In the last year, global tensions have risen to a boil. It’s hard to believe how often “World War III” has been a top trend on Twitter in the past couple of years. (Too often, to be honest.) And this leads to today’s question from Malcolm, who lives in Fishers, Indiana. His email resonates with a lot of other emails in the inbox in the past year.
Malcolm writes, “Pastor John, hello to you. I’m a 22-year-old and often anxious about the state of the world. For several years, we enjoyed relative peace, and things were looking calm. But now there are wars in Ukraine and in Palestine, and a threat of war looms over Taiwan. All the world’s major armies seem to be awakening from a long slumber. NATO is growing. Enemies of the West are uniting. The weapons manufacturers are in overdrive.
“As we step into this new age of global tension, and as you see the news — the wars and rumors of wars — what are your spiritual reflections about global conflicts? The Bible seems to say a lot about warfare between nations. How do you comfort yourself with biblical truth, and with God’s sovereignty, when it seems that the world is growing more hostile, and World War III is talked about more and more openly as a real possibility in the near future?”
Well, I could, I suppose, answer Malcolm’s question with a very general biblical observation about the absolute sovereignty of God over nations and over the church and over my life, and then combine that sovereignty with the sweet, precious promise that he works everything together for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28). I could do that, and it would be wonderful. It would be glorious.
However, I want to answer his question with something much more specific, just because I saw it while preparing a message on missions last October. And it did for me just what Malcolm is asking: “How do you comfort yourself, Pastor John, in light of these kinds of upheavals in the world?”
And so, that’s what I want to do. I want to address one specific worry that rises in this setting that we’re in right now, wars and rumors of wars and social upheavals — namely, what happens to the global missionary enterprise in times of wars and rumors of wars? That’s the specific thing that creeps into my heart with anxious thoughts.
Missions in Wartime
I think many of us feel, from time to time, the anxiety arising that social upheaval and political and military disruption will so distract the church, and so intimidate the church, that we forsake or neglect or minimize the command of Jesus to make disciples among all the peoples of the world.
We just feel like, “Well, that’s got to be put on hold because the world’s about to blow up and go to hell in a handbasket. What good does it do to send the missionaries to so-and-so when the place is about to explode in war?” I think that’s the kind of feeling that rises in our hearts with regard to world missions in wartime.
So, I’m reframing Malcolm’s question to be more specific: Not just “How do I comfort myself in a world about to be engulfed in war?” but “How do I steady my hand and keep my focus and press on in the cause of world evangelization even while the world’s moving toward annihilation?” That’s the question I’m trying to face.
White-Hot Christians Will Go
And what I saw last October when I was preparing for my global-focus sermon at Bethlehem was from Matthew 24:5–14 and the connection between war and missions. I had never made this connection before. So, here’s what Jesus says about the times we live in — and I think these words from Matthew 24:5–14 are intended by Jesus, in every generation where these things show up, to make us lift our eyes and pray that our redemption is drawing near. Here’s what he says:
Many will come in my name, saying, “I am the Christ,” and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom [these are the international upheavals, and now come the natural upheavals, the disasters], and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains. (Matthew 24:4–8)
So, Jesus is picturing the coming of the kingdom of God that he will bring as a kind of new birth for the cosmos, and natural disasters are like labor pains. He goes on:
Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:9–14)
Now, I have said in lots of missions conferences over the decades that even though in the very last days of history the love of many in the visible church will grow cold (verse 12), this promise that the gospel will be preached to all the peoples of the world — even while we are being hated, he says, by all these peoples — this promise is going to come true.
But the Christians who take the gospel to the nations during this time of great trouble will not be among those whose love has grown cold, right? They will be the people who have white-hot, not cold, love for Jesus in the face of persecution and killing. Not everybody’s love is going to grow cold in the last days, in other words. The Great Commission will be completed by faithful Christians, while millions are leaving the church like lukewarm coals rolling away from the fire.
All that I had seen before, but this time, while I was meditating on this passage, I saw the connection between war and missions — not just the de-churching of cold love and missions, but the connection between military upheavals and missions.
Far from Stopping the Advance
So, verses 6–7 and 14: “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. . . . Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. . . . And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” This connection makes plain that “wars and rumors of wars” will not stop God’s mission. That’s the lesson that I saw fresh in this text. The mission will be completed in spite of, sometimes because of, nation rising against nation.
Now, even as I say it, I know there could be an objection, even a biblical objection, because peacetime is good for the church. We’re not naive. We know that, historically, wars and social upheavals have hindered missions. Yes, they have. That’s true. But how many of those setbacks proved to be advances in disguise?
For example, the removal of missionaries from China, which felt like such a setback, between 1949–1953 — was it a setback? Thirty years later, it appeared that the church had grown by tenfold in China without the missionaries.
So, who knows what are advances and what are setbacks in God’s strange ways? Whatever disruptions in missions are caused by wars and rumors of wars, the words of Jesus stand firm. Wars and rumors of wars will not stop world evangelization. In the midst of hatred, coldness, and wars, this gospel will be preached to all the peoples, and then the end will come.
What History Has to Say
To test my new insight against historical experience, I did a little research, and here’s what I found. What has God done in missions during wartime?
During the American Civil War (1860–1865), Sarah Doremus founded the Woman’s Union Missionary Society for sending single women to Asia. The Episcopal Church opened work in Haiti. The Paris Evangelical Missionary Society opened work in Senegal. The London Missionary Society published the first dictionary of the Samoan language. The China Inland Mission (today OMF) was founded by James Hudson Taylor, which has sent — what? — thousands of missionaries to Asia. All of that while Americans are consumed with the Civil War.
What about World War I (1914–1918)? C.T. Studd was glorying in a great revival movement in the Congo during the First World War. The Interdenominational Foreign Mission Association, IFMA, was founded during World War I.
What about World War II (1939–1945)? William Cameron Townsend founded Wycliffe Bible Translators. New Tribes Mission was founded with a vision to reach the tribal peoples of Bolivia. The Conservative Baptist Foreign Mission Society was founded, now named WorldVenture. The Baptist General Conference started its own missionary-sending agency, which is the denomination that our church belongs to, during the Second World War. Mission Aviation Fellowship was started, Far East Broadcasting Company was founded, Evangelical Foreign Missions Association was formed — all during that horrific Second World War.
What about the Korean War (1950–1953)? The World Evangelical Alliance was organized. Bill and Vonette Bright created Campus Crusade for Christ. Trans World Radio was founded.
You get the picture. This is just a tiny taste of the truth that wars and rumors of wars are not going to stop God’s promise to complete the task of world missions. So, Malcolm, this is what the Lord has been using recently in my life to strengthen my heart, and encourage me to press on in this great work.