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Missions: then and now

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Published: 16 March 2021 (GMT+10)
This article first appeared in Update, CMI-UK/Europe, August 2020.
missionary-scene
Paul and his family have worked in PNG for more than 20 years now. Life there is more challenging than I could imagine.

After his redemptive death on the cross, the glorious resurrection on the third day, and another forty days spent appearing to his disciples and giving them instructions, the time has come for Jesus to return to heaven. Yet as he is about to ascend, he gives his disciples their marching orders: “… you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). And Christians through the ages have taken this mission seriously and have headed to the furthest parts of the earth to proclaim the good news.

One such a person is Paul Boothby, a missionary who serves with New Tribes Mission1 in Papua New Guinea (PNG). Before I met Paul, I had no idea what the life and work of a missionary in this south-east Asian country was like.

But how about Christian ministry? What does the experience of a missionary who wants to bring the Good News to these people look like? They do not have the technology that we have and most of them cannot read. What is more, those unreached by missionaries have absolutely no knowledge of the Bible; they have never heard about the events narrated in it. So how does one present the Gospel to these people? For us such a question may be academic, but for Paul Boothby it was a question he had to grapple with quite early in his ministry.

Where to start?

When Paul visited our church to update us on his ministry, he tried to help us understand the challenge of presenting the Gospel to the people of PNG. He asked our congregation, “Where would you start in evangelism? How would you present the Gospel to these people?” Our answer was probably representative of many evangelicals in the West: “Isn’t John 3:16 a good place to start? ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.’” However, the missionary had to explain to us that, “It’s no use starting with John 3:16, as very soon they’ll ask: ‘God? Which God?’ ‘The world? You mean there’s more beyond these islands?’ ‘Eternal life? What is that? Are we going to live forever in our village?’ ‘And why do we need to be saved in the first place?’”

paul-preahing-athens
Paul preaching in Athens.

Paul explained to us that, in order to prepare a firm foundation for the Gospel to be understood and received by the PNG people, the missionaries started teaching them from no other place in Scripture than Genesis 1, presenting God as the Creator. Then they moved on to Genesis 2, where God created Adam and Eve. And Genesis 3 gave them the perfect opportunity to explain what sin is, that we all come from Adam, so are all sinners, and that God promised a way of salvation. It was only then that they could begin to explain the Gospel.

I guess what particularly moved me, as a CMI speaker, was their passion for Genesis. Paul went out of his way in emphasising how important Genesis is. He was pleading with us to stand firm on the true teaching of Genesis and not to be swayed by foreign teachings. He emphasised how amazingly important the teaching of Genesis is for effective missionary outreach, especially from the very first chapters. It gave him the foundation to present the Gospel. It made me wonder: what if Paul Boothby did not take Genesis seriously? What if he thought the first few chapters of Genesis were ‘myth’, as some do today? How would he have presented the Gospel to these people? Would he still be a missionary in PNG after 20 years? I don’t know.2

New Testament missionary pattern

I found it really encouraging listening to Paul’s testimony about how the work in Papua New Guinea is progressing. But it reminded me of his namesake who lived some 2,000 years ago—the Apostle Paul. He travelled extensively around and across the Mediterranean, proclaiming the Good News about salvation in Jesus. And Paul was facing very similar conditions to our missionary Paul in PNG: they both spoke to audiences that knew nothing about the Bible.

During one of his journeys, the Apostle Paul found himself in Athens. There, due to his proclamation about Jesus and the resurrection, he was invited before the Areopagus (Mars Hill, Athens). Many students of the Bible have noted that his address there was different from his other speeches in Acts. What are the differences?

Well, for one thing, he did not quote the Old Testament. With Paul’s speeches in Acts, the pattern of his sermons was pretty much this: quote prophecies from the Old Testament, then show how Jesus fulfilled them. Not in Athens. Here he starts from their religious practices (Acts 17:22–23), and even quotes some of their poets (Acts 17:28).

Also, he did not mention Jesus by name. He referred to him as “a man whom [God] has appointed” to be the judge (Acts 17:31). And neither did he refer to Jesus with the title ‘Son of God’.

bible-world

Why this deviation from his normal approach? The reason is probably the particular context (see Creation evangelism at Mars Hill). He was in the pagan city of Athens, talking to people for whom the Old Testament was probably totally unknown. Quoting from a Jewish book held no authority for them. And he perhaps does not mention Jesus by name for similar reasons: the name ‘Yeshua’ might well have sounded strange to their Greek ears.

As for the title ‘Son of God’, they were familiar with the stories of Zeus having many sons, some of whom he had fathered through his many affairs rather than with his principal wife Hera. If they heard that this ‘God of the Jews’ had any sons, they would likely have thought he was no better than their Greek gods.

Instead Paul decides to speak of a god who is unknown to them, a god to whom they may even have an altar dedicated (Acts 17:23). And although Paul does not directly quote Genesis, his teaching is based firmly upon it. He says that this God he proclaims is the God of the whole world, since He is the God who created the whole world. Also, he is also in line with the first book of the Bible when he claims all nations came from one man (Acts 17:26; cf. Genesis 1:26–27; 10:32). Although he does not mention Adam by name, he still upholds the biblical truths as declared in Genesis. Clearly the Apostle Paul took the first few chapters of Genesis as real history.

The mission field on your door step

Genesis-Bible

I am left wondering: what if Paul had not believed Genesis to be real history? What if he thought it was just myth, as some professing Christians do today? How might his sermon have been different? What would have been his message to the Athenians?

At this point some may think, “Oh, but that’s only the case for pagan ancient Greece, and for tribal people in Papua New Guinea. Surely in the Christian West we don’t need to start with Genesis?” But I answer, do we really live in a ‘Christian West’ anymore?

Those living in the UK are probably familiar with school assemblies. People in the older generations remember these as daily meetings where all the students gathered together, maybe a portion of the Bible was read and spoken about, and Christian songs were sung. They may be excused if they think this is still the case; sadly, it is not. Yes, assemblies still exist in state schools in the UK (and some other western countries), but they are places where children are taught all sorts of things, from health and safety to proper societal behaviour. The Bible is nowhere in sight!

Some time ago I was teaching baptism classes to a young man in his late twenties who had just become a Christian. During the course, I mentioned David and his sin with Bathsheba. Judging by the blank stare, I realised he didn’t know who David was. Actually, he knew pretty much nothing about the Bible—see Survey reveals ignorance of the Bible and Christian belief. I had to teach him the broad timeline of the Bible. I had to start—you guessed—in Genesis and teach him about the main events and people of the Bible. It took a good while!

I am sad to say that people of his age are no longer the exception, but the norm. Our culture is headed towards the same poverty of biblical knowledge as ancient Greece or tribal PNG. How are we going to reach this generation? How are we going to present the Gospel to them? Why would they need salvation in the first place, if the Fall of man as described in Genesis 3 is a myth? I am convinced that we won’t be able to do that unless we stand firm on the strong foundation of Genesis. Jesus’s genealogy (Luke 3) starts in Genesis 1, with the creation of the first people. It is there we need to start in our evangelistic or missionary endeavours if we are to reach our generation effectively—see The importance of Creation in evangelism.

References and notes

  1. Now called Ethnos360 in many countries. Return to text.
  2. Indeed, evolutionary thinking was very detrimental to overseas mission in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as described in: Bell, P., Evolution and the Christian Faith, Day One Publications, pp. 251–261, 2018. Return to text.