One of the many reasons I admire Jim Elliot, a 28-year-old missionary martyr, is because he did not believe his own hype. Jesus called him to take the gospel to an unreached people group in Ecuador—one that was notoriously hostile to outsiders. When he first shared his holy ambition with friends and family, as well as other disciples of Jesus, he met opposition. Many people protested his desire to obey. Instead, they preferred he stay in North America where he would no doubt become an influential pastor of a large church. Some even suggested he could be as influential and famous as the then up-and-coming Billy Graham.
Elliot was a gifted man. He possessed remarkable gifts in leadership and preaching. So, many discouraged his desire to go elsewhere, thinking he would waste his potential. By God’s grace, Elliot refused to consider himself indispensable, despite what others said. After reading through Ecclesiastes one afternoon, he wrote the following words in his journal:
“Let me read this passage when I get hungering after civilizations, excitements, and excesses in some lonely place. Take counsel, then, my soul, the whole of life is vanity, and you would be no happier in brighter atmospheres. Woe and loneliness may be miserable but hollow happiness and many in a crowd are much more so.”
Faithful obedience to Jesus meant more to him than any other endeavor. If he thought otherwise, he would have stayed in America surrounded by agreeable admirers, rather than risking and eventually losing his young life at the end of an indian’s spear. Had he done so, an entire people group would have remained alienated from God for much longer. But, as a result of God’s grace in his obedience, those who killed him soon repented of sin, trusted in Christ, and are now worshiping Jesus with him in the kingdom of God.
A person cannot be full of self and follow Christ faithfully at the same time. The self will always desire decisions that serve its inflation rather than its deflation. Yet, Christ alone is worthy to be exalted in our lives. His kingdom alone is worth being advanced through our lives. Elliot loved Jesus. He did not consider himself too valuable or his life too precious to follow Christ. Neither should we.
God extends His redemptive reach through the humble obedience of His people. Any time God affects change in the world, He primarily does so through those who trust Him enough to obey Him. Jesus exemplified this perfectly. In fact, God established His kingdom in the world through the Savior’s humble obedience:
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed upon him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:5-11)
In the Book of Hebrews, we find what motivated Jesus to own His obedience–“for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hb. 12:2). But what joy was set before Jesus? Was it the joy of His Father’s glory?
God the Son enjoyed God the Father’s glory long before assuming humanity and subjecting Himself to crucifixion. Before being arrested, Jesus prayed, “And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (Jn. 17:5). To say Jesus was motivated by the joy of His Father’s glory is accurate but incomplete.
A more robust answer surfaces as Jesus continues to pray. He soon turned the attention of His intercession towards those who belong to Him:
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one. I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.” (John 17:20-24)
The joy set before Jesus was the prospect of bringing a large, multi-ethnic swath of redeemed humanity into the eternal enjoyment of the Godhead. In reference to what is now known as His farewell discourse, Jesus said, “These things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves” (Jn. 17:13). What was Jesus’s joy? Intimate fellowship and communion with God. He was motivated to share that experience with those who would inhabit His kingdom.
Jesus owned his obedience by seeking joy and glory for others. He was utterly other-oriented. The glory He sought from the Father would be shared with His people. If the Son of God only wanted glory for Himself then He would not have stepped into our humanity, taken the form of a servant, and died on the cross. He already had glory for Himself. What drove Him to the cross was a desire to graft others into the eternal experience and enjoyment of God’s glory.
Sin never fails to be self-oriented because it lacks empathy. What often hinders us from owning our obedience is a failure to orient ourselves toward the other. Rather than seeking joy and glory for those around us, we seek it from them, which is a fault in the holy game of following the Savior. C. S. Lewis writes:
“The golden apple of selfhood, thrown among the false gods, became an apple of discord because they scrambled for it. They did not know the first rule of the holy game, which is that every player must by all means touch the ball and then immediately pass it on. To be found with it in your hands is a fault; to cling to it, death. But when it flies to and fro among the players too swift for eye to follow, and the great master himself leads the revelry . . . then indeed the eternal dance makes heaven drowsy with the harmony.”
Owning our obedience means to pass the apple. To give of our selves towards the good of those around us.
Jesus insists that we assume an other-oriented posture. We want joy and glory for others, not simply for ourselves. When that motivating desire takes root in our hearts, we become willing to take risks, make sacrifices, and do whatever it takes to fulfill the Great Commission (Mt. 28:16-20).
Why did Jim Elliot go to Ecuador and risk his life engaging a violent people group? Well, he did not do so because he sought joy and glory from them. He did so because he sought joy and glory for them. He wanted their company around the throne of King Jesus. He followed Jesus in seeking their joy and glory. As we follow the Savior, we go and do likewise.