Disappointing Leaders and Ezekiel 34.

People suffer when bad leaders are in charge. We might feel the pain of disappointing leadership in our workplace, affecting our work, our livelihood, family life, and finances.  Those who are to provide leadership within the family can leave family members scarred for life. This happens too often here in Canada, where we have it easy. Consider the poor leadership around the world, whether it be a tyrannical dictatorship over an entire nation, or an enforcement of archaic man-made rules. The so-called “Islamic State” comes to mind.

What are we to do in the face of bad, and even horrific, leadership? Ezekiel 34 is about leaders and leadership. As we read this chapter, we may think the word “shepherd” refers to the “pastors” of Ezekiel’s day. However, many Ancient Near East societies, including God’s people Israel, spoke of their kings and political leaders as “shepherds.” Therefore we should think of Ezekiel 34 as being about all kinds of leadership, not just “pastors”. With that in mind, let us take a look:

The word of the Lord came to me: 2 Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4 You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5 So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. Ezekiel 34:1-5 (NRSV)

The first thing we notice is that God is very disappointed in the leaders. To summarize, the leaders were exploiting people rather than caring for them. Rather than caring for the people; “with force and harshness you have ruled them” (verse 5). Sheep should be fed, not fed-up.

I wonder how many people in being asked to define a “leader” would focus on someone who is a ruler. The Bible never gives us a definition of leadership that would suit an entry in Webster’s Dictionary, but it does give us an analogy. A leader is to be like a shepherd. Any self-indulgent person can be a ruler given enough power. Such rulers are usually a disappointment in the eyes of the people under their care. They are also a disappointment in God’s eyes. It takes a person who has high regard and concern for others to be the kind of leader that pleases God, the kind of leader who can be described as a shepherd.

In the midst of His disappointment, God makes a promise:

Ezekiel 34:11-16 (NRSV) For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. 12 As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them  . . .  I will bring them out . . . I will feed them . . .  I will feed them with good pasture . . . I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down,. . .. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, . . .

God, Himself, will be the shepherd. And He will do this through His servant:

Ezekiel 34:23-24 (NRSV) 23 I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. 24 And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.

While this prophecy includes the restoration of God’s people from exile, the promise is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus came to “seek and save the lost” as Jesus tells us in Luke 19:10 (reflecting Ezekiel 34:11,12). Jesus saw the people as scattered without a shepherd, as we are told in Mark 6:34 (reflecting Ezekiel 34:5). Mark also tells us that Jesus made the people lie down on green grass in verse 39, to feed them (reflecting Ezekiel 34:14, and also Psalm 23). In fact all along we see Jesus doing all the things a good shepherd does. And of course we ought to consider Jesus’ teaching in John 10, especially: “I Am the Good Shepherd” in verse 14. Jesus also teaches about leadership in a way that reflects the shepherd leader-as-servant teaching of Ezekiel 34:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26 It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. Matthew 20:24-28 (NRSV)

From all this let us look at two practical applications.

The first concerns people who are leading. Anyone who is in a place of leadership, who has any kind of influence over others, is accountable to God. Therefore they would do well to look to God for His leadership on how to be a leader. It is not about ruling. It is about caring. The best example of that is the Good Shepherd Himself.

The second concerns people who are led. All human leadership is unsure and temporary.  There is not a leader in place today who will still be in a place of leadership 100 years from now. Most have less time that that, some much, much less. Disappointing leaders are really disappearing leaders. In contrast, God’s leadership is certain and eternal. God’s leadership is good. This is especially hopeful for those who suffer a lifetime under a terrible regime, or who suffer a whole lifetime because of one bad decision by a leader. There is a much more caring leadership for those who follow the Good Shepherd, now, and into eternity.

So what are we to do in the face of bad, and even horrific leadership? Look to the LORD to take the lead!

Leading Like Jezebel in Thyatira

You have influence! In every relationship, in fact every encounter, you influence and are influenced. Even where there seems to be disengagement, there is still influence. As we continue our trip through the seven churches of Revelation,we meet a person of incredible influence in Thyatira. Not good influence, but incredible:

I have this against you: you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols. Revelation 2:20-21

You may have a Jezebel in your life, exerting incredible influence. Not good influence, but incredible. You may be the Jezebel in someone else’s life. Jezebel is not likely the real name of the woman in this church. Instead this is a nickname, pointing back to the wife of King Ahab in the Old Testament. The original Jezebel had incredible influence over the King. Not good influence, in that he was influenced away from Godly worship, but incredible. We have the capacity to influence and be influenced away from a God-focus. Therefore we need to take influence very seriously. So what are the leadership lessons we can learn from Jezebel?

