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Jesus’ Unchanging Commission to the Unreached

Posted April 03, 2012 by Steve Hafler
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Only twice have I evangelized people where I hit the ground before the Coca Cola Company.  The dark syrupy sweet carbonated drink is everywhere in the world infiltrating more places than the Gospel.  It seems no land or people is too challenging to develop a strategy to market their product to.  With the exceptions of a civil war in the northern frontier of southern Sudan and a forgotten people north of Diego Suarez in Madagascar, Coke has “been there and done that” before me every time.  It wouldn’t be such a tragedy if we were talking about competing beverages, but we aren’t.  We are talking about God’s Son and His glory.  We are comparing soda with the only Person who can pardon sin and eternally quench thirsty sinners.  Jesus is the Good News that is to be proclaimed to all people.  But we haven’t taken this incredible message forward as we should.  Jesus Himself said about water (and we could very well include carbonated beverages in the application), “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14).  He also said,“whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35).

Africa has long been called the dark-continent.  The darkest facet of the second largest continent on the earth today, however, may be our continued ignorance of its people and the amazing things God is doing through and among them.  Africans are reaching Africans for Christ.  In spite of the tragedy of poor western strategy God is raising up our African brothers and sisters to reach their continent for Him.

In February 2003 I boarded a small Cessna Caravan with a team of Sudanese and Kenyan evangelists and teachers.  This small prop plane would land us in a country notorious for its civil war, famine, genocide, and guinea worm.  The northern frontier of southern Sudan is approx. 200 miles north of Juba and is located just below the demilitarized zone.  This would be our home for the next twelve days.  This was eight years before south Sudan would gain its independence.

Casings from Ak-47 rifles were strewn on the ground and sun-bleached bones lay in eery piles from the strategic bombings of cattle herds in a deliberate attempt by the Islamic air-force from Khartoum to starve the southern Sudanese.  The skeletal figures of the Nuer people gave evidence of a land ravaged by war and famine.  This was no holiday.  There were no tourist destinations on the northern frontier – not a single restaurant, hotel, or bottle of Coke.  The only thing to be found was famine, death, displaced people, fear, and courageous Sudanese Christians enduring persecution (story continued below).

A Snapshot of the African Continent:

  1. The primary region of “Living Africa” (where most people live) is often called sub-Saharan Africa and excludes the mostly Islamic countries of North Africa: Western Sahara, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt.  *Sub-Saharan is where 95-98% of American missionaries live in Africa.
  2. There are 54 countries in Africa which include several island countries.  Madagascar is the largest of these islands – so large and diverse that it has been called the Eighth Continent.
  3. Even though Africa only makes up about 16% of the world’s population, 1/4 of the world’s languages are spoken only in Africa.
  4. Arabic (in several different dialects) is the most common language spoken in Africa with approx. 200 million speakers mostly residing in North Africa.

Countries excluded from sub-Saharan Africa are located in an area identified by missiologists as the 10-40 window.  This is the area of the world that includes North Africa, the Middle East and Asia between 10 and 40 degrees north latitude.  Do not think of this area as simply geography.  It is not just arid land… but people.  People who have names, families, favorite foods, who wake up and work, wash dishes, clean laundry, have children, and are religious (that is, they believe something about God and hold a worldview of who they are, where they are, what the problem is, and what the answer to the problem is.  Most of these people have allowed Islam to answer these questions for them).

Africa is home to some of the largest unreached people groups in the world.

    • Algeria – 36 million people – 99.9% Islam
    • Morocco – 32 million people – 98.4% Islam
    • Tunisia – 10.5 million people – 98.9% Islam
    • Libya – 6.2 million people – 89.5% Islam

In Matthew 28:18-20 Jesus had already risen bodily from the dead, He has been on the earth for forty days, and He’s about to ascend to His Father.  These are the final words of the global Commander in Chief to His disciples.  To you and me.  Of all the things He could say this is what He does say.  This is the Lord’s purpose for His disciples – what He tells us to do.  He came and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).

Jesus says “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (v.18).  Why does Jesus say this?

