You Shall Be My Witnesses
11 Aug 2007, Dr Barry Wright
(Barry is Thornleigh's Church Pastor)
YOU SHALL BE MY WITNESSES
The year was AD 31 and the greatest event to ever take place in this earth's history had come to fruition. Jesus Christ of Nazareth was nailed to the cross of Calvary and the multitudes in attendance were to listen to His last words recorded for all the world to hear in John 19: 30, where He says, 'It is finished'.
This was to be followed by an even more glorious event as the angel of the Lord descended from heaven amidst a violent earthquake and, as Mathew 28: 2 records, this glorious being rolled away the stone in front of the tomb and sat on it. This angel from the heavenly courts and clothed in the bright beams of God's glory now informs the women who had come to the tomb in Matt 28: 6, that Jesus was not there. He had risen.
The angel then instructs them to tell the disciples that Jesus has gone ahead into Galilee and that He would meet them there (Matt 28: 7). Before this appointment was met, forty days were to pass during which time Jesus appeared to many of them, and the disciples had time to reflect on the events that had taken place (Acts 1: 3). During this period they were to accept truths about God's kingdom that they had previously not understood.
The time had now come for Jesus to keep His appointment where He was to speak with the disciples along with the hundreds of believers who had collected in little groups around the mountainside in Galilee (White, 1940: 818). This was to be the only communication that Jesus had with such a large group of believers since His resurrection (Ibid: 819).
It was to be the last step before Jesus was to return to the Mount of Olives just outside the walls of Jerusalem where, after 33 years on this earth, He would finally be reunited with His Father in Heaven.
However, Jesus last words to his small band of followers before this final event were to be found in Mathew 28: 18- 20. Let's read what He had to say. (RSV)
'Then Jesus came and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always to the very end of the age.'
The work Jesus had come to accomplish was now finished and He was on His way to the throne of God to enter upon His mediatorial work for all mankind where He would, once again, be honoured by angels, principalities, and powers (Ibid).
The commission now given to His disciples was to: 'Go ye therefore and teach all nations.' This charge and expectation was not only to include all those believers in Christ who witnessed this meeting, but also it was to include all believers through to the end of time (Ibid: 822).
While the disciples of Jesus had not been students in the schools of the prophets, they had been privileged for three years to have been taught by the greatest educator the world has ever known (Ibid: 809). Yet, the disciples were not yet qualified to begin their work.
Jesus was to make clear that, after His ascension, they were to wait in Jerusalem for a time as He had other blessings in store for them. He told them their work would not always be easy, but they would not be left to fight alone. While His presence was about to be withdrawn from the earth, a new power was to be given to them (White, 1911: 30).
Jesus then returns to the Father and, as the disciples watch, a cloud takes Him from their sight and two angels in human form appear and give them this wonderful promise recorded in Acts 1: 11 (RSV)
'Men of Galilee, they said, why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen Him go into heaven.'
The disciples then return to Jerusalem where their time was to be spent in heart-searching and in prayer as they contemplated the fulfilment of Jesus' promise. They now knew they had a personal friend in heaven sitting at the right hand of God and they were determined to confess Him before the world.
Jesus had made it clear in Acts 1: 4, 5 that they were not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for the gift His Father had promised and that he, himself, had spoken to them about. He says, 'For John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.'
After waiting ten prayer filled days, the believers, who were altogether in one place, heard the sound from heaven like that of a rushing wind filling the place where they were sitting. Acts 2: 3 says that 'They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each one of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Following Peter's sermon to the multitudes that day 'about three thousand were added to their number...'
Along with the promise of the Holy Spirit's power comes a further commission from Jesus recorded in Acts 1: 8. It says that after claiming and receiving this power, the disciples would be His witnesses '…in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.' You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.
It is interesting to note that it was to be in Jerusalem, the city of Christ's suffering that the people were to receive the first offers of mercy. The disciples were to begin their work in the most unpromising place and it was not to be passed by.
While this work in Jerusalem eventually resulted in the death of a man called Stephen, who was one of seven deacons appointed in the newly organised church, it also saw the conversion of one of his persecutors who became one of the most influential leaders of the early church. The man called Saul of Tarsus, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, was to become Paul, missionary to the Gentiles (Barger, 1952: 34, 35).
After the martyrdom of Stephen by the Jewish Sanhedrin in AD 34, the time allotted to the Jews to accept the Gospel had passed and it was now time to take it to the Gentiles in all Judea and Samaria and to the uttermost parts of the earth.
