THE ‘WHERE CHRIST IS NOT KNOWN’ DEFAULT
It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation. Rather, as it is written: “Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand.” (Romans 15:20)
This part of the ‘NoPlaceLeft’ toolkit is as profound as it is unnatural. Some of the people who make comments about this reference in Romans think that Paul was such an independent operator that he wasn’t capable of working with others. They assume that the phrase, “so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation” is a statement of pride or arrogance. There is no genuine evidence to support this.
We know that Paul’s was writing to the Romans for a very particular reason. He planned to go to Spain. Spain was a region where the gospel had not yet been preached. This decision was based on one of Paul’s longstanding principles. It was his default and it is sadly not one that many Christian groups seem to follow. Think of the spheres around you – your neighbourhood, workplace, suburb or your extended family. Think of the commandment of Jesus to the disciples that they were to “go” and preach the gospel to “every person.” It is clear that the idea of focusing attention, resources and action on places and individuals who have not heard the gospel is not a priority at all.
The evidence from the four gospel records shows that Jesus operated with a ‘NoPlaceLeft’ strategy. The following references establish this pattern at least for Galilee.
Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. (Matthew 9:35)
But he said, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also because that is why I was sent.” (Luke 4:43)
After this, Jesus travelled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, (Luke 8:1)
Add to that the fact that he visited the regions of Gadara, Samaria, Syro-Phoenicia, Caesarea-Philippi and probably Mt. Hermon and most of the region is covered. Historians have established that there were approximately 178 towns and villages in all. It appears that these were deliberately visited at least once and possibly more than once from his home base in Caesarea.
Paul’s ‘NoPlaceLeft’ principle is also evident from the record. There is much more going on than the more well-known missionary journeys that took him from Antioch to the provinces of Asia Minor, Macedonia and Achaea. Eckhardt Schnabel’s mammoth research identifies missionary ministry in Syria, Arabia and his home province of Cilicia before his association with the church in Antioch.
The account described at the beginning of Acts 16 is instructive on this matter. After visiting the churches in Galatia, Paul and Silas and their companions seek to implement the “where-Christ-is-not-known” default.
Paul and his companions travelled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. During the night, Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. (Acts 16)
It seems that they went to six different places to preach the gospel but were prevented by the Holy Spirit from doing so on each occasion. When we take into account, the distances involved and the fact that they were walking everywhere, it is just astounding. What God had in mind was a visit to a ladies prayer meeting in Philippi and the start of church planting in Macedonia and Achaia. All of those areas saw the gospel proclaimed in the years following but the incident shows the way Word of God intention and Holy Spirit tactics worked together. It was the Great Commission that started the team in those directions. It was the Holy Spirit who enabled them to fine-tune the operation. It is also an example of servants of Jesus going in obedience as a foundation to discovering the whole of the plan as a result of that obedience. I can hear people asking why a spiritual giant like Paul could have wasted so much time going to the wrong places. My response would be to suggest that those who raise such issues are probably better at idealistic theory than practice. I’m sure every practitioner would have one or more Acts 16 stories in their timeline. The point to notice is the simple, godly principle: the next place to go is where there are people closest to you who have never heard the gospel.
It goes against human nature to be attracted to the least known more strongly than the most known. If you stand back and watch what happens when people from a church community meet together on a Sunday morning, you will find that just about everyone will gravitate towards the few people they know well and with whom they have already formed friendships. It is common for people to visit a different church and find that no one talks to them – except perhaps the person who is rostered on to greet people. This is so ungodly. It is similar concerning ethnic differences. If I am visiting a foreign country and I ask for assistance from two people – and if one of those people happens to be from my ethnic background, I will have an innate tendency to trust the person who is ‘like me’ more than the person from a different race. There is no logic to it. It is what happens to us when we live separately from God.
God is not like this and we are not created for this. It was the nature of God to want to dwell in the midst of separated and dysfunctional humanity. When Jesus entered Jericho with crowds lining the roads to watch him, it is possible that the person furthest from God in that crowd was the one perched in a tree – perhaps for security reasons as well as to be able to see. That Jesus spoke to him and reached out to him was not the result of an unusual decision to be generous. It was his nature. The gospel records are replete with stories of the way Jesus defaulted toward lostness. We only have to know Jesus a little bit and this kind of behaviour becomes entirely predictable. The story from Luke 19 concludes with these words, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” I challenge you to live a single ordinary day based on this principle and you will get a sense of how far from the narrow way we have strayed. We would much prefer to seek out “already found” people and spend our time with them.
