Alfred Place Baptist Church

Preaching: 5 The Centrality

In the year 1834 two disconnected events occurred. An acorn germinated in Tatton Park in Cheshire, England and for the next 165 years became one of the Park’s familiar landmarks until the year 1998 when the marks of disease and death were all over the old tree. Then an idea germinated in the minds of furniture-makers Peter Toaig and Garry Olson. The oak was felled in 1998. It was divided up and distributed between 75 craftsmen, joiners, artists, sculptors and designers. Not a twig of the oak was wasted. Its sawdust was mixed with resin to make a tabletop, its oak-leaf compost was turned into paper, and its acorns were planted on the estate by schoolchildren.
The 75 men and women got to work on the seasoned oak. Their products were as diverse as a seascape of kelp and fish made by a sculptor named John Mainwaring and called ‘Shoal’ or an exquisite chair made by Richard La-Trobe Bateman from the branch wood of the tree with its strong bends and twists. Alan Peters constructed a clean-lined and splendidly-hinged oak chest. Jeff Soan carved a contented, four-square pig. Robin Day made a quartet of small chairs. Cabinets were made, and even a foetal stethoscope was turned upon a lathe. The scores of artefacts produced by the 75 craftsmen were gathered together in the year 2002 in the Geffrye Museum in east London. There, an exhibition named ‘Onetree’ of all the works made by these artists, opened and ran throughout the summer. An accompanying book illustrated by Robert Walker went on sale in the museum shop for twenty pounds.

What was the other event that occurred in the year 1834? Charles Haddon Spurgeon was born in Kelvedon, Essex, England. The son and grandson of preachers he was converted in 1850 and the following year became the pastor of Waterbeach Baptist Church where he remained for three years until in his twentieth year he was called to New Park Street Baptist Church in London which was soon full to overflowing. This necessitated the building of the Metropolitan Tabernacle in 1859 where he remained for 38 years until his death in 1892. He was a remarkable preacher. His theology of the triumph of grace equipped him for it. He believed in the free offer of the gospel and that men should be urged and pleaded with to believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ. His keen intellect, personal modesty, fluency in speaking, constant study of the Reformers, Puritans and leaders of the Evangelical Awakening of the previous century all served to equipped him for his extraordinary ministry. He had a prodigious memory of the Bible, and an ardent love for his Saviour Christ. All these virtues and many more gave him an ease and delight in preparing sermons. It was no burden to face the constant deadline of two Sunday sermons and the one each Thursday night. His voice was clear, and the common people heard him gladly. His sermons were characterised by excellence in communication, biblical faithfulness and transformational power. The Metropolitan Tabernacle congregation numbered 6,000 each Sunday and under his preaching 14,692 people were added to the church. From 1855, which was his third year at New Park Street, London, his sermons were taken down by a stenographer and sold for a penny each week. They were bound into annual volumes and they are still in print today. At the time of his death 50 million copies had been sold. By today almost 350 million have been published. He is the author of about 150 books almost all of which are still in print in America and Great Britain though he himself has been dead for 110 years. Every twig and leaf of Spurgeon, that great Christian oak tree, is being scrutinised and used by someone somewhere in the world every moment of each day. His influence will never die. What is the reason for this remarkable influence? There is no explanation for it apart from his preaching which came by the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven. It was certainly not his sense of humour, nor his refusal to be involved in theological controversy – he contended for the faith whenever it was under attack. It was not a stress upon the Lord’s Supper, though this was celebrated each week in the Tabernacle. His days were centred upon the Word of God. How could he speed its message to the peoples of the world? His magazine, the college he commenced, his frequent visits to each part of the British Isles, the little books of daily devotions or seven volume work on the book of Psalms, ‘The Treasury of David’ – all such literary and physical labours were spent in serving the Word of God. He became the most influential, blessed and loved minister the world has known because he allowed nothing to challenge the centrality of preaching in his ministry.

Was he captured by the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ in this judgment? Does this virtual absolutising of preaching reflect or distort the life of the ministers of God as they are described for us in the New Testament? Let one passage in a letter of the apostle Paul be examined to see whether Spurgeon’s ministry mirrors the great apostle’s or not. In 2 Corinthians 2:12-17 we read these words, “Now when I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for me, I still had no peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said good-by to them and went on to Macedonia. But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task? Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, like men sent from God.”

