The last chapter of life is not retirement. No, something greater is to come. We need to start planning for something far beyond the reach of our 401(k) plans. It’s a suitable word from John Piper to upper-class Americans, and to prisoners serving life sentences at Angola, the largest maximum-security prison in the US.
That’s the setting for today’s clip: Angola, a Louisiana maximum-security prison home to 6,300 inmates — “only murderers, rapists, armed robbers, and habitual felons. The average sentence is 88 years, with 3,200 people in one place serving life sentences. Ninety percent of the inmates will die here” (Decision Magazine, “Violence to Peace”).
John Piper traveled to Louisiana and preached in Angola’s chapel on November 19, 2009. About eight hundred prisoners packed in to hear a message on John 6, on Jesus’s feeding of the five thousand and his walk on water. “I preached with all my heart to those who could fit in the chapel,” Piper recounted later. “I pulled no punches.” Hundreds of other prisoners heard the sermon through closed-circuit television, including those on death row, like Gerald Bordelon, a convicted rapist and child murderer we met in episode 1445.
Piper pulled no punches. And the result is one of my all-time favorite sermons. Here’s a closing clip from that Angola sermon, and Pastor John’s final spoken pleas to Gerald. Have a listen.
Let me just say a word about John 6:27. It’s so important. The Father has set his seal on Jesus. I think that means God sent Jesus into the world. He ordained for Jesus to live a spotless life — no sin. He sent his Son to the cross to die for our sins. He raised him from the dead and vindicated that perfect work of substitution and redemption. He raised him to his right hand. He’s going to send him again. In that great redemptive work, by which our sins are covered and we’re clothed with Christ’s righteousness, God sealed his Son as the Son of Man and the only qualified Mediator between God and man who can give eternal life.
So, the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, gives eternal life, because the Father said, “That’s who he is. That’s my Son. I sent him for that. He accomplished it perfectly.”
Labor of Faith
Secondly, John 6:27 says, in the second phrase there, “Work . . . for the food that endures to eternal life.” Labor for the food that endures to eternal life. That sounds terrible. Why does that sound terrible? You can’t labor for eternal life; it’s a gift!
Well, what does Jesus mean? When you read the Gospel of John, you bump into things like this all the time — Jesus seems to say the opposite of what he means. But he doesn’t leave you in doubt very long. You just keep reading. So let’s keep reading.
The answer is given in John 6:28–29. After he said, “Work . . . for the food that endures to eternal life,” the crowd responds: “Then they said to him, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’” (John 6:28).
In essence, the people are saying, “So you’re telling us to labor. Tell us what works to do.” This is classic salvation by works — false. They’re asking, “Okay, you said, ‘Labor for the food that endures to eternal life.’ We’re asking you, just like the rich young ruler when he came, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus now gives the answer in verse 29: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” He turned the table upside down. They were working and working and working to seek him, have him, because he was useful to them. To make a point, he says, “Don’t seek me that way. You want to seek me in labor for bread? Labor for the bread that endures to eternal life.” He hooks them with that, and they say, “Okay, what’s the labor?” And he says, “The labor is faith. The labor is stop laboring. The labor is stop working and trust me.”
It’s like, “I’m standing here as the bread of life.” This is Jesus talking. “I’m standing here as the bread of life freely offering myself to you. I’m going to lay down my flesh for the world.” Jesus says that later in verse 51. “I’m standing here as the bread of life. I’m standing here as gold, and silver, and treasure, everything you’ve ever needed. I am for you, and I’m free.” And they’re saying, “What do we have to do? What do we have to do? What’s the deed we have to do to have you?”
He would say, I think, “If I don’t look to you as a treasure” — are you listening, Gerald? “If I don’t look to you as a treasure, if you don’t see me as a treasure, no amount of work is going to make me precious to you.”
