World Missions and the End of History

Missions Week

This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.

The Grace of God in My Life

I bear witness this morning to the grace of God in my life to give me a passion for world missions–that is, a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples. All peoples! As Psalm 67:4 says, "Let the nations be glad and sing for joy!" God has been good to me.

  • He put me into the family of an evangelist, Bill Piper, who led his children in prayer for missionaries during every family prayer time, and is spending the last chapter of his life at age 78 managing Bible correspondence courses among 40 nations.
  • Then God sent me to a college with the heritage of alumni like Jim Elliot and Billy Graham.
  • Then he sent me to a seminary which was starting one of the first graduate level schools of world missions in those days.
  • Then he sent me overseas to do my graduate work in a different culture and a different language.
  • Then he sent me to teach at Bethel College and become a part of the Baptist General Conference with its world missions vision.
  • And then in 1980 he sent me to Bethlehem, with its 100-year-old history of sending the likes of Ola Hanson to the unreached peoples of the world like the Kachin of Burma.
  • And in 1983 he opened my eyes during a missions conference like this one to see the connection between my vision of Christian Hedonism and world evangelization.
  • And in 1993 he put it in the heart of the elders to release me for a month to put in writing what I had learned in the ten years since that opening of my eyes in 1983, as our missions budget grew from $91,000 to $484,000 ($522,000 today). The result was Let the Nations Be Glad, which I hope everyone of you who calls Bethlehem your home will read, so that you know what burns in our hearts.

All of this I call the grace of God in my life.

Truths that Define and Ignite our Passion for World Missions

From time to time in the life of a church it becomes crucial that we rehearse the essential truths about missions that feed our passion for God's supremacy among the nations. Why do we care so much about missions? And what is it any way? That is what I want to do this morning. There are seven truths we have seen over the years that define and ignite our passion for world missions at Bethlehem. I want to sum them up this morning. Most of them are rooted in Matthew 24:14. And if the church around the world were set on fire by these things, it would, as Peter says in 2 Peter 3:12, "hasten the coming of the day of God" and the end of history as we know it.

1. We discovered that God is passionately committed to his fame. God's ultimate goal is that his name be known and praised and enjoyed by all the peoples of the earth.

"This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world." The gospel is about the kingdom of God. It is about the reign of God. It is about the triumph of King Jesus over sin and death and judgment and Satan and guilt and fear. It is good news - not that we reign as kings, but that our God reigns. "How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news . . . who announces salvation, and says to Zion, 'Your God reigns!'" (Isaiah 52:7). It's the gospel of the kingdom.

And the aim of preaching this "gospel of the kingdom" is that the nations might know King Jesus and admire him and honor him and love him and trust him and follow him and make him shine in their affections. We have come to see that God is passionately committed to upholding and displaying his name - his reputation - in the world.

Over and over we read this in the Bible - that God does what he does "so that [his] name may be proclaimed in all the earth" (Romans 9:17). The central command of missions is Isaiah 12:4, "Make known his deeds among the peoples, proclaim that his name is exalted.

God is passionately committed to his fame. This is his highest priority: that he be known and admired and trusted and enjoyed as an infinitely glorious King. This is the "good news of the kingdom." This is the goal of missions. As Paul said in Romans 15:9, "that the nations might glorify God for his mercy."

That is discovery number one. Some of us saw more clearly than ever in 1983 that if we loved God's fame and were committed to magnifying him above all things, we could not be indifferent to world missions.

2. We discovered that God's purpose to be known and praised and enjoyed among all the nations cannot fail. It is an absolutely certain promise. It is going to happen.

Jesus said, "This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come." The ground of this certainty is the sovereignty of Jesus: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me" (Matthew 28:18). Nothing can stop him: "I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18).

From this discovery we saw that if we as a church are disobedient, it is not ultimately the cause of God and the cause of world missions that will lose - we will lose. God's counsel will stand and he will accomplish all his purpose (Isaiah 46:10). His triumph is never in question, only our participation in it or our incalculable loss. We can be drunk with private concerns and indifferent to the great enterprise of world evangelization, but God will simply pass over us and do his great work while we shrivel up in our little land of comfort.

The purpose of God in world missions will not fail.

3. We discovered that the missionary task is focused on reaching unreached peoples, not just people--people groups, not just individuals—and is therefore finishable.

Again, Jesus said, "This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come." With the help of Ralph Winter and others our eyes were opened to the Biblical truth that "nations" in the Bible are not political-geographic states like America, Argentina, China, Germany, Uganda, etc. "Nations" means ethnic groupings with cultural and language distinctions that made it hard for the gospel to spread naturally from one group to the other. "Nations" were groups like the "Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hivites and the Jebusites" (Exodus 23:23), Cherokee, Navajo, Berber, Fulani. The task of missions was not merely to win individuals, but to reach all these different groups in the world.

