Walking with Jesus: Devotional Readings for Lent and Eastertide

On March 1st, many Christians around the world will begin observing the season of Lent, a period of forty days of preparation (not counting Sundays) leading up to the greatest day of the church year – the feast of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. This feast begins yet another forty day season – Eastertide, which commemorates the forty days Jesus spent on earth with his disciples before his ascension into heaven.

stained-glass-1234424As with Advent and Christmastide, our family takes a break from reading through the whole Bible in our daily devotions to follow a special reading plan for Lent and Eastertide. Every Sunday throughout these seasons, we read a psalm that depicts the Messiah’s sufferings (during Lent) and victory (during Eastertide). In addition, on the weekdays of Lent we read through the entire Gospel of Mark.

Of course, unlike Advent and Christmas, many evangelicals are wary of Lent, and with some reason. For much of Christian history, Lent has primarily been a time of mandatory fasting. Because the Bible nowhere commands such a practice, the protestant reformers rightly championed the freedom of Christians to ignore the ecclesiastical laws prohibiting the consumption of meat during Lent. Many of the churches that embraced their recovery of biblical teaching have thus downplayed or outright opposed the celebration of Lent.

I am in full agreement with this response to the imposition of extra-biblical requirements. After all, the Apostle Paul wrote, “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration, or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17). This means that, while fasting is a good and helpful spiritual discipline, no one can tell anyone else when and how they should fast. Observing a man-made festival does not make one a better Christian or more acceptable to God than someone who does not observe it.

All that to say, I don’t think observing Lent (or Easter, or Christmas, or any other traditional festival) is required of believers. But I do think that it can be a useful tool. In particular, I and my family have found the preparation time of Lent to be helpful in underlining the importance of Easter. This matters, because Easter really gets the short end of the stick. Whether it’s the fact that the date of Easter moves around in a wacky and arcane way (it depends on the calculation of “ecclesiastical new moons“) or because the birth of a baby is easier to incorporate into superficial religiosity than the death and resurrection of the Son of God, Christmas is a much bigger deal in our culture and our churches than Easter, which is much more central to our faith.

In our family, we treat Lent in somewhat the same way as Advent – a time of preparation. As with Advent, we light candles at dinnertime. Only this time, instead of lighting more candles as we draw near to the celebration of Christ’s incarnation, we begin with seven lit candles in the shape of a cross and then extinguish one each Friday, symbolizing Jesus’ willing laying aside of his glory and humbling himself unto death. Then, on Easter Sunday all the candles are lit again and continue to be lit each evening until Ascension. We also spread out the consumption of our Easter Candy throughout Eastertide to savor the joy of the resurrection. And, of course, we read the Gospel of Mark on the forty weekdays of Lent and Psalms on the Sundays.

We’ve been following this reading plan for the last few years, and we’ve really found it a great way to renew our focus on Jesus and to dig deeper as a family into knowing him through his word. Mark is probably the earliest and certainly the shortest and most action-oriented of the four gospels, and our kids really get into hearing the story of Jesus directly from the Bible. The readings from Mark are mostly fairly short (though they get longer during Holy Week), and I’ve endeavored to organize them into groups that reflect the structure and message of Mark. The Psalms are selected especially on the basis of their use in the New Testament as prophesies or foreshadowings of the Messiah. We would love to have you join us in this devotional journey, either as an individual or as a family. If you’d like to give it a try you can download it here.

It is my prayer that God would use his word to draw my family and yours into a deeper sense of gratitude for the person and work of Jesus and a greater joy in the salvation we have through his death and resurrection.

Image credit: matt coley, http://www.freeimages.com/photo/stained-glass-1234424

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12 Guiding Principles of Pastoral Ministry

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In my last post, I described the “what” of pastoral ministry. This time around, I want to address the “how.” How does one faithfully fulfill the calling to shepherd God’s people with the gospel of Christ?

But first, one word about why this matters. I don’t usually write about being a pastor. That is because pastors as such are not my target audience; there are many far wiser and more experienced shepherds who are far more qualified than I am to advise other pastors on how to fulfill their calling. My purpose in writing is to help Christians in general grow in Christ.

That said, understanding what pastoral ministry is all about is important for all believers, because all believers are called to a life under the care of pastors in the context of the local church. Knowing what the Bible says about pastors will help you shape your expectations of your current pastors and evaluate potential pastors when you are looking for a new church or considering a new pastor for your current church. And seeing the challenges and temptations that accompany ministry will help you care for and pray for the shepherds God has set over you, so that you may reap the full benefits of their joyful service (Hebrews 13:17).

So, guided by Scripture and with an eye to the needs of the church today, here are 12 principles that guide my approach to pastoral ministry.

