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Looking for Shepherds: Biblical Qualifications for Eldership

Looking for Shepherds: Biblical Qualifications for Eldership

One way to know how much God treasures his people is to listen to what he says to our leaders. Here’s Paul’s words to the elders at 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. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. —Acts 20:28–30

The church is God’s flock, precious and purchased. Shepherds are part of how he guides and guards his flock. Shepherding is a noble task, but but shepherding is not for everyone. 

It’s this kind of lofty command that led our elders several years back to examine the Bible’s teaching on eldership more closely—what an elder is, what elders do, and who should be an elder. We were convinced that more unity and depth on these questions would make for a happier and healthier church and, as a result, a more vital witness to Christ in our community. That study led to a retooled process for identifying and appointing elders which we summarized in a previous article, “How We Appoint Elders Together.” The purpose of this post is to drill down more specifically on the matter of qualifications for eldership. This will help all of us identify and pray for our elders here at Heritage. 

We’ve taught on these qualifications for eldership before on a Sunday morning in a sermon, titled, “Profile for a Church Elder,” from 1 Timothy 3:1–7. This article won’t cover any new ground in the Bible, but it should help us take new ground in our gospel mission. Joyful and unified elder appointments are no small part of that.

Who We Need Our Elders to Be

If I was writing the New Testament letters I would have included some detail in the process of appointing elders. But the Holy Spirit knew better. The balance of our material on this topic focuses not on how we appoint elders but on who we appoint to the office. This makes good sense given the job of shepherding. Elders are examples to the flock, they lead, they feed, and they guard the flock. They do all of this with their teaching and with their lives. “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1Tim. 4:16).

Two New Testament passages outline the qualifications for an elder. This is a good place for us to begin.

“The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.” —1 Timothy 3:1–7

“This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you—if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” —Titus 1:5–9

Four initial observations orient us to the rest of the list.

First, it’s not only okay for men to desire this office, it is good for them to do so. It is a “noble task” and men who aspire to this task desire a good thing (1Tim. 3:1). Following Paul’s example, we do well to stir men up to serve in this office and affirm the desire when it emerges. There will always be mixed motives and even evil motives. Yet at a basic level we are not reflexively suspicious of a man’s desire to serve in this office.

The second observation is related to the first by way of complement: aspiration is good but it is not enough. Because of the nature of shepherding the flock of God, the man must also meet certain qualifications before he may be considered for this role. These are a protection to himself and to the flock. The congregation, led by their elders, should heed Paul’s words to Timothy, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands” (1Tim. 5:22).

A third observation brings focus to the entire list to follow. Paul begins with a summary qualification to interpret the whole: “an overseer must be above reproach” (1Tim. 3:2). This is not about perfection but about public reproach. It is interesting that two lists are mostly the kinds of things that should characterize all Christians. These are virtue lists not unlike others we find in the letters written to churches in general. For example, Galatians 5:22–23, Philippians 4:8, and 2 Peter 1:5–7 cover similar ground. An elder is simply a mature Christian and an example to the flock.

A fourth observation is that these qualifications assume that the office of elder is a role held by men. This is not arbitrary or a dig on the ladies. Women are indispensable to the ministry and mission of the church, sisters by adoption, co-heirs in Christ, members of the body, and gifted by the Spirit. Nevertheless, eldership is an office with a unique place in God’s plan for his new creation people, an expression of authority and Word leadership rooted in Adam’s unique role from creation (1Tim. 2:12–14). For more on this topic specifically, listen to our sermon, “Women of the Word,” from our series through 1 Timothy.

The qualifications for elder are mostly straightforward. But there are several points that need some explanation and agreement for the sake of our unity as a church. What follows here is a simple exposition of the qualifications anchored in 1 Timothy 3 as we understand them here at Heritage: things to look for, things to look out for, and things to look into.

