1. La Escritura no lo enseña. La Biblia habla de “declarar” en el sentido de “hacer claro,” explicar y proclamar un mensaje ya dado por Dios para que nosotros lo sigamos y obedezcamos en adoración (Salmo 19:1; 50:6; Daniel 10:21; Mateo 13:35; Juan 4:25). Pero, “declarar” en el sentido de forzar que ciertas cosas pasen no es significado que aparezca en la Escritura, es más bien una practica que emula la magia pagana tan detestada por los profetas bíblicos (ej. 2 Reyes 23:24; Isa. 8:19; Jer. 27:9).
2. La diferencia entre la fe bíblica y la pagana consiste en reconocer que mi vida está en las manos de Dios y no en las mías. Intentar asegurar mi futuro por medio de afirmaciones mías, aun usando el vocabulario bíblico, es falta de fe en Dios, y excesiva confianza en el hombre.
3. Creer a pesar del mundo. La fe bíblica tiene que ver principalmente con creer en lo que Dios ha prometido en su palabra–y por eso es necesario conocerla profundamente sin torcerla como algunos comerciantes lo hacen para amontonar dinero (2 Cor. 2:17; 4:2). La fe bíblica es confiar a pesar de que el mundo no cambie hoy. Es creer contra la realidad presente aun en medio del sufrimiento y aún cuando personalmente no vea su cumplimiento (1 Tes. 3:1-9; Job 19:25).
4. Creer solo en lo que Dios promete. La fe bíblica NO enseña que cualquier cosa que el creyente espere le será concedido si tan solo lo cree ciegamente y “lo declare.” La “convicción de lo que se espera” de Hebreos 11:1 no es lo que el creyente se proponga esperar. Es más bien lo que Dios dice que debemos esperar (Hebreos 10:36-38). Es decir, la segunda venida de Jesús y su juicio para el malvado.
5. Asalto directo contra la verdadera oración. “Declarar” al estilo de muchos predicadores y cantantes hoy en día es un asalto directo, y sustituto barato, a la oración cristiana (Lucas 11:2). En lugar de orar en confianza de que Dios tiene mis necesidades bajo control, y esperar en su voluntad, el “creyente” es motivado a cambiar su realidad vía el optimismo humanista. ¡No se trata de pedirle a Dios “que venga su reino,” según esta distorsión el creyente puede hacer que baje el reino solo mandarlo!
6. Copia de la filosofía secular. Este “declarar,” la llamada “palabra de fe,” es la versión religiosa de la filosofía deconstruccionista secular en la que el mundo es creación del lenguaje humano. La idea a fondo es que si cambias el lenguaje terminarás cambiando la realidad. El feminismo antibíblico que cuestiona la paternidad de Dios y propone una diosa amante del ser humano es el ejemplo más claro.
7. Antesala de la apostasía. El “declarar” de varios predicadores de la prosperidad es un atentado directo contra el esperar en Dios. Es una exhortación para tomar nuestra vida en nuestras manos y afirmar nuestro valor frente al mundo. Esta es una espada de dos filos porque, aunque sea enormemente atractiva para la baja autoestima humana y para los que necesitan provisión urgente, también es una fuente de desanimo, depresión y apostasía cuando lo declarado no llega.
8. El confesar bíblico. El “confesar” sinónimo del “declarar mágico,” en la Escritura se da en un contexto de expresar nuestro pecado (Salmo 32:5; 38:18), nuestra conversión (1 Reyes 8:33; 2 Cro. 6:24), nuestra limitación, y confianza en que Dios tendrá la última palabra. Lo central de la confesión cristiana no es reconocer mi capacidad para cambiar la realidad. Es reconocer que el que decide es “el Señor,” no el creyente (Rom. 10:9); confesar el nombre de Dios, hablar de su grandeza–y no de la nuestra– para que las naciones lo busquen y adoren (Nehe. 9:3), aunque los siervos del altísimo sufran el rechazo mientras tanto. No es mi palabra la que cambiará mi mundo, sino el Hijo del Hombre en su venida quien confesará los nombres de sus santos, haciendo pública así la razón y la dignidad que siempre han tenido (Lucas 12:8; Apoc. 3:5).
9. Buscar sólo el decreto de Dios. ¿Y qué digo de la estupidez del “decretar” del creyente? Sólo el Soberano tiene derecho a decretar, y así lo ha hecho eternamente. En la Escritura, la única vez en que los humanos decretan algo son los reyes paganos. Dios los ocupa porque forman parte de su decreto eterno (Daniel 4:17). Todas las otras veces tiene que ver con obedecer los mandamientos y estatutos escritos de Dios. El ha decretado que se deba obedecer su palabra solamente, y que se deje de estar buscando y oyendo otro tipo de “decretos.”
10. Evangeliza y no “arrebates.” “Arrebatar” o “atar” para ordenarle a Satanás es una infantil interpretación de los pasajes que ocupan esa terminología. Mateo 11:12, por ejemplo, como aparece en Reyna-Valera es ambiguo. La versión Dios Habla Hoy traduce mejor: “Desde que vino Juan el Bautista hasta ahora, el reino de los cielos sufre violencia, y los que usan la fuerza pretenden acabar con él.” Así también: NBV, NTV, PDT, etc. Este verso no enseña que los creyentes deben “arrebatar” nada, y menos a Satanás. Mateo 16:19 no es fácil de interpretar—según la mayoría de buenos comentarios bíblicos. Lo claro es que el pasaje no dice nada de ligar o atar a ningún humano o a Satanás. Más bien, prescribe la entrada al reino de los cielos. La iglesia es la encargada de abrir la puerta al reino de Dios. Todos los que entren por la puerta del mensaje del evangelio, serán acogidos en los cielos.
Por esto y por mucho más: No “declares,” No “decretes,” No “confieses,” no “arrebates” no “ates o desates”. ¡Es mejor conocer a fondo la Escritura, y honrar a Dios obedeciéndola!
1. It is not something taught by Scripture. The Bible speaks of “declaring” in the sense of “making clear,” explaining and proclaiming a message already given by God for us to obey in adoration (Psalm 19:1; 50:6; Daniel 10:21; John 4:25). But “declaring” in the sense of forcing certain things to happen does not appear in Scripture. It is rather a practice that emulates the pagan witchcraft so detested by biblical prophets (e.g., 2 Kings 23:24; Isaiah 8:19; Jeremiah 27:9).
2. The difference between biblical and pagan faith consists in recognizing that my life is in the hands of God and not in mine. Trying to secure my future through affirmations of mine, even using the biblical vocabulary, is evidence of a lack of faith in God and an excessive trust in man.
3. We should believe in spite of the world. Biblical faith has to do mainly with trusting in what God has promised in His Word—and that is why it is necessary to know it deeply without twisting it as some merchants do to accumulate money (2 Corinthians 2:17; 4:2). Biblical faith is to trust in God even though the world does not change today. It is to believe against real suffering and even when I do NOT get to see what God will bring at the end (1 Thessalonians 3:1-9; Job 19:25).
4. We should believe only in what God promises. Biblical faith does NOT teach that whatever the believer expects will be granted to him if he only believes it. The “conviction of things not seen” in Hebrews 11:1 is not what the believer wants. It is rather what God has promised (Hebrews 10:36-38), that is, the second coming of Jesus and His judgment for the wicked.
