This Easter marks the end of an era at Bethlehem Baptist.
John Piper served as the church’s primary preacher from July 13, 1980, until December 31, 2012. Since January 1 this year, he has been associate pastor, and his final task on staff is preaching this weekend’s Easter message — once Saturday night, three times Sunday morning, and then the last hurrah on Sunday night.
It’s the end of an era — the era of Piper as local-church pastor — but God willing, just the beginning of a new season of ministry.
For well over a decade Piper and Bethlehem have felt an increasing call on Piper for “wider” ministry. The elders and church have eagerly encouraged this broader ministry beyond Bethlehem by commissioning Piper to travel for speaking and to devote several weeks each year to writing.
Sending Piper Off
In 2011, Bethlehem went through a special six-week season of soul-searching and God-seeking in an effort to discern the path forward for the church. Piper called it Bethlehem’s “Antioch Moment.” The text was Acts 13:2–3 — which now comes to fulfillment as the church gladly sends Piper off to greater attention to the wider ministry.
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.
It has been extraordinary to watch a people once seemingly reticent to let go of their beloved, long-time pastor become the happy commissioners of Piper into a new season of life and ministry.
Piper now plans to invest his writing and speaking energies mainly as founder and teacher of desiringGod.org, as well as continuing as chancellor of Bethlehem College and Seminary.
Ready to Do a Double Gainer
This past week, in his final week on staff, he was honored at his last lunch with the staff, and led at the Table for the last time on Maundy Thursday, but the schedule already has him doing much more forward thinking than looking back, as he’s been preparing his messages for next week’s Desiring God Regional Conference in South Florida and The Gospel Coalition National Conference in Orlando. He said on Thursday,
One of the great ironies of this last week is that almost all my attention and energy are going to thinking beyond Easter. I wish that weren’t true in a way — I wish I weren’t under such pressure to get ready for what’s coming in the week coming after Easter, so I could sit here and savor more the ending of this 33 years.
But in a way, it feels very gratifying. It feels like this is not a big, cataclysmic end — oh, dear, what will I do on the first of April when I’m no longer employed by Bethlehem. It feels like I’m bouncing up and down on a diving board, and I’m ready to do a double gainer into a new pool, and I just happen to be preaching at Bethlehem one more time in the process.
The Swish of the Pages
As Piper finishes his Bethlehem course this weekend, he brings to completion nearly 33 years of Bible focus and Bible centrality. In his first sermon at Bethlehem in 1980, he started with this Bible charter.
If I could choose a symbolic sound that Bethlehem Baptist Church would come to be known for, you know what it would be? The swish of the pages of 500 Bibles turning simultaneously to the morning and evening texts.
The reason is this: the source of my authority in this pulpit is not . . . my wisdom; nor is it a private revelation granted to me beyond the revelation of Scripture. My words have authority only insofar as they are the repetition, unfolding and proper application of the words of Scripture. I have authority only when I stand under authority. And our corporate symbol of that truth is the sound of your Bibles opening to the text. My deep conviction about preaching is that a pastor must show the people that what he is saying was already said or implied in the Bible. If it cannot be shown it has no special authority.
My heart aches for the pastor who increases his own burden by trying to come up with ideas to preach to his people. As for me, I have nothing of abiding worth to say to you. But God does. And of that word I hope and pray that I never tire of speaking. The life of the church depends on it.
The times have changed. Bethlehem is no longer a single church of 500, but three sites and eight services of 5,000. Long ago, the traditional Sunday night service was replaced by a small-groups emphasis; then later Saturday night and Sunday night services came as a way to handle the church’s unusual growth. And now there’s less swishing of the pages and more swiping of phones and tablets.
But the substance has stayed the same. Again and again, week in and week out, the preacher has labored to “show the people that what he is saying was already said or implied in the Bible.”
Tell Us What God Has to Say
In that first sermon, Piper quoted W.A. Criswell (1909–2002), who pastored First Baptist Dallas for 40 years. Piper called it “an admonition to pastors which I think is right on the money, and I take it as a great challenge.” Here’s Criswell:
When a man goes to church he often hears a preacher in the pulpit rehash everything that he has read in the editorials, the newspapers, and the magazines. On the TV commentaries he hears that same stuff over again, yawns, and goes out and plays golf on Sunday. When a man comes to church, actually what he is saying to you is this, “Preacher, I know what the TV commentator has to say; I hear him every day. I know what the editorial writer has to say; I read it every day. I know what the magazines have to say; I read them every week. Preacher, what I want to know is, does God have anything to say? If God has anything to say, tell us what it is.”
For over three decades, Piper has faithfully shown the people, from the Scriptures, what God has to say. It is a tremendous legacy to leave a church — even as Piper’s own legacy, beyond Bethlehem, isn’t yet done, but now expands and extends in some new and significant ways.
For more on Piper’s farewell sermon, see this short article by Justin Taylor.