Things to Look For

The first qualification to look for is sexual and marital devotion. He must be “the husband of one wife” (3:2). Literally translated, he is to be a one-woman man. The placement of this command near the head of this list is instructive. The elder must not be given to pornography. He must not be a flirt. He should have eyes for his wife alone if he is married. This expression does not mean that a widower or a divorcee is disqualified from the office, granted that a divorce is not a cause for reproach. “One-woman man” would be an unnatural and an unclear way for Paul to speak if he intended to exclude divorced men. With a divorcee, his situation is a matter of credibility and a variety of factors will come to bear on that: the circumstances of the divorce, how public was it, how long ago it was, how it is understood in the community, etc. As with the rest of the qualifications, we are not given a litmus test but a judgment call. What about men who have never been married? While marriage is normative, neither does this exclude single men, Paul himself being single.

Second, we must look for self-mastery, expressed in three additional qualifications. The “sober-minded man” is stable, attentive, and alert. The “self-controlled” man is disciplined, not driven by fleshly desires but able to control himself by the Spirit. The “respectable” man has mastery over his mind and life, accruing respect from those who watch him.

Finally, we must look to the man’s ministry. The “hospitable” man is a welcoming presence, using his time and his home as a means of ministry. He must also be “able to teach,” the chief qualification that distinguishes an elder from a deacon or any other mature Christian man or woman. If you prick him, does he bleed the Bible? This man should be competent in handling the Word, making the Scriptures clearer for hearers and not confusing. “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Tit.1:9). Can he do both of those things with studied clarity and settled confidence? This does not mean he must be able to preach for forty-five minutes on a Sunday or even excel in public classroom teaching settings specifically. Nevertheless, Bible-handling is basic to the role because the Bible is how a shepherd guides and guards the flock.

Things to Look Out For

While there are plenty of good things to look for in a potential elder, there are also things to look out for. First, we must consider if he is “a drunkard.” This question does not concern whether he drinks alcohol, but whether he drinks too much alcohol. He must control and not be controlled by his appetites.

Second, this man must not be combative, “not violent, but gentle, not quarrelsome.” Consider the force of his words, the volume of his words, the tone of his words, and the consistency of his words. Is the kind of person that starts fights? Not unrelated, he is actually a physical brawler?

Finally, he must not be greedy or “a lover of money.” This does not mean that he cannot be wealthy. Rather he must not love money to the extent that he gives all of his time and attention to getting money. He must not gain his money through shady or underhanded dealings. This man must love God rather than money.

Things to Look Into

Due diligence requires that we look into several things when considering a man for eldership. The first is his home. The church is like a family whose leadership involves nurture, order, and care. If a man can’t take care of his home, then we should not expect he can faithfully care for the church. For a point of evidence, does he “manage his own household well”? If he has children, are his children submissive? This does not mean that his children are perfect or necessarily converted, but that the man fosters a godly atmosphere of parental discipline. On that point about the conversion of his children, Paul did write to Titus, “his children are believers” (1:6). However, this can just as well be translated, “his children are faithful,” and so this is just another way of saying what Paul writes to Timothy concerning submissive children. Could a child’s behavior disqualify an elder? Yes, and that would depend on the age, the story surrounding a child’s disobedience, and whether this man’s management of his home is a reproach.

A second thing to look into is his experience. Simply, is he an experienced Christian? He must not be a new Christian. New believers do not mature evenly. They may excel in sexual purity but not in humility, or in humility but not in sexual purity. This is something Satan will exploit in someone who is made an elder too quickly.

A third and final thing to look into is his reputation. An elder with a problematic reputation with outsiders will fall into disgrace. Having his name smeared, he will fall into the Devil’s trap and harden his heart.

Pray, Watch, Wait

The process of raising up, identifying, and appointing elders is an ongoing process. Use this post to help you pray for our leaders and to watch out for who the Holy Spirit might appoint an elder among us. Why not pray this way for your sons? Why not pray this way for your husband? 

Given the importance of qualified leadership to the church’s health, why not meditate some more on this topic with the help of a good book? Here are some books we’ve worked through as elders and/or deacons in recent years. For a slower journey through these qualifications, pick up a copy of Thabiti Anyabwile’s Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons. For a basic introduction to biblical eldership read Jeramie Rinne’s, Church Elders: How to Shepherd God’s People Like Jesus. For a detailed analysis of every relevant text concerning eldership, read Alexander Strauch’s, Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership.

