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Introduction

 

Global mission is central to the Christian worldview. Since the Garden of Eden, mission has been a part of the plans and purposes of God. However, the theology of mission has been skewed within the Western Church by the Platonian split level view of Heaven and Earth. In this view Heaven has been seen as another realm in another reality and has had led two dire consequences in terms of church mission. On the one hand, it has transformed missions into merely a “soul-harvesting” endeavor. The purpose of which seems to be to collect as many souls as possible before the second advent of Christ. On the hand, it has made missions irrelevant since we are all escaping this Earth at the supposed rapture. In this view, Christianity needs to be nothing more than individual experience.

Neither of these views of express the Biblical theology of missions. Indeed, Jesus’s earthly ministry and his subsequent death and resurrection.denounce such a view. As the source and prototype for the “new creation,” Jesus insists that missions are to be the Spirit empowered work of reclaiming the cosmos for God’s kingdom by the reclaimed image bearing creatures known as human beings.[1] If this is then the Biblical purpose of mission, it is incumbent upon the people of God to announce the good news that Jesus has been inaugurated as king of the whole created order (both Heaven and Earth) and that God’s future kingdom has burst in upon the present by installing wise,  divine-image bearing stewards to reclaim the entire space, time and matter universe. This, as will be discussed, is the unanimous cry of both the Old and New Testaments. This cry has a profound impact of the theology and the life of the Christian believer. But first, the cry must be heard; so, it is to the scriptural witness the discussion will now turn.

Scriptural Witness

The sheer number of scriptural passages which deal with the theology of mission is too vast deal with in a paper such as this. As a result, only selected passages will be chosen, however these selected passages ought to be sufficient enough to demonstrate the continuity of the purpose of mission throughout the entirety of scripture. They will include selections from both Testaments with the purpose of developing the Biblical narrative of the plans and purposes of God and how the theology of missions fits within those purposes. As with any theological study of scripture, it wise to begin with Jesus as your starting point. Therefore, it is now to the book of Acts, and the ascension scene this paper will now turn.

 

An Unexpected Answer

 

In the first chapter of the sequel to his Gospel account, Luke records the following exchange between the resurrected Jesus and his disciples:

So when the apostles came together, they put this question to Jesus. “Master,” they said, “is this the time when you are going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” “It’s not your business to know about times and dates,” he replied. “The father has placed all that under his own direct authority. What will happen, though, is that you will receive power when the holy spirit comes upon you. Then you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judaea and Samaria, and to the very ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:6-8).[2]

There is very little doubt that this passage contains a command of mission from Jesus. There is even a mission strategy built into his response. The disciples mission was to begin in Jerusalem so that as a major cultural hub, the message would then spread to the surrounding areas and eventually the entire known world. However, whether mission is a requirement, as a follower of Jesus or not, is not the question posed by this passage. The actual question is: Was Jesus’s response to the disciples question a positive or negative one?

Many scholars take the view that Jesus’s response is a rebuke towards asking the question. Ajith Fernando, commenting on this passage, sums up this interpretation:

The question that the disciples asked about the time of restoring the kingdom of Israel elicits two explicit rebukes from Christ (vv. 6-8): about eschatological inquisitiveness and about parochialism. Despite his earlier statements about the time of end time events, they still ask him about it. And when Jesus is thinking about the “kingdom of God” (v. 3) and “the ends of the earth” (v.8), they are thinking of their own nation.[3]

While this negative response is common among interpreters and commentators, it simply will not suffice as it does not take into proper account of how the disciples would have heard Jesus’s words. Since Acts is a sequel to Luke’s gospel, it is helpful to look back at what is recorded there. Luke writes the words of Jesus to his disciples shortly after his resurrection, “This is what I was talking to you about when I was still with you. Everything written about me in the law of Moses, and in the prophets and the Psalms, had to be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Bible.” (Lk 24:44-45). The Old Testament narrative is clear that the nation of Israel would be restored at the coming of the Messiah. This statement recorded at the end of Luke’s gospel, that Jesus taught the disciples that his resurrection meant the Messiah had come. Naturally, their question in Acts 1 stems from this teaching. Jesus’s response to that question is a positive one. He says, “Yes, but it’s not the way you think. Now go and announce that I am Lord and Caesar is not.” This positive interpretation is strengthened when one notices the deliberate way in which Luke divides the book of Acts. It is this arrangement that must be looked at next.

