Kings and Christian Leadership: An Introduction

ZahrtmannWhen it comes to contemporary Christian leadership material, experience has unfortunately lead me to expect two things: (1) sparing as well as shallow biblical exegesis and (2) an oversubscription to trendy business and management literature along with secular leadership principles. I previously wrote a post addressed to church leaders sounding a caution against worldly wisdom, considering the Bible’s language about wisdom contrast with God’s. One of my conclusions in that post was, “Wisdom in the New Testament comes from God by prayer, can be found in Scripture and empowers Christians for faithful service.” But much so-called Christian leadership seems unapologetically shaped by the world rather than the Word.

One of the reasons for what I have outlined above can be traced back to doubts over the sufficiency of Scripture. Of course, it would never be articulated as such. But it is evident in common and reductionistic approaches to the Bible. Some will say that the Bible informs our message but not our practice—after all, it was written for another time. Thus I’ve heard comments from pastors like, “We can change anything in church but the gospel.” Martin Kähler famously warned against the view of the Gospels that makes them into little more than passion narratives with long introductions. Are we guilty of treating the entire Bible as a passion narrative with an incredibly long introduction? Either the Bible is singularly a book about the gospel – as in Christ’s death and resurrection – or it is sufficient to equip God’s people for all of life (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Perhaps you think I am being unfair. Maybe you have heard talks and read books on leadership that drew on the pastoral epistles (1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus). I hope that is true. I tried to develop some thoughts on leadership from 2 Peter, here. But when last did you hear about leadership from the Old Testament? When I recently sat down to write a paper on Christian leadership and Old Testament kingship I could think of only one passage that received anything more than short thrift: Exodus 18. In that chapter, Moses is overwhelmed by the needs of Israel. So Jethro, his father-in-law, urges him to appoint leaders to assist in the task. In other words, Moses delegated responsibility. But I find it hard to believe that all the Old Testament teaches about leadership is the necessity of delegation.

More than two thirds of the Bible is essentially passed over when Christian leadership is addressed. ‘Yes,’ you may retort, ‘That is because Israel was a theocracy not a church community. They had prophets, priests, kings and judges.’ Exactly. Despite Israel’s quite unique status, the nation was governed and lead by people. In fact, some scholars have gone as far as saying that Joshua through 2 Kings is primarily about leadership. If this is right, we must go beyond reductionistic approaches that consider how alike or unlike Christ those leaders were—how to they pointed to Christ in both their successes and failures. We are talking about a rich theology of leadership, where there is far more than principles for delegation to learn.

In the upcoming weeks I hope to draw out some theological principles regarding leadership, from 1 Kings 1-11. But I want to bring this post to an end with some points for reflection, tying back to my opening paragraph. Leadership in Old Testament Israel was meant to be markedly unlike that of the nations surrounding her. There is plenty of material dealing with kingship and politics from the ancient near East, and the Old Testament stands apart in significant ways. This should immediately raise concerns over Christian leadership that draws from and is shaped by the world’s view of leadership. One of the ways Israel was meant to distinct was in the manner of her leaders. Note that when Israel implore Samuel for a king they ask, “Appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations” (1 Samuel 8:5). There are at least two problems with their request, the first is explicit and the second implicit. Firstly, Yahweh says, “They have rejected me from being king over them” (8:7). Secondly, Yahweh describes what kind of king they will receive (8:9-17), concluding, “In that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves” (8:18). A king chosen by the standards of other kings with rule in kind. The application for and warnings regarding Christian leadership are obvious.

It is not that the establishment of Israel’s monarchy caught Yahweh off guard. Consider Deuteronomy 17:18-20, “And when [the king] sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.” In many ways, the king of Israel was barely distinguished from common Israelites. Sure he possessed a judicial office. But his kingship was not defined by pomp and power, the trappings typical of other monarchs (see Deuteronomy 17:14-17). At the end of the day, the king of Israel was under God’s law and he was required to set an example of fidelity, obedience and appropriate fear. Likewise, a Christian leader must be above reproach, evidently submissive to Scripture.

In a short biographical piece about the horror author H. P. Lovecraft, Michel Houellebecq said that Lovecraft is a visceral example of someone who succeeded in his work but failed at life. As I will argue in the upcoming posts, Solomon fits that description well. But this cannot be the case for Christian leaders, who are warned to watch both their life and doctrine closely (1 Timothy 4:16). There is no succeeding at ministry but failing at the Christian life. I wonder if the growing appeal of Christian leadership material is that it presents a vision for ministry that is alluringly pragmatic— promising results and outputs based on inputs. But success in ministry, just as the shape of Old Testament kingship, is far more concerned about the life and beliefs of leaders than their successful strategies snatched from the world.

