‘Go Ye into the whole World’ - But how?
Malcolm C. Davis, Leeds, England
1. The Role of New Testament Missionaries
New Testament missionaries stand in a long line of God’s spokesmen ever since the fall of mankind into sin and the subsequent promise of a coming Saviour in Genesis chapter 3 verse 15. Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and all the Old Testament prophets testified to their own generations concerning this coming Messiah. That Messiah, Jesus Christ, the Son of God incarnate, announced by a solitary forerunner, John the Baptist, entered His own creation as the supreme apostle of God to men. He perfectly revealed God to us, and through His death and His resurrection laid the basis for the proclamation of the good news for men of God’s grace to all nations. He commissioned His apostles to continue His work of declaring this message of salvation, and all subsequent missionaries have followed in their footsteps, building up the church through evangelism until its completion and rapture to heaven.
God seemingly has few such spokesmen in any one generation and often the prophets were solitary individuals. In the New Testament, the apostles usually worked in pairs, or in small groups. God has since then called individuals we call ‘missionaries’ to expedite His work throughout the entire world. All Christians are responsible to spread the gospel to their neighbours and contemporaries, as the early Christians did but Acts also records examples of individuals, dedicated and called of God for the work, in addition to such general evangelism. New Testament missionaries, therefore, are seen to be specially-gifted evangelists and local church builders serving God in the place to which He has called them.
2. Call and Commendation
I cannot speak here from personal experience; only as one who was willing to be called, but never was. However, I have observed others who have been called. Normally, a call comes to a believer who has been exercised about evangelism in general probably for a long time, and some even from childhood, and who has become drawn towards various areas of God’s work at home or abroad. Usually, such believers seem indispensable to their local assemblies, being fully engaged in many aspects of its service. Their call can sometimes be anticipated by discerning local saints and overseers, so that it comes as no great surprise. The actual call is a clear conviction to the person concerned and to other responsible brethren that the Holy Spirit is sovereignly indicating that he, or she, should take a decisive step of faith into the work of God in some particular area of the world. Both the conviction of the Holy Spirit’s leading and the fellowship of the local church should be assured before any commendation is given to the work. The church at Antioch in Acts chapter 13 verses 1 to 3 is the clearest example of these principles that we have in our New Testament. It is very unwise to depart from this pattern.
3. Qualifications and Preparation
It has been said with much conviction that, ‘the local church is the only Bible School known to scripture’. Certainly, on the practical side, for evangelism in a country similar to one’s own, this may be true. However, a missionary going to a foreign country with a language, climate, and culture quite different from those of his or her homeland may well require some linguistic, medical and technical preparation before he or she can work effectively in it. Also, entry to some countries is difficult to obtain, unless the would-be missionary has some useful practical or professional skill or even proficiency in the official language of that country. Such skills need to be acquired first and that, nowadays, means some form of specialist training in addition to the essential spiritual qualifications, which should have been gained already. Even Paul found his trade of tent-making useful at times in the Lord’s work. As to ‘spiritual’ preparation and qualification we must leave elders and the commending assembly to assess.
4. Strategy and Guidance
The general strategy for missionary work was given to the apostles by the Lord Jesus Himself in Acts chapter 1 verse 8, where He said that they were to be His ‘witnesses in Jerusalem, all Judaea and Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth’, an everwidening circle. Accordingly, Paul first went to Cyprus and Asia Minor, then into Europe, and finally to Rome, hoping to go on to Spain. He concentrated on centres of population from which other areas could be reached later, but rarely stayed long in any one city, unless the Lord told him that there were many potential converts there. Having established local and autonomous churches with their own elders, he moved on to new territory. He received guidance concerning his future movements directly from the Lord Himself and not his commending assembly. Sometimes the Spirit of God used providential means or visions to direct him, as in Acts chapter 16 in the account of his coming into Europe. Note that the area in Asia Minor which he bypassed en route to Philippi, he was later led to evangelize fully from Ephesus himself, while Bithynia was covered by Peter. God’s sovereign ways and timings transcend ours, so we are wise always to follow His leading. He nonetheless always reported back to those who had commended him.
5. Message and Methods
The apostles preached Christ crucified and risen again as the only Saviour from sin and judgement. God uses ‘the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe’, 1 Cor. 1. 21. Paul reasoned from the scriptures, but did not engage in philosophical arguments. The Lord’s ‘Great Commission’ involves teaching ‘the whole counsel of God’, and ‘making disciples’ who will ‘teach others also’. As to methods of evangelism, Paul used open-air and indoor gospel preaching, personal testimony, lectures and question and answer sessions in hired premises. Methods which also help to fulfil the Great Commission for various specific audiences have been used since then to good effect. Examples are: children’s and youth meetings; women’s and senior citizens’ meetings; evangelistic home Bible studies, camps, and even meals with a message. But methods need to be scripturally legitimate and never just to entertain the unsaved. Rather, the objective must be to bring them under the conviction of the Holy Spirit by the word of God, Rom. 10. 14, 17.
6. Reception and Experiences
The Lord Jesus warned His disciples that a servant is not above his Lord, and that if men had hated and rejected Him, they would probably hate and reject them also. Accordingly, men’s reception of the gospel has always been very mixed, just as the parable of the sower had indicated it would be. Many hearers mock, some are indifferent or undecided, while only a minority believe the message and are saved. Also, converts often disappoint, causing much discouragement. Not all missionaries come home with glowing accounts of local churches established and growing in the faith, although, thankfully, some are privileged to do so. Probably all the apostles died martyrs’ deaths and Paul especially had many traumatic experiences during his missionary journeys. Yes, missionaries require great moral and physical courage, probably more than most other Christians. They need our prayers and practical fellowship throughout their often lonely and dangerous ministries.
7. Support and Responsibility
The early missionaries of scripture went forth, ‘taking nothing of the Gentiles’; that is, they were supported entirely by the sacrificial giving of the Lord’s people. This is ‘living of the gospel’, as Paul terms it. Ultimately, he looked to the Lord alone to supply all his needs. Yet, he worked for a time at his tent-making to avoid becoming dependent upon the converts in any locality. But we as Christians have a responsibility to consider the extent and nature of our support for the Lord’s commended servants on the mission field. Likewise, the Lord’s servants have a responsibility to report back to their commending and supporting churches all that God has done with them. A missionary’s report should indicate what the Lord is doing in their part of His harvest field, and stimulate further prayer and practical fellowship in the work. Missionary work is really an extension of the commending church’s outreach. Supporting agencies are in order and valuable, provided that they do not intervene between the missionary and the commending church. Their role should be ancillary in the provision of news, transmission of funds and practical help and advice otherwise difficult to obtain. Some object to the existence of such bodies but something that is not specifically mentioned in scripture is not necessarily contrary to scripture. This is as long as it subserves and facilitates a scriptural objective without contravening another clear scriptural principle.
8. ‘Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest’
In view of the fewness of the labourers in God’s harvest field, and in view of its whiteness to harvest, the Lord Jesus Himself urged us to pray that He, the Lord of the harvest, would call and send out more labourers to gather in the sheaves of redeemed souls. The opportunity to do so will soon be gone for ever. The imminence of the rapture of the church should spur us on in the work of evangelism, driving out slackness or apathy in service for our Lord. If we cannot go ourselves, we should pray that others will be called to go, and support them fully in the work. There are also the whitened fields of our own homeland, city, and street. There is always ‘a work for Jesus’ none but we can do. Christ is building His church, and the gates of Hades will never prevail against it. He is looking for our willing co-operation today but are we ready to yield ourselves to Him?