There is plenty that I would love to say about Dr. John Piper and how God has used him in my own life, shaped my own life, and rescued me from what I’ll simply call tonight the kiddie pool of understanding who God is and how God works. But alas, that is not the task I have been given. The task I have been given is not to talk about Dr. Piper, but rather to challenge Bethlehem Baptist Church. When I got this task, it’s honestly an unenviable one. How do you challenge people who have sat under such solid Biblical teaching for 33 years?
So my line of thinking prepping for our time together was simply that if the people of the Village Church were going to hear a word as I transitioned to what the Lord had for me next, what would I want them to hear? Really what I want to do with you for my short amount of time with you is simply marvel at God. I want to look at his majesty and his might and I want us to get caught up, if the Holy Spirit would allow us, in the majesty of God, in what you and I as believers in Christ find ourselves caught up in.
The Danger of History
History is a bit of a dangerous thing. In one sense, if you spend too much time dwelling on history, you’re going to get caught up with it and find it very difficult to believe in and rest in the forgiving, sanctifying, saving work of Jesus Christ. That’s why often in the Scriptures, particularly the writing of Paul, we are told to forget what is behind, to leave what is behind us there where it is.
But then in another sense, history becomes very important, because the more we look at it and see it in a right, good, and biblical way, it actually fuels us into tomorrow, and we become emboldened towards our God who has accomplished all that he set out to accomplish, and is continuing to more and more, day in and day out, reveal to us his goodness, grace, and abilities.
I think 2013 is a beautiful time in which to live. I have heard men often talk about how they wish they were born in other periods of time. I have studied enough history to know I’m just fine in 2013. I also believe that the reason that being in 2013 is such a gift from God is we have all this history to look back on, and to marvel that God has just consistently done exactly what he said he was going to do. I’m going to start in a place that might make you panic but you shouldn’t panic. I’m going to start in Genesis chapter 12.
God’s Global Plan
We know our Bibles. The world is fallen, it is broken. I mean, the very fabric of what God created to be is now torn asunder. There is death and disease, and the world has grown dark. And in the middle of it, God calls a man named Abram. And in Genesis 12:1–3, we read:
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Now we have this faint whisper of a promise that all that has gone wrong will be made right, that God is calling Abram from Cush, the first Jew is an Iraqi. Let that mingle around in your head a bit. God calls Abram and says, “Through you, I’m going to create a people, and through that people I’m going to bless all families on earth.” From the very beginning the promise is that what God is up to is global. It is massive, it is nothing less than God making right what has gone wrong.
And then we hear about the testing of Abraham in Genesis 22. He puts his son Isaac on the altar. And then we read in Genesis 22:15–18, which says:
And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”
A Kingdom of Priests
So there we have it again. Once again, God’s plan through Abraham in the founding of the covenant community of faith, is that the nations would be glad, the nations would be blessed, and that all that went wrong would be set right in this plan of God’s.
And then throughout the Old Testament we see this repeatedly, God’s heart for the nations. On Mount Sinai, the Lord told Moses to say to the people:
The earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
So what’s going to be the role of Israel when it comes to the rest of the world? They will serve as priests. They will be the ones that herald the good news of what God is going to do, of what God is going to accomplish at the crossing of the Jordan River.
In Joshua 4:24, God crosses Israel into the promised land and he did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know. At the founding of the temple in 1 Kings 8:43 we read, “So that all the peoples of the earth might know your name.”
Just a cursory reading of the Psalms would have the psalmist repeatedly saying, “The nations,” and, “The great glorious day of the Lord,” and they are perpetually painting this picture of the nations gathered around God to make much of God.
Salvation to the Ends of the Earth
And again, even in the prophets we see this confirmed yet again. One of my favorites is in Isaiah 45:22:
Turn to me and be saved,
all the ends of the earth!
And then we have the incarnation, God in the flesh dwells among us, and he does not deviate from this plan to redeem and rescue from the nations. In John 10:15–16, Jesus says:
just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
Jesus does not deviate from this Old Testament declaration that the nations will be glad, that the nations will worship our God, that there is, when all is said and done, one group of people that God is drawing unto himself, adopted sons of God. So you have sons of Adam and sons of Christ, and Christ is not deviating from this declaration.
