The 2013 Easter weekend marked the end of an era for John Piper and the Bethlehem Baptist Church of Minneapolis Minnesota. For 33 years, Piper served as the pastor for preaching and vision – the main preaching pastor for the congregation. Piper served as the main preaching pastor within the Bethlehem Baptist Church context starting July 13th 1980 and continued in that role until December 31st 212. Beginning in 2013, after a lengthy transition plan, Piper stepped back as associate pastor and Jason Meyer accepted the responsibility as the pastor of preaching and vision (the lead pastor role).
Piper grew up as the son of an itinerate evangelist in Greenville, SC. Piper went on to college to major in Literature with a minor in Philosophy at Wheaton College (1964-68). It was there that he met his wife Noël and they married in 1968. Piper went on to Fuller Theological Seminary where he was introduced to the writings of Jonathan Edwards. Piper went on to do his doctoral work in New Testament Studies at the University of Munich, Munich, West Germany (1971-74). Following his graduation, Piper pursued a teaching career at Bethel College in St. Paul, Minnesota where he taught for six years.
After a period of time in Piper’s life where he was considering leaving teaching in pursuit of pastoral ministry, Piper’s father thought he had found his niche and encouraged him to remain at Bethel College as a professor. In fact, Piper said that his father wrote him a “page and a half letter to dissuade” him from leaving the academic world in pursuit of pastoral ministry.1 Piper believed that his father had seen many things in ministry as an evangelist and was afraid for him. Piper’s father told him that he was the “quiet reflective type – not the proclaimer.” Eventually, Piper could not escape the calling and he followed the Lord’s leading. He left Bethel College and became pastor of Bethlehem Baptist in 1980.
As you go back through the many sermons, books, and articles of Piper’s ministry, several key things surface quickly that point to the reasons that he was an effective pastor.
In his candidating sermon before Bethlehem Baptist Church, January 27th 1980, Piper said these words:
Not to mention in a church where 107 people are over eighty years old, and another 171 are over the age of sixty-five? If I didn’t believe I could say to every gray-haired believer in this church that the best is yet to come, I wouldn’t bother candidating. But it’s true, and I do believe it. I don’t mean a fat pension and a luxury condominium either. I mean Christ, and you all know that.
Piper, without any doubt, was a visionary pastor. He was not a pastor with a mere title as “pastor of preaching and vision” – he was a true visionary. That is clear from his early sermons where he was looking into the future and preparing for his exit – even 5 years after arriving at Bethlehem Baptist Church. His vision worked to shape the landscape of Bethlehem and prepare the church for his exit. Piper knew that he would not last forever at Bethlehem – and as a visionary leader he desired for his church to be in a healthy place when the final day presented itself for his exit. He demonstrated this understanding by raising up pastors and gifted leaders within the church, by leading the church in building projects, by leading the church to pay off debt, and many other areas of practical leadership that he provided Bethlehem Baptist. Piper consistently placed Christ before the congregation of Bethlehem – with bold and visionary leadership.
In his final sermon as pastor, he said:
This is where I began my ministry almost 33 years ago. This is where we will end. My text then was: “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 magnified in my body, whether by life or by death” (Philippians 1:20). My aim and my prayer was to be a God-centered, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated pastor. My closing word now is “To him — to Jesus Christ — be glory forever and ever. Amen.
One of the gloomy indictments of expository preaching is that it turns the pulpit into a running commentary that becomes divorced from passionate proclamation of truth. While that is a serious charge issued to many pastors, it is not one that can be given to Piper throughout his 33 year pastoral ministry. Piper was a passionate expositor who preached with a theological depth that is missing in many pulpits. His model of preaching was expositional, theological, and practical on many different levels.
In defining preaching, John Piper said:
Preaching is also exultation. This means that the preacher does not just explain what’s in the Bible, and the people do not simply try understand what he explains. Rather, the preacher and the people exult over what is in the Bible as it is being explained and applied.
Preaching does not come after worship in the order of the service. Preaching is worship. The preacher worships—exults—over the word, trying his best to draw you into a worshipful response by the power of the Holy Spirit.
