Then the angel who was speaking with me returned and roused me, as a man who is awakened from his sleep. He said to me, “What do you see?” And I said, “I see, and behold, a lampstand all of gold with its bowl on the top of it, and its seven lamps on it with seven spouts belonging to each of the lamps which are on the top of it; also two olive trees by it, one on the right side of the bowl and the other on its left side.” Then I said to the angel who was speaking with me saying, “What are these, my lord?” So the angel who was speaking with me answered and said to me, “Do you not know what these are?” And I said, “No, my lord.” Then hesaid to me, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel saying, ‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the Lord of hosts. ‘What are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you will become a plain; and he will bring forth the top stone with shouts of “Grace, grace to it!”’”
It is an honor and a joy to welcome you and to greet you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ to December Commencement service at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and College. It is especially a joy to welcome many family and friends who braved the weather to be here this morning. For us as an institution, and for these men and women graduating, it is a most special day.
For our graduates, it is a day of accomplishment, celebration, commitment, and forward march. To you I say, well done. For family and friends, it indeed is a day of celebration and of completion as well. For some, perhaps it is a day of relief, and perhaps for others a day of flat-out shock and awe.
For family and friends not familiar with this seminary or with that for which we labor—the church—this service may appear a bit foreign to you, or even unintelligible. You will hear words this morning that we hold dear words like “gospel,” “Great Commission,” “the Word of God,” “the church.” These are words and beliefs that we hold dear, convictions we hold strong, and convictions that these graduates hold strong as well. Our desire in this service this morning is that all who are here—not merely the graduates or the faculty and administration—but all who are here would come to appreciate and understand and cherish these convictions and these same words.
We think of them much at this time of year when we celebrate Christmas and the reality that God indeed gave his Son to come and be born of a virgin. He lived a sinless life, was fully God and fully man, and he gave himself on the cross, dying for your sins—dying for the sins of all who would call upon his name in humble repentance and faith, following him as Savior and Lord. Let that word ring clear this morning. Ultimately that is what we are about—that gospel message. Ultimately, that is what these graduates are giving their life to, and ultimately that is what we pray that you will hear and say, “Yes and amen” in your heart as well.
This is a special day for us as an institution because it always brings a certain joyful gravity—a hopeful seriousness—because we send you forth in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ to serve his cause, to advance his Kingdom, to build his church, and to bring glory to his name. We know our fundamental task is not to accrue students, but to train them, to serve them, to equip them, to graduate them, to deploy them. We send you forth knowing that our best efforts, and the best efforts and the best theological institution can only do so much. But we are bowing in hope, knowing that we entrust you to the Lord’s sovereign care and in the power of his Holy Spirit. For me, it my last time to speak to you as a student and for a few of you, it is my first time to speak to you as a student—those who are graduating with online degrees. Nonetheless, I am aware of that and I know last words ought to be lasting words, so today I pray especially so.
Today I want to press upon you briefly the importance of serving, ministering, leading, shepherding—that ministry which the Lord has called you to do, not in your might, nor in your power, but by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is and must be a work of the Spirit. The Spirit is who convicted us of our sin, who called us to Christ, who has sealed us for eternity, and who has set you apart for ministry in his power and in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is a message to be reminded of because we know a seminary degree does not graduate one beyond, nor free one from this urgent reality that effective, faithful, lasting ministry is carried out in the power of the Holy Spirit.
John Owen, the great theologian, once declared that the sin of the Old Testament was the rejection of God the Father, the sin of the New Testament the rejection of God the Son, and the sin of the Church Age has been the rejection, or the neglect, of God the Holy Spirit. I pray that not be true of your lives in ministry. I pray that not be true of this institution and our ministry. Perhaps that is a helpful word of correction because we live in an age when the Holy Spirit, at least in a public context and on Christian television and other scenarios, is often abused and misrepresented. Perhaps we have overcorrected ourselves, not wanting to be identified with the excesses of the charismatic movement and the televangelists and all of the rest. Perhaps we have blurred back into a humanistic mindset that has not given right, nor careful attention, to the Holy Spirit. I say to you this morning, my prayer for you is that this day and each day forward, as you serve the cause of Christ, that you will know what it is to live by the power of the Holy Spirit, to preach in the power of the Holy Spirit, to witness in the power of the Holy Spirit, and to see his favor and his blessing abide with you, your family, and your ministry.
