Crossing boundaries: The universality of God’s mission
Crossing any cultural boundary can only be accomplished successfully by espousing the historical corpus in the context of both the Old and the New Testament. In fact, any articulation of missions can be perfected only if it is based on an adequate biblical and theological foundation.1 George Peters felt that missionary theology should move up until it finds its position in theology.2
Hence, the eminent missiologist David Bosch, like many other missiologists, has grounded his theology of mission in the witness of the Bible.3 This article maintains that Christian mission is in danger of being swayed by winds of culture because all too often our mission is not grounded in biblical theology. The hazardous consequence of such an omission is that God’s purpose for the church is distorted and God’s witness in the world is thwarted. When mission is grounded in biblical theology, it embraces the universality of the call to salvation as well as the call to service.
What is mission?
To embrace a biblical theology of mission, we must first understand what mission is. Arthur Glasser and Donald McGavran define mission as “carrying the gospel across cultural boundaries to those who owe no allegiance to Jesus Christ, and encouraging them to accept Him as Lord and Savior and to become responsible members of His church, working as the Holy Spirit leads, at both evangelism and justice, at making God’s will done on earth as it is done in heaven.”4 Bosch defines mission as “primarily and ultimately, the work of the Triune God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, for the sake of the world, a ministry in which the church is privileged to participate. . . . This is the deepest source of mission.
. . . There is mission because God loves people.”5
Mission, therefore, includes the clear declaration by Jesus Christ in Luke 4:16–19: healing the brokenhearted, preaching deliverance to the captives, recovering of sight to the blind, and setting at liberty those that are bruised.6 Mission is thus God’s sending action in which the church contributes.7
The Greek New Testament uses two terms to describe sending: pempō and apostellō. These words are used more or less synonymously to depict God sending angels and prophets, the Father sending the Son, the sending of the disciples, the sending of the Holy Spirit, and the sending forth of men and women in ministry (Acts 2:17, 18; Gal. 3:28).8 Thus, all members are included in this sending.
The start of mission
Genesis 3:15 is considered to be a universal “protevangelium”: the first gospel promise. It is basic to the Old Testament revelation as well as the soteriological leitmotif (dominant, unifying, and all-inclusive thrust and intent) and hermeneutical principle that govern Old Testament interpretation.9 It is the first universal promise of salvation and of the Redeemer that would be the Seed of the woman.
By the close of Genesis 3, the main characters entered this drama of mission. They include God, humanity, the accuser, and a Savior.10 George Peters states that sin is written in big letters across the pages of the Bible and that only Genesis 1, 2 and Revelation 21, 22 are exempt from its harmful stain. The remainder is a record of human sin and divine intervention bringing about salvation.11 Therefore, the Creator is a missionary God who calls to Adam, “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9). God’s intention is to save all of humanity. “These haunting words reveal the heart of God: he seeks lost men and women.”12
The heart of mission
The New Testament informs us that Jesus Christ was sent by the Father on a threefold mission: to reveal the Father (John 1:14, 18); to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8); and to save the world (John 3:17). Hence, the purpose of Christ’s mission was twofold: to serve and to save. “The Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10, KJV). Also, “The Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister” (Matt. 20:28, KJV). Thus, God’s mission has to do with being saved, then being sent by God to serve people so that they are saved. To fulfill this mission, God chose particular people as an entry point into the world and declared to His disciples, “As my Father hath sent me, even so send I you” (John 20:21, KJV).
The mission of the church is embedded in the purpose of Jesus’ call for His disciples. “He appointed twelve, that they might be with Him and that He might send them out to preach” (Mark 3:14, NKJV). The ministry of the disciples was to imitate the ministry of Jesus. John Harvey succinctly points out that their authority, message, and target group as well as the results were the same as those of Jesus.13 They did not have an independent assignment as long as the Lord remained on earth.14 Andreas J. Kostenberger summarizes Jesus’ sending in John’s Gospel as (1) glorifying the Sender, (2) doing the Sender’s will and speaking His words, (3) witnessing to the Sender, and (4) knowing the Sender intimately. “All these aspects of what one sent is required to be and do, are applicable to the disciples as they are sent by Jesus.”15
Without understanding the essence of sending, there is no gospel. The core of the gospel is that God so loved the world that He sent His Son to the world for the purpose of redeeming humanity (John 3:16).
