A Passage for a Pastor Called to an Established Church

“Every pastor is an interim pastor.”

I’ve seen that saying a few times, and the typical thought behind it is that every pastor will eventually hand off his ministry to a successor unless the Lord comes again. This saying helps us to keep our ministry in perspective, reminds us that the church is bigger than our individual ministries, and moves us to pray that the Lord will sustain His church since we can only do so much for so long.

Perhaps you, like me, are one of those successors, the next man in the lineup of interim pastors. You are not a church-planting pastor but a committed pastor who God is using to continue the ministry of a church that was established before your coming. How will our ministry endure? How can we minister in such a way so that our church will outlast us? Does the Bible give any specific guidance to us for this kind of ministry?

It does, actually, and below is a quick walk through a helpful passage, 1 Corinthians 3:10–15. When it comes to pastoring an already established church (or, in principle, coming in as a leader to an already existing Christian organization), we will consider 1) what you cannot do, 2) what you must do, and 3) what to expect when your ministry is over.

Let’s read the text first and then follow these three thoughts.

10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. 11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” (1 Corinthians 3:10–15 ESV)

What You Cannot Do: Lay a New Foundation

Paul begins by speaking of “the grace of God given to” him to serve as an apostle, evangelist, and church planter. This grace enabled him to be “like a skilled master builder” who “laid a foundation” for the church, “which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 3:10–11). In other words, through the message of salvation through Jesus Christ, God used Paul to make disciples and plant a church in Corinth. This foundational message is the bedrock upon which every church is built. Therefore, “no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid” (1 Cor 3:11).

This being said, the one thing that you cannot do as a pastor coming into an established church is simple—you cannot preach another salvation, another Christ, or another anything that would effectively replace the foundation upon which your people are built. You will have effectively destroyed what foundation is there, and Paul has strong words for such a one: “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him” (1 Cor 3:17).

Do not lay a new foundation. Instead, consider our next point…

What You Must Do: Take Care in How You Build 

With the foundation of Jesus Christ already in place for an established church, our command is simple: “Let each one take care how he builds upon it” (1 Cor 3:10 ESV). We build, and we build carefully.

In context, an example of how to build a church upon something else is to build it upon someone else. Not understanding how the ministries of Paul, Apollos, and Peter (Cephas) complemented one another, people were dividing themselves as being followers of one or the other (cf. 1 Cor 3:4, 22). They were boasting in men, being motivated by pride, and thinking in terms of how to prosper the church through one personality or another instead of focusing on the gospel and Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Cor 3:18–23).

Given our proclivity to personal ambitions and the desire to magnify ourselves or others within the church, we must do exactly as Paul commands: “take care” in how we build. Don’t come to a church that preaches Christ and make it all about yourself or something else. Carefully build upon the good foundation of Jesus Christ that has already been laid. Let distinctives be distinctives, let tangents be tangents, and take care to make Jesus Christ central to your work.

One very good reason for carefully building is…

What You Can Expect When Your Ministry Is Over: Your Work Will Be Examined

Paul elaborates on his building illustration to speak of materials that will or will not burn away in the presence of fire. Whether “gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw,” Paul’s mention of these materials is to show that, whatever the material may be, “each one’s work will be manifest” (1 Cor 3:12–13). Speaking of Christ’s return, he declares that “the Day will disclose it” (1 Cor 3:13). Again, “it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test the sort of work each has done” (1 Cor 3:13). In other words, Christ will come again and judge each work for its value and quality. We receive our due accordingly.

In considering these materials, gold, silver, and precious stones are not consumed by fire, whereas wood, hay, and straw are. Some ministries have lasting value, and others do not. Among the valuable, some have more value than others, and among the worthless, some are more worthless than others. The Lord will be their Judge.

As for the pastors of these ministries, and as for anyone who supports their ministries, the quality of their work is what determines their loss or reward. “If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:14–15 ESV).

Whatever your giftedness may be, build upon the foundation in such a way so that it survives the fire of judgment in time to come. Otherwise, while you may make it into the kingdom, it will not be with what your reward may have been. You “will be saved, but only as through fire.”

If Jesus Christ is the foundation upon which your church has been built, then lay no other foundation. Rather, build a ministry made of gold, silver, and precious stones on Him and no one or nothing else. He Himself will come again and examine your work and reward you accordingly.

6 Ways to Preach a Great Sermon: Learning from Paul in Acts 13:16–41

Paul was obviously an excellent preacher, and Acts 13:16–41 records the longest sermon by Paul in Acts. From the many things that we could learn, here’s at least six.

Exhort your listeners.

In Acts 13:15, Paul and Barnabas were invited to give a “word of exhortation.” Hebrews, itself a written sermon, refers to itself as “my word of exhortation” (Heb 13:22), a phrase worded almost the same as the phrase in Acts 13:15. Paul would not only teach the Scriptures, but he would exhort and encourage his listeners to do something about what he said. In this case, it would be to accept the message of salvation that centers in the Savior Jesus Christ. He would also warn them of judgment to come for rejecting his message. In other words, get to the “So what?” and passionately press the meaning of the doctrine upon your listeners. Exhort them.

