by John W. Ritenbaugh
June 15, 2016
By means of significant biblical evidence, Part One presented the fact that godly leadership existed in short supply throughout Israel’s relationship with God. The scriptural record chronicles that an occasional Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, David, or another good leader arose among them, but Ezekiel 34 succinctly summarizes Judah’s leadership, in particular, as shepherds who ruled for their own well-being rather than the citizens’. Such leadership does not produce good results.
Normally, a shepherd is a person who leads a flock by serving the sheep through his care for them in many areas of a sheep’s life. However, in a context like Ezekiel 34, the terms “shepherd” and “sheep” are being used in a figurative sense. A shepherd is a human leader in some position of authority, and sheep designate human citizens the leader has authority over. It is also helpful to understand that “shepherd” includes far more than the religious ministry. It includes, in short, leadership in government, education, business, entertainment, and media, reaching all the way to parents in the family home.
God created the domesticated sheep to be among the most dependent of all animals. They are so dependent upon the leadership of a human shepherd that it seems a wonder that they survive in the wild at all. Sheep are quite timid by nature, easily frightened, as well as subject to many diseases and easy prey for predators.
In like manner, humans need quality leadership in important areas of life, or because of Satan’s influence on the carnal mind, human community life tends to degenerate into a mode of survival of the fittest, resulting in large numbers of people living as little more than slaves of those mightier than they are. For the majority, life in such a community becomes a hopeless existence.
The prophet penned Isaiah 3:12 over a hundred years before Ezekiel 34 was written, but it exposes that community life in Judah was already in severe decline: “As for My people, children are their oppressors, and women rule over them. O My people! Those who lead you cause you to err, and destroy the way of your paths.”
“Lead” is a verb, indicating the activity of the subject of the sentence. According to the Reader’s Digest Encyclopedic Dictionary, its definitions are quite extensive, comprising a long paragraph. A few are “to go ahead so as to show the way”; “to guide as in giving directions”; “to conduct as with an orchestra or choral group”; “to cause to progress by or as by pulling or holding, thus to draw along as with a cart”; “to be in command of as in controlling the actions or affairs of”; “to serve as”; “to influence or determine the ideas, conduct, or actions of”; and “to induce and motivate.”
In summary, a leader is one who goes ahead or in advance of, acting as an influence on others, whether by design or incidentally as an example. Note that forcing others is not implied by the term, though it occurs in some cases in actual practice. What we can more obviously infer is that a leader is a guide who influences by example, which allows others to follow more easily. For instance, a leader will encourage people to join a team to achieve an objective.
Another Lesson from Judah
Isaiah’s account of what life was like in Judea during his lifetime demands further examination. Whereas Ezekiel 34 provides a distinct focus on a major cause of Israel’s morality problem, Isaiah gives a more detailed record of what was happening “on the street.”
Isaiah 59 portrays an entire culture in collapse. What is reported there took place about 120 years before Judah’s devastation by Nebuchadnezzar’s armies in 605 BC. Until being conquered, Judah was still holding together as a nation, so the chapter provides insight into what the self-centered leadership was producing on a more day-to-day basis. In the first eight verses, Isaiah lists Judah’s immoral activities:
Behold the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; nor His ear heavy, that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear. For your hands are defiled with blood, and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken lies, your tongue has muttered perversity. No one calls for justice, nor does any plead for truth. They trust in empty words and speak lies; they conceive evil and bring forth iniquity. They hatch vipers’ eggs and weave the spider’s web; he who eats of their eggs dies, and from that which is crushed a viper breaks out. Their webs will not become garments, nor will they cover themselves with their works; their works are works of iniquity, and the act of violence is in their hands. Their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed innocent blood; their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity; wasting and destruction are in their paths. The way of peace they have not known, and there is no justice in their ways; they have made themselves crooked paths; whoever takes that way shall not know peace. (Isaiah 59:1-8)
This paragraph appears like a report from God through Isaiah on how He sees the collective cultural chaos produced as each citizen’s sinfulness contributed to the wickedness of all who were living in Judah at that time. It is delivered as though God is a prosecuting attorney presenting his case before a court for judgment. After reading such a condemning report, one can only wonder whether any more than a mere handful of citizens were actually obeying God! In the same way, we can confidently judge from the news reports we hear daily in the media that the quality of life in the United States is approaching the same condition.
