When I was first considering studying at Bible college, a person I went to church with said to me, “You know, it isn’t actually necessary for Christians to go to Bible college. We can just read the Bible at home, read some Christian books and ask the Holy Spirit to give us the knowledge we need directly from God’s word.” I spent some time considering his words and questioning my decision: Is he right? Am I wasting my time and money by going to college?
I prayerfully considered this churchgoer’s comments to me, but ultimately came to the decision that I felt that Bible college was where I was called to be at that time in my life. Perhaps this question was put to you also during your time studying at MAC. Why do a diploma if you aren’t planning on going into full-time ministry? Why put this pressure on yourself to study and make time for writing assignments? Why travel all the way into the city or out to Dapto or Emu Plains for lectures? Is it really worth it? Or one of my favourite questions, “But what will you actually be when you finish studying?”
What I find fascinating about the Bible is that it is simultaneously incredibly simple and breathtakingly complex. Absolutely anyone can pick up God’s word and read it for themselves and God can speak to them through it, even those who are unbelievers. Think of the powerful examples of Lee Strobel told in his book and film The Case for Christ, whereby Strobel read the Bible in order to debunk the faith of his Christian wife and ended up becoming a Christian in the process. Or think of the recent publication of Nabeel Qureshi’s Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, which follows a similar trajectory.
And yet, despite its simplicity, even for those of us who have been Christians for many years, there are still parts of the Bible that can be confusing. There is a great verse in 2nd Peter where Peter talks about Paul and his letters. Peter says this: “Paul writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” This is a really important verse. Not only does Peter tell us that Paul’s letters can be hard to understand (I don’t know about you but I find that rather comforting), if Peter – who was friends with Paul – found some of Paul’s writings a bit challenging, then it is fair enough that we find them a little difficult at times too! But Peter also, like Paul, warns us about people who misuse and distort God’s word. We need to be on guard against this misuse of distortion of God’s word.
Paul saw, over and over again in the early church, the damage that could be done when people were not adequately trained in teaching and applying God’s word. It is for this exact reason that Paul writes in his second letter to Timothy that we are to “do our best to present ourselves to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth”. Paul is well aware of many leaders in the early church who were doing the exact opposite – they were not handling the word of truth correctly – and thus he exhorts Timothy – and by extension, each one of us – to ensure we are adequately trained in handling God’s word wisely, and we pray that in our teaching of students at MAC that we are helping students to be able to do just that.
In the gospels, we read that the 12 disciples spent approximately three years with Jesus while he taught and performed miracles in and around Jerusalem and the surrounding areas. But it was not until the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry that he officially sent them out into the world as missionaries and ministers of the word, summed up for us in the Great Commision in Matthew 28. In this sense, the three years they spent with Jesus was really a time of training and preparation for their various evangelistic and pastoral roles in the early church. The Apostle Paul, likewise, following his great transformation on the road to Damascus, spent three years in Arabia before he finally appeared at Peter’s house. Scholars understand this three years to have been a time of training and preparation for Paul before he began his church planting and evangelising.
These accounts show us that there is a good precedence in Scripture for a time of study and preparation before beginning formal or even informal ministry. But even for those of us who might return to study later in life with no plan of heading out into new ministry areas, the process of being able to study God’s word at a deeper level as happens at college is incredibly rewarding and beneficial. While we would never allow a surgeon to operate on us without a medical degree or allow our children to be taught by a teacher without a degree in education, we often don’t think about Bible college as an option unless we are planning to go into formal full-time ministry. But the reality is, if we are willing to spend three or more years training for a career as part of our earthly lives, how much more should we consider training in God’s word not just for a career but to train us for life, and not just earthly life but eternal life?
As a lecturer at Mary Andrews College, I often ask students what the most enjoyable or most valuable aspect of their studies with us at MAC has been. Overwhelmingly, students answer that they find their time at MAC helpful because we don’t just teach our students large slabs of information but, rather, we are dedicated to teaching students skills and tools to help them understand and apply God’s word better in their own lives. These are skills that are not just meant to help them get through writing an essay or exegesis, but skills they can take with them beyond their time at MAC to use in their own quiet times, in the preparation of Bible studies, in evangelistic or apologetic conversations with friends and so on. As Paul informs us in 2nd Timothy, studying of the Bible is important because “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness so that the person of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Becoming better acquainted with the word of God and refining our skills by studying it at a deeper level means we can be “thoroughly equipped for every good work”, whatever that work might be.
