No Prayer, No Mission

June 16, 2016

by William Edgar

It is true enough that the central purpose of prayer is not to achieve results in the world, but to commune with God. As Henri Nouwen once put it, “To pray is to move to the center of all life and all love” (Here and Now, 23). Still, if one is truly at the center of life and love, that is, of God’s life and his love, then surely we shall be concerned for his purposes. The order is made clear in the prayer Jesus taught his disciples, but the gap between worship and missions is not great: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” If we can agree that the coming of the kingdom is synonymous with missions, we may see that the worship of God through prayer is indissolubly linked to a concern for outreach.

What is the Church’s Mission?

To begin with, mission is most fundamentally missio Dei. Mission must derive from both God’s nature and his will. At the same time, God has chosen to work through human instrumentality, missio hominum. Whether it be through Noah or Abraham and their families, through the kings and prophets, through special envoys such as Joseph or Daniel, or through Jesus and the apostles, or through their successors, right down to the present, God’s mission uses human beings in a variety of historical and cultural settings. So we may properly speak of missions in the plural, missio ecclesiae, since God’s people are gathered in different places at different times, and yet are still charged with the task of extending his kingdom. And as has often been pointed out, the activities of the church are both centripetal (gathering) and centrifugal (sending out), just as God is busy gathering his people into the heavenly Jerusalem by sending them out to preach the gospel. For this dynamic to operate, God’s people need to be a praying people.

Jesus himself was assured that prayer provided the only gateway to missions accomplished.

Prayer Is the Gateway to Missions

Jesus himself was assured that prayer provided the only gateway to missions accomplished. The best place to begin is to look at Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer, recorded in John 17. Notice the place of this prayer in the life and ministry of our Lord. It would be hard to overestimate the significance of the timing. He would soon experience his greatest task. The opening explains, “When Jesus had spoken these words,” which places the prayer in continuity with the previous section in John, sometimes known as the Upper Room Discourses, following the observance of the Passover (John 13–16). Indeed, all the themes in his previous words are found in the High Priestly Prayer. One can sense the increasing anxiety in the Lord’s soul over his imminent suffering (John 12:27). There will be much sorrow, but the disciples’ mourning will be turned into joy (John 16:20; see Ps. 30:11). The mood of the prayer is one of utter confidence. Jesus has accomplished all that he was meant to prior to his death and resurrection. He had come into the world to bring light to those in darkness who come to him by faith (John 12:46). Now he turns to the Father and asks that what he came to do would be vouchsafed and that his name would be given glory because of that.

Jesus prays for his disciples. He prays that they may be one (John 17:11). That in itself implies the centripetal force of mission. He prays that no one steal them away though they would remain in the world; and that in this world they may be sanctified in the divine word (John 17:12–19). Then he turns his attention to “those who will believe in me through their word” (John 17:20ff.). He prays that they too may be one, again a centripetal force (John 17:21). But this unity has the deep purpose of evangelism, which implies a centrifugal outreach. Their unity is meant to reflect the unity of the Father and the Son, “so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21). Some aspects of Jesus’ prayer are fascinating and perhaps unexpected. At the center of his evangelistic concept is glory—glory from the Father that Jesus gives to the new converts (John 17:22); the glory that they may see in him, the glory of the Father’s eternal love (John 17:24). This theme leads D. A. Carson to exclaim:

The thought is breathtakingly extravagant. The unity of the disciples, as it approaches the perfection that is its goal . . . , serves not only to convince many in the world that Christ is indeed the supreme locus of divine revelation as Christians claim (that you sent me), but that Christians themselves have been caught up into the love of the Father for the Son, secure and content and fulfilled because loved by the Almighty himself (cf. Eph. 3:17b–19), with the very same love he reserves for his Son. It is hard to imagine a more compelling evangelistic appeal (Gospel according to John, 569).

Appeal, yes, but also the gateway to the very possibility of evangelism. For in this prayer Jesus not only makes a request for the “success” of missions, but recounts the warrant: his own glory. The glory of Christ here refers not primarily to his eternal sonship, though that is profoundly true. Here it refers primarily to the glory gained because of his impending sacrifice and powerful resurrection. Thus, when he prays for the unity of the church to reflect the unity between Father and Son, he is not asking that the coming community properly exhibit a kind of unity that would attract people (as he did in John 13:12ff.), but that the control and criterion for the church’s unity is in the way Jesus labored for his unity with the Father, a unity he would share with the church, even while he was working in the world for the redemption of his people, particularly during his passion and his resurrection. Only in that dynamic can we find the adequate ground for world missions. Commenting on this emphasis, Herman Ridderbos affirms:

What must engender this belief on the part of the world is not the church’s unity as such or the degree to which it asserts itself in the world as a unified movement (alongside similar movements!), but the liberating power of Jesus’ word and Spirit as it comes to expression in the church. This is what must bring the world to believe that Jesus did not come of his own accord and did not appoint himself as Savior but was sent by God himself (The Gospel of John, 561-62).

Later in the Gospel of John, Jesus reiterates the central vocation of the disciples to evangelize the world. In the Johannine equivalent of the Great Commission, meeting the disciples in the post-resurrection state, the Lord says, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you,” after which he breathed the Holy Spirit upon them and commissioned them (John 20:21–23). Poignantly, when Jesus restores Peter, who had denied him three times on that fateful night, he asks, three times, whether Peter loved him. After each affirmative answer, he tells him, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15–19). So not only does Jesus pray to the Father in his High Priestly Prayer for the triumph of world missions, but he makes sure the disciples are properly commissioned for the task.

This piece is adapted from William Edgar, “Prayer and Missions,” in For the World (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2014), 78–81. Used with permission of the publisher.

Read More On Missions, Prayer

William Edgar

Dr. Edgar (DThéol, Université de Genève) is professor of apologetics at WTS.

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