May 21, 2017
It’s great to be back with you this morning. I want to thank Michael for ably filling the pulpit, the Elders for allowing me to go with Samaritan’s Purse, and Samaritan’s Purse for sending me to Northern Iraq to serve the staff there. I’m deeply encouraged to tell you the SP staff in Northern Iraq is passionately committed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ – serving the people there with social justice, absolutely, but all as a means to build bridges of love to support the truth of the Gospel. The sectarian violence happening there is horrible – but what is intended for evil, God is using for good. People are coming to faith in the midst of a war-torn country. I’m thankful.
So on Tuesday when I was flying back, I got to the Charlotte airport and noticed a couple of gentlemen in baggage claim. One had obviously just arrived, the other was there to pick him up. I wanted to take a picture, but thought it would be too obvious. But I did look it up, and as I suspected, they were Greek Orthodox priests. They were dressed like this. (picture)
They stood out. Now please understand, I’m not being critical – just observing the long black robes with these huge silver crosses. I’d wear one, but I think I’d be exhausted by the end of the day. Besides, maybe Jesus had something else in mind when He said to take up your cross daily. Well, it was obvious to everyone these two were some kind of Christian leaders or priests. I found it interesting, given the text this week, that many try to wear their Christian faith, even Christian leadership, as a fashion statement. Whether it’s the old WWJD bracelet, or the fish or cross tattoos or crosses around necks or hanging from ears. Of course, we could perhaps think of Catholic priests, bishops, cardinals and popes who sport the religious regalia. But, just because we Protestants don’t wear long robes doesn’t mean there’s not some kind of clerical wear. Fortunately, in the last few years, the look has become more casual – jeans and plaid shirts to look normal, I suppose. (T4G)
But here’s my question – and I think it’s a legitimate question – why wear the robes? Big silver cross? Does it make the wearer more holy? More Christian? Closer to God? I think we would all agree, not really. So then, why wear it? What’s the purpose? So you’re seen as a Christian, a spiritual leader? Again, not trying to disparage – simply asking. Why?
Here’s a more fundamental question, what is it that makes a spiritual leader? Is it the way he or she dresses? Further, is it some position of ecclesiastical authority? Their titles? Their knowledge of Scripture that surpasses the average church goer? What makes a good, spiritual leader? Since we’re in the Christian church, what makes a good Christian leader, a good pastor, a good elder? This morning, actually by contrast, we’re going to see what Jesus said makes a poor spiritual leader. Certainly that includes false teaching, but is there more for our purposes? Are there qualities that mark people as in it for themselves? Because if you’re in it for yourself, if I’m in it for myself so that you kiss my ring, we might as well wear the robe.
It’s been a couple of weeks since we were in Mark, so let me remind you where we are. It’s still Tuesday of the Passion Week, obviously a very long day. It began with a group of chief priests, scribes and elders approaching Jesus with the question, by what authority are you doing these things – that is, cleansing our temple, teaching, healing? You see, for them spiritual leadership, authority, was to be found in position. To Jesus, they were saying, we see the long white robe with the blue sash, but by whose authority are you doing these things? You remember Jesus’ answer – John’s baptism – was it from heaven or from men? They couldn’t answer, so Jesus didn’t answer their question.
Jesus then told a parable at the beginning of chapter 12, obviously condemning these spiritual leaders – chief priests, scribes, elders. Well, next came three groups of people seeking to trap Jesus with their questions. First came the Pharisees and Herodians. Theirs was a political question – is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Jesus’ answer was brilliant – render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the thing that are God’s.
Next came the Sadducees, the priestly aristocracy who controlled the temple, with their theological question about the resurrection – which, remember, they didn’t believe. They posed one of their favorite dilemmas involving a woman who had seven husbands, successively, seven brothers – each whom she outlived. In the resurrection, whose wife will she be? Jesus told them, you neither understand the power of God in the resurrection, nor understand the Scripture.
Next came this scribe asking a biblical question – which commandment is greatest? Jesus answered, love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. And the second is like it, love your neighbor as yourself. Great answer – and after those verbal battles, they dared not ask Him any more questions. So, Jesus asked them a question – one they could not answer. If the Christ is David’s son, how is it David calls Him Lord?