5. It is a direct assault against true prayer. “Declaring” for many preachers and singers today is a direct assault, and a cheap substitute, for Christian prayer (Luke 11:2). Instead of praying that God may provide for my needs, the “believer” is motivated to change his reality via humanistic optimism. It is not about asking God “thy kingdom come,” but “making” the kingdom come down by just commanding it!
6. It is a copy of the secular philosophy. This “declaring,” the so-called “word of faith,” is the religious version of secular deconstructionist philosophy in which the world is the creation of human language. The idea is that if you change the language, you end up changing reality. The anti-biblical feminism that questions the paternity of God and proposes a goddess who seduces the human heart is the clearest example.
7. It is a prelude to apostasy. The “declaring” teaching of several preachers of prosperity is a direct attack against waiting on God. It is an invitation to take our life in our hands, affirming our value in front of the world. This is a two-edged sword because, although it is attractive to those who suffer from low self-esteem and are in need of provision, it is also a source of discouragement, depression, and apostasy when the thing “declared” does not become reality.
8. It is contrary to biblical confession. Many preachers and singers use “confession” as a “magical spell” to change reality. However, in Scripture, the term occurs in contexts for expressing our sin (Psalm 32:5; 38:18), our conversion (1 Kings 8:33), our limitations, and our confidence that God has the last word for my problems. Confession is not about my ability to change reality. It is about recognizing that the one who decides is “the Lord,” not the believer (Romans 10:9). We are to speak of God’s greatness—and not of ours—among the nations so that they may worship Him too (Nehemiah 9:3), even if the servants of the Most High may suffer rejection in the meantime. Christian confidence does not change the world; rather, the Son of Man, at His second coming, will confess the names of His saints, thus making public the dignity they have always had (Luke 12:8; Revelation 3:5).
9. We should seek only the decree of God. And what do I say about the stupidity of the believer “decreeing”? God the Sovereign is the only one with the right to decree, and He has done so eternally. In Scripture, it is only pagan kings who decreed. God uses them because they are part of His eternal decree (Daniel 4:17). All other times in which “decree” is used in the Bible refer to obeying the written statutes God has given to His people. He has decreed that only His Word should be obeyed, and that we should stop looking for other kinds of “decrees.”
10. We should evangelize, not “snatch.” “Snatching from” or “binding” Satan is a childish interpretation of the biblical passages that occupy that terminology. Matthew 11:12, for example, in Reyna-Valera is ambiguous. Dios Habla Hoy translates better: “Since John the Baptist came until now, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and those who use force seek to destroy it” (compare NBV, NTV, PDT, etc.). We cannot say on this verse that believers are commanded to “snatch” anything from anyone, least of all from Satan. Matthew 16:19 is not easy to interpret—check major biblical commentaries—but what is clear is that the context says nothing about binding any human or satanic being. Rather, it is related to the entrance to the kingdom of heaven. The church is responsible for opening the door, presenting the entrance to the Kingdom of God. All who enter through the door of the Gospel message will be welcomed into heaven.
For this and much more: Do not “declare,” do not “decree,” do not “confess,” do not “snatch,” do not “bind or loose.” It is better to know the Scripture thoroughly and honor God by obeying it!
John sees a beast rising out of the sea, summoned by the dragon on the seashore (12:17). The sea was a place of chaos, danger, and evil for the Hebrews. The vision draws on Daniel 7:3, where Daniel sees “four great beasts . . . out of the sea.” The beasts in Daniel represent great empires, and a great empire — almost certainly Rome — is in John’s mind as well. The kingdom rising out of the sea is not humane, civil, or supportive of its citizens. Instead, it is like a ravaging and ferocious beast, preying on its citizens.
The beast described here is probably the fourth beast seen by Daniel (Dan. 7:7, 19, 23). The beast in Revelation has extraordinary power, for it has ten horns, with ten diadems (Rev. 17:12; cf. Dan. 7:20, 24) — symbols of ruling authority — on its horns. It has seven heads, also signifying its authority and power. The dragon had seven heads and ten horns (Rev. 12:3), and he clearly has given his authority to the beast. The beast with its horns and diadems parodies the Christ (cf. 5:6; 19:12), just as the dragon does. The seven heads bear blasphemous names, which are perhaps Roman claims to deity, such as “Lord,” “son of God,” and “Savior” (cf. also 17:3), revealing again the divine pretensions of the beast. The beast is not confined to the Roman Empire; it refers to Rome but applies also to every manifestation of evil in all governments throughout history, and also to the final conflict to come at the end.
We must be willing to suffer, to give our all for Christ, to persevere until the end in order to obtain the final reward.
Coming out of the sea
The beast coming out of the sea is like a leopard, with feet like a bear’s and a mouth like a lion’s. In Daniel’s vision of the four beasts, the first (Babylon) was like a lion with eagles’ wings (Dan. 7:4), the second (Medio-Persia) was like a bear (Dan. 7:5), and the third (probably Greece) was like a leopard (Dan. 7:6). John sees these beasts consummated in Daniel’s fourth beast, which is the beast he describes here (probably Rome; cf. Dan. 7:7, 19, 23). This beast is not autonomous but derives its totalitarian rule from the dragon, and thus its governing authority is demonic (cf. 2 Thess. 2:8–9).
One of the heads of the beast had a mortal wound, from which it recovered (cf. 17:8). Many understand this to refer to an individual, which is certainly possible. After Nero’s death in AD 68, a tradition arose that he would return (perhaps from Parthia) and rule again, and John might have had that tradition in mind. But if John wrote in the 90s, his most plausible date, it is quite unlikely this tradition would be in mind, since Nero was long gone. It is more probable, then, that the reference is to the empire as a whole. The deadly wound signifies the apparent demise of tyrannical rule. Rome’s dominion looks as if it has been dethroned and removed forever. And yet the empire is not destroyed; just when it seems that its tyranny has ended, its power is resumed. The so-called death-blow is ineffective. In response, the world is astonished with the beast and gives its allegiance to him, for the revival of a demonic empire is a kind of resurrection, and so once again the beast parodies the Christ.
The staying power of the beast and its empire leads to worship of the dragon and the beast. The dragon is worshiped for giving authority to the beast. The beast is worshiped because of his so-called resurrection. He is considered incomparable and omnipotent, like God (cf. Ex. 15:11; Ps. 89:7). People worship the beast, believing he cannot be resisted or overcome. As has often been observed in history, people support a winner.
Twice in this verse we are told what “was given” to the beast: a mouth to utter proud, blasphemous words, and authority for forty-two months. The clause “it was given” (edothē) appears four other times in this chapter (13:7 [2x], 14, 15). In the comment on 9:1, I defended the notion that God is the implied subject of this passive construction. Although the dragon actively gives (edōken; 13:2, 4) his authority to the beast, God reigns and rules over what the beast carries out, allowing or permitting the beast to exercise his authority. Even though God ordains what the beast does, he does not have the same motivations or intent as Satan. God’s judgment is his “strange” work (Isa. 28:21), and he calls on the wicked to repent and live (Ezek. 18:23, 32), while Satan rejoices when people are destroyed. The “secret things” belong to the Lord (Deut. 29:29), and hence we cannot fully chart or explicate the logical relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility.
