Rev. Miersma is western home missionary of the Protestant Reformed Churches. Previous article in this series: April 15, 2007, p. 329.
When our Lord went preaching and teaching in Galilee and performing wonders, He was fulfilling His Father’s will and His own calling. Jesus labored in the consciousness, not only that He was sent, as we saw last time, but also that He was directed in the work by the will of the Father. We read, for example, in Luke 4:43, 44, “And he said unto them, I must preach the kingdom of God to other cities also: for therefore am I sent. And he preached in the synagogues of Galilee.” This direction of the Father’s will shaped not only the general direction of our Lord’s work, as in the cities of Galilee, but also the specific path of His feet.
We find our Savior, on the way to the cross, directing His path through Jericho. He has come for a reason, along that particular path, to go to the house of Zacchaeus. Jesus says to Zacchaeus, when He summons him to come down from the tree, “make haste, and come down; for today I must abide at thy house” (Luke 19:5). Jesus says, “I must abide,” or it is necessary that I remain at thy house. Bringing salvation to Zacchaeus and his house was the will of God in Jesus’ work. The only purpose in Jericho? No, for He must also open the eyes of blind Bartimaeus. For the same reason we find Him waiting until after Lazarus’ death before going to Bethany to raise him from the dead.
This consciousness that the Lord directs the work of preaching, evangelism, and missions is important. The Word of God is to be proclaimed generally or promiscuously “to whom God out of His good pleasure sends the gospel” (Canons II, Art. 5). The preaching of the Word is to be general to all who will hear, but it is so, as sent and directed of the Lord. This is explicit in the commission to Peter to go to the house of Cornelius (Acts 10:19-20). This is plain from the direction of Paul’s labors also. We read, “Now when they had gone throughout Phrygia and the region of Galatia, and were forbidden of the Holy Ghost to preach the word in Asia, after they were come to Mysia, they assayed to go into Bithynia: but the Spirit suffered them not” (Acts 16:6, 7). The Lord directed the work also negatively by forbidding them at that time from preaching in certain areas. The apostle did not set his own agenda or determine the direction of his labors. The Lord directed the work.
That the Lord directs the work is fundamental to sound evangelism and mission work. We are besieged today with a plethora of mission methods and techniques in the Christian community around us. Underlying much of this exercise in the latest mission fad is the false notion that missions, local evangelism, and outreach are somehow in the hand of man. While it is true that God uses means, specifically the means of preaching and the word, witness, and testimony of God’s people to draw men under it, so that faith comes by hearing (Rom. 10), nevertheless it is not in man’s hand to save souls or to direct the work. We do not decide where we will plant a church. We do not decide who will come and when and where. God is the Lord of missions, not man, and He requires us to labor constantly in that consciousness.
Jesus said, as the Lord of the church and Lord also of missions and evangelism, that He is the One “. . . that openeth, and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth” (Rev. 3:7). Our evangelism committees perhaps could sometimes better spend their time in prayer to the Lord of the harvest than in discussions about the latest pamphlet. Books, pamphlets, tapes, and lectures, advertising, and all the tools we use are profitable only if the Lord bless them and direct them. It is not only the case that God says of His Word, “it shall not return unto me void,” so that our labor in the Word is never vain, but He also says, “but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it” (Is. 55:11). This is both positive and negative in character, for the Word both gathers the elect and hardens in sin the reprobate unto judgment.
In this consciousness of the Lord’s direction of the work we look to the Lord not only to direct the work generally but also specifically. In connection with this, the Macedonian call, as we speak of it (Acts 16:9), is instructive. That call did not come to the churches gathered in Jerusalem at the Jerusalem council in Acts 15. The churches in common had the calling of the Lord to preach the gospel to every creature (Mark 16:15). That call did not come to the church in Antioch, though the Spirit had called Paul to labor in missions and sent him to the work (Acts 13:1-3). That call to “come over and help us” (Acts 16:9) came to active missionaries, Paul and Silas, on the mission field, doing the work of missions and seeking the Lord’s direction in their work. It was a means to direct the active labor in the way the Lord would have it go. When that call came they were led by the Lord from Troas to northern Greece and to Philippi. But in that also, the Lord continued to direct the work specifically, for while they preached by the river in a city where there was no synagogue, to those who gathered there, and specifically the women (Acts 16:13), it was Lydia “whose heart the Lord opened, that she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul” (Acts 16:14). Others heard the Word, but their hearts were not opened of the Lord. God directed His Word to that place for the express purpose that it should come to Lydia.
