). It’s a charge that many of us today can scarcely rehearse too often.
And if that weren’t striking enough, Paul lays it on even thicker still: pastors will insist on the glories of the gospel (3:4–7) “so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works” (3:8).
Finally, note that Paul himself does not commend faithfulness without any concern for fruitfulness. Rather, he says, “let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful” (3:14).

Pastors — and increasingly their churches with them — are to be doers of good, not mere self-proclaimed lovers, deceiving themselves. Genuinely loving the good leads them to dream up ideas, take fresh initiatives, and do good that benefits all, especially those of like faith.

Love good.

Lest we conclude with the wrong emphasis, however, we return to the particular verbal concept Paul commends in Titus 1:8: love. A certain kind of heart is the heart of this requisite. As John Piper writes about “lover of good” as a pastoral qualification,

He should love to see good done and love to be involved in doing good. This is more than doing good. This is a bent and love to see it done. A kind of expansive person.

As much as we clarify that actually rising to do good, not armchair quarterbacking, will be the observable effect, the requirement is a condition of the inner man: he loves good. He believes in it, looks for it with a tangible hopefulness, commends it, and does it because he loves it — both good things and good people, in the church and beyond.

“The goal for every Christian, and a requirement for every pastor, is that he be a lover of good.”

Such lovers of good are not irritable or resentful; they do not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoice with the truth. In their very person, they are, and are becoming, the kind of people who embody the distinctively Christian love that bears all things, hopes all things, believes all things, endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:5–7). They demonstrate the wide hearts and capacious, expansive souls that, in time, become bracing evidence of a sinner’s supernatural encounter with God himself in Christ.

Love the Good First

In times that shrink some hearts, remember that hatred is not the heart of Christian ethics. We are first lovers of good, on God’s terms, and then, as a function of such love, are we righteously haters of evil. As Scott Swain observes,

The opposite of an error is not the truth. It’s the opposite error. Passionate resentment of falsehood is unlikely to make one the next Athanasius “contra mundum.” It’s more likely to make one the next Apollinaris or Eutyches (famous heretics).

There is a place for righteous anger in the Christian life. But it has to follow the right “order of operations.” Love of what is good breeds an appropriate abhorrence of what is evil. Hate, by itself, breeds no virtues, intellectual or otherwise.

And so we hear the apostle afresh in our day. The goal for every Christian — and a requirement for every pastor — is that he be a lover of good.

Pray This First

I grew up singing about God’s glory. Now I sometimes wonder what, if anything, went through my head and heart as I mouthed those words.

In church, we sang the major chords with gusto: “To God be the glory, great things he has done.” And I remember the more prayerful, “Father, we love you, we worship and adore you. Glorify thy name in all the earth.”

Such is the unspeakably precious, yet also challenging, heritage of being raised in a Christian home and in a faithful church — a gift I would not trade for any alternative. Many of God’s greatest gifts in this present age come with dangers. One danger in singing such (literal) glories from an early age is that priceless phrases like “the glory of God” can become mere religious slogans and church-talk — empty, in an immature mind, of the content that has led others, in generations before us, to take up such language with wonder and delight.

I was almost 20 years old when God opened my eyes (in a new way, if not altogether) to the meaning of his glory: its centrality in his creation and providence and in all the Scriptures, and the privilege and joy it is, in Christ, to daily consecrate one’s human life to glorify his name.

When You Pray

Luke 11:1 tells us that, after observing Jesus praying, one of the disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” Don’t let the weight of this moment be lost on you. The disciples have seen and heard him pray. They have observed his life, his manifest normalcy as human and yet his striking holiness that almost seems otherworldly. The request to receive Jesus’s instruction on “how to pray” must have rung in the disciples’ ears as a stroke of genius. Yes! Why didn’t we ask him sooner?! What will he say? Perhaps a few, picking up on his pattern of answering questions in surprising ways, braced themselves for some unexpected angle — and then found themselves surprised again that this time he would answer so immediately and directly.

How thrilled might they have been when he opened his mouth, with no delays or rabbit trails or disclaimers, and simply began to answer: “When you pray, say . . .” (Luke 11:2).

Matthew 6 reports another instance when Jesus modeled the same essential prayer, but this time in the context of his famous Sermon on the Mount. Here too his introduction had the same wonderful directness and immediacy: “Pray then like this . . .” (Matthew 6:9).

Unique First Petition

Before making any request or plea, Jesus first startles them with his address: “Our Father in heaven.” He is indeed modeling prayer for us, saying not “my Father” but “our Father.” And he draws together two seemingly opposite realities in doing so: the nearness and tenderness of God as Father, alongside the majesty and power of a Father who is in heaven. We might see here an anticipation of the six requests to come (Matthew 6:9–13) — in heaven, the magnificence of the first three pleas (verses 9–10), and in Father, the mercy of the final three (verses 11–13). A kind of three-and-three structure follows Jesus’s striking address.

Yet, as John Piper has observed, “There is something unique about the first petition.” Not only is there a genuine three-and-three, but also a one-and-five.

