At the end of this message, I’m going to have two groups of people stand up so that I can pray for you. And so that you can see each other. (We’ll do this with our eyes wide open.) The first group will be the smaller group, and it will be plain after I say what I say why there should be no resentments in anybody’s mind as to who stands up and who doesn’t, as though they were first-class and second-class children of God.
The first group would be people that I would really like to pray to help. There are two ways of describing it. One, you know God has called you to cross-cultural, vocational — that is, long-term missions. You know that’s where you’re heading. The other people in this group who need prayer would be (and this is harder to define, but you decide) those who believe (and that’s the right word; you don’t have absolute certainty at this point) God has been stirring — it might be for years, it might be for two hours — in you to lead you very seriously to consider that. And I don’t want everybody to stand. Every Christian should be willing to do anything God tells them to do. But I do mean that God’s been at work in your life in some discernible way, and what you would like is for me to pray that God would confirm that if that’s the case. So that’s the first group of people who are going to stand — vocational pursuit.
The second group would be this challenge of the two-year and the short-term, so that sometime in the next two years, you fully intend — God helping you to do that — to be engaged in a cross-cultural, short-term mission. And then the rest of us will stand up, and we’ll close with a song in that way.
So that’s where I’m heading. I would like to pray for those two groups and may the Lord use these next few minutes just to bring clarity to your sense of leading or calling.
. . . even so send I am sending you. (John 20:21)
I want to simply deal with two ways that we’re not sent like Jesus and the corresponding two ways that we are sent like Jesus.
To the Jew First
The first way that we’re not sent like Jesus is that we’re not sent to Jews only as Jesus was, in a very specific sense. In Matthew 15:24 Jesus says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Now he said that when a Syrophoenician woman — a foreign woman, a non-Jewish woman — came and asked him to heal her daughter. And he said, “I’m not sent to anybody but Jews.” It sounds like a very harsh kind of response. And she said, “Yes, Lord, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (15:27). And he said, “For that, I’ll heal your daughter.” In other words, “That’s great faith. I love that kind of humility. I don’t care where it comes from.”
But when he sent out his disciples in Matthew 10:5–6 he said, “Go . . . to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” So for this period of time, this incarnate period of time, Jesus did not travel to India or America or China or Russia. He served the covenant people. There are huge reasons for that, which can be unpacked from Romans 11. But we won’t go there.
Now I’m shifting over to the positive. How are we sent? We, however, are sent to all the nations. In essence Jesus says, “I’m only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel — meaning, in my short life, this is my focus as I bring salvation to the world. And since that’s my ultimate goal, I am now, having been rejected mainly by my people, and having offered myself for the world, now he says,
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:28–20)
That promise is magnificent. Nobody can count on that promise more than someone who does the hard work of crossing a culture in missions.
Ethnolinguistic People Groups
Now, what I want to focus on in verse 19 is the word nations, because one of the hugest discoveries in my life, back in the early eighties was that that does not refer to geopolitical entities like the United States, Britain, Germany, Russia, Japan, or Rwanda. It does not refer to that. It refers to Hutu, Tutsi, Cherokee. There are about 24,000 of those kinds of peoples in the world — ethnolinguistic realities. They have cultures, they have languages, they have traditions that are self-contained.
When Jesus said, “Go make disciples of panta ta ethne,” [ethnos is where we get our word ethnic] — “Go make disciples of all the ethnic groups” — he didn’t mean you have accomplished China when you’ve gone to the geopolitical entity called China. There are thousands of people groups in China, and even more in India. Every country — all two hundred or so countries in the world — has multiple peoples in it.
Oh sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the earth!
Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples! (Psalm 96:1–3)
We’re not talking about political entities but an ethnolinguistic reality. Now I would wish that all of you would go to the Joshua Project online, which is one of the many sites that keeps track of unreached peoples. Oh, how without excuse we are to be ignorant today about missions. With the internet, nobody has any excuse to be ignorant about the state of the world, unless you just choose to be, unless you choose to do other things with the internet instead of find out about what God has done and is doing in the world. The Joshua Project is the most sophisticated site to identify peoples and to what degree they are reached with the gospel. And there are different definitions of reached. I think the most helpful one is that a people is unreached if they don’t have a church strong enough to do evangelism of their own ethnolinguistic group.
Where We Must Go
So I distinguish between evangelism and missions. Not everybody does. The language goes all over the place, but you have to figure out your own language. If you smush everything into one thing, you will forget about the peoples. I guarantee you, your church will be ignorant and forgetting about the peoples of the world if they consider everybody a missionary, if they consider everybody doing the same thing. Call it evangelism, call it missions, but choose your language.
