Leighton Ford’s vision for world evangelization.This article is taken from an address prepared for delivery at the International Conference for Itinerant Evangelists in Amsterdam last summer. Leighton Ford is a veteran evangelist and associate of Billy Graham. Copyright 1983 by Leighton Ford; used by permission.

Late in the last century two French writers went to visit a famous scientist, Pierre Berthelot. The scientist predicted that in decades, mankind would develop awesome weapons of terrible power. “We are only beginning to lisp the alphabet of destruction,” he said, and he went on to express his fears that the human race might destroy itself. One of the writers spoke up. “I think,” he said, “that before that time comes God will come down, like a great gatekeeper, his keys dangling at his waist, and say, ‘Gentlemen, it’s closing time.’ ”

Now, in the 1980s, many people are wondering if we are getting close to closing time. There is a widespread feeling of hopelessness in the face of economic problems and international tensions. Ours is a world in which 10,000 people a week die of starvation. It is a world in which 40 different wars are now being fought, any one of which might flare up into an international conflict. It is a world in which main nations wrestling with poverty are threatened with totalitarian regimes. It is a world with terror on the horizon, in which our nuclear arsenals contain weapons with explosive power equal to one million of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima. A teen-age girl in Morris West’s novel The Clowns of God speaks for many youth when she says to her father, “You have given us everything except tomorrow.”

For many, this is an hour when despair and hunger and darkness reign. But from the standpoint of the gospel, another reigns. Jesus ties together world evangelization and the climax of history. “This gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations.” says our Lord, “and then the end will come” (Matt. 24:14).

This prophecy of Jesus comes in a twofold context. First, he speaks of the instability of human history. Describing the “signs of the age.” he says that the whole period from his first coming to his second coming will be an age marked by wars, famines, earthquakes, false prophets, and persecution. Down to the time he returns there will be hostility to the gospel, and at the end of the age evil will actually intensify.

If these “signs of the age” were all we had to go by, then Christians, too, might give way to despair. But Jesus also speaks of “the signs of the end.” “The sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory” (Matt. 24:30).

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So it is in the context of human instability, but also a great divine certainty, that Jesus says, “This gospel of the kingdom will be preached to the whole world as a testimony to all nations and then the end will come.”

This is one of the most exciting statements in all the Word of God concerning the evangelist’s task. King Jesus tells us that his coming lies right over the path of world evangelization. We are in an age of great spiritual conflict. Satan, the god of this age, is at work. The false rulers of darkness do strut around the world. But in the middle of all this we are to believe and to proclaim: King Jesus reigns!

As we go forth to preach the reign of Jesus, we ought to go with three great convictions about the King. These are the convictions that Jesus has a great power, a great program, and a great promise.

Great Power

First consider that King Jesus has a great power. Not only does Jesus promise us that “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached,” but in the Great Commission of Matthew 28 he claims “all authority is given unto me in heaven and earth.”

To present Jesus either as Lord but not Savior, or as Savior but not Lord, is to misrepresent the gospel. “The true response of a person to Christ is a genuine repentance which involves recognizing Jesus as true King in God’s world and thus seeking to live under his authority,” wrote John Chapman.

It is important that the evangelist understand the gospel of the kingdom, the power of Jesus. The kingdom is God’s reign, in the person of his Son, to abolish his enemies and to bring the blessings of God to redeemed humanity.

Consider how King Jesus actually shows his power in Luke 7. At Capernaum, he heals the highly valued servant of a centurion. In Nain, he stops a funeral procession and raises to life the only son of a poor widow. At dinner in the house of Simon the Pharisee, he says to a sinful woman. “Your sins are forgiven” (Luke 7:1–10. 11–17, 36–50). So Luke tells us Jesus traveled about “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God” (Luke 8:1). The “good” in the “good news” is that King Jesus has the power to overcome the great enemies of mankind: sickness, death, and sin.

As Paul tells us in several places, sin, death, and Satan have been “abolished” by Jesus (2 Tim. 1:10; Heb. 2:14–15; Rom. 6:6). “Abolish.” in this context, means to defeat. Satan is a defeated enemy. He is still at work, but his doom is sure. A decisive victory has been won. King Jesus began his reign at his first coming. He continues his reign through his church now, and he will complete his reign when he comes again.

