Publication: Pastoral Letter, March 2002
Dear Friend in Christ:
Who chooses who will be saved? Or who will be filled with the Holy Spirit? These are very relevant questions for us here today. Let me tell you a quick true story: It was 1964, and I had just received the baptism in the Holy Spirit. A few days later, the close friend who had prayed for me to be filled with the Spirit, sat with me over lunch.
“I have a confession to make,” he said.
“What is it?” I asked.
“I do not like to admit this, but you were about the last person that I thought would ever receive this experience.”
I laughed. I understood his doubts. I was a fundamentalist, but I was also a carnal one at that. I said, “Praise God!” “Why?” he asked. I replied, “Praise God you were not the one doing the picking!” We both laughed.
The truth is we all get surprised at whom God uses and whom He blesses. In fact, our pre-judgements often get in the way of our usefulness. Thankfully, God’s ways are higher than our ways.
THE SACRED SECRET
The apostle Paul reveals a profound mystery in the book of Ephesians. It is a mystery that remained hidden for centuries, but was revealed nearly 2,000 years ago to the apostles. It is this: God will bring all nations under the headship of Jesus Christ, into one Body, and through that Body reveal His manifold wisdom to heavenly authorities.
My purpose here is not to discuss those heavenly beings, but to discuss the effect of that mystery upon the Church, upon our mission, and upon our attitude. The spiritual, cultural, economic, and political ramifications of the sacred secret are unimaginable. It affects the totality of humanity.
Some will respond that this is idealistic, far-fetched, and even foolish. I must remind us all that these statements found in Ephesians, chapters 1-3, were not made by some idealistic prognosticator, or some modern day evangelist who was caught up in a moment of emotion. Those statements were made by one who claimed divine inspiration, who labored his entire life in the furtherance of those prophetic words, and whose efforts_in the power of the Holy Spirit_changed the course of nations.
When the apostle Paul made these statements, there were but a few believers and the nations conducted their affairs in darkness. Few even would care what he said. But now, as I write this letter to you 2,000 years later, hundreds of millions of people have turned to Christ and believe that what Paul wrote is inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Even today, Paul’s statement must profoundly affect how followers of Jesus view the world, how we view other religions, how we view non-religious people, and how we view the future. Here is a very important case in point: Islam.
Paul begins his disclosure of the sacred secret in Ephesians, chapter one, by praying that our eyes will be opened to “know the hope of God’s calling and the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints” (holy ones). Paul prays that we will know the greatness of His power revealed in the resurrection of Christ from the dead, and in the fact that Christ is seated at the Father’s right hand_far above all rule, power, and authority.
Paul reminds us that the same power that raised Jesus from the dead will accomplish God’s purpose in the Church and fill all things with Himself. Then Paul reminds us of other things. For example, we who are Gentiles (part of non-Jewish people groups) were once dead in our sins. We were also bound by evil forces, living after our own lusts, separated from Christ and the covenants of promise, without God or hope.
In order to have faith for what God said He would do in the future, we need to remember what He did in our past. A visit to nations yet unclaimed would remind us of His redemption of us. Once all nations walked in darkness. The Taliban of Afghanistan might be a typical representation of governments that once ruled many nations.
The Apostle interrupts his description of our former condition with the welcomed words, “But now.” Jesus’ entry into human history, His death on the cross, Resurrection, and reign have made a dramatic difference. We who were once far off, have now been made a part of His covenant, His commonwealth, and are heirs with all who have received Him. Out of our vast diversity we have become one in Him.
I have heard countless testimonies from those who once hated, but now love; who once promoted strife, but now know peace; and who once were separated, but now are joined. It is this unity of life that reveals the wisdom of God to a sorely divided world.
Paul’s “now” was nearly 2,000 years ago. Only a few thousand enjoyed the benefits of the Gospel then. Yet they believed in the power of the Gospel for all nations.
Our “now” is 2,000 years later, and hundreds of millions enjoy the direct benefits of the Gospel. And millions more are blessed indirectly. Most of the world has been blessed by the atoning work of Christ.
The apostle Paul understood the mystery. He wanted the Gentiles (people groups) of his day to understand it. But he also saw his life as a stewardship of this sacred secret: All nations would one day become part of Christ’s Kingdom and His Body. Paul’s life was about letting everyone in on the secret. He saw the future when it was yet far off, and embraced it with all that he had. He wasn’t merely wishing or hoping; he believed it with every bone in his body. Paul saw every people group as a future part of Christ’s Kingdom. The other apostles saw this future as well (see Matthew 28:18-20).
“Apostle” means “sent forth one.” The apostles were sent to the nations and people groups of the world. The apostolic faith is that the nations will come to Christ’s Kingdom through faith in Him.
The implications of their eschatology (their view of the end times) are voluminous; I want to address just a few of them.
We need to see the sacred secret more clearly if we are to address our world successfully. God’s purpose goes beyond personal salvation. He loves the entire world and Jesus’ death was for the redemption of all creation. I am not a universalist in the sense that all will be saved. But the Gospel will address all nations and there will be redeemed people from all groups. His truth will keep marching on.
Our fellowship in Christ is a fellowship of the mystery of His redeeming work in all nations. We have seen that our fellowship must transcend the structural and cultural barriers, even among believers, if we are going to fulfill His mission. Our divisions are scandalous. It will take more than timid ecumenical dialogue, based on lowest common denominators, to see true sharing of Christ among ourselves and the unredeemed.
If we can see Jesus as Lord of history, we can believe that He is Lord of the future. I do not believe that a catastrophe is God’s will. It is a testimony to our blindness. But I do believe that the Lord has regularly allowed catastrophe to open our eyes to a better, more useful future. He has woven man’s own foolishness into His wisdom and purpose.
And what are the implications toward Islam? I have believed for many years that the Gospel moves westward with the sun. “From the rising of the sun to the going down of the same, our Lord’s name is to be praised.” That doesn’t simply mean all day long, but the Gospel moves toward the setting sun. Paul was called westward.
History has witnessed the Gospel’s move through Europe, the Americas, and through Asia and portions of Africa. Islam is next. While September 11, 2001, like December 7, 1941, is “a day that will live in infamy,” those are also days that will forever change how we view another part of the world. The Middle East and other Muslim-dominated areas are “front and center.” We certainly will look at these areas.
How should we who are followers of Jesus look to the Middle East? Recognizing my own fallibility let me suggest some ways:
- Remember, God does the choosing, and He has chosen all nations.
- Remember, God loves the world, and the Middle East is part of His plan.
- Remember, He is not willing that any should perish.
We cannot presuppose or stereotype. Yes, there is evil to be addressed there, as it is to be addressed everywhere. While we are dealing with groups, we are also dealing with individuals, and no generalities hold true in all cases.
Those who have had the most success among Muslims are those who open their hearts with the love of Christ. We are being tested in this regard, as Peter was tested when he was called to share the Gospel with a Roman Centurion.
Peter, Paul, Thomas, and countless other individuals were unlikely candidates for God’s grace, and most of us were too. It is not by the will of man that redemption comes–it is by the will of God and through the sufferings of Christ. And, it is the Lord who has declared that through Him all nations will hear the Gospel_and from among them will come a new assembly, revealing His manifold wisdom. We need His wisdom now. And, perhaps through our suffering, the Gospel will be spread.
Scripture Reference: Ephesians, Matthew