My language is this: Evangelism is when you’re not crossing a culture. You can speak the same language. It’s relatively easy to get some connections. Missions is when you cross a culture. Usually, you have to learn a language and customs, and you plant the church there, and it’s unreached if it doesn’t have the mass of Christians that can do the evangelism in that group.
In 1974, Ralph Winter stood up at the Lausanne missionary conference, and he just blew everybody out of the water and poked holes in all the balloons that were flying to celebrate the fact that we Christians have now penetrated all the countries of the world. But he stood up and said, “Excuse me [these are his numbers in those days], there are 24,000 ethnolinguistic people groups in the world, distinct ethic groups. And there are, in those countries where we say we have gone, 17,000 with no church at all.”
Now those numbers are drastically reduced today, since 1974. God has done a phenomenal work. Almost nobody talks about mission “fields” anymore in America. “Fields” doesn’t work. Fifty thousand Somalis live in my town. All of them are Muslim. Cross-cultural missions is five hundred feet from my church building. And therefore frontier missions, reaching an unreached people group, is not a geographic issue; it’s a cultural issue, it’s a language issue, it’s a heart issue. So when Jesus says, “So send I you,” he means “I died.”
Now let’s go from Matthew 28 to what has become for me the most important missionary verse in the Bible — namely, Revelation 5:9:
You were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation
Now mark those things: tribe, tongue, people, nation. That’s what I’m trying to get at when I say ethne, when I say peoples or ethnolinguistic groups. “Every tribe, every people, every tongue, every nation, I died, so that people from all of those would be in my kingdom.” This is a blood issue. Christ died to bring them to himself. “So I’m sending you now. I didn’t go to them physically. I died for them. Now you go.”
Only He Can Atone
Here’s the second and last one. We are not sent like Jesus as an atoning sacrifice. He was sent to atone. He was sent to bear the sins of, he was sent to propitiate the wrath of God for the peoples. We’re not. So what’s the counterpart positively? And the counterpart, positively, is two things: (1) We go to proclaim that, and (2) we extend those sufferings in our own sufferings. Let me give you a verse for each of those and we’ll wrap it up.
The first verse would be Luke 24. You can look at it with me. This is after his resurrection. And he’s about to ascend to his Father. His mission on earth is done, and he’s giving them theirs and us ours.
Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:45–47)
So all the nations. And every time you hear the word nations in the Bible, don’t think England, don’t think America, don’t think Japan, don’t think Indonesia. Think people groups, think tribes, think tongues, peoples — thousands and thousands of them. And you can find out to what degree they’re reached or unreached by going to joshuaproject.net. So the first way we go — not to atone, not to die for, not to propitiate the wrath of God — is to proclaim that, to announce that. Oh, that we would never lose the sense, we who have lived in Christian lands for so long, that this is news. Gospel means “good news.” News is “Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye! The King of the universe has done something for you! Gather around. Let me tell you what he’s done. He has sent his Son into the world to die for your sins and to remove his wrath. If you would lay down the arms of your rebellion, he has an amnesty for you. And if you will sign on and say, “I surrender my life to him,” all your sins are forgiven and you will have eternal life forever.” That’s news.
We don’t proclaim it enough. We analyze it. We argue about it. We try to defend it. We do everything often, but announce. I sometimes worry about modern missionary movement. I look out there, and the same thing I see happening in America at home, I see happening there — namely, the dilution of proclamation into activities of relationships. There’s all kinds of stuff, endless stuff, and nobody ever talks about the news. Go from door to door, or somehow find a way to get the news into people’s lives. There’s news about a Savior, and you need one. So that’s the first way that we relate to the once-for-all atonement.
Filling Up Christ’s Afflictions
Here’s the last thing I have to say about this. This is the hardest thing to hear. And I want you to be scared off from it if you’re that kind of person who won’t embrace this. You are called in missions, not only to proclaim the sufferings of Christ on behalf of the world, but to embody the sufferings of Christ on behalf of the world. And don’t miss the note of joy. Paul was a very unusual Christian.
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. (Colossians 1:24)
Now what does that mean? It sounds heretical to say, “I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” Now Paul would defend more than anybody that nothing is lacking in the atoning worth of the afflictions of Jesus Christ. He can’t add to it. You can’t add to it. So what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions that Paul is filling up in his sufferings? Now I could paraphrase my answer for you, but would you go with me to the book just before Colossians, Philippians? And I want to show you the language that Paul just used in another context, so that you can paraphrase the meaning for yourself. And then I’ll say it and see if we’ve got the same thing. The text is Philippians 2:29–30. The situation is that Epaphroditus, as a representative of the church in Philippi, has risked his life and almost died to take gifts — we don’t know what it was; whether food, money, clothing, books — from Philippi to Paul in prison in Rome.
