Shortly after 4:30 this afternoon, the residents of Phillips neighborhood in south Minneapolis—the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in the United States—may spot a familiar sight: a trim man in his upper sixties, bespectacled with thinning gray curly hair, leaving his two-story house to walk to church.
John Piper will make his way north across the bridge suspended above “Spaghetti Junction,” with its dull roar of freeway traffic, past the East Village Market grocery store, past Augustana Health Care Center for the elderly, past Andrew Residence for the mentally broken, and past the Elliott Twins apartments for low-income residents. And then he’ll arrive at a place he dearly loves, Bethlehem Baptist Church, where he has been preaching the glory of God in the gospel week in and week out for 33 years.
The walk takes seven minutes—six if he is running late, eight if he is especially enjoying the weather. He once counted his steps: exactly 600 paces from his front door to Bethlehem’s old main door. He has made this walk at least 10,000 times in the last 33 years—the equivalent of walking from the east coast to the west coast in the United States and back again. Six million steps.
It’s not the last time he will make this walk. But it is the last time he will do so as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church.
Tucked into the coat pocket of his charcoal suit jacket will be his compact ESV Bible, and in his worn leather briefcase will be a cheap folder, and in the folder will be a 11-page double-spaced typewritten sermon manuscript, with an array of handwritten circles and connecting lines and underlines and exclamation points and notes.
Within a couple of hours the singing will cease, and he will rise from the front-row pew, place his sermon manuscript on the wooden pulpit, offer an introduction, and then read from Hebrews 13:20-21, the text for his Easter sermon that will double as his farewell sermon. After he reads the benedictory text that begins, “Now may the God of peace who brought again our Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep,” Piper will undoubtedly remind his beloved flock that the transition from one undershepherd to another is undergirded by a dying and rising Great Shepherd who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
Half a lifetime ago, at the age of 34, Piper preached his installation sermon, “The Wisdom of Men and the Power of God,” from 1 Corinthians 2:1-5. The date was July 13, 1980, and the location was in the old sanctuary of the adjacent building (now converted into office space and classrooms). The young shepherd—who had preached a total of about 15 sermons in his entire life—looked out at a sea of gray hair and spoke with candor:
I come to you as your pastor today with weaknesses (which you will learn soon enough) and in much fear and trembling.
Not that I distrust the power and promise of God but that I distrust myself.
Not so much that I will fail—as the world counts failure—but that I might succeed in my own strength and wisdom and so fail as God counts failure.
But Piper has succeeded, in the biblical sense, as God has been glorified in his desperate and dependent servant.
Piper did not begin this pastoral ministry unaware of the challenges and the pain and the heartache and the struggles that lay ahead. His father, a lifelong evangelist, had written him a candid letter the year before, reeling off a litany of inevitable pressures and discouragements that come with being a pastor. He noted: “At times you will feel the weight of the world on your shoulders. Many pastors have broken under the strain.” But then he reminded his son that “there will be a thousand compensations.”
You’ll see that people trust Christ as Savior and Lord.
You’ll see these grow in the knowledge of Christ and his Word.
You’ll witness saints enabled by your preaching to face all manner of tests.
You’ll see God at work in human lives, and there is no joy comparable to this.
Just ask yourself, son, if you are prepared not only to preach and teach, but also to weep over men’s souls, to care for the sick and dying, and to bear the burdens carried today by the saints of God.
His father’s words proved to be prophetic. God has been greatly glorified as a people have sat week in and week out, year after year, not only under John Piper’s preaching but also his pastoral care.
When all is said and done, John Piper will be remembered for many things. But apart from his own relationship to God and his relationship to family, his most important vocation will remain serving as a faithful, worshipful, prayerful shepherd to a local body of believers.
We are witnessing the end of a remarkable pastoral ministry—but not the end of his Christian service and ministry. My prayer, and eager expectation, is that the Lord will continue to use John Piper and to keep him faithful in this next season of life as he finishes strong for the glory of God in Christ Jesus.
Thank you, God, for this gift.
Update: You can listen to, watch, or read the sermon here.