Rev. VanOverloop is pastor of Bethel Protestant Reformed Church in Elk Grove Village, Illinois.
In the Puritan classic by Richard Baxter, The Saint’s Everlasting Rest, Mr. Baxter speaks of the duty of the people of God to excite others to obtain the saint’s rest, but he gives a caution about the manner of performing this duty.
But because the manner of performing this work is of great moment, observe, therefore these rules: Enter upon it with right intentions. Aim at the glory of God in the person’s salvation. Do it not to get a name, or esteem to thyself, or to bring men to depend upon thee, or to get thee followers, but in obedience to Christ, in imitation of Him, and tender love to men’s souls.
These “right intentions” of obeying and imitating Christ serve to emphasize the greatness of this noble calling.
The task of missions is great – too great. What missionary believes himself capable for the task of teaching all the things God has commanded? What local congregation or even denominational mission committee feels itself sufficient for the task of going into all the world and teaching all nations?
Take a look at that group of men who received the “great” commission. Their number was very small. Most of them had not received any formal education. The profession most of them formerly had was the rather ignoble one of fishermen from Galilee. These men who were untrained in the ways of the world were to go into all the world. They were sent to accomplish the impossible, namely, demand of people that they submit themselves to Christ as Savior and Master. They were to demand that people turn from sins which were as dear to them as their right eye. They were sent to tell all religious people that they should consider as dung all former and present efforts to please God. In addition, as they sought to carry out the commission Christ gave them they would be facing all the opposition of the powers of hell. To make matters even more difficult they were given this great commission just seconds before their Master left them on their own. They were therefore to do the task without the help of His presence.
The missionary enters into a field of labor knowing that he has the supervisory care and support of the elders and congregation which were God’s instruments to call him to his field of labor. However, that care and support is often far away from the day-to-day labors which are his as missionary. There are many times when he is very conscious of the fact that he is the point man, well ahead of the front line of troops and in enemy territory. He preaches and teaches faithfully, but alone. He is without the presence of a body of elders who can affirm to others the biblical nature of what he is preaching and teaching. No one is there to lend the emotional support often needed. The Scriptures record a time when the apostle Paul experienced discouragement (Acts 18:5ff.), and it is worthy of note that at that time he was alone, without the assistance of those helpers who usually accompanied him on his missionary journeys.
An individual congregation also can experience discouragements. In size it is usually considered to be insignificant, a nothing. The truth which it presents in its witness is ridiculed as being restrictive, and its worship is characterized as being ancient and prohibitive. Often there are periods of time when there seems to be absolutely no fruit given to their labors. Discouragement can easily settle upon all, bringing the hands down to the knees, doing nothing.
The denomination, expressing the unity of faith and striving to do together what cannot be done by individual congregations, faces an overwhelming task of going “into all the world” and preaching to “every creature.” Often the denomination sees many opportunities to work, but finds itself handicapped by limited finances and manpower. The laborers are few while the harvest appears to be plenteous.
Who is sufficient for so great a task!?
How can we maintain our zeal and enthusiasm for the work? How can we hold back the fog of discouragement? How can we develop and maintain an evangelistic zeal, which is according to knowledge?
I propose that our Lord Jesus Christ gave all the encouragement we will ever need in order to maintain a proper zeal for missions and in order to avoid discouragements. Jesus gave this two-part encouragement at the very time that He gave the Great Commission. In Matthew 28:18 He said, “All power is given unto Me in heaven and in earth.” And in the last part of verse 20 He said, “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.” These two statements of our Lord are specifically given in connection with the Great Commission. They should never be separated from it. I am sure that our Savior, knowing well His little flock of weak sheep, anticipated their needs perfectly, and purposefully bracketed His Great Commission with these two encouragements.
The first encouragement arises from the realization that we do evangelism and mission work in the context of Christ’s exaltation to power.
As the fruit of Christ’s work of humiliation, God highly exalted Him to the position of all authority, giving Him a name above every name. Christ is invested with all this authority in order to carry out His work as Mediator. A motley group of unschooled men had to do a world-encompassing task in a hostile world. They must face the great Roman empire, other hostile governments, and the devil himself. Therefore, Jesus tells the disciples not to forget the context in which they evangelize. As soon as they forget that all authority has been delivered to Christ, their task becomes burdensome. If they do not remember that all authority belongs to their Lord, they will fold under the pressure, or will deviate from the goals or think them unattainable.
