A Brief Theology of Mission

The Mission
 
In constructing a theology of mission, one must start with the end.  What is God’s ultimate purpose?  The answer to this question must be the starting point for a theology of mission.  The missio
dei
 moves toward fulfillment in time through the creation and the church.  The mission of the church must not be divorced from the mission of God, lest God and His bride set their aim in different directions.  If the church is wed to God, then the bride must share in the mission of her groom.   
            God’s ultimate purpose may be clearly seen in Isaiah 48:9-11, which says, “For my name’s sake I defer my anger, for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you that I may not cut you off.  Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction.  For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned?  My glory I will not give to another.”  God shows mercy for his name’s sake.  He restrains his anger that he may be praised. God refines his people, not primarily for the people’s sake, but for his own sake.  God’s mission is God’s glory.   He does not, however, pursue his own glory at the expense of humanity.  Rather, he receives glory in his kindness toward humanity.  God’s people were spared from his wrath and glorified him for it.  Therefore, God’s pursuit of his glory is also the pursuit of mankind’s good.
            God’s pursuit of his glory in doing his people good is also evident in David’s prayer recorded in 2 Samuel 7:22-23.  David prays, “Therefore you are great, O Lord God.  For there is none like you, and there is no God besides you, according to all that we have heard with our ears.  And who is like your people Israel, the one nation on earth whom God went to redeem to be his people, making himself a name and doing for them great and awesome things by driving out before your people, whom you redeemed for yourself from Egypt, a nation and its gods?”  In this prayer, David recounts God’s mighty deeds in delivering his people from slavery in Egypt.  The reason God did this was theocentric, not anthropocentric.  God’s purpose was in “making himself a name.”
            Luke echoes the same refrain in the announcement of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds.  “And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!’” (Luke 2:10-11, 13-14).  With the birth of Jesus came the promise of joy and salvation, as well as glory and worship.
            In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explains the connection between God’s mission and the mission of His people.  “You are the light of the world.  A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.  Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).  The mission to which the church is called is to display God in such a way that others may bask in the light and glorify him.  The church’s worship, service, and evangelism are means by which God’s overarching mission is fulfilled.
God’s Righteousness and Mission
            John Piper defines God’s righteousness as “the characteristic of God‘s nature or the unswerving inclination of his will which precedes and grounds all his acts and gifts. It is his inviolable allegiance to act always for his own name’s sake—to maintain and display his own divine glory.”[1]  According to this definition, God’s righteousness is the definitive motivator for God’s mission.  Thus, Paul says that the crucifixion of Christ was necessary “to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.  It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:25-26).
            The implication is that God appeared unrighteous in his seeming failure to properly punish sin.  God allowed David to remain on Israel’s throne though he had slept with a married women, then had her husband killed.  This does not appear just and, therefore, diminishes God’s glory.  God’s missional action in the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ remedies this.  On the cross, sin is duly punished.  In the resurrection, there is the hope of all injustices being set right.  Mission, then, must address the problem of injustice from a theocentric position, rather than one of anthropocentrism.  Injustice must be dealt with because it violates God’s righteousness, not primarily because people deserve to be treated with greater dignity.
 
 
Mission and Ecclesiology
            According to Michael Goheen, the church must maintain two perspectives concerning mission.  First, the church is a major part of the story of God in redemptive history.  This part is as beneficiary of God’s missional work of redemption.[2]  God shared in the human experience in the person of Christ.  He suffered injustice.  He experienced consequences of sin.  Jesus was not only incarnate in the sense of taking on physiological humanity, but also in the condition of humanity.  Jesus experienced death in order to purchase a people for himself.  This people is the church.  Therefore, the church relates to God in mission by, first, receiving the benefits of the missionary God.
            Second, the church is called to participate in God’s mission in the world.  The church becomes the representative of Christ in the world, just as he came as God’s representative.  Goheen describes three implications God’s mission carried out through the church.  Christ is Creator.  Therefore, the church must love and care for his creation.  Christ is also the eschatological hope of his creation.  The church, then, is to demonstrate this hope in genuine, loving community.  Christ is the atoning sacrifice.  “He identified with the created world he loved but rejected the sin that had distorted it.”[3]  The church is likewise called to identify with the culture while living counter-culturally where sin has distorted God’s good intent for culture.
 
