This week I had the privilege of attending the 2023 Shepherds’ Conference at Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, CA where John MacArthur serves as pastor. As you know, Dr. MacArthur has served as pastor of this church since February 9th 1969. His legacy as the premier expositor of the last 100 years is nearly unquestioned.
As I reflect upon this week, a few things standout to me in terms of what I witnessed at this event. As with all conferences, there are wonderful opportunities for fellowship, ministry connection, and the privilege of worshipping our God with thousands of other pastors and church leaders, however I think we witnessed something special with regard to Dr. MacArthur’s leadership among fellow shepherds.
Here are a few of my takeaways that undergird my love and appreciation for Dr. John MacArthur.
Steadfastness in the Faith
The legacy of John MacArthur is marked by endurance. This week exemplified that characteristic of Dr. MacArthur’s life and ministry well. Upon arrival on Tuesday, I went to Grace to You to see a few friends including Phil Johnson who was celebrating his 40th anniversary at GTY. I soon learned at the conference that Dr. MacArthur might not be able to preach due to suffering an injury which is providing an unfortunate setback. After a successful stent procedure on his heart a few months ago, he was making a good recovery until suffering a fall and fracturing his right wrist and hitting his head. As everyone was poised for Dr. MacArthur to preach in the first session, he did not make it to the pulpit. Dr. Steven Lawson preached in his place.
On the following day, Dr. MacArthur entered the building with a ball cap on and took a seat on the platform where he participated in a Q&A about ministry and doctrine. He seemed determined to get to the pulpit on the final day. The men who work alongside Dr. MacArthur know that he would rather crawl in as opposed to calling in sick. At that point, he signaled that he was working out details to make it to the pulpit for the final session of the conference.
Friday evening, Dr. MacArthur took the pulpit to a standing ovation from the conference attendees. After quickly asking people to be seated, he jumped immediately into preaching mode with conviction and delivered a sermon on the final three chapters of Zechariah. With a large bruise on his forehead and his wrist in a brace—he stood for a little more than 90-minutes and delivered his sermon to the conference attendees. It was his first time in the pulpit since the first week of January. At 83 years of age, Dr. MacArthur exemplified the lionhearted zeal of a seasoned pastor—one who is not interested in throwing in the white towel and quitting.
This was a tremendous encouragement to younger pastors in the room who will in the days to come face all sorts of trials and difficulties in ministry. Remaining steadfast in the faith and gospel ministry is essential. One of the most difficult things to do is to preach through pain and seasons of discouragement. Dr. MacArthur put on display how to press through a very hard season—even using an iPad to preach which anyone who knows about Dr. MacArthur’s commitment to preaching knows that he has for years criticized the use of iPads and other technological gadgets for preaching.
The sermon delivered by Dr. MacArthur was from the final three chapters of Zechariah. During the introduction he gave a preview that he was going to be focusing on eschatology. At one point, he stated, “Do not announce your eschatology until you have mastered Zechariah.” Through the years as Dr. MacArthur has watched various different movements impact evangelicalism he has likewise witnessed the sloppy approach that many people have adopted regarding eschatology.
During the sermon, Dr. MacArthur stated that one of the deficiencies of the “Reformed” movement is that many people are indifferent to eschatology. In Dr. MacArthur’s opinion, far too many people who claim to be Reformed in their theology completely neglect eschatology. The Reformed movement most guilty of such views was what has formerly been labeled “Young, Restless, and Reformed” (YRR). This group was very popular within various denominations—including the Southern Baptist Convention. It gave rise to Together for the Gospel (T4G) and has likewise fueled The Gospel Coalition (TGC). The YRR movement was primarily centered on the embrace of a Reformed soteriology while minimizing other important areas such as Reformed worship, eschatology, and other theological disciplines.
As is typically the case for conferences, in the room for the sermon were people on all areas of the eschatology spectrum. At one point, Dr. MacArthur stated with a great deal of emphasis that Zechariah is an Amillennialist’s nightmare. This should not be a shock to anyone since Dr. MacArthur has emphasized his eschatological positions through the years and modeled that in his local church and at the seminary as well (The Master’s Seminary). In fact, back in 2007 at the Shepherds’ Conference, Dr. MacArthur opened up the conference with a sermon titled, “Why Every Self-Respecting Calvinist is Premillennial.”
Regardless of where you stand on the doctrine of eschatology, one thing that must be admired about Dr. MacArthur is that he is firm and convictional. He rejects the lazy approach of “Panmillennialism” which refuses to put in the hard work to form a position and simply states, “It’s all going to pan out in the end.” Dr. MacArthur’s convictional preaching and tone must be admired by every pastor who was in the room for the final sermon and I certainly appreciate his bold leadership.
As Dr. MacArthur walked into the building with obvious injuries and a weak body, what was obvious for everyone to see was his shepherd’s heart. He loves pastors. He is a shepherd’s shepherd. He is a strong leader and yet he has a tender heart for men who labor weekly in the pulpit to feed God’s sheep.
You could hear the shepherd’s heart come out as he provided answers laced with wisdom during the Q&A session. You could sense his desire to help men understand their eschatology as he labored through Zechariah. If anything was obvious through this conference, it’s that Dr. John MacArthur loves pastors and wants to finish his ministry continuing to invest in the men who are entrusted with leading, feeding, and protecting God’s sheep.
Everyone who knows anything about MacArthur’s ministry knows that he is fiercely committed to the truth. He does not allow his relationships with people to dictate his level of commitment to the truth. One of the things that Dr. MacArthur put on display in this conference is his heart’s desire for men to get their doctrine right and to avoid error (2 Tim 2:15). That is the mark of a true shepherd.
I’m grateful for John MacArthur’s ministry and his investment in my life. May the Lord continue to encourage him during this season of life and use him as he seeks to remain steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord knowing that in the Lord, his labor is not in vain (1 Cor. 15:58).
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