What Jesus Asked First

Again, imagine that priceless moment with the disciples, or during the Sermon on the Mount, with his followers on edge: What will Jesus pray first? This is it, his model prayer. This is how he himself prays, and how he says we should pray when we ask him to teach us to pray! Of all that Jesus might pray first, not just in any given prayer, but in the model prayer for us to learn and imitate, what will it be?

Hallowed be your name.

To clear away the Old English word hallowed and put it more directly into the modern tongue, “Father, let your name be made holy.” It’s an odd construction, though more typical in Greek than English: a third-person imperative, and in the passive voice. That is, instead of saying, “Father, make your name holy,” Jesus says, “Father, let your name be made holy.” It’s a request for God to see to it that others take action for the sake of God’s name.

So, this first petition includes two actors: not only the explicit one (God himself) but also implicit ones (the countless humans who will “sanctify him” or “make him holy” in their minds, hearts, mouths, and lives).

His Name Holy

What, then, of this word holy? How do we think about that, and does it relate, or not, to God’s glory?

Holiness, it is often summarized, relates to God’s separateness or otherness. He is separate from his creation and people, even apart from sin, and all the more with sin in view. As God, he is not common to our world and race, but holy. He is not just distinguished and different, but other — other, as Creator, from his creation and creatures, and other, as God, from sinners. In a sense, holy is an adjective for this unique otherness and distinct separateness of God the creator in relation to everything he has made.

“Holy means not only ‘separate’ but also ‘better.’ Our God is not just different from us, but we adore him for it.”

But beware, holiness is not mere separateness from creation, creatures, and sin. Holy implies other and better. Our God is not just different from us, but we adore him for it. He is distinct and marvelous.

The way his holiness, then, relates to his glory, is that his holiness is who he is as separate from us and better, and his glory is the visible and audible making known of his intrinsic value and infinite worth. Which means that to pray, as Jesus does, for God’s name to be made holy is to pray, in essence, for him to be glorified. “Father, may you be glorified! May your name be made holy! May you be seen and appreciated and praised, in my own eyes and in the eyes of all the nations, for your divine uniqueness and infinite superiority.”

Made Holy How?

This petition not only is the first out of Jesus’s mouth, in his model prayer, and thus assumes a kind of priority and importance, but it’s also distinctive in an important sense. Piper continues,

In this petition, we hear the one specific subjective response of the human heart that God expects us to give — the hallowing, reverencing, honoring, esteeming, admiring, valuing, treasuring of God’s name above all things. None of the other five requests tells us to pray for a specific human response of the heart.

Jesus’s prayer, and ours, that our heavenly Father’s name be hallowed doesn’t mainly refer to his glory in the skies above, or as seen in mountains and oceans below, or in plants and animals. Rather, the main referent is humans — thinking, feeling, willing humans. May his name be made holy, be glorified, in human minds and hearts and mouths and lives, beginning with the one who is praying, and extending into all the earth, across mountains and oceans, to all who dwell beneath the sky.

So, this first petition is both for the Father’s glory and for us to be instruments of his glory — that our Father in heaven be made holy first in our thoughts of him and our feelings about him. That we know him truly and enjoy him duly. That he be honored as holy in our mental perceptions of truth and in our emotional receptions of his beauty and worth. That we cherish him, delight in him, treasure him, value him, adore him, worship him.

Which leads, then, practically to how we might go about following our Lord’s lead, and doing so for a lifetime, but without language like “be glorified” and “hallowed be your name” growing old and becoming the very heaping up of empty phrases that Jesus warns about just breaths before his model prayer (Matthew 6:7).

May It Never Grow Old

One way to keep our daily prayers fresh and real, and particularly Jesus’s “pray this first” example of our hallowing the divine name, is to avail ourselves of the great breadth and depth of biblical and modern language at our disposal for both God’s objective value and glory as well as our own subjective God-honoring responses to him.

“His glory is far more precious than our repetition of the word ‘glory’ can adequately account for.”

So, we press into service a breadth of language for his glory: his honor, his praise, his name, his fame, majesty, splendor, dominion, power, strength, and beauty. We reach and stretch for words and concepts, from Genesis to the Psalms to the Gospels to Revelation, and in our own experience of God’s created world and redeeming grace. His glory — the shining radiance of his out-streaming holiness — is far more precious than our repetition of the word glory can adequately account for.

So too, in seeking to honor him, we press into service a depth of language for our joy in him: we adore him, marvel at him, stand in awe of him, delight in him, enjoy him, treasure him, cherish him, reverence him, esteem him, even hallow his name.

And as our hearts align with this plea — the hallowing of God’s name, which Jesus said to pray for first — the rest of our prayers (for both material and spiritual goods) will begin to fall into their proper place and proportion. God will indeed see to it that his name be made holy, that he and his Son be glorified, and that it begins in us, even as we pray.

Don’t Check the Boxes: My Breakthrough in Morning Devotions

I’ve been doing the same Bible-reading plan for years.

Quite simply, nothing has shaped me these last two decades like learning (and re-learning) to slowly work through the day’s assigned readings morning after morning, month after month, year after year. This particular plan has four short readings per day, and 25 days per month. It moves a reader through the full terrain of Scripture in twelve months. That makes for about fifteen minutes per day, at an average reading pace — which is too fast for Bible reading (more on that below).

