David Mathis

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.

Teamwork Humbles Pastors: Four Ways Plurality Challenges Pride

“God gave us plurality because he’s a big fan of humility.” I was struck by how often Dave Harvey mentions humility in his new book The Plurality Principle on building and maintaining church leadership teams.

It’s not a new thought that a plurality — a team of pastor-elders, as opposed to just one — both requires and encourages humility. But what I did not expect is how often Harvey would sound the refrain for the pride-crucifying, humility-cultivating power of team leadership.

Harvey, like many of us, has seen and heard a lifetime’s worth of pastoral shipwrecks in recent years. Some of these leaders were formally peerless in their churches and ministries, but many others had fellow pastor-elders in name, and functionally little accountability, operating with special privileges and a long leash. In the end, too often one man was at the helm, when it could have been a team, and in time, the church, its witness, and the pastor himself came to suffer because it.

“When difficulties arise, do the elders suspect themselves first, not others, and serve others first, not themselves?”

“All Christian community tests our humility,” Harvey writes, “but being part of a leadership team is like sitting for the bar exam” (127). Then he observes, “Humility must be learned over time as individuals both suspect themselves first, not others, and serve others first, not themselves.” Suspect self first. Serve others first. That’s insightful, and a watershed of good leadership in the church: When difficulties arise, do the elders suspect themselves first, not others, and serve others first, not themselves? And what will determine which way the pastors will go?

“Humility is the oil that lubricates the engine of plurality,” writes Harvey. “If you want to know the foundational secret that lies beneath great teams, meetings marked by unity, personal elder care, and lovingly accountable relationships, it’s this: humility” (98).

How Plurality Humbles

Unlike the world’s vision of leadership as self-actualization and the accrual of privilege, a Christian vision of leadership has God, not self, at the center. Pastor-elders are not in it to build their own sense of confidence and self-worth. Rather, their calling is to make additional sacrifices, to bear extra burdens and costs, to point our fellow church members Godward in Christ.

Our need for humility grows the more we are surrounded by other people, especially when yoked in a calling to lead together. While humility is first and foremost a creaturely virtue in relation to our Creator, many of the great texts on humility come in the context of community (Philippians 1:27–2:5; Ephesians 4:1–3; 1 Peter 5:5–7).

Consider four ways, among many others, that team leadership humbles us.

1. Teams expose selfish desires and unholy ambitions.

The apostles warn us of the dangers of “selfish ambition” (Greek eritheia). James writes, “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice” (James 3:16; also James 3:14). Paul lists selfish ambition as one of “the works of the flesh” alongside “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, . . . dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (Galatians 5:19–21; also 2 Corinthians 12:20; Philippians 1:17; 2:3).

“Selfish ambition,” or “self-seeking” (Romans 2:8), is tragic in any human, and any Christian, and all the more in Christian leaders. And it is a special threat for lone rangers. Who will smell it out, and can challenge it, even in its subtle forms? Teammates. Men who are peers, of the same standing and similar perspective, and can tell when directions and decisions are self-seeking, rather than church-seeking.

There is often a fine line between putting self forward and the willingness to serve in visible, celebrated positions of leadership. Good pluralities (teams not just in name but in function) tend to expose such selfish desires and unholy ambitions and challenge them before they become deep-seated. As Harvey writes,

If you’re new to working with a team, you’ll soon see how often plurality uncovers and forces you to deal with the heroic dreams and fleshly desires you have for ministry. . . . To serve as part of a healthy elder plurality, a pastor must know his role, be willing to come under authority, learn humility, traffic in nuances that are neither black nor white, and be willing to think about his gifts and position through the lens of what serves the church rather than his personal agenda. Leading in community puts us under the spotlight. (29–30)

2. Teams encourage the right kind of disagreement.

Disagreements are inevitable in the church, and in every sphere of life. The question is not if they will come, but when and how. Healthy teams encourage the right kind of disagreements to happen early and often, in the context of trusting, regular relationships. Better to first hear the opposing perspective in private, from a brother and peer who manifestly loves you, than publicly, or from a tense call or letter, after a rash decision has been implemented.

