(This is a message given at a European International Student Ministry (ISM) workers’ conference at Bischofsheim, Germany, April 18-22, 2001).
My thesis is that since our human beginnings, God has unceasingly been seeking and calling humanity to a relationship of love with Himself. Both Old and New Testaments are united in portraying God’s love through the people of God (the patriarchs, then Israel, and finally the church). Like God, God’s people go out and call in representatives of the nations to this same relationship of love with God. God’s relationship to His people includes His intent that the surrounding world honor Him as God. International students in our time have become a key to the glory and honor of God being perceived throughout the nations in a time of unprecedented expansion of the human race.
Strategic Importance of International Students
Let me start off with a significant quotation from Dr. Carl Henry (C.F.H. Henry, a founding father of Fuller Seminary and a leading evangelical theologian in the latter half of the 20th century):
“Is it not a fair test of missionary concern whether or not we share the eternally Good News with distant peoples who in God’s providence have come to our own shores and community? The imperative toward non-Christians involves forging constructive contacts by manifesting love and compassion, sharing biblically revealed truths, and personally mirroring the vitalities of redemption. The neglect of such involvement will almost surely foster increased paganism.”
This statement highlights how important international students are for the mission of the church and health of society today. They are strategic for missionaries like you and me for other reasons as well:
1. They are important to their nations. The so-called “developing nations” look to these students as the future undergirding of their nation-building efforts. They are key to the economic development of these nations, which long to achieve the status and standards of modern states. This is one reason for large numbers taking the sciences, engineering, and management. Also, many of the world’s political leaders have been educated here. So they are important to their nations.
2. They are important to their families as well as, of course, to themselves in terms of their own personal advancement. For many coming from relatively impoverished backgrounds, a good paying job and a competitive edge at home or abroad in the job market depends on their academic achievement. Their families often make great sacrifices to help them get this education, and then look to them for substantial support financially later on.
3. They are important to the Christian church in their nations. Many internationals are Christians and studying not only in seminaries with a view to Christian ministry, but also studying in our universities. These will have an obvious impact on the churches they return to, as well as on the missionary enterprise of those churches.
A surprising new fact of recent decades is that the number of missionaries being sent out from non-western churches has grown from 13,000 in 1980 to over 50,000 at the turn of the century (with some estimates much higher). With the western Protestant missionary force slowed somewhat as colonialism waned, new missionary forces have emerged from developing-world nations, especially nations where the church is strong such as Korea, the Philippines, South India, and east and west Africa. The burden of the mission of the church and of world evangelization is being shared increasingly with these churches. Who are the leaders of these churches going to be? Many will be the international students currently on our campuses!
Less obvious, but equally important perhaps, is the impact of changed attitudes on the part of many non-Christian world leaders educated in the so-called “Christian West.” These may never become Christians in their personal faith, but they can wield immense power politically and socially in their countries where they have leadership roles in the society.
Some years back my wife and I spent a year in Benares, now called Varanasi, in India. I was a graduate student for a year at Benares Hindu University. (By the way, I recommend a year abroad like this to any student or recent graduate if possible…it’s very eye-opening to experience being a foreign student while trying to learn how to effectively minister among internationals).
We lived in a faculty hostel on campus and a faculty man was one of the first to call on us for afternoon tea. Yadav was the head of the Education Department in this Hindu university. As we got acquainted one of the first questions he asked was, “What are the spiritual foundations of western culture?”
As I started to look for ways to share how the gospel influenced our western cultural roots, he anticipated me saying, “Jesus Christ is central to this gospel, isn’t he?” With some astonishment I began to explain who Jesus is. Before I got very far along he said, "The resurrection is foundational to belief in Jesus, isn’t it?”
I asked him where he’d learned all this! He said that he’d been a student in London before teaching in Kenya and then India, and as he described his experiences in England I discovered he’d met Christians and been to a retreat strikingly similar to one of our InterVarsity International Conferences or “House Parties!”
Later I was talking with other Hindu faculty in our hostel about the fact that this man was from Haryana Pradesh, one of the most staunch Hindu parts of north India. “Oh, that makes no difference,” one of them said off-handedly. “He thinks like a Christian, talks like a Christian and acts like a Christian…he might just as well be one!” Yadav is the man who has taught many generations of school teachers in this strongly Hindu area of eastern Uttar Pradesh. His attitudes and even his lifestyle was radically affected for a lifetime by his experiences with God’s people in England.
