Doing Missions When Dying Is Gain

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By John Piper About Missions
Part of the series Wheaton College

(The following is an edited transcript of the audio.)

My mission statement in life and my church’s mission statement is,

We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples.

I love that mission statement for a lot of reasons. One is because I know it cannot fail. I know it cannot fail because it’s a promise. Matthew 24:14, “This gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.” (And I hope that you know that "nations" doesn’t mean political states. It means something like people groups, ethnic-linguistic groupings.) We may be absolutely certain that every one of them will be penetrated by the gospel to the degree that you can say that a witness, an understandable self-propagating witness, is there.

Now let me give you some reasons why we can bank on that.

The Promise Is Sure

The promise is sure for several reasons.

1. Jesus never lies. “Heaven and earth may pass away, but my word will never pass away.” And it was Jesus who said Matthew 24:14, not me.

So this mission that we’re on together is going to finish. It’s going to be done, and you can either get on board and enjoy the triumph or you can cop-out and waist your life. You have only those two choices, because there is no middle option like, “Maybe it won’t happen, and I can be on the best side by not jumping on board.” That won’t happen.

2. The ransom has already been paid for those people among all the nations. According to Revelation 5:9-10, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” They're paid for, and God will not go back on his Son’s payment.

I love the story of the Moravians. In northern Germany two of them were getting on a boat, ready to sell themselves into slavery in the West Indies, never to come back again. And as the boat drifts out into the harbor they lift their hands and say, “May the Lamb receive the reward of his suffering.” What they meant was that Christ had already bought those people. And they were going to find them by indiscriminately preaching the gospel, through which the Holy Spirit would call them to himself.

So I know this can’t abort, because the debt has been paid for each of God’s people everywhere in the world. Those lost sheep, as Jesus called them, that are scattered throughout the world will come in as the Father calls them through the preaching of the gospel.

3. The glory of God is at stake. There are oodles of texts about this. Let me just pick one. Romans 15:8-9, “Christ became a servant to the circumcised in order to confirm the truthfulness of God, so that he might make strong [or sure or reliable] the promises made to the patriarchs, and in order that the nations might glorify God for his mercy.” The whole purpose of the Incarnation was to bring glory to the Father through the manifestation of his mercy to the nations.

The glory of God is at stake in the Great Commission. Back in 1983 at Bethlehem Baptist Church, me and Tom Steller—my sidekick now of 17 years—were both met by God in amazing ways. Tom, in the middle of the night, couldn’t sleep, so he got up, put on a John Michael Talbot song, laid down on the couch, and he heard our theology translated into missions. (We are a God-glory oriented people, but we had not yet made sense of missions like we ought.) John Michael Talbot was singing about the glory of God filling the earth the way the waters cover the sea, and Tom wept for an hour. At the same time God was moving in on me and Noel to ask, “What can we do to make this place a launching pad for missions?” And everything came together to make an electric moment in the life of our church, and it all flowed from a passion for the glory of God.

4. God is sovereign. God is sovereign! A few weeks ago, as I'm preaching through Hebrews, we arrived at Hebrews 6. As you know, this is a very difficult text about whether these people are Christians or not when they fall away. And in verses 1-3 there is this amazing statement (which is just a tiny piece of the massive biblical evidence for why I’m a Calvinist!) that says, “Let us press on to maturity, leaving behind the former things ... and this we will do if God permits.” When we looked at this, there fell across my congregation the most unbelievable silence, because we heard the implications. “You mean God might not permit a body of believers to press on to maturity?”

God is sovereign! He is sovereign in the church, and he is sovereign among the nations! One testimony to this is in the article in Christianity Today that came out a few weeks ago retelling of the story of Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Pete Flemming, Roger Youderian, and Ed McCully. Steve Saint tells the story of his dad getting speared by Auca Indians in Ecuador. He tells it after having learned new details of intrigue in the Auca tribe that were responsible for this killing when it shouldn’t have happened, and seemingly wouldn’t have and couldn’t have. Yet it did happen. And having discovered the intrigue he wrote this article.

