Gifts of the Ascended Lord
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Gifts of the Ascended Lord

Ephesians 4:11–12  (ID: 3230)

In Ephesians 4, Paul noted the diversity of the body of Christ, listing different gifts that God gives to His followers. In this message, Alistair Begg defines the gifts of apostles, prophets, and evangelists, explaining the role of these individuals in laying the foundation of the church. Each of these gifts involves teaching the Word of God, which every church needs in order to grow in spiritual maturity.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in Ephesians, Volume 6

Gifts from Above Ephesians 4:7–16 Series ID: 14906

Sermon Transcript: Print

Ephesians 4:1:

“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, ‘When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.’ (In saying, ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and … the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”

Thanks be to God for his Word.

Well, in a matter of days we will have our Basics Conference, when we will host this company of pastors and church leaders. This is, I think, the seventeenth year in which we have assembled in this way, and we have done so for the express purpose of encouraging each other to focus on and to remain committed to the basics of gospel ministry. When we began seventeen years ago, we said… Well, we never thought that we would have anything more than one event, and so I said, “Let’s call it Basics.” And then in the next year, they said, “Well, what do you want to call it now?” I said, “Well, Basics is a good name. We could call it that again.” And here we are. My inventiveness has never gone beyond the year 2000, and so we’re in Basics 2017— but absolutely unashamedly so and purposefully so. Because as is true in your marriage, as is true in your golf swing, as is true in your restaurant, it is essential to do the basics well most of the time. And we say to the pastors when they come, “We’re not inviting you here to inform you of things you don’t know but rather to remind ourselves, along with you, of things we must never forget.”

And so it’s quite fitting that we come in this series of studies to this passage in Ephesians 4, which is absolutely central to an understanding of the basics of being the church. We’ve been looking at this for some time, and it is a happy thing that I’m able to say that these verses essentially, beginning with verse 11 and on, have really established the philosophy of ministry for Parkside Church from the very beginning. In other words, if people say, “Well, why do you do what you do? How is it that you’ve determined to do these things? What is uppermost in your thinking? What is it that frames and constrains the way you go about ministry in the church?” we would find ourselves coming back and back again and again to these verses in Ephesians, which establish the nature of our unity, the wonder of our diversity as a result of the gifts that God gives to us, the importance of our partnership in ministry, and then the prospect of growing towards maturity. That’s not an outline of this morning’s address; it’s just a summary of our understanding of these things.

And it’s important for us to make sure that as we return to these verses, that we are growing in our understanding of these truths that have been unchanged since the dawn of time. We’ve tried to make sure we understand what Paul is saying when he speaks about the nature of our unity. You will remember that we noted in verse 3 that this is not a unity that we are to create, but rather, it is a unity that is to be maintained. He’s actually going to go on in verse 13 and say not only is it to be maintained, but it is something that we attain to.

And the nature of the unity that we enjoy in Christ is that each of us calls God “Father” through the work of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, by the enabling power of the Holy Spirit. And Paul has made this wonderfully clear as he’s spoken to these Ephesian believers, many of whom had come out of a world of animosity towards one another as both Jew and gentile, and he says, “This is the glorious thing that God has done. He has broken down this wall of separation, and he has made one new man out of the two.”[1] And what he means by that is that united in Christ, then we are united to and with one another.

Some years ago, at Basics—I was thinking about it this week—when we had Eric Alexander, a Scottish Presbyterian; Dick Lucas, an English Anglican; and Derek Prime, an Englishman working in Scotland in an Independent Baptist church which was part of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches, all three of them came out of different streams, as it were, in the British context, and yet what struck me as I listened to them speak was that arguably, they had more in common with each other than they had outwith the context from which they’d come. And the reason for that was that they were gospel men.

In fact, it was quite staggering, because a number of the people that had come to the conference in that year, because they were very, very concerned about the adjective that they had in front of their word Church… That’s why Parkside Church is pretty easy, you know. But if you put, you know, one adjective or two adjectives, and you believe the adjective is the most important part, then you’ll probably be a little suspicious of those who don’t share your adjective. And a number of them went home, I think, radically changed. Because they said, “Oh, I never knew that there were Anglican people that loved Jesus and loved the Bible.” I want to say, “Travel a little bit, for goodness’ sake!” “And how could somebody who’s a Presbyterian, who does those things with those babies… I never understood that either!” And then they discovered, some of them, that there are even Baptists who are believers as well. It was really quite… It was a wonderful time for them—a reunderstanding of the nature and the foundation of unity, which then is seen to be, says Paul, not marked by a kind of monochromatic experience but rather by a rich diversity. He’s not talking about the diversity of personality type, or the diversity of national background, or the diversity by way of our different socioeconomic contexts, but the rich diversity that is there as a result of the ascended Christ pouring out gifts upon his church.

