Doing Missions When Dying Is Gain

Wheaton College | Wheaton, Illinois

My mission statement in life — and the mission statement of the church I have served — is “we exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ.”

I love that mission statement for several reasons. One is because I know it cannot fail. I know it cannot fail because it’s a promise from Jesus. “This gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14). “Nations” in that verse does not refer to political states. It refers to something like what we call “people groups,” ethnolinguistic groupings, and we may be absolutely certain that every one of them will be penetrated by the gospel to the degree that you can say that a witness, an understandable self-propagating witness, will be among them and gathered with God’s global people in the new heavens and new earth. Let me give you some reasons why we can bank on that.

The Promise Is Sure

The promise is sure for several reasons.

1. Jesus never lies.

It was Jesus who said in Matthew 24:14, “Heaven and earth may pass away, but my word will never pass away.” So this mission, called world evangelization, is going to be completed. It’s going to be done, and you can either get on board and enjoy the triumph or you can cop-out and waste your life. You have only those two choices, because there is no middle option like, “Maybe it won’t succeed, and I can be on the best side by not jumping on board.” That won’t happen.

2. The ransom has been paid for God’s people among the nations.

According to Revelation 5:9–10,

Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.

They’re paid for, and God will not go back on his Son’s payment.

I love the story of the Moravians. In northern Germany, two of them were getting on a boat, ready to sell themselves into slavery in the West Indies, if necessary, never to come back again. And as the boat drifts out into the harbor they lift their hands and say, “May the Lamb receive the reward of his suffering.” What they meant was that Christ had already bought those people. And they were going to find them. They would preaching the gospel to everyone they could, and trust God to call the ransomed to himself.

So we know God’s global mission can’t abort, because the debt has been paid for each of God’s people everywhere in the world — those lost sheep, as Jesus called them, that are scattered throughout the world will come in as the Father calls them through the preaching of the gospel (John 11:51–52).

3. The glory of God is at stake.

“Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy” (Romans 15:8–9). The whole purpose of the incarnation was to bring glory to the Father through the manifestation of his mercy to the nations.

The glory of God is at stake in the Great Commission. Back in 1983 at Bethlehem Baptist Church, Tom Steller — my partner in ministry for 33 years at the church — and I were both met by God in amazing ways. Tom, in the middle of the night, couldn’t sleep, so he got up, put on a John Michael Talbot album, laid down on the couch, and he heard our theology translated into missions. We had been a glory-of-God-oriented leadership, but we had not yet made sense of missions like we ought. John Michael Talbot was singing about the glory of God filling the earth the way the waters cover the sea, and Tom wept for an hour.

At the same time, God was moving on my wife, Noël, and me to ask, “What can we do to make our church a launching pad for missions?” Everything came together to make an electric moment in the life of our church, and it all flowed from a passion for the glory of God.

4. God is sovereign.

In the late 1990s, as I was preaching sequentially through Hebrews, we arrived at Hebrews 6. This is a very difficult text about whether these people are Christians or not when they fall away. And in verses 1–3 there is this amazing statement (which is just a tiny piece of the massive biblical evidence for why I’m a Calvinist) that says, “Let us press on to maturity, leaving behind the former things . . . and this we will do, if God permits.” When we looked at this together, there fell across my congregation the most amazing silence. They heard the implications of the words “if God permits.” Naturally they asked, “You mean God might not permit a body of believers to press on to maturity?”

God is sovereign. He is sovereign in the church, and he is sovereign among the nations. One testimony to this is in that memorable article in Christianity Today years ago retelling of the story of Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Pete Flemming, Roger Youderian, and Ed McCully. Steve Saint, Nate’s son, tells the story of his dad getting speared by Waorani Indians in Ecuador. He tells it after having learned new details of intrigue in the Waorani tribe that were responsible for this killing. These new details implied that the killings were very unlikely. They simply should not have happened. It made no sense. Yet it did happen. And having discovered the intrigue, he wrote this article. There was one sentence that absolutely blew me out of my living room chair. He said, “As [the natives] described their recollections, it occurred to me how incredibly unlikely it was that the Palm Beach killing took place at all. It is an anomaly that I cannot explain outside of divine intervention.”

Don’t miss that. He says, “I can only explain the spearing of my dad by virtue of divine intervention.” Do you hear what this son is saying? “God killed my dad.” He believes that, and I believe that. According to Revelation 6:11, when you have a glimpse of the throne room and the martyrs who shed their blood for the gospel saying, “How long, O, Lord? How long till you vindicate our blood?”

The answer comes back, “Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren should be complete who were to be killed as they themselves had been” (Revelation 6:11). God says, “Rest until the number that I have appointed is complete.” He has in mind a certain number of martyrs. When it is complete then the end will come. God is sovereign over the best and worst that happens in world missions. Therefore, the mission cannot fail.

