Summer 2010, Vol.
Whose Mission is it Anyway?
Reading the Whole Bible for Mission
AGTS Spring Lectureship, Evening Lecture,
Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Dr. Christopher J. H. Wright
Langham Partnership International, London
Introduction by Dr. Roger Cotton
Dr. Wright is a churchman; he is ordained with the Anglican Church and has served in various capacities. He is not only an educator but a missionary educator; he taught and ministered in India for five years. Now, he is the director of Langham Partnership International, which was John R. W. Stott’s ministry. Dr. Wright spoke of all the things the Langham Partnership does to resource and facilitate people from around the world in higher education and ministry. We are glad to have Dr. Wright talk about his passion for mission and the concept that the whole Bible is about mission. He has several books available in the library so you can see what kind of writing he has done. I have used some of them in courses here at AGTS. You will be blessed; we welcome Dr. Christopher Wright.
The Mission of God
Thank you very much, Roger, for that warm welcome. It is good to be back here. As I said this morning at [AG] Headquarters as I was preaching there, the accent is from Northern Ireland … just in case you are wondering so you don’t spend the whole of the lecture trying to work out where I come from. I was born and brought up in Belfast, Northern Ireland; that is my home originally. I now live in England and spent years working in India, but I now live and work in London, England. I grew up in a missionary home in that my parents had been missionaries in Brazil, even before I was born. I had a kind of mission blood stream, I suppose, from my parents.
After India I was on the faculty of All Nations Christian College, an institution in England that trains people for cross-cultural mission. I inherited a course there from a former lecturer called “The Biblical Basis of Mission,” which I taught for about thirteen years. I used to say increasingly to the students that I wish I could rename this course, from “The Biblical Basis of Mission” to “The Missional Basis of the Bible.” In other words, what I wanted to show to them was not just that the Bible has got a few things to say about mission but that, in fact, the Bible itself is a missional phenomenon. The Bible presents itself to us as the product of and as a witness to the mission of God—what God has been doing in God’s world. The definition of this is that the whole Bible is a product of God’s mission—that is, God’s engagement with God’s world, for God’s purpose of redemption of the whole of God’s creation. That is what the Scriptures are about. So, I have said to people, I want you to not just learn a few Bible verses about mission, but I want you to be able to read the whole Bible from a missional perspective.
That is what eventually led to the big book I wrote called The Mission of God, which is really a missional hermeneutic of Scripture, asking the question, “Is it valid to read the whole Bible from the perspective of mission, and what happens when you do attempt that?” This is a very big train, in some respects. I mean, you couldn’t take any phrase, like “the biblical basis of mission” and turn it around the other way. There is for example, a biblical basis for marriage, but I don’t think you could say that there is a marital basis for the Bible. Or, you could say that there is a biblical basis for work, but you wouldn’t say that work is what the whole of the Bible is all about. So, is it legitimate to make this claim that rather than talking about the biblical basis of mission we should talk about the missional basis of the Bible?
Well, I take some encouragement for my claim from a rather impeccable source, I think you will agree, and that is the Lord Jesus Christ himself. In fact, it seems to me, that this is very close to what Jesus said on the day of resurrection. What did Jesus spend resurrection day doing? Teaching the Old Testament! It wasn’t called the “Old Testament” in those days; it was just the Scriptures. But, Jesus, in fact, gave two resurrection lectures on the Scriptures of the Old Testament—first, all afternoon while walking with the two disciples on the way to Emmaus. Then again, all evening with His disciples in the Upper Room afterwards. On both occasions, He was teaching them from the Scriptures about (a) the problem that they had over the redemption of Israel and that had all gone wrong because of the crucifixion of the One they thought was the Messiah. Jesus had to point out to them that that was the whole point of the story—to lead up to the Messiah and His death and resurrection; and (b) with the rest of the disciples in the Upper Room, where they were, it was to point out to them that it is not just that the Old Testament leads to Him, but it leads on to mission.
In Luke 24, Jesus said, “This is what is written. The Christ (or the Messiah) will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in His name to all nations beginning in Jerusalem” (Luke 24: 46-47). Now, if you or I had been there, as eager disciples, you know, keen to please, we would have probably stopped Jesus at that point and said, “Excuse me, ah, Master, where is that written, please? Could I have a reference—a chapter or a verse? (They didn’t have chapter and verse in those days, of course) But, “Is that Zachariah or Isaiah? Where is it written what you just said?” Of course, nowhere! Because Jesus is not specifically quoting from the Old Testament Scriptures; He is interpreting their whole point. He is saying: “This is what the Scriptures are all about. This is where it all leads.” This is the whole point of the message of the Scriptures: (a) they lead to the Messiah—that the Messiah will come, will die, will rise again, and that (b) they lead beyond the Messiah’s coming to forgiveness and repentance being preached to all the nations beginning in Jerusalem. In other words, Jesus is not only teaching the Old Testament; He is teaching Old Testament hermeneutics because what in fact Christ is doing here at this point is providing His disciples with a way of reading the Scriptures.
