In the first article I provided some examples for search committees to consider when giving feedback to pastor candidates, especially those areas of opportunity for growth. My reason for writing that article is to help both parties think through how to treat one another in a manner worthy of the calling they’ve received from the Lord Jesus. In this article, I want to encourage both pastoral candidates and pastoral search committees to conduct themselves in a manner consistent with the gospel.
I’ve had more than one pastor over the years tell me horror stories of how other pastoral candidates were treated in a very unchristian manner by search committee members. Pastoral search candidates work hard to put together their resume, research the church, learn about the location of the church, and so on. Pastoral candidates are applying to your church search committees because they love Christ and the local church, and believe the Lord is calling them to pastor, so please treat them as you would want to be treated.
Pastoral candidates: let me encourage you that while the feedback you receive may not be what you want to hear, you still need to hear it. If a search committee offers feedback please don’t take it personally. They do so because they care about you. How you respond to criticism says a lot about your present character and your future effectiveness in ministry. So keep an open mind to what people say. Be discerning, ask questions, including clarifying questions.
Search committees: when putting out your position on the Internet please make sure the details of the position are clear. It is hard for us as pastoral candidates to be told when we interview for a position at your church that there is more to the job. More than likely (if we’re serious about this position) we’ve discussed this position with our wives, including the location of your church, etc. All of this is to say, search committee, remember that your potential candidates want to see a well-articulated explanation of the essentials of the job listed on the site. They want to know the work they will do at your church. They also want to learn about your church on your site before they talk to you on the phone or on a video conference call, so be sure to have the relevant information on your websites (e.g., your ministries, statement of faith, elder board, deacon board, present staff, etc.).
Searching for a pastoral position is hard work. It takes me time to apply for a position. Personally, I look not only at the details of the job and whether I’d be a good fit but ask the question, “Do I really want to live there?” I also look at how the ministry of the church functions. For example, I want to know what they believe and if what they believe influences what happens on Sunday. One example (among many) is whether they go through books of the Bible or just preach topical sermons. For me and my wife this is a big deal because while we believe that the primary preaching ministry of the local church should be verse by verse exposition of the Word, we aren’t against topical preaching on occasion (such as after a long series on the Bible or a summer series on a particular topic). Also, future pastoral candidates want to hear what expectations you have for them and how you will manage them.
Above all, pastoral candidates should communicate to any search committee members that they love Jesus and care deeply about the church to whom they are applying. Both search committee members and pastoral candidates have ventured into a journey together. The local church search committee, by choosing a particular set of candidates to explore, has expressed interest in the future development of these men.
By taking an intentional and purposeful approach as I’ve outlined in these articles, it is my hope that pastoral search candidates applying to your local church might have a godly experience with search committee members. At the end of the day, both pastoral candidates and pastoral search committees are called to one another each other for this is Jesus’ command (John 13:35). May that be the aim for the pastoral search candidate and the pastoral search committee members: that we might build one another up to the glory of God.
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Over the past three years since graduating from seminary, I’ve been actively pursuing pastoral ministry positions. During this time, I’ve been interviewed as a candidate for pastoral positions at a number of churches, and my experience for the most part with search committees has been mostly positive.
In this article my intention is not to critique search committees since these are men and women who spend hours sifting over resumes, interviewing candidates, and doing hard work at their day jobs to support their families, while most of them volunteer in a variety of roles at their local church. As someone who is actively involved at my local church and has a front row seat to several of these search committees, I can testify that these men and women work hard, love Christ, and want to serve the local church. My intention in this article is to hopefully provide some helpful advice (as one who is actively pursuing a pastoral position), on what I would like to hear from search committees with regard to feedback from them.
