So we’ve talked about the centrality of God in the heart of the pastor, making the assumption that for God to be central in our heart he has to be central in our joy, he has to be the gladness of our joy, he has to be there permeating the joys in anything else, so that they are all joys in him. And that produces an overflow of love, so that we become more caring and sacrificial shepherds. So in order to be a faithful, loving, lay-down-your-life kind of shepherd, you need to pursue your joy in God all the time and fight like heaven for this joy.
And then, for the centrality of God in our minds and in our thinking, mainly, I simply tackle the fact that the Bible encourages us to use our minds for his word to inform our hearts, our hope, our joy, so that true joy glorifies him. Because if joy is based on something other than truth, then it won’t magnify the true God; it won’t glorify God. The only way our hearts can magnify God is for our hearts to be rooted in right doctrinal understanding of what God is like and what he does in the world. Therefore, I put a huge premium of getting our understanding of the Bible as right as we can and articulating what the Bible says about Christ, says about salvation, says about God accurately and building that into our people’s lives, so that they have solidity in their lives. And when the waves break over them or the craftiness comes after them, they stand — they stand.
So I find the dumbing down of the church and the absence of doctrine unfortunate. If you go to church-planting assessment centers and the like, for too many it is standard operating procedure that doctrine divides and doesn’t grow churches, and other things do, which I think is an assault on Scripture.
I think the Bible is intended to be understood coherently, and if you think you can preach to real, ordinary, down-to-earth, commonsense people without connecting a verse in chapter 5 and with a verse in chapter 6 and with a verse in chapter 7, you’re wrong. You will be training them to think badly about the Bible if you don’t put the pieces together for them. They see the pieces that need to be put together. You can numb them over years to the possibility that it could be done, which diminishes the Bible, and you can numb them to the desire that it be done, which makes them non-truth-based people who base their joy in other things. So you set the example, you set the pattern, and you can train them very badly in how they live their lives.
We closed on that note of Paul’s repeated use of “Do you not know?” which assumes in Paul’s mind that if you knew rightly, you wouldn’t be acting like you. So knowledge for Paul is very powerful, and I think what makes it powerful is when the first session and the second session come together the way they are supposed to.
So now what’s left to do is to think a little bit together about preaching and how the centrality of God in our hearts and the use of the mind in promoting that kind of centrality will produce preaching that makes God central.
Christ at the Center
But let me put in a parenthesis here that I’m concerned about. This is not a Christocentric theme, is it? You can see on the documentation and in the way I’m talking that this is a theocentric orientation. The concerns me about me. I did it intentionally, but I need to say something about that because Paul said, “I decided to know nothing among you except Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2), and I talked about that. And you have a right to ask, “Does that concern you? Where’s Christ, where’s the cross, where’s the gospel going to fit into this sequence of messages?” It’s fitting in right here, but the fact that I’m putting it in a parenthesis is warranted, I hope, like this, and you can decide that’s not a good enough warrant, and that will be understandable.
When I look around and see different ways the gospel is being distorted today. I have mentioned health, wealth, and prosperity. I have alluded to those who diminish the substitutionary atonement. One major evangelical (so called) in Britain, in his book, calls substitutionary atonement “cosmic child abuse,” which I think is blasphemous — and he’s a nice guy, really nice, really nice. I mean that’s the danger. He’s on television, he’s on the radio, he represents evangelicals, and he wrote in that book the worst paragraph I’ve read in a long, long time, calling God’s wrath, poured out on his Son to avert it from me, “cosmic child abuse” and scoffed at the doctrine. That concerns me.
The aberrations on justification in our day concern me. New-perspective influences that are undoing the historic understanding of the imputed righteousness of Christ deeply concern me. I’ve written one book. I’m going to write another one. It’s almost done. I’m spending a lot of time on that. I don’t like what’s happening. And many young guys, and maybe some of you in this room, are very enamored by these people. That concerns me.
So the health, wealth, and prosperity “gospel”; rejecting substitutionary atonement; new perspectives on justification; and other pieces are, I think, undermining the gospel. And you would ask me, “Why didn’t you come here and unpack that for us?” And I did a lot of that unpacking in that conference I did the last couple of days.