At this point in the letter the apostle Paul is commencing the central theme and the very heart of that great epistle, the ministry of the new covenant. The following five chapters of 2 Corinthians are amongst the richest sections of the entire Bible. They declare to the world what God’s gospel is, and how its servants are to live. Paul begins by displaying the New Covenant understanding of a servant of God. High priests, levites, prophets, kings, rabbis and scribes have no place for one moment longer in God’s dealings with men. They have all been set aside along with the old covenant’s redundant paraphernalia of Israel and its holy people, land, city and temple. What is the role of the servants of God under the new covenant? What are their priorities? That is where the apostle begins, and observing the uncertainties about the ministry within the church today we can scarcely think of a more important subject.

1. THE CHARACTERISTICS OF TRUE SERVANTS OF GOD.

Where do we start? Paul begins at a very simple level. He tells us this:-

i] They went to a place in order to preach:

Paul says, “I went to Troas to preach” (v.12). Troas was a port two hundred miles north of Ephesus in what is today northern Turkey, in fact it is ten miles away from the old city of Troy. The apostle would have taken a sea voyage there, and we would have been tempted to embellish that little phrase in our E-mailed Prayer Letters – “I went by sailing ship on the Mediterranean Sea up the northern shores of Turkey to Troas. What views of the coast . . .” The journey for us would have been exciting and unforgettable, but Paul didn’t consider the transportation at all: “I went to Troas with good news,” he says. It was the new covenant message that was everything to Paul. The dynamism of the early church was simply a fact of Christian living. The book of Acts is a chronicle of preachers on the move, missionary journeys, the church commissioning men, and making a priority of each great city having a pulpit and a congregation. Paul did not go to Troas to erect an altar, dress up as a priest and celebrate Holy Communion. He did not go there to philosophise, nor to deal with outstanding social concerns in the community. Troas was a town without God and without hope and Paul went there to tell them good news. “I went as a messenger of good news,” he is saying.

Almost two thousand years have gone by, but concerning the plight of man and the relevance of the Christian message nothing fundamental has changed. I had a recent letter from some friends in the Hebridean islands off the north coast of Scotland describing their communion week-end which they hold just twice a year. Their church is situated in the scattered crofts and tiny villages of South Uist and Benbecula – a community of fishermen and farmers. In those recent meetings God came down in saving power. One wrote, “A lot of prayer was made leading up to the communion season and God was merciful. The good news was preached and people who had been secret Christians for some time were given strength to confess their faith in the Lord, and other people who had been prayed for over many years were converted. Many spoke of real conviction of sin, and much brokenness was evident. Our thanksgiving prayer meeting on Monday evening was so moving, and it did not finish until 11 p.m.. Ryno Morrison – one recent convert – went home on Saturday under deep conviction. He read his Bible and couldn’t stop thinking about blind Bartimaeus. Ryno’s prayer as he lay in bed was, ‘Rabbi, I also want to see.’ Kenny Macdonald of Skye was the preacher and his text on Sunday morning was … you’ve guessed it …’Rabbi, I want to see…’ I’ll never forget the scene of Kenny (who himself is nearly blind) leading Ryno by the hand upstairs to the session room to meet the elders. Many mature Christians were moved by the whole experience. The Spirit is still working in our midst with many of the onlookers who attend the evening services now reading their Bibles and asking questions. To God be the glory: Great things He hath done.”

How are such blessed events achieved? How does the kingdom of God come? Never without preaching and living out the good news. The people in South Uist joined the church after the word of the gospel had come to them. The priority was first to hear the message and believe it. Then they could come with the church fellowship to the communion table. That was why Paul went to Troas, and that is our calling here.

ii] They went to every place with the gospel of Christ.

It was a very particular message: “I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ” (v.12). The city was full of religion, with temples and altars to many gods virtually on every street corner. There was a whole religious class in the city of full-time priests and clerics, both men and women, serving a host of deities. The apostle brought another Name. He did not think for a moment that they had had enough religions and that they did not need another one. He did not believe what Mahatma Gandhi was to say 1900 years later, “The soul of religion is one, but it is encased in a multitude of forms. My position is that all the great religions are fundamentally equal.” That was not the conviction of the early preachers at all, rather, the very reverse. God was one God, with one only begotten Son. They said, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

