Ch 6: A Steward of the Mysteries of God
On Ray Stedman's tombstone in Grants Pass, Oregon, are engraved these words, placed there at his request: "He was a faithful steward." Ray received many accolades during his lifetime, but he wanted to be remembered as simply a servant who faithfully dispensed God's glorious truth to God's people. His sense of calling and self-identity came directly from 1 Corinthians 4:1: "Let a man regard us in this manner, as servants of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God" (NASB). Thus, Ray's stewardship was defined by his exposition of God's Word. From the very beginning of his ministry, this was his purpose.
"By the time I graduated from seminary," he explained, "I was already deeply immersed in the world of biblical exposition; I believed in it and I was anxious to get my teeth into it. Then I came to Palo Alto to a church that had just begun. In fact, it was not even a church when I arrived. I didn't actually come as a pastor but as a director of activities. During this time I eagerly began to go through books of the Bible and preach from them, using much material from others, but about four months after I arrived I found my barrel was totally dry. I had to dig in and begin to learn for myself what the text of Scripture actually said and how it related to contemporary life." (Ray Stedman, "Why I Am An Expositor," Theology, News and Notes XXXII, no. 4 (December 1985): 4.)
The Hard Work of Exposition
THIS PROCESS OF DIGGING into and teaching the Scripture would require the best of his time and energies, but Ray saw this work as essential to the building of a healthy church: "The only thing clear to me at the time of my arrival was a deep conviction derived .from Ephesians 4, that the work of the ministry belonged to the people and not to the pastor. I was rather vague as to what that ministry was, but felt from the first that my task as pastor was to unfold the Word of God in its fullness, as best I could understand it, and leave to laymen the major responsibility for visitation of the sick, presiding at and leading church services and evangelizing the world [emphasis added]." (Ray Stedman, lecture at Glen Eyrie, unpublished article, n.d., quoted by Wade Whitcomb, "Passing of the Torch," 27.)
Ray's convictions about biblical exposition came from many sources. Certainly, as mentioned in previous chapters, Ray was influenced greatly during his time in seminary by Drs. Chafer, McGee, and Ironside. But even prior to his years at Dallas, Ray was becoming convinced about the primacy and power of exposition. "I first came to understand and value expository preaching from the writings of G. Campbell Morgan, the prince of English expositors in the early decades of the 20th century. I ran across his books while trying to teach an evening Bible study class of sailors at Pearl Harbor during World War II. I learned from him not only how to discover the patterns of thought-development in a biblical passage, but how to organize those patterns into contemporary presentations that would touch directly upon the issues of life today. In forty years of preaching and teaching I have never been able to match Morgan's beauty of language and richness of literary allusions, but I have had him continually before me as a model to follow." (See Ray's message On Expository Preaching from July 30,1996)
Biblical exposition means different things to different people. Ray defined exposition as "preaching that derives its content from Scripture directly, seeking to discover its divinely intended meaning, to observe its effect upon those who first received it, and to apply it to those who seek its guidance in the present." (Ibid.)
Ray also understood the dangers of a mechanical view of exposition. Expositional preaching "is definitely not a dreary, rambling, shallow verse-by-verse commentary, as many imagine," he said. "Nor is it a dry-as-dust presentation of academic biblical truth, but a vigorous, captivating analysis of reality, flowing from the mind of Christ by means of the Spirit and the preacher into the daily lives and circumstances of twentieth-century people." (Ibid.)
From the onset of his ministry, Ray's method was to preach through entire books of the Bible. He would often alternate between the Old and New Testaments so that his congregation would receive a "balanced diet" of God's Word. "This has great advantages over textual preaching in that it forces one to handle the difficult themes of Scripture as well as the more popular ones. Further it keeps truth in balance since it follows the pattern of Scripture itself in mingling several themes in one passage, and thus makes possible the apostolic goal of 'declaring the whole counsel of God.'''(Ibid.)
But Ray also understood that the congregation could become weary if a series grew too long. So he would sometimes break off one series in favor of another, and then later return to finish the first series.(Ibid.) Often during these interludes he would address some current issue or theological question that was relevant to his congregation.
