Mark S. Mitchell

Pastor, Writer, Follower of Jesus


Remembering Haddon Robinson​

I have been blessed with a handful of wonderful mentors in my life. One of them was Haddon Robinson. On July 22, 2017, Haddon “fell asleep” in the Lord after battling Parkinson’s Disease for about three years. Haddon served as a Professor of Preaching at Dallas Seminary, and later at Gordon-Conwell Seminary in Boston. In-between, he served as President of Denver Seminary. Ironically, though I was a student at Denver while Haddon was President there, I never met him until later when I became a doctoral student under him at Gordon-Conwell. Haddon wrote many books, but he is best known for his book Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages—first published it in 1980. This book is still the gold standard for training preachers.

I am eternally grateful that the Lord allowed me to get to know Haddon. Here are a few things I learned from him:

  1. He taught me how to preach
    In 1996 a Baylor University poll named Haddon one of “The 12 Most Effective Preachers in the English-Speaking World.” The first time I heard Haddon preach was at a commencement ceremony at Denver Seminary. I was mesmerized. It was an exposition of the parable of the sheep and the goats. I still remember his big idea: “There are going to be a lot of surprises at the judgment. A lot of surprises.” Hearing that sermon, I knew I wanted to learn everything I could from that man about preaching. About 15 years later, he accepted me into the Doctor of Ministry program in preaching at Gordon-Conwell. He taught me that a sermon should be more like a bullet than buckshot — one single idea that encapsulates the thrust of a passage of Scripture. He taught me the importance of story, and not just to tell a story but to live it. He also tried to teach me not to use any notes in the pulpit, which I have never managed to learn. No matter how hard we all tried to preach like him, he was unique.
  2. He taught me to be available
    Over the course of my friendship with Haddon, I made three invitations to him. First, I invited him out to lunch to ask him some advice as I was considering a change in my ministry. A few years later, I asked him to come across the country to meet with our elders and preach at our church. Finally, I asked him to come to California again and speak at our Men’s Retreat at Mount Hermon. The amazing thing about Haddon was that, to my great surprise, he said, “Yes” to all three requests. It may sound like a small thing, but he was at a stage in his life when he really didn’t have to agree to any of those requests. But Haddon was a man available to God and to others. The people of my church still talk about the time Haddon Robinson came and preached to them from the book of Philemon in a sermon called, “Put That On Master Charge.” He also continued to be available to his doctoral students as we met with him to hone our preaching skills at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin for many years after receiving our degree. Reflecting on Haddon’s availability to me and others, I am reminded that each time he said, “Yes” was like a personal affirmation of my value to him. Perhaps more than anything else, that affirmation changed my life.
  3. He taught me humility
    Haddon was not full of himself. When asked about the honor of being named one of the 12 best preachers in the world, he shook his head and asked, “How in the world do you come up with a conclusion like that?” As he has famously said: “There are no great preachers, only a great Christ.” As you might imagine, a man of stature like Haddon Robinson had a few critics. For example, I have heard pastors and scholars accuse him of not preaching expositional sermons. But I never heard Haddon speak unfairly or harshly about his critics. For me, his humility was best exemplified in his prayer life. To listen to him before the throne of God, was like eavesdropping on a private conversation between a beloved servant and his honored master.

Needless to say, I will miss Haddon Robinson. Please pray for his wife of 66 years, Bonnie; his daughter, Vicki Hitzges, a motivational speaker; and his son Torrey Robinson, Senior Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Tarrytown, New York.

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As you read my Monday morning blog today, I will be arriving in Israel with 20 friends, most of whom are part of our staff at Central Peninsula Church, along with their spouses. For a long time I’ve dreamed of making such a trip. Being a pastor, I’ve felt incomplete not having been there. I’ve spent over 35 years teaching people about the Bible. I’ve talked about places like Kiriath-Arba, Beersheba, Capernaum and Bethany. I’ve tried to have a handle on the geography of Palestine. I’ve seen many photos and heard many stories, but having never been there I’ve always felt a bit lacking. Now, finally, Lord willing, as you read this, I have arrived.

I’ve always been intrigued by the connection God’s people have had to this land, and now I will be able to discover why. The stories of the Bible are deeply embedded by geography and can’t help but be enhanced by actually being in the places they took place. The stories of Sodom and Gomorrah, the crossing of the Jordan River, and Jesus asleep in the boat on the Sea of Galilee during a massive storm should take on new meanings by visiting their settings. In Judaism, the traditional process of analyzing Scripture is called midrash, from the Hebrew term meaning to investigate; in Christianity, we call it exegesis. I’ve done a lot of textual exegesis over the years, but now I get to do what, in effect, is  geographical exegesis.

I am grateful to our church for allowing this to happen. Prayers for a safe and rewarding trip are much appreciated!

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Mentoring Young Pastors

men·tor  ˈmenˌtôr,-tər/
an experienced and trusted adviser. “he was her friend and mentor until his death”
synonyms: advisor, guide, guru, counselor, consultant

Many people are talking about mentoring these days. Last week I prepared a message that had a lot to say about this from the story of Elisha’s succession of Elijah as the lead prophet in Israel. Before Elijah’s departure, there was an “in-between” period in which Elisha walked with Elijah and received his invaluable mentoring. Whether it’s Elijah and Elisha, Moses and Joshua, or Paul and Timothy, there’s a lot to learn about mentoring from these biblical examples.

A couple of years ago I ran across a verse that has come to define what I feel my purpose is for the rest of my life. Here it is: “Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, my God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your mighty acts to all who are to come” (Ps 71:18). Mentoring is all about declaring His power to the next generation.

I have the privilege of serving at Central Peninsula Church(link) church as Lead Pastor. I am going on my twenty-eighth year there. My greatest joy right now comes in mentoring some of the young pastors on our staff. God has blessed us with some amazing young men and women that are very much in their formative years of leadership. My own focus is on mentoring the young men. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned in mentoring them:

  1. Pick strong guys. Maybe this goes without saying, but some older men are threatened by strong, talented young men. But as long as this strength is tempered with humility and a teachable spirit, I’ll take a young stallion any day over a gelding.
  2. Take them with you. I have the opportunity to travel a good deal on ministry trips outside the country. I rarely go alone. Usually, I bring one of these guys with me. The experiences we share on these trips is worth a thousand staff meetings!
  3. Meet regularly. This sounds so simple and obvious, but I’m often surprised how few Lead Pastors take the time to sit down and meet one- on-one with the guys on their staff. I meet with them at least every other week, apart from regular staff meetings.
  4. Speak hard truth in love. David Roper used to say, “God’s men bounce.” The idea is you can hit them hard and they’ll bounce back. I have found this to be true, so I don’t hold back, but also try to do it in the context of committed love.
  5. Invest in their marriage. If the enemy is going to pick one of these guys off, he’ll often try to do it in the context of their family. My wife and I try to meet often with them as couples. We share our own struggles and challenges and encourage them to put their marriage before ministry.
  6. Share history. Every church has a unique story. Learning and honoring that story is part of being a good shepherd. Young guys have a tendency to want to change that story instead of honor it, and certain things do often need changing! But for change to be truly redemptive, it must be born out of a respect for what God has been doing there all along.
  7. Expose them to other leaders. I’m not the only one who they can learn from. There are areas in which they would be much better off learning from someone else.
  8. Let them preach. Most young guys want to preach more. I try to balance the responsibilities I have to preach with the need they have to grow in their pulpit skills. While some guys are naturals, most need time in the pulpit to hone their craft. As much as you can, give it to them.
  9. Talk them up. Talk them up to the church, elders and key leaders. They will lap it up like thirsty hounds. We all like encouragement, and the young men you mentor need to not only hear it from you, but to hear it from others who have heard it from you.
  10. Learn from them. There is so much I learn from the young guys on our staff. I’m way behind when it comes to technology, current trends in churches and the right kind of jeans to buy. I try not to say, “We’ve never done it that way.” Okay, sometimes I say it, but not too much.

I love mentoring. I love this stage in life where I’m “in-between” the call to mentor others and my own departure from the scene. What a privilege it is to declare his mighty deeds to all who are to come!


The Case for Expository Preaching

For the past three decades I’ve been committed to expositional preaching. Expository preaching is committed to explaining and applying a Biblical text to the audience. It begins with the conviction that all of Scripture was breathed out by God and has the power to change the life of a person who hears and obeys it. Most of the time, expository preaching means preaching systematically through books of the Bible. This is in contrast to topical preaching, which begins with a topic and then looks for biblical references that address that topic. I’ve found that there are several benefits to expository preaching.

Preaching through entire books of the Bible allows me to present truth in balance. As I preach through books of the Bible I’m forced to deal with the difficult themes of Scripture as well as the more appealing ones. I must deal with both grace and truth, wrath and mercy, theology and practice. In every biblical book, there’s a mingling of different themes that makes possible the apostolic goal of “declaring the whole counsel of God.”

Preaching through entire books of the Bible prevents me from worrying about what to preach next. Before I begin preaching through a book, I lay out the entire series of messages according to paragraphs. Each message will be an exposition of that paragraph, also allowing me to focus on a single theme which has emerged from my study. Every pastor knows the panic that can set in when he doesn’t know what to preach on next. I’m glad to say that this has seldom been an issue for me.

Preaching through entire books of the Bible allows me to model for people how to study the Bible. Every pastor wants his people to be able to feed themselves from the Word of God, but many people feel intimidated by the Bible and inadequate when it comes to how to study and interpret it. While not a Bible Study per se, expository preaching allows me to model sound interpretation and application of a biblical passage. People are able to observe how to move from understanding the biblical author’s intent to the application of that truth to the modern audience. I’ve seen how this rubs off on folks in both their small group Bible studies and their personal study of God’s Word.

Preaching through books of the Bible saves time because I only have to study one text instead of several. I’m always concerned when I hear a sermon that includes several different verses from all over the Bible. How in the world did he have the time to study all of those passages in context? Most often, I’ve found that he hasn’t, and he’s practicing what we call proof-texting. Proof-texting is when a person appeals to a biblical text to prove or justify a theological position without regard for the context of the passage they’re citing. As I like to say, they have a good sermon looking for a text! I have found that it takes me several hours to interpret a single passage. Expository preaching allows me the time to do that thoroughly.

I close with a wonderful definition of expository preaching from my late mentor, Ray Stedman, “Exposition is preaching that derives its content from the 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. It consists of deep insight into and understanding of the thoughts of God, powerfully presented in direct personal application to contemporary needs and problems. It is definitely not a dreary, rambling, shallow verse-by verse commentary, as many imagine. 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.”

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Where in the World is Rwanda?

Ten years ago a movie came out that many of us saw called, Hotel Rwanda. Do you remember? It was about the genocidal mass slaughter of ethnic Tutsis by ethnic Hutus that took place in 1994 in Rwanda. Since that time there has been a great work of reconciliation taking place between these two groups, and Rwanda is considered one of the most beautiful countries in all of Africa. Today, my fellow CPC pastor, Neal Benson and I are off to visit this country. We will join fellow CPC’er, Chris Foreman there and speak at an apologetics conference sponsored by an organization founded by Chris called, Come and See Africa. I am looking forward to speaking on the question of how a good and powerful God could allow such horrific things as that which took place in Rwanda almost 20 years ago. It will be humbling to speak on this difficult subject to a group of people that have been confronted by this question at a far deeper level than I have. Please pray for both Neal and me as we seek to be God’s vessels in this beautiful land to these resilient people. Pray for our families while we are gone and pray that God brings us back safely on January 14.

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A Legacy of Mercy

Is the legacy of Christianity merciful or merciless? Yesterday I preached on 1 John 3:11-24. The message was called, “Love Life” because at the heart of the message was the idea that those who claim to know God must love like God. I had intended to include a quote from historian Rodney Stark in which he argues that Christianity’s emphasis on mercy was the primary factor that captured the attention of the ancient world. Stark writes: “In the midst of the squalor, misery, illness, and anonymity of ancient cities, Christianity provided an island of mercy and security. In contrast, in the pagan world, and especially among the philosophers, mercy was regarded as a character defect and pity as a pathological emotion: because mercy involves providing unearned help or relief, it is contrary to justice. Thus humans must learn to curb the impulse to show mercy. Showing mercy was a defect of character unworthy of the wise and excusable only in those who have not yet grown up. This was the moral climate in which Christianity taught that a merciful God requires humans to be merciful.” My hope is that the church today might continue this legacy of mercy while still holding onto the truth of the Word of God.

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Blessed Bankruptcy

Jesus begins the Beatitudes saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” That sounds like nonsense to most of us. We live in a society where leadership, success and fulfillment have nothing to do with being poor in spirit. Political candidates promise if they’re elected things will be better. They’ll lift our economy, bring on world peace, solve our health care crisis and improve education for our kids. Smart political candidates are optimistic and confident, not poor in spirit. We don’t raise our children to be poor in spirit either. On the soccer field we yell from the sidelines, “You can do it! Believe in yourself!” We don’t want our kids to cower in the face of life’s challenges; we don’t want them poor in spirit; we want them to have confidence. Our culture says, “Blessed are the people who have it all together, who are confident, independent, and think well of themselves.” So when Jesus says the poor in spirit are blessed we don’t really believe that’s true.

What does it mean to be poor in spirit? It doesn’t mean to be financially poor. Living in a slum doesn’t merit favor with God. You can be materially poor and proud as a peacock. You can be rich in the world’s goods and poor in spirit. Nor does it mean to be poor spirited. Jesus isn’t saying the wimps of the world are blessed. He’s not promoting passivity of spirit or a certain cowering kind of personality. Nor does it mean to be poor in spiritual awareness. Jesus isn’t pronouncing a blessing on those who have no interest in spiritual things; who go through life without a second thought of God. Finally, to be poor in spirit doesn’t mean to be modest. It’s not the Academy Award winner who says, “Aw shucks, I couldn’t have done it without my supporting cast.” That may be a nice way to handle an award, but you can be modest in your manner yet proud in your spirit.