The beast is full of himself, uttering “haughty and blasphemous words” against God, just as Antiochus IV Epiphanes did in his day, functioning as a type of the coming beast (cf. Dan. 7:8, 20; 11:36). Such activity fits also with the “man of lawlessness,” who exalts himself as divine (2 Thess. 2:3–4). The beast is allowed to exercise his authority for forty-two months. Some understand this to be a literal three and one-half years before Jesus returns. But John is more likely describing the entire period between Jesus’ first and second coming (cf. comment on Rev. 11:2); John wrote not of days far removed from his readers but of the impact of the Roman Empire on them. All totalitarian governments arrogating to themselves divine authority reveal that they too are the beast.
John focuses on the beast’s opposition to God, drawing especially on Daniel. As in verse 5, the beast’s self-exaltation expresses itself in his speech, which blasphemes God and his name. He follows the pattern of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, of whom Daniel 7:25 says, “He shall speak words against the Most High.” The prophecy of Daniel 11:36 is also fulfilled: “He shall exalt himself and magnify himself above every god, and shall speak astonishing things against the God of gods.” The beast also reviles God’s dwelling, those who dwell in heaven (cf. Rev. 12:12). This is likely a reference to the people of God (21:3), showing that their true home is in heaven. The actions of the beast here accord with Daniel 7:25, where the beast opposes God and his people. The beast, harboring divine pretensions, hates anything and anyone devoted to the one true and living God.
Twice more we see what God has given (edothē) the beast. First, God has allowed him to make war on the saints and conquer them. This does not mean the saints surrender their faith (cf. comment on 11:7). It means God allows the beast to take their lives (cf. 2:13; 6:9–11; 16:6; 17:6; 18:24; 19:2; 20:4); this too follows the pattern found in Daniel, where Daniel says about Antiochus IV Epiphanes, “This horn made war with the saints and prevailed over them” (Dan. 7:21; cf. Dan. 7:25). God grants the desires of the beast for a period of time, so that the beast exercises authority over every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. We see here the reach of the imperial cult and the totalitarian nature of the beast’s rule.
The worship of the beast
The beast’s authority and rule spark fear and admiration in those dwelling on earth, and they worship the beast. The verse reads as if everyone without exception worships the beast, but the phrase “all who dwell on earth” (pantes hoi katoikountes epi tēs gēs) is a technical term in Revelation for unbelievers (cf. comment on 3:10). Such an understanding is confirmed by the next clause, for the earth dwellers are those with names not inscribed in the book of life. The book of life contains the names of those who will not perish in the lake of fire (cf. Dan. 12:1; Phil. 4:3; Rev. 3:5; 17:8; 20:12, 15; 21:27; 22:19). Those who give their allegiance to the beast thereby demonstrate that they do not belong to the one true God.
Most English translations refer to those “written before the foundation of the world in the book of life.” John makes a similar point in Revelation 17:8, where he refers to “the dwellers on earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world.” The word order in 13:8 could suggest, alternatively, that John refers to “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (cf. KJV, NIV). Word order is not determinative, and, given the parallels, John probably speaks of those who were inscribed in the book of life before history began. After all, the death of Christ was predetermined before history began, but it is quite another thing to say he was actually slain before the world began, for the Lamb was slain in history, not before the world began. On the other hand, God decided before history began who would be inscribed in the book of life.
John reverts to the formula used in all seven letters (Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22). Those who have ears should open their ears and heed what is being said. People are told in advance about the authority of the beast and his persecution and slaying of Christians. They are informed that unbelievers will give to the beast their worship and their adoration. Hence, believers must ready themselves. Some are destined for captivity, and to captivity they will go. Others are destined to be killed by the sword, and so it will be (cf. Jer. 15:2; 43:11). Such events do not mean God has abandoned or forgotten about them; the power of the beast does not suggest God’s sovereign rule over the world has been surrendered, for the beast exercises authority only by God’s will. Hence, believers are called upon to persevere and remain faithful to their Lord. They must remain loyal despite the persecution and difficulties at hand.
The next paragraph (13:11–18) commences with John seeing another beast, coming up from the earth. This other beast is elsewhere identified as the “false prophet” (16:13; 19:20; 20:10). The second beast, then, claims to speak for God and thus represents religious authority contrary to God’s Word and ways. If the first beast is the Roman Empire, the second beast is probably the imperial priesthood. The deceitfulness of the second beast is apparent—he has two horns like a Lamb, thus presenting himself as being in accord with the Lamb, but he actually speaks like the dragon, revealing his message to be demonic. Jesus himself warned that false prophets would come “in sheep’s clothing” while in fact being “ravenous wolves” (Matt. 7:15).
The second beast is the third member of the unholy trinity, functioning like an unholy Spirit. He exercises the authority of the first beast in his presence, compelling the inhabitants of the earth (all unbelievers) to worship the beast. Unbelievers are happy to comply, for the beast appeared to have divine powers, recovering from a seemingly mortal wound. The beast, in other words, had its own version of the resurrection—just when totalitarian rule appeared to be squelched, it rose from the ashes to reign again.
The plausibility of the second beast is augmented by its miraculous power (cf. 16:14). In other words, false religion seems to be verified empirically. Just as Elijah could bring fire down from heaven (1 Kings 18:38), so false religion here is allegedly confirmed by signs and wonders. Both Jesus (Matt. 24:24) and Paul (2 Thess. 2:9) taught that miracles would be accomplished by false christs and prophets. Such miracles test believers, ascertaining their devotion to the Lord (Deut. 13:1–3).
The signs deceive the earth dwellers (unbelievers; cf. comment on 3:10), convincing them that the beast is worthy of worship and praise. Hence, the inhabitants of the earth make an image of the beast. Images were crafted for the sake of worship, and John reminds us again that the beast is worshiped because it seemed to be dead but sprung to life again. “Image” does not mean a literal image of the beast is made but is John’s apocalyptic and symbolic way of saying the beast is worshiped. “Lived” (ezēsen) is used elsewhere of the resurrection of Christ (Rom. 14:9; Rev. 2:8) and the plural “They came to life” (ezēsan) refers elsewhere to the spiritual or physical resurrection of believers (20:4–5). Unbelievers worship the beast because of its resurrection power, because the empire seems dead but keeps springing back to life. The beast, then, is a parody and counterfeit of Christ.
We see again that the second beast functions like the Holy Spirit. Just as the Spirit came to glorify Jesus (John 16:14) and anoint him with power (Luke 4:18–21), so the second beast honors and empowers the first. When John describes it granting life to the image of the beast, we should not envisage an image literally coming to life. Instead, the point is the second beast’s empowering and supporting the first beast in its endeavors. The speech of the first beast seems supernatural, inspired, authoritative, compelling; he speaks in oracles. But this is not a matter merely of persuasion. Coercion is a staple of the second beast’s “ministry,” and those who refuse to worship the first beast are put to death. Similarly, Pliny writes to the emperor Trajan (AD 98–117) about what to do with Christians: He ought not punish them if they sacrifice to the gods (Epistulae 10.96.5 LCL), but if they refuse, they are to be put to death. Such absolute allegiance was demanded also by Nebuchadnezzar (Dan. 3:5–6). Those who bow before the beast reveal they do not belong to the one true God (cf. Rev. 14:9–11; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4).
The Mark of the Beast
The second beast also enforces the power of the first through economic discrimination. No one, no matter his social class or influence, will be able to buy or sell unless he has a mark upon the forehead or hand to signify devotion to the beast. The number signifies the name of the beast (cf. 14:11; 15:2). Many interpreters take this literally, as if a literal mark will be imprinted in some fashion on foreheads and hands, but the language is likely symbolic. Just as the seal on the foreheads of the 144,000 (7:3) is not literal, neither should this mark be understood literally. In any case, the two beasts conspire to exclude believers from the marketplace.
