When a Great Pastor Leaves

Our church is approaching a time of transition. God has called our senior pastor to take a position at another church. Our pastor has served for five years. Our pastor has loved the people. Our pastor has wept with and for people. Our pastor has prayed with them. Our pastor has married them and buried them. Our pastor’s preaching is faithful to Scripture. Our pastor’s wisdom is beyond his years. Ours is a great pastor; he is our great pastor.

Or, “was,” I should say. He is no longer our pastor. In his sovereign wisdom, God has moved him. It may seem strange for God to do so. We are not a church in decline. All glory goes to God for the fact that our church has steadily increased in membership in a time when many churches are experiencing decline. Not only are we growing but we are growing diversely. Moreover, no bitter strife exists among the staff nor has giving declined dramatically. We are a growing, healthy church. So, why now? Sometimes a pastor leaves and it is a mutually desired outcome. Everyone is happier. There are, however, situations like ours. The timing seems strange but God is sovereign. He declares, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORDFor as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is 55:8-9, ESV).

In this post, I want to deal with three realities, three truths we need to keep in mind in the days to come. In the second post, I want to highlight some of the positive aspects of the situation. In the third and final part, I want to provide a vision for what I think our focus should be in the coming days. What does an individual or a church do when a great pastor leaves? There are three realities which we meet (or “collide”?) at this point.

1. He was never our pastor. Yes, in one sense, he was our pastor; yet, in another sense, he was not our pastor but the Lord’s. We expect our pastor(s) to consider themselves accountable to the Lord Jesus Christ above all others. We payed him, but we did not purchase him. Peter writes as such: “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed . . . but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Pet 1:18-19, ESV). Pastors are often admonished to remember that the flocks they shepherd are God’s flock. “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care” (1 Pet 5:2, NIV). We are God’s flock. Pastors are told, “It is not your flock.” True. And we would do well to remember the converse. He is not our pastor. He does not belong to us but to the Lord. Jesus can move his servants when and where he chooses. He can and does because of the second reality.

2. Jesus is Lord of the church. The church belongs to Jesus. He is the head of the body, the church, and his the bridegroom of the church. As Lord of the church, his servants are his to move. Remembering this is important because if we trusted our pastor to follow God’s call while he was here, we must trust that he is following God’s call when he leaves. If God has led him away, then we ought to rejoice that the will of the Lord is done. We should also rejoice because as Lord of the church he has not forsaken ours. Pastors come and go but the Lord remains steadfast and sure. With Jesus as the Lord of church, we can and should be encouraged to have the most gracious, loving Lord looking out for our good. He truly is the Good Shepherd. This leads to the third reality: Jesus is our only real hope.

3. Jesus, not a pastor, is our rock. Micah Fries, a pastor whom I follow on Twitter, tweeted the other day: “Too often pastors are emotionally dependent on their churches & churches are dependent on their pastors while no one is dependent on Jesus.” It was a timely and needed reminder for me. Indeed, through the following days, we have a greater opportunity to exercise a greater dependence on Jesus, not a pastor or a staff member. Sometimes God strips away the things that make us comfortable, or give us confidence, so that we have greater, stronger confidence in him.

This thought gentles my soul because at times I feel like a giant tree has been uprooted. A storm has extracted it and left a massive hole. But God does not uproot and leave the hole empty. He fills it with himself; he fills it to overflowing. And we should not be shocked to learn that this tree that we hold so dear, that we mourn, that has been precious to us and beautiful in our sight, is made of plastics and wire–not real. God plants himself in our lives and grows in us, growing a living, vibrant tree. I am not saying this is true of everyone or as a church as a whole, but in the departure of our pastor, the Lord has shown all those areas where I was leaning on the pastor more than Jesus. God has unearthed those secret chambers where my faith was in a man and not the God-Man.  Jesus–our rock! “The LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold” (Ps 18:2, NIV).

In the coming days, we are blessed with the opportunity to exercise greater faith in the Lord Jesus. It is a chance to drown in grace. Let us take this opportunity to grow in our love for the Lord Jesus. May we see all that we have in him, all that overflows to us and for us.

In the next post, I will cover three positive aspects of our pastor leaving. Check back next week!

Reading OT Narrative

My intention in this post is to focus on practices that help a believer develop and mature in your Christian faith, namely, by reading the OT. In this post I want to provide simple tools to equip you to read your OT. I will discuss how to read your OT to know God. How do we know God through the Old Testament? I want to stress this point because learning tools for Bible study is not an academic, abstract, ethereal discussion. To know God, we need to know his word. To know his word, we need to know how to read his word. It is when we read God’s Word and understand it that we come to know him.

Old Testament Narratives

Our task this morning is to discuss OT narratives. OT narratives are books like Genesis, Samuel, and Kings. These are the books of the Bible where the layout looks like a book and not like poetry. A substantial portion, nearly half of the OT, is narrative.How do we read the OT narratives and make sense of them? At this point, it’s helpful to discuss briefly what OT is not. OT narratives are not the Aesop’s Fables of the OT. They are not moral stories intended to be divorced from a worshipping relationship with the one, true God. OT narratives do teach morality, and they make value judgments. These morals, however, are rooted in the larger story of God’s dealing with Israel and the nations. Therefore, one of the most basic questions I ask of a text, of any text, when I’m reading devotionally or preparing for a sermon is, “What does this passage teach me about God?”

