4 Pleas for Church Leaders

It’s good to be back, friends! I’m still working on the project I started during my blogging break. I’ll let you know when it’s ready.

When we left Paul, back in Do the Work Well, he was sitting with the elders of the church in Ephesus, urgently encouraging them because he knew he would never see them again (Acts 20). This chapter seems like Paul’s version of Jesus’ Upper Room Discourse (John 13-17).

Paul’s boat was about to leave, so he had to talk quickly and directly. The beginning and end of his conversation could have been for any believers in Ephesus and beyond. But tucked into the middle of this passage, Paul gives some very personal, prophetic advice to those specific leaders who sat before him. The principles, however, apply to leaders in local churches across time and around the world, from preschool Sunday School teachers to lead pastors of megachurches. These principles are more fundamental than leadership styles or personal preferences. They get down to essentials. Let’s take a look.

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Let God Shatter Your 2020 Expectations

The new year is so pretty and clean, sitting here on the first weekend of the year. I have significant expectations for this year, partially because I will soon turn 47, and since 47 is my favorite number (for no particular reason), I have long thought this year would be big for me. But God is doing something a little weird in my heart right now. Let’s see if I can break it down. Continue reading

She Was Looking for a Pail, Not a Provider

The woman trudged through the field, walking the path worn by ancient feet and cemented by the townswomen’s continued daily pilgrimage for water. She squinted in the sun and flapped her arms a bit to force air toward her armpits.

Someone was sitting by the well. She slowed her pace, hoping he would move on before she arrived, but he seemed to be looking at her, waiting for her. With twenty feet still between them, she could tell he was a Jew. Her back stiffened; her jaw clenched. She was not only a woman but also a Samaritan: already two strikes against her in the eyes of this self-righteous Jewish man.

John 4:4-14. Continue reading

Two Nazarites Walked into a Juice Bar

Two Nazarites walked into a juice bar. (It was a juice bar because, being Nazarites, they don’t drink alcohol.) Both were the long-desired offspring of barren couples, both dedicated entirely to God before they were born, and both destined to die at the hands of oppressors (though the reasons for their death were very different).

They are the only two Nazarites most of us could name, one from the Old Testament and one from the New: Samson and John the Baptist. (You get extra credit if you know that Samuel was also a Nazarite. See 1 Samuel 1:11. I didn’t know it until I read the study notes in my Bible today.) Let’s stand these two side by side and see what we can learn.

Birth: Barrenness, Angels, and Life-Long Dedication

Both men were set apart for
God from before conception.

Manoah’s wife (we don’t get her name) was barren when “the angel of the Lord appeared to her and said, ‘You are barren and childless, but you are going to become pregnant and give birth to a son’” (Judges 13:3). Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, was also barren when an angel appeared to Zechariah in the temple and said, “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John” (Luke 1:13). On both occasions, the angel went on to explain that the boy would be set apart for service to the Lord. In Samson’s case, it was explicitly as a Nazarite (Judges 13:5). In John’s case, we infer from the text, which says he would never drink alcohol and he would be “filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born” (Luke 1:15).

Not clear on what a Nazarite is? Check Numbers 6 and/or skip down to the first comment below, where I’ve summarized it.

Life: Wilderness, Honey, and Owning One’s Identity

Both Samson and John the Baptist grew up to be “the outdoorsy type.” After killing a lion, Samson knew how to find the exact spot later (Judges 14:5-9). He was also able to catch 300 wild foxes—no easy task (Judges 15:3-5). John lived in the wilderness when “the word of God came to him” (Luke 3:2), and he stayed there to do his preaching (Matthew 3:1, 5). Both men liked wild honey, but only Samson took his from a dead animal (Judges 14:8-9, Matthew 3:4).

From the beginning, Samson disregarded his Nazarite identity. While he enjoyed supernatural strength from God (despite his bad behavior), he never guarded his vows and frequently touched dead things (e.g. Judges 14:6, 19; 15:14-15; 16:3). Judges doesn’t say, but I bet he drank alcohol at some of those parties, too. Throughout his life, Samson never pointed people to God. John, on the other hand, embraced his Nazarite identity. The gospels aren’t explicit, but one gets the impression that John’s wilderness roamings, his hermit-like tendencies, and even his camel hair clothes (Matthew 3:4), reflected his effort to uphold the vows he never asked to take. John’s whole adult life centered on pointing people to Jesus (John 1:26-34).

