A Company of Heroes: Portraits from the Gospel’s Global Advance

Stream or download the audio recording from this breakout session titled A Company of Heroes: Portraits from the Gospel’s Global Advance with Tim Keesee that was delivered at The Gospel Coalition’s 2019 National Conference in Indianapolis, Indiana. The daily news feed, the shrinking space left for Christians in the public square, and our own doubts and fears all affect our thinking about the church so that we think in our hearts what Gideon blurted out: “If the LORD is with us, why has all of this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our ancestors told us about?” (Judges 6:13). Listen to examples of how Christ is building his church today across cultures and continents. Each story is a reminder that the church is not in decline and will point to Christ, the real hero of the story.

The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy. 

For much of my life now, I’ve had the enormous privilege of traveling and seeing the Gospel’s advance in dozens of countries around the world and to see the church in all kinds of situations and settings. The blessing of worshiping with believers in some ancient gorgeous edifice or worshiping with believers in a little apartment or in the forest where it would be more easier for us to scatter in case of a police raid. Those are the settings in which I’ve seen the church. And I’ve seen that in every kind of situation, whether it’s in war zones or places of intense persecution or in times of peace and plenty to see the church in all of these different settings has been, well, it’s the privilege of a lifetime not only to see but to share with other Christians.

And I am keenly aware of God’s blessing. All my life in this regard, he’s helped me to see. Sometimes those of us who have the privilege of traveling, of getting on a plane and go to the other side of the world and seeing the global church, we can sometimes get impatient with other Christians who don’t get it, don’t see it, don’t have the vision that we have for what God is doing around world. We can be impatient with people like that and they just…they don’t have the means or the opportunity to see what we see. And as much as I’m able, I wanna bring along with me my brothers and sisters, to see what God is doing and glory in him and magnify him and see the power of his Gospel in grow our confidence in the gospel that crosses every kind of barrier.

And so that’s driven a lot of what I’m gonna be sharing this afternoon and I do that in praise of our great God. The travel writer Paul Theroux wrote, ”You go away for a long time and return a different person. You never come all the way back.” And I understand that in ways in which it’s difficult to explain how the things that I have seen and experienced have changed me. And some things are very difficult to describe and in some ways you never come all the way back from these journeys. But I wanted to, in an effort, to summarize and I don’t intend for this to be an afternoon of just telling stories. Definitely not. I would want to be a better steward of your time than that. But I wanted to summarize some of the big things that God has taught me as I’m coming back. And it may be not even coming all the way back.

But here are three big, big ideas, big things that God has taught me over these years of seeing his people in all sorts of settings, seeing the power of his gospel to cross every kind of barrier. And the first thing that he has taught me is that Jesus is mighty to save. Paul wrote in Romans 1:16 ”For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of our persuasive abilities. It’s the keenness of our argument. It is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” Conversion is not just intellectual agreement to a certain set of facts. Conversion is an inside-out work of Jesus that’s made to last. All right. He does it. And the change is so radical that the only way to describe it is as if a person is born a second time.

I love the way a brother of mine in Ethiopia describes it. This particular brother was, just to underscore how Jesus is mighty to save, he was the Sheikh in his village there in the Great Rift Valley and central Ethiopia. His two sons, through the influence of a pastor in a distant city, became Christians. And he was, if you can imagine the sheik, like he’s the spiritual leader in this little village, how he’s gonna respond to his two sons become Christians. So he beat them with a horsewhip, kick them out of the house. He disowned his two sons because they had become Christians and those boys, they prayed for their dad for a year with the discipling counsel of a Godly pastor. They prayed for their dad and for the other Muslims in their village. They were the only two Christians out of that town. And through the work of the spirit of God, the persecutor Sheikh Giroux joined the persecuted. He believed on Jesus. Jesus saved him radically. And when he describes his conversion, he said, ”when I became a new person.” and that’s exactly what Jesus was saying in John 3:2, doctor, Nicodemus. But Jesus is mighty to save. And it is the only way to explain and understand the way men and women suffer after their conversions.

I remember being with another brother who had been kicked out of his Muslim family there in South Asia, in Bangladesh, and his family had had his funeral. They held his funeral. He was quite alive, but he was dead to them. And being banished from the village, his prospects of marriage, his prospects of a good job were all over. And I asked him like, like humanly speaking, like, why would you go through so much trouble? And he said, because Jesus was the only one who could take away the weight of my sin. Jesus is mighty to save. And how we’ve seen that over and over and over in so many testimonies to that truth right here in this room, right? Yeah. Yeah. Because it is only by grace that we can know him and come to him.

