History of Missions Lecture 1: Introduction

THE FOLLOWING ARE NOTES FOR LECTURES GIVEN AT NEW COLLEGE, BIRMINGHAM. I AM NOT AN EXPERT AND BOOKS WILL BE CREDITED TO SHOW WHERE MY INFORMATION IS COMING FROM. IF YOU HAVE QUESTIONS, COMMENT ON THIS POST AND I WILL TRY MY BEST TO ANSWER.

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Introduction to the course: we will be working chronologically through history from the New Testament church of 33BC approx. all the way to modern day. We will be looking worldwide, at different cultures, religions, and the individual and groups of missionaries that followed Gods call to these places in order to spread the gospel.

We will be moving fast and it will be a good idea to make notes, so please do. I will be suggesting movies, books, etc for you to read if you have an interest in a particular piece of history, place, or person. These people in many cases literally gave up their lives in order to tell others about Jesus Christ, we will be looking at histories and the stories within it finding some really inspiration stuff – so you better stay awake!

Your assessment will take the form of an essay, and you get the choice of two titles. You are expected to write well. You have been given plenty of choice so pick something you are interested in – inspire me! Show me the strength of these chunks of history, show me what you are inspired by, blow me away with how amazing it all is.

Deadline: 14th Lesson. I will be asking for them at the start of class.

If you want to do it early and let me have a look over it, you can do that. I won’t be telling you a mark or correcting you but I will try and suggest stuff to make what you’ve done better.

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Most of the religions of mankind have been based around locations, people would believe in gods or spirits that had some connection to their clan or tribe, most commonly due to the land they lived on. These gods couldn’t be worshipped outside their territory, the land that was under their protection, and these ideas also lie in the Old Testament.
“They have driven me out this day that I should have no share in the heritage of the Lord” – David

Ruth to Naomi “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God”

Anthropologists have often noted that amongst all races of men there has been the idea of a Supreme God, one God who is all over. However, in most cases this God is a distant figure who has no contact with mankind and does not concern himself with us.

Some tribes have a familiar story that in ancient days the sky was so close to the earth that man could touch it, there was real contact between God and man. Then man offended God and he withdrew from mankind. Since then nothing was heard of him.

As this Supreme God is withdrawn, he cannot be a uniting principle among mankind. Therefore, few religions have ever shown the disposition to go out and convert others, or to assert their worship as the acceptable, true form of worship.

Only three religions form the exception: Buddhism, Christianity & Islam.

These all have a definite beginning in time and an identifiable founder.

Each of the three great teachers believed himself to have received revelation of universal signifance.

Each commissioned disciples to spread the message as far as possible.

Of course this is far easier now than it ever was before.

Buddhism has for the main part been an Eastern religion. Spreading from India to the NORTH, EAST & SOUTH, hardly to the west.

Islam, a religion of the desert and Middle East now stretches from Morocco to western China, from Albania to Indonesia.

Christianity, so far, is the only one to have succeeded in making itself a universal religion. Spreading from the eastern Mediterranean it has a place in almost every country in the world.

William Temple, as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1942 was the first to refer to the existence of “this great world-wide Christendom”. Even now Christianity is adapting and changing to be free from geographic boundaries and Western civilisation.

It is this journey, this spread of Christianity across the world that we shall be working through, bit by bit, slowing down a little from the 1700s as the world sped up and travel became easier and more widely reported.

It has been said that the nature of the Christian Gospel and its origin were not a good start for what would become a world-wide religion.

In the time of Jesus, the Jews were not exactly popular, many had withdrawn themselves into their intellectual and spiritual lives, and showed little concern for those who were not “God’s people/Israel”. They were described as “morose and surly” by the Roman poet Juvenal.

Jesus was born a Jew and never claimed to be anything else.

Adult years – travelled around Palestine.

Native language – Aramaic

Almost certain – could read OT in Hebrew
Might have known a little Greek
Some words of Latin
His language was that of the Psalms, style of Hebrew poetry.

This means that a lot of what Jesus said could only really be understood properly by the Jewish people.

The Jews, who had been oppressed, persecuted, enslaved, expelled, reunited, etc etc etc over years and years had one main hope: they were God’s people.

God would not leave them comfortless. He will intervene in the end. The sovereignty of God would be established. Happiness, prosperity. Some associated this with the idea of the Messiah, the Anointed of the Lord, who would rule in the name of Israel. He would be chief of nations against their enemies.