Not that this habit of starting each day with open Bible (and coffee) is always clean and easy, but it’s far more automatic and enjoyable and fruitful now, twenty years later, than at the beginning. It’s amazing how a longstanding, daily habit can change you — not just in terms of psychological pathways and external actions, but also how a soul can be formed and conditioned.

We tend to overestimate how much we can change in the short run, and underestimate how much we can change in the long run.

Condition the Soul

Souls really can be conditioned, like bodies can be conditioned. In fact, our souls are perhaps all the more “conditionable” than our stubborn bodies (“brother ass,” as C.S. Lewis called the body). God made our minds and hearts to be trained and retrained. They are plastic, to borrow the term from neurology. You can train them in greed (2 Peter 2:14) or train them in godliness (1 Timothy 4:7).

“Souls really can be conditioned, like bodies can be conditioned.”

Among many profound benefits of starting each day with God’s voice is how this first-thing encounter with God through his word shapes, trains, and conditions our inner man. After years of Bible reading, I know I have a painfully long way to go, yet I don’t want to overlook the deep blessings and joys of early-morning soul-steeping in the word of God.

Why Not Check the Box?

Over the years, as far as I can tell, perhaps the single most significant “breakthrough” for me in daily Bible intake was learning to ignore those little boxes next to each of the daily readings. If you’re a box-checker, I cast no stones. I simply share my own weaknesses and flaws by testifying to the breakthrough. Silly as it may sound, when I stopped checking the boxes, something started to change in my attitude toward God’s word.

Why would I not check the boxes? There they sat, immediately to the left of each assigned passage — conspicuously empty, practically calling out to me to fill them. But what I began to own in my own soul is that ending each reading by checking a box was promoting or reinforcing the wrong approach in me. When the arc of my “time alone with Jesus” was moving ever toward checking a box, I was orienting on the wrong end. I needed to retrain myself, by omitting that final step, to reinforce in my soul that I wasn’t sitting in front of Scripture to accomplish the day’s first to-do. I wasn’t here to achieve. This was not labor but devotions.

“When I stopped checking the boxes, something started to change in my attitude toward God’s word.”

Later in the day, I might do the hard work of studying the Bible or working to produce some article or sermon. But for now, first thing in the morning, I had God’s word open first and foremost to receive, to see Jesus, to feed my soul on him. What my soul really needed to start the day was him, not some small sense of accomplishment. I needed to encounter and enjoy the risen Jesus, not cross off the day’s first task.

I know now that there is a little hit of dopamine in checking boxes and crossing items off a list. But in time, I grew unsatisfied with that. I didn’t want to confuse the joy of completing a task with the enduring depth and riches of finding my soul being fed, being genuinely made happy in Christ through his word.

In retrospect, I can see that learning not to check the boxes then led to several other dominoes falling.

Slow Way Down

At an average reading pace, it takes about 70 hours to read through the whole Bible. Break that up into 300 days (25 days per month), and you have less than fifteen minutes per day. When I was pressing to check boxes, I could knock out the day’s readings in ten or twelve minutes. And by the end of the fourth reading, I hardly could remember what I had read in the first or second, or even fourth, passage.

When I stopped checking the boxes, it helped me to remember that I wasn’t there to finish the readings but to feed my soul. This freed me to slow way down in my reading speed. I could read at the slowest, most deliberate pace I found enjoyable, and stop to re-read any sentence or paragraph that was particularly unclear, or especially sweet — and still the full time elapsed would be less than half an hour.

In the book Meditation and Communion with God, longtime seminary professor Jack Davis waves the flag for “a more reflective and leisurely engagement with Scripture” in our day (20). According to Davis, the nature of modern life, and the “information overload” we have through television, smartphones, and endless new media “makes a slow, unhurried, and reflective reading of Scripture more vital than ever” (22).

Off the Clock Devotions

Another domino that soon fell was learning to set aside enough time to be able to lose track of time. What some in the work world call “flow” I found to be immensely helpful for morning devotions. I needed to sit where I wasn’t staring at a clock, or hearing one tick, or checking the time every few minutes. The rest of my day so often seemed timed and on the clock. In these morning moments before the risen Christ, I needed to lose consciousness of time, to read slowly and re-read, to explore cross-references and rabbit trails across the canon.

Some days the first assigned reading met and fed me. Other days little to nothing struck me in the four short readings, and I would review them to find somewhere to linger and feed. But neither happened well “on the clock.” There was no reliable timeframe I could assign to genuine soul feeding. So I needed enough space to linger before God without rushing off to the next part of the day.

For starters, I’d recommend half an hour, with the glad expectation that it will grow over time as your appreciation deepens for these quiet, unrushed, morning moments over God’s word.

Move into Meditation

Finally, and most significantly, not checking the boxes freed me to move from slow, unhurried reading into meditation, and then from meditation into prayer.

As I would move through the day’s readings, I was on the lookout for some patch to pause and feed, to really press into my soul, a place to meditate over some particular word from Christ to me that morning. Such meditation is a lost art in our day — not Eastern meditation in which you empty the head, but biblical meditation in which you seek to fill your mind with God-revealed truth and seek to press it into the heart.

