It is a joy to be here this morning to celebrate at this commencement service. It is imperative as we do so that we turn our attention to God’s Word to hear what he would have to say from his Scripture to us and to our graduates especially.
As we do so, let me state my honor and joy in welcoming you to this service. For the graduates it is a day of accomplishment, celebration, commitment, and forward march and service to King Jesus. To you we say, well done. For families and friends, it is a day of celebration, completion, relief, and for a few perhaps, even shock. We collectively say, well done.
For guests here this morning not familiar with the seminary or what we do, you will hear words at times which may sound alien—words like “gospel,” “Bible,” “church,” and “Great Commission.” It is our prayer and ambition that this service would so bear witness to our Lord Jesus Christ that you would be stirred in your interest to becoming a follower of Christ.
This is the time of year when we celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ who we believe with full conviction is God’s son, was born of a virgin, came to this earth and lived a sinless life, laid down his life for the sis on us, was raised again on the third day, and is coming back. We are a gospel people and this is a gospel service. All that we do here and all that you will see in this hour is rooted in the unshakable belief in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. For the seminary itself, it is a day of joyful sobriety and hopeful seriousness as we send forth graduates in the name of Christ to serve his cause, advance his kingdom, strengthen his church, and bring glory to his name.
This is who we are and it is what we do. We train ministers of the gospel and we send them out. Today is bitter-sweet. We say farewell, but we also say, we will see you again soon in this life or the next. For me, it is one last time to speak to our graduates and to challenge you from God’s Word. With that in mind, I want to bring a charge from II Corinthians chapter 2:14–17.
But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place. For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life. And who is adequate for these things?For we are not like many,peddling the word of God, but as from sincerity, but as from God, we speak in Christ in the sight of God.
I want you to think with me this morning–from this passage–about what triumph in ministry looks like. What does it mean to be a triumphant servant of the Lord Jesus Christ?
It is imperative that we consider one last time together what faithfulness in ministry looks like. The truth of the matter is, many churches do not quite know what to look for or what to expect in a minister.
I read about one church survey from a church which listed what the congregation was expecting from a minister. The ideal pastor does this: He preaches 15 minutes, but he always thoroughly expounds the scripture. He condemns sin, but never offends or upsets anyone. He works from 8 a.m. until midnight, but he always has a rested ease and pastoral look about himself. He is a Bible scholar, a competent counselor, a gifted orator, but also doubles as a grounds keeper and the church janitor. He makes $100 per week, wears good clothes, buys good books, drives a respectable, American-made sedan, yet gives $50 a week to the church and much more to every good cause that comes his way.
He is 35 years old and comes with 30 years of pastoral ministry experience. He is a wonderfully gentle and handsome man, but not too polished. He has a burning desire to work with the teenagers and children, yet spends all of his time with the senior adults. He smiles all the time with a straight face because he has a sense of humor that keeps him seriously dedicated to his work. He visits 15 times per day, calling upon church families, shut-ins, and the infirmed, and seeking evangelistic appointments, yet is always in the church office in case he is needed.
That is a spoof, of course, but it does speak at least representatively to the bewilderment that many churches have when it comes to what they should expect and look for in a pastor. I have found that many ministers do not know what to look for in themselves either. They do not know what they should set out to be and do or what they should aim for. My word to graduates this morning is, do not be one of those. Know what you are to do for the name of Christ.
We all have watched with great sadness at the implosion of churches, the flaming-out of ministers, and the shipwrecking of faith that occurs all too often when priorities are wrongly set and values are wrongly prized.
From this passage this morning I want to set our criteria on higher, biblical ground. If I, in this hour of worship and commencement, could eradicate one phrase from your conversation, I think it would be this: “ministerial success.” I want you to think of yourselves, your calling, and your ministry not so much as success, but of faithfulness. That is, faithfulness to the Scriptures, the church, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
What does it look like to be a faithful and triumphant witness for Christ? What does it look like to be a faithful and triumphant minister of Christ? I want to challenge you along three lines from this passage this morning.
The first challenge is that you maintain a pure gospel witness. Paul writes in verse 14:
But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place. For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life.
I want to submit to you this morning that a faithful and triumphant ministry is one that is marked by maintaining a pure gospel witness. These are interesting verses. They are colorful and situated in an interesting place within the book. If you recall much of the book of II Corinthians, you know that Paul speaks again and again about his hardship in ministry, hardships he has faced, and challenges he has before him as an apostle. In fact, in chapter 1 the book begins:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer; and our hope for you is firmly grounded, knowing that as you are sharers of our sufferings, so also you are sharers of our comfort.