But here I’m thinking this way: What is it that is wrong in minds and hearts that caused them to read the same Bible I do, with regard to the work of Christ on the cross, and do such a different thing with it? They cancel out wrath and, of course, you don’t need a substitute then, right? If you don’t have wrath, you don’t need a substitute to bear the wrath to take it off of me. They cancel out all kinds of radical-suffering texts so you can have health, wealth, and prosperity. And then you do bizarre interpretations of 2 Corinthians 5:21, in order to get rid of the pillar text for the imputation of sin to Christ and righteousness to us. What’s wrong? What’s going on? One answer is that they come to the gospel with wrong senses of God. God’s not big enough, he’s not weighty enough, he’s not magnificent enough, he’s not full enough in justice and truth and wisdom and power. Texts about his wrath just don’t fit their sensibilities about God.
Spared from Misunderstanding
So you can see where I’m going: I think it’s a theocentric problem that wrecks the Christocentric gospel. It works both ways — I mean, it’s a circle; you can start anywhere in the Bible and get to truth. But my justification for doing with you what I’m doing now, knowing that I love the Lord Jesus and am not talking much about his cross (which is my life) is that if you could carry away a sense of the centrality of God and the affections of the heart and the mind of those created in his image (and now I hope in preaching), that new sense might spare you from misunderstandings of the gospel. That’s my assumption.
We’re not as objective as we think we are. We come to texts very wired by backgrounds and desires and people we like. Some like Piper, some don’t like Piper, and if you like me, then you tend to read a text sympathetically; if you don’t like me, you tend not to. That’s the way we are; all of us are like that. And so, one of the functions of a pastor is to so deal with God that the people, even without fully knowing what’s happening, are picking up a sense of God, a weight of God, a magnitude of God, which, amazingly, removes more obstacles than they even know to the right understanding of texts.
So close that parenthesis. I acknowledge, admit, confess, that this isn’t as Christocentric as perhaps it should be, and I do hope God will not let that damage you in any way, but will, in fact, send you home reading other texts I’m not referring to in ways and with eyes that will make those texts live, in ways that I didn’t say anything about. There may be a few more things to say about that, but that is a burden off of my shoulders.
I have a wild prophecy to make, and I’m not a prophet. I’ve never had any word about the future that I had any confidence would come true, except what I read in the Bible. So don’t put me in that category, but let’s take a stab at it.
Looking back, my assessment of the twentieth century, at least the second half, will go down as the century of the self. And I’m not alone in this. I read things like this and I think that’s probably right. Or you could call in the therapeutic century or the psychological century. The Triumph of the Therapeutic is a book by Philip Rieff, already published in 1966, when I was a sophomore in college. Now, that’s my sense.
You all grew up in this milieu where self-esteem was the gospel that solves virtually every problem: management problems at work, personnel problems at church; marriage problems are self-esteem problems, kid problems are self-esteem problems. It is the mantra of our areligious, psycho-America: fix it with self-esteem. That’s the air we breathe, and I’m deeply thankful that it’s not as thick as it used to be, not even in the secular world, because it’s simply got us nowhere.
What about the twenty-first century? What will this be? Now this is my little prophecy, and it’s crazy, it’s wild, but it just helps me get it a point. I hope, I think, it may be the century of physics and astronomy. Here’s the reason: the human soul was made for majesty: to see and savor and speak and celebrate majesty — namely, God. The human soul can only deal for so long, with any degree of survival, with a house of mirrors in which we keep trying to like what we see. That will only work for so long, until the human soul cries out with all of its might, “I need big. I need big — not me.”
Now I know we’ve got the fall going against this prediction, because what happened in the garden was that the devil was able to persuade Adam and Eve that self was better than God: “Do it your own way. You don’t need to submit here. You can be one of these; you don’t have to submit to one of these. Be. Be that. Be big. Be yourself. You take over.” And they bought it, and we’ve bought it, of course, for two thousand years. It’s the nature of sin.
But there are certain seasons of the insanity of sin where it becomes so ludicrous that the human soul, created in the image of God, can’t take it anymore and tries righteousness — a little bit, little forms, little external forms of righteousness, like astronomy or physics, like the Hubble Telescope taking new pictures of Eta Carinae. It is probably the largest star in our galaxy, and it can be seen with the naked eye, and it is four to five million times brighter than the sun. It just happens to be ten thousand light-years away, so that it doesn’t hurt your eyes at night.
