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The title of my message is “Christ’s Last Order.” I deliberately used the word order because as most of you know I’m from a military background and I also spent five and a half years myself in the British Army. One of the key words in an army is the word order. Every soldier is responsible to know what’s on orders. One of the great slogans you’re always met with is “Ignorance of orders is no excuse.” You are responsible to find out what the orders are. If you don’t know, the fact that you didn’t see the notice board with the orders on or you didn’t hear the word of command given is never an excuse.
I believe the same is true for us as Christians. If Christ has given us orders, we cannot excuse ourselves by saying “I never knew about that.” God’s answer is it’s all there in the New Testament and you are responsible to acquaint yourself with orders.
Another principle in the New Testament and in the army is that orders remain in force until they’re officially canceled. It doesn’t matter whether an order was given five minutes ago or five years ago, in the army it’s still enforced. I think many, many Christians have an attitude that that was all said such a long while ago and it really probably doesn’t apply to us today. But every order that Christ gave is still in force unless it’s been canceled by someone with authority to do it. And I do not know who that someone would be nor do I have any idea of when it could have happened.
So for me, the orders that Christ gave are still in force today. We are responsible for two things. First of all, to know them and secondly, to do them. And bear in mind that ignorance is no excuse.
The order that I’m going to deal with is commonly known as the Great Commission. But I deliberately changed the word commission because that doesn’t have a sufficiently authoritative sense to it. I want to present what I’m going to say this morning as Christ’s orders. They’re not optional, we’re not offered any alternatives. These are things that he requires us to do. We’ll turn to three passages in the New Testament, the first one will be Matthew 28:18–20.
“Then Jesus came and spoke to them saying, All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore...”
And I believe that therefore is very important. Many of you have heard me say whenever you find a therefore in the Bible, you want to find out what it’s there for. And the statement Jesus has just made is connected by the therefore to the order that he then gives. He says:
“All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. In the light of that fact, you go and exercise that authority, demonstrate it.”
You see, authority is completely ineffective unless it’s exercised. People may have authority and never use it all their lives and they will be just as if they never had the authority. So Jesus said,
“If the world is to know that the authority has been given to me, you’re going to have to demonstrate my authority on my behalf to all nations.”
That’s how the nations will know.
Now here are the orders.
“Go therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Amen.”
That’s a very inclusive statement. Jesus says to go to all the nations, not one nation anywhere on earth is to be omitted.
And then he says, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” And the literal wording is I am with you all the days. Those of you that may know Scandinavian languages, in all the Scandinavian translations it’s I am with you all the days. All days. I think it’s important. It’s not just a period of time that he’ll be with us but every individual day in that period he will be with us.
But the condition, I believe, is obedience. If we go, he’s with us. I don’t see that he’s committed himself to be with us if we don’t go.
Then we turn to Mark, the next gospel, the 16th chapter and we read verses 14–20.
“Afterward he appeared to the eleven as they sat at the table, and he rebuked their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they did not believe those who had seen him after he had risen. And he said to them, Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will follow those who believe; in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover. So then after the Lord had spoken to them, he was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out, and preached every where, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word through the accompanying signs. Amen.”
Again we see that, in a sense, the Lord has done his part. And so where he says in Matthew, “all authority has been given to me, you go,” Mark says he ascended into heaven and sat down. What does that mean, he sat down? You’ll find that it’s emphasized in Hebrews he sat down unlike the liturgical priests who always remain standing, he sat down because his task was complete. They remain standing because their task never was complete. So stating that he sat down is a way of saying his job had been perfectly done.
Now the responsibility was on the disciples. He sat down, they went and preached everywhere. And again, we notice it’s a very, very all inclusive order. Go into all the world, that’s very total, all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. I don’t see how anything could be more inclusive than that. Probably you’re aware that St. Francis of Assisi used to preach to the birds and the animals because he felt they were included in every creature, and there are many evidences that they responded to St. Francis in a way they didn’t respond to other people. So personally, I believe they got the message and I believe in a certain sense we’re obligated to the entire created world to present the good news to them. All the world, every creature.
And then where it says preach, I think you’d get a clearer understanding if you translated it proclaim. A proclamation is to be made to the entire world. One of the things that really satisfied me as I’ve developed my radio program is that I feel I’m making a proclamation. Sometimes we feel we have to explain the whole gospel. I’m not sure that the gospel ever can be explained completely to human understanding. But we do have to proclaim it and let the Holy Spirit do what he will through the proclamation.