What I Want To Hear From Search Committees
When hearing back from a search committee, I want to hear more than generic feedback. Recently I interviewed for a position and had what I thought was a fabulous conversation with one member of the search committee. Before this interview I spent a considerable amount of time looking at this church’s social media and website in order to learn as much as I could about their ministry philosophy, statement of faith, and how they do life as a church. When I got a generic email from them (as I have from several churches) saying I was a strong candidate, but wasn’t given any feedback, I was disappointed. This made me wonder what else I could have said or improved upon in my process as I continue to look for ministry opportunities.
Search committee members have a hard job. They don’t want to discourage those actively looking for pastoral positions. This is why I’m writing this article. I’m actively applying, interviewing, and learning as I go and want the feedback. What I want to hear from the search committee are some positives and some areas of opportunity. As a future pastor, I want to learn from any lapses in my communication with those I’m interviewing.
Search committee members: pastoral candidates want to hear from the church they are being considered by. My experience with other pastors has taught me they care why the church has turned them down. I want to hear specifically why I wasn’t chosen. I want to hear positive things like, “I liked your resume, your philosophy of ministry; I liked how you talked about your testimony, your previous ministry work,” or, “How you’re happy where you are but actively pursuing future ministry opportunities as the Lord leads,” etc. In addition to this, I need your feedback in order to grow. I haven’t arrived, nor do I believe I am perfect.
Areas of Opportunity
My advice for pastoral search committees is to be as specific as they can if they decide to provide feedback. As I mentioned, it’s discouraging to get a generic letter getting told you weren’t selected. I understand why these letters are sent and appreciate some communication rather than no communication. But we are needing more than this.
When giving feedback to your pastoral candidate please tell them you appreciate the time they’ve giving to you on studying your church’s website learning about the various ministries in your local church, and how they see themselves fitting into the life of your church. Serious pastoral candidates want to hear feedback. Any member of a search committee should want to help your brother in Christ grow as a future pastor. It’s healthy for him, and it’s healthy for the Body of Christ.
By phrasing any critique as areas of opportunity you’re inviting the candidate to learn from this experience with your church. Many search committees may not want to do this, and there are good reasons for not wanting to do this. As a pastoral candidate, I’m wanting to hear how I “didn’t meet your expectations as a candidate,” so I can learn and continue to progress in my search. This is why I suggest only giving one or two areas of opportunity so as to not overwhelm the candidate.
Search committees: please be prepared that some candidates like myself, for example, may want to interact with you on the feedback you give. Please allow them to interact with you, even after you’ve said no to them in regards to the position at your church so they can grow. This also allows for learning to take place and improvement to be made on both sides.
You might hear from the search committee and they say, “We really think you have a great education, but we’re looking for someone with more experience in this particular area.” Pastoral candidate, please don’t take this as a discouragement in your search for a pastoral position; rather, take this as a compliment that you have a great deal of educational experience. Please take what they say about getting more experience seriously. What helps me is to keep the following mindset known as F.A.T. (Be Faithful, Be Available, Be Teachable) in mind. In this way, you’re taking the advice of this search committee to heart and learning from it while you continue to serve the Lord where you are. In the next article, I’ll outline some areas to encourage pastoral candidates and search committees.
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Savor Your Security (Ephesians 5:5–7)
Though we gain strength for the Christian life by savoring our purity and savoring our identity, we ultimately must face the dangers of sin. If we do not recognize the danger, then we are not prepared to live the holy lives God desires. Thus the final dimension of Paul’s exhortation against impurity is warning! But as he warns, he further strengthens us by enabling us to savor our security.
Heed the Warnings (Ephesians 5:5–6)
We feel more secure when we know that we will be clearly warned of danger. Paul provides such warnings in telling us both what is denied idolaters and what is promised them.
What is denied idolaters: inheritance. Paul says that “no immoral, impure or greedy person … has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” (Eph. 5:5). In other words, you may think that you will gain by pursuing your lusts and your greed but, in fact, you will lose everything. Certainly Paul is thinking of the kingdom of God in primarily eschatological terms, but the knowledge that Christ is building his kingdom now (Eph. 1:23) makes us mindful that such pursuits will make our lives empty now also. This is made even more clear in the wording of the next verse of this passage about what is inherited as a consequence of these idolatries.
