MESSAGE FOR MAY 18, 2003
(Fifth in a series on the mission of Christ’s church)
This week we continue to examine the global mission of Christ’s church. Up to this point we have claimed that it is part of the essential nature of the church to be impassioned to spread the glory of Christ—to extend his kingdom in our neighborhoods and to the nations. If we as individuals and as a church are not burdened about the global glory of Christ then there is something wrong with us. That is what we have claimed. We have supported that claim with several biblical texts but let me give one more reason why at our very core, a healthy follower of Christ and a healthy church is by nature impassioned to obey the Great Commission. In Acts 1:8 Jesus, speaking of Pentecost that was to come, told his disciples, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Notice that Jesus does not command the church to be his witnesses. He doesn’t say, “You will receive power. Therefore I order you to go out and use that power to witness for me.” No. He says as a result of the outpouring of God’s Spirit those who have received the Spirit will by their very nature BE my witnesses. The question isn’t whether a true follower of Jesus is a witness—that is already established. The question is whether they are a faithful witness. We must hear in that the centrality of mission and evangelism to the purpose of the church. The Spirit is given so the church will by her nature witness to Christ.
Closely related to this text is another where Jesus is speaking of the ministry of the Holy Spirit. In John 16:8 he says, “When he [the Spirit] comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment.” Now, let’s see how that truth about the Spirit is related to the truth about the Spirit in Acts 1:8. In Acts 1:8 Jesus tells us the church is given the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit to be witnesses for Him and his redemptive work. In John 16:8-10 Jesus explains some of what is involved in that supernatural, convicting ministry of the Holy Spirit as he works through us. He says the Holy Spirit works within the unsaved to violently impress on their minds three heart-changing truths. First, that they stand guilty of sin before a holy God and specifically of rejecting God’s only Son who he sent to redeem them. Second, that their only hope of being accepted by this holy God is if they are given the righteousness of Christ because they have no righteousness or their own. Third, that apart from Christ their eternal judgment is an absolute certainty because Satan, the leader of the world’s rebellion against Christ has already been judged and defeated through the cross. That’s part of what the Holy Spirit does in the sinner as believers obey the Great Commission.
If the Spirit of God is not at work in the unsaved person, they may mentally accept the idea that they are a Christ-rejecting sinner before a Holy God who hates sin, but they won’t be deeply troubled by that fact. The more sensitive personality types may feel some sort of purely emotional tug from that but it isn’t true repentance. If the Spirit of God is not at work in an unconverted person, they may understand in their minds the truth that they need to be righteous in order to be accepted by God and that righteousness is a gift of God. But apart from the Spirit’s work they won’t be seriously bothered by their absence of righteousness. A sinner may even acknowledge they are under the certain judgment of God but in the next moment without any real disruption in their thinking ponder a question like, “I wonder if the Twins will win the pennant this year.” Apart from the Holy Spirit’s convicting work in their life their guilt before God, their lack of righteousness and even their own imminent eternal condemnation will just roll off like water on a duck’s back. It’s the miraculous, heart-transforming work of the Holy Spirit alone that can cause a spiritually dead person to repent of their sin and respond in saving faith to the living God and the gospel.
Because the Holy Spirit plays this imperative role in conversion, Jesus told the disciples in Acts 1:4 “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” He’s saying, “don’t you dare go out and try to give witness to me and my redemptive work without the Spirit. You can go and tell the people about me until you are blue in the face but unless the Holy Spirit has made you my witnesses and works through you, sinners will not experience conviction of their guilt, their desperate need for my righteousness and their certain judgment.” That’s part of the Spirit’s role in conversion and that occurs within unsaved people as the Holy Spirit works through the witness of the church.
By giving us the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity for the purpose of making us witnesses to the lost world, God has placed the mission of the church at the very center of our purpose. A person with the Spirit who empowers their witness but who is not in some way giving witness to the lost for Christ is a walking contradiction. A person with the Spirit but who does not witness to Christ is like a police officer who has been given a badge to signify his authority but instead of wearing it, uses it as a Christmas tree ornament! It’s not supposed to be boxed up 11 months out of the year waiting to adorn a Christmas tree; it’s given to identify someone as an officer of the law. As ridiculous as the idea of a policeman using his badge as a Christmas tree ornament is, that is no more inconsistent than a believer who has been given the witness-empowering Spirit but who is not impassioned about witnessing to Christ. That’s a big reason why we have been given the Spirit!