That's why Revelation 5:9 became as important for us as Matthew 28:19-20, "Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation." That is the task of missions: not just reaching more and more people, but more and more peoples - tribes, tongues, peoples, nations.

This discovery gave us a sense of clarified and refined direction for our prayers and our mobilizing efforts. The task was not primarily to try to keep up with or gain on the population growth rate in the world - as great as that would be. The task is to make steady headway in reaching more and more "nations" - people groups. Which means that the task is finishable, because while the number of individual people keeps growing and changing, the number of people groups (by and large) does not. Look at the STAR that is coming this week [10/21/97 - included at end of this sermon] to see how many peoples are left to be targeted, according to one way of reckoning.

That was the third thing we discovered: the missionary task is focused on reaching unreached peoples, not just people.

4. Fourth, we discovered that the scarcity of Paul-type missionaries has been obscured by the quantity of Timothy-type missionaries.

I'll explain these terms. There seem to be two kinds of missionaries needed in the world. There is the Timothy-type missionary and the Paul-type missionary. We call Timothy a missionary because he left home (Lystra, Acts 16:1), joined a traveling team of missionaries, crossed cultures, and ended up overseeing the younger church in Ephesus (1 Timothy 1:3) far from his homeland. But we have come to distinguish this Timothy-type missionary from the Paul-type missionary because Timothy stayed and ministered on the "mission field" long after there was a church planted there with its own elders (Acts 20:17) and its own outreach (Acts 19:10).

Paul (the Paul-type missionary), on the other hand, was driven by a passion to make God's name known in all the unreached peoples of the world. He never stayed in a place long, once the church was established. He said in Romans 15:20, "I make my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named" (Romans 15:20). That is what we call "frontier missions" or "pioneer missions." That is a Paul-type missionary.

For me, back in 1983, it proved to be a stunning revelation that perhaps 90% of our missionary force from North America are Timothy-type missionaries working with established churches among reached peoples, and only 10% are Paul-type missionaries, even though hundreds of people groups, some would say several thousand, remain unreached - that is, there is no indigenous evangelizing movement among them at all.

From this discovery I came to feel that one of my callings as a pastor is to pray and preach and write for the mobilizing of more and more Paul-type missionaries, while not hindering the obedience of those, like Timothy, who are called to stay in the mission field of "Ephesus."

5. Fifth, we discovered that domestic ministries are the goal of frontier missions, and frontier missions is the establishment of domestic ministries.

By domestic ministries I mean the call to live out the love and justice of Jesus in our own culture: taking up, for example, the issues of evangelism, poverty, medical care, unemployment, hunger, abortion, unwed mothers, runaway kids, pornography, family disintegration, child abuse, divorce, hygiene, education at all levels, drug abuse and alcoholism, environmental concerns, crime, prison reform, moral abuses in the media and business and politics, etc., etc. In general being salt and light at all levels of society in our own culture.

Sometimes people championed these causes in a spirit of indifference or hostility to frontier missions. They can be offended or threatened by a focus on frontier missions. They said that the needs are great at home, which, of course, is true. But then we discovered the real relationship between domestic ministries and frontier missions.

Frontier missions is the effort of the church to penetrate an unreached people with the "gospel of the kingdom" and establish there an ongoing indigenous church which will apply this very love and justice of Christ to that culture. This means that the aim of frontier missions is to build a new base of operations for domestic ministries. The goal of a missionary is to help start an indigenous church that will do in its own culture all the soul-saving, life-changing, culture-transforming domestic ministries that the American church ought to be doing here.

This was a stunning discovery for some of us. Frontier missions is the transportation and adaptation of domestic ministries to people groups where they don't exist because Christ is not known. The surprising conclusion we found was that frontier missions is the servant of domestic ministries. And domestic ministries here are the training ground and breeding ground for frontier missionaries.

The great irony we found, in all the emotional turmoil of those days, was that the people who ought to have the greatest burden for frontier missions are the people who have the biggest heart for domestic ministries. The same love of Christ and the same sense of justice that burdens a person for evangelism and housing and unemployment and hunger and health care in Minneapolis will also burden a person for these very same needs in people groups where no Christian impulse for transformation exists at all.

In fact, in more recent days we see the domestic ministries and frontier missions merging in utterly unforeseen ways as the unreached peoples move to Minneapolis. Is it an accident, or a providential signal, that the unreached people group appointed for this very day in Praying Through the Window III is the Somali people, who have moved to Minneapolis by the thousands? The move from domestic ministry to frontier missions does not have to be a geographic move, though it is still a cultural one.

6. We have come to see that God ordains suffering as the price and the means of finishing the great commission.

It is no fluke that Let the Nations Be Glad, and Future Grace and the new edition of Desiring God all have chapters on suffering. I have seen more clearly than ever in recent years that suffering is not only a sure thing if we aim to penetrate the unreached peoples, but a means of penetrating them. Five verses before Matthew 24:14, Jesus said, "They will deliver you to tribulation, and will kill you, and you will be hated by all nations because of My name" (24:9). This is the price of missions and it is going to be paid.

