My wife Kari and I have lived and served in South Asia since 2000. We’ve been privileged to see many expressions of the Kingdom of God, the multiplication of churches among many unreached people groups. You realize the Finishing The Task effort brings us together to celebrate 20 years since Amsterdam 2000. Hundreds of leaders from missions organizations, various church and denominational backgrounds, gathered in Amsterdam to celebrate the fruit of the Lausanne Congress and the AD 2000 Movement. But ultimately to seek to discern how far we’ve been able to come in the Great Commission pursuit over 2000 years of Great Commission history.
At that same meeting it was recognized that many thousands of the world’s people groups remained unengaged with the gospel. Of course, that’s unacceptable. It gives birth to the vision that we might finish the task of reaching every people group – every nation, tribe, people and language that will ultimately be represented before the throne of God – that within our generation we might see them engaged with the gospel. As my wife and I have been privileged to see churches multiply around South Asia, we also have become aware of not just unreached peoples but also the unengaged. Even in some cases hidden in our very neighborhoods.
Over the two decades since Amsterdam 2000, Finishing The Task and other efforts like FTT have been primary catalysts in the engagement of more than 2,500 people groups for the first time in Great Commission history. I want you to think about that with me. Two decades of time, in the context of 2,000 years of Great Commission history. If my math serves me correctly, that’s 1% of Great Commission history. These last two decades, the decades of the FTT movement from the year 2000 till today, represent 1% (20 of 2,000 years) of Great Commission history. What we celebrate today is the fruit of efforts like FTT over those 20 years: almost a hundred people groups, on average, engaged for the first time since the tower of Babel. Having opportunity to know about the Messiah who has given a sacrifice for their sins.
We have much to celebrate. We are living in a Kairos generation: approximately 20% of the world’s people groups engaged for the first time in 1% of Great Commission history. We’ve often taught that engagement is in some ways like the starting pistol at the beginning of a race. If engagement is like the starting pistol of a race, we recognize that we steward the laps of the race that must be completed. That’s what we’re here to talk about today.
The point of this session is to ask of the Scripture: “What are the critical components? What are the laps of the race after engagement?” We want to see not only churches established among peoples, indigenous expressions of the Kingdom of God in local contexts and local cultures all over the world. We want to also see those churches reproducing, owning the task, owning the Great Commission effort in the midst of every people group and place. We want to see churches give birth to churches, that generations of churches might multiply, as we anticipate a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language gathered around the throne. We’re in the midst of an enormous task: all the peoples of the planet! Even in the midst of a Kairos generation where so many have been engaged for the first time, we would be deceiving ourselves if we thought our plans, our strategies, and our abilities were sufficient. Not one of us can assume to be the answer. Not one of us can assume we have in our minds, our thoughts, even our plans, a strategy sufficient to finish the task. Ultimately, we have no choice. Praise God, we have no choice but to run to his word and ask the word of God: “How do we run the race that has begun?”
Would you join me for some Bible study? When we consider fidelity to the doctrine of the New Testament, we often use the term “orthodoxy.” What we mean is that we draw our doctrine directly from the word of God, from the first things of New Testament teaching. In the same way, when we consider mission, it’s important that we pursue orthopraxy. Especially in the pioneer context where we’re crossing cultures or barriers for the sake of engaging new peoples and places for the first time. We have no better place to go for orthopraxy than the pages of the New Testament. For that reason, as we sit down together, I want to ask you to open your Bible to the book actually titled “Praxeis.” You might know it by its English name: the book of Acts.
As you open your Bible to Acts 13, where we’ll read together, we remember that across the book of Acts, Luke continues to follow those concentric circles of expansion and Kingdom impact outlined in Acts 1:8. Our Savior, on the day he ascended to heaven, instructed his followers to remain in Jerusalem to await the promised Holy Spirit. For when he comes, Jesus said, “You will receive power and you will be my witnesses first of all in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and even to the ends of the earth.”
