A Biblical Theology of Missions

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A Biblical Theology of Missions

The church is at the heart of God’s mission, existing as both a product of and a people of mission. The church is a product of God’s mission to bring together a people from all nations, tribes, and tongues. At the same time, the church is a people of mission, sent out into the world to manifest and proclaim the saving grace of God.

The church is a community with a divine mission. To be a part of the church is to participate in the grand purpose of God. It is a mission that spans all time, having its roots in the eternal counsels of God. From the opening chapters of Genesis, God’s mission is unveiled. Though greater clarity comes with further revelation, God’s original purpose is never contradicted or set aside.

Israel’s Mission

God’s mission does not begin with the church, but with Israel. The mission is stated in the call of Abram in Genesis 12. Although not commonly recognized by most Christians, Winter & Hawthorne note that “the commission to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3 has the basic functional elements as the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20.”[1]

The immediate context of Genesis 12:1-3 is the “Table of the Seventy Nations” representing the entire world (Genesis 10-11). These nations are the “families of the earth” mentioned in Genesis 12:3. These nations are a crucial component of God’s call to Abram. Their blessing is wrapped up in the divine blessings given to Abram and his descendants – the nation of Israel. Thus, their destiny is directly connected to the story of Israel.

Genesis 10, with its passage listing the table of nations, is important for understanding the universal motif of the Old Testament… The nations are not mere decorations incidental to the real drama between God and man; rather, the nations — that is, mankind as a whole — are part of the drama itself. God’s work and activity are directed at the whole of humanity.[2]

God’s design is to bring blessing to the entire world through the means of one man and the nation that springs from his loins. This theme is prominent in Genesis 12:1-3 in which God’s desire to “bless” is mentioned five times. In the larger context of Genesis, this blessing alludes to God’s original blessing given to the animals and Adam and Eve in Paradise (Genesis 1:22, 28). Though Adam falls into sin, God’s original decision to bless humanity continues in his desire to bless Abram, and through Abram, the whole world. Put most simply, God’s blessing of a particular man (Abram) resulting in a particular nation (Israel) is ultimately designed to bring blessing to all people and all nations. According to Paul, God’s ancient promise to bless all the nations through Israel is identical with the present gospel that he proclaims (Galatians 3:8). From Paul’s vantage point, the blessing to the nations had arrived through Abram’s seed, not simply through the nation of Israel corporately, but through the person of Jesus particularly.

Ultimately, God’s call to Abram reveals that divine blessing will come through Abram’s “seed” (Genesis 12:7; 13:15; 15:5, 18; 17:7, 19; 22:17-18). According to Paul, Jesus is “the seed” (Galatians 3:16). In the larger context of Genesis, this connects directly with the war between two seeds – the woman’s seed and the serpent’s seed – wherein the woman’s seed ultimately triumphs over the serpent’s seed (Genesis 3:15). This protoevangelium is the seed of the gospel that comes to full bloom in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.

In the giving of the law, God takes the nation of Israel as his “own possession among all the peoples” in order that they might be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6). “It is here that Israel’s missionary role became explicit, if any doubt had remained. The whole nation was to function on behalf of the kingdom of God in a mediatorial role in relation to the nations.”[3] This same language is applied to the Church in 1 Peter 2:9, demonstrating that God’s mission continues through the church to the entire world.

Israel’s mission is recognized in the many Psalms that call the nations to submit to the one true God. Psalm 67, in particular, reminds Israel that they experience blessing in order to be a channel of blessing to others. The song was sung at the Feast of Pentecost celebrating the ingathering of the previous year’s harvest — a great time of thanksgiving in recognition of God’s blessing. But the focus of the Psalm is not on the harvest or personal blessing, but rather, on God’s purpose in blessing Israel. God blesses Israel as a means to blessing the nations.

Incorporating a modified version of the Aaronic blessing (Numbers 6:24-26), Israel receives a particular blessing for the purpose of universal praise (Psalm 67:1-2). This leads to a series of requests for the nations to praise God (Psalm 67:3-5). The Psalm climaxes with Israel’s recognition that the blessing of Israel is ultimately for the sake of the nations (Psalm 67:6-7).

Though this theme is prominent in the Psalms, Israel did not always implement this truth well. The book of Jonah reveals a prophet who is unwilling to speak the message of God to a foreign nation for fear that God may actually show mercy to them. This prophetic book is “important for catching a glimpse of the deep resistance this mandate encounters from the very servant Yahweh has chosen to discharge his worldwide work.” [4] Jonah is the exact opposite of an apostle (31). He does not desire to be sent as a blessing to the nations. His disobedient response is a miniature picture of Israel’s failure to live out her calling to the surrounding nations. Like Jonah, God in his sovereign wisdom still uses Israel, in spite of her sin, as a means to bring blessing to the world (see Romans 9 – 11).

In spite of all Israel’s resistance and rebellion, a prominent theme in the Prophets is that all the nations will know that Yahweh is Lord (Ezekiel 36:22-23, 27; 38:23; 39:7; Zechariah 2:11).