Call out your listeners.

Paul called upon his listeners at least three times while they were listening—“Men of Israel and you who fear God” (Acts 13:16); “Brothers, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God” (Acts 13:26); and “brothers” (Acts 13:38). As Luke’s record was shorthand, Paul may have called them to listen all the more. A passionate love for the listeners who hear you will likely naturally move you to verbalize the name of your audience time and again. People’s heads will pop up. Eyes will lock onto yours. It helps them listen and feel your passion. Call them out, and do it appropriately.

Organize your thoughts.

Paul repeatedly shifted his thoughts each time he addressed his listeners in the references just mentioned above. He summarized Israel’s history (Acts 13:17–25), showed the fulfillment of prophecies in Christ (Acts 13:26–37), and called his listeners to find freedom and forgiveness by faith in Jesus Christ (13:38–41). Notice as well—ended with a strong appeal to his audience to act upon the truths that he had given. Work hard, prepare, and organize your thoughts so others can follow, and (at the least) end with application.

Have a big idea.

Paul spoke of a Savior according to promise (Acts 13:23) and summarized Acts 13:17–25 as “the message of this salvation” (Acts 13:26). In emphasizing “to us” from Acts 13:26, he clarified who the “us” was not and how the death and resurrection of Christ could provide for them salvation (Acts 13:26–37). Paul ended as he focused on the specifics of salvation—forgiveness and freedom through Christ (Acts 13:38–41). His sermon was all about salvation through Jesus Christ. Likewise, rather than giving people a handful of scattered ideas, stick to one big idea, and let everything flow from there.

Use Scripture to prove your point.

Paul quoted a number of passages: 1 Samuel 13:14; Psalm 89:20; Deuteronomy 21:22–23; Psalm 2:7; Isaiah 55:3; Psalm 16:10; Habakkuk 1:5. He also summarized the Bible from Genesis to 2 Samuel with reference to Jesus Christ. Using Scripture to prove your point from Scripture will strengthen the conviction of your listeners that what you are saying is true.

Get to Jesus Christ.

For Paul, this was incredibly easy. His topic for the hour was none other than Jesus Christ Himself. Other texts, however, may not specifically mention Him. Nonetheless, I find that, even if it’s just a minute or a so in a sermon, every Christian needs and wants to be reminded of the gospel and how the text at hand eventually gets there. If nothing else, you can work from your text to its setting in its book to its setting in its testament and eventually its relation to the story of the gospel in the Bible as a whole. This takes preparation, but it’s worth the effort. Not every text mentions Christ directly, but if we work at it, we can survey the layers of context and eventually find a way to tie our text to Him.

Preaching Better Week by Week…

Learning how to preach a great sermon never ends, and it is up to God as to whether or not the sermons we preach are great or not. I am certainly not an expert on this topic myself, and others could say these things better than I could. Nonetheless, we should learn from the examples given to us in Scripture and imitate what they do as best we can. Hard work will yield progress over time (cf. 1 Tim 4:15-16). So how can we improve our ability to implement these lessons above?

For the first two above—exhorting and calling out your listeners—I find that meditating on the death of Christ and His love for the church has been my greatest help in fueling my own love for those who hear me preach the Word of God. Read the Gospels over and over. See the love of Christ poured out for us on the cross. Love people like He does, and you’ll find yourself preaching to them with a love that naturally makes verbal appeals to them again and again. Maybe you’ll explicitly call them out. Maybe not. However you communicate, they will know that it is to them.

For the next two points—organizing your thoughts and having one big idea—two resources that have been helpful to me are the books listed below. I’d encourage anyone learning to preach to read them again and again.

  • Haddon Robinson. Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014.
  • Donald R. Sunukjian. Invitation to Biblical Preaching: Proclaiming Truth with Clarity and Relevance. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2007.

For the fifth point—Scripture proves Scripture—I’d suggest a great resource, The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge, a work in public domain that is helpfully available online (https://www.biblestudytools.com/concordances/treasury-of-scripture-knowledge/) and available through several Bible software programs. The page from the link above states, “For generations, the Treasury of Scripture Knowledge has been an enduring cross-reference resource for Bible students worldwide. This highly respected and nearly exhaustive compilation of cross-references was developed by R.A. Torrey from references in the Rev. Thomas Scott’s Commentary and the Comprehensive Bible. With nearly 500,000 cross-references it is the most thorough source available.”

For the last point—getting to Christ—Andreas J. Köstenberger and Richard Patterson’s Invitation to Biblical Interpretation: Exploring the Hermeneutical Triad of History, Literature, and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2011) is an excellent resource for how to interpret the Bible, layer by layer, and to appropriately tie its themes together.

One Last Thought

A blog post makes no one a great preacher, and the resources recommended above just scratch the surface on the matter. For me, after 6 years in a pulpit, a handful of preaching classes before that, coaching from my pastor at my previous church, and listening to countless sermons by great preachers—all of these things have maybe helped me to start realizing how I need to improve my preaching. It takes time and work and humility and the grace of God. May God help us all as we seek to preach His Word and the glorious message of salvation in Jesus Christ.

When Leaders Leave the Gospel Team: 7 Lessons for Us Today from the Story of John Mark

Christians are often hurt and confused when problems come up and a leader abruptly leaves. This kind of situation can involve a pastor leaving a church, an executive leader leaving a parachurch ministry, or, in the case of a missionary team like we find in Acts 13, one of its members unexpectedly ending his ministry and quickly returning home.

But, even when there is disappointment and the team gets shuffled around, we can find instruction and hope in the story of John Mark. Even though he left his role and hurt others along the way, he kept serving the Lord and was became useful again to those he had hurt in the past.

After completing the first leg of their missionary journey in Acts 13–14 (cf. 13:4–12), the Bible tells us of a development in the missionary team of Paul, Barnabas, and John: “Paul and his companions set sail from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia. And John left them and returned to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13 ESV). (This is the same John from Acts 12:12, 25, also known as Mark.)

What happened here?

We at least know that, when Barnabas asked Paul to let John Mark join them again, he emphatically said no and divided from Barnabas over the matter (Acts 15:36–41). Luke then uses a stronger verb to describe the departure in Acts 15:38 (“withdrawn”; cf. Luke 8:13; 1 Tim 4:1; Heb 3:12), indicating that John Mark was wrong to leave.

Of the options that are suggested for why John Mark left…

1) maybe he as a Jew was not thrilled to see a Gentile get saved (cf. Acts 13:12);

2) maybe a trip across the Mediterranean from Paphos to Perga was too rough for him to handle (cf. Acts 13:13);

3) maybe he didn’t want to keep going north into places where there would be persecution (cf. Acts 13:50, expulsion; 14:19, stoning);

4) maybe he didn’t like being 450 miles from home.

I would have to think that, knowing Paul’s call to the Gentiles, John Mark would hardly be displeased with the salvation of a Gentile (option 1). Knowing the nature and potential danger of their trip in advance, I can’t imagine that options 2, 3, or 4 are valid either. Another option seems best:

5) Maybe he didn’t like how his cousin Barnabas (cf. Col 4:10) was once the primary leader in Antioch (note the order in Acts 13:2, “Barnabas…Saul”), only to become secondary in a missionary team that came to be described as “Paul and his companions” (Acts 13:13) with Paul being its clear spokesperson (cf. Acts 13:16, 45; 14:9, 19).

Whatever our guess at John Mark’s motivations to leave might be, it was not a good thing. But, after a dozen or so years, Paul told the Colossians to welcome John Mark (Col 4:10), called him his coworker (Phm 24), and declared him useful for ministry (2 Tim 4:11). John mark also assisted Peter (1 Pet 5:13) and wrote the Gospel that we know by his name (Mark).

With this survey in hand, what are some practical lessons that we can learn from the story of John Mark? He was a leader who left his role, hurt his fellow Christians in the process, but came back to serve again.

While what follows below is not the primary intent of Acts or the other passages mentioned above, perhaps we could still carefully pull from John Mark’s story some practical lessons for us today.

#1: Leaders sometimes leave.

We are all sinners, leaders included, and sometimes leaders leave a God-given task without good reason to do so. Some years back, I remember Dr. Danny Akin giving one last challenge to those of us graduating from SEBTS and citing a study that showed (if I remember correctly) that 90% of protestant ministers don’t make it to 10 years in vocational ministry. They drop out to do something else. Whatever their reasons may be, it’s a common occurrence that we will probably experience from time to time—one of our leaders will leave, and we will be disappointed by his departure. (And I write this humbly because I’m only in my sixth year as a lead pastor—I pray that, whether me or anyone else, that we as pastors and leaders would serve as God allows until He calls us home!)

#2: Changes in a ministerial authority structure can be hard for some to accept.

We remember that Barnabas and Saul were called (Acts 13:2) to eventually become “Paul and his companions” (Acts 13:13). Sometimes circumstances can change, or an individual rises to an occasion in which his gifts and burden need to be let loose in taking the lead. These changes can be hard for those who are used to things as they are, especially if they had other plans for the future.

#3: Potential leaders should be tested in an assisting role before becoming a primary leader.

The Spirit called Barnabas and Paul, but John Mark was added later (Acts 13:1–3). Acts 13:5 literally reads something like, “And they had also John, an assistant.” One requirement for a pastor is that “he must not be a recent convert” (1 Tim 3:7). Similarly, for deacons, they must “be tested first” (1 Tim 3:10). While not a recent convert or a pastor or deacon, John Mark did have a significant role on a missionary team, and he failed to carry it out. If this could be considered a test, his failure to follow through obviously showed that he was not meant to lead a missionary team in the near future. He could try again, but not in a primary role (cf. Acts 15:36–41). The Spirit knew best in choosing Barnabas and Paul to lead the work.

#4: A leader’s departure is felt in multiple ways over time.

When a leader leaves, the damage is not done in a day. Barnabas and Paul felt John Mark’s loss over the next few months. Mark was missing when they reported back to the church in Antioch. People probably noticed (cf. Acts 14:27–28). Paul and Barnabas divided over taking John Mark again (Acts 15:36–41). His departure was felt in several ways. Abruptly losing a leader can be like an earthquake that has multiple aftershocks in the months and years to follow. One could write a book here, but hopefully the next two points can give some hope for this kind of situation.

