The Church as Jesus in the WorldOctober 27th, 2023
Luke 10:1-2; Isaiah 49:6
“After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Luke 10:1-2).
The vision of Christ is for His redeemed people to act as “Jesus in the world.”
Luke, under divine inspiration, has carefully prepared us for this moment in his gospel. In Luke 9:l, Jesus has already sent out the twelve on a Galilean mission to Jews. Later he sends them out to the Samaritans in the north. The disciples, with the exception of Judas, are all Galileans (they are northerners) and they, along with a larger group, are being asked to go into Judea and into the Transjordan area to bring the gospel. This is the first major cross-cultural step as the gospel begins its outward spiral from its base in the north to Palestine, the Graeco-Roman world, the Mediterranean basin including North Africa, Syria, Central Asia, the Far East, the depths of Africa, India, Latin America, and eventually Korea. This is an early clue by Luke of the long vision of Jesus for His redeemed community. This is the first time the gospel is going to be brought to an area filled with Gentiles. They are going to encounter new practices like unclean food. Jesus in this discourse tells them, “Eat whatever is put before you.” Don’t squabble about unclean food because this is the opportune moment – the Kingdom of God is breaking into the whole human race. Jesus Himself, the text declares, has “resolutely set his face toward Jerusalem,” and He knows that the time has come.
One of the concerns of Luke is, of course, the ongoing story of the church, the longer view of where this is all headed. Luke is the only gospel writer that gives us a companion volume, the book of Acts, which is given to extend his gospel outward and to give us some view as to its arc, its direction, as it breaches the walls of Judaism and encounters a Gentile world. It is Luke, a gentile, who, though careful to demonstrate the mission of the church as rooted in the Old Testament, gives us the last words of Jesus before His ascension. “…you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Luke is quoting Isaiah: “… I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” (49:6). This is the vision that Luke connects with.
Indeed, one of the greatest threats we face as a church is losing this vision. We start thinking of our work, our ministry, and even mission itself as a series of tasks that we are called to, rather than seeing what God is doing and unfolding in the world and calling us to be a part of. Mission (singular) refers to God’s initiative to redeem the world. Missions (plural) refers to the particular acts of obedience whereby He sovereignly calls us to be involved in His plan of extending His church in hundreds of different ways. Does that thrill you?! This is the great privilege and calling of Christian missions. If you forget everything else, don’t forget that – you have been called to be a part of God’s action in the world. If missions is just our initiative, our plans, our story, then we don’t know how these things might end. But because this is His story, His plan, His initiative, we can look in the back of the book and know Who wins! Jesus shall reign! His Kingdom is coming! Satan will be defeated! All things will be set right! The Apostle John captures a glimpse of this vision when he declares, “after this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9). It is essential that you see your lives in continuity with Christ and His mission.
Everything in this text points us to this larger vision of our Lord Jesus. Even the textual variance in this passage, which is divided between those texts that say that Jesus sent out 70 and those that say 72, is itself a pointer to Genesis chapter 10. Genesis 10 lists all the nations of the known world at that time. This is why this chapter is known as the “table of the nations.” It lists all the tribal or ethnic heads that eventually descended from Noah and his three children. In the Hebrew, if you count the nations listed in Genesis 10, it comes to 70. But in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament that the early church used, the number is not 70 but 72 because of word division differences in the Greek. This demonstrates that Jesus’ use of the number 70 or 72 connects to the Genesis 10 passage.
Remember, in the earlier mission to Jews in Galilee, Jesus sent out 12. 12 is symbolic of the Jewish mission. We all appreciate the importance of the number 12 representing the 12 tribes of Israel. In Luke 9, we see the disciples as the heads of a new redeemed community – a new Israel.
However, by Luke 10 this will no longer do; that vision was too small. The larger vision of sending out the 70 or 72, a number symbolic of the nations, is a first step in the global expanse of the church of Jesus Christ. The text says that Jesus sent out 70. This is Jesus reminding us that His ministry is not just about saving the “lost tribes of Israel.” It is bigger than that – much bigger than that! We are about to breach new walls, go to new peoples, and bring the gospel to all nations. Our goal is nothing less than the world.
In Luke’s account of this sending out of the 70, we must realize that even this mission is preparatory. Despite all of the glowing traditions that developed around the twelve disciples and where they went, they could not and did not go to the 24,000 people groups in the world. They were still confined in this mission to the Transjordan, a very tiny part of the world.
This account is before the Resurrection, before the Ascension, and before the coming of the full empowering of the Holy Spirit. However, like so much in Scripture, everything is prepared in advance. It is like a great banquet. One must make preparations and adjustments because, in time, the Great Commission will be given to us, and we are then tasked to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth. We are now living and working not in the dusky first few shades of light before the dawn but in the full, glorious light of the Resurrection. Now, in the presence of the living Lord and with the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit, we go forth to do “greater things” because He has gone to the Father. Brothers and sisters, we have a global mission, not to a handful of ethnic groups of the Transjordan, but to plant viable self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating churches among 24,000 people groups in the world, thousands of which have never even heard His name or heard so much as John 3:16 in their own language. It is the remarkable mission to Korea that first articulated the “three-self” principle of missions to establish churches: self-governance, self-support, and self-propagation. May this vision continue in our own way until we reach every people group in the world with the gospel.
