The kingdoms and governments of this world have frontiers, which must not be crossed, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ knows no frontier. It never has been kept within bounds.
More than thirty years ago, in the early years of my ministry, I walked from a Berlin train station down a wide chasm that snaked through the city. Until recently, it had been “No Man’s Land.” But now the mines and barbed wire were cleared, and the Berlin Wall lay in heaps. The Iron Curtain was collapsing, mapmakers were busy redrawing borders, and new flags were being stitched.
During these first forays into Eastern Europe, I often laughed in disbelief at the freedom and ironic opportunities for the church. I recall how we published gospel tracts in Moscow using the now-idle presses of the Communist newspaper Pravda (Russian for “Truth”). Pravda had published lies and smeared Soviet Christians for years — but now the presses were turning out the truth of the gospel!
I remember standing in Berlin at what had been the epicenter of the Iron Curtain. Tens of thousands of Christians on both sides of the East-West divide had tried every kind of way to get the gospel over and around and under this wall, but God saw fit to simply tear it down. I fished out a large chunk from the rubble and tucked it into my backpack.
Today, as I pen these lines, the old souvenir sits on a shelf before me. It is a constant reminder of Samuel Zwemer’s words — words that have shaped my thinking, my prayer life, and my expectations in all the years since I stood in the debris of the Wall. Zwemer, a pioneer missionary to Arabia, wrote, “The kingdoms and governments of this world have frontiers, which must not be crossed, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ knows no frontier. It never has been kept within bounds.”
In a few lines, Zwemer captures the power and progress of the gospel and the unmatched authority of our risen King.
Most world maps are covered with lines and colors that define country borders — about two hundred countries in the world. The number of nations has quadrupled in the last century. Our maps and our world are filled with lines. But if we could see a map of Christ’s kingdom, there would be no lines, for the citizens of this country are ransomed from every tribe and language and people and nation.
Zwemer captures this power and progress of the gospel to cross every kind of barrier — geographic, ethnic, political, religious. The gospel cannot be contained because it is not a man-made work. It is a Christ-made work. He builds his church in every place to the ends of the world.
“Neither the gates of hell nor the borders of the most God-hating regimes on earth can prevail against Jesus.”
Neither the gates of hell nor the borders of the most God-hating regimes on earth can prevail against Jesus. No countries are closed to Christ. They may be closed to us — either because we can’t get a visa or because our passport is the “kiss-of-death” for gaining entry — but Jesus has never been dependent on our access or resources to accomplish his mission.
Let me give you an example of this border-crossing, gates-of-hell-shattering gospel with what might be the least impressive missionary story you’ve ever read.
In 1995, a poor farmer named Marah with his wife and child crossed the border of Vietnam into Cambodia. They were driven by hunger and came in search of work. They were Jarai.
Despite being a marginalized minority, the Jarai were a strong and proud people who had long held tenaciously to their hill country lands in central Vietnam. When South Vietnam fell to the Communists, the Jarai lost everything — but the one single thing that Hanoi couldn’t crush or confiscate was the Jarai church. The gospel had first been sown among the Jarai by missionaries during the war. Although numbering just a few hundred believers, after their defeat, God sent a great awakening among the Jarai of Vietnam — and tens of thousands turned to him. One of them was Marah.
This was no easy crossing for this poor family. The Cambodian borderland was known for its minefields and renegade Khmer Rouge soldiers. But hunger and hope are powerful motivators, and Marah knew Jarai people lived in Cambodia. These ethnic cousins, long divided by political and geographic boundaries, shared a common language; so he hoped to find work. But unlike the Jarai of Vietnam, these Jarai had never been reached with the gospel.
Gossip the Gospel
At the village of Som Trawk, Marah looked for work — and he told them about Jesus. Two or three Jarai believed through Marah’s witness. They were the first drops before a downpour. As it was said of first-century Christians, the Jarai of Cambodia “gossiped the gospel” from house to house; and believers numbered over a thousand within a year.
As I said, this is an unimpressive missionary story. No one enacted a grand strategy for reaching the unreached people group: no planning retreats, no funding, no planeloads of short-termers. An unlikely but willing witness simply spoke the name of Jesus to people from an unbroken line of animists and demon worshipers, and the prison bars of their darkness were snapped like a stick by the God who raises the dead. He is the God who “chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:28–29).
The story doesn’t stop there. Twenty years after Marah walked into Som Trawk, I worshiped there with a thriving church. The Jarai have planted other churches and they have also taken the gospel to other people groups in the region. They even began praying and planning to take this every-tribe gospel across the border into Laos.
King of Impossible Places
Zwemer’s observation that the gospel of Jesus Christ “never has been kept within bounds” is anchored in our Lord’s sovereign rule, for he has “all authority in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18). It is upon this commanding truth that he calls and sends his servants to go and cross cultures and continents to the ends of the earth with his unbound, unhindered gospel.
However, though the gospel is unhindered, its messengers are not. There will be hardships and setbacks. There will be closed doors. But on this point, Zwemer wrote, “Opportunism is not the final word in missions. The open door beckons; the closed door challenges him who has the right to enter.”
“Our King is king over the hard and the impossible places.”
Our King is king over the hard and the impossible places. His saving work is not stopped by borders and bricks and barbed wire. His messengers are to follow him there, too, because in his name they have the right to enter. Whether through a lifetime of faithful ministry or the witness of an untimely grave, the gospel will advance in those places.
Samuel Zwemer’s confidence that the gospel never has been kept within bounds was not crafted in the emotions of a moment but honed in one of the hardest, most neglected places on the planet: Arabia. Today there are still many kingdoms and governments with borders which “must not be crossed.” But no wall made by the hand or heart of man is a match for the King with scars in his hands. His servants, ransomed from many nations, continue to reach the nations with his unbound gospel.