The mission of God
Unlocking the Bible's grand narrative
Mission is not just one of a list of things that the Bible happens to talk about. Mission is, in that much-abused phrase, ‘what it’s all about’.
Now this is a bold claim. Does it make sense to speak of the Bible being ‘all about’ anything? Well, Jesus certainly thought so. In Luke 24, first to the two on the road to Emmaus, and then later to the rest of the disciples, Jesus made himself as Messiah the focus of the whole canon of the Hebrew Scriptures (verses 27 and 44).
The whole Bible revolves around the person of Christ. Jesus went on, however, beyond his Messianic centring of the Old Testament Scriptures to their missional thrust as well.
‘Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem”’ (Luke 24.45-48).
Jesus claims that the mission of preaching repentance and forgiveness to the nations in his name is ‘what is written’. The whole of the Old Testament Scripture finds its focus and fulfilment both in the life and death and resurrection of Israel’s Messiah and in the mission to all nations, which flows out from that event. We must read our Bibles with twin lenses — Messiah and mission.
Whose mission is it anyway?
But can we really say that ‘the whole Bible is about mission’? Not if we think of ‘missions’ as primarily ‘what we do’ — i.e. merely human activity. We need to shift our perspective to see that, like salvation, mission belongs to our God. Mission is not ours; mission is God’s. It is not so much that God has a mission for his church in the world, as that God has a church for his mission in the world. Mission was not made for the church; the church was made for mission — the mission of God. And the flow of the Bible shows us the following main mission themes.
God with a mission
God revealed in the Scriptures is personal, purposeful and goal-orientated. In the beginning we see God working towards a goal — the goal of creating the world — completing it with satisfaction and resting, content with the result. And from Genesis 12.1Ð3 we know this God to be totally, covenantally, eternally committed to the mission of blessing the nations through the agency of the people of Abraham.
The Bible presents itself to us as an over-arching narrative in four great movements: creation, fall, redemption and future hope. There is one God at work in the universe and in human history, and that God has a mission which will ultimately be accomplished by the power of his word and for the glory of his name. To read the whole Bible for mission is nothing more than to accept that the biblical worldview locates us in the midst of a narrative of the universe behind which stands the mission of the living God.
Humanity with a mission
On the day of their creation, human beings were given their mission on the planet so purposefully prepared for their arrival — the mandate to fill the earth and subdue it and to rule over the rest of creation (Genesis 1.28). And then come the parallel commands ‘to serve and to keep’ the garden (Genesis 2.15). The care and keeping of creation is our human mission. We are on the planet with a purpose that flows from the creative purpose of God himself. Christians need to be reminded that God holds us accountable to himself for our humanity as much as for our Christianity.
Israel with a mission
Against the background of human sin and rebellion (Genesis 3-11), God initiated his redemptive mission of blessing the nations beginning with the call of Abraham in Genesis 12. This is the essential missional purpose of God’s election of Old Testament Israel. All that Israel was, or was supposed to be — all that God did in them, for them and through them — was ultimately linked to this wider purpose of God for the nations. Israel’s election was not a rejection of other nations but ultimately for their sake.
Jesus with a mission
Jesus did not just arrive; he was sent with a mission. It was at his baptism that Jesus received an affirmation of his true identity and mission. The voice of his Father at his baptism combined the identity of the Servant figure in Isaiah (Isaiah 42.1), and the Davidic Messianic king (Psalm 2.7). The mission of the Servant was to be the agent of God’s salvation reaching to the ends of the earth (Isaiah 49.6). The mission of the Davidic Messianic king was both to rule over a redeemed Israel and also to receive the nations and the ends of the earth as his heritage (Psalm 2.8). Jesus built his own agenda on the agenda of his Father. His will was to do his Father’s will. God’s mission determined his. In the obedience of Jesus, even to death, the mission of God reached its climax.
The church with a mission
Jesus entrusted his ongoing mission to the church. The disciples knew the true identity of the crucified and risen Jesus; therefore they are entrusted with bearing witness to that to the ends of the earth. Mission flows from the identity of God and his Christ. Mission (for us) means the committed participation of God’s people in the purposes of God for the redemption of the whole creation.
When we grasp that the whole Bible constitutes the coherent revelation of the mission of God, then we find our whole worldview impacted by this vision. The Bible is The Story that tells us where we have come from, how we got to be here, who we are, why the world is in the mess it is, how it can be (and has been) changed, and where we are ultimately going. And this whole story constitutes the mission of this God. He is the originator of the story, the teller of the story, the prime actor in the story, the planner and guide of the story’s plot, the meaning of the story and its ultimate completion. He is its beginning, end and centre. It is the story of the mission of God, of this God and no other.
Impact on us?
Now such an understanding of the mission of God as the very heartbeat of all reality, all creation, and all history generates a distinctive worldview that is radically and transformingly God-centred. It turns inside out and upside down some of the common ways in which we are accustomed to think about the Christian life. It is certainly a very healthy corrective to the egocentric obsession of much Western culture — including, sadly, even Western Christian culture. It constantly forces us to open our eyes to the big picture, rather than shelter in the cosy narcissism of our own small worlds.
* We ask, ‘Where does God fit into the story of my life?’ when the real question is where does my little life fit into this great story of God’s mission.
* We want to be driven by a purpose that has been tailored just right for our own individual lives, when we should be seeing the purpose of all life, including our own, wrapped up in the great mission of God for the whole of creation.
* We talk about ‘applying the Bible to our lives’. What would it mean to apply our lives to the Bible instead, assuming the Bible to be the reality — the real story — to which we are called to conform ourselves?
* We wrestle with ‘making the gospel relevant to the world’. But in this story, God is about the business of transforming the world to fit the shape of the gospel.
* We argue about what can legitimately be included in the mission that God expects from the church, when we should ask what kind of church God wants for the whole range of his mission.
* I may wonder what kind of mission God has for me, when I should be asking what kind of me God wants for his mission.
The only concept of mission into which God fits is the one of which he is the beginning, the centre and the end (to paraphrase what Lesslie Newbigin once said about the resurrection Ð ‘Indeed, the simple truth is that the resurrection cannot be accommodated in any way of understanding the world except one of which it is the starting point’ in Truth to Tell: the Gospel as Public Truth, London, SPCK, 1991, p.11). And the only access that we have to that mission of God is given to us in the Bible. This is the grand narrative that is unlocked when we turn the hermeneutical key of reading all the Scriptures in the light of the mission of God.
This article is an edited extract from the introduction and conclusion to Christopher J.H. Wright’s new book, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative, released by IVP in October 2006.
Chris Wright is the International Director of the Langham Partnership International. Founded by John Stott, the Langham vision is that church growth should be not merely numerical, but also growth in depth and maturity. Visit http://www.langhampartnership.org/lpuki.