Now there will come a day when human beings hear this sort of thing, and by some wonderful providence, will fall on their faces with pleasurable awe at the thought of it. I walked out of Wayne Grudem’s house the other night after we had a wonderful evening together, and my first thought was, “What does a Phoenix sky look like at nine o’clock at night?” I just wanted to know, because one of the most moving nights of my life was in 1968, when I was driving from Wheaton College in Illinois to Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, non-stop in my gold Fastback Mustang (which if I’d kept, I’d be a millionaire).
In a mountain in Utah, I was so tired, and I thought, “I’ve got to get out and walk.” Because I wasn’t going stop. I was madly in love with Noël and had just left her behind for three months. We were going to get married in three months, and I was in no mood to do anything but get where I was going. So I got out (and I don’t know what highway it was; whatever goes through Utah), and I walked up on the hill so that there were no lights anywhere, and I looked up, and I saw what I had never seen in my life: it was sheets of stars, with light so bright they were, at places, indistinguishable from one another. I had never had majesty in nature come home to me with greater force. There were only one or two other times in my life when it was like that.
Sucked into Self
The century of the self — can you imagine how small that is, how small you are? And you’re being told, “Salvation is for you to like you.” Can you imagine a smaller, more destructive, more unsatisfying gospel, except to insane people?
And I’ll put in another parenthesis here about insane people. We minister two blocks from homes that house people with schizophrenia, all of them on heavy meds, all of them smoke, and all of them carry their hands a certain way. If you live in that kind of a neighborhood you know exactly what I mean. And you know what? They’re all totally wrapped up in themselves. The mark of insanity is the inability for me to get out of myself, and get in you, and treat you in a way as if you had any significance to me at all. And when that ability ceases, and I now have me alone, I go into an institution.
It was a sad century, and evangelicals were baptizing it everywhere and using it in curriculum, sermons, and more. So I hope (I don’t often pray it, but I should) that this would be the century in which, on the way to God, natural theology, providence, and common grace would result in fallen hearts having a new kind of sin — namely, the temptation to idolize the galaxies and not the self. That would be a step closer, I think, though not salvation of course.
Admittedly, pastors don’t hear much preaching except their own, and therefore it’s hard to form judgments expect with tapes and comments from people and television and just random exposures or books. But my burden with regard to preaching has increased tremendously over the years, in that I don’t see the supremacy of God, the centrality of God, the majesty of God, the glory of God, the power of God, the wrath of God as the main thing in lots of pulpits — I hope not yours.
Blasphemy in the Pulpit
And therefore, we come under the condemnation of Albert Einstein, who knew his galaxies well. Here’s a quote from one who knew him, and who wrote this:
I do see the design of the universe as essentially a religious question. That is, one should have some kind of respect and awe for the whole business. . . . It’s very magnificent and shouldn’t be taken for granted. In fact, I believe that is why Einstein had so little use for organized religion, although he strikes me as a basically very religious man. He must have looked at what the preachers said about God and felt that they were blaspheming.
When I read that it really stopped me. I wanted to ask: Would Einstein listen to my preaching and say, “You’re blaspheming.”
He had seen much more majesty than they had ever imagined, and they were just not talking about the real thing. My guess is that he simply felt that religions he’d run across did not have proper respect . . . for the author of the universe.
I think that comes close to what I sense is the problem in the state of preaching in many churches in America. So this man who knew Einstein is basically saying, “Preachers don’t seem to have a sense of majesty that Einstein has seen. He has seen more than they have in nature, and they’ve got not only nature but this holy book that gives better glimpses into the nature of God than that.” The heavens are telling the glory of God, and this book is describing the glory of the cross, and we sound like we’re blaspheming to one who’s only seen galaxies. “Preachers just do not seem to be talking about the real thing,” he said. “Preachers do not seem to have a proper respect for the author of the universe,” he said. “Preachers seem to be blaspheming,” he said. God just doesn’t seem to be coming through.
Entertainment Won’t Work
For those who are stunned by the indescribable magnitude of what God has made (not to mention the infinite greatness of God himself), the steady diet of practical how-tos on Sunday morning, psychological soothing, relational therapy must seem dramatically out of touch with reality. They do to me. I hear some messages, and I say, “But brother, they can get that somewhere else better than they can get it from you. There’s one thing they can’t get anywhere else: Nobody is spending any time trying to build a passion for the supremacy of God into their lives. Would you just do that one thing that nobody else is trying to do? Everybody else can do what you’re doing better than you.”