The fourth reason for the strategic importance of internationals for the church’s ministry in western nations is the “Biblical Mandate.” It’s here I want to spend the major portion of our time together.
You are all fully aware of most of the salient arguments for a biblical basis of our ministry to internationals, and many of you could do as good or better a job of standing up here and talking about it. So why talk about it? Like you, I believe that the Bible is our bedrock of motivation and encouragement in this ministry, especially when we get discouraged from what some might think of as a lack of “results,” or discouraged by the indifference of fellow Christians we wish dearly to partner with in this ministry. We need to continually exhort each other to love and good works and remind ourselves of the encouragements of scripture.
In any presentation of this ministry, however, it’s important that we think of more than simply the “nooks and crannies” as I call them…the “proof texts”, as it were, such as Leviticus 19:33-34 or Deuteronomy 10:18-19.
If all we do is point to these more explicit texts, such as those on the “aliens” in Israel, the overall significance of the alien may seem meager, even anemic, compared to the huge body of the rest of Scripture where aliens are not explicitly mentioned. It’s important we also grasp and teach the larger themes of what God has been doing in and through Israel, and then His Church, if we are to make a powerful presentation of International Student Ministry.
We need to keep in mind in all our biblical studies that this book is about an almost unimaginatively holy Creator-God, and about a human family totally alienated from Him with universally disobedient hearts and deeply embedded sin. Apart from God’s grace, the moral chasm separating us from God is wide and deep. Keeping this in mind will help explain the severity of temporal judgments (not to mention eternal judgement), and will make us periodically ask, not why so much judgement, but why such mercy and restraint by God?
Even the most committed follower of God will confess with Isaiah: “I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). This explains why the Hebrew community, increasingly blinded by self-centeredness over time, viewed the very revelations and blessings of God as a reason to become self-absorbed and to feel superior to others. We see this moral chasm again in the New Testament where even the Apostles of God, unaided by the Holy Spirit, would have kept their new faith confined to the Hebrew community. In this sense, our calling to reach out to cultures and peoples other than our own goes against every natural self-centered instinct unaided by the Spirit of God. Reminders of this should drive us continually to dependence on God, both for ourselves and for others.
I’d like to take you through a number of selected passages of Scripture focusing on a few of the grand themes as well as specifics. I can touch only lightly on the riches in each of them but will try to apply them as we go along to our current ministry situation. We’ll get an overview of the whole of the Bible this way, as well as some practical ways in which it strengthens and elucidates some of the issues we struggle with in cross-cultural relationships.
The Human Family, God’s Special Creation
Genesis 1:26-28a (NIV)
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.”
Men and women of all the generations that have “filled the earth” are image bearers of God and members of the human family. This idea of one human family is not just an ancient or Old Testament idea: The Apostle Paul reaffirms this in his Mars Hill sermon (Acts 17:26): “God hath made of one blood all nations.”
It is even being reaffirmed by present day secular scholars, who are discovering through genetic studies that the human race goes back to one original pair, and this is not only traceable through the female line but through the male line as well (as seen in the research of Dr. Luigi Michaelangelo-Sforza at Stanford University).
How does this apply to international students? The most obvious is that internationals need to be respected as part of that human family, indeed as equals. But even more than equals, they are part of that dispersed humanity God has given a special role to in “ruling over” His created order. The specialness of their calling, Christian or non-Christian, is that within this “creation mandate” given in Genesis to all human beings, most of these students are the next generation of leadership in whatever dimension of cultural, social, political, economic, or religious life they may end up.
What does this mean for us as ISM workers? Clearly it means that minimally we need to respect them, “male and female,” as equally God’s image-bearers. There simply is no place for western paternalism. An example may elucidate this:
Philip Prasad is a member of the Dalit or “untouchable” community of India which is largely illiterate and oppressed. He is one of the few Christian Dalits to have gotten a PhD, which he got studying in the “West” some years back against incredible odds both psychologically and economically. From a Hindu standpoint he’s from the lowest of the low castes in India because of “sins in previous lives,” and therefore at best only barely human in Hindu eyes. Yet God is currently using this man to orchestrate an almost unbelievable mass movement of tens of thousands of untouchables into the Kingdom of God. If missionaries in India, and believers in the West had not respected, welcomed and loved this man years ago as a student, he likely would not be what he is today.
