Then Samuel took a stone, and set it between Mizpeh and Shen, and called the name of it, Ebenezer, saying, Hitherto hath the Lord helped us.” – 1 Samuel 7:12
Whether it is the Vietnam War memorial in Washington DC, or the memorial of the Civil War in Arlington, VA, or even that of tombstones of our loved ones who have gone to glory, we human beings have a habit of using stones as memorials. Such was the case also with Samuel, who on the occasion of a wonderful victory given to them by Jehovah, set up a stone of thankful remembrance, calling it “Ebenezer,” and saying, “Hitherto hath the Lord helped us.”
So, with the passing of another year and at the start of a new one, I ask you as I ask myself, if we had a stone that marked the occasion, what would we engrave on it? Would we, with the same spirit of thankful remembrance, call it “Ebenezer,” and have the words, “Hitherto hath the Lord helped me” engraved on it?
It is important for us to remember that Samuel wasn’t thankful to God only for the joyful occasion of victory. It is easy for us to remember only the good and joyful events of our personal lives in the year gone by and thank God for them. But what about the unhappy events? Shall we forget that they ever took place, and thank God only for the good and joyful events? That would not do. Even saying that the Lord helped us through these unpleasant events and failing to thank God for them is not enough.
To be sure, in erecting that Ebenezer stone, Samuel gave thanks to God for both the good and the bad events that had taken place in the recent history and life of the Old Testament church. For let us not forget what led to the amazing victory God gained for them over the Philistines at Mizpeh. It all went back to the sad history of a crushing defeat at the hands of the Philistines at Aphek. At that time, the Israelites, led by the wicked sons of Eli, Phinehas and Hophni, had foolishly brought the ark of the covenant to the battlefield. They thought that by bringing the symbol of Jehovah’s presence out of the temple and into battle, God would be present on the battlefield and give them the victory. However, in so doing, they had sinned terribly against God. Not only was God angry with the desecration of temple worship at Shiloh by Phinehas and Hophni, but he was now also angry with the Israelites for putting their trust in the ark of God rather than in him, the God of the ark. As a result, God’s hand of chastisement was heavy. He caused the Israelites to suffer a heavy defeat to the Philistines. Thousands of them, including the two sons of Eli, were slain that day. The ark of the covenant was taken by the Philistines. And the priest Eli, on receiving news of the defeat and death of his sons, also died.
How was Samuel, and how are we going to thank God for bad events such as this? There is only one way. And that is the way of faith. A faith that embraces God’s astounding way of bringing us good through the bad, especially seen in the terrible suffering and death of his Son, our Savior, on the cross. A faith that embraces the promise of God that he works all things together for good to those who love him (cf. Romans 8:28). And therefore, a faith that embraces the fact that God is pleased to use the bad events of our lives for our good. In a word, we do not give thanks to God for the bad events in and of themselves, that is, in isolation. But we do so in light of the greater good that God accomplishes through it for us. When Samuel and the people of God saw the Ebenezer stone, they were not only to remember with thankfulness the amazing victory at Mizpeh but also the way they were led to that victory, begun by their terrible defeat at Aphek. For surely, by the time God had given them victory at Mizpeh, they had learned not to put their trust in their ungodly king, Saul. They had learned not to put their trust in the ark of the covenant, but rather in the God of the ark. They had learned not to remove the ark from the temple, which is where it belonged. They had learned these lessons and were sorry for their sins and failures. That’s how Samuel and God’s people gave thanks to God for both the good and the bad each time they saw the Ebenezer stone.
And that must also be our approach at the start of this New Year with regard to every single event—good or bad—that has taken place in our lives, in the past year and beyond. It is only in such a way that we will call our stone “Ebenezer,” and have the very same words etched on it. It is only in this way that it is not only a stone of thankful remembrance but also of joyful hope for the year ahead. That’s how we, the children of the living and true God, are to look back.
“Then said I, Woe is me! For I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.”
Such was the tremendous sense of the holiness of God that struck so deeply the soul of Isaiah that it caused him to cry out those Spirit-inspired words recorded in Isaiah 6:5. Something of that deep and abiding sense of the holiness of God is, I believe, what is needed in the soul of every young aspirant to the ministry.