The most important thing to remember is to read the OT as stories. In our media-driven, visual-dominated culture, many have a dampened the ability to read stories. I don’t mean that they are illiterate, that they cannot read, but they have little practice analyzing literary devices such as characterization, setting, and plot. I don’t say this as an insult but just an observation. I think, however, that we don’t necessarily need to be taught how to do this. There is an intuitive skill in humans that enable us to understand stories. There’s something about being human that makes this so. But more than that, you instinctively process stories. Think about when you watch a movie.

Six Tools for Old Testament Narrative

I want to give you six tools to help you read OT narrative.

Setting. There are two kinds of settings to which I am referring. One is what I’ll call the historical setting. The other is the contextual setting. The historical setting is the historical situations in which events take place. While you don’t need to be an expert in the ancient Near Eastern setting of the OT narratives, some background helps. But more important is the contextual setting. Where does a story take place? What happens before it? What happens after it? Why is it placed here? These are the kind of questions we want to ask. So, let’s look at the context of Gen 22. We notice that Gen 22 follows Gen 21. Gen 21 narrates the birth of Isaac. God fulfills his promise to bless Abraham with a son! Hagar and Ishmael are sent away but are graciously cared for by God. Now, all the hopes of the Abrahamic covenant are placed squarely on the shoulders of Isaac. He is the one. Look at Gen 21:12. God tells Abraham to listen to Sarah because “your offspring will be traced through Isaac.” You might want to do more analysis of the context but this is sufficient for our demonstration. One tool in your tool belt is to understand the context. When we come to Genesis 22, we see another tool that we need to keep handy. Our second tool is the narrator.

Narrator. Sometimes the narrator gives the reader information relevant to the story, but this information may not necessarily be available to the characters within the story. The best way explanation, in this case, is a demonstration. Look at Gen 22:1. Moses writes, “After these things God tested Abraham.” That’s inside information given to us and it is information given to help us make sense of what we are about to read. It is a clue to understand the story. In a short phrase, we are given a piece of the puzzle. What we are about to read is a test. God is testing Abraham.

Now, at this moment we need to make a short digression and talk about how words have meanings. Words carry a general meaning within themselves. When I say, “dog,” you all picture a dog but I doubt we are all picturing the same dog. If I say, “cold,” I doubt we are all picturing the same thing. Words have a general meaning but they also have their meaning from their context. We know this. If I say, “cold,” we think of different things. If I say, “sick,” we think of different things. But the meaning of the word “sick” does not work in a sentence like when I say, “I saw this guy jump off a building and land on his feet. It was sick!” What do I mean? Do I mean he is now physically ill? No, I mean it was an awesome trick that I couldn’t believe happened! Words have meanings but also are given meaning by their context.

I say all this because we read that God is “testing” Abraham. The danger is to read into that word our modern understanding of testing. It’s not as if God doesn’t know Abraham or how he would respond. God is not pondering, “I’m genuinely interested in how Abraham would respond to this because I just don’t know!” This is not God testing a hypothesis. Instead, it is God “testing” Abraham. Why is it significant that the narrator gives us this information? First, we see that it is a divine testing about to take place, not a demonic one.[1] Abraham is about to enter a test in which something will be proven. It is not unknown to God, but it is, in a sense, unknown to Abraham.

The author wants us to know that God is testing Abraham. This is the beginning of the story and it also starts the plot. The plot will revolve around God testing Abraham. What kind of test? What is Abraham being asked to do?

Character. In narratives, often characters are described in a certain way. Authors use circumstances and dialogue to paint the portrait of their characters. Some are obviously bad, like Haman in Esther or Jezebel in Kings. Other characters are the “good” characters. We must say that many characters are complex. They are not simply good and bad. Abraham lied. David committed murder. The “good” characters are not always so “good.” When it comes to characterization, however, there is an important principle to keep in mind. As one author writes, “When discussing individuals who are considered to have existed in the past, like those in biblical narrative, it should be emphasized that we know them only as they are presented in the narratives, and it is to this alone that we can refer.”[2] Often the character gives us clues into the mental states of characters. This leads us to our fourth tool—the plot.

Plot. Any story worth telling has a good plot. This is not true only of novels but in everyday life. You tell stories with a plot all the time. Think about when you explain something that happened and you want to keep your listener interested. You almost instinctively use a plot. The entire Bible has a plot from creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. There are many little plots throughout the Bible. Little stories of loss, of triumph, or of sacrifice.

Dialogue. Think about this for a moment. For every word of dialogue, talking, that is recorded in Scripture—how much more has been left out? There’s no way that the words of Moses we have recorded in Scripture are the only words that he has ever spoken. All the words recorded are recorded for a reason.

Literary Devices. I want to bring two types of literary devices to your attention. These are perhaps the most common. First, is repetition. I would venture to say that repetition is the most recognizable, most used way that OT narratives work. The second literary device is a form of repetition, that is, OT narratives often have bracketing features. What I mean by bracketing is that a theme, or the repetition of a word, occurs at the beginning and end of a passage. A perfect example is Genesis 39. In v. 2, the text reads, “The LORD was with Joseph.” At the end of the narrative, twice the text says, “The LORD was with Joseph” (v. 21, 23).

In a Word: Selection and Composition

If I could leave you with one parting, summarizing thought, it would be this. There are two words that summarize all these tools. They are: selection and composition. Everything we have in the OT narratives were selected to be included. If emotions or motives are not supplied to to us by the author, then we should not speculate. As much as we may want to fill in the gaps, we must realize that the author didn’t give us information for a reason. The second word is composition. These are stories, composed and structured, written to be read as stories. Read them like a novel. We must slow down and take in the beauty of the narratives.

I hope this helps you as you read Old Testament narratives!

[1] Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapter 18–50, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 101.

[2] Shimon Bar-Efrat, Narrative Art in the Bible (New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 47.