#5: A leader’s departure creates opportunities for others to minister.

While a leader’s departure is not the go-to recipe for how to create opportunities for others to lead, sometimes the Lord gives others the chance to serve when others walk away. The division between Barnabas and Paul created opportunities for others like Silas and Timothy to join Paul. In sports terms, the Lord can pull a player off the bench when his teammate quits and walks off the field.

#6: A leader’s departure leaves wounds that can be healed in time.

Paul wasn’t ready to take John Mark back in Acts 15, but reconciliation took place at some point over the next ten or so years. Scripture does not tell us exactly how that took place, but I like to think that Barnabas convinced Paul over time that John Mark had learned his lesson, showed himself faithful, and could be useful to Paul as a result. However it came about, Paul wanted John Mark to minister to him in prison when the end seemed near (2 Tim 4:11). Patient persistence may bring men together over the course of years when a few months may be too soon.

#7: Sometimes a leader who leaves can serve again.

As already mentioned, John Mark rebounded and finished his course well. Tradition suggests that he was dragged by a horse to his death as a martyr for the sake of the gospel. Whether or not that’s true, for all the beating up on John Mark that we sometimes do, he was a righteous man who got back up and kept on serving the Lord. Even leaders can fail from time to time, and if the sin is not significant enough to disqualify him from ministry altogether, he can get back up again, fight the fight, run the race, and keep the faith as a leader until the end.

A Parting Note

You’ll have to forgive me—I’ve written on John Mark multiple times in the last two or three years, but I never tire of doing so. I  preached through Mark some time back, and now I’ve been reminded of his story again as I’m preaching through Acts. Every leader feels like John Mark in Acts 13 from time to time. I hope you find his story encouraging as I do—that even when leaders sometimes fail, God can still use them in extraordinary ways. May we as leaders be humble to recognize our mistakes, learn from them, and continue serving until the end.

Overcoming the Daily Pressure of Pastoral Anxiety

What pastor worth more than his weight in salt does not feel the daily pressure of pastoral anxiety? And how do we as pastors overcome this daily tension that we sometimes feel so deeply in our souls?

Paul actually describes this anxiety and its pressure in 2 Corinthians 11:28. By considering this verse and others, we can find somewhat of an idea as to what exactly this pressure is and how a pastor can overcome it.

In the points to follow, the first will be an attempt to define this pressure, and the three points thereafter are meant to help us think about pastoral pressure properly in order to overcome the temptation to despair.

First, realize what this pressure is.

“Pressure” comes from epistasis, which is used in the NT only one other time in Acts 24:12. Paul claims there that he was not “stirring up a crowd,” that is, being such a problem that people passing by would stop to address the situation, thereby creating a crowd. It was actually the Jews stirred up a crowd against him in Acts 21, and synonyms for “stirred up” (Acts 21:27, syncheō; 21:30, kineō) give a picture of mass confusion in which people were recklessly beating Paul in order to immediately relieve what they perceived to be a problem.

What is similar between the “pressure” and “stirring” above is that each one involves a great agitation of soul. That’s why Paul could list it as somewhat on the same plane as all of what he suffered for the gospel in 2 Corinthians 11:23–27.

Pastoral pressure stems from a concern for people in the church. As Paul put it, his “daily pressure” was one “of my anxiety for all the churches.” “Anxiety” comes from merimna and can refer to a negative anxiety (Matt 13:22; Mark 4:19; Luke 8:14; 21:24) or an anxiety that is properly handled by giving it to God because He cares for us (1 Peter 5:7). The cognate verb merimnaō can likewise describe sinful worries (Matt 6:25, 27, 28, 31, 34; Phil 4:6; et al) but also a care for others as well. Christians are to “have the same care for one another” (1 Cor 12:25), just as Timothy was “genuinely concerned” for the welfare of the Philippians, seeking not his “own interests” but “those of Jesus Christ” (Phil 2:20–21).

All of the word study above is meant to paint a picture of what Paul means by the pressure of anxiety for a church. It is a care for others and can tend toward worry and even despair if we do not cast these anxieties to God in prayer. It is the pressure of anxiety for others that moves us to act on behalf of the ones whose needs we perceive. It usually involves being anxious over people’s sin—we hope that they will forsake sin, grow in Christ, and persevere. In fact, 2 Corinthians 11:29 describes Paul as burning within (puroō) for those who are weak and fall. It also involves being anxious over people’s suffering—we hope that they will carry on in the face of difficulty and trial. Moreover, we hope that everyone will do these things together as they carry out the mission of the church and make disciples for the sake of the Name.

Second, realize that this pressure will probably always be there.

I remember once teaching a class on the theology of leadership, and a veteran pastor asked me, “Does this ever go away?” I’ve not even been a pastor as long as he has, and my experience is that this pressure will probably never go away. Until Christ comes again, the church will struggle with sin and suffering and need its shepherds to tend its needs.

