Words That Have Lost Their Meaning – Part Two

Another word that has lost its meaning is the word “missionary.” Missionary is not a Bible word, but it is a word that has come to define the response to Jesus’ command to go out with His message. A missionary or a missionary group is an individual, a family, or a team committed to proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom. It is often a word used to describe a person who proclaims the gospel to people who have never heard and people who have little chance of hearing. Often workers who share their faith are required to learn other languages and cross cultures; often, that is required even in our home countries due to the diversity of nationalities and languages now present in almost every nation.

In reality, the word should not be used. However, often it is used in reference to a leader in the Bible who is actually in the role and calling of an apostle. Paul and Barnabas being two examples. Words that could be used in place of the word ‘missionary’ could include “worker,” “sent out ones,” or “overseas workers.”

However, truth be known the real word to be used should be “disciple” or “follower” because all true believers are called to “go into all the world and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19). Going  out to proclaim the gospel does not make you a missionary. Nor does it make you a “worker.” It simply means you are being an obedient follower or disciple of Jesus. Could we call them “sent out ones?” Yes! Because the church was always meant to be apostolic. The word apostle means “the sent one.” So, when apostles are part of the ministry team and the foundation of the local church, then the church, under the leadership of an apostle, becomes apostolic. The people come to understand the need to “go into all the world” and so become apostolic (sent out ones) in their nature, in their thinking, and in their actions.

The root idea of “mission” is the sending activity of God. In one sense, certainly, Jesus sends His followers to their families and friends and neighbours. In a deeper and true biblical sense, Jesus ultimately sends His followers to proclaim His grace throughout the entire world.. starting in Jerusalem, through Judea, on to Samaria, and then to all the people groups, especially in places where His grace has not yet been proclaimed. Scripture is clear in helping us to understand that, in this sense, every believer is a sent out one. The command to be on mission is a command common to every follower of Jesus. It is a command to be both local and global. 

The word “pastor” is another word that has lost its original meaning and almost any meaning in today’s world. The word ‘pastor’ appears once in the New Testament and it is in regard to the fivefold, trans-local ministry of Ephesians 4:11-12.

“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…”

This ‘pastor’ travelled as did the other four of the fivefold ministry team. However, as soon as we hear that word today we do not think “trans-local” but local … the leader of a local church. This was never the plan in the early church as seen in the New Testament. It was also not the plan the Lord had when He stated He would build His Church. The local churches in the New Testament were all led by apostles … James as leader of Jerusalem is an example. The spiritual oversight of the local assembly was in the hands of a group of elders, not a solo pastor. The work was done by the saints as they were equipped by the fivefold ministers. So, there was no need for a local full-time, paid pastor nor a part-time bi-vocational pastor.

Let’s admit it… there are 59 “one another” versers in the New Testament and no one man or woman – no pastor – can fulfil all 59 of these commands for every person who is a member of the local assembly no matter how big or small the assembly is. So the five-fold pastor comes in to a local assembly and teaches the people how to care for “one another” and thus fulfill the 59 ‘one another’ commands. 

There are many other words that we use as believers that have lost their original meaning or all meaning … but these are the ones that really bother me personally and that, I believe, are preventing the Church from the needed changes that will take it in to an effective, fruitful, and productive future. 

Words That Have Lost Their Meaning – Part One

I recently spoke on a Saturday morning to a group of believers in Eastern Canada. Near the end of the morning of teaching I asked them if they were glad that they had come to church. Everyone said that they were glad to have invested the time. Of course, they did not come to Church; they are the church. They came to an assembly of believers in a building set aside for assemblies. We are the Church. God’s people are the Church.

It got me to thinking about how we use words that have really totally lost their original meaning and now refer to something other than what the word first referred to. And, that maybe it is time to, once again, redefine the words we frequently use as believers.

The Church is the called-out, baptized, gathered-together people of God. Church is defined by community-belonging, it acts on Jesus’ call to be people on mission, it will reproduce itself (which will result in both new believers and new communities of faith), it will finance itself, it will provide care and support for those who make up the church, and it will choose its own leaders and polity. The categories and activities highlighted in Acts 2 are a helpful guide: a church will be committed to worship (usually inside of homes), and missions which lead to a fulfilling of the Great Commission from across the street to the ends of the earth. The Church includes fellowship, education, equipping and strengthening the believers for ministry, and a lifestyle of discipleship which is an interchangeable term with evangelism. When did Jesus disciple His disciples and when did He evangelize them?

Because I work with house churches in a number of nations …A house church is typically a small body of ten to thirty believers who meet together in homes. Organization of house churches can vary significantly, but leadership is normally fluid and adaptable. When a house church grows to a certain size, it will typically divide into smaller groups (thus multiplying and planting another house church). House churches were the norm in New Testament times, and they are the norm in many settings today. 