Expositional preaching of this kind requires a great deal from the preacher, and Ray was willing to pay the price. After choosing a book of the Bible based on the needs of the congregation and the current cultural climate, Ray would read through the book several times in different translations. From these readings he derived a general outline of the book to guide his preaching. He would then plan to preach through each major division of the book, choosing passages that established a single main theme and were short enough to adequately interpret in a thirty-to-forty minute sermon. Finally, after studying the historical background of the passage, together with any lexical or grammatical issues, Ray created a detailed exegetical outline of the passage so he could put the truth of the text into his own words and reveal the logical development of the writer's thought. Ray called this outline "the backbone" of his message. He also consulted commentaries to reexamine his own exegesis and gain added insight.
At this point, with eight to ten hours of work already invested, Ray felt strongly that his preparation was only half done. He had his content, but he did not yet know how he was going to present it. Therefore, his next step was to decide what to include and what to omit from his sermon, then to add illustrations, an introduction, and a conclusion to his sermon notes. Although Ray took these notes to the platform when he preached, he tried to know his material so well that he needed only the briefest glimpse to stay on course. Ray believed that eye contact was crucial to any message, and through the years many have commented on his warm, but piercing eyes.(Ibid.)
Ray would complete a sermon by Friday afternoon or Saturday morning so that he could leave his notes alone for at least half a day before preaching. This was the time when he prepared his heart and body through rest, prayer, and other work that took his mind away from the sermon.
"Following this approach, through the years I have gained a growing sense of the grandeur of preaching," Ray reflected in later years. "I have seen many examples of its power to transform both individual lives and whole communities. I have increasingly felt a divine compulsion to preach, so that I know something of Paul's words, '''Woe is me if I preach not the gospel!' But even more I feel a deeply humbling conviction that I could never be given a greater honor than the privilege of declaring 'the unsearchable riches of Christ.' I often hear in my inner ear the words of the great apostle: 'This is how one should regard us; as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God!' A servant of Christ! A steward of the mysteries! I can think of no greater work than that." (Ibid.)
ALTHOUGH RAY WORKED HARD at his preaching, he was not a strict homiletician, as others will attest. David Roper, then a recent graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary, arrived at PBC in 1960 and played an important role there for the next twenty years, preaching when Ray needed to be absent. During those years, David says, he does not recall Ray ever explaining to him how to put a message together or even critiquing him. But he does remember Ray breaking many of the homiletic rules they had learned in seminary.(David Roper, interview by author, March 15, 2001, Gleneden Beach, Ore., tape recording.) For example, Ray's preaching occasionally lacked organization and cohesion, and at times it seemed like just a running commentary on the text. Also, Ray's sermons often did not begin with a carefully crafted introduction or end with a memorable conclusion that emphasized the main theme of the message.
Howard Hendricks saw this as a weakness in Ray's preaching, but adds, "Weakness is a relative term. I'm well organized in preaching. Ray used to tell me, 'Man, I wish I could preach like you do--you're able to put it down. . . .' But Ray was more of a storyteller type. . . he'd weave and maybe his outline didn't necessarily fit. . . . people had a hard time following him unless they got infected with his style and how he did it." (Wade Whitcomb, "Passing of the Torch: A Homiletical Biography of Ray Stedman" , photocopy, 72.)
Despite Ray's occasional lack of organization, Brian Morgan, who interned and later pastored alongside Ray at PBC, remembers him as a master at bringing needs to the surface, especially in his introductions. "The most powerful sermon I ever heard him give was to a group of pastors on the nature of discipleship." Ray began by writing five things on a napkin.
"First he created the need. Instead of saying we are going to talk about discipleship, he started talking about the present evil, especially in California. . . divorce, cults, etc." Then Ray asked, "How are we going to change lives?" He made an historical transition by referring back to Jesus' day and how evil was escalating, and then he went on to give the five steps of discipleship. "Five hundred preachers are listening. . . and he's preaching from a napkin!" says Morgan. "That sermon--not only the message but the form--shaped me, and I still basically use that kind of methodology. But I'll never forget the difference between Ray's approach and the other teachers who basically came in and just started teaching a topic without even really creating a need, asking a question or using language with questions people aren't asking today--a lot of seminary jargon." (Ibid., 77.)
