Joe Rigney

More Shocking Than Christ: Why We Call Jesus Lord

One of the reasons to read the Old Testament is so you can be shocked at the right times when reading the New Testament. Philippians 2, for example, is a wonderful, glorious passage — but it becomes a shocking passage when read in light of Isaiah 45.

Isaiah 45 records the prophet’s oracle concerning Cyrus, king of Persia. Despite being a pagan ruler, Cyrus is the Lord’s anointed, his christ with a lowercase c (Isaiah 45:1). Though Cyrus does not know Yahweh (God’s personal name, Exodus 3:14), Yahweh knows Cyrus, names Cyrus, calls Cyrus, and equips Cyrus to fulfill God’s purposes by restoring the fortunes of Israel following their exile to Babylon (Isaiah 45:4–5). And Yahweh acts in this way so that all people will know that “I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God” (Isaiah 45:5–6).

“One of the reasons to read the Old Testament is so that you can be shocked when reading the New Testament.”

In fact, the uniqueness of the Lord becomes the dominant theme in the oracle of Isaiah 45. Again and again, Yahweh asserts his unique divine prerogatives. He alone is the Creator God. He forms light and creates darkness (Isaiah 45:7). He sends showers to the earth and causes plants to grow (Isaiah 45:8). He is the potter who forms the clay and the father who makes all mankind (Isaiah 45:9).

God Over All

Isaiah draws our attention back to Genesis 1:

Thus says the Lord,who created the heavens     (he is God!),who formed the earth and made it      (he established it;he did not create it empty,     he formed it to be inhabited!). (Isaiah 45:18)

Not only did he alone create the world, but he alone governs it from beginning to end.

Thus says the Lord,     the Holy One of Israel, and the one who formed him [Cyrus]:“Ask me of things to come;     will you command me concerning my children and the work of my hands?I made the earth     and created man on it;it was my hands that stretched out the heavens,     and I commanded all their host.” (Isaiah 45:11–12)

And not only is Yahweh alone the Creator God; he alone is “a righteous God and a Savior” (Isaiah 45:21). Yahweh is distinct from all the gods of the nations, since the pagans “carry about their wooden idols and keep on praying to a god that cannot save” (Isaiah 45:20). Yet even the nations will one day recognize the futility of their idols and acknowledge the God of Israel (Isaiah 45:14).

There Is No Other

Again and again in this chapter, the Lord, through his prophet, shouts that he alone is God. Hear the trumpet blast of God’s absolute uniqueness sound seven times in this one chapter.

Verse 5: “I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God.”
Verse 6: “There is none besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other.”
Verse 14: “They will plead with you, saying: ‘Surely God is in you, and there is no other, no god besides him.’”
Verse 18: “I am the Lord, and there is no other.”
Verse 21: “Was it not I, the Lord? And there is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none besides me.”
Verse 22: “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other.”
Verse 24: “Only in the Lord, it shall be said of me, are righteousness and strength.”

And that is why it is no surprise in this passage when Yahweh declares,

By myself I have sworn;     from my mouth has gone out in righteousness     a word that shall not return:“To me every knee shall bow,     every tongue shall swear allegiance.” (Isaiah 45:23)

As the only supreme God, he has no one greater by whom he can swear (Hebrews 6:13), and his sure and certain word establishes that all shall bow to him and him alone. Every tongue will confess that Yahweh is Lord.

One Shocking Name

But what is not surprising in Isaiah 45 becomes unbelievably shocking in Philippians 2. Like Isaiah, Paul is celebrating the anointed of the Lord, Christ Jesus himself. Whereas Cyrus did not know the Lord, Jesus does, and his humility and obedience is the model for our own. Jesus humbled himself, and his obedience extended all the way to death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:6–9).

And then the turn. Because of his humility and his obedience, God has highly exalted him. He has given him the supreme name in the cosmos. And what does this exaltation and name-giving mean? It means that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10–11).

“Jesus, the man from Nazareth, is not just a great prophet or the anointed king. He is Lord, the Lord, Yahweh himself.”

Paul knows what he is doing. He knows that this fundamental Christian confession — Jesus Christ is Lord — does not merely declare him to be a human ruler like Herod or Caesar. He knows that he is echoing the words of Isaiah in that great monotheistic chapter. The chapter that rang with “there is no other god” is now shockingly, surprisingly, incredibly redeployed to declare that Jesus, the man from Nazareth, is not just a great prophet or the anointed king. He is Lord, the Lord, Yahweh himself, come in the flesh to rescue and redeem, to suffer and to save.

Yes, Paul knows what he is doing. And he knows that he’s not the first to do so.

Jesus Is Lord

The shepherds heard it first, declared by angel tongues on the night of Jesus’s birth. The good news of great joy for all people shockingly brought together Isaiah’s words in a simple sentence. “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). Not merely the Lord’s Christ (like David or even Cyrus). This Christ is the Lord himself, now laying aside his divine privileges and emptying himself, humbling himself, taking on the form of a servant, and being born in the likeness of men.

Now when the ends of the earth turn to be saved, they don’t merely turn to the Creator God. They turn to the God-man from Nazareth, the boy from Bethlehem. Jesus is Lord, and there is no other. Jesus is Lord, and there is none like him.

Courage for Normal Christians

Where then does this boldness come from? Fundamentally, it comes from the Holy Spirit. Peter, “filled with the Holy Spirit” answers the Sanhedrin’s question (Acts 4:8). In the face of threats, the early Christians “were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31). Steven, “full of the Holy Spirit,” indicts the Jewish leaders who have arrested and falsely accused him (Acts 7:55).