The issue I see with house churches is that when a house church is birthed or joined by  a number of traditional Christians from mainline denominations they really expect the house church to simply being a smaller version of the traditional congregation that they recently left. Thus they expect all of the elements of the traditional church service including having a “pastor / teacher” who shares a teaching / sermon each time they meet. This is not a true biblical house church. 

With churches in general – both those that meet in larger buildings and those that meet in homes – I think we have a major problem. We seldom see the Church functioning as it should be. Most churches are not “equipping the saints for the work of the ministry” (Ephesians 4:12). They are teaching believers but it is simply more information to be remembered in the head and does not touch the heart. Thus there is just information and not life-transformation. Believer’s lives are not being changed. People are not being equipped for ministry – enabling them to better touch the hearts and lives of others who do not know the Lord. The ministry is not shared equally among the many but is the work of just a few – who are often seminary trained. And, in leadership, there is simply the ministry of the “pastor” and not the fivefold ministry – thus not the full ministry of the Lord who was an apostle, a prophet, an evangelist, a paster (Great Shepherd) and teacher. 

So, words like “Church” and “House Church” can mean so many different things depending on who is speaking and who is listening. I believe it is time to define the words that we are using. And, to define them biblically. Then to make the changes necessary to come into line with the true meaning of the word “Church” and other words that we use regularly. 

That would be a first good step to actually becoming all that the Lord wants us to be. 

More next time…

Christian Martyrs

I read an interesting statistic the other day. 80% of the world’s true believers are living in persecution. A true believer is a follower or disciple of Jesus. People who know who Jesus is and people for whom the Christian faith is central to life and life-shaping. These are people who have encountered the living and loving God and embraced the message that Jesus’s death on the cross and His resurrection from the grave destroyed the power of sin and death. People who have embraced the love of God and whose lives have been totally changed as they became new creatures in Christ.

The 80% of the world’s believers who live in persecution refers to hardship and even death that is the result of being true followers of Jesus and not for some other reason. Not all persecution ends in death. Some does, however. The word martyr describes those who have died for their faith as believers. It is claimed that over the past 20 centuries of the Christian faith, some 70 million believers have been murdered for their faith and can rightly be called martyrs. And, it is estimated that currently more than four hundred believers are killed every day for their faith. Numbers can speak loudly but we must look carefully are how those numbers are determined. 

The basic definition is that Christian martyrs are “believers in Christ who have lost their lives prematurely, in situations of witness, as a result of human hostility. This definition has five essential and distinct components:

1> Believers in Christ. These are people who have heard the Gospel of the Kingdom and due to the conviction of the Spirit were led to repent with godly sorrow and receive forgiveness for their sins. These are people who have had a life-changing encounter with the love of God the Father and, as a result, have a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. These are people who have truly become new creatures in Christ and are living lives focused on the Kingdom. These are people who have received the baptism in the Holy Spirit and thus are able to fulfill John 14:12 and are obedient to the command to “seek and save the lost” regardless of the cost. The number of true Christians is really much smaller than the number who claim to be followers of the Christian faith. 

2> Lost their lives. The Christians numbered among the martyrs have actually been put to death. There are many levels of persecution, but martyrdom results in death.

3> Prematurely. Martyrdom is sudden, abrupt, unexpected, and unwanted. It is a death that happens before it “should” happen; it is, in that sense, premature. Had martyrdom not happened, these people would have lived longer. 

4> In situations of witness. By definition, the word martyr suggests the idea of witness. In traditional usage, a martyr is a person who bears witness to Christ in his or her own death. So, dying a martyr usually means giving some form of testimony to the resurrection of Jesus Christ before they die or by the way that they died. 

5> As a result of human hostility. The martyr’s death happens at the hands of a persecutor. A human being is involved in the martyrdom.

And we could add that the witness of the martyr stands the test of time. That means at least two things. First, the martyr’s way of living will not later be revealed to be untrue or inauthentic. As people look back and consider the life of the believer who has died, they will see that there was, in fact, true belief. Second, whether we can measure it or not, the death will serve as testimony. The death will encourage and even bear fruit and it will do those things over time. There will be evangelistic impact in the setting where the martyrdom takes place, within the group that sent out the believer, or in both settings. 

So, the reported annual number of Christian martyrs might be much higher than the actual number of people who died for their faith. Using these elements contained within the understanding of what constitute a martyr an accurate count is really hard to obtain and there is little gained by guessing at and then publishing the “estimate” number of martyrs annually. 

Remember Why Jesus Came

We are into the Christmas season and, as usual, we add a number of extra events to our already busy daily schedules. We shop for gifts, plan meals and get-togethers with loved one, and attend Christmas parties and Christmas concerts. This year there will be some changes to these festive events and activities due to COVID-19. However, we will still be busy and active nonetheless.

