Monday Monologue, Leadership Challenges, April 23, 2018 (podcast)

Stephen W. Hiemstra,
Stephen W. Hiemstra, 2017

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In today’s podcast, I share a prayer and a review of a book on leadership challenges.

To listen, click on the link below.

After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).





Monday Monologue, Leadership Challenges, April 23, 2018 (Podcast)

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Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

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Heifetz and Linsky Lead from Technical to Adaptive Change

Heifetz and Linsky, Leadership on the Line
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky.  2002.  Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading.  Boston:  Harvard Business School Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The March for Life in Washington on March 24 is a call for action to prevent gun violence. While this march represents a felt need, it has not proceeded to the next step in defining the problem. There are, of course, calls for new legislation to reduce gun availability, but past efforts at legislation have failed to alleviate the problem. What then should be done?


In their book, Leadership on the Line:  Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky assert:

we believe you can “walk the line,” [citing Johnny Cash] step forward, make a difference, take the heat, and survive to delight in the fruits of your labor.

In fact, they see leadership providing meaning to life itself in spite of obvious dangers and discouragements (3, 11-12).

Technical versus Adaptive Change

A key insight in Heifetz and Linsky’s work is to distinguish technical from adaptive challenges.  In a technical change, authorities apply current know-how to solve a problem while in an adaptive change people with the problem must learn new ways to solve the problem (14).  A technical change typically requires nothing more than additional budget (or a change in legislation, a kind of symbolic action) while an adaptive change requires an entirely new approach—we must change how we define ourselves, not some budget or any other easy fix (18).

Technical Change

Heifetz and Linsky cite the example of a car that breaks down.  If your car breaks down, then you can take it to a mechanic and get it fixed.  However, if your car breaks down because of how the family drives it, then the problem is likely to come up over and over until the family changes how the car is driven.  The mechanic can fix the first problem (car breaks down), but only the family itself can fix the second problem (repeated break downs; 19). The rub arises because:  Habits, values, and attitudes, even dysfunctional ones, are part of one’s identity.  To change the way people see and do things is to challenge how they define themselves (27). As a consequence, adaptive problems are inherently more difficult and costly to deal with.

Importance of Adaptive Change

Because current leaders were promoted to bring organizations to the point they find themselves in today, part of the challenge of adaptive change arises in dealing with dealing with those with a vested interest in the way things are.  Heifetz and Linsky observe that resistance to change often comes from unexpected places and people.  They see the 4 principal dangers to leaders being marginalization, diversion, attack, and seduction (31).  Marginalization can take the form of tokenism, neglect, or professional pigeon-holing (32-37).  Diversion results in a loss of focus—taking on too many issues or being promoted off-line (38-40).  Attacks may focus on your ideas, character, competence, family, or physical existence (42) [2]. Seduction arises as constituents for change insist on taking the issue too far and the leader then fails chasing the dream rather than accomplishing real, doable change (45-48).

Fog of War

Emotions rage and helpful information is often absent during periods of change.  In the military, this is called the fog of war.  Heifetz and Linsky accordingly observe the need to maintain the capacity for reflection—to observe more clearly what is really going on (52).  During movies of the 1930s and 1940s, during dance or dinner party scenes characters frequently retreated to a balcony to talk (or have a smoke) where they figured out their strategies. On the balcony, Heifetz and Linsky see 4 useful activities:

  1. Distinguish technical from adaptive changes;
  2. Find out where people are at;
  3. Listen to the song beneath the words (do not accept things at face value); and/or
  4. Read the behavior of authority figures for clues (55).

A Christian might substitute the expression—Sabbath rest—for balcony here as we lead our families through the stresses and struggles of life.


Heifetz and Linsky’s Leadership on the Line is written in 11 chapters divided into 3 parts:  The Challenge, the Response, and Body and Soul.  The chapters are:

  1. The Heart of Danger;
  2. The Faces of Danger;
  3. Get on the Balcony;
  4. Think Politically;
  5. Orchestrate the Conflict;
  6. Give the Work Back;
  7. Hold Steady;
  8. Manage Your Hungers;
  9. Anchor Yourself;
  10. What’s On the Line? And
  11. Sacred Heart (vii).

These chapters include an introduction and notes, an index, and write-up about the authors in the pages that follow.

