And here I am, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, at my second Desiring God National Conference. This convention center is a great deal busier than it was last year. The room is nearly packed from front to back with the 3,130 people who are supposed to be in attendance. There is a real sense of eagerness and anticipation. Everyone I’ve spoken to has been excited, waiting eagerly for the sessions to begin. I have already met several old friends and several new friends. This promises to be a valuable weekend both in terms of teaching and in terms of fellowship.
Because this conference was inspired by David Wells’ book Above All Earthly Pow’rs, Wells will provide the first address. He will speak on “The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World.”
For the last decade he has been thinking about the world we live in and trying his best to understand it. As vital and important as it is to do that, to understand ourselves and our internal processes, coming here tonight to speak about the supremacy of Christ is such a joy and relief. It falls to him to open this conference and hence he may tread in the territory of the speakers who follow. What he wants to try to do is to try to speak clearly and simply about this difficult subject.
In 1793 when Carey went to India, 98% of Protestants lived in the West. There followed a century of missions, after which 90% of Protestants still lived in the West. Someone might have been forgiven for thinking Christianity was a European or Western thing or a white man’s thing. But no longer. Tonight we live at a time of great transformation in Christian faith – not a transformation in its nature, because Christianity does not change, but a transformation in where it is believed, in where Christian believers are found. We see a pattern emerging that Christianity is moving South to Latin America and Africa, and moving East into some of the most populous nations in Asia. There are probably more Christians in China than in the United States. It is also growing in India and elsewhere. In the West, Christianity is struggling to survive. The United States is a bit of an exception, but in Europe vast areas of its life have been stripped of all Christian presence, leaving behind nothing but empty churches and cathedrals. This is somewhat true of Canada; it is true of Australia and New Zealand. This Sunday only 2% of people in New Zealand will go to church. By contrast, in some African churches up to 80% of people go to church. Some meet under a tree or beside a building, but they still meet. There is more Christian believing outside the West than inside the West. Christianity is becoming de-Westernized.
So what is this faith about? It is the faith of almost every people group who know and acknowledge and worship Christ as supreme. It is very different from Islam which has a geographic center (Mecca), it has a language (Arabic). The Christian faith has no geographic center, there is not one race that dominates it, there is not a preferred language for its expression and there is no privileged culture for its home. No place, race, tongue or culture. It is a Person. It is not just the founder of a religion, but the incarnate, resurrected and reigning Christ whose resurrection inaugurated the reign that will cleanse the entire universe of evil.
The world has known some great people. We speak of many who are “great.” But Jesus Christ is not “great.” He is incomparable. He is in a category all of His own. He is unique. Of whom else can you say that He was God incarnate, that He bore our sin in our place, that He rose from death, that He now reigns supreme? That cannot be said of anyone else. The book of Scripture that argues this most insistently is Hebrews.
He will give only one instance of the kind of argument that we find in the first ten chapters, but will then focus some attention on the eleventh chapter. There is truth there we need to grasp as we attempt to grasp Christ’s supremacy. He will introduce and then put two texts side-by-side. The first text is Hebrews 2:8-9 which gives us a picture of Christ inaugurating His rule over life that is cosmic in its scope, putting Creation back to its purpose, and the second is from Hebrews 10 which presents us with Christ seated and all of His enemies conquered and under His feet. These texts serve as a framework to think about Christ’s supremacy.
Hebrews was written to Jewish believers tempted to fade back into the woodwork. They had grown up to treasure what God had done in their history. He had given them extraordinary leaders, miraculous deliverances. They treasured these things and they were part of their identity. Now they face persecution through looming Roman power. They were being hounded by religious authorities, there was danger all around and fear within. They were tempted to flee back into the safety of the Judaism from which they had come. But to do so, they had to pass by the uniqueness of who Christ is and what He has done. Again and again this contrast is made between what we have in the Old Testament and what we have in Christ.
