Why Bethlehem Has a College

Biblical Foundations for Church-Based Education

Bethlehem Baptist Church | Minneapolis

This is a worship service and not a public lecture. The act of worship is not mainly the transfer of information. The act of worship is mainly the exultation of our hearts over the greatness and beauty and worth of Jesus Christ, our Savior and our God. Worship is happening when we treasure that greatness, that beauty, that worth — and say it, and sing it, and pray it, and listen for it, and plead for it.

The sermon, in corporate worship, is not after worship or before worship. It is worship. If the preacher is not moved by the reality he explains, if he not exulting over the truth of his exposition, he’s not preaching. The preacher must set forth biblical truth in such a way that Christ is seen more clearly and loved more dearly, and he does it by seeing truly and loving duly.

So when you hear that this message is about biblical foundations for a church-based Christian college (namely, Bethlehem College), don’t take off your worship garment and put on your academic garment. Don’t stop hungering to see the work of God. Keep expecting, right now, to join the preacher in exulting over the greatness and beauty and worth of Christ. This is a worship service.

God Brought Bethlehem into Being

One of the amazing works of God in the last 25 years of the life of this church is that God formed a seminary and college here, both fully accredited by the Association of Biblical Higher Education and incorporated under the laws of the state of Minnesota. I emphasize that God has formed this school not because human instruments aren’t important but because “the horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord” (Proverbs 21:31). God is decisive. He is always decisive, not man.

“The act of worship is mainly the exultation of our hearts over the greatness and beauty and worth of Jesus Christ.”

And not only that, but no pastor and no council of elders sat down in 1998 and said, “Let’s put in place an apprenticeship, and then an institute, and then a seminary, and then a college so that in 2023 we will have Bethlehem College & Seminary.” Nobody did that. It didn’t happen that way. It grew up organically, like a human embryo becoming a mature person. The DNA contained it all. The seed contained the flowers.

Our church mission statement, which we embraced in 1995, has seeds in it. There’s a powerful spiritual DNA in it. The statement says, “We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ.” Almost every word of that mission is explosive with implications. The seeds of that mission have been germinating for decades in God-centered, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated worship.

And God himself, who loves to be exalted as supreme in the lives of his people, organically brought into being Bethlehem College & Seminary for that mission — for the spreading of a “passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ.” And for his glory, and for the advancement of his mission, and for your joy as part of this church, you (especially the members of Bethlehem and The North Church) need to know what you are a part of.

Christian Seminaries — and Colleges?

The legal corporation of Bethlehem College & Seminary is owned and supported by two members of the corporation, Bethlehem Baptist Church and The North Church. The elders of those two churches approve the board of trustees who oversee the school, appointing the president and guarding the vision. And you, as members of one of these two churches, choose who the elders are in each church. You see what that means.

You affirm the elders. The elders affirm the trustees. The trustees call the president and oversee the vision. The president builds the faculty, and the faculty bring the vision to life for the students. And with God’s merciful blessing in the life of this school, the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ becomes a lifelong reality in the lives of our students. It’s your school — our school. To be a member of this church or The North Church is to own a school.

And this morning, my focus in particular is on the biblical foundations for the college, not the seminary. Most Christians understand that there will be a need for pastors, teachers, and global ambassadors in the body of Christ always. Christ will build his church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18). It will endure till Jesus comes again, and he has appointed that it should have pastors and teachers (Ephesians 4:11). What better place to train them than in close association with the local church (just as, for example, medical students are trained in connection with hospitals)?

So most Christians understand the need for a seminary — but a college is another reality. Not as many Christians have a clear sense of what it is and why a church would start and own one. Let’s think about that together.

Infrastructure of Grace

The first thing to say is that God does not plan for everyone to go to college or to go to this kind of college. I have been blown away recently by simply letting myself ponder the vast complexity of what it takes for contemporary society to function.

To put it in biblical language, Jesus said, “[God] makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). In other words, God gives common grace, distinguished from saving grace, to unbelievers so that life may go on. Common grace includes thousands of skills and competencies performed by people created in the image of God who don’t worship him at all.

Without these God-given, God-graced people, all the infrastructures of this metroplex called the Twin Cities would collapse. According to Hebrews 1:3, Jesus Christ holds this world in being: “He upholds the universe by the word of his power.” And he does it, among other ways, by giving thousands of different occupational preferences and abilities and skills.