In the midst of the added events and activities let us not forget the reason for the celebration we call Christmas. You know the message: God so loved us that He wanted a personal relationship with each one of us. However, our sinful nature and our sinful actions separated us from Him. So, He became one of us – we call Him Jesus – and lived without sin. He died on the Cross of Calvary paying the penalty for our sins. Thus paying the debt we could not pay and making a way for us to have a close encounter with and relationship with God the Father. 

To enter into this relationship we must sense the conviction of the Spirit… convicting us of sin, righteousness  and judgment. We then respond with godly sorrow — sorry we offended a holy God — and you repent and ask for His forgiveness. When received you become a new creature in Christ and are given the gift of eternal life. Biblically the gift of eternal life is the supernatural ability to have a personal, intimate, love relationship with God the Father and Jesus whom He sent.

This was the focus of the first Christmas. Emmanuel — God with us! God bringing salvation and deliverance; forgiveness and freedom. This is what we are celebrating. But, it is more than that. Much more.

Jesus came to “seek and save the lost” (Luke19:10). God does not just call an individual. The Christian faith is more than you and Jesus and personal salvation. He called a people to Himself. He wants a people who will fellowship with Him. A priesthood of all believers who will minister to Him and for Him. And these people are called to fulfill the call that was upon Jesus’s life. We are to continue His purpose — to seek and save the lost. This is why Jesus commanded (and did not suggest) that we, the Church, “go into every nation and people group and share the Gospel of the Kingdom” (Matthew 28:18-19; Matthew 24:14). 

So Christmas is more than a celebration of the birth of the Christ Child. Christmas is more than God becoming man — deity taking on humanity — and living among us. Christmas is more than God loving us so much that He gave His Son to die for us. Christmas is a reminder that Jesus was born in Bethlehem because God came to “seek and save the lost.” And, that we must continue that task and tell others – all others – about the good news that “unto us a Child has been born and a Saviour given.”

And there are no shortage of opportunities and places to go. Yes, all the easy ones have been taken. But, there are still 6,5000 unreached people groups in the world. About 2 billion people in the world don’t have a Christian friend or any access to the saving knowledge of the gospel. So, we are called to live the mission and go to every place God gives us the privilege of going. And, this mission, of course, starts at home but extends much further as we “go into all the world.”

This is the fullness of the Christmas message that “a child has been born, a King has been given.” As members of the King’s kingdom we are called to “go” and expand the kingdom bringing His light into the darkness.

Will the Real Christians Please Stand Up

There seems to be multiple definitions of the word Christian. It is used in a variety of ways. So, I have found it helpful for myself to define the word and even group those who call themselves Christians into these categories.

Census Christians are people, who, if asked about their religion, would say “Christian.” This designation might not relate at all to anything that these people believe or practice. Often, this is a cultural answer. If asked about their religion in certain geographic areas, for example, many people might answer, “Of course I’m a Christian. Isn’t everybody?” These people are “census Christians.” On a census, these people would check the “Christian” box. What that designation actually means is anybody’s guess. 

These people are also known as Cultural Christians as their lives are identical to their neighbours — those who are not believers.  Being a Christian has not altered their values, morals, ethics, priorities, or lifestyle. 

Member Christians claim some sort of identification with a particular Christian institution or organization. Again, this does not mean that these people necessarily participate or even that they show up at their church. These people simply have some sort of personal connection with a church and they identify themselves with that church. They might say, “I am Catholic,” or “I am Baptist,” or “I am Methodist.”

Practicing Christians actually participate in the life of a church. They typically attend worship services. In some fashion, these people are involved in the forms and rituals of the faith. Often their connection with the church is limited to weddings, baptisms, and funerals. They usually attend at Easter and Christmas. 

Believers (or Committed Believers) are people for whom the Christian faith is central, life-changing, and life-shaping. These Christians strive to live out their faith and communicate their faith to others. To use the language of the evangelical world, these people have a personal relationship with Jesus. Often they will use the language of John 3 and talk about being “born again.” They have a personal and intimate relationship with Jesus (John 17:3)

Hidden Christians are people who believe secretly. Fearful of persecution, these people keep their faith to themselves. In some settings, these believers might keep their faith secret from government officials and employers. In other settings, they might keep their faith secret even from family members and friends. These believers might not ever experience specific acts of outward persecution, but the fear of persecution has caused their faith to be completely inward. For the most part, their faith, though real, is hidden. In most cases, they have not “joined” a church, through this might be an artificial measurement since, in many settings, there is no official institutional church to join.

When I use the word Christian I am referring to and speaking of people who know who Jesus is and who have had a personal encounter with Him and are thus born again. I am referring to people for who knowing Jesus has transformed their life. People who are a journey as they obey the will of the Lord. They are followers of Jesus, His disciples. So they wold fit into the last two categories — Believers (or Committed Believers) and Hidden Christians. 

