To reach all nations
In this series of articles we are seeking to establish principles of mission from the Bible, to govern how we go about this work. So far we have seen, firstly, that any thinking about mission must begin with the fact that God is a missionary God and he is the author, definer and finisher of mission.
Secondly, we saw that conscious faith in Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation. The way that God has chosen to save sinners from the hell they deserve is by faith in the person and work of the Saviour of sinners. The normal way God brings people to faith in Christ is through hearing the good news of the gospel from someone who is already a believer.
Therefore, those of us who have believed have a responsibility to pass on the message to those who have not heard. But, when thinking about the task of mission, is our only concern to reach individuals with the gospel? Is mission just about winning as many as possible to Christ in other places? The answer to this is no.
What is the purpose of mission?
The promise of Christ in Acts 1:8 is that the witness will extend to the ends of the earth. So how do we know where to go when there are people perishing everywhere? What right do we have to send people to other countries with different needs when there are still great needs at home?
God’s way of ensuring that all whom he wants to save hear the good news is to give us a strategy for mission which is not haphazard. He has given us the task of taking the gospel to every nation, to every people-group of the world.
The Great Commission
Our commission is to reach nations and not just people. How can we be sure that this is the case? Is it biblical to define the missionary task as the reaching of all the unreached peoples of the world? We are using the word ‘peoples’ here with the sense of ‘people-groups’ – those sharing ethnicity, culture and language. There is considerable biblical evidence that this is the case.
In the Great Commission the Lord Jesus Christ clearly addresses not just the apostles themselves but the whole church in all ages (Matthew 28:18-20; Luke 24:45-49; Acts 1:8). Notice the phrase Jesus uses: ‘all nations’.
What did he mean by this? Did he mean ‘all individual Gentiles’ (as in Matthew 25:32) or ‘all people-groups’ (as in Acts 17:26)?
The Greek word for ‘nation’ is ‘ethnos’ from which we get words like ‘ethnic’. It means a race or tribe, especially a non-Jewish one. The singular form never refers to an individual person, but always to a tribe or people-group (Matthew 24:7; Acts 2:5; 1 Peter 2:9; Revelation 5:9). It is difficult to be dogmatic on the basis of words alone, but it seems to be steering us towards interpreting the Great Commission in terms of ‘all people-groups’.
The Gentiles must hear
In the Old Testament we find God’s promises to Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3; 22:18). The first promise refers to ‘all the families’ meaning tribes or clans, small groupings of people. The repeated promise refers to ‘all nations’ in the same context.
The consistent idea is of the gospel reaching every people-group, rather than just random anonymous individuals. This same emphasis is to be found in many other Old Testament prophecies (Psalm 22:27-28; Isaiah 52:10; Psalm 67:1-5). The promised blessings are for the nations.
Paul’s view of the missionary task in Romans 15:8-24 is that following the coming of Christ the Gentile nations must now hear. He quotes a series of Old Testament passages which, taken together, clearly focus on people-groups. This focus governed Paul’s missionary practice.
In verse 19 Paul says he has ‘fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ’ and in verse 23 he goes on to say that there is no room for him to work any longer in those areas. What does he mean? That everyone in the whole region had been converted?
Clearly, that was not the case. Paul’s view of his task as a missionary is not simply to win more people to Christ but to win more and more peoples, or nations. He was gripped by a vision of reaching previously unreached people-groups.
That is why he wanted to go to Spain – to preach to peoples there who had not yet heard (vv. 20-21). Paul’s calling was to be a pioneer missionary.
John’s vision in Revelation 5:9-10 gives us a view of the climactic outcome of the task of mission – there will be one church gathered together into heaven from every people-group in the world.
These things should also be true of us. Our missionary focus, and our commission from the Lord, is to reach nations with the gospel.
Implications for the church
First of all, we need to take our domestic evangelistic responsibilities seriously. Our nation was once an unreached people-group but, in his mercy, God sent men to preach the message of the Kingdom here. Now that the church is established in our nation, we have the responsibility of maintaining that witness within our own culture.
Thus, having left Timothy to pastor the church in Ephesus, Paul instructs him to ‘do the work of an evangelist’ (2 Timothy 4:5). Paul expects the local churches he has planted to go on with the work of evangelism (1 Corinthians 3:6-10).
The model that flows from this principle is this – pioneer missionaries plant a church among an indigenous people, who then continue to witness to their own people, while the pioneer missionaries move on to continue breaking new ground.
Secondly, the world still needs both types of missionary – those like Paul and those like Timothy. Timothy had left his home (Lystra, Acts 16:1), joined a missionary team, crossed cultural boundaries and then remained to oversee the newly planted church in Ephesus (1 Timothy 1:3).
Far from his homeland, Timothy stayed to minister on the mission field long after the church planted there had its own elders (Acts 20:17). He was engaging in the second part of the Great Commission – ‘teaching them to observe all things I have commanded you’.
With our strong heritage of theology and literature, we also have an essential role to play in carrying out this command. We can and should be providing books and theological training to those without this background.
Paul, on the other hand, was driven by a passion to make Christ known among all the unreached people-groups (UPGs) of the world. He was engaging in the first part of the Great Commission – ‘Go and make disciples of all nations’. If we are to be faithful to this command of the Lord, we need to have an interest in Paul-type missionaries as well as Timothy-type missionaries.
We can complete the work
There are still some 6,000 people-groups unreached. For example, in the state of Bihar Jharkhand in North India there is a population of 75 million and 80 UPGs. According to Operation China there are 574 UPGs in China.
The Buriat people numbering about 65,000 live in China but also overlap into Mongolia and Russia. In terms of their religion, they are shamanists and there are no known believers among them. These are just examples and for every one of those 6,000 people-groups there is a similar story.
One possibly unexpected result of this understanding of the Great Commission is that the task is capable of being completed. The population of the world doubled between 1970 and 2000. With statistics like that, it is easy to feel that it is impossible to reach everyone. But, in fact, the number of people-groups remains constant at around 12,000.
The task of taking the gospel to all the nations of the earth is not beyond the church of Jesus Christ. Matthew 24:14 tells us that the gospel will be preached in the whole world and to all nations prior to Christ’s return.
That does not mean it will be easy. It will require an army of missionary families many hundreds of thousands strong. It will need gifted, trained, dedicated and determined ambassadors to win all these UPGs for Christ. In many countries there is fierce resistance to missionaries having access to UPGs at all, and missionaries have to work in secret and in constant danger of their work being stopped.
If we are to carry out the Lord’s commands for evangelising the world, we will need to be radical. To ignore the cause of mission would be the same as to deny our Saviour, who said, ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you’ (John 20:21). We need to have a world mission orientation and to be engaged in this work.
God’s people must pray and each church should adopt a UPG and pray for a church to be established there. The Lord has promised success. We live in exciting times!