As the disciples continued to witness, the Holy Spirit, which was evident in the early church, impressed the gospel truths on the hearts of the people. This saw the word of God multiply in the homeland until it reached the stage where the Holy Spirit gave the call that started the greatest enterprise the world had ever seen, in the form of foreign missions (Ibid: 59).
It was the church in Antioch that, under the instruction of the Holy Spirit, eventually ordained Paul and Barnabas to go and preach the gospel message in distant countries. This beautiful city, the capital of Syria, saw many of its inhabitants become believers, as its favourable location became a meeting place for visitors from East and West. It was in this city whose people cared little for the things of God, that we see the term 'Christian' being applied for the first time to those who openly accepted the teachings of Christ. Thus they became a marked people setting them apart from the general populace (Ibid: 60, 61).
However, God blessed the work of these early missionaries and, as history records, Christianity, during the time of the disciples in the first one hundred years, was taken to most of the inhabited, then known world. Paul says in Col 1: 6 that the gospel 'is come unto you, as it is in all the world.'
There are many historians who claim that there were many apostles not mentioned in the book of Acts that found their way to places like India, China and even England in their preaching of the gospel. However, while there is much evidence to support such claims, it is here that the Bible remains silent (Ibid: 144).
What were the factors that allowed this initial growth of Christianity to take place?
The most important factor was the sanctifying influence of the Gospel preached in the power of the Holy Spirit. Also, the constant witnessing of the lives of the disciples and the letters they wrote all played their part as they urged the people to prepare for the soon coming of Jesus.
God had not only given the message and prepared the messengers, but He also allowed the right conditions to prevail, favouring their rapid spread, particularly throughout the Roman world.
However, persecution was also to play its part as noted by the Roman historian Tertullian, where he comments that: 'The blood of the martyrs is seed'
On the positive side, the Romans had practically wiped out piracy on the high seas allowing greater ease of travel on water while well-built roads leading to all parts of the empire had become commonplace (Ibid).
While the first one hundred years saw rapid growth they were not without their difficulties. In every way possible Satan was to try and hinder the work of God's special witnesses (Ibid: 159).
We see how he influenced the civil powers to arrest them, beat them and put them in prison.
He also influenced the Jews to persecute them, but this did not bring the desired results. Christianity continued to spread.
He then turns to work within the church itself with the aim of corrupting its central beliefs. As history shows, even during the time of Paul pagan teachings began to enter the church as compromises were being made to please those of various political persuasions. To counteract this, Paul and others wrote letters to the churches warning of these deceptive practices noting that there would come a time when there would be a falling away from the true doctrines as taught by Jesus (Ibid)
While these changes continued to take place within Christendom during the first 1000 years there remained many faithful witnesses in the far-flung places of the earth such as Scotland, Ireland, Africa, Asia and in the Mountains and valleys of the Italian and French Alps (Ibid: 168).
The most notable of these groups who were able to keep the true gospel alive were the Waldenses from the mountains of northern Italy. Copying the Bible by hand and committing large sections of Scripture to memory they were responsible for either sharing it orally or distributing the literature among the people of the Piedmont Plains. Their greatest desire was to spread the gospel and this was first achieved in their own families and communities through the provision of Christian education for their children. While ever their schools continued to function, each child was trained to keep the faith and to witness for the Saviour (Ibid: 168, 169).
All of their missionaries who had trained in their secluded college in the mountains had a trade or profession to not only support themselves, but to disguise their real work. Unfortunately, many of these faithful men and women were killed or imprisoned as a result of their witnessing and their refusing to give up the truths they had learned from Scripture.
The most amazing part of the story of Christian history is that in spite of opposition and persecution, from inside and outside the church, the Lord has always found someone to carry on His work.
'Go ye into all the World…' (Mark 16: 15)
You shall be my witnesses…to the uttermost parts of the earth' (Acts 1: 8)
These words of Jesus continued to echo down through the centuries leading to the time of the Protestant Reformation (1517- 1660). It was then to pass through to the age of reason and onto the evangelical revival led by such notables as John and Charles Wesley (1660-1789) (Linder, 2000: 17, 18).
It was through these revivals of the eighteenth century that one of the most significant developments of Christian history was made possible. Out of the Wesleyan renewal and other evangelical and pietist awakenings came new efforts to carry the gospel of Jesus Christ to other lands (Ibid: 19). Wesley was to make clear that the world was his parish.
This new impetus and fervour, that was unseen since apostolic times, became known as the modern missionary movement. It was aided by a new doctrine involving the separation of church and state that was to be accepted by some of the countries in Western Europe after the close of the Godless French Revolution (Gane, 1994: 148).
