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9Marks Explained : A Letter From Mark Dever

Book Review: Christ-Centered Preaching, by Bryan Chapell

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“Three points and a poem” may be a caricature of evangelical preaching, but for too many years and too many preachers it was the norm. Thankfully, a return to expository preaching that feeds the flock and proclaims the gospel has given a new hope for this generation.

Expository preaching does not take place without devoted effort. Bryan Chapell—former president of Covenant Theological Seminary, long-time homiletics professor, and current pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Illinois—capably details the needed preparation process for expository preaching in Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon. Chapell brings his wealth of pastoral preaching and homiletical instruction into a well-crafted volume of eleven chapters and twelve helpful appendixes. He approaches his subject through three sections.

PRINCIPLES FOR EXPOSITORY PREACHING

Chapell’s first section puts the weight of expository preaching on three things. First, the power of God’s Word in preaching. “Good preaching,” he writes, “in one sense involves getting out of the way so that the Word can do its work” (34). Priority is given to the Word rather than the preacher’s ability. Second, the power of a holy life supports and confirms what the preacher asserts. “No truth calls louder for pastoral holiness than the link between a preacher’s character and a sermon’s reception” (38). Third, Chapell reinforces the power of gospel-focus in every sermon. “Without a redemptive focus, we may believe we have exegeted Scripture when in fact we have simply translated its parts and parsed its pieces without reference to the role they have in God’s eternal plan”(40).

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Book Review: Preaching? Simple Teaching on Simply Preaching, by Alec Motyer

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Tim Keller’s commendation on this book’s cover reads, “Alec Motyer has had a profound, formative influence on my preaching.” It’s easy to see why. Motyer, well known for his magisterial work on Isaiah, gives us another work of immense value. Preaching? is an opportunity to eavesdrop on the wisdom of a man who has been preaching for a long time—so long, in fact, that he transparently admits to using one particular sermon nineteen times since it first saw the light of day in 1963! This book is packed with just the kind of profound insight and poignant reminders you would expect from a man who has been at it that long.

Chapters 1-5 are somewhat introductory, advancing the central role of proclamation in the life of the church, highlighting the primary need for clarity in teaching, and clarifying what is meant by exposition. Motyer says that exposition is “the restatement of a Scripture…so that its message emerges with clarity” (30).

Chapters 6-11 are the heart of the book, presenting the six aspects of Motyer’s method for sermon preparation: examination, analysis, orientation, harvesting, presentation, and application. These, he says, are not successive steps, but run parallel to one another, “like a sixfold track leading to our destination” (37). Chapters 12-14 conclude with counsel regarding the pastor’s personal holiness, attentiveness in prayer for the flock, and the necessity of making Christ central in all proclamation.

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Book Review: Effective Staffing for Vital Churches, by Bill Easum and Bill Tenny-Brittian

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How would you describe your church and your church staff in a few words? Would you say that your church is “missional” and that your staff is “effective?”

That’s what veteran pastors and now church-growth consultants Bill Easum and Bill Tenny-Brittian want to help pastors say through their book, Effective Staffing for Vital Churches: The Essential Guide to Finding and Keeping the Right People.

I can’t with confidence say Effective Staffing is essential reading, though it is clear and instructive—depending on what you hope to gain from it.

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When You Should NOT Submit to a Church

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All of us will, at times, be called to endure humbly a leader’s mistakes and sins. Nonetheless, should you find yourself in a church where the leadership is characteristically abusive, I would, in most cases, encourage you to flee. Flee to protect your discipleship, to protect your family, to set a good example for the members left behind, to serve non-Christian neighbors by not lending credibility to the church’s ministry.

How do you recognize abusive leadership? Paul requires two witnesses for a charge to be leveled against an elder (1 Tim. 5:19), probably because he knows that leaders will be charged with infelicities more often than others, often unfairly. That said, abusive churches and Christian leaders characteristically

  • Make dogmatic prescriptions in places where Scripture is silent.
  • Rely on intelligence, humor, charm, guilt, emotions, or threats rather than on God’s Word and prayer (see Acts 6:4).
  • Play favorites.
  • Punish those who disagree.
  • Employ extreme forms of communication (tempers, silent treatment).
  • Recommend courses of action which always, somehow, improves the leader’s own situation, even at the expense of others.
  • Speak often and quickly.
  • Seldom do good deeds in secret.
  • Seldom encourage.
  • Seldom give the benefit of the doubt.
  • Emphasize outward conformity, rather than repentance of heart.
  • Preach, counsel, disciple, and oversee the church with lips that fail to ground everything in what Christ has done in the gospel and to give glory to God.

This post is excerpted from Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus (Crossway, 2012). Reprinted by permission.  

Biblical Theology, Identity, and Discipling

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Identity matters. It matters in our culture, which is awash in identity politics and the unimpeachable claims that identity provides. And it matters among Christians. We call people to live up to and live out the reality of who they are in Christ: an alien and stranger, salt and light, a member of the body of Christ or bride of Christ, a temple of the Spirit, a new creation, and so on.  We encourage one another to put on the new self.

Yet too often, the New Testament identity markers are more informed by our own background and cultural assumptions than by the storyline of the Bible. The story of the alien and stranger can become the story of the cultural fundamentalist justifying his disengagement. The story of the bride can easily become the story of self-centered sentimentalism in which, like American brides every Saturday, we are the point and center of it all.

THE STORY OF SONSHIP

But if we’re going to know how to use the Bible’s identity markers in our counseling and discipling, then we need to understand the larger biblical story of our identity as sons and daughters of God. This story is a powerful tool for combatting the narcissistic discipleship that passes for so much of Christianity in America.

Beginnings

From Adam and Eve’s creation after God’s likeness, to their responsibility to represent God as vice-regents over creation (Gen. 1:26-28), to their privilege of intimacy with God (Gen 3:8) and unique ability to reflect back to him his glory, to their obligation to obey (Gen. 2:15), the imago Dei is cast in the form of sonship. Right from the start, the pattern is laid down: like father, like son. As God ruled over Creation, so the son was to represent that rule.

Of course the first son, Adam, was disobedient to his Father. The image of God was not lost, but it now came with a cursed inheritance from our earthly father, a nature corrupted and marred by sin. From this point on, inclusion in God’s family was not by birth, but by adoption.

A New Beginning?

In Genesis 12, Abram, the son of an idolater, is adopted by God to become the father of a new nation. He’s given a new name: Abraham. He’s given the promise of a son, and what’s more, an inheritance for that son.

Again and again, that promise is called into question: by barrenness, by treachery, by famine, by death itself. When God calls to Abraham to sacrifice his son as a burnt offering (Gen. 22:2), it appears that the promise and story of the son is over, because the son is still the son of Adam who deserves to die.

But God is not finished. He rescues Abraham’s son, and Isaac’s son, and Jacob’s sons, until the son has become the whole nation of Israel.

