The Highways and Hedges

by Rick Shrader

I found the joy of the salvation of others.  Oh, the privilege, the blessed privilege, to be used of God to win a soul to Christ, and to see a man or woman being led out of bondage by some act of ours toward them.  To think that God should condescend to allow us to be coworkers with Him.  It is the highest honor we can wear.1

 Such was the compassion of D.L. Moody, a compassion that we have largely lost today!  Jesus anticipated the future evangelizing effort of the church when he described, in a parable, the great supper invitation:  “And the lord said unto the servant, Go out into the highways and the hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be full” (Luke 14:23).

H.A. Ironside said of that early church, “It is a wonderful testimony to the devotion of the early believers that even within one generation after our Lord’s ascension the evangel had been carried throughout the known world.”2 But the commission of our Lord was not finished with that first generation.  As William Carey argued to his hyper-Calvinistic brethren, the Lord’s commission was not finished with the apostles.  If we still baptize and teach in our churches, then we must still preach the gospel to all the world.  We don’t have two-thirds of a Great Commission!3

We have always had to guard against by-passing the hard work of evangelism.  The cults merely indoctrinate people into a system; the Roman church went over the whole world and baptized the nations, not gospel converts; Liberalism sought to redefine the whole world into the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man; similarly, the ECT document (Evangelicals & Catholics Together) invented a sort of “redefinition evangelism” by simply declaring all Catholics saved, supposedly accomplishing by the stroke of a pen what missionaries could not do in 2000 years!  The current climate of emerging churches (especially in the wildly popular writings of Rob Bell and Brian McLaren) has grown so tired of evangelization and seeing the world as “us and them” (i.e. saved and lost) that it has invented a new universalism where all will be saved in the end anyway. So just relax and stop feeling guilty that you are not evangelizing at all.  As John Rylands, Sr. told young William Carey, “If God wants to save the heathen, He’ll do it without your help or mine.”  How we have come full circle from his day to ours!

A.W. Tozer wrote a generation ago,

God’s invitation to men is broad but not unqualified.  The words ‘whosoever will may come’ throw the door open, indeed, but the church is carrying the gospel invitation far beyond its proper bounds, turning it into something more human and less divine than that found in the sacred Scriptures.  What we tend to overlook is that the word ‘whosoever’ never stands by itself.  Always its meaning is modified by the word ‘believe’ or ‘will’ or ‘come.’4

We must not excuse our own fundamental churches from abuses even though we faithfully witness, win souls, and give invitations.  We too have often looked at winning souls as simply obtaining a notch on our gospel gun-belts.  The sinner’s prayer is not a magic formula that only needs repeating with no personal commitment.  If all of the “souls saved” which have been reported in the last fifty years were genuine, America would be saved twice over.  The hindrance this has caused becomes obvious.  One commonly hears, in witnessing to a worldly, uninterested person, “Oh, I did that when I was a kid going to such and such church.”

Whatever the abuses of the gospel have been or the obstacles in the way today, the Word of God stands as a megaphone sending the believing child of God out into the world “that my house may be filled” (Luke 14:23).  We need not be discouraged by the slow progress or the faint-heartedness of some or the persecution of others.  L.S. Chafer wrote, “When a soul has received the redemption which is in Christ and is saved, that one is then privileged to suffer with Christ in a compassion for the lost; being prompted, in some measure, by the same divine vision and love, through the presence and power of the indwelling Spirit.”5 This is still our calling today as much as it was to those first century believers.

The world as it was then

Paul affirmed to the Galatians that Christ came into the world “in the fullness of the time” (Gal. 4:4).  Consider what advantages and help God gave to those first Christians.  The Roman roads and sea-ways provided nearly worldwide access to all people groups.  Merrill Tenney wrote, “The rule of Rome over the provinces was greatly facilitated by its excellent system of roads, which, until the recent era of the automobile, were the best that the world had ever seen.”6 In the book of Acts Luke seems almost thrilled to describe his travels with the great apostle as much as a modern traveler would be today.

The Greek language provided crucial understanding for the gospel almost everywhere it went.   Thanks to Alexander’s conquest directed by God’s providence, the Jews and Gentiles alike understood in one language.  William Ramsay wrote that “Greek was the language of all even moderately educated persons,” and that, “Graeco-Roman manners and ideas were being actively disseminated and eagerly assimilated by all active and progressive and thoughtful persons.”7 Conybeare and Howson wrote, “The Greek language had already been prepared as a medium for preserving and transmitting the doctrine; the Roman government was now prepared to help the progress even of that religion which it persecuted.”8

The Diaspora, that great dispersion of the Jews from their homeland, also took the early Jewish Christians to every part of the world.  The Jews established synagogues in most cities and kept the Sabbath and most Mosaic Laws.  This afforded the Jewish believers in those areas a ready pulpit for the gospel.  Philip Schaff described this particular advantage, “Jesus and the apostles availed themselves of this democratic privilege to preach the gospel as fulfillment of the law and the prophets. . . . Paul preached Christ in the synagogues . . .  Which furnished him a pulpit and an audience.”9

Paul used his Roman Citizenship as an access to gospel opportunity.  The provincial system of annexation by conquest gave Roman citizens liberties in areas such as Achaia, Pontus, Cappadocia, Galatia.  “The Romans never interfered with the religious freedom of the subject peoples.”10 Paul often appealed to his Roman citizenship if it helped his purpose of preaching the gospel.

