The following is a lightly edited transcript.
My passion to make God supreme in preaching both in my own and in everybody I can influence took a tremendous leap forward several years ago when I read in a journal that you may have heard of called First Things, a journal of political and religious comments. This quotation from a scientist, a specialist in general relativity theory named Charles Meisner about the attitude of Albert Einstein toward organized religion and preaching fifty years ago. Albert Einstein, who died in 1955, said,
I do see the design of the universe has essentially a religious question that is one should have some kind of respect and awe for the whole business. It’s very magnificent and shouldn’t be taken for granted. In fact, I believe that is why Einstein had so little use for organized religion although he strikes me as a basically very religious man. He must have looked at what their preachers said about God and felt that they were blaspheming. He had seen much more Majesty than they had ever imagined and they were just not talking about the real thing. My guess is that he simply felt that religions he had run across did not have a proper respect for the author of the universe.
“If Jesus upholds the universe, then there ought to be a certain respect for him.”
I was so cut at reading that, that I pledge to God to redouble my efforts not ever to have anybody be able to say that about me. And I want to so speak tonight as to the cut preachers and inspiring preachers and those who form search committees in call of preachers so as to want never to have that said of us.
And yet I believe it is a fair statement about much preaching in the American pulpit. Now I admit that my sampling is very limited, preachers have this one great advantage. They don’t get to hear each other. They depend on tapes and CDs and conferences and a few other things and so I confess that my judgments are fallible and limited and yet on my limited exposure I would say that Einstein’s concern is valid.
He said four things. Preachers don’t seem to have seen as much of the majesty of God as he had staring through a telescope or studying his physics. Secondly, that could mean he said preachers just don’t seem to be talking about the real thing. Thirdly, there doesn’t seem to be a proper respect for the author of the universe. And fourth, preachers seem to be blaspheming.
Greater Than We Can Imagine
Now that charge of blasphemy, of course, is loaded, it’s meant to carry a wallop to say that the real thing just doesn’t seem to be coming through. They claim to be talking about the absolutely eternal, infinite, unchanging creator of the universe, but it doesn’t feel like it. It doesn’t look like it, doesn’t sound like it.
For those who are stunned by the indescribable magnitude of the universe, not to mention the infinitely greater author of the universe. A steady diet of psychological soothing and practical how-to’s and relational therapy gets very thin and somehow seemed very inauthentic and gives the impression we are talking about the real thing.
Well everybody here remembers perhaps from high school physics that light travels at about 5.87 trillion miles a year. We all know that right? And you may also remember that the galaxy of which our planet, solar system is apart, Milky Way, is about 100,000 light-years across, that’s about 587,000 trillion miles.
It is one of one million such galaxies within the optical range of our strong telescopes and in our galaxy there are about one hundred billion stars. The sun is one of those modest size ones with a temperature around the edges of about 6,000 degrees Celsius, it travels at about 155 miles per second and therefore will make it first orbit around the galaxy in about 200,000 years.
Now scientists know these things and they are awed by them and they conclude if there is as the Christians say a personal God, a personal God who spoke that into being and as Hebrews 1:3 says upholds it by the word of his power, then there ought to be a certain respect for him. An awe and dread and fear of not knowing, loving, trusting or obeying such a God.
And certainly there would be a constant talking about this God and certainly, the manifold greatness and glory of such a God would be ever present in the life of his people and they would be stunned by the limitless things they could say about his magnificence.
You have to feel for this when you read Isaiah 40. These words from verses 25–26: “To whom then will you compare me says the Lord. That I should be like him says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see who created these stars? He who brings out their host by number calling them all by name. By the greatness by his might, because he is strong in power not one of them is missing.”
Now ponder that for a moment. Not only did he create them, but he knows their number and he knows their name. Every star in the universe has a name. Do you ever ask why that is? 005986738 or maybe Jim or John or Sally. I think the reason they have names is so that he can call them and tell them what to do. That’s why they have names. They obey him, the whims and the ways and the star obey him. The stars in their courses obediently shine.
Einstein felt some of this and his response was the preachers are just not talking about the real thing. If God exists, the God of the Bible, then what’s wrong with our preaching? Let’s put it positively, surely then the theme, the spirit, the atmosphere of our preaching should be the majesty and the glory and the supremacy of God and everything else that we talk about should be brought into relationship to this and it should be the passion of our preaching and our lives.
