Missionaries that Hazarded their Lives

According to Acts 15:22-23, a letter had been adopted by the churches that summarized the answer of the apostles and the elders in regard to a doctrinal disturbance by the Judaizers. They argued that it remained necessary for the Gentile Christians to be circumcised according to the law of Moses for proper church membership and for salvation. In response, the church declared that God had revealed that circumcision was not required for church membership or for salvation. Since this is exactly what the beloved Paul and Barnabas had been teaching in their first missionary journey, the church publicly exonerated them and confirmed their faithfulness to the Word of God.

However, the adopted letter commended the beloved Paul and Barnabas not with words such as “faithful men” or “orthodox men,” but rather with much more emphatic language: “…men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 15:26). The necessity of this particular commendation was, as John Calvin pointedly writes, “indirectly to reprove those rascals who had never suffered anything for the sake of Christ, and came out of their seclusion to disturb the churches, which had meant so much to these undaunted soldiers of Christ.” In that regard the divinely inspired, ecclesiastical commendation ably served its immediate purpose.

This inspired commendation also serves as an example for missionaries to imitate in their labors. A foreign missionary ought to seek, by the mercy of our Lord, that this might become a commendation that summarizes his labors in the service of the Lord in the sphere of those in the darkness of idolatry.

When writing this commendation under the inspiration of God, fresh in the minds of the council was the history of Paul and Barnabas in their recent missionary work in Asia Minor. In Acts 13:45, we read that “when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy, and spake against those things which were spoken by Paul, contradicting and blaspheming.”

In Acts 13:49-50 we read: “And the word of the Lord was published throughout all the region. But the Jews stirred up the devout and honorable women, and the chief men of the city, and raised persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them out of their coasts.” Although we are not told specifically what form the persecution against Paul and Barnabas was, yet we are told that the vehement opposition to the preaching of the gospel by Paul and Barnabas resulted in an expulsion of the brethren out of Antioch, no doubt by some physical force and by threats to the life of the brethren.

Again, in Acts 14:19, we learn that “…there came thither certain Jews from Antioch and Iconium, who persuaded the people, and, having stoned Paul, drew him out of the city, supposing he had been dead.” Later, Paul did not object to this treatment but confirmed in submission to the Lord of the harvest that this was the way in which the church is saved. “Confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).

Besides the physical and spiritual hazards that they had faced at the hands of the world, wicked Jews, and the Judaizers, the apostle Paul and his co-laborers would continue to hazard their lives frequently in their travels and labors according to the long list of examples recorded in II Corinthians 11:23-33. Indeed, Paul did hazard his life in many ways in his missionary labors.

That Greek word for “hazard” has for its root meaning the idea “to give or hand over.” The authorized Dutch translation (1637) has the word overgegeven, from which we can readily get the sense of the original Greek word. Along with that idea, “hazard” then means “to expose oneself and become vulnerable to risk.”

The apostle Paul and Barnabas obediently handed their lives over to the call of the Lord to preach the Word to the lost Jews and then to the Gentiles. In so doing, they handed over their lives to the demanding workload of that calling. They also willingly exposed themselves to the certain results of that work in Asia Minor and beyond, which included the sweet fruit of the gathering of believers and their seed as well as the bitter fruit of opposition, persecution, imprisonment, and death.

This is the sort of commendation a foreign missionary needs to pursue in his labors. He must willingly hand over his life to the call and will of the Lord in order to serve Him in his specific field of labor among those in the darkness of idolatry.

However, in doing so, he must be careful not to fall into one of two extreme errors. On the one hand, he should not desire to be insulated from the perils and risks of his mission work and so become reluctant to give over his blood, sweat, and tears for the work of missions. He must be willing, when necessary, to give up the comforts and conveniences of life to which he may have become accustomed for faithful service. On the other hand, he should not hazard his life with reckless abandon, forsaking all concern for the reasonable safety and well-being of himself and his family. He should not so hazard his life that he rushes headlong into burnout or to a home life that suffers inexcusable neglect.

