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Who or What Is a Missionary?


Sabbath School Commentary for discussion on Sabbath, September 5, 2015

The word missionary usually brings to mind a picture of someone serving far away.  Webster’s Dictionary defines a missionary as someone “who is sent to a foreign country to do religious work.” (Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, n.d.) We regularly collect special offerings for these missionaries; if you are old enough, you might remember going from door-to-door with Ingathering cans to raise money to help those missionaries spread the gospel.  You might even been on a mission trip or two yourself – helping a community by offering medical care, teaching classes, building homes and churches or digging wells – all while sharing what you believe.  It all sounds like an archetype or an outdated scheme, so, what does it mean now? What does it mean to me? How does this work in real life with work, family and the myriad of obligations that we are faced with?

Let’s start by examining what the word “missionary” truly means.  What type of person leaves their home and devotes their lives to the intangible idea of religious work?  Through the story of Philip we get an expanded view of the mission field and the character traits of a missionary.  Philip was not one of the twelve disciples, he was a member of the early church who willingly traveled from community to community meeting needs and sharing his faith.  His story shows us that a missionary needs:  a strong faith relationship, the ability to listen and the willingness to act on what he or she hears. 

First and foremost, a missionary needs a strong faith relationship with the LORD. Through Philip we see that relationship.  Although the Bible does not spend a great deal of time detailing Philip’s family life and background we can infer from his actions that Philip had a vibrant relationship with God and strong faith.  How can we make that inference?  According to the book of Acts, “those who were scattered preached the word wherever they went.”  (Acts 8:4 NIV).  An interesting thought brought out by E.G. White in a Review and Herald article is that God “permitted” the early church members to be persecuted in order to get them to work for others in various places. (Review and Herald, 1911, par. 2).  Philip like many of the early church members was forced to leave Jerusalem and relocate. The book of Acts details how Philip ended up in Samaria and that while there he preached, performed miracles and healed the sick.  Philip was a refugee.  He was away from home, persecuted for his faith, but he did not succumb to apathy or depression.  Instead he exercised his faith by finding the needs in the community around him and meeting those needs.  It had to take faith and a strong relationship to get beyond his circumstance and reach out.

Philip fits the first part of our definition of a missionary because he was in a country that was not his own.  However, his circumstance was a little different because his initial travel was not voluntary.  Philip along with other members of the early church were “scattered.”  Here is where the second part of the traditional definition of a missionary comes in-doing religious work.  It is also in this second half that Philip exhibits two distinct traits essential to missionary work: the ability to listen and the willingness to act. 

While in Samaria Philip hears a call from God telling him to “Go south to the road-the desert road-that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (Acts 8:26).  This sounds like an arbitrary instruction.  My first thought, if I were to receive an instruction like this one, would be to ask, “Why?”  Why do I need to go to a “road” of all places, when I’m doing real work here in Samaria?  Many times we view a call from God to complete a task as permanent.  We think that we will be in a certain place or circumstance forever.  However, the call may be more about flexibility.  Maybe our role is only a small piece of the puzzle not the whole.  As a result, we are in a place or circumstance for brief periods of time.

In hearing the call we, like Philip have to listen and act or we miss the point.  Instead of the knee jerk reaction of asking why and fighting the direction he was given, Philip heard the call and went to the road.  He made himself available. He is the ultimate example of being in the right place at the right time. He had just been involved in an amazing evangelistic effort.  He must have been tired.  It would have been a good time to take a break.  But that was not his permanent role.  Philip was asked to continue to be placed where he could reach another person. He listened.  At that point Philip moves from being an unknown worker to one of the most famous persons in the Bible.

Philip’s actions are more remarkable for what he does not do.  He is removed from performing miracles on a grand scale to the simple task of explaining the Bible to someone who just couldn’t understand.  Remember, Philip is now on a road.  He could have rejected the idea of going in the first place but he did not. He went willingly.  H could have been condescending when he was approached and asked to explain what the Ethiopian was reading.  He did not, instead he readily shared what he knew. 

All of that is great but, really, how does it apply to me? Practically speaking, Philip provides us with the tools we need to be modern day missionaries.  Philip’s mission field was not only a “foreign” land it was also “a road.”  We are not just missionaries overseas.   The mission field we are given may be as small as the road that Philip was given. Daily we interact with other people and daily we are called to meet their needs.  Our first step is to develop a strong enough relationship to hear when we are called.  Have you ever planned to be somewhere by a specific time and every obstacle possible is placed in the way?  How did you react? Were you frustrated because your plans were not coming together or did you look for another alternative? If we are not closely tied to God and are not able to listen then we miss opportunities.  Opportunities that may seem small to us but are immeasurable in the grand scheme of salvation.  

  Listening and acting can be as simple as explaining something to someone who doesn’t understand.  Here again the story of Philip and the Ethiopian provides us with an outline of how to react to the call we receive.  Philip had to determine what was this man’s struggle? He read the Bible and couldn’t understand.  He was desperate for someone to help. We need to ask ourselves whether in my neighborhood, in my church is there someone desperate for help? E.G. White captures this sentiment perfectly when she states, “it is his plan that men are to work for their fellow men.” (Review and Herald, 191, par. 16). In this sense we are all missionaries.  Modern missionary work requires working for others.  That work can be as simple as listening to a friend in crisis.   These puzzle pieces- listening to the call, acting on the call, and adjusting our view of the mission field- are how Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian informs our day to day mission.

Missionary. Merriam-Webster 2015. Web. 8 August 2015, from

White, E.G. The Gospel in Samaria. Review and Herald. March 1911. Retrieved August 18, 2015, from¶graphReferences=1

The New International Version Bible. Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 2001. Print.


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