The Character and Work of Elders

In the Bible the motif of the shepherd and the sheep is used prevalently to describe the relationship between God and His people.  This theme is used still in the Bible to portray Christ’s care for His sheep through under-shepherds or elders.  This idea is found clearly in texts like John 10; 1 Peter 5; and Acts 20.  Using the later text, Richard Baxter wrote to fellow pastors and elders the following that he wished them to write upon their hearts as a faithful pattern of ministry:

The elder is one who takes up his office with pure motives.  He does not depend upon himself for strength and success in ministry, but upon the Holy Spirit who gifted and called him to his work (20:8).  He does not serve in order to amass a fortune through his labors in the church, but has an eye on his heavenly reward (20:32-33).  The elder, in fact, values faithfulness to his ministry more than he does his own life (20:24).

The elder is a man who is humble and not arrogant (20:19).  He is compassionate, not disengaged or harsh (20:19,31; cf. 20:37).  He is generous with his resources and wants to help those who are weak i the church (20:35).  The church is precious to him because it is precious to God (20:28).

The elder is a man given to prayer (20:36) and devoted to the ministry of the Word (20:20,21,24,25,27,31,32).  He is diligent in the work of preaching and teaching (20:20), before all kinds of people (20:21).  He does not withhold what is profitable from his hearers (20:20), even matters that they may not receive well (20:27), and is willing to admonish every person with tears (20:31).  The substance of his teaching is the gospel of the grace of God (20:24, cf. 20:32).  He summons his hearers to repentance and faith (20:21), pointing them to the inheritance that belongs to every believer in Christ, and urging them to the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (20:32).  In all his teaching and exhortation, he aims for a clear conscience before God (20:26).

The elder serves in the midst of trials and afflictions (cf. 20:23).  He faces the opposition of unbelieving outsiders (20:19) and of fellow officers who have turned from he truth and try to lead professing Christians astray (20:30).  For this reason , he is vigilant (20:31) and dependent upon the grace of God (20:32).  He pays careful attention not only to the flock but also to himself, knowing that false teachers arise from among the ranks of the elders (20:28,30).

Here are lessons from the life and ministry of the apostle Paul in Acts 20 that ought to characterize every elder in every church and fill every member with prayer.  This is a pattern for all of us as well.  The elder is meant to be an example to the flock that they might follow their shepherd in the way of the Good Shepherd. May the Lord give His Church such godly and faithful under-shepherds who “when the chief Shepherd appears…will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:4).

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Manning the Post

“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”  ~ Acts 4:12

Charles Spurgeon, known as the “Prince of Preachers” still today, saw his duty as a preacher stationed in London like that of a soldier called to man his post no matter what.  Primary in this duty was the declaration of the substitutionary and atoning death of Jesus Christ upon the cross. As Steven Lawson points out, “Spurgeon clearly saw it as his chief assignment to point sinners to the atoning death of Christ.”  The great Baptist preacher had a gospel focus like that of the Puritans before him and Calvin before them. We could keep going of course all the way back but the point is that a preacher is called to preach and the essence of what he preaches is Jesus as the Christ (Acts 5:42).  Like Spurgeon, the preacher (and there are implications for all Christians) must see himself as a soldier manning his post:

“I received some years ago orders from my Master to stand at the foot of the cross until He came. He has not come yet, but I mean to stand there till He does.”

Elsewhere, Spurgeon declares with greater emphasis this vital duty:

“As the Roman sentinel in Pompeii stood to his post even when the city was destroyed, so do I stand to the truth of the atonement though the church is being buried beneath the boiling mud-showers of modern heresy. Everything else can wait, but this one truth of God must be proclaimed with a voice of thunder.”

The Church needs such preachers and preaching today more than ever.  If we are to remain a pillar and buttress of truth, then there can be no compromise.  We should pray for such men and such gospel focus in the pulpit.  The saying is certainly true, “As the pulpit goes, so goes the people.”  However, this is not just for preachers.  While it is beneficial to have and pray for faithful preachers, every Christian needs this sort of conviction.  Not only are there many false teachers and preachers prowling around seeking to devour unsuspecting sheep with deception and lies out of selfish ambition, but our world grows increasingly hostile to the gospel. Intolerance of substitutionary atonement and imputed righteousness is mounting.  Hostility and impatience is growing towards Christ-centered preaching which is deemed either boring, offensive, irrelevant, intolerant, or even hateful.  We have no need to be surprised but we do need to be prepared to stand firm in the grace of God declaring boldly and unashamedly the good news of Jesus Christ found in the whole counsel of God.  At the heart of serious-minded, warm-hearted Presbyterianism is this solemn charge to proclaim Jesus as the Christ until He returns or calls us Home.  May the Lord strengthen us and help us to man our post with strength and courage.