In fact, what Luke says is that He opens their minds to understand the Scriptures—not to know the Scriptures. These men knew the Scriptures inside out! Most of them probably knew huge chunks of what we call the Old Testament—from memory. Jewish boys did that! Up to a certain age, they would learn huge chunks and stretches of the Old Testament. If they had particular talent for it, they would go on and learn most of the whole of the Old Testament from memory. Jesus probably knew most of it in His memory. So, it wasn’t that they didn’t know the Old Testament; He opened their mind so they would understand the Old Testament. Now they would know how to read it. Jesus is saying that the way for disciples of Jesus to read the Old Testament Scriptures is messianically and missiologically—to bring one to the Messiah and to send one out in mission. Jesus said that is what the Scriptures say. In other words, the Old Testament Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, are as fundamental to our Christian mission as they are to the identity of Jesus. That is quite an important thing, but I think here that it is entirely vindicated and biblical. We, of course, as Christian people down through the centuries, have been very good at the first of these. That is, we have been good at interpreting Jesus as Messiah in the light of the Scriptures. We have not been so good at interpreting our own mission in the light of the Messiah and in the light of the Scriptures. So that is what I want to do here.
Now what Jesus says on that occasion is very closely echoed by the Apostle Paul in Acts 26:22-23 when he was responding to King Agrippa and giving his testimony and explaining his own ministry. The Apostle Paul, says, “I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen.” Same pair—Law and the prophets, just as Jesus on the road to Emmaus. What are the Scriptures saying? “That the Christ would suffer and as the first to rise from the dead would proclaim light to His own people and to the nations—the Gentiles.” So, Paul also saw this double affirmation of the Scriptures of the Messiah and mission.
However, even if you accept what Jesus says here, that the Old Testament is to be read in the light of Him and of His mission, you might still end up thinking, “Yes, but does that justify saying that mission is what the Bible is all about? Is it not about other things as well?” Now one of the problems with that question is that we have already predefined what we think of as “mission.” We assume that mission means “missions,” and that “missions” are things that we do. Mainly, what we do in missions is evangelism. So, if our minds are, as it were, in that paradigm that mission equals missions equals evangelism, then, of course, I wouldn’t stand here and try to tell you that the whole of the Bible is about evangelism because it manifestly isn’t. There is an awful lot else that God has to say in the Scriptures. The only way in which one can interpret the whole of the Bible or read the whole Bible in relation to mission is when we have something of a paradigm shift—from seeing mission as our human agency, something that we do, to seeing it as fundamental and in priority terms the mission and purpose of God himself. It is what God is about in His world from which we derive whatever mission God gives us in His purpose. That is what the Bible is about!
That leads us, therefore, to this question, “Whose mission is it anyways?” What I want us to see over the next few minutes is this list of five points, to see the following from the Scriptures:
- God with a mission
- Humanity with a mission
- Israel (that is, OT Israel) with a mission
- Jesus with a mission
- The Church with a mission
We will actually come to it in that order rather than simply starting on the Mount of Ascension with what God says to us. That is where we are going over the next few minutes. It will be a very rapid survey, but I hope it will give you some idea of the scope of what I am talking about when I am talking about the whole Bible being read from the dimension of mission.
God with a Mission
The God who presents himself to us on the very opening page of Scripture is a missional, purposeful, intentional God. The very first thing that we read about Him is that He is a God who has a plan, who decides what to do, who does it, who builds it into a systematic presentation of doing it over a sequence of actions, completes the job, takes a rest, and says, “That’s great! Love it! Fantastic! Beautiful! Good! Very good!” That is God, in a sense, in missional mode—God with a plan and a purpose. That God then who begins the creation with a purpose sees us as human beings as messing it up with our rebellion, or what is often called the Fall (although that is not particularly a biblical word, and I am not sure it is even an adequate word.) I mean, when you look at Genesis 3, we did not just “fall” into sin. We actively rebelled against God in disobedience and rejection of His authority, His benevolence, and His goodness. That Fall, that rebellion of human beings, so wrecked the world that God had made, with our sin, that God then initiates in the scriptural narrative a whole process of redemption in history—a redemptive purpose that is worked out from His promise to Abraham right through the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ and right on through the whole of the scriptural narrative until we come to a new creation—a new heaven and a new earth that we read about from Isaiah 65 right on through to Revelation 21 and 22. So, the whole earth, the whole Bible, you see, as it were, is predicated on this worldview—we have a God who is engaged in a cosmic, global purpose to achieve His will, to be known, to be glorified in the whole of His creation—which human sin and satanic evil have destroyed or distorted. God is on mission to bring about the mending and the redemption of the whole of creation. That is the missional framework, as it were, of the whole Bible, driven by the mission of God from creation to new creation.
Humanity with a Mission
The first thing we are told about the human species that God creates is that He made humankind to be like himself. God says, “Let’s create, let’s make a creature like us … like God.” We say, well what would it be like to be like God? Well, what we have seen of God in the story so far is that this God thinks, plans, executes, purposes, works, and accomplishes things. So, the very first thing that we could assume to be true of the human species is that we will reflect something of that purposefulness of God. That human existence has human existence with a reason. We are here for a purpose, and of course, that is what the text immediately tells us—that the image of God within us enables us to fulfill our fundamental human mission, which is the care and keeping of creation.
