Perfunctory Preparation and Performance
Originally Published in October, 2011.
Robert Wurtz II
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John 21:15 So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs.
John 21:16 He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep.
John 21:17 He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.
This conversation with Peter was, in effect, a restoration. Jesus begins asking, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? This is a gentle rebuke for his having suggested that he loved the Lord more than the rest of the disciples. He then turns and states, in effect, if you really love me like you have said, prove it by feeding my lambs. This is an amazing revelation into the very center of the heart of God. The Lord was giving Peter a charge to keep. It would be the greatest responsibility of all. If he fails here he will prove he did not really love the Lord like he claimed. It will come down primarily to this one thing. Jesus had fed Peter with words that were spirit; now He is leaving this earth, and it’s Peter’s turn to feed His lambs.
A Parting Charge from Christ
Our passage is frequently expounded to emphasize the use of two Greek words for love (agapao and phileo) as they change in the original text of the conversation. Nevertheless, I wish in this entry to examine a commonly overlooked emphasis on the part of our Lord. You will notice in the KJV that the word ‘feed’ is used three times. In the original Greek we have Βόσκε (bosky, feed) in verse 15 and 17 and Ποίμαινε (poimanate, tend) sandwiched in the middle in verse 16. The KJV obliterates the distinction here. The order is: feed my lambs; tend my sheep; and feed my sheep. But why? Was this just careless speech on the part of our Lord, or was He saying exactly what He meant? We know that there are no insignificant details in the scripture; however, this conversation with its shifting back from “feed” to “tend” to “feed” has puzzled many expositors over the years. We read in Trench:
In Dean Stanley’s, Sermons and Essays on the Apostolic Age, p. 138, the answer is suggested. The lesson, in fact, which we learn from this is a most important one, and one which the Church, and all that bear rule in the Church, have need diligently to lay to heart; this namely, that whatever else of discipline and rule may be superadded thereto, still, the feeding of the flock, the finding for them of spiritual food, is the first and last; nothing else will supply the room of this, nor may be allowed to put this out of that foremost place which by right it should occupy. How often, in a false ecclesiastical system, the preaching of the Word loses its preeminence; the feeding (βόσκειν) falls into the background, is swallowed up in the “acting as shepherd” (ποιμαίνειν), which presently becomes no true shepherding, because it is not a feeding (βόσκειν) as well; but such a “shepherding” rather as God’s Word by the prophet Ezekiel has denounced (Ezekiel 34:2, 3, 8, 10; cf. Zech. 11:15-17; Matt. 23.)” (Richard C. Trench; Synonyms of the New Testament).
The Priority of Feeding
In Ezekiel 34, God denounced the “shepherds” that refused to care properly for the flock of God. They were self-serving and fleecing the flock. They shirked their responsibilities, and as a result, the people were carried off by the enemy. God came down on them with a severe judgment, and required the flock of God at the shepherds hands. That is to say, He held the shepherds accountable for the loss of sheep.
Ezekiel 34 ought to sober even the most hardened of preachers and teachers. This abuse of the flock by the shepherds would be embedded in the psyche of all the Jews. It was a common theme that even Jesus would take up. God had given the shepherds clear responsibilities, and they had sorely abused them unto their own destruction. This is a lesson worthy of note and shines forth again in the New Testament: My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation. (James 3:1) The text is in the imperative, “Do not, so many of you, become teachers because you know we will receive a greater sentence in the judgment. “ How many teachers and preachers take that seriously? If a man will give an account for every idle word they speak on the day of judgment, what do you suppose will be the fate of those who have spoken for God recklessly?
A Wake Up Call
An elderly minister (age late 70’s early 80’s) came to speak to our local assembly one Tuesday evening, as he had done many times, about his prison ministry. He was an aging giant of a man with a solid head of white. His hearing was almost gone. I cannot recall the text he spoke from — nor the contents of any of his previous messages. However, I shall not soon forget how he told of a dream he recently had. It happens that the Holy Spirit had spoken strongly and certainly to him in the night these words, “I am tired of your perfunctory ways.” The minister stated that he had to go find a dictionary to look that word up, because he did not know the meaning. What did he find?
Perfunctory |pərˈfəNGk tərē| adjective (of an action or gesture) Carried out with a minimum of effort or reflection: he gave a perfunctory nod. Done merely to discharge a duty; performed mechanically and as a thing done mechanically; done in a careless and superficial manner; characterized by indifference; as, perfunctory admonitions.
The minister had no reason to lie and tell on himself. I doubt a man could make such a thing up. I could tell by the way he told the story that he was dead serious. He was troubled by the dream and wanted to pass on what God had said. Here is a dear man in his late 70’s to early 80’s still being expected of God to shepherd the people in his care with concern and excellence.
Again James writes, Many teachers become not, my brethren, having known that greater judgment we shall receive. (James 3:1 YLT) God loved this minister enough to bring his actions to his attention so he could change. A minister may be tempted to just “coast along” in his old age as if God don’t mind, or as if God understands that he is tired and worn out from years on the trail. Not so for this minister; he still had plenty of life left in him and was fully able to discharge his duties. Those who teach/preach the word of God are going to be judged with a greater judgment. Again we read in Ezekiel, Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy, and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD unto the shepherds; Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! should not the shepherds feed the flocks? (Ezekiel 34:2)
I have marveled at times as I would reflect on the “Perfunctory Ways” dream as I have come to remember it. I do not say this as a criticism at all, I merely want to demonstrate a point here. The purpose of his coming was to raise funds, and rightly so, for his ongoing ministry. Ministers should live of the Gospel. This is God’s design. Ministers are not to demand their rights to payment; but rather, the churches are to insure that the ministers’ right to support is Biblically upheld to the best of their ability. What did Paul say?
Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine. (1 Timothy 5:17 NKJV)
Double honor is generally understood to mean double wages. It is of the Lord that “the Ox who treads out the corn also partake of that corn.” Nevertheless, if a person is going to receive wages, they ought to be upholding their end of the deal — tending and feeding the flock of God. The pattern given to Peter was feed, tend, and feed some more. Surely, God does not long pay for perfunctory feeding. This brother had been warned of God in a dream that God’s estimate of his service in ministry was that it was “perfunctory.” Nevertheless, he still desired wages for his services. Obviously, he did not realize this was happening and God pointed it out. He mended his ways and went back to faithfully discharging his ministry. Nevertheless, what about others? What about men who go on taking a perfunctory course in ministry?
Dean Stanley (1815-1881), former Dean of Westminster, made some comments along these lines that are worthy of note; “How often, in a worldly ecclesiastical system, does the preaching of the Word lose its preeminence; the βόσκειν (feeding) falls into the background, is swallowed up in the ποιμαίνειν (service), which presently becomes no true ποιμαίνειν (service), because it is not a βόσκειν (feeding). Understand that today the emphasis is often on everything but feeding the flock of God. It is on building programs, administration, singing, etc. The enemy seems to have no small list of chores he can enlist a minister to do in the place of preparation for feeding the sheep.
Again, neglecting God’s Word is what the prophet Ezekiel denounced (Ezekiel 34:2, 3, 8, 10; cf. Zech. 11:15-17; Matt. 23.) Understand that real study is real work. If a man is successful at feeding the sheep, it is because of the great amount of laboring in the word that he is willing to do. A man may perfunctorily preach and teach, and it be little effort, but not if a man obeys God and executes the responsibility biblically. It is a tremendous effort. It is the most important thing — even more important than visiting the sheep. In fact, the same Peter that took the charge to feed the flock of God in John 21:15-17, also said this, It is not reasonable that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. (Acts 6:2) We could fill in the “serve tables” with any other lesser thing ____________. The Devil would do almost anything to marginalize the importance of feeding the flock of God that is among them.
Able and Willing to Teach
The overseer then must be irreproachable, husband of one wife, sober, discreet, decorous, hospitable, able to teach; (1 Timothy 3:2) and again, And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, able to teach, patient (2 Timothy 2:24). Before a man ever takes up the responsibility of elder or minister they ought to observe this one qualification. God is going to hold ministers accountable. He is not looking for administrators, but feeders of His sheep.
The job of a minister is primarily to feed the flock of God. The job of the sheep is to support the minister. God expects everyone to do their part for the successof His churches. Notice our passage does not say to feed on the flock; that is to say, they are not to be made objects of greed; but rather, we as ministers are ordained to live “of the milk” of the flock (1 Corinthians 9:7). It is a reciprocal relationship. What did Peter go on to say? Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away. (1 Peter 5:2,3) Our word for feed here should be translated “tend” the flock of which feeding is the primary part.
A certain substitute teacher commented to her class that it was easy to sit for 45 minutes in front of the kids, but that her real responsibility was to sit in teachers meetings. The veteran teacher looked on and smiled as if to say, “Madam, you sure have a lot to learn!” In time the substitute would have to backtrack on the comments once she got settled in and realized that teaching full time, five days a week, was not the same as being a substitute that was called in a few times per month. Her distorted view of reality proved she had not rightly considered what she had signed up for. Her words gave her away.
Jesus once told the disciples, For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it? (Luke 14:28) So it is with ministry. Jesus charged Peter primarily with feeding the flock; that is the primary effort employed in the building of a tower (as it were). It is serious business; life and death serious. It takes many hours of preparation to move from the perfunctory to the satisfactory.
If you don’t like to study, you definitely have not been called to the ministry. If you think that preaching and teaching can be done with minimal effort, with little reflection, merely to discharge a duty; performed mechanically and unthinkingly; done in a careless and superficial manner, then you are on your way to being a perfunctory preacher and in the end will receive a greater judgment (sentence). God will not have it.
A child may run the vacuum cleaner over the carpet three or four strokes, roll up the cord, put it back in the closet, and then tell mother he is finished; but that kind of perfunctory work is not fit in the Kingdom of God. Imagine the child boasting to his friends how easy it is to vacuum, while they look on in amazement because they vacuum their parents house rightly. Amazing!
We don’t preach and teach just to discharge the duty. It is a high calling. It is to be taken as seriously as if you held a loaded gun on the people. God expects his servants to prepare and seek His face. He expects us to rightly divide the word of Truth. This takes time and energy. It takes serious reflection. It takes getting alone for hours at a time to prepare. It takes a close walk with the Lord. This is why God commanded that they that minister and labor in the word are to be supported.
The old timers used to say that the minister carried a burden for the people. The messages they prepared were often tear-stained as they wrestled with God for a word for the sheep. The reckless shepherd leaves the sheep in weakness and frailty. Like so many of our hymns and choruses — so also the sermons. Prosperity, positive confession, and a host of other foolish doctrines masquerades as preaching today. Is that food worthy of God’s flock? Does it edify the people? God is going to hold the teachers and preachers accountable. For this cause may we that labor in the word; count the cost; and endeavor to move well beyond the perfunctory — until we can preach and hear, “well done thy good and faithful servant.”