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.

How to Preach So That Disciples Persevere: An Example in Acts 14:21–22

The life and teaching of Christian leaders plays a part in the salvation of those who hear us (1 Tim 4:16). It’s important that we know how to speak God’s Word in such a way so as to move others to persevere. We should work at it. God is obviously the one to do such a work, but He can work all the more through those who work hard at their preaching and teaching. This being said, let’s learn something of how to preach for others to persevere in Acts 14:21–22.

Luke records of Paul and Barnabas, “21 When they had preached the gospel to that city [Derbe] and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, 22 strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:21–22 ESV).

In Acts 14:22, we see the content of the preaching of Paul and Barnabas to churches that needed to persevere in the face of persecution. Paul and Barnabas would repeat this ministry again in Acts 15:35 and Paul alone in Acts 18:22–23. It was a ministry of preaching and teaching to people who faced persecution and needed to persevere.

Their preaching in Acts 14:22 is given three descriptions, instructive for us as preachers today who likewise want to see disciples persevere. Our preaching should include…

“Strengthening the souls of the disciples” 

To “strengthen” (epistērizō) is “to cause someone to become stronger in the sense of more firm and unchanging in attitude or belief” (Louw-Nida). It overlaps with the related verb “strengthen” in Acts 18:23 (stērizō—same verb minus the prepositional affix; Paul was “strengthening all the disciples”—same place, same activity later on). What is said for stērizō could be said for epistērizō. From other uses of this verb, then, we could say that…

Preachers strengthen the souls of the disciples through teaching and preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ (Rom 1:11–12; 16:26). While God uses believers to strengthen one another, it is ultimately Him and His Son who strengthen believers through the Spirit (cf. 2 Thess 2:17; 3:3; 1 Pet 5:10).

“Encouraging them to continue in the faith” 

The verb behind “encouraging” (parakaleō) is variously translated in other verses as “urge,” “exhort,” “appeal,” “beg,” “implore,” “plead,” “invite,” “ask,” depending on each context. While we should not pack every possible sense of the verb into each usage, noting this range of translation helps us understand something of what Paul and Barnabas were doing in their preaching. They were passionately persuading their fellow believers “to continue in the faith.” “The faith” involved their belief, yes, but it also involved the content of their faith, the doctrine of Jesus Christ and salvation through Him at the very least. So then, just as it was for Paul and Barnabas, so also it is for us today…

Preachers should preach in such a way so as to exhort, appeal, and urge their fellow believers to continue believing what they have believed and to continue to live according thereto.

“Saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God”

With this description, we have a particular instance of what Paul and Barnabas were “saying”—“through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” As noted above, the Jews had chased Paul and Barnabas out of these cities before. Harassing the Christians thereafter likely took place as well. They probably saw upon Paul the marks of his stoning. Whether verbal, physical, by one, or by many, “tribulations” would come. Knowing that persecutions will come…

Preachers must warn others of persecution that might come and that persevering even through this will bring them into the kingdom of God.

This may all sound rather mundane and obvious, but it is a matter of whether or not some may enter the kingdom of God. We strengthen and encourage and warn give hope for the sake of those who hear. So, ask yourself: How well do I really work at preaching the gospel with precision and power in order to strengthen the souls of those who hear me? How often do I earnestly appeal to these dear disciples to truly persevere in what they believe and hold to be true? And how often do I warn them of what tribulations may come in this life and encourage them of the kingdom that will come?

Hopefully we are already attempting to preach like the example we see in Acts 14:22. If not, we need to brush up and put some work into what we say from God to others (cf. 1 Tim 5:17). May God help all of us who preach to strengthen, encourage, warn, and give hope to His disciples!

Preach, Be Bold, Conversion, Repeat: The Cycle of Events in Acts 13:44–52 and 14:1–7

Within Paul’s first missionary journey to the Gentiles in Acts 13–14, Luke gives two quick accounts in Acts 13:44–52 and Acts 14:1–7 to show the play-by-play of how events usually transpired in the cities that were evangelized.

