Here’s a gospel reality that has been almost completely lost to the church today:
Biblically, the message of the gospel and the messenger of the gospel are “joined at the hip.”
That is, failing to welcome the messenger with hospitality is the same thing as rejecting the message of the gospel—and Christ himself.
Christ embodies this in his own life. He places himself, defenseless, in a womb—the womb of a woman betrothed to be married, whose husband contemplates divorcing her quietly to avoid shaming her.
And throughout Jesus’ life, right up through his ascension to heaven, we see him daily seeking hospitality. Consider Matthew 8:20, where Jesus says, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Seeking hospitality daily was as much a part of Jesus’ evangelism approach as was his presentation of the message itself.
Jesus trains his apostles to follow the same approach: travel with nothing, relying on the hospitality of those with whom you share the message. Check out Luke 10:1-4:
After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road.
It’s not because Jesus was a bad fundraiser that he sent out his messengers empty-handed. He could have made sure that his messengers were traveling wealthy philanthropists instead of seemingly needy beggars. But he had a purpose for sending out his messengers with nothing: In so doing, those willing to extend hospitality to his messengers—and thus to him—would be revealed. These hosts would be the ones to whom he himself would extend hospitality when they came to his own kingdom carrying nothing.
When we understand this principle, we can see the story of the rich young ruler in Mark 10:17-22 in a new light.
And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.'” And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
If the rich young ruler goes out with money, of course everyone will receive him! They will receive him because by his very appearance they will believe that if they receive him they will receive some personal benefit. And that means the gospel message and the gospel messenger stop being identical: the messenger (whether he wants to or intends to or not) now becomes a messenger of wealth and power, not of the gospel.
Worse yet, when we as messengers bring our own provisions, we rob people of the opportunity to exercise their gifts of hospitality, which—since we’re messengers of Jesus—means we rob them of the opportunity to host Christ.
We see these problems due to “hospitality inversion” happen all the time. In nearly every way the gospel is shared these days, Christians are the hosts…and those that don’t know Christ are the strangers to whom the Christians are offering hospitality.
- Western missionaries come into a poor area, and they are well received by the people there not because the people are responding to the gospel message but rather because the people there are responding to a different message: becoming a Christian will benefit you materially!
- Churches spend money to reach out to “strangers” in the community, trying to get them to come to the church. And when they come, they give gifts to the strangers.
- Christian ministries hold huge evangelistic rallies, with bands and balloons and burgers—and, of course, no admission fees.
Strange challenge that we face today: Christians have too much money to need to be hosted by anyone!
How different that attitude is from the Lord Jesus. He had all the riches of heaven, and yet—as we read in Philippians 2:7—he “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” He daily was subject to our hospitality—it was indispensable to how he shared the gospel.
So in the lay church, missions is the practice of sharing the gospel by letting our enemies do good to us—from hosting us in their homes to—as Thomas and Elizabeth Brewster taught us so many years ago in their phenomenal book, Language Acquisition Made Practical)—teaching us their language right there on the mission field when we arrive knowing no language other than our own. We let strangers host us as we come in the name of the Lord, and, in so hosting us, host the Lord and welcome the gospel.
So how do we learn to be hosted by strangers and enemies in this way? According to Luke 10, we let them practice on us! And Jesus gives us specific instructions on what to do when they welcome us, and what to do when they don’t.
But how can we, with integrity, still be rich (compared to the rest of the world) and yet go out with nothing?
Here, Christ is our exemplar. Though he possessed all things, he left all things and came with nothing except the message and love of his father, which he mirrored into the world.
In the same way, we who possess a lot can still leave it all—for an hour, for a day, or, ultimately, for a lifetime—as we go with nothing except the message and love of Christ, which we mirror into the world.