Now what I want to do tonight is to pose two questions about this. One is to ask why this is so. Why should the supremacy of God be the passion of our preaching? And secondly, how shall we then preach? Question number one then, why should be supremacy of God be the passion and the theme of our preaching?
Why the Supremacy of God in Preaching
A couple of years ago, I was doing this interview with Preaching Today and they asked me that question on the telephone. Why do you make so much of the supremacy of God being the theme of preaching? I said well, it’s because the supremacy of God is the theme of redemptive history. In fact, if you push it all the way back, the supremacy of God is the theme of God.
What is supreme to God ultimately is God. And if God is supreme in his own affections and in his own planning and in his own world and in his own word, then surely God should be supreme in our sermon planning and in our annunciation of his word.
I remember just a few years ago that I was at my Alma Mater preaching. It was the first chance I ever had to stand in the pulpit of the chapel at Wheaton College. I got up in front of these 2,000 students and said the chief end of God is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.
Jonathan Edwards along with A.W. Tozer and a few others are heroes of mine, and the book that made this point in my life and a life-changing way about twenty-five years ago now is called “The Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World.” That’s the short title.
“The Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World” and in it he makes this point, I’ll read you the thesis. “The great end of God’s works which is so very easily expressed in scripture is indeed but one, and this one end is most properly and comprehensively called the glory of God.”
Now let me read you one passage of Scripture so that you get the flavor of why I say God’s supremacy is the main heartbeat of God and therefore it must be the main heartbeat of preaching about God. Isaiah 48:9–11. God says,
“The chief end of God is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”
For my name’s sake I defer my anger; for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you, that I may not cut you off. Behold, I have refined you, but not like silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. For my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another.
I think those three verses are probably the most dense, concentrated, God-centered verses in the Bible. Six times: for my name’s sake, for my name’s sake, for my glory I will not give my glory to another. Why? It’s because it’s his passion. God’s glory is his passion. He created the world to go public with his glory. He created human minds to understand his glory, he created human hearts to delight in his glory and he gets more glory when mind and heart are engaged with thoughts and feelings that if only mind or only feeling are engaged.
This is why we have at the bottom of our stationery that word that sums up all of my theology, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” This is the good news. God’s quest to be glorified and your quest to be satisfied are not at odds, they are one in worship.
Therefore, my answer to my first question is why do we make God supreme in preaching? We do so because God is supreme in the heart of God and in redemptive history and in salvation and in the Bible and in missions and in prayer — which we’ll get to later.
How Then Shall We Preach?
Last question: How should we do this? How then shall we preach? Now pay attention to that question. What I would like to do is take you to a sermon that I think is probably the most God-centered sermon in the Bible and if you have a viable and you can read it in the light that’s out there for you, you can turn with me to Acts chapter 13.
It would be helpful if you look at it because instead of reading the sermon I’m going to jump from verse to verse and diverse portion to first portion and make points that draw out what you might have missed. Sometimes we read the Scripture so often we fail to be stunned by the way it is written and the way the apostles preached.
So here’s Paul arriving at Antioch of Pisidia. He goes into the synagogue, he’s invited to address the people and he preaches a survey of redemptive history and he does it in a way that I wonder if any of us speaks. Let’s start at verse 17 and I’ll simply show you why I call this the most God-centered, God-exalting, God-saturated sermon in the Bible.
From verse 17, it was God who chose Israel from all of the people in the earth for his purposes. It was God who made the people great during their stay in Egypt (it wasn’t natural fertility of Jews, God made them grow). And it was God who led them out of Egypt with an uplifted arm. In other words, God flexed his muscles in Egypt so that people would see his strength, God means to be seen in the Exodus.
From verse 18, it was God who bore with Israel in the wilderness for another old reading with just one letter difference and the Greek. God carried Israel like a father so he was guider and sustainer and father throughout the wilderness in the wanderings.
From verse 19, it was God who destroyed the seven nations that they encountered as they entered Canaan. Yes humans swung the sword, yes they threw the spear, yes they swirled their slingshots, but as we all know from Proverbs 21: the horses made ready for the day of battle, but victory belongs to the Lord.
It was God who gave Israel the land of Canaan as an inheritance. If you give something to somebody as an inheritance, you own it. It wasn’t the nations who owned the land of Canaan, God owned the land of Canaan and he gives it to whomever he pleases Paul says. The earth is the Lord’s.
From verse 20, it was God who gave Israel judges. These rulers didn’t rise up on their own: Samson, Deborah, Gideon, etc. God raised them up.