For we do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead; who delivered us from so great a peril of death, and will deliver us, He on whom we have set our hope. And He will yet deliver us, you also joining in helping us through your prayers, so that thanks may be given by many persons on our behalf for the favor bestowed on us through the prayers of many.
This book begins with a clear reference to the challenge and opposition that Paul and the apostles faced. It is woven throughout this book and it is documented most climactically in chapter 11 where Paul speaks to this, giving an account of his opposition and trials. He says:
Are they servants of Christ?—I speak as if insane—I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches.Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern? If I have to boast, I will boast of what pertains to my weakness.
Therefore, in light of the broader movements of this book, it is a peculiar thing situated in chapter 2 that Paul speaks as one who is triumphant. He speaks as one who is triumphant in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Metaphors can be powerful but they are not always that clear. Here, Paul deploys a metaphor from a Roman military triumphal procession. As Paul writes this, there is little doubt that most all of his readers knew exactly that to which he is referring. We might think of it as a 21st century ticker-tape parade throughout New York City at the end of, say, World War II at VE Day of VJ Day where soldiers come home and there is a massive parade of celebration.
In Paul’s day a similar thing would happen in the capital of Rome. A great war might be waged in a distant land and when it had concluded, assuming it concluded triumphantly as it typically did for the Roams in Paul’s day, there would be a great triumphant procession throughout the streets of Rome. It would involve virtually the entire caste of leadership throughout the empire. Political leaders, religious leaders, and, of course, military leaders would be involved. As the march would take place, there would be incense burning and a fragrance that would fill the city.
As that procession took place, there were always captives imbedded within it. They were prisoners of war who were on their way to face their execution as a public spectacle. The fragrance would emit throughout the capital city, and for the citizens it was a fragrance of victory and life, but for those who were captive from the battle, the fragrance meant soon-coming death. A sentence of death hung over them.
The fragrance meant two dramatically different realities depending upon whose side one was on. Paul deploys this analogy in a way, in verses 14–16, which refers to himself and Christian ministers as a part of Christ’s triumph.
When we think of Christmas and this time of year, we tend to think of the baby Jesus in a manger, sweet and gentle, lowly and meek. That is one appropriate way to think of Jesus, but there is another appropriate way to think of our Lord. It is in militant and combative terms.
Christ said things like, “I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.”
Paul, in Romans 16:20, said, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.”
Hebrews 2:14 records, “Through Jesus’ death he might render powerless him who had the power of death, the Devil.”
First John 3:8 reminds us that the Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the words of the Devil. We are reminded in this passage that Christ’s victory is our victory; his triumph is our triumph, and we march with him conveying the fragrance of the gospel.
Faithfulness in ministry looks like this—having a pure gospel witness that wherever the Lord is calling you, whether a secular field to be bi-vocational, to the local church, to the counseling room, to the lecture rooms at a Christian college or seminary, wherever it is in life, your gospel witness is recognizable to all. It should be recognizable to those who are being saved as a winsome, encouraging reminder of the triumph in the gospel of Christ. But to those who are perishing, it should be a constant witness to their need of Christ and a constant reminder that they are lost apart from Jesus.
How do you maintain a pure gospel witness? We could point to many things this morning, but I will briefly say just three. First of all, who you are in your character simply matters. How you order your life, what is in your inner-man or inner-woman, what is in your heart, who you are in your innermost being, those character traits that were present in I Timothy 3.
You are a faithful gospel witness as your character reflects a life that has been transformed by Jesus. You reflect that gospel aroma by how you minister and serve. As you minster and serve the Kingdom as a person who is marked by humility and the traits of Christ. Most especially, you maintain a pure gospel witness by what you say: the words of the gospel being on your tongue and lips, coming from you often in sermons, lectures, Sunday school classes, counseling sessions and whatever the domain the Lord has for you.
Fragrances are interesting things. There are times when you may catch a whiff of perfume, cologne ,or some other type of spray that hurls you back to another time and place. I remember like yesterday the first funeral service I ever attended. I was five years old and it was this time of year. It was Christmas, 1981. My grandfather had passed away and I had never been to a funeral before.
I do not remember much about the funereal, but I remember walking into a depressing funeral home. I was only five but I could sense it was a pretty dire place. It was dark and depressing with teal green carpet and green pretty much everywhere. I remember walking in and smelling something I had never smelled before. Maybe I had, but never in that concentration before. It was the smell of freshly cut flowers. In my five-year-old mind I associated that smell with a funeral home.
