As we have already stated many times in this brief work, the Great Commission is primarily a theological or doctrinal endeavor. It is about communicating God’s truth to men. Therefore, above all other things, the missionary must be a Christian who is adequately instructed in the Word of God and is a capable instructor of others. The logic is irrefutable:
First Premise: The Great Commission is a doctrinal endeavor, the communication of God’s truth to men.
Second Premise: The only authoritative source of all Christian doctrine is the Word of God—i.e. the Scripture.
Conclusion: Those who would be missionaries must make it their primary objective to understand, assimilate, and communicate the Scriptures to others in word and deed.
In what remains of this chapter, we will consider three important texts of Scripture that support the conclusion that the missionary is adequately prepared for his labor only to the degree that he is adequately instructed in the Word of God and can accurately handle it truths for the instruction of others.
One of the most powerful examples of the truths set forth in the above introduction is found in the life of Ezra and his ministry to those returning to Israel after the exile:
“For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel.”1
The first thing that stands out about Ezra is that he “set his heart” to make the ministry of God’s Word his priority. This is understandable in light of the fact that the entire exile was the result of the people’s ignorance of God’s Word and disobedience to His will. Like Ezra, the missionary must come to the immutable conviction that this is the great problem of all men, and that the communication of the Word of God in the power of the Holy Spirit is its only cure. It is this conviction that guided the apostles who declared, “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”2 It is this conviction that resulted in their ministry’s lasting influence throughout the centuries and throughout the globe.
The second thing in the life of Ezra that is worthy of imitation is the intentionality and thoroughness with which he undertook the ministry of the Word. He did not just set his heart to teach, which would have led to superficiality and even hypocrisy; but he set his heart to the lifelong discipline of studying, practicing, and then teaching. The order is not coincidental, but intentional. In fact, the order may be the most important truth that we can glean from Ezra’s life. Like him, we must devote our lives to study God’s truth so that we might live God’s truth so that we might proclaim God’s truth. This order is also reflected in the Matthew’s account of Christ’s Great Commission to the church— “Teach them to observe all that I have commanded you.”3 The missionary is not only to teach what he has learned, but what he is living. We must not even entertain the idea of going off the mission field unless we have set our hearts like Ezra to study, practice, and teach the Scriptures.
The True Priest
The prophet Malachi was the last prophet of the Old Testament and in many ways his writings represent God’s last word to His people prior to the advent of Christ. His preaching demonstrates that after the exile, Israel had once again fallen into moral decline as a result of its ignorance and disobedience to God’s Word. The remedy and the need of the day was a true priest who could instruct the people with both word and deed. Such a priest is described in chapter two:
“‘My covenant with him was one of life and peace, and I gave them to him as an object of reverence; so he revered Me and stood in awe of My name. True instruction was in his mouth and unrighteousness was not found on his lips; he walked with Me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many back from iniquity. For the lips of a priest should preserve knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth; for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts.’”4
In this beautiful description of the true priest of God are found many virtues that should be imitated by the missionary. Although a proper and thorough exposition of the passage would require several chapters, we have space for only the briefest explanation: First, the laws or words of the covenant were an object of profound reverence to him. He revered the word of God. Secondly, his life and ministry were marked by a deep reverence for God’s name. Such a reverence for God is cultivated through the study of God’s Word. Thirdly, his life and ministry were marked by true instruction and the righteous example of his life. As a result, many were turned back from iniquity and restored to fellowship with God. Finally, he was a storehouse and guardian of Scriptural knowledge. He was a true messenger of God to men, and he was known among men as one from whom they could hear the Word of God. Oh, that God would raise up a generation of missionaries of this caliber! It would change the world and leave a legacy that would affect countless generations to come!
In contrast to the true priest, the Lord through Malachi also described the unfaithful and useless priest:
“‘But as for you, you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by the instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi,’ says the LORD of hosts. ‘So, I also have made you despised and abased before all the people, just as you are not keeping My ways but are showing partiality in the instruction.’”5
The faithless and useless priest is described as one who had turned away from God by turning away from His Word. He did not teach the full counsel of God’s law but made himself a judge of the Word and taught only that which conformed to his own thinking and carnal desires. As a result, others were led astray into the same error and corrupted. For this reason, God removed the priest’s mantel and majesty. Although he had changed God’s law to gain the approval of the people, he was soon recognized as a fraud and despised by the very ones from whom he had sought approval.