In fact, even in Matthew 28:18–20 you see this. If you start in Matthew 28:16, you’ll find some hope for you if you tend to struggle and wrestle with doubts, because the Bible says that upon that mountain they worship him, but some doubt it. I’ve always marveled at that, you have the resurrected Christ ascending into glory. And there are those even on the hill at that time going, “I don’t know, just not quite sure.” But what we read starting in Matthew 28:18:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”
Now you can just stop right there, because whatever comes next is happening. He says, “All authority on heaven and earth has been given to me.” So now at this point, it doesn't matter what’s coming next, it doesn't matter what he says, it doesn’t matter what the command is, it doesn’t matter what he’s going to order us to do, it’s happening. Why? Because all authority is his. He continues:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
The Outpouring of the Spirit
Then the disciples do what they were commanded to do, they gather in the room and they pray. They’re waiting for the helper to come. And in Acts 2, the helper comes. He falls. And now we’ve got ourselves a completely different ballgame than what we watched with the disciples when they were following Christ.
In fact, if you’re really paying attention, the only one that really kind of nails who Jesus is in the Gospels are actually the demons. Everyone else kind of gets it wrong. Jesus says, “What’s the word on the street? Who do people say that I am?” The disciples respond, “Well, some say that you are John the Baptist, and others say that you are Elijah.” Jesus says, “But who do you say that I am?” And only Peter gets it right. But here’s what I would press. I don’t think you get credit for that if Jesus calls you the devil six verses later. So if six verses later Jesus switches from, “Blessed are you Simon,” to, “Get behind me, Satan,” then I think you lose credit.
And really the only ones that seem to get it are the demons who cry out, “I know who you are, the holy one of God. Have you come to destroy us before the appointed time?” I mean, there’s just no dualism whatsoever in the New Testament when it comes to the kingdoms and conflict. There are no arguments with Christ. No demons say, “Make me!” There’s just a ferocious, God-besotted, powerful declaration. And the Holy Spirit falls that Pentecost, Peter stands up and gives the most unseeker-friendly sermon in the history of Christianity. And thousands are added to our numbers that day and we see the gospel begin to grow.
The Gospel Spreads to the Gentiles
But at this point it’s still predominantly, if not entirely, a Jewish faith. And then we get Acts chapter 10 and 11. I love Acts chapters 10 and 11. Cornelius of the Italian cohort, a God-fearer, a man who has rejected Roman paganism and believes there is one God. He’s not quite sure who that one God is, but he’s praying, giving alms, taking care of the poor, and he is visited by an angel with very detailed instructions. Simon the tanner is in Joppa, and another Simon, Peter, is staying at his house. He is told, “Go get him and bring him to you.”
Simultaneously, or around that same time, Peter is up on the roof and a vision comes to him of what? Unclean animals. He hears, “Rise Peter, kill and eat.” Peter is not going to be fooled again. I mean, does anybody get in more trouble than Peter? And yet here he is. You can almost hear him, “Not going to get me this time. I would never touch that.” Wrong answer again Peter. “Can it be unclean if I made it? Kill and eat.”
And so about that time, there’s a knock at the door and the soldiers from the Italian cohort grab Peter and bring him to Cornelius. You have what I believe to be one of the most awkward exchanges that you find in the Scriptures, where Peter then shows up at Cornelius’s house and then reminds Cornelius that a Jew shouldn’t even be in this house because he is a Gentile. Cornelius unpacks why he sent for Peter. He says, “Look, I was praying. An angel showed up and told me to come get you. I’m just doing what I’m told.” So Peter goes, “Okay, this can only be about one thing.” All of this is a paraphrase, by the way. If you try to look up Acts 10 and 11, it’s not going to read exactly like that. Crossway has not made that version just yet.