Example of Adaptive Change Challenge

Heifetz and Linsky’s distinction between technical and adaptive changes is most useful.  I cannot tell you how many meetings that I attended in the government where a focus on “low hanging fruit”—technical changes which really did not address the issue but gave managers an opportunity to pretend to do something—pushed aside attempts at adaptive change.

Conversion as Adaptive Change

Conversion to Christ is an adaptive change; it is not the low hanging fruit that people want to grab which leaves them feeling “in control” of their lives. Christians become leaders the moment they respond to God’s call on their lives because they reject technical change for the transformational change which Christ offers. The Apostle Paul writes:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2 ESV)

Gun Violence Prevention

So what does this imply about the effort to reduce gun violence?

The distinction between technical and adaptive chance is critical to solving the problem of gun violence. A technical solution, like banning all assault weapons, may feel like progress is being made, but it neglects the underlying causes of the violence. Angry people can articulate their anger with other instruments.

The adaptive solution to gun violence focuses on the anger, not the instruments. Possible solutions might include things like reducing violence in video games, banning media attention for murderers, and programs that target hopeless young men and offer them hope for a better life. Coming to the realization that the problem goes beyond the guns is a first step in any adaptive solution. The fact that this problem has built up over years of inattention to underlying social problems suggests that years of effort will be required in any real solution.


Heifetz and Linsky offer a style of leadership which is an allegory for the Christian life [3].  Christianity is a holistic approach to life—all of life’s challenges and adventures are taken into account, from birth to death. Leadership on the Line highlights the adaptive changes that are required to live life to its fullest, as God intended.


[1] My paraphrase of Heifetz and Linsky’s challenges of leadership on pages 1-5.

[2] In the recent Veteran’s Administration scandal, for example, no one questioned the administrator’s competence, but media attention forced him to resign. In effect, the appetite to solving the problem remains weak—it was easier to personalize the problem and make it go away by assigning blame—a villain story.


Heifetz and Linsky Lead from Technical to Adaptive Change

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Plueddemann Demystified Leadership Across Culture 

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Nouwen Describes Leadership Challenges

Henri Nouwen, Temptations of LeadersHenri J.M. Nouwen. 2002. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company.[1]

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One professor of mine in seminary described scripture as laconic, meaning that every verse is written with a minimum number of words. We are told only the basics, leaving the rest of the story free to be contextualized—applied to our own situations. The best example of laconic writing in the postmodern world appears in advertising where each word is uttered with a price tag attached. If you say something to the whole world on television during the Super Bowl at the cost of a celebrity’s mansion, what words would you choose?


In his book, In the Name of Jesus, Henri Nouwen writes laconically about Christian leadership. Two passages inform Nouwen’s view of leadership more than the many others that he cites. They are the three temptations of Christ in the desert before he starts his ministry (Matthew 4:1-11) and words of the risen Christ to Peter just before the ascension (John 21:15-18) (23).

Nouwen structures his book in three parts around the three temptations. They are to be relevant (turn stones into bread), to be popular (throw yourself off the temple), and to lead rather than to be led (to have authority). He further divides these parts into three sections: the temptation, a question or task, and a discipline. Throughout these discussions, Nouwen weaves his experiences as a priest living with special needs friends from the L’Arche community in Toronto after retiring from an academic career, which took him to Harvard Divinity School (22).

From Relevance to Prayer

Jesus’ first temptation was to be relevant—turn stones into bread (30). Writing about his experience at L’Arche, Nouwen notes his new friends had no interest in his accomplishments or the network of friends that he had. Nouwen writes:

“This experience was and, in many ways, is still the most important experience of my new life, because it forced me to rediscover my true identity. These broken, wounded, and completely unpretentious people forced me to let go of my relevant self—the self that can do things, show things, prove things, build things—and forced me to reclaim that unadorned self in which I am completely vulnerable, open to receive and give love regardless of any accomplishments.” (28)

Who Are You Really?

If you strip away the degrees and the robes, who are you really? As a chaplain intern working an Alzheimer’s unit, Nouwen commitment cut me to the core—he stayed in this environment that I found solace in knowing that I would leave at the end of three months. My love of the patients was clearly conditioned on my departure, his was not. I missed being relevant—finishing my training, moving to new challenges.