I want to read one sentence that absolutely blew me out of my living room chair. He said,

As [the natives] described their recollections, it occurred to me how incredibly unlikely it was that the palm beach killing took place at all. It is an anomaly that I cannot explain outside of divine intervention.

"I can only explain the spearing of my dad by virtue of divine intervention.” Do you hear what this son is saying? “God killed my dad.” He believes that, and I believe that.

According to Revelation 6:11, when you have a glimpse of the throne room and the martyrs who shed their blood for the gospel saying “How long O Lord? How long till you vindicate our blood?,” the answer comes back, “Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren should be complete who were to be killed as they themselves had been." God says, "Rest until the number that I have appointed is complete." He’s got a number of martyrs. When it is complete then the end will come.

The Price Is Suffering

The price is suffering, and the volatility in the world today against the church is not decreasing. It is increasing, especially among the groups that need the gospel. There is no such thing as a closed country. It’s a foreign notion. It has no root or warrant in the Bible, and it would have been unintelligible to the apostle Paul who laid down his life in every city he went to. Therefore, there are martyrs in this room.

Statistically it’s easy to predict. One Sunday recently there was a focus on the suffering church, and many of you were involved in it. This World Missions Fellowship was involved in it, and you all saw videos or heard stories about places like Sudan where the Muslim regime is systematically ostracizing, positioning, and starving Christians so that there are about 500 martyrs a day there.

I get very tired of people coming to look at staff positions in my church, which is in downtown Minneapolis. We all live in the inner city, and one of the first questions they ask is, “Will my children be safe?” And I want to say, “Would you ask that question tenth and not first?” I’m just tired of hearing that. I’m tired of American priorities. Whoever said that your children will be safe in the call of God?

YWAM (Youth With A Mission) is a wild-eyed radical group that I love. I got an email on September 1st,

One hundred and fifty men armed with machetes surrounded the premises occupied by the YWAM team in India. The mob had been incited by other religious groups in an effort to chase them off. As the mob pressed in someone in a key moment spoke up on the team’s behalf and they decided to give them 30 days to leave. The team feels they should not leave and that their ministry work in the city is at stake. Much fruit has been seen in a previously unreached region and there is great potential for more. In the past when violence has broken out between rival religious groups people have lost their lives. Please pray for them to have wisdom.

Now this is exactly the opposite of what I hear mainly in America as people decide where to live, for example. I don't hear people saying, "I don’t want to leave, because this is where I’m called to and this is where there’s need." Would you please join me in reversing American evangelical priorities? It seems to be woven into the very fabric of our consumer culture that we move toward comfort, toward security, toward ease, toward safety, away from stress, away from trouble, and away from danger. It ought to be exactly the opposite! “He who would come after me let him take up his cross and die!”

So I just don’t get it! It’s the absorption of a consumer, comfort, ease culture that is permeating the church. And it creates little ministries and churches in which safe, secure, nice things are done for each other. And little safe excursions are made to help save some others. But, O we won’t live there, and O we won’t stay there, not even in America, not to mention Saudi Arabia!

I was in Amsterdam a couple weeks ago talking to another wild-eyed wonderful missions group, Frontiers, led by Greg Livingstone. What a great group. Five hundred people sitting in front of me who risk there lives everyday among Muslim peoples. And to listen to them! During the conference they were getting emails, which they would stand up and read, saying “Please pray for X. He was stabbed in the chest three times yesterday, and the worst thing is his children were watching him. He’s in the hospital in critical condition.” Then they say, "This is a missionary in the Muslim world, let’s pray for him," and we would go to prayer. Next day another email comes, and this time six Christian brothers in Morocco have been arrested. "Let's pray for them," so we did. And so it was throughout the conference. And at the end of it the missionaries were ready to go back.

Do you think I’m going to come back to America and be the same? Do you think I’m going to stand up in front of my church and say, “Let’s have nice, comfortable, easy services. Let’s just be comfortable and secure.” Golgotha is not a suburb of Jerusalem. “Let us go with him outside the gate and suffer with him and bear reproach” (Hebrews 13:13).

