As the Vandals threatened Hippo in 430, Augustine – who was close to the end of his own life – confessed to his congregation: ‘I am a long-winded old man’. Throughout his life, he had lamented often enough that ‘My own speech almost always displeases me.’ Looking back over nearly 43 years of preaching and writing, I can relate to Augustine in those two ways at least. This is the last editorial for a congregational newsletter, but, God willing, it will not be the last Word, but only ‘nearly the last Word’.

            Words have piled up over the years – from the pulpit, in Scripture classes and Bible studies, in Church History lectures, in articles both long and short, even in unpublished rants to newspapers. Some was written in haste; some had more time for contemplation and study. All of it could have been clearer or better-expressed. Some of the worst efforts had a more vital effect than others that might have appeared more polished. Yet all these words have been meant to have pointed to the Word written (the Bible) and the Word made flesh (Christ).

            The Word written covers every area of life. It assures the ageing Christian that ‘They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green’ (Ps.92:14). This may be done in advanced decrepitude, in pain and much discomfort, and even in dementia. It is common to hear sentiments along the lines of ‘Retirement means that you can now do what you like.’ To the Christian, there is change but not retirement: ‘For me to live is Christ’ (Phil.1:21), which means in work and out of work.

In his diary, Andrew Bonar wrote: ‘Imperfection stamped upon everything I ever undertook.’ That is our lament, but God does assure us that the treasure of the gospel has been entrusted to jars of clay – to sinful human beings – in order to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us (2 Cor.4:7). That is not a refuge for the lazy, but a comfort to the meek and lowly.

What should a pastor be saying as he nears the end of his public pastoral ministry? The same as he would hope to say on his deathbed! The Word written and the Word preached are to proclaim the Word made flesh. Charles Wesley captured it perfectly:

Happy, if with my latest breath

I may but gasp His Name;

Preach Him to all, and cry in death,

‘Behold, behold the Lamb!’

That is the first word and the last word. The risen Christ who has defeated death forever, and reigns at the right hand of the Father is also the One who was sacrificed once and for all to pay the dreadful death penalty for sin. The Lion is also the Lamb.

            This is not to be put into the category of ‘a pastor’s opinion’. If Christ is not your Lamb (the One who died for your sins), He will always be your Lion (the Lord who rules as the Sinless One over all sinners). In fact, it is worse than that for those outside of Christ. They experience ‘the wrath  of the Lamb’ (Rev.6:16). This is the wrath that need never have been, for it is the wrath of the Lamb who died for sinners – but not for those who take refuge in themselves.

             It is the most sombre of sins to reject Christ, and in effect, to call God a liar. The apostle John will not let us get away with trying to argue just for a little room in the public arena for the Christian faith. This is a matter of life or death forever. John writes:

Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning His Son. And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life (1 John 5:10-12).

This ‘nearly last word’ is eternally serious, and wonderfully simple.

  • Peter Barnes