IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 1, Number 21, July 19 to July 25, 1999

Lessons on Ministry from the Pharisees:
Charge to Westminster Theological Seminary Graduates, May, 1999

by John M. Frame

James, the brother of our Lord, writes, "Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly" (3:1). Is it possible that I could be standing up here on the eve of your graduation, trying to persuade you not to become teachers in the church?

Not really. Certainly, from reading and hearing your testimonies, not only tonight, but also over your whole time here, I am persuaded that God has called most of you to some form of ministry. So, I look forward to hearing how God will use you as teachers in the church. But I do think many of you should consider a further period of preparation. Many of you will do well in a ministry under the oversight of someone else. But I do fear for the recent seminary graduate, with little experience beyond seminary, who gets into a situation where he has little oversight and much independence. The problem is not ignorance of academic theology. Westminster does a pretty good job of preparing you academically for ministry, but I think most seminary graduates need more practical experience and personal maturing than any seminary can provide. Recall that the qualifications for elders in Timothy and Titus are mostly character traits, fruits of spiritual maturity.

At this point in your life, there are grave dangers of misunderstanding yourself. What are you tonight? What have you become after your years at seminary? Perhaps you might reply that you are a certified expert in the Bible. Westminster has used as an advertising slogan a phrase of J. Gresham Machen: Westminster Seminary is a "school for specialists"; specialists in the Bible. Is that what you are tonight? A specialist in the Bible?

Certainly God does provide the church with specialists in Scripture — people called teachers. Even James recognizes that. He doesn't say "not any of you should presume to be teachers," but "not many of you should presume to be teachers." The letter "m" makes a big difference. And yet we can't avoid the rather negative thrust of the sentence as a whole (am I allowed to be negative on graduation eve?)

The negativity here reflects a kind of negativity that we find throughout Scripture. Scripture often takes a rather negative view of many professing specialists in God's Word. It does commend the prophets, of course, who received special inspiration from God and whose lives usually reinforced the message, often by martyrdom. But Scripture treats other experts rather harshly: the false prophets, such as the court prophets who told the king what he wanted to hear; and the Scribes and Pharisees, highly regarded as religious experts by the Jewish people, but who made God's Word void by their tradition and who missed the main theme of the Scriptures, Jesus himself.

We are tempted to think that the Scribes and Pharisees would have been better off if they had attended a seminary like Westminster, where they could have learned redemptive history and could have seen the real Messianic thrust of God's covenants with Abraham, Moses, and David. Indeed, that might have helped. But their problem was worse than a mere lack of instruction. At one level, certainly, they knew the Bible thoroughly. Jesus even commends their teaching in Matthew 23:

"The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you."

But then comes Jesus' critique, as we heard it read earlier tonight. Jesus' critique of the Pharisees is threefold: First, they tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders. Second, they don't lift a finger to move those loads. Third, everything they do is for men to see. Let's look at each of these in turn.

First, they put heavy loads on people's shoulders. What were these loads? Elsewhere Jesus explains that the Pharisees added to the law; they added their own traditions to God's Word. So the people saw God's law as a great, big, heavy burden, a curse upon them. In Psalm 1 the writer sees the law as a delight, on in which he is happy to meditate day and night. But the Pharisees' law was no delight. Keeping it was drudgery.

Make no mistake -- this is happening today. It happens among both liberals and conservatives. Among liberals it takes the form of adding to God's Word all sorts of human theories about psychology, science, sociology, politics, and so on. Among some broad evangelicals, it takes the form of adding to God's Word everybody's latest theories about church growth, homogeneous units, and so on. Among some confessing evangelicals, as we now call them, it takes the form even more closely analogous to what the Pharisees were doing, the form of forcing God's people to follow all the traditions of the church as well as the Scriptures, not distinguishing clearly between these

When preachers and teachers, in these and other ways, fail to distinguish between God's Word and their own ideas, their teaching becomes a heavy load on the backs of God's people. When western missionaries go to other parts of the world and insist that churches of other cultures worship exactly the same way we do in the west, they strap big loads to the backs of the people. When we teach that people cannot be Reformed Christians unless they follow traditional Reformed patterns of worship and evangelism, we are making the Christian life harder than God does, and we are discouraging people from joining our fellowship, even from entering the church of Jesus Christ.

