God’s Multicultural Church
May 12, 2007
The term multicultural is much in the news these days. Politicians and social scientists use it to describe a certain approach to American society in which persons are treated in special ways depending upon their racial or ethnic background. This approach is very controversial because critics argue that multiculturalism leads to balkanization of society. The term “balkanization” comes from the Balkan states of Eastern Europe, specifically the war-torn area of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia. But it applies to any situation where competing groups of people put their own interests ahead of others.
That’s the negative side of multiculturalism. But there is a positive side. If you read a dictionary, you discover that the word “multicultural” simply refers to people of differing cultural backgrounds learning to work and live together. We used to speak of America as a “melting pot,” a place where the huddled and teeming masses of the world yearning to be free could find a home and a future.
That’s a beautiful vision for America, even if it has not yet come true after 231 years. But God has a similar vision of his church, even it is has not yet come true after 2000 years. God’s vision is for his church to be truly multicultural in the good sense. When Jesus said, “Go and preach in the gospel to every nation,” he established the principle that all kinds of people would be welcome in the church.
It’s high time the American church took this challenge seriously. In recent weeks USA Today has been running a series of articles to commemorate their 25th anniversary. The first one was called 25 Trends That Changed the Way We Live. Their list of the most important cultural trends of the last quarter-century begins with diversity, highlighted by the wave of immigration from other nations to the US:
Record immigration creates unparalleled racial and ethnic diversity. Hispanics overtake blacks as the largest minority.
The accompanying chart shows that in 2003, 53.3% of all immigrants came from Latin America, 25% came from Asia, 13.7% came from Europe, and 8% came from other regions. If you want to meet people from other lands, you don’t have to get on a plane. Just knock on a few doors up and down your street. Or visit a local university. There you will find students from India, China, Korea, Japan, Nigeria, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Sweden, Greece, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, and dozens of other nations. The world has truly become a “global village” and a “flat world” where cultures that once were separated by vast distances now live side by side in the same subdivision and work together in the same office building. The old picture we had of “our world” on this side of the ocean and “their world” on the other side of the ocean, in some distant land where people look different, talk different and act different, where they follow a different religion and speak a different language, that world is rapidly disappearing. Today through the Internet the world has entered our living room. And the church cannot escape the challenge of reaching a “global village” and a “flat world” with the Good News of Jesus.
Our text gives us a picture of God’s multicultural church. The passage itself is not hard to understand. Before we look at the text, there is one fact you need to know. From a biblical point of view, the human race is divided into two distinct groups–the Jews and everyone else. The term the Bible uses for everyone else is the Gentiles. But don’t be put off by that word. It simply means non-Jews and is sometimes translated by the word “nations.” Since there are perhaps 15 million Jews amid a total world population of over 6 billion, nearly everyone falls into the category of Gentile. Our passage tells us that God wants the Gentiles in his church. That’s good to know because if God didn’t want the Gentiles, most of us would be automatically excluded from salvation. But God does want the Gentiles, which means that the church of Jesus Christ–the real church, God’s church–must be multicultural.
Five Marks of a Multicultural Church
In Romans 15:7-13 Paul lays out five marks of a truly multicultural church. First, it is an accepting church. Verse 7 says, “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” Said another way, this verse tells us that when we truly welcome believers from different backgrounds in the local church, God is honored and his name is praised.
The second mark of a multicultural church is found in verses 8-9. It is an inclusive church. “For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.” That may sound complicated, but it means that Christ came for both the Jews and the Gentiles. Although Jesus was a Jew and the first Christians were all Jews, God never intended for Christianity to be limited to the Jewish people. God gave promises to Abraham and Isaac that specifically included all the nations of the earth.
To prove that point Paul quotes four Old Testament texts in verses 9-12. The first quotation (from 2 Samuel 22:50) says that Christ will be praised among the Gentiles. The second (from Deuteronomy 32:43) says that the Gentiles and Jews will praise God together. The third quotation (from Psalm 117:1) calls on all the Gentiles to praise the Lord. The fourth quotation (from Isaiah 11:10) looks forward to the day when Christ will return and reign over the nations of the earth.
Don’t miss the key point. God always planned to include the Gentiles in his kingdom. He wanted his family to include many different kinds of people from many different backgrounds. These verses prove that our God is a multicultural God with a heart as big as the entire world.
