My pastoral strategy for the kindling of missions fervor and the recruiting of missions candidates and the building of missions budgets and the cultivation of a missions lifestyle is fairly simple. I would sum it up like this—to teach and preach and live the centrality and supremacy of God in everything.
When you put the supremacy of God at the top of your pastoral agenda, and when you aim to be radically God-centered in all that you do and preach, it's almost inevitable that deep, earnest, heartfelt, passionate, worship takes on tremendous importance in the life of the church. Because worship is the echo of the supremacy of God in the heart of the believer.
Worship is the Ultimate Goal of the Church
Another way to express our strategy at Bethlehem to kindle a heart for missions is to say that missions for us is not the ultimate goal of the church. The ultimate goal of the church is worship. The only reason missions exists is because worship doesn't. Worship is ultimate and missions is penultimate. Because God is ultimate, and man is penultimate. When this age is over, and the countless millions of the redeemed fall on their faces before the throne of the God and of the Lamb, missions will be no more. It is a temporary necessity. But worship abides for ever.
Until we see the greatness of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ and until we bow stunned at the majesty of God's power and the freedom of his grace, we have no lasting mission in the world. So worship is the fuel of missions. And all we want to do in mission is to bring men and women from every people and tribe and tongue and nation to the enjoyment of that same vision of God in Jesus Christ. So worship is the goal of missions.
We say it all the time around Bethlehem: worship is the fuel and the goal of missions. Which is just another way of saying that "from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory for ever and ever."
But what makes this really get a hold of a person and a church is to see the unfamiliar truth that the same thing is true for God. Missions is not his ultimate goal either. Worship is. And when this truth sinks into the heart of a seminary student or a pastor or a layman, everything changes. The world is often turned right on its head. And everything looks different—including the missionary enterprise.
The Bottom of Our Passion for God
The ultimate foundation for our passion to see God glorified is his own passion to see himself glorified. When I said that I make it my aim to teach and preach and live the centrality and supremacy of God in everything, I meant for everything to include God. He is central and supreme in his own affections. And he will brook no competition for the supremacy of his glory in his own delight. God is not an idolater. With all his heart and all his soul and all his strength and all his mind he delights in the glory of his manifold perfections reflected back to him in the image of his Son.
The reason this may sound strange is that we tend to ask questions from the bottom up, and not from the top down. We ask why we exist, and answer, "To glorify God and enjoy him forever." But do we ever ask, "Why does God exist? What is the chief end of God? What should he love with all his heart and soul and mind and strength? Whom should he worship?" Or will we deny him that highest of pleasures? It matters a lot what God's ultimate allegiance is!
God does not leave us to guess in this affair. He answers the question at every point in redemptive history from creation to consummation. Let's survey some of the high points to see what he says.
Why did God create us?
Isaiah 43:6-7 - "Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth (says the Lord), everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory."
Why did God choose a people for himself and make Israel his possession?
Jeremiah 13:11 - "I made the whole house of Israel ... cling to me, says the Lord, that they might be for me a people, a name, a praise and a glory."
Why did God rescue them from bondage in Egypt?
Psalm 106:7-8 - "Our fathers when they were in Egypt did not consider thy wonderful works ... but rebelled against the Most High at the Red Sea. Yet he saved them for his name's sake that he might make known his mighty power."
Why did God spare them again and again in the wilderness?
Ezekiel 20:14 - "I acted for the sake of my name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations in whose sight I had brought them out."
Why didn't God cast away his people when they rejected him as king and asked for a king like the nations?
1 Samuel 12:20-22 - "Fear not, you have done all this evil, yet do not turn aside from following the Lord ... For the Lord will not cast away his people for his great name's sake."
Why did God use his sovereign power to bring back his people from exile after punishing them for generations of sin?
Isaiah 48:9,11 - "For my name's sake I defer my anger, for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you ... For my own sake, for my own sake I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another."
Why did the Son of God come to earth and to his final decisive hour?
John 17:1 - "Father, the hour has come; glorify thy Son that the Son may glorify thee." A beautiful conspiracy to glorify the Godhead in all the work of redemption!
And why will Jesus come again in the great day of consummation?
2 Thessalonians 1:9-10 - "[He will come] on that day to be glorified in his saints and to be marveled at in all who have believed..."
From beginning to end, the driving impulse of God's heart is to be praised for his glory. From creation to consummation his ultimate allegiance is to himself. His unwavering purpose in all he does is to exalt the honor of his name and to be marveled at for his grace and power. He is infinitely jealous for his reputation. "For my own sake, for my own sake I act," says the Lord. "My glory I will not give to another!"
This doesn't sit well with run of the mill evangelicals today. We are not used to hearing that God is at the center of his own affections. We are much more used to hearing that this is where we are. None of my four sons has ever brought home a Sunday School paper with the lesson title: "God loves himself more than he loves you." But it is profoundly true. And so generation after generation of evangelicals grow up picturing themselves at the center of God's universe.
What About 1 Corinthians 13:5?
But there is an apparent biblical objection to this teaching that God seeks his own glory in all he does. 1 Corinthians 13:5 says, "Love seeks not its own." So if God makes it his ultimate goal to be glorified and praised, how then can he be loving? On the one hand we read, "Love seeks not its own." And on the other hand we read, "For my own sake, for my own sake I act. My glory I will not give to another" (Isaiah 48:11). Is then God for himself or is he for us?
