Fingerprints of God: Lessons from the Book of Esther
Last year, I had the privilege of preaching through the book of Esther at Roosevelt Community Church. The sermon series was such a reminder of God’s sovereign hand at work behind the scenes and his providential care for his people living in exile. The tagline that we said repeatedly to sum up this great book was “God is active even when we don’t directly see it.” Our lead pastor, Vermon Pierre, was on sabbatical for a couple of months, so he allowed me to preach this narrative to our congregation. (So big shout out for churches that allow their pastor to take sabbaticals for rest, refreshment, and nourishment. Also, big shout out to pastors entrusting the pulpit to younger preachers to equip and edify the body of Christ.)
Through prayer and help from the Holy Spirit I mapped out the series in 11 sermons. I titled it “Tracing the Fingerprints of God,” because I was struck by the providential fingerprints of God throughout the book. I define a fingerprint of God as those things you fail to understand in the moment, but with hindsight, see clearly as God's working. For instance, Esther becoming Queen in Persia is a fingerprint of God.
Though it’s odd for a Jewish orphan woman to replace Queen Vashti (Es 2), it’s not till later in the book we see the full significance. This position allowed Esther to play a major role in saving the Jewish people from destruction. I’m sure she did not know what God was doing when allowing her to become Queen, but looking back, there is no mistaking why he sovereignly allowed this to happen, for the redemption of His people. What a great fingerprint!
Here are three things I learned from preaching through the book of Esther:
God is truly in control over everything
Psalm 115:3 says, “Our God is in the heavens, and he does as he pleases.” Yahweh is fully and truly in control from every aspect of life even the things we do not understand. In Esther, we see how he is sovereign over Esther becoming Queen (Es 2), Mordecai discovering the plot (Es 2:19–23), and Mordecai challenging Esther to go to the King (Es 4:14). God is even sovereign over King Ahasuerus’ insomnia (Es 6), which leads him to listen to the story of Mordecai foiling the plot of two eunuchs against the king. The king then wanted to honor Mordecai, which eventually leads to him replacing Haman as the second in command in the kingdom. God is in the details! All of these are fingerprints of God.
Systemic injustice has historic roots
In Esther 3, there is an intriguing story between Mordecai and Haman. Essentially, we see the reality of how systemic injustice occurs. It happens in three movements.
Systemic injustice occurs when there is a certain disdain for a group of people (Es 3:1–6). Haman hated Jewish people. His hatred was rooted in historical tension between the descendants of Agag and the descendants of Saul (Ex 17:14–16; 1 Sam 15:32–33). As an Agagite, Haman’s lineage was linked to Agag.
Systemic injustice occurs when a person (or people) abuses power and authority (Es 3:7–11). Haman was second in command in the kingdom. He has access to the King and advocated for a Jewish Holocaust way before Nazis in Germany. His prejudice towards Jews led to his abuse of power.
Systemic injustice occurs when laws harm a certain group of people tremendously (Es 3:12–15). After the king agrees to permit this future massacre, Haman put this into an edict—what we would refer to as an executive order. This threw the city into confusion.
Systemic injustice still occurs today, and we see the same steps for its inception and execution.
God cares and loves his people
In the book of Esther, we see that God cares for and loves people. He set a plan in motion to save his people from their enemies. Esther goes to the king to intercede on behalf of the Jewish people; she reveals Haman’s wicked plot, and he is thwarted. In chapter 8, God uses Esther as a representative to save the Jewish people through a new edict.
An intriguing question: could Esther be a type of Christ? Could she be foreshadowing the great salvation that we see in Christ Jesus? Throughout the Holy Scriptures, God uses all sorts of people for his ultimate glory, and these mini-narratives of salvation point to the greater deliverance at the cross. God cares and loves his people—so much so he gave his only begotten son (Jn 3:16).
The book of Esther is amazing! It’s a great book for pastors to preach and teach through. There are so many different things that I’ve learned and I encourage pastors to prayerfully consider preaching through it. I’m confident their congregations will be encouraged by the heart of God. His name is not directly mentioned, but he is always active even when we don’t directly see it.
