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Missions leader draws lesson from Jesus’ feeding of 5,000

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP)–Faith, obedience and a proper perspective are the necessary ingredients for world missions outreach today, according to David Howard, president of Latin America Mission.
Howard, of the Miami-based agency with 250 missionaries in 11 Latin American countries, was the World Missions Day featured speaker at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Kansas City, Mo. This fall, his son, David Howard Jr., joined the faculty of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary as associate professor of Old Testament and Hebrew.
During a Dec. 4 chapel address, the elder Howard used Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 as a paradigm for looking at the world mission of the church today. Turning to John’s account of the miracle, Howard examined the occurrences of that day through the eyes of those involved. He began in John 6:5 with Jesus, whom Howard suggested saw the approaching crowd not just as a mass of people, but also as individuals. Such a perspective is vital in missions work, he said.
“I think about missions in that way,” said Howard, who served from 1982-92 as international director of the World Evangelical Fellowship. “Yes, we need to be challenged by the masses of unreached people in the world. Yes, we need to be challenged by the thousands of unreached people groups in the world. That’s right, that’s good. At the same time, we must never lose sight of that one person right under our nose, that perhaps God wants us to minister to.”
To illustrate, Howard described how, as director of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s Urbana student missionary conventions in 1973 and 1976, he looked out to see masses of people in the stands rising above the speaker’s platform. Later, when Howard was in the stands to watch his son compete in the Illinois state wrestling championships, he saw things differently.
“As I sat there up in the stands looking down, I caught a totally different perspective on how you can look at people in a crowd,” Howard explained. “It’s one thing to sit on the platform of Urbana and see 18,000 students. It’s another to sit up in the stands and see one, whom I love with all my heart. I believe that Jesus looked at the crowd in that way.”
Howard moved on in the biblical text to describe Philip, who scoffed at the idea of feeding such an enormous crowd of people.
“What was Philip?” Howard asked listeners. “Philip was a statistical pessimist. And it’s very easy to be that today. If you look at the problems of the world today — if you look, for example, at the problems of persecuted Christians — it’s absolutely overwhelming … it’s an overwhelming problem, so much so that we feel like backing off, like Philip, and saying, ‘What can we do? It’s just too much.'”
Howard contrasted Philip’s response with that of Andrew, who cautiously suggested Jesus use a young boy’s five loaves and two fishes.
“Andrew had enough faith to believe that maybe Jesus could do something,” Howard noted. “You know, it’s amazing when you think of how much a little faith can do.”
Howard then discussed the perspective of the little boy in the story who gave his loaves and fishes to Jesus to multiply. Howard pointed out that while little is known about this boy, what he did that day made the crucial difference.
“All we know is that he had a little bit of lunch, and he gave it to Jesus,” Howard said of the boy. “It wasn’t much, but he gave it to Jesus. And that’s all that Jesus was asking. And when he gave, Jesus multiplied it marvelously.”
In describing the role of the disciples in the story, Howard said their obedience to Jesus’ command was the final key which enabled the Lord to feed the masses.
“The disciples did exactly what Jesus told them to do,” Howard said. “That’s all they did. That was obedience. They simply obeyed.”
Howard compared the response of the disciples with that of his late brother-in-law, Jim Elliot, and the four other men who in 1956 were martyred trying to evangelize the Auca Indians of Ecuador. After the men were speared to death by Auca tribesmen, Howard flew from his missions post in Costa Rica to assist his sister Elisabeth Elliot, who along with the other widows was soon the focus of American media attention. Howard described how he was present the evening that a Life magazine photographer asked the five widows the question he had been unable to answer regarding the deaths of the five men.
“He said, ‘For the life of me, I cannot understand why those men went there in the first place,'” Howard quoted the reporter as saying. “‘They knew they always killed anybody who came in from the outside. Nobody ever came out alive.’
“The five widows said, ‘We can answer that in one word.’ He said, ‘What is it?’ And they said, ‘Obedience. Our husbands were obedient to the last command that Jesus ever gave to his church. Our husbands went in obedience to that command and never came back. That’s all right. It’s sad, of course, but that’s all right, because they fulfilled their commission. They obeyed what Jesus Christ told them to do.'”
Howard went on to describe how, over 40 years later, he continues to encounter those who have been inspired by the story of those five martyrs.
“As I’ve traveled all over the world over the years,” Howard explained, “as people have found out my relationship to Jim Elliot, that he was my brother-in-law, I’ve had people, national pastors, national workers and others come and say to me, ‘I’m serving God today because of the impact of that story. I read about those men, and I’m out here today overseas serving God because of the impact of that story.’ Because of what? Because of the simple obedience of five men. And that’s what missions is all about.”

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  • Clinton Wolf