The answer which I want to try to persuade you is true is this: since God is unique as the most glorious of all beings and totally self-sufficient, he must be for himself if he is to be for us. If he were to abandon the goal of his own self-exaltation we would be the losers. His aim to bring praise to himself and his aim to bring pleasure to his people from all the nations are one aim and stand or fall together. I think we will see this if we ask the following question.
In view of God's infinitely admirable beauty and power and wisdom what would his love to a creature involve? Or to put it another way: What could God give us to enjoy that would show him most loving? This is only one possible answer, isn't there? Himself! If God would give us the best, the most satisfying; that is, if he would love us perfectly, he must offer us no less than himself for our contemplation and fellowship and joy. "In thy presence is fullness of joy. In thy right hand are pleasures for evermore" (Psalm 16:11).
But now we are on the brink of what for me was a grand discovery. To be supremely loving God must give us what will be best for us and delights us most; he must give us himself.
But what do we do when we are given or shown something excellent, something we enjoy? We praise it. And the reason we praise it is because the praise is the completion of the joy we have in it. I learned this from C. S. Lewis.
But the most obvious fact about praise--whether of God or anything--strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of complement, approval, or the giving of honor. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise ... The world rings with praise--lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walking praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game--praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians and scholars ... My whole, more general difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what indeed we can't help doing, about everything else we value.
I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of complement that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are, the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. (Reflections on the Psalms, pp. 93-95)
There's the key: we praise what we enjoy because the delight is incomplete until it is expressed in praise. If we were not allowed to speak or show what we value and celebrate what we love and praise what we admire, our joy would not be full.
God's Pursuit of His Praise
Therefore, if God is truly for us, if he would give us the best and make our joy full, he must make it his aim to win our praise for himself. Not because he needs to shore up some weakness in himself or compensate for some deficiency, but because he loves us and seeks the fullness of our joy that can only be found in knowing and praising him, the most beautiful of all Beings.
God is the one Being in all the universe for whom self-centeredness or the pursuit of his own glory is the ultimately loving and virtuous act. For him, self-exaltation is the highest virtue. When he does all things "for the praise of his glory," he preserves for us and offers to us the only thing in all the world which can satisfy our longings. God is for us, and therefore has been, is now, and always will be first for himself.
Now we return to contemplate for a moment the pastoral strategy that I mentioned at the beginning—a strategy for
- the kindling of missions fervor,
- the recruiting of missions candidates,
- the building of missions budgets, and
- the cultivation of a missions lifestyle.
It is namely a strategy to teach, preach, pray and live the centrality and supremacy of God in everything—everything, including his own affections.
In other words, right at the heart of this strategy is the commitment to hold up as the banner over all we do
- God's love for his own glory,
- his overflowing joy in the eternal fellowship of the Trinity,
- and, therefore, his absolute self-sufficiency,
- and his all-pervading zeal to fill the earth with his glory, do all for his name, and win praise from all nations (all of which is love!).
It took about three years of preaching under this banner before the implication for world missions really hit home at Bethlehem.
How God Sparked a Flame for Missions at Bethlehem
In the fall of 1983, Tom Steller, who was then our associate pastor for students and education, couldn't sleep one night. And so he got up at about 2 AM and lay on the living room couch and put on a tape of John Michael Talbot. At one point Talbot sang the words of a song about the glory of the Lord filling the earth, about his saving power being known among all the nations, and about all the peoples of the earth one day knowing, and praising and enjoying and fearing the true God of glory.
Tom is a great lover of the glory of God, but he had not been missions oriented at all up to this time. He began to weep, he told me. And for an hour he cried, with a mingling of joy at the vision of God's glory filling the earth and penitent longing to be involved in that great purpose of God.
At the same time God was doing something in my own heart as well. For the first time in four years the missions board of our church asked me to speak at our annual Fall Missions Conference.
I was in the midst of a series of nine messages on what I was calling Christian Hedonism. And as I thought and prayed it became clearer and clearer that missions was the battle cry of Christian Hedonism. I was coming on a slightly different route to the same place Tom Steller was coming. Tom was coming on the road of glory and I was coming on the road of joy.
What God Taught Us
What hit us both in November of 1983 with life changing force was this:
God does everything he does for the glory of his name. He loves his glory above all things. He is committed radically and unswervingly to preserve and display that glory throughout the universe and to fill the earth one day with nothing but the echo of his glory in the lives of the redeemed—that is, with worship. And the knowledge of the glory of the Lord will fill the earth as the waters cover the sea.
But God has conceived a universe in which the magnifying of his own glory is accomplished in the delight and joy and satisfaction that the redeemed find in Him. And therefore God's pursuit of his glory and my pursuit of my joy are not finally in conflict. They are in fact one pursuit.
If our passionate joy in the glory of God is the very thing in which his glory is most fully reflected in this world, and if our joy is multiplied as God extends the praise of his glory among the peoples, then how could Tom and I, as a lover of God's glory and a Christian Hedonist, not give ourselves to the global cause of God in world missions?