John closes this section with a statement that has fascinated and puzzled interpreters throughout history. He summons the readers to be wise so that they can calculate the number of the beast. We are told the number is the number of a man: 666. Some manuscripts read 616, but the best reading is 666. If the number refers to a particular individual, the best guess is Nero. If “Nero Caesar” is transliterated from Greek to Hebrew, the letters calculate to 666, though it is doubtful the original audience would have understood this complex solution.
Many wild speculations about the identity of the person have been promoted throughout history, and every guess has so far been wrong. The advantage of seeing a reference to Nero is that he fits the time period in which John wrote, at which time there was speculation and fear that Nero would return from Parthia after his death. Still, seeing a reference to Nero isn’t easy or obvious, for one must transliterate from Greek to Hebrew to get the number 666, which seems like a stretch for the audience. Also, as noted earlier, if Revelation was written in the 90s, fear of Nero’s return would have lessened considerably by that time. Perhaps it is better to move in a different direction.
The number 777 represents perfection, but John says 666 is the number of a man. The number 666, then, represents what is anti-god and antichrist, all that is in opposition to the one true God. If 777 represents holiness and perfect goodness, then 666 signifies the enormity and totality of evil. Hence, John does not intend to point to any particular individual here. Rather, the kingdom of the beast is a human kingdom, an evil kingdom, instead of a divine one. The nature of humanity apart from God is demonic. The kingdom of the beast promises life and prosperity but brings death, misery, and devastation.
This article is adapted from ESV Expository Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation: Volume 12 edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr, and Jay Sklar. This article was originally published on the Crossway blog.
Do you have a Bible verse that jumps off the page at you every time you read it? No matter how many times you have come across it, you always stop to ponder it. This verse is a never-ending wonder to you. You might be encouraged by it, convicted by it, or perplexed by it, but you always stop when you see it.
2 Corinthians 11:28 is that verse for me. To understand what is so startling about it, you must read what has come before. To prove his apostleship, Paul boasted in his weaknesses and cataloged the trials he had faced. He received thirty-nine lashes five times endured three beatings with rods. A mob stoned him. He was shipwrecked three times, faced countless dangers, and spend nights in cold and hunger.
Then, as if these things were not enough, Paul said, “And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.” That this line occurs in a litany of Paul’s difficulties and sufferings speaks volumes about the weight that pastors carry in caring for their churches.
In one sense, pastors have a difficult job just like everyone else in the world. We all work in a world marred by sin and know the experience of work being hard, uncomfortable, and unenjoyable. At the same time, because of the unique calling involved in leading a church, proclaiming God’s word, and caring for souls, the pastoral ministry carries a gravity that is difficult to explain.
Every serious pastor labors under a heavy weight. This is not belly-aching or an embellishment, but rather this is the reality of being a pastor. The work is serious and the work has eternal ramifications. We have the burden of walking with people through the most difficult times of their lives, the pain of sleepless nights because of anxiety over the church, the task of preaching God’s word on a weekly basis, and the joy of seeing God use it all for his glory.
In this post, I want to highlight six weights that pastors carry. I do this not to elicit sympathy, but to remind pastors of the appropriate sense of responsibility that we carry and the danger of carrying the weight on our own. If you are not a pastor, my aim is to help you understand how to pray for and encourage your pastor in the calling God has placed on him.
Pastors carry the weight of modeling godly living
Every Christian has the call to live a godly life that is worthy of the calling with which he has been called. The pastor sits in the unique position of this being his primary job requirement. Ungodly men may draw crowds or wow audiences. Only godly pastors fulfill their calling in a way that brings genuine honor and glory to God.
The roadblock for the pastor is looking at every setback in the church as a verdict on the deficiency of his own godliness. “If I walked with Jesus more faithfully… If I spent more time in prayer… If I were a better man…”
Pastor, this is difficult, but remember that you are a Christian before you are a pastor. Your identity is found in Jesus’ work for you on the cross and your union with him by faith. Uncouple your joy and how you think God looks at you from the apparent fruit or seeming lack thereof in your church. Enjoy being a Christian, read your Bible, spend time in prayer, put your sin to death, grow in godly virtue, work hard in your calling and trust your Father with the fruit.
Pastors carry the weight of leading their families
God calls pastors to be an example to their church in the way they lead their families. The pastor is to be a committed, loving husband and a man who faithfully teaches and trains his children. Again, every Christian man carries this responsibility, but it is in the pastor’s job description. He must be this to function as a pastor in the local church.
Carrying the weight of leading our families can be tricky. I have four children between the ages of thirteen and three. Some days, it feels as if every word that comes out of my mouth gets ignored. They argue, they disobey, and I wonder how I can lead anyone else when my own children won’t listen to me. Then, suddenly, something will happen that shows you that what you are teaching them is getting through and God is using it to bear fruit in their lives.
Pastor, faithfully lead your family but resist the temptation to take the spiritual temperature of your family every day. There will be days that no matter how faithfully you lead, your children will show ample evidence that they have a fallen nature within them. Other days, you will see obvious evidences of God’s grace in their lives. Look at the whole of how you are loving, teaching, disciplining, and spending time with your children and do not let one poor snapshot discourage you.
Pastors carry the weight of preaching God’s Word
The Scottish Reformer John Knox once said, “I have never feared the devil, but I tremble every time I enter the pulpit.” The weight of taking God’s word, proclaiming its message to people, applying it to their lives, and calling them to trust in Christ should lie heavily upon us. It is no light thing to speak to people on God’s behalf.
The weekly grind of preaching can be mentally, emotionally, and spiritually exhausting if you are taking it seriously. Every week, we wrestle with a passage of Scripture, seeking to understand what it means and how it should change the lives of the people who hear it. We labor over the Bible, commentaries, word studies, and possible points of application. We plead with God to take what we will say and use it for his glory. Then we preach with all of our heart and get up on Monday morning to start preparing to do it again.
Pastor, view the work of preaching like a craftsman, who is constantly sharpening his tools so that he might be more effective at his work. Grow in your knowledge of Scripture, develop a deeper understanding of the lives of the people you preach to, think carefully about structuring your sermon so that people will want to listen, and work hard to state old truths in fresh and compelling ways. Here’s the hard part, though, not one word will be effective unless God’s Spirit is at work through your words. Pray for the Father to take your labors and use them for his glory.
Pastors carry the weight of shepherding the church
If you think about the ministry and picture standing on a stage talking to people, you are only visualizing two percent of a pastor’s week. The pastor studies and preaches, but he also stands under the divine mandate to care for the church.
We show pray with people in pain, walk with people facing difficulty, and counsel people dealing with difficult decisions. We answer knotty theological questions and explain truths we have explained time and time again. This is not glamorous work, but it is the simple means that God uses to show love to his people and build up his church.
Pastor, do not neglect your personal ministry. We serve in the ministry of the Chief Shepherd, who loves his people and purchased them with his own blood. (1 Peter 5:1-5) We cannot neglect to listen to them, pray with them, and walk alongside them. Jesus shows his love to his people through our ministry and uses our personal presence to care for his people’s souls.