Jesus wasn’t exactly what they were expecting, hardly a warrior to take on the Romans, and rejected clearly the violent aims some of them had. But his call was urgent:

REPENT
ACCEPT THE GOOD NEWS

This message was primarily for the Jews although some Gentiles are admitted due to their great faith.

So in summary: Jews are grouchy and unliked. The messiah who’s not a warrior is speaking mainly to the Jews. Only they can really understand what he’s on about. Does that sound like something which would take off and become international!?

HOWEVER: deep in the religion and soul of the Jews, “Gods people, “the second race” was a strand that changes this: a universalism that gives the Jews a world-wide responsibility.

The Jews saw themselves as the chosen people of God. This sounds pretty absurd and would only ever get any attention if it was maybe, possibly, true. And, history would have it, they were right. But this didn’t just mean they got everything and everyone else got left in the gutter. They were chosen, and then given the responsibility of the whole world. It was their sacred text that could still claim to be a valid message for mankind, could hold the knowledge of God, and it was to the Jews that God trusted this knowledge so it might benefit the whole world.

When people talk about mathematics, and philosophy and all that amazing wisdom, they often talk about the Greeks and possibly the Babylonian people. What is often missed out is that the Greeks often referred to the source of the wisdom coming from the ancient Hebrew people, bringing all that wisdom right back to Gods chosen people. That’s pretty incredible.

The really important part of the Jews story was that the Messiah would be one of them, come from them, that salvation would come through the Jews, and it would be their job to spread the world to everyone else.

The prophecy of Zechariah, which was fulfilled by Jesus’ triumphal entrance into Jerusalem, states he will ride on a colt. That’s the famous bit. What comes after says:

“He shall command peace to the nations; his dominions shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.”

That is not just a statement of a king of one nation, one people, one race. That states that he would come for everyone, everywhere, worldwide.

So Jesus goes first to his people, the Jews, asking them to repent, believe, and to make themselves available for God’s work. Not all, infact hardly any, accepted Jesus. His death and resurrection fulfilled the destiny of Israel. It was a new start and a new Israel, called into being through Jesus Christ, who were willing to die and rise again, would form this group.

This wasn’t automatically obvious. For awhile Jerusalem was still the centre of the world. It was where their Lord had died and risen, it held a great deal of meaning. They were also expecting the end to come very soon. Pentecost came and went and many people, Jews and Gentiles had heard the good news and would carry it home with them.

At that point it was also thought that a Gentile should follow Jewish law, be circumcised, then add to this old law the conviction of fulfilment in Jesus Christ.

But, Christ didn’t return as soon as they expected. It was Luke who realised this was a new Israel would expand throughout the world, with urgency not because the end was coming, but that for each person it was important to accept the good news quickly.

It also became clear that the movement wasn’t going to be inwardly focused on Jerusalem, but instead move out from there. This is mainly attached to the work of Saul of Tarsus, later known as Paul. Jesus had died for all, and therefore the faith was open to all. With this knowledge Paul moved throughout the Roman Empire and finally ended up in Rome, able to witness to the emperor himself.

A great change came about in 70 AD when Jerusalem was destroyed. Whereas it had always been the mother Church, each Christian learned to look only to the living presence of the Lord. Although there have been some important places for Christianity, Rome, Constantinople, etc have never been a local centre for everyone. It is not like Mecca for Muslims who pray in the direction. Christians were always a wandering people of God. One would gain nothing more from being in Rome than he would his own house.

MARK 16:15 “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every nation”

Paul had helpers who were sent out to be founders of churches, but it is amazing to know that so many were anonymous in their work. Voluntary missionaries went far and wide. When Paul visited Rome there were already Christians there ready to welcome him.

The good news had spread just as Jesus had asked. The gospel was spreading right across the Roman Empire.

Note: GOSPEL: definition – “good news”
Greek word euangelion

Latinised evangelium

Hence the word evangelist or evangelism meaning to spread good news.

Possibly slaves, possibly people on trade routes, we may never know.

Few, if any, of the great churches were actually founded by the apostles. There is no evidence to say so, and although they may have helped organise, the anonymous missionaries to these places had been there spreading the good news already.

It is not important to them, nor Luke as he records the early church, who founded the church of Antioch, Rome or Alexandria. The Church was the body of Christ, indwelt with the Spirit, and they would continue to do what they had been asked to do wherever and whenever they could.

This was just the start of a piece of Gods plan that had been written into the bloodline of God’s chosen people for centuries. Jesus sparked it off and from their the fire of faith burned strong.

  • Neill, Stephen. A History of Christian Missions (Penguins Books, Great Britain, 1964).
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