Commencement Address, May 4, 2002
Spirit and Strategy, Edgar R. Lee

Romans 15:23-33

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.

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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 man’s 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 Swedish Buddhist.”

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 Spirit’s 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 David’s 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 Spirit’s Strategy

The Apostle’s 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 faith—perhaps 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 cities.

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. Let’s 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 God’s 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 Spirit’s 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 Spirit’s strategy for Paul’s 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).

Today’s 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 Spirit’s 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 Spirit’s 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, Paul’s 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 Paul’s person and his preaching—and 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, Paul’s 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 God’s 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 Spirit’s voice, find the Spirit’s unfolding strategy for your ministry and service, and allow the Spirit’s presence to irradiate your life.

 

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.

Updated: Friday, February 6, 2004 8:52 AM

 
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