The Biblical Context for Missions – Part 1

The following text was originally intended as a short booklet with which we could communicate to our friends and partnering churches the basic Biblical context for missions that has helped to motivate us to take part in cross-cultural ministry. Since a document sitting dormant on my hard drive for three years (that will likely never see print) does little to serve it’s intended purpose, I have decided instead to publish it here in a four part series.

Before we start, I would like to acknowledge that there are many authors with far more knowledge and certainly more eloquent writing that have tackled this subject, and my intent is not to present a complete theology of missions so much as to invite you to follow with me along the paths of God’s Word that have cultivated my heart’s longing and propelled me onward toward the goal of missions – God’s glory among the nations. If you will engage God’s word with me through this brief text, I hope you will be likewise encouraged to begin your own pursuit.

Introduction

For many years I thought the Bible’s mandate for missions was based on (or more likely extrapolated from) a few key New Testament passages like Matthew 28:18-20 (called the Great Commission) or Acts 1:8 (“to the ends of the earth”).   It is true that those passages give a clear mandate for the church to be involved in evangelizing the world, but the Bible has much more to say about missions than just a few proof passages.  My goal for this study is to show that missions is a mandate rooted in both the Old and New Testaments, initiated in the first book and culminating in the last; it is a core element of God’s interaction with humanity.1)  I will argue that God’s entire redemptive program is not primarily for our sake (though we definitely receive great benefit), but for the sake of His glory being professed by people of every nation, tribe, and language.

Two Themes

The key to approaching missions with a Biblical perspective, I believe, begins with an examination of two Biblical themes: 1) God’s glory as motivation; and 2) mankind’s blessing and resultant purpose (this will be tackled in part 2). These two themes are key to our understanding of missions because they point us toward the fact that God is the real missionary in our history.  When we grasp God’s zeal for his own glory we understand his underwriting motivation for redeeming humanity, and when we grasp God’s purpose in blessing humanity we are able to more fully comprehend our own past, present, and future role in God’s plan.

The Glory of God

See if you can finish Psalm 46:10 from memory:

“Be still, and…”

How did you do? It is no surprise that most, if not all of us, got as far as “Be still, and know that I am God.”  Those are comforting words, after all; we like the idea that we can rest in God knowing He is in control.  Probably, though, a fair number of us missed the rest of the verse: “…I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” This may seem like a minor detail (dropping the end of a familiar verse), but it begs an important question. As Christians, how aware are we of God’s motivation for acting throughout the Bible? How easy is it for us to be totally ignorant of God’s zeal for His glory, instead operating under a theology that “places man at the center and ignores God’s purpose in the world?”2 This is just one verse, but I will admit that the first time someone walked me through Psalm 46:10 like we just did, I was amazed at having so easily disregarded the context of the passage.  Psalm 46 is about God’s glory and steadfastness in the midst of Israel’s chaos; I had stolen its emphasis by making it about my comfort.  And in my theology, I found that was the norm.  I had read God’s Word extensively without ever taking note of the basic concept that in the Bible, God often declared His glory as His motivation.

Israel’s history provides us with some prime data by which we can evaluate this claim.  What was God’s motivation?  Let’s take a little quiz.

Q – Why did God call Israel out of slavery in Egypt?

A – David’s response to the Lord in 2 Samuel 7:23 (ESV) – “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?” (all emphasis mine unless noted)

Q – On their way out of Egypt, why did God save Israel from Pharaoh at the Red Sea?

A – Psalm 106:8 (ESV) – “Yet he saved them for his name’s sake, that he might make known his mighty power.”
Isaiah 63:12 – “[He] caused his glorious arm to go at the right hand of Moses, who divided the waters before them to make for himself an everlasting name.”

Q – Why did God judge Israel’s sin while they were in the wilderness?

A – Ezekiel 20:9 (ESV) – “But I acted for the sake of my name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations among whom they lived, in whose sight I made myself known to them in bringing them out of the land of Egypt.”

Q – Why did God lead and guide David as King of Israel?

A – Psalm 31:3 (ESV) – “For you are my rock and my fortress; and for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me.”

Q – Later, when Israel was in full rebellion against God, why did God delay His wrath against Israel instead of wiping them out immediately?