How Not to Lose Yourself (and Your Soul) In A Crowd

How Not to Lose Yourself (and Your Soul) In A Crowd

I’ve been thinking about crowds lately. There are a few reasons for that. We keep seeing them on the news. We feel the effects of them in our feeds. The crowding out of our ability to think for ourselves—or think at all—is one reason why a half dozen friends have told me they dialed back or even dropped social media altogether.

What is it about a crowd? I think that’s a question that needs more reflection. The fact that it took fifteen chapters in our series through the Gospel according to Mark for me to recognize the crowd as a primary character illustrates the problem. Crowds are mentioned by Mark thirty-three times and they exert tremendous influence on the shape of events. As Greg Morse writes, crowds “[possess] the power to make the timid brave, the good better, or the bad devastating … When passions are shared, they swell, exciting actions to the status of legend or infamy. The power of assembly can build a better society or destroy it.” Ironically, the crowd that shouted at Jesus’ trial before Pilate did both. Their only two words? “Crucify him” (Mk. 15:14).

So, let’s reflect on crowds together. Writing here about crowds is one way for me to help you navigate the times without telling you what to do. It’s a way of instructing you in climate science so you can better discern the weather on any given day. Ultimately, I’m writing here to help us hear and heed the words Jesus said to a more docile crowd:

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? … For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed” —Mark 8:34–38

More than we might expect, crowds make all of this especially hard.

So that we might not lose our minds or our souls in a crowd, there are two things you need to remember about crowds and then three questions you need to ask yourself about them.

Easily Stirred, Not Easily Satisfied

In Sunday’s sermon, “Crucify Him,” we made several observations about crowds based on the behavior of the crowd at Jesus’ trial. Apart from the influence of this crowd on a Roman governor, Jesus would not have been delivered to death. How did the crowd do this? This powder keg situation has powerful lessons for us. Let’s start with some of the other characters on the scene.

This Jewish crowd was gathered between two opposing characters, Pilate and the chief priests. The Jews were an occupied people and Pilate, the fifth Roman governor over Judea, was charged with keeping order in his region. When the chief priests delivered Jesus to Pilate with call for his death, Pilate was perceptive enough to know what was behind their call. They envied Jesus’ popularity (15:10). What the chief priests unwittingly failed to realize is that Pilate did not like being used, especially by Jewish leaders. He despised them and they despised him. Once Pilate marched a legion of soldiers into the temple with banners declaring blasphemy. He killed priests as they conducted their sacrifices. He built the Jews an aqueduct 23 miles long, which was nice of him, but then charged the temple for the cost. He was a cruel governor and a weasel. He also perceived their envious motives and took Jesus to be innocent (15:14). For that reason, he belabored the trial. He asked Jesus several questions and worked angles to both keep peace and to keep from sending Jesus to his death (15:2, 4, 9, 12). As they say, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Pilate didn’t want to kill Jesus.

So, why did Pilate send Jesus to his death? Here’s one way to answer that question: because of the crowd. How it happened teaches us something about how crowds get worked by leaders and how crowds in turn work leaders.

On the day of Jesus’ trial a crowd gathered to demand that Pilate “release for them one prisoner for whom they asked” (15:6). This was customary and expected. For Pilate, though, this was an opportunity to leverage the crowd’s energy against the will of the chief priests. So he asked, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” (15:9). Knowing the chief priests delivered Jesus over from envy, he perceived that the crowd may have their own mind about Jesus (15:10). Perhaps he thought the crowd would choose against the priest’s demand.

Understanding the political incentives involved, the chief priests worked the crowd. “The chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release for them Barabbas instead” (15:11). Barabbas was an insurrectionist and a murderer. He was the kind of person they were falsely accusing Jesus of being. How did they bring the crowd to demand the release of this prisoner? Maybe they made threats. Maybe they made promises. Perhaps they spread rumors. However they did it, this imagery of “stirring up” tells us that they were able to exert control over the crowd and to consolidate the crowd’s energy. When this happens, a crowd is more than the sum of its parts. Together with one voice they shouted, “Crucify him” (15:13, 14)

Crowds are easily stirred. That’s the first thing we need to remember about them. They are vulnerable to manipulation. And we are personally more vulnerable to manipulation when we’re in one. But that is not where it ends. Crowds are also vehicles of manipulation, which brings us to the second thing you need to remember about crowds: they are not easily satisfied.