Pastors carry the weight of reaching their communities
I pastor in the most unchurched county in Alabama. While many of you may think that places don’t exist in the Bible Belt, only 14% of the people in my culturally conservative town attend church on a typical Sunday. For the whole county, that number is 16%. When stretched out for an entire month, barely 30% of the over 215,000 people in our area are not connected to a local body of believers.
The numbers will be different for your community, but the point is clear. Our churches exist to “proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Pet. 2:9) As pastors, God calls us as pastors to lead our churches in reaching their neighbors and to model it personally. In the qualifications for the pastor in 1 Timothy 3, Paul says he must be “hospitable.” That is, he must welcome outsiders in the name of Jesus.
Pastor, you cannot reach your city alone, but you can look for opportunities to speak about the grace of Jesus throughout your day. Get to know your neighbors, develop a routine where you are meeting new people, engage people in genuine conversations, and pray for opportunities to talk about Jesus. Then, teach the people in your church how to do the same. We want people in our communities to come to know Jesus, so we practice evangelism and pray for God’s blessing on our efforts.
Pastors carry the weight of carrying the weight
Confession: writing this post terrified me. Knowing all that God has called me to do overwhelms me. It should. The work of the ministry is too great for a man to bear in his own strength and it is too much for him to carry in his own power.
When we feel the weight of being a pastor, it should drive us to work hard for the glory of God, but it should not drive us to work alone, in our own strength, or by ignoring the command to rest one day out of seven. We work in the strength that God supplies. We serve alongside godly elders who carry the load with us and one day a week we shut down because God’s Spirit is completely capable of working even when we are not.
Pastor, if you try to carry the weight on your own, it will crush you, your family, and the people around you. Your joy will be sapped and your walk with Jesus will suffer. Trust me about this. I speak from experience. Work hard, but trust the Lord for the results. It is not your church; it is his. He bought it with his own blood. Give responsibilities to your other leaders. You do not have all the gifts. Jesus’ body does, though.
The weight of pastoring can be heavy, but it can also lead to joy. We serve under the Chief Shepherd. He will give us strength as we work. He will bring fruit from our labors. He will glorify himself through our efforts. You may not see it all now, but when the Chief Shepherd appears, we will see what he has done through us and then give him the glory because he did it all.
As followers of Christ, time is one of our most precious and often wasted resources. We must be diligent to guard and redeem our time, because there are always people and activities that desire to spend it. Oswald Sanders argues that we often have more time than we admit. He points out that if we allot ourselves a generous eight hours of sleep per day, ten hours for work and travel, and three hours for meals, that still leaves over twenty hours a week to fill. What happens to those hours? He argues, “A person’s entire contribution to the kingdom of God may turn on how those hours are used. Certainly those hours determine whether life is commonplace or extraordinary.”
Do you remember thinking someone was just old when he said something like, “The older you get, the faster time goes”? Either I am just old, or age does not really have much to do with it. I think, as we get older, we realize how precious time is, and we begin to understand its value. The Word of God shows the value and swiftness of time. Paul tells us to redeem the time because the days are evil (Ephesians 5:16; Colossians 4:5). James reminds us of the uncertainty of time when he exhorts his readers not to make plans without seeking the Lord, and that our lives are but a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes (James 4:13–17). Job certainly recognized the swiftness and frailty of time (Job 9:25, 14:2).
A lot of people have more money and more talent than I do, but nobody has more time. Time is the great equalizer; we all have twenty-four hours a day, and seven days a week. Sanders maintains, “Our problem is not too little time but making better use of the time we have. Each of us has as much time as anyone else. The president of the United States has the same twenty-four hours as we. Others may surpass our abilities, influence, or money, but no one has more time.”
A big step in guarding our time, redeeming the time, and creating more efficiency with our time is recognizing what I call “time-stealers.”
Sleep. Of course, I am not saying you should not sleep. But how much sleep do you really need? Are you sleeping more than you should? Are you just lazy?
We have been told we need a solid eight hours of sleep a night, but many people can function just as well on six hours. Get the sleep you need, but get up and start the day. Proverbs speaks much about the dangers of too much sleep. We will spend close to a third of our lives sleeping, but let us not overdo it!
Television. A recent report showed that the average American watches somewhere between four and five hours of movies and TV shows per day! Think about this: the average American watches more than thirty hours of television per week, and more than 1,600 hours per year. Take that one step further over the course of a life-span of seventy years and the average American spends more than thirteen years of his life in front of a TV screen. Is this really “redeeming the time” or the best way to build the Kingdom? We have to avoid legalism, but we need to ask these questions.
Phones/Tablets. The same article shares that the average “screen” time for an American is more than ten hours per day. That means we spend nearly thirty years of our lives consuming media through screens. There is much content available that is edifying and redeeming, but we must guard against unredeemed time and pay attention to how our time is spent.
A few reminders:
- You do not have to respond every time your device makes a noise. Alerts can be muted or even turned off. The world will not end!
- Time spent endlessly scrolling through social media can most likely be used more effectively on some other activity.
- The makers of game apps are good at what they do and desire to get you “hooked” on their game.
- Always avoid unwholesome or questionable content; it can never be redeeming.
Paul writes, “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things” (Philippians 4:8).
Overscheduling. One final time-stealer that I would like to point out is that many of us just try to do too much! Sanders writes, “Often the pressure a spiritual leader feels comes from assuming tasks that God has not assigned. For such tasks the leader cannot expect God to supply the extra strength required.”
Many men and women overschedule their lives at work, at church, and even in their hobbies. Many families even add stress to their lives by overscheduling their children’s extracurricular activities. There are many good and wholesome activities and even ministries, but God has not called us to participate in all of them. Busyness does not equal godliness; oftentimes it can be the exact opposite.
I submitted this article because I was re-thinking through many of these issues. Guard against these time-stealers; pay attention to where your time is going. We must seek to spend our time in the way that brings the greatest glory to our Father who is in heaven. What would God have us adjust in the use of the time He has allotted to us?
J. Oswald Sanders, Spiritual Leadership: Principles of Excellence for Every Believer (Chicago, IL: Moody, 2007), 95.
Sanders, Spiritual Leadership, 94.
Jaqueline Howard, “Americans devote more than 10 hours a day to screen time, and growing,” June 30, 2016, accessed January 5, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2016/06/30/health/americans-screen-time-nielsen/.
Sanders, Spiritual Leadership, 97.
 This article was adapted from material found in Tommy Kiker, Everyday Ministry (Fort Worth: Seminary Hill Press, 2018).
“If you could do it all over again, would you?”
That sounds like a question you might ask someone who’s just been convicted of a crime, and it’s one I was asked recently. My crime? Sending out 37 of our best members, along with two of our best elders, to plant a church.
We can always find reasons, even good ones, for not planting a church. Yet the need for churches in my city (Austin, Texas) far outweighs whatever adverse effects we may face.
Do we really need another church?
We didn’t plant another church because attendance was too high for our building — we still have plenty of room. We didn’t plant because we have abundant financial resources — we have overwhelming debt that hangs like a millstone around our necks. We planted a church for pastoral and evangelistic reasons.
First, we had a significant number of members driving from northwest Austin to church each week, a 30-minute drive at minimum. When members live that far away, it’s hard to “shepherd the flock of God among you” (1 Pet 5:2). We struggled to foster gospel community, since distance was a logistical obstacle. Second, those faraway members found it hard to build gospel relationships with neighbors and invite them to church.
