What is The MAIN Thing? A Missionary’s Question

What Is the Main Thing in Missions?

As a Christian, called to an apostolic ministry, what is the “main thing” I am to be about? When do I know I am on course to hear “Well done my faithful servant” instead of “I never knew you, away from me you evildoers.”

Let’s start with the disturbing one and move from there to hope. To whom does Jesus deliver these most unsettling words? Jesus’ warning is aimed at people who call Jesus Lord and have dynamic ministries; people with proclamation, deliverance and healing stories; people with enough material to fill up a long series of PowerPoint presentations. Stunningly, their clearly magnificent constructs, well crafted strategies and dynamic reputations, come crashing down under the storm of Christ’s condemnation. Why?

Christ has a main thing we are to be about, which is in turn the root for all the fruit that follows. The failure to differentiate root causes from subsequent results is the fundamental and potentially fatal error that the New Testament stridently warns against. By taking the time to clarify, much wasted effort, questionable ethics and most importantly, spiritual unhealthy activities, can be replaced with fresh, strong and productive ways of life. The question is our teach ability. Will we let the word put our house in order? Is the architect of our faith free to condemn our constructs and have us start fresh? If not, why do we call him ‘Lord, lord”?

For relative conciseness, we will begin with Jesus being anointed as the Messiah. From the unfolding of the promise in Jesus we will frequently refer back to the Hebrew Scriptures and their articulation of that which Jesus consummates individually and inaugurates for ultimate fulfillment universally. What we know from the Torah and the Writings is that a promised seed of woman is coming to reverse the order of the fall, crushing rebellion and establishing a regime of righteousness. What that looks like is in fact the Lord Jesus, Messiah of Israel and Hope of all nations. The man we aspire to be like. As John, the dearly beloved student and friend of Jesus said,

Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected[1]. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. (1 John 2:4-6)

The Walk of Jesus We Wish to Follow

Jesus is the most amazing political refugee of history. Having fled his homeland’s limited genocide for Egypt and returning in a marginalized role, mere survival would be considered a success. However, as a man, Jesus was blessed by God himself and proven to be worthy by his personal confrontation with temptation and evil, and how much more so in his generous sharing of such virtue, wisdom and power. Jesus lived life well, and God was pleased. There should therefore be utmost attentiveness to his explanation of how life works and how success is defined.

After personally resisting the Devil himself in three definitive temptations, (to make physically needs primary, to make social needs primary or even to make accomplishments primary; in short, making anything other than the self-existent self-sufficient God primary in our value system), Jesus offers hope to others. He is on mission with a handpicked team. Quickly he displays characteristics of a mission team making God known.

The content of Jesus’ message is encapsulated in the following:

From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17)

What Jesus declares is that God is in charge. A kingdom is where a king exercises dominion, and the kingdom of heaven is where God is in charge. At hand is temporal and spatial. Here and now, God in charge is the reality you need to face. You do that through repenting, or changing your thinking. In the temptations Jesus faced, the insinuations were that God was not reliably in charge and that Jesus needed to act in order to get what he needed. Jesus counters that message by alerting the rest of us: we need to think again, God actually is in charge here and now, and He is the source for all our needs.

Jesus proclaims this message not only historically (reminding people of his own experiences) but also in word and deed. He explains, challenges, heals, delivers and generally displays the reality of what he claims: God is in charge and we should rely on him. As the crowds grow, he sits them down and explains more fully. Drawing on his own experiences, which were successful experiences, he exhorts the people to pursue real righteousness under God’s leadership and to avoid apparent righteousness that is really only done to impress other people. The center point of his teaching is to be complete as the Father in Heaven is complete.

The question related to missions work today is whether Jesus’ message to his hearers then continues today, in more or less the same way, or is there another message that is more important, clear or urgent? Should we also be urging people to pursue a righteousness that is from God and makes people complete, and not in a general hypothetical way, but in a real, nitty-gritty everyday ethical way?

What is the message of Christ we are to be about?

Tozer, in his book The Knowledge of the Holy, devotes a chapter to his concern about a common missionary tone. Tozer criticizes the imagery of a needy God, one who needs people to go get what he has lost. Though related to true images it becomes a farcical picture of God. But it is effective when leaders drive home a message of accelerating urgency “God needs you!”. On more than one occasion I have seen major mission leaders with arm thrust forward, snapping their fingers briskly and stating: “That’s another soul going to Hell!”

That is not just drama. Reinforced it becomes a paradigm of selecting passages and priorities that affects not only the missional community, but also has major impact on the understanding of those hearing the tone and content of this version of response to the question, “What is the Main Thing?”

In this paradigm, the Good News is overwhelmingly about forgiveness and one more thing. Having been forgiven, one is to immediately, and relentlessly, help others to be forgiven. That becomes a problem, but not directly. There is ample support for the validity of the high value of preaching forgiveness in Christ’s name:

“for this is My blood, the [blood] of the New Covenant, the [blood] poured out on behalf of many for forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26:28)

Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Luke 24:45-47)

And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” (Acts 2:38-39)

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, (Ephesians 1:7)

In fact, it is clear that any missionary priority that does not highly value and pursue proclaiming forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name is not Biblical.