Second, Jesus said that after the Pharisees laid those heavy loads on people shoulders, they were not willing to lift a finger to move them. The Pharisees didn't care about the hurt they were causing to people. They had made people miserable, and they did not care about that misery. Maybe they said, "Look, the law is objective; it's true. It's not important what people feel about it. That's subjective, sentimental. If people don't like keeping the law, that's their problem. Let them answer to God." Of course, in saying this they would have ignored the fact that much of what they proclaimed as law was not God's law at all, but their own creation. But even if their teaching about the law had been rigorously true to God's Word, they shouldn't have been making their people miserable. Learning God's law should be a delight. And, brothers and sisters, if our people aren't delighted by it, we ought to care. Caring about this is not merely sentimental or subjective. God's law is objectively delightful, and if it makes people miserable there is something objectively wrong, either with the preacher or the hearer. The preacher must care about this. I hope you will care. I hope God will use you to build congregations that love to hear God's law, indeed all of God's Word.

But the Pharisees left a trail of misery among God's people. What could they have done about it? Some might say, "We can do nothing; it's all in God's hands whether people receive the Word with joy or in misery." No. God is sovereign in this area, to be sure — but there is also a role for human responsibility here. The Pharisees might have cured the people's misery by telling them of God's grace. They might have taught that God is love, and he takes away from us the awful burden of trying to earn salvation by keeping the law. God takes that burden away, even when that law is wrongly taught and misunderstood. And the Pharisees might have pointed people to Jesus, who even before the atonement was pronouncing God's forgiveness, who was calling, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matt. 11:28). Indeed, it was Jesus himself who was preparing even then to take on himself the sins of his people, their awful burden of guilt. But the Pharisees hated Jesus and wanted no part of his free gift of salvation.

This happens today too. There are many in our churches who haven't heard clearly the message of grace. The do's and don'ts of our preaching have so overshadowed the gospel, that many still labor under mountains of guilt, with no sense of God's forgiveness. This can happen even under pastors who know and believe the gospel, and who do preach it regularly. Working the gospel into sermons is not enough. We need to show people what it means in daily life, how to maintain a grace perspective on everything. When Christian people help the poor, support their families, honor their parents, resist temptation, they need to know the difference between just keeping rules and living out of thankfulness to God. To teach them that requires a special care in preaching — not just to cover biblical content, but to present it in such a way as to convey the true balance between law and gospel, and therefore the full joy of the redeemed life. And beyond preaching, it takes pastoral care. The Pharisees didn't understand that preachers and teachers have a responsibility to the people that hear them. You must be there with your people, not only in church, but afterward, to help them through their misunderstandings, to help them learn to live out of thankfulness. You need to communicate the Word in your actions as well as your words. You need to present the Word with a gentleness that comes from knowing how much God has forgiven you. And if you cannot do that, you're not ready for ministry.

So the Pharisees: 1) laid heavy loads on people; and 2) did nothing to help move them. They really didn't care much for the people who heard their teaching. What did they care about? So we come to the third part of Jesus' critique. They cared about themselves. They wanted recognition from people. They made a big show of their piety, so that people would give them seats of honor and honorific titles. In their teaching, their main goal was to feed their own pride, not to build up the people of God.

It's so easy to use our knowledge, even the knowledge we gain in seminary, for ourselves rather than for others. It also happened in the church at Corinth, where some were claiming to have "knowledge." Most likely they were correct in claiming to have knowledge; but they were using that knowledge as a club to beat their fellow-Christians over the head. Of this kind of knowledge, Paul says,

"Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. But t`e man who loves God is known by him" (1 Cor. 8:1b-3).

I won't unpack everything in these remarkable sentences. But the passage certainly challenges us in two areas: knowledge without humility; and knowledge without love. On the subject of humility and pride: after two or three years of seminary, you probably don't know nearly as much as you think you do. There is so much more to learn than we can teach in three years. I confess I'm both amused and appalled at a certain syndrome I've noticed in a few graduates: guys who were C and D students in seminary, who barely pass their ordination exams, who, after they are ordained, suddenly decide to present themselves as experts on all the difficult theological issues of the day. Please understand that a theological degree does not automatically entitle you to pontificate thoughtlessly on every theological issue; only a huge amount of pride could make you think that it does.