Acts: How Jesus Builds His Church

The book of Acts, or the “Acts of the Apostles” as it is called, is the rest of the story which Luke wrote down for Theophilus (Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1).  He initially “dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1).  So we are given by Luke the continuation of that work.  What was the subject of what Jesus began to “do and teach”?  As Mark writes, Jesus began to teach the gospel and the Kingdom of God.  He came preaching and teaching the message of the gospel.  He came calling sinners to repentance and faith in Him.  Jesus performed all the miracles that were foretold.  He did all that was prophesied concerning the Messiah so that it is clear that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.  The “gospel” as we refer to the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus has been recorded by four different authors.  Luke, one of those authors, wrote a very detailed and thoroughly researched account of this gospel.  He wrote for a Gentile official who had converted to Christianity.  The aim of Dr. Luke’s writing was to ground his excellency in the faith or in the truth.  He wanted not only Theophilus to know the truth but to walk in it and stand firm in the faith and in the grace of God.  The gospel was written so that we would believe it and embrace it and proclaim it also.  But Luke isn’t finished with the story of Jesus and His Kingdom.

The gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:17) but the Spirit is the power behind the spread and effect of the gospel (Rom. 15:13, 19; 1 Cor. 2:4).  And yet God also uses means such as His servants opening their mouths and going in His name with His mission and authority.  Jesus’ final instruction to his disciples was to wait upon the “promise of the Father”, which was the Holy Spirit.  They were to stay and wait for this “power from on high” that came from the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:49).  But what was this power for?  It was for the task or mission Jesus gave his apostles to go and “make disciples of all nations…” through baptizing and teaching (Mt. 28:18-20).  Jesus ensured their success by his authority, instructed them in their assignment, and comforted them with his assurance.  Then we find that Jesus’ very last act upon earth, as he ascended up to the heavens in the cloud, was to lift up his hands and bless his disciples (Luke 24:50), which led the disciples to worship and bless the Lord (Lk. 24:51).  So, the apostles had been given authority from Christ, instructed in their assignment by Christ, encouraged by the assurance of Christ, and comforted with the approval of Christ.  He has commissioned, instructed, assured, and blessed his apostles for their mission to continue the work He began.

Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.”(Revelation 11:15)

Pastor John MacArthur gives a clear and fitting summary to the book of Acts:

The gospel is preached, sinners are saved, the church is established, leaders are chosen, saints are edified, witnesses given for Christ, and all along, the believers are suffering for their noble effort and being rejected by the world, but the Lord is protecting them so that the gospel can be preached, and the elect will be gathered, and this is the history of the church until he returns.” (John MacArthur)

Luke is writing down this history so that followers of Christ might be firmly rooted and grounded in the grace of God.  This is a history of the power of God unto salvation and the continuing ministry of Jesus in the spreading of the gospel and building of His Church throughout the whole world.  Acts is the description of the Father’s answer to the Son regarding the “nations” and the “ends of the earth” as his inheritance (Ps. 2:8).  Jesus asked and the book of Acts is a record of the Father keeping his promise.  The book of Acts is also the outworking of the promise of Jesus who declared, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Mt. 16:18).  Perhaps Dennis Johnson says sums it up best regarding the purpose of the book of Acts and its ongoing significance in our lives today:

Like all Scripture, its purpose is to inform and deepen our faith in Jesus Christ.  Acts does this in a special way, by letting us view how Jesus kept his promise to be with his church and build his church through the personal presence and power of the Holy Spirit.  We watch as the risen Lord uses apostles and prophets to lay the foundation of the church in its new covenant form (its ‘last days’ phase, as Peter affirmed, Acts 2:17); and we discover the contours and priorities that must shape the church in our time as well.  In some ways, the foundational period was unique.  Not every age has apostles who having walked with Jesus before his death now give eyewitness testimony to his resurrection.  But the foundation determines the shape of that edifice that is still, today, being raised up to the glory of God.

Here is Love, Vast as the Ocean

In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.  In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:9-10)

Here is a beloved hymn from the days of the 1904 Welsh revival written by William Rees. It is considered to be the “love song” of the Welsh revival. Rees was born in Wales but was a pastor for over 30 years in Liverpool, England where he is now buried. This is a stirring hymn calling on us to be lost in love and wonder and praise at such love shown to sinners such as us. The hymn isn’t overly sappy or sentimental but is a rich description of God’s steadfast love for His people in Christ Jesus. Who can cease to sing His praise? Here are a few versions of the song with some Welsh and English lyrics.