What is Christian boldness? For some, the phrase conjures images of bravado, machismo, and swagger. For others, the phrase signifies a vague sense of courage and conviction in the face of opposition.
The fourth chapter of Acts provides an unusually clear picture of Christian boldness. The noun for boldness (parrēsia) appears three times in this one chapter (and only twice more in the rest of Acts) and here sets the context for Luke’s use of the verb speak boldly (parrēsiazomai) seven times in the coming chapters. He apparently intends for us to see the events of this chapter as a particularly poignant example of Christian boldness. By examining them, we can see not only what Christian boldness is, but where it comes from, and how we can cultivate it for ourselves.
Astonished at Common Men
The word first appears in Acts 4:13: “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished.” What had the Jewish leaders seen that so shocked them?
Recall that Peter and John had been arrested following a miraculous healing at the temple (Acts 3:1–4:4). Peter had healed a man lame from birth, amazing the crowds. He followed the healing with an evangelistic sermon to the gathered crowd. The sermon is interrupted by the Jewish leaders, who, annoyed by the apostolic teaching, arrest the apostles and throw them in prison overnight.
The next day, Peter and John are brought before the entire council, including the high priest and his family. The rulers demand to know how Peter and John were able to do this miracle. And then Peter responds with the words that surprise the Sanhedrin and show us the meaning of boldness.
Three Elements of Christian Boldness
First, their boldness shines in a hostile context. The gathering of the entire council seems to be an attempt to intimidate these uneducated, common fishermen. Here are the elite, the educated, the men who have power. It is they who ask, “What do you have to say for yourselves?”
No doubt other uneducated men had stood before them and shivered, looked pale, and found their tongues tied in the presence of these religious leaders. But not Peter and John. Their answer to the accusatory question is as clear as a bell. “Let it be known to all of you . . . ,” Peter says (Acts 4:10). One imagines him lifting up his head and his voice so that he can be clearly heard by those in the back. This fisherman is unmoved in the presence of these leaders.
Second, their boldness manifests in their clear testimony about Jesus. It is by his name that the man was healed. It is by his name (and his name alone) that any man can be saved. This Jesus, whom God raised from the dead, is the cornerstone, and there is salvation in no one else (Acts 4:10–12). Thus, clarity about Jesus, and his power to heal and save, is at the heart of Christian boldness.
Finally, their boldness is displayed in their clarity about sin. This man, “Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified . . . this Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you” (Acts 4:10–11). You rulers, you who purport to be the builders of Israel, rejected him, the cornerstone who has become for you a stone of stumbling and rock of offense. Here is a turning of the tables. Peter and John are the ones on trial; they have been arrested. And yet here they accuse and condemn the powerful men who not a few months earlier had killed Jesus himself.
So then, what is Christian boldness? It is courage and clarity about Jesus and sin in the face of powerful opposition. It is plain and open speech with no obfuscation or muttering. It is unhindered testimony to the truth, whether about Christ and his salvation, or about what he came to save us from.
Obey God Rather than Men
This understanding of boldness is confirmed if we consider the next chapter, when Peter and John are again arrested and hauled before these same leaders for their refusal to stop speaking in the name of Jesus.
The high priest questioned them, saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us” (Acts 5:28). But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.
Read More

Give Thanks and Give More: A Guide to Joyful Generosity

“It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). The words of Jesus, quoted in the book of Acts, are some of the most famous in the Bible. They celebrate the goodness and blessing of generosity. The Christian virtue of generosity, however, is surprisingly nuanced, involving both receiving and giving, and doing so in particular ways.

To understand generosity, we might begin by considering the opposite vice — greed or avarice. Dante’s treatment of this sin in Inferno shows us how greed corrupts both receiving and giving.

When Dante arrives in the fourth circle of hell, he sees two mobs rolling large stones at each other and jeering. Both are greedy, but the form of their greed is different. On one side are the misers, those like tightfisted Scrooge, whose philosophy is best summarized as “Get all you can; can all you get; and sit on the can.” Opposed to them are the squanderers, those who fritter away their goods in wastefulness and luxury. Dante’s keen insight is that while these two groups may outwardly look different, at heart they are the same. Both are in the grip of greed, since greed can either manifest as ill-receiving or ill-giving.

In both cases, the greedy have gone cross-eyed in the mind; they can’t see reality rightly since they are fixated on earthly goods.

Receive, Don’t Take

Recognizing that both our receiving and our giving can be corrupted helps us to see the wisdom and beauty of the biblical virtue of generosity.

Perhaps surprisingly, generosity begins with receiving. And not just any kind of receiving, but a particular kind. We can grasp it if we consider the difference between receiving and taking. In both cases, we end up with some good, but there is a difference between gratefully receiving the good and sinfully seizing the good. Thus, one of Paul’s many exhortations to generosity begins with, “Let the thief no longer steal” (Ephesians 4:28).

“The first step toward Christian generosity is to receive what God has supplied with deep and heartfelt gratitude.”

But theft is only one form of taking — or rather, there are many kinds of theft. The obvious kind involves plundering your neighbor’s goods, but we also can steal from God. When we refuse to receive his gifts with gratitude, but instead act as though the things we have are ours by birthright, we rob him of his rightful glory as the Giver. So Paul can rebuke the Corinthians by saying, “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Corinthians 4:7).

Thus, the first step toward Christian generosity is to receive what God has supplied with deep and heartfelt gratitude.

Receive to Give

It’s not enough, however, to merely gratefully receive. Grateful reception can quickly turn into ill-keeping or ill-giving. The thief who stops stealing must now labor honestly in order to have enough to share with others (Ephesians 4:28).

Here we consider the difference between sharing and wasting, between well-giving and ill-giving. James 4:3 warns of the danger of asking God for blessing with the wrong motives: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” Desiring wealth in order to selfishly spend it on our passions is wasteful. God loves a cheerful giver, not an indulgent squanderer.

Wealth is a gift from God for the sake of his mission. He gives to us that we might give to others.

As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life. (1 Timothy 6:17–19)

God has richly provided us with everything for four purposes. First, for our enjoyment; it is good for us to gladly receive what God supplies and to enjoy it for his sake. Second, he provides so that we might do good, that our wealth might serve the joy of others. Third, he provides so that we would be rich in good works. Not just rich in wealth, but rich in deeds of charity and mercy. He meets our needs so that we can gladly meet the needs of others. Fourth, he provides so that we would be generous and ready to share.

This readiness is crucial. It challenges the greed in our hearts. When we have good gifts, are our eyes locked onto the gifts alone? Like the avaricious, have we gone cross-eyed in our fixation on earthly goods? Or are our eyes up, looking around for opportunities to share what we’ve received? Is there an eager readiness to be generous, or is there a selfish miserliness on our part?

Christian generosity begins with grateful receiving and then moves to ready giving. We receive in order to give.

Give to Receive More

This isn’t the end of the story. Christian generosity doesn’t terminate in the giving of our goods; it terminates in the good we receive from God in the giving of our goods. We must not lose sight of the fact that it is more blessed to give than to receive. Receiving is a blessing. Receiving and then giving is a greater blessing.

“Receiving is a blessing. Receiving and then giving is a greater blessing.”

But what is this blessing? Our giving is also a storing up. Paul puts it clearly in 1 Timothy 6:19: “They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.”

