Take Me to Your Leaders
1 Peter 5:1-4
May 1, 2005
In early March I preached on “Are You Prepared to Suffer for Christ?” from I Peter 3:13-17. After the final service that morning, a first-time visitor came up and thanked me for my sermon. In the course of the conversation, he made an interesting comment: “You don’t seem to have a care in the world.” He didn’t seem to mean it in a negative way, more along the lines of, “You don’t seem to have had any problems in your life.” As I thought about it later, it occurred to me that perhaps his comments reflected the nature of my sermon. That morning I talked a lot about the persecuted church and offered specific, recent examples of suffering believers in China, Nigeria, Eritrea and Indonesia. I talked about the death of Graham Staines and his two sons who were burned alive by a Hindu mob in India in 1999. I also mentioned a house church leader in China who was arrested in December and another who was arrested last September. The latter has reportedly signed a coerced “confession” after being tortured with electric cattle prods. Most American Christians can hardly relate to suffering for Christ like that. I commented that we met in a beautiful sanctuary, in peace and freedom, in relative luxury, with the knowledge that no one would arrest us for coming to church. Most of us would go home to a good meal followed by a nap, and later we would pick up the remote control and watch TV. Those things are a great blessing, and we need not feel guilty about our freedom and the blessings we enjoy. Christians in many places would gladly enjoy the same things if they could. But we dare not forget our brothers and sisters who suffer for Christ daily. Compared to them, I have not suffered at all. I have known my share of heartache, sadness, disappointment, but my life has been largely free of the kind of suffering millions of believers endure every day. And I would not mention any of my own problems while talking about those who have given so much for the cause of Christ.
A friend sent an email that afternoon that included a quote from David McCullough’s biography of John Adams, the second president. His wife Abigail was a woman of great faith and enormous insight. This is what she wrote to their 10-year-old son, John Quincy Adams (he later became the sixth president), who traveled with his father to Europe during the Revolutionary War:
These are the times in which a genius would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues. When a mind is raised, and animated by scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant, wake into life and form the character of the hero and the statesman.
My friend added these words: “The time will come when the Lord may cause us Americans to be truly challenged in our faith. What great Christian heroes and statesmen would come to light!”
History proves the truth of those words. Challenging times call forth great leaders. Abigail Adams was right:
The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties.
Great necessities call out great virtues.
We generally choose our leaders in times of peace, but we discover our true leaders in times of war. The best leaders rise to the surface when the going gets tough. In 1998 Time Magazine devoted an issue to the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century. They started by creating five different categories, then they named the 20 most important people in each one. In the category called Leaders and Revolutionaries, the essay on Winston Churchill began this way:
The political history of the 20th century can be written as the biographies of six men: Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao Zedong, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. The first four were totalitarians who made or used revolutions to create monstrous dictatorships. Roosevelt and Churchill differed from them in being democrats. And Churchill differed from Roosevelt—while both were war leaders, Churchill was uniquely stirred by the challenge of war and found his fulfillment in leading the democracies to victory.
The year was 1942 and the Nazis seemed invincible. German U-Boats ruled the Atlantic and sank oil tankers off the coasts of Florida and New Jersey. Let David McCullough tell the story:
Our recruits were drilling with wooden rifles, we had no air force, half of our navy had been destroyed at Pearl Harbor, and there was nothing to say or guarantee that the Nazi machine could be defeated—nothing. Who was to know? I like to think of what Churchill said when he crossed the Atlantic after Pearl Harbor and gave a magnificent speech. He said we haven’t journeyed this far because we’re made of sugar candy.
It’s as true today as it ever was. We haven’t journeyed this far because we’re made of sugar candy. Hard times demand strong leaders who will rise to the challenge. That was true in the first century and it is still true today. This is where our text comes into sharp focus because it deals with leaders who respond with cool, calm, confident courage when the going gets tough. This is a word from the Lord we all need to hear.