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But we also need to know what the gospel of the kingdom is not. It is not a kingdom without a cross. On Jesus’ last trip into Jerusalem, the crowds, even the disciples, were delirious with joy. They felt sure that the kingdom was coming in glory and power at that moment. But Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be handed over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again” (NIV). The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them and they did not know what he was talking about (Luke 18:31–34). Likewise today, we have many popular ideas of Jesus: Jesus the great example or Jesus the revolutionary or Jesus the guru. Many causes want to identify his kingdom with theirs. But without Jesus’ death for our sins, he would not be Lord and King. We always have to ask: are we Christian soldiers “marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before”? There is no crusade or no kingdom without a cross.

Nor can we have a gospel of the kingdom without conversion. Also on that final trip to Jerusalem, Jesus called the children and said to his disciples, “Whoever will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter” (Luke 18:17). Then we have the story of the two rich men. The first is a rich young ruler who will not be like a child. He trusts in his riches and turns away from Jesus. The second is Zacchaeus, who becomes like a child, welcomes Jesus into his life and his house, and gives half his goods to the poor. Jesus says, “This day has salvation come to this house.” Ultimately we believe that the power of Jesus will bring a new social and political order. “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever” (Rev. 11:15, NIV). We can expect the power of the kingdom to bring some profound and positive changes of peace, justice, and freedom in the structures of our world. We should pray and work to that end. But primary in Jesus’ program is the changing of men and women.

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And who is the gospel of the kingdom for? The answer is clear. When John the Baptist asked Jesus whether he was the Messiah or if another was to come, Jesus’ answer was clear, “The blind receive sight and the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the good news is preached to the poor” (Luke 7:22). Are these poor for whom King Jesus exercises his power the economically poor? Yes, and the presence of the King must be seen in the community of the King as Jesus’ people do works of mercy and seek justice on behalf of the poor of this world. But look again at the people Jesus helped in Luke 7: they were not only the economic poor. Each had a need only God could meet. The centurion’s servant was sick, the widow’s son was dead, the sinful woman was cast out of society. In the eyes of their peers these people had no claim on God. The centurion was just a Gentile, the widow only a female, the woman merely a sinner. They were outside the circle of privilege. So good news for the poor is a message of grace. King Jesus’ power is for those who have no claim on God, for the helpless, who are ready to receive salvation as a gift.

If we are going to be caught up into the Great Commission, we need to see the magnificent power of King Jesus. God, through Jesus Christ, plans to put this broken world back together. Mankind’s great enemies of sin, suffering, and death are defeated foes. God, through Jesus, is redeeming sinners and will change all creation. The good news is for all—all who know their need and seek the mercy of the king.

A missionary, working in Southeast Asia, was taken by a little group of guerillas. He had several weeks to discuss political revolution and Christ with the leader of the revolutionary band. At the end of his time the revolutionary leader said a significant thing: “I have become convinced that your message of Christ is a more powerful one than our message. But, nevertheless, we are going to win. Christ means something to you, but the revolution means everything to us.” Only when King Jesus begins to mean everything to us because he means everything to the world will we truly become world Christians.

A Great Program

The second conviction the evangelist should have as he preaches is that King Jesus has a great program. “This gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations.” he affirms (Matt. 24:14). If the kingdom is the power of King Jesus, then the world is his goal. Evangelists are to be kingdom proclaimers with world horizons.

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Matthew 24:14 is perhaps the most important verse in the whole Bible in helping us to know where history is headed. What is the meaning of our human story? The ancient civilizations and religions saw history as a kind of merry-go-round of endless cycles repeating themselves over and over. The secular humanist sees history as a moving staircase with humankind progressing onward and upward forever. The nihilist sees history as a blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat that is not there. The Marxist sees history as the zigzag lightning bolt of class conflict. But those who believe in King Jesus see history as an arrow shot toward a target. We look to that day when our King will return and God’s purpose will be reached. Meanwhile, we have been commissioned to carry out his program for the world.

The central theme of the Bible is God’s redemptive work in history. First, he chose a small, despised people. Israel. Then, “in the fullness of time.” God sent his Son. Now the purpose of God is centered in King Jesus’ new people—the church. Jews and Gentiles become one new body in Christ. For nearly 2,000 years, God’s program and purpose have been found in the evangelistic program of the church.

