David Mathis

Who Wrote Hebrews? Exploring a New Testament Mystery

ABSTRACT: For the first 1,500 years of church history, most Christians believed Paul wrote the letter of Hebrews. The resurgence in Greek scholarship at the time of the Reformation, however, revealed serious concerns with Pauline authorship, not least of which is the large stylistic discrepancy between Hebrews and Paul’s other letters. In the time since, though many have tried to tie authorship of Hebrews to others in the apostolic band — from Barnabas and Silas to Apollos and Luke — doubts still render the matter uncertain. Nevertheless, even in the absence of a known author, the authority of Hebrews rests secure. Christians for two thousand years have heard the voice of Christ in the letter of Hebrews, and possessing this God-breathed epistle is far more valuable than knowing its author.

For our ongoing series of feature articles for pastors, leaders, and teachers, David Mathis explores what we can and cannot say about the authorship of the letter of Hebrews.

“It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

Famously, that was Winston Churchill’s description of Russia in 1939 when asked about the nation’s intentions and interests. “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia,” he conceded. Then he added his zinger.

Over the years, many have sought to apply Churchill’s memorable line to other puzzles, such as husbands admitting (whether comedically or with genuine humility) to their inability to grasp the endearing mysteries of their wife.

In New Testament studies, the line may apply most aptly to the epistle to the Hebrews, one of the most enigmatic of the field’s enduring riddles. Romans and Hebrews, of similar length, may be the two great pillar epistles of Christian theology, and yet far more is known, and certain, about Romans. With Romans, we get the systematically reasoned heart of Paul. With Hebrews, we get another learned, powerful, complementary voice — but whose? Turning to Hebrews, one thinks about the strange Melchizedek figure and the complex argument of chapter 7, the arresting warning passages in chapters 6 and 10, and the opening catena of Old Testament quotations in chapter 1 that many readers struggle to understand in context.

William Lane begins his impressive two-volume commentary with this tribute:

Hebrews is a delight for the person who enjoys puzzles. Its form is unusual, its setting in life is uncertain, and its argument is unfamiliar. It invites engagement in the task of defining the undefined.1

And the biggest riddle of them all is information that church history, and the faithful today, do not consider to be lacking for any other New Testament document: who wrote it.

Could This Be Paul?

Unlike Paul’s epistles — and all other New Testament letters, except the epistles of John — Hebrews does not begin with the name of its author. Nor does it in any place divulge his name, or give any telltale clues as to his identity. The closest information we have is the mention of Timothy, as an associate, at the close: “Our brother Timothy has been released” (Hebrews 13:23). Assuming this to be the Timothy we know from Acts 16–20 and the epistles of Paul (and especially the two letters addressed to him), the author of Hebrews seems to be from the Pauline circle. So the question has long been, Might it be Paul himself?

“The canonicity of Hebrews stood essentially unchallenged by the end of the fourth century. Paul was presumed the author.”

When we consider the history of the recognition of Hebrews in the Christian canon, we cannot ignore the early assumption that it was from Paul. The extant records are not extensive, but the Eastern church plainly accepted Hebrews as Pauline. However, acceptance was slower in the West, though it solidified by the time of Augustine (354–430) and Jerome (347–420). The epistle’s strikingly high Christology proved valuable in combatting the Arian heresy, which confessed Christ as mere creature, not eternally God. The canonicity of Hebrews stood unchallenged by the end of the fourth century. Paul was presumed the author.

For the next millennium and more, that position remained essentially unquestioned as many read the Scriptures in Latin. However, new queries began to arise at the Reformation as scholars went ad fontes (back to the sources), read the Greek for themselves, and became comfortable enough in the New Testament to spot the stark differences in Paul’s typical style and that of Hebrews.

Some scholars, clinging to Pauline authorship, have attempted various explanations for the manifest differences in style. Perhaps Paul wrote in Hebrew, and Luke, say, translated the letter into Greek. Or maybe Paul cowrote with another member of the apostolic band. Perhaps Paul’s amanuensis (secretary) had a longer-than-normal leash, giving this epistle a distinctive style compared with his other thirteen letters. (Such a rationale suffices for the more moderate differences of the Pastoral Epistles, but not for Hebrews.)

However, the best argument against Paul as author comes in the letter itself.

Not Paul

Even though the author of Hebrews does not leave us his name, he does refer to himself in a revealing statement at the beginning of chapter 2 — and in doing so he speaks in a way that we can acknowledge, on good authority, that the apostle Paul emphatically would not speak.

Speaking of the Christian gospel (and the new covenant in contrast with the old) as “such a great salvation,” the author writes, “It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard” (Hebrews 2:3). Note carefully three parties in view here. First is “the Lord” Jesus himself. He not only came as the great salvation, and to accomplish the great salvation, but he told of it. He himself preached, taught, and declared it. Then Hebrews mentions a second group: “those who heard” — that first generation of apostles and Christians, who followed Jesus’s life, witnessed his death, saw him resurrected, and believed. They saw and knew and heard Jesus for themselves. Then the author of Hebrews puts himself in a third group: “it was attested to us by those who heard.”

Based on what Paul writes elsewhere, and how he reasons and understands his call as an apostle of Christ, Paul would not put himself in this third group, which received the message through another group, and did not receive it directly from the mouth of the Lord. For instance, Paul writes to the Galatian church about the gospel he preaches, “I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:12). Critical for Paul, as an apostle “untimely born” (1 Corinthians 15:8), was that he met the risen Christ face to face on the road to Damascus and received the truth, and his commission, from Christ himself.

Hebrews 2:3 thus leads many post-Reformation scholars to say, with Lane, about the author, “It is certain that he is not Paul.”2

Who Could It Be Now?

J.A.T. Robinson (1919–1983) comments in his 1976 book Redating the Testament about the writer to the Hebrews,

The mantle of the Apostle [Paul] has in part fallen upon the writer himself. He can address his readers with a pastoral authority superior to that of their own leaders and with a conscience clear of local involvement (Heb. 13:17f.), and yet with no personal claim to apostolic aegis. There cannot have been too many of such men around.3

Many have agreed that we’re dealing with a very limited pool of candidates, even if we can’t claim to know that pool exhaustively.

Tertullian (c. 160–220) suggested Barnabas, who partnered with Paul in gospel triumphs on the first missionary journey (Acts 13:1–15:35). Some have wondered whether the author’s closing reference to the epistle as a “word of encouragement” (13:22) might allude to the name Barnabas, “which means son of encouragement” (Acts 4:36). However, Paul and Barnabas didn’t remain in the same circle indefinitely. The two had “a sharp disagreement” about Mark and “separated from each other” (Acts 15:37–41), doing so before Paul met Timothy (Acts 16:1).

Others have suggested Silas (Silvanus), who was together with Paul and Timothy for the writing of 1 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, and 2 Thessalonians (and also helped with 1 Peter). Memorably, Martin Luther suggested Apollos, who appears to be “the kind of person who wrote Hebrews.”4 Acts 18:24 describes Apollos as a Jewish native of Alexandria, “an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures.” However, the train of early church fathers from the city of Alexandria does not mention Apollos as a possibility. Would the Alexandrian church have forgotten that one of its own authored such a masterpiece?5

In the end, the suggestions of Barnabas, Apollos, and Silas meet the same fate: we do not have writing samples from them to compare. However, we do have an additional candidate to mention from whom we do have extensive writing — and even then, it’s not conclusive.

Someone Like Luke

One of the first names to be suggested in church history was Luke. Origen of Alexandria (c. 184–253) found the epistle’s theology to be complementary to Paul’s but its style plainly foreign to his (“the verbal style of the epistle . . . is not rude like the language of the apostle . . . but . . . its diction is purer Greek”), and Origen wondered aloud about Luke or Clement of Rome (c. 35–99, not to be confused with Clement of Alexandria, c. 150–215). John Calvin (1509–1564) and the German Hebraist Franz Delitzsch (1813–1890) both went on record favoring Luke.

B.F. Westcott (1825–1901) claims in his Hebrews commentary that “no impartial student can fail to be struck by the frequent use of words characteristic of St. Luke.”6 Henry Alford (1810–1871) was also struck: “Readers of this commentary will frequently be struck by the verbal and idiomatic coincidences with the style of Luke-Acts.”7 Many have joined them in observing “resemblance of style” or “stylistic similarities.”

More recently, Southwestern Seminary professor David Allen published a full monograph in 2010 titled Lukan Authorship of Hebrews.8 There is indeed a case to be made for Luke. Students who have advanced enough in Koine Greek to know Hebrews well, and then read through Luke-Acts, will notice similarities of expression, with Alford and Westcott. Clearly, both Luke-Acts and Hebrews belong to a finer level of Greek than the rest of the New Testament documents. If we start with known authors of New Testament books, as Allen suggests, then Luke seems to be the clear choice. And if we could count Luke reliably as the author of Hebrews, we would have him as author of nearly a third of the whole New Testament (and perhaps also as Paul’s amanuensis for 1–2 Timothy and Titus).

However, we are not limited to known authors, and as Allen himself concedes in his commentary, the most we can say is that “someone like Luke must have been the author.”9 Lane captures the humbling truth: “The limits of historical knowledge preclude positive identification of the writer.”10

Canon Fodder

The question, then, that has attended the riddle about the epistle’s author is canonicity: If we cannot convincingly establish the identity of the author, can we reasonably receive Hebrews as part of the New Testament canon — the rule, or measuring stick, of our faith, Holy Scripture?