Isaiah 59:9-15 is the citizens’ response to God’s colorful but incisive accusations. They tell Him how this cultural chaos is affecting them, especially emotionally:
Therefore justice is far from us, nor does righteousness overtake us; we look for light, but there is darkness! For brightness, but we walk in blackness! We grope for the wall like the blind, and we grope as if we had no eyes; we stumble at noonday as at twilight; we are as dead men in desolate places. We all growl like bears, and moan sadly like doves; we look for justice, but there is none; for salvation, but it is far from us. For our transgressions are multiplied before You, and our sins testify against us; for our transgressions are with us; and as for our iniquities, we know them: In transgressing and lying against the Lord, and departing from our God, speaking oppression and revolt, conceiving and uttering from the heart words of falsehood. Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands afar off; for truth is fallen in the street, and equity cannot enter. So truth fails, and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey. Then the Lord saw it, and it displeased Him that there was no justice.
Isaiah 59 concludes a three-chapter section that can be seen as a parallel of the period just prior to the Flood and simultaneously a vivid portrait of the twenty-first century. Will our situation escalate to the level that Jesus predicted in Matthew 24:37: “But as the days of Noah were, so also will the coming of the Son of man be”? Unless God intervenes soon, it seems likely to do so.
In chapter 57, Isaiah laments about how few truly righteous people live the way of God. Perhaps the worst part of it is that the majority seems to have accepted it as a fact of life and become accustomed to it. On the surface, nobody except those who lived in more stable times seems to notice the deteriorating quality of life. Almost no one seems to care deeply enough to do anything about what is happening, even to help themselves. In addition to violence and sexual immorality in the culture, God takes to task the pagan idolatry that is thriving among the people.
In chapter 58, Isaiah sternly berates the people for their hypocritical fasting. On the surface, the fasting seems to show that some indeed do care. But do they really? No! In reality, their fasting was not spiritually motivated in the least, being ritualistic externalism at best. They were fasting to appear religious before others, but it was only a social practice that never produced fruit—that of actually helping others.
This returns us to the beginning of Isaiah 59. Reading verses 1-3 from a modern translation will give us a clearer picture of what is happening:
The Lord’s arm is not too short to save nor His ear too dull to hear; rather, it is your iniquities that raise a barrier between you and your God; it is your sins that veil His face, so that He does not hear. Your hands are stained with blood and your fingers with crime; your lips speak lies and your tongues utter injustice.(Revised English Bible)
The people are indeed suffering from the chaotic immorality that surrounds them, and some are truly appealing to God to bring it to a merciful end. They have prayed and fasted about the situation, but God did not react. God provided no answers. He effected no changes. He did not raise up righteous and dutiful shepherds to provide good guidance and instill peace. Indeed, it seemed as if He had not even heard! Or if He had heard, He seemed not to have enough time or strength to do anything to bring the agonies of this kind of life to an end. Why?
Verses 2-3 contains the answer: Surprise, surprise—the very people appealing to God to end the crisis in their communities were guilty of committing the same sins that were responsible for intensifying the crisis. Despite crying out to God, they were not repenting of their own sins! In the meantime, God is waiting for the beginning of a truly sincere and substantial change led by the people crying out to God. He wants them to begin obeying His Word and restoring justice in all their doings.
We can apply this to the ever-worsening situation in the United States. Many people in this nation still hold sincerely to a substantially correct understanding of God and His purposes for mankind. They understand to some degree where the present immorality can lead. Because they fear what is coming and are suffering some degree of misery due to the nation’s spiritual decline, they are probably praying about these things.