So the apostle Paul went to Troas with good news about Christ, that he was the one long promised, the divinely anointed and appointed one. He alone has been born of a virgin. He alone has preached the Sermon on the Mount. He alone spoke and the winds and the waves obeyed him. He alone has raised the dead. He alone became the Lamb of God who took away the sin of the world – Jesus Christ the Son of God – he and no other one. It is never a popular message. Listen to that New Age spokesperson, Shirley Maclaine: “If I created my own reality, then on some level and dimension which I didn’t understand, I had created everything I saw, heard, touched, smelled, tasted. I was therefore responsible for all there was in my reality. If that was true, then I was everything. I was my own universe. To take responsibility for one’s power would be the ultimate expression for what we call the god-force.” And soon after saying that she affirmed, “Know that you are god. Know that you are the universe.” Paul went to Troas and he was confronted there with many gods and lords, even as men today think they meet thousands, even millions of them – say 6,000 million gods, one for every member of the current human race. “Each one of us is god.” There is that current idea. Or, on the other hand, there is the New Testament message that God is one living and true God, utterly distinct from all that we see in the creation above, around, beneath and within us. He is the Creator God, and he has a name, and that name is Christ. Good news for sinners is found in nothing and nobody else save in that Lord Jesus. That was the message of the apostles.

iii] They did not peddle this gospel for profit:

“Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit” (v.17). Paul did not go to Troas for what financially he could get out of its poor citizens. Many men made their livelihood wandering around the Mediterranean and teaching their philosophies, passing round the bowl, gathering the money and after a while moving on where it would be new. Soon there arose pathetic Christians who thought that this would be a fine way for them to make money too. Some believers became religious hucksters, palming off a watered-down gospel, selling it as merchandise, picking up the money and travelling on.

There was a magician in Samaria called Simon who professed conversion under the ministry of Philip, and he was baptized. When he saw the Holy Spirit was bestowed on people through the hands of the apostles he offered money to Peter and John, “Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:19). What an opportunity for these former fishermen to make some money. Why, doesn’t God want every one of us to be rich? Here was Simon, a Christian who simply wanted greater spiritual power, who was willing to make a costly sacrifice to obtain this power. Don’t we know many like him? But what was Peter’s response? Vehement rejection of the very idea: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps he will forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin” (Acts 8:20-23). The words echo down through the centuries. Only the sacrifice of Christ can purchase the gift of God the Holy Spirit and the Saviour alone can give it as a free gift to any who entrust themselves to him.

Are we not unaware of those many religious hucksters who are peddling the word of God for profit today? Listen to this letter from a certain Pentecostal evangelist appealing for funds, allegedly to send materials to the Third World: “There’s no better way to insure your own financial security than to plant some seed-money in God’s work. His law of sowing and reaping guarantees you a harvest of much more than you sow . . . Have you limited God to your present income, business, house or car? There’s no limit to God’s plenty! . . . Write on the enclosed slip what you need from God – the salvation of a loved one, healing, a raise in pay, a better job, newer car or home, sale or purchase of property, guidance in business or investment . . . whatever you need . . . enclose your slip with your seed-money . . . Expect God’s material blessings in return . . .” (John Stott, “Issues Facing Christians Today”, Marshalls, 1984, p.226). That is the spirit of Simon Magus, alive, and unashamed in its greedy deceit, living on in the professing church in the 21st Century. The real servants of God do not peddle Christ’s gospel for profit.

iv] They speak before God with sincerity:

“On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity” (v.17). Do you notice those three extraordinary prepositions! The first is ‘in.’ Where is the Christian servant of God? In Christ! Joined to him. His lips joined to Christ’s lips. His voice joined to Christ’s voice. His intellect joined to Christ’s intellect – we have the mind of Christ! His heart and affections joined to Christ’s heart and affections. The true preacher is in Christ. But more! The next preposition is ‘before.’ Where is the servant of God? The servant of the Lord is ‘before God.’ He is conscious of God’s eye upon him everywhere. He never has a moment’s privacy. He is bold speaking to dictators and any men who have life and death power over him because he is conscious that they are both in the presence of the One who sits upon the throne of the universe. There is an all-seeing and all-knowing God to whom everyone must give an answer. Fear such a Lord, says Christ.

When the Lord Jesus Christ commissioned his disciples he sent them out in pairs. There was always another one there to build up morale, to give encouragement and support, praying for the other, catching his eye and assuring him that one was there with him who loved him and was backing him a hundred per cent. We believe that we ourselves are also stronger when we have visited and spoken in the company of another Christian, but that is not always possible. We then have to see our Lord with us in all our ministries listening, encouraging, hearing our arrow prayers, sympathising with us. So when the apostle spoke he did so in these two divinely structured relationships, joined to Christ and in the presence of the living God. That was a great incentive not to water down the Bible’s appalling assessment of the human condition and the judgment that lay before men. Paul was not going to tone down those great right-angled truths that cut into human pride. He was conscious of other eyes upon him. Paul could appeal to a whole group of men like the Sanhedrin and he could say, “I have lived before God in all good conscience up to this day,” (Acts 23:1). Similarly he could say to one man, King Felix, “I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward God and toward men” (Acts 24:16).

