“I thought the Bible was just an old book that white people read,” said Cheeia, a student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. She opened a Bible for the first time of her life during freshmen year. As she began to understand the Bible, she saw how a relationship with God through Jesus Christ was not just for white people. It was for her as well. Emerging from a fog of depression and drugs, Cheeia gave her life to Christ and was immediately changed.
The story doesn’t end there. It highlights the incredible impact young people can have in spreading the good news of Jesus Christ. Cheeia comes from the Hmong tribal group in Southeast Asia, and was invited to attend a family gathering only months after becoming a Christian. At the reunion her family noticed an obvious change in Cheeia. They saw joy and purpose in her life that was not evident before. Naturally they wanted to know what had happened. Why the change?
Over the following three hours, Cheeia explained her new faith in Jesus Christ to her family. She downloaded a copy of the Jesus Film, a movie about the life of Christ taken straight from Luke’s gospel. As her family watched this film about Jesus—in their own language, many wanted to know how they could experience this faith as well.
At the end of that day, thirty-seven family members prayed and received Christ with Cheeia (three hundred attended the reunion, some who live in the United States and some who live in Southeast Asia). Since then, both of her parents have become Christians. Her own mother, also led to Jesus by Cheeia, says, “There is now joy in my family, and I know that joy comes from God.”
Cameron Townsend, a college student at Occidental College in southern California in the early 1900s, heard of the need to distribute Christian literature in Central America. Before he graduated, he went for a summer to Guatemala to distribute Spanish-language Bibles. The problem Townsend encountered was eye-opening: many of the tribes did not speak Spanish. A Cakchiquel Indian even asked him, “If your God is so smart, why can’t he speak my language?” This college student eventually went on to establish Wycliffe Bible Translators, and “resolved that every man, woman and child should be able to read God’s Word in their own language.” To date, Wycliffe has translated the Bible into over 700 languages around the world. This is another example of how God uses young people, specifically college students, to influence the nations.
Cheeia and Cameron Townsend are only two examples of how God uses young people to lead, influence, and help others understand that they can have a personal relationship with their creator. I believe some of those best equipped to spread the gospel are young people, specifically university students, who are passionate about multiplying their faith.
Young People Make Great Missionaries
Young people make great missionaries. Young people, college age young people, have been used throughout history to impact and change the world. God also used young people to bring about change in the Bible.
This idea of reaching young people and sending them as missionaries to the world is not new. You (just go ahead and look in the mirror) would be a great missionary! From start to finish, the Bible is full of life stories of young people called by God to influence and share the reality of Jesus. That is what we will define as a missionary; someone who shares the reality of Jesus Christ. This mission results in glory being given to God. As we dive deeper into God’s word it’s crystal clear that the purpose of missions is to bring glory to our great God. Todd Ahrend, founder and International Director of The Traveling Team, teaches it is impossible to read the Bible and not be impacted by God’s mission to make God’s glory known. He writes, “You see that mission is not your pastor’s idea, your campus minister’s idea, or even your idea ... it is God’s idea. Since creation, God has been moving toward a promise that He will ultimately fulfill—a representation of every nation before His throne.” Ahrend argues that this common theme of God’s desire to reach every nation with God’s glory is what ultimately compels people to become missionaries. “Let us look at the Bible in light of God’s heart for the world,” Ahrend writes, “and we will see that from Genesis to Revelation, He beckons you and me and all of His people to join Him in reaching every nation.”
John Piper writes of God’s ultimate mission, “His purpose in all of history is to uphold and display his glory for the enjoyment of his redeemed people from all the nations.” As we look at all these definitions of missions, it is easy to see that God’s heart is God’s mission: to spread God’s glory to all people.
As one reads and studies the Bible, it becomes apparent that God often uses young people to make God’s glory known near and far. Let’s see how.
The idea of God reaching the nations through the outreach of the faithful, the Great Commission as it’s often called, is not a New Testament idea. When Jesus challenged his followers to share of his love to the whole world, he was simply restating what God had said throughout the Old Testament. In Genesis, God speaks to Abram saying, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” God desires to bless the nations as God is glorified. All over the Bible, young people are portrayed making God’s name known and blessing other nations. As a result, God is glorified.