The key word is thus. In doing good and being generous with God’s provision, we are, in that very act of giving, storing up treasure for ourselves. Giving here and now stores up treasure for the future. This is the treasure in heaven that Jesus promises. This is the “better possession and abiding one” that gladly fortified the early Christians in the face of the plundering of their property (Hebrews 10:34–36).

Christian generosity isn’t simply receiving in order to give. It’s gratefully receiving in order to generously give in order to gladly receive more in the future. Our hope is ultimately in God, not in our wealth. What we take hold of is not the fleeting pleasures of this life, but the eternal pleasures of the life to come.

And we are taking hold of true life when we loosen our hold on the goods of this life. This is Christian generosity.

Courage for Normal Christians

What is Christian boldness? For some, the phrase conjures images of bravado, machismo, and swagger. For others, the phrase signifies a vague sense of courage and conviction in the face of opposition.

The fourth chapter of Acts provides an unusually clear picture of Christian boldness. The noun for boldness (parrēsia) appears three times in this one chapter (and only twice more in the rest of Acts) and here sets the context for Luke’s use of the verb speak boldly (parrēsiazomai) seven times in the coming chapters. He apparently intends for us to see the events of this chapter as a particularly poignant example of Christian boldness. By examining them, we can see not only what Christian boldness is, but where it comes from, and how we can cultivate it for ourselves.

Astonished at Common Men

The word first appears in Acts 4:13: “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished.” What had the Jewish leaders seen that so shocked them?

Recall that Peter and John had been arrested following a miraculous healing at the temple (Acts 3:1–4:4). Peter had healed a man lame from birth, amazing the crowds. He followed the healing with an evangelistic sermon to the gathered crowd. The sermon is interrupted by the Jewish leaders, who, annoyed by the apostolic teaching, arrest the apostles and throw them in prison overnight.

The next day, Peter and John are brought before the entire council, including the high priest and his family. The rulers demand to know how Peter and John were able to do this miracle. And then Peter responds with the words that surprise the Sanhedrin and show us the meaning of boldness.

Three Elements of Christian Boldness

First, their boldness shines in a hostile context. The gathering of the entire council seems to be an attempt to intimidate these uneducated, common fishermen. Here are the elite, the educated, the men who have power. It is they who ask, “What do you have to say for yourselves?”

No doubt other uneducated men had stood before them and shivered, looked pale, and found their tongues tied in the presence of these religious leaders. But not Peter and John. Their answer to the accusatory question is as clear as a bell. “Let it be known to all of you . . . ,” Peter says (Acts 4:10). One imagines him lifting up his head and his voice so that he can be clearly heard by those in the back. This fisherman is unmoved in the presence of these leaders.

Second, their boldness manifests in their clear testimony about Jesus. It is by his name that the man was healed. It is by his name (and his name alone) that any man can be saved. This Jesus, whom God raised from the dead, is the cornerstone, and there is salvation in no one else (Acts 4:10–12). Thus, clarity about Jesus, and his power to heal and save, is at the heart of Christian boldness.

Finally, their boldness is displayed in their clarity about sin. This man, “Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified . . . this Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you” (Acts 4:10–11). You rulers, you who purport to be the builders of Israel, rejected him, the cornerstone who has become for you a stone of stumbling and rock of offense. Here is a turning of the tables. Peter and John are the ones on trial; they have been arrested. And yet here they accuse and condemn the powerful men who not a few months earlier had killed Jesus himself.

“Christian boldness is courage and clarity about Jesus and sin in the face of powerful opposition.”

So then, what is Christian boldness? It is courage and clarity about Jesus and sin in the face of powerful opposition. It is plain and open speech with no obfuscation or muttering. It is unhindered testimony to the truth, whether about Christ and his salvation, or about what he came to save us from.

Obey God Rather than Men

This understanding of boldness is confirmed if we consider the next chapter, when Peter and John are again arrested and hauled before these same leaders for their refusal to stop speaking in the name of Jesus.

The high priest questioned them, saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us” (Acts 5:28). But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him” (Acts 5:29–32).

‘God Raised Him’

“You have filled Jerusalem with your teaching.” What teaching? The teaching about the resurrection of Jesus. The apostles are preaching the lordship of the risen Jesus. “God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins” (Acts 5:31). That’s what every sermon in Acts is about. God raised Jesus. God exalted Jesus. Jesus is Savior. Jesus is Lord. Jesus forgives sins. There is no other name by which we can be saved. This is the message the apostles preach in defiance of the Sanhedrin’s threats. They are determined to fill Jerusalem with the good news about who Jesus is and what God has done through him.

‘You Killed Him’

But not only teaching about Jesus. They also preach clearly and courageously about sin, and in particular the sin of betraying, rejecting, denying, and murdering Jesus. “You intend to bring this man’s blood upon us,” the high priest says (Acts 5:28). You’re trying to blame us for killing him. “That’s exactly right,” responds Peter. “You killed him by hanging him on a tree” (Acts 5:30).

It’s remarkable how often the apostles strike this note, in Jerusalem no less, only a few months removed from the crucifixion itself. The unjust death of Jesus is fresh, and yet the apostles make it a repeated and central note in their preaching, both to the crowds and to the Jewish leaders.

This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. (Acts 2:23)

God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified. (Acts 2:36)

The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. (Acts 3:13–15)

By the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. . . . This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders. (Acts 4:10–11)

And this clarity and courage about the particular sin of killing Jesus is one part of the larger apostolic clarity about all sin and the need to repent.

Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. . . . Save yourselves from this crooked generation. (Acts 2:38, 40)

Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out. (Acts 3:19)

God, having raised up his servant, sent him to you first, to bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness. (Acts 3:26)

“Every one of you [turn] from your wickedness.” Not your neighbor’s wickedness. Not the wickedness of those people over there. Your wickedness. This is Christian boldness — clearly and courageously testifying to the resurrection of Jesus and the need to repent, both in general and in the specific ways that we have rebelled against God.

Dare to Be Specific

This leads us to a key lesson for us about Christian boldness. If we are to be bold, we must bring the reality of Jesus to bear on the reality of human sinfulness. And not just generic sinfulness. While calls for repentance from generic sins have their place, true Christian boldness gets specific about sin and particular about context.

“If we are to be bold, we must bring the reality of Jesus to bear on the reality of human sinfulness.”

