Lessons from the Xi’an Stela

In the 1600’s AD, Roman Catholic missionaries forged their way to China, seeking to reach this massive “unreached” people with the gospel. To their great surprise, they learned that they were about 700-800 years late. The Xi’an Stela (a stela is a stone monument, often with an inscription), erected in 781 AD, records the positive reception of the gospel by the Chinese emperor 150 years earlier, in 635 AD.

Nestorian missionaries had come all the way from Syria to share the gospel. Their names are lost to history. And it is important to note that the Nestorians’ theology about the nature of Christ was incorrect. Yet under that emperor, Christianity flourished. Until 845 AD, when Christianity was banished. The stela was buried, for centuries. In 987 AD, a writer in Baghdad recorded a conversation with a returning monk from China, who grieved that there were no more Christians left in China - the persecution had been brutal.

This is just one of a thousand stories like this, in the history of the church. I would like to note a few lessons:

We are rarely “first on the scene”. Only the apostles can always lay claim to that. Whether it is a people group, or your friend, Someone Else is always, already “on the scene”. The wise and humble look first for evidences of this preexisting work, by the Spirit.

Yet the Spirit often works through flawed vessels. We can quite correctly rebuke the Nestorians for their flawed doctrine of the nature of Christ. That matters. A great deal. And yet, how shall we compare their missionary zeal to ours?

What drove them, to cross such distances, knowing they would most likely never see their families again. Not in a month, or six months - ever again. What risks! What will the Chinese emperor say to our message? The positive reception of the gospel by the Chinese is a beautiful picture that, you just never know. In a world where God is sovereign, where, if God chooses, it’s gonna happen, then you just never know. So take the chance. Go, speak. A Chinese dynasty in the 600’s was changed, because the church in Syria did just that.

But it did not last. The church has never lived in “home territory”. This world will be our inheritance - but not yet. Until then, great successes are open to grievous reversals. In this “day of tribulation”, our successes are never ultimate, and yet our defeats are never fatal. God builds His Church. Through anonymous, hope-filled risk-takers. Like us?