It was a fair question, and I did not take offense at it. My family and I were serving as foreign missionaries, and for many years we lived and worked overseas. We could do this because we were supported by churches and friends in the United States.
“Would it not be better stewardship,” a man once asked me, “if we as churches supported national workers in several countries, rather than sending people from here to do the work?”
The cost for my family and I to live in another country was considerable. One sometimes has the idea that living costs are much cheaper in most overseas countries than it is in the United States. Many items are less expensive. Where we once lived in Venezuela, for instance, gasoline was almost a gift. While my friends in Wisconsin at the time were paying almost three dollars a gallon for low octane gas, in Venezuela I always filled my Jeep with the highest octane gasoline at about thirty-five cents a gallon. The normal octane was about twenty-three cents.
However, other goods, especially things like dairy products and some other foods, clothing, and many other items were much more expensive than in the US. All in all, Vivian and I thought that costs seemed to average out, and the financial requirements for our family to live in Venezuela were about the same as they were in Wisconsin.
Besides the cost of daily living, there are other additional costs for living in a foreign country. If we wanted to go home to the United States for a furlough, for instance, we had to plan ahead for the cost of airfare. If it is a family that is to travel, the multiplication factor applies.
When we first lived overseas, we had all four of our sons still living at home with us. Later, the two older boys graduated from high school and then lived in the States. After that time, when taking a trip home, we no longer had to multiply airfare costs by six, but we still had to multiply by four. It made every airline trip expensive. Of course, in addition to these expenses when one lives overseas, there are also other costs, such as the payment for visas and other legal work that is always necessary for expatriates.
Because of these things, some are asking, “Why send missionaries from our home churches? Would it not be more cost effective to support a Christian worker from within the country? Not only is it cheaper, but there are not the language and cultural barriers that someone coming from the outside must almost always face. Why not simply keep our people home and find trustworthy national workers? Today, we also have at our disposal technology that simply was not available in the past. There are the wonderful ministries of radio, television, literature and even the internet.”
The ensuing conversation on the subject then usually revolves around economics and questions of stewardship—about how expensive it is to send a missionary to live overseas. Then there is usually the corresponding concern expressed about the accountability of nationals. Someone generally has a story or two where funds sent from the U.S. had been grossly misused by national workers or where the relationship has turned into one of simple dependency.
The two views continue to go back and forth, but it seems that whatever direction the conversation turns, the content of the discussion is usually centered on questions of finance.
It is true that the financial aspect of missions is important, and I do not wish to dismiss it, but it is my concern that in centering on this, we miss the point entirely of what we are doing in missionary work.
The Supreme Missionary Example
I say this because of a single example of one missionary. It is only one story in the face of many contemporary examples that would instead seem to show the greater importance of economizing and reducing costs. However, this missionary I am speaking about was of such supreme example that I have instead personally decided that I must learn his priorities. This man was, in my opinion, the greatest of all missionaries.
There are many missionaries that I admire. It is often said that Abraham was really the first missionary. God sent him cross-culturally and intended that “all the nations” should be blessed through him. Of course, we also see the Apostle Paul, that tireless and fearless worker who expended himself for the sake of the gospel. There are many more contemporary missionaries as well. I think immediately of the examples of Hudson Taylor and Adoniram Judson.
However, the missionary who I have in mind surpasses them all in dedication and sacrifice. We learn about him in what I think is the best of all missionary passages of the Bible.
Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8 NAS)
By now you understand that the supreme example of a missionary I am speaking about is none other than Jesus Christ. The verses previous to these from Philippians speak of the incarnation of Christ—when God was made man. There are many things that we do understand about Christ. We can understand, for instance, that Jesus came to earth for the purpose of providing for our redemption. But there is much about even this fact that goes beyond what we know. And there is much about his ministry on earth that also goes beyond our understanding.
The ministry of Christ was, of course, distinct from any of our work in ministry, in that Christ gave his life as the perfect sacrifice for the sin of humanity. This was a calling of Christ that was far above our own capabilities. Nevertheless, it is also unmistakable to me that Christ’s coming to earth was similar to our ministry in at least one aspect. His life on earth was missionary service to the highest degree.
The Ways in which Jesus was a Missionary
Jesus crossed some of the greatest cultural barriers possible. He came from heaven to serve on earth. He left eternity to live under the constraints of time. He came from the infinite to live in the finite. He willingly took upon himself all of the limitations of men, while he had had no such restrictions in heaven. Christ, who lived in glory, came to reside in the mundane.
All missionaries, when leaving for their country of service, go with some kind of job description in mind. Normally the work is clearly and formally delineated on paper, but even if it is not, there is a plan and a process. The missionary needs to know what must be done and what are the steps necessary to accomplish the task.
Jesus Christ also had a clear task in his coming to earth. “For while we were still helpless,” Paul tells us, “At the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6 NAS). His purpose in coming was exceedingly clear. We needed redemption, and Christ came to fulfill that task. The timing of his arrival was perfect. Paul says elsewhere that at the “fullness of time” God sent his Son (Galatians 4:4).