The Price Is Suffering

The price of God’s global mission is suffering, and the volatility in the world today against the church is not decreasing. It is increasing, especially among the groups that need the gospel. There is no such thing as a “closed country.” That notion has no root or warrant in the Bible, and it would have been unintelligible to the apostle Paul who laid down his life in every city he visited.

“According to the Bible, there is no such thing as a closed country.”

I remember one Sunday when our church was focusing on the suffering church, and many across the nation were involved. We saw videos or heard stories about places like Sudan where the Muslim regime was systematically ostracizing, positioning, and starving Christians so that there were about 500 martyrs a day in Sudan. In light of this, I got very tired of candidates for staff positions in our inner city church asking , “Will our children be safe?” I’ve grown tired of such American priorities infecting the mission of the church. Whoever said that your children will be safe in the call of God?

YWAM (Youth With A Mission) is a wild-eyed radical group that I love. I got an email from them some years ago saying,

One hundred and fifty men armed with machetes surrounded the premises occupied by the YWAM team in India. The mob had been incited by other religious groups in an effort to chase them off. As the mob pressed in someone in a key moment spoke up on the team’s behalf and they decided to give them 30 days to leave. The team feels they should not leave and that their ministry work in the city is at stake. Much fruit has been seen in a previously unreached region and there is great potential for more. In the past when violence has broken out between rival religious groups people have lost their lives. Please pray for them to have wisdom.

Now this is exactly the opposite of what I hear mainly in America as people decide where to live, for example. I don’t hear people saying, “I don’t want to leave, because this is where I’m called to and this is where there’s need.” Oh that we might see a reversal of our self-centered priorities? They seem to be woven into the very fabric of our consumer culture: Move toward comfort, toward security, toward ease, toward safety, away from stress, away from trouble, and away from danger. It ought to be exactly the opposite. It was Jesus himself who said, “He who would come after me let him take up his cross and die” (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23).

It’s the absorption of a consumer, comfort, and ease culture in the church. And it creates weak ministries and churches in which safe, secure, nice things are done for each other. And safe excursions are made to help save some others. But oh we won’t live there, and we won’t stay there, not even in America, not to mention Saudi Arabia.

I was in Amsterdam once talking to another wild-eyed wonderful missions group, Frontiers, founded by one of another one of my heroes, Greg Livingstone. What a great group — five hundred people sitting in front of me who risk their lives every day among Muslim peoples. And to listen to them! What a privilege. During the conference they were getting emails, which they would stand up and read, saying, “Please pray for X. He was stabbed in the chest three times yesterday, and the worst thing is his children were watching him. He’s in the hospital in critical condition.”

Then they would say, “This is a missionary in the Muslim world, let’s pray for him,” and we would go to prayer. Next day another email comes, and this time six Christian brothers in Morocco have been arrested. “Let’s pray for them,” so we did. And so it was throughout the conference. And at the end of it, the missionaries were ready to go back. Am I going to come back to America and be the same? Will I stand up in front of my church and say, “Let’s have nice, comfortable, easy services. Let’s just be comfortable and secure”?

Golgotha is not a suburb of Jerusalem. Let us go with him outside the gate and suffer with him and bear reproach (Hebrews 13:13).

Suffering Is Also the Means

But in saying that there will be martyrs and there must be suffering I haven’t yet said the main thing about the price of getting the job done. That’s because not just the price of missions but also the means. Here’s what I have in my mind: consider Colossians 1:24.

“Now I rejoice,” Paul says, “in my sufferings.” He was a very strange person. “I rejoice in my sufferings” is very counter-cultural, very un-American, indeed, very counter-human. “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of his body [that is, the ingathering of God’s elect] in filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ.”

Now that’s on the brink of blasphemy. What does he mean by “filling up what is lacking” in the afflictions of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ? How could his afflictions be lacking? Paul does not mean that in his own sufferings he improves upon the merit and the atoning worth of Jesus’s blood. That’s not what he means. Well then, what does he mean?

There is a remarkable parallel to Colossians 1:24 in Philippians 2:30. What makes it a parallel is the coming together of the same two words, one for “fill up” (or “complete”) and the other for “what is lacking.” Paul says that Epaphroditus “came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.”

“Golgotha isn’t a suburb of Jerusalem. Let’s go outside the gate and suffer and bear reproach.”

The situation is that Epaphroditus was sent from the Philippian church over to Paul in Rome. He risked his life to get there, and Paul extols him for risking his life. He tells the Philippians that they should receive such a one with honor, because he was sick unto death and risked his neck to complete their ministry to him.