The above scenario has been played out innumerable times throughout the history of the church. It occurs when a missionary no longer holds to the highest view of Scripture but sets himself as its judge and reinterprets its words through the lens of his own carnal opinion or that of his godless culture. It happens when the missionary caters to the entrenched unbiblical perspective of the people group to whom he has been sent, and changes God’s eternal Word to make it less scandalous, more palatable, and easier to incorporate into their present worldview. It results in error and judgment. The people continue in their error and remain exposed to God’s wrath. The missionary loses his mantel and authority as God’s messenger. He becomes useless to God, harmful to men, despised by the people, and under judgment. Oh, that God would keep us from such error and the eternal consequences of it!
Paul’s Charge to Timothy
A person’s last words are often his most important. For this reason, even our system of law regards a person’s last will and testament to be binding and inalterable. In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, we find his last will and testament to his young disciple, and we would do well to give the most careful attention to every word. One admonition in particular stands out among them all:
“Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.”6
This text is the New Testament equivalent to the example that is set before us by Ezra the scribe. Ezra “set his heart” to study, practice, and teach God’s law. Timothy was commanded to “be diligent” in “accurately handling the word of truth.” The word “diligent” comes from the Greek word spoudázō, which also communicates the idea of eagerness and even haste. It implies a “readiness to expend energy and effort.”7 It means to “be bent upon something and to earnestly strive for it.”8 In summary, we are to throw ourselves into the study of God’s Word with intentionality, dedication, and passion.
The text goes on to teach us that the minister does not study for study’s sake, but he is a workman and the Word of God is the tool of his trade. If he is to be approved of God as a useful servant to both God and man, he must learn to accurately handle the word of truth. The phrase “accurately handling” comes from a single Greek word, orthotoméo, which literally means to “cut straight.” The idea communicated is that we must learn to interpret and teach God’s word with the utmost accuracy or precision. If the surgeon’s cut makes even the slightest deviation from the mark it can result in the death of his patient. If the missionary deviates in his dividing of God’s truth it can bring death upon an entire people.
If we hope to do good to the people to whom we are sent, and if we hope to have God’s approval in the endeavor, we must be bent upon knowing God’s Word and expend whatever energy necessary to study it, apply it to our lives, and teach it to others. The only alternative is shame.
The Great Commission has to do with the communication of God’s truth to men. If the missionary is to be a useful servant of God in this commission, he must devote himself to the study, practice, and teaching of the Scriptures. This truth applies, not only to the teacher, preacher, and evangelist, but to all who would go to the foreign field. Although not all are teachers, all have been given the capacity to know God through His Word and to make Him known to others with accuracy, clarity, and boldness. The prophet Jeremiah tells us that one the outstanding characteristics of the New Covenant is that all the people of God, from the least of them to the greatest, will possess a extraordinary knowledge of Him and His redemptive work.9 The Apostle John assures us that all of us within the community of faith are indwelt by the Holy Spirit who is able to illuminate and lead us into truth.10
Having all these promises, let us press on to know the Lord through His word.11 Let us be like the more noble-minded Bereans who received the word with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures daily.12 May God give us missionaries who are literally saturated with the Word of God through study, memorization, meditation, prayer, obedience, and proclamation!
- Ezra 7:10
- Acts 6:4
- Matthew 28:20 (Italics mine)
- Malachi 2:5-7
- Malachi 2:8-9
- II Timothy 2:15
- Louw & Nida, 25.75
- Mounce Greek Dictionary
- Jer. 31:34 “They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the LORD, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”
- I John 2:20-21 – “But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you all know. I have not written to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it, and because no lie is of the truth.” I John 2:27 – “As for you, the anointing which you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need for anyone to teach you; but as His anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you abide in Him.”
- Hosea 6:3
- Acts 17:11
Paul is the founder of HeartCry Missionary Society and currently serves as its missions director. He also ministered as a missionary in Peru for ten years. He has preached hundreds of sermons and has authored a dozen published works. Paul lives in Radford, Virginia, with his wife Charo and their four children: Ian, Evan, Rowan, and Bronwyn.More By Paul David Washer