The Basis of Missions in the Epistles

The Church and Missions

This morning we conclude our study on the biblical basis of missions by taking up the fourth and last subtitle: The Basis of Missions in the Epistles, that is, the church and missions. My message again has three sections:

  1. The nature of the church,
  2. The urgency of the church's mission and
  3. The consummation of the church.

The Nature of the Church

In Ephesians, the apostle Paul uses eight illustrations to explain the nature of the church. We find the missionary responsibility of the church in all these illustrations.

The Church as the Body of Christ

The apostle Paul calls the church the body of Christ (Ephesians 1:23). And in this metaphor, he points out something which has an important bearing on missions. He says in Ephesians 2:16 that the Jews and the Gentiles have become one body, the body of Christ which is the church.

The "middle wall of partition" (2:14) no longer exists in the church of Christ. Since God has included the Gentiles in his church, it follows logically that the church has a universal mission through which the body of Christ continues to grow in all parts of the world. Paul also says in Colossians that in the church "there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor un-circumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all" (Colossians 3:11). This glorious vision is being realized through missions.

Every member of the human body is expected to fulfill its function, and all members of the body are expected to work in perfect unity. That is the only way for the body to keep healthy and growing. Christ expects the same thing from his body. Paul, speaking the mind of Christ, says that "the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body" (Ephesians 4:16).

It is when every member of the church of Jesus Christ understands his duties as a missioner and joins together with other Christians in harmonious action that the church will grow. Here we have the two basic principles of church growth: unity and total mobilization.

The Church as New Man

First, corporately: The whole church is called by Paul a new man (Ephesians 2:15) consisting of two parties - the Jews and the Gentiles. Second, individually: Every member of the body of Christ is called a new man, who is created according to the image of God consisting in righteousness and true holiness (Ephesians 4:24). All true believers have become new creatures in Christ regardless of their nationalities.

This teaching sheds an important light on the task of missions. The aim of missionary work is not to swell church membership, but to increase the number of new creatures in Christ. If we mainly think of membership, we easily fall under the curse of creedalism. There is an important distinction between creed and creedalism. Creed is absolutely necessary because it is the crystallization of what we believe. We cannot really believe without knowing clearly what we believe. Creed is a concrete statement of our faith. But creedalism is different.

Creedalism means the conscious or unconscious attitude that as long as we have brought people to a position where they can say yes to our creeds, we have done our job. Wherever creedalism prevails, churches are satisfied with formal membership and show no real concern for lack of signs of spiritual life in the lives of church members. A spiritually healthy church is less impressed with numbers than spiritual vitality.

I do not belittle the significance of numbers. They do tell something, and sometimes they are even indispensable. What I do mean is this: Numbers are meaningless unless they indicate spiritual reality or unless they lead somewhere. In fact, churches that lay emphasis on spiritual reality are usually churches that grow statistically.

The Church as the Household of God

Paul says in Ephesians 2:19 that the Gentile believers are brought into the household of God, which is virtually identical with the church. The word household (or home or family) suggests the idea of love and fellowship. The church as the household of God is a place where the love of God is manifested and where the children of God enjoy fellowship with one another. One of the responsibilities of a local church is to provide opportunities for fellowship between its members.

The church exists for a fivefold purpose: worship, teaching, evangelism, service and fellowship. The Christian life is essentially a life of fellowship: It has its roots in fellowship with God vertically, and it expresses itself in fellowship with Christians horizontally. When the Christian life is devoid of fellowship, it is substantially short of reality. It has been said that one Christian is no Christian. This may be overstated, but there is surely truth in it. It tells us that the real Christian life is a fellowship life. Fellowship is the context of the Christian life. You cannot live a life without context.

This illustration of the church teaches us something important which relates to missions. The Christian fellowship is glorious because it is a family fellowship of all the redeemed of God from all over the world. The church of Christ is a universal family consisting of people of all races and nationalities. Missionary service, therefore, means the effort of extending this glorious international family of Christ - a family in which there is true equality, acceptance and love between all its members. This is in fact the fulfillment of Confucius' audacious idea of "one brotherhood of all people within the four seas."

