In Honor of the Lord’s Servants Who Go Before Us
It is often difficult to measure the impact of people whom God is using in our lives until we look back over time. This lack of awareness on our part is sometimes due to the fact that we are too young and inexperienced to realize the significance of the person who stands before us. I was only an undergraduate Bible Major at BJU in the 1980s when I sat in class and listened to the teaching of Dr. Stewart Custer; and though I was able to recognize that his erudite learning placed him in a completely different sphere of knowledge than what I possessed at the time, I could not possibly have appreciated then the sheer impact his years of faithful ministry would have on the entire BJU faculty for years to come.
We were privileged this week to once again honor Dr. Custer by hosting the Stewart Custer Lecture Series on campus. And this event gave me the opportunity to reflect upon what I have come now to know about this man and his ministry.
In Paul’s Thessalonian correspondence, he speaks about himself as an example to those who believed. In 1 Thess 2:1–12, Paul desires the Thessalonian believers to remember how arduously he and his co-workers, Silas and Timothy labored on their behalf to proclaim to them the gospel and to nurture them in the gospel.
For example, Paul says in verses 7–12,
But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers. For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.
However, in 2 Thess 3:8–9 Paul returns to this theme, reminding the Thessalonian believers again of their tireless labor and toil. But this time Paul gives them one of the reasons they labored with so much faithfulness and passion. They labored, Paul says, “to give you in ourselves an example to imitate” (2 Thess 3:9).
Paul says, literally, that they wanted to place in front of the Thessalonians, a tupos—a “type.” That is the word “example” in this text, and it refers to a pattern to which one conforms, or a manner of life which one copies. In fact, the word imitate used here is somewhat of a transliteration. The Greek word is memeomai, where we derive the word mimic; and it is used for mimicking or emulating one’s mentor. That is the kind of life Paul fleshed out in his ministry to the Thessalonians.
And this idea of Paul and other of the Lord’s servants as examples to emulate forms a major theme in the NT. The Lord Jesus Christ is our ultimate example; but the Lord has graciously gifted the church with contemporary, real-world examples that show us how to follow Christ
Stewart Custer was such an example. He was a tupos, a pattern, whose heart for God and mind for theological concepts and commitment to Scripture shaped a generation of faculty members at BJU, the results of which endure to this day.
In fact, I daresay that Dr. Custer’s influencing example is the very reason that this series is named in his honor. When, about two-and-a-half years ago we were creating the Custer Lecture Series, I queried the undergraduate Bible and Seminary faculty members who had been educated at BJU, to find out who we should honor with this series. To the man, without hesitation, everyone I asked said, “Stewart Custer.” Because he had been a shaping influence in their lives.
I think Dr. Steve Hankins of our faculty affirms this observation in a tribute to Dr. Custer that he wrote in 2002. I am summarizing his lengthier paragraph here:
“Over the past 30 years I have watched this man with wonder. This earthen vessel, who met Christ as a boy in the throes of a prolonged, life-threatening illness, then began a journey by grace, a grace that has poured forth from his life to this day through his preaching, his teaching, his writing, and most profoundly, his example.”
Dr. Hankins goes on to describe the ministry of Dr. Custer using four descriptive phraseswhich present to us a pattern for what we as men and women of God should all desire to be in our calling as academics and teachers and scholars and counselors for the church.
First, he describes Stewart Custer as a Scripture Scholar. Because Dr. Custer was a man of unusual intellectual ability, as his degrees and publications attest, whose habit was to read a new book every night in widely diverse subject areas. But he employed that intellectual ability in the careful, measured, meticulous study of the Holy Scriptures, that he might be a blessing to the church.
He then calls him a Faithful Shepherd. Dr. Custer’s ministry was marked by the faithful proclamation of the Word as he fed his students and fed his congregation. This, coupled with the gentle care and empathy of a true shepherd who loved his flock, loved his students, and drew great joy in pointing them to the True Shepherd, Jesus Christ.
Dr. Hankins later describes the example of Stewart Custer with the phrase, Tireless Laborer. Dr. Custer spent his life preparing and preaching, teaching, writing, editing, reading, pastoring, traveling, speaking—all at the same time. He is an example of the service we can render to our Lord when we eliminate distractions, set aside lesser loves, and live every day saying, simply, “Lord, what would you have me to do?”
Finally, he offers tribute to Stewart Custer with the descriptive phrase, Our Friend. For, despite all of the accolades he could receive, Stewart Custer remained a humble, loving friend to those alongside of whom he served Christ, as well as to those whom he ministered for the glory Christ.
This week marked only the third Custer Lecture Series, yet this was a significant year. For, Dr. Custer went to be with the Lord this past December 20, at the age of 86. Which means that this is the first Custer Lecture Series marking the fact that Dr. Custer has truly rested from his labors and is in the arms of his Savior. It also means that, from now on, these lectures are presented not only in his honor, but also in his memory. It was a tremendous privilege, therefore, that in the inaugural year of this series (2016), Dr. Custer’s son, Steve, was able to bring his father onto campus. And at a special time the morning of the first Custer Lectures we were able to honor and thank Dr. Custer publicly. Those who knew him well and had served with him and under him were able to thank him. And we presented him with a plaque that reads:
In recognition of his lifelong commitment to excellence in the interpretation of Scripture, his profound example of devotion to Christ and the Church, and his fifty-six years of outstanding leadership and teaching at Bob Jones University, we hereby inaugurate the Stewart Custer Lecture Series at the Bob Jones University Seminary, November 8, 2016, in honor of Dr. Stewart Custer: “Scripture scholar, faithful shepherd, tireless laborer, and true friend.”
To God be the glory for the faithful example that he has given to us in Dr. Custer! And for others who have gone before, a subject that I will pick up later in the week.
You may pick up a free copy of the 2002 edition of Biblical Viewpoint honoring Dr. Custer at our seminary offices on campus. The issue contains the tribute written by Steve Hankins, a summary of the books of the NT written by Stewart Custer, and contributions from our BJU Seminary faculty and adjunct faculty. Please contact Greg Stiekes at [email protected] if you are interested in coming to get a copy.