There is a perennial temptation for Christian preachers to gather a crowd and preach about all the sins “out there.” But faithfulness and boldness demand that we address the sins actually present in whatever room we find ourselves. And if we ever wonder which sins we ought to boldly address, we can simply ask which sins we’re tempted to ignore and minimize. Which sins do we tread lightly around? Where are we tempted to whisper? That context requires Christian boldness.

And Peter and John maintain this boldness in the face of threats and opposition, as they go from being a mere nuisance (Acts 4:2), to the objects of jealousy (Acts 5:17), to the objects of rage and violence (Acts 5:33; 7:54). The opposition escalates, and the boldness abides.

How Can We Grow in Courage?

Where then does this boldness come from? Fundamentally, it comes from the Holy Spirit. Peter, “filled with the Holy Spirit” answers the Sanhedrin’s question (Acts 4:8). In the face of threats, the early Christians “were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31). Steven, “full of the Holy Spirit,” indicts the Jewish leaders who have arrested and falsely accused him (Acts 7:55).

But not only the Holy Spirit. The Jewish leaders, in recognizing the apostolic boldness, recognized that Peter and John “had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). And while this no doubt refers to their engagement in Christ’s earthly ministry, it contains a word for us today.

We too, if we wish to be bold, must be filled with the Spirit and abide with Jesus. And the book of Acts shows us not merely the ultimate source of Christian boldness, but also the means for growing in it. After Peter and John are released and warned to no longer speak in the name of Jesus, what do they do?

1. Gather

“They went to their friends and reported what the chief priest and elders had said to them. And . . . they lifted their voices together” (Acts 4:23–24). Christian boldness is not an individualistic affair. It comes from gathering with God’s people to seek his face together.

2. Pray

“Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them . . . look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak the word with all boldness” (Acts 4:24, 29). Boldness comes to those who ask the Almighty Maker of heaven and earth for it. The Spirit fills them with Christian boldness because they petition the throne of grace to bestow it generously.

3. Ask God to make good on his promises

In their prayers, they repeat back to God what God has said. They quote Psalm 2 and celebrate God’s royal victory in Jesus. Christian boldness is a boldness built on the word of God.

4. Look for God’s Hand and Plan

Not only do they read the Bible and pray the Bible; they read their own story in light of the Scriptures, looking for God’s hand and plan in their lives. They see God’s hand and plan behind the Jewish and Roman opposition to Christ, and they see God’s hand and plan behind the continued opposition to Christ and his people. Jesus’s story is our story, and it is in the midst of that story that we gather and pray God’s word so that we, like the apostles, can speak God’s word with boldness.

Beware the Anger of Your Soul: How to Restrain Ungodly Passion

Every time we reread a great book, we inevitably get something new out of it. This isn’t because the book changes, but because we do. Meaning is stable, but we grow and mature (at least, we ought to). And as we do, we become attentive to truth in new ways; we have a broader and richer framework that enables us to see more in the books we read (and read again).

This is true even of children’s books. Perhaps especially of children’s books. My appreciation of Narnia, for instance, is no secret. I’ve read the series dozens of times. On my most recent journey through the wardrobe, an important theme in the final book lit up for me in a fresh way. And then my own Bible reading connected with that theme and brought the whole matter home.

“Passions are the impulsive, almost instinctive motions of the soul. They are good, but dangerous.”

The theme is the centrality of the passions in the early chapters of The Last Battle. Passions are the impulsive, almost instinctive motions of the soul. They are good, but dangerous. They are our immediate reactions to reality, such as fear, anxiety, desire, pity, grief, and anger. It’s this last passion that figures prominently in The Last Battle. What happens when our anger, however justified in itself, goes unchecked and becomes rash? And are there any ways to rein it in?

The Rashness of the King

The second chapter opens with King Tirian and his close friend Jewel the Unicorn in a state of reverie over the news that Aslan has returned to Narnia. Aslan’s arrival is the most wonderful news imaginable. Their joy is interrupted, however, by Roonwit the Centaur, who claims that the news of Aslan’s arrival is a lie.

“A lie!” said the King fiercely. “What creature in Narnia or all the world would dare to lie on such a matter?” And, without knowing it, he laid his hand on his sword hilt. (20)

Note the intensity of the King’s reaction. More importantly, notice where that reaction takes him. His hand goes to his sword “without knowing it.” In other words, his impulsive passion moved him to react, apart from the guidance of his mind.

We see the same rashness a few moments later when the Dryad emerges from the forest, crying out for justice over the destruction of the talking trees. When Tirian hears it, he leaps to his feet and draws his sword. There are no enemies present. Nevertheless, the sword is drawn, perhaps again without him fully realizing what he’s doing. His passions are in control.

Anger Invites More Anger

When the Dryad falls to the ground dead, Tirian is speechless in his grief and anger. He then calls Jewel and Roonwit to immediately join him in a journey to put to death the villains who have committed this murder. They are to leave “with all the speed we may.” Jewel concurs, but Roonwit cautions. “Sire, be wary in your just wrath” (22). In your anger, Roonwit says, do not sin. Do not be unwise. Let us wait to gather troops and see the strength of the enemy.

But Tirian will “not wait the tenth part of a second.” His wrath is kindled and steering the ship. He and Jewel set out, with Tirian muttering to himself and clenching his fists. He’s so angry he doesn’t even feel the coldness of the water when they ford a river. His anger has him by the throat and will not let go.

After discovering that Aslan is apparently the one who ordered the felling of the trees, Tirian and Jewel press on toward the danger. The narrator comments,

[Jewel] did not see at the moment how foolish it was for two of them to go on alone; nor did the King. They were too angry to think clearly. But much evil came of their rashness in the end. (25)

This is the issue: they are too angry to think clearly. However righteous their anger at the injustice before them, the rashness of that anger leads to folly. They are impulsively reacting, not intentionally responding, and the results will be great evil and harm.

What Can Check Anger?

We don’t have to wait long for some of that evil to manifest. When the two come upon a talking horse being beaten and whipped by Calormen soldiers, their anger reaches a fever pitch.

When Tirian knew that the Horse was one of his own Narnians, there came over him and over Jewel such a rage that they did not know what they were doing. The King’s sword went up, the Unicorn’s horn went down. They rushed forward together. Next moment, both the Calormenes lay dead, the one beheaded by Tirian’s sword and the other gored through the heart by Jewel’s horn. (27)

“If unchecked and rash anger leads to great folly, evil, and bloodshed, what can check such a passion?”

Over and over, we see the theme of this chapter — from the hand on the sword without knowing it, to being too angry to think clearly, to being so filled with rage that they don’t know what they are doing even as they kill two men. The unchecked rashness of the king has led to great bloodshed.

