The Lord's Day Morning
February 18, 2007
Missions Conference 2007
Together, For the Gospel
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Philippians, chapter one. The verse that the Missions Conference Committee has chosen to base our Missions Conference Week theme upon is Philippians 1:27, specifically the phrase in which Paul calls us to “stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel.” And I'm delighted that our Missions Conference Committee has chosen this particular verse and this particular theme, for a variety of reasons.
For one, it stresses the importance of our unity in this work. The Apostle Paul is clearly concerned in this passage about our being united together, all of God's people in the congregation working towards the great end. And very frankly, that has been a prayer of the elders, and of our Missions team, and of our Missions Conference Committee for a number of years: that our whole congregation would together be united in the work of the gospel in missions.
Now this is so because for over forty years this congregation has had a core, a growing core, of people who really have been bitten by the “missions bug.” They have a commitment to missions. They pray for missions, they give to missions, they’re involved in the support of missions in a variety of ways, and they care greatly about the work of spreading the gospel around the world. But what we would like the whole congregation to be characterized by is that same commitment to missions that is expressed often in a subgroup of our congregation that is very, very committed to the work of global missions. And so being united together in this great work of the gospel and the spreading of that gospel, and the making disciples from every tribe and tongue and people and nation–men and women and boys and girls from around the world–unity in that work is something that I care about, that our elders care about, that our Missions team cares about, and that this large core of folk in our congregation have a great heart for. So I'm appreciative of Paul's emphasis on that.
But the second thing I love about this passage is the way that Paul emphasizes the hard work of missions. I'm going to address that later. We often use the idea of “praying, giving, and going” as the specific things that you are exhorted to do as congregation members in the support of missions and your involvement in missions. In fact, the final song that we’ll sing today…if you’ll look at the last stanza of it, it pretty much outlines praying, giving, and going as one of our responses to God's gospel call to His own people to become involved in making disciples around the world. And those things are important. But it's interesting to me here how Paul will characterize gospel work as hard work. He’ll use military language — striving together for the faith of the gospel. And this is what this morning's sermon is going to be about.
As we look at Philippians 1:27 today, I want you to notice that we're going to look at the whole verse even though our theme is focusing on the second half of the verse, and I want you to be looking for three themes in this verse. Paul calls the Philippian Christians to understanding about the life that goes along with the gospel; to understand the unity that is necessary to do gospel work; and, to understand the endeavor that is required in the gospel work of missions. So I want you to be on the lookout for the life, and the unity, and the work that the Apostle Paul calls us to do in this passage.
Let's pray before we read God's word.
Lord, this is Your word. We ask that You would open our eyes to behold wonderful things in it, and that by Your Holy Spirit You would open our hearts to believe and act on it; and that You would make all of us to be missionaries, and all of us to have a missionary zeal for the making of disciples from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation, around this world, for Your glory. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
This is God's word:
“Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ; so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I may hear of you that you are standing form in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
We live in a time in which the nature of missions and the arena for missions is changing, and that change brings us a new opportunity even as we are called to a continuing obligation. I say it's a changing time because beginning at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century (the end of the 1700's and the beginning of the 1800's), when British and American churches began to send out in an organized fashion missionaries to other parts of the world where there were not numerous gospel churches…where the Bible was not available, where the gospel message itself was not readily accessible to the indigenous peoples of those parts of the world…beginning at that time, it was our conception that because in Britain and America there had been an extensive spread of the gospel, the establishment of many faithful Bible-believing churches that were preaching the Scriptures, preaching the gospel, preaching Christ…it was our conception that we were leaving “here” and we were going “somewhere else” to the mission field; that the mission field was “out there”…that we were on home turf here.
Well, one of the things that has been changing in the last fifty years is that “out there” has begun to come “here” so that the world is coming to us; so that right in our own back yard…the mission field that you used to have to travel 25,000 miles to get to is in your own back yard. It may be at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, or at Jackson State University, or in some of the graduate programs in the area. But what we're finding is that people who did not have contact with the gospel in their own culture or ready availability to Bible-believing churches are suddenly coming, and they’re right in our back yard.
