How to Waste Your Life

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
and goes around to the north;
around and around goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.
Ecclesiastes 1:2-11 ESV

Ten years ago, I graduated high school. With aspirations for studying the Scriptures and writing books, poems, stories, or really anything of significance, I instead spent much of my time becoming moderately proficient at Halo 3 and Rock Band. Don’t get me wrong, the LORD was merciful on me in high school to keep me from many activities that could have done me a great deal of harm. But still I wasted so much of my time, so today I would like to give you the message that I would give eighteen-year-old me.

THE VANITY OF LIFE

The primary message of Ecclesiastes can be summarized as follows: everything under the sun is vanity. Once we understand what Solomon means by vanity, we will begin to understand why some consider Ecclesiastes to the be the most depressing book of the Bible. Other English translations of vanity include meaningless, futility, a vapor, or the merest of breaths. Hopefully, those words capture the idea. Vanity in Ecclesiastes is meaningless, futile, empty, pointless, worthless, fleeting, here-today-gone-tomorrow, transient, and momentary. To say then that the connotation is negative is an understatement.

So what does Solomon describe as being vanity?

Everything. Solomon says, “All is vanity.” Life is futile. Work is meaningless. Sex is a vapor. Laughter is momentary. Everything is pointless, like chasing after the wind.

Come on, Solomon. Why don’t you tell us how you really feel?

The remainder of these verses give a brief summary of Solomon’s reasoning behind his conclusion: why is everything vanity?

First of all, the sun has been rising and setting since the world began, but we humans can barely manage to live to be 100-years-old. Even the greatest of us cannot beat these inanimate objects. Alexander the Great accomplished enough for history to permanently remember him as being great, but despite the vastness of his empire and the brilliance of his leadership, his body is now nothing more than dust, just like the poorest of peasants under his rule. But the sun that beamed upon his head over the Persian desert is still the same more than 2000 years later.

Although it doesn’t presently benefit him, Alexander is at least remembered today. Solomon reminds us in verse 11 that the same cannot be said for the majority of people. Even though we often live as though we are the center of the universe, the harsh reality is that within a hundred and fifty years hardly anyone will remember that we ever existed, while even fewer will know or care anything about us. This is difficult for most of us to hear because we want to believe that our name and legacy will live beyond us, but while I am thankful for my great, great grandfather, I know nothing about this essential limb of my family tree except that his name was Floyd.

With such a harsh reality attempting to stare us in the face, we shouldn’t be surprised at humanity’s obsession with heroes. Superheroes, for example, allow us to imagine the fantasy of being great, of being more than human, of having a clear sense of meaning and worth. Driving home from the latest film, we don’t immediately begin talking about what we would do as a regular person living in a super-powered world. No, we identify first with the heroes, the larger-than-life characters, the ones who have left normalcy in the dust.

Ecclesiastes feels depressing because its goal is to destroy the fantasy world that we have made for ourselves. We cover ourselves with an onslaught of entertainment in order to hide from the terror of silence, that sinking feeling in our gut whenever we get a momentary glimpse at our own mortality. The looming inevitability of death can keep us grounded in reality like nothing else can. It reminds us that because our days are short, they should not be wasted. Because we are not promised tomorrow, we should make the most of today. Truly Moses was right when he prayed, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). Unfortunately, the thought of death is also unpleasant. It reminds us that we are finite instead of infinite, that we are creatures instead of gods. So we hide ourselves from the inevitable, and often waste the precious amount of time that we have been given.

HOW TO WASTE YOUR LIFE

Throughout Ecclesiastes, Solomon describes how he chased lasting purpose and meaning under the sun. He does this by pursuing many things that we often make the supreme goal of our lives. His conclusion after each is that nothing but vanity can come ultimately from living for (fill in the blank). Allow me then to describe three of these pursuits and why they lead to a wasted life. We will then conclude by looking upon the one goal of life that will never result in a vain and wasted life.

Self

First, and probably most often, people pursue their own self-interests as the supreme goal of their life. Self-esteem, self-worth, and self-actualization are the gods we serve. Decisions and plans are made with self primarily in mind. To be fair, within a post-modern and materialist frame, self-interest makes sense. If life doesn’t have a Creator or an ultimate purpose, then I don’t have a purpose. I only know that I am here now and that I might not be tomorrow, so why should I not try to do and get everything that I want? Let’s eat and drink, for tomorrow we die, right?

