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The Challenge and Call of World Missions

George Martin

One of the best-known passages in all the Bible is the sixth chapter of Isaiah, which recounts the prophet's call to the prophetic ministry. Time and again God's people have been instructed from this passage concerning the glory and holiness of God. Often in sermons and Bible lessons the repentance of Isaiah and his willingness to do the Lord's bidding have been stressed.

Much less frequently, however, have we been reminded of the nature of Isaiah's ministry. That is, his work largely was to be one of weaning and sifting. He was to preach until the people of Judah turned away from the Lord with calloused hearts and until the cities lay ruined and without inhabitant. Ultimately, declared the God who commissioned Isaiah, only a tenth of the population would remain. And although that remnant would suffer, like a fallen tree leaves a stump, so would the remnant of God's people remain and eventually flourish.

Among several evident points here is the fact that this entire affair is orchestrated by the sovereign Lord. He calls the prophet. He gives him a message to proclaim. And the result of the preaching is known and declared beforehand. In other words, the divine purpose is made known and accomplished by a God who is both willing and able to do all that He wishes.

That the God of Isaiah is a sovereign is discovered by any cursory reading of the prophet's book. Text after text from Isaiah's prophecies reflect the truth stated in 46:10: "I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please."[1]

The prophecies of Isaiah direct us not only to ponder God's sovereign dealings with Israel, but also to declare His purposes with regard to the nations of the world. Consider the following text from Isaiah 49:6 --"It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth."

The prophet who makes us see the absolute sovereignty of God in all things is not hesitant to declare that the purpose of that God includes the salvation of men from all nations on earth. As one thinks about this divine purpose in light of our text, two issues surface. First, a challenge exists, i.e., the challenge not to focus too strictly on one part of the divine plan, but to strive for the accomplishment of the whole. Second, a call goes forth, which results in the sending of laborers into the world to accomplish the Lord's desires. Thus, we find ourselves reflecting on the challenge and the call of world missions.

The Challenge of World Missions

The challenge is to look beyond our immediate surroundings and acquaintances and to see the whole world as our field of labor. It is a tremendous challenge because such an undertaking requires great resources and lays upon the Christian enormous responsibilities from which the flesh naturally recoils. Turning to a personal note, I remember the days of my pastoral ministry in Louisville, Kentucky. How much I enjoyed the work to which the Lord had called me! How deep was my love for the people to whom I ministered! But the work of the ministry was challenging, and occasionally the challenge became so great that I shrank back from it. Yes, there were days that I wanted to do nothing else but close my study door, return to Florida and grow oranges. The challenge of the pastoral ministry at times was that overwhelming.

Likewise, the challenge in missions is great. Jacob, or Israel, was precious to the Lord. This is a central motif of Scripture. The Lord declared through the prophet Amos: "You only have I chosen of all the families of the earth" (3:2). One cannot read the middle chapters of Paul's epistle to the Romans without being deeply convicted that Israel holds a special place in the heart of God.

Yet the view and purpose of God is wider still. It extends beyond Israel to the nations of the world. It has been so from the beginning, when Yahweh declared to Abram that he and his descendants would be a blessing to all peoples on the earth. From the beginning the challenge before God's people has been to make God known to others.

The challenge for American Christians begins in America. One after another, various organizations have polled the American people. Consistently those polls show the United States to be one of the most, if not the most, religious country in the world. In reality the masses in America possess a form of godliness while denying its power (2 Tim. 3:5). They claim to know God but by their actions they deny Him (Titus 1:16).

In America are heightened racial tensions, riots, crime and all sorts of wickedness. Our leaders call for peace among men and among nations, not realizing that no peace exists apart from Jesus Christ.

If we turn our attention to world demographics the challenge is greater still. Missiologists group the world's population into broad categories: the Christian world, which comprises approximately 33% of the earth's population (World C); the 42% of the world's population who have had some acquaintance with the gospel, but are not classified as Christian (World B); and World A, or the approximately 25% of the world's population (about 1.2 billion people) who have never had any exposure to the gospel. Furthermore, researchers tell us that the Christian world spends approximately 99.9% of their money on themselves and only about .09 per cent ministering to World B. Only .01 per cent is spent on reaching the unreached peoples of World A.[2]

Moreover, World A, while containing one fourth of the world's population, has only one per cent of the world's Christian missionaries assigned to it. In contrast, the "Christian world" has 33 per cent of the earth's population and 91 per cent of the missionaries.

