I was recently asked to contribute a piece to the “Mission Matters” magazine in our church, a magazine looking at mission in the local area as well as the wider world. This is what I came up with.
One of the privileges and joys of training at Oak Hill was training alongside those who were leaving for the mission field in other countries. I have friends from college who are now in, or shortly to move to, countries which span the globe. They are ministering amongst a whole variety of cultures and religious beliefs – Islam, Buddhism, the Orthodox Church – all sorts of different contexts. So I thought this time for Mission Matters it might be worth going back to basics and asking: what is it that really motivates them to give up their lives here, leave friends and family, journey hundreds or thousands of miles, and invest many years into learning a different language and culture? What could motivate someone to plough years of their lives into a country with little return, even under active persecution? In most of the countries I mentioned, for example, even in countries which are not actively hostile to the gospel the number of Bible-believing Christians is a tiny fraction of the population. Why would anyone do such a thing?
The book of Acts is a great place to go to when thinking about the mission of the church. Let’s first turn to the story of how the early church got going after Jesus’ ascension.
In Acts 1, just before Jesus ascended, he said to his disciples: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) This is one of the most significant verses in Acts: Jesus said when the Holy Spirit came, the disciples would “receive power”. What would they receive power to do? “be my witnesses” – to proclaim boldly the message of salvation in Christ. And this message was not just for a small group of people in a small corner of the world, this is a message which was to go “to the ends of the earth.”
This is exactly what we see happening in the rest of Acts – the Word of God, the gospel, goes out into Judea and Samaria. Then, in Acts 10, we see the gospel being brought even to the Gentiles. The message spreads further and further from Jerusalem, further and further away from the Jewish context where it originated. This same process, of reaching those who have never heard of Jesus, continues today. It is the mission of the church, as received from Christ: to reach even to the ends of the earth with the good news of salvation.
Let’s look at one more passage from Acts, where the apostle Paul goes to one of the major cities of the time – Athens. In Acts 17:16, we read: “While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” In those days, the Greeks liked to have a god for every occasion – as Paul walked down the streets he would have seen statues of many different gods. The worship of idols there was pretty obvious! But have we changed all that much today? In Romans 1, Paul talks humanity in general and says that all of us have “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.” Paul here is not saying that all of us explicitly worship images – but rather, every single one of us has exchanged worshipping the Living God for worshipping a lie. The natural state of humanity is to worship the created rather than the Creator. Every single culture, every single person on the planet, is an idolater in some way. How that looks in practice will naturally vary in different times and places – in the ancient city of Athens the idolatry was obvious. In our modern Western culture, people are perhaps tempted to worship money, sex, or power – anything which is a substitute for God.
So how does Paul deal with this situation in Acts 17? Does Paul say, with much of our current culture, “let’s celebrate diversity! Let’s rejoice that these people are worshipping God in their own way!”? Absolutely not! He is “greatly distressed” that the city is full of idols and he says to them:
In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead. (Acts 17:30-31)
The almighty and living God, the only God of heaven and earth, who does not dwell in temples made by human hands but gives each one of us life and breath, commands us to repent and believe in the good news. Each of us must turn from the idols we worship to worship Him, so we will receive a good verdict on the day when he will judge the world with justice by his risen Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. This message of good news is not limited to a small group of people – it is for everyone, whatever their culture, creed, language or nation. It is a message for us here in the West, it is a message for all those countries my friends have gone to, it is a message for all those countries we support and remember in prayer. “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof; the world and those who dwell therein.” (Psalm 24:1 ESV)
This is the message that motivates us as we look around the world. The same message that gets my friends out of bed in the morning also fires us: our God has good news for all people. Let’s pray that God would send workers out into his harvest field, both at home and abroad, and let’s pray that God would keep bringing people to him in repentance and faith.
Our loving heavenly Father, we thank you for your message of good news for all people. We thank you that your light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. We thank you that you send out workers into your harvest field, and we pray that through them you may bear much fruit. Please bless all those we support at St John’s and St Mark’s, give them confidence in your glorious gospel, and may they always fix their eyes on you. Amen.