Unfortunately, simply from a practical standpoint, we tend to be terrible judges of what is actually good for us. For instance, much debate has raged around a study that suggested that there are three steps for avoiding poverty: graduate high school, get a full-time job, and get married and have a family. The study found that of all the people surveyed who completed those three steps (in that order) only two percent lived in poverty. The debate surrounding the study is whether the relationship between the steps and avoiding poverty is of causation or correlation, and of course, even if it is causal, there are plenty of exceptions to the rule. Nevertheless, the statistics indicate a clear benefit from doing hard things like holding a job and maintaining a family. Yet selfishness can very easily whisper in our ear that graduating high school isn’t worth the hassle, that working a job that you might not enjoy isn’t a valuable use of time, or that settling down with a spouse and kids is too much work. The point is that we rarely understand what is truly good for us.

A subcategory of self-interest is the pursuit of pleasure. Solomon’s pursuit of pleasure is found in chapter two, where he claims that he did not deny himself anything that his eye wanted. Do you want a good home? Solomon built a palace. Want a nice garden? He planted entire forests and designed whole parks. Want to avoid physical labor? He had 35,000 servants. How about sex? Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Does music make you happy? His personal singers would act as his ancient iPod. Since this is the Bible, you might expect Solomon to claim that none it gave him the pleasure that he was looking for, but instead he says, “I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil” (2:10). He sought pleasure and found it. The problem was that pleasure alone didn’t last. Pleasure is a momentary vanity; therefore, it fails royally whenever we make it our lifelong goal.

Another route of self-interest might be the pursuit of self-actualization. This is the general path of many philosophies and religions. The overall goal is to keep improving yourself, to continue mastering yourself, your desires, and your passions. While this sounds great in theory (and the Bible certainly calls us to be self-controlled and disciplined), it too is vanity as the main goal of life. The sobering fact is that you will never fully become the person that you aim to be. Illustrative of this point is the title of a blog post I read a couple of months ago that was something along these lines: “If the you from 5 and 10 years ago was an idiot, what does that say about present-day you?”

Wealth

Second, many are tempted to pursue wealth as the driving force of their life. Money, possessions, and the power that surrounds them are quite appealing. If anyone had the right to speak about the effects of money, it is Solomon. If the accounts of 1 Kings are correct (and since they are within the Bible, let’s go away and make that assumption), then some have estimated Solomon’s networth to be around $2.1 trillion, making him the richest man to ever live. To put this in perspective, Rockefeller comes in at number two with a networth of $600 billion.

So what does the richest man to ever live say about money? “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity” (5:10). Notice that Solomon isn’t calling wealth or money evil. In fact, he goes on to say in verse 19 of the same chapter that it is a gift of God whenever anyone is able to enjoy the wealth and possessions given to him by God. But sadly, not everyone is able to enjoy the wealth that they acquire, and in verses 1-6 of chapter six, Solomon claims that it is better to be miscarried in your mother’s womb than to have blessings and not be able to enjoy them. But that is how the love of money works. You become so obsessed with having more that you cannot enjoy what you already have.

Family 

Finally, we might try to our family the goal of our lives. This is a particularly difficult one to grasp because it feels like the right thing to do and Hollywood seems hell-bent on teaching this valuable lesson (at times…). And of course, the Bible calls us to love our families well. Paul tells us that “if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8). Clearly, family is serious business, but still it is not ultimate. If this sounds wrong, just consider the clear reality. If your spouse is the center of your life, what happens when he or she passes away, or worse if they betrayed you and left you alone? If your kids become your reason for living, what if they die, or what happens when they get married and have families of their own? As much as I love my wife and daughter, they are not God. If I make them my gods, they will be crushed under the weight of my expectations for them. Family is not eternal and will eventually fail, so family cannot replace God.

Of course, there are plenty more things that people make the goal of their lives, but we don’t have time to even attempt addressing such a never-ending list.

TO LIVE IS CHRIST

Take a moment to notice that self-interest, wealth, and family are not evil things. Each is a good gift given by a good God. The problem comes whenever we make them our gods, whenever the gifts usurp the Giver. While they are good to have, they are not eternal and, therefore, cannot truly satisfy us. Given enough time, they will each eventually fail us. God, however, cannot fail us. Augustine describes this trading of the Giver for His gifts as being like a hungry man who keeps licking a painting of bread instead of asking a baker for a loaf. Or we could say it is as ridiculous as writing and giving a thank you card to the gift itself instead of the giver. Doing so is foolish, as insane as trying to catch the wind in your hand.