So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete [same word translated “filling up” in Colossians] what was lacking in your service to me.
Now I find the parallel helpful to shed light on Colossians 1:24. What does it mean that Epaphroditus completed what was lacking in the Philippian service to Paul? And just think now. So if you finish this message in the next three minutes, what would you say now? What does Colossians 1:24 mean on the basis of Philippians 1:29 — the same language, same construction.
I think it means that Epaphroditus and the church in Philippi wanted to minister to Paul. They loved Paul. They wanted to touch Paul. They wanted to show Paul their love in some way. And they couldn’t reach him. They were in Philippi, and he was in Rome. And so they chose an emissary, and they sent him with themselves, their heart, their gifts, and he completed what was lacking — namely, their presence, their real, felt presence was in Epaphroditus as he came and he completed, he finished, their love by personally being there.
Now Paul says, “In my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for . . . the church” — his church that’s coming into being among the nations. What was lacking? What today is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for unreached peoples? Answer: His suffering isn’t there. They don’t know about it. They can’t see it. His suffering, as far as they’re concerned, is nonexistent. And they have to know. How will they believe if they don’t hear it? How will they hear without a preacher? And how they preach if they’re not sent? (Romans 10:14–15). So you can see what I’m saying. Missionaries don’t just take a message; they embody Christ. They are the body of Christ extended. And they will suffer.
I thought about all the rain we are getting here. We laugh about it. We joke about it. We groan about it. But this is life. This mud is missionary life. It may be dry as dust. It may be mud. It may be mosquitoes. It may be food that you can’t stomach. It may be people that make you so angry you can hardly stand it. The missionary life is an absolutely hard life. Jesus died to make this happen. And he says now, “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). “If they hated me, they will hate you. If I had to die to bring this to pass, I want my afflictions to be represented out there.” And therefore, it’s a given missionaries will suffer. It’s not the cost; it’s the strategy. God doesn’t just ask you to pay the cost of suffering. He says, “Part of my strategy to display how much I love the world is to put my suffering in my people and have the people look at my people.” Oh, how many stories we could tell. How many stories we could tell about missionaries who, because of their suffering, open the hearts of those to whom they ministered.
‘I Can’t Resist Anymore’
One last thing: How do you discern God’s call? Paul saw himself as a missionary to the unreached. He did not want to do missions in a place where the church already existed. It’s not wrong to do that. Timothy did it. I talk about Paul-type missionaries and Timothy-type missionaries. Timothy was born in Lystra, and Paul recruited him to go to Ephesus. So he ministered outside of his own cultural milieu in Ephesus as a pastor. And that is a Timothy-type mission you might say. Paul would not be that. Let’s read what he says.
Thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation. (Romans 15:20)
I believe that until Jesus comes — that is, until the Great Commission is finished, and all the people groups have a thriving church in them — some of you will feel that; it’ll burn in you. It’s not in me. I would not be a pastor at Bethlehem if I felt that in me. I keep praying year after year: “Lord, I’m willing to end on the field or among an unreached people group. I’m willing to let the last chapter of my life be anywhere you say.” And I try to discern whether the chapter is over at Bethlehem. But not all of you will feel this, but some of you will say with the apostle, “It is my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ is not already named.” That’s the first group I’m going to have stand in a minute.
Now how do you know? How does it happen? How does that ambition get born and become so strong you can’t resist it anymore? And I think the next verse is very significant. Paul said, “But” — and you would expect him to say, “I’m not going to work among places where the Christ is already named, but I’m going to go to Spain.” Instead, he quotes Scripture. He says,
But as it is written,
“Those who have never been told of him will see,
and those who have never heard will understand.” (Romans 15:21)
Test this to see if you think I’m right. I think that signifies that part of Paul’s calling, his sense of calling was not just the Damascus road where Jesus says he’s sending Paul to the Jews and to the Gentiles, but when he read Isaiah 52:15 (quoted in Romans 15:21) it burned in him. I think that’s the way it happens. It may happen late tonight when you’re reading the Scripture. Or maybe it happened in this room when somebody was praying, or when I’m talking, that your heart strangely burned with that text that you come away saying, “That’s me. I can’t resist it anymore.”