This is an interesting passage. It is an ancient passage indeed from the prophet Zechariah. It reminds us of the great paradox of the Christian life. Who lives the Christian life? Do you live it or does God live it through you? The answer is yes. Paul, of course, coupled this reality together in Philippians 2 where he says, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling. Yet it is God at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” The same is true for ministry. You minister, we minister, fully responsible for our lives, our stewardship, our gifts, and how we steward those things. But we do so fully aware that we are entirely and appropriately dependent upon the power of the Holy Spirit for the fruitfulness of our ministries. It is a recurring challenge for folks like yourselves because the fact that you are here graduating shows a certain level of accomplishment. It shows a certain ability for self-discipline, a certain willingness to undertake a program of study that requires self-discipline and academic rigor, focus, energy, and commitment. By your very presence today, you are demonstrating an ability to accomplish certain things in your own power. In fact, perhaps all of us in the room, or many of us in the room, share the propensity to labor and to serve in our own strength. Zechariah reminds us of the folly of such efforts this morning and he calls us to higher ground, to give our lives, ministries, churches, and efforts fully serving in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Recall what is taking place in Zechariah 4. The nation of Israel, the southern kingdom, Judah, was conquered by the Babylonians in 587/586 B.C. They sacked the temple and brought national shame to God’s people, dragging many Judeans to exile. Then, suddenly the Babylonians were conquered and displaced by the Persians, and in 538 B.C., Cyrus, the Persian ruler, freed and permitted those in exile to return to their homeland and reconstruct the temple. About 50,000 Jews so returned from Babylon. They immediately began to rebuild the temple, but opposition from others and apathy from within caused the work to be abandoned. So the Lord called the prophets Haggai and Zechariah especially to stir the hearts of his people to rebuild the temple. Yet, this is more than a declaration for a building project. This is a call to worship, sacrifice, faithfulness, and it is a helpful template for faithfulness in ministry. Zechariah here, as the recipient of this fifth vision, comes to him. In verse one he says,
Then the angel who was speaking with me returned and roused me, as a man who is awakened from his sleep. He said to me, “What do you see?” And I said, “Also two olive trees by it, one on the right side of the bowl and the other on its left side.” This is a picture of the Lord’s power. “Also, two olive trees by it, one on the right of the bowl and the other on its left.” Again, this is sign of God’s abundant power to accomplish his task. Then I said to the angel who was speaking with me saying, “What are these, my lord?” So the angel who was speaking with me answered and said to me, “Do you not know what these are?” And I said, “No, my lord.” Then hesaid to me, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel saying, ‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the Lord of hosts.
These indeed are ancient words, but we believe with the totality of our belief system that they are true words. They are inspired words. They are God’s words to us. This is a simple declaration and formula we have become accustomed to. Perhaps some of us have it ensconced on our refrigerator. We have memorized it over the years in Sunday school. If we are not careful we can trivialize it by so doing. The prophet boldly declares that the work of God will not be accomplished by human might or by human efforts, especially in referring to some military might or external strength—some human ability to affect or accomplish. It is a prophetic reminder that human strength is always insufficient to bring the Lord’s will to pass. Let me say that again. Human strength, human effort, is always insufficient to bring the Lord’s will to pass.
Now, I have already referenced the fact that by this level of accomplishment, you have demonstrated a certain level of human giftedness, intellectual ability, discipline, and all of the rest to be here. We realize that not only are we prone to such human effort, intent, and reliance on our own, but we minister and we serve in what we might think of in a ministerial-industrial complex that sort of rounds out and can reinforce that propensity to serve and to minister in our own power. What do I mean by that? We are overwhelmed and inundated with books, conferences, literature, podcasts, curriculum, and all of the rest, how to refine our skills, polish our gifts, round out our skill set. And much of what you have been doing here the past several years has been unto this end, but all of this, if we are not careful, can reinforce that if we do these things, and we polish these skills, and we refine these gifts, that we will then be poised to succeed. Indeed maybe you will. But that is not ultimately my aim for you, and I trust that it is not ultimately your aim for yourself. For we do not want ministries that are entirely explainable by human ability. We do not want that at all. We want ministries. We want to serve in such a way that the end result, the fruitfulness that God is pleased to give, is inexplicable to human computation and that points all people, including the lost, to a higher reality that this is a work of God. That is what I urgently pray for you.
