I have just published my second Grove booklet of the summer: What is the New Testament’s Vision of Mission? Here I offer the introduction and conclusion; the intermediate chapters explore some key passages in the NT which give insight into mission theology and practice.
Does the New Testament have a vision of mission? At one level, no; our Bibles are a collection of diverse writings from many contexts written by a whole range of different human authors, so it would be problematic to suggest that this collection could have a single intension or vision. Yet the collection of these writings into one ‘canon’ of Scripture claims that they have a theological coherence, visible despite their diversity. They describe the action of God in relation to his people and to the wider world, and if they are a true testimony to God, God’s own unity of purpose and action will be visible here.
But Scripture is always ready to surprise us, and we need repeatedly to return to the vision set out here, since (God says) ‘my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways’ (Isa 55.8). The first and biggest surprise that it has for us is that, despite the importance of ‘mission’ as an idea in Christian ministry, the word (in the sense we normally use it) doesn’t occur anywhere in the Bible!
This is because ‘mission’ is an abstract noun, and most often the Bible deals with concrete actions. And the term is derived from the Latin missio, the act of sending someone, which in turn derives from the verb mittere, meaning ‘to release, let go, send or throw.’ This gives us our way in to understanding what Scripture says about mission: God is constantly ‘sending’ people. This connects with the common use of the term ‘mission’ in the world around us; it is most often used as the title of a task give to someone to accomplish by another person who has a larger goal (‘This is your mission, if you are willing to accept it: to…’).
So, before turning to our New Testament passages for taking soundings and samplings, we need to understand the broader picture of ‘mission’ that we find across the whole canon of Scripture.
The Beginning of Mission
The story of God forming his people Israel starts with God’s call to Abraham: ‘Go from your country, your land and your father’s household to the land I will show you…’ (Gen 12.1). This involves a sharp disruption in his situation, relationships and occupation—though continuing a journey that his father Terah failed to complete (Gen 11.31). God doesn’t specify exactly where Abraham will end up, and is commissioning him for a task that seems humanly impossible—both of which will demand that Abraham trusts God like never before.
With the call of Abraham, we are immediately introduced to a vital dynamic of mission for the people of God: it is about them, but this is a means to the wider end of God’s reaching out to the whole world.
And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonours you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed (Gen 12.2–3).
There is some ambiguity here about the nature and means of blessing. But it is striking that, at the outset of God’s call to Abraham, God sets before him a much bigger vision of what God intends to do. It is a bigger vision that, through the biblical narrative, his people struggle to keep hold of.
The same pattern is seen in God’s call to Moses hundreds of years later. The offspring of Abraham have grown numerous, in fulfilment of God’s promise, but are enslaved in Egypt. Once more, God disrupts Moses’ situation and relationships to send him ‘to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt’ (Exodus 3.10). Moses will no longer be tending sheep but leading God’s people, and every stage of the task looks humanly impossible. This time the commission includes proclaiming God’s words, both to Pharaoh and to the people themselves.
Once more, Moses is offered a wider vision of the task for the people of God: ‘Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ (Exod 19.5–6). Though Israel are a distinct people, God never takes his eye off the wider world. And what is the task of a priest? To represent God to others, and others to God. If Israel is to be a ‘kingdom of priests’, then they must be the place where the wider world encounters God, and God is able to speak to them.
Judges and Prophets
Even when settled in the promised land, the people need saving from those who oppress them, and God sends ‘judges’ or leaders to rescue them, including Deborah, Gideon and Samson (Judges 4, 6 and 13). The means of commissioning follows no obvious formula; Deborah appears already to be an established leader of the nation (Judges 4.4), whilst Gideon experiences an extended call and commission. But the theological pattern is clear and consistent: the people cry to God; God hears their cry; God sends a rescuer (see Judges 6.7–8).
A similar pattern is seen in the long line of prophets. Many (like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel) recount specific experiences of God’s call and commission, which often features the discontinuity that Abraham faced. In his enigmatic statement that ‘I am not a prophet nor the son of a prophet’ (Amos 7.14) Amos is making clear that his mission to call God’s people back to God’s law arises from God’s intention and not his own. Whilst many prophets are ‘sent’ to their own context and people, Jonah is sent on a literal journey—though once more the impetus comes from God’s concern for people who need to hear of his judgement and mercy.
And again, the bigger vision of God’s purposes makes itself felt. In the first part of Isaiah, the prophet’s vision of God’s judgement, purification, and restoration cannot be expressed without this resulting in a global, even cosmic transformation:
On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever (Isa 25.7–8)
And this big picture is integral to the hope of the return from exile in the second part of the prophet:
It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth (Isa 49.6).
The salvation of God’s Israel is never for their sake alone.
