This month of February, 2009, John MacArthur commemorates his 40th year of ministry pastoring Grace Community Church in the San Fernando Valley. He has been preaching in the same pulpit at this one church as long as I have been alive. That is a staggering accomplishment. Rarely is a man of God privileged to pastor one church for such a length of time. John Gill, the 18th century Baptist pastored 51 years in the same church. John Rippon followed Gill and pastored the same church for 63 years, and Charles Spurgeon pastored the Metropolitan Tabernacle for 38 years. In the perspective of Church History, the celebration we enjoyed on the first Sunday in February 2009 honoring John’s ministry is truly historic.
My family and I are blessed to be active members at Grace, and I am doubly blessed to have had the opportunity serving with John’s radio ministry, Grace To You, these last 15 years or so. The things I have witnessed and experienced being close to the work of this beloved man has been glorious, and I thank the Lord for it.
The first time I heard John preach it was by audio cassette. An older friend I knew at my church in college had spent a year or two as a young man in L.A. pursuing a movie making career with his brother. During that time he and his brother were saved at Grace. When my friend moved to Arkansas, he brought with him boxes full of preaching tapes by John. My friend purchased a tape duplicator and he started making tapes and passing them out to anyone who would take them.
I was a brand new 21 year old believer and God in His providence had me meet this fellow and he put in my hand John’s sermon from Matthew 7:21-23 entitled Empty Words. It was a powerful message calling people to examine their faith, and John’s sermon was a convicting supplement to the book by A.W. Pink I was reading at the time called Profiting from the Word. I rarely heard such convicting preaching and I was deeply refreshed by it.
As a result, I immediately put a post card in the mail to order a catalog from Grace to You. When it arrived, I was overwhelmed by the list of recorded materials I could order. Where as most people are exposed to John through the radio broadcast of Grace to You, I knew him more through his tape ministry. In fact, most of my friends don’t know this: even though I have worked a considerable time at his radio ministry, I have never really heard a radio program. I think – maybe – I have heard 4 or 5 broadcasts of Grace to You on the radio in the last 20 years of my Christian walk.
At any rate, I was thrilled to learn that GTY had a lending library program that allowed me to check out 6 tapes at a time. I promptly joined and began checking out messages on a variety of subjects. John’s material on the spiritual gifts, God, Satan, and angels, the lives of the apostles, and the fulfilled family. I did listen to book studies, particularly the epistles of John, Jude, and big portions of Romans. I even have note books (somewhere) that are my hand written notes taken from these messages. I was really drawn to his controversial material like his messages against the charismatics (because I was bumping into so many of them in college), and his defense of the Lordship issue. I also thoroughly enjoyed the Q&A times John did with his congregation and I thought those were some of the best tapes a Christian could get. At the time, John was the only pastor I knew of any where who would do Q&A’s with his people and I definitely admired him for it.
The first time I heard John live and in person was at a big Baptist church in Memphis. A group of friends and I made an hour drive on a Thursday night to hear him speak. I remember we got a late start for one reason or another, and I was aggravated with my poky friends who didn’t seem as enthusiastic to see John as I was. Once we arrived, it took us forever to find a parking space. We then came in after the service had started. John was already talking, which only exacerbated my annoyance with my friends, because I figured we had missed half his message. Thankfully he was just talking about GTY and inviting people to be apart of the mailing list.
The church was overflowing in seating capacity to the point I am sure the fire department could have leveled fines if they wanted to, so it was near impossible to find a seat. Our group had to split up and I managed to squeeze a cheek onto the very end of a pew on the far left of the auditorium near the back. A post limited my view of John, but I could hear well. The message was on spiritual AIDS infecting the church, and even though my rear end was numb from sitting awkwardly on the end of a pew for an hour or more, I was giddy to have been there.
Along with the tapes I received from GTY, I also bought up many of the little study guides that are no longer available in print. I would read through one in a week. What I appreciated about the study guides was how they were an almost word-for-word transcript of John’s spoken sermon on what ever subject. They were all outlined logically and coherently and they were excellent for showing the flow of thought of an exposition of scripture. As a freshman my first year in college, I struggled to write essays in a few of my college English classes. The format of those study guides revolutionized my understanding of writing and improved it a hundred fold.
Probably around my junior year of college I began to feel a desire to teach and preach in the ministry. If anything, I wanted to improve my theological training. I knew John was the president of The Master’s Seminary, and though the thought of attending was a dream, L.A. seemed like another country on the far side of the world. (I have been here 15 years and still feel that way at times). The price was way out of my league, so I was pretty much resigned to attend a Southern Baptist seminary in Memphis.
One evening, I called John’s personal assistant at the time, Lance Quinn. I got his number from my friend who gave me my first MacArthur tape. He just happened to have given Lance his first MacArthur tape, too. I called Lance simply to ask him about good commentaries to buy – the ones John would study for his sermon prep. He rattled off a few titles and authors and I jotted them down. I was about to say thank you and good-bye when Lance asked me, “Are you wanting to go to seminary?” I replied yes to which he asked, “Where?” I told him about the one in Memphis and he bluntly replied, “Do you want to learn to teach the Bible or just be Baptist?” I of course said I wanted to learn to teach the Bible, but then he told me how he had attended that seminary for a while and they won’t train you to teach the Bible. He then made his pitch to me about coming to Master’s. I told him my hesitations, and he said, “Well, at least call the 800# and get an application and see what God will do.” After I hung up the phone, I went for a long walk that night to think and pray and a year or so later I was taking my first ever plane ride to Burbank, CA.
Unknown to me, my mother thought I was being taken in by a cult. She wrote a motherly, yet embarrassing, letter to John informing him of how impressionable I was and I could easily be eaten alive by the city there. John graciously wrote back, assuring her I would be well taken care of.
And I can testify that I have.