It is humbling to hear a brother you admire and respect disagree with you. Then, it’s additionally humbling to realize you were short-sighted, or wrong, and to admit it. Leadership pluralities encourage healthy disagreement, in the right time and context.

3. Teams show us the joy of not doing it all.

It’s one thing to admit, as a leader, that you’re human and can’t do it all (in theory); it is another to go about your daily and weekly work as if you can indeed do it all. Teams play out that humbling truth before our eyes, moving it from theory to reality in our own heads and hearts.

For team leadership to thrive over time, writes Harvey, “Each man must believe that he needs the other men.” And seeing our need for each other, lived out before our own eyes, serves to dispel pretenses in us that we deserve the credit for ministry successes.

4. Teams try our patience, and produce better results.

Team leadership is typically not efficient, but it is effective — which is how God wants his church to be led.

“Team leadership is typically not efficient, but it is effective — which is how God wants his church to be led.”

When the “senior pastor” is essentially the church’s CEO, decisions and next actions can happen very fast. Teamwork, on the other hand, takes time. We need to synch schedules, have conversations, provide rationale, answer objections, write drafts, add appropriate nuances. Team leadership is typically not efficient.

But apparently, God isn’t all that interested in efficiency in local-church leadership. Which is worth pondering carefully in our day, when other organizations in society emphasize efficiency, not without good reasons. Yet not so with the church. The clear, unified testimony in the New Testament to plurality of leadership in the local church signals that Christ is more interested in effectiveness than efficiency in his body. Again, Harvey writes,

God loves unity, so he calls us to a team — a place where we must humbly persevere with one another to function effectively. God loves making us holy, so he unites us to men who will make us grow. God loves patience, so he imposes a way of governing that requires humble listening and a trust that he is working in the lives of others. God loves humility, so he gave us plurality. (99)

Harder, and Better

Teamwork in ministry is a precious gift. Surely, thousands of solo pastors around the world long for fellow elders and do not yet have them. May God be pleased to answer their prayers and steady their hands. There is grace too for a lonely calling.

Those of us who do enjoy the priceless gift of teammates, it can be all too easy to take them for granted. Team leadership is not always easy. Often it doesn’t feel efficient. Fellow leaders can feel inconvenient. At times, it may seem like leading alone would be better.

But leading together challenges and chastens our pride. It costs us personal comforts and convenience, but the gains for the church, and for our own long-term joy, far surpass the discomforts.

Did Jesus Exalt Himself?

Christ did not exalt himself. Both culturally and theologically, these can be surprising words to encounter in Hebrews 5:5. So also with Jesus’s own confession in John 8:50: “I do not seek my own glory.”

Culturally, we live at a time in which self-exaltation, self-promotion, and self-advocacy are increasingly cast in terms of virtue rather than vice. We expect self-exaltation, and even commend it. Assert yourself. Speak up for yourself. Put yourself forward. Yet one of Jesus’s most repeated teachings, increasingly at odds with our age, confronts our modern lifting up of self: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11; also Matthew 23:12; Luke 18:14).

Theologically, we have our questions as well. Many of us have come to learn, rightly, from the Scriptures, that God is the one being in all the universe for whom self-exaltation is the highest of virtues. But what does this mean for the man Christ Jesus as we see and hear him in the Gospels? He is both fully God and fully man. Did he seek his own glory — as is good and right and loving for God? If so, what do we make of the plain words in Hebrews and John that he did not?

Who Glorifies Whom?

In Scripture, to glorify, or exalt, or lift up, is sacred action and language. God made us to image him, to reflect and reveal him in the world, that he might be glorified and exalted. Before addressing the question of what it meant for Christ, as man, though God, to not seek his own glory, it may help to rehearse Scripture’s plain and repeated teaching about the pursuit of glory and exaltation.

God exalts God.