Pilate’s motives were not as famously or flagrantly bad as other parties involved in Jesus’ death. Judas handed him over because of greed. The chief priests handed him over because of envy. Nevertheless, Pilate is the one whose name is embedded in the ancient creed: “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” What was his motive exactly? Pilate, “wishing to satisfy the crowd,” released Barabbas and delivered Jesus to his death (15:15).

Ask Yourself Three Questions

To Pilate, Jesus was interesting and innocent (15:5, 14). But at the end of the day, Jesus was inconvenient. Pilate valued his career as a Roman governor and his reputation for keeping peace over justice for this innocent man. He didn’t want to kill Jesus, but he did want to keep his life. That says something to us about Jesus—that there is no neutrality with him. It also says something to us about ourselves—that we are vulnerable to changing our thinking and making decisions in order to satisfy a crowd.

When we read the Bible, we aren’t just looking through a window into the events of the first century. We are looking into a mirror. Crowds are still a thing and so are leaders with more or less hidden motives who both play them and get played by them. Today, we too find ourselves in crowds and before crowds. So, having looked in the mirror of Mark 15—and because three is a crowd—ask yourself three questions.

First, what crowds are you running in?

Jesus wasn’t the only one who had to face a crowd. Acts 19 tells the story of the famous riot at Ephesus. As the gospel grew in that region, the growing number of disciples meant a depressed market for silver shrines to the local goddess. What ensued is as insightful as it is insane. On that crowd, I highly recommend to you a recent article by Greg Morse, “Alone Against the Mob: Crowds, Cancel Culture, and Courage.” That was the crowd that the Ephesian Christians had to deal with.

Knowing yourself means knowing your crowds. Crowds are unavoidable unless we remove ourselves from life in the world, so what crowds are you in or around? A crowd of middle school classmates, a high school locker room, the management team at your place of work, a text thread with a certain mood and collective opinion, or the current academic trends in your field of work? Don’t forget your Instagram and Facebook feeds. Yes, even your family is a kind of crowd. Any of these crowds can lead you to deliver Jesus over to be crucified.

Second, how are you tempted to please the crowd?

Every crowd has a certain way of seeing the world. A crowd’s subtle and not-so-subtle indications about what is good and beautiful and true will shape your own way of seeing things. The tangible and invisible incentives for speaking and acting a certain way have more persuasive power over us than we might realize. So, what crowds are you in? Now, ask yourself, what would you give up to satisfy the crowd? How are you willing to obscure or hide your union with Jesus in order to satisfy a crowd? How are you vulnerable to changing your thinking in order to satisfy a crowd?

Reminders of this temptation have been in the news of late. It should not surprise us that the recent ex-evangelical trend is populated with former pastors and others who simultaneously distance themself from their former faith and then reveal their new enlightened understanding of gender, marriage, and sexuality. This is the effect of the crowd. One hundred years ago the crowd tempted us to deny the Bible’s supernatural miracles. Today we’re tempted to deny the Bible’s sexual ethic.

Third, how can we be the right crowd for one another?

The word “church” means literally “assembly.” The church is a crowd. Like crowds anywhere, the church is more than the sum of its parts. When we’re with the right crowd—that is, a heathy church centered in the gospel and gathered under the righteous rule of Christ through his Word—there is no safer place on earth to be. The power of this crowd is not coercive but compelling. So, brothers and sisters, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:23–25, emphasis mine).

I am profoundly grateful that after a difficult year for churches and church participation, our church is growing in joy and hospitality, in giving financially and in receiving new members. Scripture and experience have taught us that we need one another. Keep stirring one another up, keep meeting together, and keep encouraging one another. This is an urgent command and our souls are at stake in keeping it together.

A Great Crowd of Witnesses

Before we wrap up this post on crowds, we need one more lesson from Mark lest we lose our souls in the process of trying to save souls. How are we to preserve our witness in a world with so many crowds gathering under steeples and banners with Jesus’ name on them?  

