We have recently celebrated the ascension of our Lord, having been reminded of His lordship and promised victory. We saw that the number of His willing volunteers continues to multiply and that all His enemies will be vanquished. He will either defeat them by His transforming grace or by His immutable and inescapable judgement. Either way, the promise will be fulfilled of His enemies being made a stool for His feet, “and then comes the end” (1 Corinthians 15:24).
But since that anticipated “end” has not yet arrived, we still have a lot of work to do. We must continue to rise up, put on our spiritual armour, grab the sword of the Spirit (which is the Word of God), and empowered by prayer pursue God’s enemies who must be made His friends.
As of yet there are multitudes of people who have been untouched by the gospel because they have been unreached with the gospel. We need to be committed to doing something about this. This is one reason that we are recognising what some others around the world are recognising: Unreached Peoples Sunday. The purpose is to focus special attention on the need but also to focus on the opportunity to do something about it. Again, it is significant that this is occurring on the Lord’s Day immediately after Ascension Day. Jesus is ruling, reigning and reaching. May God give us the grace to be His hands.
The Present Reality
There are some 11,238 people groups in earth, comprising nearly seven billion people. A “people group” can be defined as an ethno-linguistic group with a common self-identity. We might simply call it an “ethic group.”
Of these people groups, 6,545 remain “unreached.” This comprises some 3.9 billion people. An “unreached” people is defines as an ethnic group with less than two percent evangelical, which leaves this people group unable to ensure a church planting movement.
In addition to the unreached, there are also some 3,055 “unengaged” people groups comprising 207 million people. An “unengaged” people group is defines as a group in which no church planting strategy has currently been undertaken.
Most of the unreached and unengaged peoples live in the 10/40 Window.1 In this region of the world, there are 8,352 people groups, comprising 4.65 billion people. A staggering 2.8 billion of these have yet to be reached.
As a congregation, we at BBC are quite familiar with the Great Commission given by Jesus to His disciples—to us. We have been deeply committed to this. We have sought to make disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ here at home and, by God’s grace, have been blessed to both send our own to the “regions beyond” and to support some from other local churches who are doing so. Yet the reality still lies before us that billions have not heard, and therefore there are billions who have not called on the name of the Lord. With this reality before us we consequently have a challenge that remains upon us: reaching the unreached.
The Challenge of Missions
The challenge of missions has been faced by the church in every generation. I doubt that there has ever been a time when the Great Commission has been an easy task. The first century church, as we have seen in our study of Acts, faced the problem of a hostile Jewish culture as well as a deeply imbibed paganism among Gentiles. Later, the Roman Empire turned the sword on the church in devastating and intense persecution.
Still later, the Roman Catholic Church unleashed the fires of persecution against Christians as they carried out their task of the Great Commission.
The rise of Islam paralleled much of this, and then centuries of various “isms” continued to work at raising walls (sometimes literally) against the spread of the gospel. This is important to keep in mind because we are all too often guilty of chronological snobbery or chronological myopia. We may be tempted to think that our challenges are unique and even insurmountable.
It may be true that our challenges are unique. It is true that never before in the history of the world have so many people been cut off from the gospel due to political and religio-cultural barriers. The 10/40 Window does present unique challenges. If we will reach the unreached then we will need to face the reality that the risks are huge. Missionaries will die. Results may be slow because difficult to come by. Nevertheless, the challenges are not insurmountable, for the simple and glorious fact is that Jesus Christ is Lord. As we saw previously in Psalm 110, this gives us every reason to be faith-filled about the future and therefore faithful in the present.
My goal in this study is to encourage us to think more and more, to pray more and more, to dream big and bigger and to risk greater and greater concerning doing something significant to reach the unreached. I will attempt this by an exposition of Romans 15:14–21.
Paul wrote Romans as a doctrinal treatise concerning the gospel as a letter of introduction to the church at Rome. He had desired to visit there for a long time. Before arriving, however, he perhaps wanted to prepare them by instructing them in the apostolic doctrine of the gospel. He wanted to make sure that they were on the same page.
Paul writes this wonderful book and clearly articulates and defends the doctrine of justification by faith alone, in Christ alone, by grace alone, according to God’s Word alone, to the glory of God alone. This is the substance of chapters 1–11.
From chapter 12 through 15:13 Paul practically applies the gospel to the Christian’s life. Having instructed them in the principles of the gospel, he now works out the practical implications of the gospel.