That God righteously (and lovingly) exalts himself is not Scripture’s most frequent teaching about the act of exalting, but it is plain and repeated — and theologically foundational.

It is no flaw, but indeed the highest of virtues, that God says, through the psalmist, “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” (Psalm 46:10). So too it is no flaw, but indeed virtue, for the psalmist to say to God, as rationale for his praise, “You have exalted above all things your name and your word” (Psalm 138:2). In his name and through his word, God has revealed himself, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness toward his people.

“God exalts God, and his people exalt him, and he exalts them, but his people do not exalt themselves.”

God’s self-exaltation comes not at the expense of his people’s joy, but in the service of their joy. As Isaiah says, “He exalts himself to show mercy to you” (Isaiah 30:18). When God moves to glorify himself — “Now I will lift myself up; now I will be exalted” (Isaiah 33:10) — rightly do his enemies cower, while his people rejoice. So too, in the Gospels, when Jesus prays, “Father, glorify your name,” a righteous and loving voice comes from heaven in response: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again” (John 12:28).

God’s people exalt God.

Then, without surprise, and with the greatest scriptural frequency, God’s people exalt him. This is the very heart and essence of our creation in his image: to glorify him, make him known, exalt him in the world. When humans exalt, or when humans glorify, God is to be the object of the sacred action.

Rescued from Egypt and the Red Sea, Moses and the people sing in celebration, “This is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him” (Exodus 15:2). We come to the bottom of our nature and calling as humans when we say with the prophet, “O Lord, you are my God; I will exalt you” (Isaiah 25:1), and repeat with the psalmist, “Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together!” (Psalm 34:3).

Jesus himself captured this profound calling in Matthew 5:16: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” The impression on Peter and the disciples was indelible. Among dozens of other instances of exalting or glorifying God in the New Testament, Peter echoed this basic human calling, now made Christian: “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that . . . they may see your good deeds and glorify God” (1 Peter 2:12; also 4:11, 16).

God exalts his people.

Sometimes those who have rehearsed the first two truths most can struggle with the third: God exalts his people. Not only are his chosen people predestined to Christlikeness, called, and justified, but they also are glorified (Romans 8:29–30). The Scriptures make stunning promises — almost too good to be true — about how God will glorify his people: being pleased with us, making us heirs with Christ of everything (Romans 8:16–17), serving us at table (Luke 12:37), appointing us to judge angels (1 Corinthians 6:3), ascribing value to us and rejoicing over us (Zephaniah 3:17), and (perhaps most shocking of all) granting us to sit with Christ on his throne (Revelation 3:21).

In the Old Testament, God moved to glorify or exalt the leader of his people. First, Moses; then, Joshua: “The Lord exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel, and they stood in awe of him just as they had stood in awe of Moses, all the days of his life” (Joshua 4:14; also 3:7). Then markedly so with David, as king, as he knew full well (2 Samuel 5:12; 22:49; 1 Chronicles 25:5). But not just prophets, leaders, and kings. To all his chosen people, he said, “Wait for the Lord and keep his way, and he will exalt you to inherit the land” (Psalm 37:34).

God’s exalting of his people is likewise explicit in one of Jesus’s most repeated statements, as we’ve seen: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12; also Luke 14:11; 18:14). And it’s applied particularly to Christians in James 4:10 and 1 Peter 5:6: humble yourselves before God, and he will exalt you.

God’s people do not exalt themselves.

At this point, however, the symmetry breaks down. Scripture here is gloriously asymmetrical, we might say: God exalts God, and his people exalt him, and he exalts them, but his people do not exalt themselves. Just as in the sacred language of exaltation, God is to be the object of human glorifying, so God, not man, is to be the actor when his people are glorified.

“Biblically, the path of human self-exaltation is a trail of tears and tragedy.”

Biblically, the path of human self-exaltation is a trail of tears and tragedy. Pharaoh, who oppresses God’s people as almost the serpent incarnate, is first to be tagged: “You are still exalting yourself against my people and will not let them go” (Exodus 9:17). Centuries later, the ancient head reared when David’s son Adonijah “exalted himself, saying, ‘I will be king’” (1 Kings 1:5), and rebelled not only against his own father, but against God.

