Imagine yourself getting up some morning at 5:00 and working straight through until 11:00 that night. You drag yourself through the door with just enough strength left to pat yourself on the back for the work you plowed through in eighteen hours. Then one of your inlaws, who has been tagging along with you all day, wags a finger in front of your bloodshot eyes and says, “What you are doing is not good.”
“Not good! What do you mean, ‘not good?’ Man, didn’t you see the work I turned out today?”
He shakes his head, unimpressed. “It’s not right. You’re going to wear yourself out.”
“Oh?” Pause. A moment’s deflation. Then a surge of well-earned pride. Why, you might be in line for a respectable nervous breakdown! After all, to work yourself to death is, well, practically like being a saint, isn’t it?
The Bible warns us about the sin of laziness, but it also has some words to say about work that is unnecessarily exhausting. “It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep” (Ps. 127:2).
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden,” said Jesus, “and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28–30). Jesus saw no virtue in working under an unnecessarily heavy burden. He offered to teach us how to change heavy burdens into light ones.
Many of us who work today in the name of Christ have not learned this lesson. Instead of showing the world the rest to be found in Christ, we scurry and worry, sweating beneath a heavy burden. Instead of offering an alternative to the world’s rat-race, we duplicate it in our own sphere.
There is a way out—a simple way, a beautiful way, a God-ordained way. There is a way to lighten the burden, yet accomplish more—far more.
Two Passages, One Message
The method is given in two passages of Scripture, one in the Old Testament and the other in the New.
Shortly after the people of Israel have been delivered from Egyptian slavery, they are getting formed into a covenant community under the leadership of Moses. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, comes to visit Moses:
On the morrow Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood about Moses from morning till evening. When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What is this you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, and all the people stand about you from morning till evening?”
And Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God; when they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between a man and his neighbor, and I make them know the statutes of God and his decisions.”
Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing is not good. You and the people with you will wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you; you are not able to perform it alone. Listen now to my voice; I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You shall represent the people before God, and bring their cases to God; and you shall teach them the statutes and the decisions, and make them know the way in which they must walk and what they must do. Moreover choose able men from all the people, such as fear God, men who are trustworthy and who hate a bribe; and place such men over the people as rulers of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. And let them judge the people at all times; every great matter they shall bring to you, but any small matter they shall decide themselves; so it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. If you do this, and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all this people also will go their place in peace.”
So Moses gave heed to the voice of his father-in-law and did all that he had said. Moses chose able men out of all Israel, and made them heads over the people, rulers of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. And they judged the people at all times. Hard cases they brought to Moses, but any small matter they decided themselves [Exod. 18:13–26].
Here was a dedicated, zealous man of God. But God, speaking through Jethro, said, “What you are doing is not good.” The Living Bible paraphrases Jethro’s words: “It’s not right. You’re going to wear yourself out.”
God was not interested simply in dedication and zeal. He wanted results, better results than Moses was getting. So he outlined a simple three-step program for Moses:
1. Represent the people to God. This meant to pray for them.
2. Teach them the statutes of God. This meant to instruct them in the basic principles of God’s Word, so they could begin to deal with their own problems.
3. Appoint helpers. Moses had to delegate some of the responsibility to other qualified people.
The result: Moses’ heavy burden was changed into a light one, and much more got done.
Turning to the New Testament we find a similar passage. The Church has just barely gotten started. Like Israel, the believers were just getting formed into a covenant community. It’s only a matter of weeks or months since the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. And they were laboring under a heavy burden.
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the body of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”
And what they said pleased the whole multitude, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands upon them.
And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith [Acts 6:1–7].
The apostles did not refer to the precedent set by Moses, but they came up with the same three steps:
1. We must devote ourselves to prayer.
2. We must preach the Word.
3. Therefore, let us appoint helpers.
What would happen in the Christian Church today if this plan were put into action? Nothing less than a spiritual revolution!
It looks simple on paper. But consider what it means. Consider the reordering of priorities it would mean for pastors, pulpit committees, church councils and vestries, denominational officials, congregations. It would mean a new conception of the Church—and especially of the pastoral ministry. And because it is a fundamental scriptural principle, it would mean a revitalization of the Church in all its members.
Here, then, is God’s three-step program to accomplish more by lightening the burden.
First Priority: Pray
A spiritual leader’s first call is to “represent the people before God,” to “devote himself to prayer.”
