Is Not My Word Like Fire?

What an incredible day. What an incredible moment. Here we are on this lawn and recognizing that the human beings gathered here in this one place at one time, will never by any predictable means be together in just this way once again. So why are we here? We are here because of the amazing fact that before us are arrayed ministers of the gospel at a significant moment in milestone ready for deployment, for future faithfulness to the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, and to the glory of the triune God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is no Christian who, looking at this site, would not draw encouragement. As a matter of fact, as you look at the graduates here right on this lawn and recognize that this is, in its own way, an enormous act of defiance in the perspective of the kingdom of Christ here and coming in its fullness.

This is a promise. This is a promise for the church. This is a promise for the mission fields. This is a promise that should make Christians and all those who love the gospel and love Christ delight. I just want you to imagine something: those who founded this institution in 1859 could not have imagined such a sight so far as we know. They never dreamed of such a site. Those who even purchased this campus and sacrificed in order to build these historic buildings just about a hundred years ago, they never envisioned a site like this. The entire student body was when the campus moved out here, smaller than this class of graduates, and this is but one class of two for this year. So my heart is full. I feel like behind me are something like 40,000 Southern Baptist churches that through the Cooperative Program and through their giving have made possible this institution and the students. They have come from those churches. They’re going back to those churches. They’re propelled by those churches under the mission fields of the earth, but very few of the members of those churches ever actually get to see this. Brothers and sisters, we do. Let’s not miss this.

I want to turn our attention to scripture from the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah 23:23-29, reminding us what is at stake in the ministry through the prophet Jeremiah. The Lord speaks beginning in chapter 23, verse 23:

“Am I a God at hand, declares the Lord, and not a God far away? Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the Lord. I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, ‘I have dreamed, I have dreamed!’ How long shall there be lies in the heart of the prophets who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart, who think to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, even as their fathers forgot my name for Baal? Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let him who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? declares the Lord. Is not my word like fire, declares the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?

Fire says the Lord and like a hammer that shatters a rock. Now, it may seem a bit incongruous for a moment that I have chosen a text that rebukes ministers. But after all, this is the Word of God, and sometimes we need to be shocked into seeing what God says and God speaks to his prophet Jeremiah in order to rebuke false prophets. Look at the beginning of chapter 23, “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pastor,” declares the Lord. Therefore, says the Lord, “The God of Israel concerning the shepherds who care for my people, you have scattered my flock and have driven them away and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds declares the Lord.” So to the graduates says, does the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2022, here’s the Word of the Lord from the text of the Word of God: preach the word of God or God will attend to you.

It may take some time, but God will attend to you. God will attend to any of us who dare to speak in his name but speak not his words, who, instead of gathering together the sheep as good pastors, who scatter the sheep. This was a moment of deep, deep danger for Israel. This was a prophet.

And what about the prophet’s own calling? Well, he spoke of it as fire in his bones. Fire will come up again and again and again. God’s word is like fire. But that’s not where this text starts. I’m fascinated by the attention to dreams. In this text fall, false prophets are dreaming dreams, and they’re preaching the dreams they dream. Now, God’s verdict on this is catastrophic. First of all, he calls them lies. He said they prophesy lies in my name saying, “I have dreamed, I have dreamed!” They prophesy the deceit of their own hearts, says the Lord. They make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another even as my father’s forgotten my name for all. Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream God will attend to him the one who has my word speak my word faithfully.

Well, we’re here because of tradition. There’s something very important about this. God made us as people who crave ceremony the most significant parts of our life. So look at the Old Testament in the ceremony of Israel. Just look to the New Testament in the ceremony of the church. Look to the book of Revelation and the beautiful picture of the ceremonies yet to come. This is just a little foretaste.

What a glorious foretaste we get to see today. And of course there’s academic tradition here. We understand that schools graduate and hold a commencement precisely because something really important is taking place. Education’s one of the most precious stewardships human beings can carry on. They can be called not only as individuals, as members of a faculty like this or a school like this institutionally. Education is a stewardship. Education is a joy. Education is a gift, a relationship created between the student and the teacher, the teacher and the student. A relationship created between the student and the teacher and the subject matter and relationships that are formed, students among students in the process of learning together. As you think about this academic commencement, because this is particularly a Christian institution that just means issues are of eternal consequence, not merely of temporal consequence. And it means that even as we recognize the legitimacy of a secular academic commencement, there’s far more mandate for this. Heaven and hell are at stake. Truth and falsehood are at stake. Orthodoxy and heresy are at stake. Dreams and scripture are at stake.

So graduates, I don’t want to talk business. I’m so glad you’ve come to this moment. We’re about to find out what you’re made of. We’re about to find out about your calling. I don’t say that as rebuke. I say that as exhortation in the purest meaning of the word. I know how this story is going to end by the faithfulness of Christ, he makes his people faithful, and those who will be his faithful servants are led into faithfulness. I believe the Lord led you faithfully here as you faithfully answered the call. And I believe what you have received from this faculty is faithfulness channeled into yourselves and your lives and your hearts. And I believe the Lord is going to use you as he is already using you to channel faith— faithfulness into the lives of believers, faithfulness into the church, faithfulness onto the mission field, faithfulness into everything that you do.

So I say this with absolute expectation of knowing by the faithfulness of Christ, how this story is going to end, but also understanding what’s invested in us, what’s entrusted to us, and what the stakes are. Because where there are prophets, here’s bad news, there’s some false prophets. Israel was afflicted with them. Just think about all the attention these days to dreams. It’s really interesting that going back to the Old Testament dreams are a false substitute for revelation. They still are. They still are. This is as current as Sunday’s edition of the New York Times. People prefer dreams to the Word of God because dreams rarely come with judgment. Dreams are just dreams. Have you ever thought of the Lord as sarcastic? Look, he really is here. Let the prophet as a dream, tell the dream. Let’s hear it. How is this going to go?

