Welcome to a special addition of Truth For Life. I'm Bob Lepine. In addition to his role as pastor and Bible teacher, Alistair Begg is also the coauthor of a brand new book called Name Above All Names. We have the privilege of sitting down with Alistair to hear about the new book, Name Above All Names.
Bob: Alistair, first of all, welcome. One of the things that interests me about this book is that you and Sinclair Ferguson wrote it together. Tell us a little bit about where you met and how far back your friendship goes.
Alistair: Well actually, it's goes quite a long way. I think I knew Sinclair before he knew me. He was an assistant minister in St. George's parish church in the center of Glasgow for awhile. And he's a wee bit older than me. I think Sinclair is probably 5 years older than me, maybe 4. If he was 24, I would have been 19. I went and listened to him preach. I honestly can't remember the day that I actually met him for the first time, although it probably would have been after a service and I would have been brazen enough to introduce myself to him.
Over time, he moved on into other areas of ministry and we found that our paths were crossing for different reasons; his involvement with the Banner of Truth and a mutual friend in Mervin Barter, who took a peculiar interest in myself and Sue when we were just youngsters starting out. His friendship has been absolutely crucial to me over the years. He's like a big prop forward in a rugby match. He's a solid soul. He's a faithful friend and I actually call him my big brother. I never had a brother and so when my father died, I adopted him. I didn't tell him, but I told him a few years ago that "I adopted you as my big brother."
Bob: What would you say you have learned from him, if there are one or two things about either walking with Christ or your involvement in ministry? Is there anything that stands out so that you would say, "This is how he's marked my life"?
Alistair: Well, he's a wonderful example of sanctified scholarship. He has a comprehensive grasp of biblical theology and he's a lot more clever than he ever lets on. And the thing that makes him so approachable and endearing is the fact that he's genuinely humble. I have admired that in him; and he has been a teacher to me as well, because I'm able to go to him with a question and he helps me.
Bob: I read a quote from him years ago that really ties into the book that the two of you have written together. I'm not going to get it exactly right, but he said we should extend our energies extolling and admiring and expounding on Jesus. He was asking the question, "How much of our life is spent in the pursuit of knowing and telling others about Jesus?" When you get to the bottom of it, that's what life's all about. That's why we're here, isn't it?
Alistair: Yes. And along similar lines he's pressed me and pressed others on that very same issue, and particularly instructing our own souls and then others with what it means for us to be united with Christ. The whole theological underpinning of who we are, our identity and our purpose and our usefulness and our ultimate destiny is tied up in our union with the Lord Jesus Christ. I think the people that have been the greatest helpers to the church throughout the ages have been people who have presented the Lord Jesus Christ in all of his fullness and fairness in such a way that men and women were drawn to him.
Bob: Tell our listeners a little bit about the person to whom this book is dedicated – Derek Prime.
Alistair: Derek Prime has been such a friend and a guide to me. He's the one who took the big risk on me when I finished theological college and gave me the opportunity to be his assistant back in 1975 in Charlotte Chapel in Edinburgh. There's very little that I have done since those two years in pastoral ministry that has not been marked by the tutelage of Derek. The way that I conduct a wedding service or a funeral or many of the aspects of pastoral ministry, I owe them all to him. And one of the things that Sinclair and I then discovered we had in common was a genuine affection for Derek Prime.
I obviously knew him in a more intimate way than did Sinclair, but on every occasion that Sinclair had encountered Derek, he felt the same sense of affinity, so that's why we were very, very happy to dedicate this book to him. He's now in his middle 80's and we just wanted to do this.
Bob: The genesis of this book goes back to a conference you and Sinclair did together in Memphis on the person and work of Christ. And yet I was thinking it was more than 10 years ago that you came to Family Life and you spoke to our staff and gave three messages on Jesus as prophet, Jesus as priest, and Jesus as king. These themes of the offices of Jesus, his work and ministry, these have dominated your own preaching and your own thinking throughout your ministry.
Alistair: I think at some point along the way that's right, Bob. It's partly to do with this idea of getting the big picture. And one of the ways that I sort of eased into that discovery or understanding was along these three lines that Calvin referred to. You have that amazing statement that God has spoken in the past in various ways by the prophets, and now in these last days, he has spoken to us by his Son. And then the same thing in the other two lines. So yes, I think perhaps more than I even realize, that kind of notion has helped me in biblical theology and has also framed very much the way in which I've always been trying to stand far enough back from the text to make sure that people were getting a grasp of these things.
