Missionaries Are Obedient Unto Death – part 18

This article contains a guide to walking into remote villages. When I was in seminary, my prayer partner made a little wooden plaque for me. It had a picture of a cross on a hill and written above it was the phrase “Obedient unto Death”. You don’t hear the words, “obedient,” or “obey,” much. The word “obey,” sounds too strong in these modern times, but when God speaks to his children, he often uses this word. We are to obey God and his commands and even if that means unto our physical deaths.

And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross!

(NIV Philippians 2:8)

I was a new missionary. It was 1999 and it was my fourth year on the field. I was accompanying an older man into the mountains to help put in a water well among a remote unreached people group. This was a dangerous area inhabited by an ethnic group of about 12,000 people. The little church had about ten new believers and was growing slowly. On the last day of our trip, I was sitting in the house of an indigenous man and I asked him how to say hello in his language. He told me, and when I repeated it back, his eyes widened. Then I asked him how to say a few other things, and he was astonished when I repeated the phrases. The missionary came for me so that we could leave and the indigenous man exclaimed, “He must come and live here with us, no one from the outside has ever spoken our language before!” That day, the missionary and I hiked down out of the mountains to the main road. It was about four hours to the main road and another three driving back to the town where we lived.

He told me that I needed to get ready to live up in that village because no other missionary has ever been invited to live there with these people. Not long after that, the missionary had a heart attack and could no longer hike up the mountains to the little group of believers. All these circumstances were enough for me to be the missionary to this remote unreached people. It was the most reasonable thing to do. I made preparations and moved up into the village. The man who invited me was an elder among his tribe and was able to convince the people to allow me, an outsider, to live among them. That town had a population of about 5,000 people, and they all gathered together to see if they would let me live there. The men gathered in one meeting and the women in another. They voted yes, and I moved up into the little village with what was in my backpack. I lived in a little cinder-block medical clinic that the missionary had built. There was neither electricity nor running water in that village, and to this day, there is no cellphone service. This people group is considered small, about 12,000 in population, but speak their own distinct language classified by SIL, the Summer Institute of Linguistics, or Wycliffe Bible Translators. These people are also remote linguistically as the majority of them do not speak the national language, Spanish. The Northern Pame (Xi’iuy) is considered to be one of the most difficult languages to learn in this hemisphere, being tonal and having 36 vowels and 22 consonants.[i]

I was excited and a little apprehensive about living among a remote unreached people group. What most people do not know is that, when the sun goes down in these remote villages, demons come out to wreak havoc. Many nights, the drunks would congregate on my doorstep with machetes in hand to provoke me. They would threaten me and make fun of me out of pure meanness and to frighten me. In the beginning, I would sit on the porch of the clinic at night, which was on the main path where people walked by. I did this to get to know the people, until one night a few men threatened me, shouting at me in their language and spitting in my face. I remember not backing down, as was my custom when I was younger. I was protected in my ignorance and pride, and, that night, God spared my life. I only lived in that little village for eleven months but that was long enough to know what it means to live in a remote unreached people group. It is no easy thing to be where you are not welcome.

I would travel with my indigenous friend to other villages to share the Gospel. He was my translator. Every morning we would read the Bible together, and then I would learn the language for a few hours, and then we would walk many hours to get to the other villages. He would take me to all the places he knew so that we could evangelize. I did not know at that time that he could not read the Bible, nor did I know that he did not understand me very well. What could he have possibly been translating? This is why you need to learn the language.

One day, we were coming back from a visit to another village about two hours away. Halfway home we met five young men digging a pit in the middle of nowhere. I remember thinking, “Why are they digging way out here?” As I came down an embankment I brushed my arm against a very poisonous plant. The young men were laughing at me because they saw me brush up against the plant. One young man got up into my face and was mocking me aggressively in his language. Again, I did not back down and pretended not to notice that he was being aggressive. I just stood there. He kept looking down at my arm to see when it would begin to react to the plant. My arm never did react. God protected me once again, most likely to show his power. They backed away and we went on.

