This is Missions emphasis week at Proclaim & Defend.
What is the connection between a politician and a vacuum cleaner? Keep reading to find out! First, however, consider God’s wisdom displayed in the beautiful progression of thoughts in the points we are studying.
The first matter of praying for missionaries is that God will give them opportunity, an open door for giving the Gospel. But an open door is not helpful if we do not take advantage of it. Not surprisingly, therefore, the second matter for prayer is to request boldness. How often have we passed up open doors because of our fear and timidity? But again, we may boldly open our mouths and yet have no one understand what we are saying. For example, what if I proclaim the Gospel boldly in English to a Japanese person steeped in Buddhism who understands only the word “hello” in English? Obviously, that person will not comprehend my message. Even if he understood my words, he would still not understand why Jesus had to suffer and die, for those problems are what Buddhism is supposed to answer. Some explanation will be required. Therefore, as the Lord would have it, the next great need is for the missionary to make his message clear to his hearers. This point about clarity has several aspects.
The first aspect is to “make manifest” the message (Col. 4:4). That word simply means to make something visible. I illustrate this by asking people to guess what is in my left pocket. They usually do not guess correctly, but when I pull out fingernail clippers and Chapstick, they understand very well. I literally “made it manifest” to them, and they are clear on what was there. In the Colossians context, Paul is not talking about show and tell, but about speaking in a way that people understand his message. In order for that to happen, two things must occur. First, the missionary must know the language of the people well enough for the hearers to understand his words. I remember preaching a message in Japanese and referring to politicians, but instead I used the word for “vacuum cleaner.” I’m not sure what the people comprehended from that mistake, but clarity was definitely lacking! Second, the missionary must know the biblical message well enough so that he himself knows what he is talking about and can explain it. So in your praying for missionaries, pray that:
- they will continually be learning the Word themselves,
- they will continually improve their language skills and
- they will understand the host culture and people so that they can explain to them the unsearchable riches of Christ in language and concepts that those people can grasp.
The next time we pray for a missionary, let’s think about the challenge of preaching Christ to a Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, or atheist in French or Russian or Japanese. That should motivate us to beseech the Lord to enable him to make the message clear.
In our last issue we began to consider the third matter of biblical praying for missionaries: the necessity of making the message clear. Open doors and boldness are of little use if we do not speak so that our hearers understand. In Colossians 4:3-4, Paul asked prayer that he would be enabled to “make manifest” the mystery of Christ. One would think that Paul, master theologian, soulwinner, and preacher, would know how to do that, but he assumed nothing and always relied upon God’s help. Notice that in this text Paul was not simply asking for courage to preach, he was asking for supernatural help to be able to plainly and in an understandable way explain the Gospel message. As one commentator accurately puts it, Paul’s request is, “Pray that I may know exactly what approach to use when questioned by groups or individuals of various backgrounds: visitors who come to see me in prison, soldiers who guard me, and the Roman authorities before whom I may be summoned.”
Paul’s realization of the need for different approaches with hearers of various backgrounds and capabilities is also seen in the parallel, but differently-worded text in Ephesians 6:19. In Ephesians Paul makes this request: “And [praying] for me, that utterance may be given unto me, that I may open my mouth boldly, to make known the mystery of the gospel.” Note the word “utterance,” for it is simply the Greek word “logos,” which means “word.” What Paul is asking then is not the same request we have discussed in an earlier article—he is not asking for boldness to open his mouth. He is rather asking for the right words to use when he does open his mouth to witness. Picture a missionary witnessing to a secular, atheistic European college student. What words should be used for this opportunity? Then picture a missionary speaking to a Chinese farmer who has been taught Communist theory but who has a more deep-seated mindset of Confucianism and Buddhism. It is easy to understand that the appropriate words will not be the same and must be chosen for each situation. A good example of the need for keeping in mind the hearers’ biblical background and worldview is Paul’s preaching in Acts 17. Paul preached quite differently to the Jews in Thessalonica (he preached from the Old Testament and talked about Jesus as the promised Messiah) than he did to the educated idolaters of Mars Hill (he preached basic creation truth to these proud but utterly idolatrous intellectuals). The truth of the Gospel is the same, but where one starts on the continuum of truth may vary depending on the understanding of the hearers.
Therefore, when you pray for a missionary, request that he will have the right words for the situation before him. Pray also that he will have the skill in the language to convey the truth on his heart and meet the needs of each individual.
Alan Patterson is the Administrative Director of Gospel Fellowship Association Missions. These articles appeared in the Fall/Winter 2016 and Spring/Summer 2017 editions of Sowing & Reaping, the GFAM newsletter. They are republished here by permission.
- W. Hendriksen and S. J. Kistemaker, Exposition of Colossians and Philemon, vol. 6 of New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2001), 182. [↩]