Last night, I had the privilege of joining my church family in honoring Tom Ascol on his 25th anniversary as pastor of Grace Baptist Church. The evening was spent with members sharing stories and testimonies of how God has impacted their lives through Pastor Tom, and I began it with a few words about the call of a shepherd, explaining how he has led our church through the years. I provide them below because I know many of my readers know Tom from his blog, articles, books, or role as director of Founders Ministries. I’m fortunate to know him as a fellow pastor, father in the faith, and personal friend.
Honoring a Faithful Shepherd:
Reflections on the Ministry of Tom Ascol
on His 25th Anniversary as Pastor of Grace Baptist Church
If you were alive in during biblical times, there is one vocation that every person in the community would be familiar with. That would be the work of a shepherd. It is widely understood that shepherds were in many ways considered to be heroic men, known for their independence, resourcefulness, adaptability in severe circumstances, courage amidst all kinds of opposition, and vigilance to their calling. Their work required of them an intense capacity for attentiveness, self-sacrifice, and compassion. As a result, shepherds were looked upon in Scripture as an icon of leadership, and no doubt one of the reasons why Jesus referred to Himself as the Good Shepherd and of whom Peter called the Chief Shepherd.
There are many ways to describe the work of a pastor, but none are more comprehensive and clear than that of a shepherd. When a pastor is faithful to the people he is called to lead, he images forth the shepherding ways of God. Indeed, God Himself said, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God” (Ezekiel 34:15). In the popular Shepherd Psalm, King David begins by saying, “The Lord is my shepherd” (Psalm 23:1). So in a very significant way, God communicates his heart and ways with His people as a shepherd. That alone should alert us to the significance of the work, given to those who are called to lead by “shepherding the flock of God” whom Jesus purchased with His own blood (Acts 20:28).
But what is it that encompasses the work of a faithful shepherd? Tonight, I want to briefly give you three aspects of a faithful shepherd in light of what this evening is all about. For 25 years, God has given us a pastor who has served this church as a faithful shepherd to the flock entrusted to his care, and tonight, I want to honor the man who has honored Christ and discharged his calling as a dedicated pastor, committed churchman, and stubborn herald of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This weekend marks the 25th anniversary of our beloved pastor, Tom Ascol, and though it pains him for us to draw any attention to him, we are going to do it anyway. It is fitting for us to honor and recognize what God has done in and through him.
Church family, I want you to realize how rare this moment is for Christians in our day and age. Not many have ever been a part of a church that has a pastor whose tenure spans a quarter of a century. How fewer have been pastored by someone who has endured so many hardships and afflictions for the sake of God’s truth, the purity of Christ’s Bride, and with a unyielding passion for God’s glory? Truly, we are reaping the bounty and blessings of a plodding pastor whose belief in the power of our crucified, risen Savior has resulted in great praise and gratitude to God for the gift He has given us in Tom Ascol.
The Shepherd Provides
When we speak of the work of a shepherd, the first thing we should notice is his duty to provide for his sheep. A shepherd is first and foremost a provider. David says that when the Lord is His shepherd, he shall not want (Psalm 23:1). His wants are satisfied in the provision of his shepherd. In biblical times, one of the most pressing challenges for shepherds was to provide food and water for their sheep. In the summer, the days were hot and arid, and sheep were daily in danger of dehydration and death, so shepherds had to constantly keep the sheep close to sources of water supply.
I’m grateful to God that Pastor Tom has shepherded us in this dry and weary land by providing us with a constant water supply of God’s Word to nourish our souls. We have not been left unattended or uncared for under his watch; rather, he has continually taking us to the truths of God’s Word and told us to drink deep! Not only that, but as a shepherd he has modeled for us what it means to be utterly satisfied with God. Any exposure to the prayer life of Tom will reveal that our pastor has a profound and abiding communion with God.
There are some people that you admire from a distance, but when you get to know them up close, you realize they are not the caliber of people you thought they were. For the past three years, I have been exposed to Pastor Tom’s life arguably more than anyone else outside his wife and kids, and I can say without reservation that Tom Ascol is the real deal. I say that having witnessed him as a pastor, as a husband, as a father, and as a friend. We have prayed together, wept together, and led this church together through the darkest nights and fiercest storms this church has ever known. In the deep, dark valley he encountered after his lightning strike, I watched a weak man made strong as he humbly submitted himself to the sovereign will of God when even the nerve synapses in his body weren’t working properly. I tell you God has provided us a shepherd who is first and foremost a lover of God and secondly a lover of this church.
Pastor Tom has provided us fresh manna to feast on the whole counsel of God’s Word. He has not shrunk bank from declaring it to us from the pulpit publicly or from times of counseling privately. The sheep of Grace Baptist Church have not grazed in barren land because we have a shepherd who has taken us to pastures where the harvest of God’s word is ripe and rich. While it may be true that there is a famine for the word of God today, we have been given a banqueting table to feast and then take to others as well. And for that we should be grateful.
The Shepherd Protects
Not only is a shepherd a provider for he sheep, he is also a protector of the sheep. Psalm 23 speaks of a faithful shepherd causing the sheep to lie down in green pastures and lead them beside still waters. This imagery intends to show satisfaction and safety in the midst of a hostile environment. The protective presence of the shepherd and his vigilance against whatever threatens the safety and security of the sheep cause the sheep to lie down and be at rest. Sheep in biblical times where threatened by a host of enemies, including bad weather (cold nights, hot summer days, strong winds, draught, storms, etc.), diseases, wild animals (wolves, bears, leopards, and lions), and thieves who would break in and steal an entire flock of sheep.
In order to protect the sheep, the shepherd would use two simple tools. The staff was used to protect the sheep from dangers within the fold, including redirecting misbehaving sheep, removing obstacles that might cause them to stumble, and snagging a sheep that might have gotten trapped. The rod was used to protect the sheep from dangers outside the fold, to defend against wild animals and promote peace through corrective discipline.
When you think about this, it is easy to look back and see how Pastor Tom has shepherded and protected us as a church. He has protected us from false teaching by faithfully instructing us in God’s Word. He has taught us to hear the voice of God in Scripture so that we will not be tossed to and fro by every wind and wave of doctrine. Indeed, we have been kept close to our Great Shepherd because Pastor Tom has kept us close to His word where we hear His voice and follow Him.
But Pastor Tom has also protected us his sheep by working for reformation to have a rightly ordered church that practices both formative discipline through the exercise of the means of grace as well as corrective discipline through redemptively pursuing wayward sheep. I recall just a few weeks ago when the church voted to excommunicate a member of Grace that another member came up to Pastor Tom with tears in their eyes, saying, “I’m so thankful to be a part of a church that if I ever went wayward, my pastors would pursue me and not let me go into sin.” How many churches today who have a shepherd who will leave the 99 to pursue one who has been wayward in sin?
How many of us have known our shepherd’s staff, picking us up when we have been trapped in sin? How many have known the shepherd’s staff to clear obstacles of doubt, confusion, and despair and helped us graze in the grace of God? How many of us have heard the shepherd’s voice from the pulpit week after week, calling us to follow and obey, to stay within the safe pastures of God’s revealed Word? How many of us have known the rod of correction when we have been at odds with one another? When we have gone wayward? When we have been endangered by false teaching or ways of living that are contrary to Scripture?
Again, fellow sheep, where are the shepherds in this country full of churches that would protect the sheep from dangers without and dangers within? Where are the scars from their fighting? I look at our shepherd and see a man who has sacrificed his life and reputation for the health and welfare of this church. I see a man who has fought for the spiritual vitality of our souls. When the devil fired his darts of accusation and lies, when the flesh rose in anger and spite, when the world looked upon him with ridicule and scorn, we have one who did not have a pity party. He did not throw in the towel an quit. He has shown himself a fighter, and 25 years later by God’s grace, he is still standing before us to lead us in paths of righteousness for the sake of Jesus. Such a shepherd, one will be hard-pressed to find.
Why all this? Because we have one who wants us to brought safely home to heaven. He wants us to lie and down and rest in the good of the gospel that God is for us. He wants us to know that staying close to the shepherd and hearing his voice is the safest way to be protected from getting trapped or ensnared in sin. Aren’t you glad that God has not given us a hireling? I know that I am.
The Shepherd Gives His Life Away
Lastly, the work of a faithful shepherd is to lay down his life for his sheep. While it is true that at times the shepherd needs drives his sheep from behind, sheep are not driven but gently led. As the shepherd goes before them, he will not allow his sheep to go down a path that he has not first trodden by foot. And when a threat comes to the sheep, he gives no thought to putting his life on the line for the sheep.
Why would he do this? It can only be explained by the incredible love he has for his sheep. One biblical scholar wrote in amazement about the most powerful tool at the shepherd’s disposal. What is it? It is his voice. By simply calling out to his own, the shepherd could control and direct and entire flock of sheep. Aiden, my two-year-old son in the nursery can distinguish my voice in the hallway in the midst of a crowd of people because of the relationship I have with him that he does not have with anyone else. He knows that I love him. He knows that I am his daddy, and that I care deeply for him.
The typical sheep pen in those days did not have a gate to keep the sheep from going out or from wolves or thieves coming in. The shepherd would lie down and become the gate for the sheep. If anything would enter in, it would have to go through him, and if any sheep would try to go away, they would have to pass through him. In this way, the shepherd literally laid down his life for his sheep, to protect, to provide, and to pursue when necessary a sheep would carelessly thought to get away.
Brothers and sisters, if there is ever a doubt in our mind that our shepherd loves and cares for this church, we should know it now. He has given more 25 years of his life lovingly laying down his life for this flock. Pastor Tom, may not have told us as often as you like how much you love us, but you have shown it by your life, day after day, week after week, year after year. And tonight, we want to rise up and tell you how much we love you, how much we are thankful to God for you, how much we are more like Jesus because of your life, ministry, and imprint in our lives.
We want to celebrate God’s work in and through you tonight for the 25 years God has given us through your ministry, and while we acknowledge the past, we all the more anticipate the future and what God has in store for us with you as our gracious, loving, and faithful shepherd. Thank you for loving us and leading us so faithfully and never letting us forget the gospel of Jesus Christ! I love you brother!
I concluded in Dave Letterman fashion with the following ten reasons why I love Tom Ascol.
10 Reasons Why I Love Tom Ascol
1. His children love Jesus and are passionate about his church.
2. He is so predictable when he is about to say something witty or funny.
3. He has a passion for making the gospel known in hard places, including sending his own children to unreached peoples who have never heard the gospel.
4. He is the most unassuming and self-forgetful person I have ever met.
5. He is passionate about the truth but gracious to those who have not comprehended it.
6. He is more nerdy than I will ever be with all of his gadgets and Mac love.
7. Of all the legacies he could have left behind with his giftedness, his life is consumed by his passion to be a pastor/shepherd and proclaimer of the gospel.
8. We have both been struck by lighting, though his was much worse than mine!
9. He has never turned down an opportunity to help me become a better father to my children and better husband to my wife.
10. He made himself available and accessible to me as a young seminary student in one of the most critical and difficult times of my life.