Last week, two notable figures in the PCA – Dr. Harry Reeder and Dr. Tim Keller – fell asleep in the Lord. Though not germane to my main point in this post, whenever a fellow believer dies, I remember Shorter Catechism #37:
Q. 37. What benefits do believers receive from Christ at death?
A. The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves till the resurrection.
I have yet to find a more concise, comforting description of the hope all believers have in death.
Back to my main point, both Dr. Reeder and Dr. Keller were major figures in our denomination, the PCA, and exerted broader influence in evangelical circles as well. When such key figures and leaders are lost, I ask myself, “Who can fill their shoes?” Indeed, the temptation for most of us is to think these men are irreplaceable, and understandably so. Truthfully, there will never be another Dr. Reeder or Dr. Keller. By God’s grace and providence, they were uniquely raised up and equipped for the day and age in which they served. Rather than looking for their replacements, let us simply be grateful for their service to our Lord and his kingdom. By doing so, we can honor their lives and service and, more importantly, glorify God for how he used these faithful men.
Nevertheless, the loss of key leaders in any movement creates a vacuum that seemingly needs to be filled. The nagging thought of “Next man up!” tugs on minds and hearts as people long for the next generation of leaders. This is nothing new. Sometimes, the successor is clearly called by the Lord (e.g. Joshua for Moses, Elisha for Elijah, etc.); sometimes no successor appears (e.g. the prophetic silence from Malachi to John the Baptist). However, in both cases, people desire to know who “God’s next man up” will be. I imagine some of you have wondered the same in the wake of Dr. Reeder’s and Dr. Keller’s deaths.
This is when the “dry” ecclesiology we studied in our teaching series comforts me greatly (and should do the same with you!). We belong to the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus, as the sole Head of the Church, defeated sin and death through his resurrection and now, as the Living One (Rev. 1:18), rules and reigns over his Church forevermore. No leadership vacuum exists, and there is no need to think about the “next man up.” Jesus Christ has once-and-for-all been declared the Leader of his Church and continues to exercise his leadership by and through his word (the Bible) and his Spirit (the Holy Spirit).
Admittedly, from our limited perspective, we struggle to grasp these truths because we are more apt to view men like Dr. Reeder and Dr. Keller as leaders in the Church and less likely to see them as they truly are – bondservants of their Master. Servants might achieve greatness in the service of their Lord, yet they can never be as great as their Lord. The writer of Hebrews applies the same principle in Heb. 3:1-6:
Therefore, holy brothers and sisters, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, whom we acknowledge as our apostle and high priest. He was faithful to the one who appointed him, just as Moses was faithful in all God’s house. Jesus has been found worthy of greater honor than Moses, just as the builder of a house has greater honor than the house itself. For every house is built by someone, but God is the builder of everything. “Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house,” bearing witness to what would be spoken by God in the future. But Christ is faithful as the Son over God’s house. And we are his house, if indeed we hold firmly to our confidence and the hope in which we glory.
Is the author of Hebrews seeking diminish the person and work of Moses? Certainly not! But he is showing God’s people the incomparable superiority of Christ. The greatness of a faithful servant is not a commentary on the servant himself, but a reflection of the greatness of the Leader, the Builder. So it is with Dr. Reeder and Dr. Keller.
Consider the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 1:
Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong – body and soul, in life and in death – to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.
He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.
Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready, from now on to live for him.
What, then, is the lesson in what I have written? It is more important to recognize that God’s faithfulness endures from generation to generation than that we find examples in every generation (though there certainly are examples in every generation!). It is more important to see the character of the Leader through his servants than to see the servants as leaders. It is more important to recognize that God used these men to advance his kingdom than to understand exactly how they did what they did.
It was the sworn duty and lifelong pursuit of Dr.’s Reeder and Keller to point away from themselves and to the Lord Jesus Christ. If such was their goal in life, let their memory do the same for us after their deaths. And may God be gracious to do the same through each of us in our lives, and in our deaths.