Getting at the Heart of God-Focused Ministry, Session 6

North Hills Community Church

Taylors, SC


The following is a lightly edited transcript.

If you want four pegs on which to hang this message, let me give them to you from the outset here, and then you may be able to follow me better as I go along. I have not forgotten the promise that I made last night about trying to answer the question at the end and so it will come, but not at the beginning.

  1. Darkness under God — or you could say the darkness of suffering under God
  2. Joy in God
  3. Love from God
  4. The beauty of God

Those are the four pegs: the darkness that we often walk through under God, sustained by the joy of God, mediated to us through the love that comes from God, upheld and given joy by the beauty of God. So my aim tonight is to summon you and to help you take your share of suffering, under the mighty hand of God, sustained by joy in God, flowing through love from God, manifest in the beauty of God and all that he is for us in Christ. Let’s take these one at a time, and I hope to make clear as we go along how this relates to last night.

1. Darkness Under God

First, take your share of suffering under the mighty hand of God. Hebrews 11 is a chapter that we get really excited about, until we get to verse 35, because it seems so successful. And then comes this terrible moment in the text. I’m just going to start reading about what happens to people of faith. You know this is the great faith chapter.

They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated — of whom the world was not worthy — wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

My first observation is that these people are full of faith. They do not experience what they’re going through because of the absence of faith in their life. They walk through these things. They are sawn in two. They are killed with the sword. They are stoned. They are stripped naked. They hide in caves and thus are vindicated by their faith. Baloney to the health, wealth, and prosperity movement. (Baloney is an understatement for your weakness’ sake.)

The second observation I have about these folks is that they were a gift to the world. That little parenthesis there in verse 38 — “of whom the world was not worthy” — what does that mean when you say, the world is not worthy of somebody? It means they’re a gift that the world didn’t deserve. God gave these people in this condition to the world for a reason, and the world doesn’t deserve these kind of people. People of faith who suffer to display the superior value of their God over worldly comforts, the world does not deserve them. And I want you to be one. I’m going to call you to be that.

Third observation, or really, a question about this text: Should our missionaries come home now? Jesus didn’t come home. Maybe. Maybe not. He didn’t come home. He died. Therefore, take your share of suffering. That’s peg number one: darkness or suffering in the caves, unclothed, beaten, sawn in two, killed with the sword, because your faith is so strong — not weak. They gained approval by their faith — people of whom the world was not worthy.

2. Joy in God

Peg number two: take your share of suffering under the mighty hand of God, sustained by joy in God. Now let’s just stay in Hebrews here. Most people have this crazy notion that Hebrews is “the Melchizedek book,” and then shut it. “You can’t understand Hebrews. It’s too complicated, with too many Old Testament allusions. This is not a very practical book. Besides, what we want are radical Christians, not Old Testament experts.” That is folly.

Better Possession

In Hebrews 10:34, here’s the situation: Some are in jail. Some of them are not thrown in jail yet. Some who are not in jail decide to risk their lives and their property to go visit those who are in jail. Here’s how they did it:

You had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.

So they have a little prayer meeting: “Some of our brothers and sisters are in jail. There’s no food in jail. They’re going to starve. Let’s take them food. But if we take them food, they’ll know that we’re connected and that we probably believe what they believe, and they might arrest us too. And we have kids and we have houses.” And they went, and their houses did get plundered and seized. How did they accept it? Joyfully.

Does that make your spine tingle? Does that make you want to be free from the American bondage to prosperity and materialism and consumerism? Don’t you want to love Jesus at such a depth and with such a satisfaction that when you take a risk to do a right thing, and your house gets plastered with “We hate Christians,” or stones come through the window, or your car gets burned or rocked and you’re maybe in it with your two little boys, you want to sing, “Let good and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still. His kingdom is forever.” “Let’s go. Come on!” That’s chapter 10.

Greater Wealth

Let’s go to Hebrews 11:26. There are others we could go to.

[Moses] considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.