When people ask me, “What do you think of the entertainment orientation of some churches?” I say, “Well, I don’t want to go there because I know that the world can do that better than I can, and I don’t like coming up second.” Why would I want to be a joking, welcoming pastor every Sunday morning? I heard a tape from a church that did a dialogue welcome, and it was exactly like a morning drive-time radio. You always have two people, a man and a woman, or two men, and they’re just trying to make life funny. It’s so sad. It’s so sad. This is helping me get ready to meet God? I don’t get it. I can’t do that as well as the world can.
These folks are watching plenty of TV. They’re going to think I’m a real stupid idiot if I try to do what the world does so much better than I do. There are things that people desperately need, and if you would use your messages and your demeanor and your welcome and your songs to help them wake up to what they really need, then you wouldn’t make a fool of yourself trying to scratch where they itch. They don’t itch in the right place.
Scientists know that light travels at the speed of 5.87 trillion miles a year, and that speed is called a light-year. And they know that the galaxy of which our solar system is a part is about a hundred thousand light-years across in diameter — about 587 thousand trillion miles across. It’s one of a million such galaxies in the optical range of our most powerful telescopes. In our galaxy, there are about a hundred billion stars in our galaxy, which is one of a million in our optical range. There’s no telling what’s beyond. The sun, which is at the center of our solar system, is, on its cooler surface, six thousand degrees centigrade, and it’s a modest star in the galaxy. Our sun is traveling at about 155 miles per second, which means that it will take about two hundred million years to complete its first revolution around the galaxy.
Now scientists know these things, and they say, “If there is a person behind that who spoke that into being with his word and holds it in being, there should be a certain respect for him, a certain reverence. That joking around, I don’t get it.” These are scientists. “What’s that? That’s TV, that’s radio, but aren’t we here to meet this God and hope we aren’t incinerated about three trillion light years out from the approach?” They know this; we don’t seem to know it.
Then you put with those statistics this text:
To whom then will you compare me,
that I should be like him? says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high and see:
who created these?
He who brings out their host by number,
calling them all by name;
by the greatness of his might,
and because he is strong in power,
not one is missing. (Isaiah 45:25–26)
Brothers, we need to use our minds to blow our minds. We need to use our minds to take a text like that, look up in Utah (not Pasadena where I lived for three years, and I don’t think I saw a star) find them innumerable, read a book, find that enumerable (that’s right: hundreds and hundreds of millions of galaxies in which there are billions of stars), and then say, “He not only made them, he not only holds them in being, but every single one has a name, and his brain is not the least taxed by that — not the least.”
Einstein felt some of this, and his response was, “Preachers are not talking about the real thing.” That’s the impression I get with psychological how-tos that keep people coming back to get their immediate felt needs scratched. If he is who he is just in nature, then he should be supreme in preaching. So the challenge is that we make him that.
So let’s talk for a few minutes about why God’s glory should be supreme in preaching and then how. I’ll give you a sample sermon from the New Testament that shows a stunning God-centeredness, but let me just give you a few more words about the why.
Why God Must Be Supreme in Our Preaching
I got a phone call years ago from Preaching Today, and I had been making a big deal in those days about the supremacy of God in preaching, and so they said, “We want to do an interview.” I said, “Okay, we can do an interview.” “First question: Why do you think God should be supreme in preaching?” And out of my mouth, just because of my Edwardsean saturation (and, I hope, biblical saturation) I said, “God should be supreme in preaching because God is supreme to God.”
And they didn’t know what I was talking about. They said, “What do you mean?” “I mean in God’s mind, he is supreme. In God’s heart, he is supreme. He is the supreme value as far as he is concerned. Nothing is more valuable to God then God.” They had never heard anybody talk like that. I mean, that’s just plain; it’s just plain.
God Is No Idolater
The main reason we make God supreme in preaching is because he’s supreme in his own affections, he’s supreme in his own purposes, his own designs, his own mind. And so, I’ve written over and over, chapter after chapter, article after article, book after book, saying one thing: the most God-centered person in the universe is God. That’s all I’ve said for twenty-five years almost, and then trying to figure out its implications for my life, and my family, and my church, and evangelism, and missions, and fasting, and prayer, and on and on. Just what does it imply, God, that the end for which God created the world is God, is joy? Here’s the sentence from Edwards’s book: “The great end of God’s works, which is so variously expressed in Scripture, is indeed but one; and this one end is most properly and comprehensively called, the glory of God” (God’s Passion for His Glory, 246). So not only does he command you, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31), everything he does is to the glory of God. And there are dozens and dozens and dozens of texts in the Bible that show that. Here’s one. This text probably is the most God-centered text in the Bible.