The image is “male and female”… think of the women students on our campuses from religious cultures who are repelled by the loose sexual standards of Western men but for whom respect by men of spiritual stature is one of the few ways they will discern the difference a Christian makes. Or think of the female spouses of Muslim students, protected from social contact with Christian churches and groups here, and therefore requiring a special creative effort by Christian women for them to find respect, acceptance, and love while living in our Western cultures.
Respect for every individual as God’s “image bearer” is critical to our ministry—respect regardless of differences in race, class, education, or any other set of advantages or disadvantages by societal measurements. We need to ask ourselves a serious question: Do international students find communities of affirmation in our campus situations?
We’ve talked about the creation mandate, let’s talk now about the redemptive mandate.
God’s Redemptive Purposes for the Human Family
The Lord said to Abraham, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
You must not neglect this passage in any presentation of how the Old Testament undergirds International Student Ministry. It is foundational to the New Testament understanding of salvation in Christ, who is Abraham’s “seed” (Galatians 3:16) and of God’s redemptive purposes applied to the “nations” (Romans 4:17). The nation of Israel later confused these Abrahamic promises as focused only on themselves as children of Abraham and sole recipients of God’s salvation. The fact remains that God revealed, even before Moses and the Law, that “all the nations of the earth would be blessed” because of Abraham’s faith. This cuts across all our insularity as people of faith and calls us to be “world Christians.”
But then what of the rest of the Pentateuch and its emphasis on the Law and the sacrifices? The Mosaic Law is relevant as an expression of God’s desire that we reflect His moral nature as His image in us is being repaired and restored. Particularly relevant is the sacrificial system, however elemental, as a means of cleansing from the sins of breaking those laws. This Mosaic Law, then, becomes part of the preparation of not just the Hebrews, but the whole human family, for the “suffering servant” (Jesus) and his death on the cross for the sins of the whole world.
We talk a lot about Jesus fulfilling Old Testament prophecies, but actually Jesus fulfilled the entire Old Testament, including the Law! “If you believed Moses, you would believe me,” Jesus said, “for he wrote of me.” (John 5:46). “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” says the Apostle John. (I John 2:2).
Jesus fulfilled the entire legal system in terms of its essential expectations. The sacrificial system is like a huge block of “prophecy” of the Messiah, and together with the rest of the Old Testament prophetic revelation, points solidly to Him and the whole world’s need for Him! Israel becomes our “object lesson,” with the sacrificial system educating us all to trust in the “sacrificial shedding of blood for the remission of sins” and thus preparing us for the final, once-and-for-all sacrifice that Jesus will make for the sins of the whole world.
Some Christian thinkers have applied this “preparation” idea to the other major religions as well, seeing some religions as pointing toward the need for God, and Jesus as the fulfillment of the highest religious asperations within the religious system. In our sinful condition, however, even our highest spiritual impulses become distorted, so what we end up with is far from the clarity we have here in the “high ethical monotheism” of the Bible. So back to Abraham.
The promise to make Abraham a “great nation” had a twofold intention: 1) to create a nation-people (the people of Israel) as a temporary witness to the surrounding nations, and 2) for this nation-people of Israel to be the vehicle through which the promised “Messiah” or Savior would eventually come.
In like manner today the people of God, the Church, are those called to bear witness to the surrounding communities of those who are not-yet-believers. The focus of this witness is Jesus, now the risen and living Christ, the promised Messiah.
When you and I bear witness to Jesus among the students gathered from the nations of the world here to study, we are at the very center and core of God’s Biblical purposes of redemption for the world, revealed in both Testaments. Our witnessing groups on campus become like little Israels or little churches! It’s a great temptation to think that God was primarily interested in Israel, or worse that Israel’s God was merely a tribal God. That’s not what a careful reading of scripture tells us. God’s involvement with Israel was not for its own sake alone, but for a watching world!
Israel as God’s Witness to the “Nations” or “Peoples”
Let’s unpack this idea of Israel as God’s witness to the nations a little more. I call this “centripetal missions.” The primary witness in the Old Testament was “centripetal,” that is, the drawing in (i.e. movement toward the center) of whole nations of people needing to see God in action, so that they could observe the life-transforming effects of God’s presence in the believing community. With notable exceptions the focus was on God’s actions within Israel.
