elders

Judges 11:12-40, Jeremiah 24

Today’s readings are Judges 11:12-40 and Jeremiah 24.

This devotional is about Judges 11:12-40.

Jephthah was born of a sinful union and was horribly mistreated by his half brothers as we read yesterday. Despite this difficult beginning, he had leadership qualities (11:3) so he was ready when his people needed help.

He also knew his Bible (vv. 12-28) and, when the time came, God used him powerfully to deliver Gilead from the Ammonites. Although he had pure motives to honor God for the victory, the vow he made was stupid (vv. 30-31). His reaction (vv. 34-35) shows how little thought he put into the vow he had made and how there was no malice whatsoever in his heart when he made the vow.

I heard a pastor say once that Jephthah did not actually kill his daughter and offer her as a burnt offering; instead, he just sent her off to the tabernacle to serve the priests like Hannah would later do with her son Samuel. I wish that were true, but the evidence to the contrary in the passage is too strong. In verse 31b he said, “I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering” and verse 39b says, “...he did to her as he had vowed” so there is every reason to believe that she died as a human sacrifice and no reason to believe that she lived as a religious servant.

So what do we do with this awful text? First, we should understand that the whole book of Judges was given to show us what a moral and spiritual mess Israel was. Even the good guys in Judges do foolish, even ungodly things.

More importantly, we should understand that Jephthah’s vow was outside of the moral will of God. Deuteronomy 12:31 and 18:9-12 clearly prohibit human sacrifice and those passages tell us that Israel would kill the people of these Canaanite nations in war because of this very kind of sinful thing. Promising God that you will do something and then doing it when it is a sin does not bring glory to God in any way.

So what should Jephthah have done? He should have asked the priests to inquire of the Lord for him (see Ex 28:30, Deut 33:8, 1 Sam 14:41, Ezra 2:63, Neh 7:65)*, then done whatever he was told. I am certain the Lord would have commanded him to redeem his daughter in some way rather than put her to death.

We can learn two lessons from this gruesome story. First, being zealous for God’s glory does not automatically protect you from doing foolish, even sinful things. Sometimes Christians make excuses for themselves or others because someone “has a good heart.” They may have a good heart but that doesn’t mean they always make good decisions. Wisdom is just as important as personal godliness; in fact, it IS an important aspect of godliness.

Second, when you put yourself in a moral quandary--intentional or not--you need to seek godly counsel for help. So many problems could have been prevented, solved, or at least had the damage contained if God’s people reached out to godly leaders for help sooner and more often. Consult your elders when you’re in over your head. God gave elders to the church to shepherd his people out of difficult situations. Use us.

*For more on how the Urim & Thummim were used to help discern God’s will, see this article: https://bible.org/question/how-did-urim-and-thummim-function ]

Exodus 17, Job 35, Psalm 65

Today’s readings are Exodus 17, Job 35 and Psalm 64.

The people of Israel lived as slaves in Egypt. They were oppressed and abused by the Egyptians, but at least the Egyptians provided for their needs. Now that God has liberated them, they have their freedom. But that meant their Egyptian overlords were no longer there to provide them with food and water and shelter.

In yesterday’s reading, they looked back with nostalgia on their time as slaves. In Exodus 16:3b we read, “in Egypt... we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” It seems like they were exaggerating how well the Egyptians provided for them but, faced with starvation and dehydration, the meager provisions of slavery seemed better.

Here in Exodus 17, Moses and the Israelites needed a miracle to survive. God provided that miracle through Moses (vv. 5-7) and then protected them from the attacks of the Amalekites (vv. 8-16). Before providing these things, however, God let Moses and the Israelites feel the crisis of their lack of water and food. Why?

One reason was so that the people would learn to depend on him. As a “free” people, they would need to learn how to provide for themselves. But God wanted them to know that they were not alone; he was watching over them to provide for them and bless them. These crises in the desert were designed to make God’s people look to him when they needed help, not to the Egyptians who had provided for them for so long.

These crises had another affect as well. Did you notice how God made a point in verse 5 of having Moses and the elders of Israel stand before the people? And, in the battle with the Amalekites, notice how Joshua was designated by Moses to lead the battle (v. 9) and then the Lord commanded Moses to make sure Joshua heard his commands about the Amalekites (vv. 14-15).

