The Missionary Nature of the Church

Acts 16:6-10 gives us an account of the Macedonian call to Paul to come over to Philippi and help the western world. Paul wanted to go east, but he writes that he “was forbidden by the Holy Spirit” (Acts 16:6) and that “the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them” (Acts 16:7) to do so. Instead, Paul had a vision at night of a man in Macedonia saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16:9). Paul and those with him then concluded that “God had called us to preach the gospel to them” (Acts 16:10). This is a very important part of Scripture for us. There are several lessons that are taught in it. 

First, we learn that our plans always must be subservient to God’s plans for us. McCheyne’s words are necessary for all Christians to remember, as well as all ministers: “It has always been my aim, and it is my prayer, to have no plans with regard to myself, well assured as I am that the place where the Saviour sees meet to place me must ever be the best place for me” (Andrew Bonar, Memoir and Remains of R. M. McCheyne, p. 34). All of us have a natural desire to do great things and be great. The Lord may decide to use us in different ways. We may go through trials in our younger years that are especially helpful to fellow followers of the Way at a later time in our lives and  just the right time in their lives.

In 1997, I had an opportunity with the US Army Reserves to provide chaplain ministry in Kaiser-Slautern, Germany for two weeks. While I was there, I was able on a Friday evening and Saturday to travel down to Geneva, Switzerland. When I saw the beauty of the city and Lake Geneva, my first thought was: “How happy must John Calvin have been during his ministry here.” Oh, but I was wrong. All of Calvin’s days in Geneva were spent in great difficulties. He was essentially cast out of the city after two years of ministry there. Then, he was called back there two years later. It was with trepidation and anxiety he went back to the city which had caused him so much trouble. But he went back for one reason alone—it was the call of God on his life. His labors were not in vain. The great Scottish leader, John Knox, called the work of Calvin in Geneva: “the most perfect school of Christ since the days of the apostles.” We must submit our wills to God’s will for us so that the church will be built up.

Second, Philippi did not immediately become a successful church. When Paul arrived there, he did not immediately find the man he had seen in the vision. The call had gone out to come over and help, but the caller was not soon found. First, there was a woman, Lydia, a seller of purple goods, who responded to Paul’s preaching down by the river inasmuch as the Lord opened her heart. She and her household were baptized and became members of the new church. Then, there was a slave girl who followed Paul  around and kept saying, “These men are bond-servants of the Most High God, who are proclaiming to you the way of salvation” (Acts 16:17). What she said was true, but the way she was proclaiming it was harmful. Paul became annoyed after several days and commanded the demonic spirit to come out of her. She was the second member of the church. Then, there was the conversion of the Philippian jailer and his family who were all baptized. That was the first adult male member of the church there. Two women and a jailer. Typically it would not seem like a very good group of people to start a new church with, but God’s ways and thoughts are high above ours. We do not know how large the Philippian church became. We are not given a list of the members. What we do know is that they were true believers and that Paul’s epistle to them is called ‘the epistle of joy.’ The sadness of their lives was overcome by the joy of the Lord. The darkness of their souls was cast out by the Light of the World.

Third, the Scripture simply never tells us the sizes of these missionary churches. Yes, there were 3,000 converted on the day of Pentecost and another 2,000 members were added in short order. That was in Jerusalem and among the Jews, but we do not know how many people were involved in these mission churches. Does it really matter? As a friend said to me recently, “If numbers are important, we can always just go back to Catholicism or a mega church in which the gospel is not preached.” So true. There is a reason the Scripture does not emphasize numbers. Here it is. Because the important thing with Scripture is churches should be composed of true believers who hunger and thirst for God’s Word. A man who was a youth in one of my first churches moved to Chicago for work after college. He knew no one there and was having a hard time finding Christians. He finally found some and it was unimportant to him what the color of their skin was or where they were from. They were believers and that is what counted. That is what counts with Scripture. There are ways to gather large crowds apart from God’s blessings, but all of them involve compromises. It is better to be a church like the one at Philadelphia (Revelation 3:7-13) than to be like the church at Laodicea (Revelation 3:14-22). 

Fourth, we have to have an even keel spirit when we are starting a mission church. There will be many ups and downs along the way. Success might come quickly or it might come slowly. Dr. Seuss wrote a book called, “Oh! The Places You’ll Go.” It describes what a person setting out in life might imagine for himself. The first lines are: “Oh! The places you’ll go. You’ll be on your way up! You’ll be seeing great sights!” The graduate soon finds that his plans do not immediately materialize. Instead of success, he finds hardship. Instead of acclaim, he is ridiculed. Soon, the visions of success are turned into concerns that nothing will ever be right for him again. Are we not all like that? So, what is the problem? That kind of person is like a manic depressive person. They only experience the highs and the lows. They are not balanced. The Apostle Paul had a vision of a man calling them to come over and help. Trouble quickly found Paul and Silas once they got there and they were thrown into jail. They spent the night in chains, but they sang and prayed all night long. The jailer was listening. When an earthquake devastated the jail, the jailer was ready to commit suicide until Paul assured him that they all the prisoners were still there. Then, the jailer implored Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Our witness during the worst of times is an essential part of our Christian testimony. People are watching how you handle difficulties. Let your witness be Christ honoring. Also, remember what Paul wrote to that congregation in Philippi from prison: “I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am” (Philippians 4:11b). The dangers for a new church are overconfidence and no confidence or trust in the Lord. The great need of each Christian is to learn to be content in every circumstance.   

Fifth, we need to remember that one of the primary means of spreading Christ’s church is to start new churches. Converts have to have churches to attend. Paul evangelized as a means to start churches and he started churches to have places where the converts could worship. The two go hand in hand. The New Testament church is to be evangelistic and missionary. Whether the mission is difficult or full of potential, our spirit should be, “Here am I, Lord. Send me.” There will be difficulties. Consider all the travails of Paul. Wherever he went, he evangelized the Jews and preached in their synagogues first. There were some converts from those efforts, but a lot of persecution soon followed with the governing officials joining in the persecution. Jesus and Paul both warned Christians that they would suffer persecution. Churches in the United States have been insulated from that persecution for a long time, but things are about to change. We are in the remnant stage of Christianity in America as the Holy Spirit has been withdrawn in great measure. Indeed, Christians world-wide are facing a great deal of persecution at the present hour. Many have gone before us. Through many tribulations the saints of old entered into their eternal resting place. That is now the situation we face. So, rejoice that you are considered worthy of suffering for Jesus who suffered so much for you. As He said, “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:10-12). Do not just endure such persecution, insults, slander, and evil reports. Rejoice in them. Wear their false reports as badges of merit that your reward in heaven will be great. Be glad about those slanders. 

Sixth, and finally, Scriptural churches must be prayerful and evangelistic. They must hold up the unadulterated Word of God. What a wonderful day it will be when every member of every true church becomes a daily witness for Christ. I know of several situations where the light of the gospel was about to be extinguished in a church, but instead the church was revived when the members became committed to witnessing for Christ. Perhaps one of the most amazing situations in the twentieth century was the Cuckfield Baptist Church in England under Errol Hulse. There are lost souls in every city, town, village, and hamlet. There are people who have never been told the whole message of this life. We must tell them, but we also must pray both before we go and after we return that the seed planted in their hearts would bear fruit.       

Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL

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