Suffering is Also the Means

But in saying that there will be martyrs and there must be suffering I haven’t yet said the main thing about the price of getting the job done. That's because suffering is the means and not just the price. It’s the means.

Now here’s what I have in my mind: I’m going to read a verse for you that’s very important, that is, Colossians 1:24. A few years ago its meaning just came crashing in on me. I’ll show you how I got it.

“Now I rejoice,” Paul says, “in my sufferings.” He was a very strange person. “I rejoice in my sufferings” is very counter-cultural, very un-American, very counter-human. “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of his Body [that is, the ingathering of God’s elect] in filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ.” Now that’s on the brink of blasphemy. What does he mean by “filling up what is lacking" in the afflictions of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ?

He does not mean that he improves upon the merit and the atoning worth of Jesus’ blood. That’s not what he means. Well then, what does he mean?

I typed into my computer Bible program the Greek word for "fill up" (or "complete") and the word for "what is lacking" and found only one other place in Scripture where both of these occur together. That's in Philippians 2:30.

The situation is that Epaphroditus was sent from the Philippian church over to Paul in Rome. He risks his life to get there, and Paul extols him for risking his life. He tells the Philippians that they should receive such a one with honor, because he was sick unto death and risked his neck to complete their ministry to him. Here’s the key parallel verse:

Because he came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.

This is the only other place where these two words come into conjunction: “to complete what was lacking in your service to me.” I opened up my 100 year old Vincent’s commentary on Philippians and read an explanation of that verse which I think is a perfect interpretation of Colossians 1:24. Vincent says,

The gift to Paul from the Philippians was a gift of the church as a body. It was a sacrificial offering of love. What was lacking was the church’s presentation of this offering in person. This was impossible, and Paul represents Epaphroditus as supplying this lack by his affectionate, zealous ministry.

So the picture is of a church that wants to communicate love in the form of money over to Rome, and they can’t do it. There’s too many of them. And it's too far away. So they say, “Epaphroditus, represent us and complete what is lacking in our love. There's nothing lacking in our love except the expression of our love in person there. Take it and communicate it to Paul.”

Now that’s exactly what I think Colossians 1:24 means. Jesus dies and he suffers for people all over the world in every nation. Then he is buried and, according to the Scriptures, raised on the third day. Then he ascends into heaven where he reigns over the world. And he leaves a work to be done.

Paul’s self understanding of his mission is that there is one thing lacking in the sufferings of Jesus. The love offering of Christ is to be presented in person through missionaries to the peoples for whom he died. And Paul says, “I do this in my sufferings. In my sufferings I complete what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ.” Which means that Christ intends for the Great Commission to be a presentation to the nations of the sufferings of his cross through the sufferings of his people. That’s the way it will be finished. If you sign up for the Great Commission, that’s what you sign up for.

About three years ago I was working on Let the Nations Be Glad, and I hid away at Trinity Seminary in Deerfield, IL. I hid because I didn’t want anybody to know that I was there, so that they wouldn't bother me. My wife and kids were at home, and I was working 18 hours a day.

Then I got word that J. Oswald Sanders was going to be in chapel. Eighty-nine years old. Veteran. Great missions leader. And I said to myself, “Shall I go public and risk having to talk to a lot of people and getting dinner engagements and all this stuff and not getting anything done?” But I wanted to hear him, so I snuck into the back of chapel and listened to him. And this 89-year-old man stood up there, and I was just oozing with admiration and desire to be like this when I’m 89. And he told a story that so embodies Colossians 1:24.

He said there was once an evangelist in India who tromped across the roads to various villages preaching the gospel. He was a simple man, no education, loved Jesus with all his heart, and was ready to lay his life down. And he came to a village that didn't have the gospel. It was late in the day and he was very tired. But he goes into the village and lifts up his voice and shares the gospel with those gathered in the square. They mock him, deride him, and drive him out of town. And he was so tired—no emotional resources left—that he lies down under a tree, utterly discouraged. He goes to sleep not knowing if he’ll ever wake up. They might come kill him, for all he knows.