So first of all, Jesus is mighty to save. And secondly, Christ’s kingdom has no borders. When we look at a map, we typically see lines, right? There’s gonna be all the national boundaries and borders and divisions across the world. That’s typical if you look at any political map. All lines and colors and divisions and barriers. But if we could somehow see a map of Christ’s kingdom, no lines because he is gathering to himself a people from every nation, every tribe, every language across the world. His kingdom has no borders. There are no lines. His kingdom crosses every geographic, ethnic, political, and cultural barrier.

So we see in Revelation 5:9, the passage that that gets me up in the morning. ”Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals for you were slain and by your blood you ransom people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” And what we need to remember here, there’s many things, but the cultural differences in the church affirm the truth of Revelation 5:9. All right. And sometimes we can be a little uneasy when we see cultural differences in the church. Sometimes we can even be a little annoyed by cultural differences in the church. But rather than being annoyed, we should realize how it affirms the truth of Revelation 5:9. And that’s whether those cultural differences are among believers that are across the ocean or across town.

I’ve had people at times encourage me and I’m actually thinking about ways in which I could do this to share dispatches from the United States. All right. And there are so many amazing stories to tell. But I did point out to this person that we will often accept cultural differences in the church and even like praise God about those cultural differences when there’s 3,000 miles of salt water between us and those differences. But if the cultural differences are around the corner or across town, that’s a different thing somehow. But I see here that in Revelation 5:9, that these cultural differences that we see in the church today are affirmed. It is a gospel reality of Revelation 5:9. This is why in this book, A Company of Heroes I purposely put together two chapters at the end of the book.

The next to the last chapter is a chapter about believers walking with believers through the streets of Oxford, England. I wanted to go to one of the intellectual capitals of the world. I wanted to go to like past post-Christian sophisticated people and see the power of the Gospel in one of these intellectual centers of the world. The next chapter, we go to pre-literate animists in a tribal area on the border of Cambodia and Laos to show the power of the Gospel in that kind of setting as well. Christ’s kingdom has no borders and it crosses all of these, up and down, in and out, all across the globe. And it’s also true that not only his kingdom cross continents and cultures that also crosses the centuries, and think about that. Think about the fact that his kingdom crosses, it’s not even bound by time.

And so the Gospel addresses our cultural snobbery, but the Gospel also addresses, to use C. S. Lewis’s term, our chronological snobbery as well, which is a very, it’s something to think about in all of its beautiful, grace-filled, heaven sent implications.

I don’t think I have to tell you this, but Christ’s work, his gospel is unstoppable. And I wish that somehow I could get this message across to the ayatollahs and the supreme leaders and the dictators that are trying to crush Christianity. You take chairman Xi right now in China trying to crush the church, arresting pastors and Christians, trying to impose changes on the Bible so that it will become more in keeping with Chinese communist principles. It’s just like you are wasting your time. This is the definition of epic fail. You cannot stop Christ from building his church. So go work on your tomb or do something perhaps with a little more practical value. You cannot stop Jesus from his saving purposes. You cannot. And you can go back to the Roman empire, to the Soviet Empire, to whatever empire. You can’t stop. You can’t stop Jesus from building his church.

The third thing that I have seen and learned is that God is magnified through the individual lives, experiences and stories of his people. God is magnified to the individual lives, experiences and stories of his people. Consider this, God’s creative work is displayed in places and in things. Right now there is some very busy bluebirds in my backyard and I just checked in on them two days ago before we flew here. And things are happening and soon there’s gonna be some beautiful baby bluebirds in that nest. And I know when I see them that I’m going to worship the maker of those baby bluebirds. And I know that a few weeks ago, I was in Australia preaching at a seminary and a church there and having two days off, what better thing to do with your in Australia is to fly out of Australia and go to middle earth to go to New Zealand. I was in search of the land of Rohan and Edoras. And I remember standing in that valley, the snowcap mountains, the Green Valley because it’s full summer there now. And the way the sun struck the hillsides, the color of the grass, it turned to gold. And I worshiped there the maker of all of these things. God’s creative power it’s on display in places and things. And his redemptive power is on display through his people.

