by Arthur F. Glasser
“What part of the Great Commission are we most prone to forget?” he asked.
The doctors reported that his life was drawing to a close. In those final days not a few of Donald McGavran’s friends came from near and far to visit him. All spoke of his growing weakness, but were amazed at his mental energy. They went to him with words of comfort and expressions of gratitude, but came away stimulated by the concerns he sought to impress upon them.
I went to his home and spent a brief half hour with him. The details of what proved to be our last time together were so enriching that I felt I had to put them on paper.
There he lay, fully dressed but in a reclining chair, so weak and apparently in some pain. But hardly had I entered the room when he began inquiring into news of "the Cause." It so happened that I had just come from a commissioning service for Larry Caldwell, one of our Ph.D. candidates. His church in Pasadena had convened this service in anticipation of his early departure for the Philippines following graduation. Pastor and members desired to express their oneness with Larry and his ministry in that troubled country. I shared the details, and Dr. McGavran commented, "He will do well; he has caught the vision."
I then related the exciting news of what was happening in Bangladesh. Muslims were coming to faith in considerable numbers. Not a church or two but the unbelievable multiplication of churches. Even whole villages. A real Christward people movement. And some of our own students were prominent in this. You can be sure this pleased him. He had often spoken of this wonderful though elusive phenomenon-the people movement. He became excited.
I then hastened to tell him about two conferences I had recently attended that I knew would be of special interest to him-one of leaders of Jewish missions, the other of pastors of Messianic Jewish congregations. Was he aware of the increasing number of such congregations, both in Israel and in North America?
Perhaps it was my question, but suddenly, I found that he had taken over the conversation. Here was my esteemed colleague in top form, pressing the implications of what I had been sharing, and giving me an order! "You must write this up." I countered, "But much of it has been written." "No, I mean a strong paper-and you can do it. Let’s agree on the thesis. My suggestion would be ‘Only by evangelizing the Jewish people can the church demonstrate that it is truly in submission to the lordship of Christ."
I gasped, hardly daring to tell him of the writing projects already beginning to crowd my schedule.
Then, suddenly, out of the blue he abruptly asked me a question: "What part of the Great Commission are we most prone to forget?" He became silent, awaiting my reply. There I was, being catechized by my senior!
I came to a full stop. What should I say? Inevitably, panta ta ethne (all the nations) flooded my mind. The gospel was intended by God for all peoples, all tribes, all tongues. And here before me was the one who was the leading advocate in our generation for promoting the fun implications of this truth that the gospel has universal implications. It is for the Jew first, and for all Gentile peoples. All evangelical missionaries in this generation have been challenged and quickened by Dr. McGavran’s constant reminder that at this late hour in the history of the church there are still peoples hopelessly and helplessly beyond the range of current evangelistic outreach.
But no! I could not mention panta ta ethne. Nor did Dr. McGavran. Strange, we soon found ourselves agreeing that the part of the Great Commission most frequently overlooked was the full significance of Jesus’ triumphant affirmation: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me." This is what the church forgets.
This was the focus of Dr. McGavran’s thought: the concern that Christians realize who Jesus is, and they should be motivated by this reality. The words from Philip-pians 2:6-11 came to mind. How Jesus-in the form of God and sensing no insecurity as his status of equality with the Father-emptied himself to the form of a servant, stooped to the humiliation of being bom in the likeness of our humanity, and humbled himself to embrace the cross. "Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."
Here was Dr. McGavran at his best. He was what he was and became what he became because he was utterly captivated by the Lord Jesus Christ He was not work-centered or task-centered so much as God-centered. And because he knew who Jesus was-possessing all authority in heaven and on earth-he was determined to put all heart, soul, strength, conscience, resources, and will-indeed, all that he was and had-unto the one task of making disciples for Jesus out of the peoples of every segment of the human family.
Panta ta ethne? Of course! But Jesus came first! I recalled how Dr. McGavran had always been quick to observe that whenever the church faltered in missionary obedience, the real reason was not due to any lack of church growth insight but rather to its lack of conviction concerning Jesus Christ, the one to whom all of us are accountable on the last day.
Dr. McGavran then asked me about Larry’s commissioning service. What Bible text did I use? I smiled: "Oh, I just took the passage that best epitomizes you, and shared it with the congregation. We had a great time."
"What passage was that? Give me details."