Hallelujah in Any Language
That brings us to the third mark of a multicultural church. It’s a worshipping church. Look at verses 9-11: “As it is written, ’Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles, and sing to your name.’ And again it is said, ’Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.’ And again, ’Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples extol him.’” Three times in three verses God calls the Gentiles and the Jews to rejoice together. Praise is the universal language of the Christian church. Go anywhere around the world and you will discover how true this is. I have worshipped in a tiny Russian church not far from the Volga River. Although the only words of Russian I knew were “Good morning” and “Yes” and “No,” when the believers stood to sing the Lord’s Prayer, I sang it with them. During a tour of the Holy Land a few years ago, we spent one Sunday night with a church that meets in the Jerusalem YMCA. Many of the choruses were in Hebrew, yet we joined right in and worshipped God with our brothers and sisters. The same thing happened during our evangelistic crusade in Pignon, Haiti. When those dear saints sang “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” in Creole, we sang along in English.
Did you know that the word hallelujah is the same in every language on earth? No matter where you go, if you hear a person say “Hallelujah,” you know it means “Praise the Lord!” If you go back to the farthest mission outpost in the most remote jungle area, when you hear a believer say “Hallelujah,” you can say “Amen” even if you don’t understand anything else that is said. God is honored when his people join together in united worship and praise.
Fourth, the multicultural church is an evangelistic church. Verse 12 says, “The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope.” Here is our mandate for evangelism. This is why we send English teachers to China and Bible translators to East Timor. This is why we send mission teams to Buenos Aires and church planters to Finland. This is why we preach the gospel and share Christ with our friends. It’s the reason we pray for the unsaved and invite them to trust Christ as Savior. God’s plan reaches to the nations of the world. To the Gentiles who have no hope, God says, “There is hope in my Son, Jesus Christ.”
We have some young friends in their early 20s who serve as pioneer missionaries to an unreached people group on the other side of the world. When I say “unreached,” I mean that in the literal sense. They are so far away from America that it takes nine separate plane flights to reach a certain remote town in the jungle thousands of miles from where they were born. Once you reach that remote town, you take overland transportation up into the mountains and then walk into the jungle. They have gone to the literal “ends of the earth” to bring the gospel to a tribe that knows nothing about Jesus. They have devoted themselves to learning the language, reducing it to writing, translating the New Testament, and someday learning to preach the Good News in that language. They are doing this for the sake of 500 tribal people somewhere on the far side of the earth. Before this young couple found “their tribe,” the people of that area had never heard about Jesus. No one had ever come to them with the gospel. Because the tribe is pre-literate, the young couple first had to learn the language, then they had to reduce it to writing, then they had to begin the long process of translating Bible stories into the language of the people.
Within the last few months, they completed the translation of the first few chapters of Genesis. As they told the story of creation to their tribal helper, he became very excited. When they spoke of Adam and Eve, he nodded his head because it made sense that God started with just one man and one woman. When they told about how the serpent had tricked Eve into eating the fruit and how Adam ate it also, he was sad. When he heard about the severe penalty for sin, he understood the message. And when he heard about Cain killing Abel, he nodded in agreement because the men of his tribe killed each other also. Finally he said, “I know there must be a Redeemer. There must be someone who can help us. Tell me. What is his name?” That’s the question of the ages. The world needs a Redeemer, and we know his name. There is hope in the name of Jesus. He is the light of the world and the Savior of all who trust in him.
Hope to Spare
Finally, the multicultural church is an overflowing church. Verse 13 is one of the most beautiful benedictions in the New Testament. “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” Don’t you love that verse? It calls God the “God of hope” whose great desire is to fill us with joy and peace. He wants his people to overflow with hope! What a wonderful picture this is. We are to be filled with joy and peace and so full of hope that it overflows out of our lives and spills over to the people around us.
The church is to be a place of hope and we are to be a people of hope. We ought to be the happiest, most positive, most optimistic, most encouraged, most forward-looking, most creative, most dynamic, most hope-filled people on the face of the earth. Maybe we should put a sign out front, “If you’re looking for hope, we’ve got plenty to spare!”
When we launched Keep Believing Ministries (KBM) a year ago, we took Romans 15:13 as our theme verse because it expresses so much of our vision. If ever there was a time that the world needed hope, this is the time. People look at the trouble in the world, they read about the conflict in the Middle East, they hear about shootings in our schools, and they wonder, “Is there any hope?” Romans 15:13 tells us that God is the true source of hope and without him we flounder in a world filled with despair. We want KBM to be a hope-giving ministry so we can raise up a generation of hope-givers in a world with no hope. When I sign one of my books, underneath my signature I write “Romans 15:13.” We want to point people back to the God of hope, to increase their confidence in him so that they too will overflow with hope.