The church, as a whole and throughout time, has long held to relative certainty about the author of all other New Testament books. Of the 27 books, 21 were written by Paul (13) and members of Jesus’s original twelve — Matthew (1), John (5), Peter (2). In addition, we know the identity of four other New Testament writers, clearly associated with Christ and his apostles: Mark wrote his Gospel in association with Peter; Luke wrote his and Acts as a companion of Paul; James and Jude were (half) brothers of Jesus (Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3; Galatians 1:19; Jude 1), with James in particular serving prominently in early-church leadership (Acts 12:17; 15:13; 21:18; 1 Corinthians 15:7; Galatians 2:9). Apostleship, we might say, is at the center of canonicity, but not the entirety of it. For this reason, many have spoken of “apostolicity” and applied the adjective apostolic broadly.

Hebrews, then, pushes us one degree further. If it was written by Luke, we have no further concern, as his Gospel and Acts are recognized without question. But since we remain uncertain about Luke — or suspect another author who was not an apostle or close associate — then further rationale is needed.

In fact, we may have enough evidence to consider the author of Hebrews an associate of Paul’s and a member of the Pauline circle, since Hebrews 13:23 refers to “our brother Timothy,” who seems to have been well-known to both the writer and his readers. But we need not pretend to be more sure than we are. This uncertainty can serve us well. It presses us to answer the question of canonicity by another means: not by the identity of the author, but by the glory of God shining through Scripture.

Supernatural Encounter

John Piper makes the case — which applies so well to Hebrews. Leaning on 1 Corinthians 2:11–13 (“we [apostles] impart [the thoughts of God] in words . . . taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual”), Piper writes,

Apostolicity is the supernatural transmission of naturally incomprehensible reality to spiritually discerning people (“those who are spiritual,” 1 Corinthians 2:13), through writing that is “taught by the Spirit.” This means that the recognition by the church of the apostolicity of the 27 books of the New Testament was neither a mere historical judgment about who wrote the books nor a mere preference for some over others. Rather, the historical judgments and the corporate preferences were the outworkings of the supernatural encounter between the unique work of God in the writings (“words not taught by human wisdom”) and providentially discerning Christians endowed with the Holy Spirit (“interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual”).11

“The epistle, even without identification of its author, manifests the peculiar glory of God in Christ to his people.”

That “supernatural encounter” between Christ and his church, confirmed over generations, is key. The upshot, as this dynamic relates to Hebrews, is that the epistle, even without identification of its author, manifests the peculiar glory of God in Christ to his people, and as Michael Kruger writes, has been “understood to bear the essential apostolic deposit.”12 A.T. Lincoln summarizes, “In the providence of God, the church catholic rightly heard in Hebrews the apostolic gospel that witnessed powerfully to God’s decisive action in Christ and to its implications for faith and life.”13 To this, I would add, with Piper, that in the hearing the church has seen, for centuries, and continues to see, not only truth but beauty: the self-authenticating glory of Christ.

God Only Knows

Origen’s third-century statement on Hebrews has endured: “Who wrote the epistle, in truth, God knows.” We are not sure of his name, but we can surmise some important details about “the kind of person who wrote Hebrews,” whoever this “someone like Luke” was. Though not Paul himself, the author was part of the apostolic circle, and known to readers as proximate to Paul and Timothy. He likely had a Jewish background, with Hellenistic upbringing and training.

Scholars uniformly admire his Greek: “a master of elegant Greek”;14 “the most elegant stylist among the New Testament writers”;15 “the finest Greek in the New Testament, far superior to the Pauline standard both in vocabulary and sentence-building.”16 Andrew Trotter claims, “The writing of Hebrews is easily the finest in the NT, both in its use of grammar and vocabulary, and in its style and knowledge of the conventions of Greek rhetoric.”17

In the end, far more important than our having his name is our having the letter that the risen Christ breathed out for his church through this man.

Look to the Reward

From beginning to end, Hebrews sounds the consistent refrain, as many have captured it, Jesus is better. Not only as God, but now as man, he is superior to the angels (1:4; 2:9–10), “worthy of more glory than Moses — as much more glory as the builder of a house has more honor than the house itself” (3:3). Better than Joshua (4:8–10), better than David and Aaron and Melchizedek, he provides a better hope (7:19) through mediating a better covenant (7:22; 8:6). He has prepared for us a better country (11:16) and will raise us, after death, to a better life (11:35). Foreign as some parts of the letter may feel, we are called again and again, without riddle, to look forward, in the pursuit of real and lasting joy.

“From beginning to end, Hebrews sounds the consistent refrain, as many have captured it, Jesus is better.”

Whatever the standard of comparison, Jesus is better. He himself is our better and abiding possession, and our great reward (10:34–35). Hebrews summons us to seek such holy satisfaction, to know our God as one who “rewards those who seek him” (11:6), to release our grasp on the treasures of this age by “looking to the reward” (11:26), to “consider Jesus” (3:1), and run with endurance, “looking to Jesus . . . who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross” (12:1–2).

Riddle, mystery, and enigma though Hebrews may be, its vision and value have never been in serious doubt.

Two Truths About the One Percent

A church that genuinely, faithfully worships Jesus together each week is all the more prepared to live as the church each hour, and a church that lives as the church all week enjoys the sweetest worship together each Sunday.

At best, most Christians spend about one percent of our waking hours in corporate worship.
Here’s the math: If you sleep each night about seven hours (which most adults need, at minimum), and the weekly gathering of your local church is about 75 minutes —and you attend faithfully, essentially every Sunday—that makes for roughly one percent of your 120 waking hours each week.
Perhaps it’s striking to you, as it has been for me, to realize that most of us spend only one percent of our waking lives in the church’s weekly gathering. What a surprisingly small percentage this is (especially if we presume that church life essentially amounts to Sunday mornings). Not to mention what we give our lives to—and how much time—the rest of the week. Last year, according to one survey, the average American spent almost eight hours each day on new and traditional media. That adds up to more than fifty hours per week on our screens.
The gathering of our local churches is but a tiny sliver of our waking lives—ives now filled less and less with undistracted, productive labor, and more and more with consuming content through our devices. What do we need to remember about this surprisingly tiny and absolutely vital one percent called corporate worship?
Just One Hour
First, consider what a relatively small part of church life the weekly gathering is. However large Sunday morning looms in our conception of what the church is (which, as we’ll see below, can be for good reasons), we do well to realize that being the church is not a 60-to-75-minute weekly event. We are not only the church when we gather; we are the church as we scatter to our homes, schools, workplaces, and throughout town. We are the church, waking or sleeping, 168 hours per week.
One sad aspect of modern life in our unbundled, disbursed existences, spread apart by automobiles, is we tend to think of church as a single event each week, rather than an all-week, all-of-life reality. If we are in Christ, we are members of his body, 24/7/365. Church is not a weekly service; church is Christ’s people, called to daily lives of service, love, and worship, not just in the sanctuary but on our streets and all through our towns.
If being the church is just a single gathering, and not all week, how much can we really bless and be blessed by one another? When will we practice our precious New Testament one-anothers? A few quick minutes before and after the service will be woefully inadequate for the portrait the apostles paint of our life together.
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We Were Made for Thanksgiving: A Father’s Gratitude for a National Holiday

I thank God for Thanksgiving. Particularly this year, as a father of four, ages 11 to 4, I feel a fresh sense of awe, and gratitude, that my generally unbelieving nation pauses for a weekday each November formally dedicated to giving thanks.

It may seem like a trifle to most people. But for those with eyes to see, this is a dazzling ray of God’s common kindness in our day, however much we grieve the public commendations of sin and unbelief that surround us in other ways. Our heavenly Father “is kind to the ungrateful and the evil” (Luke 6:35). “He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). To his common kindnesses of beautiful days, human minds and bodies and words, friends and family, food and shelter — the everyday divine kindnesses we take for granted until they’re threatened or gone — add this annual mercy: Thanksgiving Day.

Whatever conversations it might prompt with neighbors and coworkers, the Thanksgiving holiday is also an especially rich opportunity for moms and dads. To be sure, if practicing thanksgiving happens only once a year in our homes, then our children will not be much better for it. But if this one day is a marker, a springboard, an annual emphasis and re-kindler that feeds a regular theme and habit in our families, then we have an occasion, in this one day, to highlight one of the most important realities God calls us to teach our sons and daughters.

Thanksgiving Honors God

When we ourselves give thanks to God, out loud for our children to hear, we model for them something very basic and profound about being human: we are created by God, for God.

God made us in his image (Genesis 1:27), and what do images do? They image. They reflect, display, make visible. They ensure the one being imaged is remembered and honored. God made us to reflect him and display him in the world around us. We image him through our visible actions and our audible (or written) words that give meaning to our actions. This fundamental purpose and calling makes thanksgiving essential to life.

Sin, however, mars our imaging. In Romans 1:21, the apostle Paul gives us a revealing glimpse into what has gone wrong in the human race: “although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him.”

We Did Not Give Thanks

At one level, our plight in this world is remarkably simple: God made us, and surrounded us with a world teeming with good, and we failed to thank him as we ought.

God showered us with warm sunny days, beautiful blue skies and green grass, stunning cloud formations to dazzle the eye and provide shade, trees bearing mouthwatering fruit, and the greatest wonder of all in the created world: each other and the marvels that are human bodies and brains. Our world, even now under the sway of sin, still abounds with God’s goodness and kindness. And we ourselves have been given life and countless blessings, even in our most trying of times and disabilities.