Our city also needed us to plant another church.
Between 2005 and 2015, metro Austin grew by almost 38 percent, surpassing 2 million people. From July 1, 2015, to July 1, 2016, Austin grew by 58,301 — about 164 people per day. Church-planting efforts simply aren’t keeping up with such growth. In our context, we can’t afford not to plant a church.
So, understanding both our pastoral and evangelistic concerns and our city’s need, we took a calculated risk and planted another church. There’s never a “good” time to plant. You’ll always find valid, even logical reasons for putting it off. Yet we realized many of our reasons for not planting were grounded in fear. We were afraid of losing members, finances, and leaders.
We felt the effects of planting a church almost immediately. Previously, we had eight elders to serve around 500 members. The December before we planted, one of our elders rotated off the board. In February of the following year, our new plant held its first public meetings. In a little more than two months we went from eight elders to five. Once the plant officially received new members, we removed from our rolls the 37 people we entrusted to the new church.
Don’t get me wrong. We weren’t just interested in numbers, but these were among our best members and strongest givers. Over the next year we felt the void. Our five remaining elders found it hard to care for 500 members. Though we reduced our new budget by 10 percent to account for the loss of income, our giving wasn’t as strong as we’d hoped. At this point, planting the new church seemed like a foolish decision.
But as always, God was faithful. When we sent off 37 of our best members, we asked God to send us 37 new ones over the next year. He answered our prayers, and by the end of the year we’d received 74 new members. As we observed God’s kindness, we were encouraged in our decision. Had we not planted, we would have missed out on the joy of answered prayer.
The addition of new members didn’t offset our financial deficit, however. We assumed that reducing our budget, along with new-member growth, would address our financial needs.
We were wrong.
Several months into the new church’s life, they had more money than we did! They asked us to stop providing financial support. Though we rejoiced in their financial freedom and gave thanks for their generosity, that financial relief wasn’t enough to keep our church from financial hardship. By the fall of our church plant’s second year, our own financial deficit was significant — approximately $130,000 under budget.
After much deliberation, our elders agreed to go before the congregation and let them know of our need. In addition to our normal weekly need of about $28,000, elders proposed a one-day special offering with a $100,000 goal. By God’s grace, members responded in overflowing generosity. We received more than $105,000 for the special offering and about $48,000 for our regular weekly offering. Had we not planted a new church, we would never have experienced God’s grace through the generosity of our members (2 Cor 8:1–5).
We still had a need for more leaders. We had few pastors serving many members, so we asked God for more elders. As always, we continued identifying elder-qualified men in the congregation, but with greater urgency. Having prayed and tested men diligently, we identified several younger men who were qualified. One year after planting the church, the elder that had rotated off returned, bringing us to six. We identified another five we believed were qualified. Over that next year, the church affirmed three of them as new elders, and today we have nine. Had we not planted a church, we may not have moved on these men with urgency, and each has proven a valuable addition to our eldership.
We’d do it all over again
There’s no question we’d do it all over again. It was our third church plant, and we hope to plant a fourth soon — an Ethiopian congregation that will reach the Amharic-speaking population in metro Austin.
To be sure, not every context is the same; not every town is growing like Austin; not every church will be blessed in the same ways. But, after planting these churches, the Lord has taught us that our city needs us to keep planting churches—and, for the health of our body, we need to keep planting them. That would be true whether or not we continue to grow, increase our budget, or raise an abundance of new leaders. No matter the costs, he is always faithful.
Editors’ note: This article originally appeared in the 9Marks Journal.
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Pastors spend a lot of time talking about evangelism, but far too many of us don’t actually do evangelism throughout the week. I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush, for I know many pastors who faithfully seek to share Christ. So I’ll say this is generally true of the pastor whose work I know best: me.
A few years ago, I encountered an old book titled A Pastor’s Sketches: Conversations with Anxious Souls Concerning the Way of Salvation — republished in 2002 by Solid Ground Books — by an obscure 19th-century pastor (unforgettably) named Ichabod Spencer. It challenged me to become more faithful in evangelism and instructed me as to how I might best do so. Seldom has so much glory been found in a work written by one named Ichabod.
Who was he?The Bunyan of Brooklyn
Spencer served as pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, New York, from 1832 to 1854, a time of significant numerical and spiritual growth for the church. At his arrival, the church had no building and about 40 attendees. At his death, Second Presbyterian had become one of the largest and most influential churches in New York. Known as the “Bunyan of Brooklyn,” Spencer was committed to visiting every member of his church at least once a year, an approach modeled by the Puritan Richard Baxter.
Spencer was a tireless hound for heaven: He averaged nearly 800 pastoral appointments annually. Additionally, he visited many lost persons and preached multiple times weekly. The majority of his sketches arise from personal visits, which makes the book unique. The theological tides of Spencer’s time were washing forth in a frightening tsunami of revolution. American churches were rapidly moving away from the theology of Jonathan Edwards toward the more pragmatic message and methods of Charles Finney. Others were embracing theological liberalism.
While the language is a bit arcane in places, the stories of evangelism in A Pastor’s Sketches drip pastoral wisdom, spiritual sensitivity, and theological savvy.
In one sketch, Spencer tells of a young man wrestling with predestination. He had encountered the doctrine in Scripture and wondered if perhaps he was not elect and beyond God’s mercy. The man didn’t want to come to Christ until he was certain he was chosen. Spencer showed uncommon sensitivity to the Holy Spirit’s work (“I am to conspire with the Holy Spirit”) and offered wise council to the perplexed seeker, unpacking for him the threefold purpose of election: “To teach men the character of God, to repress the audacity of the wicked, and to comfort God’s people.” Election by no means eliminates human responsibility, Spencer said: “Do what God bids you. Obey the invitations of his grace. Flee to Christ and be saved.”
Spencer’s style of interaction varied depending on the psychological makeup of the individual — and here the reader sees his remarkable patience toward those to whom he ministered. Often Spencer tells of visiting a seeker many times, day after day, unpacking the gospel over several weeks, even months. He sometimes called for a prompt embrace of Christ, but more often than not, Spencer would do the last thing we might think prudent: he would leave. This was not an odd personality tick; rather, it demonstrated Spencer’s confidence in the gospel’s power. “Not one will be lost that should be found,” he said.
Spencer’s love for people, his compassion for their souls, and his concern for true conversion permeates every vignette. During one encounter with a lost man, Spencer said he found it best to be silent after presenting Christ: “[The man] sat in silence for a long time. I did not think it best to interfere with his thoughts.” The pastor knew when to talk, when to listen, and when to simply be silent as the Spirit applied God’s truth to the heart.
Spencer’s encounters also demonstrated both grace and truth. One person told Spencer that her unsettled conscience had been quieted by a friend’s wisdom. Though she remained outside of God’s grace, the lady assured Spencer she “felt better about herself” because of the friend’s comfort. Spencer cut to the heart of the matter: “Feel better? Mary, you are resting on a lie. You are miserably deceived. Doing well? How can you be doing well while an impenitent sinner rejecting Christ and exposed every moment to the wrath of God forever?”Five things he teaches pastors
The Bunyan of Brooklyn knew when to be tender, and when to be tough. Though his ministry took place in a distant place and time, Ichabod Spencer has helped me profoundly as both a pastor and an evangelist, particularly in five ways.
- Pastors ought to be evangelists.