As a result of this there is the third preposition, ‘with’; the true servant’s words are ‘with sincerity.’ How crucial that is. The moment you doubt a preacher’s sincerity he has lost your confidence. If you suspect that he is acting then he would be better a dead man – no dead man acts. We can speak for God if we are imperfect, but we cannot speak for God if we are insincere. The most sincere man I know is utterly unconscious of his transparency. You know this axiom, that the more you grow in holiness the less holy you feel. So it is with sincerity. The more sincere we are the less we will make a show of impressing people with our sincerity. We will want to impress them with the gospel of Christ. Preachers display their sincerity most clearly by dealing honestly with the Bible. At the end of April 1564, a month before he died, John Calvin said good-bye to the pastors of Geneva. They loved him dearly and were broken-hearted to see him so ill. He said to them on that occasion these words, “I have not corrupted one single passage of Scripture, nor twisted it as far as I know, and whereas I might well have brought in subtle meanings if I had studied subtlety, I have trampled that whole lot underfoot, and I have always studied to be simple . . .” That is a man who spoke in Christ and before God and with sincerity.

v] They know the trials of human affections:

“I had no peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said good-by to them and went on to Macedonia” (v.13). That is a beautiful window opened for us on the kind of man Paul was. He was a man of God. He was a man of the Word. He was only a man. If he had forgotten that then he would have destroyed himself in the ensuing deceit. He was like our Saviour, gregarious, not a loner at all. Jesus loved to be with people. There were the twelve he chose to be with him, and three were his special friends and one called John whom he loved as his best friend. He looked forward so much to relaxing and sharing a feast at the Passover with them and he told them so.

Paul was like his Lord. He loved Timothy, and Silas, and John Mark, and Barnabas, and Titus. He had sent Titus to Corinth with a difficult letter and he was expecting him back at Troas week after week, but Titus did not turn up. Where was he? Had he been hurt? Was he lost at sea? The days went by and Paul had no peace of mind. “Titus! Titus! Where are you, Titus?” thought Paul. The church would see Paul going down to the port to greet a boat from Greece looking at the passengers as they disembarked wondering whether one would be beloved Titus. He often mentioned him in his prayers. His heart ached for his friend. That is a wonderful picture of a true servant of God. He is not just a book-person or a pulpit person; he must be a people person, so he gets depressed at rejection, and concerned at absences, and troubled when there is no call or letter informing him that everything is well, and the journey has gone smoothly. The new commandment is that we love one another as Christ has loved us. Paul had deep affection for Titus, and his long absence meant Paul’s peace of mind vanished and it became unbearable not to know what had happened. So he had to say good-by to a thriving church at Troas which was taking all the teaching he could give them – and nothing satisfies a preacher more than that – and off he travelled to Greece to find this young man. Paul loved to preach, but he did not live to preach. He lived to love God with all his heart and to love his neighbour as himself. These took priority over his preaching.

The Christian life is the real life of love and friendship. Our plea is for men and women to come from the shadowlands in which they are spending their years, and come to this life where the living God is known, where his servants have real affection and those concerns that love always gives rise to. Think of that television world through which most people are living their own lives vicariously, where stories taking place in the soaps are considered of more importance than the events that are recorded in the Bible. In that world a soap like “Coronation Street” is of considerably more significance than the road to Damascus. On the fortieth anniversary of “Coronation Street” at the close of the year 2000 Prince Charles himself went to the set to watch the episode being filmed. The TV company was hoping that 20 million people would watch the Friday night episode – that is half the population of England- and their hopes were realised.

That world is utterly unreal, isn’t it? This is the real world, where people give their thoughts to the person of the Lord Jesus Christ and are taught and inspired by him. He brings into our lives the perspectives of truth so we come to know ourselves and for what reason we creatures are in God’s world. “Come out of the shadowlands to the Light of World,” preachers cry. But men love darkness rather than light. So people spend years of their lives watching the flickering images on a TV screen. The set is switched on at 5 p.m. or earlier and stays on until they go to bed at 10.30 p.m. It is a monster that is eating up their lives. They are spectators of an utterly unreal world. They call our religion, “Pie in the sky.” What soul nourishing, satisfying, enriching pie! So much better than “Unreality on TV.” Some of the phoniness of life according to the soaps was recently listed:-