John Talley III serves as the Executive Pastor of Mission & Vision at Roosevelt Community Church in downtown Phoenix. He serves on the Executive Leadership Team of the Surge Network, a movement of local churches putting Jesus on display in Arizona. Also an adjunct professor at Arizona Christian University, he graduated from Grand Canyon University with a Bachelor of Arts in Christian Studies and Phoenix Seminary with a Master of Divinity with an emphasis in Biblical & Theological studies. He, his beautiful wife, Celeste, and their daughter reside in Phoenix, AZ.
Pastoring in a Post-Roe World
On June 24, 2022, the US Supreme Court—by overturning Roe v. Wade—righted a wrong that has had decades of tragic consequences, leading to the loss of millions of lives. Despite the temptation to ease up and take a victory lap, the fight to ensure unborn children have the right to live is, in many ways, still an uphill battle. The following is an interview about the cultural significance of this decision with Dr. Wayne Grudem and Dr. Andrew Walker hosted by Jason Dees during a recent virtual meeting with pastors from across the country. We hope this Q&A is helpful as you determine the best ways for your church to live missionally in this new chapter of the pro-life movement.
Jason Dees: I think the best question to start with is kind of a technical question: How did this happen? How did the Dobbs case overturn the decisions of Roe v Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which had been on the books for many years?
Wayne Grudem: A lot of factors came into play. For starters, both Presidents Bush and more recently President Trump appointed justices who hold to a textualist view of the Constitution—the view that the Constitution means what a normal, ordinary reader would attribute to it at the time it was written. In the majority decision, Justice Alito went to great lengths explaining that the Roe and subsequent Casey decisions were wrong in trying to find a right to abortion in the Constitution. It's a major victory for the pro-life cause, but it's also, in a broader sense, very significant it has the potential to set a textualist tone for what will be acceptable in the legal world in the United States for decades to come.
Andrew Walker: Effectively what Dobbs did was to chip away at the central holdings of Roe and Casey. The Roe decision created this artificial construct in a “viability test,” suggesting that the state only has a compelling interest in protecting life once life is eligible to be living outside of the womb. Then in Casey, the plurality constructed an “undue burden” test. Justice Scalia, who Justice Alito cited, called that a standard-less standard. Who defines what undue burden means? That’s not for the court to decide. It ought to be defined by legislatures. Alito's opinion isn't actually all that shocking or original. It’s really more like an omnibus collection of pro-life arguments over the last five decades put together in one document. But while it’s not an original argument, it effectively dismantled the tests of Roe and Casey. The Supreme Court removed the subjective test of “viability,” and inserted a more objective standard: life itself as something within the legitimate purview of state interest and passing a rational basis review for a law to take effect. The Constitution now gives the presumption of protecting life at all stages, rather than carving it up with arbitrary divisions based on development. Now it will be shot back to the states, with that presumption underlying legislation on the right to protect life.
JD: That’s so helpful, thank you. So my next question is this: What will the continued efforts of pro-life organizations look like now that the laws they propose are not consistently undermined by Roe, and will any pro-life legislation passed under Roe be in peril now that the fight has been pushed back to the state level?
WG: One obvious result is that state level politics will become much more important. Not only in abortion legislation, but in other legislation. The 14th Amendment says, "nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." It doesn't say anything about abortion, but that’s where they found a right to abortion. Now, laws about abortion revert to the states, which means that Christians have a great opportunity to influence the laws in their state. Romans 13:4 says civil authority is God's servant for your good, and we should seek to have government fulfill that purpose—to do good for its people. As an example, the Center for Arizona Policy is an evangelical Christian group aimed at influencing the politics of the state. Other states have similar organizations, and I think it would be excellent if pastors sought out those pro-life, pro-marriage, pro-religious freedom organizations. Remember that when a state legislator receives a call from a pastor in his district, he's very likely to take it; he knows the pastor influences a lot of people, and that provides an opportunity for Christians to have influence for good in their individual states.
