This will be a more personal message than usual. Think of it as a father’s counsel to his family as he leaves to go to a far country. The country that I have in mind is England, though it could be heaven. The family that I have in mind is you, the people of Bethlehem.
The father that I have in mind is me, and the reason for the separation is the sabbatical that the elders so generously have given us on the occasion of our twenty-fifth anniversary at Bethlehem. They have agreed that we can combine the one-month writing leave that I usually have in the spring, and the month of vacation that we usually have in the summer with the three-month sabbatical, and thus be away from Bethlehem March through the end of July.
“Live for the glory of God even in times of congregational differences.”
Our plan is to spend most of that time at Tyndale House, which is a library and study center in Cambridge, England. My prayer — and yours, I hope — is that I will faithfully use this sabbatical for two overarching purposes. One is that I would write some things for publication that God might use to spread a passion for his supremacy in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ.
The other — which I feel to be even more important — is that I would use these precious months in such a way that God would fit me to come back filled with fresh, Spirit-given passion to preach and share in the leadership of Bethlehem in the most fruitful decade that we have ever known.
I know that it may be presumptuous to say that I hope and plan to preach and trumpet the vision of Bethlehem until I am seventy years old (I just turned sixty). Only God knows if I will live that long. And even if I do, I don’t want to stand in this pulpit one day longer than I am useful for the advancing of our mission. It’s a sad thing when preaching pastors outstay their effectiveness. So I have told the elders, more than once, that as soon as I start saying stupid or unintelligible things in public, they should graciously and gently make me emeritus.
Sabbatical and Surgery
This sabbatical has been planned for quite a few months, and an exciting plan is in place to combine preaching from the other pastoral staff with some guest preachers while I am gone. The pulpit will be in good hands. But one glitch did emerge — namely, surgery. The reason I am preaching this message now — instead of at the end of February just before I leave — is that my surgery is this Tuesday morning and I don’t know how long it will take before I can preach again.
My hope is that I might have one more Sunday with you before we leave for sabbatical. But just in case that doesn’t happen, I want to say some things to you about the time that I will be away.
I am very jealous that these next five months be glorious months at Bethlehem. So what I would like to do is walk through 1 Corinthians 1:10–31 and make six applications to our situation. I have called the message, “Let the One Who Boasts Boast in the Lord: Reflections on a People and Their Preacher.” It’s important that you hear not my personal desires for you while I am gone, but God’s desires for you, and my heart based on those desires. That’s what I pray you will see in 1 Corinthians 1:10–31.
Deep, Sweet Unity
I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers.
Would you bless our time away on sabbatical by not giving Chloe’s people any occasion to visit us with such a report? Rather, may we hear that you are living in deep and sweet unity. We have learned together from Romans 14 in the past year that Paul did not expect the strong and the weak Christians to agree on the matter of meat and drink and days. He taught them how to live for the glory of God with those differences. So when we read 1 Corinthians 1:10, we do not take it to mean that everybody agrees about everything in the church.
So when I pray for the unity of Bethlehem in my absence, I pray that God would unite us more and more in the summary of Christ-exalting doctrine and life summed up in the Elder Affirmation of Faith and the Church Covenant. If you have never read these documents, I hope you will go to the church web site or to Desiring God and read them. Pray with me that in these next five months God would give Bethlehem the deepest and sweetest unity in the truth that we have ever known.
All-In for the Work of Ministry
What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
I am thankful that many of you bear witness that there is spiritual profit for your soul in my preaching of God’s word. I marvel at that grace. But, please, reaffirm from this text what you already know, namely, that gratitude for spiritual profit from a preacher should not produce a kind of partiality that will only listen to that preacher. The test of whether you are seeing and savoring Christ or humanly drawn to me will now be put to the test. My prayer and hope is that you will show in these next five months that your allegiance is not primarily to me.
What an encouragement you would be to me if in these next months you gave yourselves to faithful corporate worship, faithful service in small groups, faithful and sacrificial giving to God’s mission here. The church approved a very aggressive budget this year — a twenty-three percent increase over last year — knowing that we would be planting a new church, and launching a third campus, and sending me away for five months.
I love that vision. Stand by these elders, Bethlehem. Make my sabbatical joyful by giving yourselves as never before to the work of the ministry here, not to me — not to any of the pastors — but to the Lord Jesus.
Prioritize Gospel Truth
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.
“God is the one who can call from the dead hundreds into new life in Christ.”