The gifts that God gives he doesn’t give to us so that we might pride ourselves in them but in order that we might use them for the well-being of the people of God.

And what he says here in Ephesians 4 he says elsewhere—for example, in 1 Corinthians 12: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”[2] And we tried, when we were tackling this a couple of weeks ago now—three weeks ago now—to make sure that we understood that the gifts that God gives he doesn’t give to us so that we might pride ourselves in them but in order that we might use them for the well-being of the people of God.

And this “grace” to which he refers in verse 7, this “grace” which was “given,” “was given to each one of us.” So nobody should come and sit in church and say, “Well, I’m completely inadequate. I have nothing to offer at all.” No. The “grace was given to each one of us,” without exception. And since it was grace that was given, it deals not only, on the one hand, with a sense of inadequacy, but it kills any notion of superiority—as if somehow or another, by virtue of the gift that we’ve been given, that establishes our status in some way. This “grace” in verse 7, we noted, is not the grace that saves us, to which he has referred in 2:8–9, but rather the grace which enables us to serve.

Now, Paul is not unique in this. Peter makes the same point. For example, in 1 Peter 4:10, he says to his readers, “As each”—once again, notice—“as each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” “Stewards.” Servants. Waiters. It’s a nice line, isn’t it, when they come and say to you, “Am I able to get anything for you? Is there anything else I can provide you with? Can I serve you in any way?” That’s the mentality that the apostles are saying is supposed to be pervasive in a church, so that it disavows the notion of seeing ourselves as consumers whereby we come together in order to receive. There’s no question that we receive. We receive the truth of God’s Word. We’ve sung about it in our song. But the real question ought to be, as we think about gathering with the people of God: “What am I going to contribute? I’m going to go to the middle service Sunday morning, and I’m going to contribute—contribute in giving my voice to the praise, contribute in giving my gifts for the well-being of the church and for the reaching of those who do not know Jesus, contributing by taking a genuine interest in the people who are around me, contributing by saying, ‘What I’m going to do this morning is something a little different: I’m going to actually just think, if I see somebody who is by themselves and obviously by themselves, in that moment when it all goes around and little groups begin to form,’” you say to yourself, “Now, what I’m going to do is I’m just going to stand back from that, and I’m going to look for that individual. Then I will go and see if I can make a contribution to their life.” Or, “I’m going to get up this morning, and I’m going to make sure that I contribute to the well-being of the people of God by asking them—and really meaning what I say—‘How are you?’ and then entering into the answer that comes.” The gifts that have been given multivariously have been given in order that we might contribute and not simply consume.

When I was growing up as a younger man, attending church and listening to the pastor, it wasn’t unusual for the pastor, the pastors, to trot out the old chestnut, when they’re trying to, you know, engender a little bit of enthusiasm in the congregation, and they would say, “You know, the church is like a soccer game. You have twenty-two thousand people in the stands badly in need of exercise, and you’ve got twenty-two people on the field badly in need of a rest.” And the inference was: “Look at all you folks sitting up there in the stands, and look at us down here, as it were, on the field.”

Now, there’s probably truth to that. But I also used to sit there and say, “Yeah, but wait a minute! Aren’t there some of us that would like to be on the field, and we can’t get there?” There’s some places where getting involved in ministry is one of the hardest things you ever did. And I hope you don’t feel that way. And I hope that if you do feel that way, you’ll tell me that, or you’ll tell my colleagues that. Because we want to make it the kind of place where since God has given so many different gifts to his people, that those gifts then are exercised for the well-being of the thing. Because it is really possible for a church to become like a pyramid, whereby as you go further to the top, it just becomes a hierarchy, and these individuals—not least of all myself—control everything that’s going on. It’s not supposed to be that way. When it is that way, it’s wrong. As we said, I think, three weeks ago, nor is the picture that of a bus, where everybody takes a seat on the bus and then just criticizes how it’s being driven. That’s a bad picture as well. No, the picture is of a body.

