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June 13, 2021

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Watchman Nee – Part I, Chinese Missionary Martyr

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Adapted from: www.watchmannee.org/ March 14, 2004, 11:00 am


Watchman Nee became a Christian in mainland China in 1920 at the age of seventeen and began writing in the same year. Throughout the nearly thirty years of his ministry, Watchman Nee was clearly manifested as a unique gift from the Lord to His Body for His move in this age. In 1952 he was imprisoned for his faith; he remained in prison until his death in 1972. His words remain an abundant source of spiritual revelation and supply to Christians throughout the world.

God’s Dynamic Salvation Work
Beginning in the sixteenth century, many Protestant missionaries were sent to China from Europe and America. In the opening years of the twentieth century, following centuries of faithful labor and catalyzed by the martyrdom of many Christians in the Boxer Rebellion, the Lord’s move in China advanced dramatically. Many “native” preachers were raised up by the Lord and became prevailing in gospel preaching, especially around 1920 among China’s new generation of high school and college students. A number of brilliant students, among whom was Nee Shu-tsu (Watchman Nee), were called and equipped by the Lord to do His work during this time.

Nee Shu-tsu, whose English name was Henry Nee, was born of second-generation Christian parents in Foochow, China in 1903. His paternal grandfather, in fact, had studied at the American Congregational College in Foochow and became the first Chinese pastor among the Congregationalists in northern Fukien province. Nee Shu-tsu had been consecrated to the Lord before his birth. Desiring a son, his mother had prayed to the Lord, “If I have a boy, I will present him to You.” The Lord answered her prayer, and soon afterward Nee Shu-tsu was born. His father later impressed on him, “Before you were born, your mother promised to present you to the Lord”.

Prior to his salvation Nee Shu-tsu was an ill-behaved student, yet he was also exceptionally intelligent. He always ranked first in his class as well as in his school, from elementary school through his graduation from Anglican Trinity College in Foochow. He had many grand dreams and plans for the future and could have had great success in the world. Yet Nee Shu-tsu, acquainted with the gospel since childhood, had the deep realization that if he received Jesus as his Lord for salvation he must also serve Him. In 1920, after a considerable struggle, seventeen-year-old Nee Shu-tsu, still a high school student, was dynamically saved. At the moment of his salvation, all his previous planning became void and his future career was entirely abandoned. He testified, “From the evening I was saved, I began to have a new life, for the life of the eternal God had entered into me”. Later, after being raised up by the Lord to carry out His commission, he adopted the new English name Watchman and the new Chinese name To-sheng, which means “watchman’s rattle,” for he considered himself a watchman raised up to sound a warning call in the dark night.

Equipping and Training
Watchman Nee attended no theological schools or Bible institutes. His wealth of knowledge concerning God’s purpose, Christ, the things of the Spirit, and the church was acquired through studying the Bible and reading spiritual books. Watchman Nee became intimately familiar with and greatly enlightened by the Word through diligent study using twenty different methods. In addition, in the early days of his ministry he spent one-third of his income on his personal needs, one-third on helping others, and the remaining third on spiritual books. He acquired a collection of more than 3,000 of the best Christian books, including nearly all the classical Christian writers from the first century on. He had a phenomenal ability to select, comprehend, discern, and memorize relevant material, and he could grasp and retain the main points of a book at a glance. Watchman Nee was thus able to glean all the profitable scriptural points and spiritual principles from throughout church history and synthesize them into his vision and practice of the Christian life and of the church life. Watchman Nee received much enlightenment and help from a number of Christian writers, as follows:

Specific Enlightenment Source

1. The assurance of salvation – George Cutting, a Brethren writer
2. Life – John Bunyan’s Pilgram’s Progress, Madame Guyon’s biography, Hudson Taylor’s biography, other writings
3. Christ – J.G. Bellett, Charles G. Trumbull, A.B. Simpson, T. Austin Sparks, others
4. The Spirit – Andrew Murray’s “The Spirit of Christ”
5. The Three Parts of Man (body, soul, and spirit) – Jessie Penn-Lewis, Mary C. McDonough
6. Faith – George Müller’s autobiography
7. Abiding in Christ – Andrew Murray, Hudson Taylor’s biography
8. The subjective aspect of Christ’s death and spiritual warfare – Jessie Penn-Lewis
9. Christ’s resurrection and His Body – T. Austin Sparks, others
10. God’s plan of redemption – Mary McDonough
11. The church – John Nelson Darby, other Brethren teachers
12. Prophecy – Robert Govett, D.M. Panton, G.H. Pember, other Brethren writers
13. Church history – John Foxe, E.H. Broadbent, others
14. Bible exposition and many other truths, in general – John Nelson Darby, the Brethren

Watchman Nee became familiar with many of these books through Margaret Barber, a former Anglican missionary. Early in his Christian life he received much spiritual edification and perfection from her. Primarily through his fellowship with Miss Barber, Watchman Nee realized that to be a Christian is altogether a matter of the divine life. Through her shepherding, he learned to pay more attention to life than to work and to live by Christ as his life.