Our first response to God’s lavish provision, very simply, should have been to give him thanks. To do so honors the one who made us and provides for us. But we did not give thanks — whether from indifference or contempt — and so we dishonored him. We rebelled against one of the most basic purposes for our existence. To give God thanks honors him, and to honor him — our very design and calling as humans — includes giving him thanks.

Ingratitude, then, is no minor vice. And thanksgiving is no insignificant act for a creature designed to image God.

Feel God’s Pleasure

We were made to give God thanks. And when we do — and model it for our children, teaching them to do the same — we taste one of the great pleasures God made us to enjoy. As Olympian Eric Liddell (1902–1945) memorably said that God made him to run, and he felt God’s pleasure when he ran, so we all were made to give God thanks, and feel God’s pleasure when we do.

“Will our children grow up in homes that thank God daily, regularly, spontaneously, gladly?”

Yet we find ourselves, as fathers and mothers, with a call to raise the next generation, while living in times that celebrate pride, rather than humility. Our generation’s sense of entitlement is off the charts, and rising. Will thanksgiving be a trifle for our children? Will they assume grace, assume God’s provision, assume blessing, assume resources, assume ability, assume community? Or will they presume little, and learn to thank much and express it?

Will our children grow up in homes that thank God daily, regularly, spontaneously, gladly — even as Thanksgiving Day adds its annual exclamation point?

Jesus Gave Thanks

In the end, despite our many failures, we want to model for our children what it would be like for God himself to live as human. And when he did come as man, he gave thanks. Even as God himself, Lord of heaven and earth, Jesus embraced the fullness of the humanity he took at that first Christmas, all the way down to the basics of our flesh and blood — including thanksgiving.

He thanked his Father in prayer (Matthew 11:25–26; Luke 10:21), not just privately but out loud for his disciples to hear. When he fed the four thousand, “he took the seven loaves and the fish, and having given thanks he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds” (Matthew 15:36; Mark 8:6). And when he fed five thousand, he began the same way (John 6:11). So memorable, in fact, was his giving thanks that later John refers to the location where the miracle occurred as “the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks” (John 6:23).

“Jesus was the supreme human, and the supreme giver of thanks.”

Then, on the night before he died, Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to his disciples (Luke 22:17; 1 Corinthians 11:24). So too, after supper, he took the cup, gave thanks, and they all drank to the spectacularly gracious new covenant in his blood (Matthew 26:27; Mark 14:23; Luke 22:19). So pronounced was Jesus’s thanksgiving during that Last Supper that some traditions call the rite of remembrance “the Eucharist,” from the Greek for thanksgiving.

For Jesus, the God-man, giving thanks to his Father was no trifle. Jesus was the supreme human, and the supreme giver of thanks. Nor should thanksgiving be small for us, or for our children. What an honor, and pleasure, to not only taste for ourselves the joy of giving God thanks, but also share this joy with our children. Thank you, God, for Thanksgiving.

Do You Insult Your Savior’s Bride? What Jesus Thinks of His Church

“The church” this. “The church” that.

One way professing Christians betray a small, thin, and weak vision of the risen Christ is by dumping on “the church.” They might speak flippantly of what “the church” doesn’t get. Or what “the church” does wrong. Or the problem with “the church” in our day. They claim to know better than “the church.” If only they could fix “the church.” Having become concerned about an oversight, error, or danger they see in some Christians or churches, they’ve become careless with their words about the church — and particularly so when we consider what Christ himself says about her.

As much as we may claim to esteem Jesus, and desire to speak highly of him, we reveal gaps in our devotion when we broad-brush his bride with negativity, evidence strange biases against her, and feed into popular opinion by suspecting, seeing, spinning, and spreading the worst.

“We show how little we think of Christ by speaking endless negativity about his bride.”

Whatever the motivations (which are varied and complex), we demonstrate how subtly, and perhaps deeply, we have been shaped by, and conformed to, the course of this world, when we talk about “the church” in ways grossly out of step with our Lord. And we show how little we think of Christ, by speaking endless negativity about his bride.

Wife of the Lamb

Make no mistake, the church is his bride. How startling that Christ himself would risk such an image?

Not only did John the Baptist speak of him as such (John 3:29), but Jesus cast himself as “the bridegroom” who is taken away (Matthew 9:15; Mark 2:19–20; Luke 5:34–35), and whose return is delayed (Matthew 25:1–10). In one of Scripture’s final climactic statements, Revelation 22:17 says, “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come’” — meaning the church. In Revelation 21:9, the angel says, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.”

The church is Jesus’s bride, “the wife of the Lamb.” And when we admire a man, respect him, appreciate him, and reverence him, we are careful what we say about his wife — and all the more so in public. We check our suspicions. We are vigilant to not let personal disappointments fester into a global cynicism toward her. We go out of our way not to regard her, speak of her, or criticize her in his presence in any way that would puzzle or dishonor her husband. We show little esteem for a groom when we insult his bride.

So, those who genuinely admire and worship Christ will not only reverence his person but also his perspective. They will want to know, and remember, What does Jesus think of his church? What does Christ feel toward her? How does he talk about her?

He Chose Her

First, the great Groom’s choice of his Bride is remarkable. Not only is she “a chosen race” (1 Peter 2:9), but he chose her in her ungodliness, not because of any native beauty in her. The Father chose the church for his Son before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4), writing the names of his people in “the book of life of the Lamb who was slain” (Revelation 13:8).

Not only did Christ and his Father choose the church for her salvation, but also to be an instrument of divine revelation in the world. And not just an instrument, but the central vessel in making God known in his world in this age. The vision of the church is astoundingly, almost uncomfortably, high in Ephesians 3.

When Paul there offers praise to God the Father, he says, “To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus.” We expect “in Christ Jesus” as the focal point through which God’s glory is displayed — but here she is, his wife, side by side with Christ himself, the bridegroom: “to him be glory in the church.” This echoes the centrality of the church in making God known just a few verses prior: the manifold wisdom of God is being “made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” — and now he mentions only one instrument — “through the church” (Ephesians 3:10).

Disappointed as we may be with an unfaithful leader, or hurt as we may feel by particular people or ministries in a local community, we would do well to remember such a vision of the church — Christ’s own vision of his church. The church, worldwide and throughout the ages, is not mainly bringing reproach upon Christ. Rather, the church, alongside Christ, is bringing glory to the Father and making his wisdom known to all the powers, earthly and heavenly.

He Cherishes Her

Second, the church is not just a body. She is his body (Ephesians 5:22; Colossians 1:18, 24). “You are the body of Christ,” Paul says to the church (1 Corinthians 12:27).

In the best body reference of all, God not only has “put all things under [Christ’s] feet” as sovereign of the universe on the very throne of heaven, but also God “gave [Christ] as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:22–23). Christ’s vision and concern for his body boggles, stretches, and defies human explanation. Which might, at least, correct our uncareful speech.

Jesus loves the church as his own body. He emphatically does not hate his own flesh, but he nourishes and cherishes it (Ephesians 5:29). Jesus cherishes his church. He adores her, cares for her, gladly devotes his attention to her. He has pledged his loyalty to her, to be one flesh with her, to hold fast to her, to not give up on her, to never leave or forsake her. “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (Ephesians 5:25).

He Cleanses Her

Jesus’s awareness of his church’s flaws and failures is far more extensive than any human’s. He knows every detail of ongoing evil. He knows the sins we try to hide. Jesus’s high view of his church is not owing in the least to his turning a blind eye to, or any codding or soft-peddling of, sin. He died to cleanse his church of her sin. He does not take her sin lightly. He is his church’s “Savior” (Ephesians 5:23). No one takes sin in the church more seriously than Jesus. He knows the depths of her sin. Yet he still loves her.

“No one takes sin in the church more seriously than Jesus.”

He not only chose her (despite her sin) and cherishes her (despite her sin), but he also is cleansing her from her sin. He died to both secure his bride and to sanctify her, to make her holy (Ephesians 5:26). And he rose, and lives, to cleanse her “by the washing of water with the word” (Ephesians 5:26). Do our words echo his? Do we join him in washing her, cleansing her, sanctifying her, building her up with our words? Or do we oppose him, insult her, sully her, tear her down by the spirit we harbor and the words we speak in the world and post on the web?

The day is coming when Jesus will “present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:27) — when all will see “the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:2). Christ is preparing his church for the wedding, purging sin, adorning his bride for that day when she will be presented to him, and every eye will see her, at last, in unparalleled majesty.

Hard Words of Love

Here we might ask about Jesus’s own hard words for his bride. Isn’t it the Bridegroom himself who says these devastating words in Revelation 3:15–16? “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” Love for the Bride of Christ does not mean silence about the sins of particular churches and specific saints. But it does mean that we take care how we speak about those failures.

Part of cleansing the church means correcting her, but correcting her does not mean despising her, or painting her sins in broad strokes. When Christ confronts the churches in Revelation 2–3, he addresses specific churches with their own failures. And in correcting them, he also woos them back to himself. Notice even in Revelation 3:

Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. (Revelation 3:19–20).

Jesus doesn’t sit back in his armchair issuing criticisms about the church, however much indwelling sin remains, for now, in his people. He “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession” (Titus 2:14). He is redeeming his church from her sin, purifying her as a people for himself. There is no place for hopelessness about the future of the church. Jesus will build his church (Matthew 16:18), and he will cleanse her.

He Covenants with Her

Finally, Jesus makes lifelong — eternity long — promises to his bride. He covenants with her.