First, Paul would attend a synagogue on the Sabbath and preach the word of the Lord (Acts 13:44; 14:1). There was something of a method to this in Paul’s statement, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you” (Acts 13:46), that is, to Jews. Perhaps Israel’s special calling by God among the nations inclined Paul to preach to his own people first.

Second, though some Jews would believe, many would not and would even verbally contradict Paul in the settings where he spoke (Acts 13:45–46; 14:2). This included attacks on both the content of the message and the messenger himself.

Third, instead of backing off and finding a more receptive response elsewhere, Paul and Barnabas responded by boldly preaching God’s Word (Acts 13:46; 14:3). Since the opposition was not yet a threat to their lives, they stayed on and preached all the more.

Fourth, many people believed as a result of the bold witness of Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:48; 14:1, 4). Some people believed when the gospel was preached initially, and others came to believe later as it was boldly preached in the midst of opposition.

Fifth, opposition to the gospel became organized and violent (Acts 13:50; 14:5–6). Whether leading the city’s elite to expel Paul and Barnabas or even execute them by stoning, Paul and Barnabas eventually did leave these cities out of fear for their lives. But it was not without a rebuke—“they shook the dust form their feet against them” when they left from Antioch to Iconium (Acts 13:51).

Sixth, the work of God continued in the disciples left behind and with the messengers who journeyed on (Acts 13:51–52; 14:7). Though their evangelists were forced away, the disciples in Antioch “were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 13:52). After leaving Iconium, Paul and Barnabas “continued to preach the gospel (Acts 14:7). God is powerful to use persecution as a means of spreading His Word.

From the above, we can learn from Paul and Barnabas. We must preach the gospel and preach it boldly, even when opposition comes. Then, should a persecution come that threatens one’s very life, while men can hurt our bodies but not our souls, we do not unnecessarily put ourselves in harm’s way. Finally, even when organized persecution targets Christianity’s leaders and somehow removes them from a work, God will continue the work that they left behind, and those leaders take the gospel with them wherever they might go.

Christian Leaders Must Boldly Preach God’s Word

Two themes every leader should notice in Acts 13:44–14:7 are the Word and preaching boldly.

As for the first theme, the Word is called “the word of the Lord” (Acts 13:44, 48, 49), “the word of God” (Acts 13:46), and “the word of grace” (Acts 14:3). It is characterized by its source and author, that being the Lord God. From the context, it is also something that people gather to hear (Acts 13:44), imparts eternal life to those who accept it (Acts 13:46), which is evidenced through rejoicing and glorifying this very Word (Acts 13:48). As God blesses, it can spread throughout a region (Acts 13:49). Being a means to salvation, God’s kindness to those who believe, it is characterized by grace (Acts 14:3).

Being of such importance, a matter of eternal life or death, it is no surprise that this Word must be preached boldly, our second theme, especially in opposition. Acts 13:44–52 and Acts 14:1–7 record two accounts that are similar for their chain of events: the gospel was preached, the Jews opposed the preachers, the gospel was preached boldly, many believed, and organized persecution chased the messengers away. Nonetheless, believers remained behind, and the gospel continued to go forward.

But just what is this boldness when it comes to boldly preaching the gospel? One lexicon describes the act of preaching boldly as to “speak freely, openly, fearlessly” (BDAG). Similarly, when the noun boldness is used, it can mean “courage, confidence, boldness, fearlessness” (BDAG). From Acts, preaching boldly and boldness is something that marked the preaching of the gospel by the apostles (Acts 2:29; 4:13; 9:27, 28; 13:46; 14:3; 18:26; 19:8; 26:26; 28:31). The whole church prayed for this boldness and spoke accordingly as well (Acts 4:29, 31). Paul requested others to pray that his preaching would be with boldness, “as I ought to speak” (Eph 6:19–20). It is an open, fearless, courageous, and confident manner of preaching. It stems from a love for God, a conviction concerning His truth, and an intense desire to see it savingly at work in the hearts of those who hear it.