1. The greater the intensity of hatred between two people on the soaps, the greater the likelihood that they will eventually fall in love and live together. That is not real.
2. Everyone in the neighbourhood goes to the same bar, or cafe, or club, or all three, very often. That is so unreal.
3. Relationships take an awfully long time to happen, but enormously complex problems are solved or forgotten about by the end of the week. That is not reality.
4. Holidays are for arguments, disputes and disaster rather than for relaxation. That is not the real world.
5. People who think their birthday or anniversary has been forgotten invariably open a door to find that everyone is holding their breath in the room and shouting “Surprise!” and ready to celebrate. That is the world of cliche.
6. Shameful experiences that any ordinary person would keep under his hat are announced to all and sundry in public places. That is not real.
7. Every birth is riddled with complications. Come on!
8. Children are no problem at all – unless they are teenagers when they are exclusively problem children. Then they simply disappear for long periods to let their parents get on with the story … Get real!
9. No one gets a minor ailment like a cold or the flu. They get major accidents and life-threatening illnesses. That is a fantasy world.
10. People rarely prepare breakfast. They go to a restaurant for it! What world is that?

People refuse to hear the preaching of the greatest news they can ever know and choose fairy tale escapism. That is the kind of world which 20 million people in the UK alone might be watching every night on TV soaps throughout their lives. Many millions more do the same all over the world. Can’t they see, even from the above list, just how phoney it is?

Our concerns with the soaps are deeper than those listed above. The Lord Jesus is absent from all the soaps. None of his sensible ordinary followers ever make an appearance. In our preaching we are pleading with people who regularly watch the soaps to come away from that twilight zone in order to come to the bright reality of God and his Son Jesus Christ. Those who serve him are transformed for good by his grace. They do not sit down for hours each night dedicating their lives to TV. They so care for their friends that they abandon Tele-watching to go looking for them. See what it meant for Paul to have been found by the Lord Jesus. He did not become a wild-eyed fanatic, shouting perplexing words about God on street corners, obsessed with religion and unconcerned about his friends. He learned about the Lord Jesus. He knew the parable which Jesus told of a prodigal son. That foolish boy had an older brother who failed to leave his home to go off to the distant city searching for him to discover if he were still alive. Paul, however, could not abandon a friend in need. He finally told the congregation that though he loved preaching to them he had to go and search for someone he loved. He felt responsible for young Titus. Paul had sent him on this errand. So Paul made arrangements for the oversight of the congregation in Troas, bade them farewell, and headed for Macedonia searching for Titus. That is what Christianity does. It does not make a man ruthlessly obsessed with preaching so that his family and friends suffer. It makes him a better husband, father, brother and friend. That is how a New Covenant minister behaves. He loves his fellow believers as Christ loves them.

vi] They feel inadequate for this great work of serving God:

“And who is equal to such a task?” (v.16). We are more familiar with the words of the King James version, “And who is sufficient for these things?” To love God with all our hearts, and to love our neighbour as ourselves – who is sufficient for these things? To be steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord – who is equal for such a task? To love one’s enemy, to turn the other cheek, to forgive seventy times seven, to deem each person better than oneself, to bear the burdens of the weak – who is sufficient for these things? Or consider the particular calling of the pastor. There are those insightful words of Al Martin which capture our sense of inadequacy so powerfully: “To preach the law of God so that we do not create a congregation of legalists – this is no small task. To preach the necessity of God’s people persevering in obedience and faith and holiness and to insist that only he that overcometh shall inherit all things, yet to do so in such a way that we do not create a pall of discouragement and despondency, is no small task. To preach the glorious truth that God preserves his own and whom he justifies he glorifies, and to revel in that truth, and to comfort the saints with the wonderful fact that his sheep are preserved so that none can pluck them out of his hand, and yet so to preach it that we do not create a presumptuous spirit, this is no task for the indolent. To preach the doctrine of full assurance in such a way that we do not create fanaticism; to preach the necessity of self-examination and yet not create floundering doubters; to preach divine sovereignty and yet not create sinful apathy; and to preach responsibility and yet not to create a climate of sinful activism; again I say this is no task for the indolent” (Al Martin, “Take Heed To Your Teaching,” Banner of Truth Magazine, October 1967).

God’s servants characteristically feel that it is all too much for them. Consider the reluctance Moses had when faced with his commission: “Who am I that I should go unto Pharaoh…?” Or think of Isaiah’s response when first called by God – “Woe is me!” Jeremiah protests that he feels he is a child and cannot speak. Every true preacher naturally shrinks from the task and would prefer to do anything else rather than preach. It is an impossible work. It is not like lecturing whereby an objective is secured by a lucid educational process. The preacher is in a position where he actually has to represent God before men. The great Methodist preacher, William Bramwell, once confided, “I die a death every time I preach; I wonder I have lived a long as I have.” He was a man with an awakening ministry. So a mark of a real servant of God is that he feels inadequate for the task.