Youth in The Old Testament
Most everyone knows the story of David, the shepherd boy who becomes king, the warrior child who literally cuts off the head of a nine-foot giant, the man God chose to lead a nation, a man revered by many, a flawed but fruitful leader. From the first mention of David in the Bible, he is utterly focused on his purpose: to make God’s glory known throughout the earth.
Imagine an army on one side of a valley, another army on the other side, and two of the best soldiers squaring off in between. The Philistines challenge the Israelites. The Philistines, as they cheer for their champion, must think it a cruel joke to have such a young Israelite fighting their champion. When the two face one another—in front of everyone, David addresses his adversary:
David said to the Philistine, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds and the wild animals, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.”
Why was young David planning on killing the giant? According to 1 Samuel, his reason was so that the whole earth will know there is an extraordinary God in Israel. David knew the whole region would be talking of a young man defeating a giant, and the result would be God’s glory displayed for the nations. How old was David when he made such an impact? According to scholars, David was a teenager when he stepped out and defeated Goliath. According to the Bible Knowledge Commentary, “he might have been 17 or 18 by the time of the Philistine episode.” Biblical commentator William MacDonald suggests, “[David] was probably around twenty at this time.” In any case, this young man in his late teens, turned out to be one of the greatest missionaries of the Old Testament.
David writes for God’s glory to be made known to the world. As stated above, David knew his story of slaying Goliath would travel—and travel quickly—after their battle. David knew that this battle would be seriously trending on Twitter and Facebook! He wanted to make sure God’s fame would be central to the story.
From a young age, David had a passion to spread the glory of God. As George W. Peters points out, “Missionary preaching is supported in the Psalms by more than 175 references of a universalistic note relating to the nations of the world. Many of them bring hope to the nations.” Examples of David’s writings in the Psalms that speak of God’s glory spreading to the world include the following: “All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him, for dominion belongs to the Lord and he rules over the nations.” Later he writes, “All the nations you have made will come and worship before you, Lord; they will bring glory to your name. For you are great and do marvelous deeds; you alone are God.” And we read of David’s desire to have the nation of Israel bless the nations as God intended when he spoke to Abram in Genesis 12: “Sing to the LORD, all the earth; proclaim his salvation day after day. Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous deeds among all peoples” David was king of Israel for over forty years. From his battle with Goliath as a young man and throughout his life—flaws and all, he spoke of God’s glory.
Another young person God called and used to spread his glory was Jeremiah. In Jeremiah 1, God calls this young man to be a prophet to the nations, asking him to be a mouthpiece for him to the nation of Judah, saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations" How does Jeremiah respond to God’s call on his life to influence the nations? With courage and excitement? Nope. Jeremiah responds with insecurity, excuses, and fear. The first thing Jeremiah does is tell God he can’t possibly be a prophet because of his youth, “Alas, Sovereign LORD,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am too young!’” We know the rest of the story, as Jeremiah does accept this charge by God to not only influence the nation of Judah, but other nations as well. He asks, “A prophet to the nations, that’s what I had in mind for you.” As the Bible Knowledge Commentary explains, “Though Jeremiah proclaimed God’s Word to Judah (chap. 2-45), his ministry as God’s spokesperson extended beyond Judah to Gentile nations (chaps. 46-51).” Jeremiah spoke of God’s judgment and love to Judah as well as to Egypt, Babylon, Edom, and Moab. Jeremiah refers to himself as a boy. How old was he when God chose him? Holladay speaks of Jeremiah’s youth by saying, “It was when he was a youth, true, that Jeremiah responded to the call from God.”
Jeremiah and David are obvious examples of young people chosen by God to proclaim God’s glory to the nations. But there are other young people in the Old Testament who were influential in God’s mission as well. King Josiah was just a kid when he became king. According to 2 Chronicles 34:1-2, “Josiah was eight years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem thirty-one years. He did what was right in the eyes of the LORD and followed the ways of his father David, not turning aside to the right or to the left.” Daniel was also a young man used by God, as described in Daniel 1:
“Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring into the king’s service some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility— young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace. He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians.”
God doesn’t just use young men in the Old Testament, he uses young women too, as in the case of Ruth, “Boaz asked the overseer of his harvesters, ‘Who does that young woman belong to?” Ruth is a remarkable story of servanthood, loyalty, and historical influence. Ruth’s influence reverberates, as her son Obed is the grandfather of David. According to the Believers Bible Commentary, “the [Ruth] narrative ... has become part of the fabric of Israel’s national epic and faith’s Messianic story.” Ruth and young Esther were two women—also ethnic minorities living in a majority culture—God used to reveal God’s glory.