 

 

 

Luke’s Arrangement of Acts

 

Scholars have offered various suggestions as to the purpose for Luke’s authoring the book of Acts. Radmacher, et al, suggest “Luke wrote the Book of Acts to show the fulfillment of Jesus’s words, “I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matt16:18).”[4] Craig Keener, on the other hand sees Luke’s purpose as presenting a legal defense and apologetic: “to argue that Christianity should enjoy continued legal protection within the empire.[5] While these most certainly were secondary considerations, Luke’s primary intent was to demonstrate that the Church was faithful to the commission statements commanded by Jesus (cf. Mt 28:18-20; Lk 24:46-47; Acts 1:8) through the announcement of Jesus as Lord and the breaking in of God’s kingdom. Luke’s entire narrative through Acts highlights this theme.

Luke’s arrangement of Acts can be split roughly in half, dividing the narrative into two distinct but coherent parts. Part one begins with the ascension of Jesus includes two watershed moments. The first water shed moment is the stoning of Stephen (7). In his encounter with the Jewish religious council, Stephen announces Jesus as Lord to the people who should the have been able to recognize the fact most readily, the High Priest. His stoning is Luke’s transition into the Gospel (Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not, remember) and the Kingdom reaching the faux-king of the Jew, Herod (8-12). Still, Luke does not let his readers forget that Jesus is the true king by anticipating the world-wide kingdom through the narrative of the conversion of Paul (9) and the Gentile convert, Cornelius (10).

Luke’s second watershed moment of the first part of his book is the death of King Herod. Here is the parody king killing one messenger (James) and arresting another messenger (Peter) of the true king, Jesus (12:1-5). To make matters worse, Herod allows his subjects to ascribe attributes of divinity (v.20-22). As a result, God simply deposes him through death (v. 23). There has never been another human being to hold the royal title of king in Judea since – except of course Jesus!

Luke, then, turns his attention to the events of Paul. He describes Paul’s missionary efforts with gusto. He highlights Paul’s frustration with his own people, the Jews (18:4-6). He includes, as Keener, rightly noticed, the vindication of Paul by different Roman courts (16-17:1-4; 18:12-17; 24-25). He records Paul’s mixed results with sharing the Gospel in Greece (17:22-34).  Luke writes all these events with the express purpose of building to his crescendo, the watershed moment of the second half of the book. This moment comes in the form of the final words penned by Luke, “He announced the kingdom of God and taught the things about the Lord Jesus the Messiah with all boldness, and with no one stopping him” (28:31).

What an anticlimactic ending to the narrative of the man who risked prison, floggings, and shipwrecks to spread the gospel. Luke had diligently recorded all these catastrophes to leave Paul under house arrest receiving visitors and awaiting an audience with the Emperor. What a let-down. Unless… Luke’s purpose for writing had nothing to do with the narrative of the church or Paul except that they fit within his primary narrative. What if Luke’s narrative was simply that Jesus was announced as Lord because through his death and resurrection the kingdom of God had been inaugurated? In that case Paul announcing the kingdom of God unhindered under the Emperor’s nose in Rome is the only ending there could be.

Good Creation

Augustine is paraphrased as saying, “What was concealed in the Old Testament is now revealed in the New.” This holds true for any theology of missions as well. Indeed, the announcement of Jesus as Lord so the cosmos is redeemed only make sense under the understanding that a creator God has created a good creation (Gen 1:31)[6]. In fact, the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus is only necessary because of the cosmic redemption.

The narrative highlights the necessity of the work of Jesus’s and the church’s command to missions throughout its entirety; however, it can be seen most clearly by looking at the narratives of the Garden and the narrative of Abraham. These two narratives form the backbone of the purposes of God. Since missions are a command from God, it is wise to look at the purpose of such commands.

The second chapter of Genesis records, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die”” (vs. 15-17). It must be noted that this command was given before God creates woman (vs. 18-25). Therefore, the seeds of sharing the words and promises of God are planted at the beginning.

Yet, it appears that Adam did not perform his task of sharing God’s word in a very clear manner because Eve adds to God’s promise when answering the serpent’s inquiries (3:2). This failure to communicate opens the door for the serpent to deceive Eve into idolatry, who in turn, enticed Adam (3:6). This idolatry led to some dire consequences for the created cosmos, namely the cursing of the good creation and exile from the land (vs. 14-24).

After generations of idolatry, that is worshiping that which was created rather than the creator, God performs the first missionary act. Enter the pagan Abram, later to called Abraham. God says to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. “I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you;

I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (12:1-3).

In this command and promise, two specific points need to be highlighted. First, the command to “go to the land I will show you” is to be understood as a reversal of the exile from the Garden. God is redeeming the idolatrous man and placing him back into the God-given land to work (cf. 2:15). The other noteworthy point is that Abram will be a blessing to all peoples on earth.” This can only occur because Jesus will redeem all of creation including those image-bearing creatures known as human beings. Therefore, the gospel was preached by God to Abraham in the first evangelistic mission (Gal 3:8). And that gospel message was simply this: I will redeem what was lost in the garden through your seed. Who was Abraham’s seed that redeemed what was lost? Answer: Jesus Christ.

Mission and the Nature of God

The idea that a creator God would want to redeem his image-bearing creatures and through them redeem the whole of the created space, time and matter cosmos is clear from simply from the nature of God. John tells us that “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8). This means that all creation was made out of, though, and by love. God’s love permeates everything that was created. Therefore, it simply makes sense that God would want to redeem that which he loves.

Additionally, Since God is love it makes sense that God would want those creatures whom he created and redeemed to be in fellowship with to be apart of the redemption process of the rest of creation. God would desire the redemption process to begin with him and flow through those created beings who were made in his image (Gen 1:26) so as to reflect the plans and purposes of God into the created universe. If, then, redemption is the plan and purpose of God then mission-focused image bearers are exactly what are in order. Indeed, it has already been demonstrated that God performed the first act of mission to Abraham. This was done to set the example of how the redemption of the creation was to take place – through the missionary efforts of those who were redeemed by the announcement of the Lordship of Jesus. This is a plan that only a God, who is love, could develop and execute.

Mission and the Rest of Theology

Missions are not an isolated aspect of the Christian life. It is deeply integrated in to the Christian theology as a whole. Missions, simultaneously, impact and are impacted by the other areas of theology. This paper will discuss two of these areas, Christology and Eschatology, as these are the two areas in which missions is most integrated.

Christology

In his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul writes, “So, my dear family, be firmly fixed, unshakable, always full to overflowing with the Lord’s work. In the Lord, as you know, the work you’re doing will not be worthless.” (1 Cor 15:58). Read out of context, this line seems to be merely another exhortation to mission. And certainly, it is. However, this is only the surface purpose behind the statement. Only by looking at the rest of the chapter where this Pauline command is located does the reader understand the true significance.

This statement from Paul comes at the end of the chapter in which Paul has spent explaining the meaning, implications, and nature of resurrection. He begins by arguing that the resurrection of Jesus is the first of a two-stage resurrection (vs. 1-20). He, then, relates how the resurrection of Jesus and our future resurrection should direct the moral and ethical behaviors of Christian lives. Paul continues by painting a picture about the nature of resurrection, both of Jesus’s and our future one. After all this, he says, now sit back and wait to be with resurrected with me in heaven.

No! what Paul concludes is that because there is a resurrection, Jesus is king, and Caesar is not! Therefore, it is the responsibility of the people of God to go out announce this. Why are Christians responsible for announcing this because of the resurrection? Paul answer this in the preceding two verses, “The “sting” of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thank God! He gives us the victory, through our Lord Jesus the Messiah” (56-57). Jesus resurrection inaugurated his Lordship; declared his victory of death; and fulfilled the requirements of the law.  As a result, human beings have been redeemed by God, ensuring their freedom. Those who have recognized this and live under this new freedom ought to be shouting the truth from the rooftops as Jesus commanded (Matt 10:27).

Eschatology

Perhaps there is no greater theological relationship with missions than that of the area of eschatology. What a Christian believes about the end times will directly affect what message their missions will convey. On the flipside, what message a person conveys will express what their eschatology is. The two subjects cannot be separated from each other. They are inextricably linked to each other, part and parcel.

If a follower of Jesus believes that the future resurrection means some disembodied experience in which they escape the corrupt and fallen nature of the material, space and time created universe to be in the presence of God in heaven; then inevitably their missionary message will be that non-believers need to repent in order to escape the eternal torment of divine judgement on sinners. In this scenario, the present problems of the creation such as social and political injustice, illness, and even death are problems to be survived. Indeed, the daily life of the Christian becomes akin to that of P.O.W. who is imprisoned by an enemy foreign nation. The Christian hope becomes to simply survive this present reality without incurring any long-lasting mental and physical damage. Unfortunately, this has been the message of the church for the last few hundred years.[7] Is it any wonder that non-believers have found that message irrelevant?

However, if the missionary’s message is that God’s future kingdom has burst in to the present space, time, and material creation through the death and resurrection of Jesus. And that same Jesus is now firmly on the throne orchestrating the redemption of that creation through his redeemed creatures, faithful human beings; then hope is expanded. In the present, freedom is announced; healings are expected; And death has lost its sting. For in the culmination of the kingdom, the resurrection is not disembodied spirits floating in the presence of God but transformed material beings who are wisely stewarding the created cosmos. This means that what you do to advance this agenda in the present matters. The advancement of social and political justice, the curing of diseases, and the release from mental addictions matter; they matter immediately not as some future hope.

Themes of Mission

Everything discussed up until this point has been to develop two specific themes which act as the foundational framework for the theology of mission. The first theme is the that of Jesus as Lord of both Heaven and Earth.  Any other message than “Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not!” is simply not the biblical gospel. Jesus confirms this when He tells his disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me!” (Matt 28:18). As a matter of fact, Jesus offers this as a reason for the Great Commission in the very next verse (v.19-20). Therefore, because Jesus is Lord his followers have the responsibility of claiming the created universe in the name of Jesus. This is the end game of all mission.

The other foundational theme is that of the resurrection. It is only because of the resurrection that there is hope for the present age. Resurrection is the means by which God redeems his image-bearing creatures so that through them he can redeem the entire space, time, material universe. Paul tells the Roman church,

Yes: creation itself is on tiptoe with expectation, eagerly awaiting the moment when God’s children will be revealed. Creation, you see, was subjected to pointless futility, not of its own volition, but because of the one who placed it in this subjection, in the hope that creation itself would be freed from its slavery to decay, to enjoy the freedom that comes when God’s children are glorified (Rom 8:19-21).

What Paul is telling his audience in Rome is simply this, the resurrection of Jesus was the first installment of God’s kingdom being inaugurated. This inauguration has begun so that in the final culmination when Jesus will turn all things over to the Father (1 Cor 15:24), the faithful will be glorified and all of creation, both heavenly and material, will be redeemed into the kingdom of God. However, this does not mean that Christians should not be claiming the present reality now for the future kingdom. This is the purpose of mission.

Conclusion

Summing up: There is no debate that mission is a necessary, vital, and required part of the Christian daily walk. Scriptures such as those found in the Acts 1 and 1 Corinthians 15, along with Matthew’s Great Commission passage make it clear that mission is a biblical mandate. Christians must be willing to spread the Gospel to the ends of the Earth. However, what the Gospel message is that they spread is of vital significance. If the message is anything other than “Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not!” then it is not the Gospel which is presented throughout scripture. Paul understood this clearly enough when he told the Galatians,

I’m astonished that you are turning away so quickly from the one who called you by grace and going after another gospel— not that it is another gospel, it’s just that there are some people stirring up trouble for you and wanting to pervert the gospel of the Messiah. But even if we—or an angel from heaven! —should announce a gospel other than the one we announced to you, let such a person be accursed. I said it before and I now say it again: if anyone offers you a gospel other than the one you received, let that person be accursed. (Gal 1:6-9).

The power of the Biblical Gospel to bring hope lies not in some future eschatology; rather it is God’s eschatology bursting into the present through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As result of this “bursting in,” the New Testament authors tell us the followers of Jesus need to be proclaiming Jesus as Lord as they work to redeem all of creation for the kingdom. This working for the kingdom demonstrates itself in three practical ways.

First it requires the universal church to embrace politics rather than shy away from it. This may mean running for public office or simply watching and holding secular governments accountable for any injustices the regime might be imposing. Next, it requires social programs to work for wholistic, curative measures rather than band aid solutions. Feeding hungry people is a good work, eliminating the causes of hunger is kingdom work. Finally, it requires that church leadership “give God’s people the equipment they need for their work of service, and so to build up the king’s body” (Eph 4:12). This requires that pastors and church leaders instill the Gospel message into their followers and provide support in any area of kingdom work in which those followers are called. This is what the Biblical theology of mission is all about.

 

Bibliography

 

Fernando, A. Acts. Zondervan, 2010.

 

Keener, C.S. and InterVarsity Press. The Ivp Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. InterVarsity Press, 1993.

 

Radmacher, D., R.B. Allen, and H.W. House. Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary: Spreading the Light of God’s Word into Your Life. Thomas Nelson, 1999.

 

Version, N.I. Niv Bible Ebook (New International Version). Hodder & Stoughton, 2011.

 

Wright, N.T. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. HarperCollins, 2008.

 

Wright, N.T. The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation. HarperCollins, 2011.

 

 

[1] N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (HarperCollins, 2008).

[2] Unless otherwise noted, all New Testament scripture references are N.T. Wright, The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation (HarperCollins, 2011).

[3] A. Fernando, Acts (Zondervan, 2010).

[4] D. Radmacher, R.B. Allen, and H.W. House, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary: Spreading the Light of God’s Word into Your Life (Thomas Nelson, 1999), 1362.

[5] C.S. Keener and InterVarsity Press, The Ivp Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (InterVarsity Press, 1993), 316.

[6] All Old Testament references are, unless otherwise noted, N.I. Version, Niv Bible Ebook (New International Version) (Hodder & Stoughton, 2011).

[7] Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.