Knowledge without humility is ludicrous and useless. Knowledge without love is also destructive, Paul teaches us. It tears down rather than builds up the church. It feeds the error we just discussed, for it succeeds only in puffing up the preacher, in feeding his pride. Indeed, knowledge without love is not knowledge in the fullest sense. Knowledge without love distorts the truth so as to make it unrecognizable, so as to turn it into falsehood.

This principle is important even in the narrow issue of homiletics, how you preach and teach. What I see over and over again in young preachers is that they are not conscious of their audience. They cover biblical material, but they don't know how to communicate it; they don't know how to relate it to where people really are. They don't know how to put it in the language of real people. They don't know how to illustrate, how to apply. The problem here, I think, is not only immaturity of preaching skills, though that is part of it. The problem here is often that there is not enough love. For if the teacher had more love for the people, he would have a passionate zeal to put the truth where the people could find it. He would show by his choice of words that he wants them to hear, so that they will take the Word to heart. And he would, as I emphasized earlier, get involved with people pastorally to help them, by word and example, to put their teaching into practice.

Add to God's Word, preach law without gospel, preach gospel pridefully, without loving pastoral care, and your truth, all the wonderful truth you've learned in seminary, becomes false. It may gain honor for yourself, but it won't help anybody else, and it won't honor God.

This is why I think a lot of you may need some more seasoning, some more oversight, a time of working together with mature pastors and Christian workers, learning from their life as well as their communication. Paul tells Timothy not to ordain a novice or a recent convert, "or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil" (1 Tim. 3:6). So this is serious stuff. Paul knew that young Christians, immature Christians, however genuinely gifted they may be for teaching, often have the same problem Jesus ascribed to the Pharisees. They teach too much to feed their own pride, too little to build up God's people.

As a charge to graduates, I confess this message so far has been something of a downer. I need now to practice what I am preaching. I cannot leave you with a big, heavy burden to bear. I need to leave you with something delightful. I want you to leave here with the joy of the Lord in your hearts.

Remember that the Apostle Paul was once a Pharisee. He loved his traditions, and he hated Jesus. He persecuted Christians and rejoiced in their deaths. He loved the big heavy burdens that the law, and the law plus tradition, placed on people's hearts, and he had no interest in lifting those burdens. He had much to boast of, as a Jew, and he loved to accumulate honors for himself. But when Jesus met him, God changed his heart. "Whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ," he wrote,

"What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ — the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead" (Phil. 3:8-11).

Here Paul compares his new heart to his old one — the Christian Paul to the Pharisee Saul. And it's instructive for us to compare Paul here with what Jesus says about the Pharisees in Matthew 23. The Pharisee Saul taught that we should have righteousness of our own, through the law, that we must bear that burden, no matter the misery. The Christian Paul teaches a righteousness through faith in Christ — a free gift, a liberation, a rest. The Pharisee Saul sought honor for himself. The Christian Paul tosses all of that aside for the sake of Christ.

Jesus can do the same for you. Not only does he save you from sin, but as he nurtures your Christian life, he can help you more and more to count earthly honors as rubbish. And he can give you an earnestness and joy about knowing him, contagious joy, a joy that replaces the misery of bondage to legalism, a taste of heaven itself. When your knowledge of Christ matures in this way, there won't be any doubt that you are ready for ministry. You won't be able to hold it in. "Woe to me," you will say, "if I don't preach the gospel." God's people will seek you out. And God himself will give you rich opportunities to proclaim his grace. You will see your joy reflected in the people, and your congregations will grow in spiritual maturity as well as in numbers. Our God is good. If he has called you to labor in his kingdom, that is what he will do for you. There will be suffering too, the fellowship of Jesus' sufferings, and persecution. But no life could possibly be richer, and more rewarding in the deepest sense.

As Paul goes on to say in Philippians 3, do not consider yourselves to have reached your goal, but forget what is behind, and strain toward what is ahead. Press on toward the goal to win the prize of the high calling of God in Jesus Christ:

"All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained" (Phil. 3:15-16).

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