EDEN PRAIRIE, MN—There are a few rare cases where the legacy of a faithful preacher is marked by his books. Think of the shelf-filling works of a Martyn Lloyd-Jones or a Charles Spurgeon. Maybe the same will be true of John Piper.
But on Sunday night all three campuses of Bethlehem Baptist Church gathered in one auditorium to witness to the impact of John Piper’s 33-year preaching legacy in the Twin Cities. The evening included testimonials, congregational worship, an orchestra and adult choir, a children’s choir, and one choir comprised of 70 children adopted during Pastor John’s tenure at Bethlehem.
Pastor John has his own growing legacy of books, of course, but for two and a half hours last night the focus was on the fruit of Piper’s pulpit ministry in lives. Bethlehem exists to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Christ, a mission spearheaded by the pulpit ministry. The pulpit proclaims Christ, ignites global missions, defends the unborn, protects the sanctity of marriage, celebrates adoption, proclaims racial reconciliation, and envisions a college and seminary. See what biblically faithful preaching, with the blessing of God, can accomplish in 33 years, seemed to be a major theme of the evening.
A deep love and reverence for God’s word is a hallmark of his ministry, said Tom Steller, who has served alongside Pastor John from the beginning. “John has been committed to making the main point of the Bible the main point of his messages. He wanted us to see what God is showing him in His word. He would repeat and point and yell and gesture with every ounce of his being to get our noses and our hearts deep into the text. And I remember early in his ministry he invited the congregation to turn to a certain portion of Scripture, and all you could hear was the swish of pages turning. John interrupted his sermon and looked up and told the congregation, ‘I love that sound.’ His faithful work in the word formed categories in us for how to know God.”
The Mission(s) Continue
When the evening of thanksgiving and celebration ends, the mission of Bethlehem and the mission of John Piper continue. Pastor Matt Chandler, pastor of The Village Church in the Dallas area, addressed Bethlehem and her future ministry. He opened with an overview of God’s unfolding plan of the gospel, from its beginnings as a promise to Abraham to its spread among the Gentiles, then from the unfolding work of God in Church history to its spread into the Twin Cities. The mission of Bethlehem is rooted in God’s globally unfolding plan traced back to Abraham, and the mission continues.
“Dr. John Piper is a magnificent man, spotted by sin and weakness, but redeemed and loved by God,” Chandler said. “He is not your savior, he has never claimed to be your savior. When it's all said and done, he's not even your guiding light. He was a gift from God for 33 years. And in the world there are plenty of people, even now, who are indifferent to the majesty of God and the mission that has been laid before you week in and week out for 33 years. And our God has called us into what He most certainly will accomplish. Your race is not over, and John's race is not over.”
Sam Storms, the pastor of Bridgeway Church in Oklahoma City, addressed Pastor John and his future, challenging him to remain steadfast and offering a vision for the only way he will succeed in his latter years. “My charge to you, John, is not that you do anything differently,” Storms said. “My prayer for you is not that you slow down your pace, or diminish your productivity. My charge is simply that for the sake of the glory of God as revealed in the face of Jesus Christ and for the sake of all his people, please, stay the course, finish the race, end well. My prayer, my plea, is that God might strengthen you in the inner man so that you may not wane or weaken or diminish your commitments to these truths, that you not lose your zeal or your energy or your voice in making known those majestic theological principles for which you have become widely known. My prayer is that you find yourself loving Christ more and believing his word more and proclaiming God's sovereignty more and praying for the lost more. I suppose my preeminent desire for you — my singular request of you — can be reduced to one thing: give us more. I don’t think any of us here tonight want you to do anything radically new or unexpected; we just want you to continue to do what you’ve always done, only deeper, more passionately, more joyfully, more zealously, more unapologetically, and more widely in the world than you have been able to up until now.”
To this end, Storms applied Psalm 73:28. “John, seek to be near your God. Let nothing come between the two of you — not work, or fame, or a writing deadline, or travel, or criticism from your enemies or praise from your friends. Above all please seek to be near your God. Make him your refuge, so that you may tell of all his works. It is from that place of quiet, abiding, prayer-filled, and reflective intimacy with your God that you will increase in the joy of your salvation. It is there you will see more clearly, and understand more profoundly than ever before, the truth that begs to be made known. That is the only way you can avoid wasting your remaining years.”
The evening drew to a close with Pastor John and Noël offering thankful responses to the church for the evening and for their many years together. Noël reflected on the paralleled growth of her family and growth of the church. As she looks to the future she shared a friend’s advice, “Retired? No! Re-fired,” and asked for the church’s prayers for the next chapter of ministry.
Pastor John followed by honoring the church and voicing his unworthiness for the calling to be their pastor. “My joy in knowing and serving and feeding and leading you has been all the greater when I have felt the most clearly and deeply my unworthiness of the amazing gift that you are.” He then asked them to forgive his pastoral weaknesses. “In ten years you will hear a sermon from Jason on the Christian ministry, and your first response is going to be, ‘Yes, that’s true.’ And your second thought will be, ‘Pastor John wasn’t very good at that.’ And in advance of those experiences in the years to come, I’m asking for your forgiveness.”
He then honored Noël. “I want to thank God for my wife and honor her as I leave this work. She did not sign up for this,” he said. “When she married me 44 years ago she thought she was falling in love with a medical doctor. The vow she took on December 21, 1968 at our wedding was to be a faithful and supportive wife, for better or for worse. And never once in 33 years of pastoral ministry has she even hinted that she wished that I would leave this work. Never has she spoken ill of you as a people. If I saw only darkness — which happened from time to time — she would point me to the light. Noël, it is not an overstatement, but an understatement, to say this ministry would not have been possible without you.”
Pastor John then closed with his highest tribute. “Lastly, I want to pay the highest tribute to my Lord and my Savior, and the supreme treasure of my life, Jesus Christ. Only because he died in my place, only because he rose again from the dead, triumphant over death and hell and sin and Satan. Only because he reigns at the Father's right hand tonight and has been reigning all these 33 years, sovereign over every maverick molecule in the world so there are no maverick molecules. Sovereign over the psychological brainwaves in everybody’s heads, sovereign over the devil and demonic forces. Only because he died for me and rose for me and rules for me has there been anything of value accomplished in my life. He will bring the secret things of the heart to light at the last day. There is only one person together with the Father and the Spirit, who knows my heart and yours, and that is Jesus Christ. You're just guessing in these tributes. He’s not.”
“Here I lean on Jonathan Edwards’s farewell sermon. You and I will meet again at the last day and we will give an account, not only for every idle word before the judge of the universe, but for all the motivations of the heart that will at that day be made plain for the first time in history. So beware of judging before the time. You don’t know me, and I don’t know you, finally. We make our best judgements and we pay our tributes appropriately. Jesus knows us. And because he died for us and rose for us and reigns for us, because there is blood and righteousness, the chiefest of sinners may, with lionhearted boldness, say, ‘There is not now, and there will not then be, any condemnation.’ This is what we live by. Our only hope as a church, our only hope as a family, is to live by that kind of grace and mercy.”
“So I conclude with the words of the Apostle Paul from 2 Timothy 4:17–18: ‘But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.’ And amen.”
The church responded with a lengthy standing ovation before the Bethlehem elders gathered to pray and to recommission — to re-fire — John and Noël for their future work ahead.