And so the gospel went forth. In the first century, right in the pages of the New Testament, we discover that the gospel was bigger than Judaism. A group of unnamed disciples from Cyprus and Cyrene began to preach the gospel to Greeks, “telling them, also, the good news of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 11:20). The church at Antioch is born and, by the end of the second century, becomes the largest church in the world. It was, you will recall, the sending church of the Apostle Paul in his great missionary journeys, which were not, as we often think, evangelistic campaigns, but strategic church-planting missions. He is establishing self-supporting, self-propagating, self-governing churches who themselves begin to send out missionaries.
By the fourth century this small, persecuted sect brings down the mighty Roman Empire, and Christianity becomes the official faith of the Empire. The gospel continued to spread north into the so-called barbarian territories and to the far reaches of the Empire itself, including a flourishing church that arose in North Africa and gave wonderful gifts to the church, like St. Augustine.
And the Eastern empire, whose capital was now in Constantinople, brought the gospel to the Eastern world. Later, great Celtic saints like Aidan and Columba and St. Patrick brought the gospel to the western part of the Empire. But the gospel continued to spread across Persia and along the entire silk route that connected the Eastern empire with the Far East. Remarkably, at the same time the gospel was being planted in England, it was also being presented by Nestorian missionaries right into the Imperial court of China. When Islam emerged in the seventh century, many former Christian lands fell, and Christianity suffered a major setback in North Africa and what we now call the Middle East. Even the so-called holy land fell to Islam. But the light of the gospel could not be put out. Boniface brought the gospel into the heart of what is now Germany. Cyril and Methodius were translating the gospel into the Slavic tongue. Vladimir braved the mighty steppes of Russia to bring the gospel.
Even in the darkest days of the Western attempt to militarily defeat Islam, known as the Crusades, you should never forget that there were faithful bearers of the gospel. Men like Raymond Lull, known as “the apostle of love” in an age of hate, brought the gospel to the seat of the Islamic empire. Eventually, the heart of the gospel message and the authority of the Scripture was recaptured by the European church in the Reformation. In due course this gave birth to the modern missionary movement, first with the Moravians streaming forth from the estate of Count von Zinzendorf and eventually with the rise of mission societies who sent men and women like William Carey, Adoniram Judson, Hudson Taylor, C.T. Studd, Amy Carmichael, Lottie Moon, Gladys Alyward, and others too numerous to count to the ends of the earth. Africa buried the missionaries by the hundreds, earning itself the name “the missionary graveyard,” because the average lifespan of a missionary was only two years. But, in the end, the real story is that Christianity took root in the soil of Africa. China called the missionaries foreign devils, but the real story is that the gospel took root in Chinese soil, because the gospel is not western or eastern; it’s the unfolding plan of God’s redemption for the world.
In this way the gospel spread all over the world, from the remote islands of the Pacific to the breathtaking mountains of Nepal. This is God’s story. From the Jesuit witness in the Imperial courts of China to the relentless travels of David Livingstone in the heart of Africa, this is God’s story. From the work of Wycliffe Bible translators working in the tribal jungles of Papua New Guinea to the Marlows and the Sawyers and others working year after year in the great sprawling cities of the Muslim world like Istanbul, Cairo, Damascus and Jakarta, this is God’s story. From English classes being taught in the name of Jesus to the immigrant populations of North America to the fiery preaching on the streets of Rio or Sao Paulo in Latin America, this is God’s story! From the church planters facing persecution in the heat of North India’s Ganges plain to the bitter cold winds blowing across the faces of gospel workers in Mongolia, this is God’s story. From the mass evangelistic campaigns of Billy Graham and Luis Palau to a young Russian girl kneeling at her bedside with tears streaming down her cheeks asking Jesus to save her, this is God’s story. Only eternity will tell the full story. We only know a few of the chapters of this great story of the church of Jesus Christ extending the good news of the risen Lord Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world.
If we see ourselves in continuity with Jesus, and we are congruent with the apostolic message, then we have the great privilege of helping to bring in the plentiful harvest, the great ingathering into the kingdom of God. The Kingdom will be a place where the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the poor receive good news. The great debt of sin is wiped out, paid in full. The strong man is disarmed, the lost find refuge in the Father’s house, and the marriage supper of the Lamb is prepared. This is the vision that began in Genesis 12:3 when God promised Abraham, “in your seed, all nations will be blessed” and culminates in that great vision of John in Rev. 7:9 when he sees “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9). May we be ever determined to connect with this great vision of Christ for His church to be “Jesus in the world.”
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