In light of such a challenge, how can Southern Baptists be no more moved and motivated than we are?

The Call of World Missions

The second matter arising from our text is that of the call of world missions. The forty ninth chapter of Isaiah is filled with references to God's sovereignty. With authority He is able to command: "Listen to me, you islands; hear this you distant nations" (vs. 1). The servant declared that even before he was born the Lord knew him and called him (vs. 1). The Lord formed and shaped the servant's mouth to accomplish the divine purposes (vs. 2). The servant owes his very existence to the Lord (vs. 5). The Lord proclaimed: "I will make you a light for the Gentiles" (vs. 6) and then performed the deed. The Lord is the faithful one who chooses His servants and sends them forth to do His bidding (vs. 7).

All these are the works of One who declares His purposes and then causes them to come to pass. This is not one of the pagan idols, who have mouths but cannot speak. This is the Lord who speaks, and men listen. This is the Lord who commands, and men obey. This is the Lord who calls, and men follow.

Who can flee from one such as this? At the command of the Lord, Moses complained and excused himself only to find himself standing eye to eye with Pharaoh. Jeremiah vowed never again to declare the word of the Lord, only to feel that word as a burning in his bones that must be let out. Jonah attempted to escape the Lord's will for his life, only to find himself in the belly of a fish pledging to do God's bidding. Let Peter deny his Lord, let Saul attempt to stamp out the fledgling church and they become the greatest of all preachers, declaring the Gospel first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles.

With absolute certainty we can declare the sovereignty of God in all things. He stirs up the thunderstorm and sends it across the earth wherever He pleases. He establishes one kingdom and tears down another. Through His prophets He speaks of events hundreds of years in advance and brings them to pass. He raises up preachers and missionaries and sends them out.

The biblical writers, while affirming divine sovereignty, also press the responsibility of men. Thus, while the title of this article is "The Challenge and Call of World Missions," a preferable designation might be "The Challenge and Command of World Missions." The Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, are full of commands to God's people to be ambassadors to the world. From the covenant with Abram, when Yahweh promised to make Abram's family a blessing to the world, to the end of Jesus' earthly ministry, when He spoke the Great Commission to His disciples, we are commanded to make God known in all the earth.

Reflecting on another personal matter, I have heard wonderful testimonies about how God has tugged at the hearts of individuals and directed them to foreign countries as missionaries. To be honest, I had supposed that such calls must be supernatural, extraordinary, and maybe even miraculous in nature.

That was not my experience. As my wife and I looked at the Word of God, we could not get away from the biblical notion that God's purpose is for His people to preach the gospel to every tribe and nation and language group. That is because He has an elect people in every tribe and nation and language group (Rev. 5:9; Mark 13:27). And it is through the preaching of the gospel that God has always called men to himself. Our experience was nothing that might be classified as unusual. Simply put, through the realization growing on us that the Lord's purpose to save extends into all the world, my wife and I arrived at the point of saying, "Lord, we are willing to go." Nothing special. Nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing mystical. Simply a willingness to go. In light of such clear scriptural injunctions, how can any Southern Baptist refuse the great responsibility the Lord lays on His people?

To hear some contemporary preachers, one would think that God is in heaven wringing His hands out of frustration because He is having difficulty convincing people to believe in Him and to live for him. Such a poor and pitiful god!

That, however, is not the picture of God discovered in His self-revelation, i.e., the Bible. He sovereignly reaches down and makes a mighty nation from the descendants of one man. He has set aside for himself elect people from every land. He will pursue the lost sheep until it is found and brought into the fold.

Upon reflection, the fact of God's absolute sovereignty, even in the matter of calling and saving sinners, is not a hindrance to world missions but is an encouragement. Because God has set a people aside for himself, and because His Son has shed His precious blood for the elect, the harvest is assured. The Lord has His elect people in every nation and cannot be satisfied with anything less than the redemption of them all.

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