Now clearly, being a witness for Christ is not restricted to verbally sharing the gospel or going out or sending missionaries. Not all witness for Christ will include the verbal proclamation of the gospel. The term “witness” includes much more than that. We witness for Christ as we live for Christ, but that truth does not exempt us from overtly sharing the gospel or sending out missionaries to the end of the earth. As Becky Pippert reminds us, the salt of the earth has to get out of the saltshaker living out AND giving out the message of the gospel. The lost nations can’t see our love and joy and peace and patience and the other fruit of the Spirit if we are not living out those Christ-like qualities in their midst. If we are living Spirit-filled, Spirit-controlled lives we can be a powerful witness, but the Scripture is clear on one point. That is, saving faith is given to the sinner in response to hearing the message of the gospel. Paul says in Romans 10:17, “Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” The kind of Holy Spirit empowered witness that ultimately brings people to saving faith is giving out the gospel message.
All of that to say that one more reason why we KNOW a healthy believer and a healthy church is inherently, intrinsically, essentially impassioned for the spread of the kingdom of God to the nations is because that’s why God sent His Spirit to us. A true follower of Christ is at the most basic level, one who has the Holy Spirit and the Spirit was given in part to cause us to be witnesses to Christ to a lost world here and to the ends of the earth. The church at its heart is a missionary organism. That is indisputable. The open question for us is not that truth, but rather given that truth, why are so many of us who supposedly have the Spirit for the purpose of being Christ’s witnesses—why aren’t we more impassioned or burdened about this mission?
Two weeks ago we said one reason for this lack of passion for spreading the glory of Christ’s glory through the gospel is perhaps because we do not personally treasure the gospel as we should. If a person has been saved from the crushing burden of guilt over their own sin, has received Christ’s perfect righteousness that alone makes them acceptable to God, and has been set free from the horrible fear of impending judgment from a holy God, it would follow that they would treasure the message that has done, is doing and will continue to do this for them. But if we do NOT personally treasure that message then why on earth would they be impassioned to see it spread to others perhaps at great sacrifice to ourselves? That would explain why we are not all that excited about missions and evangelism. If that is a cause for our indifference to the global cause of Christ, then we must do some serious heart searching to see why we don’t treasure this gospel that should be constantly refreshing and renewing us.
This week we want to take up another reason why so many of us in the North American church aren’t impassioned about the Great Commission. It is one we have briefly touched on before and that is, perhaps we simply don’t care all that much about the plight of lost people. That is, we may know that at least 2/3 of the world’s population including the person next door are lost and going to hell without a Savior, but that fact doesn’t move us all that much. Let me say at the outset of this point that I agree with those who contend the Bible teaches that our primary motive for missions and evangelism should be God’s name and God’s glory spreading to the nations. We should be God-centered in our motivation, and we’ll talk about that in the future. But that in no way means that we should not also be deeply concerned about the plight of the lost. We want to briefly remind ourselves what the Scripture says about the plight of the lost but before we do that, we must first see just how gravely serious it is to not be deeply concerned about the plight of the lost.
We see just how serious this is from Matthew 22:35 when Jesus was asked by a Pharisee in Matthew 22:36, “Teacher which is the greatest commandment in the Law? Jesus replied: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and all the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” [vss.36-40] Let’s focus on that second commandment to love your neighbor as yourself that Christ says summarizes all the Old Testament says about how we are to relate to other people. In Luke 10:29 a teacher of the law heard this teaching of Jesus. This teacher also knew the importance of these commandments. But he had also done some very creative thinking as to who he identified as his neighbor and not surprisingly, his conclusions about who his neighbor was were sufficiently distorted that he had come to believe he had kept this commandment to love his neighbor. So with all of his self-justifying notions about whom his neighbor was he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In reply Jesus told him the parable of the Good Samaritan. In that parable I’m sure Jesus exploded every one of the teacher’s misconceptions about who and what a neighbor was. You’ll recall through the parable Jesus basically defined a neighbor as anyone of who is in need and whom you have the power to help. That’s your neighbor. He also expanded the understanding of neighbor to include not only WHO your neighbor is but also what it is to biblically BE a neighbor to someone. The Samaritan who helped the half-dead man lying in the road was BEING a neighbor to him according to Jesus. The teacher of the law had evidently not ever thought about “neighbor” as a verb. Our culture has been influenced by this understanding a little bit. Certain people might say the Samaritan was being mighty “neighborly” to this man left for dead on the road. To BE a neighbor is to help meet the need of someone in need who you have the capacity to help. That’s what Jesus taught about our neighbors and how to relate to them.