Having done so, he begins in 15:14 to bring his letter to a close. Chapter 16 is primarily filled with greetings, which he sends to believers whom he knows in Rome. But in the passage before us, Paul emphasises his calling as a missionary to the Gentiles. This is very appropriate in a letter like this for, after all, a gospel so glorious is to be proclaimed not only to the Jew but also to the Gentile (1:16).
Unreached Peoples in Spain
In this passage, Paul explains his travel plans. He tells them that he is on his way to Jerusalem where he will distribute the love gift to the suffering church on behalf of the churches in Macedonia and Achaia (vv. 25–26). Paul’s plan is to then head to Spain (vv. 24, 28). His goal is to stop in Rome and spend some time being edified by them and edifying them (15:24; cf. 1:8–12). He is also very keen to evangelise in the city (1:13–16).
Now we need to see something important here. Paul refers to his desire to go to Spain in the context of vv. 20–24. There, he speaks of going to where Christ has not been named and therefore where no gospel foundation has been laid (v. 20). He then quotes Isaiah 52:15 with reference to this. Taking this together, it is clear that Paul viewed Spain as an unreached place on the globe. His desire was to do pioneering work to reach the unreached. It is for this reason that this passage is helpfully instructive for us as we consider reaching the unreached. The lessons that we learn from this passage should go a long way towards informing our understanding of what is required to reach the unreached peoples of this world. I believe that this passage informs us of at least six truths that we must embrace if we will do so.
The Perfecting of the Saints
First, Paul writes of the perfecting of the saints.
Now I myself am confident concerning you, my brethren, that you also are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, able also to admonish one another. Nevertheless, brethren, I have written more boldly to you on some points, as reminding you, because of the grace given to me by God, that I might be a minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, ministering the gospel of God, that the offering of the Gentiles might be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
If a local church will meaningfully engage the task of reaching the unreached it will need to be a mature and maturing congregation. As I have pointed out on several occasions, the mark of spiritual maturity is not biblically measured by longevity in the faith. Professing Christ as one’s Lord and Saviour for many decades should not necessarily be equated with maturity. After all, the Bible qualifies that those with grey hair are only deemed to be a blessing if “it is found in the way of righteousness” (Proverbs 16:31). The colour of the hair is otherwise meaningless. Sadly, the world contains plenty of “silver-heads” who are everything but righteous.
Instead, the biblical definition of maturity is the same as biological maturity: the ability to reproduce. Those who are spiritually maturing increasingly see the reproduction in their life of the character of Jesus Christ (John 15:1–8). This is then passed on or reproduced in the lives of others (2 Timothy 2:1). This principle is seen in these verses and they have much to do with reaching the unreached.
In v. 14 Paul expresses his confidence that the church at Rome is filled with believers who are able to “admonish” (instruct, confront, counsel) each other. In other words, he is confident that this congregation is maturing. It is not dependent upon one man or upon a small group of leaders for its health. It is a congregation characterised as “full of goodness” (that is, they have spiritual integrity). It is also “filled with all knowledge,” in the sense of knowing the Word of God. That is, these saints have biblical instruction. The result is that they can be fruitfully involved. When you combine integrity and biblical instruction you have a wonderful combination, which produces a congregation able to do the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:12). We can say that integrity coupled with instruction leads to involvement. In other words, such a congregation is equipped to “repair” (Matthew 4:21) and to “restore” (Galatians 6:1), and the result, as we will soon see, is that it is able to lengthen its reach.
I can remember, as if it was yesterday (though it was about thirty years ago), sitting in my car in the parking lot of the local post office in Goshen, Ohio. I was listening to an interview with a pastor, with whom I was not very familiar at the time, by the name of John Macarthur. He was asked to explain why his ministry had become globally significant. He answered that this had never been his goal but rather he simply believed that his responsibility was to take care of the depth of his ministry and to let God sort out the breadth of his ministry. That was one of the most significant lessons I have ever learned. And it has everything to do with what we are talking about in this study. Let me explain.
These verses are actually sandwiched between two missiological passages (vv. 7–13 and vv. 17–21). You cannot miss the emphasis here on the Great Commission, with particular reference to the nations (ethnos) as objects of God’s gospel grace. So why does Paul pause to insert this commendation? I think he does so to make the point that he does not see any reason for his staying with them for a long period of time. On the contrary, as much as he wants to enjoy their fellowship and to exercise an evangelistic ministry, he is aware that they have done fine without him and will continue to do fine without his presence. He therefore can visit them for a time and leave them to go preach the gospel in the regions beyond. You see, because of their depth, Paul can expand the breadth of his and their ministry. Because they are spiritually reproductive at home, they can reach a lot further than home through their partnership with Paul (v. 24).