What is assured idolaters: wrath. Paul does not only warn about the denial of an inheritance, but also about what is inherited by those whose lives are idolatrous pursuits of lust and greed. “Let no one deceive you with empty [i.e., void of truth] words, for because of such things [i.e., these vices] God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient” (Eph. 5:6). The word “comes” is in the present tense. While Paul could have isolated the ultimate consequences of sin in the eschaton, he includes the present. Aspects of God’s wrath come against sin now. This does not mean that the sinful now will face all the consequences of their idolatry, but the emptiness of such pursuits already denies them the joy and fulfillment of a life with God.
What better letter could there be for our age to heed? Consider what Paul has written about immorality and greed in the light of the sins of this age. We live in a culture immersed in immorality and greed. Spiritual warning signals blare from many directions, but, in apparent sensory overload, we grow more blind and deaf to the seriousness, pervasiveness, and destructiveness of our indulgences.
We may tell ourselves and each other that such things do not really matter, that we are unaffected, that we have an adequate worldview to deal with such things, and that mature Christians—grace-filled and culturally engaged—will not be bothered. To such explanations Paul responds, “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes” (Eph. 5:6). Paul is not here threatening that God will abandon or destroy his children (see discussion of Eph. 5:7 below), but he is pointing to the wrath that will come upon those whose ultimate choice is idolatry and using their punishment as an object lesson to warn his children to steer clear of sin. Even if its consequences are not ultimate for the child of God, his discipline of idolatrous pursuits should be sufficient to turn us from evil.
Expose the Darkness (Ephesians 5:11)
What many will now want (and fear), in light of Paul’s warnings, is some standard measurement of the amount of skin, the number or kind of profanities, or the plot categories that will make it clear which entertainments are acceptable and which unacceptable. We may also want to know the maximum amount of personal spending that is allowed before it qualifies as greed. Such rules for all times and places, of course, cannot be constructed. One reason is in this very passage. Down a few verses, we will see that Paul encourages these same Ephesians, “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them” (Eph. 5:11). How simple life would be if Paul said only the first half of that verse: “Have nothing to do with …” Then we could simply resign and retreat from our culture. But Paul also says, “rather expose the fruitless deeds of darkness.” How can you do that if you do not know something of the culture?
The requirements to heed the warning against sin and to expose the darkness in which it thrives, puts every Christian in the so-called Puritan dilemma of needing to be “in the world but not of it.” Seeking to engage, rebuke, and redeem our culture remains a battle of conscience and responsibility. The battle will test us until Christ returns. But we cannot achieve any measure of victory in the battle if we simply abandon biblical instruction. Sociologist Alan Wolfe in The Transformation of American Religion writes, “Christians and Jews … have ignored doctrines, reinvented traditions, switched denominations, redefined morality, and translated their obligation to witness into a lifestyle.” As a result he concludes that America is pervasively religious but that religion is neither reshaping the culture nor providing any danger warnings to its adherents.
Paul cautions instead that there can be no true morality without piety, no real witness without purity, no significant revival of the soul when there is regular compromise of the heart. The kingdom does not progress where idolatries of lust and greed predominate. We have to decide, as one writer puts it, whether we will “practice the culture” or “practice the faith.” Deciding how to engage in the battle for our hearts, our culture, and our children will not be easy, but we have an authority and the witness of the Spirit in our hearts. Paul says that in order to expose the darkness, we will need to give of ourselves and die to self, but such is the nature of war. Our identity as well as God’s warning motivates us to pursue holiness, but the warning will not accomplish its purpose if we do not fully understand its context. Even the warning comes out of a heart of love.
