Graduating Class of 2002; President Klaus; Members of the Board of Directors; Executive
Officers and Presbyters; Administrative, Staff, and Faculty Colleagues; Families; Friends,
and Honored Guests; it has been a privilege to serve the Lord Jesus Christ at the Assemblies
of God Seminary, and it is an honor to address you today.
Graduates, while you were growing up and getting your education, we have been
living through one of the transforming moments in the history of religion worldwide.1
Those are the words of religion scholar Philip Jenkins who goes on to say that in
our lifetime, the era of western Christianity has passed and the day of southern Christianity
is dawning. The center of gravity has shifted inexorably southward, to Africa,
Asia, and Latin America. Already today, the largest Christian communities on the planet
are to be found in Africa and Latin America.
This surprising shift in has taken place because of what the World Christian Encyclopedia
terms massive defections from Christianity in Western Europe due to secularism,
in Russia and later in Eastern Europe due to Communism, and in the Americas due to materialism.2
As a result, Christianity in Europe and North America has lost much of its spiritual
and evangelistic dynamic. Growth rates over the next twenty-five years are projected
to be virtually nil.
The good news is that Christianity is enjoying phenomenal success in Asia, Africa,
and Latin America. Already Christians on those three continents make up about 60 percent
of the roughly 1.9 billion Christians on the planet. By the year 2025, the number of
Christians worldwide is expected to grow to almost 2.5 billion. Almost all of that growth
is projected to be in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Africa is growing most rapidly
and the number of Christians will almost double by 2025.
Christianity has often been called the white mans religion. But
if present trends continue, by the year 2050 there will be three billion Christians,
and only one-fifth of them will be non-Hispanic whites. Jenkins says that the phrase
a white Christian may sound like a curious oxymoron, something like a
Class of 2002, you are charged with the same Commission that your fathers and mothers
were, go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19). But the times
are different. You will be preaching the same Gospel, counseling from the same Bible,
and relying on the same wisdom and power of the Holy Spirit. But you will certainly
need bold and creative new strategies to deal with the changes that lie ahead.
With these issues in mind, I want to use our text, and its larger context, to open
a window on the experience of the Apostle Paul who also served in turbulent times and
has some lessons for us.
First, there is
The Spirits Voice
Struck down on Damascus Road, Paul heard the Lord call him by his Hebrew name, Saul,
and say to him, I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness
of what you have seen of me and what I will show you
I am sending you to [the Gentiles]
to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan
to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are
sanctified by faith in me (Acts 26:16-18).
At Antioch, The Holy Spirit said, Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for
the work to which I have called them (Acts 13:2). Two missionary journeys later,
the Holy Spirit specifically forbade Paul to preach the Gospel in the Roman province
of Asia, his intended destination (Acts 16:6). Then the Spirit refused him entrance
into Bithynia (16:7). No doubt frustrated and confused, Paul ended up in the little
seaport of Troas on the northwest coast of modern Turkey (16:8). There the Spirit was
at work again and Paul had a dream about a man from Macedonia who said, Come over
and help us. Providentially situated to catch the catch the next ship, Paul did
exactly that and boldly carried the Gospel westward into Europe.
Then, at a time of grave danger in Corinth, the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision, Do
not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is
going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city (Acts 18:9-10).
These are just a few of the reminders of just how dependent on the voice of the Spirit
the Apostle was!
I do not for one moment want to suggest that each of us will repeat all the experiences
of the Apostle, or have same number of miraculous communications. As a matter of fact,
great revelations seem to be accompanied by great suffering! To keep me from becoming
conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, Paul wrote, there
was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me (2 Corinthians
12:7). One might be tempted to settle for fewer revelations and no thorns!
But in all seriousness, I do want to propose that the voice of the Spirit is essential
to an authentically Pentecostal ministry in our so-called post-modern age. There is
a certain inner and mystical way of knowing that God will use to direct the steps of
every seeking servant. To be sure, the voice of his Spirit will vary in intensity, and
in manner of expression throughout our lives. We are all psychologically and spiritually
different, so God will communicate differently to each of us. But the sons and daughters
of God, Paul tells us, are certainly led by the Spirit of God (Romans 8:14).
But let us remember that much of the hearing is dependent upon a listening ear! It
was not strange that Paul often heard from God when he was praying in the temple, or
worshipping the Lord and fasting, or when he was desperately seeking God for guidance
at dangerous crossroads in his ministry. We might quote Davids counsel to his
son, And you, my son Solomon, acknowledge the God of your father, and serve him
with wholehearted devotion and with a willing mind
If you seek him, he will be
found by you... (1 Chronicles 28:9).