From verse 21, it was God who gave to Israel her first King, Saul. From verse 22, it was God who removed Saul just like Daniel says. God changes times and seasons, he removes kings and sets up kings, or as Daniel 4:32 says, “The Most High rules over the kingdom of man he gives it to whomever he will.”
That’s what’s in Paul’s mind here as he enunciates the removal of Saul and now verse 22, second half. He raises up David, the son of Jesse, a shepherd boy, a harp player, a slaying shooter, and God, against all human expectations, says that’s my man. He will be king.
From verse 23, it was God who brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus. God brought Jesus to the earth, God brought Jesus to Israel and not by any mere, immediate, impersonal force, but you can see it at the end of the first the phrase as he promised. Which means this thing had been planned. This thing had been thought through centuries before God looked to see what he would do at the fullness of time and he has spoke it through promises and profits that he would do it this way.
In verses 24–25, we meet, of all people to choose to speak about in Antioch of Pisidia, John the Baptist. And what does he choose out of all of the things he could say about John the Baptist and of all the quotations he could quote of John the Baptist in the sermon he chooses to quote these words, “I am not he, no. But after me one is coming, the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie.”
Now Jesus said that nobody is greater born a woman than John the Baptist. Remember that? And John the Baptist says I’m not worthy to untie the shoes of Jesus Christ. In other words, Paul selects a word from John the Baptist that controls all relief or all attention to Jesus, the Son of the living God. The whole story is about Jesus.
In verse 26, Paul is drawing the people of Antioch, telling them that they have been sent the message of salvation. Why this passive verb? Who is this sender? And the answer is God. So God planned it long ago, God promised it through the prophet, God sent and brought his son Jesus and now God is sending to the nations.
“God’s quest to be glorified and your quest to be satisfied are not at odds; they are one in worship.”
In verse 27, he says that those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize him, nor understand the utterance of the prophets which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled these by condemning him.
Now that’s an incredible sentence. If you said to me or to the people in Antioch that God promised these things, they are in the word, and therefore in harmony with God, who did them. It wouldn’t be as incredible. That’s not what is said. Let me read it very carefully for you. It says,
For those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets, which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled them by condemning him.
Every hammer blow on the nails through his wrists was the work of his Father in fulfillment of his promises to vindicate his glory and save the nations. In other words, Paul chose words here, Paul chose words in the sermon that would get all attention and all authority and also promises and all centrality for the one main actor in the universe, God. This is an amazing sermon. Paul is on a mission for the sake of the supremacy of his God.
Verse 29: “And when they had fulfilled all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb.” So right to the end, it’s all fulfilling of God’s word and God’s plan.
Finally, verse 30, it was God who raised Jesus from the dead. God raised him from the dead. Now it is true that Jesus said nobody takes my life from me, I lay it down on my own accord and if I laid it down I will take it again. Jesus raised Jesus from the dead.
But the point of Paul’s sermon is to get all attention for the Father through the Son. If it ever came to the end of Philippians 2 and every tongue will confess, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the father. It’s all going to terminate on God the father, Jesus is God and he will reflect all glory to his Father.
Well, I ask you preachers do you preach like that? I ask you lay people do you talk like that? When you talk about the world do you say God did this and God did that and God did this and God did this and God did that and God raised up this president and got but this president down and God raised up the senator and output that senator down and got put this man in placing God put that down and God ordained this simple strategy and God, when his purpose was done, did this and did that and he reigns over the nations.
Do you talk like that? Do you make him supreme? Paul’s was there was a great, there is a great, glorious, supreme God. Now, what are we going to do with this? We’ll close with just a practical illustration of how we will weave such a thing into all of our preaching.
The Supremacy of God in Spelling
Here are the thoughts that come to my mind as I apply this to my life as a preacher and into yours. We live in an unbelievably, naive and superficial age and it’s the last thing most people will think to say about it. But it’s not the last thing A.W. Tozer thought to say about it.
What I mean by superficial is the treatment of it involves everything you can say about it except the main things. Now as a scholar you can say many things intelligently about many things and if you leave out the main connections in reality, you’re treating it superficially.
Therefore I conclude that the communication media in America are all superficial. I conclude that the educational enterprises in our universities are all superficial. I conclude that virtually all news reports are superficial, virtually all history books are superficial, virtually all public education is superficial, virtually all editorial and news, commentary is superficial for one very simple reason, which a child can understand: because of the incredible, unspeakable, unimaginable disregard for God in it all.