It all formally began with a man by the name of William Carey (1761-1834) who along with his fellow believers formed a group called the Baptist Missionary Society. It was to be under their sponsorship that he sailed to India in 1793 where he spent the remainder of his life taking the gospel message to all who would listen.
Missionary Societies from all denominations began to multiply including the London Missionary Society in 1795 through to the development of the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1804. It was an age of heroic missionary work and involved such well-known identities as Adoniram and Ann Judson who worked in Burma, Father Damion in Hawaii, David Livingston in East Africa, Mary Slessor in West Africa and J. Hudson Taylor in China (Ibid).
This work grew in strength throughout the nineteenth century passing through what is known today as the second great awakening. It then continued its growth well into the twentieth century. Out of this time period we see the revival of many of the churches and the development of many new movements including that of Mormonism, the Salvation Army and also the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Colleges were set up to train the many missionaries who were needed to fulfil the great gospel commission and this was reflected in the names of many of these institutions. One such institution belonging to the SDA Church in Australia was the Avondale School for Christian Workers that was renamed in 1911 as the Australasian Missionary College. This change took place because its primary responsibility at that time was to train missionaries for the South Pacific Region and Southern Asia.
As one of many that were become part of this exciting period of history was a young London parlourmaid by the name of Gladys Aylward. Born in 1902 to a young working class couple, she had a happy childhood, marred only by the bombing of London during the First World War.
She left school at 14 and after a number of menial positions was forced into domestic service as a parlourmaid in the West End of London. It was during this time she attended a religious meeting out of boredom and it was there that she was convicted that God wanted her to become a missionary to China.
At 26 years of age she enrolled in the China Inland Mission Training School, but after a three-month period and failing all of her exams she was told she was unsuitable.
Convinced that God still had a plan for her she was not to be deterred. Standing up to her full height of five feet she indicated to the Mission Board of her continued determination to go to China. She had learned that a 73-year old Missionary by the name of Jeannie Lawson wanted a young person to join her in a remote outpost in the Northern part of that great continent. Gladys was to see herself as that person.
At this time in the 1930s the world was in a deep economic depression. Russia and China were at war and the only cheap way to her destination was to go by rail. This would be a long and dangerous journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway that would eventually see her arrive in China many weeks later.
China in the 1930s was still a feudal society with many walled cities dotted throughout the country and it was to be one of these lonely outposts that would later become her home.
It was at the walled city of Yangcheng just north of the Yellow River in the province of Shansi that she was to meet Jeannie Lawson, an old Scottish lady with a mop of white hair crowning five feet of skin and bones.
Since all foreigners were believed to be devils, the fearful locals would often throw things at them to keep them at a distance. They would also spit at them and slam doors in their faces. This was to be a difficult place to witness for the Lord and to share the gospel story.
The first thing Gladys was to receive was a new name, as the Chinese could not be expected to pronounce Aylward. From this time on she was to be known as Ai-weh-deh or 'The Virtuous One'.
Gladys' first experience with feudal justice was to take place two weeks after she arrived in Yangcheng. As crowds gathered in the market square, she thought she was about to witness some circus entertainment but instead saw a man, head shaven, his pigtail looped around his forehead and bent forward in a queer pathetic manner. Before she realised what was happening a curved execution sword slashed downwards severing the man's head from his body. The horror of that scene would stay with her for years.
Because mule trains were a common sight in the mountain regions, it wasn't long before an idea came to the two women that if they opened an inn they could provide meal and lodgings for the night along with stories from the Bible. The Chinese in the towns and villages loved storytelling. However, their first customers had to be literally dragged in by capturing the lead mule and steering it into the compound. This drastic measure was the only way they could bring these frightened men into a place owned by foreign devils.
Before long the Inn was doing a brisk trade as people came to listen to their Bible stories. However, soon after this unique venture commenced Jeannie Lawson died at the age of 74. Gladys was now on her own.
It was after this sad event that the Mandarin or Governor of Yangcheng paid Gladys a visit to ask her to officially become the Government regional foot inspector to stamp out the ancient custom of foot binding. Only a woman with big feet could undertake this work. Because small feet were seen to be a sign of beauty in the eyes of the men, every little girl had her feet bound as soon as she was born. Men wanted wives with small feet. The result of this treatment was to affect their running and even walking. Many were crippled for life.
Foot binding was now considered illegal in China. On these official trips Gladys was able to take the opportunity to tell Bible stories and teach the children special choruses telling them about a man called Jesus.
