A 7-Point Biblical Theology of Mission

October 03, 2016

by Jonathan Gibson

In January, Greg Beale and I will discuss how to advance gospel glory at the Bethlehem Conference for Pastors. In light of that conference, I have written a few reflections on worship for The Gospel Coalition. Here I reflect on the church’s mission as the means by which worship occurs.

  1. Mission does not begin in history with Eve, Abraham, or Israel but in eternity with God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

In eternity past, God the Father gave to his Son a chosen people and commissioned his Son to redeem them by the help of his Spirit (Luke 22:29; John 6:37–40; Heb. 9:14). This is the foundation of mission—it begins with the Triune God. What unfolds in the history of redemption in relation to mission was first established in the covenant of redemption between the persons of the Trinity.

  1. Mission in the Bible finds its raison d’être in the failure of God’s first son (Adam) in the covenant of works to establish worldwide worship.

Adam was meant to win righteousness, life, and justification for the human race and lead us to worship God in spirit and truth; instead he brought sin, death, and condemnation on the human race and led us into idolatrous worship of created things instead of our Creator. Adam’s failure in the covenant of works provides the backdrop against which God begins his mission in history to save a people who will worship him aright.

  1. Mission in the Bible finds its impetus in the coming of God’s promised Son (Jesus) in the covenant of grace to restore worldwide worship.

When Adam failed as God’s son to worship him in spirit and truth, God did not abandon his basic plan to ensure worldwide worship through his son. Instead, he promised another son who would come and defeat the serpent, and thus, by implication, restore the worship of God on earth. God’s promise in Genesis 3:15 is the covenant of grace in embryonic form, one which grows organically as redemptive history unfolds. Mission begins in a garden with a disobedient and disgraced son under judgment hearing the good news of a coming and conquering son. It is this embryonic promise in the covenant of grace that serves as the impetus for mission in the Bible.

  1. Mission in the Old Testament is primarily centripetal in movement, being focused on God’s national son (Israel), whom God calls to his worship in a world given over to idolatrous worship.

After Genesis 1–11, the storyline of the Bible narrows in on a family and then a nation through which this promised son would come. God promises Abraham that through him all the families of the earth will be blessed (Gen. 12:3). Mission in the Old Testament takes place within the context of this promise in the covenant of grace. The mantle of mediating blessing to the world is passed on to Israel, the nation who descends from Abraham and whom God calls his son (Exod. 4:22–23). In Egypt, God calls his son out of the false worship of other gods (cf. Josh. 24:14) to the worship of himself as the one true God (Exod. 4:22–23; 5:1–2). This is emphasized immediately after the Exodus when God leads his people in the opposite direction to the Promised Land, to Mount Sinai, where he calls them to his worship—first in the 10 commandments and then in the tabernacle instructions. At Sinai, God recovers worship in his son Israel.

Mission in the Old Testament thus finds its expression in the commissioning of God’s national son, in the covenant of grace at Sinai, to be a holy nation and a kingdom of priests (Exod. 19:3–6), and thus, by implication, to lead the world in the worship of God. However, given that God’s temple is eventually built in the city of Jerusalem in the land of Israel, it is not surprising that there is no purposeful movement from Israel to other nations in order to encourage the worship of God. Instead, Israel is to lead the world in worship by being God’s worshipping son on Mount Zion. There is a significant lack of “sending”, from which the word “mission” (Latin: missio) derives. Jonah is the only example of someone being “sent” to call a foreign nation to repent of their idolatrous worship. The fact that he is an exception underlines the centripetal focus of mission in the Old Testament. Certainly, foreigners are incorporated into Israel’s worshipping community—Joseph’s wife, Asenath; Rahab and Ruth; Naaman and the widow of Zarephath; the Queen of Sheba—but there is no active ‘missionary movement’ to the nations, as such.

  1. Mission in the New Testament finds its turning point (from centripetal to centrifugal) in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of God’s promised Son (Jesus), who restores worldwide worship.

When Jesus is born, Simeon announces that salvation has dawned for Jew and Gentile (Luke 2:27–32). In his early ministry, Jesus anticipates this in his interactions with Nicodemus, a Jew, a Samaritan woman, and various Gentiles with whom he comes into contact (e.g. John 3–4). However, up until his death and resurrection, Jesus’ ministry is primarily focused on Israel and not the Gentiles. When he commissions his own disciples for their mission, he tells them to avoid the Gentiles and Samaritans and instead to go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matt. 10:5). When he meets a Canaanite woman in the district of Tyre and Sidon (beyond the Promised Land), who asks him to cast out a demon from her daughter, he repeats the point that he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matt. 15:24). Only after he has inaugurated the new covenant of grace in his death and resurrection does Jesus encourage the shift in mission from centripetal to centrifugal. As the Father sent him, so now his disciples are sent (John 20:21); as the Father has given him all authority in heaven and earth, so now he commands his disciples to go and disciple the nations (Matt. 28:18–20). Interestingly, he issues his “Great Commission” on a mountain, a similar place to where Adam and Israel both received theirs.

  1. Mission in the apostolic era and beyond is a centrifugal movement to the world, empowered by the Spirit to restore worldwide worship of the Father through the Son.

Jesus’ ascension into heaven precipitates the outpouring of his Spirit and initiates the apostles into their role as Jesus’ witnesses in Jerusalem and in Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). However, Israel is first reconstituted in two stages: the apostolic band is restored to twelve with the appointment of Matthias (Acts 1:26), and then Israel is reformed on the Day of Pentecost with both Jews from Jerusalem and the exiled tribes of the north coming to faith (Acts 2; cf. Ezek. 37:15–28). Only when Israel has been restored is there a movement of the gospel beyond Jerusalem, first to Judea and Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth (Acts 13:46–48). While the book of Acts ends in Rome with the Apostle Paul teaching about the kingdom of God, Christ’s mission has not ended. The church of Christ is still on mission, calling the nations of the world to turn from worshipping idols to worshipping the one true God, whose name is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

  1. Mission will one day cease in the new heavens and the new earth when God’s Son returns to consummate history, but worship will last forever.

While he was on earth, Jesus taught his disciples that “this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come” (Matt. 24:14). That end is not yet, which means that the end of mission is not yet. We remain under the command and commission of our Lord and King to reach the world with the saving good news of his life, death, resurrection and ascension. However, one day, the task will be completed, and the fruit of the Son’s mission will be seen when an innumerable multitude from every nation and tribe and people and language stands before his throne and cries out, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:9–10). On that day, mission will be no more, but true worship will only have just begun.

Jonathan Gibson

Dr. Jonathan Gibson (PhD, Cambridge) is professor of Old Testament at WTS.

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