For my name’s sake I defer my anger;
for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you,
that I may not cut you off.
Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver;
I have tried you in the furnace of affliction.
For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it,
for how should my name be profaned?
My glory I will not give to another. (Isaiah 48:9–11)
Those are six hammer blows of God’s God-exaltation. So the answer was a right answer, I believe, on the telephone. Why should preaching have God at the center and make him supreme always in every sermon? Because God is supreme to God always and in every act and in all the books of the Bible. He puts himself at the center; we should put him at the center.
Give thanks to the Lord,
call upon his name,
make known his deeds among the peoples,
proclaim that his name is exalted. (Isaiah 12:4).
God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy. (Romans 9:22–23)
You just can’t miss the main point of that: the end for which God created the world is to display his wrath, display his power, display his glory to the vessels of mercy. God created the world to go public and to display himself in the world as great and glorious. This was Paul’s passion.
Listen to how Paul says it in Ephesians 3:8: “To me this grace was given to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.” I just want to ask every seeker-sensitive person: As you look back over the years (I mean, I feel indicted by this and I don’t feel myself in that category), have you done that?
“I preached the unsearchable riches of Christ.” Have we even seen them? Have we spent long enough meditating on the law of the Lord day and night that riches after riches after riches — innumerable riches — emerge of Christ so that moving down into the self-esteem therapeutic mode becomes impossible for us? We must constantly be lifting Christ, constantly be celebrating Christ, constantly be displaying the wonders of the cross.
To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 3:8–10)
What a mandate: to display the unsearchable riches of Christ; to unfold the plan of the mystery hidden for ages; to display the manifold, many-colored wisdom of God. That is preaching with God at the center, God at the bottom, God at the top, informing our understanding of the cross and all of its glory. Oh brothers, what a calling. You have some time left; stun your people. The unsearchable riches of the Son of God you have not exhausted.
Now that’s enough on the why question: Why think this way, plan this way, preach this way? I’ve got to make God supreme. He’s going to be theme of my life, my preaching, my counseling, my sitting with the elders. I’m going to be a God-supreme person. Prick me, I want to bleed God. I want to have the reputation, as thirty elders sit around the room in my church, if they look to me for my opinion, they get God. They don’t get savvy or cool or whatever I read in the latest book. They can read those books; they’re better businessmen then I am anyway.
They want God from this guy. You go live with God and smell like God — the aroma of Christ. We don’t need any more of this stuff. We bring this stuff, we live with this stuff; we need God here. Pastor, smell like Jesus tonight. Say something about the Bible and about God so that we have a perspective. We can figure out the measurement of parking places, but I want to know what parking has to do with God. Parking has to do with God. That’s your job: What does parking have to do with God — not just savvy, but God.
How to Preach with Power
So now let’s ask (and this is the only other question I have to ask) how. How are you going to do this? Now what should I do at this point? How can I help me and you do that better?
So what I’m going to do is walk you through what probably is the most God-centered sermon in the Bible in Acts 13. Paul is at Antioch of Pisidia in the synagogue. It is an evangelistic message, but it’s evangelism among Jewish people who know the story, so it’s a little bit of both. It’s a little bit of how you talk to unbelievers in preaching, and a little bit of how you talk to people who know a lot of stuff about what you’re talking about, so it’s helpful in both areas. Because we preach, most of the time, to professing believers, with unbelievers coming in among them, we hope, and some of the time it’s mainly unbelievers.
I have this deep conviction that in worship we should be worshiping over the word and exulting in it for the sake of those who believe, and God saves a lot of people that way. Because I think 1 Corinthians 14 implies that if prophetic anointing falls on a pastor in its fullest sense — seeing God for who he is, being granted the capacity with unction to pierce the heart with it — people fall down and say, “God is in this place.” Sometimes they just start crying as soon as they walk in the room.
God Does It All
So let’s walk through this sermon. Now here’s what I want you to see: I hope what happens to you is what happened to me. I just read this sermon slowly a few years ago and was blown away at the Godness of it. So I’m going to go verse by verse and point to that. Now take note that you may see God in the word God, or you may just see him in a pronoun; I’m just pointing to the subject of the verbs, who’s God, God, God, God, God. It is amazing. And then we’ll talk about it for a few minutes when we’re done walking through it.