I. The Shepherd’s Calling
“To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed” (v. 1). Focus for a moment on the word “elders.” The Greek word is presbuteroi, from which we get the English word “Presbyterian.” It literally means “one who is older.”
The word “elder” has its origins in the Old Testament. In the nation of Israel, certain men were selected on the basis of their maturity and wisdom to provide guidance for the people of God. Those respected, godly older men who led the nation were called elders. During the 400 years between the Old and New Testaments, the Jews were scattered far from Israel and far from the Temple. As they gathered together for worship far from their homeland, they called their gatherings synagogues and the leaders of the synagogues were called elders.
When the early Christian church began to organize itself, the leaders of the infant church were called elders. We don’t know precisely where the name started first. It just pops up in Acts 11 without any explanation. Then in Acts 14, at the end of the first missionary journey, we read that Paul and Barnabas “appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust” (14:23). Later on in Acts, as he passed by the city of Ephesus for the last time, Paul called the Ephesian elders together and exhorted them to take care of the church of God (Acts 20:17-38). Still later, Paul writes Timothy and Titus a detailed description of the character qualities of the men who serve as elders (I Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9).
As you look at the testimony of church history in this regard, you find one constant: Though the men who lead the church are sometimes given different names, such as bishop or steward or deacon or elder or pastor, the Christian church has universally recognized the need for godly men to lead the church. This is one mark of the true church: It is led by godly, mature, faithful men. Wherever you find a strong church, there you find strong, committed, godly leadership. It is not enough to have nice buildings, effective programs, and a good pastor. For a church to flourish over a long period of time, and in order to withstand the pressures of a humanistic culture, it needs a continual supply of godly men in leadership.
Peter evidently felt the same way. That is why as he nears the close of his letter to these scattered believers facing suffering and death, he calls on the elders to be men of God. In a time of persecution and stress, unless the leadership is strong, the church will begin to crumble.
Peter uses two words in verse 2 that explain what elders do. Elders are “shepherds of God’s flock.” They are shepherds because the congregation is a flock and the people in the congregation are like sheep. Sheep need a shepherd because left to themselves, they tend to wander off and get in trouble. Sheep are both vulnerable and valuable. What a shepherd is to the sheep, so an elder is to the congregation.
The church is a flock. The people are like sheep—needy, dependent and easily confused. The church is God’s flock. He loves those sheep and gave his Son to bring them back to his fold.
God appoints elders to serve as shepherds for his flock. Everything you can say about a shepherd, you can also say about an elder. A shepherd does three things:
He feeds the sheep.
He leads the sheep.
He protects the sheep.
Jesus said the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, and the sheep recognize the voice of the shepherd and follow him (John 10:14-15, 27). In a healthy flock, the shepherd loves the sheep, and the sheep gladly follow the shepherd.
Peter uses a second word in verse 2 to describe what elders do. He says they serve as overseers. The Greek word is episkopos, from which we get the word “Episcopal.” It literally means “to gaze upon something.” An elder is a man who has a broad view of the church. A true elder doesn’t see himself as a representative of some vested interest, but instead understands that God has entrusted the entire church to his care. And he gazes out over the whole congregation.
II. The Shepherd’s Heart
I’m sure that the greatest concern is always that you get properly qualified men in the office of elder. Without that, disaster is not far off. But having done that, then the elder’s attitude toward his work is crucial. It is not enough to be the right kind of man; elders must also take the right view of the work God has called them to do.
First, his attitude toward his work. “Not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be” (v. 2). It is death and disaster for the church to select men as elders who don’t really want the job. Men who serve as elders only because they were asked and who have no real heart for the job will never be successful. A man who does it for any other reason than because he feels God has called him to it will not be able to do the job. It simply is too much for half-hearted effort or grudging performance. In our own congregation, the elders often spend 10-15 hours a week on the affairs of the church. I have seen some weeks where these good men would spend upward of 30 hours. This on top of their regular job and their family responsibilities. Being an elder, if you do it right, is an exhausting job. It demands the wisdom of Solomon, the patience of Job, the strength of Samson, the courage of Daniel, the kingly character of David, the administrative ability of Nehemiah, to say nothing of the compassion of Hosea or the battlefield brilliance of Joshua. Thank God for elders who have the volunteer spirit and lead the church because they believe God has called them to the work.
