News Articles

FIRST-PERSON: God has prepared everyone for Jesus

KENNER, La. (BP)–In his book Yearnings, M. Craig Barnes tells of a tribe of Australian nomads called the Achilpa. These primitive people told how their god Numbakula had created heaven and earth. In their legend, he made the universe, then cut down a gum tree and anointed it with blood. He placed it between the heavens and the earth, then climbed it and vanished into the sky.

Accordingly, the Achilpa made their gum tree pole. As they moved from place to place, they let the bend at the end of the pole choose the direction for them. Regardless of where they went, so long as the pole stood in their midst, their tiny world was secure and meaningful. One day, the pole broke. Suddenly, their world was in disarray. For a while they wandered without direction, but eventually, the tribe dropped to the ground and waited for the sky to come crashing down.

Missionary author Don Richardson made a discovery some years back that applies here. After writing an account of his missionary experiences in Irian Jaya, Indonesia, with a tribal people he learned how to present the gospel of Jesus to them, he wrote a second book. Eternity in their Hearts tells how God has revealed Himself to every culture through their stories, customs, myths, and legends. What the Christian witness has to do, Richardson says, is learn the stories the people tell that explain and define them. There one will find the nest, the preparation, the unique foundation, for the Gospel which God has given those people. It’s an intriguing theory, or a fascinating fact. Let’s look more closely at the Achilpa legend.

A tree anointed with blood, erected between heaven and earth, a tree that the god climbs and then ascends into heaven, which gives order and meaning to their lives — does that ring a bell for you?

It sounds like a ready-made situation for those people to learn about Jesus — His bloody death on a cross, His resurrection, and His ascension into heaven — doesn’t it?

Don Richardson and his wife Carol made a discovery in Irian Jaya that forever changed the way they related to “pagan” cultures. They found that the warring tribes had a custom they called “the peace child”. In order to end a conflict and establish peace, each tribe gave to the other a child from their village. They laid hands on their child and sent him to the other side, and in turn received their new child. They gave the children new names.

Then, so long as their peace child lived, peace prevailed between the peoples. In a crisis between the groups, one would say, “I plead the peace child”, meaning “So long as the peace child lives, we are brothers.” It was a remarkable custom that the Richardsons discovered and wrote about in their book Peace Child.

Richardson explained to the tribes how the great God in Heaven had given His Son Jesus as a Peace Child to us, to establish peace with Him and between men. Since He lives eternally, that peace is established forever. For the first time, the tribal people began to comprehend this message the missionaries had brought.

Don Richardson calls these “redemptive analogies,” the keys to various cultures that God has provided for an entree into the hearts and minds of those people groups. We see it in the Bible. Paul noticed that the Athenians had erected altars and statues to every god imaginable, including one shrine dedicated “to the unknown god.” So, he built on that and introduced them to the One True God, Yahweh (Acts 17). The New Testament book of Hebrews, writer unknown, does the same with the sacrificial lamb of the Old Testament period, showing how the Lord Jesus Himself is the very Lamb of God who once and for all takes away the sins of the world. It’s a brilliant technique.

At the end of his first book, Don Richardson tells of a missionary working with a remote tribal group in Irian Jaya who had just figured out how to put together two important words: ki for “life” and wone, “words”. He walks outside his hut and announces to the assembly of fierce warriors, “We have come to bring you ki wone, the words of life.” The man of God had no way of knowing he had just touched off a revolution.

Some of the older men caught the phrase the missionary used.

They stared at him and blinked as if awakening from a long sleep. “Trembling with excitement,” Richardson writes, “the sages conferred with one another.” It turns out that an ancient story of their tribe told of the day someone with white skin would come and tell them the secret of immortality. The ancestors had said, “Be sure you listen to them or immortality will pass you by.”

That night, the missionary was busy with other tasks and heard singing erupting across the valley. He wondered what kind of celebration was going on. The next morning, when he walked outside, thousands of tribal people had surrounded his home. “Tell us how we welcome the words of life,” they said to him.

Richardson ends that book wondering how many more cultural analogies planted by God Himself are waiting to be found in order to introduce their owners to the gospel of Jesus Christ. He concludes, “Only those who go and search will find them.”

[“Eternity in Their Hearts” is a reference to Ecclesiastes 3:11 the book “Peace Child” was published in 1974 by Regal Books. “Eternity in Their Hearts” came out a couple of years later, presumably by the same publisher.]

    About the Author

  • Joe McKeever