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Thoughts on Missionary Work, and Christ’s Return

December 16, 2021 Comments off

The two things — the only things — to which I can look forward now are the coming of Christ and my going to the Waodani.  O, if Christ would only come–but how can He until the Waodani are told of Him. — Elisabeth Elliot, from her journal

Through the years I’ve picked up on some of the history of the “modern missionary movement” that started in earnest in the 19th century — such as the 19th century activities referenced in Spurgeon’s sermons (he occasionally spoke at special Society meetings for the purpose of missions work), along with things I learned in a visit to Hawaii in the early 2000s, and occasional reading about some of the great missionaries (such as Hudson Taylor and Adoniram Judson) and a few martyrs in historical accounts.

Another part of the missionary movement, though, is from the mid-20th century.  This last summer, taking advantage of an audio-book library, I read the audio versions of Elisabeth Elliot’s first book, “Through Gates of Splendor,” followed by Steve Saint’s “End of the Spear,” and learned the details of this event, the five martyred missionaries in Ecuador back in the 1950s; and it is an interesting story, along with Steve Saint’s follow-up several decades later.  Now I am reading a third book on this topic (a hard-cover book loaned from a friend at church), Becoming Elisabeth Elliot, part 1 of a biography of Elisabeth Elliot.  This book, by Ellen Vaughn and published in 2020, tells of Betty (Howard) Elliot, from early life, through her years at Wheaton College, then through the missionary years up through 1963 — and fills in a lot of the details of the events that Steve Saint had made mention of, how the American missionary women established contact with the Waodani tribe in the years shortly after the men were killed, and the spreading of the gospel to that remote jungle tribe — along with mention of the missionary work among other native tribes in South America. 

Nearing the end, I am enjoying this book even more — so many interesting things in it, and not least because of the applicability to my own situation– what I can so well relate to in my own experience,  seeing several personality characteristics in the difficult person she worked with (Rachel Saint) and similarity to someone in my own life.  Somehow it is encouraging to read about another believer who had similar experiences of being misunderstood and accused of unbelief and heresy, and finding that there have been others before who have such strong and difficult-to-deal-with personalities.

From the middle chapters in the book, the time soon after the murder of the five missionaries, comes an interesting statement from Elisabeth Elliot’s journal at the time — as she was still dealing with the trauma and the turmoil of thoughts, and seeking the Lord’s will after what had happened (from page 165): 

I long now to go to the Waodani.  The two things — the only things — to which I can look forward now are the coming of Christ and my going to the Waodani.  O, if Christ would only come–but how can He until the Waodani are told of Him. … Or if only I could die–what a blessed release.  But I do not ask to be released.  I ask to be made Christ-like, in the inmost part of my being.

Her theology was better than that, in recognizing God’s Sovereign purposes and that He has determined the time of His Return, and God cannot be manipulated by our actions.  (Though Betty still had much to learn through suffering, and God’s providence in the years ahead.)  Yet it fits in the overall picture of world events, and an interesting point,  as another of the end times indications.  Christ’s Return is now that much sooner than it was back in the 1950s, and along the way the native tribes of Ecuador, including the Waodani tribe, did indeed hear the gospel; and quite a few have come to saving faith.  Christ did say that this gospel would be proclaimed throughout the whole world, before His return, Matthew 24:14.

The preterists’ idea that this had somehow been accomplished in the 1st century — referencing the words of the apostle Paul in Romans 1:8, that “your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world” (and yes the gospel had been spreading throughout the general Roman world, so that people generally in those parts had at least heard something about the gospel) — really falls short of the full explanation, as such a narrowing and limiting of our infinite God, who has intended something far greater and far more extensive than what was done in the 1st century alone.  

On the other hand, a dispensational idea I came across several years ago — that Matthew 24:14 does not have any reference to the missionary work of spreading the gospel around the world throughout the ages, but instead is referring to a specific event that occurs in Revelation 14:6-7 — also misses the full truth.  Revelation 14:6-7 certainly will play its part too, during the Great Tribulation; yet Christ’s statement about the gospel being proclaimed throughout the whole world surely must, and does, include all of Christian history, including the worldwide missionary work of the last 200+ years.  Further, the professing, historic Church throughout the centuries has understood Matthew 24:14 as related to the Great Commission. 

The great story of how that has been accomplished, the spread of Christendom throughout the world, in the differing ways throughout the millennia, is itself quite interesting, a lengthy tale with many different particular stories, of all the many ways that God has used individuals at different places and times to save His elect people.  The gospel message indeed has been heard by all types of people — the great, the small, the rich, the poor — from “every nation, tribe, tongue, and people.”  In medieval times it was accomplished by the conversion, at least outwardly expressed, of key leaders of the Gentile nations, after which it was understood and assumed that all of that nation would now be considered part of Christendom — Constantine with the Roman Empire, and later the conversion and civilizing of the Vikings, for instance.  The immediate effects of such efforts were to bring basic “Western civilization” to the heathen nations, to bring in the form and outward expression of serving the one true God.  Individual conversions of some of the people in those lands then followed.  The early centuries also saw the gospel reach to some groups in far east Asia, as far as India — though always as a minority there, never becoming the mainstream dominant religion there.  

The missionary work post-Reformation included the early work of John Eliot (no direct relation to the Jim Elliot of the 20th century) in 17th century Puritan New England, among the native tribes there — including his use of an “informant” who taught him their language, followed by his development of a written form of Algonquian and the first Bible printed on American soil, this one in the Algonquian language (as the first book printed, on the first printing press in the colonies).  John Eliot’s techniques were of course used later in the much larger-scale missionary work begun in the 19th century, with William Carey and later efforts, through the 20th century and the work of groups such as Wycliffe Bible Translators. 

That too is an interesting part mentioned in this biography of Elisabeth Elliot:  the founder of Wycliffe Bible Translators was one of the missionaries who came to Central America in the early 20th century, with ambitious plans to print and distribute Spanish language Bibles – only to discover the great numbers of tribes there (and throughout Central and South America) that spoke many different languages, all unique, and that did not know any Spanish.  William Cameron Townsend, who founded Wycliffe Bible Translators in 1942, was among the characters in the events surrounding Betty Elliot (and the other missionaries in Ecuador) during her years there in the 1950s through early 1960s. 

This early years biography of Elisabeth Elliot touches on so many interesting aspects of the 20th century missionary work in Ecuador, in addition to the other items mentioned above.  It has been a great read, as a time for me to reflect on missions work as it relates to the season of these last days, and to appreciate and think again upon the spread of the gospel around the world, one of the great promises in God’s word that we have seen come about, in the story of Church History and to this day.  Yes, as Christ promised us, the gospel has been and is being preached throughout the world — “as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.”