But the other and more significant thing that is happening is that our own world, our own culture, our own nation, is shifting under our feet. Whereas when the missions movement began we could legitimately say that the gospel had permeated our culture to the point that the gospel was a significant influence on our nation, on our society, on our culture, on our communities, we live in a day and age where the gospel's influence on our nation is unfortunately receding, at least in some ways, to the point where some people are beginning to talk about us living in a post-Christian culture; so that we need to begin to think in terms of being missionaries to our own culture.
Now some Christians, observing this and looking at the staggering and sometimes discouraging statistics that one finds with regard to the loss of embrace of Christ and Christianity in our own culture – some Christians are arguing that means what we need to do is we need to pull our troops in, we need to quit concentrating on world missions and we need to work on being missionaries to our own back yard.
Now I want to suggest that that's well-meaning, but it's wrong. And I want to give an illustration from our own history about why it's wrong.
In the late 1600's, Christians in Northern Ireland, particularly Presbyterians, were under tremendous duress. Many churches did not have ministers, because the ministers were under persecution. Many ministers were in prison. During that time frame, the Presbyterian Church in Northern Ireland decided to send one of its finest, most promising young candidates for gospel ministry to America to do missionary work — to plant churches. His name was Francis Makemie.1 And Francis came to the United States, even though he was desperately needed by the Presbyterian churches of Northern Ireland. I have always thought that that was a signal example of the missionary experience. They could have made all sorts of justifications for keeping him for themselves. He was needed. He could have been very usefully employed for the gospel, but they had a vision for the gospel going to the Colonies. And it did — and in what a marvelous way.
Or think of the same way, when the Anglicans or the Baptists began to send missionaries to what we now call the global south, and 200 years later there are far more Christians there than there are here.
Now, that doesn't mean we ignore our own back yard! No, no! In fact, I'm going to argue today that the first thing that the Apostle Paul wants us to understand is that we must be missionaries in our own culture. It's not just that you’re going to pray for missionaries and give to missionaries (and some of you may consider being short-term missionaries yourselves): it's that all of us need to understand that we have a gospel responsibility to live the gospel and tell the truth, and share the gospel in our own culture as missionaries.
But in addition to that, we're going to have a vision (because Jesus said so in Matthew 28 and Acts 1)…we're going to have a vision of the gospel reaching not just to our “Jerusalem”, but to Judea and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth. Yes, our resources are stretched thin, but God says ‘Extend your supply line. Extend the battle front. Go to the very corners of the earth, and do both: be faithful missionaries here in your culture; reach around the world with the gospel.’ And the Apostle Paul is laying the lines of order for that down in this passage.
We often say as a part of our missionary exhortation that we want you to “pray, give, and go.” But I want to suggest to you that even before you get to praying, giving, and going, you need to understand what Paul is saying here. Paul says ‘Live…be united…and endeavor for the gospel.’ And it's “praying, giving, and going” that comes under the “endeavoring” part of his three-part command. So there are two parts that come before you even get to “praying, giving, and going.” It's living and being united in this common mission of the gospel: then, you endeavor, you strive, you exert yourself, for the faith of the gospel. That involves praying, giving, and going. So let's think about what Paul is calling us to in this passage as he exhorts us to living and uniting and endeavoring for the gospel. Look at the life, the unity, and the work that he calls us to.
I. Live up the gospel.
First of all, the life. Look at the very first phrase of Philippians 1:27:
“Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ….”
There Paul is calling on believers to have a life that fits the gospel. He is exhorting us to live out the gospel in our lives, to live up to the gospel in our lives. And in this passage he wants the motivation of the Philippians to be not that he's going to come check on them, but that the gospel has transformed them and that they long to live out the gospel. Have you ever, young folks, had your mother say to you, “Now I'm coming up to your room in one hour, and I'm going to see if that room is clean. And if that room is not clean, you’re not playing with your friends this afternoon. Understand me?” And the motivation is very clear: clean my room, because Mom is coming to check; and, I'm not going to get to play unless I clean my room.
Well, the Apostle Paul is saying to the Philippians ‘That is not the motivation that I want you to have for missions. That is not the motivation I want you to have for gospel work. I do not want you to think ‘Oh, no. Paul's going to come check on us, so we've got to be together in the work of the gospel.’’ No, he says ‘Look, whether I get to see you or not, I want you to be about the work of the gospel; and so that you’re about the work of the gospel, you need to be living a life which fits the gospel.’ The Apostle Paul is saying live in such a way that you are a credit to the message of Christ.
