[Delivered at the Philippine Theological College 2013 Commencement]
Chancellor Elam, President Sagurit, members of the board, faculty, staff, students, ladies and gentlemen, I am humbled and honored by the opportunity to address you this afternoon. We have gathered on a momentous occasion, to recognize the graduation of these young men from Philippine Theological College, and to acknowledge the commencement of their life-long career of serving God and his people. Actually, this is not the commencement of their career of serving God, for they have all been doing that for years. Indeed, they could not have arrived at this moment without having put in many hours in studying God’s word, participating in weekly evangelism and frequent mission campaigns, and preaching and teaching in congregations of the Lord’s church throughout Pangasinan. This day certainly does not mark the beginning of their Christian service. And yet it is certainly appropriate today to celebrate the achievement of these graduates, and to honor them and all the people throughout the world who have worked and sacrificed to make this day possible. This is truly an international school, as we can easily see by looking around, and people across the globe have a great amount invested in the education and training of these young Christian leaders. That puts a great weight of responsibility on your shoulders, but it should also provide enormous comfort to know that people are standing with you in many nations, and prayers on your behalf ascend to our Father’s throne in many languages.
I am reminded of Revelation 7:
After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; 10 and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” 11 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures; and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying, “Amen, blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our God forever and ever. Amen.”
Here John the Revelator gives us a glimpse of the fullness of the people of God, people who come from every nation and tribe and people and tongue, standing before the throne ascribing glory to the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb. It is reminiscent of Isaiah 2:2: “Now it will come about that In the last days The mountain of the house of the LORD Will be established as the chief of the mountains, And will be raised above the hills; And all the nations will stream to it.” We look around, and we see that God has begun to bring about the completion of this ancient vision from Isaiah. The assembly gathered here today is one from diverse nations, and most of you are listening to this address using your second, third, or fourth language. This audience is living proof that God is at work in our world, and he will accomplish his purposes.
God has a universal plan for his creation. The end result will be a completely new creation, as we see in Revelation 21, where John shows us the picture of the new heaven and new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth passed away. This is very similar to what Peter says at the end of his second epistle, where he describes the earth being burned up and replaced by a new heaven and new earth where righteousness dwells. Whatever reality these visions point toward, they do demonstrate that God’s intentions encompass all of the world. He is remaking creation.
Indeed, this has always been God’s purpose, ever since the snake convinced Adam and Eve that they could be like God if they ate the forbidden fruit. It was at that time that sin and death entered the world, and God cursed his own good creation (Gen. 3:17). And it was from that moment that the need for a universal solution arose. This eventually led to the call of Abraham, whose descendants, according to God, would serve as a blessing to all nations. Whereas the first sin had brought death and a curse from God, Abraham’s family would be the source of blessing from God.
We know the biblical story, that Abraham’s physical descendants, Israel, failed in their calling by God. They did not turn out to be a blessing to all nations because they did not keep God’s commandments themselves. Until one special Israelite, son of Abraham, was born more than two thousand years ago in Bethlehem of Judaea. Jesus did fulfill the law of God, and he became the source of blessing to all humanity. His life and ministry revealed God in an entirely new way. And when he died, somehow he did not stay dead, but God raised him up, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power (Acts 2:24).
This was, in fact, the beginning of the end. God’s good creation, which had been put under a curse, was now being recreated. First, death itself was turned backwards in the resurrection of Jesus, and this was merely the first fruits. We now live in the in-between time, when at long last God has begun to fulfill his purposes. He has begun to reign over his people, but his kingdom does not yet fill up creation as it will one day. He has begun to defeat death, but we know that death still holds power over our mortal bodies. But even now we have the promise that the gates of Hades—that is, the power of death—will not overcome God’s people, the church. The new creation has been inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus, but we long to see the new heaven and new earth, just as the creation itself groans and longs for the revealing of the sons of God, when it will be set free from its bondage to corruption (Rom 8:21–22).
All of this is simply to stress that God has always had his sights set on redeeming the entire world, and if we would follow him, our vision can be no less broad. What is amazing is that God invites us to work alongside him in his redemption project.
Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, 19 namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us… (2Cor. 5:18–20)
This week, we have been ambassadors for Christ. This week, we have worked with God in reconciling the world to him. And there is no need for me to stress that what we have done this week looks very, very strange to a great many people. We should not be surprised. Our Lord said that different sorts of soil receive the seed, and most of the varieties of soil he mentioned could not produce fruit. The rocky soil could not even really receive the seed. There are many people in this world who observe our lifestyle and simply do not understand. In another well-known passage, Jesus said that only those who are born again can see the kingdom of God. This might mean a number of things, but I think one thing it does indicate is that the work of the kingdom is completely foreign, completely obscure to those who have not accepted the lordship of Jesus. Though evidence of God’s reign might be all around them—in good works done for orphans and widows, in hope given to those who formerly had no hope, in love shared between people from different cultures or nations—people who are not born again simply cannot see the kingdom of God for what it is. It is strange to them. We are strange to them.