Hebrews 1 – In the past, God spoke in pieces to many people. But now, in these last days, He has spoken fully through Christ. Christ is absolutely unique in this way, for in him is contained all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. These prophets, even in their greatness, were just messengers. Jesus is the end message. He is the one who brings in a final, full and complete synthesis of all that God has been saying. The author then gives a compact summary of the person and work of Christ. He is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being. All of the undiminished Godness of God was His, so that anyone who saw Him had seen the Father. The author speaks of what He has done, saying “He made the universe, He is appointed the heir of all things, He upholds the universe by the word of His power, He made purification for our sins, He sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high. Creation, eschatoloty, providence, work on the cross, resurrection, and ascension are all present.
Why, then, the author asks at the beginning of chapter two, are the Jews drifting away from this unique person and His unique work? Why would they leave what is unique for what is not? What is completed for what is not? What is completely glorious for what is less so? The argument through the first ten verses shows that He is supreme over all that we have seen in the Old Testament.
The pastoral application begins in verse eleven. What was the problem with the Old Testament people of God? We see that they were unable to enter the promised land because of unbelief. They came to the very edge of what God had promised them and decided that it was too risky to enter. Whoever was there was bigger, nastier and more numerous than they were. So they shrank back and retreated. In their own minds they somehow could not see that God would be sufficient for them in this time of engagement with what was on the other side. In their imaginations they saw giants and cities that were impregnable – far greater than what they could count upon by way of God’s deliverance. This is the very problem that is happening again when confronted by this hostile world. They are shrinking back, pulling back, from Christ. What if they were put out of the temple? Wouldn’t they lose all that was precious to them? How could God sustain them if that happened? What if they were ejected from Judaism? Would they not be cut off from Moses and David and Isaiah? In the eleventh chapter, the author says, “If you walk by faith, you will be in continuity with all of the great leaders of the past. You will lose nothing.” What they all had in common, whether kings or prophets or simple people or martyrs, was the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen. It was a fearless persuasion of what was there in the goodness of God, in His character, in His greatness. They saw it with their “inward eyes” and trusted it and acted upon it. They were people of faith.
This is what makes hearts strong in bearing suffering and it is what enabled them to bear sickening disappointments at times and terrible reverses and sometimes disheartening unfaithfulness (see Hebrews 11:35 for a more complete list of the sufferings). These words describe what is happening in many places in the world where people suffer and die for their faith. Yet in verse 33 we see that these people were also victorious in many ways. The reason the Jewish believers were drawing back from Christ came down to a matter of faith. It always comes down to a matter of faith. For these young believers, their understanding of Christ had been clouded out of concern for their personal safety. They didn’t know what abuse might come their way and so they thought it was better to be safe than sorry. We don’t worry about these things in the West, but our problem is slightly different. It is not so much fear for our safety as that we are so distracted by so many things that it is hard for us to sustain a focus upon the supremacy of Christ in our world and our lives. We think of our experience in the West in terms of its benefits: we know more, communicate more, communicate faster, travel more, travel more often, travel further, we buy more and more and buy higher quality, we have freedoms, we have opportunities that previous generations never had. But along with these undoubted benefits for which we are all grateful come costs. The costs are often hidden, they are like shadows that come right behind these benefits. It is not easy to live in this fast-paced, modernized, competitive world. In Africa, what is most pressing for people are physical needs: the need for food, for security, for simple medical care. Our challenge is more psychological: the psychological pressure of living in this pressurized, relativistic culture where worldviews and lifestyle and religions jostle together shoulder by shoulder and make Christian faith hard to sustain. It is the intrusiveness of this world into our innermost workings. There is so much that is urgent, so much that demands our attention. Our preoccupations are with surviving and with the intensity of the moment. This is why people come to church looking to have psychological needs met. But sermons only addressing these matters are exercises in futility if the supremacy and centrality of Christ has been lost. In an entirely different way, we in our churches seem to be shrinking back from Christ.
The Supremacy of Christ
He will put two passages side-by-side: chapter 2:8-9 and 10:11-13.