2 FROM WHERE DO PREACHERS COME?

i] God sends them:

“Like men sent from God” (v.17). There is probably a book about ministers with that title, “Men Sent From God,” or if there isn’t there should be. What is the apostle talking about? The fact that the risen and ascended Lord loves his congregations so much that he gives them pastor-preachers who will shepherd them and speak his word. It is the provision of Christ that ensures the priority of preaching. A preacher is conscious that he is Christ’s ‘herald.’ That is the phrase constantly used in the New Testament. The word is used of a messenger vested with public authority who conveys the official messages of emperors, magistrates or military commanders. It was a word with which the Greeks in Corinth were very familiar. Homer, the Shakespeare of Greece, used the word to describe the man of dignity and trust who came from the royal court to address the people. Then in the post-Homer period the herald represented the state. He was like the old town crier. He needed a strong voice, but most important of all, he had to be a man of considerable self-control so that he delivered the word exactly as he received it. In the Bible you find those men running before Joseph’s chariot in Egypt crying, “Bow the knee!” John the Baptist was Jehovah’s herald. Mark calls him God’s messenger sent to prepare the way for the coming of God the Son. He urged the people to repent, and because he was sent by God there was considerable response. All Jerusalem and Judea went out to John to be baptized by him in the Jordan river repenting of their sins. Christ will never cease giving preachers to his church until the need for them is over at the end of the world.

The apostle was conscious that the Lord had sent him: he said “necessity is laid upon me” (I Cor. 9:16). My esteemed friend, Paul Cook says, “You will have gathered that I believe preaching requires a special divine call. No one should preach if he can possibly help it. No man should go into the Christian ministry if he can avoid doing so. All the biblical preachers were men under authority. They had an overwhelming sense of call. They were men sent from God (Rom.10:15, Eph. 4:11). They were under a divine constraint. Sometimes they were called away from doing other things. One thinks of Amos the herdsman of Judah called north to preach repentance in the kingdom of Israel. Peter was master fisherman before he became a preacher. I have just finished reading the life of Charles Richardson, a great Methodist preacher. He spent half his life as a thresher in Lincolnshire before God thrust him out as a preacher. “But whoever they were, and whatever they had been, this sense of divine compulsion has always marked out the man called of God. Peter spoke on behalf of all the apostles when he declared, “For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:18-20). He was not only saying that God must be obeyed rather than men, but also that preachers in particular are under a divine compulsion to preach the gospel” (Paul Cook, “Preaching – a Divine Calling” Banner of Truth, 299-300, August-September 1988, p.37ff). A man sent from God is always busy, not merely when he is in the pulpit. He is always exhorting, urging and pressing the claims of Christ upon men. He will try to speak to one man every day about his need of Christ. This is the ‘energy of soul’ of a man sent from God. Everything he does must serve that end. Maybe he is waiting for the time when the church he serves can afford to support him full time. Until then he is restless in his tent-making, longing to be wholly consumed by this vocation, because God has sent him to do this work of preaching the gospel of Christ.

ii] The Lord eventually opens a door for all the preachers he gives to the church.

“The Lord had opened a door for me” (v.12). It was not like that everywhere. Paul and Silas had once tried to get into the province of Asia, but they were “kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia” (Acts 16:6). They had “tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them” (Acts 16:7). Doors could be closed. But when Paul came to Troas “the Lord had opened a door” for him. In other words, there was interest and a response. People gathered around and asked questions. It was not shallow stony soil for the seed of the word. The gospel of Christ entered the lives of many and the roots went down and there was fruit. Sometimes it happens like that. In times of great awakening a great and effective door is opened. Pray for opened doors to your family and to your friends! Pray that we will have increasingly open doors in this community. But keep knocking on the doors before you, and remember what is said of the risen Christ, “What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open” (Rev.3:7). Then Christ himself emphasizes the truth of that, “See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut” (Rev.3:8). May he say that to us, and may we take the opportunity to go through it.

Of course sometimes God opens a door into a dark place, into sorrow and frustration. But it is he who has done it. He opened the door for Paul into prison and that was where the apostle spent the last years of his life. What kept him sane and at peace behind bars was the knowledge that not Caesar but God had opened that prison door to him. So he writes to the Philippians from his cell and assures them, “Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously” (Phils. 1:12-14).

