Saturday, December 11, 2010

Seminary Commencement Address

Delivered 12/11/10 at Houston Graduate School of Theology

Nicodemus was not seeking for truth when he sneaked over, unnoticed, to interrogate Jesus at night. He was looking for some religious heresy he could use to indict him.

Jesus had become not only a nuisance to the religious establishment but also a threat. His healings and miracles sidetracked those who attended temple services. That was offensive to the Pharisees, but he crossed over the limits when he overturned the moneychangers in the temple. Now He was interfering with their cash flow! This newcomer had to be stopped!

Jesus knew full well what the man’s motives were. He must have been amused by the false flattery in Nicodemus’ trick question: “Jesus, how do you do these miraculous signs?” One blasphemous comment was all he needed to have Jesus arrested.

Jesus’ answers competed with Nicodemus’ religious system. His mental prison cells limited what he could see. So, Jesus talked about his eyes: “Nicodemus, unless you are born again you cannot even see the Kingdom of Heaven.” By that comment, Jesus defined “upstairs” and “downstairs,” revealing his blindside.

Don’t you imagine Jesus was chuckling to himself as the Pharisee gave him a blank look? His first words were not blasphemous; they were ridiculous!

Nicodemus was a “downstairs” man. He was like many professionals in traditional religion today. He had been fully trained in a religious system but had no comprehension of how his own life should duplicate in the lives of others. Totally missing was any comprehension that he should serve God by equipping others in the “upstairs” supernatural Kingdom.

Missing was any awareness that as a religious leader he should equip all Temple worshippers to serve as Priests. He was a religious professional. He was a “downstairs” man. He saw the priesthood as the exclusive property of the Pharisees, not for the common people.

Jesus had just opened his awareness that he lived in a downstairs world and even as a worshipper of God he knew absolutely nothing about the upstairs world where God ruled over an invisible Kingdom.

To make the point about the invisibility of the Upstairs environment, Jesus adds another conundrum: “You see the trees bend and you know there is an unseen wind causing this. In the Upstairs Kingdom, there is also an observable Power, the activity of God’s Spirit. If you had upstairs eyes, you would see the results of the Spirit’s activity. It’s far more powerful than the invisible wind you observe.”

Still trying to gain evidence, Nicodemus says, “How can these things be?” In his mind, he is still thinking, “I have to trap him. Let’s see how he explains this rubbish.”

Jesus replies, “You are a learned scholar and you still do not understand these things? I tell you downstairs things and you do not understand them; how can you understand if I tell you heavenly things?”

One more time Jesus compares Upstairs with Downstairs. He now reminds the Pharisee of how Moses placed the serpent on the pole and people who looked on it lived. He likened it with His own Upstairs death on the cross.

Thus the story ends. Nicodemus retains nothing blasphemous to take away. What we know about him is his upstairs eyes began to see. Later, he became a follower of Jesus and shared in his burial rites.

One of the greatest dangers facing the work of the Eternal Christ in today’s world is that we have unwittingly created a downstairs religious system that seldom experiences the centrality of Christ and the purpose of His present ministry to proclaim the Kingdom of God. Ritual, tradition, and litanies have created Downstairs religious systems that blind both clergy and laity to the Upstairs world of the reign of Christ.

A part of our downstairs system is the danger that a seminary diploma can become a status symbol to decorate a wall in a pastor’s office. It is often a discipline completed with one’s personal career in mind, a stepping-stone to opportunities to pastor a larger congregation, where a doctor’s degree is a prerequisite to candidate for the office. Those that secure it for that purpose compose the career-minded clergy of our present age. The danger is mixing a love for God and a desire to attain significance and power among men. A pastor’s career focus can steer the ministry rather than the Upstairs calling to equip the priesthood for the Kingdom work.

This is the difference between an “Upstairs” pastor and a “Downstairs” pastor. One seeks an office, a career, status, possibly power. The other serves in the Kingdom of God and seeks to equip others. Scripture explains that Christ has given to the church the apostle, prophet, pastor, teacher and evangelist for the equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry. A seminary degree should be cherished not for a paper hanging on the wall, but for the skills that make us more valuable in equipping the saints.

Downstairs pastors create downstairs congregations who assemble to get their needs met. The sermons exhort the membership to develop their best talents to gain happiness and success. The promotion of consumerism in American church life has separated us from most of the rest of the people of God in other nations, but its deadly effect has leaked into every third world country where prosperity is taught by preachers with pointed-toe shoes exhorting the barefoot congregants. Downstairs religious systems are propagated by pastors who are building castles instead of the Kingdom.

