GOD’S VISION: CHAPTER 3
A little over twenty-five years ago, when I was a young minister, I met a man whom I believe was a very great missionary. Though I doubt he would have considered himself so, his works confirmed the fact. This man’s name was William W. Simpson. He was instrumental in founding numerous churches throughout northwestern China after the turn of the century. Many miracles followed his ministry.
Simpson began his missionary work in China in 1892 and remained among the Chinese people for fifty-seven years. When Communist forces took over the mainland, he was driven to Taiwan. Eventually, he returned to America. He was eighty-one when I met him. He had come to speak at the small church where I was pastoring. He stayed for about five days, and we enjoyed good fellowship together. When he finally had to leave, he seemed reluctant to go. But he had speaking engagements to keep, and so he moved on. I never saw him again. During his visit, Mr. Simpson told me that he wanted to return to Taiwan to work for the rest of his days among the people he had grown to love. But his mission board wanted him, instead, to speak at various churches, encouraging others to become involved in missionary service. He told me that he still longed to spend his final days with the Chinese.
This short visit by this elderly man of God had a peculiar and lasting effect on my life. I remember one morning when he picked up the Bible and began to read Scripture aloud. Never had I heard anyone read Scripture as he did that morning. The words came alive. It was obvious that he knew Jesus intimately. I had to resist the temptation to remove my shoes while he read. I understood something of what Moses felt as he stood before the burning bush.
Later that day I happened to bring out a tape recorder I’d just purchased. When he saw it, he asked if he could use it to record a tape-letter to a young man he had worked with for many years. This friend of his also had been driven from China and had moved to another mission field. Delighted to help this man of God, I let him use the recorder. He sat down at our living-room table and began speaking into the recorder. From Scripture and from his heart he spoke a message to his young coworker about things that were to come upon the earth. He talked of a great movement of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. He spoke of the church glorifying God throughout the earth as never before in history.
For half an hour I sat with him, entranced by what I heard. He said that he believed that God would overthrow the Iron Curtain. The Bamboo Curtain would be broken open. Many of the governments now oppressing the gospel of Jesus Christ would crumble. At the same time, the church would rise to do its work of teaching and witnessing and healing and exalting Jesus. As never before Christians would unite in a great movement of God’s Spirit. Everything spoken of in the Bible about the church and her glory would come to pass. And it would be clear to all that this was the doing of a sovereign and mighty God. He would receive the glory.
When he finished, we rewound the tape and tried to play it, but the tape was blank. We tried again, but it wouldn’t record. I offered to exchange the recorder or have it fixed so that he could make the letter. But he said no and seemed to be very much at peace about the whole incident. The next day he left. A few days later I decided to try the tape recorder once more before returning it to the store. It worked perfectly That puzzled me because it worked fine just before we tried to make the tape-letter and now it worked again. It all seemed rather strange.
As the years passed I realized that the message of this aged missionary — this man of great insight and vision — was not meant for his friend on the mission field. It was meant for me. And it was a message that I took seriously My life didn’t change immediately as a result of what I’d heard. But years later those words would come alive for me, and I would begin to understand God’s great vision for the church.
Vision: A Guide to Action
I’m going to use the word vision frequently as I write. Because it can have a number of meanings, it would be best to offer a definition.
In Scripture, a vision was a supernatural revelation or a dream. It might have been a revelation of the Lord or of an angel, perhaps of some future event. But when I use the word “vision”, I am speaking of God’s vision, that which God sees. Specifically, I mean what God sees for the church — what the church and each Christian will accomplish as they set their hearts on glorifying God.
This distinction I make between purpose and vision is an important one. “Purpose” tells us why we exist. But “Vision” — God’s vision — tells us what we are to do. God’s vision establishes our major, overriding goals in life, providing a framework within which to set our personal goals.
It’s not enough simply to believe that we exist to glorify God. We need direction. We need something to guide our life into practical action. Otherwise, God’s purpose becomes abstract, something we accept only on an intellectual level.
The Book of Proverbs makes a revealing statement about vision when it says, “Where there is no vision, the people are unrestrained” (Pro 29:18). Without the direction that God’s vision provides, we are unrestrained — left to drift aimlessly along on our own. As a consequence, our personal interests become the major goals of our life. We have nothing higher or greater than ourselves to live for. Ultimately, we find ourselves without the deep inner sense that our life is truly glorifying God.
Although that missionary from China did not specifically use the word “vision,” he was a man of vision. He saw what God wanted to accomplish on the earth. lie understood God’s intention for the church and for each Christian. And by God’s sovereign will this man imparted that vision to me. But even though I’d been exposed to the vision, years passed while I tried in vain to pursue my own ministry. It took a while before I replaced my own visions and plans with God’s vision.
Three Goals of God’s Vision
Scripture teaches us about God’s vision, showing us what he wants to accomplish in the world, in the church, and in each believer. In a sense, God’s vision has three unique facets which point us toward God, toward our fellow Christians, and toward the unbelieving world. In three important ways, God will be glorified and Jesus exalted, not only in our personal lives but in nations throughout the world.