Acts 13:17: “The God of this people Israel chose our fathers.” It was God who chose Israel from all the people of the earth for his special purposes.
Acts 13:17: “[God] made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt.” It was not natural fertility that made Jews have a lot of babies; God made them grow, he says.
Acts 13:17: “With uplifted arm [God] led them out of [Egypt].” In other words, God flexed his muscles in Egypt. God made the unusual display of power. God meant to be seen as the mighty deliverer.
Have you ever asked why there were ten plagues and not one? If you answer “Because they didn’t respond to the first one,” that’s the wrong answer, because it says before he ever got down there that he’s going to do a lot of them. This is a prophecy. God knows he’s going to do ten before they say no to the first one. God is on a mission to show off his power; that’s the point of the ten plagues with gnats and dust and frogs and locusts and blood in the water. He’s got this planned out: “I’m lifting my right arm to make a name for myself in Egypt.” It’s so clear if you read the whole story together. And Paul calls attention to it.
Acts 13:18: “[God] put up with [Israel] in the wilderness.” Or another old reading with one different letter in the Greek word is: “He carried them” — not bore with but bore; he bore them in the wilderness like a father carries his child. God was guide, sustainer, Father in the wilderness.
Acts 13:19: It was God who destroyed the seven nation in the land of Canaan. Of course, people swung the sword. But Paul wants to stress that God did it, because he knows Proverbs 21:3: “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord.” Of course, they were swinging swords and riding horses, but if they thought, “Our sword got us the victory,” they totally missed it. God did the conquest.
Acts 13:19: “[God] gave [Israel] their land as an inheritance.” He owned it, and he can give it to whomever he pleases, and he gave it to them. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1). He can do with it as he pleases.
Acts 13:20: It was God who gave Israel judges. These rulers didn’t just rise up; the text says God gave them. God raised them up.
Acts 13:21: It was God who gave to Israel her first king, Saul.
Acts 13:22: It was God who removed Saul — just like Daniel says in 2:21: “God changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings.” Paul is drawing attention to that. Saul goes down, David goes up, and that’s all God. Daniel 4:32: “The Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will.” Saul one time, David another time; this is God.
Acts 13:22: God raised up David the son of Jesse. God chose him, a young nobody with sling shot, writing poems, singing songs. God took Saul down, and God puts up this shepherd boy into the kingship.
Acts 13:23: It was God who brought to Israel a Savior, “as he promised.” So he jumped from David to the Son of David. We’ve got a redemptive-historical thing going on here big time as he moves to Jesus. This was not some impersonal force behind the flow of history because it says, notice the phrase, “as he promised.” A very long time ago, this was planned. This is no decision on the spur of the moment. God was promising and God was acting when Jesus came. He set things up like this.
Acts 13:24–25: Here we meet John the Baptist. Now what would you choose to say about John the Baptist if you were preaching to people who had never heard of him? He’s in the synagogue at Antioch of Pisidia. He moved into a part of the story they know nothing about. They knew the Old Testament; they don’t know this. And he quotes John like this, “I am not he. No . . . but after me one is coming, the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie.” So what’s the point? He picks the one thing out of all the things he could have said about John, the one thing that deflects attention away from John to Jesus, to make Jesus central. The sent one, the Son is still central here.
Acts 13:26: “To us has been sent the message of this salvation.” Who’s the actor behind this passive verb? And the answer is: God is. In other words, God didn’t just plan the coming of the Savior; he also planned and sent the message of the gospel that flows from the work of the Savior. He’s sending this message. God’s doing that. You didn’t show up in your church on your own just get ahold of this. God put you there. The Greek word is tithēmi in Acts 20:28: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.” He uses of course all kinds of means but he’s the actor.
Acts 13:27: Paul goes out of his way now (and this is the most remarkable thing so far, I think, to show that he’s on a mission in this text) to show that even people who don’t know what they’re doing are fulfilling prophecy. “For those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets, which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled them by condemning him.”
Now you’ve got to stop here. This is one of these meditation things, and you say, “Why did he point that out? Why did he point out the fact that many actors in and around the cross were fulfilling Old Testament prophecies about the cross and did not know they were? Why would he say that?” I mean, that’s a complicated thought. What’s he up to? Here’s what he’s up to: If all of them knew the prophecies someone might say, “They’re managing it; there’s no divine work going on here, because they read the script, and now they’re doing the script.” And thus God wouldn’t get the credit for the crucifixion; they would — bad or good. And Paul says, “I’m pulling the plug on that one. God did this.” That’s amazing. Peter had said the same thing in Acts 4:27–28:
Truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.