AW: Kentucky is a good example of how the state battle matters. In 2018, Kentucky passed a trigger ban that basically said after a situation where Roe v. Wade is overturned, abortion is effectively outlawed immediately in Kentucky. The Attorney General basically certified that on June 24. Abortions are currently stopped right now in Kentucky. But that doesn't mean that the fight's over. Because we have activist organizations like Planned Parenthood filing suit against the trigger ban. Their argument is that even if the federal Constitution grants no right to abortion, Kentucky's constitution does grant it. And so in Kentucky, a pro-life organization has done the work to have an amendment ready for ratification in November. Kentuckians will vote to explicitly say whether or not they agree that the constitution ought not to codify a right to abortion. Now the obverse of that is a place like California, where there is a ballot initiative to effectively ratify a constitutional amendment to guarantee a right to abortion in their state. So let me just say this—the fight is not over at all. Now we’ll need to fight this at the state Supreme Court level. We have 50 Supreme Courts, so we’ll likely see a hodgepodge of rulings at the state level about abortion. For righteousness to see the light of day, it's going to require active attention on the part of our local churches. And so pastors will need to bring these types of issues to the attention of their congregants.
JD: My next question is about the psychological effect of the law. Things that are legal tend to be deemed as moral. Do you think that overturning Roe will help to slow down the sexual revolution? WIll this change the way we see human life and its value?
WG: I think we have to agree that laws have a teaching function. Many people reason that something like abortion is legal, therefore it must be morally permissible, as if society, through law, has made it morally permissible. But now with many states enacting restrictions on abortion, the general public—not everybody, but many people—will tend to think differently: it's illegal, therefore it's morally objectionable. So that’s positive. The degree to which it's positive and to what effect it's a positive consequence, we don't know. But there's some definite teaching function that laws have.
AW: I agree with Dr. Grudem. Law inevitably shapes belief, belief shapes behavior, behavior over time shapes custom. Which is why now, in the aftermath of this decision, those who disagree are responding as though they've had an aspect of their personhood taken from them. This ruling has demonstrated how deeply etched into the mindset of Americans expressive individualism really is. For many it seems unthinkable that there is moral significance to the use of one's body, or that public policy would dare to say that there are ways that you ought not to use your body, duties that stem from how you use your body, and consequences to how you use your body.
JD: Thank you for that. OK, let’s pivot back to the church’s response. How do we respond with compassion and humility when people accuse Christians of imposing our beliefs on the world, or creating situations where women will be unsafe or the poor will be oppressed?
WG: If someone says the pro-life movement is Christians trying to implement a religion or impose a theocracy, that's foolish. All laws are based on a moral conviction. For example most major religions teach that stealing is wrong. That doesn't mean if you have a law against stealing that you're imposing a religion on the nation. The same with laws against murder. Our desire to protect an unborn child doesn't mean that we're imposing a religious view on them.
And as to accusations of harming women or the poor, we have a great opportunity to give even more support to pro-life organizations—volunteer at pregnancy counseling centers, provide support for women who don't have the financial means to earn a living and care for a baby. Christians should be giving care and compassion to those who are pregnant and helping them in every way possible. Many organizations already do this, but more could be done. And it is a great time for pastors to commit to doing what they can to support these organizations.
AW: I also think we should dispute the assumption that the church hasn't already been doing this for five decades. If you go and look at the social science and polling data, it's church-attending Christians who are most likely to volunteer their time and give money and resources to these ends. I've heard some people use the phrase, "well, now the pro-life movement really begins." I understand the sentiment behind that, but that assumes that 50 years of scholarship, political organization, and pregnancy crisis center work has been playing second fiddle to post-Roe opportunities.
Now, as far as responding to the idea that we are implementing some type of theocracy, the simplest way to dispute that is to point out that abortion laws are homicide laws applied to unborn life. If we agree life is sacred outside the womb, then life is sacred inside the womb. This issue is not about implementing a theocracy, or about Christian domination in the culture, or white Christian nationalism. This is about justice and the common good. It's about restoring a more expansive understanding of human dignity. We don’t want to draw narrower distinctions and narrower scopes around who earns the concept of dignity and rights. To do so is really dangerous.
JD: So, that brings us to my next question. Some suggestions for public policy that could address the expected influx of children include things like publicly funded daycare or healthcare services. Are there any proposed solutions that you think Christians should be concerned about?
AW: I would say, first and foremost, we'll have to remember that Christians could have good faith disagreements on all of the entailments of how public policy would address these issues. There's always trade-offs from public policy. A program like universal daycare sounds nice, on the one hand. I understand it. It also encourages separating children from their parents, so that's the negative trade-off. We'll have to consider that. There are real, tangible ways that public policy could address this.