That’s just like those saints in 10:34. They knew they had a better and lasting possession, and that’s how they could rejoice in the plundering of their property. Now here’s Moses, counting abuse as wealth. These are strange people. Christians are inexplicable people, aren’t they? Do they look inexplicable here in Greenville? Or do they look like everybody else? Does anybody ask you about the hope that you have because it doesn’t look like you’re hoping in all the same stuff they’re hoping in? Retirement, nice cars, nice houses, nice clothes, nice long vacations. Does anybody ask you, “What are you hoping in? Who is your treasure? Well, Moses had a treasure: “for he looked to the reward.” The joy out there streamed back into the present and freed him to embrace abuse as well. Oh, to be strange. Don’t you want to be weird? Don’t you want to be weird? That’s chapter 11.

Joy Set Before Us

Looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:2)

If you needed any vindication for this motive of Hebrews 10:34 or 11:26, now you’ve got the warrant from the Son of God motivated the very same way. How did he endure the cross? It’s a screaming torment. How did he endure the shame? He was naked, spit upon, and had his beard pulled. There was laughter and women and men standing all around. It was a horrid moment. He could have called legions of angels to vindicate himself. How did he make it? Answer: joy set before him.

How are you going to make it? Have you got such a clear vision of a superior satisfaction coming your way irreversibly that you can endure the cross, that you can take it on your back and follow him on the calvary road? That’s chapter 12. Are you picking up a theme?

Lasting City

Let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.

This is what the book of Hebrews is about, folks. If you don’t get Melchizedek, get the main point. The main point is: “Let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured.” How are you going to do that? How are you going to move away from comfort toward need? That’s what Christians do. Christians move from comfort to need, from security to need. Christians don’t do what Americans do. Christians don’t get their lifestyle from advertising. They get their lifestyle from Jesus.

The warrant and ground and motivation and strength is: “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. Hebrews 10:34; 11:36; 12:2; 13:14 — there’s no doubt what this book is about: it’s to summon you to bear your share of suffering for the joy in God that is set before you. Therefore, your biggest agenda in life is to be happier in God than in your family, or sex, or money, or job, or leisure, or computer games, or friends, or A’s on tests, or anything else. That’s your main job. It’s a heart-work, folks. This isn’t just a list you check off. We’re into absolutely, radically transformed hearts that are so raptured with Jesus Christ, they let everything go and walk with him away from comfort, away from security, toward Calvary.

Oh, how many people use the cross to solve their sin problem and say nothing about their lifestyle! Half a cross we want, just make me feel good about my sins, so that I can know I’m forgiven. Period. The cross is a call: “Come on, outside the city, bearing abuse with him. Let’s go. Let’s not come home when the war starts; let’s go when the war starts.” How’s the Great Commission going to be done if everybody flies for safety as soon as the bombs start dropping?

What is God up to in our day? Nobody knows. But it’s just glorious. It’s glorious. Who would have thought in 1938 and into the 1940s when China evacuated Christian missionaries — “kill them all, get them out”; what a defeat for the kingdom — that God might produce eighty million Christians. You don’t ever know what God is up to. God is doing ten thousand times a thousand things every minute of every day you never dreamed for his glory. Our job is to get on board. That’s peg number two.

3. Love from God

Peg number three is: take your share of suffering under the mighty hand of God, sustained by joy in God, which is a joy flowing through love from God — flowing through love from God. If future joy is to stream back into the present, and sustain your radical willingness to suffer for Christ, that joy has to be better and more durable than everything life offers.

What is it? What is better than life? Psalm 63:3: “Your steadfast love is better than life.” The crisis at this moment in this room right now is whether you love that statement and believe it with all your heart. Do you love, embrace, cherish, treasure, delight in, depend on, rest in, cleave to, hope in the steadfast love of God as more precious to you than your life? That’s why you’re here tonight: to move into that arena.