A pastor should diligently seek opportunities to share the good news of God’s redeeming love in Christ. Some sketches read like biblical counseling sessions, as Spencer pursues the inquirer’s reconciliation with God.
- Evangelism is more spontaneous and relational than we think.
Many excellent resources teach Christians to share the gospel with their lost neighbors, and I am grateful for them. However, Spencer’s sketches demonstrate that evangelism encounters usually happen in the full-court press of everyday life. He was not formulaic in his approach, and though outlines can be helpful, the best kind of evangelism is more organic. Spencer took time to build relationships with people, and so should we.
- A robust view of God’s sovereignty does not stifle evangelism.
For centuries, Christians have debated whether belief in the doctrines of grace presents a stumbling block to evangelism and missions. Many say it does. But Spencer’s methods demonstrate beautifully the practical import of holding together both God’s sovereignty in salvation and man’s responsibility to repent and believe. Knowing that God is mighty to save was a catalyst that drove Spencer into the highways and byways of his community.
- The Holy Spirit convicts, draws, and regenerates, but that’s no excuse to sit on the sidelines.
The pressure is not on us to “get them in.” However, this does not absolve us from demanding that lost people repent and believe. Like no other resource on evangelism I’ve seen, Spencer’s sketches illustrate this important truth.
Like no other resource on evangelism I’ve seen, Spencer’s sketches illustrate this important truth.
Spencer often prayed with the lost — and then left them to the Holy Spirit. And numerous stories report that the person was saved several days, weeks, or months later — more often than not outside Spencer’s presence. Spencer was relentless in going to the lost, then trusting the Spirit to fertilize the proclaimed gospel.
- We should bring people to a point of decision.
Many us have concerns over the potential damage done by a method of “decisionism,” though the heart behind this approach is—in many cases—doubtless driven by a genuine concern for the lost. Myriad churches in my own denomination have been weakened by impatient evangelism.
Sometimes, however, I think we who cherish the doctrines of grace are lethargic in evangelism due to a subtle fear that we will violate God’s decrees in calling persons to repentance—which is actually contrary to our belief in a meticulously sovereign God. I’ve been guilty of such thinking for sure. Spencer, who was theologically Reformed, used terms like “seeker” and even encouraged counselees to “give your heart to Jesus.” Yes, that’s a slogan that makes many of us squirm, but Spencer reminds us that conversion is, at its most fundamental level, a changed heart that enables genuine faith. Scripture’s command is for active confession of sin and faith in Christ (Rom. 10:9). Spencer’s theology was a catalyst that drove his evangelism, not a straight jacket that inhibited it.Convicting and challenging
Every time I pick up Spencer’s book, I am convicted, challenged, and edified. Spencer reminds me that I am not nearly zealous enough for those who walk in darkness, that I far too often preach the Great Commission but fail to obey it. May it please the Lord to instill in me and every pastor the compassionate concern for lost souls that characterized Ichabod Spencer.
Pick up A Pastor’s Sketches — and be freshly challenged yourself.
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Man has been plagued with the desire to “play God” since Genesis 3. This includes promoting imago self rather than imago Dei. That is, culture is obsessed with representing self according to one’s own design. Although the created has always sinfully desired to be the Creator, contemporary culture is fraught with heightened forms of creating one’s identity. To be sure, we can easily and rapidly recreate our identities in both our real and virtual lives.
Online avatars permit us to create a virtual self where visual appearance, attributes, and behavior may be represented in any manner in the perceived risk-free environment of online spaces. This permits individuals to act out their personal fantasies without apparent consequences. Online screen names and profiles also permit us to self-represent ourselves in a particular manner that is often far from reality. Social media permits us to define facets of self with mere images and a few characters.
Gender fluidity is being promoted as a cultural norm. Individuals may now self-identify as someone or something else. Bookstores and blogs are rampant with self-help, self-awareness, and self-actualization topics. Tattoos have moved from expressing identity to defining identity. Advances in artificial intelligence are rapidly colliding with concepts of identity and personhood. TED talks provide unending lectures on personality, self-motivation, and humanity, all with the goal to assist us in defining our identity.
The Who’s 1978 classic “Who Are You” is the siren lament of contemporary culture. People do not know their identity. Culture has more adjectival labels for people now than one’s favorite cup of coffee at the boutique coffee shop. People are in an identity crisis, desperately trying to define themselves in a world that strangles uniqueness as it makes everything normative.
We, believers, have the answer! Our identity is not defined by a denomination or a church. It is not defined by what coffee we drink, clothes we wear, what political party we align with, whether we use an iOS or Android phone, sports team we root for, blogs we read, or whether or not we have a beard. Rather, the Apostle Paul clearly and succinctly defines our identity with the two-word prepositional phrase ἐν Χριστῷ—in Christ. He repeatedly uses this expression in his epistles (along with “in Him” and “in the Lord”), and it is critical to Paul’s, and our, theology. Our identity is a Gospel identity fully defined in Christ.
To be in Christ means we share in Jesus’ death and resurrection. The old us is dead, and we are a new creature placed under the headship of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 2:20; Ephesians 1-2). Hence, our identity has been changed, and we think and act differently. We are adopted into the family of God (1 Corinthians 12:13). Having been justified, we are able to come boldly before the throne of God (Ephesians 2:13; Hebrews 4:16) as a people set apart (1 Peter 2:9). Our identity comes with citizenship in heaven as we are changed to be in the world and not of the world (John 17:14-16; Romans 12:2).
Our identity does not depend on us or material things of this world, but solely on Christ. In Christ alone. We are united with Christ and are His ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20).
So, the next time someone asks who you are, answer them with “in Christ.” When they look at you strangely, begin a Gospel proclamation.
Paul charges Timothy to “guard the good deposit” (2 Tim 1:14), which is the gospel of Jesus Christ. We’re to remain vigilant in guarding the gospel because both the Scriptures and also church history remind us that many have swerved from the truth. Even a cursory reading of the New Testament reveals that upholding the truth and the purity of the gospel has been a challenge from the beginning. We aren’t facing anything new in our day, and we have the promise that the church of Jesus Christ will triumph over “the gates of Hades” (Matt 16:18).
In this article, I want to briefly consider threats to the gospel — from the left and from the right.Dangers from the left: unconcern about orthodoxy
Paul’s speech to the Ephesian elders is the only speech in Acts addressed to Christians (Acts 20:17–35), and it’s significant that it’s addressed to leaders, to the elders and overseers in the church (Acts 20:17, 28). Paul warns them in the strongest terms about the danger of false teaching:
Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as overseers, to shepherd the church of God, which he purchased with his own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Men will rise up even from your own number and distort the truth to lure the disciples into following them. Therefore, be on the alert, remembering that night and day for three years I never stopped warning each one of you with tears (Acts 20:28–31, CSB).
As evangelicals, we need to be alert to the danger of false teaching. Anyone who knows the history of religious universities in the United States knows that the declension from orthodoxy began with doubts about — and then rejection of — Scripture’s truthfulness.
Some might be inclined to question the concern for orthodoxy and doctrinal fidelity that animates many evangelicals. They might complain that such concerns are defensive and negative instead of positive and constructive. But any reading of the New Testament shows that such defensive concerns are fitting and imperative. We see Paul defending the truth ardently against false teachers in the Pastoral Epistles. Peter shares the same concern in his second letter, and 1 John also engages in a polemic against false teachers.