Once you start seeing crowds in the gospel of Mark, you cannot unsee them. And once you see them you start seeing their influence on events. Just consider the calculation the Pharisees had to make once when Jesus asked them for their opinion about John the Baptist:

And they discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But shall we say, ‘From man’?”—they were afraid of the people, for they all held that John really was a prophet. —Mark 11:31, 32

Afraid? These were Jesus’ people. What were they afraid of exactly? Luke lets us in on more of their conversation: “all the people will stone us to death, for they are convinced that John was a prophet” (Lk. 20:5, 6). This is why they needed to arrest Jesus by stealth (Mk. 14:1–2). Let’s just say that not everyone around Jesus completely understood his kingdom and teaching. Jesus’ raving fans had their own ideas. 

One lesson here for our witness is to expect that Jesus will have all kinds of followers out there representing him in ways that are entirely opposed to his kingdom. I find it instructive that Jesus was not constantly talking about how he wasn’t like all the other people who followed him. He wasn’t terribly worried about PR. Neither did his disciples form their movements in the first century as reactions to other followers they were embarrassed about. There will always be the crazies. We might not even always agree on who the crazies are. Jesus can work all that out.

A second lesson for us here, then, is that it is okay to let our words and our works speak for themselves. That is, after all, what Jesus did. Seeing the unfolding events of his own ministry with spiritual eyes, he knew full well why he was getting in trouble. It was his words and his works that threatened the authorities. The unseemly crowd around him was simply political leverage for his arrest as a supposed troublemaker when the authorities knew he posed no real danger (14:48, 49).

So, how can we protect our witness in a world of crowds—some that are against Jesus and some unhelpfully for him? Here’s one way: in view of the faithful saints who have gone before us, keep gathering as a faithful church and keep stirring one another up for Jesus’ sake.  

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” —Hebrews 12:1–2, emphasis mine

Church family, look to Jesus, expect to be shamed, refuse to be ashamed, let Jesus save your witness, and remember that you are never alone in a crowd.

New eBook: Thinking Theologically about Racial Tensions

New eBook: Thinking Theologically about Racial Tensions

Our elders recognize that there is a need to offer biblical instruction on the topic of race. This is not because we believe that we are demonstrating sinful thoughts or attitudes on this topic as a church. Not hardly. Our purpose is not corrective but instructive. This topic—filled as it is with human beings, human history, and human conflict—deserves nothing less than our best biblical thinking in order that we might honor Christ as Lord in our conversations with one another and with our neighbors.

Here’s how pastor Kevin DeYoung put it:

As Christians, we should always be eager to reason carefully and winsomely from God’s Word. While I don’t believe every controversial issue surrounding race in this country is theological in nature, I do believe that every culture-wide conflict is bound to have a number of theological issues at its core. The issues in the early church may have looked like practical disagreements about meals and food and ceremonies, but the apostle Paul saw in them the most important issues of the gospel. Paul always brought his best theology to bear on the most intractable problems facing his people. We ought to do the same.

We concur.

With that commitment in mind, last summer DeYoung set out to help the church honor Christ as Lord on the topic of race in a series titled, Thinking Theologically about Racial Tensions. DeYoung teaches at Reformed Theological Seminary and pastors at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He’s a pastor and a scholar devoted to sound doctrine for God’s glory in the church. DeYoung and Christ Covenant Church were kind to allow us to put this material into an eBook for you as a means of instructing you in the Word.

Download the eBook with an introduction from Heritage’s elders.

 Here’s how DeYoung set up his series:

Over the coming weeks I hope to explore several theological issues related to our ongoing racial tensions. I fear that we are going about our business in the wrong order. We start with racial issues we don’t agree on and then try to sort out our theology accordingly, when we should start with our theology and then see how racial issues map onto the doctrines we hold in common. Good theology won’t clear up every issue, but we might be surprised to see some thorny issues look less complicated and more hopeful.

Lord willing—and with the caveat up front that this list could change as we go along—I’d like to write about three topics over the next month: The image of God, Sin and guilt, Life together in the church. In short, I want to explore how Christian anthropology, hamartiology, and ecclesiology might encourage, confirm, clarify, and correct our thinking.

Working from the Scriptures, DeYoung published several articles. Read these articles alone or with a friend. We wrote an introduction from our elder team and drafted some questions to help you along. The questions are provided at the end of each section. We hope they help.