God’s Heart Is Big
Let me tell you what all this means in a practical sense. Number One, God’s heart is big and includes all the ethnic and racial groups in the world. Revelation 7:9-10 pictures an amazing scene when Christ returns to the earth. The Apostle John saw, “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ’Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” This passage gives us a great deal of helpful information about heaven. First, note the number of the redeemed. There is a vast crowd before the throne, so huge that it defies human calculation. Second, note the variety of the redeemed. There are saints from every nation, tribe, people and language group. Third, note the posture of the redeemed. They are before the throne of God, standing like an army before its Commander in Chief. Fourth, note the appearance of the redeemed. They wear white robes, a symbol of purity, and they hold palm branches, a sign of victory. Fifth, note the song of the redeemed. They sing about salvation that comes from God and from the Lamb. What a picture this is. The saints are redeemed and rejoicing. As Tony Campolo says, if you want to get ready for heaven, go to choir practice!
I think the Apostle John was struck by the immense size of the throng. What do we learn by pondering that unnumbered multitude? Certainly it teaches us that God will not be defeated. There will be no empty thrones in heaven. God will not be satisfied with a handful in heaven while the devil gets the majority. What kind of salvation would that be? Many will be saved. Many from every nation! God has a quota and the quota will be met. This ought to teach us something about the power of the gospel, about the greatness of God’s heart, and the universality of the church. In this scene we have the end to all sectarianism, the end to all pessimism, and the end to evangelistic discouragement. It’s easy for us to say “Us four and no more” as if somehow sinners are so evil they can’t be saved nowadays. Away with all such poor-meism and unbelief! I realize that as we look at the cultural decline around us, it’s tempting to conclude that the bad guys are winning. They aren’t. God keeps score in his own way. And even when it looks like he’s losing, he’s not. He only appears to be trailing. But in the end, God wins. And he wins big. There will be more people in heaven than we have dreamed possible because our God is greater than our limited imagination.
This picture of a vast multitude also teaches us that in the end every barrier that separates us will be swept away. Every prejudice will be gone. Every bit of human strife will be left behind and partisan bickering will simply be forgotten. What a good day that will be when all God’s children will meet together around the throne.
God in the Midst of the Ugly
Second, God’s heart is big and includes the hurting people all around us. I wonder how many people come to church each week and go away feeling lonely. I wonder how many people come to church seeking hope and go away without it. Probably more than we realize. And the irony is that as a church reaches more and more people, it becomes very easy for hurting people to come week after week and never get to know anyone else. The larger the church, the easier it is to be anonymous. It’s a good place to get lost in the crowd. Sometimes those of us who have been around the church for a long time forget how hard it is for new people to break in. We smile and greet our friends and don’t worry about anyone else. But there are hurting hearts everywhere.
Several weeks ago I received an email from a friend who wrote to ask prayer for her husband who had just been diagnosed with liver cancer. It evidently had all happened very suddenly, and she was writing to ask for prayer because the surgeon had not been able to remove all the cancer. She spoke of trying to keep his spirits up as they faced an uncertain future. After writing her back, I got an email with the shocking news that her husband had suddenly died from cardiac arrest. Over the next few days she wrote about what was happening in her life. Here are a few excerpts:
We’ve been having many holding us up in prayer and the strength that I am exhibiting is just beyond me (supernatural). At times when I slip and dwell on something yucky I just feel like going under the carpeting, including the padding, and hiding away. And then I guess I just keep going, marveling that I can see the beauty of His ways in the middle of the ugly.
We covet your prayers for I do not know how the kids & I would have made it thru this without our faith & the many who are holding us up, the Christian music that we listen to for solace & strength and the praying we do….. I marvel at God’s ways and think, How could my soul stand it if He had not chosen to reach out and touch my heart 12 1/2 yrs. ago? What depths of despair could be reached by a soul that has nothing to cling to?
I cannot comprehend the amazing strength which the kids & I have had and I can only credit our prayer warriors such as yourselves for holding us up and then God’s supernatural power streaming thru to us and girding us up. There has not been a day where He does not leave little clues to say, “Hey, I’m here, it’s gonna be alright.”
That’s the miracle of God’s sustaining grace in the midst of enormous personal sorrow. As I read those words I thought of the final words of our text. They serve as a fitting conclusion to this message. “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”
People are the same the world over. When you get past issues like skin color and ethnic differences, you discover that we all struggle with the same problems. We all need hope and encouragement and we all need Jesus.
When people come to Jesus Christ, they find one thing they can’t get anywhere else–hope. Our calling is to be a people of hope because God’s heart is big and includes all the people of the world. In Jesus Christ there is hope! Let’s take that message with us and share it wherever we go this week. Amen.