Sometimes it’s more effective not to try and explain everything. When I was first a preacher, having been a philosopher, I felt everything I said I had to explain. And the explanation became so involved and wearisome that the impact was lost. Today, many times I trust the Holy Spirit if I proclaim, to do what I cannot do in any case by way of explanation and application.
And then a third passage which is similar though the way it’s expressed is slightly different. Acts 1:6–8. This is after the resurrection of Jesus and just before he ascended into heaven.
“And when they had come together, they asked him saying, Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”
I think it’s interesting that they still were convinced that the time would come when the kingdom would be restored to Israel. Now Jesus did not say that would not happen, but he did say it’s not your business to know when it will happen.
“And he said to them, It’s not for you to know times or seasons, which the Father has put in his own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you shall be witnesses to me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
And then we read in the next verse:
“And when he had spoken these things, while they watched, he was taken up...”
Those were apparently the last words that fell from his lips on earth. To me that’s tremendously significant. Apart from people who are dear to me, somehow the last thing I say to them is the thing I want them to remember most. And I believe that was true in the relationship of Jesus to the disciples. The last words he spoke were the ones he wanted them to remember most. What were they? “To the end of the earth.” I can believe they descended from the Mount of Olives with that phrase ringing in their minds, to the end of the earth, to the end of the earth, to the end of the earth. Your task is not complete till you’ve reached earth’s utmost boundaries.
If you put those three passages together you get a tremendous accumulation of emphatic words and phrases. Matthew 28, all the nations and to the end of the age. In Mark it’s all the world and every creature. And in Acts it’s to the end of the earth. Both in time and geography, every extremity is covered. Nothing is left omitted. It would be impossible, I think, to make words more clear and more emphatic than those. If we do not understand and apply them, the reason is not because they are not clear. I am something of an expert in the interpretation of language, and I would say it would be impossible to say anything more clearly than Jesus said there. And more emphatically.
You could also consider the three different kinds of activity that are implied by the words that are used for communicating the gospel. In Matthew he says make disciples. That’s a process of training people. In Mark he says proclaim. We may proclaim to millions of people who never become disciples. But even if they don’t become disciples, we are still obligated to make the proclamation. And in Acts he says you shall be my witnesses. Witnessing is not preaching. Preaching is proclaiming the truth of God’s word, but being a witness is demonstrating the truth by the way you live and the words you speak.
Lots of people who are not called to preach can be the most effective witnesses. It’s so important we understand the difference between preaching, which I think is a task not assigned to the whole body, and witnessing, which I believe is a responsibility of every Christian. I use the word witnessing but it’s not really the best word because it suggests something rather religious and almost technical. But Jesus said you’ll be my witnesses. I think the testimony we heard just before I began to preach is a wonderful example of what it means to be a witness. Not necessarily to say a lot. Sometimes we spoil our witness by talking too much. But we need to live in such a way in front of people that there’s no other explanation for our lives but that Jesus is alive. That is, I believe, to be a witness.
How much speaking we do depends on the leading of the Holy Spirit in any given circumstance. I remember my first wife Lydia telling how when she met the Lord and was filled with the Holy Spirit as a teacher in a government school in Denmark she became, and always remained, a very bold witness. She would tell everybody what had happened to her including people who probably were somewhat insulted by being told. One day she got a new maid to come and look after our house because as a teacher she had to go out and attend to her responsibilities at the school. And for some reason she never spoke to this maid for months on end about the Lord. And one day the maid began to cry and Lydia said, “What’s the matter with you?” And the maid said, “I know God doesn’t love me.” She said, “Why do you think that?” She said, “You talk to everybody else about the Lord and you never talk to me. I’m sure God doesn’t love me.” And she came to know the Lord that way. But then she told Lydia that before she went to work for her she had told all her friends, “I know that holy teacher is going to spend all her time telling me about Jesus.” And just because she didn’t, she was won to the Lord. So you see, that it’s always a matter of the leading of the Holy Spirit. It’s not a technique. It may be fine to know the four spiritual laws but you can’t get everybody on the same hook with the same bait.
Okay, now let’s look at one other passage in Matthew 24. Here is the great prophetic discourse in which Jesus really outlines the course that events will follow from his time on earth to the time of his return again in glory. And the discourse is triggered by a question from some of his disciples. I only want to read to you the question and the culmination of Jesus’ answer. The question is found in verse 3.
“Now as he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately saying, Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming, and of the end of the age?”