I’ll put in a parenthesis here on the sovereignty of God and people’s stumbling over it. This text that I just quoted, Acts 4:27–28, is a mouth stopper for many people when they’re grappling with the issues of the sovereignty of God. Because I say to them, “Unless you have a category in your brain for God’s willing that sin take place without himself being a sinner, you can’t make sense of the Bible — in fact, you cannot make sense of the cross. Because either God did the cross, and thus bore our wrath, provided our righteousness, carried our sins, purchased our heaven; or somebody else did. And if somebody else did, there is no salvation.
And that’s not a theological inference; that is a quotation of Acts 4:27. Herod, Pontius Pilate, the Jews and the Gentiles — picture them. Herod puts a purple robe on, wants to see a miracle, and mocks him. Pilate is expedient to the core. Gentiles, they drove the nails, the Roman soldiers. And the Jews, they cried, “Crucify him!” and all of them did what God’s “plan had predestined to take place,” and therefore you’re saved brothers. So this issue of the sovereignty of God over the fallen will of man is at the heart of your salvation. If you deny it, you begin to attack the cross. Close that parenthesis.
Acts 13:29: “When they had carried out all that was written of him [so there you have God fulfilling all that was written of him by the actors, some of whom knew what they were doing and some didn’t; Jesus certainly did], they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb.”
Acts 13:30: “God raised him from the dead.” God is the one who raises Jesus from the dead. So Jesus gave up his life freely, and he said, “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (John 10:18). Nevertheless, both this text here and Paul in Romans 10:9 say, “God raised him from the dead.”
So now what do we make of this sermon? Have you ever narrated history that way? Somebody asks, “What’d you do last summer?” and you say, “Well, God took us on vacation, and God gave us a cabin, and God provided us some bikes for the kids, and God kept us healthy, and God gave gave us some beautiful weather,” and you name God thirty times. Do you ever do that? That’s what Paul did here in Acts 13.
I don’t mean you have to preach that way; I don’t mean that. I just mean you have to preach to get the point across in a way that works. This sermon is a kind of illustration of what I mean by God-saturated, God-exalting, God-centered preaching, and that’s what I would summon you to do. We live in an age where this is not believed: that God is supreme in all things, and therefore it’s a superficial age. And I’m so eager for you not to be superficial.
What does it mean to be superficial? I think superficial means that you take an event or an object, and you deal with it in all kinds of ways (some of them very academic and requiring much education), and you never deal with it in relationship to its most decisive origin or sustaining or purpose. Where did it come from? How is it held in being? What’s it here for? I say everything that doesn’t deal with those is superficial. That’s my definition of superficial.
Which means that virtually all the communication media are superficial. The educational enterprises in our land are superficial. They don’t deal with the most important aspects of reality. We deal with math and physics, but if you don’t deal with God, you’re superficial. You’re on the surface of things. You can give a little teeny description of what this universe is like, or what this atom is like, or what this song is like, or what this historical event is like, and here’s this massive God underneath, and massive God above, and massive God holding that there, and he doesn’t get mentioned. I call that superficial. That’s just obvious to me. That is superficial.
Virtually all of the news reports on television are superficial. All history books, almost, are superficial. All public education is superficial. Almost all editorial and news commentary is superficial. All of this because of the incredible, unspeakable, unimaginable, outrageous disregard for God, which we have been so anesthetized by, it does not seem strange. And you’re sitting there thinking this is an overstatement. But I can’t find words to describe the outrage of God’s absence in America. This is his world; it’s his. He owns everything. Every media outlet, he owns it. Every molecule in it is exists for his glory. If you leave the infinite, all-defining, all-controlling, all-pervasive God out of account, all understanding is superficial. When the main thing is missing, what’s left is distorted and superficial, no matter how accurate at one level it may be.
Some people may say, “Good grief, Piper, that’s religion. You want everything to be religious.” I say, “It’s not religion; it’s reality.” To hell with the word religion. I couldn’t care less what you call it. God is God. He made you for himself. He made everything for himself. Everything is from him and through him and to him; therefore, to him be glory consciously (Romans 11:36).