In Exodus 4, God tells Moses to tell Pharaoh, “Let my son go, so he may worship me.” God then rescues his corporate son, Israel, from the serpent king and brings his son into his inheritance, the promised land, a second Garden of Eden.

God also raises up a king, a man after his own heart, named David, and promises that his son will rule over a kingdom that will never end. David’s son will be God’s son, and will represent both God and his people. He will rule in righteousness, and do the work the Father gives him, rescuing his people from their enemies.

But neither the corporate son nor the sons of David are faithful. They continue their rebellion. By the end of the Old Testament, David’s throne is vacant.

The Son Comes, and Makes us Sons

Then the true Son of God came. Jesus is the Divine Son incarnate, the true King, the Messiah who came to do the work his Father gave him (John 4:34, 5:19, 6:38). He declared that he represented God: that if you’d seen him, you’d seen the Father (John 14:9). Jesus is the true imago Dei, the second Adam, the true Israel. Finally, like Father, like Son.

Incredibly, the corporate son rejected him. Yet God raised the Son from the dead, and seated him on the throne of heaven itself, so that all the sons of disobedience who turn from their sins and are united to the true Son by faith are given the right to become children of God, adopted into God’s family.

Having been adopted, they are conformed to the image of the Son he loves. This process will not stop until the day we see him, and are finally like him. “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called the children of God” (1 John 3:2). And when we are finally like him, we will reign with him, as sons and daughters of God (2 Tim. 2:2; Rev. 20:4, 6).

DISCIPLING AND COUNSELING THE STORY OF SONSHIP

How does this story of sonship impact the way we use this biblical identity in our discipling and counseling? I want to highlight four things.

1. The Father Loves the Sons Because the Father Loves the Son

First, the Father loves the sons because the Father loves the Son. God’s love for us as sons does not begin with us. It begins with his love of the Son Jesus Christ. Why? Because the Son always has been and always will be obedient to the Father (John 10:17). And it is that love that spills over into love for us, the sons who are united to Christ by faith.

We need to get this into our heads as disciplers and counselors. We can say “God loves you” all day long and it won’t make a dent, because people know deep down that God’s love is not deserved. But when I’m told that God loves Christ, and that I’ve been adopted in Christ by faith, I now have something to put my confidence in, something that isn’t contradicted by my knowledge of myself.

Christian, you are loved, not because you’re lovely or obedient, but because Christ is lovely and obedience, and you are in Christ. You have been adopted.

2. A Son Glorifies his Father by Representing Him before the World

Second, the role of a son is to bring glory to his Father by representing him before the world. Jesus made this point about his own life repeatedly. John 5:19: the Son “can only do what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does, the Son also does.” And all of this is to bring glory to the Father. As Jesus prayed, “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do” (John 17:4).

But what is true of Christ is also true of the sons who are in Christ. Matthew 5:9: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” Matthew 5:44: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” Ephesians 5:1: “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children.” Heirs of God are to bear the Father’s name and to advance the Father’s reputation. That is a high calling and privilege.

3. The Privilege of the Son Is a Secure Inheritance

Third, the privilege of the Son is a secure inheritance. Jesus makes this point: “Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever” (John 8:35). Paul picks up the same idea: “Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out Abba, Father. So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir” (Gal. 4:6). Far more than an emotional and psychological experience of love is promised in this verse, we are promised an inheritance and an enduring place in the family. That inheritance is certain and secure.

What is this inheritance? The main picture in the Old Testament is land. In the present age, we aren’t given a land, but the Spirit. And incredibly, the Spirit is just a down payment. Our full inheritance still awaits, for our full inheritance is the Triune God himself in a new creation that is perfectly designed for our flourishing and his glory.

4. The Goal of the Son Is Obedience

Fourth, the goal of the Son is obedience. That should have been Adam and Israel and David’s goal. But it was without doubt Jesus’ goal. He was obedient to the Father to the very end. It wasn’t a grudging obedience, wishing there was another way. It wasn’t a pitiful obedience, in the hope that perhaps the Father would love him if he obeyed. It wasn’t a prideful, “Hey, look at me!” obedience. It was a willing obedience—“I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:18). It was a confident obedience—“because you loved me before the Creation of the world” (John 17:24). It was a humble obedience—Jesus is not ashamed to call us brothers (Heb. 2:11). And this obedience was his joy.

When we use the language of sonship in our discipleship and our counseling, if we merely convey the promise of intimacy and access, which Romans 8 teaches, then we are giving only part of the story. Sons are not merely the recipients of love, empty love cups that need to be filled. They are also those who actively love their Father. And as John tells us, “This is love for God: to obey his commands” (2 John 6)

I would go so far as to say that the dominant theme attached to sonship in the Old Testament and New isn’t intimacy, access, affection, or even security. It’s obedience.

It all comes together in Romans 8. God predestined us to be conformed to the likeness, the image, of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers (Rom. 8:29). And therefore, Paul says, “we have an obligation—but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it. For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the spirit of God are sons of God” (Rom. 8:12-14) The goal of sons is obedience.

The next thing Paul says is that by the Spirit we cry, “Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15). And so we come full circle. Intimacy and obedience go hand in hand in the story of the Son.

A NEW STORY

We live in a therapeutic age, an age of broken relationships and fractured families, where fathers are jerks, or buffoons, or task masters, or just plain absent. Sons raise themselves into manhood through images on the internet and TV. Frankly, daughters fare even worse. So it shouldn’t surprise us that in the biblical language of sons and daughters, we find a powerful antidote to a deadly poison.

But in fact, in our identity as sons and daughters of God we’ve been given something far more powerful than an antidote to the failings of our time. We’ve been given an identity that calls us beyond ourselves and our emotional needs to the story of the glory of God.

One day our hope will be rewarded; our work will come to an end. “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed” (Rom. 8:21). And that expectation will not be disappointed. On that day, a new story will begin: the story of the glorious freedom of the sons and daughters of God.

Michael Lawrence is the senior pastor of Hinson Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon and the author of Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church: A Guide for Ministry.

Book Review: All Things for Good, by Thomas Watson

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A mother thrust into single parenthood because of a tragic car accident. A father loses his job. A son or daughter diagnosed with cancer. A tornado eats a city. Yet another school shooting occurs.

All of these circumstances stir us to ask: Where is God in the midst of suffering? Why does he permit affliction? Why do I struggle with sin?

If you’re looking for help with these questions, I recommend Thomas Watson’s All Things for Good. Thomas Watson, a man acquainted with affliction, lost four children in their youth and wrote this book one year after the Act of Uniformity ejected 2,000 pastors from their pulpits, himself included.

All Things for Good is a rigorous exposition of Romans 8:28, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (KJV). Watson treats this passage over a series of nine chapters.