Actually it’s a threefold question. The first is when will all these things happen? These things being the destruction of the temple. And then the next question is either a single or a double question according to your understanding. What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age? Let’s deal only with the latter part of that. What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age? And in the verses that follow, Jesus gives them various signs like international wars, earthquakes, pestilences, famines, false prophets, persecution of Christians, lawlessness and various things like that. All those are signs but they are not the sign. Up to that point Jesus has not specifically answered the specific question what will be the sign of your coming? But when we get to verse 14, Jesus gives an answer. It was a specific question and he gave a specific answer. I want you to see that. He says:
“This gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.”
That’s the answer. What will be the sign? The sign will be the preaching of this gospel of the kingdom, not some watered down version, but the same gospel that Jesus and the early church preached. This gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world to all the nations, and then the end will come. What is the final specific sign of the end of the age? It’s the preaching of the gospel of the kingdom in all the world to all nations.
You could say in a sense Jesus had a one track mind. He just had one supreme objective clear before him. That was the preaching of the gospel in all the world to all nations. I think sometimes many of us need to have a much more one track mind than we have. We get distracted with a lot of half truths and the real impact are the important simple truths escape us. I would like everybody here this morning to have a one track mind. What will be the sign of his coming? The preaching of the gospel of the kingdom in all nations in all the world.
What is our responsibility? What part do we have to play in bringing to pass the return of the Lord? The answer is the preaching of the gospel of the kingdom in all the world to all nations. Now I’m not saying that the coming of Jesus depends solely on what we do. But what we do is a factor that must be taken into account. I believe it is possible, in a certain sense, for the church to delay the return of the Lord by failing to carry out this responsibility. I believe in God’s foreknowledge, I believe that there is a specific day and hour appointed for the return of Jesus. But I believe that it could have been earlier if the church had been obedient. In other words, God’s foreknowledge takes into account the disobedience of the church but it does not exonerate the church for disobedience.
And I want to say to you simply at this point in my message in case I don’t get to say it again, if we do not do the things that I have clearly outlined to you, we are disobedient. There is no other accurate word to describe our attitude and our conduct but disobedience.
Now it’s a strange thing, when it comes to the promises of Jesus the church has no problem really in embracing them. But when it comes to his orders, we somehow think they’re applied to somebody else! I want to give you just a few simple examples of promises of Jesus beginning in Matthew 21:22:
“And all things, whatever you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.”
Praise the Lord, we say, Amen. I accept that. It’s good you do. Let’s look at Mark 11:24. I accept it, too.
“Therefore I say to you, Whatever things you ask, when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them.”
Amen! Turn to John for moment, John 14:12–14.
“Most assuredly I say to you, He who believes in me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to my Father. And whatever you ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father might be glorified in the Son. If you ask any thing in my name, I will do it.”
No problem. I’m sure most of us here say Praise God, that’s a promise for us today! It hasn’t been canceled, it hasn’t gone out of date, it still applies. Thank God it does.
One more, John 15:7–8.
“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be my disciples.”
Praise God, another wonderful promise still valid today. But I ask you, is there any logical basis whatever for thinking that the promises still apply but the orders have been canceled? I don’t believe there’s one person here that would stand up and say that’s exactly the way I see it. But basically, that is the attitude of the church. We want to embrace the promises but we’re not very much concerned about carrying out the orders. I believe that’s inconsistent.
Now, I want to illustrate the task that Jesus has set before us from a specific series of miracles that took place in his ministry. I think one of the things that would discourage us or keep us from obedience when we consider what’s involved in preaching the gospel to a world that has the population of 4 billion or more, is that the task is so immense, where do we begin? Who can face a task like that? And because we feel the task is so immense that we could never carry it through, we may be discouraged from even beginning which is illogical and inexcusable, but I think it is a psychological factor in the attitude of many Christians. Well, the world is so vast and there are so many different nations and so many different languages and so many different cultures, how could we ever really do what Jesus told us to do? And furthermore, in a sense, from that point of view, the task isn’t getting any easier because the population of the world is increasing and in many ways the complexity of cultures and languages is increasing with it.
I want to offer you what I believe is a pattern for how Jesus intended us to go about this task. I want to consider primarily the miracle of the feeding of the 5000. Then I want to set beside that the subsequent miracle of the feeding of the 4000. And then I want to add a lesson which Jesus himself pointed out in regard to these two miracles. In some ways the miracle of the feeding of the 5000 is a very unique miracle. It’s the only one that’s recorded in all four gospels. There is not another miracle that Jesus did during his earthly ministry that’s recorded in all four gospels and I think it’s the only miracle that Jesus himself commented on. He had an application for it. So I’m going to read it as it’s recorded in Matthew 14:13–21.