The circumstances of God’s sending the earthquake (Acts 16:26) while Paul and Silas were in prison, and His bringing the Philippian jailer to his knees asking “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30), set before us the same overall sovereign direction of God in the gathering of His church and His elect personally. The Lord still sends that same call and direction, not by the extraordinary means of visions, but by opening contacts and opportunities to preach or teach, by sending individuals seeking help and information, by calls, letters, and e-mails with questions from individuals and groups. The Lord still directs the work, determines where that labor will be and who shall be gathered into it. For it is grounded in sovereign election.
In the light of this direction of the Lord and His sovereign will, there is another element that we must note. The fruit is always the Lord’s and serves His glory. We are inclined, perhaps, to become caught up in techniques or in numbers or results. Missions and evangelism, also the witness of believers, are not to be conceived of as sales figures in a business. Jesus, having preached over the cities of Galilee, upbraids the cities in which His mighty works had been done. Was His work a failure because of a limited fruit? He tells us it was not; rather, His Father’s will was done, according to His sovereign direction, and that will of God was not according to human reasoning. “At that time Jesus answered and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. Even so, Father: for so it seemed good in thy sight” (Matt. 11:25, 26). God’s will and sovereign direction in the work in Galilee were done according to His counsel and purpose. That purpose was not dependent on numbers saved. Sometimes in Acts we see multitudes are gathered, such as 3,000 on Pentecost; at other times it is only one, like the Ethiopian eunuch. Numbers are the least important thing about mission work.
God works in His sovereign direction often plainly contrary to human reasoning and expectation. Not the wise and prudent are called, but babes. The apostle Paul speaks of the same thing in I Corinthians 1:26-29. “For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: That no flesh should glory in his presence.”
God in His sovereign direction of the salvation and gathering of His people through the work of missions gathers and saves His people according to His own wisdom. Those whom we might think will come, or ought to come, do not come. Rather, others, of whom we had no expectation, are drawn by Him and gathered by the Word. The Lord often turns our human expectations upside down. This is also something that is experienced on the mission field and in evangelism work. But this sovereignty of God in His direction also makes much that is written about mission technique or results-oriented human reasoning about effective evangelism to be the foolishness of men. Modern evangelicalism, which is Pelagian and Arminian to the core, is full of the vain boasting of men in this respect. God works not after the wisdom of men, and that also, as the apostle says, “That no flesh should glory in his presence” (I Cor. 1:29).
Jesus sets this sovereign direction before us in another way in the miracle of the draught of fishes. When He calls His disciples to be fishers of men, He sets before them His power to gather His church, and by the miracle of the draught of fishes He sets before them also the multitude of the harvest in the abundance of fishes caught in the net. The point of the miracle that Jesus works at the beginning of His ministry, and also a second time after His resurrection, is rather clear. The preaching of the gospel is like the casting of the net, and the multitude of fishes the blessing and power of the Lord who gathers His church abundantly. What is noteworthy is also this element: that the disciples, as recorded in Luke, had been fishing all night and had caught nothing. They had used all the wisdom, skill, and resources of experienced fishermen. They had gone in the logical way at night and let their nets down deep. The last thing to be expected is that they would catch anything at all, now, in bright sunlight and in the shallows. It is the Lord who directs them to cast the net, which from a human point of view was at the wrong time and in the wrong place. Peter’s doubtfulness of the enterprise is echoed in his words. We read inLuke 5:4-6, “Now when he (Jesus) had left speaking, he said unto Simon, Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught. And Simon answering said unto him, Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing: nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net. And when they had this done, they enclosed a great multitude of fishes: and their net brake.”
That awesome wonder was intended to teach us, first of all, to depend upon the direction of the Lord in all such outreach and endeavors in mission work and evangelism. The Lord has His time, place, and occasions when we are to let down the net of the gospel, when opportunities are given us to speak a word of witness in season that bears fruit. He directs who are gathered, and when, and where.
This is also an assurance and promise to us as we labor in the gospel, do the work of evangelism, and seek to leave a witness with others. Our calling is to preach and confess our faith and confirm it with a godly walk. We are to sow the seed. It depends on the Lord to give the increase. Exactly because He has promised us that it will bear the fruit He intends, we may rest content with the way He leads us. The Lord calls us to work in faithfulness, by preaching and confession of our faith, but it is ultimately in the Lord’s hands. He is the real power and strength in the work of missions. He directs it and makes it fruitful. For us as Reformed believers, this means that we do not become caught up in the current fads of those who trust in men and forsake the means of grace, which God has ordained and Christ has commanded us when He told us to go and preach the gospel. He commanded us to preach, just preach! To depart from that way is to forsake His sovereign direction, nor will God bless it.
We are to labor, therefore, prayerfully and in the consciousness of His sovereign direction in every aspect of the work of missions and evangelism. We do so also with the knowledge that it is His grace and power that blesses our labors and that His is also the glory, “That no flesh should glory in his presence” (I Cor. 1:29).