These two verses come from two Psalms. Behind chapter 2:8 is Psalm 8. It points to our mandate to fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion. This mandate has never been rescinded, despite the Fall. The problem is that Creation, even Creation, has been derailed as Paul tells us in Romans 8. We experience this futility and derailment so that instead of having dominion over Creation, we are often its victims. At this time we do not see everything in subjection to us. We do not even have ourselves under control! Neither the world inside of us nor the world outside of us are in our control. But, we see Christ who tasted death for us and this is the theme of the New Testament. And so begins this great work of re-railing Creation. It has been derailed and will now be rerailed. The reach of Christ’s conquest is not just our souls, but is cosmic, right through the whole universe.
The second text is Hebrews 10:11-13. We can see the contrast between Christ and the priests of the Old Testament and work that was incomplete versus work that was completed. We see also that Christ has His foot upon the defeated and disgraced enemy. This Psalm and this verse is cited about twenty times in the New Testament. The New Testament authors, took this text and saw it as the framework within which they could think of Christ in His sovereignty over the whole universe. The author of Hebrews, instead of speaking simply of Christ’s sovereignty, speaks of the sovereignty in terms of Christ’s enemies. Christ’s rule emerges from the defeat of the powers of darkness. It is Christ’s priestly work by which his sovereignty is secured over all evil. This is the triumphant, the glorious note, that we hear from one end of the New Testament to the other. Christ has been elevated far above all rule, authority, dominion and name. It was the holiness of God that called for His death and the grace of God that called for His Son. In Christ’s death and conquest over death, the very back of evil is broken. What we see now are the last, futile attempts of the enemy, not one of which will change the outcome of what happened at Calvary. We celebrate this marvelous truth of Christ’s supremacy in our lives and in our universe.
Christianity is only about this kind of Christ – Christ reigning supreme and unchallenged and unchallengeable over all of life’s enemies. We do not have any other message than this. Seekers and postmoderns don’t want to hear this, but the bottom line is that we don’t have anything else to give them. Our only message is of Christ as unique, central, indispensable and supreme. We need to talk together and think together about how we help people to come from where they are in our postmodern culture to this point where they see Christ as supreme. But at the end of the day we do not have a different Christ for the postmodern generation than for any other. Many have decided that this is very off-putting to postmoderns and have been offering a slimmed-down version of the gospel. Certain important truths may not have been denied, but were kept hidden out-of-view since these things would prove perilous to the church’s success. We are now living with the consequences of this. In America 45% say they are born again, but only 9% have even the slightest clue about the most minimal biblical understanding to what it means to live an ethical life as a disciple. In America today, being born again counts for nothing. The chickens have come home to roost. We are not far from the very difficulties that the author of Hebrews identifies in these early Christians. We have pulled back from the uniqueness and centrality of Christ. They did it out of fear for their safety, but we are doing it out of fear that we may not be successful. This is a serious miscalculation! The only Christ we have to preach is the one the Bible gives us.
We today live in a period between the already and the not yet. We have been redeemed in full, for there is nothing that needs to be added to Christ’s work and nothing that can be added or can be taken from what He did. But we know ourselves to be not yet fully redeemed. We live, in other words, between Hebrews 10:13 (He sat down, waiting from that time, until His enemies should be destroyed) and what Paul gives in 1 Corinthians 15:24 (when Christ delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every power). We are living in this period between the time when the outcome to the chess game has been decided and the time when the last futile move is made. We live in a fallen world full of painful complexities and sometimes jarring brutalities. But there is another side. These painful experiences that sometimes consume us, none of these is the final word. The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to us. And not even death is the last and final word. We must remember the supremacy of Christ and that we are between the already and the not yet.
It is God’s pleasure that His Son should be acknowledged now for who He is. In worshiping Him for His supremacy, we simply anticipate that time when every knee will bow. God takes pleasure in what we are doing now. We have been returned to the purpose for which we were first created.