Missions, Maturity and Means
Bear in mind that, from 14:1, Paul is addressing some relational challenges in the church. Here, he is simply saying that they are well equipped to deal with them. Because these saints have been equipped a missionary can go forward.
In vv. 15–17 Paul reminds the Roman Christians that, as a missionary to the Gentiles, he aims for their spiritual maturity. This requires two things: the discipling of those reached (vv. 15–17) and reaching those who need to be discipled (18–21). Those who have been reached need to mature so that those unreached can then be reached. Disciples are the means of missions.
This is a driving philosophy behind my own ministry. When I preached my “candidating” sermon at BBC over twenty years ago, I spoke from Ephesians 4:1–16 and made the point that I was not coming to do the work of ministry but rather to equip the congregation for the work of ministry. I made the point that, if this goal was realised, our reach would widen. I believe that, as a church, we have done that and continue to do so. And we must continue to do so.
It is all too easy to get excited about reaching the regions beyond and jumping into some projects prematurely. There is an order. We mature and our ministry expands. Let me put it this way: The stronger the base of operations the longer the reach of our operations. Deep and wide is our goal. We must grow up if we will go out.
Paul actually taught the same principle to the Corinthian church (2 Corinthians 10:12–18). He expressed his hope to “be greatly enlarged by you in our sphere, to preach the gospel in the regions beyond you” (vv. 15–16). But first things first: Their faith had to increase (v. 15) before his ministry could expand.
Meaningful, Maturing Membership
This is one reason it is so important that each Christian be a committed, faithful and fruitful church member. If we will reach out then we must grow up. Let us both repair and be repaired so that we can cast the net wider. Let us both be reset and then reset the broken bones of others so we can run the race to the ends of the earth. Let us be restored and then restore others so that we can invest our energies in reaching others who need to be saved. Let us not squander our resources. Yes, it does matter how you live and what you do in and for the church. Let us all be committed to be deep so that we can also be wide.
The Power of the Spirit
In vv. 17–19 learn about the power of the Spirit:
Therefore I have reason to glory in Christ Jesus in the things which pertain to God. For I will not dare to speak of any of those things which Christ has not accomplished through me, in word and deed, to make the Gentiles obedient—in mighty signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God, so that from Jerusalem and round about to Illyricum I have fully preached the gospel of Christ.
Paul is careful to make the point that he has been faithful to his missionary call and that, by the power of the Spirit, he has had a fruitfully faithful ministry. He has “fully preached the gospel of Christ” from Jerusalem round about to Illyricum (modern Albania/Croatia). And as he has done so, he has witnessed conversions as, by the power of the Spirit, many of the unreached have become obedient to the gospel.
There is no doubt that what Paul experienced in those regions was precisely what he expected in Rome (1:13) and beyond in Spain. In other words, he was committed to the enormous task of reaching the unreached because he believed in the power of God. The power of the gospel to save a Philippian jailor was as potent to save a pagan Spaniard. We need the same conviction. And those whom we send need the spiritual commitment and character as indicated here. They must be filled with the Spirit. They must be dependent on the power of the Spirit for the success of the gospel.
Salvation is of the Lord
Now, we must not simply mention this and then pass by, for what Paul says here is very significant. Hegives credit to whom credit is due. He sees himself as a means to the end of the obedience of the Gentiles to the gospel (cf. 1:5, 16:26) but hesees the Lord as the one who does the saving. Yes, he must preach the gospel, but only the sovereign Lord can open the eyes of the spiritually blind and raise to life those who lie in spiritual death. Paul points to “mighty signs and wonders ” as well as to the ministry “in word.”
If we will reach the unreached then we must preach, but we must do so convincingly. I am not arguing here for signs and wonders (though neither am I arguing against the possibility of their presence). What I am appealing for is the conviction that, apart from the powerful work of God, the unreached will remain dead in trespasses and sins. We therefore should be encouraged to pray, and this is related to the next observation.
In order to reach the majority of these unreached people groups we need God to do the unusual as far as opening doors for the gospel. Most of the unreached are in a part of the world where governments are not only cold to the idea of Christianity but are actively opposed to the church. We need God to do His mighty work; and He primarily does so through the prayerful and therefore powerful proclamation of His Word. And God’s providential rule is deeply connected to this. Thank God that the king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord (Proverbs 21:1).
