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. This is the fourth of a four part series.
In Part 3 of this series I made the argument that God’s program with Israel served a dual purpose: Israel was blessed as God’s special possession, and that blessing was ultimately to extend to the nations. We also looked at how, unfortunately, the nation of Israel up until the time of the gospels had so far failed this task. But then came Jesus…
Jesus Christ as Savior of the World
The gospels proclaim that Jesus was the anticipated Messiah, the Christ (lit. “anointed one”) of God. He had come to fulfill all that the scriptures had predicted pertaining to Israel and the nations. Unfortunately, the Christ turned out to be quite difficult for Israel to recognize. The years of harsh and humiliating submission to foreign conquerors had led the nation into the expectation that he would come foremost as a military genius, marching on Jerusalem to overthrow Caesar’s grasp of their land. He was expected to usher in the glorious kingdom of God with a rod of iron, reigning on David’s throne for eternity.
Yet when he arrived on the scene, it was not as the conquering king, but a suffering servant. This was completely unexpected among Israel. Despite the proclamation of angels (Luke 2:8-20), the affirmation of prophets (Luke 2:25-38), the appearance of John the Baptist as the forerunner (Matthew 3:1-12; Mark 1:1-8; Luke 3; John 1:15-31), the audible words of God (Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:32-34), Jesus personally identifying himself with messianic prophecies (Matthew 11:1-6; Luke 4:14-21), and hundreds, if not thousands, of validating signs and miracles, Israel failed to recognize her king. It is easy to scoff at what appears to be so obvious, but Israel’s error was one we are equally capable of making. Egocentric theology had led them to an unbalanced understanding of scripture. They had focused for so long on what they would get from God that God’s heart for the nations gradually slipped out of view. Like a horse wearing blinders, all they could see was their own redemption; but Jesus had arrived with the Father’s agenda, of broader scope and greater impact than they could imagine. It was not the Jews only that needed redemption. He had come as the savior of the world.
The result, as we know, was the rejection of Jesus by his own people. Israel turned against her king, and then turned him over to the Romans to have him executed. But to the glory of God, the atrocity committed by that generation of Israel was the same act that allowed God to pour out His grace on the world. This was the plan all along! Through his death, burial, and resurrection, Jesus Christ secured for all mankind the blessing spoken of to Adam – the chance to join men and women across the globe in worship around the throne of the glorious God. The invitation was opened to all who will believe.
Numerous gospel passages illuminate the global aspect of Jesus Christ’s ministry. The most recognizable are:
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” (John 3:16-17,NASB)
“Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.’” (John 8:12, NASB)
“And they were saying to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this One is indeed the Savior of the world.’” (John 4:42, NET)
The Christ who died is the one who paved the way for the nations to know God. He is the savior of the world, the perfect mediator between men and God, and the fulfillment of the blessing to the nations. But he is not done yet. In the days following the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, he announced his departure. He would return again, this time with a throne and a kingdom (God had not forgotten His promises, after all), but for now he was returning to heaven. And in his absence from the flesh, he was leaving a gift and a commission.
The Global Mandate
I hope that by now you will agree that story of the Bible is a story of missions, but there is a final (and perhaps most challenging) piece remaining. God has demonstrated through the pages of scripture that His heart is for all the nations of the earth to know him. He blesses His people so that they can be a blessing. But it is about to get personal.
In the waning days of Jesus’ earthly ministry he gave his church a prominent role in God’s mission. Israel as a nation had faltered and was being set aside for a time (The Apostle Paul argues in Romans 9-11 that God has not rejected Israel, but due to their disobedience they have been set aside “until the full number of the Gentiles has come in” (Romans 11:25)). God was about to raise up this new body of people to stand in the gap – to pick up the banner as a constant and vocal promoter of the Most High God before the nations. The four gospels and Acts each record statements made by Jesus to this end. For instance, Luke 24:44-49:
“Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds so they could understand the scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it stands written that the Christ would suffer and would rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And look, I am sending you what my Father promised. But stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’” (NET)
I appreciate John Piper’s commentary on Luke 24 in connecting it to Abraham’s purpose:
“The context here is crucial. First, Jesus ‘opens their minds to understand the Scriptures.’ Then he says, ‘Thus it is written’ (in the Old Testament), followed (in the original Greek) by three coordinate infinitive clauses that make explicit what is written in the Old testament: first, that the Christ is to suffer; second, that he is to rise on the third day; and third, that repentance and forgiveness of sins are to be preached in his name to ‘all nations.’