Bob: When we read about the priests or the prophets in the Old Testament or even the biblical kings, we see a foreshadowing, a type, an imperfect symbol of what will one day be presented to us perfectly in the person of Jesus in the New Testament.
Alistair: Yes, I think it's just so wonderful, and when the lights go on for members of our congregation as well, then they realize why it is that we often say it takes a whole Bible to make a whole Christian. There’s going to be a king that will reign on the throne of David forever and ever. And suddenly people say, "Wow, that makes sense now."
Bob: Let me follow up on that. When a person grasps the person and work of Christ in a fresh way, how does that change how he lives his life as a Christian? How does it make him a better husband or a better father or a better employer or just a better person?
Alistair: One of the things that it does is it makes clear to us that the ultimate purpose of the Father is to conform us to the image of his Son. You get that in Romans 8, that those he predestined would be conformed to the likeness of Christ. That is the ongoing work of the Spirit within our lives, to make us increasingly more like Christ, and then ultimately John says that when we see Him, we will be like Him. So if we are supposed to be growing in our understanding of Jesus and in our likeness to Jesus, then that ought to affect absolutely everything, including fatherhood and being a husband.
Bob: We need to understand more than just a moral example. Jesus' work goes beyond that, right?
Alistair: That's right. The glory of the gospel is in what God has accomplished on our behalf to put us in a right relationship with himself. So much of what we hear from the pulpit is just hortatory. It's just an exhortation to become something that we're not. Whereas the New Testament is encouraging us constantly to be what we are. That we have been put in this right relationship with God through Christ. And therefore, since He is conforming us to the image of his Son, we ought to be increasingly like him.
Bob: In the book, you begin with the first declaration of the person and work of Jesus, which happens in Genesis, chapter 3, right?
Alistair: That’s right. Theologians call this the "proto evangel." Right there in the reality of the fall there is the prospect of the one who will crush the head of the serpent. There’s a sense in which the entire history of humanity flows from the 15th verse of Genesis, chapter 3; that all of the dislocation of the world, all of the alienation that is experienced by humanity, is tied to the great divide that has taken place there. Things were broken, reality was broken, and in dreadful need of restoration and reconciliation.
Bob: And it is fascinating that right there at the very beginning, that declaration is made by the biblical author. I wonder if Moses understood exactly what he was writing when he penned those words of God, don't you?
Alistair: I wonder that about a lot of those fellows. I think we get the indication that they didn't really get it. In 1 Peter, Peter says that even the angels long to look into these things, so they don't fully grasp it. But he pictures the prophets standing on their tiptoes, trying to figure out just what the fulfillment of these words are going to be. And certainly that is true even back to Moses and the early chapters of the Bible.
Bob: You quote Robert Murray McShane in the book, and I guess you just exclusively quoted Scotsmen in the book because it's you and Sinclair writing it together, but you quote him saying, "Learn much of the Lord Jesus; for every look at yourself, take 10 looks at Christ. Let your soul be filled with a sense of the excellence of Christ." What kind of difference does that make if I started to live that way?
Alistair: Well, we become like the people with whom we spend time, right? And the things that fascinate us and retain our focus tend to be the kind of things that we engage others in conversation about. And biblical art – the portrayals of Jesus – frankly leave me pretty cold. I don't think I've really seen much that brings adoring wonder from me. But I understand why those things were created in order that people might contemplate and think of them.
For me though, the word pictures of Scripture enable me to do that. But it's a dying art to think meditatively or contemplatively on the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, and I'm actually helped far more often by the hymnody of good theological poetry that presents this picture of Christ. So, for example, Newton's "How sweet the name of Jesus sounds in a believer's ear. It soothes his sorrows and heals his wounds and drives away his fear." And then the way he builds that picture: "Jesus my prophet, priest, and king, my Lord, my life, my way, my end." Now we're beginning to get a picture of what we're dealing with. It was J. B. Phillips who wrote the little book, Your God is Too Small. I think if we're honest in many cases our Christ is too inconsequential.
Bob: Certainly evangelicals today would say we want to be Christ honoring and Christ centered, and yet you wonder if among evangelicals today Christ has become secondary; it just seems like Jesus is off to the side.