Rather, the missionary ought to hazard his life within his God-given limitations, with much wisdom, and in the specific sphere of labor to which the Lord sends him through the calling church. Consequently, the missionary must be willing to expose himself to all of the normal results, both positive and negative, of faithful labor under Christ.

The worthy cause for which the missionary hazards his life is described in Acts 15:26 as simply “the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The cause was not many other things that might become a real temptation for the Lord’s servants. The cause for Paul and Barnabas was not their names and reputations among men. If that were so, they would have had no issue with the people worshiping them as Mercury and Jupiter at Lystra and would have avoided public stoning.

If the cause was his own earthly comfort and wealth, surely Paul would have quit the ministry after being stoned at Lystra and gone on to something like tentmaking, or growing vegetables by the Sea of Galilee.

If the burden on his heart was himself and not the call of the Lord, the well-being of the churches, and the extension of the kingdom of Christ to the Gentiles, Paul would never have climbed out from under that pile of Lystran stones, dusted himself off, and walked with pain right back into the city that stoned him. He would have given up and not continued the next day and weeks with Barnabas in the visitation of the Asia Minor churches with dedication and enthusiastic exhortations.

The cause for their willingness to hazard their lives was the name of our Lord Jesus Christ alone. Interestingly, this text is the first one in Acts in which this full name of Christ is written out. Our Lord Jesus Christ is the full revelation of the truth of the triune God in all of His glory. That Name declares the sum total of all of the truth concerning Christ crucified, risen, ascended, and glorified at the right hand of the Father in omnipotence and absolute sovereignty. That Name sets forth the full revelation of the triune God as the sovereign and unchangeable God of His covenant in Christ and with His seed, the elect according to His eternal counsel and good pleasure in Christ. That Name sets forth all of the sound doctrine according to godliness concerning Jesus Christ. To that one and only worthy cause of God’s truth and unchangeable purpose in Christ Jesus for the salvation of His elect, Paul and Barnabas handed over their lives and became vulnerable, especially to the negative fruits of the ministry of the Word in the spiritually hostile environment of the world.

To the cause of the name of Christ a foreign missionary must be willing to give over his life and so become vulnerable to the resulting pains, inconveniences, disappointments, heartaches, loneliness, uncertainties, oppositions, and various forms of persecution that faithful service on a mission field brings according to the Lord’s will and providence. He must give himself to the cause of the Name set forth in our beloved Reformed truth and practice as rooted in the infallibly inspired Word of God. Like Paul, he must labor diligently for the establishment and maintenance of newly instituted gatherings of believers and their seed, if the Lord so grants that good fruit.

Further, that Name is the only power by the Holy Spirit to make a godly missionary willing to hazard his life for Him. By nature, no faithful missionary today would ever want to commit his life to the will of God in all aspects of missionary service for the noble cause of Christ and His truth. Never. He is prone to do the work for personal, carnal motives of the praise of men. He is prone to complain and quit, demanding from the Lord far more comfortable, more convenient, or less lonely working conditions. He would complain to the Lord for the hatred and contradictions that the work receives, and he would question unbelievingly why he and his family need to bear a unique cross of suffering in their mission work and life. Not one missionary of himself would willingly or for the right reasons give his life over to the hazards that the Lord wills to come upon faithful missionary service for His glory.

But, in that very Name is the missionary’s only hope, strength, power, mercy, grace, wisdom, righteousness, and sanctification for true success and growth in hazarding his life for the sake of Christ’s church. That Name is both the content of a missionary’s preaching and the power unto faithful labor. He needs that Name to be written on his heart. He needs to pray without ceasing in that Name for the Father’s continued blessings on himself and his labors. He needs a full zeal, knowledge, and assurance of the sound doctrines of that Name. He needs to be equipped by His Spirit to hand over his life to the call of the Lord of the harvest to serve in a little part of His field for the cause of His most excellent Name.

May the Lord graciously grant our missionaries such faithfulness in their labors, that in His mercy He will reckon them in the judgment worthy of this same commendation: men that have hazarded their lives for the sake of the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.