My friends, that is absolutely vital. We can pray and give and go on short-term mission trips and develop relationships with missionaries, and our efforts at the work of the gospel will be crippled if our congregation as a whole is not living lives that are a credit to the gospel, lives that befit the gospel, lives that go along with the gospel, lives that flow forth from the transformation of our hearts by the gospel. For Christians, all of our lives (individually) and all of our lives (collectively) are to fit the gospel. They are to bear witness to it, they are to adorn it, they are to show it forth. Paul is calling us to gospel lives, and that means whether you’re at recess or whether you’re out on Friday and Saturday nights with your friends, or whether you’re going through rush at university, or whether you’re alone working on your computer, or whether you’re talking with your friends over a cup of coffee and the conversation could turn to gossip, or whether you’re placing certain priorities in your life about vocation and you’re trying to measure what your obligations are to the work of the church in relation to your vocation, or whatever else you’re doing, your life is to be showing forth the gospel. Your life is to befit the gospel. And if our lives do not fit the gospel, are not coordinate with the gospel, then our gospel work and our missions work will be compromised. So the very first thing that Paul calls us to is a life that fits the gospel.
And by the way, living that life will be impossible unless the gospel is a consuming passion and joy for you. We sang a few moments ago “I love to tell the story…” and I would not dare to take a show of hands as to how many of us really believe that when it comes to sharing the gospel with an unbelieving friend, relative or neighbor…that we love to talk about the gospel with unbelievers. But we won't be able to live the gospel life unless the gospel itself is a consuming passion and joy for us, unless we really do love the gospel — because we did not deserve grace, and God gave it to us in Jesus Christ and welcomed us into His family and made us to be His own children, and forgave our sin and gave us a tremendous privilege of working together in His great mission in this world. No, it will be impossible to live the gospel life unless the gospel itself is a consuming passion and joy.
II. Stand firm in one spirit.
But here's the second thing I want you to see, and you see it in the very next phrase in verse 27: “…Standing firm in one spirit.” Here's the unity Paul is talking about. He's talking about a unity that fits the gospel. If our life is supposed to fit the gospel, so also is our unity. He's saying ‘Philippian Christians, I want you to have a unity of heart and soul and spirit. I want you to be united, singular in vision. I want you to have one heart and affection.’ The Apostle Paul is reminding us here that in our gospel work in the work of missions our unity is essential.
Imagine that none of our great public universities in the state have booster clubs supporting athletics. And suppose it fell upon you to organize an athletic support system that would enable the athletic programs of one of those universities to succeed, to do better. And suppose at the very first meeting — you've gathered these folks who were going to be supporters of the athletic program, and somebody stood up and said, “You know, I'm actually a whole lot more interested in opera. Why are we giving all this money to coaches when we could be buying opera tickets to the Seattle Opera and the Chicago Lyric?” My friends, you would have a big problem with that athletic booster club, because you wouldn't have a unity of purpose! You've got one guy over there who wants to do opera through the athletic booster club.
And then suppose somebody else comes along and says, “You know, actually I've always pulled for Alabama.” You’d have a huge problem, because you don't have a unity of purpose! And the Apostle Paul knows that in any organization, but especially the church, if there is not a unity of purpose, there is trouble down the road! And so he says ‘I want you to be standing firm in one spirit.’
And I want you to see, my friends, how especially glorifying this is, because in the church when you can have African-Americans and white Americans who love the same Lord Jesus Christ, love the same gospel, working together towards the mission of the church…we can have Syrian, and Lebanese and Jewish Christians working together for the sake of the gospel…where you can have Korean and Japanese Christians working together for the sake of the gospel, it glorifies God when He brings together these diversities of people into one church for one mission. It bears witness to the truth of the gospel, and so the Apostle Paul is emphasizing here how important it is that we have a unity of heart and soul and spirit, but he's also emphasizing the truth that the Christian life can't be lived alone, and Christian mission can't be accomplished alone. It doesn't matter. We could have five or ten people with a burning zeal for missions in our church; we could have five or ten people with a burning zeal to share the gospel in our church, and that would not cut it! Because we all need one another, the Apostle Paul says in this. He says to the Philippians, not ‘Look, when I come back I'm really hoping that about five percent of you are on fire for the work of the gospel.’ That's not what he says. He says ‘I want you to be united together, every single one of you, standing firm, of one spirit, singular in vision, one in heart and affection, focused on the work of the gospel.’ He's wanting to see a unity that flows out of the gospel. If the gospel causes Jew and Greek and slave and free and male and female to be one in Christ, to the glory of the Father, the mission of the church should express that; and Paul wants to see the church united in its mission; and so, he wants to see a unity that flows out of the gospel, that is fitting for the gospel, that is focused on the gospel. And that means, my friends, that our personal indifference to the gospel's work is not inconsequential.
