Highlights from the Bethlehem Conference for Pastors


Highlights from the Bethlehem Conference for Pastors

Here are some of the notes from the portions of the the Bethlehem Conference for Pastors attended so far:

Pre-conference meeting featuring John Piper
This pre-conference session focused on Piper’s book, God Is the Gospel. John Piper spoke for about 30-40 minutes, simply giving some “bullet points” about how this book came to be written. Then the floor was opened up for questions for Pastor John regarding his book.

Our time began with a prayerful reading of 2 Corinthians 4.5-12:
For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves; we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death works in us, but life in you.

A couple of the points which Pastor John shared behind the writing of the book:

1. Most recently, his daughter-in-law was returning from Scotland with her 5-year-old daughter (Carsten’s there studying at St. Andrews) to see her mother, who was near death from a stroke. As they were flying through the clouds, the sun shone on the tops and the mother said to her 5-year-old: “That looks like heaven where Grandma will be soon.” And her young daughter replied: “No, Mommy. That can’t be heaven. Jesus isn’t there.”

In, God Is the Gospel, Piper asks the question: If you could have heaven with all the joys & pleasures & delights we usually associate with heaven and not have Jesus there, would you still want it? Sadly, most of us, as evangelical Christians, would be scared to answer for fear that our shallow desires would be found out.

2. 37 years ago, John & Noel got married. The primary text read as a “banner” over their marriage was Habbakuk 3.17-18:

Though the fig tree should not blossom
And there be no fruit on the vines,
Though the yield of the olive should fail
And the fields produce no food,
Though the flock should be cut off from the fold
And there be no cattle in the stalls,
Yet I will exult in the LORD,
I will rejoice in the God of my salvation.

Again, note the clear statement that even if all else is taken from them, they will still exult in the Lord and rejoice in God. During John’s first year at Bethlehem Baptist Church, he would frequently go to Psalm 42 to calm his anxieties. What held him through these times was verse 5:

Why are you in despair, O my soul?
And why have you become disturbed within me?
Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him
For the help of His presence.
Once again, God is clearly central, no matter what is left in this life.

3. Finally, and this comes from the book, “Nobody goes to the Grand Canyon in order to increase his self-esteem. They go to marvel in the sight of the Grand Canyon.” In this analogy, God is the Grand Canyon: we don’t come to God to increase our self-esteem. We come in order to marvel at God and see His glory. In other words, we don’t go to the mirror of the gospel to see how wonderful we are; we go to see how wonderful God is for us in Jesus Christ. Our society/culture loves self-esteem and most evangelical churches have built their version of the Gospel around this love of self: God makes much of us; this, instead of the far more biblical gospel, “God makes much of Himself in Christ Jesus so we’ll long for Him.”

These notes are sparse. We were told this gathering will appear on the Web at some time in the near future. If it comes up as a web-video, I hope you all can get a hold of it. But even more, just get the book!


Then came the opening session of the Pastor’s Conference featuring Ajith Fernando. Seldom do I take notes during these sessions (this is my 15th conference in a row; missing only the first four conferences); I like to soak up the message at the time, receive the CDs later and go over them more slowly to absorb it better. However, now that I’ve taken up blogging, I thought I’d better get my rusty pen out and try to take a few notes, so here are some highlights from Ajith’s message:

Our passage for the evening was Colossians 1.24-27:

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions. Of this church I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, so that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God, that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ. For this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me.

Ajith focused at the beginning of this passage: “rejoicing in suffering…” He pointed out that in Scripture, it would be difficult find places where suffering and the blessing of suffering aren’t linked together. And one of the chief blessings of suffering is joy. However, it’s ironic in our day that so many have lost the taste for joy; they’d rather have success or pleasure or any number of other things, but not joy. In fact, most Christians would be willing to sacrifice joy for something else – the satisfaction of getting what they want instead of the joy that comes as a gift/blessing from God, especially in times of suffering.

Our joy is often a response to the great truths that undergird our lives, e.g., God is gracious, Christ is the Son of God, etc. This joy opens the way for a love relationship with God through Christ Jesus. It is this joy that comes in the hardest, bluest of times that increases this relationship rather than decreasing it. A friend, quite ill, once was told he must have hit rock bottom. His response? If I’ve hit rock bottom, then I’ve found that the Rock is solid!

The problem is that so many have substituted this joy for a shallow cake of pleasure. But as another acquaintance of Fernando’s once said, “I discovered that without Christ, I was a fish out of water; with Christ, I could swim in an ocean of His love.” Apart from this, apart from this kind of joy in the Lord, any other pleasure simply has a hollow ring to it.

In Scripture, we also see that often, one has to mourn before they can rejoice. In the Psalms, 50-60 of the Psalms that are classified as lament psalms still end with joy… joy in the Lord. Yes, we lament our trials and sufferings, but we lament to God, a God who loves us and gives us Himself. It can then be seen that God loves to give us a comfort greater than the pain He allows (or causes) in our lives. The big challenge for those of us in ministry is to find out how to help people see that God cares in the midst of their pain.

Then Ajith went on to detail this point from Col. 1.24: “…filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions…” He gave a brief description of various options offered to explain this. I’ll simply give you his explanation of it: Paul was speaking of filling up what was lacking in his own experience of Christ’s suffering so that the gospel might be all the more powerfully delivered. In order to become like Jesus, we must know suffering. We must suffer with Him if we hope to be glorified with Him. If we desire to be close to Christ, to have Christ near, then suffering will be part of this fellowship, this nearness. And while it seems odd to say, this fellowship of suffering will make us happy – filled with joy. Scripture affirms this elsewhere (suffering brings joy, cf. James 1.2). This suffering & testing purifies us and proves the genuineness of our faith in Christ. So, to be identifies with Christ is to know the truth of Hebrews 13.13, bearing His reproach and suffering outside the camp.

The conclusion of the matter is this: this solidarity with Christ in His sufferings brings us strength and this strength prepares us for suffering. it’s a symbiotic relationship building upon itself. As we suffer, we’re united more closely to Christ and as we’re united more closely with Christ, we will suffer.

The evening ended and I found myself thinking hard on these things. The theme is, once again, How Must a Pastor Die? The Price of Caring Like Christ. And now I’m left asking myself, “Am I willing to die for Christ’s sake? Am I willing to suffer? Can I know what it means to be truly sorrowful, yet rejoicing?” Big questions. Hard questions. God will provide His answers by His grace.

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One Response

  1. Kevin, many thanks for sharing with those of us who weren’t able to go, but desperately wish we could be there.

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