Next Stop: Heaven
Paul said, “I count everything as loss” (Philippians 3:8). Now, you guys have lost so much. You’ve got such a head start here, if God would just grip you with this. Paul says,
I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord . . . that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:8, 10–11)
Next stop after Angola: heaven — if he’s precious, if he’s precious beyond anything in this world that you’ve already had to lose. When you eat of the bread of life, you get eternal life — that is, a new chapter is added to your life. Angola is not the last chapter. It’s the next-to-last chapter. Eternity is the last chapter, and it lasts forever, and it is infinitely happy.
So many Americans work their fingers to the bone to have twenty years of so-called “retirement,” thinking retirement is the last chapter. It isn’t. It’s the next-to-last chapter. Too many of us have this little, puny, fragile hope that as an old, wrinkled, aching, aged person you’re going to go golf somewhere for twenty years or go fish somewhere for twenty years. But instead, you can have absolute certainty — all of us — of an everlasting cabin by the lake with Jesus, an everlasting ocean cruise with Jesus, an everlasting evening by the fire with a good book and Jesus.
Now, you men don’t dream that way like most Americans or even the people in my church, and that’s very good. I hope all that dreaming that you thought you might have one day shifts onto the last chapter. I’m going there real quick. Mary, in my church, will be there in two weeks maybe, and Gerald, you’ll be there soon too.
Fall in Love with Jesus
This life is very short, brothers, very short. It may seem long. It’s short. And eternity, it’s really long. It’s really long, and it’s really good — ten thousand times will you be rewarded for every kind deed you ever do, every act of faith that ever comes forth from you.
I think my closing admonition, brothers, is this: it’s free. Christ died in our place. He rose again from the dead. He lived a life of perfect righteousness. He stands freely available to everyone who will have him and stop working for him, and to everyone who will start eating the bread of heaven, and finding him to be more precious.
I said to Gerald this afternoon, who won’t live out next year probably, “What I would like you to do is to open your Bible, but not because reading your Bible saves you. We’re not into working here. Open your Bible to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and just get to know Jesus better every day, so that when you meet him, there won’t be too many surprises. Fall in love with him, Gerald. Fall in love with him now. You need to love him now, know him now, trust him now.”
And I would say that to all of you. I’d say it to me. My task on this planet is to eat the bread of heaven and be satisfied and overflow for others.
So moving. Pastor John promised to write follow-up letters, and he did, two sent in December 2009.
“O Gerald, I want to see you in heaven with Jesus,” Piper wrote. “I want to see his glorious grace magnified in your salvation. It does not depend on your merit. Or your worth. Or your good deeds. Or the quality of your piety. It depends on whether you see Jesus as what you need and want more than anything and freely receive him. It is possible, because of Jesus, that in the very moment you die at the warden’s side you will be in the presence of Jesus. But it is also possible that you will be in hell. The difference will not be whether you are guilty of sin and crime. The difference will be whether you received Jesus as your guilt-bearer. He suffered immensely as the Son of God so that your crimes could be wiped out. He lived a perfect life so that his perfection could be counted as yours. Be amazed at this. I love you and plead with you to turn to Jesus every day. Not just once. Turn to him every day. . . . I want to see you in heaven. It won’t be long till I get there. Affectionately, John Piper.”
In the next letter, Pastor John said, “You shed innocent blood. That’s true. And that is why God shed the infinitely precious innocent blood of his Son Jesus — so that you and I could be forgiven. Gerald, I love you and want to see you again with Jesus in heaven. Trust him. Trust him.”
Is Gerald in heaven or hell? It’s not clear. What we do know is seven weeks after Piper’s sermon, Bordelon was executed. On January 7, 2010, he was led into Angola’s lethal injection chamber wearing a white T-shirt and a gold cross necklace from his daughter. Witnesses say Bordelon’s eyes were red-rimmed from crying, as he haltingly said his final words: “I’d like to apologize to my family and tell them that I love them.” He was strapped down and IVs were inserted in his arms. Three drugs put him to sleep, stopped his breathing, and stopped his heart. All quickly. A moment later, Warden Cain said, “We now pronounce Gerald Bordelon dead. We’ve sent his soul for final judgment.” To this day, Bordelon remains the last prisoner to be executed in Louisiana.