If anything, it seems to me that growing in the grace and the knowledge of God’s Word will naturally increase one’s love for the church and thus one’s burden for others, which, in turn, increases the pressure of anxiety for a church all the more. But alongside that increased pressure is the increased grace of Jesus Christ to shepherd and carry that burden.

This brings me to my next point…

Third, realize that this pressure will be occasionally overwhelming.

Some men are more gifted than others, but God will pin down each man from time to time to show him just how finite he is. When the pressure of being a pastor gets the best of us, it can indeed be overwhelming. Whether a church is unable to meet its budget, has families that move away, has to discipline a member, is on the verge of a split, or whatever the matter may be—these matters keep us up at night, rob us of sleep, and are meant to push us to our limits. Even Christ in His sinless humanity was pushed to a point to ask if there could be any other way.

So what do we do when we are overwhelmed by the pressure? What do we do when our care for the church crushes our soul like a vice?

Fourth, realize that this pressure is meant to drive you to the throne of grace.

Overwhelmed, men will either despair or find peace of soul in the Lord (cf. Phil 4:6–7). Whatever debate there may be over the condition of their souls, pastors, too, commit suicide from time to time. Pastors drop out of ministry. Pastors secretly flee their calling to find pleasure in pornography or solitaire or whatever lesser things supposedly keep the suffering at bay.

But a true pastor will know that he has been called to share the sufferings of Christ and the burdens of his flock, overwhelming though they may be. A true pastor will furthermore know that that very same Christ sits with the Father on a throne to dispense grace in the time of need. He has been tempted as we are, even as pastors, and knows what burdens there are. Only when we are overwhelmed and turn to the Lord can we learn as Paul did, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV). We are weak, and He is strong. Only when we are overwhelmed can God show Himself mighty through us.

Parting Thoughts

To be a pastor is to face the daily pressure of anxiety for a church—caring for people and sharing their burdens and being occasionally overwhelmed. May we go to throne of God in such times and find His grace to handle this pressure.

I cannot promise that finding grace in the time of need also means that God will have ended the sin and suffering in your church. But I can say from His Word that His grace will make you able to bear it.

When the load on our shoulders causes our knees to bend, only then can we see that has God postured us to lift our heads to Him in prayer. Only when we are weak can God show us just how strong He is. May we as pastors persevere through pressure.

What Is the Call to Be a Pastor?

I wrote last week on the desire to be a pastor, primarily from 1 Timothy 3:1, but also from other passages that shed light on the matter. As a follow-up, I thought it would be helpful to ask the question, “What is the call to be a pastor?” and clarify what it is and what it is not as it relates to that desire.

As I pointed out last week, the desire to be a pastor is related to a desire to preach the gospel, compellingly so, and even strong enough to overcome the difficulties of ministry. This desire, however, while part of a man’s being called to the pastorate, is not in and of itself a call to be a pastor.

We should note that the very use of the term call implies that someone other than the would-be pastor is doing the calling. The question is, who is doing the calling?

Sometimes a pastoral candidate describes how he knew God called him to be a pastor through some sort of circumstantial evidence or even a near-revelatory event. He may have received such a call through an invitation after a sermon, after a traumatic life experience, or in the silence of doing his devotions in his home. While not discounting that God can sometimes use these providential means to help a man perceive a desire to be a pastor, the desire to be a pastor, even when coupled with these remarkable events, is still not enough to make up the call to be a pastor.

We actually more appropriately use the language of calling in another way, namely, when a church extends a call to a man to be a pastor. God is still part of the process, to be sure, leading and giving wisdom (we hope) to the church in determining whether or not the candidate meets the qualifications of being their pastor (cf. 1 Tim 3:2–7; Titus 1:5–9). In this type of calling, whatever the candidate’s desire may be, his desire alone is not determinative in becoming a pastor. The church evaluates whether or not he could and should be their pastor and then actually extends him the call to do so. Should he accept the call, then he can be their pastor. But the perception of this call is only when the call is given by the church.

Perhaps we could describe it like this—the call to be a pastor includes factors both internal and external to the candidate. Internally, he has faith, understands the nature and mission of the church, knows what a pastor is, and desires to pastor a church. Externally—something outside of the candidate’s control—God has given him the requisite gifts of teaching and oversight, a church recognizes these gifts, and extends him the call to do so in the formal capacity of being its pastor.

Thinking of the call in yet another way, it should be the natural result of an organic relationship between the church and one of its members (or, perhaps, a church and someone applying to be its pastor). As a man grows in Christ and serves in his local church, he will be moved by the love of the Spirit and guided by what he knows of the Word to serve God’s people in ways unique to his gifting. However it practically comes about (e.g., through a church training program or some less formal manner), it becomes clear over time to him and the church that he desires to be a pastor and is gifted and qualified for such a role. Naturally, one would hope, he then becomes a pastor.

So, what is the call to be a pastor? I believe it is simply a request by a church for a man to be its pastor. But is also a request conditioned upon that man’s desire to be that pastor and the church’s recognition of that man’s being qualified to fill that role.