Death: Oppressors, Lust, and Leaving a Legacy

Both men died
because of lust.

Lust led to the death of both Samson and John, and both died at the hands of oppressors. But they left very different legacies.

Samson’s desire for Delilah—a woman to whom he wasn’t married—clouded his judgement. After much nagging (Yes, the Scriptures use that word!), he told her the secret of his strength. She shaved his head, and the Philistines captured him, plucking out his eyes before they put him to work in prison (Judges 16:4-21). At a big party, the Philistines put the blind, weak Samson on display. The Bible says, “He performed for them” (Judges 16:25). How humiliating! But Samson saw his opportunity. He prayed,

Sovereign Lord, remember me. Please, God, strengthen me just once more, and let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes.  –Judges 16:28

Even here, weakened and humiliated, Samson didn’t honor God with his request. Instead, he sought revenge, even though it meant his own death. Samson’s lust led to his death.

Herodias hated John for telling the truth about her marriage to Herod. She talked Herod into arresting John and putting him in prison (Mark 6:17-20). On Herod’s birthday, he threw himself a big party. Salome, Herodias’ daughter, danced for her step-father and his guests. Matthew explains:

On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for the guests and pleased Herod so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted and had John beheaded in the prison.  –Matthew 14:6-10

His judgment was clouded by lust (for his wife’s daughter!!) and probably alcohol, but Herod had to fulfill his oath. John died because of Herod’s lust.

Samson lived a reckless
life solely for himself.
John lived a weird life,
but he focused on Jesus.

Samson lived a reckless, sinful life, taking advantage of God’s gifts and grabbing as much attention as he could for himself. Yes, God used Samson to destroy Israel’s enemies, but He could have been so much more, had he gotten beyond himself—his pain, his resentment, his selfishness—to focus his life on God’s glory. Instead, he remained vengeful and proud, and he died in that vengeance.

John lived an unusual (to our eyes), single-minded life pointing others to Jesus. “Look,” John said, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). He died for speaking Truth to power.

09-01 lunch - Ju's drink 1
Random photo of me at an outdoor cafe with a juice drink. It was a long time ago… (c) Carole Sparks

We’re all born into situations for which we never asked. Some are negative: hereditary diseases, legacies of substance abuse, racism. We struggle to rise above those. Others are seemingly positive: preachers’ kids, high educational standards, parents in demanding occupations. We may rebel against those for a time (some do it for a lifetime). Both Samson and John the Baptist received their Nazarite vows before they were born, but they “grew into” those vows very differently. This comparison makes me question how I accept and use my heredity, call it my received legacy (the good and the bad), for God’s glory.

Or maybe we need to talk about what we’ve claimed for ourselves. We say we’ve dedicated our lives to Jesus, but how’s that playing out in our attitudes and actions? Which kind of Nazarite will I be? Which kind of Nazarite will you be?

I imagine Samson walking into the juice bar with lots of tattoos, his seven braids like dreadlocks, his massive bulk filling the room. What kind of drink would he order?

I imagine John walking in right behind him, his long hair and beard studded with twigs, his camel hair vest drawing a few eyes, an intense look on his face. They don’t serve locust protein powder yet (that’s a thing—Google it!), so what would he order?

Two Nazarites walked into a juice bar—one struggling against his identity and one embracing it. What can we learn from their lives? My #dedication is #NotAboutMe, via @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)

Congratulations on making it all the way through this long post! Use the comment section below to let me know your thoughts on Nazarites in general, these two guys in particular, their comparison, or what you think they’d order in the juice bar. I love hearing from my readers!

For a great summary of these lives (plus Samuel) and an interesting comparison of them to Jesus, check out Vanessa’s recent post.

The Completely Not-Boring History of the Bible – part 2

I’m fascinated by the miraculous way the Bible has been handed down through the ages. More than any other book ever, we have evidence of the Bible’s accuracy: verifiable portions of Scripture, a chain of possession, references to the specific portions of the Bible in other texts (e.g. Josephus), and on-going archaeological research.

Last month, I shared some of the Old Testament’s history. This month, let’s look into the New Testament. I pray these aren’t just facts to you but that they inspire you to reverence for the Word and worship of the Author.

Greek Scriptures (or New Testament)

Table of Contents for the New Testament, in Greek (c) Carole Sparks

The letters, histories, and prophecy of the New Testament were originally written between about ad48 (possible for Galatians) and ad95 (Revelation of John). Naturally, many others things were written about Jesus and about Christ-followers during that same time period. When it became necessary to determine those which should be included in the “box set,” so to speak, the early church fathers tested their apostolicity. That doesn’t mean they were necessarily written by one of the apostles but that the apostles approved those documents, recognizing their authenticity and the truth within them.

Why They Needed a “Box Set”

  1. It was important to safeguard those books which were written or valued by an apostle or prophet. As we got further away from Jesus’ time on earth, we needed sure-fire resources for knowing what He was like and what He did.
  2. The churches and church leaders needed to counteract heretics and other false teachings as they arose. With a standard set of teachings, the Church (universal) could maintain the same doctrine throughout the small churches.
  3. As the church expanded, other people groups needed the Scriptures in their own languages. Why bother translating the non-inspired stuff?

As far as we know, the first list of books that exactly matches our present-day New Testament was made by Athanasius of Alexandria in ad367. Much earlier (ad115!), however, Polycarp equated the New Testament writings with those of the Old Testament. That means he recognized the same authority and power in the NT documents as in the OT. Polycarp was a disciple of the Apostle John.

The Meetings

During the first three hundred years of Christianity, believers were persecuted all over the place. Persecution kept groups small and communication sporadic. After Constantine established Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, church leaders could meet to discuss/debate/argue. One of the first meetings was the Council of Nicea in ad325. (St. Nicholas was there, by the way.)

They had a lot of meetings. At the Synod of Hippo in ad393, they agreed upon the twenty-seven books that would comprise our New Testament. (The most controversial? James and Jude.) But here’s where it gets a little tricky. They weren’t giving those books any additional authority. They simply listed the books which already had apostolic authority. It would be like listing the names of all the parents in your church. Being on the list doesn’t make you a parent. Instead, being a parent means you’re on the list.

So who decided which works were inspired and which weren’t? They would have answered, “God.” All they did was state the obvious, agreeing on what everyone already knew to be true. Can’t remember where I read this, but…

The Church is not the determiner of Canon; the Church is the discoverer of Canon.


Not this kind of canon. (c) Carole Sparks

This is a good place to stop and talk about Canon. We say the sixty-six books of the Bible are Canon. This word comes from Greek, and it means “measuring stick.” In reference to the books of the Bible, it means “an officially accepted list of books.” Anything claiming to be from God has to “measure up” to what we already have in Scripture.

Don’t miss the sweet and simple application here. The Bible is a measuring stick for our lives! We compare ourselves not to each other but to the standards laid out by God Himself in His Word.

Chapters and Verses (OT and NT)

When Matthew sat down to write the history we know as the Gospel of Matthew, he didn’t segment his narrative into numbered sections (chapters) with numbered lines (verses). It was just a non-fiction story like a biography you might read today. In fact, Greek didn’t typically have paragraphs (and Greek word order? Oh, it’s so hard!). But even before the Council of Nicea, copyists had started making paragraphs in the books.

The Hebrew Pentateuch was divided into segments for synagogue reading during the Babylonian captivity (around 536bc), and the books of the prophets were sectioned off around 165bc. So there were some smaller sections early on.

Over a thousand years later (1227), Stephen Langton, who would later become the Archbishop of Canterbury, divided the Bible into the chapter divisions that we still use today.

The verses began as spaces between certain words, but they differed from place to place. Around the middle of the sixteenth century, they were standardized to help with cross-referencing and first appeared in print in 1551.


So there you go! This remarkable book that we treat with such nonchalance has been preserved through thousands of years, across thousands of miles. It’s fallen into enemy hands, been burned, been vilified, been dissected and disparaged. And yet it remains the True and Living Word of God. Its inspiration is still clear, it’s influence still constant.

Ever wonder how we got the Bible as it stands today? Find just a little of the history here. (click to tweet)

What amazes you about the transmission of the Bible? What wonderful fact did I leave out? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!