Ministry in the Pit
You may have heard the story of Jim Elliot, a Christian missionary who was killed with four others while trying to evangelize the Hourani people of Ecuador in 1956. Elliot knew going in that the Hourani were known as a violent and dangerous people who did not want to be bothered by outsiders. Despite calls by his parents, his wife, and others to stay in the United States and pursue youth ministry, Elliot said that he felt called to international missions.
Elliot had already spent three years in Ecuador successfully taking the gospel to the Quechua tribes. All the while, he continued to hear about the Hourani tribe and the difficulty other missionaries had experienced in reaching them with the Good News of Jesus.
They primed the Houranis for their visit by spending several months airdropping gifts from a small plane—food for the people, toys for the children, and kitchen utensils for the women. In time, they set up a base not far from the Hourani camp. They even gave an airplane ride to one tribal member who was curious about this strange flying machine.
On January 8, 1956, two tribesmen approached Elliot and four other missionaries saying they, too, were interested in a plane ride. But it was all a setup. While they were talking to the two, the missionaries were ambushed by ten other tribesmen armed with spears.
After the story became widely known through an article in Life magazine, it seems as if the Hourani people had a change of heart. Missionaries were allowed to come and amazingly, even Jim Elliot’s wife, Elisabeth, went to Ecuador to continue the evangelization of the Hourani tribes. How much courage did it take for her to return to the place and the people who murdered her husband in cold blood?
Ministry in hard places. Going where God calls you to go. I think of Keith Gafner in Kenya, who in 2008 had to abandon his home because of violence against Christians. Ten members of churches of Christ were killed there in post-election violence.
In our Sunday morning series, Joseph has found himself in some hard places. First in a cistern where his brothers held him captive before selling him to a caravan of Ishmaelite slave traders, then in a dungeon beneath the home of Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard.
In Jerusalem, our tour group was taken to a similar dungeon under the home of Caiaphas the high priest. (Today, a Catholic church known as St. Peter Gallicantu sits over the pit.) It is well attested that Jesus was held in this pit while awaiting trial before the Sanhedrin.
Today, the pit is well lit for tourists. In Jesus' day, it would’ve been so dark you couldn’t see. It’s a pit under a house! A place where there would be weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth. Not really a place you would expect ministry to happen.
And yet, ministry is exactly what happened in Joseph’s prison. The last verse of Genesis 39 says that Joseph wins the favor of the jailor and is put in charge of all the prisoners. One morning, Joseph notices that two of his cellmates, a butler and a baker, are even more down in the dumps than usual. Joseph cares enough to ask them the reason for their fallen faces. I find that amazing. He has enough problems of his own. Why care at all about the depression of others? I mean, it’s a prison!
They explain that they’ve both had disturbing dreams. Joseph says, “Well, I have a little experience with dreams and the God I worship holds their interpretations. Let me hear them.”
They recount their dreams, Joseph provides their God-given interpretations, and in three days, what Joseph said would happen actually happens. The butler is restored to the service of Pharaoh and the baker is beheaded and impaled on a sharp stick.
He had asked the butler to remember him after the butler was reinstated. Alas, the butler forgot all about Joseph. I’m convinced that instead of balling up in a corner and crying, Joseph continued his ministry to the other prisoners.
You and I will have opportunities to minister in hard places. Instead of a foreign nation, it might be in your own home with a family member. It might be at the bedside of a fellow church member during sickness or as they pass from this life. It might be at a funeral home as you comfort the widow of a friend. Who knows where God will call you to reflect Jesus?
I love Paul’s attitude about his imprisonment in Rome. Chained between two Roman guards and probably with his feet in stocks, Paul says, “Because of my imprisonment, the Gospel is advancing! The whole imperial guard and all of my fellow inmates have heard the Good News of Jesus! Preachers are so emboldened by my situation that they are preaching the Gospel more fervently and without fear! Isn’t this wonderful!”
Many people in our world today are in the pits—depressed, fearful, and worried about COVID-19, violence in the streets, loss of freedom, and who knows what else. What message are we sending by our words, our actions, and our demeanor?
May we have only one message: JESUS IS LORD OF ALL.
“Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life” (Philippians 2:14-16).