As we read through the first half of the book of Acts, we begin to see the Jerusalem phase of ministry, then the Judea and Samaria fields engaged through evangelists like Philip and Peter. Then we come to Acts 13 and find the intentional sending of Barnabas and Saul from the Church of Antioch, establishing and solidifying the “ends of the earth” phase of mission among the ethne. Please read with me Acts 13. I’ll begin in verse one. “Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers,” and we have five names listed here. Verse two: “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ So after they had fasted and prayed they placed their hands on them and sent them off.” This is often termed the beginning of the first missionary journey of Paul. Of course we see that it wasn’t only Paul but rather Barnabas and Saul, his name before the first journey here. They were identified based on the calling, the setting apart, by the Holy Spirit of God.
There are several reasons we would turn to this passage and consider it a matter of orthopraxy in the sending of missionaries. For one, in this passage, Luke gives us the first time we see intentional sending. That originated from this Antioch church. The church then gathered its leaders in the midst of prayer and fasting, a posture of abiding. They were able to hear the Spirit’s voice and respond by releasing those sent ones into the work of mission. Perhaps more than any other reason we would highlight this passage, is the simple fact that this is one of the few places in all the Bible where the third person of the Trinity is quoted. This is that Spirit that was hovering over the waters in Genesis 1 as an agent of creation, when God said, “Let there be light.” The same Spirit who, according to 1st Peter, picked up and carried Old Testament prophets, who would give to us by inspiration the very words of God. This Holy Spirit is often silent; it’s rare that we can quote the Holy Spirit.
This passage is unique in that for the first time in all of Scripture, including post-Pentecost, we have the Holy Spirit of God speaking, being quoted an instruction to the church. What is that instruction? “Set apart for me these two: Barnabas and Saul, for the work to which I have called them.” Luke is introducing a section of Scripture here, with the quotation from the Holy Spirit of God. We realize the Holy Spirit initiated this Spirit-empowered mission, and he will be seen directing the steps of these missionaries at every turn throughout their missionary journey. But we see this same section of Scripture come to a conclusion in Acts 14. Would you turn one page with me in your Bible?
In Acts 14:26, the work initiated by the Holy Spirit is here again mentioned by Luke. Acts 14:26 says “From Attalia they (Barnabas and Saul, now called Paul) sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now fulfilled, completed, accomplished.” Luke is using a literary device here. It’s called an inclusio. It amounts to a set of brackets around a passage of Scripture. In this case, the brackets are the work. Acts 13:2 quotes the Holy Spirit saying, “Set apart Barnabas and Saul for the work which I’ve called them”. In Acts 14:23, Luke concludes the section with the second bracket. They returned to where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now fulfilled, completed, accomplished. By putting brackets around this first missionary journey, Luke is telling us to read these two chapters as a textual unit, to read them together.
If we were missionaries sent out to engage the ethne, the peoples at the ends of the earth in our generation, and we wanted to pursue orthopraxy (to have fidelity to the first practices of mission, most especially in the pioneer context – the ends of the earth where we might be sent), it would be natural, in fact maybe necessary, that we revisit the book called Praxeis and find ourselves here in the center of the book of Acts: looking at a textual unit designed around the work of mission. It seems appropriate then, if our desire is to finish the task, the work the Lord has a assigned, that we would come to such a passage and simply ask the question: “What was the work that Paul and Barnabas put their hand to?” Secondly, “How could the work they put their hand to be described as ‘fulfilled, completed, accomplished’?” Evidently, the work they had done had been done with integrity.
Now this passage is not new to any of us. Some of us have read this same first missionary journey hundreds of times. What’s interesting as we consider the work that Barnabas and Saul, (soon to be called Paul) were commissioned and sent to do, is that once again it was initiated, empowered, directed by the Holy Spirit. We see these two sent ones, these two apostles, in Acts 14:14. These sent ones are pioneering in otherwise unreached and unengaged provinces and cities. Pioneering – the itinerant ministry of Barnabas and Paul across these two chapters – leads them to encounter not only language barriers like that in Lystra (the Laconia language), but also all sorts of pagan idolatry. In several cases, as in the transition from the Jewish synagogue (as we’ll see in Pisidian Antioch), we see a turning consistent with Paul’s statements of calling to the ethne. We see them pioneering in and across the whole of the island of Cyprus coming to Paphos. We see Sergius Paulus the proconsul hearing the word of the Lord and coming to faith. Then other challenges later in Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, Derbe.