All of these things were designed to teach the people to trust the Lord and the leaders he chose for them. They were also designed to teach the leaders that God would be with them and make their leadership effective. Crises have a way of revealing what and who we trust and each one is an opportunity to relocate our trust in a godly direction.

Keep this in mind if you’re facing a crisis or if you encounter one soon. Is the Lord testing your faith and exposing whether or not your trust is where it should be? Use the moments of trial in your life to turn to the Lord in full dependence so that your trust is fully in him.

1 Peter 5

Today we’re reading 1 Peter 5.

As Peter closed his first letter to the persecuted believers scattered through modern day Turkey, he urged the elders over these churches to lead God’s people well (vv. 1-4). In verses 5-7, he turned to “you who are younger” and commanded them to “submit yourselves to your elders.” My interpretation of this passage is that the “younger” refers to people in these churches who were not elders. Just as Christ referred to his disciples as “my children,” so Peter plays off the literal meaning of the office “elder” to speak to those who were not elders in the church.

The command to people not leading the church, then, was “submit yourselves to your elders.” Submission, in this context, means to fall into line behind the leaders. It is about surrendering control of decision making to someone else. This does not mean taking orders from the elders of the church about every detail in your life. As elders, we have no business telling you to marry this person, have four children--and we’ll name them for you, take that job, not this one, etc.

What this means is to let the elders of the church lead the church. If the elders decide to start a ministry, support the ministry in whatever way you can. If the elders choose to shut down a ministry--especially one you love--then understand that it is their decision to make before the Lord, not yours.

It also means listening to the wisdom of your elders in the moral aspects of your life. We as elders would never tell someone whom to marry. But we have told professing believers in our church not to marry--or to date--unbelievers. We have also told people in our church that we have concerns about someone they intend to marry. The goal here is not to control their lives but to help them apply Biblical truths.

Sometimes people listen to us and do what we tell them is right. Those people have obeyed the command in this passage to “submit yourselves to your elders.” Others have pushed back--hard, at times--against what we have told them. Inevitably, their pushback does not come from a place where they interpret the scriptures differently than us. The resistance we get as elders usually is about avoiding the application. People are really good at justifying what they want to do. When we try to help them make godly and wise decisions, they will often give reasons why the biblical principle, which they admit is true, does not apply to them. People often think they are the exception to God’s word. Sometimes God is gracious to them anyway, but more often than not things turn out exactly as we warned them they would.

If you have godly elders, like the ones described here in verses 1-4, you can trust them. Submission is about trust. It is not about agreement; it takes no effort to “submit” to someone that you agree with. You’ve both made the same decision, so there’s no submission involved. Submission only happens when you disagree. You want something different from what your leaders think is wise and best. If you trust them, and trust the Lord’s command here in 1 Peter 5:5, you will do what your elders advise you to do. Not because they’re trying to control you or because it is easy or because you agree with them. No, you’ll submit to your elders because (a) you know they want to glorify the Lord, (b) you believe that they want what is best for you which is the will of God, and (c) because the Lord commands you to submit. This takes humility (vv. 5b-6) and it is never easy. But look at the Lord’s promises: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (vv. 6-7).

Could you benefit from godly counsel in your life right now? Are you making decisions within the will of God or are you hoping to be an exception? Godly leadership--in the family, in the church--will protect you from bad choices, from the self-deception that operates so powerfully within us all. Do yourself a favor--seek counsel from your elders and submit to what we tell you. We are not perfect or infallible, but we know the scriptures, want to see God glorified, desire the very best for you, and have seen a ton of stuff over the years. Is it wise to ignore all of that?

Titus 1

Today the schedule calls for us to read Titus 1.

Over the course of my lifetime, I have heard of and met some highly authoritarian pastors. Once I was running a conference for pastors and one pastor who called to register for the conference lectured me for three or four minutes about an aspect of our ministry that he did not like. Then I told me he would like to attend our conference. I asked for his first name so I could enter it into the registration form. Then he lectured me about how he never lets anyone use his first name. To show respect to him and his office as a pastor, he insisted that everyone call him “Dr. S__” [name withheld]. So, his first name became “Dr.,” at least for the conference registration form and badge.