That was his explanation of what he meant in the Great Commandment by loving your neighbor as yourself. If you were lying, beaten and bleeding on a road filled with people who don’t care whether you live or die, what would YOU want someone to do for you? When you get the answer to that question, you go out and do it for those people who are beaten, bleeding and lying on a road. Let’s relate Jesus’ understanding of a neighbor, which is part of the Great Commandment, to this area of the Great Commission. We must understand that the Great Commission—going and making disciples of all nations is only one of the natural applications of these Great Commandments. Do we see that? If you love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind then you will want his glory and his kingdom spread to the nations. And if you are loving your neighbor as you love yourself and you define neighbor as Jesus defines neighbor that will have powerful implications on your burden and passion for fulfilling the Great Commission. Notice again that the mission of the church is unbreakably linked to the most basic elements of what it is to be a Christian—to live out the Great Commandment to love God and love others. That means if we are dismally failing by our indifference to the Great Commission, we are at one and the same time dismally failing to carry out the Great Commandment. We must hear the gravity of being indifferent to the lost.
Let’s unpack this question of loving our neighbor as we love ourselves as it relates to the Great Commission. We said that Jesus’ understanding of a neighbor is anyone in need who we can help in some way. That person IS our neighbor and we are to BE a neighbor to that person. In that context, let’s briefly look at two questions. The first is How does our unsaved neighbor down the street or across the world need help? If our neighbor is someone in need who we can help, we need to see just what condition they are in from a biblical perspective. There are enough biblical texts for books to be written on the topic of the plight of the lost but let me highlight three important truths about the lost. The first is our lost neighbor is living in complete futility. Paul, in Romans 1:21 describes part of the wrath of God currently being revealed in the lives of lost people. He says, “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.”
Our lost neighbors in their thinking about the most important topics in the universe, God and their own spiritual condition are futile. What “futile” means in today’s language is they haven’t got a clue and they haven’t got a clue that they haven’t got a clue and what’s more, they are NOT ABLE to get a clue about spiritual truth. Let’s illustrate what the bible means by futility. If there are a million roads a person could take to try to find God, the lost person will try to take 999,999 of them and, having exhausted all the wrong roads, will then refuse to take the one last, right road to God. Instead they will begin all over again with the roads they already know don’t lead to God. That is the biblical understanding of futility. Our lost neighbors are like a person who is starving to death but who happens to wanders into to a banquet hall with a buffet line packed with delicious food. Using the very last of his rapidly waning strength, he finally collapses after crawling over every inch of the banquet hall except the area where the buffet lines are located. These lost people who are futile in their thinking are like a man who dies from dehydration because he wasn’t able to find any water to satisfy his thirst even though at the time of his death he was standing knee deep in Lake Superior. That is how lost people think about God.
This is not stupidity—this is something far more grievous, this is futility. The unsaved are futile in their thinking. This is why there are Muslims and Hindus and Animists and Mormons and idolaters in Duluth and New Delhi, in Proctor and Beijing. They don’t know the truth and they CAN’T know it unless and until the Holy Spirit opens their minds and someone—one of their neighbors—shows up to point them to the one right road. They can’t know how to rightly think about God until one of their believing neighbors directs them to the banquet table or gives them a drink of living water. Our lost neighbors are living in a state of complete futility.
