Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
Most people are gunning for some sort of leadership position. Generally, folks don’t like somebody being over them. Heck, most people think they could do their boss’ job. Moreover, in Christian circles, we often see the glitz and the glam of a TV evangelist or the respect earned by a pastor in a pulpit and envy starts to creep in. However, scripture (and I’m sure your local pastor and/or TV evangelist [or any other leader for that matter] will agree) tells us that the grass is not any greener on the other side.
In “Armchair Quarterback” we looked at Korah’s uprising, where a bunch of Levites thought they could do Moses’ job and were burned to death because of it. Now, what I didn’t note there was who had to clean up the 250 dead bodies that were burned by God. But rest assured, the Holy Spirit pointed out who had to do it and humbled any envy I may have had. You see, that job fell on Eleazar the priest. Numbers 16:36-37 describes what happened and why it fell on the priest and not some Levite or other person,
The Lord said to Moses, “Tell Eleazar son of Aaron, the priest, to take the censers out of the smoldering remains and scatter the coals some distance away, for the censers are holy- the censers of the men who sinned at the cost of their lives. Hammer the censers into sheets to overlay the altar, for they were presented before the Lord and have become holy. Let them be a sign to the Israelites.”
Can you imagine picking through 250 dead bodies all by yourself just because supposedly it was too holy of a job for someone else? Now this is an extreme case, but being a leader (spiritual or otherwise) can be a very dirty job. God expects a lot from his leaders and demands that they be on call to whatever weird task he sets them about. I mean, have you heard what he made Ezekiel do? Check this out,
“Take wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and spelt; put them in a storage jar and use them to make bread for yourself. You are to eat it during the 390 days you lie on your side. Weigh out twenty shekels of food to eat each day and eat it at set times. Also measure out a sixth of a hin of water and drink it at set times. Eat the food as you would a barley cake; bake it in the sight of the people, using human excrement for fuel.” The Lord said, “In this way the people of Israel will eat defiled food among the nations where I will drive them” (Ezekiel 4:9-13).
“What? Could you repeat that God? Wait, on the other hand, don’t, don’t ever repeat that again.” God called Ezekiel to eat food cooked over human poop just to make point for more than a year. Now, in this incident Ezekiel refused because it was just too gross; so God went easy on him,
Then I said, “Not so, Sovereign Lord! I have never defiled myself. From my youth until now I have never eaten anything found dead or torn by wild animals. No unclean meat has ever entered my mouth.”
“Very well,” he said, “I will let you bake your bread over cow manure instead of human excrement” (Ezekiel 4:14-15).
“Oh gee, thanks God.” Or what about Jonah? When he tried to run away from his job, God had a giant fish swallow him and contain him for three days until he begged the Lord for mercy. And what happened when he did ask God for mercy from having to live in a stinky, sticky, gross fish stomach? Jonah 2:10-3:2 reveals,
And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.
Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”
After being swallowed, living in fish guts for three days, and finally just giving up any pride or hope he had, God still made Jonah go back to work right away. Now, understandably, these are larger than life examples. But ask a pastor, I’m sure he’s got his own gross story or two. I’ve heard examples of pastors who are renting places to conduct worship having to clean up vomit and other garbage every Sunday morning before church. And what about dealing with homeless people? Most people won’t argue with helping the destitute, but can you bring yourself to give a warm embrace to somebody who hasn’t had a shower in a year? A pastor is expected to do that sort of thing; it’d be unwelcoming of the church if he or she didn’t.
Ok, now that I’ve got your attention, let’s look at some more down to earth examples. Our leaders have more responsibilities than we do. Not only is a leader expected to watch after their own lives, but they also take responsibility for those under them. The Bible says,
The Lord said to Aaron, “You, your sons and your father’s family are to bear the responsibility for offenses against the sanctuary, and you and your sons alone are to bear the responsibility for offenses against the priesthood. Bring your fellow Levites from your ancestral tribe to join you and assist you when you and your sons minister before the Tent of Testimony. They are to be responsible to you and are to perform all the duties of the Tent, but they must not go near the furnishings of the sanctuary or the altar, or both they and you will die” (Numbers 18:1-3).
Take note that even when their underlings messed up, the priests were to take full responsibility (even to death). When God calls Ezekiel, he outlines part of his job,
Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. When I say to the wicked, “O wicked man, you will surely die,” and you do not speak out to dissuade him from his ways, that wicked man will die for his sins, and I will hold you accountable for his blood. But if you do warn the wicked man to turn from his ways and he does not do so, he will die for his sin, but you will have saved yourself (Ezekiel 33:7-9).
Every spiritual leader in the church carries this burden. Even if God doesn’t hold everyone to Ezekiel’s standard, those called to spread the message of the gospel feel compelled to do so with this on their shoulders; as a person’s decision to choose Christ or not is a life or death decision. So when a leader fails to help someone come to Jesus, they feel that person’s death. One very popular evangelist often tells a story about a woman he failed to bring to Christ, because the very next day she died. Although the Lord told him not to worry about it, every day he still carries her death with him, knowing that he hadn’t tried hard enough to save her. But at the same time, Jesus warns leaders to not come on too strong, for not only do they need to practice what the preach, but they also have to help others to catch up. We read in Luke 11:46, “Jesus replied, ‘And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.’” So even though the Lord places a heavy burden onto the leaders, they are not allowed to do so onto those who are under them. In fact, not only do the clergy and other leaders carry a heavy burden, but they’re held to a higher standard. James writes, “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1). Is it any wonder that so many pastors burn out?
Aside from everything else, our leaders face many hardships. Jeremiah outlines probably the most common problem for a spiritual leader in his complaint to God,
O Lord, you deceived me, and I was deceived;
You overpowered me and prevailed.