Who is YHWH?

Normally when we read the Old Testament (which doesn’t happen too often for most of us), we are moving too quickly to notice details that make sentences sound weird. We tend to allow sentences like Exodus 15:3 (“The Lord is a warrior; // the Lord is his name”) or Amos 9:6 (“He summons the water of the sea and pours it out on the earth’s surface. // The Lord is his name”) to wash over us. But, when we read these verses together, it is hopefully surprising to hear that his name is “the Lord.”

There’s a long history as to why but in both of these verses, “the Lord” is actually a translation of the name of God in Hebrew (YHWH – probably vocalised as “Yahweh”). Because this is probably familiar ground for many readers, I will simply note that the Greek Old Testament uses “Lord” like the English does and most English translations use small capital letters to mark out the divine name in the OT. The name “YHWH” only occurs in the OT because it’s a Hebrew word and the NT authors, writing in Greek, use “Lord” (that’s probably, at least in part, because they were concerned about keeping the commandment against taking the Lord’s (YHWH’s) name in vain. In the rest of the post I will use Lord and YHWH interchangeably.

So the name of the “Lord” in the OT is actually YHWH, but this raises an interesting question:

To whom does “YHWH” refer?

The answer to the question is not immediately obvious. If it seems obvious, pause and recall that Christianity affirms a Triune God. Now try to answer the question again. In my experience, most people read as though YHWH refers to the Father. After all, Jesus only comes in the NT and, for the most part, the Holy Spirit only seems to do stuff in the NT as well. What’s more, in the OT they didn’t know about the Trinity, they only knew that there was only one God.

But why should YHWH refer to the Father in particular?

The challenge and point of this post is to have you read YHWH as a reference to the Triune Godhead—Father, Son and Spirit, all at once!

Three Reasons to Read LORD as a Reference to the Trinity

First, because the Son and the Spirit are active in the OT. Often we hear that both Son and Spirit are active in creation but this is true through all of history because one of the things we know theologically is that if Father, Son and Spirit are truly one God, their activity is inseparable. Theologians refer to this as “inseparable operations” and explain it by saying that the Father acts in history by the Son and through the Spirit—what those prepositions mean in reality, I do not know, but they tell me that the Father does not act independently of the Son or of the Spirit. Reading “YHWH” as a reference to the Trinity acknowledges that the Godhead is active in the OT.

Second, the OT gives no reason to assume that the name of God should refer to only one member of the Trinity. Of course, OT believers didn’t understand the Trinity but this only reinforces the point: OT believers believed in one God who we now know to be Triune. If they thought the one God’s name was YHWH, surely that name would refer to the One Triune God?

Third, there are times in the NT where an OT passage that uses the name YHWH is quoted and the NT applies it to Jesus. For example, in Romans 10:13 Paul tellingly quotes Joel 2:32 saying “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”. In Joel “the Lord” is YHWH but just a few verses earlier Paul was pretty clear that “If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom 10:9). The point here is that it’s correct to say “Jesus is God” but not “God is Jesus” because God is Triune and Jesus is one member of that Trinity.

Let me repeat that I don’t think OT believers would have understood this. But I do think that reading those capitalised references to “the LORD” as a reference to the Trinity will help us remember that Jesus and the Father are not the loving/angry independent, contradictory sides of God. It will remind us that God is fundamentally relational because he exists in Trinity.

This post has a bonus point though. One of the core convictions of Christianity is that we know God (the Triune God) through Jesus who reveals him to us. Think of what Jesus says of himself in John 1:18, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” Those are confusing words but Jesus says similar things throughout John’s gospel. He is the one who reveals God to the world. So maybe, just maybe, if YHWH is the revelation of God in the OT, we should consider reading YHWH as a reference to the second person of the Trinity: the Son, rather than the Father or even the Godhead as a whole! Right now I prefer the Trinitarian option, but this alternative certainly seems possible.

P. S. If you’re interested in thinking about why the Trinity is important – I wrote about that a while ago here.

7 Lessons on Wisdom and Wealth from Proverbs

Motivating a building project at your church? Preaching series in Nehemiah. Financial giving is dropping off? Pulpit thumping sermons from Malachi. And whatever the occasion, in and out of season, have Jeremiah 29:11 handy. Though said tongue-in-cheek, this is tragically how the Old Testament is often treated and taught, as little more than a collection of unrelated stories, poetry and laws to prop up whatever we need it to. This is no different when it comes to the book of Proverbs, which seems to promise wealth to all who are obedient to God and ply his wisdom. But in the seven short points below I hope to persuade you that it is more nuanced than that.