What is God’s vision? As a result of studying Scripture and learning from personal experience, I have come to recognize three things that together form God’s vision for the church and for each member of the church.
1. We are to know God in ever-deepening personal fellowship and thus be conformed to the character of Christ.
2. We are to walk in love toward all believers, preserving the unity of the body of Christ.
3. We are to take part in bringing the message of salvation through Jesus Christ to all men.
Be conformed to Christ, walk in unity with all Christians, participate in proclaiming the gospel to the world. These three things form God’s vision — his intention for individual Christians, for the church, and for the world. As we work to accomplish these goals, God will be glorified and Jesus exalted.
Scripture points to these goals repeatedly. It, speaks of the importance of knowing the Lord personally, of loving him, and of becoming like Jesus. Much of the New Testament speaks about Christian unity and relationships between believers. God’s Word also turns us outward, toward the world; it tells us to take the name and story of Jesus to all men.
We want to take on God’s vision. However, in doing so, we must remember to keep his purpose in mind. We seek to be like Jesus so that God will be glorified through us. We work for church unity and harmony among believers so that God’s love will be manifested through the church. We proclaim the good news of Jesus so that the Lord will be magnified before all men.
We were created to glorify God, to love him supremely, and to enjoy fellowship in his presence forever. THAT must be the motive behind all our work for God.
A serious danger exists for us as we begin to consider God’s vision. The human mind tends to limit or reduce the fullness of God’s vision by emphasizing one aspect of it at the expense of the other two. The tendency to limit God’s vision is both a human and a spiritual problem. Rather than paying the price of total commitment to a vision that demands our entire lives, we prefer to reduce the broad scope of God’s vision to something that suits our own tastes.
Conformed to Christ
For example, one aspect of God’s vision requires that we become like Jesus. Yet, when an individual or a church commit themselves only to this aspect of God’s vision, they become imbalanced. Some Christian groups are concerned only with their personal holiness. Evangelism is played down and church unity is often scorned. Such churches talk frequently about “searching our hearts,” “analyzing our motives,” and “looking inward to examine ourselves.” World evangelism is all but dismissed with pat statements like: “We need to be mature ourselves before we can go into the world with the gospel,” or “If we just draw close to the Lord the world will see Jesus in us.”
For years I’ve been concerned with the way that this imbalance is perpetuated by the so-called “deeper-life conferences”. Many times the same people go from one conference to another, never experiencing real change in their lives. Deeper-life conferences have their place, of course, but not when deeper life is presented as the whole vision of God. We will only experience true deeper life if we learn to lay down our lives for the sake of the gospel or if we experience the pain and problems that come from trying to unite with other brothers and sisters. We may think we are really committed to the Lord when in reality we are only committed to our own ideas of spirituality. Our personal conformity to Christ must work in balance with the other two facets of God’s vision.
At another extreme is the church that is completely caught up with church unity. “If we could only come together,” they reason, “then the world would really see our love and be drawn to Jesus.” Instead of seeing the whole picture, they only see unity. Although they might recognize the need for world evangelization and for becoming conformed to Christ, their imbalanced emphasis on unity rules out these other two as real priorities. Eventually, members of such churches begin to say, “If only we had unity everything would fall into place.”
Finally, there is the evangelism-centered group. Their one and only priority is to win people to Christ. Although some evangelism-centered churches recognize their need for the greater body of Christ, they usually see that need only in terms of their plans for evangelism. They may believe in the importance of being conformed to Christ, but in practice, they do little to ensure that individuals grow in their personal relationships with God and with one another.
Evangelism is one of the most demanding tasks entrusted to the church. Many people burn out under the burden of this task because they lack the balance provided by the other two aspects of God’s vision.
We fail to achieve God’s vision if we apply ourselves to only one of its three parts. We do need to proclaim the gospel to every person on earth. But at the same time, we need to draw closer to Jesus. And we need to reach out to one another, building bridges of love and unity throughout the church.
When all of these facets of God’s vision operate at once, they bring us into a divine balance. But when a group becomes absorbed by only one aspect of God’s work, that aspect becomes an end in itself.
One day the gospel will have been preached in all the world, the church will have come together in perfect unity, and our lives will have been conformed to the life of Christ. One day God’s vision will be accomplished. But throughout eternity we will never cease to praise and glorify him and to exalt the glorious name of Jesus Christ.
This is the great and eternal purpose of God — the real, underlying reason for which the three goals of God’s vision exist.
For Reflection and Discussion
1. The author quotes Proverbs 29:18 and says that without vision we either drift through life aimlessly or merely pursue our own selfish interests. Discuss the role of spiritual vision in your life and what it does for you.
2. The author says that God’s vision for this church age has three parts: conformity to Christ, unity of the body, and evangelization of the world. Why do these three things uniquely cause Jesus to be glorified in the world? 3. God’s vision creates balance in that it includes the individual (be conformed to Christ), the whole church (work for unity in the body), and the world (be part of evangelizing the world). Discuss the tendencies you have seen for the church to focus on one of these to the exclusion of the others, thus creating an imbalance.