The transmission of the mission
The universality of speaking foreign languages was for the purpose of spreading the gospel to a diversity of peoples and cultures on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2).16 After the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Pentecost was the day on which the church was born—or born again. The resurrected Jesus had sent His disciples to the ends of the world as their Great Commission (Matt. 28:20).
The power of sending was granted as they received the fullness of the Holy Spirit. The sending of the church is intimately linked to the sending activity of the Trinity. It is not by human authority but through the authority of the Triune God: the Father sends, the Son redeems, and the Spirit empowers.17 All are included in salvation, and all are included in service.
Gentiles: The object and the subject of mission
The universality of God’s mission is also apparent in the call of the apostle Paul to the unreached Gentiles. He sought to reach all people groups, declaring, “To the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; . . . to those who are without law, as without law.
. . . I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9:20–22, NKJV). For Paul, there was no hierarchy of merit. Both Jew and Gentile had sinned and failed to live up to the light of God. Both Jew and Gentile were recipients of God’s grace in salvation, dependent on God’s grace in growth, and sharers of God’s grace in ministry (Rom. 1–3).18
Though his content remained the same, Paul preached in different ways when addressing the Jews or the Gentiles (Acts 14; 17). Sensitive to their backgrounds, he tailored his message to fit his audience. We sorely need the sensitivity of Paul, being careful not to embrace isolated texts for the purpose of justifying our own viewpoints. The danger lies in ignoring, consciously or unconsciously, biblical material that does not conform to our understanding of mission. Thus, one finds a justification for his or her own biases on mission practices without ever seriously grappling with Scripture.19
In the Epistle to the Romans, Paul launches his missionary strategy from the Old Testament foundation. Old Testament theology states, “ ‘ “And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” ’ ” (Exod. 19:6, NKJV). Paul calls himself an apostle to the Gentiles (Rom. 11:13; Gal. 2:8) and “a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles, ministering as a priest the gospel of God” (Rom. 15:16, NASB). Thus, mission is rooted in theology. Thomas Schirrmacher states:
Whoever wants to practice missions pragmatically and therefore to renounce theology and teaching, because they might hinder practice, is doing mission in his own commission and does not care what God says about it.
Whoever teaches dogmatics which do not focus on world missions and does not lead to practical steps to reach the unreached, teaches in his own commission and does not care why God gave us His Word and teaching.
Biblical and practical world missions will always begin with sound and thorough biblical teaching. Sound and thorough teaching will on the other side always lead to biblical and practical world missions.20
It is understood that the most systematic and theological letter of Paul is written with missions in mind. Initially, Paul uses Jerusalem as a launching pad for his universal missionary strategy targeting Spain (Rom. 15:27–31). In his future plans for a universal missionary project, his aim is to preach to all humankind without exception. He, thus, does not accept barriers of culture, race, education, or social status (Rom. 1:8–15). Hence, in Romans 1:1–15 his aim is to prove that “the expansion of world missions is God’s own plan.”21 Therefore, to prove that God’s mission has always been universal (worldwide) within the framework of the first chapter of Romans 1 and the last of Romans 16, Paul is heavily indebted to the Old Testament citations that affirm that all people, worldwide, must hear the gospel. This is very clear in the concluding remarks of Romans 15:14–16:27.22 However, Paul once again refers to the same Old Testament promises made to the fathers concerning the Gentiles so “that the Gentiles may glorify God for His mercy, as it is written . . .” (Rom. 15:9, NKJV). In Romans 10:11–13, Paul confirms that salvation for the Jews cannot be separated from salvation for the Gentiles. In Romans 15:9–12 Paul cites five references from the Old Testament that affirm that all nations of the world will praise the Lord one day (2 Sam. 22:50; Ps. 18:49; Deut. 32:43; Ps. 117:1; Isa. 11:10). Thus, from this context, Paul proves that the gospel and world mission are not against the Old Testament but are, in fact, supported by it.23
This universality of God’s mission for the church includes the participation of both men and women filled by the Holy Spirit, regardless of the diversity of their cultural milieu. They are all equal in Christ (Rom. 12:4, 5; 1 Cor. 12:12–14; Ps. 133:1, 2; 2 Cor. 5:16, 17; Acts 17:26, 27; Gal. 3:27, 29; Col. 3:10–15; Eph. 4:14–16, 1–6; John 17:20–23).24 The Holy Spirit breaks down all walls of partition. It results in a type of unity in Christ that allows all members full participation in the service of the church. All are called to work together, according to their God-given spiritual gifts.