Chapters 1-3 focus on the verse’s first part, covering how the best things work, how the worst things work, and why all things work for good. Chapters 4-6 explore the significance of “to them that love God,” examining love itself, the tests of love, and concluding with an exhortation to love. Chapters 7-8 attend to effectual calling, and chapter 9 concludes this discussion by looking at God’s purpose for all good things.

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Biblical Theology and Corporate Worship

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What exactly are we doing when we gather as churches for worship? And how do we know what we should be doing in those weekly gatherings?

Naturally, evangelical Christians turn to Scripture for guidance on these questions, but where in Scripture do we look? There’s plenty about worship in the Old Testament—about prayers and sacrifices and choirs and cymbals and much else. But does all that material actually apply to new covenant gatherings of believers?

What we need in order to answer these questions is a biblical theology of worship.[1] Biblical theology is the discipline that helps us trace both the unity and diversity, the continuity and discontinuity, within the sprawling storyline of Scripture.

In this article I’m going to sketch, all too briefly, a biblical theology of corporate worship. Four steps will take us there: (1) gathered worship in the Old Testament; (2) fulfillment in Christ; (3) gathered worship in the New Testament; (4) reading the whole Bible for corporate worship.

1. GATHERED WORSHIP IN THE OLD TESTAMENT

Ever since God’s people were banished from his presence after the fall in Genesis 3, God has been at work gathering them back to himself.[2] So when Israel suffered in chains in Egypt, God rescued them not just so that they would be free from oppression, but so that they would worship him in his presence (Ex. 3:12, 18). God led his people out of Egypt and brought them to his own dwelling place (Ex. 15:13, 17).

Where is that dwelling place? At first, it’s the tabernacle, the elaborate tent in which the priests would offer sacrifices for the people’s sins and impurities. We read in Exodus 29:44–46,

I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar. Aaron also and his sons I will consecrate to serve me as priests. I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them. I am the Lord their God.

The goal of the Exodus was that God would dwell among his people, and he does this by means of the holy place (tabernacle) and people (priesthood) he appointed for that purpose.

When God brought Israel out of Egypt, he took them to himself as his people. And the way he confirmed this new relationship with Israel is by cutting a covenant with them, often called the “Mosaic covenant.” In Exodus 19, the Lord reminds the people what he’s done for them in rescuing them from Egypt, and then promises that if they obey the terms of his covenant, they will be his treasured possession (Ex. 19:1–6).

The Lord confirmed this covenant with the people in Exodus 24, and all the laws of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy flesh out the terms of this covenant. All these details specify how God’s people are to live with God and each other within this specific covenant God has made with them.

So the detailed sacrifices and purification rituals described in Leviticus are a means of repairing breaches in covenant fellowship. The cult maintains the covenant.

A handful of times a year all Israelites were commanded to gather together before the Lord at his tabernacle, for the festivals of the Passover, firstfruits, and so on (Lev. 23). Apart from these festivals, the regular offering of sacrifices was carried out by the priests, and individual Israelites came to the tabernacle (and later the temple) only when they needed to offer a specific sacrifice for sin or impurity.  

In other words, for Israel, corporate worship was a special, few-times-a-year occasion. Worship, understood as exclusive devotion to the Lord, was something that Israelites were called to practice around the clock (Deut. 6:13–15). But in the sense of having intimate access to God’s presence, worship was restricted to specific people, places, and times. God dwelled among his people, yes, but that presence was restricted to the tabernacle and guarded by the priests.  

2. FULFILLMENT IN CHRIST

The turning point in the storyline of Scripture is the incarnation of God the Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. All God’s promises are fulfilled in him (2 Cor. 1:20). All the Old Testament types—the institutions of the priesthood, temple, and kingship, the events of the exodus, exile, and return—find their fulfillment in him. So in order to understand the whole Bible’s theology of worship, we have to understand how Jesus fulfills and transforms the worship of the Mosaic covenant.

Tabernacle, and later the temple, was where God manifested his presence among his people; Jesus fulfills and therefore replaces these old-covenant structures. John tells us that the Word became flesh and—literally—tabernacled among us (John 1:14). Jesus promised, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:20). In other words, Jesus’ body is now the temple, the place where God meets his people, manifests his presence, and deals with their sin (John 2:21–22). That’s why Jesus can say that an hour is coming when true worshipers will no longer need worship in Jerusalem, but will worship in spirit and truth (John 4:21–24).

Jesus fulfills and replaces the earthly temple of Jerusalem. He is now the “place” where true worshipers worship God.[3]

Jesus also fulfills and replaces the entire sacrificial system associated with the Mosaic covenant and its tabernacle and temple. Hebrews tells us that, unlike the priests who had to offer daily sacrifices, Jesus atoned for the people’s sins “once for all when he offered up himself’ (Heb. 7:27). Jesus’ single offering of himself doesn’t just purify the flesh like the old covenant sacrifices, but instead purifies our conscience, renewing us inwardly (Heb. 9:13–14). Because Jesus has perfected his people by a single offering, there is no longer a need or place for the offering of bulls and goats (Heb. 10:1–4, 10, 11–18). 

Jesus fulfills and replaces the Levitical sacrifices. His blood now secures our eternal redemption (Heb. 9:12).

I could go on and on like this. The point is that Jesus’ saving work ushers in a radical shift in how God relates to his people. The new covenant Jesus inaugurates makes the old one—the covenant God made at Sinai, through Moses—obsolete (Heb. 8:6–7, 13). Now, God’s people have their sins forgiven through faith in Jesus’ sacrifice. Now, God’s people experience his gracious presence through faith in Christ and the indwelling of the Spirit. Now, all God’s people have intimate access to God (Heb. 4:16, 10:19–22), not just a small number of priests.

3. GATHERED WORSHIP IN THE NEW TESTAMENT

What does all this mean for gathered worship in the new covenant era? The first thing to note is that the Old Testament’s terms for worship have been applied to the whole lives of believers. In Romans 12:1 Paul writes, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Now we don’t offer animals as sacrifices but our very selves. The Christian’s whole life is an act of sacrificial service to God.

Or consider Hebrews 13:15: “Through him [that is, Jesus] then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.” Praise is our sacrifice, and we offer it continually—not just for an hour on Sunday morning. The fruit of lips that acknowledge God’s name includes songs of praise, but much more too: boldly confessing the gospel in public, speaking words of truth and love to others, bringing every word we say under Christ’s dominion.

This means that “worship” isn’t something we mainly do at church on Sunday. Instead, worship should suffuse our entire lives. For the Christian, worship isn’t confined to sacred times and places, because we are united by faith to Christ, the one who is God’s temple, and we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, making us both individually and collectively the temple of God (1 Cor. 3:16–17, 6:19; cf. Eph. 2:22).