I’d like to bring the rashness of Tirian into conversation with a story from the Scriptures and ask, If unchecked and rash anger leads to great folly, evil, and bloodshed, what can check such a passion?

The Rashness of the Anointed

The biblical story is a familiar one from the life of David. He is dwelling in the wilderness because he is estranged from King Saul, who is in the grip of the passion of envy. David has twice spared Saul’s life and thereby earned a respite of sorts from Saul’s pursuit. Samuel is dead, and David and his men are in the wilderness of Paran, low on supplies.

David sends some messengers to Nabal, a wealthy man who lives close by. Nabal is preparing a feast, and David asks for favor and supplies. This request is not out of the blue. David and his men have been camped near Nabal’s shepherds. Not only have they refrained from plundering his flocks, but they have actually ensured that no one else does either. David and his men were a wall to Nabal’s flocks by day and night (1 Samuel 25:16). Neither thief nor beast ravaged his flock. It is in light of this protection that David makes his humble request, identifying himself as a son and servant to Nabal (1 Samuel 25:8).

Nabal responds with derision and insults. “Who is David? Who is the son of Jesse? There are many servants these days who are breaking away from their masters” (1 Samuel 25:10–11). In other words, “David, you are an unworthy outlaw, a rebel against the king. And I will not give my bread and my water and my meat to men from who knows where.”

When David hears of the insult, he responds like the last King of Narnia. “Every man strap on his sword!” (1 Samuel 25:13). In his anger, he and his men immediately set out to avenge the insult. And their intentions are clear — every male in Nabal’s house will be killed (1 Samuel 25:22). As with Tirian, here we have the impulsive passion of anger, a rage that is about to lead to great bloodshed and bloodguilt. But unlike Tirian, it’s about to be checked.

How to Appeal to Anger

The check comes in the form of Abigail, Nabal’s wise and discerning wife. Hearing of Nabal’s insult and the evil that is coming to their house, she immediately prepares a lavish gift of food and wine for David and his men. She brings the gifts and falls on her face before David and pleads for his favor.

She takes responsibility. She testifies to her husband’s folly. She gives David the gifts. But most importantly, she makes two fundamental appeals. First, she urges David to refrain from shedding innocent blood and working salvation with his own hand (1 Samuel 25:26). By doing so, he will avoid the grief and pangs of conscience that will come if he brings bloodguilt by his hand or seeks to save himself (1 Samuel 25:31). Second, she reminds David that the Lord will fight for him, that David’s life is “bound in the bundle of the living in the care of the Lord your God” (1 Samuel 25:29).

These appeals check the rashness of the king. They arrest his rage and wrath and vengeance. They enable him to tame the passion of his impulsive anger. David blesses Abigail for her discretion and courage, because she has “kept me this day from bloodguilt and from working salvation with my own hand” (1 Samuel 25:34). And he blesses the Lord who sent her to him and restrained David’s hand from doing great evil by harming Abigail and her husband’s household.

And sure enough, the Lord vindicates David. Ten days later, the Lord strikes Nabal and he dies, avenging the insult against his anointed (1 Samuel 25:39). Not only does David spare himself from working evil, he gains the hand of a wise and discerning wife.

Weapons Against Our Anger

So how might we apply wisdom like Abigail’s in checking our anger today? As we feel the temperature of our souls rising, we stop and remind ourselves — and one another — first, that ungodly anger will only add iniquity to our injury, and second, that the Lord himself has said, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” (Romans 12:19).

These two stories — one fictional and one biblical — issue the same warning: Beware the passions of your flesh. They often wage war against your soul (1 Peter 2:11). In your anger, do not sin (Ephesians 4:26). Remember that the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God (James 1:20). Instead, entrust yourself to God (1 Peter 4:19). Look to him to fight your battles and to vindicate.

This doesn’t make us passive; the Lord also fought for and with David when he took up his sling against Goliath. That salvation, like the one with Nabal, was wrought by God’s hand, not David’s. But when we act in faith, we do so intentionally and thoughtfully, not reactively or rashly. We trust that our lives are bound in the bundle of the living in the care of our Lord, that we always live between the paws of the true Aslan.

Our Lives in His: How Justification Leads to Holiness

Does our right standing before God depend on our becoming more like Jesus, or does our becoming more like Jesus flow from our right standing before God? I first began wrestling with that question twenty years ago as a college student.

The Bible uses a variety of terms for what God has done for us in Christ — salvation, regeneration, justification, sanctification, adoption, election, redemption, glorification. The question I struggled to answer was, How do all of these terms relate to one another? More specifically and personally, when and how and in what sequence will they happen for me?

Historically, my question was about the relationship between justification (being declared righteous before God) and sanctification (the ongoing progressive work by which we are conformed to the image of Jesus). Did justification precede and give rise to sanctification? Or was justification in some way based upon my sanctification?

Resurrection and Redemption

Romans 8:29–30 often sets the tone for the debate:

For those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

Here we have a basic order: foreknown, predestined, called, justified, glorified. The question was how the rest of the saving realities — saved, redeemed, adopted, and sanctified — fit into the picture.

As I wrestled, I came across a book that proved to be a watershed for me: Resurrection and Redemption by Richard Gaffin, a longtime professor at Westminster Theological Seminary. The book is small — around 150 pages — but packs a theological punch. The basic thesis of the book has been profoundly helpful to me in thinking through how to bring the various biblical threads together on all that God has done for us in Christ.

We Will Be Raised

The book begins with the claim that the unity of the resurrection of Christ and the resurrection of believers runs through the New Testament, citing texts like these:

1 Corinthians 15:20: “Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”

Colossians 1:18: “[Christ] is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.”

1 Corinthians 15:16–18: “If the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.”

2 Corinthians 4:14: “[We know] that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus.”

Each of these passages expresses the reality that the resurrection of Christ is both unique and necessarily connected to our future resurrection. He is the firstfruits, the firstborn from the dead. He is the pioneer, the inaugurator, the forerunner who leads the way.

We Have Been Raised

This unity, however, is not merely a connection between Christ’s past resurrection and our future resurrection. The New Testament also stresses that we have already been, in some sense, raised with Christ.

Ephesians 2:5–6: “Even when we were dead in our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”

Colossians 2:12–13: “. . . having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses.”

Romans 6:3–4: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

These passages teach that we are united to Christ not only in his resurrection, but in the whole of his life and death as well. We have died with Christ. We have been crucified with Christ. We have been raised with Christ. We have been seated with Christ.