1. God blesses the wise with wealth (3:9-10, 15-16; 10:22)

WisdomThis is an unavoidable conclusion as you read the book of Proverbs. But we must remember that the genre of wisdom employs principles that are generally true rather than unconditional promises and strict formulas. Material gain will result from wisdom, for God rewards those who honour and obey him. Furthermore, wealth can make life’s challenges easier to navigate (10:15-16). Thus wealth is both a blessing of wisdom and one that when wisely put to use greatly assists us in living. Because God orders our universe, our actions have consequences; this is positively seen when wisdom results in material blessing.

2. Foolish behaviour leads to poverty (10:4-5; 6:6-11)

This is vividly portrayed in the contrast between the hard worker and the sluggard (26:13-15). While laziness is the primary reason given for poverty in Proverbs, other follies are given: over-indulgence (21:17); oppression of the poor (22:16); even being frugal or stingy (11:24). This means that though folly or laziness might be the cause of poverty, it is not necessarily the cause (see point four). In Proverbs, God urges us to be productive not lazy. Contrast with the point above, God’s wisely ordered universe means that, generally speaking: if you are foolish and lazy, you will suffer want.

3. The wealth of fools will not last (13:11; 21:6; 22:16; 23:4-5)

Proverbs raises the tension of the wealthy wicked or rich fools and righteous sufferers (also see Psalm 73). This is an uncomfortable and confronting question that arises from a mere glance at our world. But 11:18 reads, “Evil people get rich for the moment, but the reward of the godly will last.” Money is not as precious as right living for it cannot avert judgment (11:4). Despite God blessing the wise with wealth, it cannot be your security, nor should you conclude from your wealth that you are righteous. Sinners can be wealthy while the wise suffer. The ultimate difference between those two groups of people in Proverbs is not how much they have but who they serve, which God they worship.

4. Poverty is often the result of injustice and oppression

Wisdom involves knowing when laziness is the cause of poverty as opposed to circumstances or injustice (13:23). Since God’s world isn’t mechanical and the human condition is complex, the poor person might be wiser than the wealthy (16:8). “The rich and the poor have this in common: the LORD made them both (22:2). Therefore, poverty is not necessarily the fruit of laziness or folly. The Bible knows many righteous and godly people who suffered greatly with persevering faith and integrity. Jesus comes to mind first. It is therefore a terribly reductionistic, not to mention far from biblical, assumption that poverty and suffering are the results of a lack of wisdom, or faith.

5. Those with money must be generous (29:7; 3:27-28)

This principle is surely not one many would need to be convinced of; while neither Old or New Testament people of God practised communism they were expected to share the wealth God had entrusted to them. There are rewards and blessings for being generous (29:14; 28:27; 11:24). This idea is picked up by Paul in 2 Corinthians 8-9. In both Old and New Testaments we must recognise that being generous in order to get something in return is not actually generosity; it is selfishness. Again, because Proverbs presents us with generally true cases: generosity is not a formula for gaining wealth. We do not seek blessings from God through generosity, rather we should seek to bless others generously, doing so wisely (6:1-5).

6. Wisdom is better than wealth (3:14-16)

Proverbs makes things relative using better-than forms (15:16, 17; 16:8, 16; 17:1; 22:1; 28:6). Repeatedly the book insists that wealth ranks far beneath godly fear of the LORD. Furthermore, Proverbs provides numerous characteristics that are more important than having wealth: peace (15:16; 17:1), loving relationships (15:17); honesty (16:8; 28:6); and a good reputation (22:1). These flow from wisdom (16:16), which is almost synonymous with reverent fear of the LORD (15:16) and godliness (16:8). So while wisdom may not necessarily bear the fruit of wealth it should shape how we live, to love others and trust God.

7. Wealth has limited value (11:4)

Tremper Longman IIIWisdom enacted in right living keeps us from dangerous situations (6:34; 2:11). But wealth can be troublesome (13:8), exposing the rich to scorn (19:10) and bringing false friends (14:20). All of our points above, taken together with this final one, should warn us that it is foolish to: measure faith by wealth; to think that wisdom (and our relationship with God) is a means to wealth; and that we should pursue wealth above godliness, virtue and generosity. God has much greater things in store for us than those that can be stolen, rust and cannot last into eternity.

This post originally appeared at Christ Church Umhlanga. I have reposted it here with a few alterations because the original was lost when major structural changes were made to that website. Most of the material is gleaned from How to Read Proverbs by Tremper Longman III.