    • His disciples had recently seen Him rejected & crucified.
    • Jesus appeared weak and defeated as he hung on the cross.  The disciples were overcome by fear and doubt.
    • Jesus suffered horribly and died – He was buried.  It seemed like the dream was over and a horrifying reality set in.  Maybe Jesus wasn’t the Messiah?  Maybe the disciples were duped to believe a hoax?
    • The disciples were scattered, perplexed, and without hope.

But when the disciples saw Jesus, and that He conquered death, it gave them great boldness.  Romans 1:4 says that Jesus “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead.”  Jesus allowed His claim as the Son of God and His message as the Savior of sin to be scrutinized.  Jesus repeatedly made His spiritual claims observable and testable in tangible, objective, and verifiable ways.  With Paul we can say “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead”(1 Corinthians 15:20).  This same boldness in the fact of the resurrected Christ is needed today because tribal elders, rulers, dictators, and kings will try to prevent the spread of the Gospel, but the risen Christ stood before His disciples and said He possessed all authority.  He is the King of kings.  At His name every knee will bow.

Jesus who has “all authority” gives us a mission.  What is the mission?  Look at v.19.  “Go therefore.” The word “therefore” connects Jesus’ authority to what He is about to tell us to do – “Make Disciples.”  This is the central activity of Christ’s commission.  A “disciple” is someone who believes in Jesus as Savior and follows Him (a follower learner).  Simply counting the number of people who say a prayer or walk the gauntlet to “go forward” is not enough.  We are called to make disciples not “get decisions.”  We disciple people who in turn have a transformational impact upon others in their communities.  The geographical scope is awesome!  “Of All Nations.”  This includes every country, tribe, and tongue in this world – even the restricted access countries where they kill Christians.  Our King has spoken.

When you combine all five Great Commission passages they intersect at one point – the ambition to get the Gospel to everyone (all the nations).

  • Matthew 28:19 “Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations.”
  • Mark 16:15 “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.”
  • Luke 24:47 “that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations…”
  • John 20:21 “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” (v.23 “if you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven them”).
  • Acts 1:8 “you will be my witnesses… to the end of the earth.”

You have often heard it said, “The safest place to be is in the will of God.”  That’s not true.  You might be imprisoned.  You could be tortured.  You may very well die.  Your family might die.  The best place to be is in the will of God, but it’s not necessarily the safest.  We see this during Jesus’ earthly ministry in Matthew 10:16 where He told His disciples,“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves.”

    • Daniel was thrown to lions in the will of God
    • John the baptist was beheaded in the will of God
    • Jesus was crucified in the will of God
    • Stephen was stoned in the will of God
    • Paul, who was probably beheaded by the Romans under Nero’s reign, died in the will of God.

Paul wrote a letter to Roman believers.  In this letter he includes a logical progression of the Gospel as it relates to unreached people.  He writes in Romans 10:

v.9-10 “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”  We believe this.

v.13  “For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  We believe this too, but then Paul shifts and begins to ask a series of questions.  Questions he already knows the answer to, but seems to want the answer to echo in the ears and heart of the one being forced to answer.

v.14-15  “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? (THEY CAN’T)  And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?  (THEY CAN’T)  And how are they to hear without someone preaching?  (THEY CAN’T)  15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent?  (THEY CAN’T)  As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”

I have seen ugly and calloused African feet worn from bush trails and scarred from thorns.  From God’s perspective many of these feet are beautiful.  Why?  It’s the feet that carry the man who preaches the Gospel.  The feet are the vehicle that takes the messenger to “the unreached.”

We flew over the Sudan border with questionable entry permits issued by a warlord from the Southern People’s Liberation Army.  With documents in hand and boxes of Bibles in the plane, we understood our mission was risky and under pending evacuation if troop movement was detected near our outpost.  Our flight originated from Nairobi (where my family lived at that time) to Lokichokio, the northernmost Kenyan town bordering Sudan and Ethiopia.  Our initial flight was canceled.  The delay on the hot tarmac felt like hours until we could hitch a ride on the “cowboy express” (a small supply flight in which the pilots were not “typically” entrusted with “human” cargo).  We spent the evening in “Loki” allowing our bodies to adjust to the oppressive heat of this arid region.  Josiah and I took this time to pray and prepare for the mission ahead.

