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How Can We Reach the Nations with the Gospel? Elliot Clark

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Dr. Arnold interviews Elliot Clark on how Christians should think about missions.

Topics of conversation include:

  • What is missions?
  • What should our motivation for missions be?
  • How should our desire for doing missions be regulated?
  • How can we avoid imperialism while engaging in missionary work?
  • Encouragement for all Christians to be involved in missions, whether going or staying

Elliot Clark has served as a missionary and church planter in Central Asia, and currently works at Training Leaders International. He is the author of Evangelism as Exiles: Life on Mission as Strangers in our Own Land (The Gospel Coalition, 2019), and Mission Affirmed: Recovering the Missionary Motivation of Paul (The Gospel Coalition, 2022).

 

 


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Intro (00:00):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary,

 

Brian Arnold (00:15):

Final words have a special weight to them. If people know they’re giving their final words, they take great care to communicate what matters to them most. And there are two places where we get Jesus’ final words before he returned to heaven. In Matthew 28:18—20, he spoke words that we have come to call the Great Commission. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I’ve commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Luke also recorded Jesus’ final message to his apostles before he was taken back to heaven on a cloud in Acts 1:8. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.”

 

Brian Arnold (01:03):

Jesus’ last words on earth were about making disciples of all nations. He wants the gospel—that is, the good news of his life, death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins—preached to every person, in every place, in every generation. Of course we know these were not Jesus’ final words. He sits enthroned in the heavenly places, and he will come again. But until then, we must fulfill his commission, knowing that he has empowered us with his Spirit. Well, here to help us understand missions today is Elliot Clark. Elliot has served as a missionary and church planter with his family overseas in Central Asia. Currently, Elliot works at Training Leaders International, an organization that labors to equip indigenous local church leaders and pastors around the world with theological training. Elliot is the author of Evangelism as Exiles, and he has just released a new book, Mission Affirmed: Recovering the Missionary Motivation of Paul. Elliot, welcome to the podcast.

 

Elliot Clark (01:56):

Thanks. It’s great to be here.

 

Brian Arnold (01:58):

So we always ask our guests one big question, today the question is—how can we reach the nations with the gospel? But I thought before we get to the how, we might touch a little bit on the what and the why of missions. So what is missions and why should we be doing them?

 

Elliot Clark (02:13):

Well, as you already referenced, missions is the word that we use to talk about the work of fulfilling the commission that Jesus has given to his church. So as Jesus left us with these final words, we seek to fulfill them by making disciples, baptizing, teaching all that he’s commanded. And as we see that lived out and demonstrated through the history of the first believers in the book of Acts, we see that happening in multiple ways. One significant way is churches are established in cities throughout the Mediterranean basin, as Paul and others are going around, making disciples, preaching the gospel, and then seeing those believers gathered into assemblies where his truth is taught. And elders then shepherd new believers, generation after generation of faithfulness brought up. And then not just deepening their roots, but also extending their reach to other cities and other places. So historically, missions has been about—not just that mission at home of making disciples—but missions has come to be viewed as the sending act of churches, to extend the reach of the gospel to new places and new peoples.

 

Brian Arnold (03:35):

And so Jesus even says “all nations.” That Greek phrase, panta ta ethne, has really come—in the last century or so, I feel like—to be taken as this kind of mantra that every tribe, every tongue, every language, every people group, so every dialect—we need to reach them with the gospel. And so I remember seeing this at one point on the International Mission Board’s website, a running total of all the different people groups that they identified. Do you think that’s a helpful way to think through Jesus’ command to reach all nations?

 

Elliot Clark (04:07):

Well, I think it’s one way that we can look at the world. It’s not the only way, I would say. So my concern, I guess, with identifying the nations that Jesus talks about in Matthew 28, or Matthew 24, or elsewhere, is we…in some cases, we’ve taken modern sociological and cultural definitions and imported them into an ancient text. I think when Jesus is talking about the nations, most fundamentally he’s speaking to a Jewish audience, and he’s thinking about those “of the nations,” the Gentiles. Reaching back all the way to the “families of the earth” in Genesis, in the early chapters of Genesis—that through Abraham and his offspring all the nations would be blessed. All the “families of the earth.” And that term can mean many different things. It might not be quite as specific as we like it to be sometimes, but absolutely—I firmly and gladly affirm the desire and the need to go to people in places who have never heard the gospel.