Well, that brings us to our text this morning in our study of the Gospel of Mark, still in chapter 12. Now think about it, each of these questioners, with the possible exception of the Herodians, were spiritual leaders – Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes. They looked like spiritual leaders, talked like spiritual leaders, but were they? They demanded and received spiritual authority because of the way they dressed, their positions, theological systems and biblical knowledge. And Jesus pegs them – because maybe, the motivation behind their authority was not what it should have been. Read the text with me – Mark 12:38-40.
Wow. So maybe, religious regalia and religious activity does not a spiritual leader make. Some years ago, we studied Matthew together. In that gospel, we looked at Jesus’ sermons – the book is actually structured around those sermons. But the last public sermon Jesus preached was found in Matthew 23, and frankly, it’s not a very pleasant one. It’s the one filled with all those woes – woe to you, scribes and Pharisees. If He preached that in many churches today, it would be considered inflammatory, judgmental, condemning, unchristian, and just plain not nice. One commentary calls it the most sustained denunciation within any of the Gospels. Sustained denunciation – does that fit your picture of Jesus, meek and mild? The words in the sermon are strong – almost harsh. Make no mistake about it, Jesus opposed self-righteous, religious hypocrisy – religious show. Why? Because, it was devoid of spiritual truth. Oh, they had the leader titles – chief priests, scribes, elders, Pharisees, Sadducees. They looked good, sounded good, flowing robes, long prayers – no life.
In that sermon, which covers almost all of Matthew 23, Jesus turned His full attention, almost fury, on the scribes and Pharisees – religious leaders. He forcefully condemned them. In doing so, I would suggest He identified several qualities of false teachers, dare I suggest, even qualities of poor spiritual leaders. In summary, they are ostentatious, hypocritical and exploitive.
It was a challenging sermon. You know, it would be nice to preach feel-good messages every week – the kind where you went away really liking me. Messages Paul described as ear-ticklers – nice little homilies that made you really glad you came – that made you feel all warm and gooey. Maybe then we Christians wouldn’t be called judgmental and intolerant. Maybe then, we could all just get along with everyone else. But Jesus didn’t do that. There are those who would have us believe Jesus was just meek and mild, loving, non-confrontational, non-aggressive, and certainly non-judgmental. And so should we be. Problem is, they’ve never read Matthew 23, or Mark 12.
You see, Jesus understood to accept false teaching in spiritual clothing, while appearing gracious, loving, non-condemning, Christian, is in reality terribly wrong, and the most unloving thing we can do. You see, in the end, allowing people to remain in lies is condemning them to an eternity apart from truth and therefore, apart from God. True love speaks hard truth.
Hard messages such as Jesus preached, hard messages such as we’ll have today are absolutely necessary to our faith. From the very beginning, there have been wolves in sheep’s clothing, false teachers among the people of God. The loving thing for me to do as a pastor, as a shepherd, is to strongly warn you. Beware. Jesus did. In John 10, He warned of false shepherds who would climb in through a window, crawl over the wall, and devour the people of God in the church of God. We must be on our guard.
Well, fortunately I suppose, when Mark gives his account of Jesus’ sermon in Matthew 23, he gives it in 3 short verses. Count yourself lucky – it took me weeks to get through Matthew 23 – we’ll cover it in one sermon today. Jesus gives us a description of false teachers. This is what poor, indeed, spiritually bankrupt leaders look like. I’m going to suggest that churches are full of them.
Now remember, Jesus is talking about the scribes – experts in the Law of Moses. They were the religious experts of the day. And Jesus had some rather serious things to say about them. And whether we like it or not, there are false teachers and poor spiritual leaders in the church today. While they may not wear robes, they demand the same deference. Over and over, through the New Testament, we are warned about evil people, false teachers, wolves infiltrating the people of God. In Acts 20, the Apostle Paul called the Ephesian elders together and said this, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.”
We must be on our guard. The world, and the church, is full of liars, false teachers, false shepherds, wolves who would fleece the sheep, deceivers, spiritual abusers. Those who would destroy the word of God and devour the people of God for their own benefit. Jude calls them hidden reefs, clouds without water, trees without fruit, waves of the sea, wandering stars. Peter calls them springs without water, mists driven by the storm, daring, self-willed, revilers. Paul list is too long, but my favorite is just plain, dogs. The fact is, Paul warned over and over. There are bad guys among the people of God, and they seek to devour. And many times, they’re hard to spot, because they’re in the church, they come in forms that look godly, that look spiritual, that look righteous. Many times, they are the leaders, the pastors, the elders, the teachers, the ones we’re supposed to follow.