So again, where is the problem?

The problem is in how we understand and apply a strategy that results in preaching the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name. Error often includes the introduction of wrong things, but too often error is born from the disproportionate elevation of one true thing in distinction to others.

Was Israel God’s chosen nation? Of course, but they were raised up for the purpose of his Name being proclaimed among the nations. Was Jesus going to establish his Kingdom on earth? Yes, he has, and is and will ultimately complete it. But the establishment of his kingdom is not without first suffering and dying for the sins of the world. Does God call us to feed the hungry? Yes, but not because this life is all there is. In fact, those who are hungry and get fed may have their lives saved by being fed, but then they need to hear that unless they lose their lives for his sake they will not find it.

What then is the main thing, if not forgiveness?

What Jesus preached was completeness[1].

[1] τελειόω, teleioō, tel-i-o’-o,Strong’s Number G5048, from G5046; to complete, that is, (literally) accomplish, or (figuratively) consummate (in character): – consecrate, finish, fulfil, (make) perfect.

He preached it on the mountain (Matthew 5:48) preached it to the rich young seeker (Matthew 19:21) and he proclaimed it on the cross (John 19:30). Paul picked up this emphasis and made it his hope, that having been forgiven, he and others who had been forgiven, would be brought to completion:

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion[1] at the day of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:6)

Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature (complete)[1] in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me. (Colossians 1:28-29)

What becomes clear is that forgiveness of sins is the beginning of the Good News, it is not synonymous with the Good News. We are forgiven of our sins so that we can be made complete[1] in Christ.

Once a person receives forgiveness, and is born into the family of God, that person still has much to learn. Their Main Thing is to glorify God by being made complete in him. This is not done prior to serving, it is mainly done via serving.

and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. (Philemon v.6)

What then is the main thing?

We as Christians are called to make disciples of all nations, which is in fact training people not just to receive forgiveness, but to receive the life that is immersion in the triune reality who is God, such that we actually walk as Jesus walked. Loving God with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. We are to preach forgiveness of sins in his name so that we can live the way we were intended to live. Confident that God is sufficient to finish what he started, and that we are not called upon from God’s supposed neediness or self limitation, but from his boundless generosity and grace. In confidence we proceed knowing

…that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:28-30)

 If then the plan of God is that we become like Christ, and Christ himself offers a plan on how to do that, we should take heed. Matthew 5-7 records Jesus’ explanation to his disciples of how to build a life. He starts with a vision of hope, of being blessed. Jesus then challenges one to count the cost of pursuing a kind of righteousness that is more than the religious leaders of the day had via extensive rules, a life that is right from the inside; right with God and therefore right toward others.

A series of problems are described, including a typical response to accommodate them. To each rationalization Jesus responds with “But I tell you…”. His conclusion of the vision is that people who want to live with God as Lord will be complete in their character, not stopping short with negotiated compromise.

How do we manage this?

Essentially we have to intentionally avoid living our religious/ethical lives in ways that foster attention and praise from other people. We need to intentionally seek the kinds of disciplines that ensure we are living unto God, and not unto the reputation of one who lives unto God. It is essentially a challenge of what we really value, and whether we trust God to provide what matters in due course. IF we follow this pattern, we and those who learn from us, have the kind of lives that stand up to tragedy, trial and temptation. If not, we will certainly see our short term results collapse.

Missiologically this is practiced by naming the main thing as pursuing character like Christ that lives in obedience to the Father and invites and equips others to pursue character like Christ and live in obedience to the Father. This pursuit takes place in the realm of overcoming temptations with faith. Can I really trust God for my physical needs, my need for significance in relation to others and to myself? If I really go after being like Christ, with all the difficult choices that means for me, or for a rural Chinese farmer, or a busy urban professional, will it be worth it? Will it work? If it does work, what will it look like?

In part, Jesus says it will work and you will know it based on how you interact with others. If you are contemptuous, inconsistent and unable to give love to people who seem to deserve punishment, then you are not getting it. If you are driven by a desire to control wealth or status, or even safety, you have not built properly. You are there when you ask of God, trusting him to provide the essence of what is normally provided in different forms. Even when you are physically poor, socially despised and seemingly a failure, God gives you strength, identity and success in him.

This is a beginning of an ongoing discussion. The aim is not, again, to minimize the importance of getting the gospel to the nations. Rather, the point is that the priority of living increasingly in concert with the understanding and cooperation of God’s reality found in Christ, whether directly apostolic or not, is the basis for apostolic work being GOOD news.

[1]  τελειόω, teleioō, tel-i-o’-o,Strong’s Number G5048, from G5046; to complete, that is, (literally) accomplish, or (figuratively) consummate (in character): – consecrate, finish, fulfil, (make) perfect. 

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