Paul’s leadership essentials

When Christian leadership is hard (and it often is), leaders can feel uncertain, and even confused. When things don’t seem to be working and success eludes them no matter how hard they try, leaders can find themselves looking for direction.

And so the marketplace is filled with books that promise the secret to successful leadership. They offer the steps, the strategies, the undeniable principles that will not only provide the way forward, but will enable the leader to unlock their full potential.

Leaders can be drawn to special leadership courses, programs and postgraduate degrees that will surely give them that little something that is lacking. Or they look at other leaders and think, “If I were just like them, if I had their personality, charisma, and leadership abilities, it would make all the difference”. Many Christian leaders are looking for direction and wondering what it is they are missing. They wonder where to go; they wonder what to do.

Certainly leading God’s people requires wisdom and a variety of skills. The desire to grow and be equipped as a leader is a right one, but we can often be looking for direction in the wrong places.

In 2 Timothy 4, we are given a powerful and clear insight into Christian leadership from an older, wiser Christian leader speaking to another. It is not convoluted or complicated, and it isn’t a special new technique promising to unlock limitless leadership potential.

Paul is about to die (4:6), and his final word to Timothy as he leads God’s people is profoundly simple: preach the word (4:2).

This is the thrust of what Paul urges Timothy to do throughout the entire letter. In 1:6-10 he exhorts him to not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, but to share in suffering for the gospel.

Again, in 1:13 Paul urges him to follow the pattern of sound teaching, and then in 2:2 to entrust this to faithful men. In 2:8, Timothy is to remember Jesus, remember the gospel, so that he can remind the church of these things (2:14). And then in 3:14-17 he is to continue in what he has learned from the God-breathed Scriptures that are powerful to save and equip God’s servants. So preach the word.

In 2 Timothy 4, coming out of this simple charge to preach the word are six implications of leadership and the preach­ing of God’s word.

1. Leadership in the presence of God

Paul charges Timothy “in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appear­ing and his kingdom: preach the word”. This is serious and weighty stuff. Ministry and preaching is undertaken before God and in the presence of Christ Jesus, who is the king coming to judge the living and the dead.

The presence of God evokes a sense of fear and awe at the thought of the coming judge. At the same time it means comfort and assurance, knowing that his coming, his appearing, means salvation. In fact, it is his appearing that Christians love in 4:8.

Paul is reminding Timothy that God is sovereign over history, including our ministry, from beginning to end, and that our leadership and teaching is undertaken in his very presence, his very throne-room as it were.

The leader looking for direction and purpose need look no further than the gospel: our saviour Jesus Christ has come and abolished death and brought life and immortality to light, manifesting the eternal grace of God. This same saviour Jesus is coming again to once and for all establish the everlasting kingdom of God, bringing eternal salvation to those who believe his name, and eternal judgement to those who do not. The crucified and risen Lord Jesus is coming back.

This is the context in which Paul’s charge and Christian leadership take place, and this knowledge puts into gospel perspective all the petty distractions and questions of what leaders might or might not do. This knowledge shapes and motivates leaders to focus on preaching the saving gospel of the risen, returning Lord Jesus.

2. Leadership and authority

This is why Paul says to Timothy that there will never be a time in ministry when the preaching of the word is not required. The preaching of the word is not a seasonal thing, it’s not an optional extra to be utilized in those times it seems appropriate. On the contrary, even when it’s ‘out of season’ Timothy is to stand prepared to preach the word. Be ready always, no matter what, to reprove, rebuke and exhort with complete patience and teaching.

Just a few verses earlier in 3:14-17, Paul has reminded Timothy of the power and authority of Scripture to save and to thoroughly equip God’s servants.

Interestingly the kinds of things that Scripture does—teaching, rebuking, correcting, training—are the very same kinds of things the Christian leader Timothy is to do: teach, rebuke, correct, and exhort.

The Christian leader is charged with the very significant responsibility of preach­ing the word, and the same Christian leader is given an authority that comes through the preaching of the word. “Timothy,” Paul says, “I want you to rebuke, to correct, to exhort and to teach”.

This is more than making a suggestion or providing an option people might like to consider; it’s more than making a polite request. Teaching the word is powerful and authoritative precisely because God’s word is powerful and authoritative.

The heart of Timothy’s Christian leadership is leading people by proclaiming God’s word, to save and to strengthen them, to exhort and to equip them, and to correct and to challenge them by teaching the Bible.

This means the teaching of the Bible must be central to our gatherings and not an afterthought. The preaching of God’s word must be central to our decision-making and not an item tacked on to the agenda. The sharing of the word of Christ and the proclamation of the gospel must be central to our church life and not a mere tradition.

A Christian leader will ensure that God’s word sets the agenda for their church and the lives of congregation members, because God’s word provides the truth we need to hear as his people and it sustains us as we wait for the appearance of Jesus our Lord.

Thus, having solemnly charged him to preach the word, Paul goes on to remind Timothy that the need for leadership through the preaching of the word is especially acute in the face of false teaching.