Simplicity and Sincerity
EVEN IF PEOPLE COULD not always follow Ray's train of thought, his warm conversational style drew people in. J. I. Packer described Ray's preaching style as "to chat it over with the congregation." (Ibid.) Ray's voice was soft, yet rich and commanding. His cadence was natural and his pace tended to be slow. As time went on, he seldom stood behind a pulpit.
"I always felt like he was talking to me," David Roper remembers. "He was in a conversation with me. . . a fireside chat or something. There was no artifice with Ray; there was no pretense; he was just old Ray with a gravy spot on his sweater. And he'd just stand up there and talk to you. And you knew that this guy understood life, he understood me, he understood the Word." (David Roper, interview, March 15,2001.)
Packer adds, "Right from the first sentence you knew this chap was a very attractive human being who had been where you were, who understood people like you.. . . Few preachers I know have had as much honest, unpretentious humanity to them." (Whitcomb, "Passing of the Torch," 39.)
Ray's low-key style was a direct result of his conviction that preachers far too often rely upon the flesh. He believed that all ministry should be characterized by simplicity. "When I look at Christianity today," he said in one sermon, "I am sometimes appalled at the degree that we depend upon the flesh. I am amazed and intrigued as we look at the Scriptures to see that God always works in simplicity and with a low-keyed approach. God loves that. Our attempts, and the flesh's attempts, are almost always characterized by high gear, high promotion, and complexity. I learned long ago that when things start getting very complex, when you need finely tuned organizations to carry them out and hundreds of people--somehow you've missed it; for God's work is characterized by simplicity." (See Ray's message Jesus and the Priests from September 21, 1975)
Ray's simplicity and lack of pretense also communicated sincerity and concern. Dr. Bill Lawrence came to PBC as an intern in 1964 and immediately noticed this. "What you see is what you get. His sincerity is something everybody was attracted to." (Whitcomb, "Passing of the Torch," 42.) It was this quality, along with Ray's genuine concern for others, that allowed him to communicate effectively to skeptics and to those whose lifestyles were at odds with the very truths he taught. "I think his great ability was his ability to accept people," says Howard Hendricks, "even people who didn't agree with him or didn't understand him." (Ibid., 41.)
One outstanding example of this, says Dave Roper, was Ray's manner when given the microphone at a meeting of the Gay People's Union at Stanford University. "Ray could be so. . . sweet. I don't know how else to say it. He just had a gentle way of talking and he had very kind eyes. He would state truth--I mean truth that would really inflame the crowd, but he would state it in such a way. . . they sensed he loved them. When it was over they gave him an ovation and a number of people came to him.. . . Non-Christians were not the enemy. . . ." (Ibid., 42-43.)
But the simplicity and sincerity of Ray's style should not be confused with shallowness of content. He had an uncanny ability to relate truth to life. When David Roper joined the staff of PBC, he was no stranger to good preaching. He had recently graduated from Dallas Seminary and had grown up listening to his father preach at Scofield Church in Dallas. Nevertheless, when David heard Ray preach, he sensed something different. "He was able to relate truth to life. That's what first impressed me about Ray. . .. I'd never heard anyone preach quite like that to clearly show how the Scripture relates to life." (David Roper, interview, March 15,2001.)
A Master Illustrator
PART OF RAY'S ABILITY to relate truth to life lay in his skill at using illustrations. Most of Ray's illustrative references came out of everyday life--often his own life. He was an acute student of life and people, and he also drew heavily from his experience growing up in Montana. In a sermon from Hebrews, for example, he used the following illustration in comparing Moses, the servant, with Jesus, the Son:
When I was a boy in Montana I was invited to visit a well-known, wealthy ranch, by one of the hired men. As we came up to an imposing ranch house, he did not take me into the house: instead, he took me to the bunkhouse out in back. I asked him what it was like in the ranch house, and he said, "Well, I can't take you in there; that belongs to the family."
I saw a beautiful palomino horse in the pasture, and I told him how I would love to ride on that horse. And he said, "I'm sorry, you can't; that belongs to the family." All day long, I was frustrated, because everything I wanted to do, he could not let me do, because he was only a hired man.