I’ve got to stick in another parenthesis here. A lot of believers, when I push on this with them, say, “We assume God. He’s the foundation of our magazine, or he’s the foundation of our school, or he’s the foundation of our church, so we don’t feel like we have to wear God on our sleeve.” I say, “You know what? I never think about the foundation in my house — ever. I love the kitchen. I like the bedroom a lot. I like my study. You know what? If you remind me, I’m glad the house doesn’t fall down.”
But that is not why God created the world, brothers — to be taken for granted like that. I hate that argument. God went public with creation to be on the agenda as the main thing all the time. That’s why he created the universe. And so, call it religion if you want, but I’ll just call it reality.
What Our Churches Need Most
And my burden for preaching is that preachers call people to this God-centeredness, and you help them with it. You help lawyers with it, and housewives with it, and teachers with it, and brick masons with it. You help them with it to give them some tips of what that would mean for God to be in their bricklaying, their painting. You help them, you think with them, you get down there. And you know it’s hard. You don’t leave them just stuck feeling guilty, and you help them.
Where, I ask you, are our people going to get this if not from you? That’s my closing thought. The world and all kinds of institutions have agendas for our people on how to make their lives better. But there’s one thing they need from you above all: to spread into their lives a passion for the centrality and the supremacy of God. Nobody else is helping them with this. We get one hour, maybe, a week.
Inundated with Temptation
I don’t have a television, so I’m out of it. You can use names of really famous TV stars, and I won’t know who you’re talking about. I’ve got no problem with watching football on TV. Frankly, I borrow TVs sometimes. But I don’t have one, just because that’s one of my weaknesses. So I’m in the Detroit airport, and if you’ve ever been there, they’ve got these gigantic screens up there, and it’s Sunday, and I forget who was playing. And so they were playing, and I said, “Cool, I’ve got ten minutes to watch this. I like good football.”
And probably, out of those ten minutes, six were advertisements. Now the quantity is not the problem; it’s the crap that was in there. And then it hit me: My people are watching this — three hours’ worth. One hour of it, or an hour and a half, is junk. It’s consumerism. It’s materialism. It’s sexual titillation. And I just sat there thinking, “I’m feeling dirty right now. I’m feeling tempted right now. I have thoughts going into my head right now with that neckline and that stuff.” I didn’t want that. I don’t need that. I need God. I’ve got to stay pure for my people. And our people are going there over and over again saturating their minds.
So my point is: Who’s going to help them? Who’s going to help them see God? It’s not television, it’s not most of the books they’re reading, and it’s not the newspaper. They had a little section of our newspaper called “Faith and Values.” I think it’s gone now out of the Minneapolis Tribune, and it was no good anyway because it was every religion under the sun, but at least evangelicals showed up every now and then, and a little bit of truth made its way in. But there’s this massive section called Sports — a whole section of the newspaper in this world that God made and no section called God. What a parable.
So brothers, our job is hard but we’ve got God on our side. We’ve got the Holy Spirit on our side. We’ve got an infallible mighty sword on our side. We don’t have to be retreating in this. But we do have to not try to imitate the world in titillating people and scratching them where they itch. We need to help awaken in them their passion for what they were made for.
Twenty-First Century Revival
Maybe the twenty-first century might prove to be not only the century of the galaxies, astronomy, physics but maybe — wouldn’t it be glorious? — if we were part of God’s move to make it the century of God, an unprecedented move of the Holy Spirit in Phoenix, starting in your little church.
I talked to a brother who said, “We’ve got six believers on our reservation.” I just hugged him and I said, “I love that ministry.” It would be just like God to start there. It would be just like God to start it there, and not one of our big mega-churches. But it’s going to be, if it comes, driven not by signs and wonders — and I believe in signs and wonders. I have no problem with them showing up. I would like them to show up every often when I pray for sick people. It won’t be driven that way; it’ll be driven by truth.
This is why I’ve devoted my life to writing and preaching the way I have. Jonathan Edwards was the main human instrument under God in the first Great Awakening, which stunned this nation, and he chalked it up to five sermons, humanly speaking, one of which was a long, complicated unfolding of justification by faith. It was doctrine, and then the Holy Spirit fell on the tinder.
So brothers, let’s pray together that God might be pleased to do that. Let’s just do our little part to read and cut a straight path in the Bible to inform our hearts, put kindling on the fire, and then say, “Holy Spirit, come down. Put your match here. I have put as much kindling on this soul as I can. Would you now fall?”