If you’d prefer to read this material on the web in its original article form, here you go:  

For many of you these articles will be a tall glass of water, refreshing and clarifying your understanding with the Word of God in a way you’ve longed for. Jesus always speaks as one having authority and when we give ourselves to his Word we grow all the more to trust him. For many, these pieces might feel heavy. We’d encourage you to work through them slowly, but to work through them nevertheless. For all of us, this is a good exercise in slowing down to think God’s thoughts after him in order to live faithfully as Christians.

May this equip us all to be more faithful to our mission: to preach the gospel to any person at any time at any place. May this famously difficult subject be an entry point for us to speak the good news to a world that needs good news.

For the elders,

Trent 

Your Journey Through The Psalms: Where to Begin

Your Journey Through The Psalms: Where to Begin

Editorial Comment: Mark Centers is a member of our Preaching Cohort, a small group of pastors and preachers in training that meets monthly to work on the preaching craft. He is also an Elective class teacher on Sundays. This year the group is working on preaching poetry with a focus on the Psalms. Mark presented some excellent work on the Psalms and so I’ve asked him to write a series of posts for our church to help us better understand and employ the Psalms. —Trent

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If you’ve been in church long enough, you’ve probably been told to, “open your Bibles to the book of Psalms, right in the middle of your Bible.” Measured by chapters, Psalms is the longest book in our Bibles so it’s not hard to find. In it are the prayers, hymns, and laments of our ancestors to our great God. It’s filled with familiar lines that we rightly recall: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,” or, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” (1:1; 23:1). But whatever you might think of the Psalms individually, they were compiled as a book. In this and several follow-up posts I want to help you hear the overall message of the book of Psalms.

As we begin, let’s get a common misconception out of the way. The Book of Psalms is not a hymn book. It is filled with songs of various kinds, yes, but it is not organized like our hymnbooks and not all of the Psalms were sung. It is a five-part story that chronicles the rise and fall of the Davidic dynasty (Books 1–3) while calling the nations to join Yhwh (Book 2) and mourning the “failure” of the Davidic covenant (Book 3). But this story does not end in despair. Book 4 takes the reader on a journey back to the roots of authentic biblical Judaism, while anticipating the deliverance of the world by David’s greater Son—marked by the return of the King, the Messiah (Book 5).

Enter at the Gate, Look Both Ways

As with any unified work, it begins in a very deliberate way. Psalms 1 and 2 act as the introductory gateway into this story. Imagine yourself beginning a hike through the vast forest of the Psalter—but in order to find a clear path into the heart of the woods you must first pass through a massive gate. The gate is supported by two hand-carved posts. The left post represents Psalm 1, the right post Psalm 2.

The word “Blessed” is clearly carved into the top of the left post (Ps. 1). Under this word you see two men, one walking a path to destruction and the other walking away towards a tree. The tree is carved in the center of the post. The tree is healthy, fruitful, and full of leaves. Underneath the tree a great river that never ends supplies life to the tree. The last image at the bottom of the Psalm 1 post is a court room scene where God sits as Judge. All those who are his stand with him, and those who do not stand with him are blown away like chaff.

You turn to examine the right post (Ps. 2). At the top is etched a congregation representing the world’s elite deliberating on how to break free from God and his Messiah. This deliberation is cut short with the laughter of God from heaven. In the middle of the post, you see a king with the full authority of heaven in his hands accompanied with this announcement: “I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.” The Son is given the nations as his inheritance and commanded to exercise dominion over the whole earth. The final carving is a concise warning to all people, but especially the world’s elite: “Pay homage to the Son, lest he be angry and consume you.” At the very bottom of the right post, we see the King on his throne with people all around him with this same word again—blessed.

Look Out for These Two Themes on Your Journey Ahead

These dual themes of the fate of the righteous and wicked, and the authority of the Messianic King are woven through this deliberately ordered anthology of the Psalter. The author of Psalm 1 and 2 purposefully introduces these dual themes for you. As you pass through the gateway into the forest of the Psalter, these images from the pillars will pop up again and again as a reminder of the bigger story. Always anticipate the juxtaposition between the righteous and wicked and the hope in the coming Messianic King.