Love God’s Warning (Ephesians 5:7)
As we read these awful warnings against impurity, we must put ourselves in the place of the Ephesians. They are surrounded by sexual and material temptations that have captured them in the past and tempt them in the present. Without question there are those in the churches who are continuing to struggle with these idolatries, or else there would be no reason for Paul to address such matters. But how are the Ephesians to deal with these warnings? They are to receive the warnings with love because they are expressed with care and measure.
What is the motive of God’s warning? Remember that he is warning his children, his holy ones. He is warning those dear to him of their danger, but this is itself a sign of his love. If he did not love, he would not warn. Always we are to understand that an aspect of the grace of God is his zeal to warn us of the consequences of sin. Were he only a God of retribution, then he would relish the harm that comes to those who cross him. But here he speaks to those already bought by the blood of his Son, and who yet trample his blood underfoot by their sin, warning them to flee from the consequences of their sin. The motive for such a warning to such people as these can only be love.
The love is underscored by the careful measurement of the warning. What is its extent? The warning never extends to rejection. Consider carefully the final words of this passage. Paul warns the Ephesians that God’s wrath comes upon idolaters and says, “Therefore do not be partners with them.” Note the careful use of the third person “them.” Paul does not say, “Therefore disinheritance and eternal wrath will come upon you.” He clearly warns that idolaters will experience wrath, and so he warns the believers to stay away from—not partner with—them and their practices. But even though the Ephesians surely have sin in their lives, the apostle does not say, “You are one of them.”
Paul spares the believers the greatest consequence of sin, which is being identified by it. Paul never makes idolatry the identity of the believers. They remain holy ones who are the children of God. The words echo those from John’s epistle: “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1). In a similar way Paul speaks here to the Ephesians as if to say, “Behold what manner of love the Father has lavished upon you that you should be God’s children, his holy ones. That is what you are.”
In Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Temple of the Holy Spirit,” an adolescent girl is visited by two older teenage cousins who want to introduce her to more sophisticated and adult interests. At one point the girl overhears her older cousins mock a nun who has suggested a formula to help young women stop the advances of young men. Sister Perpetua advises that the way to fend off a young man in the back of a car is to say, “Stop, sir! I am a Temple of the Holy Ghost!” The older cousins find this advice hilarious. The younger girl, however, is deeply moved. The news that she is the dwelling place of God fills her with a sense of awe. She savors what it means to be so special to God that he would give her such a gift, and the knowledge of being so treasured by God makes her desire to live her life in thanksgiving to him. The adult sophistications that were so appealing still have their allure, but now she knows that they are out of place for one made to be the holy dwelling of God.
Paul has said to these Ephesians already that they are a temple of God (Eph. 2:21), and now he says that they are his children, his holy ones (Eph. 5:1, 3). This is the knowledge that is to fill them with praise and make out of place the impurities and idolatries of the world. They are no longer made in such a way that these things of the world can bring satisfaction; these things will, in fact, bring greater pain. These same dynamics will occur in our lives, so Paul seeks to overwhelm us with the savor of our identity, the blessings of purity, and the warnings of grace. We are to imitate God because we are his children. Nothing else will do any more; nothing else will satisfy. Paul tells us that as an odor of a sweet savor to God, we should be what we are. We are his children and we are saints. So we should live that way!
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We Are All Dependent (4:15–16)
For this opus to echo the majesty of Christ’s music, every believer must do his or her part. While we are the same in some ways and different in other ways, in order to fulfill Christ’s purposes we also must remember that we are all dependent.
We Are Dependent on Christ (4:15–16)
Although each believer is differently gifted, we must all depend upon the Savior, seeking our strength in him and seeking our purpose in him. Ephesians 4:15-16 describes a spiritual flow that we cannot miss. First, we are told that as we use our gifts to speak the truth in love, we will “grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ” (Eph. 4:15). The image that comes to mind is of stem, leaves, and branches, each exercising its function so that it grows up into a beautiful flower. In this verse, the flower is the glory of Christ that he intends for us to produce as we exercise our gifts and equip others to do the same. But in the next verse the flow reverses. We are told that “from him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love” (Eph. 4:16a; cf. Col. 2:19). The image is of the human body with all of its parts coordinated and enabled by the head. More than an ancient anatomy lesson, this image is a timely warning of the human reflex that we must always guard against. That reflex is to try to do God’s work in our own strength—to exercise God’s gifts without dependence upon the Savior.