As they pioneer among these peoples and places over and over again, we hear on their lips the “word of the Lord,” “the word of the Lord,” “the word of the Lord.” It’s actually written nine times in two chapters that the word of the Lord is preached by the sent ones – the missionaries. They cared as they pioneered for sowing the seed of the gospel witness. In Acts 13, Luke commits no less than 25 verses to a single sermon in Pisidian Antioch. As Paul and Barnabas went about preaching, that gospel was not received everywhere. In fact, as we look at the end of chapter 13 (verse 46), the Jewish audience in the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch actually find themselves jealous of the response to the gospel. Verse 46 says, “Then Paul and Barnabas answered those who opposed them boldly: ‘We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you rejected and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the ethne. For this is what the Lord has commanded us.,” Quoting the Prophet Isaiah, Paul says, “I have made you a light to the ethne that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.” Verse 48: “When the ethne heard this they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; all who were appointed to eternal life believed.” Verse 49: “This same word of the Lord spread through the whole region.”
So we don’t just see the pioneering missionaries engaging the field (in this case Pisidian Antioch), preaching the word of the Lord among the ethne. We see those same ethne, those who had been appointed to eternal life, immediately turning to the Lord. We see them across the whole region, carrying on and joining the same work of seed sowing. This is an important transition. In the first missionary journey, before the end of chapter 13, in verse 52, we see the word “disciples.” There in Pisidian Antioch, the disciples were filled with joy, and with this same Holy Spirit, so that where the gospel was preached, where the seed had been sown, we see new life emerging in the field, in the form of disciples. Before the end of the journey, in chapter 14, the word disciple will come up three additional times. In the Galatian cities of Iconium, Lystra and Derbe, even in Lystra where Paul had been stoned presumably to death, and his body dragged outside the city, the new believers gathered around him. The disciples gathered, and when they had prayed, Paul got up and went back into the city. It’s disciples in Derbe, Lystra, and Iconium, who are instructed by Barnabas and Paul that “through many hardships we must enter the kingdom of God.” Paul and Barnabas not only pioneered, not only preached the Gospel message, they also nurtured the new growth in the form of disciples in each of those cities, even returning to cities where they had been persecuted. (In Paul’s case even stoned presumably to death for the sake of encouraging this new growth.)
If you have your Bibles open, look at Acts 14:23. On the return trip, revisiting all those same cities where they had sown the word of the Lord, where disciples had been made, we see that Paul and Barnabas go about appointing elders in all the churches. Evidently, they cared enough about church formation that they were willing to revisit and recognize local shepherds, local elder-overseers emerging from the harvest who could be appointed there to shepherd and steward the new flock. This missionary task, this first journey, described by Luke as “the work,” has these various components. The task of mission for us, to finish the task, requires that we pioneer. This task that begins with engagement. But realize, as sure as engagement is the starting pistol, we also need to run the laps of the race. Where we engage empty fields, we do so for the sake of gospel seed sowing. Where the gospel is sown, it is normal, natural – even partnership with the Holy Spirit of God – to follow up, to nurture the new growth in the form of disciple making. That’s where the harvest is gathered, so churches can be formed.
Leaders might emerge not only to shepherd the flock locally, but (as in Acts 16:1 where we see Timothy emerging from this same church in Lystra) also that they might join us in pioneering and gospel seed sowing in the next empty field. Do you recognize this pattern? The work of mission in the book of Acts? It’s not just tied to the first journey. What is introduced here – the bookends of the work in the first journey – we see repeated in the second and in the third. We see them also taken up as stewardship among the churches left behind, as Paul and Barnabas (later Paul and Silas, including Timothy) continued toward a Macedonian call. Toward the Corinthian founding in the Achaean province, toward the founding of the Ephesian church in the province called Asia.
In each case, through the ringing of the gospel, through disciple making and churches that plant churches, we see evidence of multiplication. We see evidence of resources coming from the harvest that lead to the harvest. I believe each component of this this pattern is essential. Where we are finishing the task of starting, the race is being run. Where we have engaged empty fields, we put our hand to the task of gospel seed sowing, disciple making, church formation and leadership reproduction that can carry on the process.