The first great commission that we read in the Bible is God’s commission to humanity to care for the earth and to keep it—to rule over it and subdue it. That is the language of chapter 1. To serve it and keep it—that is the language of chapter 2:15. So, the authority given to human beings within creation and the serving of creation is a very biblical combination. To exercise authority and to exercise kingship, which is the kind of language that is there—but to exercise that kingship through protective care and serving—is precisely the model we find, of course, in the perfect human being, Jesus Christ himself, who said to His disciples as He washed their feet, “You call me Lord and you are right, because that is what I am. So now your Lord and master have done the job of a slave, so should you.”
So, it is authority exercised through servanthood, right on day six of creation—the creation of humanity. That serving and keeping creates, then, a whole level of responsibility which we could label in our language as ecological responsibility, which also involves working with the resources of the earth because those resources God in His wisdom has scattered around the surface of the earth in all kinds of ways. So, you have more of that product in your country and we have more of something else in our country. So, why not we swap and trade so there is a naturalness about the whole economic process under the authority of God, but it is to be done in a spirit of justice, compassion, and caring for one another according to the creation mandate.
To be human, even before the Fall, even before anything spoils it, is to be in God’s world with the purpose of caring for it. There is, I believe very passionately, an ecological dimension to Christian mission because Christians, believe it or not, are still human beings. I know that it is a bit hard to tell sometimes, but that is still the case. When you become a Christian, you do not stop being a human. In fact, your Christianity enhances your humanity and increases the responsibility that God has given us. God holds us accountable as much for our humanity as for our Christianity. He holds us accountable for what He told human beings first of all to do. He never said, as it were, “Care for the earth, you guys. Keep the earth; look after it, except the Christians, because they have better things to do! But the rest of you can look after the earth.” That is not the way it is. So, there is a human mission that I think we need to include within our theology of mission, and I certainly do in my thinking and teaching on that subject because it is part of the Scriptures God has given to us.
Old Testament Israel with a Mission
Now, we move from God of mission, humanity with a mission, to Old Testament Israel with a mission. Because the narratives which tell us about creation move on from chapter 3 to 11 to tell us about the accumulating state of human wickedness from the original sin of Adam and Eve; through the jealousy, anger, and violence of Cain and Abel; through the corruption and violence, which are the characteristics of humanity in the story of the flood; through to the arrogance that we find in the story of the Tower of Babel. So, by the time you reach Genesis 11, there is a very dark background, indeed, of human sin and rebellion. It is into that context that God calls Abraham, creates a community who was Israel of the Old Testament—a community put there with a purpose, with a mission—not to go and be missionaries, but certainly with a mission to participate in what God was doing for the sake of His world.
So, let me be clear at this point that in talking about Old Testament Israel with a mission, I am not searching through the Old Testament to find verses which might have something to say about our job to be missionaries. Now there are such verses—like the call of Moses, the call of Jeremiah, the call of Isaiah, the story of Jonah perhaps, or one or two others like that. They are very useful for missionary sermons, but I am not talking as it were about bits of the Old Testament that might be relevant to our concept of sending missionaries. I am talking about what does the Old Testament teach in its theological totality that under girds our Christian commitment to mission? Where do we get our sense that we should be going out as missionaries from? Where did our sense of mission come from? Basically, it is the Scriptures of the Old Testament which program it. Like a kind of DNA that gives us our genetic fingerprint of biblical mission—it comes from the Old Testament and from the reality of Old Testament Israel and what God revealed to them and what God did with them and through them that are fundamental to our understanding of mission.
Let me give you several things that the Old Testament teaches, each of which, I think, make a distinctive contribution to the Christian theology of mission. The first is the uniqueness and universality of Israel’s God in the Old Testament, the God who, in older Bible translations, is known as Jehovah or Yahweh. Nobody is quite sure how the name was pronounced, but that is the personal name of this living, transcendent, ultimately holy God—the holy one of Israel, the living God of Israel.
Now what the Old Testament Israelites affirmed about this God through God’s revelation was really quite staggering. They affirmed, in a world context in which there were hundreds of thousands of other gods all over the place, that their God, Yahweh God, is the only God. We know there are lots of other gods and statues, but in reality Yahweh is THE God. He is the only God; He is the living God; He is the true God. He is the universal God; He is unique in a sense that He is only, but He is also universal in the sense that not only is he the Only God there is, He is all God there is. There is no other god above Him, behind Him, before Him, or after Him. You get Yahweh, you get the whole of God. He is God in an ultimate and total sense. These claims are staggering. I am inclined to go into all the verses that one would need to put in on this, but you have it in Deuteronomy 4:35-39, for example, when Moses says to the Israelites after the exodus from Egypt, and about Mount Sinai he recounts the whole story and says, “You were shown these things so that you might know that Yahweh is God in heaven above and in the earth beneath and their ‘ain’t’ no other!” Well he didn’t quite say “ain’t no other,” but he wasn’t American either! But, you know what I am saying. That there is no other God echoes through the Old Testament—in the Psalms, in the Prophets, and of course, eventually Acts 4:12 where Peter could say to the Jewish Sanhedrin, “There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” And if he had gone on to say then the name of Yahweh the God of Israel … everyone would have agreed with him and said, “Fine, yeah, of course, we know. There is no other savior but the living God of Israel.” But he took that living God of Israel and said there is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved than the name of Jesus. He preached Jesus into the context of the uniqueness and transcendence of God.