But later on, I got to know the son of that family, a boy of my own age, and do you know what we did? We rode that palomino horse all over the place, and we went into the house, and we even went into the kitchen and helped ourselves to food in the refrigerator anything we wanted and we made ourselves perfectly at home. A son has greater liberty than a servant. Moses was just a servant, but Jesus was the master. (See Ray's message Hebrews: All About Faith from March 31, 1968)
Ray also was an avid reader, and many of his illustrations came from the books he enjoyed. Ray loved history, and he would mine these books for sermon material. In a sermon on a passage from 1 Timothy, Ray used the life of Abraham Lincoln as an illustration of how personal suffering shapes a person.
You never really get to know anybody until you know what he has been through. Recently I read the book by Elton Trueblood, Abraham Lincoln, Theologian if American Anguish. The book traces the years of Lincoln's presidency, a time when he was growing by leaps and bounds in Christian stature as a mature believer in Christ. The key to his growth was the personal anguish he suffered. Not only was there the terrible pressure of the War between the States--he took very personally and felt very keenly the awful bloodbath the nation was passing through as thousands of boys from both North and South were dying on the fields of battle--but his son, his beloved 12-year-old Willie, died while he was president. There were also the daily vituperative attacks of the press upon him. He was lampooned, ridiculed, mocked, and insulted in most of the papers. There was widespread opposition against him.
Rather than crushing him, rather than making him react with anger, bitterness, and vituperation in return, however, all of this humbled Lincoln. As he himself put it, "I was often driven to my knees with the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go." If you. . . visit the Lincoln and read there the words of the Second Inaugural Address. . . you will see that through all the agony, the pressure, and the anguish that he underwent, Lincoln came to understand and to see more clearly, perhaps, than many of his successors the sovereignty of God in national affairs; how the hand of God was governing the conduct of the war and bringing about judgment on a people that would result in righteousness, justice, and truth in the land again. (See Ray's message What You See Is What You Can Be from May 16, 1982)
Sometimes Ray's illustrations involved taking a simple metaphor and expanding upon it. In a sermon he preached in 1962, Ray likened life to a funnel.
Somebody has said that life is like a funnel: There are two ends to a funnel; you can enter it at either end. The nonChristian. . . is constantly seeking to fling back the bars and to enjoy life at its fullest. So he enters the broad end of the funnel, and as he proceeds, he finds that, inexorably, it grows narrower and narrower and more limited and restricted, until, at last, it is nothing but a tiny narrow aperture where there is hardly room to live, and it is not worth the effort. This is why so many finally blow their brains out take their own life because life is no longer worth living, it has become so restricted and narrow and limited. But the Christian life is like entering the other end of the funnel. At first II; it seems narrow. At first it seems like you are being denied some things. But as you go on, it begins to broaden out, becoming wider and wider, until, at last, as the apostle says, "all things are yours"--the universe and all that is in it. . . . That is the effect of faith. (See Ray's message Exhibit A from June 3, 1962)
Ray not only excelled at using augmented stories and metaphors, he also mastered brief, concrete images that stuck in the minds of his listeners. When he preached on the parable of the unrighteous judge, he said, "Who can be more hard-boiled and unyielding than a judge, and an unrighteous judge, especially? Here is a tough, hard-bitten, self-centered old skinflint with a heart as cold as a bathroom floor at two o'clock in the morning!" (See Ray's message Why Pray? from February 2, 1964) In the conclusion of another sermon, he cautioned against taking the call of God to live a Christian life in a godless world as "something to do on weekends, a low-calorie dessert to add to life to make it more agreeable." (See Ray's message Wage the Good Warfare from 1981)
Ray also loved to use poetry in his sermons. He possessed what others believed was a photographic memory, so these poems were almost always offered without notes. One of his favorites illustrates the love of God:
Isn't it odd,
that a being like God,
Who sees the facade,
still loves the clod
He made out if sod,
Now isn't that odd?
(See Ray's message Stand Firm from February 21, 1988)
On another occasion he used a poem to illustrate self-centered life controlled by the flesh:
I had a little tea party this afternoon at three.
