In his book, Missions, Andy Johnson paints a beautiful picture of what healthy engagement in missions might look like in a local church. He writes, “Imagine a local church where the congregation’s mission to the nations is clear and agreed upon. Elders guide the congregation toward strategic missions. Missions is held up as a concern for all Christians, not just the niche ‘missions club.’ The tyranny of new trends and demands for immediate, visible results holds no sway. Members see missions as the work of the church together rather than the personal, private activity of the individual. In this church, members see missions as a core ministry of the church, not an occasional short-term project. Relationships with missionaries are deep, serious, and lasting. Joyfully giving to missions is a basic part of the church’s budget, not merely the fruit of occasional and desperate appeals. And members actually value missions enough that some want to uproot their lives and be sent out long-term by the church.” (Andy Johnson, Missions, 19). This, he argues, “flows primarily from finding one’s missions agenda and methods in the bible” (20).
We’re not perfect, but by God’s grace, the tremendous work of our missions team, and your continued prayers and support, there isn’t a single clause in that paragraph that doesn’t describe the heart and increasing practice of our church. Let’s truly praise God for that, Grace.
Welcome, once again, to missions week. I love that the missions team has made this week an annual priority. I also love that it is a significant reminder and plea. It’s a reminder of God’s call to the Church to engage in world missions and that we need to care well for the missionaries we’ve sent. And it’s a plea for all of us to engage more fully in missionary work—sending, supporting, or going. Without the help of the missions team, and without the help of missions week, it’s far too easy for us to neglect these things.
With that, here’s my main conviction regarding missions that I want to impart to you: Until Christ returns God means His people to be continually engaged in missions. And with that, the line of thinking that drives my sermons is this: We will never engage as God means us to engage in missions if we don’t feel as God means us to feel about missions. And we will never feel as God means us to feel about missions if we don’t think as God means us to think about missions. To say it in a slightly different way: right thinking leads to right feelings and right feelings lead to right action.
For all of those reasons I mean to spend this week highlighting what the bible says about how God’s people are to think about missions. And next week I mean to highlight what the bible says about how we’re meant to feel about and act in missions. Let’s pray that God would do all of that and more in us and through us.
WHAT DO WE MEAN BY “MISSIONS”?
What is the first thing you think of when you hear the word “missions”? How about “missionary”?
A flood of thoughts come into my mind. I think of the missionary heroes of the past and the way their biographies have inspired me (Jim Elliot, John Patton, Amy Carmichael, etc.). I think of support raising. I think of martyrdom. I think of David Platt (who probably discovered and converted three new people groups already this morning). I think of strange doctrine. I think of zealous young people. I think of being naked in Africa. I think of challenging food and bathroom situations. I think of the Cross conference and Urbanan. I think of heaven and hell. I think of scary things. I think of the greatness of God.
Some of those things are good and significant and true. Some are incidental, personal, and false. You probably think of some of those things and a few of your own. The idea of missions tends to elicit a lot of different thoughts. How, then, do we sort through them? Or, more specifically, when we talk about missions at Grace, what do we mean and why do we mean it? There is probably more than one way to rightly define missions but here’s what we mean:
missions is doing cross-cultural ministry where
ministry is the process of calling people to follow Jesus because of our love for God and others.
And we believe this about missions because we believe that’s what God has revealed to us in the bible.
Let me say that same thing from a slightly different perspective: missions is actively working to offer other nations, tribes, people, and languages the opportunity to join in the celebration of Revelation 7:9-10.
Revelation 7:9-10 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
May these words ring in your ears as you walk with us through this week. Again, then, our understanding of the bible’s definition of missions is that it is cross-cultural ministry; an invitation to join in the celebration of the Lamb.
HOW SHOULD WE THINK ABOUT MISSIONS?
With that, I intend to spend the rest of this sermon sharing 14 truths about missions (6 things missions isn’t and 8 things missions is) as a means helping us think biblically about missions, as a means of helping us feel biblically about missions, as a means of helping us biblically engage in missions.