Now this is important to mission. But you might say, “You are teaching us things we already know. We know about Old Testament monotheism. We know about that! But the point is that when you come to the New Testament, your unique universality of Yahweh, the God of Israel, is precisely the language, the vocabulary, the concepts that the apostles applied to Jesus of Nazareth. This is the astonishing and startling thing!
The New Testament authors take language written about God or spoken by God and simply apply it to Jesus. They are contemporary. A man they have walked and talked with and eaten with. A man they had touched, as John and Peter both say in their letters. For example, in 1 Corinthians 8:5-6, Paul is talking about the problem of meat sacrificed to idols. He is talking to the Corinthians, and the problem was, of course, that for the people of Corinth you couldn’t just go down and buy meat in the butcher shop without realizing that that animal, which is now being sold to you, had first been sacrificed in a pagan temple. So, the Christians had a problem of conscience. They said, “We want to buy the meat, we want to eat the meat, but if we know the animal was sacrificed to another god, are we participating in idolatry if we buy the meat from the butcher?” Paul effectively says, “No.” He says that we know that the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. He says that we know that there are other “gods” around in the world, as it were, all these gods, statues, idols; but for us, we know that “Even if there are so-called gods in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords,”) yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and, there is but one Lord, …” (8:5). Up to that point, every Jew would have agreed with him because that is the Shema—Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear Oh Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord.” Paul concludes with “… one God, one Lord, Jesus Christ” through whom all things came and through whom we live. He puts Jesus and God the Father in the same bracket, in the same verse as Deuteronomy had spoken of God, the Lord God of Israel. This is Old Testament monotheism in the butcher shop in Corinth in Paul’s language.
Another example is Philippians 2 where Paul includes a wonderful song, the exaltation of Christ because of His suffering. Possibly Paul is quoting a Christian hymn even before he wrote the Philippians. He speaks of Jesus Christ who took upon himself the form of a servant and was made in human likeness and humbled himself and was obedient to the cross. “Therefore,” verse 9, “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name.” There was only one name that could be in Old Testament terms—the name of the Lord, Yahweh, the God of Israel. So that at the name belonging to Jesus (which I think is how it would be better translated), for without saying, “… at the name of Jesus…” but “at the name Jesus now has,” which was, of course, the Lord Yahweh, “every knee should bow in heaven and in earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” And we say, “Amen, Hallelujah! That is wonderful.” But I wonder, do you know that that hymn writer, or Paul, is actually quoting the words of God himself in Isaiah 45 where God, Yahweh hath said, “By myself I have sworn, my mouth has uttered in all integrity a word that will not be revoked; Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear. They will say of me, ‘In the LORD alone are righteousness and strength’” (Isa. 45: 23). God had said that about himself, and this Christian hymn writer says it about Jesus. He takes an Old Testament Scripture about the uniqueness and universality of Yahweh and simply puts Jesus in it. Now the uniqueness of Jesus is a fundamental truth that under girds Christian mission. If you don’t believe that Jesus alone is God and savior, then what mission have we? We go out to the world to proclaim Jesus as Lord, Christ, Savior, and the forgiveness of sins in His name. The reason why we do so is because the uniqueness of Christ is founded upon the uniqueness of the God of Old Testament Israel. So, that is the first thing.
Second, there is the purpose of this God, which is the blessing of all the nations. The Old Testament begins on the stage of universal history, as we saw in Genesis 1-11. After the stories of the Fall, Cain and Abel, the Tower of Babel, you might ask the question, “What on earth can God possibly do next?” I mean, He has done the flood already. We had the Tower of Babel. What can possibly come next?” What comes next is that God calls Abraham and Sarah and expresses to them an intention, a goal, a purpose, which is ultimately the blessing of all the nations of humanity. The bottom line, literally and intentionally, of the Abrahamic Covenant in Genesis 12:3 is: “Through you all the nations of the earth will be blessed.” That is God’s intention. God wants to bless the nations. That is good news—very good news. In fact, it is such good news that the Apostle Paul calls it the gospel in advance. In Galatians 3:8, Paul says, “Consider Abraham. He believed God and it was credited to him for righteousness.” Then Paul says the Scriptures foresaw that God would justify the nations by faith and pre-evangelize Abraham—preach the gospel to him in advance. What was the gospel? “Through you all the nations will be blessed.” Paul says that is the good news. That is God’s mission—that He wants to bless the nations.
Third, this mission of God to bless the nations is to be accomplished through this particular people—the election of Israel, the people of Abraham in the Old Testament. God’s plan and purpose through that people was to bring about the blessing of the nations. This is such an important point because one of the problems that many Christians have with the Old Testament is that it can appear to be so narrow and so nationalistic and exclusive. We get this focus on Israel—as if God doesn’t care about anybody else. But the whole point of being Israel is for the sake of everybody else.