Psalm 66:7 identifies “the rebellious” as those who “exalt themselves.” Proverbs 30:32 identifies “exalting yourself” with folly. Self-exaltation may feel attractive, and safe, in the moment, but God’s humbling hand will come in time.

The vision of Daniel 11 shows that the rebellion and folly of human self-exaltation is no small flaw or misstep. It is the spirit of antichrist. “The king shall do as he wills. He shall exalt himself and magnify himself above every god, and shall speak astonishing things against the God of gods” (Daniel 11:36). Paul too sees self-exaltation as the calling card of “the man of lawlessness” to come: “[The day of the Lord] will not come unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship” (2 Thessalonians 2:3–4).

Human self-exaltation is the spirit of antichrist. Meanwhile, human self-humbling, according to Paul, is the spirit of Christ: “Being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). Which brings us back to the question, Did Jesus glorify himself or not?

Did Jesus Exalt Himself?

The question about Christ’s self-exaltation is more challenging than what we’ve seen so far. Scripture is plain that divine self-exaltation and human God-exaltation are righteous, as is divine man-exaltation, while human self-exaltation is folly, rebellion, and even the very spirit of antichrist. Yet with Christ, we come to the unique and spectacular man who is also God, and the one person of the Godhead who is also man.

The Gospel of John in particular captures the marvelous complexities of the relationship between the man Christ Jesus, who is God, and his Father in heaven.

First, Jesus glorified God. As man, he gave his human life, from beginning to end, to the human calling, common to us all, to exalt God with our lives and words. “I glorified you on earth,” Jesus says to the Father on the night before he died (John 17:4).

Second, God glorified Jesus. The clear refrain as to who acted to glorify Jesus is God, both Father and Spirit. As Jesus says, “It is my Father who glorifies me” (John 8:54; also 13:32), and of the Spirit, “He will glorify me” (John 16:14). So too the book of Acts says it was “the God of our fathers” who “glorified his servant Jesus” (Acts 3:13). “God exalted him at his right hand” (Acts 5:31).

Third, God was glorified in Jesus. The glory of God and the glory of Christ are not competing but complementary glories (John 11:4). When Jesus is glorified, “God is glorified in him” (John 13:31). And Jesus tells his disciples to pray “in my name . . . that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13).

Fourth, then, comes the surprisingly human truth about Christ: Jesus did not glorify himself. This is what we saw in Hebrews 5:5 related to his calling as our great high priest: “Christ did not exalt [literally, glorify] himself to be made a high priest.” And this is what we heard from Jesus’s own mouth in John 8:50: “I do not seek my own glory; there is One who seeks it, and he is the judge.” He explains more in John 8:54: “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me.”

Fifth, and finally, comes the surprisingly divine prayer of Jesus to his Father on the night before he died: Jesus asked to be glorified, to the glory of the Father.

Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you. . . . Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed. (John 17:1, 5)

This is perhaps the place, on the eve of the cross, where Jesus’s pursuit of the Father’s glory seems most distinct from ours. Yet even here, in asking for glory, he is strikingly human. Here, in human words, with his fully human mouth and soul, he asks of his Father, rather than grasping or self-exalting, and he waits in faith. And his pursuit is Godward. He does not posture to “receive glory from people” (John 5:41; also Matthew 6:2) but seeks “the glory that comes from the only God” (John 5:44). And he aligns his Father’s coming exaltation of him with his human exaltation of his Father: “. . . that the Son may glorify you.”

God Highly Exalted Him

What, then, do we learn from Christ, both theologically and ethically, in our milieu increasingly at home with human self-exaltation and confused by self-humbling?

“Christ, as man, did not exalt himself. How clear, then, is our calling and path as humans and Christians?”

