Today marks the beginning of an eleven-week series of messages under the banner “Education for Exultation.” If you ask whether we will pick up again our Romans series, the answer is yes, if God gives me life and health in this pulpit. But every ten years or so, there comes a time in the life of our church when some very hard (and often exciting) decisions have to be made about our fundamental commitments and our philosophy of ministry and the stewardship of growth and the possibility of building and the need to pay for that building. All those issues have been on the minds of the elders at Bethlehem for over three years.
One other factor has made the matter more pressing than it would be otherwise, namely, that the building that we affectionately call the “old sanctuary” (where the “gym” and the library and Desiring God Ministries are) is in such a state of disrepair and dilapidation that we must either put lots of money into it to keep what we have or tear it down and build something larger and more useful.
“If God is not sovereign, he is not God, and all our hope is dashed.”
Just to give you a flavor of the kinds of growth issues we are dealing with — since we moved into this sanctuary in 1991, our worshiping congregation has doubled, so that we are pushing 2,000 on Sunday morning and sometimes going over that number, and most of the growth has come in the last three years (55% increase in 1997–1999). The missions budget over that time has grown from about $301,000 to this year’s budget of $850,000 (180%). This is one small indication that God is growing people and not just crowds. In 1996, we had on our rolls about 440 children from birth up through sixth grade and today there are 780 (77% increase). There were about 130 teenagers on the rolls in 1996, and today there are about 200 (54% increase).
Three years of prayer and study and planning has brought us to the point where we want to lay before you a vision that we are calling education for exultation. (That’s e-x-u-l-tation with a “u,” not e-x-a-l-tation with an “a.”) The difference is that “exaltation” means making much of someone — like God — which is a great thing to do; but “exultation” says that and more. When you exult in God, you not only make much of him, you make much of him by rejoicing in him and delighting in him and being glad in him. Exultation adds that emotional element of joy in God that we believe is essential if God is going to be honored the way he should be. Another word for exultation in God is “worship.”
Our thought is that we began the last decade of the 20th century by building for worship — for exultation — and we are proposing that we begin the first decade of the twenty-first century by building for education. And when we thought through the connection between these two — exultation and education — we saw that the aim of all our ministry is true, heartfelt, life-encompassing worship. That is the aim of all we do. So we are calling this vision: education for exultation. Education that aims at a life of God-exalting worship.
Beginning with Our Most Precious Treasure — God’s Sovereignty
My job in the next ten weeks is to unfold this vision as it relates to some of our most precious values. So where do you begin? And my answer is that we begin with our most precious treasure of all: God.
The most fundamental thing we can say about education for exaltation is that it is about God. This vision and this building are about educating children and youth and adults to exult in God. And the most fundamental thing we can say about God is that he is sovereign. So that is where I begin. I begin at the bottom, the root, the foundation of all we cherish, all the grace, all the love, all the patience, all the faithfulness, all the forgiveness, all the security and hope and peace and joy. All these things rest on the deep and glorious sovereignty of God. If God is not sovereign, he is not God, and all our hope is dashed.
So we begin here. Education for exultation is about the sovereignty of God. Where do you turn if you want to exult in that? Answer: turn to the prophet Isaiah. What a vision of God he had! Chapters 43 and 44 are breathtaking in their boast of the absoluteness of God: I! I! I am he, and there is no other god, no other savior, no other rock! I! I! I am the Lord the Holy One of Israel! God’s commitment to being God and being known as God is like a thunderclap in these chapters.
If you have found reconciliation with God through the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, then the sheer God-ness of God — the bare, awesome reality that God is — is one of the most wonderful, staggering, and pleasant things in the world. Isaiah was simply ravished by the thought that God is God. And so am I. And I long to see education happen in our homes and in our church that leads to life-transforming exultation through Jesus Christ in the sheer fact that God is God. I love God. And I love to meditate on the nature of God. I cannot separate the delight I have in God as an infinitely holy and loving Being from the delight I have in him as absolutely sovereign. His being God and his being sovereign are one.
How do we know that? You can see the answer by comparing the last line of verse 12 with its explanation in verse 13. God cries out at the end of verse 12, “I am God! Even from eternity I am he! [Here is what I mean:] There is none who can deliver out of my hand; I act and who can reverse it?” God lifts up the fact that he is God: “I am God!” And then he fills it with its most basic meaning: “I act, and no one can reverse it!”
When he says, “I am God!” (verse 12b), he declares his deity — his God-ness. When he says, “I act and none can reverse it!” he declares his sovereignty. These are not two different declarations. They are one. To be God is to be sovereign; and to be sovereign is to be God. You see it again in Isaiah 45:5–7 where God predicts the coming of Cyrus centuries later. He says,
I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no God. I will gird you, though you have not known Me [speaking of the pagan king Cyrus, long before he was born]; that men may know from the rising to the setting of the sun that there is no one besides me. I am the Lord, and there is no other, the One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the Lord who does all these.
God is at pains to declare that he is God and he alone. And to drive that home through the prophet Isaiah, he is willing to go so far as to claim ultimate sovereign responsibility for all the calamities of the world. “I am the one who forms light and creates darkness, who causes prosperity and creates calamity; I am the Lord who does all these things.” Why does God take responsibility for all the disasters of the world? Because God is God, and that means he is sovereign: he acts and none can reverse it. You see it again in Isaiah 46:9–10:
Remember the former things long past, for I am God, and there is no other; I am God and there is no one like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, “My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all my good pleasure.”
And so here they come together again. “I am God!” And: “I will accomplish all my good pleasure!” Deity and sovereignty.