He will provide for and protect her. The gates of hell will not prevail against her (Matthew 16:18). “The righteous” — his church — “will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43). Stunningly, Jesus will “dress himself for service and have [his people] recline at table, and he will come and serve them” (Luke 12:37). And not only will he come to them; he will bring them to himself, to sit with him on his very throne: “The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Revelation 3:21).

For now, tears remain. We face death, battle remaining sin, endure mourning and crying, persevere in pain. Yet he promises, to his church, to “wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore” (Revelation 21:4). And this when we hear a loud voice from the throne saying,

Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. (Revelation 21:3).

And so we, his church, will receive the fulfillment of Scripture’s great, long-running promise: He will be our God, and we will be his people. He has pledged himself to us. We will have him. We will know him. We will enjoy him. We will dwell with him, forever.

His church is the people he has chosen to be among for eternity.

Would You Insult His Bride?

Jesus chose his wife before the foundation of the world. He cherishes her with energy and attentiveness. He cleanses her and prepares to present her pure and beautiful to himself. And he covenants to be hers, and with her, for all eternity. The Lord of heaven loves his bride. Does that not make you love her all the more? Does that not make you want to keep from carelessly speaking ill of her?

We do not whitewash the flaws of particular church leaders, or particular tendencies in sinful hearts. We do not cover for evil. Nor do we broad-brush the church, pretending to see and know flaws that are beyond our vantage nationwide, not to mention worldwide, and across the ages. And we don’t pretend the church is yet fully cleansed. Christ is still working on her.

When tempted to dump on “the church,” we who claim Christ will do well to remember his perspective, and his heart, and to speak with the grace and truth of our Savior toward his bride.

Workers for Your Joy: The Call of Christ to Christian Leaders

We live in an age that has become painfully cynical about leadership — some of it for good reason. Much of it is simply the mood of our times. And the underlying mood has only seemed to thicken and become all the more manifest in recent years, and perhaps especially in the last eighteen months.

Stories of use and abuse abound, and the letdowns make for big headlines. In the Information Age, we have more and quicker access than ever before to tales of bad leaders. In our own lives, we all have felt the sting of being let down by some leader in whom we had placed our trust. The pain and confusion are real. The wounds can be deep. We learn to guard ourselves from future disappointment. Cynicism can feel like a worthy shield.

But high-profile failures can mask the true source of our discontent with being led: we love self and come to pine for self-rule. Couple that with our generation’s distorted sense of what leadership is. When leadership has become a symbol of status, achievement, and privilege — as it has in many eyes — we desire to “be the leader” ourselves, not to bless others but to bless ourselves, get our way. And understandably, we become reluctant to grant anyone else that authority over us.

Led by God — Through Others

Into such confusion, the Christian faith speaks a different message. You need leadership. It is for your good. You were designed to be led. First and foremost by God himself — through the God-man, Jesus, who now wields all authority in heaven and on earth at the Father’s right hand. God made us to be led, every one of us. He designed our minds and hearts and bodies not to thrive in autonomy but to flourish under the wisdom and provision and care of worthy leaders — and most of all, under Christ himself. But there is more.

The risen Christ has appointed human leaders, in submission to him, in local congregations. Precious as the priesthood of all believers is — a remarkable truth that was radically counter-cultural from the first century until the Reformation — today we have need to articulate afresh the nature, and goodness, of leadership in the local church. We have an important kind of gracious inequality within our equality in Christ.

One of the ways Christ 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). The mention of “shepherds and teachers” is of special significance because it is intensely personal to you as a Christian. It includes the pastors of your particular local church (and note that pastors is plural). You’ve never met one of Jesus’s apostles (even as their writings remain precious to us beyond words!), but chances are you know a pastor. Faithful pastors are a gift from Christ to guide and keep his church today.

Are they flawed? Of course. Sinful? Regrettably. Have some pastors 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 morning: 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. My prayer is that these minutes will be useful to congregants and leaders alike in considering Christ’s call and what vision he himself has cast for leadership in the local church.

Teamwork: Good Men with Good Friends

I mentioned that pastors is plural. One of the most important truths to rehearse about pastoral 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. 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 is his. And he means for his undershepherds 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.

Shepherds Old and New

Let’s start with 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”), in which the good of the shepherd is bound up with the good of the sheep.

Preparing the Way

The concept of shepherding also has a rich Old Testament background, not just in the Patriarchs, and 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, brought them back, and sought them, but instead they have ruled 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

Micah prophesied 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 them life, and even give his own life for them.

Then, amazingly, at the end of the Gospel of John, when Jesus asked Peter three times — this same Peter — if he loved him, Peter said yes, and then Jesus said, “Feed my lambs,” “Tend my sheep,” and “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15, 16, 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 undershepherds — 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 iron rod. The shepherd’s rod is for protecting his flock: “your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4).

So there’s just a taste of the richness in this shepherding image and action as a verb: 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, but wielding a rod of protection toward various threats to the flock.

Three Ways to Exercise Oversight

Back to 1 Peter 5, the verb that then augments “shepherd” is “exercising oversight.” It’s the verb 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. In other words, as one of my fellow pastors, Joe Rigney, recently wrote about oversight, “Having seen clearly what they need to see about their flock, the pastors [need to] have the courage and compassion to act together with wisdom to do what is best for the sheep, especially through their teaching.”

Now, at the heart of this passage, Peter gives us three “not-buts” — not this but that. Verses 2–3: “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, [1] not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; [2] not for shameful gain, but eagerly; [3] 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 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); the kind of lordship Christian leaders should not have over those in their charge (Luke 22:25).

First and Foremost Sheep

This prohibition against domineering applies even for an apostle, as Paul says to the Corinthians: “Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith” (2 Corinthians 1:24). 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.

Christian leaders, as workers for the joy of their people, should not be controlling and domineering and lording over them. Rather, they are examples to the flock. Twice Peter says they 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 secure in soul and not blown left and right by the need to impress or to prove themselves.”

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, normal, healthy Christians, 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.

Good pastors, therefore, are secure in soul and not blown left and right by the need to impress or to prove themselves. They are happy to be seen as normal Christians — not a cut above the congregation, but reliable models of mature, healthy, normal Christianity.

Humbled and Happy

Another way to say it is that such pastors are humble, or humbled. After all, Peter charges “all of you” — elders and congregants — “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another” (1 Peter 5:5). Healthy churches are eager to clothe themselves in humility toward their pastors who have led the way in dressing with humility for the church.

Such pastors, humble in practice, not just theory, are 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 other benefit than the gain of the flock — 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)

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

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; 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.

Christ gives leaders to his people for their joy. Which turns the world’s paradigm and suspicions about leadership upside down. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:24, “Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy.” Pastors are glad workers for the gladness of their people in God.

For Your Advantage

How eager, then, would the people have been 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 verse 5, to “be subject to the elders,” change when we see it in the context of this vision of shepherding and oversight and pastoring that Peter lays out? 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 in the New Testament, from husbands and fathers and governors and pastors, before the command is given to submit:

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

Pastors 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, to your benefit, to your joy, if you let them labor with joy, for your joy, and not with groaning.

Unfading Joy

For those who are skeptical of leaders in general, what if you knew that “those who are . . . over you in the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 5:12) were not in it to stroke their ego, or secure selfish privilege, or indulge desires to control others, but actively were laying aside their personal rights and private comforts to take inconvenient initiative, and expend their limited energy, to work for your joy?

For those who are formal leaders in the church, or in the home, or in the marketplace, what if those under your care were convinced — deeply convinced — that your place of relative authority (under Christ) was not for self-aggrandizement or self-promotion, but a sobering call to self-sacrifice, and that you were genuinely working for their joy? That your joy in leadership was not a selfish pursuit, not for shameful gain, but a holy satisfaction you were finding in the joy of those whom you lead?

When leaders in the church show themselves to be workers for your joy, they 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).

As workers for the church’s joy, pastors emphatically pursue gain — not shameful gain but shameless gain — their joy in the good of the church to the glory of Christ. Joy now, and joy in the coming shame*less* 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 we all want are the ones who want to do the work, and labor with joy for our joy. We want pastors who serve “not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you” (1 Peter 5:2).

God himself wants pastors who labor from the heart. He wants them 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, happily. And not just “as God would have you” but “as God himself does” — literally “according to God” (Greek: kata theon).

“God wants pastors to labor with joy because he is this way. He acts from fullness of joy.”

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 joy. He wants pastors to labor with joy because he works this way. He acts from fullness of joy. He is a God most glorified not by raw duty, but by eagerness and enjoyment, and he himself cares for his people willingly, eagerly, happily.

Churches know this deep down: that happy pastors, not groaning 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).

Chief We All Want

Such are the pastors we all want. Of course, no man, and no team of men, will embody these dreams perfectly, but men of God learn to press through their temptations to paralysis and resignation because of their imperfections. They happily lean on Christ as the perfect and great shepherd of the sheep, gladly roll their burdens onto his broad shoulders (1 Peter 5:7), remember that his Spirit lives and works in them, and then learn to take the next courageous, humble step — ready to repent and retry if it was the wrong one.

As pastors learn to live up to these realistic dreams — albeit not perfectly, but making real progress by the Spirit — some aspects of our broken leadership culture will find healing. At least our churches, if not our world, will learn to lay down suspicions and enjoy God’s gift of good pastor-teachers.

Kindness in a World Gone Mad

I was waiting in line with my sons for a roller coaster when the T-shirt caught my eye: Kindness is free — so sprinkle that stuff everywhere.

I’m sympathetic to the message at one level. To many, the world feels meaner in recent years, and perhaps especially so since the last election cycle, COVID-19, and civil unrest. Yes, genuine human kindness, in the most basic of senses, has often been sorely lacking. More kindness would indeed be nice, and perhaps shine in new ways in times when we’re coming to expect meanness and outrage everywhere.