 

Elliot Clark (05:16):

We get that sense clearly from Paul and from the Apostles. And the desire for us to reach new peoples and places—that often requires us to identify who they are and where they are. So that’s a healthy work. But sometimes…I’m concerned at times we have over-specified and become quite scientific in our definition. And that leads then sometimes to abandoning certain fields that are “reached” to go to those that are unreached. And I think we need a more holistic understanding of the mission—that, you know, just because 2% of a population is reached, doesn’t mean our work is done in that area.

 

Brian Arnold (06:00):

Well, I think that’s an important word as we think about places around the globe that have some gospel presence, but not a ton. So in other words, Jesus is not a modern-day sociologist, trying to identify people groups necessarily the same way. But you know, you mentioned Genesis chapter 12, where the promise given to Abraham is that the nations of the earth will be blessed through him. Well, right before the story of Abraham is the tower of Babel, and that’s where God confused the languages of the people, sends them out. And so the promise, even through Abraham, is recollecting all those people, right? Every tribe, tongue, and nation, coming back in under the blessing of Abraham.

 

Elliot Clark (06:33):

Yeah. And that, in many ways, that event at the tower of Babel, is reversed in a positive way at Pentecost.

 

Brian Arnold (06:39):

Right.

 

Elliot Clark (06:40):

Where Luke records for us “all the nations”—in Greek it’s the same phrase. All the nations are there in Jerusalem from all over the middle east, north Africa, Europe. And they are there at that moment when the gift of tongues is given, so that people are hearing the gospel in their language. It has all of the echoes there of the tower of Babel incident, where God is now reversing, in many ways, that curse, and bringing salvation to the nations.

 

Brian Arnold (07:13):

I think that’s the right reading of that text. And we get to see how beautiful God’s authorship, not only of the world, but of Scripture is, as we get to see these things play out in this kind of recapitulation happening, fulfillment of prophecy happening. It is a beautiful thing. So let me ask you this question then. So everybody, all the nations are gathered at Pentecost. Jesus commands his disciples to go to all nations. Now all nations have come in. And Peter’s preaching and thousands are getting saved. Between, you know, Pentecost and even Paul’s desire to get as far as Spain, do you think the apostles believed that in their generation they had evangelized the world?

 

Elliot Clark (07:53):

Well, you could look at various texts to answer this question. Colossians 1, Romans 15, and I’m probably going to leave a few out here. Maybe even 2 Timothy. I would look…I would point people to I believe 2 Timothy 4, where Paul makes some comprehensive comments about the gospel going out into all the world, all the nations having received it. Now it depends how you translate the ethne there—is it the “Gentiles” or the “nations”? But again, this is part of the challenge in interpretation. But I would just say—the overly scientific way we often talk about peoples today doesn’t often fit the way I see the apostles speaking. So perhaps we should be a little more humble, I guess, is what I would say, in our definition and expectation, if the apostles believed in some way that the promise of Matthew 24 was already fulfilled in their day.

 

Brian Arnold (08:56):

Yes, I think that’s right. I wonder if it’s even like a both/and kind of thing—of they really see themselves as reaching the entire world, and yet we know that there’s always…like you said, even if part of the world is reached, that doesn’t mean every person is reached with the gospel. And so we need to be continuously thinking of ways that we can go throughout the world to do that. So we’re going to be talking about that some. One of the things I love, one of my favorite books in the Bible, is the book of Romans. And you think about the book of Romans as this thick, doctrinally heavy—some people almost call it like the “systematic theology of the New Testament”—but it’s a missionary support letter. Paul is writing this church to get funds so that his mission to Spain can happen. Because he doesn’t want to build on somebody else’s foundation.