“When Jesus heard it, he departed from there by boat to a deserted place by himself: but when the multitudes heard it, they followed him on foot from the cities. And when Jesus went out, he saw a great multitude, and he was moved with compassion for them, and healed their sick. When it was evening, his disciples came to him saying, This is a deserted place, and the hour is already late; send the multitudes away, that they may go into the villages, and buy themselves food. But Jesus said to them, They do not need to go away; you give them something to eat. They said to him, We have here only five loaves, and two fish. He said, Bring them here to me. Then he commanded the multitude to sit down on the grass, and he took the five loaves, and the two fish, and looking to heaven, he blessed and broke, and gave the loaves to the disciples, and the disciples gave to the multitude. So they all ate, and were filled: and they took up twelve baskets full of the fragments that remained. Now those who had eaten were about five thousand men, besides women and children.”
I would imagine the number of women and children probably equaled the number of men. I don’t know, so that would mean 10,000 persons.
Now, let’s go on to the next chapter where we have a similar miracle but the figures are different. Matthew 15:32–38.
“Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, I have compassion on the multitude, because they have now continued with me three days, and have nothing to eat: and I do not want to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way. Then his disciples said to him, Where could we get enough bread in the wilderness to fill such a great multitude? Jesus said to them, How many loaves do you have? And they said, Seven, and a few little fish. And he commanded the multitude to sit down on the ground. And he took the seven loaves, and the fish, and gave thanks, broke them, and gave them to his disciples, and the disciples gave to the multitude. So they all ate, and were filled: and they took up seven baskets full of fragments that were left. Now those who ate were 4000 men, besides women and children. And he sent away the multitude, got into the boat, and came to the region of Magdala.”
In the next chapter the disciples crossed the lake with him and then realized they had forgotten to take bread. And in this context Jesus comments on the two miracles of the feeding of the 5000 and the 4000. And I want you to notice that he’s very specific about all the figures involved. He expected them to remember and learn from the figures involved in the two miracles. Beginning in chapter 16:5.
“And when his disciples had come to the other side of the lake, they had forgotten to take bread. Then Jesus said to them, Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. And they reasoned among themselves [quite wrongly] saying, It is because we have taken no bread. When Jesus perceived it, he said to them, O you of little faith, why do you reason among yourselves because you have brought no bread? Do you not yet understand, or remember the five loaves of the five thousand, and how many baskets you took up? And the seven loaves of the four thousand, and how many baskets you took up? How do you not understand...”
And let’s stop there. So he recapitulated for them all the essential figures of each of those miracles, the 5000 and the 4000. Now, very simply I want to take the challenge of feeding a multitude of say 10,000 or 8000 people with virtually no food as a pattern or an example of the challenge of presenting the gospel to a world of four billion people. I want to extract principles from the feeding of these multitudes which I believe apply exactly to the task of presenting the gospel to the entire world.
We have to acknowledge that what Jesus asked the disciples to do was totally impossible. They had no natural ability or means to do what he required of them and yet he required them to do it. If I were to compare, which is not, you know, very mathematical, the impossibility of feeding 10,000 persons with five loaves and two fishes with the impossibility of presenting the gospel to the whole world today, I would have to say the first is the greater of the two impossibilities. It’s totally impossible. Whereas, in the light of the world situation today, the means of communication, the means of travel and the resources available to the church, I would not say exactly that it really is impossible to present the gospel to the whole world. But it’s certainly an immense task.
So I want to take these two comparisons and apply some very simple lessons to our task of presenting the gospel to the entire world, to every nation, to every creature, to the ends of the earth. I want to extract five simple lessons or principles. First of all, if you read the account of the feeding of the 5000 in Matthew’s gospel as we read it, it’s very clear that the disciples did not want the responsibility of feeding 5000 people. They said it’s getting late, send them away now so that they still have time to get somewhere where they can buy food before it gets dark. They had enough sense to see this is going to be a major problem, let’s avoid it. I think the attitude of the church is commonly the same. You read it. He said, “Yougive them to eat.” And I believe exactly the same. We may want to escape the responsibility of presenting the gospel to the whole world, but Jesus says it’s your job. It is your responsibility. I have ordered you to do it and I have never retracted the order.
Secondly I’d like to illustrate from the feeding of the 5000 and the 4000 a relationship which I think is very important between two things which tend to be regarded by some Christians as almost opposites. Let me say in general, Christians are very simplistic in their approach. They say two things which are different and they kind of feel we’ve got to make a choice for one. Like for instance, between the gifts of the Spirit and the fruit of the Spirit. They are not alternatives. God doesn’t say, “I’m so impoverished that if I give you gifts I can’t afford to let you have fruit.” God says, “I expect you to have fruit and exercise it through the gifts.” The gifts are the means to make fruit available. They’re not contrary, they complement one another.