Meditation, then, can serve as a kind of “bridge discipline” between Bible reading and prayer. I used to finish reading the passages, check the boxes, and then pivot pretty unnaturally to praying through lists, for myself, my family, friends, ministry partners, and missionaries. Learning to move from unhurried Bible reading into a few minutes meditating on a particular paragraph or verse helped me to focus and feed on a specific divine glory for the morning, and then make that the springboard into and theme for my prayers.

Enough for Today

I won’t pretend that not checking the boxes is for everyone, but maybe like me you’d be helped to take some defiant step to remind your soul, “I’m here to enjoy Jesus.”

One last note: when I stopped checking the boxes, I no longer felt the pressure to “go back” and make up any readings I hadn’t completed the day before. This freed me to really focus on feeding my soul today, to “gather a day’s portion,” rather than try to make up for yesterday, or last week. I realize that for new Bible readers, it may not be quite so easy. You need context to understand verses aright. That’s important. But I would have you take heart that getting a more intuitive sense of the context grows tremendously over time, as you make the annual journey through Scripture, and supplement your reading with various studies.

As George Mueller (1805–1898) so memorably said, his first business every day was to have his soul happy in God.

Leaving the boxes empty has helped me with that.

We Long to Be Ruled: The Messianic Hopes in Every Heart

Christmas still enchants the West.

For all its public professions of secular faith, and for all secularism’s aggressive incursions into the collective psyche, we still make a big deal of Christmas. It is a wonder.

Granted, our age tries its best to empty Christmas of its Christ, and spends the rest of the year confessing trust in other messiahs, but beyond the obvious practical and commercial pressures, we continue to be haunted by the magic of Christmas. Try as they might to recast Christmas as anything other than Christian, mysterious longings deep in the human soul keep even the religiously secular from jettisoning what is still the most distinctive and stubborn day of the year.

Try as we might to suppress them, we all have messianic longings. We were made for Christmas.

Our Messianic Hopes

West and East, North and South, modern and pre-modern, we humans long for true leadership, for the true benevolent sovereign, for a king who will, in himself, embody and be all we need — a single, tangible, personal solution for all that ails us. That is, God made us for himself, and not only for himself but for himself become man.

“Beyond the obvious practical and commercial pressures, we continue to be haunted by the magic of Christmas.”

Before the Father of Jesus made the world through him, he first appointed his divine Son to be heir of all things (Hebrews 1:2). He made the world to await the coming of its King — his eternal Word made flesh — and he made human souls to long and look for such a singular, personal Hope.

For sure, our hearts not only manufacture messianic desires, but also idols — and chief among them, particularly in our age, is the idol of self. Not only do our factory settings include righteous messianic hopes, but sin has rewired us to angle tirelessly for self-rule. Our messianic longings, then, struggle against the grain and vestiges of our sin. But our hopes remain. The history of our race tells of one, young, Christ-figure after another, who in his youth embodies the enigmatic hopes and dreams of a nation, only to have his flaws and limits, without fail, grow conspicuous over time.

Lineage of Shattered Crowns

For centuries, God’s first-covenant people focused these universal longings on a promised coming “seed of the woman,” “offspring of Abraham,” “prophet like Moses,” and then, in full flower, a “Messiah,” great David’s greater offspring, a supremely Anointed one. This king would reign as God’s “son” over his nation, God’s “arm” to rule his people for their good, and rule over their enemies to protect his own.

To have only another David seemed satisfactory to some. Yet the prophets knew better. David himself had not fulfilled their messianic hopes and dreams. Nor had his son Solomon. One king after another ascended to the throne in his youth buoyed by the nation’s messianic hopes. And one after another disappointed those dreams — some, like Ahab and Manasseh, egregiously so.

But the answer to a king as wicked as Manasseh was not a return to the period of the judges, when the nation had no king and everyone did what was right in his own eyes (Judges 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25). Rather, the answer was a true king, a righteous king, strong and brave enough to defeat their foes, and gentle and good to shepherd his people — the king for whom we long at Christmas.

Their messianic hopes, and ours, include at least three distinct longings.

We Long for One to Rescue Us

In David’s day, the nation yearned for a deliver from the Philistines. Three centuries later, Isaiah’s generation longed for rescue from Assyria; two centuries more, and Jeremiah’s ached for release from Babylon. In Jesus’s day, the Jews longed for release from the heavy Roman hand, even as their forefathers had groaned for freedom from Egypt. Yet under it all was a far greater dominion and slavery — to sin. East of Eden, the original messianic longing in Genesis 3:15 was not yet eclipsed by human pretenses of some other solution: God promised, and so his people anticipated, an offspring of the woman who, even in the bruising of his heel, would crush the head of the serpent.

The messianic longing of Christmas in particular clears away the political distractions and hopes for salvation from an enemy far more destructive than Egypt, Babylon, or Rome: “you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Our world trains its messianic longings on politicians, athletes, and billionaires, but we need rescue from more than boredom, or from the other side of the aisle. Christmas reveals a rescue far deeper, the rescue from our sin that puts us under the righteous, omnipotent wrath of God. At Christmas, Messiah came to deliver us (Galatians 3:13; Romans 3:25; 1 John 4:10).