There is no doubt we are living in a time in history like no other. The technological progress that has occurred within our lifetimes alone has been mind-blowing. And while God’s word remains the same, and remains as valid and true as when it was first written and collected, our questions about how we apply God’s word to our complex lives has definitely shifted. We face challenges with the general use of technology, as well as our use of social media, not to mention our children’s’ use of social media, the need for a healthy work-family balance and rampant consumerism in the West causing human resource and environmental damage in non-western countries. These are issues we face today that previous generations have not encountered. How can we begin to apply God’s word faithfully in these complex scenarios we are faced with? How can we engage with our contemporary society in a meaningful way that highlights the truth and necessity of God’s word for all people? These are important questions indeed, and remind us why studying God’s word in depth is vital for us to navigate the complex, perpetually busy lives we lead in the modern western world.
Each of our 48 graduating students made a decision at some earlier time that this life-training and committing a dedicated time to studying God’s word in greater depth was a valuable thing to do to help them understand God’s word better and to apply it better to the world we live in. These graduates took seriously Paul’s directive in Romans 12:2, where he states that as believers we are to no longer conformed to this world but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we are able to test and approve what God’s will is. In reading this verse, however, we often skip over the content of verse 1, even though it is clear that verse 2 is closely connected to the content of verse 1. Paul states in Romans 12:1 that we are to offer our bodies as living sacrifices holy and pleasing to God. The transformation Paul talks about in verse 2 doesn’t just happen easily but requires us to present ourselves as living sacrifices. It is something to which we have to be dedicated to ensure it happens. The transformation doesn’t happen instantaneously, but rather, in the original language of the passage, it is clear that Paul is saying we have to go on being transformed, to continue being transformed as believers. This is a process. It is part of our journey as believers. But it’s not an easy one, and being transformed takes time and a commitment to studying God’s word, and it takes sacrifice.
For this reason, we want to acknowledge the sacrifices that each of the graduates here tonight have made in order to complete their studies with us at MAC as part of their service to the gospel. We want to recognise the times you missed out on birthday parties or family outings or reading bedtime stories to your kids. We want to recognise the times you stayed up past your bedtime and emailed me your assignment at 11:55pm on the day it was due. (Anyone willing to confess to this?) We want to acknowledge the times you set the alarm early to get readings done when you wished you could press the snooze button. We want to acknowledge the times you were frustrated or disappointed with a grade or shouted at your computer or wanted to quit. We want to say well done and congratulations for getting through all of this, and persevering to make it to this point. Study is not easy, anyone who has done it knows that all too well. And for so many of you, your study was done in the midst of an already busy life with various church commitments, part-time or evenfull-time jobs, caring for young children or elderly parents. That really is an incredible achievement. And so we want to recognise the sacrifices you have made to get to the end of this leg of the journey, and we want to say congratulations to each of you for what you have achieved in finishing your respective courses.
But, as I know all too well, study isn’t actually a journey on which you embark on on your own. It would not have been possible for me to complete my own theological studies without the support of my husband and kids, and people who babysat my children or edited my draft essays. I told my husband once that my degrees were as much his as they were mine because I would not have made it through my studies without his support. He, of course, took this to mean he could also share my title and get to be called ‘Doctor Gosbell’ as well. Not quite. It was a nice try though. But that said, along with our graduating students tonight, we would also like to acknowledge those who are here tonight who supported one or more of our students through their time with us at MAC. To the husbands and wives, to the children and parents, to the grandparents and grandchildren, to the church family and ministers, we would like to acknowledge also the sacrifices you have made in allowing our students to complete their work and make it to this end point. Thank you for being on this journey with our students and for being part of the cheer squad to help them make it through to this point.
But, the race is not yet over. While this might be the end of your study and the end of your time at Mary Andrews College, the process of transformation is not yet complete. You must continue to run the race with endurance that has been set before you. It is now time to apply the tools and knowledge you have gained during your time at college. But what that will look like will be different for each one of you. In chapter 12 of Romans, after discussing the need for living sacrifices and transformation, Paul goes on to describe the unity and diversity of the body of Christ. While we are ALL called to grow in knowledge and understanding of God’s word to the best of our ability, Paul is pertinently aware that what that looks like is different for every person – some are gifted with leading, others in exhortation and so on. But what Paul is clear on is that every member of the Body of Christ has been given gifts which they are to use in service to the Body of Christ. Take what you have learnt during your time at MAC and let it help you hone and sharpen these gifts, as you use them in worship to God and in service to one another.
We are pleased and incredibly honoured that each of you chose Mary Andrews College as your home for the duration of your theological training, and we look forward to an ongoing relationship with you and hearing about how you are continuing to press onward and upward toward Christ. Let me finish by reading Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13:13 from The Message translation, where he once again discusses our journey in faith and our ultimate transformation: “But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly.”