I opened up my 100-year-old Vincent’s commentary on Philippians and read an explanation of that verse which I think is a perfect interpretation of Colossians 1:24. Vincent says,

The gift to Paul from the Philippians was a gift of the church as a body. It was a sacrificial offering of love. What was lacking was the church’s presentation of this offering in person. This was impossible, and Paul represents Epaphroditus as supplying this lack by his affectionate, zealous ministry.

So the picture is of a church that wants to communicate love, in the form of money, to Paul in Rome, and they can’t do it. There’s too many of them to go and show their love as group. And it’s too far away. So they say, in essence, “Epaphroditus, represent us and complete what is lacking in our love. There’s nothing lacking in our love except the expression of our love in person there. Take it and communicate it to Paul.”

Now that’s exactly what I think Colossians 1:24 means. Jesus dies and he suffers for people all over the world in every nation. Then he is buried and, according to the Scriptures, raised on the third day. Then he ascends into heaven where he reigns over the world. And he leaves a work to be done.

Paul’s self-understanding of his mission is that there is one thing lacking in the sufferings of Jesus: the love offering of Christ is to be presented in person through missionaries to the peoples for whom he died. And Paul says he does this in his sufferings. “In my sufferings I complete what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ.” Which means that Christ intends for the Great Commission to be a presentation to the nations of the sufferings of his cross through the sufferings of his people. That’s the way it will be finished. If you sign up for the Great Commission, that’s what you sign up for.

In the early 90s, when I was working on the book, Let the Nations Be Glad, and I hid away at Trinity Seminary in Deerfield, Illinois, on a writing leave. Then I got word that J. Oswald Sanders was going to be in chapel. Eighty-nine-year-old, veteran missions leader. I wanted to hear him, so I snuck into the back of chapel and listened to him. And this man stood up there, and I was just oozing with admiration and desire to be like this when I’m 89. He told a story that embodies Colossians 1:24.

He said there was once an evangelist in India who trudged on foot to various villages preaching the gospel. He was a simple man with no education, who loved Jesus with all his heart, and was ready to lay down his life. He came to a village that didn’t have the gospel. It was late in the day and he was very tired. But he went into the village and lifted his voice and shared the gospel with those gathered in the square. They mocked him, derided him, and drove him out of town. And he was so tired — with no emotional resources left — that he lay down under a tree, utterly discouraged. He went to sleep not knowing if he would ever wake up. They might come kill him, for all he knows.

Suddenly, just after dusk, he is startled and woke up. The whole town seemed to be around him looking at him. He thought he would probably die. One of the big men in the village said, “We came out to see what kind of man you are, and when we saw your blistered feet we knew you were a holy man. We want you to tell us why you were willing to get blistered feet to come talk to us.” So he preached the gospel and, according to J. Oswald Sanders, the whole village believed. I think that’s what Paul means by “I complete in my sufferings what is lacking in the afflictions of Jesus.”

I have one other small parenthesis about J. Oswald Sanders. At 89 years old, he said, “I’ve written a book a year since I was seventy.” Eighteen books after seventy! There are people in my church and all over America abandoning productive life at 65 and dying on the golf course, when they ought to be laying their lives down among the Muslims like Raymond Lull, who was a twelfth-century Oriental scholar and Muslim missionary. As he grew old he thought, “What am I doing? I’m going to die here in Italy. Why not die in Algeria across the Mediterranean preaching the gospel?” And so, knowing that’s what it would cost him to preach publicly, he got on a boat at eighty-something years of age and crossed the Mediterranean. He stayed underground a while encouraging the church, and then he decided it was as good a time as any. So he stood up and preached, and they killed him. What a way to go!

Why should we think that putting in our 40 or 50 years on the job should mean that we should play games for the last 15 years before we meet the King? This is biblically incomprehensible. We’re strong at 65 and we’re strong at 70. At that age, you are entering a glorious chapter — at least eighteen more books! Or missions in some dangerous place.

My father was bursting with ministry in his late seventies and early eighties. I can remember 25 years before that, when my mother was killed, and he was almost killed, in a bus accident in Israel. I picked him up at the Atlanta airport along with my mother’s body ten days after the accident. In the ambulance, all the way home from Atlanta to Greenville, South Carolina, he lay there with his back completely lacerated, and he kept saying, “God must have a purpose for me, God must have a purpose for me!”

He could not fathom that his wife of 36 years was gone and God had spared him. And indeed God did have a purpose for him. It wasn’t long before his life exploded with new ministry, especially globally. He was working harder in his 70s for the nations than ever before. He prepared lessons from Easley, South Carolina, including some tapes, and they were in 60 nations with about 10,000 people believing in Jesus every year, because God spared my dad and caused him not to believe in retirement.

The Prize Is Satisfying

How do you love like that? Where are you going to get this kind of courage and motivation? Are you feeling ready for this? Do you think you have it within you to be able to endure this?