Senator Romney proposed a new tax system that's intentionally designed to give preference to the family, including monthly subsidies for children in the house. It may not cover every cost of raising a child, but it is a symbolic way to communicate that policy does care about the wellbeing of children. And a Christian could disagree with that proposal. I would caution against the idea that a pro-life response requires full scale adoption of socialism. I think the free market does have a role to play. Public policy has a role to play as well. We would be mistaken to think that policy has no role to play in protecting and furthering a culture of life.
In all these situations you have to determine your political priorities. I call myself a family-first social conservative. For me, protecting the family is my number one priority. Limited government is number two. And then probably fiscal issues are number three. And I still consider myself a fiscal conservative. But I'm willing to allow my views on economics to yield and bend to my prioritization of the family. We need to be clear about the principles guiding our thinking so we can have these discussions What we should focus on is a right motive and a right conclusion: to love our neighbor and see our neighbor protected in law. There are just going to be some determinations and differences on how to do that.
JD: So, what advice would you give to business leaders as they navigate these waters?
WG: Well, I'm not sure I know all the answers to this. I'm sure I don't know all the answers, Jason. But I think the Christian business owner probably should not give moral approval to something that the Bible doesn't approve of. I imagine Christian business owners face that challenge regularly, with Pride Month, and now they surely will with abortion.
AW: I think we want to establish some baseline principles. I think Christian business owners need to be attentive in not participating in any direct or indirect cooperation with their employees obtaining abortions. Pastors will be on the front line of this, counseling business leaders in your church that we shouldn't be facilitating access to abortion. That's just a basic moral principle. So, for example, there’s some debate about whether or not you would discipline someone in your church who is running a payday loan company, because that preys on the poor. We need to determine if we are business leaders first or a Christians first. Which speaks to the issue of the difficulties Christians will face in corporate life. As local churches, we’ll need to think through ideas like benevolence funds for Christians in corporate workspaces that can't persist in their jobs. What are you going to do when a member of your church loses their job over a cultural issue that a Christian cannot, in good conscience, go along with? We're going to have to prepare for more burden sharing. We've got to be thinking forward about that.
JD: Well, and that certainly wouldn’t be the first time the church has faced situations like that. Let’s end with your succinct responses to two common slogans you’ll likely hear. First is “my body, my choice.” What’s the Christian response to that?
WG: What about the body of the child within you? Do you have the right to take the life of another?
JD: That’s pretty succinct! You both already touched on this one to some extent, but the next one is “If you don’t like abortion, don’t have an abortion.” Which sort of implies the imposition of your beliefs on someone else. Your response?
AW: I would simply say that a pro-life law is no more of an imposition on anyone than a homicide law
JD: Well, thank you both for your time. It's been such a helpful conversation. I just really want to thank both of you—and not just for this conversation, but for your larger body of work.
Dr. Wayne Grudem serves as distinguished professor of Theology and Biblical Studies at Phoenix Seminary. He is the author of over 20 books, including Christian Ethics: An Introduction to Biblical Moral Reasoning (Crossway, 2018), and he served as the general editor for the ESV Study Bible. Dr. Grudem is a graduate of Harvard University (BA) and Westminster Theological Seminary (MDiv), and he received his doctorate from the University of Cambridge.
Dr. Andrew T. Walker is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is an Associate Dean in the School of Theology and the Executive Director of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement at Southern Seminary. He is a Fellow in the Evangelical in Civics Life Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and serves as the Managing Editor of WORLD Opinions.
The Hungry Pastor
Every few years, my wife and I go on a diet. Neither of us particularly enjoys dieting, but we do it for our health and because the discipline required for a diet usually bleeds over into other areas of our lives. The most frustrating part of a diet is not necessarily what you eat while you’re on the diet, but what you can’t eat. We develop incredibly intense cravings for all of the unhealthy foods we love to eat but no longer can. Sometimes you don’t realize how good certain foods taste until you can’t have them anymore. There’s nothing quite like a diet to make you long for what you don’t have.
Sitting or Stalking?