So in that moment, Peter shares the gospel with Cornelius’s household, and they believe. They’re filled with the Holy Spirit. They speak in tongues. They’re baptized. In fact, Peter has a little inner turmoil here, “What do we do?” They decide to baptize them. They baptize Cornelius and his household, and then Peter runs back to report. And the church does what the church usually does. It gathers together to vote on whether or not God’s allowed to save Gentiles. So they get together and they talk about it. Can God do what he just did? Peter testifies, “All I did is share the gospel. This one’s not on me.” And then, really, from that moment on starting in Acts 15, you begin to watch the promise.
Tracing the Proliferation of God’s Blessing
And here’s why I’m saying 2013, such a sweet year to be in because starting in Acts 15, you have Paul and Barnabas separate and go in different directions. And then it just takes off. Acts 15 is the council at Jerusalem. In 42 AD, Mark goes to Egypt. In 49 AD, Paul heads to Turkey. In 51 AD, Paul heads to Greece. In 52 AD, the apostle Thomas heads to India. In 54 AD, Paul heads on his third missionary journey. In 174 AD, the first Christians are reported in Austria. In 280 AD, the first rural churches emerge in northern Italy.
Now this is significant, because Christianity in the first century was predominantly an urban religion. It wasn’t out in the rural areas. And so it wasn’t until really around 280 AD that we began to see rural churches emerging. Stark says that by 350 AD 31.7 million people, roughly 53 percent of the Roman Empire, confessed Christ as Lord.
There’s a lot of debate about who made Christianity — did Constantine make Christianity or did Christianity make Constantine? I don’t know how well you know your history, but if you are an emperor, you don’t get voted out. That’s not how your reign ends. If I remember correctly, you get stabbed a bunch in the shower and even your best friend is there for the party. And so, regarding Constantine, God, I hope he is my brother in Christ and is in glory now. But just watching the trends, if 51 percent of the Roman Empire is confessing Christ as Lord, it might be a wise thing for you to say, “Yeah, me too.”
And so then from there in 432 AD, Patrick heads to Ireland. In 596 AD, Gregory the Great sends a team of Augustinian missionaries to what is now England to reintroduce the gospel. The missionaries settle in Canterbury and within a year they baptize 10,000 people. In 635 AD, the first Christian missionaries arrive in China. In 740 AD, Irish monks reach Iceland. In 900 AD, missionaries reach Norway. By 1200 AD, the Bible is now available in 22 different languages. In 1498 AD, the first Christians are reported in Kenya.
In 1554, there are 1,500 converts to Christianity in what is now known as Thailand. In 1630, an attempt is made in the El Paso, Texas area to establish a mission among the Mason Indians. In 1743, David Brainerd starts his ministry to the North American Indians. In 1845, the Southern Baptist Convention Missionary Organization is founded. In 1853, a group of at least 17 people immigrated to America, accompanied by a group of Danish Baptists arriving in New York and later settling in Chicago.
From Jerusalem to Minneapolis
On March 5th, 1853, F.O. Nielsen, if I’m pronouncing his name right, planted the first American Baptist Church in Minneapolis, which was the first church to be planted in the territory of Minnesota before it became a state in 1858 on this side of the Mississippi River. In 1871, 22 Swedish Christians who branched off from the first American Baptist Church in Minneapolis planted the first Swedish Baptist Church known today as Bethlehem Baptist Church. The reason for this new church plant was to take the gospel to a rapidly growing number of Swedish immigrants in Minneapolis.
Within eight years after the church was planted in 1879, the first Swedish Baptist church sent 29 members to plant its first church, the first Norwegian Danish Baptist Church. By the way, we don’t have any of these issues in Texas, all right? There’s no Swedish Danish. And even reading up on this blew my mind a bit. I was like, what’s a Norwegian Danish? I had to get out a map. It was very difficult for me.
The first Norwegian Danish Baptist Church which later became Powderhorn Park Baptist in order to reach out to the expanding Norwegian and Danish population. In 1888, the first Swedish Baptist Church started Ilium Baptist Church in northeast Minneapolis. The people were willing to “throw themselves into another church for the spread of the good news where they lived.”
