Wise Sheep Among the Wolves
All Christian disciples have one thing in common: as they carry the gospel across the ocean and across the street, persecution will become the norm for those who choose to follow Jesus. How believers respond in the face of persecution reveals everything about their level of faith and obedience.
The Insanity of Obedience is a bold challenge to global discipleship. Nik Ripken exposes the danger of safe Christianity and calls readers to something greater. The Insanity of Obedience challenges Christians in the same, provocative way that Jesus did. This book dares you—and prepares you—to cross the street and the oceans with the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Some of Jesus’ instructions sound uncomfortable and are potentially dangerous. We may be initially encouraged by His declaration, “I am sending you out.” But how are we to respond when He then tells us that He is sending us out “like sheep among wolves"?
In light of the words of Jesus, how can modern day believers rest comfortably in the status quo? How can we embrace casual faith in light of the radical commands of Jesus which are anything but casual? Ripken brings decades of ministry experience in some of the most persecuted areas of the world to bear on our understanding of faith in Jesus. The Insanity of Obedience is a call to roll up your sleeves . . . and to follow and partner with Jesus in the toughest places on this planet.
"We have the high privilege of answering Jesus’ call to go," Ripken says. "But let us be clear about this: we go on His terms, not ours. If we go at all, we go as sheep among wolves."
Jesus gives us Himself. And He gives us the tools necessary for those who dare to journey with Him.
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About the Author
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Our Marching Orders
At the risk of sounding a bit "preachy," allow me a moment to restate the obvious — for what we have heard the most often might well be the very command we ignore the most. As the Gospel of Matthew comes to a crescendo, Jesus gave His followers a final word of instruction. We often refer to these words as the "Great Commission." With stark simplicity, Jesus set out the calling and the mission of those who would follow Him. "Go," He commands, "and make disciples of all nations" (Matt. 28:19). From that day until now, Jesus' followers have endeavored to fulfill that assignment. Whatever else the church takes on, it is broadly understood that both "going" and "making disciples" are essential and defining tasks. The church cannot be the church unless it is going and making disciples.
Interestingly, Jesus' final instruction was nothing new; it is utterly consistent with His overall ministry. Early on, as Jesus invited Simon and Andrew to follow Him, He explained that He would make them "fishers of men" (Mark 1:17). Later, Jesus designated twelve apostles. They were appointed "that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach" (Mark 3:14). He called them close, and then He sent them out. Consistently, this invitation to walk closely with Jesus is linked with the command to go out with Jesus. In fact, it becomes clear that an intimate relationship with Jesus necessarily leads to a life of ministry and service and mission for all believers. God is a sending God. Repeatedly, He draws people close and then He sends them out. In the Gospels, we encounter this same pattern over and over again.
When Jesus sent His followers out, He gave explicit guidance. He also explained clearly what would happen to His followers as they obeyed Him. In Matthew 10, Jesus gave the Twelve "authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness" (Matt. 10:1). He told His followers exactly what message to proclaim (v. 7). He also gave them specific instructions about their upcoming journeys (vv. 5–15).
Some of His instructions sound uncomfortable and even potentially dangerous. For these specific and short trips, Jesus told His followers to take no money as they journeyed. He told them to take no bag. He told them to take no extra clothing or shoes. Evidently, Jesus wants His followers to experience God's sufficient provision firsthand.
As challenging as some of Jesus' specific instructions were, however, what He had said to this point was downright encouraging compared to what He said next. "I am sending you out," He explained, "like sheep among wolves" (Matt. 10:16).
Like sheep among wolves. With that simple, startling phrase, Jesus defined the identity of His followers: they are like sheep. At the same time, He clarified the identity of the people they would meet in the world: they are like wolves. It is not especially difficult to ascertain what will happen to sheep in the presence of wolves. Even if we have no personal experience with either sheep or wolves, we plainly see how this scenario plays out. Frankly, it is not good to be a sheep in the presence of wolves. Sheep don't normally survive in the presence of wolves! Even so, Jesus wanted His followers to understand both their true nature and the true nature of the world in which they would journey. Jesus wanted His disciples to understand both the content of the gospel and the context in which it was to be shared. What He offered was a simple statement of fact.