Nouwen sees Jesus’ question to Peter—“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (John 21:15 ESV)—as being important in understanding the task of the servant leader (36). He writes:

“…the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self.” (30)

By irrelevance, Nouwen means abandoning the “fix-it” mentality that many of us cling to; he clearly does not mean abandoning the ministerial task of pointing the lost and the suffering to Christ (31). He clearly sees the need to develop contemplative prayer as an antidote to the need to be relevant (42-43).

From Popularity to Ministry

Jesus’ second temptation was to do something spectacular to draw attention to himself (53). The Gospel of Matthew records it this way:

“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” (Matt 4:6 ESV)

Jesus responds, saying: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” (Matt 4:7 ESV). In John, he tells Peter: “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17) For Nouwen, the temptation to engage in heroic leadership is blunted by ministering in teams. As a member of the L’Arche community, he always brought along a companion whenever he was asked to speak (58-59). Nouwen furthermore sees a special need for leaders to practice the discipline of confession and forgiveness as an antidote to the propensity to want to be popular (64-65).

From Leading to Being Led

The third temptation of Jesus was to be powerful (75). Nouwen observes that: “It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.” (78) After re-commissioning Peter, Jesus prophesies his death:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (John 21:18 ESV)

In this sense, as Christian leaders, we find ourselves led, whether we like it or not. Nouwen sees theological reflection as the primary antidote to the temptation to be powerful (88).


Henri Nouwen’s book, In the Name of Jesus, is a short reflection on the nature of Christian leadership. Nouwen sees leadership principles in Jesus’ three temptations. He outlines core leadership principles in terms of polarities—from relevance to prayer, from popularity to ministry, and from leading to being led. This is because polarities have the characteristic of being not problems that can be solved, but of being poles that we move back and forth between. We are repeatedly tempted to be relevant, to be popular, and to lead. It is a struggle to find new ways to pray, to minister, and to be led. In that sense, Nouwen’s work remains fresh and interesting to Christian leaders, regardless of their tenure, position, or experience.


Nouwen Describes Leadership Challenges

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Return to Leadership

Cover for Called Along the Way
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy
of double honor, especially those
who labor in preaching and teaching
(1 Tim 5:17)

Return to Leadership

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

My term as elder began in January 2003 when Centreville Presbyterian Church (CPC) ordained me and I was elected as clerk of session, a leadership position. As clerk, I worked closely with the pastor to set agendas for the session and congregational meetings, and kept the official notes on all meetings.

Pastor Rob encouraged the elders to deepen their faith and to become more involved in the life of the church. He encouraged us involved dedicating the first half-hour of our meetings to study and prayer. The first book that we used in this effort was Oswald Sanders’ book, Spiritual Leadership, which served to make the point that elders were more than merely the board of directors of the church. Session soon became my first small group.

Pastor Rob also encouraged us was to become more involved in the life of the church through preaching and teaching. In the spring, our associate pastor resigned and Pastor Rob asked that elders to offer personal testimonies on Sunday morning to give him some time off.
At first, I avoided the question, but after thinking about it, I told him:

I am uncomfortable giving a personal testimonial, but if you want, I will preach for you. I am used to teaching college students so it should be no problem to preach.

He agreed and shared a book, Communicating for a Change, with me by Andy Stanley and Lane Jones to help me get started. Over the next year, I preached four times on the call to faith and ministry, the problem of pain, the Book of Esther, and the covenants of law and grace.
The following year, I taught my first adult Sunday school class, a video series crafted around R.C. Sproul’s book: Reason to Believe. We had more than twenty adults who attended the class and, because of the success of the class, I was encouraged to teach Bible studies, starting with the Book of Romans in 2005. After that I taught Luke, Genesis, Hebrews, Philippians, and Matthew.

After a point in teaching, I got frustrated by the poor attendance on Sunday mornings. I thought: “Where are the elders? Where are the deacons?” When I looked around the room, I realized that only one or two in a class of a dozen were even church members. My class consisted primarily of family members, colleagues from work, and active, non-members who wandered in. These were people who, like myself, struggled to understand their faith and chided at the usual pat answers.


Sanders, J. Oswald. 1994. Spiritual Leadership: Principles of Excellence for Every Believer. Chicago: Moody Press.

Sproul, R.C. 1982. Reason to Believe: A Response to Common Objectives to Christianity. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Stanley, Andy and Lane Jones. 2006. Communicating for a Change. Colorado Springs: Multinomah Books.