 
Mission and Pneumatology
            Jesus’ missional activity on earth was publicly initiated with his baptism. The apostle John records John the Baptist’s description of the event.  “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him” (John 1:32).  John the Baptist further adds that God said to him, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit” (John 1:33).  Leopoldo A. Sánchez expresses the importance of this event in writing, “There is enough Biblical evidence to support that “Spirit” (or more personally, “the Holy Spirit”) acts in, through, and with Jesus and, reciprocally (or perichoretically), that Jesus acts in, through, and with the Holy Spirit to accomplish the work of God the Father in the history of salvation.”[4]  The Spirit was absolutely necessary in the accomplishment of Jesus’ redemptive mission.  Just as Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit at his baptism, John says he would baptize others with the Holy Spirit.
            The church, as baptized followers of Christ, are commissioned to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).  People become participants in Christ’s mission by first participating in Christ’s baptism in the Holy Spirit. 
Mission and the Kingdom of God
            There is much talk of the kingdom of God today, especially among emerging expressions of church.  Many young pastors are emphasizing social justice issues such as human trafficking and poverty.  While such an emphasis is good and necessary, care must be taken not to divorce the kingdom of God from the mission of God.  The kingdom is not merely about alleviating human suffering, but doing so in such a way that God is glorified.  Phil Grotenhuis, quoting Al Wolters, writes, “As soon as we lose sight of the missional dimension of the Christian life, and become engaged in a drive for cultural transformation that lacks a vital connection with the person and cross of Jesus Christ, our talk of the ‘kingdom perspective’ loses authenticity, depth, and power.”[5]  A kingdom perspective that lacks the weighty foundation of God’s glory is only temporally effective.  It may alleviate some suffering in the here-and-now, but offers nothing in the way of eternal relief.
            Jesus connects in the mission of God in the pursuit of his own glory with the concept of the kingdom of God in his model prayer.  Jesus begins, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name” (Matthew 6:9).  This is God’s mission: that his name be honored.  Jesus continues, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).  Commenting on this verse, Stuart Weber writes, “Therefore, it is a prayer that we, his servants, would be faithfully obedient and effective in living his kingdom principles in our own lives and then spreading the kingdom through our actions and words.”[6]  What is the impetus for living in speaking in such a manner?  Is it not that the hallowing of God’s name serves as an active operating principle in one’s life that motivates such service so as to spread a like respect for the name of God?
 
Mission and Redemption
            Closely related to the theme of the kingdom is that of redemption.  The mission of God and his church is necessary because paradise was lost in the fall of mankind through sin.  The glory of God and his reign was evident in creation before the introduction of sin.   However, sin marred the divine image in creation all was cursed to experience difficulty, pain, frustration, and death.  Mankind sought to live as autonomous creatures, independent of Sovereign authority and thus, lacked the glory evident in the God-centered creation.
            The message of redemption that redeems humanity, and all of creation, from the devastating curse is that Jesus has performed the righteousness the righteousness that is required by God in his sinless life and the sacrificial giving of his life over to death in the place of those who believe.[7]  In this message, the glory of God is most clearly visible.  The glory of God’s justice is seen in the horrific penalty of death earned by the sin of humanity.  The glory of God’s grace is evident in his giving of a substitute on behalf of mankind to endure this penalty.  The glory of God’s wisdom is displayed as this is the only God’s holy justice and his gracious love could simultaneously be satisfied.  This is the message of the mission of God and his church.
Mission Theology and the Ministry of the Church
            A God-centered theology of mission is vital to risk-taking ministry.  Missionaries forsake their identities in their homelands in order to carry the redemptive message of God’s glory to lands that may be hostile to this message.  They need a motivating principle that produces endurance through difficulty, loneliness, and possibly even the threat of death.  Throughout history, joy in the glory of God has proven to be just such a motivator for perseverance.  Psalm 63:3 says, “The steadfast love of the Lord is better than life.”  John Piper comments, “The basis for this indomitable joy is the supremacy of God’s love above life itself.”[8]  God’s mission of achieving for himself maximum glory produces in people such a satisfaction in him that missionaries risk all that others may know the same satisfaction.
            Pastors often feel the pull toward replacing the mission of God’s glory with the mission of the “successful church.”  By no means do all succumb to this temptation, but it is there.  This temptation can lead to pragmatic sermons that address families, finances, and career, but lack the weightiness of the glory of God in the gospel.  People certainly need to hear a thoroughly biblical perspective on the issues they face in daily life.  However, a better approach than pragmatism is to explain how the glory of God in the gospel addresses every issue humanity faces.  The woes of this life are the result of sin, which alienates us from God.  Therefore, the solution to these woes is not, fundamentally, to alter behavior in order to conform to a set of principles, but to be reconciled to God.  A pastoral approach that is God-centered is the only true and lasting help for people in need of a Shepherd.
            People are busy.  Schedules are often filled to the point in which there is little or no margin for ministry.  As a result, there is often a compartmentalization of priorities in which individuals have their family lives, careers, recreation, and religious involvement.   The remedy for this is an understanding of mission and ministry as the pursuit of God’s glory in all things.  It is not necessary to schedule extra times of ministry if one views all of life as mission to be lived for the glory of God.  Ministry in this perspective may take place with co-workers, parents at a child’s soccer game, or around the kitchen table.  Mission is moved from the programmatic to regular rhythms of daily life.


     [1] Piper, John, “The Demonstration of the Righteousness of God in Romans 3:25, 26,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 7 (April, 1980): 3.
     [2] Goheen, Michael W., “’As the Father has Sent Me, So I am Sending You’: Lesslie Newbigin’s Missionary Ecclesiology,” International Review of Mission 91, no 362 (July, 2002): 358.
     [3] Ibid., 360.
     [4] Sanchez, Leopoldo A., “A Missionary Theology of the Holy Spirit: The Father’s Anointing of Christ and Its Implications for the Church in Mission,” Missio Apostolica 14, no 1 (May, 2006):
     [5] Grotenhuis, Phil, “Session Three: Extreme Makeover: A Kingdom Approach to Mission,” Mid-America Journal of Theology 19, (2008): 245.
    [6] Weber, Stuart K., Holman New Testament Commentary: Matthew, ed. Max Anders (Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing, 2000), 82.
[7] Brondos, David, “The Cross and the Curse: Galatians 3:13 and Paul’s Doctrine of Redemption,”Journal for the Study of the New Testament 81 (2001): 29.
[8] Piper, John, Let the Nations Be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993): 104.

 

 
 
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