How do you know who the bad guys are? Who do you trust? And if you’re thinking about this at all, one of the questions you should be asking is this: what about you, Scott – how do we know we can trust you? What about ABF, what about the other pastors, what about the elders? Many of you don’t know us – you see us on Sunday, that’s all. How do you know? The good news is, we’re not left alone to wonder who the bad guys, specifically bad leaders, might be. We’re given descriptions over and over – this is what to look for.
Know at the outset, everything about these false spiritual leaders is arrogant, self-serving, and self-exalting. Let me say it this way – if you’re in a church or ministry where it’s all about the leader and not Jesus – run.
What description does Jesus give us? Well first, they walk around in long robes. Again, my question, why? Clearly in this context, it is to be noticed. Respected. Deferred to. The word for robe is used in the NT to refer to angels’ garments, the father’s robe as the patriarch in the story of the prodigal son, and the robes worn by glorified saints in heaven. Heady stuff. No doubt those robes had tassels – they wore them around the hem of the garment according to Numbers 15:
38 “Speak to the sons of Israel, and tell them that they shall make for themselves tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and that they shall put on the tassel of each corner a cord of blue.
39 “It shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the LORD, so as to do them and not follow after your own heart and your own eyes…”
See the purpose? It was to remind them to keep the law. Matthew 9, by the way, indicates Jesus kept this law – He had tassels around the hem of His cloak. But, the scribes lengthened them, made them real long and visible. Why? To show everyone how committed they were to keeping the law. Did they keep it? Did they know God? No, but the tassels looked good – it convinced everyone just how spiritual and committed to the law they were. All external show.
What’s that look like today? I’m not talking about the long black robes with silver crosses at the Charlotte airport on Sunday. What does it look like for a spiritual leader to be noticed today? I’ve heard recently of a prominent pastor of a large church who demands that his staff and people call him pastor. He also demands the staff stand when he enters a room, and not sit until he says so. Anytime a religious leader, pastor, elder, demands special attention because of his position, you’re on shaky ground.
Well, there were some more things they did. They liked respectful greetings in the market place. That’s why they wore the robes, so you knew which one greet, respectfully. In fact, if you were seated in the marketplace, you were supposed to stand as they walked by. There were certain ways you were supposed to greet them, which demonstrated your great respect and honor. I won’t get into all that, but in Matthew, we see they liked being called Rabbi, which means master or teacher; or father, which spoke of the chief of rabbis, or leaders, which spoke of their spiritual leadership and teaching roles. All these titles spoke of positions of superiority – and they wanted those positions recognized. Call me doctor, call me reverend, call me pastor.
Let me take an aside, because Jesus did in Matthew. There He said, in essence, don’t be enamored by titles of respect – it’ll just go to your head. You have one Teacher, that is Christ, you have one Father, He’s in heaven, and you have one leader, that is Christ. You are all equals, as brothers and sisters in Christ. Have nothing to do with arrogant titles that place you in position of superiority and inferiority with each other.
Now, is Jesus saying we should never refer to our dads as “Father,” or our teachers/professors as teachers, or to our small group leaders as leaders? Not necessarily – the point is, they wanted the titles of respect and authority – they wanted to be recognized. Once again, I believe this plagues leaders in the evangelical church. It is all about them. Too many ministries are built on the charisma, leadership, gifts and talents of the leader.
Unfortunately, sometimes the sheep feed the false shepherd’s ego. They’ll overlook his abusive authority, his lack of integrity, his less than accurate teaching because of his position. Because they call him pastor, elder, teacher – he must be right. We must be discerning, we must be able to spot false spiritual leaders.
Whenever there was a gathering of people, at a banquet or the synagogue, they wanted to be seated in the most prominent seats, before everyone, to be noticed. At a banquet, the most prominent place was right next to the host. In the synagogue, at the front was a raised platform from which the services were conducted. Behind the speakers, facing the congregation, would be the honored seats. Oh, by the way, the congregation sat on the floor. The scribes actually sat in front of the ark that held the scrolls. The picture was clear – you must come through us to get to the Word of God. Sounds to me like some churches I’ve been to where the pastors’ seats are placed on the platform facing the congregations on chairs that look like thrones. Well, these scribes wanted to look good, to have the place of preeminence. Everything was about how they looked.