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18. Prayers of a Life in Tension by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Prayers_of_a_Life_in_Tension_webAlmighty Father,

We give thanks for the gift of faith and the call into ministry which reaches out to our family, friends, and beyond. Guard our hearts in times of weakness, hardship, and temptation. Keep our mind sharp that we offer you our praise with clarity, coherence, and dedication, not tainted by vain desires, cultural confusion, or subtle idolatries. Grant us a spirit of meekness, a spirit of humility seated deeply in our character—not loosely held, superficially worn, or overshadowed by cherished sins. Place in us hearts eager to pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, and gentleness. Give us the strength to provide a sacrificial hospitality to those around us. In the face of suffering, make your Holy Spirit especially visible that we would not fail in our ministry due to temptations to be relevant, powerful, or spectacular in the eyes of those in our care. In the strong name of Jesus Christ, Your Son and our Savior. Amen.

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17. Prayers of a Life in Tension by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Prayers_of_a_Life_in_Tension_webBeloved Good Shepherd,

We praise you for your teaching heart and gentle spirit.  We thank you for modeling meekness in leadership and for your patience with us as we learn. Heal our hearts, humble our spirits, open our hands that we might lead with gentleness and hospitality. Grant us open minds and a teachable spirit that we might lead those around us only to you. Through the power of your Holy Spirit, now and always, Amen.

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Prayer Day 11: A Christian Guide to Spirituality by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Available on
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Sovereign Lord. God of the living and the dead. Thank you for caring enough for us that you sent Jesus to hell and back for our benefit. Keep our hearts and minds safe from a fascination with evil. Set our minds on heaven so that our hearts may rest with you, now and always. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Señor soberano. Dios de los vivos y los muertos. Gracias por preocuparte lo suficiente para nosotros que enviaste a Jesús al infierno y regreso por nuestro beneficio. Mantienes nuestros corazones y mentes a salvo de una fascinación por el mal. Pones nuestras mentes en el cielo para que nuestros corazones puedan descansar contigo, ahora y siempre. En el nombre del Padre, del Hijo, y del Espíritu Santo, Amén.

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Plueddemann Demystified Leadership Across Culture

James Plueddemann, Leadership Across Cultures
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

James E. Plueddemann.  2009.  Leading Across Cultures:  Effective Ministry and Mission in the Global Church.  Downers Grove:  IVP Academic.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

As you exit the parking lot in my home church, a sign reads: you are now entering the mission field.   Few years back on a Sunday morning Evangelist Hussain Andaryas ( cited the Great Commission in Matthew 28 and said:  because you would not go across the seas to bring Christ to your brothers and sisters, God has given you a second chance.  Now, they live across the street from you.  Now, will you go?  Each of us, if we lead at all, must now lead across cultures.


In his book, Leading Across Cultures, James Plueddemann cites Geert Hofstede and likens leadership like learning to play an instrument and likens leadership across cultures as like learning to play several instruments (11).  For Plueddemann:  A missionary is anyone, from any country, who leaves home in order to proclaim the gospel, usually in another culture (13).  For Plueddemann, a Christian leader focuses, harmonizes, and enhances the gifts of others for their own growth while cultivating the kingdom of God (15).

From Everywhere to Everywhere

Plueddemann summarizes the challenges of multicultural leadership with a slogan—from everywhere to everywhere (25).  Mission challenges include short-term missions, church-to-church partnerships, leadership development strategies, and working under leadership of another culture (25-27).  Short-term missions, for example, imply that missions are undertaken with little or no experience with either missions or the cultures involved.  Clashes in culture are often therefore immediate and unexpected.  For example, the American assumption of “equal partners” is foreign in most of the rest of the world where the usual assumption is a senior and a junior partner (26).

Cycle of World Missions

Plueddemann envisions a cycle of world missions composed of 5 steps:

  1. Pre-evangelism,
  2. Evangelism,
  3. Church planting and nurture,
  4. Leadership development, and
  5. Partnership (48).

For Plueddemann, pre-evangelism involves both caring for people’s physical needs and their eternal needs through medical help, humanitarian relief, schools and development programs (51). Evangelism Is bringing people to Jesus and sharing the gospel:  that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3-4 ESV; 52).  In discussing the need to plant churches, he writes:  Evangelism without discipleship is like giving birth and then leaving the baby in a dumpster.  Newborns can’t live more than a few hours without the help of a family (53).