Now, in verse 11—you say, “Well, good, we’re getting to the point now”—in verse 11, Paul picks up from verse 7. In verse 7: now “grace was given to each one of us.” And now, in verse 11, he comes back and focuses on specific gifts. And I want us to look at the nature of these gifts. I want to make sure that we understand this teaching. Because it is not only important for us this morning as a church in this moment in time, but to the extent that we lay hold of this and understand it and believe it and live in the light of it, it is vital for the church in coming generations. It’s not enough for us just to say, “Well, I’m sure this means something.” We need to know what it means, the nature of these gifts. We’ll barely get to the purpose of the gifts. We’ll have to come back to that. But the nature of them.

First of all, to notice what is true of each gift mentioned—apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor-teacher or shepherd-teacher: What is true of every one of them? They are all involved with the teaching and preaching of the Word of God. They are all Word gifts.

Now, let me just say at the very outset: no individual, no church will be matured to the point that God intends for us absent from the teaching and preaching of the Word of God—not simply from the pulpit—definitely from the pulpit—but in every dimension of the church’s life saying, “What does the Bible have to say? What does the Bible mean here? How is the Bible to be applied to life?” Meeting with somebody who’s wondering about the faith and saying, “Let’s read the Bible together and see what the Bible has to say.” There will be no maturing without the ministry of the Word.

With that said, being true of each of them, let’s look at them in turn. We won’t do it exhaustively but sufficiently, I hope.

The Gift of Apostles

First of all, then, “apostles.” “Apostles.” Paul has already referred to this group in 2:20: “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.” To whom is he referring? Well, he’s referring to those who were appointed by Christ—a unique and unrepeatable group who were personally chosen by Jesus and who were authorized by Jesus.

There will be no maturing without the ministry of the Word.

This is of importance—that the characteristics of an apostle or, if you like, the prerequisites for being an apostle were these:

Number one, that they were eyewitnesses of the risen Christ. You remember when Paul is defending his apostleship, he says, “I, too, am an apostle. I saw the risen Christ.”[3] He makes mention of it because it is foundational. Eyewitnesses of the risen Christ.

Secondly, commissioned by the Lord Jesus Christ. So, for example, to Ananias, in Paul’s case again: “Ananias, go! This man is my chosen servant to bear my name before the gentiles.”[4]

Thirdly, that the word that they spoke was Christ’s word. Christ’s word. In other words, they were inspired by the Holy Spirit, and their word has become for us our New Testament.

And fourthly, they were accredited by signs and by wonders—2 Corinthians 12:12—so that in the foundational aspects of the church, in the inaugural period of the church, those who had been present with Christ and others, too, who then were filled with the Holy Spirit and were sent out into the world, they were inevitably to be unrepeatable. Unrepeatable. Because there is nobody then who saw the risen Christ. There was no one who was directly commissioned by Christ. There was no one then who was inspired by the word of Christ.

Oh, yes, there were charlatans and hucksters then, and there are today as well. But the important thing to understand is that the authority of the apostles is preserved today in the New Testament. The authority of the apostles is preserved for us here—that the word that they spoke was inscripturated, so that when we think in terms of apostolic succession, apostolic succession does not move from a person to a person or, in Roman Catholic terms, from a pope to a pope, but the true apostolic succession is the passing on of the truth of the Word of God from one generation to another. That’s why we spend so much time with Timothy. Paul says to Timothy, “But you, Timothy, in an environment that is crazy, make sure that you continue in the things that you have learned, knowing from whom you have learned them and how from your very infancy you have known the sacred Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.”[5] That is the apostolic succession. And so it is important that we get it.

By this definition, there are no apostles today. By this definition, there are no apostles today. Apostolic authority is in the New Testament. Now, I know that some of you will say, “Well, we know a church somewhere else, and they have an apostle as their pastor.” Well, okay. Fine. He calls himself that. I wouldn’t do that. But I’m not going to assume immediately that he is putting himself on the level of this unrepeatable group.

I hope that what he’s doing or what that church is doing is recognizing one of the two other ways in which apostle is used in the New Testament. One is in John 13:16, where Jesus says, “A servant is not greater than his master, nor is [he who is sent]”—that is, apostle, apostolos—neither is the apostolos “greater than [he] who sent him.”[6] So in other words, he uses the verb, uses the notion—uses the noun, actually—uses the noun in that way. And also, you have the same thing in 2 Corinthians 8, where Paul refers to the “brothers” who “are messengers of the churches,”[7] which is apostoloi. It’s the same noun. So you have this, and I think that is probably what people are doing. So they’re saying, “Well, Apostle Jones,” or whoever it is, “will be conducting the evening service”; I want to assume that they’re using it in terms of John 13 or 2 Corinthians 8. If they are using it in terms of this primary dimension, which we are saying is unrepeatable, then, of course, there’s a real problem.