But as admirable as the instincts behind the message are, the initial claim is badly mistaken. No, real kindness — the kind we really long for and need — is not free. And perhaps it would help us all to come to terms with that up front. Real kindness is costly.

This Harsh World

Deep down, we know that we live in a mean world — too mean to keep the meanness constantly at the forefront of our minds. Yet at times — more frequent for some than others — the meanness, the evil afoot in this world, accosts us. Even as bright as some days appear, there is a “present darkness” (Ephesians 6:12), still under the sway of “the god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4). Pretender though he is, and numbered his days, his “domain of darkness” (Colossians 1:13) is real, and “the power of darkness” (Luke 22:53) treacherous.

And not only has the world out there gone mad, but far too often the sway of the world, and the indwelling sin in us all, brings that meanness in here, into the people who profess to be Christ’s. Tragically, the very people who are to make Jesus known by their love for each other (John 13:35) can be harsh, quarrelsome, impatient, shrill, nasty.

It’s only human to respond in kind. But Christ requires of his church what is more than human: respond in kindness.

Virtue in a Vacuum?

In part, internal conflict in the Ephesian church prompted Paul’s second letter to Timothy. At the letter’s heart, the aging apostle gives his protégé this arresting charge:

The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. (2 Timothy 2:24–26)

Christians have long celebrated kindness as one of the heavenly virtues. Yet we live in a day that often makes very little of kindness. We assume it’s free. We celebrate “random acts of kindness.” We think of kindness without context. Of course, in our mean world, it is pleasant to be surprised by a stranger’s kindness, free and random as it may seem. Sure, sprinkle that stuff everywhere. But the Christian vision of kindness is far deeper, more significant, and contextualized.

“Kindness is not random or free, but a costly, counter-intuitive response to meanness, rather than responding in kind.”

Christian kindness is no common courtesy or virtue in a vacuum, but a surprising response to mistreatment and hurt. It is not random or free, but a costly, counterintuitive response to meanness, to outrage, rather than responding in kind. As Don Carson comments on 1 Corinthians 13:4, “Love is kind — not merely patient or long-suffering in the face of injury, but quick to pay back with kindness what it received in hurt” (Showing the Spirit, 79).

Companions of Kindness

One way to see that Christian kindness is not random is to observe the kind of company it keeps, especially in the letters of Paul — who would be “the apostle of kindness,” if there were one. No one sprinkles costly kindness like Paul.

Among other graces, kindness often appears hand in hand with patience and compassion. Patience appears side by side with kindness, and in the same order, in 2 Corinthians 6:6 and Galatians 5:22: “patience, kindness.” So also, Paul presses them together in Romans 2:4, in speaking of divine patience and kindness: “Do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?”

So too, as we’ve seen, Christian pastors — “the Lord’s servant” in the midst of conflict — “must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, . . . patiently enduring evil” (2 Timothy 2:24). Kind to everyone — isn’t that surprising? The opponents here are false teachers. They must not be coddled or encouraged. Rather, they must be exposed and corrected — and yet that is no license to treat them harshly or with meanness. Opponents can be patiently endured and gently corrected. In fact, it would not be kind to a false teacher, or the church, to let him continue in error. Exposing his error and gently correcting him is kindness.

As for compassion, Ephesians 4:32 memorably explains the command to “be kind to one another” with the word “tenderhearted” (or “compassionate,” Greek eusplanchnos). Kindness is an expression of a tender, compassionate heart. Colossians 3:12 puts all three together, with humility and meekness: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”

Kindness, we might say, is a kind of secondary virtue. Compassion and patience, in various ways, make kindness possible. A compassionate heart leads to kindness, and external actions that give expression to that kindness. So also, patience makes internal kindness and its external acts possible. Patience gives emotional and practical space for kindness to ripen and move outward in physical acts. True kindness and its expressions (which are not random or free) complete and extend its companion virtues. The fruit of kindness needs the roots of patience and compassion, and they need kindness.

Costly Kind

Our young kids are still honest enough with themselves, and us, to admit to how costly kindness can be. When a sibling is mean, or someone on the playground, their natural response (and ours) is not to be kind, but to respond in kind. Which is why we consider kindness a Christian virtue — which doesn’t just happen spontaneously without practice and the enabling of the Holy Spirit. Kindness, Paul says, is the produce of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23; 2 Corinthians 6:6), not of the natural human heart.

Real kindness requires intervention from the outside, both from God’s Spirit and also his divine Son stepping into our mean world, showing us a different way, and doing it, climactically, to our eternal salvation and joy. As my wife and I have learned in almost fifteen years of marriage, kindness toward each other begins with God’s kindness toward us in Christ. Only then can we really find the resources to overcome evil with good, triumph over annoyance with patience, and rise above meanness with kindness.

In other words, the heart of how we become kinder — not with free, random, imitation kindness, but with thick, genuine, Christian kindness — is knowing and enjoying the kindness of God toward us, and doing so specifically by feeding on, and taking our cues from, the very words of God.

Behold His Kindness

Our world, in its rebellion and cosmic treason, is no meaner than in its meanness to God himself — God who is holy and just. And yet what shocking kindness he displays, even toward the unbelieving. Our heavenly Father “is kind to the ungrateful and the evil” (Luke 6:35). Even those who live the hardest, meanest of lives are surrounded by rays of God’s common kindness, as we might call it: beautiful days, human minds and bodies and words, friends and family, food and shelter, the everyday divine kindnesses we take for granted until they’re gone.

“Even those who live the hardest, meanest of lives are surrounded by rays of God’s common kindness.”

As Paul preached at Lystra, even “in past generations,” before Christ, when God “allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways,” he showed the unbelieving his common kindness, and “did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:16–17). Such kindness even in our day, gratuitous as it may seem to us, is not wasted. It is not random but has purpose: “meant to lead you to repentance” (Romans 2:4).

Yet in the fullness of time, “the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared” (Titus 3:4), bringing salvation — God’s special kindness — through faith in Christ. Such divine kindness not only brought eternal rescue for God’s long-chosen people, but it engrafts even strangers into God’s ancient tree of blessing through faith (Romans 11:22). Jesus is Kindness incarnate, whose yoke is not severe, but (literally) kind (Matthew 11:30). He is the Lord whom we, with new Spirit-given palates, taste as kind (1 Peter 2:3).

Kindness Coming

As Christ, by his Spirit, shows kindness to us, in his word and in our lives, he also forms us into instruments of his kindness to others. “God in Christ forgave you,” Paul says in Ephesians 4:32. Therefore, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another.”

Ultimately, it is the kindness of God that melts an unforgiving spirit, softens a hard heart, and transforms unkind actions. In Christ, we become the kind of people who see others, and have compassion for them, and exercise patience toward them, and show kindness to them, knowing not only that we ourselves have been shown kindness but that “in the coming ages [God himself will] show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7). We have only begun to taste the kindness of our God.

Two Truths about the One Percent: How Important Is Corporate Worship?

At best, most Christians spend about one percent of our waking hours in corporate worship.

Here’s the math: If you sleep each night about seven hours (which most adults need, at minimum), and the weekly gathering of your local church is about 75 minutes — and you attend faithfully, essentially every Sunday — that makes for roughly one percent of your 120 waking hours each week.

Perhaps it’s striking to you, as it has been for me, to realize that most of us spend only one percent of our waking lives in the church’s weekly gathering. What a surprisingly small percentage this is (especially if we presume that church life essentially amounts to Sunday mornings). Not to mention what we give our lives to — and how much time — the rest of the week. Last year, according to one survey, the average American spent almost eight hours each day on new and traditional media. That adds up to more than fifty hours per week on our screens.

The gathering of our local churches is but a tiny sliver of our waking lives — lives now filled less and less with undistracted, productive labor, and more and more with consuming content through our devices. What do we need to remember about this surprisingly tiny and absolutely vital one percent called corporate worship?

Just One Hour

First, consider what a relatively small part of church life the weekly gathering is. However large Sunday morning looms in our conception of what the church is (which, as we’ll see below, can be for good reasons), we do well to realize that being the church is not a 60-to-75-minute weekly event. We are not only the church when we gather; we are the church as we scatter to our homes, schools, workplaces, and throughout town. We are the church, waking or sleeping, 168 hours per week.

“Being the church is not a 60-to-75-minute event. . . . We are the church 120 waking hours per week.”

One sad aspect of modern life in our unbundled, disbursed existences, spread apart by automobiles, is we tend to think of church as a single event each week, rather than an all-week, all-of-life reality. If we are in Christ, we are members of his body, 24/7/365. Church is not a weekly service; church is Christ’s people, called to daily lives of service, love, and worship, not just in the sanctuary but on our streets and all through our towns.

If being the church is just a single gathering, and not all week, how much can we really bless and be blessed by one another? When will we practice our precious New Testament one-anothers? A few quick minutes before and after the service will be woefully inadequate for the portrait the apostles paint of our life together.

More Than One Percent

Being the church includes one-anothers we cannot fulfill with a single one-percent event: showing hospitality to one another (1 Peter 4:9), welcoming one another (Romans 15:7), having fellowship with one another (1 John 1:7, 11–12; 2 John 5), caring for one another (1 Corinthians 12:25), doing good to one another (1 Thessalonians 5:15), encouraging and building up one another (Romans 14:19; 1 Thessalonians 4:18; 5:11), and outdoing one another in showing honor (Romans 12:10).