You know, if I am a member of this congregation and missions is ‘That's just not my thing. Gospel work is just not my thing. Missions is not my thing’…that is not inconsequential for the whole work of the whole congregation in the work of the gospel, because gospel unity — the unity of the whole body — is necessary in order for the gospel work to accomplish what it's intended to do. That's not just because your faithfulness may well be a motivation to me, or to one another; it's because God has not intended us to grow and work in the Christian life alone. And any diminution of the vision of the whole congregation working together, even if it's 95 percent or 80 percent or 75 percent of the congregation working together…so that five percent, or twenty percent, or 25 percent of the congregation isn't participating…any diminution of the whole congregation working together has consequences for the gospel work as a whole. There is a real sense in which your life, your priorities, your commitments strategically influence the whole — for good or for ill.
And so the Apostle Paul wants us to have a unity that befits the gospel as we do the work of missions together.
III. Work together for the gospel.
But finally, notice what he says at the very end of Philippians 1:27: “…With one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel….” Here he is talking about a gospel goal that unites our endeavor. He's talking about hard work. He even uses the term striving, and that word striving can bring a lot of things to mind. When my dog was a little bit younger, you didn't walk her; she walked you. I mean, you put the leash on and you had the collar, but she drug you around the neighborhood! And that picture of striving is something that is akin to what the Apostle Paul is talking about here — just can't wait to get at it! And he's talking about our exertion for gospel work. He's saying that our gospel work, our missions work, requires a self-conscious, deliberate exertion. We've got to work together for the gospel.
But he's not only reminding us of the exertion that we have to put forth for the sake of the gospel, he is talking about the unity that there ought to be in this exertion – that together we ought to be exerting ourselves for the gospel.
Many of you know that the largest non-Catholic denomination in the United States of America is that family of churches that gathers once year, called The Southern Baptist Convention. There are some sixteen million or so of them in the United States, and they've been involved in missions work around the world. Quiz: What was the historic cause of the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention? It was gathering together to support the missionary work of Adoniram Judson2 in 1814. A group of people came together. Get this name: The General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States of America for Foreign Missions; Better Known as the Baptist Board of Foreign Missions, or the Triennial Convention. No wonder they call it the Southern Baptist Convention now! But what got them together? Missions. And what did they do together? They exerted themselves, together, for the gospel.
We could tell the same story all across the board of the world missions movement as it was organized out of Protestant churches from, say, around the 1780's through the 1820's. We could tell the story of the Presbyterians or the Anglicans. What did they do? They banded together in order to send missionaries all around the world, because this work requires collective, corporate work. It is too big for any of us. And that's the beauty of it, isn't it? Because we have to work together, because the objective is so staggeringly large…staggeringly large. What? Around six billion people or so on the planet? Of that six billion, roughly two billion of them Christian. That's four billion people to tell about Christ. No one Christian, no matter how great…no one church, no matter how faithful…could possibly match that challenge. But together, collectively, corporately, striving together we take the gospel to the ends of the earth.
That's what you’re going to be exhorted to this week. That's what Paul is calling you to do: to live a life that fits the gospel; to express a unity that displays the gospel, that matches the gospel, that flows out of the gospel, that is focused on one gospel goal: glorifying God and enjoying Him forever, as we make disciples of all nations. And we do it with hard work together. “Together for the gospel” — that's a good motto for us. May God make it a reality.
Heavenly Father, what we sing in a few moments — make us to mean it in a radically transforming way, by Your Spirit. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
[Congregational Hymn: O Zion, Haste]
As you strive together for the faith of the gospel, seeking to make disciples of all the nations, remember all authority has been given to Jesus, in whose name this benediction is pronounced: Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.