In the next blog post on the Psalms, we will take a fast-paced journey through the 5-book arrangement. We will look for these themes, and we will see how the book of Psalms tells a story.

Reading the Bible in 2021

Reading the Bible in 2021

The original title for this post was, “Reading the Bible in 2071.” I mistyped the date. But then, that’s actually how we are so often tempted to approach Bible reading. It’s something we’ll get to later. That’s where habits come in. When we build out a regular pattern of doing just about anything, it becomes more natural, and dare I say, easy. When it comes to Bible reading, a reading plan can help.

Remember Jesus’ words, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). He was talking about himself! You don’t need to read the Bible in a year, but in 2021 you can certainly read the Bible regularly if you haven’t. The New Year is a great opportunity to decide how you’ll do that.  

At the risk of overwhelming you with options, here is an overwhelming number options. At least you’ll know there’s no one-way to read the Bible every day. Browse around a bit and pick something that seems doable and encouraging:

  • Chronological Reading Plan: Reading God’s Story: A Chronological Daily Bible, by George Guthrie is a unique resource. This Bible is published with a one year daily reading plan in mind, ordering the Biblical material chronologically along the Bible’s own narrative framework. George Guthrie has also published a one year chronological Bible reading plan, Read the Bible for Life.
  • The M’Cheyne Plan with Daily Devotional Commentary: For the Love of God is a two volume series of books written by D.A. Carson providing daily reading to supplement the M’Cheyne reading plan. This plan, named after its designer and Scottish minister in the 1800′s, Robert Murray M’Cheyne, takes you through the Old Testament once and the Psalms and New Testament twice in one year. Four readings are assigned to each day, but you can easily approach this with two readings a day and spread it across two years. 
  • Several Places A Day: Crossway’s Daily Bible Reading Plan is available as a PDF form to print out for a series of bookmarks. This plan gets you through the Bible in a year, reading from several different places in the Bible each day. Crossway has published 10 reading plans to supplement the ESV, including RSS, email, audio, and print versions daily. Also, the Discipleship Journal “Bible Reading Plan,” by NavPress, takes you through the entire Bible by reading from four different places each day.
  • Just a List of Chapters: The Bible Reading Record, by Don Whitney, is a simple list of every chapter in the Bible. With this, you can read at whatever pace you like and keep track of what you’ve read until you’re through the Bible. This, of course, wouldn’t necessarily be a one year plan, but it could be. To get through the Bible’s 1089 chapters in a year, you need to read an average of 3.25 chapters a day, which comes out to about four chapters per day if you commit to reading five days each week.
  • A Plan for Following God’s Redemption Plan: The Bible Eater is a simple one-page print out with a list of every chapter in the Bible and a reading pattern. Print it out and cross off chapters as you go. This plan highlights the Bible’s chapters that are especially significant for grasping the Bible’s storyline centered in Christ.

If you need some help reflecting on some of the spiritual dynamics involved in our struggle to read the Bible, check out Ryan Kelly’s article, “How’s Your Bible Reading Going?.” For some encouragement in the formation of some new habits like Bible reading, pick up a copy of David Mathis’, Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines.

Thanksgiving, 2020

Thanksgiving, 2020

Thankfulness isn’t the banner most of us would naturally fly over 2020. Only a few things come to mind: a pandemic, violence, and an election season that exposed so many of our nation’s contradictions. Even Thanksgiving is at least legally curtailed for some brothers and sisters in other states. 

But I’m not writing to rehearse reasons why we might not be thankful. I’m writing to give thanks and to do so out loud in front of you. I know you well enough to know that you are not shaken or pressed down or unhappy or unthankful. You are a thankful people and thanks is on your lips. But I know your computer screens well enough to know you need to hear someone speak words of thanks before you and over you. Best I can tell, that was part of Paul’s strategy to strengthen a church a little worn down with trouble. So, after some meditation this morning on thankfulness in Paul’s letter to the Colossian church, here four reasons I’m thankful today.  