We hiked for about a half-an-hour and my indigenous friend sat down on some rocks to rest. He said, “Do you remember those young men back there?” “Yes”, I replied. He then said, “Those are the ones plotting to kill you.” At that moment, I felt a little uneasy, but I quickly responded to my friend, “If they kill me, then they kill me. I know why I am here, and I believe God will protect me. I am not going to stop preaching the Gospel.” I didn’t know that my friend was greatly impacted by what I said and that he would later become the leader of the church in that area. I also did not know that he had struggled to proclaim publicly that he was a Christian for fear of being killed. The previous missionary told me that this area was dangerous and also that they had plotted to kill him, but I just never thought something like this would happen to me. Looking back, we probably stumbled upon the grave they were digging for me.

But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.

(NIV Matthew 12:14)

and they plotted to arrest Jesus in some sly way and kill him.

(NIV Matthew 26:4)

So from that day on they plotted to take his life.

(NIV John 11:53)

One day, one of those same young men was connecting pipe to the water well, and his little brother got his finger caught between the pipes, almost cutting it off. The young man to whom I refer to is the same young man that got up in my face, mocking me in his language. He came to the clinic (a two-room shack in the town I lived in) with his little brother, and I was able to patch up his finger. They took him to the nearest town and his finger was saved. In their culture, if you do them a favor or a good deed, they can no longer harm you. So, the Lord used another circumstance to save my life. I know now that God was never going to let me die in those mountains. However, had he let me die, I would have died being obedient to his word. I would have died proclaiming Jesus without faltering, even in my fear. God would have given me grace at that moment not to be afraid. It would have been an honorable death for a missionary.

Almost all of the disciples of Christ laid down their lives for the Gospel. They were killed as Jesus was. Missionaries should expect to be martyred, as the first disciples expected it. Jesus told them to expect it, but wouldn’t that be a good death to be martyred for the sake of Christ and preaching the Gospel? Many times I have thought, “Well, if we die here, at least it will be a good death.” In many countries, if you are caught making disciples, the penalty is death. But missionaries are not opposed to dying. We can do what God commands us to do, being obedient unto death.

“I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” 59 At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.

(NIV John 8:58-59)

Again they tried to seize him, but he escaped their grasp.

(NIV John 10:39)

But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands.

(NIV 2 Corinthians 11:33)

Once you develop solid obedience to God and a hatred for this world system (part 17), you won’t be worried about death or being put in jail or tortured. You will still feel fear to some degree. This is a natural reaction, but you just won’t care to hang around down here. What you are really hoping for is a good death. Do not misunderstand me. Don’t try to get yourself killed. Don’t put yourself in harm’s way unless led by the Holy Spirit. The problem here is that your mind will always tell you that it is too dangerous. You need to be able to disengage your mind and let the Holy Spirit lead you like someone pulling a dog along by his leash. You will have to walk into many little villages where you have no idea what awaits you and this requires a pulling along by the Holy Spirit. This sums up the teaching of a course on doing research trips into unreached peoples.

Missionary work is dangerous, and many governments are strict on the punishment of missionaries. Danger is part of being a missionary. No one complains much when people want to join the military, which is a very dangerous job. Consider mission work dangerous. It cannot be helped that you have to go directly into danger, so just absorb it like you would absorb pain. Go through it. If you live, you live, and if you die, you die.

As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

(NIV Romans 8:36)

The first Christians went boldly preaching the Gospel and were warned that they would suffer and be persecuted, and they simply ignored it.

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” 55 “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” 56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 58 Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

(NIV 1 Corinthians 15:54-58)

Christ prophesied that it would happen to us:

“Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.

(NIV Matthew 24:9)

Peter told Jesus he was willing:

But he replied, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.”

(NIV Luke 22:33)

Later Peter was preaching boldly and:

When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death.

(NIV Acts 5:33)

Technically, Christians do not die, our bodies do:

“I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.

(NIV John 5:24)

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

(NIV Romans 8:38-39)

Pray that God gives you a good death. Missionaries should have the attitude that God and his Son Jesus are worth giving their lives for. People will fly jet planes into buildings for their faith. Are we willing to give our lives on the mission field to show that our faith is in the one true God?