On another occasion, I heard from a very reputable source about a pastor who told a man he needed to remodel his home--not the pastor’s home, the home of the guy receiving the instruction. The guy gutted his house and took years to remodel it, in part because he needed the pastor’s approval for every major decision--floor coverings, wall placement, paint colors, etc.

I guess some pastors feel that they have a prophetic gift or at least that they have a level of wisdom that the average guy in the pew can never have. Probably, though, they just like to control people. Maybe somebody thinks this makes for good pastoral leadership, but not God. God said here in Titus that a pastor (or elder or overseer--it’s the same office in scripture with multiple names) “must be... not overbearing” (v. 7b). Why? Because, verse 7 says, he “manages God’s household.”

That last phrase is key. If Calvary Bible Church were my household, I could run it any way that I wanted. But it isn’t my household; it is God’s. Part of being a faithful manager, a good leader, is to run God’s household in his way which means being a servant-leader, not a dictator who insists on honorific titles or tries to control every decision of everyone’s life.

I had a guy ask me once if he should get a reverse mortgage. He wasn’t asking me if it was biblical or moral to do so; I can answer those kinds of questions. He was asking me to make a decision for him. This is not what elders do. If an elder in our church--me or one of the other men who lead with me--starts acting like this, it is a key sign that we are spiritually unfit to serve as leaders of God’s household.

It is important for you to think about your role in the church as well. I cannot make you live a godly life. I could bully you about reading the scripture or coming to church or something else, I guess, but that’s not what God called me to do. What we as elders are charged to do is “to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.” It is our job to lead, to teach, to encourage, and to rebuke sometimes but it is your job to put the truth into practice. Don’t follow an overbearing church leader, but do take what we try to do for you seriously so that our church will grow in Christ.

1 Timothy 3

Today’s reading is 1 Timothy 3.

The church at Ephesus, where Timothy was when he received this letter from Paul, was the only church whose elders Paul summoned when he was nearby (Acts 20:17-21). In his words to them in Acts 20, Paul warned them that, “Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.” It seems clear that this had happened by the time 1 Timothy was written. The fact that Paul sent Timothy there to confront false teachers (1 Tim 1) and the fact that Paul laid out the qualifications for elder and deacon here in 1 Timothy 3 indicates that the leadership of the church at Ephesus was deeply compromised and needed to be rebuilt.

Notice in the list of qualifications for elder in verses 1-7 and deacon in verses 8-13 contain nothing about a man’s business success, social standing, or ability to donate lots of money to the church. Instead, the church needed men who had been changed by God’s grace in ways that showed. “Above reproach” is a broad category. It describes someone who has a strong, clean track record of honest and integrity in and out of the church. The rest of the qualifications are more specific dealing with his moral character (vv. 2-3), family life (vv. 4-5), and stability in the faith (vv. 6-7).

Were the problems in Ephesus the result of poor choices for elder or the result of elders who changed after they became leaders? We don’t know but either thing can happen. While we should look carefully at an elder’s life before and while he serves in that role, we should also remember that elders are human and subject to the same temptations and struggles that any other person has. So, we who serve the Lord need your prayers. We need you to pray for us to walk in the faith and to be strong against the temptations that all Christians face. Please take a moment and pray for the elders of our church this morning. Thank God for the ways in which you’ve seen God use them in your life or in our church, then ask God to strengthen us and protect us from doctrinal deviation and sin.

Acts 20

Back to Acts for 1 chapter, then we go to Romans tomorrow, according to our schedule. Read Acts 20.

As we read 2 Corinthians, we noted that Paul was coming to Corinth both to collect an offering for the believers in Jerusalem who were suffering (2 Cor 8) and to deal with those who were living in sin in the church at Corinth (2 Cor 13). Here in Acts 20, Luke noted that Paul did in fact go to Corinth as he said he would (vv. 1-3). Paul continued on to Jerusalem stopping in Philippi (vv. 3-6) and Troas (vv. 7-12). He decided to travel by ship to Jerusalem and that ship stopped in several places (vv. 13-15). Paul decided not to go back to Ephesus, where he had spent so much time back in Acts 19, but he called for the elders of the church at Ephesus to meet him (vv. 16-38). His meeting with them was emotional because God had told him that he would suffer in Jerusalem (vv. 22-23) so he expected that he would not see the Ephesians again (vv. 35, 38).