As we study the Scriptures, it becomes apparent to us that in order to obtain our redemption, Christ had to offer himself as a sacrifice on the cross. Did Jesus himself not pray shortly before the fateful hour, “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done?” (Luke 22:42 NAS). It is clear, from what we read in the Bible, that the death of Christ in our place and for our sins was a necessity.
It is at this very point—that is, the need of Christ to offer himself as a sacrifice—that I have looked at Jesus and have marveled at his example, not only as a Redeemer, but also as a missionary. I marvel at his sacrifice, certainly, but I am here referring to something else.
Unless there are reasons that are not apparent to me, this work of our redemption should not have required of Christ such a long term of service in the world. The price of our redemption was his blood given as a sacrifice. If this sacrifice was his purpose for coming to earth, for what reason did he live here so long?
In the Old Testament animal sacrifices, which were a foreshadowing of Jesus’ ultimate and perfect sacrifice, there is no indication that the sacrificial animal was chosen when it was born and then raised with the intention of someday sacrificing it. Certainly, the Israelites had flocks from which they knew that some of the animals would be sacrificial animals, but the specific sacrificial animals were not identified at birth. Rather, when the time of sacrifice arrived, an animal was simply chosen. It was an instantaneous affair.
Could not have Jesus, knowing the “right time,” simply have come, done his redemptive work in about a three-day time period, and then return to his heavenly home? I honestly see no reason why not; although I must also say that there are certainly many things that I do not understand.
Whatever the case, that is not how Jesus served. He seemed to go far beyond that which was merely necessary. With regard to his redemptive work, Jesus did not even appear on earth already into adulthood.
Again, I see no reason why he could not have. The high priest Melchizedek, of Genesis 14, appeared suddenly in history as an adult. It is true that Melchizedek probably was born and lived a full life on earth in the normal way, but the very point that the writer of Hebrews makes about him is that Melchizedek, in terms of what was known about him, was “without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life” (Hebrews 7:3 NAS).
Another thing about Melchizedek is that he, in some ways, typified Jesus Christ, which the writer of Hebrews also mentions. If Melchizedek could suddenly appear in this way as an adult, and if his life typified that of Jesus, could not have Jesus himself done the same? Could Jesus not also have arrived on the scene as an adult?
Nevertheless, Jesus was born as a baby. And not merely was he born as a baby, but as a baby in the humblest of circumstances. Jesus lived a childhood that was one of an impoverished life. He grew tired and hungry and weary. He wept. He walked over the dusty streets and sweated in the hot sun. He learned a trade. He was ridiculed by people who should have supported him, and he was even largely rejected by some of his family.
Why Jesus Came to Earth in the Manner That He Did
Was all of this necessary for our redemption? It was not necessary, but Jesus had something else in mind. It is something every missionary must also have in mind. In speaking of the ministry of Jesus, the writer of Hebrews also writes of this fact.
Since then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16 NAS)
We see that it is true that Jesus came to redeem us, but he also came to minister to us. In any type of missionary work, there is one vital element, which, if it is not present, prevents real ministry. We learn it in its highest form from Jesus.
This vital element is a willingness to identify with the people. As the writer of Hebrews says, in Jesus, we do not have someone who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses. Jesus knew what it was to be weak. He also knew what it was to be tempted. It is because of these facts that we can have confidence to approach him. We know that he understands our perspective.
Would we feel the same kinship with Jesus if we saw that he may have been willing to redeem us, but he only had put forth the very minimum effort to accomplish the task? Would we feel the same if Jesus only came to earth for three or four days in order to accomplish his work and then returned to heaven?
Speaking of the missionary endeavor of the church, I think that we as a church miss the crucial and vital point when we think that we need only to be involved with people from afar. Jesus also could have sent angels; he could have used men and spoken to hearts. Indeed, he did do all these things. Jesus sent prophets and angels, but he himself also came, not to do only the minimum, but to identify with us.
This is the key and this is the heart of a missionary. I do not say that we are not to guard against acting irresponsibly and that we pay no regard to economizing and stewardship. We should indeed use every means to spread the Word of God.
Nevertheless, in the same manner that Jesus came in order to identify with us, so we also must go and identify with those whom we are trying to reach. Jesus said to his disciples, “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you” (John 20:21 NAS, italics added).
There can never be any doubt of Jesus’ love for us. This is demonstrated ultimately on the cross, but it is also demonstrated in his willingness to identify with us. It is demonstrated by his willingness to live among us.
Personally Investing Oneself
In the past, there have been occasions when I have worked with a mission project from afar by means of support and aiding in resources. In many ways, the people to whom the support was sent remained only names to me, and, I am sure, I was only a name to them on the other end of the supply line.
It was not until I went and saw and came to know the people with whom I was working that I really came to invest myself personally. It was not until I lived among them and ate their food and walked on their streets that their goals and problems also became my goals and problems.
Thus, to the man who asked me the question regarding funding and his perspective of only sending the funds for national workers, this was the best that I could say to him. If we, as churches, think that by being involved from afar without one of our own going and identifying with the people, I think we will never be fully involved. Our commission, after all, is to go.
And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
(Matthew 28:18-20 NAS)