There are many levels of pleasure in thinking back over 150 years of the life of Bethlehem. The pleasure of actually looking at the pictures of 20 of the 23 charter members in 1871, and discovering that there were 14 women and 9 men in that first membership. And that on June 24, they held their first service at the home of Eric and Anna Hernland on Hennepin Island.
The pleasure of seeing among those old photographs the picture of August Malmston, the grandfather of one of our living members, Marlys Arenson.
The pleasure of learning that there were 61,000 Swedish immigrants in this 14-year-old state of Minnesota in 1871. And these 61,000 immigrants were served by 20 Swedish-speaking churches in outstate Minnesota, but by only one Swedish-speaking church in Minneapolis — namely, Augustana Lutheran, whose old building, interestingly, one block from the downtown campus, is now occupied by a Bethlehem church plant — Hope Church.
The pleasure of discovering that our first pastor John Ring had been imprisoned in the 1860s in Sweden because of his Baptist faith, and that he had to step away from that first pastorate of Bethlehem after only a year because of poor health.
The pleasure of seeing a picture of our first building completed in 1874 with the hitching posts for the horses clearly visible along the dirt street.
The painful pleasure of seeing the picture of the building destroyed by fire in 1885 and reading that pastor Frank Peterson’s text that next Sunday was Isaiah 64:11, “Our holy and beautiful house, where our fathers praised you, has been burned by fire, and all our pleasant places have become ruins.”
The pleasure of thinking that the church has passed from its origins of horse and buggy to the space-age. It has experienced the arrival in Minnesota of the telephone in 1880; electric streetcars in 1890; automobiles in 1902; a first radio station in 1921; 36 days in a row below zero in 1936; and 6,225 Minnesotan lives lost in World War II that ended in 1945 (the same year the church changed its name from First Swedish Baptist to Bethlehem Baptist); the first TV station in 1948; the first church computer at Bethlehem in 1985 — and the emergence today of perhaps more smartphone Bibles than print Bibles in our worship services.
And let’s not pass by too quickly the pleasure of pondering that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). Let it sink in that the Minnesota that we live in today is more different from the Minnesota of 1871 than the Minnesota of 1871 was different from the days when Jesus walked this earth. It is vastly more different.
“Christ has never ceased, through all of this change, to be infinitely relevant for every generation.”
Is it not amazing, therefore, that this church has been alive and flourishing under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, and in allegiance to the word of God through a century and a half of the greatest changes that the world has ever seen? Is it not amazing that this glorious Jesus Christ — the creator of the universe, the upholder of all things by the word of his power, the suffering savior giving his life as a ransom for many, the risen Christ sitting at the right hand of God, the head of the church and lover of his people — this Christ has never ceased, through all of this change, to be infinitely relevant for every generation through these changing times. Seeing that, savoring that, is a great pleasure.
How Does a Church Endure?
How does that happen? None of the people who made up Bethlehem Baptist Church in 1871 are part of this church today. And yet it is the same church. How does that happen?
It happens because even though the individual members of the living organism called Bethlehem come and go, the enduring life of that organism does not consist in any one member, or group of members. Rather it consists in the life of the living Head of the church, Jesus Christ, who calls shepherds and sheep in every generation to himself and to this organism.
It consists in the power of the Holy Spirit moving among the people bearing his fruit. It consists in the reality of faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ. It consists in the worship of God the Father and prayer to him in Jesus’s name. It consists in a consistent mission to reach lost people with the good news of Jesus. It consists in the biblical structure of leadership and accountability formed by the word of God.
Individual members come and go, but these realities that make up the organism called Bethlehem do not come and go. They remain.
God Sustains Churches
Why do they remain? Or, more urgently, will they remain?
But let’s make it more personal, as we try to answer this question. Not only, Will faith remain in the church? Will the church be the church? But also, Will we remain in faith? Will we be Christian?
If saving faith remains in Bethlehem, and she remains a church, and if you remain in faith, and remain a Christian, the ultimate reason will be the same in both cases.
We just sang the reason:
His oath, His covenant, His blood
Support me in the ‘whelming flood;
When all around my soul gives way,
He then is all my hope and stay.
The new covenant, the oath it contains, and the blood that bought it. This is our hope and stay. God’s people will stand, we will stay, because of the blood-bought covenant between God and his people.
“If Bethlehem is faithful for another 25 years, it will be because God did not let her turn from him.”
What covenant? Here’s what Jesus said at the Last Supper: “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). This means that the terms promised in the new covenant, I will secure for you, my people, by shedding my blood tomorrow morning. So, if you belong to Christ, this new covenant is yours. Its terms apply to you. Now, what are the terms of this new covenant that answer the question: If Bethlehem is here for its 175th anniversary, and if you are a Christian in 25 years, what will be the decisive reason?
New Covenant Pleasures
One of the most beautiful and clear expressions of the terms of the new covenant is found in Jeremiah 32:40–41,
I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul.
Here are five more pleasures to revel in as we look back over 150 years and see why it is that Bethlehem is still here, and why it is that we are still believing, and why it is that we will keep on believing until Jesus comes or until he calls.
I will make with them an everlasting covenant. (Jeremiah 32:40)
A covenant is a set of promises and obligations between two parties.
Here God’s not saying, “I made with you a covenant when I brought you out of Egypt, and you broke it, and now you are under judgment in exile.” That’s true. That’s why there has to be a new covenant. A covenant that is not going to be broken by either side.