What then characterizes corporate worship in the new covenant? Reading and preaching Scripture (1 Tim. 4:14); singing Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs together (Eph. 5:18–19; Col. 3:16); praying (1 Tim. 2:1–2, 8); celebrating the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Matt. 28:19, 1 Cor. 11:17–34); and stirring one another up to love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24–25).

One of the most striking things about corporate worship in the new covenant is the persistent focus on building up the whole body. Paul writes, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another with all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16). We teach and admonish one another as we sing to the Lord. As we praise God, we build each other up. Paul goes so far as to say that everything in the gathered assembly should be done with a view to building up the body in Christ (1 Cor. 14:26).

What’s unique about the church’s weekly gathering is not that it’s the time when we worship, but that it’s the time when we build each other up by worshiping God together.

Because of the new covenant Christ inaugurated, gathered worship in the new covenant era has a whole different fabric than gathered worship under the old covenant. Instead of a few times a year, gathered worship is now weekly. Instead of meeting at the temple in Jerusalem, believers gather in local churches wherever they live. Instead of God’s presence being restricted to the Holy of Holies and guarded by priests, God now dwells in all of his people by the Spirit, and Christ is present to his people wherever they gather (Matt. 18:20). Instead of performing an elaborate series of sacrifices and offerings, Christians gather to hear the Word, preach the Word, pray the Word, sing the Word, and see the Word in the ordinances. And all of this aims at building up the body in love so that we all attain to maturity in Christ (Eph. 4:11–16).  

4. READING THE WHOLE BIBLE FOR CORPORATE WORSHIP

How then to do we look to Scripture to teach us what to do in corporate worship?

First, I think it’s important to affirm that Scripture does in fact teach us what we should do in the church’s regular assemblies. Remember that while all of life is worship, the church’s weekly gathering occupies a special place in the Christian life. All Christians are required to gather with the church (Heb. 10:24–25); church attendance is not optional for the Christian. This means that, effectively, everything a church does in worship becomes a required practice for its members. And Paul urges Christians not to allow any humanly devised regulations or worship practices to be imposed on their consciences (Col. 2:16–23).

I would suggest that these biblical principles add up to what has historically been called the “regulative principle” of worship.[4] That is, in their corporate gatherings, churches must carry out only those practices that are positively prescribed in Scripture, whether by explicit command or normative example. To do anything else would be to compromise Christian freedom. So churches should look to Scripture to tell us how to worship together, and should do only what Scripture tells us to do.

But that raises the question, what exactly does Scripture tell us to do? To put it more precisely, how do we tell what biblical material on worship is normative and binding? To answer this question in full would take a book; here I’ll offer the briefest of sketches.  

Discerning what biblical teaching on worship takes some finesse, since Scripture nowhere presents us with, for example, a complete, confessedly normative “order of service.” But there are some commands in the New Testament which are pretty plainly binding on all churches. That the churches at Ephesus and Colossae were both commanded to sing (Eph 5:18–19, Col. 3:16), and the Corinthian church is referred to as singing (1 Cor. 14:26), suggests that all churches are supposed to sing. That Paul commanded Timothy to read and preach Scripture in a letter designed to instruct Timothy about how the church is to conduct itself (1 Tim. 3:15, 4:14) suggests that reading and preaching Scripture are God’s will not just for that one church, but for every church.

On the other hand, some commands, like “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (Rom. 16:16), seem to express a universal principle (“Welcome one another in Christian love”) in a form that may not be culturally universal.

Further, some contextual commands may have broader force, like Paul telling the Corinthians to lay aside money on the first day of the week. That was for a specific offering to the saints in Jerusalem, but all churches are commanded to support their teachers financially (Gal. 6:6), so giving may well have a place in corporate worship.

 So far we’ve just dealt with the New Testament, though. What about the Old? After all, the Old Testament has plenty of commands about worship:

Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe!
Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals! (Ps. 150:3–5)

Does this mean that, in order to be biblical, our church services need to include trumpets, lutes, harps, tambourines, dancing, strings, pipes, and cymbals? I’d suggest not.

Remember that the Psalms are expressions of worship under the Mosaic covenant, what some New Testament writers refer to as the “old covenant” (Heb. 8:6). Now that the new covenant promised in Jeremiah 31 has come, the old covenant is obsolete. We are no longer under the Mosaic law (Rom. 7:1–6; Gal. 3:23–26). Therefore, forms of worship tied up with the Mosaic era are not binding on us either. The temple was served by priests, some of whom specialized in liturgical music (1 Chr. 9:33). In fact, these are the ones we see playing the very instruments named in Psalm 150 (2 Chr. 5:12, 13; 9:11). So Psalm 150 is not providing a template for Christian worship; instead, it is invoking a specific form of old covenant worship associated with the temple and the Levitical priesthood.

That doesn’t of itself settle the question of what kind of instrumentation may be appropriate accompaniment for the church’s congregational singing. But it does mean that a simple appeal to Old Testament precedent is out of order, just as much as an appeal to Old Testament precedent can’t legitimize animal sacrifice. This is where many Christian traditions fall short of a biblical theology of worship, by selectively appealing to Old Testament precedent as if certain features of the Levitical priesthood and temple worship carry over into the new covenant age.

Certainly much in the Old Testament informs the manner of our worship. The Psalms teach us to worship with reverence and awe, joy and wonder, gratitude and gladness. But the Old Testament prescribes neither the elements nor the forms of the worship of the new covenant church.

In this sense, the New Testament provides a new constitution for God’s new covenant people, just as much of the Old Testament served as the constitution for God’s people under the old covenant. God has one plan of salvation, and one people he saves, but the way God’s people relate to him radically changed after the coming of Christ and the establishing of the new covenant. 

This is why we need to employ all the tools of biblical theology—putting together the covenants, tracing the links between type and antitype, observing promise and fulfillment, delineating continuities and discontinuities—in order to arrive at a theology of gathered worship. As Christ’s new covenant people, indwelt by promised the Holy Spirit, we worship in Spirit and truth, according to the terms God himself has specified in Scripture.  

Bobby Jamieson is assistant editor for 9Marks, a member of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and the author of Sound Doctrine: How a Church Grows in the Love and Holiness of God (Crossway, 2013). You can follow him on Twitter.

[1] For a biblical theology of worship that has deeply influenced my approach here, see David Peterson, Engaging with God: A Biblical Theology of Worship (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992).

[2] For a basic introduction to the storyline of Scripture that uses the theme of God gathering his people as a primary lens, see Christopher Ash, Remaking a Broken World: A Fresh Look at the Bible Storyline (Milton Keynes, UK: Authentic, 2010).

[3] For more on the trajectory of the temple across the whole canon, see G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God, New Studies in Biblical Theology 17 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004).

[4] For brief defenses of the regulative principle, see Jonathan Leeman, “Regulative Like Jazz,” and the first three chapters of Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship, ed. Philip Graham Ryken, Derek W. H. Thomas, and J. Ligon Duncan, III (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2003). 