Further, Jesus says in verse 40, these guys offer long prayers for appearance sake. Nothing wrong with long prayers. But if you are praying so people can see you and be wowed by your spiritual vocabulary, then you’re in it for the wrong reason. Ask yourself this question – are your prayers in private different than your prayers in public? Why?
Well, in response to this grandiose, religious sham Jesus says two things. First, He says these self-focused scribes are ones who devour widows’ houses. What does that mean? Lots of speculation about that, but in the end, we find they were the ones who took advantage of the marginalized, the vulnerable of society, widows, orphans, the poor, all to advance their own positions. I can’t help but think of those charlatans in the so-called prosperity gospel movement, who promise personal prosperity, all the while getting rich themselves off those who have little or nothing to spare. They devour widows’ houses.
As a result, Jesus says, they will receive the greater condemnation – literally, abundant judgment. That’s an interesting statement. Those who bilk God’s people for their own advancement – will receive a greater condemnation. That doesn’t mean they’ll lose some of their rewards in heaven – it means they’ll be condemned more greatly in the judgment to com. You see, for those who truly know Jesus, there is no condemnation. But these charlatans, who are in it for themselves, will be condemned, greatly. Don’t mess with the people of God – the church, which God purchased with His own blood.
Let me share some final thoughts. It’s been suggested the favorite verse of self-focused spiritual leaders in the church today is Hebrews 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.” Obey me, your leader, submit to my authority, so that I can do my job joyfully – and if you don’t obey me, it will be unprofitable for you – so it’s in your best interest to do what I say. And they keep people under the thumb of an oppressive, manipulative authority. By the way, the pastor I talked about earlier who demands the people call him pastor? At one time, the children’s coloring page had a drawing of him, with this verse posted on the bottom.
I would suggest when a leader is focused on Hebrews 13, he’s focusing on the wrong verse. What do I mean? That’s not the leader’s verse – that’s the people’s verse. The people are supposed to be focusing on obeying those in leadership, but the leader is to focus on his verses, like I Peter 5:1-3, “Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, [here’s your verse, leaders] shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock.” That’s a good description of a good leader.
Tana and I visited once visited some friends in Florida. When they talked about their church, we’ll call it First Church, we noticed all they talked about was the pastor – what a great guy he was – and how much he was in control of things. Really – they liked that. We went with them to watch a passion play at the church. One of the associate pastors stood up to welcome everyone, and the first thing he said was, “On behalf of First Church, and our Senior Pastor, John Smith, we want to welcome you tonight.” I thought, what does the senior pastor have to do with it? Then the guy went on with some announcements, and at the end he said, “After the play, our Senior Pastor, John Smith, will come to share some closing comments.” As we waited for the play to begin, I looked through the program. It was really more than a program – it told a little about First Church – its history and purpose – there was an invitation to attend. I started counting – I kid you not – in this 12 page program, the Senior Pastor, John Smith’s name appeared eleven times – including on the cover. I thought, this is a problem. I bet he’s got his own parking space. I’m not saying he’s a false spiritual leader, but the signs of ego are there. It seems to be an awful lot about him.
So, briefly, what are the qualifications for good spiritual leadership. If Jesus tells us to beware of these kinds of spiritual leaders, what would be the qualities He commends? Remember back in chapter 9 when Jesus gave His second passion prediction, right after, as He and His disciples were walking along, they began arguing. Jesus asked them, what were you discussing on the way? They kept silent, for they’d been discussing which one of them was greatest. To which Jesus said:
35 Sitting down, He called the twelve and said to them, “If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.”
36 Taking a child, He set him before them, and taking him in His arms, He said to them,
37 “Whoever receives one child like this in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me does not receive Me, but Him who sent Me.”
Two quick qualities of leadership. First, he who would be first, should be last of all, and servant of all. You don’t look to be out front, noticed, admired, respected. Rather, you look to be last of all, servant of all. Which leads to the second quality – Who is the all? Not just the important people. You don’t serve to get – you serve, to serve. Jesus took a child, seen as least in society, set the child before them, and said, whoever receives one like this child receives Me. Good spiritual leadership looks for ways to serve, even the least in the kingdom of God.
Finally, in Mark 10, we read these words:
42 Calling them to Himself, Jesus said to them, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them.
43 “But it is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant;
44 and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all.
45 “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”