So, let’s be clear: in the sense in which Paul uses the term here and in 2:20, there are no apostles today. When I wrote that down, I found myself singing, “[Oh], yes, we have no bananas. We have no bananas.”[8] I got a very bad mind. I really do. And then I was singing, “We have no apostles today.” So, that might have woken a couple up and helped you with your memory.

The Gift of Prophets

Secondly, “prophets.” “Prophets.” Once again, they are contained in 2:20: “on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.” Also, they’re mentioned in 3:5, where Paul talks about the insight into the mystery that God would unite in one new man the two of old, and he says, this hasn’t been something that previous generations have known, but “it has now been revealed”—verse 5—“to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.”

So in other words, along with the apostles, their ministry was foundational. Their role was as a mouthpiece of God. Their role was as a vehicle of direct revelation from God, and so that when they spoke and brought truth to bear upon the context within the framework of the apostolic band, they had a place—a place, of course, which had to be dying out. Because as soon as you had the Word of God inscripturated, as soon as you had the closed canon of Scripture, there was no place for and no need for somebody coming and saying, “I can tell you what the word of God is.” Because God has now provided us, finally, in the New Testament the words that were spoken by his prophets and apostles.

And, my friends, this is vitally important. It’s not uncommon—and I use this terminology all the time, but purposefully. People say to me, “You know, I like Jesus. I like to read the Gospels. I love the Sermon on the Mount. But I’m not so keen on Paul. I don’t really like Peter”—as if somehow or another, you can read the New Testament and decide, you know, who your top three are and then reject all the rest. No, the authority is the same authority. It is the apostolic authority provided by God in inspiring and enabling his servants to speak from him, for him, and then for that to be written down and preserved so that we then may be able to understand what that means.

Stott, wonderfully as always, says, “As the foundation on which the church is … built the prophets have no successors, any more than the apostles have, for the foundation was laid and finished centuries ago and we cannot tamper with it in any way today.”[9] “We cannot tamper with it in any way today.” And yet if you’ve moved around church circles at all, you know that it is frequently tampered with. And people say, “Well, I have a word for you from God,” or somebody might tell you something and say, “You know, thus says the Lord.” People, they seem to enjoy this notion of being able to, you know, tell you what’s going on. I don’t know where they get it from. They get it from their tummy, I think.

Unless you have it from the Bible, then just don’t talk about it. You don’t know. Don’t go to your friends and say, “Thus says the Lord.” Go to your friends and say, “Have you read the Bible?” Go to the Bible and say, “What does God say about this? What does God’s Word have to say about marriage? What does God’s Word say about singleness? What does it say about business? What does it say about sexuality? What does it say?” He has given us his Word in order that this might be the case. And “what more can he say than to you he ha[s] said?”[10]

You understand, loved ones, how absolutely crucial it is: the primacy and the place of the Scriptures in the life of God’s people. That is why the undermining work of the Evil One from the garden of Eden on has always been to say, “Did God really say this? Can you really trust this? Do you think that’s what God really means?” Go to any area—and classically, at the moment, in the realm of family and of marriage and of the issues of sexuality and so on. How can we know? Because we have the Bible.

Well, you know, when I was young—“younger, so much younger than today”[11]—I went to all kinds of churches. I was ready for anything that was on offer. And I remember being in a church in England that was a very charismatic church, and they had a peculiar focus on the gifts—not so much the gift of helps, but more spectacular things. And it was quite common for people to give utterances in tongues, and then somebody would interpret the tongue.

And I remember one evening when I decided, “I must move on from this.” Because we were in the church, there was a lot of singing, it was okay, and then there was a bit of a hullabaloo, and then somebody gave an utterance in a tongue, and then the pastor or somebody said, “Now, do we have anybody to interpret what has been said here?” And it was either a fellow or a girl—I can’t remember—she said, “Yes, I’ve got it.” And he said, “Okay.” And she said, “The word of God to the church is,” and I quote, “‘Whoop it up!’” Okay? So I said to myself, “Why would God go to all that bother to make this guy do what he just did and then allow this lady to say what she just said? And what does ‘Whoop it up’ actually mean in this context?”