First, oh what wonders await us in the unique and spectacular person who is Jesus Christ — the one man who is God, and the one divine person who became man. As Paul writes, with awe, “In him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9). Which means we will need to beware of pigeonholing or of simplistic questions about Jesus. Who glorified Christ? Answer: God did — Father, Spirit, and Son. Christ, with regard to his humanity, did not (and does not) glorify himself; he is not guilty of human self-exaltation. And Christ, as God, the eternal second person of the Trinity, did (and does) indeed, without doubt, hesitation, or apology — and with the infinite energy and power of the Godhead — glorify himself. Christ, as man, did not exalt himself, even as he did as God.

As for ethics, and our lives as humans in these last days, we see afresh the folly, and rebellion, and even anti-Christian spirit of human self-exaltation. Even Christ, as man, did not exalt himself. How clear, then, is our calling and path as humans and Christians?

We were made, and we have been redeemed, for self-humbling, in service of God-exaltation. And there is great joy in this Christ-modeled pattern — perhaps we could even say “increasingly great joy” in a day when self-humbling might seem increasingly rare.

For Christians, as it was for Christ himself in human flesh, our being glorified, exalted, lifted up by God is not the problem, but our self-glorifying, our self-exalting, is the problem. God made us to be recipients of glory and honor from him, on his terms, not self-glorifiers and self-exalters on ours. And for those who humble themselves before him, he will indeed, without fail — in his “proper time,” not ours (1 Peter 5:6) — exalt them, even as he did for his own Son Christ (Philippians 2:9).

One Spectacular Person

All the fullness of God is found in this man Jesus. Full humanity and the fullness of deity. We marvel at his bigness and might and omni-relevance, and we melt at his grace and mercy and meekness, and all that comes together in one spectacular person.

Not only do books change lives, but paragraphs do. And not only paragraphs, but even single sentences. “Paragraphs find their way to us through books,” John Piper writes, “and they often gain their peculiar power because of the context they have in the book. But the point remains: One sentence or paragraph may lodge itself so powerfully in our mind that its effect is enormous when all else is forgotten.”
In fact, we might even take it a step further, to particular phrases. That’s my story. It’s been a loaded phrase, but a single phrase nonetheless, penned by Jonathan Edwards and printed in a book by Piper, that has proved life-changing: “admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies.”
Lionlike Lamb

As a sophomore in college (and with the help of some older students), I was becoming wise to the bigness and sovereignty of God, but I was still naïve about how it all related to Jesus. Help came when Piper published Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ.
At first, I read it too fast, and benefited little. But when I came back to it, and read each chapter devotionally (thirteen chapters plus the intro, so a reading a day for two weeks), it awakened in me a new love for and focus on Jesus.
The most transformative section of the book was chapter 3. The chapter begins like this, landing on the phrase from Edwards that lodged itself so powerfully in my mind:
A lion is admirable for its ferocious strength and imperial appearance. A lamb is admirable for its meekness and servant-like provision of wool for our clothing. But even more admirable is a lionlike lamb and a lamblike lion. What makes Christ glorious, as Jonathan Edwards observed over 250 years ago, is “an admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies.” (29)
No One Like Him

The life-changing phrase first appears in a sermon, “The Excellency of Christ,” preached under the banner of Revelation 5:5–6. Edwards says,
There is an admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies in Jesus Christ. The lion and the lamb, though very diverse kinds of creatures, yet have each their peculiar excellencies. The lion excels in strength, and in the majesty of his appearance and voice: the lamb excels in meekness and patience, besides the excellent nature of the creature as good for food, and yielding that which is fit for our clothing and being suitable to be offered in sacrifice to God. But we see that Christ is in the text compared to both, because the diverse excellencies of both wonderfully meet in him.
I was captured by the thought, and reality, that Jesus brings together in one person what no other men or angels — or even the Father or the Spirit — unite in one person. Lionlike strength and lamblike gentleness.
What I began to see for myself in those days is that Jesus isn’t just the means for humans to get right with the Father. Christ, the God-man, is also the great end. He is the fullest and deepest revelation of God to mankind. To see him is to see the Father. And the Father means for us to see, and savor, his Son as the great treasure of surpassing value, as the pearl of greatest price.
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‘Christ Must Be Explicit’: How 9/11 Changed Desiring God

September 11, 2001, was the day before my twenty-first birthday. I was leaving my first collegiate Classical Greek class when I heard someone say a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. He didn’t sound shocked; just intrigued. I assumed it must have been a small plane, surely an accident, perhaps even no fatalities. I walked back to the dorms, enjoying a few more minutes of peace.