Second, his attitude toward his compensation. “Not greedy for money, but eager to serve” (v. 2). Peter raises the issue of money for two reasons. First, the elders normally oversee the financial affairs of the church. That’s true at Calvary. Even though we have a Facilities and Finance Committee and a pastor who helps with financial matters, the elders are ultimately responsible for maintaining the financial integrity of the church. Second, in the early church many of the elders (and I would include pastors in this category) received compensation for their labors. Spiritual leaders face a continuing temptation to view their work primarily as a way to make money. The Bible has a particular word for a person who is in the ministry for the money. It calls that person a hireling. Such a person may be sincere and hard-working but his motive is not right. He may be a good preacher or a respected leader. He may be widely respected. It makes no difference. If he’s in it for the love of money, he’s a hireling. Instead, Peter says, the elder should do his work with eagerness, enthusiasm, and with zeal for the Lord’s service. There is nothing wrong with receiving money for ministry. That’s a perfectly biblical principle. But if money is the primary motive, then something is badly wrong.
Third, his attitude toward his people. “Not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (v. 3). Here we have the opposite of the first problem. In that case, the elder serves because he has to and does his job half-heartedly. In this case, the elder abuses his power and rules the church like a petty tyrant. He loves the power, the authority, the adulation and the respect that comes with being an elder. In his heart he loves to boss people around. His power has corrupted him.
I have a friend who pastors a large church in Little Rock. He told me that there are different kinds of leadership: Demand Leadership and Command Leadership. Demand Leadership says, “Do what I say because I’m in charge here.” Command Leadership says, “Follow my example.” A good elder doesn’t demand leadership; rather, by the quality of his life he commands it. Such a man is easy to follow. His life backs up what he says.
Peter says, “Being examples to the flock.” Nothing will ever affect people more than your own example. If you want others to follow you, don’t talk it, live it. Nothing inspires confidence in a time of difficulty more than a godly man who cheerfully shows the way.
The example of a godly life stays with you for a lifetime. This principle applies not just to elders but to everyone who serves the Lord. Last night I starting thinking about all the Sunday School teachers I had during my growing-up years at the First Baptist Church of Russellville, Alabama. My parents put me in the nursery when I was only a year or so old. I proceeded in the years that followed through the Cradle Roll, the Toddlers, the Beginners, the Juniors, the Intermediates and the High School Department. I must have listened to hundreds of Sunday School lessons. As I look back on those days 40 years ago, I remember my teachers only vaguely, and what they taught me, I do not remember at all. Let me explain. I do not remember who taught the Sunday School class I attended on October 18, 1964. To be completely honest, I had to check a 1964 calendar on the Internet to find out that October 18 was a Sunday. And I don’t really know for certain that I was in Sunday School that day. But since I was in Sunday School almost every week, it’s a good bet I was in Sunday School that day. If I was, I don’t remember the teacher or the lesson. It’s all long since vanished from my memory. And that would be true for every Sunday of 1964 or 1965, for that matter. And that’s basically true for the 16 or so years that I attended Sunday School as a child. All those lessons have been forgotten.
That’s not the whole story. I may have forgotten the specific lessons, but I haven’t forgotten what they were about. Virtually everything I know about the Bible I first learned in Sunday School. Christian college and seminary added lots of information, but it could not replace the foundation I learned from all those years in Sunday School. The truth I learned was tattooed on my soul when I was a young child. It remains there today. Let every Sunday School teacher and every AWANA worker and all those who teach our children and young people take heart. Thirty years from now, those children will not remember what you taught them on May 1, 2005. The lesson itself will be lost, but the truth you taught today will be enshrined in their hearts and remembered forever.
