Eight years ago, in the summer of 2006, I horrified a group of my colleagues. We were delegates to General Synod, which is the Reformed Church’s equivalent to the Presbyterian General Assembly. A number of us were out for a walk one night, and I made the statement—in response to what, I don’t recall—that the job of the pastor is to be crucified for the congregation. You would have thought I’d set off a bomb.
It wasn’t that they thought I had delusions of grandeur; they knew me well enough to know that I didn’t think of myself (or any of them) as some sort of messiah. Rather, they reacted to it as a highly uncomfortable view of pastoral ministry. I didn’t disagree, but I don’t see any way around it if you’re going to be faithful to Scripture. Jesus says, as we read a few weeks ago, “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” Paul makes clear in 1 Timothy that Christian leadership is about modeling and imitation; the basic principle is one which he states concisely in 1 Corinthians 11:1: “Follow my pattern of life as I follow the pattern of Christ.” We can’t learn to live like Christ just by reading about it, even though the book we read was written by God. We need to see it lived out, which is why God didn’t just give us his word, he also gave us his people.
The first job of those of us called to be elders and deacons for the church—including pastors, as we are called teaching elders—is to be models of the life of Jesus. Yes, we’re all most imperfect models, but we need to be committed to that purpose; and part of our calling is to model the right way to respond when we do sin and fall short of the measure of Christ. We are humble sinners saved only by grace who need grace from the Lord and from his church, just as much as anyone is, and we need to show by our lives what it means to live openly and honestly in that way. Beyond that, if we want to lead the church to be faithful to Jesus’ call to take up the cross and follow him, we need to do that ourselves. To lead the church on the road to the cross, we have to walk that road in our own lives, on our own two feet.
Reality is, though, that there aren’t many pastors, elders, or deacons who consistently lead in this way, for one simple reason: fear. We’re afraid of the pain and the rejection, for one thing. More than that, we’ve bought into the world’s idea that authority comes from success, and from being better and doing things better than other people. We’re afraid, quite understandably, that if we humble ourselves to be honest about our sins, our failures, our weaknesses, and the things of which we are ashamed, that we will lose our authority and no one will want to follow us. It doesn’t actually work that way, surprisingly enough. I recall, for example, one pastor of a large church writing about the day he had a nervous breakdown in the middle of a sermon, got disoriented, and walked off the stage and out of the building. Not only was it not the end of his ministry there, it was a new beginning that launched a time of great blessing for the congregation. Still, reading stories like that is one thing, and believing them at a gut level is another.
This is a loss to the church, because fear cripples us. It pulls us away from living by faith in Jesus, and it compromises our message. We hold back from speaking the truth, or we minimize it in hopes that we can avoid making anyone unhappy, because we’re afraid of how others will respond. That makes us fake, and it drives us toward legalism. In so doing, fear strips the church of its power.
The contrast with Peter and John in Acts 4 couldn’t be sharper. Granted, their reasons for fear boiled down to one—opposition from the Jewish leaders. At the same time, that was a mighty strong reason, since these were the same people who’d gotten Jesus crucified just a couple months earlier. They had a lot more to be afraid of than any of us do, and yet they didn’t stop talking about Jesus and they didn’t back down even an inch. If anything, in verses 19-20 they upped the ante. Whether or not they felt fear, they didn’t act out of fear—and as we see in verse 13, it was the fearlessness of their response that really rocked the Jewish leaders back on their heels.
How did they do it? Look at verses 23-31. First off, they understood and accepted what road they were on. They knew they were following one whom God had sent to be crucified, and that doing so meant that they too were likely to suffer, and they took that as part of the price they would have to pay to follow Jesus. They knew Jesus was more than worth the price, because “salvation is found in no one else; there is no other name under heaven given among human beings by which we must be saved.” They knew that the life God gives is worth suffering any death this world can give.
Second, they prayed that God would make them fearless to preach the gospel even in the face of the Jewish leaders’ threats. They didn’t decide to give up and go away, or even to back off for a while. They didn’t pray for protection so that they could preach about Jesus without having to suffer. Instead, they asked God to enable them to keep bearing witness to him despitesuffering.
Third, they prayed that God would continue to validate their preaching in his name with miraculous signs and wonders. Part of the reason they were so confident in proclaiming the gospel is that they believed God could and would back them up. That’s why here and elsewhere in the New Testament, miracles are called “signs.” We put up signs so that we know what road we’re driving on, or what that item is and how much it costs. The miracles we see in Acts were signs God put up so that those who heard the word of Jesus Christ would know what they were hearing: the truth, straight from God.
Note what happened when they prayed: “the place where they were meeting was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.” God gave them a sign that he was with them and would answer their prayer, and he then began to do so in that very moment. Now, why did they need to be filled with the Spirit when they were filled with the Spirit just two chapters earlier? The great evangelist D. L. Moody put it best. When asked if he was filled with the Holy Spirit, he replied, “Yes, but I leak.”
To some extent, we’re supposed to. The Spirit fills us in order to move through us into the lives of others. On the down side, there are also the effects of all the distractions of the world. Whatever the particular circumstances, we always need to keep going back to God in prayer that we may be filled by the Holy Spirit again and again, for this day and this circumstance and this trial.
Here’s the key point: when the Spirit fills us, we are fearless, because he’s the Spirit of the perfect love of God, and perfect love casts out fear—and it’s in that fearlessness that the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ is most powerful. When the Spirit of God fills us, we can deny ourselves and take up our cross to follow Jesus without fearing that we’re missing out or losing out, because he enables us to see that the joy set before us is worth the pain. When we face suffering without backing down, without letting ourselves be diverted from following Jesus either to flee or to fight, but accepting it and continuing to praise God and proclaim his truth, then the world sees something in us that it can’t explain. It’s easy for the world to dismiss our faith as a crutch when believing in God is easy. When it means carrying the cross and yet we hold fast to Jesus anyway, it cannot be dismissed. That’s when we look the most like Jesus; and Jesus is who the world needs to see.