A – Isaiah 48:9-11 – “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 loved Israel.  He certainly intervened throughout their history in ways that brought great benefit to the nation.  But Israel (or protecting Israel from harm) was not God’s primary motivation; God’s glory was God’s primary motivation.  Steven Hawthorn applies this idea to broader humanity in his article The Story of His Glory.”3  Referring to believers saved by God’s grace, he asserts, “The ultimate value of their salvation is not to be seen in what they are saved from, it is what they are saved for that really matters.  People are saved to serve God in worship.  In this respect, we can say that world evangelization is for God” (author’s emphasis).

That God’s chief motivation is His own fame requires some justification.  Why should God be allowed to exalt himself?  Is it not the height of arrogance for God to demand worship?  To put Himself, His reputation, before even the survival of a nation?  If you or I were to go around with that sort of pride in our own worth we would be labeled a narcissist and laughed out of every room we entered (or more likely scorned out).  Why is it different for God?  I believe the following two reasons are sufficient.  First, God is the supreme thing in all the universe.  If we, as humans, are to praise something, it should be that which is most worthy of praise.  Would you not find it strange if the post-game show following the Superbowl focused primarily on the losing team – or worse, a team that didn’t even make the playoffs?  Those teams may have some merit as professional football teams – even Superbowl contenders, but everyone recognizes that the winning team should have the spotlight.   How much more would God, as the thing most worthy, be wrong to encourage the praise of anything except himself?  There is no offense in His pursuit of His glory because we should not be content to worship a lesser thing.  He is supremely worthy of praise because He is supreme.  Second, as C.S. Lewis observed, “In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.”4  I love how Michael Lawrence said it:

“But when we realize that God freely created us for his glory, we finally realize that the story of creation is fundamentally a love story.  God didn’t have to create us, but he did.  He didn’t have to create us as bearers of his image, but he did.  And in doing so, he gave us a unique ability – the ability to take joy in the highest, most beautiful, most desirable thing imaginable, the glory of God.  God himself loves nothing more than his own glory.  There is nothing better or higher to love.  There is nothing more beautiful to fall in love with.”5

God’s motivation for His glory is also His motivation for missions.  John Piper unpacked this idea in the first chapter of his book Let the Nations be Glad.  He concluded, “Missions exists because worship doesn’t.” ((John Piper, Let the Nations be Glad (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 17.)) Think about what that means. We were created to glorify God, but since Adam and Eve sinned in the garden mankind has walked through history in rebellion against Him. As a race we have exalted ourselves and laid our worship at the feet of earthy things.6 “We are half-hearted creatures,” says C.S. Lewis, “fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”7  We have lowered our standards, content to give our worship to things inherently less worthy of it.  But God is on a mission to restore our worship to its proper place (Himself), and He will see it through.  Missions exists because there are people groups8 in the world that do not worship God.  Missions will cease once all people groups are represented before God’s throne – a future event shown to the Apostle John and recorded in Revelation 7:9-10 (ESV):

“After these things I looked, and here was an enormous crowd that no one could count, made up of persons from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb dressed in long white robes, and with palm branches in their hands. They were shouting out in a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God, to the one seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”

Our history is moving steadily toward that day when God’s throne will be surrounded by men and women representing every “nation, tribe, people, and language.”  We will all praise Him, and in our praising Him, enjoy Him fully.  Our mission is for God’s glory.  Yes, a complete Biblical theology is much more complex than this single concept, but it cannot stand without it.  We must acknowledge God’s motivation if we are to understand our purpose.

Continue on with Part 2.


  1. My basic outline has been heavily influenced by Jeff Lewis’ Bible study booklet, God’s Heart for the Nations (Littleton, CO: Caleb Project, 2002 

  2. Ibid, 3. 

  3. Steven C. Hawthorne, “The Story of His Glory,” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader, 3rd ed. ed. Winter, Ralph D (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1999), 36. 

  4. Reflections on the Psalms (London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1958), 97. 

  5. Michael Lawrence, Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2010), 125. 

  6. See Romans 1:18-23 

  7. C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory. 

  8. The Lausanne Movement defines a people group as “the largest group through which the gospel can flow without encountering significant barriers of understanding and acceptance.” These barriers are typically differences in language, culture, geography, etc. 

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Jim

Jim is a husband, father, and children's book author. He is currently living on an island in Asia Pacific preparing for a church development ministry among an unreached people group.

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