Alistair: He has been recreated far more in our image or to suit our agenda, rather than "one day at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord." That is not for Paul an expression of devotion. That's a statement concerning his identity. He's saying there that Jesus is God. And therefore, if Jesus is God, we have no legitimate right to believe anything other than what he taught. And we have no freedom to behave in any other way than he tells us to behave. So in other words, he's the king and we're the subjects, as opposed to a Jesus who is merely a convenience for us, or whose work almost seems to have been a mathematical work, a formulaic theological paradigm rather than a flesh and blood reality.
Bob: I read a book a number of years ago by Michael Horton called Made in America, and in the book he talked about American Christianity and democracy colliding such that we had reinterpreted the Bible in democratic terms; we elect a president and it's of the people, by the people, and for the people. You come from a land where kings and queens ruled for years. Monarchy is different than democracy and I told people in our church recently, if you don't like the idea of a benevolent dictator being the ruler, you're not going to like heaven very much because that's what we're headed for, isn't it?
Alistair: Well, yes. I was intrigued when they uncovered the remains of Richard the Third recently in Leicester, unceremoniously buried under a car park somewhere in the city. But for a moment or two, the American news media pretended to be really interested in kings and royalty, despite the fact that the whole nation was established by trying to get away from the jolly king and his taxation system.
Alistair: Which I perfectly understand. But no, I don't think we do very well with kings, and so the structure of church life often reflects that and our relationships with one another. But let's be honest. Most of us really don't want to bow down our stubborn wills before anyone. And yet that is exactly what Jesus asks of us. His announcement of his kingdom and his kingship comes at the very beginning of his ministry. The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God is near. So the kingdom of God appears first in the person of Jesus. It precedes throughout time in the proclamation of the gospel. And then only after that will it become universally and dramatically public.
I'm often tempted to think that particularly here in North America, we've got our eyes on a different kingdom all together. Hopefully this book will help us to realize what it means when we say that Jesus is King.
Bob: And the different kingdom we have our eyes on, if you diagnosed America's kingdom, what is it that we're looking for?
Alistair: Jesus explains to the folks that had taken him into custody – to Pilate – "my kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my disciples would be fighting." I think that message has got to be sounded out again for contemporary American Christianity. The kingdom is actually not of this world. The company that the king is assembling is a multinational company. It's a multi-ethnic company. It is eventually going to be a number that nobody can count, from every tribe and nation and people and language and tongue. And therefore, for us to continually assess the benefit, blessing, and impact of Christianity in terms that are immediately national and political is to focus on a different kingdom with a different king.
Bob: Again, I said recently in church that we better get ready for the fact that Caucasian Americans will be a big minority in the ultimate kingdom. In the new heaven and the new earth, there will be fewer of us than there will be from other tongues, tribes, and nations. It's calculated today that there are more Christians underground in China than there are in the United States.
Alistair: It's hard for us, especially in America, because we tend to think as it goes for us, so it goes for the whole world. But as soon as you get beyond the seaboards and find yourself somewhere else without the local news and the local newspaper, you realize, wow, this is a huge world.
Bob: Talk about the priestly ministry of Jesus because most of us, if we grew up as Protestants, didn't grow up with priests and we thought maybe that's not a good thing to have in your church anyway, so we don't understand the priestly office very well.
Alistair: No, we don't, and it's one of the reasons that we haven't really read the Old Testament and thought about the way in which the sacrificial system was constantly pointing forward. By the time you get to the book of Hebrews, which is probably the most Old Testament New Testament book, the writer of Hebrews is drawing these lines through again and pointing out that these sacrifices had to be offered again and again, offered by people who made sacrifices for their own sins and then on behalf of others. And then this glorious declaration, "But when this one priest had offered once and for all, a sacrifice for sin, He sat down." That doesn't mean very much until we have in mind the picture of the constant succession of the offering of sacrifices with never an opportunity for these earthly priests to sit down. And if one of them died, they were immediately replaced by another one because you could never stop. And now here, in the work of Jesus, you have this most dramatic of notions that it's like going to the doctor and he heals you by taking your disease. What kind of physician heals by taking the disease in himself? And we have this picture of the Lord Jesus being offered up as the ultimate atoning sacrifice for sin, to which all the other sacrifices pointed, and at the same time rendering every other kind of sacrifice irrelevant.
Bob: The Old Testament priest also served as the mediator between God and man, did he not?