Longing. Craving. Hungering. These words should describe our desire for God. The Psalms express this sense of longing well:
“As the deer longs for flowing streams, so I long for you, God. I thirst for God, the living God.” (Psalm 42:1-2)
“God, you are my God; I eagerly seek you. I thirst for you; my body faints for you in a land that is dry, desolate, and without water.” (Psalm 63:1)
How would you describe your walk with God? I’m not talking about your encounters with the things of God in your professional capacity as a pastor. I’m talking about your personal relationship with the Lord. Would you describe it as dry, desolate, and without water? Or would you describe it as hungering and thirsting after God? Do you long for the Lord? Do you crave God’s manifest presence in your life?
Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matt. 5:6). Hungering and thirsting for the righteousness that comes from God could simply be described, in the words of A. W. Tozer, as “following hard after God.” It is longing for God himself. It’s a desire to see God fill your life with what you don’t have without his presence. It’s a craving for the kind of life only God can produce in you. God will bless the hungry pastor.
I love to hunt, but not all hunting is created equal. Deer hunting in Texas, for instance, is about as boring an activity as you can ever experience. You sit in a deer stand and quietly wait for an unsuspecting deer to wander close enough for you to take a shot. Growing up in Texas, this was the only kind of hunting I knew. When our family moved to New Mexico a number of years ago, my eyes were opened to a new world of hunting.
One of my favorite hunts now is an elk hunt. There’s no waiting around, no boredom, no passivity. When you hunt elk, you hunt elk. You hike for miles, using an elk call to try to identify the location of a herd of elk, and then the fun begins. In an elk hunt, you don’t sit; you stalk. You track the elk until you get that moment of ecstasy when an elk appears in your crosshairs and you consummate the hunt.
I cannot think of a more apropos description of a spiritual pursuit of God. You can either sit or stalk in your relationship with God. You can be passive or active. You can be self-satisfied with what you already have or hungry for what you don’t yet have but desperately need. Hunger and thirst for the righteousness only God can give is actually the hinge point of the Beatitudes and of the entire Sermon on the Mount itself.
One of the most startling verses in the Sermon on the Mount is Matthew 5:20. Jesus says, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus then begins to define exactly what it means to have surpassing righteousness.
Six times in the subsequent verses, Jesus says something along the lines of “you have heard . . . but I tell you.” He addresses the issues of anger, adultery, promise keeping, truth telling, and the treatment of an enemy (Matt. 5:21–48). In each case, the righteousness of the kingdom is greater than that of the Pharisees.
Not only that, but Jesus also explains the manner in which the righteousness of the kingdom is to be expressed. In Matthew 6, Jesus condemns righteous acts that are done for show, and in Matthew 7, Jesus condemns self-righteousness. Both describe what true righteousness is and how it is expressed. Jesus elevates the expectations for his followers above and beyond the norm and practice of the Pharisees.
The question every one of us should be asking when we read Matthew 5:20 is: How do I get the true righteousness of the kingdom? But then again, we already know the answer. The first beatitude reminds us that we are spiritually bankrupt.
Here’s the kingdom conundrum: to enter the kingdom you must have a true righteousness that surpasses that of the religious Pharisees, but it’s a righteousness you don’t possess and cannot possess on your own.
This is why Matthew 5:6 is so important. Jesus says we must hunger and thirst after the righteousness that we don’t have (v. 3) but desperately need (v. 20). At this point, the purpose of hungering spiritually for a righteousness we cannot produce on our own but without which we won’t enter the kingdom, the second half of this beatitude becomes critical. It’s a promise. Jesus says, “If you’re hungry for it, you will be filled with it.” You will be filled. This is a promise. Jesus promises to give us what we need, if we simply long for it.
This is a passive promise. The righteousness we need is not something with which we can fill ourselves. It’s something the God of righteousness himself will do for us. A hunger for righteousness is not the same as trying to earn or achieve righteousness. The Reformers understood this truth well: the righteousness that comes by faith is a passive righteousness, a righteousness received not earned.
Righteousness is achieved for us, not by us. Theologians call this the doctrine of imputation. This is what Paul means when he says, “Faith was credited to Abraham for righteousness” (Rom. 4:9).
Even though this righteousness must be passively received, it must also be actively pursued. It cannot be earned, but it must be sought. It cannot be achieved by you, but it must be received by you.
Matthew 5:6 is the essence of the gospel: you need righteousness you don’t have, but if you want it, you can have it if you will find it in Jesus. He will do for you what you cannot do for yourself. He will provide you with what you can never have on your own. In short: Jesus will satisfy the deepest longings of your heart.
