Lessons from a Modern Martyr

Much has been written about John Allen Chau—the American missionary seeking to proclaim the gospel to a remote tribe on North Sentinel, an island off of the Indian coast. By all accounts he was aware of the dangers he faced, having paid local fisherman to bring him near the island under the cover of darkness. Even that action seems to break Indian law which forbids engaging the Sentinelese at least in part due to certainty that those who do are almost universally met with a hail of arrows. After being brought near the island, Chau paddled to shore with food and gifts to offer the islanders in the hope of gaining an audience to share the gospel. According to the local fisherman, he attempted to make landfall several times and was met with a number of arrows each time.

His diary records that he “hollered” in a foreign language, “My name is John, I love you and Jesus loves you.”

He wrote of his first encounter in his diary before returning. He had gotten “within inches” of a tribesman and offered his gifts only be met with hostility, including an arrow piercing his waterproof Bible. The fisherman who had taken him into the waters around North Sentinel reported that two days after his initial attempts, they saw the Sentinelese bury his body on the beach.

Reflective of the immediate and extreme nature of social media, reports of Chau’s death was hailed as that of a humble martyr carrying the gospel to the unreached nations by some. Others, however, showed little sympathy for the young Westerner who dared attempt to force his culture and religion on an indigenous people.

The impetus to comment ensured that few were willing to exhibit patience enough to allow more news to come to light and think carefully about the meaning of his death.

For Bible-believing Christians, some aspects of his story merit discussion.

Taking the Gospel to Every Tribe and Every People Remains a Biblical Imperative

Reading the accounts of those who made up the very first Baptist Missionary Society in history—the very men who initiated the modern missions movement—who were challenged to “expect great things for God,” and to “attempt great things for God,” I am often struck by their willingness to forsake all for the sake of the gospel. I am moved with gratitude for those who left home and hearth for the sake of the heathen. Their intentions were not selfish. In fact, whenever I lecture on the Serampore Trio or those holding the rope at home, I remark of their repeated emphasis on their calling to share biblical Christianity, not British Christianity.

Make no mistake, non-believers have accused Chau of colonialist intentions and have vilified him for even attempting to introduce the people of North Sentinel to biblical Christianity. But Christians must, at the very least, take note of his willingness to count the cost and determine that the proclamation of the gospel was worth his very life.

Chau’s concern was clear. He may have had a history of thrill-seeking and adventure, but his diary revealed a heart shaped by the love of God: “Lord, is this island Satan’s last stronghold where none have heard or even had the chance to hear your name?”

“This is not a pointless thing—the eternal lives of this tribe is at hand and I can’t wait to see them around the throne of God worshiping in their own language as Revelations [sic] 7:9–10 states.”
John Allen Chau in a letter to his parents

Extreme Measures are Necessary

There are a number of Christians who echo Rod Dreher’s thoughts concerning Chau—“even though I share his faith, Chau had no business going to those people. It gives me no pleasure to say this, but I believe it.” It strikes me that virtually all of them do so from the comfort of their office or home; few do so from the mission field.

We might all be better-served by allowing Chau’s willingness to die for the sake of the gospel to challenge us—what are we willing to risk that others may hear the eternity-changing hope of Jesus Christ? When faced with criticism concerning his methods of reaching people with the gospel, the great evangelist D. L. Moody once quipped, “I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it.” No doubt, many of those criticizing Chau prefer their way of not proclaiming the gospel to his way of doing it.

Some have averred that Chau’s motivation is inspiring, but his methods were flawed—at first it was observed that he did not seem to have been partnered with a missions organization. That information was incorrect in that he was commissioned by All Nations after having “studied, planned and trained rigorously since college to share the gospel with the North Sentinelese people.” Nevertheless, he was facing a significant language barrier. The language barrier that some believe to have been insurmountable is, in many ways, reminiscent of another age of missions when every language barrier appeared impossible to overcome.

Perhaps Chau was naive enough to believe that if he merely “hollered” the name of Jesus loud enough, the Sentinelese would bow the knee in faith. Perhaps it was his hope that, like in Acts 2, the Lord would ensure that they heard the message in their own language. Perhaps his was a story of youthful exuberance lacking wisdom. But have we forgotten those who settled among unreached peoples who spoke unknown languages and learned their language over time, enabling them to share with them the hope of Jesus Christ?

Is this the norm?
Certainly not.
But unreached peoples are generally unreached for good reason.

A Lesson from a Modern Martyr

However we feel about the methods used by Chau, may each of us be challenged by his willingness to go to the ends of the earth for the sake of the gospel. May we remember that the Great Commission is still our commission. We are commanded to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations (τὰ ἔθνη), baptizing them in the name of the the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that [Jesus] commanded [us]” (Matt 28:19–20).

Likewise, in Acts, Jesus promised the disciples that they would “receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you,” but then he added, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). I’m often struck by the manner we interpret this particular verse. Many of us read Jesus’s promise of the Holy Spirit and our faith in Jesus gives us assurance of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives. The substance of Jesus’s promise is clear: the Holy Spirit.

All too often, however, we miss the other promise found in the verse.

Jesus’s statement that the disciples will be his witnesses even to the ends of the earth is his promise to those who have not heard of the name and work of Jesus Christ. He is promising that the Good News is on its way. And his disciples—those in the book of Acts and those in our churches today—are the substance of that promise to the ends of the earth.

Perhaps the lesson we need to learn most from John Allen Chau—the modern martyr—is the reminder that there are still those who have not heard and it’s time for us to get back to work.

Update: Corrected information about Chau’s missions sending agency. See here for more information. HT: Regan King.

Adjunct Professor.
PhD in Theology.
Head Barista at Caffeinated Theology.
Just give me Jesus . . . and coffee.

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