We Long for One to Respect

We want rescue; indeed we do. But something in us is not content just to receive deliverance and go on our merry way. We also want Someone to admire. We want a supreme role model. We long both for an exemplary human to learn from and imitate, but also for one far above us, worthy of worship. We long for a person in leadership we might treasure, not just put up with. We want someone who not only gets the job done and benefits us by his actions, but also one who, in himself, in his character, we might enjoy and admire.

We want a king we can be proud of, in the holiest of senses. A king who is worthy of our fealty. One who does not make us blush but evokes our praise — and gives us, and C.S. Lewis observes, the added delight of praising the one whom we enjoy, “because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment” (Reflection on the Psalms, 95).

At Christmas, we receive the one Messiah whose achievements and character are without fault. One who will never embarrass us. One who is both the ultimate man and God himself, worthy of our worship and humble imitation. One we can respect today, and not regret it tomorrow, or ever.

We Long for One to Rule Us

One final aspect in our messianic longings may be unnerving to many dreamers today: we long to be ruled. To pine for a messiah — for a singular, personal fix to all that ails us — is not only to hope for rescue, and for someone to genuinely respect, but also to be ruled. After all, what were you expecting a king to do?

At Christmas, we celebrate the coming of the King — the one appointed heir of all things, even before God created the world through him. And we remember that this “newborn king,” to whom we sing glory, not only had messianic hopes trained on him from birth, but that as he grew, and became a man, and gave himself as a ransom for many, and rose again in triumph, as he lived out the days God appointed for him, he did not let down our messianic expectations.

In fact, he is the only king in the history of the world to fully meet those expectations and exceed them. Finally, after centuries of the great hope deferred, Christ came to be the great desire fulfilled (Proverbs 13:12). The newborn king grew up to become the supreme King who rescues his people, and is worthy of their respect, and now rules over all the nations — with his people being those, from all nations, who receive his rule with rejoicing.

Do You Refuse His Rule?

A question, then, we might ask ourselves this Christmas is, Do I really welcome his reign? Or, do I refuse his rule? Has another year of the world’s influence engrained in me deeper patterns of yearning for self-rule?

“To refuse to be ruled is to refuse the Messiah.”

To refuse to be ruled is to refuse the Messiah. He did not come to fit into our pockets. He came to win, protect, and own a people who are very happy — even thrilled — to be in his pocket. That is, to be his. Not just have him as our Savior and Treasure but to be his as glad subjects of the great King and Lord who we know as “gentle and good” (1 Peter 2:18).

Oh, to Be His!

Those whom he rescues are “the many” who swell with respect for him and gladly submit to his rule. They are those who say, “Oh, to be his portion, to be his people — and not only his people, but together be his bride!”

We long not only to be subject to the one true gentle and good king as those among his many, but also somehow to be closer. To know him better than from a distance, and even to be known, and loved, by him. We ache not only to be among the king’s subjects but to be among his bride.

Suppress it as we might, we long to be ruled by the good and gentle Sovereign, and put our painfully short lives to good use in the world by rallying to his mission and kingdom expansion.

Christmas still enchants us. And as Christians, we say, Christ has come. Already now our Messiah has appeared, and we have him, and most importantly, he has us. And so too he will come again.

How Majestic Is Our Lord?

In 1977, California pastor Jack Hayford and his wife visited England during the Silver Jubilee — the twenty-fifth anniversary — of Queen Elizabeth’s 1952 accession to the throne. They were struck by the grandeur of the celebration and the manifest joy of the people in their monarch.

While there, they visited Blenheim Palace, birthplace of Winston Churchill and famous for the magnitude and stateliness some North Americans today know only through watching Downton Abbey.

Driving away from the palace, overcome with awe, Hayford found himself reaching for words — language that would transpose the weight of the earthly experience into the key of heaven. As he stretched, the word that seemed most fitting, both to describe the stunning magnificence of the palace and how it pointed to the superiority of the reigning Christ, was majesty.

According to a California newspaper’s retelling of the story,

As the Hayfords pulled themselves from that regal palace and drove away, Dr. Hayford asked his wife to take a notebook and write down some thoughts that were coming to him. He then began to dictate the lyrics, the key, and the timing to a song now being sung by Christians worldwide. (“Story Behind the Song: ‘Majesty,’” St. Augustine Record, August 13, 2015)

Hayford’s impulse to reach for the word majesty, however much he knew it at the time (perhaps influenced by Psalm 8?), was deeply biblical. Majesty is indeed a frequent and carefully chosen attribute in Scripture of the living God — a trait often overlooked in studies of the divine attributes, but an important witness of both the prophets and apostles. God’s majesty, a trait that sheds brilliant light on other well-rehearsed attributes. God’s majesty, a trait that is truly, deeply, wonderfully fit for worship, as Hayford intuited:

Majesty! Worship his majesty!Unto Jesus be all glory, honor, and praise.Majesty! Kingdom authority,Flow from his throne, unto his own;His anthem raise!

And God’s majesty is perhaps nowhere as highlighted as in the refrain of Psalm 8, both its first line and last: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”

Purple Mountain Majesties

Those, like Hayford, who reach for the word majesty often find themselves standing before or remembering some natural or manmade wonder that is both imposing and, at the same time, attractive. In our language, as in biblical terms, the word captures not only greatness but also goodness, both bigness and beauty, awesome power together with pleasant admiration.

