Will The Real Missionary Please Stand Up?

September 20, 2019
Sam Thorpe

At the start of a regional Missionary Study Class, I asked for all missionaries present to show their hands. There were a few who did. I chose to begin with this exercise to set the stage for re-defining the term “missionary” from a biblical perspective.

What is a Missionary?

Like other theological terms, the word “missionary” is not found in the Bible (AV). However, the work is well defined. There are four references using four different Greek words that give us the origin of this word. First, early New Testament missionaries were sent forth (apostello), meaning set apart to be sent away on a mission (Mt. 10:5, 16). Second, Christ’s apostles (apostolos) were messengers sent forth as a delegate, or ambassador of the Gospel (Acts 1:2). Third, those sent out from Antioch to the Gentile world, were sent away (apoluo) meaning to fully free or release for the work (Acts 13:3). Finally, these were witnesses (martus), from which we receive the English word “martyr.” (Acts 1:8)

A missionary then is a delegated ambassador, who is released, set free, and empowered and directed by the Holy Spirit to carry Christ’s gospel to various locations, willing even to face martyrdom as a witness for the Lord.

Two Misconceptions about Missionaries

We often restrict the term to one who leaves their native land to serve as Christ’s witness on a foreign field. It should be noted that Christ identified our field of service in Acts 1:8 as Jerusalem (our home town or city), Judaea (our own state, region or district), Samaria (our own country), and finally, unto the uttermost part of the earth. Thus, three quarters of this strategic commission is within our own country.

We also tend to define a missionary as one who leaves secular employment and lives totally by faith, dependent upon the Lord for one’s financial needs. However, in the New Testament God’s servants from time to time worked in secular jobs, so as to not be an added burden on new believers. This was true of the apostle Paul (I Thess. 2:9) and Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:1-4), who were tentmakers. From these references we use the term “tentmaking” to describe those who serve the Lord while continuing in secular work.

Who Then are Missionaries?

Biblically, all believers should be missionaries for our Lord Jesus Christ. We have missionaries on the “homeland” and on the “foreign field.” We have missionaries whose support is provided by the free will offerings of the Lord’s people, and we have missionaries who are self-supported on either a full or part time basis. In each case, there must be a complete dependence on the Lord to meet their financial needs, be it from an employer or the saints. Ultimately, all of our resources come from God, to be used for His eternal glory. We should all be witnesses, ambassadors, and commended servants of the Lord, to bring the gospel to the lost regardless of our field of service or capacity of work.

An Old Testament Analogy

David, anointed by the Lord to take the throne of Israel, established a principle which can shed some light on distinctions of service (1 Sam. 25:13; 30:21-25). Of the 600 men that made up David’s militia, some went to the front lines of the battlefield, while others “abode with the stuff.” The fighting soldiers viewed themselves as more important than those who stayed behind in a supportive role and sought to deny their part in the spoils of war. David said, “Ye shall not do so, my brethren, with that which the LORD has given us…as his part is that goeth down to the battle, so shall his part be that tarrieth by the stuff: they shall part alike.” This principle was then adopted as an ordinance for Israel.

Responsibilities of the Supportive Missionary

Not everyone is led to go to the foreign field. But the believers who stay home “with the stuff” have a vital role as a support missionary. What are the responsibilities of those who serve in Jerusalem, Judaea and Samaria to those who are serving in the uttermost part of the earth? They can pray (Acts 12:5, 11-12), give financially (Phil. 4:15-19), and provide practical support (2 Tim. 4:13). They can also stay informed (Acts 14:26-28), visit the field (2 Tim. 4:9-11), challenge others (Acts 11:20-26), and promote missions (Acts 13:2-3; 14:26-28; 15:40-41).

So, we could say some hear the call of God to go and serve, while others hear the call of God to stay and serve. The sending church and those sent would do well to give full attention to the pattern found in the Antioch model (Acts 13-14).

Practical Steps to Prepare for Missionary Service

Some years ago, CMML (Christian Missions in Many Lands) presented a workshop suggesting practical steps to prepare for missionary work: ground yourself in the Scriptures (Col. 2:7-8); be able to make a clear presentation of the gospel, such as the Roman’s Road (Rom. 10:8-15); recognize and demonstrate your spiritual gifts (I Tim. 4:12-16); gain practical skills in secular employment (ex. time management, people skills, managing money); be in reasonably good physical and emotional health; develop hands-on skills useful within the third world; and develop a good foreign language aptitude.

One should also consider: praying over a world map; corresponding with missionaries; speaking with missionaries home on furlough; reading missionary biographies; discussing your burden with local church elders; attending the MOP (Missionary Orientation Program) by CMML; and visiting a foreign country on a short-term mission trip.

Closing Challenge

On March 10, 2003, Mr. R.E. Harlow, a week short of his 95th birthday, entered the glories of His Lord and Saviour, a missionary statesman of our generation. I had the privilege of visiting Mr. Harlow and his wife, Gertrude, six weeks before he died. Having spent many years in central Africa, the fruit of their service is still abundant. I have visited many book stores in Nairobi, Kenya and can report that the shelves are still well supplied with their helpful Swahili Christian literature. Their shoes are empty. Many other veterans of the mission field could be mentioned in similar terms. However, many veteran foreign missionaries are called of God to go beyond their home land. They have obeyed His call and God has blessed.  Space would not permit to list the names of God’s veteran “homeland” missionaries, called by Him to serve as it were in “Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria.”  In their own towns, states and county, mighty powerful works for the Lord have been accomplished by those who “stayed with the stuff.” No matter where we serve, called by the Lord, at home or abroad, we are fulfilling the great commission.  Let us all embrace the role of a missionary where God has placed us and get busy in “His vineyard for His eternal glory.”