'Twas very small, three guests in all,
Just I, myself, and me.
'Twas I who ate the sandwiches
And I drank up the tea.
'Twas also I who ate the pie
And passed the cake to me.
(See Ray's message Wage the Good Warfare from 1981)
The Authority of Obedience
ULTIMATELY, THOUGH, Ray's effectiveness as a preacher was not a matter of his conversational style or his ability to illustrate, but his character. First and foremost, Ray was a man of integrity. When he spoke, people had a sense that he lived out the truths he was preaching. On one occasion he said, "I have never dealt with a book of the Bible without having to stop in the preparation of the message to kneel in prayer and confess to God and deal with something in my own heart." (Whitcomb, "Passing of the Torch," 61.)
David Roper, who had ample opportunity to observe Ray in the pulpit, believes Ray possessed "the authority of obedience": "He was a man who was obedient to the truth, and that gave him a. . . weightiness; what the Old Testament called 'glory' in the sense of weight. You had to listen to what he said because you knew that if he wasn't already obedient, he was moving toward obedience in those areas." (David Roper, interview, March 15,2001.)
Because of his integrity, people trusted Ray. "I think his character affected his preaching in the sense that it was the underlay of the whole ministry that he had," says Howard Hendricks. "I saw it in his leadership. I saw it in his preaching. I saw it in the boards that we served under. . . . he was trusted by people. Ray wouldn't promise something that he wouldn't produce, if it was humanly possible." (Whitcomb, "Passing of the Torch," 37.)
Ray's integrity as a preacher is illustrated by an event that took place early in his ministry when he was invited to speak at his first Bible conference.
You know what that does to a preacher? He wants so much to succeed, to do a great and wonderful thing, to preach a great and powerful message that will never be forgotten. I had prepared and worked very hard on a message about the revelation of God in the world of nature. I thought I could preach a powerful message that would sway the people, but everything came apart. I could not say anything right, the message ground on and on, and when I finally finished, I stumbled out of that place into the dark. I walked around the corner of the lake, dejected, feeling lower than the proverbial snake's belly.
Standing on the other side of the lake in a swampy kind of place, with croaking frogs all around me, I heard the voice of God--a still small voice that said to me, in the words of Scripture, "He that thinks he knows something, knows nothing yet as he ought to know it." And then the Lord gave me three things that have guided my ministry ever since.
Those three things were: First, never be concerned with how many people you're preaching to, whether it's two or three, or two or three hundred, preach the message God gives you. Second, never be concerned with how much they're going to give you when you get through. Third, never be concerned with how well you think you've done.
"I can't say that I've always followed those," Ray admitted, "but when I've departed from them I've felt the Spirit of God depart from me as well. When I've been faithful to them, I've left it up to God and He's done His usual wonders with some very feeble work on my part." (Stedman, "Why I Am An Expositor," 6-7.)
Ray's integrity was balanced by his humility. "His humility stands out for me," Roper remembers. "Jesus says, come to me because I am meek and lowly in heart. To me the best communicators are humble. Ray was never threatened by anyone else's success. He was always happy when somebody else got recognition." (Whitcomb, "Passing of the Torch," 34.) Charles Swindoll puts it even more succinctly: "Ray never pulled rank, never polished his own trophies." (Charles Swindoll, "The Picture of Integrity: Ray Stedman," Insight for Living broadcast, February 1994.) Ray's humility was often seen in his ability to laugh at himself On one occasion, after a fan was installed in the ceiling above the pulpit, Ray stood in front of his congregation, looked up at the fan and said, "Well, now when they talk about the 'Big Blower,' I'll know they aren't talking about me." (David Roper, interview, March 15,2001.)
At times, however, his sense of self-deprecation took a more serious note, as it does at one point in his book Body Life:
Again, the ministry of shepherding and teaching must be done without desiring personal glory. How well pastors know that right here is where the full force of temptation to pride can strike! There is something very pleasing to the ego to stand in front of others and have every eye fastened on you and every ear open to what you have to say. It is terribly easy to begin to crave that feeling and to find subtle ways of nurturing and encouraging it.