Mountains might be the quintessentially majestic natural feature. Psalm 76:4 declares in praise to God, “Glorious are you,” and then adds, “more majestic than the mountains.” Alongside the illustrious plain of Sharon, which had its own peculiar glory, Isaiah’s hope-filled prophecy of future flourishing for God’s people hails “the majesty of [Mount] Carmel” (Isaiah 35:2).

Yet alongside mountains, we also might attribute majesty to gold or some precious material or gem, one fit for a king, that dazzles the eye with its beauty, as Job 37:22 links God’s “awesome majesty” with “golden splendor.”

Not only natural phenomena, but also the work of human hands, when on a grand scale, might have us reaching for majestic. Lamentations 1:6 mourns the loss of such civic majesty after the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon, and not long after, Nebuchadnezzar, Babylon’s king, professes to have built his city “by [his] mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of [his] majesty” (Daniel 4:30) — this, just before his great humbling.

How, then, does the common use of majesty for mountains and mansions, gold and cities, relate to attributing majesty to God, as does the refrain of Psalm 8?

What Is Divine Majesty?

Majesty brings together both greatness and goodness, both strength and beauty (Psalm 96:6). So majesty is not only a fitting term for mountain majesties but a particularly appropriate descriptor of God, who is, above all, “the Majestic One” (Isaiah 10:34).

At a critical juncture in the history of God’s old-covenant people, as they assemble under the leadership of David to dedicate their offerings for the temple, the king prays in 1 Chronicles 29:10–13:

Blessed are you, O Lord, the God of Israel our father, forever and ever. Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all. Both riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might, and in your hand it is to make great and to give strength to all. And now we thank you, our God, and praise your glorious name.

“Majesty brings together both greatness and goodness, both strength and beauty.”

Again, verse 11: “Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty.” So as we come to Psalm 8, first consider those three traits — greatness, power, and glory, which are often associated with majesty elsewhere — as revealing angles into the attribute of divine majesty.

His Is the Greatness

First and foremost is greatness.

The opening verse of Psalm 104 declares, “Bless the Lord, O my soul! O Lord my God, you are very great! You are clothed with splendor and majesty” (Psalm 104:1). Likewise, after their dramatic God-wrought exodus from Egypt, God’s people sing, “In the greatness of your majesty you overthrow your adversaries” (Exodus 15:7).

Later in Babylon, as Nebuchadnezzar tells of his great humbling and restoration, he speaks of his “majesty” returning to him “and still more greatness was added to [him]” (Daniel 4:36; see also 5:18).

Micah’s famous Bethlehem prophecy tells of a majesty that is greatness in one coming who will “stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth” (Micah 5:4).

Majesty often connotes some greatness in size, as with mountains and mansions: Ezekiel speaks of “majestic nations,” once numerous and powerful, but now humbled by God (Ezekiel 32:18). But that greatness also can include God’s divine right and prerogative, as God, to rule and do as he pleases. As David prayed, “Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours” (1 Chronicles 29:11). God has not only the might to rule, but also the right.

His Is the Power

Majesty also is tied to God’s power and strength. “Yours, O Lord, is . . . the power.”

Not only does Micah 5:4 connect God’s majesty with divine strength in shepherding his people, but Psalm 68:34 forges the bond even stronger:

Ascribe power to God,     whose majesty is over Israel,     and whose power is in the skies.

“Awesome,” says David, “is God from his sanctuary.” He is majestic not only in the power he possesses, but also in the power he generously gives: “He is the one who gives power and strength to his people” (Psalm 68:35). So also in Psalm 29:4 we hear,

The voice of the Lord is powerful;     the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.

His Is the Glory

Third, as David prayed, “Yours, O Lord, is . . . the glory.”

Of greatness, power, and glory, ties are deepest with the third. Which brings us to Psalm 8, and Scripture’s signature celebration of the majesty of God. Psalm 8 manifestly sings of glory — God’s glory, set above the heavens (verse 1), and man’s glory, from God, as one he has “crowned . . . with glory and honor” (verse 5). And so that memorable opening line, reprised as the final note, hails the majesty of God’s name:

O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Modes of Majesty in Psalm 8

Here, under the banner of God’s majesty and excellence as his glory, we find two levels, or modes, of his majesty. First is what we might call a natural mode: the heavens (verses 1 and 3), the moon and the stars (verse 3), and we might presume the quintessential natural majesties like mountains and seas, vast expanses that remind us of our smallness and the awe-inspiring bigness and power of the one who made such majesties.

But then, second, is what we might call a special mode of his majesty, which is the particular emphasis of Psalm 8: verse 2 mentions the mouths of babies and infants testifying to his strength in the face of foes, enemies, and avengers. And then, at the heart of the psalm, verses 3–8 marvel at his grace toward mankind. In view of such natural majesties as the heavens (“your heavens”!) and moon and stars, and mountains and oceans, “What is man that you are mindful of him?”

“Yet,” verse 5 — this is the “yet” of grace — God has made man “a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.” In such a majestic creation, God has made man, in his smallness and limitation, in the divine image, and given man “dominion over the works of [God’s] hands.” The beasts of the field and birds of the heavens and fish of the sea are to be subject to man.