The Church as the Kingdom of God

Paul calls the Gentile Christians "fellow-citizens with the saints" (Ephesians 2:19). The word citizen implies a nation or a kingdom. The apostle Peter calls the church a "holy nation" (1 Pet. 2:9), and the apostle Paul calls her the "kingdom of God's dear Son" (Colossians 1:13). We can, therefore, use either nation or kingdom for the church.

The first basic idea behind the concept of a kingdom is authority or power. Paul says, "The kingdom of God is not in word, but in power" (1 Cor. 4:20). This power is manifested in two things: first, in the obedience of the citizens of the kingdom to the will of the king; second, in the citizens' victory over sin and Satan.

The second basic idea behind the concept of a kingdom is found in Romans 14:17: "The kingdom of God is ... righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit." This means that the kingdom of God expresses itself in a specific type of life in which righteousness, peace and joy are the predominant characteristics. The translation from the power of darkness into the kingdom of God's dear Son (Colossians 1:13) is a glorious experience. This translation is as concrete, definite and real as the birth of a new baby. Everyone who has been thus translated finds in his heart and life obedience, righteousness, peace and joy. It is a great privilege and joy to have a share in the mission of furthering this kingdom in the whole world by bringing people into its glorious blessedness.

The Church as Spiritual Temple

The church is, as Paul puts it,

built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; in whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: in whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit.

Ephesians 2:20-22)

The church is depicted here as a holy temple which is a habitation of God through the Holy Spirit. Or, as Peter puts it, the church is a "spiritual house" built with living stones (1 Pet. 2:5).

This illustration of the church teaches us at least two important lessons: First, the church is spiritual. She is a place where spiritual laws and principles are employed; a place where spiritual sacrifices are offered and spiritual fruits are borne; a place where spiritual gifts are exercised in service; a place where the Holy Spirit moves freely.

Second, the church is living. She is built on the living Word of God as revealed through three channels: the prophets, the apostles and above all Jesus Christ. Her building materials are all living: the Living Stone which is Christ as the comer stone; the living stones which are born-again Christians; and the living Word. She is inhabited by the living God. Every activity in the church should aim at building up the members' living relationship with God.

Here again we see something important regarding missions: The goal of missions is not merely to reproduce on the mission fields all the denominations which we have in the homelands with all their dividedness, but to establish churches that are built on the pattern of the living Word of God, where sound spiritual principles are employed in a lively way in worship, government and program.

The Church as Bride of Christ

The apostle Paul calls the union of the church with Christ a great mystery. It is indeed a great mystery of love of which the union of husband and wife is a symbol. This illustration of the relationship between the church and Christ is true both corporately and individually: Corporately, the church as a whole is the bride of Christ; individually, every born-again Christian is a bride of Christ (2 Cor. 11:2).

The central point of this illustration is union in love. Love is more of the heart than the mind. And it follows that the Christian life is more of the heart than the mind. Mind is very important, and it is far from me to belittle the significance of the mind. But I do want to point out that in an age that glorifies the mind, it is important for us Christians to keep our faith a matter of the heart rather than the head. Of course, the either/or approach is not ideal, the best is both - we need both a heart relationship with God and an understanding of the mind. That is exactly the answer we find in the Bible.

I used to appreciate a question posed by a certain scholar: "Which of the two would you prefer - the seraphim, which means fire, or the cherabim, which means knowledge?" But later it dawned on me when I was reading my Bible one day that there was fire right in the center of the cherabim. So knowledge and fire are beautifully united together in the revealed Word of God. We need both the fire of the heart and the wisdom of the mind.

Evangelicals today need more training of the mind before they can meet the needs of today, but this is done not at the expense of a deep experience of the heart. Every missionary going out to another land must have a deep heart-experience of gospel truths before he can pass on a living message. The mind is often localized, but the heart is a universal language which everybody understands. Missionaries who go to the mission fields with degrees but without a deep heart-experience with Christ will fail and come home shattered and disillusioned.

The Church as a Candlestick

Paul speaks of Christians as "children of light" (Ephesians 5:8), which reminds us of the apostle John's vision of the seven churches as seven candlesticks. The church is meant by God to be a light in the world. The light of the gospel is to shine through the church in all the world. "Send the light" is still the motto of all missionary-minded churches; it is still the chorus of the hymn of missions. Light is always outreaching, never ingrown. The Christians and churches that are torch-bearers are always aggressive in evangelism and missions.