The Preaching of the Scriptures
Paul next speaks of the preaching of the Scriptures: “And so I have made it my aim to preach the gospel” (v. 20a).
I have already touched on this, and I do not wish to spend a great deal of time here, but let it be said at this point that what the unreached need is the preached Word. We must not think of missions as consisting of anything less than this. If there is a lot of kind and compassionate ministry to the unreached, and yet the Word is not preached, we cannot legitimately refer to this as missions. The Word must be preached if the unreached will be saved.
As I mentioned earlier, I do not want to categorically reject the notion of signs and wonders among the unreached. In places where the name of Christ and the Word of God are unknown, who is to say that God may not choose to reach out via, for example, dreams and visions. These signs would direct the recipient to the gospel as contained in the Word, but there is little biblical reason to think that God will not work in such a manner within the 10/40 Window.
The Pioneering of the Servant
In v. 20b, Paul makes it clear that he saw himself primarily as a pioneering kind of missionary. He wanted to preach, “not where Christ was named, lest I should build on another man’s foundation” (v. 20b). He saw his calling as going to places where the gospel had never been preached. His desire had nothing to do with a self-motivated adventurous spirit, but clearly as the result of what he perceived to be God’s plan for him.
Everett Harrison helpfully comments,
His dislike of building on another’s foundation did not come from an overweening sense of self-importance that could be satisfied only when he could claim the credit for what was accomplished. Actually, he preferred to work with companions, as the book of Acts attests, and he was always appreciative of the service rendered by his helpers. His statement about “not building on someone else’s foundation” requires no more explanation than that he was impelled by the love of Christ to reach as many as possible. He felt deeply his obligation to confront all men with the good news.2
God calls people to His mission to carry it out in a variety of ways. Though the message and the mandate is the same among all missionaries, the manner may vary. There are Timothy-like missionary-pastors, who serve in already established churches; there are Barnabas-type missionaries who serve in regions where Christ has already been named; and there are Paul-type missionaries who serve in pioneering capacities. In many ways, no doubt, this is often the most difficult. And it is just this type of missionary that is called for when are talking about reaching the unreached people groups of the world.
Now, it should be noted that this is not an absolute condition, for the fact is that many unreached peoples have representatives in major cities of the world. For instance Minneapolis, Minnesota in the USA has between forty and fifty thousand Somalis in its population. If they can be reached there, then many of these may go back to their homeland to reach others. Surely Christ has been named in Minneapolis, so to reach Somalis in that city is not, strictly speaking, pioneering missions. Nevertheless, the point remains that to reach the unreached in their homelands will be a pioneering work. And here is the rub: It is difficult, dangerous and therefore daunting. And for these reasons it is neglected; it is, in fact, all too easily disregarded. Few believers volunteer for such a difficult task.
I want to make the appeal that we need a theology of the cross that drives us to a willingness to leave the comfort zones of family, our community and church to reach the unreached. We must be willing to leave the glamour and the familiar of Rome for the less spectacular and unfamiliar of Spain.
Your Children as a Means
As I have said on numerous occasions, we need to present the Great Commission as a glorious and legitimate pursuit for our children. I wonder what has happened to those glorious days in church history when, from the earliest age, children and young people set their hearts on serving the Lord as missionaries. Sadly, with the onslaught of secular education and the pursuit of wealth, prestige and comfort, we don’t see as much of that as we used to. Parents, at the least you should present such a vocation as an option—a wonderful option—for your children.
We should perhaps note that, due to the political nature of the 10/40 Window, we do not have to choose between our children being prepared for a career or being prepared to be a missionary, for it is no longer either/or but rather both/and. We will not be able to send traditional missionaries into these countries, but we can send teachers, doctors, technicians, businessmen, etc. who will then carry on a tent-making ministry.
Though the challenges wear a different face than in previous decades and centuries, nevertheless the need for pioneering missionaries continues. Will God use you in such a way?
Paying for the Pioneers
In v. 24, Paul speaks of providing for such missionaries: “Whenever I journey to Spain, I shall come to you. For I hope to see you on my journey, and to be helped on my way there by you, if first I may enjoy your company for a while” (v. 24).
It is true that somebody needs to go, but it is equally true that many need to stay in order to send. Pioneering mission work is costly in many ways—including financially. I thank God for being a member of a church that understands the need for sacrificial giving for the cause of Christ in the Great Commission. This no doubt will need to increase as we continue to grow deeper and thus find ourselves also going wider.