Thank God for the Old Testament

Icon HabakkukHabakkuk opens with a question, “O LORD, how long shall I cry out for help and you will not hear?” But I imagine many people were asking another question as we started a three part preaching series in the book: “Why Habakkuk?” This was certainly the opinion of one older man in my church, proving that grey hairs are not synonymous with wisdom or maturity. But if you look at your Bible side on and split it at the page between the Old and New Testaments you will notice that the Old accounts for more than three quarters of God’s Word. Either God is a prodigious abuser of words and trees or he wants us to read all of Scripture.

Sadly, today many churches and those in them consider the Old Testament to be outdated, irrelevant, and too confusing to be of any real worth for living and following after our Lord Jesus Christ. This has lead to the call for the 21st century church to unhitch from the Old Testament. Others are less bold, expressing their low view of the Old Testament more subtly as a preference for the New Testament. This was clearly illustrated to me recently when someone thanked me for choosing to study James in our home groups after a trudging term in Amos. Unfortunately these attitudes are out of whack with Christ himself, who said in Luke 24 that the law, prophets, and writings (the Old Testament) testify to him. Very briefly, by looking at two New Testament passages and making two linked points, I hope to convince you of the God-given value possessed by the Old Testament, from Amos to Zechariah.

1. The Old Testament testifies to Jesus Christ

The apostle Peter writes in his first epistle, “Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow” (1 Peter 1:10-11). The Old Testament speaks of Christ, both in anticipation and even by explaining aspects of his life, death, and resurrection. When we read the Old Testament one of the questions we should be asking is: ‘How is this fulfilled in Christ?’ or ‘How does this point to him?’ Peter goes on,  “It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel” (1 Peter 1:12). Therefore, in God’s wisdom the Old Testament given to the nation of Israel is also for his church today, which brings us to our second point.

2. The Old Testament was written for Christians

Listen to 2 Peter 1:19, “We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” Here Peter calls the prophetic message of the Old Testament as something we should pay attention to. At best, most Christians are happy to consider the Old Testament reliable, because what was promised about the future has reached a partial culmination in Christ. But that is to wrongly limit three quarters of the Bible to foretelling Christ, stripping it of any importance or relevance today, for the Christian church. This is a huge mistake, tantamount to confusing Nahum (an Old Testament minor prophet) with Nostradamus. We must not lose sight of the prophets as a light shining in the present to which we must look, which is how Peter describes them. It is for this reason that Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 that the Old Testament is profitable or useful in teaching and equipping us how to live.

In conclusion, the entire Old Testament is inspired by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:20-21). That explains the anticipation and promise of Christ but also impresses on us that it is for God’s people today. So let’s read it in order to have our faith in Christ enriched and learn how to live for Christ while we wait for his return.

Chris Pratt: The Church’s Responsibility to the Next Generation

Generation AwardAppearing repeatedly on my social media feeds this week was Chris Pratt’s speech, after accepting the MTV Generation Award. What has garnered a lot of attention was his ninth rule for living: if we are willing to accept that we are imperfect then we can experience grace. “Grace is a gift, and like the freedom we enjoy in this country that grace was paid for with someone else’s blood. Do not forget it. Don’t take it for granted.” Putting aside the fact that Pratt accomplished in 15 seconds what Bishop Michael Curry failed to do in 15 minutes at the Royal Wedding, I want to pick up Pratt’s understanding of this particular award and the expectation tied to it. Pratt said, “This being the Generation Award I’m going to cut to the chase and I’m going to speak to you, the next generation. I accept the responsibility as your elder.”

Having recently had our first child, the reality of being responsible for the next generation has become both unavoidable and uncomfortable. I confess it is very likely an indication of my own selfishness that no meaningful thought on this task preceded the arrival of my son, which is to sideline the New Testament model that makes older and more mature Christians responsible for the younger. Pratt seems to understand this call in an age when many Christians only invest in their peers and the nuclear family. In 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You, Tony Reinke argues that one of the imperative responsibilities we have for future generations is the discerning use of pervasive technology. If we fail in this area those follow us will suffer the consequences. But I want to highlight another responsibility we have towards the next generation, specifically in the church.