 

Brian Arnold (09:37):

He wants to go and preach Christ where he’s not been named before. And I think about, you know, missionary motivations, you talk about that in your book, of what is good motivation to go. I know my time in seminary, I had a lot of people come through who would talk about missions and the heartbeat behind it was—we want Jesus to return, so we need to go fulfill the Great Commission so that Jesus can return. And that always struck me as one of the worst motivations ever. I mean, people are perishing. They’re going to be eternally separate from God. That should be a motivation for missions, more than “I want Jesus to come back,” it seems like to me. So, you know, you’ve worked through kind of some missionary motives from the New Testament. You’ve been on the mission field. How do you help people think through what our motives should be for missions?

 

Elliot Clark (10:21):

Well, when you look at the apostle Paul, obviously you’re engaging with someone that was clearly a passionate person. Whether it’s in Romans there, where he talks about his willingness to even be accursed, ultimately damned, if that would lead to the salvation of his fellow Jewish brothers and sisters. You think of 1 Corinthians 9, where his, you know…he uses again, I would say, hyperbolic language probably, to talk about his willingness to do anything so that some might be saved—to the Greek, I’m going to be like a Greek, to the Jew, a Jew. I’ve made myself all things to all people. So clearly Paul has no reservations. And so we can easily latch onto those statements, I think, that clearly Paul’s passionate for the lost. And of course, who would argue with the truth that Paul is consumed with the glory of God? That he is passionate to see God’s glory magnified among the nations?

 

Elliot Clark (11:19):

That’s clearly coming from his Jewish heritage, and the Psalms, and elsewhere in Isaiah. So Paul…those are the big ticket items for Paul. He wants the glory of God to be known, and he wants the nations to be reached. I would just say there’s more to it, though, when you start digging into what motivated Paul, how he came to certain decisions—strategic decisions, travel decisions, ministry priorities. And in many ways, what I’ve found in my studies, is that Paul was a person consumed with God’s approval on the final day. So we talked about, at the beginning, the final words of Jesus and how poignant, powerful they are. In some ways, those aren’t the final words either, because Paul’s looking forward to the day when he will hear “Well done, good and faithful servant.” And that’s going to be a driving influence that I suggest in the book both motivates, but also regulates his mission.

 

Brian Arnold (12:17):

Okay. So, unpack that last part for me a little bit. So motivates and regulates. I think you’ve kind of unpacked the motivates part. What about the regulate? What do you mean by that?

 

Elliot Clark (12:27):

Well, Paul is constrained by this desire. So this isn’t the kind of desire that just puts fuel in the tank and says “go.” It’s a desire that has a way of shaping and limiting what he’s willing to do. So he’ll say in 2 Corinthians, chapter four that he’s not going to tamper with God’s Word. He’s not going to manipulate people or results. In that same chapter, he says that he speaks the gospel in the face of much affliction. So he’s willing to endure suffering, which we know is incredible, because Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1, verse 8—I’ve despaired of life itself because of things I’ve faced. But he’s willing to keep on and endure to preach the gospel, because he knows—what might surprise us, or what he lists next there—2 Corinthians, I believe verses 11 through 15.

 

Elliot Clark (13:30):

He says—I know I’m going to be presented with you, with you Corinthians, before the Father one day. And when he stands before the Lord, he knows that he’s going to both give an account for all of his work, but also, you know, everything he’s done in the body, but he’s also going to stand there with the fruit of his labors. And he wants to be, as he’ll say in Romans 15, I want to be proud of my work before God. So that’s a motivation we often don’t think about, but it’s the kind of motivation that leads Paul to say things like, “I have anxiety for the churches” all the time. And so we imagine this missionary to the unreached, willing to go to Spain, ready to overcome, jump any hurdle to get to the unreached.