So as I think back to the First Baptist Church of Russellville and all those teachers from so long ago, I remember their love and their faithfulness. It’s a joy to recall a few names: Mrs. Ponder, Mrs. Alexander, Alvin and Ruth Johnson, Dr. Cotton, Hal Kirby, Wayne Ray. I remember them all with joy. The years cannot erase the memory of their godly lives. You can’t take that away.
It is an old, old saying—like priest, like people. Like father, like son. Where the shepherds go, the sheep follow. As the elders, so the church. Everything rises or falls on leadership. That’s what Peter is saying.
III. The Shepherd’s Reward
“And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away” (v. 4). Who is the Chief Shepherd? It’s Jesus. When will he appear? His coming is imminent. What will the faithful elder receive? The crown of glory. What will be its quality? It will never fade away. In those days the winner of an athletic event would receive a victor’s crown made of leaves or flowers (they did something similar for the medal winners at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece). Sometimes it would be withered parsley, sometimes myrtle, sometimes roses or oak leaves. But the leaves and flowers would soon fade and the triumph would be forgotten. So it is with all things earthly.
Spiritual leaders are often unappreciated in this life. The world does not notice their work. And even in the church, we often overlook those who labor for Christ. But when Jesus returns, the roles will be reversed and those who have served Christ faithfully will be vindicated openly. The crown they receive will last forever and their labors on earth will never be forgotten. The slightest deed done in Jesus’ name in the remotest corner of the earth will be remembered because God writes it down in His book. He sees it all, not just the glamour, but the work of faith, the labor of love and the patience of hope. Not even a cup of water offered in His name goes unnoticed. It’s all written down waiting the final reward.
Not Made of Sugar Candy
I return to the words of Abigail Adams and Winston Churchill:
· The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties.
· Great necessities call out great virtues.
· We haven’t journeyed this far because we’re made of sugar candy.
We need to hear this word from the Lord on this particular Sunday. We need strong leaders who aren’t made of sugar candy. We need men and women with backbone, fortitude, common sense, deep conviction, holy lives, a burning love for Jesus, and deep love for the whole family of God.
Pray for your leaders. Pray for your elders. Pray for your pastors. Pray for everyone who leads this church. Ask God to raise up more I Peter 5 leaders.
This is our 90th anniversary. Think of all this church has seen. World War I, the Great Depression, World War II. The Fabulous 50s. The Revolutionary 60s. The Vietnam War. Two wars in the Persian Gulf. The attacks on 9/11. Times of prosperity, inflation, growth and decline. Through it all the church has had 12 pastors, and an untold number of elders, deacons, teachers and ministry leaders. Everyone who founded this church is in heaven. Leaders come and go, hard times come and go, the economy goes up and down, and the community changes around us. Thank God, the church goes on. It survives the hard times; it also survives the easy times. The church rolls on because it is the creation of God himself. It has Jesus Christ as its head, the Holy Spirit as its power, and a worldwide fellowship of believers as its family. It is built on the bedrock of the inerrant, infallible Word of God. Though beaten and battered and scarred, it is still the church. And the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.
We have the privilege of being part of Christ’s church. We who meet here today are in the very center of God’s plan for this age. We are joined with the believing people of every race and tongue and nation who worship Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. What we do here is seen by God. All of it. Nothing is overlooked. In the end we will not regret what we have done. And we will not feel that our work was in vain.
Ninety years in Oak Park and we are still here. By God’s grace, we’ll be here until Jesus comes. It’s been a long journey, but we did not come this far because we’re made of sugar candy.
Thank God for our elders. Good, strong, godly men. Lord, raise up more men. Put in the hearts of all your people a desire to serve you. Set us free from selfish motives. Help us to learn that God’s work is its own reward. Make us faithful to the end so when we see the Chief Shepherd, we might receive the unfading crown of glory. Amen.