The election of Israel was not an election so they alone would be saved. It was not the rejection of all the other nations, but it was explicitly for the benefit of all the other nations. This is instrumental election. It is missional election. It is like you have a bunch of people trapped in some terrible situation—let’s say they are dying in some cave under the surface of the earth and the water is rising up. They choose one of their number, maybe a young girl who is slim and can get herself through some narrow tunnel, and she is chosen and sent off to get through that tunnel and to get up to the surface. Now, what is the point of that election? It is not so that she is the only one who will get saved, but that she can find help and bring rescuers so everyone gets saved. In other words, it is an election for the sake of the rest. It is the choice of one for the sake of the many. This is precisely what the election of Old Testament Israel is for.
Their mission was not initially to go anywhere, but to be something. To be God’s people, the people who knew the living God, the people who worshipped the living God, the people who preserved the knowledge of God and the truth of God in their worship and in their Scriptures, and a people who would demonstrate the holiness of God in their social ethics, as Deuteronomy would say. They would be a light to the nations, as Isaiah put it. So the election of Israel, then, a fundamental missional doctrine, calls, “Who are we? What are we here for?” The answer is, “We are, if we are in Christ, the people of Abraham.” We inherit not just the names, the reality, the spiritual truth, the blessing of Abraham, as Paul calls it in Galatians. We also inherit the Abrahamic responsibility. We, too, are called to be a blessing to the nations, to be a light to the world. That is the Abrahamic language transposed by Jesus to His disciples. Or, to be those who live such good lives among the pagans, as Peter puts it, that the world will see and come to glorify God. So their mission is our mission. It is our story. The uniqueness of God, the blessing of the nations, the election of Israel.
The fourth Old Testament teaching that I would emphasize is the ethical dimension—the distinctiveness of Israel as a people of visibility to the nations, a people who were to be a model to the nations. Now this is an idea which also goes back very early in the Old Testament. In God’s call of Abraham, in Genesis 18:19, God says this, and this is God talking to God about God. So, it is pretty pure theology, really, if you are wanting something like that! God says to himself about Abraham—in a context (Gen. 18 and 19) in which He is just about to judge Sodom and Gomorrah and do justice—“But shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” No, I won’t because this man is going to be the father of many nations. The whole world is going to be blessed through him. That is what it says. Then God says, “I have chosen him [Abraham] so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what He has promised him” (Gen. 18:19). Marvelous verse—it puts together in one sentence, in one verse, election, ethics, and mission. God has chosen His people, and they only exist as a people because of His calling and creation and election. And why did God choose Abraham? To keep His promise to him (v. 19b), which is the evangelization of the world, to bring blessing to all the nations.
But in between the election of God’s people and the mission of God’s people stands the ethical requirement of God—that they should be a people who walk in the way of the Lord and do righteousness and justice. So the ethical demand on Israel is an essential, integral part of their mission to be God’s people in the world—as it is for Christians. Love one another so that all will know that you are my disciples. The ethical connection is there also very strongly in the New Testament. There is no biblical mission without biblical ethics. That is Genesis 18:19.
In my book, I go on to pull a whole number of other passages out, like Exodus 19:4-6 where God says to Israel, “If you will obey me fully and keep my covenant (v. 5), … then what? Then I might save you and you can be my people and you can all go to heaven when you die? No! Obedience is not a condition of salvation in the Old Testament; it never was intended to be. God rescued His people out of Egypt by His grace, His initiative, His Love, His faithfulness. And then, having redeemed them, He says, “Now then, if you will live in the way that I want you to be, then you will be for me a priestly nation, a holy nation. You will be my representatives … because that is what priests were. They represented God to the world and brought the world to God, just as your priests teach God’s Law to the people and bring the sacrifices of the people to God. So, what your priests are to you, you as a whole people will be to the world. That is missionary work! That is missional. That is exactly what Peter says we are in 1 Peter 2:9. He says, “You are that people,” writing to Christians. “You are God’s priesthood in the midst of the nations. So, declare His praise, and live your lives so they see.” That is verses 10 and 12. Unfortunately, most English Bibles put a paragraph division right in the middle of what Peter was saying there when in reality it is all thoroughly connected. In Deuteronomy 4:6-8 Moses tells the Israelites to keep God’s Law and then says why—so the nations will see and ask questions about what sort of a God you worship who is so near to you when you pray to Him and ask about what righteous laws you have. In other words, there will be something about the corporate worship and social life of Israel that should draw the nations to ask questions, to curiosity, and eventually into the sphere of God’s blessing.
So, the ethnical dimension of Israel is a fundamental part of their missional reality in the world. That is a dimension of Old Testament biblical theology which came to me very strongly when I was living and working in India because on one occasion I was invited to a conference, a consultation on Indian Christian identity. What came out in that consultation was that if Indians wanted to have any Christian identity, it should fundamentally be ethical. It wasn’t just what they said with their mouths—“We believe in Jesus whereas you believe in Brahman and Krishna and all these other gods.” But, it was as if Christians could be notoriously incorruptible—that their standard of living was so clearly a standard of integrity, honesty, justice, and truthfulness. That was all the identity they would need within that culture. That came through very clearly in the biblical texts. So, it really began to make sense to me that basically the Old Testament ethics and Old Testament mission coalesce in these Scriptures.