On the other hand, when Paul speaks of Christians as children of light, he is thinking of their Christ-like character. This leads us to another side of our task as light-bearers, which is sometimes called non-verbal witness. Verbal and non-verbal witness constitute the Christian light.

The Church as the Army of Christ

The picture of the church as an army is vividly painted by Paul in Ephesians 6. The armor of this army consists of both defensive and offensive equipment and weapons. The church is to be both defensive and offensive; she is both conservative and progressive. She defends and conserves purity of doctrine and purity of character, but she also moves ahead in offensive attack on Satan and sin as well as in active and agressive evangelism to bring people to God's side of the battle.

Where does the church of Christ stand in an antitraditional age like ours? She is anti all things that are antiChrist, and she is most conservative in keeping the true Christian heritage. What is the true Christian heritage? It is found in the Lord's letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor (Revelation 2-3). The Lord commended the victorious Christians in these churches for a number of things which constitute the precious Christian heritage. It is a sevenfold heritage:

  • purity of doctrine and the first love, as exemplified by the Ephesian Church;
  • boldness and firmness in face of persecution, as expressed by the church at Smyrna;
  • good works as found in the church at Thyatira;
  • emphasis on spirituality rather than form, as exhibited by the victorious members of the church at Sardis;
  • purity of character, as represented by the white garments worn by the remnant in the church at Sardis;
  • obedience and faith in evangelism and missions, as shown by the church at Philadelphia.

This sevenfold heritage is the true mainstream of Christianity, and it is behind this holy tradition that we firmly stand. We have noticed that one of the seven points is taking hold of every open door and entering into it with evangelism and missions. This is part of our great heritage, and we must uphold it.

As the army of Christ, let us march on with believing and bold evangelism and missions to the uttermost part of the world.

The Urgency of the Church's Mission

The Only Way of Salvation

The apostle Paul says in his first Epistle to Timothy, "There is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; who gave himself a ransom for all" (1 Tim. 2:5). This is in keeping with Peter's preaching when he said, "There is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). The claim of the gospel of Christ as the only way of salvation is clearly stated in the Gospels and the Epistles. This is what we believe and proclaim.

In this age of relativism and syncretism, the voice of universalism and self-salvation is strong. Probably the two strongest philosophies or thought-forms in universities all over the world are logical positivism and relativism, as some well-known scholars have pointed out. The former denies the possibility of knowing things as they really are; if anything is considered to be known, it is only known in the laboratory; there is no knowledge beside scientific knowledge. Relativism tries to make everything relative.

When relativism has been carried into theology, it has given birth to four forms of thought: a new conception of God, new morality, new evangelism and new secularism:

  • In the new concept of God, God himself is made relative - instead of the great I Am, he has become the God of Becoming.
  • In the new morality, morals are made relative: No standard is absolute except love, which in turn is left to relative and subjective interpretations.
  • In the new evangelism, the absolute finality of Christ in salvation is made relative.
  • In the new secularism, the sacred is made relative, and, as a result, we are left with "religionless Christianity."

Over against this relativism we have the biblical claim of the gospel of Christ as the only way of salvation. If we really believe in this absolute claim of the gospel, we have to act in accordance with it. True faith always involves action. Conviction in faith and indifference in action are never compatible with each other. The logic of the urgency of evangelism and missions is readily established by the absolute claim of the gospel. It is becoming more and more evident that only Bible-believing Christians are really concerned with carrying out the Great Commission.

We all agree with Paul when he says, "For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved" (Rom. 10:13). But how do we react when we hear Paul continue to say, "How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? and how shall they preach, except they be sent?" (Rom. 10:14-15). Shall we add here, How can we send except there are those who are willing to go?

Loyalty and Faithfulness to the Lord's Commission

We find a good example for loyalty and faithfulness to the Lord's commission in the life of Paul. Paul was very clear about the Lord's commission to him which he received at his conversion. He mentions this commission many times in his epistles as well as in his testimonies recorded in Acts.

How did he carry out this commission? He said to the Colossian Christians that he rejoiced in his sufferings as a commissioned minister of the gospel among the Gentiles (Colossians 1:24); he said to the Corinthian Christians that in his ministry as a commissioner of the gospel he did not faint:

We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body.