Now in this situation I see again two things which are often regarded as being inconsistent and yet they’re not. The one is what I would call order or discipline, the other is God’s supernatural power. And we tend to have in the church groups that will major on one or the other. There’s the order, discipline group. Everybody lined up, everybody with their own shepherd, everybody accountable, everybody doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing, everybody allotted, everybody in a place. Now that’s not wrong. In fact, it’s very clearly demonstrated in the feeding of the 5000. Jesus said make them sit down in groups of 50, in rows. If he hadn’t done that, some of the people would never have gotten fed because the people at the front would have helped themselves and the people at the back would have never made it. That’s human nature when people are hungry, believe me. If you’ve seen hungry people, they lose their manners very quickly. There would have probably been some people who were trampled underfoot and actually lost their lives in the rush of the multitude to receive this food.
So it was imperative that they begin with order with getting everybody into a sizable group that could be dealt with. To me, that’s a very clear example of the importance of order, of authority, of discipleship. But, let me point out they could have got everybody neatly ordered in groups of 50 and left them hungry! What good would that have been? That was not sufficient, it was necessary but not sufficient. To make it effective, then supernatural grace and power of God had to be released.
Supernatural power in the service of the Lord is not an option, it’s not something that you can have—”well, he’s the kind of person that goes after that kind of things. I’m not much interested in that. I just want to lead a quiet, decent, orderly Christian life. Miracles and gifts of the Spirit, that’s fine but I’m not that kind of person.” I don’t believe any of us has a right to take that attitude. I believe it’s an unscriptural attitude. As Bob Mumford has said, “The gifts of the Spirit are not toys, they’re tools.” They have to be there to get the job done.
And so I want to suggest to you that the second principle here is that the order and discipline has to be balanced and complemented by the supernatural power of God to work a miracle. And I’m not just really thinking in terms of miracles of healing. I’m talking about a miraculous way of looking at things. A miraculous approach to life, an approach that never says I’m limited to my own ability and my own resources but views every situation in the light of God’s unlimited resources. That’s what I mean by a supernatural approach to life.
The third principle is that the multiplication did not depend merely on Jesus but it depended on the disciples passing on what they received from Jesus. If the disciples had not passed on what they received, the miracle would never have been consummated. I believe again the same is true with you and me with the grace of God. It is not dependent only on Jesus. It originates with Jesus but it has to be completed by our cooperation and activity.
I believe the same is true in the task of reaching the entire world. The grace originates with Jesus, the power originates with Jesus. The provision originates with Jesus. But, for the world to receive it, we have to receive it and pass it on. We can either become channels or barriers. And I’m inclined to think that’s the only option that we have. There isn’t a third alternative. When God gives an order and makes his grace available, we have just two options. You can become a channel of it or a barrier to it.
I would like to suggest to everybody here this morning that’s where you are right now. You’re either a channel or a barrier. And if you’re not a channel, you are a barrier. There are no gray areas. You either go on in faith or you go back into unbelief. There’s not a third choice.
You know, I see many Christians today backsliding not because they wanted to sin but because they were afraid to go forward in faith. I see that as perhaps the greatest danger that confronts us as Christians, is being afraid to move on in faith. We want to play it safe, we want to be secure, we don’t want to take the risk. We’ll just sit where we are and keep things nice. I don’t believe that’s an option. I don’t believe we can do that. I believe we either go forward into more faith or we go back into unbelief. And unbelief, the writer of Hebrews says, leads to perdition. And concerning the people that do that, God says, “My soul has no pleasure in them.” The options are not complicated, they’re very clear.
The fourth principle I see in this miracle is that multiplication continued until all the needs were met, and beyond. Not merely was everybody fed but everybody was fed and they had a lot more left over at the end than they began with. Now that’s no accident. I believe Jesus is demonstrating God’s resources are limitless, he’s never limited to just meeting the need. He always has abundance. One of the key words in understanding God is the word abundance. I don’t know any one word that better described God than the word abundance. God has always got more than enough. And as I understand scripture, he’s always willing to make available to us more than enough.
“God is able to make all grace abound toward us that we always, having all sufficiency, in all things, may abound to every good work.”
Sufficiency is having enough. Abundance is having more than enough. But the abundance is given us not for selfish pleasure and indulgence but for every good work.