Then finally, the last contribution of the Old Testament, before we move on quickly to Jesus and the Church, is its eschatological vision—its hope; its vision of the future. I wish I had time for this. All I can tell you is to read chapter 14 of The Mission of God, and you find a whole array of Scriptures in the Old Testament in which God’s plan and purpose for the nations is most marvelously set out. We sometimes think that God is going to save Israel and blast the rest of the nations. That is not the way it is. God is going to judge Israel and save a remnant. God is going to judge the nations and save a remnant. There is a parallelism between God’s plan for Israel and God’s plan for the nations. The Old Testament tells us that the nations will be registered in God’s cities. Psalm 87 brings all the nations into Zion and says they will be counted and franchised as if they were native born citizens of Zion. Registered in God’s city, they will be blessed with God’s salvation. Isaiah 19 speaks about the Egyptians and how they will come and have the name of God written over it. God will send them a savior and a deliverer and they will be a blessing in the earth. Egypt and then Assyria, as well. They will also be accepted in God’s house.
The foreigner in Isaiah 65 who starts out saying, “Ah, well, I don’t belong to God. I will be cut off from God’s people.”
But Isaiah says, “No, no, no. The foreigner who comes to God, who chooses the covenant of God, or who chooses to believe in God,” God says, “I will bring them right into my holy mountain.”
You can imagine the Israelites saying, “Oh, well, you might let them in Jerusalem but we better keep them out of the Temple.”
But God says, “No. They will be accepted in my house of prayer.”
“Ah, we have to let them in the Temple, but let’s keep them away from the holy place of the altar.”
“No,” says God. “Their sacrifices will be accepted at my altar.”
“Unclean foreigners! They are coming to the altar of God?”
God says, “Isaiah, my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.”
That was stated in Isaiah before it was ever said by Jesus! So, the foreigners are accepted in God’s house and joined with God’s people. Zechariah 2:10-11 says, “Many peoples will be joined with Yahweh, with God’s people at that time.” In the Old Testament is a growing crescendo of hope and expectation that when God acts to bring about the redemption of Israel, when Israel comes to be restored to God, in Old Testament terms, then God will in-gather the nations. There will be a blessing of the nations and the Abrahamic promise will come true.
It is that Old Testament hope and Old Testament vision which is the mainspring of New Testament mission. This is what drives the New Testament church; it is this recognition that if God has done for Jesus what He had promised to do for Israel by raising Jesus from the dead—and that is exactly what Paul says in Acts (“What God promised our fathers, He has fulfilled by raising Jesus from the dead.”)—if in the resurrection of Jesus we have the redemption of Israel, then as Jesus said to the two on the road to Emmaus, what must come next is the in-gathering of the nations. That is what James says in his interpretation (Acts 15) of the in-gathering of the Gentiles through the missionary work of Paul and Barnabas: “Brothers, this is what the Scriptures say.” And he quotes from Amos 9:12. The big problem for the New Testament church was not our problem. Our problem is, “Is the Old Testament really Christian?” Indeed, they weren’t even called Christians yet. The New Testament church’s problem was, “Are we really being truly scriptural? Is what we are doing in our mission in accordance with the Scriptures?”—meaning the Old Testament. Once they could justify what they were doing on scriptural terms, then they were OK. That is what Paul does through Galatians and Romans and everywhere else.
Jesus and His Mission
So the New Testament mission, then, is driven by all these realities of the Old Testament. That brings us then to Jesus and to His mission because what we find, of course, is that Jesus comes as it were, on the great thrusting flow of all this biblical truth and expectation and hope. Jesus was not E.T. (You know: extraterrestrial) He didn’t just drop in from outer space. Jesus was born into this community of faith, memory, and hope described for us in Matthew’s opening chapter through the genealogy. Jesus comes with a mission. He didn’t just drop in. He was sent; He had a clear conviction of being sent. In fact, that mission of Jesus was being articulated before Jesus was conscious of anything—while He was a little baby.
We meet Simeon, in Luke 2, who holds the baby Jesus in his arms and, he having been told, remember, that he wouldn’t die until he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the temple, and the Holy Spirit tells Simeon that He is the one. Temples are crowded, noisy places, but Simeon spots Jesus; he takes little baby Jesus in his arms. And what do you do when you take a baby in your arms? You ask, “What’s his name? You can imagine Simeon asking Mary and Joseph and them saying, “We were told to call him Yeshua,” which means, “The Lord is salvation.” Simeon says, “God, this is to die for! I can go now because my eyes have seen your Yeshua—your salvation here in my arms!” Then he adds to that, doesn’t he? “My eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2: 31-32). Simeon sees the double identity of the Messiah—exactly as Jesus points out to His disciples in Luke 24. He is also pointing out in Luke 2 that Jesus is the one who is come to be the Messiah of Israel and the savior of the world. He cannot be the latter of these first. In other words, He is only savior of all the nations because He is the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures. That truth is there in Simeon’s words.