If you had spent several years of fruitful ministry in a city but believed that you would never go back there, what would you say to the people you had discipled and mentored and taught? Paul’s message which Luke recorded in this chapter is summed up in verse 31: “So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.” Paul knew that the church would face some difficult problems in the days ahead (v. 29), so he urged the elders to do the work of shepherding to protect themselves and the flock (v. 28). But what was he getting at when he said, “Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears”? That statement is, in essence, “Don’t forget my teaching and my example. When false doctrine comes in, remember what I taught you. Stick to it because it is God’s word; don’t stray from it.” This is something worth remembering. There is a lot of teaching out there, some that claims to be biblical and Christian and some that makes no claim to be Christian but does claim to be true. People sometimes get enamored with new ideas or attracted to big promises to change their lives in some way. If what you are learning is biblical, it will align with what you already know to be true from scripture. If it takes you away from the doctrines you learned when you were saved and discipled, however, it is a trap that will hurt your spiritual life, not help it. So, evaluate everything and don’t ever forget the gospel and the word of God that was taught to you when you first became a believer.

Although Paul was deeply concerned about what the church at Ephesus would face, he did not stay there to try to protect the church himself. Instead, he expressed faith in God’s own oversight of the church and his word: “Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (v. 32). When people we led to Christ move away or our children grow up and go out on their own, we can become concerned about the many threats to their spiritual lives that they will encounter and rightly so. It is good to be concerned, to express your concern, and to urge believers you love to watch themselves just as Paul did in this chapter. However, it is impossible to control another person so you can only do so much to try to protect their faith and their doctrine. Instead of being fearful, at some point we must release them and trust God to do what we can’t. Paul ended his time with the Ephesian elders with prayer (v. 36) and we know from his letters how earnestly he prayed for the spiritual life of all the believers and churches. This is the best way to care spiritually for those we cannot be with directly--pray for God’s continued work in their lives, for their protection from sin and from false doctrine, and for God to watch over their spiritual lives.

Are you sending a kid off to college soon? Have a young adult child who is moving to a different area to start a new life? Do you know anyone who is leaving our church or another good church but there is uncertainty about where they will worship? Pray. Warn them and express your love for them, but trust God to watch over them and pray daily for them to walk with him. There’s really nothing better you can do for another person spiritually.

Leviticus 26, Psalm 33, Ecclesiastes 9, Titus 1

If you’re following the schedule, you should read these chapters today: Leviticus 26, Psalm 33, Ecclesiastes 9, Titus 1. Click on any of those references to see all the passages in one long page on BibleGateway. If you can't do all the readings today, read Titus 1.

So much has changed in American church ministry since I began preparing for it when I was in high school. Back then, pastors were guys who wore dark suits, white shirts and ties all the time, even when going down a waterslide. While that may still be the image some people carry of a pastor today, it is by no means the only picture that comes to mind when people think of church leaders. These days a pastor might be a guy who seems a bit too stuffy or someone who seems like he’s trying too hard to be cool. 

As Paul explained to Titus what to look for in an elder, he carefully avoids a description of the man’s appearance. It is not his taste in clothes, his ability to appear somber or cool that matters to God. What matters is a man’s character; the description Paul gave in verses 5-9 focuses on the outward characteristics of a man’s life as evidence of God’s work in his life. People might be able to develop a few of these characteristics on their own but apart from the grace of God in his life, no one could consistently demonstrate these characteristics. Verse 9 of this chapter focuses on the most important aspect of a godly man’s life, the one that leads to all the character qualities that are required of him: “He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught….” Sometimes pastors are criticized for being too rigid, too hard-nosed about orthodoxy. We are told to be tolerant of other viewpoints and not so dogmatic about everything. While this passage cautions us about not being “overbearing,” it also says that we should “hold firmly to the trustworthy message…” That is, we do not act as if our faith and its doctrines are negotiable, fuzzy, or unclear. Instead, God calls church leaders to have a certainty about them, one that comes from deep conviction about the truthfulness of these things and their importance for the Christian life. Why is this important? “…so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.” Doctrine matters because it is the content of faith; it is what encourages the faithful and provides us with what we need to grow and faithfully hold on to the Lord. Conversely, there is an abundance of false doctrine and false teachers in the world. A godly, capable elder can “refute those who oppose it.” This means that the truth can be defended, when necessary. This protects the growth of God’s people from the withering damage done by falsehoods. If you’re a man and aspire to serve the Lord, look at the words of this passage often. Think about them; consider what obedience and growth in these areas should look for in you life. Then become someone who serves the Lord with deep conviction for his truth and consistent personal integrity. If you’re not interested in becoming an elder, pray for the men who lead our church that these verses will be a fairly adequate picture of our lives as we walk with the Lord daily.