This is why Solomon repeats throughout Ecclesiastes that true and lasting enjoyment of life is a gift from God. Enjoyment cannot be earned or bought. It is a gift that can only come from the hand of the Giver. Therefore, Solomon is constantly trying to force us to fix our hope above the sun, beyond this life, and onto the Author of life. All is vanity under the sun. A life lived exclusively under the sun is a wasted life, but a life given over to God is a life of true and lasting joy.

The Apostle Paul famously expresses a similar message in Philippians 1:21, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Often it is the second part of that verse that sticks out in our minds. We quote it as a reminder whenever we start to cringe at the thought of leaving this world. It comes with a lump in our throat as we hear stories of martyrs for Christ throughout history. Indeed, the blessed hope of the Christian faith is that Christ will return to resurrect our bodies so that we will live forever in His presence. Yes! Let “death is gain” be the Christian’s dying words! But the first phrase is just as important: “to live is Christ.”

What does Paul mean by saying “to live is Christ?” He means that all of life belongs to Christ. Our very state of existing is now the property of Christ. As Christians, we have been bought by God with a price, so we are called to glorify God with our bodies (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). That price was the very death of God upon a cross as a substitute for us. Because of the crucifixion of Jesus, Paul writes, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God” (Galatians 2:20).

As a Christian, your life is not your own; it belongs to God. This is why Paul tells us twice to glorify God in everything that we do, in our eating or drinking (1 Corinthians 10:31) and in our words and deeds (Colossians 3:17).

And why would we not want to do so?

He is Author of life (Acts 3:15).

“In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

All of creation was created by Him, through Him, and for Him, so that He is preeminent in all things (Colossians 1:15-20).

The universe itself is upheld by the word of His power (Hebrews 1:3).

And one day, every creature in heaven, on earth, and under the earth will proclaim Jesus as Lord and bow before Him to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:9-11).

If living for the gifts of God is utter foolishness, then living for the Giver Himself is the wisest action we can take. But having God be the great purpose of our lives is for our good as well as His glory. After all, if we long to live for something greater than ourselves, who fits that category better than God! If we want to live lives that matter and have a real purpose, where else can we turn except to Him who formed all of existence?

But practically, how can we live for God’s glory?

If you are not a Christian, then the path toward living for God’s glory begins with repenting and believing the gospel (Mark 1:15). First, repentance is far more than simply apologizing for sin. Repentance is the heart-broken confession of sin, followed by turning away from it. Repentance is the renouncing of sin. Second, believing the gospel means understanding the good news that Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection saves us from our sins. The gospel is that even though we deserved the full and just wrath of God for our sins, the death of Jesus paid that penalty completely and gives to us the righteousness of Christ in its place. The good news is that we who were once objects of God’s wrath are now His children (Ephesians 2:1-10).

If you already a follower of Christ, other than continuing to repent and believe the gospel, here are some basic actions for being a disciple of Jesus. These basics are pray, know the Scripture, love the church, and obey Scripture.

Relationships cannot exist without communication, so how can we have a relationship with God without speaking to Him in prayer?

With God’s self-revelation in Scripture, we can quickly find ourselves praying to a god fashioned within our minds if we are not rooted and grounded in the Bible.

Many claim to love Jesus but can’t stand the church. The church, however, is the body and bride of Jesus. You can’t love Jesus and not love His church.

Finally, Jesus Himself said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). This does not mean that you will ever perfectly obey in this life, but it does mean that you should want to obey the commands of God.

Of course, living a life for God’s glory does not mean that you must be called to full-time ministry; instead, serve God wherever He places you in life. If you are a nurse, then be a nurse to the glory of God by working as though you are working for Christ (Colossians 3:23) and proclaiming the gospel whenever a door is opened to do so (Colossians 4:3). If you are a mechanic, then be a mechanic to the glory of God by working as though you are working for Christ and proclaiming the gospel whenever a door is opened to do so. In other words, be missional where you are and with what you are doing.

If that sounds like a boring and inconsequential life, consider the first 300 years of Christianity. Throughout that time, Christians faced some of the worst and most intense persecution found throughout history, and yet by the early 300s Rome had its first Christian emperor and in 380 Christianity was the official religion. How did Christianity become so powerful even in the midst of persecution? Church historian Justo Gonzalez notes that Christianity spread on the backs of ordinary and long-forgotten Christians, slaves and business-people alike, who took the good news with them wherever they went. Of course, Acts also tells us this fact as well: “Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word” (8:4). After Stephen’s death and Christians became persecuted in Jerusalem, many fled the city, but they did not stop sharing the gospel.