So, we might see here natural majesty and special majesty. And Psalm 8, while acknowledging the obvious majesty of God in the bigness and beauty of creation, emphasizes “the unexpectedness of God’s ways” (Kidner, Psalms 1–72, 66) which further demonstrates his majesty.

He shows his greatness and power not only through his heavens and moon and stars and mountains but also by answering his foes with the praises of the weak. God shows himself majestic through the heavens and through humans (and in particular the ones we might least expect, the humble, those who seem least majestic).

“The point is not how great is man, but how graced is man — and how great is God.”

The point of Psalm 8 is this: God’s grace toward man is to the glory of his majesty. The point is not how great is man, but how graced is man — and how great is God. He is our God: “O Lord, our Lord.” He is majestic in greatness, power, and glory — and majestic in grace toward us, so much so that he is our Lord.

Language for Worship

And in this striking dignifying of humanity in Psalm 8, if there is any doubt where the accent falls, come back to the refrain: the first word in Psalm 8, and the last word lest we forget: how majestic is God’s name. The primary emphasis, as confirmed by verse 8, is “God and his grace” (Kidner, 68). And while in Psalm 8, we do indeed glimpse God’s greatness and power. The accent is on his glory.

And it is not a coincidence that David takes up this word majestic in Psalm 8 in what is a song of praise, because divine majesty is so closely connected to divine glory that we might even see the word majesty as providing God’s people with further language for expressing, commending, and marveling at his glory and beauty. Along with the word splendor (frequently paired with majesty), the term expands our vocabulary for glory.

Our God is so great, so admirable, so wonderful, so awesome in the eyes of his people, and so fearsome to his enemies, that the Hebrew kavod, Greek doxa, and English glory will not suffice. That is, not for his worshipers. We need more terms. We press more words into the service of worship. As we seek to keep speaking of him in his beauty, his power, his greatness, his glory, we grope for language: dominion, authority, splendor, majesty. At times, we even pile words upon words, as Psalm 145:5 does with “the glorious splendor of your majesty.”

Majesty, in particular, is emotive, or affective. It indicates greatness in sight or sound that is also wonderful. Bigness that is beautiful. Imposing size that is viewed with delight, imposing power received as attractive. While having significant overlap with divine dominion or lordship, majesty does more. Dominion and lordship are more technical and prosaic; majesty rings more poetic, with the awe of worship.

Feel His Majesty

In the end, it may be majesty’s poetic ring that makes it such a precious word and fit for worship. As Jack Hayford groped for language to voice the wonder rising in his soul far beyond the legacy of English tradition and the largeness of its palaces — that is, reverence for the living God — majesty came not as a technical, functional, denotive term. It had a feel. It communicated soul-expanding awe. It was a mouthing of worship — out of the mouths of babes and infants.

The choice of the word majesty, then, says something about the speaker. Majesty attributes not only greatness, power, and glory to God, but signals awe and wonder in the one who chooses the word. God’s friends, not his foes, declare his majesty.

In Egyptian eyes, God was not majestic at the Red Sea but horrific. His striking size and strength were not for them but against them. But in the eyes of Israel, in the sight of his people, their God was indeed majestic in his greatness and power, and worthy of praise for terrifying and wiping out their enemies (Exodus 15:7, 11).

Yet the main emphasis, we said, in Psalm 8 is God’s grace.

No Majesty, Now Majestic

This brings us to what the prophet Isaiah said about the enigmatic suffering servant: He had “no form or majesty that we should look at him” (Isaiah 53:2). From beginning to end, the earthly life of Jesus magnified the majesty of his Father. He glorified his Father. He so spoke, and so acted, that as Luke 9:43 reports, “all were astonished at the majesty of God.”

Yet, even then, there was a greater majesty to come. Luke continues, “But while they were all marveling at everything he was doing, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men.’” That is, he would add special majesty to natural majesty.

To natural eyes, he had no form or majesty that we should look at him. Now, he became to the eyes of faith the supremely majestic one. After the resurrection, eyes now fully awake to grace, Peter testifies of being an eyewitness to his majesty (2 Peter 1:16–17). And now, the one who humbled himself to the point of death, even death on a cross, has been super-exalted and seated at the right hand of Majesty.

“God is not only big, imposing, indomitable, omnipotent; he is beautiful, attractive, compelling, glorious.”

Which might remind us what Hebrews 2:8 comments about man in Psalm 8: “At present, we do not yet see everything subject to him.” But then he adds in verse 9, “But we see him,” we see Jesus, who — by virtue of his becoming man, suffering, dying for us, rising in triumph, and ascending to sit at the right hand of Majesty — has become the first to fulfill the vision of Psalm 8 with all things under his feet.

Perhaps you find yourself in need of fresh language for attributing greatness, and power, and glory to the God whom you worship in Christ. He is not only great but good — good in his greatness and great in his goodness. He is not only big, strong, imposing, indomitable, omnipotent; he is beautiful, attractive, stunning, compelling, glorious. He is the Majestic One, who delivered Israel at the Sea and his church at the cross, and now reigns over the nations. And so, we say with the psalmist, “On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate” (Psalm 145:5).

And we worship his majesty.