Christian leadership (i.e., leading a number of Christians in some manner) is inseparable from boldly preaching God’s Word. This being said, from what we have seen above, we could say that our leadership will often be as effective as we boldly preach God’s Word. There should be something evident to our followers that we are convinced of the truth that we preach, that they should be convinced of it themselves, that it is a matter of their eternal life or death, and that God’s saving grace is theirs to have if they only believe His Word. We speak of these things without fear of what may come, and in fact, with courage because we anticipate the grace that God will give through the message that is preached.

May God move us as leaders to boldly preach His Word!

 

God Raised Jesus for You

One of the reasons that God raised Jesus from the dead involves believers like you and me. Paul states, “And as for the fact that he raised him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, he has spoken in this way, ‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David’” (Acts 13:34 ESV).

In the phrase “he raised him,” it is the Father who raised Jesus. The “he” who “has spoken” is the Father who spoke in Isaiah 55:3, the quotation that ends Acts 13:34. But when the Father says, “I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David,” the “you” is plural, just as in the Hebrew of Isa 55:3. This “you” refers to the readers of Isaiah, and for Paul, his listeners, both Jews and Gentiles (cf. Acts 13:13–16).

In other words, this quotation of Isa 55:3 does not directly prophesy the resurrection of Christ as, say, Ps 16:10, quoted in Acts 13:35. It does, however, imply that there must be a resurrection because of what is promised. If the Christ had been put to death (cf. Acts 13:26–29), then He would necessarily be raised from the dead in order for God’s people to enjoy the blessings promised to them.

And just what are these blessings? In Isa 55, they involve hearing God, coming to Him, and finding life for the soul (Isa 55:3a). They include forsaking unrighteous thoughts to think the thoughts of God and find pardon and compassion in Him (Isa 55:6–9). These are the blessings of salvation that come from repenting of one’s sin and placing one’s faith in Christ in order to find forgiveness and freedom in Him (cf. Acts 13:38–39).

Isaiah promised these spiritual blessings through the Davidic King all throughout his book. The child who would sit on David’s throne would eliminate gloom, anguish, and darkness and give light, joy, and peace instead (Isa 9:1–7). The shoot from the stump of Jesse would judge the poor with perfect righteousness, treat the meek with equity, and rid His enemies with a word (Isa 11:1–4). The chosen Servant would bring justice to the nations, establish His law upon the earth, and be the light that opens blind eyes, frees the prisoners, and breaks them out of their dungeons (Isa 42:1–7). He would be the Servant who brings Israel back to God and be the light who brings salvation to the ends of the earth (Isa 49:1–6). His proclamation has been and continues to be good news to the poor, healing for the brokenhearted, and liberty to the captives (Isa 61:1–3).

If God has promised these blessings to His people by means of the covenant He made with David, then He has promised to them through Jesus, the Davidic King. If the King was killed, then God had to raise Him from the dead. Only then could we still receive the blessings promised to us.

Praise God that Jesus was raised for us to have eternal spiritual blessings through Him!

Psalm 2:7 in the NT: The Announcement of a King

In Acts 13:32–33, Paul teaches that the promise of a Davidic king who would rule forever (cf. Acts 13:22–23) has been fulfilled in part through the resurrection of Jesus. Since Jesus had been put to death (cf. Acts 13:26–29), God raised Him up in order for Ps 2:7 to remain true of Him: “You are my Son, today I have begotten you.”

Psalm 2:7 was written by David and could be applied to Himself. He had been begotten by God as His son in the sense that He was the king of Israel. This language echoes the covenant God promised to David concerning the kings of Israel in his line: “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son” (2 Sam 7:14). Likewise, Ps 89:26–27 says of the Davidic king, “He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father’…And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.” The greatest application of these words is obviously to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Psalm 2:7 is applied to Jesus multiple times in the NT. He was first announced as God’s kingly Son at Hs baptism. The Father declared from heaven, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17; see also Mark 1:11 and Luke 3:22). With the addition of “beloved,” the first phrase of the Father’s words quotes Ps 2:7. The second phrase is a quotation of Isaiah 42:1, identifying Jesus as Isaiah’s suffering Servant.

