Sunday’s Sermon: Exodus 18:13-27, Biblical Leadership

29 Oct

In just a few days, we will be electing a president in our country. And for most of us, we will be glad to be done with the TV ads and the phone calls and all the campaign signs. And we’ll be glad to be done with the mud-slinging and the mostly empty promises. It will be good to just get on with life again. But this election is important. The next president will face a variety of tough situations at home and abroad. A challenging economy and world unrest will combine to test the character of the next man to occupy the Oval Office.
    Have you ever thought about the fact that the President, who is widely considered the most powerful man in the world, actually has an incredible number of advisors? He has a cabinet. He has a national security team. He can form special committees to explore solutions to tough issues. He has a press secretary and a chief of staff and speechwriters and all kinds of office staff. There is even a White House chef. While the President is the face of our nation’s leadership, it is clear that he doesn’t lead by himself. The buck may stop with him, but it has gone through many other hands before it gets to his desk. The President is not called on to lead the nation by himself.
    Sadly though, this is what Moses was trying to do in the early days of Israel’s exit from Egypt. And it is also, sadly, what many Pastors try to do in churches all over our land.
    So I want to explore this morning this issue of biblical leadership. It will have application to the world at large but the real focus of this message is seeing how what we learn from Moses and Israel can be applied to our own situation today in the church.

As we come to the passage, we see first . . .
1.    The PROBLEM    (18:13-18).
13  The next day Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood around Moses from morning till evening.
Well, there’s a problem, isn’t there? Moses whole day was taken up judging the people, from morning till evening. He was instructing them in God’s ways and settling their disputes. And this activity took up all his time. He couldn’t lead the people adequately because all his time was taken judging their disputes.
14  When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, and all the people stand around you from morning till evening?”
Now notice Jethro’s response . . . Basically, it’s “what in the world are you doing?” The key word here is “alone.” Why are you here by yourself trying to do all this. Jethro has put his finger on a problem but Moses tries to justify what he was doing . . .

15  And Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God; 16  when they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make them know the statutes of God and his laws.”
Moses was the one God had spoken to. He was the appointed leader of Israel. He was their prophet and their leader. Now I believe that Moses was sincere but here he was misguided. He felt the pressure of the people coming to him. And he felt the pressure to be faithful in giving them wisdom from God for their situations.

Moses was judging between the people and teaching the people. And the people were coming to him in droves. This was an important ministry to the life and spiritual health of the people. The truth of God needed to be taught. Conflicts needed to be dealt with. But there was one problem: this task was too great for Moses to handle alone.

I am struck by the contrast in Jethro between this passage and the last passage. When Jethro heard of all the great works of God in the last passage, he was impressed and gave thanks to God for all His powerful working. But when he sees Moses working himself to death for Israel, he is not impressed. Jethro knows that Moses does not have the same power as the living God and for all of Moses’ sincerity he is going to work himself to death if he keeps trying to do the whole work of ministering to and leading the Israelites.

So the problem in this passage is that Moses is trying to do far more than he is able to do. It’s not that he is doing bad things or even the wrong things, but he is doing them in the wrong way. He does not appear to be proud or insincere or lazy. He wants to serve. But he is trying to serve in a way that is beyond his capacity and way that will lead to break down if it is not checked. And notice Jethro’s words in verses 17 and 18 . . .

17  Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing is not good.
18  You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone.
The Hebrew is very strong. What you are doing is NOT GOOD. Why? First, because Moses’ going it alone was wearing him out. But notice it was also wearing the people out. And again, look at the last line of verse 18. “You are not able to do it alone.” There’s that emphasis again on going it alone.

One of my professors, Terry Powell, used to say, “If you’re a Lone Ranger, you’re in danger.” I always thought it was a goofy saying but I’ve used it several times through the years. But then one day I was thinking about it, even the Lone Ranger had Tonto. He wasn’t solitary, he wasn’t alone. And neither should we be alone or try to carry the burden by ourselves. Pastors who do this will only hurt themselves and the people under their care will become disenchanted and will wilt under their leadership.

Now pastors are often guilty of carrying the burden of the whole church on their shoulders. There are several reasons for this, most of them less noble than the reasons of Moses for carrying the burdens he carried.

For most pastors, there is the noble pursuit of faithfulness to God, desire to serve, desire to please God.