What about more durable? It’s better, but is it more durable? It’s got to be more durable. I mean I don’t want just a ground of joy that is really satisfying for eighty years and then nothing for eighty million ages. Who cares about that? Who cares about eighty years of ecstasy and after that misery for eternity? Not me. I want something that is better than what the world offers and more durable than what the world offers. What’s that?

I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38–39)

The love of God in Christ Jesus is more durable than life and death. Anything the world can offer, the love of God is more durable. Anything that death can take, the love of God is more durable. It’s better. It’s more durable. I will have it. I will prefer it. I will love it. I will cherish it, and if my heart grows cold and begins to wander and drift, I will fight with every fiber of my being to hold fast to the love of God and to cleave to him and to plead with him not to let me go, just like it says I should in Philippians 3:12: “I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”

4. Beauty of God

That leaves one last peg: if it is love flowing to us from God in Christ that brings us our joy — better and more durable than anything the world has to offer — what is it bringing us? What is the love of God, the disposition of God to be for us bringing us? What is mediated to us through the love of God?

That’s peg number four: the beauty of God, or the biblical word, the glory of God. All that God is for us in Jesus is carried to us. Take your share of suffering under the mighty hand of God, sustained by joy in God, flowing through the love of God, manifest in the beauty of all that God is for you in Christ.

Radical God-Centeredness

Now here we are where I promised you I would bring you last night. The problem that was created in last night’s message was how God’s self-exaltation could be loving, because the Bible says, “Love does not seek its own” (1 Corinthians 13:5 NKJV). I spent all of last night saying God does everything to seek his own glory. Now, I gave the answer to that this afternoon from one kind of text, and now I’m going to try to answer it with this group with another kind of text. This is the hardest thing for Americans to get, or Westerners, or anybody who’s fallen, and therefore self-centered. God’s beckoning us to praise him, God’s doing everything he does to magnify his glory, which doesn’t put us at the center but puts him at the center, Americans cannot feel that as love, because for forty years, we’ve been taught a definition of what it means to feel loved utterly at odds with this view.

Test yourself to see if you’re mainly American or mainly biblical. Do you feel more loved when God makes much of you, or do you feel more loved when God mightily, mercifully enables you to enjoy making much of him forever? Which one causes you to feel more loved? When he makes much of you, thus putting you at the center, or when he enables you to see and savor his glory and enjoy making much of him forever?

Test yourself. You have been taught in public school, you have been taught in Christian schools, you have been taught in secular curricular and evangelical curriculum that being loved means being made much of. (I could put some technical words on it that would make bells go off immediately, but there’s no reason getting people more upset than they already get who have been schooled this way — as everybody in this room has been, including me.) We need to take a bath in the Bible from the twentieth century, from the Enlightenment, from the fall. We need a bath of God-centeredness, which I’ve tried to give you last night — and for some it felt like acid, not love.

Illness for the Glory of God

Now here I am, trying to explain why God’s God-centeredness and his summoning you to join him in a radically God-centered life is the most loving thing he could possibly do for you. To do that, I invite you to turn in your Bibles to John 11. This is the last group of texts I want to look at with you. You know the story. Lazarus is sick. He has a sister, Martha; and a sister, Mary. Jesus loves this family. What we read in verses John 11:1–6 is absolutely mind-boggling when it comes to defining love. Ask yourself while I read this now: What is the love of Christ?

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. (verses 1–2)

Now stop right there and make sure verse 2 sinks in. That hasn’t happened yet in the book of John. That’s going to happen later in the book of John. Why does he say that here? The reader doesn’t even know what he’s talking about the first time through. What are you talking about, John? We’ll find out later in the book. He felt obliged, I believe, to say this to underline the fact that Jesus loves these people. He really loves Mary. Mary was the one who got down on her hands and knees, anointed him, took her hair, and wiped his feet. When is the last time anybody did that for you? Never. It’s here to endear these two so that you know that when Jesus does what he’s about to do, which is one of the most hard things he ever did, it’s not because he didn’t love her, but because he did love her. Now this is going to be said twice more, watch it.

