The Great Missionary Presupposition
Several years ago I was doing some street evangelism. Cruising around the park and hanging out in the empty lots in the small city where the church was situated was a weekend ritual for the young. So, for several years I made it a practice of engaging these weekend warriors in conversations about the gospel. It was during those days that a teaching in the word hit me with all the force of a truck. It was a verse that I knew. But on that evening it took on a greater sense of meaning. To this day I think of it as the Great Missionary Presupposition for evangelists at home or abroad.
What is it, you ask?
In Matthew 9 Jesus had been going through all the cities and villages proclaiming the gospel and healing every kind of sickness and disease. And then, in verse 36 we read, “Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd.” That’s it. The Great Missionary Presupposition is that the unbeliever is like a sheep without a shepherd. I know, I know, simple, right? Sure it is. And I’ve read it I don’t know how many times but on that night it all came together in a way it hadn’t before.
Here is how it happened. I had gotten into a conversation with a girl and her boyfriend. After a little while I learned that she was pregnant. The two of them were not married and they did not have any plans for the future. The young man was a tough who had little time for the religious peddler he thought that I was. However, by contrast, she was very friendly and free spirited. A conversation broke out.
The conversation soon turned to spiritual things and she informed me in no uncertain terms that she was a spiritualist who did not believe in sin, judgment, or hell. So, I said to her, “For the sake of argument, let’s take the veracity of the Bible for granted. Let’s assume that it means what it says and that what it says is true.” She conceded and I spelled out the gospel. I started with sin and ended with grace. There were a few interruptions, not the least of which was a small group of homosexuals who were attempting to send me packing, but all in all I laid it all out. She simply stared at me. I was a bit taken aback and so I gave her a verbal nudge to which she replied, “But…I don’t want to go to hell.”
Well, I was almost as speechless as she was.
Here stood a girl who just minutes prior defiantly protested to any belief in a hell. But after assuming, for the sake of argument, that the Bible is what it claims to be and hearing the gospel, she looked scared and deflated and confessed that hell was the last place she wanted to go. It was at that moment it hit me. She was a sheep without a shepherd. She was supposed to look this way!
I had just led her to green pasture. I had led her to the well of living water. And she realized at that moment that there were two, and only two, paths. Whether she would eat the greens or drink from the well was for God to decide. But God had taught me a valuable lesson about sharing the gospel that night. When we are in the home or foreign mission field the primary picture we are to carry in our mind is that of a shepherd gathering up wandering and lost sheep.
With that picture in mind let’s think about Matthew 9:36-38 for a few minutes. Jesus addressed a large crowd of disciples that day using two metaphors. The first is that of sheep without a shepherd. Jesus is obviously drawing from the Old Testament as he describes those of the Jewish nation standing before him (Numbers 27:17; II Chron. 18:16). But the sheep metaphor extends beyond the Jewish nation. Using a similar sheep metaphor from Isaiah the Apostle Peter describes his readers as straying sheep who have returned to the Shepherd of their souls (I Peter 2:25). The metaphor communicates the reality of the situation as Jesus observed it. Those who are outside of Him have no shepherd or guardian. They are a harassed and confused bunch. They are unable to save themselves from spiritual harm whether Jew or gentile. Consequently, the first metaphor says something about those to whom we are to go.
However, the second metaphor is found in verses 37-38 and it says a bit more. Jesus said to the disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore, beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into the harvest.” There are a number of ideas in these verses but let me point out what is salient. First, notice to whom the harvest belongs. It is the Lord’s harvest. But notice, second, we are to pray that the Lord of the Harvest will cast laborers out into the field. The striking feature is that the Lord expects us to be concerned for His harvest! The whole thing reminds me of the watchmen on the wall of Jerusalem who are to pray and give the Lord no rest until He brings about His promises to Jerusalem. Brothers and sisters, I must ask, do you have an interest in the Lord’s field? Then, third, we must pray with urgency for the Lord to bring laborers because the harvest is plentiful. here is a practical lesson in all of this that we must not miss. All of these things can be boiled down to one idea. We ought to go into the field not intimidated but with great confidence. The people we meet, even the most intelligent, are shepherd-less sheep. So, when we meet them in the field we should not let the fact that they are nuclear engineers or doctors or lawyers trouble us. When it comes to their souls they are harried and harassed. They need rest and living water and the humblest with the Gospel is able to lead them to the Shepherd who is more than able fill their deepest need.
Jeffrey A. Stivason has been serving the Lord as a minister of the gospel since 1995. He was church planter and now pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.