“It is not by might”—again, human tendency—“nor by power” is here a reference to human resources in general. It is human agency, means, or a collective effort. We might think of “not by might” meaning our personal efforts and “not by power” being collective efforts. Again, there are certain churches and certain ministries that are entirely explainable based upon human judgment and human reasoning. They have a polished preacher and a growing demographic in the community, good facilities, all of the positions are right, and presto! people will begin to show up—especially if there is a good children’s ministry to care for the little ones. I am not downgrading that. We want to use our best efforts and put our best foot forward in every way, but we do not want that to be the end of our ministry equation. We do not want to rely on our thinking, our speaking, our leading abilities, our people skills, or these things. We want there to be a larger dominant power that is indeed the power of the Holy Spirit. I say we have enough ministries and churches that are perfectly explainable in human terms. The world has seen the best we have to offer, and listen closely, they are not that impressed. The world has yet to see a generation of men and women serving Christ in a dynamic way that exudes and resonates the power of the Holy Spirit on their lives, their ministries, and the churches.
“Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of Hosts.” The Lord gives his Spirit to carry out his work and where you see a true work of God, you indeed see a work of the Spirit. We know from the first pages of Scripture, right? In Genesis 1 the Spirit works in cooperation with this whole effort to create. He parts the Red Sea in Exodus 15, he revives dead bones in Ezekiel 37, and throughout the New Testament, especially in the book of Acts and beyond, you see again and again and again the working of the Holy Spirit. The prophet says the work of God is to be done in such a way that it is the Holy Spirit.
A. J. Gordon, one of the founders of Gordon-Conwell Seminary many years ago, tells a story of being out on a farm. From a distance he saw one of the old hand-pump wells. He saw a man pumping the well and he was shocked at the speed and aggressiveness of the man pumping the well. His arm was going up and down, he was flailing about, and water was gushing out. This guy was continuing unabated—he is pressing on, and Gordon thought this guy’s arm was about to fall off because he was working the well so aggressively. He was intrigued by this, so he decided to investigate and moved closer and closer. Finally, when he gets close enough to see what is going on, it is not a man working the well at all. It was actually a wooden cutout of a man with the hand attached to the end of the pump and the elbow was a hinge. The man was not working the well, the well—which was an artesian well—was gushing water, and working the man. My prayer for you this morning is that your ministry would be something like that—not you laboring in the ministry, but you knowing what is the power of the Holy Spirit on you, and the work of the Holy Spirit taking place through you, gushing up through you in a sense, enabling you to fulfill your ministry.
Time does not permit us to turn to the New Testament, but if we did, I would point you to John 14, 15, and 16 where we see the role of the Paraclete—your helper given to you. It is a fundamental role. Jesus talks again and again and again in the Upper Room discourse about the work of the Holy Spirit and how he will grant us peace and bring the gift of illumination to teach and enable us to powerfully testify of Christ, live with conviction, bring about conversion, and to glorify Jesus. That is what the Spirit will do. That is what I pray he will do through you as you disembark from this place to serve him.
My prayer for you is rooted in a biblical conviction as what the Holy Spirit is in us. My prayer for you is rooted in the understanding that for your ministry to go to a level that will truly glorify the Lord optimally, that must be placed in the power of the Holy Spirit. My prayer for you is also a defensive prayer, because I know that as you leave here, you enter a world of service that is documented very clearly in Ephesians 6. It is a world of spiritual warfare. It is a world where the evil one will seek to hinder your ministry, tear down your ministry, and destroy your ministry. Just as your giftedness will not enable you to accomplish the maximum of what the Lord is calling you to do, so your giftedness certainly will not be able to protect you from the evil one. I pray that you will know the intimacy of Christ, the joy of Christ, and the protection of Christ, especially keeping you from temptation and the snares of the devil. That is my urgent prayer for you and my urgent plea to you. Be a person determined to resolve to be a man or woman now whose ministry will be marked not by might or power, but resolve to labor in the fullness of the Holy Spirit.