by Joy Crichton
It was another warm Sunday morning in Florida. My husband, our four children, and I had traveled from Ohio to present our African church planting mission to the gathered saints. The church buildings and grounds were beautiful and the people listened with excitement about our ministry to the Third World. Yet, at the close of the service the minister shook our hands and said, “I’m sorry but we can’t support your church planting endeavors because we are focusing all our funds on building up this church.” It left us speechless. We didn’t expect support from every church we visited, but this minister’s candor revealed a near-sighted view of the church’s mandate.
It was a sight impairment shared by Peter, the apostle to the Jews, as well. After hearing Christ’s teaching of salvation to all nations it still took a heavenly vision before Peter could turn his back on his Jewish traditions, make the trip to the house of Cornelius the Gentile, and embrace the ethnic diversity of the Lord’s church.
A New Look at the Nations
Up to this point Peter, like the minister from Florida, lacked a biblical worldview—a worldview that calls us to facilitate the entrance of all nations into the commonwealth of Christ. It was a stretch for Peter to accept Gentiles. They ate food no good Jew would even touch. They didn’t dress like the Jews, they spoke different languages, and many of them worshipped false gods. Gorden Keddie suggests that when we struggle with our brothers over traditions, preferences, and ways of culture we are “making enemies of each other while professing the same Prince of Peace.” Peter made this same mistake.
When he saw the sheet full of animals descend from Heaven and heard the voice say, “Rise and eat,” he refused. Although Jesus taught his disciples it isn’t what enters the lips that defiles a man, Peter chose to follow the tradition set down by his Jewish ancestors.
And worse yet, it took Heaven three tries to convince Peter not to call anything unclean that God has made clean. Yet when the truth got through to Peter he became painfully aware of the serious error of rejecting others based on cultural, economic, gender, or social criteria. “If God gave them the same gift as he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ,” Peter told the Jews about Cornelius’ Gentile band, “who was I to think that I could oppose God!”
A New Glimpse of God
So what made the difference in Peter’s spiritual eyesight? He got a new glimpse of God—the God whose myriad traits work in splendid unity pictured in diverse ethnic customs coming together and worshiping as one church. On the rooftop Peter understood that God is not a respecter of persons. He doesn’t play favorites based on natural birth. He loves Jew and Gentile, men and women, the poor and the rich, the slave and the free citizen all the same.
The words of the apostle Paul ring in our ears as we consider Peter and Cornelius: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all” (Ephesians 4:4-6) “It’s Christ,” Paul shouts through the pages of the New Testament. “Christ opens our eyes to the world.”
In bringing people from every nation into the church, God gives us another glimpse of himself—one of diversity in unity. God is holy, merciful, just, compassionate, loving, jealous, transcendent, and personal. The list of his attributes cannot be contained in the world’s libraries, yet God’s myriad and varied traits work in a splendid unity. This astounding mystery is mirrored in the mystery of the universal church. Diverse ethnic customs come together when God’s people worship as one body. It is a harmony Philip Ryken describes that “voices the same ‘sentiments’ about God, the same prayers, the same praise brought about by shared grace.”
A New Way of Doing Things
This vision of God became a monocle that enabled Peter to focus on the non-Jewish world and changed the way he did things. Up to this point, aside from the beatings and imprisonments of course, his messages came easy, taking the familiar path of shared Jewish heritage to Christ. However, this alien Gentile audience came with different world experiences. He’d have to try to understand the way they thought and lived and processed facts.
He began by tailoring his message to meet the specific needs of his non-Jewish listeners. He addressed their concern about their lack of Jewish heritage and recounted the teaching and miracles of Jesus. As an eyewitness he verified Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection and invited them to partake of his extravagant forgiveness. In the end, the challenge of bringing Christ to a non-Jewish audience stretched Peter and enhanced his grasp of the gospel.
A New Priority of Investment
Later there would be more challenges as many came into one. The infant church would find it necessary to study each other’s lands and history and invest hours of prayer for their new family’s peace, unity, and deliverance from persecution. At times their sacrifice would be financial and some would have to visit far-flung congregations to teach and encourage.
In The Communion of the Saints (P & R Publishing, 2001), Philip Ryken suggests ways we too can facilitate the joining of the nations into the one church. Most of us won’t go to foreign lands, but as our world gets smaller we find the nations at our doorstep. Representatives of the nations are taking up residence in our cities giving us the opportunity to see the one church in its diverse ethnicities in our own church bodies. This allows us to witness Jesus’ prediction of people coming “from the east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:29).
Even if we don’t have pockets of ethnic groups in our communities, D. A. Carson suggests we “link up with churches grounded in other ethnicities.” Participation in world missions accomplishes this. Investment in church planters around the globe and their church plants enables us to learn more about our brothers and sisters in other lands. It may be necessary to visit sister churches abroad to aid in training up new believers and church leaders—or maybe to help out with building projects and outreach. In this way we share in their joy and they share in ours.
Our first few months in South Africa were difficult. The people spoke a variety of languages we didn’t understand—some guttural, some fierce, one punctuated with a popping sound from the back of the throat. Even the English speakers spoke with thick accents that confused us. And the terms were all different. Babies wore nappies and sucked on dummies, cars ran on petrol, children ate sweets. Pies were tarts, bathrooms were toilets, and napkins were serviettes. We drove on the other side of road. The streets were lined with open markets and taxi ranks. Houses hid behind six-foot-high walls covered with razor wire.
We were out of place in this land—until the Lord’s Day. With uncertainty we joined a group of about 100 people hailing from various African nations, India, America, and England. They were men and women, bankers and domestics, adults and children. Yet once the music started and we joined our voices in praise to our God, we were home. These strangers were brothers and sisters united to us by the work of our elder brother, Jesus Christ. Though different in most ways our plight and its solution unified us. We were all guilty before God and Christ was our only hope. “This spectacular diversity,” D. A. Carson asserts, “is something that wonderfully emphasizes the unity.”
If the modern church is to develop a biblical worldview we will have to strap on bifocals, so to speak. As we focus our view on the faraway world and its need for Christ, it energizes us as a local body to engage in the expansion of the kingdom. In the long run the more efficient we become with the gospel to the nations, the more efficient we will be with the gospel to our local communities. Our journey will only begin as we, like Peter, become enthralled with our many faceted God and his reflection in many nationalities worshiping as one. It will inspire us to develop efficient means of delivering the gospel and caring for the church universal.
Joy Crichton is a freelance writer in Johnston, Rhode Island.
Finding Focus on Mission Trips
Many U. S. churches organize trips to visit sister churches abroad in order to learn more about what they are doing, work with them, and encourage them.
If you are able to go on such a trip, consider having your family or group read through the following book series as part of your journey. The devotions plus journaling pages are designed as three books to:
• prepare you before you go;
• challenge you during your trip;
• solidify your experiences after you return.
The Mission Trip Devotions & Journal series:
Called, Challenged, and Changed
by Lena Wood
The Mission Trip Devotions & Journal series:
Anticipate, Experience, and Reflect
by Christ In Youth
Find out more: www.standardpub.com