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  • Writer's pictureBradley Bell

How to Handle Missions History, Part Two

In the opening post of this series we briefly established that Matthew 24:4-14 provides a simple framework for understanding missions history. It might be broken into three movements: the nations rage, the church suffers, and the gospel advances.

The Nations Rage

Listen to Jesus’ description of the world’s response to his rule:

And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth painsvv. 4-8

Doesn’t this seem like a snapshot of world history? False messiahs, war, famine, earthquakes. It actually kind of sounds like BBC News.

Anthropologist Thom Wolfe puts it this way: “If you want to know the history of a people, follow the trail of blood.” Just consider the highlights of American history. You’ve got colonization and revolution and civil war and world war and civil rights. It’s so…bloody. The psalmist coined the language of this movement long ago:

Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his AnointedPsalm 2:1-2

Jesus isn’t foreshadowing these realities to scare his disciples into submission. That would make for quite the campfire ghost story. Instead, he’s teaching them the purpose behind such things. That’s why he says in v. 6,

See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet.

This must take place. Every detail of a world gone nuts plays into the purpose of a good God. Every false messiah. Every hard-to-reach people. Every starving child. Every head sawed off with a dull blade by terrorists. This must take place, and all the more as we get closer to the return of Jesus. We dare not brave missions yesterday or today without this sobering truth echoing in our hearts.

The Church Suffers

Because the nations rage, the church suffers. Jesus predicted this. Here’s what he said about his bride:

Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved, vv. 9-13

These are terrible realities. History shows us that wherever the church has sprang up, these evils have come against it. Persecution, apostasy, betrayal, lovelessness. This is light in darkness. This is missions.

But why would God give over the church, his most prized possession, to suffer like this? Let me answer with a question. Why would God give over his own Son to suffer? Hebrews 5:8-9 tells us:

Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.

It seems there are two reasons for his suffering: (1) God used it to "mold" him, and (2) God used it to make him the Savior of the world. So as the God and Savior of the church, he uses suffering similarly: (1) to mold his people into the image of his Son, and (2) to use them to deliver salvation to the world. The way of God’s mission is inevitably the way of suffering.

The Gospel Advances

As the church is battered, the gospel advances. Verse 14 describes it:

And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.

Rest for a moment in this truth. The gospel will be preached throughout the whole world. Not must be. It will be.

There is quite the array of motivations that draw people into global missions. For me it was more "must" than "will". For years I believed that I must go to the nations or forsaken masses would never hear. Then as a missionary I tried bearing the weight of responsibility for millions of isolated, obstinate people. I still remember a moment when, heartbroken and exhausted, I confessed, “If this task depends on me, then I quit.”

Around the same time I kept encountering the same truth in the Scriptures: God will do it, and he invites me to join him as he does it (Genesis 12:3, Habakkuk 2:14, Colossians 1:5-6, Revelation 7:9-10). That truth didn’t kill my motivation. No, no, it gave me life! The pressure was off. I was invited to bring my inability before him, assured and empowered by a God who accomplishes what I can’t.

Now this is the heartbeat of missions history. Despite every impossibility—God advances his kingdom. It’s not, “If we get out there reach all the unreached people groups, then the end will come.” That would make Jesus dependent on us, waiting for his often-blundering bride to complete the final command. 

Instead, Jesus shows us who’s in charge. Remember the psalmist who asked why the nations rage? He now turns his song to the King who will rule them:

He who sits in heaven laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, ‘As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.’ I will tell of the decree: The Lord said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them to pieces like a potter’s vessel. Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him. Psalm 2:4-12

The urgency of missions isn’t firstly about our efforts, but rather the definitive scepter of God’s Son. He is coming at an hour we don’t expect. He will shatter the nations and rescue forever those who have trusted in him. In the meantime, the nations will rage against him, the church will suffer for him, and the gospel will advance by him. This is what plays out in missions history. This is why we set our eyes on him. 

In the next post we’ll begin a trek through that history.

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