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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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)