The limits to Christian mission

1 Timothy 2:1-7

23 September 2007

St Mary's, White Waltham

Morning Prayer


What are the limits to Christian mission?

Last week I saw a bit of a programme on television that was quite critical of Christians for engaging in mission amongst Muslims in this country: "targeting British Muslims for conversion" as the promotional material put it. The presenter was most indignant that Evangelical Christians might want to offer help and comfort to Muslim divorcees.

How should we respond? Does he have a point? Ought Muslims be off-limits for Christian evangelism? They've got faith of their own; isn't it wrong to foist our beliefs on them?

And then, what are the limits of Christian mission amongst Jewish people?

The former Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries wrote a book quite recently with a chapter titled "Should Christians try to Convert Jews?" His answer to this question is no: "There should be no deliberate attempt to convert Jews to Christianity". In this conclusion he follows the general practice of the Roman Catholic church.

So, if Muslims and Jews are off limits for Christian mission, then who else is out-of-scope? Hindus? Buddhists? Sikhs? Atheists? They've all got their own deeply held beliefs - who are we to tell them what to believe? Is there really anyone who is fair game for evangelism?

Well, let's see what the apostle Paul has to say about this in our text today. What we find is Paul emphasising that the Christian faith is for all people. Regardless of beliefs, of race, of place, all people need to hear the truth about God.

Paul makes this point in three ways. First, in verses 1-4, God's desire is for all people. Second, in verses 5 and 6, Jesus died for all. And third, therefore, the message must go to all - that's verse 7.

God's desire is for all

So let's start in verses 1-4: God's desire is for all people.

Paul starts with prayer. He urges the church to pray in all sorts of ways, but he is quite specific about what they should pray for. They are to pray for kings and all those in authority that we may live peaceful and quiet livesref. He says that This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truthref.

What's the connection here? What connects the church praying for peace with God's desire for all people to come to a knowledge of the truth and be saved?

To see the connection we must put ourselves in Paul's shoes for a moment. Paul was a missionary. He travelled far and wide on three great missionary journeys. In doing so he benefited enormously from the peace and stability that the Roman Empire had brought to the entire Mediterranean region. Because of the peace Paul was able travel freely, and the odd riot aside, he could spread the word of God wherever he wanted.

So, at the end of his life, Paul is urging this church to pray that the political stability they've enjoyed might continue, so that the truth of God could spread to all. They were to pray that no war or disturbance would prevent the truth of God reaching people. This pleases God, because it is his desire that all men and women be saved. God loves this broken and rebellious world. No-one should be excluded from hearing the message because they live somewhere the message can't reach.

In our prayers together and alone, then, we must do what Paul urges: lift up requests, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings for everyone, that the truth of the Christian gospel might be free to spread to all people everywhere.

Clearly we need to pray for peace in Iraq, in Darfur, in Afghanistan and the many other places in the world where conflict makes it hard for Christians to spread the knowledge of the truth about God.

But it's not just war that prevents the news about God from being spread. Paul would have us pray too for the regimes where Christianity is viciously suppressed: North Korea; Saudi Arabia; Iran; Somalia; China and on and on. Oh, how we need to pray for the leaders of these countries, that the knowledge of the truth might become freely available, and people might come to be saved.

It's not only far-away places that we need to pray for. Paul urges us to give thanks, and we can thank God from the bottom of our hearts for the peace that we have enjoyed in this country in recent generations. But we need to repent as well: how we've squandered that peace when it comes to teaching the knowledge of God!

And now we find in this country that the truth about God is hindered in other ways. We need to pray that political correctness in the workplace doesn't prevent us from sharing our faith freely — in some places even wearing a cross is a sensitive issue. We need to pray that current attempts to close down Christian Unions in Universities will fail. And, although we can give thanks that the House of Lords amended the Religious Hatred Bill to preserve free speech for now, we can never take our freedom for granted. There will always be those who seek to suppress the truth about God. We need to pray for our leaders.

We must pray against anything that might hinder the spread of God's word, because God's desire is for all people, everyone in the world.

Jesus' death is for all

The next point Paul makes is that Jesus' death is for all people.

Paul starts with the declaration that there is one God.

Many people, Christian and non-Christian alike, will affirm this. It's a commonplace today that different religions are simply different understandings of one God and different paths to the same God. In 2003, whilst visiting England, President George Bush was asked if he believes that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. He replied "I think we do. We have different routes of getting to the Almighty" .