1. I’m thankful for your faith, love, and hope

That may not sound like a terribly pithy way to start into a blog, but it is a profound reason for thanks today. It’s how Paul began his letter to the Colossian church, “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven” (Col. 1:3–5). It’s also on the top of my mind today. Seeing things you don’t is one of the blessings and difficulties of pastoral ministry. But the blessing part far outweighs the difficulties. I see your faith growing as you inquire about the Word. I hear about your love for one another in countless ways as our elders talk and pray and report to one another. And I am reminded of our shared hope as you struggle through every kind of suffering, and kinds we didn’t see coming these past many months. All of this is a reason to “[give] thanks to the Father who has qualified you” for salvation (1:12).

2. I’m thankful for your faces 

Yes, some of these will be a play off of the themes of our unforgettable year. And no this is not a statement about mask science or the need for some to isolate. I really am genuinely thankful for your faces. I’ve been reflecting on this a bit lately and I think it needs some more reflection from all of us. The Apostle Paul recognized that some of his readers had not seen him face to face, “For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face” (Col. 2:1). On the one hand, he struggled for the saints at Colossae, whether he had seen them face to face or not. On the other hand, he had to acknowledge that second group because perhaps they would not assume it. In other words, face to face encounters are the norm. The Lord’s Day is a face to face encounter with God and with one another, a grace that we might read one another’s faces and in that way read one another’s souls, the second most important book in the world next to the Bible. I love all your faces and I thank God for them today. If we haven’t seen yours in a while, know this: we love you and we miss your face.

3. I’m thankful for your voices

They say not to overuse a word in your writing. Swap it out for a good synonym. Maybe Paul was the culprit that our style guides are trying to fix. “…be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:15–17). That makes three. And at the heart of this flurry of thanks is a word about speaking and singing to one another with thanksgiving. Yes, in 2020, I’m thankful for all the things I heard you say and all the songs I heard you sing.

4. I am thankful for your many names

Paul named names. In his closing words to the church, he mentioned Tychichus, Aristarchus, Mark, Barnabas, Justus, Epaphras, Luke, Demus, Numpha, and Archippus (4:7–17). He wrote from prison but he wasn’t writing from pity. He wrote from thankfulness toward God and thankfulness to others. If I start naming names, I’ll break this blog. So, let me just name the names of those I work with every day.

I’m thankful for Aaron Bednarski’s work ethic and excellence in the details, Dan Cruver’s example as a dad, Abe Stratton’s persistence with Scripture memory and the lost, Lisa Hansen’s commitment to know everyone’s name and help me with names, Brad Hilgeman’s tender and tenacious care for saints in every kind of crisis, Caleb Greene’s ability to bring theology to life through artistry, Brian Burch’s resolve to adorn the Word with technology and not the other way around, Liz Stratton’s discerning leadership among our ladies and insight for me, Kevin Delp’s famous way of taking both the Bible and our children seriously, and Barb Illsley’s rare ability to focus intently on a task and feel deeply about people mingling about the office throughout the day.   

There are some names that need a little more attention this thanksgiving. I’m thankful for my beloved brother and faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord, Sandy McCormick, and for Karen, his loyal support and our sister. Sandy has been on our vocational team for some 25 years and he retires in a week. I’ve known Sandy for almost exactly four years now, but it feels like many more. We shared a lunch this week and talked about all kinds of things, as usual. He will remain an elder, so we’ll keep lunching together. I hope you have friends like this. If you don’t, follow our example as leaders and go to lunch with someone in our church to talk about everything like we do. I thank God for this man.

Here is another set of names we can thank God for today: the Read family, Jason, Deb, Hudson, Norah, Paton, Rose. Jason will be moving into the office this coming week, easing his way into the role Sandy has filled so faithfully. They have been filling their days this past week with many hard “goodbyes,” so let’s be sure to fill their early days with us with many warm “hellos.”        

Watchfulness and Witness in 2021

2021 could be harder than 2020. I expect we have much harder years ahead, actually. One reason to give thanks is for our great country and the occasion for this holiday. Tim Keesee reflects on its significance in his recent post, “The 1620 Project.” On that note, let’s give thanks for the right decision made yesterday by our Supreme Court concerning limits on corporate worship in New York.

Come what may, we will still brim with thanks if we are filled with the fullness of Christ. In all of our eating and relaxing today, let’s remember where Paul was and what Paul wanted for us: “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison—that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak” (Col. 4:2–4).