One Faith

It has sometimes been taught that those in the Old Testament had one way of salvation (obedience to the law) while those in the New Testament (as well as for us today) have another way of salvation (trust in the Lord).  But there is only way for anyone to be saved and that is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.  There is one body, Spirit, hope, Lord, faith, baptism, God and Father for those in Christ (Eph. 4:4-6).  And the author of Hebrews teaches us clearly that the gospel was preached to those in the Old Testament (Heb. 4:2) and that the saints of the Old Testament were declared righteous only by grace through faith in Christ (Heb. 11).  David Murray has an excellent book explaining how we can and are meant to see “Jesus on Every Page” in the Old Testament.  English pastor Charles Bridges makes this truth clear in his comments on Psalm 119:135… 

Indeed whatever obscurity may hand over the question relating to the faith of the Old Testament believers, their confidence at the throne of grace shows them to have attained a far more distinct perception of Christian privilege, through the shadowy representations of their law, than is commonly imagined.  Else how could they have been so wrestling and persevering in their petitions; overcoming the spirit of bondage, and breathing out the spirit of adoption in the expression of their wants and desires before the Lord?  The prayers of the Old Testament church are not more distinguished for their simplicity, spirituality, and earnestness, than for their unfettered, evangelical confidence.  When they approached the footstool of the Divine Majesty, with the supplications — Make thy face to shine upon thy servant, — Thou that dwellest between the cherubims, shine forthit was as if they had pleaded‘Reconciled Father — thou that sittest upon a throne of grace, look upon us — Abba, Father, be gracious to us!'”

Therefore I Love Your Commandments

Commenting on Psalm 119:128, English pastor Charles Bridges describes the love God’s servants in Christ have for the Word of God now by the grace of God:

“Let me attempt to give a reason to myself of the high estimation in which I hold it, as infinitely transcending those things, which the world venture their all — even their temporal happiness — to obtain.

1. Because while the world and my own heart have only combined to flatter me, they [the commandments] have discovered to me my real state, as a self-deceived (Rom. 7:9), guilty (James 2:10), defiled (Rom. 7:14) sinner before God: because they have been as a ‘schoolmaster to bring me to Christ’ (Gal. 3:24) — the only remedy for sin, the only rest for my soul.

2. I love them; because they have often supplied wholesome reproofs in my wanderings, and plain directions in my perplexity.

3. I love them; because they restrict me from that which would prove my certain ruin.

Should I not love them?  Can gold, yea, fine gold, offer to me blessings such as these?  Can it heal my broken heart?  Can it give relief to my wounded spirit?  Has it any peace or prospect of comfort for me on my death-bed?  And what cannot — what has not — what will not — the precious word of God do at that awful season of trial?”

The psalmist goes on to describe not only his love for God’s Word but his hatred for “every false way”.  Surely this is an apt description of Jesus.  And it is a description of the increasing thought and practice of all united to Him by grace through faith.  Bridges goes on to write of the connection between the love of God’s Word and the hatred of sin:

“How beautiful is it to see the leaven of grace pervading the whole man! In the fervor of his heart he loves the commandments even above fine gold; but yet his love will abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment (Phil. 1:9)… If my hatred of sin is sincere, I shall hate it more in my own house than abroad; I shall hate it most of all in my own heart…”

Here is evidence of union with Christ, of the work of the God of grace in a sinner – that he or she loves the Word of God more than anything else and hates everything contrary to it.  It is a work of grace and a matter of faith to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus through the Word of God and to love it more than anything this world can offer, while also growing to hate every false way (Heb. 11:24-26), beginning within ourselves.       

Turn our Hearts

Matthew Henry’s commentary is gold. His understanding of Scripture and his eye on Christ come shining through in every section. In his comments on Lamentation 4:1-12 the Puritan pastor writes concerning “The deplorable state of the nation is contrasted with its ancient prosperity.” Here are both words of rebuke and encouragement for the church today. Henry writes:

What a change is here! Sin tarnishes the beauty of the most exalted powers and the most excellent gifts; but that gold, tried in the fire, which Christ bestows, never will be taken from us; its outward appearance may be dimmed, but its real value can never be changed. The horrors of the siege and destruction of Jerusalem are again described. Beholding the sad consequences of sin in the church of old, let us seriously consider to what the same causes may justly bring down the church now. But, Lord, though we have gone from thee in rebellion, yet turn to us, and turn our hearts to thee, that we may fear thy name. Come to us, bless us with awakening, converting, renewing, confirming grace.