And suddenly, just after dusk, he is startled and wakes up. The whole town seems to be around him looking at him. He thinks he’s a goner. He starts to tremble, and one of the big men in the village says, “We came out to see what kind of man you were, and when we saw your blistered feet we knew you were a holy man. We want you to tell us why you got blistered feet to come talk to us.” So he preached the gospel and, according to J. Oswald Sanders, the whole village believed. That’s what Paul means by “I complete in my sufferings what is lacking in the afflictions of Jesus.”

Now I have one other little parenthesis about J. Oswald Sanders. At 89 years old he said, “I’ve written a book a year since I was 70.” Eighteen books after 70! There are people in my church and all over America quitting on life at 65 and dying on the golf course in Nevada, when they ought to be laying their lives down among the Muslims like Raymond Lull.

Raymond Lull, 12th century oriental scholar and Muslim missionary, retires and comes back to Italy. He does his oriental language thing for a while but eventually quits and begins to ask, “What am I doing? I’m going to die here in Italy. Why not die in Algeria across the Mediterranean?” And so, knowing that’s what it will cost him to preach publicly, he gets on a boat at 80-something years of age and crosses the Mediterranean. He stays underground a while encouraging the church, and then he decides this as good a time as any. So he stands up and preaches, and they kill him. What a way to go!

Listen, you 60-year-old folks, I’m 50. I’m almost there. I’m getting letters from the AARP (American Association of Retired Persons), and they’re trying to get me on their lists so I can get discounts on trains and airplanes. I’m almost there, so I’m talking to myself here (and my church has heard me say this and they’re going to hold me to the fire) when I say that when you’re old you not only don’t have anything to loose in martyrdom, you get discount fares.

Why should we think that putting in our 40 or 50 years on the job should mean that we should play for the last 15 years before we meet the King? I don’t get it. It’s American lies is all it is. We’re strong at 65 and we’re strong at 70. My dad is 77. I can remember when my mom was killed, and he was almost killed, in a bus accident in Israel. And I picked him up 10 days later with her body and him in the ambulance, and all the way home from Atlanta to Greenville he laid there with his back wide open, because the wounds were so bad they couldn’t stitch them. And he kept saying, “God must have a purpose for me, God must have a purpose for me!”

And here we are 22 years later, and his life has exploded with ministry! He’s working harder today at 77 for the nations than ever before. He prepares lessons from Easley, South Carolina, including some tapes. And they’re in 60 nations with about 10,000 people believing in Jesus every year because God spared my dad and caused him not to believe in retirement.

The Prize is Satisfying

Now last point: How do you love like that? Where are you going to get this? Are you feeling ready for this? Do you think you have it within you to be able to endure this?

Read Stephen Neill’s A History of Christian Missions. On page 161 he describes what happened in Japan when the gospel came there in the 1500’s. The emperor began to believe that the incursion of the Christian faith into their religious sphere was so threatening that they must end it. And he did end it, with absolutely incredible brutality! It was over for the church in Japan. And I don’t doubt that the hardness and difficulty of Japan today is largely owing to the massive (though short-term) triumph of the devil in the early 1600’s.

Twenty-seven Jesuits, fifteen friars, and five secular clergy did manage to evade the order of banishment. It was not until April 1617 that the first martyrdoms of Europeans took place, a Jesuit and a Franciscan being beheaded at Omura at that time, and a Dominican and an Augustinian a little later in the same area. Every kind of cruelty was practiced on the pitiable victims of the persecution. Crucifixion was the method usually employed in the case of Japanese Christians. On one occasion 70 Japanese at Yedo were crucified upside down at low water and were drowned as the tide came in.

I cried 3 days ago when I read that, because I’ve got a good enough imagination to picture the lapping water with your wife on one side and your sixteen-year-old on the other.

Are you ready? You think you got that within you? You don’t. No way does anybody have that kind of resourcefulness within them. Where are you going to get it? That’s what I want to close with.

You’re going to get it by believing the promises of God. Hebrews 10:32-34 is my favorite text about where you get the resources to live like this.

Recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and affliction and sometimes being partners with those so treated.

Now let me stop there and give you the situation as I read it. In the early days of the church persecution arose. Some of them suffered outright and publicly, and others had compassion on them. You’ll see in the next verse that some of them were imprisoned and some of them went to visit them. So they were forced into a decision. Those who were in prison in those days probably depended on others for food and water and any kind of physical care that they would need, but that meant that their friends and neighbors had to go public and identify with them. That’s risky business when someone’s been put in jail because they’re a Christian. So those who were still free went underground for a few hours and asked, “What are we going to do?” And somebody said "Psalm 63:3 says, 'The steadfast love of the Lord is better than life.' It's better then life. Let’s go!"

And if Martin Luther would have been there he would have said,

Let goods and kindred go,
this mortal life also.
The body they may kill,
God’s truth abideth still.
His kingdom is forever.
Let’s go!

And that’s exactly what they did. Let’s read the rest of it. Verse 34, “You had compassion on the prisoners and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property.”

Now here’s what happened. It doesn’t take any imagination. I don’t know all the details precisely, but here’s what happened: They had compassion on the prisoners, which means they went to them. And their property—house, chariot, horses, mules, carpentry stools, chairs, whatever—was set on fire by mob or maybe just ransacked and thrown to the streets by people with big knives. And when they looked over their shoulder to see what was happening back there they rejoiced.

Now if you’re not like this—when somebody bashes your computer when you’re trying to minister to them, or you drive downtown to minister and they smash your windshield, get your radio, or slash your tires—if you’re not like this, you’re not going to be a very good candidate for martyrdom either. So the question is, “How are you going to be like this?” I want to be like this. That’s why I love this text! I want to be like this.

I make no claim to be a perfect embodiment of this; but I want to be like this, so that when a rock comes sailing through my kitchen window—like it has done twice in the last couple of months—and smashes the glass and my wife and children hit the floor not knowing if it’s a bullet or a grenade, I want to be able to say, “Isn’t this a great neighborhood to live in.” This is where the needs are. You see those 5 teenage kids that just rode by? They need Jesus. If I move out of here, who’s going to tell them about Jesus?

When your little boy gets pushed off his bicycle and they take it and run, I want to be able to take him by the neck while he’s crying and say “Barnabas, this is like being a missionary. It’s like getting ready for the mission field! This is great!”

I gave a message on Colossians 1:24 in Pensacola, Florida two years ago. I had my 16-year-old Abraham with me, and he heard me say much of what I’m saying here, this kind of heavy-duty suffering stuff. And we got in the car to go home, and my wife said to Abraham, “Well, what do you think God was doing in there?” He said, “I’m going to buy a one-way ticket to the hardest country in the world.” That’s all he said. I bumped my head on the ceiling. Whew! This is great! Thank you Lord for Abraham and what you’re doing in his life.

Now I haven’t gotten to the main point of the text yet. How did they have the wherewithal to rejoice at the plundering of their property and the risking of their lives? Now we get it: “Since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” This is what I call faith in future grace.

If you are a Christian, God is holding out to you indescribably wonderful promises. "'I will never leave you nor forsake you.' Therefore, you can confidently say, 'The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?'" (Hebrews 13:5-6) Well, actually, man can kill you. But that is no defeat, because you know what Romans 8:36-39 says:

We are counted as sheep to be slaughtered all day long...Yet I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation can separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Therefore, nothing ultimately can harm you. Remember what Jesus said in Luke 21:12-19? “Some of you they will kill and some of you they will throw into prison...Yet not a hair of your head will perish.” “Some of you they will kill...yet not a hair of your head will perish.” It’s just Romans 8. Everything, including death, works together for your good. When you die you don’t perish. To die is gain.

Doing missions when death is gain is the greatest life in the world.

So I pray that you will come along and leave behind the American way of security and ease and comfort and retreat and withdrawal and emptiness. Leave it behind and join this incredibly powerful movement. There are students all over the world—like in South Korea—ready to stand up and lay down their lives for Christ. I invite you to do it too.

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