It is easy to work so hard to provide for our families that we neglect to pray, to become so concerned to do well in exams that we forsake biblical integrity, to become so busy in making sure our children perform well that we slight the spouse God sent to support us, and to become so accustomed to depending on our gifts that we do not stop to depend upon the One who gives them. I know what it is to hit the ground running at the beginning of a day and to think about a thousand things before I think of the Savior, to attack a crisis with my wisdom before I seek the Lord’s. Over and over I have to be reminded that apart from Christ I can do nothing (John 15:5).
This passage that begins by describing different kinds of leaders in the church and leads us to reflect on the nature of differing gifts for everyone in the church should not be read simply as a manual for tolerating differences and appreciating gifts. This passage should also be read as a list of warnings against the ego sins of leaders that are common in Christ’s church—leaders who, because of their gifts, may forget that Christ is the Lord of all.
- The first such sin is believing or acting as though we do not have to accept different kinds of persons in our church. For this reason, we are reminded of the unity Christ requires and the fact that we are all one in him (Eph. 4:2–6).
- The second sin is believing or acting as though everyone has to be like us. For this reason, we are reminded that our Lord has gifted us differently (Eph. 4:7–11).
- The third sin is believing or acting as though we by ourselves are adequate to do what needs to be done. For this reason, leaders are reminded that our task is to equip others for the work of ministry that we cannot complete on our own (Eph. 4:12–15).
- The fourth sin is believing or acting as though we can do what Christ needs done without Christ. So we are reminded of our dependence on him (Eph. 4:16a).
- One more sin remains: the belief that other people have the gifts that Christ needs for his church, so there is nothing for us personally to do. For this reason, Paul reminds us that not only are we dependent on the work of Christ; we have an additional dependency on others.
We Are Dependent on Each Other (4:16b)
Paul says that “the whole body [is] joined and held together by every supporting ligament … as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:16b). We have a deep obligation to one another—everyone must do his or her part. Each has a calling to make the body work. This runs against the grain of Western culture with its emphasis on personal autonomy, and even against much of evangelicalism with its emphasis on a personal relationship with Christ. As important as is a personal relationship with Jesus, biblical Christianity never teaches that faith is just about Jesus and me. We are part of the body of Christ. We are his presence now on earth as his Spirit lives within us and among us (Eph. 2:22). I am the expression of Christ’s love to others, and they to me.
It is very important to note that the phrase “in love” in verse 16 hearkens back to the key mention of “in love” at the opening of this section (Eph. 4:2; also repeated in Eph. 4:15). Paul draws on the theme of Christian love throughout the epistle (Eph. 1:15; 3:17; 5:2) because he recognizes that love, as a central characteristic of God and of Christ (Eph. 1:4; 2:4; 3:19; 6:23), is therefore essential for those united to Christ (Eph. 5:2). The church community functions because we are all called to be love contributors, not just love consumers. Every spiritual community to which Christ will ever call us does not exist merely to serve us but to be served by us out of mutual love. We need each other’s love. We are here together because Christ has made us one, so that our gifts will lovingly complement each other, and together we can grow to maturity in Christ both in what we understand and in what we do.
Christ makes us one and obligates us to work together so that we can use our different gifts to build his church. In this task, all gifts are needed and everyone must do his or her part. We must never rule ourselves out of the process of building the church that is Christ’s transforming power for this earth and for the eternity of multitudes that he is drawing to himself. We grow and mature as each one does his or her part.