Even more important was the discovery that suffering is not just the price, but the means God ordains to finish the work. In Colossians 1:24 Paul says, "I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions." The sufferings of Paul complete what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ - that is, they become a present, visible demonstration of what kind of love Christ has for the unreached peoples of the world (See Let the Nations Be Glad, pp. 93-96). Our suffering becomes an extension and presentation of Christ's suffering for those for whom he died. Suffering is not an accidental result of obedience. It is an ordained means of penetrating the peoples and the hearts of the lost.

Josef Ton, the Romanian pastor who risked his life teaching and preaching under the communists until he was exiled in 1981, just this year completed his 500-page book on Suffering, Martyrdom and Rewards in Heaven (University Press of America, 1997). He says in conclusion, "Suffering and martyrdom have to be seen as part of God's plan; they are His instruments by which He achieves His purposes in history and by which he will accomplish his final purpose with man" (p. 423). That is what I have been learning from the Bible and from history in these recent years.

I do not hide this. I know that when I pray and preach and write to win you for the greatest cause in the world, I am calling you to suffer and perhaps to die for Christ. We have spoken too casually and too long about "interesting cross-cultural experiences." The time is here to get Biblical and get real: "Behold I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves" (Matthew 10:16). "They will put some of you to death, and you will be hated by all because of My name. Yet not a hair of your head will perish" (Luke 21:16-18).

7. Finally, we have discovered that God is most glorified in us when we are so satisfied in him that we accept suffering and death for his sake in order to extend our joy to the unreached peoples of the earth.

Another way to say it is that worshipping God - being satisfied in God and cherishing God and admiring God - is the fuel and the goal of missions. Missions comes from cherishing God in Christ, and aims at cherishing God in Christ.

The clearest, most powerful evidence that God is worthy of that admiration and delight is when his people say in the midst of suffering, "This slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison" (2 Corinthians 4:17). "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us" (Romans 8:18). "I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord" (Philippians 3:8).

When people talk like that, missions is in the making. To this I call you. "As the Father has sent me, so send I you" (John 20:21). Jesus suffered outside the gate. Let us go with him outside the camp, bearing reproach for him. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek a city that is to come (Hebrews 13:13-14).

The Purpose, the Promise, and the Price

The purpose of world missions is to spread a passion for the supremacy of God into people groups where there is no indigenous, evangelizing church. This assumes something about "disciples" and something about "nations." These terms are used in Matthew 28:19, "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations." My assumption about "disciples" is that they are people who have seen "the glory of God in the face of Christ" (2 Corinthians 4:6), and who cherish "God in Christ" as the supreme value of their lives (Philippians 3:8). My assumption about "nations" is that they are not geographic, political countries but "tribes, languages, peoples and ethnic groups" (Revelation 5:9; 7:9). Based on these two assumptions, then, the purpose of world missions is to spread a passion for the supremacy of God into people groups where there is no indigenous, evangelizing church.

According to one research group (Joshua Project 2000), in June of this year there were 579 peoples in the world with populations over 10,000 which did not have any church planting missionary effort in them. In July, the Global Consultation on World Evangelization (GCOWE '97) met in Pretoria, South Africa with the result that all but 172 of these peoples were targeted by mission agencies. This is remarkable progress toward finishing the real missionary task of the church. (If you want to keep up on things like this, subscribe - free - to Mission Frontiers, US Center for World Mission, 1605 Elizabeth St. Pasadena, CA 91104.)

But the real source of hope in world missions is not the statistics of man; it's the promise of God. Namely, Matthew 24:14 - "This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations." The "shalls" of God are backed by omnipotence. This great work of spreading a passion for God into people groups where there is no indigenous, evangelizing church cannot fail. This is the great hope of the missions enterprise. The word of God will not fail.

But the price will be very high. Not so high that it is not worth it. But very high. Jesus expresses it in Matthew 24:9: "You will be hated by all the nations because of My name." The purpose and the promise will not happen without the price of opposition and suffering. In fact, the price is not just the result but the strategy of the purpose. God has a certain number of martyrs appointed (Revelation 6:11). Jesus said that when you are arrested and taken before governors, "this will be a time for you to bear testimony" (Luke 21:13). The purpose, the promise and the price are all bound together.

Did you notice the phrase, "all the nations," in the purpose, the promise and the price?

"Make disciples of all the nations." The Purpose

"This gospel . . . shall be preached . . . to all the nations." The Promise

"You will be hated by all the nations." The Price

I call all of you with Hebrews 13:13 (again!) to "go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach." What will this mean for you? It will have to do with "all the nations."

Seeking a full heart for this with you,

Pastor John