The Promise of the Sovereign
Verse 21 contains a wonderful promise: “But as it is written: ‘To whom He was not announced, they shall see; and those who have not heard shall understand’” (v. 21). The promise here is a direct quote from Isaiah 52:15 (cf. v. 7).This promise, like all of God’s promises, will be fulfilled (see Hebrews 6:13–18 with 7:25).
Reaching the unreached is not a shot in the dark. It is a mission into the dark, but we are promised that the light will shine there. Although, at one level, there are risks, at another, more profound, level there is no risk, for the end result is guaranteed: The knowledge of the glory of the Lord will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2:14; cf. Revelation 5:9). We should therefore commit ourselves to this task with a holy ambition coupled with a humble abandon.
In his book What’s Best Next Matthew Perman quotes Charles Bridges who, some two hundred years ago, noted in his commentary on Proverbs 3:18: “Do not despise the day of small things (Zech. 4:10). But do not be satisfied with it either. Aim high, and you will come closer to reaching the mark.”3 Those who believe the promises of God will aim high. Will you? Will we?
Perman writes, “God is a big God (Jer. 32:27), he has given us a gigantic task (Matt. 28:18–20), and he is able to do abundantly more than we can even ask or imagine (Eph. 3:20). Thinking small, merely, is not the Christian thing to do.”4
And referencing Dave Harvey (Rescuing Ambition) Perman writes,
God never intended true humility to be a fabric softener for our aspirations. We aren’t to be ambitious for our own honor or glory. But we are to be ambitious for God’s honor and glory, radically so. “Dreaming and doing things for God is the evidence, the effect, and the expectation of genuine faith.”4
Clearly there is a difference between faithfully stepping out and recklessly stepping out. However, my concern is that today we are perhaps too cautious. Rather, let us take a page from William Carey’s life and expect great things from God and therefore attempt great things for God.
A Passion for the Saviour
Though this is not stated in so many words, nevertheless the underlying motivation behind Paul’s missionary pursuit was his undying passion for his Lord. Paul loved Jesus and this is what moved him. This has always been the case with God-centred and hence faithful and fruitful missionaries. Because they love the Shepherd they are committed to feeding His sheep (John 21:15–17). The thought of Jesus not being honoured was and is unthinkable! Henry Martyn exemplified this passion.
Martyn was a missionary who had a passion to reach the unreached in both India as well as Persia (Iran). Once, an Iranian told him about a story in that part of the world that presented Jesus Christ in a blasphemous light. Martyn responded with great distress. When the Iranian man asked him why he was so bothered, Martyn said, “I could not endure existence if Jesus was not glorified; it would be hell to me, if He were to be always thus dishonoured.”
Astonished, the Iranian again asked, “Why?” Martyn said, “If any one pluck out your eyes there is no saying why you feel pain; it is feeling. It is because I am one with Christ that I am thus dreadfully wounded.”
It is this kind of love for Christ that builds and maintains the passion required to make Christ’s name known where it is still not announced. May God grant us such revelation into His glorious greatness; such a revelation of His glorious grace as seen in the face of Jesus Christ that we will do whatever is necessary to reach the unreached that they will no longer dishonour His name.
Paul, of course, was a missionary. He did not expect every member of the church at Rome to reach the unreached, but he did expect every member to so mature that they would have a concern both for other Christians as well as for those who needed to yet become Christians.
The reality is that there are billions who have never heard. Thousands of nations are still unreached. And among these nations are no doubt millions of sheep who are lost and need to be found. They therefore need to hear the voice of the Shepherd, which means that preachers need to be sent—by the local church.
I suppose that one danger of this emphasis on reaching the unreached is that it could result in nothing more than guilting ourselves—though there is no doubt that some of that might be justified. Further, we might also find ourselves overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. And no doubt the task is enormous. That is true. But once we deal biblically with the guilt, let us then face this huge task with the proper answer as given to the question, how do you eat an elephant? (One bite at a time.) In other words, if we act locally while thinking globally, then who knows what impact we might have! Let us then grow deep so that we might increasingly go wide.
- The 10/40 Window is a term coined by Christian missionary strategist Luis Bush in 1990 to refer to those regions of the eastern hemisphere, plus the European and African part of the western hemisphere, located between 10 and 40 degrees north of the equator, a general area that in 1990 was purported to have the highest level of socioeconomic challenges and least access to the Christian message and Christian resources on the planet. ↩
- Everett F. Harrison, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 10:157. ↩
- Matthew Perman, What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 169. ↩
- Perman, What’s Best Next, 169. ↩
- Perman, What’s Best Next, 169. ↩