God's WordIn the Old Testament book of Amos one of the themes that emerges is Israel’s rejection of God’s truth. As God’s covenant people Israel were entrusted with God’s law and expected to live in accordance with it (2:4-5). His law should have governed their lives and given shape to their worship. Yahweh also sent prophets but Israel silenced them (2:12; 3:7), hating those who spoke God’s truth (5:10). Appropriating Paul’s words in Romans 1, Israel exchanged God’s truth for a lie, for idols, and in order to live independently of God’s rule. How did this happen? As Amaziah said to the prophet in Amos 7, God’s words were unpleasant and uninspiring. They were burdensome, ‘Come on Amos, your unhealthy fixation on sin and insistence on God’s judgment simply isn’t what Israel want to hear. You need to adapt your message for the people, for the culture and their felt needs.’ But listen to Amos’ reply: The LORD took me from following the flock and said to me, “Go prophesy to my people” (7:15). The popularity of God’s truth does not alter its significance.

What is the outcome of Israel’s rejection of God’s truth? Look at Amos 8:11, “I will send a famine on the land—not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD.” He goes on in 8:12 to describe people desperately searching for a word from God without finding or hearing it. D. A. Carson comments on these verses, “The point is that people who do not devote themselves to the words of God eventually lose them. The loss is catastrophic.”

What does any of this have to do with Chris Pratt or the next generation? In the next verse we are told that by abandoning by the words of God and God allowing that decision spells death for the generation to come, “the lovely virgins and strong men” (8:13). Israel’s rejection of God’s truth, his life-giving word, would lead to spiritual death and exile. Part of this tragedy we often miss is that those who came next would suffer a similar fate. The next generation will experience God’s silence and judgment because the current one had abandoned God’s truth. This should jolt us from our complacency and impress on us the responsibilities we have for the next generation in the church. The church that undervalues God’s gospel, contained in his inspired and true Word, brings death on the generations that will follow. The church that undervalues the Bible is not relevant, they are robbing the next generation of hearing from God.

Malachi on Divorce, Godly Offspring, and the Gospel

Two months ago I responded to an article posted by Tim Challies. He developed a few points made by Christopher Ash, in Married for God, arguing that it is sinful for married couples to deliberately not have children (you can see my brief response here). Another arrow in the quiver of those who are convinced married couples must at least attempt to have children is found in Malachi 2. With our home groups working through the post-exilic prophet, I have enjoyed much time for reflection on the book of Malachi. The ESV reads, “Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth” (2:15). In case you missed it: God desires children from marriage.

Duccio di BuoninsegnaHowever, a few comments are necessary before concluding what this passage might say. Firstly, the Hebrew is messier than a two-year-old’s attempt to write out a physics equation. In his technical commentary, Douglas Stuart admits: “It is not at all clear what point(s) three-fourths of verse 15 is making.” The only clause that is not disputed is the last, “Do not be unfaithful to your childhood wife.” This disagreement over rendering becomes apparent when comparing the ESV (above, similarly NIV) with the NET, “What did our ancestors do when seeking a child from God?” The ESV makes God the subject of the verb ‘to seek,’ whereas the NET makes Israel’s forebears the subject. Douglas Stuart confirms this ambiguity, offering: ‘Israelites who divorced and remarried were (vainly) seeking godly offspring,’ as another potential rendering. Considering just how contested this text is, we would do well to treat it cautiously and not dogmatically.

Our second consideration is the larger context of this verse. Nearly every commentator agrees that it belongs to the larger section of 2:10-16, where Israel is being castigated for its faithlessness (2:10, 11, 14, 15, and 16). This faithlessness is expressed in two sections: firstly, intermarriage and spiritual syncretism (2:10-12); secondly, divorce without good reason (2:13-16). Our embattled verse falls into the latter. Therefore if we decide to go with the more traditional rendering of the 2:15 (ESV and NIV), which says God desires godly offspring, we must locate it within Malachi’s reproach for those who are divorcing. We could then give the general sense of our verse like this: ‘Don’t divorce because God is seeking godly offspring.’ This would mean that the emphasis is not so much on God desiring children from marriage as much as it highlights to the spiritual devastation divorce does to the effected children.

This line of thought fits with the explicit purpose God ascribes to marriage in the New Testament (Ephesians 5:22-33), though undoubtedly consistent with the Old Testament (Hosea). Marriage is an expression of the gospel. Christ’s self-giving love and unconditional love for the church is an expression of Yahweh’s faithfulness to the covenant Israel repeatedly broke. The gospel is pictured in unbroken marriages, kept vows and selfless love. God hates divorce because it is antithetical to that purpose; marriage is driven by grace while divorce in some ways denies it. A repeated contrast in Malachi is between Yahweh’s faithfulness and Israel’s faithlessness. Divorce is not merely an indication of Israel’s moral collapse; it is detrimental to their children’s picture of God’s faithfulness, his grace and the gospel.