One in the 19th century God opened a door for Robert Morrison to China, so that he became the first Protestant Missionary to that immense nation. He lived there for twenty-seven years and died strong in the faith that salvation would come to the Chinese. There were many adversaries. Morrison met with opposition, hatred and persecution. Just two people professed faith in Christ through his years of labour, but the door into China had been opened by God. What year did he die? 1834. The year the acorn germinated in Tatton Park, Cheshire. Morrison died within weeks of the birth of Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Robert Morrison, like that acorn, had fallen into the ground and died, so that it could not abide alone but must germinate and an oak tree must grow. Since his death many others in that vast land have found new life in Christ. Today there are millions of Chinese Christians. We are hearing reports of a great turning to God amongst them. Robert Morrison was the first seed to fall into the rich soil of China. By 1818 he had translated the whole Bible into Chinese, but for him and those first missionaries there was little numeric growth. They planted and they watered, but others were to be given the increase. Yet there is an inevitable increase to faithful sowing and watering even though those who so labour may not see it. Paul is sure of that from his next vital image.

iii] God leads them in a triumphant procession:

“But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ” (v.14). The picture is of the victorious army returning home led by the Emperor and the generals into the capital city. The scent of victory is in the air, while wives, parents and children rejoice in the safe arrival of their loved ones. So the Christian can walk tall as he serves the Lord. His Saviour has said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” Nothing is going to separate Christ’s church from his love. Whom God did foreknow he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son. In the last day there will be nobody lost from all those whom the Father has given to the Son. The world and the flesh and the devil together will have failed to conquer one of Christ’s people. They will all enter the heavenly Jerusalem in triumph. Even Christ was sustained at that thought – “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross.” There were many disappointments in the life of the apostle Paul, but he knew he was never going to be part of that dismal damned procession entering hell never to leave the place of woe, but he was in Christ’s triumphal procession advancing to the welcome of the Father and the inheritance of the saints in light.

Paul knew that he was always being led by Christ. “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). Unlike shepherds in many other cultures, those of Jesus’ day did not drive their sheep, but led them by the sound of their voice. There was once a bus-load of tourists in Israel who knew about this when they saw a flock of sheep being driven along a road. The sheep were in a somewhat distressed state. The tour-guide noted their comments and he told them, “Ah, that man is the butcher, not the shepherd.” Christ does not drive his servants on remorselessly day by day. He takes us through no darker rooms than he himself has first passed through. He goes before us, and it is to ultimate glory. “God always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ” whether it is via a prison or a stake or from our own pulpits. That is the route of the procession and it must lead to glorious triumph. Think of the calmness and courage of the martyrs, some of whom ascended the stairs to their execution to be hung and drawn and quartered as easily as at the end of a day they would have ascended the stairs to their bedrooms. They knew Christ was going up the stairs before them and that he would be with them, and this was part of their triumphant entry into heaven.

iv] By gospel proclamation God spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ everywhere;

“For we are the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing” (v.15). The streets of the ancient cities were filled with mud and dust. The sewerage facilities were primitive. The city stank in the heat of the summer with the stench from the animals and from men. There was mud everywhere in the rainy season. That was no way to welcome the emperor and his conquering army, so the soldiers and their captives were made to carry bowls of incense, and the air of the city was suffused with its aroma, in fact the scent reached the spectators long before the procession actually arrived and lingered on for hours after the celebrations had ended.

To such stinking places the early church went with God’s gospel, and as they began to live in Christ even in the shadow of the temple to Diana with all its priestesses, and tell of the Lord Jesus to all men there was a fragrance released into the community. “We are to God the aroma of Christ,” says the apostle, and “the fragrance of the knowledge of him” spreads everywhere. The South Bank of London a century and a half ago was a wretched place with smoke from ten thousand chimneys pouring into the atmosphere, and occasional fogs rolled off the Thames mixing with that smoke making the famous ‘pea-soupers’ – a killing blend of smog choking the life out of thousands of people – think of the opening paragraphs of Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House.” Then, into that deprived and wretched city came Spurgeon and the sweetest aroma began to be released. The whole atmosphere of London was changed by what Spurgeon said and did. It was the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ. As it was also said about the early church, there were times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord.