For me this means I see that many who call themselves Christians are not and so are still in need of being born again. Just because someone calls themselves a Christian does not make them a Christian. Just because they go to church regularly also does not make them a Christian. Having a life-changing encounter with the love of God as found in Jesus Christ — being born again — is what determines if you are a true Christian and follower (disciple) of Jesus. So, I can honestly say that I view many who call themselves Christians as people who need to be evangelized. For truly they are religious and not righteous.

And, even in the born again church I believe well over 50% of those who are members and attending are not truly born again. They said a Sinner’s Prayer and were told that they were now born again. That’s a lie. To be born again one must experience the conviction of the Holy Spirit, respond with godly sorrow, and repentance. Then pray and ask the Lord to forgive you and become Lord in your life. (See: 2 Corinthians 7:8-10) To be born again is more than having a head knowledge and understanding of who Jesus is and what He accomplished on the Cross of Good Friday and then praying a Sinner’s Prayer. Head knowledge is not enough – you need to encounter the truth and have it change your heart. 

So, Christians are those who have heard the Gospel of the Kingdom (Matthew 24:14) and responded with godly sorrow and repentance are true believers. If you have only heard the gospel of salvation and not experienced conviction and godly sorrow with repentance then you know the truth but it has yet to set you free. Head knowledge is not enough. The Bible says that even the demons know who Jesus is and what He did and they are not saved and are not going to heaven (James 2:19).  

The “Gospel of Salvation” is a man-made belief. The Gospel of the Kingdom is the only true Gospel and it will set you free and through it you become a true believer, a Christian. 

The Sun Is Rising In the East

A researcher was speaking to a number of pastors in an area of the world where true believers in Jesus suffer persecution on a regular basis. He was hearing amazing stories of God moving in supernatural ways as well as horrific stories of Christian leaders being jailed, tortured, and even killed for their faith. 

Here is what he wrote…

At the end of a number of days of sharing I remarked: “There is one thing I don’t understand. You have told me so many remarkable stories about what God has done. You have told me about unspeakable suffering. You have told me about previous persecution. And you have told me about God’s power at work. Why haven’t you written these stories down? Why haven’t you published these stories? Why haven’t your stories been recorded in some way?

The pastors seemed genuinely confused by my questions. 

Finally, an older pastor took me aside. He gently took my arm and he led me to the large picture window in the home — a picture window that was facing the east.

The old pastor began by making reference to my family: “You have told us that you have some sons.”

“Yes, that’s true.”

“Tell me,” the pastor patiently asked, “how many times have you awakened your sons before dawn and taken them to the east-facing part of your home? How many time have you said to them, ‘Boys, get ready! Look out this window, because the sun is about to come up in the east! Boys, I woke you up early today because I wanted you to see it! It’s about ready to happen!’ Tell me, how many times have you awakened your boys and said that to them?”

“Well, sir,” I answered, “I have never done that. In fact, my sons would think I was crazy if I did that.”

The old pastor nodded as if a profound point had been made. However, I could see no connection to our earlier conversation. I was completely baffled.

Seeing my confusion, he went on to explain. “You would never do that with your sons because the sun coming up in the east is normal and ordinary. It is an everyday event. It is expected. Well, that’s the way persecution is for us. That’s the way God’s activity is for us. We don’t write much about these things — we don’t even talk much about these thing — because these things are as normal as the sun coming up on the east.”

The researcher went on the write…

It was a startling thought for me. From my perspective, persecution was something exceptional, unusual, out of the ordinary. From my perspective persecution was a problem, and it was something to be avoided. From the perspective of my pastor friend in (name of country), however, persecution was not exceptional at all. It was usual. It was ordinary. Persecution was simply to be expected for followers of Jesus. And God’s ability to intervene and use persecution for His purposes was expected as well.

Personal note: This brief message has caused me to do some deep thinking about my life and ministry and the often lack of any visible persecution because of my witness for Jesus. 

End note: According to several mission ministries … 80 percent of the world’s believers who are practicing their faith live in persecution. Believers being those who are born again and have a genuine relationship with the Lord Jesus. 

And yet, in my life….

Sheep and Wolves – Part Two

Continuing on from last time…

Jesus said plainly that He was sending His followers out “like sheep among wolves” (Matthew 10:16). Then He told them even more. He told them that they would be handed over to the local councils, flogged in the synagogues, and brought before governors and kings as witnesses. He told them that they would be arrested, betrayed, and hated (verses 17-22). In a word, His followers would be persecuted (verse 23). Jesus made it clear that this impending persecution was not merely a possibility; for those who would obey Him, persecution is a certainty.

In response to His instructions, Jesus’ followers set out on this grand and frightening adventure, and sure enough, they experienced everything that Jesus had promised. They went out as sheep among wolves, and they experienced what sheep typically experienced in the presence of wolves. Predictably, the sheep were true to their identity. Just as predictably, the wolves wet true to theirs. And the inevitable result is precisely what Jesus has promised: persecution.