Why Do We So Deeply Cherish God’s Sovereignty?
As I prepared for this series, I asked again what the deep, central values of my life are. Why, I ask, do I cherish God’s sovereignty so deeply? Why is it the cornerstone of my thought and my preaching and my life? Why do I love to talk about it and meditate on it in the morning and in the evening? The answer I come to again is that without sovereignty there is no true God. Without a sovereign God, there is no God. Don’t miss this great fact: the God of Isaiah is jealous to define himself in terms of sovereignty: “I am God . . . I act and none can reverse it.” “I am God. . . . My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.” That is what it means to be God.
“To be God is to be sovereign; and to be sovereign is to be God.”
Do you see what is at stake here? If we lose the sovereignty of God, we eventually lose God. If the flavor of God’s sovereignty goes out of our conversation — and our education! — deity goes out of our conversation and our education. The sovereignty of God is the cornerstone of life and preaching and education at Bethlehem because God is the cornerstone of life and preaching and education at Bethlehem.
We want to be a God-besotted people. We want our youth to be more entranced by God than by any musical group or any sporting event or any TV or movie hit. We want to be a church where children and youth and adults — single, married, male, female, rich, poor, thinkers, feelers, doers — know God and love God and are filled with all the fullness of God — for who he really is.
How does this happen? How do children and youth and adults inside and outside the church find out about the sovereignty of God and come to cherish it as the foundation of all their hope in God’s grace in Christ Jesus? Does it happen with dreams? Does it happen with mere reasonings about the world?
No, it happens another way. And this bears directly on our vision of education for exultation. It happens because God chooses people to know him and trust him and understand him and then to be his witnesses in a God-denying culture. All that is in verse 10: “You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord, “And my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me there was no God formed, and there will be none after me.”
Notice the words at the beginning of verse 10: “You are my witnesses.” See these words again at the end of verse 12: “‘So you are my witnesses,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I am God.’” The way people will find out about the truth that God is God is not mainly by dreams, or by reasonings, but by a human testimony. Witnesses — people who have seen and tasted now telling. People telling people: God is God. God is sovereign. Then explaining and persuading. Part of what we call education — education for exaltation.
But who is he talking about? He is talking about those whom he had freely chosen from all the people of the earth to know him and to trust him and understand him. You see this in verse 10: “‘You are my witnesses,’ says the Lord, ‘and my servant whom I have chosen, [and what was the aim of the choosing?] in order that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he!’” That is, that I am God. We witness to the existence and deity of God. This is more relevant today than ever in our increasingly non-Christian American culture.
God’s aim is to be known and glorified in the whole world. And how does he pursue this aim? Through human witnesses. And the way he recruits and equips these witnesses is to choose them from among the nations, and then grant them to know and trust Him, and to understand that he is God — that he is sovereign. You are my witnesses, my servant whom I have chosen that you might know me and believe me and understand that I am God.
The Content of the Witness
And what is the content of our witness — whether telling colleagues at work or training our families during devotions or teaching children in Sunday school? What do we witness to? On this side of the cross of Christ, we dare not leave out the message of how God saves through the death and resurrection of Jesus. But the fullness of that gospel, and the surety of that gospel, and indeed the intelligibility of the gospel will hang on the content of the witness commanded in Isaiah 43:10-13.
1. God is God and there is no other. He has no serious rivals in the universe.
Verse 10b: “I am he. Before me there was no God formed, and there will be none after me.” Verse 12b–13: “‘There was no strange god among you; so you are my witnesses,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I am God. Even from eternity I am he.’” We witness to the fact that God is God and there is no other: there never was and there never will be. He is simply absolute, there from all eternity, and never ceasing to be. Every creature will deal with him and render account.
2. We witness that God is sovereign.
Verse 13: “Even from eternity I am he, And there is none who can deliver out of my hand; I act and who can reverse it?” We say that God is God and that this means he acts and nobody can hinder or reverse his actions. This is what it means to be God.
3. We witness to the great truth that God is a Savior — the only great sovereign Savior.
In other words, the sovereignty of God is good news because it supports a sovereign salvation. Verse 11: “I, even I am the Lord, and there is no savior besides me.” Fill that out with the words from verse 13: “Even from eternity I am he, and there is none who can deliver out of my hand.” In other words, when a sovereign God saves you and commits himself to your salvation by choosing you to know and believe and understand him, then you cannot be lost. No one can take you out of his hand.
“If we lose the sovereignty of God, we will eventually lose the gospel.”
This is the gospel that we preach at Bethlehem. This is the education that we want to build for in the coming year. The reason we have a gospel — good news for sinners — is that God’s gracious, saving purposes in election and new birth and faith and justification and reconciliation and perseverance to the end cannot be finally frustrated. God, the only Savior acts — to save — and no one can reverse it. The reason we have a gospel through Jesus Christ is because we have a sovereign God who sent him with unstoppable purposes and power. If we lose the sovereignty of God, we will eventually lose the gospel.
The sovereignty of God is the foundation of our hope, and therefore it is the cornerstone of education for exultation. By itself, the sovereignty of God is not the gospel. But it is the massive rock under the gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and triumphant over death and sin and hell and the devil and unbelief and apostasy and backsliding and temptation and every weakness and sin that threatens to destroy the faith and the soul of his saints.
And therefore it is precious beyond words. But we must find words. Because we are his witnesses. And our children and the world are waiting for us to say these things. This is our calling: to know and believe and understand that God is God, that God is sovereign, that God is Savior — through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever.