And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel. [Acts 6:8-15, esv]
We are not gathered here together by accident. Before us are over three hundred new graduates of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, arrayed in all their commencement glory. Beside them sits one of the most remarkable assemblies of scholar-teachers ever to serve Christ’s church. Filling out this congregation are those who come to celebrate and witness this great moment. Wives, parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, friends and pastors, all gathered for an event that commands our attention and seizes our hearts. This is hardly the first commencement of this institution. Today marks the 219th commencement exercise since Southern Seminary was founded in 1859. But here we are in May of the year of our Lord, 2017 — and the stakes are high. Very high.
The Christian ministry has never been for the faint of heart. The ministry, biblically defined, is combat duty in spiritual warfare. These graduates have been prepared to be front-line officers in that warfare. Today is part of their commissioning. They are to be sent out as ambassadors of the Gospel of Christ, as heralds of the Kingdom that cannot be shaken, as stewards of the mysteries of Christ, and good soldiers of King Jesus. In the centuries since the apostles, the ministry has not changed, the assignment has never changed, but the context has changed and changed and changed again. Jesus told his disciples: “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” [Matthew 10:16, ESV] The wolves have not grown friendlier.
At every Southern Seminary graduation we remind one another of the great and essential fact that the Christian ministry is not a mere profession — it is a divine calling. The ministry is one of Christ’s gifts to his church. it is the most serious and joyous of all callings.
I think often of the venerable words of the old Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England for the ordering of the ministry. These words are spoken to new ministers of the Word:
“You have heard, brethren, as well in your private examination, as in the exhortation which was now made to you, and in the holy Lessons taken out of the Gospel and the writings of the Apostles, of what dignity and of how great importance this office is, whereunto ye are called. And now again we exhort you, in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you have in remembrance, into how high a dignity, and to how weighty an office and charge ye are called: that is to say, to be messengers, watchmen, and stewards of the Lord; to teach and to premonish, to feed and provide for the Lord’s family; to seek for Christ’s sheep that are dispersed abroad, and for his children who are in the midst of this naughty world, that they may be saved through Christ for ever.
Have always therefore printed in your remembrance, how great a treasure is committed to your charge. For they are the sheep of Christ, which he bought with his death, and for whom he shed his blood. The Church and Congregation whom you must serve, is his spouse and his body. And if it shall happen the same Church, or any member thereof, to take any hurt or hindrance by reason of your negligence, ye know the greatness of the fault, and also the horrible punishment that will ensue. Wherefore consider with yourselves the end of your ministry towards the children of God, towards the spouse and body of Christ; and see that you never cease your labour, your care and diligence, until you have done all that lieth in you, according to your bounden duty, to bring all such as are or shall be committed to your charge, unto that agreement in the faith and knowledge of God, and to that ripeness and perfectness of age in Christ, that there be no place left among you, either for error in religion, or for viciousness in life.”
That is, to say the least, a rather demanding job description. To that we would now say even more, never less.
I directed our attention to Acts 6 and the story of Stephen, known as the first Christian martyr. Note how quickly the situation changes. In the preceding text Stephen, “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit,” is chosen as one of the first deacons to serve the Christian church. When he and others of “the seven” are chosen, we are told that “the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” [Acts 6:7] In the very next verse, we are told that Stephen, “full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people.” [Acts 6:8] That got attention.
The opposition quickly came, and it was fierce. Stephen was faithful, and effective. “They could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.” [Acts 6:10] You know what followed.
“And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, and they set up false witnesses who said, ‘This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.’” They accused Stephen of presenting the Gospel, and presenting it quite effectively. They could not withstand his speaking, so they killed him — but not before he would deliver one last great speech, a marvel of biblical theology.
I draw our attention to Stephen’s example, and particularly to perhaps the most neglected verse in this narrative: “And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.” [Acts 6:15]
What are we to make of this? Well, remember that Stephen’s accusers had charged him with “speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God.” But now, we are told that Stephen, facing these accusations, had the very appearance of Moses after he had been on the holy mountain with God. “His face was like the face of an angel.”
One huge problem here is the all-too-common confusion concerning angels. In the Bible, angels are not sweet, cherubic creatures, seeking to bring cuteness to a room. They are messengers of God. They inspired awe and fear. Their purpose was to bring a message from the one true God. This is the ministry of the Word of God — the ministry we celebrate in these graduates today. We dare to pray that when they preach, their faces look like the faces of angels — not cute, not harmless, not ready to jump off of a greeting card, but fearless, faithful, forceful, to the end.
A commencement ceremony takes a quick view backward in order to aim at the long view of the future. This day is far more about beginnings than endings. The completion of these monumentally important programs of study is appropriately marked and celebrated, but our hearts are drawn to the future as we imagine what God will do by his grace and for his glory in these graduates arrayed before us. And so our focus is on the start of new ministries, missionary journeys, and opportunities to serve the church for whom Christ died.
These graduates go out to build upon what others have already built. We will all build on the foundation someone else has laid. Even as the Lord grants opportunity to sow seed, we will spend much of our lives and ministries watering. The Christian ministry is not a career. It is a calling that originates in the sovereign majesty of God and is concluded only by the coming of the kingdom of the Lord, and of his Christ.
In the church age, ministry is handed from generation to generation. Our humble determination and our heart’s desire must be to receive this charge and to serve faithfully — planting and watering in the fields of ministry and taking care how we build upon the foundation laid before us.
The Lord God spoke through his prophet Joel to promise that older men will dream dreams and young men shall see visions. Powerful, faithful, and compelling dreams and visions animate these graduates. They were brought here to this seminary as they were called to ministry, these visions and dreams have kept them here through years of dedicated study, and these dreams and visions propel them onward as they go out into a world of ministry and mission.
But as they go, they join a line of faithfulness that reaches back to Moses and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, John the Baptist and John the evangelist, Peter and Philip, Paul and Apollos. It extends through generations punctuated by names such as Athanasius and Augustine, Luther and Calvin, Whitfield and Wesley, Owens and Edwards, Spurgeon and Moody . . . and so it goes.
Build faithfully upon the foundation laid by Christ and the apostles. Receive the stewardship of ministry that is passed on to you and give your all to this calling so long as you live. Then, pass this ministry to a generation yet unseen and unborn to continue this ministry and extend the reach of the Gospel until Jesus comes.
Start something you cannot finish and give yourself to it for the length of your days, with the strength of your life, to the glory of God. Dream dreams and see visions, and take up this calling as you plant and water in the fields of Christ. Build carefully upon the foundation laid for you. The hopes and prayers of God’s faithful people go with you. As you go out, we pray that you will go with the faces of angels.