December 5, 2011

Brethren, Pray for us...

We spent a good bit of time, this past Sunday, on 2 Thessalonians 3:1. Paul (the missionary) wrote to Thessalonica (the supporting church) as follows: “Brethren, pray for us that the word of the Lord will spread rapidly and be glorified, just as it did also with you.” What a great text to motivate us to pray for our own missionaries! We unpacked much of what Paul said during the course of the sermon. But allow me, in the lines that follow, to point out one more missionary prayer lesson that I did not mention on Sunday.

Namely, I want you to notice that Paul asked two things concerning the advance of “the word of the Lord” – both that it would “spread rapidly” and that it would “be glorified.” Those are two quite unique requests. On the one hand, Paul wants to see people saved and churches planted in swift succession. After all, the time is short, and people are dying without Jesus. So Paul prays that the word of God would “spread rapidly.” But, on the other hand, he prays that it will “be glorified” as it spreads – i.e. that the message of Jesus will not be trivialized, or watered down, or abridged, or handled carelessly. No! “The word of the Lord” is a treasure! And it must be treated as such; it must “be glorified.”

So Paul wants the best of both worlds – the rapid spread of a deep, profound, glorious gospel! That is not an easy balance to strike. Indeed, my hunch is that almost every missionary leans toward one side of the ledger or the other.

Some missionaries are rightly eager to see the word of God “spread rapidly.” They desire to plant churches as quickly as possible, and to raise up local, indigenous leaders ASAP. And, of course, this is a biblical desire. It’s what Paul himself wanted. But, without the balance for which Paul pleads in 2 Thessalonians 3:1, that rapidity can sometimes lead to a lack of caution and/or discernment. Corners can be cut in order to make Christianity ‘more palatable’. Certain pillars of Christian belief and practice may not be driven as deeply into the ground as they ought, because the missionary is keen to hurry on to the next church plant or village. And leaders can be put in place who are not yet ready to lead – perhaps either theologically, or morally. In other words, it is possible for the word of God to spread rapidly, but not to “be glorified” as it ought; for the gospel to advance quickly, but shallowly … leaving future generations of the newly planted churches to suffer the consequences. People may be saved in the short term, but the church turns to error and even heresy over the long haul because the foundations were not laid carefully enough. The word spread rapidly, but was not adequately glorified.

On the other hand, some missionaries lean quite in the other direction. They want the word of God to “be glorified” – to be carefully, fully, and systematically taught to the native people. They want to make sure they cross every ‘t’ and dot every ‘i,’ and not leave the people with a shallow understanding of the truth. And those are good instincts! After all, they are not merely planting the gospel for this generation, but for the next ten generations, if the Lord tarries. So they must take adequate time to get it right! But this concern to make sure the word of the Lord is carefully taught can become imbalanced if it leads to stagnation; if it prevents missionaries from the desire to see the word of the Lord spread rapidly; if it causes them to drag their feet and to assume that local people will never be able to lead their own churches; or if it causes them to be slow to plant new churches because they’re not sure if they’ll be able to get their theology down pat.

Incidentally, every potential imbalance I have pointed out is a danger, not only for foreign missionaries, but for local churches and pastors, too! So, if the shoe fits, you know what to do with it!

What our missionaries (and pastors, and churches) need is balance. We all need to have a great urgency and a desire to see the Lord’s work done as rapidly as possible … but, at the same time, a great care not to move so quickly that corners are cut and foundations laid hastily. And, O, what a difficult balance that must be to strike! That’s why Paul requests prayer … and why we ought to pray for our missionaries, precisely along these lines – “that the Lord of the Lord will spread rapidly and be glorified.” Will you join me in that prayer?

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