Role of Leadership Training

On leadership, Plueddemann observes that:  Jesus taught and healed the sick, but his lasting ministry came from the training of the 12 disciples.  Leadership development was also at the core of Paul’s evangelism (55).  Leadership development naturally leads to partnership because Plueddemann observes:  mature churches are characterized as self-propagating, self-supporting, and self-governing (56).  It is indeed ironic (and a bit embarrassing) to see former mission partners now sending missionaries to North America.

Dr. James E. Plueddemann  is Professor of Mission and Intercultural Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School [1] in Deerfield, Illinois just outside Chicago. Leading Across Cultures is written in 12 chapters divided into 4 parts, including:

  1. Multicultural Leadership in the Worldwide Church,
  2. Leadership and Culture,
  3. Contextualizing Leadership, and
  4. Global Leadership in Practice.

These chapters are preceded by an introduction and followed by an epilogue (7-8).

Clearly, there is not time to summarize all that Plueddemann has written.  However, I will never forget his comments specifically about culture.  He defines two concepts—context and power distance—which bear summarizing.

High and Low Context Cultures

Citing Edward Hall’s book, Beyond Culture (New York: Anchor Books,1976), Plueddeman high-context and low-context cultures.  In a high-context culture, information is passed informally with very little being communicated through formal speech.  What is important are the atmosphere of the room, the sounds, smells, facial expressions, and body language.  This is the norm in Africa, Asia, South America, and the Middle East.  In low-context cultures the opposite is true.  People pay attention to what is explicitly said.  For example, people remember ideas, but forget who said them.  Highly expressive forms of speech are valued in high-context cultures and viewed with skepticism in low-context cultures (78-79).  In low-context cultures, speaking the truth face-to-face is valued; in high-context cultures, relationships are more important and difficult conversations take place through intermediaries (81).

Power Distance

Leadership always involves use of power so attitudes about power are culturally important.   Plueddemann cites a study by Robert House (and others) called Culture, Leadership, and Organizations:  The GLOBE Study of 62 Societies (London: SAGE Publications, 2004) which defines power distance as: the degree to which members of an organization expect and agree that power should be shared unequally (94).  In a high-power distance culture, everyone agrees that leaders should have more authority, respect, and status symbols (fancy cars, expensive clothes, and so on).  In low-power distance cultures, leadership is more participatory and leaders are expected to act like a peer and have a minimum number of perks (95).

Attitudes about the role of context and power distance can be dramatically different not only internationally, but between ethnic and age groups within a society.  This is, in part, why pastors are sensitive to the style of dress and musical preferences when speaking at new churches.


Plueddemann’s writing on leadership in a cross-cultural setting is insightful.  His writing is filled with personal accounts, particularly focused on his time as a missionary in Nigeria.  However, keep in mind that he writes primarily for the seminary student and professional missionary.  The growth of North America as a mission field, however, widens the number of professionals who need to take his counsel.


 Plueddemann Demystified Leadership Across Culture

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1 Corinthians 3: Infants in Christ

Stephen W. Hiemstra (1955)
Stephen W. Hiemstra (1955)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Jesus answered him, Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God (John 3:3 ESV).

We really want to be in control.  From a very young age, we do not want to depend on other people, to be told what to do, or to answer to anyone.  We take seriously the Declaration of Independence when it reads:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [and women] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness (July 4, 1776).

Not only do we want the freedom to deny the control of other people and other nations, we want to deny the restrictions placed on us by God himself.  Rather than a sign of maturity, this control fetish is a sign of childishness—children always imitate their parents wanting to do adult things before they are ready.

For the Corinthians, childishness had two prominent features.  They considered themselves to be very spiritual people (v 1) and they divided themselves into political parties (v 4).  The Apostle Paul responded by offering them a lesson in Christian leadership.

Christian leadership, according to Paul, consists in building on the foundation laid by Jesus Christ (v 11), serving God as we are assigned (v 5), and compensated according to quality of the work done (VV 8,13-14). Paul writes:  I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth (V 6). In this agricultural motif, the farmer does not know how the seeds grow; farming consists only in fostering the growth of healthy seeds. Paul’s point is that God is responsible for growth—follow Jesus, not his servants.

Paul’s lesson clearly applies to us today.