1. Pray that God gives you courage at the moment that you are to be martyred.

2. Pray that when you die, it is a good death, one for the extension of God’s Kingdom.

Dying is not the worst thing that can happen to a field missionary

OK, let’s just say that you are in a remote unreached people group, and they come for you in the middle of the night. The drunks are making fun of you and spitting in your face, and one unsheathes a machete. You could try to run, but how far are you going to get? You are too deep in the mountains to get away. You decide to stand firm and look up to heaven and say, “I am ready Lord; forgive these people who do not know of your mercy and love for them.” Say it in their language, if you can.

When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. 55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died. (NRSV) If you have to give your life on the mission field, it would not be the worst thing that could happen to you. Your blood will cry out with the testimony that Jesus Christ is worth dying for. Your blood will cry out in a world where religious fanatics strap bombs to ten-year-old boy’s chests. Your blood will cry out that your message is true. It just might be that you open the way for the next missionary who is coming behind you. It might be that the secret Christians come out of hiding, boldly proclaiming the Gospel, because of your death.

(NRSV The Stoning of Stephen – Acts 7:54-60)

A guide to walking into remote villages

  1. Don’t listen to all the bad things people are saying about the area you have to go into. You have to go, so put those things out of your mind.
  2. Do as Jesus said and take as few things as possible. (Luke 9:3)
  3. Once in the village or town, disengage your mind and let the Holy Spirit guide you. He knows where the man or woman of peace lives. Don’t think you know anything. Disengage your mind. Totally unreached people groups are also totally unknown and you should not think you will know what to do because you don’t. Let God lead you.
  4. If no one in the village will open up to you, dust the dirt off your feet and move on to the next. (Matthew 10:14, Mark 1:38)
  5. If they begin to get violent toward you, get out. (Matthew 10:23)

I teach at a missionary training center every few years in a remote area when there are enough students to have a course. The first time director of the mission invited me, he asked me to teach an entire week on how to go into remote villages. I told him that I don’t have a week’s worth of teaching. He said, “Make a manual that will stretch out over a whole week.” So I did. Some students are disappointed that my manual doesn’t say much. I have to really work to fill in my week talking about many other aspects of the missiology of Christ and telling about my experiences. But when it comes down to it, there are only five or six things I can say, the ones you find in the list above.

Several years ago, a large denomination sent their field researchers to me for training. I had to make my manual much more technical and complicated. The first year they came to my course, I had said all I could say and began to talk about the missiology of Christ and the head of the group took me outside and told me to quit.

Field research is a secular term we have added to our missionary task but it is really a spiritual thing. You are looking for the men and women of peace. You don’t know what you are going to run into, and you are going to have to let God lead you to them because you don’t know what part of the village they live in. The people in the village are certainly not going to tell you if there are Christians or believers in that town. You will have to be led, like a dog being pulled (willingly) by his leash. It is as simple as that. It cant be taught out of a book or manual. You cant even teach it to those who accompany you. It is something that the Holy Spirit does and you just let go.

Several times I have been on these trips and my companions are asking me, “Why are we stopping here?” “Why are we going this way?” I just tell them, “I don’t know, be quiet.” Then someone comes along or something happens and this leads us to the man of peace.

I am about the most normal guy you could ever meet. I grew up in a middle-class home, went to public school, rode my bicycle, read comic books, and ate candy, like all the other kids my age. The opportunity came along for me to find out where there were o Christians or workers in a country with about three hundred indigenous languages scattered through mountains and jungles in remote areas. Someone had to walk out there. So this normal kid just started walking. There was no manual that I know of.

Today I am considered an expert on field research of unreached people groups but I am telling you here, walking into remote villages is just a normal part of extending the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is just normal work done by normal people. We are nothing special, we are just being obedient. Someone has to do it.

Just do what Jesus said to do and he will be with you. Will they want to kill you? Sure they will. Will it be dangerous? Yes, and no. The area you walk into may be very dangerous, but they can’t harm you. If they do, it will be a good day and you can relax because, in just a little while, you’ll be walking in paradise!

[i] A Phonological Grammar of Northern Pame http://www.sil.org/resources/publications/entry/48919