Paul is right when he says, “From him [Christ] the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” We must make every effort to keep the unity of Spirit in the bond of peace, and use whatever gifts God has given us to further equip his people for the work of ministry by speaking maturely, wisely ,and modeling Christlike behavior by His grace.
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Having returned from the 43rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the enormous blessing–not only of being with the many dear brothers with whom I have formed strong friendships over the past decade, but also of being with a number of theological, spiritual, and leadership mentors whom the Lord has placed in my life. While there, I listened to one of my close friends–whom I also consider to be a mentor–make the statement to a Ph.D. student that many young men are longing for a mentor but are afraid to ask older and wiser men in our denomination to mentor them out of fear that they will tell them that they don’t have time. He then noted that the fathers in the faith often think that the young men don’t want to be mentored; so, the end result is that neither the young men nor the fathers of our denomination approach one another about this important part of a young minister’s life. The solution, according to my friend, was for young men in ministry to purposefully pursue such mentors.
In addition, my friend remarked that young men in ministry need to pursue multiple mentors–a number of individuals who will come alongside them in areas of Christian living, systematic theology, biblical theology, church history, ecclesiology, shepherding, leadership, family life, writing, etc. Listening to my friend counsel a younger man along these lines triggered something in me that I’m pretty sure that I haven’t thought about in some time–namely, that I have had the unique privilege of having a multiplicity of mentors throughout my Christian life. So, why is it so important for young men and women to seek out a multiplicity of mentors? Here are a three reasons to consider:
1. No one person has all the wisdom and experience from which we need to glean.Only the Savior could perfectly mentor others. The disciples lacked nothing from the time that they spent with the Savior. This means that the Scriptures are the greatest source of mentoring–as all Christians are mentored by God as they pour over the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament, sitting at the feet of Jesus. As the Proverb explains, “Where there is no counsel, the people fall; but in the multitude of counselors there is safety” (Prov. 11:14). When we read Moses, the Psalmists, the prophets, the Gospels, the Pauline epistles, the Apocalyptic literature, etc. we are being mentored by God–but we are also being mentored by a multitude of counselors. While this is so, we see in the Scriptures that young Timothy needed the father-like Apostle Paul to come alongside him and give him the pastoral counsel that he lacked. Young men in ministry need elder brothers and father-like figures in the faith.
Add to this the fact that the Lord gives different people different gifts. There are men in our denomination who are incredibly gifted evangelists. It serves me well to be around them and observe them exercising this gift out of a desire to see others converted to Christ. There are other men in the denomination who have a breadth of knowledge in historical theology. Whenever I am wrestling through a particular issue, one of the most helpful things for me to do is call them or have a conversation with them about how that issue was relevant in the history of the church. This is true in almost every sphere of life and ministry.
2. Even the most intelligent and godly individuals have blind spots. I have many times heard fathers in the faith, whom I greatly respect for their experience and knowledge, make less than informed statements that left me asking myself, “Why in the world would he say that?” Every one of us has clay feet. Every one of us is often wrong. The most learned, experienced and diligent men and women are still finite, sinful creatures. This means that we must learn to seek out counsel from numerous mentors who will help us think through issues more carefully. After all, “the simple believes every word, But the prudent considers well his steps” (Prov. 14:15).
One of the ways that we can avoid the blind spots of our mentors is by seeking out mentors from a diversity of camps within our denomination. Because of our propensity to join together and commit to one particular camp within our ecclesiastical circle (which is inevitable and not always a bad thing), we need to be able to seek counsel from men who move in different social and ecclesiastical circles. In this way, we will get differing perspectives and will be more equipped to see what our mentors sometimes fail to see.