Preparation for the Future
Why is the subject of leadership important to those of us in the church? So far, the background examples given to this point have all been drawn from the history of Israel, but Israel no longer exists as described in the biblical record. However, God’s purpose moves on. Christians have been called by God to be in His church, which has become what Paul calls “the Israel of God” in Galatians 6:16. God’s spiritual focus is now on the church, not physical Israel. He will deal with them after He works with the church.
Further, it is important because God is following a pattern He established long ago in performing His creative efforts. He reveals it in His dealings with Israel, and He is still following it to this day. He declares to Israel:
For you are a holy people to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for Himself, a special treasure above all the peoples on the face of the earth. The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any other peoples; but because the Lord loves you, and because He would keep the oath which He swore to your fathers, the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 7:6-8)
Nothing in this statement would give the average Israelite a puffed-up mind on the subject of God’s calling of them to work in and through them for His creative purposes. He makes it plain that He did not deliver them or work with them because of anything they had already accomplished as a nation. They had been a bunch of slaves!
Through the apostle Paul, God exposes a humbling yet accurate truth about those He has called into His church. We must come to grips with it because a humble recognition and acceptance of this reality is necessary for His purposes. We can compare what God says about us with what He said about Israel in Deuteronomy 7. I Corinthians 1:26-31 describes us in this way:
For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence. But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God—and righteousness and sanctification and redemption—that, as it is written, “He who glories, let him glory in the Lord.”
God is following the same pattern in calling Christians into the church. We are described as “foolish,” “weak,” “base,” and “despised.” It sounds a great deal like lowly Israel. The only major difference is that He called Israel as an entire nation at once, but He calls Christians into His church one at a time. Incidentally, when He calls us, we, too, are a slave people—unwitting slaves in most cases, living under Satan’s thumb and taking orders from him. In terms of leadership qualities, how much do we have to offer to God to further His present creative purposes?
And they sang a new song, saying; “You are worthy to take the scroll, and to open its seals; for You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and have made us kings and priests to our God; and we shall reign on the earth.”
The issue in the vision is finding One who is qualified to open a certain scroll. Beginning in Revelation 6, we find that the scroll contains visions of events that will occur beyond the time of chapter 5, events both before and after Christ’s return. The issue of opening the scroll is resolved because Christ, the Lamb of God, is qualified to open it due to what He has already accomplished. He has been prepared to open it.
His qualification is important because it sets an example for us. Revelation 5:10 speaks to what is most critical to us concerning our present lives as God’s called, as well as to what we will be doing in the future. Christ has appointed the people mentioned in verse 9 to be a kingdom of priests to serve our God and to bear a measure of rulership. They are selected to fill such responsibilities because they, like the Lamb, Christ, have been prepared to render these services in God’s behalf. These preparations are taking place in the lives of Christians right now.
Note that “kingdom of priests” is a better translation of the Greek in verse 10 than “kings and priests,” as the King James and New King James versions render it. By the word “reign,” verse 10 indicates that rulership is definitely in view in addition to priestly responsibilities. There can be no doubt that both ruling and priestly positions include shepherding responsibilities, so the positions that await Christians in God’s Kingdom require leadership training to prepare those God will assign to them after Christ’s return.
Peter writes something similar:
You also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. . . . But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. (I Peter 2:5, 9)
Christians are being trained for their future spiritual responsibilities. Revelation 14:3-4 clarifies:
They sang as it were a new song before the throne, before the four living creatures, and the elders; and no one could learn that song except the hundred and forty-four thousand who were redeemed from the earth. These are the ones who were not defiled with women, for they are virgins. These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever He goes. These were redeemed from among men, being firstfruits to God and to the Lamb.
Both of these passages help us focus on what is being accomplished within our calling now before the events of Revelation 6 and the conclusion of the prophecy take place. We are being prepared for responsibilities that require God’s way of leadership. This is being done through learning God’s way of life thoroughly so that we may teach, govern, and judge in love using God’s standards.