And I can remember, I didn’t do it in a proud or defiant way, the way sometimes happens here on a Sunday, where you can see people—I’m about ten minutes into it; they go out the door. I didn’t do it that way. But I did take my Bible, and the first time that it was confused enough again, I just slipped out the back. I said, “No, no. This is not good for me. This is not good for me.” No, “the Word of God is light in my darkness.”[12] The Word of God is the lamp to my feet; it’s the light to my path.[13]

You see, it is together that we submit to it, rather than subjectivism. There’s all kinds of ways, good ways, in which you can get deviant from this. You can’t come to me and tell me what God is doing unless you come to me with the Scriptures open to say, “This is what God is doing, because this is what God has done, and this is the truth that God provides.”

You see, loved ones, this is what makes a church ultimately secure, free from the tyranny of the predilections of the preacher. That is why I say to you, “Examine the Scriptures. You are sensible people. See what the Bible says. Don’t take my word for it.” We must be men and women of the Book.

You say, “Well, then the prophetic thing is over.” Yes and no. No in this sense: that throughout history, subsequent to the apostolic period, we can see that there have been those who have exercised, if you like, a prophetic ministry in this sense: that they’ve had a peculiar ability to combine accurate exposition with pertinent, pressing application.

So, I did a wedding in a church in Edinburgh last Sunday, and Whitefield preached there in 1741 and 1748. And I sat there, and I thought what it would have been like to hear Whitefield preach. Whitefield! For surely here is an individual who exercised a prophetic ministry in his day. He wasn’t adding to the Bible. He was teaching the Bible. But he taught it in such a way that people said, “You know what? I get that.”

In the twentieth century, probably, in British terms, nobody more so than Martyn Lloyd-Jones. That’s why as leadership here, we often make reference to him. I remember listening to him preach in Yorkshire years ago. You’ll be able to pinpoint the date. I can’t remember it now. But in the course of preaching from Psalm 8—“What is man, that thou art mindful of him?”[14] and so on—he breaks off from his thing, and he says, “You know, in America in the last few days, many of the newspapers have used a split front page. A split front page.” He says, “I saw newspaper x, and on the front page they had the moon landing and the Kennedy Chappaquiddick event on the one page.” And he says, “And there,” in his own inimitable Welsh voice, he says, “And there you have it, my dear friends. You have a man on the moon, and you have hell on the earth.” That’s prophetic—the way the Word of God addresses these things. But in the strict sense in which Paul is using it, there are no apostles today. There are no prophets today.

The Gift of Evangelists

What of the “evangelists”? Well, actually, this is an interesting one, too, because there are only three places where this noun is used in the whole New Testament. It is used here, and it is used concerning Philip in Acts chapter 21,[15] and it is used when Paul urges Timothy to keep his head, endure hardship, and “do the work of an evangelist.”[16] So Timothy was not an evangelist. He was to “do the work of an evangelist.” And Philip, apparently, was an evangelist.

So, what are we to make of this? Well, every Christian is called to bear witness to Christ. Right? We’re all charged with that responsibility. Every Christian is called to be a witness to Christ. Not every Christian is a missionary in the strict sense of the word, right?—and being set apart for a specific geographical context or area of ministry. So, we recognize that. That’s why we’re supporting individuals from our church throughout the world who have been set apart to that charge. So this evangelist is something different from that. And if you think about Philip and you think about Timothy, both of them essentially worked within the framework of the apostolic band—so, the apostles and the prophets and the evangelists taking and disseminating these things.

Now, as I was studying this week, I realized that one of our speakers that’s coming to Basics caught me off guard when he says quite clearly that the evangelists, along with the apostles and prophets, had callings that “belong to the inaugural life of the New Testament church,”[17] and that in the very nature of the case, we do not expect these ministries to reappear in the church today. Well, then I sat for a minute. I said, “Wait a minute.” Then I realized what he was saying, I think. But I’m going to check when he gets here, and you can too. He was saying that in this unique dimension, in the founding and grounding of the church, there were those who were set apart to this task. He’s not saying that the gift of evangelism no longer exists, because clearly it does, and the need for evangelism is an ongoing need. And we recognize, too, and we’re grateful to God for those whom he has raised up and continues to raise up who are particularly gifted in explaining the gospel, and not only in explaining the gospel but in putting the net in and drawing it in.