By analogy, our universities attract huge numbers of the world’s “young and brightest” where they can observe God’s presence in our believing student and community groups.
The obvious implication for our work with international students is that God is to be glorified among internationals as representatives of these nations, and this is done by drawing them in to see the effects of His presence in our changed lives now, and then hear the stories of His laws, His power, and His various deliverances.
The Psalms capture the essence of this. The word “nations” or “peoples” occurs throughout the Psalms. God’s ultimate concern and desire is that He be glorified through Israel among the nations. Let’s look at one of these passages:
Psalm 66:4-8; 67:1-7 (Living Bible)
(Just for fun, I’m going to substitute the world “internationals” for the word translated “nations” or “peoples”):
All the earth shall worship you and sing of your glories. Come, see the glorious things God has done. What marvelous miracles happen to his people! Because of his great power he rules forever. He watches every movement of internationals (the nations). How everyone throughout the earth will praise the Lord! How glad the internationals (nations) will be, singing for joy because you are their King and will give true justice to their people. Praise God, O World! May all the internationals (peoples) of the earth give thanks to you. For the earth has yielded abundant harvests. God, even our own God, will bless us. And internationals (peoples) from remotest lands will worship him.”
It’s surprising really that in the Biblical literature most given to devotional worship of God Himself, in the quiet time literature if you will, the “nations” should be such a major focus. It’s as if the closer one gets to God, the more one perceives His mission heart! It is clear in these Psalms that God’s blessing on Israel was not simply for its own sake as an object of his covenant love and care, but also on how the surrounding nations would perceive Him and give him glory and praise.
There are at least three ways that this happens in the Scripture. I characterize these as three images: the temple image, the theater image, and the lawcourt image.
Israel’s Priestly Role
In the “temple image” Israel is seen as a community of “priests” interceding before God for the surrounding world of “nations” or “peoples.”
Exodus 19:5-6 (incl. exilic witness)
"Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a whole nation. These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”
Here God's primary intention in bringing them into the promised land is that they be as “priests” in the midst of “the whole earth” that God says “is mine.” This is not a tribal God speaking here, but the God of all people on earth, appointing Israel as holy intercessors. Peter picks up on this theme in the New Testament as applicable to the church as well when he says we should be
“living such good lives among the pagans … that they may see your good deeds and glorify God…” (I Peter 2:5,9-12).
You and I in our “priesthood of all believers” roles may not be called to suffer redemptively as Jesus did, but we do know how much it counts when internationals observe our sacrificial lifestyles and see some contrast between us as Christians and the materialistic culture surrounding us. A simple lifestyle is an authentication to many internationals of the truth of our witness. And certainly as international student workers, our intercessory or “priestly” prayer life is critical to the fulfillment of God’s purposes for us in our ministries. We should constantly examine our intercessory life.
Do we intercede regularly for our campus and for the students He’s giving us? Many of the “exiles” in the Old Testament were godly Jews who were scattered among the surrounding nations much like the church in the New Testament at several points was scattered through persecution and “preached the word wherever they went” (Acts 8:1-4). Like in Egypt, and later in Babylon and Persia, certain Israelites like Joseph, Daniel and Esther in God’s providence became profound intercessory influences both with God and for their captor nations. One could also think of Christian internationals seeking refugee status in Western nations as like some of these exiled Israelites. If you’ve ever had an on-fire Christian international in one of your groups, you know what a powerhouse of intercessory prayer they can be! King Solomon exemplifies the intercessory role of Israel in his prayers at the dedication of the first Temple.
I Kings 8:41-43
"As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your name – and your outstretched arm – when he comes and prays toward this temple, then hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name."
When the first Temple is finally built and dedicated by Solomon, it is striking that this leader, the leader of a people at the height of their success and wealth compared to other nations, should glory not only in God’s blessing on them but also in the importance of this for the faith of strangers or aliens observing it, and even to the extent of God hearing and answering the prayers of non-Israelites! Solomon perceived that God is the God for all the peoples of the Earth! Similarly, when Jesus quoted Isaiah 56:7, “My house shall be a house of prayer for all nations,” he was not simply angry at the money changers, but jealous for the honor of God to be upheld for all humanity. This temple court was even named the “Court of the Gentiles.” Certainly we are following in Solomon’s footsteps with God when we join students in praying for their international student friends and the many “aliens” in our midst on campus.