Secondly, there is in this text
The Spirits Strategy
The Apostles engagement with the Spirit was not for sheer mystical delight.
Rather, the divine-human interaction contributed to a strategy that directed one of
the most successful missionary ventures in the history of Christian faithperhaps
the most successful!
Paul had probably received the Great Commission as a part of the tradition of the
early Church. One wonders if, to his Jewish ears, the command to disciple the nations
might not at first have sounded unrealistic and unattainable. But step-by-step, the
Spirit deliberately and relentlessly pointed Paul to the Gentiles. We also discover
that the Spirit from time to time gave him specific directions about the route to take
and the methods to use along the way.
The Spirit-directed strategy, as we see it this text, was to preach the Gospel around
the northern rim of the Mediterranean Sea, from Jerusalem to Rome, and perhaps on to
Spain. It was a bold strategy indeed for one little Jewish rabbi!
As Paul wrote to the Romans, his strategic plan was on schedule. The first stages
were already complete. [B]y the power of signs and miracles, through the power
of the Spirit...from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed
the gospel of Christ, he wrote (15:19). Illyricum was the province next to Macedonia
and Achaia, the borders of which began somewhere in what is now Albania and stretched
northward up the Balkan Peninsula.
Now, with this phase complete, Paul was already mapping plans for the next. He wanted
to go to Rome and then move on to preach the Gospel in Spain, then the western edge
of the Empire. Ships regularly sailed from Italy to do business with its flourishing
But, before Paul could head for Rome, there were some intermediate steps. First, he
had to return to Jerusalem and deliver a special Gentile offering to the poor saints.
Lets note that for Paul, gospel ministry was holistic. The preaching of the cross
of Christ must always be central, but the Christian could not neglect the poor, especially
those in the church. Hard work and initiative were required and Paul never pandered
to irresponsibility and victimization. But he would agree with James that pure religion
must look after orphans and widows in their distress (James 1:27).
Once the offering was delivered, Paul then planned to move on to Rome where a strong
church was already established. He would not need to do the pioneering work he had done
in the East, but he wrote, I long to see you so that I may impart to you some
spiritual gift to make you strong (1:11). The Roman believers were growing in
faith and they needed the spiritual impetus and instruction that the Apostle would bring.
After his ministry to the Romans, Paul was hopeful that they would, in turn, help him
launch his new mission to Spain.
The strategy to advance the Kingdom in the city of Rome, in Gods time, was fully
accomplished. However, it is highly unlikely, as he wrote the words of our text, that
Paul knew he would finally make the journey on a prison ship, destined for trial before
Caesar himself. Nor did he likely anticipate living under guard in his own rented house
for two years, but there he boldly and without hindrance
preached the kingdom
of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 28:30-31).
We do not know for sure whether Paul ever got to Spain. There is an ancient tradition
that says he did, but the Pastoral Letters that document his travels after his first
trial and release from prison do not mention it.
One thing is very clear. The Spirits intent as revealed in the book of Acts
was to move the Gospel in concentric waves, as it were, from Jerusalem to Rome, and,
indeed to the uttermost parts of the earth. Pointedly, the Lord said to
Paul, As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in
Rome (Acts 23:11). The Spirit nurtured in Paul a strategy that took him from the
backwaters of the Empire to the capital in Rome, and to the very palaces and courtrooms
of Caesar himself. Along the way, this brilliant but protected and insulated little
rabbi found that God could lead him out of his comfort zone to successfully plant the
Church of Jesus Christ in the confusing, corrupt, hedonistic, multi-cultural, pagan
cities of the Empire
There is a lot of openness of God talk these days that suggests God may
not know what you are going to do next. By contrast, the Spirits strategy for
Pauls life and ministry suggests that there is, in fact, a grand design for our
life and service. God spoke through Isaiah, I make known the end from the beginning,
from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will
do all that I please (Isaiah 46:10).