Alistair: That's exactly right. And that is a wonderful picture too, which often our friends have difficulty with. I need to go through some person to get me in touch with the living God. And as Paul says to Timothy, "There is one mediator between God and man and that is the man, Christ Jesus." That is a revolutionary notion, but it is a thoroughly biblical notion.
Bob: You just touched briefly on the role of Christ as a sufferer. A part of his work on our behalf was to bear our sorrows and our griefs, to do what Isaiah told us he was going to do – to be the suffering servant. That was not something that Old Testament saints understood without enlightenment. It's not something that contemporary Jews understand when they read their Old Testament, is it?
Alistair: No, and it was something that even Jesus' disciples didn't understand. If we remember when Peter made the great declaration, "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God," Jesus immediately went on to say, "O.K., now that we've got that clear, let me also make clear to you that the Son of Man must go up to Jerusalem and suffer at the hands of cruel men and die." And the Bible is honest enough to tell us that Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him and to explain that cannot be part of the agenda.
Arguably, the challenge of contemporary Christianity is that it wants a Christianity that is devoid of suffering. They want a triumphant Christ, which of course he is, but his triumph is nothing without the cross. Until the cross, there was no triumph of resurrection. When we think of those things, we realize that it also has a very useful apologetic dimension to it. Because many of our friends are saying, "How am I supposed to believe in a God when there is so much suffering in the world?" It would be much harder to speak to them along those lines were it not for the fact that at the very heart of Christianity, we don't have a God on a deck chair, but we have a God on a cross. And he's bloodied and he's beaten and he is broken, and this immense story that he is beaten and broken in order that we might be restored and forgiven is tremendous good news.
Bob: And he is also then a high priest who is not unsympathetic in our own sufferings, right?
Alistair: Yes, that's right. People will say all the time, "Who can I take my problem to? Who is it that understands this?" And of course the Bible says that we have in Jesus somebody who's actually touched with the feelings of our sufferings, which is a remarkable thought.
Bob: The more we recognize the work of Christ on our behalf on the cross, the more exalted Christ becomes. I think one of the challenges in contemporary Christianity is that Christ has been brought low instead of exalted on high.
Alistair: Yes, I think some of our songs are pretty poor that way. It is true that Jesus is our elder brother, but he also is the ascended king. And so much of our difficulty in contemporary Christianity lies with the fact that we have become increasingly man-centered; that it’s about me, it's about what I get out of this. It's about how I'm feeling, and so on. Think about the way many services of worship begin. They begin on such a horizontal level that it's virtually impossible for them to get to the right place in the end. We want to begin with God and his glory. We want to begin with God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We want to be able to exalt Christ. And the only way that we do that is if our minds are filled with him and filled with the biblical picture of him. So that all of the aspects of his suffering and his victory, of the cruelty of the cross and the reality of the resurrection, that these things are beginning to be framed in the minds of people so that they can give him the praise that he's due.
Bob: At the end of the day, who would you hope will read this book and how would you hope they'd be helped by it?
Alistair: I’d hope that this would be a help to members of my congregation. That it will really benefit them, that it will be the kind of book that they would not only learn from, but that it also would stir their hearts, motivate them in praise, and encourage them in their ability to share their faith. I hope it's the kind of book that young folks will find immediately accessible as well. And even that theological students who are working their way through these kinds of issues at a deeper, more comprehensive level will actually find that we've provided for them "cliff notes" that may really serve them well when it comes to examination time.
Bob: Anyone who grows deeper in their understanding of the person and work of Christ cannot help but grow deeper in their love for him. Because the more we understand who he is and what he's done, he is imminently lovable, isn't he? He excites our affections as we know who he is and what he's done.
Alistair: That's absolutely right. And Paul says "…that I might know him." And he knows him, but what he means is that I might grow in my knowledge of him, my intimate engagement with him. It’s possible for our Christian profession to become sort of mechanical and almost external. So anything that helps us, that draws us again to Christ and quickens our pulse in our relationship to him is helpful. So hopefully this book will serve to that end.
Bob: We appreciate the time and thanks for giving us some insight into the book, Name Above All Names. The book is available from Truth For Life. We are eager to put a copy in your hands. We have also posted a sample chapter of this book on our website in the event that you'd like to browse a section before you request the complete book.
Name above All Names
Copyright © 2013 by Alistair Begg and Sinclair B. Ferguson
Published by Crossway