 

Elliot Clark (14:26):

And yet Paul says, “I’m overwhelmed with anxiety for the churches.” And it’s interesting, when you just look at the chronology, Paul writes Romans 15—my desire to go to Spain—only after he’s written four letters to Corinth, visited three times, sent multiple representatives, and finally comes to the conclusion they’re ready to be released. But 2 Corinthians 10, he’s not there yet. He tells them—I want to go to new fields, but I can’t, because your faith is not secure. So one of the things I’m trying to show in this book is that Paul isn’t this simple character that we can just put in a box and say—this is this passionate pioneer missionary. He has multiple motivations. And if he is not convinced that the Corinthians are going to be a pleasing offering on the final day, he’s not ready to go into new places or new ministry.

 

Brian Arnold (15:30):

And I think that that helps…one of the comments you made earlier about not just thinking—oh, we reached 2% of the population, now let’s go. It really is about establishing a work of God that’s going to remain after you leave. I think that was helpful to point out. Let me ask you this question—something you said earlier, 1 Corinthians 9, “all things to all people.” Missions, especially from the worldly perspective today, is under a lot of heat because of things like imperialism or colonialism. Of taking, you know, this European religion and foisting it upon other people. I remember just seeing that recently with—was it John Chau?—who went to the unreached people group and was killed, and that sparked kind of a worldwide discussion about mission. So what would you say to people who raise that kind of question? I can imagine some listeners saying—should we be reaching people like this? Are we knocking down cultural issues that are good, in and of themselves? So what are kind of some of the parameters and limits on something like that?

 

Elliot Clark (16:33):

Well, this is a major issue, and it would take a long time to unravel.

 

Brian Arnold (16:38):

Yeah. What’s your 30 second response to that?

 

Elliot Clark (16:39):

Sure. So 1 Corinthians 9—big revelation—comes in the context of 1 Corinthians 8—10. And in that context, Paul is talking about relinquishing rights for the sake of the gospel. He’s willing to do that, do whatever it takes, in terms of relinquishing his rights. And that includes adjusting his lifestyle and decision making. And he calls the Corinthians to do the same in chapter 10. Chapter 11, verse one, he can say, “follow me as I follow Christ.” So this is an interesting section, because it’s Paul presenting himself as a model to be followed. Now Paul is an apostle. We’re not going to be in the same category as he is. And yet, when I look at his instruction to Timothy, it follows the same pattern—set an example for the believers, that what you’ve seen and observed in me, do.

 

Elliot Clark (17:39):

And then you become that to others, who will then pass it on. And so I think one thing we’ve lost in missions, and in discipleship in particular, is that making disciples requires someone who is worth following. It’s not something that we do, and we can be absent from the conversation or the equation. And that just is a messy process, because you have people of different cultures doing missions, demonstrating their lives before others. And of course, some things are not worth following. But in so far as we are following Christ, we should be able to—even as cultural outsiders, which Paul was in Corinth, Timothy was in Ephesus, Titus was Crete—we should be able to, in some way, call people to follow us, even as we follow Christ. And if you eliminate that from missions, I don’t know if you have missions anymore. If you just have so much concern about my cultural location and outsized influence that’s harmful…of course, there are things we need to be aware of and careful about. But if you totally remove yourself from the equation, you can no longer make disciples, in my opinion.

 

Brian Arnold (19:00):

I think that’s a really helpful explanation in that short of a period of time. I mean, we’re going to be going into places and telling people the truth, and that Christ is the only way to salvation. And that’s going to create cultural clash. But the gospel is meant for all people in all places. And I like how you tie it to the idea of invitation—if we look like Christ, then that is a model worth following, and people will see that. Okay. So we need to talk about the how, pretty briefly. And that is, you talk about go-ers and stay-ers. So in just a few minutes, how would you encourage our listeners? Maybe some of them who are considering being a missionary, and those who say—I don’t feel called to missions, but I know that missions is important. How do you speak to those two people on the how of missions?