And notice this: Jesus did not ask the sheep to behave like wolves, and He certainly did not suggest that the wolves would behave like sheep!
After setting this image before them, Jesus did not give His followers the opportunity to revisit their earlier commitment to Him. He did not ask them if, in the light of these new words, they still were serious about following Him. After all, they had already answered His call, and obedience to Him was the necessary next step. With some notable objections, His followers obeyed. They went.
And ever since, His followers have continued to go.
Jesus said plainly that He was sending His followers out "like sheep among wolves" (Matt. 10:16). Then He told them even more. He told them that they would be handed over to the local councils, flogged in the synagogues, and brought before governors and kings as witnesses. He told them that they would be arrested, betrayed, and hated (vv. 17–22). In a word, His followers would be persecuted (v. 23). Jesus made it clear that this impending persecution was not merely a possibility; for those who would obey Him, persecution is a certainty.
In response to His instructions, Jesus' followers set out on this grand and frightening adventure, and, sure enough, they experienced everything that Jesus had promised. They went out as sheep among wolves, and they experienced what sheep typically experience in the presence of wolves. Predictably, the sheep were true to their identity. Just as predictably, the wolves were true to theirs. And the inevitable result is precisely what Jesus has promised: persecution.
If there is any possible way to do it, we generally want to relegate passages like Matthew 10 to the distant past. We want to keep passages like Matthew 10 as far as possible from our own experience. Obedience to these ancient words, in today's world, would potentially be seen as unbalanced — even insane. Especially within the church today, we might be encouraged to avoid taking Jesus' instructions too seriously.
All the same, we claim that we are utterly devoted to Scripture. With great respect, we study to understand the world of these earliest followers of Jesus. We read about their suffering and we celebrate their costly obedience to Jesus' call. Jesus clearly told His followers long ago that they would suffer, and they did suffer. We know the story of these faithful followers is true.
As true as this story of ancient persecution is, however, we long to believe that these verses are merely "history." We want very much to believe what happened to these earliest disciples is not what will happen to us. We want to believe Jesus' words in Matthew 10 do not apply to believers today — at least, not to all believers!
We desperately cling to the possibility that these hard verses do not apply to us.
But what if Matthew 10 is not merely "history"? What if Matthew 10 is a true word intended for Jesus' followers of every time — a true word intended for even our time? What if Matthew 10 is about you and about me? What if "sheep among wolves" is an accurate description of both our calling and our world today? What if Jesus' followers — His followers today — really are like sheep? And what if the world — the world today — really is filled with wolves?
Opening ourselves to the truth of God's Word is dangerous. Popular theologies would tell us suffering can be avoided, that there is a way to be both faithful and comfortable at the same time, that there is a way to be both obedient and safe, that persecution is the destiny of believers who live only at certain times or in certain places, that God will reward obedience with success and security. Popular theologies would tell us that, even if we are sheep, it is possible to minimize our exposure to a world filled with wolves.
God's Word — lived out in present active tense — however, tells us something very different. Jesus would have us understand that His followers — His followers long ago and His followers today — are, in fact, sheep. Jesus would have us understand that our world — our world long ago and our world today — is filled with wolves. And knowing the certain outcome of that encounter between the sheep and the wolves, Jesus would have us understand, even in this kind of a world, He fully intends to accomplish His purposes. Jesus will use these sheep to complete His great plan.
Judging by what eventually happened to Jesus Himself, we come to understand that persecution and suffering and sacrifice are necessary parts of His ultimate strategy, even today.