The everyday one-anothers of the new covenant shine out all the clearer when life gets its hardest, in conflict and relational pain: bearing with one another (Ephesians 4:2; Colossians 3:13), being kind to one another (Ephesians 4:32), submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21) — not lying to one another (Colossians 3:9), not passing judgment on one another (Romans 14:13), not speaking evil or grumbling against one another (James 4:11; 5:16).

It requires more than just one percent to live in harmony and be at peace with one another (Mark 9:50; Romans 12:16; 15:5). So too, most importantly, with the climactic one-another: love one another (John 13:34–35; 15:12, 17; Romans 12:10; 13:8; 1 Thessalonians 3:12; 4:9; 1 Peter 1:22; 1 John 3:11, 23; 4:7), through bearing one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2) and serving one another (Galatians 5:17).

One growing error today, among Christians who have an impoverished view and experience of the all-week reality of the church, is to assume that the main ways to serve and do good in the church is to be “up front” on Sunday morning speaking, singing, reading, praying, preaching, or passing plates. Such assumptions betray an impoverished understanding of the 168-hour reality of being the church. After all, God “gave . . . the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11–12). The “work of the ministry,” to which the whole body is called, is not a half-hour message from one to the many, but the saints one-anothering and representing Christ in living rooms, coffee shops, backyards, and workplaces.

Most Important Hour

Then, side by side with putting the one percent in context, we also emphasize that corporate worship is our “single most important weekly habit” as Christians — and we might talk, with disclaimers, about the corporate gathering as “the single most important hour of the week” in the all-week life of the church.

Of course, who are we to say, from God’s perspective, what’s the most important hour of any given week in our individual lives? God may consider another hour of our week, when he calls us to sacrificial love, more important, and a higher spiritual service of worship, than the corporate gathering. Indeed, let’s make allowances for that. And we might still say, in general, by default, and as a local body, this is together our most important hour week after week as we gather to worship Jesus.

The reason corporate worship may be our single most important weekly habit, and one of our greatest weapons in the fight for joy, is that corporate worship combines three essential principles of God’s ongoing supply of grace for the Christian life: hearing his voice (in his word), having his ear (in prayer), and belonging to his body (in the fellowship of the church).

In corporate worship, we hear from God, in the call to worship, in the reading and teaching of Scripture, in the faithful preaching of the gospel, in the words of institution at the Table, in the commission to be sent as lights in the world. In corporate worship, we respond to God in prayer, in confession, in singing, in thanksgiving, in recitation, in petitions, in receiving the Communion elements in faith. And in corporate worship, we do it all together.

“God didn’t make us to live and worship as solitary individuals.”

God didn’t make us to live and worship as solitary individuals. Personal Bible meditation and prayer are glorious gifts and essential, not to be neglected or taken for granted, and all the more in the information age flooding our brains with other, often competing content. Our individual spiritual habits are appointed by God as rhythms for personal communion with him that thrive only in the context of regular communal communion with him.

One Hour and All Week

Corporate worship is only one hour in 168 each week — and only one percent of our waking lives as the church. And yet, our weekly corporate worship, gathered together to receive God’s word and respond in reverent joy, is our most important hour. We might feel like these two truths are in tension, but in the end, they are not. They are twins — friends, not foes.

Regular, meaningful engagement in the church’s most important hour of the week changes how we live, as the church, for the rest of the week, and how we live as the church in our 120 waking hours shapes our engagement in the one-percent event. A church that genuinely, faithfully worships Jesus together each week is all the more prepared to live as the church each hour, and a church that lives as the church all week enjoys the sweetest worship together each Sunday.

A Strange and Holy Calm: Holding Our Peace in an Age of Outbursts

My wife and I are investing in calmness therapy for our twin 11-year-old boys. It’s called youth baseball. The financial expenses pale in comparison to the deposits of time.

Baseball not only facilitates brain and body development, and teaches teamwork, but also produces contexts for learning to handle pressure and deal with failure. In other words, it provides avenues to cultivate self-control — the one virtue the apostle Paul saw fit to set before young men in Titus 2. After multiple charges each for older men, older women, and younger women (Titus 2:2–5), he gives a single focus for the young men: “urge the younger men to be self-controlled” (Titus 2:6).

Do not misunderstand. We do not want our boys to be unemotional; and they are not. They’re competitive, and they’re kids, prone to react without proper emotional restraint. Which is why youth baseball can be one valuable tool, among others, in seeking to build men. We want them to learn how to be composed under pressure, when the moment requires it, and give release to their emotions in the proper time and place. We want them to learn to keep their head when others are losing theirs, to not lose control in outrage or self-pity but keep a sober mind, aware that how they carry themselves and treat teammates, umpires, and the opposing team is far more important than winning a game.

At times, we cheer, and celebrate a win after the final out has been made. At other moments, we process the disappointment of errors, strikeouts, and losses. But in the ups and downs of the game — and in life off the field — our passions can push us to celebrate prematurely, or wallow extensively. We want our boys to learn how to stay calm in the storm, not by repressing emotions but learning to master them. In the heat of the moment, we want them to keep their wits, tell themselves truth, and stay calm enough to faithfully take the next step for their own good, and the good of others.

More than baseball players, we want our boys to become Christian men.

He Held His Peace

In a day when outbursts of emotion are not only accepted, but respected, and encouraged, it can be more difficult to raise men who learn to righteously “hold their peace.” It’s a curious phrase at key junctures in the history of God’s people. Some outburst of rage, or rash expression of anger or retaliation, is expected, yet a man of God, we’re told, “held his peace.”

First, we see it in the patriarch Jacob, when he hears that Shechem, prince of the land, “had defiled his daughter Dinah.” We expect an explosion. But “Jacob held his peace” until his sons could come in from the field (Genesis 34:5). It’s not that Jacob ignores or minimizes this outrageous act against his daughter, and family, but he maintains self-control until his counselors can gather and decide how to respond. Two of his sons, Simeon and Levi, do not exercise the same restraint and become Jacob’s foil. They come against Shechem with swords, and in doing so, bring “trouble on [Jacob] by making [him] stink to the inhabitants of the land” (Genesis 34:30).

So also Aaron, Moses’s brother and the first high priest. When his sons “offered unauthorized fire” before God and were consumed (Leviticus 10:1–2), we might expect Aaron to erupt with rage against heaven at the loss of his sons. Instead, Moses reports, “Aaron held his peace” (Leviticus 10:3) — not because he didn’t care, or wasn’t severely grieved, but because he revered God with a righteous fear and trusted God’s goodness, that he had done no wrong, painful as Aaron’s loss was.

King Saul, at the outset of his reign, before his falls from grace, demonstrated admirable restraint when dishonored. As the rest of the nation acknowledges and embraces him as its first king, the critics emerge, “some worthless fellows,” with their cynicism: “How can this man save us?” As king, Saul now has the power to dispose of such men, quickly and quietly. “But he held his peace,” reports Samuel, in an admirable demonstration of his early magnanimity (1 Samuel 10:27).

Slow to Anger

Most noteworthy, though, is God himself. He says, through Isaiah, to his rebellious people, “For a long time I have held my peace; I have kept still and restrained myself” (Isaiah 42:14). God has not ignored or discounted their sin; nor has he raged in an outburst of unrestrained fury against them. Later he pleads, “Have I not held my peace, even for a long time, and you do not fear me?” (Isaiah 57:11). Now he will act in justice, giving vent to his righteous anger, but none may reasonably charge him with rushing to judgment or the slightest impatience.

“In times that socialize us for outrage and outbursts, we need men who know how to hold their peace.”

In times that socialize us for outrage and outbursts, we need men not just like Jacob, Aaron, and a young Saul — who know how to hold their peace when the moment requires it — but also like God himself, who the Scriptures describe repeatedly as “slow to anger.” Significantly, when God reveals himself to Moses in response to the request “Show me your glory,” the first words the prophet hears are “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger” (Exodus 34:6).

Such divine composure, as we might call it, would become a legacy for the Israelites, that their God was slow to anger. Not without anger. He clearly stood ready to punish the guilty in time. And never before it was time, and never with an intensity that was unjust or in any way that wronged those he punished or disciplined. Yet, given the rebellion of his people, often outrageous, he was enduringly patient and markedly “slow to anger,” as prophets and psalmists alike would cherish (Nehemiah 9:17; Joel 2:13; Psalms 86:15; 103:8; 145:8).

So Too His People

The collected Proverbs of the nation made this striking application: As your God, so too his people. If God himself, by all accounts and remembrances, is indeed slow to anger, how can his people not seek to be like him?

Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding,but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly. (Proverbs 14:29)

A hot-tempered man stirs up strife,but he who is slow to anger quiets contention. (Proverbs 15:18)

Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty,and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city. (Proverbs 16:32)

Good sense makes one slow to anger,and it is his glory to overlook an offense. (Proverbs 19:11)

Here we see how God is forming and shaping his people: to have “great understanding”; to “quiet contention”; to be “better than the mighty”; to manifest “good sense” and the rare glory, in a world like ours, to overlook an offense. This God would save his people from hasty tempers, from exalting folly, from stirring up strife. So too in the New Testament, James extends this legacy to his Christian readers: “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19).

Jesus Whipped and Wept

But what of Christ himself, God incarnate?