So, that’s the “temple image,” with believers in God seen in a priestly or intercessory role. The second image is the theater image. As Israel’s role in the world was meant to be an intercessory one, so God’s role is a Kingly one.
God’s Role as King
Zechariah 8:20-23; 9:9-10 (incl. Messianic Vision of Israel’s “King”)
(Here I’d like to substitute the word “Asian” for “nations” or “peoples” and a few other substitutions just to contextualize it a bit):
'This is what the Lord Almighty says: "Many Asians (peoples) and the inhabitants of many cities will come, and the inhabitants of one city will go to another and say, ‘Let us go at once to entreat the Lord and seek the Lord Almighty. I myself am going.’ And many peoples and powerful Asians (nations) will come to spiritual and intellectual centers (Jerusalem) to seek the Lord Almighty and to entreat him.” This is what the Lord Almighty says: “In those days ten men from all languages of Asia (nations) will take firm hold of one international student worker (Jew) by the hem of his sweater (robe) and say, ‘Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you."' And then the Messianic promise in Chapter 9:9-10 "…See your King comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey…He will proclaim peace to all Asia (the nations). His rule will extend from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific (sea to sea) and from the Himalayas to Mount Fugi (the River to the ends of the earth).”
Just as the nation Israel is placed in a geographic center of world trading routes, so in passages like these Israel is metaphorically placed in the center of a world-wide amphitheater. Israel is like a group of actors on God’s stage, God writing, directing and even playing the lead role in His drama as their true King, and the watching world looking on in awe at the acts of God in Israel’s midst. Israel is seen as a touchstone or by-word, symbolic of God’s blessing for its degree of faithfulness in worship and obedience to His laws, or cursing for its degree of unfaithfulness and disobedience. She is to be a model, the law of God taking incarnate form in her daily community life, both among the native children and among the strangers or sojourners constantly living and traveling through her. Even when she sins, God’s temporary judgements upon her glorify Him and show them and the world His righteous as well as his loving nature. I’ll illustrate first his loving nature from the Psalms, then his righteous nature from Jeremiah.
Psalms 95:3; 96:13; 97:1; 98:1-4
For the Lord is the great God, the great King above all gods. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his truth. The Lord reigns, let the earth be glad; let the distant shores rejoice. Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things; his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him. The Lord has made his salvation known and revealed his righteousness to the nations. He has remembered his love and his faithfulness to the house of Israel; all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.
As sin progressed while the nations developed, rather than judge them as he had done once by a devastating flood, God decided to show His love by creating a new and purified nation, Israel, where His true nature of righteousness and love would be exemplified. Israel is seen also as a model of the goodness of being a people under the rule of God as their true King. In spite of all the mess the human Kings of Israel made of things, God was still the true King calling all to account to Him. It was only when Israel itself became hopelessly corrupt and idolatrous that God unleashed some of his severest judgements on them as well.
Jeremiah 26:4-6; 25:26-33 (Israel’s judgement is everyones’)
“Say to them, 'This is what the Lord says: If you do not listen to me and follow my law, which I have set before you, and if you do not listen to the words of my servants the prophets, whom I have sent to you again and again (though you have not listened), then I will make this house like Shiloh and this city an object of cursing among all the nations of the earth.’” "…and all the kings of the north, near and far, one after the other – all the kingdoms on the face of the earth (will drink the cup of my wrath)."
