I tell you that 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.
Missions Week is the most exciting time of the year for me. Even more exciting than Christmas or Easter or my birthday. The reason is that every year as Missions Week rolls around, I get serious about investigating what God is doing in the world to advance the kingdom and finish the Great Commission. And what I find is usually mind-boggling and full of hope and encouragement. O how I wish all of you would track down the amazing works of God. How we need to see that what's happening in our little corner is an infinitesimal fraction of God's remarkable work in the world.
What God Is Doing in the World
Did you know that
- not only did the Soviet Union officially celebrate last year the 1,000th birthday of the Church in the USSR,
- and not only has the Soviet Union released virtually all of its religious prisoners,
- and not only have permits been granted for importing six million Bibles in 1989–90,
- and not only will about six new seminaries open in the USSR this year,
- but I heard the report at the EFMA meeting last month that in one large Siberian city earlier this year they baptized people for 24 hours round the clock?
Did you know that God is bringing the unreached peoples out of hiding and putting them in Western cities? For example, ten million Kazakhs may be hard to get to in the Soviet Union. But 10,000 of them live in Munich, Germany. And what a great missionary event took place here last Sunday as we recognized the Laotian Church of Peace of Minneapolis which is THE most important work of God for reaching 6,000 Laotians in our city. (God glories in using obscure mustard-seed size ministries!)
Did you know that in 1900 there were only about 50,000 Protestants in Latin America? Today there are 35 million. And by all estimates there will be over 100 million by the year 2000. That's a growth rate 20,000% faster than the population growth. Ralph Winter says, "The galloping gains of the evangelicals in turbulent Central America are positively legendary!"
Did you know that just 100 years ago there were no Christian churches in Korea? Today there are 6,000 churches in the city of Seoul alone.
Did you know that in 1900 for every evangelical believer there were 27 persons who did not regard themselves as Christians, but today there are only seven such non-Christians in the world for every evangelical. Or even more amazing, the same percentage gain in this comparison was made in the last nine years as was made in the first 900 years of church history! (See Ralph Winter, "Momentum Building in Global Mission," p. 11.)
Did you know that in 1980 there were about 160 evangelical congregations in the world for every people that is left to be reached; but today, nine years later, there are over 400 congregations for every unreached people. If only ten percent of the Bible-believing churches were to team up in a cooperative way, all the remaining unreached peoples could be "adopted" by the end of 1991; and "engaged" with missionary teams by the end of 1994; and, with the blessing of God, an evangelizing church movement could be planted by the year 2000. (For the meaning of the terms "adopt" and "engage" see Winter, ibid., p. 14.)
Dr. Ralph Winter said a month ago, "One of the most difficult tasks is to try to keep up with things which God is apparently doing without asking us. Our task is only to fit in with His plans, not to engineer Him to fill out ours. He is doing amazing things. We need to let what God is doing come home to our hearts! The end of the job is in sight!" (Winter, ibid., p. 16).
The Cry of the Nations for Mercy
But lest we be naïve and become euphoric and self-satisfied, consider this: 800,000,000 people in our world (about 15%) live in absolute poverty; 70,000,000 of these are on the threshold of starvation. Half the children of these absolute poor do not live to be five years old. There are 125,000,000 infant deaths a week, most preventable by simple preventive health care.
Among the 40 least developed countries, the life expectancy is an average of 46 years. 45% of the population of these countries is under 15 years old. Only 33% of their adults can read. Half of these countries are the least evangelized. The rest have very few Christians.
So we can generalize and say that vast numbers of the lost and many unreached peoples are also the poorest. Reaching these peoples with an understandable message of the gospel will mean more identification—more radical incarnation and simplification than we at Bethlehem have ever experienced.
Those in the world who claim to be Christian earn 68% of the world's income. And we give only 3% of it to any church, and of that 3% only about 5% is invested in any international ministry at all. We must continually test our inoculation—our desensitization—to massive world need.
If there ever was a reason for hope in the triumph of the gospel, it is today. And if there ever was a cry for mercy from the nations, it is today.
This morning's text is an utterly important word for us from the greatest missionary that ever lived, the apostle Paul. And not just from Paul but from God who inspired him to write it.
Four Great Missionary Truths
The text is wonderfully plain and simple. And I hope that as I draw out four great truths from the text, God will kindle in you a new zeal for doing whatever you possibly can to help finish the Great Commission.
Zeal for the glory of God is the primary motive for world missions—for pouring all the money and effort we can into finishing the Great Commission.
I see this in three phrases in Romans 15:8–9—three phrases that show the ultimate reason why Christ came into the world on that first great missionary journey, the incarnation.
- First, the text says in verse 8, "Christ became a servant to the circumcised [that is, to the Jewish people] to show God's truthfulness . . . "
- Second, continuing on in verse 8, " . . . in order to confirm the promises [God's promises] . . . "
- Third, in verse 9, " . . . and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy."