It is also there at the baptism of Jesus. Do you remember that wonderful occasion recorded in the Gospels (Matt. 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:32-34)—where Jesus goes to John the Baptist—this wonderful Trinitarian moment when the Son of God is baptized, and the Spirit of God descends in the form of a dove, and the voice of God the Father speaks? You might have thought that God the Father would have thought of something new to say. Something fresh; something never said before. The baptism of His only Son—it is a good moment for a speech. God, even God the Father, quotes the Scriptures. In those words that He said, “This is/You are my Son whom I love in whom my soul delights.” What is he doing? He is quoting from at least two Scriptures, and possibly three. He is certainly quoting from Isaiah 42:1 where God has said that “This is” or “behold my servant … in whom my soul delights.” So, Jesus is being identified as the servant of the Lord in Isaiah’s terms—and also, in Psalm 2:7 where God said to King David and his descendents, “You are my son, today I have begotten you. Ask of me and I will make the nations your inheritance”—identified as the servant of the Lord who would not only bring the tribes of Israel back to God but would ultimately bring God’s salvation to the end of the earth—a universal mission. King David, the messianic son of David, would not only be King of Israel, but of all the nations. So, in Jesus’ baptism has this missional dimension. Here is the one, identified as the Isaiahanic servant and the Messianic son of David, the Davidic Messiah, who has come to fulfill the purpose of God the Father. So even Jesus’ baptism has a missional emphasis.
And then of course, you could go right on through to the “Great Commission,” at the end of Matthew’s Gospel. Again, it is pure Deuteronomy. Jesus stands there on this mountain, just as Moses had met God on a mountain. Jesus has, of course, been portrayed in a sense as a new Moses, but this is not Moses, servant of the Lord. This is Jesus, God himself, because He says, “Do you remember what I quoted earlier from Deuteronomy 4 where Moses said, ‘You were shown these things that you might know that the Lord is God in heaven above and in the earth beneath and there is no other?’”
Jesus says to His disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” You know who I am now. You know who has walked among you. I have claimed to do, and I have done things that you know from the Scriptures that only God can do. Creator, Lord of Creation, Forgiver, Savior, Judge, and Ruler—all the great realities of the God of the Old Testament Scriptures have now been embodied in me—in Jesus of Nazareth who walked among you. That is who I am. So, now go and make disciples of the nations. Replicate yourself. Create communities of obedience, as Israel was supposed to be. As Jesus had been the faithful Israelite, so now He calls His people to be that people of God in the world.
“Teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Pure Deuteronomy again. It is exactly what Moses said repeatedly to the Israelites. Observe all that the Lord your God has commanded you and Jesus said, “Go out and do it and teach others to do it.” Paul takes that phrase, obedience to God and he turns it into a definition of his missionary life. Both at the beginning and at the end of Romans Paul says, “What have I been about all this time in my gospel work? It was to bring about faith’s obedience among all nations.” That is the language—the obedience of faith among all nations. Paul was not just about bringing people to say the sinner’s prayer and go to heaven when they die. Paul was about bringing about communities of faith and obedience—Old Testament language, covenantal language, Abrahamic language, which is now being translated into New Testament mission.
The Church with a Mission
Language of Witness
All I want to say here is that almost everywhere you look you could demonstrate this. Let’s take a look at three concepts which speak about mission but in a way which is strongly rooted in the Old Testament. The first is the idea of witness. We know we are to be witnesses, don’t we? Jesus said that. We have it at the end of Luke’s Gospel in Luke 24. “You are witnesses of these things.” And, of course, at the beginning of Acts, “You will be my witnesses,” he says, “to the very ends of the earth.” Now, we say, “Great. We should be witnesses to God.” But again, were we aware that that language of witness is thoroughly Old Testament in the Scriptures? It is way back in Isaiah where God had said to the Israelites in exile in Babylon, “blind and deaf,” as he called them. And he calls them into court—the courtroom of the God’s and all the nations—this polytheistic, pluralistic world, in which they lived. He says, “Let all the other nations bear witness to their gods, if they like, to see what they can do. Can they say, “Yes” or “No” or predict the future or do something good or do something bad, or say boo or do anything to prove that they are gods? No, they can’t. But,” says God, “You are my witnesses, declares the Lord, and my servant whom I have chosen so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am He. I, even I, am the Lord. Apart from me there is no savior. I have revealed and saved and proclaimed—not some foreign God among you—and you are my witnesses, declares the Lord, that I am God.” Old Testament language. Israel to be God’s witnesses in the world.
Jesus stands with His disciples, and says, “You know who I am now, but the world doesn’t. How is the world going to know who I am? You are my witnesses. You go tell them.” So the concept of witness is an Old Testament Israelite concept transposed into Christian mission through the command of Jesus. The language of witnessing.
