I’m teaching an adult Sunday School class at our church here in Raleigh entitled, “Fill the Earth: A Whole-Bible Look at the Church’s Mission.” We had the first class yesterday, which laid the groundwork and introduced God’s mission in the world. Here on the blog I’ll attempt to summarize the main points of the class each week, providing a distilled version of the course.
The first thing we need to do is distinguish between two terms: mission and missions.
Christopher Wright defines “mission” as “a long-term purpose or goal that is to be achieved through proximate objectives and planned actions” (Mission of God, 23). The question we’re asking in this class is, “What is God’s mission for this world?” Once we understand what God’s mission is, we can understand derivatively what the church’s mission is.
Whereas mission is fundamentally something that God has (and derivatively something the church has), missions is something the church does. Traditionally, “missions” has been understood as “ministering the gospel in a foreign nation,” though lately this definition has been broadened to include a whole variety of ministries, both foreign and domestic. In my experience, when pressed for precision, Christians generally find it difficult to pin down a clear definition of “missions.”
For purposes of this discussion, we’ll keep it fairly broad to begin with: missions may be defined as “taking the gospel to the nations.”
The thesis of this class, which I’ll attempt to substantiate throughout, is this:
God’s mission in the world is for His kingship to be represented to the ends of the earth.
Hopefully we can see from this how “missions” relates to “mission.” We go to all the nations of the earth (“missions”) so that they will repent and submit to God’s kingship, thereby making His kingship represented to the ends of the earth (“mission”).
A Whole-Bible Theology of Mission(s)
The most common text used to promote a theology of mission(s) is the Great Commission of Matt 28:18-20 (see, e.g., Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert’s What is the Mission of the Church?). Although this passage obviously relates centrally to the idea of missions, I’d like to suggest we take a Christoscopic approach to this issue. That is, how did Jesus view the idea of missions as it relates to the Scriptures.
After His resurrection, in Luke 24:44-47 Jesus says to His disciples,
“44 ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.'”
According to this text, coming to “understand the Scriptures” (which in this context means the OT) involves realizing that they concern repentance and forgiveness being proclaimed to all nations. In short, according to Jesus, the OT has a missional message (see also Acts 26:20-23 where Paul states the same).
This means that to understand God’s mission and our role in missions, we need to begin not with the first book of the NT but with the first book of the OT. We need to pursue a whole-Bible theology of mission.
Mission Mandated: Genesis 1
When we open up the OT, we see on the first page how God mandates His mission to humanity. I’ll summarize this under two points.
First, in the creation account, God is depicted as a King. We see this in a variety of ways, from God issuing commands that are immediately heeded (“And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” [Gen 1:3]) to Him evaluating (“God saw that the light was good” [Gen 1:4]) and naming (“God called the light ‘day,’ and the darkness he called ‘night'” [Gen 1:5]) the various elements of creation.
However, the aspect of Genesis 1 revealing God as King that we’ll focus on is His creation of humanity.
“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground'” (Gen 1:26).
In the ancient Near East, kings would distribute “images” of themselves throughout their realm to represent the extent of their rule and authority. However widely distributed the images were, that was how great and glorious the reign of the king was.*
Therefore, for God to make man as His image means that human beings exist to represent God’s kingly glory on the earth. That is why you and I are here.
Second, in the creation account, God is depicted as a King with a mission. After specifying in v. 27 that both male and female are God’s image, God tells His images exactly how far and wide He wants them to represent His rule:
“God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it'” (Gen 1:28).
Since humans are God’s image, and since God’s first command to humanity is to multiply and fill the earth, it follows that God’s mission in creation is for His kingship to be represented to the ends of the earth.
We’re going to see in future weeks how this command, “be fruitful and multiply,” is woven throughout virtually every portion of the Bible, alluding to this original command and providing a central thread by which to trace God’s mission as it develops throughout the pages of Scripture.
* For those interested in reading up on this concept of humans as God’s image and our royal representative function, I recommend Richard Pratt’s Designed for Dignity if you’re looking for a simplified discussion (esp. pp. 1-37), and J. Richard Middleton’s The Liberating Image if you’re looking for an in-depth treatment.