Dr. Bruce Ashford delivered a powerful sermon from Hebrews 11 in the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary Chapel on August 20th. My hope with this post is to hit the highlights of his message, point people to the audio because it is a must-listen, and intersperse some of my thoughts throughout as I meditate upon the themes of his message. Dr. Ashford began with a testimony of a sleepless night from his seminary days. The map of the 10/40 window and the thought that “I could take the gospel to them,” haunted him. The idea that nearly 2 billion people could walk for days without encountering a Bible, a Christian or a Church preoccupied him. Therefore, he asked himself the question: “Have I surrendered to the ministry, or now that I once surrendered to it am I trying to regain control of it?” This question, stated by Ashford in his message, is a major question that has lodged in my mind since hearing him speak. He says that at the time of this move of the Spirit in his life he was speaking at hundreds of youth events and churches a year. He said that this preaching had become an idol to him. This is a word for every minister of the gospel. Every minister should ask himself the question, “Are the ambitions of my heart blinding me to another service that God has called me to?” He says that ministry is an easy place to hide the idols of hearts because “we take the selfish ambitions we have before conversion and we baptize them, clothing them in Christian garb.” Is this keeping you or me from doing something that God has for us?
Dr. Ashford moved to the Hebrews passage to speak about ministry, and about where a life of a faith can take you. His constant refrain throughout this section of the message was another important question that I took away, “Have you surrendered to the path God is calling you to?” He focused on three major elements in the passage. First, sometimes God sees fit to bless men and women of faith with visible victories. Hebrews 11:30-35a: “By Faith the people crossed the Red Sea… the walls of Jericho feel down… who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection.” If these are the events of your life, Dr. Ashford says to praise God; this is the act of a gracious Lord.
Second, Ashford states that, “Sometimes God sees fit to issue suffering for men and women of faith.” Hebrews 11:35b-38: “Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword… of whom the World was not worthy.” Dr. Ashford said of these, “This is something like the opposite of the health and wealth prosperity gospel.” If I may add my thoughts, the sad state of the “Prosperity Gospel” is a different post for a different day, but it is important to see that God is not calling us all to visible victories – – even for those that are giants of faith, these verses deal a crushing blow to that heretical teaching. Dr. Ashford mentioned what suffering does for the believer. First, suffering produces growth in the servant of God. Second, suffering demonstrates the greatness of Christ to a watching world. This is true because saying, “blessed be the Lord” when you have a nice, middle class American life looks easy to the watching world. The suffering that our brothers and sisters in arms around the world are facing is producing rapid growth in the number of disciples of our Lord. Why is this so? This is how it has always been. The famous quote assigned to Tertullian, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church,” captures this thought. The on-looking world sees true faith and the power of God in a man like Polycarp, who while facing the edge of the sword, unless he says that Christ is not God, instead says, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and he never did me any injury; how then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior.” This is faith; this is a visible demonstration that there is something different to hold on to in the life of true believer. The on-looking world sees something completely different in a man who at the edge of the sword refuses to say “Allāhu Akbar” and instead in the midst of persecution says, “blessed be the Lord.” The watching world sees true transformation here, that is true faith and it is manifested more clearly many times through suffering.
Finally, on the suffering of a servant of God Ashford points out, sometimes we do not see the whole picture of suffering. Again, if I can expound on this idea, the blessing is that God has not remained distant from this suffering, but has become a part of it through the crucifixion of His Son. The problem of pain and evil is always a tough subject for us, but we must point people to the one who not only enables His servants to endure, but also became the solution to the problem by “bearing in His own body” the sins of the world. Dr. John Lennox who was recently with us at SEBTS says this is the only answer (that of God becoming part of the solution) on the market that begins to answer the theodicy problem. Ashford ends here with another question, which I have rephrased as follows: “Does Christ have the preeminence in my life?” Am I willing to be a Hebrews 11 type of man whatever that means? Dr. Ashford says often times our lives, as ministers, will be a mixture of both visible signs of victory and times of suffering. Or more poignantly, we may ask, “Am I willing to die like those at the end of the chapter 11 if that is what God sees fit for my life?”
Ashford’s final point is that both groups provide a testimony to Christ. Hebrews 11:39-40 states, “And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”
Ashford then moved to discuss the final question, a question that he had asked himself during his seminary days: “Am I an obstacle to the nations hearing the Gospel?” There are 2 billion with little or no gospel witness, with so many in our seminaries, why is it the case that most stay? He pointed out, that humanly speaking, in the year 2008 it has never been easier in the history of the world for the gospel to reach the ends of the earth than it is right now. It is especially easy for those in the SBC (to take the Gospel to the nations) as we have the opportunity of working through the IMB. He said that it does little good to expound about inerrancy if it makes no change in our hearts. He pleads that we all (beginning with himself) pray that God will break our own grips on our lives. He reiterates that not all are called to full-time overseas mission work, however more are probably called than go. More are probably called to tough, uncomfortable areas here in North America than go. It is time for us to be men and women of faith. My father, Danny Akin, often says the question is not “Should I go?” Instead, we should be asking “Why Should I stay?” One of the major things that we hope to do with this site is to point to the beauty of cooperating for the sake of the Gospel. The IMB is one of the main resources to that end. Never before has travel and technology allowed for us to so easily access the ends of the earth than right now. Dr. Ashford closes with an appeal to contemplate very seriously spending 1/40th of your life overseas, a two-year stint. But maybe, just maybe, he says some of us should go ahead and take our caskets with us overseas and prepare for a life served in a foreign context. And maybe, just maybe, the life that is lived with that kind of faith will be worthy of the label used to describe the saints in Hebrews chapter 11—they were those “of whom the World was not worthy.”
This message is a must hear, it can be downloaded here.
Also, check out Dr. Akin’s convocation sermon from 2 Timothy 1:8-12 entitled “The Pattern of Paul’s Missionary Life Revealed in the Ministry of David Brainerd for the Furtherance of the Gospel Among the Nations” and Dr. O.S. Hawkins’ sermon from Acts 9:31 entitled “Walking in the Fear of the Lord.”