What Missions Is Not
According to our definition and understanding of missions, here are 6 things that missions is not:
- Missions is not building houses, doing service projects, or feeding and clothing the poor; that is, it is not humanitarian aid. These are all great things and critical parts of the Christian life, but by themselves—given our understanding of missions—they are not missions. To be clear, none of those things are in conflict with missions and missionaries often rightly engage in these things, but again, by themselves, humanitarian aid work is not missions as it lacks a specific call to follow Jesus.
- Missions is not evangelizing your neighbor. You may have heard someone say something like, “My mission field is my neighborhood.” It’s certainly good to bring the gospel to bear on your neighborhood, especially if you have people of different cultures in your neighborhood. Indeed, like meeting the physical needs of others, this is an essential part of the Christian life. And yet, because it lacks a significant cross-cultural element, we think of this as ministry, not missions.
- Missions is not running a helpful business in another country. The countries where the gospel is least known are often the hardest to get into. For that reason many missionaries are forced to start or join a business as a way of getting into those countries. That can take a lot of time and energy. In fact it can become distracting and even consuming. While it can be an important and even necessary part of a missionary’s strategy, by itself it is not missions. Missions never has as its goal simply staying legally and profitably in another country that is hostile to the gospel.
- Missions is not bible translation. You might wonder how that fits with the fact that we support two bible translators as missionaries. There are two simple answers to this. First, their work lays the vital groundwork for missions and Church health. Second, both of the translators that we support are absolutely committed to sharing the gospel with the people groups they are translating for (which is certainly missions). Nevertheless, bible translation by itself is not missions.
- Missions is not teaching internationally—even bible teaching. Like running a business in an another country, teaching in a different culture may be a significant means to the end of missions, but by itself—even bible teaching—is not missions.
- Finally, missions is not gaining international converts. As counterintuitive as it seems, our aim in ministry and missions is not converts. That’s not our job; which is good as we are entirely powerless to accomplish that task. That job belongs to God alone for He alone can make the dead to come alive. We are right in ministry and missions to pray for God to save sinners and grow them in grace, but we are wrong to judge our ministry or missionary success by the number of converts. The task God has given us is to faithfully proclaim the good news and call people to respond to it (all of it) in faith, and then trust God to do what He pleases with it.
Rightly understood, this list would probably be controversial at a typical missions gathering. Misunderstood, it could be divisive even here. Let me explain. I certainly do not mean to say that these are bad things. In fact, every one of them is an important part of following Jesus. I also don’t mean to say that missionaries shouldn’t do these things. In fact, we have missionaries we gladly support doing everyone of them. What I do mean to say is that none of these things by themselves are missions as we understand missions. Humanitarian aid, running a helpful business, bible translation, and teaching, by themselves, lack a call to follow Jesus. Evangelizing your neighbor lacks a significant cross-cultural element. And gaining international converts lacks an understanding of missions as a process and conversion as a work of God. Therefore, while our missionaries often and rightly use these things as a means to their missionary end, they are not missions.
The keys to all of this are (1) recognizing that the bible never calls God’s people to engage in ministry activities—locally or abroad—that are detethered from calling people to follow Jesus and (2) understanding that for the term missions to be meaningful it must be distinguished from both local ministry and general Christian obedience. It’s a great tragedy when we confuse or redefine the missionary call of God on our lives. It’s a great tragedy when well intentioned people, zealous for good, confuse Christian discipleship with religiously-motivated altruism. It is a great tragedy when we confuse our role in ministry/missions with God’s role. And it is a great tragedy when God’s people lose the critical biblical category of cross-cultural ministry; of God’s charge for the Church to take the gospel and all its implications to parts of the world where it is not; when we lose the critical biblical category of missions as distinct from ministry and other godly endeavors. Thinking rightly about missions means understanding what missions is not.
What Missions Is
With that, let’s conclude our time together by considering 8 things that missions is.