Therefore, it will last forever. It will be an everlasting covenant because both sides of the covenant-keeping are secured by the blood of Jesus. Hebrews 13:20 refers to the “blood of the eternal covenant.” In Christ, we are a people with whom God has made an eternal covenant. Now, what does it guarantee by the blood of Jesus?
I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. (Jeremiah 32:40)
This is exactly what the apostle Paul said God secured by the giving of his Son for his people. He said it in Romans 8:32, which was a restatement of Romans 8:28.
He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32)
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose [his covenant purpose never to turn away from doing us good]. (Romans 8:28)
“Every hard thing that God brings into our lives is for our ultimate good. It is never destructive for the children of God.”
“He will work everything for our good” is the Romans 8:28 way of saying Jeremiah 32:40, “I will not turn away from doing good to them.” There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. There is no wrath. There is only mercy. Only grace.
Every hardship that God brings into our lives is for our ultimate good. It is never destructive for the children of God. To take you back to 1995, there was a little four-line rhyme that for several years the members of the church would quote to each other to explain this understanding of God’s unremitting, sometimes difficult sovereign grace in our lives:
Not grace to bar what is not bliss,
Nor flight from all distress,
But this, the grace that orders our trouble and pain,
And then in the darkness is there to sustain.
I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts. (Jeremiah 32:40)
This is what I meant when I said that the blood of Jesus secures both sides of the covenant-keeping — God’s side to be faithful and our side to fear the Lord. The fear of the Lord stands for the whole humble, believing, reverent response to God and his promises.
What God is saying here is that he sovereignly takes the initiative to see to it that the hearts of those whom he has chosen are humble, believing, reverent hearts. We don’t first fear God and then get chosen by God because we met the qualification. He chooses us first and then puts the fear of him in our hearts.
Here’s how God says it in Ezekiel 11:19: “I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh.”
That is how you were saved, Christian. You know that! This is what we call amazing grace. Amazing mercy: “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:4–5). We were dead. And God made us alive. He took out the proud heart and put in the fear of the Lord. Never cease to be amazed that you are a Christian.
The world today needs Christians whose lives have the aroma of humble amazement that they are saved.
I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. (Jeremiah 32:40)
There it is. There is the answer to our question, Why has Bethlehem existed in faithfulness for 150 years? Why are you still a Christian? What will be the decisive explanation if Bethlehem is flourishing at her 175th anniversary? What will be the decisive explanation if you are still a Christian 25 years from now?
And the answer is this: “I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me.” God keeps those whom he calls.
And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:30)
He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it. (1 Thessalonians 5:24)
He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:6)
This is the amazing, blood-bought new covenant.
Why will you wake up a Christian tomorrow morning? Because by his blood Jesus bought this covenant-keeping promise for you: God will not let you turn from him. If Bethlehem is faithful for another 25 years, it will be because God did not let her turn from him. We are, as individuals and as a church, finally dependent on this promise in Jeremiah 32:40, “I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me.”
God Rejoices in Our Good
I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul. (Jeremiah 32:41)
If you ever thought for a moment that God was begrudging in doing you good, let yourself be set free from that error! We have a happy God. And one thing that makes him happy is doing good to his people with all his heart and with all his soul.
This is absolutely breathtaking. “I will rejoice in doing them good . . . with all my heart and all my soul.”
Celebrating What Is to Come
As I close, I’m going to put on my old pastor’s hat that I wore for 33 years and celebrate three things.
First, without in any way detracting from the great work of God in the last eight years, I celebrate the call of Kenny Stokes as my pastor downtown. And I am thrilled with the ministry of Steven Lee at the north campus and of David Zuleger at the south campus. What a great leadership God has raised up for us.
I want you to know that I worshiped with great joy under the ministry of Jason Meyer for eight years, and I expect to worship with equally great joy under the ministry of Kenny Stokes. I was Kenny’s lead pastor for 15 years, and now I am privileged to have him as mine. This too is a great pleasure.
Second, even though there is a nostalgic downside to think of Bethlehem soon becoming three churches instead of one church, the decision of the elders to move in this direction is, in my judgment, strategic and wise.
From the beginning, I always thought this would be a good outcome to the multi-campus strategy: three strong centers of Reformed Christian Hedonism along the 40 mile stretch of I-35 from Mounds View to Lakeville. I think of it as robust church planting with the gestation periods of 19 and 15 years. Not to mention all the other churches that have been and will be planted from these three locations. This too is a great pleasure.
Finally, when I was pastor, for the last couple decades of that ministry, we would come to this point in the year almost always hundreds of thousands of dollars behind budget. I felt a special responsibility to remind the people that nothing is too hard for God.
He holds the world in existence. He stops the sun in the sky. He divides seas. He feeds five thousand with a few fish and loaves. He raises the dead. He puts gold coins in mouths of fish. Nothing — nothing is too hard for God. Let’s trust him with our lives and give to his cause like he is our Treasure. God met every need for 33 years — for 150 years. Watching him do this has been a great pleasure.
We are going to sing a signature song of Bethlehem. One of the greatest songs of “sorrowful yet always rejoicing.” And when we get to that final verse and crescendo into the Lord’s coming, remember, dear child of God, whether you see the Lord on the clouds, or hear his call in death, you’re going to make it home. He will not turn away from doing good to you. He will put the fear of the Lord in your heart, so that you will not turn from him.
And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll. The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend. Even so, it is well with my soul!