3. Leadership in the face of the enemy

Interestingly, in 4:3 Paul doesn’t say that the danger is that false teachers will come. He has already said that in chapter 3. But here he warns not so much of false teachers coming but of people seeking out false teaching: “People will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions”.

This is a problem within the congregation; they will not endure sound teaching—as if it was tiresome to hear God’s word, as if it was unbearable to hear of Jesus’ sacrifice, his love and forgiveness of sins! They will not be able to endure it, but will desperately seek any other message that appeals to their sinful desires.

Christian leadership and the preach­ing of the word is needed because this time and this pressure has come—people are drawn to a message that conforms to them, that conforms to their ideas, and that fits with their feelings, wants and goals. They seek a church with leaders that will give them what they want, that will make them feel good about themselves. But Christian leadership does not let people’s ‘itches’ set the agenda in an attempt to somehow make the Bible relevant.

Preaching the word really matters. Leaders urgently need to be correcting, rebuking and exhorting their people from the word of God. The Christian leader must shepherd their flock by guarding them against false teachers as well as guarding them against their own desire to wander away from the truth.

And, because there will always be opposition to the gospel, there will always be a need for the leader to understand the sacrificial nature of his position.

4. Sacrificial leadership

Timothy’s model of leadership is Paul. His mentor and guide has been Paul, and we learn here that Paul is nearing death. He writes this letter knowing he doesn’t have long left to live. But even in this situation Paul’s concern is first for others and not himself.

Whether he’s in prison, facing persecution, or suffering, Paul’s main thought remains for others. His constant prayer is for others, his heart is filled with love and affection for others. He says in 2:10, “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 Christian leader is challenged to love those they are responsible for sacrificially; to have their needs, their concerns, foremost in their mind; and to be praying first and foremost for them.

The temptation in leadership is to use influence and authority for personal benefit, to make decisions that suit yourself, thinking only about your own needs and comfort. But Paul, in imitation of Christ, is willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of his hearers and for the sake of the gospel. He is willing to preach the word, though it means enduring hardship. His life, leadership and ministry are sacrificed to God; he describes himself as being poured out like a drink offering. Paul’s example shows a willingness and confidence to preach the word in any and every circumstance, no matter the consequences.

5. Enduring leadership

Facing his death, Paul is able to say that he has finished strongly; he has fought the good fight, finished the race and kept the faith. Leadership and ministry is a fight; it is a marathon. When Paul farewelled the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:24 he said “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God”.

Christian leadership is not just about how you begin but how you finish—and it requires endurance. Paul urges Timothy in 4:5 to be sober-minded, to endure suffering, to fulfil his ministry. Leadership is not about making a strong start and then getting distracted or getting tired. It is not enough to begin with the Word and then to look around for other solutions when disappointments come.

The leader must persevere in preach­ing the word. He must be willing to endure the hardship of watching people he knows wandering away and leaving (v. 10). He must endure the direct opposition and painful attack from people like Alexander (vv. 14-15). He must endure the hardship of loneliness and abandonment (v. 16).

But while there is loneliness in Christian leadership, Christian leaders cannot endure on their own. This is why Christian friendships are so important. Paul urges Timothy to do his best to come to him quickly (v. 9). While he appreciates the company of Luke, he asks Timothy to get Mark and bring him (v. 11), and he finishes with a number of greetings (vv. 19-21).

Preaching the word is hard, and Christian leadership is like an endurance race. It will involve suffering. Yet even when everyone had abandoned Paul or was attacking him, and no one came to his defence, the Lord God Yahweh stood by his side and strengthened him. Even this was not purely for his own sake, Paul says in verse 17: “But the Lord strengthened me so that through me the gospel might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it”.

Christian leaders are not in it for them­selves. Even so, the final lesson on leadership and the preaching of God’s word is about how it’s all worthwhile.

6. The reward of leadership

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.

(2 Tim 4:7-8)

At the end of his ministry Paul looks forward to this reward, this crown that the Lord will give him. But we need to be careful not to hear him claiming that he has earned this reward in heaven, or that he has worked for and therefore deserves this crown.

The crown of righteousness and justification is never ours by effort or works. It’s ours by grace alone, it is the gift of God through Jesus Christ. Paul is not looking forward to some sort of personal bonus scheme, rather he longs for salvation and eternal life that comes “not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (1:9). The fact that this is much more than an individual reward for his efforts is made clear when he says that this crown is not just for him but for all who have loved the appearing of Christ.

Paul is looking forward to being brought home (v. 18), to finally escaping and being rescued from evil. His hope is salvation in Jesus Christ and being part of his heavenly kingdom.

Christian leaders do not need a reward scheme to motivate them in leadership and the preaching of the word. They don’t need bonuses or brownie points, the promise of a bigger mansion in heaven, or extra treasure or fame. It is enough to have salvation and an eternal heavenly home in God’s kingdom. It is enough to know the power and love of God in the free gift of Jesus Christ. Even more than that, there remains the simple joy of serving the Lord and preaching his powerful, saving word to his precious flock.

When Christian leadership is hard (and it often is), what else will the Christian leader do but sacrificially and with great endurance remember Jesus and preach the word?

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