Making Jesus Known Where He is Not Known – Romans 15: 20-22
By: Alistair Brown
Part of Northern Seminary’s recent centennial celebrations included a heritage coach tour which focused on places of Northern’s past and Northern’s present. Those places included Chicago’s West Washington Boulevard and Lawndale. West Washington Boulevard is where the seminary had its campus from 1920 to 1963. Lawndale is where Northern has a second campus today in partnership with Lawndale Community Church. Both places have their challenges related to poverty, drugs, and violence. Visiting them brought back memories for me.
Many years ago, when Alison and I had two little children, we lived in a public housing area in Edinburgh which had similar challenges. Similar? Well, back then the gang members probably did not have guns, and disadvantage in that area was very real but had nothing to do with skin color. Other than those two things, a lot was similar:
- Murders were all too common.
- Rapes, knife attacks, violent assaults happened all the time. We saw many fights in the street right outside our apartment.
- When stores closed for the night they rolled down heavy duty steel shutters to protect their premises. It was the only way to prevent break-ins or windows being smashed.
- The police station was barricaded against assault.
- Hardly any families had Dad, Mom, and their children – most were a blend, often from several fathers.
- Drugs were an enormous problem – that included all the hard drugs – but maybe the worst drug of all was alcohol. Quite often I saw a little child aged 6 or 7 left sitting on the curb outside the pub so that she could make sure her ‘father’ got home when he emerged staggering from the pub.
- There were probably five times as many pubs and gambling shops as grocery stores.
- There were almost no cars – no one had any money for cars, including us.
- All sorts of unwanted or broken goods were dumped in the communal back yards, and sometimes the front yards. Kids played in the street or among the refuse of old beds, mattresses, and fridges.
- Many children were fully sexually experienced before they were even ten.
- Very few youngsters completed schooling, and unemployment was massively high. When employers saw that an applicant’s address was in that area they refused to hire them.
- The apartment straight across from ours had no furniture at all; it had all been repossessed to pay for debts.
- Any unused apartment was boarded up immediately by the City Council to protect it from being raided by thieves or destroyed by vandals, and so the street looked permanently derelict and depressing.
About 25,000 people lived there. The Council had largely given up on it, and it had spiraled downwards for years.
We moved to live there when we had only our son aged about two and another baby about to be born. We wanted to help a fledgling, tiny church bring Christ’s love and care into that place, and we believed we had to live there to do that.
The Council were willing to rent us an apartment, and once we had agreed to take it on I told them they could now take the wooden boards off the windows. “No, we won’t do that yet,” the city official said. “Not until you tell us the day, and the time of day, you are moving in. If we take the boards off more than an hour before you occupy the flat, it will be stripped.”
We moved in, and learned a lot of things. We found some wonderful people in the area, and we saw God do remarkable things in people’s lives. There were plenty tough times too, and some surprising ones.
Early one evening there was a bang at our door. I opened it and my friend called Roy was there carrying some heavy equipment I needed. Roy brought it in, laid it down, and asked if I would help him with the rest. “Of course,” I said. We lived on the second floor, so Roy and I went down the communal stair, pushed our way past some very threatening young men who often hung about there, and went out to Roy’s car. It was the only car in the street. He opened the trunk. Nothing had been stolen but there was hardly anything inside. The only item still to be brought up was a microphone cable. Roy was over 6 feet tall and probably 250 pounds at least. He was a strong guy. I was puzzled.
“Roy,” I said, “you didn’t need my help for that!”
He looked around – rough kids playing in the street, boarded up windows all around, debris and refuse scattered all over the place, the local thugs at the door to our building – and Roy said: “I was frightened. How can you live here?”
These days I do not remember the answer I gave to Roy, but I am very sure about the question that grew and grew in my mind during those years: “How come all the Christians seem to get guidance to live in the nice places?” Why do they feel led to the places of safety, comfort, affluence, places where there are already churches almost everywhere? Why are they not guided to the dark, difficult, and dangerous places? Don’t the people who live there need God’s love too?
The apostle Paul was very sure where he wanted to be.
Romans 15: 20-22
20 It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation. 21 Rather, as it is written:
“Those who were not told about him will see,
and those who have not heard will understand.”
22 This is why I have often been hindered from coming to you.
Paul knew his mission. He wanted to go where no evangelist had gone before, to tell the good news of Christ to those who had never heard, and to plant churches where none existed before. Paul was driven to find the lost. Wherever people had yet to hear of Jesus, that is where Paul wanted to be.