Read Stephen Neill’s A History of Christian Missions. He describes what happened in Japan when the gospel came there in the 1500s. The emperor began to believe that the incursion of the Christian faith into their religious sphere was so threatening that they must end it. And he did end it with absolutely incredible brutality. It was over for the church in Japan. And I don’t doubt that the hardness and difficulty of Japan today is largely owing to the massive (though short-term) triumph of the devil in the early 1600s.

“We will persevere by believing in the promises of God.”

Twenty-seven Jesuits, fifteen friars, and five secular clergy did manage to evade the order of banishment. It was not until April 1617 that the first martyrdoms of Europeans took place, a Jesuit and a Franciscan being beheaded at Omura at that time, and a Dominican and an Augustinian a little later in the same area. Every kind of cruelty was practiced on the pitiable victims of the persecution. Crucifixion was the method usually employed in the case of Japanese Christians. On one occasion 70 Japanese at Yedo were crucified upside down at low water and were drowned as the tide came in.

I cried when I first read that, because I have a good enough imagination to picture the lapping water with your wife on one side and your sixteen-year-old on the other.

Are you ready? Do you think you’ve got that within you? You don’t. No way does anybody have that kind of resourcefulness within him. Where are we going to get it? That’s what I want to close with.

We’re going to get it by believing the promises of God. Hebrews 10:32–34 is my favorite text about where we get the resources to live like this.

Recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and affliction and sometimes being partners with those so treated.

Now let me stop there and give you the situation. In the early days of the church, persecution arose. Some of them suffered outright and publicly, and others had compassion on them. You’ll see in the next verse that some of them were imprisoned and some of them went to visit them. So they were forced into a decision. Those who were in prison in those days probably depended on others for food and water and any kind of physical care that they would need.

But that meant that their friends and neighbors had to go public and identify with them. That’s risky business when someone’s been put in jail because they’re a Christian. So those who were still free went underground for a few hours (I’m imagining this) and asked, “What are we going to do?” And somebody said “Psalm 63:3 says, ‘The steadfast love of the Lord is better than life.’ It’s better than life. Let’s go!” And if Martin Luther would have been there he would have said, “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also. The body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still. His kingdom is forever. Let’s go!” And that’s exactly what they did.

Here’s the rest of the text (Hebrews 10:34): “You had compassion on the prisoners and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property.” Now here’s what happened. It doesn’t take any imagination. I don’t know all the details precisely, but here’s what happened: they had compassion on the prisoners, which means they went to them. And their property — house, chariot, horses, mules, carpentry tools, chairs, whatever — was set on fire by mob or maybe just ransacked and thrown to the streets by people with machetes. And when they looked over their shoulder to see what was happening back there, they rejoiced.

Now if you’re not like these Christians — when somebody bashes your computer while you’re trying to minister to them, or when you drive downtown to serve the poor, and they smash your windshield, get your radio, or slash your tires — if you’re not like these radical Christians in Hebrews 10:34, you’re probably not going to be a very good candidate for martyrdom either. So the question is, “How are we going to be like this?” I want to be like this. That’s why I love this text!

I make no claim to be a perfect embodiment of this; but I want to be like this, so that when a rock comes sailing through my kitchen window — like it has done multiple times over the years — and smashes the glass and my wife and children hit the floor not knowing if it’s a bullet or a grenade, I want to be able to say, “Isn’t this a great neighborhood to live in?” This is where the needs are. You see those five teenage kids that just rode by? They need Jesus. If I move out of here, who’s going to tell them about Jesus?

When your little boy gets pushed off his bicycle and they take it and run, I want to be able to take him by the neck while he’s crying and say “Son, this is like being a missionary. It’s like getting ready for the mission field! This is great!”

Now I haven’t gotten to the main point of the text yet. How did they have the wherewithal to rejoice at the plundering of their property and the risking of their lives? Here’s the answer: “Since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” Their love and their courage came from knowing they had a great reward beyond the grave. It was that real.

If you are a Christian, God is holding out to you indescribably wonderful promises. “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” Therefore, you can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me” (Hebrews 13:5–6)? What can man do to you? Well, actually, man can kill you. But that is no final defeat, because we know what Romans 8:35–39 says,

“Doing missions when death is gain is the greatest life in the world.”

As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Therefore, nothing ultimately can harm you. Remember what Jesus said in Luke 21:12–19? “Some of you they will kill and some of you they will throw into prison . . . Yet not a hair of your head will perish.” What does that mean — “some of you they will kill . . . yet not a hair of your head will perish.” It’s Romans 8:28. Everything, including death, works together for your good. When you die, you don’t perish. To die is gain. Doing missions when death is gain is the greatest life in the world.