Acts 1:12-26 When Pastors Fall
Summary: When people in ministry fall the church must grieve but move forward.
This morning we see the early church replace one of its first leaders. It’s important stuff for us to talk about, because the leader they needed to replace had fallen into sin, and that’s something that still happens today.
It seems like we’re never far enough away from the last time some church leader’s failure showed up in the news. It can be disheartening, frustrating, and it can even make you righteously angry. So this morning we’ll have some real open and honest exploration of why church leaders fall and how the church should respond. It should leave us saddened but hopeful – hopeful in the enduring message and strength of the church.
And that’s where we begin, with a look at the church. We pick up where we left off last week – right after the Ascension – Jesus had just given His final instructions to His followers before leaving earth, and now this is what happens next:
Acts 1:12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey. 13 And when they had entered, they went up into the upper room where they were staying: Peter, James, John, and Andrew; Philip and Thomas; Bartholomew and Matthew; James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot; and Judas the son of James. 14 These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers.
Many of these people are from Galilee – that was a region to the North of Jerusalem, but they’re all in town staying at something like an Air BnB because the feast of Pentecost, a big Jewish religious celebration is coming up. And Jesus has told them not to leave town until they receive the Holy Spirit – they’re not 100% sure what that means, but they’re waiting like Jesus said.
I want to draw your attention to two things: who was there, and what they were doing.
You had the apostles, the big name guys, the ones chosen by Jesus to spend three special years with Him traveling, teaching, and seeing and working miracles. But then you also you have Jesus’ mother Mary and His brothers. That’s interesting, because his brothers didn’t believe in Him as their Savior during His life.
We don’t have any information on exactly when, or how it happened, but after the resurrection, they became believers. They changed their minds, and now they’re here to worship and pray to the guy they grew up with.
Look who else is here: the women. Now, you have to know, that at this time, neither the Jewish nor the Roman cultures gave women a prominent place. Both Jewish and Roman culture gave prominence to men – women were something of an accessory to a man’s life and played little more than a supporting role in the culture. So the fact that women are included here is a big deal and reminds us that the gospel is for all people and the church should never look just like the surrounding culture.
With all of that in mind, notice that all these people were present, and were united. They all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication. Luke points he unity of the early Christians again and again in Acts – he mentions it more than 10 times as recounts the history.
This is a reminder we desperately need as we live in a culture that celebrates individualism and that culture is creeping into the church. Most people don’t think about belonging to a church anymore, they think about going to a church – just like you go to the Farmer’s Market, or go to your favorite restaurant, or you go to Target or Home Depot to get what you need, you go to church for worship as if it’s a spiritual retailer.
Christians, we have to seriously examine ourselves and ask – am I anything more than a religious consumer? Am I part of something, or do I just come and go at will? Is the church really part of my family, or is that all just spiritually emotional language that makes me feel good? Is there any substance to it? And we, as a church, need to seriously consider – what are we in one accord about? Is there anything that we can say we, as a church, are really dedicated to, focused on, or praying for this one thing?
I think it’s an area where we’re lacking, and I take ownership of that, but it’s not just my church. It’s our church and it’s something we all need to think about: are we united? And, is what we’re united in, clear? And more important than anything, are we united in praying to God to see it happen?
If I could throw out something to consider – maybe we could all pray that God would teach us to be increasingly available to Him and that He would use our availability? Maybe we could pray that this would be a place where people could meet with Him, be transformed by Him, grow in Him, and be sent out by Him? Maybe as we go through the book of Acts, God could provoke us with a godly jealously, saying yes, Lord, do that, not just in me, but in us. And maybe we could ask God to give us a greater sense of corporate identity, that we’re not just people who straggle in a late on Sunday and rush off as soon as we can after the service, like people eating at a fast food restaurant, but that we would grow closer to each other and stronger with one another for God’s glory, the good of our neighbors, and the strength of our own personal souls.
Because let me tell what you see in Acts – you see this pattern – people pray and then God propels them out. It happens here; as we’ll see next week, God is about to show up in a big way and use these people to reach others in Jerusalem with the gospel. But then you see
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Peter and Cornelius praying in Acts 10 and God brings them together in a powerful way as the gospel begins to expand to people who aren’t ethnically Jewish. Then again, in Acts 13, the church is gathered in prayer and worship and God says, “Set apart for Me Paul and Barnabas” and the church sends them out on their first missionary journey.