Every Pastor’s Greatest Desire

What does it mean to desire to be a pastor?

Granted, this desire is only properly present and fulfilled when joined to a giftedness to teach and administrate, a godly character, and the confirmation of the church in ordaining such a man (cf. 1 Tim 3:2–7). Without these qualifications, one’s desire should actually be for another to pastor in his stead.

Those things aside, however, what is the nature of the desire to be a pastor?

1 Timothy 3:1 helps us to answer that question: “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (ESV).

Using this verse and other passages to shed light upon its meaning, we find some helpful thoughts from the NT about the desire to be a pastor.

It is a gospel desire.

To begin, we see something of the greatness of the desire in the greatness of what is involved—preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.

We find something of the greatness of the pastor’s desire merely by how Paul introduces his saying: “The saying is trustworthy.” Paul otherwise exclusively uses this phrase to introduce or look back at a memorable statement about the gospel (1 Tim 1:15; 4:9–10; 2 Tim 2:11–13; Titus 3:4–8). Why would Paul use this phrase, then, to introduce something about an overseer? It seems that the function of teaching and preaching the gospel is so intimately tied to the office of overseer that Paul can easily introduce one or the other in the same way. By using this introduction, what is said in Paul’s statement has a ring of the greatness of the gospel.

The greatness of this desire is also shown by the parallelism and climax of 1 Tim 3:1. Paul gives a conditional statement (“If anyone aspires to the office of overseer”) that is followed by a similar-sounding affirmation of the goodness of such a desire (“he desires a noble task”). While “aspires” overlaps with “desires” to some degree, the more noticeable change from “overseer” to “noble task” highlights the greatness of the task.  Moreover, though “noble task” is a phrase taken from otherwise simple Greek words (kalos, meaning “good” and ergos, meaning “work”), the cadence and climactic position of this phrase in Paul’s saying helps the reader to see beyond its simplicity. Rather, the overseer’s office is imbued with a grand, gospel goodness. This is why some English translations can’t help but to call this otherwise “good work” something greater and indeed, “a noble task.”

It is a compelling desire.

We also see something of the greatness of the desire in the sense that it is a compelling desire.

The verb “aspires” (oregō) is used elsewhere to speak negatively of a false teacher’s “craving” for money (1 Tim 6:10) and positively of the faithful’s “desire” for a heavenly city (Heb 11:16). In both instances, there is an aspiration for something that drives the whole of one’s life, for better or worse. To aspire to the office of overseer is certainly something for the better and similarly drives the whole of the pastor’s life.

Likewise, the more frequent verb “desires” (epithumeō) has many uses that illustrate the intensity of this desire. This verb can be used to refer to a sinful desire for women, riches, position, or anything in general (Matt 5:28; Acts 20:33; Rom 7:7; 13:9; 1 Cor 10:6; Gal 5:17; James 4:1–2). When in the midst of judgment, unbelievers will desire death (Rev 9:6). The starving prodigal son desired the husks of the pigs (Luke 15:16), and Lazarus desired what would fall from the rich man’s table (Luke 16:21). Used positively, a desire can be for the perseverance of others (Heb 6:11) or a desire to see and understand the fulfillment of God’s Word in Jesus Christ (Matt 13:17; Luke 17:22; 1 Pet 1:12). Christ earnestly desired to eat the Passover with His disciples the night before His death (Matt 22:15).

From the above, we might say that the desire to be a pastor is something of a hunger, a desperation, and, if one was to die tomorrow, it would still be on his list of things to do. The one who has it cannot help but to speak the gospel (cf. Acts 4:20). He will echo Paul and claim, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor 9:16).

It is an overcoming desire.

This point comes more from concept than it does from the study of words. From multiple texts, we see there is something about this desire that overcomes the difficulties and temptations of pastoral ministry.

The idle, fainthearted, and weak may cause the pastor to groan within (1 Thess 5:14; Heb 13:17). He may have anguish of soul until his spiritual children are mature (Gal 4:19). The pressure of his church may weigh him down from time to time (2 Cor 11:28). His stricter judgment to come may make him hesitant to teach (James 3:1).

Nonetheless, in all of these things, a pastor does not serve at the behest of others but “willingly” of his own volition (1 Pet 5:2). He does not serve for a salary but “eagerly” for an eternal reward (1 Pet 5:2, 4). He does not lead with apathy but “with zeal” to accomplish his goals (Rom 12:8). His character and capacity will carry him through suffering, knowing that the Christ who suffered and strengthens him will one day make things right (1 Tim 3:2–7; Titus 1:5–9; Phil 3:8–10).

Summary

I believe that the desire to be a pastor is the greatest desire that a pastor can have. The greatness of this desire comes from its relation to the gospel—the pastor preaches a noble message and thus has a noble task. Looking within, the greatness of this desire is compelling—it cannot be set aside. Moreover, even when things may be at their hardest, the greatness of this desire pushes the pastor on. May God give His pastors an overwhelming desire to persevere in their ministries for the sake of the glorious gospel of Christ!