The “fierce anger” of the Lord is mentioned (vs. 38) and not simply against his disobedient people, the Hebrews, but against all the peoples of the earth! This is like the NT teaching on Hell in an Old Testament context: a temporal hell on earth, with the “nations,” all of them, being included as objects of God’s wrath. What happens to Israel is extended to everybody, with God saying: If I punish my own children severely for their sin, should I allow everybody else “off the hook” and not punish them as well for their sins? (Jeremiah 25:29). Sermons and commentators do not often analyze what actually happened in the world at large during this period, but it is one of my areas of concentrated study, as it is precisely at this moment in human history, in and around the 6th century BC, when bloodshed around the world reached new depths and universality. Tribes and feudal kingdoms fought on unprecedented scales everywhere in this period, with stories coming down to us about warlords and conflicts in Confucian China, the Gangetic plains of India and the Pelopanesian Wars of Greece. If you’d like to engage me further on my research in this area, I’ll be happy to talk with you over a meal or whatever. I point all this out to you so you’ll see that God made Israel an object lesson to the nations, both in their prosperity under His blessing but also in His judgements for their sin. He also reveals Himself as profoundly sovereign over the entire human family here, with the fate of His people being intricately interwoven with the fate of all humanity. What the world sees as observers of Israel’s drama in God’s ”theater” is what they also can expect to experience themselves from God! The fact that God does not utterly destroy Israel shows the merciful side of His nature and covenant-keeping love. He severely chastens Israel both in the wilderness of Sinai and later with two waves of exile from their land, but these are just for a particular generation that was unfaithful. In the long term, God is a loving, covenant-keeping God who never forsakes His people, always restoring them after a severe chastening!
If international students want to know how God will deal with them or their people as believers, they need only look at how He deals with the people of God in the Bible. There are either blessings of personal and sometimes corporate salvation, or various forms of judgement inevitably triggered by their willingness either to love or reject Him!
And so we have the “theater image” in scripture in which the whole world is an audience looking on as God’s people interact with their representatives, with each other, and with God as their King. This leads us now to our third and final Biblical image, the lawcourt image, in which Israel has a prophetic role as a “witness to the truth.”
Israel’s Prophetic Role
In this image, Israel is seen as “witnesses” to the truth of God, arguing God’s case as it were in the courtroom of the world, with God as the Judge and Israel (and also sometimes God Himself) as the advocates for His truth and righteousness.
Isaiah 43:9-13; 44:8; 9:1,6-7a
"All the nations gather together and the peoples assemble…Let them bring in their witnesses…You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord, “and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me. I, even I, am the Lord, and apart from me there is no savior. I have revealed and saved and proclaimed – I, and not some foreign god among you. You are my witnesses, declares the Lord, “that I am God.” “Do not tremble, do not be afraid. Did I not proclaim it long ago? You are my witnesses. Is there any God besides me? No, there is no other Rock; I know not one.” In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles…For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government there will be no end."
Israel in its own time was to be a “witness” (43:10). And to what? To God as a “Savior” (vs.11). “You are my witnesses, declares the Lord, that I am God” (vs.12)! Then in chapter 44:8ff God gives His own arguments for idols being nothing but the creation of human craftsmen. The familiar Messianic passage of Isaiah 9 includes an astonishing affirmation of His future commitment to “honor Galilee of the Gentiles” as the place where the Messiah will appear to establish an enlarged, spiritual, and unending government.
God advocates for justice in this lawcourt. “I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers, and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me, says the Lord Almighty” (Malachi 3:5). He gets very upset with Israel when they “oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the alien, denying them justice” (Ezekiel 22:29). “And what does the Lord require of you?” asks Micah (6:8), "To act justly and love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” Doing justice especially for the poor, the orphans, and the aliens, becomes a witness in itself where impressions are constantly being made and good (or bad) stereotypes changed through what is done. Advocacy, however, entails reasoned argumentation as well as action. Western cultures with their protected freedoms and democracy are an already well-established and appealing reality, especially to many students from more oppressive cultures. They want to know why these freedoms and democracy have taken place in the West and to what extent Christianity is responsible for them.
Today the largest nation on earth, the People’s Republic of China, is looking on the western world and its church in much the same way as God intended the world to see Israel. In the “temple” and “theater” images, it is what they see, especially in the Christian community. This counts as much as words spoken. But internationals also need to hear the truth of God prophetically spoken by His “witnesses.” As representatives of the Christian community, we in various ministries need to be interpreters of this love they experience, to give them answers to some of their most searching questions, not only on the Gospel itself, but also on the ways in which this Gospel can impact and change our societies, both theirs and ours.