Failures are going to happen. This is a life-reality “no brainer”! Still, we struggle mightily whenever we say or do the wrong thing, make the wrong choice, or pursue the wrong path. One of the most difficult consequences of our failures is how it affects other people. None of us starts off in ministry wanting to hurt people. Yet, inevitably, you can count on the fact that you will experience failure and people will be affected.
But, we take heart! The Scripture has so much to say about failure. The psalmist puts it this way, “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps. 73:26). I am especially encouraged by Prov. 24:16: “For the righteous falls seven times and rises again, but the wicked stumble in times of calamity.” One of the discernible signs of the righteous is their resiliency in failure. If only we could remember that our strengths often play rival to Jesus’ agenda while it is our weaknesses which are his allies. The apostle Paul learned this: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”
In the last post, we looked at three lesson we can learn from failure in ministry. So what other lessons can we learn from our failures?
Lesson #4: My family learns to handle failure from my example
We tend to forget that for our spouses and our children, faith and trust in God is “caught” more than “taught.” It’s what they see in us when things are hard that will shape their minds and hearts to far greater degree than what our words alone can do. This is the power of what Moses recorded as our “by the way” teaching that happens in the learning community of our family. Your spouse is watching and learning from you—even on your darkest day. Your children’s view of God and of the Christian faith are being shaped in the midst of the stress and turmoil. Don’t forget your responsibility to point them to God and to submit to him even in the heartbreak.
This doesn’t mean trying to hide things from them, especially from your wife. rather, you can bring your cries of anguish to the One who cares for you and for them. I know this is one of the reasons why so many raw emotions and words from the lips of the saints have been inscripturated for us, cries like “How long, oh Lord!” Remember that you teach your family the true nature of faith when you are in pain as much, if not more than, when you are blissfully happy. Show them what faith in 1 Pet. 5:6–7 looks like by obediently humbling yourself “under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.”
Lesson #5: Beware of infection in the wounds you receive from others
Jesus knows our hearts so well. He correctly identifies the source of sin in Mark 7:21–22: “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.” Here are all the ways in which we fail to honor the image of God as it exists in us and our neighbor. Much on this dark list comes from the sinful responses we have toward others for whom we have developed negative feelings for one reason or another.
I confess that I as I review this list I can identify sins that took hold of my heart and life because of the bitterness I had from those who, in the course of ministry, kicked me while I was down. In response, in my heart, I returned them the favor, something that Jesus directly addressed (see Matt. 5:21–22). It reminds me of something one of my first mentors in ministry said. “As you grow older in ministry, one of two things will happen,” he said. “You will either sweeten, or you will sour.” It is so true. The gospel provides the remedy to our deepest level of brokenness. In receiving new life and being united to Christ, we have new abilities and desires. Paul instructs us, therefore, to put away the evil practices of the “old self”: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk (Col. 3:8). Consider how liable we are to committing these particular sins when we’ve been hurt by others! Then consider what we are called to “put on” by grace: “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col. 3:12–14).
So, beware the “root of bitterness” (Heb. 12:15). Wash your wounds with the Word and seek forgiveness and healing. Bitterness that festers in the wounds of the heart will lead to poor decisions and reactions, which only spreads more hurt and pain.
Lesson #6: Failures are moments of spiritual vulnerability—for good or for evil
This lesson goes hand-in-hand with the previous one. But the issue here centers on the spiritual reality of which Eph. 6:12 reminds us. Our primary foe is not the flesh-and-blood type, but the invisible-and-evil type. In Jesus’ greatest moment of human weakness, his temptations in the desert, Satan drew near to him. He attacked him at a point of vulnerability. You can be sure that our Adversary and his minions will be watching and waiting for just such an opportune time in your life. The admonitions of Eph. 6 are useful especially in such times. Jesus shows us the way to handle these attacks. He fends off the Enemy by clinging to the Word!
Your spiritual integrity will be tested by failure. You will be laid open to Satan’s attack. These are the times when we must run to the Word and desperately cling to every truth, every promise, and every command. The Word is a refuge for us. We must not forget this. David proclaimed about God that “his way is perfect” and that “the word of the LORD proves true; he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him” (Ps. 18:30; compare 2 Sam. 22). Let this be our anthem in failure!
