This article has been adapted from a sermon Ivan Satyavrata preached at The Assemblies of God national office chapel on November 10, 2009
Presenting a Loving, Credible Witness For Jesus
By Ivan Satyavrata
For our text this morning, I will read Acts 4:12,13: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.” This is a passage any Pentecostal worth his or her salt has not read over and over.
An outstanding feature of globalization in the 21st century has been the massive global migration of peoples. This has resulted in a rapidly changing world and an unprecedented cultural diversity in society today. In particular, there are two challenges Christian missions face globally. Until recently these challenges were remote for those in North America. But in the last few decades these challenges moved next door. The first is what I like to describe as the bull of the Middle East — the bull of Islam.
The Bull of the Middle East — the Bull of Islam
I came across a letter on the Internet written by a retired attorney to his sons. I am reading excerpts from this letter because it captures the challenge of Islam in a way I find hard to improve on.
Dear Tom, Kevin, Kirby, and Ted,
As your father, I believe I owe it to you to share some thoughts on the present world situation. Our country is now facing the most serious threat to its existence as we know it that we have faced in your lifetime and mine. [He is, of course, referring primarily to 9/11 and various other terrorist attacks.] Who were the attackers? In each case Muslims carried out the attacks on the U.S. What is the Muslim population of the world? Twenty-five percent. So who are we at war with? There is no way we can honestly respond except that it is not anyone other than the Muslim terrorists. Trying to be politically correct and avoid verbalizing this conclusion can well be fatal.
Remember, the Muslim terrorists’ stated goal is to kill all infidels. That translates into all non-Muslims. Not just in the United States, but throughout the world. Christians are the last bastions of defense. Our nation as we know it will not survive, and no other free country in the world will survive if we are defeated.
Finally, name any Muslim country throughout the world that allows freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, equal rights for anyone, let alone everyone, equal status or any status for women. Democracies do not have their freedoms taken away from them by some external military force. Instead, they give their freedoms away, politically correct piece by politically correct piece. They are giving those freedoms away to those who have shown worldwide that they abhor freedom and will not apply it to you or even to themselves once they are in power. It is your future we are talking about. Do whatever you can to preserve it.
It is not my purpose to whip up passions or anti-Muslim sentiments, but simply to set the context within which God has called us to live out our Christian witness in the 21st-century world. So goes the bull of the Middle East.
The Bear of the Far East — Religious Tolerance
There is a second challenge as formidable and perhaps often underestimated. I call it the bear of the Far East — the family of religions of which Hinduism is at the center and New Age spirituality is at its periphery. This includes yoga, meditation, Hare-Krishna, new age gurus like Deepak Chopra, who incidentally frequents the pulpits of many churches in the United States.
This is how Americans will encounter the bear of the Far East. The spirituality that comes from the East is relativistic. Its cardinal emphasis is, “There is no such thing as absolute truth.”
This emphasis is very attractive to the 21st-century, postmodern mind. It is also pluralistic. Religions, it tells us, are all essentially true and equal ways to God. If you have your antenna up, your eyes open, and your ears attuned, you know that in the marketplace — whether in the media, the academe, or Hollywood — this is the mantra of the age.
So you have the bear, which in the name of tolerance and social harmony would like us to accept everything and every culture and religion uncritically. Obviously, I represent another culture this morning. I am certainly not in favor of a monocultural view of the world. But the bear offers a dangerous invitation.
Perhaps the best popular expression of this is in the words of Rabbi David Hartman, quoted by Thomas L. Friedman, in The Lexus and the Olive Tree. This quote is from another article by Friedman, published in the New York Times 2years ago. I am quoting Hartman’s words as Friedman quotes them. “All faiths that come out of the biblical tradition — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — have the tendency to believe that they have the exclusive truth. The opposite of this religious totalitarianism is an ideology of pluralism, an ideology that embraces religious diversity and the idea that my faith can be nurtured without claiming exclusive truth.”
Listen to this. Obviously, I am quoting selectively. “Can Islam, Christianity, and Judaism know that God speaks Arabic on Fridays, Hebrew on Saturdays, and Latin on Sundays, and that He welcomes different human beings approaching Him through their own history, out of their language and cultural heritage? Can we have a multilingual view of God, a notion that God is not exhausted by just one religious heart?”
If you read the rest of the article, Friedman is promoting this view as the only hope for a future world where religious tolerance and harmony prevail. That is music to some ears, especially to the ears of pagans who lose their children on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq.
The bull and the bear today constitute the two biggest global challenges to Christian mission. They comprise at least 40 percent of the world’s population and 60 percent of the unreached peoples in the world. How should we engage them?