Apostles: A Wrap-up

512px-Apostles_MNMA_Cl23530My graduation and a number of church matters busied me away from a series on apostles, and this post will be a final few thoughts on the matter for now. The NT gives requirements for what it is to be an apostle (see here and here), and Paul’s description of himself helps to explain his apostleship as well. It is debated whether or not Barnabas is an apostle, but I sided with the evidence that he is not.

In addition to apostles who are the apostles, there are also those who are termed apostles merely in the sense that they are messengers. Paul sent Epaphroditus as a “messenger” (apostolos) back to the Philippians (Phil 2:25). He did the same with Titus and the unnamed brother who were “messengers of the churches” (2 Cor 8:23). Jesus spoke of messengers in general when stating, “nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him” (John 13:16).

There are also those who are apostles with Paul in the sense that they are sent for the purpose of gospel ministry. Men such as Timothy and Silvanus could be included in this category (1 Thess 2:6; cf. 1:1).

We should also add that Jesus is uniquely “the apostle” in Hebrews 3:1. He was sent like none other to provide redemption for the children of God (cf. Heb 2:10–16).

Having hardly scratched the surface for this topic, hopefully I’ve laid out the broader principles that establish the multiple senses of the term apostolos as it is used in the NT:

  1. The apostles are the twelve and Paul, one untimely born.
  2. Apostles are also those sent by the churches for gospel ministry (e.g., Timothy and Silvanus – 1 Thess 2:6; cf. 1:1).
  3. Apostles are messengers who have a specific task (e.g., Epaphroditus – Phil 2:25).
  4. The apostle Jesus was sent to provide redemption for God’s children (Heb 3:1).

This article was originally posted here, another blog to which I regularly contribute.

Was Barnabas an Apostle?

San Barnaba by Anonimo Lombardo (an anonymous Lombard) - 17th CenturyWas Barnabas an apostle? This question is important because it is related to the larger question of whether or not apostles exist today. If the NT gave a pattern of apostles being added to the original Twelve (and Paul), could there be apostles today?

I explained in previous posts that the Twelve and Paul had a unique apostleship that singled them out from others that were called apostles in Scripture. In this post (and more to come), I will examine who else was called an apostle in the NT and the meaning of the term apostle as it applied to these individuals.

In Acts 14:4, Luke refers to “the apostles” who, in context, are Paul and Barnabas (cf. Acts 13:50). Ten verses later, Luke is more explicit and refers to “the apostles Barnabas and Paul” (Acts 14:14). Barnabas was clearly an apostle. But in what sense? Was he an apostle like the Twelve? Was he an apostle to the Gentiles in the same sense as Paul? Could the term apostle mean something else in this context?

Part of the difficulty in explaining Barnabas as an apostle lies in the fact that Paul, too, is called an apostle in Acts 14:4, 14If Paul was an apostle in much the same way as the original Twelve, to call Barnabas an apostle alongside Paul seems to color Barnabas with the same apostolic hue as Paul. But this reasoning does not necessarily follow.

Luke typically describes Barnabas as an individual who was distinct from the twelve apostles (Acts 4:36; 9:27; 15:2, 22). These verses and others demonstrate that Luke consistently used the term apostle to refer to the Twelve.1 Luke’s use of the term apostle with reference to others such as Barnabas and Paul is exceptional.2 This is not to say that Paul was not an apostle, but it is to say that whether Paul, Barnabas, or anyone else, Luke did not typically call these men apostles. More likely, Luke used a more generic use of the term apostle, albeit with reference to two notable individuals. One scholar refers to Acts 14:4, 14 and explains this use of apostle as follows: “In this broad usage, then, an apostle was a first-century evangelist who bore witness to the resurrection of Christ, an itinerant missionary sent by Him to make disciples of all nations.”3 Barnabas was an apostle in the sense that he was sent to proclaim the gospel with Paul (cf. Acts 13:1–3).4

In short, Luke described Barnabas as someone distinct from the Twelve. He was sent with Paul to proclaim the gospel, and in this sense, he was an apostle. He cannot be used an example of someone who received an apostleship that was the same as the Twelve or Paul and thus be used as precedent for anyone to claim a similar apostleship today.

This article was originally posted here, another blog to which I regularly contribute.

  1. F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 271; John B. Polhill, Acts (NAC 26; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1995), 312. []
  2. Bruce, The Book of the Acts, 276.Cf. A. F. Falls, “Apostle,” NBD, 123. []
  3. William C. Robinson, “Apostle,” ISBE 1:193. Cf. David G. Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles (PNTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 408. []
  4. To get even more technical, Luke’s order of names in Acts 14:14 (Barnabas and Paul vs. Paul and Barnabas) could suggest the exceptional nature of this use of apostle as well. Unless referring to Paul by his Jewish surname Saul, Luke usually referred to Paul first and Barnabas second (Acts 13:43, 46, 50; 15:2, 22, 35; cf. 15:12, 25). If Luke was copying an irregular order of these two names from some external source, it could be that he also copied the term apostle along the way, explaining why Luke would have used the term with reference to someone other than the Twelve. (See Bruce, The Book of the Acts, 276.) Another suggestion for the unusual order of names is that this order corresponds to the order of the gods Zeus and Hermes mentioned in Acts 14:12. (See Andrew F. Falls, “Apostle, NBD, 123.) []

The Apostleship of the Apostle Paul: One Untimely Born

conversion-of-saulOver the last couple of weeks, I examined Acts 1:21–26 for the requirements laid out by the early church for one be an apostle (part 1part 2). The three such requirements were as follows:

1. An apostle followed Jesus during His entire earthly ministry from His baptism by John to His ascension into heaven (Acts 1:21–22a).