From passages like these, Gaffin draws the conclusion that this existential union with Christ is the most basic element of Paul’s teaching on salvation.

Inner Man and Outer Man

The personal and existential union between us and Christ is intertwined with being chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world as well as being in some sense “in Christ” when he was crucified, buried, and raised in the first century. In other words, while we can distinguish between redemption planned (in eternity past), redemption accomplished (in history two thousand years ago), and redemption applied (in our own individual lives), we can never separate them, since all of them take place “in Christ.”

Gaffin draws attention to the already-not-yet dimension of redemption applied. In particular, the resurrection of Jesus has been refracted in the experience of the believer. We have already been raised with Christ (Ephesians 2:5), but we have not yet been raised with Christ (1 Corinthians 15:12–20).

Gaffin uses Paul’s distinction between the inner man and the outer man to make this point. We have been raised in the inner man, while we await the resurrection of the outer man — that is, the resurrection of the body at Christ’s second coming. Paul makes this point explicitly in 2 Corinthians 4:16: “Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.”

What then does this have to do with the order of salvation and the various terms used to describe what God has done for us in Christ? Let me attempt to express the lessons in my own words.

Five Glimpses of One Reality

When God saves us, the fundamental thing he does is unite us to Christ by faith.

“When God saves us, the fundamental thing he does is unite us to Christ by faith.”

Union with the crucified and risen Lord Jesus is what salvation fundamentally is. But in order to help us understand the wonder and glory of our union with Christ, God gives us multiple word pictures or metaphors to reveal the significance of what Christ has done for us. Each of these word pictures or images enables us to comprehend the incomprehensible fact of our union with the Lord Jesus.

We can unpack union with Christ in terms of a law court, in which words like guilt and condemnation, righteousness and justification figure prominently.
We can unpack union with Christ using imagery from the temple, in which holiness and impurity, sanctification and cleansing are used.
We can unpack union with Christ using familial imagery, with the language of new birth and adoption taking center stage.
We can unpack union with Christ using the image of slavery and redemption, with mentions of bondage and captivity, of purchasing and freedom.
We can unpack union with Christ with the language of salvation and deliverance, of danger and rescue by a Savior.

Rather than trying to put the different terms into the exact sequence, we can instead see them as multiple ways that God has chosen to reveal the greatness and glory of what he has done for us.

Five Already-Not-Yet Pictures

More than that, because of the already-not-yet dimension of our salvation, we can see that each of these word pictures contains three distinct phases: a definitive positional phase, an ongoing progressive phase, and a climactic final phase. If we run through the images again, we might say the following:

In terms of the law court, we are guilty and stand condemned, but Christ lives, dies, and is raised on our behalf, and therefore God declares us righteous in him. This is definitive and has to do with a new position and legal status based on the finished work of Christ. As a result, we leave the courtroom and seek to live upright and godly lives, walking in righteousness before God, as we wait for the day when we are publicly vindicated as his people when he bodily raises us from the dead.

In terms of the temple, God is holy and therefore cleanses the impure and sets apart the common for holy use. There is a decisive cleansing and sanctifying work when we trust in Christ (positional), and then the rest of our lives is an attempt to live holy lives, increasingly and progressively set apart from sin and evil, while we await our full and final cleansing in the new heavens and new earth.

In terms of the family, God decisively causes us to be born again, and then we seek to walk faithfully as his children. Or alternatively, he adopts us into his family (that’s conversion), and we now walk as obedient sons, as we wait for the final declaration of our sonship and conformity to the image of his Son when we are glorified.

In terms of slavery and redemption, we were enslaved to sin and death, and God decisively liberates us when he unites us to his Son. From then on, we seek to increasingly and progressively live as free men, since it is for freedom that Christ has set us free, as we wait for the redemption of our bodies on the last day.

In terms of danger and rescue, God delivers us from the penalty of sin (death), and then throughout our lives increasingly rescues us from the power of sin, all in anticipation of the day when we’ll be completely delivered from the presence of sin in his eternal kingdom.

For Me and Conforming Me

Resurrection and Redemption proved to be a watershed for me because the book resolved the tension over whether my right standing with God (justification) depended on my increasing conformity to Jesus (progressive sanctification).

“Justification is by faith alone, because faith unites me to Christ, who is my righteousness.”

Gaffin assured me, with Scripture, that my position before God — whether we’re talking about the courtroom, the temple, or the family — was decisively and definitively settled, simply by trusting in Jesus. Justification is by faith alone, because faith unites me to Christ, who is my righteousness. The righteousness beneath my justification is not something worked in me by God, but something accomplished for me — outside of me — by Christ. Union with him — his life, death, and resurrection — puts me right with God, so that God is completely for me.

Then, flowing from this new standing and position before God, God begins to progressively and increasingly conform me to the image of Jesus. The work is often slow, frequently painful. Sin remains, even if the wages of sin no longer hang over me. But my pursuit of holiness and obedience to God is rooted in the finished work of Jesus, both in history and in my life, and I hope for the coming day when God raises me from the dead and publicly displays what he has done for me and in me.

Pray and Obey Anyway: How God Meets Us in the Valley

Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

This brief sentence at the end of the eighth Screwtape letter may not be as life-changing as other sentences have been for me, but it has certainly been faith-sustaining. I realized this recently when I noticed just how frequently I return to it. I quote it twice in my book on Narnia. Whenever I give a talk on C.S. Lewis, I find myself quoting it (even when I haven’t planned to). In counseling sessions with students or members of our church, the words frequently roll off my tongue. Most importantly, I know how often I preach it to myself in the midst of dry times.

Law of Undulation

The sentence appears in a letter from Screwtape to Wormwood about “the law of Undulation.”

Undulation is a fancy word for “wave-like rhythm.” The law of Undulation refers to a permanent feature of human life in our mortal condition. Screwtape derisively refers to humans as amphibians, creatures with one foot in the spiritual world (like angels) and one foot in the material world (like animals). As spirits we belong to the eternal world, but as animals we inhabit time.

“In all areas of our life, periods of emotional richness are regularly followed by periods of dryness and dullness.”

While our spirits can be directed to an eternal object, our bodies, passions, and imaginations are in continual flux. The result is undulation — “the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks.” In all areas of our life, periods of emotional richness and bodily vitality are regularly followed by periods of dryness, dullness, numbness, and poverty.