2 Corinthians 4:8-10

He said to Timothy, I am appointed a preacher, and an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles, for the which cause I also suffer these things, nevertheless I am not ashamed. (2 Tim. 1:11-12)

He said to the elders of the Ephesian church,

The Holy Spirit witnesseth in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions abide me. But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God.

Acts 20:23-24

What wonderful words from the lips of a dedicated missionary! Probably the best two illustrations of Paul's tremendous spirit of commitment to his commission are found in Acts. We find in Acts 14:19-21 that Paul was stoned by the people of the city of Lystra. They took Paul for dead and pulled him out of the city. It is possible that Paul was dead, but God raised him to life again.

What did he do after he came to himself? He went back into the very city where he had been treated so brutally. What for? just to boast of his wonderful recovery? There could be only one reason and that is that Paul was deeply concerned about the spiritual need of those people and wanted to preach the gospel to them. We read in the following verse that Paul was back in the city of Lystra for the third time a short time later. What bravery and what spirit of commitment!

The other illustration is recorded in Acts 24:24-25. When he was brought before the Roman Governor Felix for trial, Paul took this opportunity to witness to gospel truth. What did Paul say? "He reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come." Paul knew that Felix was a governor who was used to receiving large bribes, yet he talked about righteousness; he knew that Felix was living with a Jewish woman who was not his wife, yet he talked about temperance; he knew that his life was in the hand of Felix, yet he talked about the judgment of God. What bravery! Paul knew very well that it was dangerous for him to talk about these things before a man like Felix. But out of a sense of faithfulness to his commission as well as out of a desire to awaken Felix to his spiritual need, he ignored the danger and rose up to his duty. What faithfulness and commitment! The governor trembled before this spiritual giant!

Paul tells us that we as Christians are also commissioned by God: "God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5:19). All Christians are commissioned ambassadors for the great task of reconciliation - the task of bringing people back to God through evangelism and missions.

The Sure Judgment of God

The apostle Paul had a sense of urgency in his mission which stemmed from his sureness of the judgment of God. "Knowing the terror of the Lord, we persuade men" (2 Cor. 5:11), he said. Paul's concept of his mission was universal: "Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight" (Rom. 3:19-20). The whole world lies under the judgment of God, so the whole world needs the gospel of grace through Christ.

Paul experienced great stirring of his spirit at Athens and said to the people gathered at the Areopagus, "Now [God] commandeth all men every where to repent: because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteous- ness by that man whom he hath ordained" (Acts 17:30-31).

Evangelism is often linked together with the judgment of God in the epistles of Paul. For instance, Paul says in 2 Timothy 4:1, "I charge thee therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom; preach the word; be instant in season, out of season." Here we have evangelism, judgment and a sense of urgency.

If we really believe that all men will be judged by Christ according to their relationship with him, we will be serious about evangelism and missions, seizing every opportunity to preach the gospel.

Ardent Desire to Glorify God

Deep down in his heart Paul had a strong desire to glorify God by bringing more people to God to sing God's praise. He said to the Romans, "That the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy; as it is written. For this cause I will confess to thee among the Gentiles, and sing unto thy name" (Rom. 15:9-11).

Again, Paul says to the Corinthians, "All things are for your sakes, that the abundant grace might through the thanksgiving of many people redound to the glory of God" (2 Cor. 4:15). This verse means that the more Christians there are the more God will be glorified. This desire in the heart of Paul is a good illustration of the Lord's teaching on prayer. The foremost thought in our prayer should be, according to the Lord's Prayer, "hallowed be thy name." The only way to realize this desire is to bring more and more people to God because the name of God is hallowed only among those who know him, worship and praise him. When Paul saw the city of Athens full of idols, his spirit was greatly stirred because the glory of God was robbed. This ardent desire to glorify God is a strong impetus for evangelism and missions in the life of Paul. So with us.

Constrained by the Love of Christ to Share

Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:14, "The love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead; and that he died for all that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again."

Paul says here that we are constrained by the love of Christ not to live for ourselves, but to live for him who died for us. But how do we live for him? Paul tells us in the following verse that we live for him by engaging ourselves in the task of reconciliation, bringing people into peace with God.