I then reconstructed the setting of 2 Timothy 2:1-8. The aged Paul, at the end of his long missionary career, now a prisoner in a squalid dungeon in Rome, with only a hole overhead for light and air. And outside on the streets the Neronian terror gathering momentum. To Nero, this Christian movement was a secret society that had to be destroyed. Its leaders were particularly exposed to his wrath.
And Paul the prisoner was being assaulted by reports of a wave of apostasy overwhelming the churches in the province of Asia. Two men, Phygelus and Hermo-genes, were assaulting Paul’s reputation and doctrine (1:15), and people were leaving the churches in droves. The Christian movement was trembling: humanly speaking it seemed on the verge of annihilation. ‘Dr. McGavran, those were tough days.’
He only said, "Carry on!" So I spoke of Paul, writing his last letter to Timothy. "Dr. McGavran, his concern then has always been your concern." He exhorted Timothy to "be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus" and to make sure that he faithfully entrust the gospel to faithful men who in turn will be able to teach still others of the same stamp.
"Dr. McGavran, think of the hundreds upon thousands of Timothys you’ve trained. And where are they now? All over the world training others; pouring into them the vision you poured into their hearts and minds. Just like Larry Caldwell, soon to start training men and women in the Philippines.
"But the reason why I think this passage epitomizes your ministry is because you, like the apostle Paul, have likewise given your Timothys a demonstration of the model he embodied and articulated before his Timothy. He wanted Timothy to accept his share of suffering for the gospel as a good soldier. No entanglements with civilian pursuits. Be singleminded, a this-one-thing-I-do kind of person. Paul also challenged Timothy to be a disciplined athlete who competes according to the rules. Timothy must lay aside every encumbrance, obey all the moral rules, and strive to achieve excellence. Again, Paul called attention to the hardworking farmer who perseveres. No excitement, no glamor, no applause encourages him. The routine is strenuous, often prosaic, and frequently just plain dull. Timothy must work in expectation of the harvest and the joy it will bring. As to the Christian mission: nothing that is easy is every worthwhile, and nothing worthwhile is every easy.
"Dr. McGavran, you’ve been all three models for us: the single-minded soldier, the athlete who keeps the rules, and the farmer who works hard with that gleam in his eyes, in full expectation of the coming harvest. We will never match the thousands of letters you’ve written, the articles and books you’ve produced, the forthright ways in which you have contended against error, and the graciousness which you have shown to your critics. But we thank God for giving you to his church, and particularly to us. You have always been our most faithful friend."
I paused. Dr. McGavran made a few remarks about the inspiration he had drawn from the apostle Paul’s missionary obedience. But I felt that we should move to the climax of this text. After all, we had not reached the end of 2 Timothy 2:1-8.
"Dr. McGavran, remember what you earlier told me about the part of the Great Commission that Christians are prone to forget? That Jesus, by virtue of his obedience unto death, was given all authority in heaven and on earth? Do you recall what Paul said in conclusion to this particular exhortation to Timothy?" "Read it to me."
"It also refers to something else we all too readily forget. Paul added: "Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead.’ I guess Paul wanted Timothy to call this fact to mind whenever he was tempted to avoid pain, humiliation, suffering, and even death itself. Jesus Christ is our victor. The future is safely in his hands."
Dr. McGavran repeated this again and again. There he was, on the threshold of eternity, and he was saying to himself and to me: "Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead."
We clasped hands. I prayed, and we parted.
On July 10,1990, Donald Anderson McGavran was summoned into the presence of the one he had so faithfully served. He is no longer with us. He has ran the race, and has finished his course. He has kept the faith, without deviation, firm to the end. He is now with his risen Lord and with his wonderful Mary (d. April 5,1990).
What shall we say to one another when we reflect on the life and service of this good man? Significantly, the Bible does not encourage us to be content merely to admire him for his achievements. Admiration can lead to sentimentality, and sentiment accomplishes little for the Kingdom of God.
Hebrews 13:7 contains the better response we should give to God for the privilege of having known and loved this good man.
Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith.
The challenge is not to admire but to imitate the faith of those who have gone before us. And why? The next verse tells the whole story. It is because "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever." He can do for us and through us all that he was pleased to do for and through them.
There is a brief prayer hidden in the Book of Numbers. I want to take it to heart. It was Balaam who prayed: "Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my end be like his" (23:10).
EMQ, Vol. 27, No. 1, pp. 58-62. Copyright © 1991 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.