If we want to see the gospel advance, if we really believe people need Jesus, if we really believe the world is falling apart, if we think it’s really hard to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly in our personal lives, if it’s hard to pursue righteousness, we need to pray to God to give us the strength, wisdom, direction, and power we need for life.
The elders and ministry leaders pray for members of the church every time we meet – we pray for you by name – some of you have received cards letting you know that, and we pray for our missionaries and ministries. The worship team and the media team pray each Sunday for the service. But there’s also a group of people who meet to pray each morning from 9:30-10:00 specifically for the church as a whole. If you want to join them in Room 119, you’re most welcome.
The point is: prayer was a major part of the early church, it was something they were united in, and something they continued in and that’s something we need to make certain we don’t lose sight of today in our busy lives full of our individual concerns.
Of course, just because you’re all joined together in prayer doesn’t mean you don’t have problems, which we’ll see next:
Acts 1:15 And in those days Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples (altogether the number of names was about a hundred and twenty), and said, 16 “Men and brethren, this Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke before by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus; 17 for he was numbered with us and obtained a part in this ministry.”
18 (Now this man purchased a field with the wages of iniquity; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his entrails gushed out. 19 And it became known to all those dwelling in Jerusalem; so that field is called in their own language, Akel Dama, that is, Field of Blood.)
20 “For it is written in the Book of Psalms:
‘Let his dwelling place be desolate, And let no one live in it’;
‘Let another take his office.’
Now before we get too far into what’s going on here, it’s important to know a few things. You need to know that Jesus selected Judas, just like He did with the eleven other original apostles. Judas didn’t infiltrate the group. And, prior to the betrayal, Judas was never
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singled out for mistreatment or presented as second-class in any way. In fact, he was trusted with the money. Judas served as the group’s treasurer even though Matthew was a former tax collector and no doubt skilled in finances.
In other words: no one knew Judas was going to betray Jesus. It wasn’t obvious to anyone by his attitude or actions – when Jesus told the disciples, ‘one of you will betray Me,’ they didn’t all look at Judas and say, “we’re going to keep a close eye on you.”
But Judas did betray Jesus. Some think he was trying to force Jesus’ hand, that Judas believed in Jesus but thought, He just didn’t believe enough in Himself, maybe Jesus needed a jumpstart to get this whole revolution going.
Some think it was the opposite; maybe Judas grew disillusioned with Jesus and His teaching over time. But either way, he sold Jesus out and afterward tried to return the money but the priests wouldn’t accept it.
So, in a fit of overwhelming guilt, he went out and hanged himself, and at some point, his body became bloated as it decomposed, and it fell from the tree and burst open. Pretty disgusting, but very real. So then, the priests took the money they had originally paid him and used it to buy a plot of land that became a cemetery.
The question is: how does something like this happen? How does someone go from knowing and serving Jesus, from being active in ministry, to becoming a disappointment and a disgrace to His name?
Well, Christian leaders fail for one reason: they’ve lost sight of Christ countless times in small ways and then finally in one big spectacular moment.
Nearly every time a leader’s failures are publicly exposed you can be sure there’s been a slow drift happening for a long time behind the scenes –– this is why the small daily spiritual disciplines like prayer and Scripture reading are so important.
Listen to what JC Ryle, an Anglican Archbishop wrote all the back in 1879:
When the great professors backslide in public, and the church is surprised and shocked, the truth is that they had a long ago backslidden on their knees. They had neglected the throne of grace.1
So let me give you four things they’ll be pulled toward as they’re pulled away from Christ: Pride, Ambition, Seeking Acceptance and Exhaustion.
1 Ryle, Holiness, 409.
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First, pride. Leaders can begin to think too much of themselves, to think they’re too big to fail, to think they’re bullet proof, to think they’re fine. And then they start to make excuses for themselves and their actions; they lower the standards they should hold themselves to.
Or, Ambition. They want to see more, do more, achieve more, so they cut corners here and there or comprise a little bit, or scheme and maneuver, but it’s all to achieve good ends, or so they think. They see so much more that could be done if we could just…and so they stretch and bend the rules.
Or perhaps they’re seeking acceptance so they compromise or don’t speak up or stand up like they should. They get tired of taking hits all the time, which leadership requires, and they cave, they try to find some way to show that they’re still cool, or they get it, or they’re not that out of touch, or whatever. And they surrender ground they never should have surrendered.