My job is not simply to see truth and show it to you. (The devil could do that for his own devious reasons.) My job is to see the glory of the truth and to savor it and exult over it as I explain it to you and apply it for you. That’s one of the differences between a sermon and a lecture.
The preaching of Piper, as a pastor, was both extraordinary and simple. It was extraordinary in the essence that it was theologically rich and Christ exalting while being delivered through a passionate heart. The preaching of Piper was:
- Christ exalting
- Spirit empowered
- God glorifying
Under Piper’s leadership as pastor, he led Bethlehem to adopt the following mission statement that would define their ministry and his preaching:
“We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ.”
In his biographical sermon on John Newton, Piper said, “Oh how rare are the pastors who speak with a tender heart and have a theological backbone of steel.” One of the blessings of a visionary leader is normally their clarity or transparency. Piper has remained theologically transparent since his arrival on campus at Bethlehem Baptist in 1980. From his earliest sermons, you can see his theological depth and clarity shining through. One of the criticisms that has been directed toward Piper through the years centers on his Calvinistic doctrine. It has been said that he is teaching people how to covertly Reform churches through Calvinism. Although John held seminars on the TULIP acrostic in order to instruct the church on the doctrine of Calvinism by accurately defining terms and showing the theology from Scripture, he never sought to become divisive. His mission appeared to be clarity rather than division. Those people who have made such critiques of Piper’s theology would find his explanation of Calvinism impressively balanced and clearly founded upon Scripture by listening to his series on the TULIP.
Jonathan Edwards had a massive influence upon the life and ministry of Piper, but as you can see in his annual biographical sermons, he was impacted by many pastors, theologians, and missionaries of history. These different men helped shape his way of thinking, preaching, world-view, and missionary heart. Piper was the quintessential pastor-theologian of our present church age. Piper is the author of many books, articles, theological journal entries, and he remained humble enough to hold the hands of mourning family members as he prayed and preached simple funeral sermons. His ministry is truly amazing.
Piper’s theological vocabulary painted a picture of the theology he was seeking to expound from the Scriptures. In describing John Newton’s preaching, Piper said:
Instead of excessive abstraction in his preaching, there was the concrete word and illustration. Instead of generalizing, there was the specific bird or flower or apple or shabby old man.
He had an eye that saw everything as full of divine light for ministry to people. For example, in his diary for July 30, 1776 Newton describes his watching the eclipse of the moon.
Tonight I attended an eclipse of the moon. How great, O Lord, are thy works! With what punctuality do the heavenly bodies fulfill their courses. . . . I thought, my Lord, of Thine eclipse. The horrible darkness which overwhelmed Thy mind when Thou saidst, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” Ah, sin was the cause—my sins—yet I do not hate sin or loathe myself as I ought.”
Oh how we preachers need eyes like this. Seeing God and his ways everywhere in nature and life and making our communications full of concreteness from daily life.
Piper exemplified a colorful vocabulary that came alive in his poetry and preaching. The vocabulary was not used to fly over the heads of his listeners, but rather as a tool to illustrate his preaching. His vocabulary was assisted by his many different hand signals and non-verbals that often characterized him in the pulpit – and those gestures are certainly a mark of his passionate preaching style.
Just as we could say that Piper was the quintessential pastor-theologian – we could likewise label Piper as a great model for the pastor-missionary or pastor-evangelist. To say that John Piper’s heart bleeds for the nations would be an understatement. That missionary heart can be clearly seen in two of his books:
Both of these books have provided a sobering reminder of the calling of the church in an age of rampant materialism. Before David Platt’s Radical came Piper’s Don’t Waste Your Life. Long before people were making fun of David Platt for cutting back on Goldfish snacks for the children, Piper was thundering his warning regarding the American dream to thousands of college students at conferences and from the pages of his books.
Through the preaching of Piper, Bethlehem engaged their neighborhood with the good news of Jesus Christ. They learned this from his example. He was a pastor who lived in the neighborhood of the church – a radically diverse and poor neighborhood. John was not an “ivory tower” pastor who was separated or above his neighbors. He lived with them and was visible walking the 600 paces2 to church from his house every week for 33 years.