When Jesus had spent an exhausting day ministering to the crowds in teaching, healing, and exorcism, “a great while before day, he rose up and went to a lonely place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35). What would happen if all across the country God’s servants began to count prayer their first responsibility? What would happen if telephones were taken off the hook, committee meetings were canceled or rearranged, youth meetings and pancake breakfasts and counseling appointments were bumped off the schedule while the pastor and elders took time to talk with God?
No time is harder to keep than one’s quiet time with God, yet no time is more profitable. We fall into the trap of thinking that prayer time is “being by myself” (and there are so many people out there who need me!). Yet when we really devote ourselves to prayer, again and again the truth is borne home to us that we have been with God.
The man who installed me as the pastor of a Lutheran church in 1960 spoke these words to the congregation: “When you are in need—deep need—you won’t want a pastor who is a ‘hail fellow well met’ … and ‘good with the young people.’ You’ll want a man who has been with God.” A pastor who gives of himself gives too little. He must give of God. And to do that, he must take time—must be given time—to draw upon God’s resources.
The congregation that safeguards the prayer life of its pastor has taken the first step toward insuring a continual flow of divine power into its life and worship.
Second Priority: Teach The Word
A spiritual leader’s second responsibility is to “teach … the statutes,” to “devote himself to the ministry of the word.”
Jesus spent some time teaching the multitudes. But he spent a far greater proportion of his time teaching the disciples, especially the twelve. For three years he poured his life into this small band of men. When he was through, they carried on his ministry.
A pastor is called to teach not only in the formal sense of giving sermons and Bible studies but also in the sense of discipling. He must train those who in turn can teach others. “What you have heard … entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also (2 Tim. 2:2).
The writer to the Hebrews faults those who “by this time ought to be teachers” but are still spiritual babes (Heb. 5:12). The Church is weak today because spiritual leaders have failed to train a body of believers to do the same kind of work they do. Or because believers have failed to recognize and accept such a ministry.
Such things as teaching in Sunday school are not enough. We have always accepted that as a lay function, because it was carried while the pastor was busy with something else, and he couldn’t be in two places at once. But precious little discipling goes on among most Sunday-school staffs. The kind of teaching Jesus did, the kind to which spiritual leaders are called, is more intensive, and is aimed toward a more specific objective. He does not teach simply to give his people a smattering of biblical knowledge. He teaches with a view to multiplying his ministry. He trains those who in turn will train others. He commits himself to a smaller group, in order (through them) to be able to reach a larger group.
The congregation that contents itself with seeing less of its pastor—so he can see more of those he is training—will see more of God’s power flowing in its midst, will see a greater variety of gifts and ministries springing up, as Christ manifests himself in a many-membered Body.
Third Priority: Appoint Helpers
This is the acid test. Will the Israelite be content to have ben Reuben, who lives three tents down and has been given oversight of ten families, sit in judgment on the case of stealing that took place last night? Or will he feel cheated that Moses doesn’t step in and handle the matter personally?
Can the leader let go of the reins? And will the people accept the “substitute”?
How could Jesus turn over his ministry to a doubter like Thomas, a coward like Peter, selfish and ambitious men like James and John? Jesus knew a basic truth about ministry that we often overlook: The effectiveness of ministry depends more on the one who receives than on the one who ministers. We focus on this person’s gift or that person’s ministry, thinking that if only our pastor were like that, things would really start happening. But the greatest ministry in the world can be turned off by the tiniest “no.”
Ministry is effective to the degree that it is received. “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me. He who receives a prophet because he is a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward, and he who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward” (Matt. 10:40, 41).
Tremendous spiritual rewards await the congregation that begins to open itself up to ministry from those of its own members who have been taught and trained. But it must go beyond a mere acceptance. The acceptance must be accompanied by a faith-filled expectation of divine power flowing through that ministry. One must see Christ coming to him through the ministry of that brother or sister.
God’s greatest problem with the people of Israel was their refusal to receive his messengers. It culminated in their refusal to receive his Son. At his second coming, those who receive him will be those who have first received his messengers.
The ordained clergy are not God’s only messengers. He speaks also through those “set over hundreds, fifties, and tens,” those whom God raises up to lighten the burden and accomplish the work.
Are you ready to be such a one? Are you ready to receive such a one?
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