Todays changing world is really scary for us all-too-human lovers of the status
quo. But remember, God is out in front of all the changes and can never be taken by
surprise. He has a strategy for your life and your professional service. There are no
societal upheavals or demographic shifts he cannot bend to his own purposes. As you
walk with him in faith and obedience, and listen carefully to the voice of his Spirit,
his strategy will gradually unfold before you. Be assured that the Spirits strategy
will deploy your education and experience, mature you as a man or woman of God, and
propel you into a powerful and world-changing ministry
Thirdly, there is in the text
The Spirits Presence
I know that when I come to you, I will come in the full measure of the blessing
of Christ, Paul wrote. By no means an egomaniac, the Apostle was nonetheless conscious
that God was present and working in his life. Because of that, his personal presence
would bless the Romans. In fact, Pauls spiritual presence was so pronounced that
scholars speak of the apostolic parousia. As most of you know, the word
parousia means presence and is often used for the presence of Christ at
his second coming.
The apostolic parousia signifies that the eternal purposes of God the
Father, the redemptive actions of God the Son, and the active power of God the Spirit
are really present in Pauls person and his preachingand ought to be in ours!
With the fullness of the blessings of Christ, Paul could bring to the Romans
the powerful, liberating message of the Gospel. He would also come equipped with the
ministry gifts of the Spirit. Those gifts would bring wisdom, deliverance, and strength.
The Spirit would, in turn, impart to the Roman believers the spiritual gifts needed
for their expanding service to the Lord Jesus.
We must remember, however, that while God was powerfully at work through him, Paul
was profoundly aware of his own weakness. In fact, it appears that he carried on an
extraordinary ministry while plagued with a chronic ailment, possibly repulsive, that
he called a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me (2 Corinthians
12:7). A giant of the faith this little rabbi surely was, but in this case he prayed
three times that the Lord would remove the thorn. The Lord did not. He simply said to
Paul, My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness
(2 Corinthians 12:9). The treasure is always in earthen vessels.
Graduates, Pauls was a unique calling that you do not share in every detail.
But each of you, too, is a unique and special creation of God. God has forgiven you
of every sin and redeemed you through the precious blood of Christ. He has placed within
you the Spirit of Adoption, who testifies that you are a child of God (Romans 8:15)and
children of God are led by the Spirit of God (Romans 8:14). Our Lord Jesus has baptized
you in the Holy Spirit and he will refill you again and again. The Spirit has given
to you, and is developing in you, a mix of spiritual gifts, the charismata, that will
enable and energize your particular ministry or professional calling. The Spirit has
also begun a work of sanctification that he wants to progressively mature throughout
your lifetime and that will enhance your intimacy with the Triune God.
Now, there are some very special places on planet earth where Gods presence
in your person is divinely ordained and desperately needed. The shifting demographics
of Christianity in America point to a morally deteriorating nation and a lukewarm church
that will die without wise, gifted, and godly leaders. Moreover, the demographics of
the Southern world predict powerful revivals in the days ahead that will severely stretch,
if not rend, the leadership fabric of the church international.
As the Spirit strategized to propel Paul along the curve of the Northern Mediterranean,
the Spirit of God is already strategizing to propel many of you along an arc that will
take the power and presence of God in your life to brothers and sisters in the great
Southern churches. Like Queen Esther of old, you have come to royal position for
such a time as this (Esther 4:14).
In conclusion, you have grown up in a society that has lost its moorings. Throughout
the West, we are rapidly descending into cultural and spiritual chaos where autonomy,
materialism, and self-gratification dominate our society. In the face of all that, God
is calling you to be radically different!
There is a story of an early aviator flying along in an old bi-plane who became suddenly
aware that his controls were not responding properly. Looking back over his shoulder,
he spotted a large rat gnawing on the externally mounted cords that controlled the rudder
and elevators. For a moment, he panicked. There was no place to land and no way to get
to the rat that, in a matter of minutes would almost certainly sever the cords and send
him plummeting out of control and into a fatal crash. Then in a sudden flash of inspiration,
he pulled the nose of the little bi-plane upward and climbed just as high and fast as
the fragile craft could go. Seemingly at the last moment, deprived of oxygen in the
rarified atmosphere, the rat fell away and the pilot was safe.
I submit to you, Graduates of 2002, that God is calling you to take wing, to fly high
into the rarified atmosphere of his presence so that the moral rodents of this present
age fall away. There you will hear the Spirits voice, find the Spirits unfolding
strategy for your ministry and service, and allow the Spirits presence to irradiate
1. Philip Jenkins, A New Christendom, The Chronicle of Higher Education
48:29 (March 29, 2002): B7-B10.
2. David B. Barrett, George T. Kurian, and Todd M. Johnson, eds. Second edition (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2001), 1:3.