Lesson #7: Failures are all part of God’s sovereign plan and work for his glory
Of all the lessons I have learned in ministry, this lesson is the most repeated. God is sovereign. “The counsel of the LORD stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations” (Ps. 33:10). No matter what occurs, regardless of the choices made, we can rest assured that God’s plan is going according to plan. We must remember this when we fail. “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand” (Prov. 19:21). Yes, we struggle to reconcile our ability to choose and bear responsibility for those choices with his sovereign and single plan for time and eternity. Yet, the Scripture acknowledges repeatedly (because we forget) that, at the end of the day, his will is done (see Isa. 46:8–10). And this should be a great comfort to us. We are to take refuge in the incomprehensible mystery of the sovereignty of God, especially when things are at their worst in our lives. What greater testament is there to this than Paul’s words in Rom. 8:28? “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
In the midst of failures, it’s the words “all things” here that comfort me most. “All things” means all things! This includes all my failings and shortcomings. My successes too are part of the “all things.” God is on the throne. We need not fear failures because they are no surprise to our glorious King and Ruler. Knowing this doesn’t mean that we simply shrug off our failures or think that they don’t matter. They do. And that’s the point. Your failures do matter in the same way everything matters. God is in control of every detail, every event, every circumstance, every moment.
As his children by grace, we have been made aware of this by God himself. Why? So that we can trust him more. Trust him! Trust him with your failures. Trust him with your heart. Trust him with the outcome. Trust him with the hurt no one sees. Trust him with the unknown. He is worthy of your trust. Even in your failures, don’t fail to trust him.
About Josh Matteson
Josh Matteson is married to Tracey and they have three sons. They live in Phoenix where Josh pastors GraceLife Church. He is a graduate of Phoenix Seminary and has pastored in the valley for over 15 years. You can read his blog or follow him on Twitter.
Three Lessons from Failure in Ministry
We are not as eager to learn from our failures as from our successes. In fact, I would argue that success often (not always!) keeps us from learning anything. But failures have the unique ability to drive us to humility. And this is a very good experience from which those of us who serve in ministry capacities can learn.
My first taste of real failure in ministry came when I was a youth pastor. I had a student in my group that was a leader and an influencer—just not a positive one. My concern was that his parents seemed unaware of their son’s spiritual condition. So, I took it upon myself to help them see it. I met with them and told them of my concern for the state of his heart. I told them that I thought this student’s problem was a “heart issue.” This deeply troubled them, but not in the way I had hoped. Their grief was only that I would think so lowly of their son! And they did not hesitate to air their grievances with the senior pastor.
The failure here was not that I was wrong, and they were right, or vice-versa. The failure I experienced was that I sought them out rather than the student. The only outcome of this approach was a very convenient reason for them to exit our ministry.
I beat myself up for failing. I had thought that perhaps this would have all played out differently if only I had used different words. Maybe I should have approached the student before the parents. Or, better yet, I should have just kept my mouth shut. My heart was in the right place, but I handled the situation all wrong.
Now, as those of us in ministry can testify, we will have a longer list of failures on our resume than successes! But the Gospel calls us to look at our failures in a different light than we would otherwise. Our failures are opportunities to learn, to grow, to reevaluate, to confess, and to share. Consider this: the Bible contains many accounts of failures in the lives of God’s people.
In that spirit, let me humbly suggest the following lessons which my own failures in ministry have taught me. These are the first three of seven that I will share:
Lesson #1: Failures do not define me, Christ does!
We are a success-driven culture. We often assign greater meaning and significance to our victories than our losses. We have names such as “winner” and “loser” for a reason! But in moments of failure, we must fight our tendency to think of ourselves as either a failure or success. When we do that, we end up making success an idol. And this idol is a cruel taskmaster. It will eventually crush me because I will not be able to avoid failure.
Lesson #2: Failures help me test my grasp on the gospel.
Now this is somewhat like the first lesson above. But, the emphasis here is on the opportunity which failures afford me to gauge my own grip on the Gospel truths. These are truths which ought to shape my life, my worldview, indeed everything I do. When I fail, I have an opportunity to see how I process the failure through the grid of the Gospel. How am I processing failure? Am I recognizing that God is still sovereign? That I am finite, fallen, and prone to failure? That He redeems me from even my own catastrophes?
