The Gospel for the Nations
At the end of Matthew in chapter 28 Jesus is speaking to His disciples. As He addresses them He leaves them with the command to make disciples of the nations. This, the Great Commission, has echoed throughout the ages. The only mission given to the church, greater than the making of disciples, is the worship of God. Yet, even the making of disciples has the worship of God as its end goal.
Christ made it clear that the Gospel was for the nations. Yet, how are we to understand the word nations? Who or what are the nations? For the modern western church, the nations, has come to mean far off lands. These lands are geo-political centers delineated by borders and regions. We have come to model our idea of missions work after the great evangelists William Carey. Carey, often called the “Father of Modern Missions” labored in India as he preached the Gospel to a pagan people. Carey’s work inspired countless untold others to follow in his footsteps, launching what we know as missions work today.
As brilliant and dedicated as Carey was, I would posit that he would be appalled at what has become of his legacy. Today, the modern western church has almost completely forgotten evangelistic work outside the context of foreign missions. We have grown to view missions as strictly work we do in the context of far-off geographical places. We have misunderstood Christ’s use of the word nations in Matthew 28.
The word translated nations in that passage is the Greek work ethnos. The word ethnic or ethnicity is derived from this Greek word. It is more properly translated people groups or people. This understanding of the word nations should guide our understanding of missions work.
Come with me now as I explain.
Did Carey Intend to Establish a Modern Model
When Carey landed in India he was there for the long haul. As I mentioned in a previous article, he labored for seven years before he saw his first convert. When Carey traveled to India he traveled unsupported. After a short-time there he realized that he was woefully unequipped financially. However, even in that Carey rejoiced in the work and labored on. He was eventually invited into a Dutch controlled region of India and things became marginally better.
Eventually Carey took on work to support his family and himself. He then used that work to support his missions work in India. He would preach the Gospel in the open air and hand out tracts. Carey understood his duties (often fallibly) to both his family and to his fellow Imago Dei.
If we look at the modern model for missions work, we would see stark contrasts between Carey and others. However, I do not mean to imply that Carey was a paragon of perfection in his work. I believe that he neglected his family in some regards. Love for the lost in foreign lands is laudable. Moreover, an excellent way to communicate Christ’s love to the heathens and pagans is to sacrifice for your own family. Isn’t this a picture of the Gospel that Paul says marriage is supposed to be?
With that in mind, I want us to look at what Carey modeled for the Church at that time. Furthermore, I want us to think on whether what Carey modeled then is for now. By all accounts Carey faced massive opposition from his denomination at the time. One older pastor called Carey out for his passion for the conversion of the pagans. This older man ostensibly told him to sit down and shut up because he was too emotionally invested.
Therefore, we need to consider the admonition Carey received, and we need to ask ourselves what our investment is. Moreover, are we invested at all? Subsequently, if we are invested, what does that investment look like on an individual basis?
Sadly, Reaching the Nations is Different Now
If we consider Carey’s work, the good and the bad. We will find ourselves astonished at the depth of his impact in India. Certainly, a man who labored for 7 years before seeing his first convert shows spiritual fortitude. Furthermore, such a man shows great dependence on God for all things. Carey wasn’t just trusting God for converts, he trusted God for providence. In many ways he was much like George Mueller.
So how does modern missions work look compared to the work of Carey? Certainly, missionary families today commit to spending long periods of time in far-off foreign lands. There is no doubt that they give up many of the creature comforts of living in the USA or other western nations. Often, they find themselves in third world countries that lack even the basic of needs for all but the wealthiest. However, there is a staggering difference between William Carey and the missionaries of today.
Today’s missionaries spend months, sometimes years, travelling across the country speaking at local churches. What is their reason for this? Is it to stir up others to go out into the world and preach the Gospel to all creatures? Are they calling others to lay down their lives and creature comforts to join them in going to the nations? No. Most of them are drumming up support.
I recently listened to a message on line. The speaker was a missionary speaking at a local Baptist church not far from where I live. This man and his family have been supported by this church for nearly a half a century. He has lived off the support of other Christians for almost fifty years. Able bodied and well enough to travel, but not working. Does that sound like William Carey? Furthermore, would Carey recognize this?
When Going to the Nations Becomes an Excuse
Look, I don’t have an issue with international missions. I am not completely opposed to funding foreign missions work. Moreover, I believe that there is biblical precedent for a certain level of foreign missions work and funding.
What I do not support is the idea of fulltime missionaries who move to a region and camp out for years and years. Furthermore, I don’t believe that the Bible allows for it either. What I have observed with increasing frequency in the west, is the move towards missionaries being under fulltime support even here in the States. We have taken a model of missions, imposed it on Scripture, and then superimposed it into a context closer to home.