And this truth is at the heart of what I wanna share today. Now to understand when we say his people, we have to understand something about our familial connection. We’re family. Now in my family, I am the keeper of the stuff and the stories. All of the anecdotes and the photographs and the letters I have the letters. I have photographs from eight generations of my family. I have the letters from my great, great, great grandfather who served under the command of General Stonewall Jackson in a war that neither one of them would survive. I still have his letters. I have the cuff links that my father wore on his wedding day. I wore them on my wedding day. And I’m always the go-to person for those stories or those family reunions because I’ve got all of this information and all of these pictures and things. And even I would say on my phone, I have thousands of pictures on my phone and half of them are pictures of my grandson. So anyone interested afterward? Now, my daughter doesn’t do this, but if my daughter posted pictures of my grandson on Instagram every day, I would be liking them and commenting and sharing. But if someone else did that like sending a steady parade of, you know, cute grins and preschool milestones, I would quietly just check out. All right.

Now, I’m genuinely interested in your grandchildren and all your pictures. Okay. I’m genuinely interested in seeing the pictures from other families and hearing their stories. I’m really interested in that, but only to a certain point and you all know it. You don’t wanna see all those pictures I have of my grandson, and I get it. I’d think you are a little strange if you want to see 3000 pictures of my grandson. All right. So why the difference? Like why can you be so intensely interested in those pictures and that stuff and those stories and someone else that you love dearly? It’s like, okay, that’s great. Yeah. I’m happy for you. All right. The reason is it’s not your family. You are not connected in the same way as you are with your family, your stuff, your stories, your pictures, that’s just the way it is. All right.

Now this is so true when we think about this family that we’re a part of by grace alone, through Christ alone. Families are generally connected across generations by birth and by blood. But this family is created by a second birth through the blood of Christ. And our earthly ties just like our lives are precious and fragile and fleeting, but Christ family, which he has adopted us into is everlasting. And our lives are forever bound up in his unending life. And therefore, we are bound to all other believers as well. We’re family. And it is truly a mystery of grace that this big scattered, multiethnic, multigenerational, fractious and seemingly dysfunctional family that in this we have a bond with each other that is deeper than blood and it is stronger than death. Think of that.

And we all need to be reminded that we are part of something so much bigger than ourselves. And there are Christians that I’ve met, and perhaps they may be in this room to some degree that have the sense that the church is in decline. We have to be reminded beyond our fears and beyond our circumstances that the church is not in decline, that God is not in some cosmic tug of war and we hope he’s gonna win. And we know he’s gonna pull it out at the end. He’s not gonna pull it out at the end. He’s already pulled it out.

Peter wrote to fearful, beaten down Christians in his first epistle. He said, reminding them, now keep in mind just like a Jeru that I mentioned in Bangladesh who’s been kicked out of his home and his family has had his funeral, we probably, most of us in this room anyway, don’t have a category for that sense of rejection, that experience of being isolated and rejected. But the Christians that Peter is writing to, they felt that, but he’s reminding them of this. You are, you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. And this is beautiful, a people for his own possession that you may proclaim the excellences of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. And I love, love this sentence: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.” And “once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” We’re part of this by God’s grace.

Many years ago I was in Albania shortly after the communist dictatorship fell after a long generation. It was one of the most…Albania was considered the North Korea of eastern Europe. When communism collapsed in 19, around 1990, 91, there was no known church in the entire country, but God showed great mercy to Albanians and Gospel was preached there. And within 20 years, there were churches in every city and in most towns throughout Albania. But during those very first years, a missionary friend invited me to come and do a short series on church history to the first generation Christians. And it was such a delight.

So to this group of 40 or 50 first generation Christians, I began to walk through the story of the church and I began to teach night after night. And they began to see, night after night, that the gospel that they had heard and believed was the same gospel that Paul and Polycarp and Perpetua believed and died for. And it was the same gospel that Luther defended. And that Hudson Taylor sailed to the other side of the world to preach. And the Bible that William Tyndale put into English and William Carey put into Bengali, was the same Bible that their pastor preached in Albanian. I was just like, the light began to come on in their eyes. And I will never forget their joy because almost all of these men and women had been told by their families that you are part of a cult. You drank the Kool-aid, you’re just a fool, this is just a passing thing. This is just a cult. And they were rejected and despised for what they were doing and who they said they were now and where they were going. But now they saw that they were part of something so much bigger.