God is the main reality in the universe and is the main connection, purpose, ground, and sustaining power of everything that is and therefore anytime you treat anything without relation to God you are superficial. And the fact that that sounds odd to us shows how infected the CMA, the Baptist General Conference and all American evangelicals are with our God neglecting, God-belittling and increasingly God-despising age.
If you watch enough TV you cannot help but forget God. He isn’t there and the sheer absence of God is blasphemy. Therefore I plead with few pastors to make him supreme in your preaching.
I pray for my sons and my daughter. I have five kids and two of my boys are out of school now. One is in college and one is in high school and my little girl hasn’t started school yet and I pray that in all of their learning they would seek God. Maybe see him in geometry, that they see him in history, may they see him in philosophy, maybe see him in English, made a see him in physical education, maybe see him in spelling.
Spelling, and I can hear the cynics write a Christian spelling. There are Christian ways to spell words. Give me a break, Pastor John. Now that’s the way a cynic, a superficial, 20th century saturated God-neglecting cynic response to talking about God-centered spelling.
I’ve had two kinds of sons. Academic and nonacademic and they fit the pattern perfectly. Son number one the scholar, son number two the athlete — the jock. As soon as he can get out of high school he was done, he was gone — and he’s red hot for Jesus by the way.
Well, I remember the day when this dyslexic, non-speller said to me, “Why should I care about spelling the way everybody’s spells?” And he meant it because it hurts so bad. And I said, “Well, you won’t be able to communicate as well if you don’t learn how to spell the way everybody else spells.” Why should I care about communicating well?
Now here we are, public school teachers. You’ve got this kid in your class and he raises his hand after flunking his second spelling test. Why should I care about communicating? Now right here we’re about a millimeter beneath superficiality, not pretty far and the ways are going to divide right here teacher. What are you going to tell him?
Here’s one answer. This is the blasphemous answer, the standard answer, the twentieth-century answer, the public school answer. Well if you don’t learn how to spell or you don’t learn how to communicate well, you won’t succeed in business and you won’t make as much money and you won’t advance in the community. And here’s the real clincher, it’s the bottom-line gospel. You won’t have as high self-esteem. So get to work and we’ll help you. Godless answers all.
And here’s another answer, my answer to my son and to anybody who’ll listen. Ben, you should care about communicating and learning how to spell because you were created in the image of God and God’s a great communicator. You’re in his image son, you’re in his image and to be a human being is no small thing. And he’s a great communicator, you should want to communicate and not be indifferent to putting obstacles in the way.
“God is love and his love is scorned when we treat him as a matter of indifference.”
Secondly, you’ve got something infinitely important to communicate, Ben. You’ve got God to communicate, you’ve got love to communicate, you got salvation to communicate, you’ve got Jesus to communicate, you’ve got the gospel to communicate, you’ve got eternal life to communicate, you’ve got purpose to communicate, you can’t be indifferent son to whether you communicate and put obstacles in the way of your communication.
Third, Ben, God is love and his love is scorned when we treat him as a matter of indifference whether or not we communicate good things for other people that they desperately need to hear from us.
And finally, they need to communicate and care about communicating and not putting spelling stumbling blocks in the way of your communication because language is God’s idea from the beginning. In the beginning, it was the Word, that Word was with God. It’s God’s idea, he is not a God of chaos and confusion. He’s a kind of beauty and a God of order, he’s not a God of anarchy even spelling anarchy.
Not a God of spelling anarchy and you know if you’re sitting out there now and you don’t care about the supremacy of God in spelling, then you won’t get my plea tonight. You just won’t get it.
Lift Up the Glory of God
As my closing plea is this, preachers especially and all of us if we preachers don’t lift up the supremacy of God week in week out and show a passion for the supremacy of God in all things including spelling, boating, sex, eating, leisure, stock market, if we don’t show the supremacy of God and how the glory of God has a bearing on everything then who’s going to do it?
There are no influences regularly in the lives of my people calling them away from the God-belittling, God-neglecting, God-despising, television and culture that they are immersed in besides me because most of them don’t tune in to regular radio and most radio don’t get it anyway. Most of them are reading books and most of your people aren’t either but one hour a week, maybe two, maybe three, they’ll listen to you and if you don’t lift up the glory of God and try to wean them off their breast of God neglecting America, who’s going to do it?