- Missions is ultimately for the glory of God. This means that missions cannot begin with an attempt to fill ourselves with a sense of significance or adventure. It cannot even begin with the motivation of rescuing people from hell and help them to know what it means to be reconciled to God. God’s Word tells us that missions is honoring to God only when it begins with, results from, and aims at an unwavering commitment to glorifying God.
If you’ve been at Grace for any length of time, I hope it is not news to you that this must be the beginning and end of every single one of our endeavors. That is, missions must be for the glory of God because everything must be for the glory of God!
God is first after His own glory in His saving work among mankind (see also Isaiah 43:1-7).
Isaiah 48:10-11 Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. 11 For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another.
Psalm 67:3-4 “May the peoples praise you, O God; may all the peoples praise you. May the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you rule the peoples justly and guide the nations of the earth.”
Psalm 96:3 “Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples.”
And so we must join him to this end. “The writer Tom Wells puts it especially well in his book ‘A vision for Missions.’ He writes: Men must know God. That is the one thing they must do. And this can mean nothing less than that God is eminently worthy to be known in all the length and breadth and height and depth of His Character…The missionary vision is the vision of God also…It is the same vision being shared rather than merely enjoyed…Sharing the vision of [the glory of] God – that is the work of missions” (from CHB seminar).
As we contemplate missions this week, as we pray for our missionaries, as we pray for the nations, as we define missions terms, and as we consider our role in missions, we must begin here, for all things begin here. If we are to honor God in our life or missionary efforts, it will be because we begin and end with the glory of God; amazed by it and proclaiming it to the whole world. Thinking rightly about missions begins here.
- Thinking rightly about missions means understanding that missions is joining God in His Work. This is critical for us to get our heads around. God is always, actively working to bring a people to Himself; to seek and save the lost. That is, God is at continually at work to draw people to His Son, Jesus, from every corner of the earth. There are lots of bible verses that teach this, but the main thing for us to understand is that this is the primary story of the bible! That is, the entire bible is the story of God’s continual work to save the nations. Engaging in missions, then, is simply accepting God’s invitation to join Him in what He’s already doing..
That obeying God’s charge to engaging in missions is joining God is His work means that (1) missions is a really good thing and (2) it cannot fail! To be invited to join God in His work is always good. And because of that we need not wonder if engaging in missions is a worthy investment. It is good to pray for and help raise up missionaries. It is good to financially support good missionaries. It is good to give your time praying for and supporting those we’ve sent. And it is good to consider going to the nations in order to bring them the gospel of Jesus Christ. We may wonder if we should take that job or go to that school or paint the living room or buy a new washing machine, but we need not wonder if it is good to participate in missionary work.
Likewise, that engaging in missions is joining God in His work, means that when we do we cannot fail.
Psalm 115:3 Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.
Isaiah 14:27 the LORD of hosts has purposed, and who will annul it? His hand is stretched out, and who will turn it back?
Nothing can thwart God’s purposes. Therefore, when we join God in His work, even if it costs us everything (more on that in a minute), we can never fail, for God always wins. Grace, the gospel itself is the good news of the great promise that God is working to save souls and that the cross of Christ secured success!
- Missions is obedience to Jesus’ Great Commission. I’ve said that thinking rightly about missions means engaging in it for and to the glory of God. I’ve also said that thinking rightly about missions means understanding that engaging in missions is joining God in His work. In both of those things I’ve suggested that God means His people to engage in missions. Where in the bible do I find that? There are many, many passages, but the clearest of them all is found in what we call the Great Commission.
Matthew 28:18-20 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Every other missionary call in the bible flows from this commission of Jesus to His followers. Likewise, every biblical example of the early Church engaging in missions is an act of obedience to this commission. In other words, the bible has a good deal more to say about missions than what we find in these few verses, but all of it is simply an expansion on the meaning or implications of these words of Jesus. For that reason, this passage alone is a sufficient call for the people of God to take the gospel to all nations. If you were wondering why we make such a big deal about missions here, this is it. Unambiguously, indiscriminatingly, and unmistakably, the Lord Jesus Christ calls those who bear His name to follow Him to the ends of the earth proclaiming His life, death, and resurrection until He returns.