This book retells the story of that strategy. This book tells the story of modern-day followers of Jesus who understand what it means to live as sheep among wolves. This book tells the story of Jesus' settled intention to accomplish His purposes using unlikely things like persecution and suffering and sacrifice and martyrdom. This book is about the unlikely followers of Jesus who model the characteristics of sheep.
Jesus' instruction is compelling in its clarity. It is not a suggestion; it is a command. "Go!" He says. "I am sending you!"
But what He says next is quite a surprise: "I am sending you out like sheep among wolves."
We have the high privilege of answering Jesus' call to go. But let us be clear about this: we go on His terms, not ours. If we go at all, we go as sheep among wolves.
Why then, given that Jesus led His disciples every day to be with Him "to seek and to save what were lost" (Luke 19:10), did He feel it necessary to one more time command us with the Great Commission of Matthew 28?
Can it be that which Jesus lived and commanded the most is what we ignore obeying the most?
Today are we willing to follow Jesus to the tough places; anywhere and anytime He still commands?
More than Talking Points
Is this command of Jesus always defined by His desire today to "seek and to save" those who are lost? Who are you seeking today?
One enlightened brother said every Body of Christ who have a heart for the Nations needs four types of people: (1) Those who go, (2) Those who send, (3) Those who raise support for those who go, and (4) Those who welcome the Nations in their midst to their homes. Evaluate the obedience level of your church by these statements. Evaluate your commitment.CHAPTER 2
Where's the Parachute?
It is surely a truism to say that we are not where we thought we would be.
Though we came to faith in different ways, my wife (Ruth) and I clearly heard Jesus' command to follow Him. We took the words of Scripture at face value and we simply assumed that the Great Commission was intended for us; we heard Jesus' words of invitation and instruction personally. Through the training of denominational schools and through a variety of experiences in ministry, and because we were convinced of God's personal call for us, we prepared to serve overseas.
Our first assignment was in Malawi. There, we joyfully lived in a setting where God was visibly and dramatically at work. Our ministry involved both planting new churches and strengthening churches which had already been established. As far as we were concerned, we could have remained in Malawi for decades. Our work there felt satisfying and rewarding. We sensed that we were a part of what God was doing, and we found joy in our service.
Much to our heartbreak, however, our time in Malawi was relatively short. After debilitating struggles with malaria, we were forced to relocate. We found ourselves living in a different part of Africa, serving for several years in the Transkei, a then-black homeland within South Africa. At that time, South Africa was defined by the official policy of radical racial separation called apartheid.
During our time in Transkei, Ruth and I began a serious study of the New Testament book of Acts. We had read and studied Acts many times before. But this time, we experienced a life-altering encounter with God's Word. Individually and as a couple, we sensed a clear command from God to begin serving in a part of the world where the gospel had not yet been broadly proclaimed. With the help of our supervisors and through our own journey of prayer, we were drawn to work with the people of Somalia. We moved to the Horn of Africa and began working among the Somali people.
While, as most people, we had challenges and sorrows in our lives before, nothing had prepared us for what we experienced in Somalia. For the first time in our journey, we truly lived "as sheep among wolves." For the first time we were serving as sheep among wolves — where the wolves were the vast majority. Honestly, we did not really mind being sheep among wolves. But our experience in Somalia was like flying from Kenya in a C-130 transport aircraft with a single instruction: "Jump!"
It would have been a better experience if someone had given us a parachute.
Despite our best intentions and despite years of grueling work, we experienced little in the way of spiritual success. In fact, our time in Somalia was defined by heartache, loss, and failure. Our disappointment in ministry was surpassed only by the personal losses that affected our family. Near despair, we returned to the States wondering where to turn next.
During a long and painful season of soul-searching and prayer, God placed before us the opportunity to grapple with some of our personal and professional struggles from a completely different direction. We desperately wanted to discern healthy and God-honoring ways of bearing witness to Jesus in hard places such as Somalia. That search led us to consider other hard places in the world where Jesus' followers had already been living out their faith for a long time. With significant spiritual and financial support from many different people, we began to develop a plan to sit at the feet of believers around the world who knew how to live and to thrive in settings of intense persecution. We also longed to hear the stories about believers who had died in settings of persecution. In a word, we wanted to learn about the experiences of sheep in a world filled with wolves.