Indeed, the focus on defending the faith in the New Testament letters is emphatic and almost startling. If someone were to say that their ministry is only positive and never negative, that they only encourage and never warn, then they’ve strayed from a major emphasis in the New Testament. In Titus 1:9, Paul says an elder must “hold to the faithful message as taught, so that he will be able both to encourage with sound teaching and to refute those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9).
A faithful ministry encourages and warns, strengthens and refutes, builds up and tears down.
The danger from the left is that concern for orthodoxy is lost, that the task of defending and correcting truth is abandoned. The tendency is to mock and ridicule those who uphold the truthfulness and inerrancy of Scripture.
At the same time, there is a danger from the right as well.
Dangers from the right: seeing heresy everywhere
Even though Roger Olson and I would disagree on a number of matters, I think he rightly warns us about “maximal conservatism.” Maximal conservatism draws lines on virtually everything. Defending the faith is understood as holding the most conservative position on every issue. The danger is that we become like the Pharisees who erected a fence around the law.
It’s tempting to charge someone we disagree with of being unbiblical and unfaithful when the debate we’re having is actually within the circle of evangelicalism — whether the matter is spiritual gifts, the doctrine of the Trinity, or counseling. All of us, of course, are unbiblical and unfaithful to some extent, unless we want to say that our doctrine is perfect. Beware of charging that someone is outside the bounds of orthodoxy when in fact the only issue is that they disagree with you.
Such zeal on the right can actually drive people away from the truth, because if we charge them with being unorthodox (when they aren’t), they may begin to find friends on the left who don’t caricature their views. Or, they might begin to think, Well, if that’s orthodoxy, then I guess I’m not orthodox. If the lines are drawn too rigidly, we might unwittingly throw friends into the arms of those who are truly unorthodox.
Also, if we regularly condemn as unorthodox those who are orthodox, we’re in danger of crying “wolf!” When the real wolf comes, no one pays attention to us anymore, because we’ve so often criticized others. If we’re negative about everything except our own views, people will begin to think we’re cranky and will ignore us when there’s a real problem.Final word
The devil is in the details, and in a short article like this I can’t get into specifics. We live in a world, as we see in the political realm, where those who disagree are quickly demonized, where partisan concerns are ramped up. As Christians, we mustn’t follow the same path. We need to be vigilant for the truth and to defend the faith. At the same time, we need to be careful about drawing lines too tightly, and to beware of pulling out the heresy charge too quickly. We need to ask ourselves if the brother or sister simply disagrees with us and with our theology.
As Roger Nicole once said about some who were disputing, “They think they are Martin Luther, but what we really need is Martin Bucer.” The balance we need comes from putting both men together. In other words, we simultaneously need the vigilance for truth of a Martin Luther, and the love for peace and harmony of a Martin Bucer.
This article was originally published at The Gospel Coalition. Adapted and used with permission.
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Recently I had a conversation with a student about some trials his family is facing—one of his siblings has become wayward. He explained how his father is willing to accept this wayward sibling back into his home on the condition of repentance—an adherence to the house rules.
As I listened, I wondered: Does the child feel as if returning home is even an option? So, I asked. The student quickly responded, “Yes; my father loaned his RV to her, which impressed on me his Christlikeness.”
As I considered his answer, I could not help but wonder: What is the difference between being religious and being Christlike? Throughout the Gospels, Christological examples of service are rife, and evaluations on service are also widespread.
Couched between Christ’s teaching on the Beatitudes and prayer, Christ demands His disciples to live righteously, even perfectly, in this world. Christ says, “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). And, “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). These two passages should create an ominous reflection; however, more often than not, we appease our conscience theologically, saying: these passages are dealing with an unattainable righteousness, an alien righteousness, His righteous. Even though these theological truths are undeniable, practically, Christ commands His followers to live righteously, overshadowing the religious leaders. So, what does this kind of life look like, and in what way should Christians be identified as Christlike?
Matthew addresses the Jewish tradition, and in this tradition, the Law is pivotal for an adherent to be considered godly. Jesus makes this point clear, saying, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). Even in modern, Orthodox Judaism, to the degree that one adheres to the Law, he is identified as “a godly man, the prophet—the creator of worlds” (Soloveitchik 90). The Law is thus to be implemented “without any compromises or concessions, for precisely such implementation … is his ultimate desire” (Ibid). This is the posture of the religious leaders within the Gospels, for they often condemn Jesus for not keeping “the Torah without … compromises or concessions.”
So, how does Christ demonstrate the kind of honorable actions that overshadow the religious leaders of his day? Ironically, He eats with the unrighteous (Luke 5:30), works on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:8-14; John 5:8-10), refuses ceremonial washing (Mark 7:3ff), and fails to condemn a sinner (John 7:53-8:11). In all of these situations, Christ justifies His actions, proving them to be perfect, righteous and wise.
In Judaism, adhering to the law takes on two forms: Halakha (strict adherence to a sacred command) and Aggadah (wise exegesis of a sacred command). The Halakhic man strictly obeys the laws “without compromises or concessions,” but the Aggadahic man exegetically treats passages, reflecting God’s loving character while responding thoroughly to an apparent need. For example, in the Halakha, one cannot touch a dead body or work on the Sabbath; but what happens in the event that a Rabbi walks a short distance (about a half mile) to the temple and sees a dead body? The Halakahic man bypasses the body; but the Aggadahic man buries the dead and grieves the loss (Book 4.11a: Tracts Pesachim). So, in the Aggadah, one negotiates the strict standard of the Law and responds with a kind of wisdom that preserves the character of God, serving an immediate need.
So, to what degree do we wrestle with the Scriptures enough to exemplify Christlikeness, benefiting the other person, and preserving the character of God? In every situation where religious leaders condemn Christ for some violation, He evokes the wisdom of the Law, exemplifying the character of God and the benefit of the other person. Christ even addresses situations showing that obeying the Law implicitly is not most desirable.
How should we wrestle with the situation that I mentioned from the beginning? Should we think this father’s acts of providing shelter, rules and expectations are Christological? The first thing one should do is consult the Scriptures in a way that upholds God’s lovingkindness while looking for a beneficial outcome for the other person.
How is this done? One should ask the question: Does the Bible have a direct prohibition about how to treat a wayward child; and does the Bible negotiate this prohibition in a narrative? For example, the Bible is clear about how to treat a rebellious, disobedient child (Deuteronomy 21:18-21; Exodus 21:17); however, narratively, this parental command was never enacted. Story after story illustrates God’s lovingkindness and longsuffering even to a disobedient child.
One clear example is the father’s response to his son in Luke 15:11-32 (The Prodigal Son parable). The older son had a clear reason to be “angry,” unwilling to celebrate his brother’s transformation. But, in the father’s wisdom, the father pleaded with his older son to feel the pain of loss and the pleasure of redemption, for “this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found” (Luke 15:32). In Halakhic terms, the older son correctly responded, but in Aggadahic terms, he failed to uphold the lovingkindness of God and meet his brother with rejoicing. A higher wisdom is desired—a divine response displaying the character of God in the midst of a challenging situation.
So, was this father acting with Christlike, Aggadahic wisdom, giving shelter to his daughter with his RV? No, but he acted as a good man, even as a good religious man. The Aggadahic wisdom demands a warmth far beyond shelter, love far beyond rules, service far beyond preconceived expectations. Aggadahic wisdom daily seeks after the wayward without a protective distance.