The church today, globally, but especially in North America, has two extremes. On one hand, we have a perspective that advocates stubborn hostility in which we alienate the other, demonize the other. We circle the wagons and cry out to Jesus to come back soon while we hold the fort, keep the enemy out, and pray that Jesus comes before the fort crumbles.
The other extreme, however, is perhaps even more dangerous — the view that advocates pluralistic compromise. We lose our nerve. We want to save our skin.
For those who lose their children on the battlefield of what is often portrayed as a war of cultures, it is attractive to say, “Why don’t we just let people believe what they want to believe? Why go where we are not wanted? Why send our children to the mission field, where they are rejected, persecuted, and have to lay down their lives? Let’s let God do the saving.”
This is what that great church leader, who wanted to discourage William Cary, said, “Young man, sit down. If God wants to save the heathen, He’ll save them without your help.”
This philosophy undergirds some conservatives who effectively want to tolerate pluralistic compromise. But are these our only two choices when it comes to engaging the bull and the bear? Hear this question, even if you forget everything else I say. I trust this question will stay with you for a long while. I believe the survival of not just mission in the 21st century, but the survival of the church depends on the answer to this question: Is it possible to present a loving, credible witness to Jesus and yet resist the bull’s unrelenting charge and the bear’s deadly embrace? I believe the answer is yes. With all my heart, I believe it is not only possible, it is indispensable. We simply have no other choice. We must find a way.
I would like to leave four keys that point the way forward. The first is in our text, Acts 4:13.
Peter and John had good reason to be afraid. They were simple Christian men standing before some of the most powerful people in Jerusalem. Those of you who have been in a situation like this know what real courage is. It is not John Wayne or Clint Eastwood walking fearlessly into the night or into the midst of hoards of Indian tribes. Courage does not mean not being afraid. It means you fear disobeying God more than you fear the mockery of man. The disciples said it toward the end of this passage when the religious leaders threatened them to not speak in the name of Jesus.
Peter and John said, “You are reasonable men. Tell us, should we be afraid of you and do what you tell us, or should we be afraid of God and obey Him?” (Acts 4:19, author’s paraphrase).
Last week we were in the home of African missionaries who are here on furlough. We met their children — two young men. I was so impressed with these MKs. Their parents had home schooled them overseas most of their lives. They moved into this area a year ago. The first day in school at lunch they did what all good Christian children do. They bowed their heads and gave thanks for their food. As they opened their eyes, some of their fellow students nearby looked at them and said, “You’re new here, aren’t you?”
They said “Yes, why?”
Their friends said, “We don’t pray in our lunch hall. You’re not supposed to do that.”
The 16-year-old looked at him and said, “Excuse me. Did I pray for you?”
The friend said, “No.”
“Did I ask you to join me in prayer?”
The MK said, “I’m an American, and I have a right to pray if I want to. This is a free country, and if I want to pray, I will pray.”
I illustrate this because sometimes we think of courage as being out on the mission field. We thank God for the great veterans who have shown us the way. But right where you are, in the schools, in the universities, in the marketplace of life, in your office, we need to be bold. One of my favorite verses is Proverbs 28:1: “The wicked flee when no one is chasing them. But the righteous are bold as a lion.”
There is one thing we should never remove from the DNA of every true Pentecostal — Holy Ghost courage. Whether you live in North America, Africa, India, or Latin America, these are the days when we will need to stand up like the apostles of old and allow the Holy Spirit to help us even when we feel we are surrounded by forces that seep into everything — whether they are governmental, cultural, religious, or legal. They saw the courage of Peter and John. We need the Holy Ghost courage.
There is a second thing we need. I call it connection. In Acts 17, Paul is on his second missionary journey. He is at Athens, the philosophical and cultural capital of the then world. He walked into the city, and there — this strict rabbi, monotheistic to the core — is surrounded by idols.
A commentator described Athens as having so many idols that it was easier to find an idol than a man in that city. But as you observe the response of the apostle Paul, Scripture records two things. Verse 16 records his distress. He was distressed by the idolatry. But in communicating to them in verse 22, he says, “I am impressed by your religiosity.”
Paul recognized below the layers of idolatry, polytheism, and demon worship there were people in Athens who were desperate and hungry for God. He looked around and found this connection in the altar to an unknown god. He said, “This ignorance God winked at, but now commands people everywhere to repent.” Then he said, “This god whom you worship in ignorance, I’ve come to tell you, you will bow to Him” (author’s paraphrase).