The second truth about the condition of our lost neighbor is they are living in helpless captivity. Paul says in Galatians 3:22, “But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin,” The lost are held captive to sin. The great lie of sin is when you are able to do whatever your fallen desires compel you to do—when you think you are the most free and liberated, you are at that moment completely shackled by sin, locked in the devil’s dungeon—safely in his confinement. The lost are in prison on spiritual death row and the warden of their prison is the Prince of Darkness whose agenda for them according to John 10:10 is to steal, kill and destroy them. From that text do you know how he treats his prisoners? Have you ever seen how a cat treats a mouse it has injured and caught? Do you know what they do with that animal before they eat it? They play with it—they torment it, batting it about like it was a ball of yarn until they tire of the game and devour the helpless creature. That’s a picture of the sinner in the hands of their satanic jailer. Those are our neighbors! And the most pathetic aspect of it is Satan has so blinded them to the gospel that they have no idea they are in that lethal predicament. They are being buffeted by sin and Satan in their spiritual jail cell and they’re as helpless as that mouse. They’ll die in that cell that way--being tormented like that unless the Holy Spirit changes their self-destructive hearts and unless someone—one of their neighbors--comes to them with the key to that jail cell which is the message of the gospel. Can you believe we have been entrusted with the privilege of coming to those people and unlocking their prison doors and setting them free with the truth? Our lost neighbors are living in a state of helpless captivity.
A third truth about the condition of our lost neighbors is simply they are on a one-way path to hell. Jesus, who gives us 75% of what the Bible says about hell and who as God created hell describes it in Matthew 13:42 and 50 as a “fiery furnace.” In Matthew 25:41 he says it’s an “eternal fire” and John in Revelation 20:15 calls it a “lake of fire.” We won’t labor this horrific truth except to say that Jesus, when he spoke of the fate of the damned used the most horrible fate imaginable to describe it. At the top of my list of things NOT to happen to me in this life or anyone I love is to be badly burned. That’s is an unimaginably gruesome fate and the pain and suffering involved in that must be exquisite. That’s the picture Jesus, who knows more than anyone about hell, uses to describe it. And as we’ve said in the past, the fiery metaphor Jesus uses cannot possibly be as bad as the real thing. The true, actual pain and torment of the eternally damned is doubtless not able to be captured by finite human minds and finite language. Jesus uses the closest image he could find—an eternal fire. And perhaps the worst thing about hell is that Jesus Christ, who came to redeem sinners will instead be in hell inflicting his holy wrath on all those who rejected him in their unbelief. That’s the final fate of our lost neighbors—they end up in the fires of hell.
The second question we need to ask in the context of loving our neighbors as ourselves as part of the Great Commission is what can we do for our lost neighbors? Jesus has already given that answer. If you were lying beaten, bleeding on a road filled with people who didn’t care whether you lived or died, what would you want someone to do for you? When you get the answer to that question, do it. If it were you in that state of futility, starving to death groping for food but blind to what will fill your stomach, what would you want someone to do for you? If you were in that jail cell under the blinding, soul-destroying confinement of sin and Satan—what would you want someone to do for you? Finally, if you were on a one-way path to an eternal damnation that defies adequate description, what would you want someone to do? How would you want someone to be your neighbor? If we are believers, then we have KNOW the one right road to salvation and we constantly dine at the banquet feast of gospel truth. We have the living water and we have the soul-liberating key to free sinners from their spiritual jail cells and take them off the path to hell. Maybe the reason we aren’t impassioned about extending God’s kingdom is because we don’t care all that much about the plight of the lost. God have mercy on us. Let’s pray.
Lord Jesus, when you saw the crowds of needy people you were moved with compassion because they were like sheep without a shepherd. You wept over Jerusalem because the people there did not recognize the time of God’s coming to them. Oh God, forgive us for not having your heart for the lost. Forgive us for vacuum sealing our lives away from contact with them. Forgive us for making ourselves the center of our universe to the exclusion of anyone else. Forgive us for failing you in the Great Commission and as we have done so, failing you in Your Great Commandments. Give us your heart, your tears, your compassion for these who people who are our neighbors. These lost people who are in the most terrible peril imaginable and whom we are able to help as we pray and as we give and as we speak the truth of the gospel and as we go to the nations. Give us grace to do this all for your sake and in your name we pray. Amen.
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