Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Reaching the Nations, Prayer and Fasting

We intend here in no way to give an extensive treatment or Biblical defense of the three-fold theme of "Reaching the Nations, Prayer and Fasting", but rather simply to relate the three areas and establish the connections between them. How do these three areas connect and how do they set forth a strong ground on which the church should stand as she seeks to make the name of Christ known in places where, as of yet, his name has never been heard. All that is written here presupposes by and large, an acquaintance in the mind and an affection in the heart for the truths that have been held out in a series of sermons preached at our church that can be accessed through our churches web site on Romans 15:14-16:27. With that in mind, lets briefly consider the three areas of concern.

First: Reaching the Nations

Focal Text: Matthew 28:18-20

Matthew 28:18-20 ESV And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. (19) Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, (20) teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

Other texts could and perhaps should be listed here as well. Texts like Acts 1:8, Mark 16:15, Mark 13:10, and Romans 10:18 among others. This text from the gospel of Matthew, sets forth the truth that the church in every age has been given the responsibility of reaching the nations of the world with the “disciple-making” message of the gospel. Both 1) the people that are to be reached - those from all the nations of the world and 2) the promissory presence of Christ - with us till the end of the age, point us to the conclusion that this responsibility of carrying Christ’s gospel to men remains in full force for the church today. This “great commission” was in no way fulfilled by the Apostolic church. It remains for us to carry this message to groups of people, oft referred to as “people groups” who have yet to hear the message of the gospel. It is estimated that there are some 6,000 Unreached People Groups in the world today who have no abiding witness to carry the gospel forward in their regions. The Apostle Paul made it, he writes the Romans, ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named.” He does this he says because he had read from the prophet Isaiah that "Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand" (Romans 15:20-21 ESV). Thus, under the command of the all authoritative Christ, the Lord of the Church and standing upon the authoritative Scriptures, we take it as our commission and ought to make it our ambition, to seek out places where Christ is yet to be named.

Second: Reaching the Nations and Prayer

Just how are we to go about “reaching the nations.” At this point the precious provision and means of grace God has given to His church - prayer - comes into the picture. There is no shortage of people left in the world who have yet to hear. It is estimated that among the 6000 people groups who have no abiding witness to Christ, live somewhere in the range of 2-3 billion people. When Jesus said in John 4:35 to his disciples that they should “lift up (their) eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest” he may very well have been directing their vision to the approaching Samaritans that were to believe on him from the town of Sychar. These were in the process of coming to hear Jesus himself having been drawn initially by the testimony of the woman to whom Jesus had made himself known. These people, who had yet to hear the life transforming message of the gospel served as a paradigm for Christ to use as an object lesson to teach his disciples about the plight of the nations. Many have yet to hear - but need to hear - indeed are ripe to hear - what the church must go is get the message to them. But how? The words of Jesus to his disciples in Matthew’s gospel give us great insight here. Hear from Matthew’s gospel and consider the responsibility of the church:

Matthew 9:35-38 ESV And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. (36) When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (37) Then he said to his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; (38) therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest."

A recognition of the needs of the nations (the harvest) must be met here by the embracing of an earnest plea to the Lord of the harvest himself, to send out laborers into the fields of people that are waiting to be brought in! This is the same plea made by the Apostle Paul to the believers in Thessalonica when he asked them to offer heartfelt, affectionate prayer for him and his missionary team that the “word of the Lord (the gospel message) may speed ahead and be honored” as had happened among them when Paul first visited them with the dark dispelling message of the light of the gospel.

Jesus and Paul both said it clearly - the reaching of the nations is to be accomplished in the sending out of men to preach the gospel, make disciples and plant new and gospel-honoring churches. However, Jesus and Paul also clearly state - the church must pray that these gospel preaching church planters would be raised up and sent out by the Lord of the harvest himself.

Third: Reaching the Nations, Prayer and Fasting

What is fascinating to me is finding both these ideas present in texts where they are joined to the practice of fasting. Consider here as a focal text Acts 13:1-3 ESV

Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. (2) While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." (3) Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.