Greek scholars tell us that the Greek word for the English word constrain is a strong word, suggesting the idea of a flood. Paul's heart was, as it were, flooded by the love of Christ, and he was moved away from himself and began to live for Christ, engaging himself in the task of sharing the love of Christ with others through evangelism and missions. It is impossible for us to engage in missions without this constraint.

R. A. Jaffery, the co-founder of the Alliance Bible Seminary where I am now teaching, went to South China as a missionary over seventy years ago. He suffered from a weak heart from his youth and he had diabetes, but his day began at 4 a.m. After his personal devotional time, he would begin writing articles in Chinese for the Bible magazine of which he was the editor. He designed a special kind of desk which could be pulled over his bed so that he could write lying down in order to conserve his strength. After thirty years of service in South China, God called him to go to Vietnam for pioneering work. He went and began a work which has now grown to a membership of 60,000 Christians. God then called him to go to Indonesia where he had to start all over again. He obeyed and started a rapidly growing work until his death in a Japanese concentration camp. He was constrained by the love of Christ.

The Second Coming of Christ

In the epistles, evangelism and missions are closely associated with the second coming of Christ. To the evangelical mind, the second coming of Christ is always an incentive to evangelism and missions. This concept has a sound basis in the teaching of the epistles, which in turn has its origin in the teaching of Christ. The apostle Peter speaks in the same sentence of the second coming of Christ and God's desire to save more people (2 Pet. 3:9). God wants to have his plan of salvation completed before the second coming of Christ.

The apostle Paul speaks of the "fullness of the Gentiles" against the background of the second coming of Christ (Rom. 11:25). All this is in keeping with the teaching of Christ, who said, "This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come" (Mt. 24:14). In the light of this verse, missions has to do with hastening the second coming of Christ.

Many signs indicate that the second coming of Christ is getting nearer and nearer. But instead of reaching the climax of world missions, we are experiencing an anticlimax. The evil one is getting busier and busier in putting up hindrances to God's plan. His tactics are twofold: without the church and within the church. Without the church, Satan is hardening and blinding the inner eyes of more people against the light of the gospel of Christ; within the church, he is setting up mechanisms that create in the minds of Christians the impression that the day of missions is over and that there is not much that they can do. As a result of all this, there are signs of a slackening of pace in the missionary efforts in the Western countries.

But over against this, the Lord is organizing a double counterattack. On the one hand, he is rallying together all Bible-believing Christians for a renewed missionary movement; on the other, he is awakening the younger churches in the so-called Third World to realize their missionary responsibilities. Probably the fact that you find names from the Third World in the list of speakers at this convention is a prophetic indication that the East and the West are going to join forces for the great task of missions. We are running the last mile in the world missionary enterprise. It is a hard mile, but it is a challenge to our loyalty, faithfulness and commitment to the Great Commission.

The Consummation of the Church

God is a God of perfect plan. All his plans will be fulfilled. The word fullness used in connection with the plans of God is very precious. God accomplishes all his plans at the fullness of time. For instance, the incarnation of Christ took place "when the fulness of the time was come" (Gal. 4:4). It did not happen by chance. God had made perfect plans for it in history.

Paul uses this word in regard to God's plan for the people of Israel. He says in Romans 11:25, "Blindness in part is happened to Israel until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in. And so all Israel shall be saved." God has not forsaken his chosen people but has a wonderful plan of salvation for them. There is perfect timing. Even as God delivered his people from the Babylonian captivity at the fullness of the prophesied seventy years, which looked impossible at the time because of adverse circumstances, so will God save them at the fullness of the Gentiles.

Christ himself used this wordfullness in regard to his second coming. He said, "They shall fall by the edge of the sword, and shall be led away captive into all nations: and Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled" (Luke 21:24). The Lord said this in the context of his prophecies about his second coming.

Even as God made plans for the first coming of Christ, so God has made perfect plans for his second coming, which is the hope of the church. Everything is leading to that glorious event in history. The prophets foretold it; the Lord himself confirmed it; the apostles proclaimed it; all signs today are pointing to it. Biblical evangelism and missions are filled with significance in view of the second coming of Christ.

Missions are not doomed to failure but to a glorious consummation:

Lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands, and cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb!

Revelation 7:9-10

This is the vision of the apostle John, and it is also ours. But before and leading to the realization of this glorious vision, you and I have the task of evangelism and missions on our shoulders.