At the center of what Paul preaches is the bloody, criminal, shame-covered, torturing, scandalous cross of Jesus Christ. That is the heart of his message. Christ was insulted, Christ was mocked, ridiculed, scorned, derided, satirized, parodied, caricatured, and then hung up like a piece of meat and speared to see if it was done. And verse 18 says this is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God. Indeed, it is the glory of God (2 Corinthians 4:4).
And over against that, the Corinthians were enamored by intellectuals, scholars, people with doctor’s degrees, debaters who could upstage the best orators of the day. Bethlehem, beware as preachers stand here in these next five months — beware what you look for. Don’t be fascinated and entertained by form over substance, by oratorical skill over gospel truth, by wineskin over wine, by preaching about the cross over the cross itself. Pray that God will work here to exalt Christ above all things, especially Christ crucified in our place.
Hold Fast to the Great Caller
For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
What is the decisive difference between those on the one hand who see the crucified Christ as a stumbling block or folly, and those on the other hand who see it as the power and the wisdom of God? The decisive difference is that the second group has had its eyes opened by the call of God. Verse 24: “To those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ [is] the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
Therefore, Bethlehem, hold fast to the great Caller. The great sovereign Caller. The one who says, “Lazarus, come forth” (John 11:43), and the dead obey. The one who says, “Let light shine out of darkness” (2 Corinthians 4:6), and non-existent light obeys. The one who “calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17). Therefore, God is the one who in these five months can — and let us pray will — call from the dead hundreds into new life in Christ.
Would it not be just like God to choose a time when the big shot preacher is away to bring the greatest awakening — the greatest ingathering of souls, the greatest giving, the greatest sending, the greatest season of signs and wonders, the greatest worship, the greatest impact on the world?
If your mind says, “Well, while Pastor John’s away things will go into a holding pattern,” you are not thinking like God. You are thinking like man. To prove that, take the next verses. Watch how he makes his choices, and think about the implications of these months.
For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
In other words, in God’s sovereign freedom, he chooses people (and times and circumstances) in such a way as to nullify human pride (see the “so that” at the beginning of verse 29). So when might he bring the greatest blessing to Bethlehem? What five months might be the most likely months for this kind of God to do his freest, most gracious and powerful work?
Oh that we would all think like God and not like man. Would you pray with this kind of expectation, and not the kind of expectation that comes from considering human odds? He chooses things that are not to bring to nothing things that are, so that no one — especially, no pastor — might boast in man.
Boast Only in Jesus
He [God] is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption. Therefore, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
“Make Jesus your boast. Not your preacher.”
Beware, Bethlehem, of boasting in buildings, or music, or mission statements, or pastors. That was the warning of verse 29: “that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” But here comes the concluding note, and it is totally positive. Christ is all! God has grafted us into Christ, and in that union with Christ, God made him to be our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.
Christ, Our Wisdom
All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are found in him (Colossians 2:3). But more to the point, remember verse 24: “To those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ [crucified is] the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Christ is not just the source of wisdom for living our lives. His death is the highest expression of the wisdom of God. When we are united to Christ crucified and say, “I am crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:20), we are taken up into the infinitely wise saving work of God, and all his infinite wisdom is used to work all things together for our good. Christ crucified is the sum and foundation and price and certainty of God’s wisdom toward us. He has become wisdom to us.
Christ, Our Righteousness
Once we have seen in Christ crucified the wisdom of God instead of foolishness, we are believing and by believing we are justified — that is, Christ becomes our righteousness. Savor this while I am gone, Bethlehem. Live on this. Preach this gospel to yourselves every day. Glory in it.
Christ, Our Sanctification
Our sanctification: once we have seen Jesus as our wisdom in the cross and been counted righteous with his righteousness, he becomes the power by which we are sanctified (see Romans 15:18). Keep these in the right order while I am gone. First, we see him crucified as our wisdom, then we stand righteous before God in him, and only then do we start becoming righteous in behavior (sanctification). We pursue holiness by the power of Christ because we are holy in the holiness of Christ (1 Corinthians 5:7).
Christ, Our Redemption
And once you have seen Christ crucified as your wisdom, and been counted righteous in his righteousness, and pursued sanctification by his power, you will one day obtain through Christ the redemption of your bodies at the resurrection of the dead. As Paul says in Romans 8:23, “We who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
Therefore, we conclude with Paul in verse 31 — and is there any wonder? — “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” Make Jesus your boast, Bethlehem. Not the preacher, not the church. Let no one say, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas.”
But let all say together with me through surgery, through sabbatical, and through the next decade (if God wills), “It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death” (Philippians 1:20). Magnify Christ in these months, Bethlehem. Amen.