The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.
Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.
The Greek word epithymeo connotes more than a passing notion, or a fleeting infatuation. It is the idea of an all consumming passion, one that denies all other suitors. It denies its self-pursuits. It says there is no greater love than this.
I recently heard in an installment service the depth to which this calling reaches into the heart of a man. The selected verses were out of Colossians 1: 24-29. Their importance should not be neglected, nor should the fact that this charge given to Paul by Christ, empowered and worked in him by the Spirit, is the same charge that Paul entrusts to Timothy to pass on to other faithful men who in turn are to do the same. Paul urges Timothy as one called to be a fellow elder, to labor and suffer for Christ in this manner:
You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything. Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound! Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.
The abandonment of civilian pursuits coupled with the enduring of suffering has in mind only one object: the sake of the elect.
When we couple that together with: “For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable,” we find that there is no turning back, no laying down of the cross, no removing the hand from the plow once the call of God on a man to become an elder burns with epithymeo. Lest any consider this verse as only referring to general gifts, Paul goes on to describe particular calling to ministry:
For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.
As it has often been said, a man who is content to do anything other than be an elder, has not been called to be one. This does not mean that a man might not work at an occupation, but what it calls for is that even those things, eventually, be laid aside for a life with single minded purpose:
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained. Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III writes:
Now the other thing that you need to know when Paul is speaking here, is that Paul doesn’t describe elders in terms of office or status, but in terms of work. Notice that Paul says that “if any man desires this work….” Paul is concerned for the work, for the function of the elder; not so much the status or the title, or the prestige of the office. Paul’s concern in speaking of the qualification of desire is not that a man would desire a status of authority and reputation, but that he would desire a work.
Now let’s get back to the desire. That is the first qualification: he desires this work. What is Paul saying? Paul is saying that the first qualification of the eldership is that a man would desire to do the spiritual work of a shepherd in the church. Not that he would desire to be esteemed in the local congregation as one who is holding the highest rank that the church has to offer. And it is a glorious thing, my friends, to be an elder…
…But the thing that Paul wants is not a man to aspire to that honor, but to aspire to the work. He wants men who are burning with the desire to shepherd the people of God. He wants men who want to be pastors. All elders are pastors, not just preachers! Not just professional, full-time ministers, but all elders are pastors.
So what are you looking for, when you’re looking for an elder in the church? You’re looking for a man in this congregation who wants to shepherd the souls of people. Yes, they have to make hard decisions about budgets and buildings. But you know what? They do that because they love you. That’s the part of the job that they have to do. What they really love to do is shepherd the souls of men and women, and boys and girls. That’s their great desire. The other stuff they have to do: that’s their great desire. The other stuff they have to do. We’d almost have to pay them to do that other stuff, because it’s hard! But the thing that they really desire is the pastoral, shepherding ministry.
That’s the first qualification for an elder. He has to desire to shepherd the people of God. You can see that in a man. You can see that in the way a man studies his Bible; you can see that in the way a man studies to teach the word; you can see that in the way a man commits himself to the life of a local congregation, in the way he attends church (Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday night)—you can see those desires expressed outwardly in a man who desires to shepherd the people of God. He’s involved in evangelism and discipleship, he is involved in preparing to shepherd the people of God. So there’s the first qualification. He has a desire for the work of ministry that is entailed in being an elder.
And I might add that he attends to that purpose as Paul might refer, to spend and be spent for the sake of the flock as an undershepherd of the Chief Shepherd as one who laid down his life for them as the sole consumming passion of his heart. To Jerusalem, to the cross, as the Chief Shepherd, the elder forbids anything to interfere with attaining the one goal, the highest calling, set aside as one whose life and purpose is consumed by a single desire.
Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. (1 Peter 5:1-4)
John MacArthur said:
…by virtue of their calling and their gifts and their affirmation by the church, they have a responsibility that is different than the rest of the sheep. Responsibility is the key word, or accountability. The Chief Shepherd will hold them responsible—he will call them to give an account someday for exercising oversight. The rest of the sheep will not be called to give an account for oversight. Only the elders, the shepherds.
The calling is not to be slighted by spending effort to fill life with civilian pursuits. The presenting of a bride without spot or blemish to Christ is too precious a charge to have interests divided. The crown is too prescious to be seen as an addendum to the things that other men desire.
John MacArthur continued:
…The Lord has always sought for leaders. In some ways, apart from the very work of God Himself in an individual’s life, spiritual leadership is the most essential element of church structure. So it is an important calling.
There is really no more important calling than this. The Lord has always sought for leaders. You can go all the way back into the Old Testament, 1 Samuel 13:14, and you read there, “The Lord has sought out for Himself a man after His own heart.” You find again the words of Ezekiel 22:30, “I searched for a man who should stand in the gap before Me for the land.” God has always looked for leaders. There is a great need in the church for spiritual leadership.
I read you somebody’s description of how a pastor ought to act, and some of you might be saying, “That’s a too demanding kind of exhortation for me to deal with.” Others might be saying, “Let me have at that. In the power of the Spirit of God, that would be what I would like to be,” and the difference is the compelling of the heart.
I never compel anyone to go into the ministry or the pastorate. If that is not an all-consuming desire of the heart, then either the call of God is not there or sin is there, which means the call of God is muffled. Either way they aren’t fit for ministry. If the call isn’t there or if the sin is there muffling the call, then who am I to call them to ministry?
…this is a demanding calling. He says it is a noble, fine, honorable work. It is a work. It is not just an honored position. It is a lifelong task.
…Paul said to Timothy, “Do the work of an evangelist.” To the Thessalonians Paul wrote and said, “Honor those over you for their position,” no, “for their work’s sake.” Paul in Ephesians 4:12 talks about the work of the ministry. It is a demanding calling. It is diligent, hard work.
…And then finally, it is a holy calling. Verse 2, an overseer then – then -takes us back, because it is an essential calling, because it is a limited calling, because it is such a compelling calling, because it is such a responsible calling, because it is such a noble calling, because it is such a worthy calling or a – not only a worthy calling, but a hard calling, a demanding calling. An overseer then must be above reproach. He must understand it’s a holy calling, because only a holy man could approach such a formidable task.”
At Jerusalem there arose debate about tasks less important, yet tasks necessary to be done. The Elders’ reply was succinct:
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”
It is too important, and as John MacArthur says, it is a work which requires diligence because it is a formidable task. Now consider, if the secondary ministries of serving in other capacities in the church was not deemed important enough to distract, then how much less civilian pursuits from which they had already been called. Jesus in calling Peter and Andrew said, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” This is a defining moment, they were to leave home, family, occupation for the high calling of becoming shepherds of God’s flock. They were to be made holy men, set aside, made overseers, not self-willed to be. The task is too precious, too demanding, requiring the absolute attention of the laborer called into the harvest, and cannot be subjugated to the things that occupy the lives of other men. It is a monumental thing, a good and hororable thing, a consuming, arduous work, to aspire to be an elder. But it must be a desire above all else, or it is not God calling.