The world’s greatest empire was overcome by normal and ordinary believers living their common and seemingly un-noteworthy lives for God’s glory. May we too give our lives to that one focus. After all, nothing else comes close to the value, meaning, purpose, and worth of exalting the name of Jesus Christ.

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The Vanity of Jonathan Edwards

I read from Stephen Nichols (in Heaven on Earth: Capturing Jonathan Edwards’s Vision of Living in Between) that Jonathan Edwards was voted out of his church after moving the church to closed communion. The change backfired in part because Edwards failed to cultivate deep friendships within his congregation that would support him through such a major change. He certainly has such friendships, but they tended to be with other ministers via correspondence.

This struck me profoundly.

I’ve heard it said that some ministers are great preachers, while others are great pastors. The adage contains plenty of truth. While I would never call myself a “great” preacher, I certainly know that I am a better preacher than a pastor. Like Edwards, I am more comfortable around books than people. And while this was an area of failure for Edwards and an area of targeted growth for me, I can’t help lamenting the vanity of it all.

Edwards was a certainly a great writer and preacher. Indeed, he could be called one of the greatest American minds, and the benefit and blessing of his studies continue to endure. In fact, although I have yet to read anything by Edwards, I am a secondhand product of his legacy. Piper’s concept of Christian Hedonism played a significant role in reawakening my faith, and Edwards was a prime influence upon Piper’s development of that idea. Thus, in some ways, the Father used Edwards mightily through Piper to mold my faith.

But Edwards also succeeded in another realm: as husband and father. With eleven children, the Edwards’ home was busy to say the least, yet he made time to lead them in the Word and to open his home in hospitality. Nichols states:

All accounts concur: this was a home where love reigned (p. 42).

In short, Edwards succeeded as a preacher, writer, husband, and father, yet in part, he failed as a pastor. Of course, it is easy to write this off as being simply the will of God. Or we could call it yet another example of the scourge of humanity in a post-Genesis 3 world. After all, even the godliest of men had their failings. We’re broken people in a broken world. What’s new?

But have you ever really let that truth sink in?

Despite his best efforts and successes, Edwards will always be remembered as a flawed man with failures to his name (the owning of slaves being among the most glaring). Life is a balancing of many spinning plates, and some will break. We will never fully practice all of the doctrines that we believe. That inevitability is easy to understand but difficult to make peace with. Our greatest works are never enough to offset our failures because the failures don’t magically cease to exist. We will fail. Our efforts will never be sufficient. We cannot be good enough. We will never be enough. Attempting otherwise is a striving after wind. This is the vanity of life, and it is a grievous evil.

Of course, we say that is why grace is so wonderful. We are failures who cannot hope to truly succeed, but Christ’s death has paid the penalty of our sins while granting us His own righteousness.

This is the gospel, the good news.

Yet how often do we really let that bad news sink in first?

The gospel shines brightly against the backdrop of sin, brokenness, and despair, but I rarely take the time to truly despair of myself apart from Christ. This often leads to an underappreciated gospel.

But why did Edwards’ failure strike me so deeply?

I think it’s the combination of studying through the book of Ecclesiastes and feeling a similarity to Edwards. Like him, I am a husband, father, and pastor. I also feel the pull in my soul to write about the glories that I find in Scripture. And I understand the comfort of a richly composed page juxtaposed against the anxiety of being around others. I feel the same pull for time as him. How can I maximize my efforts as a husband without neglecting my children? How can I be a great preacher without neglecting the necessity of pastoring? How can I prioritize writing without compromising every other arena of life? When my body is laid in the ground, what areas of my life will be remembered as triumphs? Which will be my greatest failures? What actions of mine will stand as an eternal testament to my sinfulness? If Ecclesiastes teaches anything, it’s that this is all vanity, futile and a grievous evil.

As briefly mentioned, stewing in this vanity helps my perception of grace. All too often, I claim that I live for the glory, worship, and exaltation of God, but my motives are all too self-aggrandizing. Cognitively, I know my sin and my need of a savior, but there must be a hole in my heart because that truth continues to leak out.

