In the latter part of March, Lisa and I enjoyed a great time of fellowship and ministry in Lusaka, Zambia with outstanding missionaries and pastors, Walker and Haley Schurz. In seeing their tremendous work, I was reminded of the countless missionaries who have come to live and labor in Africa with the gospel, many under harsh and severe conditions. There was a time when consecrated missionaries coming to this continent would bring their few belongings in a casket because life expectancy for them was so short.
David Livingstone, one of the early missionaries who blazed vital trails through Africa made a most profound statement:
Although I see few results, future missionaries will see conversions following every sermon. May they not forget the pioneers who worked in the thick gloom with few rays to cheer, except such as flow from faith in the precious promises of God’s Word.
When Walker, our host, reflected on this quote, he shared, “For the last 792 consecutive weeks at Miracle Life in Lusaka, there has always been at least one person who surrendered their life to the Lord on a Sunday morning.”
Though Livingstone and other early missionaries often did not see massive results, God sent others who built upon and expanded their work. Today, according to respected research, Africa now has more followers of Jesus than any other continent on the planet. The debt all modern ministers owe to the pioneers who have gone before us is incalculable.
When I was very young, still in Bible School I think, the Holy Spirit impressed a certain Scripture on my heart. Since that day, I have come to increasingly appreciate the significance of this statement. In John 4:38 (NLT), Jesus tells his disciples,
I sent you to harvest where you didn’t plant; others had already done the work, and now you will get to gather the harvest.
If we are not careful, we will fail to realize how much our own labors (and whatever results might occur) are actually undergirded and enhanced by the labors of others who have gone before us. I don’t want to be that person “who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.” We have all benefitted from and built upon the labors of others.
I remember one time preaching in a service and giving an altar call. A handful of people responded and I had the privilege of praying with them as they placed their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. After the service, an older lady came up and asked if I had noted the young man who had come forward, and I told her that I had. She said, “That is my grandson. I have prayed for him and thanked God for his salvation every day since he was born.”
I am always thankful when people have a life-changing encounter with God, but this was especially heart-warming for me. It reminded me that none of us are a “one-man-show” and the sermon I preached certainly was far from the only factor in this young man’s response.
Anything we do of eternal value is foundationally based upon the will of God, the work of Jesus, and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. Jesus, Paul, and others recognized that their work was not based exclusively on their own efforts. Consider:
Psalm 127:1 – Unless the LORD builds the house, they labor in vain who build it; unless the LORD guards the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.
John 5:30 – I can do nothing on my own.
John 14:10 – The words I speak are not my own, but my Father who lives in me does his work through me.
1 Corinthians 4:7 – What do you have that God hasn’t given you? And if everything you have is from God, why boast as though it were not a gift?
1 Corinthians 15:10 – I have worked harder than any of the other apostles; yet it was not I but God who was working through me by his grace.
Paul elaborates even more on this principle in 1 Corinthians 3:5-9 (NLT) as he addresses our working relationship with God and with each other:
After all, who is Apollos? Who is Paul? We are only God’s servants through whom you believed the Good News. Each of us did the work the Lord gave us. I planted the seed in your hearts, and Apollos watered it, but it was God who made it grow. It’s not important who does the planting, or who does the watering. What’s important is that God makes the seed grow. The one who plants and the one who waters work together with the same purpose. And both will be rewarded for their own hard work. For we are both God’s workers. And you are God’s field. You are God’s building.
The reality is that we are part of a great team called the Body of Christ. Not only do we work together within the same generation, we also work with others inter-generationally. Livingstone realized and fully expected other laborers to follow him. Likewise, Billy Graham beautifully said, “I realize that my ministry would someday come to an end. I am only one in a glorious chain of men and women God has raised up through the centuries to build Christ’s church and take the Gospel everywhere.”
What Billy Graham said is absolutely true. People have gone before us, and we are forever indebted to them. Others will follow us, and we should do our best to equip them to do more than we have. Training others to carry on God’s work and do more than us is reflected in what the Lord told Oral Roberts: “Raise up your students to hear My voice, to go where My light is dim, where My voice is heard small, and My healing power is not known, even to the uttermost bounds of the earth. Their work will exceed yours, and in this I am well pleased.”
These concepts are humbling. They help us realize that we serve a big God and that we are part of a big family. God’s work is not exclusively built upon any one of us, but is accomplished through all of us working together, each of us doing our part. Consider the following quotes that support and reinforce these ideas.
If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.
– Sir Isaac Newton
Those who drink the water must remember those who dug the well.
– Chinese Proverb
Many times a day I realize how much my own outer and inner life is built upon the labors of my fellow men, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received.
– Albert Einstein
I look back upon my youth and realize how so many people gave me help, understanding, courage—very important things to me—and they never knew it. They entered into my life and became powers within me.
– Albert Schweitzer
We all owe to others much of the gentleness and wisdom that we have made our own; and we may well ask ourselves what will others owe to us.
– Albert Schweitzer
Never fall into the trap of believing, as Elijah did, that he was the only one left. God told him that he had seven thousand in Israel who had neither bowed their knees to, nor kissed the false god, Baal (1 Kings 19:18). We are part of a great family and a great company of servants. We are laborers together.
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Tony Cooke Ministries
PO Box 140187
Broken Arrow, OK 74014-0187