Unlike a vast majority of the youth of our churches who are born and raised in God-fearing covenant homes and taught in our distinctively Reformed Christian Schools, I grew up outside of such a covenantal environment. Dear youth, what a rich heritage you have been given. Are you thankful for and making the most of it?
I was born in a suburb of the capital city of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, the younger of two sons, and my family moved to Singapore when I was four. Educated well in the secular education system there until age 18, I was a self-declared “free thinker” throughout my childhood and teen years. I had a great love for math and liked to read books by the philosopher Bertrand Russell, one favorite title being, Why I Am Not A Christian. However, little did I know that things were going to take a turn when I was awarded an overseas scholarship to study computer science and left the country in 1987 to pursue that course of education at the University of Illinois in Urbana Champaign. It was there, midway through my junior year in college and through a witness given by an on-campus International outreach Christian group (I would later discover that it was fundamentalist Baptist) that I was led to confess repentance from sin and faith in the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. After finishing my college education in Champaign, I moved to the University of Maryland in College Park and obtained my master’s degree in computer science. There I continued my association with an on-campus Christian group that was under the same organization as the one in Champaign.
As a young believer, though I enjoyed fellowship with these groups of believers, I was never entirely satisfied with some of the issues I faced at Bible Study. One issue that troubled me was that though I was taught that God loved everyone in the world and sent his only begotten Son Jesus Christ to die for everyone equally on the cross, yet God declares in his word in Romans 9 that “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.” Why would God hate Esau? What had Esau done for God to hate him? Such questions I asked remained unsatisfactorily answered by all my friends, Bible study leaders, and campus pastors, and would remain that way throughout my remaining stay in the US. I resolved in my heart to get to the bottom of this issue when I returned in Singapore in early 1992.
Through much personal time spent reading and studying various Christian books, the Lord led me to embrace the Reformed faith and then to join the First ERC in Singapore as member in 1995. It wasn’t too long after I joined First ERC that the Lord placed a holy desire, even burden, in my heart for the gospel ministry. While I am not able to identify concretely any one circumstance that led to this, I will say that over the course of my personal reading and studies, one thought I had within me was this: “How wonderfully rich and God-glorifying is God’s truth of salvation revealed in the Bible, summed and set forth in the Reformed Faith! God is God! Yet how few there were who faithfully taught and proclaimed the truth of this great and glorious God in all its fullness!”
This desire or burden in my heart was what Rev. J. Kortering, who was my pastor during that time, told me was an important aspect of the subjective call to the ministry. I personally felt God’s call in my heart. Now there was need to give evidence of its validity objectively. If God was truly calling me to the ministry, then he would also equip me with gifts for the ministry and have this demonstrated to others around me. If God was truly calling me to the ministry, he would also open the way for me to be called by his church. Who could have imagined, though, the path that our sovereign God would lead me through?
That long and winding road taken to demonstrating this objective side of my call began immediately with taking two years of pre-seminary Greek at a seminary in Singapore during a busy, busy time in my life when I was a young father to two young boys, working as a full-time computing professional, and serving in the church as a deacon. It continued with my family and me leaving for theological studies at the PR Seminary in 2001. It went through a very difficult and trying time for me and my family when I ended up being examined and sustaining that examination at Synod 2005. It eventually culminated in a call to the ministry I received and accepted in early 2006 from the congregation at Edgerton, MN, and which would lead to my ordination and installation there.
While that was a milestone towards the establishing of my personal call to the ministry, it was exactly that: a milestone, and not the end of the call to the ministry. That call that the Lord placed in me continues to be tried, proven, and deepened through doing all of the work of the ministry: preaching and pastoring his precious flock given me by God’s own hand to care for. Though I am finished with formal theological studies, the ministry continues to be a place not just for giving instruction, but also for learning and growing in the tasks given to me to perform and in my abilities—growing spiritually. What joy it is to behold God’s flock doing well spiritually, and when there is peace, unity, joy and growth in the midst of her! What joy it is to be involved in and to behold a church extension work so blessed by God that it becomes an instituted church! What joy it is to behold God’s people, so different from those of my upbringing but sharing the same faith, living out and enjoying their confession of their one and only comfort in life and in death, even under greatly trying circumstances! And what sorrow it is to see others mired in sin and rebellion, forsaking truth and godly admonition, and leaving their confession and the churches which so love and cherish God’s truth! It is deeply humbling and at the same time a holy delight to be used by God to minister to his church on earth!