And then the final point that I want to extract from these miracles is this: the greater the need and the fewer the resources, the greater the surplus. I want to say that again, it’s really almost comical. The greater the need and the fewer the resources, the greater the surplus. And let me now go back and give you the figures. The first miracle, there were 5000 men, the second there were only 4000. The first miracle, they had five loaves and two fishes. The second miracle, they had seven loaves and a few fishes. So in the first miracle the number of people to be fed was larger, the resources with which they started was smaller.
And then Jesus was very specific that they remember what was left over. In fact, it’s interesting if you read all four gospels you find out it was his idea to pick up the fragments. He’s always been a member of the anti litter league! And the disciples, I think, would have walked away and left the place littered. Jesus said go and pick the fragments up and just see how many you’ve got.
So the first miracle, they had twelve large baskets. The second miracle, they had seven picnic baskets. And it’s difficult to be absolutely sure, but I’ve looked these words up in the most reliable Greek dictionaries and it appears that the baskets in the first miracle were larger than the baskets in the second. So at the end of the first miracle they gathered up twelve larger baskets. At the end of the second they gathered up seven smaller baskets and Jesus said remember all the figures. Remember how many were fed, remember what you started with, remember what you ended with. Why was he so insistent? I am sure he was emphasizing this principle and I’m going to say it once again. The greater the need and the fewer the resources, the greater the surplus. God will always make sure that we realize there’s no shortage with him. The bigger the challenge, the less we have to start with, the more we can expect God’s abundance, not the less. That’s where we have to change our thinking. And really, every one of us is a slave of our thinking. We don’t move beyond the way we envisage things. And believing the Bible means a revolution in your way of thinking for all of us.
I was confronted at the end of last year and the beginning of this with a decision about the future course of my own ministry. I received a proposal, a very intelligent and sensible one as to how I could expand and increase my ministry. And it was really a very—I think it was a God ordained challenge but as I meditated on the proposal I saw that I would be going against certain basic principles that God had taught me individually over the years. And so I eventually decided, “Lord, I’m going to trust you for the increase. I’m not going to use perfectly legitimate but somewhat carnal methods. If you don’t do it, I’m really not too interested in it happening.” And I appreciate, as it were, being confronted with this decision at this point. And since I made that decision, I’ve felt a release in my own spirit.
Now, I don’t need to go into details, but the suggested way of doing it was perfectly legitimate and is followed by many ministries in this country. But when I considered it for myself I saw that isn’t the way the Lord has led me. I’d rather reach out, I’d rather spend less time building my own base and catering to my own financial needs and more time reaching out to people who aren’t reached and for whom most of the church doesn’t care at all than securing my financial base. That doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in financial security. What it really means is if I have a larger crowd and smaller resources, I expect a greater surplus. That’s the way I see it.
Now I want to apply the truth that I’ve been seeking to unfold as quickly as I can. I want to say again what I said once already. In the light of what I’ve presented to you from the New Testament, I believe we only have two options. It could be that some of you will be wishing you hadn’t come this morning. I don’t know, I hope not because I think you’re going to walk out of here confronted with something that you cannot evade. We have only two options: to obey or to disobey. This is true of the whole church in every nation and every land. The whole church shares this responsibility to present the gospel in every other land and nation wherever it hasn’t been presented. But I believe there’s a certain principle which Jesus unfolds in the New Testament which makes our responsibility as Christians in the United States greater than almost that of any other group of Christians. This principle is stated in Luke 12:48, the latter part of the verse.
“For every one to whom much is given, from him much will be required: and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more.”
So Jesus is saying the more that you have committed to you, the more you have available to you, very logically, proportionately God will require more from you. I believe that in many ways as American Christians we have more committed to us possibly than any other group of Christians anywhere in the world. Financially the United States is one of the wealthy, powerful nations. There are other nations today which have possibly a higher standard of living. Switzerland is one, Norway is another. But there are very few. Even those who are what we would call here below the poverty level in the United States—and there are probably not many such here this morning—even those compared with the world at large are relatively wealthy.
I wish I could communicate this to you because I think most American Christians have very little concept how the rest of the world lives, how the Third World lives, how Asia lives, how Africa lives, how South America lives. And I’m not saying there isn’t genuine poverty in the United States, but most of us are used to being able to choose what we’ll eat. I would say more than half the world has no choice and over ten million people are probably going to die of starvation this year. Most of us contemplate having sheets on our beds. Most of the world has never seen a sheet and wouldn’t know what to do with it. All of us expect to wear shoes on our feet. I question whether half the world wears shoes on its feet. I wonder if you know what it’s like never to have worn a pair of shoes. Even in Kenya when I was there—and Kenya is a relatively well to do Third World country—I can remember the delight my students experienced when for the first time they put on a pair of shoes.