If there is any possible way to do it, we generally want to relegate passages like Matthew 10 to the distant past. We want to keep passages like Matthew 10 as far as possible from our own experience. Obedience to these ancient words, in today’s world, would potentially be seen as unbalanced — even insane. Especially within the church today, we might be encouraged to avoid taking Jesus’ instructions too seriously.

All the same, we claim that we are utterly devoted to Scripture. With great respect, we study to understand the world of these earliest followers of Jesus., We read about their suffering and we celebrate their costly obedience to Jesus’ call. Jesus clearly told His followers long ago that they wold suffer, and they did suffer. We know the story of these faithful followers is true.

As true as this story of ancient persecution is, however, we long to believe that these verses are merely “history.” We want very much to believe what happened to these earliest disciples is not what will happen to us. We want to believe Jesus’ words in Matthew 10 do not apply to believers today — at least, not to all believers!

But what if Matthew 10 is not merely “history”? What if Matthew 10 is a true word intended for Jesus’ followers of every time — a true word intended for even our time? What if Matthew 10 is about your and about me? What if “sheep among wolves” is an accurate description of both our calling and our world today? What if Jesus’ followers — His followers today — really are like sheep? And what if the world — the world today — really is filled with wolves?

Opening ourselves to the truth of God’s Word is dangerous. Popular theologies would tell us suffering can be avoided, that there is a way to be both faithful and comfortable at the same time, that there is a way to be both obedient and safe, that persecution is the destiny of believers who live only at certain times or in certain places, that God will reward obedience with success and security. Popular theologies would tell us that, even if we are sheep, it is possible to minimize our exposure to a world filled with wolves.

God’s Word — lived out in present active tense — however, tells its something very different. Jesus would have us understand that His followers — His followers long ago and His followers today — are, in fact, sheep. Jesus would have us understand that our world — our world long ago and our world today — is filled with wolves. And knowing the certain outcome of that encounter between the sheep and the wolves, Jesus would have us understand, even in this kind of a world, He fully intends to accomplish His purposes. Jesus will use these sheep to complete His great plan. 

Judging by what eventually happened to Jesus Himself, we come to understand that persecution and suffering and sacrifice are necessary parts of His ultimate strategy, even today.

Jesus’ instruction is compelling in its clarity. It is not a suggestion: it is a command. “Go!” He says. “I am sending you!”

We have the high privilege of answering Jesus’ call to go. But let’s be clear about this: we go on His terms, not ours. If we go at all, we go as sheep among wolves.

Why then, given that Jesus led His disciples every day to be with Him “to seek and to save what were lost” (Luke 19:10), did He feel it necessary to one more time command us with the Great Commission of Matthew 28?

Can it be that which Jesus lived and commanded to most is what we ignore obeying the most?

Today are we willing to follow Jesus to the tough places; anywhere and anytime He still commands?

Sheep and Wolves – Part One

At the risk of sounding a bit “preachy,” allow me a moment to restate the obvious — for what we have heard the most often might well be the very command we ignore the most. As the Gospel of Matthew comes to a crescendo, Jesus gave His followers a final word of instruction. We often refer to these words as the “Great Commission.” And, often the reality is that they are the “Great Omission.”

With stark simplicity, Jesus set out the calling and the mission of those who would follow Him. “Go,” He commands, “and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). From that day until now, Jesus’ followers have endeavoured to fulfill that assignment. Whatever else the church takes on, it is broadly understood that both “going” and “making disciples” are essential and defining tasks. The church cannot be the church unless it is going and making disciples. 

Interestingly, Jesus’ final instruction was nothing new; it is utterly consistent with His overall ministry. He came to “seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10) Early on, as Jesus invited Simon and Andrew to follow Him, He explained that He would make them “fishers of men” (Mark 1:17). Later, Jesus designated twelve apostles. They were appointed “that they might be with Him and that He might send them out to preach” (Mark 3:14). He called them close, building an intimate relationship with each of them. Then He sent them out. Consistently, this invitation to walk closely with Jesus is linked with the command to go out with Jesus. In fact, it becomes clear that an intimate relationships with Jesus necessarily leads to a life of ministry and service and mission for all believers. God is a sending God. Repeatedly, He draws people close and then He sends them out. In the Gospels, we encounter this same pattern over and over again.

When Jesus sent His followers out, He gave explicit guidance. He also explained clearly what would happen to His followers as they obeyed Him. In Matthew 10, Jesus gave the twelve “authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness” (Matthew 10:1). He told His followers exactly what message to proclaim (verse 7). He also gave them specific instructions about their upcoming journeys (verses 5-15).

Some of His instructions sound uncomfortable and even potentially dangerous. For these specific and short trips, Jesus told His followers to take no money as they journeyed. He told them to take no bag. He told them to take no extra clothing or shoes. Evidently, Jesus wants His followers to experience God’s sufficient provision firsthand.