Or, they’re hit when they’re tired. Stress weakens us, numbs us, and saps our ability to fight. There’s a reason they use sleep deprivation as an enhanced interrogation method. There’s a reason we insist pilots and aircrew have uninterrupted rest before flights. When we are tired, we need to rest and we need to go back to the throne of grace to find renewal and strength and comfort so we don’t comprise. Yes, you might be able to “push through it,” but there’s a chance you’ll push someone else over in the process, and that’s not like Jesus.
But, as we said, Pride, Ambition, Seeking Acceptance and Exhaustion are all symptoms; the actual cause of failure is losing sight of Jesus. Leaders who fail and fracture are no longer surrendering to, serving for, or being strengthened by Jesus.
And as a result they tend to drift into four main categories of failure: sexuality, conduct and character, money or materialism, and in doctrine – and there’s often some overlap among the categories.
Sexual failures seem to capture the most attention. The most famous example from Scripture would be David’s sin with Bathsheba. Here was a man being used by God, a man who had written sections of the Bible, a man ruling the nation on God’s behalf, but he grew complacent and took the position and opportunities God had given him and twisted them to his own gain so that he could have an affair with the wife of one on his best soldiers.
Things like this still happen today, you have pastors having affairs with people in the church. It happened with televangelists in the 1980s and it happens with megachurch and average church pastors today. Bob Coy was the pastor of Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale, a church with 15,000 members, when he was exposed for having an affair a few years ago. And then you have the whole issue that’s been going on for several years now as victims of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church have been rightfully telling their stories.
But religious leaders don’t just fall into sexual sin. They also fall in terms of conduct and
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character. If you go back to Numbers 20 Moses gets so frustrated by the people he’s leading that he lashes out and strikes a rock giving the people the impression that God was just as fed up with them as he was. And as a result, God says, because you misrepresented Me to these people, you will not enter into the Promised Land (Num 20:12, 24). He led them all the way out of Egypt, all the way through the dessert, but was stopped short of seeing things through by angry outburst.
A few years ago Mark Driscoll was a popular, but edgy pastor up in Seattle. Mars Hill, the church he started was growing tremendously, but behind the scenes there was a toxic leadership culture. People who worked for him and served with him accused him of bouts of anger and crudeness. That and other issues finally led to his being removed from the church.
Similar issues happened with James MacDonald a popular pastor at Harvest Bible Chapel near Chicago. A tyrannical leadership style and accusations of mismanagement of funds led to his being fired not long ago. Handling the money was also a problem for Ananias and Saphira, a couple we’ll meet in Acts 5, as well as Judas. And over the past several years the issue of how money was handled has caused a huge controversy for Gospel for Asia, a ministry involved in sponsorships for churches and children in India.
And then there is the issue of apostasy – people wandering away from the faith either by withering away slowly or stomping away defiantly. You see this when Peter denied Jesus, though he later repented. Paul tells Timothy of someone they both knew who has left the ministry and perhaps the faith. He writes (2 Tim 4:10) Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world. John writes about those who
1 John 2:19 went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us.
These were people who once seemed to be Christians, but are now called antichrists, people against Christ.
In Revelation 2-3 Jesus writes to churches reviewing their condition and warns that some of them have left their first love. If they don’t return, they will suffer judgment.
So too, Joshua Harris who wrote the book I Kissed Dating Goodbye, a book read by tens of thousands of young Christians in the late 90s and early 2000’s has since renounced his book and most recently his Christian faith. Marty Sampson who has written many of the worship songs used by Hillsong joins him now. Both say it’s a regretful and tearful goodbye to the faith, but a goodbye nonetheless.
So, what do you make of all this? What do you do when Christian leaders fail or fracture away?
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Well, in part you recognize that it’s always been this way. Leaders have always failed and fallen, from the very beginning to the very present. That’s why Jesus calls, appoints, and uses people, but He still had to come and save us Himself. No one is a perfect stand-in for Jesus. No one can take His place or fill His role.
Second, you remember that leadership failures don’t just happen in the church.
How many politicians have been accused of sexual misconduct? You can pick your party, no one holds the moral high ground – Republicans, Democrats, and Independents have all had a series of spectacular moral failures. What about Hollywood? Should we talk about the famous actors, directors, and producers there that have been accused and convicted of misconduct? What about our military leaders – we could easily produce lists of men, and women, at the highest ranks removed for their position for sexual misconduct, toxic leadership, or mishandling funds.
What about athletes and coaches or teachers? Are they immune to the charges? Of course not. I went to the parent’s meeting for my son’s swim team this week and we had to get the talk about what you can and can’t do and what coaches can and can’t do as they try to get a grip on protecting young athletes. My kids went to camp this summer and I read the employee manual there. It was a lot of the same stuff telling college-age counselors what steps they were expected to take to ensure no one was abusing a minor.
