Rev. Woudenberg is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Kalamazoo, Michigan.
These twelve Jesus sent forth, and commanded them, saying, Go not into the way of the Gentiles, nor into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not;
But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
And as ye go, preach, saying, the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
Christ has commanded us, Mark 16:15, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature”; but in real and practical terms, what does that mean for us personally as Christians, as ministers, and as individual members of the church of Christ? To whom precisely are we to direct our evangelical and missionary efforts? To whom are we to go?
The Ministry of Jesus
In many ways the life and ministry of Jesus Christ as He lived and worked on this earth was a missionary endeavor, a microcosmic example of what mission work ought to be.
During his lifetime Jesus did His work in the land of Canaan, and confined His efforts to the Jewish people there, but in such a way that His life would form a pattern which could be followed by His disciples as they carried on His efforts to the ends of the earth, and to the conclusion of all history. He never seemed to stay long in one place, but moved from here to there throughout the land. Nor did He limit His attention just to His followers. As He said to His disciples, Mark 1:38, “Let us go into the next towns, that I may preach there also; for therefore came I forth.”
But Jesus’ time on earth was limited; and He was hardly able to be everywhere. On at least two different occasions, when His own abilities had to be extended, He called His disciples to Him and sent them forth into those cities which He could not Himself reach.
In the first instance it was just the twelve; and He gave to them extensive instructions, Matthew 10:5-23:
These twelve Jesus sent forth, and commanded them, saying, Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not. But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And as ye go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand…. And into whatsoever city or town ye shall enter, enquire who in it is worthy; and there abide till ye go thence. And when ye come info an house, salute if. And if the house be worthy, let your peace come upon if: but if it be not worthy, let your peace return to you. And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet…. Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves…. And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake: but he that endureth to the end shall be saved. But when they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another: for verily I say unto you, Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come. Within this we find a number of things worthy of note:
1. The goal was to cover the whole of Canaan, to go to every city in the land, prior to the coming of Jesus Christ in His glorified power, that is, prior to His return in the Spirit on Pentecost. We are not given details, and rather little is recorded of this activity in the Bible, but it would seem there was a great deal more of coming and going by the disciples while Jesus was living than we ordinarily think. It must have been pursued with purpose all through Jesus’ ministry.
2. As Jesus sent His disciples He told them what to say, “And as ye go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The command seemed simple enough, but its meaning was profound and its implications extensive. The New Testament church, that for which all of the Old Testament era had been but a preparation, was about to spring into existence. Just what that meant, the disciples themselves hardly knew, except that they could sense its impending wonder m every word and deed of Jesus. Certainly they had none of our understanding. Their concept could only have been most vague, much as ours is of the glory of heaven, which we believe but hardly understand. Still, they knew it was coming; and they knew the spiritual principles upon which it was to be built. Jesus was always explaining it to them, as in the Sermon on the Mount; and as much as they could, by the power of the Spirit, the opportunity was now theirs to explain it to others.
3. Furthermore, Jesus told them how to go about this. They were to bring the Word with a sensitivity to the response of the hearers: “And into whatsoever city or town ye shall enter, enquire who in it is worthy; and there abide till ye go thence. And when ye come into an house, salute it. And if the house be worthy let your peace come upon it: but if it be not worthy, let your peace return to you. And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet….” Their preaching of the gospel was to be a matter of willing persuasion, not a matter of force or imposition. Each and every one was to be warned, and with that their responsibility would be established; but persuasion is more than a mere rhetorical art. It must come from within and not without. For such willing response from Spirit-moved hearts they should look; and upon such they should concentrate their efforts.
4. This activity was to be pursued with utmost care and discernment. “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” There is a certain defenselessness and vulnerability about the children of God as they go forth with the gospel; theirs is not to use the weapons and forces of the world. They must present themselves with an openness which can readily be taken advantage of and abused. And yet in this they must not be fools; the deceptions of the wicked are to be watched and deflected lest they fall out to the harm of the gospel.
5. But the battle is there; the dangers are real; and inevitably many are hurt. The disciples saw with their own eyes what wickedness did to Jesus; and it would be no different for them, nor for anyone who continues in teaching His Word. The hatred of God’s Word is intense; and those who bear it will certainly feel its sting.
The Responsibility He Leaves
But what does that mean specifically for us?
It means, to begin with, that we have a responsibility to see to it that the truth of the Word of God is distributed as broadly as we possibly can. God has given to us the Reformed faith in a tradition which is remarkably rich and pure. This is not something that is to be kept to ourselves and to be used simply for our own well-being—no more than a light is to be hid under a bushel basket. Far too rich for that, it must be broadcast through every means available to us, to every possible comer of the earth, with a deep sense of urgency. “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come” (Matt. 24:14). Our responsibility lies here; and for it we must work.
Nor is the message any different. Now as then it is, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The forces of Christ, His angels, His Spirit, and His Word, are pressing down upon this world as they have done ever since His ascension into glory and even more than they did while He was physically here on earth. This we must feel ourselves; and this we must seek to convey to others: II Corinthians 6:2, “For he saith, I have heard thee in a time accepted, and in the day of salvation have I succored thee: behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” World history is pressing on under His complete control; and there is no time for tarrying. Personally the time may come at any moment for any one; and for the world as a whole the end is always imminent. The day is well spent, and we must work before the night comes.
Our doing of this, moreover, must be with deep sensitivity. On the one hand, we must be fully aware of our own limitations. It is not for us to try to determine beforehand to whom the gospel ought to be brought, and to whom not. This is God’s decision, not ours; and to try to do so will inevitably involve the laying down of conditions of judgment to which we have no right. We are to preach to all, and sincerely we must seek to do just that.
Nevertheless, once the gospel is brought we are to show a sharp sensitivity to the results. There are those who clearly have no interest and are completely indifferent; to such God does not require that we give extensive concern. Forcing ourselves on them will not change their hearts. In turn, there are those whose response will be uncertain; they show interest without a clear willingness to change their lives. With such we must continue to work as long as we can, but with the realization that only God can finally move their souls; and it must be left in His hand. But above all our concern must be with those who show true signs of repentance and a longing to come to Christ. These are those with whom we are to have our chief concern; and to whom our greatest attention must be given, teaching, guiding, and encouraging them in the way of godly life.
But in all of this we must show great care. Jesus warned, “Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” The defenselessness with which the child of God must go forth is very real. When one comes as a Christian, he comes with a kindness and openness which can readily be abused, and often is. People are not honest, they are not kind by nature; but they can be quick to pretend. Not uncommonly one will be used for a time, and then turned upon and taken advantage of in return. It is the price a Christian pays—and joyfully, for they did the same to our Lord. Nevertheless, we are to be discerning as well. There is not call for the Christian to expose the gospel unnecessarily to abuse. While we must be willing to bear the hurt personally, we must do (all we can to preserve the cause of Christ from misuse and shame. Jesus never allowed the gospel to be disgraced, and neither should we.
What we must not forget is that we are involved in a battle which is real and great, as Jesus said, “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves.” From a human point of view it is quite unequal, even unfair; and we will be assailed, we will be reviled, we will be hurt. But the vision is magnificent, the victory is sure, the glory is great. And the cause will be finished when the last of God’s elect have been gathered in. Let us never forget, Romans 8:37, “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.”