Every Christian is called to bear witness to Christ.

Some of us are, like, you know, sharing the gospel like fishermen. The person says, “You know, did you catch anything?” “No, but I influenced a few,” you know. I mean, you’ll never sell life insurance unless you can actually get the signature on the bottom of the page, on the premium. You can talk about it for the rest of your life. And that’s why some of you have never made it in that business, ’cause you just say, “Well, would you like to sign up?” The person says, “Nah, I don’t think so.” And then somebody else, he’s got people signing up all over the place. He’s got the gift. And there are people in our church who have a peculiar gift of talking to other people about Jesus. All of us talk to people about Jesus, but some of us aren’t as gifted as others. We still do it, but we stumble and bumble. And then there are those who are just manifestly good at it, because God gifts. That gift is not the same as that to which he’s referring here in terms of “the evangelists,” but it is foundational.

The Need for the Word Gifts

Well, let me just say a word. Our time is gone, but let me just take us to pastors and teachers. In fact, let me stop before we get to pastors and teachers, and let me crystallize this for us in our minds as a segue to moving on.

What we’re essentially recognizing this morning, I think, is the fact that when God… Remember, Jesus in John 17, he prays, “[Father], sanctify them in [your] truth; your word,” “thy word,” “is truth.”[18] So he’s praying; he says, “And I don’t pray just for these but for those who will believe as a result in the ministry,”[19] and so on. So before Jesus goes to the cross, he’s praying that the truth of God’s Word will be the portion of God’s people and that they will become all that God intends for them to be as a result of the ministry of his Word. So it ought not to be a surprise to us that when he is resurrected and ascends to heaven, and as the ascended Christ he pours out gifts to men, these gifts that he pours out are Word gifts—apostle, evangelist, prophet, pastor, teacher—because of the absolutely vital place of the Word of God.

The reason that we do Basics is not because we think we are on to some peculiar deal. We’re not. We are not! We are trying to find out what this means. We are trying to find out what it will mean to become, as we will see later in the verses, fully mature as a congregation—what it will mean to quit being childish and forming our views from the latest DVD or latest book that somebody came out with. I can tell where you are in your lives when you come to me with this stuff. I mean, don’t stop coming. But I just want you to know that I know that when you come to me and say, “Oh, I think this is it; I think we finally got it,” we ain’t got it! We got it right here. And if it’s not setting that forward, it’s setting it aside. There is a crying need in our nation for the teaching, preaching, proclaiming, and living out of the Word of God. How do I know? Because I live in the nation. Because I pay attention. Because I’m on the receiving end of all kinds of initiatives—and a letter such as this, with which I finish.

Here is an illustration of what we’re saying about the need to see young men set out into pulpits around our nation—not young men that are looking for the perfect pulpit, the perfect place, the ideal spot. Because there is no ideal spot except the spot he puts you in. If you think when I was in Scotland that I had conceived of Cleveland as the ideal spot, then you don’t know me. All right? But God has made Cleveland, to me, for me, the ideal spot. There is no other spot. This is it. I recognize that—not in looking forward. And I get young guys coming to me all the time: they need a certain number in the church, certain place in the church, certain location in the church, certain this, certain that, and certain the next thing. Go home, and never come back. But if you’re prepared to say, “I’ll go serve in rural America; I will go up a side street for the cause of the gospel,” then you and I can have a conversation.

Because here’s the cry of a guy’s heart. He’s twenty-four years old. He lives in a small town in eastern Kentucky. He’s got a wife, and he’s got a nine-month-old son. And essentially, what he says is this:

Listening to Truth For Life has created in me a hunger to try and find out what it means to know God. I don’t consider myself a religious person, and I’m writing to you in the hope that you’ll be able to give me some advice or maybe guidance into what I might do. I’m having a very hard internal struggle, because I want to have faith, and I want God to be a part of my life.

That’s fantastic in itself, isn’t it? Because what do we know from the Bible? We know that there is none that seeks God, no, not one.[20] So when you get a twenty-four-year-old fellow saying, “I want to know God; I want to have faith,” then we know that God is at work in this fellow’s life.