Peaks and Valleys

Screwtape explains why God has subjected human beings to the law of Undulation. Fundamentally, God aims to fill the universe with little replicas of himself. He intends for the lives of his image-bearers to be a creaturely participation in his own life as our wills are freely conformed to his will. God wants us to be united to him and yet distinct from him.

Troughs, especially spiritual troughs, serve this larger purpose. At times in the Christian life, God makes his presence manifest and felt. He makes himself sensibly present to us, with an emotional sweetness that empowers us to more easily triumph over temptation. Obedience flows from us like rivers from a living spring. Prayer is like breathing — the most natural and normal overflow of God’s felt presence in our lives. These are the peaks of the Christian life.

But then come the valleys, the troughs. God withdraws himself, not in actual fact, but from our conscious experience, from our felt reality. In doing so, he removes the emotional support and spiritual incentives that made obedience seem so natural and effortless. In these times, God is calling us to carry out our duties without the emotional richness and relish that his felt presence provides (though not apart from his sustaining grace). In doing so, we grow into creatures whose wills are more fully conformed to his own.

Desiring Versus Intending

This brings us to the faith-sustaining sentence, “Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys” (Screwtape Letters, 42). We can break it into parts in order to understand it better.

Lewis here makes a distinction between “desiring to do God’s will” and “intending to do God’s will.” This distinction is produced by the law of Undulation. Doing the will of God feels hard in the valley. It’s heavy and burdensome because the emotional sweetness of God’s presence is not felt.

In these times, we feel divided from ourselves. At one level, there is no desire. This is the level of the passions, those almost instinctive and intuitive reactions to reality that are closely tied to our bodies. At that level, we feel no desire to do God’s will because God is sensibly absent. His presence is not felt, and so our passions (i.e., desires) are not stirred up. But at another level — the level of reason and will — there is intention. This level is higher (or perhaps deeper) than the level of passions. Here there is a deep and fundamental commitment, even a deep and fundamental and enduring desire to do God’s will.

In such moments, we are like Christ in Gethsemane, saying, “Not my will, but yours be done.” “Not my will,” that is, “I don’t want to do this; I don’t desire to drink this cup.” Nevertheless, at a deeper level, “Your will be done.” That is, “I still intend to do your will, and this intention reflects a deeper and more enduring desire in my heart.”

Gap Between Want and Ought

Lewis expresses this division elsewhere in a discussion on prayer in Letters to Malcolm. Prayer, he notes, can feel irksome. “An excuse to omit it is never unwelcome” (113). And this is deeply unsettling to us, since we were made to glorify God and enjoy him forever. “What can be done for — or what should be done with — a rose tree that dislikes producing roses? Surely it ought to want to?”

If we were perfected, Lewis says, prayer would not be a duty, but a delight. So would all of the other activities we classify as duties. In fact, the category of duty is created precisely by this gap between our spontaneous desires and our real obligations. In other words, the distance between what we desire to do and what we ought to do is what creates the whole category of moral effort.

Lewis, however, insists that duty exists to be transcended. Angels don’t know (from the inside) the meaning and force of the word “ought” (115). Someday, God willing, we too will live beyond duty. Prayers and love to God and neighbor will flow out of us “as spontaneously as song from a lark or fragrance from a flower” (114). Until then, however, we live in the realm of duty, in which our desires and our obligations are frequently divided.

Lewis knows how to encourage us here: “I have a notion that what seem our worst prayers may really be, in God’s eyes, our best. Those, I mean, which are least supported by devotional feeling and contend with the greatest disinclination. For these, perhaps, being nearly all will, come from a deeper level than feeling” (116) — though, we should add, not from a deeper level than God’s grace.

God-Forsaken?

Returning to Screwtape, what frequently smothers our desires is that we “look round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished.” The “seems to” is crucial. Every trace of him hasn’t actually vanished. All of reality continually testifies to its Maker. The heavens perpetually declare the glory (Psalm 19:1).

But in the trough, our perception is diminished. Our felt reality is often out of accord with reality. And thus God “seems to” have vanished. This seeming is potent. We mustn’t underestimate the power of appearances, of seemings. But neither must we make our periodic (and even enduring) seemings the dictators of our actions. Lewis shows us a better way.

Acknowledging Our Valleys

What should the Christian in the trough do? Begin with honesty. Acknowledge the trough. Name the valley. If God seems absent, say so. Out loud.

More importantly, say so to God. The patient in Screwtape “asks why he has been forsaken.” He directs his observation upward, to the God who seems to have forsaken him. In doing so, he follows in a great biblical lineage.

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? (Psalm 13:1)

Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? (Psalm 10:1)

O Lord, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me? (Psalm 88:14)

In the face of (seeming) divine absence, faithful saints cry out to God and plead, “Why?” and “How long?” and “Arise, O Lord!” They echo Jesus on the cross, who himself echoed the psalmist: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Psalm 22:1) This is what faith looks like in the trough.

“In the face of God’s apparent abandonment, the faithful Christian still obeys.”

The cry of desperation and confusion is faith in the face of felt divine absence. That’s why Lewis contends that prayers offered in the state of dryness please him in a special way. Unsupported by rich communications of the divine presence, lacking the emotional sweetness of the peaks, these prayers come from the deep places of the soul, the heart of hearts, which contains our deepest and most persistent longings and commitments.

And Still Obeys

The sentence crescendos with these final three words: “and still obeys.” In the absence of passionate desire, in the face of God’s apparent abandonment, the faithful Christian still obeys. God’s felt absence is never an excuse for sin. The poverty of our feelings, the dryness and the dullness — these can never be used to justify disobedience.

And make no mistake: that is the demonic stratagem in the troughs — to prey upon our experience of divine absence in order to lead us to abandon him altogether. Which is why the satanic cause is never more in danger than when every sensible support has been knocked out and we cling to Jesus anyway. If we, apart from eager desire to do God’s will, and with God’s felt absence pressing upon us, still cling to Jesus and seek to walk in the light, what else can the devil do?

Even more than that, such faithful obedience, over time and through the valley of shadows, is frequently the pathway to renewed experiences of God’s presence. As Lewis’s hero George MacDonald put it, “Obedience is the opener of eyes.” Faithfulness in the Master’s absence leads to the delight of returning to the Master’s presence. “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master” (see Matthew 25:21).

Overseers of Souls: Why Elders Must See and Act

Pastor. Elder. Overseer. Three terms for one biblical office. When modern Christians refer to their church leaders, we tend to use the first the most, the second next, and the third hardly at all. And yet all three terms are helpful for us in understanding the office and task.