But the apostle Paul doesn't stop with his declaration of the uniqueness of God. He goes on to say that there is only one way to know that one God: There is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesusref.

A mediator brings together two parties who have a problem with each other. So in the current postal dispute the mediation group Acas has been facilitating talks between the Communication Workers Union and Royal Mail. Each side has a problem with the other; communication has broken down, so the mediator stands between the parties to help them resolve their differences.

In our case, there needs to be a mediator because we have a problem with God, and God has a problem with us.

Every human being born since Adam, bar one, has a problem with God. Every one of us has a heart that is fundamentally hostile to him. We know that we owe him everything, but we are willing to give him nothing. We will not submit to his rule over our lives.

And God has a problem with us. Because we won't live lives of moral purity we are odious to him. We are repellent to him. He cannot have us in his presence: his purity would destroy us instantly.

So God and man are two parties, apparently irreconcilably divided: we won't have him, and he can't have us. How can such deep differences be resolved?

Into this situation steps the mediator: the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all menref. Because Jesus is both man and God, he can perfectly represent each side to the other. No other mediator would do: no other man could represent us to God; no other divine creature could represent God to us. Jesus is unique.

But the mediating process that Jesus came to perform was no talking shop. The differences between God and us run so deeply that this mediator, this God-man had to die. As our text says, he gave himself as a ransomref. He was so committed to putting us right with God that he swapped places with us. We should have died, but he died instead of us. He took on our nature, and he gave us his nature. So now, through the mediation of Jesus' death we can know God. The dispute is resolved, at no cost to us.

There is only one mediator between God and menref.

If there were another way to know God then Jesus didn't need to die.

If there were any way for us to know God apart from by the death of Jesus then surely the Son of God would never have come to this earth, to live as a man, to be betrayed, to be arrested, to unjustly accused, to be whipped, to be abused, to be stripped and hung on a cross in agony. To die a death he did not deserve. If there were any other way, then why would he do that?

There is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus who gave himself as a ransom for all menref.

So, Paul's logic works like this:

And that's what Paul shows us in verse 7. My third heading: the message must go to all.

The message must go to all

Paul believed so deeply that all people need to hear the message about Jesus' death for them, the gospel, that he devoted his life to telling them. He was a herald, an apostle, a teacher. Paul suffered extraordinary personal hardship and danger to make sure that the truth was taught as widely as possible.

Paul didn't confine himself to one set of people, for example the Jews. No Paul was so convinced of the universal need for the truth about God that he even went to the Gentiles, as he says in verse 7. These were the non-Jews, the nations beyond Israel. These were people that Paul, as an upright Jew, ought to be having nothing to do with. Jews despised Gentiles. But God had put love for them deep into Paul's heart, and compelled him to take the message of the truth faith to them.

Paul took it for granted that he was to tell Jews. When he first came to Ephesus, where Timothy now is, Paul spent his first three months speaking to Jews in the synagogue, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of Godref. When the Jews had rejected his message he went on to spend two years teaching the Gentiles as well, so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lordref

Paul was convinced that because there is only one God who desires all to be saved, and because there is only one mediator between all people and that God, therefore the truth of that one God and one mediator must be taught to all.

If I have a cure for AIDS but I refuse to take it to Africa then I'm guilty of a crime against humanity. If I have a cure for cancer and I refuse to share it with Muslims, then I'm guilty of the worst kind of bigotry.

You and I, if we are Christians, have news of the cure for death itself. We have no excuse for keeping it to ourselves. To quote Dick Lucas, "The church exists for one supreme purpose — that we may introduce people to a knowledge that is the most precious thing in the universe."

As a church, then, we must engage in mission among Muslims: it's their only hope. We must tell Jews about Jesus: he is their only hope. We must support our missionaries amongst all nations and all people.


So let us pray for the spread of the word, and let us participate in the spread of the word.

We cannot leave it to our missionaries alone. You and I must seek to persuade our friends, and our families, our colleagues at work — even the ones we can't stand — and our leaders and our hairdressers and our car mechanics — we must try to teach them the truth about Jesus because he is their only hope.

We have a truth that is for all people, about a God who desires all people, and his Son who died for all people. We cannot keep this message to ourselves: it is a message for all. In an age of so many false hopes and so much false faith, we must be teachers of the true faith to everybody. Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, atheists, agnostics, hedonists, pagans: it doesn't matter. There are no limits on the word of God.