3. We should want to become a beneficial mentor to others. The more that we are mentored, the more we are being equipped to mentor others. My dad used to pray that God would make us wise beyond our years. The way in which that prayer is answered is by the Lord giving us a heart for the Scriptures and by placing wiser and godlier men and women in our lives to help instruct us. The end result should not be in our thinking we are now better than others or more successful than others–rather, it should be in our seeking to pour into the lives of others and to share with them what the Lord has taught us through our interactions with our mentors. The benefits accrued from being mentored by others should be passed on to our children, friends, and parishioners. In fact, there should be a cumulative effect that results in forthcoming generations being more wise and knowledgeable than the one in which we live. If our desire is to bring glory to God by being the wisest and godliest men and women we can be, our desire should be to bring Him glory by pouring into the lives of others to help them attain that same goal.
These are only a few of the reasons why men and women–especially young men in, or pursuing, ministry–should seek out a multiplicity of mentors and counselors. Of this much we may be sure–we will be better for it, our families will be better for it, our friends will be better for it and the church will be better for it. May the Lord give us humble and teachable hearts to seek out a multiplicity of mentors.
This post first appeared at Nick’s blog.
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Not that long ago, a friend of mine who is church planting told me that one of the ministers in the church planting network to which he belongs told him, “You have to position yourself around guys who are excelling and who are well connected in order to get ahead in the church.” The minister was not saying this with any degree of criticism. I remember the deep sorrow I felt when I heard what this man had said to my friend. However, much to our shame, our actions reveal the sad reality that–in differing degrees and at differing seasons–we all think the same way. We all want to get to the top.
When our first parents stretched out their hands to take of the tree of which God commanded them not to eat they were seeking after a greatness that belongs to God alone. Ever since the fall, men have given the greater part of the time and energy to seeking to supplant others–and to propel themselves forward–in every area of life. There is a seemingly insatiable quest for greatness lodged deep within the sinful hearts of all men and women. We are often blind to the reality of it in our own lives. We might think that once we are redeemed by Christ this quest would be immediately eliminated, but sadly this is not the case. In order to help us examine ourselves, the Holy Spirit saw fit to include in the Gospel narratives a picture of it for us drawn out of the lives of the disciples. Consider the following ways in which Scripture teaches us how this insidious reality manifests itself in the lives of God’s people:
1. Seeking to Use Jesus to Get to the Top. There are three accounts that reveal this seemingly insatiable quest for greatness in the lives of the disciples. The first of these is found in the account of James and John putting their mother up to the task of asking Jesus to let them sit one on His right and one on His left in glory (Matt. 20:21; Mark 10:37). James and John not only wanted personal greatness, they sought to use the greatness of the Savior to get it. They were so subtle in their sinful desire that they put their mother up to asking Jesus for them, rather than going to him themselves. This reveals the sinister nature of the sinful quest for greatness that often lies in the hearts of believers.
The second is the seen in Peter’s statement to Jesus, “See, we have left all and followed You. Therefore what shall we have” (Matt. 19:27)? Peter was seeking greatness as a reward for what he viewed as personal sacrifice. Peter had convinced himself that he deserved a little piece of the greatness pie for having given things up to follow Jesus. Instead he should have said what Jacob said to the Lord: “I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies and of all the truth which You have shown Your servant” (Gen. 32:10).
Finally, it is seen in Peter’s statement to Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. After seeing the inexpressible glory of Jesus on the mount, Peter said, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. Let us make three Tabernacles–one for You, one for Moses and one for Elijah” (Matt. 17:4). The Holy Spirit moved Luke to add the words “not knowing what he said” to help us see the great problem with Peter’s statement. Peter was essentially saying, “Forget about the other disciples; forget about Your need to go to the cross for the redemption of the world; forget about the mission for which you have chosen us to be messengers to take the message of Your substitutionary death to the world (interestingly the very thing of which Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah about on the Mount – Luke 9:31); we should just bask in our own greatness and personal privileges here with You, Jesus–together with Moses and Elijah.” While the worst part of Peters’ statement was His functional denial of the exclusivity of Jesus, the problem of the quest for personal greatness surfaced once again.