Think of the complexities of just functioning as a city (not to mention flourishing):

  • getting clean water to your home, and getting waste and sewage away from it
  • the production and distribution of electricity to every block of this city, powering a thousand different kinds of devices and lighting every building
  • the construction and maintenance of buildings with a hundred different kinds of expertise for every phase of construction
  • the planning, building, and maintenance of roads, without which nothing would get anywhere
  • the legal systems of legislatures, laws, courts, and law enforcement
  • the massive complexities of transportation, whether cars, trains, or planes, all of which have to be designed, built, operated, maintained, and coordinated
  • the vast systems of communication, from phones to email, snail mail to texting, all of which depend on the design, manufacture, distribution, and programming of computers
  • the amazing system of medical care available at the mere dial of 9-1-1 or within walking distance (I can walk to four major hospitals from my house in twenty minutes)
  • the utterly indispensable industry of farming and food production, without which we would starve
  • the manufacture of clothing and a thousand other goods that we depend on daily, along with the innumerable retail outlets that make these products available

All of that just scratches the surface of what makes modern life work. So recently, I have been blown away that a city like Minneapolis actually works. Jesus Christ holds it together. Colossians 1:17 says, “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Hundreds of thousands of people will give account before him someday that they never once thanked him or worshiped him as God.

All that to say, it takes thousands of kinds of human interests, desires, abilities, and skills, along with training and education, to make modern society work. There is no presumption — no biblical warrant — that everyone should get the same kind of education or training to be of service in this world.

There are implications of 1 Corinthians 12:4–6 for all of life: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.” Bethlehem College is not for everyone, and you are neither the lesser nor the greater if God leads you to pursue mature discipleship and worthy service another way.

Pivotal Years

That word discipleship is key, isn’t it? Jesus said that the task of the church is to go and make disciples, teaching them how to live in obedience to everything he commanded (Matthew 28:19–20) — to make him supreme in all things.

So begin discipling the moment they are born. Disciple them at age two. Disciple them at age twelve. Disciple them when they turn eighteen. A mature disciple of Jesus is passionate “for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ.” This mission statement and the command of Jesus to make disciples are one thing, and it is what we want to happen in our students. So why would we put so much focus and energy into this season of life — the brief, post-high-school chapter of life?

One answer is simply that at the time of the inception of this college, God had brought together the critical mass of people who shared the burden for this peculiar kind of college. That’s the way new things are created. God ignites a flame, a vision, in a person or a group, and it becomes contagious and grows. Something new comes into being.

This has happened all across the room. God gave you a desire for something, something that would glorify him. You pursued it, and it became a reality. You could have done a dozen other things, but this one burned in your heart. And God blessed it — because God put it there.

But there’s another reason for why we have given so much effort to starting and building a college. The years from 18 to 25 are a uniquely pivotal period of life. Ecclesiastes 3:1–5 says,

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted . . . a time to break down, and a time to build up . . . a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together.

“The time between 18 and 25 is a pivotal time to plant, to build something that will last a lifetime.”

In our culture (because it’s not the same in every culture), the time between 18 and 25 is a pivotal time to plant, to gather stones together, to build something that will last a lifetime.

Changed at Eighteen

Let me use myself as an example. When I went to college at age eighteen, I would say my faith in Jesus was stable and strong. But my sense of identity — of what I would be in the world and how I could be useful — was weak and fragile. I had huge insecurities and no sure sense of vocational direction — just a cauldron of desires that needed a lot of maturing.

Three things happened in those years. All of them determined my future. First, I fell in love with Noël, and we have been committed to each other for 57 years. The impact of her on my life is incalculable. I would pay all the tuition in the world for that. Second, I heard the call of God to spend the rest of my life in the ministry of the word of God. That call rings as clear today as it did in the summer of 1966. Third, during that same summer, God broke a lifelong bondage that made me paralyzed and unable to speak in front of a group.

I know it doesn’t happen to everybody this way. But in general, we believe that this is a pivotal period of life. Lifelong trajectories are set, and at Bethlehem College we want to be God’s agents of maturing, directing, liberating, and, yes, even matchmaking, for the glory of Christ.