The glories and exaltation of self are a mirage, careful compositions that are littered with clashing chords. I think of myself as Mozart when I am little more than a toddler slapping the keys. God, however, has been playing greatest masterpiece ever designed, and by His grace, I am given the honor of being used as a single note within that magisterial symphony of history.

In Christ, we become instruments, failures and all, for magnifying His greatness.

O then for grace to see the vanity of self clearly that I might behold more of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ!

 

Thus in recognizing our lowliness, ignorance and vanity, as well as our perversity and corruption, we come to understand that true greatness, wisdom, truth, righteousness and purity reside in God.  – John Calvin

The Day Full of Butterflies (6 Years & Counting)

It was a day full of butterflies.

The ground outside stood muddied by rain, prayers and wishful thinking dried it no quicker.

So people gathered, and plans changed.

Under shelter, beams were raised, flowers planted, and lights ignited.

Soon a flood of faces filled the landscape, waiting for that moment, for the doors’ opening.

And they did open.

Beauty levitated past the onlookers.

Words, then, were spoken.

Promises were made, sealed with a kiss.

Por siempre y siempre, a moment of clarity within the emotions and colors that spun past our heads.

That’s how I remember it, at least.

To be honest, much of it was a blur.

So many faces and so much to do.

Not to mention the pressure.

I mean, after an entire year thinking about that day, your brain struggles to process it all, trying to keep important moments to recollect in your mental scrapbook for the years to come.

But it’s too much.

An overload of the senses.

A kaleidoscope of feelings and memories.

But I do remember your face.

I remember the fluttering of my stomach and the warmth of my face when you appeared.

I remember the butterflies fluttering up the Mount Everest of sugar.

I remember thinking, “I’m spending the rest of my life with this woman.”

Por siempre y siempre.

Of everything on that day, I remember you most of all.

You were, and still are, the lily in the midst of thorns.

The Meaning Above the Meaningless

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
Ecclesiastes 1:2-3 (ESV)

In these verses, Solomon proclaims that all is vanity. Or using other words, everything is meaningless. That statement is true, but there is a problem.

Saying that everything is meaningless is unavoidably a meaningful statement.

It’s like making the claim that there is no objective truth. It is a self-defeating proposition. By being true, it would also prove itself false.

Similarly, the Preacher says something of meaning, even while he claims that nothing has meaning. How do we reconcile this?

The key is the phrase under the sun.

Everything under the sun is meaningless. The things of this life, including us, are fleeting vanities, little more than blips on the radar of eternity.

If this is true (and it is), Solomon is able to utter this meaningful statement only because meaning exists somewhere beyond the sun.

We know, of course, that all meaning flows from the Author of life, Jesus Christ. Paul describes Jesus like this:

Colossians 1:16-17 | For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him and he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Take a moment to allow the sweeping magnitude of those verses sink in.

ALL THINGS were created through and for Jesus, and He holds EVERYTHING together. In other words, the atoms that form my keyboard as I type this are held in place by Jesus.

Existence exists because Jesus keeps it existing.

This means that there is no reality outside of Jesus. If all things are held together in Jesus, then nothing exists away from Him. Everything, therefore, is meaningless without Christ because without Christ there is nothing.

With this understanding, Ecclesiastes’ life under the sun is a myth.

It is a fantasy, nothing more than a day dream.

We cannot actually live outside of God because He is the giver of life. Life without God is a fool’s quest since “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

Attempting to avoid God is a striving after wind.

Ecclesiastes, therefore, does not need to be a depressing book. The Bible reveals to us the God who created the sun and gives meaning to all existence. He is the only source of true purpose, meaning, and satisfaction.

We do not have to embrace the meaninglessness of life, the abyss that stares back; we can follow and serve the Creator.

We can exchange the vanity of life under the sun for the fullness of abiding in Christ.

God With Us (an Advent reflection)

All this took place to fulfill what the LORD had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).

Matthew 1:22-23

Jesus is the centerpiece of all human existence. His advent, His arrival  is the highest point of human history. The significance of His birth can be glimpsed by a quick thought upon our conception of time.

Chronologically, we divide existence into two eras. They are now being officially called the Common Era (C.E.) and Before Common Era (B.C.E.); however, they are still commonly called Anno Dominae (A.D.) and Before Christ (B.C.). Regardless of their name, the event, which serves to divide them, remains the same: the birth of Jesus Christ.

