“I Am Sending You Out as Sheep in the Midst of Wolves”
The Cost and Blessing of Being a Christian Missionary
Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17 Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, 18 and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. 19 When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. 20 For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. 21 Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, 22 and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 23 When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes. 24 “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. 25 It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household. 26 “So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. 27 What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. 28 And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.
When Jesus had finished his great saving work, and had laid down his life to save millions and millions of people who would believe in him, and had risen from the dead, he gave this final mandate to his disciples in Matthew 28:18-20:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
That mandate—to go and make disciples of all the peoples of the world—is as valid today as the promise that supports it: “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” If the promise is valid today, then the mandate is valid today. And the promise is valid because it’s good, Jesus said, “to the end of the age.” So until Jesus returns the promise holds that he will be with us. And that promise is the basis of the mandate, and so the mandate holds today. Jesus is commanding us—commanding Bethlehem—“Go make disciples of all nations.”
The Apostle Paul’s Ambition: Frontier Missions
The apostle Paul is the most prominent missionary in the New Testament. He gave his life in obedience to Jesus’ mandate. He said in Romans 15:20-21, “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, but as it is written, ‘Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand.’”
This is the difference between and local evangelist and a frontier missionary. Paul said to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:5, “Do the work of an evangelist.” That means: As the pastor of a local church in a place where the gospel as already taken root, keep on winning people to Jesus. They may know about Christianity and live near lots of Christians there in Ephesus, but keep on evangelizing them. Tell them the gospel. Show them love. Keep on trying to win them. That’s local evangelism. And all of us should be a part of it.
But this is not what we mean by frontier missions. Frontier missions is what Paul did: “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation.” Frontier missions is crossing a culture to plant the church where the gospel has not already taken root. This is the mandate that is still valid for us today. The job is not done. And the word of our risen king Jesus is binding on us today as much as when he first gave it.
Unreached People Groups
This is why we speak of unreached people groups. The most helpful website I know of for understanding and researching the unreached peoples of the world is the Joshua Project. It lists a total of 15,965 people groups in the world. Of these, 6,434 are still unreached, defining unreached as a “people group among which there is no indigenous community of believing Christians with adequate numbers and resources to evangelize this people group”—which means, in their definition, fewer than 2% evangelical Christian.
So Jesus gave the mandate to us to make disciples of all these groups, and Paul modeled what frontier missions looks like, making it his ambition to proclaim the gospel where the church was not already planted. And today the mandate holds (“Make disciples of all nations”), and the promise holds (“I will be with you to the end of the age”), and the stakes are eternal (“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him,” John 3:36).
Who Will Go?
So the question is, “Who will go? Who will proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ where the church is not yet planted and flourishing? Should I go? I ask myself this at least once a year. And I mean it seriously. I am willing to go. I think every follower of Jesus is bound by the cords of love and obedience to say, “I am willing to follow you wherever you lead me.” Every believer in Jesus should say, “Here am I, send me, if that is your will.”
It is not the Lord’s will that all of his followers be frontier missionaries. But some he calls. How he does it is a wonderful and mysterious thing. No one can explain how the work of God in your life rises to the level of a compelling call to missions. This is the work of the Holy Spirit, and it is marvelous and unfathomable in our eyes. But this we know, from Scripture and from church history and experience, that one of the instruments God uses to awaken a compelling calling to missions is the preaching of the word of God. And specifically the preaching of passages of Scripture that describe the mandate and its costs and blessings. So that is what I want to do in the time we have left.
The Coming of the Son of Man to Judge Israel
In Matthew 10:16-33, Jesus is telling his disciples what it will cost to bear faithful witness and make disciples in the coming years and what blessings they can count on to sustain them. The text relates directly to the next forty years after he departs, but it is true in principle for the rest of the age. He says in verse 23, “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.” I don’t understand the “coming of the Son of Man” in this verse as the second coming of Christ. If it were, this text would be false.
Just like the New Testament speaks of the coming of the kingdom of God in several stages and manifestations, it also helps to think of the coming of the Son of Man in several stages and manifestations. He came to earth the first time and died; he came as the risen Christ from the dead; he came in judgment in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 by the Romans armies; he has come in power from time to time in Great Awakenings. And he will come in visible bodily form at the end of the age. So I take Matthew 10:23 to refer probably to the coming in judgment in AD 70. “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes to judge the Israel”—which happened in a decisive way forty years later.
A Fearless Witness in the Face of Danger
But the fact that these verses refer directly to the work of spreading the gospel to unreached people between AD 30 and 70 does not mean they are irrelevant for us. What Jesus says about the cost and the blessings of the missionary mandate in these verses is true today. And his main point is crystal clear: Be a fearless witness in the face of danger. My prayer, as I draw your attention to it, is that the Holy Spirit would use it awaken or confirm his calling on your life.