As challenging as some of Jesus’ specific instructions were, however, what He had said to this point was downright encouraging compared to what He said next. “I am sending you out,” He explained, “like sheep among wolves” (Matthew 10:16).

Like sheep among wolves. With that simple, startling phrase, Jesus defined the identity of His followers: they  are like sheep. At the same time, He clarified the identity of the people they would meet in the world: they were like wolves. It is not especially difficult to ascertain what will happen to sheep in the presence of wolves. Even if we have no personal experience with either sheep or wolves, we plainly see how this scenario plays out. Frankly, it is not good to be sheep in the presence of wolves. Sheep don’t normally survive in the presence of wolves! Even so, Jesus wanted His followers to understand both their true nature and the true nature of the world in which  they would journey. Jesus wanted His disciples to understand both the content of the gospel and the context in which it was to be shared. What He offered was a simple statement of fact.

And notice this: Jesus did not ask the sheep to behave like wolves, and He certainly did not suggest that the wolves would behave like sheep!

After setting this image before them, Jesus did not give His followers the opportunity to revisit their earlier commitment to Him. He did not ask them if, in the light of these new words, they still were serious about following Him. After all, they had already answered His call, and obedience to Him was the necessary next step. With some notable objections, His followers obeyed. They went.

And ever since, His followers have continued to go. At least some of them haver!

More next time.  

Following the Spirit’s Leading

The same young apostle writes…

Before I had even arrived at the first stop on my planned Southeast Asia tour, I received an e-mail from a European doctor living and working on the border of two Central Asia countries that were experiencing a great deal of violence and unrest. The words of his e-mail were guarded and carefully worded. The message read: “Dr. Ripken, I have heard about the research that you are doing from a friend I knew and worked closely with in Somalia some years ago. I believe that the Lord needs you to come to name of country and he names his border town.”

My wife had already booked and purchased my plane tickets for the entire, tightly-scheduled trip. I responded to the man’s e-mail, explaining that my itinerary included not only Vietnam and Thailand, but also Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar. Then I explained further: “These are the last of the countries that I have already made plans to visit this year. I am expecting to be in your region late next year, so please be patient. I will be sure to get back in touch with you and I will gladly consider your invitation at that time.”

After another stop to see the killing fields of Cambodia (where very few believers survived the Khmer Rouge reign of terror), I landed in Bangkok. From there, I went up and stayed for a time among the Karen people group living in the Golden Triangle region where Thailand’s borders meet the borders of Laos. Then, I attempted to travel to what was once called Burma (now Myanmar). Several days later, I came back to Bangkok where I had another e-mail from the same doctor.

This second e-mail was more insistent, “I really think you should come now,” the man wrote.

At that point, I responded with a slightly less gracious reply: “I am sorry, but I will not come your way until next year.” At that point I set out for another country on my itinerary. Just before arriving there, however, I received a phone call informing me that all 18 pastors that I had lined up for interviews there had been arrested and were currently in jail. My primary contact in that country said, “This will not be a good time for you to visit us, unless you want to stay a lot longer than you had planned!” I certainly wanted to visit that country, but I had no interest I spending time in prison. 

I wondered about the strange turn of events. Even more, I wondered if maybe it was some sort of a sign. I changed my plans immediately and returned to Bangkok. I am not sure if I was really surprised or not, but I received another e-mail from this same annoyingly persistent doctor. 

This time I replied even more bluntly. Didn’t want to sound rude, but I was confident in the plans that I had made. In effect, I said to him: “Please stop asking me to visit; I am not coming to your country at this time.” A few days later, I prepared to leave Bangkok for my next destination. After leaving Bangkok and before I reached my next stop, however, I received a phone call from an in-country contact. This phone call informed me that some of the pastors who were planning to talk with me has been in an automobile accident. Several others were sick in the hospital, and ever others were under tight surveillance.

“I am sorry,” I was told, “but this is no longer a good time for you to visit. We will contact you to let you know when you might try again.”

Once again, I returned to Bangkok. Arriving there, I was startled to find yet another e-mail from the European doctor.

Again, he insisted strongly: “I really believe God wants you to come here now.”

Given the recent events and the apparent closed doors that I was facing, I was suddenly more open to his request. I broke down, swallowed my pride, and called the doctor. After introducing myself, I sheepishly admitted, “It suddenly looks like I really don’t have anything else to do for the next couple weeks. I guess I’ll be coming your way after all.”

I flew into capital city of his country, then traveled on to a smaller city. From there, I took a smaller plane which landed on a short dirt runway outside a small border town. As soon as I exited the airplane, I spotted a man who was obviously the doctor. Standing beside him were five men in traditional Muslim dress who also seemed to be waiting at the remote desert airstrip for my plane to land.

As the doctor and I exchanged greetings, I asked him, “Who are your friends?”

“You don’t know why they are?” He reacted in surprise.

“No, I didn’t even know who you were until 30 seconds ago,” I told him.