But he says, let the one who will word minister, let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let him who has my word, the word minister, speak my word faithfully. We are here because of the Christian calling the Christian ministry. We are here because God calls out ministers. The task of the Christian ministry is first and foremost to preach the Word of God, and we preach Christ crucified and resurrected from the dead. We exalt in the raising up of preachers for the church. And there are diverse callings for the church represented among these graduates. But the first and foremost, the very reason this institution was created is in order that the sheep of Christ’s flock will be fed the Word of God. And so these graduates have been fed the Word of God, and so they are committed to feeding God’s Word to God’s people so long as they live, or until Jesus comes.

I want you to think about Jeremiah’s calling. It’s in the very beginning passage of the prophet Jeremiah, Isaiah. You have to wait to chapter six. Jeremiah tells us right from the beginning, “Now the word of the Lord came to me,” verse four of chapter one. “The word of the Lord came to me saying, before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. And before you were born, I consecrated you. I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Here’s the amazing thing. When do we believe the calling of these ministers began, just a few years ago at a crucial point in their young adult lies? Perhaps they heard God’s call even as Samuel did as young, very young children. Or here we are told it begins in the womb. But actually of course in the sovereignty of God, it begins in eternity before there is time in the sovereign good pleasure of God,

But there’s never been a point in the lives of these graduates where God’s calling has not been real, even if it was yet unknown, even if the call was yet unanswered. What we see here represented before us is an answered call. It’s a response of faithfulness. And every single one of these graduates has a testimony and a story about exactly how that happened. But it is not an accident that they are arrayed here together on this lawn on this day for this commencement.

Jeremiah says, “Then I said, “Oh Lord God, behold I do not know how to speak for I’m only a youth.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say I am only a youth for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you shall speak. Do not be afraid of them. For I am with you to deliver you, declares the Lord.” And then these two verses, verses nine and 10: “Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth. And the Lord said to me, “Behold I have put my words in your mouth. See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” The Lord said to Jeremiah, “Don’t be afraid to say what I tell you to say. What an incredibly comforting command. Don’t be afraid, just say what I tell you to say. Behold, I put my words in your mouth.” What an amazing thing it is. The Apostle Paul will speak of this as the eternal, priceless treasure of God preach through earthen vessels.

What an incredible thing that the Lord would call any of us as frail, fragile, incredibly fallible human beings. Why would he put his word in our mouths? It is because by his sovereign design and for his glory, this is how his word is preached. This is how his people here. This is how those who are sinners hear the gospel, and believe, and are saved. “Preach the word in season and out of season,“ as Paul will tell Timothy. “Behold, I put my words in your mouth.” And in chapter five, verse 14, the Lord will say to Jeremiah, “I am making my words in your mouth a fire.”

You see the symmetry, you see the parallelism, the repetition, this issue of fire. God’s putting fire in your mouths and you may feel it somewhere else. Right now, just imagine the heat of a million suns put in your mouth for what is the infinite power of the word of God. The exhortation of this faculty and my exhortation to you today is give yourselves unreservedly to the ministry of the Word in such a way that the fire the Lord puts in your mouth will come out as fire. God’s Word will come forth from your mouths and through your ministries like a hammer that shatters a rock. “Is not my word like fire?”

The psalmist in Psalm 39:3 says, “My heart became hot within me as the fire burned. Then I spoke with my tongue.” Turns out it’s not just Jeremiah’s experience, it turns out that this is a model of ministry. It turns out this is a testimony of those who speak the truth about God. God puts us words in our mouth. Those words are like fire, and they burn in us. And I love this saying, and as I muse, you must think about this a little bit before you speak. “And as I muse,” David says, “the fire burned.” Then, and only then, he says, “did I speak with my mouth?”

So here is the mandate of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, as I have the honor of delivering it to the graduating class of the seminary of Spring 2022, Go set fires. Open your mouth, and let fire come out. Not the fire of your imagination. And there is no fire in your dreams, just smoke. But God’s Word is like fire, like a hammer that shatters a rock. Go break lots of stuff with the Word of God. And of course the main meaning there has to do with what can penetrate the human heart. What is the stone? The rock that most of all must be shattered. It is the resistance of the sinful human heart. And our task is to overcome the sinfulness, the hardness of the sinful human heart. Here’s the bad news. None of us is up to that, nor are all of us together up to that. There is nothing we can do to break or to shatter the hardness of an unbelieving heart. But that which we cannot do, God does. And he does it by his word. And that’s our testimony because the hardness of our own hearts had to be shattered by the word in order that we will be called to Christ and to salvation much less have the opportunity to call others as well.

It is a great joy to give you these words of encouragement today. You have no idea, I think how emotional a day like this is for a school like this. Now, there’s a lot of emotion here. I’m sure you sense and feel a lot of it. I think those who love you and are gathered here since and feel a lot of it. But I want you to know that this faculty feels it strongly because they have loved you, even as they have taught you. And there is such a sense of gain in your graduation and going out into fields of service. But there’s also a sense of loss. And this is just the way the Christian ministry works. You don’t get to keep anybody. You just get to work together, learn together, and strive together for the glory of God, and then meet together. We’re going to sing about that. We meet to part and part to meat when earthly laborers are complete. So sitting here on this warm day on this lawn, you’re never going to sit together like this again. But servants of Christ, graduates of Southern Seminary, open your mouth, and let the fire come out until you have no breath to breathe. And with everything you have, set loose the Word of God to shatter rocks until Jesus comes. God bless you. Amen.