When Paul met Jesus, his Gentile-hating heart began to be transformed. He actually spent the rest of his life championing a cause to see them transfer their citizenship from the kingdom of Satan to the kingdom of God. Just try to imagine what you would be like if this was your normal way of thinking and acting.
Or, suppose you are in a room with twenty people in it. Five of them are known to you and fifteen are not known. Five are fellow believers and fifteen are non-believers. Then think about arriving home and being asked about the meeting. A typical response might sound like this, “Oh I hardly knew anyone there and most of the people were non-Christians. But, thanks be to God, there were four other Christians there so I was able to spend the whole evening talking with them about Christian things.” A less common but possible response might go like this, “Well there were a few Christians there that I knew but, thanks be to God I had the opportunity to meet some people I had not known before and who had never heard of Jesus. I was able to connect with them and share gospel ministry with them. What a great opportunity and a wonderful time!” It may sound a bit corny, but my point is that we need to deal with our ungodly default. I know there are fears and risks, but Jesus showed the best way to overcome all fear – by learning to exercise faith for a predisposition toward lost people.
It is possible that our self-centred culture and its traditions have infiltrated the church to the point where we have substituted a kind of safety and comfort default. We choose a few good friends in the church or we discover a few other Christian people in our workplace and form a cozy little tribal group that consumes all of our social energies and we make it sound like a godly virtue. When we read about Jesus totally identifying with humanity and living for thirty years in Nazareth without once indicating that he was God, we just admire it from a distance. We don’t get its message. We don’t consider that we should become incarnate to a group of people who are lost from God and live among them and learn to understand them so that we can effectively and lovingly minister the gospel of the kingdom to them. Rarely would we see this a something mainstream. Mostly we just see it is too hard and therefore invent ways of avoiding the idea let alone the practice.
Paul was not like that, nor were his fellow-workers and nor were the disciples they made in the churches they planted. They could plant a church in the centre of a region and know that the region would be saturated with gospel proclamation. Paul’s hunger to be like Jesus meant that his preference was to be with people who had never heard the gospel. It became the common experience. One of the reasons why we never hear the New Testament apostles writing to churches imploring them to abundantly share the gospel was probably because it was one of the things that they DID DO, even though they had problems with other issues – as we read in the letters.
One of the terms used to describe churches in recent years is the term, “great commission church.” It presumes that there are ‘normal’ mainstream churches that are not urgently fulfilling the command of Christ to preach the gospel and make disciples. Then there are a few churches that are nicknamed “great commission churches” because they intend to see the great commission fulfilled in their areas and beyond in their contemporary generation. Such churches and the followers of Jesus in them have to “deny themselves, take up their cross” to follow Jesus. It is a hard task. When was the last time you heard someone crying out in a prayer meeting for the lost people in their community spheres? When was the last time you went to a church leaders’ meeting where the agenda was all about how to fulfil the great commission?
I would love you to make this a diary item for your life for the next three months. Start reading the many passages in the Old and New Testaments that exemplify the heart of God to reach his lost children. Just get a hold of the parade of the prodigal son for a start and begin to ask God how the heart of the father in that story could be reproduced in your own heart. Then get a few other desperadoes to join you in this magnificent obsession. Just make a start in the Holy Spirit university course, “Where Christ is not Known 1.01”. Make a list of the people in your spheres who don’t know Jesus and begin to pray for them and then plonk yourself in their world enough times with the intention of making the gospel known to them in some way. May such an experiment become a life-long passion.
The only way a ‘NoPlaceLeft’ vision will be fulfilled is when enough believers in a given area make it their weekly goal to make a difference to the degree of lostness in that area. It will take a group of people to do it because it will be the only way there will be enough encouragement and faith to carry the day against the remiss of the church as a whole and the barriers put up by our culture and its traditions. Just think for a moment. Our culture has been so effective in disempowering the idea of rescuing lost people with the message of the gospel that it is considered culturally inappropriate, not just by the community but often by the church as well. Let’s make a commitment to see God change that status quo. We can start by deliberately focusing our attention on the next person who has never known the amazing love of Jesus.
 Early Christian Mission (2 Volume Set) – IVP, 2004