If “the Roll were called up yonder” today would our work on earth be done? COVID-19 has turned the world upside down. Lockdowns, racial injustices, failed businesses, crashing stock markets, soaring unemployment, and church closures have some Christians wondering if we are already in the End Times. There is a lot to lament these days, but we must also ask what God wants to accomplish in the midst of such tough times. This article talks about the End and then turns to the unfinished task of reaching Muslims for Christ. Although there is much room for rejoicing in this area, I believe God wants to draw many more to himself, before that great and final day. In this task, we have the wonderful examples of Henry Martyn and Samuel Zwemer to spur us on.
Is The End Near?
When there is moral collapse or a major crisis, someone is sure to see the imminent return of Christ.[i] The fact of the matter is his coming has always been imminent: Jesus’ last words were, “I am coming soon” (Rev. 21:20), and he gave several signs to watch out for as we await that climatic event. There would be wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, and increased wickedness. And he said, “Men will faint from terror … of what is coming…” (Lk. 21:26). Nevertheless, Scripture calls it “… the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13). The clock is ticking, but we must work for the night is coming.
It can also be said that things have usually been bad. Take, for example, the last one hundred years: Two world wars, the Great Depression (unemployment hit 27 percent!), Stalin’s purges, the Holocaust, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Spanish Flu. I was born close to D-Day, just as WWII came to an end, but current events are sounding more and more like the terrible things that will happen in the last book of the Bible. One thing we know for sure: God will finally put an end to racism, injustice, inequality, suffering, and sorrow in our world. There is good news in Revelation, but only for those who want everything to do with God. For those who want nothing to do with him, there is only bad news.
Just over two hundred years ago, an outstanding Christian worker from England by the name of Henry Martyn, labored fervently among Muslims in India. He was a brilliant linguist with such skill in Bible translation he even outshone William Carey and his team in Calcutta.[ii] He accomplished more for God’s kingdom in seven years than one can imagine. Martyn opened the Scriptures to the Muslim world in Urdu, Persian, and Arabic. He knew Islam as few others, witnessed faithfully and boldly for Christ, yet could only name one convert; this convert was baptized after Martyn’s untimely death at the age of 31.[iii]
Approximately one hundred years ago, Samuel Zwemer proved to be the greatest American missionary ever sent to the Muslim world, yet his converts could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Ministry was so slow that at one point he came home and preached on the text, “Lord, we have toiled all night and caught nothing; nevertheless, at your command, we let down the nets” (Lk. 5:5). Zwemer wrote about 50 books and he was also very good in the language; so much so, he wrote tracts in Arabic.[iv] Though he himself saw little fruit, his energy, zeal, and vision inspired countless others in Christian mission to Muslims—including myself.
Since the days of Martyn and Zwemer, the harvest among Muslims has turned around. In recent years, there have been amazing “movements” to Christ. According to David Garrison, eighty-four percent of these movements have taken place in the 21st century and we could be witnessing a “hinge movement,” leading to the salvation of many more.[v] If Zwemer was alive today, he would be amazed and overjoyed.
Yet Garrison is quick to remind us the growth of Islam adds up to over 30 million annually; in other words, he says another Canada is born every year.[vi] In that light, despite tremendous gains in the last two decades, what has happened so far is only a drop in the bucket. We are in fact losing ground. Many Muslims today have not even heard the gospel, so if Zwemer could preach again, he would encourage us to double our evangelistic efforts—be the task ever so difficult.
Notably, whenever there is a large catch of fish in the Gospels, it was meant to show the disciples they needed God to accomplish the impossible. At the end of John’s Gospel, after the Resurrection, the disillusioned disciples spent a whole night in fruitless fishing. Jesus’ question to them is a bit humorous: “Have you caught anything?” Then, at his command, they cast the net on the other side and the result was phenomenal (Jn 21). In Acts, the Holy Spirit is in the driver’s seat, and church growth was nothing less than the work of God. Prayer was key. The early disciples were “devoted to prayer” (Acts 2:42), and apparently, Paul’s ministry grew out of a prayer meeting of five simple men: “As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Now separate unto me Barnabas and Saul’ …” (Acts 13:2).
In conclusion, at the Rochester Convention of 1910, Robert Speer had this to say about Samuel Zwemer:[vii]
I have never got out of my memory the speech of Dr. Zwemer at one of the earlier conventions of this Movement, when he hung a great map of Islam before us, and with a sweep of his hand across all those darkened areas said: ‘Thou O Christ are all I want; and Thou O Christ art all they want.’ What Christ can do for any man He can do for every man.[viii]
Since only the Father knows “the day and the hour” of Christ’s return, we must keep on working. The last verse of the old song we began with goes like this: “Let us labor for the Master from the dawn till setting sun, Let us talk about His wondrous love and care; Then when all of life is over, and our work on earth is done, And the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.” We pray many more Muslims will be there with us.
[i] Abdu H. Murray. Apocalypse Later: Why the Gospel of Peace Must Trump the Politics of Prophecy in the Middle East. Grand Rapids, MI: 2009. The author says American evangelicals tend to see the birth of Israel as proof of the end times but suggests our emphasis should always be on the gospel of peace.
[ii] Henry Martyn’s idea of relaxing was to study Persian poetry and read the Qur’an in Arabic. In serious study, he tackled Sanskrit, Persian, Greek, and French, read the Hindu epic Ramayana, and of course, the Bible. At times, he found it necessary to critique the quality and accuracy of William Carey and team in their Persian and Hindustani versions. My love must wait: The story of Henry Martyn, by David Bentley-Taylor (InterVarsity Press, 1975), 71, 93. 3
[iii] W. St. Clair Tisdall, in The Moslem World, Vol. III, No. 1, January 1913, p. 24.
[iv] The truth is it is impossible to know what all he wrote and published—English, Dutch and Arabic; many of the English titles are on the Zwemer website www.zwemercenter.com
[v] David Garrison, A Wind in the House of Islam: How God is drawing Muslims around the world to faith in Jesus Christ. Monument: WIGT Resources, 2014. These movements stretch all the way from West Africa to East Asia. A “movement” is defined as 1000 new believers or 100 new churches within 2 decades (230). In some areas, the group numbers tens of thousands of followers.
[vi] Conference in Orlando, Florida, September 2018.
[vii] Samuel Zwemer reflects the colonial spirit of his time, but he did get the ball rolling in reaching out to Muslims.
[viii] J. Christy Wilson, Apostle to Islam: A Biography of Samuel M. Zwemer. Grand Rapids, MI, 1952, 168.