Now that’s good, the policies and procedures they’re adopting are good, but my point is: they’re also necessary, because the Bible says there’s no one good, no not one.
And that doesn’t change when you put someone in a position of leadership in ministry. Christian leaders have failed, are failing, and will continue to fail, because they’re not Jesus.
Now, to the degree that they represent Him, to the degree they allow Him to transform them, things will be good, but they will never be 100% immune to temptation, and they will never be perfect, there will always be some ways in which they don’t represent Jesus, there will always be some areas where they need to grow and when you see those areas, you’ll be disappointed.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t leaders seeking to serve God and love His people with everything in them. Look with me at how the story ends. Peter says, we’ve lost Judas, and we need a replacement:
Acts 1:21 “Therefore, of these men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22 beginning from the baptism of John to that day when He was taken up from us, one of these must become a witness with us of His resurrection.”
23 And they proposed two: Joseph called Barsabas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias. 24 And they prayed and said, “You, O Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which of these two You have chosen 25 to take part in this ministry and
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apostleship from which Judas by transgression fell, that he might go to his own place.” 26 And they cast their lots, and the lot fell on Matthias. And he was numbered with the eleven apostles.
They replace someone who fell away from Jesus, by looking to Jesus. And they do that in four concrete ways:
First, they turn to Scripture. Peter points them to the Word.
Second, they think through the qualifications, they think about who among them meets the
qualifications, and they put forward two names.
And then, they pray. They seek God. They pray to the God who knows the hearts of all. They’re not asking for His blessing on their choice, they’re asking Him to make His choice clear to them.
And then, they cast lots, like drawing straws. Now, that was something they understood from the Old Testament, they had things like that back then. This never happens again in the New Testament, because the Holy Spirit is about to come in Chapter Two. So, in the future, instead of casting lots, the Spirit makes things clear.
The point I want to make is: we can do all of this, except, of course, casting lots. When we want to know God’s will, we can turn to Scripture, we can think about how it applies to our situation, and we can pray.
But here’s what I really want to leave you with: a few closing thoughts on this whole issue of falling and replacing leaders.
First, don’t be too distracted or discouraged by the failures of leaders, even when they’re public and spectacular. It has always happened, and it always will. There’s only one Jesus.
We know what happened to Judas, and we know what happened to Peter and James and John. We even know a little bit about a few others. But half or more of the apostles are men we never hear from again. Here you have two men who are qualified to be apostles, one of whom is even chosen as a replacement and you never hear anything about him again. The point is: most leaders serve faithfully, quietly, and without recognition and that’s OK. In fact, it’s good.
Second, we live in a time when our faith in institutions and authority of all kinds is being shaken. It seems there’s no one you can trust. Not your political leader, not your coach or teacher, not your pastor or priest. But that doesn’t mean you can’t trust Jesus.
He’s never changed. He’s still the rock of integrity, faithfulness, and love. When you look at some Christian leader you once respected and now they’ve fallen and you’re disappointed, Jesus is disappointed too. He calls their sin, sin just like He calls the sin of everyone else.
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You know what that leader did is wrong because Jesus tells you it’s wrong. You have Scripture to fall back on. Just like Peter did in finding a replacement, you have Scripture to fall back on and evaluate a leader’s actions. In fact, you have 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus and other passages of Scripture that tell you exactly what you should expect of ministry leaders and pastors and when they don’t measure up Scripture even tells you how to call them out on it. No one, especially not in ministry, gets a free pass for misbehavior just because they’ve got some religious title.
But here’s the third and last thing I have to say on this issue: it’s only chapter one.
Yes, it’s disappointing that the church has leaders that fail, but this is only Acts Chapter One. There are twenty-seven more chapters full of gospel advance and 19 centuries after that. The Church takes a black eye every now and then, but it just keeps advancing, because the gospel is true, even when leaders fail.
And no matter how disappointed you are or have been about the failure of some leader in your life, in the church or anywhere else, you still need the gospel to be true. Because we’re all leaders in some way, we’re all leaders on some scale. Maybe there aren’t many people who know you, or many people whose eyes are on you, but you’re still a leader to someone, and if you’re honest, you know that you’ve failed too, or you know it could happen.
You know that no one is perfect, but Christ. And that’s why we all need Him. We’ll follow others, listen to others, be connected to others, but more than anyone of them, we need a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.