Biblical Theology and Liberation

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Liberation and justice are popular themes in the public square. And Christians should be interested in such themes. We have been set free, and we know that God is just.

But what does the Bible mean when it talks about being set free? Or pursuing justice?

Some voices in the church have built entire theological paradigms on these themes, applying them to society as a whole. Consider statements such as the following:

…[Christian theology’s] sole reason for existence is to put into ordered speech the meaning of God’s activity in the world, so that the community of the oppressed will recognize that its inner thrust for liberation is not only consistent with the gospel but is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The building of a just society has worth in terms of the Kingdom, or in more current phraseology, to participate in the process of liberation is already, in a certain sense, a salvific work.1

These assertions were made by James Cone and Gustavo Gutierrez, respectively. Both men played influential roles in developing what’s called Liberation Theology in North and South America in the mid-to-late twentieth century. From the social sites of race and class, Cone and Gutierrez constructed theological systems that would eventually be adopted by North American Protestant Christians in predominately African American churches and segments of the Catholic Church in Latin America.

To evaluate and respond to proposals like these, pastors need biblical theology.

After all, liberation theology has been broadened today to fit myriad other causes—from feminism to homosexuality to environmentalism. The aim of this article is not to discuss these contemporary offshoots, but to put an evangelical biblical theology into conversation with liberation theology as one case study for learning how biblical theology protects and strengthens churches in sound doctrine.

WHAT BIBLICAL THEOLOGY HAS TO SAY…

In a general sense, biblical theology is simply theology derived from the Bible. And while this commitment is certainly necessary to arrive at the truth about God, many theological frameworks—including liberation theology—claim biblical origin.

Yet the term “biblical theology” also refers to a way of interpreting the Bible, namely, a way that helps to make sense of the minor narratives that together make a whole-bible narrative. It is concerned with both the big picture and the pixels, particularly how the biblical authors understood the details of those pixels in light of the overall big picture.

So what does biblical theology have to say in response to the claims and aims of liberation theology? I can think of five topics that biblical theology would want to address:

On Systemic Oppression: The Contexts of Liberation Theology

First, biblical theology will express a sympathetic understanding of the social and political contexts in which liberation theology emerged in the Americas. Individuals like Cone and Gutierrez were desperately seeking to demonstrate the relevance of the Bible amidst horrid social and economic realities. Few evangelicals at the time were interested in addressing such things, and many hindered progress in these areas.

The vitriolic nature of Jim Crow racism in the southern United States and the devastating realities of chronic poverty in Latin America caused theological thinkers to forge a system that was both prophetic and public. Unfortunately, as certain issues moved to the center, essentials were forced to the margins.

Biblical theology not only calls us to acknowledge these contexts, but it also helps us rightly assess them. All of the injustices in the world point back to the fall and man’s utter rebellion against God. Racists are racist, for instance, because they are rebels against God. And by pointing to the true source of racism, biblical theology can then trace out the biblical storyline until we find the ultimate remedy is in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Christians alone have the sole message that is able to reconcile racists and other rebels to a holy and righteous God.

The mission of the local church, no doubt, is the delivery and spread of this gospel message.

On Sin: The Culprit of Liberation Theology

Liberation theology describes sin not in terms of an individual’s rebellion against a holy and righteous God, but in terms of structural and corporate injustice. And to neglect completely the sins of the individual is an error. On the other hand, one can turn a blind eye to the evidences of structural fallenness, while readily acknowledging the sinfulness of individuals who inhabit those structures.

Biblical theology would encourage balance. The storyline of Scripture locates the origin of sin in the individual human heart, such that Paul can conclude “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). But as soon as fallen people begin building civilizations their fallenness will instantiate itself in the institutions that govern society, from the oath of Lamech, to the group decision to build Babel, to imbalanced weights, to iniquitous decrees (Gen. 4:24; 11:4; Deut. 16:19-20; Prov. 16:11; Is. 10:1-2). An unjust law or practice, in other words, is an institutionalized or structural injustice.

The storyline of pre-exilic Israel, furthermore, presents not just a narrative of discrete sinful acts, but an infectious corruption of an entire nation, in part, due to the injustices of its kings and priests, whose sins manifested themselves not just individually but institutionally and structurally—in everything from their treaties with foreign powers, to the practice of bribery, to the exploitation of the orphan and the widow.

To speak then of Christ’s work of fulfilling the law and the prophets is to speak not just of an individual cleansing and rectification, but of an institutional and structural cleansing and rectification. He is not just the righteous individual; he is the true temple. He didn’t just keep the Sabbath; he is the Lord of the Sabbath. He is not just a new Adam, he is a new kingdom and nation and government.

Christians who submit themselves to the government of Christ should therefore be among the first to recognize not just the prevalence of individual sin, but institutional and corporate sin. By considering the governance of Christ, they are trained to discern the nature of a truly just government. Though major failures mark the historic record in this regard, individual Christians should strive to lead the way in opposing not only individual acts of injustice, but institutional injustices. We are to serve as salt and light in a dark world. Still, biblical theology understands that this world will continue to fall short of reflecting God’s glory, precisely because all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

Furthermore, in liberation theology, sin is described within the binary of oppressed/oppressor. There is no room for attending to universal norms of ethical behavior. Moreover, it seems that those who constitute the oppressed community are incapable of even committing sin.

Here, biblical theology would again stress the universality of sin (Rom. 3:23; Rom. 5:12). All of humanity—both the oppressed and the oppressor—is guilty of sin. This inherited guilt and corruption has its genesis in the Garden where both innocence and Eden are lost due to idolatrous disobedience (Gen. 3:7, 23).

What this means is that, within the storyline of the Bible, even those deemed victims are yet villains in desperate need of saving grace.

The Bible does not tell a story of good guys vs. bad guys. Instead, it tells the story of one who is good, suffering in the place of a people who are bad and purchasing good for them (2 Cor. 5:21). Human conflict stems from a broken fellowship with God, which all of humanity suffers.  Any theological system that rejects this fact is only deceivingly termed “liberation,” since it confines its adherents to perpetual bondage and, perhaps, eternal damnation.

On Victimization as Interpretive Lens: The Hermeneutic of Liberation Theology

Liberation theology teaches that the Bible must be interpreted from the perspective of the oppressed and the poor. It does this in order to guard against further injustices and to bring to light the suffering of social victims. Indeed, it claims that the Bible exists to reveal God as the liberator of oppressed victims. This liberation is, in many ways, seen as the essence of the salvation message.

But should we utilize the oppressed community or the poor as the interpretive lens through which to read the Bible? A right biblical theology contests that the Bible is not about man, but the God-man, Jesus Christ. The person and work of Christ is the apex of redemptive history. He is the ultimate object and perfecter of justifying faith. Recall that Jesus placed himself at the center of the Old Testament narrative (Lk. 24:27). Thus, a Christ-centered hermeneutic is the key to unlocking the meaning of the Scriptures.

This conviction helps us to focus on the content of the Bible’s grand drama. It is the history of his story, moving from creation, to fall, to redemption, to the consummation. The Bible tells the story of a God who planned from eternity past to secure the salvation of a sinful people by sending and sacrificing his Son.

On the Exodus Narrative: The Overriding Theme of Liberation Theology

For liberation theology—especially black liberation theology—the Exodus account is the central theme around which theology orients. God’s act of liberating his people from Egyptian bondage sets the present-day expectations and agenda for liberation theology.

Applying Exodus’ story of deliverance to the temporal world of nations and politics did not begin in the mid-twentieth century. Black American slaves in the eighteenth and nineteenth century were drawn to the Exodus narrative since it mirrored their plight. The narrative served as proof positive that God was able and willing to deliver a new Israel (black slaves) from a new Egypt (America). Looking farther back, the seventeenth century Puritans who traversed the Atlantic regarded themselves as leaving an Egypt (England) on divine mission, embarking on what one historian called “an errand into the wilderness.” Nevertheless, modern liberation theology was the first to take this narrative and apply it as normative for oppressed communities.

Biblical theology presents several problems with this prescriptive assumption. First, it overlooks the fact that the plagues culminate in the death of the firstborn and the Passover, an act of judgment which fell upon Abraham’s descendants as much as the rest of Egypt. Abraham’s descendants, however, had a way of escape through a substitutionary sacrifice. The Gospels then characterize Christ as our Passover Lamb (e.g., John 1:29). Is the way of our exodus, therefore, not through the atoning sacrifice of this Passover Lamb, instead of, say, through the righting of wrong laws?

Second, liberation theology fails to acknowledge—or, at least, seems to downplay—the covenantal reality in which the Exodus is couched. The Exodus was not merely a political and socio-economic event. Rather, God was keeping a covenantal promise by gathering to himself a covenantal people: “I will take you [Israelites] to be my people, and I will be your God…” (Ex. 6:6). The Old Covenant, then, was fulfilled in the New. And nowhere does Jesus make a new covenant in his blood with the Puritans. Or with black slaves. Or with the disenfranchised of South America. Rather, he offers a new covenant for all who repent and believe in his covenant-accomplishing work.

Third, liberation theology fails to take into account the goal of the Exodus event. God tells Pharaoh, “Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness” (Ex. 7:16, emphasis added). The goal wasn’t finally political or economic liberation, but becoming a gathering of a God-ruled, obeying, and worshipping people. And yet, we know that the Israelites eventually failed to submit to God’s rule, fail to worship, and failed to obey. Though they are brought out of physical bondage, they remain spiritually bound. Liberation theology, therefore, places its hope in an Exodus that, literally, does not deliver and never did deliver.

Thankfully, the Exodus theme is not confined to the Pentateuch; it has a whole-Bible presence. Israel’s sinful disobedience culminates with Assyrian and Babylonian captivity in the eighth and sixth centuries BC, respectively. Before these captivities, the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah speak of a new Exodus, one that will overshadow the former. According to these prophets, this Exodus, when fully realized, would not only include the returning of exiles but an even greater, spiritual deliverance.

Thus, the greatest oversight of liberation theology regarding the Exodus narrative is that it fails to treat the Exodus event as a shadow of the deliverance that Christ brings. As the Bible unfolds, and the New Covenant is enacted, Christ is pictured as a greater Passover lamb (1 Cor. 5:7), a greater Moses (Heb. 3:1-6), and the true Israel (Hos. 11:1; Matt. 2:15). Simply put, the Exodus is, in its full expression, eternal salvation from sin and damnation, and it can only be found in Christ. A new people of God is being fashioned after his righteousness, not according to an ethnic identity or social status.

On the End of the Age: The Eschatological Error of Liberation Theology

It is difficult to discern what liberation theology teaches about the end times. Just how God will bring this world to its appropriate end is of no immediate concern to liberation theologians. Moreover, the reality of an afterlife is barely discussed. What is important is the here and now, and how oppression, poverty, and injustice can be eradicated today. It argues that theology preoccupied with a better world-to-come stagnates oppressed communities and justifies the status quo. Therefore, liberation theology seeks to disillusion people of their future expectations, and to encourage them to seek those future hopes now.

Though dangerously misguided, there is something of worth that needs to be acknowledged here. Liberation theology offers a fair critique of some in the evangelical community by exposing what can only be regarded as indifference toward injustice, albeit couched in orthodox doctrine.

Nevertheless, the corrective that biblical theology offers is an immensely important one: it affirms the final resurrection and the new creation to come. The biblical witness is filled with a constant refrain of the eternal hope. The biblical covenants culminate in the new covenant in Christ, marked by the indwelling guarantor of the Spirit—the literal down payment of the promised inheritance to be received (Eph. 1:14). And contrary to what liberation theology suggests, the hope of this inheritance encourages both Christ-reflecting endurance (2 Cor. 4:17-18; 1 Pet. 2:21-23) and Christ-exalting efforts (1 Cor. 15:58).

Biblical theology exposes the fact that liberation theology not only over-realizes its eschatology, it misunderstands the end times altogether. The ultimate goal of the Bible’s redemptive drama is not man dwelling amicably and equitably with man. The goal of the drama will be realized and expressed in the exclamation of a loud voice, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man” (Rev. 21:3). Sadly, the liberation that matters cannot be found in liberation theology.

[1] The quotes at the beginning of this article – as well as the overall teachings of the theological system critiqued – were respectively taken from: James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, Fortieth Anniversary Edition (New York: Orbis Books, 2010) and Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, 15th Anniversary Edition (New York: Orbis Books, 1988).

Steven Harris is a graduate student at Yale University, focusing on black religion in the African diaspora. A Vanderbilt graduate, he received his master of divinity degree at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and has formerly served as assistant pastor for a Kentucky Baptist church. 

What Does "First Among Equals" Mean on an Elder Board

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A non-staff elder friend from another church recently emailed me this question:

I need an education on the topic of "first among equals" as it relates to elders. I am struggling at times to find my way. I know that God has me here for a reason, and I know that it will take work to go from years of one man leading, to two men, to three, and so on. I know the challenges of working to change culture. I really want to make sure my understanding and heart are in the right place as I talk with the others...Any tips?

In my experience, this is a question a lot of elder boards wrestle with in one form or another. Maybe it's the relationship between the lead guy and the rest of the board. Maybe it's the relationship between staff and non-staff elders. No matter the situation, I don't think it's accidental that most elder boards do have to work through the subject of their shared authority and how it's distributed among them, as my answer below indicates. Here's the substance of what I said to the brother:

1) The Bible does not make a formal distinction between the lead pastor and the rest of the elders, but instead seems to establish a formal parity (see Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Tim. 4:14; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1). In my mind, this means he really just has one vote among the elders. He is an equal.

