The First Missionary

[Taken from my newest pamphlet: Understanding God: The Problem With Grace]

The first missionary ever to leave the comforts of familiar surroundings and loving companions was God Himself in the person of His Son.  The language barrier should not be ignored as an incidental difference.  

Moffat in his “Missionary Labors and Scenes in South Africa” gives us a very remarkable example of the disappearing of one of the most significant words from the language … the disappearing as well of the great spiritual …truth whereof that word was at once the vehicle and the guardian.

The Bechuanas … employed formerly the word ’Morimo,’ to designate ’Him that is above,’ or ’Him that is in Heaven,” and attached to the word the notion of a supreme Divine Being… Thus is it the ever repeated complaint of the Missionary that the very terms are well nigh or wholly wanting in the dialect … whereby to impart to him heavenly truths, or indeed even the nobler emotions of the human heart.⁠1

In the person of His Son, Jesus, God learned our language through much hardship⁠2 because language is more than words, it is culture and ideology down to the very pondering of the human heart.  Jesus faced a paganism in all of us, a darkness,  when He came to our world that had nothing in common with the one He left. When He gave up the comforts of the Kingdom from which He came⁠3 the Prince of Heaven lay aside the royal robes of such a glorious place and donned a beggar’s garb.  He was unrecognized and unwelcome but He was God’s ambassador, God’s first missionary; so, He learned to live among us.  He experienced the pain and joylessness of a spiritual poverty we were unaware of because we came to accept our world for what it was, not knowing there was another.

So the burden of God became the task of sharing His world with us in the language of young children, a language of expression and feeling, a non-technical language that must not try—because it could not—to describe or represent the glories of God’s heaven, God’s eternity, the infinite resources of His grace.  It was enough that we might imagine these things and trust Him to explain more later.  It was enough that He began to give us a child’s vision of love.⁠4  It was enough that we had reason again to hope.⁠5  It was enough that He gave us glimpses of possibilities beyond our impoverished condition.⁠6  The details of “golden streets” and angelic assemblies in praise will have to wait, meanwhile we imagine what it will be like. Don’t be too surprised if it turns out better!

It is our Bible that tells the story of God’s missionary journey among us in words that appear common but as Professor Trench reminds us:

“…words often contain a witness for great moral truths—God having impressed such a seal of truth upon language, that men are continually uttering deeper things than they know…”⁠7 

So Jesus began to share on the fringe of an infinite benevolence by healing the sick and raising the dead, but the crowds of followers didn’t get it.  Only a handful of followers, ignorant still in so many details, knew in their spirit that they should not forsake Him.⁠8 

We, too, long for the fuller revelation of what is meant by grace and the benefits of heaven. The words we now cherish in our theologies and the preachers’ sermon notes are indeed the language of children, the early embrace of a God whose love in full awaits that eternal day.


1 Richard C. Trench Synonyms of the New Testament pg 197
2 Hebrews 5:8 Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered
3 Philippians 2:7 he made himself nothing
4 Luke 18:17 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.
5 Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
6 2 Corinthians 5:5 Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.
7 Richard C. Trench. On the Study of the Words Lectures.
8 John 6:68 Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.

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