Through it all, that deep sense of the holiness of God remains with me and affects me in all of my labors: in preparing sermons from week to week and going to the pulpit to preach them, in ministering to the sick, the afflicted, the dying and the grieving, in catechism instruction, in leading Bible societies, in giving pastoral counsel, etc.
Through it all, he who is truly continually called of God must also be like Isaiah who, when asked of the Lord, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” placed himself under him and stood ready to obey and do his will. That, to say the least, is not always easy. How we must be ready always and say with Isaiah, “Here am I; send me”! Would a gifted young man consider pursuing the ministry? Let a sense of the majestic holiness of God and his great glory be in his soul. Let humility and readiness to submit to and do his will so abide with and grow in him. Let him ever and always live in the great love of God in Christ Jesus, and in trust and dependence upon him, that he may be assured of God’s abiding care for him and his family wherever he is called to preach the gospel. And let him demonstrate his love for the flock by feeding her faithfully with the sincere milk of the word. The God who calls him puts him in remembrance of these things and will see to it that he does.
Ever hear of a preacher telling his congregation, “The Spirit said to me…”? Or people attending a worship service falling to the ground and rolling in “holy” laughter or talking gibberish and claiming that to be “speaking in tongues”? Or both preacher and congregation busily engaged in “faith healing”?
These are the kinds of scenes and happenings one would find in a church worship service influenced by the Pentecostal movement of the past century.
A reputed scholar from the Pentecostal movement itself, Vinson Synan, traces the immediate origin of the movement to what took place at a “tumble-down shack” in Los Angeles in 1906 on Azusa Street. The Los Angeles Times, of April 18, 1906, reported what took place there as follows:
Meetings are held in a tumble-down shack on Azusa Street, near San Pedro Street, and the devotees of the weird doctrine practice the most fanatical rites, preach the wildest theories and work themselves into a state of mad excitement in their peculiar zeal. Colored people and a sprinkling of whites compose the congregation, and night is made hideous in the neighborhood by the howlings of the worshippers, who spend hours swaying forth and back in a nerve-racking attitude of prayer and supplication. They claim to have the ‘gift of tongues’ and to be able to comprehend the babble. [quoted in VS, pp. 84-85].
This event on Azusa Street is “commonly regarded as the beginning of the modern Pentecostal movement… Directly or indirectly, practically all of the Pentecostal groups in existence can trace their lineage to the Azusa Mission.” [VS, p. 105].
And yet, even though the Pentecostal movement has its immediate origin in the past century, its roots go far back to movements of Pietism and Mysticism in church history. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church movement, whose theology was thoroughly Arminian and who emphasized subjective religious experience, has been identified as “the spiritual and intellectual father” of the Pentecostal movement.
What is the Pentecostal movement, or Pentecostalism, all about? Pentecostalism is a heretical movement that has arisen out of the Christian church in the past century. In response to spiritual deadness found in the mainline Christian denominations of the 19th century in the United States, Pentecostalism emphasizes “religious” feelings and emotions at its worship services by claiming that the signs, miracles and wonders of Pentecost recorded in the book of Acts at the time of the infant New Testament church are repeatable and for the church today. Accordingly, and over and above other earlier and related movements of Pietism and Mysticism, Pentecostalism maintains a well-defined and distinctive idea of a “baptism of the Holy Spirit” (BHS). A believer proves that he has the BHS if he is able to work a work that shows that he can and does speak in tongues, or display any other behavior that is supposedly a sign, miracle or wonder of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Once he has this BHS, he is reckoned to have a second experience of sanctification or holiness that identifies him to be a truly spiritual believer in the church, over and above those who do not have the BHS experience.