We need to discover again, as the Holy Spirit guides us, to build bridges rather than walls. We need to recognize that no matter how people look, deep within the heart of every human being is an unsatisfied longing that we can exploit. You know we can exploit that only if we are moved by the conviction of the Holy Spirit.
The third principle I want to leave with you is this. In 1 Corinthians 9:16 and 22, Paul says, “I am compelled to preach. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.” Paul is saying two things. First, I am willing to do anything, be anything, break anything, in order that people everywhere might hear the gospel in all its simplicity and clarity. That is what conviction is. It includes confidence and clarity.
I am more and more convinced in the power of the gospel. I began my journey in ministry as a street preacher in the city of Mumbai, India. I have seen the power of the gospel demonstrated on the streets and slums of the city. I could take you to many people whose lives have been transformed through the power of the gospel. You know about the film Slumdog Millionaire. I believe with all my heart the real slumdog millionaires are people from the slums whose lives have been transformed through the power of the gospel. They have inherited the riches of heaven. This is confidence in the power of the gospel.
Conviction also means clarity. The older I get the more I struggle in speaking to people of other faiths, in trying to keep it simple, in trying to keep it clear. What I am about to tell you now is not a revelation, but I have discovered as long as you talk about Jesus, you are safe.
In Acts 4, every time the authorities asked, “How have you healed this man?” Peter and John replied: “In the name of Jesus.”
“By what authority are you speaking this?”
“By the authority of Jesus.”
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. I say it to myself as often as I can. I say it to my church, and I say it to you. We need to fall in love with Jesus over and over again. We need to become obsessed with Jesus.
Thus we have courage, connection, and conviction expressed in confidence and clarity. But all of that is no use without credibility.
Acts 4:13 says, “They took note that these men had been with Jesus.” Credibility is the relentless challenge of our lives as individuals, as well as our church. Do we walk the talk?
I live in a country where the majority of the people do not know Jesus. People ask me, “Is it difficult?” Believe you me, it isn’t. It isn’t, if as a church and as individual believers we are doing everything we know how to walk the talk. When we do our best to walk the talk, our approach and message is simple: I have tasted Jesus and He truly satisfies. I want to share Him with you.
I have discovered, whether it’s the streets of Bombay or the sophisticated halls of academia, when we present Jesus in all His beauty, in the clarity of the written Word, and the glory of His presence in a community of believers — when people experience the presence of Jesus, Jesus is irresistible. Hallelujah!
Do you want to know the secret of Pentecost? It is the power of the Holy Spirit. But you know why the Holy Spirit comes? J.I. Packer describes Him as the “floodlight to Jesus.”
Let me leave that challenge with you — the challenge that should consume every one of us, every day of our lives. Is there anything about my life that should convince anyone around me to turn to Jesus? If you are a pastor, is there anything about my church that should convince the people around my church to turn to Jesus?
The gospel has been in India 2,000 years. Most people will tell you that India remains one of the most resistant countries in the world. But a few years ago, a simple missionary lady, not an Indian; a foreigner; not a man, but a woman. Most of you know the story.
Dara Singh brutally murdered an Australian missionary and his two sons. The country of India hung its head in shame. This was a blot on our warm and hospitable culture. But the next morning all of the newspapers in our country preached the shortest and most powerful message India has ever heard. When reporters went to Gladys Staines, the widow, and her little daughter who survived this brutal assault, they asked her, “Don’t you want justice? Don’t you want this man, the people who murdered your husband, to be brought to justice?”
She was not a preacher. She served the lepers of India. She could not say much, but just three words: “I forgive him.” The next morning after Singh had murdered her husband and sons, this brokenhearted wife and mother had so much of Jesus in her that she was able to say that.
In 2,000 years, India had never heard a shorter or more powerful message. Not only did all of the newspapers carry those short headlines, several Hindu leaders said, “If this is Christianity, we want it.”
I hear in that cry a response that we could hear from the bull and the bear. I believe with all my heart that the church of Jesus Christ will survive the onslaught of the bull and the embrace of the bear. I am a triumphalist. I loved it when we sang, “His Truth Is Marching On.” God is going to use His church and our Movement as part of His great mission to touch our world. But it will take us to be people of courage. We will have to find connection with our culture. We will need to have the conviction of the Holy Spirit. Most of all, the credibility that only the Holy Spirit can give.
Ivan M. Satyavrata, Ph.D., is the first national pastor of the Assemblies of God mission in Kolkata, India, established by Pastor Mark and Huldah Buntain. He has distinguished himself throughout the world as a scholar and a writer, not only among Pentecostals, but also among evangelicals. He served on faculty at Southern Asia Bible College and later served as president until 2006. He now serves as president of Buntain Theological College in Calcutta.