One person’s influence can be extremely important. When you think of the great themes and scope of the Book of Revelation, it is remarkable that this one woman should get a mention. We are not told if she has an official leadership position. That does not matter, for we can wield incredible influence without an official position. I’ve seen some people wield incredible influence on individuals, and an entire church, even after they have passed away! Do not underestimate the kind of influence a Jezebel can have in your life, in your family, or in the life of your church. And don’t underestimate the power you exert over others. You do have influence. Are you using your influence to draw people toward Christ’s Kingdom, or away?

To claim to speak on behalf of God is a very big claim. Jezebel “calls herself a prophet” (verse 20). Broadly defined, a prophet is someone who speaks on behalf of God. Jezebel was not doing that at all. Her advice directly contradicted that of the apostles at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 to stay away from idolatry and sexual immorality. Her advice directly contradicted the commands and wisdom of all the Scriptures from Genesis on. Do we allow people to “speak on behalf of God” in our lives who have no right to? Are the spiritual leaders of our lives full of Biblical truth and the Holy Spirit? Or are we sometimes the ones to get preachy without a good grasp of Biblical truth and fullness of the Holy Spirit?

That you reap what you sow is still true, and so what you sow as a person of influence is very important. Jezebel will reap what she has sown: “Beware, I am throwing her on a bed, and those who commit adultery with her I am throwing into great distress, unless they repent of her doings” (Revelation 2:22).

Grace is a wonderful theme in the Bible and comes to its most profound expression in Jesus. In Jesus, we do not reap what we sow, we reap what He has already sown in his death and resurrection. He sows love, mercy, and forgiveness. We reap eternal life. We also reap what the Holy Spirit sows, a Kingdom life, a life marked by the fruit of the Holy Spirit. But we might take a Jezebel detour. We might insist on doing the farming ourselves, throwing away the Holy Spirit’s seed, prefering to sow our own seed instead. Don’t be surprised by the weeds. If people are allowed to have a Jezebel influence in our lives, don’t be surprised by consequences. If we lead like Jezebel, don’t be surprised if like Jezebel, we reap what we sow. Let us reap what the Spirit sows instead.

Shepherding is a great image for leadership. The concept of leadership carries through the letter to Thyatira:

26 To everyone who conquers and continues to do my works to the end,
I will give authority over the nations;
27 to rule them with an iron rod,
as when clay pots are shattered—
28 even as I also received authority from my Father. Revelation 2:26-28

“To rule” in verse 27 is literally “to shepherd” and reflects the Greek translation of Psalm 2:9 quoted here. Christian leadership is not just influence for the sake of having power, it is about shepherding. It is not so much power over, but responsibility for. There are three aspects of shepherding to think about. First, the shepherd is not the owner of the sheep, but is accountable to the owner. All leaders  are accountable to God, even if they do not believe in Him. Second, care of the sheep is an important aspect of the shepherd’s work. We can think of Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, he makes me to lie down in green pastures.” The good shepherd leads the the sheep to good pasture. Third, the shepherd is to have concern for the safety of the sheep. Looking to Psalm 23 again: “your rod and your staff — they comfort me.” Thy rod and staff comfort me because with them you can chase away predators. Keeping in mind these aspects of shepherding, we can clearly see that Jezebel was no shepherd. In not repenting, she was not being accountable to God. She had no care or concern for the sheep. In fact she was leading them into danger. In contrast, Jesus is the good shepherd who lays his life down for the sheep (John 10). Are there Jezebels in your life who throw off accountability, who are influencing you though they have no care or concern for you? Are you a Jezebel, or do you shepherd people?

You are, whether your realize it or not, a person of incredible influence. But is it good? Are you a good shepherd, like Jesus? Or a wolf in shepherd’s clothing, like Jezebel?

Toward Good Leadership

There is something that has stood between joy and far too many people in far too many places far too often: Lousy leadership by lost leaders. They say that cream always rises to the top, but throughout the world, and throughout the history of the world, the cream seems to have been sitting out in the sun for days on end. Bad decisions by people of influence have plunged people into suffering and darkness. Because of dreadful leadership oppression has poured out on countless millions. We need world leaders who have a heart for the people, a capacity to bring real change, and who bring effective solutions to problems. Is there a leader who can rise to that challenge?