While the movement was first frowned upon in Christian circles in its earlier days, Pentecostalism took off in the 1960s and onwards. It resulted not only in the formation of new Christian denominations and churches, but also penetrated into virtually every mainline denomination, from the Roman Catholics to the Presbyterian and Reformed. This is because what unites the movement is not so much doctrine and teaching, but its emphasis on the subjective–“religious” feelings and experiences. Living in a time and age when biblical doctrines and the study of the Word of God are frowned upon and appreciation for the historic creeds of the church has waned, Pentecostalism has grown and thrived in the church world in recent decades and still today.
How do we, as Reformed believers who love the Word of God, give a witness to Pentecostals today? In general, and to begin with, we make the same point as the Reformer, John Calvin, did in his day to people who claim willy-nilly, the authority of the Holy Spirit for what they teach, i.e., “The Spirit told me this and that….” And it is impossible to argue against such a person! Moreover, we ought to be highly suspicious of any religious movement that does away with doctrinal differences and rather unites people with vastly different doctrines, as Pentecostalism does.
Specifically, and firstly, let us point out that just as the resurrection of Jesus Christ is not a repeatable event, so also, Pentecost is not a repeatable event. The signs, miracles and wonders of the Spirit were temporary and have all passed away. And that is because Pentecost was the exalted Christ’s gift of the Holy Spirit to his church, a gift given in rich and full measure. It was the fulfillment of God’s Old Testament promise to his people that the Holy Spirit, given no longer as the Holy Spirit, but more fully as the Spirit of Jesus Christ (John 7:37-39), will be given to the New Testament church (Joel 2:28-30, Acts 2:17-21, Acts 2:38-39). Pentecost has now come and gone, just as the Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus Christ, all one-time events. The apostolic period was a time of transition from the Old Testament (a church comprised mainly of Jews) to the New Testament church, which now includes mainly the Gentiles (Acts 8:5-24; 10:44-48; 11:15-18; 19:1-7). Once the New Testament church was established, Pentecost and all the signs, miracles and wonders connected with it came to an end. These signs, miracles and wonders came to an end with the end of the ministry of the apostles.
Secondly, let us point out that the Pentecostal teaching of the BHS is in error. To be sure, there is such a thing as a baptism with the Holy Spirit (Matt. 3:11). But this Christian baptism is not Pentecostalism’s second baptism and work, the BHS. And that is because there is only one Christian baptism, the baptism signified by the actual sacrament of sprinkling with water through an ordained minister of a church; and it is not limited only to a special class of Christians. Writing on the subject of the oneness of the church, the inspired apostle Paul in Ephesians 4:4-6 writes that there is “one body, and one Spirit…one Lord, one faith, one baptism….” Moreover, the Pentecostal teaching of the BHS divides the church into two classes of believers—ones who have performed a work that shows that they have the BHS and ones who haven’t, ones who are “super” Christians and ones who are not. How does such a teaching square with the gospel of grace (Eph. 2:8-9) and the oneness of the church of Jesus Christ?
Young People, are you looking for true joy and delight in your religious life? Look not for it out there in the world. Nor look for it in Pentecostal churches. Rather, cultivate your religious life by devoting yourself to growth in knowing God in Christ, and by being sanctified through his Word (John 17:3, 17). Let your joy and delight daily be a joy and delight of thankful and loving obedience unto God according to his Word, a joy and delight that are expressed by the Psalmist in Psalm 119:9-16:
Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? by taking heed thereto according to thy word. With my whole heart have I sought thee: O let me not wander from thy commandments. Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee. Blessed art thou, O Lord: teach me thy statutes. With my lips have I declared all the judgments of thy mouth. I have rejoiced in the way of thy testimonies, as much as in all riches. I will meditate in thy precepts, and have respect unto thy ways. I will delight myself in thy statutes: I will not forget thy word.
Let your joy and delight be found with God’s people and especially in God’s house on Sundays, where we glorify God, where we commune with God through his Word and by his Spirit, and where we find especially the spiritual renewal, nourishment and strengthening we need from week to week. Let the confession of our hearts and the fruit of our lips be that of the Psalmist in Psalm 27:4:
One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to enquire in his temple.
And let preachers of the church continue to love fervently their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, by feeding the flock of God (John 21:15-17) especially through their biblical, expository and lively preaching of the gospel at the church’s worship services, and by being examples to their flock of ones who find their joy and delight in walking humbly and obediently with God in their daily lives.
