In the last two verses of the Gospel according to Matthew, we read, “Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you; and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.” This Word of God, often called the Great Commission or the Missionary Mandate, is clear in as far as it goes. It is a command; it is a command which carries all the authority of God in Christ; it is a command which must be obeyed. There is no explaining away of these words or circumventing them. The church of Jesus Christ must busy herself, until the second coming, with the extension of the Kingdom of God outside her institutional walls. And yet these words of Jesus in Matthew 28 do not say it all, do not present the whole picture. Although they tell us what we must do, they inform us generally of the contents of the message, they encourage us with the promise of Christ’s presence, yet these words do not get into the important questions of why and how. The Great Commission presents us with a bare and formal command. I suggest that if a church concern herself only with the command as such, she will know what she must do all right, but she will not understand the proper motivation or feel much excitement for this great work.
Among the many passages which add to our understanding of proper missionary work there are especially two which supply these other vital factors. On the basis of these passages a few points ought to be made as our congregations and denomination awake to face their calling in respect to missions. The first passage is Matt. 9:36:
But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad as sheep having no shepherd.
Why did Jesus, according to the opening verses ofMatthew 10, call His disciples unto Him and give them power to preach and to heal? The answer is, “He saw the multitudes that they fainted and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd.” Briefly, the situation in Israel was that the work of gathering the church had about come to a standstill. Due especially to the sect of the Pharisees, the Gospel had been changed into the bad news of righteousness by works. The great number of blind and deaf, halt and maim (specially created at this time, I believe) was a picture of the sorry condition and low spiritual level of the church. When Jesus came, teaching in the synagogues and preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people, you have the King of the church applying the remedy to that awful condition. This fact was not missed by the Pharisees, who saw Christ’s work as the destruction of their position and power; hence, they assigned Him to the family of devils.
Jesus saw that the multitudes “fainted,” a word that means to be in a sorry plight, to be vexed in soul, to be troubled and annoyed. The Lord saw that they were not being comforted and fed. The burden of guilt due to sin was not lifted, but rather was made heavier by false gospels. They were in the midst of famine, the terrible famine of the Word of God. Secondly, He observed that they were being scattered as sheep without a shepherd. Those whose task it was to feed and care for the sheep were not doing so. The result was that the sheep were not gathered together into green pastures, but they were driven apart. They fled from the heavy yokes that were being placed on them, especially the yoke of the law. They ran here and there looking for pasture, looking for water. What a tender description of the flock, and what a terrible condemnation of the shepherds who were scattering and mistreating that precious flock!
Thirdly, we may observe the reaction of Christ to this situation which He saw and understood perfectly. Oh, there is a sense in which the sheep should have known better. They had the Old Testament scriptures. There is a sense in which they shared the blame for the miserable situation extant in Israel. Yet the Great Shepherd has compassion for His sheep. He did not upbraid them for their foolishness and their sin. He did not cast into their teeth the obvious error of their ways. He was moved with compassion, which is another way of saying that Jesus felt pity for them, pity in His heart and soul so that He wept over them. And that tender affection and pity caused Jesus to concern Himself with a remedy: He longed to deliver them, to build up the faint, to gather the scattered. And hence He sends out the twelve.
We find a close parallel between the days of Christ’s ministry and the present time. Although I do not mean to suggest that there are not great needs and problems within our own churches, I ask you now to look outside our denomination upon the general church scene. During the past few years especially we have all become aware of many, many children of God who are faint, vexed in their souls, and troubled spiritually, Who has not come into contact with many who are not being fed in their souls, who do not hear the pure milk of the Word week by week, who fear for the welfare of their children and children’s children? I am sure that the number of faint is large! They are being confused by equally confused shepherds, blind leaders of the blind, and in some cases hirelings! They have doubts because they hear so many uncertain sounds they know not what or whom to trust. It certainly is accurate to say that in our day the picture is one of scattered, unshepherdized sheep. False doctrines lead to a false gospel which is no gospel. Corrupt seminaries produce false teachers who subvert the truth and make merchandise of the church. “Who is not with Christ is against him; and he that gathereth not with him scattereth abroad.” (Matt. 12:30)
The vital question for us is: how do we react to this situation? That is really quite a test of under-shepherd of Christ and office-bearers in His church. It is not right simply to say, “I told you so. We told you long ago this is where it would all lead! It is not enough, nor does it serve any useful purpose, to deal with the problem purely on the intellectual level, so that all kinds of arguments are marshalled to overwhelm the faint objections of the faint. Jesus could have done that, but He did not. There is something wrong if our reaction is not one of loving concern and pity for the sheep who are vexed in their souls and are in a sorry plight. “How dwelleth the love of God in a man, if he see his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him?” If John speaks these words concerning temporal things, how much truer of things spiritual! I know, often times these scattered sheep can try the patience of Job. Personally, I have found in myself impatience for these sheep who demonstrate a clear understanding of the truth, but will not extricate themselves from a hopeless situation nor deprive those who scatter of an audience. But as we will later see, the point is not whether they are worthy or unworthy; the point is: are they in trouble? Do they suffer and do they weep? Then the faithful servants of Jesus Christ also weep, they are moved in their bowels of compassion, and they set themselves to applying the remedy which is the truth of the Word of God and its preaching!