Lesson #3: In the midst of failure, God is speaking too.
God often is saying something to me that is different than what my critics are telling me. This is not to say that we cannot learn from our critics. We certainly can and we should. But I have found in myself a tendency to listen to the voices of my critics rather than the voice of God. The truth is that that my critics are not above missing the mark that God happens to be targeting. So, I have learned that I will not allow a critic’s voice to drown out the still small voice of the Lord in my failures. We should hear our critics out. But then we should seek time with God and ask the Spirit to speak. We may not like what we hear! In fact, God’s critique will often cut deeper than anything our critics can produce. But we are people of the Word. Thus, we affirm that there are no such things as insignificant moments in our lives. Every moment matters. And every event in our life—even failures—are redemptive moments.
About Josh Matteson
Josh Matteson is married to Tracey and they have three sons. They live in Phoenix where Josh pastors GraceLife Church. He is a graduate of Phoenix Seminary and has pastored in the valley for over 15 years. You can read his blog or follow him on Twitter.
What a pastor should know about developments in NT textual criticism. Part 1: New Editions
In this series, Dr. Peter Gurry explains recent developments in New Testament textual criticism. Read part 2 and part 3.
Introduction: Why It Matters
Pastors are busy. They are expected to maintain competence in a wide range of skills from preaching to counseling, balancing the budget to carefully parsing the doctrine of the Trinity. It can be a lot to keep up with. In this blog post, I want to help busy pastors with a short series on the latest developments in New Testament textual criticism. We’ll tackle this in three posts, looking at new editions, new methods, and new resources. But first, a quick word about why textual criticism matters.
Textual criticism is that discipline that tries to recover the original wording of a work whose original documents have now been lost. Since no original document survives for the New Testament and since the existing copies disagree with one another, textual criticism is needed for all 27 books. Since we cannot study, teach, and apply the Bible if we don’t know what it says, textual criticism—whether we know it or not—plays a foundation role in pastoral ministry.
So, what is new in textual criticism?
First, there are several new editions of the Greek New Testament that have come out in recent years. The most recent one is known as the Tyndale House Greek New Testament (THGNT). The result of over a decade of work, it was produced by a group of scholars at Tyndale House library in Cambridge, England, a premier study center for Biblical studies. The main hallmark of this edition is the editors’ documentary or manuscript-first approach. In practice, this means they have tried to follow the earliest manuscripts not only for the text but also for deciding paragraphing, spelling, and even accenting. In presentation, they have taken a minimalist approach with no text-critical symbols, no headings, and even no hyphens! The result is a text that is ideal for immersive reading and for challenging commonly-held assumptions about where to break the text.
The NA28 (left) and THGNT (right) open to the beginning of John's Gospel
Two other important recent editions are the Nestle-Aland Novum Testament Graece 28th edition and the UBS Greek New Testament 5th edition. These two editions have long established themselves as the scholarly standard and they remain so for serious exegetical work on the New Testament. They share the same text between them but differ mainly in how much information they provide in the apparatus. The most important difference between these newest editions of the Nestle-Aland and the UBS is in the method used to establish the main text.
In the so-called Catholic Letters (James, 1–2 Peter, 1–3 John, Jude), the editors used a new computer-assisted method to help understand how manuscript texts are related and to help make their decisions more consistent. That method is known as the “Coherence-Based Genealogical Method” or CBGM—a mouthful for sure, but an important development in New Testament textual criticism nonetheless. As a result of applying the CBGM, the NA28 and UBS5 text changed in 33 places in the Catholic Letters with more changes on the way for Acts in future editions.
A pastor with an older edition of the NA or UBS who is preaching on one of these Catholic Letters may want to update to the new edition in order to be aware of where these changes are. Alternatively, buying the new Tyndale House Greek New Testament might be a great way to approach a familiar book in Greek in a new way.
In our next blog post, we will consider the CBGM in more detail.
Peter Gurry joined the Phoenix Seminary faculty in 2017. He teaches courses in Greek Language and New Testament literature. His research interests range across Greek grammar, New Testament textual criticism, the General Epistles, and the history of Biblical scholarship. Learn more about Dr. Gurry here.