This week we have offered medical care to people who can offer us nothing in return. We have gone to many houses throughout Binmaley pleading with people whom we don’t know that they should completely trust and obey a savior who died on a Roman cross. We have been fools for Christ. We have sweated bucket loads. Many times, we have driven to the ocean with people that we met an hour earlier. We would get out of the van, and often one of you students would change clothes in the van so that you could enter the ocean with this other person whom we barely knew. The two of you would proceed a few meters into the ocean, and from a distance observers perceived that you exchanged a few words before the student dunked the other person under the water. When the person arose from the water, the two of you walked back to the beach, where the soaking-wet stranger was greeted with hugs and congratulations, and usually singing and prayer.
This spectacle must have appeared very peculiar to the other people gathered on the beach or fishing in the ocean. That does not include all the especially unusual situations we encountered this week, whether the opportunity to preach the gospel in a government building during business hours, or carrying a paralyzed woman in a plastic chair to a swimming pool to baptize her, or meeting an elderly woman who had been looking and praying for the truth and who believes she found it this week. All of these events might not make much sense to average people. But as for us who are born again, this week we beheld the kingdom of God. We recognized it and rejoiced in the sight.
What I want to stress to you graduates is that God is working in this world. His plans are being fulfilled even as we speak, if we only have eyes to see it. Our God is alive, he is active, and we have no cause to fear. We serve the king of the world, who has adopted us as his children, so that we may sing his praises. In what is perhaps the most important verse in the Gospel of Matthew, our Lord said “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth.” That’s our king! The one who has all authority in heaven and on earth. Why should we fear? Sin and death have been defeated! Christ is king! The victory is ours if we will only take it. God invites us to participate in his work. It is for this purpose that you have been trained over the last two or four years. Boldly fulfill the task set before you.
As you do that, I would like to remind you of the importance of two things that have often been stressed in your studies at PTC: the church, and scripture. Let me start with the church. I appreciate a great deal the traditional emphasis that we in the churches of Christ have put on the nature of the church and its importance. We recognize that the church is no temporary institution while we wait for the kingdom of God to come. No! The church is now the kingdom of God on earth. The church is the people over whom God reigns as king, the people who pledge their allegiance to Christ. Christ is our king, and we are his kingdom.
The church has been God’s plan all along. According to Ephesians 1:4, God chose us before the foundation of the world. He has had us in mind before he created the heavens and the earth. When he chose Abraham and his descendants as those who would bring blessing to the world, he had in mind the church. After all, we are the children of Abraham, we who are of the faith of Abraham (Gal. 3:7). In the USA we have a children’s song that goes like this: “Father Abraham had many sons, and many sons had Father Abraham, and I am one of them, and so are you, so let’s just praise the Lord.” And indeed we are the children of Abraham, if we share his faith. We are his descendants, the ones who should bring blessing to the world. The call of Abraham our Father was the first step in God’s plan leading to the church. The church is the hope for the world.
Maybe I should explain that. Of course, I share your conviction that Jesus Christ is the hope for the world. He is the one who fulfilled the law, he is the one who lived a perfect life, he is the one who paid the penalty for sin, he is the one who overcame death, he is the one who ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father. But Jesus is also the one who left behind him a small group of followers that he named his church, which is also his body, of which he is the head. We rightly proclaim that Jesus Christ is the hope for the world, and yet we ourselves are in Christ, we are his body. His mission is our mission. If Jesus is the hope for the world, his body—the church—will be the means by which that hope is realized.
In Ephesians 3:9–10, the apostle Paul spoke about “the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; 10 so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” This mystery of the church had been hidden for ages, but now the church fulfills the work of God, revealing his wisdom to all creation.
I know that these are familiar thoughts. What I would like to stress, given this importance of the church, is that the church is a community of people to whom we belong whether we like it or not. We did not sign up for the church. We signed up for Jesus—we were baptized into Christ so that our sins would be washed away and we could be in Christ. It was God who put is in the church. Many people would like to resist this action by God. They would like to have Christ without the church. America is full of such people. This week I have met Filipinos who feel the same way—Jesus is important, the church is not. Brethren, God does not share this belief, and he does not allow us to be in Christ without being in the body of Christ.
The difficulty with this is that the church is, literally, a community of sinners. This regularly creates tensions, bad will, negative comments, negative Facebook posts, opposing factions in one congregation, and tragically church splits. It is hard working with a group of sinners. There are often personality conflicts, where people just don’t enjoy being around each other. There are some people that I go to church with who I don’t really enjoy being around. (Almost none of them came on this trip with us.) We are not commanded to enjoy being around everyone in our congregation, but we are commanded to love them. And that’s the point where we become like Christ, who surely did not enjoy being around Peter, James, and John all the time, and most certainly did not enjoy dying on the cross on behalf of his enemies. When we show love to God’s children even when we don’t enjoy it, we show ourselves to be followers of Christ.