I was born into a family that was Jehovah’s Witness. My dad was devout. My mother went along with it. Third grade, my parents got divorced. I went with my mom. She left the religion, and she took me to a Baptist church, which was okay, [he says,] because I thought it was amusing how worked up the preachers got. As I got older, I understood a lot more, and I decided, basically, “Forget it.” My father got cancer. I moved back in with him. He started working on me with the JWs again, and by the time I was fourteen, [he said,] I was done with it. My dad’s cancer went into recession, so I moved back with my mom. That was the last time my father ever spoke to me.

So he’s now twenty-four. His father hasn’t spoken to him in ten years. All right?

Young, confused, I tried every church. I went to the Church of Christ, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Church of God.

What fourteen-year-old boy goes from church to church? Where is this boy? I want to meet a fourteen-year-old boy that’s been going from, you know, the Episcopal church up on the corner there in Chagrin, and then to the United Methodist down opposite the dry cleaners, and then over here. I want to meet him! Do you know many fourteen-year-old boys that are just going from church to church, trying to know God? It’s fantastic! But he doesn’t meet God! He says,

The problem I have is the church seems to be more about association than worship. And the people who are supposed to be the voice of God are some of the worst among the group! The Baptists can’t speak clearly enough to get a proper message across, and the ones who can speak properly are bashing all the other denominations.

Then he says,

My mother died when I was seventeen. I bounced around from house to house. Eighteen, I got an apartment. I was a senior in high school, living in an apartment, playing football, working at McDonald’s to afford it, so that I could live in my apartment by myself. I had no time whatsoever for the church. So in order to get away from everything, I decided to join the army. And in basic training, I got interested in the Catholic Church. I figured they’d been around for such a long time, they got to be doing something right. But I didn’t like how they prayed to so many different people and practically worshipped the pope. I haven’t been to a church since, and perfectly honest, I don’t even know what to do with it all.

Here we go:

So now here I am, married and with a son that I want to raise in the ways of God but with no means to do it other than to teach him myself, which I am not qualified to do. When I hear Truth For Life, the message is easy to understand and relate to. If there is any advice you could give me on how I could go about trying to be a good Christian, it would be greatly appreciated. Thank you for taking the time to read this letter, and I hope I haven’t bothered you with my request.

Bothered me? He stirred me! I’m about ready to go to Kentucky and start a church plant in Kentucky. I mean, why not? We don’t have to just start them, you know, within thirty miles of Parkside here. There is no limit to the opportunity to be granted to those who, with a firm conviction about the truth of God’s Word, a genuine love for people, and a preparedness to be thought nothing for the rest of your life—there’s no limit to what may be done.

And as Truth For Life, along with other ministries, sort of breaks ground into these areas, one of the challenges that is given to us is whether we’re going to take and back it up on the ground, as it were, with the personnel to answer this.

I asked the folks at Truth For Life to track this fellow down and his phone number, and I saw this morning, when I came back, that we have it. So I’m going to phone him, and I’ll let you know how we get on. But you might pray for him, the young man from Kentucky with a nine-month-old son and a baby, who has been wandering around for a while, and he wants to know God.

Father, what an amazing thing it is that in this book that people doubt, disown, devalue, discard—that in this book we have the living and abiding Word of God. “The grass withers, the flower [falls], but the word of our [Lord] will stand forever.”[21] Lord, increase within us not a desire to worship the Bible but to worship the Lord Jesus Christ as we meet him in the pages of Scripture. Help us with these things, Lord. We need to come to terms with this as individuals and as a church. And we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

[1] See Ephesians 2:14.

[2] 1 Corinthians 12:7 (ESV).

[3] See 1 Corinthians 9:1.

[4] Acts 9:15 (paraphrased).

[5] 2 Timothy 3:14–15 (paraphrased).

[6] John 13:16 (ESV).

[7] 2 Corinthians 8:23 (ESV).

[8] Billy Jones, “Yes! We Have No Bananas” (1923).

[9] John R. W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians: God’s New Society, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1979), 161.

[10] “How Firm a Foundation” (1787).

[11] John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “Help!” (1965).

[12] Andi Rozier and Brenton Brown, “Word of God” (2012).

[13] See Psalm 119:105.

[14] Psalm 8:4 (KJV).

[15] See Acts 21:8.

[16] 2 Timothy 4:5 (ESV).

[17] Sinclair B. Ferguson, Let’s Study Ephesians (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2005), 107.

[18] John 17:17 (ESV).

[19] John 17:20 (paraphrased).

[20] See Romans 3:10–11.

[21] Isaiah 40:8 (ESV).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.