“Well, Dr. Ripken,” he said, as he cast a furtive glance over his shoulder, “If you don’t know these men — and I don’t know these men — then we have a serious security problem. They told me that they had come to meet you.” 

“So,” he continued rather abruptly, “I’m going to have to leave you now. Here’s my cell phone number. If everything turns out all right, call me, and I’ll come back and get you.” 

Then he turned and walked away.

I was stunned, and it dawned on me that I was already praying. I felt that I was self-trained in being careful in the midst of danger, so there was no way that I was going to leave with these five men. As I dragged my bag towards the small terminal, I was already thinking about how quickly I could catch a flight out. The men followed me. They tugged on my clothes trying to get me to stop. I tried my best to ignore them. Finally, one of them said in broken English, “Sir, stop. Please stop. We are followers of Jesus.”

I immediately stopped and turned to listen to what they had to say. The quick summary of their story rang true. Against my better judgment, but sensing the hand of God on our meeting, I went with my five unnamed new “friends” to a room that they had rented in the nearby town.

When we got there, we sat down together on the floor in an unfurnished apartment. They simply looked at me and smiled. They seemed perfectly content to wait. I had no idea what was expected of me. I shared briefly about myself, though my words were more guarded than usual. I talked a little about where I had been. How I had been travelling around the world, the research that I had done, and why I wanted to talk to believers in different parts of the world. I even speculated a little on why I had ended up in this tiny corner of the world. 

One of the men spoke English. He translated my words to the others. After he finished. All five of the men began to laugh.

I was confused and I wanted to know what they thought was so funny.

They shook their heads, smiled, and said to me, “You may think you know why you have come here. But we would like to tell you why you are really here.”

They briefly sketched out their own personal stories. They had each had dreams or visions that had raised spiritual questions and prompted a long search for answers. They had each miraculously found a copy of the Bible to study. After reading the entire book several times, they had each, on their own, decided to follow Jesus. They had each been rejected and disowned by their families. Eventually they had to flee their country. They made their way across the border to this small border town. Somehow they found each other and they realized that they all shared the same newfound faith in Christ.

They didn’t really know what to do next, but they instinctively started meeting in this tiny third-floor apartment. They met daily from midnight until 3:00 in the morning, hoping that no one would notice them. They read the Word of God secretly and tried to provide spiritual support and encouragement for one another. 

Two months earlier, they explained, they had started praying this prayer: “Oh God, we don’t know how to do this! We grew up and were trained as Muslims. We know how to be Muslims in a Muslim environment. We even know how to be communists in a Muslim environment. But we do not know how to follow Jesus in a Muslim environment. Please, Lord, send us someone. Send us someone who knows about persecution, someone who knows what other believers are doing, someone who can encourage and teach us.”

Chills were running up and down my spine as they explained what had happened when they had been together in this same rented upper room earlier in the day: “At 1:30 this morning, we were here praying when the Holy Spirit told us to go to the airport. The Holy Spirit told us that we were to go to the first white man who got off the plane. The Holy Spirit told us that He was sending this man to answer our questions.”

“So,” they said as they smiled at me again, “that is why you are here. Now you can do what God has called you here to do. Before you start teaching us, however, we have one other question for you: Where have you been and what have you been doing for these last two months? We started to pray for someone to show up two months ago. And, only now are you here.”

I shook my head in embarrassment. I confessed, “Well… I guess I have been being disobedient! I tried my best for weeks not to come here at all. Please forgive me!”

They did. And we had a great time of teaching and learning from each other over the next few days. I listened to each of their personal testimonies of faith and asked them specific questions about the details of how and when they encountered Jesus and became His followers.

One of the five men told me, “I dreamed about a blue book. I was driven, consumed really, by the message of the dream. ‘Look for this book,’ the dream said, ‘read this Bible.’ I began a search, but I could not find a book like that anywhere in my country. Then, one day, I walked into a Quranic book shop and saw this sea of green books lining the walls. I noticed a book of a different colour on a shelf at the back of the store, so I walked back there and pulled out a thick blue volume to discover that it was a Bible. It was published in my own national language. I actually bought a Bible in the Islamic bookstore, took it home, and read it five times. That’s how I came to know Jesus.”

Another one told me, “I dreamed about finding Jesus, but I didn’t even know how or where to look. Then one day I was walking through the market when a man I had never seen before came up to me in the crowd. He said, ‘The Holy Spirit told me to give you this book.’ He handed me a Bible and disappeared into the crowd. I never saw him again. But I read the Bible he gave me three times from cover to cover, and that’s how I came to know and follow Jesus.”

Each one of the five men told me a different variation of this same story. Each one of them had come across a Bible in some unusual, miraculous way. Each one had read the Gospel story of Jesus. Each one had decided to follow Him.