VS: Vinson Synan, The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition: Charismatic Movements In The Twentieth Century (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997 (Second Edition))
The subject I have been asked to speak on is God’s everlasting covenant and missions.
The way I am going to approach this subject is by way of the covenant promises of God. Just as God has made a covenant promise to believers that he will be friend to their children, grandchildren, etc. down the family line (Genesis 17:7), so also, God has a made a covenant promise in connection with the work of missions that he has clearly commissioned his New Testament church to perform (Matthew 28:18ff, Mark 16:15ff). And that covenant promise in connection with missions comes also from Genesis 17, and is from the verses 4 & 5:
As for me, behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations. Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee.
This covenant promise ought to be at the forefront of the minds of every consistory and evangelism committee, indeed every member of a Reformed church. For missions, just like catechism instruction given by the church in support of the parental religious training in the covenant, is a covenantal obligation and duty that God has given to the New Testament church in and through Jesus Christ.
The challenge for the New Testament church in our day is to be rightly concerned with both these covenant promises in Genesis 17, fulfilling its God-given covenantal obligations. The church of Jesus Christ in our day must pay attention to both these covenant promises and exert herself actively in being used as instruments by God to fulfill the obligations connected with both these covenant promises.
In this connection, one difficulty that churches face is that of one-sidedness. On the one hand, Baptist and Baptistic churches focus their attention on evangelism and missions at the expense of a solid catechetical instruction of their children. They err in treating their children as the object of missions instead of regarding them as part of the church and covenant of God (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 27, Q/A 74). Their focus is on the one covenant promise of Genesis 17:4 & 5 but not on the other of Genesis 17:7. We certainly must not take such an approach. But on the other hand, Reformed churches can also take the other extreme approach of focusing only on the one covenant promise of Genesis 17:7 and neglect the other of Genesis 17:4, 5. It is easy for a Reformed church to take a one-track approach to the covenant and be focused only on the covenantal duties and obligations connected with Genesis 17:7: catechism instruction and the covenantal education of our children. This other extreme is also something we do well to avoid.
In seeking a right approach towards both these covenant promises, we need to ask ourselves: what is the relationship between these two covenant promises? The answer, negatively, is that they are not in conflict with each other. And the answer, positively, is that they harmonize with each other. Specifically, the covenant promise of Genesis 17:4 & 5 builds on top of the covenant promise of Genesis 17:7. How do we know that? The Word of God sheds light on this matter.
God shows this to us in the Old Testament as he unfolded his covenant. God shows to us in the Old Testament how he remembered Genesis 17:4-5 in the Old Testament, even as he fulfilled the covenant promise of Genesis 17:7—the gathering of the church in the line of generations.
Clearly with Abraham in Genesis 17, God gave not only the promise of verse 7 to Abraham, but also the 2nd promise that he would be a “father of many nations.” In fact, God did that in an emphatic way. God changed his name from “Abram” to “Abraham,” which means exactly that, “father of many nations.” In doing so, God told Abraham, “You will be an international father. You will be a father of many in many nations. That’s what you will be.”
And that change of name for Abraham was not something that only Abraham remembered. The Old Testament church and all true descendants of Abraham also had and continues to have the meaning of his name and the change of his name by God recorded in the Old Testament Scriptures. While Israel would be a peculiar people and holy nation, somehow, some way and at some time in the future, their faithful covenant God would cause the other nations to be gathered into his church.
In fact, so important was this covenant promise to God, he would remind his people of this throughout Israel’s history in many other ways besides the name of Abraham. We take the time to point out a few of them. In the time of the Judges, didn’t God incorporate a non-Israelite—Moabitess Ruth into the nation Israel, in a significant way—so that through her would come king David? Significantly, the ancestral lineage of king David passing through Ruth is recorded in Ruth 4. In the time of king David, didn’t God make a covenant promise to David that through his loins would come forth a mighty king who would sit on his throne forever, a king of an everlasting and international kingdom (cf. 2 Samuel 7)? And what about the wonderful mission promise of Isaiah 66:18-19 later on in the time of Isaiah that Rev. Stewart treated before me? Then, of course, came the age of the New Testament and God showed that he never forgot that covenant promise of Genesis 17:4-5, did he? Before Jesus Christ ascended into heaven, he gave that one important mission command and instruction to the New Testament church, now popularly known as the Great Commission, as recorded in Mark 16:15-16:
And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.