The church was not just 40 or 50 people sitting around on fold-up chairs in an apartment. But by God’s grace, they were part of something that Jesus started centuries before. And they were part of his unfolding story. And when they met this company of heroes from Church history, you could just see that it just put iron in their soul. And it gave them perspective, Gospel perspective to endure the ridicule and persecution that they experienced. So it was a beautiful thing for them to grasp their part in this big story to get Gospel perspective on their lives and what they were facing. So it was a privilege to give them this gospel perspective. And I have also been the recipient of Gospel perspective many times from my brothers and sisters.

And I recall an experience in Pakistan a few years ago. I was there to meet Christians who had gone through some intense times of persecution, and yet during that time, we got word that a Christian community several hours away had been attacked. There were 300 Christian families and all the churches in the town had been burned down. And the Christians homes had been looted and some had been burned down and many of the Christians had been assaulted. And so we went. And it was a devastating scene. Parents with their kids, just kids crying, parents crying, churches in ashes and looking at all this, and you feel so helpless in a situation like this. And it was overwhelming and it was no one to turn to. I mean, I talked very straight to the police chief about what was going on there, but they all had a hand in what was going on there. So who do you turn to and just standing there in the ashes of this charred Salvation Army church in this little town in central Pakistan?

This Christian came up to me and in broken English just began to quote to me from John 14. He just started saying, ”Let not your heart be troubled. In my father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself that where I am, you may be also.” And then he quoted Jesus again from Revelation 2. He said to me, ”Be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life.” Suddenly, I had much-needed gospel perspective in the midst of so much ruin and ashes and suffering. So I’m so thankful for my brothers and sisters who have caused me to the lift up my eyes and see Jesus.

So what does this mean for you? I really don’t want you to just leave here and think, “Wow, there’s a lot going on in the world,” and, “Wow, that guy’s traveled a lot,” or whatever be on your mind about that. But I want you to share in his glory more and more. I wanna share in it more and more. As grace extends to more and more people, it may increase our thanksgiving and increases glory, the glory of God. So what can we do to share more and more in this glory? How can we grow in these ways of Gospel perspective, in light of this amazing family that we have been adopted into? How can we grow in these ways so that our thanksgiving increases and the glory of God, He’s magnified more and more before us?

And so let me just suggest a few ways in which we can do that. And the first is perhaps an obvious one, but let’s not overlook it in our busy lives, it is to read. John Piper put it this way. He said, ”What I have found is that in my pastoral disappointments and discouragements, there is a great power for perseverance in keeping before me the life of a man who surmounted great obstacles in obedience to God’s call by the power of God’s grace. I need very much this inspiration from another age because I know that I am in great measure a child of my times. And when you are surrounded by a society of emotionally fragile quitters, and when you see a good bit of that ethos in yourself, you need to spend time with people, whether dead or alive, who’s lives prove there is another way to live.”

Yeah, read the lives of men and women who show us there’s another way to live. Recently, I read from the author Hannah Anderson. She was talking about the two things that shaped her vision of womanhood as a little girl and she said there were two influences. One was reading Nancy Drew mysteries. All right. And the second was reading the stories of Amy Carmichael and Mary Slessor and she described Carmichael and Slessor as her spiritual godmothers that shaped her vision of womanhood, Christian womanhood, even as a little girl, the power of reading and keeping before us, the lives of those who show us that there is another way to live.

The second way in which we can grow in our thanksgiving and understanding of what God is doing is Christ is building his church all over the world. And even in, where we live in our places is sharing, sharing in this more and more. You don’t have to go to Ethiopia or Pakistan or Bangladesh to see the power of the Gospel. There are stories of grace all around us. And so have the curiosity to ask questions, ask questions dear brothers and sisters.

My father said something to me years ago that was startling to me. But I understood because I was sharing with him, I was sharing with my father what his father had experienced as a little boy or during the war or all of these little stories and anecdotes. And he turned to me and he said, ”You know more about my father than I do.” And they were close, but what it was, was that even as I can remember as a 10-year-old boy sitting there with my grandfather and asking him what his life was like and not just like, oh, well, you know, that was a long time ago now. I was never satisfied with that. We had to get deep. All right. Maybe we would take a walk down one of those dirt roads there on his farm and I would ask him the stories of what it was like when he was growing up in these experiences. And I was writing it all down. All right. All right. And so eventually my dad would tell me, hey, you know more about my father than I do because he perhaps never spent that time asking those questions and recording those stories. So talk to your brothers and sisters. All right. Yeah. Ask them their favorite verse and their favorite hymn. There’s definitely insight in that but go deeper to be able to trace the path of God’s providence in their life and see that he is at work.