The Church's Mission

The Church is given the same mission assigned to Israel with one key difference. The emphasis on ethnic particularity is abandoned. The seed (Jesus) has come from the seed (Israel) of Abraham. The agent of blessing is Jesus Christ. The blessing now goes out to all the nations through the church of Jesus Christ empowered by the Spirit.

Matthew 28:18-20, commonly called “the Great Commission,” is the New Testament equivalent of the call to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3. It summarizes the core components of the Church’s mission to the world.

Through his death and resurrection, Christ possesses all authority in every sphere (“in heaven and earth”). This is a direct allusion to Daniel 7:14:

And to Him was given dominion, glory and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations, and [men of every] language might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion which will not pass away; and His kingdom is one which will not be destroyed.

His Kingdom is comprehensive (“all authority,” “all nations,” “all that I’ve commanded you,” “all the days”), therefore, the church’s mission is comprehensive. Like Israel before, the church is comprised of a particular people blessed by God in order to be channels of blessing to the entire world. The church, the new covenant community of God, is the new nation – the new salt, light, and city set on a hill, given the commission of Israel to be a light to the nations (Matthew 5:13-16).

The call is summarized in the mandate to “make disciples” – pupils, students, learners, followers of Christ. This is done through baptism and teaching. Through baptism into the triune name of God, people are initiated into the covenant community through personal identification and association with the living God. Through faithful obedience to Christ’s teaching, Christ’s disciples follow him, demonstrating their allegiance through faithful works of love, mercy, and truth.

The commission is given to the entire church. Therefore, every member of the covenant community is to be involved in God’s mission. The church is thus a result of mission and the instrument of mission. Jesus’ promise to “build his church” (Matthew 16:18) comes to fruition through the faithful, loving service of the church who continue his mission into the future, unto the end of the age.

The culmination of human history will involve the full fruition of God’s eternal purpose to bless the world. One of the great heavenly visions of the book of Revelation is the vision of an assembly of people from the entire world:

After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands… (Revelation 7:9)

From the beginning, God’s created the cosmos as a place for his holy habitation. Original creation is designed as a “cosmic temple” in which humankind will worship and serve the living God. Human sin defiles God’s creation. After the fall of humankind, the tabernacle and temple become the focal point of God’s presence among his people (Deuteronomy 12:5; Exodus 25:8). In the New Testament, the people of God become carriers of the presence of God, being the “temple of God.” In the consummation, the heavens and earth will again become God’s cosmic temple where his glory is central. A redeemed and new humanity consisting of people from every nation will worship and serve God in a restored cosmos. It is this vision that motivates the people of God to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations.

Participating in Mission

The church is a community with a mission. The entire church is given the responsibility to carry out God’s mission. In light of this, we must radically revise our understanding of missions. Mission is not simply for specialty groups or experts. Neither is missions simply an overseas issue. Every facet of the church’s life should promote the mission of God, both locally and abroad.

For this reason, splitting up the church into categories such as “pastors,” “missionaries,” and “laypeople” may not ultimately be helpful in fulfilling God’s mission. Likewise, dividing believers into “goers” and “senders” is a potentially misleading distinction, for it tends to take the pressure off the “senders” and place all of the responsibility for actual mission on the “goers.”

All of God’s people are “goers” in whatever circumstance they find themselves in – sent into the world as channels of God’s blessing. In this way, the church is an “apostolic community,” a community sent into the world to proclaim and live the gospel for the good of all. Every believer is called to take part in this great work.

The church is not merely an institution existing for personal self-improvement. It is the Spirit-created missional community of God – God's missionary people. God’s people are “God-bearers” to the world. Jesus’ promise to build his church is not the end of the story, but the beginning. Jesus will build his church by his Spirit through his disciples!

Jesus’ presence is found in the midst of his missional community: “I will be with you always.” This is where Jesus is most noticeably present in this world. This is how the mission will be accomplished. And the task will not change. It is the church’s call “until the end of the age.”

If the church desires to know Christ's presence, it must be involved in Christ’s mission. “If many Christians have lost a sense of Jesus' presence and purpose among them, it may be because they have lost sight of the mission their Lord has given them.”[5] The church has no guarantee of Christ’s presence if it won’t obey his commission. Christ's presence is known in the midst of a faithful, obedient, missional community.

Mission is not something separate from the essence of the church. “The essential nature of the local congregation is, in and of itself, mission, or else the congregation is not really the church.”[6]

The church exists as a result of mission and for the sake of mission. If we seek to know the presence, power, and pleasure of God, we must commit to being a faithful, obedient, disciplined community in order to fulfill Jesus' mission.

[1]  Ralph Winter and Steven Hawthorne, eds., Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader (New & Revised Edition). (Waynesboro, Georgia: Gabriel Resources, 2003), xv.

[2]  Ibid., 27.

[3] Walter C. Kaiser, Mission in the Old Testament: Israel as a Light to the Nations. Baker Book House, 2003, 13.

[4]  Winters and Hawthorne, Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, 30.

[5] Craig Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), 720-721.

[6]  Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 320.

1 Comment

Right on.

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