The Gospel of Matthew seeks to capture the weight of this moment by revealing how every promise became fulfilled through Christ. Through a virgin birth, Jesus became the only one who can claim to be the offspring of woman. As a Jew, Jesus was the offspring of Abraham. Being of the tribe of Judah, Jesus could also trace His lineage back to king David.

Matthew concludes that because of these fulfilled promises that Jesus is the only one worthy to be called Immanuel, God with us. Jesus is the completion of the Old Testament, the hope underlining its entirety.

As the Promised One, Jesus alone is able to be called Mighty God[1].

He alone is the King whose kingdom will last forever and who will be worshipped by everyone from everywhere in every language[2].

Jesus alone is the meeting of heaven and earth.

He is God come down to deliver His people.

He is the innocent sacrifice that died to pay for the sins of His creation.

The incarnation of Jesus Christ cannot be overstated. It cannot be given too much importance. It is the very moment of God making Himself nothing for the sake of the merest of vanities such as us. Though our lives are like passing vapors in the winter air, God chose to dwell among us, to take on the form of humanity[3].

What is our central thought during this Christmas time, during this season of Advent? Like the rest of our lives, may it be consumed by the wonder that God would choose to save us by being with us.

[1] Isaiah 9:6

[2] Daniel 7:14

[3] Philippians 2:7

Two Tasks

But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.
Acts 6:4 ESV

In 1 Peter 5:2-3, pastors are given three commands which correspond to their three titles: shepherd the flock (pastor), exercise oversight (overseer), and be an example to the flock (elder). Each command is a different aspect of leading God’s people. Pastors lead by shepherding, overseers lead by overseeing, and elders lead by modeling. These are great overall ideas, but how does that look in the everyday? What are the primarily tasks by which a pastor shepherds, an elder models, and an overseer oversees? Acts 6:4 gives us the two most important tasks required of a pastor: prayer and the ministry of the Word.

As we will see when we study the responsibilities of deacons, the apostles within Acts 6 are acting as prototype elders of the church in Jerusalem, and within that text, they also establish the first seven prototype deacons. Therefore, the apostles’ resolve to commit themselves primarily to prayer and the ministry of the Word must also be the heart of every pastor. The entire purpose behind establishing deacons was to defend pastors’ ability to focus upon praying and ministering the Word.

Above all things, pastors must devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word. That’s not to say that an elder does not have other tasks that must be done, but being devoted means giving unremitted attention to these two things. If he can do only two things, they are prayer and the ministry of the Word. People often have a multitude of expectations for what a pastor ought to do, but the Bible is clear that these two tasks must be first and foremost.

The Ministry of the Word

A pastor must be rooted in God’s Word. As an overseer, he oversees through the Word of God. As a pastor, he shepherds with the Word of God. As an elder, he models submission to the Word of God. As intimidating as being a young pastor can be, it also forces me to depend upon the Scripture. I simply do not have the life experience or the time-hardened wisdom to say many things that must be said. Fortunately, I have God’s Word, which is the only authority worth asserting.

For the importance of ministering the Word to others, we only need to turn to the life of Jesus. The primary focus of Jesus’ earthly ministry was preaching the gospel. This, of course, runs against what we tend to assume. Our minds first go to Jesus’ miracles, but He performed those miracles in order to demonstrate the authority of His preaching. Mark 1:35-39 tells of Jesus’ disciples informing Him of people in need of healing, but He says to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out” (v. 38).

Furthermore in Mark 6 we find the account of Jesus feeding the five thousand. Verse 34 gives provides the background to that miracle:

When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep with a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things.

It is tempting to link Jesus’ compassion upon the crowd immediately to His feeding them; however, Jesus’ love for them was first displayed in His teaching them. They were lost sheep, so He shepherded them by teaching them the good news of the kingdom. Jesus, therefore, saw teaching as shepherding. This is even further enforced by Jesus command for Peter to feed His sheep in John 21:15-19.

The mark of teaching God’s Word is so important for a pastor that it is listed in the office’s qualifications (1 Timothy 3:2). Although there will almost always be teachers in the church who are not elders, the ability to teach God’s Word is a requirement for elders. To be more succinct, not all teachers are elders, but all elders are teachers.

Titus 1:9 reiterates this necessity while providing a twofold look at its practice:

He [an overseer] must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.