I believe that the way the Church has come to view missions has created a maelstrom of evangelistic laziness. It is bad enough that people view supporting stateside missionaries as part of fulfilling the Great Commission. Worse yet, we take it out further and see sending missionaries to the nations as the penultimate evangelistic work.
I respect and am humbled by the work of Carey. However, I don’t believe that we should seek to point to him as THEE model. I believe that the model we should pursue is contained in the earliest accounts of the Church. We need to look in Acts and other New Testament letters.
The early Church did not grow rapidly because believers in Jerusalem got together and formed inefficient missions boards. It grew like wildfire because it carried the Gospel to the people they lived next to. Consequently, the message spread in concentric circles from Jerusalem to the nations. It spread by word of mouth to other regions. Certainly, Paul was the apostle to the gentiles. However, what does that mean for us?
Recognizing the Nations are Here
There was a day, in the not too distant past, when the nations were still far off for American Christians. Moreover, to some degree, the western church misapplied the Great Commission to itself. The rise of a certain aberrant systematic theology, caused American Christianity to see itself as a latent version of Israel. This theology gave rise to American Churches quoting “If my people called by name would humble themselves and seek my face…” as applying to not only the Church, but to the nation. America was “thee Christian nation”. Moreover, in some circles, America was God’s nation.
This egocentric perspective by the Church, and subsequently the nation, caused us to look outwards from our borders. Ordinarily, this would not be entirely bad. However, it was breeding ground for narcissistic self-righteous smugness and American pride. It was this that drove American Churches to begin to export “American Christianity” to the nations.
Furthermore, during the Victorian age in the USA, the American Church exported her Victorian values to other countries. Stories are told of American missionaries travelling into villages in Africa and South America and Asia and imposing standards of dress on people that were literally foreign to them.
So why do I bring this up? During this time, when a person or a family immigrated to the USA there were certain expectations that came with that. You would learn the language and adopt the practices. Many of the immigrants that came were ostensibly Christian.
This is not the case any longer. Even now as I write this, massive caravans of people with staggering differences in cultural practices are rushing towards the borders of the USA. Entire neighborhoods of some cities look nothing like the America of even 20 years ago. The nations are here. They are our neighbors.
Responding to the Nations that are Here
This is not a boast. I spend quite a bit of time taking the Gospel to the lost in public settings. From pubic streets in downtown areas to college campuses and outside of abortion mills. I’ve met literally hundreds if not thousands of people through public evangelism. Consequently, one thing has become clear to me, the nations are here.
In the case of just one local community college in a city of 18,000 I have witnessed to people from the following places: Egypt, South Sudan, Spain, South America, Central America, Germany, Italy, Micronesia, Asia
I have witnessed to people of various religious backgrounds on the same campus. Everything from Muslims to Buddhists to Eastern Transcendentalists. I have engaged in incredibly challenging philosophical conversations with atheists on the same campus. However, it isn’t just this campus. Compound it by several others and you will see patterns I have been observing. The nations are here.
My fellow Christians, it is beyond time for us to embrace the truth that we have sat back and been idle for too long. We have been so focused on sending people out to the nations that we have missed that the nations have come to us.
Moreover, hotly contested political battles aside, I believe we need to set aside our nationalistic fervor as Christians. Am I arguing for an abandonment of our national sovereignty? Not in the least. However, as Christians it is imperative for us to remember that this world is not our home. We are the true Sojourners in this country. We are ambassadors of a far better kingdom than the one we are temporarily in.
As ambassadors of Christ, we should be relishing the opportunities to go to these people as they arrive and preach Christ crucified to them. Romans 8:28 holds true even here.
The Nations: My Conclusion
I do not want this to be seen as an argument against foreign missions. Nothing could be further from the truth. I want us, the true Church, to be about Advancing the Gospel into the whole world. For far too long too many of us have sat back leaving the work of evangelism in the hands of a few. Some of those few spend long years, even decades, laboring for the nations overseas. Then a few more labor for the nations here near our homes.
Sadly, most of us don’t ever labor at all. Paul Washer is famously quoted as saying “If you aren’t going into the well, at least hold the rope for someone who does.” I want to say that it is high time that we start going into the well together and holding rope for each other.
The nations are here. They have been for quite some time. Moreover, the nations are continuing to rush toward us. There is something about America that calls out to people. As the poem inscribed in bronze at the base of the Statue of Liberty reads:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
We hold a far brighter and more powerful light than that colossus in New York Harbor ever will. We hold the light of Christ. The very light of the world. It was He who came into the world, not to condemn it, but to save it. Our Lord left us with the command to carry His light into the world. To the nations. We were once the homeless tempest-tossed sinners that yearned for His Freedom.
Soli Deo Gloria!