1. I am called to proclaim God’s word, not my own. Whether preaching on a Sunday morning, leading a Bible study, or counseling a struggling believer, my message must be thoroughly shaped by the word of God. I believe that the best way to ensure this in my public preaching is to derive both the message and structure of each sermon from a particular passage of Scripture. As a general rule, I prefer to preach sequentially through an entire book of Scripture so that my hearers receive not my favorite topics, but the full scope of the word of God. For this to be true, I must first be continually shaped by Scripture myself. (1 Cor 2:1-5; 2 Tim 3:14-4:5)

2. Pastoral ministry is only one part of a life dedicated to Christ. Before I am a pastor, I am a Christian. My most fundamental calling is to know and glorify God in Christ, not to perform pastoral tasks. This calling includes ministry to my own family and the community at large as well as receiving God’s blessings. I may not allow the demands of the pastorate to crowd out these other facets of my life as a follower of Christ. (Col 4:17; 1 Tim 3:5)

3. I am called to humble and unreserved dependence. This is Christ’s ministry, not mine. Apart from him I can do nothing, but he is able to do infinitely more than all I can ask or think through the power of his Spirit. The knowledge of my weakness should humble me and drive me to my knees, while the knowledge of his sufficiency should give me such confidence and faith that I serve in ways that can only succeed if he is present in power. (John 15:4-5; 2 Cor 4:7; Eph 3:20-21)

4. Pastoral ministry is a shared responsibility. The pattern of the New Testament church is to have a team of elders who work together as peers in the pastoral oversight of the flock under their care. I must recognize that my fellow pastors (including full-time, part-time and unpaid pastor-elders) share equally in the same God-given calling and authority that has been given to me. We are thus accountable to one another, to the congregation as a whole, and to Christ, the Chief Shepherd. (Mark 10:42-45; Acts 14:23; 20:17; Phil 1:1)

5. I am called to do the work of a pastor, not of the whole church. The role of a pastor is to equip the church for the work of ministry, not to do ministry in place of the church. I have not received all the gifts of the Spirit, and I am neither called nor equipped to do the work of the entire body. I must therefore resist the temptation to try to do everything myself and refuse the expectations of others that I usurp the tasks of others to the neglect of my own proper work. Instead, I must invite and seek out other people who are gifted to perform particular kinds of service to the body, while I persist in equipping the whole body with the gospel motivation and biblical worldview that will enable each part to fulfill its God-given function. (Acts 6:1-4; Rom 12:3-8; 1 Cor 12:14-30;  Eph 4:7-16)

6. Our congregation is only one piece of the Church of Christ. Though God has given me the responsibility of serving a particular congregation, I must never forget that he has many more children outside our walls, both locally and globally. His purposes do not begin and end with our membership roster. Other gospel-affirming churches are not competitors, but partners in the same mission. We should thus be on the lookout for ways in which we can individually and corporately love, serve and commune with our brothers and sisters around town and around the world. (Rom 15:7-8, 25-27; 1 Cor 1:2; 14:33, 36; 2 Cor 1:1; Eph 6:18)

7. We should prioritize church multiplication. I am called to pursue the growth of the church of Christ, not necessarily the numerical growth of our particular congregation. In fact, a church that is faithfully sending out its people to plant new churches and carry the gospel to the nations may remain relatively small. Often such growth through multiplication of distinct congregations rather than accumulation of members under one roof may actually be better for the long-term health of the church. Instead of holding on to the growth God gives us, we should rejoice to become least and last by giving our growth away in gratitude to Christ who gave up everything for us. (Mark 10:41-45; John 3:22-30; Phil 1:12-18; 1 John 4:9-11)

8. I am called to serve joyfully, not for selfish gain. Shepherding God’s people is a privilege, not a means to power, wealth or esteem. My motive for service must always be the joy of seeing Christ glorified in the salvation and growth of his people, not my own self-interest and advancement. (1 Tim 3:3; 1 Pet 5:2)

9. I must seek Christ’s approval, not man’s. While I desire to serve God’s people, he alone is my Master. Whatever others may think of my performance, what matters is whether my ministry is pleasing in his eyes. I must always define success in ministry in terms of faithfulness to his call. (1 Cor 4:1-5; 2 Tim 4:1-8)

10. Pastoral ministry is about caring for and equipping people, not performing tasks and building programs. My goal is not simply to complete my assigned tasks; I want to make the biggest possible impact for Christ in the lives of the people around me. The structures, systems and services of our church can thus never be an end in themselves; they exist for people, not the other way around. We must constantly evaluate our habits, structures and culture to ensure we are genuinely meeting the needs (though not necessarily the wants) of those we are called to serve. (Mat 7:21-23; 23:23; Mark 2:23-27; 1 Cor 9:19-22)

11. I am called to work diligently for the growth of the church. If I truly desire to make the maximum possible impact on the church and the community, I must labor faithfully and wisely in the strength God provides. I will need the discipline to persist in the tasks before me, the discernment to plan, strategize and prioritize in light of the big picture, and the wisdom that begins with the fear of the Lord. We must sow and water diligently, but he alone gives the growth. (Acts 20:34-35; 1 Cor 3:5-9; 9:24-27; Col 1:24-29; 2 Tim 4:1-5)

12. Pastoral ministry entails suffering and sacrifice, but leads to joy. The life of a pastor is not an easy one, but it is eternally rewarding. I should expect to face demonic opposition, rejection by the world, betrayal, disappointment, temptation and all kinds of challenges. As I carry the word of Christ to those who need to hear it, I must not be surprised to find that my experience reflects the pattern of the Chief Shepherd, who suffered and died before entering into glory. So I am called to endure hardship for the sake of the joy of serving my Master, looking forward to the day when I will hear him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” (Mat 10:5-42; 25:21; Acts 20:28-32; Jam 3; 1 Pet 5:1-11)

Image credit: Jesper Noer, http://www.freeimages.com/photo/prayer-1497680