But there is also sometimes pride. I can do it better than anybody else so I’ll do it. Or the feeling that these people need me and I’ve got such great wisdom I am their “go to” guy.

Sometimes there is fear. I better do everything people expect of me or else they won’t like me and then when the going gets rough they’ll show me the door. Or I don’t want anybody to be mad at me so I’ll just try to do what everybody says. That of course is a recipe for disaster because everybody wants something different.

Sometimes the expectations of the people are a driving force for a Pastor’s mad dash of ministry. I found this little paragraph somewhere years ago and have always thought it humorously points to a Pastor’s plight.

The ideal pastor “is 36 years old and has been preaching for 30 years. He is tall and short, thin and heavy set, handsome but not too pretty. He has one brown eye and one blue eye. His hair is parted down the middle. The left side is dark and straight, the right is brown and wavy. He has a burning desire to work with teenagers and spends all of his time with older folks. He smiles all the time with a straight face because he has a sense of humor that keeps him seriously dedicated to his work. He makes 15 calls a day on church members, spends all of his time evangelizing the unchurched and is never out of the office while he spends time with his family.”

There are many, many other reasons pastors try to take on the whole work of the church alone. But we must see that this is not what God would have us to do. Even Jesus took regular times away from ministry to rest, and told His disciples to do the same. And there were times when Jesus commissioned His disciples to go do ministry on their own. And of course Paul’s name is hardly ever mentioned in the Bible without it being attached to another name, like Silas, Barnabus or Timothy.

Recently, someone said to me, “The Pastor is the Church.” I don’t disagree that spiritual leadership is important and that Pastors play a vital role. But any time the Pastor is the Church, you have an unhealthy church. This was true of Moses and the nation of Israel on that level and it is true of us too in church life today.

Thankfully, there is a solution to Pastors as a one man show. And it isn’t the Pastor just taking more vacation or playing golf three days a week. The solution in found in verses 19-23 . . .

2.     The SOLUTION    (18:19-22a).
19  Now obey my voice; I will give you advice, and God be with you! You shall represent the people before God and bring their cases to God,
20  and you shall warn them about the statutes and the laws, and make them know the way in which they must walk and what they must do.
21  Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens.
22  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.
23  If you do this, God will direct you, you will be able to endure, and all this people also will go to their place in peace.”
Jethro advises Moses not to give up His service of God but to continue right on in what he is doing but at the same time to find other capable men who can help him in the task of judging the people. So again it wasn’t that Moses was doing the wrong things, it was that he was doing the right thing in the wrong way. He was trying to do on his own what should have been shared among many.

So the solution for Moses was to work smarter, to share the task of ministry. But he was called to share the task with able men. Not just pulling any old person from their tent, but looking for certain qualities. The first and most important quality was the fear of God. In other words, if there was not a deep reference and God-focus in the life of a man, he was not to be considered for leadership. Second was the matter of character. The men were trustworthy and would not take a bribe. This was important because in settling disputes bribery could be part of the game in the ancient world, even as it sometimes is today. Moses had to find men who would not let their judgments be swayed by taking a little money on the side.

Having chosen the men, they were to be put in different capacities, over thousands and hundreds and fifties and tens. Perhaps they were given responsibility over a certain number of people based on what each man could handle.

These men were to handle the little things, the smaller disputes, while Moses would still handle the bigger or more difficult disputes. The leadership of the people of Israel was being entrusted to a team and not to one man.

In our situation as a church, we too can not put all the responsibility for leadership on the shoulders of one person. Thankfully, God has given the church a leadership structure similar to that here in Exodus: he has given us elders and deacons.

Now I know a lot of people don’t like that word “elder” because they think it is not Baptist. Well, early Baptists did use the term but the truth is its not Baptist or Presbyterian, the word “elder” is biblical. The word “pastor” is only used one time in the whole Bible. The word “elder” is used 194 times in the Bible, with a good number of these referring to the specific New Testament office of elder. The Israelites had elders throughout their history and they were looked at as the older and wiser members of the nation. When the early church was formed, this idea of elders transferred to the early church. It seems from many passages that early churches were led by a group of elders. For example,
Acts 14:23  And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.

Acts 20:17  Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him.

Acts 21:18  On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present.

1Ti 4:14  Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you.

1Ti 5:17  Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.