So, God shows us the way with respect to a right relationship of both these covenant promises. God establishes his covenant by fulfilling his promise of Genesis 17:4-5. He does this by building on his fulfillment of his promise of Genesis 17:7. When the established New Testament church teaches you, its covenant seed, about the work of evangelism and missions and you grow to be a part of that work in your life in the church, the church is not only being obedient in one important aspect of the Great Commission of Jesus Christ. She is also following the pattern and way in which God himself establishes his covenant. She is building a consciousness of Genesis 17:4-5 in her covenant seed in the line of generations, who are friends of God by way of Genesis 17:7.
And so, in that way, there is and there must be ongoing fulfillment of this promise in the New Testament Church. By the time we get to the New Testament, both these covenant promises come together in Acts 2:39,
For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.
Let us recount the context and setting of this verse. In Acts 1, in obedience to the Great Commission of Jesus Christ, the gospel spread. Then, in Acts 2:1ff, Pentecost came. One important sign that the Holy Spirit gave to the infant New Testament church at Pentecost was that of the gift of tongues. The people of God spoke in the languages of the different nations, and they knew it. God was telling the New Testament church that she would undoubtedly be catholic, international, gathered from many nations. And in Acts 2:14ff, what do we have—but a record—an important record of the first gospel preached in the New Testament by the apostles. Right at the end of the sermon preached by Peter, we have v. 39, a verse which shows that God is faithful and he remembered his international promise to Abraham—continuing to fulfill it with the preaching of the apostle Peter.
How beautifully those two covenant promises were brought together by God through Peter! “The promise is unto you and your children.” God shows in this first phrase that he remembers his covenant promise of Genesis 17:7. And then, he says in this second phrase, “and to all that are afar off.” God shows that he also remembers his covenant promise of Genesis 17:4-5. In Romans 4, God tells us that he fulfills this universal covenant promise to Abraham in the way of faith. This faith is through the gospel of grace, the gospel of justification by faith alone in Christ alone (vv. 16-17, 25). Finally, he adds to both phrases of Acts 2:39 – the important limiting clause “even as many as the Lord our God shall call.”
The importance of that limiting clause of Acts 2:39 is that God reaffirms that the way in which the New Testament church fulfills the Great Commission and the “mission” covenant promise of Genesis 17:4-5 is by going out into the world and preaching the gospel. As in all obligations and duties that God gives to her, she is to exert herself in carrying out the duty and work of evangelism and missions.
And that the infant New Testament church of the book of Acts showed she did. One cannot help but be impressed by the great energy of the early New Testament church in the work of missions: sending forth missionaries, who traveled far and wide to preach the gospel (Romans 10:14-15), and as the church itself was scattered by persecution and spread, members supported that gospel actively by witnessing the gospel. They witnessed that gospel by their lives and also by their speech (cf. Acts 8:1-4, 1 Peter 3:15). By the time the book of Acts concluded, the gospel went far beyond the boundaries of the nation Israel—into Europe and Asia Minor!
But even as God was fulfilling his covenant promise of a church gathered from the nations through the apostolic church, let us also realize that she needed to go through a time of learning and adjustment, even as she was greatly active in missions. The early New Testament church, especially the Jewish Christians, who were so used to seeing the covenant extended primarily down the family line, had now not only that covenant promise of Genesis 17:7 in the foreground, but now also, understandably, needed a broad mission and vision of the international covenant promise of Genesis 17:4-5.
In this connection, God himself gave instruction to the New Testament church.
One important instance of this is in Acts 10. Peter was sitting on a housetop and praying there about the sixth hour, when we are told that God gave to him a vision of a great sheet or net that contained inside of it “all manner of 4-footed beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things and fowls of the air” (v. 12). And then, God commands him to rise, kill and eat all these creatures that were in the sheet (v. 13). Then, we read in Acts 10:14-16:
But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean. And the voice spake unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common. This was done thrice: and the vessel was received up again into heaven.