Three points must be made from this verse. First, the ministry of the Word means holding firm to the Word as trustworthy. Second, he must be able to give instruction in sound doctrine. Third, he must be able to refute those who contradict it. Instructing and refuting are the two arms of ministering the only Word that is entirely worthy of our trust. In shepherding terms, instruction is feeding the sheep, while refutation is protecting them. All pastors must feed the sheep by teaching the Scripture and drive away the wolves by rebuking false doctrine.

Prayer

The second task of an elder is prayer. Why is prayer a job requirement for an elder? Aren’t all Christians supposed to pray? The quick answer is yes. All Christians are certainly called to pray. But remember, elders are models of Christian maturity; therefore, a pastor should desire for all those in his church to pray like him.

If this does not humble a pastor, he should probably examine his heart. Few Christians, pastors included, are strong enough in their prayer to confidently tell a new Christian to pray like they pray. Elders, nevertheless, must model prayer.

This does not mean, however, that elders are the only models of prayer in a church. Specific ministries of intercession are sorely missing in most churches today. In fact, I would urge each Christian to grow in intercessory prayer throughout their life. Too many older believers become disheartened in their old age that they cannot do the ministries they once did due to physical constraints. Aging, of course, cannot be stopped; therefore, we should prepare for becoming warriors of intercessory prayer in the years where our bodies can no longer perform many of their former tasks.

Elders, though, should not only model prayer for the congregation; they should also pray for the flock of God. Personally, I use either physical notecards or the app, PrayerMate, to pray for every member of the church. Placing each family unit on a card, I pray for three to five cards each morning. While that system is not required of each elder, it does ensure that each member is being prayed for by his or her pastor on a regular basis. Without this system, I tend to only pray for those who I know are in present need of prayer, but as a follower of Christ, I do not want people to only pray for me whenever I am in visible need. I want to be prayed for at all times because I need prayer at all times! How then can I not do the same for the congregation?

The danger of prayer is that it is so easy to neglect. Since most prayer happens behind the scenes, a pastor can be readily convinced of the need to focus on more “important” and showy things.

In terms of importance, seemingly random needs will always come to the surface at the moment of prayer. Unfulfilled to-do lists come to mind with a renewed resolved to see them accomplished whenever one becomes ready to pray. But there is no work more important than prayer.

As for showy things, it is all to easy, as a pastor, for me to neglect prayer in favor of doing things that will be seen by others. For me at least, it’s rarely a means of stereotypcial boasting; rather, I often fear being viewed as lazy. Time spent in prayer, after all, is time not spent elsewhere. By working prayer into my schedule, I must set aside more “productive” and visible tasks.

The heart is ultimately at stake here. I prefer the hands-on work because it can be recognized and affirmed by others; prayer, however, is between God and I. Working for the approval of men is often the root cause of my procrastination of prayer. Prayer is work, but it is work without the recognition and affirmation of others. Since pastors live before the watching eyes of the congregation, God was certainly wise in pairing the public work of teaching with the private work of prayer. When I teach well, I risk taking the glory for myself, but knelt in true prayer, I can do nothing but give glory to God.

Prayer forces a pastor to remember that only the Holy Spirit can change hearts. Pastors need to always be reminded that God shepherds His people through them. God is the worker, and they are His instruments. They cannot do the work of shepherding alone; they need the empowerment of the Spirit.

Three Commands

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 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. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
1 Peter 5:1-5 ESV

In his magnificent book, Sojourners and Strangers, Gregg Allison argues that there are four biblical responsibilities for church elders: leading, teaching, praying, and shepherding. While I do agree with his assessment, I would like to structure it differently. Instead of saying that an elder has the four responsibilities above, it seems better to say that an elder has one responsibility that is displayed through three primary branches, which then practically functions within two primary tasks. Shepherding is, I believe, the one overall responsibility to which every elder is called, and I will argue that shepherding and leading are two sides of the same coin. Following the example of Jesus, a Christian leader is called to be a servant and a shepherd. Pastors lead by shepherding, and they shepherd by leading. You cannot divorce the two concepts from one another.

Pastor: Shepherd the Flock of God

Within the fifth chapter of 1 Peter, the apostle begins an exhortation to church elders. He writes to them as a fellow elder and gives them one big command that he explains and qualifies in verses two and three: shepherd the flock of God. Of course, pastor is one of the three titles used for elders within the Bible, and it means a shepherd. A pastor is a shepherd, so the primary command to a pastor is to shepherd the flock, the congregation. But notice the wording of that phrase: shepherd the flock of God. A pastor’s congregation is not his congregation but God’s. The church is God’s flock, His people.