As the Old Testament is full of young people chosen by God to spread God’s glory to the world, so is the New Testament. In this part of the Bible we see John Mark, who wrote the Gospel of Mark, and Timothy, both used as young people during the first century and even today.
Youth in The New Testament
John Mark is held in the highest esteem in African Christianity. He was born in Africa, died in Africa, and is known to be the first person to take the Gospel to this continent. Mark was not a disciple of Jesus, but was an early follower who obviously had great influence. William MacDonald writes, “As a young man, Mark and his mother joined the followers of Jesus. They became a part of a culture-transforming movement within Judaism. Later Mark would be the first among the disciples to write the good news of the coming of this incomparable person who changed his life entirely.” Mark also writes the oldest and shortest account of the life of Jesus that is canonized in the New Testament, one which highlights the importance of servanthood and the reality of Jesus Christ. Though not as widely known, John Mark likely became a follower of Jesus through Peter, even traveling with him to share the Gospel. Oden writes, “[Mark] proceeded under Peter’s guidance to the most southernly reach of the known world: Africa.”
There are instances in the gospel where we can arguably see Mark referred to as a young man. In Mark 14 we catch a glimpse of Mark, “A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind.” Mark is the only writer to record this incident which leads many to believe he is referring to himself. A young man is again seen later in this gospel when “they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.” We can’t say for sure that this is Mark, but many believe it is. “Though nothing in the text identifies this young man,” according to Oden, “African memory has sometimes posited that it could have been Mark, who was reporting the event.”
John Mark is mentioned several times in the rest of the New Testament as he traveled with both Paul and Barnabas on their missionary journeys. Though Paul was obviously a missionary with great effectiveness, John Mark is known to have shared the good news of Jesus on three continents in his lifetime: Africa, Asia, and Europe. Mark was a young man called to share the glory of God. His influence is still felt today, especially in the world’s fastest growing Christian population, in Africa. Africa has quickly become a global force in Christianity. In 1900, there were ten million Christians in Africa, while there are now over 360 million. The incredible growth can be traced back to John Mark early in the first century.
The apostle Paul invested in John Mark, and God clearly used him. Another young person Paul invested in was an inexperienced pastor named Timothy. Note that Paul, with all of his experience, chooses Timothy, who is young and lacking a proven record of leadership, to mentor and lead others in understanding God. Paul did not choose a seasoned veteran or someone well known. Timothy’s youth is referred to several times in both of Paul’s letters to his friend by calling him “son.” Timothy was seen as a spiritual son by Paul. According to the Bible Knowledge Commentary, “Paul had probably not led him to Christ, but he probably had ordained the young minister, and had great confidence in him.” Though Timothy’s age is not given, we know he is likely young enough to be seen as inexperienced and perhaps even unqualified by some. Yet Paul encourages Timothy to “not be intimidated by his relative youthfulness or what others might think of it.” I would like to see those in the church encourage our youth in the same way!
The apostle Paul, known and revered throughout history for his boldness in evangelism, believed in Timothy. Though Paul empowers Timothy in God’s mission, Timothy is not without fault. As Tim Betty explains, “As glowing a picture as the scripture paints of Timothy, it also includes his weaknesses as well. We find that he was young and intimidated.” Though he was young, Paul stated in 1 Timothy that he had no doubt Timothy should be involved in teaching others about God, writing: “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.” Youth does not impede Timothy from being involved in God’s mission. Paul challenged him to make up for age and experience by living out his faith.
John Mark and Timothy are two examples of young people used tremendously in advancing the mission of God in the New Testament, and their influence has been felt for the past two thousand years. They are merely two young people in a long line of youth throughout the Bible, both in the Old Testament and New Testament, who are pivotal in advancing God’s mission of glorifying himself to the nations.
What is your role?
Have you ever felt you need to “know more” to be sent out as a missionary? Feel too young or inexperienced? I’m sure some of our great missionaries throughout history felt the same way. Fortunately we have a God who no doubt understands our insecurities and fears. Why else would he have chosen David, Ruth, and young Timothy to advance His kingdom? My prayer is that God uses these examples in scripture to motivate you as you consider how God might use you throughout your campus and the world!