Let us seek to steward well our life, our days, even according to Psalm 90: asking the Lord to teach us to number our days, that he might establish the work of our hands. The task, the task, the task. Seeing it finished, seeing the Lord’s return, remains our highest priority. To be found doing his work when he comes, is to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” according to Matthew 25. Consider the task he has called us to finish: mobilizing believers in our churches, our denomination, our sending organization. In each case, whoever that audience may be, it’s simply a matter of asking the questions, answering the questions, “Who do I share with? Who do I engage with the Gospel?” FTT stands ready to help you answer that question. As you discern a target, as you find your calling to the ethne, even perhaps to the ends of the earth, a second question arises: “What do I say? How do we go about carrying the integrity of the word of the Lord among those who haven’t heard?” A third question is, “What do I do if they say yes ? How do we go about making disciples?” If you can answer that question in the hearts and minds of your disciples, they can be mobilized to go and make disciples also.” A fourth question: “How do we form the Church? Beyond our preference, our cultural expectations, or even denominational traditions, what does the word of God have to say about the bride of Christ? How do we form them?” If we answer that question from the word of God, we might see our disciples even as church planters in the midst of pioneer fields. Finally, “How can we reproduce leaders who could go and do all of these same things: engage empty fields, sow the seed of the gospel with integrity, follow up in order to make disciples among those who say yes, form churches out of that harvest, then from the harvest raise up everything needed for the harvest, even raise up leaders who will go out again and multiply. This is the critical path to the multitude from every nation, tribe, people and language.
The vast multitude described in Revelation 7 does require that we multiply at some point. Are you willing to give these same tasks to your disciples? Are you willing to see them released and sent out even among the ethne, the peoples of the world? Maybe the prior question: are you hearing the voice of the Spirit of God who continues to call out and to send laborers?
To finish the task is to be found on mission. To finish the task is to send missionaries. “How shall they call on the one of whom they have not heard?” Romans 10 continues, “How shall they hear unless someone preach to them? How shall they preach unless they be sent?” To the local churches, to the denomination structures that might be listening in, the economy of the Kingdom of God begins with sending. And we are in the midst of a Kairos generation.
A hundred years ago, a missionary hero of mine named J. O. Fraser, worked among the Lisu people in southwest China. He said this about missionary work:
On the human side, evangelistic work on the mission field is like a man going about in a dark damp valley with a lighted match in his hand seeking to ignite anything ignitable. But things are damp through and through and will not burn however much he tries. In other cases, God’s wind and sunshine have prepared beforehand, the valley is dry in places and when the lighted match is applied, here a shrub, there a tree, here a few sticks, there a heap of leaves. They take fire and they give light in warmth long after the kindled match and its bearer have passed on. This is what God wants to see. Little patches of fire burning all over the world.
Thanks to the Finish The Task effort, in two decades of this generation, there literally have been a thousand fires started all over the world. 20% of the world’s people groups engaged in the last 1% of Great Commission history. If engagement is like a starting pistol, if engagement is like entering an empty field, the laps of the race of the race must still be run: the gospel seed sowing, the disciple making, and the church formation. To use Fraser’s metaphor, like wood being put onto a small fire.
As we move forward to engage the unengaged and run the race of church planting among them, be sure of this, brothers and sisters: those thousand fires that have been lit by organizations, efforts like FTT, all those fires are burning toward each other. Recognize with me that the inferno is upon us: the work of the Kingdom of God in our generation. Why couldn’t we be the generation that finishes the task? FTT stands ready not only to cast vision, not only to help you identify a people, but to equip and to train. To see you mobilize your church, your denomination, even your missions organization, so that gospel seed sowing might lead to discipleship and church formation. That from the fruit of those churches, we might see an ever-increasing multiplied labor force joining us in the task of mission.
Let me pray. Lord God, by the Spirit, by your initiation, by your power, by your direction, Lord God as you led in the first century, we know, we trust, you’re at work in this generation. Do the work of calling. Do the work of sending among so many brothers and sisters who would respond to your call Lord God. Show yourself powerful. Show yourself mighty, show your wisdom among us. Lord God, where your word dwells in our heart, may we never run beyond your Spirit but in step with what you’re doing. Lord God, may we be found about your business until the task is finished. We love you and praise you. In Jesus’ name, Amen. God bless you.