Paul's first letter to the Corinthians expresses perhaps in the most concise way in all of the New Testament what "the gospel" actually is. Paul says,
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ diedI have rehearsed this passage in my mind many times over the years. But it wasn't until recently that a little phrase Paul uses here struck me as crucial to understanding the place of the gospel in Paul's mission work. Paul says that he passed on the gospel to the Corinthians, "as of first importance ..." In first Corinthians, Paul deals with the many issues and problems which the Corinthian Christians had. There was controversy in Corinth over virtually everything: sexual immorality, marriage, money, lawsuits ... they even fought over who was the better preacher! But after speaking to these items at length throughout this letter, Paul reminds them of what is most important, what is foundational, what is "of first importance." He reminds them of the gospel by way of a sketch of what he first preached to them. The preaching of this message took first priority in Paul's mission work. It is what he did when he first came to Corinth and he reminds them that their priorities too should be centered in the truth of the gospel.
for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised
on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and
then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the
brothers at the same time, most of them are still living, though some have
fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of
all he appeared to me also, as one abnormally born. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8, NIV).
I have friend who has done mission work on the Thai-Burmese border. After preaching to them from Galatians for some time, they asked my white friend, "When are you going to give us some money? We need a generator." His response was, "This message is all I have." Another (white) missionary friend of mine recently gave a group of Sierra Leoneans a Bible Study to work their way through. Their response was, "All we get is Bible, Bible, Bible. When are you really going to start helping us?" What I think both groups were saying is, "This Bible stuff is good and all, but it's not tangible, it's not practical, it's not as important as things like food, clothing, and generators." When one considers the admittedly difficult situations in places like Burma or Sierra Leone, one's knee-jerk reaction is to offer help, to give, to alleviate the suffering. I know that has been my initial response.
We naturally tend towards the practical, material things of this world. We ask, "How can I make a living?" We worry, "What if I lose my job?" And in many places in the world people wonder, "Where will my next meal come from?" Jesus too suffered the poverty and hunger which many in the world face. Yet Jesus speaks directly against the mindset which is focuses upon the things of this world. Matthew 4:1-4 says,
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the
Devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, "If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread." Jesus answered, "It is written, 'Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'" (NIV)
Jesus teaches that food and clothing is not all that is required for us to live. There is something far more important than having our material needs met. Again Jesus says in Matthew 6, "Seek first God's kingdom and His righteousness and the material needs will naturally follow." Paul likewise counsels the Christians at Colossae, "seek the things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not upon the things of the earth (Colossians 3:1-2).
In dialoguing with missionaries who've spent many more years in Sierra Leone than I, the one question I often ask is, "What is the greatest need in Sierra Leone that is not being met?" What I have discovered is that the material needs are so vast in this, "the most underdeveloped country in the world," that there are already hundreds of NGOs and ministries seeking to address these needs. Hospitals have been built. Experts in prosthetics have come. Seminaries have been created. Orphanages have taken in the fatherless. And there is, of course, much more to be done. But with all of this aid and help being funneled into Sierra Leone, one would think that this land would have been well on her way to recovery today--eight years since the end of the war. So why has Sierra Leone remained at the bottom of the human development index?
It is, I think, not a coincidence that the one area many missionaries indicate that is extremely lacking in Sierra leone is the preaching of the gospel and good solid teaching from the Bible. Could it be that in all of our providing material aid that we have been focusing upon the opposite of that which God says we should focus upon? So what is the most important need in Sierra Leone, Burma and everywhere else in the world? What should come "first" in our mission work? The gospel. As counter-intuitive as it may sound, God asks us not to focus upon the things of this world, but to focus upon the things of heaven. And oddly enough, God says, the material needs will follow.