I have three lessons about making Jesus known where he is not known:
1. The importance: those who have never heard need to hear.
I know it’s not simple to talk about what happens with those who have never heard the gospel, but there are two fundamental matters for me.
First, Jesus and others said faith in him was essential.
John 14:6 – Jesus’ own words:
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Acts 4: 12 – Spoken by the apostle Peter, just as he and the others were being persecuted for testifying about Jesus – he was explaining why they could not keep quiet:
“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”
In these words, they were not saying Jesus was best among the many acceptable religious leaders. Instead Jesus and Peter were saying he was the only One, the only Savior, the only way to the Father.
If we believe that, then people need to hear.
Here is my other fundamental reason for believing people must hear of Jesus: that is the only way to make sense of how Paul and others lived.
If Jesus is just an option, even just the most wonderful option, why risk and why accept beatings, stonings, shipwrecks, starvation, prison, persecution, and death – all experiences of the first Christians. They would not sit back. They would not stay quiet. They would not opt for their own comfort or security or prosperity. They laid down their lives so that others would find Jesus. They did that only because they knew people must hear.
A manufacturer can rationalize his business to save on costs. If one line isn’t making enough money – if there’s not much of a return on it – cut it!
We can never make that choice. Because all people need Jesus we cannot give up on anyone:
Not on any nation.
Not on any ethnic group.
Not on any community, no matter how poor or how violent or how different they are.
The gospel is not just for people like us; the gospel is for all people.
The second lesson on making Jesus known where he is not known:
2. The significance: that is where God’s people will often make the biggest difference.
Alison and I started dating in the early 70s in Edinburgh. Weeks into the relationship I remember we had spent one evening in my apartment and at an almost responsible time she needed to leave. I said I’d walk her home for three reasons:
a) It was the gentlemanly thing to do.
b) I got to spend more time with her.
c) There was a massive power outage/cut in the area and I could not have her walking home in complete darkness.
It was about a mile or two to where she lived. I encouraged her to hold on tight to me for safety (no other reason, of course), and we got there. I started back on my own.
It was dark! Take away any source of light and dark is very dark. The power was out so there were no street lights and no house lights. Even the moon was hiding behind clouds. I could not even see my feet! Everything about me was blackness as I stumbled along.
Then in the distance I saw a light. It was an immensely bright light. I could hardly believe it, but there was one huge spotlight at the back of someone’s home, and it was illuminating the whole road and sidewalk near there. It was very strange, but I was delighted. At last I could see where I was going.
Then I drew level with the house which had the light. I looked up. There was no spotlight; nothing more than one small light bulb – perhaps just 60 watts! I have no idea how it was powered for everything else around was dark – maybe the owner had some secret cable to the power company or just his own small generator. But – and here’s the point – that one small light bulb was immensely bright. With darkness all around it shone so strongly and lit up everything for a long way. Just one small light, but the darkness could not beat it.
Going where Christ is not yet known… God calls us to be even one small light in a very dark place rather than yet another bit of light where there is already plenty light. It is where God’s people will often make the greatest difference.
Third lesson on making Jesus known where he is not known:
3. The cost: It will always be uncomfortable and may be dangerous.
Alison and I ended up with very mixed feelings about that area of Edinburgh where we lived for some years. We loved those people and we actually felt immensely at peace being there. But it wasn’t fun. Every day and night we heard mice running up and down between the walls of the apartment block and often into our apartment, and all too often we had to fumigate the rooms to get rid of flies and other undesirables. Cats and dogs urinated in the stair. There was constant noise and we were often wakened. It was another world of crime and violence for most of our friends, who were happy for us to visit them but they did not want to come and visit us.
That’s where we lived with two little children while I studied for my main theology degree…
It was not comfortable and it was not easy.
But God did not say he would put us only in the nice places. He did not say we could be in the comfortable and easy places. He did not say we were entitled to have our affluent dreams fulfilled.
When we say, “My life is given to God,” we hand everything over to God for him to make all the decisions.
- He will call us where he wills to call us.
- He will call us to work which he chooses for us.
- He will call us to be with people he has decided we will work with.
It won’t be about our comfort or our preferences. It will be about his desire that all people know his Son and therefore he may well send us ‘where Christ is not known.’
No-one can set conditions on their discipleship.
No-one can impose their life agenda on God.
To be his is to be completely his, every part of our lives for every purpose he decides.
All those years ago I asked: “How come all the Christians seem to get guidance to live in the nice places?” I know the answer: they don’t.
May God put each of us where he needs us to be, and may it mean people who know nothing of Christ come to know him and serve him.