Samuel Ling puts this well in the lead article in a recent book, which he edited with our former staff, Stacey Bieler, Chinese Intellectuals and the Gospel (P & R Publishing, 1999 pbk., pg. 7-8):
Since Christian liberal theology lost the distinctiveness of Christ and fundamentalism withdrew from engaging the culture, both proved to be inadequate. What can the Church offer China? As Chinese students meet Christian teachers in English classes in China, or international student workers on campuses in the West, they want to know: What does Jesus Christ have to say to China’s political, economic, cultural, educational, and family needs? Will Christianity offer a viable voice to shape China’s future?
Evangelical outreach to Chinese intellectuals today needs to be… undergirded with a philosophy of history grounded in the Bible. Evangelistic fervor and fidelity to the gospel of the cross of Jesus Christ need to be complemented with intellectual rigor and integrity. As the late Francis Schaeffer called upon Christians in the 1970s to provide “honest answers to honest questions,” so twenty-first century evangelicals must be prepared and equipped with a biblical, compassionate, and relevant apologetic. What Christian ideas can guide China? What does the Bible have to say about constitutional democracy? (or about) economic progress, business ethics, divorce and remarriage, and postmodern art and literary criticism – not to mention the challenge of New Confucianism and folk religion in China? This is the church’s second chance to bring hope to China, by presenting a Christian worldview to her leaders. Let us not miss it…. Again.
We may not all be Sammy Lings or have learned many of the answers to these questions, but we can structure our ministry with international groups so that the right people can be brought in over time to address these issues.
In the New Testament this major Old Testament theme of “witness” becomes full blown. This process of sending out witnesses, or “centrifugal missions,” becomes central, though the local church wherever it was established also continued to become a centripetal force attracting surrounding people in and, like the Old Testament, revealing God’s holy nature and works in the moral life and loving actions of the new community of believers.
Jesus sends them out two-by-two early on as witnesses for the Kingdom equipped with His authority to speak for him and with the special powers of the Kingdom to bring others into it. He turns his disciples into “apostles” (or “sent ones”) with his departing words of the “Great Commission” in Matthew 28:16-20. And just prior to his ascension he says: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8). Here, at the end of his earthly ministry, Jesus is talking about their “witness” being “to the ends of the earth.”
They are all filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2) where Peter preaches and thousands of the gathered representatives of surrounding nations are converted. (Similarly, internationals are a kind of “captive audience” on our campuses!). There are constant movements outward by these apostles, particularly Paul whose calling at his conversion is to the Gentiles (Acts 9). In Acts 13 Paul and Barnabas are actually commissioned by a multi-cultural church in Antioch for their first missionary journey. In Athens, a university community of that day by any standards, Paul “reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day (including)…a group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers…” (Acts 17:17-18).
“The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch,” says Luke (Acts 11:26). I’ve often wondered if the reason this was so is because they were among the first to be a truly multi-cultural church in the New Testament. It makes sense since they could no longer be referred to simply as Jewish followers of Christ or Messianic Jews. This Antiocan church is one of the best models we have in the New Testament for a typical multi-cultural church or international student group on campus. It was replete with variously gifted leaders from West Africa (“Niger”), North Africa (“Cyrene”), Israel (“Herod”/Judea) and Asia Minor (“Cilicia/Tarsus”). Striking, isn’t it, that we are all called “Christians” today because in the first century a multi-cultural Christian community developed in what is now Syria! And who is not moved by John’s vision of the multi-cultural church present before the Lamb’s throne at the end of this age? “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb…and they cried out with a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’” (Revelation 7:9-10).
To summarize and recapitulate: My thesis is that since our human beginnings, God has unceasingly been seeking and calling all humanity to a relationship of love with Himself. Both Old and New Testaments are united in God’s love being experienced through the people of God, (the patriarchs, then Israel, and finally the church). Like God, God’s people go out from their center and also call in representatives of the nations to this same relationship of love with God. God’s relationship to His people is always with the intent that the surrounding world will honor Him as God. International students in our time have become a key to the glory and honor of God being perceived throughout the nations. A century ago God raised up a centrifugal mission movement of over 30,000 young missionaries from the western world in what was then called the Student Volunteer Movement. Since the end of the Second World War a crescendo of young international students have come to the intellectual centers of the western world. Surely we can see God’s hand in this too as a centripetal movement in our time. As we take the initiative in reaching out and then welcoming internationals into our Christian communities, we are, in effect, fulfilling the vision of both Testaments. May we have the grace to take full advantage of it.