It says in the Song of Solomon, “how beautiful are thy feet with shoes, O prince’s daughter.” And I heard somebody say once you really feel like a prince’s daughter when you get shoes on your feet. You couldn’t understand that because you’ve never been faced with the situation where you didn’t have shoes. There are some possibly of the more advanced generation who possibly took off their shoes to walk to school. I don’t know. I’ve known people that couldn’t afford to wear out their shoes but in school they had to wear shoes so they would carry their shoes to school and put them on when they got to school. But there are not many of you who have had that experience.
What we consider poor a majority of the world would consider wealthy. There isn’t probably anybody here this morning that is poor by the world’s standards. You may be not wealthy by American standards but that’s not a real valid comparison for the world at large.
Not merely that, but the liberty that we enjoy as American Christians to practice our religion with protection and with special favors and provisions from the government is, I would imagine, unique. I question whether there’s any other country in the world where Christians have the same privileges. For instance, tax exemption for churches. I believe they have it in Canada. I doubt whether there’s another nation on earth where they even think of it. Most other nations today, even nominally Christian nations, they would try to get it out of the church, not make it available to the church. Christians in Britain are staggered by the thought that you can make contributions to a church and have them taken out of your income. They’ve never had that privilege. Christians in Germany automatically have a deduction from their income to pay for the state church whether they want it or not. I’m saying we have unique privileges, unique opportunities unrivaled anywhere else on earth.
Consider one other unique privilege of English speaking Christians, whatever their color or race. We have teaching material available in English on a scale that is not available in any other language to any other nation. If you’re talking about practical Bible teaching that tells you how to apply the Bible in your life and what it really means, not abstract remote long-worded theology, my guess would be—and it’s simply a guess—that 90 percent of all such material is in English. Even civilized nations, intellectual educated nations like Germany, it’s very hard to find any kind of literature of that sort in the German language. In French it’s almost nonexistent. Perhaps Sweden would be the country that comes nearest but it’s far, far behind the English speaking countries. To whom much is given, him also shall much be required.
We are uniquely privileged. I think I can say that because I’m an American citizen by naturalization. I was educated and brought up in Britain. Britain is a privileged nation but Christians in Britain are not half as privileged as Christians in the United States. What does that mean? It means that we have more than our numerical share of the responsibility for communicating the gospel to all nations. Much has been given to us, thank God for it. But much will be required from us.
Now in closing this message I want to give what I would call relevant warnings because it’s my intention that this message be extremely practical. I do not want just to stir your emotions. If that was all I could achieve I wouldn’t try because if your emotions merely are stirred and your will is not affected, you’ll be under greater condemnation from now on than you were before. That’s not my intention so let me offer you just a few relevant warnings.
First, if any change is needed in any areas of your life—and I’m leading you to determine whether your life is fully lined up with the orders that Jesus has given. But if any change is required, primarily it should be a change of attitude, not action. Don’t do as Lewis Carroll wrote about a certain man, “right out of the hotel, mount on your horse, ride rapidly in all four directions at once.” You won’t get anywhere that way. I’m not suggesting that in the next thirty minutes you’ve got to do something totally different from what you’ve been doing. What I do believe is most of us need a change of attitude. That’s primary. If I can achieve that this morning I will be very, very satisfied.
The second principle is that it’s obvious we should not and could not all “go.” In fact, that would be chaotic if we did. That would defeat its own purposes. As to who should actually go and who should not, that’s something the Holy Spirit has to indicate to us individually and collectively. What I’m giving you is general direction which comes from scripture. Particular direction comes from the Holy Spirit individually.
But, even if you do not go, you should see yourself just as totally involved as those who do go. I would like you to think this way: whoever has gone or will go, you should view as your brother, your sister, your child, exactly that way. They should be as close to you and as important to you as the closest members of your family. Everything that happens to them, good or bad, should be of concern to you if you have the right attitude.
Third, each individual and each fellowship must discern their God given sphere. Each of us has a God given sphere as individuals and I believe fellowships. And so in applying this teaching we have to hear from God as to what is my individual sphere and our collective sphere. Just let me give you two quick examples of this principle from the New Testament. Galatians 2:7–9. This speaks about a confrontation between Paul and his coworkers and Peter and James and John and their coworkers.
“But on the contrary, when they [that is Peter, James and John] saw that the gospel for the uncircumcised had been committed to me, as the gospel for the circumcision was to Peter... when James, Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that had been given to me, they gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship; that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised.”