In Jesus, we find full and holy humanity, along with expressions we might not label “calm,” yet are manifestly righteous. We do not picture Christ as calm when he made a whip of cords, cleared the temple, and overturned tables (John 2:15) — actions that prompted his disciples to remember Psalm 69:9: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

Nor would we call him “calm” when he came to Bethany in the wake of Lazarus’s death. “Deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled” (John 11:33), Jesus wept — visibly enough that onlookers said, “See how he loved him!” (John 11:35–36). Then he came to the tomb and was “deeply moved again” (John 11:38).

Nor would we think of his anguish in the garden as serenity. “Being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44). We don’t typically think of calmness as accompanied by “loud cries and tears” — but even here in Gethsemane, in his distress, he did not abandon reverence but was heard because of it (Hebrews 5:7).

We would go too far to pretend that Christ was always calm. There were moments he was righteously and manifestly moved by holy emotions. Though neither in the temple, nor in Bethany, nor in the garden, did he lose control.

Apart from a few exceptions, the Christ we encounter in the Gospels is stunningly calm. What composure, what self-control, what holy calmness he shows again and again when failed by his disciples, interrupted by the sick, imposed upon by the well-meaning, challenged by the sophisticated, and disrespected by the authorities. The one to whom our Christian growth conforms is one who was decidedly, manifestly calm, with only the rarest of, and most fitting, exceptions.

Not Stressed to Rule the Stars

But just as helpful today, as we seek to live with the pattern of holy calm that echoes our Lord’s, is his unshakable composure right now, seated on heaven’s throne. Indeed, we are not yet fully glorified. We are not yet beyond the reach of earthly storms, injuries, strange behavior, and surprising acts of evil in this unreasonable world. But our captain is. As his soldiers, we draw on his calmness as absolute sovereign and utterly invincible. His holy composure and admirable serenity are not only our model to follow but also, and most significantly, our hope to lean on.

Unlike the priests in the first covenant, standing daily in God’s service, ever in motion, “offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins . . . when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God” (Hebrews 10:11–12). The priests stood, but as John Piper comments,

Christ is not standing. He is not in perpetual motion. . . . He does happen to rule the world. And care for his church. But he doesn’t need to stand up to do it. According to Psalm 8:3, he made the stars with his fingers. It is no stress for him to rule one, infinitesimal planet without jumping out of his seat like a basketball coach, or pacing back and forth like a general waiting for news from the front lines. The accession of Christ to the throne of the universe — and his sitting on his throne with complete equanimity — is a signal to all his enemies, and to us, that this war has been won.

“The enemies of Christ hate calm and fearless responses in Christ’s people.”

The enemies of Christ hate calm and fearless responses in Christ’s people. They signal to Christ’s foes that their destruction is coming (Philippians 1:28). But more than that, holy calm, in the midst of our storms, makes us available to love others in the thick of crises, rather than being absorbed in our reaction.

Oh, for Christians like this in our day of outrage and outburst. And for men like this especially — for husbands and fathers and pastors — to be a non-anxious presence in our homes and churches. For men who lean on the stressless, complete equanimity of Christ, showing holy calmness through the emotionally trying and explosive moments in life and leadership, ready to be responsive without being reactive, engaged and even industrious without being frantic, able to hold their peace when needed, and bring genuine concord in our skirmishes, knowing the war has been won.

Feed His Sheep: Whom Does Christ Call to Preach?

“Gifted communicator” — it’s a popular way of saying “good public speaker.”

Of course, if we’re going to sit and listen for half an hour (or more!), we all appreciate that the speaker is “gifted” — with an engaging presence, interesting turns of phrase, animated face, pleasant voice, natural gestures, and appropriate demeanor. We want a speaker who hooks us with a captivating story, presents his material in a clear and orderly fashion, creates and relieves suspense, touches our emotions, and ends with a satisfying conclusion, leaving us inspired and renewed.

These elements, and more, make for good conference speaking. At conferences, some of the thrill can be the novelty, hearing a new voice and seeing a fresh face. But preaching in the local church is not conference speaking. Nor is it mere public speaking. Preaching in the context of local-church corporate worship is a unique kind of speech — what we might call “pastoral speech.” Compelling speaking alone cannot fulfill the call of Christ on his preachers. The point is not to satisfy attendees with a “gifted communicator” who they will bring their friends to see next week. Rather, preaching in the local church is, first and foremost, the calling of the duly appointed shepherds to feed Christ’s sheep.

This vision for preaching involves at least two critical and connected parts: the nature of preaching and the nature of pastoral ministry.

What Is Preaching?

Long before the telegraph, printed newspapers, and instant digital media spread information far and wide, town criers would herald news from village to village. The verb herald (Greek kērussō) is one of the main words for this kind of “preaching” in the New Testament (along with euangelizō). Preaching in that day was not whispering (Matthew 10:27; Luke 12:3), but a raised “outdoor voice” in the town square, for as many to hear as possible, so that news might spread as far and wide.

“Preaching in the local church is the calling of the duly appointed shepherds to feed Christ’s sheep.”

Such heralding is not normal communication but an authoritative, public declaration (requiring an appropriate volume and intensity). It is not a story or mere report, nor is it speculative. But it is an announcement with a very high degree of (if not full) certainty. It is not for mere entertainment, but commends a message, or person, for the trust and response of the hearers (1 Corinthians 1:23; 2 Corinthians 11:4).

“What we proclaim,” the apostle says in 2 Corinthians 4:5, “is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” Faithful preaching expects something of its hearers: faith, repentance, obedience (1 Corinthians 15:11).

Sent, Not Self-Made

True heralds are not self-made or self-commissioned but sent (Mark 3:14; Luke 4:43; Acts 10:36; 1 Corinthians 1:17). As Kevin DeYoung observes related to Romans 10:15 (“how are they to preach unless they are sent?”),

Preachers don’t just decide themselves that they want to preach. They must be sent. Preaching implies a commissioned agent authorized to preach. Rightly understood, there is no preaching that does not come from an authority . . . .

In the New Testament, we see preaching is interwoven with teaching (Matthew 11:1; Luke 20:1; Acts 5:42; 15:35; Romans 2:21; 1 Timothy 5:17; 2 Timothy 4:2), but the two are not identical. Preaching implies a kind of commissioned, authoritative public speech that overlaps with, but is not the same, as teaching. As John Piper highlights in Expository Exultation,

kērussō [“to herald or preach”] was ordinarily used to refer to a public heralding on behalf of someone with significant authority on a matter of great importance. It was not a kind of communication that simply transferred information or explained obscurities. It was communication with a comportment that signified the importance of its content and the authority of its author. (61)

Taking Preaching to Church

However, our question is not only about the nature of preaching in general, but specifically preaching in the context of the weekly gathering of a particular local church.

Here Piper highlights the significance of 2 Timothy 4:2: “preach the word.” Whereas preaching (as “heralding” or “proclaiming good news”) refers “most often to the public proclamation of a message to the world, not just to a church gathered for worship” (53), the apostle Paul “took preaching to church.” Paul highlights the need of professing Christians for ongoing gospel preaching (Romans 1:16–17; 1 Corinthians 15:1–4), and specifically charges his protégé Timothy (and other Christians pastors with him) to “preach the word” to the gathered church.

In one of the most solemn commands in all the Bible, Paul writes, “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:1–2). While this may be the only place in the New Testament where preaching is explicitly commanded in the weekly gathering of the local church, the command is not ambiguous. The very kind of declarative, authoritative, outdoor speech that spread the gospel from one village to the next now “comes inside,” so to speak, into the weekly life of the church.

“There is something about the peculiar speech involved” in preaching, writes Piper, “that belongs in the preaching of pastors to their already-converted people” (60).

‘Feed My Sheep’

Since Christian congregants already profess faith, what, then, is the aim of the preacher who “comes inside” to the gathered assembly? While the town crier, or evangelist, announces a message for new faith to those who do not yet believe, the Christian preacher, in corporate worship, aims to fuel the fires of existing belief — happy to spark new faith at the same time.

To use Jesus’s image to Peter in John 21, the Christian preacher aims to feed Christ’s sheep. And this is not easy work, but a weight for broad shoulders. Done well, it is costly. Preaching to the gathered assembly is not a privilege to enjoy and to demonstrate one’s own quality, but a burden to gladly bear for the good of the church.

Preaching, then, is not just public communication — even “gifted communication” — but spiritual feeding. Sermons, in the context of worship, nourish souls with the food of God’s word in Christ. They are meals carefully prepared, and presented, for the church for its spiritual health and welfare.

Which leads us to ask, then, Who does this weekly feeding?

Who Preaches?

Remember, we’re talking about weekly corporate worship in the local church, not conferences or even Sunday school. We’re asking, in light of the nature of preaching in worship, Who preaches? The answer that fits with both the nature of preaching, and the nature of pastoral ministry, is that the pastor-elders preach.

The shepherds (pastors) feed Christ’s flock. They are the ones, as teachers (Ephesians 4:11; 1 Timothy 3:2), officially charged to feed the flock (again, 2 Timothy 4:2), which includes giving instruction in sound doctrine, as well as exposing those who contradict it (Titus 1:9). It is pastor-elders who “labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:17). And not merely men, but pastor-elders, who “teach [and] exercise authority” (1 Timothy 2:12) — not as distinct callings but as two significantly overlapping prongs of a single calling.

So, when it comes to the week-in, week-out feeding of the flock in corporate worship, we look to the shepherds — the men God has specifically equipped, and formally called, to lead and feed the church.

Not All Christians Preach

“Preaching,” then, is a particular calling of the pastor-elders, and not for all Christians. There is general word ministry for all Christians, and then the specific calling to preach.