Six Costs of Frontier Missions
This text powerfully speaks for itself. So let me, without too much comment, focus our attention on six costs and ten blessings of being on the frontline of frontier missions. These difficulties are the kind of thing we may expect today even if in God’s forbearance we may be spared some of them. First the costs.
1. The cost of being arrested by authorities. Verses 16-18: “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles.”
2. The cost of family betrayal. Verse 21: “Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death.” This is almost unbelievable: Fathers and children will so be so opposed to the Christian faith, they will want each other dead rather than believing.
3. The cost of being hated by all. Verse 22: “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake.” Be careful that you don’t elevate friendship evangelism to the point where this text makes evangelism impossible. You will be hated by all does not mean: You can’t do evangelism.
4. The cost of being persecuted and driven out of town. Verse 23: “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next.”
5. The cost of being maligned. Verse 25b: “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.” Jesus died in our place so that we might escape the wrath of God, not the wrath of man. He was called to suffer for the sake of propitiation; we are called to suffer for the sake of propagation.
6. The cost of being killed. Verse 28: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” So they can kill the body. And sometimes they do. Don’t ever elevate safety in missions to the point where you assume that if one of our missionaries is killed we have made a mistake. Jesus said plainly in Luke 21:16, “Some of you they will put to death.”
For two thousand years, thousands of missionaries—unnamed people of whom the world is not worthy—have counted this cost and put their lives at risk to reach the lost with the only message of salvation in the world. And the reason they could do this is because the blessings so outweigh the costs.
Ten Blessings of Frontier Missions
May the Lord make these ten blessings that I am about to name overcome all your fears and give you a passion to know him like this.
1. The blessing of being sent by Christ. Verse 16: “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” “I am sending you out.” It is deeply satisfying thing to be sent by the living Christ into his work.
2. The blessing of being given words by the Spirit of God. Verses 19-20: “When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” What a wonderful thing it is to sense the presence and power of the Spirit in your life, giving you the words you need.
3. The blessing of experiencing God’s fatherly care. Verse 20b: “For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” Jesus makes explicit that the one caring for you is your Father in heaven. You may have to leave father and mother to be a missionary. But you will always have a Father who cares for you.
4. The blessing of salvation at the end of it all. Verse 22b: “But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” When all the costs have been paid, we will have the great end of salvation. We will be raised from the dead with no sorrow or pain or sin, and we will see Christ and enter in to his joy and hear the words, in spite of all our imperfections, “Well done.”
5. The blessing of knowing that the Son of Man is coming in judgment and mercy. Verse 23b: “You will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.” This was a great encouragement to those persecuted disciples. Jesus comes at just the right time in historical judgments and deliverances, and he will come at the last day and vindicate all his people.
6. The blessing of belonging to Jesus’ household. Verse 25b: “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.” Whatever rejection we may experience, Jesus wants us to be sure we are ever aware: This rejection is a sign that you are mine. You are part of my household.
7. The blessing of knowing that the truth will triumph. Verse 26: “So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known.” Nothing is hidden that will not be known. For a season in this world, people will mock your proclamation of the truth. They will say, “What is truth!” But know this, and hold fast to this blessing: The truth will be known. Your proclamation will be vindicated. “Nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known.” Count on it. What is scoffed at now will be written across the sky someday. And one minute of that vindication before all your enemies will make every act of patient endurance worthwhile.
8. The blessing of having an immortal soul. “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” The soul of the Christian is indestructible. “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24). We have already passed from death to life. Henry Martyn, the missionary to Persia, said that he was immortal until his work on earth was done. True. And he would have also agreed that in the fuller sense: You are immortal after your work on earth is done. That is Jesus’ point here.
9. The blessing of having a heavenly Father who sovereignly rules the smallest details of life. Verse 29: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” Jesus mentions the fall of a sparrow to the ground because nothing seemed more insignificant than that. Yet God, your Father, oversees that and governs that. So you may always know that your Father, who loves you as his precious child, oversees and governs every detail of your life.
10. The blessing of being valued by God. Verse 31: “Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” God does not despise his children. He values his children. For two reasons: One is that in union with Jesus Christ all of his perfection is imputed to us. The other is that by the Spirit, we are being changed from one degree of glory to the next, and God loves the sanctifying work of his own hands. He delights in what we are becoming.
God’s Call to Frontier Missions
How does God call people to give their lives in missions? He does it, along with other influences, by the mysterious and wonderful awakening of fear-conquering desire for the work through the preaching of his word. He does it by helping us count the costs so there is no romantic naiveté about missions. And he does it by filling us with a longing to know these blessings to the full.
For many of you God has been doing this for some time now. And this message is a seal to what has already been done. For others of you, this message has awakened a new sense of calling. And you really believe God is stirring you to go. May the Lord confirm his work in your life.
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