Here is the church, poised on the edge of the first missionary movement in the history of the church. From this church would be sent out the first “missions team” of Paul and Barnabas to a work that would redefine the life of the early church. From this church would go out a team of men that would transform the then known world, the effects of which are still being felt today. They would carry the gospel to Galatia, Asia, eventually to Macedonia, Greece and eventually at the close of the NT age - Rome! It is speculated among church historians that Paul may have even made it as far as Spain or even Great Britain before he gave his life in filling up the afflictions of Christ for the sake of reaching God’s elect with God’s glorious gospel.

What I want you to notice is the role that fasting played in this missionary movement. Fasting is seen in this text as a divinely appointed means of stirring and strengthening God-centered, worship-filled affections in the soul of the church.

A little background on fasting might help us here. There is a story told by the gospel writers that may fill in some of the blanks often brought about when the subject of fasting is placed “on the table.” Let’s listen to Matthew’s account of the story:

Matthew 9:10-17 ESV And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. (11) And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" (12) But when he heard it, he said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. (13) Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.' For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners." (14) Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, "Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?" (15) And Jesus said to them, "Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. (16) No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. (17) Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved."

Now there is in truth a lot to get lost in from this text - and it is all very good stuff and well worth our time. But let’s focus in on simply one part - Jesus words when he, in answering the question as to why his disciples didn’t fast states, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.“ In short, fasting when the bridegroom (Jesus) is present would be out of place. His presence demands joy and feasting, not sorrow and fasting. However, days were coming - very soon - when fasting, not continual feasting - would indeed be appropriate and was indeed expected. In the absence of the bridegroom (the time the church is waiting and anticipating Christ’s return) there is a longing in the heart of the church that is aptly expressed in the practice of fasting. We long for his return - we are not satisfied with the white bread of the world - we would gladly give it up in trade for his presence which is our true food and drink!

When we fast - giving up a portion of food for a time - here in this world, we are giving expression to the longing of our hearts and calling on our hearts to long for that which is their true and soul-satisfying food - Christ himself.

We long for the return of the bridegroom and in fasting we say, “Yes” to his soon return! We give tangible expression to the cry of our heart which are consumed with the thought of his return.

Interestingly, though it is not often considered, this thought should be joined to the words of Jesus in Matthew 26:26-29

Matthew 26:26-29 ESV Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, "Take, eat; this is my body." (27) And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, "Drink of it, all of you, (28) for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (29) I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom."

Jesus declares in the institution of the Lord’s Supper that from this point until his return - he will be engaged in a fast as well. He will refuse the delights of the fruit of the vine until that day when he (the bridegroom) is reunited with us (the bride) in his Father’s kingdom. In that day their will be feasting, until then, there is fasting.

Put these thoughts together. John Piper helpfully notes, “fasting is a future oriented counterpart to the past-oriented celebration of the Lord’s Supper.” Rejoicing in the supper takes us back to the historic work of Christ for the good of our souls, in fasting we look forward to the future coming and full triumph of Christ and long for that day to come.

We still have one thing to do - we have to move from fasting, back to the call of the church to reach the nations. For those believers in Antioch in Acts 13, worship fueled by prayer and fasting with the kind of worship that fueled their passion for world missions. Jesus makes an astounding statement that will help us here in Matthew 24:14. There we read: “This gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” What is the relationship here between fasting and reaching the nations? In order for the end to come, the gospel must be preached to all the nations. In order for the bridegroom to return and reclaim his supreme rule over all enemies and usher in his glorious kingdom, the gospel of that kingdom must speed ahead and penetrate all the dark regions of the nations of the world with points of light that our glorious King Jesus might have before him “people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9 ESV). In order for the church to be moved forward in the reaching of the nations, giving expression to her longing for the return of her prince, she must be stirred by prayer (the expression of her full dependence upon Christ for the fulfillment of the task) and fasting (the expression of and stimulant toward a deeper longing him to return and display his fame for all to see among the nations.) To borrow from the old King James translation on this point, this engagement of the church in world evangelization spreading the gospel to all the nations of the world, speeding forward or hastening the return of Christ, may very well not come without “prayer and fasting.”