2. An apostle saw Jesus after His resurrection (Acts 1:22b).

3. An apostle was appointed by the Lord Jesus Himself (Acts 1:24–25).

When we look at these requirements, we wonder – how was Paul able to claim that he, too, was an apostle?  He met only the last two of these three requirements. He saw Jesus after the resurrection (Acts 9:1–9; 1 Cor 15:8), and Jesus appointed him to be apostle (Acts 26:16–18; cf. 9:15–16). However, Paul was an unbeliever who persecuted the early church (Acts 8:1–3; 9:1–2) and could obviously not have been one who followed Christ during His earthly ministry (cf. Acts 1:21–22a). Was the first requirement really not all that necessary? Could this apostolic appointment of Paul set a precedent to open the door for others to later say that they, too, had somehow seen Jesus and been appointed to be apostles as well?

The answer is no because Paul describes himself in terms that imply he was an exception to the rule. Twice in 1 Corinthians he describes his apostleship in correlation to when Jesus first appeared to him (1 Cor 9:1; 15:8–9). In the second of these descriptions, he notes that Jesus appeared to him “as to one untimely born” (1 Cor 15:8), a phrase that describes one of the primary ways in which Paul’s apostleship was distinct from the Twelve. Apart from other ways this phrase could be taken, it seems Paul used the picture of a premature birth to imply that his apostleship was something that came about rather abruptly as opposed to something that had been developed over a longer period of time.1 Teasing out the picture further, one could say that the Twelve underwent the full development of apostolic nurture in being discipled by Christ during His earthly ministry.2 In contrast, Paul’s apostleship came about rather suddenly and apart from such a process.

Putting this all together, the Twelve were the Twelve in part because they  were with Christ from His baptism by John to His ascension into heaven (Acts 1:21–22a). Christ chose Paul to be an apostle apart from such a process, but even Paul knew this type of apostleship was out of the ordinary (1 Cor 15:8). Moreover, if Paul’s apostleship was unexpected for such a reason, it seems all the more unlikely that we would see apostles today.

This article was originally posted here, another blog to which I regularly contribute.

  1. Cf. David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians (BECNT; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 690–91, and Anthony C. Thistleton, 1 Corinthians (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 1208–09. []
  2. See the previous posts about Acts 1:21–26 for an explanation as to how Matthias was able to be an apostle as well. []

What Is an Apostle? Requirements from Acts 1:21–26 (Part 2 of 2)

We saw last week from Acts 1:21–26 that the early church laid out three requirements in choosing a replacement apostle* for Judas Iscariot:

1. The candidate was required to be someone who followed Jesus during his entire earthly ministry, beginning from Jesus’ baptism by John to Jesus’ ascension into heaven (1:21–22a).

2. The candidate was required to have seen Jesus after His resurrection (1:22b).

3. The candidate needed to have been appointed by the Lord Jesus himself (1:24–25).

What I did not stress in the previous article was this: if these are some of the requirements to be an apostle, then no one is an apostle today. These requirements are historical conditions that no one can fulfill today. No one today can claim to have followed Jesus during His earthly ministry. Along with this, neither can anyone today claim to have seen Jesus after His resurrection. And, if someone has seen Jesus neither before nor after His resurrection, neither will he be able to claim that Jesus was physically present to personally appoint him to be an apostle.

But perhaps someone claims Jesus gave him a personal appointment to some type of apostolic ministry through a dream or vision.  If this is so, could a person still be an apostle? I am an unashamed cessationist who would dismiss such a claim outright, but even if someone could claim such a dream or vision, he still could not be an apostle. He did not follow Jesus during his earthly ministry from Jesus’ baptism by John to the point of His ascension into heaven.

Adding one more thought—if one cannot be apostle, neither can he enjoy what Scripture calls apostleshipIn the context of Acts 1:21–26, apostleship is a ministry that is enjoyed by only those who are apostles. The eleven prayed to the Lord Jesus and asked Him to reveal which of two men would “take the place in this ministry and apostleship [apostolē] from which Judas turned aside” (Acts 1:25). Paul used this word elsewhere with the same sense (Rom 1:5; 1 Cor 9:2; Gal 2:8).

Pulling all of the above together, Acts 1:21–26 denies the possibility of apostles today and their correlative ministry of apostleship. An apostle is someone who followed Christ during His earthly ministry, saw Him after the resurrection, and was personally appointed to the apostolate.

*Scripture uses the term apostle in a more general sense as well (cf. 2 Cor 8:23). I hope to address both  this use in the days ahead as well as the unique appointment of Paul. 

This article was originally posted here, another blog to which I regularly contribute.