As a pastor I must confess that I had to stop the practice of going to the door after a service and greeting people as they went out. I found that when I did it regularly, it fed my ego in such a way that I had a terrible battle with pride. People were saying nice things to me and I found myself loving to hear them. It is very easy for a pastor or teacher to perform his ministry for hidden reasons of personal prestige or glory.(See Ray's book Body Life)
The Floating Decimal Point
THE STRENGTH OF RAY'S character was matched by his tremendous intellect. Ray read widely from theological books and journals and maintained a working knowledge of the original biblical languages. He quoted from theologians such as Barth, Thielicke, and Bultmann, and he often exhibited unique insights into the text.
Unfortunately, those unique insights could also be one of his weaknesses. Ray's exegesis of the Old Testament was typological and at times even followed allegorical lines. For example, a sermon on the book of Esther, later recorded in his book The Queen and I, was thoroughly allegorical:
Each of us is a king dwelling in a capital city (the body), and reigning over an empire which touches everyone we know. At the moment of your conversion, if you are a Christian, you gained a queen--a spirit made alive in Jesus Christ to serve as a place of communion between you and the Holy Spirit of the living God who dwells in your heart, symbolized in this story in the person of Mordecai.
In Chapter 3 we watch the consummate ease with which the flesh, that is, this Haman within each of us, deceives the human will into making a decision that threatens to destroy the entire kingdom. This whole story is a picture of a Christian who sincerely sins. (See Ray's message Good Grief from March 10, 1963)
"I'd say that is probably the one area that we disagreed on," says Howard Hendricks, commenting on Ray's hermeneutic. "I'm pretty literalistic. . . I stick pretty close to the text and I don't do much of what I'd call spiritualization. But he got into some of the books like Esther and he lost me and I used to give him gas about it.(Whitcomb, "Passing of the Torch," 73.) Bill Lawrence calls this Ray's "floating decimal point" and attributes it to Ray's keen intellect. He also remembers a controversy that arose over Ray's interpretation of Hebrews 6.
In a notoriously difficult passage, Ray came up with a novel explanation for how it might appear that one described as a Christian could lose his or her salvation:
If the spiritual life follows the same pattern as the physical life, we all know that physical life does not begin with birth. It begins with conception. Have we not, perhaps, mistaken conception for birth, and, therefore, have been very confused when certain ones, who seemingly started well, have ended up stillborn? Is there in the spiritual life, as in the natural life, a gestation period before birth when true Spirit-imparted life can fail and result in a stillbirth? . . . If this be the case, then the critical moment is not when the Word first meets with faith, that is conception. . . . But the critical moment is when the individual is asked to obey the Lord at cost to himself, contrary to his own will and desire. When, in other words, the Lordship of Christ makes demand upon him and it comes into conflict with his own desire and purposes, his own plans and program. . . . That is the true moment of birth. . . . In grace, the Lord may make this appeal over the course of a number of years. But if it is ultimately refused, this is a stillbirth. The months, and even years, that may be spent in the enjoyment of conversion joy was simply Christian life in embryo. . . . (See Ray's message Let's Get On with It from April 11,1965)
When Ray preached this sermon at Dallas Seminary, his unorthodox interpretation struck some of the professors as heretical. As a result, for a brief period of time Ray was not welcome at the school.(Whitcomb, "Passing of the Torch," 73.) But it was extremely rare for Ray to venture outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy. David Roper attributes many of Ray's unusual interpretations to Ray's breadth of understanding of the Word, what theologians call "the analogy of Scripture," which allowed him to pull things together from various parts of Scripture. The results, according to Roper, were that, "You weren't always sure how he got what he got, but what he got was biblical. It was never outside the parameters of Scripture." (David Roper, interview, March 15,2001.)
The Grand Themes
THROUGHOUT RAY'S FORTY YEARS of preaching at PBC and around the world, he kept returning to two grand themes: the mysteries of God and the New Covenant.