From the Gospel of Luke, enter an angel announcing a birth:

Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. (Luke 2:10-11)

From the Book of Revelation, enter another angel and another announcement:

15 Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.” (Revelation 11:15)

Could these announcements point us to a leader who can rise to the challenge of good leadership? Let us consider three points:

Because this is a hurting world, we need a leader who knows how to be a shepherd. Rulers can rule indiscriminately, but shepherds do at least three things: they find lost sheep, they have compassion on hurting sheep, and they provide protection for threatened sheep. We have had enough opressive rulers in our world. We don’t need oppressors, we need shepherds. In Jesus we have a shepherd. Consider the following:

First, there is a connection between Jesus and David, the “shepherd-king.” Though David was originally a shepherd from Bethlehem, he became the favourite king of Israel. God promised David that one of his descendants would reign forever. That Jesus was born in Bethlehem and that shepherds from Bethlehem were invited to see Him, make plain that we are to make a connection between Jesus and David; the shepherd-king.

Second, Jesus is the Good Shepherd who “lays his life down for the sheep” (John 10:11). This is a very different kind of leadership than those rulers who take out as many sheep as it takes to remain in power.

Third, Jesus is the shepherd spoken of in Revelation 7:17:

“for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

This is a shepherd leader who is also a sacrificial lamb. He leads from a place of love, giving his life for the sake of the sheep in contrast to many rulers who rule from a place of insecurity and fear.

Fourth, the birth of Jesus is mentioned in Revelation 12:5: “And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron.” The word for “rule” here is actually the word for “shepherd,” as in “he will shepherd all the nations with a rod of iron.” The 23rd Psalm is in view with “The LORD is my shepherd . . . your rod and your staff – they comfort me.” The rod and staff were used by shepherds to protect and guide the sheep.

Indeed, the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign as the Good-Shepherd-King forever and ever.

Because this is a darkening world we need a leader who has the capacity to bring sunny ways. As Canadians we cannot miss the reference to our new Prime Minister in that statement. No matter our political stripe, we should always hope that our current prime minister will be the best one yet. But whether or not sunny days may be ahead for Canada, Mr. Trudeau is limited in the world by one simple fact. He is only human. Even if we experience superb leadership here in Canada, Mr. Trudeau will have limited impact in other nations around the world, nations which are in greater need of good leadership than we are! Jesus has the capacity to bring sunny ways. Consider the following:

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1-5)

Not only is Jesus described as light, but being involved in Creation, He is the Creator of light. That sounds like someone who has the capacity to bring about real change! While we look to political leaders to make promises, Jesus is far more able to keep His. Speaking of promises:

22 I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. 25 Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. (Revelation 21:22-25)

While world leaders have often plunged their people into darkness, Jesus is the light of the world. Indeed the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign as the Light-of-the-World forever and ever.

Lastly, Because this is a broken world we need a leader who can fix problems with real solutions. What is the biggest problem the world faces today? Climate change? Terrorism? The announcement of the loud voices from Revelation 11 provides us with a clue: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord.” (Revelation 11:15) “Kingdoms” are not handed over as we might expect, but rather a singular “kingdom.” Satan is the “ruler of this world” as Jesus makes clear in John 14:30. The evil one has had plenty of practice in being the greatest threat to society beginning with Adam and Eve. The problems of this world have never been just Hitler, or Stalin, or Bin Laden, or Herod. The problems of this world have been the sin that infects and affects such people, not to mention people like you and me. The evil one has even tried to tempt Jesus:

8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him. ’” (Matthew 4:8-10)

The temptation was to take the world by force. Jesus would have succeeded in that venture where many have tried and failed. But there was a better way, the way of the cross. Rather than use violence and force to rule over all the kingdoms, Jesus suffered violence and force at the cross. His is the way of love. His kingdom is marked by love, not brute force. Indeed, the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and the King-of-love will reign forever and ever.

So will we ever have good leadership in our world? We already have a good leader in our world; Jesus. What we really need are good followers. We do not need to wait for the seventh trumpet to sound to know that Jesus is Lord, to live as His Kingdom people. The leaders of this world would do well to figure out how to follow the leader before leading the followers. So would we.

All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV.