For the Fame of His Name

How God Sent Bethlehem to the Nations

It was a November evening in 1983, the time of year in Minneapolis marked by light snow and fog and drizzle as the temperatures grow colder and winter approaches. Tom Steller — a 28-year-old associate pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church — was at home with his wife and one-year-old daughter on the upper level of their duplex, just a couple of blocks south of downtown.

Sleep eluded Tom that night, and so at 2:00 am, he slipped out of bed, quietly making his way to the living room so as not to disturb his young family. He picked up an audiocassette by Christian folk singer John Michael Talbot, put it in his tape recorder, pressed play, and sat on the couch to listen.

Road of Glory

The eleventh track, “Lord, Every Nation on Earth Shall Adore You” — based on Psalm 72 — begins with a guitar plucking in the background and Talbot’s solo tenor singing,

Lord, every nation on earth shall adore you.
Lord, every people will call on your name.
Every knee shall bow,
Every tongue confess your name:
Jesus the Lord.

The same words repeat, this time with a choir joining Talbot in the background as the praise ascends.

The cry of the psalm set to music began to come alive to Tom in a way it not had before. Tom’s heart already beat for the glory of God, but he had never before seen the connection between the fame of God’s name and the proclamation of his name to the ends of the earth. Jesus would rule to the ends of the earth as he saves his people. A revolution was happening in Tom’s heart — one that would reverberate for decades to come.

For an hour that night, with tears rolling down his cheeks, he worshiped with “a mingling,” he would later say, “of joy at the vision of God’s glory filling the earth and penitent longing to be involved in that great purpose of God.”

Road of Joy

In a way that providentially paralleled what was happening at the Steller residence, a strange and exhilarating awakening began to happen in the home office of John Piper, just a few blocks away. Every fall, Bethlehem held a missions conference and brought in a guest speaker. But for that November, the mission board did something they had never done before: they asked the senior pastor to deliver the message.

John Piper had come to the church in 1980, at the age of 34, leaving Bethel College to enter his first (and only) pastorate. In 1983, Piper was in the middle of a sermon series on Christian Hedonism, the seed of his first popular-level book, Desiring God, which was published four years later. He thought it might work to incorporate missions into the series, calling missions “the battle cry of Christian Hedonism.” So, he accepted the invitation, though he had hardly written or preached about missions up to this point.

As he began to work on his message, God was at work behind the scenes. During the evening service that night, Bethlehem would be commissioning David and Faith Jaeger, who would leave just two days later for Liberia, the first Bethlehem missionaries to be sent in over a decade. What might the Lord be doing and stirring?

“God, speed the day of Christ’s return, when every knee will bow and every nation will be glad in him.”

On Sunday morning, November 13, Piper stood behind the pulpit and looked out at his beloved flock. If God moved in the way he was asking, some of these people would set a new trajectory for their lives, moving to foreign lands to proclaim the glory of God and the way of salvation. Some of them might even lose their earthly lives for the sake of Christ. “I want to push you over the brink this morning,” Piper preached. “I want to make the cause of missions so attractive that you will no longer be able to resist its magnetism.”

The congregation, for the first time, was hearing the biblical language and logic of Christian Hedonism coming to bear on the call to the nations. Here was their pastor imploring them to increase their own joy in God. “I do not appeal to you to screw up your courage and sacrifice for Christ,” he said. Rather:

I appeal to you to renounce all that you have in order to obtain the Pearl of pearls.

I appeal to you to count all things as rubbish for the surpassing value of standing in the service of the King of kings.

I appeal to you to take off your store-bought rags and to put on the garments of God’s ambassadors.

While Piper was writing the sermon, a seminary had called, wondering if he might want to return to academia. He said no right away, and he told the congregation why he wanted to stay:

I want to build a world church with you at Bethlehem.

I want to see new missionaries go out from this body every year.

I want to be here to welcome home David and Faith on their first furlough.

I want to travel to some of our fields and minister to our missionaries and bring back reports of what God is doing.

I want to preach and write in such a way that young, and old, and men, and women cannot go on with business as usual while there are more churches in the Twin Cities than there are missionaries in half the world.

The challenge is great. God is greater.

The rewards are a hundred times better than anything the world can offer. The battle cry of Christian Hedonism is: Go! Double your joy in God by sharing it on the frontiers.

Roads Converge

A few years later, Piper reflected on what God was doing in that season of global awakening at Bethlehem:

Tom was coming on the road of glory, and I was coming on the road of joy.

What hit us both in November of 1983 with life-changing force was this: God does everything he does for the glory of his name. He loves his glory above all things. He is committed radically and unswervingly to preserve and display that glory throughout the universe and to fill the earth one day with nothing but the echo of his glory in the lives of the redeemed — that is, with worship. And the knowledge of the glory of the Lord will fill the earth as the waters cover the sea.

But God has conceived a universe in which the magnifying of his own glory is accomplished in the delight and joy and satisfaction that the redeemed find in him. And therefore, God’s pursuit of his glory and my pursuit of my joy are not finally in conflict. They are, in fact, one pursuit.

If our passionate joy in the glory of God is the very thing in which his glory is most fully reflected in this world, and if our joy is multiplied as God extends the praise of his glory among the peoples, then how could Tom and I, as lovers of God’s glory and Christian Hedonists, not give ourselves to the global cause of God in world missions?

In short, “Everything came together to make an electric moment in the life of our church, and it all flowed from a passion for the glory of God.”

Piper and Steller — and, for that matter, Bethlehem Baptist Church — have never been the same. God would answer these prayers. Hundreds of missionaries would go to the nations, and God would use the influence of Piper and Steller in remarkable ways.

Piper has helped mobilize mission efforts around the world through books and messages and conferences, challenging the church to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. And Steller has helped to found institutions (like Bethlehem College & Seminary) and organizations (like Training Leaders International, where he now serves) that share the same desire to see God receive glory from every tribe and nation and tongue, as they discover that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.

What About Us?

Forty years later, their passion remains, these truths endure, and the work is not finished.

There are men and women and children who woke up this morning in people groups that have never heard the name of Jesus. No one has yet arrived to tell them in their own language the greatest news in all the world: “The gospel is the good news that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died for our sins and rose again, eternally triumphant over his enemies, so that there is now no condemnation for those who believe, but only everlasting joy.”

For the faithful, inaction is not an option. So, how will you and I respond? Will we go? Will we send? Will we pray? Will he find us faithful to this task when he returns? “This gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14).

God, speed the day of Christ’s return, when every knee will bow and every nation will be glad in him.