Our intention was to go to these believers in persecution as learners, not teachers. Our intention was simply to listen and to learn. And that is exactly what we did.
Originally, we made a list of forty-five countries known for persecution of believers in Jesus and we began to make plans for visits. We made contacts with people in those countries. We also made contacts with people who had been forced to leave their countries because of their faith. Painstakingly, we planned travel itineraries and we arranged interviews. Traveling from country to country, we simply listened for days in each country to stories of faith and faithfulness.
Now, more than fifteen years later, we have conducted, recorded, documented, and analyzed more than six hundred personal, in-depth interviews with believers from seventy-two different countries. Interviews continue even now and the numbers of both interviews and countries visited grow month by month. Obviously, these life stories have radically changed us.
What we heard was powerful and profound. Some of what we heard was expected and predictable; some of what we heard was shocking and unexpected. Much of what we heard was almost impossible to believe. We have been horrified to learn of the cruelty that some believers have endured. We have been moved by stories of selfless sacrifice. We have been amazed by the steadfastness of God's people. And we have been reminded over and over again of God's faithfulness, grace, and power.
Through our pilgrimage, we have been challenged biblically to believe that God can use even unspeakable pain for His purposes. And we are able now to say with confidence that God uses persecution and suffering for His purposes. Exactly why God uses persecution and suffering is a holy mystery, but the fact that He does use persecution and suffering is a certainty!
Crucifixion and resurrection are central themes of the gospel story. Believers in persecution bring these themes into present active tense today as they live out their faith in harsh and horrible environments.
At the same time, we have also been able to distill lessons and truths from these hundreds of interviews, as we have reflected on them in light of our three decades of overseas service. As we listened carefully to suffering, yet victorious, believers around the world, we noticed common themes — lessons learned. At first, this surprised us. From distant corners of the globe, we realized that the same stories with biblical insights were being told. Over time, we began to connect the dots and we were able to discern crucial truths. Clearly, we still have much to learn, but we began to garner valuable insights about persecution, about the ways of God, and about how the church is planted and thrives — especially in persecution.
Admittedly, we were ill-prepared when we began our work in Somalia. While places like Somalia will always remain a challenge, what we have learned — and what we are learning — is invaluable. It is our hope and prayer that the truths of these interviews will help you as you seek to respond obediently to God's command and call in your own life.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Insanity of Obedience"
Copyright © 2014 Nik Ripken.
Excerpted by permission of B&H Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 Our Marching Orders 1
Part I God's Command to Go to the Nations
2 Where's the Parachute? 9
3 Did I Sleep Through This Class in Seminary? 18
4 Defining the Conversation 36
5 The Need for Willing and Tough Workers 47
6 Cleaning Out the Clutter 59
7 Lies, Lies, and More Lies 67
8 Staying Put 93
Part II The Birth of Faith in Persecution Environments
9 The Persecutors 105
10 God's Spirit in Present Active Tense Today 116
11 Supernatural Conversions through Western Eyes 137
Part III Reaching Grandma and the Rest of the Family
12 Working Smarter, Not Harder 157
13 More Barriers? 175
14 An Historical Case Study: Persecution and Its Aftermath 189
15 How to Deal with Judas 196
16 Bring on the Water 204
17 "I Have Come Home!" 210
Part IV Practical Matters
18 Wise Servants, Tough Places 231
19 On Our Faces before God 239
20 Jesus and Money 245
21 Being Midwife to the Body of Christ 252
22 Recognizing and Equipping Local Leaders 263
Part V A Victorious Faith
23 If the Resurrection Is True, This Changes Everything 277
24 Our Marching Orders 299