What is a missionary?

Can we define the word missionary?

I’m sure we can, but there are so many subjective definitions out there, which one would we choose? The task is even more difficult when we realize the word missionary is not even found in the English Bible.

So, if missionary is not in the Bible, where in the world did it come from?

The word apostle is in the Bible. Seeing it, we generally think of the 12 men who followed Jesus throughout the gospel histories. Usually referred to as disciples, Matthew, Mark, and Luke also called them apostles.

Eleven of these men went on to become the apostles of the early church, as recorded in the book of Acts. We most often think of them, and their title, in this context. They were the appointed leaders of the new church after Jesus returned to the Father. In the minds of most people, apostle became both a role and spiritual gift. Most Christian traditions today think this way and believe the role of apostle ceased with them.

Let’s go back up a couple of paragraphs, and center in on Luke 6:13, where [Jesus] “called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles . . .” The original word Jesus used was a form of apostle, which basically means “one who is sent.” That fits the context of this passage, in which Jesus began preparing His disciples to be sent out on His behalf.

Later in the life of the church, Latin took the place of the widely-used Greek of New Testament times and writing. The Latin word missio replaced the Greek work apostolos in common usage, both meaning one who is sent. I’m sure you just picked up on the connection between the Latin missio and the English missionary. The general meaning of the word also expanded from just the original twelve sent ones to anyone sent by the church to bring the gospel to others in need.

In modern times, missionary can subjectively mean anything from a Christian who walks out of his church after a service, to local workers at a homeless shelter, to people who work among non-Christians in other countries without ever declaring their faith, to people who set out to establish new churches in areas where there are few or no Christian believers.

If we can’t objectively define missions for every situation and to everyone’s satisfaction, maybe we can go back to the question which started this series a few weeks ago, “what does a sent one?” Or, even better, “what did the original sent ones?”

From the New Testament we know that most of the apostles originally stayed in or near Jerusalem until God used the killing of James and subsequent persecution to push the other apostles, and many laypeople to spread out to evangelize and establish churches throughout their known world.

These apostles, sent ones, missionaries, went out from their homes to different countries, different languages, different cultures, all having one thing in common – there was no established church in these areas strong enough to evangelize their own people.

Paul, of course, was the primary cross-cultural worker of Acts. He was not alone. Peter was the first of the apostles to bring the gospel to the Gentiles, possibly the most extreme cross-cultural ministry of his time. Both Peter and Paul ended their lives as martyrs in Rome, a city neither would have visited for any reason other than expanding the kingdom of God.

Because of my special love for Ukraine, I also have a special fondness for Andrew, who went to what was then called the "land of the man-eaters," on the Ukrainian side of the Black Sea, even coming within sight of what is modern day Kyiv. He also preached in Asia Minor, today’s Turkey, and Greece, where he is said to have been crucified.

Thomas was probably most active in the area east of Syria. Tradition has him preaching as far east as India, where the ancient Marthoma Christians revere him as their founder. During my most recent visit to India, I was privileged to meet some leaders of the church founded by Thomas almost 2000 years ago.

Philip is thought to have had a powerful ministry in Carthage in North Africa and then in Asia Minor, where he converted the wife of a Roman proconsul. In retaliation the proconsul had Philip arrested and cruelly put to death.

Matthew, the tax collector and writer of a Gospel, ministered in Persia and Ethiopia. Some of the oldest reports say he was not martyred, while others say he was stabbed to death in Ethiopia.

Bartholomew had widespread missionary travels attributed to him by tradition: to India with Thomas, back to Armenia, and also to Ethiopia and Southern Arabia. There are various accounts of how he met his death as a martyr for the gospel.

James the son of Alpheus, one of at least three James referred to in the New Testament, is reckoned to have ministered in Syria. The Jewish historian Josephus reported that he was stoned and then clubbed to death.

Simon the Zealot, so the story goes, ministered in Persia and was killed after refusing to sacrifice to the sun god.

Matthias was the apostle chosen to replace Judas. Tradition sends him to Syria with Andrew and to death by burning.

John is the only one of the original company generally thought to have died a natural death from old age. He was the leader of the church in the Ephesus area, which, though originally evangelized by Paul, provided more than enough challenge to grow and reproduce the church in, around, and from that great city.

Look at the map showing where these men worked (and often died). Think about what they did. True to the One who sent them, they went to places where people needed the gospel. They shared their own testimonies. Depending on the people they met, they taught from the Old Testament or even from the local culture to show that Jesus was God’s sent one to provide salvation to all peoples. They baptized and organized new Christ-followers into local church groups. They trained new leaders for these new churches. Then, in most cases, they moved on to repeat the process further and further from their own homes.

In light of the examples of these sent ones, perhaps we can draft our own subjective definition for missionary.

A missionary is one sent by Jesus Christ to peoples who will not hear the gospel except through an outside messenger. A missionary is one sent by Jesus Christ to explain the gospel to these people so they can understand enough to make a choice to follow Christ. A missionary is one sent by Jesus Christ to establish the church among all peoples. A missionary is one sent by Jesus Christ to teach God’s word to new believers. A missionary is one sent by Jesus Christ to train leadership to continue and expand the work he or she has begun through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Following in the footsteps of these who have gone before us is no easy task, but there are few more rewarding tasks than being a missionary sent by Jesus Christ.