Every believer should take up the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Ephesians 6:17). We all should have the word of Christ dwell in us richly, “teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom” (Colossians 3:16). Whatever we do — not just in deed but in word — we “do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17). We all seek to “honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” — and “do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).

But not all are “preachers.” Not all “preach the word” in the gathered assembly. Christ expects and requires that kind of feeding to come from his undershepherds.

Central to Pastoral Call

To approach our question from another angle, we could ask, How will our pastor-elders shepherd the flock apart from preaching and teaching?

“Shepherds are feeders; they guide sheep to springs of living water through their teaching and preaching.”

Paul says to the elders of Ephesus in Acts 20:28, “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.” How will they care for the church? The verb here, literally, is to shepherd (poimainein). And shepherding in the church requires, among other labors, feeding the flock through teaching — as Jesus charged Peter to “feed my sheep” (John 21:15–17). Shepherds are feeders (Jude 12), as well as leaders and protectors; they guide sheep to green pastures (Psalm 23:2) and springs of living water (Revelation 7:17) through their teaching and preaching.

Preaching to the gathered assembly of the church is not only Christ’s gift to his church (for its ongoing feeding and faith), but also a vital tool in the hands of the church’s pastor-elders to complete the work to which Christ has called them. Which is why faithful undershepherds rarely pass the pulpit to guests, but rather endeavor, as a team, to steward the precious few opportunities they have to feed, shape, and encourage the flock entrusted to them.

Churches Need Shepherding

Preaching is not just public speaking. Many fine public speakers — stimulating as they may be in a conference setting — are not local-church pastors tasked with preaching as a function of their calling. Our churches need more than gifted communication; they need shepherding.

Rediscovering such a vision for preaching in the local church helps both pastors and their churches. We need to be regularly reminded to take our cues from the Scriptures, rather than the world — and all the more when it comes to those sacred moments each Sunday when the undershepherds strive to feed Christ’s sheep.

The Real Protestant Ethic: How ‘Faith Alone’ Sparks Industry

Even during his lifetime, many considered him “the First American.” The list of his accomplishments is astounding: first as an editor and publisher, then as a scientist and inventor, and finally as a philosopher and politician. A certified polymath, he founded not only the University of Pennsylvania but also Philadelphia’s first fire department.

Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) was born two years after Jonathan Edwards but outlived him by more than three decades — and made the most of his extra time. He invented bifocals, the lightning rod, and the Franklin stove. He served as ambassador to France. Remembered as a “founding father” of the United States, he rallied disparate colonies to unity, and even served as the first postmaster general.

According to biographer Walter Isaacson, Franklin was “the most accomplished American of his age and the most influential in inventing the type of society America would become” (Benjamin Franklin, 492). Franklin’s labors were seemingly indefatigable.

Over a hundred years later, still remembered for his industry and achievements, Franklin appeared to German philosopher Max Weber (1864–1920) to be the paragon of what he called “the Protestant work ethic.”

Weber was badly mistaken.

Grilling Weber

Weber, who made famous the phrase “Protestant ethic” in his 1905 book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, saw Franklin as “a near-perfect example of how Protestantism, drained of its doctrinal particularity, fostered modern capitalism” (Thomas Kidd, Benjamin Franklin, 3). Like Scottish economist Adam Smith (1723–1790), Franklin was raised in a Protestant, and Calvinist, home, where he learned his diligence, frugality, and industry. However, Franklin’s ethic, writes Kidd, came to be “detached from all direct connection to religious belief” as he “jettisoned Christian orthodoxy” (3–4).

At the outset of the twentieth century, Weber saw Franklin’s aversion to orthodoxy as an advantage for holding him up as his model. Weber wanted Protestant productivity without the drawbacks of Protestant doctrine. His errors, however, were twofold: first, he put a doctrinal label on an ethic emptied of doctrine; second, and even deeper, his understanding of “Protestant” was upside down. Weber’s doctrine-less “Protestant ethic” severed the fruit from the root, and also misunderstood the root to begin with.

In Weber’s eyes, Franklin’s “Protestant ethic” was an improvement on the ethic of his doctrinally particular forebears, who, he argued, sought to prove their election through prosperous work. As John Starke wrote in 2012, in response to the same error still appearing in The New York Times, “Weber’s book unfortunately multiplied myths about Protestantism, Calvinism, vocation, and capitalism. To this day, many believe Protestants work hard so as to build evidence for salvation.”

Whether Weber knew some self-proclaimed Protestants, Calvinists, or Puritans who accented this misconception, I would not doubt. But whether the Scriptures, and the Protestant movement and its spokesmen, teach this impulse, is not ambiguous. The lightning rod of the Reformation was justification by faith alone, and we will do far better than Weber, and any remaining heirs to his misconception, if we take our productivity cues from the electricity of this doctrine.

From Faith, for Work

Weber was onto something as an observer. Protestant theology changed not only the church; it changed the world. Full acceptance with God, by faith alone, unleashed industry. The rediscovery of Pauline justification produced hard work, and manifestly fruitful labor. But Weber failed to accurately explain why. He saw in Franklin a prodigiously productive man, and he hoped that perhaps the “Protestant ethic” could survive without its doctrine. But Weber overlooked how Franklin rode on the coattails of an upbringing steeped in that doctrine — and exactly how it produced such hard work.

The twin recoveries of the Protestant Reformation were the so-called formal principle of supreme authority (the Scriptures alone as final authority over all human authorities, including popes and councils) and the material principle of how humans get right with God (justification by faith alone, rather than human action, however righteous and good). Protestants emphatically do not believe that our labors secure God’s favor, nor that proving our election is the driving motivation for work. Rather, God, in his grace, declares the ungodly to be righteous before him through faith alone, on the basis of Christ’s perfect life, sacrificial death, and triumphant resurrection.

For Protestants, the first word, and the foundational word, about work is that the labor of our hands cannot get us right with God. Human effort and exertion, no matter how impressive compared to our peers’, cannot secure the acceptance and favor of the Almighty. God’s full and final acceptance — which we call justification — comes to us “by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24), not through our working, or even our doing of God-commanded works (Romans 3:28). God’s choice of his people “depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Romans 9:16), and so, fittingly, his final and decisive approval and embrace of his people is through their believing in him, not their working for him (Romans 4:4–5; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 3:5).

“The Christian faith — grounded in justification by faith alone — is the world’s greatest rest from human labor.”

The Christian faith — rightly understood, grounded in justification by faith alone — is the world’s greatest rest from human labor. Jesus invites “all who labor and are heavy laden” to come to him for his gift of rest (Matthew 11:28). And then in this rest, God supplies remarkable, even supernatural, ambition, through his Holy Spirit, for pouring out what energies we have for the good of others.

To argue that hard work and justification by faith alone are not at odds, Protestants love to point out that most of the Bible’s teaching on both topics comes from the same voice: the apostle Paul.

Liberated for Love, and Labor

In coming to Christ in faith, we receive another gift, in addition to justification: “the promised Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 1:13). The Spirit not only produces in us the faith by which we are justified, but he gives us new life in Christ, new desires, new inclinations, new instincts, new loves. By the Spirit, our coming into justified rest does not make us idle or lazy. Rather, Paul says, the Spirit begins to make us “zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14), eager and ready to do good (2 Timothy 2:21; 3:16–17; Titus 3:1–2), devoting ourselves to acts that serve the good of others (Titus 3:8, 14), in the household of faith and beyond.

The Reformation recovery of such ultimate rest for the soul produced a different kind of people. Not a lazy and apathetic people. But the kind of people with new energy and freedom, new vision and hope, fresh initiatives, fresh freedom from self, and new desires to expend self for the good of others — all of which we might call love. If there is a work ethic that we might properly call Protestant, this is it.

Fill Your Work with Doctrine

Where Weber desired “Protestantism, drained of its doctrinal particularity,” William Wilberforce (1759–1833), a century before Weber (and far more proximate to Franklin), wanted exactly the opposite. In Wilberforce’s mind, it was precisely Protestant doctrine that fed the fires of its work ethic. Remove the fuel, and the engine will stop. As John Piper observes,

What made Wilberforce tick was a profound biblical allegiance to what he called the “peculiar doctrines” of Christianity. These, he said, give rise, in turn, to true affections . . . for spiritual things, which, in turn, break the power of pride and greed and fear, and then lead to transformed morals which, in turn, lead to the political welfare of the nation.

And what Wilberforce meant by “peculiar doctrines” was, in essence, Protestantism: “human depravity, divine judgment, the substitutionary work of Christ on the cross, justification by faith alone, regeneration by the Holy Spirit, and the practical necessity of fruit in a life devoted to good deeds.” As in every generation, we are in great need of the peculiar and particular Protestant doctrines today.

“The most courageous and self-sacrificial people are those who know themselves to be right with God through Christ.”

In the power of the Holy Spirit, such doctrines will not make us passive. Rather, they will unleash energy and industry, new desires and dreams for how to practically love neighbor, and even enemy. The most courageous and self-sacrificial people in the world are those who know themselves to be right with God through Christ.

From Joy, for Joy

Such full-orbed, detailed, time-tested, biblically grounded, Protestant doctrinal particularity will fill our work and callings with meaning and power. And not just “at work,” but in the home and in the church and in society. For Christians, the concept of work and labor extends far beyond a “day job” and what others pay us to do.

Through faith, Christ is ours, and heaven. Eternity is secure. Even now, we have the Spirit. We are free to love and serve others without using them, and free to learn the lesson that a hard day’s work makes for a happier soul than a day of laziness and distraction.

So, we work, from joy, and for joy — with far deeper roots than Franklin, and for the glory of God.

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