Why then did Christ come? He came to show that God is truthful. He came to show that God is a promise-keeper. And he came to show that God is glorious. Or to put it another way, Jesus came into the world for God's sake. He came to certify God's integrity. He came to vindicate God's word. He came to magnify God's glory. The primary motive of the first great mission to unreached peoples—the mission of Jesus from heaven—was his zeal for the glory of God. And that ought to be our primary motive too.
This summer in Manila at Lausanne II, John Stott preached from Romans. In his first message he sounded this note loud and clear from Romans 1:5 that the glory of Christ, and through him the glory of God, is our primary motive in missions. There Paul said, "Through [Christ] we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations." Missionaries who go in the spirit of Paul go primarily for the sake of the name of Jesus to the glory of his Father.
That means simply that it grieves us that Christ is dishonored through unbelief. And what thrills us is the prospect that Jesus could be loved and honored and praised and obeyed among the nations. Seeing Christ and God the Father exalted among the nations is the dream that drives the missionary who has the heart of Jesus and the heart of Paul.
That's the first truth from our text: Zeal for the glory of God is the primary motive for world missions.
A servant spirit and a heart of mercy motivate a Christ-like missionary.
This is plain in the text as well from the very same phrases we just looked at. Verse 8: "Christ became a servant to the circumcision [the Jews] to show God's truthfulness . . . " And verse 9: " . . . in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy." Christ became a servant . . . and Christ brought mercy.
Notice the connection between compassion and missions in Matthew 9:36–38, "When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, 'The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest'."
Why are they being sent out? Because Jesus had compassion on the crowds—which is the same as saying, a heart of mercy motivates a Christ-like missionary.
Christian missions is the most merciful enterprise in all the world. Without Christ the nations cannot know who they are or why they exist. Without Christ they can't receive the forgiveness of their sins. Without Christ they can't enjoy a clean conscience. Without Christ they can't rest in the acceptance of God. Without Christ they can't be free from deception and bondage to fear and lies. Without Christ they can't have eternal life. But Christian missions brings Christ to the nations and therefore it brings meaning and forgiveness and a clean conscience and acceptance with God and freedom and eternal life to all who believe. Not to mention all the personal and social benefits that come when a group of people—a society—is gripped by the Spirit of Jesus. Therefore missions is the most merciful enterprise in the world. And a person who has no heart of mercy cannot be a Christ-like missionary.
That's truth #2: A servant spirit and a heart of mercy motivates a Christ-like missionary.
Truth #1 and Truth #2 are one truth. Zeal for the glory of the Lord and a heart of mercy for the lost are one, and cannot be separated.
We can see this from the wording of verse 9. It says that Christ came, (and therefore we should go), "in order that the Gentiles might glorify God . . . " Yes! That was the passion of Christ, and it should be our passion—that the nations might love and praise the glory of God.
But the verse goes on: " . . . that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy." If our passion is for people to glorify God for his mercy, then we must be merciful and feel compassion for the lost. Our zeal for the glory of the Lord must be a zeal for the glory of the mercy of the Lord.
So zeal for the glory of the Lord on the one hand and a heart of mercy on the other are not two disconnected motives in the heart of Christ-like missionaries as though they were somehow in tension or competition. They are united into one. And the reason they are is that mercy is the capstone of God's glory. All God's sovereign power and all God's infinite wisdom break forth in their most lavish and colorful displays in the rivers of mercy. Zeal for the glory of the Lord is zeal for the glory of his mercy or it isn't missionary zeal—and it isn't holy zeal. For Romans 15:9 says the goal of missions is that the nations might glorify God for his mercy.
Zeal for the Lord's glory and a heart of mercy make a Christ-like missionary. These must be kept together. If we have no zeal for the glory of God, our mercy becomes superficial social welfare with no eternal significance. And if in our hearts we feel no mercy, our so-called zeal for the glory of the Lord is hypocrisy (Matthew 9:13). Because the capstone of his glory is the immensity of his mercy to lost sinners among all the nations.
The glory of God's mercy is for all the peoples of the world.
At the end of verse 9 Paul quotes four Old Testament passages to prove this truth. He wants to establish beyond any doubt that the mercy of God is for the nations, not just Jews, not just Romans, but all the peoples. This is most clearly stated in verse 11. He quotes Psalm 117:
Praise the Lord, all Gentiles,
and let all the peoples praise him.
The key phrase here is "all the peoples." The point is not just individuals. The point is that there are tribes, languages, peoples, and nations (Revelation 5:9) who must praise the Lord for the glory of his mercy. Twelve thousand remain to be reached. They are more identifiable today than they have ever been in the history of the world. Here is a list of 150 of the largest unreached peoples. You can get it in the office file cabinet.
Remember there are over 400 evangelical churches for every one of these 12,000 people groups. It is a finishable task. Remember what Dr. Winter said, " We need to let what God is doing come home to our hearts! The end of the job is in sight!" How could it be otherwise when God's great purpose is to be glorified among the nations for his MERCY!