My great privilege every semester is to welcome an incoming class of seminarians to the stewardship of theological education. This is not a privilege I take lightly. I remember what it was like to sit in the same room well over thirty years ago, being welcomed to the same campus. As I welcome you as new students now, I do my best to tell you what I wish someone had told me.
Theological education is a stewardship—a very rare stewardship. Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 13:17, "Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see and did not see it, and to hear what you hear and did not hear it." That same truth relates to your opportunity for theological education. Many godly Christians would long to have the same experience you will have: to study with this faithful faculty, to live in the midst of this Gospel community, and to enjoy all the privileges that come with being a student at Southern Seminary.
To enter this seminary is to enter into a stewardship, and I know that every one of you will want to make the most of that stewardship. Theological education is a stewardship of truth. The Apostle Paul made this clear to Timothy when he wrote these words from 2 Timothy 2:1-7 (ESV):
"You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything."
You have come to be a learner in order to be teachers. The succession of faithfulness in the truth is spoken of by Paul in terms of truth to be received in order to be entrusted to others, who will be able to teach also. This is how the church is fed and sustained. Faithful teachers teach a new generation of faithful learners who will then teach so that yet more faithful teachers may come. The very word trust implies that stewardship. Your stewardship of truth preceded your arrival as a seminarian, but it is now front and center in your life. Be determined from this moment on to be a faithful steward of the truth of God's Word and the deposit of faith that is left to us by Christ and the apostles.
Some theological institutions invite their students to revise the faith, to be creative with doctrine, to update the ancient faith for modern times. This school exists in order to achieve the opposite. Our goal is to produce graduates who believe as the apostles believed, who preach as the apostles preached, and who maintain a stewardship of the truth as the Apostle Paul here commands Timothy.
But we also find three vital metaphors for the seminary experience in this passage. Paul tells Timothy that his stewardship of truth and trust is made clearer by looking to three role models: the soldier, the athlete, and the farmer.
The soldier endures suffering and avoids "civilian pursuits." Why? Because "his aim is to please the one who enlisted him." Each of you has been enlisted by Christ and called into the ministry of Christ's church. The single-minded sacrificial mindset of the soldier preparing for battle must be your aim. Why? Because you live to please Christ.
The athlete "is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules." That verse takes on a whole new meaning in an age of vast scandals in contemporary sports. The one who enlisted you in ministry expects you to follow the rules. There are no shortcuts in ministry. There are no rewards for cheating. Recent scandals in sports ranging from cycling to baseball reveal the unspeakable embarrassment that comes to the athlete stripped of his medals and crowns when cheating and scandal are revealed. Even as there are rules in sports, there are rules in theological education. There are basic rules to education, and the importance of these rules is only magnified when the education concerns the revealed truths of God. Let there be no scandal in your ministry for your failure to follow the rules.
The farmer is the most unlikely of the role models Paul presents, and the one most foreign to his personal experience. Paul was metropolitan in background and focus, and his ministry was primarily to the cities. We encounter few farmers in his writings; nevertheless, the farmer looms large in this text. For the farmer from which we are to learn is the hard-working farmer, who deserves the first share of the crops. Paul knew enough to know that farming is arduous. Farming is hard work—just ask a farmer. I learned this first-hand as a boy, observing the early mornings, the long days, and the patient labor of the farmers around me. Ministry is hard work—just ask a faithful minister. And so is the work of the seminarian, for this is ministry too. Your hard work now will reap untold rewards in the future.
A few encouragements to you at this juncture in your life and ministry:
1. Do not consider your years at seminary as a prelude to ministry—this is ministry. Just as the preacher's time in the study each week is ministry, so is your theological education. This is not what you do before ministry starts, this is your ministry right now, and in his sovereignty God knows to whom you are ministering in the future even as you prepare for that ministry in the present. You will misunderstand your seminary experience if you see it as an interruption in ministry, or even as a delay. You are like the farmer planting seeds. That is farming just as much as the harvest is farming.
2. Do not believe that you will be more faithful in ministry in the future than you are now. Just as your ministry is now, so is the call to faithfulness. The habits and practices you establish now will foretell the habits and practices of your future ministry. Be faithful in every assignment. Make the most of every test, every book, every paper, every lecture, and every conversation. Be faithful in the little things as well as the great. Be faithful as a student, as a man or woman, in singleness or in marriage. If you are married, be faithful to love your spouse with faithful and devoted love as you grow in your faithfulness and devotion in ministry.
3. Do not believe that you will love the church more in the future than you do now. Love the church. Be infatuated with the Bride of Christ. Join a local congregation as soon as possible and get deeply invested in ministry. Sit among 8 year-olds and 80 year-olds. Develop friends who are not related to the seminary. Work in the nursery, or the youth ministry. Teach a senior adult class and preach in the nursing homes. See a need and fill it. Take every opportunity to preach and teach. Let no man despise your youth.
4. Do not believe that you will be more evangelistic in the future than you are now. Share the Gospel with eagerness. Talk to your neighbors about Christ. Invite non-Christians to dinner in your home. Take a teenager with you to go talk about Jesus on Bardstown Road. Develop a heart for the nations. Pray for an unreached people group every day. One of them just might have your name written on it—and that name written on your heart.
5. Finally, be morally strong and stay humble. Knowledge does tend to puff us up, so give yourself the ministry of deflation. Make many friends while at seminary, the kind of friends you will want to serve with for the rest of your days. Read books like you mean it. Write in them and build a library, not a book collection. A well read book worthy of reading is a companion for life. Develop a friendship with a Boyce College student who needs a big brother or a big sister. Go to the art museums and attend a high school football game. Learn what it means to study in the library until you get kicked out and the lights go out. Eat in the cafeteria and sit with someone you don't yet know.
Take every class you can and put knowledge in your ministry bank. While you are agile and mobile, take a trip to go visit a ministry you want to see up close. Tell the folks back home what you are learning, and let them see and sense your excitement. They are already excited about you.
And so am I. You have no idea just how excited we are about who you are and what God has done in your life and what He is going to do through you.
So, consider the soldier, the athlete, and the farmer. Take hold of the stewardship of your theological education, put your hand to the plow, and never look back.
This is a message preached this morning in a chapel service for new students at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. For information on how you can join us, go to sbts.edu, or call Ben Dockery, Director of Admissions, at 800-626-5525 or 502-897-4221. Email Ben at firstname.lastname@example.org—he will be glad to hear from you.