“If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1). And what is the noble task? The apostle Peter provides one answer near the end of his first letter. There he charges the elders of the church to “shepherd [or pastor, used as a verb] the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight” (1 Peter 5:2). Thus, the elders of the church shepherd or pastor God’s flock by exercising oversight. And unpacking the meaning of oversight in the context of shepherding gives us a crucial description of God’s call for every elder.

Sight Plus Responsibility

What, then, does it mean to shepherd? The biblical authors intend for us to consider the work of actual shepherds and actual sheep.

Shepherds care for the sheep. Shepherds lead the flock and feed the flock. Shepherds guide the flock to green pastures and still waters, and they guard and protect the flock from bears and wolves and roaring lions. They are attentive to the health and safety of their sheep. If the sheep begin to look sickly, shepherds examine their diet. If they come down with a disease, shepherds bring medicine to heal. If a sheep falls in a crack in the earth, a shepherd pulls him out and sets him back on the path. If a lion attacks, a shepherd grabs his rod and staff and uses it to defend his sheep, even at great cost to himself.

“To exercise oversight means that when you see, you are responsible to do something about it.”

We gain further clarity if we consider Peter’s additional phrase — “exercising oversight.” We might ask, What’s the difference between sight and oversight? Oversight includes sight. You can’t exercise oversight if you can’t see clearly and understand accurately. But oversight is more than merely sight. Oversight is sight plus responsibility. To exercise oversight means that when you see, you are responsible to do something about it. You can’t just see; you must also “see to it.”

Failure to See

We gain further clarity on the task of oversight when we consider the ways elders might fail to do it. If oversight is sight plus responsibility to act, this means that there are, broadly speaking, two main ways that pastors can fail.

First, they can fail to see clearly. They didn’t recognize when the disease was spreading in their flock. They didn’t see the pack of wolves creeping over the hill, or were deceived by wolves in sheepskins, or mistook real sheep for wolves. They didn’t see that the water was polluted. Failure to see, failure to discern is a failure to shepherd well.

In the church context, elders might fail to see the false teaching that is spreading like gangrene among their sheep. In particular, deceptive teaching can enter into a community through any of its sub-ministries: men’s ministry, women’s ministry, children and youth ministry, counseling ministry.

Alternatively, elders might fail to see destructive patterns of behavior that are beginning to take root among their people. Whether it’s gossip and slander or ungodly suspicion, domineering leadership or passive leadership, blaming victims or weaponizing victims — elders fail to exercise oversight if they fail to see when false beliefs and destructive patterns of behavior are spreading among their people.

Failure to Act

Second, though, elders can fail to act. They see the disease, but they don’t wisely apply the medicine. They see the wolves, but they cower in fear. They see the polluted water, but they don’t move the flock to better pastures. Failure to act is also a failure to shepherd well the flock of God.

In the church context, elders might fail to counter false teaching with the truth. Rather than patiently correcting error, they might coddle it and tolerate it. Or conversely, they might reactively escalate theological conflict without understanding the appeal of the error to their particular people. They might make mountains out of molehills (or molehills out of mountains), or botch the timing with impatience or sluggishness.

In confronting destructive patterns of behavior, elders might fail to speak with soberminded clarity and sincere love. They might avoid confrontation out of fear that some sheep might “vote with their feet” and find another church. They might give in to the impulse to say, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. In each of these situations, elders, even when they see the danger clearly, might lack the nerve to act wisely and intentionally to address the challenges before them. And in doing so, they fail to exercise oversight.

Subtle Temptation

Some pastors might fall prey to a subtle form of the failure to see and the failure to act. These pastors see clearly and are prepared to act with courage and compassion to address what they see, but they aren’t attentive to the particular needs, cares, issues, dangers, temptations, and tendencies of their flock. Their eyes look far and wide for danger, but rarely near and present.

Peter’s call is specific. It’s not just “shepherd the flock of God”; it’s “shepherd the flock of God that is among you.” Pastors are called to shepherd their people. Not other people’s people. Not other shepherds’ sheep. Pastors are called to exercise oversight over those in their charge. In the age of instant news and social media, it’s easy to miss the importance of this. It’s easy for pastors to be concerned about dangers to the health of flocks over there, on the other side of town or the other side of the country. In fact, you can actually build a flock (numerically, at least) around pointing out the dangers to other flocks while ignoring the dangers to your own flock.

“Pastors are called to shepherd their people. Not other people’s people. Not other shepherds’ sheep.”

It’s easy to be the sort of shepherd who runs around with a fire extinguisher when there’s a flood in your church, because you’re far more attentive to the dumpster fires online that are afflicting churches in another state or another denomination. But wise and faithful shepherds are attentive to the needs, cares, issues, problems, dangers, temptations, and tendencies of the flock that is among them.

More Eyes and More Hands

In the face of the dangers to fail to see or fail to act, God has given us two great helps. The first is a plurality of elders.

As is the case in every New Testament mention of local-church elders, Peter addresses elders in the plural. When you have a plurality of elders, you can see more and act better. No single shepherd has 360-degree vision. No single shepherd can pay attention to all of the macro-dangers and micro-threats — but a team of shepherds can.

Some shepherds can scan the horizon to the east, while others scan the horizon to the west. Some can direct their attention to distant threats — the storm rolling in, the pack of wolves settling into the valley. Others can direct their attention inward — the condition of the pasture, the health of individual sheep. When elders shepherd the flock of God among them together, they are able to see more and act with greater wisdom and insight than if they saw and acted alone.

How to Pray for Overseers

The second help is prayer. Recognizing the call to exercise oversight and the two potential failures provides two good ways for us to pray.

First, we can pray that our pastors would clearly see what they need to see about their church — that they would know the needs, the dangers, the tendencies, the temptations of the people in their congregation, in their particular city, at this time in history. If there’s a fire in a church across the country, and a flood in their own church, we want pastors who bring sand bags and life rafts, not bucket brigades and fire hoses.

Second, we can pray that, having seen clearly what they need to see about their flock, the pastors would have the courage and compassion to act together with wisdom to do what is best for the sheep, especially through their teaching. Once they’ve seen what needs to be seen, what needs to be said? What needs to be done? And who needs to say it — and when and how often? Who needs to do it — and how and when?

Exercising oversight well as pastors requires heart and nerve, courage and compassion, plurality and responsibility, teaching and prayer.

Scroll to top
Refcast

FREE
VIEW