Language of Servanthood
Second, the language of servanthood. The language of Israel being God’s servant, of course, is very prominent in the book of Isaiah. But it is interesting that it is exactly how Paul describes his missionary life and work in Acts 13. You know the story, I am sure. He had gone to the synagogue, as was his custom, and he had gone through the whole of the Old Testament Scriptures with these Jewish men and told them about the Messiah, Jesus, who fulfills the Scriptures. Some of them believed him, and that was wonderful; others did not. Next Sabbath, they get there, and there is a big commotion and a big riot and some of the Jewish people attack him and whatnot. So, Paul turns to the Gentile godfearers who were there—these non-Jewish people who had come to have some sense of faith in the God of Israel and were in the synagogue week by week—and Paul says to them, “We now turn to you because this is what the Lord has commanded us.” Then he quotes Isaiah, “I have made you a light for the Gentiles that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth” (Isa. 49:6). We might say, “Well, yeah … just a minute Paul. Get your exegesis and hermeneutics right here. That is an Old Testament Scripture written about the servant of God—Israel in the Old Testament. Paul would say, “I know that!” Or, we might say, “Paul, I can see Matthew and the Gospel quoting from these texts and applying them to Jesus. Jesus is the servant of the Lord who won’t snuff out a smoldering wick, and all that.” Isaiah quoted in relation to Jesus as God’s servant.” And Paul says, “Yeah, I know that, too.” In fact, he says that in Romans 15. He said, “Jesus Christ the Messiah became a servant of the Jews in order that the gospel should go to the nations.” So, he is aware of the servant language about Jesus, but what he does here is he takes a hermeneutical hop, skip, and jump from Isaiah, to Jesus, “to me and my little band of missionary friends here,” said Paul. This is what the Lord has commanded us. We are those who are now commanded to be a light to the nations and to bring the Lord’s salvation to the ends of the earth. That is the servant-mission of the Servant King. Old Testament Scripture fulfilled in Jesus and now going on through the servant ministry of the Church. Wonderful continuity in the Old and New Testament.
Language of Priesthood
And finally, there is the language of priesthood. I have made some reference to this already, but to me it is marvelous that the passage we mention, Exodus 19:4-6, is picked up in two places in the New Testament. First of all, Peter uses it in 1 Peter 2:9 where he says, “You are that people, a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” In other words, you have had your exodus experience—out of darkness and into light. You have had your exodus. What are you going to do? Be a worshipping, praising people, publicly declaring the praise of God. And then, “live such good lives among the pagans that though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day He visits us” (1 Pet. 2: 12).
So, Peter sees the priestly ministry of God’s people in the world. Peter does that. Paul does it, too. It is the only place in the New Testament where any individual describes his or her own ministry as priestly. Did you know in the New Testament normally priesthood is either the high priesthood of Jesus—He is our great High Priest, in Hebrews—or it is the priesthood of all believers, as in Peter: you, plural, are God’s priesthood. But here is what Paul says in Romans 15:15-16: “I remind you of the grace that God gave me to be a minister of the Messiah, Jesus, to the nations [or of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles, the nations], with the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified through the Holy Spirit” (paraphrased). I think Paul has Exodus 19:6 in mind there. Paul is saying, “You know what? I have had a priestly job to do all of my life.” Paul could never have been a priest in the temple in Jerusalem—he was from the wrong tribe. He had to be a Levite to do that; Paul was a Benjaminite. Paul says, “Never matter, I was a priest.” But his priestly work was not anything to do with the temple or indeed in a church, in some sort of clergy position. Paul says, “My priestly work was evangelism.” It was bringing God to the nations and bringing the nations to God. That was Paul’s priestly function. That is Old Testament language of priesthood transposed into New Testament language of mission by the Apostle Paul.
What I have been trying to say—to quickly summarize—is that once we begin to see these things, we are applying what I would call a “missiological hermeneutic” to reading our whole Bible. It means, first of all, that we are reading the whole Bible in the light of God’s purpose for creation as a whole, including the redemption of humanity and the arrival of a new heaven and a new earth. Our mission needs to be as big as the Bible itself—from Genesis 1 and 2 to Revelation 21 and 22.
Second, it means to read the whole Bible in light of God’s purpose for human life on the planet. All that the Bible has to teach about human culture, responsibility, relationships, ethics, behavior—the whole of human society matters to God. Our mission needs to be, in that sense, a human mission.
Third, we need to read the whole Bible in the light of the historical election of Israel—of their identity, of their role, their mission to the nations in the Old Testament and God’s purpose of them, as it were, being the roots and the trunk of the olive tree which is now the whole people of God—Gentiles and Jews who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ who are now a part of that one people in Christ in Abraham. That is where our election stems from and that, therefore, creates a missional responsibility for us, then, to read the whole of our Bible in the centrality of Jesus himself: Jesus of Nazareth, His messianic identity, and His saving mission of bringing redemption, not just to Israel, but to all the nations of the world—that Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and brings about the reconciliation of humanity—who solves not just the problem of Genesis 3 and our human sin and rebellion but also the problem of Genesis 11—of our human dividedness and fracturedness in the nations. In Christ, says Paul, God was creating a new humanity—a new creation. If anyone is in Christ, new creation has already happened. We read all the Scriptures in the light of God’s calling of the Church as the believing community, Jew and Gentiles, who constitute this extended people of the Abrahamic Covenant to be the agent of God’s blessing to the nations and ultimately to be for the glory of Christ and to share with God in Christ in the new creation in which God will dwell with us—Immanuel (lit., “with us God”). That is where the Bible ends, saying that three times in Revelation 21—with us now, dwells God. That is His mission, and that’s really what the whole Bible is really about. That’s what it leads to at the end of the story.
Thursday, July 1, 2010 7:10 PM