Peter, and the New Testament church along with him, needed instruction that the sinful Gentiles whom God called into his church, just like the Jewish Christians, were clean. Though they had the Old Testament scriptures and Genesis 17:4-5, they needed to learn and get adjusted to the idea that God was going to bring in elect Gentiles into the church.
A second important instance of God giving instruction in connection with missions is through the apostle Paul. After setting straight the doctrine and gospel of salvation by grace alone through Christ alone in Ephesians 2:1-10, the holy inspired apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 2:11-17:
Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands; That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world: But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace; And that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby: And came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were nigh.
The Ephesian church, which likely was having some tension between its Jewish and Gentile members, needed instruction that by dying on the cross of calvary, Jesus had not only purchased forgiveness for those for whom he died, he had also “broken down the middle wall of partition” between them. Nothing ought to divide Christians of different nations and ethnicities any more. For Jesus Christ is the peace of the church, the church gathered from and comprising not only one nation, but many nations.
Just as the early New Testament church went through a time of learning and adjustment as she was active in missions, so also we today in the PRCA need to do the same. Through much pain and tears, God has preserved the precious, biblical and Reformed heritage in our midst. Our churches are blessed with the doctrines and gospel of sovereign particular grace and the wonderful and warm doctrine of God’s covenant as a bond or living relationship of friendship with his people in Jesus Christ. God graciously gives such a heritage to us not to keep for ourselves, but to communicate to the church and world around us. We have this precious, peculiar and pure biblical gospel, well-developed through the controversies of 1924 and 1953 in our church history to bring to the world. Let us, in obedience to the Great Commission and with consciousness of the covenant promise of Genesis 17:4-5, continue to exert ourselves in mission work. And let us, as we continue doing so, also continue to learn and make adjustments in our work of missions. And we are. For example, we are learning the biblical and practical wisdom of doing foreign mission work not singly, but two-and-two—as the apostolic church did in the book of Acts. We are certainly growing in our denomination to have a mind-set for missions.
Do you, young people, have a mind-set and a heart for God in missions? A heart that desires not only that your friends around you at church make public confession of faith, but also to see others do the same? Do you desire to see people who are not presently in the church, people from other nations embrace the same faith in Jesus Christ that you do? There are lots of ways in which we can grow and cultivate that mission heart and mind-set that God gives to you. That begins with local evangelism and missions—in your own sphere of life, in your own town and community. Support the work of your church’s evangelism committee. Get involved with promoting and/or developing your church’s website. Keep up with the mission work of our denomination through the newsletters of our missionaries. Pray for our missionaries. Give financially to their work. The list goes on and on.
In all that activity, besides the benefit of a growing spiritually healthy mind-set and heart for missions, there are also other benefits to being used actively by God in the covenantal work of evangelism and missions. For one thing, the truth of “the catholicity of the church” which we confess every Sunday evening at our church’s worship services becomes less abstract and theoretical and more real to us. As God blesses our mission labors, he brings in people from other nations into our midst, and we grow to appreciate more and more the wonder of God’s grace. We see God’s irresistible grace work in the line of generations, and also to those who are far off, those outside the church, as he promises! He calls and gathers them unto himself through the preaching of the gospel. What a wonder that the power of God’s grace draws people different in so many ways! As you relate to such ones, even as I relate to you, we find, don’t we, that what is precious between us, among all our earthly differences is this: our one common bond of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ? Such relating to one another can only cause us to grow in spiritual-mindedness and love—for our Lord Jesus Christ, and for his one, beautiful, holy, catholic church.
And let us realize that, in this way also, we are being prepared for the glorious end that awaits us at the end of the ages—when we will behold a complete gathering of the international church of Jesus Christ, and the perfection of God’s everlasting covenant. We are reminded of such a wonderful, beautiful, complete vision of the church in the book of Revelation.
There is Revelation 5:9-10:
And they sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation; And hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth.
And there is, of course, the theme verse of this year’s Young People’s Convention, Revelation 7:9-10:
After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands; And cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb.
God grant that this glorious end and vision serve to motivate you, young people, and all of us together to being used actively by God in his sovereign, beautiful, covenantal work of gathering and building a church gathered from all nations!