This is staggering. God has given to you and me, redeemed sinners, the responsibility of carrying out his purpose. Who are we? We are not great people in the eyes of the world. It is focusing on the UN or what happens in Washington, London, Paris, or Peking. Sometimes we get an inferiority complex. Why did God put this program in our hands? Why didn’t he use angels? Our mindset begins to be that of self-preservation. A survival theology replaces a search theology.

Then let this verse burn in our hearts: “This gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations and then will the end come.” God has not said this about any other group. The good news will be preached by the church in all the world. This is God’s program.

The Immensity Of The Task

We must not oversimplify here. God’s program does not imply that the whole world will be converted. No, the gospel will be preached as a testimony. Some will respond and some not. Nor should we suppose God’s program might be fulfilled merely by preaching one gospel sermon or producing one gospel tract in each language. Rather, Christ has commissioned us to preach to make disciples and to teach these new disciples to obey all he has commanded.

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Still, Scripture says, “This gospel will be preached in the whole world.” Do we really believe this? There are still over two and one-half billion people in the world who have not heard it. If they could be reached at the rate of one million new people a day it would take six and one-half years to complete the task.

Think of Islam with its seven hundred million followers worldwide, now the third largest religion in Europe. Think of China with its billion-plus population. Think of the great world-class cities. Cairo, the largest African city, went from four to eight million people in the 1970s. Mexico City, the world’s largest city, has a growth rate of about a million a year. Or think of the mass of defections from Christianity that have taken place in Western Europe due to secularism; in Eastern Europe and Russia, due to Communism; and in America due to materialism. The challenge of the unfinished task is greater than ever.

It has also been estimated there are 10 to 30 thousand people groups yet unreached with the gospel. Time magazine, in a recent article, singled out the idea of reaching the world one people at a time as the most significant development in missionary strategy in the last decade.

Recently a thrilling story came to light of how one “people group” was reached. It is the story of the Cholanaikkans. In 1972, woodcutters working near the Mangeri Hills in India reported sighting a tribe of naked, fair-skinned people living in caves.

Curious newsmen took the woodcutters as guides and set out to investigate. As they approached the hill area they saw a group of men, women, and children, without clothing, sitting around an open fire. As they came closer to the caves, the Cholanaikkans ran and hid. Soon some of the stronger men began to come out of the caves. The newsmen became frightened, but moved closer and eventually began communicating by using sign language.

The Cholanaikkans were living in caves because they were afraid of wild elephants. They ate fruits, vegetables, and wild honey. They never bathed, cleaned their teeth, or shaved. When it was cold, they wrapped themselves in the bark of trees.

This same year preparation had already begun on an Unreached Peoples Directory for the 1974 Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization. Because of the report written by the newsmen, the Cholanaikkans were “discovered” and listed along with thousands of other unreached people groups. As information from the directory began to spread, a group of concerned Christians living near the Cholanaikkans began to pray specifically for this unreached group. They realized the responsibility for reaching the Cholanaikkans rested with them, so they formed an organization called Tribal Missions.

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The Cholanaikkans lived deep in the hills of the forest and it took the newly formed group a full day to reach them on foot. As they approached, the tribal group was again frightened by outsiders wearing clothes, and they ran to hide. The Christians then devised a strategy: they took off their shirts and trousers, leaving only their waists covered, then walked on.

After repeated visits, the believers began to win the confidence of the Cholanaikkans. They cleaned their wounds, gave baths to their children, applied ointment to diseased skin, and taught them to wear clothes. They brought them food and tablets for headaches. They knew they had to meet both the physical and spiritual needs of the Cholanaikkans.

The Cholanaikkan children began to attend a small school where they were taught stories and songs. Pictures were used to share the gospel story. A number of both adults and children began to understand and accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Savior.

By their third year of ministry, Tribal Missions was able to buy land and build a small place of worship and a medical center. The place of worship is the center of activity for the Cholanaikkan community. About 50 people attend the regular worship services and more than half are baptized believers. Most of the Cholanaikkans no longer live in caves. Their whole standard of living has been changed because a group of believers cared enough to reach out to a lost and hurting people.

If disciples are to be made of all nations, then it will take a tremendous new task force of all kinds of evangelists—mass evangelists, village evangelists, city evengelists, student evangelists, men and women evangelists, Western and Third World evangelists, full-time and lay evangelists, pastor and tent-maker evangelists, older and younger evangelists.

