“Therefore I glory in Christ Jesus in my service to God. I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done—“ Romans 15:17,18
Is it a just a trait of Western culture or human nature in general? I know that media from magazines to mega-movies present us with the opportunity of locating a hero and a villain and derive satisfaction from their scripted victory. It has always amazed me to think that in 1939 twenty million Americans became avid readers of the Superman comic strip as he tugged their heartstrings in the assumed and interwoven causes of “truth, justice, and the American way.” The fictional role has endured for nearly eighty years.
But let’s not stop there. There are much more tangible examples of the heroes who attract an unhealthy level of devotion and loyalty from us. In Australia, they tend to be sporting personalities with fan sites, blog pages, and social media accounts that alert us to their latest thought and latest exciting event. The consumption rate of this information confirms the widespread nature of the disease. We are puny and ordinary, and they are the towering figures that command adulation. Somehow, their success translates into at least a portion of our own, even from our lounge chair.
The world of Christian discipleship has its equivalent. In a day when we can download audio and video from just about notable Christian leaders around the world, we find ourselves telling their stories and repeating their insights. We are capable of recounting their exploits with hushed adulation. It is the same disease.
Now this is not a life coaching site, and I am not a motivational guru. I am referring to is the crying need for us to celebrate our own stories rather than living vicariously off the stories of others. We need to be doing our own digging in the Word and getting our own revelation, not listening to yet another series by whoever happens to be in vogue. It used to annoy me that people would wake up at 5:00 am to ingest endless episodes of Joyce Meyer on TV and then show up to church late on the 1.5 times per month they deigned to grace us mere mortals with their presence. In the meantime, mostly, they were doing little or nothing to serve the kingdom of God anywhere in their real world.
All of these may be considered as extremes. My point here is to highlight a capacity in all of us to become overly dependent on what others accomplish as a substitute. We need to be taking personal responsibility and to be generating our own story from our own relationship with Jesus and in partnership with others. I am not suggesting for a moment that we should not listen to other people or hear their stories. I am just making the point that those stories and the insights that they provide for us ought to inspire us to trust the Lord, do the work. It is the earnest assumption of the gospel message. John writes about this in his first letter,
As for you, see that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father. And this is what he promised us—eternal life. I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray. As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit—just as it has taught you, remain in him. (First John 2)
Sadly, churches do the same thing when they keep inviting amazing itinerant ministries to frequent their pulpits. The ministries come and often amazing things happen. But it is not equipping. There is no accountability to see whether anyone did anything or whether anything changed. It would be better if the speaker came three times in two years and trained ten or twenty people who learned to do whatever it was they could do. Then the itinerant person could come back and see how they were going. He or she could model, assist, watch and then leave. The result at the end of two years would be better on every count. Those twenty could then equip another twenty or forty. The whole church could be equipped. Just ponder the different dynamic and you will see the different potential outcomes. Once again, there is nothing evil about visiting speakers. We all need inspiration. A problem exists when we only get inspiration and nothing more. It entertains the crowd but doesn’t do much to fulfill the ‘NoPlaceLeft’ vision.
Paul provides us with yet another marker to tell whether we are on the trail that will make a “NoPlaceLeft” vision possible. It is a path exclusively for practitioners. Paul wasn’t sitting in a pastor’s study every day. He was walking thousands of kilometres, getting kicked out of synagogues, but all the time, looking for the next place to preach the gospel, make disciples and form churches. In other words, his lifestyle was consistent with his goal and his goal was apparent from his lifestyle.
At the end of these fifteen years and the gospel had been ‘fully proclaimed’ to the Jerusalem-to-Illyricum sector, Paul had visited more than fifty cities. He had planted missional church sending bases in approximately twenty different regional cities. He was systematic, and Holy Spirit led at the same time. The ‘system’ was shaped by the work of fulfilling the Great Commission. The ‘Holy-Spirit-led’ part is wonderfully described in Acts 16. After Paul and Silas visit the Galatian churches, they tried to preach the gospel in three different provinces but were prevented each time by the Holy Spirit. That unexpected journey eventually led them to a small prayer gathering outside of Philippi and marked the start of a new phase of ministry in Macedonia and then, Greece.
When we have finished eulogizing Paul’s incredible missionary commitment and accomplishments we must remember that he was also a regular human person who opened his eyes when he woke up and closed them when he went to sleep, just like you and me. I say this because we need to understand that the outcomes of Paul’s life and ministry resulted from a deep and passionate sense of responsibility he took for doing what Jesus had said. It was all the more critical when we consider that there was strong opposition from the apostles themselves. Think of the relationship atmosphere. At one time Paul is killing and jailing Christians and not much later he is challenging them about not doing what Jesus had told them.