Revelation and Living
Through his fellowship with Miss Barber and others, along with his study of the Bible and numerous spiritual books, Watchman Nee received a wealth of revelation. He was truly a seer of the divine revelation. The core of his revelation was threefold: it concerned (1) the living of a crucified life, (2) the living of a resurrected life, and (3) the issue of such a living, the church. Related to the crucified life, he saw and experienced the subjective aspects of Christ’s death. He realized that he had been crucified with Christ, that it was no longer he that lived, but Christ Who lived in him. He also realized that in order to experience the death of Christ in a subjective way, he needed to bear the cross. Although he had been crucified with Christ in fact, he also had to remain in Christ’s crucifixion in his experience. He learned that to remain in Christ’s crucifixion was to bear the cross by refusing to allow the old man or the flesh to leave the cross. He realized that in order for him to have such an experience, God must sovereignly arrange his environment, making it a practical cross for him to bear. This is exactly what God did throughout Watchman Nee’s life.

From the very beginning of his ministry, God arranged numerous situations in which he had the opportunity to deny the self and the natural life by bearing the cross and living by Christ as his life. Watchman Nee saw that he had not only died with Christ, but had also risen with Him. The resurrected Christ with the fullness of the Spirit had become his life. It was by the resurrection life of the indwelling Christ that he was able to bear the cross and to participate in the fellowship of His sufferings and be conformed to His death. By the resurrection life of Christ, he abandoned the world, forsook his future, denied himself, was freed from sin, and overcame Satan. It was also by the resurrection life of Christ that he served the Lord, worked for Him, and carried out His commission. His contemporaries bore witness to the fact that he consistently rejected his natural strength in the Lord’s service. He feared the intrusion of his natural life into the Lord’s work; he therefore dared not minister apart from the indwelling Christ. In delivering messages, contacting people, writing articles, corresponding with the believers, and in mundane matters, he acted not by himself but by the resurrection life. It was by living such a resurrection life that he was able to pass through his extended martyrdom of twenty years’ imprisonment, which culminated in death.

Watchman Nee went on to see that the church as the Body of Christ was simply the enlargement, expansion, and expression of the resurrected Christ. His vision that Christ in resurrection was the life and content of the church was far advanced. According to this vision, he not only ministered by the resurrected Christ, but he also ministered the resurrected Christ Himself to the believers for the building up of His Body. He frequently emphasized the fact that anything which is not Christ in resurrection is not the church, and anything not done by the resurrected Christ is a foreign element in the Body. He desired to serve the church with nothing but the resurrected Christ. The more his ministry progressed, the more he ministered the resurrected Christ to the believers and to the local churches. The resurrected Christ became not only his life and living, but also his message and ministry.

Burden and Commission
The divine revelation which Watchman Nee saw resulted in the Lord’s twofold burden and commission to him: first, to bear a particular testimony of the Lord Jesus, and second, to establish local churches. The first burden and commission arose from his personal depth of knowledge and experience of Christ’s all-inclusive death and resurrection. The Lord specifically burdened and commissioned him to bear testimony to this truth. He faithfully responded to this burden by releasing a number of spoken and written messages on the subjective aspect of the Lord’s crucifixion and resurrection, on the principles of life, on the supremacy of Christ, and on God’s eternal purpose.

However, Watchman Nee’s ultimate burden was not just to elevate the individual believers’ experience of Christ, but to establish and build up the practical corporate expression of Christ in the local churches for the satisfaction of God’s desire. This was the ultimate commission he received from the Lord based on what he had seen and experienced of Him. His personal testimony recorded on October 20, 1936 described this commission:
What the Lord revealed to me was extremely clear: Before long He would raise up local churches in various parts of China. Whenever I closed my eyes, the vision of the birth of local churches appeared…

When the Lord called me to serve Him, the primary objective was not to hold revival meetings, help people hear more scriptural doctrines, or for me to become a great evangelist. The Lord revealed to me that He desired to build up local churches in various places to manifest Himself and to bear the testimony of unity on the ground of the local churches. In this way, each saint [believer] is able to function in the church and live the church life. What God wants is not individuals trying to be victorious or spiritual; He wants a corporate glorious church presented to Himself.

Three Parts: Continued Part II – His Suffering