That peace ended on my hall. Doors were open, televisions on. Shock and horror were plain. Now another plane — passenger jets? — had hit the other tower. This was coordinated terrorism, and the nation seemed under attack. We waited to learn whether more planes had been highjacked, whether more assaults would come.

As we come to the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, I suspect many readers have those first horrific moments emblazoned in their memory — where you were, how you heard, what you did for the next several hours. Most, like me, were tucked safely away from America’s largest cities. I can only imagine the experience of those hours, and days, in New York and DC.

Doubtless we remember the day far more than the ensuing weeks, but much was changing in those days. News was changing. Air travel was changing. New and deeper fears were stirring. And many of the changes are still felt and seen today, two decades later. As others pay tribute, and tell of those who died, of how it profoundly affected a nation, and the world, and the ripple effects that followed, my particular interest is theological. What mark did 9/11 leave on our faith?

God Without Christ

In those days, many Christians, churches, and ministries asked fresh questions with deeper interest — about the sovereignty of God, and the problem of evil, and the reality of Islam, the world’s second largest religion. But at the ministry of Desiring God specifically, the enduring theological legacy of 9/11 has been a deeper and more deliberate Christ-centeredness.

“The enduring theological legacy of 9/11 for us has been a deeper and more deliberate Christ-centeredness.”

A year and a half after the attacks, I was in my final month of college when I read a copy of Don’t Waste Your Life, which released that year. I can still picture the top of page 38, the words now emblazoned in my mind like images from 9/11.

I was familiar with John Piper’s own story in chapters 1 and 2 of becoming a “Christian Hedonist” and discovering the life-transforming truth that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. Now what I found on page 38 was new — at least new clarity, new precision, new explicitness. I had not heard Piper zero in so particularly before, at least in this way, with a seriousness about Christ-centeredness. Writing a little over a year after 9/11, he said,

Since September 11, 2001, I have seen more clearly than ever how essential it is to exult explicitly in the excellence of Christ crucified for sinners and risen from the dead. Christ must be explicit in all our God-talk. It will not do, in this day of pluralism, to talk about the glory of God in vague ways. God without Christ is no God. And a no-God cannot save or satisfy the soul. Following a no-God — whatever his name or whatever his religion — will be a wasted life. God-in-Christ is the only true God and the only path to joy. Everything I have said so far must now be related to Christ.

As Christians living in America at the beginning of the twenty-first century, we often took “God” for granted as the Christian God — the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Even in cities like Minneapolis, and all the more in rural areas, God was assumed to be the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

But 9/11 struck us right between the eyes — with terror inflicted by professing monotheists. To many of us, Islam had seemed so distant. Now, all of a sudden, it felt so close, and threatening. And theologically, the question that churches and ministries and Christian publications wrestled with in those days was, Is the God of Islam the Father of Jesus?

Bracing clarity awaited us. The New Testament was not birthed in the presumptions of increasingly post-Christian times. Rather, the early church was at the margins. The first-century world was flagrantly pluralistic. Now, in the harsh wake of the attacks, we began to see explicit, even shocking, Christ-centeredness from the Gospels to Revelation — and its profound relevance to the pluralism of our days.

The One Who Rejects Me

Jesus himself made it stark: “The one who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16). “Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him” (John 5:23). To reject Jesus on his own terms, as Islam does, is to reject the one, true God. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

“To reject Jesus on his own terms, as Islam does, is to reject the one, true God.”

