For the Name and Word of God

My Tribute to John Sailhamer (1946–2017)

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Founder & Teacher,

O Lord, you have exalted above all things your name and your word. (Psalm 138:1–2)

John Sailhamer’s life magnified the name and the word of God. It was, therefore, a great life.

When Jesus said that he who would be great must be the servant of all (Mark 10:43), he did not mean that a great life serves to make much of small things. He meant a great life pays any price to help others make much of the name and the word of God. John Sailhamer’s unrelenting labors to lead others into the riches of the name and the word of God have borne fruit for eternity.

Our lives intersected briefly at Wheaton College, then for several years at Bethel College where we both taught. Then at professional society meetings. And finally in correspondence. And, of course, John was ever present by his books, looking over my shoulder as I prepared sermons. At every step, his influence grew. And the effect was to steadily increase my confidence in Scripture as the word of God, and my love for the name of God as supreme above all names.

John’s way with the Scriptures was, at times, for me, frustratingly unemotional. He was steady, not mercurial. He was patient with details. And what he saw through this steady, patient attention to the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures was explosive. John’s exegetical toil put fire in my soul for the gospel. How could it not, when he showed, like no one else, that the Pentateuch was thoroughly Pauline — that it preached the obedience of faith through grace? But perhaps even more pervasive was the impact of his method itself in the way he made most of us feel that we had scarcely begun to read the Bible — that we were excited about finding a shard of copper, when fathomless veins of gold ran beneath the surface of this book.

“A great life pays any price to help others make much of the name and the word of God.”

But he was not unemotional. On the first day of opening our north campus at Bethlehem Baptist Church in 2005, John was in the audience. To honor the occasion and signify our love for the Scriptures, I recited Psalm 118 from memory in my welcome. I saw tears in John’s eyes. He approached me afterward and thanked me for the psalm. This was what he lived for: the name and the word of God alive in the hearts of God’s people.

John’s devotion to the name and the word of God knit our hearts together at a personal level of friendship — even common dreaming. I wrote him personal letters asking for help in sermon preparation because of recalcitrant Hebrew, imperfect jussives in the psalms, and he generously answered and encouraged me. In 1998, after a particularly trying, public debate I had with a spokesman for Open Theism, when I felt so embattled, John wrote me with words of strong encouragement. And perhaps, most memorable of all, in 1996 I threw out the wild idea that maybe someday I should start a seminary. He responded with one of his longest emails containing reason piled on reason that this should be done. It proved prophetic.

My admiration and affection for John Sailhamer grew with the years. His love for the name and word of God made him a stunningly faithful and devoted husband and father. His unpretentious plaid shirts disarmed those who saw him as a titan of Old Testament knowledge. And he endeared himself to me repeatedly because he escaped the academic trap of isolated, a-theological gamesmanship. Instead, his heart was expansive: he loved all of Scripture, both Testaments — he wrote a 600-page commentary on the whole Bible! He did not despise systematic doctrine for the church — he wrote a book called Christian Theology! He was a large-hearted lover of the whole word of God, the whole counsel of God, and the whole people of God.

I thank God that I came under his influence for almost forty years. All praise to Jesus Christ, the name and the word of God.