Now, instead of getting into the particulars of what it is like to come here and study “the great books in the light of the Greatest Book for the sake of the Great Commission” (as our college puts it), let’s go to the teaching of Jesus. Let’s see what he says about the life of the mind — what it’s for, what gets in the way, and how that applies to Bethlehem College.

Observe, Understand, Evaluate — and Feel

In Mark 6, Jesus miraculously multiplies five loaves and two fish so that they feed five thousand people. Then he sends his disciples away in a boat, out onto the Sea of Galilee. Around 3:00 in the morning, Jesus comes to them, walking on the water. Here’s what happened:

When they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened. (Mark 6:49–52)

In verse 52, Jesus says that their terror and astonishment was owing to the fact that “they did not understand about the loaves.” What does that mean?

It means that Jesus expected his disciples to observe carefully what was happening in the feeding of the five thousand. Then they were to understand its meaning and implications for who he was. Last, they should evaluate his worth, his power, his trustworthiness, and his readiness to take care of them accurately. (There was a whole basket left over for each disciple. Get it?) And with this observation, understanding, and evaluation, he expected to affect their emotions when he came walking to them on the water.

That’s what a college education is for: to build into students’ minds and hearts the habits of observing carefully, understanding rightly, and evaluating truly, biblically — so producing life-shaping emotions that are proportionate to reality.

How the Heart Hinders the Mind

But it didn’t happen for the disciples. Why? Look at the end of Mark 6:52: “They did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.” Their heads didn’t work right because their hearts weren’t right. This is foundational for what we do in Bethlehem College. Heart transformation is the great inner foundation of all true education, of the right use of the mind. If the heart is hard toward God, the head will not work right.

Jesus illustrates this again in Matthew 16:1–3:

The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.”

These are smart people. They know how to use a syllogism.

Premise 1: All men are mortal. Premise 2: Plato is a man. Conclusion: Therefore, Plato is mortal.

That’s the way all of you think when you are in your right mind. God baked that into your mind because it’s the way he thinks. So Jesus congratulates the Pharisees and Sadducees on their syllogistic reasoning.

Premise 1: When the sky is red in the evening, the weather will be fair. Premise 2: This evening, the sky is red. Conclusion: The weather will be fair tonight.

That’s right, Jesus says. That’s the way you are supposed to use your God-given mind. Then he says in Matthew 16:3, “You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.” Your brain works just fine when you’re deciding whether to go sailing on the Sea of Galilee. But when it comes to observing and understanding and evaluating and loving the Son of God, who is working wonders right in front of you, your brain goes haywire. You cannot interpret the signs I perform. Your brilliant brains stop working.

“If the heart is hard toward God, the head will not work right.”

Why is that? Matthew 16:4 gives the answer: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign.” The minds didn’t work because their hearts were adulterous. I think he means spiritual adultery. Jesus Christ came into the world to be the bridegroom for his people. They did not want him as their husband. They were adulterous and wanted the praise of man. They wanted to be married to money (Luke 16:14).

When the heart wants something more than Jesus, the mind will find a hundred ways not to observe accurately, not to understand correctly, not to evaluate him truly, and not to love him. Today, Jesus would say to unbelieving scientists, “You know how to use your minds to get to the moon? You don’t know how to use your minds to get to heaven. And if you are not on the way to heaven, getting to the moon is nothing.”

Heavenly Minded Colleges

Our goal at Bethlehem College, with God’s omnipotent and merciful help, is that our hearts not be hard or adulterous. Only then can our minds observe accurately, understand rightly, evaluate truly, and feel the worth of all that God is for us in Christ. If we succeed, our students will have the critical powers, if they choose, to join the team that gets us to Mars. But far more important, they will be on the team that gets us to heaven.

You may be wondering, How does this connect to the text that was read at the beginning, 1 Corinthians 2:1–16? I will leave that for you to think through. But here’s a pointer: in verses 14–16, Paul says that the natural mind — the mind without the Holy Spirit — sees God and his ways as foolish and therefore cannot understand them.

But the spiritual person, the person changed by the Spirit, sees God and his ways as wisdom and beauty, therefore seeing the whole world in the light of truth. He calls this change “the mind of Christ.” That’s our goal for our students. That’s why we have a college.