It seems to me that there are two major problems we face today as we consider the gospel of Jesus Christ and the desire to reach the whole world with its message.
The first is that many Christian people have lost the Christian world view—if I may put it like that. Here is a test. How many Christian parents would find themselves giving thanks to God if a son or a daughter came home with the news that they had decided to spend their lives serving as a missionary in Slovenia, or Uzbekistan, or some other place about which you know very little? Certainly, we would all want to make sure that the decision had been made carefully and not rashly. We would not be happy with such a decision being made at a moment of high emotion. And we would want our children to be mature enough to know what they were doing. But suppose all that were so. The decision is not rash. The son or daughter has come to this decision carefully and over time. They know what they are doing. But there it is. Off to the end of the world to preach the gospel. So much for dreams of this one adding to the family wealth! So much for the hope that life would be even better for them than it has been for you. They will never own much. Life will be full of many difficulties for them. And many more negative things could be said. Can you imagine yourself reacting to the news by lifting your heart to God in thanks and praise?
Let’s put this bluntly. We have some of the most gifted and able young people in the world in Western churches. What would you think if, year after year, the cream of them (I mean this in human terms, you understand—in reality they are all cream!) turned their backs on careers in law, medicine and business, and offered for missionary service?
Some do, of course. But what if many, many more did? And what if your child did? I wonder whether the youth ministry in the affected churches would still be so popular? Or would the word go round: “Don’t let your kids go to such and such Church—they’ll end up as missionaries.”
And if you are one of the younger people I am talking about, how are you thinking about the possibility of going as a missionary to Cambodia—or wherever? Very positively?
I am making the hard suggestion that our answers to these questions will be a measure of how much we have lost touch with a Christian understanding of life and the world. The widespread loss of that understanding in Western churches is the first problem I am drawing our attention to as we think about the gospel and the whole world. This is a dangerous subject! For if we ‘get it’, then we will be in danger of recovering that Christian understanding. And who knows what might happen then? Just imagine if all Christian parents were as keen for their children to be missionaries as they now are for them to have successful careers?
The second problem we face is the general hostility of the world around us to the very idea of the gospel being taken to the whole world. Missionaries have frequently been characterized as ‘cultural vandals’. The fact that Christians who ‘preach Christianity’ (as it was put in a recent case in Afghanistan) are persecuted in Islamic countries is almost approved. ‘Serves them right’ was the tone of a number of media reports. But we condemn any persecution of Muslims (and so we should), and approve of people becoming Muslims if they so choose (and so we should). Does anyone notice the inconsistency? The popular view is that attempts to spread Christianity around the world will only lead to more violence. It is time for Christians to keep their Christianity to themselves. They can have their beliefs, but they must not try to get others to accept them.
I am reading a novel at the moment about a missionary family in Africa in the 1960s. They are portrayed as being unbelievably naïve, insensitive, arrogant and, frankly, stupid. And I suspect this is a very common view of missionary work of both the past and the present. If that is so, then we do need to think through the subject before us. Should we yield to that hostility and call the missionaries home? If not, then why not? Is the whole enterprise naïve, insensitive and stupid?
I would like to offer three reasons why we should not yield, and should not acquiesce in an understanding of the world that is less than Christian, less than biblical, and less than true.
1. God claims the nations
The Bible teaches us that God, the creator of all that is, is the God of all the nations. They are his. He loves them. And he promises to bless the nations.
The big promise that is the theme of the whole Bible is recorded at the beginning of Genesis 12. There God promised Abraham that he would make from him a great nation and through him all the families, or peoples, of the earth would be blessed.
Israel was the nation of Abraham’s descendants. The Bible tells us a lot about Israel and her history. But we should never forget that God chose Israel in order to bring blessing to the nations. The prophets towards the end of the Old Testament often repeat this theme. The Messiah who was promised would be a “light to the nations.” In Isaiah 66:18 God said, “… the time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and shall see my glory …”.
The New Testament verse which sums up the purpose of Jesus Christ, perhaps best of all, is the rightly famous John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
The simple question we must carefully reflect on is: Does God care about the people of Uzbekistan? I know the answer is obvious. But we must reflect on the answer. If God does care, must not I care? If God gave his one and only Son for the peoples of Indonesia, then can we not want them to know? And what, then, if our sons and daughters want to go?
I would love to do a fuller survey of the Bible’s teaching about the nations. But I want us to reflect on the brief sketch I have managed to give.
We have a word—xenophobia—which means ‘fear of strangers or foreigners’. It is really a Greek word: xenos (‘stranger’, ‘foreigner’) and phobos (‘fear’). The Bible has a word—philoxenia—which is usually translated ‘hospitality’, but literally means ‘love of strangers or foreigners’. The natural reaction of xenophobia is transformed into philoxenia when you know God. When we were strangers, foreigners, God came to us and loved us. Our attitude towards strangers and foreigners cannot remain untouched by that. Can it?