The New Testament presents a picture of what this can look like. You remember the picture of the innumerable multitude from every nation singing praises to God that we read earlier from the Book of Revelation. That is the end result of the work of the church—all creation joining in praising our Creator. We have experienced a foretaste of that this week. But I would also suggest that we experience a foretaste of it every week as we gather for worship with people who we might not know very well, people from all sorts of different backgrounds, who have all become one family in Christ. I think we see a picture of this in the Corinthian congregation. Notice how Paul describes those Christians in this famous passage:
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, 10 nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.
“Such were some of you.” Who were these Corinthian Christians gathering for worship? These are people who had been fornicators, idolaters, homosexuals, drunkards, swindlers. When these recovering sinners came together as one body of Christ, they surely felt a little awkward being with each other. I imagine that they did not necessarily enjoy being around each other. In fact, I know it because Paul talks about all the divisions that exist in the Corinthian church. And yet, these Corinthian saints show us what the church can and must be, a community for sinners to find forgiveness in Christ, a group of people from vastly different backgrounds to find acceptance and family, a place for people who had been enemies of Christ to accomplish the work of God in the world.
Graduates, we must focus on strengthening our churches. I am proud to be a part of a team, Filipinos and Americans, who established a congregation this week. Now, we will head back to the USA and we leave with you the hard work of bringing to maturity this congregation, and all your congregations, just as we are returning to the hard work of edifying our own congregations in America. It is always easier to bring someone to Christ than it is to help them mature in Christ. We can look at the example of Paul, who converted thousands, no doubt, but spent the rest of his life in the struggle to edify and encourage these congregations in various cities in Europe and Asia. He sent letters, he made extended visits, he pleaded with them, commanded them, prayed for them, so that he could present them complete in Christ (cf. Col. 1:28). An even better example is Jesus himself. Think about how simply the Gospels present Jesus’ call to his disciples. He simply entreats them to follow, and they leave their nets, or their tax office, or whatever, and they follow. And now think of what a struggle Jesus later had with those same disciples to get them to understand his identity and his mission and what it was that he was asking them to do. It took three years, and they still were not at all ready for the crucifixion. Jesus spent 40 more days following his resurrection speaking to those disciples about the kingdom of God, and they still did not quite understand all that he was saying. The initial call was quick and easy, the process of teaching and edifying was much more difficult.
This is also our experience. Many of us have this week encountered people for whom the initial call was quick and easy. Maybe we studied with a woman for merely thirty minutes before convincing her of her need for the salvation offered by Christ when we are baptized, and she has joyfully submitted to this call. We all know that the next phase will be much more difficult, the process of her becoming a strong Christian who consistently avoids sin, who routinely seeks to glorify God, and who speaks to others about the salvation that Christ offers. Helping her in this way, or the men that we have converted, will present many challenges, and yet, it must be done. The church is God’s plan for the world from all eternity, and our work with God’s people is not complete until we present them mature in Christ. God has brought us together as his household, and our job is together to bring glory to him, so that his praise fills the earth.
How do we do this? How do we bring Christians to maturity? This brings me to the second point that I want to emphasize, which I will do briefly. Scripture is our tool to mold people into the image of Christ. This is the reason God has given us his word—to mold his church, to strengthen his people. And it is the training you have received here at PTC that will provide you with the knowledge of scripture, and the knowledge of how to study scripture, that will serve as the basis for your ministry for the rest of your life.
Have you ever noticed that the Bible is hard to understand? There are entire books of the Bible that seem completely irrelevant to us. The Book of Chronicles, for example, or Ezekiel. Why do we have these books? We are reminded of the words of Paul: all scripture is inspired by God and profitable. Why do we have these books? They are for the church. Every book of the Bible teaches us about our God, and the goal of our ministries is to become like our God and to help others to be like him.
That is not say that it is an easy matter to understand scripture. It is not easy, it is a struggle. It is hard work. But we recognize that the Bible is the word of God, when we read it God is speaking to us. It is often difficult to understand God when he speaks. We remember the struggles the disciples had. The words of Jesus often posed difficulties for the disciples, but the struggle was part of the point. In America we have the proverb: No pain, no gain. We know this to be true for bodily exercise, but you might also think about the struggles you’ve had at PTC in your classes. You stayed up late studying for tests, you struggled to complete assignments, but you also learned, and grew, and matured. Was that struggle valuable? Yes, of course, no pain no gain. So also with our study of scripture. We often hit against a passage that presents numerous difficulties, but as we ponder it, as we talk to others about its interpretation, as we read books and articles about it, as we struggle to understand, God chisels away at our ignorance and imperfections, and he shapes us by his words. As we struggle to understand the Bible, the whole counsel of God, he molds us into the ministers we ought to be, and he uses us to shape his people. Trust scripture always and use it for God’s people.
Now you have completed your courses, no more assignments. We offer you our sincere congratulations. But, actually, there is one last assignment: reconcile the world to God. This is a massive project, but we will work with you. More importantly, God will work with us. We may not accomplish it in our lifetime, but we can be confident that God will accomplish it. And the vision will be fulfilled, where people from every nation and tribe and people and tongue will proclaim, “Amen, blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our God forever and ever. Amen.”