Tit 1:5  This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you—

Jas 5:14  Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.

1Pe 5:5  Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

So the evidence that elders were a prominent part of the early church is overwhelming. It seems to me that if we are going to have deacons because they are in the Bible, we should also have elders. And the truth is, we do. Right now we have two elders: pastor Rob and myself. The word pastor and the word elder are referring to the same office. You remember that the word pastor comes from the word for shepherd. Well, look at 1 Peter chapter 5 . . .

1Peter 5:1  So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2  shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; 3  not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. 4  And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.
Notice the connection between elders and shepherding, the work of what we call a pastor. That is what an elder is. Much of the problem people have with the idea of elders is the thought that they will take over the church or rule  with an iron fist. But nothing could be further from the truth biblically. Peter says they are to be leaders, but not lords, leading people from the heart of a servant, not for financial gain, but as examples. The true leadership of elders is nothing to fear. And it doesn’t take responsibility away from the congregation. In the book of Acts, the elders led but the congregation made big decisions about the life of the church. This is what we do when we face a big decision as well. We are governed by the consent of the congregation, but we are led by pastor-elders and deacons.

So this issue of elders is not some diabolical plan to take over the church or some power play, it is just a recognition of biblical teaching and an application of this passage we are studying in Exodus: one man can’t do it alone. Others are needed to share the load for ministry. This is healthy for leaders and it is healthy for the congregation. And we can see that when we look at the results of good leadership in verses 22-27 . . .

3.    The RESULTS    (18:22b-27).
So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you.
23  If you do this, God will direct you, you will be able to endure, and all this people also will go to their place in peace.”
24  So Moses listened to the voice of his father-in-law and did all that he had said.
25  Moses chose able men out of all Israel and made them heads over the people, chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens.
26  And they judged the people at all times. Any hard case they brought to Moses, but any small matter they decided themselves.
27  Then Moses let his father-in-law depart, and he went away to his own country.
The first result mentioned is that things will be easier for Moses. God’s leader for the people of Israel will not burn out on the way to the Promised Land because the burden of leadership would be shared. Along with this, Moses would through this shared leadership enjoy the direction of God, the ability to make it through the hard times to come and a more peaceful nation. This good leadership plan would have great benefit to those led.
We see these results play out in the last verses of the chapter. Moses, the great leader, was humble enough to listen to his father-in-law. He realized he had a blind spot which his father-in-law had highlighted. So he did what Jethro recommended and the results were good. And Jethro rides off into the sunset having been a great help to Moses.

The message of this passage is that when there is shared leadership, congregations can thrive. There is in Israel a point person, a key leader, Moses. And in most churches there is a key leader, often called the pastor or the senior pastor. But in healthy churches, there is a shared leadership among elders, deacons and the congregation.

This kind of shared leadership is good for the pastor-elders. Not because ministry becomes a breeze but because their ministry gains staying power. A pastor can’t run around trying to do everything on his own for long and stay in ministry. Much of the moral failure and burnout in ministry I believe is directly traceable to this tendency to try to do everything and to try to please everybody.

Shared leadership is also good for the congregation. People get to use their gifts in serving the Lord. The congregation benefits from the different gifts their leaders bring to the table.

As one author puts it, “When only pastors do for people what God has called all His people to do, everyone gets hurt and the mission of God is hindered. God has given gifts to his people for the good of all. That’s why the Bible says, “a demonstration of the Spirit is given to each person to produce what is beneficial” (1 Corinthians 12:7).
When God’s people think less like customers of the ministry and, instead, see themselves as the owners of the ministry, it’s a whole different kind of church.”

I am not the head of this church: Jesus is. Pastor/elders are not to wield power or to push people around. They are to lead through serving. They are to love the people even when people disagree with them. They should always try to point members to what is biblical, to what is true and will always try to encourage members toward obedience to God. The spirit of the church leaders should be Paul’s spirit in 2 Corinthians 1:24 “Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith.”

My counsel for all of you, whether you are a visitor or a member who is only lightly involved . . . BE the change you seek. It is easy to sit on the sidelines and point out everything that is wrong. But God is calling you roll up your sleeves and be a positive benefit to His work in this church. It will be slow. It will be hard. But it will be worth it. Lives will be changed along the way. Be that positive change you want to see by joining this church body and participating in its life.

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