Think of the moral stench of Soho, London’s red light area, and all the degradation of such districts. There men like Michael Toogood laboured for fifteen years in the last years of the twentieth century, and into Soho a perfume was poured forth. There is nothing so unsuppressable or all-pervasive as a fragrance. Nothing can bring back memories of other scenes like a certain odour! Think of a perfume your wife wore the first time you went out together, and how, whenever you smell it, it brings back the days of your first love. So it is with the Lord Jesus; there is a unmistakable fragrance of devotion, reverence and holiness where he is preached, his people gather in his name and he is there. The beautiful fruit of the Spirit when he works in men’s lives by the Word is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control. Think of that fruit appearing in Troas, and the newness and wonder of it all to the Ancient World. There was a freshness in the air and jaded weary men and women desired to take deep breaths, stand erect and hold their heads high. “Take me to the source of that fragrance. Let me breathe deeply of him.”

Is there anything in life that can compare with the fragrance of the knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth? What doxology was heard in Troas as men and women sang to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.

“Fair are the meadows, fair are the woodlands,
Robed in the blooming garb of spring:
Jesus is fairer; Jesus is purer,
Who makes the woeful heart to sing.”

Yet that very aroma has a totally different impression on other people. You hear people complaining about the memory of the smell of the polished pews of a chapel and how it takes them back to childhood when they were ‘forced to attend’ every Sunday. Christianity means for them old age, dreariness, moralism, boredom and dying. But others love that same fragrance and it reminds them of all the blessings they had known over half a lifetime in that place of worship, where Christ met with them, and they had come to know the living God for themselves. The same odour, but utterly different reactions. To the captured defeated troops the smell of the incense meant soon they would be fighting with gladiators and wild beasts.

That aroma was the stench of death. To others the same aroma meant honour, promotion and return to their families. Life was rich for them again. What is this fragrance of Christ to men, repulsive or attractive? Does it remind them of the grave or the glory of God? The Sermon on the Mount – how fragrant! Is that their response? One day he is returning in the clouds with great glory and all his holy angels with him. All the stench of human wickedness, of torture and abuse and cruelty and excess and degradation – all such things will be removed and a new heavens and a new earth will be made and there will be such a fragrance of eternity, the presence of the love of Jesus Christ suffusing all his world – what glory and beauty, world without end. That is the word we preach and bring to dying sinners.

So in 1834 an acorn germinated, and Spurgeon was born and from both those events came growth and enrichment. The Lord Jesus described the preacher as a man who goes forth sowing seed. He can turn a wilderness into an orchard. In “The Man Who Planted Trees” (Peter Owen Publishers, London, 1989, ISBN 0 7206 1021 4) the distinguished French writer Jean Giono tells the true story of a man called Elzeard Bouffier, a shepherd whom Giono had met in 1913 in the French Alps. At that time, because of careless deforestation, the mountains around Provence were barren. Former villages were deserted because their springs and brooks had run dry. The wind blew furiously, unimpeded by foliage. While mountain climbing, Giono came to a shepherd’s hut, where he was invited to spend the night. After dinner Giono watched the shepherd meticulously sort through a pile of acorns, discarding those that were cracked or undersized. When the shepherd had selected 100 perfect acorns, he stopped and went to bed.

Giono learned that the 55-year-old shepherd had been planting trees on the hillsides for over three years. He had planted ,100,000 trees, 20,000 of which had sprouted. Of those, he expected half to be eaten by rodents or die to the elements, and the other half to live. After World War I, Giono returned to the mountainside and discovered incredible rehabilitation: there was a veritable forest, accompanied by a chain reaction in nature. Water flowed in the once-empty brooks. The ecology, sheltered by a leafy roof and bonded to the earth by a mat of spreading roots, become hospitable. Willows, rushes, meadows, gardens, and flowers were birthed.

Giono returned again after World War II. Twenty miles from the lines, the shepherd had continued his work, ignoring the war of 1939 just as he had ignored that of 1914. The reformation of the land continued. Whole regions glowed with health and prosperity. Giono writes, “On the site of the ruins I had seen in 1913 now stand neat farms. The old streams, fed by the rains and snows that the forest conserves, are flowing again. Little by little, the villages have been rebuilt. People from the plains, where land is costly, have settled here, bringing youth, motion, the spirit of adventure.”

That should be our vision for the future of the churches in the world today. That story of Elzeard Bouffier is a parable of what lies before all the church of Jesus Christ in the century ahead as an example to us. Jesus tells us that the word of God is like seed which the sower scattered in his field, and that though there were some disappointments there was also terrific growth, 100 fold increase in some cases. We possess that same seed and we are to go to the regions beyond these four walls with it. Such activity is done by men whom God commends.

“I would the precious time redeem, And longer live for this alone,
To spend and to be spent for them
Who have not yet my Saviour known.
Fully on these my mission prove,
And only breathe to breathe Thy love.” (Charles Wesley)

GEOFF THOMAS