The New Mission
God’s sending of people to rescue his people marks the opening of the gospel narratives, in the ministries of both John the Baptist (‘I send my messenger…’ Mark 1.2; ‘you will go before the Lord…’ Luke 1.76) and Jesus. Jesus is ‘thrown’ (ballo) by the Spirit into the desert, and the Spirit then sends him to ministry in Galilee before he determines to complete his mission, ‘setting his face’ to go to Jerusalem (Luke 9.51). As Jesus has been sent, so he sends others—first the Twelve, then the 72 (Luke 9, 10). Here, mission is not about ‘seeing what God is doing and joining in’, but seeing what God (Jesus) wants to do, but cannot until those he sends go and proclaim the good news in word and deed ‘in all the places Jesus wanted to go’ (Luke 10.1)
The Hebrew terminology of halach (‘go’) and shalach (‘send’) is now replaced by the Greek terminology (respectively) of poreuomai and apostello, from which we get the word ‘apostle’. As Jesus was sent by the Father, so he sends his disciples (John 17.18, 20.21) to proclaim the message of divine love and rescue. In John 20.17 Mary is sent, as ‘apostle to the apostles’, to tell the others that Jesus is alive, so that they might then tell others who in turn pass on the good news. Peter is then ‘sent’ to his own people the Jews, whilst Paul is ‘sent’ to the Gentiles, as before on the initiative of God’s own call and commission (Acts 13.2). All this is summed up in the Great Commission: ‘Go and make disciples of all nations’ (Matt 28.19).
The Mission of God
God continually reaches out to his world, and most often does this by calling, commissioning, releasing, sending and even sometimes throwing his people into the task of proclaiming the good news of his invitation to be saved from judgement. This is what it means to be ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic’ church. Tim Dearborn sums it up well:
It is not the church of God that has a mission in the world, but the God of mission who has a church in the world. The church’s involvement in mission is its privileged participation in the actions of the triune God. (Beyond Duty: A Passion for Christ, a Heart for Mission p 2)
Seeing this pattern in the whole sweep of Scripture now gives us a context for sampling from the New Testament in order to understand its particular understanding of mission in the light of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. It alerts us to these key themes of
- the sovereign initiative of God;
- his response to the cry of his people;
- the disruption that his missionary activity creates; and
- the dynamics of going and being sent.
And where, in the Old Testament, the primary focus was often on God’s distinct, ethnic people Israel, we now see the wider vision of reaching the nations coming to the fore. The nations are blessed as they come ‘from the east and west and recline at table with Abraham’ (Matt 8.11) through faith in Jesus. Those who were ‘not a people’ are now part of the ‘chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation’ in Jesus (1 Peter 2.9). The grace of God has spilled out over one ethnic group, so that the Israel of God is now from ‘every nation, tribe, people and language’ (Rev 7.9).
Questions for Reflection
- Do you see yourself and community as people with a mission—or do you understand yourself as a part of God’s mission for which you are the people?
- What experience do you have of being ‘sent’ or ‘going’? Does this always need to involve physical movement?
- In what ways is your own story of faith the fruit of missional activity? What difference does it make seeing yourself in this way?
- What might it mean to have a much bigger vision of mission beyond your own immediate context? How can you engage with this wider picture?
These passages offer substantial material for reflection on our approach to and practice of mission today. There are repeated themes, which need to shape both our motives and our methods.
Time and again, the spreading of good news and the invitation for outsiders to become insiders is presented as primarily the work of God. As we engage in mission, we are being caught up in the purposes of God for the whole of his creation, and in neither the protection nor promulgation of an institution or belief system. In the first creation, God’s command was ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ through marrying and having children (Gen 1.28); in the new creation, God’s command is ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ through joining together in testimony and proclamation, and seeing people come to new birth in the kingdom.
Mission movements in the past have been formed and motivated by a sense of urgency of the imminent return of Jesus, but in these passages we see a different sense of urgency. This is indeed an ‘eschatological’ task, not because of the ticking of a clock, but because this is God’s eschatological goal for the world—for all creation to praise his name.
This means that the work of mission is empowered by the end-times gift of the Holy Spirit to the people of God. It is the Spirit who is the director of mission, and the one who gives us confidence to speak of the love of God in the person of Jesus. Without this, there will be no lasting fruit.
Though we must surely learn from our experience and reflection, mission must never be reduced to techniques. There are right and wrong ways to sow and to water, and we need to sow and water well, but it is God who gives the growth.
In different ways, all these texts points to God using the whole of the diverse community of the people of God—diverse in their ethnicity, sex, class, wealth, piety, and context, but completely unified in their confidence in God and their belief in Jesus. The proclamation of Jesus cannot be separated from practical action, offering people ‘release’ of every kind. But practical action cannot be separated from proclamation either; the kingdom of God is not mere social service.
And our proclamation of God’s call to repent and believe cannot be separated from judgement. Once people have heard, then there is judgement involved because the message demands a response of one kind or another. Mission does not require all people to think well of us; indeed, if our message is not controversial, divisive, and even at times offensive, then we have not proclaimed the ‘whole counsel of God’ (Acts 20.27).
Mission does involve ‘broadcasting’, that is, large-scale and public activity, but it is never without the small, the local, and the private. It involves speaking with confidence and clarity about the person of Jesus, but leaving people wanting more and intrigued, rather than giving them a taster ‘inoculation’ which they think is enough on its own: ‘We want to hear more about this’ (Acts 17.32).
You can order the booklet from the Grove website, post-free in the UK or as a PDF e-book.