2) However, the Bible also seems to give a special honor to those whose work is preaching and teaching: "Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching" (1 Tim. 5:17). In my mind, this means that if a guy (or guys) gives himself over to being the main teacher, he should be accorded an extra measure of leadership and deference. He or they will be "the first" among equals.

3) Putting points 1 and 2 together, the precise relationship between the lead guy and the rest of the elders seems to be intentionally vague. Notice I keep saying “in my mind” and “seems to.” Could it be, in other words, that the Holy Spirit intentionally did not overprescribe what the exact relationship should look like because it may need to differ from context to context? That’s my read. In some situations, the lead guy might have an extra measure of authority and honor. The emphasis will fall upon the first in “first among equals.” In other situations, the lead guy might have less authority, and he will need to rely more upon the parity of elders. The emphasis will fall upon among equals. And the difference between one context and another, I assume, will be dictated by a host of factors: 1) the competencies and spiritual maturity of the lead guy; 2) the competencies and maturity of the other elders; 3) how long he or they’ve been serving; 4) the season of the church's life, and what kind of leadership it needs; and 5) a host of other providential arrangements.

4) To summarize, the answer to your question depends on combining both the revealed wisdom that God gives to all of us in his Word (points 1 and 2), as well as the situation-specific wisdom that he must give to you (in light of point 3), and that you must ask him for. Recall that, in the Bible, particularly in the wisdom literature, wisdom is a kind of skill—the skill of knowing how to live in God’s creation, in the fear of him, amidst the infinite variety of challenges life throws at you. As such, you need to ask him for the skill of knowing how to strike the balance between points 1 and 2 in your particular situation with your particular guys, and that balance might change from season to season. How much easier it would be to have a rule book or a book of case-law that tells you exactly what the lines of formal and informal authority should look like among and between the elders. Instead, the Lord has given us the broad boundaries of the playing field (points 1 and 2 above), and then requires you and me to rely on him entirely in playing the game from day to day. What kind of heart do you need? A trusting, asking, begging, seeking heart.  

I'm grateful for your evident desire for wisdom, and I pray that he would give more of it to both you and me.

Biblical Theology and Shepherding

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How would you write a pastor’s job description? Where would you look for models? Maybe you’d ask a few other local churches for theirs and make a few tweaks to reflect your own church’s schedule and programs.

That assumes, of course, that everyone already knows what a pastor is supposed to be and do. But how do we know what a pastor’s fundamental role is?

Certainly we should look to Scripture to tell us what a pastor is. But where in Scripture? We could start with the work implied in elders’ qualifications (1 Tim. 3:1–7; Tit. 1:5–10), and carefully consider explicit commands given to church leaders. When we scratch beneath the surface of some of those commands, though, an interesting picture emerges. Consider Acts 20:28 and 1 Peter 5:1–3, both addressed to elders of local churches:

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for [Gk. poimainein] the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. (Acts 20:28)

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd [Gk. poimanate] the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. (1 Pet. 5:1–3)

In both of these passages, the main task of pastoring is summed up with the Greek verb poimaino, the basic meaning of which is “to shepherd,” as in, care for sheep (Luke 17:7; 1 Cor. 9:7). Both Paul in Acts and Peter in 1 Peter sum up the work of pastoring in one word: to shepherd.

In Ephesians 4:11, Paul refers to pastors as “shepherd-teachers,” again demonstrating that the idea of shepherding is basic to the pastoral office. In fact, the English word “pastor” itself comes from the Latin pastor, which means “shepherd.” So shepherding is basic to the word “pastor” and to biblical descriptions of pastoring.

But where do we learn what it means to shepherd? If you have a basic acquaintance with sheep and their needs, then you get the basic gist. Sheep need feeding and tending and guiding and protecting. Pastors do this for their people, transposed into a spiritual key.

SCRIPTURE’S STORY OF SHEPHERDING

But this metaphor takes on a whole new depth when we see how it unfolds throughout the story of Scripture. Ultimately, pastors learn what it means to be a pastor from how God himself shepherds his people.

The Divine Shepherd of the Exodus

Scripture’s story of shepherding begins in earnest when God brings his people up out of Egypt, guides them through the wilderness for forty years, and leads them safely into their own land.[1] Describing the whole period of the exodus and the wilderness, Psalm 77:20 declares, “You led your people like a flock / by the hand of Moses and Aaron.”

Like a shepherd, God was personally present with his people (Ex. 33:15–16). Like a shepherd, God protected his people (Num. 14:7–9; Deut. 23:14). Like a shepherd, God provided for his people. He fed them (Ps. 78:19, 105:40–41). He healed them (Ex. 15:26; Num. 21:8–9).

Like a shepherd, God guided his people to fertile pastures: “You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed; you have guided them by your strength to your holy abode” (Ex. 15:13). Like a shepherd, God gently, tenderly drew his people along:

I led them with cords of kindness,
     with the bands of love,
and I became to them as one who eases the yoke on their jaws,
     and I bent down to them and fed them. (Hos. 11:4)

In all this, God shepherded his people through Moses, the human leader he appointed to shepherd them (Ps. 77:20). And Moses himself asked the Lord for a successor, in order that “the congregation of the Lord may not be as sheep that have no shepherd” (Num. 27:17).

So the Lord, the divine King of creation, is also the shepherd of his people. And he shepherded them through a human shepherd of his own appointing.

David the Shepherd-King

Hundreds of years later, this pattern continues in the reign of David and his dynasty. The Lord took David from shepherding sheep and made him shepherd of Israel (2 Sam. 5:1–3, 7:8). The psalmist declares,

He chose David his servant
     and took him from the sheepfolds;
from following the nursing ewes he brought him
     to shepherd Jacob his people,
     Israel his inheritance.
With upright heart he shepherded them
     and guided them with his skillful hand. (Ps. 78:70–72)

Just as David tenderly nurtured the sheep under his care, so, in the main, he led Israel responsibly and compassionately, shepherding them in integrity and wisdom.

Yet God himself remained the true shepherd of Israel. Israel confessed, “For he is our God, / and we are the people of his pasture, / and the sheep of his hand” (Ps. 95:7). And David, God’s appointed under-shepherd, proclaimed his trust in God’s provision, protection, and guidance in the sublime poetry of Psalm 23.

But not all of Israel’s shepherd-kings led Israel in the green pastures of obedience to the Lord’s Word. Instead, most of them led God’s people into the barren wastelands of idolatry and injustice. So God scattered his flock among the nations as a punishment for their sin (Lev. 26:33; Deut. 4:27, 28:64; 1 Kgs. 14:15).