One particular day while walking through the main street of Yangcheng, she noticed a coarse, dirty looking woman sitting on the pavement. Leaning against her knee was an appalling, sickly scrap of a child, clad only in a dirty loincloth, legs like stalks, a swollen belly, indicating malnutrition, and a head and body covered in running sores. This wizened up little creature turned out to be a girl and the woman had made it clear to Gladys that she was for sale. Boy babies in China at that time were treated as little gods while girls were largely unwanted. Therefore, the buying and selling of little girls was common in the mountains and the people behind this despicable trade were very powerful. The child was being offered for two dollars.
Looking at this thin unwanted scrap of humanity before her Gladys' heart ached for the suffering it would already have been through. The only way to save this child was to buy it herself. She offered all she possessed. Five Chinese coins, about the equivalent of nine pence in English money. The woman grabbed the coins and pushed the child into her arms and so it was that little nine pence came into her life. Within a few weeks, after being washed and fed, she looked a different child. This began the first of many orphan children to join her at the inn.
In 1937 Japan invaded China and the invading armies soon took over all of the north-eastern part of the country. To escape the soldiers, many fled to the hills and mountains to hide in remote villages and caves.
With her vast knowledge of the mountains it wasn't long before the Chinese Nationalists used her to supply information on enemy troop movements in defence of her adopted country. When the Japanese discovered what she was doing, a large reward was offered for her capture, dead or alive.
At this time a large orphanage housing 200 children was being threatened by the advancing Japanese troops. Gladys took over the situation finding sanctuary for the first 100 by sending them 160 kms to Sian. They arrived safely in just over five weeks and were looked after by a Government agency. Unfortunately, the man responsible for their escape was arrested on his return so Gladys was now faced with the prospect of moving the remaining 100 children across the mountains though dangerous Japanese occupied territory. The children ranged in age from 4 to 15. As Gladys looked back on this experience after the war, she believed with all her heart that this was the reason why God meant her to come to China. It was to save these children.
Their escape over the mountains was one of the miracles of the war. . They were often without food and shelter with the older children taking responsibility of carrying the smaller ones. Their homemade shoes were soon worn out leaving their feet cut and bruised. It was to be after many more adventures and god-given miracles that they eventually reached Sian.
With the children finally safe, Gladys collapsed and had to be taken to hospital in a very serious condition. In the Autumn of 1941 as the senior Physician in charge looked at this little foreigner, a died up husk of a woman babbling incoherently in a Chinese dialect he could not understand, he could see that she was dying. Only her God in heaven could intervene.
However, after a miraculous recovery, which is another story in itself, Gladys went on to open and run many orphanages in Taiwan until her unexpected death in 1970 at the age of 68.
Today her children of the mountains are scattered all around the world reliving the story of their adventures about an amazing little English woman who led them through to safety in the Spring of 1940 when the world was a mad-house of war. Many of these children were to accept the good news of the gospel because of her powerful witness of a God who cares.
Gladys' vision, which remained with her all through her life, could be expressed in the words of an old hymn that was written in 1885 by a man called J. O. Thompson. It is found in our current hymnbooks as No. 358. Listen to the words.
Far and near the fields are teeming
With the sheaves of ripened grain;
Far and near their gold is gleaming
O'er the sunny slope and plain.
Send them forth with morn's first beaming,
Send them in the noontide's glare;
When the sun's last rays are streaming,
Bid them gather everywhere.
O thou, whom thy Lord is sending,
Gather now the sheaves of gold;
Heaven-ward then at evening wending
Thou shalt come with joy un-told.
Lord of harvest send forth reapers!
Hear us Lord to thee we cry;
Send then now the sheaves to gather,
Ere the harvest time pass by.
Dear friends, Jesus is calling us forth to be faithful witnesses for Him as we take the wonderful news of the gospel, not only to our own localities, but also to the uttermost parts of the earth. It is my prayer this morning that we will accept the challenge that Jesus gave to His disciples almost two thousand years ago in Acts 1: 8 when He told them that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit was to come upon them and then He says, '…you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.'
Barger, R. C. (Ed) (1952) Witnesses for Jesus. Series IV. Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publishing Association.
Gane, E. R. (ed) (1994) So Send I You - Biblical Models of Soul Winning. Adult Sabbath School Lessons. Warburton, Victoria: Signs Publishing Company
Linder, R. D. (2000) The History of the Church. Candle Books
White, E. G. (1940) The Desire of Ages. Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publishing Association.
White, E. G. (1911) The Acts of the Apostles. Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publishing Association.
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