Ten Looks at Jesus, Part 2

In his extravagant generosity, grace, and mercy, he will lavish his people not only with entrance to a new heavens and new earth, where righteousness dwells, but on top of it all, he will reward his people for what good they have done “in the body” (2 Corinthians 5:10). On that great day, we will see it with our own eyes — and feel its full effects as recipients of his great mercy by faith: our advocate will stand supreme as final judge and complete the arc of his glories as the God-man.

We ended the first session, and Look #5, with why Jesus was despised, rejected, and crushed to death at the cross: for us, for “the many,” for those who receive him through faith (Isaiah 53:4–6). I noted there, at the end, “the joy set before him.” That, as Isaiah 53:11 foretold, “out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied.” In other words, it pleased him. He delighted to be put to death. His willing was not an empty willing but a full, satisfied willing — full enough to sustain him in horrifying agony and suffering.
But what such joy requires is resurrection. If Jesus stays dead, there is no joy, no delight, no God-honoring and church-loving willingness. But resurrection is right there in Isaiah 53:10–12:
Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;he has put him to grief;when his soul makes an offering for guilt,he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,make many to be accounted righteous,and he shall bear their iniquities.Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,because he poured out his soul to deathand was numbered with the transgressors;yet he bore the sin of many,and makes intercession for the transgressors.
So much there: substitution, willing submission, intercession (which we’ll come to). But for now, amazingly, resurrection:

Verse 10: “He shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.”
Verse 11: “He shall see [his offspring] and be satisfied.”
Verse 12: “I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death.”

The resurrection is not icing on the cake of Christianity. With Christ’s life and his death, it is the cake. If he did not rise, then he is dead — and it all falls apart. Unlike with sacrificial animals, appointed as a temporary provision, the once-for-all salvation is not accomplished without the resurrection of the suffering servant.
So before we go on, here are our five looks at Jesus so far:

He delighted his Father before creation.
He became man.
He lived for his Father’s glory.
He humbled himself.
He died for sins not his own.

Now, to the rest of our ten looks at Christ.
Look #6: He rose again.
Colossians 1:15–20 might be the most important six consecutive verses in the Bible. Here we find both creation and salvation cast in utterly Christ-centered terms:
[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
Jesus is “the firstborn from the dead.” During his life, all those he restored to life died again. But when Jesus rose again, he rose never to die again.
Our key term for Look #6 is resurrection. Which means not to be restored to your fallen, human body to die again, but to rise in your body to the indomitable life of the next age. It is a real body. In fact, we might even say a more real body. What will be true of us was true of Christ’s human body first. 1 Corinthians 15:42–44:
What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body [not a spirit but a spiritual body]. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.
So resurrection refers first to Jesus’s human body, then also, in him, to ours. And the resurrection of Christ not only made good on God’s word, and not only vindicated Christ’s sinless life, and not only confirmed the achievement of his death, and not only gives us access to his work, but the resurrection means he is alive to know and enjoy forever.
There is no final good news if our Treasure and Pearl of Great Price is dead. Even if our sins could be paid for, righteousness provided and applied to us, and heaven secured, but Jesus were still dead, there would be no great salvation in the end. At the very center of Christ’s resurrection is not what he saves us from, but what he saves us to — better, whom he saves us to: himself.
Look #7: He ascended into heaven.
Twice Luke writes about Jesus’s ascension. The first time at the end of his Gospel, Luke 24:50–51:
[Jesus] led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven.
Then, in more detail, at the beginning of Acts:
When [the disciples] had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:6–11)
So, Luke 24 says, “He parted from them and was carried up into heaven.” And Acts 1 says, “He was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” Then the angel says, “Jesus . . . was taken up from you into heaven.”
Jesus — in his risen human body — was lifted up, carried up, taken up, until a cloud shielded the sight of his apostles, and he was gone. And this was no novelty act. This was crucial for the presentation of his finished work in the very presence of the Father and for the fulfilling of the ancient prophesies of his sitting on David’s throne and ruling as sovereign over the nations.
Christ’s Coronation
Luke 24 and Acts 1 give us the earthly vantage of his ascension. But we also get a glimpse from the other side in Hebrews 1. His ascension, human body and all, brings him to heaven, and Hebrews 1 captures something of this great moment of his processing to the throne and being crowned king of the universe. Hebrews 1:3 says,
After making purification for sins [that is, through his death, and being raised and ascending], he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.
Hebrews 1:5 then takes the great coronation hymn of Psalm 2 and applies its Messianic declaration to Jesus as the heir of David: “You are my Son, today I have begotten you.” And Hebrews 1:6 says that “when he brings [carries, lifts up, takes up] the firstborn into the world [that is, “the world to come,” Hebrews 2:5], he says, ‘Let all God’s angels worship him.’”
All this to set the scene for Psalm 110 in Hebrews 1:13: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.” Not a full account, by any means, but a taste of that climactic moment of coronation on the other side of the ascension.
Enthroned as Man
There are two critical realities worth mentioning with his enthronement and sitting down. (1) In taking his seat on the very throne of heaven, he comes into the fullness of divine sovereignty, and now as man. As he says at the end of Matthew, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). It always was his as God. But now, he has come into full possession of the divine rule over the universe and all nations as man, sitting as the climactic human king on the throne of heaven.
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