Again and again, the events of Acts turn not on mere monotheism, or the name of Yahweh, but on the name of Jesus. We also were awakened, Desiring God included, to the striking Christ-centeredness we often overlooked in the Epistles. Amazingly, not only did “God the Father” now appear alongside “our Lord Jesus Christ” (more than fifteen times), but he was defined as “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 15:6; 2 Corinthians 1:3; 11:31; Ephesians 1:3, 17; Colossians 1:3; 1 Peter 1:3).

Paul’s letter to the Colossians is particularly explicit about Christ, and his supremacy, in its God-talk. In perhaps the most stunningly Christ-centered six consecutive verses in all the Bible, Paul celebrates Jesus as “the image of the invisible God,” and the one in whom, and through whom, and for whom, all things were made and exist — “in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:15–17). And not just this exhaustively in creation, but also in redemption — all salvation is in him, and through him, and for him (Colossians 1:18–20).

Later, Paul goes as far as to say, sweepingly, “Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11), and the apostle takes the all-encompassing charge of “do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31) and makes it explicitly Christ-centered: “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).

Litmus Test for All

It was not just Colossians that we turned to afresh in those post-9/11 days. It was the magisterial opening verses of Hebrews (1:1–4) and the Gospel of John (1:1–18), as well as John’s final apocalyptic vision at the end — with Christ, the Lamb, lighting the celestial city in the glory of God as its singular lamp (Revelation 21:23).

The implications were freshly clear for us: “No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also” (1 John 2:23). “Everyone who . . . does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God” (2 John 9). So, as Piper went on to say,

Jesus is the litmus test of reality for all persons and all religions. . . . People and religions who reject Christ reject God. Do other religions know the true God? Here is the test: Do they reject Jesus as the only Savior for sinners who was crucified and raised by God from the dead? If they do, they do not know God in a saving way. . . . There is no point in romanticizing other religions that reject the deity and saving work of Christ. They do not know God. And those who follow them tragically waste their lives.

If we would see and savor the glory of God, we must see and savor Christ. For Christ is “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). To put it another way, if we would embrace the glory of God, we must embrace the gospel of Christ. The reason for this is not only because we are sinners and need a Savior to die for us, but also because this Savior is himself the fullest and most beautiful manifestation of the glory of God. He purchases our undeserved and everlasting pleasure, and he becomes for us our all-deserving, everlasting Treasure. (38–39)

‘Through Jesus Christ’

In the months that followed 9/11, we realized at Desiring God, and at Bethlehem Baptist Church, that our beloved mission statement needed at least three more precious and clarifying words:

We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things, for the joy of all peoples, through Jesus Christ.

To be sure, Christ is not just the means. We not only do all we do as Christians through him but also, as Colossians 1:15–20 makes plain, in him and for him. He is not just the way, but also the life. He is not just the means, but knowing and enjoying him is also the great end. As Piper had said, It will not do, in this day of pluralism, to talk about God in vague ways. Everything must now relate to Christ.

Blazing Center of the Glory

For Christians desiring God — and the ministry called Desiring God — this has been a great legacy of 9/11.

We don’t say that lightly. We don’t say that without acknowledging the pain, and profound terror, experienced by many in those hours, or the casualties and their friends and family. As Christians, however, neither do we minimize the preciousness of fresh explicitness, and awareness, and appreciation, and worship of Jesus Christ crucified and risen for sinners like us. Perhaps you were among the number newly awakened to the treasure of Christ in the darkness of 9/11. Or maybe here twenty years later, at its remembrance, God would be pleased to stir you to the explicit glories of his Son that set the Christian faith apart from Islam, secularism, and every other confession on earth.

With that, perhaps Piper should have the last word:

Ever since the incarnate, redeeming work of Jesus, God is gladly glorified by sinners only through the glorification of the risen God-man, Jesus Christ. His bloody death is the blazing center of the glory of God. There is no way to the glory of the Father but through the Son. All the promises of joy in God’s presence, and pleasures at his right hand, come to us only through faith in Jesus Christ. (38)

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