So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” (verse 3)

There it is. They’re pulling his heart strings here. You love him. You love him. This text is about love. This text is about love.

Can This Really Be Love?

But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” (verse 4)

Now stop right there. Let’s make sure we get the setting. Is this text about love or is this text about the glory of God? Answer: yes. Which is why it is the answer to last night’s problem. Are you with me? At least we’ve got the data in front of us. This text is about love, and Jesus says this sickness is about God. It’s about God. It’s about his glory and my glory. This is a teamwork between the Father and the Son to get glory for the Father, glory for the Son. This is the massive self-exaltation of Christ and the self-exaltation of God that I tried to press on you last night, and it’s all about love. How does love act when the glory of God is the issue?

Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. (verse 5)

John doesn’t want you to miss the point here. That’s the third time we’ve seen this. Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. There’s no doubt about it: love, love, love, love is driving Jesus here, which makes verse 6 unintelligible.

So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

The word so is all-important. John is saying, “Therefore, because he loved Martha, because he loved Mary, because he loved Lazarus; therefore, when he heard that he was sick, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was and let him die intentionally.” That is a strange way to love somebody.

Now, to make sense of that, you have to ask last night’s question: How does the glory of God and the glory of the Son relate to love? This sickness was all about God’s glory. God’s going to get glory. God’s going to get glory here — to which I can hear a typical American, self-centered person saying, “Frankly, I would just like you to heal my brother. Just quit that theological mumbo jumbo of yours and make my brother well. He’s dying. He’s gasping. He’s got pneumonia. I don’t understand it, but it hurts.” That’s the way we talk. “Don’t give me your theology of glory; get my brother well.” And Jesus is not moved. He does not go to heal him.

Is that because he doesn’t love these three? Jesus and John have bent over backwards here to say that is not what’s happening. This is all about love. So what is love? What is love? Here’s what love is: love is God doing whatever he can do, us doing with each other whatever we can do, to bring people into the deepest possible satisfaction in the glory of God and the glory of the Son as we possibly can at any cost. That’s love. Americans don’t feel that. Why? Because we’re so man-centered rather than God-centered. We can’t even grasp the biblical meaning of love.

Don’t Leave God Out

Let me give you an illustration. At our church back in 1996, we crafted our mission statement. We worked a year and a half on that definition. I preached for eight weeks on it. We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples. Somebody came up to me while I was preaching on that and said, “Don’t we want something in our mission statement about the love of God?” What do you think I answered? I answered, “This is the definition of love at Bethlehem.” If you don’t see love here, you don’t understand the Bible.

We exist to spread a passion in Greenville, South Carolina, in this little conference, a passion for the supremacy of God in all the things of your lives for the joy of all peoples. If I succeed in doing that when I’m here, I have loved you, whether you feel it or not, because there’s nothing more satisfying than God, nothing more glorious, more precious and more valuable than the beauty and the glory of God. You were made for nothing less than God. If I could kindle all your passion for God, I would have brought you not only your ultimately satisfying treasure, but I would have been an instrument of quickening, in your own soul, a delight enabled by the Holy Spirit. And when those two come together, you will have arrived at infinite joy and satisfaction. If that isn’t love to you, you will never know love.

We have simply bought into a definition of love that can just leave God out. We say, “Just make much of me. Just make much of me, and I’ll be loved.” Don’t settle for that. Don’t settle for that. Now, I wonder if you think that interpretation of these six verses is overdone. Lest you do, let’s go to another text.

See Him in Glory

Let’s go to John 17:24 to underline what we just said. Here’s Jesus praying the High Priestly Prayer. I hope I do not need to argue for the fact that this is a loving prayer, because Jesus is a loving savior. “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1). Part of loving them to the uttermost was praying for them in John 17, and the climax of the prayer for his people, for you, in John 17 is in verse 24. Listen to what he asks for you.

Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

What does he ask for you? That you might be with him in glory. Why? To see him. To see him in glory. Now, nothing could be more self-centered for Jesus to say, “You get to see me — me.” If I talked like that, you’d walk out. You’d hate that, and rightly so. Do you know why? John Piper’s a loser. He’s a sinner. He’s finite, and Jesus alone is the infinitely valuable treasure of the universe, who alone can say, “Look at me,” and be loving when he says it. If I say it — “Look at me” — I’m cruel because I’m deflecting attention from him. If he says it — “Look at me” — he’s loving because he’s deflecting attention from me and everything else in your life that will let you down in the end.

He loves you. He loves you. He loves you, and therefore he will not let you be self-centered. He will not let you believe that being loved is being made much of. He will insist that being loved is making much of him forever because that’s the only satisfaction in the universe forever and ever and ever. That’s my answer to last night. I can’t do it any better. If you don’t get it now, you probably aren’t going to get it from me. You’ll have to get it from somebody else.

Give Me Jesus

I’m going to close by connecting now back to suffering, and then we’ll stop. Because I’m calling you to take your share of suffering, under the mighty hand of God, sustained by joy in God, mediated by the love of God, and the object of that — what comes to us in the love of God — is God’s glory himself, his beauty, which satisfies our soul as we spend an eternity making much of him.

Now here’s the connection with suffering. I have two texts in mind: 2 Corinthians 1:9 and 2 Corinthians 12:9. In 2 Corinthians 1:9.

We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:8–9)

What’s he saying? He’s saying, “There was a purpose in my coming right to the brink of the grave. There was a purpose, and the purpose was that I might no longer rely upon myself, but on God who raises the dead.” God’s purpose in your suffering is God-reliance, not health-reliance; God-reliance, not family-reliance; God reliance, not physical-pleasure-reliance. God’s purpose in your suffering is God-reliance.

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses. (2 Corinthians 12:8–9)

Now here we are at the dividing line. Are you going to say, “I don’t care about you magnifying your power; I’m tired of this pain. Quit thinking about yourself, Jesus, and think about me!” Are you going to say that? Jesus says, “I’m not taking your thorn away because my power — my power, my power — will be made perfect in your pain and your weakness. Do you feel loved at that moment? Most Americans don’t. They don’t. Why? Because Christ is not all. Christ is not central. Christ is not their treasure. They have absorbed a man-centered, self-centered view of the universe and Christianity that makes that unintelligible as love. I’m here tonight to plead with you, that is love.

Whatever Jesus has to do to perfect the beauty and the value of his perfection and power in your life is a loving thing for him to do. Whatever he can do to wean you off of your dependence on physical pleasure and family and job and retirement and nice things, whatever he has to do to get you to embrace him alone and his power and his justice and his goodness and his grace and his beauty as your all in all, so you can say, “To live in Christ and to die is gain” — whatever he has to do to bring that about — is love.

Please, please pray about this. Greenville could be absolutely shaken if this many people believed that and lived that. America is filled with culturally shaped, nominal believers called evangelicals and fundamentalists and liberal Protestants and Catholics, all of whom are more shaped by the culture than they are by these texts and by this God-centered radical vision of what love is. I just plead with you, pray about your soul. Pray about your marriage. Pray about your children. Pray about your life.

Finishers (I mean people like me, fifty-five and above) pray about your future. Dream a dream with me. Some people my age are starting to coast into golf, when they ought to be buying discounted senior-citizen tickets to Pakistan for a couple of reasons: it’s cheap, and death by the sword is better than Alzheimer’s.

Young people, I love you. I’m glad I’m fifty-five. I’m old enough to be the father of everybody under thirty, so I talk like a father now when I go places. Nothing — O God — nothing would make me happier than for my Abraham to die for Jesus tomorrow, because he’s not walking with him. I would give anything if he would be killed for Jesus tomorrow, and not play his music for the devil. Can you say that parents? Are you so happy that your kids are walking with Jesus that you’re willing to let them go?