The fact that all authority is Christ’s makes His church very confident that His (and theirs) is the ultimate triumph. From a certain perspective the evangelism efforts of the church are impossible. The church must demand of men that they deny themselves and submit to Christ as their Savior and Master. The church faces all the opposition of the powers of hell. Our hope for “success” is not that we can scare the devil away with our clever schemes, nor is it that we can make the message of the gospel palatable to unregenerate man. Rather our confidence of triumph arises from the fact that all authority has been given to Christ. Remember that one is made a disciple of Christ only through the gracious exercise of Christ’s sovereign power in his heart. When He puts forth the arm of His strength, then sinners repent and are brought unto Him.
In addition, the fact that all authority has been given to Christ has implications for the manner in which the message of Christ is presented. We are not selling Christ like a piece of merchandise, hoping that men will accommodate the Son of God and vote for Jesus. Notice that modem evangelism usually speaks about the man of Galilee, while the apostles always preached the exalted Christ, the Sovereign Lord. Peter on Pentecost began this kind of presentation of Jesus, declaring that He was “both Lord and Christ” (Acts2:32-36). Later, before the Sanhedrin, Peter was quick to point out that God exalted Christ “to be a Prince and a Saviour” (Acts 5:31). Quickly scan the preaching of the apostles in the book of Acts and in the epistles and see how Jesus is presented. We must be careful not to say that Christ is waiting and pleading, but to declare that He is enthroned. We must preach that man can be saved only at the foot of a throne-a throne of grace and mercy.
The fact that Jesus is exalted with all authority makes us careful to adhere to the Word of Christ in the totality of our endeavor. We will not be careless with the goals of our mission work, if we remember that the One who defines the goals has all power. Nor will we be indifferent to the work, for the mandate is of our sovereign Lord. He gives it as a command. He assumes that we are going and teaching. And we will stick carefully to the method Jesus has given, namely, preach and teach, not music, drama, etc. King Jesus has spoken about our mission and evangelism work, and He is worthy of being obeyed.
The second encouragement Jesus gives us in our work of missions and evangelism is that He is the ever-present Christ. He is present with us always, even to the consummation of this age.
Though in His Person He was going back to the Father, He promised to send the Spirit, with whom He is one. In the presence of the Spirit Christ, the One whom the disciples knew so well, would be with them. He is present with us always (literally, “all the days”) – on those days when many are added to the church, and on those days when there is no response to the proclamation of the gospel, and on those days when we are persecuted for the sake of preaching His Word. The extent of Christ’s presence with us is the consummation of this Gospel age. During this age the door of God’s mercy is open and the command of men to come is present. As soon as this age ends, God’s command ceases and the door is shut- and no man opens.
Christ’s constant presence with us has several implications for the carrying out of our mission and evangelism work.
First, we can have great consolation over against much apparent failure and many reasons for discouragement. We can constantly preach the Gospel, just as though Jesus, who can do the greatest wonders, were at our side. In the face of repeated rejections we can keep on teaching and preaching and striving to make disciples. When discouraged, then we should read of that time when Paul was discouraged (Acts 18:5-14), and consider that God encouraged him in part with the words, “I am with thee” (v. 10).
If the Lord of the harvest is pleased to give us success, we will have great humility. When the devil cannot distract us from obedience to the Great Commission through depression and discouragements, he often succeeds in tripping up God’s people by giving them success, so they forget that it comes from the Lord. He delights in convincing the messengers that they are the reason for the message and its “success.” However, “who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers. . . I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase” (I Cor. 3:5-7). If the hard heart of any child of Adam repents and believes, it is only because God gave the increase. The ever-present Christ is alone able to bring positive fruit to our feeble labors.
Because Jesus is ever present with us, every agent of missions will be very careful not to offend Christ by tampering with His message. He has given us the message to preach, and it is a most terrible thing to manipulate it. Paul was conscious of this when he told the church at Corinth that he was not like many who corrupted the Word of God, but “as of sincerity, but as of God, in the sight of God speak we in Christ” (II Cor. 2:17). His constant presence makes us conscious that we must give an account to Him. It is exactly His presence which makes it impossible for us to cooperate in our mission work with those who are theological liberals.
Finally, the ever-present Christ makes us careful to carry out His goals. We are not to stop the work just because we may be discouraged. We have not the right to cease our efforts just because we may have limited finances or manpower. Nor may we let the eschatology of amillennialism make us pessimistic or hesitant in our mission and evangelism labors. We do not have to carry out God’s plan for history. But we do have the calling to be obedient to His command to go and teach. And the promise of His presence makes us not only active to be obedient but also optimistic concerning the possibility of fruit.
We are told that we must make disciples of all the nations, which may be a back-and heart-breaking activity; but we have the consciousness of Christ’s presence. Problems begin when we become smug and content, without any burden to make disciples. Christ withdraws from that church which has no burden to disciple the nations!
The spiritual context for true mission and evangelistic work is twofold: the exalted and ever-present Christ. May God be pleased to increase our understanding and our zeal.