A Great Promise

And that will happen. The evangelists will come and the gospel will be preached. For King Jesus has not only a great power and a great program, but a great promise. This is the evangelist’s third great conviction.

The gospel will be preached, for Jesus says so. This sure promise of our King Jesus should be a mighty motive. “There can be no doubt,” writes Michael Green, “that the expectation of the imminent return of Christ gave a most powerful impetus to evangelism in the earliest days of the church.” He believes that “it is difficult to overestimate the importance of eschatology on the mission of the early Christians. They believed that the long-awaited kingdom of God … was already ushered in through the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth.… They were conscious thereafter of living in the last chapter, so to speak, of the book of human history, however long or short that chapter might be.” King Jesus did not give to his disciples any dates. What he did was to promise them the Holy Spirit for world evangelization. Our sovereign God has mysteriously linked the completion of his kingdom to the completion of our task of evangelization. And he has promised his presence through the Holy Spirit to be with his disciples in this task until the end of the age (Matt. 28:19).

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Peter tells us to look forward to the day of God and to “speed its coming” (2 Pet. 3:12). How can we speed his coming? Will he not come when he is ready? There was a saying among the rabbis that if all Israel would repent for one single day the Messiah would appear. Peter seems to say: God in his gracious mercy is delaying his coming until the good news is spread to the whole creation. “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief” (2 Pet. 3:9–10). So we are to present Christ, warning all that they will face him some day and that will bring them either great joy or terrible judgment.

There are several obstacles to evangelism. “The doors are closed,” says someone.

“But are not things to get worse and worse in the last days? Are we not to expect suffering and rejection rather than the triumph of the gospel?” objects another. Of course, Scripture teaches that evil will intensify. But Scripture also tells that in the last days God pours out his Spirit upon all flesh (Acts 2:17). The last days will be evil, but not totally evil. God has given us the gospel for the last days and a power to take that gospel into all the world for a testimony. “We are not rosy optimists,” wrote George Ladd, “expecting the gospel to conquer the world. Neither are we despairing pessimists who feel that our task is hopeless. We are realists, biblical realists, who recognize the terrible power of evil and yet who go forth on a mission of worldwide evangelization to win victories for God’s kingdom until Christ returns in glory to accomplish the last and greatest victory.”

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When world evangelization is completed, “then will the end come,” Jesus promises. That leaves us with three ends to keep in mind. There are the ends of the world to which the gospel is to go. There is the end of history which will be consummated with the return of Christ. And there is the end of our lives. Are we willing to go all out to the end of our lives, until the ends of the world are reached, until the end comes and Christ returns?

Paul said to the Ephesian elders, “I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24). When the time came for him to be offered up, he wrote to Timothy, “I have finished the race” (2 Tim. 4:7).

Finishing The Race

When our oldest son Sandy was 14, he developed a very serious heart problem. The problem seemed to be corrected by surgery and he returned to the athletics he loved so much, particularly track and cross-country running. Once he was pulling ahead to a record-setting victory in the mile run with a 40-yard lead on the next runner. Then either his old heart problem came back or he developed a problem with his legs. He stumbled and fell. He picked himself up and stumbled forward a few more yards and fell again. Looking around, he saw the second-place runner closing in on him. Sandy rose to his hands and knees and crawled under the tape, across the finish line and fell there, having won his race. They took a picture of that dramatic finish and put it in our paper. When I saw it, I thought of Paul’s words, “I have finished the race.”

That same son of ours had an intense dedication in everything he did and he was especially dedicated to Christ. He wanted to be a minister of the gospel and he was a strong witness for Christ at his secular university. Then in November of 1981 his heart problem returned. Further surgery was required and after 12 long hours the doctors came to tell us that they could not get his heart started again.

We miss him terribly. There are many things we do not understand about why God would allow the death of a 21-year-old man with so much to give to Christ. And yet we know this, that God has used Sandy’s life and death as a witness to stir other young people both to come to Christ and to go for Christ.

Were 21 years enough? There is no answer to that question. How many would be enough: 31, 51, 81? The only answer is that every moment we have must be filled as full as it can be to the glory of God.

So, until the power of King Jesus is proclaimed to all the world, and until he returns in great glory and God finally says, “It’s closing time,” let us run the race that is set before us, “looking unto Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.”

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