That afternoon we attended a U.N. security briefing which was required of all foreigners entering Sudan’s civil war.  We were given GPS coordinates for the nearest air strip in case our village was overrun, and we were told to keep enough food and water on our person to live at least three days in the bush until we could be found and evacuated.  We were also instructed to remain near a compound that had a bomb shelter.  Since the Khartoum government considered us sympathizers with the SPLA and criminals for bringing Bibles into the country we had to be prepared for the fallout.

Early next morning the heat waves were already dancing on the runway.  Within an hour after takeoff we were over the Sudd – one of the largest swamps in the world (formed by the White Nile River).  We made six different landings in the upper Nile region delivering supplies.  We refueled by rolling drums of fuel from under a thatch roofed storage shed.  On two of the landings we almost crashed due to the notorious high winds of February.  As we recovered from our first near crash two things happened almost simultaneously.  First, as we were sideways looking down we saw the wreckage of another small prop plane (not encouraging!), and second, the air in our plane became thick with the stench of fear.  The spike in body heat fogged up the windows.  The second attempt brought us down hard on the strip of earth erroneously called a “runway.”  We dropped off the items for that village and took off under great duress.  After reaching our destination the plane, under strict UN guidelines, had to quickly refuel and immediately head back to Kenya.  There waiting for us at the village was a large gathering of Sudanese who had walked several days to receive Bible training.

We had to gather under the village tree to be properly received by the village elders.  Introductions and speeches were made.  This culminated in a ceremony that we approached carefully.  While a Sudanese man cut the throat of a young calf each visitor had to jump over the dying animal making sure both feet were in the air.  This symbolized that we had come in peace.  Hmmm… a sacrificial animal, blood, and peace.  I asked no questions for conscience sake, and thought this might even be helpful as we opened the Scriptures later that day when we would begin our study of the Person and Work of Jesus Christ.  I have never taught a group so eager to learn God’s Word.  The students almost blocked the door forbidding me to leave after several hours of instruction.  They feared I would not return.  Which is quite humorous considering the plane had left, there wasn’t even a bicycle nearby, and I was hundreds of miles away from anything that resembled a road.

The frailty of life and the daily stress of war seemed to escalate this people’s desire to know more about God, His Word, and His Son Jesus Christ.  On the fourth day our students were almost abducted into the SPLA until we convinced the soldiers that these men were Bible training students.  We quickly made name tags and pinned or tied them on their shirts. We prayed.  God answered our prayer and not one student was taken.

As I was preaching through Hebrews explaining the “once for all sacrifice” of Christ a man sitting on my left towards the back raised his hand and asked, “Does that mean we no longer have to sacrifice our animals for sin?”  I turned back to the Scriptures and explained why the answer to his question was a resounding “yes.”  (Remember the cow that was killed, the blood spilt on the ground, and the peace it represented?).  The man stared intently at me and smiled.  His countenance indicated he understood – that he believed.  He smiled with joy at the reception of this truth.  Remember Romans chapter 10? “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (v.17).  Jesus still saves!

Taking the Gospel into Satanic strongholds invites resistance.  Not only were we in the middle of a civil war, but there was direct Satanic opposition in the form of distraction and confusion.  A man from a village three days away walked to disrupt our gathering.  He said there were men from his village under my instruction that did not have his permission to attend.  The students did not let him enter our “tukol” (thatched roof hut).  Two days later he asked to join the class as he has been listening to the teachings and would like to know more.

One of the reasons why unreached people remain unreached is that the work that remains is difficult, there is famine, they live in war zones, the fashion of the day is wearing a turban and the custom is observing Ramadan, and they speak different languages.  You will not reach the “unreached” simply by teaching in nice classrooms in the middle of urban centers.  As disciples of Jesus we must remember, embrace, and commit ourselves again to His unchanging commission to the unreached – a difficult and risky work, but one that Christ will reward personally.

[This article was originally posted on www.stephenhafler.wordpress.com on April 3, 2012.]