God is a missionary God
In his last letter to Timothy, Paul writes: ‘You … have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness’ (2 Timothy 3:10). The apostle Paul clearly knew what he was trying to achieve – hence he can write ‘my aim in life’.
As Paul neared the end of his life he wrote to Timothy, now a pastor in Ephesus, to encourage him to follow the policy – the blueprint for ministry and church life – that flows out of the gospel. Paul was passing on the battle plan to Timothy so that his ministry would have a clear purpose and direction.
What is the church for?
Twenty centuries on, the need remains to have direction and purpose in gospel work. It is good and right to ask: ‘What is the purpose of the church?’ Ultimately, the aim of the church is to bring glory to God, but what must the church and its ministers do to fulfil this objective?
It is clear from the New Testament that if the church is to glorify God, it will gather for worship, for prayer, and to study God’s Word. In addition, church life will be characterised by mutual love, a working together and a determination to make the gospel known.
Furthermore, this last work will not be restricted to the local area but will involve a desire to see the good news preached throughout the world in accordance with the Lord’s commission (Luke 24:47; Acts 1:8). Local churches should therefore be missionary-minded churches.
If we are not careful, our missionary involvement can be characterised by vagueness and half-heartedness, rather than the devotion and enthusiasm that this vital work requires. The aim of this series of articles is to help ministers and churches become mission-focused – to consider how they view mission, how they pray for mission, and how they support mission financially.
The articles have been deliberately set out as Bible studies that can be presented at midweek meetings or discussed in home groups. It is our prayer that these articles will help churches to formulate a coherent and lively missionary policy.
Mission in the Old Testament
The true author of all missionary activity is the Triune God. He has always been more concerned about this work than we could ever be. Therefore, mission work should be seen, first and foremost, as his work not ours.
This is the Bible’s message from its opening chapters (‘The Lord God called to Adam … “Where are you?”’) to its closing paragraphs (‘The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who is thirsty come. And … take of the water of life freely’). For example:
In Genesis, the Lord made the world because he is a missionary God! Although he was sufficient in himself, he chose to create a world inhabited by people so that he might relate to intelligent and sentient beings outside of himself (Genesis 1:1; 1:26).
When man rebelled, God promised a Redeemer (Genesis 3:15) and set out the purpose of his mission, namely, to redeem a fallen race in Christ. In Genesis 12 God calls Abram through whom he intends to bless all the nations of the world – and reveals in Abraham a work of grace through faith encompassing every age and dispensation in history.
In Exodus we see the continuing purpose of God to have his own people who, despite their rebellion and disobedience, embodied the principle of free redemption and pictured the true church, ‘the Israel of God’ (Galatians 6:16).
In the Prophets (e.g., Isaiah 2:2-3) we see the Lord’s concern for the whole world. Isaiah 9:1-2 speaks of ‘a light shining amongst Gentiles to dispel sin and rebellion’. Joel 2:32 asserts that ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’ – witness Jonah’s commission to preach salvation to Gentile Nineveh, and the Lord’s declaration in Malachi 1:11: ‘my name shall be great among the Gentiles … [and] among the nations’.
The Psalms also contain many references to the international scope of the gospel (e.g. Psalm 2:7-8; 65:2; 67:2; 102:21-22).
The Old Testament thus teaches that all mankind belongs to God and that he is concerned for their evangelisation. This is more explicit in the New Testament, perhaps, but the foundation is solidly laid in the Old. Long before the Messiah appeared on the stage of human history, God had plans and intentions for mission to all nations.
It follows, therefore, that every-thing depends on the initiative of God. Even the Old Testament’s preoccupation with one nation testified to God’s intention to bring the message of salvation to the whole world through that nation!
Mission in the New Testament
From its outset, the New Testament declares and exemplifies the worldwide character of Christ’s mission and ministry:
In the Gospels: Matthew announces a Saviour who has Gentile women in his family tree; is worshipped by foreign kings; preaches first in Galilee of the Gentiles; asserts that this ‘gospel of the kingdom must be preached to all nations’; and concludes by giving a glorious worldwide commission (28:19-20). And remember that in the middle of this Gospel Christ says, ‘I will build my church’ (Matthew 16:18). This is God’s work and we labour as his workmen.
In Acts it is Jesus Christ himself who continues to work through his apostles. The whole book is about mission expanding in its scope (Acts 1:8). Edmund Clowney writes: ‘It seems almost incredible that with the book of Acts in the Scriptures the church should ever have lost sight of its mission’. We see God fulfilling the promise of Acts 1:8 and over-ruling man’s plans, for example, in Acts 16.
The Epistles echo the theme that God is a God of mission: ‘How shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent?’ (Romans 10:12-15; see also Colossians 1:6; 1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9).
Ultimately, we are left with a great vision of the success of God’s missionary endeavours throughout the ages: ‘I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the lamb, clothed in white robes …’ (Revelation 7:9-10). God is both the author and finisher of mission!
The implications for us
We see then, firstly, that mission work is important. How can we say we are not interested in mission when the Triune God so clearly is? Mission is God’s work, he is doing it and wants it done.
He is the greatest missionary there ever was, sending his own Son into the world to seek and save the lost. He willingly paid the greatest possible missionary sacrifice, giving his own Son to die so that others could be saved.
If we say we love God and want to worship him, this will inevitably involve us in the work of mission. How involved we are in that work will reflect our spiritual vitality – how well we know the God of mission. As David Livingstone said, ‘God had an only Son and he made him a missionary’. As we grow in grace and become more like Jesus, we will also become more concerned about world mission.
Secondly, God determines the principles and practices of mission. If the living God stands behind all missionary endeavour, then it is for him to decide how mission should be conducted. Incredibly, God has chosen to use us as agents in this great enterprise, but it is still his work and he must dictate its principles, priorities and practices. We are not free to do his work our way, but must rather seek to do it his way.
When we turn to the New Testament, we find there are principles set down for how we should go about the work of mission. God tells us what constitutes mission, whose responsibility it is, how it should be undertaken, what is its aim and who should be sent out. It is God’s work and our directions must come from him.
Thirdly, the missionary task will be successful. Our greatest encouragement to persevere in the work of mission comes from the fact that – just because it is God’s work rather than our own – it will be crowned with success. Revelation 7:9-10 shows us that the redeemed from every tribe, nation and tongue will most surely be there in heaven. The elect will be gathered in and nothing will thwart God’s plans and purposes.
Our God is a missionary God, and so mission is important. It is a most amazing thing that he privileges us to be involved. May he give us a renewed desire to see the good news of Jesus Christ proclaimed to the very ends of the earth.