This brings us to the second passage from which we ought to be instructed, Matt. 10:8b:
“. . . Freely ye have received, freely give.”
Jesus, after observing that the harvest is plenteous and the laborers few, called the twelve unto Him, gave them power over unclean spirits and diseases, and sent them away with the command to preach that the kingdom of heaven is at hand and to heal, cleanse, raise up, and cast out. The compassion of our Lord was excited into action by the suffering of His people. And as He sends out the twelve, He seeks to have them partake-of this same excitement, to have the same pure motive. He reminds them that they personally had “freely received.” Now this word freely is the key. It means without cause, undeservedly. It is significant that the same adverb is used by Paul in such contexts as, “Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus;” and “He that spared not his own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?” In other words, the disciples had received the power of the Spirit to preach the Word and to add mighty signs to that Word; they had received the Truth as it is in Christ in distinction from others who knew not Christ or were deceived concerning Christ . . . why? Not because they were more worthy, not because they were more faithful; but it was freely, and freely meansof grace!
Because that was the manner in which they had received such tremendous gifts, they were to dispense of them in the same manner and with a like attitude. They might never forget their own unworthiness, to be saved and to be instruments of preaching, as they go out unto others. They would find no one less deserving than they wherever they might go. It is, then, the thrill of their own salvation and the wonder of free grace that must propel them unto obedience to this great commission.
I don’t know of a church that has a more goodly heritage than the Protestant Reformed Churches in America! Truly the lines have fallen unto us in pleasant places! When it comes to those things which really count, we do not lack one thing. Shall we list some of these things we have in mind? At this late date in history, we still have the Bible, and we all hold to the orthodox position concerning inspiration and infallibility. We have the pure preaching of the Word of God. That’s everything! Week after week in everyone of our churches, we and our children come under the powerful proclamation of the Word which alone can save! We have beautiful, solid complete confessions; we stand in the rich Reformed tradition; we have a Church Order that provides for decency and order. God has given us a seminary with faithful professors concerning whom we need not doubt one thing! And we have a goodly number of young men whom the Lord is molding into preachers and missionaries. We have catechetical instruction for our youth, societies for the study of the Bible and communion of saints, parental schools where the educational demands of the covenant can be, and are, met.
The point is, all this vast treasure has been handed to us on a silver platter. Freely we have received. Why have we been preserved in the way of Truth all these years? Why do we have such an amazing degree of unity in our churches, the lack of which is being bemoaned in many others? Why do we have a seminary that we can support without reservation? Idon’t know. But I can suggest some negative reasons. Not because we have shown ourselves to be worthy of these blessings. Not because we have always been appreciative of them. Not because we are more spiritual or better in any way. It has been given us in Christ freely, and freely means of grace!
The last question that we ought to face is: What are we going to do with this rich heritage? Shall we direct all our attention, energies, and abilities inward? Or is it clear that we must freely give? To the extent that we understand the free reception of these things, to that measure we will also want to give. To the extent that we ourselves are thrilled and moved by the Reformed Gospel of the Scriptures, to that measure we will desire to share it with other children of God that they might also understand and believe it. Calvinists ought to be the best missionaries in the world! Our calling surely is to give freely. That means that we are alert to every possible opportunity to preach outside our own worship services. That means we give freely of our ministers when the occasion demands that they travel elsewhere to help those who are faint. That means that we give our wealth, locally and denominationally, for the cause of missions. That means that at our own churches, we demonstrate warmth and compassion towards visitors, so that we do not forever have to face the charge (real or imaginary) of being cold and unresponsive.
Fellow pastors and elders, I am struck by the fact that the faint, scattered sheep need precisely what we have been given. Whether they are ready to admit that or not, we have the answer to their souls’ need. Let us apply ourselves, as much as it is in us, to the glorious work of gathering the scattered sheep of Christ! Are you blessed in your church at home? “It is more blessed to give than to receive!”
Allow me three practical points in closing:
1) As we have occasion to go out and preach to others, it is not enough to be right. We must also be very wise. Rectitude must be tempered with wisdom. There is a time to speak, and there is a time to be silent. And this can be done without compromise or deceit. Wisdom, according to James, is the practical application of knowledge to a given situation and towards a certain goal. The wisdom that is from above is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits.” In times past, we have made practical errors that ought not be repeated.
2) As we take up this great work, we must not be pessimistic, negative, or doubtful. And the reason why we must not is that we need not. To approach a mission field with the idea of failure, or at best, of only being used for witnessing unto hardening, will certainly have a deadening effect on all concerned. We have the happy assurance that Christ is with us even to the end! He will use us! We do not labor in vain in the Lord.
3) There is a need in our seminary curriculum for a required course in missions. In this course, the principles, history, and practice of true missionary work ought to be developed and taught. There is evidence that all of us will be engaged in this work to some extent in the future.
* The contents of this article were originally presented as the opening devotions for Classis West, March 1, 1973, in South Holland, Illinois. It is printed by request.