But what does it mean then to shepherd?

Psalm 23 is likely the passage that first springs to mind.

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
– Psalm 23:1-4

The same imagery being used by David in Psalm 23 is the imagery being used by Peter here. A shepherd takes care of sheep. A shepherd guards and protects sheep. David is the archetypal shepherd in the Bible, who slew bears and lions to defend his flock. Pastors likewise must defend, care for, and nourish God’s people.

In order to shepherd well, a pastor must possess two qualities: a love for God and a love for God’s people. That may sound incredibly simple, but do we truly live that way? Because the congregation is God’s flock, a pastor cannot properly love them without first having a love of God. He cannot love what is God’s without first loving God.

Of course, these qualities are not exclusive to elders; rather, the pastor is intended to model them before the congregation. After all, Jesus said,

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 22:37-40).

Each Christian is called to love God and love people. Pastors, therefore, are called to model loving God and loving people.

In an article titled Two Indispensable Requirements for Pastoral Ministry, Kevin DeYoung takes those two qualities one step further. He says that a pastor must like to study the Bible and must like his people. He uses the word like with purpose. A pastor must not only love God, but he must like studying His Word. Why? God reveals Himself through His Word. How can anyone truly love God but not enjoy studying His Word! And a pastor should not just love God’s people, he should like them. Shepherds like being around sheep, and a pastor should like being around God’s flock.

Overseer: Exercising Oversight

If shepherding the flock of God is the big overall command, the next phrase is a further explanation of that command: exercising oversight. A pastor, as an overseer, must exercise oversight over the church. Just as a pastor and an overseer are different titles for the same office, so exercising oversight is, at its core, the same command as shepherding the flock of God. They are each the same responsibility of leading God’s people, but they emphasize a different aspect of that leadership. A shepherd’s duty is to care and provide for the flock, while an overseer manages and guides God’s people.

What does this oversight look like?

First, exercising oversight means watching over souls. Hebrews 13:17 commands:

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

While this verse very purposely does not target pastors specifically (instead applying to everyone is a position of leadership), it should bear tremendous weight upon the heart of all pastors. He must view this verse with joyful fear because every pastor will give an account to God for the congregation they shepherd.

This is also why a proper understanding of membership is important. Pastors must know who they are watching over, which people they are responsible for overseeing, because they will answer to God on behalf of each soul.

James 3:1 is sage advice:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.

As an elder, I will not merely give an account of my own soul to God (which is burdensome task indeed!), but I will answer to God on behalf of each soul within my congregation.

Second, exercising oversight means equipping the saints for the work of ministry. Ephesians 4:11-14 teaches us this principle:

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.

An overseer must equip the saints for the work of ministry. As a pastor, I am not a minister who has been called into the ministry. Instead, I was called into the ministry as a Christian, just as every Christian is called into the ministry as well. We all have ministries, areas of life where we are called by God to serve one another.

To discover those areas of ministry, we only need to ask a few questions. Are you a spouse? If yes, that’s an area of ministry for you. Are you a parent? Another ministry. Are you child? Are you employed? We have been placed in each realm of life by God for a purpose. And the role of an overseer is to equip the congregation for their ministries. We do not hire a pastor to do the ministry for us, but to lead us in how to minister throughout our lives.

Elder: Being an Example to the Flock

The third command that Peter gives is to be an example to the flock. Once more, this is not an independent command. Just as shepherding and overseeing are the same command viewed from different angles, so is being an example to the flock. Modeling maturity and godliness is the task of an elder, just as shepherding is for a pastor and overseeing is for an overseer.

When considering maturity, we should note that age is not the primary factor for being an elder; spiritual maturity is. Paul gave this famous instruction to his young disciple, Timothy:

Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity (1 Timothy 4:12).

The first half of that verse is too often cited without the latter portion. Young pastors, because of their youth, have all the more reason to set an example for the flock in their speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity. In short, an elder must model godliness to the congregation. He must give an example of a life that is fully surrendered over to God’s will.

But elders must also model repentance for the congregation. No pastor is perfect and without sin; therefore, pastors will always have sin to repent of. Yes, they are shepherding God’s people, but they are also a part of God’s people, being shepherded by the chief Shepherd. Like all Christians, elders will fail and fall into sin. But the mark of a Christian is not sinless perfection; it is repentance. Christians are a people who repeatedly cling to the hope of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Elders, therefore, must model that hope via repentance.