2. Asserting Ourselves and Our Gifts. There is another important account in the Gospel records that captures this quest for greatness. Just after coming down from the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus taught His disciples about His forthcoming sufferings (Mark 9:30-31). Immediately after telling them of His saving work the disciples are said to have argued with each other on the road (Mark 9:33). It was Jesus who drew out of the disciples what it was that they had been arguing about. Mark tells us that He asked them what they were discussing as they traveled. Matthew Henry helpfully observed that “Christ will be sure to reckon with his disciples for their disputes about precedency and superiority.” Instead of telling Jesus, “they kept silent, for on the road they had disputed among themselves who would be the greatest” (Mark 9:34). The disciples were not interested in the Savior’s greatness, they were interested in arguing about which of them had more gifts and who would be rewarded the most for their labors. The quest for greatness flies in the face of Jesus’ sacrificial death.
Then there is the account of the disciples sinful desire for self-promotion juxtaposed against the background of the symbolism of the Savior’s selfless sacrifice in the Upper Room. No sooner did Jesus institute the Supper (Luke 22:14-20) and predict that one of the disciples would betray Him (22:21-22) that they began to argue with each other again about who was the greatest (Luke 22:24). The sin of self-aggrandizing is exacerbated by the initial response of the disciples to Jesus’ revelation that one of them would betray Him. With no interruption, the disciples go from “questioning among themselves, which of them it was who would do this thing” (22:23) to debating “which of them should be considered the greatest” (Luke 22:24). Instead of being humbled to the dust by the fact that Jesus had just acted out before their eyes what He would soon suffer for them, and, instead of being distrusting of themselves on account of Jesus’ warning, the disciples argued with each other about which of them was greater.
3. Teaming Up with Others to Get Ahead. There is also the subtle danger of latching on–with a party spirit–to others who are excelling in order to get to the top. This is perhaps the most common and subtle danger in our own day. It can fly imperceptibly under the name of “biblical fidelity” or “concern for good.” Often it manifests itself in men saying things like, “No one else is doing what we are doing,” or “We just want to be faithful to this aspect of minister as over against everybody else.” It can also manifest itself in someone pointing out flaws in others in order to exalt their own ministerial camp in the name of “excellence.” Such was the error of the Corinthians. They weighed the gifts and emphases of the various well known apostles and ministers and began to form factions in the name of one or another. Some said, “I am of Paul,” others, “I am of Apollos,” still others, “I am of Cephas,” and then the “Über pious” said, “I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 1:12; 3:4). The Apostle uncovers the root of this problem in 1 Corinthians 4:7 when he says, “Who makes you differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” It was not simply a liking of one style of preaching over another that was the issue–it was a quest to be superior to others, riding on the coattails of ministers who excelled in giftedness. The real problem was a sinful desire to get ahead of others.
There is one thing–and one only–that can quench this seemingly insatiable quest, namely, the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. It has always convicted and humbled me to think that all the accounts above are set against the background of the saving work of Christ. The greatest failings in the hearts of the disciples were, in each case, set in direct proximity to the remedy. Whether it was in their arguing about who was greatest immediately after Jesus predicted His death and resurrection in word and sacrament or in Peter’s statement on the Mount of Transfiguration where Jesus revealed who He was and what He came to do or in their seeking to team up with those who excelled in preaching Christ, the same insatiable desire for greatness clouded their seeing the One who excels all others and whose work is the most excellent of all works.
Nevertheless, the message of the cross is the only thing that can root out the desire for self-aggrandizing greatness. We must labor to return to Calvary every second of every day. When our hearts are gripped by the grace of God in the gospel we will seek to serve others rather than supplant them–to exalt Christ rather than exalt ourselves. Instead of using Jesus, asserting ourselves and our gifts or teaming up with others to get to the top, the cross teaches us to go low. Jesus teaches us the following principle: “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). The way up is the way down. May God remove from our hearts the seemingly insatiable quest for greatness and grant that we learn of our Savior and from our Savior this supremely important lesson.
This post was first posted at Nick’s blog and is posted here with permission.
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