 

Elliot Clark (19:53):

Well, I would say, first of all, if you don’t feel called to missions—you should take careful stock of Jesus’ final words that we go into all the world. And yet, I would encourage, promote, support, and really try to instill a growing honor for staying at home as a Christian. We’ve—in recent decades, because of our ability to go—we’ve come to the conclusion that everybody should go, sometimes. And that’s just not the case. It’s not a sustainable model. It’s not a cross-cultural model. We can’t expect believers in Haiti or Honduras or wherever, to just…all Christians must go to all the world. Because we’re Western and wealthy, we sometimes think that’s what it must mean. Can still be actively involved in the mission, and that’s as those who send, who support, who pray, who give. Paul certainly didn’t expect everyone to be going.

 

Elliot Clark (21:04):

For those who do sense that the Lord might be leading them into this ministry, again, I would commend that as well. I would simply note one thing, I would say, from the example of Paul. Wherever he goes, he identifies—as best as we can tell from Acts and elsewhere—he identifies those who have good character and who have a good reputation among the churches. It’s not necessary, of course, for someone to go to seminary. It’s not necessary for someone to have 10 years of ministry experience to be a missionary. But most fundamentally, and I think we see this in the qualifications for elders and deacons as well, it must be…you must be someone of good character. One who’s recognized in the church as upstanding and of good reputation. So my encouragement to anyone who feels the Lord might be leading them, especially if they’re a college student or young person—pursue godliness. And pursue the Lord through knowing his Word and following the Lord. And then, of course, along with that, there’s a need for experience, for training. Whether it’s apprenticeship in your local church, or formal seminary education. I would highly encourage all of those avenues, because we want to be those—like Paul can say to Timothy—we want to be those who are approved and have no need to be ashamed on the final day.

 

Brian Arnold (22:40):

Well, and I’m grateful for the work that you’re doing to help train leaders for international missionary work with theological education. I tell people all the time that, you know, the church is exploding in the southern and eastern hemispheres, really for the first time in Christianity, it looks like the numbers are going to surpass the northern and western hemispheres in terms of number of Christians. But the theological treasures that we have in, you know, the last 2000 years aren’t as easily accessible there. So one of the things I’m encouraging our students is to think about overseas, you know, theological education, because it’s important. And we want to be where God is doing those things, and equipping pastors as much as possible. So with that in mind, maybe just one other resource that our listeners could grab?

 

Elliot Clark (23:27):

Ooh, that’s a difficult question. Just limit it down to one. I’m going to be uninspiring right now, and just say one—your Bible. When I was overseas, working with Muslims, I often had people ask me—what do you need to do ministry to Muslims? What do you need to know? What classes should you take? What resources should you get a hold of? And I just came to the conclusion over the years—every question, every debate, every evangelistic conversation I had came down to what was in Scripture. And I’m thinking particularly the book of John, the book of Hebrews, of Romans. Those books were foundational to, I would say, almost every conversation I had about the gospel. So that’s probably not what you’re looking for. But I just think it’s so important. It’s so easy for us—and I know I’ve written a couple books—but it’s so easy for us to turn to other resources. But I would just first and foremost say—dig deeply into God’s Word. You’re going to need that more than you need anything else.

 

Brian Arnold (24:43):

Well, it is inspiring to think about the most inspired book of all time, to read the Bible, to know the heart of God, to love missions, like God loves missions. So I appreciate that comment actually very much. And that people would dive deeper into Scripture. And I hope that we’ll be found faithful in our generation to fulfill the Great Commission, to send missionaries throughout the world, and for people to recognize—not everybody’s called to go, but everybody’s called to care about missions, to pray, to give, and to evangelize and disciple where they’re at. Well, Elliot, I appreciate this conversation very much today.

 

Elliot Clark (25:15):

Yeah. It’s been great to be with you.

 

Outro (25:17):

Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about our new online learning experience at Phoenix Seminary. Over the last year, we’ve been creating what we believe to be the highest quality of online courses for ministry training. If you’re called to train for a lifetime of faithful service, but can’t join us on campus, I’d like you to invite you to join us online. Take courses featuring some of the guests you’ve heard on Faith Seeking Understanding, including Wayne Grudem, Mike Thigpen, Steve Duby, myself, and more. Learn more about Phoenix seminary online, and even access the entire online lecture content for my church history course at ps.edu/online.

 

 

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