Piper’s preaching led his congregation to engage unreached people groups around the world by praying, sending, giving, and going. Through his passionate mission focused preaching, many left Bethlehem over the 33 years never to return as members. They left their jobs and spent their lives for Christ on far away lands. He writes in his book, Desiring God, these words:
Nature teaches us that every believer should be a soul-winner. (As Andrew Murray said), “It is an essential part of the new nature. We see it in every child who loves to tell of his happiness and to bring others to share his joys. Missions is the automatic outflow and overflow of love for Christ. We delight to enlarge our joy in Him by extending it to others. As Lottie Moon said, “Surely there can be no greater joy than that of saving souls.”3
It is my earnest prayer that God will continue to use Piper in this new season of his ministry. Although he is no longer a pastor – he remains a preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ. One statement that he made in his sermon titled, Why Expository Preaching is Particularly Glorifying to God from the 2006 Together for the Gospel conference resonated with me and will forever be a vivid picture of preaching. He said:
God did not ordain the cross of Christ or create the lake of fire in order to communicate the insignificance of belittling his glory. The death of the Son of God and the damnation of unrepentant human beings are the loudest shouts under heaven that God is infinitely holy, and sin is infinitely offensive, and wrath is infinitely just, and grace is infinitely precious, and our brief life — and the life of every person in your church and in your community — leads to everlasting joy or everlasting suffering. If our preaching does not carry the weight of these things to our people, what will? Veggie Tales? Radio? Television? Discussion groups? Emergent conversations?
God planned for his Son to be crucified (Revelation 13:8; 2 Timothy 1:9) and for hell to be terrible (Matthew 25:41) so that we would have the clearest witnesses possible to what is at stake when we preach. What gives preaching its seriousness is that the mantle of the preacher is soaked with the blood of Jesus and singed with fire of hell. That’s the mantle that turns mere talkers into preachers. Yet tragically some of the most prominent evangelical voices today diminish the horror of the cross and the horror of hell — the one stripped of its power to bear our punishment, and the other demythologized into self-dehumanization and the social miseries of this world.
I will never forget three different sermons that I heard Piper preach in person. The first one was when I was a college student in 2001. He preached at an event known as One Day and I remember hearing him powerfully calling us to lay our lives down for Christ and stop chasing the American dream. At that time, I was on a pursuit for that very thing – it was my goal to work in the business world and to become a millionaire. I left very unimpressed with Piper. I remember saying to other college students, “His message is too radical and none of these students are going to take that man seriously.” At the time, I could not fathom his position because I was an unconverted church member.
The second time I heard Piper preach in person was while as a student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. He preached “We Work with You for Your Joy” in 2007 in chapel. His passion for pastoral ministry was extremely contagious, and I had to learn to “eat crow” from what I had said about his ministry back in 2001. The man that I claimed would have no lasting impact upon that sea of college students sitting in the field had greatly impacted my life.
The last time I heard John Piper preach was at the Ligonier conference in 2011. He preached a sermon taken from the title of his book – “Let The Nations Be Glad.“ Immediately after the session ended, I approached him on the floor and expressed my thankfulness for his ministry. I told him that his ministry had greatly impacted my life and I was grateful for his commitment to gospel proclamation and pastoral ministry.
Good preachers are scarce and great preachers are a special gift to the church. Piper has been one of those men that seem to surface in church history about every 100 years. What made Piper so effective as a pastor? While his leadership and passion in the pulpit stand out, it seems that God placed a special anointing on his pastoral ministry in ways that appear to be extraordinary. It is my prayer that God will continue to use him to impact other pastors and missionaries in this next season of his life. May it be that God would raise up an army of preachers who possess this God saturated vision and a desire to lift up Christ and run to the nations with the banner of the gospel of Jesus Christ. God – let it be!
We are witnessing the end of a remarkable pastoral ministry—but not the end of his Christian service and ministry. My prayer, and eager expectation, is that the Lord will continue to use John Piper and to keep him faithful in this next season of life as he finishes strong for the glory of God in Christ Jesus.
Pastor Josh Buice
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1. “John Piper and John MacArthur: A Conversation” – Youtube
2. Taylor, Justin. “John Piper’s Farewell Sermon.”
3. Piper, John. Desiring God, 1996, 205-206.