“So Jesus is saying that his commission to take the message of repentance and forgiveness to all nations ‘is written’ in the Old Testament ‘Scriptures.’ This is one of the things he opened their minds to understand. But what is the Old Testament conception of the worldwide purpose of God (which we saw above)? It is just what Paul saw: a purpose to bless all the families of the earth and win a worshiping people from ‘all nations.’”1
Like Luke 24, each of the following passages constitute a call to action:
Matthew 28:18-20 (NET) – “Then Jesus came up and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’” (This passage is often referred to as “The Great Commission”)
Mark 16:15-16 (NET) – “He said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved, but the one who does not believe will be condemned.’”
John 20:21-23 (NET) – “So Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.’ And after he said this, he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained.’”
Acts 1:8 (NET) – “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth.”
The imperative command of Christ is for his people to make disciples among all the nations, to take his gospel to all the world, to give all the people groups of the earth the chance to join the crowd around God’s throne. This was not a suggestion; it is a mandate rooted in the depths of God’s Word.
The missionary task did not begin with the church, it was given to the church as a continuation of God’s mission from the very beginning. Further, though the church became the vessel by which the gospel goes forth, God remains the principal actor. His gift of the Holy Spirit means Christ’s presence and power would remain with his people to enable them to do his work. What seems a formidable task to us is imminently achievable to God. And remember, the outcome has already been written:
“And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.’” (Revelation 5:9,10 ESV)
The Church on a Mission
From its inception with the apostles and the first congregation of believers, it has been the work of the church to expand the reach of the gospel until the task is finished. Yes, there are other important functions of the church – vital, necessary functions – but the chief mission of the church is to see God’s glory proclaimed to the nations. If you are a member of Christ’s church, then this task is your task. Consider yourself called.
You have a role in the worldwide mission of the church.
It may be to pray – Jesus told his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:37-38). Andrew Murray, a preacher who spoke and wrote extensively about the church’s call to missions, said, “The man who mobilizes the Christian church to pray will make the greatest contribution to world evangelization in history.”
It may be to send – Paul said it best in Romans 10:15: “And how are they to preach unless they are sent?” Senders support missionaries in the field by advocating for them, praying for them, and giving to meet their financial needs.
It may be to mobilize – Men and women who have taken upon themselves the task of infecting fellow Christians with the vision of God’s global purpose and equipping them to take part in it have had a more profound impact on global missions than any missionary in the field could dream of. Some have launched entire missionary movements.
It may be to go – Approximately 2200 people groups still have no scripture in their language. Still more are isolated from the gospel for political, cultural, or religious reasons. Unless someone is willing to transplant themselves into their culture to share the message of God, they will never have the chance to hear it.
Which role could you fill? Not all members of the church have the same role, but all have a role. We have been blessed to be a blessing. The missionary impulse among churches in America can be traced back to a statement made by Samuel Mills to a group of his fellow students at Williams College in 1806. He implored them, “We can do this if we will.” How much more true is it today – the age of air travel, satellite communications, electronic banking, and malaria medication? There is nothing left to hinder us but our own willingness to take hold of our God given purpose and run with it!
What now? Here are a few ways you can get involved in missions.
- Explore the Joshua Project and add a people group focused element to your personal prayer time.
- Ask about the missionaries connected to your church and pray for them. Most missionaries send out regular prayer newsletters to give you specific ways to pray.
- Support a missionary to an unreached people group. We would love for you to partner with us, or find a missionary connected to your church and include missions giving in your monthly budget.
- Give toward a ministry project like printing new Bible translations, missionary aviation, or new missionary training programs.
- Start to investigate sending organizations and find one that lines up with your goals. Unreached people groups are all over the world, but not every organization approaches them the same way. I’m obviously a fan of New Tribes Mission, but there are plenty of good organizations to choose from.
- Get some training. How much training is enough?