Don’t we consider ourselves spiritual?  Paul talks about the wisdom of this age (v 18).  Hays (49-50) notes that spiritual elitism can take the form of spiritual gifts, scholarly knowledge, doctrinal correctness, moral uprightness, or political correctness[1].  When we do not consider ourselves spiritual elites, we can, of course, simply support our favorite pastor, denomination, or author who expresses our elitist preferences. Is it any wonder that schisms in the church appeal over and over through the ages and frequently find root in a selective reading of scripture itself?

Paul sees this tendency towards spiritual elitism in the Corinthians (vv 18-20) and cites the Prophet Job:

He [God] frustrates the devices of the crafty, so that their hands achieve no success.  He catches the wise in their own craftiness, and the schemes of the wily are brought to a quick end (Job 5:12-13 ESV).

Paul ends this section with another admonishment about boasting saying:  For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future– all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s (vv 21-23)

As the church, we collectively are God’s temple [2] and under his watchful eye (vv 16-17).

[1]Hays, Richard B.  2011.  Interpretation:  A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching—First Corinthians (Orig pub 1997).  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press.

[2]ὁ γὰρ ναὸς τοῦ θεοῦ ἅγιός ἐστιν, οἵτινές ἐστε ὑμεῖς (1Corinthians 3:17 BNT).  Translated is:  for God’s temple is holy, and you all are [that temple].

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JOHN 21: From Fish to Sheep

fish_12232013Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men and women (Matthew 4:19).

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

When I worked in the hospital with psychiatric patients, I met a man with a huge Bible. When we spoke, he opened up this Bible and showed me the many color photographs. When he spoke with the other patients, they ridiculed him for his lessons which he had never applied to his own life. He fashioned himself as a fisherman, but he was no shepherd.

John 21 tells the story of the disciples going fishing on the Sea of Tiberius, but catching nothing all night long. In the morning, a man on the beach advises them to try again, but on the other side of the boat. When they do, they are overwhelmed with fish. At that point, they recognize that the man on the beach is Jesus.

After Jesus offers the disciples breakfast on the beach, he asks Peter a pointed question three times. He said: Simon, son of John, do you love me? He said to him, Yes, Lord; you know that I love you. He said to him, Tend my sheep (v 16). Because Peter had denied him three times on the night of his arrest, the three-fold question and response served to restore Peter to relationship with Jesus and leadership among the disciples. Both events took place in front of a charcoal fire (John 18:18; 21:9)

In Matthew 4:19, Jesus promises that if the disciples follow him, then he will make them fishers of men and women. Now, Jesus is asking Peter—and us—to give up fishing and become a shepherd. A fisherman catches fish with nets and hooks, but a shepherd feeds and protects sheep. This is a story about Christian leadership—the English word, pastor, originally meant shepherd.

The story continues. Jesus goes on to prophesy Peter’s death by crucifixion (v 18). At this point Peter’s rivalry with John rises to the surface. Peter asks: Lord, what about this man? (v 21) At this point, Jesus rebukes Peter: what is that to you? You follow me! (v 22) In other words, as Christian leaders we are to lead out of obedience to Christ, not rivalry with one another.

It is interesting that three of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and John) end with the disciples being given new responsibilities for evangelism. Matthews ends with the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20); Mark ends with the disciples preaching everywhere and performing miracles (signs); John ends with a lesson on Christian leadership. Only in Luke do the disciples simply hang around the church. However, Luke is like an extended preface to the Book of Acts (also written by Luke) where virtually the entire book is about early church evangelism and the work of the Holy Spirit.

The Gospel of John is not bashful about describing its objective.  John writes: these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20:31).  My prayer is that his objective is accomplished.


  1. When and where does this chapter begin? Who is present? (vv 1-2)
  2. What were the disciples doing? Why? (v 3)  Were they successful?
  3. How does Jesus reveal himself to the disciples?(vv 4-6)
  4. Who recognized him first? (v 7) How?  How does Peter react?
  5. What does Jesus do for them? (vv 8-12)
  6. What two things does this breakfast menu bring to mind? (v 9; Hints: John 6:11; 18:18)
  7. What does Jesus ask Peter three times? (vv 15-17)Why is it significant?  What is the lesson?
  8. What does Jesus prophesy? (vv 18-19) What is the significance?
  9. Why does Peter ask Jesus about John? What is the response?  (vv 20-23) Why do we care?

10.Who wrote this gospel?  (vv 24-25)


JOHN 21: From Fish to Sheep

Also see:

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1 

Roadmap of Simple Faith

Bothersome Gaps: Life in Tension

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

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