You and me, friend, God had us in mind when he pulled Abram aside and he said, “I’m going to fix this.” And really, at every place along the way, according to Ephesians 1, according to Romans 1, God was coming to rescue me and you. And we are caught up in something so much bigger than most of us can get our heads around. What I just did was such a cursory, sad attempt at a linear attack of our history in which the intellects here and the educated here are probably snickering at me even now, but I find it to be marvelous even in its smallness.
In fact, if present trends continue by 2025, there will be 633 million Christians in Africa, 640 million in South America, and 460 million in Asia. This is what you and I are caught up in. This is our history. This is what’s happening right now on this day. All over the world, men and women have gathered, they have preached the Scriptures, they have taken holy communion, and they have rejoiced in the God of their salvation. And our family is much bigger than this. God is at work and he is moving and he is saving. There’s no such thing as a closed country, and no such thing as hard ground.
Is anybody else picking up on the fact that there are a lot of Iranian pastors being arrested this year? It seems like God’s doing some pretty good work in a country that doesn’t have any work. And yet still there is so much to do. See, you and I, we find our lives playing out in what the Reformers would call the narrow space, what we call the “already but not yet.”
See, the prophet Isaiah speaks of this day that’s coming for you and me, friend, where the desert blooms with roses, where the mountaintops produce sweet wine, where the wolf will lay down with the lamb and they will dine together. They dine together now, but it’s not the same thing. They will lay down together. And then the clarity on that is that, the next verse is, “and the lion will chew hay like the oxen.”
And the apostle Paul says that these weak, frail bodies of ours will be replaced. That what is perishable will be imperishable, that what is sown in dishonor will be raised in honor. You get this picture from the word of God of a renewed world with renewed bodies reigning and ruling alongside the king of glory, having no ceiling on our worship. See, there have been times where I’ve heard the word of God proclaimed and we’ve begun to sing to God, and I have felt all my emotions hindered. I felt like I hit a ceiling, that either my legs got tired or my voice couldn’t get loud enough. I felt like I was going to explode, that what was in my heart couldn’t be contained in this gangly body God gave me.
And Paul says in I Corinthians 15, God’s going to fix that for me, and God’s going to fix that for you. And there will be a day unfettered with the constraints of this mortal body. We will make much of Jesus together. But today we are in the space between. Today we’re in the already-but-not-yet.
The Mission Moves Forward
You exist, Bethlehem Baptist Church, to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ. Dr. John Piper is a magnificent man, besotted by sin and weakness, but redeemed and loved by God. He is not your Savior. He has never claimed to be your savior. He is not even when all is said and done your guiding light. He was a gift from God for 33 years. But there are plenty even now who are indifferent to the majesty of God. And the mission that has been laid before you week in and week out for 33 years still moves forward even as we speak. And our God has called us into what he most certainly will accomplish.
Here’s why I’m saying in 2013, we have such a beautiful view of God. Do you think Abram had any idea of what God was saying when he said, “All the families on earth will be blessed”? Do you think Abram from Cush had any idea about South America, about North America? Do you think he had any idea of the expanse of Africa? And yet here we are in 2013 and what has God done? Exactly what he told Abram he was going to do. Throughout the world there are Africans and Asians, and all throughout Europe and all throughout Russia and all throughout, like you and me who have had their hearts open to the majesty of Jesus Christ. And they have believed upon him for salvation.
So if I was rolling out of the Village Church and someone was going to have the opportunity to challenge the people that I’d poured my life into, I would love for them to just herald that God is at work. Keep walking obediently according to the Scriptures. Keep having your hearts wrung out for the nations, for the unborn, for reconciliation at every level of life.
Your race is not over. John’s race is not over. This church’s race is not over. We’ve been given a good run together. And now the things that Jason will begin to lay before you are the same things that John has laid before you because these are the things that the word of God lays before us all. Oh that you might have the courage to seize it, walk in it, and rejoice in it. I think it’s crazy that I’m here. Let me pray for us and we’ll sing together.