At the Transfiguration, the Father again identified Jesus in terms of Ps 2:7 and Isa 42:1, adding Deut 18:15 as well—Jesus was the greater Prophet to come (Deut 18:15, “it is to him you shall listen”). The Father stated, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matt 17:5; see also Mark 9:7 and Luke 9:35).

Two NT letters mention Ps 2:7 as well. Peter recounts the Transfiguration in 2 Pet 1:17, and Heb 1:5 and 5:5 quote Ps 2:7 in application to Christ to show how He is superior to angels and the Levitical priests.

But, while Jesus has been announced as the Davidic king, He is yet to sit on David’s throne in Jerusalem. Just as David was anointed king and given the Spirit but waited for a time for his kingdom (cf. 1 Sam 16:1–13), so also Jesus was baptized, received the Spirit, and waits for a kingdom all His own as well (cf. Rev 3:21). The difference between David and Jesus, however, is that, while David was on the run from His enemies until he became king, Jesus currently sits enthroned with the Father over all things until He comes again to put down His enemies and take His earthly kingdom to Himself (Heb 10:12–13). When He does come, “then he will sit on his glorious throne” (Matt 25:31). What a glorious day for the Son that will be!

Why a Tree and Not a Cross?

Acts records three times in gospel explanations that Jesus hung on a tree (Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29). Why speak of a tree? Why refer to the material of the cross instead of the cross itself?

Luke likely wanted his readers to assume that Peter and Paul explained in full what Luke had recorded in short. The mention of a tree would recall Deut 21:22–23, and, assuming the tree was explained as it was in Gal 3:10–14 and 1 Pet 2:24, perhaps Deut 27:26 and Lev 18:5 were recalled as well.

Consider Deut 21:22–23: “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance” (ESV). 

Deut 21:22–23 taught that, for criminals who died in a tree as a means of capital punishment (perhaps by noose, or, in Christ’s case, crucifixion), the criminal was cursed by God. But what is this curse? 

Galatians 3:10–14 answers this question: “10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’ 11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’ 12 But the law is not of faith, rather ‘The one who does them shall live by them.’ 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’— 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (ESV).

Gal 3:10 quotes Deut 27:26 to promise a curse to those who do not perfectly obey the Law. On the other hand, Gal 3:12 quotes Lev 18:5 to promise life to those who obey the Law’s commandments. In being contrasted with life that comes to the obedient, the curse is thus death for the disobedient—a death that is physical, spiritual, and eternal. The curse implies the absence of faith and thus the righteousness of God (Gal 3:11). The curse also implies the absence of the Spirit (Gal 3:14). The curse, then, is death to the one who disbelieves and disobeys God.

Assumed in Gal 3 is that no one perfectly obeys the Law and that all are therefore under this curse (cf. Gal 3:10). Thankfully, we find in Gal 3:13 that our sinless Christ was cursed for us by dying on the tree to redeem us from this curse. He lived a life of perfect obedience to the Law and then died a death that He did not deserve for those who indeed deserved it. By faith in Him, we find our curse removed and receive the Spirit, righteousness, and life (Gal 3:14).

Peter teaches the same truths in mentioning the tree as well. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Pet 2:24 ESV). 1 Pet 2:24 teaches that the purpose for Christ dying on the tree was to bear our sins, and that, by believing in Him, we would die to sin and live to righteousness.

So why mention the tree and not the cross? To speak of the tree recalled the curse of death for breaking God’s Law, and all deserve this curse because everyone has broken God’s Law (cf. Deut 21:22–23; 27:26). But Christ did not sin and did not deserve the tree. He deserved life for perfectly obeying the Law (cf. Gal 3:12). In dying such a death, then, He was able to take the curse of the Law upon Himself for others who had sinned (cf. Gal 3:13; 1 Pet 2:24a). When these sinners place their faith in Him, they find the curse removed and receive life and righteousness instead (cf. Gal 3:11, 14; 1 Pet 2:24b).

By recalling the tree, so also would one recall a trail of gospel truths. Praise God for sending Christ to die on the tree!

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.