Even the Bema seats of the Roman Empire helped the spread of the gospel.  Paul was helped by Gallio’s Bema judgment in Acts 18:12 when he would have otherwise been beaten and run out of town.  It was Herod’s Bema in Caesarea that allowed Paul to appeal to Caesar and be transported duty-free to Rome so he could fulfill a long-time desire to preach there also (Acts 23:35).  It was Nero’s Bema in Rome that allowed him to preach while in prison waiting for sentencing (Acts 23:11; 25:10).  Even under Rome’s own persecution, the Bema “was to give shelter to the infant church, with opportunity of safe and continued growth.”11

Persecution itself sent the infant church into all parts of the world fulfilling the great commission.  Acts 1:8 outlines Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and then the uttermost parts of the earth as the road map for the gospel dissemination.  This becomes the outline for the book of Acts.  Even the apostolic gifts were exercised in this order to help the witness of the apostles.12 Beginning with the stoning of the first martyr, Stephen, the church was forced to spread out in these four areas.  “And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at [1] Jerusalem; and they were scattered abroad throughout the regions of [2] Judea and [3] Samaria” (Acts 8:1).  “Therefore they that were scattered abroad went [4] everywhere preaching the word” (Acts 8:4).

The divine wisdom of the local church itself was a great advantage for the spread of the gospel.  This simple form of Christian gathering was flexible enough and mobile enough to be practiced in any locale where God’s people were scattered.  It was not only “multi-cultural” in that, by conversion, it was made up of Jews and Gentiles, bond and free, it was also “omni-cultural” in that it could exist in many places and circumstances.  The great Ephesian church began this way.  “But when divers were hardened, and believed not, but spake evil of that way before the multitude, he [Paul] departed from them, and separated the disciples, disputing daily in the school of one Tyrannus.  And this continued by the space of two years; so that all they which dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 19:9-10).

The World as it is today

God has not left Himself without witness today nor without the availability of the gospel to all people.  Travel today is nearly a miraculous thing compared to world travel throughout history and until just a hundred years ago.  Today’s missionaries can come and go from and to the fields of the world in a matter of hours rather than weeks and months.  In addition  there are amazing internet and satellite communications that allow instant audio and visual communication anywhere in the world.

For centuries English has been the most common language for travel and has allowed an English-speaking traveler to navigate through almost any location.  And now, because of technology, languages are learned quickly and Bible translation is done easier and is therefore traveling  faster to every part of the globe.

American citizenship has helped the gospel go around the world since WWII.  Many missionaries in the 40s and 50s were GIs who went back to the land of their military service.  Yet in most advanced countries, like the United States, the mission field is coming to us.  Immigration, the ease of world travel, and commerce, bring people to our shores that we cannot reach in any other way.

The local church is still God’s divine agency in this dispensation of grace.  By its amazing adaptability, it continues to spread and preach the gospel in all parts of the world.  Though we see the number of volunteers needed to go into all the world and the funds needed to send them waning, the possibilities are still numerous.  Churches at home will trim their appetites if necessary in order to find missionary money.  Bible colleges and seminaries will find ways to operate more leanly in order to continue to train young men and women who are willing to go.  God’s people will see the crisis coming that would result if we do not sacrifice, and they will adjust their lifestyles in order to continue supporting God’s work.

Most of all, the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is still the only hope of the world.  It does not need updating nor refining.  It has gone through rough waters before and still stands.  Paul’s anathema upon any who would change it is still in effect today (Gal. 1:8-9).  We are sent to evangelize the world even though we will not be able to convert it.  It is not ours to help the gospel by making it more palatable to those who don’t want it.  Ours is but to offer the great love and forgiveness of Christ.  And “as many as received him, to them gave he the power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name” (John 1:12).

We are still to go to the highways and hedges of our world.  Wherever our “synagogues” or “temple steps” are today we must go with the good news that Jesus saves.  Let us not forget to shod our feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace.

O Zion haste, thy mission high fulfilling,

To tell to all the world that God is Light;

That He who made all nations is not willing

One soul should perish, lost in shades of night.

Give of thy sons to bear the message glorious;

Give of thy wealth to speed them on their way;

Pour out thy soul for them in prayer victorious,

And all thou spendest Jesus will repay.

Publish glad tidings, tidings of peace;

Tidings of Jesus, Redemption and release.