New Shepherds in the New Exodus

But the same God who scattered his people promised to gather them again. In Jeremiah 23:1–2, the Lord pronounces judgment on Israel’s wicked kings, the shepherds who destroyed and scattered God’s sheep. These shepherds failed to attend to God’s people in care and protection, so God will attend to them in judgment. Not only that, in verses 3–4 God declares,

Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares the Lord.

The Lord will restore the fortunes of his people, and they will have shepherds who care for them, provide for them, and protect them. How will these shepherds serve God’s people? The parallel passage in Jeremiah 3:15 tells us, “And I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.” The leaders of God’s re-gathered people will lead the people by feeding the people the knowledge and understanding of God’s ways and Word.

Not only that, but God will also raise up one supreme ruler, the heir of David, who will secure the salvation of all of God’s people:

Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.” (Jer. 23:5–6)

This re-gathering of God’s people, this new exodus back into their land, will outshine even God’s mighty deliverance of his people from Egypt, and will be the deed by which God’s people name and remember him from this time on (vv. 7–8).

So God will gather his people as a faithful shepherd. And God will raise up many faithful shepherds to care for his people. Yet one shepherd-king in particular will save the people and ensure their secure flourishing in God’s place, under God’s rule.

Isaiah 40:11 provides another glimpse of God’s new-exodus act of gathering his sheep himself:

            He will tend his flock like a shepherd;
                 he will gather the lambs in his arms;
            he will carry them in his bosom,
                 and gently lead those that are with young.

Ezekiel 34 paints a more detailed portrait of God’s work as the shepherd who will save his people. The current shepherds of Israel have fed themselves rather than the sheep and failed to heal the sick and seek the straying, so now God’s sheep have been scattered (vv. 1–6). For all this God will judge these wicked shepherds, and will rescue his sheep himself (vv. 7–10). God himself will seek them out, rescue them, gather them into their own land, feed them, and lead them to lie down and rest (vv. 11–14). “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak…I will feed them in justice” (vv. 15–16).

Yet God also promises, “I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd” (v. 23). So God himself will be their shepherd, but so will his “servant David.” And when God again shepherds his people, they will have peace, blessing, security, abundance, freedom, honor, and the true knowledge of God (vv. 25–31).

Jesus the Good Shepherd

Who is this shepherd whom God sets over his people? Jesus, the good shepherd. Jesus had compassion on the crowds because they were harassed and helpless, sheep without a shepherd (Matt. 9:36). Jesus is the good shepherd who came to give abundant life to God’s sheep (John 10:10), who lays down his life for God’s sheep (v. 11, 15), who knows his own sheep (v. 14), who gathers all his sheep into one flock (v. 16).

The metaphor of God’s people as sheep first took shape to describe Israel in the wilderness: hungry, thirsty, scorched by the sun, not yet at their true home. Transposed into a spiritual key, all this is true of the church in the present age. Like Israel in the wilderness, we have not yet entered God’s rest (Heb. 4:11). We’re threatened not just by hunger and hardship, but opposition and persecution.

Now we are weak and wandering, pressed by hardship. But in Revelation, John catches a glimpse of our final destination:

            They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
                 the sun shall not strike them,
                 nor any scorching heat.
            For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
                 and he will guide them to springs of living water,
            and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. (Rev. 7:16–17)

The Lord Jesus is our shepherd, and he is a good shepherd. One day soon, though, he will be our shepherd, and we will never again hunger or hurt.

SHEPHERDING LIKE THE CHIEF SHEPHERD

So what does this story say to the church’s shepherds? Jesus’ famous words to Peter point us in the right direction. Three times Jesus asked Peter if he loved him; three times Peter replied “yes”; three times Jesus charged Peter to care for his sheep (Jn. 21:15–17). John’s Gospel uses two different Greek words for “tend” or “feed” in this passage, but they mean the same thing. Both refer to the comprehensive care shepherds show sheep: feeding, tending, guiding, protecting. And that is exactly the kind of care pastors are to give their people.

Pastors are to feed their people with the Word, exhorting them in sound doctrine (Tit. 1:9–10), proclaiming to them the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). Pastors are to guard their people against false doctrine and those who would lead them astray (Acts 20:29–31). Pastors are to lead their people by providing a godly example (Heb. 13:7), equipping them for ministry (Eph. 4:12), and wisely directing the affairs of the church (1 Tim. 5:17). Pastors are to care for their people by tenderly providing whatever counsel, help, and encouragement they need.

In a word, pastors care. They don’t just care about their people, they care for them. They know them. They seek them out. They give their people what their souls need, even when the people themselves don’t know or want what they most need.

In all this, pastors image God the Father. Paul exhorts church leaders, “And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (1 Thess. 5:14). That kind of person-by-person care is exactly what God promises to do for his people when he pledges to seek the lost, bring back the strayed, bind up the injured, and feed them all in justice (Ezek. 34:16).  

And pastors image our Lord Jesus Christ, who shepherd the people of God before any pastor, and shepherds them throughout the course of every pastor’s ministry, and will shepherd them after every pastor’s ministry ends. That’s why Peter calls Jesus the “chief Shepherd” (1 Pet. 5:4). Jesus is the heir God raised up for David; he is the one true Shepherd-King of God’s people. Yet Jesus’ shepherding ministry doesn’t rule out human shepherds—instead it equips and empowers them.

Pastor, have you ever considered that your own ministry to your local church participates in the fulfillment of prophecy? Remember that God promised to set many shepherds over his people when he set his supreme Shepherd over them (Jer. 23:4, 5). These shepherds would feed God’s people with knowledge and understanding (Jer. 3:15).

How well do your priorities in ministry match those of the divine shepherd? How well do you know your sheep’s spiritual needs? How much time and effort do you devote to meeting those needs one by one? Are you more concerned about how many new bodies enter the building or about how their souls are fainting or flourishing?

Are you vigilant against threats to your people’s soundness in the faith? Or do you leave your sheep easy prey for false teachers by failing to equip them with a deep grasp of biblical doctrine?

Do you know which of your sheep are flourishing and which are malnourished? Which are spiritually strong and which are sick? Which are safely in the fold and which are wandering into the wilderness?

If you want a refresher on your job description as a pastor, consider how God has shepherded his people throughout the story of Scripture. Marvel as his gentle care and powerful protection. Learn from his patient attention to his people’s diverse needs. Be amazed at the depths of God’s tender compassion, that the one who holds galaxies in his hand also stoops down and picks up those sheep who are too weak to walk. And pray that, by his grace and in the power of his Spirit, God would make you a shepherd after his own heart.

Bobby Jamieson is assistant editor for 9Marks, a member of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and the author of Sound Doctrine: How a Church Grows in the Love and Holiness of God (Crossway, 2013). You can follow him on Twitter.

[1] Throughout this section I draw on the exegesis of Timothy S. Laniak, Shepherds after My Own Heart: Pastoral Traditions and Leadership in the Bible, New Studies in Biblical Theology 20 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006).