To this day, over than 30 years later, whenever I walk into a room, whether it is a wedding, funeral, Valentine’s Day, or some other context where there are freshly cut flowers, my mind races back to a place many decades ago. It is funny how God has made us, is it not?
That is precisely what we see referenced in this passage. We are to reflect and be imitators of the gospel in such a way that just like in ancient Rome, that smell meant life to some and death to others, our lives and gospel witness should reflect and radiate the fragrance of Christ.
Notice the end of verse 16. We see a second mark of faithfulness and triumph in ministry. That is to maintain a pure call. I love the end of verse 16. Paul reflects, “Who is adequate for these things?”
Adequacy is an interesting concept. There is a sense in which none of us in the room is adequate and Paul is not adequate because of our fallenness and our human limitations. It is one thing to be adequate and another to be called and qualified. You are seated before me today, graduates, because you received the call of God on your life. That call is something you believe God has placed on your heart and something that has been evidenced and affirmed by your local church and cultivated, encouraged, and affirmed by professors, faculty, and staff here.
You show up and leave this room today with a sense of call on your life. That is a sacred and precious call and it is not tethered to your adequacy, but it is tethered to your qualification. Paul stakes out for us so clearly in 1 Timothy 3:1–7 what it means to be a gospel minister and one who is called, especially to the office of pastor and elder. It is irreducibly a list of character traits which it documents in great detail. We will not turn there this morning for the sake of time, but hear me say this: that list is not a one-time threshold to pass, it is an ongoing plumb line of accountability to God’s Word and God’s people. Guard your call; keep it pure; cultivate it; kindle afresh that call within you.
I am mindful of many who were once in ministry but who are not now. We all know them and have seen their stories. Sometimes people leave the ministry in spectacular ways that bring scandal and reproach on the church and the glory of Christ and when that happens we all lament it.
More often than not, for a person who once was in ministry and now is not, it is not due to some spectacular flame-out that make the local news. Usually it is a slow withering of that call. It is a slow withering away to where you find yourself having simply fizzled out in ministry.
I want to encourage and charge you this morning to not take that call lightly. It was not a promiscuous call that you were given. You were given a particular call to gospel service. It was entrusted to you and is now to be guarded and stewarded by you, especially as we think of this day. Therefore, “Do not let your gifting take you,” as one writer has said, “where your character will not keep you.” Maintain a pure call.
Thirdly, and finally, I want to challenge you to maintain a pure motive. In verse 17 Paul reflects, “We are not like many, peddling the Word of God, but as from sincerity, as from God, we speak in Christ in the sight of God.” What does it mean to be a peddler of the Word of God?
It is a person, in Paul’s day, who was a religious huckster. They were entering the context of gospel Christian service seeking to enrich themselves. Let me tell you, by the way, that is, generally speaking, a losing strategy. Let me just warn you of that on the front end.
In Paul’s day and in our day some 2,000 years later there are people who enter the context of ministry, and whether they sought it on the front end or just morphed throughout, seeking recompense as their primary concern. We have families to care for and responsibilities to meet. I know that. We do not shirk from that. It is a part of what it means to be responsible men and women in Christ. But the day that, in Paul’s words, peddling the Word of God has displaced an unreserved call to serve Christ wherever he calls you, that is a day you’ve begun to compromise that ministry entrusted to you.
It is funny to think of this time of year especially. When we come to the end of the year and people are sending out year-end solicitation. I get truckloads of these by the day it seems like, as do you. It is good and right. We make year-end solicitations as an institution, but it is interesting to think through as people are seeking money.
We see it as we turn on our televisions and have the unfortunate reality of turning the channels across a televangelist telling us to send them our money so God will make us rich. I always want to say, “Why don’t you send me your money and let God make you rich? How about that formula?”
I doubt there is anybody in the room this morning who would be so crass as to think in those terms, but I know this; Satan will work any way he can, and one very ready way to work is to get at the material desires we have, to seek to twist our call and to morph our character to be people driven more by a pay day than by declaring Jesus has paid it all.
Maintain a pure motive. Pragmatic indicators are not all bad. We should be very mindful and it is appropriate to have goals for who we reach and how many we reach and all of that, but if success becomes the driving concern as defined by worldly standards, there is a problem. Set it your aim to be faithful to your call, faithful to the gospel, faithful to the Word of God, and faithful to the local church. As you maintain a pure witness, call, and motive, then you will hear what we long to hear one day, “Well done good and faithful servant.” God bless you.