I am ridiculed all day long;
Everyone mocks me (Jeremiah 20:7).
Most pastors face constant opposition from their own members and ridicule from those outside of the church. They’re called either shysters or crazy by those who don’t believe in God. John the Baptist suffered for his beliefs too. We can read about it in Luke 3:19-20, “But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison.” Not only John though; Paul suffered terribly for his faith in Christ. He actually lists some of what he went through in one of his letters,
Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches (2 Corinthians 11:24-28).
Now maybe persecution doesn’t become physical in America or other western countries; but all around the world there are men and women of God under extreme duress for doing that what God called them to do: preaching the gospel. To add to outside pressures, many leaders face troubles at home as well. Since they are so busy with taking care of others, often family members get neglected and fall into their own troubles. Hosea’s wife ended up being a prostitute, and instead of divorcing her, we read,
The Lord said to me, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another and is an adulteress. Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes” (Hosea 3:1).
Can you imagine it? Not only did God command Hosea to stay with his cheating wife, but he turned the situation into a chance to teach Hosea a lesson for the people. I don’t know about you, but I hope my life isn’t used quite to that extent. The point is this though, our leaders are on the front lines, and as such they take many hits.
Often times though we don’t even know that our leaders are having trouble in their lives. Why? Well, because they’re called to hide it. A leader, spiritual or not, has to be on call and look good all the time in order to properly lead. Scripture tells us, “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage- with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2). This is the basic command, but if you look into the Old Testament, God carries it a step further in that the leaders and those entrusted with the Word of God are not even allowed to mourn for their dead. After Aaron’s two sons were killed by God (burned to death), God wouldn’t let Aaron or his sons shed any tears and required them to stay at work in the Tent of Meeting. Check it out in Leviticus 10: 6-7,
Then Moses said to Aaron, “Do not let your hair become unkempt, and do not tear your clothes, or you will die and the Lord will be angry with the whole community. But your relatives, all the house of Israel, may mourn for those the Lord has destroyed by fire. Do not leave the entrance to the Tent of Meeting or you will die, because the Lord’s anointing oil is on you.” So they did as Moses said.
But it wasn’t just Aaron and his sons, Ezekiel had a similar situation,
The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, with one blow I am about to take away from you the delight of your eyes. Yet do not lament or weep or shed any tears. Groan quietly; do not mourn for the dead. Keep your turban fastened and your sandals on your feet; do not cover the lower part of your face or eat the customary food of mourners.”
So I spoke to the people in the morning and in the evening my wife died. The next morning I did as I had been commanded (Ezekiel 24:15-18).
Even today, pastors and leaders suffer terrible losses but do their best to maintain a strong face in light of it all. They persevere in hardships that might make some people completely break down, and all because it’s part of the job.
But probably one of the worst parts of being a leader is that they don’t fully reap the benefits of their work. Aaron, the first high priest of Israel didn’t even make it to the Promised Land. Check out what happened,
At Mount Hor, near the border of Edom, the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Aaron will be gathered to his people. He will not enter the land I give the Israelites, because both of you rebelled against my command at the waters of Meribah. Get Aaron and his son Eleazar and take them up Mount Hor. Remove Aaron’s garments and put them on his son Eleazar, for Aaron will be gathered to his people; he will die there” (Numbers 20:23-26).
Oh, and did you know that Moses, the guy who through the power of God saved Israel from Egypt and led them for forty years through hardship in the desert, also didn’t reach the Promised Land? Oh yeah, we read in Deuteronomy 34:1-5,
Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho. There the Lord showed him the whole land- from Gilead to Dan, all of Naphtali, the territory of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the western sea, the Negev and the whole regions from the Valley of Jericho, the City of Palms, as far as Zoar. Then the Lord said to him, “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I will let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.”
And Moses the servant of the Lord died there in Moab, as the Lord had said.
Or what about John the Baptist? We left him in jail a few paragraphs ago, but what happened to him? Well, after making a rash promise, Herod was forced to do the unthinkable,
So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother (Mark 6:27-28).
Yeah, he died too. I don’t want to beat a dead horse here about how difficult your leaders’ lives are, but if you’re eyeing up a leadership role you should at least know what has happened to those who have gone before you. The Bible sums it up like this,
All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth (Hebrews 11:13).
You think your job sucks? Their job sucks too.
I don’t want you to pity your leaders, or belittle your own struggles. Of course your life has difficulties. The Holy Spirit taught me this lesson just as a reminder that those we envy are in just as much pain, and sometimes more, as us. Instead, let us turn to the Law for our instruction, “Do not blaspheme God or curse the ruler of your people” (Exodus 22:28). We have to respect those in authority, not second-guess them or envy them without knowing their struggles. Even Paul, in all of his troubles, realized that those God put into power he did so with a reason, and they have reasons for their actions. We read in Acts 23:2-5,
At this the high priest Ananias ordered those standing near Paul to strike him on the mouth. Then Paul said to him, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! You sit there to judge me according to the law, yet you yourself violate the law by commanding that I be struck!”
Those who were standing near Paul said, “You dare to insult God’s high priest?”
Paul replied, “Brothers, I did not realize that he was the high priest; for it is written: ‘Do not speak evil about the ruler of your people.’”
Even though the high priest was in the wrong, Paul submitted to him. Therefore we in Christ should do the same. For it is written, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God” (Romans 13:1). So when you start feeling down about your lot, just remember, we’re all in this together, and we all feel the same. From the bottom to the top, everyone’s job sucks. But really that’s just a frame of mind. So get off your sad sack and enjoy that which you have. For it is commanded to all of us who are in Christ Jesus,
Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do. Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun- all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom (Ecclesiastes 9:7-10).