The first of those themes grew out of his own self-identity as a "steward of the mysteries of God." Ray saw the proclamation of God's Word as the unveiling of these mysteries, and he often talked about the believer's privileged position to know these mysteries. In a sermon entitled "The Secrets of God," Ray defined what he meant by God's mysteries:
Mysteries, in Scripture, are not "Who Done Its." They are not insoluble problems, strange and mysterious riddles nobody can grasp. They are secrets hidden from the general public, but available to those who are in the inner circle because they are willing to be taught by the Spirit. And they are essential to life. . . . they are not unfamiliar themes. They have been preached here many times. They are set before you constantly, so they won't be new and startling. But what you should think of as we go through them is: How much do I know these? How much can I handle this kind of truth? How much can I impart it? How much is it showing up in my practical daily existence? That is where these secrets become available to the world around. (See Ray's message The Secrets of God from July 16, 1972)
Ray often spoke of the mystery of the kingdom of God, the mystery of lawlessness, the mystery of godliness, the mystery of the future, and the mystery of God. He believed that to understand these mysteries was to understand reality, and when people began to understand reality they would begin to live accordingly. This is the reason Ray never browbeat people with endless exhortations about being obedient, but rather focused on getting them to see what was real. "Nothing has ever commended itself more powerfully to me than to remind myself that when I step into the pulpit to open the Word of God, what I'm giving people is basic, utter, fundamental reality," he said. "When they begin to think like the Bible, they are thinking realistically. When they depart from it, they wander off into fantasies. And when you get a congregation understanding that fact, you will have some tremendous changes in congregational behavior." (Stedman, "Why I Am An Expositor," 6.)
One of these mysteries, the mystery of godliness, constituted the second great theme of Ray's preaching. Most often Ray called this "The New Covenant," which he said "is the very heart and soul of the Word of God. It is that 'secret and hidden wisdom of God' (1 Corinthians 2:7) which Paul sets in sharp contrast with the wisdom of the world. It supplies the lost secrets of human behavior which are necessary to live as man was intended to live. Since it is grounded in the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, and the presence in the believer of the Holy Spirit, all other truths flow out of it, as water flows from a central spring. It exhorts us to the daily practice of our union with Christ and reminds us of the availability of his power and comfort at any moment. It should, therefore, be the chief subject in the curriculum in every church, and the central theme of most pulpit preaching. Though it is illustrated frequently in the Old Testament, it is not explained there. It is pictured by type and symbol, but the process is never made clear for it is 'the mystery. . . kept secret since the world began' (Romans 16:25), but now is to be made known to the nations." (Ray Stedman, "The Desperate Need for Biblical Truth in Our Churches," unpublished article, n.d.: 2.)
Because Ray viewed the New Covenant as central to the Christian life, he would often remind people of this truth even when the particular text he was preaching said nothing about it. He believed merely to exhort church members to practice godly living without an understanding of the New Covenant was to throw them back upon the flesh, "that tainted source of self-serving motivation that can produce nothing but a cheap imitation of the real thing." (Ibid.) But with an understanding of the New Covenant, individual believers, and ultimately the church, would realize their full potential as children of God.
"When individuals in a church are taught to grasp and practice this New Covenant dynamic, they become noticeably different," Ray wrote. "They are no longer spiritual cripples, needing to be coddled and catered to by the pastoral staff, but become, instead, the beautiful imagery of Jesus, 'rivers of living water,' capable of ministering to others and manifesting the refreshing qualities of love, joy, and peace to all who touch their lives. They learn to revel in the daily adventure of expecting the Lord to use them in the most ordinary activities, but producing often extraordinary results." (Ibid.)
ABOVE ALL ELSE, Ray Stedman was a preacher. There were many who were more homiletically polished, but Ray never seemed to care. His passion was to be a faithful steward of the mysteries of God, and in that regard he had few peers.
Luis Palau, who met Ray in 1960 and considered him a spiritual father, sums it up well: "He had a great mind and a transparent life, so to him what appeared obvious was not obvious to the rest of us. . . . As an expository preacher, I can't think of any weakness. I couldn't wait to hear him. I cannot think of one moral flaw in Ray Stedman. He was utterly consistent in his life and his preaching." (Whitcomb, "Passing of the Torch," 77.)
Message transcript and recording © 004, 1995 by Ray Stedman Ministries, owner of sole copyright by assignment from the author. For permission to use this content, please review www.RayStedman.org/permissions. Subject to permissions policy, all rights reserved.