I recently had a man serving in North Africa fly in to attend one of my seminars, required to earn his D.Min. degree. I asked him how he lives and works in one of the most restricted Islamic nations on earth. He said, “I have been there for 12 years. I have yet to see my first true convert.” I asked, “How does that make you feel?” He answered by referring to a scripture we often overlook in 2 Corinthians 10. Let me quote the passage:

“For we would not dare to classify ourselves or compare ourselves with some of those who recommend themselves. But when they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are without understanding. But we will not boast beyond certain limits, but we will confine our boasting according to the limits of the field to which God has appointed us, that reaches even as far as you. For we were not overextending ourselves, as though we did not reach as far as you, because we were the first to reach as far as you with the gospel about Christ. Nor do we boast beyond certain limits in the work done by others, but we hope that as your faith continues to grow, our work may be greatly expanded among you according to our limits…”

He said, “I never compare my ministry with those seeing great harvests in other fields of Africa. I went to the field my Lord assigned to me. I evaluate my ministry by how faithful I have been serving in my field. Sowing Christ’s seeds of redeeming love is crucial if there is ever to be a future harvest. God sent me to sow, not to reap. I am at peace with my Master. I do not have to be successful, but I must be faithful.”

Mother Theresa said, “Many people mistake our work for our vocation. Our vocation is the love of Jesus.”

The flaw in the Downstairs pastor’s value system is the same as the flaw in Nicodemus: not seeing the Kingdom as the focal point of all we do and not focusing on equipping the saints, not recognizing our priority is to equip all the priests of God and to treat no person as a church member to be used to keep an organization operating. God gives each of us “limits” for our Kingdom assignment and it has nothing to do with what others are doing. Looking over our shoulders to compare our success with that of others guarantees a sure burnout for a Christian worker.

In my book Christ’s Basic Bodies, I refer to the dropouts of American pastors being at an all-time high. Sunscape Re-Creation Ministries, serving ministers in crisis, reports that in all denominations, 1,600 ministers per month are terminated or forced to resign. That represents 19,200 clergymen a year! Comparing ourselves with ourselves produces this dropout.

The stairway to be an Upstairs servant must take us to the cross, to die daily. I still recall a pastor who boasted to me in 1977 that he had a two year strategy he had developed to grow a church. He unpacked it every time he went to a new pastorate. His career was very much programmed like a corporate executive, moving locations with each promotion. He said, “I do not really have a pastor’s heart like you do, Ralph, but I am an expert in churchianity.”

I did not connect Revelation 1 through 3 with Revelation 4 for many years. In the first segment the seven churches are being evaluated by Christ in their midst. Most are warned about how far they have strayed from the Upstairs objectives. The “white stone” refers to the Bema judgment where Christian workers face the shekinah of God in 1 Corinthians 3. The focus was not on the eyes, as with Nicodemus. Instead, it was on the ear: “Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what He is saying to the churches.”

Then we see the 24 elders before a throne in chapter 4. But this is not a throne of grace: it is a throne with flashes of lightning and the roll of thunder. It is the Bema. The elders will be separated into the downstairs group who produced wood, hay and stubble, to be consumed by the shekinah fire, and the upstairs ones who produced gold, silver and precious stones. I recall the motto that hung on my parent’s breakfast room as I grew up: “Only one life, t’will soon be past; only what’s done for Christ will last.”

I shall never forget sitting in the coffee shop during my seminary years with our New Testament professor and some fellow students. The white haired professor said, “Men, if your church turned into a locomotive, what part of it would you desire to be?” One of the men smiled and said, “I would want to be the whistle that blows loudly to let everyone know the train is coming.” Another mused and said, “I would like to be the throttle to make it move faster.” Finally, the professor was asked, “What about you?” Softly he said, “I would like to be the coal that must be consumed to make it operate.”

Before you frame your diploma, consider what it means to you. If it witnesses to your qualifications to be a more effective equipper, hang it in your office to remind viewers it made you a better servant. Otherwise, stick it in a file and make copies to send to pulpit committees as you seek larger churches.

Prayer: “Lord, make us saltier that others may become thirstier. Amen.”


  1. This was one of the best and most relevant commencement speeches I have ever heard. I listened many years ago every day I went to school to Carpool and was so excited when I saw that you were giving the commencement message. So simple in theory, so difficult in practice in our get ahead culture. I'll keep in mind the man who had not had even one true conversion in many years of service in the country he was in and the focus, "I am here to sow, not to reap."

  2. I am blessed with this message.This is a practical message,probably NOT pleasing to graduating students..But it has truth.And some time Truth hurts and corrects us.


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