Thinking rightly about missions means recognizing the Great Commission as Jesus’ universal call for His followers to engage in the cause of world-ministry. Missions is the privilege and responsibility of all Christians.
- Missions is the ultimate expression of love for neighbor. This one is so simple that I almost don’t want to say anything about it for fear of making it sound confusing. God’s people are repeatedly commanded to love our neighbors (Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 5:43, 22:39)—which is to say that we are commanded to love all who bear the image of God. What could that possibly mean if it didn’t mean doing everything possible to get the gospel to them? Grace, thinking rightly about missions means understanding it as an act of obedience to Jesus’ command to love the world as He loves the world (John 3:16).
- Missions is an endeavor given primarily to the local church. The local church is where God means Christians to be identified (through baptism and membership), cared for (by being shepherded and nourished), and sent (equipped for and released to the works of ministry and missions). We see this in passages like Acts 13, where Paul and Barnabas are sent out by the local church, and in Philippians 4:15-16 and 3 John, where care for missionaries is carried out by the local church. Truly, the end of missions is active participation in a local church. I’m going to say a lot more about this next week when I talk about biblical missions in practice, but for now I want you to understand that thinking rightly about missions means understanding the local church to be the primary training, calling, sending, and supporting ground for missions.
- Missions is essential. By God’s design the nations will be saved by the missionary efforts of the Church. As hard as it is to wrap our minds around it, if we do not go, God will not save the lost.
Romans 10:13-15 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” 14 But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”
People need the gospel and God has determined to bring it to the world through the Church. Rightly understanding the bible’s teaching on missions means understanding that missions is not optional, but essential.
- Missions is costly. The bible makes clear that missions will cost you your honor (Matthew 13:53-58), it will cost you your comfort (Matthew 19:28-29; Luke 9:58), and it might even cost you your life (John 15:18-21; Philippians 1:21). On the most basic level missions is costly because it’s ministry (which is hard) in a context where everything is harder. It is costly because the forces of darkness hate missions an actively oppose it. It’s also costly because where the gospel isn’t, neither is the desire for the gospel or the fruits of the Spirit. Doing missions means being unwanted by a people who lack true love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, or self-control. On top of all of that is the physical separation, lack of consistent Christian fellowship and worship, and a lack of accountability.
Every missionary in the bible experienced some version of this; though perhaps none more than Paul.
2 Corinthians 11:23-27 with [great] labors, …imprisonments, …countless beatings, and often near death. 24 Five times I received …forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure…
Engaging in missions might not cost quite this much, but thinking biblically about missions means recognizing the biblical example and promise of its costliness.
- Missions is rewarding beyond measure. Though the bible describes the high cost of missions, it describes the reward as infinitely greater. The same man who wrote of the unimaginable cost missions had taken on him also wrote…
Phil 1:21-26 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.
Phil 3:8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ…
In the words of our Lord, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time…and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29-30). Missions is costly, but the price we pay cannot compare with the eternal reward that comes with it.
Until Jesus returns, God means His people to be engaged in missions—cross-cultural ministry. And yet we will never rightly engage in missions if we don’t feel rightly about missions. And we will never feel rightly about missions if we don’t think rightly about missions. Thinking rightly about missions means allowing the bible to be our guide. And allowing the bible to be our guide means understanding that missions is ultimately for the glory of God, joining God in His work, obedience to Jesus’ Great Commission, the ultimate expression of love for neighbor, given primarily to the local church, essential, costly, and rewarding beyond measure.
Would you ask God to drive these things home for you this week? Would you ask Him to use them to renew your mind in order that you might know true transformation of your heart and life? Would you encourage one another in them by discussing and praying about them together? Would you consider what might change in your life if you were to truly believe them? Would you consider how our church might change if we truly believed these things together? And would you lean all the way in on missions week? May the grace of God come upon all of us to these ends. Amen.