Now for your thoughts: What stood out in your Bible reading for today? What questions do you have about what you read? What are your thoughts about what I wrote above? Post them in the comments below or on our Facebook page. And, feel free to answer and interact with the questions and comments of others. Have a great day; we'll talk scripture again tomorrow.

Leviticus 18, Psalm 22, Ecclesiastes 1, 1 Timothy 3

If you’re following the schedule, you should read these chapters today: Leviticus 18, Psalm 22, Ecclesiastes 1, 1 Timothy 3. Click on any of those references to see all the passages in one long page on BibleGateway. If you can't do all the readings today, read 1 Timothy 3.

If you were starting an organization and looking for leaders to help it succeed, what kind of person would you look for? You might look for wealthy people who could donate financially to the organization and help manage the money the organization receives. You might look for people who have been successful elsewhere—starting a successful business, becoming a college president, holding a prestigious political office. You might look for someone famous who can draw attention to your organization. These are all reasonable things to look for, humanly speaking, but not one of them is reflected in the list of qualities God tells us to look for in church leaders. Here in 1 Timothy 3, Paul writes out for Timothy a description of the kind of man (or woman, in the case of deacons, see verse 11) that the church in Ephesus should be choosing. He has no interest in finding those who are successful in business or politics; he says nothing about finding someone famous. He also, by the way, doesn’t tell them to look for someone who can speak piously or impress people with their spiritual-sounding words or unique theological insights. Instead, he commends as leaders those who live a life consistent with a heart that has been changed by the grace of God in salvation. This kind of leader is “above reproach” meaning that nobody can bring forth evidence that would call into question his moral character. That phrase “above reproach” in verse 2a, and the similar phrase “worthy of respect” in verses 8a & 11a are blanket statements that summarize a person’s character. The phrases that follow “above reproach” such as “faithful to his wife, temperate,” etc. give more specifics about all the areas Timothy should consider when he judges whether a potential elder or deacon is truly “above reproach.” All the things on this list are outward evidences of godly character within; the only task-oriented qualification is for the overseer (which is an other word for the office of pastor or elder) who must be “able to teach” (v. 2).

Our world cares about people who can perform in the marketplace. If a man can sell, his employer doesn’t care if he is “faithful to his wife” (v.2) or if “his children obey him” (v. 4). Verse 3 details several sins that must not be true of elders in God’s church; these sins—drunkenness, violence, quarrelsome, lover of money—have led leaders of secular organizations into sins and crimes that embarrassed and tarnished the entire organization. That’s bad enough when you’re trying to sell a product; when, like the church, you represent God and claim to have a life-changing message of grace that transforms and liberates sinners from these kinds of sins, an elder or deacon who is known for such things undermines the message of Christ.
In addition to giving us guidance about what kind of leaders to choose for our church, these paragraphs give us some character qualities to evaluate in our own lives. Not every Christian will become an elder or deacon, but all of us should desire and strive for a genuine walk with God that leads us to holiness. As we become holy by the power of God’s grace, these qualities will emerge like fruit in our lives. If you find yourself convicted because you’re lacking one of the godly characteristics elders/deacons should have or if you see in your life one of the sinful qualities that should not be true of godly leaders, ask God for grace and help to grow in that area because you want to be like Jesus.

Now for your thoughts: What stood out in your Bible reading for today? What questions do you have about what you read? What are your thoughts about what I wrote above? Post them in the comments below or on our Facebook page. And, feel free to answer and interact with the questions and comments of others. Have a great day; we'll talk scripture again tomorrow.