By way of contrast, the world’s approach to salvation focuses almost exclusively on merely being saved. As important as that is, it pays little attention to any other purpose and responsibility connected with being saved. However, this period prior to our transformation into the Kingdom of God has a major purpose: to prepare to continue serving God at a far higher level of responsibility after Christ returns.
God does not call people who already possess the leadership qualities He desires they practice in His Family Kingdom. Instead, He calls those with potential, gifts them with the raw materials they need, and then creates them individually into what He desires for them in terms of purpose and position.
We are being created in the image of Christ, and leadership is what God is looking for in us. Not that each of us is leading vast numbers of people, but we are learning leadership by overcoming the carnal nature and growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. How? By faith in God’s existence and in His Word—by following His way of life—we are deliberately and with full purpose, choosing to allow ourselves to be transformed into His image.
The fruit of following this program under our High Priest’s direction and the Father’s oversight is leadership in God’s way. If we happen to lead others, it is primarily by example. We are not forcing this way of life on others.
The Bible reveals that Israel’s leadership consistently fell short of serving God adequately enough to lead the nation to greatness in His eyes. This is partly because every leader follows a pattern made by someone who preceded them. So the first and most critical element in judging the quality of any leader’s service to those he leads is the answer to “Whose pattern is he or she following?” Is the leader following God or the world ruled by Satan? Any judgment of a leader begins here. The second element, then, is, “How well did the leader follow the pattern he or she was using?”
Only Jesus Christ followed and led perfectly; He is the greatest leader who ever lived. He testifies in John 7:16, “My doctrine is not Mine, but His who sent Me.” He followed what He was led to teach. Jesus is the highest example of the leadership God is looking for and which He is creating within His children. God evaluates our leadership on the basis of how consistently we lead by following the way, the doctrines of God, as Jesus did.
This subject should be important to everyone because each of our examples of how life is lived has the potential to lead others for good or ill. We may carelessly believe our lives do not matter, but they do matter because we live them before others and can influence them to follow what they observe. We may have never thought of it this way, but God is judging us on whose example we are following. So, whose example are we following?
The Goal Is Following Perfectly
Among those personalities briefly biographized in Hebrews 11, who would we choose as the greatest leader among them? Would it be Noah, who maintained his righteousness during perhaps the longest, most immoral period in mankind’s history yet still finished the work God gave him to do? Would we choose Abraham, who seemingly “came out of nowhere” to become the progenitor of the family of peoples named Israel? The Bible’s authors frequently tout him for his faith, referring to him as “our father Abraham.” Perhaps our choice would be David, who may be the best-known Israelite of all for the many leadership qualities he exhibited as a shepherd, warrior, king, musician, and author.
However, there is no doubt that, apart from Jesus, the quintessential biblical leader among men is Moses. The author of Hebrews chooses him from a fairly long list of possible candidates to compare most favorably to Jesus. It should be of great interest to us that the overall characteristic that the author chooses to encompass Moses’ leadership is faithfulness:
Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our confession, Christ Jesus, who was faithful to Him who appointed Him, as Moses also was faithful in all His house. For this One has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses, inasmuch as He who built the house has more honor than the house. For every house is built by someone, but He who built all things is God. And Moses indeed was faithful in all His house as a servant, for a testimony of those things which would be spoken of afterward. (Hebrews 3:1-5)
As the author of Hebrews develops his theme of the greatness of Jesus Christ, he undoubtedly chose Moses as his human example because the people to whom he was writing already considered Moses to be the greatest leader in their more than 1,700 years of history, beginning with Abraham. Jesus Christ, though, is incomparably greater than even Moses.
The “house” to which the author refers is not a building but people within an institution, the nation of Israel that descended from the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. However, God used Moses, born into the family of Levi, son of Jacob, several generations later, as the human instrument through which the Patriarchs’ descendants were formed into a nation.
