I remember the time I first heard about the world’s greatest missionary — how he left his home, his family, and everything familiar to minister among the most unreached peoples. He immersed himself in his new culture and contextualized the gospel in every way, becoming all things to all people. He lived and loved. He prayed and pursued. He ministered everywhere he went.
And then he was martyred at the hands of the those he came to save.
His death, however, didn’t silence or stop his mission; his death spread his message far and wide. Books were written about him. Testimonies were shared about him. His fame reached people group after people group, nations after nation, continent after continent.
His mission did not die when he did. It was a fresh beginning, not a final scene. He redeemed and released the largest missionary force the world has ever known. His final words still reverberate in the ears of his followers today, “Go and make disciples.” Jesus Christ was the greatest missionary because he died to save the nations, and to send his messengers all over the world with the gospel. We were his mission. We are his ambassadors. Our God left the earth for now, and until he returns, he has left a legacy of leavers.
1. We leave because God saves us to send us.
God is not done sending after sending his Son. His plan all along has been to send the saved. His aim is to instill his Son’s faithfulness and passion in human hearts through the Holy Spirit, and to multiply his Son’s missional life countless times over in the body of Christ. Jesus was not kidding when he said, “Follow me.” He was not bluffing when he said, “I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). God is serious about sending and firm about our fishing. His will is not a total mystery. Jesus’s last words on earth ring with clarity and power: “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you,” (John 20:21). God is making us disciple-makers — all of us.
If sanctification means being conformed into the likeness of Christ, and mission was a crucial aspect of who Christ was and is, then sanctification must relate intimately to mission, to what we hope to accomplish with our lives. You simply cannot be growing, godly, and sanctified unless you are going in some shape, form, or fashion — unless your life is about taking the gospel where it is not believed, whether next door or somewhere in the Middle East. You were made to go, maybe not to the mission field, but certainly somewhere. And more of us probably need to consider whether God might be calling us to go overseas.
Either way, it’s not if, but where. Every saved person on the planet shares one mission, passed down to us by the greatest Missionary in history.
2. We leave because the gospel saves the unreached.
The saving power of the gospel has, over time, totally transformed my understanding of our mission. The more I could identify with Paul, as the foremost of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15), the more the power of the gospel won me over and changed how I lived. My own salvation, in spite of the hideousness of my sin, gave me new and deeper hope for other entrenched and unreached sinners. There was now no one beyond the hope of heaven. If Jesus had saved even me, he could save anyone. Missionaries have an acute awareness of the unlikeliness of their own salvation. It’s why they have so much hope for the unlikeliest of peoples.
Paul tells us in Romans 1:16, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” Paul defines the gospel as the concentrated, forceful power of God. The parting of the Red Sea and all the plagues of Egypt are but child’s play compared to what God does in making dead people live and helping blind people see. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). The same God who created the world from nothing can create faith and love and hope where there is none. Creation was simply an illustration of what God is capable of in the sinful human heart.
The greatest demonstration of God’s power is the work he does, through the gospel, hundreds of times every day around the world. God’s gospel is his infinite, merciful power to save. That’s what it’s for. That’s what it does. Do you believe he can do that for others? How about for the millions living among the unreached (00.00% Christian)? If we don’t, we should look in the mirror, again.
3. We leave because the gospel saves us from living for ourselves.
There is clearly nothing wrong with the good news of the gospel, nothing broken in the message. Then what is keeping all the lost people in the world from believing the gospel? What’s wrong? For sure, some are being blinded by Satan (2 Corinthians 4:4). But so many have never heard the gospel. How can they believe in a gospel they have never heard (Romans 10:14)? So in one sense, we are what’s wrong. We’re not yet going to take the gospel to them.
How does that relate to me? I am in need of a monumental shift in my heart so that I “no longer live for [myself]” (2 Corinthians 5:15). Without God’s help, I will only live for me, think for me, and act for me, for my own sake. It’s sickening. But the gospel saves us and makes us sick of our old selves.
The gospel frees me from self, to God, for others. Sure, I have first world problems with emotional heartache here and there, but I am not going to hell anymore. My greatest problem has been solved. I have no more dilemmas in my eternal destiny. But others live through all the pains and stresses of everyday life with the added horror of an eternal punishment. Hell is their future. Unless the gospel frees us from ourselves, we will not go. But it has, and so we must, and some of us to the ends of the earth.
4. We leave because so few do.
“Are you offering God a canvas or a coloring book?”
This analogy has tested the seriousness and respect I have for the Great Commission for years. Either I belong to God, or he belongs to me. I either come to God as a blank canvas with my signature at the bottom saying, “Have your way with me,” or I come with a predetermined plan for what I will do. I just let God pick the colors. We give God an outline, and he better stay within the lines.
We have a world missions crisis:
- Half of the world’s population is considered unreached by the gospel (2% or less evangelical Christian).
- 33% of Europe, 50% of Russia, 80% of China, and 90% of some parts of southeast Asia are unreached, many totally unengaged (with no known gospel workers).
- 2,200 people groups do not have access to a Bible in their own language.
The crisis exists not because our gospel is broken, but because our going is broken. There is not a shortage of the gospel, but a dysfunction in our distribution of it. Jesus makes it clear to us, “The harvest is plentiful” (Matthew 9:37). God will save. He intends to save. He has people in every people group (Revelation 5:9–10; Acts 18:9–10). But he will not save them apart from goers, without a spokesman. He began his saving work in the person of Christ, and he will continue to win people through other people, period.
The harvest is plentiful, but there are so few willing to go. Jesus says, after looking upon the helpless and harassed people desperately in need of hope, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few, therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:37–38). The one who calls us to leave, to go into the harvest fields with the gospel, is himself the Lord of the harvest. He goes before us, and does the most important work for us, the heart work. He only calls us to go, and to speak. Your life could be an answer to Jesus’s great prayer. You could be the laborer, the leaver.
I left in July, 2015. I now live and minister in secularized and post-Christian Europe. No one made me leave, but I became a leaver through prayer. Be warned: If you’re not prepared to leave and live overseas, don’t start praying for the nations. If you do, you might find yourself leaving, too, and sooner rather than later. I can tell you we have experienced incredible joy living in the goodness of God’s plan, by his gift of faith and courage.
God doesn’t call everyone to go overseas, but there are good reasons to leave, and there are unique graces waiting on the paths to the nations.