So there was a very clear demarcation of spheres of responsibility. And notice, interestingly enough, in those days the primary and the most important sphere of influence was not all the millions of Gentiles but the little handful of Jews. They were first on the list. See how far we have come in our thinking and attitudes today from that of the New Testament church? I’m not saying what’s right or wrong, I’m just pointing out that it wasn’t measured by numbers. I don’t believe it is today.
At any rate, the principle is that Peter, James and John, their sphere was the Jewish people, the circumcised. Paul and his coworkers, their sphere was the uncircumcised, the Gentile world. They saw clearly and acknowledged that each group had their God given sphere.
And then in 2Corinthians 10:14, just one verse and it may not come out the same in all translations but the principle is the same.
“For we are not extending ourselves beyond our sphere, as though not reaching to you: for it was to you that we first came with the gospel of Christ.”
And it’s a complicated sentence in Greek, there are different ways of translating it. But if you look at them, they all boil down to the same thing that Paul and his coworkers had a specific sphere of responsibility in the total world that they had to be answerable for.
And so when we consider the task of bringing the gospel to the whole world, we have to acknowledge it’s our task, it’s not somebody else’s task. Collectively it’s our task. But within the total task God allots to each individual, and I believe to each group that is organically joined in him, spheres of responsibility.
And to this particular congregation I would say that your primary sphere, our primary sphere of responsibility is the same as Peter, James and John. It’s the circumcised. God has demonstrated that. It’s happened. Maybe nobody planned it but this particular congregation has had a greater impact on the Jewish people in this total area than all the other churches put together, I would guess. It’s not something we need to boast about but it’s to see it’s through being in our sphere.
However, I do not believe that the sphere of this church is limited only to the Jewish people. I believe that’s number one. And I believe, if I may say so, it’s really a special mark of God’s favor that he’s allotted that sphere to us. I hope I won’t offend anybody but I think I have learned over the years a little bit of God’s level of thinking.
Lydia, my first wife, was called specifically to the Jewish people into Palestine. And privately she would say to me, “If you observe the people who are called to the Jews, they’re different from the ones who are called to the Gentiles. They’re usually older and they’re usually more mature.” God used to send young people to Africa, to China, and they didn’t have in a way to have a lot of worldly wisdom. You send the same people to the Jewish people, they’ll bounce off them like a rubber ball off a concrete wall. It’s different.
But the principle that I’m making is you’ve got to find your sphere. You can cause more harm than good if you rush around in somebody else’s sphere. But if you don’t carry out your responsibility in your own sphere, you’re going to have to answer to God.
And the final principle I want to make quickly is even when others go to a different sphere than ours we should still see them as our representatives and our responsibility. Nothing grieves me more than the small mindedness of most Christians. For instance, let me give you an example. I believe that the gospel needs to be presented to every tribe, nation, language and people because there’s got to be at least one representative from every one of them in the redeemed. If you read Revelation 5, every single tribe and nation and tongue has got to be represented in the redeemed. The church will not be complete until they are. So I have a tremendous concern for the work of the Wycliffe translators. Every time I hear about one of them my heart leaps because it’s a difficult, unromantic, unrewarding, tough assignment. Only people of real commitment and dedication will ever undertake it.
Now I don’t believe I’m called in any way to do that kind of work. What I’m saying is I don’t feel they are Wycliffe translators, they’ve nothing to do with me. I feel their my representatives. They’re doing what I’m not able to do, what I’m not called to do. But God, every time they succeed I’ll bless you for it. I’ll pray for them when it’s laid on my heart to pray for them. I’ll offer for them if God prompts me. I’m proud of them. I want you to understand they’re not on our team, but they’re playing in the same league. And oh what you miss through being small minded if you are small minded.
Just one more remark. As you know I travel a lot, meet a lot of different people and enjoy it. It’s one of the great privileges and blessings. I’m not restricted to one view of Christianity, to one type of Christian, to one type of Christian group. I meet them all and I love them all. And some of the strangest I love the best! Well, we’ll go no further with that! I want you to know I love you people! But I meet some people who are what I would call high on Christianity. Some of you don’t know what it is to be high, some of you do! There’s something exhilarating about meeting Christians who are high on Christianity. I mean, I never could have too many of them. They might embarrass you a little but I still praise God for them.
I’ll tell you the two distinctive features of such people as I’ve noticed. Number one, they believe it’s their responsibility to reach the whole world and every nation with the gospel. And they take it seriously. Number two, they believe Jesus is coming soon. And I want to be high that way. I don’t think I’m ever going to be too high on those two convictions.
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