In the record God gives us of Moses, how many situations do we see that are jam-packed with the need for clear and unambiguous leadership? Moses was God’s prophet, giving the Word of God to those being formed into a nation. He also served them as priest, being the intermediary between them and God, establishing the functions of the Levitical priesthood. Moses delivered God’s laws to the Israelites and led them into making what we call the Old Covenant with God.
It was also Moses who served as Israel’s first political leader, the one to whom the nation looked for governance. He is nowhere called a king, but the Bible testifies that he functioned, under God, as Israel’s human governor and judge both in its internal needs and in its dealings with other nations as it proceeded to the Promised Land. In addition, Moses was a military leader when hostilities called for his guidance.
In every area in which guidance is needed for a nation, Moses’ example of greatness under God is superior. One of his greatest characteristics is often overlooked because his other more visible characteristics seem to overshadow it. But God did not pass over it, noting it for our guidance:
Then Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married; for he had married an Ethiopian woman. And they said, “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us also?” And the Lord heard it. (Now the man Moses was very humble, more than all men who were on the face of the earth.) (Numbers 12:1-3)
None of his outstanding qualities, high-ranking positions in the nation, or obviously correct decisions in behalf of all concerned ever “went to his head.” He consistently remained kind, moderate, and even-handed toward those under him, and just and fair in his dealings. He was approachable.
With these excellencies in mind, we must not overlook Deuteronomy 18:15, which records of Moses: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your midst, from your brethren. Him you shall hear.” In the inspired sermon that Peter delivered to those Jews listening on the Day of Pentecost when God gave of His Spirit to mankind, he drew on this verse to pointedly reveal that this verse applies directly to Jesus Christ. In this case, Jesus was “like Moses” but far greater because, as the apostle Paul later wrote, Moses was merely a servant in the house, while Christ is its Builder. The apostle chose well in naming Moses as his comparison to Christ. It would be very difficult, if not impossible, to find a human leader greater than he.
A Leader Among Followers
My choices for consideration in this category of great leaders are two: One from the Old Testament and one from the New. This is because, as in the previous category, Moses was from the Old Testament and Jesus, the greatest leader of all, is from the New Testament.
My choice from the Old Testament is Joshua. A leader is not a leader unless he has followers. Is anyone in the Old Testament more associated with being a leader than Joshua? It is interesting that neither Aaron nor any of Moses’ children were chosen to lead Israel, but God chose an Ephraimite, Joshua. From the time Israel was freed from Egypt until Moses died just short of the Promised Land, wherever Moses is seen, Joshua is at his side, assisting as needed. When Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive the law from God, it was Joshua who accompanied him, waiting the entire forty days until Moses reappeared. Did he, too, fast for forty days (Exodus 32:15-17)? When battle was joined against the devious Amalekites, Moses appointed Joshua to lead the Israelites to victory against them (Exodus 17:8-16). Even though Israel distrusted God and rejected Moses’ leadership, Joshua remained steadfast, even at the risk of his own life (Numbers 14:6-10).
Joshua’s faithfulness is rewarded, and he is given authority after Moses’ death. But even after assuming the leadership of Israel, he continues to be portrayed as a humble follower of the Almighty God. He is shown readily submitting to the Commander of the Lord’s army (Joshua 5:13-15). What greater epitaph can be given a man than appears in Joshua 24:31? “Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had known all the works of the Lord which He had done for Israel.” This follower was also a great leader under the watchful eyes of our great God.
My choice from the New Testament is the apostle Paul. He begins contact with Jesus Christ and His church as its zealous enemy. He confesses in I Corinthians 15:9, “For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (see Acts 26:9-11). It is interesting that God changed his name from the Hebrew Saul, which means “to ask” or “to demand,” depending on the context, to the Latinate Paul, which means “little,” indicating a substantial change of character to become the humble but courageous representative God desired him to be.
Through his calling and conversion, he, by means of God’s Holy Spirit, became an even greater, more zealous servant of Christ and His church. I Corinthians 15:10 testifies of his change of character: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.”
God willing, this subject will be continued in the next issue.