Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary celebrated its 213th commencement service by conferring degrees on 247 graduates during a ceremony held at Travis Avenue Baptist Church, May 11. With these presentations, more than 40,000 men and women have now earned Southwestern degrees since the seminary’s founding in 1908.

Before the presentation of degrees, President Paige Patterson applauded graduates for their success, and called them to a life-long pursuit of learning. “Graduation is just the beginning, it is when we begin our studies, and you must be a life-long student first of Jesus himself,” Patterson said.

He set before the graduates the example of Zacchaeus from Luke 19. Drawing some knowing laughs, Patterson asked if anyone remembered the children’s song about Zacchaeus being a “wee little man.” In addition to being small of stature, Zacchaeus was also a hated tax collector, Patterson said.

“But there was also a curiosity in this man. He was curious about the things he saw and heard, and he was a determined student,” Patterson added. When Jesus passed by, Zacchaeus’ had a hard time seeing Jesus personally. So he tried to get a better view by climbing into a sycamore, or more accurately a “myrtle leaf fig tree.”

"Whatever it took, he was going to get a glimpse of Jesus,” Patterson said. He exhorted students to follow Zacchaeus’ example by doing all that they have to do to learn from Jesus Christ, and encouraged them to be lifelong students of the Scriptures.

“Have an intellectual curiosity to see Jesus and follow Him, and to follow His word,” Patterson said. “The result is going to be that when men and women see you, they may not agree with you, but they will say, ‘There goes a man of God’ or ‘there goes a woman of God.’”

Luke 19 described how Jesus was criticized by religious leaders for eating with a sinner when He dined at Zacchaeus’ home. Patterson encouraged graduates to follow Christ’s example by becoming a “friend of sinners.”

“Don’t become so bogged down with the saints of God that you miss the millions and billions on the face of this earth who desperately need a friend who knows the Master,” Patterson said. “Don’t be afraid of what the saints may say sometimes. But also be sure that your life remains pure and circumspect, an open book … You are a failure in ministry if you counsel, preach, teach or lead music and fail to lead some lost sinners to faith in Christ.”

He added that Christ summarized his mission Luke 19:10. “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” Patterson said. He reminded the graduates to pursue the same mission, warning them that they may suffer along the way.

“Precious children, I’m sending some of you forth to die today. I’m sorry,” Patterson said with visible emotion. “That is the kind of world it is, it’s not going to be friendly to you. But some of you will pay the price somewhere in the world of a martyr’s death. Do so with courage. Do so with faith.” Other graduates, he added, might not die for their faith, but they would be misunderstood and misrepresented. He told them to face these struggles with integrity and faith.

Patterson called guests at the commencement ceremony to follow Zacchaeus’ example by receiving Christ joyfully. Several graduates, he noted, had requested that he make this invitation for family members and friends to accept Christ as Savior and Lord.

After receiving their degrees, the new graduates congratulated each other and celebrated with friends and families outside the church building. A sense of relief mingled with excitement could be sensed among the hugs and flashing cameras. The final semesters leading to graduation are often busy times as students take their final classes, write theses and dissertations, answer calls to ministry positions, and balance the needs of their families.

One example is Kit Hentz and his wife Kimberly who came to Southwestern four years ago as newlyweds from Florida. During the spring semester, the couple welcomed their first child into the world and Hentz completed his Master of Divinity degree.

“My wife and I experienced a lot of growth at Southwestern. It has been very challenging and rewarding. But at the same time its been a time for Kim and I just to strengthen our marriage and learn how to have a goal together and pursue that goal and encourage each other,” Hentz said. He added that he and his wife Kim look forward to taking the first steps into ministry after years of preparation. The Hentzes are preparing to move back to Florida where he will be a student minister.

Hentz was part of a graduating class of five who received undergraduate degrees, 221 who received master’s degrees and 10 who received doctoral degrees. The spring graduates came from 29 states and 10 overseas locations: Korea, Hong Kong SAR, India, Taiwan, Singapore, China, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Spain and Brazil.