As for those who were held in high esteem —whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism —they added nothing to my message. On the contrary, they recognized that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised. (Galatians 2)
My question is, “How could Peter justify the idea of being ‘called’ to limit his preaching ministry to the Jews?” He heard what Jesus had said on numerous occasions. Jesus was re-stating God’s commission to Abraham: “..in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12). He said that the gospel was to be preached to ‘every person,’ and disciples made of ‘all nations,’ and that they would be witnesses to the ‘ends of the earth.’ We know from Acts 11 that initial gospel preaching was only to Jews. It was some amazing men from Cyprus and Cyrene who broke that mold. It is probable that these missionaries implemented ministry in Antioch because they had done so in their native regions but the church in Antioch was the first multi-ethnic church about which we have specific details. Barnabas probably went looking for Saul so that he could assist him in Antioch because Saul had been preaching to Gentiles from the beginning.
Paul received his revelation of the gospel separately to the other apostles. Galatians makes that clear. His story rolled out as we read about it in Acts only because he took personal responsibility for implementing what Jesus had told him without the cultural compromise that was evident in the Jerusalem apostles. He did so despite the intimidation of conservatives from Jerusalem.
We know he was willing to confront Peter in Antioch over the issue of Jews and Gentiles sharing meals together in their homes. At the same time, he was not running a rebellion based on what Jesus had revealed to him. If he followed the pattern of many leaders in more recent years, he would have caused a church split, moved church down the road and railed against the people who disagreed with him. His commitment to Jerusalem, the leaders and the church there was as uncompromising as his commitment to preaching to the Gentiles. It is a definite word in season for all of us.
Here are some statements that reveal the true nature of this responsibility:
“I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish.” (Romans 1)
“For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel” (First Corinthians 9)
“So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven. First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and then to the Gentiles, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and demonstrate their repentance by their deeds” (Acts 26).
I deplore what I see so often and am ashamed of it when I discover it in my own experience. God speaks a word. Someone hears what God says. They begin to travel down the road marked out by that revelation until one or more of the following things happen: hardship, lack of money, opposition from people who matter, people leaving, the need to radically change, family pressures, etc. and etc. They somehow conclude that God no longer wants to do what he said at first. They find a way of rationalizing their situation and find ways of justifying their different intention. It is always a sad story and it often produces a sorry outcome.
The NoPlaceLeft vision requires a long term, undaunted sense of personal responsibility. The thousands of churches and millions of individual believers who come and go without carrying a shred of responsibility for the condition of lost people are the product of church leaders who have pioneered that compromise ahead of them. Just think of what is going on in your own city or region right now. If most churches keep doing what they are currently doing there will be little to no impact on ‘lostness.’ The great commission will remain unfulfilled. Think of all of the sermons that will be preached, leadership meetings that will be attended, Bible studies and prayer meetings held that will have no connection with changing the status of lost-ness let alone complete the task. It just isn’t there.
I know how powerful this compromise is. I have been as much a representative of lost people within the church and as much committed to preaching the gospel as most other people in my sphere, but I can live with an uneasy contentedness for longer than I like to admit without doing anything to challenge lost-ness.
In the text from Romans 15 and the other references, Paul is just testifying to a sense of responsibility that comes from the inside out. It wasn’t dependent on anyone else or anything else. The motive force was coming from inside of him. So, ‘NoPlaceLeft’ was going to happen, somehow regardless of circumstances and personnel. When the sense of responsibility comes from the inside, it works a bit like a disease. It starts infecting others who are close enough to the carrier. This happened with Paul everywhere he went. The numbers of people we read about in almost every letter he wrote and especially here in Romans are proof of it. My experience in churches is that others will test out your convictions and will challenge your personal sense of responsibility but if you pass those tests you will influence others – not your words, but your lifestyle. And the flip-side of that is this piece of advice: if you don’t have this inner compulsion, then make a decision to hang about with someone who does or a group of people who do. I don’t mean talkers. There are plenty of those. I mean practitioners. They may do things that embarrass you and you may feel uneasy at times, but if they have an inner conviction that looks and sounds like a ‘NoPlaceLeft’ commitment, then hang in with the hanging out. You’ll get what they’ve got from the same place as they got it – I mean Jesus and I mean Holy Spirit heart change.
NoPlaceLeft will not happen unless individual followers of Jesus gain a sense of personal conviction that emerges as a sense of responsibility greater than personal fears, rationalizations, circumstances, opinions and outright opposition. Paul had it. His fellow workers had it and we who live in the ‘uttermost parts of the earth’ honour their decisions and applaud their costly investment.