And so have curiosity and ask those questions. Appropriate, I realize that not everyone’s open to talking, but I found that if the relationship is there, you can talk to people. So talk to them not to dig down into their life and post something on social media. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about for the purpose. This is purposeful curiosity for the purpose in your own life and in theirs of seeing God greater and greater. All right, because we can never have too big a vision of our God. All right. So curiosity, careful, purposeful questions to wake, go deeper and see how God’s promises are being fulfilled in the life of a brother, sister.

And I would say along with that is have expectancy. I actually believe and expect that God is at work in a person’s life. And you’re looking for ways to see God working in those situations. I’ve been changed by what I’ve heard and what I’ve seen and I want to be changed and I’m not there yet, but we should want to be changed by what we’re hearing, the expectancy that’s driving us to know actually to take an interest in our family, our Christian family. So read and ask and search out those stories from the other side of the world. Yeah, sure. Do that. They’re inspiring, they’re blessing, they’re helpful. But I wanna caution you on this, especially someone who has related a lot of stories from the other side of the world that we can have the tendency to think that, oh, God is at work over there. All right? That’s where the super Christians are. The amazing Christians are over there. Over here, not so much.

Somehow there is a diminished understanding of the Gospel when we think that the grass is greener over there and God’s working more over there. You know, remember Christ’s kingdom has no borders. All right. So he is calling men and women to himself from all over the world and as his spirit is working in their lives and they are making his priorities, their priorities and they’re following hard after their cross bear, those are the amazing Christians regardless of their citizenship on earth. All right, and so there are amazing Christians over there and they’re all some also some Christians that are duds, so to speak. All right. Just as there are amazing Christians over here, all right? Some of them are sitting right here in this room, all right? We’re sitting together and maybe there’s a… I couldn’t say that here, no.

See what I’m saying? It’s not about where are we are. It’s about Jesus and what he is accomplishing. So let’s not get this myopic view that it’s only happening over there and not over here. The greatest Christians are not over there and the greatest Christians are not over here. Christ is the greatest. So let’s follow him. So listen, learn from the stories from afar, but also listen and learn from those stories that are closer to home because they are powerful and they are near us. They are near reminders of grace of Jesus’s presence with his people.

I’ve have got a friend right now…last fall, at 57, he learned that he had stage four cancer throughout his body. And we’ve sat together in wept together and I’ve held his hand that is shaking and throbbing with pain as we prayed together. It’s been a dark, difficult valley, but recently, very recently he told me that he works in an auto shop. He fixes cars all right. And he had his old work boots and, and he decided that he would send them off to get them resoled. And he also told me just a few days ago that he has planted carrots and cauliflower in his backyard garden. And we are hoping to harvest the cut the cauliflower in May. All right. What I saw in my brother were these beautiful glimpses of hope and peace and trust that Jesus is giving him as he’s walking through a fairly difficult valley.

And so don’t just look on the other side of the world to see the power of God’s grace. Right here at home, maybe some brother or sister that’s in your small group in your church, you need to be talking to them. They are family and they are in a position because God is at work in their lives to point us to him over and over. So read and share and finally worship because this all that I’m saying, this is not about you becoming like having curiosity and expectancy and asking the right questions and probing and getting deeper purposefully to, you know, in order to what? Become a writer. Really no, not necessarily that. No. So that you and I will become worshipers. We need to worship more and more.

And this is the passage I’ve referenced a few times today, but I wanna read from the 2nd Corinthians Four. Paul writes, ”Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, I believed and so I spoke.” We also believe and so we also speak knowing, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence for it is all for your sake so that as grace extends to more and more people, it may increase thanksgiving to the glory of God. So do not lose heart.

Brothers and sisters, tell these stories, tell these stories to yourself. Tell them to your kids if the Lord has blessed you with children, tell them to others in your small group in your church. Allow thanksgiving to increase to the glory of God because you’re sharing in your family’s stories. Create this culture in your home and your church of expectation and wonder because God is magnified through the individual lives, stories, experiences of his people. And these stories of grace, every one of them including your own or reminders that Jesus is alive and he’s present and he is mighty to save.