After hearing their stories, I felt drawn to open the book of Acts. With an entirely different point of view, I began to read the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. For the first time in my life, as I read that passage, I wondered: How in the world did an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a man of colour, and a foreigner get a copy of a scroll containing the book of Isaiah?

In New Testament days, even partial copies of Scripture were handwritten on scrolls. They were very rare and very expensive. What’s more the Jews had strict rules and restrictions about who was even allowed to touch the Holy Scriptures and where the Scriptures could be opened and read.

By all accounts, this Ethiopian official would not have been allowed to touch a copy of Scripture, or open it and read it, or possess it. Yet, Philip finds this Ethiopian man in a chariot on a desert road in Gaza pouring and puzzling over Isaiah 53. When I read the story on this night the fact that the Ethiopian official was actually going home with a copy of a portion of the Jewish Bible seems extraordinary and unlikely.

In fact, it was so extraordinary and unlikely that I blurted out a question: Where did this man get a copy of Your Word?

In reply, the Holy Spirit spoke to my heart: I have been doing this for a long time. If you will take My Word out into the world, I will get it in the right hands.

What a marvellous, miraculous, and mysterious partnership this is! We have no clear understanding of what sent that official of the Ethiopian queen on a spiritual pilgrimage to Israel, Something or someone did. How did that man miraculously get his hands on that part of the Word of God? And why was he on the empty stretch of desert road, at that very moment, reading that particular chapter of Isaiah? Of course, we know how Philip ended up there – the Holy Spirit sent him. 

I had to admit that I did not know the answers to any of those questions.

Yet, now, after being among believers in persecution, I was pretty sure that God must have had to work a number of small miracles for that encounter between the Ethiopian man and Philip to take place. In God’s marvellous timing, this encounter happened in exactly the right place and at exactly the right time. Almost two thousand years later, the fact thing had happened when I walked off of a place to meet five Muslim men who had miraculously found Jesus. I had never intended to be an answer to prayer that day, but evidently I was.

Reading from the book of Acts that evening was a completely new experience. Two thoughts stayed in my mind: this is what God did then and this is what does does now. Suddenly, my modern world didn’t look all that different than the world of the Bible.

Much, much later, after years of gathering stories, I came to understand that the tales told by these five new friends were actually pretty commonplace. Time and again, in the years since, Muslim-background believers from many different countries and cultures have told me about being directed by dreams and visions. They have told me about finding Bibles through amazing circumstances. They have mentioned reading the Bible multiple times. In the reading, they have talked about feeling drawn to Jesus. They have told me of a personal decision to follow Him. Many of those pilgrimages to faith involved a Philip who miraculously showed up at exacting the right time, in the right place, with the right words that finally pointed the seeker directly to Jesus. 

The Great Commission

The completion of the Great Commission will include great suffering, but eternity will prove it is worth the price. There are three significant truths in that statement.

1> The Great Commission will one day be complete. One day, disciples will have been made and churches will have been multiplied in every nation and among every people group on the planet. Thousands of these people groups remain unreached today, but one day — hopefully soon — they will be reached. In the words of Jesus, “The gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world as a testimony to all nations” (Matthew 24:14). 

According to the apostle John, one day “a great multitude that no one can number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” will stand “before the throne of the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands … crying out in a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Revelation 7:9-10).

These words from Jesus and John in Scripture are guarantees. By the power of His Spirit through the testimony of His Church, Christ will be proclaimed as Saviour among all the peoples of the world.

2> This task of proclaiming Christ to all people will include great suffering. Jesus assured us of this, as well. Right before His promise in Matthew 24 of the gospel proclaimed to all nations, Jesus told His disciples, “They will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death” (Matthew 24:9). “If they persecute Me, they will also persecute you,” He told them in John 15:20. It is no surprise, then, to see the suffering of God’s people on every page of the story of the church in Acts and the history of the Church since Acts. 

Suffering is one of God’s ordained means for the growth of His Church. He brought salvation to the world through Christ, our suffering Saviour, and He now spreads salvation in the world through Christians as suffering saints. In the words of Paul, “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). Clearly, there is a sense in which the danger in our lives increases in proportion to the depth of our relationship with Christ.

3> Eternity will prove that such suffering was worth the price. The book of Revelation envisions the day when sin and Satan will ultimately be finally defeated, and followers of Christ who endured suffering in this world will reign with God for all eternity. How will this defeat come about? Through Christians who “have conquered [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives unto death” (Revelation 12:11). Men and women who wisely love the gospel and glory of God more than their own lives will enter into and experience eternal life, where God Himself will wipe away every tear from their eyes and dwell with them forever.

So, we need to decide that Jesus and His cause on the earth — to go to the nations and make disciples — is better than all the pleasures, possessions, and pursuits of the world put together. 

It is time for true believers to be more cognizant of the needs of the world, more confident in the Word of God, and more committed to making His Word known throughout this world, no matter what it cost you…realizing that God’s reward is far greater than anything this world could ever offer you.