This applies to the stranger across our back fence, the stranger in another part of Sydney, the foreigner in another land, and the foreigner who comes to this land. Philoxenia, not xenophobia, is the Christian attitude, because it is God’s attitude.
Of course it is not possible for us to give practical expression to our philoxenia with regard to all foreigners and strangers. But life will bring us many opportunities to display love of strangers. And we can make opportunities.
This is the first point. There are two more to come. But godliness includes philoxenia. Are you a philoxenos?
2. God claims the nations by the gospel about Jesus Christ
It will not do to simply say, “Yes, I am moved by God’s love for the whole world, and so I support foreign aid.” Foreign aid and other forms of helping those who are suffering are important.
But when Jesus said that repentance and forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations (Luke 24:47), and “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19)—that was God’s expression of his love for all nations. The blessing that God promised (a couple of millennia BC) would come to all peoples through Abraham, comes as repentance and the forgiveness of sins is preached in Jesus’ name to all nations.
It is important for us to understand that taking the gospel to all nations is the direct consequence of Christian faith. If I am a Christian, what do I believe? I believe that Jesus is Lord. Isn’t that the barest minimum that I must believe if I am a Christian? What does ‘Jesus is Lord’ mean? It means that Jesus has authority. ‘Lord’ is a word of rule and supremacy. Jesus himself, after his resurrection from the dead, put it like this: “All [not just some!] authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt 28:18). Could anyone who does not believe that is true, be a Christian? There is nothing in all the world that is outside the scope of his authority. That is what ‘Jesus is Lord’ means.
The very next words Jesus said were: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19). The gospel must go to the nations because Jesus is Lord. The test of whether I believe that Jesus is Lord is not whether I say the words, but whether I care that the gospel goes to all the nations. It is the same as the test of whether I believe in God’s love. How wide is God’s love? We say, the whole world of course. Then if I believe in God’s love, I must want to see that love extend to the whole world. And God’s love comes to the world, as it has come to us, by the message about Jesus Christ.
These are very basic things, aren’t they? The pity is that sometimes Christians think what we call ‘missionary work’ is an add-on. There are missionary societies, and Christians who are into that sort of thing get involved. And of course some particular Christians might actually take such an interest in this that they become interested in going to a foreign land to share the gospel. And we are all very happy for this to be going on in the background.
But it is not like that. Do I believe that Jesus is Lord, or don’t I? Then what consequences will that have for me? Do I believe in God’s love? Then what consequences will that have for me? The very expression of Jesus’ lordship and the very expression of God’s love is the gospel going to the nations of the world.
I cannot imagine any parent being other than honoured if a son or daughter of theirs was appointed ambassador to the United States of America. But if I believe that Jesus is Lord, the privilege of being an ambassador for Christ anywhere is higher.
There is the second point. God’s claim on the nations comes by the gospel of Christ. It is that important.
3. The gospel is the greatest good in the world
I am sure that there have been Christians, just as there have been non-Christians, who have been naïve, insensitive, even arrogant and stupid, as the great cultures of the world came into major interaction over the past four centuries or so. There have been shameful things done by all kinds of people in the age of imperialism. There are terrible troubles in many parts of the world today because of wicked policies pursued by foreign powers over local peoples. And I have no doubt that Christians, even Christian missionaries, have been involved in some of that.
But there is another naïve insensitivity. And that is the attitude that sentimentalizes unknown cultures and religions, that does not see the suffering and the fears that can be changed by the gospel—that ultimately does not see the goodness of God’s blessing that comes by the gospel message.
This message must not come by force, whether the force of gun or sword, or the force of wealth or dominance. That is not its way. Remember we are talking about the word of the cross: the message of Jesus, the good shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep. Whenever it has been imposed by force, it has been so distorted it is no longer the same message.
But where the gospel has come, as the gospel must come—and as it has come again and again and again, by messengers who bear the character of Christ in themselves—this gospel, by the grace of God, brings blessing. It is good. It is good when a husband learns from Christ to love his wife. It is good when people learn from Christ to fear idols no more. It is good when people learn from Christ to forgive. It is good when people learn from Christ to be truthful.
And these things—and many more—are the beginning. For it is good for people to receive God’s gift of forgiveness and eternal life.
But even when we have seen the goodness of all these things, we have not seen all. For it is good for the Lord God, the source of all goodness, to be known and to be honoured.
The gospel is good—the greatest good in the whole world.
Now let us put these three elements of the Christian world view together in our heads —and see if it makes a difference. God claims all nations. God claims all nations by the gospel. The gospel is the greatest good in the world.
Do you think that Christian people who regain this view of the world (where it has been lost) might see the naiveté, insensitivity, arrogance, and frankly, stupidity, of the hostility to missionary work?
Do you think that Christian people who regain this view of the world (where it has been lost) might re-evaluate their ambitions, or their ambitions for their children?
John Woodhouse is the Principal of Moore Theological College in Sydney.