From both the Old and New Testament perspectives, there is an authentic biblical and theological foundation of mission in the context of God’s universal historical revelation. The inclusiveness of Jesus’ mission embraces people from all walks of life, both male and female, poor and rich, oppressed and oppressor, sinner and devout. Jesus’ mission is one of dissolving alienation and breaking down walls of hostility, of crossing boundaries between individuals and groups.25
Therefore, with this approach by the apostle Paul, it must be understood that every missionary venture of the church must be universally inclusive. It must go beyond the barriers of culture, race, gender, social, or ethnic status and reflect the intent of God’s sacrificial love.
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1 David J. Hesselgrave, Paradigms in Conflict: 10 Key Questions in Christian Missions Today (Grand Rapids,MI: Kregel Publications, 2005), 344.
2 George W. Peters, A Biblical Theology of Missions (Chicago, IL: Moody Press 1972), 25.
3 David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (New York: Orbis Books, 1996),16–20.
4 Arthur F. Glasser and Donald A. McGavran, Contemporary Theologies of Mission (Grand Rapids,MI: Baker Book House, 1985), 26.
5 Bosch, Transforming Mission, 392.
6 J. Herbert Kane, The Christian World Mission: Today and Tomorrow (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House,1981), 143.
7 Craig Ott, Stephen J. Strauss, and Timothy C. Tennent, Encountering Theology of Mission: Biblical Foundations, Historical Developments, and Contemporary Issues (Grand Rapids, MI: BakerAcademic, 2010), xxiii.
8 Andreas J. Köstenberger, The Missions of Jesus and the Disciples According to the Fourth Gospel (GrandRapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 97–111.
9 Peters, Biblical Theology of Missions, 86.
10 Scott A. Moreau, Gary R. Corwin, and Gary B. McGee, Introducing World Missions: A Biblical, Historical, and Practical Survey (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics,2004), 37.
11 Peters, Biblical Theology of Missions, 15.
12 Ott, Strauss, and Tennent, Encountering Theology of Mission, 6.
13 John D. Harvey, “Mission in Jesus’ Teaching,” in Mission in the New Testament: An Evangelical Approach, ed. William J. Larkin Jr. and Joel F. Williams(Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1998), 43.
14 George Vicedom, The Mission of God: An Introduction to a Theology of Mission (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia,1965), 57.
15 Köstenberger, Missions of Jesus, 91.
16 Additional notes on 1 Corinthians 14, in The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, ed. FrancisD. Nichol, vol. 6 (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1980), 795.
17 Ott, Strauss, and Tennent, Encountering Theology of Mission, 73.
18 Peter T. O’Brien, Gospel and Mission in the Writings of Paul: An Exegetical and Theological Analysis (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1995), 34.
19 Richard M. Davidson, “Biblical Interpretation,” in the Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology, ed.Raoul Dederen, Bible Commentary series, vol. 12 (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2000), 67.
20 Thomas Schirrmacher, “Romans as a Charter of World Mission: A Lesson in the Relation of Systematic Theology and Missiology,” in World Mission: Heart of Christianity, rev. ed. (Hamburg, Germany: RVBInternational, 2008), 14, worldevangelicals.org /resources/rfiles/res3_245_link_1292869709.pdf; emphasis original.
24 Timothy J. Harris, “Why Did Paul Mention Eve’s Deception? A Critique of P. W. Barnett’s Interpretation of 1 Timothy 2,” Evangelical Quarterly 62, no. 4 (Oct.–Dec., 1990): 201.
25 Hesselgrave, Paradigms in Conflict, 344.