Being poor in spirit has to do with our relationship with God. In the Greek language there are two words for “poor.” One word describes those who live from paycheck to paycheck with just the bare necessities. That’s not the word used here. The word used here means to be afflicted and oppressed and look to God and God alone for help. Psalm 34:6 says, “The poor man cried, and the Lord heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles.” To be poor in spirit means to recognize our own spiritual bankruptcy and our deep need for God.

In Luke 18:9-14 Jesus told a story to show what it means to be poor in spirit. Two men went to church to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee stood before God and thanked him he’s not like other people. He’s not a liar and a cheat in business, he doesn’t sleep around, and he doesn’t rip people off like this tax collector. He fasts on a regular basis and gives a tenth of his income to God. What he was saying was true; he probably lived an upright life. This is the kind of guy every church wants. This is the kind of guy other people look at and think, “If only I could get it together like him. He’s so disciplined, so spiritual.”

The tax collector couldn’t have been more different. Tax collectors were the scoundrels of the ancient world. They were Jews who bought franchises from the Roman government which gave them the right to collect taxes. Besides being traitors to Rome, they got rich by extortion. Rome had no standardized tax rates, so the tax collector could charge what he wanted, and skim whatever he could off the top. They were the scum of society. So when this man prayed, he didn’t have a whole lot to say. He didn’t even dare raise his eyes to heaven. He beat his breast and cried out, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” We say, “Well, he ought to be praying that! If anyone needs mercy, he does!”

By anyone’s measure, the Pharisee was better than the tax collector. If they were both running for election, we’d vote for the Pharisee. But Jesus closes the story with a statement that must have sounded like nonsense. He said the tax collector, not the Pharisee, went back to his house justified, right with God.

What’s going on in this story? We might say that the Pharisee’s problem was conceit. He really was a better man, he just needed to be more modest. Who would stand up at church and say, “Thank you Lord that I’m not like these other guys. I rarely miss church. I tithe. I witness to my neighbors.” But his problem wasn’t conceit, it was pride. Luke said something important to introduce this story. He said, “Jesus told this story to those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and looked down on everybody else.” This tells me the difference between pride and poverty of spirit has to do with who you trust. The Pharisee didn’t trust in God; he trusted in himself. He didn’t really need God for anything. He wasn’t a beggar before God; he was confident in himself. But the tax collector came empty handed, trusting in God. We might say, “He had an advantage. He really was a loser!” But he could have practiced his own form of pride. He could have said, “Lord, thank you I’m not like this proud Pharisee. I may be a sinner, but at least I’m open and honest about it. At least I’m not a hypocrite.” He didn’t say that. Instead he saw his moral poverty and trusted God, not himself.

I think the reason he did that was how he measured himself. The Pharisee was proud because he measured himself against man. That’s why it says, “He looked down on everyone else.” He didn’t measure himself God-ward; he found a guy who would make him look good. Some of us aren’t poor in spirit because we really haven’t looked God-ward and identified the sin in our lives as sin. We’ve rationalized it and trivialized it. To be poor in spirit means to look God-ward and come to grips with our absolute moral bankruptcy in his sight. But it equally means to come to him out of that need; to cry out to him for mercy and to trust that he can and will supply what we need.

I had an uncle who married late in life and never had children. As a result, he treated my brother and me like grandsons. When he got older, his wife was in a care facility and he stayed in his home. Before he died, he shared with me that his home was in joint tenancy, and if he died first his wife would become the sole owner and her plan was to leave the home to some of her own relatives. But, if she died first, my uncle would leave the house to my brother and me, along with four other cousins. I remember the day he called me to tell me his wife had died. Despite the fact they never had a great relationship, he was full of grief and remorse. My first thought wasn’t to grieve over the loss of my aunt, but to rejoice over the fact that now I would inherit one-sixth of the house. There’s a sense in which in my spirit I could have killed her for the money. My uncle died just a few days later, but in that experience I saw how ugly and dark my heart really was.

What happens when we truly see our hearts and lives for what they are? We can try to deny what we see, or cover it up, or explain it away, or find someone worse. When we do that, we stay in our sins. Or we can come to God as a beggar, throw ourselves at his feet and cry out for mercy. It’s then, and only then, that we’ll know the blessing of being poor in spirit: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”